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Shelf Life
The Guardian

by Bamboo Dong,

I really dislike people who invite themselves over for dinner, and then don't show up with a contribution. First, they already invited themselves over, which, unless you're in my inner circle of close friends, is not okay. Second, at least bring a dessert or a two-liter of Coke, seriously. I've been avoiding someone's phone calls all weekend because they've been trying to come eat my food. I'm running out of clever excuses. Please give me some.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

The downside with many anime adaptations of overwhelmingly popular manga series is that sometimes, they're so eager to jump into the action that they're not willing to spend some serious time introducing viewers to the backstory. That's the problem that D.Gray-man faces, even though its 103-episode run should've provided ample time for a solid exposition. Instead, it dumps all of its backstory into the first couple of episodes, and settles into a demon-of-the-week routine. If there's an upside at all, it's that the first thirteen-episode boxset provides plenty of demon-bashing goodness, for those who are interested in such things.

D.Gray-man is your quintessential battle between good and evil. The evil is provided by a fat chump with a parasol named Millennium Earl. He goes around creating akuma, which are mechanical weapons embedded with the unwilling souls of the freshly dead. Basically, they're out to destroy humanity. Luckily, the good guys are equipped with gifts from God called Innocence, these glowing green things that were scattered all over the world after Noah's ark incident. People called Accommodaters use these Innocences to become Exorcists, who can then use their newfound supernatural weapons to purge the world of akuma.

All of this is explained within the first few episodes, after we're introduced to a kid named Allen Walker. After a childhood incident, he becomes an Exorcist, only he's slightly different from the other ones—a run-in with an akuma has left him slightly cursed, and as a result, he has a magical eye that lets him see akuma souls. Conveniently, though, he's a special kind of Exorcist known as a parasitic-type, which means that his weapon is actually part of his body. This allows it to transform in accordance with his emotions—what is typically a giant metallic claw can become a gun or a sword.

To make sure you don't miss the backstory, all of which is spit out in a few short lines, the writers have helpfully allowed the characters to recite patronizing lines that explain what's going on. As the first major akuma he encounters evolves, it gleefully announces, “I'm leveling up!” …just in case you missed the line that mentioned that akuma could evolve. Then later, as Allen is picking himself up off the ground after a fight, his arm starts transforming into a gun. His partner, Kanda, offers the line, “He's transforming it into a gun!” followed up later by, “He's transforming it into a sword!” Thanks, guy. That's because unless you were paying really close attention, you would've forgotten the line they slipped in an episode ago that said that parasite-types could adapt their weapons for each situation.

I guess it's convenient that they wanted viewers to get into the heart of the action as fast as possible, but quite frankly, with that many episodes in a series, I think they have some leeway. After all, they're not exactly getting anything good out of rushing things. Even with the haphazard pacing in this show, the first couple of episodes are still boring, partially because there's limited continuity, and it's obvious that the writers just want to throw everything onto the table as fast as possible. In science, we call this a “data dump,” and it's seldom interesting.

Once the characters start fighting, though, things do pick up a bit. Within minutes, we “get” Allen. He's the ever-optimistic kid with the tragic past. He may be a little impulsive, but he's got a heart of gold, and he'll always prevail because heroes like him almost never lose. They just get knocked down a little, learn a lesson, then stand up again in time to win. That's basically what all of these episodes are like, only there are different bad guys at each stage of his personal growth.

Although the animation isn't anything terribly spectacular, these endless fight scenes are made better by some delightfully dark artwork. The demons are freakish and grotesque, like circus clowns from a child's nightmare. Everything is slightly cartoony and even childish, while maintaining a level of creepiness to it, so it has a surreal, almost Tim Burtonesque feel. It may not make the fights any more thrilling, but it does give viewers something pretty to stare at while Allen is running around clawing at monsters.

With thirteen episodes down, we only have 90 more to go. I'm not ready to jump on the D.Gray-man train just yet, but I'll keep an eye out for future episodes. If you're into supernatural shows about people fighting demons, then this show is saturated with that kind of stuff. Every episode has some demon getting his face pulled off, so if that's your weak spot, you'll have 103 chances to embrace it.[TOP]

The next series I stumbled across has now rapidly become one of my new favorites—Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit. I'm going to have to be forceful right now and tell everyone to see it, because it's amazing. Adapted from a novel by Nahoko Uehashi (which is available from Scholastic), this gorgeous series tells the story of a female bodyguard's mission to protect a young prince, and the supernatural elements surrounding his life.

The heroine is a woman named Balsa the Spear Wielder, who has vowed to save eight lives in order to atone for the eight people she had to kill several years ago. The eighth life happens to be Prince Chagum, the son of the mikado's second wife. Possessed by a demon, the boy's been marked for assassination, and the mother has hired Balsa to protect him. The episodes that follow are filled with action and suspense, as the two fight off the mikado's hunters, and try to purge him of the demon.

Within the first few seconds of the show, it's very obvious that this is a very good-looking show. The visuals are absolutely stunning. The backgrounds are lush and filled with details, like shimmering rice paddies that reflect perfectly drawn clouded skies, or wooden bridges with every grain carefully depicted. The clouds aren't just lazy puffs of white, either—every cloud looks like it was borrowed from a snapshot, and it gives the sky an amazing texture. Inside the palace, paneled doors reflect off highly polished floors. Even the food looks damned good—the beef bowls glisten with sauce, and had my stomach growling for an hour. I could keep writing for four paragraphs, and I wouldn't be able to adequately describe the sheer wow factor of all the visuals.

The animation is wonderful, too. Director Kenji Kamiyama uses a lot of interesting camera angles, letting viewers swoop over the castle, or follow the tip of a spear as it plunges into the air. The fight scenes are absolutely exhilarating, and hold their own against a well-choreographed live-action brawl.

Seriously, this series is wonderful, and it's a shame it hasn't been getting more hype. The story is fast-paced, but carefully scripted, and it's nearly impossible to stop watching once you've started. Balsa is an amazing character, strong and resourceful. Whether she's fighting, or just gathering supplies, or trying to set up a residence in a new town, she's always two steps ahead of her opponents. She faces every scenario with calm determination, and in general, she is definitely someone to look up to.

Watch this show. Rent it, buy it, borrow it, whatever. This one's a winner.[TOP]

Now, before I head into the review for the next review, I have a disclaimer. The opinions that follow are my personal opinions, and my personal opinions only. They are 100% subjective. If you like over-the-top harem shows, then you may like this next show. If you are okay with women who will fall all over themselves to please a guy and/or find it to be hilarious/”just a parody, sheesh!”, then you may like this next show. If you think that girls with tragic pasts are heartwarming/funny/cute/tragic, then you may like this next show. If you've already seen Shuffle!, and you liked it, and will be upset if I didn't like it, then skip to the next review.

I've seen a lot of harem shows in my lifetime. To expand on that, I've seen a lot of moe harem shows in my lifetime, and for the most part, I've actually enjoyed most of them. However, I hated Shuffle!, which can now be bought as a complete series on two thinpaks. I think it's one of the worst moe harem shows ever made, and although it tries really hard to be like all the rest, it's just a crappy imitation. It lacks the heart, it lacks the compelling characters, it lacks the heartwarming fuzzy feeling you get when one of the girls flashes her big ol' puppy eyes and bites into a cookie. Also, it has some of the stupidest girls ever created.

Our refreshingly capable hero is a guy named Rin, who always has a ton of female friends (who want to sleep with him). He lives in a world where gods and devils mesh with humans, and they all live in happy coexistence. Some backstory happens, but basically, the daughter of the god king, and the daughter of the devil king, both want to marry him. At the same time, a bunch of other girls want him too, including his childhood friend who takes care of him and shares his home with him. There's also a tomboy who is outgoing but actually sickly, and also a small girl from the devil world, who doesn't want to sleep with him, but looks up to him an awful lot. Together, they go through a bunch of zany adventures, and swear that they'll keep loving him until he decides to finally return their love.

Alas, things don't stay happy forever. At some point, we realize that most of these girls are totally broken. One of them is really sickly because of a mildly sinister reason, while another is completely insane. Like, the kind of insane that land her on a daytime talkshow, like, say, throwing a boxcutter down the stairs at someone. (No, it's not cute, and no, I don't care what the reason is, and no, I don't care if she tries to atone for it later.) Then there's some other girl who… oh, I can't even get into the rest of these, because they'd just be huge spoiler alerts. But just know that the last several episodes are just a big nest of zingers, where every moe feeling you might have felt for any of the girls gets flushed down the toilet.

Not that you'd ever like any of these girls, though. I realize that a lot of these harem shows are wish-fulfillment fantasies, where it's totally great to have a gaggle of women throwing themselves at you, but these girls are Too Much. The level to which these girls profess their devotion to Rin (“I live to take care of you!”) is kind of perturbing. One of the girls spends hours, maybe even days, trying to learn how to cook a plain omelet for Rin, which I guess might be charming in a domestic way if she weren't so outrageously stupid. I don't profess to be Emeril, but I do know that it does not take a genius to make an omelet. That she spends hours trying to learn how to crack an egg is shocking; even children can crack eggs, and they often do. Maybe if she was a dog, or lacked opposable thumbs. Or was in a coma.

The inanity of these girls really kills the mood for me, sadly. I don't find their antics funny, because I wish I could punch them in the face. I don't find them cute, because I don't like people who wave knives in my face. Oh, and I like people who know how to crack eggs. These types of shows are heavily character-driven. Shows with great characters could spend 100 episodes just walking around on the beach talking about their plans to take a road trip to Kansas, but when you don't have good characters, you don't have a good show. That they have breasts does not even factor into the equation (although, being a heterosexual female, maybe my opinion is skewed on this one). So in short, if you are hankering for some cute girls, try one of the Key shows. Air and Kanon are really cute and I think you'll get a lot more mileage out of a single episode of Air than you'll get from this whole bag of crazy.[TOP]

At this point, I'm convinced that Funimation will keep re-releasing Fullmetal Alchemist forever. If that means that more people will get to see this show, then maybe that's a good thing. Every time I get these DVDs, I always pop them into my DVD player, even if I've already seen the show a zillion times before. The most recent round of releases is pretty convenient, though, breaking up the entire series into two thinpak boxsets. The second one, of course, contains episodes 26 through 51 (and all the guide books), although I have a sneaking suspicion that they just repackaged the thinpaks that didn't sell last time.

One of Fullmetal Alchemist's best features has always been its ability to pace itself extremely well. It never rushes itself and it doesn't skimp on the details, and the entire last half of the series is like a train hurtling down a mountain. To give fans who've already seen the show a timeframe, the second season starts with Maes Hughes and his exploration of Laboratory Five. From there, the dark secrets of the Philosopher's Stone quickly start to unravel, while in parallel, viewers learn more about the seven sins and the Homunculi who represent them.

I'm always surprised by how interesting the series stays after repeat viewings. I always pop in the first DVD, thinking, “Eh, I've already seen this, but I want to refresh my memory on what happened.” Then before I realize it, I've zipped through the entire boxset, two cans of Coke, and a whole Dominos pizza. I'm fully aware of how poisonous hype can be, and I understand why people might be hesitant to watch a show this popular, but it deserves every ounce of praise it gets. The fact that Japan will probably never stop making installments of this show just goes to show how intense the fanbase is.

One thing I've noticed after multiple viewings is that there are a lot of things you miss the first time around. When I first watched Fullmetal Alchemist, there was a stretch of episodes in the late 30s that kind of fell apart for me. Now, knowing what I know about the ending and how it plays out, those misgivings I had about the middle of the series have mostly melted away. I'm not going to pretend that this series is some kind of highly complex, deeply analytical work like Milton's Paradise Lost, but there are a lot of subtleties that get picked up when you're not as concerned about what's going to happen next.

With a 51-episode series, I know that it can be daunting to collect an entire series. I know fans who have bemoaned for years their inability to buy the series, but now, it's really easier than ever. This thing retails for $69.98, but you can pick it up online for as low as $41. At $80 for the full series, that's about the same price you'd pay for a US TV show, so it's not bad. But more than anything else, I just want everyone to get a chance to watch this potential classic, because I think it's going to be around for awhile.[TOP]

This week's shelves are from Gina. I kind of love that she has a slew of Iago stuff.

"My shelves are modest--I've mostly watched my anime from Netflix, and then only bought them for myself if I just couldn't live without them. (And besides, I don't have a lot of money to burn.) The anime/manga shelves are in the hallway. The figures' shelf is above my bed. Besides figurines, it contains cels from Generator Gawl, because, let's face it, it's hard to get merchandise from that old treasure. In some pictures, you can also make out a small Scooby-Doo collection (complete with the underappreciated Scrappy) and part of my collection of Iago memorabilia (Best. Disney. Character. Ever.)"

Good stuff! And size doesn't matter, as long a you've got the heart.

Want to show off your stuff? Send your jpgs to shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com. Thanks!

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