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Shelf Life
Sword in the Stranger

by Bamboo Dong,

I wish people wouldn't invent science to justify selling weird kinds of bottled water. Some of you may remember my rant a year or so ago when I was complaining about some kind of… meditation-infused water. Recently, I received a free bottle of “AquaHydrate” whose website was so full of pseudo-science that I wasn't sure whether to drink it, or throw it away out of spite. I ended up drinking it, but mostly because I was thirsty, and the water was free. Like most water should be. I really need to start my own water company.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

Sometimes, when you try to please too many people at once, nobody ends up being happy. That's surely the case with Aquarion, an over-ambitious mecha series that tries to be the ultimate robot series, but trips over itself in its desire to cram too many ideas into one script. It's as though someone assembled a room full of diehard fans of different mecha series, then asked them to create their own fan series using borrowed elements from each show. What you end up with is something that's visually pleasing, but narratively, a big hot mess.

Aquarion takes us to a time when Shadow Angels have arisen from their 12,000 year slumber, and are once again storming through cities, gathering humans for their energy. Our last best hope is special pilots, Elemental Users who can not only harness the power of certain elements for every day fighting (amongst themselves, usually), but can also pilot subunits of the Mechanical Angel Aquarion. Combine three of them together in a mentally orgasmic union, and they can form one giant robot known as Aquarion. In comes Apollo, an animalistic street ruffian who may be the reincarnation of an ancient hero named Solar Wing (See what they did there? Apollo? Solar?)—who will also be The One who will save the world. Naturally, he can pilot one of those things without ever having seen one before, because he's just that talented. So together, he and our team of pilots slowly learn to work together to vanquish the Shadow Angels.

Now, that's all fine and well, had they left the story there, but there's more. There's also a blind, wheelchair-bound vampire girl who can “see” people's auras. There are also religious elements in the series, implying that the “wingless ones” met their folly by eating of the Forbidden Fruit, and so forth. And of course, because people can harness the elements and have auras and what not, it allows the writers to pull all sorts of neat tricks. For instance, by grounding yourself to Earth's… spirit core, you can remain firmly planted on the ground, even if an Angel tries to disrupt gravity. Or something like that.

On the upside, the series is very pretty. The animation is slick, and the mech fights are a joy to watch. Kudos also go to the mechanical designer, because Aquarion has some of the most unique mechs in recent times. Combine that with some sweet aerial fusions and fight scenes that pay homage to classics like Gundam, and you've got a show that's really fun to watch—even if the storyline is a jumble. In fact, it's one of those shows that can carry itself just on the visuals alone, which is quite a feat.

The different elements that make up Aquarion's story (not to be confused with Elements) are interesting to think about on their own, but don't necessarily all fit into the same story. That's what makes Aquarion less than shelf worthy. It has all the makings of a good story, without any of the filtering required to turn it from so-so to great.[TOP]

I also had the chance to check out Bandai's Blu-ray release of Sword of the Stranger, a gorgeously animated, blood-soaked samurai romp that entertains for its full 102 minute run. Animated and created by BONES, the film tries its hand at the same type of sword-wielding action adventure that has made samurai films such a dominant fan favorite worldwide. Using a classic bad-guys-chase-a-kid-and-his-comrades story as the backbone, the film succeeds in delivering something that would delight a bulk of its audience.

There are a few overlapping conflicts in the movie that result in several glorious battles along the way. The main one is that of Chinese soldiers who are chasing after a boy and his dog; the boy is presumably the one whose blood will provide the key ingredient to one of their rituals. Luckily for him, he runs into a ronin who agrees to work for hire, who has his own past that he's running away from. Then there's the Japanese army, who distrusts the Chinese from the beginning, eventually leading to further clashes. There are a lot of complexities for such a seemingly simple storyline, and it keeps things interesting—a good thing, because the main boy character is a little hard to like. We learn over the movie that he's probably faced enough hardship in his life to be an a-hole (after all, there are soldiers out to kill him), but his irritating nature doesn't really endear him to the audience much. Bonus: his dog is the best.

What I found to be particularly interesting was the interplay between the Chinese and the Japanese in the film. Notably, the Chinese characters switch between speaking Japanese and Mandarin (even the Aryan Chinese soldier, whose stilted Mandarin was a nice touch), which I wasn't really expecting, but appreciated. Somewhat amusingly, the Chinese are portrayed as a nutty bunch who are obsessed with mystical rituals and the chase for immortality, something scoffed at by the foreigner, who professed his disdain for both China and Japan a few times. It wasn't just the Chinese getting the bum rap, though—the Japanese were portrayed a bit as money-grubbing backstabbers, whose loyalty extended only as far as the money trail. This was a little unexpected, since I'm not normally used to seeing the villainy so balanced between both countries, but it made the conflict in the movie more interesting.

Artistically, this film is something to be admired. The visuals are really breathtaking, especially in high-definition. The backgrounds were incredibly lush and looked great splashed across a 50” TV. Even better were the fight scenes, which were beautifully drawn, and even better “choreographed,” The animators definitely put a lot of extra time into the action scenes, and it shows. Music-wise, the soundtrack was pretty grandiose, filling the more poignant moments with a very Lord of the Rings-esque theme that matched the gravitas of the film.

Sword of the Stranger has a lot of mass appeal. If one could define anime movies as summer blockbusters, then Sword of the Stranger would fall under that category. It's fast-paced and packed with action, and it looks good, too. It's not a masterpiece, per se, but as far as entertainment for the masses go, this one's a winner.[TOP]

Also reviewed this week was the last volume of Baccano!, a series that's been slowly descending into madness since its first episode. Not just some of the characters, who are actually mentally losing it, to the point where there's an entire scene where one of them is maniacally bashing apart a concrete floor using a monkey wrench—but also the pacing of the series itself, which finally accelerates to its max speed. And then, here's where the delight of seeing this on DVD comes in—the series immediately segues into the three OVAs that were released a few months later. We get to see the same brutal killers meeting up years later. In some cases, they're chatting at a café, talking casually about killing as though they were gabbing about last night's ball game. Or they're gathered in a room, working together to set up an elaborate domino pattern.

At first, I was a little surprised that they had decided to release the series in this manner, leaving the last episode for the final volume, then tacking on the three OVAs in the same volume. Now that I've watched them in sequence, though, I have to admit it adds a really nice, albeit surprising, effect. Starting from the first episode, the events of Baccano! have played out like a train with broken brakes, hurtling down a track. Fitting, considering most of the series takes place on the Flying Pussyfoot. It started out with a few scenes introducing the main groups, with flashbacks thrown in to explain the immortality angle, as well as glimpses into the events that transpired afterwards. Before the audience can fully grasp the intricacy of the series and how closely all the characters' lives are intermingled, blood is flying everywhere, people are cackling wildly, bodies are getting vacuumed into hands, and kids are getting tortured to death every night. It's crazy and disturbing, but wild and fun all at the same time.

Then, like turning on a light switch, the OVAs take place. While they have their fair share of crazy, too, I was so jarred at seeing most of the characters chilling out playing with dominos, that I felt like I had just flown headfirst out of the metaphorical train. I don't know if the US content producers had structured the DVD releases on purpose to achieve that effect, but even if it was an accident, it was a good one. It may leave viewers wanting more and more, but it's been a hell of a ride.

And really, I can't say enough about the atmosphere that Baccano! has created. The series wouldn't be the same without the sharp tuxedos spattered in blood, or the bacchanalian saxophone solos blaring over the blood-letting. It helps place the series somewhere between an orgy and a spinning tea cup ride, and it's understandable that this show simply would not appeal to some people. It does require a fair amount of attentiveness to watch, especially to sort out all the characters and time shifts, but at the end, it's like coming up for air, and it's a good feeling. I'm a little sad to see Baccano! end so soon, but it's been really entertaining, and I highly encourage everyone to check it out.[TOP]

This week's highlighted streaming anime… is a giant, steaming pile of mediocrity. Maybe even sub-mediocrity. More like five-day old pizza that's already started to dry out. Izumo: Takeki Tsurugi no Senki, which is based on the eroge of the same name, is a bland, worn-out, silly little show filled with equally bland characters, with their even blander character designs, uttering their blandly written dialogue. Currently streaming on ANN and Joost, there are five episodes available, but even that is too much. That they were able to milk a whole twelve episodes out of it is not a testament to their creativity, but the fact that the story pretty much writes itself.

Brace yourself for the synopsis.

Junior high student Takeru has been living with an old guy he calls Grandfather (who also happens to be his kendo master), ever since he lost his parents. His childhood friends, Kotono and Asuka, come over for breakfast every morning and do all the housework because “there are no women in our household.” The girls don't mind because presumably, they love to cook and clean, and they want to spend more time with their Takeru onii-san. At school, there's a transfer student from America named Seri, who luvluvs Takeru and claims to be his fiancée (jealousy ensues!!!), but he doesn't remember her. Turns out, she's Grandfather's granddaughter. Then there's also Takeru's bitchy little friend Takeshi, who's always beaten him in kendo. We learn that the reason for this is because Takeru's always gone easy on him, so Grandfather urges him to fight him with everything he's got. He wins, shockingly, and then Takeshi throws a bitch fit. Seriously, the entire reason he hates him for the rest of the show is because he loses a practice kendo match.

Then, in what can only be described as unprecedented amounts of animation creativity, the whole gang suffers through some kind of phenomenon where some intern shakes the foreground cels while they play the sound effect used in video games to signify punches. Takeshi hulks out, they're surrounded in a beam of light, and they all get transported to an alternate world where their whole town has disappeared, and their school is in ruins. There are giant insects, people in cloaks, weird dinosaur horses, hot men, and even more cute girls! What are the odds!

This show makes me angry, because there is no reason for its existence. It brings nothing to the anime table, except for some boring, useless girls, and a bitchy little man. The character designs are puffy and generic, and rely on hair color to distinguish between everyone. The girls are always wearing expressions of mild consternation or cautious smiles, and the guys are always stoic, or doing their best “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!!” face. How refreshing. Why bother animate anything at all if it's just going to look the same. Also, minor gripe: don't invent animals if you're not going to make them move in a realistic manner.

Then there's the dialogue, which was written by a fifth grader for a literature assignment. There's an thrilling dialogue exchange in the first episode where Takeru explains that he always loses to Takeshi at kendo. One of the girls ask, “Then why do you play kendo?” He answers, “I don't know… I just love kendo.” Thanks, bro. You really thought about that one. Or in a future episode, after being ambushed by a large group of ogre-y things, the alternate world hero sagely says, “It's not safe here anymore!”

If it's not obvious from the previous four paragraphs, I'm angry that I watched five episodes of this show. Such things should be buried in an archive somewhere and never be unearthed, because seriously, what a waste of time. Life is too short to watch junk like Izumo.[TOP]

That's it for this week. Stream carefully, my friends.

This week's collection is from Gary, who had this to say:

"I really need to find a better setup for this stuff, got too much and not enough shelving.

Worth noting that tons more is on the way, too, so I'll probably spend the next month tearing things off shelves and reorganizing them to accomodate new stuff.

I've got some artbooks and other figures lying around, but at the moment half of them are boxed up or in a pile somewhere, so they'd make for pretty unattractive photos."

Too much rock for one Gundam.

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

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