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Shelf Life
Dungeon Hacking

by Erin Finnegan,

Once in Japanese class our teacher asked what we would be eating for Thanksgiving dinner. She had only been in America for six months, and wasn't really sure what a "turkey" was. "It's like… a big chicken?" was the best we could do. "What else will you eat?" she asked. Nothing else translated well either. Cranberries, yams, and stuffing - we all made a kind of stuffing-the-bird gesture that had absolutely no meaning to the teacher.

Likewise, this week I'm reviewing two anime series based on videogames I've never played. I mean, I've never even played videogames in those genres. Although I've played tapletop Dungeons & Dragons for years (2nd Edition), I've never played a videogame RPG. Maybe someday I'll play a Final Fantasy game or something. Also, I once borrowed a visual novel game from a friend (Tea Society of a Witch) and gave up really fast.

Tower of Druaga may be the best dungeon hacking anime around. Granted, I haven't watched Orphen or Those Who Hunt Elves, and although the first two episodes of Record of Lodoss War are some very traditional Dungeons & Dragons style dungeon hacking, the rest of the show is not. Druaga is based on a very old videogame that I'd never played or heard of before now. I'm mostly a tabletop gamer, so I was able to appreciate the RPG elements. The fantasy roleplaying aspects of the show are accessible enough you should be able to recognize them whether you're familiar with the Druaga franchise, a newschool "I Only Play Warcraft" gamer, or you own all the 1st Edition D&D books.

The actual tower in the show, built by an evil demon, is a sort of vertical dungeon. Every year, parties of climbers attempt to scale it to kill Druaga and get his wish-granting magic blue rod. The series follows two teams of climbers, one led by the chaotic good Jil (a guy) who is a fighter with a ton of hit points, a high strength, and a hero complex. The other team is led by Jil's brother Neeba, who is much more questionably aligned (telling you his alignment here would be a spoiler) and a much higher level adventurer. From a gaming perspective, it's a strange campaign, but it works well for the anime.

Jil's party has a cleric, a cool girl knight, and a mage who uses golf clubs to hit spells into combat. At first I thought, "lame!", but then I warmed up to the golfing mage. It is totally something I could see a player coming up with in a real life game for their mage character. The mage's servant (henchman?) Coopa, a young but very strong girl, acts like a caddy, carrying around his huge golf bag. Coopa is voiced by Monica Rial in the dub, in a performance that thankfully doesn't get too shrill. Coopa could've been a really annoying character. I mean, I really hate her giant bow, but she turns out alright and even has some depth of character. Rial's dub really did the character justice.

Speaking of the dub, the script varies a lot from the subtitles. Someone worked really hard to adapt the script, and I appreciate that. However, my Japanese isn't good enough to tell how loyal the adaptation was.

The really weird thing about Druaga is the mix of comedy and drama. The first episode is almost entirely a parody, told in the framework of a dream Jil has after being knocked unconscious in battle. It's really funny, and there are some nicely done bits of animation.

The rest of the show is more serious but not completely serious. An entire episode is devoted to parodying old videogames, probably the game Druaga is based on. Kaaya the cleric plays an arcade machine with square stone "coins" while Jil acts as her puppet. Other climbing parties wander in and out of the makeshift arcade and drink Ramune. It's pretty funny, but really weird at the same time. The outcome of the game has a serious impact on the plot and sets up a number of dramatic scenes later on.

The opening credits are set in a bizarre alternate universe of modern day Japan. Jil eats toast for breakfast and takes a crowded train to school - but the train is jam-packed with knights. It's well animated, and I guess it's kind of funny? That sentiment sums up my thoughts on the series: I guess it's kind of funny…? That's what's stopping this show from being Shelf Worthy.

In an interesting touch, Kaaya is a cleric of Ishtar. An aging Gilgamesh is the ruler of the land. Druaga is an actual Babylonian god of the underworld. Because it's a fantasy world based on a videogame, it doesn't seem to matter that the armor is European instead of Babylonian.

The ending is really dramatic, and although it feels pretty final, it's just a big lead-in to season two. I was pretty satisfied by this season alone.

It's definitely worth a rent if you're into Wizards & Washrooms (a.k.a. Elves & Elevators).[TOP]

I'd like to take a moment to recommend this series to Jason Thompson (author of Manga: The Complete Guide, and senior editor of the Yu-Gi-Oh! (manga) in particular, because his shonen manga parody comic King of RPGs is coming out soon from Del Rey. Jason would probably also like Claymore.

Honestly, Claymore would be rental shelf, but in this case, Funimation really included some nice extras that make it Shelf Worthy. The series box comes with two 24 page booklets with character designs with translated notes on those designs, and some long interviews. There are also video interviews with Japanese staff members on almost every disc, as well as about one episode per disc with commentary by the American voice actors. I find this kind of commentary kind of pointless, but I appreciate the effort they put into making extras as a "value-add." Plus the dub is nicely done.

The Japanese staff interviews are actually pretty bland. If I bought this, I don't need an interviewer to ask "What is the appeal of Claymore?" If I was Japanese and I just slapped down like ¥7000 for a single disc, hopefully I already know what Claymore's appeal is. (I'm surprised Funimation released this as single discs at all!)

So what is the appeal of Claymore? It's got a huge all-female cast of chicks with giant swords and superhuman strength who are slicing demons to bits in bloody melee. It's pretty cool. The Claymores are only half human, employed and created by a mysterious Organization to slay demons who keep eating people in quasi-medieval European towns.

I have this pet peeve where I hate shows where characters fight invisible demons, like in Shakugan no Shana (or the first season of Bleach). Down with invisible demons! Claymore's demons are real, and they are serious business. They will eat the hell out of you.

One high point of the show is the dark and creepy atmosphere. There is never a bright, sunny day in Claymore. The color palette is so muted that if you watched this digitally, perhaps by watching fansubs, you may have noticed some of the blacks looked really chunky or green in the low-res files. It's definitely worth it to see the wonderful dark colors on DVD.

Adding to the mood, the townspeople are always gloomy. They're afraid of the Claymores and ostracize them. Heck, they even ostracize anyone whose family was killed by demons, like Clare, our protagonist (back when she was human).

Clare is number 47, which represents her rank in the Organization, where #1 has the highest power. Normally I'm not into the whole fighting-up-through-the-ranks thing, which is why I maybe haven't watched Afro Samurai yet. (Notice I worked on Kids Next Door, where all the kids have numbers, but they picked those numbers arbitrarily.) I'm willing to tolerate the numbering in Claymore because they don't fight each other to get promoted... They fight each other because someone got fired.

There's a really creepy (yet interesting) sexual element to the show. When a Claymore fights, she releases some of her yoma, her demonic energy. If she releases over 80% she starts to hulk out and turn into a demon and can't turn back into a human. The best episode is arguably episode eight, where we see this process for the first time. It turns out it feels really good once you're a demon. The character who transforms makes it sound like it felt good in a sexual way - like she had to hold it in before, but now it feels soooo much better. Later we learn why there are no male Claymores, and to me that sounds kinda sexual as well. Besides the giant swords (possible phallic symbols?), I think there is a lot of Freudian imagery in the show as well.

Another reason I think this is Shelf Worthy is because the manga isn't, at least not for the money. The manga is nicely drawn, and the anime is very loyal to it, but it's a long-ish series (17+ volumes), and the two volumes of manga I read I managed to finish in about 30 minutes (and I read slow, too). $9.99 for half an hour isn't a very good deal, so for your money, you're actually better off with the anime.

The manga is ongoing, so I hope someday they produce another season of the anime.

If you want to read more of my incoherent thoughts on Claymore I wrote a feature on it in the December 2008 issue of Otaku USA magazine, the one with a Death Note cover.[TOP]

I didn't have a third sword and sorcery series to review, so on to Clannad!

So… Clannad After Story. It's based on a dating sim. I get the feeling that if I don't like this enough, I'll be murdered in the forums. But I would never lie to you, dear reader. This is normally not my genre at all, but you'll notice I didn't make it Perishable. The animation quality was way too high to put this in the trash. Besides, if some parts of the series were morally repugnant, it was overshadowed by actual real life human drama in episodes 10-12.

I never saw the first season of Clannad, so I wasn't really familiar with all the characters. In the first story, I guess Tomoya started dating Nagisa and they started a drama club at their high school. The second season starts off with a lot of spotlight-on-supporting-characters episodes before getting back to Tomoya and Nagisa's story. The second season kicks off with a baseball episode involving all the characters. It's not as funny as the Samurai Champloo baseball episode, but, like all of Clannad, it's damnably well animated.

Let's take a minute here and talk about animation. I've worked on two action adventure series for boys age 6-11, and because of the time and budget constraints inherent in television production, animation quality will sometimes suffer in favor of finishing each episode on time. A lot of locations, characters, and fight scenes make a show really difficult to animate in a timely fashion. A romantic comedy like Clannad has the luxury of characters who don't fight very often (there is one unconvincing gang fight episode in this season), and commute between home and school without visiting exotic locations more than a couple of times per season. This means the animation team has plenty of time to focus on quality.

It's also important to consider the audience here. An eight year old boy is way less likely than a 30-something Japanese anime otaku to notice animation mistakes or characters who are briefly drawn off-model. Clannad is meticulously drawn and always on-model. You know how sometimes, on Naruto, Sakura or someone will be drawn vaguely cross-eyed during an unimportant scene? First of all, that scene was outsourced to China (read the credits) and it was probably handed off to the C or D-team of animators and directors (and possibly interns). The big season finale gets animated by the A-team, possibly in Japan. Naruto is a show for 10-year-olds, and I'm sure they barely notice the mistakes. Clannad, on the other hand, is about beautiful girls. A single bad scene would be debated in Genshiken type college anime clubs. The director would be ridiculed on 2ch.

So, I approve of the animation. I disapprove of everyone's freaking sibling complex on this show. (At least two characters have sibling complexes in this season.)

Youhei's little sister Mei turns up in one episode because she's worried her big brother is a loser whose life is going nowhere. The characters decide that if Youhei had a girlfriend “who would take care of him" his sister would worry less and leave him alone. This arc eventually devolves into our protagonist Tomoya hanging out alone with Mei on a quasi-date and then pretending, in order to make Youhei angry, that he is in fact dating Mei.

If this was played up entirely for comedy, that'd be one thing. Instead, Tomoya gets really embarrassed when Mei calls him "big brother." Why would anyone blush at that? What the hell, Japan? And is Mei a dateable character in the game? Ewwwww. I may be overreacting, because Key's other games, Kanon and Air, both had adult versions. Clannad doesn't, but I'm still suspicious.

I once read in a Jonathan Clements column (I think) that not only is the birth rate declining in Japan, most kids are the only child, so a large percentage of the population has no idea what it's like to actually have a sibling. Clement was talking about a nostalgic show about three brothers, but I take the statistic to explain how little sister cafes could exist (like maid cafes, but with “little sisters” instead).

And don't think I'm just hating on male-oriented dating sims here. Shojo manga like Cherry Juice and Marmalade Boy have step sibling love plots. It's so common that it's practically a standard romance trope, and I disapprove! I love Marmalade Boy, but no real life step-siblings I've ever met would even vaguely consider romantic feelings for one another. I suspect Japan doesn't have as many remarried mixed families as America, but that's just my conjecture, based on my own questionable sources (namely manga and anime). I can't suspend my disbelief during step-sibling romances.

Clannad also falls prey to my new shojo manga pet peeve: Parents who look too young! It's a trend that sweeping the nation, from Kare Kano to B.O.D.Y.. Youhei ends up pretending to date Nagisa's mother, who looks young enough to be a fellow student. She tries on lots of outfits for their date, and wooooo it's like a dating sim.

Fortunately everything wraps up in a redeemable way. Tomoya hasn't made any plans to go to college. He's been living with his girlfriend Nagisa's family, and helping to take care of her when she gets sick. He just kind of graduates high school, and has to find a working class job (this reminded me of the pipe layers in Disappearance Diary, which you should all read). He ends up getting his first apartment and Nagisa comes over and cooks for him as if they're already married.

I thought this "getting your first job" arc was really realistic and emotionally insightful. Tomoya loses touch with his high school friends because a lot of them go to college. It's kind of like Ghost World in some respects, and it's something we don't see much of in anime.

It's easy to sit around and point fingers at Clannad and complain about that indefinable menacing specter of moe. In episode two Youhei actually says "I wonder where I can find a quiet, subservient girl," followed up shortly by, "She seems like she would do anything I asked her to!". A case can be made against Clannad, but I don't want to be like Fredric Wertham, author of The Seduction of the Innocent and find penises in super hero muscles and shout about the corruption of youth. I've met at least one really nice guy who's a fan of this series, which is, at its core, about nice people in loving relationships. There is nothing wrong with that, I just think it's kinda boring. (One Piece can make me cry but this can't?)

This is a very bare bones release with no dub and no extras. The credits roll silently in English over black after the Japanese end credit sequence is over. To me that says it's for a cult audience. I'm sure 99% of that cult audience reads these forums…[TOP]

That's all for this week.

I forgot to mention that Clannad and Claymore both have really nice music, like with a Celtic influence in Clannad, and bagpipe-kinda Scottish music in Claymore. I'd buy a Claymore soundtrack if it was around $20.

FYI, my characters are an 8th level half-elf cleric and a 5/5 level Kender druid/thief.

This week's Shelf Life is from KirbyStamped:

"This is my collection, which I've built over the past 4 years. I generally tend to prefer manga over anime, but I still like to buy certain DVDs and buy random ones on sale. Unfortunately, my favorite anime (Trigun) is not pictured since I loaned it out to a friend. Otherwise, it's an accurate representation of my collection."

Excellent collection, Kirby.

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

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