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Shelf Life

by Erin Finnegan,

Last Thursday I went to The Whisky Classic, a sort of one-day whisky convention in New Jersey. For the record: I neither got "wasted" nor hung-over. At this kind of classy event, you get a tiny pour to try, and then what you don't drink, you dump into a bucket, like at a wine tasting. Nevertheless, it turns out that it's physically impossible to try all of the whisky varieties at the convention.

At the risk of being a poor role model, I have to admit that sometimes it takes a particularly strong Scotch to get through bad anime. I don't endorse binge drinking, and my consumption of expensive Scotch is an effort to go for alcohol quality over quantity. Contrary to what someone once said about me on a podcast, a six pack of PBR and anime should not be called an "Erin Weekend". (I like microbrews.)

Despite being a hopeless snob in terms of Scotch, beer, and anime, I enjoyed Soul Eater.

I expected Soul Eater to be Rental Shelf. Based on the first episode, and the first few chapters of the manga in Yen Plus magazine, I was sure I wouldn't like this show. Soul Eater suffers from the one of the most Erin-deterrent beginnings ever created. It's like Raid, formulated to work on Erins. The first episode introduces a character certain friends of mine refer to as "The Titty Witch". The protagonists lose all their videogame-like soul points battling the Titty Witch. If I was playing Soul Eater as a videogame, I'd quit. Then I'd sell the game. (Hopefully I wouldn't smash the controller.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find the show improving with each subsequent episode. I don't care for most of the main characters, or the basic premise, but the graphic design really kept me going (more on this in a moment). By episode nine, with the introduction of the hilarious talking sword Excalibur, the show had won me over.

Soul Eater puts a low priority on plot originality. It has a basic shonen fighting show premise; Death Weapon Meister Academy is a magnet high school run by the Grim Reaper (I wonder if it's accredited…), students fight in teams to collect and eat souls. I mean, only bad monster souls. In this Bleach/Naruto hybrid, half the students are "Meisters" and the other half are "Weapons". The Weapons appear human most of the time, but transform into actual weapons for battle.

This box set follows around several pairs of students. Hermione-like Maka wields a scythe named Soul, Kingdom Hearts-fashion victim Black Star wields a shy ninja weapon-thing named Tsubaki, and the OCD son of Death, named Death the Kid, wields bimbo blonde hand guns, Thompson sisters Liz and Patty. Death the Kid, with his crippling obsession with symmetry, is easily the most likeable character. Maka is endearing as a tough girl (Hermione would be improved with a giant scythe), but all of the other characters are borderline to downright annoying with the possible exception of Soul.

The villains and magical weapons take their names and traits from literature and pop culture. Ragnarock, Lupin, Al Capone, Frankenstein, and the Blair Witch make appearances. At first this just seems lazy, but after a while, it felt like a sort of cultural shorthand. There's no need to explain who Al Capone is or how Frankenstein was created. Plus, you already know the sorts of things that happen in shonen fighting anime, so Soul Eater just cuts to the good stuff (the fights). Nevertheless, each episode contains repetitive explanatory dialog. I just kind of tuned it out.

What it lacks in writing originality, the show makes up for in original designs. Soul Eater uses thick lines, bright warm colors, and a warped sense of perspective. Everything from the sun to magic spells is artistically stylized in a consistent and unique way. The sun and moon have faces and are always expressing something; sometimes the moon inexplicably drools blood through a grin. Everything fits together nicely to create a hermetic Soul Eater universe.

So far, the series lacks any long story arcs. Most of the longer fights are wrapped up in just two episodes, which is a nice change of pace for shonen shows. At 51 episodes long, this might be daunting purchase for some. But then again, it's only 51 episodes! Most of the comparable series in the same genre are ongoing (Bleach, Naruto, One Piece) or longer than this (Hunter X Hunter).

Patty has a great voice in the dub, but Soul sounds a little too old. Death the Kid's seiyuu is the sexy-sounding Mamoru Miyano, but his dubbed voice is considerably less sexy (sorry, Todd Haberkorn). The dub script is nicely adapted to the action. The DVD includes some voice actor commentary and a ton of promos from Japanese TV. It even comes with a sticker.[TOP]

I assumed Soul Eater would be Rental, but it rose to Shelf Worthy. I assumed Maria Holic would be Perishable, but it rose up to rental.

I had the unfortunate privilege of reviewing volume one of the Maria Holic manga when it came out. It was awful (but you don't have to take my word for it). It was so awful that a friend who read it shouted at me accusatorily. "That was awful!" he said, as if it were somehow my fault by association.

Fortunately, the anime is a lot better.

Maria Holic is a very nearly funny yuri parody series sandwiched between uncharacteristically good opening and closing sequences. The show lambastes Maria Watches Over Us (Maria-sama ga Miteru) with obvious nods to Revolutionary Girl Utena, Strawberry Panic, and presumably a bunch of other yuri titles I'm unfamiliar with.

Protagonist Kanako is an in-the-closet lesbian who transfers to the same prestigious all-girl academy where her parents met (dad was a teacher, mom married him at 16). Kanako immediately has a run-in with Mariaya, a cross-dressing boy whose family owns the academy (a parody of Otoboku's premise). Kanako is tipped off to Mariaya's true gender because she breaks out into hives whenever a boy touches her.

Kanako is a decent character. She's the lesbian equivalent of boy-crazy. Just watching her beautiful classmates eat lunch is enough to give her a nosebleed. Per minute, Maria Holic may have more nosebleeds than The Wallflower (a show whose second half is 100 times better than the first half). In a rare actually-funny scene, Kanako is revealed to be the cause of some of the school's mysteries; the bloody hand-print in the judo room and the pool mysteriously filling with blood are both due to Kanako's sexual nosebleeds.

I hate Mariaya. This show would be much better if Mariaya was recast with a different, more interesting, less sadistic character. What if Mariaya wasn't a heterosexual blackmailing Kanako, but rather a teen struggling with his own sexual identity like Rickie in My So-Called Life? It might be less painful to watch.

Sometimes comedy anime can be hard to swallow. For example, I can't imagine introducing an anime newbie to Excel Saga. I like Excel Saga, but the fast-dialog style of humor isn't necessarily suited for international audiences, just like how some people will never find Monty Python funny. Maria Holic includes some of the fast-talking embarrassed inner dialog as part of its humor style. Sometimes it works, but usually it's annoying.

A dub would have been great, but even without it, I have to admit this is a great DVD release from Sentai Filmworks. The copious on-screen text is translated without fail, and using different fonts (I rarely see non-standard fonts outside of fansubs), cultural notes appear simultaneously on screen, and for once, the clean opening and closing credits are a valuable extra. The adorable videogame parody end theme sequence changes slightly for each episode.

The DVD also includes a long extra from Japan. Voice actors Asami Sanada and Yu Kobayashi talk to fans gathered in a church after the show's premiere. The girls go into depth about their characters and the show, and it's not as painstakingly boring as these publicity events sometimes are.

Overall, I found the sexual politics a little disturbing (I agree with Erica Friedman's opinion, linked to above) and only two of the episodes were particularly funny. Nevertheless, Maria Holic exceeded my low expectations.[TOP]

I couldn't review Maria Holic without taking a look at Girl's High, the only series around with a shred of all-girl school reality.

The manga, titled High School Girls, is far superior to its anime counterpart. However, I think this series is worth checking out. (I even think the manga is rated too low in Manga; A Complete Guide, and I usually agree with Jason Thompson).

Eriko has unfortunate misguided ideas that her new all-girl high school will be an elegant and pristine place, free from the crudeness and hairiness of men. Episode one finds Eriko and friends face to face with cruel reality just before the first day of school. A pile of trimmed pubic hair in the swim team's locker room speaks volumes; without guys around to impress, girls can be downright disgusting.

Girl's High is an odd series. It originally ran in a magazine for both genders, unusual in the world of manga. Towa Oshima notes in the manga that many of the situations are based on true stories of all-girls schools. Sure enough, many of the situational gags are so weird they could only be drawn from real life.

Usually I roll my eyes at anime comedy clichés like panty shots. Girl's High certainly has plenty of them, but when Eriko falls down the school stairs, landing with her crotch squarely in the face of her new best friend Akari Kouda, I found it funny in a self-conscious embarrassing way. It's different from the usual Love Hina-style comedy sexploitation.

Unfortunately, this series has one of the worst opening credit sequences in recent memory. The characters jump around and pose in uninspired freeze-frames over graphic backgrounds. The song isn't great, and it gives no clue to the content of the show. The end theme is considerably better, with cute dances, with the characters re-designed by Yasuomi Umetsu, who you might remember from Kite and Mezzo.

Girl's High takes some time to get into because the humor is character-driven. We eventually learn that Kouda is an outspoken member of the theater club. Her donning of ridiculous outfits is on par with Maeno from Ping Pong Club (an even more disgusting and underappreciated show).

It's so rare that anime girls behave like actual girls that I think Girl's High deserves some extra attention. For example, Ayano is the only girl in the clique with a boyfriend, and their love gets lambasted by the rest of the group in a way that reminds me of being the jealous single friend in high school.

Best of all, Girl's High lays down the hierarchy of cliques at the school, from the "A" group of cool girls to the "E" group of freaks (some of whom have dating sim boyfriends). Eriko and friends are unfortunately in the "Moron" group, but we the viewing public benefit from their stupidity. Eriko never comes close to anime's legendary idiot Osaka of Azumanga Daioh, but she does some pretty moronically memorable things. For example, in the summer, she adheres a bunch of fever-reducing cold packs all over her body in an attempt to cool off.

Although the girls do find themselves in sexual situations, they themselves are refreshingly not over-sexualized. Instead of Girls Gone Wild, Girl's High is more like Girls Gone Stupid. But they're stupid in a realistic way, and not an exploitive way.

Several of the other reviewers on ANN pointed out the show's poor incidental music. I have to agree. It's really, really bad. But if you can stomach the low production values and a few clichés, I think Girl's High is worth a look (streaming, for free, anyway). It's even better if you can find the manga in a bargain bin somewhere.[TOP]

Fortunately, it took very little whisky to complete this week's column. Next week I'm reviewing Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, which may require a stiff drink.

This week's shelves are from Anthony:

"Here is my ever expanding stash of anime I've collected off and on since around 2001...I'm afraid it's only getting bigger as we speak."

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

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