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Shelf Life
The Skull Man Cometh

by Erin Finnegan,

Remember, I'm taking next Monday, March 29th off to prepare for my Anime Boston panels ("Unusual Manga Genres," "Cooking with Manga," and "Recent Trends in Anthropomorphization, Hetalia to Wikipe-tan"). I'm also taking off April 5th, since I'll be too busy attending the con to watch anime.

I recently found out that in addition to my three panels, I will be on Ed Chavez's manga industry panel, titled "Manga-Mania I – Enter Panel-dom" with Clarissa from Anime World Order and Brigid Alverson of MangaBlog.net. It should be a lot of fun.

In the meantime, I'll be watching more Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and One Piece so I can keep up with the column. I'm enjoying the original Dragon Ball more than I thought I would, sort of like the titles I watched last week. None of the following three shows were nearly as bad as I expected!

Much fun has been made at the expense of Dante's Inferno so I was floored that this movie was even OK.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've never read The Divine Comedy. I haven't played the Dante's Inferno videogame either, so I watched the movie tie-in with someone who had: Dave Riley of the Fast Karate for the Gentleman podcast and Otaku USA magazine. Dave had a lot of good insights, like "This is the part when unbaptized babies attack you in the game!" (Thank you spell check, for suggesting "anabaptized".)

Dante is a Knight of the Crusades living in the 1300s. Before leaving for the Holy Land, Dante promised his girlfriend Beatrice that he would absolutely not cheat on her and they'd get married when he returned. The story begins on his return to Beatrice's place where Dante finds his fiancé and her entire family recently murdered by an assassin. Beatrice, it turns out, made a bet with Lucifer about Dante's fidelity; a bet she apparently lost because now her relatively innocent soul is trapped in Hell. Dante fights through the nine circles of Hell to free her soul, and, along the way, faces his own sins.

This is an international co-production anthology film, sort of like the Animatrix, except each studio animated a segment of a continuous story rather than a stand-alone short. The first segment is particularly awkward, with poor animation and a goofy transition into the second segment. It's the film equivalent of tripping out of the starting blocks. Fortunately, subsequent segments are a lot better.

Although it's hokey at first, the plot turns surprisingly compelling as the film goes on. Dante hacks through hell with his stolen +2 demon scythe, and we learn a lot about his past. He didn't just cheat on Beatrice, he was one awful dude during the Crusades. At least he didn't commit treachery or fraud, because apparently those are much worse than lust as circles of hell go.

The character designs change with each segment. Sometimes Dante is a huge hulky dude, and sometimes he's a svelte bishonen. This worked well, because if you think Dante and his philosopher/poet/guide Virgil are particularly heinous looking, you don't have to put up with the art style for long. Some of the character work looks awfully close to Reign: The Conqueror.

The movie has a videogame and tabletop game appeal. Dante has a magic item (a crucifix with a piece of the true cross in it) and fights a variety of monsters and undead warriors that call to mind Shadow of the Colossus and Dungeons and Dragons.

The DVD has no Japanese soundtrack, though there are English closed captions. It's not surprising; half the movie was made in Korea. It was nice to see Dongwoo Animation in the credits, since I corresponded with them during my work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2008.

Dante's Inferno is a little too ridiculous to be Shelf Worthy, but it isn't without merit. It was a lot of fun to watch with a group. (Unlike Grave of the Fireflies… man, I'll never live down that party.) The DVD includes the animatic (the storyboard with the soundtrack) which is something I used to help make… back when I had a full time job.[TOP]

Continuing on with stuff I thought would suck, after Dante's, we all watched The Skull Man together.

Based on the DVD packaging, I never thought I would be interested in The Skull Man. The cover looks like heavy metal album art featuring Marvel's Ghost Rider with a Punisher-like logo on his belt. I have zero interest in super heroes. Fortunately, The Skull Man turned out to be more like the 1991 film The Rocketeer.

Like The Rocketeer, Skull Man begins in an appealing alternate history where Japan was divided like Germany after World War II. Everything has a nostalgic Showa Era look, so much so that even I started to feel the nostalgia. The show seems more modern as it progresses, but since it's an alternate history, I guess there's a lot of free rein as to the period.

The Skull Man himself isn't a super hero. He's not even the protagonist. Instead, the story follows a reporter, Hayato, as he returns to his hometown, Otomo City, to investigate some mysterious goings-on. He is joined by a spunky girl sidekick in a Newsies-like outfit, Kiriko. Kiriko is a tomboy aspiring photographer with a talent for investigative reporting. Her character is really cool until the reveal that she's still obsessed with her ex-boyfriend from school. She goes from empowered female character to a weeping needy heroine needing to be rescued disappointingly fast.

The actual Skull Man shows up near the end of most episodes, just in time to end climactic supernatural battles between humans turned into monsters. The Skull Man's motives are unclear. Is he a murderer, a hero, or does he have his own morally ambiguous agenda?

Something is rotten in Otomo City, and it's eerily like a Call of Cthulhu tabletop campaign. If you've never played Cthulhu or Arkham Horror, I recommend it. Like in The Skull Man, there's usually a cult in town, as well as some powerful supernatural creatures inspired by H.P. Lovecraft that you should probably run away from. In a Cthulhu game, the players pick classes like Reporter or Professor or Archeology Student. Hayato and the other Skull Man characters all seem like playable characters if this were a game; only the Skull Man himself seems like the Keeper's NPC Mary Sue. (If you understood that last part, you win geek credibility points.)

This was a really decent show, save for some low-budget animation at times. With a really solid dub, and maybe a couple of cool extras, it could have even been Shelf Worthy. It wasn't quite as good as Ghost Hound, which I may have been too hard on in my review. However, unlike Ghost Hound, at least The Skull Man has the whole series in one box.[TOP]

Weirdly, The Skull Man ends a lot like Blassreiter. I mean, the ending before the extraneous super-happy Blassreiter ending. I wish Hidamari Sketch ended with Germany almost getting nuked, because at least then something would have happened.

I read the first volume of the Hidamari Sketch manga for a review. I didn't like it. I didn't have much experience with 4-koma (four panel) manga at the time, and I realized I had been totally spoiled by Azumanga Daoih. Holy crap, looking back on it, my 2008 review is total flame-bait and super harsh!

Hidamari Sketch follows Yuno as she attends an art high school and lives in the nearby dormitory-like Hidarmari Apartments. Yuno (the short one) makes friends with Miyako (the stupid one), Hiro (the good cook) and Sae (the professional novelist, like Aya Sawada in Kare Kano). Nobody is as well characterized as their teacher, Ms. Yoshinoya (their quirky teacher, because every school needs a quirky teacher like Yukari-sensei from Azumanga Daoih). Ms. Yoshinoya cosplays, because in an otaku show, someone has to cosplay.

Hidamari Sketch is conflict free. It's the opposite of Lost, with all its fancy man vs. nature and man vs. man. Hidamari is girls vs. nothing. We follow the characters through the regular Japanese school year as they prepare for the school festival, participate in Sports Day, and take a field trip to the zoo to sketch animals. The show has an atmospheric focus on the time of year rather than plot. The girls chit-chat about their mundane daily activities, and the conversation is no My Dinner With Andre.

It is only in the very last "bonus" episode that somebody gets a love letter. Even then, the resolution is uneventful. Even when it turns out that Sae might be a lesbian in love with Hiro, nobody feels conflicted about it and nothing happens because of it. I'm glad homosexuality is no big deal in this show, but I wish something was a big deal.

Where Azumanga Daoih is comedy-first, slice-of-life second, Hidamari is slice-of-life first, with comedy a distant second. There are jokes, but they aren't particularly funny. Many of the jokes are explained in cultural notes in the manga, but there are no cultural notes in the anime series.

The overall effect of the show is relaxing, like drinking chamomile tea, which is fine, unless you hate chamomile. The show is so relaxing that it actually makes me worry about how stressful life must be in Japan that it's necessary for this horse tranquilizer of a show to not only exist, but get additional seasons.

Nevertheless, Hidamari doesn't deserve to be Perishable.

Although it is entirely free from conflict, the show is visually interesting. Far from being a Quaalude for the eyes, Hidamari strives to keep viewers awake with a lot of quick cut-aways. Hiro's frizzy curly hair moves around otherwise static frames like Shinjiro's Mohawk in Cromartie High School. Hidamari is downright inventive in keeping things moving on screen while the characters sit around a table and talk for hours.

The show is so unique that my husband invented a new word to describe it: the moe pastoral. In the pastoral genre, the lives of peasants and shepherds are idealized into unreality. The girls from Hidamari attend an idealized high school where nothing bad ever happens, even on an administrative level. The girls themselves are innocent to the extreme, like perfect little nuns.

Eventually I found the simple-mindedness of the characters grating. I developed a theory that they're actually mentally challenged and unaware they're attending a Special Education high school.

There is no dub, there are no extras, and confusingly, there are no episode titles.

There is nothing wrong with liking this show, it's just not what I'm into. I like drama, romance, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and adventure series. Hidamari is none of the above. I don't mind that this show exists, but when this kind of show crowds shows I like out of the anime marketplace, I get crowded out as an anime fan.[TOP]

Speaking of which, I owe the translator of the Spice and Wolf novels an explanation as to what it is I have against moe, exactly (and I know I'm using that word incorrectly). I'll have to hash it out with him in real life when we're both a little less busy.

This week's shelves are from Abby, who hails from New Zealand:

"I have been collecting Anime/manga for about 5 years. I know my collection is small but it can be so expensive where I live, especially Manga (which can average about $17US a volume).

My figurine collection is something I am quite proud of, I didn't really start collecting them untill about a year and a half ago (before then I had about 5). A lot of them I sourced from my Trips to Hong Kong (no Bootlegs) and Japan or I just impreted them (try not to buy locally unless I want to pay 4x the price). As you can probably tell I have a bit of an obsession with One Piece.

Then I like to try an plaster the walls in Posters, which has spread though the whole flat due to my flatmates being the same.

You may also gather that I love Ninja Turtles."

Nice shelves!

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

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