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Shelf Life
Blue Monday

by Erin Finnegan,

On Monday while you read this, I will be in a video conference that might determine the course of my life for the next two-ish years. Cross your fingers for me.

This is topical, since the characters in the Initial D: Third Stage movie happen to have a lot of future-determining conversations.

I really liked this movie, just not enough to make it Shelf Worthy. It's hard to take Initial D seriously. The nearly-trademark-bad CG car races and laughable techno soundtrack are not easy to get around. I mean, I would not show Initial D to non-anime fans. If I showed it to my brother, for example, I'm sure he would laugh at it for a while and then insist on watching something else. I, on the other hand, drank the metaphorical Kool-Aid long ago.

I've read the first four volumes of the Initial D manga, and I've seen the first DVD volume of the TV series. The character designs are a huge stumbling block. Shuuichi Shigeno's characters are just ugly, and they all have weird bushy eyebrows—even the chicks. I'm willing to put up with Nobuyuki Fukumoto's (Akagi, Kaiji) stylized people, but Shigeno's characters are unrefined. His art makes me feel better about my crappy art. (Admittedly, Shigeno is skilled at drawing cars.)

Since Third Stage is a feature film, the CG car races are squarely decent. They are far superior to the TV series, although not up to Hollywood CG standards. I found the techno/dance music (I don't know electronic music genre terminology) laugh-out-loud funny. That said, I need to own this soundtrack. It was hokey, but it would be perfect for times when I need to get a lot of work done really fast.

The film covers Takumi Fujiwara's senior year of high school. The "Eight Six" has a ridiculously powerful new engine after a blow-out in a previous OAV. We're given a quick rehash of some prior road races (with improved animation) before setting up some new opponents and new races.

In this movie, the main event race is between Takumi and KAI over a course their fathers raced when they were in high school. Takumi might be able to beat Kogashiwa if he can understand his father's advice in time. Like most shonen sports protagonists, Takumi has inherited a genetic talent for driving from his father (who is a super cool dude for a tofu shop owner, by the way). I imagine that Grandpa Fujiwara was a great jockey.

What I liked about this film was the look at working class, rural high school kids in Japan. In anime, we often see a plotline that ends (or begins) with "and then I went to college in Tokyo". Obviously not everyone in Japan goes to college and/or Tokyo. Takumi and his friends work part-time at the gas station and still need to decide what to do after graduation. Takumi's best friend talks about working full time at the gas station instead of going to college. Meanwhile, Takumi's would-be girlfriend is working at a burger joint, deciding what she wants to do with her life. As someone from a more-or-less working class rural community, I found myself really involved with the character's choices. There was a real emotional weight to their decisions.

Joel McDonald is a little flat as Takumi in the dub. I'm almost positive he's aping Shinichiro Miki's performance, but it really comes off as lifeless, particularly in the first half of the film. I appreciate the challenge the dub actors faced; a lot of the dialog takes place in the characters' heads as they drive. It couldn't have been easy to act.

Here's the thing: I hate cars (I can't remember the last time I drove somewhere). I couldn't care less about all of the technical car details. My attention drifted during the tech heavy scenes. As my eyes glassed over, I thought that someone could make a really great fan dub out of all this talking and pointing.[TOP]

Oddly enough, the characters in Aoi Hana also ride in CG vehicles—they ride a CG train to school every day. Unlike in Initial D, the train blends well into 2D backgrounds with state of the art technology.

If you happen to be an aspiring animator or artist, you really ought to check out Aoi Hana (Sweet Blue Flowers). The background painting and color work in this series are practically feature film quality. Even if you're not interested in the yuri storyline, you should watch the first episode to see just how well the animation team blended a CG train into fantastic watercolor 2D backgrounds. Throughout the series, the effects artists sprinkled in a delightful through-the-trees lighting effect. This series is way too pretty for TV.

Aoi Hana's designs look a lot like Only Yesterday. What, you've never seen Omohide Poro Poro? Could it be that Disney has not freaking released an R1 of Takahata's finest work? It's a damn shame! (Here's how to get it.) Aoi Hana boasts similar watercolors and realistic character designs to the 1991 feature.

Moving on to the actual subject matter.

Last week I reviewed Sasameki Koto, a yuri series several forum-goers recommended. In response to that review, several people recommended Aoi Hana, saying Sasameki Koto is beer and Aoi Hana is wine. It was an apt comparison. I'm a fan of $20 and under wines, and I have to say that Aoi Hana is in the $35 bottle range. Sentai Filmworks should take note of the number of people in the thread who said they would buy Aoi Hana.

Fumi is a tall and awkward high school freshman and crybaby. Her best friend from elementary school, Akira (nicknamed Achan) moves back to town for high school. The two girls commute to school together, although they attend two different idealistic all-girl schools atop a pretty hill. At first, I was worried, because the whole moving-back-to-town has been done to death (Love Hina, Futakoi, Kanon), and the girls-school-on-a-hill thing is already a yuri cliche‚ (Strawberry Panic!). But hold the phone... Aoi Hana does it right! There may be some anime cliches, but they never feel worn out. And that's what good entertainment does; it makes the old Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey feel new all over again.

Fumi is pursued by the Takarazuka-pretty Yasuko, a popular upperclassman. This is a little jarring because in the opening credits, it clearly looks like Achan and Fumi are together as a couple. The handsome Yasuko, like a future Takarazuka starlet, plays Heathcliff in a school production of Wuthering Heights.

It's hard to say much without spoilers, but I will say, spoiler-free, that Fumi goes through a great character arc. She starts off a hugely passive, ultra-feminine cliche, but by the end of the series, Fumi shakes the crybaby attitude and grows some self-esteem and self-respect.

Aoi Hana gets points in my book for including very realistically awkward scenes that are true to high school life. How else can you explain a double date with your ex-girlfriend and someone's older brother? Or indeed, a date that ends in coming out to one's family followed by a break-up? (Worst Date Ever, by the way.) Only high school students could be so tactless.

Bizarrely, the last episode never answers the question that the opening credits pose. I wonder if the manga continues the storyline. [TOP]

I have a lot of questions about The Book of Bantorra...

Somewhere between Fullmetal Alchemist and Baccano! (with Read or Die character designs), you'll find The Book of Bantorra. Based on a light novel series, this show has a lot of great world building, great character design, and some nice animation to boot.

I mentioned Joseph Campbell earlier; Bantorra, like Record of the Lodoss Wars, has a world creation myth. In the beginning, the gods lived in harmony. At some point, they departed, leaving behind humans to guard the sacred libraries. I was disappointed in Library Wars, so I was happy enough to watch the Armed Librarians of Bantorra. (Armed Librarians?! "You had me at hello.") The Armed Librarians must be strong enough to battle the sacred monsters in the labyrinths guarding the books, in some kind of brilliant cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Well, almost. Unfortunately, the "books" in this case are not paper-bound, but stone slates formed from the souls of dead humans. You "read" them by touching them. I'm sure this conceit works better in light novels; in the anime we're treated to flashbacks upon book-touching. I found this bizarrely like an old Dr. Katz joke. One of the patients asks if the receptionist, Laura, has any magazines to read in the waiting room. "I have these patient files you can read," Laura says in her deadpan way. "Here, this one is pretty good."

The Armed Librarians are at odds with The Church of Drowning in God's Grace. In this strange religion, people are classified as either True Men or lowly "Meats." Unfortunately, the Meats are being turned into suicide bombers (relevant!). True Men are apparently self-actualized, with some other philosophical considerations. It's all pretty deep, with the added bonus of reasonable cleavage on the Librarians.

Key character Hamutz Meseta is busty, carries an Indiana Jones bullwhip, and has a voice like Major Kusanagi (Romi Park is also the voice of Edward Elric). She's the Acting Director, a tough-as-nails fighter who the bad guys are all trying to assassinate. Let the record show that I'm willing to accept unrealistic D-cups on any character who kicks quite so much ass. In fact, for the love of one really good character, I'm willing to let other, lamer characters slide. I'm not particularly impressed by Nolty, a naive rookie librarian who looks like a cross between Rikku from Final Fantasy and Yoruichi Shihoin from Bleach.

Because I've only watched six episodes so far, I have a lot of questions. First, who is checking out these "books"? How long does it take to read them? Furthermore, how did I miss this last season? Why haven't I seen more Hamutz cosplayers? Has Shigeki Maeshima designed any other characters?

So far, this show kicks ass.[TOP]

This week was a little light. Fortunately, I got a big box of screeners in the mail. Unfortunately, there was an awful lot of DBZ in that box.

We're starting to run out of shelf photos! Start sending in pictures of your shelves and collections, folks! You know you want to show off your stuff. Think of all the envy you could inspire. It doesn't matter if you have a measly rack of bargain DVDs or if your shelves could dwarf the Library of Alexandria. Send it in!

The magic address is shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com. Thanks!

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