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Shelf Life
Galaxy Quest

by Erin Finnegan,

This weekend my friends and I are trying out my new nagashi somen machine. Here are some videos of people eating nagashi somen. The machine was a gift from my Japanese friend, who said she wanted to demonstrate that rather than being delightfully enjoyable as I imagine, this is "the most annoying way to eat somen."

Nagashi somen is the ultimate hot weather food, since it's served in a flowing stream of cold water, and you catch the somen noodles with your chopsticks as they flow by. Japanese people also like to tell ghost stories in the summer to chill one's spine, as we've learned from shows like Azumanga Daioh. Ghost Hound is more creepy than scary, but it's pretty good summer viewing.

Part one of Ghost Hound was one of my early reviews on Shelf Life. After several months waiting for part two to arrive, I started to regret giving this a "Rental Shelf" rating. Sure, the whole series doesn't come in one box and there's no dub, but wasn't it a good show? Didn't I want to know how it ended? Eventually I broke down and rented part two.

To recap, Taro, a 15-year-old, is going through hypno therapy to remember what happened to his late sister when they were kidnapped when he was four. As a consequence, he learns to Astral Project. He befriends the boisterous Masayuki and the gloomy Makoto and they take weird spirit journeys together through "the hidden realm". All this New Age bizarreness is balanced with some more-or-less real science. Masayuki's father is conducting some near-future experiments in biotechnology in a factory up on the hill. Makoto is working through his family's tragic past.

Everything ties together nicely in set two. The town's weird science factory is affecting the spirit plane. At the climax of the story, cultists start showing up in town, drawn by the spirit energy of the conflict. Ghost Hound has this great balance between the occult and science, between adult and kid characters, and tying school life into the lives of the townspeople. I suspect this kid-adult balance is more and more important in anime, which needs to appeal to high school students as well as young twenty-somethings with jobs. Most shows, like Soul Eater, handle this by following teachers and students' lives. I think Ghost Hound finds a nice balance by following parents, scientists, and the hypno therapist who works at the school.

A lot of great television focuses on a large ensemble cast of townspeople (think Northern Exposure or The Wire), and Ghost Hound does this very well. I find mystery/crime-of-the-week shows like Law and Order frustrating, because I don't get invested in the characters in peril in one-off episodes. Because Ghost Hound stretches a single mysterious plot over just the right number of episodes, it's easy to feel invested in the characters and care about the outcome.

The villains are adequately villainous; "evil" scientist Reika Otori has only one painting in her room, and it's Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights". As in Miyazaki movies, we're given sympathetic villains with logical motivations (think Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke). Masayuki's dad is one of the "villains," and although he's a very flawed man up to no good, I think stories that acknowledge parents as villains that are not one-sided are incredibly important. Sometimes members of a community do some pretty horrible things, but they're still someone's dad and someone's manager at work, and they're still going to have to live the town or community after the crisis is over.

That's a little heavy of a sentiment for Shelf Life, but Ghost Hound is a dark show. Although it's not as depressing as Boogiepop Phantom or Lain (both highly recommended series), I think it has a similar tone – it's sort of a middle ground between the two.[TOP]

By coincidence, everything I watched this week was intellectual like Ghost Hound and all highly recommendable. Like The Sky Crawlers.

This is a 2009 release of a 2008 film, but I ran out of screeners this week and I'd been meaning to watch this. In terms of Shelf Worthy-ness, Sky Crawlers is admittedly the kind of movie I'd watch only once, but it is the kind of thing I'll loan to my friends, plus the extras are really great and there's even a dub. Mamoru Oshii's latest is not quite as boring as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence , but it is patience-trying at times. Admittedly this is a long film that even I didn't finish in one sitting.

At first, Sky Crawlers appears to take place during World War II, but it's quickly apparent that this is a time-out-of-time, in the near future or some alternate present where analog¹ fighter planes duel in periodic missile-free skirmishes. The story is told from the point of view of Yuichi, the new guy assigned to replace a dead pilot on one of the skirmish teams.

After an action-packed opening, the camera lingers over Yuichi's daily life at the base in long, detailed scenes. For example, a fellow pilot folds his newspaper with obsessive preciseness after reading it, and you get this eerie feeling like this happens every day, and has happened every day for a long, long time. The film quickly establishes a dream-like mood. It's a credit to Oshii that he's able to communicate this feeling so quickly.

Early on we learn that Yuichi is a "Kildren," a genetic race of people who do not age and never become adults. It's a good explanation for why the pilots look so young, but then again, don't soldiers always look young? The Kildren's big nemesis on the battlefield is "a true adult" nicknamed Teacher. Pilots who take too many risks or become suicidal inevitably get killed by Teacher. And there are a lot of suicidal pilots. This isn't a happy-go-lucky film.

The movie is rendered in such detailed CG that, I had a hard time classifying it as 2D or 3D animation. Only the characters' hair seems a little flat for 2D. I don't know much about planes, but Oshii is a machine otaku, so I expect the planes are perfect.

If the film consisted exclusively of ponderous philosophy I might have dismissed it. Fortunately, the sci-fi elements are woven into the story so well that I was easily entertained. As soon as I had a question about the world of the film, the film answered it, as if the movie had a clever way of prompting me to ask questions without my awareness.

Instead of in-your-face sci-fi, Sky Crawlers is more like magical realism. If you just totally puked a little in your mouth when I said "magical realism," this isn't the film for you. And I can respect that. That's totally valid.

Thematically, this is an anti-war film, which is pretty weird for someone celebrating World War II fighter planes in glorious detail. But I think I understand. This is the kind of film you can really discuss with a friend afterward at a coffee shop, to make sure you both understood it.

One of the extras is a half hour documentary following Oshii on a trip to Poland "location scouting" with his crew. They take pictures of lots of buildings and planes, catching the smallest of details. In one scene, Oshii directs his crew to be sure to get a shot of a specific electric outlet. Watching Oshii at work reminded me of watching Yayoi Kusama in I Love Me; they both seem tortured to produce their art. Oshii looks a little frail, like if he stops working he might die.[TOP]

I have some reservations about actually buying Sky Crawlers, but I have no such reservation about The Tatami Galaxy. If a DVD comes out I'm buying it. This is my new favorite show.

Someone better put this out on DVD immediately and translate the novel because Tatami Galaxy produces a crack-like addiction in the viewer.

Tatami Galaxy looks strikingly different from every other show out there, except Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, which shares the same art director, Shinichi Uehara. As in Zetsubou, thick outlines and shading are almost completely done away with for a very flat, graphic look. A lot of thought has gone into the bright color palette for each episode. The animation mixes in live action and photographs in a way that I think is Gainax-like without looking cheap. That is to say, the photographs feel like an artistic choice rather than a budget problem.

The story follows a nameless protagonist, a more-or-less typical lonely college student whose only friend is a demonic-looking boy named Ozu. When the protagonist doesn't get along with other members of the tennis club, he depends on Ozu for all social interaction. Maybe because they're both alienated, or because they lack girlfriends, Ozu and the protagonist begin to break up couples and ruin romantic moments as a hobby.

Their actions are so egregious to love that a deity of marriage curses the protagonist to start his college career again and again until he gets it right. I feel like I need to immediately make the disclaimer that THIS IS NOTHING LIKE GROUNDHOG DAY, (I hate that movie). It's also not quite like Higurashi (which I do like).

Most episodes begin with the protagonist joining a different club or club-like activity freshmen year. In each iteration, Ozu is either a friend or a frenemy. As outlined by the deity, who often appears to be nothing more than an 8th-year senior in school, either Ozu or the protagonist will end up dating the standoffish yet pretty fellow social outcast Akashi. A fortune teller appears in each episode urging the protagonist to grab the clue that's right in front of him, which he keeps missing.

Three episodes tie together one longer story, which breaks up the club-a-week structure. The second to last episode is awesome in a surreal way, and a definite break from the Groundhog Day/Higurashi routine. It reminded me of the Jason Shiga² comic Fleep, which I'm sure almost no one has read (but everyone should).

A long-ish recap begins each episode, but it never bothered me. The show's unique design coupled with a fast-talking, wordy narration makes it feel like the series is moving forward at a fast pace, even when it isn't. At just 11 episodes Tatami Galaxy is a very digestible length. It feels like little has been elongated or truncated from the source material.

Despite the pretense of *cough cough* magical realism, this is a very accessible story about college students getting laid (or not… ok, mostly not). The funniest part is the protagonist's penis, personified here as a cowboy who looks like Woody from Toy Story, who the protagonist calls "Johnny". Johnny cheers the protagonist on and admonishes him at appropriate times.

As a warning, Tatami Galaxy WILL make you wish to live in a 4.5 tatami mat room (at least if it has its own bathroom) and make you want to eat castella cake. I don't know why castella is such a staple of Japanese desserts, but you can find it in every 7-11. There is a lot of comical crying while eating castella in this show, which made me think of cryingwhileeating.com.[TOP]

Hmmm… maybe I should make a video of myself crying while eating nagashi somen and send it in to that site. I just got more screeners in the mail, so maybe my reason for crying will be that Black Blood Brothers is a really mediocre show.

¹ As opposed to more "digital" planes with a lot of on-board computers.
²Everyone ought to read Shiga's Bookhunter.

This week's shelves are from Sera:

"I've been wanting to send in my pics for a while, and I finally decided to do it. I've been collecting for a little over 4 years, and this is all I have to show for it. I've had to start double-stacking to get enough room until I can get a new shelf. And this isn't even including the many issues of Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat under my bed."

Thanks for sending in your pictures!

Want to show off your stuff? Hit up shelflife at animenewsnetwork dot com with your jpgs!

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