Shelf Life
I Am Xam

by Erin Finnegan,

I missed the last New York City snowstorm because I was in Japan, so I'm perfectly happy to write this on a city-wide Snow Day after a 19-inch blizzard. It has snowed more this winter than in any of the 12 years I've lived in New York. Apparently I missed it in the '90s when the snow was so high you could steal a street sign.

Suitably, the second half of Xam'd takes place in the dead of winter.

I was sent Xam'd Part 2 on Blu-ray because Theron Martin had reviewed Part 2 on DVD recently. I put off watching it until I got a Blu-ray player… plus I didn't think I'd like it based on the title and the monster designs.

It took me several episodes to get into Xam'd, because I wasn't familiar with the story or the large ensemble cast of characters. In Xam'd, certain people get infected with something that causes them to mutate monstrously and have super strength. This made me wary, because I tend to strongly dislike superhero stories. It took me a few episode to catch on that the mutations are more like Ashitaka's arm in Princess Monoke than something out of Guyver.

Then I was hit with several incredibly depressing episodes in a row. Thankfully, an episode of Xam'd finally ended happily, with two characters in love flying into the sky on a machine that looked like something out of Nausicaa. Flying is often symbolic of love in Miyazaki movies. In fact, there are a lot of Miyazaki design influences in Xam'd, although most of the artwork is more reminiscent of Eureka Seven.

It's tough to describe the plot without revealing major spoilers from the first set, but in short, Xam'd is about the frustrating messiness of the human condition, the horrors of warfare, the pain of living, suicide, racism, and the morality of who decides who lives and who dies. There's heavy drama, but the show manages not to be a total downer because a lot of the characters have true-to-life loving relationships with other characters, as friends, family, or would-be lovers.

What I will say is that everything seems to build towards a prophesized apocalyptic event called "the Quickening." A princess-like character named Nakiami is destined to be involved, and several militant groups are warring to either ensure or disrupt this high casualty world-altering occurrence. Normally I cringe at prophecies, but I liked this story because only the obviously crazy cultists seem happy to accept their so-called "fate."

Xam'd got better with every episode I watched and I started to feel really, really bad that I missed Part One. Unfortunately, the ending is a disappointing mish-mash of plot and pseudo-philosophy, but at least the ride is worthwhile.

I've said in the past that a series is only as strong as its villains, and Xam'd has a great one. Conflicted nationalist Tojiro is a bad guy to be sure, but he's not all the way bad. He claims he's evil, but there's clearly more to him than that. Chris Hutchison plays Tojiro with a certain sexy gravelly quality that works very well.

The dub isn't perfect; Corey Hartzog plays a young boy named Yango, and although he's acting very hard, he cannot match the performance of the Japanese seiyuu, who sounds like a real kid instead of an adult playing a kid (Yuutaro Motoshiro was probably 11 or 12 when Xam'd was recorded).

This show had a big budget, even bigger than Moribito, which I raved about earlier. The all-English catchy opening theme by Boom Boom Satellites made me think that Xam'd was made with an international audience in mind.

This is a surprisingly decent show with a lot of high human drama. Although I'd recommend it to a lot of people, it's not the sort of thing you just kick back with some popcorn and watch for fun.[TOP]

If Xam'd is a serious meditation on war through the guise of fantasy and science fiction, then Sengoku Basara is almost the opposite. It's a super fun look at a real war told through the guise of video game storytelling.

I didn't want to miss this show, which was snatched up by other Otaku USA writers, so I took my acquisition of a new PS3 as an opportunity to blind-buy the Sengoku Basara Blu-rays, which were released last October.

It was money well spent! If you told me last year that a show based on a video game could be this amazing, I would never have believed you. Plus I was a little suspect that the show might just be fujoshi fodder for reki-jo (history girls). Instead, I found Sengoku Basara to be super high budget fun that anyone could enjoy.

As a nerd, I don't think history needs to be made cool by adding flashy designs, and to my eyes, samurai were snappy dressers to begin with. So at first glance, Basara looks like overkill. Set in the Sengoku era (aka the Warring States period of Japan), the various major players have anachronistic touches incorporated into their already ornate uniforms. Date Masamune, the "One Eyed Dragon" has motorcycle handlebars on his horse, for example (and he doesn't even need them!). It's quickly obvious that overkill is the whole point, and the handlebars suddenly seem entirely appropriate. This is history turned up to 11.

The series jumps right into a load of backstory that Japanese people would probably know from school, but had me searching Wikipedia. In real life, Oda Nobunaga was a military leader who began to unify Japan. In Basara, Nobunaga is the evil “Devil King” who other warlords are slowly banding together to stop. Although many of the battles are based on real history, not all of the outcomes are the same. This allows Basara to be much cooler than your average Civil War reenactment.

All of the warlords have animal symbols, nicknames, and a weapons specialty, which makes it easier to keep them straight (I have a hard time remembering Japanese names (or any names at all, frankly)). They introduce themselves with little corny battle speeches in the first episode as the camera pans over a map. Honestly, if I hadn't traveled through Japan, I'd find the show even more confusing. Having some idea of where Odawara is located compared to Tokyo added to my enjoyment of the show.

Much of the series focuses on Sanada Yukimura, a dual spear-wielding young man who serves Lord Takeda Shingen, the Tiger of Kai, with the same kind of over-the-top manly loyalty that Rock Lee has for Guy-sensei in Naruto. Unlike that ridiculous duo, Yukimura and Shingen express their affection viscerally, exchanging comically manly punches that send each other through walls with no apparent injury. Yukimura soon encounters Matsumune, they fight to a draw, and thus is born a rivalry for the ages. At first I wasn't sure how to react to such flamboyant displays of testosterone, but it only took one episode to win me over.

This is the highest budget show I've seen in a while (probably higher than Xam'd). No expense has been spared to bring the viewer cavalry battles over lush countryside. Even the lavish costumes are never off model. The soundtrack features a lot of inspirational Japanese drumming, so much so that I wanted to buy the OST immediately.

The dub is excellent. Chris Ayres sounds especially manly as the Tiger of Kai. (That was Chris Ayres?!) That said, I'm confident the Japanese cast reads like a who's who of male seiyuu.

I only have two complaints. Firstly, the military strategy can be a tad hard to follow. The show goes to some length to explain the battle tactics, with maps and arrows and all, but I was occasionally befuddled. For all the strategy talk, Basara is never dull for more than a minute before another energetic manly punch is thrown. Secondly, the limited-animation chibi extras are nigh on unwatchable. They just aren't funny.

By the way, Basara isn't just pretty faces for fangirls, there's also a female ninja with a low-cut physics-defying cat suit. Truly, something for everybody.[TOP]

Physics are also defied in Kaleido Star Season One, but the costumes are a lot more conservative (though arguably more flamboyant).

Kaleido Star is rated TV-14 but I've always thought it would be a great show to watch with much younger siblings or cousins. I can't remember any terribly objectionable content.

Sora is a Japanese girl whose dream in life is to run away to America and join the Kaleido Stage, a permanent circus installation in a fictional California city that's basically Cirque du Soleil. Unfortunately, Cirque du Soleil is kinda hard to do on a TV budget, so the show suffers quite a bit from unevenness. One big circus stunt is guaranteed to be well animated in each episode, but unimportant scenes and off-stage episodes suffer significantly.

Kaleido Star has been imported several times over the years. Although I first watched all of season one "on demand" via The Anime Network back in 2005 (or thereabout), I've never felt that this show was good enough to buy. It's amusing to watch once, but I've never wanted to re-watch it. The only friend I've ever wanted to share it with has a specialized interest since she did gymnastics growing up (in fact, I'm sending her this set).

You may also be interested in Kaleido Star if you spent a lot of time doing back handsprings as a kid or if you joined the theatre club in high school. I certainly don't know what it's like to be in the circus, but the cast and crew of the Kaleido Stage face a lot of theatre-like problems back stage. There are politics with the show's producer, a constant struggle to keep ticket sales high, script rewrites to do, and drama in the performers' personal lives. The only similar anime series I've seen is Glass Mask, except Glass Mask seems classier since it's about classic theater. Plus Glass Mask is thirty times more hardcore. No matter how many times Sora gets a blister, or risks her life on some crazy stunt, the head manager Kalos never once throws rocks at her screaming, "be a tree!" followed by, "a tree wouldn't flinch!"

Re-watching Kaleido Star now, I'm struck by how bad the dub is, especially by today's standards. Sora's love interest, Ken, voiced by John Swasey, sounds particularly goofy and too deep-voiced for a teenager. Sara Dupont's British accent is awfully fake. Cynthia Martinez does a good job as Sora most of the time, but the preview segments are often screechy and annoying.

And then there's The Fool. Somehow a bizarre (and ugly) magical mascot character only Sora can see made it into this otherwise realistic show. The Fool draws a tarot card in each episode and gives Sora advice that she mostly ignores. He seems less important as the show goes on, as if the creators realized that including The Fool was a bad idea to begin with. Nevertheless, Jay Hickman is the exception to this dub cast and really sells The Fool in the dub.

I have two other problems with Kaleido Star. Firstly, stories tend to stand alone without enough of a cliffhanger to make you thirsty for the next episode. Secondly, there are nowhere near enough training montages. I freaking love training montages. I am basically watching this show for badass circus training montages and there are not nearly enough of them in this series.

Nevertheless, I do want to watch season two. Maybe it will arrive in my next shipment of anime…[TOP]

The great thing about living in an apartment building in a city with 24 hour public transportation is that I don't have to shovel any of this mess or drive anywhere. I can just watch anime… which is why I probably don't get enough exercise.

This week's shelves come from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. He also included some cute cat pictures.

"Admitting you have a problem is the first step...

Stuff I've accumulated over many years. It's not actually that bad, I try to keep in mind how much space it all occupies. Most them are pretty small. When it's spread out to different parts of the house and office it seems less insane. Heh. I'm putting in new flooring and have been boxing things up to ease the process. I decided to stage a photo while I have everything in one place. Actually, there is more (and I have books and dvds, too), I didn't realize it until it was too late. Maybe I can do a two-parter? :)

I don't really care what the background of the character is, I just grab whatever I think looks nice(that would explain the Haruhi stuff...but yes, I do like Evangelion). I also snuck in a couple of my own pieces in there :)

The "shelves" are really drawer organizers turned on edge.

I like to throw the watercolor filter from Photoshop at pics and make wallpaper out of them. It reduces detail and punches up the color. I like how it abstracts the image. Hoping someone else agrees"

Cats: L to R Zissou- looking long(I'd swear he is a dog in a cat suit) Riley, Rin and Zissou(they don't look it but they actually siblings...girl, girl, boy) Senbei - the old guard(18 this year)"

Thanks for those photos!

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

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