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Shelf Life
Starry Nights

by Erin Finnegan,

Happy Valentines Day! Genericon kind of squashed my romantic weekend plans. Or maybe going to an anime convention in freezing upstate New York is totally romantic... I'm writing this before the convention, so it's hard to tell.

Last weekend we watched Fist of the North Star Collection Two, so now I want to give Fist of the North Star Valentines to everyone, like those Law and Order SVU Valentines. Consider, Kenshiro pictured, looking manly, saying “You are already mine, Valentine!” Or a card with Ken bursting the hideously obese Hart from Collection One with the subtitle, “my Hart explodes for you, Valentine!”

Alright, Collection Two is even more Shelf Worthy than Collection One. This set contains the Raoh versus Kenshiro battle, a fight so classic that it was playing in a New Year's marathon of famous anime battles when I was there this year. Plus, if you're following this viewing method, there is only one filler episode in this collection (although there are at least two skippable recap episodes).

Episode 49 (translated here as "The Greatest Battle in History! Raoh vs Ken! You Will be the One to Die!!") is drawn in a totally different style from the rest of the series. That is to say, the manga designs have been simplified for the anime series, but in episode 49, the character designs, line quality, and color palette radically change in what looks like an attempt to directly animate the manga. That episode is arguably better animated than the Fist of the North Star Movie. Everyone is suddenly drawn with a tremendous level of detail (does more detail equal better?). The character designs, which have up to this point shifted off-model periodically, are now radically on-model with the manga (especially Airi). The normally yellow sky of post-apocalyptic Earth is blue, and the lighting is more like life-like. You can tell that a lot of people spent a lot of time (and therefore money) making this one very special episode. It feels like watching anime history.

The rest of the collection isn't nearly as good, but it is a huge improvement over the first arc. For one thing, the annoying and useless Lin and Bat (shouldn't he be Bart?) have far less involvement in the show.

Now that we're no longer concerned with Kenshiro's girlfriend, the world of the show is allowed to expand in an intriguing way. A tyrant named Souther is ruling otherwise peaceful people with an iron fist, making a special point to enslave children. It's obvious that Kenshiro must stop Souther if there's going to be hope in the post-apocalyptic Millennium. Kenshiro's first encounter with Souther leaves him crazily injured. It's hard to establish a bad guy tough enough to stand up against Kenshiro, but FotNS manages to deliver.

Not every arc is a winner. One minor storyline about a village run by a Cyrano de Bergerac look-alike who loves dogs felt like a waste of time. Kenshiro's friend Rei has been given just “three days left to live,” and those three days seem to take a long, long time, especially when Kenshiro and company are fighting evil dog trainers. After that, the action picks up again at a more reasonable pace.

The dub from Collection One is oddly discontinued here. You have the option to turn the subtitles on or off, and that's it. The menu design is minimalist and the DVD cover art is an ugly screencap from the second episode in the set.

Banjou Ginga has a crazy amazing deep voice as Souther. It's like Ginga was born to play cartoon villains. I'd like to imagine he spoke that way even in kindergarten.

I briefly mentioned it earlier, but there are a ton of continuity errors in this show, which, frankly, I'm willing to forgive of old cel-animated series. When my coworkers were looking at some 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to make the Turtles Forever special, they were surprised at the glaringly obvious continuity problems that were acceptable in those days (the pizza restaurant was a different size in every shot).

Sometimes in FotNS, Raoh is drawn so differently from one episode to the next that it's difficult to tell who he is; even his helmet and skin tone change. But like I said, I'm willing to forgive a lot for the manly '80s goodness of FotNS.[TOP]

To balance out the very old with something newer, I checked out two streaming shows, starting with Panty & Stocking.

At first glance, Panty and Stocking seems to be nothing more than an excrement-filled parody of American cartoons, with rather limited animation and a tired ghostbusting plot about collecting Heaven Coins. But suddenly, halfway through episode five, the show takes a dramatic turn towards for the better. It's as if Gainax suddenly wakes up and turns on their A game, reminding us that they all freaking love animation, even if it's from the U.S..

Panty and Stocking asks the question, "Do you like anime because you hate American cartoons, or do love all animation and there just happens to be a lot of anime out there?" If you're in the latter group, like I am, Panty and Stocking is a ton of fun. However, if you like anime precisely because it looks nothing like Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends) or Genndy Tartakovsky's (Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack) designs, steer clear.

Format-wise, the show is broken down into “A” and “B” stories, like an old Ren and Stimpy cartoon. Ren and Stimpy is an apt comparison, because Panty and Stocking is filled with gross-out humor (indeed, Ren and Stimpy are directly parodied in episode eight, part two). In episode one, all of Daten City gets covered with poop. Later episodes contain massive quantities of boogers and vomit (roughly one bodily fluid per half-episode).

Title characters Panty and Stocking are angels who look like teenagers, sent from heaven to Daten City to stop “ghosts” who are interfering with the human world. Panty is a promiscuous stereotype who seems immune to both venereal diseases and pregnancy (I refuse to use certain <cough> misogynist terms to describe her behavior; Panty is a free spirit). Stocking is a Goth-loli type who eats desserts to excess yet maintains a slim figure. Their boss, Garterbelt, is a priest with an Afro and questionable secret hobbies.

Panty's panties transform into a holy pistol, and Stocking's socks become swords. Whenever they draw their weapons (i.e. remove their lingerie), it is a stock sequence drawn in exquisite anime-style detail involving stripper poles (clearly a parody of magical girl shows). During the rest of the show, the girls are drawn in the proportions of the original Power Puff Girls, only, you know, dirtier.

However, episode five part two, “Vomiting Point,” is drawn in the style of a very serious, realistic theatrical short film anime, like something out of Genius Party (I thought of “Stink Bomb” from Memories). Even if you totally hate this show, I'd recommend checking out “Vomiting Point” because it's so different, and so well-done, and much more about contemporary Japanese life than the rest of the series. Astoundingly, the episode manages to stay tied to the Panty and Stocking universe.

And let the record show that I have never been particularly squeamish about disgusting cartoons (except for the truly disgusting episodes of Ren and Stimpy). I like Metalocalypse and Superjail!, and I'm generally a fan of Adult Swim. I think Panty and Stocking would do very well on Adult Swim. [TOP]

After so many bodily fluids, both on and off model, I was ready for something a little more refined, so I checked out the first few episodes of Fractale

I've been excited about this show ever since I heard about Hiroki Azuma's involvement. Reading his book, Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, was a turning point for me, and I've been anxious to find out what Azuma could add to an anime series that no one else can.

Fractale is set in a seemingly Utopian future where humans appear to have life figured out. Thanks to the Fractale system, no one has to work for money and holographic computer entities called “Dopples” do all the undesirable jobs. Every day at a certain time, citizens are required to look towards sky temples to “pray,” but it appears to be a data sync of some kind. These expository details are handled in a very deft way. It's hard to explain all of that stuff seamlessly, and I think Fractale manages to do a great job.

Our story centers around Clain, a young man of high school age who lives alone in an old stone house in an ideal pastoral part of Europe (or what used to be Europe). His parents appear only as Dopples to check on his behavior. Clain has a power every teenager envies; he can dismiss his parents' Dopples at will.

Clain doesn't have too many distinguishing personality traits (so far), besides a love of old technology. He's almost a blank slate, so when a pretty girl named Phryne fell from the sky and ends up unconscious in his house, I began to worry about the otaku database. After all, if they add one pretty girl per show, it's a harem. Confirming my fears, a spunky younger girl named Nessa shows up at the end of episode one and acts like an annoying little sister in episode two.

Then, in episode three, Clain and Nessa meet a village of humans living outside the Fractale system who call themselves the “Lost Millennium”. Are these radicals just Amish-like technology haters, or violent extremists? To turn a slang phrase, “shit gets real” in episode four. The harem trappings seem to shake themselves off in favor of an innovative plot.

Fractale looks great. The backgrounds and use of light and paint are reminiscent of the works of Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second). The landscapes are very green and idealized, like Studio Ghibli's imagined versions of Europe. Phryne's costume and flying machine in the first episode reminded me of Nausicaa. In general, the costumes are all very modest, but have light otaku touches, like subtly-laced bloomers. The 3D airships blend in with the 2D environment in a way that isn't quite seamless, but is very well-done, especially for a TV show.

So far I'm impressed. I love it when science fiction both imagines out future technology and wraps present-day politics into an accessible narrative. Plus it's all shades of moral gray; the members of the Lost Millennium are doing bad things but seem like good people.

It makes me happy that Azuma said he wanted Fractale to appeal to foreigners and not just Japanese otaku, and I'm assuming that Azuma's way of reaching outside of Japan was to add a narrative without relying on the otaku database for episode structuring.

I hope Fractale is a great show all the way to the end.[TOP]

Maaaaaaaaan why does it always turn out that utopias are actually dystopias in disguise? I mean, I know the reason; a good narrative has to have conflict. I also suspect that we as humans have the tendency to hope that our neighbors who appear to have perfect lives (and perfect lawns) are hiding secret problems that are worse than our own. For example, as a U.S. citizen, I envy Sweden's generous vacation time, healthcare system, and free public education. I can only comfort myself knowing that it's very cold there and they pay higher taxes. I'm only human.

See you next week, when I'll take a look some Tsubasa OVAs.

This week's shelves are from Miles, who's so speechless about his collection he chose not to say anything at all.

Homemade! Love it!

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

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