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Shelf Life
Level Up

by Erin Finnegan,

At Anime Boston 2004, I went to a panel titled “Anime No One Knows.” An old man – he must've been pushing 90 – teetered up to the stage with a stack of un-translated VHS tapes. We watched a raw episode of Dr. Slump, a clip from 1+2= Paradise, and finally, a terrifying segment from a film called the Isewan Typhoon Story (Isewan Taifu Monogatari).

The film intercut between worried men in the weather bureau and a flooding coastal town. A family trapped inside their home fled the rising waters to the attic, where they broke through the ceiling to escape out onto the roof. Outside, neighbors drifted by on flotsam, but unlike in Ponyo, characters kept getting sucked under the flood water in the ongoing storm. The heavy loss of life was handled without melodrama, in a matter-of-fact way that made it even more heartbreaking. Without knowing anything at all about the film, you could tell it was based on a true story. The realistic art style was similar to Grave of the Fireflies. The recent tragedy in Japan reminds me of Isewan Taifu Monogatari, like a post traumatic flashback.

Japan is no stranger to adversity, and knows first-hand the horror of disasters, both natural and man-made. I think it's amazing that Japan recovered from the devastation of World War II to become the world's third largest economy. I have the utmost confidence in their ability to fully recover from the Tohoko Earthquake. (Of course, they could still use our help.)

Because of my writing (Hobby? Habit? Career?), I end up thinking about Japan a lot. With so much bad news, it was a rough week to watch anime and stay light hearted about it. I tried my best, picking out a comedy like Level E to take my mind off things.

Not to be confused with yaoi porn title Level C, Level E is about close encounters of the third kind. Well, that's what it's about for the first three episodes. The show then breaks off into mini-arcs of different lengths. Level E is clearly based on short, anthology manga works, and therein lies the problem.

I really liked the first three episodes. I didn't realize it was an anthology and got attached to Yukitaka, the character who seems to be the protagonist, but disappears after the third episode. Yukitaka moves to Yamagata after getting a high school baseball scholarship. Shockingly, someone is already living in his apartment when he arrives. This squatter roommate claims to be an alien with amnesia, and gets Yukitaka into all kinds of trouble. For three episodes, Level E is a sitcom not unlike ALF, if ALF were some hot dude with long flowing blonde hair (who didn't eat cats).

I wouldn't have minded if the show followed Yukitaka and his Perfect Strangers/Odd Couple relationship with the prankster alien Prince Baka Ki El Dogra, but sadly it is not to be. Episode four stands alone, and then the show leaps into a three episode arc about some elementary school students getting pranked by the Prince before moving on to other stories in mini-arcs.

Like in Gintama, aliens live on Earth, but they stay incognito like the unfunny Men in Black film. In Level E, making aliens disguised as humans seems more like a decision to cut the design budget than a plot point. And therein lies my second problem with this show; the character and background designs are awfully inconsistent. I don't mind ugly characters (think Ping Pong Club), but it has to be a consistent design choice. Level E liberally mixes ugly realistic characters with normal-looking folks for no discernable reason, and the Prince seems like he walked in from some shojo manga from the 70s (when pretty boys all looked like Roger Daltrey or Eroica). I'm not saying that the characters in any given show should be all pretty OR all ugly, but they show at least look like they're in the same TV series together.

The backgrounds are consistently dull and extremely generic, as if the studio mined the archives of Peach Girl or some other reality-based anime for bland backgrounds to reuse. Either that, or the Level E settings were purposefully designed for future reuse in other shows.

Maybe it's just me. I can't get attached to characters who are only going to be around for a few episodes unless they make an incredible impression, otherwise it's very hard to write loveable characters that will only last for three or four episodes. One Piece was able to do that in the Skypeia arc, but then, Noland the Liar had a lot of mentions before he got a full episode. In Level E, it's hard to get attached to the Prince, who doesn't appear at all in some episodes, and in other episodes he gets very little screen time. Plus he's such a jerk, it's hard to like him or care about his shenanigans.

Level E was so unmemorable that by Wednesday I had completely forgotten which series I watched on Sunday, and started panicking about watching a third title for Shelf Life.[TOP]

Meanwhile I couldn't forget Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom, because it is so long and boring as to sear itself into my memory forever…

This is almost Rental Shelf. I usually reserve Perishable for titles that are offensive or narratively incoherent, but Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom (which sounds like Manos: The Hands of Fate) had me rolling my eyes so many times I had to make it Perishable.

Koichi Mashimo is known for Noir, Madlax, and El Cazador de la Bruja. Although Phantom also has a theme by ALI Project, this is a far inferior work. Maybe it's because Phantom is based on a visual novel, where the leaps of logic necessary for a game about assassins just doesn't transfer believably to the screen.

Our protagonist was just an ordinary Japanese teenager, until he saw something he shouldn't have. He awakes in a warehouse/science lab to find his memory erased, and is abruptly enrolled in super-assassin training. Our hero is given the name Zwei, and he studies under his co-amnesiac-super-assassin, Ein (essentially Kirika from Noir), to work for an organization called “Inferno,” which is described as “the United Nations of Organized Crime.” I don't know how the UN is regarded in Japan, but I immediately assumed Inferno was ineffective and underfunded.

Zwei is just a normal guy who doesn't want to kill anyone, but Inferno forces his hand. If you like characters forced to be assassins, I highly recommend Crying Freeman (the manga, anyway) because it's much better than this yawnfest. I prefer proud assassins like Golgo 13 to brainwashed slaves.

Phantom is awfully predictable. You can always count on super soldiers to go rogue the same way you can always count on AIs to go berserk. From the moment Zwei is "hired," you just know he's going to betray Inferno. It's also painfully obvious he's going to fall in love with Ein. After all, any two people around the same age in a film or TV series are bound to fall for each other. Since Ein and Zwei aren't students, their romantic rivals are limited to their respective bosses, who sexually harass them privately (and frequently).

I don't know if you know this, but bad guys drink alcohol all the time. How else could you tell how bad they are? Among the Inferno's members, Scythe Master (ha ha) drinks whiskey, femme fatale Claudia drinks red wine constantly, and a dead ringer for Gankutsuou's Count of Monte Cristo drinks champagne like water. As if Gankutsuou's ascots weren't silly enough, in an early episode, Scythe picks up Ein from a job wearing a mask like the flamboyant judge from Monaco in Yakitate!! Japan. I laughed out loud.

Phantom takes itself dead seriously, but I was driven to MST3K this show, even while watching it alone. At least it's bad in a good sort of way; you could probably have fun laughing at Phantom with friends in the right mind set. (As long as no one says “shut up guys, I love this show”.)

Funimation has released the series in two parts, which makes sense. However, the break in the story between part one and part two occurs half-way through the second disc of part one. There's a very obvious season finale, then an episode that's 90% flashback, and then several episodes from season two! Why not just end the part one box where it would feel natural to end it? This seemed crazy, and it was like pouring salt in my wounds.

Funimation has provided some creative script changes to the dub to make the series a little less serious and a little more bearable. “Dead men can't answer questions, can they?” A character says in one scene, followed by “...a theory you can test,” as they shoot the dude. The extras are some dreadfully unfunny still picture drama shorts and puppet plays.

Every single aspect of this show seems like it has been done better elsewhere, or else done to death. Skip this and just rent The Professional or a John Woo movie instead.[TOP]

Fortunately, Char the Red Comet hasn't been done to death quite yet. Gundam Unicorn Part 2: The Second Coming of Char held my attention.

Once a friend of mine borrowed Why We Fight from the library, (in a strange personal mission to rank movies in top ten lists by year… but that is another story). Part two of Gundam Unicorn is certainly the “Why We Fight” part of the story.

In Gundam Unicorn, the Earth Forces are fighting the Neo Zeon forces for something called Laplace's Box. No one knows what is in this box, but somehow the world economy can be swayed by the contents. How could a mystery box be worth dying for? Laplace's Box seems totally ridiculous to me. (Oh well, I heard that the Trojan War was actually about shipping routes in the Mediterranean and not fought over Helen of Troy.) In any case, Banagher gets to hear the story told from different perspectives when he meets some members of Neo Zeon. I found all of the lecture-y scenes a little boring, but I still think this set is worth owning for a couple of reasons.

First, there's an excellent scene between Banagher and the new Char character, who is called “Full Frontal” in UC (my inner 13-year-old couldn't stop laughing at his name – or his haircut). Frontal invites Banagher for tea, and acts like a perfect gentleman. Meanwhile, Frontal's right hand officer Angelo Sauper is freaking out the entire time. Banagher isn't being respectful enough in Sauper's opinion. This scene is great, in part because it would be totally boring if Banagher was just drinking tea while Frontal gave a pretty speech. Sauper fuming the entire time adds a lot of drama, and Banagher's reaction is important character development. Perhaps more importantly, this scene alone may have leveled up my inner fujoshi. It's difficult to describe why I found this one scene so memorable. I suppose I could say it was as if I could hear the pens of female doujinshi artists catching on fire as I watched it.

Michael Sinterniklaas plays Sauper in the dub. In an earlier, calmer scene dubbed Sauper sounds a little like Dean Venture, but in the aforementioned scene of awesomeness, Sinterniklaas gives a great performance that helps develop Sauper as a character. It also looks like Sinterniklaas was heavily involved in re-writing and directing the dub.

Part one of UC may have had more action, but part two is chock full of little details, like the Sauper scene above, that paint the characters. A hostage negotiation early on brings out stripes of Audrey's character that we haven't seen before. During much of the episode, a fat bureaucrat is humorously floating around the ship, bellowing annoying orders. I found his useless floating endlessly amusing (but not sinister, like Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch's Dune.) Captain Midas can't deal with the bureaucrat and humorously takes care out his rage in the elevator.

The visuals are still stunning. The animation of these memorable characters is handled with a wonderfully expressive level of detail.

The dub script is very loyal to the subtitles without being word-for-word the same. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the Blu-Ray live features to work. I'm not sure if it's a problem on my end. The "loading" screen just seemed to spin on forever, until eventually I gave up.[TOP]

I wonder how long it will take before I might begin to claim I'm a Gundam fan. It seems as if whenever non-Gundam fans start talking about Gundam, they immediately begin with the preface, “I'm not a Gundam fan,” and then follow up with a long list of all the Gundam series they've seen, such as, "I've only seen Wing, and part of G-Gundam, and Char's Counter Attack and War in the Pocket…". I do the same thing… How do you know when you've crossed that line?

This week's shelves are from Zachary McJessy, of Columbus OH.

"Hi! I have been collecting anime since early 2008 when I was in my second year of high school. When I last counted, my collection ended up coming down to 400+ DVDs and 100+ manga volumes (some of which sadly are not in the pics. T_T) My most prized box set is my Evangelion box set that was signed by Tiffany Grant. Sadly, I had to pack my anime and manga up in a couple boxes and keep them in storage because I'm in Army Training right now for my job. I will eventually get back to collecting anime once I finally get enough space. XD"

Nice shelves!

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