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Shelf Life
TO For One

by Bamboo Dong,

Erin's gone for the week, so I'm stepping in! I'll also be heading to Anime Expo this upcoming weekend, so if you see me around, please say hi! We can brainstorm some survival tactics for the inevitable rise of zombies.

Having watched zombie films and TV shows for a good chunk of my life, I like to think that in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I would come out on top. With the exception of the super fast 28 Days Later running zombies, the slow ones seem like an enemy that can easily be one-upped by some cunning and not being a total dumb-ass.

How is it that in zombie shows, people are still confused by them? Have the characters themselves never seen a zombie movie? Even in High School of the Dead, the basketball-breasted school nurse idly comments in the dub, “This reminds me of that George Romero film I saw…” I'm not sure that's the exact quote, but she definitely referenced Romero. Which means that she should be aware enough of what zombies are to know that 1) hit them in the head 2) if your friend gets bitten by a zombie, don't wait for him to wake up. And 3) for goodness sake, don't make a bunch of noise (refer to “don't be a total dumb-ass”).

To the characters' credit, by the end of the second episode, they are pretty much zombie-killing warriors. These kids are riding motorcycles like pros, making head shots like government super soldiers, and kung fu fighting like Jaden Smith. Some of you Debbie Downers out there might cry foul and say, “That's unrealistic! They're just kids!” But in this escapist testosterone fantasy, their zombie-busting know-how is the coolest thing about this show. Everybody knows that the most irritating part about apocalyptic survival shows is that one whiny damsel in distress that gets everyone in trouble, or cries all the way home about how she can't take a shower or whatever. This show has none of that. Seriously, I don't know what kind of after school activities this high school has, but I would pick all of these kids for my intramural zombie-killing team first.

High School of the Dead wastes no time getting into the action. The first five minutes tries to set up some personal relationships between a few of the kids, but then the writers basically said, “Screw this!” and start in on the good stuff. One second, one of the guys is chilling out on the stairwell, and the next, he sees a teacher get turned into a zombie. Within ten minutes, the outbreak has overrun the school and now him and a handful of his classmates are on the run. The main action pauses every now and again to show some of the human drama side of things—people rioting against the authorities for the right to cross a bridge, the clash between civilians and military, and conspiracy theorists blaming Americans for the whole thing (obviously)—but this is pretty much non-stop mano-a-zombo.

Oh, and fanservice. I don't want to make a big deal about the fanservice, so I'll make this brief. Yes, there is fanservice. There's actually half an episode devoted to naked girls splashing each other with bath water, and writhing around for some male attention. There's even this one scene where some guy squeezes a girl's breast so hard that I was really terrified the thing would pop. But unless you're a prude, it's not a big deal. Look, there are already teenagers running around stabbing zombies with metal poles and shooting them with ARs. Let them have their bathtub fun too. Plus it's worth mentioning that, despite what the creators might have wanted, the fanservice is kind of gross. These are breasts from another dimension that make strange slurping noises when they bounce. There was one scene where the nurse was hugging one of her breasts so tightly that it looked like she had three breasts, and I almost turned away to throw up.

At the end of the day, High School of the Dead makes for good disposable entertainment. I would never watch it again, because I don't think it really has any replay value, but it's a nice off-switch for your brain after a long week at work. If I were a teenage boy, this would be the greatest escapist fantasy ever. I watched the whole series in one go because I couldn't stop. Is it a masterpiece? Of course not. Is it fun? Yes. And sometimes that's all you need.[TOP]

For a total 180, I decided to pop in TO next, an OVA two-fer by Ping Pong director Fumihiko Sori. Its snail-like pace was pretty harsh after my zombie spree, but it turned out to be worth it.

In the genre divide between fantasy and science fiction, I've always preferred science fiction. I like watching man's eternal struggle with nature, and its never-ending quest to tame it with science. It's fantasy, with humans as the bottleneck. You can only explore a far-off place if you've figured out a way to get there first. You can only use power if you've found a way to harness it.

Fumihiko Sori's TO is the kind of slow-burning science fiction that harkens back to the day of 50s-era storytelling, where half the wonder is in watching details unfold. It reminded me of Asimov's earliest pulp adventures, which would spend six pages slowly setting up a scenario, then throw a punch on the last page that hit as hard as a full-length novel, because it took the time to make sure readers really cared. This is best illustrated in Elliptical Orbit, the first of the two short films in the TO collection. It spends long, patience-trying minutes on slow (albeit gorgeous) shots of spaceships drifting through space, and lingering stares between characters that seem to last for hours. But even though this eventually gives way to a terrorist plot and a dash to save a moon colony, it saves its emotional zing for the last two minutes.

Of the two shorts, Elliptical Orbit is my favorite, for those two minutes alone. It's a poignant reveal that I don't want to spoil, but it makes the entire film worth it. Without the last few parting shots, the story would still be interesting, but it wouldn't have really meant anything. Basically, in the far distant future, the captain of a ship helps repair a large mining vessel called the Flying Dutchman, which appears every 15 years or so on its long trek back and forth from Alpha Centauri. This time, it's loaded with an energy source that can sustain Earth for at least a decade. However, evil music plays, and we're soon introduced to an African terrorist group that's angry that money and resources are being diverted to space colonies, even while humans are starving on Earth. It's a fairly standard story of human conflict and bravado, but, like I said earlier, it's the last two minutes that really make this story stick.

The second film, Symbiotic Planet, tells the story of two competing international space colonies that are locked in a dispute over water rights on a still yet uninhabited planet. Part love story, part fable about nature's triumph over mankind, it's a charming film, but in my opinion lacks the heartache of the first.

What's fascinating about TO is the timeless and relevant nature of its stories. Based on two shorts from Yokinobu Hoshino's manga space epic, 2001 Nights, both movies feel like they could've been written just this year, with issues that are hot in the news like depleting resources and environmental damage. But considering the manga was published in the 80s, it kind of makes you step back and think about how many years we've been battling the same things.

Of course it's not possible to talk about TO without mentioning the visuals. Mixing CGI and motion capture, the film makes excellent use of technology to render gorgeous backgrounds and mechanical details. For machine geeks, there's plenty to gawk at. No effort was spared on the spaceships and the spacesuits. You can see rust spots on the underside of the ships, patches where paint has flaked off, welding lines where different sheets of metal were used on the hull. The robotic space arms have hinges held together by finely drawn screws. Seriously, this is one good-looking anime. This is especially true on the Blu-Ray, which actually allows viewers to see the fine black lines that make up the detail work. Sadly, a lot of nuances are lost on the DVDs, from the multi-colored spackling in the comet tails, to the lines that separate the characters and the backgrounds. Because of the loss of contrast, at least on my PS3, there's a subtle halo around the characters where lines were lost.

I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of the motion capture. It's good for some things—the technique allows for tiny touches that you wouldn't normally think about. For instance, when characters are standing still, they still shift their weight. And of course, the shading is more fluid and realistic. But because of that, other aspects look goofy in comparison, like the putty-like hair. Just the fact that the characters don't look real makes me feel uncomfortable, like I can't tell if they're moving in a true human-like manner or not. It's extremely distracting. For a good part of the OVA, I kept being reminded of those terrible Charles Schwab commercials, where the cel-shaded folk are incredulous about retirement vineyards.

I'm going to be brutally honest here—TO is beautiful and deliberate, but it's also pretty boring. This is one of those late-night, dim lights, introspective picks that you pop in when you're mentally prepared to sit back and contemplate mankind's blip in the universe. There's a lot of big ideas packed into these two short movies, but it's worth it, if you have the patience to get through them. However, I would recommend popping in the Blus if you have a player, because otherwise, you're missing out on some masterful art.[TOP]

In keeping with the sci-fi theme, I got a chance to check out the recent Blu-Ray release of the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Laughing Man OVA. For fans who were around several years back, Stand Alone Complex was originally released as a 26-episode series, comprised of “stand alone” one-shots, and a more intricate story arc revolving around The Laughing Man. A few years later, those episodes were culled together and remixed into an OVA simply titled The Laughing Man. Now, both that, the second season compilation (The Individual Eleven), and the made-for-TV film (Solid State Society) are out on Blu-Ray from Manga. It's a good thing, too. The video is crisp, and the colors are vibrant.

Of course, whether or not the compilation itself is a good thing is up for minor debate. Arguably, The Laughing Man arc was the best part about the first season of Stand Alone Complex. Not only was the ongoing mystery behind the identity of the hacker unpredictable and thrilling, but the series raised a lot of interesting questions about the path of technology and the unreliabilty of digital data. Without the standalone episodes, though, some of those themes are dampened, making the OVA feel like more of a straight thriller. The pacing also feels a bit more rushed, so that by the time Aoi is introduced, it's not as much of an “a-ha!”

One of the greatest features of this Blu-Ray is actually on the Extras. Called the “Stand Alone Complex Archives,” it's a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this compilation, structured around an interview with director Kenji Kamiyama by Atsuko Tanaka, who plays the voice of Major Kusanagi. The interview not only goes through some of the thought processes behind making the compilation, but also shows archive footage of studio time and press events, like the original press conference for the announcement of Stand Alone Complex. Kamiyama says early on that when he was directing the series, he was very serious throughout the project, not only because it was his first TV series, but also because he wanted to do the original film justice. From the OVA, which was also cut by Kamiyama, you can tell that there's a levity to the work now, and there are scenes that were left in which give the OVA the occasional pep.

There's one scene in particular (originally from episode 15) where the Tachikomas are sitting around chatting with each other. They're excited that they may be asked to participate in tasks other than the ones they're programmed to do. While they talk about becoming self-sufficient and independent, the one book-loving Tachikoma nestled in the back solemnly tells a friend that he's reading Flowers for Algernon. In the greater scheme of the OVA, this scene sticks out a bit, but it works with the theme, and it lends the movie some lightness.

Although I think I like the Stand Alone Complex series better, if I were in the mood for some Laughing Man, I would still likely opt for this OVA. I do bemoan its relative shallowness in comparison to the careful scripting and pacing of the series, but when it comes down to it, its shorter runtime is a lot easier to swallow than the 26-episode marathon of the original. And of course, the manageable runtime also makes it a better candidate to lend out to friends, who might not have the patience or time for a 13-hour commitment. Though if anything, watching this just makes me want to pull out my old copy of Nine Stories again.[TOP]

Dear readers, thank you for reading this column. As always, it's an honor and a pleasure to write this. I hope you'll indulge me for three brief paragraphs, for something that I've been thinking about for the past few months.

In March, I went to Chicago for the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. I had a good time, but one story in particular stood out that weekend, and will forever be remembered. And it didn't even happen at the convention. As I wrote back in March, my wallet and cell phone were stolen at dinner, and what ensued was a chase down the streets of Chicago after some heroin addicts, in a successful attempt to retrieve my things.

Of the friends I was with, who valiantly abandoned all caution and helped me in my time of need, one was the brave, funny, and compassionate Brad King. Even in the few hours I knew him, he lit up every room he was in, and when the chase happened, he was the first one to have my back. The kindness of strangers is often what makes this world turn, and I looked forward to spending more time with him for years to come. I was deeply saddened to learn a couple months later that he passed away in May, at the young age of 32. Few people have made such an immense impact on my life in as short of a time as Brad. I can only imagine how profoundly he touched those around him, who had the fortune of spending more time with him than I did.

As a huge fan of comic books, Brad was a supporter of the Hero Initiative, a charity that helps older comic book creators without insurance deal with their medical bills, and get back on their feet. I guess it's fitting that a fan of superhero comics would himself be so heroic, both to the people around him, and in the support that he gave others. I'm not asking that anyone donate money. I ask only that the next time you feel cynical about the world around you, to remember that there are heroes all around us, who do nice things simply because they can. If you have some spare time, check out the Hero Initiative, or stop by their booth at your next comic book convention. Brad's memorial page can be viewed here.

This week's shelves are from Paddy:

"Hey I'm Paddy and I have been collecting this junk for a good few years now. I don't have a "Big" collection compared to some people but I'm proud of what I have. My most loved piece would be my Assassin's Creed Brotherhood poster that I stole from work Muhahaha."

I appreciate that the email was entitled "Attack of the Posters." That should also be the name of a thriller about forum users. I'd pay $12 to see that.

Want to show off your shelves? Send your jpgs to [email protected]. Thanks!

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