Shelf Life
Pitch Men

by Erin Finnegan,

Last year I took my birthday off from Shelf Life, and I went to a wedding instead of Anime Boston that weekend. This year I'm soldiering on, and turning this column in on my birthday, despite some kind of freaky internet outage in my neighborhood.

I caught up on some streaming shows, like The Knight in the Area...

Normally I like sports anime, but this rapidly proved to be unworthy of my time. The first four episodes are soap opera fodder; Kakeru and his older brother Suguru used to play soccer together until Kakeru freaked out and quit over an incident involving his left leg. The accident sounds really minor when they finally explain it around episode three. It's not like Kakeru killed a man with his left foot and has a mental block (like Butter's traumatic tap dancing incident on South Park).

But that's not the soap opera part. The soap opera begins when a major character dies and becomes an organ donor to another character. It so happens that one of my good friends from college had just such an organ transplant, and he's certainly not playing soccer. (I wonder what he'd make of this show… ?) I think at the very least they gloss over the recovery time for such major surgery. That aside, I'm calling shenanigans on the way the accident happened; it was just too unbelievable.

If this were a higher budget show, maybe I could forgive more of the writing. As it is, watching this in 1080p did Knight no favors; the show reuses a shoddy CG grass texture in close-ups during the soccer games. The series also suffers from an Initial D problem, which is to say any time characters are not playing soccer, they look gross. I cringed to see Kakeru's little sister in an early episode; since she's never going to play soccer, she'll always be drawn badly (she's completely disappeared by episode eight). Further destroying the show's integrity, the music is generic synth work, with cheesy guitar peels during the soccer games, or worse, midi-remixes of the theme song.

I never played soccer as a kid (except in gym class) and I'm not a soccer fan, but I like to think I'm open-minded. I can't say I learned much about soccer watching this show. The knight analogy winds up over-used in the dialog. One player is the “king” of the field, and needs a striker to act as a knight to score goals. I still don't know what a center fullback does, but let's be sure to go over the knight metaphor one more time.

Nana, Kakeru and Suguru's childhood friend totally gets the short shrift all the way up through episode eight. She's established as a great soccer player, maybe even a better player than Kakeru, but she's relegated to being the team's manger. Even when Nana enters high school, she manages Kakeru's soccer club. Is there no girl's team? When a player in the first game dislocates his shoulder and they're down to 11 men, it's never an option that Nana could play. (Not even disguised as a boy? Obviously this isn't shojo.) Nana is mostly there to look slightly worried or surprised from the sidelines. Any romance hinted at early on is swept under the carpet right away. Things may change for her in episode nine, but I've already lost interest.

Between the low budget and the eye-rolling plot twists, this just isn't worth it. I think when it comes to manga, I want outrageous and unbelievable things to happen, but they have to be believable within the universe of the series. Somehow, a 1,200 year old ghost stuck in a Go board in Hikaru No Go is more believable than the twists in this show.[TOP]

On the other end of the production quality spectrum, I also watched Lagrange.

Lagrange - The Flower of Rin-ne had me a little worried before the first commercial break of episode one. There were one too many crotch shots for my money, even if they were, well, tastefully done. Thankfully, I stuck around anyway.

Before I wrote Shelf Life, I hadn't seen that many mech series, but now I've become more accustomed to the form. Right off the bat, I don't think Lagrange is as accessible as Gurren Lagann or Neon Genesis Evangelion to non-mech fans. We're tossed into the story a little too fast, with too many expectations on the part of the creators that you, the viewer, probably already know how this sort of thing works.

Madoka is a real home-town girl, living in Kamogawa, rescuing swimmers on her way to school. She encounters and winds up piloting a mech she nicknames Midori. “I'm supposed to save the world?!” She says, shocked, “I've never even been to Tokyo!” Magical-girl-style, she has a glowing mark on her hip that signifies her destiny as a pilot.

A lot the show has a composited-from-other shows feel to it. Finding a mech on a beach reminds me of Bokurano: Ours, the mech designs remind me of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars. The ice-princess blue colored second pilot, Lan, reminds me of Rei from Evangelion, while the third pilot, a girl with fluffy hair (and clothes) looks to me like a cross between Kiyoh Bachika and Nia from Gurren Lagann.

Madoka winds up involved in a war between alien worlds. Her cheerful determination and sporting spirit keeps the other two pilots on board. And don't get me wrong, I love that Madoka is athletic, and ties her bangs back in a tomboy-ish way.

The show vacillates between grim scenes and comic humor. For example, one episode cuts back and forth between orphans on a penal colony planet and a humorous incident where an eel vendor has left live eels in the school pool, with wacky results. That kind of sharp tonal shift is very Code Geass, where some episodes are about chasing cats and others are about brutal acts of terrorism. It's awfully jarring to watch. Am I the only person who's bothered by this sort of thing?

The big difference between this and other mech series seems to be the hometown feel; as Madoka battles an alien mech in one episode, she's careful to land in an empty lot she knows about instead of destroying someone's property. I bet a lot of the scenes were drawn using direct reference to Kamogawa, or that the crew took a research trip there. That seems trendy for animation productions lately (as in the Ga-Rei-Zero extras).

The saving grace of Lagrange in my eyes is the look of the show. Everything is beautifully pastel colored. The production values seem quite high, and no scenes stuck out too much as off model or cheap to me. It is nothing if not pretty. Some of the battle scenes are particularly nice.

I wouldn't have kept watching Lagrange after Madoka's cousin pantses her in the first episode, but I'm glad I stuck around, it seems to have more to offer… at least until episode eight, “A Lolita in Kamogawa” when Canary Yellow from Rainbow Brite shows up dressed as a gothic Lolita and makes reference to “scissoring” before laying down a lot of back story that implies Atlantis. (Atlantis is YET ANOTHER ONE of my pet peeves.) Did Lagrange just jump the shark?[TOP]

Someone would have to talk me in to finishing Lagrange, and I think someone would have to talk me into watching the rest of Rozen Maiden as well.

OK, so, to be perfectly honest, I haven't watched Rozen Maiden before, but I needed a short title to catch up on Shelf Life viewing, so this tiny two episode OVA, Ouverture, helped get me back on track.

Jun (a human boy in the present day) buys a brooch for Shinku (the series' iconic living doll), which causes Souseiseki (another doll) to launch into a giant prequel story about Shinku encountering a prototype Rozen Maiden in 19th century London, back when Shinku had a different owner.

Right off the bat I had a lot of questions about how Jun came to have all these dolls living at his house and why would he put up with Shinku being such a jerk, sometimes to the point of physical abuse. I'm sure those questions are answered in the series. I was also a bit lost when it came to the Rozen Maidens' “Alice Game,” but I was willing to roll with it. I guess they were born to fight, like Sekirei, Pokemon and the Highlander.

I was immediately struck with how well drawn this is. The dolls all have extremely elaborate costumes that are on model the entire time. The more lines on a characters costume the harder they are to animate, so I was impressed that even as the dolls fought, they kept looking exquisite. All of the iconic 1880's London backgrounds also have a lot of detail, on par with Victorian Romance Emma.

And so it was that perhaps because the dolls are so well drawn, with exact human-like proportions at 1/3 the size of normal humans, that any shot with humans and dolls on screen simultaneously freaked me out. It's creepy, to the point where I couldn't stop thinking about the Child's Play movie franchise. I may have screamed at Jun to run for it. Fans of the series are probably accustomed to it, but two episodes wasn't enough for me to get used to freakish scale of the Rozen Maidens.

The dub is acceptable, with the exception of one minor maid character in England whose actress is not taking this seriously (like in the Guin Saga dub). At least it's just one actress here. There aren't any extras.

That aside, this OVA works well enough. Sugintou is a believable villainess with a good motivation for being crazy. I felt more sympathetic to Shinku before it was over. You get a complete story. I'd pick this up on sale if I was more predisposed to the original series. It's probably not the best introduction to the show for newbies like me, but it didn't turn me away from the series either.[TOP]

That's all for now. Next week I'll finally catch up with the rest of the anime fan universe by watching the first volume of Madoka Magica.

These shelves are from Jesse:

"Hey, just wanted to add my collection to the shelf life archives. I've been collecting anime since 2001 when I got into Outlaw Star and Cowboy BeBop on cartoon network back in the day (which was a Tuesday). My collection really started to take off in 2004 when I joined the Marines (sounds silly but you'd be amazed how boring barracks life can be). I started collecting figures slowly from the start (back in '01). I'd pick up a Faye Valentine from Suncoast or some Dragon Ball Z figures from Toys 'R Us but it wasn't until I discovered online shops that it really started expanding like crazy and now I'm running out of room o0. I've recently gotten into gunpla and especially enjoy the SD Gundam models :) Thanks for looking!"

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