Shelf Life
Basketball Diaries

by Erin Finnegan, Jun 18th 2012

This column usually comes out on Monday, so I'm writing to you from the past. For me, it's a fabulous Saturday with perfect weather (75 and sunny). I've just spent the morning indoors, at a movie theater, watching old American cartoons at a screening called “Spoons, Toons and Booze” at a local theater. The audience got to vote on what we'd watch next while munching on cereal and sipping brunch cocktails. As part of the programming, they played a Mister T cartoon show from the early 1980's that I'd never seen before.

In it, Mr. T coaches a mystery-solving gymnastics team, which somehow seems incredibly unlikely. The episode I watched was more about teen sleuth hijinx than competing in sports… and I'd bet the rest of the series is basically nothing like sports anime.

Speaking of which: in theory, I like sports anime, but it's more accurate to say I like sports anime formulas applied to non-sports titles (like Glass Mask or Swan). This week I watched a straight-up sports show, Kuroko's Basketball.

I didn't find Kuroko's Basketball compelling until episode nine, but episodes nine and ten did have me hooked and wanting more. Unfortunately, that means I can't recommend 80% of the series so far. In theory, if Kuroko's Basketball continues to 50 episodes, then the not-so-great beginning will be only 16% of an overall good show. Nevertheless, if this were the volume one DVD, I'd give it a Rental, (remember my chart? Streamworthy vs. Flushable is a binary choice).

My biggest problem with this show is that although it looks realistic, the characters have “talents” that are nothing more than anime tropes from other series. Title character Kuroko the freshman lacks presence (people forget he's there), and we've seen that archetype before in shows as recent as Ōkami-san & Her Seven Companions. Later, Ryōta Kise has the sharingan eye from Naruto (well, not literally), as he's able to copy any move someone else makes (except Kuroko). The very superstitious Midorima tapes his left hand until game time, which reminded me of Captain Kuro from One Piece, who always wears a glove (but for different reasons).

Being nearly invisible works well for Kuroko as a supporting basketball player, as he's able to sneak away from his point guards and make great passes to other players using sleight-of-hand techniques. It's interesting that Kuroko is the main character instead of Taiga Kagami, a tall, hot-headed freshman basketball prodigy who's spent some time in America. Together Kuroko and Kagami make an unstoppable force on the court. Kuroko has a hard time scoring, but he's always ready to give Kagami an alley-oop.

Seirin High aims to win Nationals, and the show wastes no time getting there, giving us a single practice game before preliminaries begin. One loss and Seirin is out of the Tokyo Tournament. (That's totally different than a high school basketball season in the U.S! Although it might vary by state.)

Production values are the high point of this show. Unlike the chintzy, sometimes cheap-looking A Knight in the Area, Production I.G uses money well-spent on CG basketball hoops and realistic gym floors. The character animation is also nothing to sneeze at, especially during key moments of important games.

This show is dead serious nearly all the time, which works in its favor. Sure, Kagami eats a giant pile of hamburgers (like J. Wellington Wimpy) in many early episodes, but there are very few SD moments. Some fun is had with Coach Riko (a female student at Seirin), but 98% of the time, she's intensely focused. I also enjoy that Riko is a girl who's not the team's manager, nor is she there to be anyone's intensely concerned love interest. Riko's true love is basketball strategy, and she's a believably level-headed coach.

So why didn't I like this series more? Early on, the show lacks cliffhangers. I was almost never drawn from one episode into the next. That, and the team's win ratio is very high. After episode six, if they lose a game they're out of the tournament, which, one presumes, would mean the end of the series. It's not a matter of “Will our heroes win this game?” so much as “How will they win this game?” which is slightly less compelling.

The first seven episodes focus so much on Kuroko and Kagami that we don't get much of a chance to meet the rest of the team. One reason I liked episode eight was that finally some of the upperclassman get to have personalities. Although Kuroko is the main character, he's so cold it's impossible to attach to him emotionally. Kagami as a hot-head to Kuroko's cool makes them into a cheesy fire-and-ice pair, with hair color to match.

I don't think you could start at episode eight or nine and still get the suspense of later games, but episodes one through seven didn't seem worth it to me.[TOP]

Afterwards, I kicked it old school by watching The Fantastic Adventures of Unico.

There are two feature length Unico movies, The Fantastic Adventures of Unico and Unico in the Island of Magic (both came out from Discotek Media last month). Neither is to be confused with The Last Unicorn (which you may also remember from your childhood).

Unico is a baby unicorn, born with the ability to make anyone he meets happy. The gods, believing they alone should have the power to control the world's happiness¹, send the West Wind to abduct Unico and strand him on the Hill of Oblivion(!). The West Wind takes pity on Unico and hides him on a tiny island at the ends of the Earth, an island so isolated that the only occupants are a demon of solitude and his child.

The first third of the film covers Unico's friendship with devil child Beezle (or Akuma-kun in the dub). The second third covers Unico's adventures with Katy (or Chao), an uppity kitten who wants to meet a real witch. The final third covers Katy's mix-up with an evil Baron who looks like a bad guy from Rose of Versailles.

If I didn't look up the year, I'd have guessed this movie was from 1971 rather than 1981. Tezuka's character designs look like a throwback to the 1976 manga - or even earlier. The musical format also seems to date the movie into a slightly earlier period. Fortunately, there aren't too many songs, and they aren't that annoying, but they do seem shoe-horned in to a non-musical. The songs are dubbed, as you might expect from a children's film, and only the end credit song goes undubbed.

This movie might be Shelf Worthy for only two groups of people. First, if you're very nostalgic for the film, I'd definitely pick it up. Second, if you're a student of character animation you might want to own this. There is a lot of actual animation as characters transition between an extraordinary number of silly poses per minute of screen time. It's the polar opposite of anime's usual “limited animation.” There are also elaborately drawn ocean waves and other effects.

I got my money's worth out of the final fight scene, which features a huge demon straight out of “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia as Unico and pals run through a forest fire lifted from Bambi. The forest floor crumbling into lava raises the stakes higher than I thought was possible in an almost-musical about a cute baby unicorn.

This is worth watching once if you're into anime history, but I can't particularly see re-watching it unless I was babysitting. If I was in the mood for old school anime features, I'd watch Animal Treasure Island again before re-watching Unico (and I say this despite being a fan of both the current and historical My Little Pony series.).[TOP]

Having had enough cute for one week, I decided to watch something a little darker.

Back in 2003, you could count on seeing one or two Boogiepop cosplayers at a convention. If you're new to anime, you might never have had the pleasure of watching Boogiepop Phantom, in which case, I heartily endorse this affordable re-release.

Boogiepop is its own genre of mood-horror-scifi, a sort of stylistic double feature with Serial Experiments Lain. Whereas so much anime is bright and colorful, Boogiepop limits itself to a brown-gray color palette shot through a foggy vignette filter, as if you're watching the series on a very old TV with almost a fisheye-round screen. The characters are all dowdy and realistic, in contrast to the average anime series' cute girls of fantasy.

The episodes take place out of order, across an ensemble cast of characters who connect within the timeline in ways I'm still not entirely clear about, even after seeing the whole series twice. Each episode focuses on a different teenager with severe (and often depressing) problems. Moto is obsessed with her estranged best friend's ex-boyfriend; Saki's music tutor rejects her, saying she has no future; a character called Poom Poom from a girl's short stories has come to life and is acting as a Pied Piper-like figure in an abandoned theme park. At the heart of each story the costumed “hero” the Boogiepop Phantom appears, and the Boogiepop's identity isn't just a secret, it's totally convoluted.

The true horror of this series doesn't come from the occasional alien-looking monster or gory death. The scarier horror of Boogiepop Phantom comes from scenes of everyday life. Moto sanitizes her bedroom door handle with a frightening number of handi-wipes before wiping one of her hands raw with sanitizer. At the end of one episode, the twist that someone has been body-snatched by a monster is less shocking than a girl's confession that she doesn't mind if her crush kills her. (“It's ok… it's alright if you do it.” How messed up is that?)

Christopher Macdonald was right in his 2001 review that this is some of the best sound design in any anime series, and he's still right eleven years later. The atmospheric hum of power lines still creeps me out in this show. Everyday crosswalk music is remixed into an unsettling song, to the point where I was unnerved to hear real life crosswalks playing the same song in Japan (I thought it was something Boogiepop Phantom and Lain made up).

I don't generally like things that are unrelentingly depressing or too scary, and Boogiepop Phantom hits a good middle ground for me. It's more moody and thoughtful than grim and terrifying.

I don't think the dub holds up by today's standards, but it isn't a dub from the bad old days either. Crispin Freeman's performance still sounds eerie and effective.

I reviewed the book Boogiepop and Others back in 2007, although I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Seeing the series first didn't help me understand the book either, and vise versa.

That is to say, I understand the themes of Boogiepop Phantom without being able to follow the finer details of the plot. Watching the commentary track started to clear a few things up. I can't emphasize enough that Boogiepop is a show I trust completely even though it's confusing; there's an internal logic there that's done with an expert hand. I love it when the shows I watch are more clever than I am.[TOP]

I'll see you guys next week with part 3 of Madoka Magica.

¹ Raising some serious theological questions.

This week's shelves are from Eugen, who is slowly starting to realize how detrimental this hobby is to one's finances.

"I started collecting manga about 4 years ago. Sure, I don't have the largest collection, but I make it a point to only buy the ones I absolutely adore. As you can see in the pictures, all of them are inside their own manga bag. To be honest, I haven't really opened any of them, as I've already read them, but I just love having them on my shelf to look at. Weird, I know, but just looking at it makes me feel better. I have a few imports too, even though I can't read japanese that well. Still, they are my prized possessions, and I don't think they will ever get licensed (Well, one of them actually did). I am extremely sad about the left side of my top shelf, as those three series (Future Diary, Kannagi and Seikon no Qwaser) are now discontinued. Doubly sad for Future Diary since it was so close. The bottom left is filled with "manga" not made in Japan, but I loved them so much I bought them. Make no mistake, they are quite good. I have no bought any figurines because if I start doing that, my wallet will commit suicide."


Nice shelves!

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


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