Shelf Life
Ray's Anatomy

by Erin Finnegan,

I'm not a Black Jack superfan like Ada Palmer, but I do count Black Jack among my favorite manga series of all time. I'm two volumes away from completing my reading of Vertical's edition of the series, and now that I think about it, it's one of the very few manga series I've read to completion.

I'd heard that Ray was somehow related to Black Jack, but I never really got around to watching it until this week. I was surprised that Black Jack actually makes a few cameos in the show and even has some dialog. Nevertheless, even Black Jack appearances couldn't bump such weak animation up to Shelf Worthy.

Ray lost her eyes to a black market organ dealer, and as the story opens, Black Jack gives Ray brand new eyes with surgery super powers. As a young doctor, Ray is able to see inside people, through their skin and everything, down to almost a cellular level, making her the greatest surgeon in the world (second only to Black Jack, I presume).

Ray's would-be boyfriend Shinoyama is a genius who creates the best artificial organs in the world, and together they work in… a freaky combat hospital with kung-fu nurses and some kind of fighting pirate dude? I'm serious. It's never clear from the anime series what the deal is with this hospital. Why do they only hire badasses? Is it in a really bad neighborhood?

Anyhow, most of the stories are one-off surgeries of freaky illnesses, akin to the one-off nature of Black Jack chapters. The final five episodes are reserved for a long arc exploring Ray's past. Why was she raised in a white room with other kids dressed all in white? Who is the mysterious Mr. H who sold her eyes? The truth proves to be some satisfying near-future sci-fi drama.

Or, it would be more satisfying, but the animation stinks, especially towards the end. This is a high concept show with a low, low budget. The characters have plain designs, the backgrounds are generic, and the action sequences are far from impressive. The pirate doctor spinning on his peg leg looks particularly hokey. The murky appearance reminded me of the more recent unimpressive series Glass Maiden (which I reviewed here).

Too much time is spent on an uninteresting love rival, Sumire, honing in on Ray's territory by hitting on Shinoyama. The show wastes time on love rivals when it could be exploring meaty questions of medical ethics instead. For example, Shinoyama installs a GPS into an artificial organ implanted in Sumire without telling her, and when she finds out, he says that the organ is his property and he should be able to track it. Rather than getting upset or thinking about the larger implications, Sumire decides she's cool with that. I yelled at the TV. What a great opportunity to explore a theme!

The series has an interesting premise and weak execution. In this minimal release from “Maiden Japan” there is no dub and there are no extras. I purchased it in a recent Right Stuf sale, and I still think I paid too much for it ($30), but if you dug this out of a bargain bin for less than $5, you might get your money's worth.[TOP]

Fortunately everything else I watched this week had better visuals, including everyone's favorite anime about art school, Hidamari Sketch. No wait, my favorite anime about art school is Honey and Clover...

After season one of Hidamari Sketch (and a single volume of the manga) I skipped the next two seasons (this went on for three seasons?!) and went straight to this special, Hidamari Sketch × SP, because (again) it was on sale. Sure, I didn't know Nazuna or the other new characters, but I don't feel like I missed much skipping straight to this point.

At the risk of being accused of schizophrenic incoherent rambling again, I'd like to think of Hidarmari Sketch as a kind of manatee of the anime world (“Get a job, sea cow!”). It's so cute and harmless and bloated (in episode count). It couldn't hurt a fly. I could no more hate a manatee than I could hate Hidamari Sketch.

And yet, and YET, even though this series is supposed to be relaxing, the lack of conflict actually makes me feel anxious. In this scant two episode OVA the girls clean their curtains, have a pajama party, and most significantly, visit an art museum. “Maybe some day one of our works will be up there on the walls,” one girls muses (an indirect quote). That certainly is fanciful thinking, but I once interviewed a Japanese fine artist who moved from Tokyo to New York because the Tokyo gallery scene was nearly impossible to break into. Perhaps, with the exception of the best-selling author, these girls should be intensely worried about life after graduation. Instead, the girls of Hidamari Sketch sigh whimsically about the serene atmosphere of the art gallery. If they were real art students I'd like to think they would question gallery space and study performance art (like the works of Marina Abramovic).

Admittedly, this analysis deliberately misses the point of the show. Hidarmari Sketch isn't about reality. Maybe I just can't relax long enough watch teenage girls stomp dirt out of their curtains in an inflatable children's swimming pool. I would much rather watch the art school students in Honey and Clover freak out over the decade long recession any day of the week.

At the very least, I am able to appreciate Hidamari Sketch for its myriad color cards – you know the still artwork that sometimes appears behind a character in close-up instead of a background? It's a time-worn animation money saving technique. The color cards in Hidamari Sketch are often artistically quite creative, and appealing from a graphic design standpoint.

The opening credit sequence has a lot of detailed animation that's probably worth all $9 for this release if you're a fan of this show. However, for my money, the lyrics to the opening song were killing brain cells on a level only matched by huffing paint (not that I'd know).[TOP]

Similarly Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is very well animated, but primarily for existing fans of the franchise.

If you're a Fate/stay night fan, I bet you've already bought this movie and wet your pants over how good it is. There's no need to keep reading this review if you already love this franchise and this film. Your Blu-ray purchase is 100% justified. However, for those of you who are merely Fate/stay curious, Fate/stay agnostic, or Fate/stay neutral, this is more of a rental.

This movie is so confusing that I wound up feeling like a parent recruited into taking a group of kids to see the Yu-Gi-Oh! movie with little to no prior knowledge of Yu-Gi-Oh!. (Note: the opposite was true in real life, where I saw the Yu-Gi-Oh! movie in a theater with the Metro Anime Club and enjoyed the film.) Maybe you kids understood what was going on here, but I had a hard time making heads or tails of Unlimited Blade Works. Don't get me wrong, I watched about half of the Fate/stay night TV series several years ago, so I wasn't totally unfamiliar with the franchise. I tried really hard, but the TV series broke me. Every time the characters started drinking tea and talking about the plot I hit fast forward. Eventually I gave up on the show entirely and skipped ahead to the last episode to find out who all the epic heroes were.

The TV series was so low budget that sitting around and talking was an obvious money saving device. Unlimited Blade Works is starkly the opposite, with a high budget and all fighting with (almost) no tea drinking at all. When the characters do take a break from fighting to talk, the still images are given a lot of extra lighting effects to make them look classier.

And the fights are good fights with some very nice character animation. That said, even though the characters often monologue about why they're fighting as they fight, and frequently shout their motives at each other, I could not begin to tell you what those motives were. Basically, I would fail a pop quiz on this movie. I mean, OK, everyone is fighting over the Holy Grail, which grants a wish and gives you unlimited power… but I'm kind of foggy on the details after that.

The movie gives a blitzkrieg recap of Shirou Emiya finding Saber, discovering he has powers, and then he and Saber are attacked by an elf-looking flying chick named Caster. Rich girl Rin (“It's not like I like you or anything”) Tohsaka is a spellcaster whose servant Archer has lost his memory. She gets kidnapped and Shirou has to fight Archer to save her. There's a lot of side-switching and command spells and betrayal along the way.

This is a terrible introduction to the Fate/stay night franchise, and I would be totally lost if I hadn't seen half of the TV series first. Apparently the film is an alternate re-telling of the story from the visual novel and the TV series, and you need some familiarity with both for it to make sense. I think that's dirty pool. Transmedia is best when it stands alone and can be enriched by additional sources. As is, this is a movie based on a TV series I didn't like retelling a game I'll never play.

Nevertheless, this has a sweet-ass dub, with the ridiculously deep-voiced Liam O'Brien as Archer. The dub script takes some liberties compared to the subtitles (“Why won't you stay dead?!” isn't in the subs,) but it never goes too far overboard.

Although I'm glad I watched this movie once for the sweet, sweet animation, I wouldn't rewatch it or loan it to friends. I liked Saber in the TV series, but if I'd never seen it I wouldn't like her in this film. Not to sound acrid, but perhaps this film's worst sin is making me feel old.

P.S. DVD credits are not a “Special Feature.”[TOP]

In fact, several years ago Noah and I were going to guest star on the Anime World Order podcast to review Fate/stay night, but in the end no one involved could finish watching the show and we gave up.

Oh, hey North Americans, have a happy July 4th, or I hope you already had a great Canada Day. (Mexican Independence Day isn't until September 16th.) I'll probably spend my holiday watching Tales from the Abyss parts three and four.

This week's collection is from Mike:

"I don't think I fit the normal anime/manga fan. I am about twice as old and have a pretty good job that lets me buy whatever I want. It is said that it is a fine line between a hobby and an obsession. I have pole vaulted over that line as you can see from the pictures. I started back in the early 90s when I picked up a VHS copy of Bubblegum Crisis and kept going from there."

Obsession is great! Obsession is fun!

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

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