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Shelf Life
Season Finale

I have good news and bad news! (Which is which depends on you.) This will be my final Shelf Life column, as I've decided to step down. Bamboo will retake the column next week! (The Stream isn't going away, but Bamboo will tell you all about that next week.)

It's been very nearly three years now since my Shelf Life take-over. Shelf Life is a tremendous time commitment! I'm not sure how Bamboo did it for eight years. I probably spend on average 22-24 hours every week watching anime and writing about it, and although it's been tremendously rewarding, attending grad school part time, working full time, and writing Shelf Life has proven to be too much.

I've learned a lot writing Shelf Life; a lot about myself, about what it means to be an anime fan, about time management, and about writing. Having big discussions after each week's column is a lot more fun than a handful of blog comments, and it has meant more to me than getting paid to write about anime (although I certainly appreciate the money).

As a cautionary tale to younger readers, I'd like to mention that when I was a kid I wanted “to be a writer,” and although I've arguably achieved that dream, this isn't quite what I pictured. I've never paid my rent solely through my writing (for here or any other venue). I make a living working elsewhere (you can read my resume at erinfinnegan.com). Some of my friends have even published books this year, and despite my childhood image of “authors” all my published friends work other jobs. Writing has become a sort of hobby-job, and I have a lot of feelings about that…

But enough of my sentimental blathering! On with the show. Last week I watched Ergo Proxy.

I snobbily gave up on Ergo Proxy back in 2006. I thought it was too boring, too slow-moving, and trying too hard to be cool. Six years later I'm big enough to admit that I didn't give the show enough of a chance. Since writing Shelf Life I've seen so many lesser shows that now I can see that Ergo Proxy was, and still is, ahead of the pack… at least for the first 10 episodes.

Re-l Mayer lives in the domed city of Romdo, some time in the distant future. Re-l leads a life of privilege as the Regent of Romdo's granddaughter. She's accompanied wherever she goes by Iggy, her robot servant, as in this future there's a large and unpredictable underclass of robot workers and servants. All is not well in Romdo, as Re-l starts investigating a series of mysterious deaths. It seems there's a monster loose in the city.

But most of Ergo Proxy is not about Re-l. Instead we wind up following Vincent Law, an immigrant to the city with a mysterious religious pendant and little memory of his past. The series could almost be divided into thirds, where the first third is about Iggy and Re-l trying to solve a mystery, the second third about Vincents's journey with a robot “child” named Pino, and the last… well, that would be spoilers.

In my slightly wiser, older age (or perhaps, as the They Might Be Giants song goes “but I was young and foolish then / I feel old and foolish now,”) I've come to appreciate that Ergo Proxy is a show with ambition. It continually tests the limits of it's budget, and sometimes it falls short. After five or six episodes the money seems to have run out and there's some lacking character animation. After 10 or 12 episodes the focus has so changed that I started to wonder if the writers had any clear notion of where this was going from the outset. I didn't have patience for series that didn't live up to their promise when I was 25, but after watching a lot more anime (by age 33), I'm a lot more forgiving.

13 episodes in I started drawing comparisons to Casshern Sins and No. 6, (let's please forget Chrome Shelled Regios ever existed), since this a series about domed cities and robots turning religious and/or outliving humanity at the “end of the world”. But when did Ergo Proxy turn into, like, Towanaquon or Zetman? As soon as people start mutating into monsters or “the chosen one” comes up I start to mentally check-out a little.

Nevertheless, Ergo Proxy gets points for trying. It's certainly recommendable, especially early on. Since at one time it was on Adult Swim, it has a flashy dub. Travis Willingham makes a good Iggy (or the sound engineers made him so), and Rachel Hirschfeld is surprisingly not annoying as the precocious child in a post-apocalyptic setting (like in Six String Samurai). I also love the end theme by Radiohead.

If I were to loan Ergo Proxy to a friend, I'd advise them to stop watching whenever they felt fit. The ending isn't so great, and doesn't make the most sense. There are some serious writing problems and the themes from the beginning don't follow through to the end.

Ergo Proxy is may be a failed potential show like Fractale, but it has more episodes to shoot itself in the foot. Nevertheless, I'm on board for all the questions Ergo Proxy asks (for example, at what point can we consider a robot “alive?”), even if it fails to answer those questions.

I think it's worth mentioning that when the original Geneon volume one came out the SRP was about $30 for 100 minutes; this complete collection is about $40 for the whole series.[TOP]

Oblivion Island also looks flashy, and I'm not saying it fails to deliver, but this isn't a package I wanted, so to speak.

So My Neighbor Totoro is one of my favorite movies of all time, maybe even in the top three including live action movies, but after Oblivion Island and A Letter to Momo, I'm starting to wonder what kind of dying-parent legacy that Totoro has left in its wake.

In this all-CG film from Production I.G, teenage Haruka goes on a quest to find a hand mirror that's a memento of her dead mother. The mirror, it turns out, has been stolen by foxes, the magical inari of Japanese folklore. Haruka winds up pulled into the inari world, where items neglected by humans have been built into a massive patchwork city. Once a day or so, some rich jerk called “the Baron” flies overhead in his airship… so you basically know that Haruka is going to have to get to the airship at some point. She's aided in her quest by Teo, a young orphan fox who becomes her friend.

Those accustomed to anime standard plotlines will not find anything new in Oblivion Island; if you're wondering if all the characters come together in the end to help Haruka, rest assured they do. The film is predictable enough that from the outset it's obvious Haruka is probably going to make amends with her father. In that way, I supposed this is more of a children's film. Children might not yawn like I did at the predictable plot.

Kids today are probably also not as sick of mine car scenes as I am. Perhaps not everyone has watched the mine car ride in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as many times as I have, or watched the countless imitation mine rides in films, television and cartoons in the three decades since. Oblivion Island has a long mine car sequence as well, but, well, there's just nothing new here.

I suspect Oblivion Island is Japan's answer to Toy Story 3, and while admittedly Shelf Life has kept me busy enough I haven't actually seen Toy Story 3, I've been spoiled on it already. Partway into the film Haruka meets Cotton, a stuffed sheep toy she had as a child that has since turned up on Oblivion Island. Haruka saves Cotton in a very Toy Story 3 way, or so I'm lead to believe. However, if the ending of the film is a serious tear-jerker, it's not because of Cotton.

It is through Cotton that we learn that objects have memories. Not caring for your things in Japanese culture is a much bigger deal thanks to the Shinto religion. Bent sewing needles get funerals in the Shinto tradition, and if you leave an umbrella neglected for 100 years it becomes a yokai according to Japanese folk belief. As such, Oblivion Island seems totally reasonable.

This movie is more worthwhile for art than plot. The backgrounds are very nice, whether it's the forests around the shine in the beginning of the film or the patchwork quilt cityscape on the island. A friend I watched this with kept mentioning Kakurenbo - Hide & Seek, and indeed, this looks like a much more up-to-date and brightly colored city of the same. The character animation is cute, but it doesn't quite look as polished as the background.

The CG looks particularly good on Blu-ray, as one might expect. The dub is fine, without any stand-out memorable performances. There are a lot of Japanese extras, including voice actor events and a couple of uncomfortable TV spots for a charity in Sierra Leone.

I'm under the impression that this film was financially successful in Japan, and I can see why. It doesn't take many risks, and sticks to tight formula that will generally equal box office success. It doesn't sit well with me because I watch anime specifically to escape the traditional Hollywood formula. I also have this problem with princesses getting rescued, and although Haruka is not a princess, she does need to be rescued by Teo at one point. I think Pixar's Brave handled the princess-rescuing and parental reconciliation in a much more interesting and original way, without any parricide.[TOP]

Maybe watching the super-advanced technological, polished, high budget Oblivion Island back to back with This Boy Can Fight Aliens! was a mistake on my part…

I didn't know anything about this title going in, and a couple of things became clear in the first five minutes. First, this isn't really about aliens as much as feelings, and second, this was an independent work, probably produced by a single person. Skimming Theron's review, now I know the indy director in question is Soubi Yamamoto.

If you do plan to watch this, the first step is to leave all logic at the door. Young Arikawa is a government employee sent out to find the one boy who can fight aliens, since, you know, aliens are attacking. Arikawa finds amnesiac Kakashi almost immediately, and Kakashi spends the summer living at Arikawa's house, and fighting aliens, mostly off-screen. This isn't really about alien fighting, after all. It's about spending a summer eating watermelon and moping around the house with Arikawa and his commander Shiro.

Yamamoto has arranged the film to play to her strengths, and character animation and character design are not her strong points. Instead, she layers text on screen to get her point across, and uses a lot of dizzying moving-sky overlays. It's a clever and undoubtedly cost-effective use of 2D CG elements, but the end results just don't look terribly professional. If this was an animation in a student film festival, you might be impressed. Watching it on home video means you might feel ripped off.

I think a lot of anime fans confuse bad character designs with bad character animation. Here is an example of both. There are only three major characters, which saves money. The characters have a sloppy line quality akin to subpar yaoi doujinshi. The plotline is also kind of like reading a weak DMP yaoi. I was hoping for more aliens and less “bromance.” (Not that there's anything wrong with that. We all love Kids on the Slope, right?)

Ryohei Kimura's voice sounded so distinctly familiar I had to look him up later. Blake Shepard was not nearly as memorable in the same part as the dub, although I was left wondering why this was dubbed at all.

Three of Yamamoto's earlier works are also included on the disk and are dubbed as well as the main features. One of the shorts, “Robotica Robotics” has a shocking ending, but the other films are not memorable. There is an interview with the director, but it's text only.

I think TBCFA belongs more in a film festival than in your home video collection. I'm shocked it got dubbed, but I suspect this cost a miniscule amount, since the total running time is a scant 28 minutes. It was probably only pennies to acquire and distribute the title as well. Don't be fooled.[TOP]

If you've enjoyed reading my take on Shelf Life, please look forward to my future projects online. In addition, I continue to keep on writing for the print edition of Otaku USA magazine. Next year I hope to start an autobio webcomic, and I plan to continue podcasting at ninjaconsultant.com (which might be down right now for maintenance). I'm @erinf on twitter, and my homepage is erinfinnegan.com, so look for announcements there. My grad school website will be here, although the blog's not running yet.

Since this is my last column, here are my shelves.

Before I started Shelf Life, I used to review manga for popcultureshock.com/mangarecon. I had a good-sized manga library, and a very modest collection of anime. The anime took up two or three shelves, and I had two bookcases of manga. Post-Shelf Life I've moved all my non-anime DVDs to other shelves.

Before I wrote Shelf Life, I thought I was an anime expert. I thought I'd seen a lot of anime. I was wrong. Time and time again I've been surprised at how much more anime some of the forum readers have seen and/or own than I have.

For the purposes of taking these photos, I cleaned up the anime shelves and alphabetized them a couple weeks ago. The first one is a “before” photo. I have more anime toys, plushies, and posters, but a lot of them have been in storage since the last time I moved, so they are not pictured.

I apologize for the blurry phone-photos. You can't see all the manga because it's double-shelved, but if you're super curious about all my titles my account on librarything.com is, predictably, erinfinnegan.

Oh, the striped dress was my Sonoshee costume from Red Line, and the blue thing is my Lady Armaroid costume.

Take care everyone!

Erin Finnegan, Shelf Life Columnist 10/19/2009 - 10/8/2012

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