Shelf Life
Children of the Lost Ark

by Bamboo Dong,

For me, Halloween has slowly migrated from being “awesome happy candy awesome time!” to “sort of fun excuse to dress up and hang out with friends” to just “giant pain in the ass.” I think every year, I find it harder and harder to want to spend any kind of money or time on a costume that I'll wear for one night, just to get beer spilled on it. But hey, Happy Halloween anyway. And if you haven't already, you should check out our pumpkin carving contest and submit your sweet anime o' lanterns.

To everyone waiting out the hurricane, stay safe.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

I was initially very excited to check out Makoto Shinkai's new film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, which debuted last year, but is now finally available on BD and DVD from Sentai Filmworks. Even though Shinkai's career is still young, and he still has so much room to grow as a filmmaker, he is already one of my favorite directors. Not only was his initial work, Voices of a Distant Star, a marvel as a solo effort, but it was a haunting and heartbreaking film that dealt with universal themes like love and longing. I also remember being taken by his third work, 5 Centimeters per Second, which I also thought was deeply emotional and filled with an immense sadness.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices is very different from his previous works, and in that regard, should be lauded for its efforts in allowing Shinkai to explore other themes and art styles. Immediately, one notices that the character designs are very, for a lack of a better term, Ghibli-esque. Contrary to the character designs he's used in the past, the faces in Children Who Chase Lost Voices are rounder, more cherubic. They'd hardly be out of place in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, especially given the fantastical landscapes that the characters find themselves in. The animal-like deities would have been welcome in Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. Notably, though, the film retains Shinkai's dreamy, high-saturation backgrounds, and provides eyefuls of staggeringly beautiful backdrops. He has a way of envisioning sunrises and sunsets that make you instantly recognize his hand, and it transports you back to his other films. In comparison, the characters look flat. They look overly simplistic and under-colored, especially in comparison to backgrounds that are lush and packed with tiny details. As a result, I often felt my attention drifting away from the characters to examine rocks and shrubs or delicately colored flowers.

Actually, I felt my attention drifting a lot. Even though a lot happens in this film, and it's an epic journey both geographically and emotionally, it feels slow. The incidental music is sparse, with the exception of specific scenes in which “very Shinkai” piano melodies drift into the foreground. I know it feels like a cop-out to say something is “very Shinkai,” but if you've seen even one of his films, you'll recognize his brand of background music, although I don't think it fits this movie as well as his previous ones. But because this movie is filled with more silence, the character interactions feel more awkward and stagnant. The dialogue feels stilted at times, and even when they're discussing their pasts, it feels like they're just trying to fill empty space, like asking about the weather. This is especially prevalent in the English dub, which had a wooden quality that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The editing felt “dubbed in,” in a way that made me uncomfortably aware that these were voices that were being overlaid onto a scene in which they didn't belong. It's like that uncanny feeling you get when you see a picture, and it looks like someone was Photoshopped into the foreground.

The movie stars a young girl named Asuna, who lost her father at a young age. In fact, all of the characters have deceased loved ones, which makes the central themes of life and death a little more in-your-face than I think was intended. During a walk home from school one day, Asuna encounters a strange bear-gila monster creature, but is saved by a boy named Shun. We learn that Shun is from Agartha, the mythic land of the dead, but his presence is short-lived in the film. Also introduced is Morasaki, the substitute teacher at Asuna's school who tells them a legend of the underworld. Eventually, after a series of events, both Morasaki and Asuna actually end up in Agartha. He's there to resurrect his dead wife. She's mostly there just to tag along and make poor decisions in survival scenarios. A journey ensues, in which monsters are met, death is contemplated, the selfishness of mankind is prodded, and living with loss is learned.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices feels like it has potential, but ultimately I was disappointed. Admittedly, my expectations were sky-high because of my love for Shinkai's previous works, but the movie just felt lost and a little derivative. There was too much mythology, too many borrowed terms (Arch Angel, Quetzalcoatl) used in strange contexts, and too many contrivances. Characters were always in the right place at the right time, always saved in the nick of time, and I never felt a sense of urgency or suspense. Only Morasaki's journey felt genuine to me, whereas Asuna's participation in the journey seemed to be borne from personal boredom. There are tidbits of extra themes tossed into the middle, like mankind's ravaging of Agartha, that feel extraneous because they're not really expanded on. Experiences like loss and acceptance are ubiquitous, but maybe because of that, the movie didn't feel as personal. It lacked the raw emotional punch of some of Shinkai's other works, and even the scene between Morasaki and his wife felt a little bare.

Personally, I did not enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed Voices of a Distant Star, or 5 Centimeters per Second, but then again, I also resonate more deeply with themes of lost love than I do death, which I've been blessed to not have encountered. I didn't feel incredibly attached to any of the characters, so I didn't really care what happened to them, and I found myself only visually captivated by Agartha. Still, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is beautiful to look at and it possesses a dreamy quality that I don't regret experiencing once. [TOP]

Now let's talk about Strike Witches.

Panties, panties, panties, panties, panties. Okay. That's out of the way. We'll get back to that later.

Strike Witches' biggest problem is its ending, which feels pretty half-assed. The series started to go somewhere interesting, with its insinuation that the Neurois were capable of… what, compassion? concern? humanity? but this revelation was ultimately lost in a fairly clichéd ending where all the girls just charge at the final “boss” with their guns blazing and their brooms whirring. It's a shame. With a strong enough story (and let's be honest, for series as fanservice-heavy as Strike Witches, the bar for “strong story” is set pretty low), it could have made a strong argument for being seen as something other than just a panty show. In fact, despite all the eye-rolling I did (What is with anime girls' obsessions with grabbing each other's boobs? Men, I assure you, this is not a real thing.), I found myself fairly engaged every time the girls had to engage in a fight with a Neurois. When we learned that these alien lifeforms had the capacity to mimic humans, I was intrigued… but it fizzled into nothingness.

In some alternate version of Earth, the world has been ravaged by alien attacks. Giant, laser-shooting, obsidian, geometric extraterrestrials called Neurois have laid waste to most of Earth. They don't appear to have a motive, other than being Bad Guys in an anime. Luckily, one scientist has discovered a way to fight them—“brooms” a.k.a. jet-pack leg-boosters that allow young girls with magic powers to fly around and shoot at the Neurois from the sky. Now hold on. Magic powers? Yes. You see, this distant future also has a population of ladies who have magic powers, ranging from healing to super eyesight to radar, but every time these powers are activated, the gals also sprout animal ears and tails. Of course. When they've got their “Strikers” on, they can utilize their powers to shield against enemy lasers, or what not.

For reasons unbeknownst to viewers, all the women in this dystopian future have abandoned pants (and skirts and shorts). All the men still wear pants, but the women parade around in nothing but skivvies, including high-ranking officers. The main reason for this seems to be so that viewers can drool a little while watching the show, and also so that the animators can draw ungainly, egregious camel toes. This isn't even a camel toe. This is like a tennis ball or a Roma tomato swathed in lycra.

I mentioned earlier that women don't generally run around obsessing over their friends' breasts and trying to grope each other, but there's one other thing that women don't generally tend to do, and that's wearing each other's underwear. There's a scene where one of the girls forgets to put on panties, and nicks a pair from the dressing room. This cascades into a whole chain of panty theft, which made me retch a little. This is unsanitary. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't condone the swapping of used underwear. You don't know what kind of juices have been flowing, and you certainly don't want that rubbing up against your nethers.

Regardless, as far as fan service goes, Strike Witches is fairly standard. Sure, there are a TON of panties, lots of nipples, and plenty of breast-squeezing, but if you've been watching anime for a while, this isn't anything that will drop your jaw. What's more upsetting is that terrible ending. Main character Yoshika, whose dead father actually invented the Strikers, runs into a humanoid Neurois one night and becomes obsessed with the idea that they may be compassionate. She follows it into the Neurois hive one night and is shown something shocking—the military had made contact with the aliens previously, and used some of their technology to build a giant robot. But here's the thing, none of that story matters. Okay, so the military lied about encountering the Neurois. So what? This doesn't really explain why the Neurois continued to attack civilians, nor does it give credit to the idea that they're innately compassionate. So the military used that technology to build a giant robot. Who cares? The only negative consequence that could possibly have is the disbanding of the Strike Witches, which, to be honest, doesn't seem like a big giant conspiracy so much as just poor personnel management. So what was the damned point of Yoshika even meeting up with the Neurois? What hidden revelation was that supposed to bring about? This is a plot thread that was halted mid-thought, and even if it's addressed in Strike Witches 2, it seems silly to even bring it up. It's trying to force a “deeper” meaning to a show that, quite frankly, isn't equipped with the writing fortitude to carry it out. If you can't hack it, don't do it.

As a fanservice show, Strike Witches is worth watching. It's absurd, sure, but it's cute. The character designs are adorable and they represent a full range of types. Even the little Striker boosters are kind of cute. As a figure collector, that's the kind of weird/cute that I like, so from a character merchandising point of view, Strike Witches hits all the right spots. Yeah, I was a little annoyed that even the high-ranking senior officers didn't wear pants (and apparently your magic powers end when you hit the old granny age of 20), but there's nothing malicious at all about the fanservice. The Witches aren't leered at by any of the male characters, and when they are championed, it's for their ability to protect sailors and warships. Hell, the girls aren't even allowed to interact with men their age. It's good, clean, fanservice-y fun, and I could see it being an enjoyable one-time thing if you wanted to whittle away six hours of your weekend on a panty show. I do wish the series had spent more time tying up loose ends, though, because nothing irks me like biting off more plot than one can chew. But like a said, for a weekend diversion, it'll get the job done.[TOP]

Not wanting to stop the fanservice train, I popped in Sentai's new release of Majikoi – Oh! Samurai Girls. It was a strange experience. As I was watching the first episode, I thought, “…wait a minute… this looks familiar.” And then it hit me. I had already seen Majikoi when it was streaming, but it made such little lasting impact on me, that I had completely forgotten its existence. I racked my brain for signs of what was coming up in the series, but drew a blank. That's not good. And in fact, the only thing I could remember was dick-shaped candy (hold on).

That's how completely un-memorable Majikoi is. It's a series that starts off promising one thing, but then ends up delivering another. After watching it a second time, I felt a pressing need to write the review as quickly as possible, lest it filter through my brain again. Based on an adult video game, Majikoi is like three concepts cobbled together. The first is this action-heavy, kind of fun faux-military-strategy combat show. Sort of. Basically, all the characters go to a school where conflict resolution in the form of mock battle is encouraged. The kids split up into different factions and use non-lethal weapons to wage war on each other. It's a little out there, but the execution of this (pretty much only confined to the first episode) is fun. Rather than just blindly attacking each other, the characters have to develop strategies and plot out their moves, and it's whimsical and exciting.

But after that, the series basically turns into Cliché City. The centerpiece/strategic mastermind of one particular student faction is this nondescript dude. Shockingly, he lives in close quarters with a bevy of women who find him irresistible. Every time he steps into the room, their pheromone meters go rocketing off their sockets and they fall over each other trying to pack him bentos. Except when he falls over them, accidentally grabbing a boob, or seeing them naked. In that case, he gets a hilarious punch in the face!!! What novelty! One girl practically tries to rape him every time he's in her sights, despite his pleas in the negative; she even slips him fake porn games starring herself. I'm not so much offended by any of this content as I am offended by the fact that zero imagination went into it. These are scripts that could've been Xeroxed from a dozen other harem shows. Majikoi could have just as well painted over another show's preexisting cels. These are cookie-cutter scenarios that were groundbreaking decades ago, and quite frankly, it just doesn't execute them as well. I've seen funny harem shows—we all have. As fans, we have discerning enough palates to know what is and isn't good fanservice, and it's irritating when shows just don't bother trying.

The other story chunklet that's mashed into Majikoi is this underlying storyline about arms dealers. For most of the series, it pops up in one line of dialogue here and there, but we don't even get to it until the end. Instead, we get to watch the characters find lost dogs, or go on other dumb missions. By the time the arms dealer stuff does come up, it's paired with such a ludicrous twist that I threw up my arms and thought, “why the hell didn't they bring this up earlier?” Because if any of the women had any other traits going for them except wanting to bone the main character, it should've surfaced earlier. To the protagonist's credit, he does have one lady he's actually attracted to, though in typical harem fashion, she barely pays him any mind. They lacked so much spark, though, that I couldn't bring myself to care if they even got together at all.

That isn't to say that Majikoi doesn't have any redeeming qualities. For one, it is astonishingly funny in scattered spurts. Some of the side characters are incredible. The robot sidekick has such droll self-loathing that I wondered if he was the creator's jab at an industry that facilitates such properties in making so much money. Another one of the characters is such a perv that he takes his lust to new, amazing heights. Using his fingers, he has mastered a way of holding his hands in such a way that he can mimic a girl's naked crotch. Ingenuity borne from desperation. And of course, there is that dick candy episode. The characters all go to a penis festival, where the girls enjoy a variety of dick-shaped foods. Then, in a scene that's so absurd and so blatant that it borders on genius, the girls give each other overly descriptive demonstrations of how to eat their foods. Except when they're talking about food, you're to infer that they're actually talking about dick. It's so uncomfortable it works.

Unfortunately, glimmers of hope like that are few and far between. Majikoi is simply not consistently entertaining enough to be enjoyable. It feels like recycled material, and even the fanservice doesn't quite live up to standard. The animation feels cheap and aside from a breast jiggle here and there, it just doesn't really work as eye candy. Add to that a lack of story cohesion gluing the various parts together and you're just left with a pile of scraps. Overall, I think there are better ways to get your action or fanservice fix than with Majikoi.[TOP]

Alright folks, that's my time for this week. Next week, The Stream.

This week's Shelf Obsessed featurette is pretty insane. This enormous collection belongs to SkyoeEnt, who wrote the following:

"I'm Ryan, aka, SykoeEnt. The first batch is of my room, and the second is from my living room/dining room. My collection has been filmed a few times, but you guys have yet to post some pics! Alright, I need to pack up for Comic-Con! See ya later!"

I can only imagine that since Comic Con, this collection has grown even bigger. Ryan's collection has also been featured in Tokyopop's "America's Greatest Otaku" contest on Hulu, and you can watch him talk about his collection here by clicking on "Ryan, Los Angeles."


I have no words to adequately describe this joyful place he calls home. Party at Ryan's place, y'all.

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

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