Shelf Life
Diary of a Mad Woman

by Bamboo Dong,

It's the first Shelf Life column of 2013! I managed to start my year with three fantastic titles, so I'm hoping that's a sign of good things to come. Or maybe the more questionable ones are just hiding in the bottom of the pile, waiting to spring on me unawares. Either way, I was pleased with this week's offerings.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

Visually and emotionally, Penguindrum hits all the right buttons. Directed and co-written by Kunihiko Ikuhara, perhaps best known for creating and directing the fan-favorite and critically acclaimed Revolutionary Girl Utena, this new series is absolutely dazzling and impossible to put down. Whimsical yet dark, it has scenes that will make you want to alternately laugh and wince in pain. Its themes are cynical, yet thought-provoking, and I can easily say that I haven't been this entranced by a series in a long time.

Last week, after I had breathlessly marathoned the first twelve episodes, I told a friend that Penguindrum was incredible, and that he had to watch it. When he asked, “what's it about?” I froze. “It's uh… it's about this alien girl who has these really cute penguins, but there's also a crazy stalker chick.” Dead silence on the other end of the phone. The thing is, I'm not sure one can really distill Penguindrum into a succinct one-sentence synopsis without completely shortchanging it. At its bare bones, the series is about a family of three teenagers—two fraternal twin boys, and their terminally ill sister. After the sister, Himari, collapses at the aquarium and is later presumed dead, she springs back to life again. Her life force is seemingly delivered through a plush penguin souvenir hat, which occasionally possesses her and uses her as a vessel for some kind of mysterious alien princess girl. While in that form, she asks the brothers to bring her the Penguindrum. Although we still kind of don't really know what that is, the boys are led to suspect it's the diary of crazy high school girl Ringo, whose obsessive love for one of the boys' teachers leads her to even sleep under his floorboards. But, even as her psychotic behavior starts to unravel, one can't help but feel sorry for her—her “future diary” (no, no, nothing like that Future Diary) is really just the written fantasies of her dead sister, whom she desperately wants to become in order to heal her broken family. It all gets to be very heavy stuff. Penguindrum is the kind of series that distracts you with cute, fat penguins, and wacky behavior, to smooth over how deeply troubled and messed up most of the characters are.

Personally, I was hooked within the first seven minutes of the show, after one of the brothers, Shouma, delivers a monologue in which he says he hates the word “fate.” In it, he cites poverty and misfortune, and claims that if all of these are caused by fate, then God is both unfair and cruel. Later, his brother recites similar feelings of bitterness and cynicism. Maybe it's because it mirrored feelings I've had on the matter, but I was gripped by these themes. Penguindrum does a remarkable job of playing with the ideas of fate and destiny—Shouma and brother Kanba's ideas are countered by Ringo's unwavering faith in destiny, yet even as we see the events in her diary play out, we're asked to judge again for ourselves whether fate really exists. Granted, I don't think one really has to sit around and think about fate and God to enjoy this series—there is plenty to enjoy just on surface elements alone. The series moves at a very fast clip, and deftly keeps certain elements in the dark hidden well enough that there are still plenty of twists and turns along the way. I can't even imagine what will happen in the last twelve episodes, and I'm itching to find out.

For those wondering if Penguindrum is as visually stunning as Utena, it is. Stylistically, it is unique and beautiful. There are so many things to gawk at, ranging from the surreal and mechanical backgrounds in scenes like Himari's transformation sequences, to the way that unnecessary background humans are drawn as the kind of stick-figure-esque cut-outs you see on exit and construction signs. If you like cute animals, you're in luck too, because the three (invisible to everyone else) penguins in Penguindrum are to die for. Pudgy and adorable, the penguins that serve as helpers to the three siblings make for the greatest comic relief, with my personal favorite being the one that's always ready with a bottle of insecticide.

I was really excited to watch Penguindrum, especially given all the hype surrounding it, and I'm glad I finally got the chance. The series is absolutely wonderful, and I am chomping at the bit to get my hands on the last twelve episodes. If you find that you've been getting bored by anime, lately, then Penguindrum is the cure. [TOP]

Transitioning from a shiny new show like Penguindrum, I decided to check out an old classic that was recently remastered and re-released on Blu-Ray by Sentai. I'm speaking of Ninja Scroll, the movie that's probably been more people's gateway anime than any other title, except maybe Ghost in the Shell. I confess, I had this sitting on my review stack for over a month, because I was wary of watching it again. Just this last week, I finally popped it in, and I'm glad I did.

The first (and only prior) time I saw Ninja Scroll, I was a sheltered kid of about 14 or 15. At that time, the only thing I got out of the movie was blood, boobs, and more blood. Watching it again after all these years—and comparing the experience to my memories of the film, I realize now that I was a shade too young to really appreciate the movie. For over a decade, the only memories I had of Ninja Scroll were the scene where people's bodies get chopped in half by Tessai, and the subsequent scene where he's devouring Kagero's naked body with his gross, sloppy mouth. What I didn't appreciate was the dynamic between the two main characters, Jubei and Kagero, and the simultaneous strength and fragility of the latter. I didn't appreciate the themes of sex throughout the movie, for both the good guys and bad guys, be it as a power play or as the fuel for bitterness and revenge. I certainly didn't fully appreciate the scene where Jubei turns down Kagero's physical offering, although after seeing it again, I'm not super thrilled that despite Kagero's self-reliance and competence, all she really wanted was a man's love. But either way, watching Ninja Scroll when I'm not a dumb, immature teenagers really made me see the movie in a new, more appreciative light.

Let's not kid ourselves about one thing, though—just because Ninja Scroll is a time-tested classic doesn't mean it really shatters the boundaries of storytelling. At the core, it's still just a straightforward, action-packed blockbuster. There's a bad guy, with a bunch of bad minions, and one by one, they try and take down Jubei and Kagero. Our heroes don't want a giant shipment of gold to fall into the wrong hands, but Jubei is mostly just interested in vanquishing someone he previously thought he killed, but who came back to life. There's not too many layers to this onion. But it is better than my teenaged memory gave it credit for, and it is much better looking than I gave it credit for.

One thing I think that first-time anime fans don't fully appreciate about Ninja Scroll (I certainly didn't) is just how visually creative it is. Between the character designs and the stylistic choices with the animation, Ninja Scroll is a good looking movie—especially after you've watched years and years of cookie-cutter anime where everything and everyone kind of looks the same. Even that scene I mentioned earlier, where Tessai is gulping down Kagero's body parts like he's at a buffet—it's incredible how totally repulsive and gross it is, and it makes a much more instant and vivid impact because it's so exaggerated. Watching Ninja Scroll again after you've been jaded by so much stereotypical fluff makes it that much better. It also looks pretty good on Blu-ray, though one has to be realistic about just how good a movie made in 1993 will look. It's nicer than previous releases of the movie, but there are flaws in the animation (stray white spots here and there, uneven tracing) that are just artifacts of cel animation.

Presumably, there are readers out there who have never seen Ninja Scroll before. I wouldn't say that your life would be horribly empty if you never saw it, but it is a classic. Your outlook might not change after watching it, but you may appreciate why so many people have celebrated this movie, either for its unapologetic gore and raging testosterone-fueled action scenes, or just for its starkly beautiful visuals. Mostly, though, I would urge that those of you who, like me, watched this in your early-to-mid-teens, to give it another shot. It's worth watching again, and you discover that you'll appreciate the movie much more now.[TOP]

Rounding out my trio of Sentai Blu-rays, I checked out Dream Eater Merry, a 13-episode series based on a manga that's still currently being published. Knowing absolutely nothing about this series going in, I was pleasantly surprised by how fresh it was, despite having some execution problems.

Dream Eater Merry follows a high school boy named Yumeji. He has an interesting ability, in that by holding up his fingers around his eyes kind of like a mask (more Mardi Gras, less Batman), he can see what kind of dreams a person will have that night. If they're happy, shiny orbs of nice, bright colors, that person might have pleasant dreams, but if it's all black, then they're in for a nightmare. Lately, though, he's been having the same dream, where he's being chased by an army of cats. Meanwhile, he's also run into a cute girl with a terrible outfit named Merry, and here's how their paths intersect—Merry is a Dream Demon who somehow left the dream realm, but really wants to find a way back home. Unfortunately, she's the only one trying to go back to the dream realm; there are a host of super evil Dream Demons who want to go the other direction and materialize in the real world. What ensues is lots of blending of the real world and the dream world, and a smattering of battles along the way.

My favorite aspect of Dream Eater Merry is, by far, the very concept of Dream Demons. I love the idea that they reside in the dream world, and can only enter the real world either by co-existing in a Vessel (someone in the real world), or completely taking it over. There are so many shows and movies about dreams and the world of them, but this notion of dream residents is a fun one that is utilized wonderfully in this series. It shows them as both good and bad, and it readily creates another population of people that is both interesting and believable. What this helps create, also, is plenty of opportunities for the real world and dream world to collide. As most series of this nature would do, Dream Eater Merry paints the dream world in surreal landscapes, using CG to create richly textured buildings and objects that scream, “Dream!” Because the real world is drawn so plainly in contrast, there's no confusion between the two, and it creates for a very lively environment.

It helps that most of the action scenes are comprised of close-up shots, either of a character wincing in pain, or feet skidding across pavement, or swords chopping through the air. While the tradeoff is less fluid fight choreography, the end result is action scenes that feel very fast and are just consecutive bursts of color. Combined with the ever-changing backgrounds in the dream world, it makes for very colorful and entertaining viewing.

Maybe because the manga series is still ongoing, though, my main problem with Dream Eater Merry is the execution. It just feels as though it's not as fleshed out as it could be. For many of the first several episodes, the series falls into a pattern where a character is introduced, along with the corresponding Dream Demon, and we get an intersection of real world and dream world. We're led to believe that all these people are totally okay with the fact that they have a dream world friend, but we're denied the question of plausibility. If this is so prevalent, why is what we're watching unique? And why are we introduced to half these characters? Even as Yumeji meets the many Dream Demons who are trying to access the real world, every conflict feels like it ends too suddenly, and without enough fanfare. Why are the Dream Demons only now trying this, especially if their interactions with side characters seem to indicate that this isn't a new thing? Throw in the fact that the series seems like it's trying really hard, at all times, to shoe-horn in the old “Friendship is the Most Important Thing in the World,” and the series is left feeling stilted at times, like it doesn't really know what it wants to accomplish.

Dream Eater Merry is worth watching once for its flashy visuals and its unique premise, but I can't imagine deriving enough pleasure out of it to justify multiple viewings. I had a good time while it was watching it, but once the novelty wore off, I was ready to move on.[TOP]

Alright, that's it for this week, folks. Thanks for reading!

David sent in his collection and wrote the following:

"I started collecting anime about 15 years ago with just a couple of VHS tapes. It wasn't until I was trying to decide whether to get the sub or dub VHS of Evangelion that I learned I could have both on this shiny new format called DVD. 12 years later and here are my shelves. The vast majority are DVDs although I've also purchased a lot of manga over the years and have started to delve into BDs lately. A lot of the discs that would normally be in box sets I've put straight on the shelves and packed away the empty boxes in favor of saving myself some space. I still keep some of my favorite series and the few R2s I own up top in their boxes though."

Good stuff! Not only are those shelves super cool looking, but they contain some of my favorite series.

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

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