Shelf Life
Maid to Order

by Bamboo Dong,

This week was kind of a blah week for anime. I blame that on myself. Whenever I get new releases, I throw them into my To Watch box, but within that box, I also sort them into stacks of shows that I want to watch right away, and those that I procrastinate reviewing. This usually means that every couple of months, I have to purge my procrastination pile. Sometimes there are some pleasant surprises, but more often than not, I end up with releases that hover in that nebulous void right around (or slightly above) mediocrity. Those are the hardest to review.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

For about four months now, I've had Sentai's release of the Maid Sama! complete collection sitting in my To Watch box. I'll be honest—I avoided it like the plague because the cover and the back of the box description sounded like the most terrible thing in the world. As it turns out, I was 100% wrong, and not only is Maid Sama! delightful and cute, but it's not anything like I was expecting.

Here's a little glimpse into why I had the wrong idea about Maid Sama!. Besides, you know, being called Maid Sama!. The back of the DVD boxset has a picture of four girls wearing swim suits underneath frilly ribbons. Some are holding fans, one is holding a popsicle, but all are blushing. The description bills this show as having an “inevitable trip to the hot springs” and a main character who must, “provide service with a smile.” This marketing is awesome if you're looking for a pervy maid show. Unfortunately, it might also drive away people like me, who see all of this and think, “oh great, another pervy maid show.” It is anything but. Main character Misaki has a tough life. She lives in a shabby home with her younger sister and her mother, and they barely have enough money to live. To help make ends meet, Misaki has enrolled at a formerly all-male high school for its cheap tuition, and works a part-time job in a maid cafe. Despite her busy schedule, though, she does well in school, and is even the first female student council president. However, she harbors an intense disdain for men and is an absolute ball-buster when it comes to dealing with her classmates. Inexplicably, she attracts the attention of the handsome Usui, who is drawn towards her fierceness, and romantic hijinks ensue.

There are parts of Maid Sama! that are a little generic—the dynamic between Misaki and Usui is one we've seen before, in which the cool, aloof girl is chased after by the hot hunk. Inevitably, despite a lot of bickering and opposition, the two end up falling for each other. Aside from that, though, Maid Sama! is actually really charming. Misaki's aversion towards men is thankfully not treated as a total shtick, and we see her learning a lot from both her classmates and coworkers about how to treat colleagues. She proves herself to not only be a good student body leader, but also a hard worker that many come to respect. She's a female character worth rooting for, with a good head on her shoulders, and in contrast to a lot of romcom leads, she never lets herself get carried away by the fantasy of romance.

At the end of the day, though, the biggest problem with Maid Sama! is that it never seems to really go anywhere. Each episode is generally enjoyable, but the series doesn't seem to travel towards a goal. The characters relationships with one another sort of gel as the series progresses, but no one really changes or goes through any major arcs. If you watched the episodes out of order, you might not even realize it. That having been said, it's a show that's worth watching for its charm if you happen to see it on sale somewhere, but it wouldn't necessarily occur to me to recommend it to anyone.

I do have to gripe about one thing, though, and it's the packaging of this series. The entire show is packaged in a giant clamshell that's about the thickness of two DVDs, but inside, the discs are stacked on a single spindle. This is incredibly obnoxious, and I had hoped that we had all moved away from this type of packaging in the mid-2000s. If you want to change discs, not only do you have to take out the next disc from the spindle, but you also have to shuffle around all the other discs that are on the damned spindle. I'm not saying this 15-second activity is going to ruin your day, but it's certainly a baffling packaging choice. I especially don't understand why the box had to be so stupid thick, because the spindle only takes up about half the width. The other half is taken up by a giant chunk of plastic bubble foam, rendering the double-thick clamshell absolutely pointless. I don't often write about disc packaging, because often there isn't anything worth mentioning, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way. [TOP]

Another series that I'd avoided watching for a couple months was Shangri-La, which was released in two parts (simultaneously) by Funimation. My main reason for delaying watching this was mostly because I never felt like I was in the right mood to watch a show about a girl with a boomerang. They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I find myself easily swayed by DVD covers. In this case, though, I also discovered that I was dead wrong about the contents of this show. There was a girl with a boomerang, but the show is about a whole lot more.

If there's something that feels familiar about Shangri-La, it might be because of the character designs, which were created by noted artist Range Murata. He's best known for his contribution to works like Last Exile and Blue Submarine No. 6, and his signature style is immediately recognized in Shangri-La. The characters are cherubic and innocent, from the three main female heroines that lead the series, to the colorful side characters like the transgender sidekick and the gruff (but kind) anti-government rebels. There's something about the wide-eyed , round-faced characters that make the characters seem instantly warm, and it's hard not to like everyone instantly.

The series follows a few different story threads that we assume are interwoven, but it takes its sweet, patient time getting there. In the forefront is Kuniko, who at the beginning of the series has just been released from a two-year stint in juvie. Because of her grandmother, she has close ties with an anti-government group called Metal Age. Also profiled is a wispy little girl named Mikuni, who because of a skin condition, can't be in the sunlight. She has the strange ability to tell if someone is lying, and also to crush their bodies with her mind. Rounding out the trio is a computer-savvy, but socially petrified girl named Karin, who is the head of an organization that manipulates the world carbon market, which is kind of like stocks, except it uses the carbon emissions of industries as money. By the time the first half of the series comes to a close, we still don't know how these three girls are connected yet, but we get the sense that somehow their paths will eventually cross.

It's a little frustrating that we're not given more to go on. I generally have a problem with shows that are too quickly paced, but Shangri-La seems to have a unique issue in that the action in the series itself moves along at a fast clip, but the story's not being told with enough efficiency. Things are happening left and right—mysterious attacks on towns, raids on utopian societies, international market manipulation—but we're still not quite sure how all of these seemingly separate stories intertwine, or what's at stake. Parts of the show profile an ongoing socioeconomic struggle between those who live on this world's increasingly toxic surface, and those who get to live in this vast utopia that's been built; parts of the show are supernatural in tone; other parts of this show showcase a fast-paced world of finance and market manipulation. It's chaotic.

If there is one thing to be said about Shangri-La, it's that there are plenty of things to capture the viewer's interest. The show is chock full of interesting concepts. For instance, it tells of a future where the effort to curtail carbon emissions has created a system in which countries and industries are taxed based on their carbon output. While there are countries that have complied, richer ones have opted to pay increased rates, finding other ways to offset costs, like outsourcing their labor. As a result, carbon has become not only a regulate-able item, but also the basis for a form of currency that can be traded. I can't really do this premise justice with just a few lines of text, but it's a really fascinating system that gives a lot of life and intrigue to the series.

No matter how cool some of the concepts are, though, it's hard to fully enjoy a show that feels like it's stitched together from too many disjointed parts. I like suspense as much as the next person, but Shangri-La stretches it out to a point where the final product starts feeling a little threadbare. I assume the answers will come in the last half of the series, but twelve episodes is a pretty long time to be left in the dark.[TOP]

Apologetically, I have to admit the next title on my list is a little on the older side. Namely, it was released last summer, and quite frankly, it was so far under my radar that I apparently didn't notice it the first time it came out, or the second time it managed to sneak itself into my review pile.

I'm not sure Towa no Quon really made a blip for me when it was first released. It's not that I don't like stories about people with superpowers—it's just that there are so many of them. If one were to make a histogram of all the repeated ideas in anime every season, People with Superpowers would be somewhere in the top five, nestled between Stories about Oda Nobunaga and Girls Who Like Their Brother. What makes Towa no Quon mildly different from the others in its ilk, though, is really the way it was released. Rather than the standard 12-episode season, it was released as six mini-movies. The downside is that it's still paced like a standard series—the first few movies are episodic stories that feature a new character or battle, while the fifth and six send the overall series to its finale. This also means that each movie feels incredibly long, because it's structured more like an episode than a movie, in that the conflict-resolution payoff in each chunk isn't enough to let the movies stand on their own. If I had been watching these movies as they were released, I'm not sure I would've stuck it through to the end.

The title character is an immortal superpower dude named Quon who is pretty much invincible. Not only does his body regenerate at super high speeds, but he also transforms into a Zetman-looking monster/hero. Back in his day, almost everyone had super powers, but for whatever reason, the frequency of this died down (was it not evolutionarily favorable?). In the present (future) time, though, people with powers are reemerging, and of course, there's some kind of evil organization that's trying to capture them and destroy them. In X-men fashion, Quon decides to build a safe haven for all the mutants, disguised as a theme park, and from there he and his super power buddies run all their operations. Every episode, a new mutant (or two) is identified, and it's a battle against time and cyborgs to get to them first before the bad guys do.

I would argue that even though the entire movie series is about Quon and his super power dudes, the most interesting characters are those who work for the bad guys. There is something more fascinating and more melancholy about characters who were previously human, who have slowly had their body parts and emotions replaced with cybernetic parts. This provides plenty of fuel for introspective flashbacks and cool technology scenes, the latter of which is pretty much fantasy tech porn for sci fi fans.

Still, maybe the reason that Towa no Quon didn't really make a huge splash when it was first released is that there's simply not that much substance. The first few episodes drag on mercilessly, and even though each one is packed with fight scenes, it feels like eternity before anything is accomplished. If each movie was condensed down to a standard 22-minute episode, I think it would've fared better. In fact, I think if Towa no Quon was half the length, and was simply a six episode OVA, it would've been vastly more interesting than its current bloated length. As far as People with Superpower shows go, Towa no Quon is mildly entertaining, but it's certainly not remarkable, and I'm not sure any part of it is worth watching more than once.[TOP]

Well that's the end to this wholly unspectacular week. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week!

This week's shelves come from Aaron, aka The King of Harts:

" My name is Aaron, but I'm better known as The King of Harts in the forums.

I first became hooked on anime during the Summer of '08 and made my first purchase (the Shakugan no Shana box set) in January of '09. That's right. Despite the size of my collection, I've only been at it for four years.

I made these shelves. I designed them, picked out the materials, and put it together myself. The only thing I didn't do was cut the wood; I have to thank the people at Home Depot for that. They were made with the sole purpose of not just housing anime, but housing my collection specifically, and so I have tall spaces to fit both NISA collections and any figures I want to display with my discs. The only negative is that it's really hard shuffling around the top shelf since it's seven feet (213 cm) off the ground and I'm only 5'8" (173 cm). It's actually more difficult to do that than keep it alphabetized!

One of the things I really take pride in is the diversity of the contents. Not only do the types of shows and ages of said shows vary, but I also have multiple countries in there with about a half dozen Japanese imports, a couple things from Australia, and one from China (not a bootleg). I plan on grabbing some sets from Europe and Taiwan this year as well, which I think will give my shelves a more unique look. Alright, I'm done rambling.

PS: I looooooooooove Panty and Stocking. Now I'm done rambling."

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

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