Shelf Life
Three's Company

by Bamboo Dong,

For the past week, I've been working from home, since I've been trying to type out a paper for journal publication, and eventually start working on my thesis. I used to envy people who worked from home, thinking it must be swell to be able to roll out of bed and casually start your workday while sipping coffee and lounging in your PJs. I take all of that back. I did not even remotely realize how brutally difficult it is to motivate yourself when you've got an entire kitchen and two game consoles to distract you, not to mention a few hundred channels of television programming. I haven't even been able to wake up at a reasonable hour. It was hard enough being distracted by the internet while I was physically in my workplace, but working from home is bananas. My heart and respect goes out to everyone who's able to pull this off, and still get work done.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

If you've been feeling down in the dumps lately, and need a shot of pick-me-up, you should give Hyakko a crack. Released by Lucky Penny, Right Stuf's publishing arm for niche, fan-favorite titles (read: the stuff that your average Best Buy consumer would likely not blind buy), this sub only, 13-episode series is pretty good for at least one or two laughs an episode. Considering how difficult comedy is to capture, that's not bad. Some episodes have more, some episodes have less, but in general, I'd say the series is fairly entertaining. At the very least, it'll probably lighten your mood.

Hyakko doesn't necessarily fall into the “madcap comedy” category, but it strays pretty close. It features four girls—Torako, TATSUKI, Suzume, and Ayumi—who generally get into mischief, mostly because of the hyperactive, always peppy Torako. They attend a sprawling school complex that includes all grades from elementary to high school, and throughout the course of the thirteen episodes, we're introduced to the other students of class 1-6. We watch as the girls try out various athletic clubs, trick each other into eating extra size portion of noodles, punch teachers, and whatever else strikes Torako's fancy. There's a memorable scene in which the girls are asked to sketch each other in art class, and two of them take turns striking suggestive poses. Because this is a screwball comedy, though, it's pretty gauche, and the end result is more awkward and laughable than sexy.

That's not to say that Hyakko doesn't have its drawbacks, though. When I say that there are one or two laughs an episode, I also mean to say that there are dozens more gags per episode that fall flat—at least for me. Some scenes try but fail, others just run on a little too long. An example is the episode where Torako convinces her friends to try out different team sports. We instantly see that she's not going to be taking this seriously, and although this is funny for the first sport or so, it gets old really fast. Another joke that outlasts its welcome is the token aggressive lesbian character—you know, the anime archetype that preys on all the girls around her. Her skeezing might crack a smile the first couple of times, but this, too, wears out pretty quickly. Even Torako herself is a bit like that annoying friend that everyone has who's perpetually too loud, perpetually too obnoxious, and always drinks too much at bars.

All the other aspects of Hyakko—the art, the animation, the music—are pleasant, though nothing to really make a big deal of. The character designs are a little on the ugly side, but it works well in the context of a zany comedy. Nobody's really expecting hot chicks when they watch a show like Hyakko, and so the bulbous eyes and onion-shaped heads are fine.

By far, though, I think the selling point of Hyakko is that it's incredibly easy to just pop in one episode and enjoy it for that one 25-minute stretch. There are zero cliffhangers of any kind (since there's not much narrative to speak of), so you won't get sucked into a spiral, and the episodes are all pretty standalone, so you don't have to worry about accidentally watching it out of order. Yeah, maybe you won't remember who all the people on screen are—the supporting cast is enormous—but everyone is generally modeled after a common archetype, so it's not terribly hard to figure out what's going on. I don't know that I'd have much interest in watching Hyakko again, but I enjoyed it for what it was.[TOP]

A little heavier this week was this next show, which I think is a little more impactful watching in one or two sittings, than its original weekly schedule.

The initial premise of Listen to Me Girls, I'm Your Father! is sure to turn off many viewers, but for those who power through the questionable otaku-bait, there are emotional payoffs. Yuuta is a college student living in a tiny studio apartment. His life is suddenly changed when his sister and her husband die, leaving him as the guardian of their three young daughters. Wanting to keep the three girls together, Yuuta agrees to watch them, but raising them on a meager part-time salary and housing them in a cramped apartment comes with obvious pitfalls. Naturally, the set-up is ripe for some fanservice, and the series obliges—Yuuta walks in on eldest girl Sora quite a few times when she's changing, and super moe Hina is drawn a few too many times with phallic foods shoved in her tiny mouth. These scenes were obviously created with an otaku market in mind, and it's a little unfortunate—this series runs a lot deeper than the cheap fansevice gives it credit for, and it runs the risk of losing viewers who might otherwise enjoy the story, but not the gratuitous, under-18 fanservice.

For those who do turn a blind eye to the rosy cheeks and nubby knees, and the nightgowns that cling a little too tightly, they're rewarded with a series that can seriously claw at the heart. The girls put on a brave face, but their situation is a tragic one. In moments when the girls aren't putzing around the apartment, having cutesy-poo shopping adventures, or eating phallic foods, they pause to reflect on how drastically their lives have changed, but how much family means to them. After all, they're all they have now, and it's heartbreaking when they finally make the decision to inform the youngest girl that their parents are never coming home. The transformation within Yuuta is noticeable too. He was forced to face responsible adulthood far too soon, but does so out of a deeper debt to family than convenience.

By far, the most engaging scenes in Listen to Me Girls, I'm Your Father! are the ones in which the girls drop their cheery facades and reveal the heartache and emotional trauma within them. Watching them try to retain a semblance of normalcy—commuting further to their old schools, becoming self-reliant—is both saddening and uplifting. So then why does the series feel the need to throw in so much cheesecake fanservice? Well, money, I guess. But it's distracting, and it throws off the pacing of the series. The first half of the series is the most egregious. The vast majority of every episode is spent on the girls dinking around and being silly, with only the last few minutes of the episode devoted to a lesson on the importance of family or being together. It almost makes you wonder if the girls are affected by their circumstances at all, but it isn't until the latter half of the series that you really realize how deeply they've been wounded. If the series didn't sacrifice character development time to sexualize the girls, it might be an even more moving experience.

I'm reminded now of one of Yuuta's friends, a doughy colleague who openly lusts after underaged girls. On the one hand, the introduction of Yuuta's friends shows his vulnerable side, and how much he needs his support network in these trying times. On the other hand, his creepy predator friend just gives the series ammo to show how objectifiable these teens and pre-teens are, and it's more than disturbing.

Despite it all, I still recommend Listen to Me Girls, I'm Your Father! I don't entirely blame the production company for wanting to cast the widest net possible, even if that means pandering to viewers who can't get enough of watching three underage girls wrapped around each other in bed. Money is money, and we all need to make a living. Under the lace camisoles, though, is a sweet and heartwarming story about family, and how irreplaceable that is. For all the scenes that made me shudder, there were an equal amount of scenes that moved me, and those made it all worth it.[TOP]

Less moving was the bizarre and ridiculous Phi-Brain - Puzzle of God.

I learned something valuable about Phi-Brain - Puzzle of God. Apparently during the Japanese broadcast, there were short specials that aired alongside the episodes that actually showed the various puzzles in greater detail and walked viewers through them. Sadly, they're not included on the North American release, but it would've been a nice addition. For a show about puzzles, the puzzles certainly don't get enough screen time, but I'll elaborate on that later.

Phi-Brain - Puzzle of God is a shonen action show about your typical shonen action hero and his shonen action friends. Except instead of being a super ninja, or transforming into a cyborg, or whatever's the rage these days, protagonist Kaito is really good at puzzles. Yeah, imagine that. The fate of the world rests in the hands of a puzzle enthusiast. And I guess it should, because in this world, there are actually evil puzzle masterminds who spend an insane amount of time, money, and resources on constructing elaborate puzzles, ranging from deathtraps that could blow up entire cities, to, well, other death traps. For instance, Kaito and his buddies could be crushed to death if they don't move their bus out of a sliding block puzzle past enough!!! These crazy evil “Philosopher's Puzzles” are made by members of an organization called P.O.G.—Puzzle of God—because… you know… what else are you going to do with yourself if you have billions of dollars at your disposal, a lot of land, a knack for large-scale construction, you're obsessed with puzzles, and you're a psychotic killer. But that's why we have heroes like Kaito and other puzzle-solving recruits.

Kaito has a huge one-up on all his comrades, though. After solving one particularly gnarly puzzle (I know, I know), he's rewarded with a bracelet called Orpheus, which basically lets him unlock his brain and become a SUPER puzzle solver. I mean, this guy could probably blast through the Saturday New York Times crossword in five minutes. But ridiculousness aside, herein lies one of my biggest beefs with the show, which ties into what I mentioned earlier about those TV specials. Some of the puzzles in Phi Brain are really easy. We could all probably figure out your standard Sudoku or maze, assuming neither are rigged. But sometimes, there are puzzles that aren't so clear, either because we as the viewers aren't given enough time to examine them, or we simply don't get to see the big picture. In these cases, rather than Kaito giving a play-by-play on how he solves them, à la Conan explaining a crime, he just uses Orpheus and suddenly everything is solved.

This is a show about puzzles. Let the viewers see the damned puzzles. Ninety percent of the fun of detective shows is letting viewers see if they can figure out the case alongside the investigator. The same should be true for a show about puzzles. I don't care that, subject matter aside, Phi-Brain - Puzzle of God is just like your average shonen battle-of-the-week show—a show about puzzles should give viewers a fair crack at solving the puzzles first. And that's what we're missing out on by not having those TV specials. Otherwise, watching this show is just frustrating, not to mention the premise is inherently ludicrous.

Given the novelty of this outrageous series, I think Phi Brain is worth watching once. At the very least, I think a few of the episodes are worth watching once. Eventually, as the series progresses, we're privy to some actual character development so that the bad guys are more than just puzzle-loving lunatics, but the first several episodes are mostly just standalones. I guess if you want to see something wildly different, you should check this out.[TOP]

Alright folks, that's my time. If you want to see what's happening in the wide world of simulcasts, come check me out on our ongoing Spring Preview!

This week's shelves are from Yammi Reckorrd-Sama:

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