Shelf Life
Time Detective

by Bamboo Dong,

Try as I might, I couldn't come up with an introduction this week that didn't just sound frivolous, so I thought I'd spare you all.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

It's a giant bummer when you have a story that, on paper, sounds like it should be exciting—demons, magical princesses, mountain gods, evil organizations—but is executed in such a manner that it is immeasurably boring. Hiiro no Kakera is based on one of those games targeted towards ladies where you're some kind of shrine maiden or magical something or other, and you have a bevy of hot dudes who are all sexually non-threatening, and will save you in a pinch. It's 26 episodes long in total—this first season only has 13 episodes—but there is no reason whatsoever that it should drag out that long. I've seen many movies and OVAs in my time where I've thought, “This would be better as a 13-episode series,” but Hiiro no Kakera is the opposite. This first season could've easily been crammed into three 45-minute OVAs, and we'd all be the happier for it.

The hard-working and determined, but slightly useless protagonist is a young gal named Tamaki. During a visit to her grandmother, she discovers that she can see all sorts of non-human, supernatural creatures, and that she's in fact the next Tamayori Princess. There's some giant evil demon that's sealed away in the mountains, and it's up to the Tamayori Princess to make sure that it stays sealed. Luckily, she's assisted by five hot dudes, who are obligated to help her and protect her and walk her home from school thoroughly idyllic fields of poppies. But alas, there's some evil organization with members named after German numbers, because why not, who are very keen on destroying all the seals and obtaining the demon for themselves. This means that there are plenty of fights scattered throughout the series, but they are amongst the most static, most uninteresting fights to ever be animated. Because all the fighters can use magic, the vast majority of the battles just involve characters freezing into an action pose, screaming, and emitting CG energy beams from their palms. I'm fairly certain most of the actions scenes in Hiiro no Kakera are accomplished with no more than twenty drawn frames, with the rest just being pans of them shooting lightning bolts at each other. In fact, most of this series is pretty cheaply animated, so there's a disturbing amount of frozen faces that lifelessly gab at each other, eyes forced open to the world.

It doesn't help the monotony that every single character in Hiiro no Kakera is a walking cliché. At one point, perhaps to give fangirls more shipping fodder or to help fuel a daydream where Hunky Magic Dude #1 bakes her a cake or something, the primary characters spend five minutes talking about their hobbies. Tamaki literally does the thing where she pantomimes holding a microphone, and asks each boy, “So, what are your hobbies?” We learn that the sultry one actually likes crosswords, and the sweet healer boy likes to cook. One of the guys wants to ride across America on a motorcycle. Thrilling. Tamaki herself is cut from that cloth of anime heroines where she mostly gets in the way all the time so that she can be saved every five minutes from a soft-eyed hunk who chides her, “Don't make me worry about you.” At some point, someone on the writing staff must've said, “But isn't it really annoying how she just gets in the way all the time?” because halfway through the series, every time she does something annoying, another character will chime in, “It really shows your desire to help, though!” Lest you think the bad guys are saved from cliché, they're not. My favorite member of Evil Organization Logos is giant-breasted, minimally-clothed Vier, who mysteriously looks exactly the same as new English teacher Ms. Fiona, except with different colored hair. Uh-oh.

Needless to say, I didn't find Hiiro no Kakera to be terribly entertaining. It's not heinously bad, but it's certainly not interesting, nor suspenseful, nor funny, nor really any other adjective that can help time pass in a pleasing manner. Each scene felt like it dragged on for eternity, and there were times when I wanted to reach through the screen, shake the characters, and plead with them to either talk faster or stop dicking around. I won't hold my breath for the second season.[TOP]

Fortunately, everything else I watched this week was a blast.

As tantalizing as time traveling sounds, everyone knows from watching science fiction movies that you do not mess with the past. If you do, things go wrong. The second half of Steins;Gate is the perfect complement to the first half—whereas the first several episodes built up the time-traveling capabilities of Rintaro and his club, and showed all the cause-and-effect changes that were happening because of their D-mails, the last half is devoted to undoing all of it. Things go incredibly wrong when one of the main characters die, and Rintaro realizes with increasing desperation that no matter what he does, he can't seem to prevent it. No matter how many times he goes back in time, the outcome is the same, and he slowly realizes that the only way to alter the course of time is to reverse all the changes they've collectively made on the “alpha” time line.

If there's one complaint to be made, it's that the series meanders a bit during its journey. There's a little more filler than is necessary; for instance, when Rintaro convinces beta-timeline Ruka to make a big sacrifice, he's asked first to be her boyfriend for a day. It's a cute episode, I guess, but it detracts from the flow of the series. The romance between him and Kurisu, too, feels a little shoehorned in at times, especially since it escalates within the span of a couple of episodes. For the most part, though, the last half of Steins;Gate moves at a fast clip, and for the first time, we see the bigger picture of what's eventually caused by Rintaro's experimentations. We get a taste of what happens twenty-some years down the line, get a hint of what's at stake, and along the way, discover the true identities of several key characters as well.

Tangentially, there is one thing I think is worth mentioning, and it's that the location research used in Steins;Gate is alarmingly well done. There is something about seeing exact replicas of familiar buildings and places in anime that always excites me, yet terrifies me. Maybe it's because I always think of anime as a purely fictional realm, so when I see specific buildings and streets that I recognize, aside from classical landmarks, I get a nervous jitter of déjà vu. In the last episode of Steins;Gate, for instance, the characters come to Los Angeles for a Rai-Net tournament. I'm not sure I was expecting to see the Hall H terrace inside the LA Convention Center, nor the Westin Bonaventure, but it made my eyes pop a little.

In short, it's an incredibly satisfying set of episodes, and I found them even more gripping than the ones preceding them. The soft science of Steins;Gate is such that you can't think about the mechanics of the storyline nor the time travel too much, but as a suspense story, it works very well. [TOP]

Finishing out my week was the second half of Emma: A Victorian Romance . For lovers of classic romance stories, Emma is nothing short of satisfying. It has all the things that romance fans like—elegant heroines who are the desire of every eligible bachelor, confessions of true love, men who will do anything for their ladies, and enough romanticized deniability that allows us to pretend like Victorian England was filled with lovely rich ladies who adored their servants and were personally invested in their happiness. While Emma has its fair share of society-centric drama, such as the scandal that follows when wealthy merchant's son William breaks off his engagement with the viscount's daughter to pursue a maid, everything works out in a very rosy way. After all, the class system would never stand in the way of true love, right?

But that's part of the delight in a show like Emma. We know that it's highly improbably for two people in that day in age to get everything they want—a marriage between rungs of the social ladder while still maintaining good social standing and wealth—but we also know that this is fiction, and magical things happen in fiction. So even while Emma is being courted by two wonderful men (formerly three), we know in our hearts that there's only one man for her. How it exactly happens, we can't be sure (and in fact, before the deal is sealed, we're asked to suffer through a few humdrum episodes of William begging investors for money for his family's railroad company), but it's the great driving force behind the series.

I wouldn't say that Emma is a masterpiece—the story does follow an expected trajectory, and the characters are limited in scope as to their roles and personalities, but it is comforting to watch. I think everyone needs a good old-fashioned rags-to-riches, love-conquers-everything story every now and again, and Emma is amongst the best. The characters are reasonably realistic and subdued, no one falls under any irritating anime stereotypes, and if this entire series were shot in live-action, I wouldn't be surprised to see it on BBC. Despite its intended demographic, I think this would be a good series for anyone in the mood for a good love story between two reasonable adults.[TOP]

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading!

This week's shelves are from Scott:

"My name is Scott, I'm 18 and I've been a big anime fan since November 2008. I had casually watched some anime as a kid on Toonami and the like, but my anime fandom really started with Bleach on [adult swim]. Got into manga buying around that time, but it wasn't until around Summer 2011 I REALLY started to collect anime. I hope to someday have a few bookcases full of anime DVD's/BD's (I really could use a bookcase right now)."

Nice collection so far!

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