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Shelf Life
Wing Man

by Bamboo Dong,

This is another one of those "meh" weeks where all of the releases are good, but not great. I mean, I know that Great series are hard to come by, so I don't often hold my breath for them. As a reviewer, though, I sometimes cherish finding truly awful series, because it breaks up the monotony of just watching series that are simply okay. In theory, I'm glad that we're consistently seeing better series in the US, but I do miss getting to review absolute stinkers (except during Preview Guide time). I guess I should learn to count my blessings.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

Sometimes viewers are drawn into a property by its ecchi, sometimes viewers are pushed away. I would guess that the first few (several?) episodes of We, Without Wings are more polarizing than most—at times, the fanservice seems tongue-in-cheek and aware of its gratuity (the opening segments are often written in parody of fanservice tropes, and are framed within the contextual shtick of rapidly changing channels); at other times, it feels unnecessary (like a fantasy sequence where the main character needs to be “healed” by a naked woman rubbing a salve on his body via rigorous humping). There are panty-flashes galore, although lingerie enthusiasts will note that the panty choices tend to slant towards the lacey, and not so much towards the cotton. The first few episodes are spackled with shots of boobs (uncensored, for those who are worried).

And yet, amidst all this fanservice, is a good show about a much more serious topic than just boobs, panties, and naked healers. It just takes a while to get there.

In the first episode, we're introduced to three main characters. Hayato Narita is a gruff jack-of-all-trades who goes by the name Drac, because he only appears at night. He has a foul mouth and has no problems confronting local delinquent gangs. Despite his rough personality, he ends up spending a lot of time with a chipper girl named Naru, who has to fight for his attention with another girl. Then there's sweet, but goofy Shusuke Chitose, a part-time who works at a restaurant called Alexander's. He befriends an aspiring writer, who also works at the restaurant. And finally there's Takashi Haneda, a soft-spoken, quasi-loner high school boy. He feels estranged from his younger sister, but receives friendly attention from school hottie Asuka, who uses him to ward off advances from other guys. Takashi believes that he's actually from a different planet, and will eventually be summon back to Gretagard to help defend Princess Asuka against monsters.

Except, all of these guys are the same guy.

Under the cheap layers of fanservice, the goofy gang fights, the bizarre fantasy elements, and the confusing jumble of characters, We, Without Wings is a story about mental disorder. It's the story of a boy who's suffered through traumatic childhood events, and compensated for it by creating multiple personalities and delusions of grandeur. It's a cry for help, both externally and from within. Even Takashi himself in his current state doesn't really exist, and although he's surrounded by kind, understanding people who either recognize his disorder or have personally suffered through similar issues, he's not aware of it. Narita and Chitose, interestingly, are aware of what's going on, and although they communicate with each other, neither of them reveal themselves to Takashi, who is unable to control when he slips in and out of his fantasies about Gretagard.

It's a little confusing at first, perhaps, but as the pieces fall into place, confusion is replaced by tragedy. By the time the characters start confronting the issue head-on, everything is out in the open, and the series slips into a more serious tone. The confrontation that Takashi has with his past is jarring and sinister—flashbacks are presented in child-like crayon drawings, terrifyingly creepy in contrast with their subject material. On the one hand, one has to respect We, Without Wings for tackling issues such as schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder (Takashi seems to have a mix of the two?), and adjusting the tone of the series appropriately to handle them with the appropriate amount of gravitas. On the other hand, the methods used by the characters are questionable—Asuka literally beats the disparate identities out of Takashi, and although one could chalk that up to a heavy dose of anime-ism and frustration, it seems neither appropriate nor recommended. That the problem is “fixed” by Takashi simply confronting the truth seems a little disingenuous as well, but for what the series is, it can perhaps be given a pass.

We, Without Wings is one of those series that, once you know the “truth,” it makes you want to go back and re-watch for clues. Upon closer inspection, hints are littered throughout the series—the breakfasts that Takashi's sister makes for him are revealing, as well as his interactions with his classmates— but it almost doesn't matter. The series is less about the “gotcha” than it is about the journey there.

If anything, it could have served well with slightly less characters… or better character designs. The characters (especially the girls) have a bad case of VN-it is, all looking vaguely similar except with different hairstyles and breast sizes. They're all generically pretty, but if they were shaved, they would all be indistinguishable. The box and cover art for this series are almost a joke— every surface of the series is covered in a bland, eye-glazing parade of generic girls, and out of context with their respective male protagonists, can barely be identified.

While the English dub is fine in most regards, the localization is a little strange in parts. Namely, while I'm used to seeing jokes be shoe-horned into scripts where previously there were none, I'm not used to seeing them be stripped. One example that comes to mind is one of the many episode prologues that are written in parody of ecchi tropes. In this particular one, a handful of the girls are introduced as “sexy teachers” of a school. Each one is given generic (but tongue-in-cheek) descriptions, like, “The Big Breasted One!” or “The Whatever Else I Don't Remember.” However, those are stripped out of the dub, which renders the parody impotent. Instead, what remains is just a generic blob of fanservice. Considering so many of the prologue bits are intended as gags, it's strange that the “wit” (if you can call it that) is pared down from most of them.

In any case, We, Without Wings is… well, it's worth watching, but it takes an awfully long time to get to the good parts. While hints are planted earlier that something is amiss, and that the series isn't just a boob-filled puddle of slop, things aren't actually laid out in obvious detail until episode eight. I certainly don't fault anyone for not making it to that point—by all accounts, the first half of the series is generic, if not outright bad at times. I can't fault anyone for thinking that boobs and panties would help sell an anime property, but in the case of We, Without Wings, I think it's a hindrance.[TOP]

After We, Without Wings, I moved to another series that, likewise, is not what it seemed initially.

The opening episode of Kokoro Connect does little to distinguish itself from many other comedies that have come before it. Five members of the vaguely named "Student Cultural Society" have discovered that, thanks to a mysterious alien entity known as Heartseed, they have been saddled with the dubious opportunity to swap bodies with one another. When they swap, how long they swap, and with whom they swap with, are generally random and unannounced. Quickly, though, things lurch away from the stereotypical body-swap yuks. It's then that Kokoro Connect picks up steam, and by the time the first arc is over, one realizes that they're not dealing with a cookie-cutter comedy.

Sure, there are a fair amount of laughs--boys are confounded when they are suddenly given the chance to play with their own breasts, and a few of them have fun recording fake love confessions on their cell phones--but there are a lot of serious moments as well. Friends learn more about each other's lives than they ever would've known, from traumatic past experiences, to abusive households, to crippling personal insecurities. It takes the adage of walking in another's shoes literally, and the results are significant.

And yet, there are problems. Certain heavy revelations are waved off a little too readily, while others are gossipped about as easily as a bad date. One could make a convincing argument that the characters aren't willing to talk about their personal issues, but the end effect is a series that seems unready to actually tackle any of the serious issues that it raises. As such, certain events are played more for shock than any kind of character development. The ending, especially, feels half-assed. When one of the characters finally gets the courage to confront her mother about her abusive boyfriend, it's solved with a simple, "Oh, you dislike him? Okay, I'll tell him to leave and never come back." It's lazy storytelling and lazy conflict resolution, almost to the point where it feels as though the issues in the series were pulled at random from pamphlets at the local college counseling center.

Likewise, the structure of Kokoro Connect lends itself to a certain amount of clunkiness. Each arc is written such that weird, evil Heartseed gives the kids new hoops to jump through. In one arc, the kids are forced to act out their impulses, while in another, they are transformed back to their child selves. At times, these lead to important revelations. But like other times, many of these are given only partial consideration, and are written off as easily as they're introduced.

Unfortunately, nothing else about the series really invites excitement. The character designs are yanked from a book of How to Draw Anime Characters, and the backgrounds are standard. The animation gets the job done, but takes short cuts whenever possible. There are entire conversations that are shot from angles that don't require mouths to move, while other scenes freeze awkwardly on a non-speaking character.

The dub is fine, with some characters being voiced by industry staples like Greg Ayres (Taichi), Luci Christian (Himeko), and Monica Rial (Iori). The actors deliver their lines like old pros, although it's much more interesting when they're acting out the body-swapping scenes. It gives the actors more room to play in their roles, and fans of theirs should be aptly entertained.

It's not that Kokoro Connect isn't good; it's that it could be better. That's the killer part. The premise is a little goofy at times (really? the characters are going to turn into little kids now?), but it's an imaginative way to force them to confront their problems. Sure, the Heartseed business is hokey and contrived, but pushing all that aside, the series does a reasonable job taking five otherwise ordinary kids and showing that everyone has their own slate of personal demons.

The problem largely lies in the series never quite going far enough, either in its exploration of issues, or in the way it resolves its conflicts. It has more fun bringing out bad memories than actually confronting them, and one can't help but feel like the writers just weren't prepared to tackle any of the subjects. The attempts are half-hearted and a little too convenient, and frankly, it's a little disappointing. Kokoro Connect is a fine little series for what it is, but it could have been magnificent.[TOP]

Rounding off the week was a series that I truly enjoyed watching, if not necessarily for the story, then at least for the amount of time that I spent watching it.

I was a little surprised when Last Exile -Fam, The Silver Wing- came out. After all, it had been quite some time since the original Last Exile, and I never really felt like the series needed a follow-up. Still, I'm glad that it was made. Fam, the Silver Wing is a beautiful series, and although it's a little tedious at time, it's remarkable from a technical standpoint.

On a big screen and in high-definition, Fam, the Silver Wing is glorious. The series takes the viewer to a myriad of breathless, fantastical places, and it's truly awe-inspiring. The clouds are dreamily rendered, and the landscapes are lovingly created. If you were a fan of the airships and cities from Last Exile, the ones in Fam are likewise imaginative and pleasant on the eyes. Visually, the series is a wonder, and if the entire show was just footage of the characters zipping around the world in their airships, it would be okay.

Alas, the characters need to disembark every now and again, and while the story is engaging enough at times, it clunks its way from plot point to plot point, occasionally drifting into tedium. Fam and the rest of the girls are shuffled from adventure to adventure, occasionally stealing ships (this sequence is again beautifully drawn and animated, like most of the scenes involving airships) and then running away from bad guys, and getting mixed up in wars. It's not until the second half of the series that the characters are really given actual consideration. When they are, it feels a little too late. So much is slammed into the last half of the series that one can't help but wish they'd gotten an earlier start. The series tries so hard to contextualize the girls' evolving experiences and emotions with the political landscape of the ongoing war that it ends up feeling rushed at times, boring at others.

From start to finish, Last Exile -Fam, The Silver Wing- is a show that should be watched for its visuals, more so its story or characters. There is just so much care and detail placed in the animation and the backgrounds that the story feels almost like a distraction at times. The battles are much more wonderful and interesting than the characters stuck in the middle of them, and while there are some heartfelt moments involving the girls, it's not nearly as memorable as the visual experience.

For instance, the war scenes are absolutely ridiculous, in a very good way. The air battles are beautifully choreographed, the ships are innovatively designed, and the explosions... the explosions are big and wonderful and absolutely jaw-dropping. From the small-scale chases and escapes, to the large scale battles, Gonzo has infused every inch of this series with passion and flair. Although I will not likely remember the details of what happened between the various empires years from now, I will still remember the aerial battles and the smiles on the girls' faces as they soar through the skies on their planes.

Last Exile -Fam, The Silver Wing- is not spectacular, but it has spectacular things in it. I still remember how bright-eyed and excited I was when I saw the pirates capture a ship. I remember the girls sitting down for a meal with their families and friends. I honestly don't remember who was fighting whom in which episode.

The upside is, I don't really think it's necessary for someone to have watched the original Last Exile in order to enjoy this series. There are some returning characters you will not recognize, and there is history you will not know, but for the visual spectacle that is Fam, the Silver Wing, none of that really matters. This series is definitely style over substance, and while I wish it wasn't so, I do embrace what I got out of it, which was several hours of eye-popping fun.[TOP]

This week's shelves are from Monica:

"My name is Monica, I am 19 years old and have been watching/reading anime and manga since sixth grade. I grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies, Sailor Moon, Hamtaro, and Pokémon. I also draw in my spare time. This is my one bookcase I have for my manga. My anime dvds/blu rays are on my dresser. (I am currently loaning a friend my 2 Sankarea volumes) Due to lack of space many are not shown. Just to give a few numbers, I have a total of five figures, three wall scrolls (not shown), five artbooks and ten Anime Box sets. I have a Rumiko Takahashi and Clamp shelf in my bookcase. My top 3 favorite anime/manga series of all time are Ranma 1/2, xxxholic, and Blue Exorcist. My favorite Ghibli movie is Castle in the Sky (Laputa)."

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