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Shelf Life
Ace of Bakes

by Bamboo Dong,

Now that October is over, I feel like we can move on to the good holidays. I don't knock anyone for liking Halloween—lots of people like Halloween—but I feel like the winter holidays are the best ones. They're the ones that dredge up the warmest fuzzies for me, and the ones that come accompanied with the best seasonal foods. Maybe if the spring and summer holidays stepped up their food game, I'd like them better.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

Shining Hearts is a work of mind-staggering mediocrity, occasionally flickering to "mildly interesting," but more often than not dipping to "painfully dull." It can be described as a fantasy harem show with bread, but it's not really all that fantastical, and the harem aspect doesn't quite go far enough. And, for a show about bread (the Japanese name carries the subtitle "Bread of Happiness"), it doesn't seem to really know anything about baking. The end effect is a show that won't shut up about bread, and is filled with pictures of bread, but doesn't have the culinary know-how to describe why main character Rick's bread is so good, nor the passion of a bread-dedicated show like Yakitate!! Japan to pull off the single-mindedness. It doesn't even use adequate descriptors for the bread, presumably because the creators like the idea of bread, but don't know the first thing about it. In essence, this show is the Instagram of food anime, in that it's all close-up pictures, hashtags of #yum and #bread, and no substance.

It's also incredibly scattered, fattening itself with filler episodes that have zero bearing on the characters or the outcome of the show. It's an awkward and ineffective way to introduce characters that are in the game, but not necessary to the anime. As a result, otherwise playable characters are relegated to one-shot side characters that come and go with negligible impact. On some level, it sort of kind of makes sense—as a writer, you want to shoehorn in as many side characters from a video game that you can possibly handle. But from an entertainment standpoint, it's meaningless. None of the side characters are fleshed out enough to warrant their inclusion in the series, and nearly all of the filler episodes are meandering fluff. And, unlike in a video game where side quests will at least yield special items, all it does watching a show like Shining Hearts is make your eyes glaze over.

Take for example the episode where our baker/swordsman Rick and his pretty, but bland and personality-less lady friends stray too close to the Elvin Forest and run into a mean elf dude. Alvin the Elf is a total butthole, but eventually our ragtime team boring people win him over and get him to try their bread. Then the two parties part way, never to mention each other ever again except for a ominous warning about red moons that takes another ten episodes to materialize. In the game, you can add him to your party. Here, he's just yet another dude who likes Rick's buns.

There's also an entire episode devoted to cutesy poo witch girl Melty who is determined to create the ultimate ice cream. However, she can never get the taste just right until she bites into one of Rick's breads. Why? Because he bakes happiness into the bread, duh. Don't count on her to stick around, though—she and her familiar Sorbe are in the series just long enough to be cute.

But wait, there's an actual story arc that runs throughout the series, flimsy as it may be. It turns out, Rick wasn't always a baker. At one point… he was a swordsman! He still retains some of his swordsman skills, which viewers know, because the same flashback scene of him handling a sword is replayed something like six or seven times. It turns out, the red moon that Butthole Elf Dude warned about was actually a sign of worlds intersecting. Midway through the series, we're introduced to a frail and mysterious girl named Kaguya who washed up on the island. We don't know much about her, except she sure does love eating Rick's bread! Eventually, it's revealed that she's got some special spirit amulet and some reptile pirates are after her powers. Rick then needs to decide whether or not he has what it takes to embrace his secret swordsman past, because he's slowly losing the ability to bake!

It sounds made up, but it's an actual conundrum that's raised in Shining Hearts—is Rick really a baker, or is he a swordsman??!??!. For whatever reason, it doesn't seem possible to the people of the La Coeur bakery that one can have two occupations or multiple interests. Either you're a swashbuckling warrior, or you're a baker, but never both. When really, all Rick really has to say is, “I appreciate your concern, ladies, but I am a swordsman who also likes to bake.” But then the series wouldn't be able to talk about bread every minute, as though somehow it were yeast-risen gold mined from the depths of Mt. Olympus.

Everything else about the show is mediocre as well, with generic music (and a terrible ending theme that had me angrily rushing to hit the “next chapter” button every time it putzed to life) and unmemorable visuals. Somehow, even though all the women in the show are given different outfits, they're barely distinguishable from one another, because they all melt together into this pleasant, inoffensive, wide-eyed mush. The most interesting female character by far is the antiques-dealing, secretly philanthropic catgirl, but her available screen time is largely eaten away by endless scenes of cookie-cutter girls talking about bread.

The voice acting in the series in either language is passable, although nothing to really celebrate. The Sad Truth is, none of the characters are really written to express any emotion other than mild content. I imagine the only voice direction given was, “Just sound pleasant,” resulting in a cast of pod people whose only chances to emote are through lines like, “This bread is really good!” and near the end, Rick's three changes to speak-yell, “Raaaaaaaaaaargh!”

Shining Hearts isn't bad in the way that a cheesy 80s horror movie is bad, or in the way that an exploitative show about female wrestlers is bad. It's bad because it's completely boring and inoffensive, and has nothing going for it except drawings of bread and generically cute girls in generically cute outfits. With no pun intended, it is the white sandwich bread of anime, in a kitchen that has run out of all spreads and sandwich fillings.[TOP]

To wash the soggy taste of Shining Hearts out of my mouth, I somewhat hesitantly popped in Blood-C: The Last Dark.

Damnably, Blood-C: The Last Dark is a fine movie, and a whole lot of fun. It's pretty to look at, the sound design is fabulous, and although the story is straight-forward and not terribly ambitious, it makes for a good popcorn flick. I say “damnably,” though, because unfortunately, The Last Dark requires one to have first seen Blood-C, which is a heaping pile of crap. I mean, one could possibly maybe get away with just reading spoiler recaps of Blood-C, but even that doesn't fully equip you for the scenes that reference the "incident" that takes place in the last few episodes of the series. It also doesn't give viewers adequate introduction to antagonist Fumito and why Saya is so Hell-bent on killing him.

Of course, that's not to say that the movie holds no appeal to those who aren't familiar with Blood-C. It still has plenty to appeal to casual bystanders—the animation is outstanding, the artwork is beautiful (the final “boss” is masterful in the way it uses light and color to render a terrifying monster even more awe-inspiring), and the story is simple enough that one can easily follow it without knowing all of the ins and outs of the last series. Everything that is absolutely crucial knowledge (what the Elder Bairns are, what Saya is) is given enough contextual information that viewers going in blind could still figure it out. (Considering how sloppily the anime series is written, too, it's not like new viewers are really missing out on much in terms of a complex backstory.)

What helps the accessibility of The Last Dark is that it also utilizes a setting independent from that of the series. We're introduced to a darker version of the present where minors are restricted by stringent curfews, and the internet is heavily censored. It takes some of the smartest teen hackers at Saya's new digs to even unearth cat videos, a discovery that offers a couple moments of lightness in the movie. These kids are part of a small organization called SIRRUT, run out of a house by Fumito's cousin, Kuroto. The team is largely made up of hackers, who help Saya track down Fumito's whereabouts.

While the revelation of Fumito's identity was a big moment in Blood-C, and certainly feeds into Saya's motivations in The Last Dark, it isn't prohibitively necessary to enjoy this movie. As mentioned previously, the movie does make more sense after having watching Blood-C, but the truth of the matter is, this movie is simply much more entertaining and well-executed than the series. Perhaps the best course of action for those unfamiliar with the franchise would simply be to just watch the movie, then go back and watch the last few episodes of Blood-C for background.

The Last Dark offers a few fun shout-outs to CLAMP fans, too. There are Makona images scattered throughout the film, and Saya even makes a trip to a certain wish-granting shop in Tokyo. Again, these are not necessary for the enjoyment of the film, but certainly do help answer questions like, "Why is there an invisible shop that grants wishes? Did that dog just talk?"

It's a good time, from beginning to end, whether one approaches it as a final installment to an arc, or as a stand-alone action flick. The story moves along at a fast enough pace that it never gets bogged down, and although the new characters introduced in the movie don't get the luxury of being as well-characterized as ones you'd see in a multi-episode work, they're fun and complement the overbearing gloominess of Saya. Overall, a great flick for a night in.[TOP]

To round out the week, I popped in NIS America's release of Yuruyuri - Happy Go Lily.

While both Shining Hearts and Yuruyuri spend an awful lot of time doing nothing at all, the latter is at least funny (at times). And it has the bonus of knowing that it's doing absolutely nothing, which is a sort of self-awareness that these types of gag comedies have learned to manipulate.

The girls of Yuruyuri, Akari, Kyoko, Yui, and new-to-the-group Chinatsu are part of the Amusement Club. They spend their time doing absolutely nothing, other than hang out, and if one of them does manage to concoct some kind of scheme or activity, it doesn't escalate much beyond your usual cute girl shenanigans. Sometimes those shenanigans can wring a chuckle or two out of the viewer, but they're rarely knee-slappingly funny. Yuruyuri is the kind of show that can lift you out of a bummer, but not really elevate you much higher than that.

For yuri fans, it delivers about as far as it needs, but nothing further. Girls crush on other girls, and while there is the occasional fanservice and teasing, there is nothing that could even remotely be considered sexual. The end result is a show that has all the trappings of a yuri show, but that is as innocent as fresh spring rain. The show is good-natured and affable, and one would be hard pressed to find anything that would either offend or rile.

The upside is, it's the kind of show that works well to watch in spurts. It's good for when you're sitting down for a bite to eat, for instance, or a last episode before bed time. No memory of previous episodes are ever needed, and there is nothing resembling cliffhangers that would prevent you from successfully turning off the TV at the end of the night. Gags are hit or miss, as with most comedy, but occasionally one will catch you off guard and make your night.

The downside is, Yuruyuri is exceedingly difficult to marathon because the show is devoid of any highs or lows. Because of the nature of the show, there is no suspense, there is no story, there is no drama. There are occasional moments are heart-warming, but for the most part, everything is a flat line of energy and quirky jokes. If you watch several episodes in a row, they bleed into each other, and all the gag comedy tomfoolery begins to solidify into clumps. Jokes that would otherwise be funny after a one or two day hiatus feel somehow less amusing. It's hard to tell if it's your funny bone getting desensitized to your typical wackadoodle cute girl humor, or if it's because long hours of quaint, but directionless, goofing off have a way of making one feel like their day is repeating.

Shows like Yuruyuri are a bit of an acquired taste, and are certainly not for everyone. This series has the benefit of being more self-aware than some other gag comedy shows, but it also doesn't do much to distinguish itself from the crowd. The girls are fun, if a little on the generic side, and while a lot of the gags are merely smile-worthy, they do on occasion produce a chuckle.

As far as yuri shows go, Yuruyuri is charming, if a little forgettable. If I'm to be honest, I can't really see the value in owning the series, as I can't see the episodes as having much re-watch potential. The girls are cute and their misadventures are silly, but that's about it. Of course, for those who do decide to take the plunge and splurge on this boxset, as always, NIS America makes some of the best boxsets in the business. Yuruyuri is treated with the same loving care as all their other package releases, complete with a hardcover artbook and everything, so that's something for fans to look forward to.[TOP]

Alright, that's it. See you next week!

This week's shelves are from Jerry, who wrote in,

"These four shots show my anime/manga collection's second incarnation.

The first one had a good three times as many books and DVDs; but that went away.

My pride and joy is the Ranma ½ wall scroll (that I found at a charity yard sale), and the 2014 Snow Miku Hatsune.

The best part of all this is that three of my grandkids also enjoy anime, so we spend a lot of time, watching together when they visit."

Those are some lucky grandkids!!

Want to show off your shelves? Send your jpgs to [email protected]

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