Last Second Gift Guide
by Bamboo Dong,
If you're anything like me, then you don't start Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve. Or maaaaybe the day before that. It's not that I don't love the spirit of giving, or whatever, I'm just a serial procrastinator when it comes out to check off my gift list. So, if you've still got any anime fans left on your list, here are some of my personal favorites from this past year.
2013 saw a lot of good anime… but it saw an awful lot of mediocre anime, as well. I've highlighted some of the Shelf Worthier items below that I think would make great gifts for the anime fan in your life, some of which you might've already forgotten about.
Some of these items aren't generally stocked at your local brick 'n' mortar entertainment store, so they might not be in your hands by the 25th, but who's to say you can't just write a "Coming soon!" in a lovely card. Just saying. Procrastinators like me always know how to dodge a gift-giving deadline.
Alright, welcome to Shelf Life!
For the fan who… loves to analyze the &^#$ out of their entertainment
Visually and emotionally, Penguindrum hits all the right buttons. Directed and co-written by Kunihiko Ikuhara (Revolutionary Girl Utena), this series is absolutely dazzling and impossible to put down. Whimsical yet dark, it has scenes that will make you want to alternately laugh and wince in pain. Its themes are cynical, yet thought-provoking, and although there are enough grand ideas and symbols stuffed into this show to make every re-watch feel like a new experience.
On its surface, the series is about a family of three teenagers—two fraternal twin boys, and their terminally ill sister. After the sister collapses at the aquarium and is later presumed dead, she springs back to life again, her life force seemingly delivered through a plush penguin souvenir hat that occasionally takes over her consciousness. Through the hat, we're introduced to a mysterious alien princess girl who asks the brothers to find her the "Penguindrum." Backed by a cast of complex and unpredictable characters, and beautifully illustrated with loaded imagery and inventive designs, Penguindrum is perfect for someone who likes the challenge of shows that force you to look beneath the surface.
For the fan who… loves a good time travel story
Time travel comes in many shapes and forms, but in Steins;Gate, it comes as a microwave. The series follows self-proclaimed mad scientist Rintaro Okabe. He operates a “lab” in an apartment above an electronics store, along with his friend Mayuri and the otaku computer whiz Daru. As the series progresses, more characters are added to the mix, and all are made honorary members of the lab. Their main project right now is a tinkered-with microwave contraption that turns bananas into blobs of gel, but they quickly discover that they can also use it to send short emails to the past. Once the past has been changed, though, the only one who remembers both timelines is Rintaro.
As far as science fiction goes, Steins;Gate is much more "fiction" than it is "science," although that's not really a strike against it. It has the good sense to mostly veer away from nonsensical technobbable, and keeps enough faux-science and time travel theory at bay to not distract. By the time the last third of the series rolls around, it's a mystery/thriller, with a few last minute plot twists thrown in to keep things fresh.
If you know someone on your Christmas list who can't pass up a good time travel romp, and loves a mad scientist or two, then Steins;Gate is a safe bet.
For the fan who… loves classics
This is one of those gifts that perhaps requires a little sleuthing beforehand. "Say," you ask your friend nonchalantly, "I hear you like Akira. Can I borrow it?" If they say, "Yes," then maybe this won't fly as hard, but if they say, "Gosh, I wish, but I don't have it," then that is your perfect chance to slip this baby into the gift pile.
The real talk is that Akira has been released so many times that a lot of people who love the movie probably already own it. But here's why this release is one of the best--it includes not only the 2001 Pioneer dub , but also the “original” Streamline 1988 dub, which is a huge bonus. Arguably, the 2001 dub is the better dub in terms of translation and fidelity, but for many of us who used Akira as one of our gateway anime, the 1988 dub is the One True Akira Dub. And now, they're together.
For a movie as old as Akira is, it holds up remarkably well. The animation is stunning, and the movie absolutely bursts with imagination and creativity at its seams. And, for the first time, it's available in one of the most definitive collections yet.
A classic blockbuster full of blood and guts, of assasins and grotesque, monstrous villains, Ninja Scroll is a tale of good versus evil that reminds many of their early days of anime. While many (I speak at least for myself) teenaged memories of the film largely consist of gore and breasts, revisiting the movie is an eye-opening experience. The story may not exactly be earth-shattering--there's a bad guy, with a bunch of bad minions, and one by one, they try and take down our pair of heroes--but seeing it again as an adult lets you appreciate just how visually creative it is. Between the character designs and the stylistic choices with the animation, Ninja Scroll is a good looking movie.
For the fan who… loves music
Who says you can't combine a passion for music with a healthy love of anime? Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe and scored by Yoko Kanno, Kids on the Slope is a jazz fan's dream. A sweet story about the unlikely friendship between a shy pianist named Kaoru and a delinquent drummer named Sentaro, it mixes the ups and downs of high school life with a breezy soundtrack that will have you tearing up and tapping your feet at the same time.
At times, the series is a little slow, but it's never boring, and it allows the characters' relationships with one another to breathe. In addition to the two main protagonists, we're also introduced to Sentaro's childhood friend Ritsuko, and although there is a romantic subplot when Kaoru develops feelings for her, it's handled deftly, emphasizing the awkwardness of teen romance and mixed feelings. We also meet some other characters with complex backgrounds—an older guy whom Sentaro calls “Brother Jun” and idolizes, whose ties with a political movement estrange him from his family, and the girl who uproots her privileged life for him, as well as Kaoru's mother, who left him when he was younger. While all of those stories play out with bittersweetness, nothing quite compares to the highlights of the series—the times when Kaoru and Sentaro can leave everything behind and play music together. There's an unforgettable scene that takes place during the school festival talent show, one that must be experienced firsthand to actually appreciate.
Wonderfully nostalgic and simultaneously melancholic and uplifting, Kids on the Slope is a love story not only to friendship and the follies of youth, but also an ode to jazz and the musicians who embrace it.
For the fan who… loves historical fiction
The Rose of Versailles may take a bit of historical license here and there, but for the most part, it stands true to history. Lest anyone be worried, Queen Marie does indeed get her just desserts in the end. But despite the constraints of history, this series is much more than a simpering tale of palace life, or even a dry documentation of French history. Under all the glitz and the opulence, it's a story about the rumblings that led to the French Revolution. It's a story about people who are prisoners of gender and class. And at times, it's a story about petty court melodrama, and there are plenty of moments in the series when one can't help but wring their hands over the childishness of the nobles.
But what makes this series so riveting, and one that's so remarkably withstood the test of time is Lady Oscar, a character so fascinating and strong that one would be dismayed if the ladies of Versailles didn't swoon when she walked into the room. Her very existence makes the story interesting, on multiple levels. When she was born, her father, the Commander of the Royal Guards, was so disappointed that she wasn't a boy that he raised her like a boy anyway. She grew up learning swordsmanship and wearing men's clothing, eventually earning the position of the leader of the palace guards.
Having watched over Marie Antoinette since before Marie was betrothed to the future king, Lady Oscar's presence in the series allows viewers to track the path towards revolution, from early court drama, to the Tennis Court Agreement, to the Storming of the Bastille. Whether someone is a history buff, or just a fan of drama, The Rose of Versailles is a classic worth seeing.
For the fan who… never has enough time to watch a whole series
For those who love a good adventure and a bittersweet romance that just... wasn't fated to be, The Princess and the Pilot is a underrated little gem that deserves to be fawned over. Technically excellent, efficiently written, and emotionally pure, you'll feel like you're soaring by the end of it.
The film features two incredible characters—a mercenary pilot named Charles, and a wealthy soon-to-be-princess girl named Juana. Charles is constantly harassed and insulted for being a “bestado,” someone born to the lowest social caste in the fictional kingdom of Levamme. Meanwhile, beautiful noble Juana has lived the plush life, and will soon marry the prince of Levamme. Unfortunately, Levamme has been embroiled in a long and costly war with the Amatsukami, and after they try to kill Juana, a plan is hatched to smuggle her past enemy lines into the arms of her future husband. As a talented pilot, Charles is tagged for the job, and together, the two must fight for their lives.
It sounds simple, but the simplicity of the story is what helps make the movie so great. It allows the film the spend most of its energy on its characters and their development, culminating in a final scene that is both cathartic and uplifting. Combined with a powerful music score and beautiful animation, The Princess and the Pilot will be a hit for those who want an impactful story in a short time frame.
For the fan who… likes pretty things
Clocking in at just 46 minutes, Garden of Words is a magnificent feat. It manages to tell the complete story of two people and their relationship together without feeling the least bit rushed, and without feeling like there's anything that was left unspoken. In true Shinkai manner, the entire work is also slammed full of metaphors, making it to worthy to watch multiple times.
But beyond anything, Garden of Words is absolutely beautiful. It plays with reflection and light in ways that will take one's breath away. It makes good use of clever camera angles, allowing shots like rain-soaked streets or character's feet as they absent-mindedly dangle their shoes. One shot in particular of rain drops splashing into a pond is by itself worthy of replaying, just to marvel in the way that Shinkai is able to bring to life one of nature's great gifts.
If you have someone on your gift list who's a sucker for beautiful imagery, Garden of Words will hit the mark. Beautifully designed and tenderly animated, it is nature eye candy at its finest.
For the fan who… is a kid of the 90s
The Dragon Ball Z: Rock the Dragon edition is aimed directly at a very particular subset of fans. It's aimed at the fans who were between the ages of, say, 6 and 16 when the generously edited, heavily cut Ocean Group dub of Dragon Ball Z was on TV. It is purely a nostalgia release, and it is meant for those who will appreciate it simply because this is the version of Dragon Ball Z that they remember, where the characters yell almost nonsensical phrases at each other, and preach about weird things like staying hydrated. This is the Saturday morning cartoon show of many 90s youths, and if you know anyone in your life who still quotes old Dragon Ball Z like it's their personal mantra, then this is the gift for them.
For the fan who… likes a good chuckle
Comedy is a hard category to nail, because everyone has their own list of things that make them laugh. Amongst all the comedies I've seen, though, Daily Lives of High School Boys is one of my favorites, not only because it's gut-splittingly funny, but also because it's simply different.
It's the perfect counterpoint to the endless barrage of girl-centric gag comedies that come out every season, and even though some of those shows are funny and wildly successful, Daily Lives is a cheeky and inventive take on an old genre. It's high school shot through the hazy lens of puberty, albeit in a fictional world much more innocent than reality. Of course, this doesn't mean the series is above taking pot shots at all-girl comedies. It gets a lot of mileage out of vignettes titled “High School Girls Are Funky,” shorts starring three loud, boisterous, foul-mouthed girls who are prone to fighting.
If you've got someone on your gift list who's hankering for a new type of comedy, then make them smile with this.
For the fan who…doesn't know they're an anime fan yet
Not that I would advocate sneakily hooking someone onto anime, BUT if I were to do such a dastardly thing, I'd use a gateway drug like Little Witch Academia. It's cute, it's charming, it's packed to the gills with heart, and it's absolutely beautiful. And, it's got enough Western flavor that it might ease the transition a little.
The movie stars a sweet, but not terribly talented witch-in-training named Akko Kagari. One day, a class assignment to explore a labyrinth of dungeons goes awry, unleashing a powerful, magic-gobbling dragon. Aided by a special staff and some words from a childhood idol, Akko finds a way to save the day. It's a simple message, but it's a sweet and sincere one, and it's one that's almost guaranteed to put a smile on someone's face.
Although Little Witch Academia could be enjoyed by animation lovers of all ages, it's also a great gift for kids. The story is engaging and spreads a good message, and the animation is colorful and full of life. Plus, no one's ever too young to start loving anime.
What do you think? Are any of these giftable, or would you kick me off your Secret Santa list forever? What are some of the boxsets or movies that you'd love to get this year? Let me know in the forums!
As a quick note, Shelf Life will be off for the next two weeks because of the holidays and Otakon Vegas. I'll be back after that with some Girls und Panzer and whatever else shows up on my doorstep. See you then! And, if you happen to be at Otakon Vegas, please say "hi!"
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