Shelf Life
Love and Other Thugs

by Bamboo Dong,

This week yielded three anime titles that I thought were Shelf Worthy, which is rare. Usually there is at least one title I feel pretty "meh" about, but I would gladly re-watch anything on this list (and I probably will). This put my month off to a great start, which is an added bonus, as December is already, by far, my favorite month out of the year.
When Log Horizon first came out, I was immediately skeptical of its premise. At that point, we had already experienced a handful of "I woke up and now I'm trapped in a game/game scenario" series, with two in rapid succession just prior to this series. So after a couple episodes, I tossed it into the Ignore bin, grumbling about griffin contrivances and low stakes (considering none of the players could actually die).

I am eager to say that I was completely and totally wrong. By the time the Akihabara Round Table was convened, I was completely taken by the series, and was in shock over how wrong my assumptions were. If I had to draw comparisons, Log Horizon is more like Mamare Touno's other work, Maoyu, than Sword Art Online, in that even in a fantastical setting, it uses very real-world economical and political principles as its foundation. Sure, maybe the system in Log Horizon is a little draconian and only functions in an overly idealized society, but the fact that the series starts out as "Help, I'm trapped in a game," and ends with, "Let's form a self-governing society that thrives on local commerce and craftsmanship" is fantastic and makes the series hard to stop watching.

The series protagonist is a calm, kind-of-nerdy character named Shiroe. He doesn't look like much from his avatar—he's a tall, unassuming, bespectacled Enchanter who prefers to provide support for the front-line fighters—but his reputation is known amongst many of the top players. Nicknamed the "Villain in Glasses," he served as the strategist for an informal group of Elder Tale players who called themselves the Debauchery Tea Party, a group that valued new experiences and the thrill of high-level quests. One day, he and all the other Elder Tale players in the world woke up to the startling realization that they were somehow now in the game itself, in a never-ending purgatory where players could neither die nor escape. Everything still worked as it did in the game, including magic spells and special skills like armor-making and crafting, but in all the chaos, things started going rotten. Bullies were running rampant and killing low-level players (who would merely respawn), mining new players for their items and labor, and in general, just being the types of delinquents that anyone might expect from a lawless, authority-less society.

That's where Log Horizon diverges from many of its predecessors. Rather than focusing on surface-level issues, like leveling up, completing missions, or hunting for gold, the characters instead accept their fate and decide to dedicate their time to making everyone's lives better. While the first chunk of episodes is devoted to rescuing a companion from another server, the remainder of the episodes in the set revolve around the improvement of the players lives, stemming from an exciting and simple revelation about hand-crafted goods and food items. It's through something as simple as a home-cooked meal that Shiroe and his allies are able to reach their ultimate goal—a semblance of government and an organized market economy.

Shiroe is unlike many of the other protagonists who have come before him. He is very skilled at both combat and combat strategy, but it's the latter that makes him cool. Despite his high level fighting abilities, his talents lie in planning and thinking, orchestrating not only simple battles, but also the social mobilization of large groups. Not only is it easy to root for him, despite his somewhat underhanded execution of tasks, but it makes his exploits infinitely engaging. It's so unlike previous series that almost everything feels like a surprise. One wouldn't think that a simple meeting between game avatars could be tense, but shrouded in secrecy and coupled with a daring rescue mission, the episodes surrounding the formation of the Round Table are some of the most exciting in the set.

It's worth mentioning that as neat as the proceedings are, the series functions best if you don't really think about any of the details too hard. There are aspects of Log Horizon that function much better as ideas than in practice, like the consideration of NPCs and their autonomy, or the fact that Akihabara's new government works largely based on mass compliance, satisfaction with stagnant roles, and blind trust in self-appointed leaders. Taken at face value, though, it's an interesting look at group dynamics and putting the greater good over individual wants.

I am appreciative that I had the Blu-ray in my hands, even though episode 13 ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. Had I not had a large chunk of episodes in front of me, I might have made the same mistake as before, and disregarded the series after a couple of ho-hum episodes. It is a truly delightful series for those who enjoy MMORPGs (the series caters to game fans by including fun snippets that explain the mechanics of the world, as well as the players' strategies), and those who enjoy their fantasy with a slice of real-world politicking.[TOP]

Next up on my list was another charming gem, which I was likewise surprised to enjoy so much.

Nisekoi has elements that will be familiar to any fan who has spent his or her fair share of time with shonen rom-coms. It tells the unlikely love story between the son of a yakuza boss, Raku; the daughter of a mob boss, Chitoge; and the sweet childhood friend/classmate Kosaki who represents everything that a stereotypical, generic anime love interest typically entails—she's sweet, she's caring, she's demure, she's understanding, and she may or may not be the missing link in a childhood promise of marriage.

But it's exactly that dichotomy between the brash and unrefined Chitoge (Raku calls her a gorilla) and the sweet but almost bland Kosaki that makes this tale of teenage romance so charming and affable. While it's easy to write off various aspects of the series as pre-marked genre cliches (Chitoge is a classic tsundere, even down to the tired and hackneyed stereotype of beating up Raku for comedy), it is this playful clashing of archetypes that makes the series so enjoyable. That Chitoge grew up in a household of doting gangsters gives her character a unique twist, pushing her beyond being just another overly-assertive female character. And if you finish the disc already rooting for her to end up with Raku, it's not hard to see why. She's given the most spark and fire, in sharp contrast to a girl like Kosaki who gets saddled with the role of outdated model girlfriend-material.

Of course, this first disc only comes with five episodes, so we're not actually privy to any additional girls that may come into the mix, but the series is off to a good start. Understandably, there are some viewers who might be pretty sick of some of the more recycled jokes in the series—the "guy gets punched for a misunderstanding" is really old at this point, but the series does get a lot of mileage out of the children-of-the-yakuza/gangster premise. The episodes are also separated by cute vignettes of how different characters respond to different events, like giving/receiving Valentine's Day candy, and interacting with animals. Again, it's a fun play on pre-existing stereotypes that works surprisingly well.

The series also wins in terms of visuals, provided by the talented hands at SHAFT, and overseen by the experienced Akiyuki Simbo. It's beautifully drawn (although some of the fanservice shots linger juuuuuuust a little too long), and it's clear the team had a lot of fun making the show. Shots like Raku's straw poking into his green tea carton are cool, if not a little senseless, and the series effortlessly transitions between more cartoony shots with over-exaggerated faces, manga-inspired speed lines, and speech bubbles; to more realistic shots, with carefully-drawn parquet floors and other painstaking details.

Admittedly, Nisekoi may not be for everyone. While I find Chitoge's gruff exterior and gangster upbringing to be delightful, others may find her character off-putting and a little too commonplace. I think the deft juggling of archetypes and the inclusion of the yakuza/gangster angle is what gives the series its cheeky edge, but others may not feel the same way. For those who want to try before they buy, though, the series is still streaming on Crunchyroll, which removes some of the risk in committing to a $10/episode purchase.[TOP]

Last on my list was the complete second season of Silver Spoon, also from Aniplex of America, which I was more than excited to watch again.

Although both seasons of Silver Spoon are similar, in that they both have the same characters, both have farm jokes, and both involve main character Hachiken's struggle to find his place at an agricultural school, the two are thematically very different. Whereas the first series focuses largely on the characters' relationship with the food that they eat (making pizza from scratch and raising a piglet only to turn it into bacon are some of the season's biggest turning points), the second season relies much more on the characters' relationship with the people and animals around them.

It's the natural progression for the series, considering how aimless Hachiken has felt throughout much of the process. Unlike his classmates, he went to agricultural school because he didn't really know what else to do, and because he thought it'd leave him with extra time to study for college entrance exams. So while the first season was his rough introduction to an agrarian lifestyle, and his initial glimpse into a world in which something as simple as food isn't taken for granted, the second season is his personal examination of what he wants to do in life, what matters the most to him, and how to meaningfully engage with those around him.

Themes of trust, respect, and appreciation resound throughout this season. From Hachiken's attempts to train a puppy, and working with a horse with which there is mutual distrust, we see that the relationships that we forge with animals are just as important as the ones we forge with humans. But it's the human relationships that eventually take front and center in Silver Spoon. When the characters learn that one of their friends is facing a major dilemma between chasing his dreams and supporting his bankrupt family, the conversations that follow are somber and heartbreaking. This concept of conflict between the wants of the individual versus the wants of the family is omnipresent in the episodes, and it envelops many of the characters, including Aki and even Hachiken, whose father looks down on him for his life choices.

These are issues that will hit close to home for anyone who has ever felt familial pressure to do something or be someone else. The vast majority of us may not know what it's like to have to wake up early to milk cows, but we can all appreciate the desire to be accepted for the type of person we want to be. In many ways, that is the over-arching journey in Silver Spoon: the long road of self-discovery, the experiences that shape and mold who we want to be, and our struggle to find inner and outer acceptance of our final answers.

On the surface, Silver Spoon can seem like just a collection of agricultural jokes, or a rehash of the various city-kid-goes-to-the-countryside stories that abound in pop culture, but underneath the manure gags and slapstick is a very open and honest look at some of the basic things that define who we are and how we live. It has been one of my favorite series to come out in the last few years, and every time I watch it, I find something new to appreciate about it. I heavily recommend it to anyone who enjoys digging for meaning in unlikely places.[TOP]

I'll see everyone next week for some High School DxD and other delights.

This week's shelves come to us from Robert, who seems to have stumbled into the anime addiction in the same way that many of us have:

"Hi. Back in 1998 needing a vacation I came across a cheap trip to Japan, and after only a week there I really came to like it. Awhile after getting back to Michigan I was looking for Japanese movies on DVD, and all I could find at the time was the Ghost in the Shell movie, so I picked it up and really enjoyed it. Then I decided to try a couple of more titles (Tenchi Muyo and Evangelion were next), and I was hooked. So I kept picking up more anime and manga."

And once you start, you can't stop. We understand.

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

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