by Bamboo Dong, Paul Jensen,
On Shelves This Week
Synopsis: Twins Shugo and Rena were separated after their parents' divorce, but are able to reunite online thanks to The World, an online roleplaying game. After winning an online contest, they're given the chance to play as BlackRose and Kite, but something sinister is going on with the game. After an encounter leaves Rena in a coma, Shugo must learn the secrets of the Twilight Bracelet if he has any hope of saving his sister.
Thoughts: Another Bandai rescue, this was first distributed on DVD back in 2004, and is now available in one boxset. I haven't thought too much about this show since 2004, but I remember liking it well enough to watch the whole thing, and accepting it as a fun entry in the .Hack franchise. The characters are a lot more cutesy this time around, but the story is reasonably engrossing. It was also supervised by Koichi Mashimo, who directed all the other .hack entries, although he's acting as the Chief Director for this title. The director role went to Koji Sawai, who did the storyboards for several of the .Hack projects. You can check out the series streaming on Funimation and Hulu.
Synopsis: Nanako is excited for an invitation to join Seiran Girl's High School's exclusive sorority, but as she gets to know the three most popular girls at school, she uncovers secrets from their pasts, and makes enemies of her own. The series follows Nanako's first year at school through her correspondence with a teacher from her last cram school, whom she refers to as "brother."
Thoughts: This 1991 series has quite the pedigree. It's based on a manga by Riyoko Ikeda (of Rose of Versailles fame), and was directed by none other than Osamu Dezaki, whose directed classics like Black Jack, Ashita no Joe, The Rose of Versailles, and several Lupin the 3rd specials. If you want to check the series out on Anime Sols, you should act fast—the service will be closing its doors on May 1. You can also watch it on Viki and Hulu.
Synopsis: Ryuugamine Mikado is eager to move to the fast-paced hustle and bustle of Tokyo, but his new digs in Ikebukuro are a lot more crazy than he could've imagined. He's surrounded by gangters, human traffickers, sword-wielding sociopaths, and even a headless female transporter, and of course he manages to be involved in it all.
Thoughts: Our readers love Durarara!!—it has an average user rating of 8 out of 10, and even after only one episode, it's easy to see why. The show is wild and fun, and you'd be hard-pressed to ever be bored. You can read Carl's review of episodes 1-12 and 13-24, as well as reviews of the series from both Theron and Mark. The series is streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu
Looking Up At the Half-Moon Complete Collection DVD
Nozomi/Lucky Penny - 150 min - Sub - MSRP $29.99
Currently cheapest at: $17.26 Rakuten
Synopsis: Yuuichi Ezaki is constantly sneaking out of the hospital, even though he's supposed to be recuperating from his illness. During one of his excursions, he's caught by the head nurse, who promises to forgive him if he'll befriend a new patient named Rika, a quiet girl who's spent most of her life in the hospital, and doesn't really have any friends. The two start spending time together, and eventually their friendship blossoms into a romance.
Thoughts: We'll have a review of Looking Up At the Half-Moon for you shortly, but I have high hopes for this series, considering it has a user rating of 8.5 on ANN. The original light novel series by Tsumugu Hashimoto has already been adapted into an anime, a live-action TV drama, as well as a live-action movie, and the anime was in good hands—it was directed by Yukihiro Matsushita, who also directed Maria Watches Over Us.
Synopsis: The adventures of Luffy and his friends continues in this boxset, which contains episodes 373 to 384. It contains the tail end of the Thriller Bark Arc, as well as the Spa Island Arc. Luffy is at his limits, and it's up to Zoro and Sanji to pick up the pieces against the massive Bartholomew Kuma.
Synopsis: With the events of the first two Madoka Magica films behind them, the girls must cope with a new world, all while continuing to fight the witches that lurk in the shadows. But something doesn't seem quite right. Faces are familiar and different all at the same time, and where there are glimmers of hope, there is just as much despair. It all comes down to Homura Akemi, who has the fate of the universe at her fingertips.
Thoughts: I'll be posting a review of Rebellion in the upcoming weeks, and I'm eager to see it again now that I've more recently refreshed my memory of the series and the first two movies. The theatrical screening left me feeling a little underwhelmed, but it was one of the most brilliant animated visual displays I'd ever seen. You can check out Hope's review of the movie here, as well as thoughts on the movie from Mike Toole.
Synopsis: The selfish actions of the French royalty are causing unrest. While the gentlemen and ladies of the court concern themselves with petty drama and trifles, children are starving on the streets. With times changing, Oscar leaves her post with Queen Antoinette and joins the French Guards, just as the tides of rebellion begin to brew.
Thoughts: I absolutely love The Rose of Versailles, and as a history enthusiast, I found the second half to be more intriguing than the first. While the first half deals more with court drama and the opulent lifestyle of the nobles, the second half focuses on the social fallout from those actions. You can also read Rebecca's thoughts on this set of episodes from when the series was first released in 2013. The series is streaming on Hulu, Crunchyroll, and Viki.
Synopsis: High school students Chise and Shuji are happy to finally be dating, but the sudden onset of war rips their lives apart. Chise is taken by the military and altered into a flying weapon, capable of vast destruction. Despite her new appearance and orders to be a killer, she only wants one thing—to be together with Shuji again as a normal high school girl.
Thoughts: This title holds a special place in my heart, as I've considered it one of my favorite series for over a decade. I'll be revisiting it for the first time since the early 2000s next week, and I'm beyond happy that this title has been rescued. We've still got some ancient reviews up on the site, but we'll have more updated reviews for you soon. The series is streaming on The Anime Network and Hulu.
Synopsis: Harutora seems like a regular guy from the outside, but he was born into a family of onmyouji. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have the gift of magic. His life is forever changed when he meets Natsume, and promises to go with her to Onmyo Academy.
Thoughts: Tokyo Ravens is based on a light novel by Kouhei Azano, who also created Black Blood Brothers. Director Takaomi Kanasaki previously worked on Is This a Zombie?, Magician's Academy, and School Rumble: Extra Class. You can check the series out online from Funimation and Hulu.
Shelf Life Reviews
Space Dandy Season 1 BD+DVD
Outbreak Company Complete Collection BD
Chronicles of the Going Home Club Complete Series BD
Nothing this week
I received the Space Dandy set when I was still in Japan, and it was almost enough to make me want to come home right away. It's an incredible show that brings me immeasurable joy, and I hope that you give it a chance, if you haven't already.
Thematically, this first season is very different from chief director Shinichiro Watanabe's other space epic, the American fan-favorite Cowboy Bebop. There are no wistful stares or soul-searching flashbacks. Instead, Space Dandy is light-hearted and goofy, and tremendously episodic—it's not uncommon for Dandy and his crew to die in absurd ways. One episode even has them turned into zombies, but they find peace with a new outlook and a strict regimen of yogurt. Stylistically, the two share more common ground, though to spend any more time comparing them would be a disservice to both. Space Dandy is about the here and now, and neither the past nor the future can be bothered with.
Blessedly, Funimation's release has a "marathon mode," which they've used with past titles like Dragon Ball Z. It's perfect here, because there's really no better way to while away a weekend than to plant yourself on a soft couch and immerse yourself in the world of Space Dandy. It is a wild and crazy visual feast, colored with vibrant neons and bright colors. The character designs are kooky and fun, and there's no end to the parade of strange alien life forms that our heroes encounter (who could have predicted the boob monster?). And littered amongst the crazy creatures and unique planets are nods to the West, like Dandy's favorite chain restaurant Boobies, his Hawaiian shirt-wearing escape pod, and the ball gag-wearing Lady Liberty head that the omnipresent but utterly clueless villains zip around in. Glasses are raised to anime, too, with cheeky Gundam references, digs about otaku culture, and even an appearance from a generic bishonen archetype.
Every episode is a vignette from their lives, though even a show as carefree as Space Dandy lets in a few poignant moments. I found my eyes getting misty in parts of "The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby," and I appreciated some of the quieter glances in "There's Always Tomorrow, Baby." Other episodes were perfection for different reasons—breezy jazz music and ethereal designs combined just right for "Plants are Living Things, Too, Baby," which ended up being one of my favorite episodes this season. It doesn't hurt that it was co-written by Watanabe and Eunyoung Choi, an incredibly talented woman who's also worked on projects like Kick-Heart, Ping Pong, and Adventure Time (Choi served as the episode director for this particular episode, too.).
In fact, there is a lot of talent in Space Dandy. It has a sterling list of scriptwriters, artists, and musicians (of which Yoko Kanno is obviously one), and it's fairly plain to see how much creative joy was put into this project. I mentioned earlier that there isn't much character development to speak of, and nothing terribly profound to ponder, but as an artistic endeavor and showcase, this series is worth every penny and minute.
I haven't even begun to scratch the surface about the animation, which is frenetic and incredible. There is a time and place to applaud photo-realistic walk cycles and near-perfect recreations of life. And then there are times to simply revel in the power of movement and momentum, brought to life by stylized characters and adrenaline-pumping action scenes. And with so many different episodes and scenarios, the show is an animator's playground. Characters who are reeling in giant fish in one scene may be air-surfing through exploding planets the next. Even the roll of an eye can be expressive.
Much fuss is often made online about the anime industry and whether or not it's suffocating under the weight of commercialism and mass market appeal. But then shows like Space Dandy come along, breathing more "cool" into one scene of a giant vacuum cleaner chasing a robot through a junkyard than an entire year's worth of board meetings about Cool Japan. And then you remember why you even liked animation in the first place.
Next on deck, Paul's review of NIS America's Chronicles of the Going Home Club.
The “going home club” is a term that comes up a lot in high school comedies, and usually refers to students who aren't involved in any extracurricular activities. It takes on a different meaning in this show, as the going home club is an actual student organization with its own club room. The five members represent a typical range of anime girl archetypes, and the club exists for the sole purpose of finding fun ways to kill time. As much as I hate to admit it, that's about all there is to the premise. It's an unambitious, low budget comedy about cute girls doing goofy things.
What I like about this series is that it's fully aware of its own flaws. Even the characters seem to be in on the joke and frequently mock the production staff for cutting corners. There's a moment in an early episode where a character supposedly uses up a scene's budget with a needlessly well-animated hand gesture. As a result, the rest of the scene is presented as a series of storyboards. The show's limitations and lack of popularity become running jokes, affecting everything from the ending theme song to the suspiciously limited variety of locations.
Even when they aren't breaking the flimsy walls of their fictional world, the characters revel in derailing one another's ideas. Any time the club manages to get some kind of activity going, it's quickly taken so far off track that no one can remember what they were trying to do in the first place. The first victim in a horror movie re-enactment comes back to life to help move the scenery around. A simulated group date grinds to a halt because the girl playing the waitress has no idea what kind of food her imaginary restaurant serves. There's even a character whose official role is to retort to everyone else's jokes. There are points where the series feels less like a piece of fiction and more like a well-rehearsed standup comedy act.
Of course, the problem with making a show's weaknesses into punchlines is that it doesn't stop them from being weaknesses. The production quality is below average, the format doesn't change much from one episode to the next, and it's not quite as funny as the more popular comedies that it pokes fun at. This series is a very charming underdog, but it's an underdog for a reason. If you don't buy into its particular style of humor, it falls apart almost immediately.
If you're like me (and I hope for your sake that you aren't), then you'll love Chronicles of the Going Home Club. It's consistently funny and has a low-budget charm that's difficult to pin down. NIS America also did an ironically lavish job with this premium edition, and the included art book contains some hilariously misleading episode summaries. If, on the other hand, you'd rather watch an objectively good show than a self-aware mediocre one, then you're not missing much here. This is one of those rare cases where I really enjoy something but wouldn't necessarily recommend it to a friend.
Lastly, Paul tackles Outbreak Company, a show that gives us all hope that someday all of our anime viewing habits will somehow be useful.
I bring this up because Outbreak Company features a teenage otaku whose hobbies land him a job in a parallel world where magic is real and everyone thinks anime is the greatest thing since sliced bread. He lives in a mansion with a half-elf maid and a busty military bodyguard, builds a school where he teaches lessons on anime tropes, and hangs out with the fantasy kingdom's empress. The whole premise reeks of wish fulfillment and pandering comedy, but something interesting happens when all those parts come together: they make a surprisingly fun and occasionally clever little show.
Outbreak Company has a well-deserved reputation for being a belt-fed machine gun of anime references, but the real foundation of its comedic strength lies in the characters. Leading man Shinichi naturally geeks out over just about everything he comes across in the kingdom of Eldant, but the series makes a point of finding the inner otaku in just about every member of its cast. In both the original Japanese and the English dub, the actors throw themselves so whole-heartedly into these nerdy exchanges that it's tough not to get swept up in the hilarity of the moment. The show lets us laugh as elves and dwarves argue the merits of different dating game franchises, but it encourages us to laugh at our own ironclad opinions on fictional characters.
Of course, that isn't to say that some of the referential humor isn't right on target. Some of the more obscure or contemporary material is a bit uneven, but the loving cheap shots at iconic series are a lot of fun. During a return trip to Japan, Shinichi repurposes a line from Attack on Titan in a way that made me laugh so hard that I completely missed the next thirty seconds of dialogue. Not all of Outbreak Company's in-jokes will hold up a few years from now, but there are certainly a few gems in there.
In between its comedy routines, the series has a lot to say about how fiction can impact a culture. Some of it's genuinely compelling; the class-defying friendship between Myucel and Petralka is one of the show's best story arcs. Unfortunately, the writing gets increasingly clunky as Outbreak Company tries to tackle bigger and more complex ideas. A few conversations near the end of the series sound less like dialogue and more like a research paper. Most of it is at least tolerable, but I considered throwing something at the screen during the “let's explain what the title really means” scene. These grander ambitions might have been fine in a longer series, but there's just not enough time for them to play out coherently.
Outbreak Company came as a nice surprise when I first watched the simulcast, and it holds up well over a second viewing. It knows how to have fun with its premise and benefits from a nicely balanced group of characters. I'm a cranky old cynic when it comes to shows like this, so it's a good sign that even I enjoyed it.
That's it for this week! Next week, more reviews! Saikano! Maybe some mysterious keys and mysterious lockets!
This week's shelves are from Marie, who wrote:
"I have been collecting for 13 years. I have an "anime room" in home, and I rotate the displays every six months. Right now the theme is Vampire Knight in honor of the musical that came out in January. I tried to send some photos to Shojo Beat…but they didn't seem to care. Oh well!"
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