Shelf Life
Ultimate Space Pirate

by Bamboo Dong, Gabriella Ekens, Paul Jensen,

Jump to this week's reviews: She, The Ultimate Weapon (Saikano), Space Pirate Mito, and Student Council's Discretion.

On Shelves This Week

Noir Complete Collection BD (Anime Classics)
Funimation - 650 min - Hyb - MSRP $49.98
Currently cheapest at: $28.79 Amazon

Synopsis: Professional hitwoman Mireille is introduced to a young amnesiac named Kirika, with whom she shares a mysterious and connected past. As they search for answers regarding Kirika's lost memories and their ties, they carry out assassinations under the code name "Noir." Along the way, they discover that they are being hunted by a strange organization that dates back to the tenth century.

Thoughts: Another throwback! I remember watching this show my first year of college, over a decade ago. The show is cool, but it gets a little bloated from its own ambitions. We've been reviewing Noir since 2003, but Theron most recently reviewed the DVD boxset from 2011. You can check it out on Funimation and Hulu.

The Pet Girl of Sakurasou - Complete Collection BD, DVD
Sentai - 600 min - Hyb - MSRP $89.98 | $69.98
Currently cheapest at: $51.79 Amazon
| $40.89

Synopsis: After getting kicked out of his dorm for adopting too many stray cats, high schooler Sorata finds himself living at Sakura Hall, a complex full of misfits who all have their own quirks, but are passionate about their studies. Sorata is tasked with looking after a transfer student named Mashiro, a very talented artist who's so scatter-brained, she often forgets to eat or put on underwear.

Thoughts: Pet Girl of Sakurasou doesn't do itself any favors having the title it does, nor does it win too many loyal viewers with its perturbing first episode, but I always tell people that it's one of those shows that's worth sticking around for. Especially in the second season, the series does a good job of depicting that shaky period between finishing school and finding a job, and the insecurity that often comes with seeing those around you attain the successes you think you deserve. We've got a handful of reviews of the series on ANN, but you can check out a review of the first six episodes by Carl here, and my review of the second season here. You can catch the series streaming on The Anime Network and Hulu.

Shelf Life Reviews

We're bringing you another three reviews this week, from myself, Gabriella, and Paul. Starting off the pile is a show that I've long-since called one of my favorite series of all time, and I was happy for the chance to watch it again with renewed eyes.

In order to truly envelop yourself in Saikano and its characters, you need to completely abandon your desire to make sense of the world in which it takes place. There is no sense in trying to apply logic to the events, or try to figure out the context for the things that take place. In a way, it doesn't really matter. Yes, the title is She, the Ultimate Weapon, and yes, Chise losing her humanity at the expense of as-of-yet-impossible technology is one of the central plot points in the series. But what matters more is what effect her transformation has on those around her—especially her boyfriend Shuji, who can barely figure out a human relationship, much less how to date a weapon of mass destruction.

The central setup is a little threadbare. At some point in time, a giant war breaks out across the world. It's never really clear who's attacking whom, but everyone involved is hell-bent on destroying the other side. Japan ends up pinning their hopes on an unexplainable medical procedure that turns high school girl Chise into a weapon, complete with a full arsenal of bombs that burst out of her back, giant wings, and an arm that morphs into a variety of guns and cannons. Whether she's even "alive" in the traditional sense is questionable—her heartbeat is gone, and her body is cold and unfeeling. Yet what matters the most to her and Shuji, whom she only started dating recently, is maintaining any semblance of life. For them, that means staying together, even though none of them know what it means to be in a relationship. Inexperience aside, they don't seem to try very hard, either. At times, Shuji turns to another woman for comfort because he can't handle the truth about Chise. It's apparent from several instances that Shuji is not a great guy—he's a terrible boyfriend, he's a terrible friend, and he's a selfish jerk—but the characters largely forgive him. After all, the world is falling apart around them.

Even though Saikano is set in the middle of a terrible, bloody war, I've never really considered it a war story. To me, it's a story that takes place in spite of being in a war. Most of Chise's misery revolves around her morbid duties, her changing body, and her fear of her own destructive capabilities, but when she's not fighting, she's struggling to be something much more simple— a high school girl trying to figure out her first relationship. When she and Shuji are together, their conversations are awkward. They talk about sex in the way that horny, awkward teenagers talk about sex, punctuated mostly by stammers and ellipses. They talk about "going all the way" like it's a rite of passage ("that's what it means to be in love, right?"), without really even understanding their feelings for each other. For them, a hesitant grope on the chest is more important than openly talking about the war, or the reality of what Chise has become.

While the two do get to share some tender moments between the bomb blasts, Saikano is not a happy show. It is oftentimes gross and gruesome, both in its depictions of Chise's transformation and the effects of her work. And it is relentlessly depressing. Not only because of the deaths of characters, either; in a way, those feel less soul-crushing than the nihilistic way that the series plows towards the end of the world. The final episode is a gut-wrenching mix of loneliness and despair, where even the happiness in the characters' voices can't make up for what viewers realize must follow.

Watching Saikano after all these years, it still holds up remarkably well. The only difference is that things are somehow even more bleak and unnerving. The show hasn't changed, but I suppose I have. Shuji is more apparent to me now as someone who is deeply self-absorbed and immature, despite a character design that ages him by a couple decades. Chise is a lot more cold and fatalistic. The end result is a viewing experience that brings less tears than when I watched it over a decade ago, but makes me feel much more bleak about humanity. If there is a last love song, it's one that's prevailed at the cost of everything good in the world. It's a series well worth watching, despite its improbable story and unsympathetic characters, but it will leave a dark cloud hanging over your head for days.
- Bamboo[TOP]

Next up, an oldie but a goodie, the 1999 series Space Pirate Mito. Gabriella shares her thoughts about the complete collection boxset.

Aoi Mitsukuni thinks that he's just a normal 15-year-old boy. He goes to school, hangs out with friends, and generally lives a quiet life in his small Japanese hometown. The only strange part is that his mother, Mito, constantly goes on long trips for her job as a world-renowned fashion model… or does she? In reality, Aoi's mother is a alien – the legendary space pirate Mito who happened to fall in love with a human while hiding out on Earth. Aoi resulted from this union, and Mito has resolved to raise him as a human to the extent of obscuring her own biology. Mito's race matures to look like human third-graders, and Aoi has never seen his mother without her adult-appearing exosuit. When Mito is forced to shed this skin to protect her son from the Galactic Patrol, Aoi sees his mother's true form for the first time. Can their mother/son bond withstand this revelation and the Galactic Patrol's upcoming onslaught?

I didn't expect to like Space Pirate Mito as much as I did. As far as I can tell, this show doesn't have much of a reputation. It's by Takashi Watanabe, the director of Slayers, and I'm not too fond of that show. I assumed that it'd be a forgotten Tenchi Muyo clone – an irreverent, raunchy 90s harem comedy with minimal plot and a self-insert male lead. Instead I was surprised to receive a sweet, eminently entertaining show that's also quite nuanced in its portrayal of women. It's not a deep story by any means, but the characters are all likable, their development is resonant, and the emotional beats land.

I was surprised to learn that it doesn't have an episodic narrative. There are a couple of semi-isolated adventures at the beginning of each of the show's two cours, but they're each primarily concerned with the protagonists' struggle against a primary antagonist. The first season has Ranban, the galactic dictator who's trying to get at the fugitive Mito through Aoi. Ranban is an imposing presence who becomes really enjoyable when they return later as an ally. The latter half has Hikari, the unhinged First Queen of the Galaxy who's trying to regain her throne after a 4.5 billion year slumber. Space Pirate Mito also pays a lot of attention to its bit players. Characters like Mito's generals and Aoi's schoolmates are relevant throughout the entire run. It's to the show's benefit – they're consistently funny and result in some of its best moments of pathos. My favorite was Kafuko, the “rich bitch” with possessive romantic interest in Aoi. This character type is usually limited to a bit villainous role, but Kafuko's commitment to her love over the course of his struggles is a surprising fount of heroism. Space Pirate Mito handles its large cast with unusual grace.

It's also about a relationship that I haven't seen represented in anime very much – a mother/son one.

The dub is also great. Not in terms of quality – that's dubious – it's just one of those older ones that's just a blast to listen to now. Most of the extras are given bizarre celebrity impersonations for no reason, it's spiced up with dumb jokes (at one point someone says that Kafuko's mother must have drunk too while pregnant with her, which is one of the meanest insults I've ever heard), and there's at least one performance that's so bad it becomes charming. For the most part, however, they treat the serious scenes with respect and the leads all give good performances. It's a best case scenario for Ye Olde Anime Dubs in that the material is too silly to really ruin, so it just ends up enhancing the existing comedy. It also resulted in this record inappropriate Christopher Walken impression, so there's that. Note, however, that the dub only goes up to episode 13 – Space Pirate Mito was originally released as two different shows (constituting the show's first and second halves) and only the first was localized.

I really feel like I've uncovered a hidden gem with Space Pirate Mito. It feels like a cross between The Vision of Escaflowne and Kill La Kill. Like Escaflowne, Space Pirate Mito is a work in a tired genre – wacky sci-fi fish out of water comedy – executed just about as well as it possibly could have been. Like Kill La Kill, it's a visually resplendent lady-led action show that explores themes like motherhood with surprising potency. As a plus for people who were turned off by Kill La Kill's exploitation of the female form, Space Pirate Mito is almost completely lacking in fanservice and displays remarkable breadth in its depiction of women. At first the milquetoast male protagonist, Aoi, seems like another Tenchi Muyo, but he turns out to be a remarkably compassionate young… well, you'll see!

Overall, Space Princess Mito is recommended as a blast of retro-anime fun. It's all of the flavor with none of the usual calories, and it might've earned itself a spot in the pantheon of my all-time favorites. Mito Mito!
- Gabriella[TOP]

Last on deck is a look at Sentai's release of Student Council's Discretion.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect going into Student Council's Discretion. On one hand, it's yet another show where the primary selling point is a bunch of teenagers doing nothing after school. On the other hand, there are some surprisingly big names behind it. The series shares a director with Steins;Gate, and it has the same writer as Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions. It's an odd little case of throwing strong talent at a tired old concept.

The premise in question reads like a horrifying combination of all the comedies I've reviewed here in recent weeks. The show's leading guy is Ken Sugisaki, a dating sim fan whose straight-A grades land him a spot on his school's student council. The rest of the council members are, of course, all beautiful girls. Not one for subtlety, Ken proudly announces that he's “going for the harem route” and tries to get all four girls to date him. It takes a while, but hilarity eventually ensues.

The show struggles to find its voice for the first few episodes, and it ends up leaning on some pretty tired jokes. Thankfully, it eventually finds a formula that works. All five of the main characters have their own weird quirks and flaws, and they're not shy about having fun at one another's expense. Four of them will often gang up on the fifth, poking at a weak point until it all blows up in an unexpected way. The mature girl ends up walking around in an adorable sheep costume, Ken is forced to write BL fanfiction about himself, and the nice girl turns out to be a pro at starting flame wars on her blog. Some of the routines can get a little mean-spirited, but I was usually too busy laughing to feel bad about it.

Student Council's Discretion does eventually take a shot at standing out from the rest of the genre, and the route it takes is an unusual one. The show tries to develop its characters far beyond what I'd normally expect from a gag comedy, giving most of them some kind of past regret or present struggle to overcome. The results are uneven at best, but there are moments where the emotional appeal works very well. One of my favorites is a brief scene where the show's designated athletic character literally and figuratively lets her hair down during a conversation with Ken. It's a nice, unguarded exchange that lets the two of them step out of their comedic roles and goes a long way towards humanizing both characters. The student council president's speech at the end of the cultural festival is also nicely written and lets her break out of her usual cutesy airhead routine.

Unfortunately, the show starts to fall apart as its dramatic ambitions grow. Many of its ideas are good, but it rarely has enough time to make a storyline really work. If a character's mother is going to remarry and push her family to move to a different town, it'll take more than fifteen minutes to work through the story arc. Parts of Ken's backstory also remain frustratingly vague, and we never really get the details we need on what happened to him in middle school. That tendency to paint in broad strokes comes back to bite the series in its final episodes, where it makes an unconvincing attempt to tie everything together. As the script gets more and more ambitious, it has a harder and harder time making everything work.

While it doesn't hinder the comedy all that much, it's worth noting that Student Council's Discretion is not a pretty series by any means. It wasn't exactly a big budget title when it came out in 2009, and the animation hasn't aged well at all. It has a lot of trouble keeping the visuals consistent, and the problems are especially apparent during the occasional fanservice scenes. When the characters start lounging around in swimsuits, the show's issues with keeping their bodies in proportion become laughably obvious. Good writing can always overcome lousy animation, but there's an awful lot to make up for here.

For what it's trying to be, Student Council's Discretion is a decent show. It becomes very funny once it finds its rhythm, and has some satisfying moments of character development. It's definitely starting to show its age, though, and its more ambitious storylines tend to come up short. Many of the people who worked on this show went on to create some really good stuff, but they weren't quite at the peak of their careers when they made this.
- Paul[TOP]

That's it for this week. Join us next week for more reviews!

This week's shelves are from Julian, who wrote:

"Hi, I've just turned 16 and have been collecting for a few years now it started off with the odd volume here or there but now with a job my collection has really grown. I have Black Butler vol 4. Signed by Brina Palencia, and Midori Days signed by Vic Mignogna!"

That's a fantastic collection! Thanks for sending in your pics!

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

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