No Pain No Game
by Bamboo Dong, Paul Jensen,
On Shelves This Week
Synopsis: Things in "The World" are once again slipping into chaos. Haseo and his friend Atoli must uncover the reason why players are being left comatose in the real world before it's too late.
Thoughts: Another week, another .hack release. We'll have a new review of this for you shortly. In the meantime, you can check out Carl's review of the 2009 DVD release here. You can check out some of the other entries in the .Hack franchise online at Funimation.com and Hulu.
Synopsis: After discovering a hypergate to Mars on the moon, humans began colonizing the new planet. There, they discovered an advanced technology, which they used to wage war against Earth. As a consequence of war, the moon was destroyed. Now, after 15 years, an attack during a goodwill visit from the Martian princess threatens to plunge both planets into war once again.
Thoughts: I thought Aldnoah.Zero was just okay, and suffered a bit from bad characterization and mediocre storytelling, but you can read Nick's in-depth thoughts on the first season here, and Theron's subsequent weekly reviews starting here. This first set from Aniplex of America just contains the first six episodes. You can watch the series online at Daisuki, Crunchyroll, and Hulu.
Synopsis: Long ago, humanity was saved by heroes wielding a comnbination of magic and technology known as the Ars Magus. Now the organization that governs the power of Ars Magus is under attack from an outlaw called Ragna the Bloodedge. He soon realizes that victory will not be easy, as he faces powerful opponents from magic users to scientists to even vampires.
Thoughts: Inspired by the first two BlazBlue fighting games, this series was directed by Dragon Crisis! director Hideki Tachibana. It's scored mediocre user ratings (5.5) so far, but we'll have a review up for you soon. In the meantime, you can watch the show online at Funimation.com and Hulu.
Synopsis: Seemingly nerdy high school boy Kagemori Mamoru has a big secret. He's actually descended from a long line of ninjas, who've sworn an eternal oath to protect the Konnyaku family from any kind of harm. This means keeping an eye on high school girl Yuna, a spacey klutz who's prone to accidents. But things get even more complicated when the school starts filling up with even more ninjas, and even magic users, all with their eyes set on Mamoru.
Thoughts: This show was directed by Yoshitaka Fujimoto, who's no stranger to comedy. Past works have included the All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku TV series, Girl's High, Master of Martial Hearts, and a whole gob of ecchi titles. The series is streaming on The Anime Network.
Synopsis: Set three years after the events of the first Patlabor movie, many of the SV2 members have gone their own way. However, chaos errupts once again when a Tokyo bridge is bombed by a military jet, possibly as part of a terrorist plot. As the military, government, and public are thrown into turmoil, the former members of the SV2 are assembled once again to uncover the truth.
Thoughts: A classic and fan-favorite, Patlabor 2 assembles some of the best minds in the business, with directing by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor), a script by Kazunori Ito (Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell, Dirty Pair), and a mechanical design team that included Shoji Kawamori (Macross Plus, The Vision of Escaflowne). It's a lot more dark and complex than its predecessor, and is one worth watching over and over again. You can check out one of our older reviews here, or watch it on The Anime Network.
Soul Eater - The Complete Series BD (Premium Edition)
Funimation - 1275 min - Hyb - MSRP $129.98
Currently cheapest at: $74.76 Amazon
Synopsis: At the Death Weapon Meister Academy, young meisters train with their human-weapon hybrids to eventually defeat and absorb the souls of 99 evil humans and one witch. The series follows three pairs of meisters and weapons: Maka and her scythe Soul Eater; the assassin Black Star and his weapon Tsubaki Nakatsukasa; and Death the Kid and his pistols Liz and Patty Thompson.
Summary: 14-year old Tsugumi discovers that she has the extraordinary ability to transform into a weapon. She enrolls at Death Weapon Meister Academy, where she trains alongside other weapons and their meisters.
TO - Elliptical Orbit & Symbiotic Planet DVD (S.A.V.E.)
Funimation - 90 min - Hyb - MSRP $24.98
Currently cheapest at: $14.38 Rakuten
Synopsis: In Elliptical Orbit, 300,000 humans live on a moon colony, where all of their supplies are received by the Moonlight Bazooka, a launcher that fires the containers into lunar orbit. One day, a cargo ship carrying a precious energy source appears after a long 15-year journey, but space travel has slowed the aging of those on board. In Symbiotic Planet, humans are now trying to establish colonies in other solar systems, but strife between the colonists are preventing everyone from living in peace. They end up on a planet where they quickly learn that living in unity may offer their best chance of survival.
Shelf Life Reviews
Nothing this week
No Game, No Life Complete Collection BD
Yakitate!! Japan Part 2 DVD
Nothing this week
Competition is the name of the game this week, with two titles that focus around head-to-head combat. There are no weapons in either, but the stakes are just as high.
No Game, No Life tells the story of Sora and Shiro, a pair of shut-in siblings with a shared talent for games. They're known collectively as “Blank,” and are something of an urban legend within the online gaming community. An impromptu game of chess against a self-declared god ends with the awkward duo being forcibly transported to another world. The basic principles of their new reality are fairly simple: with war and violence off-limits, all conflicts are decided through games. Need a place to stay for the night? Bet your freedom on a hand of poker. Want to take over a neighboring country? Challenge their ambassador to a video game. It'd be the perfect world for a pair of clever gamers if it weren't for all the magic-wielding cheaters.
One of the first things to stand out in No Game, No Life is the art style. From the over-saturated colors to the bizarre landscapes, this show is a sensory overload. It looks like the character designers and background artists were allowed to go completely berserk, and the results range from merely unusual to genuinely interesting. The characters' eyes feature some particularly memorable designs, with each non-human race possessing some sort of unique characteristic. The angelic Jibril has a pair of glowing crosses in her pupils, while the show's “god of play” features the suites from a deck of cards as designs in his eyes and tattoos on his face. It's a welcome change of pace from more subdued, realistic color palettes, and the brain-scrambling visuals make it easy to get swept up in the story.
Once your eyes adjust and the plot takes its foot off the gas pedal, some of the problems with No Game, No Life start to creep into the spotlight. The series is pretty upfront about its role as a nerdy escapist fantasy, but it quickly becomes obvious that Sora and Shiro are a little too invincible for their own good. We can take it as a given that they'll win every game they play, and that inevitable outcome dials back the dramatic tension by an unhealthy amount. The show frequently stumbles in its attempts at humor, and the Blank siblings often come across as obnoxious when we're meant to see them as likably odd. Sora in particular tends to come off as a grandstanding narcissist, even when he's supposed to be driving home the show's optimistic ideas about human potential. The script also spends far too much time dumping misery on Steph, who serves as both the designated idiot for explaining complex strategies and the go-to punching bag for some of the more mean-spirited jokes in the series. This would be easier to tolerate if she were able to get some payback from time to time, but the show is frustratingly stubborn when it comes to never letting Blank lose to anyone.
To its credit, No Game, No Life does a decent job of masking its weak points and rounding off some of its rough edges. Sora's monologues are typically derailed before they become too tedious, and the show occasionally uses his obnoxious attitude to good comedic effect. Even when we know who's going to win each game, the strategies involved are often complex and outlandish enough to carry the narrative. The destination may be a foregone conclusion, but the journey itself can be entertaining all the same. At some point, however, I have to wonder how much better this series could have been if it had simply resolved its issues instead of working around them.
While the plot and characters may present a hodgepodge of highs and lows, No Game, No Life consistently hits the mark when it comes to the games themselves. The variations on traditional rules present some fascinating challenges, and the over-the-top game mechanics create some truly staggering visuals. Whether the characters are trying to talk their opponent's chess pieces into defecting or destroying the entire world in order to win at shiritori, each match feels unique and exciting. The series has a knack for capturing the giddy thrill of seeing a risky strategy work out, and we learn more about the characters from the way they play than we do from any traditional character development. It's the games that make No Game, No Life work, and it's the way they're presented that helps it to stand out from the crowd.
As a finished product, No Game, No Life is a bit of a mess. It falls flat on its face as often as it triumphs, and it's far too busy showing off to address its themes in any meaningful level of detail. For all its drunken stumbling, however, it remains fantastically entertaining and undeniably memorable. It's not difficult to see why this is a reasonably popular series, and a strong English dub should help it further expand on its existing audience. If you don't mind occasionally wanting to bash your head against a wall, there's a lot of fun to be had here. It's an eye-popping, frustrating, obnoxious, delightful cluster bomb of a show.
Next up, more competition. But instead of video games and hands of poker, it's freshly baked goods and an international bread competition with everyone's livelihoods on the line.
In contrast, the second season is a tedious drag. It starts off well enough, with promises of an international baking competition that includes conspiracies, shadowy puppet-masters, and a clown with a penchant for long-winded reminiscing. But while the first season is effortless and exuberant, the second season is trapped in its own yeasty hubris. The jokes are more desperate and unhinged, and the food reactions try so hard that the entire production crosses the line from absurdity to gibberish. By the time the season wheezes to a time-shifting finale, it's wrung every ounce of humor from every glutinous strand in the series. At one point, the circus clown even scrawls a lengthy calculation for his perfectly measured reaction onto a cave floor, which might've been a sign of remarkable self-awareness if the series didn't just slip back into its old rut afterwards. Eventually the characters just take to explaining each and every pun with exhausting detail, just to make sure everyone understands every last clown reaction, even if it's not funny.
One of the biggest missteps in this season is that the writing relies too heavily on historical and pop cultural references (all helpfully explained thanks to very detailed liner notes from Nozomi Entertainment). There are cameos galore, from Japanese politicians to even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and anime nods that range from Detective Conan to Galaxy Express 999. They're not subtle, either. They're in-your-face references that dwell on each joke, lingering far beyond the expiration date for no discernible reason other than to fill empty air space. Those that aren't visual gags are one-off wink-nods to (then-)topical Japanese political humor, followed by lines like, "Hey! That's too specific!" or some variation thereof, which I think is the anime equivalent of someone yelling, "Heyoooooo!" after a Clinton blowjob joke past 1999.
In short, I mostly hated the jokes in this season of Yakitate!! Japan. I think referential humor is some of the laziest type of humor there is, because there doesn't need to be any sort of creativity or comedic timing except to pop a quick zinger and fling some air pistols with your hands.
However—and this is entirely the reason why this season is marked "rental" and not "perishable"—the main ingredient of what made the show so appealing the first season is still there, and that's bread, bread, bread. Food anime is 40% reactions and 60% food, and that 60% is still as strong as ever in the second season. With esoteric ingredient facts galore and a wide variety of breads, it's enough to make you want to stuff your face the entire time. Between the microwave breads and the cave fish pastries, I was willing to slug through every disc, just to see what Kazuma and his pals would cook up next.
That's the beauty of tournament-style food shows. Every dish is expected to be visually appetizing and eccentric, and Yakitate!! Japan delivers on that front. Even when the odds seem impossible, like asking contestants to bake bread without using salt or sugar, our heroes are able to pull it off. It does the dual task of keeping viewers on their toes, but also teaching us a thing or two in the process. And thanks to the post-credit trivia segments, viewers even get some additional details about each leavening process or ingredient.
But this contrast between awesome food and hacky jokes is what's so disappointing about this season. There is so much good content, that it's almost upsetting that the humor component feels so forcibly slapped together. It's funny the first two or three times that Pierrot the clown spins off into a nostalgic daydream about his pained childhood, but by the time he's gone through his entire life story, it's long since worn out its welcome. This just doesn't compare favorably to the first season, which found new and ever more ludicrous ways to show food reactions, from naked men swinging off chandeliers, to birds popping out of people's masks. In a genre that trades in outlandishness, stagnation is the kiss of death.
Sadly, the characters also aren't as lovable this time around. While the first season had you rooting for underdog bread savant Kazuma, now he's risen to bread-god status. Not only is it expected of him and his teammates to always win, he himself believes it too. Gone is the wide-eyed innocence of just wanting to make good bread. Monaco Cup Arc Kazuma is more headstrong and arrogant, without any of his "aw shucks" country charm.
I appreciate that Yakitate!! Japan was one of the earliest to perfect the sub-genre of shonen tournament cooking, but this whole season was just not very fun. And when you have a show that primarily relies on its "fun" factor, that's not a good thing.
That's it for this week. Thanks for reading!
We're out of shelf images, so as promised, here's a picture of a vegan cheese platter, from Easy Vegan Meals. I wasn't expecting everything to look like colored tofu, or those spreadable cheese snacks that everyone brought to lunch in the 90s, with the little red sticks.
Anyway, please send in your anime collections to [email protected]! Or things will start getting really strange down here.
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