by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,
By the time this column comes out, I'll be getting ready to come home from a ten-day vacation with my extended family. While my relatives are generally lovely people, visiting them means traveling to places where the Internet connection can barely handle standard-def video and the newest piece of technology is a DVD player. All you darn kids had better be appreciating your HD anime on my behalf this week. Welcome to Shelf Life.
On Shelves This Week
Synopsis: A half-human boy and a girl with the ability to use her blood as a weapon meet through a chance encounter. Both are isolated from others because of their powers, but they may be able to help one another.
Extra: Beyond the Boundary didn't leave much of an impression on me, but it was pretty enjoyable when I watched it. You can read a review here or watch it streaming on Crunchyroll or The Anime Network.
Synopsis: A cat spirit named Nya-tan seeks to become one of the 12 zodiac animals by competing in a divine tournament with the help of an ordinary high school student.
Extra: The release date for this show (Saturday the 10th) technically puts it in last week's release pile, but it somehow got lost in the shuffle so I'm including it here. You can check out some preview guide entries here or watch it online on Crunchyroll.
Synopsis: Major Kusanagi pursues an expert hacker called Fire-Starter, who appears to be connected to a string of deadly cyber crimes.
Samurai Jam – Bakumatsu Rock – Complete Collection BD, DVD
Sentai – 300 min – Sub – MSRP $59.98|$49.98
Currently cheapest at: $35.04 Rakuten|$29.20 Rakuten
Synopsis: An aspiring guitarist sets out to become famous in an alternate version of 19th-century Japan where the government has banned all unauthorized rock music performances.
Extra: User ratings haven't been kind to this series, but at least it's got some eye-catching cover art. You can read some episode reviews here or stream the series from Crunchyroll or The Anime Network.
Shelf Life Reviews
The review schedule is a fickle beast. Last week, Gabriella ended up with a show that she enjoyed and I got one that was amusing but inconsistent. This week, I'm the one who gets to talk about a fun, clever series. I can only assume that we'll end up with a pair of thoroughly average titles next week, just to balance everything out.
First up is my review of Windy Tales.
I usually go into a series with at least some idea of what to expect, but Windy Tales was a bit of an enigma until I fired up the first disc. It's an obscure title from 2004 that I hadn't heard of at all until it arrived in my review pile. As a result, I went in with nothing but the cover art and a brief summary to go on. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a well-written and imaginative show that mixes slice of life storytelling with just a little bit of fantasy.
Windy Tales stars Nao, the ambitious but unfocused president of a middle school digital camera club. She falls off the roof of the school while trying to take a photo, but lands safely thanks to a curiously strong gust of wind. Eventually, Nao and her friends learn that their teacher is from a village of “wind wielders” who can manipulate the air around them. The kids decide to learn how to use the wind, which occasionally comes in handy in their daily lives. The characters' adventures range from ordinary tasks like trying to photograph the track team captain on the run to strange incidents like trying to find a flying cat in the middle of a typhoon. You know, normal kid stuff.
Just from looking at the cover art, you can probably tell that Windy Tales uses a somewhat unusual animation style. The art is much simpler and less flashy than what typically comes to mind when we talk about anime, and the show looks more like a quirky independent short than a full TV series. I'd love to score some artsy-fartsy points by waxing poetic about the visuals, but I'm honestly on the fence when it comes to whether or not I actually like the art style. While it certainly stands out from the crowd, I'm not convinced that it's actually better looking than its more generic contemporaries. I frequently caught myself stepping out of the story to wonder if a character had gone off-model or if a scene was just supposed to look a bit abstract. The simple shapes certainly don't help in scenes featuring Nao's photography, as the relative lack of detail makes it difficult to get a sense of how talented she's supposed to be. On the other hand, taking the visuals in a different direction also allows Windy Tales to avoid the temptation to make its cast overly cutesy and marketable. These are not the sort of character designs that are meant to be slapped on a keychain, and the show seems perfectly comfortable with that state of affairs. I felt like the series wanted me to like the characters as people more than it wanted me to run out and spend a few hundred bucks on figures and hug pillows.
Much like the animation, the writing has a quirky, creative feel to it. Windy Tales follows the usual slice of life format on a structural level, but the stories it tells are a bit more imaginative and emotional than the usual “anime girls in a school club” fare. There's an interesting mix of the mundane and the supernatural here, with the wind powers helping to add a bit of wonder to otherwise normal events. A game of kick the can becomes a playground for aerial acrobatics, while some prophetic dreams add a sense of mystery to a change in the weather. The closest comparison I can think of is the similarly obscure And Yet the Town Moves, which shares Windy Tales' habit of mixing reality and fantasy without worrying too much about the details. It's an approach that I really like, if only because it yields some story ideas that go beyond the same old school festivals and holiday parties.
While the ending is a bit too ambiguous for its own good, the series does a good job of developing its characters from episode to episode. Nao's willingness to act first and think later helps drive each storyline along, but she's observant and thoughtful enough to break out of the “energetic club president” archetype. Jun also adds an interesting dynamic to the show as the lone, bewildered boy in a social circle full of girls. Even minor characters like the school nurse are written with enough care that they come across as real people with their own perspectives on the world. One teacher's description of traveling abroad manages to swiftly transform him from a generic slacker into a more nuanced individual. Like many good slice of life shows, Windy Tales uses the original parts of its premise to explore the little things that make people interesting.
It's entirely possible that this series lucked out by catching me on a good day and having no expectations to live up to. Even taking the pleasant surprise factor into account, though, Windy Tales is a strong little show that offers something a bit different from the rest of the medium. It just sort of does whatever it wants to, and is a stronger piece of animation as a result. Give it a shot if you're looking for a change of pace.
Next up, Gabriella takes one for the team by reviewing Brynhildr in the Darkness.
It's Ryouta Murakami's ambition to prove that aliens exist. This all stems from a childhood friendship with his stargazing partner, a girl named Kuroneko, who disappeared without a trace one day. But when a student named Kuroha Neko transfers into Ryouta's class, he can just swear that she's his old friend. The new girl, however, denies this, brushing off his attempts to grow close to her. But after a series of mysterious incidents, Kuroha is forced to confide in Ryouta – she's a magic user who escaped from an alien research facility. The government performs experiments on girls, implanting them with sluglike extraterrestrials so that they can develop supernatural powers. Stifled by the inhumane laboratory setting, Kuroha and some friends escaped to find brief happiness in the outside world. Despite the danger, Ryouta decides to help the runaways, becoming an invaluable ally in their quest for freedom. But with government agents on their tail and only a limited supply of life-giving pills, can their high school bliss last for long? Or is it doomed to tragedy?
Brynhildr in the Darkness is the latest work to come out of Lynn Okamoto, the mangaka most famous for Elfen Lied. If you're familiar with that series, then Brynhildr is very much in the same vein – the government hunts down alien-fueled superpowered baby women. When a particularly special/busty one escapes, only a milquetoast teenager - who may in fact be her childhood friend - can help her. The main difference between them is that while Elfen Lied's diclonii were fairly distinct anime monsters, Brynhildr has more generic people-with-powers. Occasionally PWP shows will come up with an ability that I haven't seen, but this one runs the cliché's gamut. Kuroha has telekinesis, her ally Kana can see the future, and at one point they fight a lady who can shoot laser beams from her mouth. (If you can believe it, I saw that last one in one of my daily streaming review shows from last season, Charlotte.)
Brynhildr in the Darkness is neither as offensive nor as competent as Elfen Lied. That's not to say it isn't plenty offensive – the mangaka's creepy fixation on infantilized women remains as strong as ever. I'm just glad that there wasn't any child molestation in this, or images of naked, bloodied children chained to walls. (Geez, Elfen Lied was a nasty piece of work.) The show also turns into a lame sex comedy for long chunks. One of Kuroha's magic user allies, the super hacker Kazumi Schlierenzaur, really wants to bone Ryouta for some reason. She approaches him constantly (and forcefully) only to be rejected due to her small breasts. The middle chunk of this show is more sex comedy than anything else, most of it surrounding Kazumi, her sexual desperation, and inadequate boobs (by this show's standards.) If your taste in humor is oh no, he fell on her boobs! then it may do something for you, but that genre isn't exactly starving for entries. There are nipples in this, if you're into that. They're not even awful looking by anime standards. They mostly look like real boobs and not missile tips, lemons, or water balloons filled with pudding.
When the plot finally kicks, it turns into a totally ludicrous series of betrayals and sacrifices by women for the male protagonist. The main villain is the palest shadow of Gendo Ikari – he wants to initiate the Third Impact and is obsessed with reviving his dead loved one. He may be the weakest villain I've ever covered on Shelf Life, more of an antagonist-shaped hole in the narrative than a real character. All of the girls fall in love with and sacrifice themselves for the main character, but he's not particularly despicable by harem lead standards. He's a kind caretaker (when he isn't negging Kazumi) and the show does manage to draw a sense of camaraderie out of the lead crew of runaway witches. While Elfen Lied had some strikingly artistic aspects to its production, Brynhildr in the Darkness is at best unimpressive and at worst incompetent. The climactic episodes in particular are inexcusably off-model.
The best thing that I can say about Brynhildr in the Darkness is that it didn't work me up enough to hate it. The plot is dumb, the production is lazy, and the show's entire appeal flies right over my head, but there wasn't anything uniquely bad about it. Rather than Elfen Lied's constant assault on human decency, here the author's misanthropy only appears for brief flashes. The worst episode is probably the ninth, where an escaped witch girl casually exposes herself to an older man in exchange for money. I assume that this was meant to be… titillating? It's presented as a Normal Thing that Happens, totally without judgment to the john. This same witch also has the power to erase memories. She uses it to revert grown adults back into mental infants, which is hilariously dark. The best word is probably “grimdark.” Part of the appeal is watching women suffer and die, but at least it doesn't physically humiliate them.
Sentai's release includes the OVA episode “Much Ado About Nothing.” Taking place between the 11th and 12th episodes, the crew's (at that point) four witches compete for the right to be Ryouta's girlfriend. There's also a dub. It doesn't elevate the material or anything – most of the dialogue is too unnatural and expository to have been made into anything decent-sounding – but I do like some of the cast. Jamie Marchi's vocal register makes for a more assertive Kuroha than the Japanese. There also aren't any adaptational choices that are obviously at the expense of the original material, like in some Sentai dubs I've seen recently.
Overall, Brynhildr in the Darkness is a run-of-the-mill (meaning not very good) anime action comedy with a violent twist. The only reason I imagine you might be interested in this is if you're a fan of Sakamoto's work. Just keep in mind that this has about 1/3rd the ultraviolence and 1/10th the artistry of his previous hit. Brynhildr in the Darkness lives up to its name – it's destined to obscurity.
That's all for this week. Thanks for reading!
There is no Shelf Obsessed entry this week because I'm fresh out of shelves to show. Send those photos to [email protected], folks! (And if you sent in a submission that hasn't been featured yet, send it in again. Sometimes my inbox gets hungry and eats important things.)
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