The Ghoul, the Bad, and the Ugly
by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,
One would think that, after two and a half decades of dealing with daylight savings time, I'd be used to this time of year by now. One would be wrong, though, because I feel a tiny flash of personal outrage whenever I go outside around 5:30 and realize that the sun has already set. A plague upon you, winter. Give me my well-lit evenings back. Since it's getting tough to leave the house without two dozen layers of clothing, we might as well all stay inside and check out some new anime. Welcome to Shelf Life.
On Shelves This Week
Black Lagoon – The Complete Series Premium Edition BD
Funimation – 600 min – Hyb – MSRP $89.98
Currently cheapest at: $66.22 Rakuten
Synopsis: White-collar businessman Rokuro is kidnapped while on a business trip. When his company refuses to pay his ransom, he joins the crew of mercenaries holding him hostage and embarks on a new life as a career criminal.
Synopsis: After being attacked by a giant robot, Aoba Watase is sent into the future and finds himself stuck in the middle of a world war. In order to return to the past, he must pick a side and learn to fight.
Synopsis: The Science Ninja Team faces off against international terrorist organization GALACTOR and attempts to stop them from attacking targets around the world with weapons of mass destruction.
Extra: No official review for this one (in fact, there aren't even any user ratings to reference). You can, however, stream the movie online from The Anime Network.
Invaders of the Rokujyoma!? – Complete Collection BD, DVD
Sentai – 300 min – Sub – MSRP $59.98|$49.98
Currently cheapest at: $35.04 Rakuten|$29.20 Rakuten
Synopsis: Kotaro Satomi lucks out when he discovers an apartment with extremely low rent, but soon finds himself competing for the room with a ghost, an alien, a magical girl, and other otherworldly invaders.
Extra: I did episode reviews of this series when it first came out. I remember finding it reasonably entertaining, but it's forgettable enough that that vague impression is just about all I can recall about it. You can stream it on Crunchyroll or The Anime Network.
Synopsis: News spreads amongst ALO players that the Holy Sword Excalibur has been discovered. Kirito and his friends set out for Jotunheim in order to track down the sword.
Shelf Life Reviews
Both of this week's shows are capable of making the audience squirm uncomfortably in their seats, but for very different reasons. One features some graphic violence and cannibalism, while the other involves a guy dating two girls who may or may not be related to him. The horror!
First up is Gabriella's review of the first season of Tokyo Ghoul.
Not every piece of entertainment has something to say. Sometimes I can only talk about the formal aspects of a show's narrative (the pacing, plotting, dialogue, etc.) because it's not trying to do anything thematically. Not everything wants to convey some artistic truth about the world, and that's fine – there's absolutely nothing wrong with just plain entertainment. But Tokyo Ghoul is not one of these shows. I bring this up because it makes Tokyo Ghoul complicated to talk about. It's a show with complicated flaws in its formal narrative (breakneck pacing, a non-conclusive ending) and the thematic one. Still, I consider it a successful show on both fronts.
First, some background information. Based on a hit manga, Tokyo Ghoul was adapted into an anime in 2014. This series covers roughly the first sixty chapters of the manga, when Kaneki is first learning to live as a Ghoul. That's a ton of ground to cover in 12 episodes, and the show doesn't excise all that much. Instead, it has breakneck pacing, covering volumes in about two episodes each. This seems like it shouldn't work, but fortunately, the direction is fantastic, and Tokyo Ghoul manages to convey most of its storytelling without too much trouble. This material covers Kaneki's acceptance into a group of pacifist Ghouls, his run-ins with less savory members of the species, and eventually government-sponsored Ghoul hunters. Besides Kaneki, major characters include Touka, Hinami, Tsukiyama, Amon, and Mado. Touka is the female lead, a Ghoul who struggles to integrate into human society. She's tasked with teaching Kaneki how to survive in his new body. Hinami is an innocent young Ghoul whose experiences show Kaneki the extent to which people are put down by human society. Tsukiyama is a Ghoul whose experiences with oppression turned him into the monster that human society believed him to be. Amon is the second protagonist, a Ghoul hunter, and Kaneki's human foil. He wants to protect people, but struggles with the sadistic nature of his job. Mado is a Ghoul hunter who embraced that sadism. Keep in mind that Tokyo Ghoul has a cast of dozens and that these are only a fraction of the most popular characters. Others include Rize, Hide, Yoshimura, Nishiki, Irimi, Koma, Yomo, Uta, Ayato, Yamori, Juuzou, Takezawa, etc. etc. All of these characters have stories to tell. It's pretty much impossible to cover all of this in 12 episodes (or 24, as we'll see later) but the attempt has the strange effect of making (almost) everyone at least somewhat sympathetic. The morality becomes as thoroughly grey as I've ever seen in mainstream anime. Ultimately, there's nobody to root for, and that has the effect of portraying cyclical hate along identity lines as enormous, smothering problems with no easy solutions. “Superpowered people as oppressed minorities” has been done before, but Tokyo Ghoul stands out as an exceptionally evocative example of the genre.
At the same time, this is a narrative torn between two aspects of itself. The first is a story about oppression and isolation that's absolutely dripping with the pathos of human suffering. The second is a high camp gorefest populated with sexy, murderous clowns. Characters can be positioned on a gradient between the two extremes. Himari, for example, is all pathos, while Tsukiyama is entirely camp. Mado is a blend of the two approaches. While some viewers can appreciate a balance, I'm mostly a fan of Tokyo Ghoul when it's making me feel, not laugh. My problem with wacky Tokyo Ghoul is that it tends to dehumanize characters in a show that's otherwise all about humanizing monsters. Shuu, for example, never grows into more than a camp gay stereotype for the sake of tired comedy. This is a disappointing thematic oversight in a show that's otherwise all about empathizing with the oppressed and demonized. These strengths and weaknesses are both magnified in the second season, but it's already a rocky experience.
I believe that Tokyo Ghoul most succeeds as a story about a young man spiraling into despair in a way reminiscent of – and perhaps with the same expressive strength as – that seasoned classic Neon Genesis Evangelion. Like that show, Tokyo Ghoul succeeds less as an argument for an artistic worldview and more as an articulation of a type of adolescent ennui. Kaneki comes to see the world as a cruel and unfair place and changes himself as a response. Each viewer will have a different stance on the ultimate validity of how Kaneki (and thus Tokyo Ghoul) perceives humanity. Some people will relate, and thus value the show highly, while others will be left cold. Personally, I understand the emotions on display and find value in their expression while also not agreeing with them as truths about the world. Like Evangelion, this is a story about a depressed person getting worse, and a part of depression is a skewed vision of the world. Either way, I don't think that anyone can deny the mastery with which this story culminates. What'd otherwise been a slick if conventional action show with good character beats suddenly turns into a surreal, direct interrogation of Kaneki's pathology as he sits locked in a room for an entire episode. This is, of course, a direct Evangelion riff, but it contains all of that ending's power alongside some striking artistry. Story-wise there's absolutely no closure, but at least the second season is already out. For fans of artistic and thematic ambition in anime, this conclusion may justify the entire show.
Besides all that, it's good, creative action horror. Who knew that combining the tragic romance inherent to vampires with a zombie's carnal nastiness would result in the next big beastie? The most unique aspect of Ghouls is their kagune, deadly battle organs that extend from their torsos for combat. Generally looking like multicolored tentacles, kagune can take on a multitude of forms, from blades to wings to tails. This variety results in exciting mix-and-match combat scenarios. The sound design in particular is excellent – you're treated to every crunch of bone and gnaw on mangled flesh. It's disgusting in the best way. Visually, Tokyo Ghoul mostly stands out due to its fantastic direction. Director Shuhei Morita, who also storyboarded every episode, is a rising star. It did a lot to compensate for the often slipshod animation. Note that this is also the uncensored version of the show, so you can finally see that close-up on a dude's leg twisting 360° in its natural glory.
There's a lot to like about Funimation's dub, but also some issues. Liberal scripting messes up the tone sometimes. While I'd buy Mado making a “wascally wabbit” reference, his confrontation with Touka – a tense, climactic moment that has longstanding consequences for the rest of the show – wasn't the best time for it. Generally it's entertaining when the scene calls for lightheartedness but distracting when it's a serious, straightforward conversation. The performances are strong overall. The standout one comes from Austin Tindle as Kaneki. He's an inspired choice, both distinct from the average anime protagonist and a different type than the Japanese voice. While male voices in Japanese can be quite high (many male anime characters are even voiced by women) you can't do the same in English. Coming off of the original, Tindle's voice is surprisingly deep and guttural. It sounds like Kaneki is half-whimpering most of his lines, which fits great with the show's visceral, squicky nastiness. Most importantly, it ties together the two versions of Kaneki's character – the reticent wallflower we see throughout this season and his… uh… transformation in season two. Other standouts include Monica Rial as Rize and Christopher Sabat as Yamori. Their performances feature heavily in the conclusion and contribute greatly to the maddening atmosphere. Overall it's a good, entertaining dub with a bad habit of deviating from the original tone for the sake of camp. I wish that this were less common than it is.
After some 1500 words, it's fair to say that I'm a fan of Tokyo Ghoul. While my opinions on its quality are complicated, my enthusiasm isn't. If you're into horror, action, or weird little attempts at art in a mainstream product, check this out. But don't blame me if you find yourself developing some mysterious cravings…
I reviewed Please Teacher for this column a few months ago, and that decision has finally come back to haunt me. As Shelf Life's resident "expert" on the franchise, I should've known I'd have to take on Please Twins sooner or later.
The series stars Maiku (pronounced “Mike” in the otherwise unremarkable dub), a high school student living alone and supporting himself by working from home as a programmer. Maiku never knew his parents, and the only information he has about his family is a picture of himself as a child, playing in front of his current house with a girl who appears to be more or less the same age. Two girls, Minna and Karen, show up at Maiku's front door one day, each carrying the same photo and claiming to be his twin sister. Both girls move in with Maiku, and the three of them set out to determine who's related to him and who's just a stranger with an extra copy of the photo. Of course, things get increasingly complicated as the potential siblings start to develop romantic feelings for one another.
While Please Twins relegates the cast of Please Teacher to supporting roles in favor of new characters, it follows its predecessor's lead when it comes to fatal flaws. When you get right down to it, the premise is really just an elaborate way for the series to justify acting out a stereotypical teenage male fantasy. Instead of marrying your sexy teacher, the new gimmick is getting away from your parents and living with two good-looking girls who have the hots for you but are also weirdly OK with the idea of becoming your sister instead. (That last part seems a little iffy, but who am I to judge?) The majority of the show's issues with plot and character development come from the need to fit into that contrived framework. The script has to perform all kinds of narrative acrobatics and contortions to avoid or deflect awkward questions like, “Why don't these kids just get a blood test?” and, “Why in the world would you want to go on a date with a guy who you're pretty sure is your twin freakin' brother?” I get the sense that Please Twins really wants to be a good series, but it never really gets away from its origin as a form of wish fulfillment.
There's no avoiding the fact that this show is shameless and trashy, but it's shameless and trashy in a dated and almost charming way. More recent titles in the “sibling romantic comedy” niche tend to go for creepy sex appeal at every opportunity: constant barrages of boobs and butts, awkward almost-sex scenes, and things that make you want to force-quit your browser and douse your computer in disinfectant. Please Twins certainly features an abundance of fanservice and cheap humor, but it seems oddly determined to maintain some vague sense of dignity. Maiku is much more focused on taking care of his pseudo-family than he is on getting laid, and the girls don't throw themselves at him like you'd expect from the average harem comedy heroine. None of the characters are particularly unique, but there's a palpable effort to depict them as actual people instead of dress-up dolls for revealing outfits. I'm not sure that the attempt to present the story seriously makes the content any less objectionable, but it certainly makes it more palatable.
You can tell that Please Twins is an older series just by looking at it, but the animation has at least aged more gracefully than the humor. I'll often gripe about new romantic comedies using old jokes, but that constant recycling within the genre means that nothing Please Twins does will ever catch you by surprise. It goes through all the old harem antics and expects the audience to laugh because, as far as the show knows, we haven't had more than a decade to grow numb to it all. I feel a little bad about picking on a series for something that it can't directly control, but comedy that doesn't make you laugh is comedy you don't need to watch.
The more dramatic elements in Please Twins don't suffer as much from the passage of time, but that's partly because they're not very good by any standard. There's some compelling content in the form of the characters dealing with past regrets and their desire for a place to call home, but much of that is upstaged by the central love triangle. Apart from a brief emotional high point when one character discovers the truth before the others, the central storyline lacks any significant dramatic impact. The supporting cast, which was a saving grace in Please Teacher, is also disappointingly weak. A romantic subplot between two of Maiku's friends is uninteresting at best and head-splittingly bad at worst. I also never really got the impression that Please Twins had anything interesting to say beyond some generic platitudes about caring for your family. As clumsy as its predecessor may have been, at least there was a coherent theme of moving forward in life.
As the lesser of the two “Please” titles, Please Twins is hard to recommend unless you have fond memories of watching it at some point in the past. Outside of that potential nostalgia value, there just isn't any objectively good reason to watch it. The best thing it has going for it is that it offers all the amusing absurdity of the “we might be related” premise without all the stomach churning moments you tend to see in more recent titles. It's a bad show, but at least it's bad in a strangely tolerable way. Watch it for the delightful trashiness or avoid it altogether.
That's it for this week's reviews. I'm fresh out of entries for Shelf Obsessed, so no shelves for y'all to marvel at this time around. If you'd like to see your collection of anime, manga, and/or awesome merchandise featured next week, send your photos to [email protected] We'll be welcoming a new writer to the Shelf Life team next week, so be sure to come back and check that out!
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