Shelf Life
Familiar with Zero

by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens, James Beckett,

After spending more than a few Saturday mornings looking up prices for the new release section of this column, I've found that I can usually guess which shows will be cheapest at which website with a fair amount of accuracy. Most of those predictable patterns went out the window this week, which implies that the holiday season price battles are starting to kick off. There may not be gold in them thar hills, but there are discounts on them thar websites. Welcome to Shelf Life, y'all.

Jump to this week's reviews:
The Familiar of Zero: Rondo of Princesses
Selector Infected Wixoss

On Shelves This Week

Angelic Layer – Complete Collection [Sentai Selects] DVD
Sentai – 650 min – Hyb – MSRP $49.98
Currently cheapest at: $32.49 Right Stuf

Synopsis: Misaki moves to Tokyo, where she quickly gets caught up in the high-tech doll battle game Angelic Layer. She builds her own Angel and begins competing in battles, but can she handle the pressure of big city competition?

Extra: It's been quite a while since this old (but popular in its time) series last came out on disc. You can read an old review here or stream it on The Anime Network.

Dragonar Academy – The Complete Series BD+DVD, Limited Edition
Funimation – 300 min – Hyb – MSRP $64.98|$69.98
Currently cheapest at: $39.99 Amazon|$48.99 Barnes and Noble

Synopsis: Ash is destined to form a contract with a powerful dragon, but he's surprised to find out that his fated companion is a beautiful girl. With mysterious enemies threatening their fellow academy students, they'll have to learn to work together.

Extra: This series is just old enough to not have a full set of episode reviews, but you can check out some preview guide coverage here. It's streaming on Funimation and Hulu if you want to check it out for yourself.

DRAMAtical Murder – Complete Collection BD, DVD
Sentai – 325 min – Hyb – MSRP $69.98|$59.98
Currently cheapest at: $45.49 Right Stuf|$38.99 Right Stuf

Synopsis: Aoba just wants to live a peaceful life on the island of Midorijima, but strange things start to happen when he's drawn into a battle in the virtual game Rhyme. As gaps in his memory start to appear, he's forced to seek out the truth.

Extra: You can check out some episode reviews of this series here or watch it on Crunchyroll or The Anime Network.

Durarara!! x2 Part 2 BD, DVD
Aniplex – 175 min – Hyb – MSRP $99.98|$59.98
Currently cheapest at: $79.98 Right Stuf|$49.98 Right Stuf

Synopsis: Shizuo finds himself on the run from the Awakusu Group after being framed for murder, while Mikado is forced to decide between becoming the leader of the Blue Squares or watching the Dollars fall apart.

Extra: For anyone who's confused by all the Durarara!! iterations, this set contains the second half of the show's second season. Episode reviews are here, and the show's streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu, and The Aniplex Channel.

EUREKA SEVEN AO – The Complete Series [S.A.V.E.] BD, DVD
Funimation – 625 min – Hyb – MSRP $34.99|$29.99
Currently cheapest at: $22.53 Barnes and Noble|$19.58 Barnes and Noble

Synopsis: Ao pilots a humanoid fighter craft to protect his home from an alien attack, but soon learns that his mech is connected to his missing mother. In order to learn about his past, he decides to continue flying into battle.

Extra: You can read a full review of this sequel to Eureka Seven here or watch it online on Funimation.

Good Luck Girl! – The Complete Series [S.A.V.E.] DVD
Funimation – 325 min – Hyb – MSRP $29.99
Currently cheapest at: $19.99 Amazon

Synopsis: Ichiko has such good luck that she actually steals the good fortune of people around her. In order to put the world back into balance, the poverty god Momiji is sent to return some of Ichiko's extra luck to her unintended victims.

Extra: An earlier release of this series was covered in Shelf Life a while back, and you can read another review here. You can also stream it on Funimation.

Night on the Galactic Railroad DVD
Eastern Star – 105 min – Hyb – MSRP $24.95
Currently cheapest at: $18.71 Right Stuf

Synopsis: On the night of a festival, Giovanni and Campanella catch a ride on the Galactic Railroad. The starfaring train takes them on a journey from one surreal place to another.

Extra: I usually don't have much useful information to offer with these older titles, but this one was actually covered in Buried Treasure back in 2006.

Z/X Ignition – Complete Collection DVD
Eastern Star – 260 min – Sub – MSRP $39.95
Currently cheapest at: $29.96 Right Stuf

Synopsis: Asuka is given a Card Device, a mysterious weapon that allows him to capture and control the otherworldly beings that are invading the Earth. He must learn to control the Device in order to defeat the invaders.

Extra: You can read some (generally less than positive) preview guide entries for this card battle series here, or watch it for yourself on Crunchyroll.

Shelf Life Reviews

There's all kinds of magic to be found in this week's reviews. We've got shape-shifting dragons, love charms, talking swords, and apparently some sentient trading cards for good measure. I'm tempted to make a "heart of the cards" joke here, but you all deserve better than that.

We start off with a bit of housekeeping on my part. The Familiar of Zero: Rondo of Princesses has been languishing in the Shelf Life review pile for entirely too long, so I decided to finally give it its day in the sun this week.

The Familiar of Zero and its sequels haven't had the easiest time here in the States. The original series was licensed by Geneon, then passed to Funimation until they allowed the license to expire back in 2011 because of low sales. It then sat in limbo until Sentai Filmworks picked the franchise back up in 2013. The Familiar of Zero: Rondo of Princesses has gone through a similar journey in the Shelf Life review pile, constantly being pushed to the far end of the schedule as new screeners showed up. After all the trouble this series has gone through, I wish I could say that it's some kind of unique and underrated gem, but it's really just a competent genre piece that's hit a lot of speed bumps in the American market.

For anyone who isn't acquainted with The Familiar of Zero's premise, the series follows the adventures of a mage-in-training and her familiar, who just happens to be a teenage boy who got pulled out of present-day Japan and flung into a fantasy realm. As the third entry in the franchise, Rondo of Princesses opens with the main characters trying to get their lives back in order after a big battle. Saito has managed to come back from a close brush with death, but the experience has sapped his powers and erased his contract with Louise as her magical familiar. As the two of them try to sort out their relationship, they're drawn into the political turmoil of a neighboring country. When one of their friends is taken captive, they're forced to defy royal orders in order to lead a rescue party made up of their fellow students.

A lot of what goes on in The Familiar of Zero will feel very familiar if you've watched more than a handful of fantasy anime series. It has magic academies, protagonists with hidden powers, and just a little bit of out-of-place technology sprinkled in for flavor. Despite being one of the older names in the genre, it actually stacks up quite well against many of its more recent competitors. While there's not any one particular element that stands out as being unique and interesting, the show manages to be better than average at a lot of things. Louise and Saito make a good lead couple, the story entertains without having to pull any ridiculous stunts, and the supporting characters contribute enough to the series to justify their presence. It's one of those shows that simply does its thing and does it well over multiple seasons.

The only problem with that approach is that it causes The Familiar of Zero to suffer from many of the issues that plague the genre as a whole. It takes its story seriously, but struggles to maintain an even balance between drama, comedy, and fanservice. There are boob jokes aplenty here: jokes about big boobs, jokes about small boobs, and jokes about medium-sized boobs just for the sake of variety, all of which overstay their welcome by a significant margin. The issue of overpowered heroes also rears its head in this third season, as Louise and Saito have a group of talented mages and a giant airship on hand to support their own substantial abilities. No matter how powerful their enemies are made out to be, victory never feels less than completely assured. The problem with constantly overcoming life-threatening ordeals is that the next bad guy rarely seems as difficult to handle as the last.

This season also has some individual weak points that have nothing to do with its status as a fantasy series. While the intrigue around Tabitha's family builds up in a compelling manner, it ultimately comes to a rushed and inconsequential ending. There's a climactic battle to be won, but the outcome requires no major sacrifices from the heroes and has no major consequences for the villains. That's not a deal-breaker in the third out of four seasons, but it still feels like a letdown. The action scenes in general are a bit underwhelming, both in terms of how they look and how they unfold. The animation and spell effects are now around seven years old, and they don't hold up very well against the barrages of light and color that you'll find in more recent A-list titles. More importantly, there's very little in the way of forethought or tactics in most of the fights. Characters generally just hurl their best attacks at one another, and the side that has the greatest amount of magical firepower wins. The action unfolds at a good pace, but the lack of clever tactics or unusual abilities leaves it feeling uninspired. At least Saito's talking sword adds some fun banter to the battles.

Despite its shortcomings, Rondo of Princesses is still an enjoyable romp. Louise and Saito are an entertaining lead couple, so much so that I'd rather the series backed its harem elements off a step or two in order to give their personalities more room to bounce off of one another. That argumentative, “opposites attract” chemistry is attempted on a regular basis by lesser shows, but it actually works here. To some extent, the details of the challenges they have to face aren't terribly important; there's a fair amount of entertainment to be found in simply watching them inflict chaos and destruction on their surroundings. Sometimes that's all you want out of an anime series, and you'll find it on a consistent basis here.

It'd take some pretty specific criteria for me to put The Familiar of Zero and its sequels on a must-watch list, but I can't fault its fans for enjoying it. It's one of the better examples of its kind, which could explain why so many shows that have come after it just so happen to feature characters who bear a striking resemblance to Louise. (Don't worry, Slayers fans, I can hear you screaming, “Lina Inverse did it first!” already.) This release, like most subtitle-only Sentai sets, is fairly light on extras apart from an episode-length swimsuit OVA. After all the licensing drama this franchise has gone through, however, a standard collection certainly beats multiple years of nothing at all.

We've also got a new writer joining the crew this week. Give a warm welcome to James Beckett, who's starting his Shelf Life tenure with Selector Infected Wixoss.

We begin with the voice of young girl ruminating on her misfortune while being greeted with visions of an eerie, almost apocalyptic landscape. The voice speaks of wishes being granted, and the lengths to which she will go to grant them. Two figures appear, menacing and strange, doing battle amongst the ruins. The skyline is ragged with ominous clouds and an atmosphere of doom. Everything quickly backpedals, however, revealing a world much more recognizable to us, showing us our plucky and affable young heroine living a normal teenager's life.

You're probably wondering to yourself, “Why is this guy describing the beginning of Puella Magi Madoka Magica to me? Did I travel back in time?” Now, before you run to check on your DeLorean's flux capacitor, let me assure you that this isn't 2011, and I am not describing the intro to one of the most famous and well-regarded anime series to come out since Neon Genesis Evangelion. This is the introduction to the selector infected WIXOSS, though I don't blame you for confusing the two shows.

To be fair to WIXOSS, it isn't a complete rip-off of that genre-defining wunderkind. Whereas Madoka Magica applied its particularly twisted lens to the magical girl genre, selector infected WIXOSS' plot takes on the form of a card-battle anime. The story follows Ruko Kominato, an average, if somewhat unsociable, young girl living the quiet life in the big city. In an effort to get her out and socializing, Ruko's brother introduces her to a popular card game called WIXOSS (short for “Wish Across” and pronounced “We-cross,” because anime). WIXOSS' hook is that each player's deck is led by a character chard called an “LRIG”, and Ruko is understandably surprised to discover that her particular LRIG is a little white-haired girl named Tama that can move and speak behind the veneer of her cardboard home. Ruko eventually ends up befriending another girl with a living LRIG card, Yuzuki Kurebashi, who explains to our heroine that while for most people WIXOSS is your average trading card game, for some girls it is much more than that. These special individuals have chosen to be Selectors, and have been gifted with a living LRIG partner. Their goal? To find and battle other Selectors in magical card-game combat. The Selector that wins enough battles will be granted any wish that her heart desires. Those that lose too many times, however, lose their right to be called a Selector. Ruko and Yuzuki are eventually befriended by a third Selector, a painfully shy girl named Hitoe Uemura, and the three girls decide to work together and do battle alongside their LRIGS to make their wishes come true.

If you replace “Selectors” with “Magical Girls” and “Other Selectors” with “Witches”, and Selector infected WIXOSS and Puella Magi Madoka Magica share basically the same plot, not to mention a penchant for nonsensical and overlong titles. Now, this is not an inherently terrible thing. Madoka Magica is one of the greatest anime ever made as far as I'm concerned, and if selector infected WIXOSS is going to copy notes, it might as well be from the smartest kid in class. If WIXOSS used a familiar formula to tell a thoughtful, interesting, and exciting story, then all the more power to it.

The problem isn't that WIXOSS is blatantly stealing from Madoka Magica's playbook (though it absolutely is doing that). The problem is that WIXOSS has no idea how to steal effectively. Even divorced from the shadow of that show, WIXOSS fails to meaningfully cement the stakes of its own game, and its narrative momentum completely flounders from doing so. The show spends far too long setting up its pieces, assuming that audiences will want to spend over half of a show waiting for the characters to realize what a viewer could have figured out in roughly five minutes. If WIXOSS were a more confident show, it would understand that in order to justify such a laborious build up it would need to fill up all that time building suspense with interesting and complex characters.

WIXOSS is not a better show. Ruko as a protagonist is fairly bland and unexceptional, especially taking into account the fact that her character is nearly identical to the one the protagonist of Madoka Magica faces. When the show does introduce elements to differentiate her from the anime heroines that have preceded her, it is too little, too late. Hitoe is the archetypal “Adorable Shy Girl Who Only Wants to Make Friends”, and when the show tries to use her arc to illustrate the darker cost of WIXOSS, she ends up becoming little more than an excuse for exposition dumps and plot contrivances. Of the three leads, Yuzuki ends up coming out as the most interesting and nuanced. Her wish is one that goes against the grain of what society finds acceptable, and WIXOSS does an unexpectedly good job of taking her conflict seriously when many other shows would have played up for laughs, or worse, titillation. Her story is far and away the most compelling narrative thread in the show.

Yuzuki's arc alone can't make up for a dearth of interesting villains, however. Aspiring model Akira Aoi shows up early on, and though her near-sociopathic disregard for the fates of other Selectors is supposed to come across as intimidating, she's mostly just obnoxious. Akira's rival Iona Urazoe is the closest thing the show gives us to a proper Big Bad, though we learn so little about her that her motivations come across as muddled and vague, lacking any real sense of danger or urgency until literally the final few seconds of the series. When all of that urgency is suddenly severed by a cliffhanger, you realize that WIXOSS never intended to tell a complete, cohesive story in the first place. The first 12 episodes of this show are all setup for a second season that promises to really bring on the action and excitement and drama. Hitting this cliffhanger doesn't really make me want to see the second season, though, so much as it makes the preceding 12 episodes seem even more padded and needlessly stretched thin in retrospect.

As a Blu-Ray set, selector infected WIXOSS is a typical release. Funimation has collected all 12 episodes of the show on DVD and Blu-Ray, and at the time of this review you can find the set online for about $40, which isn't bad so far as anime goes. The English dub, which I watched for this review, is perfectly fine given what the actors had to work with. Lindsay Seidel does a good job of imbuing Ruko with as much charm and likability as the script will allow, though Jamie Marchi struggles as Akira, forced to chew her way through over-the-top jeers and lame insults. Of the main cast, Apphia Yu gives the most compelling performance, which is unsurprising since her character gets more to do than just about anyone else in this show. The visual and audio-quality is also perfectly acceptable, though the Blu-Ray version of the show has a weird problem with the menu shading that makes it hard to tell what you are and are not highlighting. The extras are pretty bare-bones: the usual textless intros and outros, and a handful of commentaries from the English dub crew.

At the end of the day, this isn't a terrible show, but it is an aggressively mediocre one. Its animation is passable, its action scenes are perfunctory at best, and as much as it tries, it just cannot escape the fact that it is the off-brand knockoff of a classic of the medium, and doesn't even do a good job of being that. Maybe the second season will retroactively justify the pacing of the first. If that possibility is enough to get you through WIXOSS' first season, then maybe it's something you should check out. As it stands, selector infected WIXOSS consistently fails to make an argument for its own existence, and based on that fact alone I can't recommend that anyone spend their time or their money on it when there are so many better shows out there to experience.

That's all for this week's reviews. Thanks for reading!

This week's shelves are from Drew:

"Hi!  I'm Drew from Green Bay, WI and I've been collecting/watching/reading Anime for over 15 years.  I started on this collection in middle school and haven't stop since!  Been coming to ANN since the beginning and enjoy reading the articles every week!  Hope to see you guys at Anime Central!

PS: The only thing better than Anime is watching the Packers win the Super Bowl."

Those are some mightily impressive shelves. I can't guarantee that anime collections influence the outcome of football games, but the Packers are in good shape if they do.

If you'd like to show off your own shelves, send me some photos at [email protected]

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