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Shelf Life
Umi, Myself, and I

by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens, James Beckett,

Thanks have been given, turkeys have been eaten, and we're in the midst of the frenzied holiday sale season. If you went out and fought the crowds last Friday, congratulations on surviving the hordes of shoppers. If, like me, you hid indoors and shopped online instead, then I hope you enjoyed your peaceful afternoon at home. Either way, let's take a break from all the consumerism to remember what this time of year is really about: getting new anime. Welcome to Shelf Life.

Jump to this week's reviews:
Turn A Gundam: Part 2
Umi Monogatari

On Shelves This Week

Fairy Tail – Part 18 BD+DVD
Funimation – 325 min – Hyb – MSRP $54.98
Currently cheapest at: $37.52 Barnes and Noble

Synopsis: Lucy has trouble summoning her celestial spirits, and they have no memory of her when they finally do appear. The guild must enter a series of unusual battles to seal the spirits and learn what's going on in the Celestial Spirit World.

Extra: You can read a review of the two parts preceding this one here. The series is also available streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu.

Mobile Suit Gundam – Collection 2 BD, DVD
Bayview – 525 min – Hyb – MSRP $74.99|$59.99
Currently cheapest at: $48.74 Right Stuf|$38.99 Right Stuf

Synopsis: The White Base fends off constant Zeon attacks, and Amuro and the others return to space in order to fight in the final battle. With the Federation weakened and Zeon in turmoil, the outcome of the war is far from certain.

Extra: You can read a review of this set here. Gabriella's reviewing another Gundam series this week, but keep an eye out for some coverage of the original Mobile Suit Gundam in a future installment of Shelf Life.

Space Brothers – Collection 6 BD, DVD
Sentai – 275 min – Sub – MSRP $59.98|49.98
Currently cheapest at: $35.41 Rakuten|$30.62 Rakuten

Synopsis: Mutta is on the verge of officially becoming an astronaut, but first he must master flying a supersonic aircraft with nothing but the instruments to guide him.

Extra: Another Space Brothers release means another week of me telling you to watch this series. It's streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu, and The Anime Network.

Lunar Legend Tsukihime – Complete Collection [Sentai Selects] DVD
Sentai – 300 min – Hyb – MSRP $29.98
Currently cheapest at: $17.99 Amazon

Synopsis: Shiki Tohno possesses immense destructive power thanks to his ability to sever the lines of energy that bind all things together, but he tries to live a normal life. That normalcy is shattered when a vampire with secrets of her own enters his life.

Extra: You can read an old review from the dark days of single-disc releases here. You can also watch this series streaming on The Anime Network.

Shelf Life Reviews

Shelf Worthy
Turn A Gundam Part 2
Umi Monogatari
Nothing this week.

One of the nice things about having the Shelf Life crew back up to three people is that I don't have to run one of my own reviews every single week. So, for the first time in a long time, sit back and enjoy a very temporary reprieve from having to listen to me all the time.

First up this week is Gabriella's review of the second half of Turn A Gundam.

We're back with the second half of one of the most acclaimed entries in the Gundam franchise, Turn A Gundam. I reviewed the first half about a month ago and liked it a whole lot. You can read the review here. Watch that half of the series first. Now, on with the show.

Coming off of the first season, Kihel Heim and Dianna Soriel are still maintaining their switcheroo. Together, they've managed to skew the Moonrace's colonization plans towards peace. However, a more militant faction arises to ensure violent conflict. They're lead by Gym Ghingnam, a self-proclaimed moon samurai who treats war like a leisurely pastime. For the sake of peace amongst worlds, our heroes must now band together to ensure that Dianna remains in power. With the Turn A on their side, Dianna's faction still has the upper hand in firepower. But what'll happen when Gym uncovers his own ancient weapon, the Turn X? And will Loran's noble intentions survive the reveal of the Turn A's dark history?

This is still my first Gundam show, so I can't say anything about how it stacks up within the larger continuity. However, I can say that I very much enjoyed it as a standalone romp, a high quality space opera. It's a nostalgic type of show, taking me back to when I'd get invested in sprawling animated adventure stories, like Fullmetal Alchemist. These types of anime don't happen very often any more, and as a good one, Turn A Gundam is a rare treat. It succeeds because it's both fairly simple to follow and chock-a-block with dramatic events. There's always some new conflict or character interaction going on, but the exact logistics of who's on what side are rarely unclear. Although archetypical, the leads are all endearing, and even minor characters are expanded upon enough to be likeable. It helps that they're all established early and have distinct, immediately recognizable designs. These types of stories – long running ensemble war epics – fail when they don't engage the audience early on. If that doesn't happen, the rest of the show is sailing against the current – the more it tries to progress, the more it alienates the audience. Turn A Gundam passes that early gauntlet, so its conclusion stands on a solid foundation.

It even turns out to have a passionate message. While the first part seemed to advocate a sort of generic pacifism, this latter half culminates in a fairly nuanced criticism of the cyclical nature of warfare. In particular, it goes after the continued development of technology related to warfare. The hero, Loran, is a pacifist who uses the Turn A Gundam only insofar as it furthers peace. The villain, Gym, is indifferent to the human suffering war causes, treating it like a game. Another antagonist, Guin, is an industrialist who supports technological advancement regardless of the consequences. He has good intentions, but they only play into Gym's bloody ambitions and nearly doom humanity. In order to properly use the Turn A, Loran needs to acknowledge that its destructive power almost decimated humanity during the dark history. He also abandons it when it's no longer needed to secure peace. Humanity's better nature, embodied in Loran, manages to quash its destructive instincts, embodied in Gym. Guin, meanwhile, escapes alive, illustrating that humanity has far from transcended its foibles. In the end, Turn A Gundam acknowledges that war is an inherent part of human nature. However, it's also optimistic that people may eventually learn from their past mistakes, give up warfare and break history's cycle. For Gundam fans, it must be melancholic to consider that all the other series culminated in the dark history. I can see why Turn A is brought out as one of the franchise's stellar entries – it's not only an entertaining story, but also an examination of the meaning behind Gundam as a whole.

It's also just a lot of fun. Want to see people harpooning down a Mobile Suit from dolphinback… on the moon? Well, that's a sincere thing that happens. This set also features wacky adventures with returning villains, examinations of both Earth and Moon societies, and the Turn A being used to do laundry. Even as the content gets darker, Turn A Gundam never loses its lighthearted touch. It's a lot like Loran in that regard. He grows up, becomes an ace Gundam pilot, and even falls in love, but his moral compass never falters. Narratively, the worst thing that you could probably say about Turn A Gundam is that it's too idealistic. A lot of this is rooted in Loran. From the beginning, he's pretty much the show's ideal human, and as a result his struggles never change him emotionally. Turn A Gundam just isn't a show that's concerned with the moral compromises inherent to warfare. Persoanlly, I think that it strikes a refreshing balance between depth and entertainment. Two parts joy and three parts sorrow, the resulting experience is mildly bittersweet.

It's a shame that this release isn't Blu-Ray. Turn A Gundam is a strong production with great art, animation, and direction. It's a spectacle for television animation. However, the show isn't available streaming, and 60 or so US dollars isn't a bad price for a 50 episode series nowadays. There's also an interview with Syd Mead, the legendary concept artist who designed the Turn A Gundam. I rarely bring up what discs look like, but these are especially attractive. They all feature a piece of the show's gorgeous faux-impressionist concept art. It's a great style, and the show itself succeeds at conveying a similar aesthetic.

I've swallowed my first dose of Gundam and wow, I'm already hungering for more. Fortunately, this establishes me as Shelf Life's unofficial Gundam Person For Life, so I'm set to watch them all. (Pending North American releases.) The next one's even coming up pretty soon – in a few weeks I'll be going back to basics with Mobile Suit Gundam! Let's see if this dark history is all it's cracked up to be.

Next up is a look at Umi Monogatari, courtesy of James.

Marin and her younger sister Urin are two mermaids living the carefree underwater life when one day they discover a strange trinket from the human world above. Marin is determined to return this lost item (a ring) to whomever it belongs to. Urin joins her, not trusting Marin to be safe in the world of the “sky-people”. Arriving on a tiny island village, the two discover that the owner of the ring is a college-bound girl named Kanon, and she intentionally discarded the trinket in a fit of romantic despair. What begins as a meeting of two very different worlds becomes something much more grave, however, when the mermaids' presence accidentally unleashes an ancient spirit named Sedna from her island tomb. Guided by the wisdom of old-sea god (a mustachioed turtle in a sun-hat, naturally), the steadfast Marin and reluctant Kanon take on the roles of Priestesses of the Sea and Sky to lock the evil Sedna away for good. 
One thing is for sure: Umi Monogatari doesn't make the strongest of first impressions.

Nozomi Entertainment's set is the Western release of the 2009 Studio ZEXCS anime, though you'd be forgiven for mistaking the packaging as a relic from the late 90s/early 2000s. While the set's uninspired packaging and art do the show no favors as far as introductions go, the aesthetics and pacing of the early episodes do an even worse job of getting the viewer excited for the series. The opening theme is initially boring enough to inspire drowsiness, and the action in the first episodes barely shifts out of neutral. Marin and Urin's initial foray into the world of humans consists mostly of mild bemusement and curiosity, and when they finally do encounter Kanon, the would-be-fortune-teller with a soul of unfettered angst, the show wastes time with a lot of cutesy anime-shtick. Even when the monster-of the-week stuff gets started in episode 2, the show's inconsistent animation and generally weak fight scenes don't inspire a lot of hope.

Imagine my surprise, then, when only a little while later I found myself surprisingly invested in the proceedings. What I began to realize about Umi Monogatari is that, in reality, it is three things at once: A magical girl show, a quirky slice-of-life comedy, and a thoughtful meditation on the pains of young adulthood.

As a magical girl show Umi Monogatari barely passes the litmus test: The battles our heroines do find themselves in are generically staged, and they are all too brief by half. At one point the show goes an entire four and a half episodes without even a single action beat. If you go into anime like this expecting engaging and consistent action, Umi Monogatari is probably not for you.

As a comedy Umi Monogatari fares a little better. Despite my initial misgivings, Marin, Urin, and Kanon end up sharing some genuine chemistry with one another. There is a charming, funny surreality to a girl sharing her home with two mermaids, a talking turtle, and a mother who doesn't seem to find the situation strange in any way. In an alternate reality, I wouldn't mind a show about this unlikely clan just hanging out and enjoying each other's company.

Still, it's when things get a little more serious that the show really shines. Marin and Urin share one of the more heart-warming sibling relationships that I've seen in a while, and as Marin and Kanon get closer, Urin desperately longs to reclaim Marin's affection. This mirrors Kanon's own inability to feel genuinely loved in her relationships with friends and suitors. When these relationship dynamics became the larger focus of the show, I began to realize what Umi Monogatari was all about: it's about being lonely.

Adolescence is the period of life that has come to essentially dominate anime storytelling in the 21st century. You can argue whether or not that kind of thematic homogenization is for good or ill, but Umi Monogatari is a sterling example of the kind of adolescent narrative anime can tell so well. Growing up sucks, and too often it feels like you're being stranded to suffer that awful awkwardness alone. Yet adolescence is also the same time when many people develop their most important lifelong relationships; Umi Monogatari understands that paradox. Even when the action scenes are barely serviceable, or the comedy isn't landing, the show's artistic eye stays trained on that single notion: That you will never love as intensely, or feel the pang of loss so severely, as during that nebulous period that borders childhood and adulthood. The power of that idea is enough to take Umi Monogatari somewhere unexpectedly special.

This isn't to say that the show is a masterpiece. Aside from its animation and choreography shortcomings, there are some periods where Umi Monogatari's pacing stops being thoughtful and becomes downright boring. At one point, about halfway through the series, the show takes what could have easily been told in two episodes and stretches it to four, and though I ended up appreciating that character development more by the series' end, at the time my finger was constantly hovering over my remote's fast-forward button. Also, even though the writing for the protagonists is mostly rock solid throughout, the side characters never really develop beyond the stock clichés they're introduced as. They can be likeable, even funny, clichés, granted, but nowhere near as much care is given to their development. Kanon's ex-boyfriend, Kojima, suffers the most from this lack of attention; he might actually be one of the most inexplicably boring and milquetoast of love interests this side of Keitaro Urashima. For what it's worth, Kanon shares way more chemistry with Marin than she ever does with Kojima. Even though the show never brings their friendship out of the deeply platonic levels typical to these kinds of stories, I was still constantly being reminded that Kanon would be much better suited to Marin over her non-entity of an ex-boyfriend.

The few extras Nozomi Entertainment have gathered together are perfectly fine. There are the standard clean openings/endings, some Japanese web promos, and a handful of cute scenes that show Marin and Urin learning about the stranger elements of human life. The best feature of this set would actually be the show's 13th episode, which went unaired on TV or streaming sites. Though it doesn't profoundly change what came before it, this final visit Umi Monogatari's world manages to further hammer home the gentle, unexpected emotional power that surprised me so much.

I was not expecting to enjoy Umi Monogatari as much as I did. It's not the prettiest show to look at, and it often felt like the deliberately slow pacing was playing chicken with my patience. Still, in the end, I'm glad I saw it through. I don't know if I'd go back for a re-watch, and it's definitely not for everyone, but if you have some time and a little patience, Umi Monogatari is worth a shot. Even as I'm writing this, I find myself humming that theme music that I originally thought was so placid. Just like Umi Monogatari itself, even when it's all said and done, it manages to linger, just a little bit, in the back of the mind.

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

This week's shelves are from invalidname (Don't worry, that's not an error in your browser, it's just his forum handle):

"Hi. I'm known on the forums and anitwitter as “invalidname", and I've been at this for a long time. See the Great Mazinger and Gaiking on the floor? Those were released as MattelShogun Warriors” in 1979, when I was 12.

My manga collection is a lot bigger than the anime, perhaps because I had to restart my video collection with the move to DVD, so all the “Robotech” and “Project A-ko” VHS tapes got donated to the library. By contrast, probably the oldest manga volume I have is the Nausicaä “Perfect Collection” — prior to that, most manga were released here as single-issue comic books. I had to add an extra shelf to this bookcase and stack all the manga two-deep to hold everything (that's why there's two sets of pictures with different contents), and I'm still almost out of room.

I have a few figures in my home office… I'm starting to get into Nendoroids, which I'm currently using a motivation to finish a book I'm writing in my nights and weekends: each time I finish a chapter, another figure one gets set up and unboxed. Currently, that means Yuki Yuna and Miss Monochrome are still in their boxes. Still, best figure is (sentimentality alert) the Hatsune Miku my daughter made for me last Christmas out of modeling clay.

As for the DVDs, I noticed something interesting in this picture, and figured it would make a good trivia question: directly above one of the DVD box sets is its own distantly-related sequel, name both titles.

See y'all on the forums!"

I love the modeling clay Miku. Thanks for sharing!

All I want for Christmas is more shelves to feature in this segment. Send me your photos at [email protected]!

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