Shelf Life
A Glass Half Fullmetal

by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens, James Beckett,

Well, the impossible has finally happened: there are no new anime releases to be found in the US this week. With the holiday countdown approaching zero, all the distributors and retailers are getting ready to settle down for a short winter's nap. Never fear, though, because the Shelf Life crew is still here with a pair of reviews to keep you busy until the new year brings fresh reasons to throw money at your computer monitor.

Shelf Life Reviews

Shelf Worthy
Fullmetal Alchemist
Nothing this week.

I'm working on something special for next week, so Gabriella and James are holding down the fort with this week's reviews. We've got science, alchemy, and murder mysteries on tap, which sounds like it'd work equally well as the content of a review column or as the concept for a quirky college town bar.

To start things off, here's Gabriella's review of the second most expensive of the three new Fullmetal Alchemist collections.

Equivalent exchange, a tale of two brothers, forbidden alchemy, and the quest for the philosopher's stone. These are the ingredients that make up Fullmetal Alchemist. Perhaps the most popular anime of the aughts, its extended run on Adult Swim created an army of young anime fans. But after a few years, its release on Blu-ray – for the first time in North America – invites reevaluation. Is the show as great as many people remember? Or has nostalgia been kind to it?

Nope, it's still great. If you're somehow unfamiliar with the premise, Fullmetal Alchemist follows brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric in their quest for the Philosopher's Stone. Set in a fantasy world based on early 20th century Europe, alchemy exists as a sort of scientific magic. Ed and Al were prodigies in the field, until one day they tried to use it to revive their deceased mother. They attempt backfired and both brothers were left crippled. Edward lost an arm and a leg (he compensates with replacements made out of steampunk cybernetics) while Alphonse lost his entire body. (His soul now possesses a suit of armor.) Their quest for the stone gets them involved with a military dictatorship, a mysterious cabal of artificial humans, and the secrets of a long-lost civilization.

It's kind of like summarizing Harry Potter at this point. Chances are that most everyone reading this is already familiar with Fullmetal Alchemist and likes it a whole bunch. But if you somehow haven't (perhaps you have awoken from a decades-long coma?) it's still very much worth a watch, even at its now hefty 51 episode runtime. What's more likely in terms of not having seen the show is that you've seen the other Fullmetal Alchemist, the 2009 “remake” Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. This second series – a loyal adaptation of the source manga, from which the 2003 anime deviated heavily – may have eclipsed the original's popularity amongst the most recent generation of anime fans. If you've heard the 2003 anime disparaged or don't see the point of watching it after Brotherhood, perhaps reconsider. They're both very accessible, but fundamentally different types of shows. While Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood shares traits with titles like Blue Exorcist or Seraph of the End, FMA 2003 is closer to Wolf's Rain or From the New World – fantasy shows where everything is geared towards making a thematic point rather than just entertaining the audience. They even belong to different genres. While Brotherhood amounts to pretty archetypical (if well executed) action-adventure, the 2003 anime is more of a drama with fantasy elements. If Brotherhood is written like a great comic book, this anime comes off like a classic novel. You see, Fullmetal Alchemist (meaning its head writer, Shou Aikawa) has specific, well-researched, and well-articulated things to say about war, politics, and humanity.

The selling point of this release is that it uses the show's recent high-definition remastering. On Blu-ray for the first time, this should be the best Fullmetal Alchemist has ever looked. I'm happy to say that it meets expectations. Although it came out at a low point in anime aesthetics, Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantastic production. In particular, it contains subtle and evocative uses of lighting. That may be the aspect of this remastering that sees the most improvement – previous releases suffered from lights and darks that were too intense. This version has undergone color correction, so now you can see details of shots that were always present but never visible. Fullmetal Alchemist has a great, understated color palette, so the subtle variations matter. Still, this show is from the early 2000s, so there's only so much improvement that could be made. There's some aliasing in the lineart as well as some shots that weren't meant to be seen in detail. (Hello, derpface.) Overall, Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantastic television production by 2003 standards. There's some limited animation, but also moments of intense, show-stopping action. For example, Edward's late series fights against Greed and Envy. Despite some quibbles, this is the best Fullmetal Alchemist has ever looked. If you already own the DVDs, this is a worthy upgrade.

If there's one issue with this release, it's that I can't justify paying an extra 50 to 60 dollars for the Limited Edition. While the Collector's Edition – with its faux-leather suitcase packaging and 300 page art book – lives up to a price tag in the hundreds, this mid-tier version feels like an afterthought. The packaging is a disappointment compared to other Funimation limited editions. While similar releases have quite sturdy, hard-backed cardboard cases, this one comes in a flimsy slip. It's barely sturdier than the slipcases used in the default releases. It's not very snug either. Once I removed the postcards, the Blu-ray case falls out easily. The extras that this does contain are nice: ten or so glossy postcards featuring attractive character art and a 20-page interview with Seiji Mizushima, Sho Aikawa, and Masahiko Minami. But by themselves, they don't carry a 100-130 dollar release. If possible, I suggest going for one of the two other tiers. They're each more of an equivalent exchange.

If you're already a fan, then this purchase – which packages the entire show into one release – should be a no-brainer. And if you (somehow) haven't seen the show, then this is the optimal moment to check it out. I'd just recommend going for either the Standard or Collector's rather than this Limited edition – it doesn't live up to the hefty price point. A decade out and Fullmetal Alchemist has firmly established itself as an all-audiences classic worthy of any shelf.

Next, James takes a look at Danganronpa The Animation, an anime adaptation of the popular video game.

When the unassuming Makoto Naegi is chosen via lottery to attend the prestigious Hope's Peak Academy, it seems too good to be true. Hope's Peak is filled with high schoolers of only the highest caliber, with each student being the ultimate specimen of his or her chosen field. His first day shows that everything at Hope's Peak Academy Academy is not what it seems, however, as he and fourteen other students wake up in class to find the windows barred shut, with security cameras and machine gun turrets watching their every move.

Things get even worse, and even stranger, when Makoto and company discover that the headmaster of Hope's Peak is a psychotic talking teddy bear named Monokuma. The sadistic stuffed animal gives them an ultimatum: spend the rest of your lives trapped in the academy, or kill your fellow classmates and evade their prosecution to “graduate” into freedom. With the body count rising every day, can Makoto find a way to save his newfound friends from each other and escape their life of despair?

Full disclosure on this one: The visual novel/murder mystery Danganronpa and its sequel are two of my favorite Playstation Vita games. Having poured countless hours into the unabridged adventures of the students of Hope's Peak Academy, I went into watching Danganronpa The Animation from the perspective of a fan of the source material. This led to a decidedly strange and ultimately underwhelming viewing experience.

Everything gets off to a promising enough start. The weirdness of its world and the bizarre charm of its characters and story are what made the game click, after all, and you'll find those things here in the anime. The game's infectious soundtrack and enjoyably off-center art style also make the transition to animation more or less completely intact. While most of the English dub is taken up by different actors than from the game, Bryce Papenbrook returns to voice Makoto, and the rest of the actors do a fine job translating the characters' simultaneously silly and serious natures. With all these aspects of the game surviving the transition from game to screen, why would I find the anime so lacking? You see, it turns out that Danganronpa The Animation's faithfulness to Danganronpa the game is both its biggest strength and the source of its undoing.

In a word, the problem comes down to pacing. Danganronpa has thirteen half-hour episodes to tell its story, which is much less time than the game had to work with. So while Danganronpa The Animation manages to make it through the most important bits of the plot, in doing so it sacrifices of much of the characterization and narrative development that made the story so special in the first place. Not only that, but the rushed pacing deflates almost all of the tension and mystery from the murders and subsequent trials that comprise so much of its runtime.

When one of the students is murdered in the game, Makoto takes a lot of time investigating clues, interrogating witnesses, and piecing together the facts of the crime. When class trials begin and everyone is lobbing accusations and theories at one another, it is up to Makoto (and the player) to figure out the truth hiding behind the misdirection and deceit. This takes a lot of time to set up, and time is one thing Danganronpa The Animation is lacking. The investigation and trials of this show happen so quickly that the solutions to the mystery are revealed before the viewer has time to properly digest the facts of the case. The most fun part of watching a whodunit type of story, at least for me, is taking part in the solving of the case, making theories and seeing how they stack up to what unfolds. Danganronpa is so concerned with getting through the wealth of material it has to cover that it completely disregards any such viewer participation. It is like reading the Cliff Notes for a Sherlock Holmes story: Sure, you get the gist of what went down, but where's the fun in it?

It may seem unfair for me to compare the show to the game as much as I am, but my knowledge of the game is probably what got me through it in the first place. For every rushed plot development or barely explained twist, I was able to use my background knowledge to fill in the blanks. Characters that seem full and rich to me only seem so because I spent hours of time getting to know backstory details about them that are either glossed over or completely skipped in show. The murder mysteries themselves only made sense to me because I spent so much time working through them in the source material; if I hadn't practically memorized facts and clues about the proceedings, many of the trials might have seemed straight up nonsensical. For Danganronpa fans it's easy enough to keep up. For newcomers, it may seem closer to pure gibberish.

Funimation's Blu-ray/DVD combo release of Danganronpa The Animation is in keeping with the quality of their recent releases: A pretty good dub coupled with a quality audio/visual setup. The extras are the usual opening and ending clips, with a commentary available from the English dub crew on Episode 1. The Blu-ray set also features an extended Director's Cut of the final 13th episode, with about ten extra minutes of footage.

Perhaps if every episode had that little bit of extra time to flesh out its bare bones, the series would be easier to recommend. As it stands, I know that much of what I liked of Danganronpa The Animation came from what I knew the story could be, and not what was actually presented on screen. If you haven't played the game, Danganronpa The Animation might be a fun enough experience as long as you don't particularly care about the taking part in the “mystery” aspect of mystery shows. At the end of the day, though, the show acts as a purely functional crash course in Danganronpa lore, one that is missing a lot of the intrigue and character that made Danganronpa so popular in the first place. Make of that what you will.

That's it for this week's reviews. Come on back next week for a look back at what's been a very eventful year for Shelf Life.

This week's shelves are from Luke:

"Hi! Thanks for the opportunity for us to share our collections! 

I've been collecting for only a few years now. I take a lot of joy in this hobby! I love to see my collection grow with shows I love!

So I tend to organize my collection simply by what looks the best to me. I don't organize strictly by alphabet, publisher or genre. Instead I love organizing in a clean crisp look. 

Thanks again! I look forward to hearing what you think!"

That's an impressive group of collector's editions. I never knew those Gundam volumes were so big. Thanks for sharing!

There may be a better way to close out the year than sending photos of your collection to [email protected], but I certainly can't think of one. Send those photos in!

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