by Paul Jensen,
I met up with some old friends for a Magic: The Gathering draft tournament the other day, and I learned (or perhaps re-learned) something important: I am really, really terrible at Magic. I've played the game for brief periods of time at several points in my life, and I've never had the time or the patience to do much more than learn the rules. At least I managed to deny one of my opponents the satisfaction of beating me by finding a way to bring my own life points to zero before he had the chance. Sometimes you just have to take the moral victory when you can, folks. Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
On Shelves This Week
Synopsis: In the middle of an otherwise normal pirating job, Marika and the crew of the Bentenmaru rescue a young passenger from a group of enemies. The mysterious boy turns out to have a connection to one of one of the pioneers of hyperspace travel.
Synopsis: After trying to avoid the spotlight for most of his life, Izumi finds himself cast in a commercial where he has to wear a dress. His co-star mistakes him for a girl and falls in love at first sight.
Rozen Maiden - Complete Collection [Sentai Selects] DVD
Sentai - 650 min - Hyb - MSRP $49.98
Currently cheapest at: $26.99 Amazon
Synopsis: Jun's reclusive life is thrown into chaos when a living doll named Shinku arrives at his house. The two of them must learn to work together in order to survive a series of life-or-death challenges.
Extra: We've got a handful of reviews from the two TV seasons in this set, and you can check out a couple of them here and here. This series has bounced from company to company in the US over the years, but the good news is that, unlike a lot of "license rescue" titles, you can actually find it online. It's available streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu, and The Anime Network.
Sword Art Online - Extra Edition [Standard Edition] BD
Aniplex - 100 min - Hyb - MSRP $49.98
Currently cheapest at: $39.98 Right Stuf
Synopsis: Kirito and friends teach Suguha to swim, and Kirito meets with a government official to talk about his time in SAO and ALO.
Extra: This "Extra Edition" special was previously available as a premium edition set, and you'll find a review of that version here. You can stream this special (along with the TV series) on Crunchyroll, Hulu, and the Aniplex Channel.
Shelf Life Reviews
I had some vague but reasonably positive memories of Azumanga Daioh before watching it for this week's review. Time to see how this old favorite holds up after over a decade's worth of refinements to the classroom comedy formula.
In a lot of ways, Azumanga Daioh isn't all that different from its newer cousins. It offers a mix of goofy, character-based humor and some casual observations about youth and growing up. The story follows the cast through three years of high school, complete with all the expected sports festivals, summer vacations, and holiday parties. It's not until you take a look at some of the details that the differences start to emerge. Character designs are pretty conventional (no one even has blue or purple hair), and the characters' personalities are tuned more for comedy than marketability. The comedy itself also covers a fairly broad spectrum, ranging from typical sight gags and one-liners to more bizarre and occasionally absurd material. The series in general seems prone to doing its own thing instead of following a proven formula.
In some cases, that less refined approach leads to some jokes and storylines that don't really work. Even by slice of life standards, the pacing can be stunningly slow, and it occasionally feels like the series is trying to stretch 20 episodes' worth of content into 26. Some storylines are repeated in each school year without enough variation to justify the return trip, and individual scenes tend to take their sweet time in moving from setup to punch line. Some minor characters are also at odds with the overall tone of the series, the main offender being the uncomfortably creepy classical literature teacher Mr. Kimura. None of these things are deal-breakers, but you can definitely see where more recent shows found room to improve.
That said, Azumanga Daioh succeeds far more often than it comes up short. From the impossibly adorable Chiyo to the lovably spacey Osaka, the main characters make for a well-balanced and endearing comedic ensemble. Each of the six main girls is eccentric enough to carry a joke without veering into ridiculous territory, and it's easy to relate to them while laughing at their antics. If you've been through high school, you'll likely see some of your own group of friends reflected in the characters. Rival teachers Yukari and Minamo further expand the show's comedic range, offering plenty of “adults are as crazy as the kids” humor. Even as the series plays most of its stories for laughs, it does a good job of coaxing the audience into caring about its goofball cast. By the last few episodes, the show manages to build up enough good will towards the characters to make for some surprisingly emotional moments.
On the technical front, Azumanga Daioh is a bit of a mixed bag. The animation and background art holds up reasonably well, sneaking a few impressive shots in amongst the more ordinary moments. The music, on the other hand, is largely underwhelming apart from the enjoyably odd opening theme. The voice acting is solid across both audio tracks, though the delivery tends to be a bit stronger on the Japanese side of things. That's to take nothing away from the English dub, which is strong enough to make the series work for viewers who might not give it a shot in subtitled form. As a potential introductory series for the genre, that extra accessibility is definitely worth something.
After several years out of print since the last ADV box sets, this release is a welcome return to the US market for the series. While it's part of the Sentai Selects budget line, it does include a few notable extras like a reversible cover and a slideshow of production sketches on one of the discs. I don't see it as being a necessary purchase for anyone who owns one of the older collections, but it's a good option for folks who never got a chance to pick up the old ADV sets.
If you're interested in following the evolution of slice of life comedies or if you're just looking for some mostly harmless humor, Azumanga Daioh is still worth checking out. It holds up well, and is funny and adorable in equal measure. Other shows have certainly made improvements to the formula over the years, but this is still a worthy standard that new titles can be judged against.
That's it for this week's review section. Thanks for reading!
This week's shelves are from Jonathan:
"I've been meaning to send in my collection for some time now but life gets in the way. It's a bit outdated so I may have to send another one in the future once it's bigger.
Anyway, i'm from the UK and been a fan of Japanese pop culture for over 15 years now. First started my collection off with vhs's of Evangelion and Nadesico before moving on to dvd's for £20 for 4 episodes to full box set and models.
My tastes have differed over the years so some things are a little embarrassing now but I stand by what I brought as a little reminder of who I was at the time."
Wow, this is a really cool collection. I like the mix of older titles and newer ones, it gives the sense of a hobby enjoyed over many years. Thanks for sharing!
Whether you're from across the Atlantic or across the street, I'd love to show your anime collection to the world in this column. Send me your photos at [email protected]!
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