The Mike Toole Show
A Column About Nothing

by Michael Toole,

Okay, here's how these things work: I either have the topic selected and most of the column written days in advance, and then baby and worry over three or four "problem" paragraphs (generally things missing important research that, for some reason or another, I can't quite finish) until I'm satisfied and it's sometime after midnight on Saturday, or I write the entire thing around midnight on Saturday. That's what's going right now, in this column that you are reading: it's the product of my scrambled-egg brains late on Saturday night, after a 17-hour shift in the office, which followed a 14-hour shift in the office... yeah, it's been that kind of week.

The original topic I'd selected was all of the anime adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There's a lot of them, you see, and some of them are hilariously awesome (Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Romance of the Three Kingdoms) while others are awesomely hilarious (Ikki Tousen and its various sequels named after cup sizes). The original story is, of course, the awesomest (Zhuge Liang 4 LYFE), a topic that I actually helped run a panel on last year. But I made an alarming discovery-- apparently, Durarara! has elements of Ro3K in it, and until I investigate, I can't consider the story finished. So instead, for my fiftieth Mike Toole Show, I present a column about nothing. And everything! And nothing.

Like I've pointed out on twitter, the current season of anime is so high-powered that it has muscles on its muscles. It seems like every angle-- cute stuff, moe stuff, ecchi fanservice, violent fanservice, mecha, sitcom, slice of life, and of course, gender-swapped tales of the Warring States Period-- is covered. And not just covered, but covered well, with good, original, enjoyable fare seemingly every day of the week. Thursdays have taken on new significance for me, because that's when I get to watch Kids on the Slope, a.k.a. Sakamichi no Apollon.

Kids on the Slope solves a problem I've been complaining about for a decade-- it puts Shinichiro Watanabe, the Cowboy Bebop guy, back in the director's chair. It's got Yoko Kanno calling the shots on music, it's got Nobuteru Yuuki drawing the characters, and an all-star team of anime "studio musicians" like Kazuto Nakazawa and Cindy Yamauchi are directing episodes. It's blazingly original, a seemingly low-key mid-1960s period romance that actually feels like it takes place in '65-- unlike, say, Gate Keepers. A nebbish new kid connects with the class bully because they're both outcasts, and wonderfully, discovers common ground in their shared love of music.

Oh mercy, the music! Every episode is named after a jazz standard, starting with "Moanin'", the immortal record by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Every song intersects, in some way, with the episode's story. Kids on the Slope tells a tale of young love and hot music, and educates the viewer about jazz with dreamily reproduced songs and painstaking, true-to-life animation. Actually, revelations about Watanabe and company's careful study of live-action musical performances made me wonder: why is this series animated? After watching an episode or two, it becomes obvious: if it was in live-action, the colors wouldn't look right. The show's very palpable nostalgia isn't exactly sepia toned, but it's not something that could be easily reproduced on film. Beyond that, even with good production work, you'd sometimes see something a little too modern, and you'd be taken out of the moment. Watanabe is a perfectionist; his version of Yuki Kodama's story and characters could only be animated. Kids on the Slope is riding a lot of hype, but so far, it lives up to it. The series is half of why Thursdays are awesome.

What's the other half? It's the motherfucking Polar Bear's Cafe, that's what! I jumped on this based on the title, gleefully picturing a realistically-rendered polar bear laboriously working a french press, and was utterly gobsmacked when that was precisely, exactly what I got. Polar Bear's Cafe is about a nearly photorealistic polar bear named Polar Bear, who grows weary of life in the cold and decides to open an adorable little cafe. He befriends the local wildlife and scores them as regular customers, including an endearingly irresponsible panda (name: Panda) and a gregarious penguin (name: Penguin). He speaks in an unassumingly gentle voice (in my head, all cartoon bears sound like Phil Harris, so this was a genuine shock), and when he needs some part-time help, he auditions a variety of exotic critters (mandrill, anteater, etc.) before settling on Sasako, a charming girl who looks and acts like That Cute Barista from every goddamn coffee house in the world.

The show's appeal rests entirely on its utterly simplistic absurdity. Immensely likeable animals get into goofy situations, and Polar Bear periodically unleashes an arsenal of bad puns. Watching it, your brain blissfully empties out. A steam valve on the back of your neck just snaps open, Heat Guy J style (YES, I WENT THERE), filling the room with a rich, hazy cloud of your completely forgotten frustrations.  My wife retired from cosplay in 2001 and never got as excited about anime after that, but Polar Bear's Cafe has awoken her interest. I hope that the josei manga that it's based on finds an English-language publisher sometime soon! (Note: the voice of Polar Bear, Takahiro Sakurai, portrayed Boma in Heat Guy J, as well as a variety of handsome, earnest characters like Cloud Strife, Shun in Gate Keepers, and Suzaku in Code Geass. So does this mean that the English voice would have to be someone like Yuri Lowenthal?)

Speaking of animals, what the hell happened to Tiger and Bunny? I feel like half of anime fandom watched it as it aired last year, and it was one of the feel-good hits of the summer, a show that Sunrise carefully and deliberately tailored to appeal to an extremely diverse, age-group agnostic international audience. It really worked for me-- the characters are a bit stereotypical, but making the protagonist a thirtysomething single dad was a gutsy move. The CGI wasn't too jarring, the production and character design was great, and the integration of popular brand names as in-show sponsors was deviously clever. So it's a surefire hit, right? Simulcast a success, DVD and TV broadcast to follow?

Viz announced that they'd secured the rights to market the show internationally on June 4, 2011. That's almost a year ago now. Now, the wording of the press release doesn't necessarily suggest an imminent home video release-- it could mean anything, from t-shirts to wallscrolls to toys. But we haven't gotten any of that. Tiger and Bunny is still a strong brand in Japan-- movies are in the works, there are great toys from Figuarts, and there's even a stage production(!) in development. So how about it, Viz? Where the hell is my Tiger and Bunny?! This is the sort of thing I wonder when I'm at home by myself and the internet goes down.

Speaking of buying anime, what anime have you all been buying lately? I kept quiet on the anime-purchasing front for awhile, but broke my silence at Anime Boston, rewarding Sentai Filmworks for their faith in Golgo 13 by buying the latest installment directly from them and finally trying out one of those fancy NIS America special editions in Arakawa Under the Bridge. Golgo 13 met my expectations (spoiler alert: he kills people), but Arakawa was an interesting surprise; based on the box art and a one-sentence synopsis, I'd expected a gentle comedy about a straitlaced young man courting a weird homeless girl, but what I got was an anything-goes farce about a vain, selfish jerk who butts heads with what appears to be a colony of escaped mental patients. The jokes do get a little repetitive after awhile-- it really closely follows the tsukkomi/boke approach of classic Osaka comedy. The other surprise was the nature of the special edition itself-- the box is a little weird, and does not comfortably fit on any of my shelves, but the hardcover artbook is delightful. I'd expected these books to be full of basic key artwork and facts, but there's some pretty detailed interviews and concept art in there. The set won me over enough that I'll be pre-ordering NIS's Enma-kun release whenever they figure out a street date.

Anyway, buying anime by handing people money instead of clicking on the "check out" button made me curious about what was in stock at Best Buy these days, so I went and had a look. What I found was a sadly depleted section where anything older than about six months was long gone (there were giant DON'T SEE WHAT YOU WANT HERE? WE CAN ORDER IT FOR YOU!" signs everywhere, which sums up Best Buy's commitment to home video in general). Most of the stock that was there was Funimation product-- Trigun, Fullmetal Alchemist, the usual-- along with a surprising amount of Bandai Entertainment fare like Code Geass R2. I guess they're going ahead with that "we're going to keep distributing our existing stuff" plan. Anyway, Best Buy in general was spectacularly uninviting; the front half of the store was stuffed with literal junk like curling irons and candy bars, software like home video, CDs, and games seemed to be losing ground to the rest of the crap, and while I snuffled around for a copy of Sunshine on blu-ray (WE CAN ORDER IT FOR YOU!!!) a guy tried to sell me DirecTV.

Yes, that's right: Best Buy has apparently been allowing DirecTV salesman to prowl their aisles, offering irritated customers satellite TV. The guy who approached me was clean-cut, in khaki and polo shirt, but he had a look on his face that can only come from day after day of confusion and rejection from almost every single prospective customer. He asked me what I watched on TV; "I watch most of my TV on netflix," I responded. At this, a look of panic and despair crossed his face, because he knew that I'm out of his reach, but he still had to finish his script. I literally had to walk away to escape this situation; guess I'll be buying my copy of Sekirei: Pure Engagement somewhere else.

Speaking of Sekirei, who's watching that show anyway? I mean, the reasons for its popularity-- both of them-- are obvious, but I checked it out on Netflix and was mostly struck by its homely character designs and cast of characters who just seemed dumb and hapless. Do you watch Sekirei? Like, did you see it at the store, and pick it up, and look at the cover, and go "Hmmm, I wonder what this is about?" Or could you just tell? Did you only have to glance at the cover, and immediately think THANK YOU ANIME, YOU HAVE GIVEN ME THE EXACT THING I WANT YET AGAIN. That's what I think of when I see stuff like Queen's Blade-- a hypothetical target audience-member, who sits bolt upright on the couch and proclaims "Why, I've just been waiting for a show about busty fantasy supervixens who battle each other for sovereignty!" upon viewing it. If you're that guy (are there any... girl Queen's Blade fans?), then I have a show for you: High School DxD! You will definitely watch it and think THANK YOU ANIME, YOU'VE DONE IT AGAIN!

Speaking of things Media Blasters has released, I'm among the many who watched, with a mixture of dark amusement and sympathy, as company chief John Sirabella complained about Anime News Network's decision to report on a set of facts that cast aspersions on his company's very existence. The story painted a picture of clown-car accounting, but like many anime fans in this neck of the woods, I have a ton of discs from Media Blasters and owe a part of my fandom to the stuff they've kicked out for years, like Berserk and their lavish license rescue of Giant Robo, so I'm not exactly rooting for them to go down. As for John himself, he's always seemed mercurial to me - every time I've met him, dating back to Otakon 1998, he's looked completely exhausted. I've never seen him show much passion for anime; his company pretty tidily treated it as a gateway to getting their choice of great Japanese genre films and funding their own low-budget horror fare. He's always been nice to me, but was rarely interested in what I had to say to him at cons and was difficult to reach otherwise. I do know that one year, he cycled from New York to Otakon, which is awesome. If nothing else, without John Sirabella, we wouldn't have an English-language release of Tokyo Project.

Man, remember when it was an acceptable business strategy to release stuff like Tokyo Project and Madonna? Actually, remember Tokyo Project? Because Jesus, I seriously don't. Let's just look at the cover artwork:

God, what the hell is this thing? What's it about? When did it come out? Did anyone out there see Tokyo Project at the store and think "Ooooh, this looks good!" I may have bought Eiken (IT WAS FOR RESEARCH, OKAY) but I didn't buy this.

Speaking of things nobody bought: What anime are you NOT buying, both literally and figuratively? It just seems like an interesting question to me; what anime do you spy on the shelves, darling of critics and fans alike, and think "Meh."? Redline, maybe? Do you scroll past Grave of the Fireflies on Netflix so you can watch Rosario+Vampire? Have you ignored the new Lupin the 3rd series because it cuts into your Mysterious Girlfriend X time? I'm usually pretty into anything that garners a lot of critical acclaim, because that stuff is almost always nice and substantial, but the forthcoming Princess Jellyfish left me cold. I know, I know-- a respectable dork eschewing a Noitamina series?! Looks that way. Something about that show-- the character artwork, maybe-- just rubs me the wrong way. It just seems about as appealing as airline food.

Speaking of airline food, what is the DEAL with that stuff?!

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