Anime's slowest month
a semi-weekly column by Todd Douglass, John Sinnott, and Wen-Tsai
Well, summer is just about over and we hope you all had a fun time of it. There were a few nice months in between with plenty of anime to watch and conventions to attend (unless you're that guy who dresses up as Myspace). At any rate the Geneon titles from FUNimation have recently begun to roll out and some of the ADV titles are coming down the pike. Other publishers such as Bandai and VIZ have been chugging along as well though the rave this season has been about re-releasing old favorites and repacking current ones.
In the past month the amount of titles that have come our way has been kind of slow admittedly. Across the board publishers seem to be rethinking their business strategies and attempting to entice viewers with cheaper packages and more anime for your dollar. Is it working? In some ways yes, and in others no.
While it's nice to get older shows for bargain prices there needs to be more of a balance between the old and the new. Releases don't necessarily have to be flashy by any means but as long as you're acquiring the license for a good, solid title and treat it as such otaku will come. That's why this time around our column is full of series that have been released as a collection of sorts or are the continuing volumes of current favorites. There's very little in terms of new material from this past month which is a shame. On the bright side at least you can probably find a good bargain for an older show!
Anime distributors are going through a rough time with sales being down across the board. To combat this trend some companies are getting creative with the way they release their product. Several companies are putting out catalog titles in complete sets at a lower price point, but Bandai has decided not to wait to lower the price of a new series. They are putting out Toward the Terra in regular four episode DVDs, but with a retail price of only $29.98, about a third less than the typical release. Not only that but they have packaged together the first two volumes and released them as "Part One" for only $34.98 a good $5 savings over buying the individual volumes. Otaku have been complaining for years about the high price of anime, and it's good to see at least one release that has started moving the price in the right direction. That wouldn't be so important if the series was wretched, but it's actually a solid show that's worth watching.
The harem show Shuffle takes an unusual twist with volume five of the series. Starting out as a typical romantic comedy, the program becomes more serious as the story starts getting closer to reality. Rin wants to please all of the girls that like him, so he's friendly with all of them. Some of them start to think that he's just stringing them along, which is pretty much the case, and decide to make a play for the bashful guy, with disastrous results.
One of the most entertaining anime releases of 2007/08 has to be Death Note. This series concerning an ingenious high school student who finds a notebook that will let him kill anyone by just writing down their name while picturing their face is very well constructed and executed. With volume five things continue to change. With Light having lost all memory of the Death Note and his role with it, he and L set out to capture the person who is currently executing criminals. The show really kicks it up a notch with volume six however. As Light and L close in on the new killer, Light's plan becomes apparent and his Machiavellian scheme, beautiful in its design and execution, starts to unfold. An excellent series, this is a must-buy for anime fans.
Though I had watched a few anime shows on TV as a kid, if I had to pinpoint the one show that turned me into an otaku it would have to be Tenchi Muyo. Creative, funny, action filled, and with a fairly complex story, the original series is a classic. It has been re-imagined a few times, and while some series are better than others, they all have a certain amount of charm. The latest incarnation doesn't actually revolve around Tenchi, and isn't connected to the other series by anything other than the appearance and names of some of the characters. Sasami - Magical Girls Club is more of a typical juvenile magical girl series than a Tenchi spin off. It doesn't poke fun at itself the way Magical Girl Pretty Sasami did (which has no connections to this show) which is a shame. While this isn't a bad series, it's not as entertaining as most Tenchi shows.
Everyone's favorite ninja, Naruto, had a rather big summer when it comes right down to it. VIZ released the eighth and ninth uncut installments of the series as well as the second feature film Legend of the Stone of Gelel. As far as the show itself is concerned the two volumes here are great and cover quite a lot of ground. Tsunade has been appointed to Hokage, the Village of Leaf picks up the pieces, and Sasuke finally goes off the deep end with some of Orochimaru's thugs. If you have been following the series then you'll definitely appreciate what transpires here and neither volume really disappoints though I would say that the ninth is better all around. As far as the film is concerned it's basically just an extended and glorified episode. It has some fantastic animation and some fun moments but for the most part the thin story never titillates or makes you use your brain. If that doesn't bother you then by all means check it out.
The relationship between FUNimation and CLAMP titles continues to improve with the release of the fourth installment of xxxHolic and seventh of Tsubasa. In both cases the episodic nature of the programs hurts enjoyment overall but xxxHolic continues to be a much better effort. Tsubasa seems content to coast along with its concept while xxxHolic delves deeper into its characters and explores the meaning behind some of the plots featured in each episode. Both warrant being added to your anime lists and in all honesty CLAMP fans will probably appreciate both equally.
And finally FUNimation has released the first season of Case Closed in a convenient, space saving collection. If you have been buying into these releases then you undoubtedly already know how enjoyable the concept is. A young boy detective runs around with his buddies and solves crimes that baffle the professionals. There are some layers of depth to the show but the repetitive formula definitely disappoints if you watch too many episodes at once. Even so this is a great series that has been running in Japan for over twelve years and it's one that American audiences should easily be able to digest.
Retail Price: $99.98, 80% OFF!
by Jamie S. Rich
"There's nothing to do so you just stay in bed
- Pulp, "Monday Morning"
A lot of people who claim to out-and-out hate anime usually have a fairly good reason for that: a lot of anime is derivative of other, more successful anime. Granted, this is just like any industry, where the cool thing du jour is immediately cloned and recycled over and over until it's neither cool nor du jour. (Discuss.) If there is anything special about this practice as it applies to anime, it's likely the specialty aspect of the product, that it comes from Japan, that it's animated, that it contains identifiable style characteristics. To the uninitiated, all magical girls, for instance, may look alike. A Sailor Scout is as good as a Magical Knight Rayearth, etc. Hell, to the initiated it can all get a little bit hazy.
Every once in a while, though, something truly special comes along, an anime series that not only sets itself apart content-wise, but that does so by taking familiar genres and twisting them into imaginative new contortions. Think of how FLCL warped post-Evangelion giant robot conventions into a hormonal metaphor for teenage angst, and you might start to get an idea of what The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya does to all kinds of shojo fantasy subgenres. Released in Japan in 2006, and directed by Tatsuya Ishihara, a veteran of Fushigi Yugi, Tenchi Muyo, and other popular series, it was an instant sensation, prompting Bandai to release the series stateside on four DVDs in rather quick succession over the following year. Now those four discs have been collected in one box called The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Complete Collection. For those who have kept up with the original releases, this is a superfluous bundling, retaining the same packaging on the individual discs while sliding them into a thin, decorated box; if you haven't bought the series, though, this is the easiest way to collect them all. Four DVDs, the whole shebang, all in one go!
Though our young and cute heroine Haruhi gets the title slot, the story is told from the point-of-view of Kyon, a high-school freshman in Haruhi's class. Kyon is trying to grow beyond childish things and has every intention of leaving his preoccupations with fantasy behind when he enters high school--particularly since this school is in a different district than his junior high, meaning a whole new student body. A little shy, a little awkward, he wants to fit in, not stand out. Like many a plan of mice and men, this one goes wrong when he ends up sitting in front of Haruhi, a girl well-known for her odd proclivities. She has all the preoccupations that Kyon has been trying to shed, and she actively wants to uncover her own x-files. Thus, she forms the SOS Brigade, a school club devoted to finding aliens, psychics (which she calles "espers"), and time travelers. Her first member is Kyon, the second is the bookish Yuki Nagato, the last remaining member of the literature club, whose meeting room Haruhi commandeers. The first disc is mainly devoted to establishing the Brigade, and so we see Haruhi recruit the attractive and bubbly Mikuru Asahina and "mysterious" transfer student Itsuki Koizumi. Once the club is set-up, though, the show is off and running, with Kyon learning that Haruhi may not be as crazy as she seems and that all of the weirdness she longs for actually exists.
As FLCL used giant robots as a manifestation of one boy's changing body, so too is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya a story about a pubescent girl's displacement and anxiety in a world that is far too boring for her burgeoning imagination. As it turns out, Haruhi doesn't just think she's the center of the universe, she actually is, and the fantasies born from her ennui are changing the fabric of space and time. All three of her desired supernatural phenomena are represented in the SOS Brigade: Nagato is an android from beyond the stars, Mikuru has come to Haruhi's time from the future, and Koizumi is an esper with psychic abilities. Just what is going to happen if Haruhi's mental powers are not brought into check and what Kyon's role in all this will be is the driving force behind the anime's narrative. With each episode, another piece of the puzzle comes into view, and the deeper Kyon is drawn into her world. At some point, Haruhi has to be persuaded to accept life as it is, or she might destroy all of existence in favor of her ideal way of living.
Kyon is one part hero, one part sidekick, and one part comic foil. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya audaciously flaunts the sexy conventions that get many male viewers to tune in to romantic fantasy anime. Haruhi is constantly putting Mikuru into new, skimpier costumes, dressing her as a maid and as a bunny rabbit to try to attract more attention to the SOS Brigade. Kyon is outwardly disgusted by her techinques, but then chides himself in voiceover for being turned on by the get-ups, even resorting to stealing some photos Haruhi took. Similarly, he flirts with the robotic Nagato, complimenting her when she forgets to make herself a pair of glasses when she has to reconstruct herself. Like Tenchi Muyo and other single-guy-amongst-many-girls before him, Kyon is in a kind of teenage boy fairy tale (the warnings by way of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty references being purposeful in their design), in love with all the girls, and having all of them possibly in love with him. Who will he choose? Where is the real love? Can the over-stimulated perv ever reconcile his noble intentions with his base impulses? Or is that even just too damn conventional for an unconventional series like this?
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has fourteen episodes in total, including a bizarre Episode 0 that, if viewed as an introduction, is slightly baffling. It shows the SOS Brigade making a fake movie about their exploits, and only really makes sense if you've seen the shows that have followed it.
The shows on the first disc mainly establish the characters, while the second disc explains to us who they are in relation to Haruhi. By the end of disc 2, Episode 7, "The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya," the concept is established enough where the creative team can stretch their legs a little, enjoying a few sidebar stories, such as this installment's baseball tournament. Disc 3 continues this on the two-part run over Episodes 9 and 10, where the team goes on vacation, whereas Episode 8, "Mysterious Sign," offers a tangential look into the negative aspects of the alternative space that Haruhi creates and how it affects others.
The animation throughout the series is quite good, featuring a vibrant, clean style and detailed backgrounds. There are only a couple of episodes where quality seems to suffer, which is pretty good for a series of this kind. There are some playful experimental sequences in some episodes, including the computer-animated bug battle in Episode 7 and the spaceships in Episode 12, as well as the rotoscope style of the murder mystery theories in Episode 10 (nicely contrasted by Kyon's primitive hand-drawn version). The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a good looking show with cute characters and slick action.
The last disc brings us back full circle to the making of the movie that would be Episode 0, as well as showing us the stabilization amongst the loosely joined friends. I particularly enjoyed the smart metafictional parallel reference to the movie within the movie by having Koizumi performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard's tribute to Hamlet and the ultimate play within a play. The final program, Episode 13, "Someday in the Rain," is an appropriately melancholy conclusion. No big fights, no cataclysmic events, but rather, a show that is largely devoted to a reflective Kyon sorting out all that has happened and his role in all of it. What the viewer is left to infer is that by gathering around Haruhi as the Brigade members have done, it has brought a sense of normalcy to the heroine--a skewed normalcy, no doubt, but therein lies her happiness. The unexpected thing is that it has done the same thing for Kyon. It has given him a sense of purpose, a place to belong, and a feeling of having matured.
Fittingly, the final shots are of Kyon and Haruhi together--she boisterous and a little annoying, and he happily gritting his teeth and going along--two friends enjoying each other's company
A disc-by-disc rundown is as follows:
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His current novel is entitled Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? and was released by Oni Press in the summer of 2007. It follows up on both of his successful books from 2006, the pop-culture hit The Everlasting, and his original graphic novel with Joëlle Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her. Rich is currently writing the ongoing independent comic book series Love the Way You Love.
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