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Anime Reviews: 'Death Note' and 'Naruto' Return While 'Hell Girl' and 'Mushi-Shi' Begin

This month James Brusuelas reviews Death Note Vol. 5, Hell Girl Vol. 1, Mushi-Shi Vol. 1, and Naruto Uncut Box Set, Vol. 8.

The mystery of Death Note continues with Volume 5. Though not as exhilarating as the previous installments, it is a hinge upon which the story is making a distinct turn.

Death Note Vol. 5

2008, TV Series (four episodes). Director: Tetsuro Araki. 100 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $24.98. Distributor: Viz Media.

Well, as I've said before, Death Note is one of the best anime series around. The story of Light Yagami, the bored teenage genius who acquires the notebook of a shinigami death god, is fundamentally the familiar tale of human weakness, arrogance and greed, qualities that often emerge when positions of power are attained. The notebook, after all, is a source of great power; one can kill simply by writing down a name.

Light's quest to rid the world of criminals springs from a utopian vision. But it soon becomes tyrannical, a new world order under Light, as the detective L and his police team begin tracking down the elusive killer called Kira (a.k.a. Light). And although it is by no means an action-packed series, the mental combat waged between Light and L seems to be a never-ending source of fuel for this intricate crime drama.

When Volume 4 ended with Light and the heroine Misa being excised from their shinigami and notebooks, and along with them the memory of all prior events, I was curious how the story would proceed. If Light is no longer the killer, how will his dynamic with L -- the lifeblood of the story -- play out? Honestly, I was somewhat worried. Stark moves like this can sometimes kill a series, if it can't get back on track.

But, as I should have known, Death Note is just too smart. In Volume 5, L is so convinced that Light and Misa are the killers that he believes the power of Kira will return to them. Subsequently, L places them in all kinds of precarious positions in order to learn the truth. Thus we don't lose any of the tension between the two men as they play their game of mental chess. On top of this, Kira is still killing, and a business outfit called the Yotsuba is now involved. Simply put, the shinigami are still at work. And although we don't learn how they are operating, a new story arc is emerging. Fortunately, it is as complex as anything we have seen thus far. Not only must the mystery of the Yotsuba be unraveled, but also Light's grand scheme; he did, after all, choose to give up the notebook and his memory. So, much like L, you can't help but obsesses over, as well as try to figure out, Light's plan.

The mystery of Death Note thus continues. Volume 5, though not as exhilarating as others, is a hinge upon which the story is making a distinct turn. Moreover, as the story grows, so does its cast. Misa is now always around, providing cuteness and comedy. The police team undergoes drastic changes in its operation and staff. And L brings in two professional criminals to help with the manhunt. You better keep up with this series! It's starting to move in new directions, as well as lay the groundwork for numerous story arcs in the future.

Tapping into the Japanese tradition of supernatural horror, Hell Girl tries to produce vignettes that are both compelling and scary and for the most part, the stories are complex and the victims, believable.

Hell Girl Vol. 1

2007, TV Series (five episodes). Director: Takahiro Oomori. 125 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor: Funimation.

What do you do when someone is making your life a living hell? Well, if you're already in "hell," call Hell Girl! That is, go to HellCorrespondence.com and type in a name. Afterward, a freakishly cute albino girl will appear and offer you a straw doll. She will provide retribution, if you agree to abandon your soul to a hellish fate. Once the scarlet thread around the doll's neck is loosened, the contract is final.

Hell Girl has been out for some time now, and I have been aware of it. Honestly, I just haven't taken the time to watch. But after spending some time at the Funimation booth at this year's Anime Expo, I was persuaded to take a look. Overall, I'm glad I did.

Tapping into the Japanese tradition of supernatural horror, which has been recently made famous in the West by films such as The Ring and The Grudge, Hell Girl tries to produce vignettes that are both compelling and scary. For the most part, the stories are complex, and the victims are believable. We see bullies, a stalker, a murderous opportunist, and even a careless veterinarian get their due. Moreover, the human suffering that would lead to such a gruesome agreement is thoughtfully represented. And each time you don't feel as though the story is being hastily pushed to its obvious end (these offenders must be punished). But the horror is somewhat lacking. These tales are not as frightening as one might expect, especially since we are dealing with agents of hell.

Be that as it may, I like Hell Girl. There is a lot of mystery around Ai, our freakishly cute antiheroine, that is just waiting to be revealed. For example, she lives in a picturesque country house with her grandmother, who seems to send her on her missions. Ai also has a group of mysterious figures working for her. Since Volume 1 doesn't explain Ai's backstory, there is a lot to work with here in terms of story development. But I am afraid of the repetition that may beset Hell Girl over the long run. Two episodes of Volume 1, after all, deal with bullies. But as long as each episode contains a well-thought-out, intricate story, the series should be fine.

For the most part, Hell Girl seems to be getting good buzz; the IFC Channel is even airing it. If you haven't seen it already, give it a look. You'll probably enjoy it.

Mushi-Shi is certainly not the normal anime. Its lack of action, guns, and swordplay will be a problem for some, but that's what makes Mushi-Shi so special.

Mushi-Shi Vol. 1

2007, TV Series (five episodes). Director: Hiroshi Nagahama. 125 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor: Funimation.

Based on the manga of Yuki Urushibara, Mushi-Shi is the story of Mushi, seemingly invisible creatures that are intrinsic to life itself. As the story claims, "Neither good nor evil, they're life in its purest form." Specifically, we follow the wanderings of Ginko, a Mushi master who studies the creatures' connection to humanity. Sometimes the Mushi are a benefit to humans, as in the case of the girl Io, who is saved from drowning, or the boy Shinra, who can create life with his left hand. Sometimes they cause disease, taking the sight of a little girl, or causing horns to grow on a boy's head. In either case, Ginko is always on hand to help strike a balance between humans and Mushi.

Mushi-Shi is certainly not the normal anime airing on channels like Cartoon Network and Sci Fi. Its lack of action, guns, and swordplay will unfortunately be a problem for some. Yet, that alone is what makes Mushi-Shi so special. Since its stories revolve around these mythic, mysterious creatures, we are immediately transported to the world of the fantastic. Consequently, we do not find stale character types and overused plot lines. Rather the ingenuity and originality of Urushibara is elegantly projected into the world of anime.

More important, this is a world of nature, where lush fields, cold hillsides, and waving trees are as important to the story as the unique humans driving the plot. For, in a fashion similar to the work of Hayao Miyazaki (e.g., Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind), Mushi-Shi evokes the ancient connection, both wondrous and problematic, between humans and nature. In the end, and through the eyes of Ginko, we are constantly reminded to listen to the earth, the life, around us.

Beautifully drawn, mystical in its scope, perhaps even philosophical in its vision, Mushi-Shi is a reminder of what anime is capable of producing. Yes, we can put the gun, or the sword, down. We don't need an apocalyptic world, robots, or mecha to incite the imagination. The world of nature and its phenomena is just as good.

For the great mass of Naruto fans, this box set will contain hours of entertainment. It also features the standard Naurto formula of lighthearted comedy, drama, and action-packed duels.

Naruto Uncut Box Set, Vol. 8

2008, TV Series (fourteen episodes). Director: Hayato Date. 350 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $49.98. Distributor: Viz Media.

For the great mass of Naruto fans, this box set will contain hours of entertainment. Naruto, our ninja in training who is destined to become a Hokage (the title bestowed upon the most powerful ninja in his village), continues to progress under the auspices of the "pervy" sensei Jiraiya. At at the end of Vol. 7, Hidden Leaf Village (Naruto's home) had suffered greatly under the attacks of the evil ninja Orochimaru and his partner Kabuto. Jiraiya and Naruto were then sent to find Lady Tsunade in order to persuade her to become the village's fifth Hokage; her healing powers are essential to the survival of Leaf Village. Containing episodes 93-106, Naruto Uncut Box Set Vol. 8 brings Naruto and Jiraiya's journey to its ultimate conclusion: an all-out battle with Orochimaru and Kabuto. More importantly, Lady Tsundae, Jiraiya and Naruto must all band together to overcome this evil duo.

In a nutshell, the standard Naurto formula is in play: lighthearted comedy, drama, and action-packed duels. And while I'm still warming up to the series, I have to admit that this anime has good characters and character development. Lady Tsunade, in particular, is a very flawed person. Beset with a gambling problem, debt, and even uneasiness with the sight of blood, she has a personal history that must be overcome in order to achieve her rightful place as fifth Hokage. Moreover, the true nature of Sasuke, Naruto's friend, emerges as he betrays our young hero in his desire for power. Better yet, Jiraiya's comic relief is still a much-needed antidote to the hyperactive escapades of his young student. Naruto is definitely learning, but he still manages to find himself caught up in all kinds of hijinks. So, besides the ultimate battle with Orochimaru and Kabuto, this DVD set also contains subplots and comic mischief that are both well planned and executed.

Overall, I was able to get past my usual problems with Naruto: the abruptness with which the scenes change, the hyperbolic fights, and the general fragmentary nature of each episode -- there never seems to be a proper beginning or end. At any rate, there are some issues that should be mentioned. There are some "filler" episodes that may annoy some of the hardcore fans, that is, those who are devout followers of the manga. As is the usual case with anime, so-called "filler" episodes have very little or nothing to do with the story arc of the original manga. As a result, they tend to be weak in terms of plot, and often disrupt the continuity of the main episodes (which follow the manga in detail). But for those who are just avid fans of the series, this box set should be a good addition to their collection of all things Naruto.

Yes, Naruto gets it right. In the end it's all about personal growth and teamwork.

Raised on such iconic, westernized giants as Battle of the Planets, Voltron, and Robotech, James Brusuelas is a literary scholar, critic, and freelance writer based out of Orange County in Southern California.

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