Anime Reviews: Desperate Death and Melancholy Love: It's an Anime Spring

OK, so you've seen The Seven Samurai, Ran, The Hidden Blade, or one of the many samurai movies out there. Well, forget them! Shigurui redefines the samurai flick.

Based on the manga of Takayuki Yamaguchi, this story is inspired by the collected wisdom of the samurai Tsunetomo Yamamoto, ultimately published as Hagakure.

Shigurui: The Complete Series 2009 TV Series (episodes 1-12). Director: Hiroshi Hamasaki. 275 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $59.98. Distributor. Funimation.

Set in the year 1622, the world of the Tokugawa shogunate where peace reigns and ronin wander, samurai are increasingly defined not by the mortality of the battlefield, but the reputation of their dojo and the mystery surrounding the sword techniques therein. Here our anime-glazed eyes find Gennosuke Fujiki and Seigen Irako. Desperate to both master the blade and to succeed their sensei in the secrets of his sword, a bloody competition is born that will devour the lives of the Kogan style.

OK, so you've seen The Seven Samurai, Ran, The Hidden Blade, or one of the many samurai movies out there. Well, forget them! Shigurui redefines the samurai flick. Based on the manga of Takayuki Yamaguchi, this story is inspired by the collected wisdom of the samurai Tsunetomo Yamamoto, ultimately published as Hagakure. Considered a heretic text for its paradoxes and passionate devotion to death and "shigurui," often translated as "desperateness" -- but its kanji may also convey death's inevitability -- Yamaguchi unleashes a world burning in its desire for the perfect cut, as well as a near lust for the pain and death, whether it's one's own or an adversary, that must follow the draw. There are no clichés here; no noble samurai; no path to enlightenment. There is only blind faith in the sword, as the world moves away from it.

From the madness of the characters, their devotion to the perfect cut, to the sheer artistry of the anime itself, the notion of beauty in death reaches disturbing heights in Shigurui. This is a MUST SEE!

Take a walk down the Bleach memory lane with these volumes of series' third season.

Bleach, Vol. 14 & 15 2009 TV Series (episodes 54-58 and 59-63). Director: Noriyuki Abe. 125 minutes (each). DVD, bilingual, $24.98 (each). Distributor. Viz Media.

Seriously, who doesn't know the Bleach saga? The story of Ichigo Kurosaki, the substitute soul-reaper, has descended upon the Earth like a new religion! Whether it is his quest to save Rukia, the threat of the Bount, or the inevitable return of Aizen and the Arrancar, fans of all ages continue to fantasize about mastering their own zanpakto and ultimately reaching bankai -- just spend a little time with cosplayers, you'll often find yourself in the land of Bleach. Long story short, a wounded Rukia Kuchiki, a reaper hunting souls in the land of the living, bestows half of her power upon Ichigo so that he may destroy a deadly soul. The following chain of events is, well, anime history!

Recently Viz released two DVDs (v. 14 and 15) from the classic, nay, essential season three. Not only can we relive the climaxing rescue of Rukia from execution, let alone the much-anticipated confrontation between Ichigo and Byakuya, but also an unexpected exhibition of soul-reaper power. Even if the Ichigo-Rukia storyline isn't quite your thing, the revelation of Yamamoto's bankai and the battle between Yoruichi and Soifon is reason enough to drop a little cash. But perhaps the simple resolution of Bleach's initial story arc, Rukia's rescue, is the true gem. That delicate point between finality and the infinite, unknowable future elicits a sweet melancholy.

So, although Bleach is well beyond its third season, take a walk down memory lane and pick up these DVDs. Much like finding an old lover, it's quite easy to rediscover and relive the exhilaration.

The characters of The Wallflower save what would have been an overly-used storyline.

The Wallflower: Complete Collection, Part 1 & 2 2009 TV Series (episodes 1-13 and 14-25). Director: Shinichi Watanabe. 325 minutes (each). DVD, bilingual, $59.98 (each). Distributor. Funimation.

"Unlucky in love" is no way to describe the life of Sunako Nakahara. She's damaged, neurotic, paranoid and borderline psychotic! The cause: once upon a time she confessed her love to a boy. Unfortunately, "ugly" was the only response heard, resulting in a rejection of anything pertaining to beauty. So, concerned about her sloppy trappings, bad hygiene and anti-social behavior, her aunt sends her to live in her large mansion. But there is just one catch: four of the hottest boys in school reside therein, and they've been charged with turning this ugly duckling into a swan. Let the hilarity begin!

The plot of The Wallflower is obviously a much used and abused storyline. There's not much room for originality there. So, all one has left are the characters. And here I was pleasurably surprised. While high school comedies are no stranger to anime, The Wallflower gives us something different. Instead of the usual loners, bad boys and martial art experts, these boys are so metro-sexual that they rival Carrie Bradshaw and her fashionable crew from Sex and the City. Androgyny pervades every pore in this mansion! Now, juxtapose Sunako's obfuscating Gothic garb, an obsession for horror, and a disturbing fetish for medical research dummies, and you've got a recipe for the comedy of opposites. Honestly, this confrontation between the beautiful and the ugly is innovative, imaginative, and filled with hyperbolic exploits. After all, one needs a little comic force just to apply the make-up!

For better or worse, you're probably thinking one thing, "So, which boy in the house does she eventually fall for?" OK, to a certain extent The Wallflower is predictable in the long run. But like so many other good comedies out there, it's not about the beginning or the end. It's the comic hijinks and hyperbole in the middle that keeps us coming back for more.

Vandread takes the metaphorical war between the sexes and makes it a reality.

Vandread: The Complete Series 2009 TV Series (episodes 1-26). Director: Takeshi Mori. 600 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $49.98. Distributor. Funimation.

In Vandread, the war between the sexes is no metaphor. It's a reality! Men and women have somehow evolved in segregated, deep-space colonies. And they really don't like each other! But after a decade of isolation, sheer happenstance produces a collision of cosmic, sexual proportions. Young Hibiki not only finds himself trapped on an estrogen-driven vessel, but an unforeseen threat compels him to join a squadron of "surprisingly" hot mech-pilots. Better yet, after Hibiki learns that he can insert his mecha into a female one to form a super-fighter, all the girls are just clamoring for a little insertion. Insert devilish grin here.

Once again, it's good to be a boy in an anime world. You've got mecha, big guns and a hot girl poured into every flight suit on deck! In Vandread, slapstick and innuendo combine to produce a true guilty pleasure. Your funny-bone will definitely be stimulated as you watch Hibiki unwillingly navigate every curve and plane in this unexplored, feminine landscape. And to top it off, the story is not half bad either. The sexual comedy of errors may fuel this show, but the aliens threatening both men and women hold a captivating secret that is slowly revealed throughout the series. So, I dare say that Vandread has more going for it than just its bevy of beauties.

No, I wouldn't call Vandread ecchi. It's just pure fun!

Shuffle is set up like Love Hina, Negima or even Vandread, but the execution is disappointing.

Shuffle: The Complete Series 2009 TV Series (episodes 1-24). Director: Seiichi Morishita. 575 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $69.98. Distributor. Funimation.

In a world where humans, gods and daemons live in harmony, Rin Tsuchimi is simply trying to live a normal high school life. But, whether he likes it or not, he's a bit of eye candy for the girls. Even worse, two new exchange students, Sia and Nerine, have not only moved next door, but they're eager to get Rin down the aisle of matrimony. And since their respective fathers rule over the worlds of gods and daemons, Rin could very well inherit a kingdom!

OK, over the last year I've reacquainted myself with a variety of seinen manga that openly indulges its ecchi muse. At its best, this subspecies of the genre operates exactly like a stock Hollywood recipe. Take one boy, a few gorgeous girls in alluring garb and then jumble them up in any situation that gives rise to titillation, maybe a little nudity, innuendo, awkward moments and an overall smart comedy of errors. The end product always produces that good, grinning laughter. Shuffle, however, stems from one of the many visual novels that are so popular in Japan. Herein lies the rub. It just doesn't make the generic jump from PC game to anime/manga.

While the plot sets you up for something like Love Hina, Negima or even Vandread, the execution is disappointing. Yes, Shuffle has a good dose of comic relief that will make you laugh, but the main characters are flat. Their demeanor and actions lack the comic fantasy, excess and vibrancy of, say, Love Hina. The girls, especially Sia and Nerine, are particularly naïve and male-dependant. They're nothing like the witty, strong and vibrant hotties we find in so many other series: the kind that will make you pay for staring too long at her skirt! Undoubtedly, this problem stems from Shuffle's PC origins. As a male POV experience, these simulations allow the gamer to embark upon a brief relationship with one or more select females, which ultimately climaxes in a hentai scene. Now don't get me wrong, these simulations are becoming very sophisticated; the female characters are explicitly human rather than 2D vehicles of fantasy-driven pleasure. But we don't find that here. In and of itself, Shuffle, as a visual novel, operates under a different set of rules and goals. It's just a different animal. The translation from PC game to anime/manga could have been much better.

Death Note concludes in this five-episode volume.

Death Note, Vol. 9 2008 TV Series (episodes 33-37). Director: Tetsuro Araki. 115 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $24.98. Distributor. Viz Media.

Much like Bleach, the popularity of Death Note pervades every corner of the globe. The story of Light Yagami, the bored teenage genius who attains the power of a shinigami death god, has now dominated the anime scene for years. And for good reason too. It's not simply his power to kill by writing down a name in a notebook, or his maniacal plot to kill all criminals and thus create a utopian world of peace, but the cunning game of mental chess played between Light and the detective L that has captivated the right side of our human brains. As the hunt for the murderous Kira (a.k.a Light) proceeds, the sheer density and maze-like plot structure of this cat-and-mouse game has produced an intoxicating puzzle, one that we are as desperate to unlock as Light and L themselves.

Viz's release of Death Note vol. 9 marks a bittersweet moment for fans everywhere. Containing episodes 33-37, we witness a veritable sprint to the finish line. Near and Mello, L's successors, have raised the stakes in this battle of the minds. The end is near, and some type of world order, new or old, will emerge. Simply put, Death Note is never off its game. Predictability cannot be predicated upon this crime-drama. Perfection is all I can say.

I'm going to miss this series. As Ryuk inscribed the last name in his death note, watching the sunset over Tokyo, so, too, I have nothing else to write.

Raised on such iconic, westernized giants as G-Force, Voltron and Robotech, James Brusuelas is a freelance writer based out of Orange County in Southern California.

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