This month anime reviewer James Brusuelas checks out Black Lagoon, Darker Than Black, Claymore, STR.A.IN., Love Hina, Baccano and Shin Chan.
Black Lagoon, Season 1
2008 TV Series (episodes 1-12). Director: Sunao Katabuchi. 300 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $49.98. Distributor. Funimation.
The only fire in the life of Japanese salaryman Rokuro Okajima is the burning ash of his cigarette. And we're not talking about the normal 9 to 5 gig. Rokuro is living the office cube lifestyle, where his diet consists of licking boots and sloppy seconds. Fortunately, an army of liberation is on the way. Unfortunately, said army is a tricked-out PT boat crewed by three mercenary pirates. A simple business trip to Asia explodes with complex corporate espionage and kidnapping. Yet, an abandoned Rokuro lands not in hot water, but in the warm, cleansing waves of the South China Sea. A kidnapped salaryman morphs into reluctant solider of fortune. Rokuro becomes Rock.
Shotguns, Glocks, AKs and grenade launchers: Black Lagoon reflects the weapons warehouse fueling the fantasy-driven, gun-powder stained escapades of the human mind. This show is the A-Team on crack! Whether you hate or love your own office cubicle, you'll want to be Rock as he negotiates arms deals, dodges neo-Nazis in a sunken submarine, and nearly dies at the hands of a South American maid/assassin -- and, yes, she only wears her maid's uniform. And let's not forget the other pirates: Dutch, the cool leader; Benny, the tech genius; and Revy, the gun-toting hottie in a quotidian pair of daisy dukes. What more can I say: I love this series.
Black Lagoon executes its mission with the exactness of a special ops team. The targets of pleasure, fun, and even sex appeal are hit square on. Get liberated with Rock!
Darker Than Black, Volume 2
2009 TV Series (episodes 6-10). Director: Tensai Okamura. 120 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor. Funimation.
The sky of modern Tokyo is false. Stargazers no longer observe the flickering light of heavenly bodies, but the cold reflections of Contractors, assassins conducting the nefarious agendas of corporations and countries. Ten years ago Hell's Gate appeared, a temporal disturbance that created both these false stars and this band of superhuman killers. The two go hand in hand. When one dies, so does the other. But only a certain star and its corresponding Contractor shine brightest. BK201, a.k.a. the Black Reaper, wanders the streets of Tokyo. Searching for his sister, he slowly unravels the mystery of Hell's Gate.
If you recall, I wasn't sold on the first volume of Darker Than Black. The action and artistry of its alternate Tokyo indeed recalls the futuristic worlds of Ergo Proxy and Ghost in the Shell, but its initial episodes were rather untidy and nebulous. Be that as it may, my gut instinct was right; this series is growing on me. The mystery of the Black Reaper's sister and the two gates called Heaven and Hell are increasingly enticing. Bits and crumbs are all we get, but the tease is working: I want to know more. Better still, this new installment is devoted to character development, and is not without comic relief. Under the enigmatic umbrella of a false sky, detective Kirihara, who is charged with finding BK201, exchanges her professional garb for a façade more human and feminine. And the seriousness of the Black Reaper himself is deflated as he unwittingly crosses paths with a private dick with a Bogart complex. Both his cliché demeanor and his saucy teenage assistant bring hilarity and action to a city otherwise marred by espionage and murder. The result is a focused narrative that entertains and teases well. The players on this futuristic stage are gaining depth.
I'm now quite attached to the life of this assassin, though his name, BK201, still seems like it belongs on the menu at Burger King.
Claymore, Chapter 3
2009 TV Series (episodes 11-14). Director: Hiroyuki Tanaka. 95 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor. Funimation.
In Claymore, human intestines nourish the insatiable appetite of yoma, monstrosities of nature that roam the Medieval-esque landscape. Only the sword-wielding sisterhood of Claymores, human/yoma hybrids, can stop them. But for those who devote their life to mastering the sword, contention and ego are unfortunate byproducts. Only one can be the best. Here we find the story of Clare, a neophyte Claymore bent on avenging her first mentor Teresa.
My love for this anime is as insatiable as the yoma's hunger for human flesh. The sheer elegance of Claymore's drama and swordplay moves like a ballet across the screen. As I've said before, the coupling of an Arthurian world with Nordic beauty and deformed monstrosity revitalizes the overused man-threatening monster foundation of recent anime (e.g. Tokyo Majin, Buso Renkin and even Bleach). Trust me: you'll be mesmerized by the pale frailty and unthinkable power of young Clare. On her path to avenging Teresa, she must not only cut the will of the yoma, but also the egos and infighting of the Claymores themselves as her technique matures. In volume three, Ophelia, a Claymore of Achillean stature, is a particularly unwanted test.
Blood will be shed, a limb will be lost and old masters will emerge in this unpredictable tale. I stared so hard at my flat screen you would think Megan Fox was slowly mounting the stairs.
STR.A.IN. Strategic Armored Infantry, The Complete Series
2009 TV Series (episodes 1-13). Director: Tetsuya Watanabe. 312 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $59.98. Distributor. Funimation.
In a universe consumed by war between the Union and the Deague, Sara Werec is chomping at the bit to join the Union and her brother Ralph. Destined to become a Reasoner, a human innately able to pilot the most advanced mech units, Sara might even match her brother's legendary skills. This world, however, is turned upside down when the Deague, lead by Ralph Werec, unexpectedly destroy the military academy. A cadet's dream of flying through the stars instantly transforms into a quest for answers and vengeance.
STR.A.IN. invokes memories of classic mechanized anime like Macross, Orgus and Mobile Suit Gundam. Yet, although the creative genius behind this new mecha is strong, the drama of sister vs. brother is as deep as the trilogy of Star Wars prequels. A fest for the eyes, yes, but the taste is of cardboard. Thoughtful story telling and character development is stifled in favor of bright lights, cute teenagers, and big bangs. Don't get me wrong: STR.A.IN. gets you to the payoff. The reason behind Ralph's betrayal and his confrontation with Sara is unveiled within 13 episodes. A quick payoff indeed! But where's the good foreplay?
Love Hina, The Complete Series
2009 TV Series (episodes 1-25). Director: Yoshiaki Iwasaki. 625 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $49.98. Distributor. Funimation.
So, why is it good to be a teenage boy in anime? Well, whether you're evading monsters, swords, or just Tokyo traffic on the way to class, you often find yourself surrounded by the girls of anime! Take Keitaro, for example. He joyfully moves into his grandmother's apartment building to work as manager and cram for his college entrance exam. However, grandma neglected to tell him that it was a ladies-only building. Let the titillating hijinks begin?
Love Hina is considered the classic of renowned creator Ken Akamatsu. This is very much a beloved series in Japan. Now, don't let the DVD cover fool you. Much like Maxim magazine, the scantily clad girls will make you hurl your newspaper aside. But there's no hentai here! Love Hina is a classic Japanese romantic comedy. The teenage, hormone driven Keitaro is trying to be the good grandson and student. Yet, innocent lust often lands him in comic, half-naked scenarios. More important, even though temptation lurks in every room, one of these girls may be his long-lost love.
Love and titillation join forces to create a very innocent, sexual comedy of errors. Akamatsu wonderfully taps into the humor intrinsic to pubescent ignorance in the face of lust and love. This is just a great series.
Baccano, Volume 1
2009 TV Series (episodes 1-4). Director: Tokahiro Omori. 100 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $49.98. Distributor. Funimation.
The scene is Prohibition-era New York. The streets are flooded with Mafia hit-men, grifters, bootleggers, and poor slobs just trying to scrape up a piece of bread. There's just one problem: this ain't The Godfather. These street urchins can't seem to die! Knifes, guns, fists, it just don't matter. On the streets of this New York, unseen alchemists are peddling an elixir of immortality. Monsters, criminals and mobsters thus collide in this Tommy-gun charged series.
"Baccano" in Italian can be translated as "ruckus." And this is the only way to describe this series. Rather than focus on a tight knit ensemble cast, this list of players and storylines is far too long to mention. Each episode is a collision of intersecting vignettes whose plots are unconnected. If the creators of Baccano wanted to give you the feel of an unpredictable, fast-paced city, then they hit it spot-on. Your senses need to be on high alert, as if you yourself were walking down a nocturnal ally in search of a speakeasy. And although you may get confused, there's only one goal here: you've got to scam for your survival.
This crime-drama tainted with fantasy stabs you from all angles at once. It's classic pulp fiction. If you're up for creative storytelling, gun-wielding mobsters, dames and just plain cool cats, Baccano won't let you down.
Shin Chan, Season 2 Part 1
2009 TV Series (episodes 27-39). Director: Keiichi Hara. 300 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $39.98. Distributor. Funimation.
The world of Shin Chan is a utopian gutter of comic obscenities, fantasy and bathroom humor. Shin may be a five-year old, but age can't stop such antics like switching bodies with his mom, singing a song about his father's alcohol-induced perversions during class, and causing a hilariously awkward situation at home with his mom's back massager -- aptly dubbed the "Vibrating Bastard Shaft." Oh, and let's not forget his idea to become a cholo after stumbling upon some happy pills, nor an utterly foul Star Wars parody that would make The Family Guy and Robot Chicken proud; there is no Death Star here, only the Meth Star.
A sitcom in the vein of South Park, Shin Chan is truly a comic and satiric gem. I love this show! Nothing about it whatsoever is appropriate. In fact, if you're not careful, tears may not be the only thing laughingly ejected from your body. And here we need to applaud the Funimation team. The original series hit Japanese airwaves in the early '90s, and was largely a comedy based on the extent to which pun and innuendo can be mined from Japanese language and phraseology. Obviously this could not be translated for an American audience. So, a remarkably original script was produced, and even the show was re-cut. Consequently, American puns and innuendo consume the life of this uncouth preschooler and his family. And the topical, political satire introduced -- everyone from Bill O'Reilly to Hillary Clinton gets slammed -- makes Shin's comedy as contemporary as The Daily Show.
If you're prone to laugh at poop, politics and body parts, Shin Chan is the man!
Raised on such iconic, westernized giants as G-Force, Voltron and Robotech, James Brusuelas is a Classicist and freelance writer based out of Orange County in Southern California.