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Anime Reviews: Light, Brains, and 'Kakuganes'

Alain Bielik visits The Ruins with Rising Sun Pictures, which devised a new system for animating the nasty, man-eating vines.

Alright, I know I promised five reviews this month, but you'll have to forgive me. I'm kind of an itinerant writer at the moment, and it's taking longer than expected for material to fall in my lap. Nevertheless, bear with me; we'll hit the mark sooner rather than later.

Death Note Vol. 4 is even more complex than the last installment, forcing the viewer to think strategically.

Death Note Vol. 4

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

As you may recall from my last column, I had nothing but praise for Death Note Vol. 3. Not surprisingly, the next installment is no different. As the elusive super-detective L and Light Yagami hunt the mysterious Kira (Light himself), the story amazingly becomes more complex. Here we have to give a nod to both the original creators (Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata) and those responsible for the English adaptation (especially Stephen Hedle). Indeed, as I have mentioned before, one has to think strategically just to keep pace with the interaction between L and Light. But this story has more curve balls than the opening day of the MLB!

Volume 4 pulls you down unexpected paths. The story itself is seemingly brought to a close as Light turns himself in as Kira! But, as I'm not one to give spoilers, let's just say that not only are L and Light developing a friendship, but if one forfeits the death note, one's memory is lost as well. More importantly, Light, who does nothing at random -- remember this -- chooses to do so. Thus, like any good season finale, Vol. 4 leaves you puzzled and nearly desperate to know what happens next. What is Light's plan? How will he escape confinement and resume his plan for a new world order?

Be that as it may, there is also a markedly comic aspect to Vol. 4. If you recall, I mentioned that a "second" Kira was introduced. Now, like any good anime, it doesn't quite exist without a piece of feminine eye candy. Enter Misa. Yes, she embodies the essence of harajuku beauty, but here she consistently appears in what the Manga crowd calls "Goth Lolita"; just envision a lacy black corset-like number complete with garters! Now, obviously, she is infatuated with Light, and herein lies the comedy. The meticulous, levelheaded Kira is now saddled with an irrational and impulsive younger beauty, who wants nothing more than to be his girlfriend. Better yet, her death note empowers her eyes to kill on sight. So, what's a young man to do? You have a young beauty in love with you who can kill you with just one look if you piss her off!!! Talk about a fatal attraction!

At any rate, the introduction of Misa, the growing bond between L and Light, and the unexpected chain of events will only draw you further into Death Note's labyrinth. Don't miss it. Pick up Vol. 4 ASAP!

The cyberpunk GITS: SAC -- Individual Eleven is a wondrous blend of human creativity and technological execution.

Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG -- Individual Eleven

2007. Director: Kenji Kamiyama. 161 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $24.97. Distributor: Anchor Bay Ent.

No matter how much time elapses, Ghost in the Shell, whether manga or anime, will always be the visual manifestation of cyberpunk. Okay, okay, indulge me, and by no means hold a grudge! As the literary scholar that I am supposed to be, I feel compelled to invoke the names and work of William Gibson, K. W. Jeter, and Walter Jon Williams. As the definition goes, cyberpunk encapsulates a future world defined by the hybridization of humans and technology, hackers that embody the essence of "cool," and ubiquitous electronic junkies. Since its film debut in 1995, Ghost in the Shell has continued to embody this literary and cinematographic phenomenon -- and stick with the anime, please don't watch Johnny Mnemonic!

Now, as a lengthy episode in the spin-off known as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (S.A.C.), Individual Eleven (two-disc set) continues in the cyberpunk genre. Here, Section Nine, led by the renowned cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi, has been placed under the Central Intelligence Service to investigate the terrorist group known as the Individual Eleven. As a spot-on harbinger of the potential future, S.A.C. locates this tale amidst an influx of immigrants into Japan in the early 21st century. Economic disparity coupled with violent extremism -- a now all too familiar format -- fuels this socio-political tale. National extremists, in particular, provoke this refugee-based terrorist group into the ultimate, if not most horrid, act of resistance: the acquisition of nuclear materials.

As -- unfortunately -- commonplace as this terrorist tale may sound, S.A.C. always embeds its plot within some futuristic, technological abstraction. Here, the source of this terrorist group does not exist on a plane of spoken ideology or religion, but the convergence of consciousness within a hub cyber-brain in cyberspace. That is to say, as the future populace "jacks into" cyberspace through organic ports on the body (usually the neck or head), they become susceptible to a new form of control and brainwashing: immersion in one, cult-like consciousness. Better still, the primary brain behind this terrorist uprising is just that: a brain. The aloof mastermind Kuze is nothing more than a human consciousness housed in a prosthetic body.

These technological aspects combined with the hunt for a dirty bomb -- as well as the usual political intrigue, which includes the so-called "American Empire" -- creates an enticing political thriller; it even includes a rare look into the past of Kusanagi herself. And once again, the visual beauty of Ghost in the Shell is itself a wondrous blend of human creativity and technological execution, the very foundation of the so-called cyberpunk. Overall, since S.A.C. is typically smart and dense, I highly recommend this DVD.

Though similarities to Bleach are obvious, Buso Renkin puts its own spin on the familiar elements.

Buso Renkin Box Set 1

2008. TV Series (13 Episodes). Director: Takao Kato. 300 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $49.98. Distributor: Viz Media.

Lastly I have in my hands Buso Renkin Box Set 1 (three-disc set). So, for longtime lovers of manga and anime, the basic plot should look familiar. Kazuki Muto, our hip teenager with really cool hair, by pure happenstance saves a mysterious girl from a very grotesque monster. However, there is just one catch. During his valiant act Kazuki is actually killed! Nevertheless, Tokiko Tsumura, our mysterious girl, revives him by replacing his heart with a kakugane. What is a kakugane? Simply put, it's an "alchemical" device that taps into the host's spirit, whereby it unleashes a powerful weapon capable of killing these bizarre monsters known as homunculi. Consequently, Kazuki becomes the warrior apprentice of Tokiko, and together they hunt down these genetic nightmares.

Okay, with the current popularity of Bleach, one cannot help but notice the similarities (just substitute the hallows for the homunculi). Nevertheless, we can't slight Buso Renkin for such overt repetition. Hollywood studios, after all, not only copy each other, but are not above releasing the "same" movie on the same weekend! Thus when it comes to repetition, it's all about how you do it. And here Buso Renkin is just average. The high school setting is the typical place of adolescent hijinks and innocent flirting, and Kazuki is our normal handsome boy destined for greatness. And much like the verbalization of martial art techniques in Naruto and Bleach, so too Kazuki has a predilection for screaming "Buso Renkin" when he draws his weapon. It's all very predictable.

On a brighter note, this anime does introduce a type of role reversal in this now familiar plot line. Instead of the strong, yet naïve, female lead who is dependent upon the male protagonist, Tokiko is a hard-as-nails, kick-ass chick. Not only is she older than Kazuki, but her schoolgirl uniform (yep, another plaid skirt!) gives her that quintessential femme fatale persona. Consequently, one can see some romantic tension on the horizon; but the creators -- smartly, I may add -- chose not to make it a crucial part of the story, leaving it only as a future possibility and thus not seminal to the story's survival.

Admittedly, I'm personally "up in the air" about Buso Renkin. But with the success of anime like Naruto and Bleach, it should undoubtedly acquire a loyal following. In fact, since it is rated for older teens, some may even find it a bit more edgy. So, don't take my word as gospel. If this sounds like you, try it out. You may enjoy it. Like a lot of anime currently on the Western market, Buso Renkin is all about blending teenage humor and angst with as much action as possible.

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 in Orange County in Southern California.

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