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Anime Reviews: Anime Sans the Usual Suspects

This month anime reviewer James Brusuelas checks out Air Gear, Claymore, Le Chevalier D' Eon and Welcome to the NHK.

For the 2009 opener, I have fewer anime titles than usual. Rest assured: there is a reason. All but one is a "complete collection." That's a lot of DVDs to watch! And, as fate would have it, there is a theme. This month I offer you anime minus the advanced technology, omnipresent shinigami, and even that iconic samurai katana. So, adjust your viewing angle and enjoy.

Air Gear combines a boy, some hot girls and lots of high-tech skates. Campy, but fun.

Air Gear: Complete Box Set

2008. TV Series (25 episodes). Director: Hajime Kamegaki. 650 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $69.98. Distributor. Funimation.

In modern-day Tokyo, it's not skateboards, surfing, or even mixed martial arts that dominate extreme sports. Rather, "Air Trecks" (motorized inline skates) define the hip and ultra-cool subculture that tags the city streets. In this arena only two things garner a reputation: tricks and speed. For teenage Ikki, starting his own Storm Rider team and becoming the "Sky King," the best of the best, is the only game in town. There's just one problem: he must survive living with four girls and the temptation of alluring skater Simca.

One boy, hot girls and high-tech skates. All we need is that campy, B movie-style challenge and it's gold. No wait. We have that too!

Okay, that's probably too harsh. Although the sheer denseness of flicks like Biker Boys and The Fast and The Furious came to mind as I initially watched, Air Gear quickly became a guilty pleasure. The story is simple and familiar. Ikki is the coming-of-age boy destined for fame. And as he masters his innate skill through underground races and battles, he must eventually choose between the subtly-hot nerd Ringo and the sultry vixen Simca. How do you think this story will end? Nevertheless, I love anime that steps outside of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Air Gear, in particular, draws on the contemporary -- albeit somewhat stereotypical in its own right -- Japanese teenager. Swords, kimonos, and suits are abandoned in favor of jeans, hip beanies, and artsy T-shirts. And who can study when there are girls to chase and hijinks to stumble into? The comedy of the sex-obsessed teenage boy, in fact, pervades this series, and its execution is on par with anything found in Hollywood. Although Air Gear and its contemporary cast may not reach the depth of Beck, it serves up that typical anime dish of action, comedy and cute girls (both naïve and ass-kicking).

Redefining the

Claymore, Vol. 2: The Point of No Return

2008 TV Series (five episodes). Director: Hiroyuki Tanaka. 115 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor. Funimation.

Set in a dark world where humanity is beset by monsters called yoma, Claymore unravels the story of the young heroine Clare. As a neophyte Claymore, a recondite sword-wielding sisterhood charged with eradicating these beasts, she is determined to exact revenge for the death of her savior, the renowned Claymore Teresa. Clare, however, is not the typical warrior. There is something special and unknown about her, something connecting her to Teresa.

Admittedly, anime that is centered upon human-devouring monsters and their sword-wielding nemeses (Bleach, Buso Renkin, etc.) is growing tiresome. Yet Claymore markedly distinguishes, if not redefines, the worn plot structure. The Medieval setting, the Scottish Claymore swords and the Nordic-looking heroines pull the audience into an Arthurian/Lord of The Rings state of mind. Japan is nowhere to be found. Moreover, character development is key. As Chapter 2 draws out the fledgling relationship between Teresa and Clare, these women are not flat, stock heroes. Rather, their individuality and strength makes their choices and actions unpredictable; they learn and change as they move forward. Action and humanity thus emerge in this tale carved by elegant swordplay. At the end of this DVD, you'll only want more.

It's amazing how a change of scenery and dense characterization can reinvigorate the oldest of stories. Claymore gets it right. This is a must-see. Go find it now!

A private matter to uncover a murder stretches into political intrigue and dealings with black magic that crosses the European continent in Le Chevalier D' Eon.

Le Chevalier D' Eon: Complete Box Set

2008 TV Series (24 episodes). Director: Kazuhiro Furuhashi. 600 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $69.98. Distributor. Funimation.

Paris, 1742. A coffin carrying the body of Lia de Beaumont floats down the Seine. On it, the word "Psalms" has been written in blood. D' Eon de Beaumont, Lia's brother, then embarks upon a royally-sanctioned quest to unveil the murderer. A seemingly private affair, however, not only transforms into political intrigue that stretches from London to St. Petersburg, but is also fraught with black magic. Subsequently, a mystery ensues that will shake the very foundations of France.

This is why I love anime! Based on the manga of Tow Ubukata, this story is bold, original, and abandons the typical -- and sometimes cliché -- anime world. Set in the court of Louis XV, its historicity -- though slightly adapted -- is intricate. D' Eon rubs shoulders with Madame de Pompadour, the Duc d'Orléans and the Comte de Saint-Germain. Yet fantasy is never far from these historical trappings. Lia, though dead, is an active player in this mini-epic. Her vengeance is exacted through physical possession of her bothers' body. And the spell-casting poets, who wield the prophetic Psalms, can turn anyone into a zombie-like tool in their quest for power. In the end, epic is the buzzword. Artfully blending fantasy and history, Le Chevalier D' Eon interweaves its originality into that delicate time prior to the French Revolution. We're not just solving Lia's murder, or unlocking the mystery of the Psalms, we're watching the momentum of history.

Aristocracy, royal legitimacy, dark magic and prophecy combine to produce a French adventure that would make Dumas smile. Trust me. The sword of this anime cuts deep. It's a novel you can't put down.

Welcome to the NHK is a true anime gem, probably the best anime of the 2008. A must-see.

Welcome to the NHK: Season One, Part One and Two

2008 TV Series (24 episodes). Director: Yusuke Yamamoto. Furuhashi. 600 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $59.98 (each). Distributor. Funimation.

Consumed by anxiety, Sato is a college dropout, hiding in his little Tokyo flat. Instead of hitting the bar, chasing girls, or even getting a job, his life is defined by bad takeout, online gaming, and Internet porn. One day, after years of seclusion, he has a paranoid epiphany. His life is the direct result of the NHK, a sinister organization bent on turning humans into useless drones by manipulating television and the media. But what is an anxious misanthrope to do when a cute girl appears, offering to cure him? Or when his parents are forced to cut off his allowance?

Welcome to the NHK is a true anime gem! The world is not apocalyptic. There is no alien threat. Hell, no one even fires a gun. No, all we get is a humorous, self-conscious reflection of something often associated with anime: otaku and hikikomori. Roughly defined as anti-social, anime-loving freaks, otaku is a very pejorative word in Japanese -- not necessarily used playfully as it is here. And hikikomori is a flat out shut-in. Sato is thus our comic lens into the "darker" world of anime, manga, and their computerized cousins (e.g. online gaming and dating sims). What we see is a delicately human tale of a young man coming to terms with adult life in Tokyo. While I'm not a fan of the term "feel-good," this story will leave you with that feeling of satisfaction, like you just finished a great movie. Not surprisingly, this anime is based on a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto. This is more than just anime. This is film.

I cannot recommend this series enough. It is perhaps the best anime I saw during 2008.

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