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Anime Reviews: 'Death Note' a Must-Have, 'Naruto' and 'Bleach' a Bit Faded

In his inaugural column as AWN's anime reviewer, James Brusuelas brings us up to date on three long-running franchises.

Before we get started, as your new reviewer, I should mention a few things. First, you'll notice some obvious changes. As with any shifting of authors, style and voice can never be the same. But, structurally speaking, I'm aiming at five reviews per month -- to begin in April -- in a much more condensed format. So, I'm going to cut straight to the heart of the matter. The synopses of basic plots will be concise; I'll avoid any detailed episode-by-episode account of serialized anime, and technical comments on the animation (including sound and dubbing) will be limited to brief praise or overt problems.

These four episodes in Death Note Vol. 3 are a crucial hinge in terms of plot and character development.

Death Note Vol. 3

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

Truth be told, I'm elated at the popularity and buzz that continues to amass around Death Note. Sure it contains all the elements of visual seduction and fantasy intrinsic to anime geared toward older teens and adults. But for those in the know, the story of Light Yagami, the bored teenage genius who stumbles upon the notebook of a Sinigami death god, is a wonderful blend of that typical anime vitality with the modern genre of the psychological crime thriller. After all, this notebook renders its owner the power to kill by simply writing down a person's name. Consequently, Light sets out to altruistically rid the world of evil. But, as criminals begin to drop left and right, and Light becomes obsessed with his new power, an international team of detectives, led by the anonymous L, are brought in to catch this unseen killer.

Simply put, Death Note Vol. 3 (episodes 9-12) is a must-have. These four episodes are a crucial hinge in terms of plot and character development. Up to this point, the major players have been established and Light has become drunk with power. But the binary dynamic between Light and L, which is the central tension of the story, takes center stage. Finally the two come face to face, since Light's father oversees the investigating police force, and recent evidence has placed the Yagami household under suspicion. Yet, the true identity of the killer (aka Kira) and the genius detective L remains a mystery. Mutual suspicion thus surrounds the two as they engage in a game of mental chess, each desiring to find that essential clue of identity. The death of L, after all, will permit Light to go about his deathly work.

Chess here is the key word. Unlike most action-laden anime -- often a period piece, future world, or hybrid of the two -- that typically finds favor in the U.S., Death Note is a heady game executed on a contemporary plane of deductive reasoning between polar opposites; think Holmes vs. Moriarty or even Clarice vs. Hannibal. In fact, this polarity is ostensibly foregrounded in their cunning dialogue, physical interaction, and even sense of fashion; Light is the impeccably dressed, sheltered phenom, while L is the disheveled, mad genius. And although the audience clearly knows their true identities, one cannot help but get sucked into this mental combat between antiheroes. Further, each episode elevates this binary tension, culminating in a moment of suspenseful action as Kira holds the city hostage. Nevertheless, if one Shinigami is not enough, there is an enticing crescendo to this episodic quartet. Another Shinigami appears with not only a new method of killing, but a female counterpart that embodies every boy's harajuku-girl fantasy, and she's obsessed with meeting and proving her power to Kira. Better yet, she knows the secret of how to kill a Shinigami!

For hardcore fans and even newcomers, this DVD is not to be missed! From the very first episode, Death Note established itself as a smart piece of popular crime fiction, and it continues to adhere to that high standard.

Naruto Vol. 21 is essentially a visual feast of ninja battles that display specific techniques with impeccable animation and voice dubbing.

Naruto Vol. 21

2008, TV Series (four episodes). Director: Hayato Date. 88 minutes. DVD, North American Edited TV Version, $19.98. Distributor: Viz Media.

All right, as implausible as it may sound, I never really caught on to the Naruto craze. Maybe it's my age, maybe it's the fact that Cartoon Network seems to air it nonstop, or maybe it's the kids outside my window screaming out their ninja moves before the mock battle begins -- and typically when I'm trying to write! So, hard as I may try to distance myself, I'm unavoidably familiar with Naruto Uzumaki, the hyperactive ninja-in-training who holds inside of him the spirit of the powerful nine-tailed fox. And this month Viz has provided me with the release of Naruto Volume 21 (second season).

This disc contains episodes 81-84. In terms of plot, Naruto's hometown has just survived the so-called Battle for Hidden Leaf Village, in which the third Hokage is sadly killed. While the town is still reeling from this disaster, a potentially even greater threat has returned: Itachi Uchiha. A seemingly omnipotent ninja, Itachi is after the legacy of the fourth Hokage, and it's not long before we learn that he is in fact Sasuke's brother.

In typical Naruto fashion, these episodes move fast and both begin and end in the midst of battle. After all, let's be honest, Naruto is essentially a visual feast of ninja battles that display specific techniques; and if it weren't for impeccable animation and voice dubbing, it could easily descend into those imprecise and comically dubbed kung fu pics of the '70s. This is arguably why it's so popular among young boys in the first place. The fundamental plot surrounds the step-by-step training of the young Naruto, who is clearly destined for great things; thus it touches upon every facet of the young male's imagination (and so they're running up and down my street calling out their ninja techniques). But, action aside, I have to admit that Naruto does implement charismatic subplots that carry the series along. Here the coming duel between the brothers Itachi and Sasuke, as the remaining members of the extinct Uchiha clan, is enticing. And, of course, the ever-present comedy implicit in Naruto's adolescent foibles and hijinks, let alone his road trip with the "pervy sage" Jiriaya (now this character I like), always produces a smile and some innocent laughter.

Still, I don't know if Naruto will ever become a favorite of mine. But I can see where the appeal and popularity come from. You've got action, comedy, and the coming of age of a young ninja. Kids everywhere must be dreaming about this stuff when they fall asleep!

Bleach Vol. 9 not only reveals internal intrigue and strife within the ranks of the Soul Reapers, but also culminates in a chilling duel between Ichigo and the invincible Captain of Squad 13.

Bleach Vol. 9

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

Like Naruto, Bleach is another star on the anime lineup of Cartoon Network. Teens just can't get enough of Ichigo Kurosaki, the spiky-haired high school student who absorbs the power of the lovely Soul Reaper Rukia, with whom he subsequently goes about removing hallows (i.e., ghosts) from the world of the living. Volume nine (episodes 33-36) in particular finds Ichigo in the world of the Soul Reapers, where he is desperately attempting to free Rukia from her towering prison. Furthermore, the Soul Reapers have declared all-out war on him!

Again, much like Naruto this series relies heavily upon its heroic duels. The whole concept of the Seiretei (The Soul Reapers) is modeled upon Japan's leading icon: the samurai; even the spiritual energy they release, which exponentially compounds their attack and can level a building, is a fantastic manifestation of the ki-hap (i.e., yelling, or release of energy) so common in martial arts studios. Herein lies Bleach's appeal. You have characters traditionally dressed in samurai garb carrying swords -- though the monstrous Chad and his armored fist is an exception. Furthermore, you have a strong emotional connection, if not love, blossoming between Rukia and Ichigo. Fundamentally, this is a winning combination.

However, while episodes 34-36 propel this DVD, not only revealing internal intrigue and strife within the ranks of the Soul Reapers, but also culminating in a chilling duel between Ichigo and the invincible Captain of Squad 13, I can't help but find Bleach somewhat disorderly. Yes, anime, like its manga archetype, is more character than plot driven, and the character development between Ichigo and Rukia gets it right. But the central story line is often a tenuous thread lost behind the collision of two warriors. On top of this, the plot is divided between two worlds (the world of the living and that of the Soul Reapers), which in turn have their own subplots. Unfortunately, all these narrative threads seem to diverge more than converge. Sure, Ichigo has these soul-reaping powers. But where is this story really going? Aside from the action, where's the hook that digs in deep and pulls you along for the ride? Even Naruto, no matter how many digressions it introduces into the storyline, still somehow connects them with the protagonist's path to becoming a great Hokage.

As for episode 33, involving Ichigo's younger sisters and a magical cat, it is a mundanely comic piece geared toward a younger crowd. The kids may find it amusing, but you're not missing anything if you avoid it.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like Bleach. But my appetite is not always whetted in anticipation of the next episode. And, again like poor Naruto, I often feel like I'm watching a hyperbolized, animated version of a martial arts videogame from my Xbox 360 or PS3.

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.