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Anime Reviews: Something Old, Something New, Something Bloody, Something True

James Brusuelas looks back at Blood + Vol. 2 and Speed Grapher Vol. 1 and checks out new titles Bleach Vol. 12 and Strait Jacket.

Sometimes keeping up with the world of anime is not so easy. Typically, my academic life is something of a deterrent. I often, then, find myself drawn to older releases, titles that unfortunately escaped my eye. So, this month I give you two oldies and two -- well, nothing seems to rhyme -- new releases.

For fans of the original movie, notable changes to the story might be shocking, but Blood + stands on its own.

Blood + Vol. 2

2007 TV Series (five episodes). Director: Junichi Fujisaku. 124 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $24.96. Distributor. Sony Pictures.

Adapted from the popular film Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), Blood + is the tale of Saya Otonashi, a seemingly typical high school girl in Okinawa. One thing, however, separates her from the rest: she cannot remember the past year of her life. Enter Hagi, a mysterious figure from a secret organization called Red Shield. He bestows upon her a samurai sword, which she must use to protect humanity against the Chiropterans (artificially created monsters now plaguing the globe). Yes, Saya is no ordinary teenage girl in a school uniform. She's actually a vampire, whose blood is a death sentence for these genetic mutations. Consequently, she must cut herself and let her blood run along the sword in order to unleash its power. Together with Hagi, Saya embarks upon an international quest to eradicate these aberrant scientific experiments.

For fans of the original movie, notable changes to the story might be shocking. There are, in fact, too many to mention here. Blood + simply stands on its own, and should be evaluated accordingly.

In the second volume, we find Saya still struggling with her new life. She has the sword. She knows her blood activates its power. Yet the act of killing is hard. The student in training is the general theme of this DVD. Fortunately, Blood + keeps it simple. It combines an extraordinary, and supernatural, coming-of-age tale with constant action and bloodshed. Each episode moves fast and holds your attention. Moreover, we should applaud the writers for making Saya's adventures explicitly contemporary. While hunting in Vietnam, for example, we are reminded of the havoc that undetonated land mines have wreaked on children playing in the fields. So, while enjoying the action-packed, fantasy-driven scenes of a sword-wielding schoolgirl, we are not completely separated from our own dramatic reality. Thus fantasy and reality harmoniously meet in the international adventures of Saya Otonashi. Check it out!

The series Speed Grapher indulges in excessive sex and violence, but the initial episodes are worthy of a glance.

Speed Grapher Vol. 1

2005 TV Series (four episodes). Director: Kunihisa Sugishima. 100 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor. Funimation.

Although Speed Grapher has been around for a while, its plot eerily mirrors the current financial crisis plaguing the global market. After the so-called "Bubble War," in which the world's financial institutions bottomed out, Saiga, a once renowned war photographer, is trapped in a world split between the rich and poor. Now reduced to the status of a paparazzo, he spends his Tokyo nights working for either the tabloids or the manipulative, sexpot police detective Ginza. And while all seems lost and utterly normal, Saiga begins to investigate an underground club that caters to the lascivious desires of the wealthy. What appears to be another day on the job unleashes an unexpected chain of events. Saiga is thrust into the embrace of a sexually exploited girl named Kagura, whose drug-laced lips empower him to kill with the flash of his camera. These two "slaves" of a decadent Tokyo thus begin a journey that will expose the vices and corruption of their palsied world. Like most in Tokyo, they are just looking for something that resembles freedom.

First and foremost, Speed Grapher is definitely TV-MA -- let's keep it 18 and over, folks. That being said, I found myself bewitched by this dark dystopia. Sure, there is plenty of eye candy roaming the screen, both clothed and unclothed, but the character of Saiga is unique for anime. The combination of his slacker-inspired Philip Marlowe demeanor and psychosexual dysfunction creates a grotesque antihero well-suited to exposing human vice. He's not the typical knight in rusting armor, who just needs a bit of polish, that we see in so many series. Saiga is utterly flawed and intrinsic to his world. And while Kagura doesn't transcend the often-found naïve female lead, her pairing with the troubled photographer works. Though the relationship is forged within a highly sexualized backdrop, their emerging bond is anything but. Subsequently, it's not hard to find yourself curious about what their future holds.

Now, admittedly, the series indulges in excessive sex and violence -- in this respect it has been heavily criticized and even dubbed ridiculous. But these initial episodes are worthy of a glance. Chances are, you'll either love it or hate it.

The episodes in Bleach Vol. 12 contain all the ingredients that make this title so popular: comedy, drama, and tense swordplay.

Bleach Vol. 12

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

In volume 12 of the Bleach saga, Ichigo Kurosaki is still in the world of the Soul Reapers, spirits who oversee the transmission of souls between the human world and afterlife. On his quest to save Rukia, the Soul Reaper imprisoned for bestowing her powers upon him, Ichigo continues to master his zanpakuto -- a sword that embodies his spiritual energy. He must achieve bankai (full release) if he hopes to save Rukia from an impending execution.

Unlike previous episodes, which foreground Ichigo's training and evolution through single combat with the various sword-wielding Soul Reapers, volume12 places Ichigo in the background. While he strives for bankai, we learn more about the Soul Reapers Momo Hinamori, Renji Abarai and Rukia heself. Through a sequence of flashbacks we witness their early training and friendships. Momo's first meeting with her beloved Sosuke Aizen is especially highlighted, since his mysterious death in season two revealed growing tensions among the Soul Reapers themselves. This factionalism ultimately anchors the temporal shifts. Momo's search for Aizen's killer instigates a spectacular confrontation between the young master Hitsugaya and the nefarious Ichimaru. Old friendships and loyalties are tested as lines are drawn. To top it off, Rukia's execution is moved up. In less than 24 hours she'll be dead!

Overall, these episodes contain all the ingredients that make Bleach so popular: comedy, drama, and tense swordplay. The drama borders on the tragic as we witness these past lives. The loss of friends and loved ones has been persistent in their confrontations with the hallows (lost souls). And for the story arc itself, these episodes provide crucial information. The Soul Reaper Society, when first introduced, was dense with history and characters that could not be quickly explained, and obviously the development of Ichigo's character demanded the spotlight. Now, you finally get a chance to learn more about other characters you may -- or may not -- have grown attached to.

Simply put, Strait Jacket is classic anime.

Strait Jacket

2008 Director: Shinji Ushiro. 76 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $19.97. Distributor. Anchor Bay.

Strait Jacket, the latest creation of Ichiro Sakaki (Scrapped Princess), fashions a world in which science and magic coexist. The practice of magic and sorcery, however, is not without danger. Those who become too involved, who lose control, are transformed into blood-lusting monstrosities. The only weapons capable of handling them are specialized assassins known as "Strait Jackets." These men, who don mechanized body armor and kill via deadly magic, constantly walk the razor's edge between humanity and a magic-induced insanity. Here we find Leiot Steinberg, a sorcerer operating outside the authority of the Sorcery Management Bureau. When a group of terrorists instigate a sequence of monstrous killings, Leiot is grudgingly brought back into the fold.

Simply put, Strait Jacket is classic anime. First, we have a cool protagonist who skirts the border of mainstream society due to his traumatic past. Second, his warrior prowess is not limited to casting spells, but is enhanced by a mechanized bodysuit that wields a powerful gun. Action and technology thus combine once again to produce a fast-paced thriller marked by engaging characters and blood-and-guts horror. Moreover, with all the anime out there that deals with demons and spirits, Stait Jacket is a refreshing vision on an all too familiar -- and much abused -- theme.

Definitely check this out. You won't be disappointed.

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