Gantz

3.0 out of 5 stars Dead Guys battle Aliens

Gantz

I have never read the Gantz comic, nor seen the anime, so my only exposure to this series is the live-action movies. I knew nothing of what to expect going into the film other than what I had read on the box cover.

Right from the start, “Gantz” feels like a comic adaptation rather than a movie. In several of the scenes, I didn’t know what was going on and I wondered if the director expected everyone to know the background from the comic series. It didn’t really matter though, because the film was soon head-over-heals in giant combat and I got the feeling that the “why” didn’t matter very much. This is a film that you have to shut off your logic-brain and go on pure Rule of Cool.

The concept is esoteric from the beginning: Random people are plucked from the verge of death and find themselves in a featureless room with a giant black ball in the middle. The black ball–which we learn is named Gantz–tells them that their previous lives are over and their only option now is too battle aliens in some sort of game. You get points for how you do in the alien game, and if you get to 100 points then you can chose to go back to your life, or resurrect someone who died during a previous game. Gantz also supplies you with a supersuit and somewhat functionless weapons to carry out your task with.

“Gantz” feels like a lot of different films. There are obvious hints of The Matrix. There are some touches of Death Note and even 20th Century Boys, although both of those are much better films than “Gantz.” Stylistically, it looks good but it looks like a live-action cartoon rather than a movie. The monsters were interesting, and my favorites were the Deva guardian and the thousand-armed Kannon statues. I liked the touches of Japanese mythology mixed into the Sci Fi action. But there wasn’t enough of this. The aliens seemed to be wholly unconnected and just gave the protagonists something to fight.

The cast for “Gantz” was decent, but they rotated in and out so fast it was hard to get a grasp of any single character. Lead actor Ninomiya Kazunari (Letters from Iwo Jima) wasn’t really compelling enough as Kurono Kei to carry the whole film. Matsuyama Kenichi (Kamui Gaiden) is a much stronger actor, although he was in a supporting role. I thought that was kind of a waste. Having Matsuyama front and center would have been a better choice. Yoshitaka Yuriko (NEW Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler) didn’t seem to serve much purpose other than to fill out her form fitting suit, which she did rather well.

Overall, I enjoyed “Gantz” but wasn’t blown away by it. Even as a live-action anime film it pales beside “Death Note” and “20th Century Boys.” As a film in its own right it is some mindless but forgettable fun.

The DVD is a 2-disk set with some bonus footage and some interviews. All of those are nice but not really enough of an addition to justify the second disk. They probably could just have been included on the first disk as bonus features.

DragonBall: Curse of the Blood Rubies

5.0 out of 5 stars The first theatrical DragonBall film – finally uncut!

Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies Movie #1

“Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies” (Japanese title “Doragon Boru Shenron no Densetsu” or “Dragon Ball: The Legend of Shenlong”) was the first theatrical release in the popular “Dragon Ball” series by Toriyama Akira.

The film essentially repackages the first story arc in the “Dragon Ball” series, substituting out Emperor Pilaf for the much larger King Gurumes (King Gourmet). In “Curse of the Blood Rubies,” King Gurumes is a gross monster who has devastated his kingdom in order to appease his colossal appetite. Once human, his desire for the Blood Rubies caused him to dig up the farms and houses of his people, and cursed him to be continually hungry but never satisfied. He learns of a legend that might give some relief, when he hears of the legend of the dragon Shen Long who will grant a wish to anyone who can gather all of the Dragon Balls. King Gurumes sends out his minions Pasta and Major Bongo to get the DragonBalls, which brings him into conflict with Dragon Ball holders Goku and Bulma, and their companions Yamcha, Oolong, Puer and Master Roshi.

If you are a Dragon Ball super-fan, then “Curse of the Blood Rubies” might be a little too familiar. The purpose of the theatrical release film was to give kids a chance to catch up to the Dragon Ball story that they might have missed on TV. If you are new to Dragon Ball and want to check out what all the fuss is about, then this is perfect. All of the main characters are introduced here for the first time in a self-contained story that gives a feel for the series.

Like all of the “Dragon Ball” series, “Curse of the Blood Rubies” took quite a butchering at the hands of editors trying to make it “kid-friendly” for American audiences (even thought it was originally produced for young Japanese children). On top of that, rights issues between Lions Gate and Funimation meant that an uncut bilingual release of the film was prohibited for many years. Now, Funimation has finally aquired the full rights to the film and the full movie can be released for the first time in the US.

Aside from the full release, Funimation has gone back and re-dubbed “Curse of the Blood Rubies” with their Dragon Ball cast including Colleen Clinkenbeard as Goku. This is good news to fans who like the dubbed version.

“Curse of the Blood Rubies” will also be available as part of the Dragon Ball: 4 Movie Pack that contains all of the DragonBall theatrical releases.

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Hetalia: Axis Powers – The Complete Second Season

4.0 out of 5 stars Less Italy means better Hetalia

Hetalia: Axis Powers – The Complete Second Season

“Hetalia” has grown on me since the first season. Aside from just getting used to the style of the series, I really appreciate the shift in focus away from the Germany/Italy/Japan trio and more towards the minor countries.

When watching the second season, I realized that one of my main issues was that I hated the titular character. The word “Hetalia” a portmanteau between the word for “useless” (“hetare”) and “Italy” (“Italia.”), and that is pretty much how I feel about the character of Italy; he is useless. He doesn’t add anything to the plot, his jokes are one-note, and his voice is just plain irritating. In fact, I did something I almost never do and switched over to the English dub only to discover that the English voice actor was even worse. The less Italy there is in the “Hetalia,” the more I like it.

This second season is in the same style as the first, a series of 26 5-minute episodes on one DVD. That gives you a little over 2 hours of animation in total. I have the same complaint that I had in the first season, in that each 5-minute episode has the full opening and closing credits which means I spend a lot of time on the skip button on my remote. It would be nice if Funimation provided a Marathon Mode that would automatically edit out the intros and outros, but I suspect that they are padding out a bit a DVD that is already short.

There is a much better balance of stories here, alternating between serious and silly. The “Christmas Around the World” episodes were a lot of fun, with Finland flying in as Santa Claus and Russia’s scary Christmas. I loved the scene with Japan and the kappa in the onsen, talking about how Japan is slowly losing touch with its heritage and how the magic is going away from the country.

Anyone thinking they are getting a history lesson from “Hetalia” is gravely mistaken. While the country names are correct, and some of the history is, the primary focus is on entertainment, not education, and things are wrong just as often as right. The countries, also, do not truly capture the character of the nations. I have been to Estonia, and it is a beautiful, pastoral country not at all in tune with the Baltic Idiot Trio as seen in the show. Also, showing Belarus, one of Europe’s last tyrannical dictatorships and a relic of Cold War politics, as a cute and simpering little girl was quite off the target.

The second disk in this season boxset contains a few interviews with the director and some of the cast members, as well as textless versions of the opening and closing. After skipping over the opening and closing animation so many times, I really wasn’t in a hurry to watch them again. The interviews are fun, but not something I would watch more than once.

This boxset also comes with a “Hetalia” handkerchief. It is a pretty standard blue-and-white cloth with the various country characters printed on it, but with the small size of the series it was nice of Funimation to toss in an extra.

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Dragon Ball Z Kai, Part 2

5.0 out of 5 stars The Good Parts Edition, Part Two

Dragon Ball Z Kai: Season One, Part Two

The original “Dragon Ball Z” packed a lot of unnecessary fat onto the meat of Toriyama Akira’s manga. Adapted from the final twenty-six volumes of the manga series, the producers wanted to stretch out the story into as many episodes as possible to stuffed in a bunch of filler and random content onto the main story.

“Dragon Ball Z Kai” takes a carving knife to the series and slices away all that extra, leaving only the pure Toriyama-elements. Reducing the series by more than half, “Dragon Ball Z Kai” has a hundred episodes compared to “Dragon Ball Z”‘s two hundred and ninety-one. That, my friends, is a lot of filler. A hundred and ninety-one episodes of filler.

Along with the episode reduction, “Dragon Ball Z Kai” has digitally restored the faded cels, replaced missing cels, and recorded both a new English dub and a new Japanese voice track using a mix of new and original voice actors to match up with the re-tooled version. In short, “Dragon Ball Z Kai” is like a straight shot of tequila compared to the original “Dragon Ball Z”‘s froofy, over-decorated blender marguerite..

Boxset Two of “Dragon Ball Z Kai” has episodes 14-26 on two DVDs. The episodes start with Goku powering up with the 3x Kaio-ken to duke it out with Vegeta, and ends with a final throw-down between Vegeta and Zarbon. And in-between is action, action, action.

If you have never gotten into “Dragon Ball” and always been curious about it, then these Kai releases are the way to go.

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One Piece: Season Three, Third Voyage

5.0 out of 5 stars The God War

One Piece: Season Three, Third Voyage

Things get serious as the game is officially on! The God Eneru has decided to take four, and only four, with him on a journey to Fairy Vearth and has issued the order of trial by combat to decided the winner. Three teams face off against each other. Team God featuring the Priests of Eneru. Team Shandia lead by Wyper, and finally Team Straw Hat with the crew of the Going Merry. Battle Royale.

The “Season Three: Third Voyage” box set (actually Season Six by the Japanese counting) features episodes 170-182 uncut and unedited on two DVDs. Don’t expect the end to the Skypiea saga just yet, but things do get good here.

I loved every episode in this box set. It was great to see the Straw Hats going after some folks who are serious competition. They have gotten off easy for far too long, and now they are separated, isolated, and just possibly out of their league.

Every episode has a show-down match: Episode 170 has Pirate Zoro vs. Warrior Braham. Episode 171 has Pirate Luffy vs. Warrior Wyper. Episode 172 has Chopper vs Priest Gedatsu. You get the picture. The competitors are slowly whittled away as the God Eneru draws close to his endgame. Some of the battles are heart-breaking, like seeing little Chopper having to face off alone against the Ordeal of Iron with a 0% survival rate. This was the first time in the series that I thought I was seriously going to see the death of a main character.

Not that it is all dark and heavy. It wouldn’t be “One Piece” without some comedy thrown in, and there is a great bit with a giant snake and Monkey D. Luffy doing what he does best, to the detriment of all.

The final showdown of this box set is what we have all been waiting for, and it is a doozy. Episode 180 is Pirate Luffy vs God Eneru! You know you don’t want to miss that!

Sengoku Basara – Season One

5.0 out of 5 stars Over the Top Samurai Action!

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings – The Complete Series

“Basara” is one of those hard-to-translate Japanese words. It is thought to have its roots in the Sanscrit word for diamond, but the word has changed meaning over the years to something entirely different. Historically, it refers to a period of time in Medieval Japan, called the Namboku-cho period, when the Imperial court was split between the North and South courts each struggling for legitimacy. With Imperial control weakened, the common populace of Japan went topsy-turvy, rapidly developing an outrageous fashion sense full of bright fabrics and make-up and extravagant costumes normally forbidden by law. Think of the Roaring 20s with flappers or the Zoot Suits of the 1930s and 40s.

The Basara fashion was officially outlawed during the Sengoku period when the lords began to re-exercise military control over the populace. But the word has survived to the modern day for any over-the-top extravagant display of excess, like in the Basara Matsuri of Nara city.

Which brings us to “Sengoku Basara.” The anime perfectly captures the feel of basara, that over-the-top extravagant display of excess, but this time imprinted over the main warlords of the Sengoku warring states period. (The irony here is that it was those same warlords who put an end to basara…).

Based on the Sengoku Basara¬†video game series, the anime brings to the battle the opposing armies of Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Oda Nobunaga, each of them vying for control of Japan. The names are about the only thing these characters have in common with the historical figures. Takeda Shingen is the “Tiger of Kai,” with a fierce red headdress and the ability to leap high into the air and come crashing down with his massive spear. He rides his horse standing on the back of the saddle. His right-hand man, Sanada Yukimura, is also a red-clad leaper with two spears capable of tossing soldiers aside like a leaf-blower plowing through dry autumn foliage.

Even with all the superpowers flying around, you might think that “Sengoku Basara” is going to stay somewhat historical. You are wrong. When Tokugawa Ieyasu brings forth his greatest general, Honda Tadakatsu, he doesn’t come riding in on a horse, but flying through a plasma-fueled jetpack and with a massive drill for an arm. At that point you know; all bets are off.

I loved “Segoku Basara.” It is that great kind of shut-off-your-brain anime that delivers action and intrigue and comedy and pathos and some really great characters. Basing the series on historical events got me huffing at first, but I realized historical accuracy is far away from the point of the series and I just told my thinking brain to shut up and had a great time.

The first few episodes are rapid-fire action, but things eventually calm down to get to some deeper personal conflict and characterization. The series has a nice balance between the quite episodes and the loud ones. And with “Samurai Basara,” the loud episodes are really, really loud.

This release from Funimation has the complete First Season, with thirteen episodes on two DVDs. Season Two brings in the one person obviously missing from “Sengoku Basara,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi. I will definitely be there for the fireworks to start.

Eden of the East: The Complete Series [DVD]

4.0 out of 5 stars Just another Careless Monday

Eden of the East: The Complete Series

“Eden of the East” (a direct translation of Japanese title “Higashi no Eden”) starts firing mysteries at you from the first frame, and never really stops even after the final episode ends. I watched this series with my wife in one bold throw: all eleven episodes back-to-back, and when we finished we both looked at each other and asked “So what just happened?”

Part spy-thriller, part-social commentary, part-surrealist love story, “East of Eden” is not an anime for those who like their story neat and clean. The animation is flawless, as is the talent involved: writer and director Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell SAC), character designs by Chika Umino (Honey and Clover) and animation by Production I.G (Kill Bill – Volume One).

Plot-wise, there is a lot packed into those eleven episodes. 21-year old Morimi Saki stands in front of the White House in Washington D.C. and throws something on the lawn. Takizawa Akira, completely naked and memory-less (ala The Bourne Identity), appears holding a gun and a cell phone. Japan suffered a missile attack that left huge wholes in the country but magically managed not to kill anyone, now know as Careless Monday. Twelve operatives, called selecaos, are involved in a game to save the world. Each is given ten billion yen (roughly 100 million dollars) and access to a “concierge” who keeps track of their purchases and can deliver any service required from cleaning up dead bodies to making the Primer Minster say “Uncle” on live TV. A group of college kids, part of the NEET generation (In Japan NEET are a slacker sub-class. The word stands for No Employment, Education or Training), have developed an application called “Eden” which is a visual search engine that does a search via cellphone on anything it sees through the camera. The smartest guy in the world is a shut-in nicknamed “Underpants.” A sexy female serial killer called the “Johnny Chopper” uses a killing method I will leave up to your imagination.

Like I said, a lot packed in.

“East of Eden” was a great show, although I didn’t love it as much as some people did. Definitely not on the same level as Monster. It was disjointed, and a lot of questions that get posed are just never answered. What did Morimi Saki throw onto the front lawn of the White House? Who is the mysterious Supporter? Did that girl really just grow wings and fly away? Who are the little white monkey people? Many of these questions are answered in the two theatrical movies that followed the series, but here they are just questions.

There is one gapping plot hole. In light of films like “The Social Network,” it is hard to imagine that these kids would invent something as amazing as the Eden software and not become instantly rich. They said they couldn’t figure out how to sell it, which I find hard to believe. They would be millionaires.

“East of Eden” was interesting to me because I recently watched another Japanese film, “Kaiji the Ultimate Gambler,” that also offers a bizarre answer to the topical social question in Japan. What do we do with all of these NEETs? It is a big issue, and when I lived in Japan you could hardly turn on the TV without hearing something about it. A whole generation of young adults who just don’t want to work, study, or do anything. A sort of country-wide malaise affecting people of a certain age. Obviously it is time for the entertainment industry to offer their response.

The DVD for “Eden of the East” has some extras, although not as many as the Blu-ray release. There is an interview with the director and the two main voice actors. There has been some complaints that the Oasis song that was used for the opening credits in Japan only appears on the first episode due to rights issues, but I honestly didn’t even notice. I tend to skip the opening and closing theme songs anyways, so it didn’t affect my viewing experience at all.

The subtitle track was fine. Nothing really stood out and it did a good job. One noticeable difference between the subtitle and the dub is the nickname of the computer genius who is called “underpants” in the subtitle and “panties” in the dub. Technically, “underpants” is the correct Japanese equivalent, as “panties” implies women’s underwear which is not at all the case in the Japanese language track. But some one obviously thought it was funnier.

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