Count and Fairy Online and Free

As of October 31, anime Count and Fairy can be watched for free by fans on either PC or cell phone, according to the official website. The decision was apparently made as the program can only be viewed in three of Japan’s eight broadcast regions.

As of today, the program will be made available at Yahoo! Douga for the PC, and Qlick!TV for cell phone users. Though only one episode will be available initially, both sites are to be updated weekly, and in time all 12 episodes will be available for free online viewing.

Though it seems unlikely that all other titles will follow suit, in the past year Gonzo, Media Blasters, ADV, and recently Toei have all made titles available for free online viewing via Crunchyroll. Indeed, things seem to be going in a positive direction, and it may just be a matter of time until most anime – if not all TV shows – can be viewed as streaming videos online.

Review: Sha-doll Studio

Walking into Sha-doll Studio is like walking into someone’s home. Slippers await at the door, the reception area is filled with tables and snacks, and you can help yourself to teas and coffees as you please. However, aside from the warm ambiance, there is something else rarely found in Tokyo that perhaps only Sha-doll can provide.

“We created this space as it never before existed,” explains the manager of the shop, gazing at the dolls who also staff the studio.

Debuting in the fall of last year, Sha-doll has been providing dynamic photo spaces in the form of a rental studio for people and dolls of all types. With reasonable prices, in addition to excellent props and lighting, professional photographers, casual get togethers, and even doll clubs are lured into indulge themselves in lengthy photo sessions.

Given the popularity of ball joint dolls, it is surprising that most photo opportunities are currently dictated by Volks’s invitation only events and limited to Volks’s dolls. However, with the creation of Sha-doll Studio, owners and dolls can participate without discrimination. Though most props and displays are arranged with SD or MSD sized dolls in mind, any and everyone is welcome.

The three photo rooms available for rent change monthly, and have in the past hosted such themes as Christmas, New Years, Valentines Day, Back to School (with lots of cherry blossoms), and summer festival. Currently in the depths of October, hints of fall and Halloween adorn shop, with miniature Jack-o-lanterns handed out to patrons as they leave. Room themes included “Dracula’s Castle,” “Pumpkin Tea Party,” and “Fall Alice.” Despite seasonal changes, one room keeps elements of the story Alice in Wonderland year round to due its mimetic popularity with doll owners. There is also a photo space in the lounge area that can be used freely, made with smaller dolls in mind.

In addition to the photo spaces, supplementary props such as doll sized foods and tea sets are available for rent, starting 100 yen per piece. Cute MSD and SD sized clothes are available for purchase, as well as beautifully crafted 1/8 sized doll furnishings. The lounge area was well stocked with popular and current doll magazines, such as Dolly Dolly, in case visitors want to catch up on doll couture.

Aside from the human staff, two doll staff members look over the shop, one acting as owner and the other as manager. They were all kind enough to show us through the shop, as well as pose for photos on our visit. Indeed, the shop’s playful spirit really came out through the dolls, especially as the “manager” escorted us out. “Be sure not to forget anything, and we look forward to seeing you again!” she said cheerfully, passing on some doll sized parting gifts.

Sha-doll is located in Ikebukuro, about 5 minutes walking from the East Exit of JR Ikebukuro Station. It occupies a 10th floor suite of the Union Building, sandwiched between the Ark Hotel and Ikebukuro Hospital. Hours of operation are Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday 12pm-8pm, Saturday 11am-9:30pm, and Sundays and holidays 11am-8:30pm. Reservations should be made in advance through the Sha-doll website, or by telephone. Time slots can be reserved in 30, 60, 90, and 120 minute increments. First time guests are asked to make a members card, with a one time fee of 300 yen, but repeat visits earn points toward discounts and free merchandise.

*****

Name: Sha-doll Studio

Address: 170-0013; Tokyo-to Toshima-ku Higashi Ikebukuro 3-5-7; Union Building 10F, St. 1002

Map: http://syadoll.web.fc2.com/map.htm

Email: syadoll@nifty.com

Phone: 03-6661-3130

Hours: M/T/Th/F 12pm-8pm; Sat 11am-9:30pm; Sun/Holiday 11am-8:30pm

Reservations: Reservations are required and can be made via the Sha-doll site here, or by phone. Reservations by phone are taken up to 20 min prior the desired time slot, but all are recommended to be at least a day in advance.

System: Small rooms start at 500 yen for 30 minutes and go up to 1,700 yen for 120 minutes. For the same respective time slots, the large room ranges from 650 – 2,300 yen. More detailed system pricing can be found here: http://syadoll.web.fc2.com/sisutemu.htm.

Japanese: None of the staff at Sha-doll Studio speak English, and ask that guests be able to speak at least basic conversational Japanese (or bring someone who can) to ensure that they can enjoy their photo experience. As all of the pricing as well as the online reservation system is in Japanese, please use these as a metric to gauge your ability.

Figure Review: Ena Ayase

Ena Ayase is the sixth figure released by Kaiyodo as part of their Yotsuba& Revoltech series. Though it was officially scheduled for release September 1, the sexy idea of high profit margins from a cute shojo figure prompted most retailers to stock shelves the last weekend in August. She sold out before the end of the week not only in Akihabara, but also on Amazon.com and the Kaiyodo online shop.

Following the big bang of Fuka, the second figure released in the series and which also sold out in a matter of days, many of the Ena purchases can be attributed to speculators. However, unlike Fuka, demand has seemingly not increased. Even at the time of this publication, the figure can be found at Yahoo! Auctions way below retail price. (I’d even venture to say the price is going down…) But, more on that later.

Packaging:

Ena comes in a cute but simple packaging, suitable for displaying the figure if that’s your thing. The design is reminiscent of the Yotsuba&! bound manga, with plain white background and brown paper obi. The sides are splashed with photos of the figure, and the obi reads “Atashi kara, natsu yasumi,” roughly, “Summer vacation starts with me.”

Contents:

Ena is the only figure in the Yostuba& Revoltech series to be sculpted by Yuki Oshima, the rest of which were sculpted by Tomohide Enoki. At first glance, the figure blends right in with the others, and at least artistically has no distinguishing features to mark it out. On the contrary, mechanically speaking the figure is quite different and perhaps shows some of Oshima’s capsule-toy roots.

Fresh out of the box, Ena is wearing a cute summer dress and holding her bear Julia. However, there are visible seams on the side of her shirt composed of soft snaps. With some careful maneuvering, her shirt and skirt can be removed to reveal a swimsuit underneath. Some more careful maneuvering can put a towel in place of Julia to create a complete beach get up.

The figure is fairly well balanced, but comes with a branded pink base that snaps into the feet.

Playability:

For what reason solid figures were incorporated into the Yotsuba& Revoltech series, I may never know. As it stands, Yotsuba and Danboard are the only two characters to incorporate Revoltech’s extremely awesome joint system, which makes for some the most natural looking super posable figures I’ve ever seen. Actually, the jointing is almost a waste on Danboard as the character is bulky, inhibiting movement. But, to make a long story short, Ena can’t move.

However, her arms and head come off to aid in changing her clothes. This would be of some comedic value, if the process itself weren’t so difficult. There are no instructions on how complete the change, and the clothes are made of a soft vinyl material that could potentially tear if not handled properly. Taking off the garments is also much easier than putting them back on due to the awkward shape and position of the arms. The soft vinyl snaps are no picnic, with the positive ends refusing to connect with the negative ones; after 20 minutes or so trying to restore her previous form, I more or less gave up on making a good seal.

Accessories:

A towel… A bear… A base. Yotstuba can also hold the towel or bear, which is cool, but I’d bet there aren’t too many other things Ena can hold. Personally, I’d like for Ena to have some sort of flotation device, so that when she’s swimming in the bathtub – I mean ocean – she remains safe from drowning.

Verdict:

Ena is ridiculously cute, which more or less mandated this purchase. The other characters like playing with her – I mean, she blends in well with the other characters, helping to create better play scenes… And, yeah. She’s really cute.

The only thing I’m a little dissatisfied with, aside from the moving prospect of “zero points of articulation,” would be the slightly sloppy changes between outfits. It’s difficult to gauge how long her soft vinyl clothes are going to last, especially with the obstacle of her arms. Just from three or so attempts, the color already seems to be bleeding onto her skin a bit. She doesn’t seem to be made for the kind of play I had in mind.

I don’t really consider myself a collector, but she makes a fine addition to the Yotsuba family. But as a stand alone, she might feel a little lonely.

Small Words for Little Big Planet

Perhaps one of the most anticipated titles for the PS3, Little Big Planet has had both gamers and critics alike raving for the past year. Making use of the “user generated content” buzz, Little Big Planet allows for players to essentially develop their own platform style level making use of a library of tools, objects, and images, which are then shared with the world via the PS3 network. Announced at the 2007 Tokyo Game Show, and scheduled for release October 21, some players were granted the privilege of beta testing from Sept. 29 – Oct. 12.

Little Big Planet begins with you, or rather your poppet, “Sack Boy,” running through a world of tutorials. In the English version, Stephen Fry provides the narration, though the Japanese version I’d like to say was narrated with equal hilarity if not wisdom. It is through these lessons that you begin to grasp at first how to maneuver your poppet, moving along into how to create your own game.

In addition to basic platforming functions, such as running, jumping, and grabbing items, the sackmen are also equipped to emote – be it intentionally or otherwise. Holding the L1 or R1 buttons allows the player to control the character’s arm movement using the analog sticks, while the d-pad controls facial expression. Based on the positioning of the six-axis controller, your sackman can hold its head in a variety of poses. This was particularly useful for head-banging in the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” musical level someone created, and rolling your head wildly with tongue a-mast to entertain players you just met on the online network. The hilarious downside to controlling head positioning via the six-axis is that your poppet will incidentally reflect your gaming posture – in this player’s case, the poppet often looked downward and dejected.

Multi player in LBP can be incredibly fun when making use of these puppeteering functions. In addition to looking foolish, you can attempt to dance, smack other players across the screen, or bawl when you don’t get first place in the race to the finish. You can bawl when you get first place, too; why not. Sleeping gamers can be thrown into hazardous obstacles, or if none exist, simply dragged along for the ride. A variety of “stickers” can also be collected and used to decorate the scenery (and each other) as you wait for team members to catch up.

Level creation is fairly easy to grasp, and the tools themselves are incredibly vast. Musical levels, racing levels, puzzles, and classic platforming were some of the styles people created during the beta. Though in theory anyone could make a fun if not functional level, the serious downside to creation is time investment. Attempting to make a Lewis Carrol inspired game level, I chunked at least a full working day into the can, creating only 15 seconds of mildly entertaining play, albeit littered with original objects and art. However, inspiration seemed to be the primary theme, as most players made “Little Big” versions of Super Mario Brothers, Sonic, Metal Gear, God of War, Grand Theft Auto, and Shadow of the Colossus to name only a few. The cute rough-sewn and craft-like edge to many of the creation tools were also quite forgiving, softening need for perfection.

Overall, LBP seems like a decent game, surprisingly released in a timely manner. On this point, the developers deserve some credit, as unlike other PS3 titles, it will be released only just over a year since its initial announcement, and will look as cool as the demos promise. The product seems finished, and incorporates some moments of fun.

However, the cynic in me says that this is just the next step following You Tube, Myspace, 2ch, and Nico Nico Douga. User generated content, or UGC, has until this point been relatively limited to the hard old-fashioned internets. Taking the tools of the times and importing them into a platform gaming system, LBP is just opening the next can of worms. The propensity for beautiful creation is certainly out there, but the propensity for degenerate creation is even greater. If even in its beta stage, some creators plastered their levels with ads, just imagine when real advertisers start creating levels. Not to speak prematurely, but if you’ve ever wanted to play a panty-dance, LBP might be your big chance. Though I didn’t encounter any personally, there are already LB penis videos available, if that’s your thing.

Then again, perhaps I’m too pessimistic about the community.  During the many hours of play, I may have encountered some sub-par creations, but only a few that were in bad taste.  And levels that the player finds unsatisfactory can be left at any time.

To borrow some words from JD Salinger, “You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think that there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody will sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose.” With fun and friendly as the catch words in LBP’s marketing scheme, there is some sense of childhood bliss that the creators are attempting to tap, but these memories are embellished. This would be fine if I were playing the game for free, like most other UGC systems, but personally, throwing 6,000 yen into pool I think people are going to pee in seems like a waste of my time.

Indeed, I’m going to hope that my predictions are wrong and that the goodness of humankind will police itself in seemingly lawless lands. Perhaps one day, LPB will show me the light and I will repent. Perhaps one day, Sack Boy himself will guide me to deliverance. But perhaps for now, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the show, and put my savings toward another title.  It will be a title where I’m paying the developers to make a game, and not paying to be a developer myself.

Dolls in Wonderland – Osaka

Last weekend marked the first in what appears to be a promising new style of doll event entitled “Dolls in Wonderland.” Unlike other events which prominently feature dealers and provide little if any space for photos and creative play, Dolls in Wonderland, as the title suggests, aims to create a more interactive experience for both dolls and doll owners. Organized by used otaku-related goods retailer Mandarake, the special one day event showcased a small circle of independent dealers, offering a wide variety of handmade goods while making photo opportunities with dolls the focal point of the festivities.

Both dealers and attendees alike indulged in photo sessions throughout the day, as five different styles of dynamic photo spaces allowed for a variety of shots. In addition, props such as doll-sized couches and musical instruments were available for free use to aid in the creation of photo scenarios. As the Osaka Mandarake has a floor that specializes in costume rental, patrons were also encouraged to change in the rooms provided and take photos with their dolls. Available costumes ranged from anime to elegant gothic lolita fashion, and a special white photo backdrop area with extra lighting was set up for patrons to use freely.

Indeed, “free” seemed to be the key word for many attendants. “We don’t go to many doll events as they can cost a lot of money, or are far away,” said one participant. “But, we really wanted to do something for our dolls – they can’t go out so often.”

Like anything else, dolls can quickly become an expensive hobby, with basic bodies alone costing 30-70 thousand yen. Clothes, shoes, and other accessories can cost as much if not more than their life sized equivalents. The opportunity to enjoy a free event together with their dolls coaxed many visitors to indulge both themselves and their dolls, quite a few of them for the first time.

Indeed, many of the dealers as well were first timers, which added to the friendly ambiance. Most people came to know of the event through the Mandarake homepage. In the words of one attendee, “I just happened to look at the site and there it was – what a happy coincidence!”

However, despite the small number of dealers, there were quite a variety of items available. Dresses, clothes, knit stuffed animals, custom made eyes, and custom made optional parts were some of the highlights. Perhaps due to the proximity to Kyoto, many beautiful Japanese inspired items were also available, including handmade kimono, zori, and parasols.

Inquiring about the inspiration of one kimono dealer, who also offered a wide variety of hand painted Japanese style shoes, she replied “I make this sort of thing because I’m Japanese, but, as you know, we don’t get to dress this way very often. I don’t have many opportunities to really enjoy wearing kimono, but I have her (my doll) to enjoy it for me. Just seeing it everyday makes me happy.”

Another kimono dealer offered not only hand sewn kimono, but also real obi as opposed to the velcro type. Even many aficionados prefer velcro, as tying anything around a doll who refuses to sit still can be a trying experience, potentially ruining the position of the kimono. However, with seemingly magic hands, she tied again and again to demonstrate various obi styles. When inquiring about the patience in which her doll endured all this, she lifted the doll’s kimono skirt to reveal her legs bound together and severely out of socket; though they looked fine covered.

Mandarake also had a couple tables and a display case, selling the various doll items that had collected through customer buybacks. Including doll magazines, Volks brand clothes, and whole dolls, many were in mint or near mint condition. As an otaku themed recycle shop, Mandarake specializes in used manga, doujinshi, figures, animation cells, and related second hand goods, though the influx in doll related merchandise is recent. A staff member costumed as Suigintou, a character in anime Rozen Maiden (about dolls that come to life), manned the station.

Though this was only the first Dolls in Wonderland event, it was considered a big success. According to event supervisor Mr. Hara, the day had been busier than expected , and they were very happy with the turnout. “The next Osaka event, which is scheduled for January 31 of next year, will be for dolls of all types and not just ball joint dolls. We hope in time that more people gain interest in this type of event, and that it can grow even larger… but, we’ll have to find the room for it first.”