Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Darling! Miss Bancho Volume 1

By Mayu Fujikata. Released in Japan as "Ah! Itoshi no Bancho-sama" by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by CMX.

I have to admit that I had different expectations going into this. I knew about the basic premise - a girl finds out that she's the only female at an all-male Vo Tech, and through a series of wacky misunderstandings, ends up as the Bancho of the school. But I was sort of expecting the girl to be an ass-kicker. Similar to Sachie from Wild Ones, a manga not entirely dissimilar to this one.

Instead, Souka is pretty much a normal shoujo heroine. Happy but shy, easily stressed, and understandably upset that she's being kowtowed to by a bunch of thugs. Now admittedly, the thugs are pretty nice once you get to know them. These are Shoujo gang members, and the one or two stereotypical guys are knocked off fairly quickly, leaving us with the main pretty boy and his pretty companions. It is amusing that, with all the teen gang shonen manga running for 47 volumes in magazines like Shonen Champion and Young King in Japan, we end up with this as our bancho title.

As other reviewers have indicated, given the basic incredibly silly premise, it's best to treat this as goofily as possible. The early parts of the manga serve as setup, but are a bit too realistic, which just makes you feel bad for Souka. They do have a nice moment, however, where Souka is being threatened and gets half her hair hacked off. These little moments of "Souka reaches down and finds her inner ass-kicker" will be what drives the manga, I hope. We get an even better one at the end of the volume, which leads to the cast bowing down before her. No, seriously.

There is the guy as well, and I admit I haven't really gotten a handle on him as much. Then again, this is Volume 1. Yuuji seems to be the ideal boyfriend type seen in so many of these manga, though it's nice to see him get a few more flaws later on, such as his jealousy. His three cohorts, likewise, have had very little to do at the moment, but I expect that to change. I'm hoping the cast will get a little more well-rounded, but this is a comedic shoujo manga, so it may not happen.

The art is good, with CMX getting decent reproduction for once (this has been an issue for me with several past CMX titles). I liked the way that they handled the near-constant use of the term bancho, which is after all the main reason for the entire plot. Souka brings it up in her first line of dialogue ("Bancho?! You mean a gang leader?!"), and from then on it's just used as if it was an English word.

This series is not going to go outside the norm, and likely will merely be 'cute and fun' the rest of its run. But cute and fun is enough sometimes, and the series is likeable, with a refreshing lack of long-term jerks. Another good mid-range title from the folks at CMX.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dorohedoro Volume 1

By Q Hayashida. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Ikki. Released in North America by Viz.

This is one of the SigIkki titles that doesn't seem to get as much chatter. Children of the Sea has the beautiful landscapes, Afterschool Charisma, has the celebrity clones, Kingyo Used Books has the manga meta-love, and I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow has the indie-comic lovable loser thing going for it. Really, Dorohedoro probably compares best to Bokurano: Ours, as they both depict what appear to be soul-crushing dystopias.

However, Dorohedoro has a healthy dose of humor, and some really likeable anti-heroes, so it didn't really crush my soul at all. World-building manga, where you spend the first few volumes finding out about the city/state our heroes work in, is difficult to carry off, and you have to create interesting lead characters or else it will simply read like a travelogue. Hayashida does that here.

Not that the two leads are particularly likeable. There's no real good guys and bad guys in this story yet. We root for Caiman and Nikaido because, well, we met them first, and they seem to be the viewpoint characters. But the 'villains' we're introduced to later, Shin and Noi, seem equally likeable in a different way (I loved the reveal on Noi, which was done quite well.) In a crapsack world where everyone's a killer, you take what you can get.

Like many of the series I've seen from Ikki, Dorohedoro seems to pride itself on striking and grotesque images - the manga opens with a man's face between the jaws of a giant lizard creature - and I enjoyed Hayashida's art, which conveyed a sketchy, indie feeling without being difficult to understand. I can't help but be reminded of the similar Dogs: Bullets & Carnage, which has similar stylings (and plots). The action is quick and violent, and the girls are cute even as they're catching brains in baseball caps.

I didn't think this would be my thing at all - the gore can be a bit much, frankly, and the words 'sorcery' almost always put me to sleep - but it ended up being a quick, riveting read. I want to see Caiman and Nikaido face off against Shin and Noi, and wonder who I'll root for. I'd like to see more of the weird skull-mask soreceror girl. And who wouldn't want to see more of Fujita getting humiliated? I'll definitely be getting the next volume.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist Volumes 1 & 2

By Hiromu Arakawa. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialization ongoing in the magazine Shonen Gangan. Released in North America by Viz.

Sometimes, you just get behind, and have to play catch up. Maybe other series hold your purse more. Maybe you got sick of the ship wars and take a break from fandom for a while. Or maybe you read something that freaked you out, and you just couldn't go on as you kept thinking about THE SCARY THING.

But, time passes, and your tastes change. And so you go back to remember what it was you first loved. And that's what I'm doing now with Fullmetal Alchemist, one of the best shonen titles currently being published, and which I accidentally kinda got 21 volumes behind on, and I fell behind on the anime as well (like 7 years behind - I keep meaning to watch Brotherhood). However, I've remained active in the fandom, and the chatter has gotten big enough that I wanted to go back and do some mass reading.

(If you don't know how you can be active in a fandom without actually reading or watching any of the source material, boy, are *you* new to the Internet.)

So, for the uninitiated, Fullmetal Alchemist, or FMA, is a fantasy action series about two young teenage boys searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Due to an alchemy experiment gone horribly wrong (get used to that phrase throughout this series), the younger brother, Alphonse, is merely a living suit of armor with a soul, and the older brother, Edward, is short. Oh yeah, and he's missing an arm and a leg as well, replacing them with robotic 'automail'. They travel around, trying to track down leads, occasionally righting wrongs, and taking a lot of umbrage at having his size made fun of. (OK, that last one is just Ed.)

Volume 1 start off with what appear to be a few stand-alone chapters, with Ed and Al battling corrupt priests, corrupt military officers, and normal boring old train robbers. We do meet two of the series' villains, Lust and Gluttony, and aren't they just creepy as heck. Most importantly, this series lets you know right off the bat that it is not Shonen Jump - there will be death, and blood, and so you'd better get used to it. Shonen Gangan is for the *older* boy. We also meet, at the end, the goofy Colonel that Ed reports to, Roy Mustang, and his stoic Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye. Far more on them later.

Volume 2 gives us another running plot, as a man is running around killing State Alchemists. To be fair, the Alchemist we see him kill here really was an utter scumbag, but still, vigilantes are bad! Chapter 5, by the way, is the series' first really nightmarish one, and was the main reason I paused in both the manga and the anime. Those who've read it will know exactly what I mean. The vigilante, Scar, then goes after Ed, and manages to utterly annihilate his automail arm before the cavalry arrives. We also meet more of the military, including one of the most ludicrously silly men in the entire series, Alex Armstrong, and another, as yet unnamed villain. (Given his cohorts are Lust and Gluttony, I think I can take a few guesses at what he might be called.)

FMA has a very good balance between action, drama, exposition, and humor. And there's several bits in the two volumes that are really rather scary - I wouldn't show this to anyone under 12, that's for sure. Oh yes, and since the manga is drawn by a woman, I am pleased to see several strong female characters in here - both good (Hawkeye) and bad (Lust). An excellent series for those who like thrills and fights with a good dose of backstory intrigue.

Excel Saga Volume 6

By Rikdo Koshi. Released in Japan by Shonen Gahosha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young King OURS. Released in North America by Viz.

We pick up on this volume of Excel Saga where the last one left off, with Excel and Hyatt going back to base to apologize for screwing up the package delivery. Unfortunately, when they get there, they find base isn't there anymore - there's just a blank wall. Excel goes to search for alternate entrances, while Hyatt just sits there... luckily for Hyatt, as a secret entrance soon makes itself known. Hyatt finally goes to get Excel, and all seems to be back to normal, though notably Il Palazzo is no longer wearing his long white robe, but simply a black military uniform. It's implied here that the suppressed alternate personality that's been talking to him in his head may have emerged to take over.

Meanwhile, Ropponmatsu (loli version) moves into the apartments, much to the horror of Iwata, who starts trying to drive her off almost immediately. (As a side note, this volume came out right about as the anime was finishing, and there are several anime in-jokes in it, notably seeing Excel (voice actress: Kotono Mitsuishi) trying to dress as Sailor Moon, with mosaicing over the costume to avoid lawsuits from nice Kodansha peoples.)

The next chapter is pure wacky, as Ropponmatsu invites her fellow employees out to lunch (at their cost) to celebrate her joining the agency. Sadly, they end up lunching at the same restaurant Excel and Hyatt are working at, a restaurant that misordered and thus needs to get rid of a lot of chicken fast (dangerous for a steakhouse), and having a problem with roaches. The highlight of the chapter is the owner telling Excel to be sure to call any roach she sees Taro-san, so as not to alert the customers. Having been unable to push the chicken on beef-loving Iwata, Excel is forced to go out and butcher a bull four times her size. Naturally, the bull goes on a rampage and destroys the restaurant. (Nice bit where Misaki, who had been in the bathroom and thus avoided the carnage, admits her luck is a bit scary. She managed to avoid the snowstorm in the previous volume as well.)

The next chapter is mostly a day in the life chapter, dealing with Ropponmatsu trying to sneak into Misaki's room (and getting it wrong twice), Excel and Hyatt's general poverty, and Kabapu showing us all the joy of a good workout. The most notable thing here is the beginning of the chapter, which begins with Il Palazzo ranting about nuclear power. This is a hot-button issue in Japan, and after Il Palazzo says that he feels nuclear accidents are irrelevant, The Will Of The Universe appears to reset the chapter and turn it into the slice-of-life we get. This is Will Of The Universe's only manga appearance, also here as a shout out to the anime.

After Excel is almost hit by ANOTHER car (that makes 3 in 3 volumes, for those counting), and a title page shot of her dressed once more as Maki Umezaki from Geobreeders, we see them trying to rescue a young, airheaded girl from some shady yakuza types. Naturally, the shady yakuza types are actually her servants, trying to locate the lost girl, and Excel and Hyatt are now kidnappers. It all works out well in the end, however, and we get the glorious image of Excel hurling Hyatt off the edge of a high-rise and then following her down, as well as creepy Dr. Shiouji showing his love for 6-year-olds once again.

The next chapter takes us once again, deep into Excel's insecurities. She accidentally eats some of Hyatt's food at breakfast, and winds up in a drug-induced series of hallucinations. Hyatt gets replaced with an infinite number of robot doubles (which end up coughing up oil, collapsing, and exploding - no change there), and Il Palazzo says that it's time for ACROSS to gain another member. Excel is horrified over this, and we note once more her absolute paranoia at other people horning in on her Il Palazzo. Her combination of utter devotion and repressed self-hatred can be difficult to watch at times. This turned out to just be a dream, but the need for a new member of ACROSS will come up again in Volume 7.

Meanwhile, Ropponmatsu (loli version) is having a few bugs, and thus has to go back to Shiouji's lab for a bit. So we welcome back Ropponmatsu (adult version), much to Iwata's delight. She doesn't last long, though, as when they walk out of the building they are interrupted by Excel and Hyatt, who had been window cleaning about 25 stories up, plummeting to Earth after their platform snapped. Ropponmatsu catches both of them in her arms and then flip-kicks the platform out of harm's way. It's pretty badass, though she notes that it has affected her legs a bit, so she's not indestructible. She then notices that Hyatt has fallen over dead, and bugs Excel to start resuscitating her.

This leads to the most interesting part of the volume. Excel reaches out to indicate that Hyatt being dead is nothing to worry about, and grabs Ropponmatsu's shoulder as their eyes meet. There's a crackle, and we then get a 2-page spread of Il Palazzo and Kabapu, in their respective home bases, looking at the city. Il Palazzo notes that it's "the counterfeit" from last time... and then Ropponmatsu falls over, totally deactivated. Aside from confirming that Kabapu and Il Palazzo basically monitor their minions constantly, this also shows that Excel is somehow connected to Ropponmatsu, and apparently has the ability to deactivate her. This becomes far more important in Volume 14 and later.

However, back to reality... Excel now has a dead partner *and* a dead robot to worry about. Hyatt wakes up easily enough, but getting Ropponmatsu back online proves to be more than the two of them can bear. (I note that neither one are aware Ropponmatsu is a robot - they just think she's a really heavy girl.) They put her in the wheelbarrow to cart off to the hospital... but the barrow ends up getting loose and colliding with a tanker truck. Whoops. Excel and Hyatt flee the ensuing explosion, but fear not - A fiery death was just what was needed to revive Ropponmatsu, who stands in the middle of the conflagration, mostly unharmed. (I say mostly as when she appears the following day, she accidentally shifts into the personality of her loli self, something that's so disturbing that Misaki smashes her head deep into a cement wall to snap her out of it.)

This is a good but not fantastic volume of Excel Saga, notable for Il Palazzo's personality change (though, his two personas being almost exactly the same, you won't really notice it as much), and for Excel's connection to Ropponmatsu. It does have one flaw - there are no notes from Carl Horn this volume, only the sound effects and a brief letter column. This was apparently a last-minute error, but they are dearly missed.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Know your Publishers: Japan and North America

This is another one of those general posts, where I ramble on about the industry in general rather than a specific title. In this post, I talk about the various companies that put out manga in Japan, and what, if any, relationship they have with North American publishers. This might help people who ask publishers "Why don't you get title X", not realizing that title X is owned by a Japanese publisher who is exclusive to someone else. I've written this post before on my Livejournal, but am revising it to post here, even though I know I risk various industry people commenting on how wrong I am. They are welcome to do so, of course. I freely admit I have no 'inside information'. Also, few Japanese publishers are actually 'exclusive'; most merely have strong working relationships, a phrase you'll find me using constantly below.

I tend to define Japanese publishers into three categories: The Big Four, The Mid-Majors, and other. Technically speaking in Japan I think it would just be The Big Three, but Hakusensha is enough of a powerhouse over here that I think it deserves a place with the big boys.

Let's start with Shueisha, which puts out, among other things, everything with 'Jump' in the title (shonen and seinen comics) and everything with 'Ribon' and 'Margaret' in the title (shoujo comics). They are part-owners of Viz, and for the most part they license exclusively to Viz, with one or two exceptions (Gantz, a Shueisha title, was licensed to Dark Horse, most likely as DH could do a much better job pushing it over here; also, in the old days, Viz let Tokyopop license two popular Shueisha shoujo titles, Marmalade Boy and Kodocha).

The other co-owner of Viz is Shogakukan, who have the 'Sunday' titles and everything with 'Big Comic' in it (shonen and seinen), and the shoujo and josei with 'Comic' in it (aka Shocomi and Betsucomi). They too are mostly exclusive to Viz; the one or two exceptions I've seen have been where the author owned his own rights and could choose the publisher (Darren Shan/Cirque Du Freak, a Sunday title being published by Yen Press; Moto Hagio just licensed her work to Fantagraphics; and I think that the Fanfare/Ponent Mon Taniguchi titles were also Shogakukan titles.)

Kodansha is the other Japanese heavy hitter, having the boy's and men's titles with 'Magazine' in them, the men's titles based around times of the day (Morning, Afternoon, Evening), and the women's titles that don't fit a pattern, Betsufure/Nakayoshi/Be Love. They are trying to start their own imprint in North America, but so far have not really done much. In the meantime, they have a strong relationship with Del Rey, which puts out the majority of Kodansha titles today. They still work with Dark Horse, both with the old Oh My Goddess and Gunsmith Cats licenses, and via the newer agreement with CLAMP. They have also started to license a few titles to Vertical. They used to have a strong relationship with Tokyopop as well, but Kodansha pulled the rights to those titles a few years back. Again, note the exceptions are 'author controls where his or her work goes' - Vagabond, a Kodansha title, is published by Viz.

Hakusensha is the largest Japanese publisher that does not have a strong relationship with any one publisher over here, preferring to sell its shoujo (and occasional seinen) titles to whoever wants to license them the most. As a result, three NA publishers have good relationships with the company; Viz, Tokyopop and CMX. And all three, in fact, have had titles that have made their company wildly successful; Viz with Vampire Knight, Tokyopop with Fruits Basket, and CMX, while not receiving much financial success, has quietly gotten praise for much of its entire line of small Hakusensha titles.

That's the big four, but that still leaves a lot of publishers. Let's look at some of them:

Akita Shoten has its Champion titles for boys and men, and its Princess titles for girls. It too does not limit itself to one publisher, licensing many titles to Go! Comi, DMP, Tokyopop, Yen Press, and CMX. Akita Shoten also has bought the license to reprint many old Shueisha and Hakusensha titles, putting them back in print in Japan after a long period - and also, coincidentally, licensing them over here. CMX's Swan, which was originally a Shueisha title in Margaret, was bought by Akita Shoten. They also have the cult 'license request' title Sukeban Deka, originally a Hakusensha title.

ASCII Media Works is where you get all the Dengeki titles, including the most well-known, Dengeki Daioh. They've worked with Viz, Tokyopop, Seven Seas, Dr Master, Bandai, ADV Manga, and Yen Press, so they're fairly widespread.

(A quick note that when I say someone 'works with' Bandai North America, that usually means that Bandai Japan had the license to the title in the first place, and the manga rights never rested with the magazine. Some of the Gundam titles, Lucky Star, and Gurren Lagann apply here.)

Enterbrain is a new up-and-comer on the mid-major circuit, and have recently made waves over here with titles from their men's manga Comic Beam. They don't have much out over here, but when they do, they tend to work with CMX (Emma is theirs, as is King of Thorn). They also just licensed a title to Fantagraphics.

Gentosha is a small publisher who has a seinen magazine, Comic Birz, which has seen some titles over here, as well as two yaoi magazines that have seen even more. They seem to have a strong working relationship with Tokyopop.

Houbunsha has recently found a great deal of success in the 4-koma market; many of their successful titles are based around that, and have spun off into equally cute if pointless anime series. They have a good working relationship here with Yen Press.

Ichijinsha has a boy's comic, Zero-Sum, from which it usually licenses titles to Tokyopop. Their yuri magazine Yuri Hime had a relationship with Seven Seas at one point, but it seems to have ended.

Jive is a small publisher with only one major magazine to speak of, the otaku-oriented Comic Rush, but it's also notable as the biggest publisher to license to Broccoli back when Broccoli was in the North American market. Their Jive magazine also licensed the adult Maka-Maka to Media Blasters.

Kadokawa Shoten has a strong working relationship with Tokyopop, but has also used a number of different publishers to put out its titles (usually with Ace in them for men, and Asuka for women). They've also licensed to Viz, Dark Horse, and Bandai. There's also Fujimi Shobo, which is a Kadokawa offshoot (The magazines have 'Dragon' it the title); they've licensed those to ADV, Viz, Tokyopop and CPM (the Slayers line).

Libre Publishing, which arose out of the remains of Biblos. Probably the biggest licensor of yaoi to North America, and the publishers they work with are many and varied. They've worked with Aurora, DMP, and Tokyopop; Biblos used to work with CPM.

Mag Garden has its various Comic Blade titles, both for boys and girls. After a brief relationship with ADV died when ADV's manga division did, they've since formed a strong working relationship with Tokyopop, which I believe is almost exclusive; I haven't seen Mag Garden titles going anywhere else these days.

Media Factory is a publisher with two small but cult-popular men's magazines. They also have a large number of titles for the gaming and 'moe' market. They've worked with Dark Horse, CMX, Vertical, and Tokyopop.

Shinshokan has the magazine Wings, which is not-quite-shoujo, not-quite-yaoi, not-quite-fantasy, but very... whatever Wings is. It's licensed to Go! Comi, DMP and Tokyopop.

Shodensha has the women's magazine Feel Young, but that's quite a powerhouse in women's magazines in Japan. It's licensed here to Tokyopop, and recently to Yen Press.

Shonen Gahosha is known here for the magazine Young King OURS (Young King, its parent magazine, is more popular in Japan but its titles tend to be a bit too 'manly' for North America). It has a strong working relationship with Dark Horse, and has also licensed to Viz, Dr. Master, and CPM.

Square Enix is one of the larger mid-majors, up there with Akita and Kadokawa. Their Gangan line has pretty much exploded since beginning in the early 90s, and they now have several spin-off magazines. They used to work primarily with Viz, but when Yen Press started, they began a strong working relationship with Square Enix, via their Yen Plus magazine. The majority of the Square Enix titles I see these days are via Yen.

In addition to these, CMX has an agreement with a Japanese publisher called Flex to co-develop titles; I believe that Flex's market in Japan is for the portable iPhone manga crowd.

That's all the ones I can think of; if you have a Japanese publisher that puts out a number of titles here, let me know (I admit I'm not as familiar with the yaoi market). To sum up, you can't just ask a North American publisher to license title X without knowing a) which Japanese company put it out; b) which Japanese company owns it now; c) whether an author controls their own rights; and d) which publishers work with which companies. I hope this list helps you with d, if nothing else.

Bunny Drop Volume 1

By Yumi Unita. Released in Japan as "Usagi Drop" by Shodensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Feel Young. Released in North America by Yen Press.

The manga and comic artform, in general, relies a lot on character exaggeration to prove a point. Unless you want completely photorealistic art, your characters are going to look like, well, cartoon characters. And act like it as well. Hey, a lot of manga/anime/comics are drawn around the ability to do things you could not get away with in real life. Stretchy limbs, magical healing from being beaten up, turning into a giant head of rage. Both people's looks and personalities are exaggerated, either for comic effect or for action fighting or just because it's what the artist does.

This can lead to trouble when drawing a series where the characters are meant to be in a realistic situation. In a medium where everyone is used to conveying things in an overblown fashion, sometimes it's hard to hit the middle of the scale. The person is a bit TOO flawed, or the heroine a bit TOO perky. How do you find a happy medium?

Well, if you need examples of what to do right, you could do worse than Bunny Drop, the excellent new josei manga from Yen Press. As I read it, I kept thinking that the characters were particularly well-handed. The lead is not so much of a loser that he makes you want to smack him, but is not a selfless and wonderful new dad, either. Likewise, the little girl does not, despite what the first chapter might hint, turn into the stoic emotionless girl that Japanese fandom always falls for, she's merely a little girl struggling with unfamiliar feelings and forced to grow up a little too fast.

The premise of this story is that a young single man, Daikichi, goes to the funeral of his grandfather and finds that the old man had a young lover... and a little girl, who is now abandoned as the mother has disappeared. After listening to the rest of the family bitch about how they can't possibly take her in with all their problems, he gets fed up that one one seems to care about what Rin, the girl, thinks and takes her into his home.

Again, this is just a really well-balanced story, showing the difficulties involved with a single guy (who has not really had much experience with women) suddenly dealing with a little girl's problems... and not just 'what school/day care should she go to?', but things like 'will everyone around her die just like her father did, the moment she turns her back?'. Daikichi handles these situations pretty well, being awkward but sensible, and proves to be much more adept at fatherhood than he imagined... even while he spends the volume panicking and worrying. (It's shown he's apparently the same at work, where he's proven to be an awesome manager, but doesn't quite get how everyone can look up to him like they do.) Even his relatives, who we really dislike in the first chapter, prove to be merely human and show better qualities when we see them again.

This is a title for young women (it was in the highly underrated magazine Feel Young, home of Happy Mania), and as such has, I suspect, been marketed accordingly. It emphasizes the father/daughter relationship, and is apparently coming out just twice a year, indicating that Yen likely knows it's never going to be a hot seller. There's no romance to speak of yet, although I already wonder if Daikichi will end up courting the divorced mom of one of Rin's daycare friends. It's a title where you read it because you enjoy watching people grow up, and live their life, and want to see how they do. Most of all, it's balanced almost perfectly between father and daughter, work and school, and the character's personalities. It's a 'feel good' title, and I'd recommend it for those who want to break in a non-manga friend with a more relaxed title.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I Hate You More Than Anyone! Volume 6

By Banri Hidaka. Released in Japan as "Sekai De Ichiban Daikirai!" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by CMX.

First off, I'm not certain if it's my copy of just a general thing, but the early pages of this volume have some bad original pages, with some of them looking blurry. Luckily, it seems to go away after a chapter or so. I'm not sure what original art CMX uses for their books, I usually assume it's the Hakusensha tankobons.

In any case, this volume - Six Hate, as the author abbreviates it - begins where the last one left off, with Arata confessing to Kazuha. After realizing that he's serious, she starts to slide into self-hatred, feeling that her aggressive cluelessness was 'leading Arata on'. It's slightly wearing, and one of the joys of seeing IHYMTA advance the plot is we see this from her less and less. (It does lead to some wonderful expressions, though. Hidaka-san's facial expressions are one of the top 5 reasons to read her books, as she can convey so much in a single piece of art. Especially the comedy expressions. Check out Senko on Page 106.)

Eventually she lets him down, noting that while he's her 'best guy friend', she can't see him that way. (This is not only an extremely common trope in shoujo manga, but in Hidaka-san's own works - readers of V.B. Rose will be seeing the same thing happening right now with Ageha and Nagare.) Luckily, he has his emergency backup girl, who realizes, after he drops by to confess he's been rejected and try to make up with her, that she loves Arata despite his faults. She confesses to him at their graduation, and all seems well. (The author's note says we'll see more of them after this, but for the most part we don't. Much of the latter half of IHYMTA suffers from compression, and Hidaka freely admits the editors told her to compress and leave out plots to hurry the story along.)

Meanwhile, Kazuha wants to buy Maki a present, and goes out shopping with Chizuru (who is still having issues with his 'sister complex'). She buys Chizuru some earrings, showing that she's forgiven that particular 'rebellious' streak of his, and then decides to get Maki some as well. Blue ones, since Maki already wears red. Chizuru, annoyed and jealous of Maki, runs off with them and crashes into another guy, who helps Kazuha catch him. The guy looks smug, blond... and slightly familiar. He also seems to know who Kazuha is. I note that we also see briefly another guy in this chapter, Nijo, who sees Chizuru at the store and remarks how he admires Chizuru's rebellious spirit. We had seen Nijo in an earlier Akiyoshi story, pre-IHYMTA, as Chizuru's friend in high school, so thins is another great example of Hidaka doing some retroactive filling-in continuity in her work. I do hope one day someone might pick up the 4 volumes worth of Akiyoshi stories still out there.

Meanwhile, Senko and Honjo meet again, and things go as they've tended to go with these two - he mocks and teases her, and she rages. There's a wonderful section on page 84 where, to stop her stomping off, he yanks on her long hair - and then briefly pulls it up to his mouth, kissing it with a smile. Honjo has genuine smiles so rarely in this series that it's almost startling, and confirms to the reader that he is attracted to her. Senko, meanwhile, is startled by the expression as well, and tries to insult him to death - something that is next to impossible with Honjo. This is counterbalanced by Kazuha getting an old photo of Maki and friends from middle school, which shows Maki with a grumpy, serious face, and Mizushima looking smirking and evil. She finds this younger Maki intriguing.

After a brief Akiyoshi family scene (Hidaka really does write a large family scene very well), we're now into Kazuha's senior year of high school. And oh my goodness, they have a new mystery teacher! Who could he be! If you said it's the blond guy she ran into earlier in the volume, you clearly know your shoujo manga. His name is Saki. Saki Sugimoto. Yes, that's right, he's an estranged brother. Well, half-brother. He grows close to Kazuha very fast, and admits that he doesn't want Maki to let him know he's there, as Maki hates him. Aw, poor guy! I'm sure Kazuha won't worry about that at all! She's not the type to - oh wait, she so is the type to do that.

This is complicated by her giving Maki the earrings. He loves them, but for some reason, when he sees the blue earrings, and she talks about thinking of his old red ones, he begins to silently cry. Why, we don't find out - much of this volume is Hidaka-san laying seeds of plots that will grow over the next several volumes. Especially in the last page, which shows - to no one's surprise, and to be fair it wasn't really meant to be a surprise - that Saki is playing with Maki, and has an evil smirk (TM) and ulterior motive.

Cartoon violence of the volume - Senko shooting a bullet into a teacher's head.

Again, much of the joy of reading this series is of seeing the improvements that Hidaka-san is making. Her art is still cluttered, but nowhere near as bad as it was in the first couple of volumes, and she's grown more relaxed about throwing in nonsensical comedy and metatext into the middle of her serious school romance. And we're still not even halfway done with the series!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Chobits Omnibus Volume 1

By CLAMP. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Young Magazine. Released in North America by Dark Horse.

This was CLAMP's first attempt at a comic for young men. They'd done shoujo for years, of course, and had made their first attempt at shonen, Angelic Layer, two years before this. So this was another attempt to stretch themselves. And I'll say this for CLAMP, they know their market. This volume goes right to the heart of young otaku guys everywhere with its tale of a loser guy and the robot he falls for.

It's actually surprising how little seinen romance gets licensed over here, considering. Most of the time when you see in North America what has become termed 'harem manga' - a wide variety of females fighting over one nebbish reader-stand-in - it's the younger shonen variety, which tends to stick to things like school locker confessions and falling over and seeing panties, and has little in the way of actual consequence. We've occasionally seen a seinen harem manga - Ai Yori Aoshi, though this title subverted the genre by having the outcome never be in doubt, and Sundome, which is darker but otherwise more typical - but North American publishers have decided that the market for authors like Taku Kitazaki is slim. They're likely correct.

Chobits hits everything you'd want in a magazine with 'Young' in its title. The lead is a nice guy, everyone says so, yet still a virgin and JUST LIKE US. He finds a pliant, submissive, vaguely lolita-looking 'Persocom' in the trash - this being an alternate future where computers evolved to look and act as much like humans as possible - and takes her home. She's cute, and loves to learn. Oh, he has a sexy teacher! And a sexy landlady! And a sexy co-worker with huge breasts! In any other title, by Chapter 8 he would have come home to find Yumi (the co-worker) lying naked in his futon looking at him with big doe-eyes.

But this is CLAMP, so we aren't going that way. Instead, we get a long examination of internet addiction, what it means to be human, and how 'real something can be. The gist of the plot is that people are replacing intimate human contact with love for their human-like computers. This disturbs Hideki, who finds himself falling for Chi, even though he knows that she's 'just a machine'. Of course, Chi is *different*... (I'll get into Hideki and Chi's relationship, and the way it resolves, when I get around to ranting about - um, sorry, reviewing - Volume 2).

The other big problem with this title is that it takes the rule 'show, don't tell' and beats it to death with a bat. This was a 740-page tome, and almost every one of those pages was a character telling another character bits of the plot. Yumi and Takako's feelings of inadequacy when they compare themselves to the 'perfect' Persocoms are rolled out for us in long dialogues - usually between Hideki and someone else. And this is compounded by the 'storybook' sequences, which are meant to mirror Hideki and Chi's relationship. The author seems to be able to release a book to bookstores every single day, sometimes literally 5 minutes after the conversation Hideki and Chi have to inspire the next volume. There's magic realism, and then there's just hand-waving.

Despite all this, CLAMP's ideas are worth reading, and they manage to make the characters enjoyable and not annoying - even Hideki, and trust me, making a dorky harem lead not be annoying is a feat - and of course 4 volumes in one gives you good bang for your buck. For those who have the old Tokyopop releases, I'd stick with them. The translator seems to be the same. I don't have the old volumes in front of me, but I'd guess they likely simply took the old translations and did 'touch-up' work. The art is clearer, though (they were working from CLAMP's originals) and all the color pages look lovely. Though, note to Dark Horse - black text on dark blue background = mostly unreadable.

Like Angelic Layer, their first shonen, I'd regard this as an interesting but flawed work. However, they learn fast, and their second seinen manga, xxxHOLIC, is a far different animal. Still, Chobits is a good look at the type of stories you get in Young Magazine/Jump/Sunday, and manages to subvert it without being mean-spirited.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Black Blizzard

By Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Released in Japan by Hinomaru Bunko, direct to the Rental Book stores. Released in North America by Drawn & Quarterly.

I'll be honest: I talk a good game when it comes to 'noble' manga projects that show off Japan's glorious history, but don't always follow through in terms of actually *reading* it. Sure, we all want to see Vertical, Last Gasp and D&Q release "obscure 70s title X', but will we actually enjoy it? I tend to be more on the Shonen Jump/Shojo Beat scale of things.

So I hadn't read any Tatsumi before, but I saw this solicited, and thought 'why not'? And it turned out to be a good investment - this is not only a nice, solid story but gives a very good look at what the manga market was like back in 1956, when it first came out.

The basic premise seems ripped from the pages of a mystery thriller, as the author admits in an interview at the back of the book. A pianist, convinced that he killed a man in a drunken rage, is being hauled off to jail, handcuffed to a fellow criminal. But then their train derails due to a landslide, and they make their escape into the middle of a bad snowstorm. Holed up in a deserted cabin, the pianist begins to tell his story in flashback, hoping to convince his fellow criminal not to do something drastic to get them free of being cuffed together.

There's nothing particularly original here, and this would be true even at the time it came out. But it's an iconic story, one that speaks to the emotions, and that's clearly what Tatsumi's going for here. It's helped by the strong art, with nice visuals (the artist wonders about the huge numbers of diagonals in his work here - I'd suggest that's inevitable in a story with a blizzard in it.) The art is, of course, very old-fashioned - it reminded me very much of Monkey Punch's Lupin III, only there's no goofiness here. I loved the dream sequence where he finds a hook at the end of his arm.

If there's a weakness, it's in the final twist, which is not foreshadowed particularly well. If you're going to do a twist like that, it's best to at least give some hint of it so that the audience is not left thinking that they were just shown a deus ex machina. It wouldn't even have been that hard to do, given the characters. Also, for hardcore manga fans, be warned that like all of D&Q's manga releases, this is being released flipped, with the permission of the author. It doesn't particularly matter here - the story reads just fine from left-to-right. And there's even some color pages!

This is a story that's clearly written for young boys - heck, the hero even sees the heroine as a little sister, with no hint of romance - and indeed the interview notes this is not very much like the later, more mature stories he would write. But it's a good simple action thriller, and shows the immense talent that the young Tatsumi had. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Love*Com Volume 17

By Aya Nakahara. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret ("Betsuma"). Released in North America by Viz.

I was a little harsh on Volume 16 of this series, feeling that it ended up dragging things out too long (which is the fate of many shoujo romances, to be honest). Strangely, though, I liked this final volume of scattered stories far more, and feel it's a good final volume to this goofy love story.

These stories appeared a few months after the serialization ended in the magazine, and read very much as if she was trying to construct them for the volume. As such, they tie together really well, drawing on each other's strengths. First we get a chapter devoted to Otani, in middle school, showing off his determination and compassion. Then we see Risa in middle school as well, and see her cheerful outlook (and tendency towards obliviousness). Finally, we get a chapter with "their first meeting" - when the two of them don't realize who the other is, due to poor lighting at a concert.

It is particularly hokey - there is not one shred of originality in the entire volume - but then, I never read Love Com for the stellar plotting. It's pushing your buttons, but it pushes them well, and you find yourself laughing, and going "awww" at just the right moments. There's also a nice tie-in to all the stories showing a boy constantly changing schools, and how Otani and Risa - at different times - pull him out of his shell.

We then get one final post-series chapter, which mostly deals with Risa having to face up to Otani having a life outside of her. Risa's always had hideous self-image problems anyway, and is having troubles making friends at her fashion school (as opposed to Otani who immediately gets friends flocking around him like birds), so winds up thinking this is all a reflection on her and spiraling into a depression. Otani, to his credit, knows something is wrong this time, and talks things through with her.

I appreciates the two still being themselves. Otani forgets Risa's birthday, and for once (I'm used to the manga cliche), it wasn't a fakeout leading to a big party later - he really did totally forget. And it wouldn't be Love Com without Risa freaking out, stressing out, and sobbing. Luckily, things end happily and with big grins.

Love Com has always been a frothy ice cream soda sort of series - for all its occasional forays into relationship angst, it's almost an antidote for more realistic, depressing series like Sand Chronicles or We Were There. (Part of this might simply be the trend of the magazine it ran in - the titles licensed over here from Bessatsu Margaret tends to be fluffy, happy romance, while Shogakukan's Bessatsu Comic, Betsuma's rival, tends to have a lot of angst and sadness brought to North America.) I did feel it ran on too long, but this was a perfect way to wrap up the series, looking back on what made it fun in the first place - Risa and Otani.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ristorante Paradiso

By Natsume Ono. Released in Japan by Ohta Shuppan, serialized in the magazine Manga Erotics F. Released in North America by Viz.

This is, as everyone knows, the year of Natsume Ono. Her slice-of-death story not simple came out in January, and later on we have House of Five Leaves (currently running in Ikki), and the sequel to this manga, Gente. And you never know, maybe someone will pick up her Morning Two titles as well. This particular volume is complete in one, and ran in the awkwardly titled Manga Erotics F magazine. (Despite that name, the magazine is no more adult than, say, the Big Comic titles.)

The premise is that a young Italian woman named Nicoletta has come to Rome to track down her wayward mother, who abandoned her family for another man. She finds her in a restaurant staffed by handsome older men in glasses, and arrives determined to 'blow her cover', so to speak. However, she quickly gets drawn in by the men of the restaurant, particularly the head waiter, Claudio.

A lot of this volume - indeed, almost all of it - is devoted to simple conversation, with Nicoletta talking to various people about their lives, her life, and food. As others have noted, it can be a weakness - a lot of the plot is simply explained to us, rather than having us see it unfold. There's a certain sense here, especially in the flashback chapter showing the owner and his half-brother, that Ono wants to expand her 'brief' and draw on the others' pasts, but is restrained by trying to keep it within six chapters. I suspect this is why she started the 3-volume Gente the following year in the same magazine.

The story here, though, is Nicoletta and her mother, and despite the flaws, I feel it works well. Nicoletta's clumsy, awkward emotions are clear here - she grows closer to her mother throughout the volume, and doesn't really like what that says about her - and her attraction to Claudio is well handled on both ends. I particularly liked the denouement at the mother's birthday party, cliched though it was. Nicoletta's whispered birthday gift - that she won't tell anyone her secret after all - is touching, and of course fills the mother with guilt, leading to the inevitable confession.

The manga takes place entirely in Italy, and there is a certain relaxed, romanza feeling to it. I enjoyed seeing the staff taking Nicoletta under their wing and teaching her about cooking, and you can indeed see her growing as a chef through the book. But the best character in the book may be the mother, Olga, who we are set up to dislike as a horrible mother and them slowly realize that that's only one part of her character - and a part that she can start to make up for, if she works at it. This is all conveyed through Ono's striking art. I find her art to be rather glum and depressing even when people are smiling - maybe it's the wide mouths - so seeing the characters come to a happy end makes it work better for me.

This is nothing at all like what's coming out in the Jump or Beat lines, and pretty much exactly what I want to see from Viz's Signature line. Manga I had no idea I wanted, but now suddenly want to see more of. Let's hope that Gente, due out in July, is just as good.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 5

By Rikdo Koshi. Released in Japan by Shonen Gahosha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young King OURS. Released in North America by Viz.

Having spent the previous volume indicating that there's a serious plot somewhere behind all these gags, Rikdo Koshi returns in Volume 5 to (mostly) flat-out laughs. What advances we get in this volume are character-based - one minor recurring character and two major pivotal characters are introduced in this volume. (Incidentally, after Volume 4 Viz apparently decided Excel Saga was not selling well enough to justify original cover art for North America, and the covers quietly reverted to being based on the Japanese originals.)

We get the minor recurring character first, in the first chapter. Excel and Hyatt are at a lodge in the mountains, acting as waitresses/hired help for the Owner (who I don't believe ever gets named), a burly bald-headed Russian-looking man with a cane and a scar, who keeps having flashbacks to tragic times in Afghanistan (it's never named as such, but come on). Excel attempting to use automatic machine guns to hunt rabbits is interspersed with the 3 male members of Kabapu's team going to the lodge for training... and getting utterly lost in the snow. Naturally, everything ends in a giant explosion. The Owner will crop up again later.

The next chapter is merely a Valentine's Day one, with the usual chocolate shenanigans (and Excel's flushed face indicating she's overdone it), but does have one of the more telling character moments in the volume. At the end of the chapter, Matsuya walks by and gives Iwata one of her chocolate Pocky. He is, needless to say, in seventh heaven. But the final page shows her in her kitchen, staring at the ruined remains of her stove, showing she had actually been trying to bake him Valentine's chocolate. Admittedly, she was almost goaded into this by Momochi, but it's an important first: it's the first time we realize that Matsuya maybe does kind of like Iwata after all.

We then get one of Rikdo's longest and most obvious shout-outs to date. Excel, working in a restaurant, is dumping trash out in the alley when she comes across a gun in a paper bag, dumped there by yakuza. She thinks it's a fake (real guns are almost unheard of in Japan), and so fires off a shot - which leads to everyone and their brother, on both sides of the law, out searching for the gun. Complicating this is Hyatt falling over dead again, and Excel's need to get out of her apartment and get medicine. This lads to a several-pages long riff on the manga Geobreeders, which runs concurrently with Excel Saga in Young King Ours. (It's even a little older than ES, and is the longest running manga in Ours at the moment, though I believe the author is on a brief hiatus.) Excel imagines herself as a gunslinger in a white suit, a clear homage to Maki Umezaki, and starts blowing things up and making improbable leaps.

(I miss Geobreeders, which did not sell well when CPM tried to release it here, partly due to censorship, partly due to poor art quality (the original Japanese tankobons are much clearer than CPM's 3rd-gen xeroxes), but I suspect mostly as the manga is a serious action story with a comic coating, as opposed to the anime (which came out here first), an action comedy with little seriousness. The eventual body count in Geobreeders might warn off potential licensors. Still, I'd love to see someone else give it a try. Also check out the anime, as it brought us Dynamite Mambo, one of the most addictive ED songs ever.)

Meanwhile, back in Excel Saga, we finally meet its resident mad scientist and lolicon, Gojyou Shiouji. For those who want to note that he's less exaggerated than in the anime (true), and that his lolicon tendencies get a plot explanation once his mother and childhood friend are introduced (also true), I note that he is still, when first introduced, squatting down near the ground to try and see up the skirts of the 6-year-old schoolgirls walking by. This is his schtick, and I freely admit it will disturb people, but it's clear Rikdo means it to be disturbing, and that he's also mostly using it for comedy 'ew' factor. Shiouji is introduced by slamming into Excel (who's just having bad luck with cars) with his auto-controlled van, which then decides to get jealous of Shiouji talking with another woman and attempts to kill itself and everyone in it. Of course, the remote-control van is the least of Shiouji's inventions...

Enter Ropponmatsu, who I had completely forgotten was first introduced as a typical robot girl. There's little indication that she's anything other than a prototype created by Shiouji using Kabapu's money and normal Japanese resources. This will turn out to be (mostly) very wrong, as we'll see later on. She's introduced as a tall, sleek, and emotionless young woman, who Iwata immediately falls for. Sadly, their first mission involves defusing a bomb, and she gets completely blown to pieces. Luckily, there's Shiouji returning the next day with Ropponmatsu the 2nd!... who is built around his fetishes and is a loli robot with a totally different personality. (Note that, unlike the anime, the two Ropponmatsus never appear together.)

And as if there weren't enough in this volume, we get a chapter devoted to an 'alternate universe' fantasy RPG world, where Excel and Hyatt are traveling warriors searching for a quest. It's actually the weak point of the volume, as it's not all that interesting and the archaic speech can be confusing. But overall, this is an important volume of the series, and we'll see lots more of Shiouji and the Ropponmatsus in the future.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory Volume 1

By Sakae Esuno. Released in Japan as "Hanako to Guuwa no Tera" by Kadokawa Shoten, serialized in the magazine Shonen Ace. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

It's rare that I buy a manga based on title alone. Horror manga, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service aside, is not generally my thing. And I didn't really get into Future Diary, which was the series the author wrote after this one had finished. However, sometimes you have to go with your gut, and that's quite a title, so I picked it up.

It's pretty decent. The artist knows how to make his horror look horrific, and the pacing is excellent. There's a nice balance between cute innocent victims, poorly communicating boyfriends, and complete jerkass monsters. I especially like the idea of each chapter dealing with a different classic Japanese urban folklore legend, and was familar with the slit-mouthed woman from Urusei Yatsura gags. And Toilet Hanako appears throughout, of course.

If there's a drawback it's in the three leads, who I found rather colorless. Every series like this usually begins with a few one-shots where the hero's past is merely hinted at, followed by an extended arc where all his dark secrets are revealed. And no doubt we'll get that here. But he, and Kanae, the heroine, just seem a bit plain. And I must admit, after watching Haunted Junction, I prefer my Toilet Hanakos to be busty and not loli.

In the end, this is perfectly serviceable. I didn't find anything I really disliked while I was reading it. But if another volume never came out, I don't think I'd even notice. It lacks the addictive quality you get in the best mangas, the sort of thing that has you checking Amazon to find when the next volume is scheduled to be released. I suppose Future Diary sold well enough that Tokyopop wanted to get other titles by the author. However, in this end this is merely good.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chicks Dig Time Lords

A Celebreation of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It. Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O'Shea. Published by Mad Norwegian Press.

This blog is mostly for manga reviews, and I've been reading manga for almost 15 years now, so it's a relatively old fandom of mine. But I've been a Doctor Who fan literally my entire life; some of my earliest memories are being utterly terrified by The Mutants when I was a little kid watching PBS. And I was reviewing Who online back before I even knew what manga was. Doctor Who is ingrained into my sense of self.

And it would appear I'm not alone, as can be seen in this fantastic collection of essays put out by Mad Norwegian Press. The book talks about female Doctor Who fandom, but as the back cover notes, you don't have to be female to enjoy it. You just need a love of Doctor Who - no matter what the era.

I grew up in the States, so I didn't have quite the same experience of 'boys-club' that female fans in Britain and Australia did. There always seemed to be a bunch of female Who fans at the conventions I attended as a kid. However, I certainly noticed the male bias - and tendency towards very male arguments - when I joined rec.arts.drwho in 1994. (It was on USENET! Remember USENET?) So a book like this was a lot of fun for me to read as it lacked a lot of the peevishness and entitlement that I saw on the old newsgroup.

The book is, more than an analysis of being a female Doctor Who fan, a celebration of Doctor Who itself. You can feel the enthusiasm and joy bubbling up from its pages. Favorite Doctors, identifying with companions, dressing up, drawing art, writing fanfics, writing smut... every aspect of who fandom you can think of is covered here, along with a reminder that Doctor Who's very nature helps to keep the fandom alive, that it is (as several essays note) a fandom that regenerates and renews itself as its show does.

Not that the book is all squee. There are several articles on New Who that seem a bit dismayed at the portrayal of females in the series, and I found myself nodding in agreement a lot of the time. (I adored Donna, and felt what the Doctor did at Journey's End to be a horrible decision.) But of course, none of this stops the writers from still being fans. Nor will it stop me. I can't, at the moment, imagine not being a Doctor Who fan. Sure, I'll disagree with things, or hate episodes and plots. But stop being a fan? Bah.

When I finished the book, there were so many essays I wanted to go back and reread. Helen Kang's cultural analysis of the show and how peer pressure affects our fandoms growing up; Francesca Coppa's essay about Nyssa, one of my favorite classic companions; Tammy Garrison and Katy Shuttleworth's adorable Torchwood Babiez comic/essay; K. Tempest Bradford's thoughtful article on her love of Martha and how the show's writing keeps disappointing that love; and Christa Dickson's argument in favor of the fandom having a healthy love of sex in the TARDIS.

But most of all, it made me immediately want to write my own essay dealing with my life as a Doctor Who fan. I had to rewrite this review a few times as I started rambling on about Peter Davison on WEDH 24, or Sylvester McCoy becoming *my* Doctor (which is usually the first question you get asked by fellow fans). But of course, my Doctor Who fandom essay can wait for another time. This is about Chicks Dig Time Lords, which merely inspires such thoughts. It reminds you how open, how BIG this community is. It makes you want to rewatch your episodes, to go to a convention, to sew a giant scarf, to get involved, And it leave a giant grin on your face. I can't recommend it enough.

I Hate You More Than Anyone! Volume 5

By Banri Hidaka. Released in Japan as "Sekai De Ichiban Daikirai!" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by CMX.

Despite the fact that Kazuha still hasn't confessed to Maki, this volume is very much about how a couple starts off - awkwardly, with lots of blushes and little fights turning into SERIOUS BUSINESS. Kazuha's general personality does not help here at all, of course.

Contrasted with this is Senko, who's just as emotional but a touch more sensible - well, she thinks so, at least. Senko proves to be easily manipulated in an incredibly hilarious scene where Honjo talks her into going out with him. The expression on his face as she walks right into his trap makes me remember why I fell for this couple hard. (Later in the volume, Kazuha realizes that Honjo likes Senko, and the idea of them as a couple makes her freak out. This freak out leads to possible the funniest line in the entire manga, from her little brother Ichihisa: "Oh noooo! Senko-chan! Kazuha-chan is tripping!".)

The 'date' turns out to be Mizushima's wedding - Maki decided to trick Kazuha and make it a suprise. It's a lovely wedding (western-style), though it does show one of the difficulties in translating Japanese to English. Manami, Mizushima's bride, speaks in a 'third-person cutesy' sort of way, saying "Manami wants" instead of "I want." Another character later in the volume also slips into this on occasion. It's common in manga with 'cutesy' girls, but over here I think it just looks childish. (Another funny moment, when Kazuha discusses the wedding with her mother, and her mother starts teasing her: "Ichihisa takes after his mother 100%." She does - we've seen that evil grin on teenage Ichihisa in the pre-IHYMTA Akiyoshi arcs.)

We then get Valentine's Day, which leads to more angst for Kazuha - she's never given anyone chocolate before, even her teachers, so has no idea what to do for Maki. It doesn't help that Maki gets drowned in chocolates from all his admirers. Kazuha stresses, then eventually decides to not do the chocolates thing, as she wants to not be like all the other girls. (We'll see what she decides on in the next volume).

The Valentine's arc also has the one big flaw in the volume, however. A new character, Miharu, is introduced. She's Arata's childhood friend, and clearly has a crush on him. And coincidentally, she appears just as his crush on Kazuha is about to be resolved! I don't dislike her, but her entire arc, here and in the next book, reeks of 'I need to get rid of this guy, let me invent a girl to pawn him off onto". It's awkward, and I feel if this was how she wanted to do it then Miharu should have been there all along, especially as we had many scenes at Arata's school before this. It underlines how Hidaka-san basically plots on the fly for this series (compare this to, say, Tears of a Lamb's tight structure).

Overall, though, this continues to be funny and heartfelt, and even though the romance aspect is still going nowhere fast, you root for these people to find happiness. In fact, the only thing stopping Kazuha and Maki getting together now is her reticence, and that won't last long. I'm sure that the manga will end next volume! Well, unless the author throws a huge spanner in the works. But she would *never* do that...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Gin Tama Volume 17

By Hideaki Sorachi. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

Another excellent volume of Gin Tama, which introduces another major character, and has a better balance between its goofy gag manga and its serious samurai action.

The majority of this volume deals with Tama the robot girl, first introduced to us as just a severed head, and the attempts of what seems to be everyone in the world to retrieve her. Naturally, she ends up at the home of our heroes, and after a highly amusing chapter where they try to access her memory but merely end up playing her like a Nintendo RPG, the robot armies start arriving to kick ass and take over the world.

Of course, we soon find out that this goofy plot is more serious than we thought, and that Tama is no ordinary robot girl. There are some nice fakeouts in this middle bit as the real villain is revealed, and you begin to wonder (as do our heroes) how pure his motivation really is, especially since that motivation seems to be for mass slaughter. (Really, for a Jump gag manga, Gin Tama has a damn high body count. Certainly higher than Naruto, Bleach, or One Piece.)

The enemy captures Shinpachi, so Gin and Kagura are off to the rescue, along with Tama, whose personality has been implanted into a killer assassin maid robot. With one eye. Never let it be said that Sorachi does not know his core audience. This leads to one of the funniest moments in the volume, where Tama puts a CD into her mouth and starts playing the Rocky theme to inspire our heroes. (The anime actually topped this, mocking music negotiations by having her play a "Rocky-ish" theme and Gin lampshading that they must not have been able to afford the rights.)

In the end, though, this is less about cool action and goofy jokes, and more about what makes a person's soul. Tama is having to deal with people willing to fight and die for her, and the concept of the samurai, both of which pretty much blow her mind. When she finally comes to accept that, she's able to make the emotional leap that she needed, and in the end can sacrifice herself as well. (Of course, she returns, if only as a head again, and we'll see more of Tama in future chapters).

The best part of the manga is Gin snarking back at the villain. The whole volume has been gently mocking the robot maid concept, and Gin finally throws it back into the faces of those who love the fetish.
Gin: You'd force your own daughter to commit murder? Blind obedience... is that what you wanted, Daddy? A daughter who'd never leave you and never die? You don't want a daughter... you want a robot maid.

For a series with as many strong women as Gin Tama has, this is particularly apt. The most popular females are the ones who can punt a man's aass through a wall.

The manga flags towards the end, with two chapters focusing on buying a Wii (or rather, a Bentendo Owee). As always following an arc with somewhat serious issues, the author follows it with pure gag manga for comic relief. Seeing the cast cutting into lines and trying to play date sims is funny (Katsura, as always, wins the humor award, both for dressing up as Mario and for trying to buy a Famicom - behind the times, as always). Still, it's light stuff compared to the earlier chapters.

If you aren't reading Gin Tama, you're really missing out. I'd argue it's the 2nd best manga in Jump right now, behind One Piece. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cross Game licensed

For those of you who read this post: The Works Of Mitsuru Adachi, I can only add to it that I thank Viz for picking up this wonderful shonen sports series (and growing-up romance as well) from Adachi. You won't regret buying it, it's fantastic. And yes, you will buy it, or else I'll come to all your houses and snicker-snag into your ears. :)

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya 5

By Nagaru Tanigawa and Gaku Tsugano. Released in Japan as "Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu" by Kadokawa Shoten, serialization ongoing in the magazine Shonen Ace. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I really have to feel bad for the creators of the Haruhi Suzumiya manga proper. Not only do they have to deal with the fact that the original novels and the animated adaptation are superior to it, but also that the two spinoff manga, the 4-koma Haruhi-chan and The Disappearance of Yuki Nagato, are more interesting than their parent manga. And then, to add insult to injury, this volume boasts on the back cover that it's the manga adaptation of Endless Eight, leading many fans who are still traumatized by the 2nd season of the anime to recoil in horror and flee.

And indeed, when it's merely an adaptation, the manga is predominately a failure. Endless Eight and the start of the 2nd novel are covered here, and they don't get the room to stretch that the novel or anime give them, so they look rushed. (Note: Endless Eight is, like the short story, merely one iteration. In case you were worried.) Also, the art is frankly only okay, and sometimes looks sketchy and unfinished. If you're reading this manga to enjoy the stories you've read and watched before, I'd expect to be disappointed.

It's especially disappointing as whenever the manga *isn't* doing a straight adaptation, it shines. The short chapter from the POV of Shamisen (who is, at this point, still a "normal" cat is intriguing, and dovetails nicely with the adaptation of the 2nd novel, where Yuki feels a frisson of recognition when she's given the cat for the filming. And the sports festival chapter, hinted at but never shown in the novel and anime, is simply excellent, showing Haruhi once again altering the universe to her specifications, but also showing her not being a total jerkass (rare at this point in the series - her development is the point, after all) and some nice moments for everyone, even Mikuru!

Unfortunately, these chapters are surrounded by lesser quality adaptations, and I'm not sure I can recommend the manga to anyone who's not already a Haruhi fanboy and thus would buy it anyway. If you *are*, however, the middle of the manga will give you a nice bonus.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gakuen Alice Volume 10

By Tachibana Higuchi. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

Ah, Gakuen Alice. You and your hierarchies of bullying drive me crazy sometimes. Well, OK, all the time. And yet, you're still a compelling read. It's impressive.

First of all, it's Mikan's birthday, and you know what that means! Yep, no one remembers and she's left devastated. Except of course, they're all just faking it so they can do a surprise party, which backfires as she runs off. Even the cast admits it was a bad idea, but as Hotaru notes, 'teasing Mikan is just too much fun'. Hotaru fills in as an author voice a lot through the manga, and you do sense that one reason Higuchi loves to draw Gakuen Alice is to think of fresh new tortures for her heroine.

Then we get the main plot of this volume, where Hotaru (by invitation) and Mikan (by contest win) are invited to a special girl's only area of the school, or, as it's also known, the 'pretty girl harem'. And now we get another group in this manga who are elite princesses, and who therefore have honors and privileges above the common rabble. Gosh, I wonder if they'll bully Mikan?

Things are complicated by a Candy Ex Machina that glues Mikan to Natsume, and Hotaru to Luca and Yo-chan for the foreseeable future. They wear off randomly, and till they do everyone is stuck. Cue the boys being forced to enter that all-girls' enclave! And yes, Mikan is bullied. But so is Natsume, as you are reminded that while Mikan gets the typical elementary-school bullying that we all know, what's directed towards Natsume is a different kettle of fish altogether. That's not bullying, that's child abuse.

Of course, Natsume also gets to take it out on Mikan, who he occasionally tries opening up to but mostly treats like utter crap. Mikan recognizes this, and finds him hard to deal with as every time she thinks he's secretly nice he gets irritating again. This is, of course, a standard shoujo romance trope. I give Natsume more of a pass than I would other heroes as he's 10 years old, however.

There are some interesting revelations in this volume, and seeing Luca and Hotaru look badass together was cool (really, Hotaru in general is cool), but enjoying this volume may depend largely on how you feel about 'girl manages to get through her horrible life with gumption and guts' shoujo. This has long been a staple of Japanese manga bullying plots (see Fruits Basket), and the answer still tends to be 'if the victim is just stronger and cheerful, eventually the bullies will come around to her goodness and niceness!'. Well, I suppose it *is* a fantasy manga...

In any case, I do still enjoy Gakuen Alice, even thought it drives me crazy. Slightly recommended.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

One Piece Volume 38

By Eiichiro Oda. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

This is one of my favorite volumes in the series. There's so much awesome going on that it can be hard to sum up, but I'll give it a shot. Franky's flashback finishes up and CP9 capture him, with Usopp putting barely a token resistance. Worse still, they throw Going Merry away into the sea! And oh crap, Spandam's back in post-flashback time, and he's got a leather gimp mask now.

However, things are now going to turn around. Chopper rescues Iceberg and Paulie (and Zoro's cursed sword) from a burning building, looking utterly badass as he does so. Iceberg then wakes, and has a chat with Nami about what really happened with Robin several chapters ago. We get confirmed (as if we couldn't guess) that Robin has become too attached to the crew to use and abandon them like she always has before, so is sacrificing herself and the world just so that the Straw Hats can leave Water 7 safely. It's pretty cool.

What follows is the moment I usually use when someone asks me "What moment sums up all of One Piece for you?" It's almost iconic. Nami collapses, and Iceberg starts to worry, but it turns out she's collapsing in relief because Robin is still their friend after all. Then she gets up and heads off. I'll quote this part in full:

Iceberg: Wait! The Straw Hats are already defeated. What can you do now?!"
Nami: *Now*, you say? This *starts* now! Luffy and the others are fine. They can't be done away with that easily. We're going to get Robin back! Hesitating makes us weak. Now that we know she needs to be saved, OUR STRENGTH WILL BE INFINITE!!!

As if that weren't enough, this is followed by Sanji getting off a quote that makes him look manly and cool, and then sees him discovering Robin about to get on the train to Enies Lobby. Chapter 359 is near perfect.

I feel I should note that there is some great humor in this volume. Galley-La's reaction to Chopper's transformations, Sanji's hilarious image of Robin as a Rose-of-Versailles shoujo princess, the entire scene with Sanji's note to Nami (note her utter lack of reaction: I once again note this manga is not for shippers), and Luffy and Zoro's reaction after Nami arrives at the train with a huge bag of meat and sake. Oda can still bring the lols. (There's one more, but as it's a cliffhanger I'll wait for the end.)

With all this done, it's time to go find Luffy and Zoro, who have managed to get themselves trapped in various bits of the city. Oh, and there's a huge tidal wave caused by the typhoon, hitting the city. For those who like action, Luffy, Nami, Zoro and Chopper escaping from Aqua Laguna (with an assist from Paulie) is utterly fantastic. Times like these make One Piece seem like a big-budget movie. (I also note that Luffy, escaping with Nami, simply wraps his rubber arm around her torso and yanks her. Luffy is no Sanji. And thank God for that.)

Unfortunately, the storm is so bad that ships can't get through, and the last train (with Robin and CP9) is gone. Fortunately, Sanji, as well as the captured Franky and Usopp, are on board that train. Also fortunately, Kokoro knows of a prototype runaway sea train that will be able to follow them to Enies Lobby. This leads to everyone and their brother setting off in pursuit: the remaining Straw Hats; Paulie, Lulu and Tilestone from Galley-La; and the ENTIRE Franky Family, including their giant sea horses Sodomu and Gomora. (Yes, yes, I know... look, Viz has to keep this rated T for teen. Best to just smile and nod at the odd romanji.)

And then there's the end. Franky and Usopp are free, but Usopp is still in bitter self-hatred mode, so shouts that he can't possibly do anything and stomps off. Grr. But wait! Another person heard their call! He has come to help them save Robin with his awesome sharpshooting skills! That great masked hero... SNIPER KING! Sniper King in general is wonderful, and we only get a brief taste here. Wait till Volume 39, where you find out where Sniper Island is. (No spoilers in the comments, please.)

This volume marks the end of the first part of Water Seven. The next 6 volumes are unofficially known by fans as the Enies Lobby arc, and indeed, that's where everyone's headed. Can't wait for April!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 4

By Rikdo Koshi. Released in Japan by Shonen Gahosha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young King OURS. Released in North America by Viz.

There's a lot going on in this volume, which lays out a lot of the questions regarding Il Palazzo and Excel's past. Questions which, I note, are still unanswered in the current run 13 years later. Though we at least have a few more ideas...

The first chapter wraps up the sewer infiltration arc from Volume 3, showing that Excel is still a bit of an idiot when it comes to actually listening to people, and we first see Matsuya's desperate attempts to avoid falling further into the batshit insaneness that her life has become, as she lies point blank to Kabapu about having seen anyone down there. We also have Watanabe trying to figure out if he actually saw Hyatt/Ayasugi-san down there, and a wonderful moment where Matsuya rips into him for being passive.

The next chapter was, I believe, also adapted for the anime. Hyatt is accidentally kidnapped by two Yakuza wannabes, and Excel has to go chasing off after her on a bike. It's hard to top Hyatt's trail of dead animals for pure comedy fun, I will admit, and we note that Excel is starting to get used to Hyatt's occasional deaths. There was one thing I disliked about this chapter, though, one of the few issues I have with the translation. At one point, the elder yakuza wanna be shouts 'kono amaa zettai!' at Hyatt. It's apparently very strong Japanese, and Carl and Dan translated it as 'you cunt!'. This is a T-rated series, not an M one. I think they could have found another way to put it.

The funniest chapter in the volume is the one where Excel has a toothache, and goes to see the dentist. Of course, this series only has one doctor, and he's now doing dentistry. It's very amusing to see Excel as the sarcastic snarker and (mostly) straight man, and almost a foreshadowing of the sort of person she'd become when Elgala was introduced. The doctor, meanwhile, just wants to start yankin' out teeth, regardless of whether they may need it or not.

Dr. Kabapu's secretary, Momochi is introduced here. She continues to appear through the series, but we still know next to nothing about her. The very definition of a cool, competent secretary (and she hasn't opened her eyes either. We also start to see Matsuya spying to get more info on Kabapu, and she definitely finds something - pictures of him in an album looking much the same as he does now, but standing in a Fukuoka with no skyscrapers.

The swimming chapter that follows was very loosely adapted for the anime. It should be noted that the manga version does actually show its male characters. :) Watanabe finds that you should never drink from anything Hyatt has already sipped from, and Matsuya finds that she may have been a national-finals swimmer in high school, but that's nothing against someone like Excel. (Matsuya still doesn't recognize Excel, and Watanabe has not put two and two together either.)

And then we have the two-parter where Excel is hit by a car. This was a stunner when it came out in Japan, mostly as it has the series' first semi-serious cliffhanger. Excel's accident is short and brutal, and Hyatt, standing there trying to take it all in (complete with a math equation!), faints. When she wakes Excel is gone, having woken and wandered off with no memories of who she is. There are flashes of recognition - notably, when desperate, she wants to cry out to a 'Lord' somebody. She then walks by the hospital, where Dr. Not-Blackjack has just tossed a syringe out of an upper-story window. It doesn't hit her, but she looks up to see it coming at her point-first and has flashes of memory that seems far older than what we're used to. "Something sharp... something scary... it hurt, it was hard, it was scary...". Accompanying this are shadowy drawings of Excel being stabbed in the head by something, and her hands covered in gore, followed by Il Palazzo with his head lowered into one hand. Excel comes back to reality to find that she's crying, and isn't sure why. Chapter break.

The second chapter features Excel trying to get herself out of the crying jag by slamming her head against a wall, which only increases her injuries. Dazed, she walks randomly through the city, finally collapsing in the arms of what she feels is Il Palazzo. Ironically (BOY, is it ironic - see later volumes), it's Kabapu, who was on his way to see Watanabe, hospitalized after drinking Hyatt's drug-laced cocktail in the swimming chapter. They get Excel tended to... and then leave her on a bench. In passing, Momochi asks if Kabapu knows Excel, and he replies that "she bears some resemblance to an old acquaintance of mine." Finally, Excel runs into Hyatt, who unfortunately dies in front of her so is no help at all. Excel then tears off after Menchi, who is panicking, and ends up leaping into a canal. Falling into water is exactly what her brain needed. She comes to, murmuring about how she wants to follow Il Palazzo forever and begging for forgiveness... and then snaps back to the Excel we know.

There's one more chapter, dealing with Watanabe leaving the hospital and getting revenge on Iwata, who wrote on his face in permanent marker. But the highlight of the volume is definitely that 2-parter beforehand. We'd seen hints that Rikdo had more going on here than just 'wacky schtick', but this is where we start to get a lot of the series' mythology. It's completely opaque, and 17 volumes later we still don't know a hell of a lot more about Excel's past, but it keeps the fans speculating. Next volume we see the intro of two of the more important cast members, Dr. Shioji and Ropponmatsu.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

One Piece Volume 37

By Eiichiro Oda. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

Every One Piece arc has a section where our heroes get the ever loving crap kicked out of them, in order to show how serious the new villains are before the Straw Hats then come back and wipe them out later. And, Water Seven being the longest arc to date, the 'things suck' section is particularly long, taking three whole volumes. Luckily this is the last, so after this one we should be getting back to the pirates kicking ass and having wacky fun doing it.

In the meantime, though... Iceberg's been shot, apparently by Nico Robin, who is in cahoots with CP9, a secret government organization who turned out to have been moles at Water Seven. Luffy and company appeal to Robin, but she's having none of it, insisting that she is leaving the crew, and that she has a wish that will never be fulfilled if she stays with them. (If they read their own manga, they'd know this was a giant hint that Robin is deceiving them. What kind of wish or dream CAN'T be fulfilled by being with Luffy?)

And what's worse, Lucci and Blueno are Devil Fruit users, and put their powers to very good use. Luffy and Zoro get punched out of the building and across the entire city (shades of what Luffy did to Crocodile in Alabasta...), and Nami (merely thrown out the window, the curse of being one of the two 'normal' crew members) is now surrounded by people who still think she's part of the 'evil pirate crew'. Oh, and Chopper's trapped in a blazing inferno along with Iceberg and Paulie.

Could things get any more desperate? Of course they could! CP9 has realized that if Iceberg doesn't have the plans they're looking for, then they must be with Franky, and they go charging off to capture him. Franky, meanwhile, is having a talk with Usopp, still frantically trying to fix the Going Merry. This is the nicest scene in the volume, and also the first time that we see Franky not being a jerk. This will prove to be important, of course. We also hear the legend of Klaubtermann, a legend that exists in particularly beloved ships, and realize that that's how Going Merry got fixed in Skypeia. (Betcha forgot that, huh? Oda loves to do callbacks, and this is nowhere near the best. Wait till Thriller Bark...)

And then CP9 come in and start kicking the crap out of everyone again. This leads us to the second half of the volume, which is a giant flashback showing Franky's childhood with Iceberg, along with their mentor, Mr. Tom. Tom is half-fishman and kind of written to be a vague ethnic stereotype, talking about doing things with a BOOM! He's a fabulous character, but this is a flashback, so he also has 'doomed' written on his forehead in permanent marker. The flashback, like most One Piece flashbacks, is quite depressing. I was particularly struck by Kokoro, who appears younger here, and gives the impression that Tom's death drove her to become an alcoholic.

And then there's Spandam. I hate Spandam. I *really* hate Spandam. There are One Piece villains that are more badass (Crocodile), or very strong but complete monsters (Arlong), or even so cool they even avoid their karmic due (Eneru), but it's hard to find one as smug, loathsome, and annoying as Spandam is. And unfortunately, get used to him, because we ain't seen nothing yet.

Luckily, as I noted at the start, things begin to get better in the next volume, which has many of my all-time favorite One Piece moments. Stay tuned...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

S.A. Volume 15

By Maki Minami. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Viz.

Most of this volume sees Hikari and Kei taking a backseat to the rest of the cast, as the author starts to wrap up the various side plots she's had going on. The one exception is an amusing chapter where Hikari thinks that Kei has eaten a love potion candy, making him overly romantic towards her. This is particularly hysterical given that Kei has been gaga over Hikari since the start of the manga. Needless to say, he decides to milk this for all its worth, stressing Hikari out with his affection, which he normally keeps a clamp on as it embarrasses her. The whole chapter ends with their first mutual, consensual kiss, and it's lovely.

The rest of the volume gets devoted to the other couples (sans Akira and Tadashi, who have little to do here). Finn takes everyone to her home country, and ends up competing with Alisa for Ryu's affections - which is especially awkward as Finn has to pretend to be a guy. And then, as we all knew would happen, Hikari finds out Finn's secret. This is the weak link of the volume, being a very cliched resolution, with a hideous deus ex machina resolving things (the cast seem stunned when they hear it, as if they know how pathetic it is). Oh well, at the end we have another official couple.

Then we move to the strongest part of the volume, which is the one couple that *doesn't* become official. I've enjoyed the pairing of Megumi and Yahiro from the moment it was first thrown at us, if only as it's a total crack pairing - you sense that Minami saw they were the two main leftovers, and cackled at the idea of them being a couple. Then started to see how she would make it work. As it has some honest thought devoted to both of its participants, it thus *does* work. If only as it's clear there's much work to do. Megumi realizes herself how ridiculous it is having a crush on Yahiro, and knows (as does Yahiro) that he's still too wrapped up in his past feelings for Akira to do anything right now.

And yet there's just so much that's wonderfully sweet here. And hilarious. From Megumi's pathetic attempts to get a boyfriend off the street (and Yahiro laughing and tearing her apart for doing so), to the wonderful image of an insanely angry Yahiro bursting into Akira's party (and completely ignoring Akira, I note), screaming Megumi's name and asking if she wanted to make a fool out of him as he drags her off. And this is capped with Yahiro's commanding (and browbeating) tone as he gets Megumi to sing perfectly. These two chapters are some of the best in the entire manga.

The volume then ends with a chapter about Alisa and Aoi, another crack pairing that works less well, mostly as it's a last-minute pair the spares type, rather than showing the thought Megumi and Yahiro did. I was amused at Alisa, not knowing Finn's secret as the others now do, point blank asking "Are you gay?".

We have two volumes to go, and we still need to wrap up Kei's grandfather's issues, so I suspect this may be the last we see of the main supporting cast. If so, it's a good issue to go out on. Especially recommended if you enjoy seeing shy wallflower in love with villainous jerk played RIGHT.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Why Not KOR? Thoughts on Licensing

I've recently been reading an excellent book called The Star Machine by Jeanine Bassinger. It's about the Hollywood studios from the late 20s to the early 60s, and how they engineered stars. What's proving more fascinating is the section on stars that never were - they were attractive, they were talented, they had support... but they never hit it big.

I was thinking of this recently looking at the License Requests from my colleague David Welsh of Manga Curmudgeon. They're all deserving titles, and publishers should be giving them a chance. But invariably, a lot of those titles are never going to come out professionally in North America. And not just because of pure marketability, although that's one of the biggest factors.

As an example, let me pick a classic, incredibly influential romantic comedy from the days of Weekly Shonen Jump circa 1984 - in other words, a title running concurrently with the manga Dragon Ball. It's called Kimagure Orange Road, and is the story of a love triangle between three students, one of whom is protecting a secret - he's from a family of espers. It ran from 1984 to 1987, totalling 18 volumes. It spawned a very popular anime as well, which has been released in North American by Animeigo (though it is now out of print), and a couple of movies. And it was one of the first big fandoms online in the early to mid 1990s, along with Dirty Pair, Bubblegum Crisis, and Ranma 1/2.

When Ranma fandom took off, most folks thought that KOR would be an obvious pickup for Viz. It wasn't as hilarious and wacky a comedy, but the romance and love triangle madness were thought to have great potential, especially with titles like Tenchi Muyo and the like hitting it big in anime stores. But it never got picked up. Then, when the U.S. version of Shonen Jump was announced, people though that they'd definitely want a good old-school romantic comedy in there, to balance off all the shonen fighting mangas, and that KOR was an obvious choice. However, no shonen romantic comedies were slated for the Jump magazine, though one or two (notably Strawberry 100%) are coming out over here in volume format.

Well-written title, not a huge number of volumes, a built-in North American fandom... why not KOR? Or, for that matter, any number of titles that *seem* like obvious choices but never made it over here. Well, let's see.

1) It's not who comes first, it's who comes second. KOR was highly influential on manga's romantic comedies, in particular the waffly teen boy, his tsundere love, and the perky yet jealous other girl sort of thing seen in dozens of manga since then. However, everyone here has now read that story to death. Will they really appreciate seeing an 18-volume manga just because of its historical value? (KOR does have one advantage over many of its followers in that it has a real ending, and resolves its triangle.)

2) Trapped in the 80s. Art marches on, and while KOR's art is actually quite good, it's also very much of its time, and it's been noted that 'retro' art can sometimes hurt a title's sellability. Not that this hurt Dragon Ball, but what about Saint Seiya, or Here Is Greenwood?

3) HardKOR fandom? Uh oh. Everyone loves a show that has a built-in fanbase, but that can be a double-edged sword. KOR has been circulating around for years - the anime was a fansub favorite long before Animeigo put it out over here, and the manga was completely scanlated several years ago. If Viz announced 'Whimsical Orange Road' tomorrow, how many would say they aren't buying it because, let's say, they ruined the title? Yes, it's not in the same league as censoring child nudity (Dr. Slump) or renaming the lead character (Case Closed), or even changing one letter in a name for legal reasons (One Piece), but fandom, especially these days, needs very little excuse to NOT buy something. KOR fandom especially, like the female lead they adore, can be prickly.

(As a short aside, several of my friends at Otakon years and years ago found endless amusement in trolling fans of Kimagure Orange Road, talking about how we enjoyed the show but really hated that annoying girl... oh, what was her name... oh, right. Madoka. Generally speaking, the two reactions were a) Anger and outrage, or b) Fans 'helping' by telling us we were confusing the names of the two lead females. KOR was one of the first anime fandoms to seriously 'character bash', and Madoka vs. Hikaru wars still exist, though since the days of newsgroups have faded considerably. Personally, I like both female leads, but Kyosuke's indecisiveness, which is far worse in the manga, is really hard to read without wishing him a boot to the head.)

4) The manga creator doesn't want it licensed. This is not as common now as it was in the old days of 32-page floppies from Viz, when many creators absolutely refused to have their work flipped and reading left to right. That's less of an issue these days, but there are still many creators who either don't want North America to see their work at all, or add conditions such as 'you also have to release my 20 other non-famous titles' that make things hard to finance. A recent example would be Urasawa's holding back the license for 20th Century Boys until Monster had finished its run here.

5) It's a one-hit wonder. Generally speaking, when manga hits it big in North America, the first thing publishers do is find other titles by that artist. Fruits Basket is the perfect example. Yet the creator of KOR, Izumi Matsumoto, had only one other short serialization (called Sesame Street, a title that would HAVE to change to be taken seriously over here), and has been mostly invisible for the last 20 years. (He recently revealed he's been suffering from a cerebrospinal fluid disease, and hopes to return to manga soon.) So you're left looking for titles with a similar FEEL to Kimagure Orange Road... a great number of which are already out over here, and have been for years. Back to #1...

I like KOR, and hope people didn't see this as bashing the title. It just makes a good example to illustrate my point. What, if it's not the actual quality of the work, makes a title unlicensed? What are those little factors that make a Viz or a Tokyopop or a Del Rey say "We don't think that we can make this a success" or "various problems prevent this from being released" or even "we have no comment at this time"?

If anyone has any other good examples, please feel free to leave them in the comments. And Viz, if you decide to license KOR tomorrow just to make me look foolish, I'll be very amused indeed. And will definitely pick up the series. Though I think a wideban might be more sellable. ^_-

Thursday, March 11, 2010

One Piece Volume 36

By Eiichiro Oda. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

Last volume was sort of a low ebb for the Straw Hat Pirates, but this one's not particularly sparkling either. The entire city is out to get them, Galley-La is trying to kill them, and worst of all, Robin returns and it looks like the rumors about her being the assassin are true.

I had forgotten, when this volume first came out in Japan back in 2005, how much distrust still existed towards Robin in the fandom. There were a whole lot of people who were convinced that Oda had tricked us again, and that she was going to turn out to be one of the arc's Big Bads (Spoiler: she isn't). Admittedly, fandom was helped along in this by Oda himself, who does a very nice job of making Robin's motivations murky and suspicious. Zoro points out how she was first working against them, and tries to remain the voice of reason even as Luffy, Nami and Chopper want to believe in Robin.

The one exception to Oda making Robin looks bad and menacing is towards the end of the scene where she tells Sanji and Chopper she's leaving the crew, where she thanks them and notes that she doesn't deserve it. In my review of last volume I noted that most of Usopp's issues stem from his low self-worth. Let's just say that in the Straw Hat crew, Usopp runs a very faint Number Two behind Robin in the 'self-hatred' category. We'll see a lot more of this in future volumes.

(Speaking of which, I felt so bad for Usopp when I saw the character list at the start of the volume! Poor guy, he's not even listed as part of the crew now. (Robin will also change starting with 37, but she just gets greyed out, not moved entirely.)

Much of this volume is devoted to action and intrigue, and we get several cool-looking fights. The Straw Hats are generally not very good at convincing Galley-La of their innocence, and their attempts to get in to see the wounded Iceberg are confounded by another secret group, which Robin is a part of, attempting to do the same thing.

It has to be said that the secret identities of CP9 are not particularly surprising, but then they weren't meant to be. We only knew the group was around for about 3 chapters before they appeared, and the big surprise is that they *are* secret identities, rather than four different people that we'd never seen before who happen to work for the government. (That said, the reveal is really well handled, especially seeing the pigeon just going 'coo coo' while Lucci does all the talking.)

And we get a big old cliffhanger as well, as the confrontation between CP9 and Iceberg is interrupted on one side by Luffy and Paulie busting through a wall, and on the other by Zoro, Nami and Chopper entering, more sensibly, through a door. Well, OK, they entered by breaking the door down. Slightly more sensibly. What will happen next? Stay tuned!