Saturday, July 31, 2010

Otomen Volume 7

By Aya Kanno. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Hana to Yume ("Betsuhana"). Released in North America by Viz.

Another volume of Otomen, where Aya Kanno... writes about whatever the hell she wants, really, and if it happens to advance the main plot or develop the characters, so much the better. This means, as with many previous volumes, that the quality is highly variable; however, the good bits are really good.

Sadly, the first chapter in the book is not one of the good bits. I sometimes wonder if the theme that Viz notes on the back cover - 'having girly hobbies doesn't make you less manly!' - is actually meant to be the theme of this manga, or if Kanno is just gleefully subverting it for her own amusement. This chapter in particular is a good example, as showing how, in a world where men are manly and women are girly that it's OK to like cutesy stuff - is less appropriate when every other guy in the world is the same way! Seriously, we've met Asuka, and we now have the gardening otomen, the makeup artist otomen, and with this chapter, the singing otomen. Disbelief is starting to get tired of hanging around up there.

Luckily, this is the low ebb, and the other three stories are more interesting. My favorite was the second, involving the kendo club going off to train at a camp rumored to be haunted by a vengeful female ghost. Asuka, naturally, is terrified of ghosts. Juta, sensing a manga cliche he can abuse, suggests Ryo come along to serve as manager. What I liked best about this is that it finally admitted that no, it wasn't a case of Ryo 'forgetting' that Asuka had confessed to her, or the series itself retconning it. She just hasn't responded with an answer. Asuka's talk with the ghost about how difficult this is is very touching, and it's made even better by his return and seeing Ryo curled up asleep with her exorcist vacuum. Some people just feel more comfortable with deeds rather than words.

Speaking of Juta, he gets a focus chapter in here, noting his playboy sensibilities and how he seems to avoid commitment. He's blaming the manga career, but his sisters all seem to know that's not it. What I found most interesting here is that Juta, crippled with writer's block due to thinking about his old love, is able to use that and turn it into a story about 'Asuka's' best friend from Love Chick (aka genderflipped Juta) and her own old love. I wonder if that will slowly lead to him being able to get his manga away from just writing about Asuka's love life and create his own situations. Unlikely (that's where the humor of his character comes from), but it's a good thought.

And finally, we come back to the fact that Ryo is unable to tell Asuka that she loves him back. This is very distressing for him, as he actually asks her point blank as they're on a date and she evades the question. She notes she wanted to come on her amusement park date with the rest of the gang. Naturally, Asuka is getting those 'just a friend' vibes from this (and to be honest, it does read like that, as Ryo is THE hardest character to read in this series). Things then go pear-shaped when Juta, who seems to be able to think only in shoujo manga cliches, starts a rumor that Asuka is transferring schools. Hijinx naturally ensue, but Juta gets what he thinks he wanted when Ryo admits that she's glad the rumor isn't true. She still looks depresed, though, and in the end we find out why.

Well, we almost find out why. Damn cliffhangers, Kanno. You barely include Ryo for all of Volume 6, and when you finally do you tug at our heartstrings. You'd better not write her out (hey, it is a worry here - I'm sure if she made the manga all male it would be just as popular). Definitely looking forward to Volume 8.

Kimi Ni Todoke Volume 5

By Karuho Shiina. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret ("Betsuma"). Released in North America by Viz.

I must admit, I'm starting to wonder if perhaps this series is a bit TOO shiny. After reading every volume, I feel as if I've just had a thorough scrub with soap and water. Everything around me is brighter and cleaner, in a Ivory Soap sort of way. Even the villains in this manga tend towards the misunderstood cutie type. There *is* conflict, but it's the sort that involves simply being unable to speak your true feelings. I'm getting to the point where I really wish that perhaps a beloved sister would die, or perhaps someone could fall down a well.

Of course that's rather petty of me, as this series is so sweet I can't wish badness on anybody. And to be fair, we do get some real-world nastiness, as Yano breaks up with her college age boyfriend... who then belts her across the chops. (It's meant to look like a slap, of course, but she has a bandage over her cheek the next day, and it's still visible a couple days later when they're over at Ryu's place. He really socked her.) I liked this scene if only as it added a bit of depth to Yano, who's generally the smartest and most mature of the group. It shows that it can be hard to follow your own advice, and reminds us that even though she's the mature older one in terms of plot beats, she's still a high school girl capable of making horrible decisions about men.

But enough of that, back to the heartwarming and adorable. Even the angsty moments are filled with this, as we see when Kurumi finally confesses her crush on Kazehaya. She knows how this is going to go, as do we. And Kazehaya, being the perfect guy, even lets her down in the perfect way, immediately noting he likes someone else, and then when she asks if her confession made him happy, notes that it did and thanks her. I think this is the turning point for our view of Kurumi, and though she doesn't appear for the rest of the volume (which is more concerned with Chizuru and Ryu), I hope she shows up again, if only to see if she's abandoned her fake 'cute' persona.

Then there's chapter 18, which is just one giant 'd'awwww!' from start to finish. Sawako's parents' reaction to Yoshida and Yano, the pictures where Sawako isn't a 'ghost photo', Pin's ludicrous paranoia, and of course Kazehaya's panicked embarrassment. Moments like these are important in the series, as not only do they make it funnier and more heartwarming,. but they also humanize Kazehaya a little bit, which is necessary for someone like him, who tends to fall into 'far too perfect' if the author is not very careful. Sawako has this issue too, but her painful earnestness at absolutely everything takes the curse off her.

(She's like a Yotsuba for teen shoujo. "Look, my friends are coming over! Look, photos! Look, adorable flashbacks!" Like Yotsuba, though for different reasons, every experience Sawako has is the most wonderful thing ever.)

Lastly, we have the Chizuru's crush plot, which will extend into the next volume. Here we get some much needed depth for Ryu, who has tended to be the sensible one but not much else. He's comfortable with his unspoken love for Chizuru, and here we see why it's unspoken, and how difficult it is for him to try to protect her without her knowing it and without his own feelings becoming clear. It's an incredibly difficult task as Chizuru is not the brightest bulb in the lamp, and her combination of straightforward and unthinking leads the reader on a heady course for disaster... which will presumably have to wait for Volume 6, as we end this one with a cliffhanger.

I did greatly enjoy this volume, and I wonder if I'm just being picky when I note that it's too sweet and wonderful for its own good. Hey, sometimes you want a good meal, and sometimes you want cake. And this cake is really well made, one of the best cakes currently coming out in the North American manga community. Go get yourselves some sugar, folks.

The Magic Touch Volume 9

By Izumi Tsubaki. Released in Japan as "Oyayubi kara Romance" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Viz.

And so my favorite lost cause comes to an end, wrapping up all of its remaining dangling plot points that its editor will let wrap up. I had to laugh at Tsubaki's sidebar, where she notes she wanted to end the manga with Chiaki's bitchy twin sister again, as that's how it started, and her editor said "Don't do that, no one remembers her anymore." It's funny because it's true.

So what do we get wrapped up here? Why, Chiaki and Yosuke's feelings for each other! Which we actually wrapped up in Volume 8, so naturally we have both of them doubting themselves here. To the author's credit, however, I did like the way she handled this. They met through massage, due to Yosuke's stiff back. Now that he's resolved his past demons and confessed to Chiaki, he's relaxed. A fact that, when realized, sends both of them into panic. Chiaki as she fears now that he doesn't need massage Yosuke will abandon her, and Yosuke worrying that he now has no appeal to Chiaki and her massage-obsessed self.

So Chiaki suddenly becomes obsessed with getting sexy. This is the second funniest part of the manga, as she goes around asking for advice on how to be a hot sexy thing. Considering that she's an adorable puppy of a high school girl, most people correctly point out it would be hard to carry off, and also note that Yosuke would just be irritated with her for trying to put on a fake sexy persona anyway. My favorite part is when she turns to "Sexy Queen Natsue" for advice, who notes that she doesn't try to be sexy. When Chiaki then turns to Harumi and asks what he finds sexy, and he wriggles and blushes, Natsue quickly notes how sexy she finds his embarrassment.

In the end, of course, the couple realize that it's not just about massage for them, but their love of each other, and they reconcile. This leads to the final epilogue chapter, where the third-years (Natsue, Harumi and Ayame) graduate, and we get a big party to wrap it up. It's very odd seeing a series end with the graduation of beta characters but not the leads, but this is the danger of making your lead couple first-years. (I had forgotten to note the funniest part of this volume, by the way, which was Yuna's attempts to bake a cake. As a best-friend character she's been really generic through the series, but her baking attempts are so bad they put even C-Ko to shame. This, combined with Yosuke's managing to get a great cake out of her by bullying her through it, drill-sergeant style, were hysterical).

And then there's Natsue and Harumi, my favorites. As is usual by now, they don't get big moments, but little fun scenes. In addition to the aforementioned sexy definition scene, we see Natsue getting extensions (so her hair now looks as it did in the flashback) in order to attempt to look younger; Ayame deviously tricking Harumi into giving Natsue his second button on his coat (I love Ayame more and more with each book), and finally Natsue and Chiaki talking about the future, and future worries. This ends with Natsue turning and giving Chiaki (and more importantly the reader) a big smile. The buildup to this wasn't perfect, but that's irrelevant, as it's meant to be pure service as a reward to the reader for 9 volumes of Natsue's deadpan face. It's fantastic. (And we get Harumi's smile at the end as well, in a mirror to the end of their flashback from earlier volumes).

There's lots of add-ons in this volumes, showing once again how messy and disjointed it actually is. A list of what the editor rejected in terms of plotlines, pages talking about what happens in the future to many of the minor characters, and a bunch of 4-komas to wrap things up. Really, the final volume of The Magic Touch is almost a microcosm of the series. It has a lot of massage, some cute but ultimately sexless romance, a lot of plot points that seem to go somewhere and never do, and a cast where you have to keep reminding yourself who is who. Despite this, I still am recommending it, as just because a series isn't great doesn't mean it does not have redeeming qualities. For one, it's nice seeing the development of a series (and its editorial fiats) so blatantly on the page. And for another Natsue is totally awesome. Even the author agrees - she names Natsue as her final character here.

We'll miss you, Magic Touch. But look forward to Oresama Teacher in 2011.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 15

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

This is the final volume of what I like to call Part 3 of the Excel Saga manga, and ends with a major sea change for the entire series. It begins right where we left off, though, with Hyatt 'captured' by Kabapu's people and posing as Watanabe's wife, and Excel and Hyatt having been arrested by the JSDF as terrorists.

I've got to say I love Excel and Elgala's double act. It works better than Excel and Hyatt, as Hyatt's occasional tendency to get snarky to Excel in previous volumes seemed rather out of character for her. Elgala has no such issues, and the best part is that she and Excel can trade off boke and tsukkomi several times over a single conversation. Witness first Excel and then Elgala discussing how they ended up going to an all-female prison island on a rickety boat. By the way, Excel is COMPLETELY AWESOME right after this, where the warden threatens her with rape and she just goes berserk, screaming "Does no really mean no? YES!" and noting she's saving her virginity for Lord Il Palazzo.

Meanwhile, Hyatt and Watanabe's love-love marriage is still going on, but it can't possibly last. Just as he's about to finally go all the way with her (and she actually seems very willing in doing this), Il Palazzo (who had been absent for all of Volume 14) shows up and holds out his hand. And BOOM, Hyatt's back to normal, working for ACROSS, and defending her Lord against the evil Watanabe who might try to harm him. This leads to two wonderful things: Il Palazzo and Hyatt's stroll through Fukuoka at night, which is just a masterpiece of funny; and Watanabe's complete nervous breakdown, which in this volume just seems to manifest itself in his playing H-games, but will get far, far worse.

Hyatt reminds Il Palazzo that he does have two other followers, something that he seems to have completely forgotten. Much is made of Il Palazzo's on-again, off-again memory, and this volume seems to show it at its worst. Having been reminded, though, he quickly goes to rescue Excel and Elgala, who have found themselves at the mercy of an insane missionary priest, who as Carl Horn notes in the liner notes looks an awful lot like the insane priest from Berserk when he's trying to kill both of them. Fear not, though, Il Palazzo is here to teleport them to safety!... OK, so he only teleports Elgala, leaving Excel behind. And seems to have forgotten she exists again. Such is life, however.

Excel, as we know, is not without her mad skillz, and quickly sets out to defeat the priest and run through the jungle to return to her beloved ACROSS. Meanwhile, Kabapu is starting to run into issues. It seems that a new electronics store has popped up, offering insanely high quality advanced gizmos at obscenely low prices. Called ILL, too. Gosh, who could be behind it? To make matters worse, Ropponmatsu I has been stolen by Il Palazzo. It's heavily hinted that it's Miwa who let this happen, so that she can advance her own hidden agenda. To make matters even WORSE, a lot of Kabapu's political cronies are suddenly being arrested, and his stocks are starting to fall.

Meanwhile, excellent news on the ACROSS front. Excel has managed to extricate herself from the jungle, and is now ensconced in a high-rise as ILL's president. Hyatt and Elgala, her underlings, are also living high on the hog, and everything's coming up roses. We see how well things are going in a giant party thrown for ILL by city leaders, praising the company for its stimulus of economic growth. Kabapu is there as well, and has a complete and utter freakout when he sees Il Palazzo and confronts him about the missing Ropponmatsu. And finally, to round out the volume, Umi is running through the rain to get back to her beloved professor, and comes across a rather familiar-looking bedraggled body lying in the gutter.

Yes, that's right. It'd be a spoiler if it was a surprise, but it's not much of one. The real Excel is that body, and Il Palazzo has given Ropponmatsu an upgrade to create RopponExcel. Rikdo did try to fake out the reader for a chapter or so, showing RopponExcel yelling at Elgala and demanding to be called President, but there was never really any question - this Excel was simply far too cool and efficient to be our heroine.

So what now? Will we have Excel doing battle against her robot double? Will Hyatt and Elgala realize that their Senior is a fake? Will Watanabe get over the loss of Hyatt and find himself a nice sweet girl? And what of Kabapu, who by the end of this volume was starting to actually look his age, with his hands starting to tremble as he gestured? Find out in Volume 16, start of the 'Teriha' arc!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Manga the week of 8/4

Midtown gets in everything I got this week, plus everything Diamond's other folks got this week, plus the normal next week stuff. If you buy your manga at Midtown, cry. Like a girl.

If you like gay prison fantasy, I hear that 801 Media's Under Grand Hotel is right up your alley. It's got a larger number of pages, so is also more expensive, be advised. Fans have apparently been waiting for this one.

On the Del Rey front, there's a pile of titles, which is reassuring considering the recent news, both bad and nonexistent. Tsubasa's penultimate volume, and another Negima volume which is a must for fans of albino woobie girl Ako Izumi. More Zetsubou-sensei, which I still love to bits despite my ongoing editorial issues with Del Rey. The final volumes of Mushishi, which gets a giant 3-in-1 omnibus, and Le Chevalier D'Eon, which was far along enough not to need one. School Rumble also gets a 3-in-1, though it has several volumes to go before it ends. Four-Eyed Prince manages to be the only series I know of to be licensed from Nakayoshi's offshoot Nakayoshi Lovely, winner of the girliest magazine title ever award back in 2007. And a new shonen debut, Code: Breaker, from the author of Samurai Deeper Kyo.

And then there's Tokyopop. More titles ending, as This Ugly Yet Beautiful World and KimiKiss both wrap up. The return of more long-lost series with Your & My Secret (10 months) and Genju no Seiza (2 years). Always glad to see anything from Akita Shoten's Bonita line. V.B. Rose is still awesome and a must buy for shoujo fans, and I'm sure Gakuen Alice will be as involved as ever.

And then there's Qwasar of Stigmata, perhaps the most infamous title to come out next week. From Akita Shoten's Champion Red, home to Franken Fran (and why this is licensed and FF isn't is beyond me), and from the mangaka who brought you the Mai Otome manga (which, trust me, was far worse than the excellent anime) comes this series, which bills itself on Wikipedia as the first mainstream manga to use breast milk as a major plot point. And I use the word 'plot' loosely here. I admit I was rather stunned to see this licensed, but then Media Blasters did put out 12 Eiken manga here, so what do I know? For those of you who love titles like not simple and Twin Spica... this may be the polar opposite of those.

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime

By Mizuki Nomura. Released in Japan by Enterbrain. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I must admit, when I first saw that this series was coming out, I thought that it would be a lot more 'moe' than it turned out to be. Light novels in Japan have trended towards this in the last several years, with variations on 'Normal guy meets girl with (insert plot point here). Will they get together with the help of their wacky classmates?'. Luckily, at least in the first volume, Book Girl is nothing like this.

I think I'm going to have to face up to the fact that I need to get a copy of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human. Between this book and Zetsubou-sensei, I feel like I'm just missing out on a lot of references when I read about it. Of course, I'm probably learning the wrong lesson here, as one of the main points that Book Girl makes (in order to emphasize a greater one) is that Dazai wrote tons of stuff, and that perhaps too much attention is paid to No Longer Human by depressed and emotional readers. Still, you get the sense throughout the book of the power of Dazai's earlier novel, and much of the plot riffs around it.

The titular Book Girl herself is not the main character here, and functions more as a Poirot, popping up whenever it's time to move the plot along or explain things. Touko can be slightly demanding, but I never got a sense of her being a total brat the way that I did with Haruhi Suzumiya in her earlier novels. You can see why Konoha is sometimes annoyed by her, but you can also see why he sticks around. Besides being an excuse to continue his writing, she's also fun to be around, and surprisingly philosophical. Plus her namedropping of both Eastern and Western literature is fun, though I question some of her taste (Barbara Cartland?).

The main plot involves a cute little girl of the bubbly pixie type, who has asked the Book Club to write letters for her to give to a guy she likes, as she thinks they will do a better job than she would herself. The entire plot as 'disaster' written all over it from the moment you see it, of course, but you keep being tricked about just how big a disaster it is. At the start of the book you think we're going to be in for a lot of wacky misunderstandings and crossed wires. Then you wonder if the author is going for a Cyrano plot.

However, the book is not called 'Suicidal Mime' because it's trying to be cute. And I'm impressed that it actually emphasizes both words equally (mime in this case being akin to 'wearing a mask and acting out a role'), as thoughts of suicide as well as pretending to be a normal person when you're secretly thinking differently are both given equally strong emphasis, both on people we expect such as the flashback characters, as well as surprises - such as the narrator.

The themes in this book resonate perfectly with your typical teenager, which is I think why it makes a perfect license for Yen. The entire thread of 'I am different than everyone else and NO ONE MUST EVER KNOW' is something everyone who's ever been a teen can identify with, and the book handles it well. (Yes, there is a mystery here too, but the mystery is, in my opinion, only a plot device to move the characterization along.) That and the YA-friendly cover design make me hope that this takes off in the way that LNs designed for otaku over here have not. There's several plot points that are dropped here but left for future books, as it's clear that the author was commissioned for a series from the start. I look forward to reading the next one immensely.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ugly Duckling's Love Revolution Volume 1

By Yuuki Fujinari, based on a game by GungHo Online Entertainment. Released in Japan as "Otometeki Koi Kakumei Love Revo!!" by Enterbrain, serialized in the magazine Comic B's-Log. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Believe it or not, despite the obvious 'based on a work by (company name)' credit on the front cover, I didn't actually realize that this manga was based on a date sim game. Of course, now I feel stupid, because not only is it insanely obvious, but it also explains the manga's lack of backstory and lack of plot. It's fleshing out the bits in between the game sections, and therefore can't advance much of a plot. It is, in other words, pure service.

The premise of the game (which is merely implied in the manga, irritatingly so) is that the heroine, Hitomi, used to be young and cute but then discovered the wonders of sweets and is now very overweight. Luckily, she is at a school with a ton of incredibly hot guys, who are there to help her lose weight and exercise. Perhaps she can even fall in love with one of them!

I will admit, you really do get a sense of Hitomi's weight problem here. Most anime and manga, when they have characters who are pudgy or fat, tend to fudge this a little, having people say so but merely being less stick-thin than everyone else, or having them be tubby yet cute. (Satsuki Yotsuba from Negima is an excellent example.) Hitomi does not suffer from that. She's not only huge, she also has a sort of pug nose that makes her whole face seem squinty and pinched (we never see her eyes as more than dots). Interestingly, we don't actually see her eating a lot - the few points where she mentions diet and exercise, she is able to keep her willpower and avoid sweets. Presumably that's because the manga is following the 'good ending' path.

I'm not certain which guy she'll end up with here, or even if the manga will bother to pick a guy. It could simply be left open-ended, so as not to upset girls who picked another guy to end up with in the game. It's also somewhat irrelevant, as these guys are really, really dull. The fact that this is a heroine among a bunch of guys does not change the fact that this is a datesim, much like Kanon or Clannad (though with far less soul crushing angst). So you have a wide variety of guys to choose from, depending on your fantasy. The stoic respectable leader, the cute shouta, the yakuza hair, the sassy teacher, the vaguely ill bookworm... all these characters are here for your love love needs.

None of them are fleshed out, though. I've no idea if they get more characterization in the game or not, but it is quite frustrating as a manga on its own. This title simply doesn't work without its parent to refer to. As a complement to a game, I imagine it does its job adequately, giving us more scenes of the guys in action at school (Hitomi doesn't even appear beyond a cameo in the first chapter). And the guys seem handsome enough - despite the lack of BL in this series, I can see why it ended up in Enterbrain's BL-friendly Comic B's-Log. As a manga, though, I can't recommend it, unless you've already played this in Japanese. There's just not enough going on, and the guys are cyphers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Paradise Kiss

By Ai Yazawa. Released in Japan by Shodensha, serialized in the magazine Zipper. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

When I first picked this series up several years back, I was getting into the habit (which I still have) of researching a series before I read it, to find out what I can. Paradise Kiss was a rather unusual oddity in that respect. It was put out by Shodensha, but did not appear (as one might expect of this material) in their josei magazine Feel Young, but in a fashion magazine for young adults, Zipper. It was also a semi-sequel to another serial of Yazawa's, Neighborhood Story, that had run in Shueisha's Ribon 4-5 years before ParaKiss came out.

I had worried that I wouldn't be able to get ParaKiss as its prequel had not (and still has not) come out in North America, but there's nothing to fear here. ParaKiss takes place several years after Neighborhood Story, and most of the cameos that the prior cast make are seamless (Miwako's sister Mikako being the exception, as she was the star of the previous series). No, the sequel uses the world of Neighborhood Story, but has its own story to tell, about fashion, getting over your past regrets, and finding the right future.

It also features one of the great supporting casts in manga. Each of the six characters I'd call leads (Yukari, George, Arashi, Miwako, Isabella and Hiroyuki) are well-written characters with their own lives and problems, and the manga succeeds very well in avoiding a typical shoujo pitfall of having everyone be there to facilitate the heroine's romance. Partly this is because they're all so interesting in and of themselves (it's arguable that the Arashi/Miwako/Hiroyuki subplot is more fascinating than Yukari's), but partly because for once, this is a romance you may not want to see helped along.

Don't get me wrong, as a hot couple, Yukari and George are pure win. (They're also fairly explicit, something that startled me as I re-read this series in the children's section of my local library, as it sat next to Pokemon Adventures. And people wonder why there's always articles about evil manga in the papers.) But it's made fairly clear from the start, and hammered home several times, that as a lifelong romance, the two would be horrible together. This is not something we see a lot of in shoujo romance, where the hero bringing the heroine out of her shell and showing her how to live life would be offset by his sweet moments. Sweet moments for George are few and far between.

But then, this is not just about the romance, it's about Yukari's realization that she can be so much more. As she begins to do model work and realize how much she enjoys it (and how good she is at it), her maturation is almost startling. The manga actually manages to have it both ways, having Yukari become a famous successful model while at the same time having people complain about how wretchedly difficult it is to actually do so. But then, this is a cast full of Beautiful People. :)

The ending was slightly controversial at the time, and still provokes some discussion. The anime adaptation did not help, as they made Yukari's breakup with George seem like a sad and depressing thing, and did not feature the flashforward epilogue. But it made sense with Yukari's character, whereas trying to shoehorn her in with George did not. It's very refreshing seeing the bad boy lose for once. Also, I love her monologue about getting less model work as she ages, but being able to use all the contacts she's made to parlay that into other work that keeps her career going. The whole epilogue is the definition of a feel-good happy ending, even if it ends with Yukari saying she's going to cry.

I haven't mentioned the art, have I? Well, it is why this ran in a fashion magazine, rather than Ribon like all her other stuff. It helps to make Paradise Kiss less of a manga to read and more of an experience, a world to immerse yourself in. There's lots of sensory stuff here, not just the pretty visuals. And it's the sort of manga where I look back and realize there's so much more that I can still talk about. I didn't even mention Yukari's relationship with her mother, or Arashi and Miwako's somewhat tortured relationship. And to think it's just five volumes long. One of the best manga Tokyopop put out. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Manga the week of 7/28

This post is late, mostly as Midtown's list was so ludicrously small that I knew it would be missing stuff. And I was right. A comparison between Diamond, my store, and Midtown:

Diamond: About 80% of Viz's first week August titles, plus Del Rey's last week of July titles, plus 2 TP titles.
My store: no Del Rey stuff, but 100% of Viz.
Midtown: just the TP titles, and nothing else.

So I waited till Monday, so I'd have something that vaguely resembled reality. I'm leaving off Del Rey, as I don't get it, so you can't have it either. :p I'm also fudging the Viz releases, as Diamond's list is leaving off some of their titles my shop is getting in (like Seiho), so I'll note all of Viz's first week of August stuff.

Vertical has another volume of the always fantastic Black Jack. Tokyopop has another back from the abyss twofer, with Vol. 8 and 9 of Yubisaki Milk Tea, a series last seen in March 2008. Sadly, I can't stand it, but I'm sure its fans are happy.

And as for Viz... wow, that's a lot of stuff I read. A lot. There's Skip Beat! 21, starting its new story arc. Otomen will hopefully feature a little more Ryo, as she's on the cover. Kimi ni Todoke gets a great Chizuru subplot to go with its adorable Sawako one. Gin Tama is... well, it's Gin Tama. Need I say more?

There's three series ending this week. I never read Muhyo and Roji, so can't say much about it, except it lasted 18 volumes in the cauldron that is Weekly Shonen Jump, which is pretty good. Flower in a Storm is ending at 2, which is probably the sole reason I'm getting the 2nd volume - the first was merely adequate. Speaking of adequate, my favorite lost cause is ending, as The Magic Touch comes to an end. But we have Oresama Teacher to look forward to in 2011.

As for debuts, there's Seiho Men's High School, which looks like your standard Shojo beat fluff. Don't know much about it, but will certainly give it a try. I hear it focuses on the guys rather than the gals, and not in a reverse harem way. And then there's Bakuman, which I will give another shot. I read the scans when it debuted, and Chapter 2 irritated me so much I stopped dead. But it seems to be very popular, so I will persevere!

And yeah, the Del Rey stuff that everyone but me will get. I'll talk about it for next week's post... I hope.

Himeyuka and Rozione's Story

By Sumomo Yumeka. Released in Japan as "Natsukashi Machi no Rozione" by Kadokawa Shoten, appearing as one-shots in the magazine Asuka. Released in North America by Yen Press.

This is a very odd manga, and a very odd choice for Yen to license. These sorts of one-shot collections are seen quite a bit in Japan, but tend not to be brought over here to North America unless the author is really huge (such as the recent Songs To Make You Smile from Takaya). And while Yumeka-san is known over here, both for the BL stuff she's done that DMP has released, and Voices of a Different Star which she drew under a different pen name that Tokyopop put out, she's not exactly a big name. I really had no idea what to expect of this going in.

After reading it, I'm still not sure what I expect of it. Three of the four stories read like typical shoujo one-shots, albeit a bit weird (not surprising as they ran in Asuka, the weirdest of the mainstream shoujo magazines). The title story is probably the best-written, despite being rather heavy-handed about its metaphorical moral. Himeyuka has a nerdy look we don't really get from most shoujo heroines, who tend to use glasses as fashion accessories. There's also a weirdly unfinished subplot with her teacher (classmate?) Yamamoto, who gives out candy randomly and seems to be more than he is. Actually, I should get used to that, as there's a feel throughout all of the first three stories of 'pilot for a series that never got picked up'.

I enjoyed The Princess of Kikouya in District 1, but it's the least inventive story in the book, being a standard 'yakuza girl must not reveal her sordid past to the guy she likes' tale. But she's cute, and spunky, and wields a giant umbrella. If you like sweet romance with no originality whatsoever (parts of this are so unoriginal, I felt the other manga in my stack getting more outre just being near it), then it's rather sweet. My Very Own Shalala is sort of a twisted magical girl story, which gets the closest this volume ever does to BL, as the magical girl has to disguise herself as a boy to get close to the guy she needs. It's more of an interesting idea than the prior story, but the execution falls flatter, with the entire story feeling rushed.

And then there's Robot. You'll note I've been saying 'the first three stories' throughout this review. Robot is the fourth, and the longest. And it's one of the most opaque stories I've ever tried to read. And I did my best - the strength of this story is that you keep trying to make sense of it, feeling that it's you rather than the story. If you can just pull the disparate threads together, everything will make sense. Sadly, that just never happens here. I'm not even sure I can provide a summary. It's a post-apocalyptic world, and there are clones, but there are also humans that die and are reborn, and then there's the robot boy, and they all go out for cake, and they're kidnapped, and... whaa? "I can't stand the confusion in my mind!" The post-apocalyptic landscape looks fascinating, and there's a sense of a world attempting to be created, but...

In the afterword, the author apologizes for the poor quality of her work. I've read so many Japanese mangaka saying how horrible they are that I barely notice this these days, it seems to be something that just needs to be said. The author notes Robot was written for another magazine before the rest of these, and they bought the rights to it so they could pad out the collection. She also admits it's a collection of loose ends with no explanations. So I feel better about not getting it at all, although I also agree with the author that it's certainly evocative.

I'm not sure I can recommend this as a purchase, as the quality is highly variable and even the best of these stories is merely good. Still, it may be worth getting from your local library if they're the sort that has so much manga they can afford to put this on the shelf next to Hikaru no Go. I think it succeeds in creating a certain mood; I just wish that the mood wasn't seen entirely through a curtain of gauze.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 2: Confidence, King Klunk, She Done Him Right, The Merry Old Soul, Wax Works

Time to settle in with five more Walter Lantz cartoons he made for Universal in 1933 and 1934. This batch of 5 is better than the preceding batch, though it still shows the major weakness of Lantz's studios at the time: dull lead characters, poor voice acting when they're not singing, and an overuse of dream sequence endings.

Of course, it's not like they could afford top of the line. We're in the midst of the depression, where you make do with what you can get. The first cartoon I viewed today, Confidence, is pure New Deal propaganda, with as much subtlety as your average editorial cartoon. (Indeed, Depression is depicted as a flying vulture/cloud thing with 'DEPRESSION' written across it, almost exactly like an editorial cartoon.) Oswald the Lucky Rabbit owns a chicken farm, and the happy animals sing and dance and then go off to lay eggs. Sadly, the depression cloud thing slouches through the farm, and suddenly the animals are falling over half-dead and all the chickens act drunk and dazed. Oswald screams for a doctor, in a weird montage sequence where we see people rioting at a bank and on Wall Street, as well as hiding money under a mattress. Oswald goes to a doctor, but the doctor points out that for this problem, Roosevelt is who Oswald needs. Oswald flies to Washington via a self-made plane, and marches right in to Roosevelt (oh, those were the days), asking what is needed to help his farm. Roosevelt (in a good caricature but a horrible voice - get used to that) marches out from behind his desk and tells Oswald that confidence is what's needed! Confidence for the purposes of this cartoon being something that Oswald can inject into people with a glue gun. For those noting Roosevelt bopping around and dancing here, this was at a period where his physical capabilities were still very much a secret to the average American. Oswald goes back to his hometown and injects confidence into everyone. They start returning all their money to banks, and the chickens and animals are happy again. Very much of its time, but entertaining nevertheless.

The next cartoon, King Klunk, is probably the highlight, being a great parody of Universal's classic King Kong, which had come out earlier that year. It starred the Oswald clone Pooch the Pup, which was odd considering Lantz was also cranking out Oswalds. Pooch's voice is a bit deeper, but otherwise he is essentially Oswald as a dog. He even gets Oswald's dog girlfriend from other cartoons. Pooch and his girl are in Darkest Africa trying to photograph the giant gorilla. After a few somewhat racist native caricatures (after seeing Buddy of the Apes from Schlesinger's studio, trust me, this one is pretty tame), The gorilla arrives, and rejects the native girl he's being offered as a sacrifice. He decides to grab Pooch's girl and eat her, but then Cupid arrives with a well-placed arrow and makes Klunk fall in love with her instead. Most of the rest of the beats of the movie are here. The gorilla fights a dinosaur, and is defeated by Pooch, who drags it back to New York (they spend the entire trip back making out in their boat, while the gorilla walks behind them on the ocean floor). Eventually the gorilla captures Pooch's girl again and goes to the Empire State Building, where Pooch, having commandeered a plane, sends him hurtling to his death. Watch for the surprise cameo by the native African girl for the end gag.

Another parody follows, though this one is a lot less connected to the movie it's a takeoff of. She Done Him Right is a spoof of Mae West films, with Pooch's girlfriend given a much bigger bust so she can be a parody of Mae West. Pooch himself is no Cary Grant, though. He goes to see her show, which consists of a long performance of the Cab Calloway classic Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day, itself a sequel to the original Minnie the Moocher. It's strange seeing a Calloway song in a cartoon sung by neither Calloway (as in the Fleischer cartoons where he featured as himself) or a Calloway caricature (as in Schlesinger's films). Still, the girl singing it does a very good job, showing why Lantz tries to have song and dance rather than dialogue - the spoken stuff is wretched. Eventually the girl's sugar daddy tries to make off with her and Oswald - sorry, Pooch - rescues her, in an ending that seems very tacked on. I think they'd have done better trying to parody the actual film She Done Him Wrong, but not only was it a Paramount film, rather than Universal, it was also hugely controversial at the time.

Back to Oswald (She Done Him Right was the last Pooch cartoon) with The Merry Old Soul, the first of two cartoons in a row revolving around celebrity caricatures. This one begins with Oswald getting a tooth out at the dentist's. The tooth is proving stubborn, so Oswald gets anesthetic the hard way - via a mallet - and the dentist tries again. Unfortunately, they're interrupted by the news on the radio that Old King Cole is depressed. We see the king, looking sad and droopy, with his lame jester trying his best to cheer him. Oswald knows better, though, and goes around grabbing a bunch of Hollywood stars. We see Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo (and her feet), Ed Wynn, Laurel and Hardy, Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, and the Marx Brothers. The whole cartoon eventually degenerates into a giant pie fight, which cheers the king right up, despite his getting hit with pies himself. The jester gets rather jealous of all this, and kidnaps Oswald, taking him to the dungeons and hanging him by his neck. Of course, this turns out to be the signal for it to be All Just A Dream, as Oswald is still getting his tooth out. This cartoon was good enough to get Lantz's first Academy Award nomination, though it lost to Disney's Three Little Pigs.

Lastly, we have Wax Works, a somewhat lesser attempt to do a celebrity caricature cartoon, also starring Oswald. He owns a Wax Museum here, and late one night a penniless mother leaves a baby on his stoop. (I note the wax museum has a night bell. I hope that's for deliveries, as I can't imagine someone needing to view wax figures at 2 in the morning.) Oswald is reluctant, as a swinging bachelor, to take care of a baby (actually pretty much a toddler after the first 2 minutes or so), but takes him in anyway. The kid gets up in the middle of the night to get some water, and starts wandering around the museum, and the statues decide to come to life and have a party. Notable here is a Groucho caricature who has one of the worst voice actors I've ever heard. Not only does it not sound like Groucho, they aren't even trying to! This is a shame, as one of the jokes involving him is a takeoff on the Marx Brothers Broadway musical I'll Say She Is!, a takeoff on Napoleon. Eventually the kid get taken into a basement where he's menaced by various Universal horror monsters, who turn him into wax (the wax toddler sculpture is actually a bit creepy), then go after Oswald, who has finally woken up. Again, the voice acting for the Universal monsters is just wretched. However, all is well, as Oswald wake up - for real this time - to find it was... sigh... all just a dream.

None of these were fantastic, but none were quite as dull as some of the Oswalds I reviewed last time, and in general I enjoyed these. Definitely find King Klunk if you can.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Frank Zappa - The Winter 1978 tour

A giant Zappa geekery warning for this post, and the obligatory Zappa warning for those who don't want to see me mentioning Dinah-Moe Humm again.

I have a particular soft spot for this tour. Not only does it feature many of my favorite Zappa songs played by one of my favorite bands, but it was also my first exposure to the Zappa tape-trading community, and my first live concert tape. I got a copy of the February 15th concert in Berlin, Germany, generally acknowledged as one of the highlights of the tour. I was enraptured.

This features the same band as the Fall 1977 tour, which covered the United States and Canada. The Winter 1978 tour is a European tour, hitting the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Belgium. The audiences there have always been more into Zappa than they were in North America, even in the 1970s, but several concerts this tour have Frank running up against a language barrier, as he starts several times to try to do long spoken word intros, then realizes that few there can speak English. He also talks about singing "for the GIs" several times, reminding you that this was right in the middle of the Cold War.

For those who forgot, the band for this tour is Frank Zappa on guitar and vocals, Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals, Tommy Mars on keyboards and vocals, Peter Wolf on keyboards, Ed Mann on percussion and vocals, Patrick O'Hearn on bass and vocals, and Terry Bozzio on drums and vocals. This would be Terry and Adrian's last tour with Zappa. Terry would go on to found Missing Persons with his wife Dale, and many years later joined Duran Duran for a time. Adrian would go on to greater fame by joining Robert Fripp in his new version of King Crimson. This was also Patrick's last tour as sole bass player, but he would later join Frank mid-tour in the Fall of 1978 to play bass with his replacement Arthur Barrow.

Here's a breakdown of a typical Winter 1978 playlist. If I've discussed these songs before, I'll just point you to my previous discussion, while noting any variations that may have changed for this tour. Much of this tour, especially the shows in London, was used as backing tracks for the Sheik Yerbouti album.

The Purple Lagoon - After a one tour break, this difficult instrumental returns as the opening bit of musique concrete for this tour. It would be its final tour as the main opener/closer, though it would also begin a few Fall 1978 shows.

Dancin' Fool - After 2 proto-versions were played in the Fall of 1977, this is the debut tour for one of Frank's most popular songs. Another swipe at disco, or more accurately a swipe at older folks who go to the disco clubs and try to treat them as singles bars, pretending they are 'hep'. The description of the narrator as "One of my legs is shorter than the other and both my feet's too long" is Frank's own; after an onstage attack in 1971 where a crazed fan pushed Frank into an orchestra pit, he needed surgery and one of his legs was indeed slightly shorter the rest of his life. Also watch for Frank's mocking of cocaine in this song, another example of his dislike of drug users. This song appears on the Sheik Yerbouti album.

Peaches En Regalia - essentially the same as the Fall 1977 version.

The Torture Never Stops - essentially the same as the Fall 1977 tour, only even better. This is pretty much THE tour for Torture solos, as Frank really outdoes himself here. A great example is heard on the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 1 CD, which features a Torture from Germany on this tour (mislabeled as 2/25, we're not sure where it's from) that is absolutely sublime. The song 'Rat Tomago', from Sheik Yerbouti, is also taken from a Torture solo, this one 2/15 Berlin.

Tryin' to Grow a Chin - essentially the same as on previous tour. Starting about 2 weeks into the tour, Terry's vocals got a bit less angry and a bit more 'whiny teenager'. I think he was getting tired of the song. It has been pretty much in every show since the Fall of 1975, along with Torture. Both would get a well-deserved rest after this tour.

City of Tiny Lites - essentially the same as on the previous tour, with Adrian handling the vocals. The guitar solos for this tour were OK, but not great - we'd have to wait until 1979 to see Tiny Lites really start to take off as a guitar vehicle.

Baby Snakes - A one-tour only treat, breaking up the usually inseparable combo of Tiny Lights and Pound. The song appears to be a nonsense verse, but listening closely makes you realize that it's (surprise!) about sex, with 'baby snakes' being clitorises. The Sheik Yerbouti album has a version from this tour, with one exception. On the album, the lyric is 'They live by a code that is usually SMPTE, which stands for Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers'. This was no doubt the original lyric, but Frank and the band got to goofing on the acronym, so all live version list SMPTE as 'Suck My Pee-pee Towards the End'. I think we can be grateful Frank went with the original for the album.

Pound for a Brown - Essentially performed as on the previous tour. On this one, it's a strictly keyboards only showcase, with Peter Wolf taking the majority of the solos. Shorter than it has been or would be in future, it's nevertheless a treat, especially for you lovers of mini-Moogs.

I Have Been In You - This song has a long and amusing history. In May 1977, Peter Frampton released an album with the title 'I'm in You', featuring a song with the same name. The song is apparently not meant to be as salacious as its title suggests, but Frank took one look at the album and thought "Is that guy kidding or what?" At the time, Frampton was at the height of his popularity, especially with teenage girls, for being cool and English and having long blond hair and pouty lips and the like. Frank then wrote a song in the fall mocking it, called I Have Been in You, which pretty much takes the suggestion in Frampton's song and makes it explicit. This song actually opens the Sheik Yerbouti album. It debuted a couple of times last tour, but is a regular number here, with Frank doing long, involved spoken intros about you, a teenage girl, abducting the succulent young pop star of your choice and taking him back to your room to sleep with. As always, these could get pretty crass, but hey, it's Zappa.

Flakes - We're into Version 2 of this song from the Sheik Yerbouti album, and my personal favorite. The first half of the song is essentially performed as on the previous tour. After the 'Dylan' verses, the keyboards strike up a minimalist vamp, and Adrian Belew performs a solo on e-bow. This goes on for a minute or so, then he switches to guitar and solos a bit more. When he's done the whole band just seems to pause on a long chord, then Patrick screams "ONE TWO THREE FOUR!" and the band proceeds to go into a full on chaotic jam, with Frank and Adrian having a mini-guitar duel. The whole thing extends to about 4-5 minutes after the song 'proper', and is one of the great unreleased treats in the Zappa catalog. For the Sheik Yerbouti album, Frank overdubbed vocals over the second half (the 'I'm a moron and this is my wife' lyrics), and in future tours it would appear this way. I like that version too, but I miss the giant instrumental raveup. You can hear it in the background on Sheik Yerbouti.

Broken Hearts Are For Assholes - as performed on previous tour. Patrick's mid-song vocal improvisation frequently made the band crack up.

King Kong (2nd half of tour only) - This, along with Pound for a Brown, was the longest running of Frank's concert songs, first being performed in 1967 and last heard on the final tour in 1988. It's an instrumental, of course, consisting of the theme (played very fast this tour) and solos. The main soloists on this tour were Ed Mann and Patrick O'Hearn, and after a week or so they started to throw in a vocal breakdown where each band member would pick a two-syllable phrase ('sport shirt', 'blow job', 'white person', etc.) and spout it in a sort of acappella meltdown. You can hear a performance of this madness on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 6, as 'White Person' - it's from the 2/25/78 Neunkirchen concert.

Wild Love - Not quite as epic as the previous tour, but essentially performed as it was there, with solos from Ed, Patrick and Adrian (before King Kong was added) and Adrian alone (after KK arrived). This would be its final tour, which saddens me. An underrated song.

Yo Mama - The reason that Wild Love isn't as epic is that Frank's final monstrous guitar solo had gotten so monstrous that he finally simply decided to cut it off and writes some lyrics around it. The result is Yo Mama, one of his best guitar vehicles. The lyrics themselves are almost pointless, a brief rant at twenty-somethings still living at home, but the solo was always fantastic, taking shape as the tour went on and frequently including snatches of a riff that would develop into the song 'You Are What You Is' two years later. This appears on Sheik Yerbouti as the final song, The stunning solo from Eppelheim on 2/24 is also heard on the One Shot Deal posthumous compilation as 'Heidelberg'.

Punky's Whips (first half of tour only) - essentially as performed on the previous tour. Frank and Terry were growing weary of this song, and it vanished about 2 weeks into the tour. Being a vehicle written about and for Terry, it was also its last tour.

Titties 'n Beer - essentially performed as on previous tours. The dialogue between Frank and Terry is even more perfunctory here, as if they just want to get through it fast. The final tour with this as a regular set piece, though it would pop up occasionally as an audience request in future tours.

Black Page #2 - essentially performed as on the previous tour. In the UK, they'd try doing dance contests before this, as on prior tours, but Frank must have been dissatisfied, as by Germany it had gotten to just hand clapping for audience participation.

Jones Crusher - essentially performed as on the previous tour. This was the final tour for this short-lived number.

Little House I Used to Live In - Boy, does this song have a long and involved pedigree. It first appeared on the 1970 album Burnt Weeny Sandwich, and consisted of a piano-instrumental head, as performed (and possibly written) by Ian Underwood. It then segued into a live performance of what Frank then called 'The Duke', a lively instrumental played throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The song also appeared on Fillmore East June 1971, called LHIUTLI but consisting just of 'The Duke' part. Now for this tour, we see the song revived, but only the instrumental piano part, leaving 'The Duke' off. After the band plays the piano part as a full band intro, the song then goes into solos, usually led by Tommy Mars on keyboards (who would frequently scat during them). On this tour, this was then followed by Frank playing a tango guitar solo, with the band playing a great tango vamp behind him. Another highlight of this tour, these solos were smooth and smoking. You can hear an excerpt of one as 'The Sheik Yerbouti Tango' on the titular album - it's from 2/15 Berlin.

Dong Work for Yuda - This was done as an acappella instrumental for the Winter 1977 tour, and I discussed its origins there. Here it gets a somewhat minimal full band version, but still ends with Terry playing the part of John Smothers and coming out with a few good quotes. This would be the final tour for this song, but it would pop up out of context, like so much of that album, on Joe's Garage.

Bobby Brown - performed as on the previous tour.

Envelopes - performed as on the previous tour, with Tommy's 'I'm screwing you' vocals and Terry's drum solo. This is the final tour for the song in this form, though it would return in 1981 sans vocals and drum solo.

Disco Boy - essentially performed as on previous tours. With Frank having Dancin' Fool as his new vehicle to mock disco, this would prove to be the final tour for this song as well.

The encores were usually Dinah-Moe Humm, Camarillo Brillo, and Muffin Man, which I've talked about before. Sometimes we also heard an early proto-version of the classic guitar solo Watermelon in Easter Hay. One of these early versions can be heard on Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa.

This is a terrific tour, highly prized by Zappa collectors due to the band's skill and the many opportunities for solos. Frank had another North American tour lined up in the Fall of 1978, but as opposed to last fall (where everyone but the rhythm section had left the band), this time only the rhythm section (plus Belew) were leaving. Frank would have to get a new bass player, drummer, and rhythm guitarist. And he might also want to find a good vocalist, something Frank had lacked since Ray White left the band.

To be continued...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Eyeshield 21 Volume 32

By Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

Here, at last, we reach the Christmas Bowl. Of course, we can't get there without more INTENSE TRAINING. So the main named characters of every other team in the playoffs to date (excluding Agon, who's off being a giant dick) are there to beat the crap out of everyone in order to make them stronger. Shin's chasing Sena in square roots to improve his cutting speed; Riku's attempting to give Ishimaru a personality... and teaching him to run faster; Kid and Tetsuma are improving Yukimitsu's ability to run routes; Akaba and Taki... are being giant idiots together; and the linebackers just get the crap beaten out of them.

But the focus here is Monta, who is having a crisis of faith now that he knows he's battling Honjo's son. He briefly goes so far as to quit the team, leading to he and Sena getting into a fistfight. This is the most stereotypical shonen section of the manga, with the character designs looking straight out of Hajime no Ippo, and the resolution, with Monta finally able to let go of the past (and Honjo's baseball glove) is utterly cliched but works well here. (We also get a great gag of Monta breaking Hiruma's cellphone... one of Hiruma's *170* cellphones. "What are all those for?")

And so, finally, the Christmas Bowl. It's snowing, too, how appropriate. Everyone seems to be showing up. Jumonji's father, still convinced he's an illbred thug but willing to watch his son play football; Sena's parents, who bring their cat (wtf?); and Hiruma's father, who is merely seen as a menacing shadow. Their are giant snow sculptures of the mascots, Suzuna and company are in cute Santa outfits, and we're all set.

Of course, Teikoku are a little less eccentric than the other teams we've met. Hiruma can't even find a good idiot to manipulate. And we also get to see them in action for the first time, including Karin. Karin and Sena are compared here, noting their essential meek shyness and their similarities in not wanting to do football initially. Unfortunately, once again ES21 has a good idea that's slightly flawed in execution, as it's made clear in flashbacks that Karin simply doesn't want to be there. She has great skills, and she'll use them when asked to, but she'd much rather have nothing to do with football. Whereas for Sena, football was a means to show him a better path in life, and he loves it now. I wish the creators hadn't drawn Karin sobbing during practices; it's meant to be funny, but just shows that they're forcing her a bit.

The game itself reads like all the other games in this series have; Deimon is outclassed in almost every way. Teikoku has vowed they'll shut out Deimon, and nothing here seems to make us think that that outcome is in doubt. (On the other hand, Ishimaru doing the Rodeo Drive was pretty cool.) We're finally at the point where Deimon may actually lose; it wouldn't be the first shonen sports manga to see the team fail in the championship and end with them vowing to come back even stronger. I suspect Deimon still has a few tricks up their sleeves, though. They certainly won't be shutout. We'll have to wait till October to see more, though.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 23

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

Skipping ahead here, obviously, to review the most recent volume. In the interim, stuff has happened, and all the major characters (minus Winry, who's back home - at least the author hasn't tried to shoehorn her into a situation she doesn't belong in) are continuing to fight the remaining Homonculi. This, of course, means that the majority of the volume is a giant fight, with all that this entails.

However, the real reason to read this volume, and what makes it one of the best to date, is Roy meeting Envy. Finding Hughes' killer has been a major focus of Roy's and this time when he asks he finally gets the answer he's looking for. Roy's reaction is... well, predictable, as we all sort of expected that he'd flip out. What's more intriguing is the reaction of the other characters there.

Scar and Ed immediately realize what's going to happen, but Ed's going to have to act alone, as Scar is not about to lecture anyone going off on a huge hatred-filled cycle of revenge, for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, they've still got to catch Envy, who I must admit is really being an asshole here. The comments on Maria Ross, morphing into Gracia Hughes... Envy is trying hard to make Roy lose it. (Great to see Maria running around again, by the way).

Then we have a series of wonderful moments that are not only great character drama but are pure gold for shippers of Roy/Riza. First we get Riza's elaborate double bluff, playing on the fact that everyone already thinks that Roy and Riza are closer than they actually are. Then of course Roy arrives and reduces Envy to its true form, and prepares to kill it... but is stopped by Riza's gun to his head. She won't let him kill Envy out of murderous hatred.

This is pretty much the best scene of the book, beautifully drawn and making a terrific point about letting your emotions consume you. Scar and Ed both get really good shots in, but Roy is still ready to murder Envy anyway (and it is totally played as murder, not anything else). It's Riza who gets through to him though, especially when he realizes what she's willing to do should this situation happen. He backs down... and Envy just loses it, screaming at everyone that they're all idiots. Ed, of course, can see what's really behind this, and pushes Envy (unintentionally) into one final act of pettiness.

This, believe it or not, still leaves out the best line of the volume. That's because the best line of the volume is on the final page. If you've ever loved watching one specific character kick ass and take names, you will be cheering when you get to this page. Further, deponent sayeth not.

Clearly, this isn't a volume for new readers, and I wouldn't expect them to read it. For FMA fans, though, this is just terrific, giving our heroes plenty of awesome scenes of combat (even tiny powerhouses like May) and some real emotional drama, especially involving Roy and Riza. Fantastic shonen, one of the best currently coming out in the United States. It's a shame it'll be another 6 months till Volume 24.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gatcha Gacha Volume 6

By Yutaka Tachibana. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Melody. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

In this volume, we think that we've finally learned all the backstory. Kanako is back, and she remembers who she is. Sadly, this means that Yabe is obsessing on her again, and has broken up with Yuri, who is trying to cope as best she can. Meanwhile, Hirao is trying to cheer Yuri up, while also getting up the gumption to confess. And of course, Motoko stands on the sidelines, pointing and laughing at it all.

This does not mean that the volume is without interest. There's a lot going on here. Kanako, for one, is surprising everyone but the reader. The reader notes she's being obnoxiously clingy towards Motoko, rude towards everyone else, and positively violent towards Yuri. Motoko, however, sees what we don't - she's not transferring schools to be with Motoko 24/7, nor is she moving back to the mansion. And she's jealous of anyone getting Motoko's attention, yes, but also seems to be jealous of those going after Yabe as well. She has, in fact, moved from being a psychotic evil girl to merely being a clingy jealous girl. In a series like this, that *is* an improvement. Kanako may not, in fact, realize this herself, as Motoko has to point out how Yabe's prior relationship with Yuri is affecting her.

Speaking of Yabe, he continues to slouch through this series like the worst boyfriend ever. He definitely seems to have feelings for Yuri, but seems content not to act upon them. He notes, when Hirao asks if he loves Yuri, that he thinks Hirao would be a much better boyfriend for her. Which is completely avoiding the question, of course. It's also true. Yabe would be a wretched boyfriend for anyone. Kanako is still throwing off his advances, but she's at least not attempting to stab him or sleep with him in a fit of rage anymore (I think she finally realizes that Yabe is not about to seduce Motoko anytime soon), so I suspect they will get together eventually.

That, of course, would leave Yuri with Hirao. It's a rare shoujo manga that shows the nice but ineffectual guy winning (that's more shonen harem), so it would be a change of pace. There are a few things working against it, of course. First of all, Yuri seems to have no idea that Hirao even thinks of her in a romantic way. This, at least, is cleared up halfway through the book, when Hirao finally mans up and confesses. Secondly, Yuri has no idea how to deal with a guy who's confessed to her. All her prior relationships have been her confessing to other guys, and her seizing the initiative. Which would be fine, if she hadn't had 13 horrible ex-boyfriends. Motoko spells this out for her - she's only attracted to losers and jerks.

Of course, Hirao has his own comedic one-sided crush, in the form of Hanada, his vice-president. She's been presented throughout this manga as comic relief, and that doesn't change, but she does at least force Yuri to start thinking a bit. She's been getting picked on a lot less recently, which is odd as Hirao is just as popular as Yabe, and the whole school now knows he likes her. Of course, this is just an illusion - the other girls hate her just as much, but someone is stopping them. We see this in action in an awesome scene at the school at 6am, where 3 girls trying to write graffiti on the school walls (calling Yuri a bitch and a whore), they're stopped by Hirao, who notes that he's even going to beat the crap out of him, then resign as president. Luckily, he doesn't need to go that far. He also trips over a paint can and falls on his ass. And Yuri finally realizes that he's maybe enough of a loser for her to like.

As for Motoko, as I noted she exists on the periphery of this volume, but that doesn't mean she has nothing to do. I already noted her insight about her sister, but we also see her starting to think about how she *really* feels about Yuri and Hirao hooking up. Sekine asks what she thinks about it and she replies, "Dunno." Motoko's tendency towards leering after and ogling young girls has been a running gag through the series, usually played for comedy - she's noted she's not gay more than once. However, we've never once seen her interested in any guy whatsoever, and Yabe for one is pretty sure that she's in denial. He points out to Sekine that the one problem with Sekine's becoming a man enough to confess to Motoko is that she only likes girls. And when it's noted that Yuri's craving for bad boys might extend to her - Motoko is after all worse than any of them - Motoko grins, and says "If I were a guy, would you ask me out?". Yuri, flushing, can't answer her.

I still wouldn't call this a 'yuri' manga, and suspect it's just a bunch of tease. The author certainly has difficulty writing gay MEN in the series without them being horrible caricatures. Still, I still find Gatcha Gacha hideously enjoyable. Lots of comedy (I love Motoko's softball breakdown, where she can't resist serving up easy-to-hit pitches to the pretty girls), lots of melodrama (I didn't even get into Yuri's bald spot), and four terrific leads, who are not remotely admirable but are nevertheless wonderful to read about.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

S.A. Volume 16

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

The penultimate volume of Special A, and the series is definitely in need of an ending. Having taken care of the rest of the cast in the previous volume, this one concentrates on Hikari and Kei, and unfortunately, that means that we have one of the series' major faults, which is Hikari's cluelessness. When she and Kei weren't a couple, this was amusing, especially as it was cranked up to 11. But now that they're a couple, it just makes Hikari seem rather dumb, as even innocent naivete needs to grow up sometimes.

We have two remaining plots to tie up, the first being Iori. He and Hikari are still bonding, and Kei is understandably getting jealous, mostly as Iori is egging him on. The midterms are coming up, and Iori asks Hikari to grant him one wish if he takes first place. She agrees, knowing that no one's going to topple Kei. But amazingly, Iori and Kei manage to tie for first - leaving Hikari screwed, as everyone knows his wish is going to be to break up with Kei.

However, there's little tension there, mostly as we know that Iori isn't enough of an asshole to actually go through with such a thing. Instead, we see Hikari taking part in a model competition, with Iori as a hairstylist (shades of I Hate You More Than Anyone). Hikari's a natural model, and even with Kei as a judge, they pass into the finals easily. (Kei notes that Iori has a natural talent that's far above anyone else in the competition, and is not petty enough to fail them due to his own jealousy.)

Part of the problem we have here is that because the author clearly likes Hikari's happy dense personality, it's left little room for her to grow and mature. We see here that Hikari still finds it impossible to read Kei's moods, even when it's obvious to everyone in the entire country why he's annoyed. However, that said, her lack of understanding does lead to the biggest surprise of the volume. Iori has, as expected, bowed out of the romantic rivalry, realizing that Hikari will never see him as more than a friend. Earlier, Kei had admitted his jealousy to Hikari, and admitted he just wanted to find a way for the two of them to be together forever.

Hikari's solution is fantastic, the best moment of the volume. Unfortunately, it's undercut by the following chapter, which features the rest of the school overreacting to her solution and freaking out. The chapter reads as if the editors told her to walk it back, and that she still has a few chapters to go. So we get a bit of a retcon, and instead go on to deal with the other main plot point: Kei's grandfather, who still hates Hikari and insists that he'll never let her be with Kei. He's also still fighting with Kei's mother (or more accurately, she's fighting with him and he's wallowing in guilt), and Hikari being... well, Hikari is not helping at all. It's heavily implied that he sees a lot of his deceased wife in Hikari, which is the root of all the trouble. In the end, Kei decides to resolve everything with a nice trip to Australia as the cliffhanger.

I've enjoyed S.A., and it still has great moments, but it also has a frustrating inconsistency, especially with its lead heroine. Hikari's charm is her outgoing happiness and sometimes denseness, but it's also a very childlike attitude, and you long to see her mature. Perhaps Ouran High School Host Club, with a similar love-challenged heroine whose maturity is a major plot point, has spoiled me. In any case, Special A ends with the next volume, so it should not be that hard to pick up.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Teru Teru x Shonen Volume 7

By Shigeru Takao. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by CMX.

By now, we're more than halfway through this series, and it's mostly abandoned all pretense that it's a light-hearted comedy. Not that it isn't still very good, but I think there's only one joke in this entire volume, when Harumi thinks that Shinobu and Saizo are sleeping together. And Shinobu has totally thrown off the mask of 'evil bitch' that she wore for the first couple of volumes.

But these aren't missed, as we're too busy coping with all the revelations we get here, and dealing with the emotional drama. The revelation that Shinobu made at the end of the last volume is expanded on, and helps to underscore that Shinobu has had a really crappy childhood. The scene where she gets the tattoo is portrayed about the same way that you would see a rape drawn in comics, which given that she's about six years old is terrifying.

The flashbacks keep coming, but at least this one's a little more lighthearted, as we see how Shinobu's mother Shoko first met her guardian Shogo (romanization makes things confusing), and the revelation about her true parentage. This too makes sense when you put it in context, and if nothing else helps to make all those earlier scenes of Shinobu in Shogo's bed slightly less creepy. But only slightly. The resolution of their story is obviously not going to go well (the danger of all flashbacks), but at least it's refreshing to see Shinobu's mother portrayed as something other than the cold and uncaring mistress that she has been to this point.

We're meant, of course, to see Shinobu and Saizo paralleled in her mother and Shogo, though things are at least slightly better this generation round. Shinobu's not as cloistered as her mother was, and she and Saizo are supposedly developing a closer relationship. I say supposedly as the two of them, especially Saizo, both have episodes of self-hatred that prevent them from ever truly committing to the other, so it's very much a case of "I will be with you forever, which will likely be until we are torn apart in a few months". Of course, I doubt this manga is going to end that badly, so look forward to seeing how it gets its happy ending.

Or I would look forward to it, if it weren't a CMX title. Sigh. Volumes 8-11 remain untranslated, and there's very little chance of a license rescue here. Which is a real wrench here as, unlike Stolen Hearts 2, this ends on a nasty cliffhanger where Shinobu's mother collapses at a hospital, coughing up blood. Since she and Shinobu have been edging, millimeter by millimeter, towards an understanding, this is rather vexing. Still, if you like dramatic ninja romance, I do recommend getting the 7th (and final?) Teru Teru x Shonen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 1: Hells Heroes, Spooks, Grandma's Pet, Carnival Capers, Five and Dime

As many people have already gathered, I'm a huge, huge fan of old theatrical cartoons. Looney Tunes first and foremost, but I definitely watched other studios growing up as well. Woody Woodpecker was right up there on my list of favorites, and Universal has released 150 of their cartoons, including 75 with Woody, restored and uncut on 2 DVD sets. As future DVD sets are unlikely due to both a poor economy and a fire at Universal destroying some prints, this may be all we get. As such, I'd like to take this time to review some of these cartoons.

That said, I'm going to try to review them in chronological order. And Woody was not Walter Lantz or Universal Pictures' first cartoon star. That was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney for producer Charles Mintz. Unfortunately, Mintz owned the rights to the star, so when Ub and Walt wouldn't take a huge budget cut, he stole most of the staff out from under them and starting making the cartoons himself. (Not sure what happened to Iwerks and Disney, I guess they found work somewhere.) However, as if to show that karmic retribution was still a force back then, Universal was unsatisfied with Mintz and fired HIM, opting to produce new Oswalds in house. The man they got to produce these was named Walter Lantz. Lantz actually asked Walt for advice before starting his series, so there was less bad blood there.

These early Oswalds are from a very early period when it comes to animated cartoons, and I've found it's very much a case of 'either you get it or you don't'. Many cannot get past the fact that these are 6-7 minute cutesy cartoons with crappy animation, dumb gags (few of which are verbal), and all based around seemingly endless singing and dancing. On the other hand, I've always liked the musical aspect myself, mostly as I'm a huge fan of the popular songs of that period. And if you get into the mindset of realizing these are not Disney, or even Schlesinger cartoons, there's a lot of quiet innovation here.

Of the five cartoons I began with, the first two are specific parodies of popular films of the time. Hells Heels is a take off on the popular 1930 melodrama Hell's Heroes, released (not coincidentally) by Universal. The movie is rather bleak, featuring a bunch of nasty crooks and a lot of death. The Oswald cartoon, needless to say, is a lot more lighthearted, although not exactly a laff riot. Oswald is coerced into robbing a bank, and escapes pursuit into the desert, where he comes across the toddler child of the local sheriff. They then head back to town, avoiding skeletons trying to kill Oswald (ghosts of his former friends, who were blown up in the bank heist?) while Oswald tries to keep the kid from crying by dancing to the music (this being 1930, there wasn't a lot of syncopated singing yet). Strangest gag is when the toddler drinks a pool of 'poison water', which turns out to contain an orchestra conducted by a walrus.

Spooks is not much better, despite having a far more familiar parody, the 1925 silent movie The Phantom of the Opera (which had been re-released in 1930, the year Spooks was made). This is where you first hear the composer's knack for not-quite-the-same-theme background music, as much of the cemetery scenes here are Funeral March of a Marionette, only slightly altered so that it's different enough. The villain, the Phantom himself, ends up at an opera house, where he sees Oswald and a female pig serenading the crowd. (Oswald has a high peeping voice, so naturally the pig's is much lower, despite the gender roles). Oswald's girlfriend Sadie (who is a kitten, but cross-species romance is common in cartoons) is jealous but talentless, so the Phantom sticks a gramophone player in her ass and sends her out to be a star. (The scene where he does this is probably the funniest in the cartoon.) She's a hit, but only has eyes for Oswald, so he kidnaps her and goes to his underground lair. Oswald follows, and a long chase ensues. In an utterly bizarre ending, the chase is stopped so that the Phantom can tell Oswald an incredibly lame joke, and the cartoon just ends. I imagine they were running out of film.

Easily the best cartoon of these first five is Grandma's Pet, from 1932. 2 years have done a lot for Oswald cartoons, which now have much more dialogue and better singing. More importantly, a new animator named Tex Avery has joined the staff, and his influence is already being felt on this cartoon, despite not being the director. The plot is, at first, standard Little Red Riding Hood, with a 'dream sequence' wraparound. However, once the plot gets rolling we really start to see the cartoon take advantage of the fact that it *is* a cartoon. The wolf accidentally hurts a sapling, and the 'mama' tree next to it grabs him and starts to wail on him. Oswald's girlfriend (now a dog) is Red Riding Hood, and her grandmother swallows a harmonica when the wolf surprises her, not only being funny but meaning they don't need another voice artist - just a musician. Most importantly, at one point the wolf gets a magic wand, and starts to zap the background into various dangerous scenes - a high rise under construction (with Oswald standing in thin air), a railroad track in midair with a train coming, and a shooting gallery. Finally Oswald grabs the wand and send them back to Grandma's house - with the wolf turned into turkey dinner! Utterly random, but it works great by using cartoon logic. An underrated gem here.

Unfortunately, the next cartoon, also from 1932, is pretty boring. Carnival Capers is your standard 'we need to churn out a cartoon every 2-3 weeks' time waster, with Oswald and his girlfriend (still the dog) at the fair taking in various sights. I was amused at the milk shake stand, where they get the milk shake by sticking it in the swaying hips of a hippo doing a belly dance, but once the villain arrives, things get very predictable. (I should note the villain has a pegleg, and that several of the other cartoons feature blatant Mickey copies. The Disney ripoffs back then were so obvious it wasn't even funny - and EVERYONE did it.) Still, there are better cartoons than this.

The last cartoon I saw, 1933's Five and Dime, I enjoyed a great deal, but how much you may depends on how much you like the song Million Dollar Baby, which this is basically an 8-minute music video for. Oswald ducks out of a torrential downpour (which is shown by two thunderclouds becoming boxers and beating each other up - another great example of using cartoon logic to its fullest) and heads into a five and dime, where he quickly meets his dog girlfriend and serenades her with the aforementioned song. There's lots of celebrity caricatures here, which likely explains why it's on the set (the caretaker of these DVD sets, Jerry Beck, adores cartoons with celebrities caricatured), including Durante, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. Having been unfairly kicked out of the store, Oswald decides to propose, and the last two minutes of the cartoon are basically a long cakewalk, as Oswald and his girl get a ring, gown, tux, hit the church, then go to his house, all without breaking step. (Confession: I got my dates mixed up, and this actually comes after two other Lantz cartoons on the DVD sets. Oh well, I'll cover those next.)

If you're going to get the Lantz DVD sets, chances are you'll get them for Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy or Andy Panda. But give Oswald a try, and try to get into the depression groove while watching these. Some of them are very rewarding!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Megatokyo Volume 6

By Fred Gallagher. Originally released online as a webcomic here. Released in North America by DC Comics.

As always, the Megatokyo reading experience is very much a two-step process. First you read the strips as they're posted online, getting the immediate gratification combined with the slow, frustrating process of waiting days to occasional weeks for the next strip. Then, every blue moon or so, you get a book collection released, and re-read them all in one gulp. There's less impact as you already know what's going to happen (the "Stop teasing me!" scene must be epic for those who hadn't seen it online), but you gain even more, as a lot of the complex plotting and characterization makes much more sense when you're taking it all in at once.

Most webcomic reviews, especially ones as long-running as Megatokyo, note how the art improves with successive volumes, but it really bears mentioning here: Fred's art has *really* improved. The shading brings out a lot in a strip that used to have huge whitespace all around it, and there's plenty of background gags that I didn't get the first time around, rewarding multiple re-reads. (My favorite is taking down Ed in the Cave of Evil: I'd seen Erika's elbow and the Tetris block, but I'd missed Boo's mini-bombs till this collection.) It's a handsome strip now.

It is also, one must say, a bit overly complex. As always with most fan-oriented works, it's a good thing that Fred lacks a brutal editor for these strips, as I suspect at least two of the 80 gazillion subplots seen here would have been cut out. Same with a Japanese serialization. (Fred's strip has been licensed in Japan by Kodansha, apparently, although I'm not certain if it's still coming out there. I suspect were it serialized, Young Magazine or Shonen Sirius would fit it best.) This does, admittedly, reward re-reads, but it also makes them required, which is not necessarily a good thing, especially as the series is now over 1200 webcomics.

Of course, I mostly read Megatokyo now for the characters. Amusingly, my favorite keeps changing as the series goes on. Initially, I was most fond of Miho and her goth loli shenanigans, then Largo and Erika's romance drew me in, now I'm enjoying following the adventures of frustrated normal girl Junko and Magical Thief Saint Yuki. All of these people, needless to say, get some wonderful moments here. (As does seiyuu Kimiko, though she's verging on becoming a Mary Sue at some points. Still, that's after a low ebb in previous books, so maybe she's due.)

Largo in particular has come miles from the start of the series (though there is still debate as to whether his direction is a good thing), and I love his interaction with Erika. Several side glances and stammered remarks show you that this relationship is *not* taking place in Largo's imaginary fantasy band camp, and that he *is* trying to make it work. What's more, Erika gets that. The scene where she uncuffs him after finding the results of his chaos (and checking her voicemails) is beautiful.

Miho's development is a major part of this volume, and I feel bad that the fact that Chapter 9 and 10 being put out together means readers miss the impact of what happens at the end of 9, which was an incredible stunner when it came out. However, that's OK, as we have the even more stunning personality shift at the end of Volume 10. We still don't really have an explanation as to why Miho suddenly seems a lot more blushy and normal, although I do wonder if it has to do with Junko and Ping's putting pictures on the 'Net to alter her image to her fans. Definitely looking forward to this even more in future chapters.

And then there's Piro. Now, I will admit that Piro has come a LONG way since the start of the series. I used to want him to fall in an open sewer and die, and I no longer do. He's still the most frustrating, but that's just because his character development is taking the longest. (And, admittedly, because his character "type" is not one I like in my Japanese manga leads either.) In any case, he does get some nice bits here (his refusal to storm into Kimiko's presser to give her "support" was very well done), and does balance out a lot of his ineffectualness elsewhere. Hopefully this will continue even more.

Lastly, I want to note the bad guys Dom and Ed. In a series that got its start as a series of blatant self-inserts, it's rather stunning to see how incredibly evil these two are. Ed is slightly less effective, mostly as his complete psychosis is more loud and obnoxious than actually evil. (He's very much Largo's dark self, while Dom is Piro's.) But Dom is almost terrifying in his smirking manipulation, and willingness to do anything for Sega, his 'parent company' (who hopefully don't mind Fred portraying their employees as evil). Ed is there to get his ass kicked, but Don's plans are still very much unknown. I look forward to more.

This is manga influenced, and certainly has a ton of shout-outs (Saint Tail only being the most blatant), but I'd still say its sensibilities are definitely Western. It's also, despite what detractors might say, managed to keep its balance between romantic escapades and wacky cartoon action-adventure lunacy without one overtaking the other. This volume is a horrible place to start, of course; you'll want to begin at the beginning. But for those who've been following along, this volume will not disappoint. Plus he actually finished the art.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Stolen Hearts Volume 2

By Miku Sakamoto. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine The Hana to Yume. Released in North America by CMX.

The second volume of Stolen Hearts is just as adorable as the first one. Koguma and Shinobu are the perfect odd couple, and meeting Koguma's odd family seems like an excellent capper. He and his four brothers grace the cover of Volume 2, in blatant female fanservice, but it works well.

In fact, things might be a little *too* adorable. There's not a heck of a lot of conflict here, with most of the series being devoted to the couple trying to get moments where they can be close and deepen their relationship. There is a crisis mid-volume involving Koguma's older brother, but this much-needed drama is quickly cut off after only one threat from Shinobu - which is almost nothing by shoujo manga standards, where misunderstandings are bread and butter.

Of course, their love is stronger than a mere threat from an older brother. Indeed, we see in the last chapter of the volume how much closer the two of them want to be. Staying the night in a hotel is a standard manga trope, but there's a certain sensuality to it that makes it work here - you can feel Shinobu and Koguma's desire, and it's always nice to see a cute, adorable relationship that also acknowledges a healthy dose of desire. It also leads to a fantastic kiss.

As you all know, CMX has shut down, so this is all we're going to get of Stolen Hearts, which is still running in Japan. It's a crying shame, but at least this volume didn't end with a hideous cliffhanger, so we can gain a false sense of closure here, knowing that the two of them are going to work things out. Of course, you'd already realize that just reading this.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Manga the week of 7/21

Well, OK, not *just* manga. Scott Pilgrim is pretty much going to be overshadowing anything else out this week, and rightly so. Some people already have it, according to Diamond, but these people are not me, so I shall get my copy on the 21st.

Vertical is releasing the first volume of Peepo Choo, a cross-cultural manga by Felipe Smith, which ran in Kodansha's monthly manga magazine Morning Two (home of Saint Young Men). I haven't had a chance to read it yet (it's not really safe to read on public transit), but hope to this weekend. Definitely recommended, always support Western authors working in mainstream Japan. :)

Viz has the 23rd Fullmetal Alchemist, which is in the midst of the big finale. Several volumes to go, of course - it's a long finale. This volume in particular has some great stuff, especially for fans of the sort of relationship between Roy Mustang and Riza Hawkeye. Though the *best* line goes to someone else, and I won't spoil it...

And Yen has a huge pile of stuff, including the first volume of Ugly Duckling's Love Revolution, a shoujo-ish manga from their boy's love magazine Comic B's-Log (though I think the series lacks actual boys' love). Romeo x Juliet, a media tie-in manga from Kadokawa Shoten's magazine for female otaku, Asuka, which will be an oversize complete-in-one volume here. And they debut a light novel line with the Book Girl series. I have to say the title of the first volume, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mine, intrigues me. But can it possibly be as screwed up as NISIOISIN? Zaregoto has spoiled me...

Dengeki Daisy Volume 1

By Kyousuke Motomi. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Comic ("Betsucomi"). Released in North America by Viz.

I had gotten into a lazy habit recently, what with all the shoujo manga coming out from Viz. Viz's licensing tended towards two major shoujo magazines from their two respective owners: Shueisha's Betsuma, and Shogakukan's Betsucomi. (Note that the parent magazine for those titles, Margaret and ShoComi, get far less licensed over here.) And I noticed that the Betsuma titles tended towards cute fluff, while the Betsucomi ones tended towards gripping angst. Love*Com, for example, was clearly a Betsuma title, as was High School Debut. Sand Chronicles and We Were There? Classic Betsucomi.

This isn't true of course, I just like to categorize. A recent title from Betsucomi that came out over here, Monkey High, was filled with lighthearted comedy. And now we have Dengeki Daisy, with its adversarial relationship between the spunky heroine Teru and her "jerk" boss Tasuku. Certainly there's no lack of drama here. Teru has recently lost her older brother (having lost her parents before this), and is living alone. Likewise, Tasuku seems to be hiding several things, and is (of course - this *is* a shoujo manga) trying to avoid letting himself get too close to Teru.

But it strikes an excellent balance, never letting the dramatics overshadow the humor, and never letting the humor get too goofy. And yes, it's another mysterious protector here, but at least it's shown that Teru can take care of herself most of the time, and her life has enough bad things going on it that she may need someone watching over her. (Her naivete is demonstrated here in one of the better parts of the book, where she invades a love hotel to rescue an acquaintance from some sleazy guys. Tasuku is absolutely livid with her, and you see his point.) And of course, like many overly confident shoujo heroines, she is plagued by self-doubt and worries constantly about being a horrible person.

The use of the internet and cell phones give this a nice modern feel (hopefully it won't be that hideously dated in a few years time), and it's a handy way to keep Tasuku's identity as her secret benefactor a secret. This is also a good thing because, while it's nice to see him looking cool and broody, it's even better to see him playing the over-the-top jerkass, forcing Teru to do all the menial labor he's supposedly paid for, and making sure whenever he's too nice to her to insult her in response, so she doesn't get too suspicious. The cliffhanger to Volume 1 shows, as we had guessed, that he was close to her brother, and no doubt this will fuel further drama.

There's nothing especially new or unusual here. But there's lots of likeable characters, intriguing situations, potential for cute romance, and potential for horrible heartache. Let's hope it continues to balance out its serious plot with a fun, teasing sense of humor.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

One Piece Volume 54

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

This is a landmark volume of One Piece, in many ways. It begins the epic Impel Down arc. It's continuity-heavy, bringing back many old characters in newer, sometimes more sympathetic guises. And as for the other landmarks... well, you'll have to wait a couple more volumes for those.

After briefly seeing Hancock smuggling Luffy on board a marine ship bound for Impel Down, the volume begins by showing us where the rest of the crew got off to after Bartholomew Kuma sent them away from Sabaody. Some seem quite appropriate (Nami on a weather island), some rather cruel (Robin just cannot catch a break), some laughably cruel (oh Sanji, I shouldn't laugh as much as I did), and some are just laughable (Zoro and Perona, the perfect odd couple). Drink in these brief scenes of the cast, by the way. It's gonna be a long time before we get back to them.

Meanwhile, we arrive at Impel Down and begin what amounts to a giant melee brawl that lasts the rest of the book. We're introduced to a few new characters, of which the most memorable are Magellan the poison-loving freak of a warden, Hannyabal, his ambitious underling, and Sadie, the security chief whose personality is exactly as her name applies. (Her sensual moans whenever she delivers any line are the closest One Piece will get to sex in this volume - well, that and Hancock's over-the-top one-sided love for Luffy).

The best part of the volume, though, is the reintroduction of two villains we had forgotten, and frankly thought of as too comedic for a serious rescue arc - Buggy the Clown and Mr. 3. They're both imprisoned in Impel Down, but Luffy frees them in return for them leading him down to the lowest level, where his brother is imprisoned. Needless to say, neither of them has any intention of doing so, but events conspire against them, and things only get crazier with the addition of Mr. 2 a level down. Yes, to make up for the lack of Straw Hats, it's old-home-week for villains in One Piece. There's even a hint, in a few scenes showing the floor where Ace is kept, that we may be seeing an even bigger villain again soon.

There's not much to review here - it's a bunch of fights - but as always with One Piece, Oda makes the fights interesting, and inserts enough fun humor that it never feels like it drags. One wonders about Ace's reluctance to be rescued, however, and why he wants Luffy to stay away. And now that we've finished the One Piece catchup (sort of - we're still about a year behind Japan, but that's better than the 8 we were at this point last year), we'll have to wait for October to find out.