Sunday, January 31, 2010

Higurashi: When They Cry Volumes 1-4

Story by Ryukishi07; Art by Karin Suzuragi (Abducted By Demons Arc)and Yutori Houjyou (Cotton Drifting Arc). Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialized in the magazines Gangan Powered (Abducted by Demons Arc) and Gangan Wing (Cotton Drifting Arc). Released in North America by Yen Press.

Before I begin the review, I want to note that a certain amount of spoilers are inevitable. If you know nothing about Higurashi and want to read the first series completely cold, stop right here. This review assumes you know the basic 'gimmick' behind Higurashi, and the reason the manga is divided into arcs.

I've never played the Higurashi games, but I know of the basic premise through Internet Osmosis. The games are quite popular, so it's no surprise that the franchise was picked up for a manga. The manga has been running in one form or another for almost 5 years (the final arc is currently running in Gangan Joker), so it's also quite popular. Square Enix seems to enjoy setting each new arc in a different magazine (the 3rd arc, Curse Killing, was in yet another, GFantasy) in order to get fans to spend even more money. Whether that was successful is in doubt; both Gangan Powered and Gangan Wing have folded since these manga came out, being replaced by Gangan Joker.

Higurashi reads, on first glance, like a dating sim. There is little doubt that the author set it up that way on purpose. You have the all-purpose normal male lead, and he gets to choose between the shy girl, the busty tomboy, the grumpy loli and the happy loli. Even the introduction of Shion in Cotton Drifting is pure datesim - look, an identical twin! What are the odds they'll switch? Or have different personalities deep down? Will wackiness ensue?

Well yes, but not THAT kind of wackiness. Higurashi is a murder mystery. And a horror manga. And, yes, still partly a datesim. (It may also be a floor wax and a dessert topping, I'm still looking into that.) As Keiichi, our "hero", goes through his everyday life he finds out that everyone in the town is hiding secrets. There's also a legendary past, the spectre of the God Oyashiro-sama watching over everyone, and worst of all, his shy friend/tomboy friend (depending on the arc) is acting really creepy and threatening.

As individual arcs, I found the Abducted by Demons arc stood better on its own. Keiichi's spiral into paranoia is pretty well done, with the reader trying to figure out what's going on without necessarily being on his side. Things descend into a spiral of madness and come to a hideously tragic conclusion. The end.

Well, not quite. First, it's hinted that there will be a further series examining the same events (the "Atonement" arc) in the final 'coming soon' pages. But then, in the next manga, everything's back to normal. Keiichi and his friends, still alive, go through the same wacky comedy datesim events again... and then the secrets come back, and things fall apart in a totally DIFFERENT way. That's Higurashi's basic gimmick, watching the bad end several times over and picking up clues as to how you can finally beat the game.

Of course, this being a manga, you aren't choosing anything. I'm pretty sure the creators assume the ones reading this are Higurashi fans. Like many other media tie-ins, these manga are not really for anyone who wants a good yarn, or wants to figure out what's happened next. They're for people who've played everything, and seen the anime, and want to watch another variant of the characters they like descending into slaughtering each other like wild dogs.

This can work against the manga at times. The second arc, Cotton Drifting, features Mion's twin sister Shion, and much of the plot of the first volume involves the classic 'twin switch'. Unfortunately, much of the second volume involves Mion, Shion and Rena explaining things in long laborious monologues, and a great deal of the violence is only hinted at offscreen. (That said, it does have a fantastic final 'horror' image.)

At the end, we see that the Cotton Drifting arc also has a 'response' to it in the 'Eye Opening' arc, which seems to star Shion and will presumably expand on things here. Probably a good thing, as it doesn't work as well on its own as Abducted By Demons did. Unfortunately, we get all the initial arcs first, before we get any of the followup ones. The manga follows the game, and wants to leave you confused. Not always a good thing in a manga series.

The art is typically shonen, but each arc is done by a different artist, so there are variants. The second arc's artist seems to enjoy drawing Mion and Shion's large breasts, whereas in the third arc (which I haven't finished yet) everyone looks much younger and 'cuter'. And Yen's translation is serviceable, although translating Rika's verbal tic as having her call people "sir" makes me think of Marcie from Peanuts. Then again, I've always felt it very hard to do accents or verbal tics in translation to begin with. Osaka from Azumanga is another example of a translation choice that I knew why they did it, I just found it awkward anyway.

Overall, this is a series for those who already like the franchise. That said, it's well done overall (assuming you can get past the basic otaku fetishes that litter the premise), and I look forward to further volumes.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei Volume 5

By Koji Kumeta. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Del Rey.

This volume of Zetsubou is a particular favorite of mine, containing two of the best early chapters, and perhaps the iconic image of one of the characters. It also introduces three new minor characters. There's a lot going on here.

In one chapter, Itoshiki goes to a hot springs only to find (of course) all his students there. Unfortunately, this hot spring advertises that it removes toxins from the body, and this proves to have an adverse effect on everyone. This is the sort of story that could only work playing off of the broad stereotypes of the cast, and we now know them well enough to be amused by Abiru without her injuries, or Harumi reading a nice clean kids' manga.

Another excellent story plays off the idea of the dream ending. Ever since Tezuka said in an interview he hated the cheapness of 'it was all a dream' endings, they'd been unofficially banned in Japan. Of course, Kumeta goes all out with this, and we see the various characters becoming the opposite of themselves (because it's all a dream). Again, it's taken five volumes to really appreciate Usui being greeted by everyone, or Komori playing outside as a gag.

We see three new minor characters introduced in this volume. Itoshiki's brother Kei and Ikkyu, an "old friend" of Itoshiki's (in another chapter that's essentially based around an untranslatable pun). And Mayo Mitama is a new student, even though we've seen her in the background since the very first chapter. She has mean-looking eyes, and everyone misunderstands her. Unfortunately, it's hard to work her quirks into the story, so she mostly stays a minor student in future volumes.

This is also the volume where Chiri Kitsu pretty much completes her evolution. Starting out as a 'precise' anal retentive girl, we started to see bits of psychosis in Volume 3, where she beat Itoshiki into a coma with a gravestone. But by Chapter 48, Kumeta has realized that Chiri is funniest when she's completely flipped her lid and gone ax crazy. Page 116 has the perfect example of what Chiri has become. All it's missing is the shovel that becomes her weapon of choice in the future.

So, it's a great volume in terms of content. Unfortunately, I found myself dissatisfied with Del Rey's handling of the volume. The translator of the first 4 volumes has moved on, and they brought in someone new. I'm not sure if he just didn't have time to go over everything before the deadline, or if it simply never went through a final editing stage (Del Rey does not credit their editors the way Viz or CMX do), but there are many examples of simple sloppy translation choice and editing.

For some examples, there is the footnote noting the reference to the character "Bejiita" from the manga "Dragon Ballz". Now, at first I thought this was simply the typical Japanese policy of not referring to a manga from another company, but they've mentioned One Piece in earlier volumes, and talk about Shonen Jump here. It reads more like the translator didn't recognize Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z. An entire chapter talks about measuring a person's 'minotake'... without a single end note noting the origin of the word. Yes, he defined it in the text as "Measuring one's value as a human being", but usually if you're going to use a Japanese word (rather than a translation) throughout a story, you should say something about its background, especially as I believe this is a Japanese pun based around measuring one's height.

And some other problems are purely the fault of the editor. The contents page has the "these chapters were printed in Shonen Magazine Volumes 1-13" blurb at the bottom... which is the same as Volume 4. (In reality, they were Volumes 14-26). And consistency is also something lacking. When you have the same character saying the same thing in four straight volumes ("Don't open it"), you don't change it to "Shut the door!" in Volume 5 if it's the same Japanese wording. This is not the new translator's fault, but it's something an editor not only should have caught, but it's his job to look for!

(Del Rey is not alone in this problem. Almost every manga series, when it changes translators, finds itself reading slightly differently. Manga editors in general should be better at keeping the feel of the book consistent across all volumes, regardless of who is translating.)

These may look small, but they added up for me, especially since the previous four volumes were so well-done. And I admit, your mileage may vary, as Johanna Draper Carlson felt that the new translator, with fewer end notes, made things simplified and easier to read. But for me, it damages what is overall a great volume of Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei. I'm hoping that the quick 2-month turnaround time between volumes might have meant this was simply rushed, and that Volume 6 will see a more consistent approach.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Kimi Ni Todoke Volume 3

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

After the drama of Volume 2, we take a bit of a breather here, as these chapters serve to help cement Sawako's new friendships and set up the Kurumi arc to come.

I had a discussion on Twitter the other day with Joy Kim regarding shoujo manga and female friendships. I was reminded of it by reading Portrait of M & N, which in Volume 1 featured our heroine as an outcast who is disliked by the other girls for attracting the attention of the hotties who are interested in her. This happens all the time in shoujo, an unfortunate consequence of the authors wanting to draw a lot of hot guys.

Thank God for titles like this, then. While this is still a romance manga, and I would argue that Sawako's feelings for Kazehaya are the most important plot point, if you removed the romance entirely this manga would still exist. The manga is about Sawako coming out of her shell and learning to interact and be herself, which isn't something that can be taught by just her man giving a winning smile on Page 35 of every chapter.

The first chapter is almost a microcosm of the manga itself. Sawako gets invited out by Yoshida and Yano for ramen, a carryover from Volume 2. (Her parent's reaction to this is hysterical.) The ramen turns out to be at Ryu's place, as his dad owns a ramen shop. Then Kazehaya gets invited over, and even Pin shows up, uninvited, to cause trouble. Throughout this we see Sawako marveling at the easy interaction everyone has with each other, and her gratitude that she's now a part of it. It's touching, and yet her intensity also makes it amusingly over the top.

(We also see that Sawako is not the only one in the manga who gets to be completely oblivious to love. Ryu gets the best line of the entire volume when Yoshida asks him what kind of girl he likes.
Ryu: (staring at her) ... the kind that's naive and oblivious, I guess.

Naturally, Yoshida's response to this is complete bafflement.)

This is not to say that there is no romance in this volume. Sawako and Kazehaya are adorable, and you root for them and feel frustration at their poor communication skills. I liked it when he begins to teach her soccer, and she even noticeably improves under his tutelage (I was expecting her, as a non-tomboy, to be bad at sports in the cliched way.)

And of course we get Kurumi introduced properly here. She's signposted as a major villain, and Yano (the sharpest of the entire group) sees through her right away. But Sawako has no ability to see through anything, and so is merely deliriously happy that she's found another friend. Kurumi herself seems to be the 'sweet on the outside, manipulative on the inside' sort, and I expect the next volume will have her making Sawako's life miserable. Especially because of the cliffhanger ending, where it becomes clear that Kurumi's plans did not take Sawako's honesty into account.

The mangaka for this series, Karuho Shiina, has been drawing for Shueisha for about 15 years, but she had only one other recurring series, Crazy For You, before starting this one. Clearly she has been honing her craft, as Kimi Ni Todoke is immensely popular in Japan, with an anime currently airing on television (it's become quite rare for shoujo to get an anime). It's well deserved. With likeable leads, a great supporting cast, and a heroine who's becoming a stronger person every day, this is simply one of the best manga that Viz is releasing at the moment.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Portrait of M & N Volume 1

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

We've all seen the 'from the author of' phenomenon before. Tokyopop has already gone this route, in fact, by licensing all the Natsuki Takaya they are able to in order to try to strike lightning twice with the success of Fruits Basket. Unfortunately, frequently what you find is that the artist, like any other, was honing their craft, and there's a reason that the later series was licensed first - it's better.

Portrait of M & N is from the author of Gakuen Alice, which was Higuchi's breakout hit, one that's still running in Japan. This one ran for 7 volumes, which is about average for a 'mild' hit in this magazine. There was a two-month gap after Volume 1, and the author admits in the notes to this volume that it was designed as a 5-chapter story, then she was asked to expand on it.

Our two heroes are fortunate that their names match their traumas. Mitsuru, due to a crappy family history, is a masochist who loves pain and beatings. Natsuhiko, due to bad family upbringing of a different kind, is a narcissist who ogles himself in any handy mirror.

(I am so tempted to add "Together, they fight crime!", but sadly the book is not that interesting.)

The premise isn't bad for a shoujo manga, really, but it's the sort of thing that needs to be handled very carefully. The author makes, in my opinion, a very bad choice at the start by having Mitsuru be a shy wallflower-type. If you're portraying a girl who gets off on pain, she had better be a loud sporty tomboy type or the readers are going to have trouble finding the humor. Indeed, Higuchi admits that the heroine was originally a strong, tough girl. But since her masochism clearly devastates her, it just makes you feel horrible. Bad news in a comedy.

Actually, for a comedy this is entirely too serious. Natsuhiko is pretty dull, even when he is being a narcissist. There are some funny moments (the rival's reaction to dogs, Mitsuru trying to disguise herself), but for the most part this is played very earnestly, with Mitsuru and Natsuhiko desperately trying to not stand out and erase their personalities. Come on! You're writing a series about a masochist and a narcissist! Have some freaking fun!

Even the one-shot at the end falls into a similar trap. (This is a common occurrence in Hakusensha works, by the way. Most manga artists have their first or second successful series collected with earlier one-shots they did that they feel are worthy of a book but weren't long enough). The story itself is rather predictable, but I did like the heroine, who seems very down to earth. Unfortunately, the cage metaphor keeps reminding you of the violence and threats that led to her relationship with Sagisawa. Even though it ends up with her taking control, it feels wrong because of that metaphor of entrapment.

I'll get another volume of M & N, because I find myself wondering if once the artist was told to expand the series, she started to paint everything with broader strokes. But as it is, this is a serious romance that's crippled by its wacky premise.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rin-Ne Volume 2

By Rumiko Takahashi. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

This volume of Takahashi's latest work has a lot of fun stuff going on within its pages. A ghost wants to be reunited with his Edo-period love, a swimming ghost can't quite remember why she's unable to pass on, and Rin-Ne's rival Masato shows up, and is a shallow jerk. (No really, he even defines himself as such.)

As in previous Takahashi works, she's good at giving her characters inherent flaws. The swimmer, for instance, comes across (in death and in life) as a vapid princess, and the pair of lovers that Masato is messing with seem incredibly quick to assume the worst about each other. The only two people that seem remotely sensible are our heroes.

That's one of Rin-Ne's flaws so far. I think maybe Takahashi got tired of hearing fans yelling about her angry violent heroines and unthinking jerk heroes, as Sakura is rather sweet and doesn't leap to conclusions, and Rin-Ne (aside from his money fixation) is a pretty nice guy. There's even little to no sexual tension between them so far. I expect that to change. It does mean, however, that she went a bit too far in the *other* direction. Rin-Ne and Sakura are bland.

To be honest, the same might be said for this volume as a whole. There's nothing actually wrong with it. It's laid out nicely, the story arcs are just long enough, the translation is fine. But you won't remember any of it 24 hours after you read it.

I've been reading Rumiko Takahashi manga for almost 15 years now, between Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku, Ranma 1/2, and her various shorts. You can tell I enjoy her work, as I continue to read it. But she's fast-food manga. You don't get any extra pizzazz. Maybe once or twice a series you get something utterly riveting (like the Herb arc in Ranma, or UY's finale). But mostly, I don't expect anything from Rumiko Takahashi other than the cliched Rumiko Takahashi manga.

I don't go into a Takahashi manga asking if she'll knock my socks off. I ask for some funny action with a dash of fantasy and some romance that drags on and never gets anywhere. I expect I'll get that with Rin-Ne. It's still a series worth picking up, as it reads fast and is enjoyable. But it's not inspirational. The main problem is that, art style aside, there's nothing here that she couldn't have drawn in 2000. Or 1990, for that matter.

Monday, January 25, 2010

All My Darling Daughters

By Fumi Yoshinaga. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Melody. Released in North America by Viz.

I will admit that I'm a little behind in my reading of Yoshinaga compared to other manga bloggers. I've read Ooku, and think it's excellent so far, but Antique Bakery and Flower of Life are on my 'when I get some spare cash' list, and I was mostly unfamilar with her until recently.

That may change if her other books are as good as this one was. All My Darling Daughters is a short 1-volume book she wrote for Hakusensha, published in their gateway shoujo/josei magazine Melody, which features both younger shoujo titles for their Hana to Yume imprint and older josei works for their Jets Comics imprint. This title (and Ooku, which also runs in Melody) falls into the latter category.

The bookend characters are Yukiko, a 30-year-old salarywoman living at home, and her 50-year-old mother, who has recently fought a battle with cancer. The familial relationship between them is not only obvious, but also well written. Yoshinaga doesn't really beat us about the head with temper tantrums and storming out of rooms (even though both those things happen), and the book feels very realistic as a result.

As the book continues, we see Yukiko and her family's friends and old schoolmates, and I gradually came to realize that Yukiko is probably one of the happiest and most together characters in the entire book. This comes as a surprise, as she tends to walk through it with a perpetual scowl, but her job (never shown, only inferred) and relationship (misunderstood by many of her friends, but her guy seems very nice) show she's come through life well.

Many others who've reviewed this have touched on the longest story here, which deals with a sweet young woman trying to reconcile falling in love and the words of her old grandfather, but the one that hit closest to home for me was the fourth, which starts with Yukiko reading a yearbook showing two old middle-school classmates. She sends them a letter catching up, as she hasn't spoken to them in ages.

This leads to a flashback narrated by Saeki, one of the girls, in which we see Yuko, the other one, discussing her hopes and dreams, and how she's going to change things and make the world better for women. And then, over the course of the rest of the story... that just doesn't happen. We see Saeki as an adult gradually realize things that her childhood self didn't pick up on regarding Yuko's abusive childhood, and then we see her meet Yuko as an adult, now with a husband, and the wasted potential hits us full in the face.

The final image of that chapter, with Saeki reading Yukiko's letter and crying, was for me the saddest and best page of the entire manga.

Luckily, we get a more hopeful chapter to end on, returning to Yukiko and her mother, and also touching on her mother's own daughter relationship. Words taken to be deliberate cruelty are shown to have far subtler reasons, and the whole thing ends with a fantastic "I Love You"... even if those words are never said.

At times haunting, and at times very sweet, this book isn't easily classifiable. It even has some occasional humor, and I love Yoshinaga occasionally slipping into caricature when she's drawing Yukiko's snarling face. I'd love to see more titles like this from Viz, be they by Yoshinaga or someone else.

Oishinbo - Izakaya: Pub Food

By Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Big Comic Spirits. Released in North America by Viz.

Ah, the final volume of Oishinbo Viz has planned. It's been a great ride. I've certainly learned a lot more about food. And this volume is filled with little gems that make this series what it is.

One thing it doesn't have, however, is a battle between Yamaoka and his father, Yuzan. I have to admit I'm almost relieved, as seeing those two screaming at each other can be very trying. Still, the battles were always exciting, and notably, in the ones we saw over here, our heroes lost most of them. It was very telling that youth does NOT beat experience in this manga most of the time.

The original manga is 103 volumes and still running, so Viz decided to release some volumes from Shogakukan's reprints in Japan, which collect them into volumes separated by theme. (This particular reprint is Volume 12 in Japan.) This means that we've been treated to scattershot characterization, as we move from Yamaoka and Kurita being new colleagues on their paper to love rivalries to their marriage to their children without actually seeing a proposal, wedding, or birth.

However, even if the focus is always the food, we do still care about the characters, and we get some lovely final chapters here. One part I particularly liked was in a chapter dealing with Yamaoka getting offered a big job managing the food division of a multinational - one that comes with the string of his having to marry Mariko, who is Yuko's rival for most of the first 45 volumes.

He is rather startled by this, and even more startled when a crushed Yuko (who is out on a date with Yamaoka's own rival) suggests it would be good for his career if he married Mariko. We then cut to a shot of Yamaoka, Yuko, and the rival all looking depressed and upset, but (of course) not saying anything. Luckily, Yamaoka uses sardines to show that he would not feel right being handed a major food division just like that.

Another chapter takes place just after Yuko has delivered twin babies. She and Yamaoka are discussing naming them, and decide to split the name choices between them. It's a surprise to see Yamaoka take this so seriously - but then, Japan places far more emphasis on a good name being absolutely necessary for a child's development than the West would. Naming a child is serious business. Naturally, there's a brief fight, but after some nice deep-fried oysters the children are named and all is well.

As you can see from those previous two examples, no matter how much characterization there may be, it's all about the food. This volume is devoted to food related to the 'izakaya', the pub-like establishments seen all over Japan. They generally have more filling food than most regular old bars in Japan, but the food tends to be simple and uncomplicated, the better to reward a drunk salaryman after a long day.

And in a nice callback to a previous volume, we end the series with sake, as a young actor is having difficulty getting the right expression when he drinks sake on the set and needs Yamaoka to show him what the true joy of sake at an izakaya is like.

I'm very pleased that this series was brought over here, and even though it's finished the format is such that Viz could do future volumes if they so choose (hint: sales would help this along). There are 48 reprint "a la carte" volumes in Japan, so they aren't exactly running out of material. In the meantime, these volumes are an excellent overview of one of the most popular manga in Japan.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sunshine Sketch Volume 4

By Ume Aoki. Released in Japan as "Hidamari Sketch" by Houbunsha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Manga Time Kirara Carat. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Sunshine Sketch is very good at what it does. It wants to be a cute and funny slice-of-life 4-panel comic about high school students at an art school, and that's exactly what it is.

It's certainly cute. The characters are stereotypes, but that's not necessarily a drawback as long as an artist uses them well. Miyako, for example, is the spunky, energetic girl of the group, but can also be obnoxious when the situation requires it, or the spacey one, and of course it's pointed out by the author that she's the smartest and most talented of the group, despite her personality.

We do get two new characters in this volume, as the year passes and our heroes move up a grade. The new first years are Nori, who's a computer girl who seems to be another 'straight man' character, and Nazuna, who is in the 'normal' track (she went to the school as it's close to home, as opposed to all the others in the manga who are art students) and seems to be low self-confidence girl. Hopefully she will get more than that, as Yuno's low self-confidence is generally enough for me.

It's also got some good humor. Nothing here will make you laugh out loud, or even snort, but most of the gags will make you smile, either at the characters or in recognition. One of my favorite gags involved Yuno, our protagonist, procrastinating about what art track she wants to choose for her second year. She puts off making a decision by rearranging her entire apartment. The final gag shows her waking blearily the following morning, moving to get out of bed - and slamming into a wall, as she'd moved her bed.

This isn't an Okazu guest review, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the yuri tease that the artist is now putting in a bit more. The final part of this volume is a non-4-panel extra comic going into Sae's 'rival' Natsume, and how she met Sae. It's pretty clear she was crushing immediately, and a combination of that and jealousy of Hiro led to her becoming what she is today. Likewise, Sae and Hiro get the occasional suggestion, notably when Sae says meeting Hiro for the first time, she thought Hiro was like a sugar candy. She says this with a huge blush, and the landlady is in the foreground with a "just kiss already!" expression of annoyance on her face.

Of course, there is one big problem here, and it makes it hard for me to unreservedly recommend this series. The art. I am used to the typical younger than they look moe style by now, but Sunshine Sketch really pushes the envelope. Its characters already look superdeformed, and then they have a further SD form that simply looks as if they were squashed by an anvil. And they really do look quite young. When Miyako is sometimes drawn relatively normally, and we see her substantial chest, it jars with the typical '7-year-old squishy face' we get the rest of the manga. It also means when the author does try to draw sex appeal, it becomes very creepy. See: the cover of this volume for an example.

But if you can get past the moe-overload art, Sunshine Sketch is a good example of what it's trying to be. Cute, fluffy, funny, and with the occasional life lesson.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

S.A. Volume 14

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

This volume of Special A has, in many ways, the same issues that Love Com Volume 16 did in my previous review. The couples have mostly gotten together, and we're mostly stringing things along until the editor says "OK, you can end it now." This means that there are some plot twists that seem obvious and unnecessary.

Enter Iori Tokiwa, the new "number Two" and rival to Kei for Hikari's affections. Of course, we know he doesn't have a chance in hell, but that's OK, because he's not there to make us believe Hikari might choose someone else. He's there to make Kei go insane as he bonds with Hikari. Iori and Hikari share a lot of the same interests, and seeing the "drive to succeed" that Iori has reminds you that this is one thing that Kei definitely lacks.

Finn is still around as well, but Finn at least brings a bit more to the table. Her identity is still a secret to everyone except Ryu, and she's also clearly fallen in love with Ryu, leading to a nasty rivalry with the twins. This chapter was actually pretty good, showing how a deep family bond (which is what Ryu and the twins have, despite not being related) can be fractured all too easily by newcomers. The way Ryu solved the problem was absolutely perfect.

And then there's Hikari, our clueless heroine. She's probably the reason I enjoyed this volume more than Love Com, as I simply enjoy watching her be dense. She goes way past other clueless heroines on the dense-o-meter, reaching some of the highest levels I've ever seen. Great Hikari moments in this volume include seeing how much she loves to study (again, something Kei simply doesn't really do with her), and the last contest between her and Kei, which she throws and then demands Kei tell her to stay away from Iori.

Kei won't do this, of course. He can be a frustratingly smug hero at times (witness his caveman-like entrance into Iori's apartment and forced kiss earlier in the volume), but he is much better at self-analysis than Hikari is, and notes that he won't ruin her budding friendship because of his own jealousy. He also gets a rare instance of misreading Hikari in this volume, where he thinks she was offended by the aforementioned forced kiss (she was merely happy, but communicating poorly, as she always does).

Akira and Tadashi fair the worst. They're the simplest couple, and were the first to hook up, so they now get almost nothing to do at all.

Special A is still fun, but there's an air of 'what the hell can I do to mark time next?' to these last couple of volumes. The series ends with Volume 17, though, so perhaps we'll be seeing the endgame showing up soon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Negima!? Neo Volume 4

Story by Ken Akamatsu, Art by Takuya Fujima. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Comic Bom Bom, then in Magazine Special. Released in North America by Del Rey.

Alternate Universe spinoffs are a staple of Japanese anime and manga, ranging from Tenchi Muyo to Haruhi Suzumiya. When a series is a hit, people want more of it. And when there's only one creator, and he's drawing as fast as he can, what's the solution? Do a cute AU spinoff by another artist!

This had already been going on with Negima for some time. The first anime wasn't a hit, and had an extremely tacked-on wrap-up ending at the last minute. They then made another, much cuter anime for younger readers, which is sort of strange when you think about all the fanservice that goes into your average Negima. This was at least a mild success, so they decided to make a manga of the spinoff anime or the original anime of the original manga.

Naturally, Akamatsu was going to be doing busy drawing the real Negima, so they brought in Takuya Fujima, who has the ignominy of being the creator of, in my opinion, the worst manga ever to be licensed for North America, Deus Vitae. I can only imagine that he got this gig after they saw his work on Free Collars Kingdom, which is much cuter. It must have been a hit, as he's currently drawing the manga spinoff Nanoha ViViD for Kadokawa Shoten's Comp Ace.

Negima?! Neo debuted in the elementary school magazine Comic Bom Bom, and was initially clearly meant for much younger readers. Unfortunately, after a year the magazine folded and the series was moved to the more teenage Magazine Special, home of fellow Del Rey series Gacha Gacha and Pastel. The fanservice that had been missing was added back in (though still not quite to the extent the original takes it), though the design remained the same 'cute and round' style.

This volume sees the debut of Negima's childhood friend, Anya, as a classmate. I have to say that, if this manga is meant to pander to Negima fans who want more (and really, by the time it got to Magazine Special it certainly was), then they went in the wrong direction here. Ask any Negima fanboy which girl in the series deserves to be the focus, and Anya would rank about 32nd. At least. All she brings to the table is childhood friend, as 'angry tsundere' is taken by Asuna and Chisame, and 'fortune teller' is, in this series, taken by Konoka.

Kotaro also shows up here, but he's pretty much had his edges shaven off as well, looking for a good rival to bond with in a shonen style. There's a vague hint as to his real origin, but really he doesn't come across as a villain at all. Which is annoying, because it simply means that the manga isn't even trying to tell a story, and is just coasting on fans knowing who everyone is. Kotaro's not a bad guy anymore because he reformed in the original, not because of anything that happens here in this remake.

I will admit that it's almost impossible to break Nodoka Miyazaki, one of the better and sweeter characters in Negima, and though this version makes a valiant effort with various clones running around and ruining her life by being ecchi, we do still get the nice scene where she admits to Negi that she loves him (and then asks him to not answer her until he grows up, being a brief acknowledgment of Negi being ten years old).

The worst of the characters losing what little edge they had comes in the final chapter, featuring the three cheerleaders. In the original manga, Akamatsu did his best to give them all different personalities. Sakurako is the genki one with the good luck, Misa is the vaguely disturbing girl 'with experience', and Madoka is the sensible one who gets irritated at people being idiots.

Since this manga believes in filing off edges, I was not particularly surprised that the cheer girls were made to basically be the same. What did irritate me is that they were all basically Misa. Her "Reverse Hikaru Genji Project" is easily one of the creepiest things in the original manga, which mostly tries to make you forget Negi's age. The other two going along with it and posing for Negi is revealing skimpy outfits is horrific, and no amount of occasional sweatdrops on Madoka's face will make up for that.

Look, in a manga with a cast as large as Negima, you have to make up for it with characterization. In the original, Akamatsu does that. Despite having similar types, no one would mistake Asuna and Chisame, or Konoka and Sakurako. But this manga doesn't even bother. The cheer girls are always together, so they're the same. The twins are identical in personality as well as appearance. This way you can do your wacky fanservice plots without having anyone be able to say "Hey, this is really stupid." (I note Chisame, who would do this, is pretty much absent from this volume).

I do note Del Rey does a very good job here, with endnotes explaining things like Gyudon and Wabi-sabi, and the translation is generally clear and unobtrusive.

To sum up, if you're making a tie-in alternate universe work, try to at least give the appearance that it's more than just a cash-in. Nothing about this manga, from the art to the storyline to the characters, makes it seem like anything but Kodansha saying "Hey, Negima fans, here's something with its name on it. Give us your money." Not only is that appallingly cynical, but it ruins the original brand. Negima, the original in Shonen Magazine, is a well-crafted shonen fighting/harem manga. This retread is simply hackwork.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tears Of A Lamb Volume 7

By Banri Hidaka. Released in Japan as "Hitsuji no Namida" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by CMX.

I've always felt a bit guilty when I think of Tears Of A Lamb. I'm a giant fan of everything Banri Hidaka does, but I spend most of my time trumpeting either I Hate You More Than Anyone!, the work she created before this, or V.B. Rose, the one she wrote afterward. I enjoy TOAL, but I'm not over the moon about it.

For one thing, it's not a love story. There's a love story *in* it, and this volume sees Kei and Kanzaki declare their love for each other (I'd call this a spoiler, but in a shoujo manga, is the hero and heroine admitting love ever a surprise?), but it's not the point of the manga. IHYMTA! and VBR are about the couples and their travails in love. But TOAL is a mystery, and is at heart about how memories trap us and keep us from moving forward - even if you can't remember anything.

This is the final volume of TOAL, so all the various plot threads that have been scattered are woven together here. Kei regains her memories, and meets Suwa. Everyone finally starts to talk about what happened before, with the accident that led to Kei and Suwa's memory loss. And Kei finally learns that focusing on her goal to the exclusion of all else doesn't work. She's told herself this before - a lot - but telling yourself something and actually understanding it are two different things.

This manga is very subtle and sedate, with little of the frantic mood swings that characterize IHYMTA!. The 'villain' of the piece is simply a petulant teen who's frustrated at Kei's cluelessness about his own feelings. Kei being Kei, when she finds out he was behind the whole thing (well, the ring part, at least), manages to forgive him.

I kind of which we'd had a couple of punches thrown, though. Not that I hated Shinogu or anything, but this manga is sooooo talky. Yes, you can argue that's true of a lot of shoujo, and especially true of Hidaka's other works, but it's more noticeable here. IHYMTA! and VBR both have their cartoon violence to fall back on (the former more than the latter), and IHYMTA! also has its frenetic pace. The pace here is glacial, so it's simply a matter of sitting back and waiting for Kanzaki to slowly discover what most everyone else already knows. Which involves finding the right questions to ask.

The other main flaw of this manga is, of course, that after you find out what happened you want to throttle everyone involved for keeping quiet. Seriously, the sheer amount of "I didn't say anything as it would hurt her" and "we thought we already knew what you were thinking" involved in this series can drive you insane. For a manga where everyone keeps telling each other bits of the plot, they're very good at justifying not saying the right things. Even the smarter characters, like Choko-sensei, fall prey to this.

(And a quick note to CMX's editorial department: I get that you have different translators/adaptors on your series, but at least get them to know the names of your other works. Page 160 talks about "I Hate You More Than AnyTHING".)

However, it all works out in the end (even if it could have worked out a whole lot faster), and at 7 volumes this is a smaller investment in the world of Banri Hidaka than IHYMTA! (13 volumes) and VBR (14 volumes). The ending with Kei and Kanzaki is very sweet. And the final postscript, with Suwa's text message, puts a happy lump in your throat. For those who want a nice sedate angsty shoujo, and don't mind a lot of people not telling important things to other people, this is a great series to pick up.

And Suwa's book is trememdously cute.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gin Tama Volume 16

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

There are series that it's very easy to define in a sentence or two. There are series where you find yourself taking days to try to tell everyone the huge plot twists within. And then there's series like Gin Tama, where you try to describe it and then constantly backtrack to clarify.

"So Gin Tama is about swordsmen in the Edo period. With aliens." "Are the swordsmen handsome bishies?" "Yes, yes they are." "Awesome! I love serious badass swordsmen!" "Well, they *can* be serious. When they aren't sitting on a toilet trying to find a way to get toilet paper." "Wait, what?" "Over half the series, you see, is gag comedy. With swordsmen." "Oh, so it's like Bobobobo-bobobo?" "Not quite that much gag comedy. Also, it has serious bits that are very serious." "So, it's a gag comedy with serious bits set in Samurai Edo with aliens." "And the lead obsesses about reading Weekly Shonen Jump." "What the hell do you call that?" "I call it Gin Tama."

I'm a big Gin Tama fan, and the more I read it the more impressed I am. The newest volume to come out here in North American is a good case in point. The first two chapters wrap up the Mitsuba arc from Volume 15, and are a very good example of how serious and dark this series can get. When focused on the backstory and baggage that the leads have, it doesn't stint on showing the trauma. There's awesome fights with swords and guns, and a car is cut in half and explodes, mostly through sheer willpower. The ending, with one of the more deadpan characters of the series sobbing in grief, will leave a tear in your eye.

The next two chapters are about the town growing eyebrows exactly like Ryotsu from KochiKame and becoming "down and out old men". It has Gintoki and Katsura arguing about whether to call the possessed people "Zombrows" or "Ka-Fool-As", the climax takes place in a pachinko parlor, and the chief of police says "KochiKame's 30th anniversary? This will be completely out of date when the graphic novel comes out!".

You can sort of see what I'm getting at.

The thing is, the author skillfully handles the comedy and drama. The Shinsengumi get the majority of the trauma in the early arc, and so are not seen again for the rest of the volume. It would jar to have them recover so quickly from a tragedy, and Gin Tama certainly has enough characters to carry things along. (And yes, some characters do die in this series, making it different from, say, Bleach or One Piece.)

More to the point, the comedy is FUNNY. Not funny in a typical Jump gag series way, where you throw zany things at the wall and see what people laugh at. The characters don't necessarily have designated funny roles like many comedies. Gintoki, Shinpachi, and Kagura can all play the straight man, sarcastic bastard, or incredibly stupid overreactor alternately as the situation permits. This enables a very broad range. Likewise, it's not just crass humor, or puns, or shout-out references to other manga, or character-based humor, it's a mix of all of those.

For another example, later in Volume 16 they run up against a parody of a "hard-boiled" detective. Who speaks only in narration. After slicing his head open with his own narration text bubble (Gin Tama pretty much uses the 4th wall for kindling), they go with him to help him try to capture "The Fox". The Fox used to be a gentleman thief, but lately has been killing people left and right. The resolution of this comprises genuine serious revelations about what actually happened and many manly "You are the only one I will allow to defeat me" moments. It also has Kagura on a Harley (pardon me, an "Arley") smashing through walls randomly, a death trap that tries to trick our heroes by sending elderly relatives and babies to their doom with them, and of course a staircase that turns into a slide of oil and hot burning grease.

And I still haven't mentioned the most hysterical gag in the volume, which is in the "speed dating" arc and involves Katsura and the Joi Movement.

Now, as for weaknesses... well, each volume tends to end in the middle of a story (and begin where the last left off), so it can be very hard to pick up mid-series. And it's up to 32 volumes in Japan, so you know you're in for a heavy investment. Also, you need to be able to accept that the humor can be crass. Very crass. A few volumes ago, Kagura ate some bad curry and much was made of the fact that she'd be the only Jump heroine to have diarrhea in its weekly pages. The author's 'side notes' can also get pretty gross. And if you can't accept the Mood Whiplash of going from broad comedy to gripping drama at the whim of the author, this series might irritate you.

The author once noted that he set the series in the Edo period, and then added aliens and "modern" things, so that he essentially had the license to do anything. He's pretty much achieved that. I honestly wouldn't be surprised at anything that would happen here, as nothing by now jars and makes you say "Hey, that doesn't make any sense!". The preview for Volume 17 seems to imply we'll be seeing a bunch of robot maids on the rampage. Can't wait.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Natsume's Book Of Friends Volume 1

By Yuki Midorikawa. Released in Japan as "Natsume Yuujinchou" by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Viz.

I tend to follow Hakusensha's serializations more than other publishers, mostly due to my obsession with many of their authors. Seeing the huge popularity of Viz's releases of Vampire Knight and Ouran High School Host Club, I knew that they (and others) would be scouring LaLa looking for the next big hit.

This one was it, surprisingly. Or perhaps not that surprisingly. Japan loves its yokai. Ghost and spirit folklore pervade Japanese culture and Japanese manga, from GeGeGe No Kitarou to Yu Yu Hakusho to xxxHOLIC. And though the series may theoretically star its title character, so far it's all about the yokai.

In fact, its star may be one of the weaker aspects. Natsume is not exactly a passive hero. We certainly see him doing a lot, and his desire to give the names in the Book Of Friends back to their original owners is both noble and mature of him. And we get a sense that he feels alone and apart from everyone. But those same qualities make him seem a very insular character. I hope that future volumes devote themselves more to bringing him out of his shell. And an outgoing side character would help, too - the only other potential semi-regular we meet is just as quiet and insular.

The manga itself is a very refreshing change for the Shojo Beat line from Viz, as it's not focused on a typical girl meets boy romance. In fact, the author has said in the side notes that she wrote this title to be able to write a ghost story, not a romance story. This allows us to focus on the yokai themselves and their struggles. Natsume's grandmother, Reiko, has trapped them to a certain extent, and you feel bad for them even as you worry, as many of them are attempting to kill Natsume.

The plot seems episodic, which makes sense for a series where the goal is to find each 'name' in the book. Each chapter brings a new yokai with issues. Helping him along on each mission is Nyanko, a yokai who usually takes the form of a 'lucky cat' statue. He's an amusing combination of mascot, mentor, and jerkass. My favorites this volume were the temple spirit whose one lone worshipper is passing away, and the swallow yokai who has fallen in love with a human.

The manga can be very heart-breaking, but manages to balance the line between sympathetic and mawkish very nicely. The end of the last chapter here will probably bring a tear to your eye.

It's a refreshing change of pace manga, especially in a Shojo Beat sense. I look forward to future volumes, and seeing if Natsume can get more characterization so that he properly shares the title with his Book Of Friends.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

One Piece Volume 28

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

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. Having finished the setup, and gotten as much mileage out of wacky things happening and occasional dollops of exposition as is possible, we're now into shonen fight mode. One Piece may be a cut above, but it's still a Jump manga. Which means fights, fights, fights.

One Piece has never quite done what is termed a "tournament" arc, where various badasses fight each other and are picked off till only the hero and rival/villain are left. We'll see an attempt at one after this arc, with Foxy the Silver Fox and his crew, but Skypeia also comes vaguely near this. Eneru basically states there's 81 people battling in the forest, and by the end of 3 hours 5 will be left. So it's a classic 'see who dies' plot. Or, this being One Piece, 'see who gets knocked unconscious but is later fine'.

We do get some very interesting fights. Impact dials are explained here, and Nami gets a wonderful moment using them (whenever Nami sticks her tongue out at you, and you're an enemy, watch out). Comedy comes to the fore with Chopper's fight, with Gedatsu being one of Oda's classic insanely stupid villains. The man is almost perfect: He has silly hair, he thinks his speeches rather than saying them out loud, he rolls his eyes so far up into his head that he can't see... a minion made for One Piece, really. And it's nice to see Chopper gain some confidence by beating a goon.

Of the other fights, Luffy's gets cut off before it really gets going, as he falls into what appears to be a mysterious hole filled with treasure. Robin is rather annoyed to be facing a bunch of destructive jerks who have no issues with smashing the ancient ruins around them. Zoro, being Zoro, gets the "I respect you as an enemy but must fight you now" duel. And Sanji and Usopp get curb stomped by Eneru, in the standard 'show how powerful our villain is' moment. It serves to absolutely terrify Nami, something that will come up a little later on. Note also that Eneru can survive a spear right through his head. Yikes.

Oh yes, and the Wapol cover arc finishes. Who would have thought that he'd end up like that? Then again, this is a shonen manga, so anyone can be redeemed, theoretically.

So it's 2 hours after Eneru made his prediction, and the 81 people is winnowed down to 25. What can possibly happen next? Well, we'll have to wait till February, when the Skypeia arc will wrap up with the next 5 volumes.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Happy Cafe Volume 1

By Kou Matsuzuki. Released in Japan as "Shiawase Kissa Sanchoume" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

It's fairly well known by now what my shoujo buttons are. Strong, optimistic heroine. Lots of goofy comedy. Occasional sweet romance. So it's probably no surprise to anyone how much I enjoyed this manga.

The plot is incredibly unoriginal, but again, shoujo manga. It's not what you start with, but where you go with it. Plucky heroine strikes out on her own due to misunderstanding, meets hot guy (with hot guy friend), worms her way into their life, and into their hearts with her shiny cheeriness. Despite this, it's nothing at all like Fruits Basket.

For one, the heroine's family issues are resolved almost immediately. If we're going to get future angst from Uru, it will have to be somewhere else. (As a side note, the Urusei Yatsura fan in me is disappointed that a girl named Uru doesn't have cute little horns.) And while she's bright and cheery, and sometimes a little clueless, she's only a 5 out of ten on the shoujo heroine density index, where 10 would be Hikari from Special A.

Ichiro, the blond guy, is underdeveloped so far, but that's no surprise in a manga that wants to set up the lead couple. Shindo is very well done, though. He fits the archetype of 'jerk guy', but in a good way. He's mean to the heroine in ways like "why do you keep breaking things?" and "I am uncomfortable with telling you about myself", which is totally understandable given his background. We don't get 'I like to screw with my girl's head' that so many other authors seem to think is what shoujo jerks should be.

So far the couple is quite sweet, with blushing going on between both Uru and Shindo. Since the series has three leads, I'm unsure if Ichiro will somehow enter and make this a love triangle, but it wouldn't surprise me. This was 15 volumes long in Japan, so we've clearly got a ways to go before we wrap up. The cafe plot lends itself well to one-shots (such as the one here with the model), so we don't have to spend every chapter watching these two not get together.

There's some very funny humor, with a lot of side 'out of speech bubble' comments I've seen in other Hana to Yume works. Uru's incredible strength is a good quirk, though I think Ichiro's sleeping/needs food schtick is somewhat overdone in the first volume. My favorite gag is when Shindo sees Uru up on a high ladder studying, and notes she shouldn't sit so high wearing a skirt. Having read shoujo manga before, we expect red blushy "you pervert!" comments. So Uru's blase "It's OK, I'm wearing underwear!" made me laugh a lot.

There is, of course, one major fault. There is absolutely nothing new or innovative about this manga. It will not shock you, or make you struggle to get through the months until the next volume is released. It is what I call 'comfort manga', the title you can turn to after a long day that is not very taxing on the brain and puts a smile on your face (and a song in your heart, naturally). But it's funny, and sweet, and has likeable leads, and thus as comfort manga I think it does its job quite well.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

One Piece Volume 27

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

The Skypeia arc continues, and we finally meet our main villain, Eneru, face to face. One thing that's immediately apparent is that his face is based on the American rapper Eminem (even his name is similar). Oda admitted this in an interview, but even if he hadn't the caricature is so well done that it seems immediately apparent. He has the utter arrogance that most One Piece villains seem to have, but he's also possessed of a sort of bored cruelty, very fitting to someone playing God. He has his rules, and his minions must obey them... at least till the end of the volume, where the rules are abandoned.

Speaking of villains, I can't help but notice that the 'cover story' arc in these volumes deals with Wapol, one of the minor yet utterly irritating minor villains from the Alabasta arc. Oda has also stated that he hates to kill off villains, preferring to leave them broken and having their dreams crushed. This arc makes it clear why he might do that - so they can get new, better dreams. Seeing Wapol become an expert at making children's toys is not something I remotely expected, but it's very fitting for the sort of worldview One Piece has.

The other major thing that happens in this arc is meeting the Shandians, the other major inhabitants of this area. They've been at war with Eneru for some time, and at war with the sky people, and just at war in general. In fact, they read very much like a cross between an extended close family and a terrorist cell. And their leader, Wyper, seems very much like one of those 'I don't care about means vs. ends' warriors we see so much in modern fiction.

And dropping into all of this chaos are our heroes, who get a lot of chances to shine. Well, OK, Chopper doesn't shine, but you get the feeling he's being set up to do something later. There's also lots of funny moments, such as Nami's utter devotion to money, and the crew somehow managing to convince a pack of wolves to stay and party around their bonfire instead of eating them. (I love that scene, as it reads like one of the 'cast member and animal' cover pages in the real world. Also has a great shot of Robin sitting apart from the others, smiling. She's happy but guarded, as always.)

I also note this volume has the Straw Hat Pirates actually trying to get treasure! It's so rare it actually needs to be pointed out. Adventure, saving kingdoms, battling tyranny, rescuing friends... there's usually very little looting on their agenda.

The volume ends with the crew splitting up to search for the ruins where the treasure is. One team is Luffy, Zoro, Chopper and Robin. One assumes that Robin can keep the other three from getting utterly lost. One would be wrong. One giant snake later, everyone's split up. Can't wait to see what happens next...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Love*Com Volume 16

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

Everyone knows the tragedy of a great series with low sales cut off in its prime. You see it a lot here in the US, with superhero comics. And it's all over Japan, with Weekly Shonen Jump being particularly unforgiving of its newbies. But Japan also has the opposite problem, which is when a series gets popular, and you get an anime or a live-action movie, so the artist has to continue it. Unfortunately, it's almsot done. So what happens? Plot complications, waffling, brief breakups, focusing on side characters...

It's sad when a series you really enjoyed hits this wall, but that's what's happened with me and Lovely Complex, aka Love*Com. The early volumes had both fantastic comedy (the facial expressions in particular were a thing of beauty) and some sweet romantic angst. I read each volume religiously, and couldn't wait for Koizumi and Otani to hook up.

And then they did. Woo hoo! And... wait, there's 9 more volumes to go? Uh-oh. Even this volume, the second to last, has issues. It's actually the last volume of the main series proper, but there's another one due out in 2 months, which will have a bunch of 'side stories'.

What's worse, they couldn't even fill this volume! Sometimes in early volumes of manga, you see 'one-shots' that have nothing to do with the main story, inserted into the manga by the author to fill space and to get her old work in a book. Which is fine. But you rarely see it later on, after a book has become popular. This volume has a 40-page 'dramatization' of the lead actor from the live-action Love*Com film, and it's OK, I guess, but it's so hyper-realistic that it's totally out of sync with the rest of the series.

As for the main series, we have one more side-character to get paired off, as the artist seems to be falling into the 'must pair all the spares' habit that shoujo does a lot. (Marmalade Boy made fun of this, noting that it deliberately left two guys un-hooked up in its manga.) So we meet a new girl, and she's not what she seems, and she has a crush on Kohori, so they try to help her out. And it turns out that when she comes out of her shell, she's awesome! If this sounds cliched, yeah.

To be fair, if you don't like cliches, don't read any shoujo manga at all. And I did like the student film they put together, where Otani finally (if indirectly) says that he loves Koizumi. It was very sweet, and her reaction was wonderful. And the play Otani-Boshi was hysterical, especially Koizumi's improvised ending. Nice to see one great blast of the comedy this series was known for.

But overall, I can't help but think this is a classic example of a 17-volume series that should have been 8 or 9. It's staggered to an ending, but I'll probably be re-reading the earlier volumes more.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New Looney Tunes DVDs: Contents and Discussion

For a long time, Warner Brothers was being very good to the classic cartoon buyer. 60 new Warner Brothers cartoons every year, restored and uncut, in a 4 DVD set. It was intended for the collector, and not only had the classics everyone remembered, but also obscure B&W gems and forgotten obscurities, with extras galore and commentaries. Life was good.

And then the economy went down the tubes, and the expensive yet not very profitable DVDs were canceled. To try to make up for it we have two single-disc releases out this April 27th, each containing 15 new-to-DVD collections, which the publicity says is restored and uncut, even if it will have no extras whatsoever. Hey, you take what you can get.

Then, to make matters worse, a listing of the shorts was leaked to TV Shows on DVD Monday. It was pretty great! It also turned out to be wrong. Now we have a revised list, which is... well, a bit less great. To be fair, they can't all be winners, and as a cartoon fanatic I eventually want every single cartoon restored and released, regardless of quality. And there are some stone cold classics sprinkled in here. But yes, this is a very good example of why companies hate false leaks.

Here's the contents, with a brief description of the cartoon, and a quick note if the cartoon had been censored, cut, or suppressed on television for violence, racism, or both. I don't know the order the short will be in (the site has them alphabetically), so I'll do it in chronological order. The year and cartoon director will also be provided.

Bugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire
1) Mutiny On The Bunny (1950, Freleng). Yosemite Sam shanghai's Bugs to be the crew on board his pirate ship. Bugs getting clubbed by Sam and Sam pointing a gun at Bugs used to be censored for TV.
2) Bushy Hare (1950, McKimson). Bugs ends up in Australia, where he teams up with a kangaroo and its mother to battle a savage Aborigine. When this was on TV, they sometimes cut the savage gleefully stabbing into Bugs' hole. Nowadays, it's banned from TV for questionable portrayals of Aborigines.
3) Hare We Go (1951, McKimson). Bugs joins Christopher Columbus to help discover America. A mallet hit used to be censored for TV.
4) Foxy By Proxy (1952, Freleng). A remake of an old Tex Avery cartoon, this has Bugs trying to evade a particularly dumb dog who thinks he's a fox. The ending used to be cut.
5) Hare Trimmed (1953, Freleng). Yosemite Sam plans to marry Granny (from the Tweety cartoons) for her money, so Bugs dresses as a rival to stop him. A great cartoon, frequently seen on TV cut to ribbons, so an uncut print will be great. Lots of censored violence.
6) Lumber Jack-Rabbit (1954, Jones). Bugs ends up in a giant carrot patch, but then must battle a giant dog. This cartoon was originally released in 3-D, the only WB cartoon to be released thus.
7) Napoleon Bunny-Part (1956, Freleng). Bugs heckles and outwits Napoleon Bonaparte. Bugs taking snuff was cut for a while on TV after a controversy with Mighty Mouse and the Rev. Donald Wildmon.
8) Bedevilled Rabbit (1957, McKimson). The Tasmanian Devil was such a big hit that they ordered 2 more cartoons immediately. Here's the first from that year, which is almost a remake of the first one from 1954. Also features Mrs. Taz. Some explosives used to be cut for TV.
9) Apes of Wrath (1959, Freleng). A remake of McKimson's Gorilla My Dreams, only not as good. The stork knocks Bugs out and gives him to the Gorillas as their baby. Hijinx ensue. Lots of smashing on the head used to be cut for TV.
10) From Hare To Heir (1960, Freleng). Bugs is offering a million pounds (in 17th century England) to a mild-tempered person. Yosemite Sam wants the money, but... yeah. Some head bashing cut for TV.
11) Lighter Than Hare (1960, Freleng). SPACE Yosemite Sam! Sam uses a bunch of robots, but is just as bad at catching Bugs as his human counterpart. In the end, Bugs makes an Amon 'n Andy ref that sometimes gets cut from TV.
12) The Million Hare (1963, McKimson). Bugs and Daffy compete on a game show to win a million dollars. Daffy is in his greedy, evil phase here (something I loathe).
13) Mad As A Mars Hare (1963, Jones & Noble). The last and least of the Marvin cartoons, this at least has a very bizarre ending with Bugs becoming a neanderthal rabbit.
14) Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare (1964, McKimson). The Tasmanian Devil is after Bugs, who disguises himself as a doctor and puts him through the wringer... though in the end they both get beat up. Lots of explosions edited for TV.
15) False Hare (1964, McKimson). The final classic theatrical Bugs Bunny cartoon. Shame it's only average. The Big Bad Wolf tries to show his nephew he's cool by going after Bugs. TV prints cut the wolf getting gooshed by an Iron Maiden.

Daffy Duck: Frustrated Fowl
1) Tick Tock Tuckered (1944, Clampett). A remake of Clampett's first cartoon from 1937, only in color and with Daffy replacing Gabby Goat. It's quite funny. Daffy and Porky have to get to work on time, but circumstances keep them awake all night.
2) Nasty Quacks (1945, Tashlin). Daffy at possibly his most obnoxious in this wonderfully frantic Frank Tashlin effort. He's the pet duck of a spoiled brat... until the father decides to get even. The TV print of this is wretched, so a restored version is greatly needed.
3) Daffy Dilly (1948, Jones). One of the transitional Jones Daffy cartoons, where he's greedy but still daffy and likeable. Jones would later play up the greed and selfishness, and the other directors would make him a villain. This cartoon shows that he didn't have to, and is fantastic. Daffy tries to get some cash by making a stubborn billionaire laugh.
4) Wise Quackers (1949, Freleng). In order to avoid getting served as Elmer Fudd's duck dinner, Daffy offers to be his slave. Daffy makes a pretty poor slave. The gag with Daffy as a poor beaten slave, then switching to Abraham Lincoln, would be reused in a later Bugs Bunny cartoon. Due to the questionable slavery plot, this cartoon isn't seen on TV these days.
5) The Prize Pest (1951, McKimson). Possibly the last of the pure screwball Daffy cartoons. Porky "wins" Daffy in a radio contest, but Daffy tries to overstay his welcome by pretending to have a split personality. Features some great cartoon reactions.
6) Design For Leaving (1954, McKimson). Daffy as a salesman again, trying to sell various modern items to a reluctant Elmer Fudd. One of Daffy's best '50s cartoons, folks remember this one. "For a small price, I can sell you the little BLUE button to get you down!" A scene with Elmer accidentally getting hanged by a tie is cut from TV prints.
7) Stork Naked (1955, Freleng). The stork is trying to deliver an egg to Mr. and Mrs. Daffy Duck, but Daffy is doing his best to stop him, not wanting more children. A fun mid-50s effort (that I admittedly don't remember all that well).
8) This Is A Life? (1955, Freleng). Bugs is the guest of a parody of This Is Your Life, and we see clips from several cartoons. Daffy bitches and moans, while Elmer and Sam try to get revenge. Tons of explosions and beatings cut from TV. Friz Freleng can't do what Chuck Jones did and make Daffy selfish yet likeable.
9) Dime To Retire (1955, McKimson). Porky tries to rent a hotel room from Daffy, for only 2 cents. However, Daffy has ways to make the costs increase. Daffy's a jerk in this, but he's also hysterical. A very underrated cartoon. "It'll cost you $666! Just put it in that slot by the phone..."
10) Ducking The Devil (1957, McKimson). Bob McKimson used a wacky Daffy the longest after the greedy Daffy became the norm, and this was perhaps his last hurrah. And it's awesome, one of my favorite Daffy cartoons. Daffy is fleeing from the Tasmanian Devil... till he hears about the reward money. In the end, Daffy succeeds and gets the money! Very rare for a later Daffy cartoon.
11) People Are Bunny (1959, McKimson). Another game show parody with Bugs and Daffy, this one of the old Art Linkletter show People Are Funny. Daffy getting shot gets cut for TV.
12) Person To Bunny (1960, Freleng). And another TV parody, of Edward R. Murrow's Person To Person. Bugs is being interviewed, and won't let Daffy in on it. He also trashes Elmer, who tries to settle the score. Naturally, Daffy gets all the beatings and shootings. Which tend to get cut for TV. This was the final cartoon to use Arthur Q. Bryan as the voice of Elmer Fudd, as he passed away after this was made.
13) Daffy's Inn Trouble (1961, McKimson). Daffy, a disgruntled street sweeper, tries to start a hotel to compete against Porky's. This goes about as well as you'd expect. Some gunplay is cut for TV. By now McKimson was using the greedy selfish Daffy.
14) The Iceman Ducketh (1964, Monroe). Daffy tries to capture Bugs so he can sell his pelt for money. Yeah, we're hitting the dregs here. There's no reason this couldn't be Yosemite Sam, or any other villain. Chuck Jones was fired right as this cartoon began (though not because the cartoon was bad), so Phil Monroe finished it.
15) Suppressed Duck (1965, McKimson). The only 'post-64' cartoon on the DVDs, though this thankfully does not have Daffy battling Speedy Gonzalez. Daffy attempts to hunt a bear, but the strict hunting rules, as well as Daffy's general personality by this time, do him in.

Though I may have bitched once or twice during this list, I'm genuinely looking forward to these cartoons on DVD. Any Looney Tune or Merrie Melodie is better than 99% of what's on TV today, and they should be cherished.

One Piece Volume 26

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

The first half of this volume continues to introduce the new arc, as our heroes (who are all on the cover for once) arrive in Skypeia. Sky Islands turn out to be quite different from what they're used to, and the scene where Usopp demonstrates why one should not swim to the bottom of a cloud sea is both hysterical and unnerving. Oda is essentially world building here, and later of we get such things as wavers, dials, giant trees and fauna, and a world ruled by God. Literally.

Speaking of which, I'm pleased with how Viz handled the translation with Enel. They generally use the Japanese word 'Kami', but are not shy about noting that it can mean 'God'. Enel is not any sort of a God, of course, but try telling that to the citizens of Skypeia after he zaps them.

Having arrived and met a few new characters, the Straw Hats naturally get right into trouble. (As a side note, Robin's comment about finding adventure through exploration, rather than more dangerous definitions of piracy, is rather touching, and Zoro's glance to her is pretty much the last time he'll be grumpy about her joining the crew.) Oddly enough, it's Nami starting it off, powering her waver to the Forbidden Forest and getting noticed by the Kami's henchgoons.

This being One Piece, you know that the assistants to the Big Bad are going to be incredibly goofy. We only have a chance to meet the first one in this volume, Satori, but his appearance fits in well with Oda's tendency to match looks with powers. He's a round ball-like guy... who controls balls! What a coincidence!

Oh yes, on Page 179 Sanji says Idoit. Bad Viz! Spellchecker should have caught that!

The most striking moment in the volume is where Enel decides that cute young lady Conis has revealed too much to the strangers, and decides to call down heavenly fire on her. The lightning strike that follows (which Luffy and the Sky Knight only barely rescue her from) is really impressive in the way that it's built up, and helps to establish Enel (still unseen at this point) as a terrifying presence.

And as always, seeds are planted that end up being important much later on. The description of the various dials and how they work is done in a "welcome to this weird world" way, but will have a huge impact (pardon the pun) on the rest of Skypeia, as well as future arcs.

And hands down, the funniest moment of the volume goes to Sanji, who looks through binoculars, sees Nami and the others being kidnapped, and his first thought is "why'd she put her T-shirt back on?". Oh Sanji, the fact that some fans actually think you are a smooth ladies' man amuses the hell out of me.

So it's not as fantastic as the previous two volumes, but it's still a nice solid One Piece.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Teru Teru x Shonen Volume 6

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

Those who know me well know that I have a certain bad habit of defending lost causes. Give me a series where there's a character everyone hates, and inevitably they will be my favorite. Likewise, give me a series people say is the worst thing ever, and I'll start talking about its virtues.

To be fair, Teru Teru x Shonen doesn't quite have the bad reputation that, say, The Magic Touch does. This is partly because it's a CMX title, so barely anyone sees it or hears of it beyond the blogosphere. But it's also because of many flaws that make it a hard title to get behind. Despite this, I think it's a series that rewards a patient reader with many sweet, suspenseful, and fun moments.

(I tend to pick on CMX for its lack of marketing quite a bit, but seriously. This is a romance manga about NINJAS! How are you letting the opportunity slip through your fingers?! There are teens out there who will buy anything that even looks like it has ninjas!)

To mention its faults, let's start with the heroine. Shinobu is a very typical Japanese shoujo trope, which is to say she's a girl who's had such a traumatic upbringing that she's found it easiest to live with a veneer of 'rich bitch' around her, so that no one gets close enough to hurt her. Unfortunately, she can sometimes be too good at this, and it becomes hard to like her. It doesn't help that the hero of this story, Saizo, tends to act like a doormat around her.

Well, most of the time. This manga juggles several plot balls, and one of them is that Saizo seems to have a touch of split personality. Glasses on, he's a wimpy wuss who cries and frets. Glasses off, he's a kick-ass ninja who'll destroy anyone who tries to hurt his Shinobu-sama. Volume 6 is an especially good one as Shinobu is starting to reveal her secrets to him, and also has confessed her love (after being double-dog-dared to by her mother, sort of). These two are terrified of ruining what they have, so communication is an effort.

We also get melodrama. If I had to describe the genre of this manga, I'd call it a potboiler. Shinobu's relationship with her mother is emotionally abusive, there are enemies constantly attempting to kidnap her, and to top it off, her revelation right at the end of the volume might turn everything around 180 degrees. And then there's Sasuke, who's dealing with his brother's betrayal. Really, this series reminds me a lot of Fruits Basket (which was running in Hana to Yume concurrently with this) in the way that it deals with angst. It starts off looking like a typical school comedy with an arrogant princess and her crybaby ninja, and then starts to reveal that every single person has a backstory from hell.

Oh, and for those who recall Shinobu's troubling relationship with her guardian, Shogo, you'll be relieved to hear that she decides to stop sleeping in his bed after confessing her love to Saizo. And thank God, frankly. Their casual affection was incredibly creepy.

There's not as much humor here as previous volumes, mostly as the plot is moving away from the school setting and into revelations and the ninja clan. The one amusing part is Shinobu and Saizo realizing that yes, the exams will contain everything they missed while away dealing with ninja plots, and that they don't get a free pass for being absent.

There's a few other issues. I understand CMX's decision not to translate the title, as it translates to 'Shiny-Shiny x Boy' literally (I think it's meant to reflect Shinobu and Saizo), but it makes it harder to sell to casual buyers. As always, CMX's lower paper quality might also stop a buyer. And there's an unfortunate tendency, whenever Shinobu tries to get involved and solve her own problems, to tell her that she should just sit back and let herself be protected or else she'll get hurt. Saizo is especially bad at this. I'm hoping that it's deliberate and making a point that will come to fruition later, because for the moment it reads like "Get back in your cage please, adorable little bird".

But overall, I think the good outweighs the bad. I always find myself eager to see what happens next. And now that we're over halfway through, I expect events to move even faster. If you want an angst-filled adventure with ninjas and princesses, this could be the title for you!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

One Piece Volume 25

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

When I read this volume, I was rather surprised to see exactly how much was going on in it. Not only do we finish the setup for Skypeia, but there's also lots of arc elements introduced that become far more important years later in this manga. I was surprised because I mostly remembered this volume for exactly two big events.

Let's start with those, in fact. Bellamy was introduced last volume as an annoying braggart who clearly was crying out for a beating. We felt Nami's frustration at Luffy and Zoro sitting there and taking their abuse, but Luffy was making a point. Now, however, Bellamy has gone too far, beating up Cricket and stealing their hard-won gold. Luffy is pissed. And it doesn't help that Bellamy has a rather dull Devil Fruit power, the Boing Boing fruit (which makes his legs into springs, by the way. I think it'd be cooler if the Boing Boing fruit brought down your enemies' server by too many visitor hits...)

And so Luffy gives him all the attention he deserves, by bringing him down with one simple punch. He doesn't even use any Devil Fruit powers. It's possibly one of the most beautiful two-page spreads in the series, and shows you that one does not need Devil Fruit to be utterly BADASS.

The other major thing I recall from this volume is the ending, where the Going Merry and its crew manage to evade Blackbeard and his crew and survive the Knock Up Stream. Sometimes you get a sequence that shows the main reason that Oda is drawing this manga. In fact, it's the main reason shonen manga exists, in my opinion. The Spirit Of Adventure. The reason we love the Straw Hat Pirates so much is not their strength, or how funny they are, or even their hopes and dreams (though those are all important things). It's because of the sheer joy of adventuring, the idea that they do things because they are amazing. Look at the faces of everyone as they realize that the ship is flying up the stream. I defy you not to break out in a big grin.

That said, there's a lot more to this volume. We meet the World Government's leaders, as well as the head of the Marines. We also meet two more of the Warlords Of The Sea, Donquixote Donflamingo and Bartholomew Kuma, and are reintroduced to Hawkeye. And we also get properly introduced to the bare-chested guy from last volume, who turns out to be Blackbeard D. Teech. (Always watch out for anyone with a D. in their names in this manga). There's Shanks! There's Buggy and Alvida! It's like old home week. One gets the sense of things happening while the Straw Hats are off adventuring, as opposed to everyone simply waiting offstage for their cue.

And we get the story of Skypeia, and Noland the Liar. It's presented as a silly children's story, but is of course based in reality, as we will discover.

There's also some great funny bits. Seeing Usopp, normally so terrified of everything, being happy around snakes and bugs while Nami and Sanji screech is wonderful. Robin's casual capture of the South Bird is a wonderfully timed anticlimax. And the reaction shots of everyone throughout the volume, especially Luffy, Usopp, and Nami, are perpetual comedy gold.

A huge volume, for many reasons. Next up, Skypeia proper!

V.B. Rose Volume 7

By Banri Hidaka. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

This review contains spoilers.

Those who've read my Twitter account or my Livejournal know that I've become an uber-fan of Banri Hidaka, author not only of this title but also CMX's I Hate You More Than Anyone! and Tears of a Lamb, which also ran in Hana to Yume. However, as I am trying to be a real life blogger now, I will avoid using the word SQUEE! in this review. Mostly.

Volume 7 opens where Volume 6 left off, at Arisaka's birthday party. Sadly, we find out he's a lightweight when it comes to drinking, which puts the kibosh on any romance that might happen. But then, you knew that going in. Certain types of shoujo manga have to be read in a certain way. You can't expect a fast pace. V.B. Rose ended up being 14 volumes total in Japan, and this is only the halfway point.

What this means is there's a lot of wheel spinning in this volume. Ageha has no real experience at being in love, as her classmates point out. She's having difficulty realizing whether this is love or admiration, as well as separating work from love (she is in love with her boss, after all). And Arisaka isn't helping either, waffling as he's still upset over his last breakup. It really doesn't help that the ex-girlfriend is working with both of them, of course. Or is a deadpan whose emotions are impossible to read.

Actually, compared to Kazuha and Senko in IHYMTA!, Ageha is fairly sedate. At least most of her angst is internalized. By the way, for those who are unaware, much of Hidaka's work is crossed over with each other, and there are multiple cameos. One of Ageha's classmates, for example, was seen before in a short series she wrote in 1996. Luckily, she has gotten much better at making the cameos non-dependent. If you recognise Minatsu, then you get a bonus. If you don't, it's not a big deal.

Luckily, there is Nagare, who is determined to be the one thing driving the plot. And thank God, as he's forcing Arisaka to stop being such a wuss. Nagare is clearly meant to be the closest thing this title has to a 'villain' character, but I can't help but sympathize with him. He knows he's already fallen into the 'I see you like a little brother' category, and that Ageha is falling for Arisaka fast. So he has to be blunter. And at least this time he's actually confessing, as opposed to trying to undermine her relationship with Arisaka like last time. (OK, he still does that a bit.)

Hidaka's art has also greatly improved from her earlier series, and her facial expressions are particularly a joy. Be it Ageha's light blushes, Arisaka's frustrated rage, or everyone else's super-deformed grins, they're just fun to look at. And, of course, we have the fashion. There's less of that in this volume, but we do get a nice scene of them planning their next dress, and seeing how it's coming along. As well as Ageha's cute outfits. And as always, I love the eyes on Mamoru and Nagare. Hidaka seems to like 'bedroom eye' characters (The Honjo family in IHYMTA! are another example), and it appeals to me personally. I think it makes Mamoru sexier.

Overall, an excellent volume. Not much develops plot-wise, beyond explaining Kana and Nagare's confession, but I expect that the latter will be what drives Volume 8.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

One Piece Volume 24

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

Alabasta is finally over, and the crew sets off on new adventure. Therefore, as you would imagine, this is very much a transition book, setting the pieces for the arc that takes over the next 9 volumes or so. Of course, this being One Piece, there's a ton of stuff happening through the book, so much you barely notice that it's all introduction.

First and foremost, we have a stowaway on board, who asks to join their crew: Miss All-Sunday, aka Nico Robin. I'll make no bones about it, I love Robin. She's one of my favorite characters, and I like what she adds to the crew: stability. Everyone in the crew has a quirk. Either they're all quirks (Luffy, Usopp, Chopper), or they're sometimes serious but frequently fall into silly (Nami, Sanji, Zoro). The closest Robin ever gets to goofy is her morbid sense of humor; Oda has said in interviews that she's the only member of the Straw Hat Pirates who has normal expressions. For a manga like this, which can sometimes risk being too over the top silly, she's a nice balance.

I was very amused at how quickly she finagled her way into the crew. She seems to have analyzed them perfectly, and wins Usopp and Chopper over by using her powers for silly stuff; bribes Nami with some jewels; Sanji loves her because she is pretty and female; and Luffy is Luffy, so he was always going to accept her. This leaves Zoro, who is the exception and doesn't trust her. To her credit, she knows she can't do anything with him, so doesn't try.

The reader, of course, knows that she's OK because we saw the flashback with Alabasta's King, where she talks about how she's always had a dream and kept trying to achieve it even though she was constantly on the run from the world. Dreams have always been the primary focus of One Piece (I'm Gonna Be King Of The Pirates!), and hearing that she has a grand dream is basically Oda telling us that it's OK to trust her.

Dreams are a particular focus of this volume, as the crew, searching for a way to get to a sky island, wind up in a place called Jaya, surrounded by dismal pirates who don't put any stock in dreams, and go on about how the real world demands focus. Bellamy, a particularly annoying pirate captain, even calls the One Piece a legend that only losers would pursue. Of course, this is balanced out by others, notably a huge bare-chested pirate with several missing teeth, who gets a full 2-page spread when he notes that "people's dreams never end". Gosh, I wonder if he's important later on?

I presume, reading One Piece 24, that I am preaching to the converted. No one is going to try a series by reading the 24th volume, though this isn't too bad a volume for a newbie to pick up. You get the basics of everyone's personality, even if there aren't any fights (in fact, a major moment in the book is when Luffy and Zoro choose NOT to fight). What's not to like? The art can be a problem for some people. This is not really a series populated by pretty boys. Many, many goofy faces and goofy expressions on pretty faces exist here. Also, Robin's one flaw is that, as the normal one, she gets stuck with the exposition much of the time, although Oda tries to balance it out a bit. And of course Viz translates Zoro as Zolo, for legal reasons. Yes, I know some people who refuse to read any of One Piece by Viz for this reason.

In any case, it's a terrific volume, as always, and if you're a One Piece fan you should definitely pick it up. Speaking of which, this month marks the start of Viz's 'One Piece catchup', so Volume 25-28 are also available now. I'll be reviewing them later.

Also, Robin has a great hat. I like hats.