Sunday, February 28, 2010

Negima! Magister Negi Magi Volume 25

By Ken Akamatsu. Released in Japan as "Mahou Sensei Negima!" by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Del Rey.

This was a pretty great volume of Negima for those who like shonen manga. There's a huge fight that takes up 2/3 of the volume, with lots of attacks and counterattacks and evil psycho lesbians and things going boom. We also start to finally get some background on Negi's father, courtesy Jack Rakan, and meet a new character, Princess Arika.

Generally I find it hard to describe fights, so I'll just note that all of our heroes and heroines get a brief chance to show off their skills - and Nodoka really looks impressive, showing how far she's come since getting to this world and how much she learned from her "treasure hunting" friends. While still remaining, of course, Shinobu from Love Hina with a slightly different look.

Negi and Setsuna have a much tougher time. Negi proves to be tougher than Fate expected, but Fate still pretty much manages to wipe the floor with him. Meanwhile, Tsukuyomi takes Setsuna apart, having apparently now gone from "I have an obsessive crush on you" to "making you bleed causes me to orgasm". This volume shows how completely over the edge she's gone (she even licks her blade, in the time-honored cliche), and she accuses Setsuna of being too close to her friends and too human to ever defeat her. Something we've heard Setsuna accused of before, by Evangeline. Of course, this is Setsuna, Mistress of Angst, so...

In the end, though, it seems like only a minor defeat, as all our heroes are alive and they get some useful intel on the enemy. I say seems, of course, as it turns out this was a DISASTROUS defeat for our heroes, but it's only suggested here - we won't really know why till Volume 26.

And of course there's humor and fanservice, the other things Negima is known for. The service is much lower than it used to be in the early days of this manga, but it's still there, mostly in the scenes where Jack Rakan defeats two of Fate's minions by flipping their skirts, stealing their panties, and sexually harassing them till they surrender. Negi and Yue briefly meet, and she has a flicker of recognition, causing her to let him get away and sacrifice herself. (Emily's 'we will avenge your death!' when people are not dead seems to be a running gag.) Jack Rakan's film of the backstory is hysterical, especially when he notes Konoka's dad's similarities to Setsuna. And Nagi and Arika's initial meeting - and subsequent dislike of each other - reminds me of the stereotypical Takahashi couple. Hrm, foreshadowing? (Yes - and obvious foreshadowing at that, but hey.)

Oh, and the copious notes regarding the spells being used here are really above and beyond - great details on the part of Akamatsu (and Del Rey's translators, the Nibley twins).

If you can't stand nudity and 'boobies!' type fanservice, this is not the title for you. But if you can get over that (and the protagonist's age), this has become one of the most exciting shonen manga being released over here.

Terrorism: Bad! Definitely!

One Piece Volume 33

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

When we last left our heroes, they were back on the Grand Line being challenged to a Davy Back Fight. The fight comes in 3 parts, and they choose teams ahead of time. So we have Robin, Nami, and Usopp; Zoro, Sanji, and Chopper; and Luffy by himself. What's more, the team that wins gets to choose a crewmember of the team that loses for their own crew. This is why the fights are so bad - crews end up decimated if they lose.

This volume is really just an excuse to show that our crew are very strong and talented at what they do. Usopp comes up with science on the fly, Nami navigates through treacherous waters, and Robin uses her body part powers to keep things going. Unfortunately, the Foxy crew cheat openly (they even note cheating is perfectly fine in the rules), and due to his own Devil Fruit Powers, the Foxy team wins the first race.

Unfortunately for team 2, they decide to take Chopper for their crew, as he's cute and a doctor and basically a talking reindeer. Chopper is horrified, and Zoro and Sanji now have to work on their own against Foxy's team, three huge guys who outweigh them and outsize them by several orders of magnitude. However, the fun of these few chapters comes from watching the glorious bitching and sniping that Zoro and Sanji fling at each other. They may be fellow crew members, but they make a big deal of being unable to stand each other, and the result is comedy gold.

We also get my favorite moment of the whole volume in this battle, which is set up to be a soccer hybrid. Just like soccer, there are fouls and red cards, and the referee is blatantly favoring Fozy's team. So much so that Sanji pummels him to the ground. Near unconsciousness, he reaches for his red card to remove Sanji from the game, when he finds his cards and whistle gone! Cut to Nami, tongue sticking out, flashing the cards and whistle. "It's an old habit." A nice reminder of Nami's thieving ways.

Sanji and Zoro win, of course, and Chopper is rescued. This leads to the final game, which is Foxy vs. Luffy. But not just any Luffy... AFRO LUFFY! I have to admit, I was waiting for this volume just so I could see how Viz would handle the awkward dialogue. They did an excellent job of it, playing up the 'champion' part of the boxing being why Luffy needs the afro (the original had Luffy getting the mysterious strength of a black person, in case you're curious). Needless to say, Afro Luffy is hysterically funny, especially when all the other characters start crediting the Afro with making him stronger (except Nami, our voice of reason as always).

However, Foxy turns out to be less of a pushover than we thought, and due to a combination of his devil fruit and dirty tricks, manages to beat Luffy to near-death? Is this the end for Straw-Hat Luffy? (Well, no, it's not. Come on, Foxy is a jobber. But you'll have to wait for Vol. 34 to see what happens.)

Despite the extra expense, I'm glad Viz is catching up with One Piece. Especially as starting with 34 we head into Water 7 and Enies Lobby, my favorite arc of the series to date.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 2

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

Volume 2 of Excel Saga starts to spin a bit more of its actual plot, though things are still in the beginning stages. (By the way, Viz and Rikdo Koshi have done original cover art for the first 4 volumes of the manga, ostensibly to help them sell. When presumably they didn't sell, Viz reverted to simply using the original Japanese covers, starting with Volume 5.)

The good news is we meet two more of our main cast in this volume. Dr. Kabapu makes an immediate impression. He looks odd, and he is odd. But he's also immediately shown to be morally bankrupt, and willing to be an utter jerk for his own ends. If you ask me, he's more of a villain throughout the series than Il Palazzo is, even though he is ostensibly 'protecting the city'. (Of course, once Miwa Rengaya shows up, you get the feeling she'll soon overtake both of them).

And then there's Misaki Matsuya, who plays the resident 'sensible' woman throughout the manga. Rikdo Koshi is not generally above letting anyone, at any time, play the boke or tsukkomi as events warrant, and indeed the liner notes for Volume 2 note that Excel and Hyatt alternate boke and tsukkomi depending on the situation. Likewise, while Watanabe (at first) and Sumiyoshi CAN be sensible and level-headed, it's Misaki who carries the brunt of whacking idiots and pointing out stupid things. In a manga with as many weirdos and idiots as this one, it's welcome.

A couple of other things to note about her introduction: we see her briefly with a cute keychain plushie. Misaki's addiction to cute plushies, besides being a nice break in her otherwise 'perfect independent and strong woman' persona, will continue in future volumes. It's generally a way for Rikdo to make references to other series that are running alongside Excel Saga in Young King OURS. The other thing is that it's revealed that she and Iwata were classmates in college. He's far too informal with her, and she beats him constantly for calling her Misaki, with no honorific. Stay tuned for a lot more on these two...

Meanwhile, our heroines are doing what they do best. Working odd jobs, hailing Il Palazzo, making pathetic attempts to take over the city for the glory of ACROSS, and occasionally sniping at each other. That last is somewhat of a surprise, and won't last; in a volume or two, Hyatt and Excel will have warmed up to each other, and Hyatt will end up being utterly deferential. (Excel's true sniping partner will arrive in Volume 8.) Amusing gags here include Hyatt's inability to not steal medicine, couples with Excel's inability to resist the word 'conquer'; yet another insane appearance by the Black Jack-esque doctor and his nurse; and Hyatt's mysterious ability to avoid setting off any mines while walking through a minefield.

This leads us to the two major plot points that will become important over the whole series. The first is Excel's superhuman endurance and abilities. At first, you think that it might be merely manga exaggeration - this is a comedy, after all. But gradually, as Excel gets blown into the air by mines, drowned in the middle of oceans, and forced to lift unconscious robots, that she's simply more than a mere insane human.

The other thing that is introduced here is Il Palazzo suffering from what appears to be multiple personalities. There's voices talking to him in his head yelling at him about enemies, and he sends Excel and Hyatt on missions and then seems to be completely ignorant of what he's done. This too will be important later on, and was in fact also used in the anime version (though it was taken in a different direction). This is probably a good thing, as Il Palazzo on his own tends to be fairly drab, spouting rhetoric and pulling ropes on trapdoors. An air of mystery adds to his character.

And of course there are endnotes by Carl Horn. I know fans who buy manga sight unseen just for Carl's notes.

This is a fun, funny manga, with weird wacky situations, and you get the sense that a big confrontation is set up. To be continued!

Friday, February 26, 2010

License Request: Tokyo Crazy Paradise

So, you've been reading the Shojo Beat line. In particular, you're a fan of Skip Beat! You like the characterization, the strong female leads, and the dramatic posing. You want more! Has this author done any other shojo?

Why yes, yes, she has! In fact, if you turn over your Skip Beat volume to the back, Viz will tell you! Skip Beat is from the author of Tokyo Crazy Paradise! Fantastic, you think! When did Viz release that one? Well, ahem, they haven't. Tokyo Crazy Paradise remains unlicensed.

Is it too long? Not really. At 19 volumes, it's shorter than Skip Beat. Does it have a naive and romantically dense yet strong and spunky heroine? Why yes, yes, it does. Does it feature lots of hot bishonen guys, including a brooding male lead who teases the heroine out of love and is too serious for its own good? Yep, it's got that too. Does it have chain whip fights? Oh, you bet it does! Sometimes the heroine gets spattered in gore! All this and the usual humor and drama mix we've come to exp--

...wait, back up a second. Chain whip fights?

OK, perhaps I should explain what Tokyo Crazy Paradise is about.

Yoshiki Nakamura had been writing for Hakusensha since 1993, and just had a small 7-volume success with MVP Wa Yuzurenai! In 1996, she started this new manga, but the tone was decidedly darker - at least the background was. This was not unusual for mid-1990s Hana to Yume, which still featured Descendants of Darkness and was a lot less fluffy than it is today (though it still had its share of fluff).

The series takes place in a dystopian Tokyo in the year 2020. Despite advances in technology, the main problem is that men greatly outnumber women. This means that most women who venture outside end up getting sexually assaulted - in fact, that's how the series begins, with Tsukasa, son of a cop family, rescuing a woman from some rapists. Notably, everyone else on the street had been blithely ignoring the scene.

Unfortunately, Tsukasa's parents were just killed, leaving he and his three brothers homeless. Desperate, they turn to his school classmate Ryuji... who also just lost his father, and is now the head of one of the largest yakuza families in the city. Needless to say, he does not take kindly to favors from the offspring of the police. Eventually, however, they work to catch the killer, and Tsukasa ends up as Ryuji's bodyguard.

This is probably a good thing, as Ryuji is one of the very few to know Tsukasa's secret: he's actually a she, having dressed as a boy her whole life in order to avoid being assaulted in this Crazy Paradise. (For those worried about spoilers, we find this out on Page 20 of Chapter 1, so...)

The story then moves in the usual shojo pattern: guy likes girl and is jerkish to her to show it, girl gets angry with guy and completely misses that he's fallen for her, rival for guy shows up, rival for girl shows up, etc. Balanced against this is the far more serious plot of rival yakuza gangs fighting for power, and how various pasts end up being connected. Tsukasa, being Ryuji's bodyguard, also gets most of the big fight scenes in this manga as well. She is no delicate flower. And being the daughter of cops, she is not very fond of yakuza either.

There are a few drawbacks to licensing this, of course. At 19 volumes, it's still long (for shoujo). It's much darker than Skip Beat (major, likeable characters die), and thus hard to sell to teen girls with a 'from the creator of!' blurb, as Viz does the reverse for now. On the other hand, Viz has been known to release dark and violent shoujo (Descendants of Darkness, also from Hana to Yume - see above), so this isn't too alien to them. And the overall tone is a dark background and plot interspersed with fun comedy and romance. Lastly, it's also completely scanlated online, which is a big drawback these days. (On the bright side, the scans of the latter chapters can be utterly crappy - fans would appreciate a decent volume.)

But overall, come on. It's a fighting young crossdressing girl being bodyguard for a brooding blond hunk. From the author of Skip Beat. This is marketable.

One Piece Volume 32

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

And so we wrap up Skypeia, with the final battle between Luffy and Eneru. Luffy wins, of course, using the huge lump of gold Eneru fastened on his right fist against him, and finally ringing the Golden Bell that had been waiting centuries to be heard. One of Oda's better montages has everyone's reaction to hearing the bell, ending with Luffy and Nami peacefully relaxing on a cloud after all the furor.

So in the end, Eneru is defeated! And so he's captured and imp... no, wait, he's not. So he's killed? Nope. No death here. His dreams are crushed, then? Well, to a degree, but really, Eneru's Skypeia story ends with him relaunching his ark and headed to Endless Varse... which turns out to be the Moon! Wow, what an awesome dream! In Japan, Eneru is consistently the most popular main villain in character polls, and Oda must love him too, as he really gets very little retribution for all of this.

So everyone lives happily ever after. Even Conis's dad turned out to be Not So Dead. And there's a giant party, which is drawn in loving detail. One Piece may have angst and shonen fights, but it's also well known for people just having fun, and the joy expressed in this art is simply magical.

We also get a notable first (and so far, only) here: Luffy & co. actually stealing treasure for themselves! My god, you'd think they were pirates or something! Admittedly, the Skypeians turned out to be perfectly happy with them taking it, and in fact were prepared to give even more, but hey.

And there's a nice mention of Robin's plot here, as she finds another poneglyph that turns out to be the secret location of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (not what she's after), but also has a scribbled note from Gold Roger on the side of the stone, noting that he is 'guiding the document to its end'. Of course, this gives Robin an additional reason to travel with Luffy and friends to the end of the Grand Line, beyond simply "Because I'm mysterious like that."

And so they leave Skypeia and head back down to actual sea, courtesy an Octopus Drop that must rival most amusement park rides. They have little time to relax, though, as they run into a pirate ship with the crew lying around and listless. They soon find out why: all the important crew members, including the captain, were taken by Foxy the Silver Fox in a Davy Back Fight!

...all right, I will admit, it's hard to get all happy and bouncy about the Davy Back Fight arc. Foxy is clearly meant to be a minor comedic change of pace villain after the volumes of Eneru. Still, on we go to Volume 33. As always, recommended.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo Volume 3

By Yoshio Sawai. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

It's a bit difficult to know where to begin with a review of this title. I mean, it's not as if I can talk about plot or characterization!

The history of Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo in Japan is fairly straightforward. It's a shonen gag manga that began in Weekly Shonen Jump in 2001. It ran for 21 volumes, not bad for a gag manga, and also had a popular anime. There was then a 2nd 'New Bobobo' manga series, that was not as successful and ran for 7 volumes. Even for a gag manga, Bobobo is over the top, with non-sequitur gags and overreactions almost every single panel. It had an anime in 2002, that was quite popular. (I was introduced to Bobobo through seeing the anime at Otakon one year.)

In North America, the history is a lot more complex. In late 2005, Viz published a one-off Bobobo volume, which comprised half of Volume 9 and half of Volume 10 of the original Japanese version. This was likely done for 2 reasons; to test the waters to see if it sold anything, and because Yu-Gi-Oh made a cameo in one of the chapters. Toonami then bought and dubbed the anime in 2007, and it was a mild success on television, though the redubbing almost reaches a Samurai Pizza Cats level.

So in 2008, Viz decided to serialize Bobobo in their monthly Shonen Jump magazine, likely as the magazine needed a gag comic to offset all of the FIGHT TRAIN GROW STRONGER! manga that litter it most of the time. (Admittedly, Bobobo is one long fight scene most of the time, but you can't really call it similar to, say, Bleach or Yu Yu Hakusho). After a while, Viz quietly dropped the manga from the magazine and began putting it out to graphic novel only. They've started with Volume 11, so the first 8 1/2 volumes have never been released in America (rumor is the artist dislikes them).

To be honest, I can't imagine this sells well at all. I'm going to assume that this title is being published in North America at the request of the Japanese publisher, which sometimes happens over here. Volume 4 is solicited for June 2010, so apparently whatever caused this volume to be delayed for 10 months is fixed.

And so we come to this, the Japanese Volume 13, being released here a mere 9 months after Volume 2 (Japanese 12). In it... things happen. Honestly, sometimes you hear the word 'indescribable', but rarely is it actually true. You can't really sum up Bobobo except to say 'wacky stuff happens'. Heck, I can't even describe most of the gags themselves! Viz has opted, with this new 'reboot', to translate all the signs and Japanese, which was not done earlier (Jelly Jiggler's 'nu', for example). It doesn't really make much of a difference.

I'll admit, I like this series. In small doses. It's so over the top stupid and insane, and was basically perfect in little 14-page snippets for Weekly Shonen Jump. It also, I felt (though I am apparently in the minority) worked well in Shonen Jump over here. Unfortunately, collected into a 200-page volume, it's just too much. You get burned out, and then irritated. If you are going to read this series, I recommend sticking it by your desk, reading a chapter a week, then putting it back. Then you can let the insanity wash over you, and won't drown in it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One Piece Volume 31

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

Well, it's been a couple of volumes of huge epic fights, so it's about time for a breather. As Luffy and Nami get ready to take on Eneru once more, most of this volume is devoted to a huge flashback.

At least we do see that Conis has succeeded in getting the Skypeians to evacuate, and just in time, as the cloud island is getting vaporized by Eneru. Wyper wakes up to see everything around him being destroyed, and starts to recall the legends of his boyhood.

This leads us into the real tale of Norland from 400 years ago, and how he became known as a liar. Naturally, Norland is pure awesome - this is One Piece, after all. The story of Norland is a classic one of Science vs. Superstition, as he arrives to stop the island's sacrificing of virgins and shows them that they can cure the blights of their country through modern medicine. Unfortunately, the blights of the country turn out to be fixable by destroying ancient holy trees, which doesn't go over well.

We also get the backstory of the golden bell, and the promise made to hear it ringing out. Sadly, things go as expected. The island ends up being blown into Skypeia via the Knock-Up Stream, and Norland is executed for his pains. It's a sad story where a scientist and a warrior reach out to become great friends, but circumstance forces them apart.

Now we want Luffy to find that bell more than ever, and sure enough he's climbing a giant beanstalk despite having tons of gold still attached to his right arm. Luckily, Nami arrives with her waver, and after hearing about his determination to show Norland's descendants that he wasn't wrong, agrees to help him reach Eneru.

How much you like this volume will depend on how much you can tolerate flashbacks taking up most of it. It deepened the Skypeia story, however, and sets up the giant Luffy/Eneru Round 2 that's coming up. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vampire Knight Volume 9

By Matsuri Hino. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Viz.

(Note that if you don't know the 'twist' from Vampire Knight 8, the previous volume, that it gets spoiled later in the review.)

As I spent the other day savaging Black Bird, a popular supernatural manga which has hit the New York Times bestseller list, I thought I'd follow up with its closest comparison, an even more popular supernatural manga which always hits the NYT bestseller list.

You can see a big difference between the two titles just by looking at the covers. Rather than BB's 'I am raping this girl' construction, VK's simple goth-styled cover says "We are hot, sexy yet utterly unthreatening vampires." The two guys are gazing at the (female) reader, but are both kneeing at the feet of our heroine, dressed in a pretty ballgown.

The demographics of the titles are also different. Shogakukan's shoujo manga, with the exception of titles that run in Ciao, tends to skew older. From my experience, Shoujo Comic and Betsucomi have more sexually explicit or suggestive titles than any of the other companies. By contrast, Hakusensha has been skewing younger over the past 10 years (if you compare Hana to Yume from the mid-90s to today, you'll see this wasn't always the case), and LaLa is definitely a magazine for teenagers. Whereas Betsucomi, despite Japan's sales charts labeling it as shoujo, is clearly geared for young women.

Back to Vampire Knight. I have often called this title a guilty pleasure, and I think that still holds up. The art is pretty enough, and the battles between vampires actually look pretty cool. The character design is unfortunately more of the 'I draw the same face but with different hair' school that we see in manga constantly, and I find myself always flipping to the back while reading this book to see which one is Aido and which one is Cain. (Viz has a cast of characters glossary at the back of every volume, which continues to be helpful).

The plot, of course, is mostly irrelevant. Vampires scheme against other vampires, and vampire hunters try to scheme against both vampire sides. Someone's getting resurrected and possessing bodies. Things can get very, very confusing if you try to work it out. Luckily, this is not really a manga you read for the deep, subtle plot. This is a manga which you read and scream "Kyaaa! Vampires!" There's brother/sister incest, and bishonen twin brothers sacrificing themselves, and lots of hot guys protecting innocent girls because though they are vampires, they're the GOOD vampires.

That said, there's also Yuki Cross. She's our heroine, and unlike Misao in Black Bird, she actually has a character. Misao is a reader stand-in, someone to imagine yourself as while hot brooding demons lick your wounds and fondle your breasts. Yuki has an actual character and real development. She started off as a normal girl with slightly unhealthy obsessions, but she's always been shown as having inner strength. Now that we know of her pureblood origins, of course, things are very different... except they aren't, as she refuses to do what Kaname tells her, and manages to wield a weapon that hates vampires through sheer WILLPOWER, turning it into a badass scythe.

The fight that takes up the last two chapters of this book is really impressive considering how little actually happens. Yuki sends her vampire protector off to protect others, then proceeds to try to take out the big bad. She's joined in this by her love/rival Zero, himself now a human-turned-vampire, who manages to snap out of his self-loathing long enough to tell Yuki to stay back like all good heroes... except not because she'd get hurt, but because this is *his* kill.

The big bad ends up being taken out (supposedly, I doubt he's really dead) by both Yuki and Zero, the former with a behind the back scythe chop while the villain is saying he wants to take her just like her mother. And then there's just her and Zero, standing off against each other, with Zero declaring that he will kill all the purebloods - including Yuki. (To be continued, a fact that generated a hilarious omake at the end of the volume.)

This is the difference between a guilty pleasure and just guilt. Vampire Knight has sexual situations (the incest is right up front), and some nasty violence, but the heroine isn't meek and shrieking, and shows she can hold her own even after her 'origin story', mostly due to the compassion she gained in the 10 years prior. It may have a messy plot and pander to gothic vampire lovers, but it's also genuinely worth your time.

Monday, February 22, 2010

One Piece Volume 30

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

At last, we get the first fight between Luffy and Eneru. Of course, this being One Piece, Eneru wins, but that just means Luffy has to come back and beat him EVEN HARDER.

The volume begins with Eneru having taken out everyone except Zoro and Wyper, and they don't last long against Eneru's lightning abilities and his giant power of resurrecting himself. That just leaves Nami, who decides that discretion is the better part of valor and asks to join Eneru on his mighty crusade to the world of dreams. Eneru is not fooled, but decides that followers who are terrified of him work better, so takes her on his flying ark.

Meanwhile, back down on the sky island proper, Conis is actually managing to be successful at evacuating everyone. One of the best parts of the volume is where she denounces Eneru and isn't zapped (as he's far too busy getting ready to put his final plan into effect). She's really gained in strength after meeting the Straw Hats, and I admire her devotion to her people even after the death of her father.

Then Luffy shows up, and we get the first battle. This is alternately badass and hilarious. I loved the bit where Nami tries to warn Luffy about fighting him, and he tosses her his hat, telling her that she's a crew member of the Future King of the Pirates, so stop whining. This, by the way, leads to a later part of the manga where Nami gains the strength to denounce Eneru, and admits that all of her hopes and dreams are useless if she has no one to share them with. (I don't canonically want any romantic pairings in One Piece. That said, I love Luffy/Nami.)

As for the fight itself, Eneru can use his electrical wavelengths to read Luffy's moves, so things don't go so well. Luffy's attempts to clear his mind are hysterical. Then, of course, there's that page. You know the one I mean. Page 82. Eneru and Nami have just figured out that Luffy, being made of rubber, is completely immune to Eneru's electrical attacks. Eneru's reaction to this is a look of such comedic shock that words cannot describe it. (I've always felt it was Oda's shout-out to Bobobobo-Bobobo, a manga running in Jump at the same time, which uses those expressions about every page. Later in Thriller Bark, we'll get another variation, as Bobobobo-Bobobo was ending in the magazine that week.)

Of course, this being only Round 1, Eneru wins, and attaches Luffy's arm to a giant mound of gold, throwing him off the ark. He's about to take out Nami as well, but luckily Sanji and Usopp have finally woken up, and come to her rescue. Well, attempt it at least. Sanji gets to be cool, Usopp gets to flail a bit, but ultimately everyone ends up back down on the ground. Then Eneru starts calling down lightning on the entire world.

To be continued! Exciting, huh?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Black Bird Volume 3

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

I had considered making this review simply one word: "No." But I don't want to be that kind of reviewer, and in truth there is stuff I have to say about Black Bird. I will also freely admit that, being a 36-year-old male, I am not the intended reading audience of this teenage shoujo manga.

That said, you know what you're getting into when you look at the cover. I've disliked each cover for this series, and this is the worst one yet. I think it's supposed to convey a supernatural sort of sensuality, along with a lusty predatory gaze that teenage girls find appealing. Unfortunately, I keep seeing it as 'watch me rape this young girl now'. Buying this manga after looking at the cover feels like I'm participating in a crime.

The inside doesn't really relieve that feeling. Throughout the manga, the plotline overall seems to be "Why won't she understand this is for her own good?" I have a fondness for strong, spunky shoujo heroines in general. (They all seem to be utterly clueless as well, but I accept that as the price I have to pay.) Misao is the opposite, a girl who has low self-esteem, doubts everything told to her, and feels ashamed whenever she's with the one she loves. I read shoujo to see girls grow up, find love, and become strong. This heroine is being told "Shut up and let me protect you, or you will be raped or worse."

And then there's our hero, who is the brooding and sullen type. Yes, it's clear that much of his behavior is due to worry over the various rival demon elements that seek to take Misao's power for themselves, but that doesn't really hold up when you realize that he went through a whole double bluff before informing his enemies that their powers are virtually useless against him in his domain. And then KILLING one of them in front of Misao. To teach her what her new life is like. And she watches the killing, as he's doing it for her sake.

And then he licks her wounds in the bath to heal them, whereupon they kiss and grope naked on the wooden floor. Did I mention this title won a major Japanese manga award last year?

There is a certain element of fiction that is very popular at the moment. Twilight was the explosion, but probably not the impetus. In manga, the best example would be Vampire Knight. Vampire Knight, however, at least treats its heroine with respect (mostly), and its hero's 'I am aloof and uncaring for you' attitude doesn't last long. This Betsucomi version of that, however, is simply repulsive. It's trying to be dark and sensual, but it merely feels utterly creepy. I tried to give it three volumes to see if it might change, but enough. I can't in good conscience recommend this title, unless you know beforehand that you are the audience for this sort of thing.

One Piece Volume 29

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

We're still deep into fighting mode here in Skypeia, meaning we're not gonna get a huge amount of plot and characterization. We do get some nice exceptions, though. And this being One Piece, the action scenes actually have action in them, as opposed to 18 pages of two character staring at each other glaring fiercely.

We pick up with the second half of Robin's fight against Yama, a huge bulky jerk who's Eneru's Number Two. Unfortunately for him, he decides to start destroying some priceless ruins. He quickly learns that one should never piss off an archaeologist. Chopper isn't as lucky, as he gets taken out fairly quickly by another of the Four Vassals. Well, they can't all be as dumb as Gedatsu.

As I've noted earlier, this is sort of, broadly, a tournament arc. Characters fight other characters, one wins, and they move on to fight the next one up. But it's not done as a tournament, but instead as a giant free-for-all race, which makes it work much better. And that still leaves time for things like the hysterical realization of what Luffy's 'cave' really is.

I had forgotten how much Nami grows in this arc. It's set up in this volume, which shows us just how utterly terrified she is by what's going on around her. With Usopp unconscious, she's the last 'normal' one, and she knows it. And she's confronted with someone like Eneru, casually taking out her friends, who she knows are miles ahead of her in terms of ability. It's always nice to see Oda remind us how not everyone in the crew is a badass superpowered monster (Usopp usually fills this role, and he'll get the bulk of it in the next arc, Water Seven.)

It helps that Eneru really is pretty incredible, even for a One Piece villain. He casually fries Raki, noting that 'all lambs are equal in his eyes', and later does the exact same thing with Robin. (He gets the best line of the volume when Zoro points out, angrily, that Robin is a woman. "...I know. I saw.") It makes a refreshing change from the 'stay back while I fight him' mode shonen often gets into with its female characters.

And then, at the end, Eneru is defeated... only he CANNOT DIE. You fools, who thought you could defeat him! And we finally find out what his plans are, and they're pretty much 'destroy Skypeia. Whatever can our heroes do? We'll find out in the next Volume. Still one of the best manga out there.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I Hate You More Than Anyone! Volume 2

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

I Hate You More Than Anyone 2 continues to develop its various plotlines. We get more scenes with Kazuha's brother Chizuru, and notice that there's something troubling him that he can't quite talk about with her. Well, he does try at one point, but Kazuha is so wrapped up in her own love issues that she doesn't notice. Maki gets a 'love rival' as we meet Arata Honjo, who has fallen in love with Kazuha without actually meeting her. And Kazuha and Senko have definitely gone from rivals to best friends in this volume, which makes things even more difficult as they're both after the same guy.

One thing that is both a strength and weakness of this manga is how you can really see the gears turning in Hidaka-san's head, as she figures out where she wants to go with things. On the downside, if she had an outline it's pretty clearly been crumpled up by now, as much of this reads as if she's writing on the fly from week to week. (As I've noted earlier, those reading IHYMTA alongside V.B. Rose will note the difference between a beginner and a veteran.) On the upside, it lends an energy and verve to the title, which feels like it might careen out of control but never does so, mostly as we are following Kazuha's exhausting mood swings.

Maki has settled down in this volume, realizing he went too far with the kiss at the end of Volume 1 and trying to pull back a bit. And now that Kazuha has admitted (to herself) her feelings for him, the title is not quite as accurate as it once could have been. I was also very amused at Arata Honjo's intro, as he's clearly set up to be the other guy who won't get anywhere, but the author is aware of it; everyone enjoys pointing out in this series how pointless his crush on Kazuha is. And, naturally, we get him fondling her as he tries to tell by her small chest if she's really a girl. Good to see some manga classics never get old.

My favorite part of the manga is how Kazuha deals with realizing that she's in love with Maki, who Senko also has feelings for. It's very realistic; she handles it horribly, trying to hide things and pretend that there's nothing between them. Since Kazuha is one of the most transparent characters in all of manga, this doesn't work out very well. Notably, she has to be kicked in the butt by both her friend Asako (who tells Senko everything) *and* by Arata, who points out that hiding your crush merely hurts the friend more. Her heart to heart with Senko at the end of the volume doesn't resolve things, but it feels real.

And then there's Arata's older brother, Tohru Honjo. He only has one scene in this volume, so I don't want to go into his character as much now, saving it for future volumes. I note that the moment we see him he manages to project an aura of 'cool' - genuine cool, rather than just trying to be cool. He's easily the character who sees the most and recognizes the contortions all the others are going through. And right away, he meddles, trying to move Kazuha and Maki closer together. His meddling is very honest and upfront (necessary considering the cluelessness of his friends), and doesn't seem mean or cheap, the way it often does in manga. He's a great addition to the cast. He also has bedroom eyes (called 'droopy eyes' here). I love any character with bedroom eyes.

Best gag in the volume - Momoka teaming up with the rest of the family to whack Kazuha with a magazine and then blame it on Ichihisa. I love seeing scenes of this huge family, because they feel so real.

The art is messy, there's tiny little side comments everywhere, and following Kazuha's ups and downs can be literally exhausting. But I still love this series. If I recall, Volume 3 also kicks more plots into high gear. Stay tuned...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Fairy Tail Volume 9

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

I enjoy Fairy Tail. It has fun characters, good action sequences, and an intriguing backstory. This volume wraps up the Guild War arc we've had for a few books, and shows Lucy rejecting her father and siding with the Guild. This is probably the strongest scene in the volume, and gives Lucy a nice chance to shine.

In fact, the whole volume is Lucy-dominated, as she also is a big part of the other plot, dealing with fellow Guild Member Loke and why he's been avoiding Lucy. The answer to that is not quite a surprise, per se, but it's handled well, and gives us a good idea of what Lucy's keys are like with the wrong person wielding them.

I'm also fond of the goofy humor in the series. Natsu is, of course, always there for some silliness. But it's nice to see Erza, a badass warrior maiden who should be a stoic sort, getting involved in pillow fights of destruction and trying to make it on the stage (despite her acting sucking rocks.) It gives us a more human side to her.

In the end, though, Fairy Tail has a couple of big flaws. It's getting better at avoiding this, but it's hard to read this manga without the spectre of One Piece over its head. To be fair, this is because they're both shonen manga with similar tropes, and almost all shonen manga have groups of friends banding together to battle enemies, befriending those enemies, and getting stronger. But there's still a sense that this is Kodansha's attempt to get a One Piece of its own. Originality is not part of the draw here. (To be fair, judging by popularity in Japan and the recent anime, Kodansha may have succeeded in getting its own One Piece.)

Another problem I have is with simple memorability. I enjoy Fairy Tail while I read it, but it doesn't stick with me as much as a One Piece or Negima does. We're only 9 volumes in, and the character sheet is already unwieldy. Even Negima, with its class of 31 girls, rolled them out a bit more slowly. It can be hard to keep track of everything, and I find myself having to reread the previous volume when a new one comes out to jog my memory.

Still, in the end this is a fun, action-filled manga with lots of humor and fighting, and of course The Power Of Friendship. If you want a typical shonen manga, and not in a derogatory way, Fairy Tail is an excellent purchase.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Tale Of An Unknown Country Volume 2

By Natsuna Kawase. Released in Japan as "Shiranai Kuni No Monogatari" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by CMX.

In the second volume of this short shoujo series, our hero and heroine are already together, so what's keeping the plot going? Why, the approval of their family, of course! When you're royals, things are bound to be more complicated.

There's some nice character development here, particularly of Reynol. He's right in that he's closed off and not able to read people well, but at least he's trying. In fact, the open communication and trust between him and Rosemarie is very refreshing, and one of the series' strongest points. In a market dominated by characters hearing rumors, misunderstanding, and overreacting, it's lovely to see a couple actually think.

We meet Reynol's brother and mother here, and they're both interesting, though it does lead into the manga's main flaw. Everyone except the lead couple in this seem to be Machiavellian schemers. Prince Grayle plots to see why Reynol has opened his heart to Marie; Grayle's not-quite-girlfriend plots because, well, that seems to be what she does; Reynol's mother outplots both of them and keeps her true motives secret from even her eldest son; and of course Rosemarie's brother is still manipulating her as he was doing in Volume 1. To be fair, they're all rather upfront about it, but it can still be rather exhausting.

This volume also contains two unrelated short stories. They're the author's first two manga stories ever, and aren't as good as the main feature. But they do offer an opportunity to show how she's grown.

Overall, this is a cute manga with appealing main characters and a nice romance plot. And, as it's rated E for Everyone, you can happily give it to your kids, provided you don't mind explaining why every character seems to have eight ulterior motives each.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 1

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

One of my all-time favorite manga series, I want to review this from the start, mostly because the general reaction I get when I mention it is "Wait, that's still running?" Or even worse, "Wait, that was a manga?". A classic case of Adaptation Displacement, the anime that was released over here in 2002 was wildly popular, and the manga, coming out about a year and a half later, ended up disappointing fans who wanted more over the top lunacy.

But back to the beginning. First there was Rikdo Koshi the doujinshi artist, who did fan parody comics for various series running in the 1990s, including Card Captor Sakura. He also had an original hentai doujinshi that was collected into a volume called Municipal Force Daitenzin, a sentai parody about a group of idiotic people in powered suits trying to save the day. Two minor characters in that doujinshi series were the villain of the piece and his hyperactive, incompetent assistant. When Shonen Gahosha gave Rikdo the opportunity to create his own manga, he cut out the pornographic bits and made Excel and Il Palazzo the focus.

And so we have Volume 1, which seems very odd to read coming at it about 15 years later, with Volume 23 just having been released in Japan. We are introduced to our main cast working for the secret organization ACROSS: Excel, the still hyperactive and incompetent minion; Il Palazzo, her cold yet bishonen superior with a fondness for dropping her into a pit of water at the slightest provocation; Hyatt, a fellow minion at ACROSS with a nasty tendency to cough up blood and drop over dead; and Mince, a put upon puppy who gets deemed 'emergency food' by Excel.

We also meet three of her neighbors, Iwata, Watanabe, and Sumiyoshi, but as yet they are not part of the main plot and almost seem to be off in their own separate manga. Notable is Watanabe's first meeting with Hyatt, beginning his obsessive crush with her, and also Sumiyoshi's tendency to communicate only in captions behind his head. (He also "speaks" in the manga in a heavy Geordie accent, Carl Horn's attempt to show his Okayama accent while getting out of the Brooklyn/Southern trap most Viz or ADV manga fell into. Strangely, it works, though the phonetic absolutism of the accent can make him hard to interpret.)

At this point, the manga is still finding its feet, and there's not much of the overreaching plot we'll get in future volumes. There's also not much here the anime watcher will recognize. The manga was only up to Volume 4 when it was licensed for anime, and the publisher requested that the anime not actually use the manga's plotline (hence the "I agree to let Excel Saga be turned into a ______ anime" shtick). So the characters and basic plot (ACROSS tries to take over the world and fails) are the same, but the details are altered.

The humor is also a bit different. There is still some slapstick violence, and Excel shows her remarkable endurance even in the first chapter, but the comedy here stems from wordplay and ridiculous situations. Excel's part-time jobs come before her minioning, as a girl has to eat, and we can also see from some of her complex rambling speeches (going off about the phylum and order of cave crickets, for example) that she's quite intelligent. Excel isn't stupid, just crazy, impetuous and a bit broken. Notably, when joined by Hyatt she starts to comment wryly on her health state, and shows signs of becoming a deadpan snarker. She'll develop this far more once Elgala shows up in Volume 8.

There are occasional references to the anime in this translation, which is adapted and edited by Carl Horn and Dan Kanemitsu. Several jokes are Westernized, but notably the endnotes also note the original Japanese joke as well, which works out fine. Amusing bits include noting that Rikdo asked the anime version of Excel Saga not to have any panty shots (especially amusing if you know how fanservicey Excel Saga gets in later volumes), as well as Il Palazzo calling Jesus Christ a criminal of the State worse than Hitler and Aum Shinrikyo, much to Excel's horror. (In case anyone is wondering, this is the scene they didn't dare put in the anime, as the back cover notes.)

Excel Saga Volume 1 is just plain fun. It doesn't have the healthy backstory we'll get in future volumes, but you don't need that right away. Instead, you just have fun watching Excel and Hyatt fail desperately for the glory of Il Palazzo, and her next-door neighbors assaulting each other for random slights. It's a fun, funny manga.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The works of Mitsuru Adachi

Nine, Touch, Rough, Niji Iro Tōgarashi, H2, Itsumo Misora, Katsu!, and Cross Game serialized by Shogakukan in Shonen Sunday. Hiatari Ryōkō! serialized in Shoujo Comic. Miyuki serialized in Shonen Big Comic. Slow Step serialized in Ciao. Jinbē serialized in Big Comic Original.

I've been interested in this manga author ever since reading the one small bit of his works that came out in North America, Short Program. Short Program is a collection of short stories that the author produced over the years. There are 3 volumes, but unfortunately they sold poorly over here, so Viz is unlikely to release the third. The stories run the gamut from comedy to drama, and most of them share Adachi's sense of subtlety.

But short stories is not what makes him the biggest Shonen Sunday author to never get a hit over here. He writes sports mangas. And in general, baseball mangas are his specialty. The most recent of these, Cross Game, just finished in Japan this week after 170 chapters. He's had several TV animes (including Cross Game, which is still running as an anime), some live-action adaptations, and for the most part has been running continuously in Shogakukan titles since about 1978. He mostly writes for Shonen Sunday, but also for the seinen Big Comic line, and has had 2 series in Shojo Comic and Ciao. What with some short stories running in the josei Petit Comic, he is the rare mangaka to have a 4-genre home run.

The reasons he's never made it big over here are unknown, but I can guess. First of all, he does sports manga. Sports manga, and especially baseball manga, has a tendency to be viewed as 'low-selling kiss of death' over here for some reason. (OK, perhaps the reason being that when Viz has tried sports manga, it *has* sold poorly.) Secondly, his best, most popular titles are long-runners. Touch is 26 volumes, H2 is 34, and Cross Game will be 17. In a poor economy, that can be a dangerous investment. Third, while he can draw some lovely art, he's not usually known for his artistic abilities, and has been accused often of having his various heroes and heroines look exactly the same with only minor hair variants. It's also possible, after Short Program didn't really do well (and had art flipped) that the artist may simply not want to be licensed over here.

And lastly, there's his character's emotions. Or rather, their placidness. I don't mean that during the course of his various series, characters don't get angry, or cry, or cheer, etc. They do. But overall, he's almost the anti-Rumiko Takahashi (a good friend of his, who has described him as her greatest rival) in that you don't find a lot of crazy over the top madness in his series. Cross Game, the most recent, has a tsundere-type in the lead heroine of Aoba Tsukishima, but even her 'what a jerk! I hate him!' is pretty mild.

Likewise, there is a romantic aspect to almost all his series, with crushes, rivalries, and the like. But for Western audiences, the lack of 'payoff' might be frustrating. Many of his series end with the two leads still not explicitly stating their feelings, choosing to hold hands, or having a kiss silhouetted. It's meant to be a peaceful ending showing that life goes on, and certainly the romantic entanglements always seem to be resolved by the end (as opposed to, say, Takahashi's UY or Ranma), but many fans tend to be dissatisfied at the lack of a final explicit resolution. Not all of his series are like this; Rough, about 2 swimmers who fall in love, is far more explicit about its love, mostly as the plot involves a Romeo and Juliet-style rivalry between their two families. But for the most part, if you're reading Adachi for romantic payoffs, you're reading the wrong author.

That said, there's lots to love about Adachi's works. His guys tend to be genuinely likeable, his girls cute and independent. He has several themes besides sports that run through his works; death hovers over several of his series, with the death of a major character being the focal point on which two of his series turn. It's not used in a horrific or dramatic way; usually the focus tends to be on those left behind, and their inability to move past the incident. Likewise, there's a strong family element in his stories, with fathers, mothers and siblings playing important roles. As with many shonen series, there's a lot of attention devoted to improving oneself; many of his heroes start off as lazy or unmotivated, and end up discovering their passion through the sport of that particular manga.

Where would I start if I were Viz and didn't care about things selling? Actually, probably with his most recent work, Cross Game. At 17 volumes, it's long but not too long. It would be a good feeler to see if baseball manga can work out over here. It's well-written, with several surprises. And it handles most of the themes I'd mentioned above with the ease and grace of a veteran in the manga industry. Rough, which I'd mentioned earlier, is a great manga with a more explicit romance than usual and some great swimming and diving scenes. And Slow Step could, even with its old-school 80s art, slide seamlessly into Shojo Beat; it deals with softball and romantic entanglements from a female lead's perspective, and ran in their Ciao magazine for 7 volumes.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Away From Blog

I'll be away for a few days, reviews will return when I do.

Crown Of Love Volume 1

By Yun Kouga. Released in Japan as "Renai Crown" by Sobisha, serialized in the magazine Comic Crimson. Released in North America by Viz.

It's interesting to read a manga that features three protagonists who I dislike, yet still manages to hold my attention and makes me want to read more. Crown of Love is such a manga.

Its publisher, Sobisha, seems to be a Shueisha subsidiary. This manga ran in the late-90s in Comic Crimson, which was then sort of what Cookie is now - a magazine that straddles the line between shoujo and josei. The old manga Planet Ladder (put out by Tokyopop back in the day) also ran here. The magazine folded in 2003, and I wonder if the original art wasn't saved very well. The art in this volume is good, but gives that feeling of 'second to third generation copy' to me. Of course, that might also be the style, which is pretty old fashioned.

It's also apparently a retelling of a story from the late 80s, Ren-Ai, which ran in Akita Shoten's Princess magazine. It was cut off at 3 volumes, and the artist wanted to retell it and give the characters more depth. Of course, this manga is only 4 volumes (did it end with Comic Crimson folding?), so I'm not sure how successful she was.

The basic premise of Crown of Love is that Hisayoshi, a musical prodigy and son of a famous classical orchestra player, meets an idol singer, Rima, on a train and falls instantly in love with her. This bothers him, and he seems to be well aware what this makes him look like to her, but he continues to try to get close to her, ripping apart his rather cloistered life in order to do so.

You could argue, looking at Hisayoshi, that he needed this sort of kick in the pants. Certainly his father's violence towards him makes you realize that moving out is a good thing. Unfortunately, he's pretty much an emotional zero. He has lots of inner monologue musing on his feelings, but that only amplifies the fact that he's very closed off.

As for his crush, she's also dealing with unresolved love feelings, and like Hisayoshi, she is fully aware that they're not the healthiest thing. Her crush is on the man who 'discovered' her. Sadly, he seems to be married. Or gay. Or, this being Yun Kouga, probably both. She also has parent issues, namely a mother that wants nothing more than to sponge off her newfound idol fame. The combined pressure of this plus her career is making her a bit twitchy.

As for Ikeshiba, the manager, until we get a better backstory he's the biggest cipher of all. (His sarcastic, cynical daughter was probably my favorite character). Clearly he has a mysterious past going on, and his ambiguous gayness is pretty hot, I suppose, if you're into ambiguous gays. He comes across as a manipulator, though. I'm hoping the two leads tell him to get bent at some point.

Despite my criticisms, the impressive thing about this manga is that I really want to see what happens next. The leads aren't likeable, but they are human, and I want to see them overcome their problems and find love. I also like the message this manga seems to be giving, which is that you can have as much common sense and intellect as you want, but love will come along and stomp on that and there's little you can do but try to hold on tight.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Black Butler Volume 1

By Yana Toboso. Released in Japan as "Kuroshitsuji" by Square Enix, serialization ongoing in the magazine GFantasy. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Black Butler was doomed to be a hit in North America the moment it was licensed. And everyone knew it. Sure enough, it's at the top of last week's New York Times bestseller list for manga. It has a handsome bishonen butler on the cover! This is to female readers what maids are for guys, one would imagine.

I think the key to understanding this story is in the author's notes at the end, where Toboso-san notes that she wanted to draw a cool butler, but had no ideas beyond that. And indeed, one of the strengths of the manga is that the butler *is* cool. If you're going to brag about your manga with an awesome butler, you better back it up. Sebastian is quick-thinking, clear-headed, fights like a pro, and is basically the butler of your dreams, provided you don't mind selling your soul.

Unlike the other major butler manga coming out here, Hayate the Combat Butler, this series is for the most part action-oriented, with occasional forays into angsty drama. What comedy there is comes from the rest of the staff of the house, who are all goofy ditzes who could probably have their personalities swapped and you'd never know. Their goal is to be the Greek Chorus, screw things up so that the butler can fix them, and be goofy. They succeed. I'm not fond of them, but they succeed at what they need to do.

As for Sebastian's master, Ciel, he's a grumpy loli. Yes, he's male, but that merely makes him a grumpy male loli (a shota). He's 12 years old, but his maturity level ranges from 6 to 35 depending on what the plot requires. There is an element of not-quite-yaoi here that I choose to ignore, even though I know it's a major reason this title is as popular as it is. But hey, if I can read CLAMP I can read this.

Not sure I will continue to read this, though. There is one major problem I had with this first book. It reads like the author is connecting the dots of an evil-butler picture book. Every single plotline is so calculated, so designed to do what it does, that you can almost see each piece slot into place. The revelation of what Sebastian really is, towards the end of this book, is no surprise whatsoever. In fact, nothing here is a surprise. Everything happens the way that it was laid out, and while it looks pretty, there's nothing that made me go "Ooooh, WOW!".

It's a good manga. There's lots of pretty boys, and fights, and the promise of more evil leering grins in volumes to come. But if someone was to write a manga that would be designed to hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list (and indeed on Japan's bestseller lists)... well, it would be Vampire Knight. But this would be a close second. If you can get past that, you'll probably enjoy Black Butler a great deal.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I Hate You More Than Anyone! Volume 1

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

Generally speaking, when I start to like a series or title, I really fall for it in a big way. Online research, buying other Japanese works by the same author, pasting into Excite's translation engine - that sort of thing. And I talk about it a lot online, be it Livejournal, Twitter, or here. And while for the most part I've started this blog 'in media res' and do not, for example, plan to go back and review the previous 5 Magic Touches, there are three series that I feel I should eventually go back and review properly, as they continue to be my obsession today.

Two of them are Gatcha Gacha (no, the other one) and Excel Saga. I'll be getting to those later. The other one is Banri Hidaka's first multi-volume series, I Hate You More Than Anyone! This was also her debut work in North America, coming out from CMX in 2007.

This leads to one of the first big problems with the work - it's a sequel, of sorts. Yes, it can be read as a stand-alone work. In fact, by necessity, it is in North America. But if you pick up a copy of the book, and open the cover, the first thing you see are teenagers you don't know talking about Kazuha, our female lead, and a note saying that the characters' ages are from the manga 'Let Me Hear Your Song'. I wouldn't blame someone for putting it down and looking for the earlier work.

Banri Hidaka debuted in the pages of Hana to Yume with various one-shots and short series, as do most manga artists these days. As she wrote them, she began to depict some of the protagonists as coming from the same family, the Akiyoshis. A family of father, mother, and 6 children, we gradually meet the family over the course of two one-shots and 4 series ranging from 3 to 6 chapters, which were subsequently collected into 4 volumes of various titles. (They've now been released as 2 chunky tomes, called The Akiyoshi Family series - this is the easiest way to find them on Amazon Japan.)

Kazuha, the heroine of IHYMTA!, was first introduced in a short one-shot dealing with her sister Momoka. It showed her as a successful hairstylist, and also commented on her mannish looks. After a 6-chapter series dealing with the eldest brother, Chizuru, and his delinquent high school days, Hidaka-san presumably thought she'd wrap things up with a look at the eldest daughter and her own high school life.

Of course, the series ended up being her first really big hit, and it ran for 13 volumes before finishing. The characters proved so popular that the series spawned an occasional spinoff, As You Like It, which runs in Bessatsu Hana to Yume whenever the author feels like a new chapter; and Rei and Kazuha are minor supporting characters in her 2004 manga V.B. Rose, which Tokyopop is currently releasing.

What all this amounts to is that there's no way that a North American reader can approach this manga the way that it was written for the Japanese Hana to Yume fan. The series is filling out the plot beats that regular readers already read about in the earlier series. And since CMX is translating it accurately (which I give them credit for), the constant footnotes to prior works and explanations for characters being 6-8 years younger than readers are familiar with can be wearing.

Now, all that having been said, I Hate You More Than Anyone! is the story of Kazuha Akiyoshi, a tomboyish oldest sibling of six, and her relationship with the eventual love of her life, Maki Sugimoto, a fey-sounding hairstylist who's creepily obsessed with her. As you can guess from the title, she can't stand his attention. As you can guess from the fact that this is a shoujo manga, they're totally meant for each other.

Hidaka-san is clearly feeling things out as she goes, and this first volume of the manga is quite uneven, especially compared to later volumes. Maki's feminine speech (Kazuha calls Maki 'that gay guy' at one point) is toned down quite a bit as the series goes along, and the parenthetical asides absolutely litter every panel, cluttering up the already cluttered art. (This last is something that has almost become a trademark of hers - you can still see asides littering the panels of V.B. Rose, for example.) And the entire style is far more broad and cartoonish comedy than we'd seen in her earlier works. Kazuha frequently headbutts, punches, kicks, and ties to ceilings her friends and family, something that will continue as the series goes on, culminating in our heroine being thrown through a 3rd-story window and stomping back into class with a bloody forehead 3 seconds later, no worse for wear.

The last major flaw of this volume is that Tohru Honjo isn't in it. We'll have to wait for Volume 2 to meet the best character in the series. And Maki, in this volume, gives the impression of a creepy staker guy at times. This is fairly common with manga that start with the hero already totally in love with our heroine, but it doesn't make it any less true. Luckily, there's a chapter showing he can be just as stressed out and flawed as the rest of us, which helps to make him more likeable.

Since I've spent so long going on about its weaknesses, I should probably talk about why I love this series so much. Kazuha is a fun lead heroine. She's an emotional roller coaster, vacillating between hot-headed anger and girlish adoration (she is, in fact, an excellent tsundere example, several years before the type became overdone). But she's also the eldest of a huge family, and we get to see her be the capable older sister as well. In fact, the last chapter is about her having to stand up Maki as Rei falls ill and she has to rush him to the doctor. She angsts briefly about date vs. family, and quickly realizes it's no contest - family wins.

She's also blessed with two strong female friends, although Senko appears to be more of a rival in this first volume. She and Senko clearly come to blows so often because of their similarities - both are pretty girls adored by their underclassmen, both have huge tempers that go off at the slightest provocation, and both are at this point falling for the same guy - even though Kazuha refuses to admit this. (The title of the series no longer applies to Kazuha by about Volume 6 or so, but that's fine, because by then Senko can take up the reins with HER relationship denial.) And we also get Senko's spirits, which are the ghost-like things that come out of her mouth. A lot of anime and manga use these when a character is beaten or 'dying' in a comedic fashion, but Senko goes so far as to be able to control and strangle Kazuha with them!

And we have the Akiyoshi family, who are allowed to provide humor while still being quite realistic. Having six kids means that both parents are working basically all the time, so the siblings all have to step up and take responsibility. (Well, mostly - Ichihisa is a little brat, though a hilarious one. And he and Tonami, along with their mother, are the only ones in the entire family who AREN'T tsunderes.)

Mostly, I enjoy the manga because it's fun to read about these people. There's some angst, but usually it lasts only a page or two before being undercut with a comedic moment. The characters have immature temper tantrums, but are also allowed to act like adults. Despite the cartoon violence, Kazuha feels like a high school girl discovering love for the first time, and realizing how it can make you crazy. We laugh at her antics but root for her. And everyone turns out to be correct - she does look more feminine with the short haircut.

I'll review later volumes of the series when I can as well. Likely they will not be as long as this one was. I did mention the obsessed thing, right?

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Magic Touch Volume 6

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.

Looking around the web, it would seem there are several positive reviews of this series. However, what I most remember it for is a convention at a panel, when a group called it one of the worst manga currently being released.

In my opinion, one should save the 'worst manga ever' label for things that are truly offensive, appalling, or are poorly adapted. The Magic Touch is just regular old shoujo. Sure, it's not great. The cast is too big, the art if very odd-looking at times, and the plot is scattershot and unfocused. But it's very funny, and has a lead couple that are cute and a beta couple that I find fascinating.

It's possible the mere massage club premise upset some people. I know that there is a cliche when you see young women giving massages of thinking that it's a front for something else. This isn't that. People haven't even kissed in this manga, much less sold their bodies. But one reviewer said it was very hard to get past the premise's 'sordid implications'. I'm not seeing that.

In any case, we're about 2/3 through the series now, and the lead couple are starting to realize that they can't simply be cute at each other forever. Chiaki is dealing with her growing feelings for Yosuke, and trying to figure out a man who reveals very little about himself. To her credit, she does confront him directly about what he's hiding, but when he tells her "It's all right", in that 'don't ask' tone, she backs off.

Yosuke, meanwhile, is clearly haunted by something in his past, and is afraid to move forward with Chiaki because of that. I'm going to guess we'll get a big flashback arc in the next volume or two that will help to resolve that.

There's two other subplots in this volume as well. One involves Ryo, the tomboyish girl from a rival school, who has just lost an arm-wrestling match to her male classmate and is now panicked. She thinks she makes a horrible woman, and if she can't defeat her fellow males she has no idea what to do. When she hears Chiaki being described as 'the strongest women I know', she goes off to challenge her. Of course, we find Chiaki's strength is her honest and refreshing spirit, etc. This was probably the weakest story in the volume, as there were few surprises.

Then there's Harumi and Natsue. I've noted on Twitter before how much I love this beta couple. I have a weakness for Natsue's type of character anyway (deadpan snarker females), and seeing her try to subtly get Harumi to confront the future he doesn't want but feels he has to accept can be rather bittersweet. Harumi's smile at the end of the volume is heartbreaking, and the art is well-done here, as it really conveys how false it really is.

Luckily, this is offset by some very funny comedy. Chiaki's general personality leads to humor, as her brain doesn't quite work normally like everyone else. So she can be imagining Yosuke in various uniforms, or debating the legality of riding on his bike, and a truly indescribable sequence where she and Harumi are talking about his future plans and segue into... something, even they're not sure what they were talking about. It's a broad, fun comedy that helps to balance the occasional angst in this series.

Again, this isn't great. It's the author's first long shoujo series, and she's already shown improvement over it with her current one, "Oresama Teacher", which is as yet unlicensed. But I think its faults are exaggerated. The massage club is simply meant to be goofy rather than sordid, and the likeable characters and comedic situations make this a perfectly serviceable title. Recommended for those who like lighthearted shoujo with some massage obsession.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Eyeshield 21 Volume 30

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

The Devilbats are right in the middle of the Christmas Bowl finals, and they're in big trouble. As we saw in Volume 29, Gao succeeded in breaking Hiruma's arm, and he's out of the action. Now Sena is the quarterback. Can the team find a way to win with Sena at the helm?

Well, no, in fact. But at least he keeps things going. Sena has a steep learning curve, and can't pass worth a lick, but that works to the team's advantage, as the defense for the Dinosaurs can't figure out where his wobbly passes will end up - only Monta can. And of course a mere throwing arm is not going to keep Hiruma out of the game for long.

And so the volume goes, being an excellent example of classic sports shonen. I suspect that fans of actual American football go nuts reading this series, which plays very fast and loose with the rules and regulations of actual football. But who wants a realistic football manga? We want BEYOND THE IMPOSSIBLE!

Hiruma has to come back because Hiruma is the series. Yes, Sena is Eyeshield 21, and technically the hero, but Hiruma is the driving force. In the character poll that came out the volume before this one, he won 1st place handily. He's a magnificent bastard who wants to win more than anything. At one point late in this volume, the Devilbats telegraph that Hiruma will throw a long pass. Marco is disbelieving, but Gao just nods. "No. He'll throw with a broken right arm. He's that kind of monster." And yup, he does.

I don't worry too much about spoilers in shonen sports mangas, because in tournament arcs like this, you know that the only place the main team is going to lose will be in the final, if then. (Actually, Japanese sports mangas have a surprising number of titles that end with our heroes' defeat, and a vow to come back next year and TRY EVEN HARDER.) Much like all their previous games, the Devilbats fall way behind early, then score in bunches to catch up. Sena is a 'mobile quarterback', Monta defeats the Ptera Claw, and even Jumonji manages to pick up a fumble and return it for a score.

And we finally get Marco's backstory, showing how driven he is to win. His story is tied into the Kansai region's team, who we hear about here for the first time. They've won 25 years in a row over Tokyo's team, and will presumably be our heroes' opponents in the Christmas Bowl. And they're so blindingly good at everything (especially recruiting away from other teams) that Marco loses sight of football being fun and starts to focus on winning at all costs. Maruko's sad realization of this is quite touching. (I also nominate Marco and Maruko as one of the more confusing romances in shonen. No wonder he calls her Maria.)

The best part of the whole volume, though, may be set in the infirmary where Mamori is trying to get Hiruma to stay put and not go play football with a broken arm. Hiruma simply says "Third question: Fools in the NFL often play with a broken bone. True or False?" We then flash back to Volume 2, where Hiruma said he would ask Mamori three questions, and if she got any wrong, she'd have to obey him. After she got two right, he just changed the subject. Now he asks, and when she answers 'false' to try to get him to stay there, he calls in his bargain. Great use of what seemed like a simple gag in the very early days of the series.

This series is nearing another climax, and this has been one of my favorite volumes to date. As an example of shonen sports in one of its purer forms, you can't go wrong with Eyeshield 21.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Maid-sama! Volume 3

By Hiro Fujiwara. Released in Japan as "Kaichō wa Maid-sama!" by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

Maid-sama! has so many things working against it that it's a wonder I like it as much as I do. The basic premise of 'feisty school president has to hide her part-time maid cafe job from the world' sounds cliched. And we do get the occasional bit of the guy telling the girl she needs to be more careful and let him protect her, etc. However, for the most part this manga manages to rise above, or at least subvert, some of the cliches.

It helps to have a strong heroine. Misaki is very much a Hakusensha heroine in the modern mode, being loud and gung-ho and winning everything by sheer grit and willpower. She's not only a honors-level student and Student Council President, but she's also strong and athletic. Her faults are those of the typical tsundere - she's stubborn as a mule, will occasionally get in over her head, and doesn't need anyone's help, thank you very much.

Usui is there to provide balance, being the classic shoujo male snarker who makes passes at the heroine but is really looking out for her. He admires her while waiting patiently for her to fall in love with him (which can take forever in these kinds of stories - see Special A). One of my favorites parts of this manga (in an otherwise rather stupid and unrealistic chapter) is where Misaki is under hypnotic influence and begging Usui to help her out of her hot clothes. After briefly noting he'd love to if she was genuinely willing, he shoves her back onto the bed and says plainly, "No way, no how." In a shoujo world increasingly dominated by heroes of the Black Bird variety, I was pleased by this.

And then there's the maid-cafe premise, which I have warmed to. I've warmed to it partly because the stories in the cafe seem to be much better so far than the stories set at the school, and partly because it just leads to a wider variety of humorous situations. One of my favorite chapters in this volume was the ones where the cafe is doing a "little sister" themed event (have I mentioned how creepy I find the idea of maid cafes?) and seeing the unfeminine Misaki struggle with the concept (her research is hilarious, as are her various strained cheery grins). And we once again see her drive at work, as she actually manages to pull off a natural 'little sister' near the end - at least till Usui baits her. And the chapter with everyone trying to decide Misaki's Power Ranger color was also excellent.

The manga is good at subverting and working with cliches, but at heart it is still based in those cliches, which can be a weakness. Chapter 13 features the least surprising cross-dresser in the history of shoujo manga, and the athletic festival episode was simply treading the old ground of "never give up!". And as I noted earlier, the final chapter is awash in bad hypnotism cliches.

Still, with a strong heroine who's a good role model despite her temper and impetuousness, and a male love interest who's on the lighter, more likeable side of 'I am a jerk because I love), Maid-sama is good, solid shoujo.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oh My Goddess! Volume 34

By Kosuke Fujishima. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Dark Horse.

It dawned on me as I was reading this volume of Oh My Goddess that I have been reading this manga series for almost a third of my entire life. This was the first manga title I started buying regularly at my comic book store, along with Ranma 1/2. I got them both in the 32-page floppy format, flipped. That's how long this has been running. Dark Horse notes it's American's longest-running manga series, and it's the truth. And it's still running in Japan, so we're in no danger of it stopping anytime soon.

The first half of this volume deals with what has almost become the main plot of OMG: motorbikes. Yes, theoretically there's something about a boy living with a bunch of goddesses, and the manga does have arcs where it deals with Heaven and Hell and the like, but the driving force of this manga, more than the somewhat simplistic characters, and more than the pretty art (love that hair!), has been the bikes. Much like Fujishima's first manga, You're Under Arrest!, the manga is a starting point where he can overindulge his fetish for old-time engines and namedrop Honda as much as possible.

The second half of the volume focuses on Skuld, the bratty future goddess who has been slowly (very slowly) (very very very slowly) growing up over the course of this series. She runs into her crush Sentaro, but he's distracted by something, and she can't figure out what it is. Naturally, her sisters and Keiichi try to help her, but aside from moral support (and hideous teasing on Urd's part) there's not much for them here. Eventually it becomes clear that Sentaro is moving, and he was trying to find the best way of telling her.

And that's pretty much it. The volumes have grown much skinnier recently (Dark Horse is using a slimmer paper, but they also match up with the skinny Japanese volumes), so we don't really get much focusing on Keiichi and Belldandy beyond one small gag where Urd feeds Keiichi medicine to get him to say what he's honestly thinking. But since Bell and K1 are the #1 chaste couple in all of manga, nothing happens.

Let's be honest, no one reads Oh My Goddess and eagerly awaits the two of them declaring their love and going off to have hot hot goddess sex. It's been 34 volumes and over 20 years (in Japan), and while K1 and Bell are clearly a couple in love, they can't even bring themselves to kiss anymore. They were actually more affectionate at the start than they are now! That's the one big drawback of the series: if you can't stand people who cannot resolve a relationship, drop this title now and read something else.

But I read Oh My Goddess... because I've always read Oh My Goddess. Or at least it feels like it. I like reading about Keiichi and Belldandy being sweet, and Urd being annoying, and Skuld being annoying, and the rest of the cast being annoying. I like Fujishima's art, and I think he draws very cute women. Plus now that the cast has graduated, this is another rare manga dealing almost entirely with adults, with Skuld being the only exception.

Dark Horse's presentation is top notch. This is a title edited by the legendary Carl Gustav Horn (TM), and so we get attention to detail galore, not to mention 4-page spreads telling you about The Monkey Z50J/II, which has a Takegawa R-stage head to enhance prn! Or something. As an added treat, Carl has found the original copies of the monthly magazine Afternoon that OMG runs in, and has found that Fujishima had little comments with each chapter. This volume translates the first 15, with liner notes.

Yes, it's another comfort manga, and won't blow anyone's mind. Probably as we've seen so many Magical Girlfriend titles influenced by it that we've forgotten how good it was. But Oh My Goddess keeps on trucking, and for anyone who's been enjoying the ride, well, now you can enjoy the ride while knowing how many cc's the engine is.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Stolen Hearts Volume 1

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

CMX seems to have a knack for choosing lesser-known but underrated shoujo works, and this one is no exception. In runs in one of Hakusensha's spinoff magazines from their regular Hana to Yume. The spinoff, called The Hana to Yume (yes, 'The' is meant to be the English) runs 6 times a year in Japan. So it allows the creators a bit more time and care than they get with a regular twice-a-month shoujo series. The author has been with Hakusensha for about 10 years now; her first sries, Nadeshiko Club, will be coming out by CMX later this year.

Stolen Hearts, like many shoujo manga, starts with an incredibly cliched premise. Small cute girl accidentally splashes milk on bag of huge scary-looking guy. Turns out it had a rare kimono in it. Now she's forced to work it off by modeling kimonos! Say, what do you want to bet the scary-looking guy is just misunderstood? You'd be right.

But no one reads shoujo for originality. You read it to see if the author can draw you in with likeable characters and sweet situations. And this series has that in spades. The two leads go well together almost immediately. The series was likely created as a 'one-shot' chapter, as they get together and declare their love right away. However, that works in the book's favor, as we don't have to deal with the usual 'I can never say what I truly feel' shenanigans.

I also really liked Shinobu, the lead heroine. She may be tiny, but she's no wilting wallflower. She takes the lead in their relationship, confessing to him and not letting him pull away 'for her own good'. And she can think on the fly, solving a kimono crisis in Chapter 4 and turning it into a huge success. As for Koguma, our hero, he's the standard 'I am bad at social interaction' hero, but Shinobu is slowly getting him to open up (possibly to her detriment, as now that he isn't scary girls notice how handsome he is.)

And of course there's Koguma's grandmother, who is simply awesome. I always warm to tough old grandmas, and she's a great example of one. I loved the implication of a Yakuza past.

It's hard not to overuse the word 'adorable' in describing this manga. From the kimonos themselves (which look lovely, and show the author did her research) to Shinobu and Koguma, who look cute and get lots of couple moments, the manga is designed to simply put a smile on your face. I look forward to seeing more of it, and now have added expectations for her other series that CMX is starting in June.