Friday, April 30, 2010

V.B. Rose Volume 8

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

So much of shoujo romance manga is about how to read a person's feelings. I can't possibly confess to him, I've no idea how he feels about me! Look at the way that he jerked away when I touched him - he hates me! That sort of thing. And it's all over V.B. Rose 8 as well, even with the fact that we actually get the most plot development yet.

The Sakashita siblings are a good case in point in terms of how to play with an audience's expectations. With Yukari and Ageha, they can't read each other's feelings for each other, but we can. It's incredibly obvious to us how they feel. Mamoru and Nagare, though, are another story. I wouldn't say they're villainous - this is not the sort of shoujo to have nasty villains - but their smiles make us uneasy. It doesn't help that Hidaka-san parodies this by having them both join in a round of crazed maniacal laughter midway through.

In fact, much of this volume seems to be Hidaka riffing on her previous works. Ageha and Tsuyu go over to Kana's apartment for a heart-to-heart, and Ageha asks point black about Kana's past with Yukari. We then get an extended flashback to their fragile history together, done fairly straight. It's at the exact same point we got a flashback in I Hate You More Than Anyone - mid Volume 8. Then we cut back to Kana, staring off into space, and we realize that this was all in her head, and she never actually said anything to Ageha! Nice take-off on shoujo convention of "let me tell you about my past".

(I have to wonder if Hidaka-san had been reading One Piece while she was writing this. Not only does the extended tragic flashback that we're never sure is actually stated out loud remind me of Robin's flashback in Enies Lobby, but when asked about when she told them about her past, Kana replied, "In my heart." Kana is a person who definitely knows where Sniper Island is.)

There's another cameo from the two leads of I Hate You More Than Anyone! here, and again you don't really have to read the previous series to get it, but it's fun. There's a coincidental bit of timing here in North America, too, as this volume of V.B. rose namechecks one of Maki's friends who's a designer, and we see a little SD-picture of her. It's Fujisawa Eiko, who we are currently seeing doing a fashion show 12 years earlier, in the 9th volume of I Hate You More Than Anyone, just out last month! It's enough to make one an obsessive geek, I tell you.

However, the big story here is that Ageha and Yukari get together at last (again, her series parallel - Volume 8 was where Maki and Kazuha got together). It's sweetly done, showing Yukari's awkwardness and Ageha's uncertainty, but ends up being very sweet. Of course, there are 14 volumes in this series, not 8, so I'm sure there will be complications. From Nagare, if no one else.

The art here, by the way, is utterly gorgeous - and that is something that's different from the competent but not outstanding art in IHYMTA. Hidaka-san has really polished her skills, and of course a manga about a wedding dress shop is going to want to show off the fashion. Chapter 45 is almost purely gratuitous - between the pages of nothing but fashion AND the Maki and Kazuha cameos - but you never mind, because it just looks great.

We're now into the second half of this terrific series, and I love that we can see the way that Hidaka-san improves her craft with every volume, as well as the subtle ways she manages to not only poke fun at manga conventions but also her own past. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Manga the week of 5/5

Midtown Comics has released next week's list of things mostly shipping from Diamond except the ones that don't (Midtown's lists are sometimes different). What's good out there?

Let's start with the not-Viz titles. Code Geass: Knight is an interesting experiment from Bandai. It's an anthology comic, released directly to tankobon by Kadokawa Shoten. They're basically short parody comics, though there may be serious things as well. Knight, meant for women to read, is devoted to the guys of Code Geass. Queen will come out later, for the guy fans to read about the women of Geass.

The 6th volume of Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei is out from Del Rey. No matter who the adaptor, this is a fantastic title. This volume introduces Kaga Ai, who will become one of the more featured regulars. She apologizes for my singling her out like this.

Well, that leaves Viz. We have five more volumes of One Piece, taking us from the end of Water Seven into the middle of Thriller Bark. I'll be honest, Thriller Bark is my least favorite. But even sub-par Oda has some great moments.

Gin Tama has been on a roll lately, and I look forward to seeing in Volume 18 is comedic, serious, or veering back and forth as usual.

Lots of shoujo as well. I'll be interested in Kimi Ni Todoke 4 (which Diamond put out a week early, and which I have in my review queue), Otomen (Ryo needs more love, dammit. It's not a yaoi title, honest. Much.), and Flower in a Storm, a 2-volume short series from LaLa that's not actually CMX for once.

Ending this week are Shueisha's Wāq Wāq, which I did not read, at 4 volumes, and Square Enix's Record of a Fallen Vampire, which I also did not read, at 9 volumes. I dunno, it's a vampire title but never hit the charts? How can this be?

Karakuri Odette Volumes 1 & 2

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

I have to wonder what demographic Tokyopop was going for here. A very, very pink cover (girls?) with the original Japanese title (manga nerds?), noting it's from the creator of the unlicensed Akuma to Dolce (which is actually on hiatus in Japan - HARDCORE manga nerds?), and featuring the back cover copy "She's a hot robot in high school - what's the worst that could happen?" (sleazy guys). I have to assume that the audience they want is number 1, but the audience they'll get is numbers 2 and 3. And that their editorial department is number 4.

It's a shame, as this is a really fantastic title, one which gives a genuinely sweet look at what a robot girl deals with in trying to learn about humanity. Japanese manga is littered with robot girls, of course, but most of them tend to be in titles for boys and men, and they're very much of the "what is this Earth thing you call kissing" variety of emotion-attaining robot girls. Odette's counterpart in Negima, Karakuri Chachamaru, for example (Karakuri means robot in Japanese, by the way) also is seen as basically trying to discover real human feelings and know what it's like to be alive, but almost all of the development she's attained has come from her crush on Negi.

With Odette, though, romance has not yet factored into it at all. I'm pretty sure that will change soon, and we do indeed see someone confess to her at the end of the second volume. But Odette's growth is shown through her friendships. First with Yoko, then with Asao, she's clearly desperate to try to be like everyone else, not realizing how human she already is. We see her curiosity itself changing - in Chapter 1, she comments in a deadpan way about wanting to eat food or be less strong, but by the end of Volume 2 she has better reasons for wanting to do these thing. Human reasons, like wanting your friend to like your cooking.

This is contrasted very well by the two main male characters, Chris and Asao. Chris, originally a one-off character, is reintroduced in Volume 2, and right away we see why. Because we've been following Odette all along, we don't realize how far she's come from the first few pages till we see Chris, also emotionless but trying to become more human, contrasted with the already quite emotional Odette. He clearly admires her, though I'm not sure I'd call it romantic love - I think in the end he'll be the guy who winds up needing an older sister/mother figure, kind of like Yuki in Fruits Basket - but it's clearly what's driving him to be less passive. Unlike Odette, Chris's changes ARE driven by love, just like the shonen robot girls. His first genuine response is to get angry at Asao - both for Asao's grumpy bitching at Odette, and for Odette clearly not minding it.

Speaking of Asao, he's a case in point that humanity can be difficult to achieve for actual humans as well. He's grumpy, he's mean, he gets into fights (but doesn't start them) all the time, and he's constantly saying the wrong thing around Odette and then having to fix it later. He's exactly the sort of 'mentor' figure Odette needs, giving her "tough love" through simply trying to deal with her everyday "wacky schemes".

The best thing about this manga, though, is hard to describe. It's what I call "those moments". The ones you want to read over and over again, and quote to others. Karakuri Odette is absolutely littered with them. Odette's tears in Chapter 1 as she flashes back to asking for less strength, now realizing what that means. Odette telling off Yoko for dissing Asao (but allowing her mere acquaintance Miwako to do so). The entire 2-page spread that can be summed up (with a shudder of horror) as "I LOVE CATS!". Asao's "Well, right now you look like you're so sad that you're about to cry." Julietta Suzuki is simply a good writer. And it shows.

I'm pleased that Tokyopop is releasing this, despite their ludicrous back cover copy. (Perhaps they can license Akuma to Dolce once Viz licenses Tokyo Crazy Paradise?) For all the talk of hot robot girls, this *is* a shoujo title. The goal is seeing Odette grow up and make friends. And yes, a lot of it is quite pink, if a rather deadpan sort of pink. Can't wait for more.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ōoku Volume 3

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

Let's get one thing out of the way immediately, and talk about the adaptation and translation of this title by Akemi Wegmuller. It's rare that I mention an adaptor/translator in my reviews, unless they're either Carl Horn or there's a big noticeable change between two of them (see: Zetsubou-sensei, Negima... Del Rey has this issue a lot). This particular title has gotten a bit of controversy due to its language choice, though, so it seems unfair not to note the adaptor herself.

I don't really have too much of an issue with the faux-Jacobean style that most people speak in this edition of Ooku. As long as it's consistent, I can simply roll with it, and it does help to establish that 1639 is not just 1992 with horses instead of cars. The trouble is that it's not always consistent. When used by the upper-class it seems to be, but sometimes Wegmuller is dealing with more of a rural character, such as Sutezo in this volume, and she tries to show his accent/speech pattern by slipping in some modern words. It reads horribly. "I must hie! 'Tis my dad!" Later on he even starts using ain't and leaving the ends off of words, which might be fine in a title like Dr. Slump, but here just makes him sound like Gomer Pyle, Ooku Veteran. I appreciate that translating accents is a herculean task, and that there is no good way to go about it. This was a particularly jarring one, however.

As for the volume itself, I think it's worth dealing with the translation issues. This is riveting stuff, almost impossible to put down once you begin to read it. Sometimes I put off volumes like these, knowing they're going to be heavy stuff with very little humor. But then I begin, and suddenly it's 200 pages later and I'm checking Viz's calendar to find out when the next volume is out. (August, in case you wondered.)

We're still in flashback mode here for the whole volume, and it would seem we will be for Volume 4 as well. This means we're still focusing on the first female Shogun Iemitsu and her bedchamber lover Arikoto. Considering the petulant brat we met in Volume 2, seeing Iemitsu in this volume is startling. We'd seen before that she was clever but petulant and damaged. Now that she has her lover and a sense of balance, the cleverness comes to the fore as she's already out-thinking most of her advisors as to how the country should be run. It does seem a tad rushed and unbelievable, but I'll OK the sacrifice of pace to see Iemitsu come into her own as a regal leader.

Unfortunately, the goal is not to have a great female Shogun, the goal is to hide things until a male heir can be produced. And Arikoto is not cutting it, for some reason. So he's removed, and another guy, Sutezo, is brought in. Sutezo is meant to be a simple man out of his depth, but merely by coming between the couple we've come to love, he's not winning fans. He reads like a creepy opportunist. Unfortunately, Yoshinaga must have thought so too, as he's written out in an almost ludicrous way, but not before fathering... a girl. Oh well.

The most interesting and chilling chapter is the one showing Iemitsu (who is in disguise as herself, a very clever notion considering the Shogun is still "hidden") walking around a village and seeing the sick, starving people. No punches are pulled here in showing the utter brutality of this famine (which lasted several years), and her solution is cold but very politically apt. This all leads up to the climax, where another death, this one not so sudden, allows Iemitsu to finally come out, so to speak, and reveal herself as Shogun as the volume ends.

It can be very easy to forget the 'alternate-universe' premise of this and just get caught up in the history, especially since at this point there are still a number of men still around. Still, it's good to see Iemitsu develop, and now we can see the strong beginning of the female shogun line (which apparently decays into luxury later on, going by Volume 1 - yeah, remember Volume 1?). And the relationship between her and Arikoto is passionate yet pragmatic. I'd love to see them have a happy ending, but fear that Volume 4 will put paid to that. I'll still read it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mushishi

By Yuki Urushibara. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Del Rey.

I will admit, I always enjoy a volume of Mushishi when it comes out. Just like most folk stories, it has a certain relaxed, ambling pace that is suited to the scenic, watercolor art. Even in black and white, the art still looks like it's being painted rather than drawn. Ginko is a good POV character (calling him the hero seems wrong for this series), and the whole thing is well-written.

And yet, after reading it, I rarely go back to reread. I feel no desire to watch Mushishi AMVs, or read Mushishi fanfics. In fact, I'm not sure there's much of a Mushishi fandom at all. This is no Naruto, or even a Honey & Clover. It's a work of art, but you feel like you're seeing it in a museum. It never comes home and sits above your fireplace.

I had mentioned folktales, and really, that's probably the best way to describe the plot of Mushishi. As Ginko wanders from village to village, he comes across a new vaguely supernatural phenomenon, all of which lead back to the Mushi that are part of the title. Sometimes Ginko is able to solve things and leave everyone happy, and other times the solution brings only sadness, or at least melancholia. And then he moves on. There's no regular cast, which is probably just as well as the one-shot characters who are not Ginko tend to look very similar from volume to volume.

If there were any other genre I would ascribe to Mushishi, it would be horror. Not the gore-filled shock horror of many other manga titles, or even the corpse-laden sarcasm of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. This is the sort of horror you get after waking up from a long nap to discover that weight on your chest is the corpse of a little girl. Disquiet wrapped in a blanket. Several times in this series I've debated putting it down, as I don't really like horror, but it never quite hits the level of doom and destruction that other series do.

The strength of the series, and possibly also its weakness, is its slice-of-life mentality. Here is humanity, laid out for you as Ginko goes around the country. There are cruel people, and loving people, but mostly we see a lot of people trying to get by and distrustful of anything that's different. The Mushi may not be an evil thing when it comes down to it, but their effects - and what they do to the lives of the people that come on contact with them - are chaotic and frequently undeserved. But then, life goes on, and is rarely fair.

Mushishi takes place in all seasons, and some of the stories are in blazing heat, but for some reason I always think of it as being a winter manga. Cool, yet not frozen, Mushishi trudges along, looking gorgeous and inspiring much thought. But it's also almost impossible to get close to. This is a series that you can write essays about, but will never hug to your chest and go "Squee!".

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bamboo Blade Volume 4

By Masahiro Totsuka and Aguri Igarashi. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young Gangan. Released in North America by Yen Press.

This volume of Bamboo Blade focuses on the introduction of two new girls, one a minor villain and one a major protagonist. Technically there's also a lot of Kojiro in it as well, and he does get some nice development as he goes back home for a bit to help at his parents' store, but honestly, does anyone read Bamboo Blade for the guys? Well, maybe for Dan-kun...

Tama finishes her part-time job, as she now has enough money for her DVD box set. Likewise, Miya-miya is also finished... although that may not have been as voluntary. A girl came by the store and tried to shoplift, and it turns out she's Miyako's old rival/nemesis from her middle school days. Reimi seems to specialize in being obsessed with Miyako and making her life miserable, and it might run in the family - her mother looks very familiar.

When Reimi actually tries to get revenge it works out badly. She sends some goons after Miyako's 'boyfriend', but gets the wrong guy, as she can't even imagine Miyako and Dan together. So the goons go after Yuji. Sadly, these are low-level goons, and Yuji gets rid of them easily in one of the funnier scenes. However, Reimi works far better as a mere absent threat, as we see Miyako being driven slowly insane with worry about what will happen this volume, to the point where everyone is starting to notice.

I continue to be impressed at how the author's handle Miyako's relationship with Dan-kun. It's still mostly one-sided, as Dan is the sort of character that remains a mystery - partially as he's still a joke a lot of the time, and partly because I think the authors want to keep his thoughts a mystery. Miyako is an open book, though, and one of the things that remains clear is that she really does see Dan's good qualities and loves him. It helps to soften her up - Miyako's the sort of person who can get very abrasive very fast.

In the latter half of the book, we see the club trying to track down that elusive 5th member. They find that there's someone at their school who was fantastic at kendo in middle school, but they only know her first name - Azuma. After an amusing series of 'wrong person' comedy mishaps, Kojiro finds out who she is... and why it's impossible for her to be on the team. She's brilliant at kendo, but horrible at school, even going so far as to wear fake 'huge glasses' so that she'll be smarter. She studies hard, and takes notes... she's just BAD. An after-school club would make things even worse.

Too bad, as she's exactly the member they're looking for, kicking the asses of the others when they lure her into a practice match. Will they be able to find a solution? Tune in next time! As always, this series balances kendo and comedy perfectly, and makes a great sports manga for people who don't like sports mangas. Recommended.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gatcha Gacha Volume 1

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

Having wrapped up one of my major manga obsessions in I Hate You More Than Anyone, it's time to start talking far too much about another. And what better series than a cute girl who finds herself falling for only jerks? Wait, I normally hate that sort of series. What makes this so different? Basically, two things: the girl is essentially upbeat about her life, and it's a broad comedy. These are far more important than they may seem, especially the first.

I note, as I do whenever I discuss this series, that I am talking about Tokyopop's shoujo romantic comedy Gatcha Gacha, and not Del Rey's shonen boobfest comedy Gacha Gacha. This series was probably never going to sell like Ouran or Vampire Knight, but I still say Tokyopop could have avoided a lot of hideous confusion and people avoiding it if they'd changed the title to something more Western. Gatcha Gacha (with a 't') ran in Hakusensha's Melody magazine from 2002 to 2008. Unlike Ooku or All My Darling Daughters (also in Melody), which are released in tankobon form under the seinen/josei 'Jets' imprint', Gatcha Gacha is released under the Hana to Yume imprint, and thus is still considered shoujo. Albeit more mature shoujo that what was running in Hana to Yume.

Honestly, though, this could easily have run in HtY in the 1990s. As Hakusensha tries to make its flagship younger and more girly, however, its edgier series head to either BetsuHana (home of Otomen), or Melody.

Its heroine is Yuri Muroi, a cheerful and cute girl who has just broken up with her boyfriend. Her 11th boyfriend. She's always dumped, and her boyfriends always seem to be the scum of the earth - gambling addicts, drug addicts, etc. Despite this, she tries to keep a cheery attitude, and her fellow classmates seem to, well, tolerate her. That is until she falls for Takihiro Yabe, a tall, bleached blond delinquent who seems to exude an attitude of cool and lazy. Yabe is not boyfriend material either, but his handsome devil-may-care attitude make him very popular with girls. Who want that slut Yuri away from their man!

Yuri's life does not get any easier, as she also has to deal with the Student Council President, Sho Hirao. He's a kendo clubber, and handsome, and studious... and has a reputation for hating women, mostly as he simply cannot control saying what he thinks when he sees them. He's socially inept when it comes to talking to the opposite sex, so everyone is content to admire him from afar. Then he sees Yuri, and immediately finds he has a crush on her. He's not sure why, but can't resist talking to her, or coming to her rescue when she's being attacked.

So the loose girl with the reputation not only is going after the hot delinquent guy, but has the hot President mooning over her! OK, she has to die. (I note that the mangaka does a very good job of leaving it open as to whether Yuri has slept with them all. It's heavily implied she has... indeed, the author in notes says she worried readers would not like an 'impure' heroine... but it's entirely possible that the rumors are exaggerated. The rumors are very T+ rated, by the way. "That girl has turned every knob in the school... and I don't mean doors.")

So far so predictable, and I admit if it were just Yuri and her guys vs. the school, I'd likely have dropped this ages ago. Ah, but there is Motoko. Motoko Kagurazaka, aka the reason this manga was licensed, and the reason it lasted more than a volume in Japan. Motoko is introduced as a beautiful tall leggy blonde. She's popular, she's good at sports, and the rumor is that she loves beautiful poetry and only listens to classical music. Yuri even sees a classmate confessing to her! And then notices the Motoko is not, in fact, paying attention to the confession, but is looking at the legs and butts of the girls doing gym outside.

Yes, Motoko is not what her reputation would have. A reputation that is quickly lost, by the way. She is loud, she is rude, she likes sports chants, fish sausage, and her general method of dealing with jerks is a kick in the head... followed by several more kicks while they are down. She also hates seeing violence against woman, and finds herself defending Yuri from some thugs trying to blackmail her into starring in some porn films.

Yuri and Motoko have the classic odd friendship beloved by both Western and Eastern readers. Yuri is short, cheerful, busty and dense. Motoko is tall, grumpy, flat-chested, and very observant. Despite Motoko's insistence on calling Yuri Lackey #2 (Lackey #1 is a bespectacled geek who knew Motoko's past from before), they quickly become close. In fact, Yuri quickly learns Motoko's tragic past. We think. Yuri discovers that Motoko's little sister died, and that's why she's always looking at young girls. So tragic... except, as Yabe points out, Motoko doesn't have a younger sister. But hey, at least now the rumors that Motoko is a lesbian are taken care of!

(Like Yuri's supposed sexual activities, Motoko's sexual preference is generally left up in the air. She denies being a lesbian several times, but never shows the slightest attraction to a guy, not even Yabe, who insists he loves her.)

Tragic pasts are a feature of this manga, and we'll be hearing more about Motoko's past - both more stuff she makes up and the real one - later on. In this volume, though, we do find that Yuri has two younger brothers but no mother - she died when Yuri was young. So she's good at cooking and the like. And what's more, she may have dated a string of losers, but despite this she did gain something from each of them. One boyfriend was a hairstylist, so she's great at giving girls makeovers. And at the end of the volume, she's challenged to a kendo duel by one of Yabe's exes, and she wins that by a clever but rule-abiding trick, noting that she learned some stuff from her boyfriend who was a yakuza. As Motoko notes, "She's a Frankenstein's monster of ex-boyfriend talents."

There's a lot going on in this volume, but most of the setup is there. Yuri loves Yabe, Yabe (claims) he loves Motoko, Hirao loves Yuri, and Motoko loves watching them be idiots. If this series were as earnest as We Were There or Black Bird, it might be impossible to take. But its broad comedy and over the top violence take the edge off it, and you just sit back and root for Yuri's life to get better. Which, admittedly, will require Yuri to get better taste in men. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Gintama Anime Collection 1

Original manga by Hideaki Sorachi. Released in Japan by Sunrise, Inc., shown weekly on TV Tokyo. Released in North America by Sentai Filmworks.

Sentai Filmworks has recently been licensing a lot of long-running TV series from Japan, which surprises but pleases me. Rising from the remains of ADV, they seem to be looking for popular shonen that can come out cheaply and efficiently 13 episodes at a time. Eyeshield 21 comes out starting in May, and this month we had the first 13 episodes of Gintama.

Those who read this blog know that I'm a huge lover of Gin Tama the manga (Viz has made the title two words, Sentai Filmworks has it as one), so I was always going to pick this up. I was especially pleased as this was one of the series that's legally available on Crunchyroll, so I had not expected DVDs. They're pretty much bare-bones, with subtitles only and the only 'extras' being clean opening and closing credits. However, the subtitles are well-done, and the series' foul language is not toned down. Best of all, although they are sparse, the series in-joke references and obscure Japanese media humor is also subtitled with brief explanations.

The anime itself does not begin with the first chapter of the manga, as one would expect, but instead has a 2-part double length episode opener that was written especially for the anime, introducing all the main characters (well, the early ones) as if we'd already been watching it. It works well. Gintama doesn't really have a huge backstory you have to know to get into every episode. Gintoki has a tragic, serious past. Kagura's an alien. Sacchan's a masochist. (And a ninja, I suppose, but really, masochist is what everyone will remember). The episode piles on the humor, then gets serious as the client's sad past and the villains' nasty manipulations are revealed. Our heroes go off to beat them down, and after an equal parts silly and straight, they do.

After this, we go back and tell the story from the start, with Episode 3 introducing us to the bespectacled 'straight man' Shinpachi, his pretty yet psychotic sister Otae, and our hero, the lazy and permed Gintoki, who is a badass samurai with a tragic past who now carries only a wooden sword and eats parfaits.

The best part of Gintama, of courser, is that not only can anyone be the comedy character at any time, but anyone can be the straight man. This works well for our comic trio of Gin's Odd Jobs, as any two can team up to scream at the other one and it seems reasonable. Likewise, Gintama's status of being a broad, gag comedy - except when it isn't - makes it pretty easy for the anime to insert filler comedy that fits within the confines of the plot of the day. In a series where anything can happen and the heroine is frequently seen picking her nose, coming up with stuff that doesn't seem out of place is much easier.

Of course, having the luxury of 25 minutes to tell a story as opposed to 18 pages, we also sometimes get some richer character detail. I noticed this particularly with Episode 12, which introduces Catherine, the homely cat-girl thief who works at Otose's. In the manga, this was a very early chapter and is clearly meant to focus more on Otose and her tendency to easily forgive and take in lost strays (i.e., Gin). The anime has the luxury of knowing that later on Sorachi decided to bring her back and start to redeem her, so makes Catherine far more reluctant in her actions, even crying by the end.

I can't really recommend this to those who like serious samurai battles, even though there are many in this series, as I suspect the low humor will turn them off. However, the series is perfect for those who like low humor but don't mind it turning serious whenever the author feels like it. In fact, many episodes of Gintama can get quite dark. The final episode of this set, 13, is the first example of such an episode, with Shinpachi and Kagura kidnapped by drug-smuggling aliens, and Gin and Zura busting to the rescue.

(It's not Zura, it's KATSURA!)

Whatever. A great anime, well-handled for its North American release, in an affordable 13-episode collection. Fans of shonen comedy will love this.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 9

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

After 2 volumes that could cost you a bundle if you never got them when they came out, here's Vol. 9, a return to sensible prices. This one's still in print, and thus on Amazon for only $9.95. And it's just as packed with plot as Volume 8 was. Rikdo has now finished introducing his cast (with 2 big exceptions), and can get on with proving that Excel Saga is more than just a series of part-time jobs and Hail Il Palazzos.

We start off with one of those AU chapters that puts the characters in another venue, this one being a parody of Japanese detective shows. Unfortunately, much of the humor actually relies on knowing those shows, so it's not quite as funny as it could be for North American audiences. I did recognize Sukeban Deka and the Matrix in the mix there. Best out of context line: "I bet he'll kill *again*!"

Back in the real plot, Excel and company have now arrived at their new apartment. Since this one was given to them by Kabapu's organization (you may recall the old one burning down in 8 due to Iwata/Ropponmatsu being an idiot), it's bigger than the old apartment, and furnished. To Elgala, this is simply normal, and she cheerily goes off to watch TV and take a hot soaking bath. To Excel, used to living in utter penury, this luxury is hideously untrustworthy, and she quickly puts Elgala in her place.

The most interesting part of the chapter comes after Excel, due to penury putting holes in her pockets, accidentally loses the keys to the apartment. Luckily, they were spotted almost immediately... by Ropponmatsu II, who manages to return them while looking utterly creepy doing so. Incidentally, this is one of the few times Carl Horn will need to correct a translation. Volume 9 has Ropponmatsu, on handing the keys back to Excel (whom she clearly recognizes in some way), "Be careful with those." In Volume 17, though, there's a flashback to this exact scene, and owing to future plot points (which I shall not reveal here), Ropponmatsu now says "Don't lose it." This is why translation can be hard - one cannot read the mangaka's mind.

Meanwhile, Elgala goes off on another super sekrit mission on her own (we briefly see her skulking around Kabapu's building), so we're back to just Excel and Hyatt. And actually, it's just Excel, as Hyatt collapses in a pool of blood in front of Lord Il Palazzo. She's done this before, but for once he actually seems to notice (again, we note Il Palazzo does not always seem to have the same set of memories from one day to the next) and takes Hyatt to the medical bay. This leaves Excel on her own, just like the start of the series... except she, like the reader, is now used to actual interaction. But too stubborn to admit she's lonely.

This leads to the most intriguing part of the manga, as we see Il Palazzo examining Hyatt, who is floating naked in a tank of fluid, in the time-honored sci-fi way. Il Palazzo notes that she had something implanted in her, and it's clearly failing. This would certainly explain the constant coughing up blood and dying. Yet he notes that not only was the implant from the finest genetic materials, but it's implied that he implanted the same thing into Excel... who is clearly *not* coughing up blood and dying. In fact, if anything Excel's strength and endurance verge on superhuman. What made it work with Excel and not with Hyatt? Well, we don't find that out yet. Il Palazzo 'fixes' Hyatt, and we're back to normal. (Mostly as by the very next page she's back to coughing up blood and collapsing...)

There then follow two filler-ey chapters, both amusing. One deals with the rest of Kabapu's team wondering what kind of robot Iwata will be like when he returns. Super-strength? A brain in a jar? A 300-foot Mecha? The other involves Menchi, who got bonked on the head and lost her memory a while back, having it suddenly return and realize oh yeah, she's trapped in an apartment with people who want to eat her as food. Her escape is actually far more successful than usual (she avoids Misaki, who we know will merely return the dog to Excel), but unfortunately can't get past a returning Elgala.

Meanwhile, Il Palazzo seems to have decided that ACROSS has done enough research, and they are now ready to reveal themselves to the world. This involves Excel and Hyatt, wearing sunglasses to hide their identities (the joke being that they actually seem to do so... even Misaki doesn't recognize them) going out into the middle of City Hall Plaza and talking up the glories of Il Palazzo. At first the only effect this seems to have is getting a bunch of cosplay-loving otaku to watch them... but Kabapu, watching from his penthouse office, is blown away. He seems to regain some memories of his own, involving Il Palazzo (it's now clear the two were colleagues in the past), and heads off to a secret base.

And now the big finale, as who should drop in to stop Excel and Hyatt's plans but a sentai warrior! This is Iwata, of course, in his new cyborg body (which looks pretty much like him, for those who wondered if he would be a brain in a jar). He's got laser guns, he's got super strength, he's... just as stupid, so things don't go well. In fact, the audience is starting to see him as a villain. While this goes on, Kabapu explains to the other 3 City Security members... all now magically in sentai outfits... that their job will be to PROTECT THIS CITY!

Those who know Excel Saga's pedigree have been waiting for this. The original doujinshi he based Excel Saga on was called Shiritsu Sentai Daitenzin, and featured Iwata & company, in somewhat proto form, battling the evil organization, i.e. Il Palazzo and Excel. The doujinshi starred the so-called Municipal Force, and was a parody of Power Rangers-esque shows beloved in Japan. And now we get to finally see them here. But not quite fully in action yet. Iwata starts blowing things up, and Excel and Hyatt run away. They did get the crowd to chant "Hail, Il Palazzo", though. So 60 points out of 100.

I was pleased at how much I enjoyed this plot-tastic Excel Saga. It's still amazingly silly, of course. Hopefully 10 will have more Elgala, though... this volume was sorely lacing in Elgala.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kingyo Used Books Volume 1

By Seimu Yoshizaki. Released in Japan as "Kingyoya Koshoten" by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Ikki. Released in North America by Viz.

One of the things I've always liked about having a site like SigIkki is that it gives us a better sense of reading from a manga magazine. We've had this on and off in North America for years, but Ikki is not very much like Shonen Jump, which (at least in its Western incarnation) reads very much like variations on a basic shonen theme. Seinen titles especially have a wider variety, and magazines like Ikki which specialize in 'alternative' works even more so.

When things are collected into volumes, you obviously lose this feeling. This is why I suspect that gag strips like Bobobobo-bobobo do so poorly here - removed from the context of blessed relief after a bunch of serious Naruto and Bleach chapters, it just reads like 200 pages of screaming in your face. And I think that Kingyo Used Books may suffer similar issues away from Ikki.

The plot itself is no great shakes, being merely a slice-of-life series of vignettes based around a used manga bookstore that theoretically has anything you want. It's very much like the fantasy legend of the shop that will sell you whatever you desire, but isn't there the following day. Unlike that legend, though, Kingyo Used Books sticks around, and its sales aren't as tinged with horror. Instead, we have a sales pitch, couched in very polite terms.

I'd say that this is an attempt to get more adult Japanese to accept that they can still read manga even when they've grown up (indeed, this is the exact plot of the first story), except that it runs in Ikki, a magazine that has a circulation so low that only hardcore adult manga fans would be reading it anyway. In essence, then, this is preaching to the converted, showing the reader that, yes, you can be completely obsessed with manga and still manage to have a normal, fulfilling life - there are few stereotypes here, with most of the cast looking handsome or pretty - indeed, the main otaku character, Shiba, seems to have girls hitting on him. (We still know very little about Natsuki. I hope she doesn't become a tsundere.)

Incidentally, this is apparently the 2nd series set around this store, with a prequel having appeared in Ikki called Kingyoya Koshoten Suitouchou. I wonder if this sets up Natsuki working at the store, how she and Shiba met, etc. It's about 3 volumes. This series Viz has licensed, by the way, is 9 and still running.

The premise of each chapter is the same. A person has a crisis of faith, winds up at the bookstore, finds a manga that reminds them of their dreams, and ends up feeling better and more fulfilled. At the end of the volume, we get a great write-up of the 'featured' manga for each chapter, most of which are at least a quarter of a century old or more. Don't expect to find these in English soon, as the list reads like one of David Welsh's License Request Day lists. Of the 7 titles featured, only Dr. Slump is out in North America, and that didn't exactly set sales records on fire. It's great to get the info, including publishers then and now, and I'm pleased that Viz is translating this faithfully.

Also, kudos to the licensors at Shogakukan for allowing the mangaka to mention any series she wants. Seeing Zetsubou-sensei and Hayate the Combat Butler's constant censoring of their rival's titles reminds you of the trouble merely mentioning other works, and it's great seeing little credits showing something is a Shueisha or Akita Shoten title so that this isn't just talking about Shonen Sunday or Big Comic stuff. Indeed, in Chapter 1 the reunion group mentions four old shonen manga - one each from Jump, Magazine, Sunday, and Champion.

The cover is quite pretty, though I don't really care for the design of the back. I appreciate that there may not have been interstitial art for a back cover, and it helps to show the somewhat textbook feel that the series can occasionally get into, but that's no excusing the fact that it's still dull.

As a 200-page book, this is good but can get a bit similar, like eating donuts for every meal for 4 days. On the other hand, as a monthly chapter in Ikki magazine, coming in between the fantasy dystopia of Dorohedoro, the realistic struggling of I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow, and the deconstructionist nightmare of Bokurano: Ours, it's a relaxing breath of fresh air. I think when I get Volume 2 of this, I may read one chapter at a time, with a One Piece or Excel Saga in between. Cleansing the palatte, as it were.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eyeshield 21 Volume 31

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

This volume of Eyeshield 21 finishes off the final between Deimon and Hakushuu, and it's a nailbiter that allows a big moment to most of the cast. Sena shows that he can stand up to Marco's defense, Kurita defeats Gao thanks to his years of training and his dreams of the Christmas Bowl. (This is shonen, of course dreams are more important than strength). And Hiruma reads situations and changes the plan so fast that your mind simply boggles.

There's a key bit here where Sena tosses a weak wavering lateral that Monta of course picks right up. Marco notes that he'd assumed that Deimon's strength is their trickery, and Hiruma's tendency to do the unexpected and come up with wild ideas. Hiruma does do all that, but the true strength of Deimon is the number of hours they all spent practicing. They can almost read each other's minds now. This is important for a sports manga because you have to show that the winning team gets there through honest to goodness hard work, just like YOU, young Japanese boy, can!

And so Hiruma is able to tell at the final handoff that his broken arm won't alloiw him to hand off perfectly to Sena. Sena, who also has a strained arm, notes this as well. So they improvise, and rely on Kurita to ensure that whoever runs the ball in will get into the end zone. Which they do. Deimon wins, they're going to the Christmas Bowl!

The last scene with Marco was very well done. He's a mirror to Hiruma, except that another reason for his wanting to win everything was to impress his girl. Well, that's gone to hell. Still, he underestimates Maruko, who had been watching his dedication the whole time, and notes that if she really hated the way he was doing anything to win she'd simply have quit. So they're happy, and it's nice to see one tiny romance in the otherwise chaste Eyeshield 21. (Hiruma may be a mirror to Marco, but he and Mamori won't be getting together anytime soon.)

And so we get to the awards ceremony, and we see a lingering presence who is identified as Teikoku's QB. The evil one! The new enemy! And look, he's a jerk as well, having abandoned his teammates the Spiders just do that he could be on the winning side! And abusing his meek, shy girlfriend! What sort of plot will we...

Oh wait, big fakeout. Yes, the guy is a jerk, but to his frustration, he's not even fourth string. Teikoku's QB? It's the meek little girl. (I assume that you threw your disbelief out the window a long time ago if you're still reading ES21.) This was a great revelation when it first came out in Jump, a bit less so in the volume itself. It's just surprising that Sena and company didn't know Karin was the quarterback, especially since it's shown they HAVE been researching Teikoku (we see Mamoru cutting all the bits about Honjo's WR son from press clippings so Monta doesn't see it and stress out). Especially since Takeru notes Teikoku's strength is that they're so good they have nothing to hide.

Still, seeing a meek and shy girl on the football team is interesting, and she's clearly meant to remind us of Sena. In the end, Teikoku is built up to be unstoppable, but we all know what happens with overconfidence. And Sena ends up proving no slouch either, easily defeating the jerk 4th-string QB in a practice scrum. Oh yes, and Takeru, their star RB? He's the ACTUAL Eyeshield 21 who was at Notre Dame, and this Christmas Bowl will be about who can keep the title.

A good volume, wrapping up another long game sequence. We should have only a brief breather before the Bowl begins in Vol. 32. As always, the strengths of this series are the shonen spirit it embodies, and the outrageous ideas it contains. And its weakness is the fact that sometimes the writing can't quite convey these ideas as well as it wants to. Still, definitely recommended.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I Hate You More Than Anyone! Volume 9

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.

At long last, I have caught up with IHYMTA. Volume 9 came out in North America last month, and Volume 10 isn't due till July. Not to worry, for those who enjoy seeing me ramble on enthusiastically about titles no one else reads; there's still a lot of Excel Saga to go.

This volume (and isn't that just a fantastic cover, btw? One of the most striking I've seen in a shoujo manga) finishes off Maki's long flashback detailing his past with Saki and the tragic backstory therein. Saki, of course, rather than being an evil villain, turns out to merely have been a lonely teenager lashing out in an effort to get attention and love. Unfortunately, this leads indirectly to a suicide attempt by Maki's crush, Azumi.

I still don't *like* Saki at all, but there are some things that temper my dislike a bit here. First of all, other characters are clearly trying to show forgiveness and allow him to try to move on, namely Kazuha and Maki's mother Karen. If they can show kindness, why can't I? Secondly, we get our first big look at Maki's father Kichii, and oh my God what a louse. He's clearly a fantastic and devoted hairstylist, but his inability to keep it in his pants has ruined several lives, and his incessant whining about things in his discussions with Karen makes you wonder what the hell she sees in him. Still, we have 4 books to go after this, so I'm sure we'll see more of him, especially if the blurb for Vol. 10 is any indication.

As for Saki, the whole thing with him and Maki reminded me a bit of Fruits Basket, which was running at the same time as I Hate You in Hana to Yume. Saki sees Maki as having the loving family and friends that he never got, leading to a repressed hatred. It brought back memories of Yuki, watching Kyo the 'wretched cat' end up making friends and getting along with people far more easily than he was able to. The grass on the other side of the fence is always greener?

We then get a brief flashback (yes, again) detailing how Maki first 'met' Kazuha, when he was in his car waiting outside Mizushima's day care and saw her coming to pick up Rei. It's a very good sequence, as it shows off the difference in upbringing between Maki's multiple fractured families and Kazuha's loving, huge one. Seeing her with love and support, and having a hideously obvious crush on Mizushima, who he knows is engaged, makes Maki feel angry.

Luckily, Mizushima (who will apparently not get the character backstory I was waiting for, apparently by editorial fiat as things were running too long) is able to convince Maki that, as we know from reading this series, very strong feelings for someone does not always equal dislike. This last sequence is very sweet, finally ending the epic series of flashbacks. And so now, after 9 volumes, the two are dating.

Of course, things aren't over yet. The fashion show is almost on us, and Senko has now agreed to model. When Kazuha tries to find out more, a mortified Senko pushes her out of the 4th story window where she plunges to her death. The end. Oh wait, I forgot this is still cartoon violence central. Kazuha is back upstairs in about 10 seconds, merely bleeding excessively from the forehead. The expressions on the rest of the class (who react as you would if you saw one friend push another out of a high window) are a stitch. Hidaka-san is really starting to parody herself now:
Senko: Welcome back, miracle survivor!
Kazuha: Thanks, bashful murderer.
Asako: You guys are scaring us. Hurry on back to your own country.

After this the rest of the volume isn't as good, but that's mostly as the high point came early. Everyone's getting ready for the fashion show (and thank God Honjo has stated he'll merely style Senko's hair - I totally agree with him, cutting it would be horrible), and we get to see Maki and Honjo looking sweaty and bishie. The whole family's here as well, as Maki's parents and Saki both show up, and stepmother and prodigal son have a muted if touching reunion.

As for the fashion show itself, we'll have to wait till Volume 10. In July. Waaaaah! I need my fix!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Maid-sama! Volume 4

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.

There's not much forward motion here in this volume. Misaki is still tsundere (count the blushes on her face here - you'll lose count after the first hundred or so), Usui is still a smirking hero who dotes on her, and there are no major new characters introduced.

So much of this manga seems to be driven by trying to make Misaki realize that she doesn't have to take everything on herself all the time, and can let others be there for her. It's surprising, then, that the best moments are where Usui is not trying to get her to show feelings and be protected by him, but instead showing her being an utter badass. The whole hypnotist arc is built around a guy who thinks that women are weak and defenseless, and Misaki and Usui showing him the error of his ways, not just by Misaki beating people up (though she does), but by the other girls in the school merely being strong and competent.

Speaking of which, Usui's methods of keeping Misaki awake towards the end of the first chapter is probably the best moment of the book. We've seen him, on occasion in previous volumes, get upset with Misaki for taking on fights she can't win, and not letting him protect her. He knows how much this 'I will save you from the evil baddies you can't defeat' thing pisses her off. So seeing him whisper "It's OK, master's here" is both hysterical and brilliant, guaranteeing that she'll stay awake out of pure rage.

After that it gets a bit more traditional, with Misaki being afraid of ghosts and unable to admit it, and her valiant attempts to help Aoi in a beach volleyball competition (while failing to see the overall picture). These are less good, in that they remind us of the utter possessive streak that Usui has. As smirking shoujo guys go, he's near the lighter end of the scale, but I'm still bothered by this on occasion. Admittedly, he's also dealing with frustration as Misaki won't get that he really does love her. He tries to be more honest and less perverse towards the end, but it ends up in failure as always.

There's two extra chapters at the end, one a fairy-tale AU with Misaki as a demon hunter being assisted by Mad Hatter-type Usui, and the other dealing with the three idiots and their POV. Which no one cares about, which is probably why the fairy tale is a full-length chapter and the idiots' omake is about 4 pages.

This is pretty decent if not spectacular shoujo, with the artist trying to present strong women kicking ass while still going for the princess being swept up by her loving prince plot. Watching them clash is the point of the manga, but can also be a weakness. Still, as long as we get to see Misaki's well-drawn expressions of determination, frustration, and humiliation, it's still well worth reading.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Yotsuba&! Volume 8

By Kiyohiko Azuma. Released in Japan by ASCII Media Works, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. Released in North America by Yen Press.

This is not the best volume of Yotsuba we've seen. It's a sign of how good this series is that I have to note that right off the bat. Yes, it's still heartwarming, funny, and generally leaves a smile on your face, but it's merely fantastic here.

As always, most of what we see involves Yotsuba interacting with anything and everything. Yotsuba smashing up pears, Yotsuba having hamburg steak, Yotsuba going to a culture fair, Yotsuba in a typhoon... enjoy everything, indeed. As long as she remains this innocent (and really, the manga's been running for years and maybe 6 months have passed in-universe, so no worries there), there will be no worries about this manga losing our interest.

There's also a nice helping of my favorite characters, Ayase Asagi and Ayase Fuuka. I love them both, if for totally different reasons. Asagi is the perfect confident, cool big sis. From Chapter 1 she was presented to us as awesome, and she's also the best of the three girls at dealing with Yotsuba. (Ena, the youngest, plays with Yotsuba a lot, but doesn't control her per se.) I loved Asagi's blase reaction to Yotsuba on top of Jumbo's shoulders - she knows exactly how not to break the illusion for the child. Also, that lunch with Torako was totally a date. I decree it. :)

Fuuka, meanwhile, is fascinating for a totally different reason. Every time we see her, it seems to set her up to be laughable or dorky in some way. Her life in the manga is made for embarrassment. And yet whenever we see her on the periphery, or look at her outside the confines of Yotsuba's life, she's pretty much the popular, savvy girl. She's vice president of the class, seems to be in charge of the culture fair, and can wrap guys in her school around her little finger (though she seems unaware of this last part.) No doubt she is living the perfect life in a manga that isn't this one and doesn't require her to be humiliated every few chapters.

My favorite chapter in the volume is the one with the typhoon. It features Yotsuba, her father, and the Ayases, which is the best core cast for varied interactions. It has Yotsuba's dad being silly and awesome at the same time, something he does at least once a volume. (Azuma apparently noted he gets a lot of letters talking about how sexy girls think Koiwai is, and they disturb him. The girls are correct - he is.) We see Asagi learning once more that one cannot be too careful when dealing with Yotsuba. And we have the final page of the chapter, which conveys in 3 panels how under-appreciated the art itself is in this series. (I think one reason that Azuma refuses to let an anime be made is that Yotsuba&! works best in still frames. Animating it would lose a lot of the action.)

Yen's translation is just fine, though I wish they'd just kept Shimau's name as Shimau and added a footnote. Miss Stake just sounds dumb.

Overall, I hope you don't need me to tell you to go get this manga. A merely great volume of Yotsuba&! is still great, and head and shoulders above the 'awwwwww' manga competition.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Gunsmith Cats Burst Volume 5

By Kenichi Sonoda. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Dark Horse.

And so, Gunsmith Cats ends. Again. It's done so before, in 1997, with an ending that provided closure but still left everything in place if Sonoda wanted to pick it up again. He did so 7 years later, beginning Gunsmith Cats Burst in the same magazine, and basically picking up where he left off. This lasted until 2008, and this final volume feels a lot more final than the first series, with Sonoda actually making a point to tie off loose ends and 'wrap things up' Despite this, he still leaves things open for a return, and I can easily see him starting a 3rd series in a few years.

This volume felt as if he either decided to wrap things up at the last minute, or was told to do so by his editors. It's not exactly rushed - the entire volume is dealing with most of the cast moving on from where they were in the series - but you definitely sense that he had a certain point where he knew he had only 3 or 4 chapters left. The book itself can be neatly divided in half, with two plots that are connected but almost completely independent.

The action-packed and fun but less interesting half deals with Bean Bandit. Bean is a great guy, and can take a gunshot to the chest like no one else in manga, but you don't read him for character development. You read him to watch him drive cars and make other cars crash. And so he does, doing a huge Blues-brothers style chase across Illinois, and escaping (as always) to be cool another day. We also see him frustrate Percy, the intensely angry rogue cop from earlier volumes. Seeing Percy frustrated and helpless gives me a warm happy feeling in my tummy.

The far more interesting plot deals with Misty Brown, who has left Rally and the gun shop and returned to everyone's favorite psycho lesbian Goldie Musou. Rally is, needless to say, a tad concerned given their past history with Goldie, and Misty is not helping by seeming totally lucid in her devotion. This leads to the discovery of a hot new mind-control brainwashing drug, one far more effective and with no harmful side effects!

I have to admit, I raised an eyebrow at this plot. OK, so we have a miracle drug that makes you susceptible to persuasion, with no health issues or brain dissolving problems. If you try to go too far against your moral code it'll seem wrong, and you may come to your senses if given better persuasion by someone else. If it weren't for the fact that several people in the series independently say this *is* a drug, I'd say it was far more likely that Goldie had simply joined Debate Club and was enjoying putting placebos out there.

Meanwhile, Minnie May (who is now home from her honeymoon, and gives us several scenes of utter fanservice near the start of the volume - I have to wonder if her blowjob wake-up call here was a callback to the blowjob she gave right at the start of the series...) heads to her old boss at the brothel, and is basically told... now that Goldie is no longer an INSANE psycho lesbian, things are really cool. She unites the gangs, less death, more control, everybody wins. It's brought home a lot at the end of this series how morally grey it is. Everyone's OK with the drug smuggling and mob violence if it's the RIGHT kind of drug smuggling and mob violence. Don't foul your own nest, essentially.

Back at Goldie's, after some fabulous lesbian sex (and the art makes it clear that's it's fabulous - Sonoda draws post-coital exhaustion really well), Misty starts to wonder if she's merely a replacement for Rally in Goldie's bed. She does some snooping and finds out that yup, she is. However, in a surprisingly mature realization, Misty feels that Goldie is also HER substitute for Rally. She calls Rally to meet one last time and points out that she is going to stay with Goldie, since they're both obsessed with the same untouchable woman, and Goldie can actually give her what she wants.

Misty's blunt and tearful speech to Rally is really fantastically done, and Rally really has no response to it. The one argument that would persuade Misty to her side - returning her feelings - is something that the still pretty asexual Rally is unable to do. Well, mostly asexual. Rally's lack of a love life has come up several times in the series, and if you look at fanfiction.net's GSC section you'll see the majority of romance fics there have her with Bean Bandit. So when Misty asks Rally for a goodnight kiss, we're not expecting much.

Boy, are we wrong. This goodnight kiss is prolonged and smoking hot. Rally is not merely a passive observer here, and you even get a nnn? of surprise from Misty as Rally deepens things. There's even some butt gropage. Rally may be fairly asexual in this series, but after a kiss like that I suspect she may start reevaluating things.

And then we get a quick epilogue. Goldie rules Chicago with Misty (and their pet maid) by her side. Roy moves to a quieter precinct. Bean... is still Bean. Becky is two steps away from being arrested for financial irregularities, which will surprise no one who knows her. May and Ken have a child, and thank you, Sonoda-san, for not drawing May pregnant. We appreciate that. And Rally leaves Chicago (that is the flag of the city in the background on the last page, by the way) for parts unknown.

This series has provided me with a lot of fun over the past 14 years or so. It's not for everyone - there's lots of explicit sex and violence, for one thing, and I will admit that the lack of karmic retribution might annoy some. But for those who like hot girls with guns, badass guys with cars, and yes, I suppose, lolis with grenades, Gunsmith Cats is fantastic. Thanks to Dark Horse for finishing the series.

Frank Zappa - The Winter 1977 tour

Warning: I seriously geek out here.

It feels fairly odd, after reviewing mostly manga for 3 months, to review a 33-year-old concert tour. But hey, I'm a Zappa fanatic, and that's the way we roll. I just finished listening to the available concert tapes for Frank's Winter 1977 tour of Europe. It's one of the least-discussed tours in the Zappa fandom, for many reasons. The setlists didn't vary as much as the early 70s or 80s ones did. If you listen to five Winter 77 concerts, you'll pretty much hear the same songs 5 times. There aren't really any songs which can become anything-goes solo fests, either - the songs with solos have the same patterns. And with only five band members, including Frank, it's one of his smallest touring band lineups.

The band was small, but each band member had his own personality. The rhythm section of Patrick O'Hearn (bass) and Terry Bozzio (drums) has never been bettered in a Zappa tour, in my opinion, and their backing is fantastic. They also provide amusing vocal interludes where they show off their humor. Ray White is on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, and seems far more comfortable in both than he did in the Fall 76 tour of North America. And Eddie Jobson, fresh out of Roxy Music, was wowing everyone with his amazing violin solos (he also played keyboards, but didn't really solo there). And of course, the main reason to listen to any Zappa tour - Frank and his guitar.

Let's break down your typical Winter 1977 setlist:

The Purple Lagoon - This tune appears on Zappa in New York, from 1977, as a full 16-minute version, with multiple solos. However, from 1976-1978, it also opened and closed the concerts, as a short instrumental piece. Likely this was to warm up the band with something 'challenging' right off the bat, and also remind folks that they were not here to merely see the band play Dinah-Moe Humm and then leave. It evolved, I suspect, out of a similar instrumental piece called "Approximate" Frank played from 1972-1974, and the ZINY album has snatches of Approximate played on top of the Purple Lagoon vamp. Frank would usually do a quick solo after the theme here, before introducing the band.

As a quick note, much of 1977 was spent with Frank arguing with Warner Brothers, his label, about the release of a 4-LP set called Lather (pronounced "Leather") that he had put together. Lather contained live songs from the Xmas 1976 concerts, studio stuff from 1974, some orchestral music from 1975, and various odd snatches of noise. Warners refused to release it, and the songs ended up being divided up and released as 4 separate albums over the course of 3 years. These are Zappa in New York (the live Xmas stuff), Studio Tan and Sleep Dirt (the studio stuff), and Orchestra Favorites (the orchestral stuff). Lather went unreleased until 1996, when Rykodisc and the Zappa Family Trust released it as a triple-CD posthumously.

Peaches En Regalia - This is a song from 1969's Hot Rats, and probably one of Frank's best known songs. Performed as an instrumental, this was its first time as a 'regular' touring song since 1971, and Europe ate it up. The UK in particular loved it - Hot Rats was Frank's best selling album there.

The Torture Never Stops - One of Frank's best guitar-solo vehicles, this was played in tours from 1975-1978, then revived in 1980-81, and again in 1988. It appears on the 1976 album Zoot Allures, complete with background 'female groan' noises. The song itself was to a degree about the inhumanity of political prisoners, although I doubt Zappa ever considered it a political song. (Once, asked about what the song was about, he replied "It's about torture never stopping.") It's also meant to show the fine edge between torture and titillation, and most of the 1976-1978 concerts featured Frank soloing behind a tape of a woman making groans and shrieks that were either pain or orgasm, take your pick. The lyrics actually are particularly evocative of the mood, painting the dungeon as a godawful place. Frank would take a long, mellow guitar solo after the first 3 verses, and the song on this tour usually averaged about 12-13 minutes total.

Big Leg Emma - This was initially released as a single in 1967, and was Frank's attempt to get the Mothers of Invention on the radio by writing a stupid, easy teenage song. The song itself is a very 'male' rant about how upset he is that his girl has gained weight. It didn't really get any radio play, as you can imagine, but is amusingly dumb. (Frank would frequently write songs from the POV of an idiotic male, and it can be hard to separate this from some of the genuine sexism that also pops up throughout his works.) It was released as a bonus on the CD release of 1967's Absolutely Free. This version is much faster and brisker, and is an excellent contrast to the slow, methodical Torture Never Stops before it.

City of Tiny Lites - It's hard to imagine a time when this wasn't in Frank's setlist, but I suppose it must have happened. This is one of his most played songs, appearing in every single tour from 1976-1988, his final one. Oddly, it originally was NOT a Frank guitar vehicle. In fact, this tour is an example of the original purpose of the song - to give a solo to rhythm guitarist Ray White, and allow him a non-vocal spotlight. Well, almost non-vocal - Ray's solos usually featured him scat-singing along with his guitar work, giving the solo a very different feel from Frank's. The piece, this tour, also contained a bass solo from Patrick O'Hearn, though he's still feeling out the solo spot at this point, and would not give us the truly great stuff till the following two tours. Tiny Lites itself is obliquely about drugs, and what the world looks like to those who take them. It appears, sung by Ray's replacement Adrian Belew, on 1979's Sheik Yerbouti.

Pound for a Brown - Frank had two instrumental powerhouses that he played from the beginning of his career to the end. They could vary from mere guitar-solo vehicles to half-hour monsters with the entire band taking multiple solos. They could feature audience participation, or lectures from a band member, or spontaneous quotes from obscure surf music records. And they both appear on the same album, 1969's Uncle Meat. King Kong isn't on this tour, but Pound for a Brown is. This particular incarnation of it is fairly stripped down, containing only the head, a Frank guitar solo, and Terry Bozzio's drum solo. Frank plays a good energetic solo, though, and Terry's drum work always puts his solos a cut above the usual bashing. It still seems odd to hear it without all the keyboards - Eddie, playing keyboards this tour, was saving his solo spot for later on. Starting the following tour, however, Frank would gain two keyboardists, Peter Wolf (no, the other one), and Tommy Mars, who would transform this into a keyboard powerhouse.

Jones Crusher - This song didn't hand around setlists long - it was only played from 1976-1978 - And the 1976-1977 version with Ray White on vocals was sort of a 'proto-version' - with weird choppy vocals and Ray using a different voice than he usually did. It's interesting to hear, but I think that the version that was eventually put on Sheik Yerbouti in 1979 - with Adrian Belew on vocals - is better. It's a typical song about a man who is afraid of a strong, sexually dynamic woman, claimant that she's emasculating him - literally, in this case.

Unnamed Guitar Solo/Leather Goods - In the second half of this tour, Frank began to extend the ending to Jones Crusher, adding a 1-2 minute guitar tag. In the final week, the tag got longer and more adventurous, with Frank using his effect/delay pedal and providing some rocking fun. It reached its climax in the final show of the tour, February 17th in London, when Frank soloed for almost 7 minutes, ending with the band quoting Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Frank used a portion of this solo in the "Duck Duck Goose" part of the Lather album - one of the few parts of the album that was not released in the 70s by Warners on another LP. Thus, it first appeared legally in 1996, with the Lather CD release. A bonus track of that same release was a longer, less edited version of the same solo, named "Leather Goods".

My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama - A highly underrated song from 1970's Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Frank played this sporadically through his touring career. At this point, it's in a slow, bluesy version, emphasizing the faux menace in the lyrics, and with a blistering guitar interlude. The lyrics are the usual pop song "Our parents don't approve" stuff.

Tryin' To Grow A Chin - Another classic from Sheik Yerbouti, this was written in order to give Terry Bozzio a vocal spotlight - although really, Terry screams the lyrics rather than actually singing them. It's a perfect song for Terry, and though it would be performed occasionally after he left the band, by Denny Walley and Scott Thunes, it was never quite the same. This is a very funny song about a teenager demanding that he grow up fast and grow hair, then bemoaning the fact that as an adult life still sucks, and screaming that he wants to die. The chorus is the bounciest, catchiest wish for death (or sex - again, they're interchangeable here) you'll ever hear, mostly as you know the POV is meant to be of a whining poser. Oddly, the singers always had trouble recalling the lyrics during live versions of this - Terry, Denny, and Scott always screwed up and earned Frank's glare during shows.

Broken Hearts Are For Assholes - Probably in any fan's top 5 for most offensive FZ songs, this was its debut tour. It was a tour staple from 1977-1978, then revived in 1980-1981. The main lyrics are supposedly about needing to lighten up and be less prude, both about sex and other things in life, but the actual content was a general trashing of gay men and women. The reason to listen to it (at last in the early tours) is that the bridge mocking men picking up other men at "The Grape" featured improvised snatches of verse by bassist Patrick O'Hearn, usually mocking the disco pick-up lines of the day, and frequently reducing the band to hysterics. A version of it from this tour can be heard on Lather, along with a version of Tryin' to Grow a Chin. Sadly, it's missing the other reason to listen to it this tour, which is that it quickly devolves into a parody of the Beach Boys song "Little Deuce Coupe". Its actual chronological debut was on Sheik Yerbouti in 1979. I note that, with a chorus of "Ram it, ram it, ram it, ram it up your poop chute!", this becomes one of the least likely Zappa songs to sing along with in public.

Dong Work For Yuda - This, although also juvenile, is one of the highlights of the entire tour. It also debuted here, and appears as an acapella close harmony masterpiece. The song has an amusing pedigree. Frank had a bodyguard, John Smothers, who stood by the stage and looked menacing from 1975-1984, and also had a tendency, when speaking, to utterly mangle the English language. Frank found John's latest "quotes" hysterical, and wrote a song about the whole thing. It segued straight in from the Broken Hearts 'Little Deuce Coupe' ending, keeping the 60s harmony, though with lyrics like 'He sucked on the end till the mustard squirt, he said "Y'all stand back cause ya might get hurt"', this isn't exactly Beach Boys territory. In the outro chorus, the band sings "Sorry, John, sorry, better try it again" while Terry Bozzio, here playing John, says a few of his choice quotes. My favorite is "I jes' loves the way them Copenhagens talks." This would be reworked and given an instrumental backing and appear on the 1980 triple LP Joe's Garage. I actually prefer this bare-bones version.

Manx Needs Women - This is a short, incredibly complicated piece of music that only lasts about a minute and a half. Frank enjoyed throwing these at his bands - Kung Fu from 1973 and Mo's Vacation from 1978 are similar in feel. You can hear it on Zappa in New York.

Titties 'n Beer - Ah, the classic story of a biker, his stacked biker babe, and a deal with the devil. This appears on Zappa in New York as well, and is just pure fun. Mocking everyone and everything, the song manages to avoid being blatantly sexist mostly by the girl telling Frank and the devil to go fuck themselves. The plot, in case you didn't know, is that Frank and his girl are enjoying some beer and drugs in the great outdoors when the devil (played by Terry Bozzio, who did wear a devil's mask and horns during shows) pops up and eats her, then offers her back if Frank will sell his soul. The live concerts then go into an improvised back-and-forth dialogue between Frank and the devil, and generally Frank proves to be the stronger improviser, running rings around the devil and demanding the devil take his soul. This version, in 1977, is still new and features the original 2nd verse (usually called the "Chrissie puked twice" verse) which was written for Bianca Odin to sing in the Fall 1976 tour. Frank sings it here.

Black Napkins - This was the big finale of the main set, and was a super-extended 16-20 minute version of this guitar solo piece, with long solos for both Frank on guitar and Eddie Jobson on electric violin. Eddie's BN solos in 1976 and 1977 are much prized by collectors, and with good reasons - they're fantastic. And more to the point, they inspired Frank to step up HIS game, as he was not about to let some 21-year-old English guy upstage him in one of his premier guitar solo vehicles. The original, culled from a Winter 1976 performance in Japan, is on Zoot Allures. So Frank would sometimes rock out, and sometimes get very quiet and contemplative - you can hear the latter on the Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar album set, as Pink Napkins, and it's from the final 2/17/77 London performance. Frank would perform this song consistently from the Fall of 1975 to the end of his touring days, but this may be the most epic tour of them all for Black Napkins.

Dinah-Moe Humm - The classic stupid sex song, probably the best known of all Zappa's stupid sex songs, this was usually the first encore of the night. It can be heard on 1973's Overnite Sensation album, in a menacing funk-rock version, but by now Frank had grown weary of the need to trot out the song constantly and played in it a brisk stadium-rock version, with much audience sing-along. The song itself is about a guy who's bet $40 that he can't make a girl come, and his ability to win the bet after indulging in Dinah's penchant for voyeurism and spankings. As tasteless as it sounds, but money from the teen guys who'd come to concerts screaming "Dinah-Moe!" allowed Zappa to compose stuff like Sinister Footwear and other classical ballets.

Camarillo Brillo - The second of the 'dumb song encore' trilogy, and taken mostly at a very fast pace, this is also on Overnite Sensation. The song (which does pronounce Camarillo incorrectly, as you'd expect) is about sex. And ponchos. Starting in 1976, Frank would drag out the final verse and chorus at half-tempo, trying to give it a majestic feeling, and also making it much easier to segue directly into...

Muffin Man - Generally the last song of the night every tour, this was first heard as an instrumental in Spring 1975. Frank then overdubbed lyrics (which are about sex, but also almost completely irrelevant), and released it on 1975's Bongo Fury album. Every concert after featured the lyrics, and a Frank guitar solo. These could be perfunctory and short on some tour, but this tour is a highlight for Muffin Man solos, featuring some extended scorchers. Especially in the final concert in London.



Overall, it's not Frank's best tour, lacking the setlist variety or a truly amazing solo spotlight. But Frank has some great guitar moments, and there are some well-played rarities. You could certainly do worse than a concert tape from this tour.

One Piece Volume 43

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

I've talked before in my review of Volume 35 about the tough times Usopp has with a certain part of One Piece fandom. Generally speaking, they want him to shut the hell up and be as badass as everyone else. Now, this is unlikely to happen for several reasons. First, Usopp being the weak normal guy (along with Nami) is part of what makes the crew so interesting. Second, Oda likes writing Usopp being a cowardly dork. As long as Oda still wants to mine that for humor, he will. Just like Nami will get angry and hit the guys, and Sanji will be a moron in front of women.

And third, Usopp's moments of fear and panic and cowardice are balanced out by his moments of pure awesome. In one of the best parts of the book, Sanji manages to get through to him and note that he may be totally useless in a fight with Jabra and Kaku, so why doesn't he go off and do something only *he* can do? (You know it's a big moment as we see Usopp's face reacting beneath the Sniper King mask.) Sanji knows Usopp is really very clever - this is a man who built a Clima-Tact for Nami out of thin air, let's remember - and also that they cannot afford to be distracted by mooks when their goal is to rescue Robin.

Meanwhile, Nami defeats Kalifa by showing that her power of fanservice is mightier (though I will admit the mirages were very well done). In any battle involving weather in some way, as the Soapland battle had become, Nami is bound to kick ass. Sanji shows off the fact that his kicks can now catch fire and defeats Jabra. And Zoro defeats Kaku, who is perhaps the cleverest of the enemy in using his truly bizarre giraffe powers, and also the most likeable - he gets a nice moment at the end when he's about to pass out showing he may not be irredeemable. Unfortunately, Luffy and Lucci are still fighting, and aren't nearly over yet.

This then leads to the final chapter of the volume, which is a masterpiece. Robin is now fully dedicated to trying to get away, but bound and handcuffed, she's not getting very far. (Biting the stone bridge was particularly amazing, though.) Spandam tries to at least break her spirit, by revealing that the dickhead Marine who annihilated her home and mother is the father of Spandam, a dickhead Marine trying to do the same. Luckily, Robin is now made of stronger stuff:
Spandam: What was it like being an 8-year-old brat hunted by mercenaries? You couldn't trust anyone. You couldn't rest or sleep anywhere. You didn't have any food. I don't even want to think about how awful those 20 years must have been.
[...]
Spandam: The curtain falls on the Battle of Ohara! That wretched island will be wiped from history!
Robin: I'M STILL ALIVE!!!
Spandam: BUT YOU'RE GOING TO DIE!!!

And then, just as he's about to drag her beyond the point of no return... the cavalry arrives. In the form of Usopp, doing what none of the others could have done, with skills that the Marines note are practically superhuman. Even Robin has a huge grin seeing this. It's beautiful.

With this volume, we're heading into the final chapters. It's an adrenaline roller-coaster, and makes you absolutely want to move on to the next volume. Which isn't out 'til May. Ah well.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Stepping On Roses Volume 1

By Rinko Ueda. Released in Japan as "Hadashi De Bara Wo Fume" by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Margaret. Released in North America by Viz.

I actually finished this manga and was fairly intrigued by it. I want to read more. I'm not entirely certain, however, that it's for the reason the author would LIKE me to have.

The basic premise is one perhaps a tad familiar to shoujo fans. Girl meets jerk, jerk forces girl into relationship, girl stresses out. It does get off to a good start by being set in 1892, which helps to set it apart from other high school mangas along the same lines. But the girl is still a likeable but gullible drip, her brother is still a sleazy player, and her new man is a conniving trickster. So it's not set apart that much.

I can't promise I'll keep reading, as Sumi really does grate on my nerves. I've notes before how I prefer my shoujo heroines to be tomboyish and perky to nervous and twitchy, and that comes into play here. I did like the way that she began to make an effort to better herself and learn reading and writing, though admittedly it's so that she can get a guy to notice her. But hey, she actually does pretty well considering.

Where the manga does intrigue me is its portrayal of Soichiro. He's an absolute ass. And unlike most absolute asses in shoujo manga, he doesn't even get that one 'throwing the girl a bone' art shot that lets the heroine think she possibly misunderstood him and maybe they can really love each other if she tries hard to see his good side. Everything in this volume is designed to make us dislike him, and like Nozomu, the guy that Sumi seems to have a total crush on.

Now, clearly things will not stay that way. We'll find the reasons for Soichiro's cold persona, desire for Sumi to "not" love him, and his secret nobleness. But I have to admit, I'd love it if he simply turned out to be an ass, and the manga was about her trying to escape her hideous circumstances. I'll read it until I'm proved wrong, which will likely be the next book. Other than that, it's an average shoujo manga, with pretty art and some amusing gags. Its strength is that it makes good use of the period, with gorgeous fashions and some good historical characterization (when's the last Shojo Beat heroine you saw who couldn't read?). I can see why Viz picked it up, and will keep an eye out for Vol. 2.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

One Piece Volume 42

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

This is another volume, like 40, where the majority of the plot is getting from one side of a building to another and fighting people who are in the way. I'll do another bullet-point observations review.

-- I haven't really discussed them in my reviews, but I have been following Oda's 'cover page' story arcs, most of which take a minor villain from a prior arc and redeem them in some way. This one during Enies Lobby is one of the best ones. It's focused on Miss Golden Week and the rest of Baroque Works, as they set out to rescue the others from Impel Down. (In light of recent story arcs, this becomes a lot more far-fetched, but OK.) Most of them escape, but Crocodile and Mrs. 1, 2, and 3 are still imprisoned. Also, love to see the return of "Paula from the Pub."
-- The odd thing about the battles in this volume is that they start off looking very unbalanced or 'wait, that's the wrong opponent'. One Piece may push the boundaries of shonen a bit, but it still works within its cliches. Seeing Usopp going after Jabra (one of their stronger brawlers), Nami fighting Kumadori (who pretty much starts stomping her almost immediately), and especially Sanji vs. Kalifa (Yes, they both kick, but you know any woman will make Sanji their monkey boy) is just weird. There's a feeling of wrongness that permeates the early battles, with the exception of Zoro and Kaku.
-- And then right away that one's taken care of as well, as Kaku activates his fruit powers. They're truly hysterical, and it makes a fun 'light-hearted villain' character into a complete stitch, as he shows you the awesome giraffe powers he mow possesses. He is helped along by Sniper King being an idiot and handcuffing himself to Zoro. Whoops. And best of all, neither Kaku nor Jabra have the key for those cuffs. (Honestly, Sniper King does little here. Wait till 43...)
-- Seeing everyone shift to their 'proper' opponent is fascinating, as you can see Oda manipulating everything to put the gears that he mixed up into the proper place. Chopper arrives to help Nami, and his huge sized form is much better at taking on Kumadori. Now she can go take over in Sanji's fight as he, well...
-- I am pleased that Oda, while still admiring Sanji's chivalry a bit, had Nami pointing out how utterly stupid it is. And she even kicked him a bit too. I'm going to assume that a later volume in the future is going to have Sanji fight a woman again, because it's such an obvious weakness it will have to be used against him. And he's so clever otherwise!
-- I like the way that we only see the aftereffects of Gear Three, with Chibi-Luffy, rather than the actual power. Clearly Oda is saving it for the Lucci fight.
-- Lucci's amused sneer as he tells Spandam that he let the kids follow them is amusing (in that it shows how little everyone thinks of Spandam) and disconcerting (as it shows Lucci wants to fight Luffy a bit *too* much...)
-- Franky's various personality changes when he doesn't get cola is another one of the hysterical jokes Oda throws right into the middle of serious beatdown fights.
-- And, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Chopper's monster transformation. This has some great art, as Oda makes it utterly clear how WRONG this is in every possible way. Yes, he one-shot KO's Kumadori, but this is not the Chopper we want to see, I don't care if he's powerful now.
-- And then there's Nami and Kalifa's fight. There are some amusing bits where Kalifa is a flake, but it's one of those things where, if you started trying to get someone into the series by pointing out the strong powerful women, you know (because Murphy works that way) they'd pick up this volume, turn to this fight, and then slap you. It's pure, utter fanservice. With added balloon fetish.
-- And just for a change, how about Spandam doing something moronic? Yes, after all the threats and boasts, the Buster Call is triggered by accident. Kudos to Robin for broadcasting that everyone should get the hell out of there, though she earns another punch in the face by Everyone's Favorite Villain (TM) for her troubles.
-- And finally, Luffy and Lucci meet and start to fight. Knowing Luffy's fights in previous volumes, it won't end soon.

Despite some soapy fanservice, this was a very good volume. Oda knows how to keep people reading even when the basic plot is "people hit other people" for 200 pages. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 8

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

This is the big one. This is the one that, when people talk of out of print manga, should be right up there in the top 10. According to Amazon as I type this, new copies of Excel Saga 8 are selling for $150.00. Old used copies are selling for $112.00. In a way, then, this review is even more of a "preaching to the converted" style than before, as if you don't have this volume, chances are you aren't getting it anytime soon.

This is a shame, as it's one of the most important volumes of the series, introducing a new major character (well, fully introducing), and setting up a major plot point with the death of another major character.

After a nice opening chapter detailing a typical day in the life of Excel and Hyatt from Hyatt's somewhat dazed perspective, things start to get rolling. Excel and Hyatt head off to ACROSS the next day, but Excel seems to feel as if someone is stalking her, though she can't actually find the person. Grabbing Hyatt and running, she finally makes it to the secret base, only to find the dreaded third hire is finally there, as Il Palazzo had promised! The princess-curl maid from the prior volume, Mu-Chan, is now in full ACROSS uniform, and her code name is Elgala.

When I was younger (and still today), I was a huge fan of the 60s TV show Get Smart. About halfway through the run, they introduced a dimbulb agent known as Larabee. His job was to be stupider than Max, so that whenever there was a joke that was felt to be so stupid even Max would not take the bait, Larabee was there. Moreover, this let Max occasionally function as the straight man, sending exasperated looks Larabee's way after yet another misunderstanding. This is to a large degree the function that Elgala serves in Excel Saga, though she's not precisely stupid per se. But then neither is Excel. With Elgala in the cast, however, not only does Excel get to snark a lot more (snarking at Hyatt never really accomplished much), but she's more sympathetic as she now has to put up with, well, Elgala.

Their first conversation is so typical of their interaction that I just have to quote it here. Elgala's "thoughts" are in italics.
Excel: Oh yeah, her! Now I remember!
Hyatt: You were so sure about her being the third hire, don't you remember, senior?
Excel: I can't be bothered to remember the faces of the petit-bourgeois!
Elgala: I apologize for my earlier conduct! I, Elgala, regret that I stalked you!
Excel: Ah hah! It was you!
Elgala: I... I got lost and... I saw you walking in front of me, so... I decided to follow you back...
Excel: Uh huh...
Elgala: Then you began RUNNING all of a sudden! I became desperate, fearing that I, Elgala, would die if I lost you. I actually thought you were *very mean* to run away from me without asking who I was. I, Elgala, became deeply annoyed by your actions.
Excel: Why didn't you just *tell* me who you were?
Elgala: Did you... did you just read my innermost thoughts?!
Excel: You were speaking aloud...
Elgala: I MUSTN'T SPEAK MY INNERMOST THOUGHTS ALOUD!
Excel: And again...
Elgala: If I say what I'm really thinking, she could get the wrong impression from me!
Excel: Technically, wouldn't that be the right impression?
Elgala: I'll be bullied! I, Elgala, will be bullied by this mean-looking senior!
Excel: Look, would it be easier for you if I just stuck cotton in my ears?

With her internal monologues externalized, her first person annoying way of speaking, and her free-spending tendencies, Elgala makes an immediate impression right out of the gate. She also gets to serve as a newbie for several 'old' gags made fresh, such as Hyatt's coughing up blood and falling over dead, something Excel barely notices anymore.

The other major plot point in this volume is Iwata's death. Technically, I suppose that's a spoiler, but as his brain is put into a robot body almost immediately, it's not much of one. This is set up very well by Rikdo, as at first we think it to be a gag chapter. Iwata's told he has colon cancer, then it turns out the report was written by his brother, the insane doctor, and also features 97 other fatal diagnoses. Then, 5 pages later... ikt turns out the cancer was actually legitimate. (Misaki, in case you're wondering, is mostly stoic. Iwata's back before she can really get into a grief mode, I think.

Shiouji will be building a robot body for Iwata (against his will), but for now Iwata's in Ropponmatsu I's body, as Ropponmatsu II is active. This, of course, leads to Iwata fondling himself, and losing his balance and accidentally burning down his apartment building (which is, of course, also Excel and Hyatt's). It's not quite as top notch as simply listening to anything Excel and Elgala say (somehow Rikdo can make the line "You were almost savaged by hounds and mastiffs" hysterical), but it's good stuff, and Iwata the robot is one of the major plot points moving forward.

Simply put, this volume of Excel Saga is a paradigm shift, expanding and altering the cast and allowing a fresh new take on ACROSS trying to take over the world. (There is also the obligatory scene of Il Palazzo, in the darkness, talking to himself and muttering about memories still lost.) It's a must-read... except it's very hard to get a hold of these days. Recommended anyway.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Magic Touch Volume 7

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.

The majority of this volume of Magic Touch is devoted to finally working out Yosuke's past - why he's so bad around women, and what it is that he's forgotten. He goes back to his hometown here, and finally manages to piece things together.

The volume suffers from JUST being about this. If you don't like Yoseuke, you're going to struggle to get through this. I admit that I really like Magic Touch's ancillary characters, and the lack of Natsue was especially disheartening. We do get a side-story at the end with Sanae and Tanaka, but like a great deal of this series, that's more eccentric than actually readable.

I will admit that the flashback revelation is handled pretty well. It revolves around a younger Yosuke being kidnapped, and the woman doing so is a truly scary psycho. It's not hard to see why he repressed those memories. There's also a large psychological component to the entire volume, as we see Yosuke trying to analyze why he acts the way he does, and how he handled grief as a boy when his mother died. (A lot of manga mothers tend to die of unmentioned wasting away disease, sort of like consumption. Fruits Baskets is a notable exception.) Likewise, his younger brother also can't move forward without his brother to rely on. The incident really affects the entire family.

Chiaki is also not doing much in this volume, though it is amusing seeing her twitchy clumsiness as she worries about where Yosuke is. There's a cliffhanger ending (before the long side-story) that indicates that Vol. 8 should finally be moving their relationship forward, however, so that will be nice to see. And since the series is 9 volumes, it's also about time.

Really, this isn't that great a volume of Magic Touch, and I likely read it out of pure stubbornness by now. I do hope that Vols. 8 & 9 will get back to what I feel are the manga's core strengths - humor and massage.

Monday, April 12, 2010

One Piece Volume 41

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

Things pick up exactly where they left off, with Luffy having polished off Blueno and standing just a building away from Robin and Franky. Franky, of course, has noticed Robin's reticence to do anything, and decides to take matters into his own hands, in one of the volume's funniest scenes. Unfortunately, having briefly escaped, Robin shows she is still unwilling to be rescued, and in fact merely wishes for death.

This coincides with the rest of CP9 showing up, in a huge 2-page spread that looks great. Luckily, the rest of the Straw Hats arrive at pretty much the same time, albeit in a much messier fashion, and the next chapter has their own 2-page spread. (I was a bit confused about Sniper King's entrance, till I recalled one of the giants had told him before, "Leave it to me!" Poor Sniper King, a human fastball.) Robin is growing increasingly frustrated with all of this, and her anger is giving way to tears.

And then Spandam once again threatens the Buster Call, which leads to Robin pointing out the true horror of the thing, and leads into a flashback covering her backstory. (Of note, the only two Straw Hats who don't get flashbacks during their initial arc are Nami and Robin... both of whom briefly "betray" the crew. Oda knows how to build up drama.) Robin's childhood is shown to be a huge ball of sadness and loneliness, punctuated with occasional bursts of hope. She's clearly brilliant, as shown by her passing the archeologist's exam at age *eight*, but her joy is immediately taken from her when she realizes that her scholar friends still won't let her work with them.

Then we meet Saul, who is a truly wonderful character, and the best Giant we've met to date. His influence on Robin is seen from the get-go, as we see him teaching her to smile and laugh through her despair. Sadly, the past is *their* country this time, as the Marines arrive chasing after Robin's mother, Nico Olvia, who is the spitting image of adult Robin only with white hair (still young and beautiful, the white isn't meant to be age here). Robin's desperation for human warmth, love and affection wars with everyone trying to distance themselves from her so that she won't be killed.

Of note, the Marines in One Piece have never really been a source of fun times, but we have till now met noble Marines (Smoker, Tashigi), or at least ambiguous Marines (Hina, Aokiji). This is the volume where we realize we have to assume that 90% of the government and Marines are corrupt and evil, and that it's the people like Smoker who are the exceptions. We also get a brief hint of an Atlantis-like country that the World Government is desperately trying to hide, which apparently is the subject of the hundred missing years/true history Robin's been researching all this time. Also, gosh, Spandine looks and acts familiar...

Thank God, Robin at least gets her mother to acknowledge and hug her one last time, because otherwise I think this volume might go beyond the despair event horizon. Everyone is massacred, with Robin being the one exception. And we see what the Buster Call entails, as the innocents who had nothing to do with the research are also killed, just in case. (The future Admiral Aikanu does this, and let me tell you, it's pretty awesome foreshadowing. Expect much worse from him later.) The Buster Call also doesn't seem to mind killing a few Marines too, in the process of wiping out everything. It's One Piece's equivalent of a nuke, only delivered by cannon. The only person on the island who has any doubts is Kuzan, which is why he lets Robin escape. (Clearly, as Aokiji 20 years later, he's changed his mind.)

And so, after a brief montage of "Robin's life sucks" through her teenage years, we're back to the present. Robin admits that most of her fear is that the friends that she's finally found will grow to hate her because of her past and the Marines constantly chasing her, and again affirms her wish for death. (Can you imagine how 4Kids would have dubbed this, by the way? The mind reels...) Spandam is loving this, of course, and points out that Robin's enemy is the World Government itself, and too big for Luffy to try to take down.

He doesn't know Luffy very well. What follows is the climax of Enies Lobby. Oh, sure, there's about 4 more volumes to go after this, but that's just the dessert. The true story ends here. Luffy calmly tells Sniper King to shoot down the World Government's flag (which, give all credit to Usopp, he does immediately with no terror at all). He then declares war on the world government, and once more asks Robin: does she want to live? And finally, his words get through to her despair and fear and stubbornness and she screams out that she does. This is one of the best scenes in the whole manga, and the emotional climax of Water Seven/Enies Lobby. The goal of the arc is rescuing Robin, yes, but the REAL goal was getting Robin to trust her friends. Mission accomplished.

And then everyone dives in and we're headed for another big string of fights. Whee! Fantastic, marvelous, stupendous, colossal volume of One Piece.