Friday, May 28, 2010

Manga the week of 6/3

There's just a giant PILE of manga out June 3rd, most of it Viz.

Some series are beginning! Library Wars: Love & War is a shoujo take on the light novel series about a paramilitary organization out to protect books from evil censors! And Toriko is the manliest Iron Chef you'll ever meet, a man who travels the world in search of the most dangerous animals - as they're also the tastiest!

Some series are ending. Wild Ones wraps up, and I'll miss the one a volume antics where Sachie lets her inner Yakuza shine through. Honey & Clover is also over, though I think the blogosphere never quite got over Hagu's appearance - and, to be fair, personality. And Yu-Gi-Oh! R ends, though there's still several other Yu-Gi-Oh spinoffs still running in V-Jump. I eagerly await Yu-Gi-Oh WTF.

There's 5 more One Pieces, but this is the last month with 5, as we finally catch up (mostly) with Japan. Vol. 49 has one of my favorite funny moments, and the new arc after Thriller Bark changes the series forever.

Vampire Knight is out. I hear it has vampires! Do they brood? I hope they brood. Oh, and maybe they smirk, too! (swoon) Actually, there isn't much smirking in Vampire Knight, but there sure is a lot of brooding. And politics.

And then there's Butterflies, Flowers, which will no doubt have wacky shenanigans balanced out with hot hot lovins. And hopefully some more comedic beatings! Loved the eyes falling out last time!

There's also (gasp!) some non-Viz stuff. Del Rey has a new Negima, where we find out that our heroes are far worse off than we thought. And a new series, Fairy Navigator Rune, which hopefully won't be like their other recent new Nakayoshi series, but probably is. Tokyopop's Shinobi Life continues to be a fun ninja shoujo romance, which should be marketed better than it is. And Vertical has Vol. 11 of Black Jack, which you should not need me to suggest to you. Come on... BLACK JACK!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oh My Goddess! Volume 35

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

Awww. Yes, once again, that is the goal of Oh My Goddess. To get you to read one of the adorable, cute, relaxing chapters and go "Awww.' And for the most part, this volume succeeds in that.

The first chapter wraps up the Sentaro storyline that was in Volume 34. After injuring himself in front of his girl, Sentaro is back on the bike and vowing to make sure he does the trick right this time. And he does. But an even harder trick might have been a mistake, as Skuld is forced to bust out her goddess powers to save him. Luckily for her, Sentaro is (like most of the human cast) vaguely clueless, and thinks he was merely hallucinating those wings. And of course, lame ending, he's just moving across the river - like 10 extra minutes. Waaa waaa waaa waaaaaaaah.

The majority of the volume is concerned with the story of a broken antique camera that may not be as broken as it seems. As always, mechanical things are Fujishima's bread and butter, so the camera is lovingly depicted and described. The camera, it turns out, works fine - provided it's taking a picture of a pretty girl. After Belldandy sweet talks it (you have to get used to everyday objects having souls and speaking around these goddesses), they're able to open it and get the 40-year-old film developed. Then it's just a matter of finding the girl in the photo. This being OMG, they find her in about 2 hours. The best part of this arc was seeing the old couple - Fujishima loves to show us couples in love, provided they aren't K1 and Belldandy, and you always get the sense that they could carry a manga of their own whenever you meet another one.

The final chapter is slight but amusing, focusing on Keiichi's sister Megumi. Who shows up at the temple utterly roaring drunk. Turns out she's been dumped - again. This is news to her brother, who was unaware she was dating. The problem, apparently, is that she's simply TOO AWESOME for her boyfriends. They can't deal with her being the queen of the campus, #1 motorbike champion, perfect in every way woman. So she lets them break up with her (which in itself should tell her how much she actually cared, but hey) and then gets hammered. The best part of the chapter is at the end, where she rips into her brother for being a pathetic loser and yet still having Belldandy for a girlfriend. Oh, kid, you speak for us all.

As you may imagine, this manga is preaching to the converted. No one will be buying Volume 35 to give the series a try, and if you were frustrated at the lack of romantic progress, no doubt you gave up after Vol. 12 or so. Still, this is for the Oh My Goddess fan. And for them? It's good stuff. Not a lot of Urd this volume, but I'm sure that will change. Isn't everyone in it so sweet? Awww.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

To Terra Volume 1

By Keiko Takemiya. Released in Japan as "Tera he..." by Asahi Sonorama, serialized in the magazine Monthly Manga Shonen. Released in North America by Vertical.

I had purchased Vol. 1 of this series back when it came out, but never got around to reading it. You know how it is, you get a pile of stuff in at the same time, your brain decides it's more interested in magical harems and wacky misunderstandings, and the retro manga from 1977 slips down the pile. So I'm glad that the Manga Roundtable this month gave me a chance to revisit it, as it's riveting stuff.

There is a certain amount of unavoidable nostalgia with reading a title like this. Not for 1980s fandom, although that certainly came into my head. It seems hard to imagine, but the anime fandom of the mid 80s to early 90s was completely invested in titles like this - the anime version, at least. Macross, Megazone 23, Iczer-1... heck, even the style of the Dirty Pair is rooted in this sort of epic hard science fiction sort of thing. Sadly, as fandom moved on - both in Japan and North America - to other things, this sort of story has become far rarer. Viz took a shot on Please Save My Earth, but it was not exactly a huge seller. Same with CMX and the utterly weird Moon Child.

In any case, that was NOT what I was reminded of while reading this. Well, OK, the Dirty Pair a little. No, this took me right back to reading old-school Robert Heinlein books. The ones he wrote for Scribner's childrens line, designed to create a sense of wonder and a love of space exploration. And, inevitably, the aftermath of such exploration, seeing humanity struggle against its baser impulses.

Keiko Takemiya creates a fantastic mood. I kept thinking, throughout the volume, that I was going to be getting to a lull in the volume any time now. It never actually happened. Even when the narrative completely switched from one POV character to the other, the volume never let up. Pacing is one of the book's core strengths. The few action sequences here are short and sharp, not drawn out to 100 pages the way some might try it today. But when it's about DISCOVERY, about learning new things and discovering what the heroes can truly become, the book takes its time, showing us both their wonder and - more importantly - their horror at such a fate. Jomy, in particular, is a very reluctant messiah, which makes his transformation all the more startling and electric.

The plot has two forces battling against each other, and as with most good science fiction, we get the sense that both communities have big flaws. Mother Eliza tends to try to guide her people through a weird sort of brainwashing, and yet also encourages her top student, Keith, to keep doubting everything that he's experiencing. Heck, he even gets a rebellious young rival to help him buck against the system! Meanwhile, Jomy is kidnapped by the Mu, told he's been chosen to be their new leader, and then essentially mentally assaulted with 300 years' worth of memories as they're running short on time. The surprise is that he takes to it so well, as the later pages show him being a capable, if flawed, leader.

The Mu seem to be set up as the 'good guys' in this world, though as with most science fiction of this type such descriptions are deceiving. Jomy is developing a cult of personality around him, especially with the younger Mu, who tend to act more like disciples than followers. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the human side of things tend to act more... well, human. The use of Sam Houston as the connection between the two worlds is very well done, especially with the use of memory wipes by BOTH sides. I love juxtaposition like that.

This story is not particularly original, not are the characters all that dazzling. However, the writing itself is amazingly compelling, to the point where I desperately want to find out what happens next. The world building is top-notch as well. As for the art, yes, it's very 1977, but it's not as flowery shoujo as you'd expect coming from a member of the 49ers. In fact, some of the expressions, particularly the comedic ones, reminded me of Takahashi's earlier Urusei Yatsura art.

A terrific change of pace, and a reminder of where manga once was. Grab this series, you won't regret it. I'm definitely going to track down Vol. 2 and 3 now.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Black Butler Volume 2

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

Sometimes it's hard not to make your reviews one line. Generally speaking I try to avoid being snarky, and I will be delving into Black Butler here. But basically, "Remember what I said in my last review? That, only more so." Even more pretty, even more calculating... and even more addicting.

The first chapter is the worst, with yet another 'the staff of the house is useless and incompetent, so Sebastian must do everything' chapter that's supposed to be comedic but instead is merely annoying. Luckily, the staff don't show up for the rest of the volume, which is instead concerned with Jack the Ripper. The manga takes place in one of those 'sort of Victorian' alternate universes, and Jack is just getting started here. Ciel is in charge of investigating, as there's thought to be a supernatural element to the murders.

Honestly, the plot of BB is just an excuse for having the characters look handsome and cool. Sebastian, of course, looks awesome, and gets to do several impossible things (after breakfast, though). Madame Red, her butler Grelle, and the Undertaker they get information from are all larger than life caricatures, and many panels make it look like they're stepping outside of reality to pose for Toboso-san.

Things get even worse when their prime suspect turns out to be a Lord with a suspicion of liking young girls a little too much. So naturally, the answer is to dress Ciel up as a young woman. This is once again where my brain turns off, and I stop being drawn in by the grand guignol plot and start going "Oh come on, you just drew that to make all the fangirls squee!" And yes, Ciel as a little girl is cute and adorable and more importantly, oh so abductable. So not only do we get Ciel dressed as a Victorian girl, we get her dressed as such in a giant cage, being auctioned off. As this is a fantasy manga, Ciel's being auctioned for sacrificial rites rather than just to mere pedophiles. Not that this matters, as Sebastian comes to the rescue anyway.

As if to add insult to injury, they turn out to have the wrong man, so this was all merely fanservice dressing in the first place. As for the reveal of the real Jack the Ripper, it's not all that surprising (there were a minimal number of suspects), but as always it's handled stylishly, and there's some fantastically over the top dialogue in the final scene (which ends with a cliffhanger, natch). They even manage to work-in a modern-day chainsaw and not have it seem stupid... well, no, it does seem stupid. But it fits anyway.

If you read manga for plot and characterization, then you're in the wrong place. But style? This manga OOZES style from every pore. It gives the reader what they want. And generally, if they're reading Black Butler, what they want is smirks, gay subtext, a nice helping of horror/gore, and Sebastian being awesome on every page. In that, it delivers. Yes, it's the sort of manga that seems pointedly designed to SELL rather than to tell a story, but I can think of worse titles to be on the NYT bestseller list for umpteen straight weeks.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 12

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

I tend to divide the Excel Saga manga into 5 parts. Part 1 are the first 6 books, establishing characters and featuring Excel and Hyatt getting into wacky situations. Part 2 is Books 7-11, and introduces Elgala, changing the dynamic of the main heroines. Part 3 is about to begin here, with Books 12-15, which starts to actually advance the main plot. Part 4 I call the "Teriha" arc, for reasons I won't spoil, and is Volumes 16-20. And the likely final arc is currently going on, and is Volumes 21-present.

However, we don't begin Excel Saga 12 immediately. Indeed, Viz's credits for the volume don't even appear until Page 50! (Which is a great touch). Instead, the first quarter of this volume is devoted to the wacky, lovable adventures of Umi Rengaya, an 18-year-old dojikko who acts as assistant and dogsbody to our favorite loli-lovin' mad scientist, Gojyou Shiouji. Umi is cute, and very busty (the notes helpfully tell us her 3 sizes, 98-58-82), and eager to please, and sadly has a brain the size of a peanut. Her scientist father (who we don't actually meet here) has sent her off to work with Dr. Shiouji, presumably to try to make her slightly more capable.

These quick, 6-8 page chapterlets take place at approximately the same time as Volumes 9 and 10 of Excel Saga proper, and indeed we see some of the phone calls between Kabapu and Shiouji from the other side of the conversation, now realizing why they cut off so abruptly. I'm not sure if they ran as special extras in Young King OURS proper, or if they ran in the side magazine which also runs Rikdo's softcore comedy Holy Brownie, Young King OURS+. They're cute, if slight, and help us realize the basics of their relationship: Umi loves Shouji, but is dumb as a post and the clumsiest girl in the world; Shiouji is exasperated by Umi but tolerates her due to their past and a sort of grudging duty.

We get a flashback in Excel Saga proper explaining their relationship; they first met when Shiouji was 14 and Umi was 6, at a party given by her father. He was entranced by her innocent beauty, she was just happy to meet someone new. Unfortunately, even at 6 years old she seems to have a developing bust, and it just keeps on developing. This is possibly the first time that we see Shiouji's lolita complex to not just be a love of young girls, but equally a hatred of large-breasted women. WHY he hates them will be left for Volume 13, but for now let's just say Umi's chest growing but her IQ staying the same has removed any infatuation he once had, though he does still seem to try to protect her innocence (which has only grown more shiny over the years.)

Meanwhile, Excel, Hyatt and Elgala are at the beach! They've signed on as waitresses at a beach cafe being run by Miss Manager, the Emeraldas-alike we met in Volume 7. Mister Owner is still off fighting the war, but no worries, as she has enough German jokes for all of us. (Including one very disturbing one where she asks Hyatt to clean the showers and the ovens, and Hyatt immediately drops dead after turning on the shower. I'm not sure if it's deliberate or not, but if so it probably ranks as the most distasteful Excel Saga joke ever. Especially since it comes about 3 panels after Miss Manager saying "Tomorrow Belongs To Me.") A lot of beach jokes follow, as Excel and Elgala provide fanservice and accidentally blow things up, and Hyatt dies, fries, and goes on a boat ride with Watanabe.

Meanwhile, Kabapu is increasingly disturbed at the series of intentional blowing things up that Excel and Elgala did in Volume 11. It's terrorism, sure. but boy it sure did help out the city. It's what HE would have done had he been less ethical. (And man, arguing the ethics of Kabapu is an essay in itself.) He decides to try contacting Shiouji's mother, Miwa... something he is very apprehensive about. Shiouji, meanwhile, refuses point blank to contact her. What we do find out is that Shiouji's father (the creator of the Ropponmatsu core) disappeared 20 years earlier, and that after his disappearance Miwa... changed. She used to be so quiet before. Even Umi seems terrified of Miwa showing up again. Luckily, she doesn't appear... yet.

Sadly, Watanabe's boat ride turns disastrous, and though he manages to be rescued, he's in a near-coma due to thinking that his beloved Miss Ayasugi has perished. In fact, Hyatt merely drifted until she washed up on the shore of the beach, with Excel noting that she passed through the inter-tidal zone. Misaki and company find her walking by the hospital, and arrange for her to visit Watanabe's room, as they think that he's having delusions. Her assurance that she fell into the sea then woke up on the beach do reassure him, but don't help the others believe that he was telling the truth.

Meanwhile, as sort of a cliffhanger ending, we see Il Palazzo having an internal monologue in the middle of a vast sci-fi-ish control room. He admits that things are progressing very slowly (in point of fact, ACROSS has done almost nothing to take over the world the last 12 volumes), and seems to give his alternate personality permission to shake things up. This is good news for ACROSS, but not necessarily for Excel; Il Palazzo is passive-aggressive towards her when he's himself, but positively horrid when he's in his other guise. Will she be OK? And how bad could Shiouji's mother be, anyway?

Find out in Volume 13! As always, highly recommended.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Karakuri Odette Volume 3

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

So in my review of the first two volumes of Karakuri Odette, I noted that the series really hadn't gotten into typical shoujo romance yet, instead focusing on Odette's attempts to adjust to society. So clearly I merely hadn't read far enough, as this volume is simply loaded with love polygons. For those curious, Mika loves Asao, Asao loves Yoko, Yoko loves Okada, Yukimura loves Odette, Chris loves Odette, and Odette has no idea what love is about. Just another day in the life.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the volume is all romantic mush. The main thrust continues to be Odette trying to figure out humanity, and the readers realizing that she's already there, as she acts very much like any human would given the circumstances. The moral of Karakuri Odette seems to be that we all go through life unsure of ourselves and making decisions based on little information, and there is no perfect ideal for anyone.

The first chapter, which has Odette desperate to find and save a lost cat, has an obvious psychological bent to it. After her earlier experience with a cat getting run over, she's desperate to avoid anyone feeling sad about that again. (Remember when Asao asked about it, she actually went so far as to lie to him.) So she goes above and beyond to save this other cat, despite missing school, and despite the fact that it turns out saving the cat will cost huge amounts of money. This is one chapter where we *do* see Odette as more of a child, and the Professor calls her out on it as well.

The rest of the book, though, places Odette firmly in the teenager category. We see mopey lovesick teenagers slumped on desks, and later see mopey Odette in a storage room, sure that her bulky new battery pack makes her look 'ugly' and 'horrible'. Every teenage girl in the world has felt like this sometime. Odette can't distinguish between feelings for friends and what 'romantic' love is supposed to be, but thinks this is something unique to her. And worst of all, stress seems to be draining her battery, to a degree where at one point she collapses in the hall.

And of course there's Odette and Asao. Chris spends most of this volume AWOL due to his own drained battery problems (i.e., utter jealousy), so we get a lot more of these two together. I don't really want to see them as a couple, but as friends they're awesome. Asao, a very blunt person, discovers firsthand just how annoying that can be when Odette acts that way. Despite this, he remains very protective of Odette, and even when utterly disgusted and frustrated, refuses to abandon her. He's pretty much become my favorite character.

We're now halfway through the series, and I'm very interested in seeing the direction that it goes in the future. I doubt a romantic pairing for Odette is in the cards - I simply can't imagine Professor making her fully functional - so I presume the remainder will be what the first three volumes have been. Gentle comedy about a more-human-than-she-thinks robot girl learning about the world. That suits me just fine.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Itazura Na Kiss Volume 2

By Kaoru Tada. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret ("Betsuma"). Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing.

Since yesterday I discussed series where the romance was not the be all and end all of the title, today let's go in the opposite direction. Sometimes shoujo romances are just that. They are their couple. In Itazura Na Kiss, there is not one single plot, thread, or conversation that is not in some way about our two leads and their love hijinks. It oozes romantic comedy from every pore.

This came out in the early 1990s, and it's hard to remember at times how influential it was. You see its situations played out in a lot of manga descendants (Marmalade Boy is the one that keeps coming up in my head), and as with most trend setters, if you're reading it after all of its followers you can come away with the feeling that it's just another boring shoujo romance. However, I don't really have that feeling here.

Why? Well, it's the difference between drinking coffee with three sugars and a lot of milk, and straight black coffee. Itazura na Kiss is completely unfiltered. Most manga these days with ditzy heroines and sullen heroes will throw you a bone, usually once a chapter, showing that the two characters are not as bad as they initially seem. You see the girl being good at sports, for example, or offering sensible love advice to anyone who isn't her. Or you see the guy teasing the heroine for 30 pages, then saving her from a group of thugs and checking to make sure she's OK.

Not this manga. Kotoko is a complete idiot, in almost every aspect of her life. Bad at school, bad at athletics, horrible at hooking people up, she is almost the definition of a flake. And as for Naoki... I try not to use harsh language in this blog, but sometimes, you gotta bring in the big guns. Naoki is a complete asshole. Not only is he seemingly sullen and uncaring, not just teasing the heroine but being genuinely cruel and nasty to her, and showing passive-aggressive jealousy in regards to her other male friend. There is the odd moment where he shows a softer side (here it's in the final tennis match, after she finally returns a serve), but it's more like once every 2 volumes rather than once a chapter. This couple is just difficult to like.

A lot of that may be deliberate. I was rather surprised when this volume (Volumes 3 and 4 of the original release) saw the leads graduate from high school and move on to college. So many shoujo manga in Japan don't even think of life after high school, mostly as that when the couple get together, and thus when the story ends. But Itazura Na Kiss has a far larger scope than this, and promises to show us even moving beyond college. I admire that.

Despite the fact that it is hard to read this without wanting to reach into the book and throttle the leads, this is a very good read. The author knows how to write her cliched situations, and even though there are few surprises, it's still amusing to see. Her art too is well done, showing a talent for caricature that doesn't rely on superdeformed posing, but simply lets the characters be goofy naturally. If you can take your shoujo raw and unfiltered, here it is.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Manga the week of 5/26

Midtown's list has a whole lotta Tokyopop and not much else. Let's see what we have...

I don't really get too many Yaoi titles, but I do have the urge to walk into a bookstore, grab Vol. 2 of Blu's latest series, and scream out, "This is Madness, do you hear me? Madness!" Just sayin'.

Neko Ramen is a 4-koma from Mag Garden that's gotten a lot of good buzz. I'll be very interested in checking it out. As for Portrait of M&N, I had very mixed feelings about Vol. 1. I do hope that this volume is at least a little sillier, as I feel the first treated its protagonists too realistically to let the situation be funny. As for Alice in the Country of Hearts, I'm wondering if it will be another Vampire Knight for me, i.e. a title I read almost despite myself.

Diamond shipped Saturn Apartments to most stores this week, but the always whimsical Midtown is getting it next week. It's another title from their Ikki site, and it's a fantastic SF 'sense of wonder' series. If you liked Planetes, get this. And there's another 20th Century Boys, which I have gotten so far behind on, but which is still a great epic title of epic.

Oh yes, and Diamond will release Previews, which I'm sure will be filled with new CMX solicits, just to TAUNT ME.

Otomen Volume 6

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

Sometimes a shoujo author just doesn't want to write about romance. This can be tougher than it sounds. Many of the shoujo and shonen magazines in Japan have very narrow demographics, and an author sometimes has to disguise their intent in order to get a title published. Ken Akamatsu is perhaps the most famous example, as his editors did not want him writing a fighting series - they wanted more harem comedy. So, he wrote them a harem comedy... which has now become a fighting series with harem comedy fluidly worked into it.

And sometimes you simply realize that your strengths are not in romantic dialogue. Tomoko Hayakawa has written in her manga The Wallflower about her arguments with the editor, who wants things wrapped up soon-ish - it's been 24 volumes, after all - and her own abilities to write romance, which suck. She's much better at comedic stuff, and knows it.

Now, since I'm actually reviewing Otomen 6 here, I note that Aya Konno can clearly write romance, as is evidenced by the few meager scenes we see in this series. She just doesn't particularly WANT to. The series is about gender roles. Asuka's attempts to be manly, despite his love of girly things. Ryo's gung-ho tomboyishness showing him the way that it can be done. And a nagging tendency for all the tall, handsome, rugged men to love flowers and makeup. It's comedic (just look at that cover!) and can be very clever, but it also means that in some volumes, such as this one, Ryo is almost entirely absent.

She's not needed as there isn't a gratuitous "Asuka pines after Ryo" chapter here. We do see her giving Asuka Valentine's Day chocolate (once again, the question of whether they're an official couple or not is sidestepped), but that's used just to give Asuka determination (and for comic effect - her chocolates are the funniest thing in the volume). This is more frustrating as two chapters in this volume *do* actually deal with romance. Juta's sister Kuriko has two suitors here - the girly Yamato and the flower-loving Kitora. Tellingly, these are both the weakest chapters of the volume, and one of them ALSO ends up dealing with gender roles, as Yamato takes Asuka on a 'practice date'.

This is still a good manga, and I think it manages to keep a clever balance between mocking all the gender stuff and making telling points about being yourself. But I think at this point having romance almost hampers it, as it's setting us up for plot lines I doubt we'll ever really get. The goal we're headed for is not Asuka and Ryo as a couple, it's Asuka realizing that he can accept his love of feminine things. The author KNOWS what is expected of her - there's a whole plotline in Otomen about Juta's frustration at Ryo and Asuka, as his editor is telling him to move the couple in "Love Chick" forward. It's unclear how much of this is based in real life, but I'd suggest more than likely Kanno has her editors at Betsuhana say the same thing.

Plus, of course, everyone reads this for the pretty boys anyway. Ryo who? :)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gin Tama Volume 18

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

There is little to no drama in this volume of Gin Tama, which I'm sure will make many people thankful. The closest we get is the plotline with Hasegawa and his estranged wife, and even that was half-serious, half-silly. Meanwhile, you also have some of the funniest comedy this series has scene yet.

I had been relatively unimpressed with the end of 17, which showed the gang all battling to try to get a Nintendo Wii (or copyright parody thereof). However, that plotline is resolved in the first chapter here, and is pure 100% fantastic. From the random HP division, to Hijikata being named 'Turd' (as his name is too long for the system to deal with), to everyone's use of the kindly old village elder, this is a magical parody of the old RPG worlds. And naturally, being this is also a VR environment, everything ends in chaos.

This is then followed by a wonderful parody of old-school shonen, where a bearded man appears to our three heroes in a dream, and tells them it is time to learn how to grow stronger! Except none of them really have the desire to, and are mostly irritated with the man. And in fact, it turns out he probably didn't have much to offer, as he's still living with his mother. Secret Deadly Techniques apparently involve a lot of kicking people in the nads.

The majority of this volume is devoted to the Hasegawa plot I mentioned above. Due to his wretched luck (the man has the worst luck in the whole series, which is saying something as this series also has Kondo in it) he has been arrested for assaulting a girl on a subway train. He'd actually tripped and accidentally bumped into her, then when trying to save her from an oncoming train he pulled her into a move from Kinnikuman, the Muscle Buster, showing the whole subway station her panties. Needless to say, no one believes he's innocent.

What's worse, the prosecuting attorney is in love with his estranged wife, and will send Hasegawa up the river unless he signs divorce papers. Which he refuses to do, as he plans to win his wife back once he gets a decent job again. Luckily, Gintoki is on the case, and tries to do everything he can to help him... including being his defense lawyer.

The overall premise is serious, but the execution is utterly stupid, with Hasegawa continually making Dog of Flanders references, involving him in a dog suit and the girl he 'assaulted' as Heidi. Gin even shows up as Clara, in a rocket-powered wheelchair. The whole thing does eventually end in a rather touching flashback, showcasing Hasegawa's stubbornness and his wife's good heart. And then he trips again...

The last 2 chapters in this volume are probably the most ludicrous, dealing with the main female cast gaining too much weight, and having to go work it off at a dojo. The chapters are not as good as the rest of the book, but there's still several funny moments. Seeing Kyuubei be cool is always worthy. Gin Tama is noted timed for volumes as precisely as, say, One Piece is, so you don't always end with a band or with a cliffhanger.

This continues to be one of the funniest series being released by Viz, with great characters and a premise that lets its creator gleefully mock anything and everything, while still allowing for kickass samurai drama when it has to. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Requiem for CMX

Interestingly, when I first heard about DC Comics going into manga in 2004, my first thought was that it would be canceled a mere few months later. This annoyed me, as one of their very first licenses was one of my very favorite shoujo manga, GALS!, by Mihona Fujii. Things didn't get any better as the months went on, as we had the Tenjo Tenge debacle, forever tarring DC with the brush of censors (fanboys never forget a slight). I still say that licensing that title was a mistake.

But they persevered. GALS! finished 2 years later, proving my fears groundless. The company quietly began realizing what its strengths were, and developed an excellent working relationship with Hakusensha, as well as an exclusive deal with Softbank Creative in their Flex Comics line. They found that fans of shoujo talked them up, and their Hakusensha titles came out more frequently. This is when I fell for I Hate You More Than Anyone.

Throughout all this, one thing continued to apply to CMX titles: they didn't sell. Whether due to the nonexistent marketing budget, or a lack of a 'big name' title (Viz and Tokyopop tended to get the choicer morsels from Hakusensha), or just bad luck, they never had a breakaway hit. They were not helped at all by their parent company, who did not help them break into bookstores (CMX titles were almost impossible to find at a Barnes & Noble) and provided them with little to no verbal support. To be fair, CMX lasted a lot longer than the Minx line... The one CMX title that *did* sell was Megatokyo, and note DC were quick to point out it was the only title unaffected. It's also not a Japanese manga.

This is sad in many ways. It means a huge market, especially for shoujo, is gone. DC had excellent licensors in their company, who were able to pick quirky, fun, and mostly all-ages shoujo titles. There's little to no market for those sorts of things now. Viz is restructuring as well, and I suspect may get more conservative in the future. Tokyopop is still in the process of recovering. Go! Comi is... wherever they are.

This hits Hakusensha hard as well, I think, as they had a great deal of positive publicity in North America thanks to CMX. Along with Enterbrain (who also worked a great deal with CMX), they're probably the publisher I've heard most praised by word-of-mouth from online bloggers. Sure, they still have their huge selling Viz and TP stuff, but It's just not the same.

And, of course, I think of all the CMX series I read that will never be finished. (Let's not even discuss license rescues. I can't remotely see that happening in this economy and with these non-selling titles.) There's Venus Capriccio, which will get Vol. 4 of 5 out this June, leaving it one short. Stolen Hearts, which took the blog community by storm, ending with Vol. 2 (it's still running in Japan) this June. Teru Teru x Shonen will have 4 volumes left untranslated. So will my beloved I Hate You More Than Anyone. And I won't get to see 51 Ways To Save Her even hit Vol. 1.

Despite all the depression right now, I just want to take a moment to praise all the staff at CMX, who did so much with so little, and made the brand one of the most talked about (if not financially successful) of the last five years. You did good.

Gatcha Gacha Volume 3

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

First off, it has to be said, this volume has offensive gay stereotypes. The gay male stalker type who likes to molest young boys? Is here. The insane psycho lesbian who will crush anyone in order to have no one else but her sister? Is here. The latter is handled better than the former, but neither are handled with what you'd call grace. The author even notes in a sidebar that she'll get angry letters saying she doesn't understand gays, and admits she does not.

That having been said, this is overall a good volume of Gatcha Gacha. The author has now realized that Yuri is not the reason anyone reads this, and though Yuri is still our 'viewpoint' character, much of the focus is now on Motoko and her screwed-up life. That said, Yuri is a very important part of this volume. Yabe is continuing to try to push her away at the start, and notes that her love is too "heavy". Unfortunately, that awkwardly translated word is exactly what all her other boyfriends used when they broke up with her, so it sends her into a spiral of depression.

Yabe, of course, is still trying to deal with Kanako's death. Seeing how awesome he was in the past, especially through the eyes of one of his kendo counterparts, really drives home the fact that he's been unable to deal with anything since her death. Surprisingly, though, he seems to finally appreciate Yuri for who she is (Yuri getting hit by a truck and living might have helped a bit) and is ready to confess. Motoko being Motoko, she demands that he confess at her mansion, convinced Yabe won't be able to handle the traumatic memories.

Which we finally get to see, in a flashback to some of Motoko and Yabe's past. This is the best part of the volume, with some fantastic turns of phrases, and some nice subtlety. We first meet Motoko as a short-haired gangly tomboy, trying to defend her sickly half-sister against... well, against herself, really, as Kanako's jealousy is even now a major issue. We also see that she and Yabe have been friends since childhood, and that Yabe, upon meeting Kanako, instantly falls in love with her. Sadly, Kanako only has eyes for Motoko. We flash forward a bit, and see Motoko growing her hair longer. She says she just felt like it, but the implication is that she's trying to fend off Kanako's incestuous tendencies. (Wearing t-shirts that say 'Juicy American Princess' is not helping much, IMO.)

Things come to a head when Kanako sleeps with Yabe, so that she can drive him away from Motoko and Kanako has her all to herself. This is a chilling scene, with Kanako bluntly telling her sister that she doesn't care if Yabe lives or dies.
Something inside Kanako had shattered. And when it did, the broken, razor-sharp shards exploded from her and cut into everyone around her.

We then end by seeing, with a little more detail, the scene implied in Volume 1. Kanako running off in the snow, Motoko angrily looking all over for her, and finding her crumpled on the sidewalk. So now Yuri knows the truth, and what's more, she and Yabe are finally a couple. The end!... wait, no, there's 5 more volumes to go. What's missing?

Well, I suppose I could mention Hirao. It has to be said that the guys in this manga do not fare nearly as well as the girls. Yabe is a slacker who can't let go, and even now looks to be getting together with Yuri so he can try to blot out his past with Kanako. And Hirao is still pretty pathetic. Yelling at Yabe for making Yuri sad is not the same as telling Yuri your actual feelings, even if life is conspiring against you every time you do. He gets a bit better later, but the love triangle of him, Yuri, and Yabe is still a bit malformed.

It's also worth noting that Motoko's grandfather attempts to tell his own version of "the truth", and tells Yuri that Kanako and Motoko had different mothers, and that her father abandoned Kanako. Luckily, Motoko arries to leap in here, pointing out that her parents wanted to have Kanako as well, but the grandfather refused to let her go, using her medical bills as an excuse. Ah, family drama. I know all about that myself.

Oh yes, and Sekine turns out to be a cute l'il bishie when he takes his huge glasses off. Who here's surprised? The first chapter is the closest we get to comedy here, proving that Motoko can take a baseball bat to the head and get right back up (albeit with severe bleeding).

It's a good volume, with a couple of exceptions, and one has to wonder where they can take this now that we have all of Motoko's backstory... wait, what's this? The preview for Volume 4 notes that they meet a girl who looks exactly like Kanako? Oh dear! Could it be that we STILL don't know the whole truth? Stay tuned for the next volume of this pretzel-like series!

Monday, May 17, 2010

One Piece Volume 48

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

As the last volume featured our heroes getting their asses kicked to a large degree, it seems fitting that this volume should show them getting a bit of their own back, as Zoro, Sanji and Usopp all have big epic fights, and Robin and Chopper have a lesser but still satisfying fight.

When this was first coming out a couple years ago, I was irritated with what he'd done with Nami in this arc, and I still am to a degree. Oda has rarely had to resort to 'helpless woman being rescued by big strong man' plots in the past. You can argue there was a certain amount of that in Enies Lobby, but that was Robin's own choice, and once she stopped wishing for death, we saw several scenes of her fighting against captivity. But Nami, though this volume, is unconscious. You could replace her with a doll for all the difference it makes.

And I admit it doesn't help that I find Sanji's perverse 'chivalry' grating, especially when we see it combined with his perversity. I've said it before and I'll say it again, comedy Sanji talking about women does nothing but annoy me. We've frequently seen him be serious and clever, especially when women aren't involved, so seeing him this obsessed over losing the fruit that could let him see women showering naked is not that fun for me.

As a side note, this volume came out in Weekly Shonen Jump at about the same time that another gag manga, Bobobobo-bobobo, was ending. Oda, it seems to me, pays tribute to its style throughout here, notably with the zombies watching Sanji and Absalom. The Zombie Generals, throughout the fight, react in surprise with bugged-out eyes to various things. "Where did the bazookas come from?!?!" "His anger is totally misplaced!" This is very much a Bobobo trademark, usually with Beauty reacting to her companions' stupidity. It's nice to see such a subtle shout-out.

Meanwhile, Zoro has found the swordsman who has Brook's shadow. And, coincidentally enough, a kick-ass sword. Since Zoro has just lost a sword in the prior arc, this is very convenient. What follows is one of the more normal battles in the volume, as generally Zoro fights don't get as silly as others might. And Chopper and Robin fight against Hogback and Cindry, giving us some suggestions that Zombies and their personalities might not be as cut and dry as we once thought. It's nice seeing Chopper fight the battle with moral sense as much as physical strength. And Cindry's final smile was both fantastic and chilling.

And then there's Usopp. Oh, Usopp, I love you. Back at the start of the volume, half the gang runs into Perona and her ghosts, and they fall easy prey to the depressing thoughts that accompany them. But not Usopp... he's made of stronger stuff! Negative Hollows can't affect a man who's already negative! (Perona's face, a callback to Eneru's in Skypeia, is a stitch.) So he goes off to battle Perona, only to find she has more tricks up her sleeve than he'd thought. (Another quick note: despite Perona being a goth loli, and Oda giving us increasing fanservice for Nami and Robin, when we see giant Perona squatting in the castle, we get no panty shots whatsoever. I am grateful.)

So Usopp is now dealing with a seemingly unkillable woman. Oda briefly fakes us out by having Usopp call on Sniper King to help him (and donning the mask), but that's just to run away for a bit. The real battle is won by Usopp himself, who is clever enough to realize something's up with Perona's confidence, tricky enough to miscall his attacks (oh, if only more manga heroes did this), and badass enough to use the dials in just the right way. Defeating Perona by a combination of sticky goop, fake roaches, and a balloon hammer. And yet it's so awesome that you jump into the air along with him when it's done.

And so, having won their minor battles, our heroes now have to face up against Oars. Who is huge, and has Luffy's shadow. Yeah, they're crushed badly. Only Luffy can save them now! But we'll have to wait for June to see him do so.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Girlfriend's A Geek Volume 1

By Rize Shinba and Pentabu. Released in Japan as "Fujoshi Kanojo" by Enterbrain, serialized in the magazine Comic B's Log. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Fandom can be a scary thing. Especially if you really have no idea what goes into it. Just explaining to someone who's never dealt with internet fandom the huge appeal of 'twincest' can have people backing away and avoiding you. But of course, you could say the same about being a huge sports fan. Or train spotting. Everyone has their little obsessions, and if you want to get closer to someone, you learn to accept them - or at least live with them.

Taiga is our hero, and he seems, for the first couple chapters, to be a lucky guy. His job's fairly easy, and there's a cute woman working there. She's pretty, she's hardworking, she's nice - and she seems to be single. Sure, she gets a little weirded out when he sees her reading manga, but hey, that was his fault, right? So he asks her out.

To Yuiko's credit, she knows what she's like. She confesses to him that she's a fujoshi, and asks if it makes any difference. Unfortunately, not everyone knows what a fujoshi is. And so he says NO PROBLEM!

And then the manga *actually* begins, as the whole point of this manga is not to see the loving romance, or even the comedic romance, but to see Taiga get tortured. This does not run in a shoujo romance magazine, Enterbrain doesn't have any of those. Nor does it run in their men's magazine Comic Beam. No, it runs in Comic B's Log. Which is technically shoujo, as it's definitely for girls, but its genre is yaoi. Well, not quite. Almost yaoi. Yaoi-ish.

And this is the fandom Yuiko is part of. Fujoshi literally means 'rotten girl', and refers to what North American fandom calls a 'yaoi fangirl'. And once the two of them start dating, Taiga can't quite be sure of Yuiko likes him as a good boyfriend... or just likes fantasizing about him with other guys. What's worse, he likes the shonen manga she's obsessed with... having never even thought of its yaoi potential... and he can write, after a fashion. He's perfect!

If you're after characterization and romance, this title will likely seem lacking. Mostly as Yuiko is a complete cipher. She has slotted Taiga into the 'I can be obsessive around him' slot in her mind, and when that happens, it is very difficulty to realize just how far you've gone. More to the point, however, he worries that she's only using him to fuel her fantasies. He may be absolutely right. The whole thing is from his perspective.

That said, anyone who has been involved in fandom, even a little bit, will find situations to laugh about here. The manga they're talking about is a shonen sports manga about sepak takraw (kick volleyball), which reads to me a lot like Eyeshield 21, a manga which DOES have a huge yaoi fandom, both here and in Japan. But more than that, the whole thing is filled with the little in-jokes that all fandoms get, the ones where other people go "huh?". Such as her insistence on calling Taiga Sebastian when he's pretending to be a butler. Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei did that joke as well, and I'm fairly certain Black Butler will too. It has to do with Dog of Flanders.

Yen's translation is good. I think their choice of retitling it as 'Geek' is ultimately a good one - Yaoi Fangirl reduces your potential audience. I'm not sure, judging by the excerpt from the novel printed here, if I could stand it for a full length work, but who knows? Other writers have published their blog posts successfully.

I don't think I could recommend this manga to everyone. I saw Ed Sizemore's review, and he's right. If you don't want to read 5 volumes of a guy alternating between getting frustrated and humiliated, with perhaps the occasional bone thrown of her showing actual interest in him, you'll hate this. But for what it is - a broad look at fujoshi culture from the outside, and how it can be both freakish and understandable all at once - it's pretty good.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Taming of the Shrew

By William Shakespeare. First published in Britain in 1623 by Edward Blount, William Jaggard, and Isaac Jaggard. Review copy from 'The Arden Shakespeare: Third Series', edited by Barbara Hodgdon.

Ah, Shrew. What a messed-up play. In so many ways, not just because of its misogynistic plot. There's the question of the 1594 quarto 'The Taming of a Shrew', whether it was a corrupted version of this play, whether this play was based off of it, and how much both had in common with The Spanish Tragedy. There's the Induction, with Christopher Sly, a scene usually left off of most amateur productions these days, especially with its lack of an ending. There's the question of what in the world Shakespeare was doing with Hortensio, which gets into the problem of rough drafts and stage-manager copies.

And then, well, yes, there *is* the plot. For those two or three people unaware, the play begins -- well, let's move backwards. To start, a drunk lying in a gutter is found by a hunting party, who decide to have some fun. They dress him up in finery, get another guy in their party to dress up and pretend to be his wife, and convince him that he's a Lord and only dreamt he was a drunken tinker. They then decide to put on a show for him. The show is The Taming of The Shrew.

Baptista has two daughters, both of marriageable age. The younger, Bianca, is sweet and kind. The elder, Katherina, is tempestuous and bad-tempered, and the shrew of the title. Enter Petruchio, who arrives in town and watches the various suitors to Bianca try various methods to get to her. Sadly, Bianca can't be wed till Katherina is. Petruchio, who hears the dowry on Katherina is huge, decides to court her, and, well, hijinks ensue. They are married, much against Katherina's will, and then return to his home in Verona, where he proceeds to emotionally abuse and torture her to break her will. They then return to Padua to see her sister's wedding, at which point Katherina, now a loving wife, gives a speech about how women should obey their husbands.

Yeah, not controversial at all, right? Oh, where to begin... let's talk about how I would stage Shrew, were I directing it.

First of all, I do appreciate those who play Shrew more seriously. The text does not show a very pretty message, and if you want to play it as a man breaking a woman into almost insanity, it's just as valid as people who play it as pure jolly farce. Many have talked about the play being about class struggle rather than gender wars, but this also involves a serious, tragic feeling. I *do* think some productions have gone a bit too far in this direction, notably adding things to the play, such as showing Petruchio forcibly raping Katherina, and Katherina slitting her wrists at the finale. Were I to produce this play, it would simply *have* to be as a comedy. I think I'd find it too heartbreaking otherwise.

I also feel that I'd leave in the Christopher Sly induction, and do what many other productions have done, which is add the epilogue from 'A Shrew' that is absent from Shakespeare's version. In this epilogue, the lords dress Sly (now asleep) back up in his tinker's clothes and leave him where they found him. He wakes up and tells the hostess outside the bar that he had an amazing dream, and vows to go home and tame his unruly wife at once! Sly is clearly a schmuck, and adding the epilogue from the Shrew-Once-Removed play lets you note that Shrew is not meant to be a set of instructions, nor the ideal. It's just a farce.

I also don't want to alter or modernize the play. This is also very common these days, with Katherina spitting her final speech out venemously, then stalking off, or even giving the speech to Petruchio, turning it on its head (Moonlighting did this when they did their version of Shrew). But Katherina's final speech is not only the longest in the play, but is also a brilliant set piece. It deserves to be acted as written, and I think doing so deprives the actress playing her from a great chance to shine.

Really, it comes down to casting your Petruchio and Katherina. They need chemistry. They're both strong characters - that's the whole point of the play - and play off each other beautifully. I'd ideally like to play it as having them genuinely be in love with each other by the end of the play. Certainly, compared to the other men in the play, Petruchio is likely one of the better men Katherina has seen. He doesn't take any of her crap, and gives just as good as he gets. And, when he's not acting the part of an obnoxious boor (and I think the text shows that much of it *is* acting, especially in the wedding itself), he's quite clever. Meanwhile, it can't just be about the dowry for Petruchio. You have to show he's riveted by Katherina from the start. He likes strong women, not so that he can tame them to be meek and obedient, but because he likes strong women. I think a lot of the taming scenes in Verona are him simply seeing how much he can do, what boundaries he can press.

This leads to Bianca's wedding, and Katherina's speech. Having Katherina perform it as a lobotomised perfect wife would, in my opinion, be horrible. The speech needs a great strength behind it to highlight what she's saying. Should she mean it? Probably not, no. But I think the speech should be heartfelt anyway, as she knows that humiliating Petruchio at this point would not serve either of them. She says what will win the bet, and does it perfectly. Likewise, Petruchio during this speech cannot simply stand there smugly. He's clearly nervous, and seeing Kate come through for him inflames his love and desire. His first words after the end of the speech - "Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate!" should be followed by a kiss that is toe-curling. And yes, then they should walk out together, despite Shakespeare's stage direction where only he leaves.

One can argue that this is not the way Shakespeare would have performed it. Lacking a time machine, however, we're unlikely to ever know that. But I think, in this day and age, one needs to serve both Shakespeare's play and what the audience wants of it. People don't *go* to Shrew to see the horrible crushing of a proud woman. They go to see Katherina throw things, and see Petruchio make crude sexual puns about tongues in tails. I think, despite the misogyny, despite the awkwardness, they still want Shrew to have a love story. It's a great play for reminding you of the disconnect between a play on the page and a play in the theatre. And the fact that it's still highly discussed today (in a way that, say, King John isn't), shows you that Shakespeare's words can still move the soul.

Friday, May 14, 2010

One Piece Volume 47

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

Some quick hit thoughts on One Piece 47:

-- This is Oda's take on horror, so we get several obvious horror tropes, including the cast vanishing one by one. Surprisingly, though, it's the 3 best fighters who are taken, showing that the enemy is serious business.
-- Nami really gets a chance to show off her skills in the first half of this volume... sadly, it's to make up for her being a damsel in distress for the rest of this and all of the next volume. I don't really like unconscious Nami needing to be rescued, thank you very much.
-- Chopper believing that Nami was really a man all along is hysterical, though. So that's where all the genderbent fans got the name Namizou from...
-- Meanwhile, it has to be said that Franky and Robin still work great as a team. I was rather startled at seeing Robin get stuck in that spider web (more fetish fuel from Oda, whose manga has gotten increasingly fanservicey over the years), but was gobsmacked at her Wing powers. Damn, that's useful! Well, very briefly useful.
-- Gecko Moria so far is merely a scary-looking big vampire guy, but as he's one of the Shichibukai, clearly he will show off more later. Also, in case you were still in denial over Oda basing this on the Thriller music video, check out the Zombie Night dance.
-- Brook... is an idiot. It has to be said. His jokes are so bad they make Franky want to smack him immediately, though Robin stops him. Briefly. After the 3rd bad pun, even she says "OK, hit him". That said, he's an idiot with a dream, and we know what that means in One Piece. He even got Franky to cry! Which admittedly takes little effort.
-- Wow, that's one big zombie.
-- Eeeee! When Franky and Robin come to the rescue of Usopp and Chopper, she asks if they're hurt. She asks... by calling them Usopp and Chopper! Not Long-nose and Doctor! Oh Robin, your thawing heart is so beautiful! (cries)
-- Usopp's method of waking up Luffy, Zoro and Sanji is the funniest thing in the entire volume.
-- Ah yes, and now we come to Brook's dream. It was noted in Enies Lobby that Oda loved to set things up well in advance, as he had Usopp telling the Giant guards about their leaders at Little Garden. But this is one better. We had been set up, on hearing Laboon's story, to see it as fairly tragic. Everyone thought the crew had cut and run, leaving their whale behind. Now we see that it's far deeper than that. This is the best part of the whole book, and the reactions of the four who were there to meet Laboon are fantastic.
-- For all that I go on about Oda's great pacing, I think if anything it's UNDERappreciated. Look at the way Laboon is handled here. We first see Brook telling the story to Franky and Robin... but we don't actually hear it. We merely see Franky's reaction later. And they're two of the crew members who wouldn't know who the whale was. Then, once everyone is back together, we get the flashback to Franky and Robin being told about Laboon, followed by the reaction of the others. It's almost flawless.


And so now we have the whole crew (minus one) back, going off to beat people up, get back Nami, shadows, and FOOD! Roll on, Volume 48!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Manga the week of 5/19

Midtown seems to be getting in some titles that Diamond has already shipped elsewhere. So, on that note...

I've already reviewed Twin Spica here, so see that for more details. But in short, this is a cute series about space exploration that rises above its cutesy designs to touch the heart. Recommended highly.

DMP is releasing another Comic Flapper title, Taimashin: Red Spider Exorcist, which has a great title if nothing else. I'm sort of hoping that he meets a female blue spider exorcist and together they combine to exorcise green spiders. There's also the 2nd wideban volume of Itazura Na Kiss, the cute and hideously influential series that ran in Betsuma back in the early 1990s. It likely has far fewer spiders. I'd say fewer exorcisms, but you never know with shoujo romance.

Hellsing is ending? Wow, it seems like it's been around since the 1990s. Oh right, it has. It started in 1997, and through various hiatuses (hiatusii?) crawled up to 10 volumes! We'll miss you, gore-soaked vampire and your hot suit-wearing Mistress. This series ran in Young King OURS, my favorite seinen magazine, alongside Trigun, Excel Saga, and Geobreeders. No one could draw sneers quite like Hirano.

Then there's Oh My Goddess 35. Now with romantic plot development! Hahahaha... just kidding, you know there's nothing like that. Generally speaking, if a series hasn't developed within 4-5 volumes I tend to drop it. There are a few exceptions. Oh My Goddess is one of them, if only as I've been buying it for so long my body has forgotten how to not buy it. I blame Megumi Morisato, really. She bewitches me.

And in Viz-land there is I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow. I try to support most of the Ikki series, but I had to stop this one after a few chapters. It read a bit too much like those indie comics you read where the plot is guys talking about making it big drawing indie comics. And their ideas? Are about indie comics! It's an endless recursion of not a lot. Still, a lot of bloggers seem to like it, so give it a flip through at the store and see if it catches your fancy. Perhaps I dropped it just as it got good. (Which has happened before.) Besides, looking at Viz's release schedule, I should be back to gushing again next week.

Flower in a Storm Volume 1

By Shigeyoshi Takagi. Released in Japan as "Hana ni Arashi" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine LaLa DX. Released in North America by Viz.

I was rather surprised when I saw that Viz had licensed this. Even though Hakusensha spreads their licensing love among three companies, you tend to associate certain kinds of shoujo with certain companies. Viz gets the big hits, Tokyopop gets the slightly less big hits, and CMX gets the not-hits and smaller series with high cute potential. So seeing this 2-volume cutesy series from Viz is surprising.

I'll admit, it does not particularly stand out. The hero is handsome and rich, ignoring the heroine's pleas to leave her alone and swearing that she will be his. Generally in shoujo you do this in two ways; either have the hero be a gigantic jerk and trust the audience will want to see the heroine bite her lip and have her feelings waver whenever he deigns to be nice to her; or have him be incredibly stupid, and do the whole thing as a comedy.

Flower in a Storm goes the latter route. As well as having a bit of an idiot hero, the heroine is clearly capable of taking care of herself... but doesn't want to. Riko just wants to be normal, and like most characters who just want to be normal, just can't seem to get the hang of it. The book describes her as having superpowers, which I think is a bit of a misnomer... the action just seems to show her as having tons of strength and endurance. She's really not much different, ability-wise, than Hikari from Special A.

The art is very Hakusensha, with lots of handsome smirking men and stressed-out sweatdropping women. I did like the minor character of Riko's classmate, who shaves his head. He doesn't really do much except snark at the heroine (who tends to call herself a normal high-school student after doing things like leaping into the class over her teacher's head), but it's at least different from the standard pretty boys. I also liked Ran's description of how he fell in love with Riko, which dovetails nicely with him not wanting her to be normal, just herself. This is, essentially, the plot of the manga, and I'm sure Volume 2 will find her coming to a greater understanding of herself.

As with most Hakusensha early volumes, we get a short story at the end, this one from the main LaLa magazine, which came out right before the author started on Flower in a Storm. It's also much more serious than its companion. It deals with a grumpy guy and his vague attraction to a girl who seems to have several things wrong with her, notably her tendency for kissing everyone. This has given her a reputation, and her slightly ditzy persona doesn't help. The resolution is quite adult, and surprised me (I suspect the series would be rated Teen except this story put it in OT).

This manga likely falls into the category of 'since it's a short series, I'll get the final volume'. It's light as air, with little to no substance, and if it were ongoing at 6 or more volumes, I'm not sure I'd keep getting it. But at 2, it's good enough that I'll get the end.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

One Piece Volume 46

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

I'll admit, I might not have as much to say about these next few volumes as I did about the previous 12. Don't get me wrong, Thriller Bark is pretty good... but it's pretty good in a 'this is a light-hearted change of pace' way, rather than the epic awesomeness we had come to expect from our One Piece.

First off, however, is the end of the Ace/Blackbeard fight. As one might expect, 'darkness' is a lot more than just making things dark, it's more of a black hole. Also notable is that Blackbeard's actually fairly vulnerable to damage from other fruit user attacks, getting burned by Ace's fire powers a couple of times. The outcome of the fight is supposedly a cliffhanger, but seeing Ace's hat lying upside down on the ground suggests that he's not coming out on the winning side.

However, the main thrust of the volume is the introduction of Brook and the arrival at Thriller Bark. Yep, still no Fishman Island for you. One would think Oda was deliberately teasing us... instead, we meet Brook, the gentleman skeleton. Gentleman is arguable, especially after asking for Nami and Robin's panties, but he's definitely a skeleton. He's a giant goofball, so naturally Luffy IMMEDIATELY asks him to join his crew. Brook, however, has other fish to fry... he's lost his shadow, and rushes off to Thriller Bark to get it back.

What follows is a bunch of setup, mostly revolving around horror movie tropes. Oda apparently got the idea for this arc after seeing the video Thriller by Michael Jackson, and that comes across pretty well, especially when we meet the zombies. He also knows how to balance out his crew to fight the horrors. They're divided up in a way that will show maximum comedy. This means we get Nami, Usopp and Chopper screaming and running their way through things; and we also get the rest of the crew being far less scared.

Favorite gags include the '600 Million Berry Jackpot'; Thriller Bark's animate scenery trying to avoid being seen by our heroes; everyone's reaction to Cerberus (well, the 2nd time); and 3 of the goofiest henchmen we've seen this side of Alabasta, featuring a mad doctor and his grumpy Frankenstein girl, a perverted invisible tiger man, and my personal favorite, Perona, a Goth With Attitude (GWA). We only just get introduced to them here, though.

Oh yes, when Robin says "I love... a good thrill", I'm sure many other reader's minds went right where mine did.

This volume is mostly setup, like many arc beginners. It shows what we're in for; a lighter, more playful arc than the angst and trauma of Enies Lobby. In that, I think it succeeds pretty well.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 11

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

There really aren't any revelations, for once, regarding hidden civilizations and the past lives of Excel or Il Palazzo in this volume. What, then, does it have to offer? A whole heaping helping of humor, as this is one of the funniest books yet.

Elgala is a terrific addition to the cast, as her interaction with Excel is hysterical. On the surface, she and excel are very similar characters, being outgoing to the point of chatterboxey, as well as prone to failure. However, Elgala actually manages to one-up Excel in the failure sweepstakes, as she also has a 'refined taste' (read: she likes to spend money), which gets her in to big trouble here when she goes out drunk and accidentally spends 10 million yen... the entire contents of their savings account Il Palazzo gave them.

So Elgala goes off to try to earn back the money (in a nice contrast to Excel's journey to find herself in Vol. 10) and Excel and Hyatt are back to part-timing it. Luckily, Hyatt has a lovestruck benefactor! Watanabe's crush on Hyatt is starting to reach its apex, and he goes to incredibly stupid heights to save her from the life of sleazy prostitution he imagines she will end up in. (The mind reels at the thought of Hyatt the hooker...) So, after a discussion with Kabapu, their bank account is full again. And all it requires is for Watanabe to work without pay for the next 200 years or so.

In the interim, we have one of the more surprising chapters of the manga to date. The City Security employees are on another training trip in the middle of winter in the mountains... only this time Misaki and Iwata have actually gotten into trouble, getting lost in a blizzard and falling off a cliff, leading to her breaking her leg. Iwata, surprisingly, is being less of a retard than usual, possibly as he's devoting his cyborg body to keeping her warm. Most of the chapter is Misaki talking to Iwata and herself as she slowly freezes to death. We get a few flashbacks to her college days when she met Iwata... these are from her POV, so they're more accurate than Iwata's earlier ones. Most surprisingly, she notes that Iwata's sheer lovable goofiness drew her out of her shell and enabled her to make other friends. And she reveals that the chocolate on the pocky she gave him for Valentine's Day *was* homemade. It's a rather touching scene...

...which is then followed by the brilliantly hysterical ending. She only told Iwata this as his battery had run down and she figured he couldn't hear it. After being rescued by Shiouji and Ropponmatsu II, she's informed that he still actually heard every word... as did the doctor, who was listening in. Misaki begs him to erase Iwata's memories... which he'll do for the right price. This is great stuff in two ways. First of all, Misaki is perhaps the first female Shiouji has shown any interest in at all who isn't 9 years old or lower. It's not a romantic interest, but the mere fact that he's talking to her at all is something. Secondly, I love the way Rikdo handles the artwork. When Shiouji reveals that Iwata heard her confession, Misaki clearly turns bright red. But we only see this from the back, and barely on her ears. He draws her with her back to the reader the entire time, so we can't see her humiliated face. It works really well.

The rest of the volume is pretty much business as usual, with Elgala bringing back a bar of gold to pay back what she lost. It's questionable whether her Indiana Jones-style story is entirely accurate, though. Sadly, Il Palazzo is not happy with her for being AWOL, nor does he like her blurting out her internal monologue where she reveals she spent all his money. One of the oddest moments in the manga comes when he berates Elgala for losing sight of the mission, and tells her to look to Excel's example. This is the second time in two volumes that he's praising Excel. Excel's face realizes this, and looks very uncertain. (Poor girl, she's so used to abuse...)

Also, I note that this volume has Hyatt catching fire, in one of the more disturbing scenes to date. Excel and Elgala are both now wondering if ANYTHING can actually kill Hyatt. Of course, Excel has already shown herself to be hella tough... and we'll see evidence of her own quick recovery from severe burns in Vol. 20. As well as the end of this volume, where she and Elgala decide to please their lord by burning down and bombing a bunch of abandoned buildings and bridges that are there as the city is too lazy to tear down and rebuild. Luckily, they're only severely burned and in traction.

Also, at one point Kabapu calls Shiouji, and a cute perky yet utterly ditzy voice answers the phone. Once again, they give this the font of Ropponmatsu II. It isn't, but I can't blame Carl & Yuko for assuming it is. This is more foreshadowing, and we'll finally meet the owner of that voice in Vol. 12. Meanwhile, Vol. 11 is really funny. Check it out.

Monday, May 10, 2010

One Piece Volume 45

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

Technically, this is supposed to be a cooldown volume after the previous epic chapters of fighting. The crew is back at Water Seven, they've rescued Robin, and now we have some wacky shenanigans before they set sail once again. The trouble is, Oda being Oda, that this volume also casually drops in hints of the plot for the next 20 or so volumes.

First off, we have the revelation of Luffy's family. It's not really something that's come up before, and even Luffy hasn't thought much about it "I have a dad?" he says. But in a nice bit of juxtaposition, his grandfather is a Marine, his father is a terrorist - sorry, Revolutionary - and Luffy is a pirate. There's a great bit where Luffy tries to warn everyone off of attacking his grandpa, and some of his childhood training is revealed. Training from Hell.

Then we have Coby and Helmeppo showing up, taking the series right back to Volume 1. Those who follow the cover arcs knew that the two were under Garp, so it's not as much of a surprise as Luffy's parentage was, but it's still great to see. Coby tells Luffy about the second half of the Grand Line - called "The New World" - and indeed, the manga seems to feel as if it may have reached a halfway point here, 10 years into it.

The last of the callbacks we have are in the final two chapters, where Oda just goes all out in a giant "Where are they now?" reunion chapter. What I like best is it not only catches up with old characters, but tosses in tidbits we'd been wondering about. So yes, Vivi knows that Robin is a crewmember, and is OK with it. We see the mayor of Luffy's hometown, upset about Luffy's criminal activities, wondering if "Dadan" knows about this. (Who?) And we see Kaya, immediately rushing back to her studies so she can tend Usopp's wounds when he returns (if you know what I mean).

Of course, it's not just nostalgia. Mixed in with this are the new plot points that will carry the series forward. First off, the crew gets a new ship, courtesy Franky, and a new shipwright, also Franky. His joining the crew is not exactly a stunning revelation - after all, he had the multi-chapter tragic past flashback that is a prerequisite - but is welcome, as it had been 222 chapters since Robin joined. Franky will prove a SUPAA addition. We also get the new ship, which is twice the size of Merry, and has a lot of cool things.

Meanwhile, we catch up with Shanks, who has gone through several blockades to meet up with his fellow warlord, Whitebeard. Shanks being one of the 4 most powerful pirates in the world is not a surprise either - after all, Luffy will have to beat him to become the Pirate King - but seeing Whitebeard is a treat. He's huge, not in the way the Giants are, just in a "I am the largest human around" sort of way. He and Shanks have a disagreement regarding Ace's mission to kill Blackbeard, with Shanks noting that it could have repercussions that would be felt the world over. Ow! Sorry, the foreshadowing got in my eye! MY EEEEYYYYEEEE!

Surprisingly, our regulars are the ones with the least to do in this volume, with one or two exceptions. The biggest is Usopp, in a plot twist that is in-character but came as a big surprise to me. We were meant to sympathize mightily with Usopp throughout Water Seven, so seeing Zoro convince the crew that unless he apologized they would abandon him is a shock. However, Zoro's reasoning is dead on, and reminds us that Usopp's argument with Luffy was INITIALLY just his stubbornness and denial. The big reunion scene has a bit too many ugly tears for my taste (Oda draws tears and snot very realistically, but that doesn't make for attractive art), but is welcome nevertheless.

Likewise, Robin runs into Aokiji, and we get a confirmation that he's sort of in the Smoker category of Marines rather than the Spandam category. I was rather startled at his frank admission that he had assumed Robin to be suicidal. Actually, looking back, he was likely correct. Still, his comment that as long as she keeps moving forward, Ohara will live on is touching. In fact, it's about the last bit of touching we get from the Marines for some time. By the way, I note on the Bounty Posters that Robin's went up only a tiny amount. I suspect this is less from her being the victim and more that they're now giving her an actual bounty, as opposed to the fake "she sank six warships at the age of 8" one she had before.

And as the volume ends, Ace does indeed catch up with Blackbeard, and we find out he's eaten a Devil Fruit - one that grants darkness. How that battle ends will wait till next time. But man, what a packed volume. So much to take in. Awesome stuff.

Oh yes, because I got annoyed with Del Rey for it earlier, I feel I should get annoyed with Viz too. Previous volumes showed Tom's expression as "With a boom!". This volume has it as "With a bang!" Unless Viz is F-Troop, they should stick to one or the other. Continuity, people! Tsk tsk to Alexis Kirsch, Viz's credited editor of this volume! Yay to Viz for crediting the editor!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei Volume 6

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

First off, lest this review turn into another giant rant, let me point you to my review of Volume 5, here. Pretty much everything I said there still applies to this volume, which looks badly edited and slapdash. The contents page still lists the stories as coming from the chapters from Vol. 4 (and no, it's not a gag, the original Japanese has the correct listing), the continuity is still different from 1-4 (I've lost all faith vs. I'm in despair, etc.), and the endnotes, while more accurate this time, are chosen almost at random, with many, many references left simply unexplained. Del Rey, you knew it was going to be a hard manga to translate when you licensed it. Stop cutting corners. And list your editors, dammit!

Now that that's over with, let me sing in praise of this volume of Zetsubou, which is excellent and defies all attempts to mess it up. In particular, there's fewer chapters that require immersion in Japanese culture to understand them, and a lot more things that are universal.

Kumeta has found a basic template he uses for each chapter (excusable as this is at heart a gag comic, and plot and characterization are irrelevant): start with the class doing some activity, Zetsubou-sensei comes in to rant about the Topic Of The Chapter, and provide examples of it, culminating in a long list. There then proceeds a discussion among the class, usually giving some examples among themselves. Kafuka then comes in and twists or reverses the topic, which leads to a second set of examples and list on the reversal. And then things spiral into a chaotic ending, usually finishing with a quick one-liner by Maria. It works.

There's not quite as much of the character's quirks in this volume as compared to others, with the exception, of course, of Matoi, who is still visible behind Zetsubou-sensei in at least one panel per chapter. (Later volumes will show Kumeta tiring of this, and she'll become a more developed character. But for now, it's fun to try to track her down.) Nami only says "Don't call me ordinary!" once, and even Chiri only goes insane and murderous twice here. With one exception, the chapters focus on the cultural gags rather than the people in the cast.

That one exception is Chapter 55, which introduces one of my favorite characters, Ai Kaga. Unlike Mayo from Volume 5, who is fun but will remain a minor one-note character, Ai becomes a regular pretty quickly. Her quirk is also both very Japanese and yet also easily understandable elsewhere: she thinks everything is her fault, and is constantly apologizing. She even notes that she hasn't appeared in the manga before now as she knew if she did readers would lose interest. (She's right, she wasn't even in the background before, unlike characters such as Mayo or Manami.) In among all the class's attention hogs and egotists, she's very refreshing. And of course, matches up well with Zetsubou-sensei, who's also very negative about himself.

The main reason to read the manga, of course, is the humor. Not only are the observations dead-on, but there are little throw-away gags that also work great. When Zetsubou "dies" at the end of Chapter 55, we see him in his coffin, and note that Matoi is lying in state right next to him. The exam results that we see in Chapter 56's title page are actually in character, with Meru at the very bottom as she tried to text her answers, and Maria and Matoi right above her as they both "cheated" by leaving their seats (no doubt Maria was hanging on the ceiling and Matoi was under her teacher's podium).

And, to give Del Rey some credit, the dialogue that doesn't depend on references to 1980s video games or Japanese idol singers is rendered very well. It's a very smooth translation. The one thing that made me raise an eyebrow is in Chapter 54, where the original Japanese pun is untranslatable. The joke is that one girl's name is Kanako, and Nami jokes that if she married a man named Oba she'd be "Oba Kanako", which can be read as "big idiot." Del Rey give an endnote explaining this, which is awesome. But in the joke they used instead, Nami says if she married a man named "Lingus", she'd be "Kana Lingus". Now, I know this is rated for Older Teen, but seriously.

I do still recommend this manga as being a great example of what makes Japanese gag manga fun, as it's insane but not totally Bobobo-esque obnoxious. The characters are silly, the art is striking and gives you some great expressions (particularly Chiri's), and if you don't mind looking a lot of things up on Wikipedia as they aren't in the endnotes, it's a great example of Japan circa 2006. Watch for a lot of World Cup references.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Some thoughts on fandom and shipping

I had an interesting discovery on Twitter the other day, after I posed a question regarding how many anime and manga bloggers were hardcore fans of different series. Not as in 'I really like this series', but as in the fandom: fanfics, fanart, music videos, forum debates, and of course shipping.

The discovery was that there really aren't too many. I'm pretty much a blogger-come-lately when it comes to manga reviews, but I've been in anime and manga fandom for 15 years now, and wrote my first fanfics 14 years ago. (No, I won't give a link. They aren't exactly hard to find.)

Generally speaking, when I review something, I try to remain fandom-neutral, even when I adore a series. Oh, I'll occasionally mention that this volume of Negima has some great KonoSetsu moments, but for the most parts these posts are here to a) tell you if I like a manga or not (I generally do), and b) point out bits I found of interest. Fandom is a dangerous thing to have in a general review blog, as it invites strong opinions. Loud strong opinions.

With that introduction in mind, let me mention a couple of my fandom opinions:

1) You can ship a couple - ship them really hard - without ever wanting to see it get anywhere near canon. In fact, you'd hate it if it was canon. Not because 'they'd ruin it', necessarily, but because you KNOW it's not actually a romantic pairing - but you like to play what if. This is where I am with almost every single One Piece pairing I like, for example. I'm with Oda - they're all in love with Adventure. The only thing I ever want to see canonically in One Piece is Usopp/Kaya. And even then, only in the final chapter. But Luffy/Nami, Luffy/Robin, Franky/Robin, Zoro/Tashigi... sure, I love reading about it or seeing it drawn. But I don't want or need it in canon.

2) You can ship more than one contrasting couple at the same time, and not be betraying anyone. Let's take as an example Hayate the Combat Butler. It's recently had a rather nasty ship-related flamewar going on for months, due to events that the North American Market won't get for another year or so. I've stayed right out of it. Why? Because I like Hayate/Athena. And Hayate/Hinagiku. And Hayate/Ayumu. And yes, even Hayate/Nagi, though you're hitting the 'when she grows up' that one has to throw in. And no, I don't really want a 'Hayate gets all the girls in a giant pile o' sexings' ending. I just can contain multiple realities in my head at once. It's not that hard, honest.

3) You will never agree with anyone 100%. Even if (and this is rare) you agree with someone on every single ship in one particular fandom, they will violently disagree with you on some other anime/TV show/children's book. You can find someone who writes the bestest Ichigo/Orihime fics evar, and you rush off to their Fanfiction.Net profile to see what other fandoms they write, and... wait, they ship Zutara? Noooooo! What are they thinking?!?! Now I hate them forever!

4) It's not worth getting angry. I get that fandom involves strong emotions. You love your series. You love your characters. And yes, you love your pairing. And sure, I enjoy a good debate... for about 5 minutes. But if you're in Hour Two of trying to tell me why Naru's hitting Keitaro is criminal abuse whereas Motoko's is just her being tsun-tsun... I'm going to walk away. In the end, it's the thing you love, but it's a cartoon. Or a comic. Or a TV show. It's not worth any increase in blood pressure.

5) It's fun. I wouldn't have written fanfics on and off for 14 years if I didn't like thinking up cool things, and getting reactions from fans, and having them inspire more cool things. Sure, there's lots that I've written in the past that I consider to be amateurish or questionable today (hi, Ranma 1/2!), but it's also introduced me to most of my best friends. Fandom is, in the end, social. In fact, it can be a lot more social than a review blog. I love you all, of course, like brothers; but sometimes I need to just go off and ponder which girl Negi *is* going to end up with once he stops being 10 years old. All great stories inspire the imagination... and fandom is the outlet.

6) It's also insane and terrifying. I almost typed in a Harry Potter example above till I thought better of it. Phew! Bullet dodged!

One Piece Volume 44

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

First of all, I realize that warning about spoilers on my blog is laughable, as anyone still reading me knows I spoil everyone and everything until you want to beat me to death. Nevertheless, if you don't know how this volume ends, I'd advise not reading it. Really, if you come at it fresh, it will be amazing. And devastating.

Secondly, oh, that cover. Oda has been gradually increasing the fanservice as the series has gone on, with Nami and Robin's breasts getting larger every arc. Here, though, we see Robin reminding readers that her ass is awesome as well. Though she does seem to be angry with us for staring.

As for the volume itself, Robin is finally free. Woo hoo! And that means that Spandam finally gets his. Now, later on when they truly escape there will be a more serious takedown of Spandam by Robin, but I have to say I prefer the mass slapping at the beginning. He's such a loser that it fits his character more to just be bitchslapped to death. Speaking of Robin, I was impressed at how, once the Buster Call actually comes into full force, she's crippled with what may be post-traumatic stress disorder. She gets over it, but not right away, and it's a nice bit of realism for her character.

Kokoro being a mermaid is not particularly surprising in my opinion, but the signposts at least helped it not come out of nowhere and be a deus ex machina. The high point of the revelation, of course, is Sanji's reacting to seeing Kokoro. Poor boy, his dreams are crushed. Sanji, in fact, veers wildly this volume, as his character tends to do. On the one hand, we have this, and also his trying to glomp Robin and getting literally kicked out of the way by Nami and Chopper. On the other, his vanishing and closing the Gates of Justice was a stroke of genius. Clearly, women drag Sanji down. He needs to find an island of all men or something...

Luffy's fight, meanwhile, is taking forever. At one point, he seems to be down for the count, causing Sniper King, in a stunning moment, to remove his mask to yell at him. Sniper King is Usopp! Oh my God! To his credit, Usopp does deliver a great inspirational speech to get Luffy to stand once more. I do admit that I prefer the scanner's "It's not like it's Hell here" to Viz's "This isn't the afterlife", but hey.

By the way, One Piece is endlessly re-readable. So many throwaway gags in the middle of serious scenes. Sniper King stopping the attacking Captains with Usopp Noise, Zoro, Sanji and Luffy's V-for-Victory deadpan after using Luffy as a slingshot, the marvelous cameo by Ryo from KochiKame (these chapters appeared at KochiKame's 30th anniversary). And it's not just the gags... witness Luffy's final move, which is punctuated by flashbacks to everyone saying how horrible Robin is, and her screaming that she wants to live. The filmic qualities of this manga are stunning.

And then there's the final chapter. In many ways, this is the first major character One Piece has ever killed off that wasn't in a flashback. Even Pell got better. But Merry's last moments are just pure emotional rawness. When I first read this years ago, I was choking up. Years later, knowing it's coming... I still choke up. Iceberg talking about what an amazing life Merry lived... the flashbacks to her best moments... the pitch-perfect reactions of everyone (Luffy, Chopper, and Nami openly crying, Usopp trying poorly to hide it, Robin's single tear, Zoro and Sanji's stoicness)... it's in my Top 5 One Piece chapters. Fantastic. As others have noted, "I can't believe I'm getting emotionally attached to a BOAT!"

Technically, Enies Lobby ends here. The next volume is back to Water Seven, and is mostly a breather volume. Of course, being One Piece, the breather volume has more plot in it than 30 volumes of anything else.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Manga the week of 5/12

Via our friends at Midtown...

I'm not sure why it's shipping 2 weeks later than all their other titles, but it's great to see another volume of Karakuri Odette from Tokyopop. Odette is easily one of the best robot girls in manga. And I look forward to more of Asao being a grumpy cuss as well.

Viz has all their 'not Shonen Jump or Shojo Beat' mainstream titles this week, including the third Inu Yasha VIZBIG Edition, for those who didn't buy it the first time. Looking at the unread Vol. 2 sitting by my desk, I'm starting to get nervous. They also have another new series from Shonen Sunday, Maoh: Juvenile Remix, which sounds like it should be a sequel to a seinen manga called Maoh but isn't. It's about espers instead.

Yen has a whole PILE of Korean stuff, which I don't really pick up much of. Not that some of it isn't great, but I already get too much from Japan as it is. There's also a new volume of Black Butler, which I'm sure will join its brother on the NYT bestseller charts. Note to self: don't do that Black Butler drinking game where you take a shot every time he smirks.

And there's the debut of My Girlfriend's a Geek, which I suspect will sell a lot better than the literal title, My Girlfriend's a Yaoi Fangirl. Based off of a light novel, which in turn is based off of a blog. It's from Enterbrain, so naturally all bloggers will have to review it. I think it's in the blogger's code or something.

Twin Spica Volume 1

By Kou Yaginuma. Released in Japan as "Futatsu no Spica" by Media Factory, serialized in the magazine Comic Flapper. Released in North America by Vertical.

While I was reading this manga, I kept looking for the little things. The big beats, while not exactly bad, were fairly typical. Spunky cute girl with a tragic past and a dream. The sullen blonde who will presumably slowly be won over by our heroine's relentless niceness. The Hideously Difficult Academy of Culling. Betcha two to one she gets bullied.

This is, however, balanced out by so much that the manga gets right. The little things. The first one I loved was when the cute blond guy with no eyebrows gives her a walnut, telling her she'll need to build up her hand strength. It's something that seems like your typical 'meet cute' story, and the art does its best to make Asumi look tiny and fragile... but then we see Asumi blithely crush the walnut with only two fingers, barely looking like she's exerting herself at all. I love hidden depths in my spunky heroines.

Likewise, though at first it seems like a rather cruel way to get rid of 3/4 of your applicants, the test they get is really very clever and practical. Forced cohabitation with perfect strangers, trying to get through a necessary but utterly boring task, dealing with setbacks as things go wrong halfway... welcome to space flight, here's your rocket. And Asumi gets this right away. Man, I hope she's not a kid genius in addition to her strength and cute spunkiness. If she is, the bullying will be EPIC.

The other characters are introduced, but the first volume doesn't really give us much of a sense of them, being primarily devoted to Asumi. They're the big beats, as I noted. Childhood friend with a crush. Smiling laidback cute guy. Tomboyish girl with glasses. And, of course, the cool loner girl, who is screaming out 'redeem me!'. I'm pretty sure we'll see Asumi break her to friendship in future volumes, as one would a wild horse.

The other character who we get more of than merely setup here is Mr. Lion. A mentor isn't really that unusual in a manga like this. A mentor who's actually dead is rarer, but still only raises an eyebrow. A ghost mentor with the head of a stuffed lion, though, is impressive. We see him more in the two big short stories that come at the end of this volume (which apparently appeared before the series proper began), and learn that he was an astronaut on the fated Japanese space flight that ended in disaster and killed (eventually) Asumi's mother. Even he has his cliches (ironically, the volume of Zetsubou-sensei that also came out the week Twin Spica did shows the characters discussing how to have a dramatic death, and mentions the dead man leaving behind a hidden engagement ring), but for a ghost wearing a lion head, he seems very straightforward and practical. I like that in my mentors. (He's apparently completely written out of the live-action series they made of this. Bah. Japanese TV is not ready for lion-headed ghosts!)

The art can take some getting used to, but once you do, it shows off its moments of real beauty (check out the sequence with Asumi's mother on the boat, and the 2 pages after that.... just amazing). And Asumi manages to look cute, tiny, and not her real age without appearing to be drawn solely to appeal to loli fetishists, which I appreciate.

I can appreciate why Vertical is putting this out, there's a lot to get into here. I barely touched on the plot of the space program itself, which ties in with Asumi's sense of wonder which I anticipate will be the driving factor. The pages that sum up the volume best are at the end of Chapter 4, when we see the three exhausted girls sitting next to their completed domino stacks, right after the testers noted that no one was actually expected to really complete it. But they did it. Beat the odds. Get into space. Never give up.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gatcha Gacha Volume 2

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

In this volume we continue to have fun watching Yuri's perky desperateness, Motoko beating people up, and Hirao having a wonderful knack for saying exactly the wrong thing. We also meet Hanada, who is also on the Student Council with Hirao. She has a huge crush on him, and can also see that he's crushing on Yuri. This leads more to angst than anger, as Hanada has issues as she looks older than she is, so most people mistake her for a woman in their twenties. Assuming that Yuri ends up with Yabe, it would not be surprising if Hiroi ended up with Hanada as a beta couple prize.

Of course, this assumes that Yuri will end up with Yabe, which is not really an assumption one can make at this point. Yabe continues to conceal himself behind a facade of loser playboy. His true self occasionally shines through, but unfortunately, his true self is far more broken. Yuri, meanwhile, is still trying to learn everything she can so that she can be the bestest girlfriend evar! Or at least get Yabe to see her as a girlfriend. She can be annoying, but I will grant that she can also take care of herself. When the schools starts moving from pranks and humiliation to 'accidentally' punching her in the face, Yuri shows that she can bust jaws as well as anyone else.

It's probably a good thing too, as we learn that Motoko, for all her violent tendencies, is utterly unable to hit women. And this leads back to Yabe and Motoko's past - again. We got a glimpse of it in the first volume, but it was implied Motoko made all that up. Now we see that far more of it was true than false. And oh, what an epic past it is. I'd mentioned people read this manga for Motoko, and Motoko's past is one of the best parts. Here we meet Kanako, her sister who had health problems and died. Only now we find that Yabe was madly in love with her, and that she stabbed him as she was madly in love... with Motoko.

We also meet Motoko's rich and bitter grandfather, who does not get along with her at all. He seems to know what happened in the past as well, so at least we finally have confirmation about Yabe's stabbing from someone who *isn't* Motoko. She also lives in a mansion, something I should have realized looking at her last name. The 5-syllable last names in anime and manga tend to be rich. :) Kagurazaka-san is no exception.

And then we have Hirao, who is here throughout this entire volume, but does nothing, paralyzed with being unable to confess to Yuri and watching her throw herself at Yabe over and over again. (I will grant Tachibana this, she knows how to show the good and bad sides of being forward. Yuri looks positive and risk-taking, and also attention-seeking and desperate. Usually at the same time.). He's actually rather annoying in this regard, and you really have to smack your head at the ending, which leaves Yuri thinking that he's actually in love with Motoko. Motoko smacks her head as well.

This is pure potboiler, with lots of violence, broken lead characters, and not really much actual romance at all yet (something lampshaded by the author in her end comments). We still don't have the whole story, but at least we know the basics. Kanako and Motoko were sisters. Kanako was sickly. Yabe loved Kanako. Kanako loved Motoko. Kanako slept with, then stabbed Yabe. And then when Motoko slapped her, she ran off and collapsed, dying in the street.

Got it? Good, because that's not the whole story either. Stay tuned for Volume 3!