Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 14

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

Excel Saga has had increasing fanservice for a while now, but 14 is really where Rikdo goes whole hog and reminds you of his hentai roots. Between Excel and Elgala wrestling in a sewer drain to get a 100 yen coin, to the public baths scene, to their frantic escape and Elgala exposing herself to most of the neighborhood, this volume comes very close to smashing its T rating throughout. (My favorite exchange from this, as Excel puts band-aids across Elgala's (hidden from us) nipples and crotch: "Learn to be frugal, El. As long as those three points are covered, what more do you need?" "CONSIDERABLY MORE!")

In fact, Excel's frugality is really hammered home here, as she chooses to wash up at one point in a public fountain. This causes Elgala to break down into a sobbing heap, crying out, "In the name of humanity!" Excel, seeing neighborhood children pointing at the wet crazy lady, decides for once to go wild and spend money for... a public bath! And more fanservice, of course.

And that's not getting into the gore, which is almost standard now. After all, this is a manga with Hyatt in it. Their stove explodes, and the hideous blood-soaked walls and floor would make for grim viewing if we didn't know Hyatt would turn up fine later on. (This is lampshaded later on, where Excel and Elgala wonder what's happened to the missing Hyatt. El wonders if she's dead, to which Excel responds, "How can she be killed?")

Il Palazzo is entirely absent from this volume, but we do get one major plot point, as when the girls are separated at the public baths after being attacked/interrogated by Kabapu's team (Misaki is trying to get serious answers out of them, rather than arrest them; Iwata just wants naked girls), somehow they end up with Hyatt captured by the other side. This is especially amusing as she's now living at Watanabe's apartment, posing as his wife. Naturally, Watanabe is torn between pure joy and horrific angst that he is thinking perverse thoughts about his beloved (Sumiyoshi and Misaki both note he should grow up).

This does, however, lead to the most intriguing part of the entire volume, with Kabapu and Momochi discussing their captured prisoner. They note that she has memory blocks that have made it impossible to get any information from her head, which is interesting. Far more interesting is Momochi noting that "except for the memory loss, she appears to be a completely healthy woman." Wait, WHAT? This is HYATT they're talking about. She was just bleeding out heavily 50 pages ago! Something highly intriguing is going on here, although don't expect answers soon - Rikdo likes to throw these at us, then move on. Puzzle pieces that don't fit anywhere else.

In the meantime, Kabapu goes to a hot spring and gets caught up in a murder mystery. This is easily the weakest part of the book, serving only to show that he still has lots of influence over the city (and law enforcement in particular), and that he's also brusque, uncaring, and a bit crazy. The chapter seems to be parodying several types of detective series, but I didn't recognize anything but Columbo (and even that may have been adapted to Western by Carl Horn). I do note the 'treasure hunter' pictured reminded me a bit of Geobreeders.

Finally, we have Excel and Elgala on board the battleship. Yes, it's the return of Mr. Owner and Ms. Manager, everyone's favorite Matsumoto parodies, who are determined to turn this enormous instrument of death into a classy 5-star hotel. This is easily the funniest part of the entire volume, with Excel in particular boggling at Mr. Owner's hideously flawed logic. (For once, Elgala gets to play the snarky commentator, and notes how amusing it is to see Excel freaking out and trying to make people see reason.) Naturally, the boat ends up sinking, and Excel and Elgala are (again) captured by the JSDF.

This was a fun, action-packed volume of Excel Saga, but did not really do much to advance the main plot beyond Hyatt's capture. Presumably we'll see her rescue in Volume 15... and perhaps some other major changes as well.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Color of Earth

By Kim Dong Hwa. Released in North America by First Second.

I admit I don't read a lot of Korean manwha. The decision is mostly financial; I spend far too much money on manga as it is, and wanted to draw a line somewhere. I also rarely review things I don't have a pre-opinion on, as I don't get reviewer's copies, so am relying on things I've gotten myself. If I didn't at least like the premise, I wouldn't have gotten it. But it's roundtable time, and so I picked up the first volume of Color of Earth, a series I'd seen at bookstores but never really paid attention to.

It's certainly a handsome and well-presented volume, and I've no issues with the translation. The art is gorgeous, and one of the main reasons to pick it up. As the entire book seems to be made up of similes comparing men and women (and their body parts) to various plants and flowers, it's appropriate that the backgrounds should be overflowing with blossoming and flowering trees, shrubs, and bushes. Our two heroines are also quite pretty, although I think that the artist overdoes Ehwa's 'demure blush' looks a bit.

Likewise, much of the dialogue is poetic, and it's worth reading aloud at times to get into the flowing lyricism of the words. Ehwa's mother in particular is fond of teaching Ehwa like this, almost via parable. This can also be frustrating - there are many times when I wish Ehwa's mom would simply set her down and be blunt, rather than another elliptical speech about gourds. Most of the time, though, it helps to add to the mood of the book, which is relaxed and nostalgic.

Perhaps a bit too relaxed. It took me forever to finish this volume, mostly as there was little sense of urgency to it. Even in the climax, which Ehwa running for the train and then being spotted by her unfortunate first crush, it's almost like we're seeing the whole thing through a filter of gauze. I have similar problems with Mushishi, which I noted in an earlier roundtable review. This manwha meanders, and while this too helps to evoke the mood, it can also put me to sleep when there's nothing going on but Ehwa mooning around and thinking about her loves.

I can't really go on about the sexual politics too much, of course, as this is meant to be a historical book, and this is pretty much what Korean women were supposed to be like at the time, I'm led to understand. I will note I was irritated at the character of Bongsoon, who seemed to be there merely to show how much more demure and maidenly our heroine is.

Lastly, an irritation that is not the author's fault. In famous works of the past - say, a collection of Little Orphan Annie cartoons, or an early Tezuka collection - I don't mind an afterward with someone else providing context and showing how influential the work is. However, the afterword here grated on me, as it seemed to be trying to convince me after I'd read the book that this manwha that came out only a few years ago was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I didn't really like it in Pluto either, although that one was less self-serving. But come on, I've already got the book and read it - don't sell it to me again. Let the work speak for itself.

This is a very pretty book, both in terms of its prose and its art. But its pacing didn't really grab me, and I don't think I care enough about what happens to Ehwa to get the other two. I'm guessing she ends up happily married in the end.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Zaregoto Book 2: The Kubishime Romanticist

By NISIOISIN. Released in Japan by Kodansha. Released in North America by Del Rey.

The concept of the 'unreliable narrator' has been around for ages. Arabian Knights uses it, and Agatha Christie made it famous. But NISIOISIN, the author of the Zaregoto series, really does try to take it to a whole new level. Usually the author sets rules when using such a thing, such as never actually lying to the reader, but merely omitting things that would make the deceit too obvious. Not here. Ii-chan, the narrator of this series of 'mysteries', outright lies to us several times throughout the book.

I put the word mysteries in quotes because not only are the mysteries in this book fairly easy to solve, they're never the point. You're not trying to figure out who the murderer of the cute girl here is - it's fairly obvious early on. Likewise, the serial killer going around at the same time is introduced on Page 1. And unlike the first book in this series, The Kubikiri Cycle, Ii-chan himself is not the entire mystery - we already think we know what to expect from him.

We get it, to a certain degree. Once again, whenever talking with Ii-chan, every other character spends pages and pages talking about what a horrible person he is. Since the narrator is compared throughout the book to a mirror, the deeper thematic meaning is clear, but his willingness to accept any insult, analysis, and one-liner thrown back at him can get very annoying. Ii-chan is meant to be frustrating, and I suspect the point of the entire series is getting him to actually be proactive, but I wouldn't blame people who can't stand listening to monotonous philosophy and dialogues to get there.

There is a certain ponderous nature to the book, partly because Ii-chan is that kind of person, but it extends to everyone else. There's no urgency anywhere in the book, with two exceptions which I'll get to in a minute. The narrator walks around a lot, has conversations with people (that go on and on, usually about what humanity is and why Ii-chan is so far away from the ideal of it), and tries to exist on the periphery. There are several people (including Aikawa Jun, from the first book) who are noted as being far more interesting and 'lead character-ish', but we barely get glimpses of what they're doing. Indeed, Ii-chan notes that he's not even a sidekick, just the comic relief. He said similar things in the first book.

This is total garbage, of course. The star of these books is definitely him, something that Aikawa points out when they have their 'if I could just clarify one more thing' conversation at the end of the book. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene at the 'prison-themed' restaurant with Mikoko, and in Muimi's apartment. Ii-chan, in his narration, tries to make the reader think he is the ultimate in ambivalence (sometimes it works - he can be very boring). But here he can't keep up the pretense. Seeing his anger in these two scenes is startling - he's almost completely out of control, even though he's speaking the same as he always does. They're the best two scenes in the book, as you really sit up and take notice of just what kind of person Ii-chan is. Or at least you think you've gotten closer to finding it out.

This book is hard to recommend. It consists almost entirely of characters talking at each other, it's filled with ponderous philosophizing, and the narrator can make a man want to throw the book against the wall at times. But I still found it very difficult to put down, and some of the sequences were simply brilliant. The first book was put out by Del Rey two years ago (I may have to go re-read it now), and there's no sign of the 3rd - Japanese novels have tremendous difficulty selling here. Still, I'm pleased that Del Rey took a chance with this series. As an unreliable narrator, Ii-chan leaves Kyon in the dust.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

License Requests: The epic multi-volume impossibilities

There are many reasons that a title is not licensed here in North America. It's viewed as difficult to sell; it has content which is acceptable in Japan but questionable here; the artist has demands the publisher cannot meet; the price tag the Japanese publisher asks is too high...

And then there's just that no one wants to license something 100 volumes long. Japan's classic, epic masterpieces can go on... and on... and on. If you license a 5-volume series and it doesn't sell, that's merely a poor return on investment. If you commit to a series with 50 volumes or more... it had better be able to print money.

So let's look at the longest series, by volume (according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia), and see what they are and why they're so beloved, along with why they would (or would not) do well over here.

1) Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen-mae Hashutsujo, aka KochiKame. The big one, folks. This is 170 volumes long, and still running. It began in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1976, and likely will only end with the retirement of the author. The title translates to This Is The Police Station In Front Of Kameari Park In Katsushika Ward. I suspect, were it ever to appear here, it'd just be called KochiKame. KochiKame is a standard gag manga, revolving around a goofy middle-aged cop, Ryotsu. He's easily recognized by his distinctive eyebrows, which look like a McDonalds sign in the center of his head. (A recent volume of Gintama parodied his eyebrows, and he also appears in a cameo towards the end of Enies Lobby in One Piece.) The manga revolves around his police duties, his money-making schemes, and his overindulgences.

With its utter lack of romance, serious action, or car chases that go on for chapters, this is not exactly made for North America. If it ever were licensed here by Viz (it's a Jump title), I could see it being a best-of omnibus a la Oishinbo. It's fairly episodic. However, more likely it will remain Japan's most beloved cop unknown in these parts.

2) Golgo 13. Ha! Tricked you, this *was* licensed. Twice. However, both Viz licenses were for omnibus best-ofs, a very sensible way to go. Viz's was, in fact, incredibly well handled. The original, of course, debuted in the pages of Big Comic in 1969, and still comes out today, 154 volumes later (and counting). In case you were unaware, this is a very serious adult manga about a professional assassin. It too has no romance (bar Golgo 13's loveless conquests), but it certainly has plenty of action. The latest anime version is being released here soon; if that takes off, perhaps Viz might release a few more best-ofs.

3) Dokaben. This is the first one which is actually a trick volume question. Technically, this is four separate series, running 48, 17, 52 and 34+ volumes respectively. In actuality it's all the same cast and plot, so it totals up to 151 and counting. It's run on and off since 1972 in Akita Shoten's Weekly Shonen Champion. A Dokaben is a type of bento lunch, by the way. As for why it's not licensed, the reasons are endless. The art is 'old-looking' and caricaturish, and most of all, it's a baseball manga. Maybe if Cross Game sells as well as Naruto... nah, probably not even then. Still, it's well known enough to be namechecked in one of the Scott McCloud books.

4) Cooking Papa. A classic title from Weekly Morning, Kodansha's top-selling men's magazine, this has been running since 1984. About a salaryman who cooks, this is pretty much a classic food manga, a staple of many Japanese men's manga magazines. He's got a lantern jaw, and actually looks kind of like the square-jawed Batman of recent DC animated series. He is, of course, a sweetie pie in reality, who loves his wife and daughter and loves to cook for them. The recipes (and yes, they are included within) are simpler and more 'down home" than in the more exotic food mangas, but then this is meant to be basic comfort manga. I don't really see it getting licensed here, though, unless Kodansha USA want to do a best-of.

5) OK, technically 5 is Nijitte Monogatari, a manga that ran in Shogakukan's new magazine Weekly Post. It's 110 volumes, and I can't find any information on it. If anyone knows any, you can post in comments. :) So I'll go with Oishinbo, which... hey, has been licensed here in a best-of omnibus! From Shogakukan's Big Comic Spirits, this is of course the story of a grouchy food lover and reviewer, Yamaoka, and his relationships with both his estranged father Yuzan and his cute and sensible co-worker (and later wife) Yuko. But really, it's about great food, lovingly depicted. Like Golgo 13, Viz did a bang-up job with the 7 volumes it released here, and the series was much beloved by bloggers, if not so much actual buyers.

As you can see, none of these series are completely unlicensable. (Well, OK, maybe Dokaben is.) With the right selling point, and a relatively continuity-free series that can be dipped into at random, you can make this not only work but work well. I'd certainly buy a 7-volume best of KochiKame. How about the rest of you?

Frank Zappa - The Fall 1977 tour

Zappa geekery warning. Also, Zappa warning in general, as I know some find him offensive.

At the end of the Winter 1977 tour, Eddie Jobson left Frank's band to form the supergroup UK with Bill Bruford and John Wetton. Likewise, Ray White left the band at the same time to pursue other interests (he would return in 1980). This left Frank with only 2 band members - his rhythm section, Patrick O'Hearn on bass and Terry Bozzio on drums. Clearly it was time to hire some new band members.

Frank was busy putting together an album from the Winter 1976 NYC concerts, and hired percussionist Ed Mann to do some overdubs. He hadn't had a percussionist in the band since Ruth Underwood, but in Ed he found the only other one he would ever hire. Ed was in Frank's bands, on and off, through 1988. Meanwhile, Frank,. Patrick and Terry, along with engineer Davey Moire, recorded a bunch of very silly dialogue for a project tentatively called Läther. He also went to a bar in Nashville and saw Adrian Belew playing in a band, and after a raucous audition, followed by a much quieter one, he hired him to replace Ray. Meanwhile, Ed Mann recommended Tommy Mars as a keyboardist, who he'd worked with in Connecticut; at the same time, former Zappa keyboardist Andre Lewis recommended Austrian Peter Wolf, who had emigrated the year before to play jazz. Frank ended up hiring both, and he'd have two keyboard players for years after that.

(Note: as many get confused, Peter Wolf is not the same Peter Wolf who is in the J. Geils Band. However, it *is* the same Peter Wolf who was the producer/arranger of We Built This City, Sara, Who's Johnny, These Dreams, and On My Own. In case you needed an infusion of 1980s just now.)

With his new band, Frank set out on a tour of the United States, starting in Tempe Arizona on September 8, and ending in Los Angeles on November 20th. This includes a legendary 6-concert run at the Palladium in New York City, whose madness would only be topped by the 1978 band the following year.

Here's a breakdown of the typical Fall 1977 setlist. If I've already discussed a song in my Winter 1977 post here, I'll direct you to those remarks, though I may note any differences between tours. This is unofficially called 'The Sheik Yerbouti tour', as much of the album came from this tour and the following Winter 1978 one.

Flakes intro - an instrumental version of the 'Bob Dylan' portion of Flakes is used to open these shows. See my post on Flakes below.

Peaches En Regalia - see previous post, but note that this version has Tommy and Adrian sing the final 'verse' in an acapella falsetto, with occasional cat growls.

The Torture Never Stops - see previous post. Note that Frank's Fall 1977 Tortures are really sublime, and he's really coming into his own as a guitar soloist. He's still playing a solo with this band, rather than attempting mini-spontaneous composition as he would with the 1980s bands.

Tryin' to Grow a Chin - see previous post. Still a Bozzio vocal spotlight. Though, as you will note, he doesn't so much sing as scream.

City of Tiny Lites - see previous post. Sung by Adrian, this is the version most familiar to people from Sheik Yerbouti. At the start of the tour, it was a vehicle for a Patrick O'Hearn bass solo, but about a month into the tour, Frank took it over as a guitar solo song. His solos here are OK, but Tiny Lites wouldn't become a stone cold Frank guitar classic until 1980 and the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression.

Pound for a Brown - see previous post, but note that now that Tommy and Peter are in the band, this becomes a major keyboard vehicle. Usually in this band it has Tommy taking the majority of the soloing, though both keyboardists get lengthy improvisations. Patrick also plays fantastic bass backing through this entire song, and many time I've found myself listening to him rather than the soloists. Frank initially took a guitar solo at the end, but see 'Conehead' below.

Bobby Brown - this is the debut tour for this Zappa favorite, and it pretty much sounds as it always has. It appears on the "Sheik Yerbouti" album. Around October Zappa would begin it by telling 'The Story of the Three Assholes', where he talks about interviewers from rock magazines who brought their girlfriends along to watch them interview Frank, then laid into him for writing sexist songs. Frank felt they were doing this so that the girls would see they were 'sensitive' and give them head later on. His response was this song (which is pretty sexist, I will admit), about a wannabe cool guy who sexually assaults girls in high school, is terrified by a sexual encounter with a strong butch girl where the tables are turned, and finally ends up happy as a gay man getting 'golden showers'. There's not much I can say in its defense except 1) hey, it was the 1970s, and 2) it was a huge chart hit in Scandinavia.

Conehead - An interesting oddity this tour. Frank was clearly an SNL fan, and had appeared as a musical guest in 1976. (He would return as host in 1978, but more on that disaster later.) He then debuted a song called 'Conehead' on this tour. However, it's nothing like the Conehead of future tours, and the one that appears on the album You Are What You Is. Instead, it's a spacey, bass-driven instrumental, with Patrick O'Hearn playing a very funky lick, over which Frank tears out a terrific solo. Frank really made his solos count this tour, and Conehead is always a treat. It gains its familiar tune and words in Fall 1978.

Flakes - Another tour debut, sort of. This Sheik Yerbouti song is about plumbers, mechanics, etc., mostly in California, who show up to do a job, tear everything apart, leave without fixing anything, then charge you a huge bill. Frank decided to write a rant called 'Flakes', which includes an amusing Bob Dylan impression from Adrian Belew. After Belew's contribution, the song comes to a quick end. In Winter 1978, it would gain a long instrumental coda, with an e-bow solo by Belew, and a band rave-up at the end. From Fall 1978 onwards, it would get the vocal 2nd half familiar from the SY album.

Big Leg Emma - see previous post. This was the song's final tour.

Envelopes - An 'instrumental' song with a convoluted history, Frank originally composed it in 1970, but never performed it with a band. He then gave it to Tommy Mars to perform on this tour. It started as a Tommy-led keyboard instrumental, but about 2 weeks in Tommy started singing juvenile sex lyrics in a high falsetto as he played, and Frank found this amusing. He'd keep doing it for the rest of the run, and into 1978. The song then goes into a 4-5 minute drum solo by Terry Bozzio. When the song eventually returns to setlists in 1981, it was once again a pure instrumental, and had no drum solo afterward. This is the version that appears on the Ship Arriving Too Late To Save a Drowning Witch album.

Disco Boy - One of the few songs Frank ever performed that he debuted live *after* it had appeared on an album. He's toyed with the guitar riff on the Winter 1976 tour, but this is the first appearance of Disco Boy proper, as seen on the Zoot Allures album. The song is a typical dumb rock anthem a la Dinah-Moe Humm, written for the kids in the audience to mosh to. The plot involves a teen going out clubbing every night, looking cool, trying to hook up with a cute girl, watching her go home with your best friend, and going home alone to jerk off. It's a classic tale of the disco years. Frank, aware how dumb it was, would frequently scream out "Rock and roll!" after the instrumental break. The audience, of course, would go nuts.

I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth - Winning the 'most offensive title' award handily, this piece is actually an instrumental, and quite a beautiful one at that, featuring a keyboard solo by Peter Wolf. It debuted in the Christmas 1976 concerts. The title itself comes from a lyric in the song 'Punky's Whips', which I shall discuss later in this post. Frank also sometimes called it Läther, and it appears that way on the Läther album. It appears with the IPNTCIYM title on the Zappa in New York album.

Wild Love - This is the big one, folks, and *the* number one reason to get a tape from this tour. This may surprise people who have only heard the Sheik Yerbouti version, which cuts off at 4 minutes after the vocal intro, which is just another boy-meets-girl song. But after the intro when played live, the band would start to solo. And solo. And solo. Some of the Wild Love performances clock in at half an hour or more. We'd get solos from the keyboard players, from Ed Mann, and from Adrian Belew. Then we'd get Frank, whose solos got more outrageous as the tour went on, and are almost a separate song of their own. A good example of this can be found on the Trance-Fusion album, where Frank's 10/28/77 early show Wild Love solo is included as 'Bowling on Charen'. Improvisational heaven right here.

Titties 'n Beer - see previous post. Frank has now removed the 'Chrissie puked twice' verse that was written for Bianca, making the song about a minute shorter. Terry still isn't very good at improvising when compared to Frank.

Dance Contest/Black Page #2 - After TnB, Frank would usually try to get the audience worked up a bit by working in 'audience participation'. In smaller halls, this just involved trying to clap along with the instrumental composition Black Page #2, which was named by Terry Bozzio after he observed that the piece was so complex that you could not see the white space in the sheet music for all the notes Frank had included. The audience would try to keep a 4/4 beat going while the band played the song's weird rhythmic structures. In later shows that had larger halls, Frank would get some audience members to get on stage and dance to the song - but the dancers couldn't dance to the 4/4 beat, they had to dance to the weird rhythm. A lot of fun. Black Page #2 appears on the Zappa in New York album in this form.

Jones Crusher - see previous post, but note that this is the more familiar version I mentioned there, with Adrian Belew on vocals, and no guitar outro.

Broken Hearts Are for Assholes - see previous post.

Punky's Whips - another tour de force for Terry Bozzio on vocals, and a song that seems simpler than it actually is - it's quite difficult to play. The song is about Terry's obsessive love with the lead singer of the 70s hair band Angel, Punky Meadows. Terry exhorts all the things he'd like Punky to do to him, then reminds us that he is not at all gay. The song has a very fluid sexuality which I find makes it very much of its era. It typically ends with a fiery Zappa solo, and is typically the final song of the 'main' set.

Dinah-Moe Humm, Camarillo Brillo, and Muffin Man - see previous post.

San Ber'dino - A classic from the One Size Fits All album, this was played by the 1975-1976 bands, then revived for this tour. It's performed very well, with terrific energy, and usually sends everyone home with a smile. The song itself is about a teen getting jailed and having to spend several days in 'Tank C' - something which happened to Zappa himself in the early 60s, after being busted for making 'pornographic materials'.


This tour is a fan favorite, and rightfully so - I'd nominate it as being one of Frank's top 5 tours. Great musicians, a fun setlist, and some awesome solos.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Manga the week of 6/30

A particularly busy week for Midtown, especially for a Week 5, traditionally a time when few titles drop. Tokyopop's new end of month schedule, though, means we get a pile now that they're back in the groove. (Bless them for this, by the way; 3 years ago, they shipped the same week Viz did. It was hell.)

Let's start with Tokyopop, who have the most coming out. More of my favorite comfort manga from Hakusensha, this time around it's Maid-sama and Happy Cafe. I don't follow NG Life, but I hear good things about it as well. Meanwhile, for josei fans, Suppli has returned, with a 2-volume 4&5 combo for... well, twice the price. Still, it's out! There's some mangas that take genre and tweak it a bit, with Zone-00 (runs in Asuka, so technically shoujo) and Foxy Lady (runs in Comic Zero-Sum, so kinda josei). And of course there's Samurai Harem, a title just as tasteful and refined as Monthly Shonen Champion, the magazine it oozes in. Erm, runs in, I mean.

Oh look, Kodansha USA have the 2nd Akira volume out! I am assuming, like Vol. 1, this will be the Dark Horse edition only with the words 'Dark Horse' replaced with 'Kodansha'. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Digital Manga Publishing will have the final volume of Millennium Prime Minister, a not-quite-yaoi-but-has-lots-of-tease title that typifies the magazine it runs in, Wings. Meanwhile, in DMP's actual yaoi titles, smirking blonds wrap their arms around cowering brunets. (Which, to be fair, you see a lot of in shoujo as well.)

Del Rey has a welcome license rescue, as we see the final 2 volumes (in one omnibus) of Samurai Deeper Kyo, late of Tokyopop. I lost track of this series about Vol. 5 or so, but it has quite an enthusiastic fandom, so I welcome its return. I already praised Moyasimon earlier today, see my previous review. Fairy Tail will continue to torture Erza, presumably. And a mere 2 years after the first novel, we get Zaregoto Book 2, featuring one of the most fascinating and frustrating narrators I've ever read. If you want to read a book narrated by a diffuse cloud, this may be the one. But a RIVETING diffuse cloud.

And saving the saddest for last, the final CMX titles. I've praised Teru Teru x Shonen before, with its great tale of ninjas and romance, as well as its rehabilitation of its misunderstood (and fiery) heroine. It has 4 volumes never released here now. Stolen Hearts took the mangasphere by storm with its adorable couple when it appeared earlier this year; this is the 2nd volume. The series is still running in Japan, Vol. 5 is due out later this month, I believe. And Orfina ends here with Vol. 8 of 12, another shonen fantasy that CMX liked to put out that never got as much chatter as their shoujo. We'll miss you, CMX. We're still annoyed at you, DC. How about some digital downloads of the remaining volumes for your new digital enterprise, huh?

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture Volume 2

By Masayuki Ishikawa. Released in Japan as "Moyashimon" by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Evening. Released in North America by Del Rey.

It seems like it's been forever since the first volume of Moyasimon hit stores last September, and it may be forever till we see Volume 3 (which isn't listed on Amazon, and which one bookseller has shipping in April 2011). But for now, we have this volume, and it was well worth the wait, as it's terrific.

There's no real ongoing plot per se, as it's still just seeing the wacky adventures at a Japanese Agricultural college. The joy is in seeing the characters bounce off each other. The deadpan reactions to chaos, meeting the school beauty and discovering she's just as weird as the rest, attempting to survive the school festival, and of course desperate attempts to earn enough money to get an aphrodisiac.

That last one is especially odd as so far, there's been no romance in this series, nor does it look like there will be in the foreseeable future. Sure, there's nice-looking women - in fact, the author really seems to like drawing them, whereas the guys tend to be far more sketchy - and you get the feeling that Tadayasu and Hazuki might make a nice sweet couple if they ever felt that way about each other, but in this volume, you got the feeling that the guys were trying to win the aphrodisiac more for sex as a mythical beast than due to actual desire. Which is likely why Hasegawa held them in such contempt.

Aoi Muto is introduced here, though we still don't quite have much of a sense of her yet. Clearly she's very pretty, and we hear the backstory of how she ended up 'avoiding reality'. And she and Hazuki do provide some fantastic drunken yuri tease, which I'm sure inspired some doujinshi when first seen. Still, she gets more to do than Kei, who takes a leave of absence about 1/3 through this volume for reasons unknown to us. Kei's role was mostly to tell us about alcohol and be a straight man to the wacky antics, but Tadayasu and Hazuki both fill the straight man role anyway, so he was pretty superfluous. I can only hope when he returns, he'll be more interesting.

(That sound you just heard was the anvil I just dropped. You're welcome.)

The original Japanese volume had little character profiles and asides in the margins, which are reproduced here. Much to my surprise, the asides about halfway through start to walk about Moyasimon being released in the US, how they think it will sell, what manga Americans read, that sort of thing. I can only imagine that it was written especially for this volume, and it's fantastic. I love seeing authors interact with their readership, and Del Rey gives this author a unique voice in which to do so.

In fact, the whole volume is well done. All the little niggly editorial issues I've had with Zetsubou-sensei, another Del Rey title, don't apply here at all. The translation is smooth and flows freely, even in the long, long lectures that take up much of the book. There are fewer notes required, but they're either in the endnotes at the back or the author explains them in his margins. And the redesigned cover is cute and stands out. If this is why each volume takes so long to mcome out here, I can put up with a wait.

With a lot of terrific humor (and, frankly, a lot of lecturing about microbacteria - you have to put up with the science lectures if you read this manga), funny characters, beautiful women, and just plain silliness (one chapter is told from the POV of the microbes, bitching about a recent disinfection that wiped out many colonies), this is a terrific Del Rey title and great example of seinen. I really hope it sells well enough for Del Rey to keep putting it out. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gatcha Gacha Volume 5

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

This review is utterly filled with spoilers for this entire volume.

Having teased us for four volumes, this is the one where most of the plot guns are fired off. We left off last time at the culture festival, where Yabe ran into a girl who looked just like Motoko's dead older sister Kanako. But... Kanako's dead, right? After all, Motoko would never lie to us! Motoko, sadly, is AWOL, cutting school to try to figure out what's going on, while Yabe continues his clean-cut look, an obvious sign that he's not over Kanako at all.

This volume, as with all of this series, lives and dies by its four leads. Yabe, knowing that he'd be better off with Yuri but also knowing that means very little to him. Hirao, still trying to make Yuri happy while being unable to tell her of his own feelings. Yuri, pinballing from one emotional extreme to another as she ends up sobbing by the end of the volume (and we're reminded of Motoko's warning to Yabe, "You're gonna make Yuri cry in the end. 100% guaranteed."). And Motoko, doing what she does best: playing the villain, hitting on attractive women, and doing her best to protect Yuri from the inevitable.

Surprisingly, Kanako actually plays a large part in this as well. She knows that she has amnesia, and can figure out fairly quickly that Yabe and Motoko are connected with her past. But she doesn't, at first, want anything to do with it. Considering how Tachibana portrayed her in the past volumes, it's very odd to see her handled sympathetically in this one. After all, her past involved incestuous jealousy and attempted murder. Why would anyone want her to get that back?

My favorite scene in the volume is probably when Motoko - after 3 tries in previous books - finally tells everyone the truth of what happened with Kanako that evening when she "collapsed", and how the entire family conspired to "kill" her. Yabe is, understandably, furious, and punches Motoko to the ground with a right cross. One can argue about whether or not Motoko deserved this, but the telling part is Hirao's inner narration - Motoko played up her nastier side to get herself hit, as she hated herself for what they did. But again, I could spend several blog posts just analyzing Motoko.

This all comes to a head in the finale of this volume, where Kanako is kidnapped by the gay street gang that is after Sekine. By now Sekine has become a secondary target, and their main goal is to beat Motoko and Yabe to death, by any means necessary. (As I noted in Volume 3, this series is not known for its tolerance of gay men, or writing them as anything other than crappy cliches. It's a major fault.) Unfortunately for them, when they knocked Kanako out to kidnap her, they also provided the impetus for her memories to return.

Interestingly, she's NOT immediately psychotic and evil again, as her 'new self' is fusing with the old, and her mind flashes back to her treatment of Yabe, calling it into question. She's convinced he won't come to rescue her - after all, she did stab him - and when he does, she ends up confused and in tears, convinced that he's now doing this to hurt her. It's very well-written, and gives us hope for future volumes, even as she reverts to her Motoko-obsessed selfish self at the end.

So Volume 5 is over, and Yuri and Yabe lasted precisely two volumes as a couple. Yuri's curse strikes again! Of course, there *is* a non-bad boy who's in love with her. But he's a wuss. Will Volume 6 be the kick in the head Hirao needs to finally get his girl? ... Wait, no one cares about the guys in this manga (least of all the author, who notes this several times). What will happen with Yuri and Motoko? We shall see... In the meantime, this is probably my favorite volume of Gatcha Gacha to date, providing humor, drama, and tons of soap opera.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Children of the Sea Volume 3

By Daisuke Igarashi. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Ikki. Released in North America by Viz.

There's actually quite a bit going on in this volume of Children of the Sea, which surprised me as the feel of the book is that things are moving at a very slow pace. There's even flashbacks interspersed throughout, usually a sign that the author doesn't want the main characters to get where they're going quite yet. But here, it actually serves to flesh out Jim and Anglade, in preparation for future events.

I have the say, the more I see of Anglade, the less I like him. He's really coming off as a creepy guy, both in the flashbacks where Dehdeh points out that he'll be nothing but trouble to the current arc where he cheerfully wonders if Ruka will die, he's a character designed for ambiguity. And I actually feel a little bad for Jim, who spends most of the volume getting trashed for not thinking big enough and not doing enough. I'm still not entirely sure who 'the good guys' are here.

Well, we can always call Ruka one of the good guys. Maybe. She's still the audience identification character, which is bizarre considering everything she goes through in this book. After the climax of the last book she's still not quite all there, though she's convinced she has to go out to the sea with Anglade and Umi. (I swear, I'm starting to feel bad for her parents. Living with Ruka must drive them nuts.) She gets several stunning sequences where she's just swimming through the water looking at the ocean life, including one from the perspective of 'her soul' that's both stunning and intensely creepy.

She's still fascinated by Umi, but he's not quite himself either this chapter, having seemingly forgotten about Sora. Things aren't helped by Anglade, who makes Ruka doubt whether anything Umi feels for her is real or just in her head. (That said, there's a fantastic shot of Ruka and Umi on the boat holding hands that's really quite sexy. Ruka looks almost post-coital.) Of course, Ruka's need to understand Umi is the plot of Children of the Sea, so no doubt we will see more of this in the future, assuming she survives the cliffhanger. Well, OK, we saw her as an adult in the beginning of the series... way to spoil, Igarashi-san!

Much as I love the mood of this manga, and the art style, which is very distinctive, I have to admit that my eyes sometimes glaze over at the science. But I think that's merely my own disinterest rather than any fault on the part of the author. Certainly when the plot turns to mythology, such as the description of the world towards the end, the images evoked are riveting. I also enjoyed the cantankerous Dehdeh, introduced here, though I hope she'll avoid becoming the standard 'wise woman' from so much other media.

Really, I'm not sure it's possible to read Children of the Sea per se. You just have to let it wash over you and engulf you in its story. Like Ruka, we're trying to figure it out, fascinated and scared by some of the things we see... and trying not to drown. Haven't drowned yet, though, but I'll get another chance with Volume 4, which I eagerly await.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Vampire Knight Volume 10

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

Plot and continuity continue to be the main weakness of this manga, but I'm not sure it matters much when you have this much style. Much of this volume is taken up with big fights that don't actually happen. Yuki and Zero's confrontation is interrupted by Kaname, Kaien Cross's fights are either offscreen or aborted, Kaname and Zero are stopped by Yuki... and this takes almost 200 pages to happen. And yes, I'm still flipping to the cast list at the back constantly, trying to determine which brooding bishonen is which.

I was amused by the cover, which features the four main females of the series. Yuki and Sayori's pose is reminiscent of so many other shoujo (and boy's love) manga that I can only regard it as parody now, and luckily they have two cool-headed vampires to protect their yuri tease. Not that Vampire Knight has any yuri tease. But at least we have the cover.

The pacing is glacial in this volume, which, while a bit frustrating, also allows you to admire the artist's craft as she draws her gothic nights and sensuous killers. The last chapter was the most interesting to me, as it showed a flashback to the vampires' childhood and gives us the explanation for Ruka's crush. And no doubt it dashes the hopes of many fans by showing that Kain has a crush on Ruka, also unrequited. Silly Hino-san, keep your vampires ambiguously gay!

Meanwhile, I found the omake chapter with Yuki and Kaname's parents incredibly funny as well, if only as it was so utterly normal. Walking in the rain after school, grumpy tsundere girl, smirking teasing guy... and seeing them as lovey-dovey adorable parents makes you wonder how many of the other shoujo couples that we follow end up like that. (And then there's the last panel where Yuki says she wants her and her brother to grow up to be like her parents, but then if you're reading Vampire Knight you'll have come to terms with the incest by now.)

In my previous review I noted this was a series for people who likes to moon over attractive vampires, and that hasn't really changed. Nothing of consequence happens here besides everyone retreating and Zero saying that he's going to kill Yuki the next time they meet. Yeah, somehow I wouldn't bet on that. But Yuki still makes a better heroine than most, and the series still holds that guilty pleasure attraction.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Soul Eater Volume 3

By Atsushi Ohkubo. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialization ongoing in the magazine Shonen Gangan. Released in North America by Yen Press.

This volume of Soul Eater proved to be much better than the previous one. Then, I could only recommend it for the insane art-deco style art and backgrounds. Now I note that the characters seem to be developing, there's a great bad guy who's incredibly terrifying in places, and some of the battles actually hold my interest (a rarity for me; I tend to skim any fight in shonen manga).

That said, the art is still the best thing about it, but that's cause the art is really fascinating. As a brief example, check out the final page of Chapter 7, with Tsubaki and her brother squaring off inside the sword. The grinning moon, the shadow stick figures, the ground that appears to also be a sea... it all combines to give an utterly unsettling feeling, which is absolutely appropriate for this scene. Of course, the whole manga has a frisson of this, as the entire world of Soul Eater is slightly off, and you NEVER feel completely at ease reading it.

Some of the characters help there as well. Medusa is a fantastic villain, managing to give off that wonderful evil villainess vibe, and back it up with deeds. Possibly my favorite creepy moment was her grabbing the mouths of Erika and Mizune and sticking her fingers down their throats. It's utterly vile, and also foreshadows an even more utterly vile moment later. I can't wait for this woman to be taken down, though knowing shonen manga as I do, it may take a while.

I admit to being wary when I saw that the main storyline in this volume would involve Black*Star, who I found the most annoying of the main cast by far in the first two volumes. And he's still a bit annoying here as well, but he's starting to grow a little bit. We learn about his background, and some of what drives him to show off. More to the point, we begin to see what Tsubaki sees in him - which, since she's so sympathetic and likeable, is important to make the reader not think she's an idiot.

And for those who like Soul Eater's sense of goofy humor, the entire chapter about Excalibur will be right up your alley. I particularly liked the expressions of disgust in this one.

Soul Eater is still finding its feet, and I'm still not totally sold on it. But this volume was a big improvement, and it actually managed to hold my attention with something other than the artwork. I look forward to another.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo Volume 4

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

This volume of Bobobo is, like its predecessors, difficult to review. There's no plot as such, except 'defeat boss, move on to next boss'. There are technically characters, but they aren't going to grow or change. And there's no real subtext here. There's just the gags. Pure gag manga, unfettered by anything connecting it to reality. Gintama can get this goofy for maybe a page, but it has actual things going on. Jaguar and Kochikame are pure gag comedy as well, but those two are situational. In Bobobo, the situations bend to whatever the artist wants to draw next.

Anything can change to become anything else mid-panel. This is part of why I describe this manga as exhausting, and say it works best in weekly 14-page chapters. There's just too much thrown at you at once, and the volume is LOUD all the time. And there aren't even different gags. It's the SAME gag, repeated. Bobobo, Poppa Rocks or Jelly Jiggler will do something insanely silly and random, and another character (usually Beauty) will point out how stupid it is, usually with a bug-eyed look of shock.

So why do I keep reading it? Well, in a series with this many gags being thrown at you this often, some of them have to hit. And when Bobobo is funny, it just makes me laugh hysterically. As with everything else in Bobobo, I may not be able to explain why I'm laughing, but I know it's funny. Poppa Rocks' farting sheep, the incredibly silly backstory for Rem (a human with futon parents), All of Bobobo and Poppa Rocks' Super Fists. Best of all, a totally random gag where Bobobo unleashes tiny little clones of himself on Rem, saying that it's Super Fist of the Nose Hair Great School Trip. The tiny Bobobos all emerge grinning and shouting "Yaaaay, Kyoto!" This made me laugh almost till I cried.

A lot of this manga is simply the author mocking other Jump manga, particularly the older ones such as Fist of the North Star (obviously) and Saint Seiya. But you really don't have to know about them to enjoy Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo. You don't have to know much of anything. You just have to have a high tolerance for in your face comedy, and be aware that you're seeing 10 gags thrown at you every minute in hopes that one or two stick. They usually do.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Shinobi Life Volume 5

By Shoko Conami. Released in Japan by Akita Shoten, serialization ongoing in the magazine Princess. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

It's hard to review this volume without spoiling a few things, be warned.

This volume marks what I expect will be a big shift in the plot of Shinobi Life, as Beni makes the decision to run from her father by having her and Kagetora hide in the past. Unfortunately, this rather depends on her being WITH Kagetora, and she ends up losing her grip on him and ending up in the past all by herself.

Beni's impulsiveness has been one of the driving points of the series so far, and the author is very good at showing its good and bad qualities. I was pleased to see that, once she realizes that the Kagetora and Hitaki she meets are from the past, she stops acting and starts thinking, making excellent choices on how to deal with things. It also helps to show how she's attracting these guys - her kindness and warmth really shines here.

It's hard not to read this volume and try to make sense of all the time-traveling, though this is not helped by the author stacking complications on you every new chapter. I couldn't help but think of the Robert Heinlein short story "All You Zombies--", and wondered if it would turn out that every character in the entire manga is, in some way, Beni and Kagetora. I actually do hope that we stay in the past for a while, though I've no doubt we will move away a bit to find out what's happening with Kagetora the elder.

Trying to figure things out can also be a drawback, as you end up meeting new characters and thiking of them as plot devices rather than people. In an attempt not to do that, I will note that Renkaku reminds me a lot of Shigure from Fruits Basket in his goofy perv hiding a darker side, and dispensing very useful advice to others in times of need. He at least adds an element of humor to a manga that is, for the most part, pretty serious. This is more than can be said for Hitaka's master, Hachikuma, and his brother Toukichi. We don't see enough of them to get a sense of them as more than characters there to drive the plot along.

The benefit of this, of course, is that the plot is driven along. There's a lot going on here, and it's refreshing to see a shoujo manga moving at a fast clip. Even the introspective scenes, with Kagetora and Hitaka wracked with self-doubt, have a pacing to them that I really enjoy. It helps to make the book very difficult to put down.

The beginning of the book also features some of the present-day 'villains' attempting to control things, and you see how many people are driven in this manga by a desire to escape control of their parents. I still don't really like Rihito, but I do feel sympathy towards him after being verbally abused by his father for relying only on secondhand evidence. And as for present-day Hitaka and his threat to Beni, brrr. I get the feeling that the intervening years Beni is about to go through in the past are not going to be happy fun times.

When this first came out, I was leery of getting it, as it looked rather cliched. I was surprised to find that the first volume held my attention and was very good. I'm even more surprised to find that each successive volume has improved on the last. As of this volume, I'd argue it's one of the best shoujo manga being published in North America right now. I look forward to the next volume with much glee and anticipation.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Manga the week of 6/23

Getting pride of place this week (and next as well most likely) are the CMX titles. The last ones that CMX is releasing out of the goodness of their hearts and the realization that they were already back from the printers!

Venus Capriccio is great, and will be ending here with one volume untranslated. Two Flowers for the Dragon is cute, and will ALSO be ending here with one volume left untranslated. Volume 1 of the Flex Comics title Polyphonica Cardinal Crimson is due out... try not to get hooked on it, I guess. And Musashi #9 Volume 17 comes out, with 4 volumes left out in the cold. Buy them all anyway. Because we're CMX lovers, dammit, and we support them despite being a DC Comics enterprise.

Meanwhile, Bandai is releasing - I'm not making this up - Gundam-00 Season 2 Volume 2. No, that's not a Funimation DVD release, it's the actual manga title. Are Sunrise even trying anymore? Gundam-00 Season 2? Why not Gundam-11 then? Or Gundam-OMGLOLWTFBBQ? In any case, I hear it may have mecha in it.

Gantz has a new volume out as well for you folks who like a little bit of the ol' ultraviolence. Midtown Comics is putting out all the Viz stuff I already recced last week. DMP has some yaoi as well. I recommend How to Control a Sidecar, which features *three* boys snuggling rakishly on the cover, rather than the traditional two.

And, for non-manga fans, IDW is putting out a hardcover volume. Archie: The Best of Dan DeCarlo Volume 1. It's a $25 hardcover, but really, I want everyone in the entire WORLD to buy this, and then turn towards Mamaroneck, New York and shout as loud as you can, "My favorite artist is Dan DeCarlo!" And then settle back and enjoy this wonderful retrospective of your childhood (or at least of mine). For those wondering what the hell I'm talking about, here: Dan DeCarlo: Unperson.

Hayate the Combat Butler Volume 15

By Kenjiro Hata. Released in Japan as "Hayate no Gotoku!" by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

Generally speaking, when you have a comedic manga that runs for as long as Hayate the Combat Butler has (24 volumes and counting in Japan), you need something that lives and dies on the personality of its characters. Goofy situations are all very well and good, but if you're not invested in the people involved, it's not going to work. Thank goodness that Hata does not have this problem. Almost all the humor in this volume of Hayate comes from our love of the people in the manga, their quirks and foibles, and how they interact.

There is one new character introduced here, Fumi Hibino, who slides into the cast seamlessly, mostly by going through the same 'welcome to school' intro that Hayate did - she arrives for her first day to find Hinagiku up a tree after saving a cat. Of course, Hayate is a majestic Butler Hero, while Fumi is a complete airhead, so things don't go quite the same way. It's actually impressive that, in a series filled with girls who could technically be described as 'airheads' (Izumi, Isumi...), that Hibino manages to immediately make an impression.

In re-reading that last paragraph, I note once more how annoying romanization can be, in that it gets very confusing having an Izumi and an Isumi as major characters in the same manga.

In any case, there's tons of fun to be had here. Yukiji's surprising modesty when attacking the bear, Hayate and Maria's sauna adventure, the Nishizawa siblings' hilariously useless love advice, Hayate's response to Nagi asking him to praise her "talent" (shades of Sailor Moon in that very weird gag...), young Maria's crusade against lolicon porn (especially of herself), and a great final chapter featuring Hinagiku terrifying the entire cast with her attempts to be sweet and nice.

There's also a few character moments that are quieter, but no less powerful, and also tie into the overall plot. Isumi's fight against the bear, where you are reminded how hellaciously powerful she is. Her earlier discussion with Aika, and their discussion of the cursed stone that Nagi's grandfather gave her. Nagi and Hayate with the old model car, one of the few moments where the author gives Nagi a really sweet, touching scene with Hayate (she tends to act the brat a lot, let's be honest).

Best of all, we get a chapter with Hayate walking Ayumu home, then detouring to get her notes she left behind at school, which reminds you again how they really would make a terrific couple if this wasn't the sort of manga it is. In any other manga Ayumu would have kicked everyone else's ass, harem-wise. It's a tribute to how awesome she is that she's still in the running. More to the point, like Maria, Ayumu is one of the few people in the manga that Hayate actually regards as a possible girlfriend, as opposed to dealing with 'children' like Nagi and Isumi, or 'girls who hate him' like Hinagiku (lampshaded by the author in the last chapter).

For Hayate fans, this volume will not disappoint. Lots of comedy, a bit of romance, and lots of fake not-action. Plus you get to see Maria smile evilly while threatening people again. Who doesn't love that?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gakuen Alice Volume 11

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

When we last left our heroes, Natsume had been lured into a trap, and it was up to Mikan and the others to rescue him. They go off to do this, being occasioanlly stopped by mid-level mooks. Unfortunately, these scenes are probably the most boring of the volume, as the entire cast stand around for about 60 pages and argue about why they shouldn't be standing around. I swear, Mikan's real Alice ability is dithering.

There is one very amusing bit during all this, and as you'd expect, it involves Hotaru. Hotaru, who is wearing a creepy egg helmet, is battling Mook #1, who has wind powers and a particularly arrogant demeanor. He's jonesing to finish them off quickly, so he can get back to beating on Natsume, who he (like the rest of the school) despises. Then he breaks Hotaru's helmet, and finds out that she's a girl. Bing! True love alert! Of course, Hotaru wants nothing to do with him, but hey, it breaks up the monotony.

Luckily, Luca decides it's time to tell the story of his and Natsume's past, which is a good thing, as it's easily the better part of the book. Luca has the typical rich-kid caged-bird childhood that you'd expect, but I was surprised to see how... well, how normal Natsume was. Yes, he's still dour and grumpy, but in a far less "I hate life" way than he is in the current series. And then we see the reason why, which is the bond he shares with his sister Aoi. "Sister?" we say to ourselves. "Oh no..."

Yes, she's instantly likeable, she's cute, she's happy-go-lucky... she's doomed, isn't she? (She's also a lot like Mikan, something I'm sure that Tachibana is intending.) Sure enough, thanks to a trap planted by Persona (who has by now firmly established himself as the villain of this series, although I'm sure he'll get a touching flashback later on as well. That's the way these sorts of series roll. But for now, what a bastard.), Aoi and Natsume end up in a big amount of trouble... trouble that can only be solved by a) Natsume lying to protect his sister, and b) Natsume entering the Academy.

It's telling that the preview for Volume 12 shows Mikan screaming "What's wrong with this stupid school?", as she is meant to be the reader identification character, and most readers are likely asking themselves that as well. Despite the presence of occasional 'good' teachers like Narumi (and how good he really is is debatable), it's become clear that the Academy is more of a cross between a prison and a zoo, and that the ritualized abuse going on inside is definitely encouraged.

Still, this is what Tachibana does. Now that I'm reading Portrait of M&N as well as Gakuen Alice, it's becoming clearer... Tachibana likes to write hideously traumatic school situations, and then make comedic shoujo romance out of them. Obviously, Gakuen Alice is a big step up from the fluffier M&N, but still. One can argue that I've been complaining about the bullying more than I should, but it is essentially the plot. Mikan and company have to find out what made the school this way. Hopefully we'll see more of this in Volume 12.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bamboo Blade Volume 5

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

Once again, welcome to our love-letter to kendo. As this volume of Bamboo Blade shows, kendo allows you to do anything! You can use kendo to get better grades! Kendo can increase your self of self-worth! Kendo can distract you from the pain of your mother's hospitalization? Why not try kendo today?

As lampshaded by the author, Bamboo Blade is not a series to read if you want to read about guys. Neither Yuji nor Dan get much development here, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. Dan is there to be Miyamiya's morality chain, keeping her from snapping and killing everyone. (He really is quite good at it, sensing exactly when he needs to step in and cheer her up, and knowing just what to say. Acorn head aside, it's very clear why Miyamiya's love for Dan is not just a false front.) And Yuji... eh. Whatever.

But the girls, as usual, shine in this volume. Pay particular attention to Miyako. She's under considerable stress here, having to deal with her rabid rival/stalker Reimi, who's now going to all her meets armed with a camera and a leer. (Yes, that's right, Reimi's 'hatred' of Miyamiya is actually an intense crush... hands up anyone who wasn't expecting that. Anyone? Bueller?) She's still doing poorly in her matches, either letting her rage get the better of her, or winning by default due to not having an opponent.

And yet, she shows that she's the craftiest of the bunch. Kirino's plan to get Azuma interested in kendo again is good, but it can only go so far. What it needs are a few dark and foreboding threats. The amusing thing is that, despite her over the top dramatics, Miyamiya is exactly right. Likely just studying and having no life won't help Azuma at this point; kendo teaches self-discipline, which Azuma desperately needs; and really, a kendo scholarship *is* probably the best way to get into college for her. Of course, Miyamiya also thinks that she'll make a good slave, and starts ordering her to get juices and things. Aww...

As for the meet itself, it was cute seeing a small shy girl from the other school inspired by Tama-chan to continue kendo. Her resolve to stay or to quit wavers widely as the fights go on, just as you'd expect from a teenager, but there's no doubting her adoration of Tamaki's amazing kendo moves. (It helped that Tamaki was fighting Azuma, the only one in that room who's even remotely near Takami in terms of ability.)

I also liked seeing the coach of the other team, who is a hard-ass slave driver to his team, and knows that that may not be the best approach to take, but is driven to do it anyway. It makes Kojiro think about his own coaching style, and how he's pretty much been simply standing by and letting Tamaki's presence force the rest of the team to step up their own game. It's not a bad approach, but it's made clear that he really should be doing more, and is spinning his wheels by being lazy.

This is one of my favorite Yen Press books coming out at the moment. Sports comedy with a strong female cast, and lots of great set-pieces. It's not overly dominated by action or comedy. And it's deeper than it looks, too. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Toriko Volume 1

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

Weekly Shonen Jump is, of course, a magazine designed for young boys to read. The series are full of things young boys like, whether it's being a pirate, ninja, shinigami, samurai, or just the kid at school who can beat up all the other kids. That said, the magazine has a sizable female readership, both here and in Japan. And the editors know this. Most Jump manga have something that gives them a crossover readership, something that girls and boys will equally love. But then, on occasion, you get those Jump manga which are 100% designed for their demographic. Sometimes, you just need a dash of pure testosterone.

Enter Toriko, which has been running in Jump for two years now, and is probably its most popular new series. Theoretically, Toriko is about a vaguely futuristic world where animals seem to have mutated to become both ridiculously strong and impossibly delicious. Someone needs to be able to hunt down these dangerous animals and get them ready for the oven. Someone like Toriko, gourmet hunter! Together with the audience identification figure whose name I've already forgotten, they'll travel to the farthest reaches of the globe, fighting hideous beasts for the sake of cuisine!

The food, it has to be said, is a bit of a MacGuffin here, which is somewhat surprising given how much attention is paid to it. Toriko himself is eating constantly, his sidekick Komatsu is a first-class head chef (I had to look up his name; it's a sign of how irrelevant he is that he doesn't get an intro card like the other main characters), and nobody can stop talking about Garara Gators, Rainbow Fruits, and the like. And yet, the food is just a gateway into what the manga is really about, awesome visuals of huge creatures and Toriko hitting, slicing, and dicing them.

He really is a huge, hulking menace, and it's nice to see a Jump hero who we meet already at a very high level of strength. So many shonen heroes start off at the bottom, almost human level, and slowly build their way up over several volumes. Toriko springs forth as a demonic beast, and although we may get a flashback detailing his youth, it's clear why most animals in the world are terrified of him. This allows us to jump right into the action.

The art serves this type of manga well. The heroes are not really all that attractive, but they certainly are rugged (again, with the possible exception of Komatsu), their style being more influenced by Fist of the North Star than Kenshin or Naruto. Toriko always seems to be grinning rakishly, usually because he's staring down a 2-page spread of a gator or ape looking like it wants to eat him where he stands. The apes in particular are nasty suckers, and there is a great amount of detail given to their slavering jaws.

I will admit that vegetarians or animal rights activists will probably want to avoid this manga like the plague, even though Toriko makes a big point of never killing anything he doesn't intend to eat (he stuns the apes as their flesh is too tough for cooking). But for anyone who wants to see Shonen Jump heroes at their absolute manliest, taking on hideous creatures with an insane grin on their face, Toriko is the manga for you.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya 6

By Nagaru Tanigawa and Gaku Tsugano. Released in Japan as "Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu" by Kadokawa Shoten, serialization ongoing in the magazine Shonen Ace. Released in North America by Yen Press.

And here we have another volume of the Haruhi manga, this time finishing off the 2nd novel, and featuring the story Live A Live from the 6th novel. This is, I believe, the first manga volume to not only come out after the anime that North American fans saw before it appeared, but also after the novel itself, which Yen released in November 2009. As such, it's running at a double deficit. Triple for me - the 2nd novel is my least favorite, as I think it has Haruhi at her worst, with no redeeming qualities.

This is especially noticeable in the most notorious scene from Sighs, where Haruhi behaves so appallingly that Kyon actually moves to hit her. In the book, it's a startling moment, with an illustration devoted to Haruhi and Kyon facing off. Unfortunately, in the manga it's far too rushed, merely looking as if Kyon is feeling especially violent that day.

To contrast this, we have a great example of the manga fixing something where the novel was lacking. After this blow up, Kyon is reminded that he needs to stop Haruhi from getting angry/depressed enough to remake the world, so he goes in and basically says to her, "Let's do this movie, yeah!" It's utterly unconvincing. The manga, on the other hand, has him trying to think what would make more of an impression, and getting Mikuru to film a new promo for the movie (one without commercials) to air. This galvanizes Haruhi into doing a mega hyper voiceover, and all is well. It's the best moment in this volume.

The less said about Live A Live, the better. The anime took this story and turned it into the highlight of the entire first season (and possibly the second as well). Without sound, and rushed into a single chapter, it's just mediocre as all get out. And the cute side-story about Kyon's sister sneaking into the festival reeks of filler.

However, as ever we are redeemed by the larger original to the manga story, in which Haruhi and the others head to a lake that is rumored to have a Water God. For once, Haruhi doesn't seem to believe that there's actually something to this. So why is a boy missing, and why is the fog rolling in? The purpose of this story, besides creating a tense mood while tracking down the missing child, was to give Nagato some depth, and I thought it worked very well. It's especially nice to see Nagato acting on her own for her own reasons, as opposed to merely interacting with Kyon and doing what he says.

The manga has the same strengths and weakneses as the prior volume, and again I suspect will only be bought by hardcore Haruhi-heads. The next volume should be very interesting, though... it's the start of Disappearance, which is thought of as the best of the novels, and recently had a kickass anime movie filmed of it. Can the manga rise to its material and make it a trifecta of awesome?

Fairy Navigator Runa Volume 1

By Miyoko Ikeda and Michiyo Kikuta. Released in Japan as "Youkai Navi Runa" by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Nakayoshi. Released in North America by Del Rey.

We've been seeing a lot of Nakayoshi titles from Del Rey recently. They had a decent success with Kitchen Princess, and I think felt they could get a similar audience with these stories. Plus the artist on this series had already done well over here with Mamotte! Lollipop. A nice cute magical girl series seems right up there alley.

And it is nice and cute. The series knows its audience, which is to say girls of about 7 to 8 years old. (This is to say, what its audience SHOULD be. The rating on the back of the cover says Ages 13+, for reasons I can't remotely fathom. Maybe due to the violence, as we do see two characters get bloodied towards the end. I guess they have to note it, but really, it's losing them their biggest market, which is the 2nd to 3rd graders that Japan is marketing this to.)

The heroine is a 10-year-old spunky ditz, like many Nakayoshi heroines, but still very likeable - the niceness is meant to be her trait, not the ditziness. She worries about her grumpy best friend, who's been avoiding her lately. She wants to fit in and make friends. And she's promptly swept up into an interuniversal struggle and told that she's really a princess with magical powers!

So far this series has more of a Sailor Moon vibe than a Card Captor Sakura one, if only as she's not immediately given a male counterpart to get angry with and have spunky elementary-school crushes at. At least not yet, as the series introduces a couple of very good candidates for this role in Volume 1. However, it does show our heroine coming into her powers fast and dropping the smackdown on the villains.

In fact, the best part of the volume is the ending. After seeing her best friend kidnapped, and her two animal/human mentors beaten and bloodied, Runa calls upon her magic powers of whoopass and goes to town on the villain. She notes coldly that she won't forgive him, and the villain is clearly begging for mercy. And then she's called back from the brink, and reminded, basically, that magical girls don't kill their enemies with a cold fury. It's a great moment, making you realize that Runa is meant to only be 10 years old, and may not have the serene maturity many of her kind do. Of course, she recovers and bathes the villain in healing light of pure love. I mean, it is still a magical girl series.

This is pretty good at what it does. It's not spectacular, and there's nothing in it that makes me want to pick up the remaining 5-plus volumes. But then, I'm not an 8-year-old girl. For its target audience, this gives young girls exactly what they want. A normal girl who is promptly told she's a Princess and has a magical brooch that grants her awesome animal-oriented powers to beat up vague bad-guy creatures. Go for it, Runa.

Excel Saga Volume 13

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

And at last, we have the final piece of the Excel Saga puzzle, as our last major character is introduced. We've had hints as to her identity for some time now, but we finally get to meet Shiouji's mother, Miwa, in the flesh. And there's certainly a lot of flesh to meet. Rikdo is having to pay for gradually introducing more and more busty women, as he needs Miwa to be bigger than all of them. Her proportions verge on the unrealistic at times, even for manga. But her personality stands out just as much as her bosom.

Miwa is an unrelenting force on this manga. She's cleverer than her son, she knows a lot of answers but refuses to give them away... and she also used to be a shy and meek woman, and 'changed' after her husband disappeared 20 years earlier. There are many amusing fan theories about this. She makes everyone uncomfortable - her son, Dr. Kabapu, Umi. Heck, she even grabs Misaki and crushes her face to her chest. Misaki! Certainly she makes a more convincing evil mastermind than Kabapu or Il Palazzo, even without actually doing anything evil other than suggest she has secret knowledge.

Of course, Il Palazzo is stepping up his game as well. As we saw in the last volume, he seems to be letting the 'evil' personality (as opposed to his default 'deadpan' personality) take over, and now starts to actually do things himself, utilizing the awesome secret technology at his disposal. Appearing as a giant hologram over the entire city is a way to make them sit up and take notice, even if they think it's just a movie.

And speaking of secret technology, Kabapu finally decides the time is right to tell his team the big picture. That's right, we finally get backstory at last! ... Can we take this backstory seriously, though? Certainly Misaki and company seem to regard it as ludicrous (you know your secret origin is silly when even Iwata stares at you blankly). That said, certain flashbacks we've been privilege to thanks to seeing Excel and Il Palazzo's memories imply that the kingdom of Solaria might not be ENTIRELY in Kabapu's head. (Though it's certainly enough to try to get Misaki to flee the country, and realize that she can't.)

The most important scene in the entire book is Misaki's meeting with Shiouji in the park. First off, aside from a few token mentions, Shiouji's pedophilia is quietly dropped about now. Secondly, the two of them form an alliance of sanity that not only helps when one needs a break from the zany antics of the other, but also let Rikdo do giant infodumps with relative ease. His description of how Ropponmatsu's stunningly advanced abilities are not so much due to a superior robot brain as a superior POWER SUPPLY are fantastic. And help to tell us that there is still a lot we don't know about Solaria/Kabapu/Il Palazzo. Kabapu notes that Ropponmatsu's core is, in fact, the RULER of Solaria... something that will become far more important in a volume or two. (You must be bored with me saying that.)

The volume isn't *just* an infodump, mind you. Although there's not as much action as usual, we have our usual dose of hysterical Excel Saga humor. All of Excel and Elgala's attempts to capture Ropponmatsu. ("It's a miracle! She must have remembered to bend her knees!" "Yeah, a lot of people would forget that after the first twenty stories...") The director of the idol show that Excel and company end up working for (who is clearly a parody of someone). Everyone's reaction to Kabapu revealing he's thousands of years old and part of an ancient civilization. Umi's reaction to Misaki arriving at Shiouji's lab (and her outfit). The only letdown, humor-wise, is the side story AU at the very end, a parody of hospital drama and Resident Evil that allows him to draw Dr. Iwata being appalling, but isn't as much fun as previous side-stories. It does have an "Acchon-burike!" for Black Jack fans, though.

An essential volume for information, and I'm sure that next volume will get us back on track regarding breakneck action. There may also be some gratuitous nudity.

One Piece Volume 53

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

This review contains a few spoilers for the ongoing One Piece manga in Japan, though I try to avoid the big ones, obviously.

The speed-up is over! Welcome to the last of Viz's 30-volume One Piece blitz, designed to get the series to be remotely close to Japan's release. (As a reminder, when we began in January, One Piece in North America was seven and a half years behind Japan. When 54 comes out next month, we'll be down to a mere year behind the volumes, and the Shonen Jump chapters are only about half a year behind now.)

In any case, this is the final volume of Sabaody, and marks a big tonal shift in the series as it moves into the Impel Down arc. I'm trying to spoil as little as possible, but the book begins with Kuma scattering the entire Straw Hat crew, separately, to various places all over the world. (We'll find out where everyone bar Luffy is next volume). Indeed, as of the current chapters running in Japan, they're still not together again. This is a big leap of faith for Oda, trusting that we'll be OK with merely following Luffy and his allies for a year and counting.

It is Luffy that we follow, of course, as he ends up on a mysterious island, which turns out to be populated entirely by women! Women who have, of course, never seen a man before. As you can imagine there's a lot of humor based around Luffy's penis, as well as his clothing being 'fixed' by the women. I did like that the Amazon kingdom has women of all shapes and sizes. This is not meant to be a Sanji paradise (although there are certainly plenty of shapely women).

But of course, the main part of this volume is simply introducing us to Boa Hancock, another Warlord of the Sea and one of the more memorable characters of recent chapters. She certainly gets a fantastic entrance, stating right off the bat what sort of woman she is supposed to be. Of course, such petty cruelty cannot stand in the way of Luffy's cheery cluelessness, and she quickly finds Luffy fascinating. And, naturally, she has a horrible past that has 'forced' her to become what she is.

Luffy also finally finds out what's going on with Ace, and makes the decision to go and rescue his brother, figuring the others will be okay without him for a bit. Of course, he has absolutely no way to get there... but that's OK, as Hancock has totally fallen in love with him, and will give him a ship! I'll be talking more about Hancock's feelings for Luffy in my review of the next volume, but suffice to say I think that this is Oda's answer to everyone who wants the series to have more romance and shipping. And it's typically hilarious.

This is another transition volume, mostly dedicated to introducing Hancock and getting Luffy fired up about saving Ace. As such, it's not quite as utterly awesome as the previous two. However, that'll change soon, as we head for Impel Down!

The Magic Touch Volume 8

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

Well, at the end of Volume 7 of this series, I noted that I hoped the next volume would give us more humor and massage. Luckily, I get both here, although still not as much massage as the earlier volumes. But then, that's because the author is busy moving the romance between Chiaki and Yosuke forward.

One thing I really liked about this is seeing Yosuke having to forcibly stop himself from getting more physical with Chiaki. This is unsurprising from a reserved guy with a tortured past, but it's handled very well, showing a certain honest-to-god passion that tends to be missing much of the time from Hana to Yume guys. The implication that kissing Chiaki has unlocked his libido is refreshing, especially as the series as shown us multiple times that Chiaki really wants to ravish *him*, and how this is only partially sublimated through the massage.

Meanwhile, it's culture festival time, and the massage club is having to deal with the fact that if they do a maid massage cafe, the customers will only be horny guys trying to see up their skirts when they massage. The solution to this, of course, is cross-dressing! And yes, the girls in the massage club to make very handsome fake guys. The same cannot be said of the guys in the club, who (with a few bishie exceptions) make very ugly girls. Nevertheless, it seems to succeed very well. Sadly, it also shows one of the author's major faults, which is her inability to distinguish between so many characters. It's far too easy to get people mixed up in this manga.

We get a decent amount of Natsue and Harumi here. I'm highly amused by the bath scene, where all the guys note that they can hear everything the girls are saying in the other bath, and all stay very quiet to try to hear the other girl's feelings. In particular, I love after all this has happened seeing Natsue quietly smile down at a hiding Harumi and asking "Was it fun?" More to the point, however, we see that Natsue has realized that since Harumi and Ayame are completely unable to break out of their family situations, she has to be the one to do it... and she doesn't have the power or skill yet. This is, of course, why she's going to study abroad, something she's still keeping from Harumi. The scene with her and Ayame was very sweet, showing two friends who could have become rivals but instead are working together to make themselves happier.

Oh yes, and Ayame meeting Amane (and not thinking his eyes are scary at all) is a hideous deus-ex-machina to clean up romantic loose ends... except it's also incredibly adorable, so I'll give it a pass. Amane also gets a nice, if awkward speech that leads to Ayame realizing that she can be the chain link binding together Natsue and Harumi... and that's what she wants more than anything. Bonds of friendship.

So Chiaki and Yosuke are dating, the cast is almost ready to get to the end of the school year, and most of the loose ends are wrapping up. (There are still some loose ends... whatever happened to Chiaki's evil twin anyway?) A solid volume of this unassuming and unspectacular series.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

One Piece Volume 52

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

It's sad that a cover featuring the entire crew grinning happily and toasting the reader can make me feel so melancholy...

Like Volume 51, there's so much going on in here that you run the risk of getting a bit confused. We find out about Haki, which becomes important later on. (Note how it brings down most everyone in the auction hall, with the exception of our heroes! Yes, even Usopp! Take that, Usopp haters!) We see a lot more of the 11 Supernovas, and get to see some of their truly ludicrous abilities. My favorite of these of probably Capone, simply because my mind reels at the imagination Oda has to have thought of that. And we get another of the three Admirals introduced.

You may have noticed when Aokiji was introduced that he seemed a little familiar. In fact, each of the three admirals are based on famous Japanese character actors. Aokiji's appearance was based off of Yūsaku Matsuda, who became famous as a private detective in Tantei Monogatari, but may be best known here as the villain in the Michael Douglas film Black Rain. (It was his last film, he hid his cancer while filming it.) We now meet the goofiest of the 3 Admirals (though no less dangerous), Kizaru. Kizaru's actor basis is Kunie Tanaka, who is still alive, and may be best known over here for the Kurosawa film Sanjuro. (The last admiral, who you will learn to despise, Akainu, is based on Bunta Sugawara, best known for the yakuza series Battles Without Honor and Humanity.)

And then there's Kid and Law. Really, if you forget all the other Pirate Captains introduced here, remember these two, who clearly seem to be the most important. Seeing the three of them take on the hapless marines attacking them is a thing of beauty, especially as they snark at each other all the while. (Well, as much as Luffy can ever snark.) You also get reminded that most of the pirate crews around are, in fact, killers and looters - Kid's bounty is higher as he's a murderer. For all that the World Government looks scummier with every chapter (and boy, they're still scummy), the hatred of pirates seems to have a rational basis.

And that leads to my favorite scene in the volume, when the crew are back at Shakky's bar talking with Rayleigh. Now that they know he was Gold Roger's first mate, they're all intensely curious. Robin even goes so far as to ask if they found out about the lost century. He says they did - but enourages her to go through the journey on her own, and see if she comes up with a different answer than they did. And then... Usopp asks about One Piece. And Luffy just blows up, saying that he doesn't want to hear about it, as knowing the end would just make it too dull. (Luffy hates spoilers, therefore. He'd clearly despise my blog.) And then when Rayleigh points out that conquering the world to be the Pirate King will be difficult, Luffy says he doesn't want to conquer anything. "The one who is the most free... is the Pirate King."

I've said before that the goal of One Piece is Luffy and Company changing the very definitions of the world, and this is perhaps the best example of this. All of the good points of piracy, and none of the bad. Heck, they've never even stolen from good guys!

Sadly, all the fun times can't last forever, especially when there seem to be multiple Kumas running around Sadaoby. So the Straw Kats are finally cornered, facing off against a Kuma, an Admiral, and the bodyguard of Dr. Vegapunk, Sentomaru, who seems to have a way to hurt Luffy (Fist of Love? Nah, probably not...). These three, all together, are enough to have Luffy tell the crew to run away. But then the real Kuma shows up...

If the last volume were a breathless roller coaster ride, this one is just one big downhill slope on that ride. If doesn't let up for over 200 pages. Even the exposition is charged with energy. And what a cliffhanger! ZORO!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Manga the week of 6/16

Well, according to Midtown Comics, there is precisely one manga coming out next week. And it's one that Diamond already released to most shops this week! I guess that makes this the easiest recommendation ever.

The next arc of Higurashi: When They Cry, the 'Time Killing' Arc (aka Himatsubushi-hen) gets its first of 2 volumes released. For those like myself who have grown weary of Keiichi failing to stop hideous slaughter as the main character, you'll be pleased to know this volume, taking place 5 years before the first 3 arcs, features Rika Furude as the lead! Of course, Higurashi *does* have 4 answer arcs still to come, as well as manga-only arcs. So, well, don't expect a happy ending. But then, if you read Higurashi, you'd know this already.

Midtown is not listing Viz's Week 3 releases, however, I'm going to assume that Diamond will ship them on the date Viz says they're coming out, so let me talk about them here as well.

Hayate the Combat Butler is probably the funniest manga currently coming out from Shonen Sunday, and Volume 15 should prove to be no exception. Expect much wacky butler hijinks. It may not last long, however - Volumes 17 and 18 will bring a huge tonal shift to the series. But that's not for 6-9 more months.

Ikki puts out the third volume of Children of the Sea. I recall when I read Volume 2, I put it off for a while, forgetting how much I'd adored Volume 1. I then started to read it, and literally could not stop. I won't be waiting as long for this volume, Sure, I expect very little will actually happen, but I'm pretty sure that's not the point.

And there's also the first volume of Afterschool Charisma, a very odd title indeed. The plot seems to involve a conspiracy at a school of clones of famous people... but I'm sure it will be far more complicated. I'm still not sure exactly where this title is going, but perhaps reading it in Volume format will help to coalesce my thoughts.

And oh boy, another volume of 20th Century Boys so I can be even further behind! One day I just need to catch up in one long, massive read.

Negima! Magister Negi Magi Volume 26

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

As most fans know by now, Negima got to be the way it is by Ken Akamatsu 'tricking' his editors, giving them what was initially a love comedy and then making it gradually the shonen team fighting manga he wanted to do initially. Which is partially true (and partially only a "good story"), but I do always get reminded of it when I see chapters like Chapter 235. A chapter that reminds you that there are still fans who want to see Akamatsu draw naked girls getting their breasts groped.

And he does not disappoint, frankly. At least this sort of thing is confined to very short bursts now, so it's very easily skippable. And the revelation that the perverted bounty hunter from a couple volumes ago is actually a female perverted bounty hunter is at least refreshingly dumb.

Apart from that, we get a lot of fighting in this volume, with the resolution of Jack Rakan's flashback arc. As expected, Nagi and company get to be cool and awesome, and save the day. Although, as Chisame points out, clearly the day wasn't saved in the long run, so what gives? I like the way that Jack compresses and edits his own memories, so reminiscent of similar techniques in manga and anime. And indeed, we quickly learn that our heroes in the present day also don't quite have the happy ending they thought they did.

I'm trying to be better about spoiling things on this blog (stop laughing), so I'll just note that we not only find out that Anya is captured by Fate and his minions, but also another character. This is actually a pretty awesome revelation, although fans were suspicious about it for some time. What's more, the aftermath of her capture shows that a) there's a mole in Negi & company's midst; and b) [captured girl]'s mind may soon be changed by the enemy... by force.

The rest of the volume is basically a mini-training arc, as Jack decides to help Negi grow stronger by entering the tournament himself, and saying if he wins, Negi won't get the money to free Ako and the others. This is a bit worrying, as Jack has proven to be very adept at backing up his boasts by being impossibly strong. Luckily, Negi gets a new more allies, as Jack's old magic-world companions, now all grown up, decide to help him out with their own special blend of brutal training regimen. As always, it's fun seeing Akamatsu parodying Ashita no Joe and other similar series by showing Negi and Kotaro doing pushups with 40-ton rocks on their backs and the like.

And what's more, Negi ends up getting a surprise pactio with Princess Theodora! In fact, it's definitely a surprise, as it's the cliffhanger of the volume, so we won't see what it does till 27 comes out. (Of note, I'm amused that almost every 'princess' we've met in Negima has proven to be a kickass tomboy of some sort. Akamatsu clearly likes his royal family to be able to kick some asses. Love seeing Theodora riding around on Jack's back, even in the present day...)

Not quite as stunning as previous Negima volumes, with the exception of THAT revelation. However, it's still really solid shonen, and the female fanservice is now mostly confined to random chapters. If you like watching kids kick ass with the help of lots of pretty girls, well, chances are you already read Negima.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

One Piece Volume 51

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

There's a whole pile of stuff going on in this volume. As always, Oda makes things so fun that you don't realize till later how much you learned bout the world of One Piece. And it's the start of a new arc, albeit a much shorter one than usual. Why shorter? We shall see...

First, though, we have to deal with the gang attempting to kidnap Camie, along with their leader, the Masked Rider. His name is Duval, and for some reason he hates the Straw Hats. I remember with amusement the days when this chapter first came out in Japan. People on forums were speculating endlessly about who Duval could be. A lot of people suggested Don Krieg, from Sanji's debut. But no, the truth is far, far... funnier. One of the best visual gags in the series, and it just goes to prove that nothing is throwaway when it comes to Oda.

With that resolved, we're off to Sabaody, which is a new world filled with all the usual new world delights we've come to expect from Oda. Bubble cars! Amusement parks! And Hachi and Camie disguising themselves, for some reason. Yes, we discover one reason why the Fish-Men are so organized in the One Piece world - they're persecuted in many parts of the world, and Mermaids in particular fetch a high price as slaves. Now, this doesn't excuse Arlong, but it is a little extra added depth to this backstory. And it makes you root for the destruction of the World Government even more.

If there's a weakness to this volume, it's that perhaps too many characters all get introduced at once. And while you'd like to say that you can forget about some of them as they aren't important, it's just not true. All 11 Supernovas get big roles to play in this volume and the next, and Rayleigh and Shakky are necessary to remember as well. It can be a lot to take in, but just having everything tossed at you does help contribute to the breakneck chaos that defines this arc.

We also see some new Devil Fruit powers, although not all of them. Jewelry Bonney's is possibly the most fun, as she can age or youthen anyone at will, including herself. She also stops Zoro from starting a huge fight, and I suspect the two of them will definitely meet again. On the other hand, given her appetite, maybe it's Sanji she'll be meeting again.

However, Camie is finally captured, and everyone goes off to the auction house to try to free her. This goes about as well as you'd expect. I must note again that while Oda does a good job of making former villains sympathetic (see Hachi for a good example), he's equally good at painting scummy losers as such with just a few broad strokes. The Celestial Dragon teenager who waddles around here behaves like such a spoiled baby you long for the days of Helmeppo. His behavior if the last straw for Luffy, who ends the volume by delivering what may be the most satisfying punch in the entire series to date.

There's more I could talk about, including my surprise at the next 'redemption' cover arc dealing with CP9, but I think you get the picture. Even for One Piece, this volume is a breathless roller coaster. Fans should love it. Non-fans... should start with Volume 1, really.