Tuesday, August 31, 2010

License Request Day: Yankee-kun to Megane-chan

Once again, I end up looking at Kodansha properties, even though Del Rey is not exactly rushing to license new things, Dark Horse seems mostly interested in reissues, and pure long-running shonen is not quite Vertical's thing. I guess until Kodansha USA gets its act together, this will just be pure hypotheticals.

Looking at currently running series in Kodansha's flagship Weekly Shonen Magazine, there isn't much that's actively licensed right now. Negima, Air Gear (which is already in 'omnibus' format), Zetsubou-sensei, Fairy Tail, and Code: Breaker. 5 series out of about 30 that Wikipedia notes are still running at the moment in the magazine. Kindaichi Case Files was once licensed by TP, but was pulled when the Kodansha titles vanished, and was likely already canceled due to low sales even before that.

We can also leave out Hajime no Ippo (a 90+ volume boxing manga) and Godhand Teru (a 50+ volume medical drama) as being far too long to seriously recommend, and of course we can leave out all sports manga. For Magazine that's pretty rough, as it culls Ahiru no Sora, Ace of Diamond, Shinyaku "Kyojin no Hoshi" Hanagata and Area no Kishi, all best-selling titles in Japan that won't see the light of day here unless Cross Game somehow turns everyone's heads. Lastly, I'm leaving out 4-koma and gag manga, so no sign of Mou, Shimasen Kara or Seitokai Yakuindomo.

(I'd personally love to see SYD over here, but that's also unlicensable for another reason - it's utterly filthy.)

Cut all those back, and also eliminating series too new to really be considered, and you're left with precisely one title that's unlicensed yet has potential. It's called Yankee-kun to Megane-chan, and has been running in the magazine since 2006. It's at 19+ volumes and still running, which is considerable but not so large as to be unprofitable. It has two very strong lead characters. It's also very funny. It has a live-action series that ran in Japan earlier this year. And it's been a big success in Singapore, where it's called Flunk Punk Rumble.

What's holding it back? Well, first off it doesn't have an anime. Live-action series are all very well and good, but far less marketable to the West than a nice anime tie-in. Secondly, it features that dreaded word that sends publishers screaming to the hills: delinquents. Not quite on the level of your typical Young King title, and at least they try to keep the cast vaguely attractive-looking, but teen gang titles haven't really been seen here since Tokyopop had to let go of Shonan Jun'ai Gumi and GTO.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it has zero elements of fantasy. The boy is not a vampire, the girl is not a ninja. These are high school students, getting into high school comedy. Even School Rumble, the title's closest equivalent, played around with girls who could read minds and men who could talk to animals.

The premise, which I suppose I should mention at some point, is that Daichi, our hero, is trying to slouch through his high school life as a typical Yankee (a Japanese term broadly used as delinquent). Sadly, the class rep, Hana, has taken notice of him, and is making it her job to force him to shape up. Of course, as he quickly finds out, she has more than just personal interest in him at stake here, as she is highly influenced by her own past. Could this glasses-wearing annoying girl have really been one of the most terrifying delinquents in all of middle-school?

Besides School Rumble, there's a lot of GTO to this, in that much of it is teaching gang-loving apathetic Japanese kids that there's a more productive way of doing things. I happen to be a big fan of that sort of thing, another common Japanese trope. Could this appeal to Western readers? I think so, given the right push. It has a likeable cast, a lot of good comedy and fights, and some mild romance between the leads.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Urusei Yatsura Volume 1

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

(n.b. - I'm going to be reviewing these volumes as they came out in Japan's V1, rather than in Viz's Lum Perfect Collection. Hence this review covers chapters 1-9.)

I've been reviewing Rin-Ne, and while I enjoy it, one of my complaints was that Takahashi had made her two leads far too nice. Sure, they're occasionally grumpy or protest when something stupid happens, but they're generally nice people. You can imagine hanging out with them. This is not Takahashi's usual schtick. She specializes in mining comedy out of horrible, unlovable people and making you enjoy it. So I thought I'd go way, WAY back to 1978, where she got her first big series for Shonen Sunday, which translates broadly as "Those Obnoxious Aliens".

It strikes me that while Takahashi is a household name, UY is not necessarily one, so I will give a brief summary. Ataru Moroboshi, a luckless boy trying to hold a steady girlfriend in cute but untrusting Shinobu Miyaki while still finding time to look at other girls, is picked to represent Earth against a race of invading aliens. He has to play a tag race against the beautiful oni Lum, and if he loses the Earth will get invaded and he'll be an outcast. But no pressure. Even worse, he wins, and through a series of wacky misunderstandings, Lum ends up thinking they're engaged. Now Lum is living with him, Shinobu hates him, and he *still* has his horrible luck ensuring that bad things happen to him every chapter.

It's immediately striking how simply awful the entire cast is. Ataru is the most sympathetic, and even that's just because of getting so much crap piled on top of him, not because of any innate likability. Shinobu is ready to mistrust him and storm off at a moment's notice, even when it's clear from his words and the scene in front of her that he's not guilty. Now, one can argue having read most of the series that she is justified in that Ataru is a perverted lech, but we don't see that here. We mostly just see a normal guy who occasionally likes to look at gorgeous women in a 'hey, hot babe' sort of way. The *real* Ataru only shows up in Chapter 8, which casually introduces space-biker babe Benten, where he drops everything and leaps up a tall pole to start macking on her. But in the first few chapters, it's actually rather startling to see Ataru trying to stay faithful to Shinobu, and her hair-trigger temper doesn't help in the least.

And then there's Lum. Oh my god, what a harpy she is in these first few chapters. The mind just reels. The oft-told story is that UY was supposed to feature Ataru and Shinobu as the main character, with Lum as the 'other woman', but Lum's insane popularity caused the editors and Takahashi to rewrite things to make Ataru and Lum the main couple. It's so often told that it reeks of publicity, but I'd buy it judging by this volume, where my main wonder is how Lum got so popular just from this. Must have been the looks and bikini, as she is awful. Clingy and jealous, with a hair-trigger temper even worse than Shinobu's, there's absolutely no question why Ataru wants nothing to do with her. (At one point, his parents are away from home, and warn Ataru not to try anything while home with Lum. He genuinely sounds annoyed they'd think that of him. Oh, Ataru, where are you?)

That said, the last chapter of the volume, showing Ataru and Lum having to deal with fallout from Lum's cooking (legendarily bad, in the best manga tradition) shows them bouncing off each other quite well, certainly better than he does with the normal Japanese girl Shinobu. I suspect this, more than any popularity contests, might be why Takahashi turned towards Ataru and Lum; they just click together.

There's a lot of the major cast introduced here. Ataru's horrible parents, Lum's gruff father, Ataru's 4 school friends (who Takahashi would quickly write out of the manga but who would be major characters in the anime - especially Megane). I'd mentioned Benten already, and we also meet Lum's handsome-sometimes fiance Rei, who cares only about food and drives Lum crazy because of this. (Seeing her dealing with a bit of what Ataru has had to suffer from her makes you feel warm and happy.) We see the Shinto priestess Sakura, who I'd actually forgotten had been introduced as suffering from various heart conditions, diseases, and maladies, all of which vanish after her introductory chapter thanks to Ataru's bad luck being stronger.

And then there's Cherry. I've been going on and on about how unlikable the cast is in this series, but every Takahashi series seems to have one character whose mere presence causes the reader *and* the cast to react in irritation and loathing. In Maison Ikkoku it's the freakish Yotsuya, in Ranma 1/2 it's the perverse Happosai. And here it's Cherry, the world's worst Buddhist Monk, a short, ugly man whose main job seems to be annoying Ataru as much as is humanly possible and leeching food off of anyone he can find. Every line of dialogue he utters, from his portents of doom to his ludicrously awful puns makes you want him to vanish and never come back. He will be with us through the entire 34-volume series.

I feel I should note that the series was quite a hit, and not just because of young boys looking at shots of Lum in her bikini. Takahashi creates horrible people and makes them suffer horrible things because she's an expert at making it funny, and this volume is funny. It's not funny in a way where you identify with any of the characters, or share in their pain. It's funny in a ridiculous, how-much-more-can-she-pile-on way, where you tune in next week to see if everything will finally snap under its own weight and fall into a pit. It is barely controlled chaos, right from Chapter 1. It's also laden with puns, as I noted before, both subtle and blatant. Viz does a fairly decent job of trying to find Western equivalents for most of the weirder ones (Cherry's are especially difficult to translate, as they're so genuinely bad.)

If you can track down a copy of the Lum Perfect Collection somewhere, I do recommend it. Especially if you only know Takahashi from her Inu Yasha and Rin-Ne series, this is a great example of what happens when she just pushes on the accelerator and drives the entire manga careening out of control from the start. Sure, the art is terrible compared to her recent work, but it has its own late-70s shonen charm. More to the point, UY was a big influence on a double-dozen other series, and you'd say it was a parody of the hot magical girlfriend series (Tenchi, Oh My Goddess) if it didn't come before *all* of them. Recommended with caution (UY can be hard to take, sort of like a loud Osaka comedian who can't stop), but still recommended.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 7: Mother Goose on the Loose, Ace in the Hole, Juke Box Jamboree, Pigeon Patrol, The Loan Stranger

1942, and the country is at war! Here at Walter Lantz studios, however, it's business as usual. Lantz really didn't do nearly as many wartime cartoons as Warners or Disney, though we will see one here. Instead, he worked on defining Woody Woodpecker further, aging Andy Panda a bit, continuing the Swing Symphonies, and doing the occasional one-shot.

We start off here with the weakest cartoon of the five I'm getting to, Mother Goose on the Loose. It's the old standard modernization of Mother Goose with gags, this time at least free from celebrity caricatures (Disney's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood was only 3 years earlier), barring an impersonation of Frank Morgan as the narrator. The cartoon is oddly disjointed, even for a spot gag entry, and halfway through the narration seems to be replaced by a choral singing group for about two minutes. Lots of shots of hot cartoon babes, though, so we get to look at some legs, at the very least.

Meanwhile, Woody appears to have joined the Army. Drafted would be my guess, judging by his sour grumpiness about it. Ace in the Hole deals with his battles with his sergeant, as well as attempts to fly a plane. Given Woody can already fly, I'm not sure why he'd want to fly one of the fighter planes we see there, though I suppose it could be for the thrill. Certainly not for his country, as patriotism is barely mentioned here (I suspect Woody would be a bad example at this point, though he is noticeably less insane in this cartoon). He has a new voice, by the way, Kent Rogers, who also did a lot of work for Warners. Kent is most famous for originating Beaky Buzzard's voice. Notably, this is the first time we see the cartoon end with Woody losing.

Another Swing Symphony follows, this one nominated for an Academy Award. This cartoon benefits from the soundtrack beginning right at the end and never stopping, so there's no long pause while the plot gets going. This one has a Latin flavor, with several Carmen Miranda-esque numbers played throughout. The premise has a mouse being woken by a jukebox, and attempting to get it to stop. But then he's tossed into a bottle of alcohol, and starts drunkenly hallucinating a whole bunch of ghosts and spirits jazzing things up. The pacing is fairly sedate compared to future Swing Symphonies, but the music is well times to the gags, and it's pretty fun.

I'd mentioned we had a wartime short this time around, and this is it, Pigeon Patrol. It stars Homer Pigeon, another attempt to create a character that didn't quite work out for the studio. Homer is sort of a hyuck-hyuck yokel country boy who's trying to court his fickle girl. Sadly, she only has eyes for the carrier pigeon pilots, completely ignoring the fact that he's brought her a bouquet of corn. (Great gag, btw.) He attempts to join up, but the other recruits are huge, strapping young pigeons, while he is a Charles Atlas before picture. Depressed, he mopes away, but soon sees a Japanese vulture shooting down a pigeon with an important message. (The vulture is bucktoothed and racist, but at least doesn't speak, so as wartime racist caricatures go it's pretty minor). Homer seems out of his league at first, but soon shows that vulture what for and wins out in the end! As a reward, he gets his girl and has several kids, apparently in the space of only a few days. Well, I suppose they are pigeons...

Lastly, we're back to Woody, who is driving along in his broken-down jalopy when it explodes into ruins. Luckily, he's right next to a shyster loan company, offering him loans if he'll put up his car. I was amused to see the wolf who runs the loan office say outright, "Aaaah... a sucker!" without e3ven bothering to correct himself and say customer. Clearly this wolf is bad news. Sadly for the wolf, he's up against Woody, who after a brief one-cartoon break, is back to being essentially nuts. Woody forgets all about the loan, so the wolf goes to collect, but finds the main problem may be getting in the door. Best gag of the picture: "I DON'T LIKE CHEESECAKE!". In the end, Woody's playing dead panics the wolf, who tears up the loan.

These cartoons aren't bad, but I get the feeling that the Lantz studios are spinning their wheels a bit. Alex Lovy has come on as a director, but he's just too sedate, and doesn't work well with Woody. What we really need is a new director to come in and shake things up a bit. Hrm. I wonder if we'll get that next time? ^_-

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Yotsuba & Strawberry Marshmallow!

Yotsuba&! By Kiyohiko Azuma, Strawberry Marshmallow by Barasui. Released in Japan by ASCII Media Works, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. Released in North America by Yen Press and Tokyopop.

First off, a disclaimer: I am technically breaking the rules of this month's Manga Movable Feast. As a result, if the moderator doesn't want to link this post, that's perfectly fine. I am well aware that I am outside of the defined rubric for this month.

I want to tell you all about an amusing manga series. It's a comedy about kids, but runs in a magazine for young men - specifically, young 'fanboy' men. Nevertheless, you read it for the kids. You watch them get into hysterical situations, and identify with your own past childhood. And sometimes you just sit back and boggle at the absolute strangeness of it all. It's a story about kids, but it's not FOR kids. It's for adults. As has been noted, kids generally like to read about contemporaries about 3-4 years older than they are, and would probably find the manga too 'cutesy'. But it's perfect for the target audience.

Now, all of this applies to both of the two series mentioned in my header. They're both running in the same magazine at the same time (even if Barasui is putting out his series at a more and more irregular pace as the years go by). But only one cute comedy for kids is kid-safe in North America. That is, of course, Yotsuba&!, the subject of our monthly roundtable. Something about Strawberry Marshmallow, which is a very funny, slice-of-life manga which makes me laugh out loud multiple times, makes you realize that if you gave it to a child, you would be screamed at at the very least.

I will assume, as it's consistently hit the bestseller lists, that you are all familiar with Yotsuba&!. You may be less familiar with Strawberry Marshmallow, which Tokyopop has brought out five volumes of to date. It's the story of five girls and their everyday interactions. Nobue is the detached, chain-smoking older sister, Chika her younger sister who has the misfortune to be the straight man and best friend of Miu, a hyperactive and obnoxious pest. Rounding out the cast is Matsuri, a rather pathetic drip who has difficulty with even the most basic interaction with daily life, and Ana, a half-British girl who is suffering from having been in Japan too long. Nobue finds Ana and Matsuri adorably moe, and fills in for the Japanese reader in watching them be cute and loli. Which is amusing, as most of the actual readers in North America are far more interested in seeing Chika and Miu's comedy antics.

Please be assured that Strawberry Marshmallow is not pornography, nor does it contain 'adult themes'. There is no actual sexual content, the violence is of the slapstick 'Looney Tunes' variety with large bumps on the head, and there are no dark themes at all. But the presentation is laid out in such a way as to emphasize the five main cast members, four of whom are twelve years old (but look younger), and one of whom is sixteen (the anime made her twenty so they could show her smoking). Their poses, their outfits (the fashion in this manga is one of the main reasons to read it, and I'm not kidding. They're very stylish), everything they do is meant to have an undertone of 'hey, look at the little girls'.

Yotsuba&!, on the other hand, is about the sense of wonder. Yes, you watch Yotsuba get into weird or fascinating situations, but the emphasis is on her reactions, and the reactions of the people around her. I honestly can't recall what any of the main cast of Yotsuba wear when they aren't in costume, whereas I can picture 3 to 4 of Miu and Chika's outfits in my head without even getting out the books. Yotsuba is about the magic of childhood, seeing things through a child's eyes, and trying to reclaim some of that lost innocence. Strawberry Marshmallow is about the bits of childhood we aren't really trying to recreate; the petty jealousies, the sibling rivalries, the days spent doing nothing but being stupid, and there's no sense of nostalgia at all.

That said, I find Strawberry Marshmallow's interaction far more real. Yotsuba almost seems to take place in a sort of world removed from our own. I don't think of it as a fault - I'm not asking for the manga to be realistic. But there's almost a fairy tale quality to the action. Strawberry Marshmallow has a sense of taking place in today's world. This is all the more astounding when you consider what Yotsuba has that Strawberry Marshmallow lacks - adults. The occasional adult pops up in the manga, mostly as a foil to Miu or as a teacher figure, but the only vaguely parental person we see is older sister Nobue, who is a very poor role model. Strawberry Marshmallow is literally all about the kids, whereas, while the focus of each chapter of Yotsuba is on her, the adults get large roles and many varied things to do.

The main difference between the two titles, which I've been dancing around this entire review, is that Barasui, the author of Strawberry Marshmallow, is a lolicon. He's stated in interviews that he loves drawing pre-pubescent girls, and it's obvious in every frame of his manga. It never quite goes over that edge, and is certainly safe enough that Tokyopop feels no qualms about putting it out with a T rating, but certainly enough that I'd never recommend it to a parent myself, a problem I don't have with Yotsuba&!. (An Amazon.com review of the Strawberry Marshmallow review noted it was for little girls, and that adults might find it cloying. Showing that despite all geographical evidence, Amazon *is* a river in Egypt...)

That said, just because something has elements of lolicon does not make it BAD, or without redeeming social importance. Yotsuba is funny, and I love the warm fuzzies it gives me every month. But I find Strawberry Marshmallow makes me laugh out loud more. Miu is one of the great comic creations of the past decade, and she is note perfect in managing to be utterly horrible to everyone around her and yet at the same time likeable and cute enough that you come back every month to see what insane stuff she does next. Yotsuba is naive, but Miu is just WEIRD - some of the manga she draws and shows Chika defies explanation, and her text messages are... she is her own adjective. She's totally Miu. As the manga has gone on, we've seen her and Chika get the spotlight more and more as the author realizes that he has a goldmine of endless Osaka-style call-and-response humor here.

So what makes Yotsuba&! a great title for kids over here, and Strawberry Marshmallow a great one that's strictly for manga geeks? (Note I haven't even gotten into Gunslinger Girl, which is a *third* Dengeki Daioh series about young girls with a very different feel from the first two.) Simply put, Yotsuba&! is safe. That's it. And it's not meant to be a criticism, just an observation. I honestly don't feel either series is written, in Japan, for children. And I think North American kids, provided they don't mind reading about other kids their own age, would enjoy both series (certainly the obnoxiousness of Miu would strike a chord with many kids). But as a gift for a parent to give their child? Stick with Yotsuba&!.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

By Moto Hagio. Released in Japan by various companies in various magazines, currently licensed by Shogakukan. Released in North America by Fantagraphics.

I actually feel bad that I need to write a review of this. While reading A Drunken Dream and other stories, it felt like I was not so much reading the stories as getting submerged in pure book, and rather than try to explain why that is, I just feel the need to force everyone I know to buy it while making vaguely incoherent happy cries.

But review I will, just in case someone thinks about passing this up, either due to the expensive price ($24.99 at your local comic shop) or due to it being a book of 'arty' shoujo manga, by a publisher new to the genre. They should get it anyway. It is a dazzling treat, and will mesmerize you.

First off, I rarely talk about the look and feel of the book, but Fantagraphics really have gone all out for this volume. This is a handsome hardcover, larger than most manga trim sizes, with color pages scattered through a few stories. The art is crisp, clean, and has no defects whatsoever. It's clearly a labor of love, showing that this is not just your average collection of shoujo short stories.

I'd known of Moto Hagio by name for years, of course, but I never did get around to reading A, A' or They Were Eleven back when Viz first put them out eons ago. One of the Magnificent Forty-Niners, her interview with Matt Thorn that Fantagraphics put out in their Comics Journal (which is reproduced here for those who missed the issue) made me curious, but as most of her work was only in Japanese or long out of print, that was about all.

Now we have this collection. First off, despite having stories that are from the early 70s to more recent times, there are no issues whatsoever with so-called 'old-school art styles'. Even her earliest work has a delicacy and grace that makes you pause at every page, taking in the art before you even read any dialogue. The last story in the collection, The Willow Tree, is told almost entirely in silent segments, and is beautiful.

The stories are laid out in chronological order, and the earliest ones tend to feel more like they take place in Victorian England than Japan. But even the 'normal' shoujo stories have experimentation to them. The only story in the entire collection that read like something I might read in a normal collection of shoujo was Angel Mimic, and even that is selling that story short, as it takes its premise and gives it a solidity and humanity.

I'm trying to avoid spoiling any of these stories, as they really do read better coming into them cold. Many of them deal with the way people have trouble finding acceptance, and how perceptions can be a much bigger influence on other people than what a person might be like inside. Girl on Porch with Puppy is all about perception, and absolutely blew me away. (I loved seeing the subtly different art with the girl and her family, which only grew more pronounced as the story went on. In the final panel the family look more like they stepped out of a Charles Addams cartoon.)

And for those worried that this will be angsty and doom and gloom, don't. While many of these stories are tragic, I'd argue that the mood overall is more one of melancholy, of things lost that can't be regained. Bianca and Hanshin especially gave me this feeling, though it's another theme we see throughout the book. Even the happier stories, such as Angel Mimic or Iguana Girl, have a feeling of longing and yearning to them, a sense that if their protagonists could reach just that one extra inch, then all would be understood.

In the end, I'm very happy that Matt Thorn was able to get Moto Hagio, Shogakukan, and Fantagraphics to come together on this collection, which makes me insanely curious about the author's other work. If this doesn't win some awards it will be a travesty. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

New Looney Tunes DVDs

The 2nd wave of LT Super Stars DVDs will be out on 11/30. Be warned, the Sylvester and Tweety collection has NO NEW CARTOONS. All repeats from the Golden Collection.

The other one is a Foghorn Leghorn collection, and it will have:

1) All Fowled Up (2/19/1955)
2) Fox Terror (5/11/1957)
3) A Broken Leghorn (PREVIOUSLY RELEASED) (9/26/1959)
4) Crockett-Doodle-Doo (6/25/1960)
5) Weasel While You Work (9/6/1958)
6) Weasel Stop (2/11/1956)
7) Little Boy Boo (6/5/1954)
8) Banty Raids (6/29/1963)
9) Strangled Eggs (3/18/1961)

as well as the non-Foghorn cartoons:
10) Gopher Broke (11/15/1958 (Goofy Gophers)
11) A Mutt in a Rut (5/23/1959) (Elmer Fudd)
12) Mouse-Placed Kitten (1/24/1959)
13) Cheese It, the Cat! (5/4/1957) (The Honey-Mousers)
14) Two Crows from Tacos (1956)
15) Crow's Feat (4/21/1962) (Elmer Fudd)

Be warned that this disc will likely have all the cartoons in the 'widescreen' version WB prepared for theaters but which was not seen on TV. If this bothered you on the Bugs and Daffy discs, stay away.

Manga the week of 9/1

Ah, it's one of THOSE first weeks of the month. Well, according to Midtown. Generally I've found that when the 1st comes on a Wednesday, publishers regard it as an unofficial 5th week. That seems to be the case here, as Midtown lists no Viz. Luckily, we have some other neat stuff.

Vertical has Chi's Sweet Home, which I reviewed earlier today. KITTY!

Dark Horse has Volume 15 of Oh My Goddess, another in their series of re-releases in unflipped style. If I recall, this wraps up the 'Queen Sayoko' arc. They've also got another Evangelion spinoff starting, this one a shoujo horror tale that ran in Kadokawa's otaku-girl-oriented Asuka. If you want your Evangelion with lots more Shinji and Kaworu, this is for you.

I know little about DMP's yaoi release of the week, The Tyrant Falls In Love, except that it apparently appears in a BL magazine in Japan called 'Gush'. Nothing else to add except I love the idea of a BL magazine called Gush. For one thing, it keeps the title away from Ero magazines...

And then there's a brace of Tokyopop. A new series called Witch of Artemis, from Mag Garden's Comic Blade. More Hakusensha shoujo to keep me happy, with Karakuri Odette 4, Happy Cafe 4, and Portrait of M & N 3. Fans of Karin, aka Chibi Vampire, will enjoy a one-shot spinoff called Airmail, featuring short stories with the same cast. And there's a new Alice in the Country of Hearts, which I keep not getting around to reviewing. I sort of put it in the Vampire Knight category. Yes, I know its flaws are obvious and blatant, but OMNOMNOM what a fast and addicting read!

Chi's Sweet Home Volume 2

By Konami Kanata. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Morning. Released in North America by Vertical.

Another volume of Chi, and it's just as cute. Chi's personality is easily identifiable to cat lovers, especially her stubbornness combined with her intractability. Much of what makes this manga fun is seeing the various expressions of surprise and happiness Kanata-san draws on Chi's face - along with the expressions of being incredibly pissed off. Seeing Chi defend her home from interlopers was highly amusing.

Speaking of said interloper, we get a new character introduced here in the form of a huge black cat that's wandering the neighborhood stealing food. At first the cat looks to be some sort of villain character, but as time goes on and Chi meets him a few more times, it's clear that Blackie (which I believe is the cat's name) is going to be more of a mentor figure for Chi. Already we're seeing the difference between kittens like Chi with very strong ties to their owner, and cats like Blackie who strive to be 'independent'.

Chi does develop a bit here. As time has gone by and her life with the Yamadas becomes more dominant, she's no longer troubled by constant memories of her old family. Though we do see her instinctual need for mother love pop up at times. Likewise, at one point Chi escapes from the Yamada's yard, and we suspect another long 'where am I?' arc, but Chi has learned from past adventures, and is able to quickly find her way back.

If there's a fault to this manga, it's not one of the writer or publisher. It's just that Chi's Sweet Home can be a bit much to take in one volume's sitting. I can see how insanely popular this is in the pages of Weekly Morning, where it runs in between such titles as Vagabond and Kinou Nani Tabeta?. But I get exhausted reading 150 pages of pure kitten love. I have similar issues with other 'one mode' manga which serve a similar function in other weekly magazines, such as Bobobobo-bobobo in Jump. (Weekly Morning was also the home of What's Michael?, so it's no stranger to cat manga. Even though What's Michael? is a lot weirder than Chi will ever be.)

However, the collection is incredibly sweet, and the coloring and translation are top notch. (I've grown used to Chi's baby accent, mostly as she seems to be using it less and less as the books go on.) I would happily recommend this collection to any family who wants their kids to have a nice comic to read, or to those who like cute gag manga, or just to cat lovers.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Excel Saga Volume 16

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

Welcome, my friends, to the Teriha arc! Excel Saga has turned another corner, and now we get to see whether it can do something it's never really tried to do before. Namely, whether you can have 4 1/2 volumes of Excel Saga without Excel.

We left off in Vol. 15 with the realization that Il Palazzo had kidnapped Ropponmatsu I and is using her core with an Excel body as his company president. Sadly, the people closest to Excel, namely Hyatt and Elgala, don't notice the difference, despite the complete personality change. Meanwhile, the real Excel has managed to escape from her hellish priestly torments, only to be near-dead in a gutter, where she is found by Umi. Umi takes her back to Shiouji's, and it becomes rapidly clear that Excel has lost her memory.

This is not the first time we've seen memory loss as a plot point in Excel Saga, and it's not really a surprise. Il Palazzo has had holes in his memory the entire series, and it's been implied that Excel herself in 'normal' mode is also forgetting a lot of her past, whatever that may be. Unlike the 2-chapter memory loss in Volume 4, however, this one is a biggie. She not only can't remember who she is, but her personality is totally different. Meek and introverted, she is the diametric opposite of the Excel we all know.

Eventually it gets out that Umi has brought home a 'stray'. Shiouji wants her thrown out, but Miwa overrules everything, and enjoys groping Excel's breasts just as much as she does Umi's. So Excel stays, and is given the name 'Teriha' since she can't remember her own. (To avoid confusion in future volumes, I'll continue to call her Teriha as long as she's lost her memory, and will call the fake Excel 'RopponExcel' to emphasize who she really is.)

This is not to say that Teriha is a complete blank slate. She clearly has the memories, buried beneath the surface. Watching a shot of Il Palazzo on TV (advertising his company) leads to a major freak out, as she knows he's important but can't recall why. We also see that she's still hardcore about saving and/or rescuing any money she can find, and is very good at selling merchandise, even to otaku. Excel is there somewhere, buried under Teriha's memory fuzzed persona.

It's not all Teriha this volume, though. Kabapu and his team are at a low ebb, as he's lost all his power, influence, and money. The shock of this seems to have a physical effect on him, as he ages rapidly throughout the volume, to the point where he's a shrunken, wasted old man at the end. The security team are sticking by him, but that's more due to inertia and the need for paying jobs than any loyalty. Momochi DOES have loyalty, and is worried about him, but she's Momochi, so we really know nothing about her and her inner mind's workings at all. IN a real sense, Kabapu spends this volume alone. And really, he sort of deserves it. I've noted before that he does villainous things, and we see many of those here in flashback, showing his bribery and dirty tricks.

RopponExcel, Hyatt, and Elgala are still living the high-powered exec lifestyle, although Elgala is bitching about it, to no one's surprise. We also see how unobservant both Hyatt and Elgala are when a giant power failure shuts down the city. They're in a glass elevator on the outside of the building at the time, and not only does it stop, but RopponExcel collapses as well. Elgala tries to lift her, but finds she now weighs almost a ton (herniating her disc as she tries it, too). Eventually, RopponExcel wakes up and manages to save them by ripping the elevator to the correct floor with her brute strength. Elgala stares, wondering when her sempai got superpowers. (She clearly needs to read previous volumes, but even Excel was never THAT strong.)

The power failure also catches Iwata & company, who are out celebrating New Year's and destroying priceless national treasures for the lulz. And, for once, we actually get a little revelation, as we see the cause of the whole thing was Miwa, in her own underground base, attempting to power... something. Or, more likely, someone. Miwa once again manages to be the closest this series will have to a final boss character. What's more, due to Kabapu's flashbacks, we see that she was a meek, shy young woman 20 years earlier. Something happened after her husband disappeared to make her what she is today.

(The fan theory is that she is her husband in some way, be it bodyswap, mindswap, or what have you. This is easily the most popular Excel Saga fan theory out there, topping all the Solaria stuff, and as has been noted, it'll be more of a surprise if it's NOT true.)

Rest assured, by the way, that there is still a lot of comedy in this volume. The entire chapter featuring Iwata and Sumiyoshi having an eating contest, run by Ms. Manager (still not Emeraldas, in case you were wondering) is hysterical. Watanabe has completely turned to evil, and is all the funnier because of it. And Teriha is dragged to Comiket by Umi, and forced to dress up as Cure White (man, this came out back when Pretty Cure's FIRST season was new!). She's a little freaked out by it all, but does note that the uniform is... the wrong color somehow.

I'll be honest, I love all of Excel Saga, but this arc has issues. Notably, Teriha is so passive that it makes you long for her memory to return with the fire of a thousand suns. She's really far better being manic. Still, it's not happening anytime soon, so instead we'll prepare for Excel Saga 17, where Kabapu may actually die!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gatcha Gacha Volume 7

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

This volume of Gatcha Gacha begins with what might almost be a side story, as we are introduced to Sae, a classmate of Motoko's from middle school, and get a flashback to those times. Sae has her own hideous issues, but seems to have become far more cynical about them than Motoko. This culminates in a fascinating conversation on the school roof, where Sae wonders about the sky's blueness, and Motoko notes that it's due to God. Faith is not something that Sae expected from Motoko at all, and she realizes that Motoko is NOT someone who's been crushed by her awful life, but has even more hidden strengths.

As a chapter of the manga, it fits awkwardly, and I'll admit it could easily have been chopped out. I was rather surprised to see the fact that Sae was sleeping with a guy at the age of 12 left unedited by Tokyopop - the fact that we don't see it likely helps. It also shows Motoko knowing what's going on and seeing events being manipulated around her, but going with the flow rather than fighting against it - something that we'll also see in the 2nd half of the manga.

The last half of this volume is the sort that after you read it, you want to go back and reread everything with the new perspective you've gained. Motoko (we think) spends the entire time being rather blase and cynical about the revelations in these chapters, as if she's known about them long before. The is an oasis of calm while everyone around her is freaking out, which annoys all of them, but especially Yuri. Then, when everything comes to a head at the hospital, it's shown she DID know about everything in advance - she knew it was false.

This leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the entire series, which shows that Motoko is not just a sadistic girl-watching maniac, but has a deep and genuine affection for people. As she says to her grandfather:
Gawd! Wake up and smell the truth! Masako wasn't a cheater. She was a good woman. And Fumio was a prince of a man. Sure, we were always dirt poor and they worked long hours just to save up enough money to take care of my sister, but they *never* lied to me. Not once. They were the best parents ever.

Speaking of deep affection, Yuri completely panics when it's mentioned that Motoko may leave Japan, and goes into overdrive when trying to defend her. Strangely enough, though, when Hirao tries to defend her against another of her scummy ex-boyfriends (he makes a horrible Scott Pilgrim), she tells him off, noting this is her problem and he should butt out. Of course, this clearly doesn't apply to her. Hirao notes that Motoko can take care of herself in this battle, and asks "Is this friendship between girls really that important to you?" The question resonates with Yuri for the rest of the volume.

And so I have at last caught up with the releases of Gatcha Gacha in North America, just in time for the final one to hit in early November, a mere 2 1/2 years after this one came out! I thank Tokyopop once more for going back to the well for this underrated shoujo title, a story with a bunch of completely broken, fucked-up protagonists that nonetheless manages to make all of them admirable people, if not the best role models. I wish we had more shoujo like this. Recommended.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 6: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B', Pantry Panic, $21 a Day (Once a Month), The Hollywood Matador...

I guess I've found the size limit for post titles, as it won't let me fit The Hams That Couldn't Be Cured up there.

As Walter Lantz is starting 1941, he's been doing cartoons for well over a decade, and is starting to know what his strengths are and play to them. The trouble had been getting a popular, merchandise-driven character once Oswald's star had faded, and Woody gave him the ticket revenue he sorely needed. More to the point, however, were his connections to the music world. All the cartoon studios did cartoons based around both classical and jazz music, but Lantz's jazz cartoons are some of the few where you can actually turn off the picture and enjoy the entire cartoon just listening to the hot band playing on the soundtrack.

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B' benefits especially from this, as the basic plot involves a drafted trumpet player trying to avoid being killed by the company (who hate to get up in the morning, to quote another Army song) by replacing his bugle with his golden trumpet and jazzing things up. Needless to say, this works out great, and soon the whole platoon is swinging and dancing. The cartoon features an all-black cast, and there are a few gags I'd say are racist, but the overall tone is nowhere near as bad as Lantz's infamous Scrub Me Momma With A Boogie Beat the year before, and the emphasis is predominately on the music. This is just a regular Cartune for Lantz, but soon he's have the idea for a new series.

Meanwhile, Woody appeared next in Pantry Panic, possibly the most widely watched Woody cartoon out there as the copyright was mistakenly not renewed, so it fell into the public domain. Mel Blanc had signed an exclusive with Warners, so was no longer voicing Woody - instead it's a guy named Danny Webb. The difference is minimal, though, and Woody is still just as insane. Winter is coming, and all the birds are going south for the Winter, with the exception of Woody, who notes it's a lovely day. Winter does indeed come rapidly (in the space of about 5 seconds) and Woody is forced to retreat to his warm, well-stocked home. Sadly, he makes the mistake of mocking the winter winds, who invade his home and steal all his food. With starvation staring Woody in the face (literally), an evil-looking cat shows up, planning to eat our hero. Unfortunately for him, Woody is a) insane and b) hungry, so Woody is just as homicidal towards the cat. After many murder attempts, the two briefly reconcile to kill and eat a stray moose, before going after each other once more. Watch for the sound error in Woody's last line, which isn't sped up as the others are.

Lantz realized his jazz cartoons were big sellers, and so created a whole new cartoon series for them, called 'Swing Symphonies'. The first in this series was a military cartoon (not really Wartime, as this was produced before Pearl Harbor) called $21 A Day (Once A Month), and featured toys in a department store imitating the soldiers and doing their best marching while singing the title song. Lantz knew how to start off a series by now; this cartoon features cameos by both Woody (who gets the toy soldiers to bound around in a goofy walk imitating his own) and Andy Panda (as a bugle boy). There's no plot to speak of, but the music is terrific.

We're now into 1942, and what would the Woody Woodpecker series (now a whole five cartoons old) be without a bullfighting cartoon? Nowhere, that's where! Woody (still voiced by Danny Webb) is the matador, and posters on the walls show his ritual abuse of various bulls in previous matches. This one fares no better, and the cartoon suffers a bit as a result, as Woody, insane as he is, appears to be in control the entire cartoon, with no sense of menace even when the bull is charging at him. Woody by now is not QUITE pure insanity, though, and shows a genuine gift for low cunning throughout this cartoon, but ends things off with pure force, charging the bull himself and ending up with the bull carved into "extra fresh bullburgers!". Of note, the print we have now may not be the original - an article from 1944 talks about Lantz reshooting 1/3 of this cartoon to remove stereotypical footage of Mexicans at the bullfight.

The second Swing Symphony, The Hams That Couldn't Be Cured, has far more plot than the first, and indeed takes a while to get going. It doesn't help that this is another "The Big Bad Wolf tells the REAL story of how the pigs are little hellions" cartoons that Warners had already done so well with The Trial of Mr. Wolf the previous year. The wolf, about to be strung up, tells everyone that the pigs are rambunctious jazz musicians, invading his home (where he teaches classical music) and demanding lessons, then jazzing up his scales and playing so loudly that it eventually blows up the entire house. The wolf actually gets the townsfolk to believe it, surprisingly, as they chase off after the pigs. Naturally, though, the wolf is telling lies. Not quite as good as $21 A Day, but once the music gets started the timing of the violent destruction is well done.

Next time, we'll get more Woody, more jazz from the Swing Symphonies, and another failed cartoon star in Homer Pigeon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Frank Zappa - The Fall 1978 tour

The last time the band changed, in the Fall of 1977, Frank only had a rhythm section from the previous band. Now, for the Fall 1978 tour, the rhythm section is the one he has to replace. Terry Bozzio has left the band after 3 years (a very long tenure for a 70s Zappa band member) and joined the band UK. Patrick O'Hearn also left, though circumstances would force his return halfway through this tour. And Adrian Belew joined David Bowie's tour - Frank was famously mocking of this towards the end of the Winter 78 tour, as Adrian let Frank know before the tour ended - but would become far more famous later on for his work with Robert Fripp in King Crimson.

To replace Terry, Frank hired Vinnie Colaiuta, who could not make up what Frank lost in Terry's vocals or comedic stylings, but whose drumming was simply monstrous. And, most importantly for a band like Frank's, he could sight-read. To play bass, Frank hired Arthur Barrow, who had worked with Vinnie and former Zappa band member Bruce Fowler the year before. Arthur wasn't as improvisational as Patrick was, but his bass-playing was technically spot-on, and he proved so good at learning things fast that he would later take over as the band's rehearsal director ("Clonemeister") in Frank's absence.

To make up for the loss in vocals and guitar, Frank hired Ike Willis, who had seen Frank perform in St. Louis in 1977 and had a short backstage 'audition' at that time. Ike's vocals were fantastic, and brought a new vocal dynamic back to the band which it hadn't really had since the loss of Ray White a year and a half earlier. Unfortunately, Ike had to leave the tour mid-October, so Patrick O'Hearn was brought back for the remaining 2 weeks of the tour. Frank also brought back Denny Walley to play slide guitar and sing vocals. Denny had played with Frank on the Spring 1975 tour with Captain Beefheart, but hadn't sung at that time. We find out why here - he has a sort of strangulated tenor that is pretty rock 'n roll, but not very tuneful. Nevertheless, it works for Frank's songs.

Ed Mann, Tommy Mars, and Peter Wolf remain from the previous band, playing percussion, keyboards, and keyboards, respectively.

As for the tour, most fans tend to divide it into two parts: September 3 - October 25, and the 6 Halloween shows. I'll discuss Halloween separately as well, and confine myself to the typical Fall 78 setlist. Actually, I'll do the 'early' and 'late' setlists - when he had one show that night, he'd do the early show with some extended stuff, when he had two he would do a 2nd show that introduced some lesser-played songs. Let's break things down. As always to avoid repetition I will point you to my prior Zappa posts (see tags) for discussion of those songs.

Opening Guitar Solo - For the first few shows of this tour, Frank would start things off with The Purple Lagoon, but after a week or so, he began to rotate various vamps over which he would play a guitar solo. Some of these could be short and perfunctory, and some long and sumptuous. Generally speaking, if the show opens with a fantastic guitar solo, it's a good sign the rest of the show will also be awesome. Debuting here was a vamp that would eventually appears on the Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar album as 'The Deathless Horsie', as well as a more free-form vamp that fans call 'Persona Non Grata', an example of which can be heard on the You Are What You Is album with Steve Vai overdubs as Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear.

Dancin' Fool - pretty much the same as the Winter 78 version.

Easy Meat - This song actually debuted eight years previously, on the first Flo and Eddie Zappa tour. Its lyrics actually fit in pretty well with the lecherous humor from that band, being a song about, well, a girl who is 'easy' and whom the singer can have sex with and then move on the next morning. Not exactly high art, but this was a period where Frank was enjoying finding more songs to offend people. Watch for the namecheck of 'Rolling Stone'. Vocals on this were by Ike Willis till he left mid-tour, then Denny Walley took over. Frank would play the guitar solo, which is rather short and simple this tour. It would eventually appear on the Tinseltown Rebellion album, but with a later tour's version and a magnificent keyboard bridge (missing here).

Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me? - This had debuted in the Fall of 1975, and was played for about a year and a half before being dropped. It's back now, and will stick around for another couple of years. I've never really liked the song, as I generally prefer my offensive songs to either have a solo to take my mind off it, or a technically difficult bit where I can point to it and say "Look, hard to play notes!". This is just a crass story about a jerk guy meeting a dimwitted girl at a bar, then going back to her place, trying to score, getting rebuffed, and eventually getting some head. At least the guy is portrayed just as scummily as the girl. It appeared on the Zappa in New York album, which featured the version from the Xmas 1976 tour.

Keep It Greasey - This song actually debuted late into the Fall 1975 tour, but was only played once or twice before being dropped. It makes its true debut here, and is yet another song about the wonders of anal sex. Presumably Frank felt the need for it to be hear as he'd dropped Broken Hearts Are For Assholes from the tour. I generally listen to Vinnie's drumming on this song, which is truly over the top. The song would appear on the Joe's Garage album with a long instrumental coda - live, it's just for the three verses and choruses.

Village of the Sun - This was a staple of Frank's classic tours from 1973 and 1974, with George Duke and Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals. Now that Frank has Ike Willis in the band, he can put it back in the lineup, and Ike's vocals are fantastic. Sadly, after Ike leaves the song is dropped, as it needs a vocalist who actually can sing well. In previous tours it segued into a complicated instrumental called "Echidna's Arf (Of You)", but here it leads to a calm, relaxed Frank guitar solo, which is usually quite good. The lyrics themselves are a tribute to the town of Palmdale, California, and its vicious sandstorms. The original version can be heard on the Roxy and Elsewhere album.

The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing - Another tour debut, and one of Frank's better political songs. Generally if Frank is going to offend people, I'd rather it be with political or religious views than with sexist claptrap, and The Meek is a great example. It's an attack on religion in general, but Billy Graham's style of televangelism in particular. It also features some terrific slide guitar by Denny Walley, and a nice, easy to song melody. Frank makes a point here he's made before and will again - he doesn't care what people believe, as long as they don't proselytize. It would appear on the You Are What You Is album.

City of Tiny Lites - similar to previous tours, only now Denny Walley not only sings lead vocals but adds a slide guitar solo, which Frank would then follow with his own solo. As always whenever Frank had to follow a dynamic soloist, this could lead to some terrific guitar playing.

Pound for a Brown - similar to previous tours, this was one of the tour's two big solo vehicles, and featured solos (usually) by Ed Mann on vibes/marimba, Tommy on piano keyboard, and Peter on moog synthesizer. Sometimes Frank would also take a solo. As the tour went on, Pound got longer and more involved, and some of the keyboard solos were astounding. You can hear the keyboard solos from a Halloween Pound on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 4.

Bobby Brown - similar to previous tours.

Conehead - This debuted as an instrumental riff on the Fall 1977 tour, but here it's the Saturday Night Live parody song we know from the You Are What You Is album. Unlike that album, the version here is usually followed by a nice Frank guitar solo, or, when he was a special guest, a violin solo by L. Shankar.

I Have Been In You - generally performed as in the previous tour, this mocking of Peter Frampton was usually shorn of its long, boutique girl intro here.

Flakes - Having debuted in the Fall of 1977 as essentially the first half of the song, then adding the 2nd half as a fabulous instrumental jam in Winter 78, Flakes as we know it today debuts here, with its second half devoted to more mocking of its subject. While I love the instrumental jam version best, this one is also fun, as Frank really goes to town on mocking repair people who promise to fix something, then never do, but charge you just the same.

Magic Fingers - A nice surprise this tour, this was a song that Flo & Eddie performed for the 200 Motels movie. It's revived here, and gives the show a rocking bout of adrenaline at just the right time, being a fast-paced rocker. The subject, of course, is sex, and more specifically the vibrating beds you get in cheesy motel rooms.

Yellow Snow Suite - Generally speaking, this ended the main set most nights. It's the first four songs from the Apostrophe (') album, Don't Eat The Yellow Snow, Nanook Rubs It, St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast, and Father O'Blivion, with an added 5th coda song, Rollo, which debuted (with different words and unconnected to Yellow Snow) with the 2nd 1972 tour but gains silly words here. Altogether it winds up being about 14 minutes long, and can be longer depending on how much fun Frank is having. The 'Nanook Rubs It' part usually involved Frank trying to get the audience to stand up and jump up and down on the imaginary fur trapper, something which he usually didn't have success with as audiences were OK with clapping, but jumping up and down made them feel like idiots. He had more luck in Europe in 1979, and the version of this Suite of the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 album is the definitive one.

This was your typical 'early set'. If Frank had a 2nd show, we'd usually see some variations of these songs, mixed in with the 'main' songs played again (such as Dancin' Fool and Easy Meat):

Bamboozled by Love - Debuting this tour (though Frank tried out the lyrics in a few improv spots a couple years back), this is your basic slow blues number, with vocals by Ike (when he was there) and Denny (when Ike left). The lyrics are about a guy yelling at his woman for cheating on him, and saying that when she returns he will murder her. As this is a blues song, I give that a pass, as, well, that's what a lot of blues songs were about. It also featured a Frank guitar solo.

Sy Borg - Frank was starting to pull together various songs from his recent tours and seeing if he could work them into a coherent album with a 'plot'. This would eventually become Joe's Garage, but most of the songs from that album work just as well on their own as they do within the context. This one is about sex - particularly sex with a 'machine person', with a nice triple-layered pun in the title about a cyborg, the robot being named 'Sy' (a Jewish name), and 'CYBernetic ORGasm'. The lyrics are crass, but the song itself is very pretty, one of the prettiest Frank ever did. It would also only appear on this tour, so is a nice rare treat. It has vocals by Ike and a moog keyboard solo by Peter Wolf.

Little House I Used to Live In - the other major solo instrumental song of the tour, this is essentially the same as the last tour, with Peter and Tommy getting piano solos (Tommy gets a longer solo, as Peter got a longer one in Pound), followed by Vinnie doing a drum solo. Vinnie's drum solos on this are an amazing outpouring of energy, very different from Terry Bozzio's, which were almost a performed composition.

Mo's Vacation - this didn't appear very often, but when it did it was always impressive. Apparently this came about after the band had mastered Black Page #2, and perhaps someone noted that it had become easy for them. Frank apparently took this as a challenge, and wrote Mo's Vacation, which has EVEN MORE insane polyrhythms for bass, percussion and drums. The 'rock band' version of this never appeared on an album (though the melody to it was quoted at the end of the song 'Wet T-Shirt Nite' on Joe's Garage), but Frank ended up turning it into a long classical piece called 'Mo & Herb's Vacation' which is on the London Symphony Orchestra album.

Black Page #2 - Performed as it has been the previous tours, as just the complicated instrumental, with no ending guitar solo. That would come later. On Halloween they did another 'dance contest' theme before this.

Suicide Chump - Another tour debut, with vocals either by Frank or Denny, depending on the point in the tour it's being performed. This tour's version usually involved a long spoken word intro with Frank talking about what the song was about, followed by the body of the song itself, then Denny and Frank playing slide and regular guitar solos. The whole thing was about 9-10 minutes long, and a nice bluesy treat. The song itself is not so much about mocking people who kill themselves as people who 'pretend' to kill themselves - taking too many pills (but not actually enough to kill themselves) or cutting their wrists (the wrong direction, so they don't actually bleed to death), then calling their friends and begging to be saved. Frank feels this is just a sad plea for attention, and notes if they want to be suicidal they should just do it. Let's face it, empathy is not a reason anyone listens to Zappa.

Tell Me You Love Me - Like Magic Fingers, this is a rocking number from the Flo & Eddie years that was revived to provide a short burst of raw energy into the set, and it does its job perfectly. The song itself is basically just a typical guy begging for affection.

Yo Mama - essentially performed as on the previous tour. The solo has gotten more structured, and tends to expand in 3 stages. First is freeform, with Frank playing under a very minimalist vamp. The band then comes in for a second section with full instrumentation, then Frank shifts into a 3rd vamp that sounds almost triumphant, riding that one for several more minutes. Yo Mama solos this tour could last from 10-12 minutes, and are some of the best guitar playing Frank's ever done.

That's basically what you'd see as a second set, with interspersed stuff from set #1. For encores:

Dinah-Moe Humm, Camarillo Brillo, Muffin Man - same as previous tours.

Strictly Genteel - Another number from the 200 Motels album, this was stripped of its lyrics and performed as a majestic instrumental. I feel it actually works better that way, with the band creating a wonderful atmosphere to send people home in a good mood.

As I noted, most of the tour was fairly straightforward. Halloween 1978 though, is a different beast, and deserves a separate post.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bleach Official Bootleg: Color Bleach

By Tite Kubo. Based on the manga "Bleach", released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

There is one big reason to get this book, which is sort of a mix of half-databook, half-omake 4-komas, and half "mook" (a type of magazine/book in Japan). It's funny. Many of the gags in this book made me laugh out loud. This is quite a shock to those people reading the manga currently running in Japan, as I believe we're approaching the second anniversary of Bleach's last joke. But yes, much like the route taken by Dragon Ball, Bleach was once filled with silly, dorky fun, and this volume, which slots in right after the Soul Society arc, is also just as fun.

Most of the first third is devoted to 4-komas that ran in Shonen Jump's sister publication V-Jump, which is gamer oriented (Yu-Gi-Oh moved there after it became more merchandise driven). These were essentially ads for the Bleach video games that were coming out on the Playstation 2, but clearly Kubo was taking this as an opportunity to have his cast act like complete idiots. Everyone's quirks are turned up to 11, and the result is, if you like Bleach, fantastic. The fact that this is the section in full color also adds to its value, as the colors are vibrant and well-used.

Following this we get the usual character profiles, except these are written in character by Shuhei Hisagi, the so-called "editor" of this book, and thus an entertaining mix of actual facts and useless information. My favorite bit was the writer attempting to justify Mayuri not being a complete and total monster, saying that he's "showing his personal kind of love" as he backhands his daughter across the chops. Even better are the profiles of the human cast who invaded Soul Society, with Orihime described as being a terrifying clothes-stealing poisonous flower. Hee!

The last section is the mook parody, and is the most variable, as mooks in general are. I'm not a big fan of the quizzes and personality match quizzes. But as with the previous section, the writing is kept light, as the Kubo writes with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Obviously, you aren't going to buy this if you aren't reading Bleach. If you still enjoy Bleach, I definitely recommend it. And if you dropped Bleach a while back as you were tired of being Aizen'd, then you may still want to get the book, as it's a great reminder of what the series once was when it was firing on all cylinders.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Manga the week of 8/25

Easiest list I've ever had to do, but it deserves its own post.

Midtown says that it is getting in A Drunken Dream And Other Stories from Fantagraphics next week. This collection of Moto Hagio's shoujo work is eagerly anticipated by many, including me. This is Fantagraphics' new manga imprint, and they've apparently gone all out in making it a handsome, attractive volume. And the stories, hand picked by Matt Thorn with the author's approval, run the gamut from the 1960s to the present day. Seriously, everyone who reads my blog should already have preordered this. If not, get it.

You should also get the new Complete Peanuts 1977-1978. And the first volume of Bob Montana's Archie strips (1946-1948) is also out.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dorohedoro Volume 2

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

I was pleasantly surprised at the first volume of Dorohedoro, and was expecting a lot from Volume 2. And it did not disappoint, giving me more of what I wanted - humor, gore, mystery, and the occasional sweet moment.

The humor comes in shades both light and dark, as despite living in a dystopian crapsack world, both our two heroes and our two 'villains' are determined not to let it get them down. I feel bad for poor Ebisu, who clearly is meant to be the character that we laugh at whenever bad things happen to her. She's healed up only to be killed by zombies, then resurrected, traumatized, and almost eaten again, then forced to carry a severed head in her knapsack. It sounds horrific, but is hilarious. And I can't spoil the funniest gag of the volume, which involves a man with a turkey mask who can make duplicates... that just happen to come out looking like dinner. See for yourself.

There's also plenty of violence and gore. Caiman and Nikaido square off against Shin and Noi early on, in their first major confrontation, and it's a bloodbath. If you aren't fond of limbs flying off and blood spattering everywhere, this is not the manga for you. The last chapter, which features a crooked boxer, is notable for being the LEAST violent. I mean, boxing? Pff. Not nearly as dangerous as crushing zombies.

Most of what's going on is still a mystery, but we do get a few more tidbits, mostly dealing with Caiman. His ability to grow back any body part, even a SEVERED HEAD, seems a bit overdone, but he knows this, and is clearly a little weirded out by it himself. Meanwhile, it appears we may have actually seen what his human face looked like, at least, only to find that things are far more complex than we expected. As for the revelation about Nikaido, it doesn't come as too much of a surprise to me, but it will be interesting to see how everyone reacts when it comes out.

Caiman and Nikaido, of course, are absolutely adorable together. True, there's no romantic overtones, and he'd be the first to say he's only in it for the gyoza, but the two have lots of sweet moments, and Nikaido's worries about her past are given more depth because of this. Likewise, Shin is a grumpy old cuss, but he and Noi also clearly have a deep friendship, even when they aren't 'at work'. Nikaido and Noi are both very cheerful young women, which is good, as it gives Q Hayashida an excuse to draw big smiles, something that she's very good at. (And yes, I totally ship Shin/Noi. I doubt anything will happen, though.)

Much like the first volume, this isn't so much something you read as something you take in. It's a sensory experience, and some of the senses you're activating may not be to your taste. But Dorohedoro is highly enjoyable for me, and I can't wait for Volume 3. Readers who liked Appleseed or Battle Angel Alita will enjoy this a great deal, I think.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gente Volume 1

By Natsume Ono. Released in Japan by Ohta Shuppan, serialized in the magazine Manga Erotics F. Released in North America by Viz.

I enjoyed reading Ristorante Paradiso, the slice-of-Italian-life manga Viz released back in March, but at times it felt more like a series of snapshots. You got the feeling that there was a lot being left out in order to make Nicoletta and Claudio's story be the primary focus. Likewise, after reading the flashback with Lorenzo and Gigi, I wanted to see more about the restaurant pre-Nicoletta, how the crew assembled and where they were before.

So did Natsume Ono, as we now get Gente, a 3-volume prequel to the series. Of course, that doesn't mean that this is any more linear than its companion volume. Reading Gente is a bit like drifting from room to room at a party, picking up scraps of conversation as you go. Luckily, it's a high-class party, and the people there are intriguing. We sense there will be change right from the 'cast' page at the start, which features several people we never met in Ristorante Paradiso.

And so we get an anthology of Gente short stories, which works fine. The volume starts slow, and it's odd seeing Olga, the mother from RP, being treated so sympathetically here, but it works with the mood. Things pick up with a fascinating story of infidelity, filled with tension as you wait for things to break apart, which is oddly unrelieved as they don't. Given Olga's redemption in RP, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that not only one, but TWO questionable couples in this volume decide to stay together and give it another try. It makes for a lack of 'big moments', but feels good.

Gente reads well even if you haven't read RP, but there are stories that reward people who know the previous story. We already know Vito, the bald guy with goatee from the restaurant, was married to a college student in the prior volume; now we see how it happened, with his running into his future wife at the gym. This was my favorite chapter of the volume, even if Vito seems a little too good to be true (but then, I am not this manga's primary audience). I particularly liked how we were led to believe that he would be following an abusive husband downstairs to 'give him a good talking to', but in fact what happens is a real discussion, leading to a better result.

The volume wraps up with an outdoor picnic, as the 4 previous stories all tie together with the 5th, which writes out Lorenzo's friend Marzio, who is leaving the restaurant due to a bad back. The sense that we're getting snatches of a conversation is most intense here, when we're at an actual party, but again the closest we get to a crisis is Claudio and his ex-wife meeting, and even that is merely a conversation.

If you like, well, things actually happening, this is not the manga for you. This is a manga about people talking to each other, and the action is minimal. Still, they're likeable people, and there are many scenes here that show rather than tell, a nice level up from Ristorante Paradiso. If there's a fault, it's that things are a little *too* perfect here. It's an idealized Italian world of attractive perfect men, and makes no bones about it being anything else. But I found it peaceful, relaxing and enjoyable, and want to read Volume 2.

Monday, August 16, 2010

School Rumble Vols. 14, 15 & 16

By Jin Kobayashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Del Rey.

(Note: School Rumble is a series that has finished in Japan. It is very difficult for many fans, especially hardcore fans of the series, to avoid spoiling the ending. I am going to do my best to avoid revealing anything beyond the volumes I review here today, and I advise anyone making comments to do the same.)

Generally speaking, with a few exceptions pure shonen romantic comedy doesn't do well here in North America. Be it comedy with occasional romance (such as School Rumble) or romance with occasional comedy (such as Strawberry 100%), the New York Times bestseller lists reach for shoujo series when they want romance, and the shonen tends to involve ninjas and vampires instead of wacky complications.

This is probably one reason why we're seeing School Rumble in the 3-in-1 format, and it's a shame, as it's got a lot going for it. Its comedy is great, and the humor can come from anyone or anywhere. It has four 'leads', but anyone can carry a chapter or even an arc on their own, and does. Its cast is HUGE, leading to the aforementioned habits of anyone carrying a chapter. There's an odd fantastical tone to it at times, meaning even MORE anything can happen (One girl is slightly telepathic, another telekinetic, but we usually only see that for comedy). And the author knows how to write a romantic kudzu plot, gradually giving one couple an edge, then another, keeping you reading avidly in an effort to find out just who everyone ends up with.

The series stars, supposedly, a cute and perky yet dim girl named Tenma Tsukamoto. Very early on, however, the spotlight is stolen by three others; hothead biker with a heart of gold Kenji Harima, rich and gorgeous yet grumpy tsundere Eri Sawachika, and Tenma's meek and shy sister Yakumo. The kudzu romance is that Tenma loves Ouji Karasuma, a very quiet and weird young man in her class. Harima loves Tenma, to the point of obsession, and believes that anything anyone says to him in some way revolves around his getting her to know this. Eri and Yakumo both love Harima, mostly as, since his mind is utterly devoted to Tenma, he treats them as normal young girls and doesn't hit on them.

After this, it's almost enough to let the comedy write itself. These three volumes put the focus squarely on Harima's relationship with Eri (Yakumo will get her turn later, the series balances them nicely). Harima doesn't think before he does anything, for the most part, and when he does it's mostly mistaken ideas about what Tenma would think of him, or what he can do for her. Meanwhile, Eri thinks far too much, trying to figure out Harima's every little sullen gesture and noble defense, and getting extremely worked up about the whole thing. And then there's the school trip to Kyoto, also being visited by a group of English high-schoolers on a foreign jaunt.

Most of these three volumes are devoted to tangling things even further for our three leads, or quiet revelations that add to our perception of them. The most intriguing was probably a flashback to Tenma and Yakumo's childhood. Tenma is exactly the same as she is today, but Yakumo is quite different. Seeing her personality like this is very intriguing, and makes one wonder how she changed to become the shy and loving younger sister she is now. There are also occasional flashes of serious here and there. Tenma's friend Mikoto (who appears on the cover) breaks up with her boyfriend of a few months, mostly as they simply didn't connect. It's refreshing to see a breakup in manga not be due to cheating or hideous backstory or some other trauma, but simply as it's not working the way you thought it would. Likewise, we see Mikoto and Asou (the boy) afterwards, and their melancholic (yet not heartbroken) reaction to it all is very well handled.

There's a lot going on here, and so much more I could cover. This is a fast-paced series, and in 3 volumes you get a lot going on. The regular chapters (each volume ends with several 'side story' omake chapters) do end on a big cliffhanger note, as it would appear that Eri has finally discovered Harima's true love, and is very unhappy about it. Jin Kobayashi is excellent at keeping everyone on the edge of their seats, desperate to find out what happens next and how things will resolve. Of course, that will have to wait for the scheduling of Volumes 17-19 from Del Rey, which may be a bit. But I think it's worth the wait to see more laughs and more horrible romantic misunderstandings.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 5: Knock Knock, Fair Today, Hysterical Highspots in American History, Woody Woodpecker, The Screwdriver

It's late 1940, and Walter Lantz has found a cartoon star that does OK, if not great - Andy Panda. Lantz is still trying other stars, though, knowing that Disney and Warners have several established superstars. He's also helped along by the hiring of WB director Ben "Bugs" Hardaway to write for him, best known for being the creator of a prototype that wasn't Bugs Bunny, but would, after several years, become a character given Hardaway's nickname.

Ben was clearly very fond of the screwball rabbit he'd done for Warners, as the first Andy Panda he worked on featured a very similar insane screwball. Only instead of a rabbit, this one was a woodpecker. Andy (who is still a child, but has lost his cutesy widdle voice, thank God, and just sounds like a normal young cartoon boy) and his father are trying to relax at a cabin, but a relentless pecking is driving them nuts. It's Woody, in his debut, and voiced by Mel Blanc. In these first few cartoons, Woody is less a character than a force of nature, being utterly insane and prone to hysterics. Andy's poppa, of course, is from the slow burn school of anger, so you can imagine how well they get on. And Andy wanders through trying to put salt on Woody's tail (my favorite gag is when Woody whips out a mug of beer to salt, then blows the foam in Andy's face). In the end, the nuthouse comes to take Woody away, but they prove to be just as nutty as he is, gibbering and hopping madly about.

Two cartoons follow also clearly influenced by Warners, this time the Tex Avery school of spot gag travelogue. Both Fair Today (going around a county fair gags) and Hysterical Highspots in American History (newsreel parody of US history gags) are decent enough, but neither really reach out and grab you, and it's clear that Lantz isn't as comfortable with the formula Hardaway brought with him, and didn't take to it like he did the insane Woody. I did note that the latter cartoon had a reference to the (peacetime) draft, showing we're headed towards World War II.

Knock Knock got VERY good word of mouth, and not for Andy Panda or his pop. Lantz immediately started cranking out more Woodpecker cartoons, with the year 1941 featuring 3 more. I watched 2 here, one being the self-titled Woody Woodpecker, and the other the aptly named Screwdriver. Both trade on one basic plot: Woody is genuinely mentally unhinged. Warners, with Daffy Duck, almost immediately began toning him down after his initial appearance. Woody hasn't hit that point yet.

In Woody Woodpecker, the forest animals are all half-disgusted, half-terrified of the insane bird, who already has his own theme song ("Everybody thinks I'm crazy! Yes sirree, that's me, that's me..."), and the Universal opening already has the 'ha-ha-ha-HA-ha' music with the logo. Eventually even Woody listens to their advice, and goes to see a fox psychiatrist. Sadly, the fox is a fox because Ben Hardaway likes bad puns, and is just as insane as the woodpecker. Seeing Woody battle a force equal (well, almost) to his own is a novelty, but you can see why most screwball cartoons have them go up against dumb guys or tough guys rather than equally crazy loons. The cartoon ends, as Knock Knock did, with the fox acting insane and jumping around.

The Screwdriver has Woody in his speed-happy jalopy trying to run from the long arm of the law, and is a better cartoon, inasmuch as the antagonist is a dumb guy (the cop trying to catch him for speeding), and it has more memorable gags. It's seen far less often on TV, but that's likely due to Woody's racist impression of a Chinaman rickshaw driver towards the end. Woody sings a variation of his 'crazy' song again, and is still voiced by Mel Blanc. Best gag has him approaching a four-way stop, grabbing the arm of a blonde girl in another car who's signaling a turn, and spinning her and her car around like a top. After leaving her dazed in the middle of the road, he drives off, commenting "That's the dizziest blonde I ever went around with!" The cartoon ends with the cop (in jail) having gone insane, gibbering and jumping up and down. For the third Woody cartoon in a row. Get a new ending, guys.

Like Tex Avery with Bugs Bunny at first, Lantz knows he has a superstar at last, but is not quite sure what to do with him other than make the same cartoon with variations. And worse, Mel Blanc is signing an exclusive with Warners, and he'll need a new voice for Woody. Not to mention the spot gag parodies didn't take off. Maybe he should try cartoons based more around jazz - that's worked in the past. We'll see what he does next time...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mushishi Volumes 8, 9, & 10

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

And so one of Del Rey's quirkier series comes to an end, as the final 3 volumes of Mushishi come out in one big 'this doesn't sell very well' omnibus. But it is at least complete, and looks great, though I would prefer that Del Rey put all the endnotes at the end and number the pages all the way through - it's harder to flip to the middle to look for a note.

Despite the fact that this is the series' grand finale, the author deliberately avoids giving it a definite ending. The last story is a 2-parter, but other than that could just as easily slot in anywhere in the series. There wasn't much of a backstory to Mushishi in any case - we get another flashback to Ginko's childhood here, but it's not revelatory - so there aren't plot threads to be tied up or couples to marry off. It's just life going on, and that life getting entangled with a lot of mushi.

These stories tend to, like a lot of folk tales, be divided into happy and sad endings. Though really, even the happy endings tend to be a sort of grey, melancholic sort of happiness. Seeing a happy couple at the end, or happy parents and their children, is a rarity here - which of course makes it all the sweeter when it does happen. Likewise, you feel horrible when things go wrong for the mushi-infected people - whether through stubbornness or lack of resolve. One chapter in particular, featuring a man reliving his life over and over again and having deja vu - is heartbreaking, but in a totally understandable, human way.

Despite all of the mushi, Mushishi is a story about humanity, in all its goodness and badness. Ginko wanders through offering sage wisdom, but as much as I like him his role could be filled by anyone and the story would still be the same. Mushishi ended up being an anthology series, a collection of short stories in 10 volumes with an interconnected theme. But they're all well-told, with lovely watercolor art that highlights the naturalistic, quasi-historical feel of the series.

It's not a series that got me all fired up, and wanting to write fanfics or hunt down art. But it's peaceful, and calm, and something from Del Rey that's a change from the things they've been licensing lately. Those who like stories, and don't mind a few scares or tears, will love reading Mushishi.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Manga the week of 8/18

At last, a quiet week! Most of the Viz stuff I'm mentioning actually shipped this week to comic shops, and as always Midtown Comics is getting it a week later. But a week where 30-40 books aren't all coming out at once is a GOOD week.

Oh yes, we also have Kodansha's Western arm, who are putting out Ghost in the Shell 2. I presume this will be a simple reprint of the Dark Horse version, like Kodansha's other releases to date. I will admit they did announce a new title for January of next year that seems to be a non-reprint, a manga version of Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai. I'd still like to see Sailor Moon, though. :)

As for Viz, this week is traditionally the week when they release their 'Signature' titles, the ones with good reviews and bad sales. Or maybe not, as Vagabond 32 is coming out, and Matt Blind's excellent post here shows that it sells OK. We also get new 20th Century Boys for you Urasawa fans, and more Ooku for those who like to rage against the adaptation.

Gestalt, the fantasy manga that came out in the 1990s from Square Enix's GFantasy magazine, is ending after 8 volumes.

The two I'm most interested in this week are Dorohedoro Volume 2, as I found Volume 1 to be far more interesting than I'd expected from a grim, gritty, ultraviolence title, and Volume 1 of Gente, the 'prequel' to Ristorante Paradiso that goes into how the restaurant came to be. Both are titles that I very much consider 'subsidized by Naruto', i.e. they'd never be licensed were it not for Viz's success with the ninja boy allowing them to take more risks. At the same time, I always love when titles like this come out. These two especially have art that's fascinating and great to analyze, albeit in totally different ways.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Qwaser of Stigmata Volume 1

By Hiroyuki Yoshino and Kenetsu Sato. Released in Japan as "Seikon no Qwaser" by Akita Shoten, serialization ongoing in the magazine Champion Red. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

It's been a long time since I've actually spent money to purchase something I knew ahead of time that I'd dislike. I picked up this title, however, feeling that it's possible that my blog was getting too positive, and that I was only reviewing titles I could enthuse over. And I knew that this title would be talked about the moment Tokyopop announced it. So I decided to get Volume 1 and struggle through it.

Imagine my surprise when it managed to be even worse than I'd anticipated! The blatant fanservice was pretty bad - I mean, the writer says in the first line of his author's notes, "Hello, do you love breasts? I love them very much!!". That tells you exactly what you're getting into. The plotline of the heroes needing breast milk - pardon me, soma - from your handy big-breasted girl is perhaps not one that I'd expect in a mainstream manga (no, not even from Champion Red), but certainly would not be out of place in any number of hentai doujinshi, so we can't even claim that as an innovation.

(As a side note, when I think of the word 'soma', I naturally think of Blake's 7, as my youthful memories are filled with Vila whining about how all he needs is some soma to keep him going. This makes me imagine Avon offering his breast to Vila to suckle, something which I'm amazed slashers never came up with. But I digress...)

Then there's the rest of the plot that's not about breast sucking, which manages to be just as predictable. Private school, lots of bullying of the poor heroines. Shy meek girl turns out to be a sneering villain all along, very typical of these sorts of shonen manga for guys series. And speaking of secretly evil girls, we also have the Goth Loli. I'm surprised that he didn't work in animal ears in some way... oh wait, that's right! The nun Teresa just HAPPENS to have hair that falls so that she looks like she has dog ears. I will admit, the sheer gall of piling all these things together is somewhat impressive.

If only it made a lick of sense. It is possible that my lack of knowledge of the Russian Orthodox church might be forcing me to miss some important plot points, but I suspect even a Patriarch would stare at this manga in confusion. The second half, which is essentially a giant fight scene of the "Fool, you thought that was powerful enough to destroy ME?" variety, would work just as well with no dialogue whatsoever, and I actually wonder if the art was drawn first, and Sato just gave this to Yoshino and said "Fill this in with words." I'm used to shonen manga, especially ones built around fights, where the plot is irrelevant. But the way it's used here, with its religious iconography and metal symbols, is almost completely incoherent.

I have no desire to get another volume of this, but I suspect I don't need to. The hero and heroine will work hard to protect the pure purity pureness girl with huge breasts from various villains that get more powerful. No doubt by Volume 2 or 3 our hero will need to suckle on our heroine's breasts to get a powerup. This will be presented as titillating but will not actually lead to anything remotely resembling romance, as the action is totally divorced from any love or romance. No doubt she will hit him at some point. And no doubt they will gain allies who will also provide their metal powers - and associated breasts - to help out.

This is still running in Japan at 9 volumes, so no doubt it's popular. But man, what mindless entertainment it is. You can do better if you're looking for shonen fighting series. Hell, you can even do better if you're looking for women with big breasts. Not recommended.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Code: Breaker Volume 1

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

I have to admit, sometimes a series can surprise me. I've become so used to generic fighting shonen that when I see something out of the ordinary (at least for what's licensed over here), it really draws my attention. And for a first volume, Code: Breaker (from the author of Samurai Deeper Kyo) gets off to a great start.

It has several things going for it. Our hero is tortured, but not in a typical "wait till you learn of my tragic past" way, or even a "I am a complete ass to hide my sincere love of all humanity" way. Ogami is seen here killing several people throughout, painfully, by burning them to death. He seems, from what we've gathered so far, to regard himself as something less than human, and very much believes in vigilante justice. Of course, we suspect he DOES have a sincere love of all humanity, mostly from the little things. Killing a dog painlessly as he knows her injuries are irreparable. Going nuts on the yakuza thugs after seeing the adorable family photo of the man they've addicted to drugs.

I am not sure, however, that we'll ever see him gradually turn towards the light. It's a rare shonen series that has as its second cliffhanger the hero trying to KILL THE HEROINE. It's implied he was simply messing with her, but the whole thing is played deadly seriously. It's especially compelling as we genuinely like this heroine. Sakura is a girl who has the unfortunate luck to look just like a quiet, shy Japanese doll, even though she's a martial arts expert, freakishly strong, and somewhat of a busybody. She's spunky and likeable, yet at the same time we can see how irritating she would be to someone like Ogami.

It's not all burning flesh horror, of course. The school scenes are quite funny, mostly due to the interplay between the guys' image of Sakura and the misunderstandings of the interaction between her and Ogami. Basically any time Ogami has his eyes closed and is smiling happily is comedy gold, as seeing him being a jerk *is* fun here, mostly as he's not being presented as a hot romantic lead. In fact, I suspect what romance this series has will be small and vague.

Now, to be fair, I know of many shonen series that start strong and then turn into a series of suspiciously similar sidebattles. (That was far more alliterative than I'd planned.) I'll definitely get Volume 2, but much of my enjoyment will likely depend on how Sakura continues to be portrayed. Despite being a martial artist brawler, she's barely seen fighting here, and the author's previous series started with a strong female character then sidelined her. Shonen series, especially ones with lots of fights, depend on characterization and development to keep me going, as I don't really care about seeing 150 pages of fists flying and Secret Techniques.

Still, Volume 1 totally did its job. Characters I want to know more about, an evocative mood, and some cute humor to offset it (love that puppy!). Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei Volume 7

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

For my ongoing war with Del Rey's lack of an editorial department, see the reviews of Volumes 5 and 6. Again, endnotes are chosen almost at random, with many relevant things left unexplained. This is especially noteworthy in the chapter on inappropriate names of books, as the chapter clearly depends on knowing the books in question (that they're parodying) for the gag. Also, saying that Dice-K pitches for the Yankees? You fail forever, Del Rey.

This is, however, a very strong volume of Zetsubou-sensei, featuring a greater than usual amount of topics that make sense to both Eastern and Western readers. And, to be fair to David Ury, translator/adaptor since Vol. 5, some of the adaptation is excellent. My favorite story in the volume, which features Nozomu going on about how people say 'half-' something when they don't mean exactly half, is a great example, as it works in both straight translation of the original (when relevant) and adaptations of hard-to-translate gags (when needed). In particular, Chiri is at her scary best here. My favorite is when she confronts the student about being half asleep, and just says "No." over and over as he tries. She actually said "No." in English for the anime, making it even creepier.

There's a lot of disturbing, weird and creepy in this volume, as you'd expect from a gag manga. I was expecting the naked guy's full-frontal nudity, sketched and indistinct as it was, to be censored - very happy that it was not. Even if it's the exact opposite of fanservice. Chiri's half-crying makes even Meru gibber, and justifiably so. However, the prize has to go to the giant 50-foot Nozomu made entirely of people, which just makes my flesh crawl. Naturally, Chiri loves it.

There are a couple of things in this volume that will become important later, or at least as important as it will ever get here. We discover that Harumi is skilled at far more than just manga, but how she uses her God-given talent is somewhat questionable. We meet the one character whose punny name might actually be recognizable to Western readers, Jun Kutou's rival Kino Kuniya. He doesn't actually do much, but then few of the male classmates do. We also meet another main female character here in the girl who's the library aide, though she's been around silently since Volume 1, and we won't get her name and quirk till Volume 8. She's funnier with her quirk. :)

And of course there are the gags. Which are hit-and-miss, as you'd expect, but with far more hits than misses. Some of my favorites are Nozomu's red strings of fate (shades of Ataru in the 3rd UY movie), all of the Matoi robots stalking the Nozomu robots, "I was only half-joking", Harumi's reaction to the soccer ball being kicked at her head, and using before and after pictures of Michael Jackson to show things deviating from the original idea. My favorite gag, though, as to be Chiri's 'authentic witch' costume. Koji Kumeta has mocked Ghibli before, and he will again, but this is one of his subtler and better timed jokes.

If you can get past some questionable editorial practices (one more example: Chiri saying "Goodbye, Zetsubou-sensei" at the climax of Chapter 69. Come on, Del Rey, you even begged Kodansha to let you keep the original title! If you're going to tell a joke using your title, TELL THE JOKE), but is still a strong comedy manga with striking art, laughable mocking of various habits, and the biggest set of sociopathic classmates you'll see this side of a horror manga. Recommended.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Gakuen Alice Volume 12

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

As everyone knows, sometimes setup is important. Especially in manga, you can't just get to the awesome stuff right away. You have to build your world, establish your characters, and of course bully them mercilessly until the reader wants to throw the volume across the room. Likewise, when you're doing a long dramatic arc, you need to have lots of dramatic fights against mid-level enemies, and standing around asking yourself why you're doing this. And of course, you need flashbacks.

This may sound like I'm being sarcastic, but I'm not really. When the payoff DOES arrive, if it's all perfectly timed, it can be a thing of beauty. Such a thing of beauty is Gakuen Alice 12, which draws together several threads from the previous books to create the best volume to date.

We start off by finishing up the previous volume's flashback, which shows, as expected, everything going wrong for Natsume and his family. It's especially heartbreaking as they're just so sweet, and makes you want to reread previous volumes so you can kee3p that in mind when seeing Natsume's grumpy, sullen demeanor. Natsume agrees to go to the school in order to protect his family, with his sister essentially being kidnapped and imprisoned to act as insurance. Since she's blind and amnesiac after the climax of Volume 11, this is easier than it sounds. And so Luca comes along, out of pure determination to be Natsume's friend. The flashback ends with Natsume's father, still hospitalized, hobbling after the limo taking him to the school screaming out his name. The close of of Natsume's tears as this happens is just devastating.

After this, and Luca's noting that his 'success' at the school is mostly due to the school baiting Natsume and treating him like a walking firebomb for hire, Mikan simply flips out. "What's wrong with this stupid school?" she asks, and she's not kidding. The Natsume flashback actually helps me deal with the bullying we'd gotten in previous scenes better, as it now becomes clear it's NOT just the standard Japanese "Why did you make him hit you?" school of bullying, but that the author is showing that this school's treatment of children as a combination of prisoners, lab rats, and spoiled brats leads to exactly this sort of behavior.

And so, filled with determination, they split up to go find Persona and rescue Natsume. First, however, Mikan ends up in a different level of the basement, where she runs into a familiar face. The meeting between Mikan and Aoi manages to be cute and serious at the same time, as their immediate bond (they're extremely similar) is offset by Aoi's devotion to Persona, which is a bond of deep empathy. Having only seen the brooding, broken Persona rather than his killer evil side, Aoi wants nothing more than to help him.

That changes fast, as Mikan is called to another part of the building, where the others have found Persona, Natsume... and Nobara, who is in an ice princess trance (this school does love priming its kid weapons, doesn't it). One thing I loved is both Natsume AND Persona assuming that Mikan stops Nobara through using her nullification Alice, when really it's just Nobara herself, terrified of Mikan seeing her when she's like this, breaking down and running off. Mikan has so far proved to be much better at getting her way through the power of friendship than due to her Alice.

So now we're down to Persona, who is verbally destroying Natsume. The confrontation is made even worse by the arrival of Aoi, who had left her little prison cell (one suspects, being blind and sympathetic to Persona anyway, she wasn't locked up so much as persuaded to stay there for her own good), and she finally sees him threatening everyone with his 'monstrous' powers. These two chapters are notable for a few things; Mikan's sheer determination to stop Persona, even if it means her own death; Persona's traumatic past, which we only see bits of but which will surely pop up again in the future, as it's become clear that Persona is Natsume's dark mirror; and Hotaru, normally very deadpan, completely losing that and looking just as worried as the others when it becomes clear that Persona's attacks on Mikan are making her seriously ill. The scene where she essentially begs her brother to save Mikan is very touching.

Nevertheless, Mikan *does* stop Persona, and not just by giving him a big hug (though that's how it appears). A male figure with his face hidden by hair appears behind her as a sort of 'ghostly image', much the same way the spirit of a dead teammate appears behind the hero in a shonen anime as they deal their new finishing move. It's not stated, but it's fairly clear that this must be Mikan's father, and that she not only has nullification, but ANOTHER Alice... one which can not only stop Persona (who gets a taste of his own medicine), but actually manages to heal herself. Most of this is shown in a very vague "But ... wait, it couldn't be... that?" sort of way, and clearly Mikan's new ability will drive the plot of some future volumes.

I also must praise Tono in this volume, who actually manages to figure out a way not to get everyone brutally punished. His solution, relying on the fact that Aoi-chan was imprisoned at school despite not having Alice abiliti4es anymore, is very clever, and I liked the reaction of the student body to the revelations. Notably, their reactions also seemed to be along the lines of 'what's wrong with this stupid school?'. It's always nice to see that it's not just Mikan vs. the world. And then we get the last scene, showing Aoi leaving the school. It's so ridiculously heartwarming that words just can't describe it. For a manga that deals with child abuse, bullying, and trauma the way Gakuen Alice has so often in the past, seeing a happy ending like this, even if briefly, is incredibly necessary. It's even capped off by Luca throwing his stars away, realizing the falseness of the school's hierarchy.

As I noted in the review of my two previous volumes, the buildup to this was sometimes a bit of a slog. But this volume basically had everything I wanted from Gakuen Alice. Mikan's determination (which reaches new highs here) and ability to use niceness as a weapon; Persona getting his ass kicked by a girl, even if only metaphorically; and the resolution of the horrific flashback in a way that's pure joy. Almost everyone gets a chance to shine, either by being very clever or by showing sides of themselves we don't normally see. Yes, I'm sure in a volume or two we'll be back to more of Mikan being bullied and other student abuses, but that is sort of the premise. In the meantime, we have this.