Monday, January 31, 2011

The Stellar Six of Gingacho Volume 2

By Yuuki Fujimoto. Released in Japan as "KiramekiGingachou Shoutengai" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

As we get into the 2nd volume of Stellar Six, the title has just transitioned from the 6-times-per-year short-series magazine The Hana to Yume to the 24-times-a-year long haul Hana to Yume. As a result, you can, as with many Volume 2s, feel the gears grinding a bit as the author starts to plan things out for a longer run. A lot of Volume 2 is hitting the plot points Vol. 1 hit for the larger readership that HtY has: friendship is forever, and Mike and Kuro are going to be a couple once the denseness ends.

The manga is very big about stressing the impermanence of all things, and Mike's struggles to rage against this are almost getting a bit much. I appreciate the nostalgia factor that the author is using, and indeed we root for Mike to be able to reunite her gang of 6 in 20 years when they'll all still be BEST BUDS, but you can also see that this is causing her to wear blinders a bit. She's the perky innocent young girl (now 15 years old instead of the 13 of Volume 1), but it almost seems to bit TOO much. I'm sure this will end with Mike getting her wish, but I hope that some of the pains of becoming an adult hit her here as well.

As for Mike and Kuro, the relationship between them provides much of the humor in the volume. It is obvious to everyone except Mike that Kuro is in love with her. Mike clearly is in love with him as well, but has no idea what that kind of love means, and when she tries to think about it too hard she just sort of freezes up. Meanwhile, Kuro is better at knowing his own feelings, but still hasn't quite gotten what Mike's 'electric shocks to her chest' are, so he's still thinking that the love is all on his end. It's the stuff shoujo manga is made of, and can get frustrating if dragged on too long. Luckily, this is only 10 volumes long, so they should be OK. There's also a healthy jolt of lampshading from the four friends, especially Iba-chan and Q, who make the best 'you are angering us with your dumb' expressions.

As for the other four, they're still pretty underdeveloped. The author notes in her end of the volume chatter that she hopes to give them more of a focus in the upcoming volumes, which will be good. They're nice and all, but I want to know more about them than their basic obvious personality. So far, Mamoru is my favorite, with a sense of humor that appeals to be greatly. "I am Uromam."

There is a short story at the end of this, one of the author's debut pieces (she says it's her first, but she sold two others before this one, which will be seen in the final volume of Stellar Six). It lacks the flair and polish of the main work, as is typical with these fill out the 2nd volume with one-shots chapters. There is a bit of a science-fiction edge to it, but you get the sense that this was just added to make the work have something to say beyond the standard 'I am moving away, and we will never see each other again, but we will always be bestest friends 4-evah'. It doesn't help that the last chapter of Stellar Six we get here deals with leaving your old friends also, and is far smoother.

So, not quite as fun as Volume 1, but still a great deal of fun. I expect we'll be seeing some long-term stuff playing out now that the author is working with a mid-sized series rather than a series of one-shots, and look forward to seeing more of the other 4 of the Stellar Six, even though I know that the stars will continue to be Mike and Kuro and their sweet, clueless love.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dorohedoro Volume 3

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

As always with this series, there's so much going on here that I don't even know where to begin. We continue to have Caiman and Nikaido attempt to discover how he got his lizard head, and this time they even go to the world of sorcerers to do it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, En and company are trying to get information from what was supposedly 'Caiman's' severed head, who turns out (once reattached to a body) to be a guy named Risu. Sadly, Risu seems to be a bit of a flake, so they aren't really getting a lot out of him. Even worse, Nikaido shows up to kidnap him.

The overall plot *is* fascinating, and we do get a couple more major characters fleshed out here with Risu and Dr. Kasukabe, but as always it seems that I read this series for the character moments and the art. The art in particular is deceptively chaotic, but looking closely brings fresh joy with each page. Just the backgrounds, with its rough-hewn, sketchy look, gives the impression of a world that's just as sketchy. And while I'm on the subject, there's some fanservice here, but it's interesting the way it's handled. Both Nikaido and Noi are very busty, and we can clearly see that when they change (or, in Nikaido's case, when a giant mushroom pops out of her back and destroys her shirt). But for the most part, she and Noi don't dress in skintight outfits, but in sensible sturdy clothing. Which makes complete sense in the content of both this world and their characters. It's nice to see.

Shin and Noi continue to be my favorites, I will admit. Their casual back and forths are almost always amusing (though I will admit that I found the 'bully sandwich' incident to be a tad over the top - and even more unrealistic than usual), and the strong bond they share is actually rather sweet. Likewise, Caiman and Nikaido may be more awkward with each other - particularly when a certain intimacy is required - but are also great to watch, and you're rooting for them more than Shin and Noi, as they both have better clearly defined goals. Pages 152-153 are not helping the shipper in me at all, I will admit.

And then there's the humor. Man, this book is funny. I will admit that it requires a certain love of gore to really get into it - which applies to the entire series, of course - but there's always something here. Caiman's fear of ghosts, the 'fire toilet to Hell' (what kind of mind does Hayashida have to not only think of such a thing, but make it a throwaway gag?), Shin's response to Noi after noticing her quick recovery from a bullet to the head, and my favorite part, which is Noi's response when she finds that En is out of control and turning Shin, Ebisu, and Fujita into mushrooms. Noi is the sort who, when presented with a bigger problem, just finds a bigger hammer. And speaking of Ebisu and Fujita, they continue to be the source of many 'it's fun watching them suffer' gags, but they also get the sweetest moment in the whole book, right at the end.

Generally speaking I am not a fan of the grotesque, and this book certainly has a lot of gruesome moments, with the violence sliding into 'highly unlikely' much of the time. But combining the gruesome with fun characters and an intriguing mystery have helped to make this fascinating. The series is 16 volumes and still running in Japan, so clearly the author is content to take her own time in telling us this story. But there's so much to look at and take in here, I don't mind at all.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Manga the week of 2/2

Well, I may have lost my mojo for writing reviews, but I can at least tell you what's coming out next week. It's another big one, as Viz makes up for their relatively small January with a pile of stuff.

In non-Viz news, Bandai has the final volume of Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. The first of the many spinoffs from the Code Geass anime, I believe this one hews closest to the actual source. Which means I'll be skipping it, as the original Geass is far too bleak for me.

Dark Horse has the 23rd Volume of Blade of the Immortal, another of their manga series that have been running since forever. And it's still running in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine, so don't expect it to end anytime soon. I'm not certain how good sales are, but I think it does OK, and, like Oh My Goddess, is something of a legacy license for Dark Horse. There's also Volume 5 of Ghost Talker's Daydream, a shonen manga that can best be described by Dark Horse: 'Saiki Misaki, our albino dominatrix necromancer hero...' There's other text after that, but I think most readers are content to stop there.

Seven Seas has one debut and one license rescue. I know very little about Amnesia Labyrinth, which looks to be a thriller manga with a side of horror. It comes from ASCII Mediaworks' Dengeki Bunko magazine, which is mostly light novel oriented but apparently has a manga or two. The real reason I'm interested, though, is that the author of this manga is Nagaru Tanigawa, better known as the author of the Haruhi Suzumiya novels. The license rescue is Gunslinger Girl, also from ASCII Mediaworks, in their main Dengeki Daioh title. It was probably one of ADV Manga's more popular titles back when ADV Manga existed. Seven Seas has picked it up, and is releasing the first 3 volumes in one big tome, with 4-6 to follow in a month or two. I never did get around to knowing much about it beyond 'lolis with guns', but perhaps the omnibus will show off its strengths.

After a brief delay, Vertical is releasing Volume 13 of Black Jack. Vertical, as many know, blew everyone away today with the announcement that they had not only picked up Princess Knight (Ribon no Kishi), the legendary Tezuka shoujo manga, but also Drops of God (Kami no Shizuku), the amazingly popular and influential wine manga that runs in Weekly Morning. It is therefore a good reminder that they are also still putting out awesome legendary Black Jack stuff. Like this.

And so we come to Viz. They have two debuts as well, though one is 'done in one'. Mistress Fortune is a Tanemura shoujo manga, and was likely licensed by Viz even before she thought of the idea. Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan (Nurarihyon no Mago) is their new Jump series, about a kid trying to be a spirit master. Coincidentally, this starts just as Shaman King ends. :)

On the shonen side we also have new volumes of Bakuman, D.Gray-Man, Gin Tama, Naruto, One Piece, Slam Dunk, and Tegami Bachi. Well, if it's the first week of the month, it's gotta have a lot of Jump. Gin Tama and One Piece are my BUY THIS NOW!!! recommendations from that pile. There's also the 2nd Genkaku Picasso, also technically a Jump manga, which will hopefully continue to have great weird art and be less predictable.

On the shoujo end, we have a few big guns as well. The new Kimi Ni Todoke, for one thing. Another Otomen, which I will make a wild guess will reveal that a previously thought masculine guy has secret girly hobbies. (Call it a hunch.) Black Bird, which sells like hotcakes. Or more likely, like Hot Gimmicks. Grand Guignol Orchestra, which will feature more beautifully drawn death, no doubt. Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time, which zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz oh sorry, fell asleep there. And new volumes of Seiho Boys' High School and Story of Saiunkoku, both of which turned out to be pleasant surprises for me.

Lastly, there's two new Pokemon mangas out. I never know what to write about these. They're from Shogakukan, they're omnipresent, and apparently Pokemon fans quite like them.

So what do you plan on getting?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Private Snafu Golden Classics

Originally released by Warner Brothers as part of the Army/Navy Screen Magazine. Released to DVD by Thunderbean Animation.

Movies and cartoons that are in the public domain tend to have both blessings and curses. On the plus side, they're easy to get. Public Domain means that the creators didn't renew their copyright when they should have, or, alternately, that the copyright is now too old to stay in effect. (Less so the second now with Disney enforcing their Mickey Mouse rules.) This means that the titles are not languishing in studio vaults, waiting for someone to release them to see if they make a buck. Anyone with a print of the film can slap it on a DVD. The drawback is that that print could be a nth-generation copy that's barely viewable. And studios have no real desire to restore and remaster public domain films, as they're already competing with 9 DVDs that have it on sale for $9.99. A good example for me is the screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, a favorite of mine. It's easily available on DVD - but looks horrible. You'd think that it was colorized from black and white, the prints are that bad. What's more, in the world of animated cartoons, you can see the same things bundled over and over together. A Corny Concerto, Fresh Hare, All This and Rabbit Stew - all these are on the same countless dollar mart VHS tapes, in the same dull, washed-out (or overly dark) prints.

It is therefore a delight when you have someone like Steve Stanchfield, the man behind Thunderbean Animation and its collections of classic animation. Steve is NOT going to put out one of these collections. He researches painstakingly and gets the best prints he can find. Private Snafu, the title I'm reviewing here, has been released complete before - as 'The Uncensored Private Snafu', among others. Heck, Warner Brothers has even released a few Snafu cartoons themselves on the Golden Collections. And yet they all had flaws (WB in particular had a print of The Goldbrick with an awful audio track). This collection here is the one where you can get all the Snafu that is currently extant, in the best prints possible, restored and remastered.

Now, on to Snafu himself. As the war began, the Army developed a film unit that was dedicated to using film to promote the war - both at home and for the soldiers fighting abroad. One of the things that they did was a newsreel devoted solely for the soldier - these were newsreels not meant for public consumption. As part of them, the army (and Frank Capra, the famous director who was in charge of the whole shebang) commissioned a series of cartoons that were designed to teach the soldier lessons using amusing 'what not to do' scenarios. Originally pitched to Disney, Schlesinger's studio put in a lower bid and won the contract. And I'm pleased that they did. I love Disney (who did cartoons like this for civilians, usually starring Donald Duck), but the zanier, more anarchic humor of Warners cartoons suited the Snafu series - and the Army - better.

Snafu, of course, stands for Situation Normal - All F... Fouled Up. The cartoons starred a schlub of a private who could usually be counted on to do the wrong thing - blab secrets, spread rumors, take poor care of his equipment, and generally be a poor soldier. They were directed by the great Warner directors of the time - Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin - and the first dozen or so were written by Theodore Geisel, better known to most of you as Dr. Seuss. This is easy to tell with the first cartoons on here - Snafu speaks in Seussian rhyme, and we even see a few weird Seuss-like creatures in some cartoons like Rumors. They were about 4 minutes long each, a little over half the length of a WB cartoon at the time, so none of them wore out their welcome.

The cartoons were only meant for soldiers, so the crew got away with things that wouldn't fly if they were being cleared by the Hays commission. There are some sexy-clad women, and Snafu occasionally cusses. The worst it gets is 'damn' and 'ass', though - by today's standards, this is pretty much PG-13 at most. They tease this, in fact, when they spell out the meaning of Snafu's name - but don't use the F-word. Snafu is also killed off in several of the cartoons, but that's not unusual for the period at all, and none of the deaths are incredibly gruesome. The worst thing you can say about these today is that they do contain some grotesque Japanese stereotypes - but not as many as you'd expect, as usually Snafu was his own worst enemy.

There are 25 Snafu cartoons on this disc, along with some added extras. These include the Seaman TARFU cartoon that Harman/Ising did after the war ended, and several animated instructional videos that were also part of the Army Magazine, usually taking on topics like inflation or dysentary. My favorites in this collection include The Goldbrick, where Snafu is tempted towards laziness by a fairy who later turns out to be the enemy (and which uses Tit Willow as the medley for its rhymes, despite Gilbert & Sullivan NOT being in public domain at the time!); Booby Traps, the naughtiest cartoon of the collection, featuring Snafu being lured into a harem filled with girls who are... well, the title, and which features the origin of the 'piano explodes when Those Endearing Young Charms is played' gag; Gas, a particularly well animated cartoon showing why you need to carry your gas mask at all times (and one where Snafu actually learns his lesson!); Three Brothers, where Snafu whines about his boring Army life and finds that his brothers, also in the service, have different but equally demanding jobs; and Hot Spot, a wartime cartoon devoted to the wonders of Iran (no, really) and narrated by Satan (no, REALLY).

Surprisingly for a PD collection, there are multiple commentaries on these cartoons, from most of the modern cartoon experts. Jerry Beck, Eric Goldberg, and Mark Mayerson all have great things to say (Goldberg in particular is a great speaker), and John "Ren and Stimpy" Kricfalusi is also fun once you provide for his Bob Clampett-itis. There's also some still galleries, alternative soundtracks, etc.

Basically, if you like classic cartoons at all, this is THE collection to have for Private Snafu. Complete, uncut, the prints look fantastic, and they're all just funny stuff, from the legends of the time. You can argue that a few of them go overboard in their lecturing - but that was, after all, the point. A soldier seeing Snafu drying out his wet boots on top of a stove - which, of course, destroys the shoes much faster and makes for more $$$ spent - is going to have a laugh of recognition, because hey, who wants wet shoes, and it's fast, right? Snafu may be the guy who does nothing right, but he's not too far away from us. Heck, towards the end of this series, he even gets to be the winner once or twice!

You can purchase it here, by the way:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Manga the week of 1/26

After a couple weeks where it seemed as if no manga were coming out at all, it falls to the good folks at Tokyopop to remind us that they're back, and releasing more than ever! Plus Yen gets in the act as well with their January slate.

We actually start with DMP, which has 2 yaoi titles coming out, including one called No Touching At All. I have not read the manga in question, but given its genre, I'm going to make a wild guess that there will, in fact, be touching. And Tokyopop's Blu imprint has a book from their new best friends, Gentosha, with the odd title You And Me Etc.

Back to Tokyopop proper, they have more cute shoujo coming out! Whee! We get the second volume of The Stellar Six of Gingacho, whose first surprised me with how big a smile it put on my face. There's another Portrait of M & N, the silly series by the author of Gakuen Alice. There's a new Gakuen Alice too, though we're getting near the point in the series where I'm going to have to stop calling it 'cute' as it gets darker and darker. In non-Hakusensha shoujo, there's the final volume of Mad Love Chase and the 4th of Momogumi Plus Senki, both from Kadokawa's weird shoujo fantasy thing Asuka. And we even have (gasp!) a josei title this week, as they relase the 8th volume of cult hit Pet Shop of Horrors Tokyo, which comes from our friends at Asahi Shinbunsha, best known over here for... well, this.

On the shonen side, we see the debut of Lives, a new manga from Akita Shoten's Champion Red. Those who are familiar with the type of reader Champion Red gets know what sort of reader they're going for here. Expect a lot of fanservice and violence. Speaking of Akita Shoten, we also get the 7th volume of Samurai Harem from their monthly Shonen Champion. There's also a pile of Kadokawa stuff, from the new Fate/Stay Night to Deadman Wonderland and the 2nd AiON (only a month after the first), all from Shonen Ace or Dragon Age, their two big shonen magazines.

Rounding off Tokyopop, we see at long last the 4th volume of the Full Metal Panic novels, Ending Day By Day. This was released as 2 novels in Japan, Part 1 and Part 2, but is being bundled together here. I'd love to see it sell better than the others have, if only as I want to see the rest of the books. (FMP, like Haruhi, has the major issue of the anime following the novel so closely that those who watched the anime first feel no need to buy the text version.) This one's really good, though. There's the 6th volume of the seinen Maria Holic, which no doubt will continue making fun of yuri tropes. And oh look, a new volume of .hack//Christ On A Bike.

(My lawyers advise me to note here that I bear no legal responsibility if you buy the new .hack and find that it does not, in fact, contain Christ, bicycles, or any combination thereof.)

Let's move on to Yen, which also has a big fanservicey debut with High School of the Dead. This comes from Kadokawa's Dragon Age, and many people were surprised at Yen getting it, but they have been expanding their range, so let's see what they can do with it. I understand it has zombies in high school, in any case. Speaking of Kadokawa, we also have the 2nd Omamori Himari, which, along with Sumomomo Momomo, tells me that someone in Yen's licensing department is taking the mickey. There's more game-based bishoujo tease with Ugly Duckling's Love Revolution, and the penultimate volume of Spiral. There are new Black Butler and Pandora Hearts volumes from GFantasy (their motto: look, we're shonen, OK? Just shut up!). And lastly, there's the second volume in the Book Girl novels, featuring a Famished Spirit. I greatly enjoyed the first book, so look forward to this.

So what inspires you this week?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's Michael? Volume 1

By Makoto Kobayashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Morning. Released in North America by Dark Horse.

I've mentioned Kobayashi before, usually in the context of the weirder than weird Ero Comedy Chichonmanchi, aka Stairway to Heaven. But that's more of a pipe dream. What he's really known best for here is What's Michael?, which Dark Horse released ages ago in 11 volumes. While many of the volumes are out of print, it's continued to make an impression on readers who come across it. So I thought I'd take a look at Volume 1 and see what it is about Michael that makes you want to read more of him.

When you're talking about Kobayashi, his faces are what people usually think of first, even more than the cute cats. (And really, with Michael and company, the word 'cute' is debatable.) He has a very rubbery-faced character design that lends itself well to caricature and comedy, but means that few of his characters are what one would call conventionally pretty. This was also a problem with his other major (if unfinished) release over here, Heba! Hello-chan, which was released as Club 9 by Dark Horse. The combination of striking features (I hesitate to say ugly, though many of them certainly are intentionally drawn as such - they're just far from the manga norm) and strange, strange people made for a hard sell, especially as both came out in the 'pre-manga' boom.

Certainly What's Michael? has its large amount of weirdos. Michael and his fellow cats, bizarre as they are, usually end up being the normal ones in the cast. This is especially true in this first volume, where we get very little of the 'cats playing humans' humor that is the other side of What's Michael? Aside from one story featuring Michael as a criminal being grilled by police, everything here is very much about cats being cats. It's their owners who are strange, ranging from the guy who wants his cat to be like a dog and run with him every morning, to the scatterbrained young Office Lady and her five hungry cats, to a yakuza who has to hide the fact that he's secretly a huge cat lover from all his underlings.

What's Michael? doesn't necessarily provide a lot of belly laughs - you might look to Garfield for that, a comic strip that Michael has been compared with frequently. But its humor is wry and observational, and while you aren't laughing all the time you read the entire volume with a smile on your face, and sometimes a snicker or two. The fact that Michael does not have a designated 'owner', but instead revolves from person to couple to whoever depending on the needs of the plot gives the manga a certain freedom, and part of the appeal is simply never knowing what kind of story you're going to see next. It's a blank canvas where Kobayashi can draw whatever he wants, as long as it has cats in it somewhere.

I picked up the Japanese omnibus release of this title recently, which seems to be in 4 volumes. (Be warned if you get them, they're small - even smaller than regular manga volumes, more like a light novel size. Dark Horse uses a much bigger size. Of course, they also are about 220 pages each (36 chapters per volume), which is a nice improvement on the initial 96 pages we see here. This is a late 90s title from Dark Horse, which means there's a greater chance of missing material here - much like Viz with its 90s releases, where they dropped chapters that were just too Japanese to flip and translate. There are several chapters that were part of the volume in Japanese that were dropped from this Volume 1 here. The first chapter of What's Michael? had the cat shoved off a building to his death; the second had him doing a photo shoot with a nude woman, and defecating in front of her (she returns the favor later by farting in his face, in one of the funnier things I've read in Kobayashi manga); in another, an assassin's profession is discovered by his girlfriend, and he then kills her, Michael, a bunch of baby kittens, and then sets out on a cat massacre; a Japanese game show imagines what the world would be like if humans behaved like cats (including women with eight breasts); and Michael is the subject of a scientific experiment on whether cats like girls' underwear. Dark Horse also drew a bra onto the sleeping office lady's breasts in one chapter they did release here. I'm not sure if Dark Horse added any of these chapters in later volumes (I'm still tracking down OOP copies), but certainly they all seem to have been edited for content, in an effort to make Michael more appealing to a broad range of readers.

As noted, What's Michael? is no longer in print, the last of its 11 volumes having come out in 2006. It's also flipped, being very much a product of what American manga companies were doing in the mid to late 1990s. I'd love to see Michael released uncut and unflipped in an expanded omnibus edition by Dark Horse. Do I think it will sell? Mmmm, probably not - especially if it is unedited, which means they'd lose the kids' market (remember, this was published in a men's magazine in Japan). But hey, I want it anyway. A man can dream, after all.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Karakuri Odette Volume 5

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

It's time for the Manga Movable Feast! Which means I finally get to talk about Odette. I read this 3 weeks ago but have been patiently waiting for the time to arrive so that I can review it and tell you all what a fun series this is. (For those interested, my prior reviews are here:

One thing I found highly interesting about this volume is the way that it handled Chris. He was introduced to us in the second story as one of a series of killer assassin robots, but after Odette and Dr. Yoshizawa subdued him, he hasn't really developed quite as well as the other cast members. We see that he has a certain jealousy at Asao's easy interaction with Odette, but it comes to the point where he's actually sidelined for the better part of two volumes because his battery life is lowering (which the author has implied - for both he and Odette - is due to stress). I'd often thought that his story would be very similar to Odette's, and that she was simply more advanced and a bit ahead of him.

As we see in this volume, however, Chris's problems are uniquely his own. We get a side-story dealing with one of the other Chris-Assassin-Bombs, who is sent to Italy to kill a professor. Unfortunately, he finds that the Professor is already dead, leaving him without a purpose. He then finds one as he not only bonds with the Professor's cute daughter, but discovers that her uncle, the professor's brother, is far more knowledgeable about the "accidental" death than is really allowable. The Chris shown here, his clone, may also lack outward emotions, but is shown to be caring and kind, even to the point where he sacrifices his own life for that of little Nicoletta's. (And by the way, the expression on his face right as he explodes is fantastic, a sort of "You lose" grin.)

Meanwhile, we run into another advanced robot, this one named Travis. The comparison between Travis and Odette is striking - both are advanced robots who have a bit more 'emotion', and have an extended family featuring their creator as well as another robot who is more deadpan and less advanced/emotive. Like attracts like, and it's no surprise that he and Odette bond fairly quickly. Of course, he is a bit ahead of Odette in one area - he's searching for a bride, and becomes convinced that Odette is the right one for him. Odette still hasn't quite worked out the whole love thing yet.

And then there's Odette's wonderful younger sister-older brother relationship with Asao, once again the highlight of the volume. For all that he seems to hate having to be her mentor, his advice remains fantastic. The first chapter sees Odette once again upset at her robot strength, in a call-back to Volume 1. She's not about to have the Professor alter it again, but she is depressed that she's never going to be seen as 'cute' like her fragile friend Yoko. Asao, despite being stressed out as Odette is clearly feeling bad but not opening up, notes that being cute is not NEARLY as important as being cool - which Odette certainly is.

All of this ties in to the final two chapters of this volume, where all of this comes together. Chris has returned to Odette and school, but is as undemonstrative as ever, and Odette finds it frustrating, especially given that she's had the occasion to meet Travis. She even bluntly notes that she wants Chris to be more like Travis. Of course, this also leads to one of Odette's faults - she can get so carried away with discovering her own emotions and feelings that she doesn't take in what other people are feeling. It's up to Asao to set her straight, and it's typical of him that it's with a verbal gut punch. He notes she didn't bother to think how CHRIS felt about things at all, only what she felt. Asao is especially irritated as Chris has been hit by a car, and Odette is off flirting with Travis (even though she's likely unaware it's flirting). "You playing around like that... is not something I care to see." And just like that, she's devastated. (She's also still crying out of one eye, a nice bit of continuity.)

I still don't see Odette and Asao as a romantic couple. But he's clearly become the most important man in her life right now - more important than Chris and Travis, and perhaps even more than the Professor. (The Professor gets a moment of utter awesome mid-volume here, which I apologize for not getting into. Odette's terror when she imagines his response is very telling.) The preview for the final volume shows Asao's graduation, and may be leading to a final crisis of sorts - though I also doubt Travis is going away anytime soon. But really, once again I find this review doesn't say enough because there's SO MUCH I want to talk about. Every volume of Odette leads me to want to babble on and on about its plot, its characters, its art, what it says about humanity, what it says about robots. Much as this is supposedly about a robot trying to be human, much of what Odette goes through strikes me as a teenager trying to grow up. It's a fantastic pickup for Tokyopop (so much so that I'll forgive them the tacky back cover motto), and I am very happy it got to be in a Manga Movable Feast.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cross Game Volume 2

By Mitsuru Adachi. Released in Japan in 2 separate volumes by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

The first thing I would like to note is that the mangaka who can wring emotion from the art on the page is rare. But the mangaka that can wring emotion from the LOGO is even rarer. Just the sight of the four-leaf clover, one of the leaves now dimmed to a duller green, made me melancholy.

After setting up his cast and setting in the first 3 volumes of Cross Game, Adachi spends most of these two doing what he does best: writing baseball games. From Chapter 23-35, we get a faceoff between Ko's 'portable' squad and the regular varsity team, featuring ace slugger Azuma. There's a lot going on here: the varsity coach's stubborn jerkishness, which banishes comic relief pitcher Senda to the other team early on. Koh facing actual batters in a game for the first time, including people who actually hit off of him. And Aoba, in the stands, offering running commentary and managing to cheer Ko on while at the same time maintaining her usual skeptical disbelief.

Ko, needless to say, is good. Very good. But he's not the best starter in Japan yet, or even the best starter in the group. He still has trouble wearing himself out easily, and only gets over that hump when he sacrifices his control to concentrate entirely on speed. And he can sometimes get too full of himself, which leads to the final run that decides the game. Still, as was noted, it was the sort of debut that makes the rest of the team want to play harder just to live up to their teammate.

There is comedy here, of course. Most of it is in the sort of wry grin type - I loved Aoba's reaction to "No fair!", as she cradles her bruised hand. Likewise a few times during the game, Adachi cuts back to the Tsukishima's cafe, where the other two sisters provide fun humor and untranslatable puns. (Credit to Viz for just going with them as best they could.) And yes, Adachi breaks the fourth wall a couple more times, though at least he isn't advertising his old manga anymore.

But there's also some incredible emotion here, all the more amazing by what ISN'T revealed. Adachi and Rumiko Takahashi call each other 'best friends and rivals', and it fits very well, as they each fill in the other's weaknesses with their strengths. In particular, Adachi is a master at letting the reader fill in the blank rather than spelling everything out. Chapter 36 features Ko waiting hand and foot over the shallow manager of the varsity squad, carrying her things and putting up with her degrading comments - as well as intense anger from Aoba, who noted earlier that "that's the kind of guy he is", then got even more annoyed when she saw it, as that ISN'T the kind of guy he is. (Lies between Ko and Aoba dominate the entire series.) Takahashi would milk this misunderstanding for all it's worth. Adachi defuses it three pages later, as Aoba's two friends happened to see the real reason he was doing this. They're confused, but Aoba immediately knows what's going on.

Wakaba is still a major presence in this work, of course. Besides the previous chapter, which ends with Ko putting the Cat Teapot he got by degrading himself into her present box (only 4 years to go till the engagement ring), but things get even scarier when Ko and Senda have to go find Aoba, who has gotten the wrong directions and ended up lost in the woods. Ko, trying to find her, finds instead her shoe. By a roaring river. In the middle of summer. Any self-respecting shonen hero would be having a nervous breakdown by now, given Ko's past memories of Wakaba. Instead, after two panels of panic, we fade back to see... this is actually a video of his panic being shown to Aoba, who is fine.

So Adachi does not have the strength of showing raw emotions the way that Takahashi does. On the other hand, he can use his own staid, unhurried style to let the reader create their own tension, and then get the same release. It works well during the baseball game, and it works doubly well in the summer chapters here. Ko is an undemonstrative hero, but that's why we get the occasional dialogue like "It's good to be busy during the summer... keeps you from thinking too much." It shows us that both Ko and Aoba are still having immense trouble letting go of the past.

At the end of this omnibus, things are much the same place they were last time. The portables have come together as a team, and Ko has shown that he can pitch well in a real game, but they aren't going to varsity anytime soon unless they either convince or ditch the sadistic coach. I can't wait to see how this plays out in Vols. 6 & 7, aka Vol. 3 here, in April.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Frank Zappa - The 1979 Tour

Yes, I'm skipping Halloween '78 to discuss it at a later date. It's really too big a monster for me to think about at the moment.

After the Halloween 1978 concerts, Frank's band took a three-month break. Frank had finally given up on getting Läther released as a box set, and Warner Brothers had set out to release it in various ways as four separate albums. Zappa in New York was released in March 1978, and contained the live concert tracks from December 1976 at the Palladium. Studio Tan came out in September of that year, and featured a number of tracks recorded from 1972-1974, including concert favorite RDNZL. In January 1979 we got Sleep Dirt, which was also a hodgepodge of older 'classic' material (Filthy Habits from the Winter '76 tour) and studio work from December 1974, including instrumental tracks from an unproduced musical called Hunchentoot. (Frank released Sleep Dirt on CD with overdubbed vocals from Thana Harris that were added in the early 1980s. Most fans prefer the original LP.)

Meanwhile, there was still a tour to do! The setlist for this tour was rather odd - you'd expect an artist who'd released 4 albums (including Sheik Yerbouti, which would come out in the middle of this tour) to be playing the songs from those albums. Frank, however, had been playing some of those songs since 1975-1976, and was ready to ditch them and work on the songs he'd introduced in the previous Fall 1978 tour. He also was doing more and more interviews and business stuff, and so Arthur Barrow, the bass player, was left in charge of most of the rehearsals. This meant that much of the setlist had a tendency to be Arthur's favorites, as they're the ones he wanted to spend time on. Hence the appearance of a lot of the One Size Fits All album. The band was the same as Fall 1978s, mostly. Patrick O'Hearn had left the band for good, and would be increasingly involved in the 'New Age' music scene, so Arthur was once again the lone bass player. Ike Willis resolved whatever had caused him to leave mid-tour last time, and was ready to sing lead vocals again. And Warren Cuccurullo, a young kid who'd appeared at the Halloween show telling a story of his encounter with "Ms. X", was added as an extra guitar player.

This tour is an excellent one to have a show or two of, as it features some fantastic guitar playing. Frank must have agreed; he used this tour constantly to release guitar solos, both on their own and as part of the 'Joe's Garage' album (which started to take shape on this tour). Indeed, his estate are also in agreement, and several guitar solos have popped up on iTunes-only releases from 1979 shows that aren't even extant in audience recordings. SECRET 1979 shows! Of course, this show is not so excellent to have every show of, as it is extremely repetitive. There is one main setlist, which is played on every show of the tour. Sometimes if the show is longer they will add a few songs, but mostly it's the same old thing over and over. Which makes it easy for me to go over song by song, but can be grueling to listen to if you like variety. In addition, the band doesn't get to jam nearly as much as previous tours - only Pound for a Brown was a solofest here, and it only pops up a few times on the tour.

Here's a breakdown of that repetitive setlist:

Opening Guitar Solo: This varied every night, and there were several rotating vamps. Watermelon in Easter Hay, which had reached its final form last Halloween, was seen here, though it also sometimes appeared at the end of concerts. Two other vamps became very popular in Frank's repertoire: Treacherous Cretins (which utilized several time signatures; it started as 4/4 with a reggae beat, then at some point became 11/4. It's also one of my favorites), and The Deathless Horsie. Both of those can be heard on the Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar album, and the Zappa Family Trust released a version of TC from Pau, France this last year. In addition, sometimes Frank would solo over a minimalist vamp that is usually known in fan circles as 'Persona Non Grata'. This gave us parts of the guitar solos used for 'He Used to Cut The Grass' and 'Packard Goose' from Joe's Garage, which Frank created by cutting and pasting several solos together over a different rhythm section.

(Frank would then introduce the band, and one of these introductions appears on YCDTOSA1 as 'Diseases of the Band'. Many members of the group had come down with a bad case of stomach flu right after the tour began, and it hit its peak for the London shows in mid-February. Astonishingly, these are some of the best shows of the tour. Goes to show that a fantastic band this was.)

Dead Girls of London - The debut tour for this song, a simple mockery of the young 'trendy' girls who the band saw in the clubs of London every evening. The lyrics have the phrase 'boutique frame of mind' in them, and 'Boutique Girl' was something Frank had mocked excessively in the Sheik Yerbouti days, as part of the I Have Been In You song. Frank tried recording this song in the studio (with Van Morrison on vocals!), but never got around to releasing it; a version from this tour ended up on one of the iTunes compilations. The ending has Frank say 'Gee I Like Your Pants!' instead of 'boutique frame of mind' - this sounds like a groupie phrase, and would be used as the title of a FZ guitar solo from the SUAPYG album.

I Ain't Got No Heart - One of Frank's earliest songs, from the Freak Out! album, and one he kept returning to over and over. It was part of the medley of old hits from 1974-1976, and returns for this tour. It's a standard 'anti-love song' that you got from that first album, using many of the doo-wop cliches to make fun of them. Of course, Frank also loved doo-wop, so this song is melodic and fun as well.

Brown Shoes Don't Make It - This is the last stand for this classic 1960s number, easily Frank's most offensive song of his early days. It's a tale of hypocrisy in government, but also features incestual pedophilia. With the chorus 'smother my daughter in chocolate syrup and strap her on again', this has to remain one of the least popular Zappa songs to sing in public. This tour has pretty much the definitive live version, and the band really give it their all - aside from the offensive lyrics, it's an incredibly fun and varied song to listen to. You can hear a version from this tour on the Tinseltown Rebellion album.

Cosmik Debris - Yes, after taking five years off, Cosmik Debris is back, and would basically be in every tour from here to the end. However, it gets truncated here, losing the long, emotional guitar solo that Frank had given it in the early 70s for a short, heavy-metal tinged solo by Warren Cuccurullo. The whole song is louder and faster than usual, the loudest it would be before, like much of Frank's repertoire, getting 'reggaefied' in the 1980s.

Tryin' to Grow a Chin - This was Terry Bozzio's signature song (along with Punky's Whips), and as such, it left the tour initially when Terry left the band. Frank was particularly fond of it, however, so decided to resurrect it for this tour with Denny Walley doing the vocals. This gave the song a much more comedic flair, especially as Denny kept forgetting the words to the song, or mixing up which verse came first. Still, he did a very acceptable job here. Other singers would not fare so well, but we'll get to that with the 1981 tour. You can hear Denny's version on YCDTOSA1. He screws up the words there, and Frank and Ike start singing Wooly Bully at him in response, a reference to that song's indecipherableness.

City of Tiny Lites - essentially performed as on the previous tour, with Denny taking a slide guitar solo, then Frank taking a solo. The two would frequently compete to see who could be more awesome, which led to some great performances, including one where Frank quotes Filthy Habits mid-song. Late in the tour, Frank dropped Denny's solo, and created an entirely new vamp to be placed within it, where he would take a long, involved solo. This vamp would later be called 'Outside Now', and the solos on Joe's Garage come from that. He also included one on his Guitar album. It's a great vamp, and produced some great solos, but it also felt very awkward coming in the middle of Tiny Lites.

Dancin' Fool - performed as on the previous tour.

Easy Meat - performed as on the previous tour, complete with the basic, repetitive vamp that Frank initially used for it. Despite the vamp, Frank frequently delivered some nasty, searing guitar work here, giving some of his 'dirtiest' solos. One of the better ones was used as part of Packard Goose on the Joe's Garage album. Late in the tour, the rhythm and vamp that would become 'Catholic Girls' was also heard here.

Jumbo Go Away - Ah, Jumbo. I'll make no bones about it - I don't like this song. It's origin came from a tour incident involving Denny Walley and a particularly clingy groupie, one who was apparently quite overweight. Denny tired of her quickly, eventually threatening to hit her. Frank, who loved to document groupie culture, found the whole thing hilarious, and documented it in this song, which featured Denny singing it. It's one of his crueler songs, with the groupie coming off as quite desperate and sad, and Denny being essentially an abuser. The one bright spot is the bridge - Frank had an insanely complicated piece called Number 6 he'd had the band working on, and plunked it right in the middle of this song to serve as a bit of relief. So in the middle of the sexism, listen to the band members showing off their music reading chops. The song would wind up on You Are What You Is, and you can hear a version from this tour on the 2010 iTunes bundle the ZFT put out.

Andy - This is the first of three songs from the One Size Fits All album that would be returning for this tour, mostly due to Arthur Barrow's fondness for them. We hadn't heard Andy since the Summer of 1974, when it was still called 'Something/Anything' and quite different from what eventually got recorded. This version sounds far more like the album, even featuring a guitar solo from Frank that seems to be exactly transcribed from there. That's the one big drawback, actually - the solo is only 12 bars, and always sounds the same. Still, it's great to hear this again.

Inca Roads - With respect to the fans of Summer 1974, which is also filled with gorgeous solos, this is THE tour for Inca Roads. This despite the fact that it's lacking its ending, as well as George Duke. With a few minor exceptions, every Inca Roads solo from this tour is an absolute joy, and can be listened to over and over again. Don't take my word for it - Frank releases Inca solos from this tour as the 3 title songs on the Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar series, as well as Gee I Like Your Pants from the same albums. A solo from Eppelheim became 'Toad-o-Line' from Joe's Garage (which Frank renamed for the CD to 'On the Bus'), which quoted and played around with the song 'Hold the Line' by Toto. The entire uncut solo was also released as 'Occam's Razor' by the ZFT on the One-Shot Deal compilation, and Frank also released 'Systems of Edges' on the Guitar album. To top it all off, the 2009 iTunes release featured a solo from Graz, Austria, aptly titled 'Gorgeous Inca'. Everyone loves this song, and everyone should love these guitar solos.

Florentine Pogen - Perhaps the least satisfying of the OSFA trilogy, mostly as when it gets to the point where it normally goes into the solos, it stops. You can hear this band performing it (along with the 1974 band, in one of the strangest meshes Frank ever released) on YCDTOSA4.

Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me? - essentially performed as it always is.

Keep It Greasey - essentially performed as on previous tours, which is to say as the short punchy song, lacking the long guitar rave-up on Joe's Garage (which actually came from an Outside Now/Tiny Lites solo). The song ends with a drum fill by Vinnie Colaiuta, and depending on the tour, this can go on for some time as Vinnie gets more and more overwrought.

The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing - performed as on the previous tour. Denny's slide is always great to hear.

For the Young Sophisticate - This one had been kicking around for a while. It was originally performed in studio in 1973, with Ricky Lancellotti on vocals. Frank then put this performance on his 4-LP Läther album, but that never got released, and unlike much of the album it was not repackaged and released as something else in the late 70s. Thus, the first version most people heard was this one from 1979, its first live tour, with Frank on vocals. You can hear it on the Tinseltown Rebellion album. The song itself is about a girl who reads too many women's magazines and feels that her hubby will leave her if she isn't catering to the whims of Madison Avenue. Her hubby responds with a vaguely sexist "No, that won't happen", saying he'd love her regardless.

Wet T-Shirt Nite - One of the underrated one-tour wonders here, this is essentially performed as it would be on Joe's Garage, minus the long monologue of the contest itself. The song itself is a gleeful exposition of the glories of the Wet T-Shirt Contest, and of tits in general. In the middle of the song, as with Jumbo Go Away, Frank placed a rehearsal piece he'd been working on, called Saddle Bags, which means we once again get to see the musicians showing off their chops. It also has a great segue from the instrumental bridge into the 3rd verse, where it almost turns bossa nova.

Why Does It Hurt When I Pee? - This had debuted at the start of the previous tour, but only appeared a few times. It's now shorter, lacking the blues guitar solo it had before, and exists purely to mock guys who screw around with groupie girls and are then surprised to find they have a venereal disease. It works well coming out of T-Shirt Nite, and I feel fits better there than it does with the Joe's Garage song, as it would on future tours. You can hear it on the Joe's Garage album.

Peaches En Regalia - essentially as performed on previous tours, usually involving a rave-up ending that could go on for 2-3 minutes. You can hear one variation from this tour as 'Peaches III' on the Tinseltown Rebellion album.

Yellow Snow Suite - Essentially performed as on the Fall 1978 tour, only faster and better and with a lot more audience participation. The London Yellow Snows are fantastic, and Frank merged together the best bits of each to create the 20-minute Yellow Snow Suite you can hear on YCDTOSA1. A highlight every night it appeared, provided you aren't listening to every concert in a row. "Oh, you want kindergarten!"

This usually ended the longer show's main setlist. Shorter shows either dropped Yellow Snow and ended after Peaches, or cut right from Honey to Peaches and ended there. As for encores:

Strictly Genteel - essentially performed as on the previous tour, and dropped fairly quickly.

Montana - Ah, one of the worst decisions (IMO) Frank ever made. Not bringing back Montana, it's a classic. But cutting the entire guitar solo. Noooo! This just makes it a cute novelty number - there's nothing wrong with it, but I miss my solo, dammit. Sadly, it would stay this way for almost the rest of his career.

Dirty Love - The other returnee for this tour, this hadn't been heard since the 1976-1977 bands. It's also the last tour for this particular song. Nevertheless, it's quick and fun, and it's always nice to go out singing "The poodle bites, the poodle chews it!". You can hear it on YCTDOSA6.

Pound for a Brown - This only popped up occasionally, usually at the end of a night. But when it did, it was always awesome - filled with keyboard and drum solos, as well as more great Frank guitar work. Why Johnny Can't Read from SUNPYG is from this tour.

Bamboozled By Love - appeared very infrequently, but essentially performed as on the previous tour. A variation from 1979 was used on Tinseltown Rebellion.

Conehead - also appearing very infrequently, I mention it here as a 1979 variation featured the solo 'five-Five-FIVE', which Frank had debuted in late 1975 and occasionally inserted into other solos, and it would appear on SUNPYG.

This tour was from February to April 1979, and after it Frank took an extended, year-long break from touring. Most of it was taken up with recording and releasing Joe's Garage. He also had the birth of his last child, Diva, in July. In the interim, Peter Wolf leaves Frank's band to become a producer (you know We Built This City? He produced that), and Warren Cuccurullo likewise departed to join Terry and Dale Bozzio's band Missing Persons. Denny Walley left here as well, as did Ed Mann (though Ed would return). Frank now had a very small band - he'd need at least another guitar player if he wanted to go back on the road. Which he did, because as he was taking this break, and recording Joe's Garage, he was also writing a metric ton of new material - all of which would debut in 1980...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Eyeshield 21 Volume 34

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

First of all, I apologize, as I never reviewed Volume 33 when it came out. It's very hard to review a lot of sports manga when they're mid-game, much for the same reason it's harder to review fighting manga when the entire volume is one long battle sequence. FOOTBALL HAPPENS. That is all. Suffice to say things have not been going well, and at the start of this volume it is 41-16 Teikoku.

Of course, Deimon has been here before - in almost every single game, in fact. So now it's time for our heroes to do what they do best, and come from behind with incredible skills. It's the sort of thing you can only really pull off when your volume number is in the 30s, as this one is. We've been following Sena and company for years now, and we know all their strengths and weaknesses. We want them to succeed desperately. And so when Sena finally gets past Yamato and scores, despite the ludicrous 'Devil Fourth Dimension' name (what is it with shonen manga and calling their attacks?), we cheer with everyone else. We cheer even more when you see some mismatches working out, like Taki blocking Yamato to score a safety, or Yukimitsu following his route and scoring a touchdown. Once again, hard work and dedication are shown to be the things that lead to victory.

And victory is what we get here, as the Devil Bats win the game on a tense final 60-yard field goal attempt by Musashi. Hiruma knows there's a next-to-nothing chance of making this - but doesn't care, as he, Kurita and Musashi are the original Devil Bats, and he will have faith in his teammate. This is a very heartwarming scene, especially when we see Hiruma screaming at Musashi about how heartbroken "Kurita" was about his leaving the team a year ago, and see in the "what really happened" flashbacks that Hiruma is talking about himself. The kick itself is pure motion picture, hitting the bottom crossbar before going in.

As with all shonen series with huge casts, things aren't perfect - Karin is completely forgotten, and we're left with the feeling that once the authors conceived of "the quarterback is a woman!", they didn't have any other ideas of what to do with her. And then there's the last chapter. Honestly, I was expecting the manga to end here. We're at the Christmas Bowl. The entire focus of the manga has been about the Christmas Bowl. They have never mentioned anything else. And so suddenly seeing Yamato come by and talk about the Youth World Cup, with teams from all over the world competing, really smacks of editorial intervention, of Jump telling them to stretch things out a few more volumes. Yes, I know that we wanted to see Sena battle Panther again, but come on, he hasn't been around for over 20 volumes. I still feel it should have ended here.

Still, this is an excellent volume, showing all the most common traits of Jump manga and milking them for all they're worth. And who knows, perhaps the next 3 volumes will be filled with an even more awesome finale. We'll find out.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Manga the week of 1/19

Well, I can only hope that Diamond's eventual list differs from Midtown's, as otherwise next week will be one of the smallest manga weeks I've seen in ages. The manga numbers 3. 3 shall be the number the manga numbers, and the number the manga numbers shall be 3. All from our friends at Viz.

I don't really have much to say about Afterschool Charisma. It had one of the more intriguing premises from Viz's Ikki line, but just never grabbed me. In any case, Volume 2 is out this week, and will feature more thrilling clone action, I am sure.

On the flip side, the third volume of Dorohedoro has me throbbing with anticipation (so to speak), as it was easily the biggest surprise of 2010. My initial thoughts were that it would be a brutal dystopian gorefest. Which it IS - but with a sly sense of humor, some amazing characterization, and a well thought-out world that makes me want to learn more. This is easily the longest running Ikki series Viz licensed (it's at 15 volumes in Japan, and still running), so I hope sales do well enough for it to continue for a long time.

And we have Volume 24 of Fullmetal Alchemist, which is finished in Japan, but still crawls along here at the painful rate of 2 volumes per year. I don't think it's due to low sales - some suggested Viz wants to time its end with the end of the Brotherhood anime - but at least it makes each new volume a treat. It'll be hard to top the amazingness that was Chapter 95 (aka Roy/Riza fans' finest hour), but I'm sure we will see the author try.

And that's it. Any plans for purchasing?

Twin Spica Volume 5

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

I know that I spent a bit of time last volume going on about how much I liked the way the author uses Mr. Lion in this series, but it's really hard not to do so again with this volume. I was expecting him to have some sort of connection with Marika's family which explains why he's so troubled by her, but I wasn't expecting the connection to be as strong as it was. It's also clearly baffling, given the time frame, and while we still don't quite know what's going on with Marika, we're now definitely thinking along the lines of 'who is she really?' rather than just lonely rich kid. Although, especially in the flashbacks, that's an important part. Notably, though, we actually see the origin of the Lion Head - and it's connected to Marika, not Asumi. There's some stunning work here.

Elsewhere, we see Asumi try to reach out once more to the boy from another school we saw last volume. There's lots of interplaying issues here - the prejudice towars space flight, young crushes, trying to decide on a future for yourself that's feasible as opposed to just a crazy dream - and it's very telling of the series that there aren't any good, handy answers. Asumi and Kiriu clearly share a connection that's more than just 'he looks like my old dead friend', but I don't get the sense that they're going anywhere romantically, any more than I do from Asumi and her Unlucky Childhood Friend Fuchuya. That said, the final bit with the spaceship keychain was undeniably sweet.

And of course there is more harsh training. Seriously harsh - the kids, having been told they're testing their ability to be locked in a small space capsule, and carted off into the middle of nowhere, placed away from each other in the middle of a huge forest, and told to get to a point within 5 days using the very rudimentary map provided. They do have trackers on (provided no one loses theirs), but it's still survival training at its best. Naturally, our heroines barely blink at this, and merely go about the business of trying to get there as fast as possible so they don't wash out of the program. Again, Asumi's drive and abilities boggle the mind - that's one impressive kid. We don't see how things end up, thanks to the huge flashbacks with Mr. Lion, so I'm definitely looking forward to Volume 6.

It's very odd to see a series have such a sense of the epic while still remaining so intimate. Heck, even the author's 'Another Spica' end stories, while consisting of the usual self-deprecation I've come to expect from Japanese manga artists, make me wonder if they're telling part of a larger story about the author. The scale of Twin Spica is one of the best things about it, and it continues to remain one of Vertical's absolute best titles.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 5

By Yuki Midorikawa. Released in Japan as "Natsume Yuujinchou" by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Viz.

I noted with surprise that I hadn't actually reviewed this series since Volume 1 came out a year ago. I have been keeping up with it, and it's quite a good title. It's an especially welcome change of pace from Shojo Beat's line, which tends to focus on the romance aspects of shoujo. And while this volume of Natsume may introduce its first main female character, romance is still not an issue here. Instead, we continue to look at the world of yokai, and what it means to be one in the modern world of humanity.

As always, there's a very special love-hate relationship between the yokai we meet and the humans they've found themselves intertwined with. The first chapter deals with the immortality that the blood of a mermaid can give, and how it can be a horrific thing once you realize, years later, what life is meant to be like. THe best part of this chapter is likely the mermaid herself, who manages to be quite nasty throughout, but still maintains a sort of nobility towards the end.

The 2-part story in the middle introduces the girl I mentioned earlier, Taki. Much to my detriment, she's wearing a peaked cap, which immediately makes her sexy. (OK, not really - this manga doesn't do sexy that well - but girls in delinquent outfits are hot.) Despite her outfit, however, she's very quiet - and we soon find out why, as Natsume gets caught up in her effort to destroy a yokai who has promised to eat the first 13 people whose names she says out loud. He being the first, of course. Natsume has gotten much better at this protagonist thing, but he still tends to be emotionally passive, and as an action hero he's fairly miserable. So there's a sense of genuine danger to the proceedings that works very well. It's also good to see a 2nd student he can talk about things with, even though she can only see yokai in special circumstances.

The last main story is about Natsume's relationship with his aunt and uncle, and their relationship with Reiko, his grandmother who started the whole story rolling with her own spiritual powers. It's meant to show exactly why Natsume is so bad at letting people in, and that it's not always just a matter of trust and caring - people who get closer to him ARE in more danger. However, there are also rewards. Reiko clearly judged that the risks were too great. Will Natsume do the same thing? (Also, for all that I said Natsume wasn't an action hero, he does really well here in trapping a demon trying to destroy his relatives.)

There's also a final mini-chapter that ran in LaLa DX (the first four volumes were in DX; starting with this volume the series moved to LaLa proper, but like many shoujo series it returns for 'half-chapters' every few months or so), which features Natsume's friend Tanuma, and his ambiguous relationship with our hero. Like Taki, who can only see yokai when they move into the circle she draws, Tanuma can sort of see yokai - but not very well, and only as shadows. He's somewhat envious of Natsume, but as the chapter shows, seeing yokai has its own huge pile of disadvantages as well. I also note this chapter reads like an apology to the yaoi fans who make up a large percentage of Natsume's audience. "Sorry about the girl on the cover and in the main storyline - here's some guy friendship for you!"

Technically there's an element of horror to this series - but it's a very peaceful sort of horror, and the whole thing feels like it takes place in a world of gauze. Not that that's a bad thing - Natsume's Book of Friends has created a very evocative world, and people who aren't reading it due to the lack of romantic interplay are missing out on some excellent stuff.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dengeki Daisy Volume 3

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

Another volume in the highly enjoyable Dengeki Daisy has come out, and the plot is moving quite fast. I was actually startled by the end of this volume, as one of the big plot points gets taken care of much faster than I expected. Except it doesn't really, of course. More on that later.

There's still lots of comedy here, mostly in the interaction when Tasuku decides to ramp up his 'jerk' side towards Teru. This is highly frustrating to her, of course, as she's suddenly realized at the end of the last volume that she's falling in love with him. That fact, actually, gets surprisingly little explicit acknowledgment here, even though it's clearly influencing Teru's actions. We can see it most in the first chapter, when Teru finally moves out of Tasuku's apartment and into an apartment shared with her guidance counselor (and Tasuku's old friend) Riko. There's a lot of stuff left unsaid in this series, with many things communicated by expression rather than words, and it works well, showing also that the artist has the skill to carry it through.

There is a nice pile of drama as well, of course. A lot of it relies on the fact that both leads have low opinions of themselves, and tend to wallow in the 'I don't deserve to be with them' mode that shoujo manga is so fond of. This can be justified at times - Teru being an underage high school student is brought up again and again, by both Tasuku and others, which adds a frisson of forbidden love to his actions, as it's clear much of the time that he has trouble keeping himself in control when he's around Teru. (We still don't know what his actual age is.) Meanwhile, Teru is still having issues recovering from her brother's death - it was raining at the time, and so she associated the weather with sadness - as well as her own conflicted feelings about both Tasuku and Daisy.

Teru continues to stride a fine line between cheerfully dense and savvy. She gets goaded into a stupid fight with some other girls, though it's implied that that's the weather's doing, and she'd never have done that with a clear head. More to the point, at one point she's actually kidnapped by one of 'the enemy', a colleague of her brother's who's looking for the secret data he hid. Teru even allows him to 'charge' her cell phone, whose batteries had run low... but then reveals that she's totally aware that he's searching her phone. (It's not there, by the way.) This also allows her kidnapper to be humanized a bit - in fact, Teru's noting that her brother told her that there's always someone that has to do the dirty work' manages to be both cynical AND idealistic at the same time, and probably sums up Teru very well.

And then there's the final chapter, which gives us a big reveal. This was done very cleverly, featuring a music box (and for those curious, yes, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Cyndi Lauper were in the original - in fact, Time After Time seems incredibly apropos for this couple) and a typhoon. The question now is how will Teru and Tasuku's relationship change because of this - Teru is simultaneously delighted and devastated, and it's another good example of the author's ability to capture facial expressions. Also, things are now reversed in a sense so that SHE is the one with the secret. The power balance between this couple is very entertaining - it has to remain with Teru most of the time, given their ages, but that doesn't always work out - and no doubt will shift again in Volume 4.

The shoujo romance and dramatic moments of this manga are excellent. However, I find that it's the mystery that I'm enjoying most. Dengeki Daisy is a technological thriller in the guise of a love comedy, and it's so far ahead of the author's previous work, Beast Master, that it's ridiculous. Can't wait for the next volume.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Manga the week of 1/12

A very quiet Week 2 of the month here. Usually Week 2 is where we get a pile of Del Rey from Diamond, but of course we now have to wait till May for the 'reborn as Kodansha' titles to come out. And I'd hoped for some Yen, but I guess I wait till next week on that.

So it's just Viz, but there are several notable entries. The biggie here is that Volume 56 is the final volume of Inu Yasha, which Viz has now been releasing for over 12 years. Of course, they're still doing the VIZBIG omnibuses, and we still have Rin-Ne, but it just won't be the same without it. There is also a 2nd omnibus of the awesome Cross Game, which is now down to 2-in-1 volumes. This therefore covers the Japanese Vol. 4 & 5.

There's plenty more Shonen Sunday stuff as well, with the penultimate Yakitate!! Japan, new Kekkaishi (which I know little of, but which is big enough to get an omnibus release from Viz this summer), as well as new Hyde & Closer and Case Closed (is he still Jimmy? I suppose Viz can't quietly make him Conan now after all this time...)

And lastly we have the one non-Sunday release, Vol. 14 of Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. Now, Shueisha did release Vol. 15 in Japan, so it's likely that Viz will put that one out. After that, though, there was a big fuss over reprints that rewrote old dialogue, and the artist left Shueisha entirely, and will be continuing the series in Kodansha's Evening magazine. What this means for the books over here is, I suppose, something that only the contract writers at Viz know for sure. Hopefully the series will not go the way of Zatch Bell, canceled over in North America due to contracts and bad feelings (and, admittedly, possibly due to mediocre sales).

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Aria Volume 6

By Kozue Amano. Released in Japan by Mag Garden, serialized in the magazine Comic Blade. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

This is the first volume of Aria I've gotten to review here on my blog, which given I began in December 2009 should tell you something. Aria is one of those manga series beloved by bloggers and no one else, which always gets great word of mouth but somehow translates into low sales. Companies HATE these titles, mostly as the online folks won't stop going on about how awesome it would be if they were picked up, and how it would totally find an audience. (The number of Signature books from Viz on the NYT list speaks for itself.) And Aria is doubly special, as it's actually a license RESCUE - it had originally been put out by ADV Manga, who folded after 3 volumes.

And so Aria, which is 12 volumes total, seems to be down to one volume a year, meaning we should see the ending in 2017. It's a long, leisurely pace that urges us to take a closer, longer look at each volume, and learn to appreciate what is in front of us. Much like the manga itself, in fact. As readers of Aria know, this is not a manga packed with action and madcap chase scenes. This is about relaxation, and short slices of life in a Venice that just happens to reside in the future on a different planet.

There's a lot to like in this volume, though not much of it translates into things I can easily talk about in a review. Manga like this are difficult to analyze, as so much of it has to be experienced by the reader. Calling Chapter 30 a big parody of Galaxy Express 999 (which it is - President Aria even dresses like Maetel) misses the entire point of the evocative winter's night mood of the piece, as well as Akari once again interacting with the World Of Cats that only she seems to be able to connect to. Likewise, looked at dispassionately, the chapter with Akari meeting the glassmakers can be somewhat twee, another example of Akari's pure awesomeness managing to drown out even the grumpiest of voices. But it isn't dispassionate, of course - this is a manga to get emotionally involved in, so much that when Akari comes out with what should be a hideous cliche, we grin from ear to ear.

My favorite chapter of the volume featured Alice, the somewhat emotionless girl of Akari's power trio, and her encounter with a tiny, eccentric kitten. Everything just clicks here, from Aika's wild fantasies stirring Alice's imagination, to Athena's deadpan expressions making Alice even more paranoid (every single in the manga has a sempai who is very similar to them, and Alice is no exception - Athena is even harder to read than she is.) Best of all is Alice's despair when abandoning the kitten, and later frantic search for it. It's filled with raw emotion, but for all that, we still don't actually see Alice cry. We're waiting for the tears, but they don't appear - they're only implied in shots from far away. It's an excellent stylistic choice.

There's also the omake chapter, which is one of those things that is startling when you first read it, but afterwards just seems too short and one-note. That said, this is the most terrifying Akatsuki you will see in the entirety of the series.

In the end, this was a good volume of Aria. Lots of Akari being sweet, and some nice development of Athena, who we only just met last time. We're now halfway through Aria, and I find that I don't really mind the pace Tokyopop is putting it out - as long as they keep doing it, I'll be happy to spend the time with Akari and company whenever they stop by.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy Cafe Volume 6

By Kou Matsuzuki. Released in Japan as "Shiawase Kissa Sanchoume" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

Looking back on previous reviews of this series, I see that I accidentally forgot to review Vols. 3 and 5. But hey, that's sort of the way it goes. Happy Cafe isn't bad at all, but it is painfully average. The romance, such as it is, is crawling along at a snail's pace, and our heroine, Uru, hasn't really had too many life-changing experiences yet. As a result, we're left with cute slice-of-life baking comedy, which is cute, but that's about it.

There are a few things about this volume that stood out for me. First off, the second half takes place in Uru's school. Given this is a rare high school manga where the heroine is mostly seen outside of it, this manages to come across as refreshing. It's especially interesting seeing Uru bouncing off a different set of friends - she's a bit more savvy and less clueless when dealing with the difficulties of classmates and culture festivals. And yes, we get another culture festival here, of course - it'll be a good excuse to get the lead guys to the school in Volume 6.

Secondly, Uru and Shindo's relationship proceeds at a crawl despite everyone's best efforts. Both the boss and Mitsuka seem to regard it as inevitable (though with different feelings about such a thing), and work to make Uru's 'cake research' with Shindo into a date. Which it would be, were Shindo not still in denial, and Uru still not completely clueless. To make up for this, two of Uru's classmates are clearly in love but avoiding each other, mostly due to class separation and the girl's mother. Naturally, Uru will be doing everything she can to fix this - it's the right of every clueless shoujo heroine to fix all romances but their own.

The last reason to enjoy Happy Cafe is the random humor thrown in. Not necessarily the written gags - most of the best bits in this volume are the ones that are pure art. I loved where Shindo was briefly imagining Uru dressed in the nice outfit she wore on their 'research date', then punching the image in half when the real Uru actually arrives. Likewise, the artist has a way of drawing comedically dense expressions and mining them for humor. Oh yes, and even though it probably wasn't a dig at otaku culture, I loved the bit in the imaginary wedding between Uru and Ichiro where the caption notes 'we promise she isn't pregnant!'.

Really, though, a lot of this volume is simply adequate. Even the flashback to Ichiro's school life, meant to give him a backstory and some depth, feels perfunctory - we never really get the sudden change in personality he exhibits, the way that we get Mitsuya's lack of purpose and sudden discovery of it in V.B. Rose 11. Happy Cafe isn't a bad series, but it doesn't reach out and grab you like a lot of Hana to Yume stuff. Still, the volume made me interested in what will happen at the festival, so I'll pick up 7 to see what happens. It's 15 volumes total, so there's a lot still to go.

Monday, January 3, 2011

V.B. Rose Volume 11

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

It's something of a surprise that we're 11 volumes in before we finally get a good, long look at what drives Mitsuya Kuromine. He is, after all, one of the main protagonists, introduced in Chapter 1. But for all that, we really knew very little about him beyond the fight with his brother we saw in the earliest volumes. So even though it means yet another flashback in a series that seems fairly drenched in them, I was pleased to be able to finally get a handle on Mitsuya's machinations.

Well, mostly. Mitsuya is still fairly difficult to understand, though certainly we see in the flashback that he is a young man who is simply moving through life with no direction. This, of course, is what leads him to bond with Yukari so strongly, which in turn leads him to the pattern-making that becomes his purpose. However, the flashback is really to introduce us to how Mitsuya met Yukari, and how they began to define their peculiar friendship. It's played up deliberately like a BL comic, something noted several times by Ageha, with Yukari in the uke role. (It is rather startling to see Yukari so short in high school - most shoujo heroes tend towards the tall, and clearly he later shot up to at least be taller than Ageha.)

Oddly, Mitsuya's flashback begins AFTER the traumatic event that defined his 'uncaring' attitude, so we need another mini-flashback from Tsuyu to go over those details. It doesn't really tell us anything we couldn't have guessed - Tsuyu had a horrible upbringing leaving her with a sense of zero self-worth, and this led her to reject Mitsuya, which affected them both far more than they expected. How they deal with it is also reflected in their personalities - Mitsuya has continued to tease Tsuyu like the 12-year-old he was when this all happened, whereas Tsuyu runs away from him in denial and self-hatred.

This leads to the climax of this volume, where it's revealed that Tsuyu is going to be running away for good, and has allowed her family to set up an omiai for her. Given that she's getting near 25, this is not particularly surprising - Japan may not have as many arranged marriages as it once did, but it still has them quite a bit. This also does lead to Ahega acting like a hothead and belting Mitsuya - after mellowing out once she and Yukari got together, it was nice to see her quick temper returning. Less nice was the cliffhanger collapse by Mitsuya, who is fighting a cold - cliffhanger chapter endings are not really one of Banri Hidaka's strengths, and this one in particular seemed very forced.

Still, we should finally be beyond all the flashbacks, and I expect the next three volumes will be taken up by tying up all the plotlines in a neat bow. Starting, no doubt, with Mitsuya and Tsuru, which I'm fairly sure will take up the majority of Volume 12.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko Volume 1

By Ririko Tsujita. Released in Japan as "Warau Kanoko-sama" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine LaLa DX. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

I have to admit, this title took me totally off guard. I knew next to nothing about it going in, except that it was 3 volumes long and cute shoujo. Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out to be one of the best things I'd read in months, with a delightful heroine, some great humor, character development that doesn't hit you over the head with its obviousness, and best of all, a fantastic use of its somewhat prearranged format.

For those unaware, LaLa DX is the sister magazine of LaLa, which comes out 6 times a year, half the amount that regular LaLa does. (Likewise, Hana to Yume has its own similar sister publication, The Hana to Yume, which serves a similar purpose.) Generally it has one-shots or short series, usually by folks who are newer to manga than the regulars in the big publications. Sometimes a title will surprise everyone by really taking off, and will move to the big magazine (Natsume's Book of Friends and Special A are good examples of this.) And often a title commissioned as a one-shot will get a lot of fans, and it will lead to a series. That's what happened here, with the first chapter of Kanoko's adventures clearly being a one-shot. The magazine comes out 6 times a year, and can't be relied on to have readers as dedicated as those of the main publications, so usually the first 3-4 pages of every chapter are a recap, introducing everyone all over again and laying out the premise. It can get aggravating when put into a collection, but works very well for serials.

Lady Kanoko, however, takes advantage of this need to re-introduce everyone by having her change schools every single chapter! At first this seems very bizarre, and I'm not quite sure what her parents must do to allow her to do this (it's not even clear that it's deliberate), but it serves the plot quite well. Kanoko's machinations depend on the class she's in not being all that familiar with her. Once she reveals herself, it would become much harder to meddle - excuse me, observe - without either compromising herself or getting found out. Plus, this saves us the problem of 'every classmate has a crisis' repetition - each new school brings one big issue, which Kanoko 'solves' and then moves on.

This could still get very dull - witness Genkaku Picasso recently, where the revelations turned out to be quite ordinary - but we also have a smart and fun heroine in Kanoko, the title character. She's clever, she's observant (well, mostly - see below), she cuts through all the social niceties to speak her mind. As the lead guy in the series observes, she's STRONG, and is honestly baffled about why other girls aren't the same as her. She's also got some fantastic facial expressions, particularly her nasty grins when she's taking things down in her notebook. Though my favorite of her smiles is the one where the author simply draws a straight smiley-face line - :) - usually right at her moments of triumph. (The first chapter ends rather jarringly with her crying in the bathroom after realizing that she actually does have friends who care about her, but this is fairly easily written off as being the one-shot ending - the final chapter's blushing denials are far more in character.)

Best of all, like many impartial observers (which she isn't - the book shows us over and over again how much she meddles in everyone's lives, to the point where "objective observer" becomes the running gag of the series), Kanoko is completely unaware of her own foibles and problems, as well as how she appears to others. Tsubaki, the lead guy I mentioned before, shows up chapter after chapter at her new school, which it is hinted is sometimes several HOURS away by train - and every time she's surprised, and moreover accepts his explanations/excuses. It's certainly clear to *us* that he's totally smitten with her - and also finds her fascinating, in the same way that she's enjoying observing all the students around her. He watches the watcher. I've talked before about the clueless dense heroines who don't get that the guy is totally in love with them, but this one doesn't seem to be solely for the reason that if they realized their love the series would end. Kanoko simply isn't to the point yet where she can accept or even understand such feelings in her life.

Her meddling also doesn't always work, and is another good way of making her sympathetic. It's all very well and good telling off girls who you only met last week, but in the final chapter when Kanoko returns to her first school for a festival she was invited to, we see that she has indeed been affected by her friends - and that this is a good thing. Towards the end, she tries to manipulate her friend Momoka into getting out of a school competition that she knows will be sabotaged, but when she tries emotional manipulation on her it just leaves Momoka sad, and gives Kanoko a sour taste. Seeing Kanoko at the very end attending the competition and cheering Momoka up was quite heartwarming.

Honestly, this is one of those volumes that, having finished it, I immediately went back and read it all over again. I know it won't be for everyone - despite all my raving about it, it *can* get repetitious - but I personally found this to be a total home run pick-up for Tokyopop. Buy it, so it can sell well! It has a sequel currently running in LaLa DX, chronicling Kanoko's years in high school, and would be an ideal license after this finishes.

Also, Kanoko in the Marchen Doll costume is utterly freaking adorable.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hetalia Axis Powers Volume 2

By Hidekaz Himaruya. Released in Japan by Gentosha, originally serialized as an online webcomic. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

Since my review of Hetalia Axis Powers Volume 1, I have gotten quite a bit immersed in the world that is Hetalia. I now have the 2 DVDs that Funimation released of the anime. I'm also au courant with Hidekaz's blog entries, and have developed quite a taste for Austria/Hungary fan fiction. I worried as I started to read the 2nd published volume of Hetalia from Tokyopop that I would have lost my objectivity, that I would completely fail to explain to the casual reader who knew nothing of Hetalia why they should pick this up.

Then I came to my senses and shook my head. WHAT casual readers? Seriously, anyone who would grab the 2nd manga of Hetalia Axis Powers is not going to be a neophyte. They're going to be someone who wants to read the bit with Switzerland and Liechtenstein, as the printed volume diverges from the original (he doesn't have a grumpy lunch with Austria here), someone who wants to squee about Italy crawling into Germany's bed naked at random times, someone who doesn't particularly care that Taiwan is introduced in the huge epic cast biographies at the start but doesn't actually appear in the book. It is, in short, for the fan. The fan who has already read this entire book online already, but will buy it all over again anyway.

So what *do* we get here? Well, we get Hidekaz writing randomly about whatever the heck he wants. Despite the cliffhanger of Volume 1, almost none of this volume deals with the time period of World War II itself. Most of it seems to take place in modern times (indeed, the Russia chapters depend on this), and are anecdotes that go on for about 5-6 pages, then move to a different set of countries and a different set of jokes. And as this is a 4-koma, I sometimes use the word "jokes" in air quotes, as they are more mildly amusing than anything else.

But the time period is irrelevant, as is the plot. We're being immersed in a world here, so it doesn't really matter that Austria and Hungary, so prevalent last chapter, disappear here, as we get a pile of new countries to meet. How much you like these largely depends on how much you like the ethnic exaggeration of that particular country. I found the Canada chapters dragged, mostly as I think 'invisible, nice, and constantly being compared with America', while accurate, does not really lend itself well to fun situations. On the other hand, I loved seeing Switzerland and Liechtenstein's interaction, as their adorableness is contrasted very well with Liechtenstein's near-tragic past. And while Ukraine can be annoying (I had hoped her breast's sound effects would be an anime-only thing, but there they are, boinging every panel), Belarus is fantastically insane, tearing apart Russia's door and insisting that they MARRY NOW. It bears little resemblance to the *real* relationship between Belarus and Russia (Hidekaz will occasionally ignore history for comedy, something his history buff fans generally do not), and in a series with someone as tsundere as Switzerland and kuudere as Austria, it's good to have a yandere to complete the set.

I had mentioned in my review of Volume 1 that I thought it would sell very well, and it would seem I was right - since that review, there's only been one week where it hasn't been in the NYT best-seller list, and it's still there a good 3 months later. Only Naruto and Black Butler have had that kind of insane staying power. Hetalia fans (who are, not coincidentally, predominately female) love everything about Hetalia. The anime, the manga, the webcomic, the sketches, the drama CDs, the songs, the fanfic, the fanart, the cosplay. Hetalia is less a franchise than an industry. As such, my review is mostly irrelevant, but for the record: I thought this was a rather weak volume of Hetalia, but enjoyed it nevertheless.

Vampire Knight Volume 11

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

First of all, it needs to be said: Matsuri Hino draws some of the least menacing vampires ever. Look at the cover for this volume, which features Zero hovering over Yuki with a stake. It's meant to be menacing, dangerously sexy, showing their hot tormented passions! So why are they both looking at the reader going "Um... is this OK? Are we vampirey enough? Also, nice timing with the blue roses so that you don't actually see my cleavage. That was really excellent." So it's more sort of a lukewarm pretty sort of sexy.

That goes for the volume as a whole, where we keep hearing menacing threats about the true darkness of vampires, but actually see very little of it. Much of the fault of that is that this is a cooldown volume after the last battle, as well as a timeskip - one year passes mid-volume. This means everyone is regrouping and biding their time, and the battles in this book are almost all emotional and psychological rather than physical. Yuki in particular suffers from this - when she isn't able to get out there with her scythe and kick ass, her passivity kicks in. Her relationship with Kaname in particular would be creepy even WITHOUT the incestuous tone to it, mostly due to the power games and vampire lore that envelop the whole thing.

It was very nice to see Sayori still taking part in all of this, despite Yuki leaving school. Her actions at the end of the volume certainly show her devotion to her best friend, if not necessarily her good sense. In a volume where almost everyone in the cast is a hot male vampire of some sort, it's nice to see the bond between the two girls is still strong. At least, it will be nice to see it provided Sayori doesn't get slaughtered at the start of the next volume, but I'm not expecting that.

The main issue I have with this series is that it remains very hard to tell what is going on, and also very hard at times to tell who is who. Viz helpfully provides the pictures and cast list at the end of every volume, but that should not be required reading. I realize that a series that comes out as infrequently as VK (it's caught up with Japan, mostly) might cause me to have some memory lapses, but I don't seem to have this issue with Ouran or Skip Beat. Vampire Knight makes me feel I have to re-read the whole series before I start the new volume, as a refresher course.

That said, at the end of the day I do still enjoy this series, even if I'm not quite sure why. I've never read or seen Twilight, but I imagine there must be similarities. The series has weak plotting and character differentiation, but the style of the manga is quite strong, and it manages to draw you in and keep you wanting to guess. It's also quite well paced, which is a surprise for a volume like this one where very little action happens. But in the end, I'm STILL not entirely sure why I enjoy Vampire Knight. I just do. If only more series had this sort of primal effect.