Thursday, May 26, 2011

Manga the week of 6/1

Well, Yen has two Korean manwha coming out (which I generally don't cover on this site.)

And Little Brown is releasing the 5th Haruhi Suzumiya novel, which features Snowy Mountain Syndrome, the first story to be released here that isn't yet animated.

But that's it. Frequently when the first or second of the month falls on a Wednesday, Diamond treats it as a '5th week'. So no Viz blitz here, folks. Move along.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gente Volume 3

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

I had mentioned at the end of my review of the second volume of Gente that it led into the events of Ristorante Paradiso, and that this volume would be a sequel. Which is not quite the case. Yes, it takes place after that book, and Nicoletta is present throughout. But while her issues with Claudio are an ongoing small plot in the book, for the most part she's not the focus, and there's nothing approaching plot resolution here.

Nothing really changes or wraps up here as Gente has always been a series of vignettes. The end of the manga comes, and it doesn't so much end as stop. This is not to say that it's not an excellent volume, for those who don't mind that sort of thing. Several times as I read along I was thinking that I'd hit a lull, or a chapter that didn't work as well as the others, only to find by the end of it that I had been pulled in and was reading with rapt attention. Even the one-shot people I'd never heard of managed to make me interested in their lives.

My favorite chapters in the book were probably the two that dealt with the Rizzos, a middle-aged married couple who have lost whatever spark they had in their marriage, and compensate by having constant affairs. Signore Rizzo proved to be far more than just a womanizing jerk... while still not being terribly likeable. His conversations with Nicoletta, who thinks he's an absolute ass but can't quite stop talking to him, are fantastic. There's even some humor, as all the men in the Ristorante note how they'd like to have a daughter like Nicoletta... including Claudio, who immediately gets slapped down by them. (If you want cute Nicoletta/Claudio moments, you really should go read RP rather than this. Nothing really changes.) And we then get another ending showing that marriages, even ones where the love is lacking and the affairs are constant, are still marriages. It's sort of a bittersweet comfort.

The other chapter that really felt strong for me was the final one, dealing with a conflict of interest. Nicoletta's birthday happens to fall on the same day as the death of Gigi's father, and he goes to visit the grave every year... except this one, where he feels Nicoletta is more important. Unfortunately, Fate seems to want to kick him in the face for that. He goes the following day, and runs into a girl who says she's been watching him every year he comes by... and also that she's an orphan living in a treehouse. It's another chapter where very little happens, but seeing the little girl bond with Gigi and bring him out of his dour shell is quite touching, even if she does turn out to have been fibbing. (Also, Gigi goes from Rome to Turin in one day? That's quite a haul.)

And so the manga ends, pretty much as it began. There was little to no plot to speak of, but you enjoyed spending time with these people, and were surprised and pleased at how their lives interacted in the most interesting ways. Plus things are open in case Natsume Ono wants to return to the Ristorante later. If RP was the appetizer, and Gente the main course, what about dessert?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Genkaku Picasso Volume 3

By Usamaru Furuya. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Jump Square. Released in North America by Viz.

Things start off as normal in this final volume of Genkaku Picasso, with his skills being used to get a shut-in to return to school and reconcile with his "Studying over everything!" mother. After that, though, we head into a number of chapters that show us that we're headed to an endgame, mostly as for the first time we see him return to someone he's helped before - in this case, his friend Sugiura, who's a bit of a playboy struggling for his feelings for Akane, who not only is completely different from his usual type, but is also in love with Picasso.

We start to get things brought up that we've wondered about before, namely how people deal with Picasso seeming to know their innermost secrets, as well as how Chiaki interacts with the real world. The answer given is somewhat ambiguous, and if you want everything to make perfect sense then you might have a bit of trouble. Certainly Sugiura does, as he confronts Picasso after resolving his issues with Akane. Picasso attempts to explain what he does, opening up to someone other than Chiaki for the first time... and is soundly rebuffed.

And so we head into the final arc, where, as suspected, Picasso has to head inside his own heart, and deal with his own major unresolved issue - Chiaki. This is juxtaposed nicely with the rest of the main cast, all of whom Picasso helped in some way. We're not quite sure how anymore - the text certainly implies that Picasso and Chiaki leaping into the drawings to solve their psychoses happened, but it also shows the other side of Picasso's conversation with Sugiura, where we see Picasso holidng up a folded piece of paper he says is Chiaki, and showing a broken watch he insists is his skin rotting. Which is real, and which is hallucinated? Well, both.

The scene where Picasso emerges from his own eye to see the scene of the helicopter accident - and Chiaki's corpse - is drawn for maximum effect, and manages to be creepy and moving at the same time (a common theme and stregnth in Furuya's work). His friends are gathered to try to help him, but they can't get into his head the way he got into theirs, so in the end it's up to Chiaki to remind Picasso that she's dead - and that's what he refuses to accept. I was highly amused to see her finally accomplish this by getting him so angry that he abandons her in a huff - she certainly knows what makes him tick.

Again, in the final scene we have a bit of a disconnect regarding whether all this happened or not - Chiaki's note that she put in his pocket before the crash is revealed, but it shows her wearing wings - is it a confession, or a goodbye? Or both? Still, it leads to a nice finale, with the majority of the cast sitting by the riverside playing and discussing their futures while Picasso draws. Chiaki may be dead, but Picasso has opened up and found friends. Hey, in the end, it did end up being sort of Jump-esque, didn't it?

I think in the end this is a series that works on an artistic and emotional levels, but has a tendency to fall apart when you think about it too much. Luckily, I can happily read manga without thinking, and as such I found Genkaku Picasso to be a lot of fun, with a very satisfying resolution that did exactly what I expected, but did it quite well.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

MMF: Cross Game

Sean here, introducing another guest post. I think my three Cross Game reviews as well as my overview of Mitsuru Adachi say what I want, and I don't want to either repeat myself or spoil future volumes. So I've asked another old friend of mine, David Tai, to contribute an essay. David is, like last month's guest Stefan Gagne, an old-school fanfic writer. He's also a huge Adachi fan, and had a great deal to say about Cross Game.

For many people, Cross Game will be their first encounter with Mitsuru Adachi.

Adachi's manga has been published in the US a couple times in the past, a series of short stories eventually compiled into "Short Program" and "Short Program 2". The Short Program manga were released by Viz, but were not widely exposed to what is now a much larger US audience. While diverse in nature, the short stories are reminiscent of O. Henry in that they explore people, how they interact with others and their use of irony and twist endings.

In Japan however, it is his long-running serials that he's best known for- from his first (Nine) to his most recent (Asaoka High School Baseball Club Diary: Over Fence), he establishes his characters and premise early on, and then spends much time engaging in world-building and in adding wrinkles and delightful new dimensions to his characters. However, Cross Game is the first, and hopefully not the last, of the long-running serials that Viz has brought to the US.

In approaching Cross Game, one has to first understand that Adachi has done many baseball manga; Nine, Touch, H2, Cross Game. Each succeeding baseball manga is essentially re-invented for a new generation of Japanese readers, but there are certain tropes he always uses: his protagonist, a perfectly ordinary high school boy; the sweet and lovable heroine that every schoolboy falls in love with and with whom the protagonist gravitates towards; a tragedy that propels his protagonist and his heroine onto a new path towards maturity; and baseball, in which the protagonist develops tremendous skills and is used as a metaphor towards growing up.

Cross Game, his most recent completed baseball serial, hits every one of those tropes, but twists them in different ways. A good deal of Adachi's writing is written with a certain wink for the audience (his promoting of other Adachi series) and a play on certain expectations. Previous iterations of his manga have played on the 'tragedy' trope, but usually to indicate the end is near; here, though, the tragic incident happens nearly immediately, leaving experienced Adachi readers wondering exactly what to expect.

Small touches like that keep things fresh for the experienced Adachi readers. For those who have yet to read Adachi, however, they will find that Cross Game showcases what readers appreciate most about Adachi: his refusal to take himself too seriously, his willingness to develop the story at a steady pace, his ability to introduce little elements that become realized later in the story, and most of all, the slice of life moments in which he develops his characters in small ways as they move, slowly but surely, towards the end of their story. It is this character development that is perhaps his greatest strength. Adachi's characters evolve with a maturity and care that is difficult to find in any literary form, let alone manga.

Ko Kitamura, Cross Game's protagonist, is first met here as a young schoolboy, unlike most Adachi protagonists. As such, he has a young child's concerns: avoiding getting beat up by the school bullies, getting his allowance (usually by hawking his parents' products), and dealing with 'that girl', Wakaba Tsukishima.

Adachi spends an entire volume developing what he titles 'The Season of Wakaba'. There are many little moments showcasing just how close Wakaba and Ko are, the way Wakaba drives the unmotivated Ko to do things, the little struggles between Ko Kitamura and his young crowd, and Wakaba's sisters (all the Tsukishima girls are named after leaves, hence the four-leaf clover in the Cross Game logo) with whom he has varying levels of friendliness. Adachi displays a deft touch as a minor scene where Wakaba notices Ko making a list for his parents' store leads into scenes with much deeper meaning, when she presents him a list of what she would like for future birthdays that ends, at age 20, with an engagement ring.

And then tragedy strikes; Wakaba, who has shown every signs of being that Adachi heroine he so typically uses, dies. Mourning ensues, and then the 'second season' begins, as Adachi skips several years. One of Adachi's subtle tricks reflects the death of Wakaba: the logo reflects this change in seasons. The logo for volume 1 has four fully-colored leaves, but thereafter, every other volume displays 3 normally colored leaves, and one discolored leaf.

The second 'season' begins, as the protagonist enters high school. All proceeds a bit more to expectation with the protagonist starting to deal with high school and with girls.

And it is then that we realize that the heroine of Cross Game is not Wakaba, but Aoba Tsukishima, the sister who hates Ko with a passion. Aoba is not your typical Adachi heroine. While most Adachi heroines tend to be sweet, tender, and supportive of the protagonists, Aoba stands out as every bit resistant to the calm acceptance of Ko. Where Wakaba would have believed and supported in Ko unconditionally (as has been typical of his heroines in Rough, Touch, and countless others), Aoba pushes Ko away any chance she can. A common trope for manga, but for Adachi, this is a drastic change - in practically every other story he's written, the heroine and the protagonist naturally gravitate towards each other until all that's needed is a confession of love.

Because Aoba and Ko are often at conflict, the story takes on an air similar to Touch, another of Adachi's manga in which family colors how the heroine and the protagonist interact. For both Ko and Aoba, the shadow of Wakaba hangs over them heavily. For Ko, it is the great love of his young life, the one who kept him focused and motivated, and for Aoba, the big sister whom she loves more than anything else is missing from her life as a calm buffer.

It's Wakaba's ghost that motivates them both in different ways- Ko takes his motivation for baseball from Wakaba's dream of Koshien, the baseball tournament to which all Japanese high school baseball players aspire to. The birthday gift list that Wakaba gave to Ko remains a driving motivation for Ko years after she's gone, the most tangible physical reminder he has of her dreams. The influence of Wakaba on Aoba does not play out till later in the manga, but hovers over her nonetheless, in minor ways.

Wakaba's shadow can be seen with other characters such as Akaishi, the bully who grew up to be Ko's mentor catcher because he loved Wakaba and wanted to fulfill her dream, and Momiji, the youngest Tsukishima who over time realizes she cannot take Wakaba's place. And while other characters are not directly involved, even they get caught up, as Ko's pursuit to fill that dream encompasses them. Even the taciturn slugger Azuma is drawn in, finding his own dream of Koshien mirrored in Wakaba's. And as more and more people find their dream through Ko, he becomes Wakaba's most enduring legacy - because she saw his greatness before anyone else.

For people who have certain expectations of sports manga (Protagonist learns new skills! POWERS UP! Greater challenges lie ahead!), you don't get that here; what you see at the hands of Mitsuru Adachi is the maturation of people paralleling the development of their skills.

And yet it is not Ko Kitamura who develops the most over this series as he goes from a person who lacks motivation without Wakaba's encouragement to a self-driven pitching Ace determined to live up to her dream. It is Aoba Tsukishima who develops the most. Her self-assurance of being the ace pitcher in middle school has to give way to the reality in high school that she confronts being a girl in Japan's male-oriented baseball culture. It is perhaps no wonder that she fights her best to find ways to fit in with the team, and her adversarial relationship to Ko highlights that.

It is not until Ko showcases his undeniable talent that Aoba's character arc starts to develop, and the shadow that Wakaba left upon her begins to play itself out; Aoba had known of Wakaba's dream, but denied it, in large part because of her own dream, in which she would date someone who could throw a 100 mph fastball. And it hinders Aoba, because Wakaba had told her that Ko could do it... and that she shouldn't take him from her.

And so while Ko's arc plays out and it becomes apparent that Ko is destined to fulfill Wakaba's dream, the question of how Aoba's arc plays out becomes paramount, and brings a new angle and twist; rarely does Adachi really play out how his heroine develops, as he does here with Aoba. Ko may be the protagonist of this story, but it is Aoba's development that drives it. It is Aoba's pitching skill that Ko emulates in his drive to fulfill Wakaba's dream, and it is Aoba who helps Ko develop and refine his skills while struggling with her own Wakaba ghost. It may have been Wakaba Tsukishima who saw the potential in Ko; it is Aoba Tsukishima who sees that potential realized, and begins to see what it is that her sister fell in love with. It is Aoba who struggles to accept her feelings about Ko, and she even lies to herself about it. As a result, then, Cross Game shifts from Ko Kitamura as soon as his future as a pitching ace is clearly established to the inevitable confrontation between Wakaba's ghost and Aoba's dream.

Mitsuru Adachi begins Cross Game with Ko Kitamura, and ends it with Aoba Tsukishima, and in the process, turns out perhaps his most well-rounded sports/romance manga.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Manga the week of 5/25

Hope you enjoyed your lull, as we have quite a few manga coming out next week! Including the direct market getting a few Kodansha titles at last. The lull is over!

First up we have Bandai, giving us the debut of Kannagi. The subtitle of the anime was "Crazy Shrine Maidens", but "crazy" turned out to be a word that the fandom decided to take literally. I wonder if the manga itself is interesting divorced from the whole "virgin" controversy?

Dark Horse has the 6th volume of Ghost Talker's Daydream, which I keep having to remind myself that yes, it is shonen. (It ran in Shonen Ace.) No doubt there will be ghosts, and sadomasochism. Possibly not in that order.

DMP has the 2nd volume (and final, I believe) of Fafner, as well as three new yaoi titles, including Volume 3 of the ever-popular The Tyrant Falls in Love (which runs in the BL magazine Gush - I think I've mentioned that before, but really, I wanted to mention it again.)

Kodansha has a few long awaited volumes, though no debuts quite yet. Arisa proved surprisingly popular with bloggers, and its 2nd volume is finally here. There's new Fairy Tail and Negima volumes, for those who like shonen fights and fanservice. And Shugo Chara keeps trucking along with shoujo magical girl goodness.

Udon has a new Mega Man spinoff out, this one called Gigamix. I know nothing about it, but if Megaman spawned Gigamix, can Teramix be far behind?

Lastly we have the latest from the folks at Yen Press. The news here is the debut of the long-awaited A Bride's Story, from the author of Emma. This is apparently in a deluxe edition, and Yen is really pulling out all the stops. There's new Cirque Du Freak, Spice & Wolf, and Sumomomo. There's guilty pleasures Haruhi-chan (for Suzumiya fans only) and My Girlfriend's a Geek (for those who love fandom). And there's a one-and-done omnibus sidestory of Higurashi When They Cry, which will allow us to take a break from the madness of the Eye-Opening Arc. Well, at least I hope it's a break. It's Higurashi, so no doubt there will be blood.

So what are you picking up this week?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Naruto Volumes 1-3

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

Really, I was starting to feel a bit guilty about the whole thing. Here is the top manga in America, the title that outsells everything else by a considerable margin, and I'd never read it, or seen the anime. I remember that I did buy Volume 1 when it first came out, but I never did keep up after that, and now it's up in the 50s. So, as with Kekkaishi, I used Viz's omnibus re-release as an opportunity to close the gaps in my reviewer knowledge and see what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately, the first 3 volumes of Naruto were a lot harder to slog through than Kekkaishi was, and reminded me that most series *do* start off slow.

For those of you living in a cave, the basic premise is that Naruto, our hero, is a ninja trainee who's disliked by his town as he holds the spirit of a fox demon within him... something Naruto's been unaware of his whole life, thinking that he's just naturally disliked. As a ninja trainee he's a bit of a class clown, but he certainly holds genuine skill, and finally manages to pass his exam. Of course, that's just the start, as now he's an apprentice, going through hellish training along with his crush Sakura and the moody Sasuke. Can he overcome his past and become an amazing ninja?

To start off with, I'll note that the three leads all begin as very difficult to like. This is not uncommon in manga, and always leads to character development later on, but the author also has to be able to keep a balance, as you don't want them to get so unlikeable that the reader decides not to continue. (I recall trying to sell people on Teru Teru x Shonen, only to be told Shino was such a brat in Vol. 1 they didn't care if she got better.) So Naruto is a bit of an impulsive brat, Sakura comes across as shallow and petty, and Sasuke is blunt, grumpy and rude. And through these three volumes, even as they do start to learn to work together, that mostly remains the case. It made the volumes a bit of a slog.

I also found the battles to alternate between confusing and boring. While not nearly on the level of, say, Trigun Maximum, the art here during combat doesn't always make it immediately clear what's going on, or translate well to action in my mind's eye. And honestly, I may just not like ninjas. The doppelgangers and special secret techniques rolled out here made me long for people to just start beating the tar out of each other face to face. (Yeah, I know, ninjas...) That said, the 3rd volume's battle was considerably better than the others in the volume, and may point to bigger things in the future.

There were things I enjoyed a great deal in the book, rest assured. Kakashi is fantastic, and a breath of fresh air amongst the sullen teenagers. First off, he has droopy eyes, which I've noted in previous Banri Hidaka reviews is a personal favorite of mine. He's clever and tricky and basically exactly what I want a ninja to be, which is why he makes an excellent teacher. I did feel the "he's failed everyone before" plot was overhyped, especially when he passed Naruto & company simply for ignoring his instructions and caring for each other's well-being, but I suppose that speaks more to the poor quality of prior ninja trainees in the past than anything else.

Likewise, while I disliked Sakura herself, the 'inner Sakura' schtick was great, adding some nice humor into the middle of any situation. Hopefully this either continues, or she learns to speak her mind and we get to see Inner Sakura blend together with outer Sakura. The other choice bits of humor through the volumes were also well-handled. And I like the fact that our first big ninja villains are getting their own backstory, showing that (as I noted with Kekkaishi as well) nothing is really 100% black and white or good and evil.

When I expressed my ambivalence to this omnibus on Twitter and with my friends, I was generally told that I needed to keep going through the 'Chuunin Exam' arc, so I'll get the 2nd omnibus and hope it starts there. I'm sure it must pick up, because come on, this is the best-selling manga in North America. But honestly, reading this omnibus I was simply reminded why I didn't get it after Volume 1. It's just okay, but needs improvement.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kekkaishi Volumes 1-3

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

It is a known fact that one simply cannot read everything. Oh, maybe it was possible back in the 1990s, when most things were still 32-page floppies, but these days there just isn't the time and the money. And so certain things get put aside. And then, after a while, when you discover that all your friends are talking about them, you go back and discover... hey, when did that get to be 33 volumes? Now, of course, it's too intimidating to try to read all that.

So Viz has taken to doing omnibuses. Unlike the fancy large-format VIZBIG works, these have no added extras or fancy color pages. In fact, the pages are actually of lesser paper, in order to make them thinner and fit them on the shelves. This is purely a case of 'we are re-releasing these in bunches of three to try to get more readers who didn't buy the first time'. They first did it with One Piece, and it seemed to work out well, so we now get four more omnibus re-releases. The super-popular Naruto, Bleach, and Fullmetal Alchemist... and this one, Kekkaishi, a Shonen Sunday title that just ended in Japan earlier this year.

Like most action-oriented Sunday titles of recent years, Kekkaishi never quite caught on sales-wise the way that Naruto and its fellow Jump titles did. It didn't get an anime premiere in North America until last year, and then it was on Adult Swim rather than Naruto and One Piece's kiddie slots. (Of course, one may argue that in the case of One Piece, having that slot is what killed it for North America.) Sales aren't bad exactly - it's still coming out on a bimonthly basis, which is more than I can say for Hayate the Combat Butler - but certainly an omnibus would be a good idea to show people why this manga deserves more attention.

The plot revolves around Yoshimori Sumimura, a demon hunter from a long line of demon hunters, who uses his powers to capture and eliminate rogue demons. He's helped in this by his familiar Madarao, a demonic dog spirit, and his childhood friend/crush/rival Tokine Yukimura, the daughter of a rival family of demon hunters, who's older than him and better at demon hunting - at least at first. Yoshimori has a huge amount of raw power, but tends to simply use it as a hammer most of the time. After a first chapter showing him as a rather reluctant hunter when he was a child, the manga picks up on him in 8th grade, after a rtaumatic incident left him with a much greater resolve to be a good demon hunter.

Except... what he *really* wants to be is a patissier. Yes, his lifelong ambition is to make cakes. The interesting thing about this is that it's not all that belittled or shown to be a mistake. Yes, he's a demon hunter *now*, but just because he inherited his family's ridiculous amount of power, does he have to let that drive his existence? What's more, for a 14-year-old, the boy's great at making cakes. Given so much of shonen manga is about dreams, it's great to see the manga portray his ambitions in a positive light.

I also really liked the heroine, Tokine. Making her two years older than Yoshimori is a great move, in that it allows her to be the one more in control and reserved - as well as allowing any feelings she may have for him to remain in the background. I've no idea whether romance will feature in this manga, but for the moment Tokine seems to simply see Yoshimori as an exasperating friend with a ton of power who doesn't use it all that well - which turns out to be the opposite of her own powers, which aren't all that colossal but are very precise. There's a great shot of the two of them separately training in an effort to surpass the other. And yes, inevitably there is a chapter that shows that Tokine is terrified of bugs, the standard "Oh look, she's human after all" type of thing. But it's funny.

The stories themselves in the three volumes we get here are very much meat-and-potatoes shonen, combining the monster-of-the-week with longer arcs that reveal more of the backstory behind the two main families. I particularly liked the attention that the villains received, with even the nastiest of them being shown great sympathy. Viz also has a solid translation here as well, though I did note that Yoshimori's familiar was referred to as female in the first volume - possibly as they hadn't read Volume 3 yet, where Tanabe-san reveals that he's male - and gay! Extra bonus points to Tanabe-san for a gay demon dog, something I think is unique to shonen so far.

There weren't any totally amazing moments in these first three volumes, but everything was very solidly good. For a shonen series that's just finding its feet, this is a triumph - most shonen series I can think of start off very slowly and awkwardly, not really getting into a groove until several volumes in. The characters are less eccentric than your standard Jump heroes, but I think that makes them more realistic and human. I definitely want to read more Kekkaishi after these three volumes, though, and urge Jump readers who are looking for a nice change of pace from ninjas and pirates to give it a shot as well.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Frank Zappa - the Spring/Summer 1980 Tour

It's been a while since I've done a Zappa post. This one took a while for a couple of reasons. First, the 80s mostly mark the end of the 'Frank plays one setlist over and over' days, so it's harder to break down a tour song by song. Secondly, this honestly is not one of my favorite tours. Frank had a LOT of new songs, and he wanted to play them in preparation for recording - even if they weren't quite road ready yet. This tour would introduce the majority of what ended up on the album You Are What You Is, which is a fantastic album, but here we have its songs in a sort of proto-version that really doesn't hit the heights. In addition, Frank had a new band, his smallest since the Winter 76 tours, meaning the sound is a little less big than it was in 1978 and 1979.

The band itself kept Ike Willis (guitar and vocals), Tommy Mars (keyboard and vocals), Arthur Barrow (bass) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) from the 1979 tour, and welcomed Ray White (guitar, vocals) back to the fold. Ray had not toured with Zappa since the winter of 1977, and is one big reason this band is still good to hear - he and Ike work well together, and he fits right into the band seamlessly. The band rehearsed a bunch of new songs in January and February, planning to begin the tour towards the end of March. They also recorded a single, I Don't Wanna Get Drafted, in February. Then... well, then Vinnie asked for a raise. Those who know the history of Zappa bands know what happens to band members who ask for a raise. So now the band needed a new drummer, with very little time before a tour that couldn't really be delayed or cancelled.

After the usual auditions for Frank, most of which lasted an average of 15 seconds, he settled on David Logeman. David's actually a better drummer than his reputation has led us to believe. He plays on this tour as well as the studio sessions for You Are What You Is itself, and is a perfectly good drummer, managing to keep up with Frank's insane rhythms and Arthur Barrow's bass fine. However, he does not really have a personality. Zappa fans were spoiled by Terry Bozzio and Vinnie Colaiuta, and the idea of a drummer who was simply there to drum probably felt kind of boring. (Ironically, 80s Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman was also a fairly sedate personality, but fans warmed to him quite fast, most likely due to the interplay he had with bass player Scott Thunes, who managed to be interesting enough for both of them.)

Thus prepared for combat, the band went out on the road, playing in the US from March 25th to May 11th, and then flying over to Europe and playing there from May 23rd to July 2nd. The setlist in March was very different from the setlist in July. Let's look at the 'typical' setlist for the early part of the tour.

Opening Solo - Actually, for the first two shows Frank opened with a short run-through of Don't Eat the Yellow Snow (just the first part of it), but that vanished in favor of the traditional "warm the audience up with Frank's guitar" that we've gotten used to since 1978. Depending on the show this could be Treacherous Cretins, Watermelon in Easter Hay, The Deathless Horsie, or Chunga's Revenge. The first 3 are all familiar from the 1979 tour; Chunga's is an old FZ guitar vehicle that we hadn't seen him play since 1975-1976, and it always made for great solos.

Teenage Wind - Our first debut this tour, this is an amusing song mocking the immaturity and impatience of the typical teenager, who defines 'freedom' as the ability to do whatever he wants and get away from the eye of his parents. Its chorus may strike a chord for anyone who's argued with those who are 'fans' of anime via scanlation and bittorrent: "Free is when you don't have to pay for nothing or do nothing, we want to be free! Free as the wind!" This would become the first song on You Are What You Is.

Harder Than Your Husband - This one is a flat out Country and Western parody, with Frank playing the part of a typical 'cowboy' trying to tell the girl's who's seeing him that he's not a great catch and that she should leave him and return to her husband... except of course he keeps hammering the double entendre from the title home as the song goes on. "I'll be HARDER THAN YOUR HUSBAND... to get along with. HARDER THAN YOUR HUSBAND every night..." This would also end up on You Are What You Is.

Bamboozled By Love - Performed as on the 1978 and 1979 tours.

Pick Me I'm Clean - Another in a long list of sexist Frank Zappa songs with awesome guitar parts, this is a highlight of the tour from a solo perspective. The vamp Frank ended up using is very similar to the one he used the previous tour on Inca Roads - and as that was the guitar highlight of 1979, there's no doubt that this is a guitar highlight of 1980. As for the lyrics, they deal with the many foreign groupies who came around during the tour, trying to hook up with members of the band despite their poor grasp of English, poor hygiene and generally poor outlook as a sexual partner. As you can imagine, they are fairly sexist. "I speak good English, I can say Thank You!, I think I like you, do you like my Band-Aid, I hope you do!" This would appear on the Tinseltown Rebellion album.

Society Pages - The first of a 6-song suite, which would be reduced to 4 for future tours (and they all end up on You Are What You Is), this is a takedown of shallow preppie suburbia, specifically the sort of white bread middle-aged housewives who try to get into the papers by running every single charity event they can possibly find. It segues right into a song about the housewife's son...

I'm A Beautiful Guy - ...who is your typical whitebread preppie jerk, who goes around playing tennis, jogging, and making sure to look his best so that he can get noticed by the girls. Who are also trying to look their best, but have a harder time of it, because...

Beauty Knows No Pain - ... because the standards of female beauty in the eyes of the media have become completely ridiculous, but hey, you had better CONFORM if you want to get yourself a man at all. Probably the best song of the four, its biting satire is just as relevant today. "Beauty is a bikini wax, and waiting for your nails to dry. Beauty is a colored pencil scribbled all around your eye. Beauty is a pair of shoes that makes you wanna die. Beauty is a lie." Wrapping up the analysis of shallow vapidity, we have...

Charlie's Enormous Mouth - This was apparently originally written as Carly's Enormous Mouth, as in Carly Simon, but Frank apparently didn't want to worry about getting sued. The song is about a young woman who is trying to stay hip and get noticed - she puts out for the guys, she takes drugs like the cool kids do, and by the end of the song winds up in a coffin from "taking an extra hit". One of Frank's more anti-drug songs, albeit one with a bit of a sexist overtone in the first verse. The song segues into...

Any Downers? - This actually debuted as an instrumental in 1974, and later gained words for the Fall 1975 tour, when Napoleon Murphy Brock would freak out as he sand about a man begging for drugs. It's adapted here as an epilogue for Charlie's funeral, with all of her friends standing around the grave not really caring about the dead girl but wondering if anyone has any more drugs. The tour usually featured quick solos by Tommy Mars and Frank Zappa here, and Frank's in particular could stretch out and get quite good, being more "heavy metal" than usual. Finally, trying to recover from Charlie and her stupid friends, you turn on the television and find...

Conehead - This is performed as on the 1978 tour, but now has the second half of the lyrics instead of a guitar solo. Somewhat of a shame as I enjoyed Frank's Conehead solos - especially when he dueted with L. Shankar on violin - but it's now essentially what it would be like on the album, with a lot more references to the SNL skit itself.

Easy Meat - The start and end of the song are performed as on the 1978-79 tours, but Frank and Tommy are starting to add the "Classical Bridge" that would become a staple of the song for future tours. And the solos are freed from the confines of the prior tour's repetitive vamp, and start to stretch out. Another good guitar vehicle for Frank.

Mudd Club - The Mudd Club itself was an underground music nightclub that opened in 1978, and quickly became a HOT AND HAPPENING spot, especially once Studio 54 became uncool. Frank, of course, looked at the club and merely saw a bunch of people trying to look cool, dancing like idiots and attempting to get laid. Which is more or less accurate. I'm quite fond of this song, which contains one of my all-time favorite Zappa lyrics: "And all the rest of whom for which to whensonever of partially indeterminate bio-chemical degradation seek the path to the sudsy, yellow nozzle of their foaming nocturnal parametric digital whole-wheat inter-faith geo-thermal terpsichorean ejectamenta!" You can hear a version from this tour on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4.

The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing - As played in 1978-79, only without Denny's slide guitar, which makes it sadly less awesome.

Heavenly Bank Account - One of Frank's first, and possibly best, takedowns of TV evangelists, this is a classic, with great vocals, cutting satire, and some interesting polyrhythms in the middle. The tale of a TV preacher who seems to have influence over his viewers, congressmen, the governor, and manages to do all this while still wearing an incredibly expensive suit. Funny how money to God seems to end up going to his wardrobe so often...

Suicide Chump - As performed on previous tours, although the solo section is now more of a rotating blues "everyone gets a turn" thing, with the guitarists and keyboardist taking 12 bars each to show off their stuff.

Jumbo Go Away - As performed on the last tour. Still don't like it. It has a new outro written to better segue into the following song...

If Only She Woulda - I looooooove this song, which sadly would only last part of this tour and part of the next. As a song it's just a shell, mostly a way of shifting from the disparate subject of Jumbo to the song that follows up. But as a jam vehicle this is THE highlight of the 1980 tour, even if it only featured two soloists. The first is Arthur Barrow, who took a rare keyboard solo to show off his parody impression of Ray Manzarek, with Doors-sounding keyboards. The second is Frank's, and though he starts off pretty tame, by the time the tour rolls into May he's completely on fire with his solos.

I Don't Wanna Get Drafted - As I'd mentioned at the start of the post, Frank had recorded this as a single before the tour began, and it was released to radio stations (who didn't play it). There was a rumor that Jimmy Carter was discussing reintroducing compulsory National Service, and this was Frank's response, which managed to mock both the Draft *and* the whiny young teens who wanted to do anything to avoid it.

Joe's Garage - The debut for the title track from the Joe's Garage album, this is (as with all tours except for 1988) the first half of the song, missing the 2nd half meltdown ending from the album. It's a nostalgic look at Garage Bands, and you're never quite sure if the song is celebrating it or mocking it - something you can say about a lot of Frank's songs. It segues into...

Why Does It Hurt When I Pee? - This closed the regular set for most of this tour, and is performed as on the 1979 tour.

Encores followed, usually consisting of some variation on the following:

Dancin' Fool - as performed on previous tours.

Bobby Brown - Ditto.

Black Napkins - Ditto.

The Illinois Enema Bandit - Ditto.

Nite Owl - This is a doo-wop cover that Frank liked to perform, mostly as he loved doo-wop covers. It was originally recorded by Tony Allen and the Champs in 1955, and Frank and the band pretty much perform it as straight-up doo-wop.

By the European tour, Frank had changed much of the setlist. A lot of the tour's debut songs dealt with North American 80s culture, which may not have played as well to the Europeans. Also, several of the songs, being works in progress, had to be worked on to make them sound better. Here's an example of a typical setlist from the end of the tour, with comments on songs that weren't there to start with.

Chunga's Revenge

Keep It Greasey - As performed on previous tours, without the 2nd half 'xenosyncrous solo' that appears on the Joe's Garage album.

Outside Now - The arpeggio that makes up the bulk of this song debuted last tour, as part of the City of Tiny Lites solos at the end of the tour, but the lyrics debut here. This is one of the few songs from Joe's Garage where the words make little sense outside of the context of the album itself. The lyrics are about Joe (the main character) in prison, having little to do all day but sit around and pretend he is playing awesome guitar solos. The solos from this song do tend to be pretty good, especially at the end of the tour, where this replaces Pick Me I'm Clean for a time.

City of Tiny Lites - As performed on previous tours, though the vamp that backs Frank's solos is getting more open and less repetitive, allowing him to stretch out. At the end of this tour Frank and the band would get obsessed with the song She's Not There, which had just been covered by Carlos Santana - Santana and Zappa were fans of each other - and frequently during Tiny Lites either Frank would quote the song briefly or the whole band would go into a full blown performance of the chorus (instrumentally). After If Only She Woulda, the Tiny Lites Santana solos are my highlight of this tour.

Pound for a Brown - As performed on previous tours, with solos from keyboard and guitar. A welcome presence in any tour, the Pounds here weren't quite as wild as they had previously been, but are still quite a treat.

Cosmik Debris - As performed on previous tours.

You Didn't Try To Call Me - Frank revived this 60s-era piece for the European part of the tour, using the Cruising with Ruben & the Jets doo-wop version. Like Nite Owl, it's pretty much done straight up. You can hear a version of it from this tour on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1.

I Ain't Got No Heart - As performed on previous tours.

Love Of My Life - Another one from the 60s, this again from the Ruben and the Jets album, and another great doo-wop classic.

You Are What You Is - Making its debut here, sort of, this is the first half of the song as heart on the album that bears its title. The second half, featuring Ray White singing counterpoint over the top of the vocals, would not debut until 1981. The song itself makes fun of white people who pretend they're black, and black people who pretend they're white, and says people should just accept who they are. It also features Frank using a certain 6-letter word beginning with N, which makes it rather hard to sing aloud.

Easy Meat

Mudd Club

The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing

Joe's Garage

Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?

Encores consisted of the same as the previous tour, but also added:

Ms. Pinky - A song from the 1976 album Zoot Allures, this is about a sex toy Frank's band had found while touring Europe, consisting of a rubber head with the mouth open for various parts to be inserted into. Frank found the lameness and patheticness of this hysterical - especially since it cost $69.95 -and naturally wrote about it in a song.

Stick It Out - This is a holdover from the old days of the Flo and Eddie tour of 1971, but was never recorded for an album until Joe's Garage. The version performed here is similar to the first half of the album version, lacking the rave-up of the second half (you must be tired of me saying this by now). The song itself is a plea for sex, in both English and German. It's quite catchy live, if you can get beyond its coarse lyrics, and Frank would encourage singalongs.

I would not recommend trying to go out and get every concert tape of this tour you can find. But one or two would be very nice, and would give you a sense of both how a band takes songs on the road to test them our before recording, and what a difference a small band can make when you're used to a large one. Plus some excellent guitar work by Frank, as always. After this tour Frank would record several songs for You Are What You Is, and then go right back into rehearsals for the NEXT tour, which ran from October to December of 1980...

Dengeki Daisy Volume 4

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

I think there was a general feeling among reviewers that this volume of Daisy was not as good as the others, and I can see that. We're at the point that every manga gets into when it realized that it's in it for the long haul - plot points that were scheduled to be revealed in 3 volumes have to either be put off or retconned somehow, and naturally any romantic progress is by inches, since the relationship only tends to resolve at the end.

So after last volume's reveal to Teru that Kurosaki is Daisy, we need to get back to a more even keel, and 'denial' seems to be the way to go about it. Teru is increasingly uncomfortable with Kurosaki, knowing she should tell him that she knows but unable to do anything about it - and it's made worse by the fact that her feelings for Kurosaki and Daisy are somewhat separate - she sees Daisy as her big brother replacement (deliberately, of course, that's exactly what Kurosaki is supposed to be as Daisy) but has fallen for Kurosaki. Eventually she decides not to tell him, but simply go along with things as they are now. Which helps the manga move along, but is a bit frustrating.

Meanwhile, the rest of the plot continues to roll along, as the "fake Daisy" is still attempting to make Teru's life miserable by ostracizing her from her schoolmates - and it's working, as we see several scenes of Teru getting bullied, and one over-the-top attempt at hospitalization for the cliffhanger. We meet another member of the 'inner circle' that surrounded Teru's brother, and he manages to be another amusing eccentric with Teru's best interests at heart... though that doesn't stop him being a bit of a creep as well.

There's a few good moments of humor here, my own highlight being Riko's reaction to Teru fainting and her (poorly worded) explanation of why she was out of sorts and had been bleeding last night. The art when we see someone delivering a powerful kick seems to get a bit more Western Comics and helps to add to the fun. Everyone in the entire manga seems to have an opinion on the relationship between Teru and Kurosaki, and never pass up a chance to tell them, even when it only leads to more angst. (As I said in my last review, the two leads are both very good at beating themselves up over the slightest problem.)

The best part of the manga is, oddly enough, Daisy oriented, as we see Teru ask Daisy how he got the nickname. Given the whole series has been littered with blue daisies from the start, it's not all that hard to guess - we think. But Daisy takes several days to answer, and when he does the answer is not what she or the reader expected. It's a powerful moment, and reminds us that for all that we can go on about Teru and Kurosaki angsting over every little thing, they both do have some very traumatic pasts - pasts we still haven't quite mined. (Heck, we aren't even sure how old Kurosaki is!)

This volume had many fun and dramatic moments, but in some way seems less satisfying than previous volumes. Perhaps it's the fact that the big revelation of the last volume ended up heading back into stasis, or maybe the plot is starting to have one too many implausibilities to it. In any case, we get another spectacular cliffhanger here, and I'll still get Volume 5 to see what's going to happen.

Otomen Volume 10

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

This volume of Otomen takes up right where the last one left off. We're still in the middle of the plan to make Asuka's high school filled with manly men and girly girls, starting with the ever-so-cutesy Ms. Moematsu, who tries to sweet everyone into submission. Unfortunately, Asuka is proving to be very confusing to her, as his awesome kendo skills don't quite match with his obsessive love of parfaits. Of course, just as all the guys in this manga are secret otomen, naturally their teacher is not as cutesy pie as she seems, and is revealed to have a hidden secret past.

Of note, Asuka talks about his love of Ryo in front of everyone again, and once more, we don't see much of a reaction from her at all. I've gone on about my dislike of never seeing anything of Ryo's feelings before, and it does remind me a bit of reading Itazura na Kiss, where it's Naoki who seems a blank slate. In any case, it's the same here for the most part, and given that the fandom for Otomen seems to be predominately BL, I may be the only one noticing it. :) And it's not as if she's cold to Asuka - she's enthusiastic about everything as always, and loves to go training or on dates with him. She's just... flat compared to the others.

The majority of the volume deals with teacher #2, a mad scientist type who supposedly invents a drug that stereotypes gender roles. What's more, it seems to work, as Asuka is hating sweet desserts and throwing out his plushies, and Ryo giving up her martial arts. Luckily, Kitora was late to the meeting where everyone had their mojo worked, and therefore is the only one who notices what's wrong. He manages to snap Asuka out of it, but the others aren't so lucky. In fact, Juta may give up shoujo manga! (The shot of Love Chick drawn a la Dragon Ball Z is fantastic.)

This leads to what's probably my favorite part of the manga, which is where Asuka, who has snapped out of the role reversal, is hoping that showing Ryo various things she used to love, like samurai movies and mountain training grounds will snap her out of it. It doesn't work, unfortunately, and she seems content to watch him be manly and talk about cute things. In fact, they now have far more in common, as now the girlified Ryo shares all of Asuka's otomen interests! But of course, she's not who Asuka fell in love with. He stares melancholically at her and sees an image of muscle-making Ryo behind her, and wonders why she feels so far away. While I may bitch about Ryo's opaqueness, Asuka's feelings for her are never in doubt, and this is really well done.

Eventually everything gets sorted out (with the help of the insane Iruka from Volume 2), and it's revealed the 'drug' was mere hypnosis. So teacher #2 has failed, on to teacher #3, who's an American obsessed with Japanese samurai. He takes the school on a field trip to a samurai theme park, forcing all the guys to dress as samurai and the women as geisha. Tonomine's school is here too, and they end up competing against each other. This story actually leads into Volume 11, as there's a cliffhanger involving a landslide.

I should be less frustrated than I am with Otomen, as Aya Kanno has made it clear for some time that she's not writing this seriously and deep characterization is not on the menu. And truth be told, this volume is a lot of fun if you turn off your brain and go along with it. But the characters are likeable enough that I desperately want them to have more depth, and so far only Asuka and Juta really give me that. (Which is probably why the main Otomen fan pairing is the two of them rather than Asuka and Ryo.) Hopefully Volume 11 will resolve the mid-range boss manly men attack, which is starting to pall, even though Kanno tries to vary it a bit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Manga the week of 5/18

First of all, the new releases from Kodansha Comics are starting to roll into bookstores and onto Amazon and basically everywhere except the direct market. I am hoping next week brings us some titles, I don't want to start a Kodansha whine at Diamond the way I did a Tokyopop whine.

Meanwhile, there are some titles that the direct market just LOVES! And for them, well, here you go. The 17th volume of Gantz, from Dark Horse. It's almost written for the Western comics fan.

Viz also has its Signature and SigIkki titles, traditionally reserved for the 3rd week of the month so that they can show off on their own while not surrounded by Naruto and Black Bird. This week sees the final volume of Natsume Ono's Gente, the sequel to Ristorante Paradiso. This was a lovely surprise for me last year and this one, and I greatly look forward to it. There's also Volume 3s of the Ikki titles I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow and Saturn Apartments. I love the fact that Japan has so many magazines where these two disparate titles can run in a magazine together with nary an eyebrow raised.

Aaaaaaand that's it. What's intriguing to you?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Itazura Na Kiss Volume 5

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

Wow, there's a lot going on in this volume. No, Kotoko doesn't suddenly grow up and get mature, nor does Naoki come out with an amazing love confession. But in their own way, they inch forward, and this volume has more moments that I really enjoyed reading, both romantic and dramatic. Tada-san has also shown herself to be very good at tension-building cliffhangers, including one right at the end of the book.

The main thrust of this volume, even though it doesn't technically start until almost halfway through, is Naoki's father having a heart attack. Naoki has been keeping his transfer to the medical school from his father, mostly as he knows there will be a giant argument once it's discovered, and sure enough, he's right. The heart attack is a surprise though, and is played very seriously. It also gives us Kotoko's best moment in the manga, as unlike Naoki's hysterical mother, she stays level-headed in the crisis, calling the ambulance right away and going to the hospital with food and supplies. Naoki even gives her one of his rare smiles - and praises her!

Unfortunately, life is getting in the way of Naoki's dream. With his father recovering, someone needs to run the toy company - and Naoki seems to be the only one who can, given the company is not doing very well. His leave of absence from school is rather sad, but not played for melodrama (except maybe by Kotoko) - it's just life throwing grenades into your path, that's all. Speaking of life, Kotoko is starting to finally realize that she's a flake - she talks with Naoki about her future dreams, and sadly notes they're all 'I'm helping Naoki in whatever profession he's in' rather than any dreams for herself. Naoki manages to cut her down *and* give her some support - which is becoming his specialty.

On the romance front, Matsumoto finally makes her move here, confessing her feelings to Naoki. He's slightly nicer about rejecting her than he would be with anyone else (including Kotoko), but it's still a definitive rejection - complete with Naoki noting he's kissed Kotoko before. Kotoko, of course, is listening in to all of this, but still doesn't get much relief. Especially as we're then introduced to Sahoko, the daughter of a colleague of Naoki's father who gets set up with him for an omiai. She is, essentially, the perfect Japanese woman, a type we've been missing here with all the sporty girls and ditzes. She also likes Naoki, and appears to be the perfect match for him. Naoki being Naoki, he accepts their meetings somewhat straight-faced, but doesn't really show his feelings outwardly.

Kotoko, meanwhile, takes this badly, as you might expect. So badly that she's even willing to go out on dates with Kin-chan. It's pretty clear that her mind is elsewhere, however, and there's no suggestion she sees him as anything but a friend. However, we're moving to a crisis point. The relationship between Naoki and Sahoko is going so well that Kotoko's family is moving out of the Irie home. And what's more, Kin-chan is doing the same thing that Matsumoto did earlier this volume, confessing his feelings in order to make them transparent even to her. He goes one step father, though, actually proposing. I actually regard this as sort of desperate, given how he knows that she's still broken up over Naoki's actions. But then, desperation os Kin-chan's character. Hopefully Kotoko won't overreact.

Still very happy DMP is bringing out this series, though some of the translation can read awkwardly. "I have kissed... with Kotoko." being the main culprit that leaps out at me. Naoki continues to bottle everything up and show his true feelings only rarely. And that's just not working anymore. Given Kin-chan's proposal, something has to give soon. Will Vol. 6 be the one where we finally get the long-awaited confession? Hopefully we'll find out soon...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Oresama Teacher Volume 2

By Izumi Tsubaki. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Viz.

In my review of the first volume, I noted that while I enjoyed it, Tsubaki-san still had the same issues of the plot and story being very messy in general, an issue that carried over from The Magic Touch. Luckily, this second volume is much stronger in that regard. Even better, it's hysterical, being one of the funniest shoujo manga I've read in months.

There's so many hysterical moments that it's really hard to narrow it down. Mafuyu and Hayasaka 'escaping' from Takaomi suggesting a club; Mafuyu's realization that she was the 'Bancho' of her old school; the entire Morse Code sequence; Mafuyu's cosplay outfits (I agree with Takaomi, she does have great legs); the letters by pigeon; Hayasaka getting convinced that an actual rabbit turns into Super Bun, and Mafuyu's reaction; and possibly best of all, Takaomi simply knocking Mafuyu out with a punch to the back of the head, then lifting her up like a sack of potatoes. Tsubaki-san has noted that she's better at comedy than romance, and she certainly proves it here. This is just plain funny.

Which is not to say that there aren't sweet or serious moments. Romance is still on the back burner here, and one of the best examples of that is in the final scene, where Hayasaka has realized that she is Super Bun, and is starting to treat her as an incredibly fighting legend. Which... depresses the hell out of her. She doesn't want to be worshipped, she wants a friend. It's a good reminder that Mafuyu is the type who has lots of followers but no close friends, and it pulls at the heartstrings (earlier on, she gets very excited at the idea that Hayasaka has similar issues, which pisses him off). There's also a nice scene with Takaomi where she realizes why she took his abuse for so long: so that she could get his praise.

By the way, those looking for a contrast with Ai Ore! could do worse than to try looking here. Not only is the tone of the manga completely different, but we also have a much more likeable jerk in Takaomi, and Mafuyu proves that she can kick ass better than any of the main cast. Seeing her take out the bancho mid-way through the volume was incredible. More women in shoujo manga who can throw a punch like that, please.

In this sort of series, the characters are not deep - in fact, trying to analyze them might be a mistake. Mafuyu and Hayasaka are both the sorts whose thought processes are both very simple, direct, and on the surface - this is even lampshaded later on, as Mafuyu realizes that Hayasaka is the type that unconsciously makes bad situations worse. But that's all for the better, as it leads to pure silly. Hopefully Volume 3 will have more fun - and more Super Bun!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Urusei Yatsura Volume 5

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

For those following along with Viz (as you should be), this whole volume can be found in the collection The Return of Lum*Urusei Yatsura Vol. 2: Lum in the Sun, as chapters 3-13.

Generally speaking it's hard to review the gag humor of a Takahashi manga. Describing most of the gags tends to ruin them for the potential reader, and a lot of them also depend on humor that makes no sense out of context, or that is already adapted from impossible-to-translate Japanese into an English equivalent. Suffice it to say that this is a very funny volume of UY. The characters are now all settled into their roles, and react just the way that we expect them to. Ataru is lustful, Mendo is egotistical, Lum is happy / angry (delete where applicable), and Shinobu is melancholy / angry (delete where applicable). We do see Shinobu's super strength debut here, as she lifts a boat (including the people in it) to hit Mendou over the head after he slights her. The manga never bothered to explain it, though the 3rd movie hinted it was due to Lum's continued presence, sort of a leaking of superpowers.

This volume can essentially be divided into two parts. The first half takes place at the school, and involves a new school nurse: Sakura, who now debuts as a full-fledged regular after occasional appearances in previous volumes. Her eccentricity comes up a few times - at first Ataru wants nothing to do with her, knowing that she tends to cause him bad luck - but after a while she settles into your standard young woman fending off sexist teenagers with her fists while occasionally using her spiritual powers to battle the insane maladies that crop up at the school. Her temper's also far worse than it was before - on par with the other women now - most likely due to being treated like a sex object all the time by Ataru and his friends.

We also meet Tobimaro Mizunokoji for the first time, Mendou's childhood friend and rival - well, OK, just rival. Tobimaro is obsessed with baseball, and determined to win a game over his longtime adversary, even after the previous 11 years have ended in 11 draws. He's pretty much a big goof, thinking only of baseball and living out in the mountains, sort of Tarzan-like. His other big notable trait is that he's one of the only male cast members not obsessed with women - he thinks of baseball as a man's challenge, and resents Lum for being part of Mendou's team. (Lum soon lets him know what she thinks of that opinion - violently.) Notably, when we see him in the other story in this volume, he has a bodyguard squad composed entirely of hot young women - whom he treats like... a bodyguard squad. Mendou would never be trusted with such a thing - his bodyguards are notably male. In any case, Tobimaro will pop up throughout the series, usually either in a baseball context or, later on, involving his insane family. He's generally more sympathetic than Mendou - though not here, where he's just a pure dumb goofball, stealing Lum's bikinis as, well, the plot requires it.

The second half of the manga moves from the school into summer vacation, and takes place entirely on the beach. This not only allows the girls in the cast to wear gorgeous swimsuits (Mendou notes that Lum's one-piece is incredibly sexy, likely as it's a change from her usual bikini - this is what prompts Shinobu, wearing a cute bikini herself, to try to hit him with a boat), but gives us some plotlines that wouldn't really work in classes, such as Cherry getting mistaken for a swimsuit-lovin' octopus, or Cherry teaching Ataru and Mendou how to surf, or Cherry teaching everyone yoga so that they can lose weight after sitting around the beach eating all vacation. Oh, did I mention Cherry's also a regular now? Yes, with Sakura's arrival comes Cherry, everyone's least-favorite Buddhist monk, who had also made occasional appearances but shows up far more often now. The series would be far less funny and far less annoying without him, so it balances out well.

Highlights of this volume include the baseball match (especially Mendou's bodyguards, who really test the limits of "how stupid can they be" here), Ataru accidentally getting combined with Mendou's physics notes, the whole ludicrous chase after Tobimaro and his bodyguards to rescue Lum's "only good clothes", and possibly the best of all, Ataru, Cherry and Sakura participating in an all-you-can-eat competition. Ataru drops out pretty early, and Cherry a bit after that, but Sakura not only eats the entire hotel out of every single bit of food they have - including an entire roast COW - but still looks slim and gorgeous. Of course, as we find when she tries to lay on a float device in the hotel pool, looks can be deceiving. Sakura's bottomless appetite will come up a few times in the future.

Having settled into her basic premise, Takahashi is now moving the pieces around, seeing what works and what doesn't. Hence Sakura and Cherry's appearances becoming more frequent. Tobimaro is also a refreshing change of pace (his constant obsession with rivalry may remind Ranma readers of Ryouga Hibiki), though she wouldn't really get a good handle on him till later. Most of all, though, she's really getting the hang of a constant stream of gags, developing into outright chaos until everything collapses right at the last page. There's only one or two chapters here that aren't as funny as they could be (the legend of the "Red Cloak" needed far more room than just 16 pages to be really good). That's a high average for a harem comedy. And next time, in Volume 6, we'll see another regular character debut - possibly the first "yandere" in all of manga and anime.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Ai Ore! Volume 1

By Mayu Shinjo. Released in Japan as "Ai wo Utau Yori Ore ni Oborero!" by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shoujo Comic ("Sho-Comi"). Released in North America by Viz.

I think I've finally managed to figure out the lineage of this particular title. It debuted in 2006 with that long Japanese title translated as "Instead of Singing About Love, Drown Yourself in Me" at Shogakukan, in the pages of their shoujo in name only magazine Shoujo Comic. It ran for 5 volumes (including what we see here), and then the author had a very public falling out with her company and left, taking her work with her. The title ended rather abruptly in Sho-Comi, but then began as a "sequel" in Kadokawa's shoujo magazine Asuka - in reality, it merely picked up right where it left off - and ran for 5 additional volumes. Kadokawa has licensed the whole shebang to Viz, and they're releasing it in these slightly oversized, 300-page editions.

As for the manga itself, well, it may bear Kadokawa's name, but it reeks of Shoujo Comic. This is a Mayu Shinjo title, and even though she's playing with gender roles, and her lead girl is a handsome prince type rather than a cute busty girl, you have to go into it knowing what to expect. She isn't known as the "Queen of Smut" for nothing, and even though Ai Ore! is technically rated T+ by Viz, it's going to be knocking on the door of M without actually going in. What's more, all of her favorite cliches and tropes are here and present, to the point that when we got to the distasteful final scene where the hero asks his best friend to rape a girl so she can be taught a lesson, my reaction was mostly surprise that it took that long.

In any case, the premise of Ai Ore! is that Mizuki is the "handsome prince" lead guitar player in an all-girls band, all of whom look very masculine and bishonen. They go to an all-girls school, where she's the apple of all her fan's eye. But then her best friend and lead singer moves to New York, and they need a new singer. Enter Akira, who has a great voice and looks like a cute teenage girl... except he's a boy. And what's more, he's obsessed with Mizuki, and determined to make her fall for him. The trouble is that the naive Mizuki isn't even sure what love *is*. She just knows that her chest hurts when she gets near him...

It has to be noted that the author is clearly writing this with her tongue firmly in her cheek. She knows what her teen Japanese readers want, and is giving it to them in spades. Mizuki is actually a rather interesting cross between your typical put-upon Shinjo heroine, a dense and clueless Hakusensha type, AND a handsome guy in the role of the "uke". Aside from the occasional shots of Mizuki's breasts or seeing her naked, this could be a BL manga - no doubt deliberately. As for Akira, he's even more interesting. He's trying to be the standard hero of these sorts of manga - I believe TV Tropes calls it the 'Bastard Boyfriend' type, i.e. "Sure he's mean and callous and manipulative and forcing himself on me, but OH SO HOT." The trouble is that he's young, selfish, and immature, and therefore doesn't really have the right tone. So we see him vacillate wildly between sweet little boy, manipulative seducer, and callous jerk. I'm actually rather interested to see if he manages to settle on one by the end of the series.

Honestly, there wasn't anything that really irritated my sensibilities until the final scene, mostly as I was reading it with my "this is a Shinjo Mayu" switch turned on. The final scene is pretty horrible, though, with the lesbian seductress who attempted to sexually assault Mizuki a chapter or so earlier being "taught a lesson" by Akira and his best male friend (who has a crush on him, sort of). I'm not sure of the author will actually go through with it - I suspect not - but it's a bad place for a cliffhanger, as it leaves a bad taste in your mouth that affects the entire volume. One might also ask why the strong and tall Mizuki always seems to be overpowered by various people whenever they attempt to seduce her, including the much smaller Akira, but hey...

In the end, this manga knows its audience, and the author knows how to line up current trends and her undoubted skill at shoujo smut to make an interesting story. Mizuki and Akira are different enough from the usual cliche that I want to know more about them - not just the crossdressing, but even their "true personalities" seem fluid and not set in stone, very appropriate for the teenagers they are. I'm not certain how much of this is meant to be comedic, as in a Butterflies, Flowers type, and how much is just the usual shoujo "he does it because he loves you" drama, as in Black Bird, but I'll definitely give it another volume to find out. And anyone who was a fan of Black Bird, or Stepping on Roses, or Hot Gimmick, or even Sensual Phrase, the author's other English-language title, should love this.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kimi ni Todoke Volume 8

By Karuho Shiina. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret ("Betsuma"). Released in North America by Viz.

Well, I didn't really get what I wanted at the end of Volume 7. Kazehaya and Sawako are still misreading and frustrating me. Not just me either, as Yano is starting to be driven a little nuts by the whole thing. However, there's a new guy on the cover, and this is really his volume, as Kento, who was introduced at the end of Vol. 7, makes a full appearance here, and hits the cast like a nuclear bomb.

Kento is, of course, the male rival that this series really did need, and the counterpart to Kurumi. But Kurumi was rather sneaky about her manipulation, projecting a facade of sweet young thing while working to get rumors spread... and yet strangely open with Sawako, who she always referred to by her correct name. Kento is, by contrast, very open and obvious about his manipulations, going right to the source and instilling doubt and confusion with no need for intermediaries. What's more, I noticed that he refers to Sawako as 'Sadako' whenever he speaks to her, but when talking with others when she *isn't* around, he uses her real name.

His conversation with Kazehaya is devastating to the latter, as Kento feels (whether this is true or just something he's saying we don't know yet) that Kazehaya is only interested in Sawako as she's an 'outsider' and that Sawako is better off developing on her own rather than having to worry about jealous girls trying to sabotage her maturity. (Oh Kento, you're a good 4 or 5 volumes too late.) What's more, he notes - and Ryu and Chizu both later agree - that Kazehaya doesn't understand Sawako at all, and that the two are quite far apart.

Kazehaya gets a lot of attention this volume, which is good, as he needed a crisis of some sort. We see him almost managing to work on a confession at the start of the book, after seeing Kento and Sawako bond so quickly, but then he chickens out, and later proves to be awkward around her. Sawako doesn't really get it, but everyone else immediately notices the difference. Now he has to genuinely aalyse his feelings, which can be quite difficult for a high-school boy, even one as squeaky clean as Kazehaya.

Yano and Pin, as always, get the best moments in the manga in terms of figuring things out. Yano is particularly aggravated here, as the relationship between Sawako and Kazehaya, not exactly a fast-moving one to begin with, is now actually moving backwards thanks to Kento and Kazehaya's own insecurities. As she notes to Chizu (who has now, as of Volume 8, finally realized that Kazehaya likes Sawako 'that way'), she wants Sawako to be more confident in herself before they start dating, so that it doesn't look as if he's doing it because he feels sorry for her. Kazehaya becomes so paralyzed at this proposition (which Kento brought up) that it requires Pin to kick his ass into action. Pin noting that starting off knowing nothing about the other person is how ALL relationships are, of course - that's WHY you get closer.

As for Sawako herself, despite being a bundle of nerves due to Kazehaya's treating her differently (and a small mini-breakdown in front of Chizu and Yano), she is getting much better at dealing with others, though I'm not sure it translates into more confidence in herself, as she still hasn't equated her actions and behaviors with actual good things, but it's great to see. Kento *does* have great interaction with her, and it's rather startling how quickly they bond - and what's more, Kento's direct 'Do this, do that' advice seems to be working better than Kazehaya's mild positive reinforcement.

So we end with another cliffhanger, this time with Kazehaya going off to confront Kento and Sawako. Now, the sensible shoujo fans knows that Kento is not going to win the day here (it's not even clear if he's actually interested in her romantically), but the fun is in the journey, and I look forward to seeing if Kazehaya can throw off his doubts and step up his game.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Manga the week of 5/11

After a huge first week from the folks at Diamond, things calm down considerably for Week 2. Good, because my wallet needs a break.

Dark Horse has Volume 38 of Oh My Goddess. I'm sort of running out of ways to joke about this series. It's a comfort manga, and I won't stop buying it after 15 freaking years of buying it merely as the current arc is boring. Plus I hear there is an awesome arc soon to come. Sadly, the current arc *is* boring.

Viz has its second week, and there's more meaty stuff here. Biomega gives us a final volume. Inu Yasha has Vol. 7 of its VIZBIG Edition, presumably containing Vols. 19-21. There is a new Jormungand for readers who like to watch cool people kill things. Kurozakuro hits its halfway point. And Maoh: Juvenile Remix hits its halfway point as well. Fans of the latter are in for a treat, as I understand this volume's remix was done by Richard D. James. Given how the Death In Vegas remix of Volume 3 turned out, I expect good things.

And there's a Shonen Jump. What interests you?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Higurashi: When They Cry Volumes 11-12

Story by Ryukishi07; Art by Yutori Houjyou. Released in Japan as "Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Meakashi-hen" by Square Enix, serialized in the magazine Gangan Wing. Released in North America by Yen Press.

So at last we come to what are known as the "Answer Arcs". Each of the first 4 main arcs of Higurashi (Vols. 9 and 10 were a manga-only side story) set up the basic situation, watched it descend into paranoia and death, and had us confused and trying desperately to figure out what the heck was going on. By the end of the "Time Killing" arc, we sensed we were getting closer to solving things. And now we get this, the "Eye-Opening" arc, which (like all the answer arcs) is much longer than its predecessors, and hopes to let those who have not played the games figure out what's behind this.

Despite the manga beginning with the Rena-focused arc, this set actually is the "answer" arc for the Mion set of books, the "Cotton Driftijng" chapter. It's drawn by the same artist, so manages to give even more of a sense of deja vu than anticipated. It stars Mion's twin sister Shion, and purports to tell the events of "Cotton Drifting" from her own perspective. Purports being the right word, as we quickly come to realize that Shion, like Keiichi before her, is descending rapidly into paranoia and madness.

The plot actually begins a year before the main events of the other arcs, as we see Shion escaping from the private Academy she's been exiled to and returning to a town near Hinamizawa. Shion has issues from the start, being the younger twin of a family that is essentially the Yakuza. As a result, Mion is being groomed to be the next head of the family, and Shion gets the short end of the stick, as the family has sent her off to school hoping she4'll quietly disappear. No such luck, as not only does Shion start "twin switching" with her sister, but she also runs into a young boy named Satoshi, who we've only ever met before in flashbacks or backstory told to Keiichi.

Satoshi's similarities to and differences from Keiichi are both deliberately played up, and unfortunately we get another heaping helping of the child abuse that plagued the earlier volumes of the series, as Satoshi and Satoko's aunt and uncle as as horrible as ever. Shion is trying to cheer him up, but in the end, it doesn't seem to be enough. And then comes the night of the cotton drifting...

I'd spent the past few reviews laying into Keiichi as a horrible hero, so I feel I should say that the series is keeping up that tradition, as our sympathies with Shion slowly vanish as the series goes on. Clearly whatever happened to Keiichi and Mion in the earlier arcs, be it "Hinamizawa Syndrome" or what have you, is happening to her here, and Satoshi's disappearance only helps to send her further into the spiral. Interestingly, we also get a more in-depth portrayal of Mion - while her crush on Keiichi has been heavily implied in previous volumes, here when she can open up to her sister without anyone else around it's outright stated - as is her jealousy of Rena, who is more feminine and so gets the doll that Keiichi has.

We also see the side of Mion that we're more familiar with from "Cotton Drifting", which is to say the inheritor of power. The scene in which Shion is ordered to tear off three of her own fingernails by her grandmother is horrifying, and easily the most disturbing in these first two volumes. (On the other hand, seeing later on that Mion has done the same thing is also possibly the most heartwarming moment.) Mion has always been my favorite character, so I was very pleased to see all of this. Shion, on the other hand...

Shion has to date been played as a bit of a tease who was in love with Satoshi. Here we manage to see the depth of that love goes well into obsession territory, and also that she would seem to be the main ANtagonist so far, as well as the PROtagonist. And, as these volumes end with their grandmother dead by Shion's hand, Mion locked up in the Sonozaki Family torture chamber (what, doesn't every family have one?) and Shion giving the famous bug-eyed hysterical Higurashi laugh, we're starting to realize that all the twin switching and "which one is really Mion" of the previous 10 volumes (especially after the last manga-only arc, where Mion literally possessed Shion's body), we're now left with a big question: Was that really Mion we saw at the end of "Cotton Drifting"?

By the end of the second volume, we're exhausted and Shion is insane. It's a bit difficult to see how much further down she can go, given we have two more full volumes to go. But, having said that, I feel that the author will show us how much worse things can get. After all, Keiichi and company are all still alive. In the meantime, we get a month's breather from all this start horror with another one-off manga-only arc, this one complete in one large volume. Good thing, too, I need a break from Shion as protagonist.

Monday, May 2, 2011

V.B. Rose Volume 12

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

Another bittersweet post, as I rave about another Banri Hidaka series that will likely never be finished in North America. Tokyopop is dead, and so, like I Hate You More Than Anyone!, we're locked out again from knowing the outcome of a wonderfully fun fluffy shoujo series. Ironically, Kazuha makes another cameo appearance in this volume, and I can imagine her consoling Ageha, saying that she knows the pain of having an American company collapse and leave readers hanging.

Luckily, I have copies of the last two volumes in Japanese. I'd gotten them long ago in order to spoil myself about the ending, as, well, that's the sort of reader I am. Still can't read Japanese, but I can make educated guesses about things based on the art. So, at the end of the review, I'll give a quick summary of what comes after.

This particular volume resolves the long-standing tension between Mitsuya and Tsuyu. As we guessed from Vol. 11's lame cliffhanger, Mitsuya is home sick, having caught a bad cold. This allows him to sleep and dream even more flashbacks about his past. Luckily these are the last ones, as this series has been particularly flashback-drenched, a habit of Banri Hidaka's works. We see a younger, less evil Mitsuya falling for Tsuyu right off the bat, and the devastation that hits him when she breaks up with him and leaves. This in turn leads him to harden his heart, and to a certain extent to his current personality. This is unfortunate, as when Tsuyu returns, Mitsuya reacts like "a little boy", as Ageha noted, making her feel extreme guilt and torturing her with it in order to keep her mind on him.

Fortunately, his fevered flashbacks are interrupted by the actual Tsuyu, who shows up after a call from Yukari, who notes that they need to sort things out by themselves but he'll give them "a little push". What follows is a short bit of awkward, followed by Mitsuya finally snapping. Yukari is quite clever here - Mitsuya with a high fever is far more open and vulnerable then he would ever let himself be when he's well, and this allows him to be blunt and direct to Tsuyu. It's my favorite scene in the volume, as he finally just says what he thinks about the arranged marriage meeting: "Why would you do that to me? Do you want to see me run around in circles again? Don't leave me... I've always loved you."

Tsuyu, of course, doesn't really want to do this, but she's so shy and passive she's lost the ability to tell people no (possibly as the one time she did so was the worst moment of her life). Luckily, Mitsuya's reassurances, and a few hot kisses (seriously hot... the kissing between these two in this scene is really sexy!), she returns his love, and he now feels confident enough to come up with a plan to sabotage the arranged marriage.

That's right, the second half of the volume is a 'caper film'. Yes, you could argue that she COULD simply announce to her father and aunt that she's actually in love with Mitsuya, given they seemed to arrange this for her own benefit rather than any malice, but where's the fun in that? The fun is in seeing Mitsuya be EVIL! So once they've recovered from their colds (you kiss like that, you're bound to catch a cold, Tsuyu-chan...) and break the news to Ageha and Yukari. Ageha's reactions are hilarious - she's still the funniest part of the series, and there's lots of cute art here showing her hyperactive joy at the news. (Well, OK, the funniest part was Kana's text message reacting to the news. Oh Kana, never change...)

And so Mitsuya announces his plans to sabotage the meeting, and enlists Ageha an Yukari to help... by manipulation and guilt tripping. Yes, in case you worried he's straighten up and be nice, fear not. Admittedly, it helps that the guy that Tsuyu is meeting seems to be pure scum, so we're allowed to cheer as they ruin everything. There's disguises, there's secret documents, there's Yukari dressed as a woman, anjd there's Mitsuya and Tsuyu together and happy at the end... and her father and aunt are OK with it. Yay!

...and that's the end of the series here in North America, 2 volumes short. Volume 13 consists mainly of Ageha, after a Mitsuya-centric 12. Mitsuru and Tsuyu are getting married, and Ageha wants to be a part of all the prep, but her grades were pretty bad last midterm, something noted by her teacher. Given her teacher is Saki Sugimoto from I Hate You More Than Anyone, and he's still pure evil (probably best that he and Mitsuya don't meet...), this is not going to fly, and she's banned from the shop while her grades improve. This, of course, also leads to another fight with Yukari. So Ageha frets, and panics, and has discussions with Mamoru and Nagare, and her head falls off and floats away at one point. No, really. Hidaka-san loves her 'breaks from reality'. And finally she and Yukari make up.

So with Vol. 14 we get the wedding... which is traditional Japanese. Aheh. So much for V.B. Rose. There's lots of prep anyway, though, and it has to be said that Mitsuya and Tsuyu look like they SHOULD have a Japanese wedding - Tsuyu is the very definition of a Japanese doll, and looks fantastic in her wedding kimono. Also, at some point, Yukari dresses up as a woman AGAIN - by now I think it's become clear that Hidaka-san knows what her readers like. Shizuya is at the wedding as well, by the way, and though he's jealous of his big brother being "taken" from him, he eventually accepts Tsuyu. Then Yukari and Ageha spring a surprise on the couple as they're about to leave for their honeymoon - a mock Western wedding, complete with dress by Yukari, accessories by Kana, and bag by Ageha. (I was amused at the dress, which is, for a wedding dress, almost a miniskirt - it doesn't even hit the floor!)

Then we get the final chapter, which takes place 4 years later. The majority of it is shot from 'camera-eye-view' - Ageha is recording a movie, and everyone gets to do a 'where are they now' 2 or 3 page bit. Mitsuya and Tsuyu are happily married with two kids, 4 and 2. Mamoru is in college, and still torturing Shizuya - presumably they're officially a couple by now. Nagare is still trying to get over Ageha, and in his final year of high school. Shizuya is angry,and frustrated, and shouting at the world - no changes there. Rei is fine, and looking more like his sister than ever before. Speaking of whom, we also see Kazuha and Maki, with their daughter. Sadly, it would seem Maki is still being teased and tortured by his half-brother Saki - Kazuha advises those who are confused to go find copies of I Hate You More Than Anyone 1-13. Ageha's sister and her husband are also fine. Ririko is preparing Sakura, Yukari's brother, for grade school. Sekiguchi is, um, still trying to seduce every woman he runs across. We see Kana doing some work on accessories, and she seems as happy as she's ever going to get. And finally, we see Yukari and Ageha walking down the aisle, with Ageha in a V.B. Rose creation. (This one has a 15-foot-long train *and* a miniskirt look. But I like the hat.)

And that's it! Happy endings for all! Well, did you expect anything else? I really wish we had seen this finished here, and worry that future Banri Hidaka projects may not be licensed due to the two incomplete series (it doesn't help that her current project is a next-gen sequel to I Hate You More Than Anyone...). But I'm very happy with what we did get, and thank Tokyopop for its attention to this marvelously cute shoujo series.