Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Manga the week of 7/6

Rejoice! Long after everyone else has received and reviewed Wandering Son from Fantagraphics, Diamond is getting the book in next week! So I will be able to give you my discerning opinion... wait, you'll all have read it already. Well tough, you'll get my opinion anyway. And if you didn't read it, go get it.

In other news about titles that were solicited ages ago, Dark Horse has the first volume of the Magic Knight Rayearth omnibus. This was CLAMP's first breakout hit in Nakayoshi, and it's still really worth picking up, especially if the reproduction job is as good as Card Captor Sakura's.

Kodansha is putting out a new shonen series, Monster Hunter Orage, which is about, well, a monster hunter. It ran in their Shonen Rival magazine. It's based off of a series of Capcom video games (hey, just like Phoenix Wright! ... well, maybe not TOO much like it.) Also, Midtown doesn't list it, but my store is also getting Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei 9 and The Wallflower 25.

Also in 'not on Midtown's list, but my store is getting it anyway' is Volume 2 of everyone's favorite tsundere, Toradora!, from Seven Seas.

Vertical has the 6th volume of its adorable cat manga, Chi's Sweet Home. Has Chi crossed over with What's Michael, by any chance? And Bandai has the 8th volume of its 4-koma series for otaku, Lucky Star.

And then there's Viz. Take a breath, folks. Some series are ending! The Prince of Tennis has finally come to a close with 42 volumes. (Yes, I know there's a sequel running in Square. Go tell Viz.) And Ultimate Muscle hits Volume 29 and ends as well, which I suspect relieves Viz no end. Some series are beginning! Yu-Gi-Oh 5D's is the latest installment in everyone's favorite card game merchandise pusher.

And some series are neither ending nor beginning. New volumes of Eyeshield 21 (2nd to last!), Rosario & Vampire Season II, and the Naruto and Death Note omnibuses. Shonen Sunday gives us the 2nd Kekkaishi omnibus. And for you shoujo fans, we have Black Bird (boo), Kimi ni Todoke (yay!), and Dengeki Daisy (milder yay!). On the Hakusensha end, there's new Oresama Teacher, featuring more SUPER BUN!, and a new Skip Beat!, which hopefully will have far less torture of innocent actresses by our heroine in the name of method acting.

See, it's not so bad! What'll you be getting?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

WB announces Tom and Jerry Golden Collection Set 1

It's become fairly easy to get cynical and pessimistic with Warner Brothers about their treatment of classic cartoons over the past couple of years. The Golden Collections were dropped as they're expensive to restore and don't sell well enough; the Looney Tunes we do have coming out include some entries that look like the titles were chosen by dartboard; they used a 'widescreen' format that was used for Cinemascope theaters in the 1950s that cuts off part of the frame; and then there's the long, painful story of the Tom & Jerry DVD sets.

First there was the 'Spotlight Collection' in 2004. It had 40 cartoons, chosen from all over the cat and mouse's history, and was not restored except for the first six - we've known for years that the original prints were lost in a 1970s fire, but as the first 6 cartoons showed, a great restoration COULD be done. They also had some censored cartoons - which was apparently a mastering error. You could send WB your DVD and get a replacement with the original cartoon. Then we had the second collection in 2005 - which had the same issues, and ALSO needed replacement discs you had to send in for. It also omitted the shorts 'Mouse Cleaning' and 'Casanova Cat' because it felt they were too offensive - despite other cartoons in the earlier sets having blackface and Indian gags left in. Then they started to re-release everything for the kiddie market...

It has become apparent that even though these old cartoons are sometimes marketed as being 'for the adult cartoon collector', WB simply does not want to let that kiddie audience go. Over the last 2 years or so, WB has issued a bunch of little DVDs just for the Children's market called Tom and Jerry's Greatest Chases, and also several new cartoons featuring the cat and mouse. Kids are simply glutted with the duo right now.

So it is, perhaps, the perfect time to actually try that collector's release again, 7 years later. On October 25th, we will see 'Tom and Jerry Golden Collection' Volume 1, on DVD and Blu-Ray. This will feature the first 37 cartoons made by MGM for the carton stars - note that ends right BEFORE Mouse Cleaning, which should be on Volume 2 in its proper place. They will be in chronological order for the first time, and apparently restored using the best elements available - fine-grain or nitrate prints for most of the 40s and early 50s titles, negatives for the rest of the 50s titles. 9 of the shorts will have commentary, and there will be a new documentary. Fingers crossed, this looks like it may FINALLY be the release we have been waiting for.

Here's a list of the cartoons announced for the first set (I won't list all the times Mammy has been censored or redubbed, as there are far too many.):

1) Puss Gets the Boot (Feb. 20, 1940). Tom (called 'Jasper' here) is told by the black maid of the house, Mammy Two-Shoes, that he has to catch that mouse or he goes O-W-T. Naturally, Jerry (unnamed at this stage) makes sure to get the upper hand. Nominated for an Academy Award.

2) The Midnight Snack (July 19, 1941). Tom and Jerry are named as such for the first time. Jerry's raiding a fridge, Tom has to stop him without arousing Mammy's ire.

3) The Night Before Christmas (December 6, 1941). Tom and Jerry chase each other under the Christmas tree. The first cartoon showing the two agreeing to stop fighting at the end - in the spirit of the Christmas season. Nominated for an Academy Award.

4) Fraidy Cat (January 17, 1942). Tom listens to a ghost story on the radio and is terrified, so Jerry decides to give him a few scares. Great bit with Tom's 9 lives all visible - including one who's a complete goofball! The host of the radio drama 'The Witching Hour', Martha Wentworth, provided her own voice for this short.

5) Dog Trouble (April 18, 1942). Tom and Jerry have to team up for the first time, to take on a vicious new bulldog - the first appearance of Spike, though he's far nastier here.

6) Puss 'n Toots (May 30, 1942). Tom tries to flirt with a girl cat who Mammy is taking care of. He tries to use and abuse Jerry to impress her, but Jerry gets the upper hand. A short Chinese caricature of Tom has sometimes been cut from this cartoon.

7) The Bowling Alley-Cat (July 18, 1942). Tom and Jerry at a bowling alley. Violence ensues.

8) Fine Feathered Friend (October 10, 1942). Tom and Jerry on the farm, with Jerry taking advantage of a hen and her chicks. This is the last time Tom yowls like a real cat - he'd soon get Joe Barbera's loud human scream when seriously injured.

9) Sufferin' Cats! (January 16, 1943). Tom and a rival cat (Meathead) are both trying to catch Jerry, who proceeds to work both sides against each other - in the end, both cats lose.

10) The Lonesome Mouse (May 22, 1943). Jerry gets Tom thrown out, and has the house to himself!... Sadly, he's completely bored, and makes a deal with Tom to get Mammy to invite him back. It works... but Jerry does not get the reward he expects.

11) The Yankee Doodle Mouse (June 26, 1943). Their first Academy Award winner. Tom and Jerry chase gags, but set up like a battlefield, with lots of wartime references. A short shot of Tom in blackface is cut from TV prints.

12) Baby Puss (December 25, 1943). Tom is the victim of a little girl who has dressed him up like a baby. Humiliated, he's then further enraged when Jerry starts laughing hysterically. Then Jerry invites some of Tom's alley cat friends to see him. Meathead makes his last appearance, and Butch is introduced (he'd been in an earlier MGM cartoon, this is his first with Tom & Jerry.)

13) The Zoot Cat (February 25, 1944). Tom is trying to impress the girl cat Toots again, but is apparently a complete square. Then he gets the great idea of making a Zoot Suit from a hammock. Of course, this does not actually stop Jerry from messing everything up. Tom has spoken before, but this is the first cartoon we really see Tom speak a lot.

14) The Million Dollar Cat (May 6, 1944). Tom inherits a million dollars from his owner's aunt... provided he doesn't harm any animals. You can all see where this is going. Jerry is particularly obnoxious in this cartoon, one of the few where it ends with Tom definitively having the upper hand.

15) The Bodyguard (July 22, 1944). The first time we see Spike with his more friendly persona... though he still hates Tom, of course. Jerry rescues Spike from a dog catcher, and Spike says anytime Jerry needs his help, just whistle. Once again, Jerry takes things just a bit too far, and the cartoon ends with Spike recaptured and Jerry once again running from Tom.

16) Puttin' on the Dog (October 28, 1944). Jerry hides in the middle of a dog pound, so Tom decides to infiltrate by disguising himself as a dog.

17) Mouse Trouble (November 23, 1944). The second Tom and Jerry Academy Award Winner. Tom tries to use a book on catching mice to nab Jerry. The first of two T&J cartoons to feature the terrifying drone 'Doooon't yoooou belieeeve it' from a particularly battered Tom, something that always scared me as a kid, when I was unaware of Ripley's.

18) The Mouse Comes to Dinner (May 5, 1945). Tom tries to impress Toots with a dinner Mammy Two-Shoes has prepared for his owners. He also gets Jerry to be their servant for the meal. Tom at his most jerk-like here, and eventually gets so bad that Jerry and Toots team up to send him into a punchbowl to drown.

19) Mouse in Manhattan (July 7, 1945). Jerry is tired of country life, so leaves Tom's house and heads for the big city. He discovers that New York is a nightmarish hell for a mouse such as himself, though, and after a series of disasters (at one point police are shooting at him!), he runs back home and kisses Tom, happy to be back.

20) Tee for Two (July 21, 1945). This is the one with the golfing. One of the most frequently run on TV. Also one of the most violent. The scene with the bees is agonizing to watch.

21) Flirty Birdy (September 22, 1945). Jerry is snatched up by a hawk, and Tom tries to recapture him. He makes the mistake of doing this by dressing as a female bird - and then finds it's a lot harder to break up than he thought.

22) Quiet Please! (December 22, 1945). The third Tom and Jerry Academy Award Winner. Spike is trying to nap, so Tom has to try to catch Jerry without waking him. This goes spectacularly well. Wait, no, it doesn't. Another one famous for Tom speaking, if only for one line ("One custard pie!? Well, let me have it!")

23) Springtime for Thomas (March 30, 1946). Tom is in love again, and Jerry is jealous. He decides to use Butch to break up Tom's romance. It's works quite well... till Jerry sees a cute female mouse. For those of you who like to see ho yay between Tom and Jerry, this is a great example. Also, please don't tell me if you do, as they're a freaking cat and mouse.

24) The Milky Waif (May 18, 1946). Nibbles is introduced here, for better or worse. I've always found him irritating, but in many ways he's designed to be. Jerry has a foundling mouse left on his doorstep, and tries his best to deal with being a surprised father. Tom really isn't helping. A blackface scene has been censored from many prints, including the first run of the Spotlight Collection.

25) Trap Happy (June 29, 1946). Tom decides to call an exterminator to get rid of Jerry. This turns out to be Butch, who proceeds to set various traps. Unfortunately, Jerry's cleverness and Tom's overeagerness mean that we end up with the same result. Butch turns on Tom in the end in rage.

26) Solid Serenade (August 31, 1946). Tom tries to serenade Toots with his singing (yes, he sings several choruses of "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby") and his double bass, but has to deal with both Jerry and Spike.

27) Cat Fishin' (February 22, 1947). Tom tries to fish at a private lake. Spike is the guard dog. Jerry is Tom's bait. Hijinks ensue.

28) Part Time Pal (March 15, 1947). Tom gets accidentally drunk on cider, destroying the house - then gets accidentally drunk on rum! Mammy Two-Shoes is not amused.

29) The Cat Concerto (April 26, 1947). Tom is a concert pianist, and plays Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Jerry is asleep inside the piano. Jerry decides to strike back. One of their most famous cartoons, this won their fourth Academy Award. Try not to say that around fans of Friz Freleng's Rhapsody Rabbit, though. Long story.

30) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse (June 14, 1947). Notable for being nominated for an Academy Award and NOT winning (it lost to WB's Tweetie Pie), this has Jerry drink a mixture that turns him into a much larger, stronger mouse. Much Tom abuse follows, especially when Tom tries the same thing, with different results.

31) Salt Water Tabby (July 12, 1947). Tom and Jerry at the beach, where he's trying to impress his girl once again but with miserable results. Some great gags here.

32) A Mouse in the House (August 30, 1947). This time Tom *and* Butch are both in the house. But only one of them can stay: whoever catches Jerry. Jerry runs rings around the cats, getting them both thrown out... sadly, Mammy notices him as well, and he winds up outside himself!

33) The Invisible Mouse (September 27, 1947). Invisible ink always works differently in cartoons. Jerry takes advantage of this, torturing Tom and setting him up against Spike.

34) Kitty Foiled (June 1, 1948). Jerry teams up with a canary (perhaps being angry that he lost to Tweetie Pie last year) to take on Tom. Watch for Tom trying to run over Jerry with a model train, as his insane facial expression must be seen to be believed.

35) The Truce Hurts (July 17, 1948). Tom, Jerry and Spike are all fighting each other, but Spike wonders why they can't just be friends. After singing a peace treaty, we spend the whole cartoon finding out why. Another censored blackface gag here that the DVD should have uncut.

36) Old Rockin' Chair Tom (September 18, 1948). Mammy Two-Shoes gets her largest role in a T&J cartoon, as she replaces Tom with a younger, faster cat. Tom and Jerry must team up to get rid of this newcomer. One of the rare cartoons where their truce lasts through the end of the cartoon - Tom even shares his food at the end!

37) Professor Tom (October 30, 1948). Tom is trying to teach a young, bored kitten how to catch mice, and gets very frustrated when the kitten and Jerry end up becoming friends rather than enemies.


The TV Shows on DVD presser notes 4 additional cartoons, but Jerry Beck has stated that Professor Tom is the last on this first collection. Presumably Collection 2 will contain Mouse Cleaning (uncut on DVD for the first time!) through Just Ducky, and Set 3 would finish off the series. (I'm going to guess they don't plan to restore the Gene Deitch shorts, and Chuck Jones got a separate DVD already for his T&J shorts). Assuming these are finally restored, and WB can avoid having the issues they had with the prior sets, this looks to be the one to finally satisfy classic cartoon fans.

Maid Shokun Volume 1

By Akira Kiduki and Nanki Satou. Released in Japan by Wani Books, serialized in the magazine Comic Gum. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

I have to admit, this title may be the surprise of my entire spring. There were so many things working against it. It's about a maid cafe, has a cute girl showing lots of thigh on its cover, and it runs in Comic Gun, home of Ikkitousen (Battle Vixens) and other titles known for being basic fanservice. I'd heard that there might be some yuri, but again, was expecting the 'ooooh, can I feel your breasts' sort of yuri you get in seinen magazines.

I'm here to tell you that I was mostly wrong, and that this is a charming and perfectly reasonable title to come out from the late Tokyopop. The basic premise is what I expected: a group of women work for a maid cafe in Akihibara catering to otaku, and one day take in a girl from the country who's come to the city to go to college. She ends up working there due to a series of wacky circumstances, and her eager to please, earnest personality proves to be both a boon and a liability. Will she be able to make friends and do well, even as her fellow co-worker seemingly hates everything she says and does?

Despite Chiyoko being the star, she's actually the least interesting part of the manga, being your basic naive yet bubbly heroine who wears her heart on her sleeve (she has a very Club 9 feel to her, only without the confidence). I was far more interested in the other supporting cast. Heine is in charge of the maids, and seems to be the sensible one with a good head on her shoulders. She also seems to have some sort of past with Arumi, the aforementioned maid who's angry all the time and can't warm up to Chiyoko. A lot of this seems to be due to her having a standard 'tsundere' personality, but we haven't actually seen the dere yet in this series. There are suggestions of something else, though, such as Arumi being 'different' from the other maids at the cafe, and Heine darkly hinting that Arumi has to obey all her commands. It's an intriguing plot thread that I would look forward to seeing resolved in future volumes if there were any.

But the big surprise to me was Chapters 4 and 5, which go into detail about two of the other maids, Hachiya and Airi. A couple of past chapters have gone into detail on Airi being stalked by one of the cafe's patrons, and what they can do about it without upsetting the other otaku who go there to essentially gaze at cute maids. As this happens, it becomes clear that Hachiya (who wears a bartender's outfit, and was very much 'the butch one' even before this chapter) and Airi are actually lovers, something that accidentally gets revealed to the others. It's amazing how realistically this plays out - one maid, Pamiru, finds it hilarious and disgusting at the same time. Arumi doesn't care that they're gay, but says they either have to break up or one has to quit, as their being together hurts the cafe. Heine is away. And the two of them have been fighting anyway.

We get a flashback to Airi's past... where she's shown to have been a prostitute. She runs into Hachiya, who is dressed as a man and acting as 'escort' to other women. After saving Airi from a crazy customer, the two slowly fall in love... and when Airi finds out the truth about Hachiya's gender, she decides that she loves her anyway. Unfortunately, societal and work pressures are adding up. Airi feels she's being a useless burden to Hachiya, and Hachiya is convinced this is a 'phase' Airi is going through.

It may seem anticlimactic, but what ends up happening is that they end up talking to each other, and resolving everything. This isn't as humorous or earthshaking as a series of wacky manga coincidences, but far more realistic. Hachiya feels they should break up as Airi is young enough to get married and have a normal life. She even notes that were she to die, Airi would get nothing from her estate, the way the world works now. Airi, who I think gains more confidence the more she sees how uncertain Hachiya is, tells her to shut the hell up and that she plans to love her for the rest of her life. It's a very sweet scene, but it's also rather rare in its honest discussion of what being a gay couple in Japan is like. The manga is worth getting for these two chapters alone.

There's a lot of discussion of the maid cafe environment, which in 2006 (the year this debuted) was still somewhat of a new thing. Arumi and Chiyoko have a long discussion about the cafe possibly being rated as 'adult entertainment', and what that would mean - both minuses and pluses. The last chapter features Chiyoko at college, having been secretly given alcohol by a couple of horny guys, being rescued by one of the maid cafe patrons - and he's now incredibly awkward with her, as the 'veil' that exists between the maids and their clientele seems to be removed. Given that over and over again the manga has emphasized the 'look but don't touch' aspect of the maids in the cafe, it actually does feel like a crisis rather than a goofy romance starting up.

Again, I note this is a Tokyopop series, so we will not be getting any more volumes here in North America. And no, it's not scanlated online either. And hey, Volume 4 is sold out at Amazon.jp, so you can't even buy the Japanese. I still recommend that you buy this manga, which rose way above what I thought it would be. And if you happen to find out what happens in the remaining three volumes, please let me know.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Brief Reviews On Sundry Manga: The Sequel

Yes, once again I have several volumes that I can't seem to find several paragraphs worth of things to say, so will pile them all together in order to winnow down my review pile.

Kamisama Kiss 3: Yes, it's still suffering from not being Karakuri Odette. Which is a shame, as it's quite a likeable manga. We get a lot of plot points about how romances between humans and yokai go in this world, and how much "forbidden" tends to be actual lip service. Nanami is kidnapped by a snake yokai (who then turns into a bishie - this is shoujo, after all). I quite liked the fact that Nanami's quiet "Tomoe, enough." was sufficient to get him to listen to her and stop his rampage, which shows the bond of trust that's developed between them since the first two volumes. The last chapter is more serious, featuring Nanami going back in time to see a Tomoe who's seemingly far crueller and more dangerous than the one she knows. In the end, it's a little more mainstream and typical than her previous series, but that's also helped it run longer in Hana to Yume as well.

Toriko 5: This volume continues the search for the Regal Mammoth, and as such is basically just a bunch of fights. It was hard for me to see one group coming at the mammoth from one path and the other choosing a different one without thinking of The Five Doctors, honestly. And like The Five Doctors, each path proves to be fraught with peril. Toriko actually has to let his savage self take over in order to drive away some predators (and trust me, it's a nightmarish sight), which Sunny and Komatsu travel through a deadly marsh. We are once again reminded of the ethics that govern Toriko's universe, as Sunny and Komatsu are horrified than Gourmet Corps is casually slaughtering the animals without using them for food - WASTE is the big sin here. The Regal Mammoth does indeed prove to be huge - so huge that our reunited gang must journey INSIDE the animal to get at its prized meat within. As always, this is big dumb goofy Shonen Jump fun.

Blue Exorcist 2: Things settle down in this second volume, as Rin and Shiemi continue their school life at True Cross Academy. We meet a few new cast members, who are very much shonen 'types' - there's the frustrated hothead who derides the hero for being lazy and stupid, but turns out to be far too similar to him for everyone's tastes. And there's the bitchy girl who 'allows' Shiemi to be friends with her in return for waiting on her hand and foot (and who seems to be the kid who was bullied when she was young, now trying to live life on the other side). Naturally, by the end both are reluctant allies to our heroes - Ryuji after he sees Rin's bravery in the face of danger (albeit somewhat stupid bravery), and Izumo after getting told off by her 'normal' friend and being rescued by Shiemi's basic goodness and niceness. It's decent stuff, and I kept turning the page, but it hasn't really risen above cookie-cutter shonen level yet.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan 3: This had several interesting plotlines going through it. We wrap up last volume's big fight, and get a highly interesting revelation: Rikuo's been playing everyone (and the reader) all this time, and is far more in control of his life than previously suspected. Of course, this also leads to organizational problems, as Rikuo also tends to be merciful, and when you want to be the leader of a bunch of cut-throat yokai, mercy is something that needs to be explained. There then follows a short plotline with Kana being stalked by a yokai that has been killing children on their 13th birthday. Naturally she's rescued by Nura... unfortunately, this leads to her falling for the Nura side of Rikuo's personality, and asking if Rikuo can hook her up. Ah, secret identities... (There's also a great mirror of Kana spying on Rikuo and Tsurara at the start, with Tsurara doing the same at the end when Kana is being 'overly friendly'... romance is likely not important in this series, but it's sometimes cute to see. Finally, a new gang of yokai comes in to 'take over', and start by going after Rikuo's grandfather. Which is unfortunate, as he's hanging out with Yura, who most likely would try to kill him if she knew who he was. Nura is trying to do the yokai tales as a mafia/yakuza-type story, and so far it's working pretty well.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Negima! Magister Negi Magi Omnibus 1

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

First off, let's get the translation thing out of the way before we get to reviewing the actual content. As I've noted before, when Del Rey licensed Negima, they hired famous comics and SF writer Peter David to do the adaptation, which he did through Volume 5. It is known for being notoriously loose, with a ton of dialogue simply being rewritten entirely. Now, sometimes I'm OK with this (I'm an Excel Saga fan, after all, and I'm fairly sure Excel doesn't quote the Geto Boys in the original Japanese), but in the case of Negima, it actually alters the personality of many of the characters. Konoka calling Asuna a cheesehead draws attention to the adaptation, which isn't something you want to do. After Peter David left, Trish Ledoux (known for her work on Ranma) started to adapt, and many things got smoothed out, but then she left about 6 volumes later, and we got a new team, etc. Now, this is not uncommon for long-running manga series here in North America. Unfortunately, Del Rey had no editors (or at least bad ones), so there was little to no continuity between volumes. (I've yelled at them about this before as well, in my Zetsubou-sensei reviews.)

Now Kodansha decided to re-release Negima (still their best-selling series here) as an omnibus. They'd actually done this before for Barnes & Noble bookstores only several years ago, but it was the old Peter David adaptation, so there was no need for fans to get it. By now someone there had heard about fan derision of the early volumes, so hired the Nibley twins (the series' current translator/adaptors) to clean up a few of the more egregious moments in the series. On starting this project, the twins realized it would be a lot less aggravating to simply re-translate and adapt EVERYTHING, which they then did. And it was well-worth it, because this is definitely a re-release fans of Negima should get. The dialogue reads far more realistically and in character, nothing seems to jar (there is one 'Southern Master' in Asuna's dialogue, but I'm pretty sure that was left in as a joke), and it doesn't call attention to itself. We can now read Negima (mostly) as it was meant to be, and I thank Kodansha and the Nibleys for that.

Now, as for the manga itself. I went into it with my opinion that the first three volumes sucked, and that the series only started to get really good with the Kyoto arc starting in Volume 4. I am now prepared to revise that opinion. Volumes 2 and 3 turned out to be better than I expected, with 2 in particular giving us some nice character development and building up the campus as being more than simply a really big private school. Volume 1, though, actually managed to be WORSE than I remember, and for those people who cannot power through bad writing to get to the good beyond it, well, I'm sorry, you're never going to get into Negima.

I have also mentioned before the story of how Negima came to be what it is. After finishing the love comedies A.I. Love You and Love Hina, Akamatsu was somewhat weary of harem manga and decided to do a shonen fighting series with a young male protagonist. Kodansha's editors at Shonen Magazine, however, has no confidence in his ability to write action-filled battles, and told him they wanted him to write more of what sold like hotcakes - lots of girls, lots of fanservice, and lots of wacky situations. So we get Negima, where 10-year-old magical school graduate Negi Springfield is sent to a huge private school in Japan to teach a class full of thirty-one 14-15 year old girls. On his first day, he runs into Asuna Kagurazaka, a fiery girl with a short fuse and a fierce temper, who is not Naru from Love Hina at all, except yes, she is.

Negi's specialty is wind magic, and being 10 years old, he has not completely mastered self-control of this. This means that when he sneezes, clothing tends to fly off of the nearest females, including Asuna. If this sounds incredibly lame, that's because it is. Luckily, after a volume or two, it stops being every single chapter, and starts to be used in the obvious 'comedy' chapters, or as a balance to an overly serious battle. Here, however, Volume 1 seems to consist of endless pages of Asuna being humiliated, stripped, and broken. And because Negi's ten years old, she doesn't even get to beat him up the way Naru could hit Keitaro. More to the point, these early characterizations of Negi and Asuna are off enough to be irritating as well. Negi, known in later volumes for being 'overly mature and serious' for his age, if naive, is far more bratty and child-like here. As for Asuna, I have grown to like her character a lot, but there's a reason that people kept comparing her to Naru in Love Hina at first. All she does is yell and scream.

Luckily, things do not stay this way. Negima is far more of an ensemble cast than Love Hina, and we begin to see Negi interacting with the other girls. We meet Nodoka, the shy librarian whose life he saves on the first day, and who promptly falls for him. We see the 'Baka Rangers', five girls who get the worst grades in class for various reasons. We meet grumpy hacker Chisame, whose job it is to lampshade how ridiculous this class is. And, in Volume 3, we get our first major villain in Evangeline A.K. McDowell, a centuries-old vampire who is currently trapped at the school and in the body of a 10-year-old girl. The relationship between Negi and Asuna also mellows here, and once she starts to see Negi as more of a little brother (don't start, shippers) than a bratty kid out to ruin her life, her own character becomes much more of a 'big-sister' type and we begin to like her much better.

It's very strange seeing Evangeline at this stage in the manga. She's certainly a threat, but there's no sense that she'll be impossible to defeat - indeed, once Negi and Asuna become battle partners, she's almost easy to take down. I get the sense that the feedback Akamatsu got from readers and editors was HUGE for Evangeline, and so he may have decided that he needed to give her more to do. Certainly by Volume 6, when Evangeline next lets her powers loose, she's one of the most formidable foes in the entire series.

I should mention the fanservice again, because it's really, really a major part of this omnibus. If you crack open the book to a random page, there's a good chance you will see a teenage girl in a state of undress. As I noted earlier, I think Akamatsu was trying to press the harem aspect really hard at the start of the series in order to get the series popular enough that he could start to do what he wanted to do. So you get tons of bath scenes, and school measurement days, and "Oh no, you've seen my panties now!" type humor. Given Negi is ten years old, this is a little discomfiting, but at this stage there's little evidence that anyone is serious about things - Nodoka's love for Negi is seen to be mostly a crush, and the one girl we worried about (Ayaka) is shown to be seeing Negi as more of a little brother replacement than anything else. So the fanservice tends to mostly be "look, I can draw all varieties of naked girls!" type service. As the series goes on, this gets less and less, but it never entirely goes away - these days, he tends to write normally for about a dozen chapters, then toss in a full chapter of nothing but nudity to counterbalance.

In the end, I am glad that we're getting this re-release, and that it will apparently continue through at least Volume 9. Negima may have started out as nothing more than Harry Potter meets Love Hina, but Akamatsu has crafted quite the epic fantasy adventure, and though he has not quite fulfilled his promise of making all 31 girls important to the story, he's come damn close. Negima fans, obviously, should get this. Folks curious about the series should as well, but just be aware - the first third of this omnibus is terrible. It gets much better.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sunshine Sketch Volume 5

By Ume Aoki. Released in Japan as "Hidamari Sketch" by Houbunsha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Manga Time Kirara Carat. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Wow, has it really been 18 months since the last Sunshine Sketch? This is what happens when you catch up with Japan, kids. Especially for a series like this, where there's only 8 pages a month anyway. Thankfully, the volume proves to be worth the wait, provided you like the sort of thing it delivers.

It bears repeating: if you don't like 4-koma strips starring cute girls who don't really do anything, this isn't the series for you. There is some plot and character advancement here if you're looking deeply for it, but otherwise you'd barely notice it. It's situation normal otherwise, as we get the wacky adventures of students at a high school with a track devoted to art. Unlike GA: Art Design Class, this series is not all that interested in teaching readers anything about art itself, so we mostly just see it in the context of Yuno sketching, or Miyako making giant clay hands. The comedic situations come mostly from the cast and their apartment life.

Vague things happen here: Yuno visits her parents in her hometown; Sae and Hiro go on a class trip (and talk about getting ready for entrance exams); we meet Yoshinoya's brother and nephew, and learn that she's just as flaky outside of classes (not that this comes as a surprise). And the new cast members from last volume are integrated slowly into the main cast, so we find out about Nori's kansai dialect (that she conceals most of the time) and Nazuna's ability to be homesick even when this is her actual hometown.

It's hard to write a Sunshine Sketch review without mentioning the yuri tease, which is still present and correct here. The new girls are fascinated with the size of Miyako's breasts (and Yuno tries to join in, but holds back at the last minute). Meanwhile, Sae and Hiro are still the perfect couple who aren't, with Sae saying things like "We'll always be together" and saying that she'll get a license so that she can drive Hiro everywhere. It's fairly clear from these episodes that Hiro seems to be more aware of her feelings than clueless Sae, and is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sadly, it's not happening anytime soon. In the meantime, we must content ourselves with Miyako imagining Sae (in a suit!) and Hiro as a couple, crying at Yuno's future wedding.

Sunshine Sketch continues to be a very niche series, mostly for people who like seeing cute girls do cute things and don't mind the fact that it has no plot and little forward movement at all. This particular series also has the hurdle of the art, as Ume Aoki's super-deformed style takes some getting used to, to say the least. Of course, given the massive success of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which she did character designs for, perhaps it will get more popular!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Library Wars: Love & War Volume 5

By Kiiro Yumi, based on the novel by Hiro Arikawa. Released in Japan as "Toshokan Sensou: Love & War" by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Viz.

It can sometimes be difficult in reviews of this title not to get political. I try not to let my own views come out too much on this blog, but sometimes you read things like Love & War 5 and it becomes impossible not to take sides. In fact, part of the reason for this is that the government forces in the manga are such cartoon bad guys. While I appreciate the fact that we're showing a dystopian future where the ruling party violently censures its own citizens, the sheer malice of everything can sometimes lead one to think that subtlety is completely out the window. I hope in future volumes we see, if not a balanced argument (hard to do when you're making a point like this), at least a bone or two thrown in that direction.

This volume starts with the wrapup of Iku's parents coming to visit from the previous volume. It's the weak point of the volume, and nothing happens here that we couldn't have predicted after reading the start. Iku's father clearly is aware of her real occupation, and just as clearly is not going to let on that he knows. Luckily, the next arc is another serious one, this time focusing on Komaki, Dojo's smiling friend who's the sensible, advice-giving character (male side). We are introduced to Marie, a girl who knew Komaki from when he was in high school and she elementary school. She is now both a high-school student and deaf, and the choice of books that he offers her to cheer up, along with her feelings for him (and his repressed feelings for her) end up causing big problems.

The romance itself reads a little awkwardly - Japan loves its February/May romances far more than the West, and so we have another girl in love with someone 10 years older than she is. It's handled fairly reasonably here, though, and I was amused at Iku's shoujo romance guessing of Marie's feelings actually being right on the money. We don't genuinely get into Komaki's head here, but it's made clear from flashbacks and what he goes through under torture what his feelings for Marie are. But strong point of the arc is with Iku and Dojo, though, as always. Dojo insists that she not get Marie involved, because Komaki wouldn't want her caught up in this. Which is true, but also leads to an analysis of what it's like to be on the other side of that equation. After the situation is resolved, Iku is rather upset to realize that if she and Dojo were in the same situation, he too would have demanded she not be told, and that he suffer alone rather than 'hurt' her.

This chapter, by the way, does have the funniest gag of the volume, regarding the excuse Iku uses when she leaves the library to go get Marie. Her blunt reply to Dojo had me in stitches.

There';s two side stories here as well, the first involving grumpy Tezuka and Iku's efforts to take a picture of him smiling for her friends who crush on him (and failing miserably), and the second regarding a fancy dress party where Iku and Dojo are being bodyguards. She catches a suspect, but ruins her bodyguard-type suit in the process, so the household staff (who are very grateful, and also clearly want to play 'dress up') but her in a gorgeous ballgown and send her back out there. Iku, being your standard shoujo tomboy, has no idea how gorgeous she is, and finds the whole thing very awkward. Dojo, meanwhile, is poleaxed at her looks, and also now having to deal with other men hitting on her.

There's no real plot advancement here, as is typical in an open-ended shoujo manga that will clearly end with a declaration of love, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. As always, we get politically-tinged action and repressed romance in a nice little package. (Oh yes, and check out that picture on the back cover - rrowr!)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Manga the week of 6/29

Last week was hefty, so this week's lightness is probably a good thing. It does mean a possibility of the rest of Kodansha's June hitting with Viz's July, though. And while the rest of the world is enjoying volume 1 of Wandering Son, for once Fantagraphics is being screwed by Diamond, and we still aren't seeing it in comic shops. Hopefully soon.

On the bright side, we see a few more Tokyopop titles. For those asking, these are coming into comic shops via Diamond Distributors. I don't know if they will arrive at Amazon or Right Stuf. I also don't know if you will be able to order them after the fact, as opposed to pre-ordering them. That said, we get a 3rd volume of AiON, the new shonen manga from the creator of Chibi Vampire; the 8th volume of Samurai Harem from Shonen Champion; the 21st volume of shonen gag comedy Sgt. Frog; and the 3rd comedy of sweet coming of age shoujo The Stellar Six of Gingacho. And .hack fans will want to know that the 4th novel of .hack//whatever the heck it is is also coming out.

There's also the Moon and Blood manga, the collaboration between Nao Yazawa of Wedding Peach fame, as well as a new reissue of an old volume of Oh My Goddess; Volume 18 to be precise.

So, see what interests you here, and pick up what you couldn't afford to get this week.

Seiho Boys High School! Volume 6

By Kaneyoshi Izumi. Released in Japan as "Men's Kou" by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Comic ("Betsucomi"). Released in North America by Viz.

I did enjoy this volume of Seiho, though I am starting to get the feeling that the author had 4 volumes of plot that she has now been asked to make into 8 volumes. As a result, a lot of things that I thought might get resolved seem to be dragging, and we have a piece of what is very obviously goofy filler. But it's still fun.

The first two chapters deal once more with Nogami and Fukuhara, who had the distinction of being the first couple to get together in the series, and thus have not gotten as much attention lately. I will hand it to the author: while she continues to have the school nurse dating the 16-year-old student, she doesn't shy away from the obvious issues that this presents, noting that they have to continue to hide their relationship, and that Miss Fukuhara still feels very awkward about having feelings for someone so young. Nogami doesn't have that issue, but his is just as bad - he continues to shoot off his big mouth without actually thinking things through. He knows he loves her, but can't explain why, which is fine - that's part of what love is, as the climax to this 2-chapter arc shows - but he's also unobservant, not noticing all the little things that his girlfriend has been doing to her appearance, many of them for his sake. Hint to Nogami from one who knows: in general, obliviousness is not cute.

Oh yes, we also get a lot of jokes in these chapters about the guys cross-dressing, and how things that always seem hot and sexy to girls in shoujo manga don't always work out that way in real life. The un-bishonenness of the guys in drag is brought up over and over again (which is beautifully contrasted with the art, as this *is* a shoujo manga and the cast *are* bishonens, albeit manly ones).

The third chapter is the aforementioned filler, involving a box of porn making its way from room to room in order to avoid the prying eyes of a dorm inspection. Aside from the images of the porn itself, which were quite funny (and dead on), the highlight here is seeing Maki trying to fantasize about Erika, only to have all his fantasies turn into wrestling matches (and no, not in a sexy way either).

Speaking of Erika, she and Maki are once again the focus of the final chapter. Being a Maki chapter, it's a lot more serious than the others. Of note, the other Erika doesn't even get a mention in the chapter (she was briefly mentioned in the one before, where he noted he was starting to move on). Instead, we see the classic teenage boy situation of finding out that you are the only virgin in your close circle of friends. Nogami has already mentioned his prior sexual experience, and we already know about Kamiki and his step-sister. So Maki is starting to feel a bit left behind, especially after making out with Erika on her campus and getting caught by the head nun... who gives them condoms. In the end, the issues are the same as most of the Maki/Erika chapters to date: his tendency to put up false fronts, her loss of control which she covers up with anger. They don't have sex, but they work things out. It looks as if Erika may be bringing a couple more issues, though, as there's a one-line cliffhanger teaser.

The author notes that she keeps getting asked if this is a shoujo manga, most likely as it doesn't star a female and doesn't have much BL. It's fairly obvious to me that it is, mostly from the art. Speaking of which, I like the way that Izumi draws faces, particularly when they're amused or snickering - she has a sort of fish-mouth shorthand that makes the characters far less pretty but far funnier. I will note one piece of awkward art towards the end - when Maki is confessing to Erika on a set of stairs, the art makes him look like a hunchback, and made me wonder briefly who the heck he was supposed to be. Please try to keep your proportions!

But overall this is a very underrated series, which has some sweet relationships and, despite the author's fretting, shows that you can write shoujo starring a bunch of guys at an all-boys' school.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Strawberry Panic: The Complete Novel Collection

By Sakurako Kimino, art by Takuminamuchi. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

It's very hard to write a parody, especially one such as we see in these three books. You have to make sure to show your audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously, while at the same time keep them involved enough that they keep reading. And, of course, you risk people taking your work at face value, and not seeing the fact that you're not being serious. This is definitely the case with Strawberry Panic, which yuri fans latched on to in 2006 and didn't let go for some time. The anime, like the light novels, did not take itself seriously. However, unlike the anime, it's easy to tell that in the novels from the start. (For those who have seen the anime and feel they don't need to read the novels, note that after Book 1 the series heads in a different direction, and some characters - Kaname in particular - are totally different.)

The prose in this collection is worth your money all by itself. Not only do we have the overwrought emotional dialogue you would expect in a book such as this, but every single sound effect seems to be written out. Tap tap tap... ding dong... swssshhh... squeeeeeze. There's also inner monologues fraught with teenage emotion, telling us all how conflicted and tormented everyone is. And of course there are numerous over the top plot complications that everyone has to gasp at in shock. These are well-handled, though, and the book reads very easily - they are light novels, so they're meant to be read fast.

The basic premise is that you have three interconnected girls' high schools on a common campus. Each of the schools is elite and prestigious in its own way, and each one comes with the following: a new transfer student to be innocent and not actually know how anything works; a best friend who is there to explain the plot; and an older girl idolized by the school. The series seems to have ended prematurely, so we never need to worry about the adventures in Lulim. The other two schools, Miator and Spica, each have their own interconnected romances and relationships, all between "pure young girls". This is an entire genre of novels in Japan, made most famous recently by Maria-sama Ga Miteru, but the resonance will also work for the Western fan - many stock romances of the "Had I But Known" school use similar plot devices.

This particular series is not afraid to turn on the sex appeal (and for "sex appeal" read "creepy pandering"), as it's not written for girls at all. It's released by ASCII Mediaworks, home of Dengeki Daioh, and is clearly meant for young men who always wanted to read about hot lesbian relationships in a Catholic Girl's School. There's nothing explicit here, despite the suggestive artwork - the closest we get are some fantasies by one of the girls (who is referred to as "the only real lesbian in the school") - but the whole thing as a certain sordid air about it, with one of the leads openly leering after other girls in the baths, and the aforementioned lesbian groping her best friend in a swimming pool at midnight while assuring her it's because they're best friends.

The characters are all various stock types, but they're well-written enough that you get invested in them, while remaining cliches. This is important, as I noted above. Not only are you laughing and/or groaning at the increasingly traumatic adventures of Nagisa and Hikari, but you also sympathize and want them to pull through. My favorite characters in the series are the three student council presidents, all of whom are described many, many times in the books as clever, cunning, scheming, etc. and none of whom accomplish a single damn thing. By the middle of the third book I was laughing hysterically as three different cunning schemes all dissolved in the space of about one minute in a single closed-door meeting. And yet by the end, after the incredibly bad week that Shion, the president of Spica, has had I was almost crying right along with her when everything actually turned out OK at the end.

Also, there are helicopters. Plural.

To sum up, this is an extremely fun, lightweight series that I recommend to anyone who is not in danger of taking it too seriously. If you think you may be, go to page 351 and read just that. If you cup your head in your hands and go "Dear Lord", you should greatly enjoy this book. If instead you smile brightly and think "Wow, so cool!", you will *also* enjoy this book, but will probably be quite angry with me for making fun of these girls and their true loves 4-evah.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens Volume 1

By Eri Takenashi. Released in Japan by Ichijinsha, serialization ongoing (but on hiatus) in the magazine Comic REX. Released in North America by Bandai.

I will admit, I did not get this manga for the plot or characters, so in that respect it's my own damn fault. I got it because I'd heard of its reputation. This is, among fandom here in the West, the first modern series that made people think "Wow, Japanese otaku are insane." (Note that this behavior has been quite consistent in the past, but the media coverage for the Kannagi incident was such that it was like seeing it again for the first time.) To be brief, the main character in the Kannagi manga/anime noted that she had a boyfriend before she met the hero, and fans freaked out, declaring that she was "second-hand goods" and a "slut". Leaving aside the sheer sexism of this, it was the over the top silliness that made it newsworthy, with the fans burning their manga in protest. (However, given these fans, I suspect they only burned one of the 3 copies they bought.) There was quite a furor in Japan, and in fact the author went on leave due to health reasons and has not returned.

So I wanted to get it to see if there was anything to make a fuss over, or if this is a classic case of making something out of nothing. Sadly, it turns out to be the latter here, as judging by Volume 1, at least, Kannagi is a very predictable title, a sort of Oh My Goddess for the moe crowd. The basic premise is that our "ordinary yet likeable" boy, Jin, has recently carved a statue of a goddess from the remains of a sacred tree that was cut down as they're consolidating shrines in the area. It's part of a school project, but complications ensue when a teenage girl breaks out of his statue and turns out to be the deity of the tree, Nagi. She's a little upset about the tree being gone, as you can imagine, and with Jin's help starts going around getting rid of the "impurities" that have risen up as a result.

I mentioned that it's similar to Oh My Goddess, which is true, but there's also a great deal of the visual novel/datesim quality to all of this. The color page in the front of the manga, in fact, is done up exactly as a datesim (except you actually see Jin's face, instead of a blank where you can put your own), as he sees Nagi and his childhood friend Tsugumi posing cutely at him. The actual plot, thankfully, is less romance oriented so far. We see Jin's school, which Nagi quickly transfers into, and meet the members of the Art Club he's in, who don't really get much to do this first volume except be goofy minor characters.

Honestly, very little happens at all. There's a bit of plot in the final chapter, where we meet a rival goddess who is also gathering believers and purifying, and there seems to be an underlying threat of Nagi fading away if she is forgotten (which, ironically, may become true in the REAL world if the manga never restarts in Japan). But overall, this feels so insubstantial that it's like reading nothing at all. Like many harem protagonists, Jin is not allowed to have any interesting personality traits. Nagi pinwheels back and forth between haughty, cute, and peaceful, so much so that it's actually lampshaded, as she pretends to have a multiple personality for a while.

I understand that things get more interesting later on, but based on the first volume of this series, I can't see it appealing to a casual reader. As for fans of harem datesim-type manga, Kannagi should satisfy your desires.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Manga the week of 6/22

The big news this week is that a few Tokyopop titles seem to be straggling in... my guess is that they were already printed and there's no point in not letting them get released to earn a little more cash for Stu's vanity projects. So we have the final volume of Hanako and the Terror of Allegory to add to TP's 'completed' category. There's also new volumes of Deadman Wonderland and Fate/Stay Night, which will remain incomplete, as well as the shoujo Happy Cafe, likewise. And the seinen Maids and Service comedy Maid Shokun gets Vol. 1 of 4 coming out this month, but that's all you get.

In other weird news, Midtown Comics has decided to catch up on Vertical's releases by getting about 10 of them in at once. The last 2 volumes of Seven Billion Needles, 3 volumes of Twin Spica, Chi's Sweet Home 5, and the 2-volume split of Apollo's Song. All very worthy of purchase if you haven't already. Also, Apollo's Song ran in Shonen King, a now-defunct Shonen Gahosha magazine that is where the Young King OURS magazine got its King from.

Now for normal releases. Dark Horse has the final volume of Neon Genesis Evangelion: Campus Apocalypse, which tried to ramp up the Shinji/Kaworu ambiguous love, but apparently also had some good Asuka stuff as well. Seven Seas is releasing a new omnibus of Venus Versus Virus, so those of you who weren't bored out of your skulls by the mindlessness can pick it up and see what all the fuss wasn't about.

Viz has a new Afterschool Charisma, which more hot clone action. There's Vol. 15 of 20th Century Boys, which must be on its 3rd end of days by now. And Viz debuts the re-release of Tenjo Tenge in handy two-volume omnibuses, now uncensored for whiny otaku who never bought it when CMX put it out. (Note: the same ones will not buy it now for some other invented reason.)

Kodansha has the first volume of the Phoenix Wright tie-in manga, this time a genuine serialized manga story rather than a doujinshi collection. It ran in Kodansha's Monthly Young Magazine, which targets college-age men.

And Yen has a pile of stuff. The 9th volume of Bamboo Blade has the entire cast being AWESOME, I have it on good authority. Even Dan-kun fans will get to see him do things here. Higurashi has Shion continue her roaring rampage of revenge in the 3rd volume of the Eye-Opening Arc. Soul Eater gives us more pop art. Sunshine Sketch gives us more 4-koma sweetness and sort-of-yuri. Sasameke drags to a close with its second omnibus, which can't possibly be as bad as the first was. We get a 2nd volume of Tales of the Waning Moon only 21 months after the first volume (it comes out just as slowly in Japan). And a new debut, The Betrayal Knows my Name from Kadokawa's shoujo oddity collection Asuka.

That's a whole lot of stuff. What are you getting?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

One Piece Volume 57

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

Given that this is one of those One Piece volumes where the whole thing is one giant melee fight, I think it's time to return to the bulleted list of observations.

- Just as Garp revealed Luffy's parentage and then reminded himself it's a secret, so Luffy here shows he already knew the identity of Ace's dad, and just hadn't said anything. Naturally, he's the only one to treat it so casually.
- Ace's flashback is awesome, only serving to show us the bond that the Whitebeard pirates have with each other. I was reminded of the anime Straw Hat Pirates song 'Family!', which applies just as well here. Also, Ace fought Jinbei for 5 days? Badass.
- The second chapter of the volume manages to introduce so many new characters that it can be confusing (likely deliberately so on Oda's part, who's just throwing in various badasses to remind you that it's not just the Straw Hats who get all the cool shit). Marco is the only one you need to remember.
- So sad to see Oars, Jr. here, but if you're going to go out, what a way to go. The flashback scenes with Ace just made it all the more poignant. Also, Oars, Jr. reminds you how much Oda loves to connect every tiny detail in One Piece to every other tiny little detail.
- While we've had Aokiji (somewhat goofy yet apparently conflicted about duty deep down) and Kizaru (mostly goofy, and less conflicted), Akainu is not goofy at all, and merely terrifying. His first few scenes here, and the use of his magma powers, showcase his badassery. The scene where he slaughters a Marine Captain trying to run away, who notes he has a family, showcases his evil. This man is one of the biggest villains in One Piece, Marine or no, and we'll be coming back to him soon.
- Donflamingo may be an insane lunatic, but he does get the best and most accurate monologue in the volume. History is indeed written by the winners.
- The entrance of Luffy & company to the battle, on the other hand, was pure fun.
- I love the cast reactions to seeing Luffy, scattered over three pages, and taking in even the minor characters like Jango and Tashigi. Naturally, it ends with Akainu, merely seeing Luffy as a new thing to kill.
- And Luffy and Whitebeard meeting is everything I hoped for - it's wonderful to see then standing side by side to save Ace.
- So Luffy's parentage is no longer secret. Well, given Garp's big mouth, it may not have been as secret as folks thought. But now the whole world knows.
- Buggy being manipulated by Whitebeard = priceless, but not as priceless as Buggy vs. Mihawk. I'll say it again, when he's not actually THINKING, but merely reacting, Buggy can be as badass as anyone. The running gag of his crew's reaction gets better with each new confrontation. Also I love his manipulation of the media there at the end. He'd make a great politician.
- Likewise, I was highly amused by Hancock vs. Smoker, where we see her show some real rage. As well as, of course, her undying love for Luffy. Poor Hancock, that's going nowhere fast...
- Luffy is not merely running on pure instinct here, which is good. I loved the bit where we think we see him launch an attack against Mihawk, then realize as he gets his hand chopped off that it was just Luffy thinking in his head.
- The fate of Kuma is both sad and somewhat horrific, even if we don't quite know all the details yet.
- And then there's that cliffhanger, as Whitebeard is betrayed. I can't believe we have to wait for October to resolve this. (Yes, having 'caught up', Viz is now falling behind again, with 3 volumes a year to Japan's four.)

To sum up, it's a great volume of One Piece, showing the battle to save Ace is one that will change the fate of the entire series. You should be reading this.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley

By Floyd Gottfredson (with Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, and countless others). Originally serialized in various newspapers from January 13, 1930 - January 9, 1932. Edited by David Gerstein and Gary Groth. Released by Fantagraphics.

This has been another one of those long-awaited collections of comic strips. Perhaps not as long as Pogo (still tapping my fingers there, Fantagraphics), but nevertheless many folks have been clamoring for years to see Gottfredson's work in sequence, especially those who feel he was unfairly forgotten in comparison to Carl Barks, the most famous Disney comic book artist. (The two aren't all that similar, but we'll get to that when Fantagraphics puts out the Barks books later this year.) And now we have it, and one could not have asked for a better presentation, with the reproduction about as good as it gets for 80-year-old comic strips, and a veritable plethora of extras.

I'm a big fan of early cartoons. Not just the classic Disney and Warners cartoons we all grew up on television with, but the ones that were rarely shown, the black and white 'let's all sing and dance and bounce around for 7 minutes' type of cartoon. Leaving aside my love of music, I feel there's a wonderful simplicity to these types of cartoons, where you don't have to worry too hard about realism or motivations, you can just sit back and watch the fun. And that's sort of the cartoons Disney was making about 1930 - Mickey was only 2 years old, and though Disney's shorts were miles ahead of everyone else, he was still singing songs, getting into scrapes, that sort of thing. Goofy was a good 2 years away, Donald 4. It was just Mickey and Minnie (and sometimes Pluto later on), having fun, getting into misunderstandings, and sometimes battling evil villains like Pegleg Pete.

It's rather startling, therefore, to see the amount of depth we get in these comic strips presented here. Oh, it's not huge - no need to worry about Mickey on paper being like Apartment 3-G - but you actually do see the characters worry about things like the economy, or trying to figure out their futures. Mickey's fire chief is overworked (as he's also the chief of police, justice of the peace, postmaster, etc.) and trying to get folks married, so it can get him some extra cash (justices of the peace are paid more!). Mickey tries to hook up Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, and amongst his reasoning is the idea of combining their income. These Mickey Mouse comics never forget what year they're set in.

Speaking of Horace and Clarabelle, the lack of Goofy and Donald means that they're still major characters at this point, even more so than in the cartoons, and they're an absolute stitch, albeit a cliched one. The comic strips rely very much on stereotypes and vaudevillian-type gags for their humor, and so Clarabelle is a prissy gossip who is easily flattered (and duped), while Horace is as stubborn as a mule, and tends to regard women in the classic "Dames. Go figure." mode. And yes, they're all the human-size talking animal types, excepting Pluto. Generally this isn't noticeable, except in one bit where Mickey has to imitate a cat, and gets a bunch of cats surrounding him when he does - the sight of his large form with these small cats is very odd indeed.

I also found the language in these strips extraordinary. Leaving aside the fact that people eighty years ago spoke differently than we do today, the sheer metaphor used by Mickey, especially in the beginning strips, boggles the mind. "Wow. She must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle." "Every time he takes off his hat, the woodpeckers chase him!" I think it reflect a sort of odd fusion of Walt's midwestern slang and Floyd Gottfredson's own Utah-style - as well as the current slang of Los Angeles, no doubt. Given that in these comic strips, these characters tend to be far more talkative than their on-screen counterparts (no doubt because they didn't have to be animated and dubbed), there is a sheer volubility in the strips that almost overwhelms you. I felt the urge several times to read the dialogue aloud.

There's a huge PILE of extras presented here. In addition to the expected biographical detail on Gottfredson, which is fantastic, we get pictures of comic book covers used in European reprints of the cartoons, brief bios of the other inkers and writers involved in the strip, examinations of Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto, and even a 1932 interview with Mickey Mouse that was written up as publicity, along with one in 1931 for Pluto! David Gerstein is already well known for his painstaking detail, but he really goes above and beyond here.

One of the extras presented is the first 2 months of Mickey strips, which were done by Walt and Ub Iwerks. Presented separately here partly as the book is much better off for starting with the high-paced and exciting Race to Death Valley, and partly as it has Mickey battling a bunch of stock cannibals. As the book notes, 1930 is not 2011, and stereotypical racist humor was just something everyone did then, one of the bags of stock gags that writers reached into. So, along with Clarabelle getting the standard 'female' gags, and Horace the 'male' ones, we also see "uggle biggle boogle" South Seas Island natives. In the main strips, we also get some gypsies, along with Clarabelle and Horace discussing the dichotomy between "They're just evil and want your money" vs. "Oh, the romantic life they all lead!" that was present in the United States at the time. Naturally, since Mickey needs to battle stock villains, they turn out to be the former in this book. The volume takes pains to note when the strip is getting "politically incorrect", but does not censor, for which I am grateful, as I would rather experience the prejudices of a different time then simply cover them over.

To sum up, anyone who likes Disney, cartoons, or comic strips will find tons of things to love about this. The comics are exciting adventure strips for the most part, though there's a lot of standard "gag" stuff as well. Heck, at one point Minnie almost gets ground into paste by a giant pestle thing, something I found far more terrifying than the standard 'tied to a log headed for a saw" fate of most plucky heroines. A terrific book, highly recommended.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Brief Reviews On Sundry Manga

I have a pile of backlog here, but can't quite work up the energy to post a full review for them. Hence these brief thoughts.

My Girlfriend's a Geek 3: We basically have more of the same here, which is very much what I expected. Taiga deals with his girlfriend's fetishes as best he can, while getting increasingly exasperated. Introduced here is Yuiko's cosplaying friend Akari, who turns out to be Kouji's younger sister. But honestly plot is sort of irrelevant to this series. I did enjoy seeing a brief snippet of Yuiko's thoughts when she was dealing with the sleazy guy at her office - it shows that she actually does view Taiga as a genuine boyfriend, even if the depth of her feelings for him is still in question. That's more than I usually get out of Otomen. A bonus at the end of the manga gives us a fake chapter of Sepatte Takuro, Yuiko's BL obsession, and they even bring in another mangaka to draw it - Hiromi Namiki, who writes the ice hockey manga 88 for Kodansha's Monthly Shonen Magazine. Unfortunately, the chapter itself is quite dull, being far TOO close a parody of shonen sports manga, to the point where the joke is lost.

Oh My Goddess! 38: We finish off the Chrono arc here, and thank God for that, as it's one of the weakest in the series to date. Chrono's fear of cats is incredibly lame, the dojikko maid thing continues to be done to death, and everyone's praise of her at the end thus seems overdone. On the bright side, once she's gone we start a new arc that will prove to be more dramatic, as Urd's mother Hild gets overthrown in Hell by a sneaky trickster, and is now in a chibi body and relatively powerless. What's worse, now the new demons in charge are arriving on Earth and granting wishes - but as ever, they twist them and make people suffer. I was amused at seeing Chihiro and Megumi actually SEE Hild appear before their eyes, and the building subsequently destroyed - but when the building is magically reconstructed later, they just edit their memories to fit the facts. All in all, not a great volume, but I'm hoping for better things now that Hell has new ownership.

Fairy Tail 13: As ever with Fairy Tail, I enjoy the volume when I'm reading it, but have difficulty retaining any memory of it five minutes after the fact. Erza's backstory arc gets a bit of an epilogue here, and we see that we probably have not seen the last of Ultear - or Jellal, for that matter. There then follows some goofy comedy as they head back to a now-rebuilt Fairy Tail and welcome Juvia (unsurprisingly) and Gajeel (somewhat more surprisingly) in as members. This mid-section is particularly noted by the cameo appearances by Jason Thompson and Dallas Middaugh, whom Mashima had met when he was a guest at SDCC 2008 and decided to write into the series. Jason in particular makes a great dorky reporter. This is counterbalanced with Lucy's attempts to use her charms for various purposes - and failing miserably. However, we then head into the next arc, where Laxus returns to town, just as big a jerk and twice as pissed. He and his colleagues decide to have a 'festival' where the Fairy Tail members have to fight each other in an elimination bout - and the female members are all turned to stone and used as hostages to make them do it. A sadly predictable plotline, but certainly effective. Fairy Tailo remains good, solid shonen, but I just can't get into it more than I need to.

Natsume's Book of Friends 7: Been a while since I reviewed this one. I enjoy the series a great deal, but rarely have much to say about it. This volume is notable for having a plot arc that lasts a good 2/3 of the volume, and features what may prove to be a new ongoing 'villain'. Someone is attacking yokai in order to get their blood for some unknown purpose - and the attack is human! The main thrust of the plot, however, as with a number of previous chapters, is getting Natsume to be more proactive and choosing to do good, rather than drifting along trying to avoid being hurt. This volume is very much yokai focused - Tanuma and Taki don't even show up - but that helps, as the whole thing ends up being almost like an action movie. There are a few flaws to the volume - the revelation of the human attacking the yokai turns out to be very anticlimactic, and the unrelated short story at the end is clearly a case of needing to pad out the book, as it's not that hot. Still, the main story itself is an excellent relaxed shoujo horror, and I look forward to seeing Natsume's further development.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Butterflies, Flowers Volume 7

By Yuki Yoshihara. Released in Japan as "Chou Yo Hana Yo" by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Petit Comic. Released in North America by Viz.

I note as I continue to read this series that the reason it succeeds with me in a way that, say, Black Bird does not, is that every horrid moment in it is immediately undercut by some over the top bit of humor or fourth wall breaking that reminds you that this is merely a dumb josei romance. Case in point: continuing where we left off at the end of Vol. 6, Choko has her hand bandaged after Kaori stepped on it in her heels, demanding Choko break up with him. Choko, not one to back down, angrily confronts her the next day at work, whereupon Kaori grabs her hand and sneers "No snitching" while squeezing it hand. A dramatic scene filled with scary tension... until you turn the page, and see superdeformed Choko lying on the floor in a puddle, with a little arrow noting "pissed herself".

This is perhaps why I didn't have as much of an issue as some others did with the date rape scene later in the volume. First of all, the moment it "happened" I knew that it would turn out to be something just for show - we've known the leads for 6 volumes, and the other man involved for 2, and there just isn't any way that he would do this sort of thing, and thus it was purely for potboiler show. That said, it was a horrid thing to do, and Masayuki's response (not immediately telling Choko he knew things didn't get that far) is equally bad. But then, this is Butterflies, Flowers. If you aren't ready for the men to be gloriously horrible (but sweet deep down), you're reading the wrong manga. And again, when she finds out, we cut immediately to Masayuki... who is hiding himself behind her, wearing palm fronds, disguised as a plant.

Then there's the popularity contest, and the sheer gall of the ex-girlfriend trussed up on the bed like a meat market sale, and Choko's having to really think back on when the two of them last had sex, and of course the best line of the volume, which I won't give away here except it involves the word "semen". Every time something that would be offensive in any other manga comes by, Butterflies, Flowers is here to be so gleefully trashy and over the top that at most you just slap your forehead and sigh.

In terms of the actual couple, Choko gets some good development in the latter half of the book. She's been, despite the sex, very much the naive and innocent heroine throughout this, and thus when she is confronted by several angry women noting that she's frustrating Masayuki by her lack of sexual desire for him, she's not sure what to think. Of course, these girls not only don't have her prior history with him, but also don't have him acting like a flaming moron in front of her all the time. But we do start to see Choko think about Masayuki as an actual desirable man, and try her best to understand her own passions. Unfortunately, she doesn't really get far. Fortunately, the next volume is the final one, so I anticipate that she will soon!

So yes, the sexual politics of this series remains as questionable as ever, but it's so ludicrous that I don't care. I like Butterflies Flowers because it's funny. I dropped Black Bird because it was painfully earnest. Your mileage may vary, but I guess that's how I see the series. So if you want more of what you've seen in the first six volumes, well, you won't be disappointed.

Oh, you might be disappointed in that there are no Gundam references this time. But they do namedrop Space Battleship Yamato, so I guess it's OK.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ouran High School Host Club Vol. 16

By Bisco Hatori. Released in Japan as "Ouran Koukou Host Club" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Viz.

The series continues to wrap up, which unfortunately means that this volume, while excellent, is a lot more serious than previous ones. We have to resolve Tamaki's family situation, and that's just unhappy - his grandmother seems to despise him, his father is strangely aloof and uncaring, and halfway through this volume he's forced to abandon everything else that might possibly influence him. It's really brought home here how good he is at putting up a facade, even when he's alone - it helps to drive home just how crushed he in in the moments when that facade cracks.

This is not to say there is no comedy at all, luckily. Hunny and Moru finally have their fight, and Mori's demands turn out to be both sensible and amusing. I liked the contrast with their father's playing shogi, and reminding me a lot of Genma and Soun in Ranma. Likewise, the accidental kiss between Tamaki and Haruhi here is very well done, absolutely terrifying both of them, and giving Tamaki a great moment of self-doubt when he's discussing the incident with... um, his dog, but it makes sense in context. I really liked "Don't worry, the new Tamaki is not as stupid as the old Tamaki." Very true!

Sadly, he then moves back to the main mansion, no longer in exile. While he initially thinks that's cause for celebration - as does everyone else, and I love his discussion of it with Haruhi - it turns out to be a trap, one he realizes only after he's walked into it. What's worse, he realizes that the ones he loves are at risk, and that he has to protect them at all costs. Because this is a manga, you know what that means - telling Haruhi that she can leave the club if she wants to now, and that his affairs are none of her business. Yeah, you can imagine how well THAT goes. But to no avail - for this cliffhanger, we see Tamaki's father ordering the Host Club shut down.

As for Haruhi, she's still not very good at all about dealing with her feelings for Tamaki, even if she now realizes them. Her expression after the accidental kiss is funny but also a wee bit disturbing - how repressed has she been that this will freak her out that much? And it's bookended with the end of the volume, where she's alone in her apartment during a thunderstorm, painfully aware of how much Tamaki has helped her and his absence right now. Hopefully her emotional breakdown here will lead to greater resolve.

There are two short stories at the end of the volume. The first gives us backstory on how Haruhi's mother and father got together, and is very sweet. You can see why Haruhi wants to live up to her mother's dream. The other introduces us to the twins' grandmother, who is just as eccentric as the rest of the family, and is another good look at how, while the twins seem to run roughshod over everyone they know, in reality they are quite easily manipulated. At least before the manga begins...

So we're definitely at a low ebb in the manga, and unfortunately we have to wait till December for the next volume. This particular volume was quite good, though, especially if you like the serious, more angsty side of this manga.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Certain Scientific Railgun Volume 1

By Kazuma Kamachi and Motoi Fuyukawa. Released in Japan as "Toaru Kagaku no Railgun" by ASCII Media Works, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

Ah, franchises. In the beginning there was the light novel series Toaru Majutsu no Index (A Certain Magical Index), which started in 2004 and has shown no signs of stopping anytime soon. In turn, it spawned a series of side-story light novels, based on the breakout character Mikoto Misaka, called A Certain Scientific Railgun. Then a manga of Index started over in Square Enix's Shonen Gangan. Then a manga of Railgun (this series) started in Dengeki Daioh. Then the anime came out. Then the Railgun anime. Then the 2nd Index anime. Then the game...

It can get very confusing. Here in North America, light novels don't sell, so the books are not available. The anime has one season released by Geneon (now defunct), and the Railgun series due to come out soon. As for the manga, one would expect that you'd put out the parent series before you license the spinoff. However, as is quite common in Japan, they're owned by two different companies. And Yen Press, who deal with Square Enix a lot lately, have made no noises about licensing the Index manga. Seven Seas, though, does deal heavily with the company publishing the spinoff, and so that's what we have. Luckily, a) you see very little crossover between the two, beyond the hero, who is introduced to new readers; and b) Railgun has become more popular than Index anyway, so should do well here provided that fans of the franchise actually purchase a thing rather than merely gushing about how much of a fan of the series they are and then reading a scanlation online.

As for the manga itself, the supposed premise is that we're at a magic school (which is apparently so large it's the size of a city) where various powerful kids learn to control and harness their powers. Our here is a normal schlub of a guy who has no actual powerful skills but manages to win the hearts of over a dozen... no wait, wrong series. In *this* story, our heroine is Mikoto, who is one of only 7 students whose power has been graded at 'Level 5'. Her power apparently involves zapping folks with electricity, and her specialty is using an arcade token as a magical bullet and firing it at people at several times the speed of sound. She's pretty awesome, and the first volume involves seeing her trying to go about her everyday life while dealing with mad bombers, groping best friends, and the one boy who's unaffected by her powers... that hero I mentioned earlier.

Honestly, there is the start of a serious plot introduced here, with the so-called "Level Upper" that will allow you to increase your power level with little to no effort. Given this is a Japanese manga, I'm sure we know how well THAT will go. But for the most part, we get goofy scenes of Kuroko, Mikoto's best friend and a teleporter, trying to hit on her and being completely unsuccessful in a dumb "oh hey, it's the comedy yuri girl" way. Misaki herself seems to have a crush on Touma, the hero of A Certain Magical Index, who shows up here and gets a "reintroduction" scene since he's apparently going to be appearing both here and in the parent series. And there's one or two other characters who clearly will get fleshed out over time.

It's good simple fun, but it's not gripping or exciting. Aside from the bomb threats, not a lot happens here. If you're a fan of Index and its universe, you'll really enjoy it. If you have no idea what this is, but like the idea of a modern-day Lum firing electricity at bad guys, you might give this a shot. Everyone else can probably safely skip it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Manga the week of 6/15

This week is another good example of how it's difficult to sort out release dates between: a) bookstores; b) Diamond Distribution, and c) Comic Shops ordering directly. Midtown Comics lists three titles I got this week, and one I got last month! On the bright side, it's nice to see Diamond get things in FIRST for a change...

In the 'old news' department, Drawn & Quarterly has the gekiga anti-war manga Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, as written by the creator of Gegege no Kitaro, Shigeru Mizuki. Be warned it's heavy stuff. Also be warned you may dislike it if you don't like 'caricature' faces. But get beyond that and I think it packs a powerful punch.

Seven Seas has its small list of June releases. We get the first volume of A Certain Scientific Railgun, which Seven Seas is sensibly not promoting as a spinoff of a series not available over here. The second volume of Amnesia Labyrinth is also out. It may be the last, but I'm not sure. I don't think it actually ended in Japan, but... it does feature explicit incest, so I'm not sure if it's on 'hiatus' after Bill 156. But then, it could just be on hold while Tanigawa wrote the new Haruhi books. Lastly, and very welcome, we have the Strawberry Panic novel omnibus, featuring the 3rd and final volume for the first time. Kudos to Seven Seas for listening to demand and getting this out. Reward them by buying it. It's silly fun. Very silly.

And now for things that HAVEN'T actually come out already... there is a giant pile of yaoi from DMP. Kudos to DMP, by the way, for reminding us that there are other publishers in Japan bedsides the few we always see every week. Nihon Bungeisha, Akane Shinsha, Asuka Shinsha, Taiyo Tosho, Shinkousha... it's a smorgasbord of companies that will make you say "who?" while providing you with quality yaoi. Old school fans will want to check out Bad Teacher's Equation and the 3rd Kizuna reprint, both from the early 1990s. Fans of ongoing series will note that Blue Sheep Reverie has hit Vol. 4, which is quite high for licensed yaoi. Men of Tattoos not only has a great name, but ran in the magazine Opera, which I've heard good things about. And Rabbit Man, Tiger Man is not only billed as a comedy, but also has the title Rabbit Man, Tiger Man. (I hope it's not an Ouran High School Host Club spinoff...)

Lastly, Viz has their trickle of 2nd week titles. New Arata the Legend and Kekkaishi from Shonen Sunday, and the penultimate Detroit Metal City from the lesser-known skeezy end of Hakusensha, Young Animal.

What appeals to you? Or will you spend the week getting the stuff Viz put out this week that you had to put off?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Bride's Story Volume 1

By Kaoru Mori. Released in Japan as "Otoyomegatari" by Enterbrain, serialization ongoing in the magazine fellows!. Released in North America by Yen Press.

There's no getting around how handsome a volume of manga this is. Even leaving aside the presentation, where Yen has really gone above and beyond with hardcover and everything, it's simply gorgeous to look at. Kaoru Mori became a popular "blogger" author over here with her previous series Emma, and this new series sees her chancing her focus while keeping the same things that made people come back to her Victorian England over and over again.

The manga itself takes place somewhere in Central Asia in the early 19th Century, and is a nice role reversal of the usual dealings at that time, where a young man in his early 20s would take a wife who was barely into her teens. Here we find that the groom, Karluk is only twelve years old himself, and that the bride is twenty years old! Scandal! It's never explicitly stated why Amir is still unmarried at such an advanced age - so far I'm guessing it might have something to do with her hunting/gathering/all around awesome skills - but it's definitely an unspoken worry, with many villagers stunned that she hasn't had children.

The volume, for the most part, follows the story of her interactions with her new family and village, with a few side trips dealing with the children of Karluk's sister, who are gleefully childlike and provide a nice contrast with the too-mature-for-their-years lead couple. Amir proves to be almost too good to be true, showing the village the art of hunting rabbits and how to track a nomadic tribe that can conceal its movements. There is a final chapter, luckily, that shows her less-than-perfect side, as we see her completely freaking out when her husband is bedridden with a bad cold. It seems clear that death has touched her in the past from her emotions here, and I hope we can find out more about that soon.

For those looking at the fact that the boy groom in the series is twelve years old and raising an eyebrow, I note that a) this is the early 19th century, and b) nothing seems to have been consummated so far. There is one shot of a naked Amir convincing her husband to sleep unclothed next to her to share body heat on a cold night, but his reaction seems to be seeing Amir as a mother figure more than anything else.

If there's anything wrong with the series, it's that things seem just a little too polished. It's an excellent manga, with good characters who interact well, gorgeous art, and clear signs of an overarching plot that begins to get started about 3/4 through the volume. At the same time, I can't help but feel that I'm looking at a painting in a museum rather than reading a modern manga. There is a coolness to Amir that doesn't really allow you to get closer to her, even when she's being nice and friendly. It makes me feel as if I can't really love the manga as much as I want to.

Despite that, this is still a great pickup for Yen, and I hope that Volume 2, out in October, gives me a little more to work with.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Negima! Magister Negi Magi Volume 29

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

And so we come to the first of Kodansha's release of the Negima series... which is exactly the same as Del Rey's. And I am happy about that, as this is precisely what I wanted. No new translators, no new editors (not that Kodansha tells us who the editors are...), Just the same as before, giving us our cool shonen boy and his battle harem. Yes, one can argue they could bring us the limited edition covers that Japan gets, but as most of those tend to be 'the regular cover only with fewer clothes', I can see that it's simply not worth it.

Given no one is going to be starting Negima with Volume 29, I'll just type out a few thoughts instead of recapping what happens. We get three new pactios this chapter, and each one has its own point of interest. Ku Fei is still warring with her shyness, and so decides to whip out the standard female warrior cliche that she will only pactio with Negi if he defeats her. In general this can be an offensive cliche, but I think Akamatsu manages to deal with it here, because a) there's a sense that Ku Fei is only doing it because of avoidance rather than any deep desire; b) It's clearly shown that Negi needs to use his dark magic power in order to defeat her; c) there's certainly no sense that Ku Fei is any weaker because of this, and in fact her pactio artifact seems to show that she's only going to be powering up and getting stronger, and d) it's a freaking arm wrestling match in the middle of a ballroom. I was very amused at Ku Fei joking that now that Negi has defeated her he's required to marry her, as well as Chamo realizing how similar Chao and Ku Fei are - this has been a fan theory for some time, and Akamatsu loves to play around with those.

Meanwhile, not all 31 girls are gaga over Negi. Natsumi, the so-called 'normal' girl in the group, is dealing with her own insecurities, especially with Kotaro looking really sexy and her own age rather than in his actual form. I'll give Akamatsu credit, he's not backing away from the awkwardness that comes with a bunch of students falling in love with a ten-year-old or too. Most of the girls usually try to snap themselves out of it when reminded of such things, and indeed Natsumi refuses to pactio with the aged-up Kotaro, but rather his actual self - because this isn't about love, but family. We get reminded of this when Natsumi asks what Kotaro thinks of the other girls he's interacted with throughout the series, and he starts ranking them according to their battle potential. He's a 10-year-old, and romance is barely registering on his radar. Instead, he notes that he feels that he wants to protect the girls he's mentioned as they're family to him. And that's what allows Natsumi to pactio with him. (That said, there is a lot of romance here as well, and certainly I think Akamatsu is trying to have his cake and eat it too.)

As for Chachamaru, who we get reminded is actually 2 years old here, our favorite robot girl gets both the funniest and the most touching of the pactios. Chachamaru isn't just dealing with romantic feelings for Negi - she's worried she has no actual free will, being a robot. Evangeline has explained to Chachamaru that essentially she has free will if she believes she does - but this can be rather tricky, and self-doubt is starting to plague her. Enter Negi, who's been primed by Asakura to wind her up... so to speak, and the connection between recharging Chachamaru and having sex with her has never been more blatant than it is here, as Negi's 'screwing' her with full power drives her near the edge. And yet after this we get Chachamaru almost in hysterics, as she panics that if she pactios with Negi there will be no card - that she isn't alive enough to deserve one. And in fact, as they begin the pactio, this is what seems to happen. Negi is a shonen hero, and through shonen determination - and awesome kissing power - manages to win the day.

Incidentally, Chachamaru's 'Hwa?' is the funniest moment of the volume, bar none.

But with all that over with, we're back to the plot, as Negi is called to bring three allies and meet up with Jerkass Senator Kurt Godel. He takes Nodoka and Asakura, presumably for their information-gathering abilities, and Chisame, because of their deep love. No wait, it's because she's there to slap some sense into him. It just SOUNDS like he's saying it's due to their deep love. As Chisame notes, he just can't help sounding like a 'natural-born gigolo'. As it turns out, though, bringing Chisame was a very bright thing to do, as Kurt is trying to goad Negi into a rage-fueled attack, by bringing up memories of the attack on his village years ago. Negi completely loses it, and while Nodoka's tears are able to get him to turn aside for a bit, it's Chisame's slap and lecture that really does the trick. (By now, Chisame is a much better Asuna than Asuna ever was.) We also get to see Asakura really pissed off, which I believe is a first.

And so Kurt starts to explain things, which leads us into another flashback. This seems to be the second half of Rakan's story from before, telling us what happened after Negi's mother and father supposedly 'won' over the bad guys. Things are never quite that simple... and though we end on a cliffhanger, it's becoming apparent that what's really needed here is a scapegoat.

There's a lot going on here, and I think if you're a Negima fan you'll love this to bits. It's got fighting, plot exposition, fanservice, and of course a bit of kinda-romance. Recommended, but not till you've read the rest.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Higurashi: When They Cry Volume 13

Story by Ryukishi07; Art by En Kito. Released in Japan as "Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Onisarashi-hen" by Kadokawa Shoten, serialized in the magazine Comp Ace. Released in North America by Yen Press.

You would think, having read two of the four Eye-Opening Arc volumes last month, that Volume 13 would be the third in that sequence. But you would be wrong! Instead, Yen is publishing a complete-in-one-omnibus edition of a side story that, like Beyond Midnight, was first published as a manga rather than adapted from a game. In fact, this adaptation proved so popular with the creator that he later adapted it into a game on his own. It came out relatively early in the series, manga-wise - the first chapters were published about the same time as the first two Higurashi Arcs proper were being published by Square Enix. This one is done by another company, Kadokawa, which is far more media/franchise oriented (and given the other company is Squeenix, that's saying a lot), and ran in their 'otaku-oriented' magazine Comp Ace.

The story itself takes place in a city, making a refreshing change from the small-town life of the previous books. Natsumi and her family have moved from Hinamizawa to a more urban area, and she's settled in and made good friends. There's even a boy she secretly likes... and he just confessed to her! What's a cute girl to do? ... oh right, this is a Higurashi book. Don't expect shoujo hijinks here, folks. Instead, we see Natsumi worry about her grandmother, who feels they never should have moved away and worries that Oyashiro-sama will curse them.

As with the last manga-only arc, this is only tangentially related to the main action. Near the beginning, we hear news of the Great Hinamizawa disaster, and as time goes by, the survivors who had moved away before it happened start to behave very oddly. Things are not helped by the arrival of Ooishi and Akasaka, who merely want to ask Natsumi a few questions. And then their house gets covered in paper talismans, and the grandmother starts acting very strange...

There's some similarity between this arc and the first in the series, Abducted by Demons. Natsumi's slow descent into paranoia and mistrust is really disturbing, especially since she keeps insisting throughout that she's doing things for her family. Unfortunately, with her first "YOU'RE LYING!", the Higurashi catch phrase, we get a pretty good idea of what's really going on. But then, unlike the main Higurashi manga series, the mystery is not entirely the point of this one. You're here for psychological horror, and it delivers in spades. There's the creepy back-of-the-neck kind of horror early on, but by midway through we're well into 'how do you like your blood spatters?'.

Unfortunately, there is a big flaw in the series, which is Akira, the male lead. They wanted to make him different from Keiichi (and by extension Satoshi), the males from Higurashi proper. Unfortunately, this means making him passive and hard to read. I understand that this was entirely deliberate (in fact, they lampshade it at the end), but it really didn't work for me, and I found it hard to understand his simple obsession with loving Natsumi no matter what the cost.

The ending is tragic, but not a complete kill-em-all, and the author notes he has hopes the survivors will be able to get beyond it. Still, in the end this is a short, sharp gutpunch in the Higurashi series, showing how the events in Hinamizawa can affect even those who are far away. In fact, we'll come back to what happens to those who move away from Hinamizawa in the Atonement Arc this fall. It's not essential to read this if you just want the basic Higurashi story, but it's a good, solid read, provided you don't mind gore (and if you do, how did you get through the other 12 books?)