Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: DRAGON KNIGHTS

For a while, I've been hoping that the popularity of 'otaku self-insert gets dumped into (usually digital) fantasy realm' works would lead to a resurgence of fantasy anime and manga in general.

As you can imagine, I'm still waiting on that resurgence.

In the mean time, there's plenty of old-school fantasy manga for me to peruse.  I just have to wonder why I picked this one out of all of them.

DRAGON KNIGHTS (Doragon Kishidan), by Mineko Ohkami.  First published in 1990 and first published in North America in 2002.



PLOT:

Rune, Rath, and Thatz are three explorers on the run.  They are trying to return a treasure to their lord, but there are countless demons chasing them who want to take it back by force.  They aren't too worried about that, though.  If anything, they're more concerned with making money and getting a good mean afterwards.  There's an additional complication in the form of Cesia, a witch's apprentice who has her own plans for the hapless trio.  Will the knights ever make it back to Draqueen with their prize or is their quest doomed to fail?

STORY:

Dragon Knights most assuredly comes from a different time, a time when high fantasy manga were so common that many a manga tried to ride on the coattails of The Slayers and do comedic riffs on those tropes.  What boggles me about it is how it managed to last so long because it's a deeply uninspired, confusing, and awkward comedic riff on high fantasy tropes. 

The back cover blurb explains that our leads are meant to be an elf, a demon, and a human.  It's a good thing that they did because I could barely distinguish which character was which, much less any difference in species.  They spend most of their time bickering about money, food, and occasionally over who has to dress in drag for the plan of the day.  These guys aren't so much daring, dashing heroes so much as they just happen to stumble their way into success.  So yeah, these guys are very much in the Slayers mold, but Okhami clearly missed what made the main cast of Slayers work.  Yes, the main characters there would fight amongst themselves and act like gluttons from time to time.  The difference is that each of them were distinct personalities and that when the plot demanded it, they could successfully work together.  In comparison, the main trio here are completely dysfunctional and completely interchangeable and I simply couldn't care less about them.

That's a big enough problem on its own, but Dragon Knights' plot is also vague as hell.  It starts off badly as the story starts off in media res.  Thus we have no idea why Nardil's head is so damn important to these people or who this Lord Lykouleon is.  Then the plot (such as it is) will take a hard turn into a tangent where the trio might raid a dungeon or fight some demon for a chapter.  The only continuous plot that can be followed is Cesia's.  We learn who she is, what her motivation is, and she demonstrates a bit of cleverness in how she manipulates the boys into getting rid of opponents for her.  If anything, she's more compelling and heroic than our actual freaking heroes. 

Some might try to argue that these major flaws are part of the joke.  After all, Slayers and its many imitators were never meant to be about grand heroics but instead about the characters and the gags.  That might be true, but Dragon Knights possess no character, no humor, and all too frequently it gets distracted from its own plot.  It's just a confusing, lame mess.

ART:

Ohkami's art is downright BIZARRE.  She's clearly trying to go for an elfin look with her characters, but her designs are so harsh, angular, and bug-eyed that they come off as alien instead.  Their fashion are vaguely fantastical by way of the 1980s, something that only becomes more apparent when you look at all the weird, upswept hairdos and the garish neon colors on the cover art.  The tackiness doesn't stop there, though.  The pages are busy as hell as Okhami tends to stack and layer as many panels as possible upon them.  Because of that, she rarely has room for anything else in the panels save for our leads even in the middle of a fight.  That's a shame because the fights had some potential to be interesting as they use not only weapons, but also elemental dragons.  Yet she insists on obscuring them in speedlines and sound effects and obscuring everything by inking everything so thickly.  The thick inks combined with Tokyopop's poor scans of the materials are the finishing touch in making every page visually incomprehensible. 

RATING:

Dragon Knights is a poor Slayers knock-off with terrible and deeply dated art.  I can't understand why anyone stuck with this series for as long as it ran because it was a fantastical dud right from the start.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan with 26 volumes available.  All volumes were published and are currently out of print.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: YOU'RE UNDER ARREST

If you asked most manga fans about Kosuke Fujishima, most of them will admittedly look at you in confusion, offer a quick shrug or "I dunno" and wander away.

If they know the name at all, they probably do so because he's the creator of Oh My Goddess, which we've looked over before and remains a classic in its own right.  Those who keep up with modern releases might remember that Kodansha recently starting putting out his most recent completed series and releasing yet another one digitally.  What people forget is that he had yet another series released here, one that's mostly been lost to fandom memory with the shift to the new millennium.  How could that happen?  Let's investigate this case for ourselves.

YOU'RE UNDER ARREST (Taiho Shichauzo), by Kosuke Fujishima.  First published in 1986 and first published in North America in 1997.



PLOT:

Miyuki is a hotheaded gearhead with a love of motorcycles and the kind of woman who tends to act before thinking.  Natsumi is more calm and more traditionally feminine, but she's also good at coming up with unconventional tactics towards criminals. Together the two of them patrol the streets of Japan to protect it from any number of criminals.  Be it a celebrity who trades on his fame to get out of trouble, a panty thief with a very specific fetish, or a mystery motorcycle racer with family ties to the force, these two will bring them all to justice!

STORY:

You're Under Arrest is not without its charms.  Like Oh My Goddess before it, it's got an endearing cast of (mostly) women and an eye for motorcycles.  It's also mines a lot of good humor and interesting twists out of its unconventional crimes.  So why is it that I couldn't quite bring myself to completely love it?

Also like Oh My Goddess before it, this series is presented out of order.  This time, though, it's not to keep pace with an animated adaptation.  This volume is something of a greatest hits collection taken from the last couple of volumes, said to have been selected by Fujishima himself.  He might have been cherry-picking what he thought were some of the best stand-alone stories, but by doing so he and/or Dark Horse threw continuity out the window.  You can pick up most of the basics about our heroines through their dialogue and action, like any good manga should do.  Then it just starts randomly dropping other facts and characters into the reader's lap, such as Natsumi being smitten with a fellow officer or the fact that their coworker Aoi is either a transwoman or a transvestite man (the manga is never clear on this point, mostly because it's too busy using poor Aoi as a punchline).  Presenting this manga in its original, unaltered version would have prevented this from happening in the first place.

So how are the stories onto themselves?  Eh, they're alright.  Most of the criminals involved are decidedly goofy and pose no more of a physical threat than your average cartoon goon.  Sometimes there's a brief vehicular chase or a clever bit of pursuit, but Fujishima's focus is clearly on the cast and not the capers.  He's far more interested in fleshing out Miyuki, Natsumi, and all the other eccentrics around them as characters at his own casual pace.  This is fairly consistent with how he's treated the casts of his past and present works, and it's always been one of Fujishima's greatest strengths.  There's an effervescent charm to the whole thing that makes it fairly enjoyable to read.  That being said, the same effervescence makes You're Under Arrest feel kind of slight, even disposable, and it can't entirely overcome some of the dated humor and oddities of its presentation.
ART:

I wonder if Fujishima didn't pick these particular stories because his artwork had evened out in quality by that point in the original run.  After all, this series preceded Oh My Goddess by a couple of years and that had some wonky artwork at the very beginning.  Gone are the weird diamond heads and heavy brows of those early days, thank goodness.  Instead we have a lot of cute, sensibly proportioned girls, even if they do have a tendency to look alike and the way he shades noses tends to make them look like a dark little hole instead of...well, a nose.  The supporting cast (particularly the dudes) tend to look a lot more goony and wild in comparison.  He also lavishes a lot of love on the vehicles here, be it the various cycles or Miyuki's souped up little Subaru.  Sadly, he doesn't bring quite the same flare to drawing them in motion.  His panels and pages are nicely put together, but the action scenes aren't terribly dynamic on the page.  Fujishima is clearly more comfortable with the character and comedy-driven stuff.

PRESENTATION:

Like most old Dark Horse books, this is flipped.  Also like most old Dark Horse book, it's got a translation from Toren Smith and some of the other Studio Proteus staff.  That means the translation is smooth and funny right down to the smallest aside in a panel, even if that occasionally means a replacement pop-culture references which has become incredibly dated in the meantime.  I mean, when was the last time you heard anyone make a reference to Matthew Sweet?

RATING:

Going back to my original query, I think the reason that fandom has mostly left You're Under Arrest behind is that it lacks substance.  It's an amusing read with a cute cast, but it doesn't have the same sort of emotional attachment that made its predecessor so endearing.  Maybe if it too had gotten an unedited release, things could have been different.  As is, it's merely a trifle.

This series was published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. 2 volumes were released, and both are currently out of print.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: EAGLE

Today's review is just one of those happy coincidences.  What could be more perfect for an Old-School Month review in 2016 than an old manga that's all about an American presidential campaign?  Lord knows it couldn't be any weirder than the real deal.

EAGLE (Iguru), by Kenji Kawaguchi.  First published in 1997 and first published in North America in 2000.



PLOT:

Just as he loses his mother, Takashi Jo gets the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to cover the presidential campaign for Kenneth Yamaoka, a up-and-coming Japanese-American senator.  As Takashi immerses himself inside Yamaoka's campaign staff, he discovers that there's a lot more political wheeling and dealing behind-the-scenes than he could have imagined.  Takashi also discovers a secret that connects his and Yamaoka's family, one that leaves him wondering just what Kenneth truly want from him?

STORY:

It's a hard thing to make something as intellectual as a political campaign exciting, particularly when translating it to comic form.  Eagle manages this feat through a heady combination of personal drama and good research.

Takashi may be our audience stand-in, but it doesn't take long for him to get lost in the metaphorical shadow of Kenneth Yamaoka.  It's easy to understand how this could happen, as Kenneth is the sort of charismatic, larger-than-life figure that most politicians strive to be, a politician clearly cut from the Clinton mold.  He's a brilliant speaker, he's thoughtful, resourceful, and able to trade on both his Asian-American heritage and his wealthy, loving, and very white family.  More than once, Takashi has to mentally stop himself from getting swept up in the campaign so that he can remain objective. 

Of course, as any reasonably observant American reader would know, just about any seemingly perfect politician has a scandal or two hidden within them, and Yamaoka ends up being no exception to that.  Takashi's enthusiasm transforms into equal parts curiosity and skepticism after Yamaoka makes a major confession to him.  It's a fairly predictable one, considering how much the story emphasized at the beginning that Takashi has a American serviceman father that he's never known.  There's also family drama within the Yamaokas, as Kenneth's wife is fully aware of Takashi's connection to him and Kenneth's teenage son is dealing with a massive inferiority complex, a short temper, and a lack of scruples, something which threatens to make him a liability  Still, this confession and the fallout from it leads Takashi (and the reader) to suspect that Takashi's coverage is part of a larger plan on Kenneth's part, and it's this internal conflict that drives much of the emotional drama in the story.

I do have to give Kawaguchi credit for doing his research when it came to American politics.  He clearly did a lot of reading on the Clinton-era elections and he does a good job covering the ins and outs of the process.  We see a lot of the everyday work with the campaign managers, meetings with influential donors, campaign staff canvassing for votes, and even independent analysts doing their best to guess the meaning behind an opponent's actions and find ways to one-up them at their own game.  He even throws in some rather obvious riffs on real-life politicans, the most obvious being Yamaoka's opponent Albert Gore Albert Noah, who currently serves as vice-president in-story.  Now, that does mean that a significant portion of the story boils down to a lot of heated conversations and not a lot of physical action, but Kawaguchi puts enough strategy and passion in each one to make them compelling. 

These kinds of stories are not often told outside of nonfiction, so finding a manga like Eagle that translates this sort of talkative political action so faithfully and so thrillingly is a true marvel.  I can understand why such a story would not connect with the larger manga audience, but they are truly missing out by doing so.

ART:

Kawaguchi's art style is one that's common in this sort of seinen story, and one that's likely to remind most readers of Naoto Urasawa.  The characters look much like the target audience for this work - lots of blocky, square-jawed, guys that are middle-aged or close enough to it to count.  I guess Kawaguchi wanted to give these guys enough of a physical presence on the page to match the intellectual and/or political power they wield.  The women are a little more varied in age and shape, but fanservice in any form is nonexistent.  Kawaguchi's research can often be seen in his backgrounds, as they feature everything from actual New Hampshire campaign landmarks to billboards showing off a then-current ad campaign for the Marines.  I haven't seen this level of detail applied to an American setting since Gunsmith Cats, and I'm genuinely impressed with the effort.

That being said, he's still got his limits as an artist.  The characters may all be fairly grounded in style, but their expressions and movements are kind of stiff on the page.  The politicians in particular then to come off like walking Ken dolls, that's how stiff they are.  He also isn't terribly good at drawing crying.  That becomes a problem as Takeshi starts to weep in frustration as the story goes on, and he tends to look more like his eyes are melting while he stares into the middle distance.  These are minor quibbles, admittedly, but they do detract from what is otherwise a solidly drawn work with a great eye for the geographic details.

RATING:

Eagle manages to combine the drama of a political campaign with the drama of one man searching for the truth behind his own past, and the end result is effective and compelling.  Even if you're not the sort who consumes political thrillers like candy, this is an underrated manga that deserves a second look.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available.  All 11 were published as 22 comics and as 5 omnibuses, and all are currently out of print.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Review: MAISON IKKOKU

Yeah...it's been a while since I've been back here.  Admittedly, I do have what I hope is a reasonable excuse: I got married!

Yes, as of June 25th I am a married woman, and two weeks afterwards we got to spend nearly two weeks having loads of fun on our honeymoon in Japan!  It took a lot of convincing early on, but we ended up going on a guided tour through PacSet Tours.  I'm really glad we did so, in spite of the stifling humidity that blanketed most of our destinations for most of the trip.  We got to see quite a bit of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kanazawa, eat a lot of glorious food, spend a lot of money on video games, art books, and (in his case) a lot of CC Lemon, and enjoy not only our own company but that of our awesome tour group.

Understandably, I was not able to update the site during that time.  Also, it took me until quite recently to get my sleep schedule back to normal and thus able and willing to get back to work.  Jetlag is real, y'all.

Anyway!  As it is now August, that means it's time once more for Old-School Month, and I'm taking this opportunity to get around to a mangaka that I've been avoiding for far too long: Rumiko Takahashi.

MAISON IKKOKU (Mezon Ikkoku), by Rumiko Takahashi.  First published in 1980 and first published in North America in 1992.



PLOT:

Godai is trying his hardest to get into college, despite his numerous failed attempts.  Of course, it doesn't help that his fellow housemates are determined to mock and distract him at every turn or that he tends to get discourage very easily.  Soon enough, Godai finds a new source of inspiration: the lovely new landlord, Kyoko Otonashi.  She's a sweet and beautiful woman, and from first sight Godai is determined to win her heart.  Unfortunately, she's also a recent widow and Godai's going to have to do a lot more than just get into college to make a truly good impression with her.

STORY:

For a lot of modern manga readers, it's hard to remember a time when Rumiko Takahashi was relevant and popular.  Back in the 1990s, she was one of the biggest name in all of manga.  Many manga readers, both men and women, became fans in part because of her works.  Time has sadly not been kind to her and her fandom.  A lot of her fandom got burnt out thanks to Inuyasha, and the public's taste in shonen romantic comedies shifted to raunchier, more pandering works than her own.  That's honestly kind of a shame because looking back now, Maison Ikkoku has loads of charm and it's easy to see why even today it's considered one of her best works.

It can't be understanded how much it helps that Godai might be the most likeable of her male protagonists.  Sure, he's a little immature and aimless, but he's not a total lech like Ataru or a thoughtless jerk like Ranma or Inuyasha.  You don't have to look too deeply to see that Godai is a decent person who does try to improve himself as a person.  The same can be said for Kyoko.  She's no comical tsundere, but instead a fairly steady person with a lot of lingering sadness over the loss of her husband.  She has thoughts and needs outside of Godai and more often than not the story has just as much fun at her expense as it does with Godai.  By treating them so fairly, Takahashi humanizes them both and it goes a long way towards helping the reader get invested in them as individuals and as a potential couple.

Maison Ikokku is normally held up as a great romance manga, but people forget that it's also quite funny.  There are plenty of jokes and comic misunderstandings, but they are built a lot more on farcical wordplay and Daffy Duck-style misdirection than slapstick and bickering.  That means that the jokes here not only come off as a little more mature than a lot of Takahashi's other works, but have also aged extraordinarily well.  The only downside is that it can come off as a bit mean-spirited at times, but that may just be the influence of Godai's housemates on the story as a whole.  After all, they're all shown to be sort of losers in their own right taking out their frustrations on a convienent target.  There's a housewife, a drunken hostess, and....well, no one ever quite explains what Mr. Yotsuya does other than peep, mooch and drink. 

That being said, the plot can get a little repetitious at times.  Most of the early chapters follow a pretty standard formula: Godai tries to study/make a move on Kyoko, misunderstandings occur, hilarity ensues.  Things do start to make more progress as the volume goes on, though.  Near the end we start to learn more about Kyoko's short-lived marriage when her in-laws show up for a visit.  We also see her feelings for Godai start to evolve from distant pleasantness to a more familiar fondness, which causes her stress because she feels that conflicts with her all-too-fresh grief for her late husband, and that creates some surprisingly serious emotional drama.  Progress between the two is made, but it comes in fits and starts.  Nonetheless, the fact that there is progress at all puts this a notch above many of its genremates.  There's just enough progression and character building to keep things interesting but it's not sacrificing the development of our leads in the name of plot progress alone.  Maison Ikkoku strikes a low-key but fine-tuned balance between humor, romance, and characters that's still charming over 25 years later.

ART:

Maison Ikkoku is early enough in Takahashi's career that the artwork hadn't taken on the bland and rounded polish of her later works.  Sure, the cast is drawn in the squat-headed, poofy-haired, short-torsoed style that she has always used, but the edges are little rougher and the expressions are more comic, even zany at times.  Still, she finds plenty of room to linger on Kyoko's pretty face in a way that suggests the manga equivalent of soft focus.  The panels tend to be small, which keeps the focus mostly on the characters instead of the broken-down boarding house around them.  That's a little bit of a shame, as the titular maison does have its charms...at least, unless the house's perpetual fixer-upper status is the point of a particular chapter.  Nonetheless, like the story itself the artwork is charming and surprisingly timeless.

RATING:

Maison Ikkoku remains one of the standouts of Rumiko Takahashi's canon thanks to a fairly well-rounded cast and a tendency towards romantic farce than silly slapstick.  It's a shonen romance that's aged far better than similar works half its age, and it's one that's still well worth seeking out.

This series was licensed by Viz.  The series is complete in Japan with 15 volumes available.  All 15 have been published and are currently out of print.

Seriously Viz, were is the reprint for this series?  I'm happy the rerelease of Ranma 1/2 did well, but omnibuses for this series would be a Day 1 preorder for me and many others like me.  Make this happen.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: SENSUAL PHRASE

Oh Mayu Shinjo.  We meet again.  It's not the first time she's written a manga about musicians, so she was a natural choice for this month.  I just wish she didn't have so much of a taste for trashy romance.

SENSUAL PHRASE (Kaikan Furezu), by Mayu Shinjo.  First published in 1997 and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:

Aine is a romantic high school girl with dreams of becoming a great songwriter.  On her way to an audition, she nearly gets hit by a car.  Inside that car is Sakuya, the handsome lead singer of the popular band Lucifer.  The accident causes Aine to lose her lyric sheet, and at the concert she discovers that Sakuya found them and turned them into a song.  He immediately makes her the band's official songwriter, and he's equally determined to give her plenty of material to write about by attempting to seduce her at every turn.  This attention soon makes Aine the target of many jealous parties.  Will Lucifer's fandom and Aine's school friends tear their romance apart before it even begins?

STORY:

Sensual Phrase is the manga equivalent of a bad romance novel, even more so than the manga adaptations of actual Harlequin novels floating around the internet.  It constantly uses cheap shoujo clichés to further its thin plot along.  Maybe this is fun when you're a teenager, but as a grown woman I found it tedious.

Aine and Sakuya's relationship is shallow, dull, and deeply unbalanced.  Aine is only distinguished by her earnestness and a rather muddled understanding of her own desires.  Sakuya, on the other hand, is smugness personified from beginning to end.  The only connections the two seem to share is a common interest in music and a mutual lust for one another.  Even then, the latter is mostly expressed by having Sakuya molesting Aine whenever he can (whether she wants him to or not) and all but pissing on her to make Aine as 'his'.  Shinjo clearly recognized that this could make him look like the creep that he truly is, so she was determined to give him plenty of moments of heroism.  What that means in practice, though, is that she keeps throwing strange men and bitchy girls at Aine so that Sakuya can play at being a white knight while Aine whimpers on the sidelines.

When she's not writing yet another bit of cheap drama, she fills the space by having Aine and damn near every other woman in the story go into raptures about how Sakuya is so beautiful, talented, and all-around amazing.  Apparently he's so dazzling, so literally radiant that he overshadows all the other band members, which is why I couldn't tell you a damn thing about them.  From my experience, the more that a mangaka has to explain to the reader how awesome a character is instead of demonstrating it, the less awesome the character truly is.  Thus, her claims come off as incredibly weak.  They are further undercut by the fact that the lyrics on the page don't exactly convey any sense of excellence.  Mind you, this is due in part to the difficulties of translating lyrics from one language to another.  Like poetry, it's not enough to translate it literally.  It takes a flare for rhyme, rhythm and language to make it sound like something someone could sing.  This undercuts the notion that Aine is supposed to be so talented at writing love songs despite her youth and romantic inexperience. 

Sensual Phrase wants so badly to be a risqué showbiz romance, but I have a hard time believing that even the teen girl audience this was meant for would buy into this.  There's no passion, no genuine tension, and no personality to be found here, and without any of those it simply blends into the crowd of shoujo manga.

ART:

Shinjo's artwork is as clichéd as her storywriting.  The characters are exceedingly average-looking.  The girls are round and big-eyed, and the boys are stereotypical bishonen.  One quality that does distinguish Shinjo from the crowd is her commitment to fanservice.  Whenever Aine's clothes are ripped off (yes, this happens more than once), her undergarments and nipples are fully detailed.  Sadly, she's not even-handed with this sort of detail, as Sakuya's nipples are never to be seen despite being shirtless fairly often.  She doesn't bother with shading, so everything looks incredibly flat. 

PRESENTATION:

Shoujo Beat titles rarely include any sort of extras, but why on earth did Viz feel the need to pad this out with a short essay from some freelance journalist?

RATING:

Sensual Phrase is little more than a music-themed, modern-day bodice-ripper.  The story is nothing but sexist shoujo clichés and the art is plain and generic.  Sensual Phrase is about as sensual as a tuna fish sandwich.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 18 volumes available.  All the volumes were published and are currently out of print.