Monday, August 17, 2015

Review: KARE KANO

Let's keep up with this romantic vein with an old-school shoujo classic, one of many that Tokyopop put out in their time.

KARE KANO (Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo, or His and Hers Circumstances), by Masami Tsuda.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:

Yukino Miyazawa is the perfect student.  She is pretty, popular, athletic and generally considered one of the best students in the class.  This perfection is merely an act, though, one that's achieved through hard training, constant study, and obsessing over every element of her looks.  Why does Yukari go through all of this?  For the attention!  She is quite literally in it for the ego boost she gets from each and every compliment.  There is only one threat to Yukino's perfect image, and its name is Arima Soichiro.  He's her equal in looks, brains, and talent, and Yukino initially regards him as the competition.  When he discovers her secret, though, he begins to open up to her.  Soon enough Yukino discovers that no only does Arima have a lot of issues of his own, but that her own feelings for him may be changing.

STORY:

There are countless shoujo stories about schoolkids falling in love, and it's hard for anyone to do anything new or original with that idea.  So how has Kare Kano managed to persist in the hearts and minds of so many despite not doing anything particularly new or original?  I think it comes down to the characters.

Yukino and Arima are Kare Kano's greatest strengths.  They're not just another pair of one note clichés, they're not hopelessly naïve, and are completely honest about their flaws.  Yukino outright states more than once that she knows she's a total egomaniac.  She knows that her true self isn't the polished poised student, but the track suit-wearing, bespectacled, and mildly lazy girl she lets herself be at home, yet she doesn't care.  So long as she gets praise, she'll bust her ass to keep up her own personal charade.  Arima is in his own way putting up a façade, although his is borne more out of obligation than selfish desire.  Thus, our protagonists are already united from the start by their shared need for a public persona to avoid disappointing others.  This is a dilemma that many a teenager could relate to, even if most of them wouldn't go to quite such extremes, and it helps to give our leads a bit of complexity that is not common in shoujo.

The events of the story so far are not all that remarkable, although the bits and pieces we learn about Arima suggest that there will be a lot more family drama to come.  Still, there's some appeal in what just. how these two silly kids figuring out their mutual attraction.  That's also part of the reason that I like the side story after the main one.  It's about an extremely shy girl who gets close to the tall and silent new guy in her class.  Her glasses get broken in an accident and he offers to be her sight in the mean time.  The girl's neuroses were a bit simple and bit much for my taste, but the male lead was terribly endearing as he reveals himself to be a rather adorable dork.

Kare Kano isn't the kind of story that pushes boundaries, but instead excels just through solid character writing.  It gives its leads some interesting foibles and the interaction between the two of them is fascinating.  Sometimes, even such a simple effort is enough to make a story a classic.

ART:

The art and characters alike are drawn very finely, verging on sparseness.  It's still very much in a traditional shoujo style, but it avoids a lot of the excesses of the genre.  That doesn't mean that Tsuda doesn't break out the screen tones and flower petals during the more dramatic moments, but she uses such things sparingly since her characters (especially Yukino) are so expressive.  She's also rather sparing with the backgrounds, using patterns and subdued screen tones instead to fill in for them.  Where Tsuda really shines is with the way she uses page and panel composition.  In particular, she's fond of using tall vertical panels during big dramatic moments, and they work well to make these moments stand out visually.  It's a nice way for Tsuda to make her otherwise sparse art stand out and give it a few moments of quiet beauty.

RATING:

Kare Kano is a classic schoolroom shoujo that owes a lot to its well written cast of characters.  If the artwork had been stronger or more distinctive, this would have been an easy green light, but as it is it's still something that every shoujo fan should check out.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan, with 21 volumes available.  All 21 were published and all are currently out of print. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: OH MY GODDESS!

It's rather appropriate to review this series now, considering that it's finally ending after running for nearly THREE DECADES and getting an omnibus rerelease.  After reading this volume, though, it's easy to see how this series could stick around for so long.

OH MY GODDESS! (Aa! Megami-sama), by Kosuke Fujishima.  First published in 1988, and first published in North America in 1994.



PLOT:

Keiichi Morisato is a poor college student who orders out for food one night only to end up reaching the goddess Belldandy instead.  She offers to grant him one wish, and Keiichi offhandedly wishes that a goddess like her would stay with him forever.  His wish comes true as he and Belldandy are now inseperatable, and while this causes a lot of trouble Keiichi soon finds himself smitten with sweet, gentle Belldandy.  Now he has to find a way to declare his love for her, keep Belldandy's true identity a secret from others, and help his friends with their own problems.

STORY:

Oh My Goddess! is a very sweet, very casual, and slightly unfocused manga (although how unfocused depends on the edition you read).  It's not perfect, but it's one of those rare magical girlfriend series that can appeal to both sexes and it's easy so why it's still so appealing even after all these years.

Fujisawa wastes no time getting the story going.  Within the first twenty pages, Keiichi and Belldandy are bound together and the premise is set.  After that, though, he hits the brakes hard and is more than content to take his sweet time with the story.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it means that Fujisawa can take his time and come up with all sorts of equally sweet and funny scenarios to throw his cast of characters into.  Best of all, it's driven more by conflict and farce than the sort of raunchy fanservice that defines a lot of later magical girlfriend manga, which means that Oh My Goddess! avoids a lot of the lame gags and tropes that tend to come with that territory.  The only problem is that all that meandering doesn't do much for the characters.  They might get plenty of screen time, but they don't change all that much from beginning to end.  Belldandy is always sweetness and light personified, Keiichi remains as hapless in life and love as ever, and neither of them are willing to make the first official move towards becoming a proper couple.  Still, compared to a lot of other characters in his position, Keiichi is fairly dignified.  He may be short and unlucky in love, but he has an education and some skill with machines, and gives him an edge that the Tenchis and Keitaros of the manga world will never possess.

Now, I've not discussed the plot in any detail in part because what stories you get depend on what edition of the first volume you read.  The first edition was heavily edited to help it more closely match the then-current OVA and to help the story move along more quickly.  These missing scenes were put back in all of the later editions, and having read both versions I can say with some authority that the later editions flow so much better than the edited one.  Yeah, that means it takes a lot longer to get to Urd and Skuld, but it gives our leading couple plenty of time to get relatively comfortable before things start getting really wacky.  It also allows a lot of the supporting cast to get their moment to shine, be it Keiichi's school friends, his sister, some of his other classmates, and even some of his teachers. It'll never be mistaken for an eventful manga, but Oh My Goddess! remains an eminently comfortable and endearing manga as well as one of the finest examples of its respective genre.

ART:

Fujisawa's character designs are decidedly odd even for its own time.  For reasons I cannot explain, both Keiichi and Belldandy have these weird, heavy-browed, diamond-shaped heads.  It does tend to distinguish them visually from the rest of the cast (who tend to be drawn in a blocky, cartoon-like manner), but it goes tend to make their faces shift about strangely when viewed from an angle.  Expressions tend to be big and cartoony all around, which means that Keiichi in particular gets to make some spectacular Tex Avery-style bug-eyes.  The recent omnibus rerelease features color pages at the beginning of some of the chapters, and they look great so long as you can get used to Belldandy's old, silvery hair.  Otherwise the presentation is quite sedate, with very little flair to the panels or the pages.  It's not a flashy series, but that lack of flash just adds to the coziness of the work instead of against it.

RATING:

Oh My Goddess! is rambling and occasionally a little odd, but its gentle pacing, general innocence, and entertaining cast make this one of the few magical girlfriend manga that's worth seeking out. 
It was true way back when, and it's still true now.

This series is published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in Japan with 48 volumes available.  All 48 volumes have been published in both single volumes and 3-in-1 omnibuses, and all are currently in print.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: SHOUT OUT LOUD!

It's August, which means it's time once more for another month of old-school manga.  Also, this weekend was 8/01, a date near and dear to yaoi fans everywhere.  So I figured what better way to combine the two than with some old-school shonen-ai? 

SHOUT OUT LOUD! (Sakende Yaruze!), by Satosumi Takaguchi.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2006.



PLOT:

Shino hadn't seen his son in years, not since his teenaged marriage ended in divorce.  After his ex-wife's death, Shino is reunited with his now teenaged son Nakaya.  While Nakaya is far from impressed with his father, Shino is determined to be a good father and a good provider for him.  Shino is so determined to do so that he decides to supplement his struggling voice acting career with some boys' love audio dramas.  Shino's determined to keep his side jobs a secret from Nakaya, but how long will that last when his coworkers are determined to make their professional relationships into very intimate ones?

STORY:

I don't know if I've ever come across a BL manga that's in as much conflict with itself as Shout Out Loud! is.  On one hand, you have this sensitive and fairly nuanced family drama going on between an estranged father and son.  On the other, you have a fairly standard (if somewhat meta) BL set-up between a voice actor and his fellow cast and crew members.  While both are handled with some degree of competence, the two can never quite mesh together, and it leads to some jarring tone shifts throughout the whole volume.

It's clear from early on that Takaguchi has a far stronger grasp of the father-son relationship here than she does on the smutty ones.  Shino and Nakaya's relationship is strained in a very understandable and believable way.  Nakaya chafes at being stuck with a man he barely knows.  Early on he resents Shino for supposedly abandoning his mother, and even after they start getting along he's boggled by the fact that his father is so emotional and innocent.  In all fairness, we see that Nakaya's got his own problems as he deals with the prospect of turning his talent for hockey into a career and a pregnancy scare that echoes his own father's situation at his age.  Takaguchi never takes things too far into melodrama and she's willing to take the time to let their relationship defrost naturally instead of solving everything with just a simple man-to-man talk.  Shino and Nakaya are the true heart of this story and everything about their half of the story works beautifully.

Then there's the BL half of things, and this is where Takaguchi starts to unintentionally slip up.  It quickly becomes apparent that Shino's youthful looks, boyish voice, and overall naïvete makes him the ideal uke.  This means that his castmates think it's perfectly acceptable to constantly hover over Shino or take every opportunity to corner him or take advantage of him physically.  Hell, one of them even goes so far as to show up at Shino and Nakaya's home and hits on Nakaya even as he confesses to hitting on Shino.  It seems like all of Shino's coworkers aren't so concerned with things like 'consent' or 'sexual harassment,' and it left me feeling fearful for Shino instead of titillated at the prospect of BL action.  I know that this sort of thing is generally more accepted in BL and that I should be thankful that Shino's coworkers don't resort to rape unlike so many other semes, but the whole dynamic about it is just too creepy to intrigue.  It's also nowhere near as well-written as the family moments, so it also comes off as frivolous and hollow in comparison.  It's almost like these two halves are taking place in different universes, and maybe I would have enjoyed this more if I could just pretend that the voice acting portion is completely separate from the rest.

In spite of my misgivings about the story, Shout Out Loud! still stands out as an above-average example of shonen-ai.  It's got a lot of heart and its leading men are really well-written.  It's just that everything good about it is everything that doesn't have to do with the BL content, and a better balance between the two halves would have made Shout Out Loud! an instant classic.

ART:

Shout Out Loud! has art that has aged far better than most of its contemporaries.  Much of that is due to Takaguchi's rather restrained art style.  While everyone tends to be rather pretty, the characters here are nowhere near as stylized and disproportionate as one tends to see in shonen-ai, and it helps to ground the story in something closer to our reality.  If anything, her art is almost underdrawn as she tends to favor a lot of light, delicate linework and sparsely sketched backgrounds.  It's also quite chaste, never getting more explicit than a kiss.  That's to be expected, though, when you learn that this was published in a shoujo magazine instead of a BL anthology.  Still, it works with the general simplicity of the art and it's always easy on the easy and easy to follow, and that's why it's weathered these last two decades so well.

 RATING:

While Shout Out Loud! is hurt by the fact that the BL content is the weakest portion of the book, it's still strongly written and surprisingly nuanced.  It's a work that's more approachable to newcomers than a lot of shonen-ai, and it's easily one of the best works put out under the Blu imprint.

This series was published by Tokyopop under their Blu imprint.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: FULL METAL PANIC! OVERLOAD

Comedy spin-offs of popular franchises are a dime-a-dozen in Japan but we very rarely get them Stateside.  If this book is any indication, though, there's more than a few good reasons why we don't see them published very often.

FULL METAL PANIC! OVERLOAD (Ikkinari! Furumetaru Panikku!), based on the light novel series by Shouji Garou with story and art by Tomohiro Nagai and character designs by Shikidouji. First published in 2001 and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

Kaname Chidori and Sosuke Sagara are back, and this time there are no serious plot elements to hamper them!  Yep, here you'll get nothing but wacky hijinks inside and outside of the classroom as Sosuke's military instincts turn even the most ordinary situation into an explosive one, leaving Kaname to try and keep the peace.

STORY:

So, you do remember all the silly comedy bits from the original Full Metal Panic!?  Well, imagine if someone stretched those moments to fill out an entire manga volume and then halved the quality.  If you can picture that in your mind, then you have some notion of what reading Full Metal Panic! Overload is like.  There's really no point in describing the cast because it's composed almost entirely of Kaname and Sosuke, and if you have any familiarity with the franchise then you know precisely what you're going to get.  Kaname acts like a classic tsundere, Sosuke is deadpan and oblivious, repeat ad naseaum.  Hell, you don't even really need to be all that familiar with the Full Metal Panic! canon as the characters and set-up are briefly summed up in the beginning.  The chapters themselves are fairly formulaic, and everything seems to end with Sosuke breaking out a gun, a grenade, or even a landmine all in the name of protecting Kaname.  He's so dedicated to his cause that not even a brief bout of amnesia can't stop him from his duties. 

The only thing that breaks up the monotony are the occasional bits of fourth-wall humor.  The characters might mess with the captions labeling them or comment on how all this ridiculousness is 'like being in a manga or a light novel!'  Sadly, these moments are the only times that the jokes come anywhere near inspired.  The reason that the comedy bits in the original series work so well is that they come before or in between extended bouts of serious business.  The lightheartedness lets the reader come down a little from the main storyline before diving back into the next big plot turn, and most adaptations know how to get the most from the simple set-up.  This manga, on the other hand, does not.  It just cranks the comedy to 11 and never stops going, and the end result feels both watered-down and tedious.

ART:

It took me at least two tries to actually get through this manga because of the character designs.  I don't know who this Shikidouji guy is, but I'm pretty sure no one really needed his particular take on this cast.  They're not quite normal and they're not quite super-deformed, but they're bizarre and over the top and not appealing in the least.  Plus now there's a lot of awkward panty shots to go with it all!  I don't know why this series demanded a separate character designer, but neither he nor Nagai add all that much visually.  It's all just a bunch of heavily stylized nonsense presented as plainly as possible.

RATING:

Not even Full Metal Panic! fans would get that much out of this version.  All it does is rehash old jokes in an ugly, goony artstyle.  In a world where we have Full Metal Panic! Fummofu, this manga is absolutely unnecessary.

This series was licensed by ADV.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 were published and all are currently out of print.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: KUJIBIKI UNBALANCE

I've seen all sorts of manga spinoffs in my day, but today's review has to be beyond a doubt one of the weirdest of them all.  It's not a sequel, prequel, or parody of any given series, but the manga adaptation of the anime show that the characters watch within their respective series.  It's one of the most meta manga I've come across, but this series proves that sometimes a joke really does need context to make any sort of sense.

KUJIBIKI UNBALANCE (Kujibiki Anbaransu), written by Kio Shimoku & art by Koume Keito.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2008.



PLOT:

Rikkyoin High School where everything from the student council position to the most mundane things are decided by lotteries.  Amongst the incoming class of freshmen is Chihiro a chronically unlucky boy, and his happy-go-lucky friend Tohiko.  The two end up getting chosen to fill two positions on the student council along with mad scientist Renko, her perpetual guinea pig Kaoruko, and the shy but powerful Koyuki.  Now they have to shadow the current council before they can take over, but what happens when the student council president turns out to be Chihiro and Tohiko's childhood friend?

STORY:

I don't know why this manga exists. It's not that I don't know how this manga came to be -that's easy to explain.  First there was the Genshiken manga, in which Shimoku made up a show for the kids in Genshiken kids to obsess over without worrying over copyright (and having a little fun with anime tropes to boot).  Then that manga became a TV show, and they decided to turn that fake show into a funny little OVA.  Then someone got the bright idea to turn that OVA into a solo manga, and now not only have things come full circle but it has been entirely removed from its original context.  Without that context, though, Kujibiki Unbalance loses everything that made it satirical in the first place.  Now it's nothing but a pile of dumb anime tropes cranked to 11 that's played completely straight.

The biggest problem with the audience is never explicitly told that this is meant to be a satire of anime tropes.  We're meant to all of these one-note characters and their silly quirks and the whole ridiculous lottery idea as something that's totally unironic, if not in a completely serious manner.  Every joke is big, broad and dumb, every plot twist comes out of nowhere, and everything is delivered in the loudest, most obnoxious manner possible.  It's not even all that concerned with its own plot, as the whole lottery angle gets dropped midway through and it launches into all the usual high school set-ups.  It even manages to work in the equivalent of a beach episode, a hot springs episode, and a school festival episode.  The rest of the time it's trying to hype up the cheap emotional drama between Chihiro, Tohiko, and Renko the student council president in the hopes of turning it into an equally lame love triangle (or possibly more of a love pyramid, as Chihiro also has an overly possessive and hands-on sister so that the Imouto tickbox can be checked off as well).   All of this is over-the-top enough to potentially work as a joke, but there would have to be a lot more commentary to make it work.

This has to be one of the few manga out there that is completely and utterly unnecessary.  It's not funny, it's not entertaining, and were it not for a brief comic at the end where a couple of the Genshiken kids comment on the manga, it's completely disconnected from its far better source material.  It's just...there, being weird and dull for no reason at all other than as one big in-joke.

ART:

Again, the biggest problem here is that it's hard to tell whether Keito is playing things up as a joke or is being completely serious.  The artstyle certainly fits what is meant to be a silly moe romp, as the characters are all round and doll-like .  The problem is that they have weirdly flat faces, so when they turn into profile their eyes seem to almost float off their faces.  He also plays up the fanservice, as he takes every opportunity possible to show off panties or Tohiko's giant boobs in plenty of low, voyeuristic angles.  I will say that Keiko does have a good grasp of perspective and he knows how to fill up a panel with activity and 'jokes' without making it too chaotic.  It's certainly quite different from Shimoko's own artstyle, but it's not enough to draw a bunch of moe blobs, ogle their naughty bits, and call it a day.

RATING:

Kujibiki Unbalance should not exist as a manga.  It should have just stayed as a silly little in-joke in a far better manga/show, because without it the whole things falls flat.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  Both volumes were published and are currently out of print.