Saturday, May 23, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: NO. 6

Whatever happened to shonen-ai?  Once upon a time we used to get manga like FAKE and Gravitation, series that hinted at gay romance, but were focused first and foremost on telling a story.  With the flood of yaoi titles we got in the 2000s, it seemed like the concept had been all but lost...at least, until fairly recently.

NO. 6, based on the light novel series by Atsuko Asano & drawn by Hinoki Kino.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2013. 



PLOT:

No. 6 is a bustling, futuristic city where crime, illness, and unhappiness are all but unknown.  Amongst its residents is 12 year old Shion, who is on the fast track to a glorious academic career until the fateful night he left his bedroom windows open during a storm.  That allowed Rat, a strange and heavily injured boy, to enter, and Shion sees to his wounds before Rat leaves.  Rat is a fugitive, though, and this single act of compassion ruins Shion's life.  Four years later, his family has been forced into the slums while Shion now must work as a maintenance to help his mother get by.  He stumbles upon a bizarre and deadly secret at his job.  Now Shion is the fugitive, and Rat has returned to show him the truth about No. 6.

STORY:

If you've been keeping up with YA fiction these days, then the premise of No. 6 is probably going to feel kind of familiar to you.  You've got a dystopian community where the haves and have-nots are separated, where all sorts of future tech is present and possible, and where a single Chosen One rises up against their overlords and leads the way to a better future, usually with a love interest at their side.  Just because the concept may not be all that original doesn't mean that it isn't any good.  No. 6 manages to make those well-worn ideas feel relatively fresh while delivering a bit of subtle fujoshi fanservice.

In all fairness, Shion and Rat make a good couple.  While their personalities are a bit lightly sketched out so far, their skills and knowledge complement one another.  Even their story arcs complement one another, as Shion's selfless act comes full circle when Rat comes back to help him years later.  Yeah, it's more than a little convenient, but it's satisfying nonetheless.  There are certainly things about them that I wish they would change.  For example, Shion is so ridiculous happy-go-lucky that not even being forced out of his home and school and everything he knows isn't enough to phase him, and he's also shockingly oblivious to the fact that his childhood friend Sufa is desperately trying to hit on him.  Then there's Rat, who must be forced at every turn to vaguely explain even the slightest thing, and it feels less like a character quirk and more like a plot gimmick that allows the author to stretch things out as long as possible.  At least he's well-read for being such a stubborn kid.  He even manages to slip in a quote from MacBeth that's not overused and is relevant to his and Shion's situation.

I was a little surprised to learn that this was based on a light novel series.  It's true that knowing this makes the parallels to current YA trends a little more obvious, but No. 6 has been adapted well from the page.  You don't see the sort of obvious infodumps that so many bad light novel-to-manga feature.  No one stops the story dead in its tracks to explain the rules of the world or their epic backstory, a fact for which I am very thankful.  As for this future world, it honestly doesn't seem all that bad.  Yeah, it's built upon a foundation of lies, totalitarianism, and exploitation of the masses, but not even the 'bad' side of town seems all that bad for what is meant to be a run-down slum.  After all, Shion and his mom adapted incredibly fast to their lot and she even managed to set up a nice bakery.  They don't even do that much to keep the two worlds seperate, as Shion and Sufa are able to maintain their friendship even after he's been banished to the slums.  It's only near the end of the volume that the true horror of Shion's world comes into focus as Shion discovers that their oppression comes with a side of biomedical experimentation.  It's a neat twist, but it's not enough to completely overcome the mildness of this dystopia.

I don't want to come down too harshly on this series.  The story might be kind of derivative, but it's all put together in a way that flows smoothly and gives it a good foundation upon which to build some deeper characterization and world building.  It's not perfect, but the first volume of No. 6 is off to a promising start. 

ART:

Kino's art is much like the story in the sense that it's pleasant and well-crafted, but isn't necessarily all that remarkable or distinct.  His character designs are pleasant enough to look at, and I will say that he does a good job at aging up Shion and Rat from 12 to 16.  A lot of manga artists struggle to convey age; at most, they tend to add a few crows' feet and call it a day.  Here, the differences are just enough to visually convey the passage of time, but the changes aren't so radical that the two become two completely different-looking people.  The backgrounds are all nicely rendered and there's a clear difference between the sleek, vaguely futuristic places of No. 6 and the darker, shabbier, and more organic forms of the slums.  It's just not shown off very much until the very end, when the scenery opens up into a grand vista. If there's one thing that Kino does excel at, it's fujoshi fanservice.  There's never any sort of explicit action, but Kino does love to take every and all opportunity to have Rat pin Shion against the nearest flat surface as he yells or threatens Shion in a suggestive manner, a move that's only enhanced by the noticeable size difference between the two boys.  It's an understated touch in what is otherwise a nicely drawn but otherwise unremarkable book.

RATING:

No. 6 won't revolutionize the world, but its story of two boys fighting back against a cruel world makes for a neat and mildly slashy bit of science fiction.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is complete in Japan in 9 volumes.  All 9 have been published and all are currently in print.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: READ OR DIE (R.O.D.)

You know, I have waited far too long to cover this manga, especially when you consider that I use its lead character as my icon both here and at Infinite Rainy Day.  Let's dive into the rousing (if slightly continuity addled) world of Read or Die!

READ OR DIE - R.O.D. (Rido oa Dai), written by Hideyuki Kurata & drawn by Shutaro Yamada.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2006.



PLOT:

Yomiko Readman is a young woman with an immense love of books and a special skill.  She can manipulate paper at will, and the only limit to her power is the amount of paper available and her own imagination.  She also serves as a secret agent to an equally secret library, one that is tasked with protecting the world's rarest and most valuable books.  Her latest assignment gives Yomiko the chance to meet her favorite author, the teenaged prodigy Nenene Sumigawa.  When an insane fan kidnaps Nenene with the intention of forced marriage, it's up to Yomiko to save the day.

STORY:

It can be hard enough to review a manga based on a series without turning it into a list of "The show did X, but the manga does Y!"  Now imagine how hard it is to review this one when you take into account the continuity of the R.O.D. franchise.  It started as a light novel series, which in turn became a 3-episode OVA.  There was a spinoff manga with a completely different story which became a full-length TV series that was in the same continuity as the OVA.  Then there's this manga, which continuity-wise sits somewhere between the OVA and TV show but tells a completely different story in turn.  This sounds horribly convoluted, but the good news is that you don't really need to know a lick of it to enjoy this manga on its own.  Even a newbie to the world of R.O.D. can appreciate it as the silly, over-the-top bit of action it was always meant to be.

I think the ultimate appeal of Read or Die, regardless of what format it comes in, is Yomiko herself.  She's at once cheerful, naïve, resourceful, and proactive.  She's the kind of woman who can all but squee over her favorite books but when the stakes are high, she can still protect herself and save the day by turning something so thin, fragile, and common into her weapon.  She's not a love interest, she's not a sidekick, she is her own woman.  Best of all, it's all done in a humorous and surprisingly light manner, which helps to minimize the disconnect between the scenes between Yomiko and Nenene and all the secret agent stuff.  Her friendship with Nenene is rather adorable in its execution, as the rather prickly Nenene warms up to Yomiko.  Mind you, I can hardly blame her for doing so when Yomiko herself is so unguarded and such a hopeless fangirl.  Of course, the creators are not above using their friendship as an excuse for some yuri-tinged fanservice, although it never gets too intrusive or exploitative.

The action pieces are just as equally entertaining.  Kurata seems to be a guy whose approach to action is go big or go home, and he certainly delivers on that front.  From the beginning we get things like fights on top of a moving truck, and it escalates until Yomiko has to face off against a fire user who acts like your standard sexy evil seductress and looks like a fire-themed version of Cutey Honey.  Meanwhile, Nenene is having to grapple with a megalomaniacal fan who wants to control his favorite author so that together they can create what he deems the ultimate literary work.  It's clearly a riff on Misery, but again he's taken it to almost cartoonish extremes, which keeps it from getting too dark and keep it in line tonally with the rest of the volume.  Does all of this story make sense?  Oh goodness no.  Does it matter in the end?  Not really.  Read or Die only wants to be big, dumb shonen fun, and it succeeds in a big way at just that.

ART:

Yamada's artwork is a perfect match to the story, as it is just as fun and lively as the story itself.  Every character, hero and villain alike, are hammy as hell and seem to bounce and bound through every panel and page.  The character designs are actually pretty nice, as they're round and lush while still wild and expressive enough to fit with the story.  He's not above throwing in some cheesecake, but thankfully the ladies all possess proportions that can be found in this universe.  What, you though there were plot reasons for Yomiko to play dress-up at Nenene's place?  The only place where he plays things conservatively is with the panels.  He tends to keep them small, and to keep things from getting too cluttered he tends to leave the backgrounds out.  This allows everything to flow smoothly from panel to panel, and the end result is just as much of a delight to look at as it is to read.

PRESENTATION:

There's actually some nice commentary from Kurata talking about the series as well as some comments on Yomiko's various redesigns from light novel to screen to manga.  There are also some sketches of her done by some of the animators from the OVA as well.

RATING:

Read or Die is a silly little shonen romp with a great heroine, a lot of crazy action, and plenty of spirit and liveliness to go around, and it's an utter delight to read.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available.  All 4 were published and it is currently out of print.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: APOTHECARIUS ARGENTUM

Ok, I've had enough of wallowing in bad smut.  Time to focus on something good, and what can be better than a fantasy shoujo series from CMX?

APOTHECARIUS ARGENTUM (Yakushi Argent), by Tomomi Yamashita.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2007.



PLOT:

In the kingdom of Beazol, Princess Primula watches over the kingdom while her father heads off to fight another battle with one of the neighboring kingdoms.  Her only company are the servants in the castle, but the only one she could call her friend is Argent.  He was formerly her food taster and now he runs an apothecary on the edge of city.  After the two discover a poisoning plot against Primula, she has him reinstalled as the royal doctor, despite Argent's protests.  What Primula doesn't know is that he is a Basilisk, an assassin so soaked in poison that his very touch is toxic.  Thus Argent finds himself torn between his dedication to Primula and the ill intentions of those who want to use Argent as a weapon.

STORY:

Apothecarius Argentum is simply one of those well-constructed shoujo fantasy stories that CMX seemed to specialize in.  It's got interesting characters, political intrigue, a touch of romance, and it even dares to tackle topics like free will, prejudice, and Argent's conflict over his past and his present.

Argent seems like a rather serene, all-knowing sort of bishonen at first, but his placid demeanor conceals a lot of inner torment and struggle.  We spend a fair bit of time inside Argent's head, so we see how miserable his past was, how Primula came to trust in him, and how that trust motivates him to be a better man.  His angst is never piled on too thickly, so Argent's struggle never comes of as maudlin or over-the-top.  In contrast, Primula is more or less as she appears to be.  She's a spunky tomboy whose personality chafes a little with the responsibilities and isolation that come with being a princess.  She is blessed with quite a bit of common sense, though, and the friendship between her and Argent feels very realistic compared to what one usually sees in shoujo.  Sometimes they might butt heads over an issue, but there's also a lot of sweetness and supportiveness between them.  Most importantly, she treats him like an equal - not a subject, not a servant, but as a trusted friend.  There are hints of deeper feelings between the two, but even as things are they make a great platonic pair.

There isn't much to say about the rest of cast save for the king himself.  He's made out to be a tyrant, but we see that he's a bit more complicated than that.  He's a total pushover when it comes to his daughter, but he also makes it clear that he still considers Argent to be a deadly trump card that he intends to keep close by for his own purposes.  It's not so much that he puts on a friendly, loving face for his daughter, it's that his love for her is just as much a part of him as his darker, more scheming qualities, and that uncertainty makes him far more intriguing that any of the one-note villains that come for Primula.  If this all sounds a little aimless, it's mostly because this volume is more about establishing Argent as a character and the relationships around him than it is kicking off any sort of grand plot.  It's time well spent, though, as Apothecarius Argentum does a great job building up Argent and the world around him and it makes me excited and intrigued to see what happens to them next. 

ART:

Apothecarius Argentum's art is typical of the genre, but it's solidly drawn and good looking.  Yamashita takes a light hand with the line work, so everything is drawn in a light and pleasing manner.  Everything else is fairly by the book - the character designs, the composition, the backgrounds.  That's not to say that it is boring, but merely that Yamashita's style isn't all that distinctive and she plays things rather safe when it comes to the art.  She's clearly put most of her effort into the actual story, and the art does a perfectly fine job supporting just that.

RATING:

It's the exceptional character writing that pushes Apothecarius Argentum into a green light.  It's a little more compelling and complex than one usually sees in this sort of shoujo story, and I'm eager to follow Argent and Primula on their next adventure.

This series was published by CMX.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes.  8 volumes were released and all are currently out of print.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: KIZUNA: BONDS OF LOVE

After yesterday's review, I'm willing to look at some better smut.  So let's take a look at a classic yaoi title!  Lord knows it can't be worse!

KIZUNA: BONDS OF LOVE (Kizuna: Koi no Kara Sawagi), by Kazuma Kodaka.  First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:

Kei Enouji and Ranmaru Samejima have been a couple for years.  They got together back in high school, when Ranmaru was a kendo champion and Kei was struggling to rebel from his yakuza roots.  While Ranmaru's kendo career was destroyed by an accident, the two have managed to survive and maintain their romance.  Things become complicated when Kei's half-brother Kai comes back into Kei's life, and it turns out that Kai is still nursing a massive, hero-worshipping crush on Ranmaru.  Ranmaru is now caught in the conflict between the two, each of them determined that they are the only one worthy to possess Ranmaru and willing to employ all sorts of sneaky tactics to get their way.

STORY:

Kizuna is one of the few yaoi titles you could reasonable classic a classic.  It's relatively old for such a young genre, the first major work from one of the genre's best known mangaka, and  it's also one of the few yaoi titles to have been license-rescued.  It's also a melodramatic piece of crap, one that's too sleezy and lifeless to be as intense as it wants to be.

First of all, even for an uke Ranmaru is incredibly passive.  He rarely protests when Kei and Kai start fighting over him, apparently content to be used like an object for their own selfish pleasures.  Mind you, he rarely seems to protest anything.  As such, he seems to be perfectly fine with Kei raping him in the kendo club practice room.  He's a-OK with his professor trying to drug him and rape him at a gay club, and he never says a peep when Kai takes advantage of him while still under the effect of the date rape drug.  Ranmaru seems to be blasé about everything in his life.  He doesn't even get upset over losing his ability to perform kendo, which you'd think would be a big, even traumatic thing.  I get that he's meant to be the cool-headed contrast to Kei, but cool-headed is not the same as emotionally inert.

Kei and Kai are certainly more forceful, but as characters they're no more endearing than Ranmaru.  Both of them are thuggish brats who take what they want at will and punish others as they see fit for getting in their way, all in the name of 'protecting' Ranmaru.  They're both stereotypical semes and I can't take either of them the least bit seriously.  Each of them rapes Ranmaru at least once, although Kai is slightly more loathable for doing so while Ranmaru was under the influence.  Both of them are locked in this ongoing grudge over who is the true illegitimate son of their father and who made the other's life miserable and neither has the slightest compunction about using Ranmaru to make their point.  Kai flat-out stalks both Ranmaru and Kei, and it's only for this reason that Kai is able to stop Ranmaru's professor from his attempted date rape.  If I haven't made the point loud and clear, they're both awful, utterly unsympathetic characters and I wished failure upon them both.  The only time Kodaka could muster any sympathy for them is in a side chapter about wee little Kai wanting his dad to visit his school for Parents' Day and a sympathetic goon trying to comfort him by filling in has his "big brother."  That would be incredibly sweet were it not for fact that Kodama tries to play it up as a romantic gesture in the end, which makes the whole thing in retrospect incredibly creepy.

I am genuinely baffled as to why people consider Kizuna to be such a classic.  It's a very basic love triangle that's populated by two rapey douchebags and a total doormat that only moves forward because of a lot of ham-fisted, exploitative twists.  I've read later works by Kodaka, so I know that she was (and is) capable of better stuff, so why do people continue to hold this up as her masterwork?

ART:

I will grant Kodaka this much: she is a good artist, and her skills were already quite refined even at this early stage of her career.  Kodaka apparently used to be an assistant for Sanami Matoh, and if you look closely at her character designs here, you can see a slight resemblance to Matoh's own style, particularly in the eyes.  That being said, Kodaka's style is far less dated and a lot more naturalistic.  She also tends to draw them leering in such a way that it makes me think that rapeface runs in Kei and Kai's family.  Kodaka's approach to the sex scenes is fairly mundane, being neither overly explicit nor tender and fluffy.  If anything, they tend to go on a bit too long and they start to get tedious after a while.  Still, she's got a good grasp on anatomy, far better than most of her contemporaries.  She's clearly not so comfortable with the action scenes, which is why I suspect she tends to obscure them so much with speedlines, and her backgrounds are just kind of blasé and murky.  I may have my misgivings with this series, but most of them do not lie in the artwork.  If anything, the artwork is the highlight of the series.  Yaoi art in general doesn't tend to age well, but Kodaka's art was (and remains) some of the best that the genre offers.

RATING:

Kizuna is a lame melodrama populated by a trio of terrible characters, and the only thing that saves it from a red light is Kodaka's solid artwork.  I'm glad that she got better as a writer in later years, but it's not worth it to revisit this work.

This series is published by Digital Manga Publishing, and formerly by Central Park Media under their Be Beautiful imprint.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available.  CMP published 9 volumes, all of which are currently out of print.  DMP published all 11 volumes in 2-in-1 omnibuses, and all are currently in print.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: EIKEN

I've put it off as long as I could, but it's time to finally review one of the weirdest, grossest, most tasteless things to ever grace the North American manga market.

EIKEN, by Seiji Matsuyama.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

Densuke has just started at Zashino Academy and he's ready to find a place for himself amongst the student body.  The choice is made for him when he stumbles into the sizeable chest of sweet yet shy Chiharu.  Afterwards, Densuke is whisked away by Chiharu's friends, a collection of busty young ladies who call themselves the Eiken Club.  No one knows just what they do, but their Amazonian president Kirika is determined to bring Densuke into their fold and pair him up with Chiharu.  As for Densuke, he's simply hoping he can survive the club's activities with his life and dignity intact, much less find a way to communicate how he feels to Chiharu.

STORY:

Have you ever read a manga that was so stupid and pandering that at first you presume that it HAS to be satire?  Did you then realize that there was no joke to be found within and that its perversion was completely and utterly serious and it simply is one of the worst things you've ever read?  Well, then you must have done the same stupid thing that I did by reading Eiken.

I don't doubt at least that Matsuyama was at least trying to be amusing.  If there's one rule here when it comes to the story, it's that wackiness reigns, so it's perfectly OK to teddy-bear-shaped mech suits or make a running gag out of the Eiken Club stealing things from the other school clubs.  The problem is that Matsuyama is under the misapprehension that fanservice counts as a joke.  Believe it or not, I don't have a problem with raunchy humor.  A well-timed sex joke or double entendre can be great fun, but I do have a problem with people who think that you can substitute a lot of cleavage and bulging crotches for actual jokes.  If anything, it's just one lame joke repeated over and over: Densuke sees giant boobs/butt/panties/whatever, freaks out, falls down, and gets a nosebleed.  The only thing that distinguishes this particular version is the outrageousness of the fanservice, but more on that later.

If the plot summary didn't give it away, the plot is little more than a flimsy excuse to give Densuke a harem.  Most of the girls get a dedicated chapter to ostensibly bond with Densuke, but the most prominent plot thread is Densuke's ongoing, awkward flirtation with Chiharu, which in turn is constantly complicated by Kirika doing her best to embarrass the boy with elaborate stunts or just pushing him into the nearest set of boobs.  This might come off as a bit cruel if it Densuke were anything other than the story's punching bag.  He's a bland nebbish who lives in constant, fretful embarrassment, and his lack of personality extends to the Eiken club as well.  Each girl is defined by a single archetype or quirk: Chiharu is shy, Kyoko is obsessed with science, Komoe is motherly and moe, Lin Grace is...um...er...foreign?, "Teddy" is a little girl who hides her tininess and shyness in a giant bear suit, and Kirika has her fondness for theft and public embarrassment.  Each girl gets her chance to hammer her particular quirk into the reader's face, and given enough time they'll hammer that same quirk straight into the ground through sheer repetition.

Eiken is nothing but a hollow exercise in harem clichés.  Every single element of the story, be it character, plot, or humor, has only the barest minimum of effort applied and it mistakes randomness and fanservice for good humor.  Honestly, if it weren't for the giant boobs on display, no one would remember this at all.

ART:

So let's talk about that fanservice, shall we?  It's not just that Matsuyama shoves it in at every single opportunity, it's that he seems to prefer the sort of fanservice that most would regard as grotesque.  The proportions on the girls' chest are the sort you never see outside of hentai, with boobs that are easily 2-3 times larger than the girls' heads. Sometimes he tries to compensate for that by give the girls big hips or big, virtually sentient hairstyles, but that just makes things look worse.  What makes it truly bizarre is that Matsuyama isn't terribly consistent with the level of detail.  Sometimes he clearly spent ages doing his best to realistically render each seam and wrinkle in Chiharu's panties, and he wants to show off that effort by take each and every opportunity to show them off.  The rest of the time, though, he lets things get shockingly off-model.  Heads and bustlines can grow and shink wildly from panel to panel, faces go off-model near constantly, and any piece of clothing that isn't panties is crudely rendered and no matter how tight it's meant to be, it's all worn with the grace of a burlap sack.  I'm kind of surprised that the backgrounds in and around the school are as nicely drawn as they are, considering everything else.  Maybe Matsuyama handed those off to the assistant so he could focus more on the panties.  Eiken is just a visually appalling book.  It's so inconstantly drawn that it doesn't even work as spank material.  It's just hideous and lazy from cover to cover.

RATING:

Don't read Eiken.  This can't even be enjoyed on the so-bad-its-good level.  It's an ugly, by-the-numbers harem that's distinguished only by the frequency and bizarreness of its fanservice, and if Media Blasters had any sense, they would have never brought it over in the first place.

Oh what am I saying?  Media Blasters hasn't had any good business sense about anything for the better part of a decade.  They still shouldn't have released this, though.

This series was published by Media Blasters.  This series is complete in Japan with 18 volumes available.  12 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.