Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: CHOBITS

Of course, no CLAMP month these days can go by without featuring one of the many classics Dark Horse Comics picked up in the stead of Tokyopop, and today's review is no exception to that.

CHOBITS (Chobittsu), by CLAMP.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2002.



PLOT:
Persocoms are the latest technological craze.  They are walking computers shaped like beautiful people (mostly women), and it seems that everyone in Tokyo has one...well, everyone but Hideki Motosuwa.  He's a poor cram school student from the countryside who barely makes ends meet as is, but he dreams of getting a Persocom for practical purposes ('practical purposes' meaning 'Internet porn').  Hideki's luck seemingly turns for the best when he finds a Persocom put out amongst the evening trash, but his lucky find is not all that she seems.  His new Persocom is seemingly unable to perform the slightest task on her own and is unable to say anything but "Chii."  Hideki now has to focus on teaching Chii about the world all while he works on finding out her origins, which may be tied to an urban legend about the Chobits, Persocoms that are capable of genuine emotion and thought.

STORY:
So what happens when everyone's favorite all-woman manga team tries to tackle the male-oriented world of magical girlfriend manga?  Well, like so many of their previous works, they flip some of the old clichés on their head, insert a bit of humor, and build their story around a unconventional love story.  Mind you, all of this isn't obvious from the outset.  After all, Chobits stars a spastic, horny young guy who is down on his luck who happens to be surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful women, whose actions in turn only make him more awkward.  How is this any different from the others?

First and foremost, it flips the idea of the perfect magical girlfriend on its head.  Hideki thinks that by getting a Persocom he could solve all his troubles.  He could have the status symbol item of the moment, have a sentient sex doll to stand in for the perfect girlfriend, and he could at long last stop perceiving himself as a failure compared to his peers.  Of course, Chii is anything but the perfect girlfriend, there to service all of Hideki's needs.  If anything, Hideki has to service her needs because she is essentially like a child.  She has to be taught to do just about everything - to speak, to dress herself, and how to function in the wider world.  Like a child, she readily imitates anything that Hideki does.  This becomes what is easily the funniest running gag in the volume, as Chii is often imitating Hideki's every moment to perfection as he freaks out over whatever issue has come his way.  Still, Chii and Hideki's oddly parental relationship makes for an interesting bit of role reversal in a genre that tends to stay firmly entrenched in traditional gender roles, even if it makes Hideki's growing affection for her more than a little weird.  Sure, he's aware that it's weird because he's human and she's a computer, a fact which gets drilled into his head more than once, but it becomes rapidly apparent that their relationship occupies a weird place between parent/child and innocent romance.

That same sense of subversion can be found in the rest of the female cast.  At first it seems that Hideki has his choice of women in tradionally fetish roles - sexy landlord, sexy teacher, and sexy coworker.  In any other story, all of these women would pose some degree of romantic interest in our leading man.  Here, though, that applies only to one out of those three women.  Chibiya (the landlord) is more of a motherly figure to both Hideki and Chii.  Shizuma-sensei (the teacher) does end up drunk and half-clothed at Hideki's place due to circumstance, but even then neither of them makes any sort of move.  Only Yuna (the coworker) has any actual romantic interest in Hideki, and even there she's shown to be less than keen on the concept of Persocoms.  While none of these characters get a lot of screentime or deep development in the first volume, they are shown to have lives and thoughts outside of Hideki, a fact that makes them more interesting than their equivalents in similar manga.

Chobits has a lot going on for it story-wise.  It's got a great sense of humor, which can't be said for most magical girlfriend manga.  On the other hand, much more effort is put towards the jokes than "boy falls into boobs" or "boy gets nosebleed from girl being sexy."  A lot of it stems more from Chii's innocent misunderstandings of everyday life and having no conversational filter.  It also tends to follow a lot of the usual story beats for such romances (boy meets girl, brings her home, buys her clothes, etc.), but by flipping a lot of the typical character roles and dynamics on their head CLAMP has breathed some life into this dull genre.

ART:
While the character designs here couldn't be mistaken for anything but CLAMP characters, they bear a stronger resemblance to the simpler forms of Angelic Layer or Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles than their previous shoujo works.  Another notable difference here is that this is one of the few CLAMP works with male-oriented fanservice.  They've never been short on manservice, what with all the pretty bishies who sometimes touch and pose in homoerotic ways, but Chii ends up flashing more than her fair share of cleavage and suggestive poses.  This can even be found in the otherwise lovely and delicate splash art, where Chii is the sole focus.  Of course, in context this suggestiveness is more than a bit awkward, considering her child-like nature.

The page composition here is rather restrained, which is surprising considering how often Hideki likes to fill his panels full of gasps, tears, and flailing.  While CLAMP does take advantage of the background for some additional jokes, they don't draw a lot of backgrounds and add a lot of screentone.  That restraint can even be found in those previously mentioned pieces of color artwork.  The color palatte there tends to be restrained to a lot of delicate pastels and flowery, natural settings.  It's an interestingly shoujo-esque affectation for what is meant to be a seinen work, but I suspect that that same flail helps to explain why this series appeals just as much to CLAMP's traditionally female audience as it does to the guys who normally read magical girlfriend manga.

RATING:
Chobits succeeds where so many magical girlfriend series fail because it's willing to subvert a lot of the usual tropes to create a narrative that embraces some of the weirdness within.  It also finds a way to combine seinen cheesecake with shoujo prettiness to create artwork that appeals to a wider audience.  Even those who are normally wary of such premises should give this series a chance.

This series was previous published by Tokyopop and is currently published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in 5 volumes.  The single volumes from Tokyopop are out of print, but the 2 omnibus releases from Dark Horse are currently in print.

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through RightStuf.com!  If you buy through this link, part of the purchase go towards supporting The Manga Test Drive!


Monday, January 12, 2015

ONE VOLUME WONDER: The One I Love

Let's take a quick break to take a look at a tiny little CLAMP one-shot put out by Tokyopop back in the day when they would literally publish anything with CLAMP's name on it.

THE ONE I LOVE (Watashi na Sukinahito), by CLAMP.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:
This anthology peeks into the lives of twelve young people united by a single concept: love.  Some are trying to gain it by winning the hearts of others and some may be trying to maintain it in their relationships, but all are connected by the various ways they experience love.

STORY:
This is CLAMP at their briefest and utmost fluffiest.  Depending on your mood and tolerance for fluffy shoujo cuteness, it can be entertaining, but all that brevity and fluff comes at the expense of depth and drama.

These are very brief vignettes, with none of them numbering over 10 pages in length.  As such, you only get the briefest sketch as to who our lead characters are.  Many are so brief that their leads don't even get the benefit of a name.  The conflicts within are also appropriately brief and simple, with most being variations on "Oh God, does he like me? Oh goodness, he DOES love me!" or "Oh no, he doesn't love me anymore!  Oh, my mistake, he actually does still love me!"  The stories are structured in a way that resembles the progression of a relationship, starting with stories about first love and building up all the way to a story about a bride with a case of pre-ceremony cold feet.  True to form, CLAMP did include a same-sex couple amongst these stories, and to their credit their story is treated no differently than the hetero ones.

All that being said, the collection is ultimately hurt to some degree by being so short and sweet.  In many ways, this anthology is like the manga version of cotton candy.  All that fluffy sweetness can be fun in the short term, but the pleasure is fleeting and there's little to no substance behind it.  This collection feels like CLAMP just took a bunch of half-baked outlines for scenes and draped the barest minimum of storyline upon them.  They didn't bother with character or drama, they simply threw out what they had so they could fill up a few pages, make a few yen, and then move on with the rest of their day.  The One I Love may be a pleasant read, but without anything serious to anchor it down it simply passes out of one's mind the moment the reader puts down the book.

ART:
The artwork here is just as cutesy as the story.  It's very much in the same vein as manga like CLAMP School Detectives, with lots of delicate linework and loads of chibis.  Backgrounds are rather minimal, with just a hint of floating petals or light washes of color or pattern to frame the characters.  Despite the small size of the book, the panels are large and spacious, which supports the overall lightness and airiness of the artwork.  The art may not be all that much more substantial than the story, but it's beautifully drawn and matches the sugar-sweet tone to a T.

PRESENTATION:
Despite being such a small, slender work, Tokyopop put some effort into making it look good.  The first few pages, along with the first chapter, are rendered in full color watercolors on heavy, textured paper.  There are notes from the members of CLAMP after each chapter, along with the chibi-heavy omakes that they made so frequently back in the day.

RATING:
While The One I Love is a sweet little confection with lovely artwork, all but the most dedicated CLAMP fans will consider this more of a curiosity than anything else.  It's enjoyable to consume, but lacks the substance needed to stick in one's memory.

This volume was published by Tokyopop, and is currently out of print. 

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through RightStuf.com!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: TSUBASA RESERVOIR CHRONICLES

Well, it's January once more, which means that it's time for another month full of CLAMP works.  To kick things off, let's take a look at one of CLAMP's biggest, most notorious, and most intimidating works.

TSUBASA RESERvoir CHRoNiCLES (Tsubasa: Rezaboa Kuronikuru), by CLAMP.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:
On the world of Clow, Syaoran spends his days working on archeological sites when he's not spending time with his oldest friend, Princess Sakura.  When she comes to visit him at the mysterious ruins he's excavating, she is seized by unknown forces that scatter her memories to the winds and leave her unconscious and on the brink of death.  Now Syaoran now must travel to another world to find a way to save Sakura before it's too late.

On the world of Nihon, the warrior Kurogane is the fiercest, most fearless swordfighter in all of the kingdom, but it's come at the cost of his humanity.  In an attempt to teach humility and the value of life, the Princess Tomoyo sends Kurogane away to another world, even as he wishes only to return to his own.

On the world of Celes, the mage Fai D. Flowright has sealed King Ashura in a crystal tomb under a deep pool of water for reasons only known to Fai himself.  Now he needs to escape to another world in the hopes of escaping his troubled past.

All four find themselves transported to Yuuko, the Space-Time Witch.  She can help all of their causes, but at a steep personal price for each member.  Now they must team up together along with Yuuko's creation Mokona to travel between other, distant worlds to recover Sakura's memories and find the solutions to their own troubles.

STORY:
A lot of people feel intimidated by Tsubasa.  They know that it's this sprawling series with numerous cross-overs to CLAMP's other previous works.  As such, some think that the only way one can get Tsubasa is to read all their other manga first, and for many that's simply too much homework to do for a single shonen series.  Speaking as both an honest reviewer and as someone who has read most of CLAMP's works, I can say with some certainty Tsubasa can be in fact enjoyed on its own merits.  Yes, there is a lot of crossovers and cameos, but the characters and settings are altered enough that even those who have never touched a CLAMP book previous can follow and enjoy this series on their own.

That being said, there are a LOT of CLAMP cameos in just this single volume alone.  It features cameos or alternate versions of characters from:

  • Cardcaptor Sakura
  • xxxHolic
  • X/1999
  • Chobits
  • RG Veda
  • Miyuki-Chan In Wonderland
  • Magic Knight Rayearth
Their inclusion doesn't interrupt the flow of the story, though.  If you can recognize them, then it's a fun little bonus for a fan, but you don't have to know a thing about them to continue.  This is even true for the characters from Tsubasa's sister series xxxHolic.  Yes, Yuuko is the one who sets our main cast upon their way and serves as the primary source of exposition, but one doesn't need to know the events of that universe to understand what's going on here.

That's even true for our leading man and lady.  While they do share names and basic personality points with the Sakura and Syaoran of Cardcaptor Sakura, they are not the same characters.  In all fairness, it's harder to say that for Sakura than for Syaoran, but that's because she spends most of this volume in a coma and as such we don't learn much about her beyond the odd flashback.  Still, that lets them fit in smoothly with the original characters of Fai and Kurogane.  Those two have long been the most popular cast members, and it's easy to see why.  While their respective dilemmas are quite opposite of one another, both are simple and compelling in their own right.  The two also form what is essentially a manzai duo, with Fai being the one dishing out the sly jokes and teasing and Kurogane being the straightman whose frustration is always met with laughter.  Admittedly, this is used mostly for a bit of ship-teasing on CLAMP's part, which was (and still is by many) met with enthusiastic approval.  Still, I enjoyed that they were treated as characters in their own rights with their own issues and dynamic and not just the chaperones for the rather milquetoast leads.

I do have to say that as a shonen series, Tsubasa starts off on a strong note.  It doesn't waste any time introducing our main quartet, setting them upon their quest, and ending on a cliffhanger fight.  It doesn't rush through things, but neither does it have the glacial pacing of its animated counterpart.  The tone is light and breezy, and exposition dumps are kept to a minimum.  Tsubasa really is just a very pleasant sort of action-adventure story, and it does a good job at finding the balance between introducing the cast and premise and getting the plot proper moving.  It has a lot of callbacks for the fans, but they don't get in the way of telling the story or engage those new to CLAMP.

ART:
The artwork here is very much in the same vein as previous shonen and seinen works from CLAMP like Angelic Layer and Chobits.  The linework is dark and thick, but the long, lanky bodies and faces are far more simple and less stylized than those of their older works or the finer, more elegant style of xxxHolic.  In particular, I really like Kurogane's striking visual design, who spends most of the volume looking like a block of stark black accented only by his face and a few minor details. 

There's not a lot of action here, and most of what we see is the sort of swirly tendrils of magic that fill the page instead of a lot of hack-and-slash sort of fighting.  The page composition is rather free and easy, with plenty of big, roomy splash panels and characters often spilling out over the panel borders, and this is emphasized by the fact that backgrounds are rare and sparsely drawn.  There's just a general sort of lightness to the art which fits the tone of the story perfectly and helps visually distinguish Tsubasa from CLAMP works of both past and present.

RATING:
In spite of its reputation, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles can be just as enjoyable to a CLAMP newcomer as it can be to the hardened fan.  It's a light and breezy adventure helmed by an engaging cast (well, half of one at least) and it's simple a well-assembled bit of shonen.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics, formerly Del-Ray.  This series is complete in Japan in 28 volumes, and all have been published in North America.  The single volume releases are out of print, but the series is currently available in 3-in-1 omnibuses, of which 3 are currently in print.

This volume and many more like it can be purchase through RightStuf.com!

No, I don't get why the title is so randomly capitalized.  I doubt even CLAMP knows at this point.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Giveaway Winner & Year-End Thoughts

Before I go any further, it's time to announce the winner of this year's Holiday Giveaway.  It sounds like a lot of you are reading some good stuff (and more than one of you got hooked on Vinland Saga, which warms my heart after the shock of that series going on hiatus).  Ultimately I had to pick one, though, and this year's winner is usamimi's short but sweet comment:

Definitely "Silent Voice" on Crunchyroll! It was really unique and totally sucked me in. I'm so glad it's getting a print edition soon.
Congratulations usamimi!  If you'll send me an email over at mangatestdrive@gmail.com, I will get you that gift certificate code over to you right away, ready and able to be used at your will.

Speaking of RightStuf, I'm proud to announce that starting tomorrow, this site will be part of their affiliate program!  That means that when and where applicable, there will be links in my reviews will allow you to purchase the books I review, along with anime, merchandise, and much more.  It's a great opportunity to not only add some great books to your own shelves, but also to support the site and help keep the Manga Test Drive chugging along.

It's been quite the year for me.  I started out 2014 burnt out on this whole 'manga reviewing' thing and beginning to wonder if I would ever come back to the site.  After a few months and a lot of thought, though, I made my return.  It took me a bit to get back into the groove of things, but now I can say with confidence that my dedication to the site and to reviewing manga is stronger than ever, and I'm grateful to everyone that gives my humble little blog a look.  I'm also grateful that some of you have followed my ventures over at Infinite Rainy Day.  I took on the position there in the hopes of expanding my repertoire a little, and I've been incredibly happy with the results.  I'm also so happy that I was able to participate in a podcast for the first time ever, and those who haven't already should take a listen to hear my thoughts on Kill La Kill and Yamada's First Time.

I have to give a major shout out to the folks over at MangaBlog, who have been so kind as to feature some of my reviews and I'm grateful for each and every signal boost.  I also have to give a shout out to Ash at Experiments In Manga, who brought me to their attention as a long-time fan of the site.  Ash is an excellent reviewer in his own right and you should absolutely follow him and the many other reviews over at Manga Bookshelf.  I have to give some love to my fellow writers at Infinte Rainy Day: Jonathan, Stephanie, Zac, John, Walter, David, and Thomas.  I've greatly enjoyed reading your own reviews and articles and am proud and pleased to be part of such a fine crew of writers.  I also have to do the same for my old friends over at The Five Point Podcast - it was a pleasure to talk with you guys, and I hope that you guys can get back to making more podcasts in the next year. 

Last and by no means least, though, I have to thank every single one of you who reads this site.  It doesn't matter whether you've been reading it from the beginning or simply stumbled upon a link, your views and input are what keep me going and keep me motivated.  You guys are the reason I came back, and you guys are also the reason I plan on keeping this site going into 2015 and beyond.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Review: WHAT DID YOU EAT YESTERDAY?

Let's finish this up on a high note with something just as warm and cozy as the last review.  After all, what could be more appropriate for Christmas Day than a series that's all about relationships and food? 

WHAT DID YOU EAT YESTERDAY? (Kino Nani Tabeta?), by Fumi Yoshinaga.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Kenji and Shiro are a loving gay couple of three years.  Kenji is a hairdresser who is comfortable with himself, his relationship, and Shiro's fine home cooking.  Shiro is a successful lawyer, but he's also far more neurotic and secretive about himself and his lifestyle.  It's hard to blame him when he has a hard enough time getting his parents to accept him as a gay man; trying to do the same for his coworkers or the world at large is too much for him to bear.  Shiro would rather focus on the things he can control, like his cases, his budget, and his kitchen.  Shiro is not only a great cook, but a frugal one, and he enjoys planning out meals and working through each step of a recipe.  While trials and tribulations may come their ways, it seems everything in Kenji and Shiro's life seems to wrap up contently at the dinner table.

STORY:
I've made no secret in the past about my fondness of the works of Fumi Yoshinaga.  Her boys' love works are above-average, and her drama and slice-of-life works are some of the finest manga you'll find on the market.  This, her most recent series, is essentially the meeting of those two genres, although its appeal will depend just as much on your love of cooking as it will on the appeal of the main cast.

It's rare to see any manga that focuses on a committed gay couple such as Kenji and Shiro.  After all, most BL is focused on the rush of new love and the build up to the ultimate confession thereof.  Kenji and Shiro are long past that point, though.  They've settled nicely into adulthood, where they work all day and come home to talk over dinner about work, household issues, or whatever may be going on with friends and family.  This is very much a slice-of-life story in the most literal sense of that term, and it's a credit to Yoshinaga's skill with character building that even these everyday conversations are interesting, letting them give insight to the characters without hammering the reader over the head about it. 

While Kenji does get his fair share of starring chapters, most of the narrative focus stays on Shiro.  It's kind of ironic, since Shiro spends so much of his screen time trying to avoid drama and avoid notice.  It's just that he likes to be in control at all times.  He likes to have control of his cases, maintaining his health and good looks, and his home.  He doesn't want a bunch of questions or comments from other people, like the ones he gets from his housewife friend when he first meets her family.  He doesn't want a lot of misunderstandings like he gets from his parents, especially his mother.  She's the sort who thinks that going to a gender disorder support group counts as supporting her son, even as she grows visibly nervous as the suggestion of Shiro bringing Kenji to his parents' place.  You can't blame the man for wanting to retreat from all that and focusing instead on where he can get the best price for tofu or watermelons.  Knowing that, it also helps the reader understand why these two would stay together so long.  Kenji is good at smoothing out troubles with difficult customers, and he enjoys the simple pleasures of life.  Thus, he's very good at helping Shiro relax while always providing an appreciative audience for his cooking.  Yoshinaga's always been skillful at bringing out the nuances in her characters and their relationships, and that skill is in full effect here.  Kenji and Shiro feel like real people you could meet and know, with quirks and foibles that are appropriate for their age and their personalities.  The coziness of their relationship makes for a very inviting read.

I cannot emphasize enough just how important cooking is to this story.  Where her previous work Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me Happy was all about celebrating Yoshinaga's favorite restaurants, here's she celebrating the joy of good home cooking.  Shiro has a tendency to mentally narrate his way step by step through his recipes, and the steps are so thorough that one could almost use them like traditional recipes.  A fairly wide variety of dishes and cuisines are represented, with everything from mapo doufu to baked chicken thighs to strawberry jam, often with plenty of complementary side dishes.  Mostly I'm impressed at how easily he comes up with these recipes, considering that he's never seen consulting a cookbook and comes up with ideas on the fly based on whatever is on sale.  Still, sometimes the chapters can get a little too lost in the process, and those who aren't deeply into cooking or baking might start to get bored.

What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a rather apt title for this series.  It not only reflect the obvious focus on food and cooking, but it also implies the coziness of the relationship that makes up its core.  This is the kind of slice-of-life I want to see, the sort that actually feels like a slice of someone's life and not just overly pleasant wish-fulfillment. 

ART:
Yoshinaga's artwork remains, as always, as finely drawn and nuanced as ever.  The characters here still tend towards the sort of square-jawed, lightly lined characters she tends to draw, with a wide variety of ages, shapes, and looks, and everyone is expressive and subtle in their face and movement.  There's a lot more background than what is usually seen in her works, even if those backgrounds are mostly the interiors of office rooms and apartments, and it helps to further ground this story in reality.  What truly gets the benefit of Yoshinaga's pen is the food itself.  Each step is illustrated in almost photorealistic detail, and it's always easy to visually follow the recipes.  I've always been a fan of Yoshinaga's artstyle, but this series might be the best match I've seen yet between it and the story.  Her particular brand of handsome minimalism lends beauty to the quiet, mundane elements of Kenji and Shiro's life without ever distracting from it.

RATING:
What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a wonderful, low-key celebration of a loving couple and the life (and meals) built around it.  Charm and subtlety abound in both the writing and the art, and I'm so very happy that Vertical finally brought this series over.

This series is published by Vertical.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 9 volumes currently available.  5 volumes are currently available, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!  The giveaway ends at midnight tonight!


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Review: BARAKAMON

As we start wrapping things up for our holiday reviews, let's shift our focus to some warm and fuzzy slice-of-life manga.  We'll start with the one that's all about small towns, cute kids, and...calligraphy?

BARAKAMON, by Satsuki Yoshino.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Handa Seishuu is a bright young professional calligrapher, but he's also got something of a temper.  He needs to get away for a while because he punched his boss for calling Handa's art workmanlike.  So he heads off to an island on the far western coast of Japan, where he can hopefully get away from the world and find some new inspiration.  What Handa finds there is anything but peace and quiet, though.  He soon becomes the talk of the small town, as well as the focus for the curious and hyperactive little girl Naru.  While relaxing may now be out of the question, Handa is slowly coming around to small town living and small town people.

STORY:
This is a premise we've all seen before.  Some high-falutin' city person comes to the country for some contrived reason, and said person ends up having a lot of fish-out-water moments as they have hilarious encounters with the backwards locals.  In the end, though, the city person comes to love the community and chooses to stay.  While it's too early to say if Barakamon will follow this formula to its end, it builds upon this formula to create something that's wonderfully charming.

While Handa is technically our lead, it becomes clear from early on that Naru becomes the breakout character, and that's a fact that could be potentially distressing.  After all, manga tends to idealize small children in the same way that most forms of media tend to do.  They turn them into cute little performing monkeys, there to act charming and perfect and adorable, but not like a real child.  Naru definitely does not have that problem.  To be honest, Naru is kind of a brat.  She's always butting in, climbing on things, repeating all the bad words she's not supposed to hear, and generally hanging off of Handa at every opportunity she gets.  While she gets a lot of screentime in the course of the volume, Yoshino never wears out her welcome with the reader (the same cannot be said for Handa).  She's cute, she's hilarious, but she never takes either quality to the extremes of obnoxiousness.  After all, she's not all that much different from the other villagers.  Oh sure, they're obvious a little more mature and understanding about Handa and his issues, but they still take every opportunity to barge in his door, ask naïve questions, spread gossip, and cosset him like a small child, and it's all played for gentle good humor.

This sounds like it could become a little cruel towards Handa, but it ultimately works because Handa himself is allowed to be less than perfect and more than a little silly himself.  He's a competent calligrapher, but he's bad at taking criticism, a sore loser, and doesn't really exert himself beyond what is necessary.  He's not exactly a good person.  Hell, if anything he's kind of an immature jerk.  Knowing that, the jokes that the rest of the cast make at his expense feel less like bullying and more like bringing a buffoon back down to earth.  He does make strides as a person as the story goes on.  He proves himself more than adept at handling the village kids, and he does start to warm a little to the other villagers when he sees how far out of their way they'll go to make him comfortable.  He even starts to find real inspiration in his work.  There's a sequence early on where a day out with Naru inspires an athletic bout of artistic inspiration, ending with "fun" writ large, the brushstrokes full of the energy Handa expended and experience.  Slowly but surely, the churlishness is melting from his heart and mind, and while it's not an instant transformation it's still a little heartwarming.

In some ways, this series reminds me of Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba &!.  Both share a casual and humorous tone, along with a focus on the smaller, quainter things in life in conjunction with an adorable, quirky little girl.  That's where the similarities end, though.  Barakamon is faster, snappier, more verbal, and less whimsical than that series.  While it does capture some of the charms of small town life and adorable little kids, it doesn't idealize them either.  So while Barakamon may be built on a familiar formula, it still manages to find its own comedic voice.

ART:
While the artwork has a certain charm about it, it's also clear that this is Yoshino's first proper manga series.  The character designs are pleasant enough to look at and have a lot of variety in size, shape, and age, but they're also kind of stiff and the mouths are rather flappy.  Naru tends to be drawn in a style that verges upon super-deformed, as her eyes bug into blank circles and her focus is fixed upon whatever shiny new thing caught her attention.  The backgrounds are suitably well-drawn and homey, but perspectives and shading tend to be rather flat.  Still, it's always easy to follow and Yoshino is fond of layering in jokes in the background, usually in the form of Naru running around doing things.  Overall, like's Handa's calligraphy the artwork is a little rough around the edges but still good looking enough to get the job done.

RATING:
The charm and humor of the story go a long way towards smoothing out what few, minor issues can be found in the art.  As long as it never looses its slightly snarky spirit or overplays the trump card it has in Naru, I can see this becoming a must-read along the same line as Yotsuba&!.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available so far.  2 volumes have been published, and both are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: NORAGAMI - STRAY GOD

With all this talk of risky titles and safe ones, sometimes quirky little titles like today's selection managed to slip through in the hopes of finding an audience.  Of course, it's easy to pick series like today's selection up when it comes from the same company that's currently sitting on a giant pile of Sailor Moon and Attack on Titan money.

NORIGAMI: STRAY GOD, by Adachitoka.  First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Yato is a god without a home.  He's so desperate for worshippers that he tags his name and number across the city in hopes of finding someone, anyone, who might need his help.  Still, fighting the odd spirit for pocket change doesn't get him far until it leads him to cross paths with Hiyori.  She saves him from being run over, but the accident has left her own spirit a bit ajar.  Now her spirit can leave her body, and she uses that skill to help Yato at his tasks.  Now the two are more or less stuck with one another: Hiyori can't fix her loose soul without Yato's help, and Yato needs all the help he can get to make some money and find a permanent home.

STORY:
Noragami is good fun, but the story feels like it's still working out its growing pains even as the first volume comes to an end, and it hurts its potential as a result.

The strongest element here is the titular stray god himself, Yato.  He's snarky, scrappy, a little arrogant and quick-thinking, and it's genuinely enjoyable to watch him hustle his way into finding a worshipper and solving their problem.  The story never lets him get too high and mighty, considering that he's forced to sell himself via bathroom stall walls and neighborhood graffiti, but it also makes it clear that for all his self-interest, Yato does have a good heart.  No matter how much he thinks a wish may be underneath him, he will grant it to the best of his ability.  He's just not much of a people person, considering that every spirit he's teamed up with has quit in tears and frustration and that he still tends to judge his worshippers even as he aids them. 

So of course the best course for such a character is to make him the bad cop to Hiyori's good cop.  Hiyori can't help but suffer a little in comparison to Yato.  She's simply too good-natured and ordinary to do anything else.  Still, her unwitting partnership with him does force the two to start growing a little.  Hiyori finds her inner action hero when she discovers that her spirit self has the power to fight ayakashi, even as she struggles to keep her social and school life afloat in between her involuntary bouts of narcolepsy.  Yato is forced to explain a few things about his world and to look for Hiyori, since her status as a living ayakashi makes her a tempting morsel for the rest of the spirit world.  Their social circle only stands to grow as Yato wrangles another ghost into becoming his weapon, a teenage boy who seems less than impressed with his new master.  As more characters are added, though, the more it becomes clear that Noragami isn't quite sure what direction to take.

It starts out as a sort of monster-of-the-week story, with Yato serving as a sort of wandering hero.  Then it turns into a buddy cop sort of story once Hiyori.  Now just as it ends, it adds another character and shifts the status quo yet again.  I understand that a manga series is prone to change in the early chapters as the creators hammer out the details.  Still, the shifts in direction don't feel purposeful and planned.  It feels more like the creators are swaying in whatever direction the popularity polls or editors demand.  Noragami has a couple of good characters at its core, and it needs to have more faith in them to carry the story on their if this story is going to grow in a positive direction.

ART:
For what it's worth, the artwork is attractive and fits well.  The character designs are nothing special; they're grounded and attractive enough, but not all that unique either.  The fights are not all that well-drawn, as they tend to become a little too visually chaotic for their own good.  Still, the urban backgrounds have a lot of detail and the ayakashi designs are suitably gross and inhuman-looking.  Still, the artwork as a whole never quite rises above the average, and this muddles what is otherwise a fun little manga.

PRESENTATION:
There are the usual omakes and translation notes, but the latter are much more long-winded than normal.  There's apparently a lot of wordplay at work here, and one joke requires an entire page to deconstruct. 

RATING:
Noragami is enjoyable, but the artwork is merely average and the story can't quite decide what direction it wishes to take, and that drags down the rating slightly.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 12 volumes available so far.  2 volumes have been published so far, and both are currently in print.  This series is also available in e-book form through Barnes & Noble.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: STRIKE WITCHES: MAIDENS IN THE SKY

Of course, the safest bet for any manga licensor is to pick up a series that's tied to an animated series.  We've seen time and again that sales of a manga can skyrocket when it's turned into a popular animated show.  Sadly, it doesn't work so well in reverse, like the series I'm looking at today.

STRIKE WITCHES: MAIDENS IN THE SKY (Sutoraiku Witchizu: Tenku no Otome-tachi), based on the television series by Projekt Kagonish, with original character designs by Humikane Shimada & art by Yuuki Tanaka.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
The world is at war with an alien mechanical force known as the Neuroi.  The only forces that can take them on are the Strike Witches, young women who use a combination of magic powers, heavy firepower, and mechanical jet legs to fight back.  Most girls would want nothing more than to be accepted to the Strike Witches...well, everyone but naïve farm girl Miyafuji Yoshika.  While she's blessed with magic, her only goal is to improve her healing skills so she can take over her grandmother's clinic someday.  When she saves a stray Strike Witch, she discovers a power she never knew she had, a power which makes her an ideal recruit.  While she's not eager to fight, Miyafuji soon discovers that becoming a Strike Witch means new friends for her to meet and new powers for her to discover.

STORY:
As a series, Strike Witches is notorious for its shameless levels of fanservice, to the point where its marketing mostly centers on the fact that its main cast doesn't wear pants, as if the promise of crotch shots is enough to bring in the leering hordes.  While its manga adaptation mercifully backs away from such naked perversion, it is a shameless dull thing to read.

Miyafuji is meant to be charming and child-like in her simplicity and pacifism, but she feels more like the creators only got halfway through developing her before getting distracted by a shiny thing.  Her innocence and obliviousness to the outside world verges upon the ridiculous, especially since she never shows so much as a flash of a negative emotion.  She comes off less as a complete character and more like someone's idealization of a five year old. 

Even after joining the Strike Witches, it never seems to sink in for Miyafuji that's she's meant to be a soldier.  Mind you, I can hardly blame her since the story spends so much time watching her make friends with other girls and a panty-stealing spirit puppy.  It's only near the end that the volume recalls "Oh wait, there's a war going on isn't there?" and the fight is over and done so fast that I had to flip back through the pages to make sure that I didn't skip a page or two.  Nope, all it takes is Miyafuji getting over her pacifism in record time, pulling some new reserve of power out of her ass to magically improve her sniper rifle, and thus demonstrate herself to be the bestest, most special Strike Witch of them all in a manner that is in no way contrived!

It figures that if they couldn't be bothered to make Miyafuji interesting, then the rest of the cast doesn't fare much better on the personality front.  All of her friends are built around a single quirk, and their superior officer is little more than a substitute mother.  The spirit puppy, which serves as Miyafuji's familiar, is there for an unwanted dose of pervert humor.  Apparently it's the height of humor to have this cute little creature talk and think like a pervy old man when Miyafuji isn't looking.  As you can imagine, this turns a large proportion of the volume into an utter slog, because plot or character development might get in the way of showing off a bunch of precious, cardboard-thin waifus.  Even the whole 'alternate world war' angle is subsumed by the story's need to turn everything into pure preciousness.

ART:
While the story itself is mostly content to avoid fanservice, the same cannot be said for the art. It certainly does like to look at Miyafuji's panties as often as possible, and the art is more than content to shove her crotch into the frame to achieve that.  What's really weird is that Miyafuji is the only character who gets this treatment, and I'm not sure I want to ponder why that is.  The character designs were nothing special to begin with on the show, but Tanaka has transformed them here into the most generic little moeblobs possible.  They all have the exact same face, with flat round eyes, flappy mouth, and a dot that's meant to suggest a nose, and if it weren't for their hairstyles the girls would be indistinguishable.  The only time those designs change is when the girls fuse with their familiars.  Then they can add cute little animal ears and tails so that they can achieve the greatest amount of naked otaku pandering possible.

The rest of the art isn't any more distinguished.  Most of the panels are done in the same mid-level shots, save for when it decides to sink down low for a panty shot.  Most of the backgrounds are vaguely drawn, when they're not just completely replaced with screen tones.  As generic as the character designs may be, they're probably the closest this series comes to some visual flair, and I get the sense that the artist was just as bored while drawing this as I was reading it.

RATING:
I was expecting Strike Witches: Maidens In the Sky to be offensively bad.  Instead it was just really, really dull.  The characters are drips, the story is tedious, and everything in the art is clearly calculated to appeal to both an otaku's baser instincts and their wallet.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is complete in 2 volumes.  Both have been published, and both are currently in print.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: GANGSTA

You'd think that licensing violent seinen manga would be just as much of a safe bet as supernatural shoujo or harems, and yet the track record for them has been spotty at best.  Still, this title could only be an improvement after something like Terra Formars.

GANGSTA, by Kohske.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Ergastulum is a dirty city full of dirty people, the sort of place where the cops can be just as crooked as the criminals they chase.  Still, there some jobs in the underworld that not even they can tackle, and the only people who can are The Handymen, Nic and Worick.  Their latest job leads to them crossing paths with ex-prostitute and moll Alex, who ends up joining their motley crew.  The more time she spends with them, though, the more questions seem to pop up, whether it's about Worick's mafia background or Nic's mysterious strength and his own shady background.

STORY:
Gangsta feels at times like someone crossed Black Lagoon with Sin City.  There are similarities in both content and tone to both, but in spite of its best efforts Gangsta never seems to connect with its audience the way that Black Lagoon did.

I suspect the biggest cause of that is that the audience stand-in character is such a blank that she might as well not be there.  Say what you will for Rock, but early on he had a defined personality that served as contrast to the less-than-legal goings-on around him.  Alex in comparison is passiveness personified.  She spends most of her screentime saying little and staring at whatever goes on around her.  She doesn't so much have so much as a single opinion about what Nic and Worick do or who they are, and we never learn anything about her and her life after her rescue. She simply accepts things as they come.  That's not an invalid reaction to all the violence and cruelty around her, but it hardly makes for compelling reading.

Instead what passes for development goes to Nic and Worick, and even then it's more about getting their backstories out of the way than anything else.  Worick is the brains of the group, a Mafia scion who teamed up with Nic in his teens and wields his charms and comparative good looks as a part-time gigalo.  He's very much a creature of simple pleasures, content to live life in the here and now with no concern for past or future.  Nic, on the other hand, is the brawn of the pair.  He's an ex-mercenary with strength far beyond that of a normal man.  He's a man of few words, mostly because of the fact that he's deaf.  Still, it's awfully convenient that he retains the ability to physically and coherently speak while still being able to sign and to perfectly read lips.  Still, it's rare to see anyone with a physical disability in manga, and so it's nice to see some sort of representation.  They do make a for a well-balanced team, each bringing something different while able to support and protect the other should things go south.  I just wish it was a little less focused on reiterating who they were and more on who they are now, because that part is a little underdeveloped.

Honestly, it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be set in some sort of alternate universe.  The crimes here are so mundane that's you forget that it's a universe where genetically modified mercenaries exist until the town's name comes up or until people start talking about 'tags.'  It's hard to say at this stage whether it's going to have any sort of major impact.  There's certainly plenty of violence to go around, and if you enjoy a well-choreographed fight there will be plenty of them to enjoy here.  I just wish it had more substance to give it all some sort of impact.

ART:
I will give Gangsta this much: it is a good looking manga.  The characters are distinct, lanky, strong, and yet seedy looking enough to fit in this world.  The proportions are grounded and the faces are expressive, if a bit grim.  This is doubly important for Nic, considering that Nic rarely speaks, so he must express himself through his face and hands alone.  Admittedly, sign language is a hard thing to capture in a still image, but Kohske doesn't help things when they draw it as a strange hand gesture with a few speed lines.  While the camera does like to linger on rather low angles when it's around Alex, there isn't a lot of traditional T&A fanservice.  No, the fanservice here is the extremely violent sort that is most often found in seinen manga like this.  Swords are swung, kick delivered, and punches are thrown with smoothness and even a bit of grace, and each blow is given a sense of bloody, visceral impact.  There's clear skill behind the artwork here, but the story lets it down to some degree.

RATING:
Gangsta is violent and visceral with some great art, but unless future volumes invest more time and care into the cast, this series will never develop into anything beyond a string of flashy fights.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available.  4 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print. 

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: NISEKOI - FALSE LOVE

Of course, it's not just the fangirls who get pandered to.  There's always a healthy selection of safe, stupid harem titles to keep the horny kids at bay.  Today's selection is no exception, save for the fact that it comes from the pages of Shonen Jump.

NISEKOI: FALSE LOVE, by Naoshi Komi.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Raku Ichijo is the mild-mannered heir to a powerful yakuza family.  He has no intention of taking up the family trade, and wants to instead become a civil servant.  He also wants answers to the strange locket he wears around his neck.  As a child, he gave the key to a young girl he befriended, but he can't remember her face or name.  He really hopes that his mystery girl is his shy and lovely classmate Onodera.  Those daydreams come crashing down when a loud, rude blonde called Chitoge joins his class.  For these two, it's hate at first sight, but it turns out that Chitoge is also a yakuza heir.  To foster peace between their two families, their guardians decide to pair the two up as a couple, much to Raku and Chitoge's mutual displeasure.  Now Raku has to find a way to juggle his fake relationship with Chitoge with his hope for real one with Onodera, all while searching for his locket girl.

STORY:
Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ, they were right.  Those that don't study their history are doomed to repeat it, and it's certainly true for Shonen Jump.  How else can you explain why one of their most popular current titles be little more than a redressed, simplified version of Love Hina?

While strictly speaking it's less of a harem at this point than it is a love triangle, the character types are all too familiar if you know even the basics about Love Hina.  Raku is our Keitaro stand-in, and like his predecessor he's a giant dork who exists solely to be the world's butt monkey.  If anything, he's less interesting that Keitaro, since Raku doesn't even have his ridiculous levels of self-loathing.  Chitoge, like Naru before her, is a massive bitch tsundere, but I think Chitoge tops Naru in sheer spitefulness.  There's barely a single panel she appears in where she's not screaming bloody murder because something didn't go her way and my loathing for her only grew with each page.  In comparison, there's Onodera, who is the equivalent of someone like Shinobu.  She's shy, quiet, and motherly - in other words, she is the very model of a modern major waifu, and she's about as interesting as wet cardboard.

The locket girl angle is probably the mostly blatantly stolen idea from Love Hina.  No matter whether it's a lost key or a forgotten promise, the purpose of it remains the same: a naked plot device there to stretch out the conflict as long as humanely possible.  Here it takes the form of Onodera having a key of her own, as she mutters to herself about telling Raku something vague and important.  Now, in the real world such a dilemma could be sold in a matter of minutes with just a few questions and the turn of a key.  Here, though, it's being stretched to volume's end and beyond for the sake of cheap and shallow drama, and it's just as tired now as it was a decade ago.  Of course, why should the dramatic elements try for anything original when the comedy is just as forced and tired?  Thankfully, Nisekoi isn't the sort of story that thinks that punching a guy into the sky Team Rocket-style 20 times over is the height of hilarity.  Instead, it thinks that never-ending arguments and passive-aggressive attempts at fake romance are funny.  Trying to decide which is the preferable of the two is like trying to decide between a punch to the face and a kick in the crotch.  No matter what you choose, the result is painful.

It's manga like Nisekoi that just go to prove that you don't have to be original to succeed with otaku.  All you have to do is blatantly recycle a few ideas from something else that was popular, fill it with a few loud, easy-to-digest types, and pad it with enough empty, overstretched drama to keep it going for ages, and you too can have a successful harem series!

ART:
Komi's art is round and broad, with lots of soft edges, big moeblob faces, and increasingly ridiculous configurations of hair.  Chitoge's hair in particular comes off as almost sentient as it swirls around her scraggly frame in defiance of physics.  Their expressions are no less round and broad, with lots of dropped jaws and bugged eyes from everyone involved.  The characters' manic energy seems to permeate every page, as if Komi was afraid of the prospect of a single blank space.  Thus, he does his best to fill the panels with more faces, more speedlines, more action, and just more STUFF, and it reeks of desperation.  While it's far from the worst looking series to currently grace the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, Nisekoi's art feels like it's trying too hard to sell the wackiness of its already broken and derivative story.

RATING:
Nisekoi is so many things: derivative, irritating, hollow, and always, ALWAYS trying too hard.  I wonder if this genre will ever evolve, or if it will remain content to regurgitate its past the way it's doing so here.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 15 volumes currently available.  6 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.  This series is also serialized digitally through Shonen Jump Alpha magazine, and is available in e-book form through Viz.com.

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