Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: TERRA FORMARS

Of course, taking a manga in a more extreme direction can backfire.  This is especially true for seinen manga, which a lot of times tries to top the others by being more violent and controversial.  This can lead to results like today's review, easily one of the most controversial manga releases of the year.

TERRA FORMARS (Tera Fomazu), written by Yu Sasuga with art by Kenichi Tachibana.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
No one knows just how the plan to terraform Mars went wrong.  A league of international scientists and soldiers plans on using genetically modified moss and ordinary cockroaches to turn Mars into a planet suitable for humans.  500 years later, those cockroaches have turned into hulking humanoid beings who slaughtered the first exploratory team from Earth.  Now a second crew has been sent to fight the cockroach men, each member having been genetically modified with insects with the promise of a large payday.  They'll need all the powers they can muster against the forces that opposes them - not only those on Mars, but also those amongst them and those still on Earth.

STORY:
A lot of fuss has been made in the last few months over this series, mostly concerning the cockroach men themselves and if they are or aren't racist by design.  If you ask me, that's selling this series short.  Racism is the least of this story's problems, as it's seemingly soaked in all sorts of noxious ideas and sensationalistic plot devices.

What struck me first and foremost about Terra Formars is that it's misogynistic as hell.  While the male/female ratio of the crew is fairly even, by the end of the volume all but one of them is dead.  The women don't get the flashy offensive powers that the men get from things like ants and hornets.  Instead they get defensive powers from beetles, persuasive powers from parasitic wasps, or downright useless ones like those of the silk moth.  Every woman who gets a backstory features some form of sexual abuse, be it molestation, prostitution, or female genital mutilation.  They're not even safe from it in the character profiles, where their huge cup sizes are listed alongside their vital stats.  The only relief from it comes in their deaths, which are too brief and brutal to use their terror as an excuse to show off their boobs and butts.

It's also got a very conservative approach, verging on xenophobic.  While the crew is composed of people from across the world, only the Japanese members remain standing at the end of the volume, so being a foreigner here is just as dangerous as it is to be a woman.  Worse still, the traitor amongst the crew happens to be both, and her motivation to steal a giant cockroach egg is a blatant power grab in the name of her own country.  Hell, she's far from the only person who realizes the offensive potential of the cockroach men, as one of the surviving Japanese members notes that if Japan possessed them, they too could become a powerful military force once more.  These are sentiments that come dangerously close to those shared by hard-line Japanese conservatives, the sort who still pine for the glory days of WWII.  They're not as blatant as the misogyny, but they're no less uncomfortable.

Finally, I don't know what's more laughable: the cardboard villains or this manga's understanding of science.  It turns out that the shady folks behind the BUGS project are in fact megalomaniacal madmen who do their best to divide the crew and manipulate them for their own means, laughing all the while at the circumstances that forced the crew members to join.  The leader of the space program is probably the craziest of them all, as he's convinced that the cockroach men are the descendants of alien bug-gods who are the true masters of the universe.  Honestly, he makes the men of SEELE look sane and rational. 

Then there's the fact that evolution simply does not work in the way it does in Terra Formars.  It never tries to explain how the cockroaches turned into giant black humanoids in 500 years, probably because Susaga knew any attempts at such would be laughable.  He treats evolution like a ladder that a species climbs until it reaches 'human,' instead of a slow series of branches which extend only as far as the environment allows.  He also struggles to keep what few facts we know about the cockroaches straight, like whether they have children or emerge full-grown from eggs or if they are or aren't capable of speech and thought.  I'm not asking for pure science fact - I was more than willing to go along with the concept of being able to genetically fuse people with bugs to turn them into super soldiers.  What I do ask for a little consistency, a little thought, and villains that don't make Snidely Whiplash look three-dimensional in contrast.

I cannot find a single good thing to say about the story.  When it's not being ridiculous, it's being offensive.  All of it combines into a nasty mixture which taints whatever potential it might have had for enjoyment.

ART:
If there's anything good I can say for Terra Formars, it's that the artwork is quite good.  The character designs are distinct and solid, even if the women are all generically good looking and the men are ridiculously buff, and the insect elements are incorporated well.  The fights are well-drawn with a strong sense of movement and tasteful amounts of gore.  The backgrounds are nicely drawn, be the savannah-like plains of Mars or the well-detailed spaceship interiors.  But then, there are those cockroaches.

It's hard to ignore that the design of the cockroach men share certain similarities to those seen in old caricatures of black men.  What's really hard to determine is if these choices were purposeful or accidental on the part of the artist.  Neither Susuga nor Tachibana have made any sort of comment on the controversy, and Tachibana's only other artistic credit is motion capture for a Starship Troopers movie, so we can't look to their words or their previous works for any clues.  I would be willing to excuse it mere coincidence on their part, but when it's taken into consideration with the other un-PC ideas in the story, though, it seems less likely, though.  It's a shame because they do get a lot of good use out the cockroach mens' unblinking, unnerving stares, and the idea of humans fighting a powerful, mute, inhuman enemy has potential.  I only wish Tachibana hadn't gone and made that fateful, questionable choice in design.

RATING:
Any positive qualities in the art are negated by the repellent undercurrents and laughably shallow characters and developments in the story.  Such extreme content might be good for creating controversy, but it's not good at telling anything resembling a good story.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 11 volumes currently available.  3 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review: ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM

Sometimes, it seems like the only way for a manga series to garner any attention to push its content to the extreme.  Not even spinoffs of Shonen Jump are immune from this.  Today's selection was viewed by its own editors as too extreme to ever get a release in North America.  They even refused to serialize it in Shonen Jump Alpha.  After reading this volume, though, the most extreme thing about it is its title.

ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM (Ansatsu Kyoshitsu), by Yusei Matsui.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Koro-sensei is not your typical teacher.  He's a bright yellow tentacled being with permanent smiley face who has already blown up most of the moon and plans to destroy the world in a year's time.  He's also very committed to being the best teacher possible to Class E-3 of Kunogigaoku High School by being perceptive, relatable, and encouraging.  In all fairness, Class E-3 isn't your typical classroom, either.  They are the losers and rejects of the school, shipped off to a far-off annex to serve as examples to the other students.  They are also the ones tasked by the government to kill Kuro-sensei before this year is up.  They are provided with special weapons, and whomever succeeds will win a 10 billion yen prize.  It's a shame they have to kill the best teacher they've ever had, but that's how it goes when every kids becomes a potential assassin.

STORY:
Assassination Classroom is what happens when someone crosses a Battle Royale tale of killer kids, an inspirational classroom drama, and a lot of goofy shonen humor, and the end result is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

There have been many manga about unconventional teachers who reform a classroom full of bad eggs, but few are as otherworldy as Koro-sensei.  Sure, he's a deadly tentacle creature who can move at Mach 20 and blow up the moon, but he's also deeply invested in building up his students and encouraging their interests, even when that interest including trying to kill him, and therein lies the punchline for the majority of the jokes.  He's got a occasionally goofy sense of humor, where he uses his super speed to execute quick costume changes, attend baseball games during his lunch break, or stop a student's attack and paint their nails at the same time.  He'd be the perfect teacher if he weren't such a threat to the human race.  The story makes no bones about the fact that Koro-sensei could kill them if he wished, but aside from a single vague flashback never explains why he wanted to become a teacher for this particular class. 

In comparison, the kids of Class E-3 are a bit lacking.  Most of them get one quirk or interest established in their particular chapter, which they use in the latest assassination attempt.  Then that kid blends back into the crowd so the next kid can take the spotlight.  Still, it's weirdly amusing in how the kids don't see any conflict between admiring their teacher and trying to kill him, often in the same breath.  It also makes them at least mildly more interesting than the government agent who sets the plot into motion, as it's hard to take him and any threat of him bringing in outside forces seriously when he's the one who passed the task of killing this monster off to a bunch of kids.

In spite of what the title might suggest, this is actually a rather lighthearted and silly series.  A lot of its humor stems from gentle parody and loving tweaks on some well-worn ideas.  It's not the sort of thing that inspires a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but it's amusing enough to keep my attention.

ART:
The character designs for the people are pleasant if unremarkable, which for modern day shonen honestly a step up.  Hell, some of the tertiary characters look downright wonky at points, like their faces are slightly melted.  Just as same as the story, though, they're not the main draw here.  It's not their face that is literally slapped across the front cover, after all.

You have to give Matsui credit for Koro-sensei's design.  He was a character that needed to look disturbing, yet pleasantly marketable, and you can't say that he doesn't succeed at both.  Kuro-sensei looks friendly enough with his constant smiley face and old-fashioned teaching robes, but then you remember those robes are hiding a mass of tentacles which would put Legend of the Overfiend to shame and that Kuro-sensei's permanent smile can become unnerving when the conversation turns dark.  Despite the fact that he can't change expression, Matsui still manages to convey his mood through the use of shade and pattern to indicate changing colors, as well as the occasional bit of mood lighting.  The action is fast and fluid, and both Kuro-sensei's tentacles and the students' attacks fly out in flurries of speed lines.  The art is surprisingly restrained for a shonen series that's so blatantly comedic.  There aren't a lot of bug eyes, dropped jaws, or any sort of overreaction.  It's nice to see a series that actually trusts in its writing to convey the humor instead of forcing it, and in doing so Assassination Classroom plays to its greatest strength.

RATING:
This is wonderfully weird and amusing for a shonen series.  It's not deep, but it tweaks the inspirational classroom drama in enjoyable ways and creates an instantly iconic character in Koro-sensei.  This is one classroom that's welcome to stay in session.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available so far.  1 volume has been published, and is currently in print.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Revew: AJIN

More manga titles today are building an audience through digital channels before getting a print edition.  Today's review is just such a book, having built up an audience through Crunchyroll's manga reader before getting licensed by Vertical.

AJIN, written by Tsuina Miura & art by Gamon Sakurai.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Kei's world isn't all that far removed from ours, save for the existence of 'demi-humans.'  They look like ordinary people, but they can heal themselves from even the most extreme damage and are even said to possess psychic powers.  This fact didn't have much relevance in Kei's life until the day he was hit by a truck.  He picks himself up afterwards, revealing himself as a demi-human.  Now it seems that everyone is looking for him.  Some want to profit from his body or lock him up for torture in the name of science, but others have powers like his and are willing to kill to bring him into their fold.  As for Kei, he's simply determined to survive.

STORY:
Ajin is a fascinating and well-crafted bit of sci-fi, taking some familiar ideas and mixing them up with a bit of moody horror to create something with great potential.

Kei's not all that compelling as a protagonist, but then he's not meant to be some complex character.  He's an ordinary guy who finds himself wrapped up in the middle of an extraordinary conflict.  Still, he proves himself to be capable and scrappy, able to think fast and adjust his plans on the fly.  Of course, he's aided by a pretty convenient plot device.  When literally everyone else in the world wants to capture him, Kei is just so lucky to have an estranged childhood friend who still lives in the area, has no other family or friends to stop him from helping Kei, and yet still retains enough affection for his friend to not once consider turning him in for maximum profit.  Still, it's clear that Kei is at the start of a very standard journey, one that will not only transform him from human to demi-human, but also from scared, complacent boy to capable, brave man.

The forces that oppose him are a little more vague, although to some degree it's done on purpose. The government agents that are searching for him are your standard issue sort - shadowy figures working at some equally shadowy, evil goal, even going so far as to employ a demi-human as an investigator.  Of course, the rest of humanity as seen here doesn't come off much better, as most of them turn into greedy thugs at the thought of capturing Kei for big money.  Even Kei's family finds themselves turned into pariahs as the press and the government pressures them to give out more information on Kei.  Even the rogue demi-humans are painted as...well, less than scrupulous.  While they don't seek to harm Kei, they also use this opportunity to exercise their powers and attack others as revenge against their captors.  These fights are easily the most fantastical parts of the story, as demi-humans possess the ability to project skeletal beings called ajin, and their fights are frightening in their ferocity.  Still, they're just a little too far removed from Kei's plot to be much more than a distraction at this point.

While the characters and conflicts that make up Ajin are fairly well-trod and a little shallow, they add up to a moody little manga that's clearly gearing up to something ominous yet thrilling.

ART:
The artwork here really helps elevate Ajin beyond its familiar roots.  The faces tend to be rather plainly drawn, but the bodies and backgrounds are well-detailed and all are inked in thick, flowing lines.  The ajin themselves are spooky and iconic, looking like a cross between a skeleton and a mummy, but able to move in fluid, powerful ways.  The fights are visceral, and the art helps gives each punch and stab impact.  The same goes for Kei's horrific injuries, especially the car crash that reveals his powers.  When his body stitches itself together one bone and muscle at a time, the reader can almost feel the pain and hear the hideous cracks.  The presentation for both panel and page are otherwise simple and conventional, but the artwork possesses rich linework and a powerful approach to the violence which helps gives the story some well-needed oomph.

RATING:
I'm glad to see that this series did well enough to give a physical print run.  It's moody and full of action, and if it's a little predictable at this point, it promises to go in some interesting directions.

This series is published by Vertical.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 4 volumes available.  2 volumes have been published and are currently in print.  This series is also available through Crunchyroll's manga service.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: SWORD ART ONLINE: AINCRAID

It's weird that Sword Art Online became the more successful of Kawahara's work, considering that it had already failed before.  He initially wrote it for a contest in 2002, but when it failed to place, Kawahara put Sword Art Online aside to work on other projects.  When Accel World did well, the publishers wanted even more, and thus Sword Art Online finally saw the light of day.  After reading this, though, I wonder if he shouldn't have just left it in storage.



SWORD ART ONLINE (Sodo Ato Onrain), based on the light novel series by Reki Kawahara, with original character designs by abec and art by Tamako Nakamura.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
NervGear is the latest and greatest in video game tech.  It's a virtual reality simulator, where a single helmet allows the user to experience the fanciful RPG world of Sword Art Online.  Kirito is one of the 10,000 there in SAO on the first fateful day.  Soon he and the other players find themselves trapped in the game.  They must conquer all of the 100 levels of the game without dying, for if they die in-game, they will die in real life.  Now Kirito must hone his skills and find new allies if he's ever to return to the real world.



STORY:
If I had to sum up Sword Art Online in one word, it would have to be the same word I kept saying as I read it: bullshit.  This story is a giant load of bullshit, one that only grows larger with each page.  Kirito is bullshit.  His romance with Asuna is bullshit.  The pacing is bullshit.  The plot twists are bullshit.  Everything about this story, beginning to end, is bullshit.  But if I'm going to explain exactly why I think this way, I have to start with its biggest source - Kirito himself.

Even the stupidest, most shallow shonen protagonist could be considered a towering force of personality in comparison to Kirito.  He spends the first half of the story being an emotionless cipher.  Unlike others, he doesn't seem to be concerned about whether he gets out or not.  Since beta testers like him are seen as cheaters, he purposefully sets himself apart from others.  While he occasionally comments on this, he doesn't seem all that torn up about his isolation either.  Of course, why should he care?  He has god-like powers in the game, so strictly speaking he doesn't NEED others to survive.  Should he ever find himself challenged, all he has to do is pull some new power straight from his ass and everything is better.  Why would he need to develop or be challenged as a person when it's so much easier to have the story hand everything to you on a silver platter, including your perfect gamer girlfriend?



Poor Asuna, she really deserves better treatment than she gets here.  During the few points where she's allowed to fight, she is shown to be fine warrior in her own right.  She's a high ranking guild member, although whatever respect she's shown seems to fly right out the window when she chooses to stay with Kirito.  She even has something of an emotional arc.  Over time we learn that for all her skills, she's actually quite lonely.  She misses her family in the real world and feels disconnected from the other gamers as both a high-level player and one of the few girls in the game.  It thus makes some sense for her to seek out a romantic relationship and to commit to it so fast and eagerly.  I just don't understand what she sees in Kirito, because whether by choice or by story dictate, everything in their relationship comes back to him.  He is the one who essentially has to fight for her honor when she chooses to leave the guild, on more than one occasion.  In their joint battles, he is the only one allowed to make the finishing blow.  He is the one who is waited on hand and foot at their cozy lakeside cottage, and it's his love for her that is apparently as super-powered and special as his swordfighting skills.  The story repeatedly holds them up as this wondrous miracle, the only romantic pairing in all of Sword Art Online, as if they're this epic love story for the ages instead of what they are: a couple of kids playing out a fantasy of what romantic relationships are like.



This story also has major issues with pacing and focus.  It puts more emphasis on Kirito and Asuna's romance than on...well, pretty much everything else going on in the game.  As such, the main conflict   - you know, the whole "defeat the evil developer and leave the game" thing - is outright ignored for two-thirds of this omnibus.  As such, almost everything that doesn't have to do directly with Kirito and/or Asuna is cut out, the price paid for trying to shove two short novels' worth of story into a single omnibus.  There's no sense of urgency to this quest, since any outside threat to the players is negated early on with callous flippancy.  While thousands are said to have died, they're either faceless cannon fodder or side characters there only to serve as motivation for Kirito.  All the while, everyone's sojourn in Sword Art Online is treated like some lovely virtual dream where everyone gets a chance to be a hero, instead of the terrible trap that leaves them in comas and subject to the whims of a madman.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with escapist fantasy, but surely not everyone in the game has lives so miserable that the game world is preferable.



The ending is simply the final load onto the massive pile of bullshit.  Is it a fitting punishment for the person who made so many suffer?  Nope!  Instead it's an opportunity for Kirito to pull a few more powers from his ass, including the ability to defy death itself.  Worse still, there's no resolution whatsoever.  When asked, the villain doesn't even remember why he turned the game into a trap in the first place and simply fades into the virtual ether.  It's not quite forgiving him for his actions, but it's pretty damn close.  I guess it doesn't matter that thousands died in SAO for no reason, because Kirito the video game messiah got a girlfriend!  Surely that makes everything better!



I'm hardly the first person to point out that the story for Sword Art Online is a complete mess.  Our lead is nothing but a blank wish-fulfillment figure, and everything in the story, including his love interest, serve only to glorify him.  The story forgets itself for long stretches, only to resolve in the most self-serving and unsatisfactory manner possible.  So when I say this story is bullshit from beginning to end, I'm not exaggerating in the least.  Everything here is deeply flawed and endlessly frustrating.



ART:
Again, we have a separate character designer and artist credited, and the character designer is more of a technicality there to acknowledge the original light novel illustrator.  Mind you, I wouldn't blame this abec person for not taking credit for art that looks THIS bad.  This is Nakamura's first and only professional credit, and it shows on every page. 



The original character designs for Sword Art Online were nothing special, but they're far more attractive in that state then they are here.  Nakamura makes everyone strangely short, round and weird looking, like they've take one too many runs through the moe-blob filter.  While the costumes are faithfully and flatly rendered, they're draped over characters who cannot express themselves beyond the broadest expressions.  Nakamura's also bad at drawing action scenes, which is a major liability in an action series like this.  The panels stay so closely focused on the characters that we never get a sense of scale to the dungeons or the bosses within them.  The high-speed swordfights become incoherent flashes of energy bursts and speed lines in her hands, making hard to distinguish who is doing what. 



Mind you, she struggles with perspective and scale outside of the fights as well.  You never get a sense of how big these game levels are or any sense of beauty about them, as what little we do see is flatly shaded and barely drawn.  She can't even handle humor well.  Early on, there's a horrendously lame boy-falls-into-boobs gag that involves teleportation, but it's drawn in such a way that I still can't figure out what direction Asuna is falling from, much less how Kirito ended up on top of her with a handful of boob.  The animated version of this story often gets a pass because it has flashy, colorful animation, but you'll find no such excuses with the manga version.  It's ugly, incoherent, and amateurish on every level, and the makers must have been hoping that the otaku would buy it up solely on name recognition, not on the quality of the art.



RATING:
I'm genuinely boggled as to why this story was the Kawahara story that became hugely popular because its flaws are numerous and plain to see.  It's clumsily written and drawn, being more concerned with building up its Gary Stu protagonist than telling a good story.  In many ways, this still reads like a half-finished draft.  Maybe it should have stayed that way.



This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing, but this story arc is complete in 2 volumes.  Both have been published as a 2-in-1 omnibus, and is currently in print.  This series is also available digitially as 2 e-books through Barnes & Noble.



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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review: ACCEL WORLD

Reki Kawahara is definitely having a moment right now.  He's a light novel writer who initially found success with Accel World, but it's his Sword Art Online series that became a phenomenon.  Both have been turned into animated series as well as manga, and both deal with young boys who are sucked into an immersive online world.  So let's take a look at both of them, starting with his first success.

ACCEL WORLD (Akuseru Warudo), based on the light novel series by Reki Kawahara, with original character designs by HIMA and art by Hiroyuki Aigamo.  First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Even in a world where people are more interconnected with technology than before, some people can't escape their own problems.  This is the case for Haruyuki, an overweight junior high student with few friends, a lot of bullies, and even more crippling self-esteem issues.  While online, he ends up attracting the attention of Kuroyukihime, the most popular girl in school.  She convinces him to download a program called Brain Burst, which gives him access to a deadly fighting game called Accel World.  Now Haruyuki must use his skills to fight his opponents, gain levels, and uncover the mysteries of Accel World, with Kuroyukihime guiding him along the way.

STORY:
As noted above, Accel World has gotten a lot of attention indirectly thanks to the popularity of Sword Art Online, since both are written by the same person and both deal with young men using futuristic technology to enter deadly online games.  So, how does this series compare to its famous successor?  Honestly, I think it's better.  It not only features more complex characters, and to some degree better incorporates the sci-fi elements of the future tech with the story as a whole.

While Haruyuki is a very mentally damaged person, those same issues make him a very relatable and sympathetic protagonist.  His self-esteem is so crippled that it verges upon depression, where his brain rejects even the kind words from his childhood friend Chiyu.  Worse still, it takes a beating every day from the class bullies that use Haruyuki as a go-fer because he's short, fat, and physically weak.  For Haruyuki, the online world is his safe space, the place where no one can make any demands on him.  Haruyuki's depression and awkwardness is almost uncomfortably realistic, to the point that I wonder if it stems from personal experience on Kawahara's part.  Still, that gives him a ready-build emotional arc - he's already so low that there's pretty much nowhere to go but up.  Also, his depression makes him inherently sympathetic.  You want him to feel better, and thus are that much more invested in his successes.  It might not be the most subtle character writing, but there's a kernel of reality in his personality which goes a long way towards getting the reader invested in him.

Kuroyukihime is no slouch in the character department, either.  In the real world, she is the ideal schoolgirl - bright, poised, and loved by all.  In the online world, though, she shows her true colors.  As the volume progresses, she's shown to have some very selfish reasons for bringing Haruyuki into Accel World, and her relationship with him starts to take a manipulative edge.  She's the one who guides him through this secret online world and gives him tips during his fights.  She's the one who makes up a fake relationship between the two to excuse their closeness and the one who casts doubt upon his only friend Chiyu.  It becomes increasingly clear that she's not exactly a good person, and it is so refreshing to see such an approach.  So often, characters like her are shoved to the side by the story, there to serve as cheerleaders for the male lead or as a prize for him to win at the end.  While they may be given a few quirks, their personalities are usually kept simple so they can be more easily hammered into whatever otaku fetish is in style.  So seeing Kuroyukihime being developed as this morally grey puppetmaster was a genuinely unexpected direction.  She has just as much of a stake in things as Haruyuki, and her personality given just as much weight.   I'm just as invested in her as I am in him.

Accel World does a good job easing the reader into the futuristic tech of this not-too-distant future.  It's basically one where the internet is everywhere, and accessible straight from your brain.  Most of the uses don't differ all that much from today - gaming, casual conversation, money transfers, things like that.  Otherwise, the world is more or less like our own, so the culture shock is minimal.  In comparison, Accel World itself isn't all that impressive.  Accel World is supposed to be this super-secret, super-fast version of this future Internet, but it ends up looking like a fighting game with a sandbox-style map.  The fights themselves aren't that complex, as his opponents tend to have a single and obvious weakness for him to exploit at the last minute.  It's a little disappointing that Kawahara put more thought into the background technology than he did with the program that drives the actual plot.

Even if the tech is not full developed, the two main cast member are and in interesting ways.  That alone gives Accel World an edge that a lot of similar series do not have.  I'm genuinely invested in their stories and want to see how they'll develop because they're shaping up in not entirely predictable ways.

ART:
As what is becoming all too typical for manga based on light novels, there's a separate credit for both the original light novel illustrator (credited as character designer) and for the actual manga artist.  The original character designs have been transferred more or less intact, from Haruyuki's flat and cartoon-like real form to Kuroyukihime's delicate, gothloli prettiness to Haruyuki's sleek, futuristic avatar in Accel World.  Aside from those designs, there's not much else to say for the art.  It tends to consist of a lot of talking heads that are interrupted only by a few fights, and it's all presented in an unremarkable way.

RATING:
While the art may be plain, the character writing more than makes up for it.  Accel World is more focused on exploring the minds of our leads than flashy fights, and doing that helps to make this story more compelling than some of its peers.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with five volumes currently available.  Two volumes have been published and all are currently in print.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: THE HEROIC LEGEND OF ARSLAN

One of the most anticipated titles of the year is also technically one of the oldest.  Today's review is based on a series of old light novels, albeit with a fresh new of paint thanks to one of the best shonen creators working today.  So is this a successful reboot with some fresh new perspectives or will this be just another retread?

THE HEROIC LEGEND OFARSLAN (Arusuran Senki), based on the light novel series by Yoshiki Tanaka with art by Hiromu Arakawa.  First published in 2013, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Ecbatana is a proud and powerful kingdom that is in the midst of a large and bitter war, fueled by religious conflict.  Ecbatana has survived in great part because of their fearsome, warmongering king Andragoras, but people are more doubtful about his heir Arslan.  Arslan is the black sheep of the family and he's eager to prove his worth to not only his family, but to the kingdom as a whole.  He finally gets that chance to go to the battlefield, but instead of winning glory Arslan is witness to a massacre which endangers not only his family, but the kingdom itself.  Arslan now must learn from the past and from others if he is to transform himself into the great leader his land needs.

STORY:
Arslan has a long and storied history behind it, in more ways than one.  It started as a light novel series in the 90s written by the creator of The Legend of Galactic Heroes, and since that time it's been adapted into an OVA series as well as two manga adaptations, of which this is the latest.  It's also got a lot of history in the story itself, as it clearly takes a lot of cues from the medieval Middle Eastern history, although it puts enough twists on both sides that it's not too obvious.

The advantage of it being based on a book series is that its pacing is clearly geared towards the long-term.  The pacing here is slow and purposeful, giving plenty of time to develop Arslan as a person before throwing him into battle halfway through the volume.  We also get a lot of time to develop the personalities and allegiances of the minor nobility and soldiers around Arslan, as well as the opposing side of Lusitania and the cult of Yandabroth, which appears to operate like a cross between the cult of Ba'al and the Catholic Church.  Mind you, Ecbatana doesn't come off as terribly noble in comparison to them, considering that their wealth is shown to be built on the back of slaves and that Andragoras rules over it all like a tyrant.  Still, it's weird that Ecbatana gets a fairly nuanced take on its issues while Lusitania is painted like one giant cult.

Arslan is weirdly passive for a protagonist of a war story.  Most of his time is spent having others lecture him, always subservient to his parents and teachers, and while it's never stated outright he's clearly desperate for approval from his distant parents.  Still, he's shown to have the ability to learn from his mistakes and from those around him.  He might not be a good swordfighter, but when he's confronted by a Lusitanian slave about his presumptions about his people and beliefs, he takes it all in and begins to question his own beliefs.  He may not be physically imposing, but he's good at making friends and allies, some of which literally save his ass when the battle goes badly.  He may be passive, but he's also willing to learn from the mistakes of the past, which will clearly serve him well in things to come.

Once you get past the slightly giggle-inducing name, Heroic Legend of Arslan becomes the compelling story of one boy's rise set against the fall of his native land.  It clearly has a mind set towards the future, as the story is more than content to take its time and establish its hero as well as the people and cultures around him.

ART:
Arakawa is a great match for this story, considering her own experience writing and drawing elaborate worlds centered on war.  Still, I feared that this series would fall into the same trap as Hero Tales, where Arakawa was simply content to recycle characters from Fullmetal Alchemist.  Thank goodness that this time her focus was not so divided, and the art is glorious.  While there are still some slightly familiar faces amongst the crowds, the cast is distinct enough that one cannot simply point out "Ok, there's the Edward stand-in, and there's the Roy, and there's the King Bradley..." and so forth.

Arakawa does a great job capturing not only the setting, but also the sheer scale of this world.  The cities are elaborate, exotic, and sprawling, and the sieges are massive seas of soldiers and cavalry surging over vast, rocky plains and escarpments.  The same crisp, clean qualities that she brought to her own art is evident here as well.  Her action scenes are never choked with speed lines or sound effects, but instead she uses a lot of well-drawn poses alongside a few bursts of dynamic energy or a little bit of a blur to convey the powerful swing of a sword or a soaring volley of arrows.  Even in the midst of battle, each little brawl is easy to follow and it allows the reader to follow the battle just as easily as they can follow Arslan's plot.  It's genuinely epic art, and it's a perfect match for this epic story.

PRESENTATION:
Once again, we get Arakawa's humorous brand of omake, along with an interview with both her and Tanaka.  It's a very informative piece, as both go into their own backgrounds as well as their thoughts on the creation and adaptation of this series.

RATING:
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is a fine historical epic that's more than content to sit back and establish its world before diving into battle, and it's complemented by the crisp and finely detailed art.  This is one legend I can't wait to see unfold. 

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 2 volumes available.  Both have been published and are currently in print.  This series is also available digitally through Crunchyroll.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review: IN CLOTHES CALLED FAT

2014 has been a good year for Moyoco Anno, between Vertical publishing more of her one-shot works and Crunchyroll putting up those along with a few of her other works on their manga reader.  While the work I'm looking at today is another one volume wonder from her and the good folks at Vertical, it is about as stark of a contrast to Insufficient Direction as one could get.

IN CLOTHES CALLED FAT (Shibo to Iu Nano Fuku o Kite), by Moyoco Anno.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Noko is miserable.  She's insecure, passive, and has a bad tendency to overeat to compensate for her negative feelings.  She has a long-term boyfriend, but he uses her more as a crutch than like a proper partner.  Things only get worse when Noko's coworker Mayuri sets her sights on her.  Mayuri is a sadistic bully, and for her Noko is the perfect target.  Mayuri's poison words and actions cause Noko's insecurity to grow, and Noko becomes more and more convinced that the answer to all her problems is to lose weight by any means possible.

STORY:
This story is harsh and raw, far more so than anything else I've read by Anno.  It's an unflinching portrait of a deeply damaged woman caught in a tragic spiral as well as the two people who drag her down.  It offers no easy answers or happy endings for anyone involved.  It's also one of the most brilliant works I've read since starting this blog.

While Noko is very much the focus and viewpoint of the story, it's also just as much of a portrait of Noko's boyfriend Sato and the malicious Mayuri.  While Anno is fairly sympathetic to Noko's suffering, she doesn't shy away from portraying her faults either.  She makes it clear that Noko's problems mostly stem from Noko's need to fill the emotional void in her life, be it with Sato, with food, or with weight loss.  As long as that void remains, no amount of junk food nor weight loss will ever make her happy, and that the void will only grow stronger and deeper as Noko's life falls apart around her.  That same void is also what feeds her eating disorders, as they shift from emotionally-triggered overeating to bulimia, and these are portrayed in a vivid and horrifying manner.  It's so vivid that those who have struggled with eating disorders in the past may find this too intense and triggering.  To Anno, Noko is less the victim of circumstance than she is the victim of a self-inflicted cycle, one that's fueled just as much by Noko's own mind as it by those around her.

Sato and Mayuri get a similar treatment from Anno - critical, but not necessarily judgmental.  Sato is shown to also be weak-willed and passive, using Noko as a crutch for his fragile ego.  He views himself as noble because he's willing to sleep with Noko in spite of her heaviness.  He uses that fact to not only justify cheating on her, but also as a way to absolve himself of his sins.  After all, no matter what he does, Noko has always taken him back, so he can continue to paint himself as a good guy instead of as the asshole he truly is.  Mayuri is...well, she's something else entirely.  She's an out and out sadist, the kind of person who can only find happiness in the suffering of others.  She views fat people as weak and stupid, the perfect targets for her hate, and Noko is the most perfect target of all.  Mayuri's bullying becomes an obsession for her, as every psychotic thing Mayuri makes is done to spite Noko.  She sleeps with Sato, even subjecting him to sadomasochistic torture to make Noko miserable.  She insults her to her face, sets up her up to look bad before their bosses, and even goes so far as to frame Noko for embezzlement.  She would almost be cartoonishly evil if it wasn't made clear over time that Mayuri's actions are fueled by her own emotional void.  She simply chooses to spit that negativity outward towards others instead of trying to fill it.

In many ways this feels closer to the works of Anno's mentor Kyoko Okazaki than it does to Anno's later works.  It's got that same sort of rough and brutally honest tone, which are used to highlight some of the bitter truths and hypocrisy that young women must face in the modern world.  While those qualities can make this a difficult story to read, it's those same qualities which make In Clothes Called Fat so brilliant and still so very relevant.

ART:
While the art style is fairly consistent with Anno's later works, it lacks some of the polish she brought to those same works.  That's not a slight against it, though.  If anything, it fits the story's tone to a T and makes the Okazaki likeness all the stronger.

While most of the cast sticks to the bobbleheaded, sharp-eyed model that Anno so often uses, Noko stands out.  We see her go up and down in weight drastically over the course of the book, and it's notable that Noko is far prettier in the beginning with her folds and round face than she is near the end as a skinny, haggard mess of a person.  Anno is also excellent at using the characters' body language to speak volumes about their moods and outlooks, just through things like their eyes or their stance.  Backgrounds are rare, and instead these characters seem to drift through black and white voids that echo their emotional states.  Even the paneling is uncomfortably close at time, scrutinizing the cast just as much as the writing does.  The art may be a little rough, but it's a perfect match to the content and tone of the story.
RATING:
This will never be anyone's pleasure reading, but In Clothes Called Fat is definitely the sort of manga that anyone who considers themselves a fan should read.  It pulls no punches with its cast or its subject matter, but it's all the more powerful and meaningful for doing so.

This book is published by Vertical.  It is currently in print.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: INSUFFICIENT DIRECTION

More and more, we're seeing a whose appeal depends on big-name creators outside of the manga world.  While the late Satoshi Kon has been the biggest beneficiary of this trend, today's review is another prime example of such a work  This is most assuredly a manga that would likely have never seen the light of day if not for the fact that it's based around one of anime's most notorious and celebrated directors.

INSUFFICENT DIRECTION (Kantoku Fuyuki Todoki), by Moyoco Anno.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
"Rompers" is a manga artist, but she had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to marry "Director-kun."  She didn't realize just how deep her husband's otakudom ran, and it seems no matter how hard she tries, Rompers can't help but getting sucked into his strange, insular world.  Even when she tries to do responsible adult things like rearrange the apartment, enjoy a relaxing vacation, or even just try to get some work done, it all seems to end with distraction and a lot of obscure pop culture references, all while Director-kun smiles on beatifically.

STORY:
Insufficient Direction is a very odd sort of comedy.  It's the sort of manga that would never see release here if not for its celebrity connection, and it's the sort in-joke heavy ribbing that only a loving spouse could create.

In case you weren't already aware, Moyoco Anno is the wife of well-known animator and director Hideaki Anno.  His is a long and storied career, although most fans of anime and manga are only aware of the stories surrounding him and the creation of Evangelion.  Thus, it can be a bit disconcerting to resolve the popular image of him as a madly depressed auteur with the 'Director-kun' we see here.  Director-kun is an almost child-like at times.  He's blissfully unaware of the strangeness of measuring shelf space in units of Kamen Rider figures or being able to drop lyrics from obscure 1970s tokusatsu shows the way normal people drop Simpsons quotes.  Instead, he seems to approach everything with a positive outlook and his near constant, sly, cat-like smile.  Moyoco Anno admits afterwards that she exaggerated some of his qualities and some of the events that inspired the story, but even accounting for that it's weird to see such a happy-go-lucky and dorky side of such a well-known person.

Mind you, while Anno may exaggerate his qualities, she's not really mocking them or him.  Moyoco Anno is more than willing to have some fun at her own expense through her own exaggerate take on herself, Rompers.  She's shown to be quite the otaku herself when it comes to manga, and while she gets exasperated at times with Director-kun, she doesn't fight all that hard against getting suck into her husband's interests and often has fun in the process.  It keeps their dynamic from turning into just another stereotypical sitcom couple, where the harried wife plays killjoy to her man-child husband, and instead it plays out more like a fun slice-of-life story. 

I am not joking in the least when I say that this story is SOAKED in obscure Japanese pop culture.  From the first title card (styled in the manner of Evangelion's) to the final frame of the last page, their conversations, floors, shelves, and more are littered with references big and small.  Movies, anime, music, tokusatsu - all of this and more come up in all sorts of ways, and even a well-read otaku might struggle to recognize half of what's referenced without a Google search.  What's really interesting is that for all the pop culture ephemera that come up, the one thing that isn't mocked are the collective works of the Annos.  Aside from those title cards, no mention is ever made of Director-kun's shows or films.  Aside from a few staff meetings Anno makes no commentary on her own manga.  I guess that does help keep the story from getting too self-referential or too self-contragulatory, but it's a puzzling little absence from this manga. 

In a way, Insufficient Direction is not just a pun, but something of a misnomer.  It implies something rather aimless, and while the chapters deal with a lot of mundane events, it's really just the story of a very dorky couple who bond over their foibles and their geekiness, and that couple just happens to be a well-known josei mangaka and her husband the animation legend.  They have a lot of fun together, and the story makes their lives inviting enough to make the reader long for a bit of the same.

ART:
This is probably the closest Anno has ever gotten to a purely super-deformed work.  For herself, she uses the same old giant, crazy-eyed baby that's she used for her omakes for years.  For Director-kun, she draws him like an overgrown toddler, complete with all-black casual wear, a big pot-belly, bare feet, a messy crop of curls, and that near-constant beatific expression on his scruffy face.  When you do see other people in this manga, they tend to be drawn in a manner more typical of Anno's other manga - that same lush, slightly bobbleheaded look.  She does take a rather casual approach to backgrounds, save for the Anno's ever-messy apartment, where black shelves seemingly overspill with various boxes and things.  It's generally a bit simple compared to Anno's other works, but for a story that's meant to be sillier and more casual in tone that's perfectly fine.

PRESENTATION:
I have to give Vertical some serious credit if simply for the fact that some poor soul had to do a LOT of research for the translation notes.  There are pages upon pages of them, with a short paragraph explaining each show and each in-joke.  There's also a brief interview with Hideaki Anno about this manga.  It's nice to get his perspective not only on this story, but also his approach to his own works, and he takes a very gentle and self-effusive approach to both himself and Director-kun.

RATING:
While I suspect that this would be a hard sell for anyone who isn't already familiar with either Anno, Insufficient Direction is a rare and humorous glimpse into the lives of these two and well worth a look.

This book is published by Vertical.  It is currently in print.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: NIJIGAHARA HOLOGRAPH

While the major manga publishers are off looking the next big hit, the smaller, more independent publishers continue to focus on those manga which are too old or too alternative for mainstream readers.  One of the leading companies on this front is Fantagraphics, and today we're looking at possibly the most anticipated manga license of theirs from this year, as well as yet another one-volume wonder.

NIJIGAHARA HOLOGRAPH (Nijigahara Horograph), by Isio Asano.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
The children in Suzuka's new class all seem to know about a monster in a tunnel near their school.  Rumors say that people have died down there, and that the monster is the reason that one of their classmates is in a coma.  As time moves on, the children and teachers grow up, but that tunnel remains the focus for a web of unhappiness that still connects the members of that class.  It seems that the events from those days are determined to haunt Suzuka and his classmates well into adulthood, and everything seems to bring them back to that same mysterious tunnel.

STORY:
In many ways, this book reminds me of another Asano work, What a Wonderful World!.  Both focus on disaffected young people who find themselves dealing with supernatural forces.  Both have the same sort of odd, affected air that reminds me more strongly of independent American comics than your everyday manga.  There is one notable difference though - Nijigahara Holograph scrambles its timeline so thoroughly that it becomes too obtuse for its own good.

The story is told in bits and pieces, shifting from character to character and from one place in time to another over the course of roughly a decade.  Now, there's nothing wrong with shaking up your story's timeline to force the reader to reexamine the way they approach the story or to create a sense of uncertainty about the reader's perception of events.  Done well, it can be incredibly effective and unique.  Just like any other technique, though, it can be taken too far, where the story becomes so scrambled that it's hard to make tails or heads of anything.  This was my biggest issue with the story - it's not that I think it's badly written, just confusingly told.  Hell, I wasn't even aware that there were supposed to be alternate timelines in the story until I read the description on the back cover. 

While I may not be crazy for the way the story is told, the story itself is well written.  That being said, it is far from a lighthearted one, considering that our various cast members deal with bullying, suicide, broken families, failing marriages, attempted rape, and death at one point or another. Nobody here is a perfect hero nor a complete villain, and few bad deeds get any sort of punishment.  The conflict that the characters feel, whether it's guilt for their actions or just a need for focus and inspiration, are relatable and realistic.  The supernatural elements fit perfectly fine with the darker or more mundane elements because Asano never stops to explain where these mysterious glowing butterflies come, why they are spreading, and why they always seem to gather around this mysterious and troubled aquaduct.  It doesn't even go so far as the point out the obvious 'butterfly effect' metaphor between the events and choices of the cast and the actual butterflies, letting the reader put that one together on their own.  Still, that just ties back to the story being told in an overly obtuse manner.  Nijigahara Holograph is an effective and thoughtful mood piece.  I just wish it was a little more open and easy to follow.

ART:
Asano's remains much the same as his previous works, which means it retains much of the same high qualities.  His character designs are almost cutely rounded and caricature-like, which does serve as an oddly cute contrast to the seriousness and disaffectedness of the story.  Still, they remained rooted in reality, much like the lovingly detailed apartments, schoolrooms, and waterways that our story takes place in.  He tends to draw a lot of long, squat panels, but he makes up for that with by employing a lot of cinematic angles and a few well-placed, full-page spreads.  All together, it adds up to some slightly unusual and occasionally haunting visuals.

RATING:
Nijigahara Holograph is many things at once.  It's odd, it's unsettling, and yet it's fascinating.  It covers a lot of themes and ideas that Asano has covered in previous works, but it's presented in a way that makes it kind of inscrutable.  I don't see this book turn a lot of people into Asano fans, but those who already are will likely find a lot to enjoy and ponder.

This book is published by Fantagraphics.  It is currently in print.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Review: SAY 'I LOVE YOU'

Of course, sometime the newer shoujo series tweak those formulas in more subtle ways.  Sometimes they choose to take a more realistic approach to relationships, giving their heroines some more compelling issues than "I'm too shy!" or having their lead couple be interested in more than just holding hands.  Does this approach work?  If they're anything like today's work, I'd say it's definitely a step in the right direction.

SAY 'I LOVE YOU' (Suki-tte Ii na yo), by Kanae Hazuki.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Mei Tachibana can get along perfectly fine without any friends, thank you very much.  Based on her experiences, other girls do nothing but bully and betray others just as they did to her before, so who needs that kind of trouble in their life?  Her years of self-imposed loneliness is interrupted by a chance encounter with class playboy Yamato.  He's intrigued by Mei's prickly attitude and flashes of spunk, and bit by bit he wins he wins her confidence.  Mei is reluctant at first, but bit by bit she starts to find herself pulled into his circle of friends as well as towards an even deeper relationship with Yamato.

STORY:
Say 'I Love You' is a shoujo series that seems somehow stuck in the middle.  While its plot follows the tried and true romantic formula, there are little flashes of personality that peek out which give the story some well-needed color.

Too many shoujo heroines are unpopular not because of their personality or actions, but simply because they're the victims of circumstance.  Mei is not that sort of girl.  No, her social awkwardness is all of her own doing.  She was burned by others as a young girl, and because of that she puts up a hard front of sarcasm and indifference to hide the loneliness she feels.  Her social awkwardness and discomfort are almost uncomfortably real in their portrayal, and anyone who was ever an awkward, unpopular teenager will likely relate to her. Still, that same awkwardness is exploited in-story in a lot of all-too-typical ways.  Her lack of social experience is all the excuse Hazane need to pull the 'why is my heart beating so fast?' card around Yamato, which suggests that this will be a relationship that  will be dragged out as long as humanly possible.  It also makes it easy for her to come up with a few throwaway mean girls there to antagonize Mei for daring to exist in the same space as Yamato for the sake of conflict. 

A lot of shoujo love interests tend to be boys who are either impossibly saintly or douchey and abusive to the extreme.  While Yamato tends towards the perfect princely type, he's got a surprisingly dirty mind which helps to ground him a little.  He makes no secret of the fact that he's physically attracted to Mei, which means there's a bit more making out than what's usually seen in these sorts of stories.  He does walk a thin line at times, though, because he's clearly trying to push Mei's physical boundaries a little, and those attempts tend to end with Mei crying and freaked out.  Still, he's also the one who tries to ease Mei into his social scene, and that goes a lot more smoothly.  Mei soon bonds with the perky, busty Asami, who herself is picked on for her big boobs, and being experienced with such things Mei tries to help.  It doesn't go all that well - while Mei's blunt, common-sense advice is taken to heart, her attempt to confront the bullies doesn't change a thing.  Still, it's a positive moment of growth for Mei and it's a more realistic take on this well-worn scenario.

Say 'I Love You' is an interesting yet conflicted story. The characters are slightly more complex than usual, as they struggle with issues and awkwardness that are more reflective of real teenagers' lives.  On the other hand, the story tends to follow the same old story beats, and the effect is like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.

ART:
Hazuki's art, much like Mei herself, doesn't quite fit the standard shoujo mold.  While everyone tends to be good looking and stylishly coiffed, there's a sort of awkward gangliness to the character designs which makes them stand out.  While that means that they tend to look a bit odd from certain angles, it doesn't detract from their ability to express themselves well.  Appropriately for a series that isn't all sparkles and sunshine, the backgrounds here aren't the usual assortment of spangled screen tones.  Instead, they tend to be rather plain and subdued, and the story looks all the better for it.  The art in general tends to be presented in a understated sort of way, and it helps sell the reader on the seriousness of the story.

PRESENTATION:
There are the usual batch of translation notes, but there's also a surprisingly insightful afterword from Hazuki herself.  In it she reveals that a lot of Mei's attitude comes from her own experiences as an awkward, bullied teenager.  Learning that helped me understand why Mei's experience was so vivid and relatable - it's practically biographical.

RATING:
Say 'I Love You' at times threatens to become just another boring, rote shoujo romance but it distinguishes itself by not whitewashing the darker or more awkward qualities of its cast and story, and it feels more rewarding because of that.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 13 volumes available.  5 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.

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