Saturday, May 2, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: LOVELESS

Let's keep going on a shoujo vein, this time with something a bit more recent, a bit more male, and a lot more problematic. 

LOVELESS (Raburesu), by Yun Kouga.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.


PLOT:

Ritsuka is a young man who is haunted by his lost memories and the mysterious death of his older brother Seimei.  Ritsuka mostly spends his days going to therapy, doing his best to dodge his abusive mother, and trying to deflect the attentions of his classmates and teachers.  Everything changes when Soubi enters his life.  Soubi is able to wield words like weapons and seems to have known Seimei in the past, but he needs Ritsuka for his magic to work properly.  Ritsuka is skeptical, but it seems the only way he can find the answers to his lost identity and his lost brother is by getting close to Soubi.

STORY:

I feel terribly conflicted about Loveless.  I feel like it genuinely has potential, and that she is capable of writing compelling characters and intriguing premises.  It's just that she can't quite put all of those ideas together into something coherent and that she spends a little too much time catering to the fujoshi.

The biggest source of that potential is Ritsuka himself.  There are plenty of shoujo manga that claim to have terribly tormented protagonists, but most of them would look like utter poseurs compared to him.  Ritsuka is tormented, but he actually has decent cause for it between his amnesia, the abuse he suffers, and the overwhelming guilt he feels over his missing brother.  He's so guilt-ridden that he justifies his mother's abuse as her lashing out at him for not acting like the son she remembered, and he does his best to deflect and lie to others to keep others from prying into his life.  This is a kid who feels abandoned by everyone and everything he ever knew or trusted and he's so hurt and guilty that he refuses to let anyone get close again.  Ritsuka is a character with a lot of rough edges, the sort that can't be healed with a friendship monologue and a hug, and it's nice to see a shoujo lead who is allowed to be less than a nice person.  Sadly, this couldn't last, and it's mostly the fault of Soubi.

With Ritsuka, we learn a lot about him in a short amount of time in a fairly subtle manner.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for Soubi.  He's a mystery man from beginning to end, even as he regularly feeds Ritsuka the clues and backstory needed to solve the mystery of Seimei's disappearance.  He too tends to shift moods on a dime, but here it feels less like a way to deflect attention and more like yaoi fanservice, as he tends to get rather hands-on with Ritsuka and declares his love for him almost instantly.  He even goes so far as to pierce Ritsuka's ear in a painfully obvious metaphor for their relationship, and it never feels like the actions of a real person. 

The romantic implications are especially awkward considering that Soubi is mostly using Ritsuki to help fight his battles, literally.  It seems Soubi and a number of others are caught up in an endless tournament of vaguely defined magic battles.  It involves a magic user who casts offensive spells through a set phrase while harnessing their power from their significantly younger partner.  Partnerships are also apparently hereditary in nature, as Soubi was literally commanded to watch over Ritsuka by Seimei before he disappeared.  What's the point of it all?  Well, apparently there's a secret organization that want to take Ritsuka and Soubi down for...um...er...reasons.  It's not well-explained, but then nothing else is in Loveless, so why should this be different?  It's such a shame to see a promising lead dragged down by such an aimless plot and such shameless fanservice.

ART:

While there's an interesting touch of angularity to Kouga's character designs, that's not going to be the first thing you notice about them.  No, what you will notice are the cat ears.  You see, in the world of Loveless virgins all have cat ears and tails, and Ritsuka keeps making a big deal out of the fact that Soubi does not and how 'adult' he is because of that.  What does this detail add to the story?  Absolutely nothing!  It's there for fangirl appeal, just like all the willowy bishonen found all over the story that frequently touch each other suggestively.  Kouga tends to play things a bit too close with the guys, but she also tends to get a bit too close with the panels for the art's own good.  It makes the fights particularly awkward, as they becoming nothing but an incoherent mess of words and inappropriate cuddling over a lot of washed out greys.  Otherwise, Kouga's art isn't bad, but it doesn't do much to alleviate the chaos of her story.

RATING:

Loveless has a great lead, but the story drowns out everything interesting about him in a bunch of fantastical nonsense and fujoshi fanservice.  It's far from a loveless series, but it's certainly a hard one to love.

This series is published by Viz, formerly by Tokyopop.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 12 volumes currently available.  Tokyopop published 8 volumes, and all are out of print.  Viz has rereleased the first 8 volumes in omnibus form and the rest in single volumes, and all are currently in print.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Merry Month of Manga Begins! Review: A DRUNKEN DREAM

Well, another year has passed here at the Manga Test Drive.  This May marks the third year I've been writing for this blog, and unlike the last time, I was able to do so without disappearing for weeks or months at a time due to burnout.  It's been a busy year and a relatively fruitful one.  Not only have views have been higher than ever, but very recently I discovered that The Manga Test Drive has fans in high places.



What you see there is the back of Volume 8 of Vertical's Knights of Sidonia, a back cover that happens to feature a quote from my previous review of the first volume.  You can only imagine my surprise and shock at the sight.  There in front of me were my own words on a professionally published book! My humble little blog was getting the kind of prominent placement that's usually only reserved for major review sites and critics who are far more seasoned and professional than I.  I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't a total ego boost, but it's also a good reason to celebrate with a full month of manga reviews!  That's right - for every day in May, there will be a new review for everyone to enjoy!  So let's kick things off with a blast from manga's past.

A DRUNKEN DREAM AND OTHER STORIES, by Moto Hagio.  First published from 1970 - 2007, and first published in North America in 2010.



PLOT:

This anthology features a wide selection of stories from Hagio's career, ranging from some of her earliest works all the way to the 21st century.  Within are stories of children haunted by the choices of adults, love stories that carry throughout the ages, broken families, and much more, all from the pen of shoujo's most influential creators.

STORY:

As is the problem with so many manga anthologies, it's hard to do a concise summary of the book because there are so many of them collected here.  Fantagraphics, in conjunction with translator and longtime Hagio champion Matt Thorn, chose these stories to introduce not only manga fans, but also comic fans to Hagio's works, and I can say that they chose exceptionally well.  A Drunken Dream does a great job of showing off how Hagio's art and writing have evolved over the years, and while the subject matter may vary wildly, the themes within are all still very relevant and touching.

It's rather appropriate that the earliest stories here are also the most immature in both story and choice of characters.  Most of these focus on innocent children whose lives are affected by the cruel adults and broken families that others try so valiantly to hide from them.  This sort of melodrama was something of a tradition in the early days of shoujo, where the reader was meant to sympathize with the noble suffering of these impossibly good and saintly children, but these days such melodrama comes off as cheap, even a little ridiculous.  Still, as the stories progress through time, we see Hagio's storytelling evolve from talkative melodramas to nearly silent and highly metaphorical works. 

Even from her early days, she was not afraid to tackle some very heavy and complicated themes.  One great example of that is "Iguana Girl," a story about a young woman whose whole life and outlook have been colored by her mother's constant verbal abuse who nonetheless manages to find a sense of acceptance for herself, her lot in life, and even towards her terrible mother.  "Angel Mimic" starts off with the heroine trying to commit suicide, who also must deal with not only depression, but the prospect of an abortion.  "The Silver Willow" is all about death and letting go of loved ones.  In the hands of lesser writers, such topics could become ridiculously dramatic or moralizing, but Hagio is able to weave them deftly into the story and strives to help the reader understand and sympathize with her protagonists and their choices.

There are also a lot of stories that deal with much more simple matters - lost love, death, regret, and so forth.  These too are handled with the same degree of seriousness and sympathy, and some of these rank amongst the best of the entire book, such as "Marie, Ten Years Later" (a story of a friendship torn apart by jealousy and suicide) as well as the titular tale (a love story that transcends both time and gender set amongst the stars of the far-flung future).  The latter is familiar territory for those lucky enough to read the Moto Hagio stories that Viz published nearly 20 years ago, and it also called to mind the works of fellow Showa 29 artist Keiko Takemiya.

If you've ever been curious to read her works or wanted to get some understanding of why Moto Hagio is considered one of the great names of shoujo, then A Drunken Dream is a great place to start.  It lets the reader see just how much she advanced as a writer over the decades, and while the details of each story may differ greatly, the themes are both affecting and timeless.

ART:

This anthology also lets the reader see how Hagio's art style evolved over time.  Not surprisingly, the earliest stories are the ones that look the most rough.  There are loads of jewel-eyed children with flowing hair that move through their worlds with the grace of a dancer, but they're drawn more flatly and crudely than similar figures in Hagio's later stories.  Still, there's a surreal quality to some of these that's very typical of 1970s shoujo, and I'll admit that I find myself drawn to the ghostly silhouettes and swirling backgrounds of her early works.  Over time, though, there's a far more confident and grounded quality to her work, and she starts to draw a lot more grown men and women with a wider variety of looks and body types, even if they never quite lose those jeweled eyes.

The biggest visual highlight of the book is also the only one in color, the titular story.  Here Hagio took a cue from the classical setting and makes her leads look something like Greek statuary come to life, which stands in contrast to the sci-fi content of the story.  The color adds a sense of warmth to the present of the story, as it desaturates into sepia tones during the flashbacks accented only with the occasional flash of red.  This warmth and visual distinction between the two worlds is something that would have been lost had it been printed in black and white.  The closest rival is has is "The Willow Tree," which is told almost entirely in silence.  In it, a woman stands vigil under a willow tree, watching the seasons and years go past, and it manages to communicate so much with such a simple montage. Of course, it's helped by the fact that Hagio draws such fantastic backgrounds, ones that are full of detail and life.  She's also very good with panel and page composition, and every work is framed as beautifully as a painting.  It's just a visually stunning book, and a fine testament to Hagio's skill as an artist.

RATING:

A Drunken Dream deserves to sit on the shelves of anyone who loves good shoujo.  It's a great introduction to one of shoujo's great women, one that is full of beauty and emotion that anyone can connect to regardless of age.

This volume was published by Fantagraphics.  It is currently in print.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: MONKEY HIGH

Of course, for every notable or enjoyable school-related manga, there are plenty of others that can only rise to middling at best, ones that tend to fall through the cracks of memory and time.  Today's review is just one example of this seemingly endless pile of titles.

MONKEY HIGH! (Saruyama!), by Shouko Arika.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.



PLOT:

Haruna Aizawa isn't happy about the fact that she had to switch schools.  Her politician father got caught up in a scandal, and to help her family save face she's had to switch from her high-class private school to a rowdy public high school.  She likens her new classmates to a bunch of rowdy monkeys, with the rowdiest of them all being the boy everyone calls Macharu.  He's short, childish, full of energy, and endlessly optimistic, and Haruna finds his optimism irritating.  Soon enough, though, Macharu manages to work his way into her heart, and Haruna starts to realize that she may be falling for goofy little Macharu.

STORY:

Aside from the metaphor that gives this series its name, there is nothing that is the least bit remarkable about Monkey High!.  Everything you've seen here has been done before, from the leading couple to the chapter plotlines to the reluctant romance they enter into, and countless shoujo series have done them better or in a more interesting manner.

Haruna is meant to be a defrosting ice queen, but she's far too bland of a character to make much of an impression on reader before or after she falls for Macharu.  Worse still, she always seems to be retreating from the plot instead of engaging in it.  Whenever people from her new school try to get her involved in school activities or people from her old school try to get back into touch, she does her best to get away or alienate herself from them.  It's a weirdly passive move on her part, and it never feels like the natural choice of a conflicted high school girl.  Macharu is a little more fleshed out in comparison, but that's still not saying much.  He's certainly more engaging than Haruna, but his perceived immaturity makes the idea of him being in a romantic relationship feel kind of weird.  The story loves to milk the fact that he's short and boyish, which makes him less than ideal as boyfriend material.  Still, at least he's got something you might call a personality.  That's more than his classmates get, as they are mostly relegated to the role of Greek chorus, there either to fuel conflict or support Haruna and Macharu's burgeoning relationship.  The same goes for Atsu, Macharu's flirty best friend or the seemingly endless line of rich guys from Haruna's old school.  They show up just long enough to tease the possibility of breaking up our leads until they reaffirm the status quo. 

The plot itself is just a grab-bag of standard schoolroom and romantic scenarios.  As such, we get just as many 'let's put on a play for the school festival!' or 'let's go on a field trip!' moments as we do 'why is my heart beating so fast?' leading up to the all important kiss.  I guess I can give Akira the benefit of not dragging out the romance for volumes at a time, as Haruna and Macharu become a couple only midway through the volume.  The problem is that Akira clearly had no plan as how to maintain any sense of drama or tension after that, so she just keeps throwing other, taller, more conventionally handsome guys in Haruna's path in a futile attempt to get her to stray.  Of course, she never considers it for a minute, so all of this ends up being rather pointless.

Monkey High! is a manga that's deeply lacking in any sense of identity.  Its only distinguishing feature is Macharu, and even then there are plenty of shoujo manga out there about short guys in relationships like Lovely Complex.  Otherwise Akira just seems to be doing little more than a half-assed retread of a lot of tired old shoujo set-ups and character types.

ART:

The story is far from the only thing that feels generic here.  Akira's artwork could easily be confused with that of dozens of other B- and C-list shoujo titles, full of generically cute teenagers.  Again, the only one that stands out is Macharu.  She does manage to make him look both like a big goofy kid and like a monkey, but even then he looks a bit like someone put One Piece's Monkey D. Luffy through a shoujo filter.  She uses all these mostly mundane characters to fill up space in her rather crowded panels, which in turn are packed on the page and augmented with a bit of screentone.  Overall, it's all perfectly competent in technique, but Akira brings nothing new or interesting to her art.

RATING:

Monkey High! is an empty trifle of manga.  It's not incompetent by any means, but neither does it strive to do anything interesting with itself.  It's too boring to be offensive, but that means it's all too boring to stick in anyone's mind once they put the first volume down.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan, with 8 volumes available.  All 8 volumes have been published and are currently in print.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: ONEGAI TEACHER!

Of course, there are just as many teacher-related manga as there are school-related manga, and more than a fair share of them involve student-teacher relationships.  Today's selection is considered by some to be a classic, but does it hold up after all these years?

ONEGAI TEACHER! (Onegai Ticha!), by Please! & Shizuru Hayashiya.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

Kei Kusanagi feels as if his whole life is stagnating.  He feels removed from his classmates thanks to an ongoing heart problem, a lack of libido, and a keen interest in UFOs.  One night he happens to not only discover a UFO, but a beautiful redhead who emerges from the ship before disappearing into the night.  He would have been willing to write this off as a dream until that same redhead becomes both his new neighbor and his new homeroom teacher.

He discovers that the woman, Mizuho, is an intergalactic observer sent to study Earth and she can't afford to have her job compromised or her identity revealed by Kei.  They decide that the best way to help her is for the two to marry.  Kei's has a hard enough time keeping his and Mizuho's secrets away from nosy family members and classmates with crushes, but he could have never anticipated that the growing affection between him and Mizuho might be the biggest complication of them all.

STORY:

Well, I'll be damned.  I've never been someone who was all that keen on the magical girlfriend concept, as the worse ones tend to be rampantly sexist and intellectually insulting and even the better examples feature relationships that feel more like mother and child than two young lovers.  Yet I was struck time and again by how genuinely readable and enjoyable Onegai Teacher was.  It might just be one of the better examples of the magical girlfriend to be found on the manga market.

It helps a lot that Kei is rather down to earth when compared to many other characters in similar places.  He's a very mellow, even contemplative kid for his age.  His lack of libido means that he's not the panty-chasing nose-bleeder that so often pops up in these sorts of stories, and he possesses enough social grace to be able to talk to girls without having a nervous breakdown (even if he remains utterly oblivious to their advances).  Mind you, the writers make up for his mellowness by having Kei's uncle and friends supply the loud, girl-crazy perviness, but it's easier to overlook it when it's coming from the supporting cast instead of the lead.

It also helps that Mizuho is also fairly well-rounded herself, and not just because she's a conveniently humanoid and conventionally attractive woman.  She's no bubble-headed ditz, mewling sex kitten, or substitute mother.  Instead she is gracious and professional on the job, and at home her gentleness is tempered with a feeling of believable awkwardness around her newfound spouse.  These two barely knew each other before being taken to the alter, so their awkwardness around one another is understandable and relatable, and the story is more than content to let their relationship build in a slow, gentle manner.

That's not to say that the story is perfect.  It does end up utilizing some of the same old tropes you've seen before.  There are plenty of suggestively staged mix-ups and misunderstandings to create drama, there's an overprotective little sister whose only gag is to beat up Kei as often as possible, and there's even a cutesy little critter that turns into a spaceship that almost certainly is there because Tenchi Muyo did it first.  Still, there's a heart and soul here that one rarely gets from magical girlfriend stories, and the fact that it's a TV-to-manga adaptation makes it all the more marvelous.  So often the emphasis is on broad humor punctuated with a lot of jiggle and bounce, but here the emphasis is establishing a proper romance and the story greatly benefits from that.

ART:

Shiyahiyo did have the advantage of not having to come up with the characters wholesale, but as a whole he makes them all look great.  He doesn't mess too much with the original character designs for the sake of sensation, which means that the curves on the ladies remain grounded in reality and fanservice is all but nonexistent.  He instead saves his exaggeration for the humorous bits, but even then he doesn't stretch things too far.  Really, everything here is fairly minimal, from the backgrounds to the angles to the composition, but it's all good and solidly drawn and it does a good job translating the show into written form.

RATING:

This is a magical girlfriend series who prefers them more in the line of Oh My Goddess than Chobits.  It translates a sensational premise into a surprisingly down-to-earth and engaging romance that holds up to the ages and even now is well worth seeking.

This series was published by ComicsOne.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes.  Both volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: SCHOOL RUMBLE

While there are plenty of comedy manga out there in the world, few of them could be accurately described as a farce, and fewer still could consider themselves as successful at it as today's selection.

SCHOOL RUMBLE (Sukuru Ranburu), by Jin Kobayashi.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.



PLOT:

Tenma Tsukamoto is in love with her classmate Karasuma Oji, and in turn class delinquent Kenji Harmia is in love with Tenma.  This love triangle is the heart of an ever-growing web of friends and classmates who find themselves caught in the crossfire of Tenma's and Harima's never-ending and increasingly wacky attempts to win over their respective objet d'amour

STORY:

Comedy is a lot harder to pull off than people think it is.  Anyone can spout random silly phrases or overreact to the nonsensical things around them, but can steadily produce a series of good gags that work beginning to end that can appeal to a wide audience.  This is doubly true for farce, since farce is not only purposefully over-the-top, but often features multiple plot threads happening simultaneously, and it takes keen writing to keep things straight and keep it from all becoming obnoxious.  This is triply true for comedy manga, since on top of all these issues, they have to work with only still black-and-white images for their delivery.  When you take all of that into consideration, it just makes the fact that School Rumble is so consistently and endearingly funny all that much more of a marvelous feat.

So what is it precisely that makes School Rumble so amusing?  Well, it helps that Kobayashi is a skilled enough writer to pull off a farce.  Every chapter builds itself upon a single, simple concept - either Tenma is trying to get Karauama's attention or Harima is trying to get Tenma's attention.  The details may change depending on time and setting, but that single concept ends up becoming the core to an ever-growing snowball of hilariously bad ideas that one (or both) undertake, building up to the punch-line.  It's a simple structure to build a joke upon, but the variety and sheer wackiness of each chapter keeps that joke from ever getting stale. 

It also helps that even as Tenma and Harima make utter fools of themselves, it's clear that Kobayashi harbors great affection for them both.  In a profile at the end of the volume, Kobayashi outright admits that Harima is his favorite character, and it's easy to see why.  Harima is the kind of shonen protagonist who not only gets to indulge in uber-manly street punk stuff, but also gets to be a big goof all in the name of trying to impress a girl, making him both an inspiration and relatable to the young male audience.  Still, he doesn't get half the page time that Tenma does, and he also put some care into her as well.  It would have been all too easy to make her a simple ditz and leave the joke at that.  What makes the difference is that her youthful ignorance is rounded out with loads of energy and a quick and active imagination, as well as getting to see her in more casual settings with her sister Yakumo and her school friends.  He also tends to alternate the focus between the two from chapter to chapter, which keeps the balance fair and stories varied.

School Rumble is one of those comedies that focuses more on the characters than the plot.  The Tenma-Karasuma-Harima love triangle is the closest thing this manga has to a proper ongoing plot, but it's also far from the only story going on here.  With every chapter, the cast expands a little more, and many of them have their own stories or romantic entanglements to deal with.  Kobayashi is even willing to pull the narrative breaks a little by writing a chapter or two from Yakumo's perspective.  Her stories are a bit of an odd fit even for a series as silly as this.  It's not because they tend to be more serious and introspective, but because they bring in a supernatural element by giving Yakumo the ability to hear the thoughts of those who love her.  Considering that she is both pretty and popular, you can imagine just how many mental come-ons she overhears.  It's not a bad idea on its own, but when plopped into the middle of this wacky comedy it just feels odd and tonally it feels out of place.

Comedy in manga is a hard thing to do well, but School Rumble makes it look positively effortless.  Kobayashi knows just how to build up a cast of endearing yet hilarious characters and how to turn the romantic equivalent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon into a never-ending stream of genuinely good gags.  It's an act of manga alchemy that's a delight to read and that few can hope to replicate.

ART:

One advantage of comedy manga is that it's usually less dependent on good artwork than most.  So long as the story is easy to follow and the characters are reasonably attractive, most people will be satisfied.  Kobayashi certainly achieves that and much more.  The characters are clean and simple, yet distinct and very expressive - a necessity for a manga with a cast as large as this one has.  I suspect Kobayashi is a fan of Ken Akamatsu, as Tenma's signature twin pigtails twitch and move in a manner similar to Akamatsu's hair attennae).  He definitely makes his preference for Harima apparent in the art, as he clearly savors every opportunity he gets to draw this dramatic, heavily hatched scenes of Harima riding around on his motorcycle or getting into fights. Indeed, he seems to love any opportunity he can get to mess with the angles or the lighting to highlight mood shifts or a shift to a character's inner monologue.  At the same time, he also clearly loves drawing all the goofy, over-the-top, or superdeformed reactions that the cast indulges in so often.  If anything suffers in comparison, it's the backgrounds.  They're not common, and what is there are your standard homerooms and interiors, but it hardly matters when the rest of it is so strong.

RATING:
It's a shame that this was one of the many series that was dropped during the Del Ray-Kodansha transfer, as School Rumble is one of the few comedy manga that's genuinely funny and remains so even today.  While it will sadly never be completed, it's still worth seeking out.

This series was published by Del Ray.  This series is complete in Japan with 22 volumes available.  16 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.