Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: BERSERK

Well, time to wrap up a month full of fantasy with one of the great (and gory) classics of the genre.

BERSERK (Beruseruku), by Kentaro Miura.  First published in 1990, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Somewhere, a kingdom lies in chaos.  Demons and monsters of every shape and size wander the lands, preying on all those they meet.  Those without power are helpless before them; those with power wheel and deal behind the scenes to either save themselves or satisfy their own dark purposes.  It seems no person can stand up to such evil...that is, no person except Guts, the notorious Black Swordsman.  He is a mercenary cursed to roam the earth, bearing a brand that draws the demons to him.  His only goal is to survive, and to do so he must slay any demon that crosses his path and those who would interfere.

STORY:
I might as well get the most obvious question out of the way.  If you're wondering why that description above does not include mentions of Griffith, Casca, or the Band of the Hawk, then I'm afraid that your storyline is in another volume.  The beginning of this series is a one-man show, and that man is the grim and bloody Guts.

Guts is a hard man to like.  He's terse and nihilistic, a man with no sympathy towards those who do not fight.  He doesn't battle demons out of any sense of doing good, but instead to lash out at those who would kill him first.  His body bears numerous scars from battles past - a missing eye, a metal arm, and most notably a strange brand on the back of his neck.  He is an incredibly strong man, wielding a sword that, in the words of Miura himself, is "massive, thick, heavy, and far too rough.  Indeed, it was like a heap of raw iron."  It's a wonderfully evocative phrase, and one that not only sums up the sword, but the man who wields it as well.

It's easy to see how such a dark and depressing world could spawn a man like Guts.  It's a world that's positively soaked in sex, death and violence.  Miura makes no bones about establishing that right away, as we start with Guts having sex with an anonymous woman.  She transforms into a squirming mass of teeth and tentacles, and he in turn slays her without so much as a word.  It's a cruel and truly medieval world, one where it's hard to tell the difference between the corrupt lords seeking profit and those who are themselves demons.  Such a world might cross the line into pure grimdark exaggeration if not for the little bit of levity known as Puck.

Puck is our comic relief, a captured elf who keeps running into Guts as the story progresses.  You can understand why Miura needed to add a character like him.  He keeps things from getting too depressingly serious, and he also gives Guts someone to talk to, someone with whom to share exposition.  That being said, I can also understand why so many fans of the series considering him incredibly annoying.  He may be called an elf, but he's more like a fairy in looks and attitude.  He's childish and more than a little naïve.  He inserts himself into situation without asking or thinking, and more than once gets into trouble because of it.  In many ways, Puck's personality is just as much an extreme as Guts' nihilism, and extreme personalities can often be grating.

There's not much of a continuous arc here.  Every few chapters or so, Guts moves on somewhere else, discovers the whereabouts of another demons and sets out to kill it.  Miura knows well to pace these episodes well, letting things build until it explodes in an orgy of blood.  Every new fight builds up the world he has created, letting us learn a little more about either the world itself or about Guts.  Miura is clearly playing things close to his chest and planning things out in the long run, which mercifully means that there are no pages-long founts of exposition.  Berserk is beautifully balanced in its darkness, always keeping things moving forward.  Guts may not be a sympathetic sort of man, but he is oddly compelling, and one can't help but want to see just what evil force he will fight next.

ART:
Miura's work on Berserk precedes him, as many consider him one of the best and most elaborate manga artists still working.  Even at this early stage, I can see how he would earn such a reputation.  His attention to detail is stunning, and his imagination clearly takes as many cues from Hieronymous Bosch and H.P. Lovecraft as it does from more standard fantasy art.  Miura hasn't quite reached the fantastical heights of his most recent chapters here, but it's still leagues beyond what most mangaka were doing in 1990.  Hell, it's still leagues beyond what most manga art looks like now. 

His characters are solid and surely drawn, aided by the rich and dense shading and hatching.  The designs of the demons are suitably strange and grotesque, and Puck can be both delicately, androgynously beautify as well as silly and almost chibi-esque with his over-the-top reactions.  Miura does not shy away from the violence, as many a page features bodies being hacked and slashed as dark, thick splashes of ink issue forth.  Miura does not waste one bit of space, filling nearly every panel with richly detailed backgrounds and composing his panels with the eye of a cinematographer. Berserk's is truly epic in the traditional sense of the world.  It's a true feast for the eyes, at least for those able to stomach its content.

RATING:
Berserk is a glorious, gory fantasy epic, a truly one-of-a-kind work.  Its story, while extreme in content, is compelling, and the art is nothing short of exquisite.

This series is released by Dark Horse.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 37 volumes available.  All 37 have been released and are currently in print.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: RECORD OF LODOSS WAR: CHRONICLES OF THE HEROIC KNIGHT

Today's review could have easily fit in with last month's theme as it does with this month's, being an adaptation of a television series.  If only it were an adaptation of a GOOD series.

RECORD OF LODOSS WAR: CHRONICLES OF THE HEROIC KNIGHT (Rodosu-to Senki: Eiyu Kishi-den), adapted from the light novel series by Ryo Mizuno & drawn by Masato Natsumoto.  First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Years have passed since the legendary knight Parn conquered the forces of evil and saved the island of Lodoss.  Now an apprentice knight named Spark wants nothing more than to follow in Parn's example and become a full-fledged knight.  It's too bad for him that once again, he failed to qualify.  Things get only worse when he manages to get himself a guard job at the royal castle, only to have a bunch of dark elves break in and steal a magical artifact.  The king commands Spark to take back the stolen artifact, and now it seems that Spark just may get his wish.  So, he and his band of fellow warriors must set off to find the artifact, defeat the dark elves, and save the day once more.

STORY:
Lodoss War is less of a series and more of a franchise.  It started in the 80s when Mizuno literally started doing write-ups of the games of Dungeons & Dragons that he and a bunch of fellow authors were playing.  These grew so popular that he turned them into a light novel series, which in turn inspired a popular OVA, comedy spin-offs, manga series, a TV series with a great opening and little else, and even more manga series.  This manga fits in that very last category, which to many would be a black mark against it right from the beginning.  Now, I'm only familiar with the Lodoss War franchise in name only, so I hope I can give this series something resembling a fair shot.

Unfortunately, that might hurt my enjoyment of the series simply because this is a direct sequel to Record of Lodoss War: The Grey Witch (which was inspired by the OVA).  The main cast from that story make cameo appearances here, and it's clearly supposed to be a big and exciting thing.  In many ways, we're supposed to be geeking out over their appearance in much the same way our lead does.  This also means that this series has something of the same problem that I had with the Tenchi Muyo review I did so long ago: it requires you to do some homework.  Again, like Tenchi this wouldn't have been so much of an issue when this book was first released, but pretty much everything Lodoss related has long since fallen out of print with the closure of Central Park Media.  As such, most modern fans won't be familiar with the original story, much less the sequel.

This story really does feel like reading through a D&D dungeon master's notes, because our lead and party fit almost perfectly into the classes we've all come to associate with that series and those like it.  We have a knight, a mercenary, a wizard, a half-elf, a cleric, and even a thief or rogue class by the end of the volume.  The most creative they get with these types is making the cleric a dwarf instead of an elf.  I could have lived with the blatant lifting of D&D classes if these characters had decently developed personalities.  Alas, they mostly live up to the stereotypes, and those that don't have equally one-note personalities.  Not even Spark is immune - his every thought and action is driven by his need to become a knight, and it gets tiresome after a while.  They don't get any more creative with the villains either.  They are an equally stereotypical collection of goblins, dark elves, and an evil king.  Naturally, these evil races are just as awful in looks as they are in morality, except for the females who look like beautiful women with darker skin and some funny ears.

The story follows a pattern that would also be familiar to RPG players.  The first half is spent setting up Spark and going through roll call for the previous warriors. The second half sets up the quest, gathers the warriors, and even gets through the first of what I'm sure are many a boss fight.  Even their motivation is rather generic, in that these evil forces want to take over the world (OF COURSE!) and our heroes are the only ones who can stop them.  The whole story just begs for more personality and more creativity.  To continue the D&D theme, what this story really needs is a more imaginative DM, because I feel like freaking Queen's Blade did more to create an original story from tabletop RPG resources, and Queen's Blade is little more than a parade of boobs in crazy costumes.

ART:
While the story is derivative, the artwork is not.  Natsumoto's artwork is handsome and detailed.  The characters are handsome, well-built, well-detailed, and the fanservice is kept to the barest of minimums.  The worst is gets is with Laila, the rogue/thief sort, who wears something that doesn't so much say 'medieval fantasy' as it does '80s hair metal groupie.'  I only wish these nicely drawn character don't exist in a more visually interesting world.  Natsumoto keeps things pretty tightly focused on the cast, so we never really get a sense of scale to the world of Lodoss. Worse still, it makes the fights harder to follow.  The biggest artisitic failing of this work isn't the fault of the artist, but instead the fault of Central Park Media.  No, it's not the fact that this was released flipped.  It's that the first half of the volume I read has bizarrely pale pages. They resemble nothing so much as a bad photocopy.  Things improve as the volume goes on, but it's clearly a printing issue and it does distract from the work as a whole.

PRESENTATION:
Central Park Media did have the good sense to include a lot of surprisingly dense notes about the world of Lodoss and all the races and concepts within that universe.  I only wish all this information could have been woven into the story organically, as it would have helped to give it some well-needed depth.

RATING:
The quality of the artwork elevates this just beyond the point of a red light, and I do truly mean just beyond that point.  I think I can begin to understand why this particular part of the Lodoss universe isn't so popular.  It's got a very derivative tabletop RPG structure and it doesn't supplement that with some personality or originality, and it requires watching or reading another series to put this one into context.  It's by no means offensive, but it is rather dull as a result.

This series was published by Central Park Media.  The series is complete in 6 volumes, and is currently out of print. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: GUIN SAGA: THE SEVEN MAGI

Today's review comes from a source that is shockingly rare in fantasy manga - a novel series.  You can find plenty of original stories, many based on video games, some even based on someone's Dungeon & Dragons notes, but literary sources are rarer than you would think.

GUIN SAGA: THE SEVEN MAGI (Guin Saga Shichinin Nomadoshi), adapted from the novel series by Kaoru Kurimoto & drawn by Kazuaki Yanasigawa.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2007.



PLOT:
In the kingdom of Cylon, the leopard-headed warrior Guin rules over all.  He has barely had time to adjust to life as both a king and husband before things begin to go wrong.  A terrible plague is coursing through the land, turning its victims into black-limbed husks.  Times are so desperate that some have taken to killing innocents because they believe bathing in blood will protect them.  When Guin tries to investigate the source of the plague, he is led to a red light district that is concealing all sorts of dark secrets.  There he finds spider demons, witches, wizards, and a spunky dancer girl who becomes a companion.

Guin soon learns the terrible truth:  he is the cause of all the supernatural misfortune in his kingdom.  His strange appearance and strong spirit has drawn them to his kingdom, and they are determined to make him and his people suffer.  Now Guin must set forth to discover the source of the evil and eradicate it once and for all.

STORY:
Guin Saga's reputation is more than a little intimidating.  It's a light novel series that ran well over 100 volumes before the author's recent death.  While the main series was complete, she died while working on a number of side stories. This manga series is based on one those side stories, and that means that you have to simply take some things for granted, because it presumes you are already familiar with the main story line.  You simply have to accept things like a man with a leopard's head because...well, just because.

I also suspect that the plot's rather jumpy tone also can be blamed on the story presuming you are familiar with the main story in the first place.  You start out with the plague, and then BAM! SPIDER DEMONS EATIN' WHORES!  By the time you begin to come to terms with that, the story decides to spend an inordinate amount of time in a witches' lair, where a nearly naked black witch speaks a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo while hitting on Guin.  Things only start to come back into focus once they find a headless wizard (don't worry, he gets better).  He's the one who makes the connection between everything from the spider demons to Guin's marital troubles with his distant, disdainful queen to Guin.  The end result is a perfectly good way to start a quest, but it feels like it takes forever for the story to get to a point and that it needlessly makes things confusing.

Speaking of pointless and confusing, let's talk about Guin's new friend Valusa.  She's a whore "dancer" who alerted Guin to the spider demon in the first place.  Since she's out of a job, Guin takes her in.  She's grateful, but she mostly expresses her gratitude by trying to sleep with Guin.  Thankfully, we're saved from this uncomfortable situation by the aforementioned prophecy, and Valusa insists upon following Guin on his quest.  There's nothing wrong with her being grateful for his help and wanting to help fight, but she seems like she will be more of a liability than anything else.  She hasn't demonstrated any particular skill for fighting or magic wielding.  She doesn't hold any sort of literal or metaphorical key to solving Guin's problem.  Unless she's planning to help Guin with the power of fanservice, I don't see much point to Valusa and her place in the story.

I had high hopes for this story because of its literary sources, and I feel like the story was starting to shape up into something interesting.  The problem is that it takes far too long to get to that point, and throws in some pointless fanservice to boot, and all it does is leave the reader adrift in confusion.

ART:
Once again, I found a manga series that was released in the 2000s, but looks like it was drawn a decade earlier.  The character designs outside of Guin are weird and unappealing.  They remind me a bit of Mazakazu Katsura's (Video Girl Ai, I"s) older style, with their big heads.  Still, those faces contain strange faces, with wide-set eyes and small squashed faces.  Their boobs are also weirdly wide-set, and placed upon short, stocky bodies.  It's really telling that I struggled for a good long while trying to figure out if the witch was drawn in a way that could be construed as racist.  Ultimately, I concluded that it wasn't the case because she didn't look any stranger than most of the cast; almost everyone was badly drawn. 

Yanigasawa does try his best to put some life and detail into the artwork. The backgrounds are well-detailed, and the monsters are fantastical and strange.  The panels are large and uncluttered, which at least means that he can't take any blame in how hard the story can be to follow.  It's just that the art is kind of strange and off-putting and doesn't entirely mesh with the story.

RATING:
There are flashes of inspiration here and there in both the story and art, but the story is a little too convoluted for its own good and the art is a little too squashed and strange to appeal.  I hate to say it, but Vertical kind of got stuck with a dud here.

This series is published by Vertical.  5 volumes were released, and are currently out of print.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: SORCERER HUNTERS

Of course, not all fantasy manga are serious business.  Sometimes people try to make light of the genre through comedy.  The only question is if they can actually write good comedy or not.

SORCERER HUNTERS (Bakuretsu Hunter), written by Satoru Akahori & drawn by Ray Omishi.  First published in 1993, and first published in North America in 2000.



PLOT:
In a far-off world, the everyday Parsoners are ruled by the magic wielding Sorcerers.  Unfortunately not all of them do so fairly and justly.  Thankfully, there is a system in place for maintaining justice in such a world.  When the mysterious being known only as Big Mama detects some evil Sorcerer plot, she sends out her faithful Sorcerer Hunters to stop them.  The team is composed of strong, quiet Marron Glace, tiny little Tira Misu whose meek exterior hides a shockingly kinky power, and Carrot Glace, who mostly prefers to chase girls and wealth, but when necessary has the ability to absorb magical damage and use it to transform into various magical beasts.  Together, they can stand up to the most powerful of Sorcerers...that is, when they CAN work together.

STORY:
To truly put this series into proper context, we have to start by talking about Slayers.  That series started as a light novel series back in 1989, and it became a huge hit, spawning all sorts of manga and multiple seasons of an equally popular anime.  Its unique combination of fantasy adventure plot and character-driven comedy works in a way that few series can pull off.  Of course, like any popular franchise, it also spawned a lot of imitators.  Amongst those imitators is Sorcerer Hunters.

Sorcerer Hunters isn't driven by a single continuous plot, but instead is a monster-of-the-week style story.  The gang are tasked to find a villain, they fight, they defeat said villain, and the whole thing starts over again.  Akahori stuck to this story structure very hard, and it only takes a couple of times for it to get boring.  It's not helped by the fact that he keeps using the same old gimmick of having some hapless girl put in danger by that chapter's villain.  She has either lost some one due to the villain's action or she is being held captive by the villain.  Every single time, she is there only for cheap drama and to give Carrot something to perv over.

Carrot's perviness and desperation is a joke Akahori hammers on time and time again, just like every other running gag in the story.  It wants you to laugh every time Tira throws off her cape and shades to reveal her dominatrix gear.  It even wants you to laugh at the main trio's goofy dessert-themed names.  Too bad that it all just reeks of trying too hard.  It, like the many other Slayers rip-offs, miss the reason why that series was funny and the others were not.  Slayers' comedy was more situational than it was personality-based.  That main cast wasn't necessarily goofy by nature; the jokes came more from their reactions to the plot and how those reactions run contrary to fantasy convention.  Here the characters aren't really characters, just a single gag personified.  The characters never change, and neither does the joke. 

So if the comedy part of the story is a failure, what about the fantasy parts?  In a word, meh.  The concept of a magic ruling class abusing the normals is really basic, but it's a perfectly fine skeleton upon which to build a plot.  The problem is that we never really learn more about this world.  Who is this Big Mother figure?  Is she a goddess or some sort of magical entity?  How does magic work in this world?  What produces the difference between Sorcerers and Parsoners - is it a hereditary or racial difference, or is it something that can be taught?  I'm not exactly expecting this silly comedy to turn into a Tolkien work, but even the most light-hearted fantasy needs some sort of structure or rules to define what is and isn't possible. 

Sorcerer Hunters is a failure on every front.  The comedy is lame and the fantasy elements are too thinly sketched to support even its own simple premise.  I can't imagine this was all that funny when the series was brand new.  These days it might as well be a fossil.

ART:
The artwork is typical of that seen in 1990s manga.  There are plenty of big chins, tiny heads, poofy hair,  and those inexplicable little hatchmarks on a character's face which either indicate eyelashes or cheekbones to go around.  While most everyone is distinct, I'm a little disappointed that Omishi clearly took a lot of visual cues from Lina Inverse when drawing Tira.  You can't tell me that his version of a tiny, ginger, hot-headed heroine wasn't influenced by Lina.  She's also the one responsible for most of the fanservice in this volume, as every time she takes off her clothes the panels explode into huge splash panels to better show off all her leather and fishnets, wielding her whip with wild abandon.  It's tame by today's standards, but it's still pretty shameless.

Still, it's preferable to the actual action here, because Omishi adds so many speedlines, explosions, and sound effects (clunkily translated and reinserted) that it's all but obscured.  It's even hard to literally read, thanks to Tokyopop's bizarre choice of font.  Instead of using the Comic Sans-esque font that most of their later works used, they used a strange, brushstroke-like font that reminds me of written Hebrew.  It's certainly not done to make things more readable or add any sort of emphasis, and it only just adds to the visual carwreck that is the art of Sorcerer Hunters. 

RATING:
The comedy is flat, the art stinks, and it's a blatant rip-off of a far better series.  Yeah, there's a lot of good reasons that Slayers is still fondly remembered while series like Sorcerer Hunters have been all but forgotten.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  All 13 volumes were released, and all are currently out of print.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Review: THE KEY TO THE KINGDOM

This month we're going to take a sort of mental escape from the oppressive heat with a month full of fantasy titles, starting with a little-known title from CMX that should be better known.

On a totally unrelated note, my first review is up at Infinite Rainy Day!  A while back I reviewed the first volume of Codename Sailor V.  Find out what my thoughts were on the full series here!

Anyway!  Back to the review...

THE KEY TO THE KINGDOM (Ohkoku no Kagi), by Kyoko Shitou.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2007.



PLOT:
The kingdom of Landor is locked into a seemingly endless war with its neighbors, where even the king and the eldest prince Winslott are out on the frontlines fighting for their nation.  Meanwhile, Winslott's younger brother Astarion is content to study and play with his old friend Leticia.  When news of the death of both his father and brother arrives, the kingdom is in disarray.  Astarion had no desire to rule, and the people of Landor agree that he is an ill fit for the throne.  Worse still, greedy noblemen see this as their opportunity to rule, and the country is all but fit for civil war.  To stave off disaster, the queen issues a challenge.  Those of royal blood may prove their worth by returning within two years with the mythical Key to the Kingdom.  If found, that person becomes king or queen; if not, then Astarion becomes king after the two years has ended.

Now Astarion must set out with his brother's right-hand general Baddarius to find the Key and save their nation, but within a short time their quest uncovers secrets long forgotten.  They discover the dragon men, crafty mythical beings said to possess knowledge of the Key.  They also discover that the dragons themselves may not be as extinct as previously presumed.

STORY:
There's something to be said for a genuinely well-crafted fantasy story, one that takes those well-worn tropes and stitches them together in such a fashion as to make something greater than the sum of its parts., along with a neat little twist or two along the way.

The biggest twist of them all is in Asta himself.  He's not precisely the Campbellian ideal of a fantasy hero.  He's no poor soul waiting for a chance to prove himself.  If anything, he's prissy and a little bit spoiled.  He dislikes debauchery and violence, he's frequently picked on by others, and has no real goal in life beyond study.  He accepts his quest not out of desire for glory or power, but to keep it from those who are so blatantly evil that they might as well sport some mustaches for twirling. This is a character that has a long way to go before he's ready to rule anything.

Once the quest begins, the story becomes something more akin to a buddy cop feature, with Asta chafing against Badd's...well, everything.  He's much more of a comic relief character, with the running gag about his many, many, MANY women on the side, and he loves nothing more than to tweak an uptight kid like Asta.  Still, he's a good soldier, and when the chips are down he is a loyal one as well.  Indeed, the very reason he's looking over Asta is because Winslott asked Badd to upon his deathbed, and near the end of the volume Badd literally puts his life on the line for Asta. 

Another interesting twist on a character is Leticia, Asta's friend.  When you first meet her, you expect her to be the love interest.  She's pretty, bubbly, optimistic, and loyal to a fault towards Asta.  Thus, it's surprising when she volunteers herself to join the quest for the Key.  Even then, she's still supportive of Asta and wishes his the very best.  She even shows a fair degree of intelligence under that perky exterior.  Her group is composed of seasoned soldiers, and her first step is to seek out an old hermit said to know about the Key and the dragon men who made it.  I'm glad that Shitou lets her be an active character of her own within the story, instead of simply cheerleading others from the sides.

If it isn't evident by now, Shitou puts a lot of emphasis on character building.  Sadly this comes at the price of world building.  We know only the basics about Landor and the war, and there's little context for where Landor is in context to its neighbors or precisely which way the different parties are travelling.  There is one part of the world Shitou focuses on, though - dragons.  Dragons play a major role in the mythology of this world.  It was by slaying the dragons into extinction that Asta's royal house came into power.  It was the magicians of old who crafted the key through the use of the dragons' magic, and it is their descendants, the dragon men, who still wield these powers and who know the secrets of the Key to the Kingdom.  The dragon men are pretty much this world's equivalent of elves (the Tolkien kind, not the shoemaking kind).  They are ethereally beautiful, androgynous, wise, secretive, and distrusted by humankind because of their tendency to talk in cryptic riddles.  We meet two of them along the way, and it's clear by volume's end that they have an agenda and conflict of their own, and it is one that isn't really concerned with the quest of a few petty humans.

Much like the dragon men, the story keeps much information to itself, revealing just enough for the reader to understand without looking any sense of suspense.  Like Asta, the reader is left wanting to know more.  The ending also packs quite the punch, even for a cliffhanger, but sadly to explain more would spoil the whole thing.  Still, it's a grand way to wrap up the beginning of a great little fantasy series.  It's very much a shoujo story at heart, as the focus isn't on battle and bosses as it is on the characters and the relationships around them.  There's a lot of familiar elements at play, but her investment in those characters give it just enough of a difference to intrigue the reader and leave them wanting more.

ART:
It was weird to discover that this series began its run in 2003, because if you had asked me before then when this series was published, it would have presumed it debuted a decade before then.  Shitou's style is classic 90s shoujo, right down to the pointy chinned, jewel-eyed bishonen scattered about like so much confetti.  Shitou's art is undeniably pretty with its exquisite little details.  Hair flows and falls in delicate waves.  Costumes are full of folds, ribbons, and patterns.  Even the backgrounds, as sparse as the landscapes often are, are well-drawn.  While there's a certain degree of flatness to it all due to Shitou's seeming distaste for shading, she does manage to strike a careful balance between letting her cast express themselves without sacrificing the beauty of the art.  All too often, shoujo artists who focus on the pretty art end up creating a bunch of beautiful mannequins who do not act so much as pose across the pages.

It's hard to find much background information on Shitou, but I feel like I can pin down at least a couple of her influences.  One of them is CLAMP, specifically their older works.  This is hardly an unusual thing, but it would explain why Asta looks like he could be Subaru Sumeragi's identical twin brother.  I also suspect she is a fan of Yoshitaka Amano, of Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D fame.  They both share a certain degree of delicacy to their work, plus one of the dragon men looks very much like a bishie-fied version of D himself, right down to the costume.  I do wish they could have included more color pages, because if the cover is any indication, it would be beautiful.  I like the soft color palette she uses for it, along with her use of colored pencil for a medium - a rarity for color manga artwork.

While The Key to the Kingdom may have a very old-fashioned look, it's a look that has aged beautifully thanks to the artist's careful attention to detail.

RATING:
The Key to the Kingdom is yet another underrated gem from the CMX library.  It's a shame that Shitou had such a short career, with only two works to her name.  Worse still, this is the only complete one we ever got on these shores, as the other saw only a single volume through ADV's short-lived manga line.  If anything, though, it makes this series all the more precious in my eyes, and makes all the more worth seeking out.

This series was published by CMX.  All 6 volumes were released, and all are currently out of print.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Announcement: We're Branching Out!

Part of the reason I delayed this week's review to Friday was to make sure it could coincide with my new project.  I am proud to announce that in addition to this blog, I will also be one of the contributing writers for a new anime and manga blog, Infinite Rainy Day.

I will be doing manga reviews there as well, although they will be different in both content and style from those found here.  I'll also be writing a regular column.  Mind you, I'm not alone in this - the site will be full of good writers, including a few friends of the site, like Lilac Anime Reviews and On The Dark Side of Things.  The site goes live today, so bookmark it today to start enjoying all the new content!

Review: PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA

Today's selection has a similar pedigree to last week's selection, Gankutsuou.  It's the manga adaptation of a well-written and visually distinct series.  Is this manga as magical as the series as spawned it, or does it flop like the rest of those manga:



PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA (Magical Girl Madoka Magica), adapted from the series written by Magica Quartet & drawn by Hanokage.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2012.



STORY:
Madoka Kaname leads an ordinary life.  She has a loving family with a huge house, she has a couple of great friends.  Really, aside from a few odd dreams, things couldn't be better.  Then a new girl, Homura, shows up at school and speaks to Madoka as if they already knew one another.  A simple visit to the mall leaves Madoka and her friend Sayaka trapped in a savage dreamscape, only to be saved by the radiant Mami and her strange companion Kyubey.  They explain that both Mami and Homura are magical girls, where select girls are granted special powers to fight against the witches of the world, who bring despair and evil into the world.  Madoka and Sayaka are intrigued by what they see, and Kyubey says that it's easy to join them in their fight.  All the girls have to make a wish, then enter into a contract with Kyubey.  What could possibly go wrong?

PLOT:
I don't think I'm going to stir up any controversy when I say that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is easily one of the best anime series in years.  It's simply a masterpiece, one that ties Studio SHAFT's signature style to some of the best and most tightly written 13 episodes I've seen.  It's touching, it's achingly tragic, and it's visually innovative.  Thus, it's so very strange that for all the effort the manga puts into sticking to the story of the series, it just feels so heartless and uninvolving.

I'm not joking when I say the manga is almost a literal translation of the series.  What you see here is essentially all the relevant parts of the first four to five episodes.  The biggest change they made was that Kyubey's mouth actually opens when he talks.  The weird thing is that this doesn't make any cuter, only creepier (which is saying something).  Still, the whole thing seems to lack verve.  It feels like a summary of the events of Madoka Magica,  and as such you lose something of the connection one made with the characters.  Events come and go, but there isn't any real sense of dread or wonder or fear.  I can't imagine how you could make something as wondrous as magical girls fighting witches dull, but they managed it nonetheless.  But then, this is and was always just another way to cash in on Madoka Magica's insane popularity.  Why put effort into something that's little more than just another cash grab?

ART:
I suspect that the biggest reason that the Madoka Magica manga fails to connect with the reader is that the show's signature style simply cannot be fully captured on a static page.  The eclectic visual style of Akiyuki Shinbo and company has been in place for sometime, and while stranger and more talkative shows like Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei and all the Monogataris may have used that style to great acclaim, that style always seem more like a trick to liven what are otherwise a lot of talking heads.  Here the style was grafted to a story about weird magical events, and that visual style perfectly capture the otherworldliness of the world of Madoka. 

Hanokage does try to capture something of the style of the show, but so often he obscures the witches' dens with dark screentones to the point where you barely make out anything.  He also manages to moe-fy the characters even more than they already were, and the result is pure blandness.  Here the girls have been moeblobbed to the point where they feel like plain cardboard cut-outs of the cast, flattened out so hard that they all but blend into the background.  Even on the candy-colored cover, their pleasantly vague expressions and dead eyes make them seem more like mannequins than actual characters.  It's just so disappointing to see such a vivid series boiled down into something so bland.

RATING:
Hanokage has something so wonderful to work from, and yet he manages to make it all seem so distant, so cold, and so dull that much of the magic of the series is lost in translation.

This series is published by Yen Press.  The series is complete in 3 volumes, and all are currently in print.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: GANKUTSUOU: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO

Let's bring the subject matter back to something closer to the present, and something unique even for this month.  What we have here is an adaptation of an adapation of a literary classic:



GANKUTSUOU (The King of the Cavern): THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, adapted from the series by Studio GONZO, written and drawn by Mahiro Maeda.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.



STORY:
Albert, the scion of a noble family, has come with his best friend Franz to celebrate Carnival on the lunar city Luna.  It is there that Albert meets the mysterious and compelling Count of Monte Cristo, who saves the young man in turn.  Months later, Albert learns that the Count is coming to meet his family and their circle of peers in Paris, but none of them are aware of the Count's true purpose for coming.  The Count's past is tied to a man named Edmond Dantes and the three men who betrayed him: a powerful judge, a wealthy baron, and the influential general who married Edmond's fiancée.  Albert wants friendship with the Count, but the Count is only after one thing: revenge.

PLOT:
Gankutsuou is a rare sort of adaptation.  It's very ostensibly removed from the Alexandre Dumas novel that inspired it, what with all the spaceships and lunar colonies and whatnot.  At the same time, it retained the complexities of the novel, and many have declared the series a better adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo than most television and film adaptation could ever be.

Admittedly, the combination of sci-fi and Ye Olde France isn't an entirely smooth one.  People may party on Luna instead of Paris or ride in spaceships instead of carriages, but somehow the systems of power and class remain the same as they were in the past.  Still, the setting isn't what draws the reader to the story.  No, it's the characters that do that, and the Count in particular.  In an interesting twist, the story is not told through the Count, but through naïve, gullible Albert.  You almost can't help but feel a little sorry for him, because it's quite apparent from early on that Albert is the sort who is easily led by the stronger personalities of his friends, family, and the Count.  At the same time, you want to smack him for being so dumb at times, and when he starts fighting with Franz or his tomboyish fiancée Eugenie you wish the story would go back to the Count.

Nonetheless, it's a clever move to switch the protagonist from the Count to Albert, because it allows the Count to retain his mystery and allure.  The reader is left in much the same place as Albert, fascinated by the glimpses and tidbits we can gleam about the Count.  Of course, the reader has an advantage that Albert and the others do not.  The last third of the volume is an extended flashback to the Count's days as Edmond Dantes.  We see the plot against him, we see his downfall, and we witness his descent into madness and despair.  With that knowledge before us, all of the Count's interactions before and afterwards becomes something darker and more twisted.  We get to see the Count as a sort of game master, and behold his manipulations of others.  Poor Albert may not have a chance against such a force of personality, but that doesn't mean that it isn't thrilling to watch.

This all sounds grand, but the biggest problem is that Maeda can't really take credit for most of it.  Since so much has been preserved from the book, much of the credit in turn goes to Dumas.  Maeda and company might have changed the setting and the focus, but what they've done is little more than placing a beautiful gem in a new setting.  Sure, the new setting may highlight different qualities and reflect light in different ways, but they weren't the ones who cut and faceted the gem in the first place.  At the very least, these changes don't do anything to diminish the beauty and perfection of the original.  Instead, they highlight its own natural charms and complexities.

ART:
It's hard enough to avoid turning any review of a show-turned-manga into 'well, the show did this, but the manga does that!'  It's harder still to do so when talking about the art, and hardest of all when the show is as visually distinct as Gankutsuou.   It's often held up as one of the best shows ever produced by Studio GONZO, a lush combination of traditional and 3D animation, one where the characters seemingly drift through seas of color and patterns.  Such visual lushness is a challenge to transcribe from the screen to the panel, and on all fronts Maeda fails.

To be honest, it looks unfinished.  While the character designs from the show are retained, they are drawn in rough, sketchy lines.  Facial features disappear and reappear on a whim, and the only shading comes from rough hatching.  Everything just looks so flat and drab.  The only point where any sort of visual imagination is when Edmond starts going mad, and the world around him melts and swirls about him.  It starts with mere visions of his nightmares, but by the end it devolves into abstract expressions of his very emotions, flickering in and out of the oppressive darkness.  It's an incredibly powerful and evocative set of images, and the contrast is all the more stark when it's compared to all the other tall, plain panels full of talking heads.

As I first read this, I felt like I was reading more of a storyboard than a manga.  It was only after I finished and started doing some research that this feeling was explained.  Maeda isn't a mangaka by trade, but instead an animator.   He started out with Studio Gainax in the days of Royal Space Force and Gunbuster.  He's worked on OVAs of all sorts, ranging from Giant Robo to Gunsmith Cats to Doomed Megalopolis.  Most recently, he directed Evangelion 3.33.  It's a safe bet to call him a good animator.  The problem is that being a good animator isn't the same as being a good comic artist.  An animation storyboard isn't necessarily meant to be smoothly read.  It's meant to just be a visual outline of a scene, one that the rest of the animation staff will fill out as needed.  A manga creator may be doing the same thing with a page - tell a story through a series of images - but they don't have the luxury of 24 frames per second to fill out all those images.  They only have so many pages to get their point across, so every panel needs to be both visually appealing and easy to follow to achieve that.  Sadly, for all the skills that Maeda has, he can't quite translate them to comic form.

RATING:
The story remains brilliant, but the poor art drags it down mightily.  Stick with the show if you want to enjoy this particular version as it was meant to be consumed.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  All 3 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM 0079

Today we're making a hard shift in topic, going from moe economics to old-school mecha action.  Today's review isn't even the first manga series based on this series, coming 15 years after the original series, but did that time gap help save a manga series that was:



MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM 0079 (Kido Senshi Gandamu), based on the series created by Yoshiyuki Tomino and Hajime Yatate with art by Kazuhisa Kondo.  First published in 1994, and first published in North America in 2000.



PLOT:

It is Universal Century year 0079.  Earth is locked in a war with the Republic of Zeon, a moon colony that wishes not only for independence, but dominance.  The battle has been rough and bloody, but Zeon maintains its edge through the use of Zaku, giant piloted battle robots, along with the guidance of the legendary pilot Char Aznoble.  During one of those battles, a young boy called Amuro Ray stumbles upon the Earth force's secret weapon - a piloted robot of their own, the Gundam.  Now Amuro must join the war and fight if both he and his shipmates are to survive.

STORY:

Call me crazy, but I always thought that something adapted from another form of media - say, a TV show - should be able to stand on its own.  In a perfect world, it would even be able to explore interesting new angles or expand upon the universe of the original source material.  That's what makes this version of Mobile Suit Gundam so disappointing, because it reads more like a storyboard or an illustrated episode breakdown instead of a stand-alone story.

If the story here were told any more stiffly, it would be completely stagnant.  There's no sense of flow from panel to panel, much less from scene to scene.  People come and go, battles zoom by, and the whole thing is infused with an air of tedium.  You almost wonder at times if Kondo is simply rushing through the whole thing just for the sake of getting it done before a deadline.  The rush not only hurts the pacing, but the characters as well.  Amuro seems to be the only one with anything resembling a character arc, and that's mostly just him going from bland to pissy halfway through because how dare a ship full of soldiers expect him to behave like a soldier when he's the only one who can pilot a military weapon?  Even then, all it takes to get him out of his funk is a well-earned slap from Fraw Bow (easily my favorite part of the book).  Still, that's enough to distinguish him from the rest, who display no personality at all.  Honestly, if it weren't for the character guide at the front of the volume I wouldn't know who half of these people were. 

ART:

The action scenes fare no better than the rest.  You could pose a bunch of assembled model kits with backgrounds drawn in crayon and that would still be more dynamic and expansive than the battles seen on the pages here.  That same stiffness extends to the fights, and worse still everything is crammed into small, seemingly inflexible panels.  As such, you never get a sense of scale.  You could easily forget that these are GIANT FREAKING ROBOTS fighting in OUTER FREAKING SPACE.  Honestly, there's only one thing that Kando can seem to do right, and that is draw a proper Gundam.  He lavishes detail upon the Gundam, the Zakus, and even the spaceships.  If only he could have done the same for the characters.  Someone should have told him that he really didn't need to replicate the crappiness of the original series' animation.  Many of the characters look only half-drawn, and they frequently go off-model.  It's weird to think that this particular manga came out in the mid 1990s, because it's so cheap and sloppy that you would think it was done while the series was originally on air, back in 1979. 

Mobile Suit Gundam 0079 is just a failure on every front.  It doesn't engage the reader by drawing them into the drama of the One Year War.  It doesn't delight them with stunning visuals, allowing to savor all the different robots and the epic space battles.  It's just dull, beginning to end.

PRESENTATION:
At leas the folks at Viz tried to give this story some context.  As noted before, there's a character guide at the front to sort out who's who.  There's also a timeline that goes into the Universal Century as well as the One Year War, a necessity for a series that's loaded with backstory but not always willing to share it with the newcomers.  Also, as was true for many older Viz titles, the artwork here is flipped.

RATING:
If you're looking for a manga about Mobile Suit Gundam, stick with Gundam: The Origin and leave this half-assed tie-in on the shelf. 

This series was published by Viz.  The series is complete in Japan with 12 available volumes.  9 volumes were published, and are now out of print.



Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: SPICE AND WOLF

It's summertime, which means that the broadcast networks seasons have been over for a number of weeks.  As the days grow longer and hotter and you seek solace indoors, it seems all you can find is reruns.  This month I'm running with that idea, at least as closely as you can in manga.  While many an anime series is based on a manga, there are also quite a few manga which are adapted from a television series, and those are what I'll be looking at this month.  Just remember that everything you see this month is:



SPICE AND WOLF (Okami to Koshinryo), based on the light novel series by Isuna Hasekura, with character designs by Jyuu Ayakura and art by Keito Koume.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2010.



PLOT:
Kraft Lawrence is a travelling merchant who wanders the world in hopes of making his fortune.  During a visit to a farming village, he discovers a naked girl in his cart bearing wolf ears and a tail.  She claims to be Holo the Wise Wolf, a harvest goddess looking to return to her far northern homeland.  She offers to provide her companionship and wisdom to Lawrence in return for a trip home.  Now Lawrence has both a new partner as well as a new opportunity to make some serious profit.

STORY:
So, does the Spice and Wolf manga add anything that either the light novels or animated series didn't already possess?  Nope!  Mind you, that's not the worst thing possible, because Spice and Wolf is thankfully anchored around a great couple, and this adaptation does nothing to harm that.

Holo is easily the more dynamic of the two.  She is playful and teasing, but she can also be wise, insightful, and even wistful, and as a character she's incredibly engaging.  Mind you, Lawrence is no slacker in the personality department himself.  He's flustered by Holo initially, but he soon learns to give and take with Holo's teasing, and he also learns that Holo's keen ears and innate ability to read body language makes her just as valuable as a partner as she is for casual conversation.  That's good, because they sure do engage in a lot of it - Lawrence can easily go on for pages at a time on some given economic or trade practice.  It's something of a signature for this series, but it's also something of a love/hate sort of thing.  You have to either accept it as is or skim over those parts.

The setting is rather vague on the details.  It seems to be some sort of medieval world, complete with what is TOTALLY not the Catholic Church suppressing the old pagan ways.  Still, we never get a date or a country name.  It's a world where hot peppers ( a New World plant) is an expensive luxury, and the most advanced science appears to be economics.  I guess the focus here is less on world building and more about building the relationship between Holo and Lawrence.  Clearly we're building this towards a romance, but the story wisely keeps the tension to a low, low simmer - just enough to tease, but never enough to derail the story momentum.

It's a shame that the artwork couldn't make as elegant of a transition as the story.  While Koume is clearly trying to stay close to Ayakura's original designs, he's clearly put these characters through the moeblob filter.  Faces are bigger, rounder, simpler, with lots of blushing, and more attention is lavished on Holo's nipples than anything else.  Yeah, that mature rating on the cover is there for a reason - Holo spends the first third of the volume naked.  They even print her big entrance in full color, which wouldn't be remarkable except for the fact that it comes many pages into the book and it's rare to see color pages in North American manga outside of the very beginning.  It's certainly indicative of where the artist's priorities are, and sadly they really aren't on the economics.

PRESENTATION:
In a savvy bit of cross-promotion, there's an excerpt from the light novel version of Spice and Wolf.

RATING:
This manga doesn't really add anything to the story and the art is something of a downgrade, but it's still a solid romance with a touch of fantasy and a lot of economics.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available.  8 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.