Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: MARMALADE BOY

We'll end this year's Old School Month with another well-loved shoujo series from the 1990s.  Does it hold up as well as Basara?

MARMALADE BOY (Mamaredo Boi), by Wataru Yoshizumi.  First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2002.



PLOT:
Miki gets the shock of her life when her parents announce their imminent divorce over tea.  Her shock only increases from there.  Her parents essentially had a midlife crisis during a trip to Hawaii, and instead of buying expensive cars or plastic surgery, they fell for another married couple and have decided to switch partners.  To add to the discomfort, they all decided to live together in one big polyamorous household.  On top of all that, the second couple have a boy who is Miki's age, so she has a new stepbrother to contend with.  Her new brother, Yuu, is a moody kid who alternates between teasing Miki and bonding with her, and her feelings for her newfound stepsibling become very confused.  This is only aggravated by the relationship drama she encounters as school, be it from her old junior high crush or from Yuu's ex-girlfriend. 

STORY:
Man, sometimes people don't understand just how weird shoujo can be.  A lot of people stereotype it as being nothing more than a bunch of stammering schoolkids who can never quite work out how to say something as simple as "I love you and want to go out with you."  While this series doesn't even begin to plumb the weirdest depth of the genre, the summary above should give you some idea of the kinkier interesting places the story goes.

I honestly felt kind of sorry for Miki.  It's not because she's a terribly endearing character, because truthfully she's more tightly wound than a Swiss watch and spends most of her time freaking out at others.  It's more like I felt bad for her situation.  Divorce is a hard enough thing to deal with, but the arrangement to have all her parents and step-parents live together is a pretty selfish move.  They don't tell their children until the deed is done and simply expect everyone to get along, as if moving in with both your current and former spouse is a perfectly normal event.  Hell, if anything her parents expect her to get along REALLY well with Yuu, as she is warned early on to not fall in love with Yuu because it might make things weird and complicated.

Yes, because of course things wouldn't get REALLY weird unless Miki started getting the hots for her stepbrother.  Normal people do not have to have conversations like this!  Sadly, their warning is all too apt, because Miki does start crushing on Yuu, and their weird relationship becomes the catalyst for the rest of the plot.  After that point, rivals to Miki and Yuu's affections start to enter the picture to stir up a little drama before moving on.  All of this might be more interesting if Miki and Yuu were more compelling characters in their own right.  As I mentioned before, Miki is mostly defined by being high-strung.  She's not so much an active character as she is a reactive character, there to yell at whatever new complication has come her way.  Yuu is a far harder character to read, as he is both frustratingly inexpressive and constantly giving off mixed signals.  It's those same signals that give this series its name, as Miki likens him to the bittersweetness of marmalade.  The rest of the cast is just OK.  The closest any of them get to interesting is with Arimi, Yuu's ex.  She acts nice to Miki even as she competes with her for Yuu, but unlike a lot of stereotypical shoujo villains her kindness is sincere in its intent. 

Marmalade Boy has a surprisingly kinky premise for a story that ran in a girls' magazine, but beyond that the characters and execution are plain and predictable. 

ART:
Yoshizumi's art is almost a depressing stereotype of 1990s shoujo art.  Her characters are plain and flat, with lots of stiff expressions and equally stiff little matchstick bodies.  The only parts of them that seem to get any sort of effort expended on them are the hairstyles.  Even the backgrounds are decidedly plain, with a lot of blank space or dull screentones substituting for real settings.  It's all very minimalist in a way that doesn't come from specific effort so much as apathy and homogenization.  It's the kind of milquetoast art that shoujo  magazines of the day ate up, and it's an artstyle that's best left to the past.

RATING:
Aside from the weirdly kinky premise, there's nothing in Marmalade Boy's storytelling or art that hasn't been done far better in shoujo series both old and new.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  The series is complete with 8 volumes total.  All 8 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: BASARA

We're back to a proper series this week, with a severely underrated gem of a fantasy series from Viz.

BASARA, by Yumi Tamura.  First published in 1990, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
In post-apocalyptic Japan, the cruel Red King rules the desert land of Suo with an iron fist, stamping out the merest hint of rebellion in a swift and bloody manner.  In the village of Byakko, a pair of fraternal twins are born, and one of them is prophesized to be the leader who will bring peace to the land.  The elders believe this child to be the boy, Tatara, and his sister Sasara grows envious of the attention and liberties given to her brother with every year.

Their village remains safe until the two are well into their teens, when a raid led by the Red King leads to Tatara's death and the capture of many of the villagers.  Spurred on by her rage and grief, Sasara assumes her brother's identity and saves her village.  It is then that they realize that Tatara was never the chosen one - it was Sasara who would lead them to freedom.  Before that can happen, though, Sasara must recapture her brother's sword, save her mother, and try to avoid the advances of a strange and handsome stranger.

STORY:
Now this is the kind of fantasy manga that I can really get behind!  While the setting takes a little bit from post-apocalyptic fiction along with Eastern and Western fantasy tropes and more than a fair bit of your standard hero's journey, it mixes these ideas up in a way that feels fresh and original.  It has a female lead who truly is a strong, independent woman without being a Strong Independent Woman (tm).  Sasara is a bold and quick-thinking warrior, but she's keenly aware of the elders and allies who now depend upon her for guidance and is touched by their support.  Even though she envied her brother as a child, she still cared for him as a brother and feels his loss greatly. 

She even has a romantic subplot, although that part is easily the most predictable part of the story.  Hmm, there's a somewhat douchey and assault-happy stranger whom she keeps running into at the hot springs.  He is unaware of her identity as a freedom fighter, and she has no idea who this jackass may be.  He couldn't possibly be the Red King because then she would be trapped in a ill-fated star-crossed sort of romance which will likely end badly for one, if not both of them.  It's much too early in the story to truly say where that plot line will go, and it's certainly got potential for drama, but you don't have to be well-read to have some idea of where this particular plotline is likely to go.  The rest of the cast is fairly familiar in their particular roles - there's a wise blind sage, a scarred ally of dubious morality, a gruff father figure, a kindly, supportive, and weak mother, weaselly peons serving as peons under the Red King, and so on.  They all serve their purpose to support Sasara on her quest, but they have nowhere near the complexity of our heroine.

The story structure may be familiar, but Tamura wisely takes her time to establish Sasara and her world before setting the main plot into motion.  We the readers get a good sense of what kind of person Sasara and her brother are like, and all that character building goes a long way towards making us care for and understand Sasara and her later actions.  It's not until halfway that Sasara takes over her brother's role, and by volume's end she's only taken a minor player in the Red King's court down, and even then her minor victory has some at some serious cost.  She's only begun to drop hints about dissent within the court and about the true identity of Sasara's would-be suitor, and is in no great rush to reveal them to the cast.  It's clear that Sasara is in for a long and hard-fought quest, but she's such a compelling character that by the end I was eager to read more.  While many elements of Basara felt familiar, I can truly say I was never bored by it.  It's an interesting blend of shoujo and epic fantasy, where there's just as much of a focus on the heroine's emotions and inner monologue as there is on destined saviors fighting against evil forces on horseback.  It's a work that fans of both genres can enjoy.

ART:
The art is far more typical of shoujo art from the 1980s.  The characters all have the pointy, triangular heads, big tousled hairstyles, and narrow, shimmering eyes that were so typical of the genre at that time.  Even though the style dates the artwork to some degree (seriously, the twins look like they could have been extras in a Pat Benetar video), Tamura puts a lot of detail into their looks.  She also tends to dictate the mood of a scene through her linework.  Most of the time her lines are solid and thick, but during more emotional points the linework becomes finer and more delicate.  She also gives Sasara's world an almost cinematic sort of scale.  There are lots of sweeping vistas mixed in the dramatic close-ups and layers.  Tamura is especially good at drawing action (and horses), something that often can't be said for a shoujo artist.  Her characters seem to move across the page with lightning speed, and often she uses stark black backdrops for better contrast and heightened drama. 

RATING:
Thank goodness that Viz has been releasing so much of their back catalog digitally, because this smooth combination of shoujo drama with fantasy action makes Basara a sadly underlooked classic.  This is a series that deserves to be discovered for both older and newer manga readers alike.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan in 27 volumes.  All 27 volumes were released and are out of print.  The complete series is currently available in e-book form through Viz's website.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: HEART OF THOMAS (with bonus podcast!)

First of all, I recently appeared on the latest episode of The Five Point Podcast.  I've long been a fan of it, and it was fun to get to participate in one for once (and I hope to do more of them in the future).  So, if you're curious as to what I actually sound like, listen to me give my thoughts on Yamada's First Time:


Five Point Podcast Episode 55: Yamada's First Time by fivepointpodcast


With that done and said, on to the review!  Once again, I'm looking at another member of the Showa 29/Forty-Niners group of mangaka.  Instead of sci-fi, though, this is more of an intimate drama.  It's no less influential than To Terra was, though, and its subject matter and presentation reflect this. 

HEART OF THOMAS (Thomas no Shinzo), by Moto Hagio.  First published in 1974, and first published in North America in 2013.



PLOT:

In early 20th century Germany, at an all-male academy, a young boy has died.  Thomas Werner was loved by much of the student body, and his death (presumed to be an accident) is a terrible shock to them.  Only one person, the stoic and reserved Juli, knows the truth: Thomas's death was a suicide.  Juli knows because Thomas wrote him a suicide note that also served as a confession of love to Juli, and Juli finds himself loaded with guilt over Thomas's actions.  His guilt only increases when a new boy, Erich, comes to the school.  Erich is a brilliant child and a major mama's boy, but he is also the spitting image of Thomas, and both Juli and Erich hate the baggage such a connection brings them.  Over time, Juli, Erich, and Juli's roommate Oskar must come to terms with not only Thomas's death, but the guilt they all bear from their own pasts.

STORY:

This book is not so much an emotional journey as it is an emotional saga.  It's the sort of story that could have only been found in 1970s shoujo, the sort of story that is saturated in repression and every sort of heightened emotion.  Heart of Thomas is all at once haunting, sensitive, and deeply tragic without ever descending into melodrama, and it's easy for me to see how this story became a classic.

As mentioned before, Hagio was one of the members of the storied Showa 29 group, and in many ways she could be considered the grandmother of boys' love as a genre.  Heart of Thomas was not her first shonen-ai work, but it is still considered one of the groundbreaking works of the genre.  As the incredibly informative essay by translator Matt Thorn explains, Hagio was inspired by the French film Les Amities Particulaires.  In it, two French schoolboys fall in love only to be forced apart by their teachers, and one of them ends up committing suicide.  Hagio took that scenario and essentially turned on its ear for Heart of Thomas.  Here the suicide isn't the culmination of a tragic romance, but the catalyst that sets things into motion, an act that haunts the main characters for much of the story.

While Thomas may be the titular character, the story is really about three of the boys left behind after his death: Juli, Oskar, and Erich.  While not all of them knew Thomas, his death ends up being the key to unlocking and moving past the guilt that each boy bears in his own life.  Juli looks and acts prim and proper, but this is merely the front he presents to others to hide all the guilt he bears over Thomas, his own family, and a terrible incident with an older student.  Oskar is more laid-back and personable, often serving as advisor and mediator to his fellow students, but he too is caught in a family drama where no one is quite willing to speak the truth.  Finally there is Erich, who is a brilliant student but a fragile and sensitive boy.  He's obsessed with his mother in a fashion that verges upon incestuous, and he only wishes to return to her so that things can go back to the way they were.  He wants no part of his mother's new husband, his schoolmates fawning over his looks, or everyone connecting him to a dead boy he never even knew.  All of them are affected by Thomas, be it in life or in death, and ironically it is that same death which allows them to move on with their lives and begin the long, tough process of growing up.

While this work is considered a pioneer in shonen-ai, the actual homoerotic content is fairly subtle.  There's no hardcore action to be found here, and no one in particular identifies as gay.  Instead we have a lot of talking about feelings, emotional outburst, and the occasional tearful kiss.  Honestly, Hagio's approach to the story reminded me a lot of modern-day yuri.  They take similar approaches to relationships in that the emphasis is more on deep romantic longing instead of lustful desire.  There's a subtle implementation that these feelings are transitory, just the fleeting crushes of a bunch of kids that don't have a lot of heterosexual outlets.  It's even set in a single-sex school, although the notion of such places being hotbeds of homosexuality far predate this story.  Such notions don't diminish the intensity of the feelings and relationships on display, it might be a little jarring for those more used to more modern, explicit works.

The pacing here is slow and purposeful.  Hagio is more than content to let the emotion and mystery build bit by bit, day by day.  Little hints about the characters are dropped here and there, little flashes of memory pass by, and each one builds upon the reader's knowledge of our three main characters.  Admittedly, Juli's inner monologue gets the most attention, but then as we learn he has the most guilt to bear.  He not only has the burden of Thomas's feelings, but also the guilt his family lays upon him for his parentage, guilt about his faith in God, and guilt from abuse at the hand of a former classmate. 
Juli tries so hard to keep his emotions contained and tries so hard to push away those that disturb his self-enforced calm, so of course it is his many fits and agonies that end up splashing across the page. While guilt and repression are common elements here, there's also a great emphasis on family secrets.  Between the three boys, they have to deal with their families hiding things like affairs, wrongful deaths, even physical and emotional abuse.   Still, Hagio keeps things hopeful - all these secrets and all this guilt might threaten to crush the boys' spirits, but once they actually start talking with others about it, they can start to find acceptance and forgiveness for themselves and others.

Heart of Thomas is an achingly beautiful romantic drama.  While the focus tends to be on internal torment versus external action, the thoughts and troubles of these three young men remain compelling and touching.  The story's sensitive approach to what was then a brand-new genre demonstrates just why this story became a classic.

ART:

Hagio's art is a shining example of 1970s shoujo art.  The character designs are pretty and slender with flowing hair and shiny, jewel-like eyes that seem to stare into the reader's soul.  Hagio doesn't put in a lot of period-specific details beyond the boys' wardrobes, with their fine, crisp suits, slender knotted ties, and long, boyish curls.  The thoughts of her characters are given shape in dramatic explosions of screentones, wind, fire, flowers, and ghostly silhouettes, layered behind the characters like so many drifting clouds.  There's also a fair bit of angelic imagery within them, which makes sense considering all the talk of death and guilt over one's sins.  There's an overall delicacy to Hagio's art which enhances the equally fragile, emotional tone of the story.  Even the few instances of coloring are delicate, mostly rendered in shades of magenta.

PRESENTATION:

This series is presented in a large hardbound volume which is as handsome as it is dense.  As mentioned before, there's a very informative essay after the story which does a great job at putting both Moto Hagio's career and Heart of Thomas in historical context.  It's mildly distracting that the essay reads right-to-left, considering that the manga itself is unflipped, but that's the only (and decidedly minor) complaint I have about this book.

RATING:
Major kudos have to be given to Fantagraphics for releasing this classic shoujo series to English speaking readers.  Heart of Thomas is beautiful, touching, romantic, tragic, and so much more.  It's got a hefty size and somewhat hefty pricetag, but it is worth every single penny.

This series is published by Fantagraphics.  This series is complete in 3 volumes, which are presented in a single omnibus.  It is currently in print.

Friday, August 8, 2014

One Volume Wonder: BARBARA

Well, it's August once more, which means it's time for another round of Old School Month.  Much like before, we'll kick things off with yet another Tezuka work.  This one, though, is very, VERY different from the last one, and not just because it's a One Volume Wonder.

BARBARA, by Osamu Tezuka.  First published in 1973, and first published in North American in 2012.



PLOT:
Yosuke Mikura is a famed author, but he spends most of his days wandering the streets of Tokyo, where he searches for inspiration as he laments his own troubles.  One day his wanderings leads him to Barbara, a filthy, homeless drunk woman who still manages to quote French poetry with ease.  She latches onto Yosuke and more than once inadvertently saves him from danger and distraction.  Is Barbara the muse of inspiration that Yosuke has been seeking, or will she lead him to ruin as well?

STORY:

Barbara was one of the first crowd-sourced Tezuka works released by DMP, and right away it distinguishes itself from those used to Tezuka's older, better known works.  If you're expecting something simple and child-like like Princess Knight or Unico, you may be in for a shock.  While I do get (to some degree) what Tezuka was aiming for with this work, he sure takes his sweet-ass time getting there, and the path it treads is one that is ultimately very strange, kind of rambling, and rather cynical and pessimistic.

It starts out in a very episodic manner.  Yosuke will encounter some strange woman, he ends up falling for her, and Barbara unintentionally saves him from some strange fate.  That fate could be anything from sleeping with a dog (no, I'm not joking about that) to just getting lost in his own past.  The pace only picks up once Tezuka starts tying things together into a singular plot thread, as Yosuke starts to find real success as well as the temptations of business, revolution, and politics.  His newfound success also leads Yosuke to reconsider his relationship with Barbara.  Before, he viewed her as little more than a curious nuisance.  Afterwards, he begins to fall for her, and it's their relationship that drives both the remaining story as well as the larger themes of the story at large.

It's pretty clear that Barbara is Yosuke's muse in both a literal and metaphorical sense.  Before she comes along, Yosuke is too busy being a grade-A ass.  He's drowning in his own self-loathing and doubts, and he's convinced himself that he is unable to love a normal woman.  Barbara is a far more difficult character to pin down, although a lot of that is on purpose.  As a muse, her personality seems to shape itself based on the needs and desires of those around her.  The few things that seem to be constant are her hedonistic tendancies and a childlike sense of selfishness.  Put them together and you have a couple that's hard to like, but interesting to follow and observe. 

It's only once she enters his life that he is able to find some focus and inspiration in his life.  It's only then that Yosuke begins to see that Barbara isn't a bother, but instead a beautiful source of inspiration.  She's literally given him a reason to live and work, and he falls for her almost instantly upon his realization.  Of course, the only problem with loving a muse is that inspiration is a fickle thing.  It can leave just as swiftly as it comes, and no one man can keep it to himself, even if he wishes to in the name of love.  Worse still, a man could easily drive himself to ruin trying to recapture that same source of inspiration.

You can see how such a moral could appeal to a man like Tezuka at this particular point in his career.  Tezuka had already been creating manga for a couple of decades with a lot of big name titles to his credit.  By the 1970s he was wanting to expand his horizons and struggling to stay relevant with the masses.  His work tended to be shorter, stranger, and more experimental, and Barbara just happens to be one of those experiments.  Is it a successful experiment?  Not entirely.  Even when the story finds its focus, it does tend to ramble.  I swear it takes the story just as long for the story to conclude, dragging out every bit of misery, as it does to get going.  The characters are abrasive and hard to relate to, even during the good times.  Barbara is ultimately a difficult work to like, but a fascinating one to think about.

ART:

While the artstyle is still recognizable as that of Tezuka, Barbara reflects the works of an artist who has come a long way from the simple, Disney-influenced forms of Astro Boy and Princess Knight.  The character designs still have some of that old-school rubberiness to them, but their faces and bodies tend to be more angular and realistic.  When you do see exaggeration, it tends to be more like a caricature than a cartoon.  Despite the large print size, the panels tend to be small and thickly packed on the page, only expanding during big dramatic moments or episode of supernatural goings-on.  He does use a lot of mundane backgrounds, but at times the imagery expands into the bizarre and psychedelic.  It's hardly a surprise, considering that this was made in the 1970s. 

RATING:
The later works of Tezuka are not always an easy, friendly thing to read, but let it never be said that Barbara isn't thought-provoking.  It's an interesting contrast to his better-known works, and while it's not a completely successful work, those with an interest in more experimental, introspective work may find something of value here.

This book was published by Digital Manga Press.  It is currently out of print.

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 na├»ve.  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!