Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: REIKO THE ZOMBIE SHOP

If there's one classic monster that doesn't get a lot of play in manga, it's zombies.  The zombie craze hasn't quite overtaken Japanese comics in the same way that it has with American ones, but because of that they sometimes take it in some interesting directions.

REIKO THE ZOMBIE SHOP (Zombie-ya Reiko), by Rei Mikamoto.  First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:
Reiko is a girl with a very special gift.  With the help of a magic symbol on her hand and a retinue of handy chants, she can bring the dead back to life.  These zombies can speak out against those who killed them and even lash out against them.  Of course, Reiko doesn't do all this for free, but for the bereaved parents, scared schoolgirls, fatalistic rock stars, and desperate criminals who call up her services, anything is worth the price.

STORY:
Nonsense title aside (seriously, where or what is the zombie shop in the title?), Reiko is a solid, if shallow and bloody collection of morality tales tied together by our lead.

I'll give Reiko this much - she's not written as a terribly deep character, but she's forceful and willful enough to serve as a good anchor for the anthology-style storytelling.  She's got a don't-give-a-shit personality which feels appropriate not only to her position as necromancer, but also as a teenage girl.  Yeah, she can raise the dead, so what?  She doesn't have time to ponder her own backstory, she's got a job to do!  She's also very efficient at her job, even if no one ever seems to pay attention.  She has a few ground rules - she wants payment upfront, restrain the resurectee lest they go berserk - but no one ever seems to listen until the ghouls start a-rising.  Reiko does have a few friends, but we don't get much insight into her life beyond her work.  Instead we follow her as she finds new reasons to resurrect the dead in increasingly outrageous ways.

The story starts out like your standard horror anthology, where each chapter is a new self-contained story about some blatantly wicked person who calls upon Reiko, who in turn resurrects the victim to deal out some old-fashioned ironic punishment.  The topics of these chapters are incredibly sensationalist, as they feature victims of suicide, child molestation, teenage pregnancy, and more.  Midway through the story starts condensing into something more continuous, as Reiko's work starts to cross over with the victims of a teenage serial killer.  Said killer starts off fairly calm, but by volume's end she's an eyetwitch away from cackling like a loon as she slashes with abandon.  When she and Reiko finally meet, and the conclusion is both insane and awesome at once.  I can't imagine how this series continued beyond an ending like THAT.  This is often an outrageous and ludicrous work, but that same ludicrousness made its bloody action more palatable.  It does diminish the horror of these situations to some degree, but in return it becomes more entertaining and darkly humorous.  Maybe that's the best way to approach a series like Reiko The Zombie Shop.  It's not a great character piece or a pinnacle of horror, but it's a glorious, gore-ious bit of insane action.

ART:
Reiko's art is kind of odd and also very, very gory.  People don't just bleed, they spray fountains of inky blood across the page along with limbs and chunks of flesh.  The undead, regardless of how recently they died, all have these ghoulish and sunken faces stuck in permanent howls of anguish.  The living in comparison are more simply drawn.  Reiko in particular is meant to be cute with her sassy, swishy pigtails and slightly punkish wardrobe, but she's also bug-eyed in a way that makes her look slightly alien.  It's even worse with the many children characters, who are so heavily chibi-fied that they look less like people and more like animate dolls.  Everyone expresses themselves in ways that are both over-the-top and weirdly stiff, going from perfectly placid to Higurashi-style rictus grins and wild eyes without much transition.  It's made weirder still by the fact that they tend to be outlined in thick, dark lines, as if they have been cut out and pasted on the page.  Clearly the biggest attraction was meant to be the blood and gore, as it's given the attention that the characters or backgrounds rarely got.

PRESENTATION:
There's a short gallery of fan art from Japanese fans, and I was personally kind of disturbed to see so many submissions from elementary-aged children.  I know a lot of kids are drawn to horror, but I would question exposing them to stuff like this so young.

RATING:
Reiko the Zombie Shop isn't deep, but it is a bloody good time.  Its insanity and over-the-top approach to horror and gore help to make its contents palatable and even enjoyable to those willing to approach it on that level.

This series was published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in Japan.  6 of 11 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: GYO

There are few horror manga that are as well-known (or as best-selling) in the US than Uzumaki.  Of course, Junji Ito didn't stop with that series.  Along with writing some more mundane manga about cats, he also wrote today's selection.  Why don't you hear it about as much as Uzumaki?  Well, there are many reasons...

GYO (Gyo Ugomeku Bukimi), by Junji Ito.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Tadashi and Kaori are supposed to be enjoying a relaxing vacation together on the sunny beaches of Okinawa.  It would be perfect, if Kaori didn't keep smelling a strange, rotten-fish smell wherever they go.  Soon, bizarre fish start to emerge from the ocean, with spidery legs, strange biomechanical tubing, and reeking of death itself.  As larger and larger creatures begin to rise from the waves and others being to submit to the same strange condition, the invasion threatens to destroy the island and all who live there.  The only hope for humanity lies with Tadashi and his scientist uncle to find the cause so that they can find a cure.

STORY:
I really have to wonder what happened to Junji Ito between Uzumaki and this series.  While it occasionally went into some silly directions, Uzumaki is a masterpiece of moodiness, imbued with a constant, creeping sense of paranoia and dread.  With Gyo, Ito tries to replicate that same mood, but it's always undone by the very premise of the story.

Ostensibly, this should be a very scary story.  You have freaky undead fish on spider legs, pumping out a concentrated cloud of decomposition gas.  This condition affects everything from the tiniest fish to the largest sharks.  The condition can spread to humans with only a scratch, turning them into swollen, pustule-covered freaks.  This should be unnerving, nauseating, and fearful.  So why then do I find myself wanting to laugh at the whole thing?  Maybe Ito shouldn't have made one of the symptoms uncontrollable gas.  You see, when a person is infected, they literally start spewing the corpse gas from both ends, meaning that they are belching and farting almost constantly.  It takes willpower to not revert to childish giggles because it's just so basic and juvenile, something that appeals to the kid within us that still thinks fart jokes are funny.

It's not helped by the fact that our two leads aren't terribly interesting or sympathetic to begin with.  Tadashi is a very passive character, always reacting to the events around him but unable to contribute anything to help anyone.  Kaori is downright unpleasant even before she becomes a rotting gasbag.  She's always unhappy, always fighting with Tadashi over petty things, and always complaining about the smell.  She's said to have a sensitive nose, so she spends most of the story yelling about the terrible smell as she showers over and over to try and make it go away.  I honestly couldn't care less if these two survived the invasion, and I very much doubt the story would suffer for their loss.  The only person with any sort of useful input is Tadashi's uncle, and he's sort of...well, odd.  Maybe it's the fact that he conveniently knows the history of this strange plague, or how unaffected he seems to be when part of his own body is threatened by it during his research, but I can't help but get a bit of a mad scientist vibe from him.

I'll give Gyo this much: its pacing is relentless.  The threat constantly builds upon itself, with little sign of stopping at the volume's end.  Crazy things just keep piling upon one another, with practically no lulls in the story to let some of the insanity soak in.  Maybe that's what keeps this story from achieving the close, clinging sense of madness that defined Uzumaki.  The story never stops to reflect on the madness happening around it or to let the tension build to the next horrible sight, and it suffers all the more for it.

ART:
At the very least, the quality of Ito's art hasn't suffered over the years.  The characters are all very realistic looking and generally well-drawn, but they do suffer from a strange sort of stiffness.  Maybe that's just a side effect of most them spending the whole volume with their mouths agape.  The fish creatures are also well-drawn, and he does try to create some visual atmosphere by gradually filling the town with thick, dark wisps of corpse gas.  It's a shame that he doesn't take more advantage of the seaside scenery.  After all, this is series about the ocean literally invading land, and yet most of what we see are bland, anonymous apartment buildings and plain, boxy interiors.  Ito might not have lost his skills, but he does seem to have lost his skill or desire for visual atmosphere to go along with his stories.

RATING:
The artwork is alright, but Gyo is simply too ridiculous to maintain any sense of horror the story might have held.  It's best to just throw this one back on the shelves.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in 2 volumes, and both are currently in print. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review: KITARO

October has come around once more, which means another month of spooky themes and horrific characters.  Today's selection is one of the forerunners of such a genre, and for once when it comes to older manga, it's not from the mind of Osamu Tezuka.

KITARO (GeGeGe no Kitaro), by Shigeru Mizuki.  First published in 1965, and first published in North America in 2013.



PLOT:
Kitaro is a strange little boy who serves as a sort of middleman between the world of humans and the world of yokai.  He is there to save the innocent while punishing those wicked yokai who would seek to hurt humans or humans who want to use yokai powers for their own gain, as the insects of the night chirp their approval.

STORY:
This series is the wellspring for all things yokai in Japanese popular media.  Everything from Yokai Watch to Black Bird owes its existence in part to this very series.  It's so popular that it's been adapted to television numerous times, roughly once every decade.  That's a powerful testament to the lasting power of this series, and having read through this collection I can see why it has remained so popular.

This book isn't a complete omnibus, but instead a selection of chapters from the series' full run - think of this like a greatest hits compilation.  All the stories featured here are simple and self-contained stories about the collision of the ancient world of the yokai and the modern world of humans.  Sometimes this conflict is played for humor, such as the story where Kitaro and friends face off against classic Western monsters like werewolves, witches, and a Frankenstein monster.  Sometimes it riffs on then-current pop culture, like the story where Kitaro turns into giant, hairy, whale-like monster who fights a giant robot in the middle of Tokyo.  He's even referred to as Kaiju Kitaro in that form!  Most of the time, though, it's about little morality tales where Kitaro rewards the good and punishes the bad in clever and unwitting ways.

For a supernatural creature, Kitaro is rather endearing.  He takes the form of a little mop-topped boy with a striped vest and gata.  Of course, most little boys don't have their father living in their head as a sentient, speaking eyeball to give them advice.  He doesn't exert control through physical force, but instead using reason, gentleness, and the occasional bit of trickery to solve problems.  It's good that he's such a weirdly sweet character, because he's pretty much the only constant to all of these stories.  The other yokai run the gambit in personality, from noble to petty to outright mean-spirited.  They also vary in looks, with some taking traditional forms and others looking more abstract or incorporeal.  The same goes for the handful of humans we see, although they tend to be divided into innocent victims or wrongdoers in need of punishment.

All of these characters come and go as the stories grow longer and longer in length.  The longest of the lot is "Creature of the Deep," the same story that features Kaiju Kitaro.  It's a story about a snooty scientist hoping to find fame and fortune by rediscovering an ancient creature.  Honestly, this story goes on a little too long, far past the point where even the most oblivious, self-centered villain would have gotten a clue.  Regardless of length, the moral of the stories remain simple and straightforward.  Those that are good and just will always be able to find aid in others; those that seek to exploit others, no matter how petty the reason, will be punished.  These are classic moral lessons that resonate with people of all ages, and that ultimately is the reason these stories have endured in Japanese pop culture.  A good morality tale never goes out of style, and dressing it up with supernatural gives the younger readers a bit of a vicarious thrill while older reader can pick up on both the old and the new cultural references.

ART:
Mizuki's art can look a little crude to some readers, even those used to the different visual style found in older manga.  Tezuka might have been a little cartoony at times, but it was almost always very polished.  Mizuki, on the other hand, had a style that was rough and caricature-like, which ends up rather suiting the dark and grungy world of the spirits.  He's good at making yokai easy to distinguish and appealing to the eye, with Kitaro being the most humanoid and familiar looking of the lot.  They serve as good contrast to the dark and moody landscapes of both the human and spirit worlds.  He clearly took a lot of these scenes from photo references, and he even refers to his own WWII past (and to a future work) by taking things to the lush jungles of Papua New Guinea.  The art gets a lot of room to shine, thanks to Drawn & Quarterly's choice to print this in an oversized omnibus.  It's just something of an acquired taste.

RATING:
Kitaro is a charming classic, one where the clash between the past and present play out at the hands of a cute little yokai boy and his friends.

This series is published by Drawn & Quarterly.  This series is complete in Japan with 9 volumes available.  Selections from these volumes have been compiled into a single omnibus, which is currently in print.

If you haven't already, please consider donating to the Carolina Manga Library.  They're currently at 48% funding, but you can help them meet their goal and beyond!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Help the Carolina Manga Library!

I'm interrupting the reviews briefly for a bit of promotion, this time for a good cause.  Today I want to talk to you about the Carolina Manga Library.



The Carolina Manga Library is a nonprofit organization which serves to bring the joy of graphic novels to fans across the south and beyond through their travelling library of Japanese and American works.  They bring a collection of over 2000 volumes of graphic novels to conventions across the south, allowing newcomer and fan alike to enjoy old favorites and discover new ones.  Theirs is a volunteer organization, being both staffed by volunteers and having a collection based upon donations from others.

Recently they started an IndieGoGo campaign with a simple goal.  They need $1500 to buy sturdier, more attractive shelving for their collection.  Any excess will go towards the purchase of a permanent trailer which will not only allow them to travel further out-of-state, but also allow the curators to focus their own funds on expanding the collection.  As of this date, they're at nearly 40% of their goal, but you can help them get further.

Their IndieGoGo campaign will be open until November 23rd of this year, with backer benefits like art prints from local and online artists, honorary plaques on the shelves, and even a free ticket to a South Carolina-area convention.  Even if you can't afford to donate funds or wish to do so outside of the campaign, you can donate funds (via Paypal) or books to them through their website.  Being a nonprofit, any and all monetary donations are tax-deductible.

As someone who loves manga and libraries, I think this is a fantastic organization worthy of your support.  I highly encourage anyone reading this who is able to support them in any way possible.  It doesn't matter whether it's supporting them through your wallet, through donating books, through spreading word of their campaign on your own social media feeds, or even visiting them at cons (or inviting them to your own local cons), anything you can do to promote them and their cause can help.  I plan on donating both money and books, and I sincerely hope that some of you can do the same.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: MY GIRLFRIEND'S A GEEK

Mind you, we still haven't seen the complete picture of otaku within manga.  There are plenty of female otaku, and in particular there are the fujoshi, the BL fangirls whose fondness for ho-yay is matched only by their purchasing power and enthusiasm for the subject.  The final selection for this month deals with this topic.  Does it give it some to those down with boys' love, or is it as cruel as your stereotypical seme?

MY GIRLFRIEND'S A GEEK (Fujoshi Kanojo), based on the light novel  series by Pentabu & drawn by Rize Shinba.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2010.



PLOT:
Taiga Mutou is a college kid seeking two things in his life: a good part-time job and a hot older woman to be his girlfriend.  He manages to score the former when he gets a warehouse job with a local clothing store.  There he meets his supervisor Yuiko Ameya, and with her Taiga hopes to gain the latter.  He starts making some headway with her, and even manages to arrange for a date.  Once together, Yuiko makes a confession: she's an otaku.  More specifically, she's a fujoshi, a BL fangirl.  Taiga doesn't understand the term at first and says that he'll love her no matter what.  That statement is put to the test as Yuiko reveals to him just how deep her BL fantasies go, all while Taiga does his best to keep her happy.

STORY:
I don't know if it's entirely accurate to call Yuiko a "geek," but I guess Yen Press figured that it was a simpler and more marketable term than "fujoshi."  I can't entirely blame them on that front, as not only does it not have a simple English translation, but it's a term that comes with some negative baggage.  As such, I wondered how this series was going to handle the concept.  Would it go for easy jokes about fujoshi fandom, or would it be willing to give its titular character some heart to go with her shipping preferences?  Thankfully for the reader, this series chooses the latter approach.

Like train_man, this series was originally inspired by the online chronicles of a real life romance.  It started out as one man's blog about his relationship with his slash-happy sweetheart, which in turn was popular enough to turn into a light novel series, which in turn became this very manga.  Because of those real life roots, there's a very real, down-to-earth sweetness about the relationship between Taiga and Yuiko.  The first half of the volume is just about getting these two together as a couple, and it's as adorable as any romantic comedy.  Taiga is insecure about himself and his lack of experience with girls, but the story never exaggerates these for the sake of a laugh.  Even after he learns about Yuiko's fandom, he really does try to be understanding of her fandom, even if he doesn't get the terminology she uses and doesn't quite get the appeal of BL as a genre.  He's not completely willing to play along with her every whim and fantasy, but he does find his own ways to indulge her and her fandom.  Anybody who has ever dated a geek can very likely find some parallel to this in their own past or present relationships.  It was genuinely sweet to watch Taiga try to understand and find some common ground with Yuiko, even if her tastes are not to his own, not to mention a very mature and reasonable stance to take in a relationship.

The series takes that same sweet, reasonable take towards Yuiko herself.  She doesn't look like the fujoshi stereotype - overweight, lonely, pimple-faced, and socially awkward.  Instead, Yuiko is a perfectly pretty young woman with a steady job who makes friends easily.  Unlike so many other series, she is a glowing example of someone who can balance her fandom and her social life.  Yes, sometimes she gets carried away in her enthusiasm for the subject, to the point where she confuses Taiga is a litany of BL butler terminology or starts viewing his friendship with a classmate as some sort of rose-colored bit of ho-yay.  She only gets carried away with it because like a lot of geeky people, she doesn't have a lot of real life outlets for her interest, and the fact that Taiga is willing to humor that same interest makes her genuinely happy.

My Girlfriend's a Geek ultimately works because it treats its protagonists like real people.  Their actions and faults come from real and relatable places, regardless if you're a geek or not.  It lets the reader related to the leads, which in turn lets the reader relate to their romance, which makes the whole thing a pleasant and entertaining read.

ART:
In a rather appropriate move, this series is drawn by an artist mostly known for drawing BL manga.  Knowing this makes some details make a bit more sense.  For example, Shinba devotes a lot of attention to the characters' hands, and while their fingers do tend to be ridiculously long, they are well detailed.  Beyond that, the character designs are a bit generic and flappy-mouthed, but they are expressive and cute.  Aside from Yuiko's flowery fantasies, the visuals are fairly mundane.  The backgrounds, the paneling, the layout, all of these things and more are effective and competently drawn, but lacking in any sort of flair.  While this does suit the pulled-from-real-life part of the story, it doesn't leave much to talk about in regards to the art.

RATING:
This is a sweet if slightly unremarkable romance distinguished mostly by the love interest's shipping preferences.  While the story and art might not be anything special, it does treat its leads with care and respect instead of going for easy jokes, which goes a long way towards making this series palatable.

This series was released by Yen Press.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes.  All 5 volumes have been released, and are currently out of print.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: COMIC PARTY

First of all, I recently did another podcast with the guys (well, one of the guys) of the Five Point Podcast, talking about a recent favorite of mine: Kill La Kill.


Five Point Podcast Episode 57: Kill La Kill... by fivepointpodcast

On a more topical note, not all the otaku manga are just about consuming otaku media.  Sometimes it's about otaku creating that media, a subject that should be near and dear to any mangaka's heart.  So why does this one feel just as soulless as most of those about consumption?

COMIC PARTY (Kommiku Pati), by Sekihiro Inui.  First published in 2001, and first published in 2004. 



PLOT:
Kazuki Sendoh is a kid with a talent for art.  It's this same talent that draws the bizarre yet gregarious otaku Taishi to him, so that Taishi can shanghai him into drawing dounjinshi for Comike...er...Comic Party!  Even as Kazuki's childhood friend Mizuki haunts his every step, scolding him for getting involved with a bunch of weirdos, Kazuki learns that he enjoys the process of creating doujin.  As he falls deeper and deeper into the culture of Comic Party, he meets all sort of new friends whose own works and work ethic only serve to inspire Kazuki even more.

STORY:
I was initially very confused by this manga.  Oh, I wasn't confused by the plot or anything like that.  I was just confused as to how a story about artistic passion could be so stilted and dull.  Then I learned that this series was based on a ero-ge, and then everything started to make sense.

As befitting the lead of a dating sim, Kazuki is hopelessly bland.  Weirdly enough, though, he seems to have no interest in the numerous girls that surround him.  Each of them is a paper-thin stereotype only strong enough to support one or two otaku-pleasing quirks, sure, but for all their dubious charms Kazuki remains as chaste as a priest.  The only passion he indulges is for creating doujin, and even he exhibits all the excitement one would have for folding the laundry.  Maybe that statement is unfair to Kazuki, because he's surrounded by people whose enthusiasm for doujin is so strong as to be comical.  The most obvious example of that is Taishi, whose enthusiasm for the subject verges upon the theatrical.  Still, he is the one who drags Kazuki into the plot, and it is his over-the-top monologues that keep Kazuki going, because this kid doesn't even have the force of personality to pursue his own modest success.  That to me is the most damning thing about Kazuki, that he requires others to keep him in the plot.

Taishi's opposite is Mizuki, and she's the closest thing to an antagonist this story has.  Like every other woman in this story, she's a walking stereotype, this time of the tsundere childhood friend.  She regards all things otaku-related as bizarre and perverted.  While this is not a completely unfair accusation, she takes things a bit too far.  It's to the point that she has a running gag where any non-Kazuki otaku that approaches her gets hit with a giant, nail-studded, bloody bat.  I suspect they were going to slapstick humor here, which would be appropriate for an over-the-top series like this.  It's just that when the end result is seeing an otaku in a bloody heap, the comedy element is lost, and it becomes shockingly cruel. 

The biggest problem with this series - bigger than the milquetoast lead, or the otaku checklist girls, or the inappropriate humor - is that the series as a whole feels disjointed.  The humor never quite clicks with the harem elements, and there are a lot of visual gags that I suspect are pop-cultural references  that are never given any sort of context.  Worse still, the translation takes it upon itself to insert "topical" jokes of its own.  Thus, we have characters talking about things like how something "reminds me of the Slipknot concert back in Japan."  That line in particular make things REALLY confusing, because it implies that this story ISN'T taking place in Japan.  Are they supposed to be in America then?  Is this just bad translation?  I DON'T KNOW.  Ok, it probably is just a bad insert joke as part of a greater problem with a bad translation.  Nonetheless, it's symptomatic of Comic Party's larger issues.  This series is confusing, half-hearted, painfully funny, and completely devoid of the passion for manga that it's supposed to espouse.

ART:
I guess it goes to figure that a half-hearted story like this one should have equally half-hearted artwork.  The character designs are pointy, flat, and hopelessly generic.  I swear the only thing that distinguishes half of these girls are their different hair styles.  The only character design that comes closest to eye-catching is Taishi, and I suspect most of that is because he seems to be borrowing Vash the Stampede's spiffy looking sunglasses. Otherwise, everything on the page is notable only in how unremarkable the art is.  It's ironic that a series that's meant to be about how making manga is hard work and driven by passion, because there is no effort or passion to be found in this art.

RATING:
I just do not get this series.  It's boring, confusing, and a giant visual mess.  This isn't a Comic Party - this is a Comic Disaster.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  The series is complete in 5 volumes.  All 5 volumes were released, and all are currently out of print.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: I, OTAKU, STRUGGLE IN AKIHABARA

I feel like I might have made a mistake leading things off with the best series about otaku consuming otaku culture.  For every Genshiken out there, there are a handful of others that make being an otaku both obnoxious and painfully unfunny.  You can probably guess which side this series falls into.

I, OTAKU, STRUGGLE IN AKIHABARA (Sota-kun no Akihabara Funtoki), by Jiro Suzuki.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2007.



PLOT:
Sota is your ordinary, normal sort of high school kid for all appearances.  He has a wide group of friends, a loving girlfriend, and is generally perceived to be a good-natured, popular person.  The truth is that Sota is an otaku obsessed with a puppy-themed moe character called Papico.  His secret search for the latest Papico figure leads him to a hole-in-the-wall shop called Otakudo Headquarters, which is run by the frantic Mano Takado.  Mano makes it his mission to make Sato openly embrace his otakudom, whether Sota wants to or not.  He harasses Sota's girlfriend, he ropes in Sota's friend Kenji into fandom, and even uses the two of them as part of a plot against another nearby manga store.  In the middle of all this insanity is Sota, who finds himself struggling to find the balance between his fandom and his normal, everyday life.

STORY:
The back cover of this series proclaims "Move over Comic Party!  There's a new fandom comedy in town!"  Well, that must be a backhanded insult towards Comic Party, because I'd hate to think there were two manga series about otaku that had an irritatingly manic and mad-cap sort of personality to make up for the fact that it's ultimately not funny at all.

That same personality cannot be applied to the lead.  Sota is a purposefully blank character, meant solely to serve as the buttmonkey to all the events around him.  His girlfriend is the only character who gets worse treatment from the story.  At least Sota got a name; she never receives so much as that.  She's also used and abused for a couple of quick jokes.  The first is that every date she has with Sota inevitably turns into something Papico related.  The other is that her moods are entirely dependent on Sota's ability to focus entirely on her.  In fact, it seems wrong to call Sota the lead character because pretty much everyone in the story is there to react against the true driving force of this series: Mano.

Mano preaches the benefits of otakudom in the same manner an evangelist preaches the New Testatment.  To him, otakudom is the One True Way, and anyone who compromises that belief for the sake of a social life or to hang out with a 3-dimensional girl is unworthy of his shop and his approval.  Thus, it is Mano's efforts to get the latest, greatest merchandize or to make Sota jump through endless hoops to earn it that drives both the plot and the humor.  It's a shame then that Mano is such a thoroughly unlikeable person.  He's so obsessed with making others discover the otaku within that he actively ruins the relationships of anyone he targets.  His standards as to what defines a 'true' otaku are as fanatical as they are arbitrary.  He lords over his customers by dangling the latest DVD or figure in front of them, in much the same manner a person would dangle a Milkbone over a dog.  It seems that Suzuka forgot that to create the sort of character one loves to hate, one has to give the character some sense of charm or humor.  Mano possesses neither, and as such much of the humor in the plots he creates falls flat from the very beginning.

He's not entirely to blame for the lack of humor, though.  This series fails in much the same way that Oreimo did.  It's the same stupid joke about the seeming impossibility of being an otaku AND having something of a social life.  As before, I get that Japanese culture sees a lot of popular media being childish and something to be set aside for adulthood, and that I'm coming at this from an American perspective where adults can enjoy the geekier side of media more openly.  That being said, the jokes remain the same: they are still backhanded insults towards their target audience.  It's making a mockery of otakudom, knowing full well that this series would only appeal to them.  It's not asking them to laugh at the silly extremes of the fandom, but at those who would indulge them - i.e, their audience.  Like Oreimo before it, I Otaku is laughing at its audience, not with them.

Oh, there's also an incredibly bizarre side story where the girlfriend tries to make some Valentine's Day chocolate for Sota with the help of two very random magical-girl fairies.  These events come from pretty much nowhere and end only in confusion.

I don't think any manga series, much less Comic Party, has anything to worry about from I Otaku.  Its wacky attempts at comedy ring false because the only character that isn't an empty shell is an irredeemable asshole, compounded by the fact that the story mocks the very people who would read it.

ART:
Suzuki's art is weird, angular, but full of energy.  The character designs look almost slapdash, consisting of gangly points and huge, goofy expressions.  The slightest hurdle or revelation is met with an over-the-top reaction that falls only slightly short of a Tex Avery cartoon.  Those reactions come at the expense of...well, pretty much everything else, visually.  The characters float about mostly blank white limbos, all while the panels take on some new crazy high or low angle meant to heighten the sincerity of the characters (and thus the jokes made at their expense).  There is a palpable energy and wackiness to the art, and it might have worked better had the story not been so much of a dud in the first place. 

RATING:
I, Reviewer, struggled to get to the end of this volume, and was all too happy when I got there.  There's plenty of energy in the art, but the jokes are one-note, lame and insulting, and all that wackiness becomes as grating as Mano is himself.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is complete in 4 volume.  All 4 volumes are currently in print.



Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: GENSHIKEN

This month, we're going to look at some manga that in turn look inward towards its own audience.  This month is all about the dweebs, geeks, and NEETs of the manga world, and we might as well kick off with one of the best-known and best-loved titles of that sort

GENSHIKEN, by Kio Shimura.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:
It's Kanji Sashihara's freshman year of college, which means it's time for him to pick a school club to join.  He has loads to choose from, but finds himself weirdly drawn to The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (or Genshiken, for short).  Upon joining the club, he discovers it to be composed of a weirdly loveable group of otaku and in turn he starts to open up to them about his own interests, along with enjoying new experiences like shopping for doujinshi in Akibahara or attending Comiket "Comic Fest."  He also makes friends with another new member, Makoto, who might be the most hardcore fan of the lot.  Too bad for him that his girlfriend, Saki, disapproves of his hobbies.  Still, even she finds herself eased bit-by-bit into the circle of friends within Genshiken.

STORY:
I feel like I'm at something of a disadvantage when trying to review this series.  I got into anime and manga well into my 20s, long after I had left college.  As such, I never considered joining any anime clubs or similar social groups.  As such, I can't really speak as to how accurate or inaccurate Genshiken is at portraying them.  On the other hand, Genshiken is less about a formal club so much as it is about a group of friends finding acceptance and enjoyment in what they love most, and that is by far the series' greatest strength.

Kanji isn't a terribly memorable protagonist, but then he really doesn't have to be for terribly long.  He's simply the hook to bring the reader into the world of Genshiken, where the real characters are.  Honestly, it's kind of surprising that a kid like Kanji hadn't already dived into the otaku scene.  After all, if his inner monologue is anything to go by, he's already fairly familiar with a lot of the material these guys talk about (along with all the porn).  He wins the group over by quoting Mobile Suit Gundam, for God's sake.  It's not like this series is too old to account for the internet - as noted above, this series came out in 2002, when any geek could have thrown a few terms into a search engine and found plenty of fansites, forums, and fanfic for just about any fandom you could wish.

Anyway, within a chapter or two, the story shifts focus to the more colorful characters of the club.  There's militant otaku Madarame, the shy, stuttering manga artist Mitsunori, the mellow, loveable cosplayer Tanaka, and spacey Makoto, another new member to the club.   Makoto is rather interesting in that he is by far the most conventionally good-looking and social member of the club, but he is also the most committed of the group when it comes to merchandise, as his tiny apartment is packed wall-to-wall with every sort of geeky delight.  By the end, they even add a female member to the club, the soft-spoken cosplayer Kanako.  While some of the members (*coughMadaramecough*) do fit the general otaku stereotype, it's good to see a wide variety of people and body types in the club, and that they all do generally get along and support everyone's unique interests.  They truly are less of a formal club than a gang of friends who get together once in a while to shoot the shit or buy some doujinshi.

We even get to experience the group through the perspective of an outsider thanks to Saki.  In less talented hands, she would come off as an intolerable bitch, but I have to give a lot of credit to Shimura for making her so weirdly likeable.  She mostly comes around because of her interest in Makoto, and the club even helps her out by clueing Makoto in on Saki's desire to date him.  She's very resistant to the club until Kanoko joins, as their shared mastery of English and mutual interest in fashion (albeit for different reasons) gives them some common ground.  I'm genuinely curious to see how their burgeoning friendship will play out, and how this in turn will affect Saki's attitude towards Genshiken.

This series is very much a slice-of-life story.  There's no real overarching story, so instead we just follow these kids around town as they teach Kanji how to be a proper otaku and slowly expand the club.  The closest we come to a climax is having the club visit "Comic Fest."  Actually, that reminds me of an interesting point about the translation.  The text and character profiles bring up a lot of copyrighted franchises, so clearly someone at Del Ray had a lot of fun changing the names of all them.  It must have been a challenge to come up with changes that do enough to avoid royalties while keeping the names recognizable enough that the reader could get the joke.  I think they went a little too far, though, because they also felt the need to translate or change some of the otaku terminology.  As such, the club goes shopping for "fanzines" instead of doujinshi, and go to "Comic Fest" instead of Comiket.  The only things they didn't have to change were the names for the made-up anime series Kujibiki Unbalance, a show that the club is obsessed with.  Based on the glimpses we see of it, it seems to be composed entirely of anime and moe stereotypes and would be the sort of show to get middling reviews in your average anime season.

While I can't specifically relate to a lot of the story here, I can understand why people like this series so much.  There's a casual, almost lived-in quality to the story that's oddly appealing, and the characters in turn are fleshed out enough that even the most repellant of the lot is still entertaining in their own way.  Of all the "let's form a club to make friends!" manga out there, Genshiken is the only one that makes their characters actually feel like real friends and knows how to make something as ordinary as geeky friendship interesting.

ART:
Shimoku's artstyle reminds me a lot of Moyashimon, another series about quirky college kids bonding over obscure subjects.  It's a little bit cute, a little bit realistic, and a little bit cartoony all at once.  It's a tough style to describe, but an easy one on the eyes.  Shimoku really excels at the gonk faces, be it Kanji's swirly-eyed delirium at the prospect of porn or Saki's incredulous reaction to whatever the Genshiken guys are talking about that day.  One thing that I think adds a lot of the appeal of the series is the homeliness of its setting.  Shimoku puts a lot of detail into Genshiken's cramped, dingy little club room, and he does the same with everything from Makoto's packed apartment to the shops of Akibahara  to the crush of people at Comic Fest.  These places feel real and lived-in, and while they may not necessarily be pretty, they are appealing and welcoming.  They don't feel too far removed from our own world, and that's a comforting thing for a lot of readers, and it only adds to the atmosphere of the story as a whole.

RATING:
I will happily take a series like Genshiken over a million other manga about cute girls learning about friendship in a club.  Genshiken doesn't glamorize its characters' nerdiness, but still manages to make it comforting and relatable even to those who never joined an anime club.

This series is published by Kodansha, formerly Del Ray.  The series is complete in 9 volumes.  The single volume release from Del Ray is currently out of print.  The 3-in-1 omnibus release from Kodansha is currently in-print.

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.