Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review: SERAPH OF THE END

Lucky for me, one of Shonen Jump's most recent hits has an animated adaptation that's just wrapping up at this point.  Reviews for it have been rather mixed at best, and having looked at the manga, I'm surprised it managed that much.

SERAPH OF THE END (Owari no Serafu), based on the light novel series by Takay Kagami, with art by Yamato Yamamoto, and storyboards by Daisuke Furuya.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:

Yuichiro lives in a ruined world.  The majority of the world's population was killed off by a combination of a deadly virus and a vampire invasion.  The only survivors are children, and most of them have been spirited underground to serve as blood farms.  It's this world in which Yuichiro lives, where his only companions are his friend Mika and the other survivors from their orphanage.  The two eventually decide to make a break for the surface world, but only Yuichiro manages to make it.  Four years later, Yuichiro is itching to join the army of vampire hunters that live on the surface, but they feel that Yuichiro needs to learn the value of cooperation and patience.  Before he can do that, though, he'll also need to learn the value of trust and friendship if he's going to survive his trials and strike back at the vampire menace.

STORY:

I'm not an easy woman to scare, but if there's a single phrase in the world of manga that sends a chill down my spine it's "based on a light novel."  More often than not it's a kiss of death for the quality of any given manga.  More often then not, it guarantees that the story's ambitions will be sky-high, that it explain EVERYTHING to the audience in giant infodumps like they are idiots, and season all that with a few otaku-friendly ideas or archetypes that can easily be turned into shows or merchandise, and their transition into manga is often an awkward one.  Seraph of the End is no exception to this rule, which means anyone who choses to read this is in for a rough time.

The biggest problem this story has is also its most inescapable one: the main character.  Yuichiro is a pain from beginning to end.  He's constantly angry, stubborn to a fault, and too cocky for his own good, and it's these three qualities which serve as the wellspring for all of his problems.  From the very beginning, if he was willing to just let others into his life and to learn from them, he wouldn't have lost all his childhood friends and he wouldn't have to half-ass his way through his trials to become a vampire hunter.  It certainly doesn't help that Yuichiro is clearly meant to be a knockoff of Attack on Titan's Eren Jaeger, but he's a poor one at that.  Eren's anger comes from a more righteous place than Yuichiro's, and as Attack on Titan progresses, we see that Eren's own stubbornness and anger aren't necessarily positive qualities worth rewarding.  They make him dangerous at times, and  those same qualities sometimes get him into serious trouble.  In comparison, Yuichiro is constantly rewarded for being stubborn and charging his way through his battles like he was Leeroy Jenkins reborn.  He has no cause to change his ways when being his stupid, stubborn self gets him everything he wants anyways.

The rest of the story is no less derivative, it's just that it's derived more from light novel tropes in general than it is from anything specific.  To start with, the majority of the story takes place at a high school.  Yes, it might be a post apocalyptic world that's overrun with vampires and ruled under martial law, but the law of anime and manga averages demands that everything be set at a high school.  You'd think that under such conditions it would be more like a military academy or training camp, but nope!  For all intensive purposes, it's just like every other Japanese high school in every other anime and manga you can think of.  OK, there's one big difference: apparently this school has a dungeon that's there solely for the purposes of testing new recruits.  Maybe their school used to be the place where some of the kids from the Persona series used to go.  There's also the matter of Yuichiro's classmate and superior officer, Mikaela.  She's our token girl, but her primary purpose is that of Exposition Giver.  At any given point, the story will stop dead in its tracks so that she can explain all the rules and details of their world in a fashion that's only slightly less awkward than starting each conversation with "As you know..."  Admittedly, she endeared herself to me a little by snarking on Yuichiro at every opportunity for being both a loner and a virgin, but they weren't enough to save the story for me.


I feel like the writer wasn't so much writing an original story as he was grafting elements from other, more popular series together like the manga equivalent of Frankenstein's monster.  There isn't much thought or consistency when it comes to either the plot or the cast, and the end result is both frustrating and awkward to read.

ART:

This might be the first time I've ever seen a separate credit for storyboards on a manga.  Normally it's a task that's handled by the artist, and from what I see here I don't see much of a need for him.  The only place where Furuya's skills are of any use are during the fight scenes.  There he makes skillful use of both perspective and scale to give the fight sequences a sense of energy and flow that the rest of the art desperately needs.  As for the art itself, there isn't a great deal to say.  The character designs aren't half-bad, especially when it comes to their bold, angular eyes.  On the other hand, they all tend to look alike around the face and the male characters look so similar that it can be hard to distinguish them in larger group shots.  It also doesn't take much advantage of its setting.  The story features both a giant Gothic underground city and a crumbling, overgrown Tokyo, but Yamamoto can barely be bothered to draw it most of the time.  After all, why could you draw interesting settings when you can draw another high school?!  No, I'm not going to get over that anytime soon.  Overall, the art isn't bad, but its good qualities are overshadowed by its more mediocre ones.

RATING:

Seraph of the End wastes whatever potential it might have had by cribbing too hard and too blatantly from others and by making the lead a moron who survives only because of authorial dictate.  The show might be able to get by on flashy animation, but this one is just as dull and dead as the vampires they fight.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 8 volumes available.  5 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.  This series is also being currently serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha, also available from Viz. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: CITY HUNTER

Of course, Shonen Jump has been around a lot longer than the 2000s, even if we've not necessarily seen a lot of those titles.  We've got a few of the big-name titles from the 1980s, such as Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Fist of the North Star, and today's selection.

CITY HUNTER (Shiti Hanta), by Hojo Tsukasa.  First published in 1985, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:

There are many crimes within the confines of Tokyo that go unpunished.  There are good people who lose their lives and the police and courts can only do so much.  These are the cases that lead people to private detective Ryo Saeba, aka City Hunter.  Saeba's got a way with a gun, a quick wit, and a love of the ladies that manages to get out of tight situations time and again.  His skills are put to the test, though, when his long-time partner is murdered and he must team up with his sister to avenge his death.

STORY:

It's hard to believe that there are a time when the pages of Shonen Jump weren't filled with a bunch of spiky-haired kids but instead with lots of burly bruisers and grown men.  Compared to many of its contemporaries, City Hunter is a rather modest and understated title, as it's essentially a detective procedural that were all over TV in the 70s and 80s.  Maybe that's the reason City Hunter holds up pretty well nearly three decades later.

The stories here are fairly episodic, and it's only towards the end of the first volume that we start to see ones that span more than a single chapter.  They all tend to follow the same formula, though - Ryo investigates the villain of the week, saves the day, wins over the latest woman to come wandering into his life, and everything goes back to the status quo.  As for the stories themselves, they can be all over the place.  It covers everything from simple murder to crooked boxers to a horde of zombie-like PCP users, and while some of these stories flirt with the ridiculous, they never cross the line into it, so they remain delightfully pulpy.  Ryo himself is rather understated as a character.  He's loyal and just, and he's able to think on his feet just as fast as he can shoot.  Honestly, the only thing that distinguishes him from literally any other detective character you can think of is his lechery.  The stories make a running gag out of him hitting on just about every woman that crosses his path.  Some of these instances come off as somewhat creepy today, but for the most part it's harmless.

City Hunter doesn't start to really find its footing until the ending story where Ryo's partner is killed.  This allows Tsukasa to introduce the partner's sister, Kaori, as his new sidekick and love interest.  She's shown to be competent enough when the chips are down, but it seems the most use Tsukasa has for her is to have her smack down Ryo for being a perv.  I'm sure this gag was hammered oh-so-firmly into the ground over the manga's full run, but here it's just a dumb gag that adds a bit of levity during or after the more serious story fodder, much like Kaori herself.  When you put all of these elements together, you can see that City Hunter isn't as sensational as a lot of its contemporaries or genre-mates, which does make it a bit forgettable.  That doesn't mean that it isn't pulpy good fun in the mean time.

ART:

Tsukasa's art is handsome and grounded.  It's a fine fit for the down-to-earth setting, but it does have one mild disadvantage: everyone tends to look the same.  It's mostly in the faces; it seems just about everyone who isn't a villain has the same generically good-looking face.  What that means is that it's hard to keep track of who is who.  Still, it's very expressive and Ryo can usually be distinguished by his confident, nearly permanent smirk.  The action scenes are clean, crisply drawn (if not a little stiff) and easy to follow.  The backgrounds are beautifully detailed, taking full advantage of both the glamour and the grit of 1980s Tokyo.  Even the fanservice is handsome and grounded!  There might be quite a few ladies who end up in their underpants at some point or another, they don't get the sort of lurid close-ups and lovingly detailed undergarments that later series would employ, and the raciest anything gets is when we see some deeper than average cleavage.  Overall the art here isn't exceptional, but it's still skillful and it still has a very timeless look.

RATING:

City Hunter is a solid package of good art and pulpy fun detective stories that's hurt only by the lack of larger story continuity and some of the leading man's seedier qualities.  It's good fun for those who like old-school detective procedurals, but not compelling enough to reach modern day audiences.

This series was published by Raijin Comics.  This series is complete in Japan with 35 volumes available.  5 volumes were released and all are currently out of print.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Review: STRAWBERRY 100%

What people sometimes tend to forget is that Shonen Jump showcases just as many romance stories as it does action stories.  On the other hand, it's easy to forget that when the manga in question are as dumb and forgettable as today's selection.

STRAWBERRY 100% (Ichigo 100%), by Mizuki Kawashita.  First published in 2002 and first published in North America in 2007.



PLOT:

Junpei Manaka wandered up to the school roof one day to think, but instead he encounters a lovely girl who accidentally flashes him her strawberry patterned panties.  From that moment on, all Junpei can think of is this mysterious strawberry panty girl.  His search for her leads him to Tsukada, a pretty and extroverted girl.  Her advances leave Junpei flustered, so he seeks out advice from his shy, bookish classmate Aya.  As their relationship progresses, Junpei starts to wonder if Tsukada really is the strawberry panty girl he's been seeking, or if she's still out there waiting for him.

STORY:

I didn't have high expectations for this story.  After all, it's a story that hinges on a single pair of panties.  We are not dealing with a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.  What I couldn't have anticipated was just how frustrating Strawberry 100% would be to read because everything rides on Junpei being as annoying and oblivious as humanely possible.

Yeah, it's safe to say that I rather hated Junpei.  He's incredibly shallow, even by teenage boy standards.  He literally doesn't care about about what this strawberry panty girl may be like as a person or even what she looks like.  He just wants to see her panties again.  Literally the only value she holds for him is her choice in undergarments.  Someone please tell this kid that there's an entire internet full of porn where he could see literally any pair of panties he could ever desire.  Like so many shonen romance leads, he's also an incredibly awkward kid who can barely strike up a conversation, yet somehow he convinces Tsukada to go out with him.  In all fairness, he manages this only by performing a stupid stunt that makes Tsukada feel so bad for him that she agrees to a date out of pity.  He then spends the rest of the book agonizing over every little thing she says and does, completely unsure of how to react or what to say because his mind of full of nothing but thoughts of the strawberry panty girl.  Apparently the obvious answer of "just talk to her like a normal human being, you putz" is too much for his simple, panty-addled mind.

This is where Aya enters the picture, and this is where what little patience I might have had for this story snapped.  The two of them have the start of what could be a decent friendship, as he has an interest in film and she has an interest in creative writing.  Yet he constantly burdens her with his problems and his needs without taking her own into account.  True to form, he's also completely oblivious to her very blatant crush on him, but then he's also just as oblivious to the fact that everyone in the story - INCLUDING HIS OWN FREAKING GIRLFRIEND - is clubbing him over the head with the fact that Aya is in fact the strawberry panty girl.  Unfortunately, Junpei is as dense as a black hole, mostly because it allows the writer to stretch out the obvious for what I'm sure will be an excessive number of volumes.  Meanwhile, poor Aya is ignored solely because she's a Hollywood-style nerd.  Time and again, the story tells us that she would be so pretty if she just let down her hair, took off her glasses, and got her nose out of her books.  Heaven forbid that she might want to see clearly, keep her hair out of her face, and do something with her time other than pine for an idiot more interested in underwear than anything else.

Shonen romances often tend to be dumb and contrived, but few reach the depths that Strawberry 100% does.  The leads are shallow archetypes who internalize everything, guaranteeing that every little problem that they have is stretched out until it becomes completely ridiculous.  It's got a lot of regressive ideas about girls and relationships and honestly just about every conflict here could be solved with just five minutes of honest conversation between our three leads.  There's no joy or humor to be found here, just annoyance at having wasted your time reading such nonsense.

ART:

You know, would it kill the guys who draw shonen romances to put even a little effort into their art?  Just because it isn't a fluffy, frou-frou, flowers-and-bishonen sort of romance doesn't meant that you can't put some effort and skill into it.  If only someone would have taught Kawashita that lesson.  What's really weird is that he clearly takes a lot of influence from Masakazu Katsura, the creator of I"s and Video Girl Ai.  It's especially obvious in the character designs, who all have the squashed bobbleheads with the weirdly tiny faces that Katsura tends to draw.  The big difference is that Katsura had a far better eye for detail.  Everything from the fashion to the fanservice clearly had a lot of time and effort put into it, and while it's far from classy it's aged very gracefully.  Kawashita's work in comparison is far lazier and broad.  The characters are given these weirdly wide-spaced eyes that makes them all look alien, and the girls' faces all tend to look the same.  Their bodies also look odd, as if their proportions don't properly fit their awkwardly squat bodies.  Oddly enough, for a series that centers on a pair of panties, there really isn't a lot of fanservice.  Most of what we see comes solely from Junpei's imagination, and even then Kawashita doesn't put much passion or imagination into it.  Otherwise he tends to play things very safe and aside from the rather unappealing characters, everything looks very mundane. 

RATING:

Strawberry 100% is 100% awful.  It's boring, stupid, derivative, ugly to look at, and is anchored to a lead with all the wit and intelligence of a rock.  If you need an example of what not to do when writing a shonen romance, look no further than this manga.  Better still, don't look at it at all and go read something else.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 19 volumes available.  14 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Review: DEATH NOTE

This month, I'm going to be taking a look at some of the many titles to make it over here from the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump and its many spinoffs.  So let's kick things off with one of the best known and fanatically loved of its more recent titles.

DEATH NOTE (Desu Noto), written by Tsugumi Ohba & art by Takeshi Obata.  First published in 2003 and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

It all started out so harmlessly.  The shinigami Ryuk decided to drop a Death Note, the shinigami's method of dealing death, into the human world.  He wanted to see who would find it and what they would do if just for a laugh.  He gets a lot more than that when a brainy high school senior by the name of Light Yagami picks it up.  To Light, the Death Note is a way for him to rid the world of evil and become the world's savior.  His methods soon catch the attention of the police, who bring in the highly eccentric and world-renowned detective L to help solve the case.  Now Light must continuously find new and creative ways to evade detection if his dream is to succeed.

STORY:

It's safe to say that Death Note has something of a reputation to live up to.  It was hugely popular in both its manga and anime forms.  Legions of fans grew up around this series and many still believe it to be a masterpiece of shonen, one that explores the complexities of morality like few other series can.  Some even defended its protagonist, believing that his attempts to take over the world and mold it in his image is the right and just thing to do.  Understandably, its popularity led to something of a backlash, and now enough time has passed that the hype has died down, the fanatics have moved on to other franchises, and we can now determine if Death Note still holds up roughly a decade later.

I'll give Ohba this much credit: his choice of a protagonist is still a fairly subversive one for mainstream shonen.  Most Shonen Jump protagonists are simple, earnest, even kind of dumb.  They're meant to be easily relatable, easy to understand, and generally good stand-ins and role models for the kids who are the target audience for Shonen Jump.  Light Yagami, on the other hand, is most assuredly none of these things.  He may be a highly intelligent and successful student, but as he uses the Death Note more and more he reveals his true self to the audience: a cold, calculating sociopath riding high on his delusions of grandeur.  So how did Ohba manage to get away with creating a big-time shonen series centered on such a morally detestable protagonist?

While all of those qualities noted above make Light a terrible role model, that doesn't mean that the teenage audience still wouldn't find him relatable.  Light's desire to be the smartest person around, to shape the world around him to his liking speak to a lot of common teenage power fantasies, and his actions could be viewed as a form of rebellion against what he views as an unjust world.  The story never outright judges Light for his actions - much like Ryuk, it's content simply to stand on the sidelines and let the events unfold.  Thus, nothing stands in the way of the reader getting a vicarious thrill each time Light thinks his way out of a problem.  He truly is the sort of character you love to hate.  You know you shouldn't want him to succeed in his goal, but it's so fascinating to watch him try nonetheless.

It certainly helps that the plot is fascinating in its own right.  It's chock full of twists and turns right from the start.  One simply can't help but wonder how Light is going to think his way out of whatever situation he finds himself in.  Light has an ability to plot that would put Gargoyles' David Xanatos to shame, and in a way it's his shonen-style superpower, much in the same vein as the kamehameha or Gum-Gum powers.  Death Note likes to pretend that it's a lot more serious than most shonen series, but it can't entirely fool itself and its audience.  As long as you're willing to go along with that and the concept of shinigami, though, you're good to go. 

Death Note isn't as deep as some tried to make it out to be, but it is entertaining and Light makes for a compelling antihero.  It's a great crime thriller series that loves to dissect its twists and turns as they happen, and it comes of as exciting instead of tedious in spite of the fact that it goes down in what seem like endless monologues.  It's not the BEST MANGA EVAR ZOMG, but it's got a that hasn't aged a day, and even a decade later it's a great manga to read.

ART:

Obata is no slouch when it comes to shonen art.  Before this series came out, he was known for manga like Ral Omega Grad and especially the then-megahit Hikaru no Go.  He's got an artstyle that's relatively unostentatious for shonen with some great character designs and lots of strong, stark inking.  While a lot of those qualities are still present in his art for Death Note, he also gave himself the opportunity to stretch his skills and draw something that truly stood out.  The characters here are a lot more elaborate and photorealistic than a lot of its contemporaries, and it's a look that helps to sell the gravity of the story.  There are no big-eyed, spiky-haired teens here.  Instead, Obata draws a world that's barely removed from our own and he fills it full of fine detail, be it the fold of clothing on a body, the books in Light's bedroom, and the range of expressions.  The one place he lets himself get fanciful is with the shinigami, and if Ryuk is anything to go by they are gloriously ugly things.  He's an instantly iconic creature made up of gangly limbs, dark leather, and all of it topped off with a rictus grin and endlessly staring eyes.  

Obata's greatest challenge was the fact that Death Note is a very talkative manga.  A lot of manga artists would simply try to shove as many speech bubbles as possible into the panel, transforming the story into a series of talking heads.  Obata livens things up by subtly shifting the panel angles up and down or using a well-timed close-up as a character builds to a point.  He also makes a point of never showing L's face through purposeful framing and choice of angles, which helps to build up the mystery and mystique around the character.  It's not exceptionally clever onto itself, but it's fine touches like this that do a lot to liven up this story visually and make Death Note as a whole as dynamic as it was likely ever going to be.

RATING:

Death Note's reputation is a well-earned one.  It's got a memorable lead, a thrilling story, a lot of grandiose ambition, and it's capped off by great and well-detailed art.  This story is deserving of its status as a modern-day classic.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 12 volumes available.  The 12 single volumes are currently out of print, but the 2-in-1 omnibuses are currently in print.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Finale: GIRL FRIENDS

To wrap things up, let me say something nice about Seven Seas for once by taking a look at the series that put Milk Morinaga on the map as far as American manga fans are concerned.

GIRL FRIENDS (Garu Furenzu), by Milk Morinaga.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2012.



PLOT:

Mariko Kumakura is a quiet girl, the sort of girl who spends most her days alone studying.  Everything changes on the day that Akiko Ohashi convinces Mariko to get a haircut.  Akiko is bubbly and popular, and under her influence Mariko starts to come out of her shell and start making some friends and enjoy herself.  Mariko becomes very attached to Akiko and the girls' feelings start to grow into something deeper than mere friendship.  Just as they are the verge of confession, Mariko gets a boyfriend and her friendship with Akiko suffers as a result.  Will the two of them ever repair their friendship?  Will they ever realize that the both of them want to be more than just friends?

STORY:

Yuri is a neglected genre here in the US, and outside of titles like Strawberry Panic, it doesn't tend to get much notice even from manga fans.  That's why I was happy to see Girl Friends make such a splash with the fandom, first when it was on the late, lamented JManga site and later one when Seven Seas licensed it.  It's a very intimate and character-driven story, and much like the better examples of yaoi out there, it understands that we need to understand who our leads are as characters so that we can be invested in their romance.

Between this title, Kisses, Sighs & Cherry Blossom Pink, and Gakuen Polizi, it's clear that Morinaga goes for a particular sort of type when it comes to her couples.  She likes to pair up introverted or bookish brunettes with short hair and extroverts with light, long, loose hair.  I don't know if this is because Morinaga is going along with yuri conventions (like this was something akin the uke/seme deal in yaoi) or if this is just her particular fetishes shining through, but it's a pairing that works really well here.  Mariko and Akiko complement each other well, as Akiko encourages Mariko to engage with the world while Mariko keeps Akiko focused on important things like schoolwork.  It's easy to see why these girls would be fast friends, and the many scenes of Mariko enjoying quality time with the girls is just darling to read.

Of course, this being a yuri, things have to get a bit more complicated, and Morinaga weaves the romantic tension in seamlessly with the main narrative.  Mariko becomes more and more possessive about Akiko's attentions, finding herself longing for her praise and touch.  Akiko is the more physically aggressive of the two, so she tends to find excuses to touch and flirt with Mariko while still trying to play things cool and casual.  At times it becomes frustrating watching these two fumble their way through their problems because we've had so much time to get to know them as people.  You want them to be happy, and it's clear that they would be happiest if they would just have some frank conversations with one another and stopped beating around the bush.  Even their friends realize that the two need one another, even if Akiko's friends are completely unaware of the romantic complications between them.  The falling apart of their friendship ends up neatly paralleling the girls' concerns about being split up as they enter their next year of high school, and it leaves this volume ending on something of a cliffhanger.  Like Mariko, you're left wondering if these relationships are reparable or if it's simply the nature of teenage friendship. 

Girl Friends is the sort of romance that you can't help but get swept up in.  The character are so compelling and real that you can't help but feel what they feel.  You root for them, you despair for them, and you want them to be together.  If that's not testament to Morinaga's ability to write great characters and great romance, I don't know what would be.

ART:

Morinaga's designs are very cute and round, although they tend to be a bit generic and a bit bobbleheaded.  She does well at distinguishing all the different girls in both look and attitude, but they do all tend to have the same doe-eyed blushing face.  Fanservice is fairly minimal, a few bared boobs here, a bit of undergarments there, and in a rather meta touch we see a bit of a yuri doujin that can only be described as what happens when you cross Strawberry Panic with a magical girl show.  Backgrounds are nicely drawn, but they mostly feature a lot of ordinary streets, schoolrooms, and bedrooms.  This is a fairly talkative manga between Akiko's chattiness and Mariko's ever-present inner monologue, but Morinaga takes care to keep this from turning into a talking head montage by letting things widen out once in a while or letting things get a bit abstract.  Overall, Morinaga's art is cute but nuanced enough to let the emotion in the story shine through.

PRESENTATION:

There's an extended omake from Morinaga which is surprisingly informative.  It confirms not only that Mariko and Akiko's looks stem from her own personal preferences but also her own experience growing up in an all-girls school. 

RATING:

You don't have to be a yuri fan to enjoy Girl Friends.  All you need to be is someone who can appreciate well-written characters and romance presented with a subtle but emphatic style and a lot of shoujo-cute girls to go around, and that's enough to make this an instant recommendation from me.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 have been published in 2 omnibuses, and both are currently in print.