Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: BROTHER

It's hard to find a boys' love manga that stood out enough to work for this month.  After all, we're dealing with a genre where rape is so common that it's a trope.  Thus, it takes a lot more for your given yaoi series to stand out as particularly egregious.  I did manage to find one, though, and it distinguishes itself by crossing one of the last few taboos left in manga: incest.

BROTHER, by Yuzuha Ougi.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

Asuka Momoki should have it all: a loving family, a good job, good looks, and an insanely popular and talented stepbrother named Yui.  For Asuka, though, Yui is the biggest problem in his life.  The two grew apart as they grew older, and an awkward encounter between the two has left Asuka impotent ever since.  Things come to a head between the two when they are trapped in an abandoned building and the feelings that the both of them have been repressing are finally unleashed.  These two distant stepsiblings are about to get much, MUCH closer.

STORY:

Brother doesn't really cover any new ground as far as boys' love go.  Literally the only notable thing about it is that the pairing is incestuous.  It tries to justify itself with a lot of melodramatic nonsense and the usual "they're not REALLY related" clause, but it's not enough to save this series from the trash pile.

If you had to sum up Asuka and Yui's relationship in a word, it would be 'obsessive.'  Yui is driven by his sexual obsession with Asuka, and Asuka in turn obsessed with earning Yui's approval and Yui's own popularity with others.  Things only get more obsessive once the two start screwing, as Asuka's obsession becomes all-consuming and he tries to keep Yui close though near-constant bouts of sex.  I'm used to BL trading in very jealous and obsessive forms of love, but these two take it to extremes even before you factor in the incest angle.  Even after the two become a couple, they have to keep reaffirming their love through pointless trips and highly convoluted excuses to endanger one or both of them.  It's like all the two have in common is sex and their last names.

As noted before, the story shrugs off any criticism of its pairing as these sorts of stories always do: 'they're not related by blood, therefore it's OK!"  That doesn't fly when you consider that these two have been raised together since they were in grade school.  What's really weird is that the story never makes a big deal out of the incest. You would think that a couple this intense would spend a lot of time agonizing melodramatically about the conflict between conventional morality and their desires, but Asuka and Yui hardly even bat an eye at the matter.  All it takes is an awkwardly timed boner and some desperate gropings inside a crumbling cement box to overcome any objections the two might have had.

Like a lot of bad manga, what little we do know about Asuka and Yui is told, not shown.  We're told that Asuka is a great businessman.  We're told that Yui is a great tennis player and super popular.  Ok, I take back that last point if simply because the story make a running gag out of the fact that seemingly EVERY SINGLE GIRL within his vicinity can't help but comment on how dreamy Yui is to them.  That's about as deep as it gets, though.  With these two, it's all surface and no depth.  These two barely register as characters, and because of that any conflict over their family connection or burning passion falls completely flat.  For a story that's meant to be scandalous and melodramatic, Brother is shockingly dull, and that may be its most fatal flaw.

ART:

The only thing in Brother that is more offensive than the incest is the artwork.  Practically everything you could get wrong in BL art is here:  orangutan arms, giant spidery hands, narrow horse faces that look like bug-eyed, giant lipped caricatures of bishonen, giraffe necks, and an overall sort of wiriness to them that makes Asuka and Yui absolutely hideous to behold.  It's pretty easy to see where Ougi's true priorties were, as the only part of the boys that is competently drawn is their penises.  We get to take a good, steamy look at them too as the sex scenes are surprisingly uncensored.  She also tends to transition to them at lightning speed.  At any moment, the two can go from yelling fits to boner time, and this is done so frequently that it's almost laughable.  Ougi clearly couldn't be bothered to wrap up most of her plot points like a normal writer, choosing instead to distract her reader with lots of clumsy-drawn, sticky sex scenes.  Hell, she could barely be bothered to draw anything else in her panels.  Brother is simultaneously a very bad and a very boring manga to look at.

RATING:

Brother is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to BL, and quite frankly that's where it belongs.  It's ugly, creepy, and hasn't the least bit of personality to its bland name.

This book was published by DramaQueen.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  One volume was published and is currently out of print..

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: MILLENNIUM PRIME MINISTER

Once again, it's February, which means that it's time for another round of bad romance manga, a celebration of all the ways that love can turn strange and wrong.  We're starting off with a doozy of a work thanks to one of BL's most notable creators.

MILLENNIUM PRIME MINISTER (Seikimatsu Prime Minister), by Eiki Eiki.  First published in 1998 and first published in North America in 2009.



PLOT:

It all started at the local arcade.  Minori only meant to skip class for a bit to play some video games.  She couldn't resist the challenge of some mystery champion beating all the regulars.  She certainly didn't expect that same person to be some weirdo who sweeps her off her feet and promises to meet her.  Minori was more than ready to move on from that bit of weirdness, but then she discover that this same weirdo is Kanata Okazaki, the newly elected 25-year-old Prime Minister of Japan.  Now Kanata has whisked his newfound and deeply reluctant fiancée to his palatial home, and Minori must deal with both Kanata's staff and the changing nature of her feelings for Kanata.

STORY:

I was mildly curious about this series because of its creator.  Eiki Eiki is something of a big name in the world of BL, but her solo works have something of a reputation for being jealous and rapey.  That is saying something considering how common jealousy-fueled rape is in BL to begin with.  I wondered if shifting to straight up shoujo would force her to restrain herself a little or let her explore something new and different.  Alas, my hope was for naught. 

It's not often that I get truly and thoroughly skeeved out by a single volume of manga, but Millennium Prime Minister managed to achieve just that.  My sympathies were with Minori the entire time.  That's not because she was a well-written character, it's simply because she's gotten herself entangled with an epic creep through no fault of her own.  Their whole relationship is predicated on manipulation and stalking, as Kanata goes so far as to hunt her down after school after their initial encounter.  He not only uses his influence and wealth to dazzle Minori's parents into accepting his proposal, but also uses his friend/professional photojournalist to turn the whole thing into a minor scandal.  Kanata in turn uses this public shaming to force Minori's hand on the matter in front of an entire press room.  It doesn't help that everyone around Minori - her friends, her family, her classmates, Kanata's staff - all willingly forgive his transgressions because Kanata is just soooooo handsome and sooooo amazing and how this is all sooooo romantic!  It's just like Cinderella!  Yes, because nothing is more romantic than forcing a minor to marry a guy nearly a decade older than her.  Truly this is the height of romance and not the actions of a psychopath!

When he isn't actively manipulating Minori or others to get his way, Kanata is frustratingly vague about himself.  How the hell did a 25 year old who only recently entered the Diet manage to become Prime Minister?  Why is Kanata so desperate to get married?  Why did he pick Minori, of all people, to marry?  On the first two matters Kanata (and the story at large) is completely silent, and the last one he only answers with a glib "because I love you."  This empty statement is treated as reason enough for Minori's heart to start racing and set her mind a-whirl, but these and similarly 'romantic' moments between the two are so forced and out of nowhere that it's positively laughable.  Minori has every right to be angry at this jackass who has upended her life based and forced her into a relationship that she's simply too young to make and never desired in the first place.  She has every right to be angry when he keeps trying to force intimacy on her.  Thankfully he never resorts to rape, but he's fond of forcing kisses and is so fond of touching, smelling, and playing with her hair that I start to wonder if it's not Kanata's fetish.  The story tries to play this as a taming of the shrew, but it's more like a demonstration of how to force someone into Stockholm Syndrome.

It's very telling that there's very little to define Minori or Kanata outside of their relationship.  We learn practically nothing about Minori other than she's a bad student with a keen temper.  As for Kanata, there are hints of a tragic backstory, but the most we learn about him is that he's impulsive and very loyal to his friends, to the point where he's appointed them all as his personal staff.  You certainly don't get any sense of Kanata possessing any extraordinary level of charisma or intelligence, no matter how often the story keeps disposable side characters to rant and rave about his amazing political acumen.   Kanata's positive feels far more informed by the author than anything else.  Still, that's far more detail than any of Kanata's friends get.  They are mostly friendly, but they serve more as plot devices than anything else.  The closest we get to an exception is Sai, Kanata's personal secretary.  He spends two-thirds of the story being far more surly and pissy than someone reputed as a supergenius should be.  Then we discover that the cause of his surliness is the fact that he's in love with Kanata too, so in the end he's little more than another plot device on top of being a bone for Eiki Eiki to throw at her BL-loving fandom.

It seems that Millennium Prime Minister is proof that Eiki Eiki approaches straight romance in pretty much the same way that she approaches gay ones.  It's hollow, manipulative, and downright disturbing in places, yet the author presumes that we'll just gloss over the bad or weird parts because of LOVE.  Were this more fleshed-out or more self-aware, it could be a guilty pleasure.  As it stands, though, it's merely just guilty.

ART:

Eiki Eiki's artstyle is distinct, but the artwork here is also very much of its time (that time being the late 1990s).  There are lots of prominent cheekbones, mop-like hairdos, and I can't help but feel like these guys mostly look like rejects from Gravitation.  The character designs certainly give away her background in BL, as they bear all the strange bits of anatomy that are so common there.  That means every guy has linebacker shoulders, giraffe-like necks, and giant spidery hands.  That means their fines suits hang off of them like clumsy clothes hangers.  The only thing I do like about the character designs are the cat-like eyes, which is something of a signature for Eiki Eiki.  It lends them an exotic touch but is subtle enough to not be distracting.  Still, that's more effort than she puts into the backgrounds, which mostly consist of grainy screentones.  It also keeps the panels from getting too cluttered.  Ultimately, the artwork gets the job done for the most part but the characters are just a little too gangly and weird for modern tastes and the rest of it doesn't compensate for them.

RATING:

Millennium Prime Minister is spine-chilling in all the wrong ways.  It's built around hollow characters caught in a terrible, disturbing romance and I couldn't get it away from me soon enough.  This series is best left in the last millennium where it belongs.

This series was published by Digital Manga Publishing.  This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available.  All 4 volumes were published and are currently out of print.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: XXXHOLIC REI

I always like to end CLAMP month with one of my favorites, but there's just one problem: I already reviewed my favorite of their works, xxxHolic.  Thankfully, in recent years the ladies of CLAMP decided to revisit it and its sister series Tsubasa with new sequel series.  In the case of xxxHolic, though, it's less of a sequel and more of a 'what-if.'

xxxHOLIC REI (xxxHolic Return), by CLAMP.  First published in 2013 and first published in North America in 2014. 



PLOT:

Kimihiro Watanuki spends his days working at Yuuko's wish shop, trying to manage the demands of his boss, his friends, and their many clients.  As time goes on, though, Watanuki starts to wonder why things feel weirdly familiar.  He has knowledge of supernatural beings he shouldn't have and Yuuko keeps talking about making choices.  Is Watanuki's world all that it seems to be or do Yuuko and Doumeki know the truth?

STORY:

A lot of xxxHolic fans were not happy with the ending for xxxHolic, namely because it wasn't so much a conclusion as it was the equivalent of a weary shrug.  They gave Tsubasa a similar treatment, but that series is better suited for a "and the adventure continues" sort of ending.  xxxHolic fans want to see some sort of closer for Watanuki and company, and surely their hopes must have risen when this series was announced.  It's hard to say if those same fans will be happy with the result, at least based on the first volume.

The story itself isn't bad at all.  If anything, it's like CLAMP never stopped writing the series, as the clients and mysteries on display here fit in perfectly with those we've already seen.  They possess the same mixture of spookiness and sadness that many of the best chapters had.  It's also hard to deny how nice it is to see all of the main cast again acting in much the same way that they did before the more dramatic events of the double-digited volumes.  It's almost comfortable in a way, like slipping on an old pair of pants.  That's precisely what CLAMP wants you to feel, so that they can start unnerving the reader with all the little differences.  This might seem like the same old xxxHolic at first glance, but you don't have to read all that closely to figure out that something is up.

It's not just the fact that Yuuko is in charge of the shop again, or that the Watanuku-Doumeki-Himawari trio is back together as is nothing ever drove them apart.  It's the general sense of deju vu that pervades the whole volume, and it's something that everyone - even Watanuki - is able to sense to some degree.  Things are seemingly peaceful and normal, at least as normal as everything can be around the wish shop, but then there are little differences all around.  Yuuko keeps talking to Watanuki about making choices and she and Doumeki keep exchanging worried yet knowing glances.  It's clear that something is up; the only problem is that no one is willing to explain precisely what that something is.  That has to be the biggest problem with xxxHolic Rei.  CLAMP keeps things so vague that it becomes downright frustrating.  You can only hint so long at a mystery without any sort of answers before it starts to look like stalling.  It's almost enough to make one fear that CLAMP is once again making shit up as they go, and only time will prove if this is true or not.

xxxHolic Rei isn't a series for newcomers.  It presumes you are already familiar with the main series and it's not the least bit interested in getting anyone else up to speed or explaining anything that wasn't already explained.  Still, it's nice to see CLAMP returning to one of their better series and I am curious to see where it's going to go.

ART:

The art has always been my favorite part of xxxHolic, and the same remains true for xxxHolic Rei.  It's the same sleek, elegant, dark and lanky style that distinguished the main series.  It still has the same slick, almost minimalist approach to the paneling that balances the needs of the story with CLAMP's desire to show off the fanciness of Yuuko's wardrobe.  Again, it's like Nekoi never stopped drawing this series because it looks just as good as always.  The only downside is that it doesn't leave me with much to say about the art that I haven't already said.

RATING:

xxxHolic Rei is beautiful and familiar, but it's hard to tell what (if any) direction it's taking and it's the sort of kinda-sorta-sequel that's made only for the oldtimers, not the newcomers.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 3 volumes available.  All 3 have been published and all are currently in print.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: THE LEGEND OF CHUN HYANG

It's time to take another look at one of CLAMP's many unfinished one-shots, and this one is truthfully one of the better ones of that lot.

THE LEGEND OF CHUN HYANG (Shin Shunka-den), by CLAMP.  First published in 1992 and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:

In the land of Koriyo lived the young girl Chun Hyang.  She lives with her beautiful mother Wall Mae, a powerful magician and healer and she spends her days defending her mother and her fellow villagers from their corrupt leader and his spoiled son.  When Chun's efforts are not enough to save her mother, she decides to team up with a lecherous wanderer named Rong Myong so take down all the corrupt leaders one at a time. 

STORY:

Chun Hyang is a notable Korean legend, but it's not necessarily one that you would think could inspire a manga.  It's mostly about a beautiful woman who marries a noble, is separated from him by a villain, and maintains her virtue the whole time until they are reunited.  It certainly doesn't bear much resemblance to what CLAMP came up with.  If anything, the legend is little more than set dressing for what is a basic but satisfying shoujo action piece.

It's weird that I found this story so entertaining despite the fact that the characters are all so stereotypical.  Chun is very much in the spunky vein of your standard shoujo heroine, Rong is the goofy lech who is secretly a badass, the villains are one-dimensional tyrants, and everyone on the sides is too good and pure to be believed.  In spite of all that, I found myself not minding all that much.  I suspect that it was mostly due to the fact that I liked Chun so much that I was willing to overlook the rest.  She strikes a good balance between the tendencies of a shoujo heroine and a hero of justice.  Best of all, no one ever tells her not to do these things or that she can't do these things simply being a girl.  We even get a flashback to her (UTTERLY ADORABLE) 6-year-old self to demonstrate that this is simply who Chun is and always has been.  She's fierce, just, loyal and very endearing.

Unfortunately, like so many of CLAMP's short works, this series was cut short by the fact that its magazine was cancelled.  It was so sudden that CLAMP didn't even have time to fake an ending, leaving this manga forever unfinished.  It's a real shame as it feels like that the story is starting to find its footing by volume's end.  We're only just seeing the beginning of how Chun and Mong can work together as a sort of crime-fighting team and there are loads of plot threads that will forever remained dropped.  The three adventures we do get with them are fun but it's hard to not look at this volume and wonder what might have been .

ART:

Like with so many early CLAMP works, the artwork is where this series truly shines.  The characters are all drawn in the lushly inked style of CLAMP's early days, but this one has a slightly unique edge in that they used ink and brush in the early chapters.  It was meant to capture a certain old-fashioned quality, although in practice it's mostly pretty subtle outside of the action scenes.  Apparently they abandoned it for more conventional methods in the later chapters for the sake of saving time, but it's a shame since it was pretty and just unusual enough to make Chun Hyang visually distinct.  I suspect that they might have dropped it as it allowed them to clean up the panels a little, as they can get a bit busy from time to time.  They are often full of swooshes of swinging weapons, bursts of flowers, and swirls of magic and the characters and panels alike are often layered in a wily-nily fashion.  The panels only really open up for the odd vista or particularly dramatic moment.  You can argue amongst yourself as to whether Chun Hyang's artwork has aged well or not, but it does manage to distinguish itself visually from its light and frothy contemporaries.

RATING:

 It might be built out of a lot of familiar elements but The Legend of Chun Hyang manages to coast by on the charm of its heroine and the prettiness of its art.  It'll never be finished and it's far from an essential CLAMP work, but fans should at least give this one a look.

This volume was published by Tokyopop.  It is currently out of print

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Review: GATE 7

Now we're going to shift gears from one of CLAMP's earliest works to one of their latest series.  CLAMP's fortunes have risen and fallen greatly since that time.  One has to wonder if they still have the ability to make a really impressive, memorable manga.  Going by this, the answer is...um...kinda?  Maybe?  I dunno.

GATE 7 (Geto Seben), by CLAMP.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2011.



PLOT:

Chikahito has always been drawn to Kyoto.  He's never been able to fully explain why, but he feels a connection to the city and he's determined to make the most of his first trip there.  While wandering the streets, he finds him in the middle of a strange battle. He passes out, only to find himself in the home of his saviors: the tall and strapping pair of Tachibana and Sakura and the tiny, androgynous, noodle-loving, and deeply moe Hana.  These three turn out to be spiritual guardians caught up in a modern-day incarnation of historic battles, battles where the reincarnations of the great generals wield powerful oni against one another.  Now Chikahito has to choose a side whether he wants to or not, and his newfound power makes him a target for both sides.

STORY:

When it first debuted, Gate 7 was somewhat anticipated.  It was CLAMP's first new, non-spinoff series in many years.  Maybe that's why it's so disappointing to see that all it led up to was a rehash of various bits and bobs from previous works tossed together with a bunch of the usual Sengoku-era mumbo-jumbo.

It's hard to read this and not get a few flashbacks to xxxHolic because of Chikahito.  He not only bears a good degree of resemblance to Watanuki, he's also a great cook like him.  It's because of that quality that this series sometimes threatens to become little more than a litany of various Kyoto-area noodle dishes.  At the same time, Chikahito is also far less interesting than Watanuki was even at this early stage.  Watanuki was grumpy and contrary, but it was obvious even from the earliest points in his story that those were merely symptoms of his loneliness and pride.  Chikahito is far more gentle and temperate in comparison, but that means that he also tends to blend into the background more readily and that's a bad quality in a protagonist.  He's frequently forced into situations instead of choosing to join them, so he's a hero that basically gets overwhelmed by his own story.  That's not a promising foundation for a story.

So eventually the story reveals itself to be yet another modern-day reincarnation of Sengoku-era battles that has become something of a trend in recent years.  Hell, I'm surprised that they haven't already broken out the reincarnation of Oda Nobunaga at this point, since he always seems to be the one they break out right away for otaku appeal.  Here, though, CLAMP has taken a more esoteric take on the battles.  They aren't literal battles so much as they are on magical duels fought by supernatural familliars.  Wait a minute...this is basically a tournament-style fighting series!  Sure, the ranks and the purpose are hazy at best, but it's just one long power struggle with the leads working their way up to the ultimate boss.

While CLAMP tries to sneak that fact under the readers' noses, they do their best to try and build up the mystery around the premise and Chikahito.  Are they successful?  It's hard to say.  The problem is that everything is affected by it: the battles, the opponents, the powers involved, all of this and more is explained as vaguely as possible even as they keep adding more and more Sengoku-period people and places.  They even try to make Hana's gender a mystery, but this feels more like fangirl baiting than anything else.  Anyway, all this cyrpticness ends up backfiring in CLAMP's face.  I don't find myself intrigued by the mystery, I just want them to stop and explain something - anything!  It's especially confusing for non-Japanese readers as most of us are not deeply familiar with all of these names and places.  Dark Horse does their best by adding plenty of translation notes, but I honestly couldn't tell one personage from the other.

It's a shame to take such a premise and drag it down so fast by being too vague and too focused on the dinner table.  Instead of getting a strong, clear, and engaging premise, we get something that doesn't feel too far removed from the messy, mixed-up dregs of Tsubasa.

ART:

CLAMP's storywriting might be found wanting, but their artwork is still top-notch.  There's a softness to the characters that you don't see in their more recent series, especially around the eyes and hair.  It almost reminds me of the artstyle they used for Kobato, but maybe that's just because Hana tends to make a lot of the same expressions she does.  Otherwise they all fit fairly comfortably in the noodle person mold that CLAMP has employed for the last decade or so.  If there's any sort of visual highlight to this series, it's the fight sequences.  It's only during these times that the panels open up.  They start dramatically, as the world goes as still and dark as water with only the characters standing in relief.  Then they burst forth into massive and lively swirls of magic the likes of which I haven't seen since Magic Knight Rayearth.  Sometimes it goes too far and the characters start to get lost in the chaos, but the overall effect is stunning.  Unusually for CLAMP, there are a lot of blatantly rotoscoped backgrounds taken from (presumably) real-life places in Kyoto.  It's an understandable choice for them to make, but they still come off as flat and lifeless.  Overall Gate 7 is a pretty book to look at, but sometimes it can get as muddled as the story.

RATING:

It's not unfair to say that Gate 7 is a return to form for CLAMP, but that's not necessarily a good thing.  It's a return to form in a positive way when it comes to the art, which brims with beauty and energy.  It's a bad thing when it comes to the story because it means that they're falling back on old, bad habits and schtick.  I don't get a sense that there's a clear plan of any sort behind this manga, and I fear that this will lead to disaster.

This series is published by Dark Horse.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 4 volumes available.  All 4 have been published and all are currently in print.

Don't forget to check out my latest Crunchyroll Manga Sampler over at Infinite Rainy Day.  Astronauts! Violence! Incest!  All of this and more is contained within the article!