Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Giveaway Winner and other odds and ends

Like the new look?  I was finally able to get around to that redesign, thanks to a Secret Santa gift from fellow D2Brigade forum member Distrotion.  He's available at Distro's Random Blog.

Secondly, it's time to announce the winner of the 12 REVIEWS OF CHRISTMAS GIVEAWAY!  Everybody's answer was neat, but through a highly scientific and mysterious process I have determined the winner to be ....*drumroll*....JARED WALSKE!

There's been plenty of good manga put you this year, but for me, the best was the four volumes of 20th Century Boys put out by Viz. I'm a really big fan of Naoki Urasawa's work and I'm quiet happy that Viz has been publishing his more recent series in English. These volumes were what I expect from the series: great art and layout, tight writing, and plenty of suspense and mystery. My only complaint is that I have to wait a few more months for the last couple volumes.
I also want to give kudos to Verticle for putting Paradise Kiss back into print, since it's great and should be print.
 Jared, send me an email at to make your selections and give me an address where to send them.

This month has been a busy one for me both on and off the blog, and I'm so glad that so many of your enjoyed the reviews.  Considering it is the holidays and that I've posted a lot of reviews this month, I will be taking a well earned blogging vacation until January.  I may post another review before month's end, but I make no guarantees. 

So what does 2013 hold for The Manga Test Drive?  Well, I've got plenty of reviews waiting to be posted.  I may also have some more features to come, particularly those to cover the increasingly plentiful digital releases.  Beyond that?  Well, the only way to find out is to keep reading.

Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to you all!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: LIMIT

Merry Christmas!  Today marks the last day of the 12 Reviews of Christmas.  It's been a little hectic at times, but I really enjoyed this chance to catch up on more recent works, and based on the views I suspect that most of you did so as well.  I have one last one, and it's another new work from the little manga publisher that can, Vertical.

LIMIT, by Keiko Suenobu.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Konno is a member of the popular clique in her class.  She and her friends act as many popular girls do - they gossip and talk about tests and pick on less popular classmates and giggle and have fun.  As far as they're concerned, life is perfect.

That perfection comes to a sudden end when the school bus runs off the road deep into a wooded valley.  All but a handful of students are killed on impact, as Konno soon discovers.  The survivors realize that their supplies are limited, there are no trails or obvious signs of civilization nearby, and their cell phones get no signals.  In other words, they are lost without much hope for rescue.  Worse still, one of the survivors snaps and starts molding the group into her own little hierarchy, striking back at those who tormented her before.  Now Konno must adapt to her new situation if she is quite literally to survive.

STORY:  Imagine a combination of Lord of the Flies, an anti-bullying after-school special, and your standard slice-of-life shoujo, and you'll have some idea of what reading Limit is like.

Suenobu is clearly trying to make a point here about the fragility and pointlessness of high school social structures, as well as about bullying (in particular, the subtle passive-agressive variety practiced by teenage girls).  She does manage to get the first point across rather skillfully and subtly.  Those who were popular and untroubled soon find themselves without any bearing as to how to cope with the disaster or how to save themselves.  In a strange irony, those who were unpopular are the ones who cope more quickly, in not necessarily for the better.  For example, the nerdy Kamiya is the calmest and most collected of all, assessing all their resources and doing her best to arrange for shelter, food, and fire.  On the other hand, she becomes downright callous towards those who died and her calmness is almost eerie; you begin to wonder when she will snap and whatever emotion she's repressing will show itself.

Then there's Morishige the class reject, who flat out SNAPS.  She has been keeping careful tally of who has tormented her, and she views the accident as divine justice.  Her enemies have mostly been struck down, and with weapon in hand she all but declares herself empress of the group.  In this case, the social situation has been completely reversed - the tormented has now become the tormented.  It's too bad that Morishige's reaction is so over-the-top that it somewhat undercuts Suenobu's second point against bullying.  You don't so much learn "don't bully people because they will feel bad and it will create a cycle of bullying" as you do "don't bully people, because THEY WILL GO INSANE AND TAKE EVERYONE WITH THEM!"

Note that I said the point is undercut somewhat.  That's because Konno's story arc helps make the point a bit more subtly and much less violently.  Konno repeatedly states that her motto is "go with the flow" - she has learned the hard way that standing up to bullies only makes you a target instead, so why bother?  Just learn to swim with the social current and not make any waves.  That's what she did.  It's only after the accident that she realizes just how fragile and shallow her so-called friendships truly were, and now she has to adapt to a brand new and highly volatile social current.  Now admittedly that means that Konno's rather passive as far as leads go because she tends to react versus act and think versus taking action, but Konno's situation is ultimately more realistic than Morishige's and she ultimately works well as the audience stand-in.

Limit sometimes verges upon melodrama, but Suenobu has managed to craft a compelling drama where the social structures and niceties of high school life are stripped away to reveal its more unpleasant qualities.

ART:  Suenobu's character designs are a slightly odd mix of somewhat simplified, even flat-looking faces over relatively realistic, detailed, and expressive bodies.  She also puts a lot of detail into the backgrounds, and there's a visceral quality to the grime of the wreck and the dense impenetribilty of the forest.  She's got some skill for tension and action - the scene where Konno reveals the extent of the crash is masterfully revealed, and the fights amongst the survivors prickle with the extreme emotions and tensions of the girls.  This is even reflected, to a degree, in the page composition, as there are a lot of layered, wedge-shaped panels after the accident.  You could say that the pages themselves become as fractured as their relationships.

Overall, Limit's art is nicely detailed and works well at not only telling the story, but highlighting the emotions underneath it.

PRESENTATION: This manga is actually printed at a smaller size than normally seen in American manga, which according to Vertical's Twitter feed was a stipulation of their contract.  The only in-volume extra are some brief and highly technical notes from the mangaka.

Limit is a dark, fascinating story about what happens when the constructs of daily life are break down and those who survive adapt, for better or worst.  It's not always subtle with its messages, but well written and well drawn.

This series is published in the USA by Vertical.  6 volumes are available, and 2 volumes have been published.  Both are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!  The giveaway ends at midnight tonight!

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Yen Press has been pretty generous with new titles this year, and today's review may be one of the best of those new titles.

UNTIL DEATH DO US PART (Shi ga Futari wo Wakatsu made), written by Hiroshi Takashige and drawn by DOUBLE-S.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Haruka is a young girl with a gift for seeing the future.  Unfortunately, there are many unsavory parties that wish to harness Haruka's powers, and as the story starts they have already captured her.  She manages to elude her captors only to run into a blind man in a alley.  She begs him to protect her, and her choice is an apt one, as he turns out to be a master swordsman with an impossibly sharp blade hidden in his cane and a cybernetic system built into his dark glasses which allows him to "see" the world in vectors.  The man, Mamoru, turns out to be a member of The Element Network, a secret confederation of fighters, hackers, scientists, informants, and sponsors, all united through an online network and the loss of various loved ones by shadowy forces.  The group first fights back against the Yakuza group that tried to kidnap Haruka, but as they delve further they discover the group has ties to another secret group known only as Ex Solid, and now Haruka finds herself using her powers to protect her newfound protectors, particularly to the mysterious Mamoru.

STORY: Until Death Do Us Part may be one of the most surpringsly good manga I've read this whole month.  It's not so much that it's blazingly original so much as that it's simply well told and well paced.

Admittedly, the weakest character is the one we meet first: Haruka.  She's a very passive character, who is mostly there to act as plot device and audience stand-in.  Thankfully, the story shifts focus to her protector, Mamoru.  While we don't necessarily get a lot of hard facts about him, and I wouldn't necessarily call him all that complex (being mostly very stoic and distant), but we get enough hints to intrigue, and he is the reader's gateway into the best and most interesting part of the story: The Element Network.

Now it's not unheard of to find vigilante crime fighters on either side of the Pacific, but The Element Network is a whole group of them.  It's a clever concept in that it takes advantage of the internet to reach people all over the globe as well as taking advantage of online anonymity, so that they have a wide range of experience and skills to utilize and can communicate while leaving barely a trace.  The network also helps the reader to handwave some of the most fantastic elements, such as Mamoru's futuristic blade and his artificial sight. 

Now, of course where there are vigilantes there are shadowy forces working against them.  Here it is a group known only as Ex Solid, who is utilizing both the brute force of the Yakuza and the connections and more advanced skills of terrorists and crooked diplomats to strike back at The Element Network.  There's also (of course) a hard-nosed cop who is investigating both parties who is mercifully not played as either bumbling comic relief nor as a Javert-like figure who only wants to bring everyone to justice. 

Now, most of you have probably one or more of these story elements in other manga/books/movies/etc, and you are wondering "Well, what's the point of reading an action thriller like this when I can find 10 other works practically just like it?"  What makes Until Death Do Us Part  work is not that it's a completely original action thriller, but that it combines those familiar elements competently and crafts a story around them that is well-paced, always escalating the action and the pressure from outside parties slowly but steadily.  There are plenty of action beats, and the story doesn't shy away from the messy consequences (although it doesn't linger upon them either).  Our heroes are not completely invulnerable, so there are some stakes to their fights.  It truly is well-executed, and sometimes that's what I'm truly craving out of a manga.  Until Death Do Us Part isn't going to change the genre, but it's one of the best examples of its kind to come around in a while.

ART:  Like the story, the artwork for Until Death Do Us Part is not amazing, but solid and polished.  The character designs are varied, expressive, and relatively realistic (even if the Yakuza tend to all have the same beady-eyed look).  There's not a lot of flourish or detail to the characters or backgrounds, but all are well-drawn.  Where the art for this manga truly shines is in its action scenes.  The poses are clean and crisp, beautifully framed, and there's a good sense of fluidity from one panel to the next.  They do tend to abuse the speed line halos, though.  The panels are quite large, and they make good use of the space in both the action beats and the quieter moments.  Again, this is not a manga that will stun you with the beauty of its art, but it's confident and competent.

PRESENTATION:  This series is presented in 2-in-1 omnibuses, and rather large ones at that.  As far as extras are concerned, there are goofy omakes about the writer and artists after each volume.

Until Death Do Us Part is a solid action series, and I'm curious to see how it progresses.  It's proof that sometimes familiar tropes can be crafted into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 15 volumes available.  2 omnibuses have been published so far, and both are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!  Enter soon - the contest ends Christmas Day!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Review: JIU JIU

The 12 Reviews continue, if ever so slightly late (sorry, got caught up in family activities).  Today we come back to Viz and the Shoujo Beat line.  Devil and Her Love Song turned out to be surprisingly good, but how will today's selection shape up?

JIU JIU, by Touya Tobina.  First published in 2009 and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Takamichi Hachioji is the sole surviving heir to a long line of demon hunters, and she doesn't have so much a chip on her shoulder as she does a boulder on her should as far as her dead twin brother and her perceived worthiness towards her title are concerned.  Upon gaining the title, she was given a pair of jiu jiu, shape shifting familiars in the form of two wolf pups dubbed Snow and Night.  Now she and her familiars are teenagers (or the dog equivalent thereof), and Takamichi is trying to find a balance between her everyday life and and her duties as a hunter, all while Snow and Night do their best to tag along with their mistress, please her, and protect her from forces that would harm her.

STORY:  Jiu Jiu starts with promise, but the story just keeps spinning its wheels, lingering on everyone's inner monologue when it should be moving forward or at least delivering some supernatural action.

Takamichi is an all-too-familiar character type: the kind who had someone they loved taken from them, so they always try to distance themselves from others lest they love and suffer again, even from the familiars that love her unconditionally.  What makes it worse is that Takamichi harps on the issue over and over, no matter how many times Snow and Night demonstrate their devotion, and it becomes downright tedious by mid-volume.  She makes a little progress by volume's end, reluctantly admitting her own affection for her charges, but she still remains very guarded and even a little pissy.  Safe to say, she is not an easy character to like.

Snow and Night are a bit more loveable, but that's mostly because while they look full grown in both wolf and human form, they are still very much puppies at heart and mind, full of eagerness, curiosity, and unconditional love for their mistress.  It does get kind of awkward at points when they express that devotion by, say, cuddling with their mistress while she sleeps in their (nude) human forms.  Thankfully, the relationship between the three remains mostly chaste.  There is one chapter where things get weird, but the story mostly writes this off as a touch of madness induced by the full moon, and rarely have I been more thankful for a plotline to be wrapped up and forgotten.  The last thing I wanted to read about was a story about a girl and her two bishonen werewolves or ponder if doing it with a werewolf counts as bestiality.

Anyway!  Snow and Night end up carrying the biggest emotional load in the story, as it spends quite a bit of time with them in flashback and how they learned about their world and their mistress.  These moments were easily the most effective in the whole volume, as while the moral of the flashbacks often remained the same, the events were varied and often adorable.  Of course, I wonder how much of my perception was colored by the fact that OMG THERE ARE ADORABLE PUPPIES!

Of course, spending all this time on the relationship between our leads comes with a cost.  Takamichi is supposed to be a demon slayer, but we barely get to see her, Snow, and Night in action.  I'm not saying that this story should have been turned into a Shonen Jump style story, where the plot is driven by ever-greater villains and ever more contrived power-ups and the morals tend to center around shallow platitudes of friendship.  I'm simply saying that finding a better balance between exploring the relationship between Takamichi and her familiars and seeing them fight supernatural forces would have greatly improved the volume as a whole.

I never thought I would come to the day where I would want a shoujo series to be more like shonen, but I guess there's a first for everything.  Jiu Jiu builds a solid relationship between its leads, but it repeats itself constantly and it navel-gazes for so long that it forgets at times about the greater plotline.

ART:  I'll be blunt: the art for Jiu Jiu is awful.  There's nothing wrong with making your manga art stylized, but Tobina took things too far here and the result is a mess. 

Her character designs are spindly and pointy, as demonstrated in the tangle of limbs and cloth on the cover.  Faces tend to be simplifed to a point just shy of 'emoticon,' and as such their expressiveness is limited and broad.  Frankly, anytime anyone has to emote beyond 'neutral' or 'scowl' the results are rather bizarre and often off-model.  It really doesn't work with Snow and Night, as they're a strange mix of standard bishonen with Tobina's peculular style, and it mixes about as well as oil and water.  She does do better with their canine forms, which are sleek and least until they go into 'happy puppy' mode, at which they look more like normal, happy, silly dogs.  Their puppy forms are downright adorable, as are the brief glimpses of them as human kids.  Maybe Tobina should focus more on her cutesy, chibi-fied art, as she seems to have a better handle on it.

As mentioned, there isn't a lot of action, but that actually may be a blessing because Tobina's not very good at drawing it.  There's no sense of fluidity or motion in these fights, just a lot of poorly framed poses.  The pages are packed with panels, but the panels are rather varied in size and shape and layering is kept to a minimum so they usually don't become too cluttered to bear.  Backgrounds are highly minimalistic and Tobina relies heavily on screen tones and effects.

Jiu Jiu's story did at least have a solid and sincere emotional core to counteract its faults, but its artwork has no sort of defense.  It's stylizied often to the point of ugliness and rarely does any favors for the writing.

PRESENTATION:  Nothing to see here.

Touches of genuine emotion and occasional bits of cuteness are not enough to save an overly moody and repetitious story and overly stylized and poorly drawn art.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 5 volumes currently available.  2 volumes have been published so far, and both are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!  The contest ends on Christmas Day!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Today we look at another new release from everyone's favorite manga publisher, Vertical.  Does this rank up there alongside Twin Spica and Sakuran?

THE FLOWERS OF EVIL (Aku no Hana), by Shuzo Oshimi.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Takao Kasuga is like many teenagers.  He lives in a nondescript town and attends a nondescript middle school, and Takao's only escape from it all is through reading, especially through pretentious, existential works like the poetry of Baudelaire.'s not the only escape.  There's also his burning crush on Nanako Saeki, the cutest girl on class, that he has all but put on a pedastal to adore. 

In a moment of hormonal weakness, Takao steals Nanako's dirty gym uniform.  He is horrified and ashamed of his action, and hopes to either return it without notice or to stash it away and forget the whole thing.  He might have made either option work, but the problem is that his action did not go unnoticed.  He is confronted by Nakamura, a seemingly quiet girl who uses this opportunity to take control of Takao through blackmail and abuse.  In spite of everything, Takao manages to get a date with Nanako, but Nakamura has her own plans to make Takao suffer through it.

STORY:  This is one messed-up little drama.  That's not a slight, mind you, but if you're not prepared it could be a bit shocking and it can go to almost ridiculous extremes.

Takao is kind of refreshing as a lead, in that he's rather realistically flawed.  Takao is a pretentious little thing, believing himself to be smarter and better than his peers because he dares to read things like Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil in public.  He so clearly wants to be perceived as special and different, even if those efforts only end up alienating him from his classmates.  As the story progress, we see Takao struggle with keeping his pure, idealized notions of Nanako seperate from his baser, hormonally driven urges, personified in the stolen uniform. Takao wants to believe that he can be morally better than people becuase he understands the darkness of the human soul, but after the theft he begins to understand that only now does he begin to understand the darker urges that can drive a person, and the torment of trying to keep those urges hidden from the world.

Nakamura is something entirely different, though.  To the rest of the world, she is quiet verging on anonymous.  When alone with Takao, she reveals her true self: a forceful, vulgar, abusive young woman determined to make Takao and the world realizes what a true pervert he is so as to destroy the peacefulness of the town with the scandal.  She's practically a sadist, slapping Takao around and demeaning him constantly, clearly enjoying herself and even blushing a little when she gets on a roll, as if she's turning herself on.  Her being a sadist would certainly explain some things, because the motivation for her actions are a mystery at this point. 

This is a fairly intimate drama, centered around the main trio of Takao, Nakamura, and Nanako.  With these three, we see the extension of Takao's moral dilemma, between that of innocence (Nanako) and wickedness (Nakamura).  It's fascinating to watch Takao pull himself between these extremes, all while trying to maintain a facade of normality.  The pacing is taut, as Takao fears that every little thing will either reveal his crime or give Nakamura new ammunition and the reader can practically taste his fear and nervousness.  This strange tension builds up to a cliffhanger of an ending.

Schoolroom drama is something that's been done to death in manga, but Flowers of Evil found a way to give a strange new twist.  It's made compelling through interestingly, realistically flawed leads and making the drama less about who's dating who and more about the moral tug-of-war for one hapless kid's sanity.

ART:  Oshimi's character designs are fairly realistic, with a lot of variety, roundness, and dimension to their forms.  He also puts a lot of effort into the details, things like the swish of someone's hair, the folds of their clothes, even the shading of light on a 3-dimensional body.  They're also very expressive, and this is demonstrated best on Nakamura, with the way her neutral expression morphs into one of her cruel smiles or sudden fury.  The panels tend to be on the small side, so it's actually kind of impressive how fine the details are in the backgrounds.

A compelling story deserves good art, and Oshimi does deliver.  Even if a lot of it is spent with a bunch of talking heads, he puts effort and detail into the art to make it as appealing to the eye as it is to the mind.

PRESENTATION:  Nothing to see here, folks.

This is a fascinating and dark little drama that only promises to get darker and stranger as it goes along, and I for one want to see just how far down this moral rabbit hole they will go.

This series is published in the USA by Vertical.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available.  3 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!

Monday, December 17, 2012


Today I look at a lovely new release from Yen Press, but is there anything good underneath all that loveliness?

OLYMPOS, by Aki.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Ancient myth tells us of how Ganymede, a beautiful youth, was stolen away by the gods to serve as Zeus's cupbearer.  Well...they were sort of right.  Ganymede was stolen away long ago, but instead of being a servant he is a prisoner, kept like a rat in a cage for the gods' amusement.  His most frequent tormentor is Apollo, but soon enough Apollo's continued interaction with humans leaves him questioning his own identity and his own lonliness.

STORY:  I'll admit I didn't have high expectations for this one.  I was expecting a heavily bishie-fied take on Greek mythology, where everyone is beautiful, tormented, and dripping with ho-yay.  As I read on, I was pleased to discover that the work was not only deeper than expected, but closer to the myths that inspired it.

Aki's take on the Greek gods is best summed up as "distant."  These are beings not only completely removed from the mortal world below, but even from each other.  The gods reign in their respective realms, and when they do have to interact, they tolerate each other at best.  Zeus is the most remote of them all, never speaking and appearing as a mix of man, feather, and cloud.  That distance is made very real for Apollo when he is forced to spend time with Iris, a cheerful young girl meant as a sacrifice to him.  The best parts of this manga are the times spent with them, with the constant contrast of her unwaivering belief in the gods and Apollo's more grounded, cynical take on godhood, as he has no notion of the mythology humans have created for him.  It's this interaction which leaves Apollo questioning the very nature of his own godhood.  To him and his fellow gods, divinity isn't this great, awe-inspiring thing like the humans believe, it's just a neverending parade of boredom.  The strangest thing of all is that this distant take on the Greek gods doesn't feel inconsistent with the ancient myths.  These gods may not be as libidinous and drunken as their ancient counterparts, but the basic idea about them is the same - that they are flawed beings like humans, and that it's these flaws that drive their actions.

There's only one flaw, but it is a fairly major one.  Because so much time is spent on Apollo and co. ruminating and philosophizing, the story wanders like a drunkard to the point where it sometimes seems aimless.  The beginning features a one-off plot involving an ambitious young German, whose identity is something of a bonus for those who know their archeology.  After that, though, it's noting but Apollo messing with Ganymede and debating the nature of his existence.  Sure, we get Ganymede's backstory and how he ended up where he is, and he contributes his own understandably cynical, pessimistic point of view.  Another strange thing about the story, though, is that while it does ramble, it never becomes dull.  It slowly brings in the other gods, and midway through it introduces the subplot with Iris, which finally gives the story some focus.

Olympos can sometimes be aimless, but Apollo's identity crisis eventually helps it to find its bearings and start moving forward.  It presents a view of the Greek gods which is unique and yet consistent with the myths of old.

ART:  Aki's character designs are heavily bishonen-fied, but she certainly has a talent for it.  Here Ganymede and the gods positively swim in their draping robes and long, wispy hair and drip with dangling jewelry.  She also sometimes dares to make the gods more bestial looking, such as Hades's satyr-esque look or Zeus's positively inhuman appearance.  Panels are spacious and full of swirling hair, clouds, feathers, and flowers.  The backgrounds are delicately drawn, all the better to match the delicate creatures that inhabit them.  The page composition is rather free and easy, with panels layered upon one another in abandon.  Thankfully, the size of those panels keeps the pages from getting too busy.

Olympos's art is delicate and lovely, an easy sell for anyone who can appreciate the finer side of shoujo.

PRESENTATION:  There are plenty of lovely watercolor splash pages in both the front and between the two volumes that make up this omnibus.  There are also author's notes after each volume, as well as translation notes.

Olympos is much like the Greek gods themselves: slightly flawed, but beautiful to behold and interesting to ponder.

This series is published in the USA by Yen Press.  Both volumes were published in a single omnibus, and is currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win this volume and volumes from 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas here!

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Well, the last review was a bit...unpleasant.  So, let us focus on something more highbrow, something classier, some literary, and proof that Seven Seas can release more than otaku bait.

YOUNG MISS HOLMES (Christie: High Tension), by Kaoru Shintani.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Lady Crystal "Christie" Margaret Hope is many things: the only child of a noble family, a shockingly well-read and intelligent young girl, and the niece of the one and only Sherlock Holmes.  Thus, she often ends up involved (by choice or by accident) with her uncle's investigations, and often her mind and her deductions are equal to that of her uncle.  Of course, she doesn't solve them single-handedly - she has her Great Dane, Nelson, and her maids Nora and Ann-Marie to help and protect her.  Be it a case of jewel thieves, suspicious suicides, or even the supernatural, Christie is determined to the bottom of the case.

STORY:  Young Miss Holmes is a charming take on some of the classic Holmes stories.  It's also based around the biggest Canon Sue I've seen outside of fanfiction.

The signs are all there.  The character has a long aristocratic name but goes by a cutesy nickname.  She's barely a preteen, but has an intellect greater than most adults and equal to that of one of the world's greatest detectives.  She always manages into insert herself into the cases, and thus always having a hand in the solving of these classic crimes and earning the respect of those around her (even the begrudging respect of her uncle).  She reminds me strongly of Wesley Crusher, the creator's pet who tormented the crew with his earnestness and know-it-all nature on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  She's rarely shown to have any faults, and what few she does have are overcome in the matter of a few pages.  She's so perfect that it's almost sickening, and because of that she never feels like a real character, or at least a real child.

Her maids were slightly more interesting charcters, or at least hinted to have more interesting backgrounds since both are suprisingly well-versed at the use of pistols and whips.  Otherwise, Nora is your typical sassy Cockney comic relief character, and Ann-Marie is the prim and proper straightwoman.  Holmes and Watson are not given a lot of screentime, or a lot of personality for that matter. Shintani must be presuming than anybody picking this up is already familiar with them and what their personalities are like.  Finally, there's Christie's saintly new governess Grace, who always seems to have the right lesson on hand during those few times when Christie hits a dead end.  She's most there to serve as a deus ex machina.

Now, the mysteries themselves are solidly written, but then Shintani can't take any credit for that - they're all adapted straight from the source material (in this case, from "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,"  "The Problem of Thor Bridge," "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," and "The Adventure of the Dancing Men").  There is one original story, "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," and it stands out for many reasons.

The first reason is that it's a crossover with Dance In The Vampire Bund, which seems like an odd manga to pair up with this one.  Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't think there would be a lot of audience crossover for "cute little Victorian girl solves mysteries" and "loli vampire queen and her pet werewolf."  The second reason is that the Holmes universe is one where science and logic reign surpreme, and where things that seem supernatural (such as ghost hounds stalking the moors) have tangible, read-world explanations.  Thus, a story where real, god-to-honest vampires exist makes for a strange fit within the world of Sherlock Holmes.  It's especially strange considering that outside of introducing Christie into the cases, Shintani remains pretty faithful to the original stories.  Finally, the events of "Sussex Vampire" are ultimately kind of pointless - the events of this story have no noticeable consequence on the subsequent ones.  "Sussex Vampire" is essentially one big Big Lipped Alligator Moment.

I feel like I've been harsh on this manga, because for all its faults Young Miss Holmes is an enjoyable read.  It incorporates a lot of lesser-known Holmes stories, and it may serve as inspiration for others to seek out the original versions. Tonally, it's as light as a soap bubble, and I could see this appealing to older children looking for a mystery series to read.  Still, it cannot be denied that the heroine is a major Mary Sue, and older readers (espeically those who know their Holmes canon) may find themselves siding with Sherlock in finding Christie less precocious and cute and more annoying and unnecessary.

ART:  It's surprising to learn this dates to 2006, because the artstyle is much more reminscient of 1970s shoujo.  I think that mostly comes from the character designs of Christie and company, as they have the large, dark, glittering eyes of a 1970s shoujo heroine.  Aside from those, their faces are quite simple, and the line used to distinguish their cheekbones often has the effect of making them look like they have no nose.  Overally, they look simple and rounded, almost chibi-fied.  The rest of the cast looks a bit more solid and angular, although still rather cartoony, and I suspect from the appearance of Holmes that Shintani's favorite was Jeremy Brett.  I should also note that while the story is an odd fit, the characters from Vampire Bund fit rather seamlessly into the volume.

The panels are filled to the brim with detail, from the patterns on Christie's dresses to the well-researched settings in both city and country.  They also do tend to be rather small and chatty, but that is almost to be expected with mysteries.  It's never too busy to follow, though, for what that's worth.

Young Miss Holmes has an artstyle which suits its light tone, works well with its setting and subject, and shows some surprisingly old influences.

PRESENTATION:  This series is being published in 2-in-1 omnibuses.  The only extra to be found, though, is an epilogue to "Sussex Vampire" drawn by the mangaka for Vampire Bund, which adds nothing to the story and feels more like fanservice for Vampire Bund fans than Young Miss Holmes fans.  Part of me feels like Seven Seas missed out here by not including some sort of notes about how most of these cases are based on actual Holmes canon, or taking the opportunity to fill in the reader about the Holmes universe.

This alternate universe take on Sherlock Holmes is not without its charms, but also not without its faults.  I suspect younger readers will get more enjoyment out of it than older ones, and Holmes fans will either enjoy the shoutouts to their beloved stories or rip their hair out at the creative differences.

This series is published in the USA by Seven Seas.  4 of the 7 available volumes have been released over 2 omnibuses and are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The 12 Reviews of Christmas charges on, and today we look at what happens when you try to adapt a light novel/anime series that's nothing but otaku fetishes smash together to a manga, and then try to adapt that to English.  What are the results?  Well...

IS THIS A ZOMBIE? (Kore wa Zonbi Desu ka?), adapted from the light novel series by Shinichi Kimura and Group Sacchi, and illustrated by Kobuichi Muririn.  First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Ayumu Aikawa is a quiet, unassuming guy.  He's also a zombie.  Not the brain-consuming sort, of course, he's just the kind who goes about his day normally and is only threatened by sunlight, which tends to sizzle him like steak.  He's not quite sure how he ended up joining the undead, but he does know that it involves the strange, silent armored girl known only as Eu who claims to be a necromancer.  This would be strange enough, but then a magica-er, "magikewl" girl literally falls from the skies onto Ayumu and accidentally transfers her powers (frilly costume and all) to him.  This is shortly followed by a vampire ninja who is looking for Eu.  Now Ayumu has to wrangle a household full of girls AND fight giant, talking, intergalactic animals AND somehow find time to fit in school.  There's just no rest for the dead in Ayumu's world.

STORY: I don't know what's worse - stupid otaku fetish bait that makes no pretense of being otherwise or stupid otaku fetish bait that thinks itself clever and subversive.  I ask this because ITAZ belives itself to be the latter, but it has no idea how cleverness and subversiveness works.

ITAZ's humor is crude and simple.  "HUR HUR, HE'S A ZOMBIE, BUT HE DOESN'T WANT TO EAT PEOPLE.  HE'S  A BOY, BUT HE HAS TO BE A MAGICAL GIRL, HUR HUR."  They're not clever jokes, and the situations are not so much subversions as they are ironic reversals.  Of course, much of the humor is supposed to stem from the fact that Ayumu can't be bothered to react to much of anything.  He's not overreactive and spineless like the leads of so many series like this (thank goodness), but his apathy ends up extending to the audience - if he can't be bothered to give a shit, why should the reader?  I suspect Ayumu was already something of a zombie before he died, because he comes off as a dullard in general.

Ayumu is at least tolerable - that can't be said for the rest of the cast.  Most have very shallow, gimmicky personalities, if they were given one at all.  Eu's gimmick is that she is stoic and silent, communicating only in written notes (although she's much more expressive and cutesy in Ayumu's imagination).  Haruna (the "magikewl girl") is a loli and tsundere, and easily the most annoying character in the book.  Sera is...honestly, I don't know if we've learned anything about her other than her ridiculous title of 'vampire ninja' and that she has giant boobs.  Honestly, just look at that phrase - 'vampire ninja' is something that a 5 year old on a sugar high would come up with and think hilarious.  What's next?  Will they add a robot pirate or an alien magical gir- oh wait, we already have that one.  Clearly they were thinking more of checking off stereotypes and quirks that appeal to otaku off a list instead of creating three-dimension, sympathetic characters.

So how's the story?  It's your run-of-the-mill harem set-up.  Our lead is introduced, and then the harem members are introduced one at a time, only to join the harem  Surely there must be SOME reason beyond "because the story demanded it."  The story's also incredibly schizophrenic in tone, shifting from slice-of-life antics (like buying the girls clothes) to "NOW YOU MUST FIGHT A GIANT CRAWFISH IN A SCHOOL UNIFORM FROM OUTER SPACE WITH A MAGIC CHAINSAW."  The tonal shifts are handled with all the grace and elegance of a trainwreck.  Of course, it has to find some space for a "tender" moment with Ayumu and Eu to give them both some backstory and attempt to build sympathy for her, but it's far too late to save the story and far too shallow to add anything beyond a bit of backstory to either character.

ITAZ is a shallow pandering mess of story and characters.  Tonally, ITAZ thinks it's being wacky and subversive, but instead it's just dumb, random, and dull.  In a strange sort of irony, ITAZ is a standard harem that has been made only more confusing and boring by adding its own flourishes.

ART: Hope you like moeblobs, because that's all you're going to get here!  Muririn's character designs are very typical of modern moe style, all bobbleheaded with oversimplified faces on top of matchstick bodies (well, save for Sera and her improbable rack).  Of course, he also has to go and spice things up through the excessive use of nudity and fanservice.  Haruna gets the lion's share of the fanservice moments, and it never stops being vastly uncomfortable as Muririn clearly loves any excuse to show off her little naked loli body, her underpants, or her wee little boobs.  You're hit with her fanservice the moment you open the volume.  I mean that quite literally - the first proper page of the manga features a close-up of her panty-clad crotch in full color.  I've made it more than obvious over the last six month that I am no fan of fanservice, but here the fanservice is downright creepy and gross.

There is a bit of magical-girl-style action, but Muririn clearly couldn't be bothered to draw much of it, as the panels tend to cut away to the aftermath at the start of nearly every fight.  There's no flow to the action scenes, either - they're just a mishmash of closeups.  Muririn also abuses dutch angles in the panels like nobody's business, but all the extreme angles in the world can't conceal the fact this volume is mostly a lot of talking heads and fanservice.

Much like the story, the artwork is uninspired and pandering, influenced more by what sells to otaku than what looks attractive or makes for good visual storytelling.

PRESENTATION:  As mentioned previously, there are color pages in the front that cover the table of contents, some splash art, and the unfortunately panty-filled first pages.  My copy appears to have a printing error, where the last page was put in twice, which meant I got even MORE panty shots than intended.  Lucky me).  There's also the bizarre "Zombie Lovey-Dovey Level Checklist" in the back, which features a blatant typo ("You want to Aikawa's household laundry."  This phrase practically begs for Mad Libs-style fun).  There's also a brief White Day-centric side story, where the girls fight over what they're getting for Ayumu and whose gift is best.  Finally, there's an author's note and a page of translation notes.

Is This a Zombie?  Yes, but it's also an awful mess of a manga without the slightest bit of wit, inspiration, or taste.

This series is published in the USA by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes currently available.  3 volumes have been published in the USA and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: DURARARA!!

Imagine, if  you can, a scene from a recent major anime con...

YEN PRESS REPS: We licenced Durarara!!


YPR: ...the manga!




...yes, today for the 12 Reviews of Christmas we look at this adaptation of the popular series...just not the version some people were hoping for.

DURARARA!!, adapted from the light novels by Ryohgo Narita, drawn by Suzuhito Yasuda, with character designs by Akiyo Satorigi.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT: Mikado Ryuugamine is an ordinary kid who is heading off to attend high school in Tokyo.  He's overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere of Ikebukuro, but luckily he's got his best friend Masaomi Kida to fill him in on who's who and what's what.  After all, there are a lot of strange things to be found in the neighborhood, ranging from secret gangs to Yakuza informants to a mysterious motorcycle rider dressed in black who drives silently through the streets.

STORY: As suggested by my little skit above, this manga had a lot of expectations built around it, being not only an adaptation of an acclaimed light novel series, but also connected to a popular anime.  Because of that, some might wonder if there is any reason to check out yet another take on Durarara.  Does this series bring anything new to the table for fans of the series?  And alternately, does it serve as a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the series?  Happily, the answer to both questions is yes, although it's not always an unconditional one.

The plot should feel disjointed, as the first volume covers at least four different storylines and promises even more.  Luckily, Narita has a particular talent for interweaving multiple storylines in a way that feels natural and is never confusing, and that element has translated well to the manga.  Of course, there's only one slight problem with that: the main storyline, the one the others are all anchored to, is dull as dishwater.

Mikado is supposed to be the audience stand-in, the everyman upon which to contrast all that is strange and wonderful within Ikebukuro.  Too bad they presumed that "audience stand-in" should mean "boring as hell and completely passive."  Even Masaomi, with his outgoing and slightly grating personality, is more interesting than Mikado, and once we branch off into another storyline it's easy to forget about him.  Thankfully, the other storylines and characters are much more interesting, and while some are noticeably altered (such as Izaya's) or somewhat condensed (such as Celty's), the purpose and meaning behind them remains much the same.  Celty, as always, is the highlight of the volume, as her backstory is fascinating and her very concept is an inspired touch; a European spectre who has come to Japan in search of her missing head and (hopefully) with it she can regain much of her missing memories and identity.

Being that this is an introduction to a sizeable cast and a lot of stories, we don't spend too much time with any one person and thus don't learn too much about anyone.  Honestly though, that's OK, because what we do learn and see is intriguing, and it leaves the reader wanting more in the very best sense of that phrase.

ART:  Sadly, this is one place where the manga does suffer in comparison to the anime.  While no one has been drasticallyh altered visually, there's just something off about them.  All the characters look a little too rounded and a little too simplified, like some dollar-store knock-off of the Durarara cast.  It's a bit sad that the splash page from the guest artist (a fold out piece of Izaya and Shizuo drawn by Yana Toboso of Black Butler fame) looks better and more recognizeable than the rest of the artwork between the covers.

The page presentation is pretty straightforward.  It's easy to follow, but rarely gets flashy.  It mostly involves a lot of talking heads and online chat sessions, save for the brief moments where Celty gets to show off her powers.  Too bad these moments are sometimes spoiled by placing them on 2-page splash panels that have to be turned on their side to be viewed properly.  Maybe the action scenes will get more interesting (or at least more frequent) once Shizuo is introduced, but alas you will have to wait for another volume for that.

While the story for Durarara!! was carried over nicely from the source material, there's something that seems to have been lost in translation as far as the art is concerned.  It feels like it's missing an edge and missing some action, and without it the manga as a whole feels a bit diluted.

PRESENTATION:  As mentioned previously, there is a bit of color artwork in the front from the guest artist, and the back features notes from the creative staff and translation notes.

The Durarara!! manga is not necessarily a bad adaptation, but it is a bit spiritless and slightly off-model one, and some fans may find more value in saving their pennies for those DVDs.

This series is published in the USA by Yen Press.  All 4 volumes of the first arc have been released and are currently in print, and the second arc will be released in 2013.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

One Volume Wonder: SAKURAN

Today I get to talk about a brand new One Volume Wonder for the 12 Reviews of Christmas, which was not only one of many new titles from Vertical, but one of my most anticipated releases of the year.  Did this title live up to my expectations?

SAKURAN (Derangement), by Moyocco Anno.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  During the Edo period, a young girl named Kiyoha is sold to a brothel to serve as a maid to one of the many oiran within.  Kiyoha is fierce, independent, and downright feral at times, and her brash mouth and brassy ways earns her many a punishment.  Still, her tenacity allows her to not only survive, but rise through to ranks to oiran, and she becomes as famed for her cynical smile as she is for her beauty.  Kiyoha is still not satisfied with her life, and yearns for life outside of prostitution.  She is given a chance at it when she enters into an affair with an artist, but she may find out that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the brothel gate.

STORY:  From the moment this title was announced, I was eager to get my hands on it.  As I always say, good josei is hard thing to get in the USA, and a new title from Moyocco Anno (creator of josei series such as Happy Mania and Flowers & Bees) is something to get very hyped for.

In Sakuran, we are presented with the compelling life story of Kiyoha, whose life looks glamorous and alluring but the reality is anything but that.  While we meet her as an adult, much of the volume is spent in flashback, showing Kiyoha's rise from mere maid to top ranked oiran of her house.  Kiyoha is at once fascinating but difficult to love or admire.  She is quick-tempered, blunt, and spiteful to those around her.  She is also shockingly self-possessed even as a poor, abused child.  She also never quite grows out of her feral qualities, such as the way she hungrily gobbles down her food or the way she will try to stare down anyone who crosses her.  She is fascinating because of her flaws, and it's equally fascinating to watch her adapt and change as she grows.  We meet many others along the way, prostitute and customer alike, but none of them can compare to the force of nature that is Kiyoha.

Once the backstory catches up with the introduction, we then watch as a now tempestuous, teenaged Kiyoha is tempted with the promise of life beyond the brothel.  The only way for an oiran to leave the brothel is to be bought by a customer to serve as either wife or mistress, and when Kiyoha starts to grow fond of her artist, her dissatisfaction and restlessness reaches its peak.  Without spoiling too much about the ending, I will say that it is most certainly unexpected.  It's not happy and fluffy, but it still manages a strange sort of positivity about itself and it works with the cynical tone of the story as a whole.  It's not a happily ever after, but neither does it milk the situation for melodrama and brings things to an oddly satisfying conclusion.

ART:  Anno's artstyle takes some getting used to, but those who can get past her somewhat strange style will find a lot to enjoy.

Anno's character designs are not conventionally attractive.  Her women tend to have enormous, wide-spaced, doe-like eyes, ones that seem too big for their heads.  She are not the shiny cartoony kind you see in shoujo; these are deep, dark, and frequently jaded.  She gets a lot of subtle expression and emotion out of those eyes, through the drop of a lid or the angle of a stare.

Anno also puts a lot of effort into the details of Kiyoha's world, both the exquisite and the mundane.  The wardrobes of the prostitutes are elaborate, loaded with textures, patterns, layers, and accessories, and each piece, each hairstyle, and each title comes loaded with meaning.  She puts a similiar sort of level of detail into the brothel itself, in both the public spaces for the customer and the much more grimy and mundane places behind the scenes.  Because of that level of detail, the panel and page composition is simple and straightforward.  I do need to note that there is a lot of nudity (including full-frontal) and sexuality in this manga - its 18+ rating is well-earned.  That's not a surprise considering the setting, and it's always presented in a non-titilating manner.  It's a strange sort of irony, but while Sakuran is loaded with flesh, it's actually less erotic than your average fanservice fest. 

PRESENTATION:  Vertical went all-out with this release.  We don't get just a few color pages in the front, they're added at the front of every chapter.  The cover is also notable with its bright, foiled color images.

Sakuran is much like Kiyoha herself: beautiful, cynical, but ultimately satisfying.  Anyone craving some fine, complex, and adult (in both senses of the word) storytelling should pick this title up post-haste.

This series is published in the USA by Vertical.  It is currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win a copy of this and  the Volume 1 of 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!

Friday, December 7, 2012


Today's review is one of the few new series this year from Kodansha.  I can't blame them for resting on their laurels a bit after bringing back the money pot that is Sailor Moon, but if their prospects are anything like today's series, maybe they should get moving a little faster on new licences...

MISSIONS OF LOVE (Watashi ni xx Shinasai!), by Ema Toyama.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Yukina Himuro is perceived by her classmates as a distant, even frightening ice queen.  What they don't know is that she doesn't stare at them to intimidate them; she's observing them as research for her writing.  Yukina is secretly one of the most popular cell phone novelists on the market.  One day, she overhears a group of fans wondering why there isn't more romance in her work, and even though she has no experience with love or romance, Yukina becomes determined to experience it so she can incorporate it into her writing.  Circumstance intervenes when Yukina discovers that Kitima, the most popular and handsome boy in class, keeps a notebook full of his conquests and notes on how to exploit those around him for benefit.  Yukina uses this to force Kitima to be her romantic test subject, commanding him to do things to hold her hand or cuddle her or else be exposed as a manipulator.  Kitima doesn't take this situation lying down, and now the both of them are caught in a battle of wits and blackmail, all while Yukina tries to complete her missions of love.

STORY:  Well, this is unusually dark for a shoujo romance...and thank goodness for it!

I expected this story to follow that well-worn path for shoujo romances, where a socially awkward girl learns to open up and love thanks to the gentle affections of some perfect, popular dreamboat.  Now, there are ways to make that cliche of a storyline work (which I'll discuss someday whenever I get around to Kimi ni Todoke), but most mangaka just follow that outline to the letter with the results ranging from mediocre to dull.  Thus, when our supposed dreamboat is exposed to the reader as something of a manipulative bastard, my interest was peaked.

Shoujo love interests tend to be either impossible pictures of perfection or moody, tsundere-ish "bad boys."  Kitima is neither of these things.  Outwardly he appears to be the former, but his motivations are selfish and even lazy; he manipulates others not so much for gain as simply to make his life easier, or in the case of the girls, he manipulates them for his own amusement and observation.  He's not only a bit more like Yukina than he would like to admit, but he's also something of an awful person, and that is actual rather noe vel for shoujo.  My interest remained peaked when he spent the rest of the volume trying to manipulate others to turn on Yukina, and things only get more interesting when he utterly fails at it.

So, how does Yukina compare to him as a character?  Well, morally she may be a little better than him.  She's certainly more honest about herself than he is.  She's aware that the world perceives her as cold and distant, and for the most part she doesn't care.  She uses that distance to observe the world around her methodically and to incorporate all its little nuances into her work.  She brings that same methodicalness to romance - she needs to learn about romance, so she decides to use Kitima as her test subject and to approach each step of physical affection like an experiment.  Still, once she learns Kitima's secret, she's not above blackmailing him to keep her test subject in line, and she proves to be the mental equal of Kitima where manipulation is concerned.  Near the end of the volume, he does manage to learn her one weakness, and frankly it's a rather stupid one.  There's something of a kernal of emotional truth in Yukina's reason for her weakness, but it's still kind of a silly misstep in a series that had been running so smoothly and interestingly to that point.

Missions of Love is not your average shoujo romance, in part because its leads have some moral shades of gray to them and in part because at this point it's far less about the inevitable romance and more about two people engaged in a fascinating battle of wits, and I for one want this battle to continue.

ART: While the story of Missions of Love is surprisingly unconventional, the artwork is sadly much more conventional.  The character designs are unremarkable, with their plain faces and overly long, pointy, messy hair constantly flopping in their faces.  Like so many shoujo works, it makes liberal use of the sparkles and effects, and usually to the detriment of the panels they are used for.  The panels are larger than average, but the mangaka never really takes advantage of that extra space through the use of interesting angles or striking images.  Otherwise, the art for Missions of Love isn't necessarily bad, but its mediocrity hampers its otherwise interesting writing.

PRESENTATION:  The only extra to be found here are some brief translation notes and a bio.

Missions of Love surprised me with its darker twists on the standard shoujo romance.  I can only hope that it can keep that twist going.

This series is published in the USA by Kodansha.  The series is ongoing in Japan, and the first of 8 available volumes is currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: OREIMO

The 2nd review of Christmas is a new title from Dark Horse (well, one that isn't a CLAMP omnibus).

OREIMO (Ore no Imoto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai, or My Little Sister Can't Be This Cute), adapted from the light novel series by Tsukasa Fushimi, drawn by Sakura Ikeda and Hiro Kanzaki.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Kyousuke is an ordinary teenage boy who has a rather distant and thorny relationship with his younger sister Kirino.  She's a popular, pretty 14 year old who is also kind of moody and in other words, she's very much like any 14 year old girl.  Then by accident, Kyousuke discovers Kirino's big secret: SHE'S AN OTAKU.  Not just any otaku, but one who loves magical girl anime and (more distressingly) little-sister theme eroges and the like.  She loves them so much that she keeps a stash of her merchandize hidden in her room, and even took up modelling to help pay for her habit.  After this discovery, Kirino begins to open up to Kyousuke, even if it's mostly just so she can have someone to talk to about her interests.  He in turn encourages her to reach out to other otaku, even accompanying her to an otaku meet-up at a maid cafe.  What will happen, though, when their father discovers one of Kirino's games around the house?

STORY:  Oreimo is marketed as a comedy, but I don't quite see it.  Well, I can see how it might work as one in Japan, but the main conflict that is supposed to serve as comedy is lost when you try to bring it to the USA, and the end result is kind of confusing and even kind of offensive.

Most of the comedy is supposed to stem from the notion of "HUR HUR, SHE'S POPULAR, ATHLETIC, AND PRETTY! SHE CAN'T BE AN OTAKU! NO ONE WOULD EVER SOCIALLY ACCEPT HER AGAIN IF THEY KNEW! ISN'T THAT IRONIC AND HILARIOUS!? HUR HUR!"  It's a rather crude joke, but I can see how it would fly in Japan.  There, you are very much expected to consume age-appropriate media once you grow up and to put aside things like video games and anime.  Those who do not are seen as childish, socially hopeless, and even as perverts.  Thus, the humor is supposed to stem from the conflict between Kirino's successful social image and her own embarassingly childish and perverted interests, even if she claims that she enjoys the eroges for the stories and the cute character designs.

The problem with this conflict is that it no longer works as comedy once you take it out of Japan.  American adults don't face nearly as much social pressure to give up geeky pursuits and media when they grow up - indeed, where would the internet be without them?  Thus, your average American manga reader would see no problem with being pretty, popular, athletic AND being into anime and eroges.  The manga repeatedly infers just how awful and shameful otakudom is, yet it is being marketed to those very otaku, and the manga is thus implying that its own audience is awful, shameful, and socially hopeless.  Oreimo is making fun of its own audience, and it's presuming that said audience is not self-aware enough to notice.  That's what makes it truly offensive to me - it's not laughing with its audience, but at them.

All that being said, what is the rest of the story like?  Oddly, while it fails as a comedy, it does sort of work as a family drama.  Kyousuke and Kirino's relationship initial relationship felt very familiar, where you regard your other siblings as weird and annoying and your whole relationship is strained because you're still growing out of being moody, bratty teenagers.  Their relationship actually got weirder the closer they got, between Kyousuke's repeated instances of calling his sister "hot" and Kirino's latching onto her brother and even trying to kiss him at one point.  Yeah, I know she states that she's not into incest, despite what her game choices would indicate, but I don't think the author fully wants us to believe that.  Also: ewwwwwww.

I will say that I like that Kyousuke isn't a spineless wimp.  He's understandably weirded out by Kirino's interests, but he does try to understand her interests and even consults some of his own friends to find ways to help Kirino interact with other fans like herself.  The results are kind of mixed, because Kirino has too much pride to befriend a bunch of nerd (and yes, that does make her a total hypocrite), but it's a genuinely nice gesture.  In truth, watching Kirino interact with the other otaku, including the tall, strapping, and completely oblivious ringleader and a gothloli cosplayer who almost instantly is at odds with Kirino, is probably the closest this volume gets to genuine humor.  Funny how that works when you try to base the humor on personality conflicts instead of shaming the audience indirectly.

When it comes to the story, Oreimo is a mixed bag.  The main conflict might work as source of comedy in Japan, but it falls flat on North American audiences.  The story actually is most effective when it focuses less on Kirino's otakudom and more on building a better relationship with her brother and drawing humor from putting Kirino into new situations.

ART:  The story of Oreimo at least tries to put a twist on the vaguely incesty little sister story; the artwork sadly plays it all too straight.

The character designs are very simple and moe-fied.  We're talking pure moeblob here - big wide-set eyes, barely any noses to speak of, simple lines for mouths, faces which are not very distinct and not terribly expressive - it's all there.  The art also goes out of its way to undercut the story's assertations that it's not supposed to be perverted through its constant sexualized gaze at Kirino.  Rare is the time that the panel is gazing down at her cutely pouting, or focused with laser-like precision on her ass, or setting her up into some vaguely suggestive position.  Even the cover sexualizes her, having her twist her spine into an impossible, Rob Liefeldian position to best emphasize her boobs and butt.  I can't take the story's denial of any pervy undertones seriously when it keeps presenting fanservice like this.

Backgrounds are exceedingly rare, as the majority of the panels are taken up by almost uncomfortably close headshots.  There was a suprising amount of chibi action, all within sillier moments and all featuring Kyousuke's hyper best friend, complete with the perky ears and wagging tail of an eager puppy.  The panels are larger than average, but when you use all that space for close-ups and fanservice, it's something of a waste of space.  It's mostly just there to attract and titilate the moe-loving otaku audience, and little else.

PRESENTATION: There's an afterword from the writer and artists, as well as a few gag 4-komas and an essay from the editor, who also seems oblivious to any weirdness about anything about this story.

I was drawn to the more subtle, relationship-based elements of the story, but the otaku-shaming element falls flat and the moe and incest fanservice overwhelmed any relatable story elements.  Kyousuke may not be able to believe his sister is that cute, but I can't believe this series got licenced.

This series is published in the USA by Dark Horse.  The first of 4 available volumes have been published, and is currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!  

Monday, December 3, 2012


Let's kick off the 12 Reviews of Christmas with a new series from Viz's Shoujo Beat line.

A DEVIL AND HER LOVE SONG (Akuma to Love Song), by Miyoshi Tomori.  First published in 2007, first published in North America in 2012.

PLOT:  Maria Kawai is a beautiful young woman who was recently expelled from her Catholic high school (a rarity in Japan), and is now transferring to public school.  Unfortunately, Maria is extremely observant, pessimistic, blunt in her speech, and honest to a fault, so she soon antagonzies her new classmates by pointing out their foibles.  It gets to the point where her fellow schoolgirls begin to actively act against her through rumors, pranks, physical assault, and attempts to incriminate Maria in the eyes of the teachers.  There are two students who don't immediately hate Maria, though.  The first is Yusuke Kanda, a cheerful blond boy who tries to put a positive spin on all things in life, including Maria.  The second is Shin Meguro, the class rebel who tends to go all tsundere around Maria.  Through it all, Maria tries to focus on what she learned from the nuns and to try and find the positive qualities in people.  Will Maria ever find the social equivalent of her saving grace?

STORY:  It's rather interesting to see a modern shoujo series where the heroine is such a pessimist.  Most shoujo stories star vulnerable ingenues, cheerful ditzes, or tempestuous tsunderes, but Maria fits none of these molds.  She does want to believe in the best of people, as she's been taught, but she also believes in being honest about herself and others, and by doing so she tends to point out all the flaws and faults in others.  Unfortunately for Maria, her classmates are a vicious little bunch of insecure sociopaths, so they lash out at her for disrupting their social status quo.  She can't even charm them with her looks, as she tends to wear a neutral sort of scowl, and her attempts to smile are...well, best not lingered upon.

Yusuke's also a rather fascinating character, as the manga clearly doesn't want you to believe that his brand of optimism is a good thing.  In fact, it all but states that Yusuke is deluding himself by repressing his negative qualities and blindly overlooking those in others.  Shin's perspective in comparison is more grounded, but he also fits closer to your typical brooding, Byronic love interest, always annoyed at how Maria will not defend herself against the slings and arrows of others.  The rest of the cast is not notable, as it seems to be mostly composed of Mean Girls who take every opportunity to lash out at Maria, regardless of circumstance, and as the volume progresses their actions escalate from mere passive-agressiveness to flat-out bullying (and thus escalate from relatively believable to something approaching ridiculousness).

Still, A Devil and Her Love Song manages to stand out from the crowd by focusing less on romance and more on its unique heroine and the constant conflict between her desire to find the best in people and finding only the worst.

ART:  The overall art style isn't terribly original, but Maria does stand out as a striking beauty with her dark bob, full pouting lips, and dark, limpid eyes.  The page layouts are a bit jumbled at times, with panels split up and stacked over one another.  The panels are very tightly focused, so expect a lot of talking heads and a lot of screen effects and tones instead of backgrounds.  Really, aside from Maria herself, the artwork is very typical of most modern shoujo stories.  As a whole it's effective, but it lacks any sort of distinct style and the quality over all is simply average.

PRESENTATION:  As true for most Viz works, there are few extras to be found.  Here all we have are a few character sketches and profiles.  I do want to note the cover art - I like that Viz stepped away from its usual solid-color framing for the Shoujo Beat line here.  Instead, they frame a lovely portrait of Maria through the use of roses, a cross, and the title itself, and the whole thing is nicely colored in shades of red and black.  It's a look that fits well with Maria's darker outlook on things and is very eye-catching.

A Devil and Her Love Song may look a bit average, but its strange, pessimistic tone and unconventional heroine help to make up for any artistic faults it may possess.

This series is published in the USA by Viz.  The series is ongoing in Japan, with 13 volumes currently available.  6 volumes have been published in the USA, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Want a chance to win Volume 1 of this and 5 other series?  Leave a comment to enter my 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!

Saturday, December 1, 2012


As 2012 comes to an end, I decided to dedicate December to reviewing some of the latest manga titles to come out this year (and by 'latest', I mean brand new - no re-releases).  As it's also the holiday season, and thus the season for gifts, I also decided to do something special for my readers, whether you've been reading since May or just started stopping by.

From the 3rd to Christmas Day, I will be posting 12 reviews of 12 new series, and you the reader will have a chance to win your choice of 6 of them.  That's right - the winner will receive 6 brand-spankin'-new volumes of their choice from the 12 reviewed this month, along with a personalized thank you note from yours truly.

How do you enter?  It's very simple.  You just have to leave a comment below noting what your favorite manga release from 2012 was.  It can be anything - single volume or omnibus, brand new or ongoing.  Simply state what that release was and why you liked it, and on Christmas Day one commenter at random will be chosen to win the aforementioned gift package.

Of course, there's no way to know what you might win unless you keep reading, so stay tuned and good luck!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Sorry for the delay folks - I was finally able to rouse myself from turkey-induced stupor and able to tear myself away from many an online deal to offer up one last review this month, as well as a return of the One Volume Wonder.

Now, I am not afraid to admit that I do read and enjoy yaoi.  I am also not afraid to admit that when it comes to yaoi, I am very particular about which ones I read, because sadly Sturgeon's Law applies to yaoi, i.e. that 90% of is awful.

Originally I was going to use this spot to review yet another work by Fumi Yoshinaga, who did quite a few one-shot yaoi stories before branching off into josei.  I've already covered two of her works, though, so I decided to turn my focus on yet another underrated mangaka who is known for both BL and josei works: the unconventional (and uncapitalized) est em.  She's getting a bit more exposure thanks to sites like JManga, but today I want to look at one of her previous, physically published works.

RED BLINDS THE FOOLISH (Oroka-mono wa Aka o Kirau), by est em.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2008.

PLOT:  Rafita is the latest and greatest thing on the Spanish matador scene, famed for his brilliant red costume as well as his stoic and fearless performance in the ring.  He soon takes up with Mauro, one of the butchers who processes the bulls that Rafita slays.  Rafita treats their relationship as if it's no big deal, but soon Rafita starts to lose his nerve in the ring, and the cause may stem from Mauro.  There are also stories about the soccer fan who meets up with the security guard who gave him quite the shiner in a mid-game brawl, a writer with an attachment to an old pair of red heels, and a writer taking down the story of an old man and his past as a choreographer for a French ballet dancer.

STORY:  Red Blinds the Foolish is a breath of fresh air for anyone familiar with yaoi as a whole. It looks like no other yaoi on the market, it reads like no other yaoi on the market, and I am so very thankful that something like this exists.

Noteably, this isn't a single, linear story but an anthology of mostly unconnected ones.  Secondly, they all feature an usual setting for manga - Europe (Spain, specifically).  Admittedly, est em utilizes that setting rather shallowly.  Sure, she incorporates elements like bullfighting and soccer, but she also seems to ignore the fact that Spain is a predominately Catholic culture, and as such there might be more conflict and concern for a gay man in Spanish culture, particularly one who is a prominent media figure like Rafita.

The volume is dominated by the title story, which is plot-wise the most complex as well as the artiest and most philosophical of the lot.  Rafita starts as a cocky and somewhat shallow man, the kind who can stare down death even as it stampedes towards him or call his lover in the middle of screwing another man.  By story's end, he has lost some of his fearlessness but has traded for some genuine concern and affection for Mauro.  Mauro admittedly doesn't have quite as much of a character arc, although a bit of his backstory is filled in through one of the later chapters.  He is sedate and calm, willing to wait things out and let Rafita figure things out on his own.

est em also doesn't linger too much on how anybody on this volume gets together.  It simply just sort of happens somewhere offscreen (offpage?).  I guess this does allow her to get past any of the characters' possible anxieties about whether the other party is gay, much less if they are into them, and it's an understandable shortcut when she doesn't have a lot of pages to spare.  Still, it leaves these relationships feeling a bit uncomplete as even during sex the stories feel a bit emotionally cold.  Mind you, part of that comes from the fact that we're mostly not seeing the complete arc of these relationships, but mere vignettes of their lives.

OK, so while her works are not perfect, there are a lot of good and cliche-defying things to say about Red Blinds the Foolish.  First of all, for all of you out there sick to death of the whole seme/uke cliches?  This is a manga for you.  Here, none of the men are forced to fit any particular roles in the relationship (or in bed) beyond "significant other," "friend," or "associate."  Secondly, these are all working adults - no high school kids, no college students, just god-to-honest grown up MEN.  Third, she also doesn't force the sex into the story, as many a BL mangaka do to keep up audience interest.  While she's not afraid of including sensuality in her work, she's not in it for the porn but instead for the characters and the relationships between them.  It's more of a mature work in the sense of the writing and the sedate, intelligent tone versus being 'mature' in the 18+ sort of way.

While Red Blinds the Foolish is far from perfect, it's an interesting and mature collection of stories and it's a welcome spot of relief in the sea of hysterical ukes, aloof semes, and flowery sex scenes.

ART:  est em also distinguishs herself from the crowd through her lovely, realistic artwork.  Here her men look like actual, individual European men, instead of the highly stylized and feminized character designs one usually sees in yaoi.  They have actual musculature!  And butts!  And even body hair!  When was the last time you saw yaoi that acknowledge that men might have hair in places other than their heads?

There is a certain sketch-like quality to est em's art, particularly in the faces in closer shots or the sometimes hastily drawn details of Rafita's costume.  Her backgrounds are often blank, although here this is not a detriment simply because est em frames every panel so beautifully and elegantly that you hardly mind - to add more to the panel would spoil the effect.  There are a wide variety of simple, confident angles in the panels, along with some equally well-done intercutting of panels during moments of action (in every sense of the phrase *eyebrow waggle*).  Overall there's a sense of confidence and simple beauty in the art which not enhances the tone of the story and goes a long way towards not only distinguishing est em from other BL mangaka, but from manga artists as a whole.

PRESENTATION:  There are a couple of pages of author's notes about est em doing research for this volume, packed to the brim with notes and sketches.  I did like the little touch of her drawing herself and her friend "C" as C-3PO and R2D2.

The look and subtlety of Red Blinds the Foolish  more than make up for any faults it might have, and anyone who has ever been wary or weary of yaoi should give this and the rest of est em's catalogue a look.

This was published in the USA by Deux Press, and is currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Well, it was certainly fun for once to focus on the good stuff for once.  Next month promises to stuffed with even more reviews, as well as a very special giveaway.  Come back this weekend to find out the details!