Monday, May 28, 2012


HIGURASHI WHEN THEY CRY (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni), by Ryukishi07 and Karin Suzuragi, first published in 2005, first published in North America in 2008.

PLOT: Hinamizawa.  It’s a little town, a quiet village.  Every day is like the one before.  It’s a little town, full of little people, and Keiichi is the new boy in town.  (What, you thought I was going to turn the whole review into a filk?) 

Anyway, we meet our lead, Keiichi, and one by one we are introduced to his moeblob harem  group of friends: Rena, who alternates between blushing shyness and hyperactive bouts of possessive cuteness; Mion, resident fanservice girl (you know things are bad when right away, she asks Keiichi to grope her); Satoko, the blonde genki girl with fangs; and Rika, the quiet little loli.  It’s all wackiness and friendship clubs and punishment by cosplay and what not at the start, and frankly it’s so disgustingly moé that it makes me feel sick to my stomach.

Then it starts to get weird.  A roving photographer hints at a terrible incident.  Some of the girls start to fill in the backstory, of a dam project that threatened to destroy the town and a series of murders connected to it.   Then, after the annual Cotton Drifting festival, the photographer is found dead, seemingly killed by scratching his own throat out.  Now Keiichi is afraid that not only have the murders started again, but that his friends may know more about them than they let on.

STORY: I am going to be straight with you guys: I do not like moé AT ALL.  At the very least, it’s far too sickeningly sweet for my taste and I feel that it enables lazy, aimless storytelling under the name of "slice of life" or "character-driven story," despite the fact that the cast isn't so much a collection of characters as it a collection of quirky or tragic personality tics.  At its worst, it’s creepy and downright demeaning to women, because it idolizes girls who are helpless and childlike, who will always need a man to provide guidance and validation, and the cast will be specifically created to appeal to specific fetishes so that they can merchandize these characters to a select audience that will always eat this stuff up, no matter how many times it has been done before. 

So it should come to no surprise that I did not like the first half of this story AT ALL.  It’s cliché to the point of parody, annoying, and kind of creepy, and when I wasn’t groaning I was slapping my forehead in frustration.  I mean, for god's sake they use the “boy falls into boobs” gag – more than once!  But then I got to that second half, and suddenly all the moé-moé-kyun crap went away.  Instead it became a more personal story, as Keiichi begins to explore the mystery of Hinamizawa and begins to lose himself to paranoia.  Now I was wanted to see where this story went.  Now all the moé business up front became more suspicious, as we get more and more hints that there's something else going on in those sweet little bobbleheads, and whatever it is can't be good.

What I'm ultimately trying to say is that this a really well structured story.  It's tense and moody, like any good horror story should be, and it builds that tension in a steady, well paced manner.  By the time you get near the end, and things truly begin to get weird, you begin to question the reality of the town and the girls just as much as Keiichi.  Sure, the characters are pretty much just archetypes, but the characters are not the draw here.  What is the draw is the mystery, and the tension that builds when you know that at any point someone - anyone - could be the next victim.

ART: The character designs are just as moé as the story content, where the girls are tiny, bobbleheaded, big-eyed and in possession of some inordinately large busts. It should come to no surprise then that there is a fair share of fanservice, although most of it is nonsexual in nature.  Sure, there are some shots where the art is a liiiiitle too focused on some of those clearly unencumbered, oversized boobs, but most of it is more about the girls being 'adorable,' (or as Rena would phrase it, "ADOWABLE!").  It's not the greatest tradeoff, but if I can get a choice in forms of fanservice, I would rather have be about Rena freaking out over cute things versus it being about looking at her panties.

Of course, all this cuteness provides all the more contrast for the dark goings on.  I will say that I do like the way the artist made use of  tight close-ups to create tension. They always come when the girls start acting a bit off, even before the first murder, and they are timed well enough to maintain the tension without becoming overused, so complements to Ms. Suzuragi on that front.  There’s also something here that's unusual for American manga.  This may be the first time I’ve seen the color pages used to highlight a major mood shift.  Usually, if the manga features color pages at all, they are used solely for supplementary art, or maybe to highlight the original color pages at the beginning of a chapter.  Here it’s used for dramatic effect near the end, and it's used very well as it helps to jar the reader visually as well as in the text.   Now, with all this talk of murder, you may be wondering about the explicitness of the violence.  Well, most of it is talk, not show.  What little actual violence is shown is often obscured (censored?) by dark screen tones, so the squeamish will not have much to fear here.  Overall, while the art clearly panders to the moé fandom, those character designs and composition help to enhance the atmosphere and provide all the better contrast to the mystery and violence.

PRESENTATION: As I noted before, this volume features color pages - twice, in fact.  The first is at that aforementioned dramatic peak near the end, and the other is...ugh...a splash page at the beginning featuring the girls in sexy, skimpy maid outfits.  There are also some author's notes and translation notes in the back.

I'm honestly suprised at how much I ended up enjoying this manga. Not even my own personal distaste for moé could not completely detract from this genuinely interesting and well-crafted exercise in mood and tension.  I want to find out more about the madness and the mystery of Hinamizawa, and how (if?) Keiichi will survive, and I suspect many of you will do so as well.

Higurashi When They Cry is an on-going series in Japan.  It is published in the USA by Yen Press and as of this review, 18 volumes are in print.

This volume and many others like it are available today through!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Communication is key

I'm proud to announce that we now have both an email address ( and a brand spankin' new Twitter account! (!/MangaTestDrive)

Feel free to use the Twitter account to spread the Manga Test Drive love to your family, friends, and followers.  The email address is for anything that won't fit in a tweet, be it a comment, a question, a recommendation, or even if you have a few spare volumes of manga you wish to donate to the cause.  Your feedback is like fertilizer - it helps the site grow, so don't be shy!

Monday, May 21, 2012


ANTIQUE BAKERY (Seiyō Kottō Yōgashiten), by Fumi Yoshinaga, first published in 2000, published in North America in 2005.

One day, salaryman Keisuke Tachibana declares to his family that he wishes to open a bakery!  Now, if you or I were to make such an announcement at the dinner table, we would probably get the same sort of confused, skeptical look as one would get if he or she suddenly announced that they were moving to Bulgaria to live out their dream of becoming a cartographer.  Tachibana's family reacts slightly better than that, with support and a hint of mild confusion.  Fast forward sometime later, and Tachibana is finally opening the Antique Bakery, where gourmet sweets, drinks and snacks are created and served for guests by the handsome wait- and kitchen staff: Tachibana, the manager; Yusuke Ono, the head patissier and (in his own words) “a gay of demonic charm,” an unfortunate thing to be when it has caused your previous coworkers to fall madly in love with you to the point of fighting and bloodshed; and Eiji Kanda, the ex-boxer/apprentice patissier whose enthusiasm for baking is matched only by his sweet tooth.  In this first volume, we not only get the background on Ono and Eiji, but a number of side stories that all lead to the Antique Bakery, be it a pair of high school associates who reconnect as adults, an ex-detective whose one remaining passion is sweets, or a couple of people with ties to Eiji’s past.
Yoshinaga starts this story off in a unusual sort of in media res, showing you snippets of scenes from the past from a number of characters – some of them from the main cast, others who are just incidental to this volume.  At first it may be a little confusing, as the first half of the volume seems to focus more on the guests than on the bakery staff, but the further you read, the more you realize that Yoshinaga clearly knows what she is doing.   She is letting the story unfold at a lesiurely pace, revealing the personalities and backstory of our main trio through their interactions and conversations, instead of giving it to us right away through forced narratorial infodumping.   It's also interesting that she spends more time on Ono and Kanda versus our ostensible lead, Tachibana, who is mostly left to serve as comic relief (albeit comic relief with hints of something darker in his past).  Mind you, it's not a bad trade-off, as Ono and Kanda are both really well-written characters, with complex pasts and interesting personalities.
Now, some of you may have seen Ono’s summary and thought “this is yaoi, isn’t it?”  I must note that while Yoshinaga is primarily known as a boys' love mangaka (and in my opinion, one of the better ones out there), this work is in fact josei, that rare and elusive subgenre of shoujo targeted towards older teens and women.  While Ono is a fairly major character, not to mention a sexually active one, he and his relationships are not the main focus, and you will find no boys' love tropes here. so those of you who dislike the cliches of that genre can rest easy.  The only kind of porn you’ll find here is food porn, because the sweets described within WILL make you hungry.  It’s no surprise that Yoshinaga went on to write a work called “Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me Happy.”
Overall, this manga is like being served a slice of tiramisu after the spicy bombast of shonen or a dramatic shoujo served en flambé; it not only serves as a quiet, refined contrast, but also carries a richness and a depth that can be enjoyed all on its own.
Like her storytelling, Yoshinaga’s art is subtle.  Backgrounds are rare, and not deeply detailed.  Her character designs do admittedly tend to look alike, with similiar, square-jawed, narrow eyed faces.  Luckily, those faces are really expressive, especially when it comes to more subtle emotions, so it's something I can easily overlook. This is a fairly talkative story, so expect a lot of tight shots of talking heads versus big, dramatic poses and action.  She does vary things up by often using larger panels than your average manga, and she uses all that extra white space to communicate tension or quiet moments between characters without any of them saying a word.  She also has her own distinct form of superdeformed for the more comic moments.  Overall, the art of Antique Bakery is minimalist, but refined, and compliments the story beautifully.
This may be the only manga that comes with a scratch-and-sniff feature.  Indeed, if you are lucky enough to come by a first edition of this work in good enough condition, you can smell one of the berries on the fruit tart on the cover art.  Sadly, mine was bought used and in fairly worn shape, so I cannot do so.  This color cover is in fact a slip cover, with a sepia-toned copy of the same picture underneath.  It’s a nice detail, but I can’t imagine displaying this without the slip cover, in part because the sepia-toned cover is so dull in comparision, and in part because Yoshinaga’s artwork looks so nice in color.
Josei is a hard thing to find in the American manga market, and this series is one of the best available.  It's as subtle and refined as a cup of tea served in good china, and readers who are looking for a quieter, more character-driven story will find it similiarly satisfying.
Antique Bakery is a 4 volume series published in the USA by Digital Manga Press.  It is now out of print.

You can buy manga like this and more at!


Hey there! My name is Brainchild, and I have taken it upon myself to create a little online review project which I call The Manga Test Drive.  Here I will take the first volume of any and all manga I can get my hands on, give a spin, and figure out which ones are the classics and which ones are the clunkers.

Why am I doing this?  Well, the most obvious reason is that I love manga.  It's hard to explain quite why I love it.  Maybe it's the sheer variety of stories you can find.  Maybe it's that it's a lot more accepting of female artists and writers than American comics tend to be.  Maybe it's the fact that they (mostly) have self-contained continuity - I don't need to read a handful of previous storylines to understand a new one.  No matter what the reason, the fact remains that I love it, and I would like others to love it as much as I do, and to do that I want to expose you all to the best and most interesting titles (along with whatever average to not-so-good series I might read along the way). So why do I stop at just the first volume?  Well, my view is that if a manga hasn't managed to capture your interest in some form by the end of the first one, then why would you to continue reading it any further?

My review structure is fairly simple.

First, I provide a short summary of the PLOT of the first volume. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil everything. After all, I want you guys to go out and read this stuff on your own! 

Second, I then look at the STORY, where I look at the plot and the characters and anything else that might be relevant to how the story is written. 

Third, I look at the ART, which can include everything from the character designs to the backgrounds to the way that the panels are structured – anything which is relevant to how the story is visually told.

Fourth, I look at the PRESENTATION. Mostly this notes any extras which are included with the story, like translation notes, omake comics, extra artwork, color pages, etc. It’s also a section where I note how it was published – was it in a normal tankoban, or was it in oversized form, an omnibus, or hardbound? I may even note the cover art, if it’s worth noting. Finally, I rate it in one of three categories:

GREEN = GO READ IT.  This series has a great story, great characters, great artwork, and very likely a combination of all these elements.  These are the ones you should be reading and buying, if you aren’t doing so already.

YELLOW = PROCEED WITH CAUTION.  This series may have some interesting elements or artwork which makes it worth a look, but it may be hampered by one or more elements that are subpar or in questionable taste.  I wouldn’t necessarily rush out and buy the whole thing sight unseen, but I might check it out online (preferably through legal channels) or from a library to see if it's something that interests you.

RED = STOP! DO NOT READ.  Those four words say it all, really.  This series stinks for one or more reasons and is not worth your time or money.
I will also note afterwards the publisher, if the series is in or out of print, and the total number of volumes available. I will also note the same for reprints, in the case of licence rescues.
Well, now that I've gotten the introduction and the essential information out of the way, let the reviews begin!