Monday, July 30, 2012


Today, we rev our engines and prepare to drive off into the sunset, because this is the final installment of:

INITIAL D (Inisharu Di), by Shuichi Shugeno. First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2002.

PLOT: Takemi is a quiet, reserved boy growing up in a rural prefecture. His friends are total gearheads, obsessed with cars and illegal street racing, but Takumi really couldn't care less. He's more concerned with his delivery job for his father's tofu shop and trying to impress the pretty and flirtacious Natsuki. Things change when the Red Suns, a gang of street racers, come to town to race down the local mountain. They soon discover that Takumi's father was a legendary street racer in his day. What they do not know is that Takumi's father has been indirectly teaching Takumi everything he knows through the delivery job, and not even Takumi is aware of it. His friends certainly aren't, even when they coerce him into joining the Red Sun's race to replace a fellow driver. Now Takumi must put his skills and his trusty Toyoda Truello to the test.

STORY: You'd think this would be an exciting story, a sports manga-style storyline with plenty of exciting races. Well, you'd be right about the sports manga-style story, but that's about it. For a story about illegal street racing, this is a shockingly dull manga.

One of the biggest problems is that we don't get a lot of racing. Instead we get lots and lots of people TALKING about racing and cars and the technical details of both. The closest thing we get to a race is the crash that opens up a spot for Takumi. We don't get to see Takumi race until (presumably) the next volume, as this volume ends on a cliffhanger just as Takumi arrives. I know that a sports manga will have the cast explaining the rules and technique of their sport of choice, so I should have expected it to some degree, but surely Shugeno could have found SOME way to liven up these seemingly endless conversations.

Maybe it would have helped to have a more proactive lead. Takumi never seems to get excited over anything save for Natsuki. The most emotional and active we see him is in a flashback when he punches Natsuki's ex-boyfriend for bragging about banging her in the locker room. Midway through, you begin to wonder if Takumi was dropped on his head as a baby or fed a steady diet of tranquilizers because he is just THAT unresponsive and uninterested to the events around him. It's also something of a shame that the one thing that does rile him up is a girl who is obsessed with money and clearly using Takumi to two-time an unseen lover. Aside from those two, there are plenty of other characters, but there is absolutely nothing remarkable about them. They are either racers or interested in racing, and I honestly couldn't tell you a single thing about them otherwise.

Actually, that's probably the biggest issue with Initial D. There's a fairly large cast, but we learn little to nothing about them, so there's no one for the reader to become invested in. Thus, when they start droning on and on about car models and drifting technique, the reader has no one to help bring them into these conversations to make them interested or excited about those details, and you find yourself skimming along hoping that eventually someone will start racing to liven things up.  The story of Initial D is ultimately talkative, toneless, and as plain as the tofu Takumi delivers.

ART: Now, surely Initial D could overcome its bland, boring writing and cast if its art could make the cast look good and the races exciting, right?

Oh, if only.

Initial D is kind of notorious for its weird character designs, where everyone has the same deformed jellybean head, heavy brows, and weird, thin, fishy lips, and their overall look is one that is both flat and stiff as a 2 x 4. What that means is that the whole cast is not only incredibly inexpressive, but many of the guys are indistinguishable outside of their hairstyles. The only thing appealing about the character designs (which is true for the artwork in general) is that they're drawn in this oddly sketch-like manner, with lots of thick, rough lines. It gives the artwork an unusual and unpolished quality that was not unpleasant to look at, but this quality can't save those bizarre character designs.

Now, all of those storytelling and artistic faults could be forgiven if Shugeno could at least make those brief bits of racing look attractive and convey the sense of speed and danger in them. Does it succeed at that? Well...kind of. That unpolished sketchy quality is still there, as these photorealistic cars drift through blurs of road and scenery. It does convey the speed of the races, but there's no sense of action or danger. The races feel just as detached as everything else. It doesn't help that these races are done at night in wooded areas, so you have these cars racing through big black blurs, and that's about as exciting as the backgrounds get. The composition is very mundane as well, so we don't even get any unusual angles or a lot of big, flashy panels to bring some visual variety.  So, does the artwork compensate for the dull story?  HELL NO!  For the most part it's just as boring, and where it is not bland it is just plain bizarre.

PRESENTATION: Man, not even Tokyopop could get all that invested in this manga.  Otherwise they might have bothered to put in some extras.

Manga fans would do very well to just let this one drift into obscurity and read something - ANYTHING - that is even the tiniest bit more exciting and better drawn.

This series is ongoing in Japan.  This series was published in the USA by Tokyopop.  33 volumes were published, and all are now out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

One Volume Wonder: TRASH

Today I'd like to premiere a new review feature on The Manga Test Drive:  The One Volume Wonder!

You see, not every manga series has multiple volumes.  Some release one and are done.  Some do this on purpose, and are meant to be self-contained stories. Others are simply series that were cut short, and these single volumes are rather like the equivalent of an unoptioned TV pilot - a good idea that never got enough attention or support to go on further.  This will be a semi-regular feature, as I want to tie them in with theme months if possible.  All that being said, enjoy this month's One Volume Wonder:

TRASH (Torashiyu), by Sanami Matoh.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2006.

PLOT: Will Anderson is the nephew of Rubeo, one of New York City's most prominent Mafioso.  One day, while waiting for his cousin Kate in the park, Will comes across a couple of odd things: a large penguin, and a strange dark-haired man who consumes Will's hotdog in a single *CHOMP*.  After a brief argument, the dark-haired man hands Will a card for The Trash Company, with an offer to help Will at any time.

That offer soon comes in handy when Kate is kidnapped by one of her father's traitorous associates.  Luckily, saving Kate fits in perfectly with the plans of The Trash Company.  It turns out that said company is a front for a group of jewel theives, and this same associate has also been smuggling raw diamonds that the group is very interested in.  Will and the Company end up teaming together to save Kate, and he is soon hired on as a part-time worker.  Now their next target is a rich woman with a valuable antique pearl, but will the Company's schemes hurt Will's budding friendship with a fellow classmate?

STORY: I was really surprised to find that this story only lasted for one volume, because much of what I see here seems to be a solid setup for a series of fun crime capers.

First of all, I really like our lead, Will.  He's a great example of how to make a character mild-mannered without making him boring.  True, he does pale in comparison to his fiery cousin and his flashy, outgoing uncle, but Will is no meek cutout of a character, one who is dragged along into everything and always reacting versus acting.  When people close to him are in danger, he is ready and willing to take action and save them (especially if he gets hit on the head and his much more violent split personality comes out to play).  Oh, did I mention the split personality?  Well, don't ask too many questions about how it came to be, because that plotline is sadly left dangling.

Sadly, outside of Will and his family, there's not a lot of character building, although a large part of that is due to the fact that this series was cut short.  The Trash Company gang don't get nearly enough screentime to establish much character.  Hell, I don't think most of them even get named.  The majority of them are just one-note goofballs, who are wrangled by their icy, no-nonesense blonde boss and Guy, the strange hot-dog chomper from before.  Also, no one ever explains why on earth they have a huge penguin.  Is it a pet?  A mascot?  A sidekick?  What the hell is it?  Why does no one outside of Will recognize it as something strange?

 There are two story arc in this volume, and I found the introductory one to be slightly stronger than the second one, even if the second one brought a bit more character development for Will.  I think it's the supporting characters in that second one that make a difference - Will's friend Sena is just a blank, and his aunt/guardian is a hardass bitch.  It does manage a nice little twist at the end, and we get a goofy little bit of fangirl-bait as an epilogue, and overall it was entertaining. 

The fact that it's entertaining is the very reason why it boggles me that this series wasn't extended longer.  Even if it never got around to any sort of larger story arc, I would have been perfectly happy reading one-off stories about the heists that Will and the Company get up to, or to spend more time with Will and his family.  Also, a longer series would have fixed most, if not all, the issues I had with the lack of characterization and plot threads which are never fully explored or explained.  At the very least, they could explained that damn penguin.  As it is, Trash is a fun bit of action, but its shortness leaves its cast and story a bit shallow and underdeveloped.

ART: Matoh's character designs are surprisingly rugged for a mangaka known for shoujo and shonen-ai.  Most of the characters are appropriately Western looking, with their square jaws, blunt chins, wide set eyes, extremely expressive eyebrows, and simple mouths that are often sneering, leering, or grimacing in anger, and all are drawn with thick, dark lines.  It's actually a welcome contrast to the usual pointy, delicately drawn bishonen you see in so many other manga.  It's also a pleasant bit of artistic evolution on Matoh's part, as her characters here are much more visually distinct and realistic than the lantern-jawed, pointy chinned folks from her earlier and best known work, FAKE.  I also like the way she draws hair, be it Rubeo's slicked back locks, strands of hair falling loose from a ponytail, or the way that Guy's messy mop shifts about mid-fight. 

The action is not badly drawn either, but neither could I call it nicely drawn.  Speed lines are present, but Matoh uses them more like hatching to create dramatic effect over just using them to convey speed.  She does use creative angles for the fights and she also uses hatching and screentones to create some nice shading, but she tends to frame them in closeups in small frames, so a single punch tends to fill up the entire panel between the speedlines, punch impact, and sound effects.  Because her panels are so tightly focused on the characters, we don't see a lot of backgrounds, but the ones we do see are nicely drawn, and her use of low angles keeps the images from getting too static.

Trash's overall art style is solid. Her characters are distinct and entertainingly expressive.  Her composition is a bit too cramped to let the action shine, but this thankfully does not detract too much from the equally solid story.

PRESENTATION: The only extra here is a single color splash page up front of Will, Guy, and that goddamn penguin.

Seriously, someone explain that thing to me.  WHY IS IT THERE?

This is an entertaining action story that could have turned into a good series.  Sadly, its untimely end leaves the plot and characters dangling, which hurts the story greatly.

This volumes was published in the USA by Tokyopop.  It is out of print.

You can purchase this volume and much more manga like it through!

Monday, July 23, 2012


Charge your ki and get ready to attack, because we're still still in the middle of:

TENJO TENGE, by Oh!Great.  First published in 1998.  First published in North America in 2005.

PLOT:  It's just a typical day at Todo Academy.  The sun is shining, the meek and mild-mannered Takayanagi is experience his first boner over Aya, the beautiful younger sister of his cherubic classmate/Juken Club leader Maya Natsume, and somewhere on campus the student body is getting its collective ass kicked.  This is because of a couple of new kids, Soichiro Nagi and Bob Makihara, who are here to chew bubblegum and kick ass.  Actually, forget the bubblegum, they'd just prefer to kick more ass.  The Juken Club comes to save the day, and we see the first of many, manyMANY fight sequences, where we see that while Soichiro and Bob are strong, they can't compete with the ki-fueled powers of the Juken Club.  Maya can transform from her usual chibi state to a full-grown (in every sense of the word) one, and Takayanaga can wield electricity hard enough to pummel Soichiro into the architecture.

Unfortunately, by picking fights the boys have made the shadowy powers of the Todo student council very angry.  First they start by torching Bob's motorcycle.  Then they ramp things up by raping Bob's girlfriend Chiaki.  Bob and Soichiro are ready to fight, but they now realize they are not strong enough for these opponents.  They now must join the Juken Club and have Maya train them if they are to succeed.

STORY: Well, this was certainly...something.  The plot structure is fairly basic for a shonen work: a group of friends want to be the best fighters EVER, and thus join forces with others to become stronger through a vague, spiritual force which gives everyone different powers so that they can fight EVERYONE.  While the plot is fairly generic, it's the details that make this story...well, let's say distinct.  They also make it rather raunchy, sometimes to the point of tastelessness, and that's given it a certain degree of notoriety.

You see, when this series was first published by CMX in 2005, they needed to edit it to keep it appropriate for a teenage audience.  Some of that editing covered the copious amounts of fanservice (more on this later), but it also covered Chiaki's rape.  Now, I am not a fan of censorship and I am glad that you can get this manga uncensored, so you can experience the story for better and for worse.  The rape is actually relevant to the story, and it is portrayed as a violent, disturbing act.  Unfortunately, it's also one of those scenes where a woman is injured solely to spur the men around her into action.  It doesn't help that Chiaki just kind of suddenly shows up mid-story, and that after the rape she is oddly (and likely artificially) nonchalant about the whole thing.

Mind you, the instances of sex (both consensual and non-consensual ) are kind of tonally weird because Oh!Great keeps cutting back and forth between the sex scenes and fight scenes.  I'm not quite sure if these events are just meant to be going on simultaneously, or if he's trying to make some subtextual statement linking sex and violence.  I'm pretty sure it's the former because I very much doubt Oh!Great is the kind of writer who would bother with things like subtext.

Now as for the characters themselves, it's rather telling that the most interesting and sympathetic ones are NOT our ostensible leads, but the supporting cast.  After reading this first volume, I couldn't tell you all that much about Bob and Soichiro, other than they want to be tough, Soichiro is hot-headed and rash while Bob is more methodical and calm.  I was much more interested in the Natsume sisters, Maya in particular.  I liked her combination of wisdom, sass, and fearlessness.  I also like the concept of this tiny woman being the biggest badass of the group, not to mention the one who is skilled and disciplined enough to teach the others.  There's also a nice sense of camaderie and affection between her and Aya.  Aya's kind of charming too, with her ditzy, childlike nature, but her skills are rather undercut by the fact that she's the main vehicle for fanservice and that the only fight scene she has is cut short.  As for  He's the one who would normally be the lead in such stories, the seemingly normal guy who is swept up into something much larger, at least until he displays his own ki powers.  It was fun watching him kick Soichiro's butt, and it would be nice to see if he comes more into his own over the course of the story, but as of this point he's mostly just a blank of a boy with a boner for Aya.

Tenjo Tenge is a big, broad, tasteless sort of shonen fighting tournament story, with a cast that's just just as equally big, broad, and tasteless.

ART:  Part of the reason that I picked this manga up in the first place was that I had seen many people complement it on the quality of the art.  Initially I wondered if they were really referring to the quality of the fanservice, but upon reflection I can start to see what they were talking about.

It's clear that Oh!Great likes his ladies with looooong legs, broad hips, long hair, and TIG OL' BITTIES!  Unfortunately, it tends to make the ladies look like they have heads too small for their bodies, which isn't helped by the enormous eyes they possess.  The men are much more proportional, and well muscled - unlike the women, their enhancements remain within the realm of reality.

I do like the way that Oh!Great draws his action scenes.  Instead of the usual speed lines, he draws multiple stacked upon one another to give the effect of rapidly shifting attacks, and he tends to blur the limbs with short speed lines to give a sense of the speed and force behind them.  It's a style which is not only effective, but also attractive and unique.  He also tends to use a lot of splash pages and larger-than-average panels for the fights, to better highlight the dynamic poses and perspectives, dramatic lighting, and attention to detail, as it's clear that aside from the ladies, it's also clear that Oh!Great likes to draw clothing and motorcycles, and does a good job at both.

There's something else that he really likes to draw: fanservice.  To be perfectly honest, though, it's not that bad.  It's certainly not at the level of something like Battle Vixens.  I think it's because Oh!Great prefers to focus more on boobs than on panty shots.  After all, I'm a woman, and thus I see a pair of them every time I look down.  To me, they're as ordinary as a chair.  As such, while they do tend towards the novelty sized end of the spectrum, the fairly frequent (and detailed - NIPPLES AHOY!) flashes of boob didn't bother me.  Now panty shots do bother me, because they are by their nature voyeuristic.  Here, though, they are infrequent and rarely show up outside of fight scenes, so they're incorporated much more organically than the constant parade of them that we saw in Battle Vixens.

Now Tenjo Tenge goes beyond a lot of similiar series in that we have actual sex scenes along with the fanservice.  I do appreciate that this manga isn't coy about its sense of sexuality - like its story, it's blunt, honest, and in your face.  It's too bad that both the scenes we see are really awkward as far as the artwork and tone are concerned.  Mind you, that's not so much a problem for the rape scene (although that is SO NOT THE PLACE to insert yet another panty shot), but even the consensual one beteween Bob and Chiaki is weird.  Why is she completely naked while he can't even be bothered to take off his pants?  This scene has all the raw sensuality of a tuna fish sandwich, which makes the intercutting between it and another fight scene really weird and overall it just tonally falls flat.

Tenjo Tenge is kind of a mixed bag, artistically speaking.  It has really well drawn action, some of the best I've ever seen in a shonen series, and the fanservice skirts that thin line between tolerable and awkward.  The character models can look strange, but can dress them  like models and have them on practically photorealistic rides.  Overall, though, the art does suit the story, and it's apparent that while the subject matter can be crass, Oh!Great puts enough skill and effort into the art to make it look good.

PRESENTATION: I read this from the uncut 2-in-1 omnibus Viz put out.  The cover features a good looking shot of Soichiro and Maya on the cover and many more color splash pages inside.  After each volume, there are character concept sketches, a couple of brief, sketchy comics about the mangaka, and an author's note.  I can't say how much, if any of it, was carried over from the edited single volume releases from CMX.  What I can say is that Viz's rerelease is presented as completely and handsomely as possible.

This is not a deep or original story, but if you're willing to overlook the more salacious elements of the story and art, it can be kind of a fun read, like fast food for your mind.

This series is complete in Japan.  It was first published in the USA by CMX, and has been licence rescued by Viz.  CMX released 18 of the 22 volumes, and these releases are out of print.  The Viz rerelease is ongoing, with 7 omnibuses currently in print and 3 more to be released before the end of 2012.

You can purchase this volume and more through!

Monday, July 16, 2012


It's time to lock and load folks, because once again it's another installment in:

GUNSMITH CATS (Gansumisu Kyattsu), by Kenichi Sonoda.  First published in 1991, and first published in North America in 1996.

PLOT:  Rally Vincent is a Chicago based bounty hunter, car enthusiast, and gun nut who runs a gun shop/shooting gallery along with her roommate, a former teen prostitute and explosive expert by the name of Minnie May Hopkins.  The story begins with Rally taking the case of a cocaine dealer who has skipped bail, but the situation soon snowballs after the leaders of the drug ring, a sadistic brother and sister who go by "Bonnie" and "Clyde", go after our heroines after their fast driving, marksmanship, and creative use of explosives ruin their plans and leave Bonnie missing a few limbs.  What will happen Rally and Minnie May are forced to walk into a trap to try and save a friend from Bonnie's thirst for revenge?

STORY: Gunsmith Cats is one of the best action manga you can find on the North American market (as well as one of my personal favorites).  It's a rousing, intricate story that is always building to a climax, and it's centered around a wonderful pair of complex, capable heroines.

The story's pacing is sure and steady, starting with what seems like a simple bounty hunt and escalating into undercover work, car chases, and plenty of shootouts leading up to the final one between Rally and Bonnie.  The story is full of twists and turns, but it never veers away from the greater plot until the conclusion.  After that, we get a chapter which is essentially filler, where Rally and her police contact talk about a particular and obscure variety of revolver.  It's not completely pointless or indulgent, though, because the end of it is a cliffhanger for the next story arc.  Sonoda is clearly both a car nut and a gun nut, and his dialogue (not to mention the notes in the margins) is loaded with terminology, jargon, and specific brands, mostly thanks to Rally.

Now, as good as the plot is, what makes Gunsmith Cats truly shine are its two leads.  It is so refreshing to read an action story where the women are not there solely to be objects to be taken and retrieved by others.  They're not there just to be sexy pieces of scenery, but neither are they hardened, soulless killing machines.  They are very human, with their own complex personalities, morality, and skills.  Rally is an expert shooter, a walking wikipedia on all things gun related, and a fearless driver with an appreciation for slick, powerful cars.  These are very unstereotypically interests for a woman to have, and I do like that it is never once insinuated that having these interests makes Rally in any way unfeminine or even unusual (even if Minnie May might suggest that Rally is venting sexual frustration through her shooting gallery).  She is quick to think on her feet (even if it sometimes comes at the price of her dignity), and she actively avoids shooting to kill, preferring to disarm her opponents by shooting their thumbs off.

Minnie May is no slouch in the character department, either.  True, she has the more dramatic and controversial past (being both a former runaway and a former underaged prostitute).  Still, she is an expert on all things explosive, and her homemade grenades and bombs save Rally on more than one occasion.  She may be tiny and something of a loli (something I'll discuss further in the Art section), but she is no moe-moe schoolgirl: she is impulsive, somewhat bratty, and very openly, unabashedly sexual.

The rest of the cast is great fun too, be they just incidental characters or the villians.  They may not get a lot of screen time compared to our leads, but they all leave distinct impressions, and Sonoda clearly loves creating sadistic, twisted villains to pit against the girls.  It also helps that everyone, hero and villain alike, is physically vulnerable.  There are plenty of shootouts and car chases, but just like real life there are consequences from them too.  Cars get wrecked and need time to be repaired.  People who are nonfatally shot are shown bandaged and healing for some time afterwards.  People who get their limbs blown off don't get them back (although Bonnie makes the best of her disability by installing a shotgun in one of her fake legs).  There are actual consequences for our heroes if they get shot or wreck a car, so there is some real tension behind all that flashy action.  It's one thing to have your heroes charge into a situation guns-a-blazing; it's quite another when there is no guarantee that they will emerge alive and whole.

Gunsmith Cats is a rare specimen indeed: a feminist action story.  It has great leads, a thrilling story, and as far as the story is concerned, it doesn't care that its heroes or villains are women.  They just are who they are, and that's part of what makes it great.

ART: Sonoda's world is an interesting mix of cartoony-looking characters in a damn near photorealistic world.  His character designs are varied, even if that cartooniness somewhat limits their expressiveness, and Sonoda will give you plenty of chances to take a gander at their realistic proportions (particularly those of Rally and Minnie May).  Sonoda clearly loves drawing three things: guns, muscle cars, and sexy ladies and their undergarments, and he takes every opportunity he can to add them all to the story.  Now, normally I might be bothered by the fanservice, because there's more than quite a bit of it and sometimes Sonoda is really stretching to incorporate the fanservice.  The big difference between the fanservice you see here and the kind you see in, say, Battle Vixens, is that the fanservice never derails the plot.  It happens, but then the scene moves on.  It also helps that these characters aren't just there for fanservice - as I've discussed, they have complex personalities of their own, and the fanservice doesn't take away or distract from those character-building moments, so I'm more willing to forgive its presence, and thus I will continue to stand by my statement that this can be considered a feminist-friendly work.  It certainly helps that it's never done at the voyeuristic low angles you see in ecchi works - you could almost call it tasteful.

I have to say almost because there is the awkward issue of Minnie May.  I have to be blunt - she's kind of a loli.  She certainly looks like one, being much shorter and underdeveloped than your average 17 year old.  She is not only shown mostly naked at one point, but also performing a (censored) blowjob.  Now, there are plot reasons for those two points (she's working undercover at a brothel to get information, and she must perform as a brothel worker would), but it's still awkward to witness.  Thankfully, these instances are brief.

Now mind you, Sonoda's forms of fanservice are not just limited to pretty ladies: the cars and guns he has the characters using are practically photorealistic in detail - another facet of his fascination with them.   He also did his research when it came to the setting - he incorporates a lot of details and landmarks from Chicago, even those from the more mundane or broken down parts of the city.  It's rare to find a manga that is set in America, and rarer still to find one where the mangaka puts so much research, time, and love into making all the details look right.  It's that attention to detail which helps me overlook or forgive the more salacious elements of the artwork, and it really enhances the story and setting.

PRESENTATION:  Dark Horse originally released this in flipped, slightly edited single volumes, but I read this from the more recent, unflipped, unedited omnibus.  The size is slightly smaller than your average volume of manga - Dark Horse seems to favor making them small versus making them large and flashy.  As far as extras go, there are a few 4 koma comics, as well as an informative interview with the mangaka and a few character sketches.

This is a fun little action romp.  It can be a bit of a fanservice-fest at times, but his skill for character building and for drawing non-sexy details more than makes up for it.

This series is published in the USA by Dark Horse.  The 9 single volume releases are out of print, but the 4 revised omnibuses are currently in print.

You can buy manga like this and much more through!

Monday, July 9, 2012


It's back, it's bad, and it's ready for more!  It's the next installment of:

BATTLE VIXENS (Ikkitousen), by Yuji Shiozaki.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2004.

PLOT: Most of the time, Hafuku Sonzaku is a clutzy ditz whose mother urges her towards ladylike activities to land a rich husband.  When provoked, though, she becomes a brash fighter who can take down any comers, even if her wardrobe rarely survives the fight intact.  This is because she is possessed by the spirit of one of the warriors from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, whose power is concentrated in the sacred soul bead upon an earring.  After one fight too many, Hafuku's mother sends her off to Tokyo to find her destiny or something like that - it's never really explained.  Still, Hafuku finds her way to Nanyo Academy, where she not only runs into her meek cousin Shuyu but a student body full of other kids with soul bead earrings who are all picking for a fight, urged on by the machinations of a select few students.  Now Hafuku must fight her way through the ranks if she is to survive.  Will she (and her shirts) survive?

STORY: My god, when it comes to storytelling this manga is an utter mess.  It wants to be some sort of epic, where a new generation of legendary warriors must relive the the battles of their past in the modern day.  It certainly tries hard enough, as it throws various historical names and terms like toushi and megatama like baseballs, hoping that the reader will catch on to what they mean.  What this story is in reality is a fighting tournament ecchi-fest, where vulgarity and objectification reign supreme and sex and violence are mixed together into what tonally becomes a gross, sloppy sludge.  It quite literally equates sex with violence, as these possessions not only grant their reincarnations great fighting skills, but the very act of fighting produces powerful orgasms.

Yeah, we are not dealing with a heartbreaking work of staggering genius here.

As previously mentioned, the historical epic elements mesh with the fighting tournaments about as well as oil and water.  They seem almost tacked on to give some sort of excuse or justification for all these people making sleazy come-ons as we gaze up the girls' skirts.  It doesn't help that we have another example of Tokyopop's free and easy translations.  Admittedly, I have not read this in Japanese, but I feel pretty certain that there were not so many f-bombs and sexual slang in the original text.  Then again, this is not a high-brow story, so this is really not a detriment to the story at large.

It also doesn't help that there isn't a single sympathetic or interesting character to be found.  Our heroine shifts awkwardly from brawler to bumbler, and no matter what mode she's in she is utterly annoying.  Her cousin is a spineless nobody who pervs on Hafuku and seems to have gotten lost on his way to becoming a lead in a harem series.  Her mother is shallow and man-obsessed.  The rest are loutish, sexist thugs, schemers, or sadists.  Who the hell am I supposed to be rooting for here?  Why on earth should I care whether this utter twit of a lead gets to some higher fighting level?  Why are all these people with these weird soul beads all gathered together at the same place?  WHY IS ANY OF THIS HAPPENING?! WHY SHOULD I CARE?!  AND WHAT DOES THAT SIDE STORY HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?!

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that there was a side story after the main one.  It's about some girl named Mouki who looks nearly identical to Hafuku and who ends up in similar sorts of battles.  What does this have to do with anything else?  I'll be damned if I know, because the mangaka can't be bothered to connect them either.  They didn't even have enough exploitation to fill a full volume.  Oh great, just what a crappy story like this needed: padding.

Battle Vixens is basically the manga equivalent of a Z-grade exploitation film.  The mangaka can only be bothered to lay out the wispiest, most muddled plot thread possible, just so he has something to tack all the panty-flashing violence to without bothering with things like 'characterization' or 'context.'

ART: You know you're in for a hard time visually when they can't even find a piece of cover art that doesn't feature a blatant artistic error.  Normally, one's breasts should sit parallel to one's shoulders.  If you'll look up at the image above, though, you'll see that this poor girl's boobs seem to have come loose and have drifted down towards her navel.  At least that random dragon is preventing her crotch from being featured front and center.  It's a shame that it couldn't do so for the rest of the manga.

This manga is LOADED with fanservice - it's rare for it to go more than a few pages without a panty shot.  There is no skirt that goes unflapped by unseen winds or unflipped during fights.  There's also plenty of tits on display...well, it's mostly just from Hafuku.  You see, whenever she gets punched, her shirt just happens to shred into pieces, leaving only just enough to convienently censor the nipples.

You'd think such a fanservice-laden work would have least have plenty of cute girls to ogle, but all the girls are just generically cute, and the guys are mostly large ugly brutes.  There are moments of suprisingly nice shading and attention to detail, but I supsect this is done less to raise the quality of the artwork and more for the benefit of the reader's masturbatory fantasies enjoyment.  After all, the illusion would just be ruined if we didn't have photorealistic detail on all those panties.

Anyway, the action's not too badly drawn either, at least the bits removed from the fanservice.  The poses are strong and dynamic, and speed lines are kept to a minimum which gives some of the attacks a clean, crisp look.  Sadly, these brief flirtations with decency are far outweighed by all the aforementioned failings, and those failings only serve to enhance all the bad qualities of the story.  Here, two wrongs don't equal a right - they just equal an even greater wrong.

PRESENTATION: The only extra to be found here is a single 4-koma comic about the mangaka.  I'd normally be disappointed in the lack of extras, but mostly I was just glad to be done with the damn thing.

This is pure, dumb, irredeemable trash.  I can only hope that this manga's destiny is to sit unloved and unbought in warehouses and bargain bins, where it might never offend the eyes or sensibilities of another reader.

This series is ongoing in Japan.  It was published in the USA by Tokyopop.  15 volumes were released, and are now out of print.

You can buy manga like this and many more through!

Monday, July 2, 2012


Ladies and gents, hold on to your butts, because they're about to be blown away by The Manga Test Drive's first theme month!  I declare this July to be:

That's right, every review this month will feature big fights, big guns, and big explosions!And to kick it off, let's head to the high seas to engage in a bit of piracy...

BLACK LAGOON (Burakku Ragun), by Rei Hiroe.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2008.

PLOT: Rokuro Okajima was an ordinary Japanese salaryman.  He spent his days doing menial tasks, bowing and scraping to his corporate overlords, and occasionally taking trips to foreign locals to deliver materials.  All this changes when he is captured in the South Seas by a trio of pirates: the leader, Dutch; the tech guy, Benny, and Revy "Two-Hands" who is not so much a person as she is a tank in short shorts, willing and all too happy to blow your dumb ass away.  These pirates are looking to trade Rokuro's delivery of illicit nuclear information to the Russian mob and hopefully get a bonus in the form of ransom money for Rokuro.  To cover their asses, the company declares Rokuro legally dead, and thus the newly nicknamed "Rock" is given both the cause and the freedom to join his captors in the Thai city of Roanipur, where the elite of the world's criminal underbelly uneasily coexist in their own little hive of scum and villainry.

STORY: This is a story that comes at you like a punch in the face.  Literally, it starts with Rock being sent flying across the ship deck by the crew of the Black Lagoon.  It's essentially an American action movie in manga form: an action-packed story with a great cast that never gets terribly deep, although it never stoops to insulting the intelligence of its characters or its audience.

Of course, such a story needs a solid cast to anchor it, and Black Lagoon has that in the form of Rock and Revy.  Now don't get me wrong, Dutch and Benny are solid characters too, but we don't get a lot of time with them, and they don't provide the contrast that the former do.  Between them you have the innocent, by-the-books diplomat and the jaded, blood-crazed mercenary, and their interactions bring a lot of the story's tension, as well as a certain degree of pitch-black comedy. 

Black Lagoon also has really great opponents (I can't really call them villains as pretty much everyone in this cast is involved in some kind of crime).  First and foremost is Bailailaka, the head of Hotel Moscow,the Roanipur branch of the Russian mob.  She is a cool, intelligent, and fearsome leader, and she runs her organization with the same discipline that she used to command them during their days as Soviet Army soldiers.  The other is Roberta, who is certainly unique.  I mean, in what other manga can you find a Colombian mercenary-turned-housemaid (complete with frilly dress) who will calmly, politely plow down anyone who gets in the way of her goal?

This is a well paced tale that never drags or becomes too convoluted, and each of the two story arcs in this volume work as both stand alone stories as well as part of a greater plot, supported by a fascinating cast of thieves and thugs.

ART: This is pure seinen with an international cast, so there is no moe-moe-kyun to be found here.  No, here we have characters with detailed, fairly realistic, and extremely expressive style, which is even carried over into the gag story and 4-koma comics at the end.  Hiroe brings that same sort of level of detail and realism to the backgrounds, ships, and weaponry. 
Now, as for fanservice...well, it's a little complicated.  Now it's true that Revy spends all her time in a tiny tank top and jean shorts so short that they might as well be denim panties, and Hiroe clearly loves drawing that body at just about every angle he can as she leaps and bounds her way through her gunfights, but it's also clear that he also just wants the reader to notice how much of a goddamn badass she is as much as he wants them to ogle her.  There's a few other moments of nudity, thanks to a few random hookers, but when it comes to fanservice of both the violent and the sexual variety, Revy is the main focus.  I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it as a whole, but it's certainly not crude enough to be truly offensive to my sensibilities, for what that's worth.

Hiroe tends to pack in plenty of panels on each page, and they are often full to the brim of sound effects from the action.  It's busy-looking to be sure, but not to point where it becomes distracting or ugly.  He does give his art a great sense of dynamic motion as boats chase one another on the open ocean and gunfighters fly through the air guns-a-blazing, often in nice, big panels to better show it off, and it's this sense of motion which helps to lend the story another level of tension and energy.  Hiroe's artwork complements his story to a T.  It may not be for the squeamish or overly sensitive, but it helps to fully fill in the details and personalities of this criminal underworld.
PRESENATION: As mentioned previously, there is a gag story and some 4-koma comics at the end, along with a few translation notes.  This is part of Viz's Signature Line, so it is printed in the oversized style typical of that line.

I'm always happy to immerse myself in the world of Black Lagoon, where I can enjoy one of the finest action stories on the market.  Now if Hiroe would just work on it more often so we could get a new volume...

This series is still ongoing in Japan, and is published in the USA by Viz.  There are 9 volumes, all currently in print.

This volume and many others are available through!