Monday, August 27, 2012


GAKUEN ALICE (Gakuen Arisu), by Tachibana Higuchi.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2007.

PLOT:  Mikan is a hyperactive young girl from a small, rural town.  Her best friend in the whole world is the quiet, intelligent, and subtly snarky Hotaru.  Unfortunately for Mikan, Hotaru is moving away to Tokyo to attend the Alice School, an elite comprehensive school for special, genius children known as "Alices."  Even half a year afterwards, Mikan can't get over the loss of her friend until she overhears her classmates talking about how the Alice students are practically imprisoned in their school and how the government pays the Alices' families for scouting their children, which Hotaru used to save their school from condemnation.  Inspired and touched by Hotaru's sacrifice, Mikan decides to run away to the Alice school to find her friend.  Through luck and circumstance, Mikan is discovered by one of the teachers and given a chance to earn her way into the school.  Her bubbly nature and lack of obvious power  leave her a virtual outcast in her class.  In particular, she is targeted by the class bully, a deeply troubled telekinetic pyromaniac boy by the name of Natsume.  Will Mikan ever win over her classmates, or at least reconnect with Hotaru?  Will she ever discover what her Alice is?

STORY:  Do you ever get the feeling that you are too old to be reading a particular series?  That's the feeling I got when reading Gakuen Alice.  I get the feeling that the manicness and cuteness of the story would appeal a lot to little kids, and they would be less likely to pick up on the stranger, darker elements and the muddled tone.

The problem with making Mikan so manic and hyperactive is that it's hard to take her seriously as a dramatic character.  Indeed, it's hard to take any of her plights all that seriously when she just plunges herself into them without a thought and is always saved by sheer dumb luck.  She's far too much of a comic relief character and the storyline suffers for it.  I found myself feeling more for Hotaru, whose stoney face only makes her snarkiness funnier, and whose Alice-based inventiveness provides many a gag.  I certainly didn't care for Natsume.  I know that dark, tormented woobies are something of a tradition as love interests in shoujo, but there is such a thing as taking that cliche too far.  Natsume is nothing but a pissy little bastard who antagonizes everyone around him.  It is hinted through his friendship with another kid, Luka, that there's cause for his budding sociopathy, but frankly I couldn't care less.  I don't want to see this kid redeemed, I want to see his ass kicked.

 It also does help that while this is ostensibly a lighthearted adventure, there are these darker elements lurking beneath it.  Some might say this adds depth, but I felt that they conflicted with that lighter tone.  Now some of it is likely on purpose, with the way that the Alices are kept confined and isolated from the world.  Other parts may just be my own perception.  Maybe I've watched too much Firefly, but just the idea of the government recruiting super genius children for a special school to use for their own purposes left me feeling very uneasy.  Not to mention that no one ever questions the existance of Alices in general.  Has there always been children like this?  Is this a recent development?  Why is the fact that there are children with psychic/telekinetic powers such a mundane thing in this world?  The reader may never know.

Gakuen Alice is a goofy over-the-top story for kids with dark undertones - some intentional, some not.  It's an enjoyable bit of fluff, but its muddled tone leaves me wondering if those bits of darkness are simply drama to be overcome or hints of tonal shifts to come.

ART:  The art is pretty much your standard, generic shoujo style - mildly pretty, big shimmering eyes, and flat as a board.  The children at least do all look like children - there are no lolis to be found here.  The composition is very much like Mikan herself - busy and frantic, pasting panels all over the place, and filling them full of screentones, effects, and jokes.  It's not completely unattractive, but after a while it becomes distracting.  Like a lot of generic shoujos, the backgrounds are pretty much an afterthought, and are mostly screentones when they are present at all.  Sadly, it's that generic quality which leaves me with very little to say on the art.  It's effective, but little else.

PRESENTATION:  There are sketches of the different Alice School uniforms in between each chapter.  There's also a map of the Alice School campus in the back.

This wouldn't be a bad series to use to introduce a child to manga, who might be entertained by all the wackiness.  That being said, adult readers might find it a bit too abrasive or a bit too strange to be completely sold on the story.

This was published in the USA by Tokyopop.  The series is ongoing in Japan, but only 14 volumes were published.  This series is out of print.

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

Monday, August 20, 2012


FLOWER OF LIFE (Fuwaru obu Raifu), by Fumi Yoshinaga.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2007.

PLOT: Harutaro Hanazono is the new kid in class.  He had to start the school year late because he's spent the last two years in treatment for leukemia, but now he's eager to get back to school and make some friends.  Soon enough, he meets up with cute and cuddly Shota Mikuni and the stern, antisocial otaku Kai Majima.  Harutaro ends up joining them as part of the school manga club, where his drawing skills end up impressing both boys.  Over time, we begin to learn more about our main trio, their everyday struggles, and even some of the strangely hilarious moments of their lives.

STORY: This might just be me, but I found this manga shockingly unfocused for a Yoshinaga work.  Before this, I was mostly familiar with her work through the previously reviewed Antique Bakery and Ooku.  The latter has a very tightly focused plot, and while the former is a little looser in structure, it does have the common plot thread of the titular shop.  This is much more of a classic slice-of-life story.  Indeed, if the cast were composed of girls this would have fit in perfectly alongside a lot of popular moe franchises (or even the fictional ones that Majima prefers to read and discuss.  Oh excuse me, his favorite "moeh" shows, if we go by the translation here). 

Now, Yoshinaga is a talented writer with a knack for strong characterization, so our three leads and many of the others around them have strong, distinct personalities.  It's really easy to get invested in Harutaro's blunt optimism or Shota's quiet sweetness.  The problem is that without some sort of plot thread to follow, it all seems a bit aimless.  I guess you could view the progression of Harutaro's and Shota's friendship as that plot thread, but there are a few diversions along the way, especially where Majima is concerned.  Now, Antique Bakery could be guilty of this at times as well, but again everything there came back to the shop and the four characters within it.  Here, the only common theme is friendship, I guess, and that's just not quite enough of an anchor for me.

Flower of Life is a pleasing diversion with an appealing cast, but its lack of focus where plot is concerned hurts it some.  You could argue that the lack of plot is simply a signature of the slice-of-life genre itself, but even those need a common element to which it can anchor its storylines, and without it the focus can be lost.

ART:  The art is up to Yoshinaga's usual high standards.  Her line work is fine and delicate, and the cast tends to feature those same handsome, angular, and expressive faces she loves to draw (well, outside of chipmunk-cheeked Shota).  She still draws lovely and well detailed hair and clothing, and there are a lot of backgrounds for her panels, for once.  She still tends to favor larger-than-average panels for her page composition, but here that space is used less to communicate subtext and tension and more for simply showing off her work.  I'd say that normally this would be something of a detriment - that white space was almost something of a visual signature for her, and she tends to use it brilliantly - but this is a far more lighthearted story than most of her works, so there is simply less need for it.  Flower of Life might have disappointed me story-wise, but it met my expectations for its art.

PRESENTATION: There are no story extras, but like most older Digital Manga Press works, this is printed in a larger format with a color bookjacket.  The actual cover features a pale orange copy of the same image from the bookjacket.

I wouldn't call it one of Yoshinaga's best, but her skill for characterization and her fine artwork make this slice-of-life story a cut above the rest.

This was published in the USA by Digital Manga Press.  All 4 volumes were released, and all are out of print.

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

Monday, August 13, 2012


SAYONARA ZETSUBOU-SENSEI (Goodbye Mr. Despair), by Koji Kumeta.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2009.

PLOT:  Fura Kafuka is happily walking to school one day.  The sun is shining, the cherry trees are in full blossom, and there's a strange man trying to hang himself off of one of those cherry trees.  What a beautiful day!

Well, not so much for the man in question, one Nozomu Itoshiki.  He was trying to kill himself, damn it! Kafuka doesn't quite understand this, though.  No one could be trying to kill themselves on a beautiful day like this!  He must have been trying to make himself taller, just like daddy did after all his unsuccessful ventures! And thus, the misadventures of Itoshiki-sensei begin.

He is the homeroom teacher for Kafuka and a number of other students, but he is more focused on paranoia, morbid fantasies of his own death, and ranting about all that is wrong about Japanese culture than doing things like taking attendance or teaching lessons.  Despite that, he ends up serving as a strange sort of inspiration to his students, all of whom have strange personalities of their own.  Aside from the endlessly optimistic Kafuka, there's the hikkimori Kiri Komori; professional stalker Matoi Tsunetsuki; the mysteriously injured Abiru Kobushi; the culturally bipolar and complaint-happy Kaere Kimura; the mute yet vindictive Meru Otonashi; obsessive-compulsive Chiri Kitsu; the world's most moe illegal immigrant, Taro Maria Sekiuchi; and finally the desperately ordinary Nami Hitou.

STORY: Like a lot of manga comedies, there's not so much a continuous storyline here as there is a series of sketches, each focusing on one of the students mentioned above.  That doesn't stop it from being suprisingly funny.  I had my doubts about it before I read it, knowing this was meant to be a satire focused on mundane details of Japanese culture and language, but I found myself laughing out loud more than once.  It's not all that obscure at all; it's just a comedy of misunderstanding and absurity, where the situations and the girls' neuroses just keep snowballing to the point where it becomes ridiculous (and ridiculously funny).  None of the characters are terribly deep - in fact, their personalities so far are pretty one-note.  On the other hand, those one-note personalities are part of the joke, so it doesn't bother me.  Kafuka in particular is my favorite character, with the way she can twist any situation into something sweet and positive, which often ends up revealing details about her suprisingly dark home life.  Unfortunately, I can't really discuss things in-depth because doing so would spoil the jokes.  What I can say is this: you don't need to understand the satirical elements to enjoy Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei. As long as you can appreciate absurb people being absurd, you'll find plenty to enjoy.

ART: Kumeta's character designs are simple, even sort of flat.  They barely have noses most of the time, and outside of closeups their eyes are little but dark spots.  Yet, through the well-timed use of hatching, stark black backgrounds, and the occasional well-drawn dramatic expression, he manages to convey all the emotion and humor needed for the story, as well as provide some visual contrast.  He also does so through the smart use of textures.  This is especialy apparently on the striking chapter splash pages, with their start black silhouettes and attractive patterns, which are onto themselves another culture reference (this time, to karuta cards).  Backgrounds are not all that noteworthy, but they are loaded with signage to throw in yet another level of cultural reference.  This may be one of the few times where the art truly does enhance the story by adding layers of context and callbacks to a satire which was already loaded with them.  The art insn't visually complex, but it doesn't need to be when it's already so striking in its use of color and texture.

PRESENTATION: In addition to the usual (and very thorough) translation notes in the back and honorifics guide in the front that are to be expected from a Kodansha release, we also get a preview for the next volume, an early preview for this volume from the magazine where this manga was first published, author's notes on each chapter, and a couple of brief comedy pieces in the form of a couple of "charges" from Kaede and a collection of Meru's insulting text messages.

The world may leave Itoshiki-sensei in despair, but this manga leaves me in giggles.  It's a satire of Japanese culture and inspirational teacher stories that never forgets to be funny as well as cutting.  Plus, until that mythical day when its animated counterpart is licenced, this is the only legal way to SZS fans to get their fix.

This series is ongoing in Japan, and was published in the USA formerly by Del Ray, now Kodansha.  14 volumes have been published so far, and all are still in print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, August 6, 2012


SAMURAI GIRL REAL BOUT HIGH SCHOOL (Shoukan Kyoushi Riaru Bauto Hai Sukuru), by Reiji Saigi and Sora Inoue.  First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2002.

PLOT:  Ryoko Mitsuragi is the most popular girl in school.  She's the star of the school kendo team and as such she can take down any and all challengers.  Her life is turned upside down when a giant hulk of an Osakan by the name of Shizuma Kusanagi comes to town picking for a fight.  He manages to get away from Ryoko, only to show up at her school.  He eventually spurs the creation of a school-wide fighting tournament involving both the students and the teachers.  Will things ever go back to normal again?

STORY: What a confusing mess.  More than once, as I was reading this, I found myself staring in confusion at the pages before me and my only response to it all was "...WHAT?"

Fights come and go from the very beginning.  I mean, we've only just met Ryoko, only to see her fight a gang of Nazi whose leader wants to make her a love slave.  Later on, we have one-on-one brawls in the schoolyard, complete with color commentary from the AV Club.  Near the end, even the teachers start fighting with both each other and with the student body.  It's all so utterly bizarre, and worst of all I can't figure out what tone this is supposed to strike.  Are we meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all?  Are we supposed to root for Ryoko or Shizuma as they fight to become the best fighter reason?  I don't get it, and frankly I'm not sure the writer does either. 

The characters are extremely one-note, if they have a note at all.  Ryoko is the one who comes closest to being fully developed, but she's still a long way off from that.  She's quite the tomboy, between her skill at kendo and interest in all things samurai.  At one point she plays a ronin in the school play and looks the part to a T.  Beyond that, though?  Hmm...well, she's got a complex over being so tall and tomboyish, because we are dealing with a culture that values all things tiny, feminine, and kawaii.  That's pretty much all there is.  The rest are just a collection of single personality tics, such as Ryoko's shy, codependent friend, her sweetly bitchy rival, her milquetoast love interest, and so on.  Everyone else just fades into the background.

I do have to comment on the translation.  Now, Shizuma is supposed to have an Osakan accent.  Normally, this is translated as a Southern accent, because both are stereotypically perceived by their respective cultures to be working-class hicks.  Here, they translate it by dropping letters randomly, which either comes off as a vaguely rural drawl or some strange form of Cockney.  It's a very odd thing to read, and it's never done in a consistent manner. 

In the end, this is a bizarre shallow mess of a story.  It's not offensively bad, just confusing.  With a stronger cast and some notion of a consistent tone might have helped to give the story some direction, but as is it's like someone diced up a dozen or so other shonen series, threw them in a blender, and hit 'puree.'

ART:  The character designs are nothing special, for the most part.  The girls are generically cute, adults and random villains are blocky and brutish, and Shizuma looks like the lovechild of Street Fighter's Ryu and Ranma 1/2's Ryoga.  I will say that I did appreciate that they gave Ryomo realistic and healthy proportions.  She has strong shoulders, muscular arms, and long, shapely legs (and yes, the reader gets more than a few opportunities to take in those healthy proportions, particularly the ones on her chest).  Ryomo actually looks like an athlete, like someone who could kick a lot of ass, and it helps to sell the idea of Ryomo as this great fighter.  The artist clearly loves drawing her, because no other character gets the level of splash panels that she does, whether she's fighting or at rest.

The action is pretty generic too.  It's all speed lines, hit bursts, and sound effects that not only obscure the characters, but manages the strange feat of making all these fights look stiff, lifeless, and busy all at once.  The composition is pretty standard, save for those Ryoko-centric splash panels, and the panels themselves are frequently busy-looking and confusing to read.  Actually, "busy" and "confusing" sums up the overall artwork nicely.  The characters look fine, even if they're as generic as grocery-store brand cereal, but the artist can't draw them in situations that don't make this confused, muddled story even worse.

PRESENTATION: The only extras present here are a couple of character profiles on Ryoko and Shizuma.  It's a sad commentary on this story that those brief profiles give the reader more insight and background on the characters than the ACTUAL FREAKIN' MANGA.

My apologies to William Shakespeare, because he doesn't belong anywhere near a crappy story like this, but he summed it up best: this story is naught but a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

This was published in the USA by Toykopop.  Six volumes were published, and all are now out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!