Monday, September 24, 2012


The World of Narue (Narue no Sekai), by Tomohiro Marukawa.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2004.

PLOT: Kazuto Izuka is your usual mild-mannered schoolkid, who one day happens to stumble upon an abandoned puppy in the rain.  The next thing he knows, a mysterious girl comes out of nowhere to beat said pup to a pulp, claiming it is a dangerous space creature.  No, she's not a pyschopath, she's Narue, an alien/human hybrid who is here upon Earth to better understand its culture and protect it from any and all hostile alien forces.  She soon latches onto Kazuko, and the two begin to informally date.  Unfortunately for Kazuto, though, that means he not only has to fend off his classmates from discovering Narue's not terribly well kept secret, but he also must defend himself from other girls from Narue's past who want to get to her via him.

STORY:  Well, this certainly is a manga that exists!  As I've said before, magical girlfriend stories have a tendancy to be lazy and episodic by their very nature, but Narue takes this to dull new heights of predictability.

The plot barely lingers on the fact that Narue and her father are extraterrestrial.  Indeed, it has to remind us of it with a brief exposition recap at the beginning of every chapter so the story can move on to whatever stupid antics will go on in this chapter.  I almost have to question why they even bothered with the alien girlfriend angle if most of the action is confined to mundane schoolkid stuff on Earth and most of the extraterestrials (including Narue herself) look just like humans.  The best the mangaka can do is try to tap some drama from this dry well of a story by introducing an older sister for Narue, who happens to look like her younger sister due to the effects of time distortion in space travel.  Sadly, it's far too late, far too little, and far too naked of an excuse to introduce a loli-ish sort of character without actually making her an actual loli.  Call it a way for the manga to have its cheesecake and eat it too.

Oh yes, this manga is not above fanservice.  Hell, it finds an excuse to flash Narue's panties roughly every other chapter, and the only time it was ever remotely close to funny was the chapter where Narue gets stuck in the bathroom wall during a botched teleportation.  Sadly, this was also probably the most inspired moment of comedy to be found in the whole volume, as the rest tends to be along the lines of 'Narue or some other girl does something outrageous, and Kazuto freaks out!'  Of course, this isn't just a magical girlfriend series, but it's also a harem, so practically every girl in a 10 mile radius is drawn to Kazuto and every guy drawn to Narue

Their irresistability is downright baffling, as they and the cast surround them are exceedingly dull and cliche.  They don't even TRY to give Kazuto a personality, other than the one chapter where they briefly call him an otaku because he likes some undefined show.  He's there solely to be the straightman to the strangeness around him, and to overreact and nosebleed over things.  Not even Narue has a personality.  Nobody in this manga does!  They just take up so much paper, desperately hoping that you haven't noticed how hollow and shallow the plot and characters are, how this concept has been done a million times before, and in most cases done a million times better.

ART: The artwork is just as mundane and uninspired as the story it illustrates.  The character designs are singularly flat, angular, and simple. The backgrounds aren't terrible, but are blatantly traced and exceedingly ordinary.  Most of the time the panels are so tightly focused that you barely notice them or they are replaced by speedlines.  The page composition is ordinary too, and the panels are rather tightly packed onto the page, almost to the point of being claustrophobic and difficult to follow.  Even the fanservice is uninspired - the mangaka just throws in a few panty shots and calls it a day.  It's all just as flat and bland as the paper it's printed on, and in the end the art is just so very forgettable.

PRESENTATION: There's a stupid little side story involving Kazuto trying to fix Narue's skirt, which is unknowningly tucked into her panties.  There's also a brief Q&A with the mangaka, which reads more like a side column from a magazine...which it mostly likely is.

There's nothing original or interesting to be found in this manga, but it's also far too bland and dull to be offended by it.  The only thing that The World of Narue is good for is filling time with forgetable nonesense.

This was published in the USA by Central Park Media.  This series is ongoing in Japan, but only 5 volumes were published in the USA and all are out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, September 17, 2012


PARASYTE (Kiseiju), by Hitowashi Iwaaki.  First published in 1990.  First published in North America in 1998.

PLOT:  All over the world, strange spores are falling to earth.  They contain equally strange worm-like creatures that burrow their way into the mind of an unlucky human.  Once infected, the host becomes a mere shell of their former self, able to shapeshift at will to protect itself as well as provide the means for the parasite to hunt their preferred prey: other humans.

Shinichi is very nearly one of those unlucky hosts, but thanks to his falling asleep with earphones on and some quick thinking, he is able to confine it to his right hand.  Shinichi soon learns to live with his parasite, dubbed "Migi,"  but he also learns that many of the other parasites do not take kindly to the idea of human and parasite living together peacefully, and they are all too willing to kill to keep their secret.

STORY: The concept of body-snatching aliens is nothing new to the world of science fiction, but Parasyte distinguishes itself by not only focusing on an invasion gone wrong, but also by staging the invasion more on the terms of predator and prey versus two opposing forces.

Parasyte's tone is surprisingly innocuous for the first half of the volume, as Shinichi tries to figure just what precisely has invaded his arm and Migi learns to communicate and about Earth culture in general.  That summary makes the whole thing sound almost whimiscal, but rest assured that it's not all boy-and-his-alien-parasite adventures.  As Migi learns more about Earth, he also explains more about the parasites to Shinichi.  To those like Migi, humans are just prey; they do not hate their hosts, they just simply need to feed themselves, so they do not understand why the humans are horrified and consider themselves above such behavior.  Indeed, one of the running themes of Parasyte is about what place humanity truly holds on the food chain and just how much (if at all) humanity can be perceived as just another animal, trying to survive.

The second half is where things start going downhill for Shinichi, and the manga starts veering away more from the philisophical musings and more into the body horror.  Some of the other parasites become aware of Shinichi and Migi's arrangement.  Most are hostile and wish only to attack them, as their only concern is survival.  One, though, shows a similiar level of curiosity to Migi.  This one, Reiko, has possessed the body of a teacher, and she regards her own host as well as Shinichi as interesting specimens to be studied and experimented upon.  Of course, now this leaves Shinichi in a rock-and-a-hard-place sort of situation.  He cannot report Migi to the human authorities, lest he become a lab specimen himself.  That being said, he cannot rely on the other parasites, as most perceive Shinichi as a threat to their continued secrecy and Migi as something of a failure.  Thus, these two seperate beings are outcasts from both worlds, and now must work together if they too are to survive.

The pacing of the story is casual and straightforward.  You'd think that such a nonchalant pace would hurt the story's ability to create tension or communicate the horror of the situation, but I find it works rather well.  In some ways, the story is just as detached from itself as the parasites are from humanity, and that distance makes the horror of the events that unfold all that more frightening.  It places the reader in a situation much like Shinichi's - aware of the true nature of the murders around him, but unable to stop them.  That distance also shows in that we get far more character development from those who are possessed, such as Shinichi and Reiko, then those who are not, such as Shinichi's parents or Satomi, Shinichi's friend/love interest.

Parasyte works in many ways.  It finds a nice balance between philosophizing on the nature of humanity and brutal alien attacks.  It finds a way to make the parasites sympathetic and not just rendering them as a single, mindless invading force, but it also never quites humanizes them - there is always something distant and foreign about them, even those that are more peaceful in their pursuits, and that makes it far more fascinating than the blood-and-gore fest reputation of this manga suggests.

ART: Where Parasyte truly shines is in its artwork.  The character designs are simple, but realistic, which only makes it all the stranger when those realistic looking humans can end up having arms stretching like rubber, heads that open up like fleshy, toothy flowers, or a hand that can grow eyes, a mouth, and appendages of its own.  It's an especially nice touch that even when the parasites are in their fully human guise, there's always something off about them.  Their stares are always a little too hard and cold, or shift and focus just a little too slowly.  It's little touches like that which makes the parasites unnerving, even when they're not attacking.

Once they start attacking, though, their bizarre limbs and stretchy forms flash across the page in a blur of short speedlines.  Here the mangaka doesn't linger so much on the attack itself as he does on the bizarre transformations and the horrific damage they inflict.  There's also a subtle shift in the composition during the action, as the panels grow nice and spacious to accomidate all the flying limbs.  Aside from that, the page and panel composition are rather standard, but this is not a manga that needs a lot of flashy panel layout to make its artwork stand out.  The backgrounds are neatly drawn, even if most of the larger vistas are rotoscoped, but they're not present all that often.  Most of the time our characters drift through blank space, but for once I can't say I mind.  The mangaka puts the most detail and focus on the real draw of the work: the parasites and their transformations.  Putting any additional detail in would just detract and distract from the strange forms he dreams up.  This is one of those cases where less really is more.

PRESENTATION:  This was originally put on by Tokyopop in single volume releases, back in the days when they were still Mixx.  Unfortunately, those copies are long out of print, so I can't speak on how they were presented there, although according to Wikipedia it did suffer from their early trend of changing characters' name to make them sound more American.

Thankfully, this was rereleased by Del Ray in 2-in-1 omnibuses, which is the version I read.  There are comments from the Japanese readers after each volume, along with the usual Del Ray extras such as the honorifics guide, translation, notes, and an untranslated preview of Volume 2.

Parasyte put a lot of visual imagination and philosophy into the tired old concept of body-snatching aliens, and it's those qualities which make it well worth a look.

This was first published in the USA by Mixx (Tokyopop), then by Del Ray/Kodansha.  The 12 single volume Mixx volumes as well as the 8 Del Ray volumes are all out of print.

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

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: DEARS

DearS (Diazu), by Peach-Pit (Banri Sendo and Shibuko Ebara).  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.

PLOT:  Sometime in the not too distant future, a race of aliens have crash landed onto Earth.  Unable to fix their ship, they choose to assimilate with the Earthlings peacefully, and it seems that all of humanity has embraced the lovely, well-spoken creatures known as "Dears"  Well...almost everyone.

Takeya is a sullen slacker who is not only unimpressed with the Dears, but downright suspicious of them.  Mind you, he's unimpressed with a lot of things, things like caring for himself (which is instead done by his landlord's pushy daughter, Neneko), schoolwork (not aided by his sex-crazed exhibitionist homeroom teacher), and life in general.  One day after school he runs into a mute, doe-eyed girl huddled under a tree, wearing nothing but a large cloth.  Circumstance leads to his saving her from nearly being flattened by a truck, and from that moment on the mysterious girl vows to never leave his side.  Now Takeya must help this girl, nicknamed "Ren", to adapt to the world as she is initially incapable or ignorant of the slightest things.  Things don't get any easier for Takeya once Ren learns to speak, as she proudly declares herself to be Takeya's slave and he her master.  Will Takeya ever learn to get along with Ren?  And why are the other Dears so interested in getting Ren back?

STORY:  You know, I don't expect a lot out of magical girlfriend stories.  It's a genre known more for massive amounts of fanservice and outrageous concepts than for solid storytelling and well-developed characters.  So when I say that DearS didn't even manage to meet my expections, I am saying that it fails to hit what is already a very, very low bar.

Like comedies, magical girfriend stories live or die on the strength of their cast.  More specifically, they live and die on the strength of their lead couple.  The male lead needs to be sympathetic and relateable, while the female lead needs to have an appealing personality to go with her looks.  DearS fails this on both counts.  On one hand, I am glad that Takeya actually does have a personality, as most magical girlfriend mangaka believe that "relatable" means "having no personality or backbone whatsoever."  They make them so mild-mannered and ordinary as to make their leads into complete and utter nebbishes.  The only problem with Takeya's personality is that it's not a terribly sympathetic one.  I don't want to root for a kid who makes no effort to care for himself, or spends most of the volume grumbling about the girl that he chose to rescue.  Takeya is quite frankly a bit of a
douchebag, and I spent most of the volume wanting to slug him.

Ren, on the other hand, has a far different set of problems.  Now, a completely helpless magical girlfriend has been done before (coughChobitschough), but there the girl being helpless makes logical sense and the story uses that helplessness to subvert some of the cliches of the genre.  Ren's helplessness is simply her default mode, the only thing she has resembling a personality.  She has no wishes or will of her own; her only desire is to be Takeya's slave.  She does what she is taught to by Takeya and Nenako (mostly Nenako) and does it because she depends on her 'master' for guidance and approval.  This isn't a healthy relationship - hell, it's not even kinky in a way you would expect from a master/slave relationship.  It's closer to the relationship between a puppy and the bratty kid who begrudgingly cares for it.  When you try to translate that kind of dynamic to what is supposed to be a romantic relationship, that comes off as INCREDIBLY CREEPY.  There are hints that such behavior is not normal for her species, and that she is some sort of prototype that the rest of the DearS want back, but that is far too little and far too late to make Ren even the tiniest bit interesting.

The rest of the cast merits no mention outside of two others.  The first is Mitsuka-sensei, the mad cougar of a homeroom teacher who is at once bizarre, offensive, and annoying.  She is there to deliver terrible comic relief and equally terribly fanservice.  The second is Nenako, who is suprisingly practical and level-headed for someone who is meant to fill the "tsundere childhood friend" slot.  There is no romantic tension between them, so she comes off more like a big sister pushing around her bratty little brother, and she naturally slips into the same role with Ren.  Part of me wished she was the protagonist instead of Takeya, as her efforts to teach and habituate Ren moved the plot along a lot faster than Takeya's whining, moping, and mooning over Ren.

You'll note that I haven't spent much time discussing the plot.  The reason is that the plot is fairly episodic, covering many of the usual plot points for this genre (bring boy and girl together! Teach her to talk and feed herself!  Buy her some underpants clothes! Take her to school!), and none of them are presented in a way that is remotely original or interesting.  Really, that's the best way to sum up all that is wrong with DearS, as far as the story goes.  There's nothing original or interesting to be found, and most of what is there is crass, annoying, and pandering.  There is no magic in this magical girlfriend manga, only tedium and grossness.

ART: Something else that is normally expected from a magical girlfriend series is that the girl or girls who are the focus of the story are visually appealing, to all the better lure in those lonely otaku with money to spare.  How I wish someone had told the guys in Peach-Pit about that.

The character designs are all at once overly simplified, squashed, and oddly pointy.  They all have tiny anglular heads over matchstick bodies with faces that are so crudely drawn that they're only a couple of step removed from emoticons.  This strange combo looks even stranger with the DearS, as all the female DearS are stacked like Playboy models, and it looks about as convincing as a child sticking balloons under their shirt to simulate boobs.  Oddly enough, while the characters themselves are drawn crudely, the artists put much more effort into the clothing, especially Ren's little fetishy jumpsuit, complete with oh-so-symbolic collar.

Surprisingly, most of Ren's fanservice moments are more restrained that I would have expected.  There's quite a bit of nudity, but it's not framed in the low, close angles you see with a lot of fanservice.  Of course, I suspect that's because much of it was left for Mitsuki-sensei, who takes every moment she is on the page to strip to her underwear, regardless if it makes sense or not. 

The backgrounds are exceedingly lazy, substituting screen tones and effects for actual backgrounds at nearly every chance.  The page composition is also very cluttered.  It's like the guys of Peach-Pit knew they wanted to liven things up visually, but got lazy and threw panels together at the last minute.  Even the splash panels for Ren's costume changes and such feel cluttered and squished onto the page.

The art for DearS is sloppy and half-assed.  Their lack of effort shows in pretty much every artistic element possible.  Maybe if they had spent more time making their characters look attractive and less on making their underwear look attractive, the story might have been ever so slightly easier to accept.  As is, it's just as hideous and ill-thought as the story.

PRESENTATION:  Nothing to see here.  Move along to the rating.

I don't ask a lot from magical girlfriend stories, but I do know I can ask a hell of a lot more than this trashy little series.

This series was published in the USA by Tokyopop.  All 8 volumes were published, and all are now out of print.

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

Monday, September 3, 2012


7 BILLION NEEDLES (70 Oku no Hari), by Nobuaki Tadano.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2010.

PLOT:  Hikaru Takabe is a very standoffish high school girl, who prefers to leave her headphones on at all times instead of interacting with others or paying attention to anything other than her own ennui.  All of this changes after a chance encounter with a giant fireball on the class trip.  Next thing she knows, she can hear a voice in her headphones claiming to be an alien force called Horizon.  Horizons says he is using her body to seek out another alien, one dubbed Maelstrom.  Unlike Horizon, Maelstrom lives only to consume and destroy, and he appears to be occupying one of Hikaru's classmates.  Now they must find a way to work together to find Maelstrom before he can wreak havoc and destroy the world.

STORY: For a debut story, this is not only impressive, but refreshingly original.  It's a bit strange to call it original, considering the back copy states that this story is based on a Western sci-fi short story called "Needle" by Hal Clement.  Not being familiar with that story, I couldn't tell you the similarities, but what I can say is that the manga market has been rather short on sci-fi as of late, and it's rarer still to find one not affliated with any pre-existing property, so this is truly one of a kind....well, sort of. 

The "ordinary person possessed by alien" angle has been done in such properties as Birdy the Mighty, but unlike that story Horizon has chosen possibly the worst host possible.  Hikaru is about the worst excuse for a heroine you could find: she's a slacker, not terribly bright, awkward around others to the point of having no friends, and she is extremely skeptical about the whole situation, despite the two week gap in her memory and the voice which only she can hear.  She remains unconvinced until her first encounter with Maelstrom results in her arm being chopped off, which is quickly reattached by Horizon.  A bad writer might have taken any or all of these traits and pushed them to the extreme for low-brow comedy at the expense of the character's likeability.  It's a great credit to Tadano that while Hikaru is pretty hopeless as a hero and her failings are played for humor, he never stretches it too far and Hikaru remains strangely likeable in spite of her faults.  In fact, one of the funniest parts of the story is when Hikaru has to perform reconnasaince for Horizon, which means she has to  - *GASP* - INTERACT WITH OTHER PEOPLE!  She's very believably awkward; you half expect her to say something like " you"

Tadano also does a good job capturing the mendacity of Hikaru's life before Maelstrom comes along.  You feel the tedium of her routine, and Hikaru's disaffectedness is palpable.  I do have to question some of the science he incorporates in the story.  You see, at one point Horizom claims Maelstrom being the cause of the K-T extinction by noting the impossible size of dinosaurs.  Being a bit of a paleontology geek, I know there are many plausible biological explanations for the size of dinosaurs which are supported by the fossil record, but that's really just nitpicking a minor plot detail on my part.  It's also pretty much the only explanation given for Maelstrom's true form, that of a GIANT, MASS-ABSORBING, VELOCIRAPTOR CLAWED REPTILE!  It's at once effectively menacing, incredibly gory, and irrationally awesome.

7 Billion Needles is a neat take on the old trope of alien possession and invasion.  It manages the tricky task of creating a realistically flawed heroine without making her so flawed as to be ridiculous, unsympathetic, or just plain annoying.  It sets up the premise without getting lost in technobabble, lets its revelations come smooth and easy, and gives us a villain who is not necessarily complex, but is certainly strange and frightening.  If this is Tadano's first try, then I can't wait to see what he'll come up with in the future.

ART:  The artstyle, as well as the character designs, are very realistic, to provide all the better contrast to the fantastical goings-on.  Most of the backgrounds are nicely detailed interiors alternated with rotoscoped exteriors.  The page composition is fairly static.  The panels are a little more varied, as Tadano does tend to break out the larger panels during the fights.  The action itself is generally brief - Maelstrom is not one to linger over his kills - and Hikaru's confrontation with him near the end is more of an exercise in building tension through the use of close-up and shadow than delivering tons of knock-'em-out action.  He does fine with the body horror, though, be it the sight of Hikaru popping her severed arm back on like a doll or Maelstrom transforming from a vaguely humanoid blob to a massive, spiny reptile.  Overall, I like Tadano's realistic style.  There's not a lot of obvious visual flair in his artwork, but there is a lot of skill and subtle visual storytelling which will serve him far better in the long run.

PRESENTATION:  Sadly, there are no extras to speak of.  The cover art is nice, as is to be expected from a Vertical work.  It reminds me of the kind of cover art you see on academic essays, for some reason.

Once again, Vertical found a hidden gem of a manga and brought it to masses.  7 Billion Needles is a solid horror-tinged sci-fi story which deserves a place on the shelf of sci-fi fans as well as discerning manga readers.

This was published in the USA by Vertical.  All four volumes are currently in print.

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