Monday, October 29, 2012


To end this month of spooky delights, I decided to lighten the mood with a popular title with a Halloween-appropriate setting.  Consider this my treat to make up for all the tricks of the past month.

SOUL EATER (Soru Ita), by Atsushi Okkubo.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2009.

PLOT: In a world where demons, witches, and other malevolent forces can possess and devour the souls of the innocent, the only defense against such forces are the Meisters and their Weapons.  The Weapons are a select few who can transform at will into a weapon of choice, while the Meisters are those who can harmonize with the souls of their Weapons and wield them against these dark forces.  Both Meisters and Weapons are trained by Death himself, a.k.a. Shinigama-sama, at the Death Weapon Meister Academy.  There, the young Meister/Weapon pairs hope to capture enough demon and witch souls to qualify their Weapons to become Death Scythes, weapons worthy of being wielded by Shinigami-sama.

This series follows three sets of Meisters and Weapons.  The first are Maka Alburn, daughter of the current Death Scythe, and her Weapon Soul Eater.  They manage to nearly achieve Death Scythe status, until a naughty kitty gets in their way.  The second pair are Black Star, an obnoxious, egomanicial wanna-be ninja who wields the mult-talented and modest Tsubake.  The third are Death the Kid, Shinigami-sama's son, and his Weapons, Patty and Liz Thompson.  Death the Kid would be a fine Meister in his own right, except for the fact that he has a crippling OCD-esque obsession with symmetry and exercises it at all the wrong moments.  All three storylines start to come together when the kids are sent to fight a zombie who was formerly a teacher himself.

STORY:  This is one of those situations where I saw the anime before I read the manga, a situation where normally I have to struggle to not constantly play compare and contrast.  The good news is that for Soul Eater, that isn't an issue - the first volume matches up pretty closely with the first four episodes of the anime, and there's good reason for that.  This first volume works as a solid introduction to our main cast as well as the universe at large, but it's also slightly hampered by something that the anime wisely avoided - fanservice.

I genuinely like the concept of Soul Eater.  The idea of 'kids fighting against supernatural forces ' is not a new one to shonen manga, but Soul Eater gives it a whimsical, Halloween flavored twist with its setting and visual style.  There's a nice variety of opponents, ranging from witches to mummies, demonic gangsters to master swordsman.  There's also a nice variety in the main cast, thanks to the choice of focusing on three pairs of kids versus just one.  All of them could easily carry their own storyline, and all of their introductory chapters do a good job establishing their personalities and skills.  Now, how much you like each pair is another matter entirely.

Personally, I couldn't STAND BlackStar, mostly because he is annoying as all hell, and I'm still not sure how much of it is intentional.  I suspect he's supposed to be something of a satire on the standard shonen hero (and indeed, many have speculated that he's a pointed satire on a certain popular blond ninja), and if so, it's effective - annoying, but effective.  Maka and Soul are probably the most well-adjusted and professional of the lot, and they have not only a solid partnership, but a solid (if sometimes contentious) friendship.  Death the Kid and the Thompson sisters are played more for comedy than anything, thanks to the combination of Kid's OCD, Patty's bizarre brand of ditziness, and the heavy amounts of fanservice in their introductory chapter.  It doesn't help that their storyline remains removed from the other two, even after the introductory chapters are done and the manga moves into the main plotline.  Speaking of that main plotline, like any shonen manga, it all leads to violence, and the fights play out much like you would expect.  The conclusion is rather...erm...unexpected (not to mention fanservicely, and a bit distastefully so).

Soul Eater isn't going to revolutionize the world of shonen, but it's a solid entry into the genre with a large varied cast and a unique, spooky setting.

ART:  Ohkubo's character designs are just as varied and (to a degree) fantastical as the setting, but they're also a bit strange, and not necessarily in a pleasant way.  The faces are weirdly simplified with big, blank, wide-set eyes and ridiculously crude mouths.  It conflicts with the rest of the designs, which are more rounded and realistic, and as such never look quite right.  Sometimes that strangeness works, such as with the villains or with Shinigami-sama himself, who is almost adorable with his funky zig-zag silhouette and iconic mask.

One thing that really didn't work for me was the fanservice, of which there was a surprising amount.  There is quite a lot of panty shots and Barbie-doll nudity on display, and this was one of the few places where I could not avoid comparing the manga with its animated counterpart.  I know the story can work without most of it, and you can't help but want to pull the manga aside and say "You know, you don't have to pander to us like this.  You have some good ideas here - you don't need to flash some flesh at the readers to keep us interested."

Being a shonen series, of course there is plenty of fighting, and the fighting is well-drawn.  The action is not drowned out in speedlines - instead, it is drawn in crisp, clean poses that are laid-out in a way that is easy to follow.  The panels are framed at all sorts of off-kilter angles, and even the panels themselves often are purposefully framed crookedly, packed into the pages in a helter-skelter manner until the panels widen out and straighten out for the fights.  The backgrounds are often blank, but those that are present are wonderfully eclectic, with the buildings leaning drunkenly into frame and highlighted by a leering, grimacing sun or moon.

Soul Eater's art does have some character of its own in the little details and in the composition, and in most respects is solid and distinct.  The only thing that drags it down are the unnecessary levels of fanservice.

PRESENTATION:  There are a couple of pages of omake comics about the mangaka, as well as a couple of pages of translation notes.

Soul Eater is a fine introduction to a whimsical take on an old shonen formula.  It may be a bit redundant to those who are familiar with the anime, but fans and newbies alike can find something to enjoy. 

This series was published in the USA by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, and Yen Press has so far published 10 of 21 available volumes, with more to follow.  All 10 volumes are currently in print.

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

Monday, October 22, 2012


Last week's offering was horrifying, but this week let's look at something a bit more subtle, and much more disturbing...

AFTERSCHOOL NIGHTMARE (Hokago Hokenshitsu), by Setona Mizushiro.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2006.

PLOT: Mashiro Ichijo is a handsome young man, who would be quite popular were he not so aloof with others.  He's also hiding a major secret - he is intersexed, and worse still, he is starting to menstruate.  It's a secret he desperately tries to hide, which leads to him losing his temper at the slightest hint of his being anything but masculine.  One day he is pulled aside by a school nurse who says she is holding a special class for select students, one that according to her is necessary to graduate.  Mashiro soon learns that this "class" is in fact some sort of dreamworld, a place where the avatars of the sleeping students, visual representations of their deepest issues and secrets.  These avatars interact with and attack one another while trying to break the trio of beads everyone wears to force them out of the dreamscape.  Mashiro soon discovers that one of the other students in the "class" is Kurema Fujishima, a pretty popular girl who hides a terrible trauma from her childhood and a hatred of men.  They bond over their shared secrets, but Mashiro is afraid that there may be other members of the nurse's class in their particular, that Sou, an bully from the kendo club with a fondness for picking on Mashiro may know his secret as well.

STORY:  I'm not sure what I was expecting when I first picked this manga up, but I'm very pleased and intrigued with the dark, complex pyschological drama that I got. 

I could argue that hermaphroditism doesn't work in the real world as it does here.  Mashiro describes himself as being a boy on top and a girl on the bottom, and hermaphroditism doesn't quite present itself so cleanly, but frankly that's nitpicking.  I could also argue that the issues that the children of the "class" are hiding all tend towards the melodramatic, but honestly I didn't care, because the characters deal with these issues in such interesting ways. 

The conflict Mashiro has with himself and with how he perceives genders is fascinating all on its own.  It's also surprisingly sweet to see how he and Kurema bond with one another, and we get strong hints that Sou's bullying may come from his own suppressed sexual issues.  Watching all these psychologically broken people confront their issues both inside and outside of the dream world is damn good drama, and Mizushiro's writing handles it and the characters masterfully.  The story never loses itself in angst, and it always keeps an undercurrent of mystery flowing, be it in the form of the identity of the other students of the "class" or the very nature of the "class" and the nurse itself.

The dreamworld conflicts are handled well themselves, as action pieces onto themselves.  Surprisingly there's not a lot of surreal imagery in this dreamscape - most of what is there is saved for the kids' avatars.  Mashiro's is probably the most mundane (being just him in a skirt), but in this world he is attacked by such things as a black knight in armor, a girl with a hole in her face and heart, or a disembodied creeping arm.  These sequences do capture the suddenness of change within the dream, as the backgrounds can shift with a thought or end with just a change of panel, leaving Mashiro just as jarred and unnerved as the reader.

Afterschool Nightmare is a compelling drama where teenage drama is only a front for the deeper, darker issues lurking within the minds of a select few kids, issues that they must confront and fight if they are to survive.

ART: The character designs, like much of the artwork in general, is typical of shoujo, but it's rather appropriate.  Here, the androgyny of the character designs is rather appropriate - after all, our lead himself is androgynous.  The characters are rather delicately rendered and there's a lot of subtlety in their expressions, which is good because they all have a lot to express (or repress, as it were).  The backgrounds are nothing remarkable and the composition is rather standard in its look.  There's sadly not as much to talk about when it comes to Mizushiro's art as there is about her writing.  There's plenty of skill but not a lot of artistic flair.  Luckily, the story is more than strong enough to compensate for that.

PRESENTATION:  There are a half-dozen color pages in the front, all rendered in soft pleasing tones.  They are a combination of splash pages as well as the first two pages of the manga proper, where the use of color is very appropriate for the story.  There are also translator's notes and an author's note in the back.

This series deserves far better than its current obscurity.  This is a dark, complex story that left me wanting to dive deeper into the pysches of these poor unfortunate souls.

This series was published in the USA by Go!Comi.  All 10 volumes were released, and all are now out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, October 15, 2012


Last week's work was...well, not so pleasant.  This week, though, let us descend into madness with the poor souls of this week's review...

UZUMAKI (Spiral), by Junji Ito.  First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2002.

PLOT:  Kurozu-cho is a sleepy, dreary seaside town.  It would be, under any other circumstance, completely unremarkable, but Kurozu-cho is slightly different.  Its residents are slowly being consumed by a collective obsession about spirals.  It begins with Shuichi Saito's father, who becomes so obsessed with spirals that he begins to physically take on that form himself.  The madness spreads from person to person: Shuichi's mother, his classmates, even his girlfriend Kirie is not immune.  The obsession manifests in different ways, but it always results in twisted minds and equally twisted bodies.  Will the entire town surrender to this downward spiral of insanity?

STORY:  Uzumaki is a strange, distrurbing manga to read.  I was not suprised to learn that one of Ito's influences was H. P. Lovecraft, as their works both share a claustrophobic, paranoid tone.  Instead of horrors too great and interdimensional to describe, though, Ito's work focus on body horror, on what happens when emotions such as obsession, vanity, and paranoia twist the body as well as the mind, dragging the victim towards ruin and death.  It's a somewhat obvious metaphor to base your manga around, but I can't deny that it's an effective one.

Sadly, this manga sacrifices deep characterization for that masterfully spooky tone.  The stories are episodic, so outside of Shuichi and Kirie there aren't any other characters that carry over the chapters, so they don't get a lot of development outside of their single chapter.  The one exception to this is Shuichi himself, who is probably the closest thing to a main character in Uzumaki.  Even before the spiral madness begins, he is restless and yearns to leave the town.  His family are the first to be affected by the spiral, and after their deaths Shuichi becomes gaunt and paranoid.  He goes from a relatively normal young man to Kurozu-cho's equivalent of Cassandra, a prophet who tries to warn others about the danger of the spiral but is never heeded until it is too late.

It also doesn't offer a lot of explanations as to where and why the spiral madness began.  It clearly manifests itself in physical, organic forms such as smoke, clay, and the human body itself, but does it come from an organic source?  Is it inorganic?  Supernatural?  Future volumes may provide an answer, but I wouldn't be surprised if that answer never comes.  After all, what is more frightening than a horror with no apparent cause and no apparent cure?

Uzumaki is a fascinating and dark mood piece, a whirlpool of physical and psychological horror that is nigh impossible to resist once you start reading.

ART:  The most notable thing about Ito's artwork is his skill in bringing out the physical horror of the story.  We see these characters twist their limbs into spirals, stab and slice them off their bodies, and even see their hair turn into a living, hypnotic mass of spirals and it's always fascinating and awful to behold.  It's just a shame that he's not so great with more subtle emotions.  The character designs are very realistic looking (to provide all the better contrast to their unrealistic transformations), but they're also rather stiff and inexpressive.  The backgrounds are nicely drawn, with plenty of detail to spare and practically drenched in shadow and hatching, highlighted by the larger panel sizes.  Overall, the artwork for Uzumaki is dark, detailed, but rather stiff until the horror begins.  Then Ito lets loose and that stiffness is twisted into unearthly abominations of nature.

PRESENTATION:  There are a couple of color pages in the front, as well as a brief omake in the back about Ito doing research for this manga.  The copy I read was from the first printing, so it is both oversized and flipped, as typical for older Viz releases. 

Uzumaki may be notorious for its body horror, but it should also be noted for crafting a masterful slow-burning tone of creepiness and despair that makes just as much of an impression as the twisted limbs and screaming faces.

This is published in the USA by Viz.  All 3 volumes were released, and are currently in print.

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

Monday, October 8, 2012


Last week's selection was certainly a gruesome one.  Well, this week I have a special sort of present for you, although you may not end up liking it....

PRESENTS, by Kanako Inuki.  First published in 1993, and first published in North America in 2007. 

PLOT: Sometimes in this world, there are cruel people, those who would use, abuse, and exploit those around them for selfish reasons.  Where those people are, so too is Kurumi, a creepy little girl who always seems to have a present for every occasion.  Unfortunately for those who receive them, these presents always contain horrible things to serve as ironic punishment, and these presentsa are always non-refundable.

STORY: Oh look, a horror anthology series.  How original.

I will give Presents this: it does have a creative angle to its stories, in that all are connected by the common plot thread of 'presents,' but that angle comes with some serious limitations.  Some of the stories allowed for an organic insertion of the presents, such as the one about the greedy girlfriend who demands gifts from her boyfriend, the bullying older sister who always steals and ruins her younger sister's presents, or the little girl whose parents substitute stuffed animals for affection.  In others, the presents are awkward additions.  It doesn't help that most of the chapters here are extremely short, so there's very little time to establish character beyond the broadest of strokes or to build any sort of spooky atmosphere. 

Unlike many horror anthologies, Inuki actually incorporates Kurumi into the stories, versus her commentating and hosting them like the Cryptkeeper of Tales From the Crypt.  It's a clever move, because Kurumi becomes a plot thread in her own right, tying together what would otherwise be a rather eclectic selection of stories.  Too bad that she's not the least bit creepy.  The mangaka does delve into her backstory to try and make her sympathetic and tragic, but even that just seems to fall flat, and it makes Kurumi less of a character and more of a mildly strange deus ex machina

The cast here is exceedingly shalllow - the anatongists are all blatantly, one-dimensionally awful, and the protagonists are all meek, mild, and utterly helpless until Kurumi comes along.  Because the cast is so shallow, the only interesting thing about these stories are the horrors that serve as comeuppance to all these wretched people, and even those are so over-the-top that they become somewhat ridiculous or ludicrious.

Presents is an total dud of an anthology.  The stories are too short, the cast is too shallow, the plot threads are too forced, and the horror is too ridiculous to be scary.

ART:  Now, Presents might have overcome its shoddy writing through high-quality artwork.  Sadly, while the art does bring a certain degree of gore to the proceedings, it also fails on some levels.

First and foremost, Ikumi's choice of character designs are downright bizarre.  Everyone looks the same - they are short, squat, and bug-eyed, like some sort of hideous animated doll.  They also are always making strange, over-the-top expressions, complete with gawping mouths and rolling eyes.  These two elements combined were more than enough to defuse a lot of the horror from the stories.

It's not all a complete failure, though.  Ikumi did put a lot of effort into the backgrounds, which are varied, dark, and detailed.  She also puts plenty of effort into the gore, with lots of melting skin, contorted limbs, and monstrous forms to go around.  I just wish that she had put equal amounts of efforts into less ridiculous character designs (or better still, the writing), because that might have added some genuine horror to these situations.

PRESENTATION:  The only extras here are author's notes after each story, complete with sketches of Kurumi. 

Sadly, this manga series fails at too many levels to work as a horror anthology.  This series is one present that should remain unopened.

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

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

Monday, October 1, 2012


Ah October, when a girl's thoughts turn to all things bloody and wild.  Being the month of Halloween, what else could I review this month but a selection of horror titles?  Let's kick things off properly with a series I've long been dying to find...

MPD-PSYCHO (Taju-Jinkaku Tantai Saiko), written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Shou Tajima.  First published in 1997, and first published in North America in 2007.

PLOT: Yosuke Kobayashi is a detective in Investigations Section One - basically, the Japanese equivalent of an American homicide squad.  When we first meet him, he is in the middle of a serial killer case, one who dismembers his victims and leaves them in horrific, staged poses.  Kobayashi is also suffering from strange, vague dreams full of blood.  It all comes to a head when a large cooler is delivered to Kobayashi's desk, and it turns out to contain the armless, legless, but still living body of Kobayashi's girlfriend.  This awful act, committed by the very serial killer Kobayashi was pursuing, causes something inside of Kobayashi to snap.  This snap reveals that Kobayashi is only one of many personalities in the same mind, and not all of them are rational...

Skipping ahead five years, Kobayashi is released from prison, in part because he has been identifying himself as Kazuhiko Amamiya since the murder.  He is quickly recruited by a private detective agency, as Amamiya et al. is still a great criminal profiler, and his own experience gives him insight few others possess.  Nonetheless, Amamiya's other personalities are still present within his subconscious, including the killer one.  Worse still, there is no way to predict which one may present itself, and if or when they may appear.

STORY:  If you ever wanted the rough equivalent of Dexter in manga form, this is the work for you.

Between this and Otsuka's other manga (Mail and The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service), I get the strong suspicion that Eiji Otsuka is a very morbid guy who also happens to be a brilliant mystery writer.  You can't dispute that this is a brilliant concept for a mystery series - a brilliant detective who understands the criminal mind because he himself (or at least, one of his selves) is a serial killer.  It gives the reader all the thrills of a crime thriller with a touch of bloody vengeance to satisfy the audience's thirst for justice, even if it's the vigilante variety.

At this point, I can't call Amamiya's personalities all that distinct.  Kobayashi and Amamiya seem rather similiar to one another, although Amamiya is more grumpy and jaded of the two.  The only distinct one at this point is Shinji, the killer personality, who is brash, vulgar, and quick to anger.  Sadly, he's still probably the most fleshed-out character of the cast.  We do meet others, such the coworkers from the police department as well as the detective agency, along with a roving photojournalist with an interest in Amamiya's past, but they can't hold a candle to the guy with half the cast in his own head.

Of course, it's not just all about the crazy guy.  A mystery series needs compelling and original cases to survive, and MPD-Psycho delivers that in spades.  It's expertly paced, with just the right amount of twists and turns to bring Amamiya (and the reader) to the real killer, and the killer's signature move of 'human flowerpots' is as creative as it is gruesome.  Make no mistake - this is not a series for the squeamish or the sensitive.  The "Parental Advisory" sticker on the front is well-earned.  Those who do not mind such graphic content will be rewarded with a well-written crime series with a fascinatingly twisted protagonist.

ART:  The artstyle here is quite realistic, and actually reminded me more than a bit of Death Note, which is odd considering this series was published well before Death Note.  I think it mostly comes from the fact that Amamiya looks like he could be Light Yagami's bespectacled older brother.  Sadly, Tajima's art is nowhere near as detailed or as well-shaded as that artwork.  That lack of shading does give the artwork a certain sort of starkness, but it can also sometimes make the characters look a bit flat.  Maybe Tajima was just saving all that detail for the murder cases themselves.  I mentioned before that this was not a series for the squeamish, and I say so with good cause: there is more than a bit of gore and realistic, non-sexual full-frontal nudity on display. 

Before you protest, I can say that it's never taken to extremes; I never felt like the artist was getting off on his subject or adding gore solely for the gross-out factor.  I think it's mostly because the panels are composed in such a way that there's a sort of clinical detatchment in how these image are presented.  There's just something about the combination of the stark lighting, the dramatic angles at which many of the images are drawn, the general lack of backgrounds, and the lack of tight close-ups that leave the reader somewhat distant from these events.  I don't know how purposeful this tone is, but it's oddly appropriate for this series considering the protagonist's unique outlook(s) on life and death.  That distance even carries to the introduction, where the credits are intersperced between the panels like the credits of a film.   Another interesting visual trick that Tajima uses is that sometimes the sound effect in a scene will be superimposed over the panels like a stencil, sometimes even using the structure of the kanji to divide the panels.  It's a rather subtle touch - I didn't even notice it until the footnotes brought it to my attention.  It's subtle touches like these which make the art for MPD-Psycho stand out from the crowd and even help me forgive some of its faults.

PRESENTATION:  There are color pages in front, but strangely enough it's not full color.  Instead, they are shaded in black, white, and a pale shade of red.  There's also an afterword from Otsuka, as well as translation notes.

MPD-Psycho can sometimes look a little flat, but the brilliance of its writing more than makes up for that.  I would even dare to call it a bloody masterpiece.

MPD-Psycho is published in the USA by Dark Horse Comics.  14 volumes have been published in Japan, of which 10 have been published in the USA.  This series is out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!