Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Sorry for the delay folks - I was finally able to rouse myself from turkey-induced stupor and able to tear myself away from many an online deal to offer up one last review this month, as well as a return of the One Volume Wonder.

Now, I am not afraid to admit that I do read and enjoy yaoi.  I am also not afraid to admit that when it comes to yaoi, I am very particular about which ones I read, because sadly Sturgeon's Law applies to yaoi, i.e. that 90% of is awful.

Originally I was going to use this spot to review yet another work by Fumi Yoshinaga, who did quite a few one-shot yaoi stories before branching off into josei.  I've already covered two of her works, though, so I decided to turn my focus on yet another underrated mangaka who is known for both BL and josei works: the unconventional (and uncapitalized) est em.  She's getting a bit more exposure thanks to sites like JManga, but today I want to look at one of her previous, physically published works.

RED BLINDS THE FOOLISH (Oroka-mono wa Aka o Kirau), by est em.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2008.

PLOT:  Rafita is the latest and greatest thing on the Spanish matador scene, famed for his brilliant red costume as well as his stoic and fearless performance in the ring.  He soon takes up with Mauro, one of the butchers who processes the bulls that Rafita slays.  Rafita treats their relationship as if it's no big deal, but soon Rafita starts to lose his nerve in the ring, and the cause may stem from Mauro.  There are also stories about the soccer fan who meets up with the security guard who gave him quite the shiner in a mid-game brawl, a writer with an attachment to an old pair of red heels, and a writer taking down the story of an old man and his past as a choreographer for a French ballet dancer.

STORY:  Red Blinds the Foolish is a breath of fresh air for anyone familiar with yaoi as a whole. It looks like no other yaoi on the market, it reads like no other yaoi on the market, and I am so very thankful that something like this exists.

Noteably, this isn't a single, linear story but an anthology of mostly unconnected ones.  Secondly, they all feature an usual setting for manga - Europe (Spain, specifically).  Admittedly, est em utilizes that setting rather shallowly.  Sure, she incorporates elements like bullfighting and soccer, but she also seems to ignore the fact that Spain is a predominately Catholic culture, and as such there might be more conflict and concern for a gay man in Spanish culture, particularly one who is a prominent media figure like Rafita.

The volume is dominated by the title story, which is plot-wise the most complex as well as the artiest and most philosophical of the lot.  Rafita starts as a cocky and somewhat shallow man, the kind who can stare down death even as it stampedes towards him or call his lover in the middle of screwing another man.  By story's end, he has lost some of his fearlessness but has traded for some genuine concern and affection for Mauro.  Mauro admittedly doesn't have quite as much of a character arc, although a bit of his backstory is filled in through one of the later chapters.  He is sedate and calm, willing to wait things out and let Rafita figure things out on his own.

est em also doesn't linger too much on how anybody on this volume gets together.  It simply just sort of happens somewhere offscreen (offpage?).  I guess this does allow her to get past any of the characters' possible anxieties about whether the other party is gay, much less if they are into them, and it's an understandable shortcut when she doesn't have a lot of pages to spare.  Still, it leaves these relationships feeling a bit uncomplete as even during sex the stories feel a bit emotionally cold.  Mind you, part of that comes from the fact that we're mostly not seeing the complete arc of these relationships, but mere vignettes of their lives.

OK, so while her works are not perfect, there are a lot of good and cliche-defying things to say about Red Blinds the Foolish.  First of all, for all of you out there sick to death of the whole seme/uke cliches?  This is a manga for you.  Here, none of the men are forced to fit any particular roles in the relationship (or in bed) beyond "significant other," "friend," or "associate."  Secondly, these are all working adults - no high school kids, no college students, just god-to-honest grown up MEN.  Third, she also doesn't force the sex into the story, as many a BL mangaka do to keep up audience interest.  While she's not afraid of including sensuality in her work, she's not in it for the porn but instead for the characters and the relationships between them.  It's more of a mature work in the sense of the writing and the sedate, intelligent tone versus being 'mature' in the 18+ sort of way.

While Red Blinds the Foolish is far from perfect, it's an interesting and mature collection of stories and it's a welcome spot of relief in the sea of hysterical ukes, aloof semes, and flowery sex scenes.

ART:  est em also distinguishs herself from the crowd through her lovely, realistic artwork.  Here her men look like actual, individual European men, instead of the highly stylized and feminized character designs one usually sees in yaoi.  They have actual musculature!  And butts!  And even body hair!  When was the last time you saw yaoi that acknowledge that men might have hair in places other than their heads?

There is a certain sketch-like quality to est em's art, particularly in the faces in closer shots or the sometimes hastily drawn details of Rafita's costume.  Her backgrounds are often blank, although here this is not a detriment simply because est em frames every panel so beautifully and elegantly that you hardly mind - to add more to the panel would spoil the effect.  There are a wide variety of simple, confident angles in the panels, along with some equally well-done intercutting of panels during moments of action (in every sense of the phrase *eyebrow waggle*).  Overall there's a sense of confidence and simple beauty in the art which not enhances the tone of the story and goes a long way towards not only distinguishing est em from other BL mangaka, but from manga artists as a whole.

PRESENTATION:  There are a couple of pages of author's notes about est em doing research for this volume, packed to the brim with notes and sketches.  I did like the little touch of her drawing herself and her friend "C" as C-3PO and R2D2.

The look and subtlety of Red Blinds the Foolish  more than make up for any faults it might have, and anyone who has ever been wary or weary of yaoi should give this and the rest of est em's catalogue a look.

This was published in the USA by Deux Press, and is currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!

Well, it was certainly fun for once to focus on the good stuff for once.  Next month promises to stuffed with even more reviews, as well as a very special giveaway.  Come back this weekend to find out the details!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


As you've likely noticed by now, a lot of my favorite mangaka tend to be women.  I imagine there is a certain bias to being fond of shoujo and josei - neither are fields that attract a lot of male writers and artists.  Now seinen, on the other hand, has a nice mix of both and there are some male mangaka in that genre that I do consider favorites - for example, the creator of today's reviewed work.  Technically he's not so much a mangaka as he is a writer, but he's still one of the finest horror and mystery writers you'll find in all of manga.  Indeed, today's series was one I had considered for last month, choosing MPD Pyscho only because of its relative scarcity.  That's right - today I'm looking at yet another work by Eiji Otsuka.

THE KUROSAGI CORPSE DELIVERY SERVICE (Kurosagi Shitai Takuhaiben), by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.

PLOT: Our story concerns five young students from a Buddhist university: Kuro Karetsu, who can channel the voices of the dead; Ao Sasaki, a business-minded senior with a lot legal (and illegal) computer skills; Makota Namaka, whose pendant dowses for dead bodies instead of water; Keiko Makino, a US-trained mortuary science student who specializes in embalming; and Yuji Yata, a seemingly normal kid with a very abnormal puppet on his hand who goes by Kere Ellis and claims it is an alien.  United by their death-related skills and a need for income, they end up forming something in between a school club and a proper business, where they investigate unclaimed bodies and unusual deaths to solve the mysteries behind them (and hopefully make a profit along the way).  Even from the beginning they have their work cut out for them, be it a pair of star-crossed lovers trying to reunite in death, an old woman looking for a traditional resting place, or an unusually crooked insurance actuary.

STORY:  As I reread this, I was surprised just how quickly this morbid little Scooby gang came together.  Within the first 25 pages, our main cast meets, their skills briefly explained and demonstrated, and set out on their first case.  What's truly remarkable is that those first 25 pages never feel rushed, just efficient.  After all, it's just the setup to the true draw of the series: the mysteries.

There are four different stories within this volume, and each is distinct, interesting, and just the perfect length - neither too drawn out nor too quick.  Unfortunately, that's about as much as I can say about the stories without getting into spoiler territory, but much of what I said before about the stories in MPD-Psycho are true here - there are plenty of interesting (and often gruesome) twists and turns.  Otsuka also gets a chance to not only explore modern murder mysteries, but ephemera of older Japanese culture, like the second story about the old woman.  The main cast is also distinct and interesting, and the only bad thing I can say about them is that we don't learn much about them beyond their introductionary exposition.  I guess there are plenty of future volumes to learn more about them, and we do get the odd bit of backstory throughout the chapters, but the writing is so good that you can't help but want to learn more about them.

ART:  Yamazaki's artstyle is incredibly realistic, although I do question how Numata and Makino bear suspicious resemblances to School Rumble's Harima and Paradise Kiss's Miwako.  Still, all the characters look so good, with plenty of detail, not to mention a wonderful sense of dimension, expression, and motion.  The same goes for the frequent backgrounds, which become doubly impressive once they leave the city for the forests and fields of the countryside.  Even if they are just traced from source materials, they are still remarkable, with the level of detail and shading put into them.  Heaven help Yamazaki if he actually draws that by hand - I mean, there is detail down to the leaves and individual blades of grass in the foregrounds! 

I should note that this same level of realism also applies to the gore and nudity, which is mercifully nonsexual in nature, but very frequent.  Like MPD-Psycho, this is not a series for the squeamish or easily offended.  Those are not bothered by such things will find their curiosity rewarded with this series, through its exquisitely detailed artwork that helps to ground the stories in reality without crossing the line into tastelessness.

PRESENTATION:  I really love the covers that Dark Horse designs for this series.  First of all, the covers are not made of the usual thick, glossy cover stock, but instead out of a rougher material, closer to the texture of recycled cardboard.  The cover art is equally striking, with an abstract dismembered mannequin above the title and a line-up of the cast below, wrapping around the spine onto the back cover.  There are pages and pages of sfx translation notes, as well as general translation notes done by no less than Carl Gustav Horn, chief editor of Dark Horse's manga line and a veritiable one man Wikipedia on Japanese culture, pop and otherwise.

This manga, like so much of Otsuka's work, is criminally underrated in North America.  I think this manga could easily stand alongside the best of modern written crime fiction thanks to its deft mix of quality writing, dignity, genuine horror, and even traces of comedy, all enhanced by the well-detailed art.

This series is published in the USA by Dark Horse Comics, and is ongoing in Japan.  12 out of 13 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!

Also, thanks to my dear boyfriend James for the newly redesigned and mobile-device friendly rating graphics - aren't they pretty?  Hopefully this won't be the last redesign you'll see on the Manga Test Drive. - Brainchild

Friday, November 16, 2012


I've often mentioned that good josei is not a common thing to find on the North American manga market, but if there is one mangaka that most think of when it comes to josei here, it's likely the creator of today's series, as well as the equally popular (and enjoyable) NANA: Ai Yazawa.

PARADISE KISS (Paradaisu Kisu), by Ai Yazawa.  First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2002.

PLOT: Yukari is a hard-working high-school student who admittedly is working more towards pleasing her demanding mother than to satisfy her own needs.  One day on the way to cram school, she is cornered by a punk (safety pin facial piercings and all ) and a transvestite.  The next thing she knows, she is whisked off to The Studio, the basement studio where Arashi (the punk) and Isabella (the transvestite) work along with tiny, adorable Miwako and the handsome, alluring George on a dress for their art school's annual show, and they want Yukari to be their model.  Yukari firmly refuses, but a lost student ID allows George to lure her back and urge her to agree.  Soon enough, her own focus begins to shift away from endless tests and her crush on classmate Hiro and towards her new friends and a burgeoning relationship with George.

STORY:  I think what makes Paradise Kiss so great is partially due to how character driven it is, and partially because of how well those characters are written in the first place.

Yazawa is a great writer, and in particular she is great at writing female leads.  Yukari is amusing in how high-strung and repressed she is, but we also get hints of something sadder and even a little desperate within her.  You can understand why she fights tooth and nail against getting sucked into this new world, struggling to return to her comfort zone even if that comfort zone frankly makes her miserable.  It's also interesting to watch her struggle with her growing attraction to George.  Hiro may be very much the kind of boy you take home to mother, but George is good looking, very charming, and already is giving off mixed signals, which only serves to drive Yukari closer even when he frustrates her.  It also serves to keep George from being too perfect, lest he come off as some sort of inhuman ideal.  The rest of cast is equally appealing, from brash, angry Arashi, sweet, childlike Miwako, and motherly Isabella.  All of them are interesting characters in their own right, and it's easy to be just as invested in them as it is in Yukari and George.

Admittedly, there's not a lot of plot yet beyond what I have described - most of this volume is spent setting up the plot and cast and Yukari's conflict between school and the Studio.  Thankfully, with a cast like this, it's more than enough to satisfy the reader.

ART: Yazawa's character designs strike a nice balance between their realistic faces and their long, lanky stylized bodies, garbed in wonderfully well-drawn clothes.  It's not hard to guess that Yazawa's background was in art, particularly in fashion design.  She's one of the few mangaka in my experience who can draw truly handsome men - not the anime-styled bishonen you tend to see in shoujo, but genuinely, realstically handsome men, and I can't deny that I enjoyed the eye candy.

The panels are packed together tightly, and also notably outlined in unusually thick, dark lines.  Between that and how much everybody in this manga talks, it can make the pages a bit busy and sometimes a little hard to follow, although this is less of a concern in the omnibuses than in the single volumes.  Backgrounds tend to shift between nicely hand-drawn rooms and more impressionistic city scapes, which tend to appear during Yukari's more introspective moments.  While Yazawa does tend to break out the screentones and effects from time to time, she tends to layer two or three of them together.  This not only creates a result which is more visually appealing than its components, but also resembles the pattern on a cloth, a subtle and story-appropriate touch.

Yazawa's overall art style strikes a nice balance between realistic detail and fashion-influence stylization, and the result is a feast for the eyes.  This is the work of a confident, experience mangaka who is clearly in her zone.

PRESENTATION:  In the single volume release, there's an omake where the cast hunt down the author and are generally very meta, as well as a 2-page biographical essage on Yazawa.  Sadly, these were not carried over into the omnibus rerelease, where the only extra is a single color page.  The omnibus is printed in a much larger size than the single volumes, allowing the artwork some room to breathe.

I also do have to note the difference in translation between the two.  As typical for a Tokyopop release, the single volume's translation is looser and more conversational, whereas the Vertical omnibus release has a more straightforward translation, which does lose something of a personality.  Which is better?  Honestly, that will depend on your own tastes and standards.  Neither diminish the story, but both bring their own take on it.

Good josei may be hard to find, but thank goodness that no longer holds true for my favorite manga from that genre.  It's as handsome as it is well-written, and I cannot recommend it hard enough.

This was first published in the USA by Tokyopop, and was licence rescued by Vertical.  All 5 single volumes were released by Tokyopop and are now out of print.  The first of three omnibuses is currently in print from Vertical, with the second coming in December 2012.

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: CLOVER

This time, I'm looking at not one mangaka, but a quartet of them.  Yep, it's finally time for me to do a review of a work by CLAMP.  It's only appropriate really, as it was one of their works that got me to read manga in the first place (Magic Knight Rayearth, in case you were wondering).  Lord knows there are plenty of works for me to choose from today, but this time I think I'll focus on one of their more experimental works.  After all, I can always save their better known works for another day...

CLOVER (Kuroba), by CLAMP.  First published in 1997, and first published in North America in 2001.

PLOT: In a futuristic world where military force reigns supreme, an ex-soldier named Kazuhiko is given a mission: he must deliver a package to a place known as Fairy Park.  Imagine his surprise to learn that the package is in fact a lovely (and occasionally bewinged) girl named Sue, who has been kept isolated in an ornate aviary for her whole life.  Subtle, CLAMP, reaaaaaal subtle with the metaphor there.

Anyway, Kazuhiko enlists the help of his old friends, Gingetsu and Ran, to help transport him and Sue out of the country.  You see, Fairy Park is in enemy territory, and it is imperative that Sue be kept hidden and safe from them.  Unfortunately, their efforts fail and they are discovered by the opposing army, and in particular by Bols, who harbors something of a creepy sexual obsession with Kazehiko.  You know it's love when he sleeps with your severed hand every night!

Kazehiko and Sue manage to escape, and as he recovers Kazehiko begins to wonder who this Sue really is, and how she is connected to his lost love, Ora.

STORY:  Clover is nothing if not frustrating, from a storytelling perspective.  You get hints of a greater backstory, one about a world racked with war and intrigue, a world with teleportation and cybernetic weapon-hands, and a world dripping with oddly steampunk-esque trappings.  The frustration comes from the fact that little of of this backstory is explained; instead, we must grasp what we can through experience and inference, and you can't help but want more.  Too bad that this is highly unlikely, as this is one of CLAMP's unfinished works.  This was meant to be a six volume series, but only four were published before the host magazine for this work was shuttered.

The same goes for the characters themselves.  We get brief glimpses of personalites and pasts, but never enough to full flesh them out.  The closest we get is with Bols, with the whole 'calmly psychotic sexual obsession' thing.  Of course, the biggest cipher of all at this point is Sue herself, who is understandably naive about everything and seemingly obsessed with Ora's signature song, with lyrics describing a desire to fly away and be free (again, reaaaaal subtle CLAMP.  Doubly so when you repeat them every few pages).  What does it all mean?  Only CLAMP knows.

I do like that CLAMP tried something radically different with Clover, through their choice of setting and the purposefully sparse dialogue.  I'm glad they were willing to experiment with the story.  I only wish that the end result wasn't quite so vague.

ART:  Now here is the part where CLAMP's experimentation paid off. The linework is fine and lovely, lending everything a degree of delicacy.   The page layouts are as sparse as the dialogue, where a few panels of various shapes and sizes drift over stark white or black pages.  It's a distinct and stunning look, one unlike any CLAMP work before or since.  The character designs are a little more familiar, being very much in the vein of X/1999, where everyone has pointy chins that could cut glass, shoulders like linebackers, and hips like skinny 13 year old boys.  The characters are highligted with plenty of stark black washes and shading, which actually reminded me of some of their later works such as xxxHolic

Artistically, you could view this as something of a transitional work for CLAMP, bridging the classic, highly stylized works of their past and the sleeker, simpler style of their latter day works with a result that is beautiful in its sparseness.

PRESENTATION:  I read this from the omnibus edition, which like so many other Dark Horse omnibuses features plenty of lovely color artwork, both for the beginning of the story as well as splash pages intersperce between the volumes.

This wouldn't be the first work I would recommend to a CLAMP novice, but anyone who considers themselves a fan of their works should check this out this beautiful little visual experiment.  Just don't get too attached to the story.

This was published in single volumes by Tokyopop, and was later rescued by Dark Horse Comics.  The 4 Tokyopop volumes are out of print, but the Dark Horse omnibus edition is in print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: MARS

Next up for this month is a manga (and a mangaka) I'm not sure I would have discovered had it been not for an article on it from Anime News Network's House of a 1000 Manga.  I'm really glad for that article, though, because Fuyumi Soryo swiftly became one of my favorites, and this time I'm looking at the work that put her on the map, as far as the North American manga market is concerned.

MARS (Masu), by Fuyumi Soryo.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2002.

PLOT:  Kira is the 'weird girl' of her class.  You know the type - quiet, distant, spending most of her free time doodling.  Her world is turned upside-down when a handsome boy named Rei asks her for directions.  She gives him a map, and inadvertantly gives him an exquisite Klimt-inspired sketch of a mother and child.  He is stunned by the beauty of her artwork and tries his best to better know the artist behind it.  Bit by bit, Kira finds herself more and more drawn toward Rei, the motorcycle racing class rebel who is also outgoing, brave, and more than a little bit morbid.  Rei earns Kira's trust after taking down a teacher who was harassing Kira, but now he may not be able to save her from the wrath of their fellow students, particularly those who envy Kira's hold over Rei.

STORY:  Now this is a high school shoujo romance I can get behind!  This is the kind of story I've been dying to find in this vast and mostly unspired subgenre.  Why?  Allow me to explain.

First and foremost, both the heroine and the love interest are well-developed, even at this early stage.  Many shoujo heroines are said to be wallflowers, but Kira truly fits the role and it shows in a lot of non-verbal cues.  It's not just that she doesn't talk to a lot of people, she actively shields herself from touching and being touched by others and covers herself in long sleeves and skirts.  Soryu is clearly a writer who remembers the 'show, don't tell' rule, and Kira doesn't need to say a word (or have others provide exposition through gossip) to tell us that she is emotionally hurting.

Mind you, Rei's not that much more well-adjusted himself.  Indeed, he's a big grab-bag of conflicting emotions and issues.  On the surface he's a snarky slacker whose good looks and charms make him very popular with the ladies (to the point where he's a bit of a man-slut).  Yet already we get glimpses of another Rei, one who escapes from as yet unspecified family issues through the thrill of racing and speaks of death and other similiar things as if he were discussing the weather, and the one who manages to find a way to bring Kira out of her self-imposed shell.  Again, all of this is shown to us not through narration or third-party exposition, but through his own words and deeds.  The fact that I can say so much about these two just from the first volume is testament enough to Soryo's skillful writing.

She's also very good at writing realistic romance.  There are no wacky meet-cutes to be found here or strange set-ups to bring two dissimilar people together.  No, it's just a guy getting to know and love a girl through - *GASP* - DIRECTLY TALKING TO HER IN A CASUAL, FRIENDLY MANNER.  It's so refreshing to find a shoujo series where the main couple don't fight as a cover for their true feelings or can barely speak two words to one another without blushing, leaving every enigmatic phrase or action open to doubt and misinterpretation.  Kira and Rei actually get to know one other as friends, discussing their interests, lives, and feelings.  They build trust in one another through action and deed, and it becomes apparent that they both bring out better qualities in one another.  Plus, they don't lose their own sense of individuality through the relationship.  They still have their own lives, be it Kira with her art and her best friend, Tatsuya, and Rei has his racing and his friends and mentors from that circuit.  This may be the most practical, well-adjusted, and realistic romance I've ever seen in a manga, shoujo or otherwise.

Of course, it can't all be about two kids falling in love.  There does have to be some drama to help move things along, and sadly this is w.here Soryo stumbles.  I really feel that the near-molestation of Kira was not necessary.  Sure, the resolution to that plot thread is kind of epic and it did serve as proof of how Rei wants to protect Kira, but it felt a touch too melodramatic for the rest of the story and even a bit exploitative.  The way that Kira is then bullied by her classmates is slightly more realistic, but only slightly.  Now it's true that hell hath no fury like a pissed-off high school girl, and it's equally true that girls can bully other girls for truly petty reasons, but again its addition just feels somewhat off.  It's like Soryo is trying to force the drama and conflict  into the story versus letting it develop naturally.

While Mars does sometimes indulge in melodrama for the sake of moving the plot along, the characters and relationship are written so well that it more than makes up for any plot-related missteps.

ART: Soryo artistry is also a step above many shoujo mangaka.  Soryo is noted for having attended a fashion school, but she clearly paid attention in her art and live study classes, because there's a real sense of life and character in the way she draws her cast, be it subtle changes of posture, the expressiveness and beauty of their faces, and all the little details she adds.  The linework is notably fine, particuarly in the faces and hair.  Soryo finds that perfect balance between drawing characters that move and look like real people but still making them stylized and appealing in a manner unique to her.

She's also rather free and easy with the layout of her pages, stacking images over images both inside and outside of the panels.  At times it verges on busy looking, since there's also often a lot of conversation going on (this is a very talkative manga), but the fineness of her linework helps to keep it from the point where it becomes a distraction from the art.  I also like that she's very conservative with her use of screentone and effects.  Too many shoujo artist abuse those either as a way of filling space or telegraphing emotion, but Soryo prefers to let her story communicate the emotions, not the backgrounds.  Really, that's a fine summary of her artstyle as a whole - it's the perfect compliment to her well-established characters.  It's finely and skillfully rendered, bringing a whole new level of non-verbal communication to our leads' interactions and letting the emotion within them bloom forth naturally instead of visually forcing into our faces.

PRESENTATION: Sadly, there's nothing of note here - typical for a Tokyopop release.

High school romance is a concept that has been done to death in shoujo, but Mars is one of the best and most mature takes on the concept that I have come across, and even those who are weary of this subgenre should give this series a look.

This series was published in the USA by Tokyopop.  All 15 volumes were released, as well as the spinoff volume "A Horse By No Name," and all are currently out of print.

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

Monday, November 5, 2012


Ah November, that bleak grey space between Halloween and Christmas enlivened only by the national day of gorging that is Thanksgiving (well, for Americans at least).  Still, being the month in which thanks are given for the good things in your life, I want to show some of my appreciation for some of my favorite mangaka.  So, this November I will be reviewing works by some of my favorite writers and artists, and I'm starting with my absolute favorite: Kaoru Mori.

A BRIDE'S STORY (Otoyomegatari), by Kaoru Mori.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2011.

PLOT:  Sometime within the 19th century on the steppes of central Asia lives Amir Halgal, a 20 year old girl from an unspecified nomadic tribe.  She is being sent to a village to the Eihon family, where she is to marry their 12 year old son Karluk.  As time progresses, we learn more about Amir and her new family as the new couple learns to adjust to one another, even as tensions from Amir's family threaten to pull it apart.

STORY: I LOVE KAORU MORI.  I'm going to be saying the equivalent of that A LOT in this review, so I thought I'd get the obvious out of the way.  One of the reasons I love her is that she has such skill for writing slice-of-life stories.  So many mangaka use that genre as an excuse to just write a bunch of randomness, but Mori finds a way to make the mundane details of life interesting and to write interesting characters that still fit within this vaguely defined historical period.

Amir is such a lively, spirited person that it's nigh impossible to not like her, even as she struggles with her own anxiety about fitting in with her new family and with the age difference between her and her groom (as theirs is a culture where she is old for a bride and Karluk is somewhat young for a groom).  Karluk is more sedate in comparison, but he too is having to make some big adjustments.  You would be too if you became a married man (with all the social changes that come with that status) before you had barely begun puberty.  It's also kind of cute to see just how awestruck he is about Amir's skills when it comes to riding and hunting.  We also get to know Karluk's extended family throughout the volume - his father, mother, and grandmother; his sister, brother-in-law, and their children; and Smith, the foreign anthropologist who is recording their culture as a guest.  As someone with an anthropology degree, I was very happy to see a positive portrayal of an anthropologist, even if Smith is probably the closest thing to comic relief in the cast.  He's a bit befuddled and a little bit over his head, but it's clear his intentions are pure and truly only wishes to observe and study.

The events of this volume are fairly mundane: hunting trips, a woodcarver working on his wares, a trip to Karluk's uncle, etc, and the tone is decidedly casual.  What makes these events interesting is how we learn bit-by-bit about our cast from these events, through their interactions (both in frame and in the background) and from the casual moments of humor.  The only hint towards a larger, darker plot comes near the end of the volume, when Amir's brother comes looking for her so that she may be married off elsewhere.  The situation is resolve, but the tension does not quite leave, leaving a dark shadow on these otherwise sunny slice-of-life events.

The world and cast of A Bride's Story feels very fleshed out and realistic, in part because Mori skillfully uses the ordinary actions and interactions of their day to explore personalities and shifting relationships instead of simply filling the time until the the plot gets going.  It takes a skillful writer to pull such a thing off without making the volume dull, and luckily for us Mori is a very skillful, subtle, and complex writer.

ART:  DID I MENTION I LOVE KAORU MORI?  BECAUSE I DO.  Why?  Because her artwork is nothing short of exquisite.  There is just so much detail in every panel.  Most of our cast wears clothing full of texture and embroidery and wear elaborate pieces of jewelry, and their houses are draped in equally elaborately patterned rugs, draperies, and carved wood pieces.  Even the animals in their herds are distinct, down to the last sheep.  Praise must be given to Mori and her assistants for not only drawing such beautiful details, but keeping them consistent from panel to panel.  Those details also clearly demonstrate what a history nut Mori is, and the level of research and effort she put into the setting of her story.

Her character designs do suffer a bit from looking similiar, with the same enormous eyes and simple mouths, but thankfully those designs are still very subtly expressive.  This is an extremely useful thing, because there are many moments where characters express so much just through subtle shifts in their eyes or body movement.  Also, they can at least be distinguished by those well-detailed costumes.  The panel and page layout is straightforward, but that's OK because the panels are nice and large to let those details shine.

Mori's art goes a long way towards fleshing out the world of A Bride's Story, as a lot of time and research went into getting the details of Amir's universe just right.  It also helps to build upon the relationships and interactions she has written through the subtle expressiveness of her cast.

PRESENTATION: Yen Press really went all out to make this series look good.  First and foremost, it's hardbound, a rarity in the manga world.  It has a slip cover with color images (Amir on the front, a family scene on the back stretching onto the back flap) over a handsome brown cover with gold print on the spine.  They also included Mori's notes, which are a sort of combo of omake comic and cultural notes, including a family tree for the Eihons which is very helpful to have.


In all seriousness, this series is incredibly well-crafted and I look forward to every single new volume.  I'm curious to see where the story will take Amir and company, and I only wish Yen Press could release it faster than one volume a year.

This series is ongoing, with 4 volumes published so far.  3 of those 4 volumes have been released and are in print, with the fourth coming in early 2013.

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