Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: LAND OF THE BLINDFOLDED

LAND OF' THE BLINDFOLDED (Mekakushi no Kuni), by Tsukuba Sakura.  First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT: Kanade seems like a normal schoolgirl, but she has a secret talent.  With a single touch, she can see a person's future.  Because of that, she avoids and dreads physical contact with others, even as she puts on a happy face for others.  Then one day she meets the new kid in class, Naitou Arou, and right away he recognizes her gift.  It makes perfect sense because he possesses a similiar one; where Kanade sees the future, he can see the past.  They quickly bond, even if he doesn't quite possess Kanade's altruistic nature.  Their bond is tested when Namaki, another, more sociopathic future-seer joins their class and all three are forced to confront some moral quandaries.  What is their responsibility towards others and their futures?  If they forsee danger for others, should they intervene?  Can they change the futures that they see?

STORY:  This manga was a real suprise for me.  On the surface, it seemed to be another schoolroom romance, albeit one with a psychic twist.  While that element is present, it also becomes something more serious where our main trio have to determine if their unique gifts make them obligated to help others, and if the futures they see are fixed or not.  These explorations never get too deep or philosophical, but the fact that it comes up at all is a pleasant and interesting surprise, and gives the whole volume a kind of quality that a lot of similiar shoujo stories don't normally possess.  Sure, it's awfully convienent that not one, not two, but three touch-based psychic students end up at the same school in the same class, but without them and the unique problems they face, this story would just be another shoujo romance.

I really liked the relationship between Kanade and Arou.  Their gifts complement one another perfectly, and almost immediately there's a palpable connection between the two.  I liked Kanada's can-do attitude towards her powers, even if it somestimes comes off as being a bit Pollyanna-esque.   I also like how they all influence one another; Arou helps Kanada realize the full potential of her gifts, as well as their limitations.  Together they try to act as a moral compass for the jaded Namaki, so that they might try to point his interests away from using his gifts for self-gratification and instead towards helping others (only time will tell if their lessons actually stick). 

Now, this volume isn't just the story of our psychic trio.  There are also two side stories featuring some of their classmates.  One features the budding romance between the handsome and popular Takahashi and the loud, bubbly Katsura during the school festival.  The other is about the forgetful Fujisaki Nobuhiro, his friend Takashi, and a mysterious dark-haired girl.  These two stories are more conventional in their subject matter (although the latter has a vaguely supernatural twist), but they were still sweetly, sensitively done and still possessed a certain degree of personality, and as such I enjoyed them.  I wonder if we'll see more side stories like these, which would make the series more of an anthology about an entire class, versus the story of a select few.  That would be an unusual twist onto itself, and one I wouldn't mind reading. 

So, what at first seemed like your everyday shoujo turned out to be a pleasant surprise, one with a solid cast and suprisingly interesting writing that helps it overcome the potentially gimmicky hook of 'kids with psychic powers' and turn it into something a little deeper.

ART: Sadly, the artwork isn't as unconventional as the storytelling.  The character designs are pleasing, with their light linework, but also fairly typical for shoujo.  In fact, they could stand to be a little more distinct; on the first read-through, I was not aware that the first side story WASN'T about Namaki until I read the author's notes in the back (which is a shame, because I thought the mangaka was trying to redeem him a little for his actions).

What was a little more unconventional was the page composition, as Sakura-san was often willing to use larger panels or lots of wedge-shaped panels stacked on one another like a column for some of the more dramatic moments.  It helped them visually stand out from the more conventionally composed lighter moments, and even gave them a touch of poeticism, be it a progression of reactions between two characters or a montage of Arou searching for Kanade by touch alone. 

I appreciate that Sakura-san didn't use a lot of screentones and effects for the backgrounds, something which is common in shoujo manga.  I feel that by doing so, she actually enhanced the emotions and tone of the story because she let her story set the mood, instead of foisting it upon us visually.  Ultimately, while this artwork isn't going to win any awards for originality, it does have a few subtle flourishes of its own which enhances the story it tries to tell.

PRESENTATION: The only extra present here is a combination of author omake and character profiles, where she briefly describes the real-life inspirations for her characters' personalities or looks.

RATING:
I love it when a manga surprises me with its quality.  Honestly, if the artwork were a little better or more distinctive, this would have easily gotten a green light.  I'm really curious as to where this story is going, and I hope it maintains all those interesting little quirks which make it so appealing to me in the first place.  This is one obscure little title that is worth your time to check out.

This series was published in the USA by CMX.  All 9 volumes were published, but all are now out of print.

You can by manga like this and far much more at RightStuf.com!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Review: JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE

JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (JoJo no Kimyo na Boken), by Hirohiko Araki.  First published in 1987, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT: We get off to a thrilling start with...an exposition dump?  I'll get into this more in the Story section, but for now all you need to know is that this release is actually the 12th in the Japanese run, so the editors are bringing us up to speed.  It tells the epic tale of the Joestar family, English aristocrats who were betrayed by their adopted ward Dio, and in turn he is turned into a vampire by a magical stone mask from South America.  You know, as they tend to do.  An epic battle spanning many years ensues, ending only when both Jonathan Joestar and Dio are plunged into the depths of the ocean. 

The story then skips ahead a few generations to focus on Jonathan's great grandson Jotaro, the JoJo of the title.  We first meet him inside a jail cell, where he is freaking out his other cellmates by manifesting a strange power which lets him sneak in things like a radio, beer, and even a copy of Shonen Jump, along with the ability to beat his cellmates without lifting a finger or catching a cop's bullet midair.

He is soon bailed out by his mother Holly and his grandfather Joseph Joestar, but not before Joseph's friend Advol gives Jotaro a cooldown smackdown with his own powers.  You see, Jotaro, Joseph, and Advol all possess what is called a Stand, a sort of humanoid avatar created from one's life force.  Now out of jail, Joseph informs the others about Dio - his backstory, how he appropriated Jonathan Joestar's body after being decapitated, and how he has seemingly returned.

Dio's first act is to possess one of Jotaro's classmates, Kakyoin, with a sort of brain tick created from his own flesh (...ewwww), which gives Kakyoin Stand powers as well.  Kakyoin and Jotaro have an epic battle, one that involves a possessed nurse, a violent use for a fountain pen, and an exorcism performed through an EPIC FRENCH KISS.  Kakyoin soon joins Jotaro's motley crew, and together he, Advol, and the Joestars must travel the world to save not only the world, but Jotaro's family from Dio's malevolent plans.

STORY: This story is utterly outrageous.  It's so over-the-top that it should be outright ridiculous.  So why was I so entertained by it.  Was it the characters?  Well...maybe.  Jotaro is frankly kind of a punk, one who believes himself to be too cool and badass for everyone in the room.  In all fairness, it's true, but his prickly, standoffish attitude does make it a little hard to root for him.  I admittedly enjoyed his grandfather and mother more, as they had a oddly funny and sweet relationship between themselves and between Holly and Jotaro, even if Joseph spends most of the volume in Exposition Mode.  The other Stand users (Advol and Kakyoin) are pretty much just ciphers at this point.

Maybe it was the plot itself that made the story so enjoyable?  I can't say it starts off on a good foot when it has to feed you the backstory versus letting the reader see and experience it themselves.  That really shouldn't count against it though, because that was the choice of the American publisher and not the mangaka.  You see, the whole story is currently told over eight arcs, and Viz chose to start with the third arc to tie it in with the then-current OVA series.  It's kind of a shame, because that first part in particular sounds pretty kick-ass. (Betrayal! Intrigue! Vampires! Zombie slaves! Fights to the death!)

Once the backstory is out of the way, the story moves along at a rousing pace, interspercing Jotaro's growing awareness and need for his Stand with brief, tantalizing glimpses of the nefarious Dio, and it always feels like the story is building towards something more, something bigger, so credit to Araki-san for the excellent pacing and mood.  He's not shy about gore, be it the nurse's eye-popping use of a fountain pen or a tongue-stealing Stand beetle, so more sensitive readers should take warning.  Really, it's not so much about the elements of the story as it is the sum of those parts.  It's an interesting take on the shonen fighting tournament template with great atmosphere and some interesting touches of mysticism and Tarot.

ART: This is old-school shonen, where all the men are six-foot-plus beefcakes and the pages are drenched in thick, dark lines.  Araki's style is particularly lush, with lots of dense shading and plenty of detail and hatching.  You would think that all of this would make the art overly busy, but instead it makes the characters pop off the page as they demand your attention with every glower and grimace.  The fight scenes are no different, with their dramatic poses and attacks.  The composition is rather packed, as Araki packs in as many reactions and dramatic zooms as possible.  The way it's done actually adds to the energy of the action and even lends it something of a cinematic flair.  I suspect the art helped me enjoy this as much, if not more, than the story itself.  It's old fashioned, but not in an unpleasant way.  Instead, it's rich and eye-catching and helps sell the reader on the ridiculousness before them.

PRESENTATION:  Being a Viz release, the extras are nonexistant.  I do have to note something about the way it was printed.  The pages were bound in a way that the outside edges of the panels are slightly cropped.  I know that it can sometimes be hard to make magazine-sized artwork fit into a standard-sized tankoban, and sometimes that means that the art is either shoved towards the spine or towards the edges, but I do wish a little more care was taken.  I do like the cover art, though, with its canary-yellow background and Jotaro in a dramatic, glittering pose (even if it makes him look like he's about to cast a kamehameha).

RATING:  I'm not the biggest fan of shonen tournament fighting stories, but this one charmed me with its dramatic flair and lush artwork.  This is one bizarre adventure that I want to continue reading.

This series is ongoing in Japan, and was published in the USA by Viz.  Only the third arc was released in the USA, in 16 volumes.  Some earlier volumes have been discontinued, but most are still in print.

This volume and many others like it are available through RightStuf.com!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Review: TWIN SPICA

TWIN SPICA (Futatsu no Supika), by Kou Yaginuma.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2010.



PLOT: It is the year 2024, somewhere near Tokyo.  Asumi Kamogawa is 14 years old, and her dream is to travel to space.

It's a sadly ironic dream for her to have.  In 2001, Japan launched its first rocket into space, only to have it end in disaster when it crashed into the heart of Tokyo.  This crash cost Asumi's mother her face, most of her senses, and eventually her life, all while trying to protect her infant daughter.  Her father, an engineer, lost his job because of the disaster and now he and Asumi barely get by on his dead-end construction job.  Still, she is not unhappy; Asumi is an avid reader and excellent student, as she memorizes every fact about the stars and planets.  She also often wanders off into the woods to stargaze and talk of space with her imaginary friend Mr. Lion, who speaks of space as if he's been there before.

Asumi finally gets a chance to live out her dream when she is accepted to the Tokyo Space School, where the best and brightest will be chosen to become a new generation of Japanese astronauts.  Some of the faces she encounters at her new school are familiar, like that of the intelligent but rude and priggish Fuchuya, but most are brand new to her.  She and many other students pass the written exam, but they also must pass a unique practical exam.  All the students are grouped into threes into a small, plain room.  They must open a chest using the room number as a code, and then they must complete the puzzle inside within seven days.  At any point, they may opt out with the press of a single button, but doing so will cause all the students inside to fail.  Now Asumi and her new roommates (the peppy, friendly Kei and prickly, standoffish Marika) must learn to live and work together if they want to pass.

STORY: Twin Spica is one of the best and most sincere stories that I have read since I started this project.  I know that's a bold statement to make, but I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it, and it's mostly because of Asumi.

Asumi is such a wonderful lead.  She's sweet and kind, but also determined to achieve her dream.  She's smart and even kind of geeky, and while she can be a bit socially awkward she easily makes friends with her new classmates and never once questions having a friend who looks like an amusement park mascot whom only she can see. I think anybody who was ever a nerdy kid, the kind who would devour every book in their favorite section of the library, would relate more than a bit to Asumi.

Mind you, the rest of the cast are no slouches either, even if some of them come off as a bit dickish.  True, some of them have their reasons (we get hints that Marika was a sickly shut-in as a child), but other were mostly pedantic and rude from the beginning (I'm looking at you, Fuchuya).  I'm particularly fond of Shu, who is - forgive the pun - something of a space cadet, but you get hints that this is something of a front, and that he is smarter and more observant that he lets on.  Of course, the aforementioned dickishness may just be due to the practical test, which is meant to test the kids' reactions to working with others in close quarters under stress, so only time will tell if it will stick.

Half the volume is dedicated to the main plot of Asumi at the space school.  The other half consists of a couple of side stories, both taking place when Asumi is five years old.  One involves something of an adventure involving her mother's ashes and her kindergarden teacher, which hints at Mr. Lion's true identity.  The other happens just after her mother's funeral, as Asumi ends up on a strange sort of spiritual journey to come to acceptance about her mother's death.  The first story was bittersweet enough, but the second one made me cry.  Let me assure you that this is no mean feat.  I do not cry easily at any form of media.  I can count the movies I have cried at on my hands and still have fingers to spare.  I don't think I can recall a time where I outwardly cried over a book until I read this one, and that onto itself is a powerful testament not only the quality of the writing, but the emotional sincerity of the story.

ART:  The character designs are very simple and childlike, without a lot of excess lines or details.  Amazingly, though, that does not stop the art from conveying the subtle and complex emotions in the story exceedingly well, which is a credit to Yaginuma-san.  The backgrounds are also simple and clearly handrawn instead of traced.  They don't possess a lot of flourish, but they suit the characters and story to a T. 

One thing that I must note is the composition of the pages.  There are some sections that are just beautifully put together, such as the sequences where Asumi and Mr. Lion go stargazing or the endings to the side stories.  It's not so much about how the pages are framed -the panels are fairly standard in size and shape - but more about the way the images are assembled.  It's almost akin to a well-drawn storyboard for a movie, and there's just something indefinably poetic about them.  I wish I could show you the scans so that you might understand, but doing so would spoil the stories and without the rest of the manga, much of the emotional impact is lost.  They are truly beautiful to behold, and the only way to really experience it is to read it yourself.

PRESENTATION: There are some translation notes in the back, as well as a personal story from the mangaka in the form of a comic.  Otherwise, it's a simple but handsomely presented volume, one typical of a Vertical release.

RATING:
GOOD GOD, BUY THIS.  BUY IT NOW BECAUSE IT GOES OUT OF PRINT NEXT YEAR.  VERTICAL DESERVES A REWARD FOR PUTTING THIS OUT IN FULL, AND THAT REWARD IS YOUR MONEY IN THEIR POCKETS!

In all seriousness, this is one of the best manga I have ever read, a true hidden gem of the manga world.  I would recommend this to just about anyone, but in particular to sci-fi fans who don't mind trading spaceships and robots for a more personal tale.

This title was published in the USA by Vertical.  All 12 volumes are currently in print, but will go out-of-print in 2013. 

This volume and many others like it are available through RightStuf.com!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: THE PRINCE OF TENNIS

The Prince of Tennis (Tenisu no Ojisama), by Takeshi Konomi, first published in 1999, first published in the USA in 2004



PLOT:  Kakino-Kizaka Junior High is about to receive a new student, a true prodigy of the tennis world.  Ryoma Echizen is a seemingly tiny, frail 12 year old boy, but his size belies his skill.  Once he arrives at the school, he finds older members of the tennis club are exploiting younger students or simply want to challenge him on the courts.  Regardless of the reason, the result is always the same: Ryoma easily beats them and wins the day.

STORY:  I will confess that I chose this series not because I was all that interested in it personally, or even that I purposefully wanted to look at some sports manga.  No, it was because I was aware of this series before I got into anime and manga, thanks to its MASSIVE following of slash-happy fangirls and I wanted to see what might have drawn them to it in the first place.  Well, I can say one thing with absolutely certainty: it’s not the story.

This story is the very definition of “cookie cutter.”  Our hero is introduced, and once Ryoma enters the school one of two things happens.


1.        He encounters older students from the tennis club who are picking on younger members, and proceeds to beat them at tennis.

2.       A older student from the tennis club challenges to a game, because no 12 year old could be as good as an experienced 16 year old!  Ryoma then proceeds to beat them at tennis.

3.       Repeat Steps 1 or 2, changing out cast members as needed.
The story just keeps adding and adding cast members, all of which can be divided into two categories: Ally (which tend to be the younger kids) and Enemy (the jerkass older kids).  We really don’t get much time to get to know anyone, friend or foe.  You can’t even say that much about Ryoma himself.  Sure, we know that he’s an excellent tennis player with a sense of fair play, but what else?  What is he like off the field?  What do he and his new friends do in their spare time?  Does he have any fears or loves or hatreds?  Hell if I know, because the mangaka sure as hell won’t tell me.  Of course, if he can’t be bothered to give his lead a personality, you can guarantee that the rest of the cast won’t either. 

I have to wonder why they even bothered with the school, because we hardly see anyone in class or outside of school.  It’s just nothing but tennis, 24/7.  I imagine that if you like tennis, you might get something out of watching Ryoma demonstrate his advanced technique.  If you’re not a fan (like myself), then all that information just goes in one ear and out the other.  It’s also a total sausagefest.  There are precisely two female characters: a little girl who serves mostly as a plot device to introduce Ryoma to the story, and her grandmother, who is the head coach for the tennis club.  Their contribution to the story as a whole?  DIDDLY SQUAT.  They might as well not exist.  In the end, this is the kind of clichĂ©, dull storytelling that gave sports manga such a bad name in the first place.

ART:  The character models are clean and polished looking, but like the characters, they tend to come in only two flavors: generic bishonen and bobbleheaded, demon-eyed child.  Honestly, if the mangaka didn’t give them different hair and accessories, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish most of the cast at all!

Wait a minute…lots of good looking guys with generic personalities and swap ‘n’ match looks who are vaguely anatognistic towards the lead?  I now realize why this has such a fujoshi following!  The mangaka basically gave them a wide selection of pretty paper dolls that you can can pair up any way you wish.  Plus, you can write them acting any way you want because there’s pretty much no personality to change - thus, there’s no way they can be called 'out-of-character'.  It's like a training fandom for yaoi fangirls!  They get to experience all the slashiness with none of the complication of things like personality or story!  I don't know whether to call it brilliant or devious!
Oops, got a bit off-track there. Where was I? Oh yes, the art. The composition is pretty generic, and it only breaks out the larger panels to show off during the matches. The action is drawn with with short, blurry motion lines, a style which I actually kind of like because it enhances the illusion of movement without obscuring the characters. Backgrounds are rare and mostly traced when present. Otherwise, the characters drift about in blank white voids. There's not much more I can say, really. The art here is just as generic as the story.
PRESENTATION: All we have is a tiny bio on the mangaka up front.  This is sadly quite typical for a lot of Viz titles.
RATING:

This title is as plain and dull as a white tennis uniform. Unless you really love tennis, there's nothing here that you cannot find in a better form in other titles, sports-related or otherwise.
This title is published in the USA by Viz. All 42 (!) volumes were published. Some of the earlier volumes have been discontinued, but most are still in print
This volume and many more like it are available through RightStuf.com!