Monday, March 25, 2013


Another week, another harem series to loo...wait, are we sure this is a harem series?  Where are the other girls?

AI YORI AOSHI (Bluer Than Indigo), by Kou Fumizuki.  First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2004.

Kaoru Hanabishi is your typical lonely student until the day he stumbles across a lost young woman at the train station.  She is named Aoi, and is dressed in a full, formal kimono.  It turns out Aoi has been looking for Kaoru for ages, as they were betrothed as young children by their rich and heavily traditional families.  Kaoru has no interest in returning to his family because of their terrible treatment of his mother, but he finds himself growing more and more fond of Aoi.  When some of Aoi's family shows up to take her back, Kaoru must make a choice: to stay with Aoi or to let her go.

Seriously, are we sure this is a harem series?  I'm only seeing one girl here.  Honestly, if not for the second volume preview in the back, one would not even GUESS that this is supposed to be a harem series.  Mind you, if you must have only one girl, Aoi's not a bad one to have, being pleasant and soft-spoken.  Mind you, she's pretty much the Yamato Nadeskiko trope personified, as well as a kimono fetishist's dream come true.  As such, she's a very passive character and she thinks only of pleasing Kaoru practically from the moment she meets him.  Yeah...Aoi's not going to be leading any feminist revolutions any time soon.

Kaoru fits the role of harem lead well, in that he's generally nice but rather nondescript in personality.  He does at least have a bit of a backbone, because we learn how he has suffered at the hands of his family.  The reader can perfectly understand his determination to neither return nor capitulate to them, and this plot thread grounds this story in surprisingly serious drama.  This same sort of seriousness applies to the romance, as the most compelling part of the story was watching these two kids bond over their shared past and their issues with their families.  It's approached with sensitivity and restraint, two qualities which are incredibly rare in harem series.  I almost wish their relationship had been the sole focus, as it would have made for a solid dramatic romance.

Sadly, the mangaka didn't have that kind of conviction, and thus has to pad things out with a LOT of fanservice.  He finds an awful lot of opportunities to focus on Aoi's boobs, as well as finding plenty of excuses for bath scenes to get Aoi out of her kimono.  I'm not a fan of fanservice in general, but here it feels especially superfluous.  The mangaka is making it difficult for that serious drama to shine when he keeps finding excuses for Kaoru to freak out over Aoi's boobs.

Ai Yori Aoshi is the rare harem series where I feel like there is genuine potential in its story, that there was something serious and substantial beyond an overly extended romance.  It could have been something approaching classy, but then it distracts itself with fanservice.  It's not enough to ruin the story as a whole, but it drags down the quality greatly.

The character designs are pretty average looking, but they look a little more polished than average thanks to Fumizuki's attention to detail.  Everything from Aoi's formalwear to the backgrounds to (of course) the fanservice is surprisingly well-drawn and detailed, and the panels and pages are presented in a plain and simple manner.  Overall, the art isn't overly flashy, but it is solid and well-drawn.  It's nice to see some genuine care and effort put into a harem series, which are normally drawn and presented in a much more slap-dash manner.

There are some brief translation notes, as well as a guide to the different terms and pieces of Aoi's wardrobe.

While Ai Yori Aoshi has some trashier trappings, it's centered upon a core of solid, moving drama which in turn makes the romance more compelling and touching.  I only wish the mangaka had more faith in that dramatic core and gave it more room to shine.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  All 17 volumes were released, and all are out of print.

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

Monday, March 18, 2013


Well, we've looked at the beginnings, we've looked at the present, but let us step back to the past with another old-school harem, one with a bit more personality than Tenchi.  Is it any better, though?

SABER MARIONETTE J (Seiba Marionetto Jei), written by Satoru Akahori and drawn by Yumisuke Kotoyoshi.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2003.

On a distant planet, humanity has managed to survive in a handful of colonies, each theme around a different Earth stereotype nation.  The big problem is that while a handful of original colonists did survive, none of them were women.  They have survived solely through cloning, and the only women who exist outside of myth and legend are the Marionettes, beautiful android women used for pleasure and menial labor.  One boy, Otaru, is more sympathetic towards the Marionettes as he is stuck doing hard labor himself.  Circumstance leads to Otaru releasing a trio of special Marionettes called Sabers, which possess something called a Maiden Circuit which gives them emotions and free will.  Now Otaru is stuck with the three androids: hyperactive, dizty Lime, Cherry the sweet schemer, and brash and bawdy Bloodberry, and they may now be their colony's only hope against enemy forces....that is, if they don't ruin Otaru's life first.

Saber Marionette J is many things.  It's rather high concept for what is essentially a harem series with robots.  It's also incredibly unfocused and manic, never sure if it wants to be just about sexy robot lady fights or more about your typical harem hijinxs, and that lack of focus is the story's greatest flaw.

I can't say that SMJ is lacking in the backstory department, with the concept of a flawed attempt at interstellar colonization and figuring out how to keep humanity going without the abilty of natural reproduction.  Less awesome is the fact that those survivors basically split off to create Epcot-style colonies based around each person's home country, which means each colony is basically one giant stereotype.  Even less awesome is the inheriant sexism - sure, they might have an excuse in that woman are essentially creatures of myth to them, but that doesn't mean that they HAD to turn the Marionettes into day laborers and sex slaves to serve them.  They do briefly acknowledge that homosexuality is common on this world, due to their unique situation, but the story also plays that for awful, offensive and annoying laughs through the extremely femme-y and overemotional Hanagata, who is always chasing after Otaru in over-the-top attempts to win his love.

Mind you, he's far from the most annoying character in the cast.  Otaru's Sabers are all based around different harem girl types, but all share the trait of being UNSPEAKABLY OBNOXIOUS.  Lime is easily the biggest offender, being the genki girl of the group, but it's actually worse once all three are brought together.  Once together, all they can do is argue over who is Otaru's favorite and how better to serve him, because we just can't get away from the sexism in this story.  The only time the trio shuts up and works together is when they have to fight against the battle androids from the Totally-NOT-Nazi-Germany colony, and even then the battle is frantic and comedic versus being anything remotely serious.

The story never settles down for a minute, pausing only long enough to deliver some exposition and then lauching once more into harem infighting or robot battles.  The story just keeps piling bigger, wackier, crazier ideas atop one another without giving them any time for the reader to take things in.  Combine that with the heavier-than-usual amounts of sexism and the broad, stereotype based humor and the result is is an utter mess.

There's no kind way to say it - SMJ has positively butt-ugly art in just about every respect.  The character designs have weird, squashed heads featuring overly simplified, cartoony faces that are almost always twisting into some sort of enormous overreaction.  The body proportions are also equally cartoony, particularly on the Marionettes.  I think someone needs to tell Yumisuke Kotoyoshi that breasts are not in fact shaped like huge, stretched lemons.  You could hand-wave the ridiculous proportions with the fact that no one on this world has seen a real woman (much less real boobs), and that these are artificial beings, so there's essentially no reference for the Marionette makers to work from and they aren't limited by biology but instead by engineering, but I think that's giving the artist too much credit.

I could almost forgive the ugliness of the character art if the panels themselves were not so very BUSY.  Practically every panel is filled to the brim with extreme close-up, big goofy reactions, giant bizarrely shaped boobs, sound effects, speed lines - everything but the kitchen sink, as far as manga goes.  The end result is a veritable assault on the reader's eyes and on the pages of this poor volume.  At least the fanservice isn't overly heavy, as it's mostly limited to bouncing boobs and a few instances of Saber nudity (and they're about as detailed as a Barbie doll).

Saber Marionette J has terrible artwork.  It's not because the artist didn't make any effort, but instead he made too much effort to make it big and wacky, and the results end up falling utterly flat.

The only bonus is a side story where Otaru and company are led into a trap by the promise of a free liver dinner, which of course leads to another android fight.  Honestly, I don't see how this differs all that much from the plot at large.

The combination of loud, obnoxious harem comedy and loud, ugly art makes reading Saber Marionette J akin to throwing sand in your eyes while musical saws are played with angry stray cats.  Sure, there's some novelty to be had in the bizarreness of it all, but that doesn't make things any less irritating.  It's telling that the most annoying parts of it weren't the harem members themselves, but instead everything else around them.

This series was released by Tokyopop.  All 5 volumes were released, and all are out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, March 11, 2013


Well, let us now take things from the origins of harem all the way to a modern example of the genre.  Have today's harem mangaka learned anything from their predecessors, or have they only taken the concept to its extremes?

ROSARIO + VAMPIRE (Rozario to Banpaia), by Akehisa Ikeda.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2008.

Tsukune Aono is a perfectly nice guy who also happens to be a completely hopeless student.  He's managed to fail every high school entrance exam in the area, and now his only apparent option is the mysterious (and exam-free) Yokai Academy.  He is soon dropped off at a desolate seashore where a dark manor looms over the scenery, and in turn soon collides with the adorable, attractive Moka.  She's feeling dizzy and anemic, and Tsukune offers to help.  Moka makes the most of his offer by supping a bit of his blood.

Yep, Moka is a vampire, and she's far from alone.  It turns out the entire academy, student and staff alike, are populated by monsters of every shape and size who are there to learn how to adapt and live in a world of humans.  Tsukune is understandably freaked out and wishes to leave, but Moka's newfound happiness at having a friend (not to mention a tasty blood source) makes him stay.  Their friendship soon makes Tsukune the envy of the student body, and some try to use their supernatural powers to get Tsukune out of the way.  In the middle of his struggle, Tsukune releases the seal on Moka's true personality and power, and this self will not tolerate any threat towards her best food source or her other self's happiness.

Rosario + Vampire can be incredibly formulaic at times, but there are enough little twists and turns to keep things from getting too dull, and the sweetness of the leads' relationship goes a long way towards redeeming this volume as a whole.

Honestly, I was very strongly reminded of Oh My Goddess while reading this, particularly in regards to the leads.  Tsukune and Keiichi are practically peas on a pod, being good upstanding guys without a lot of brains or force of personality but a lot of loyalty to their friends.  They are also both completely hopeless at romance - Tsukune is sadly one of those bumbling, spineless sort of harem leads who is too innocent to make the slightest move on a girl. Moka and Belldandy are rather similiar as well, as both are sweet, innocent, and friendly, although Moka is less of the motherly type and more of a child-like innocent.  Of course, that's about where the similiarities end - after all, Belldandy didn't use Keiichi for her own personal juice box.  Moka also has that seperate, more powerful personality to deal with, one that is only contained by her magical rosary.  I do wish there was some clarification as to how this works - is this a case of a split personality?  Is she possessed?  Which Moka is the 'true' Moka, the sweetheart or the monster?  Only future issues may tell.

The rest of the cast is one note, save for Kurumu, the second girl to join Tsukume's budding harem.  She's a succubus who starts out as a manipulative young girl, one who consciously uses her body (and the power of fanservice) to enslave other.  When this ultimately fails to ensnare Tsukume, she switches her strategy and starts behaving in a more girly-girl manner, in the hopes that this might work better on him.

The plot is very formulaic, but it's more along the vein of the 'monster of the week' formula than the standard harem formula.  With each chapter, a new monster is introduced that threatens either Tsukune or Moka, said monster fights them, Tsukune releases the other Moka, who finishes off the monster and returns things to the status quo.  It's a predictable structure, but not to the point where it makes the volume unpleasant to read. 

Ultimately Rosario + Vampire may be kind of shallow and rather repetitious, but it's a light, breezy sort of series to read, aided by the sweetness of the relationship between the two leads.

The character designs are fairly simple, to the point where they start skirting the line of 'moeblob', or at least as much as a major shonen magazine will allow for that.  Still, they are attractive...well, save for the heavies who are big and stereotypically brutish. Some of the monsters are kind of visually interesting, like the piranha-like mermaids, but sadly the main girls never get to be so ugly - their monster forms are barely different from their normal guises. 

Interestingly, there's not a lot of fanservice here, and the vast majority comes from Kurumu.  I actually kind of admire how Ikeda went out of his way to avoid fanservice from Moka through the use of shading and object placing.  It's not done in a winking, obvious sort of way, and for someone who feared the worse after seeing this manga's animated counter part, it's a welcome sight (or lack of sight, one might say).  The action is plainly drawn and mostly uses a lot of speed lines; this is not the series to read if you want some epic monster battles.

Rosario + Vampire's art is kind of plain overall, but it's not hard on the eyes and it avoids some of the trashier, fanservice-laden trappings of its brethren that works well with its light, innocent tone.

The only extras are a few omakes that are themselves just the setups to some really lame jokes.

This is a pleasant if plain and unchallenging sort of manga.  That may sound like weak praise, but considing that most harems tend to be trashy and pandering, I'll happily take something that's actually kind of sweet and plain.

This series is published by Viz.  All 10 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.

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

Monday, March 4, 2013


Well, March has finally come in, and in Japan with that comes White Day, the male response to Valentines where the guys are called upon to give white chocolate to those who gifted them in February.  With that in mind, this month we're shifting focus from the ladies to the guys, in that we're shifting from a month of reverse harems to a month of plain old harems.  Thus, let me kick things off with one of the granddaddies of the genre.

NO NEED FOR TENCHI (Tenchi Muyo), by Hitoshi Okuda.  First published in 1994, and first published in North America in 1996.

Tenchi thought things were bad enough when he accidentally unsealed the 'demon' in his family's shrine, even if that 'demon' turned out to be a strange, violent young space criminal named Ryoko.  Things only got crazier when Ryoko was joined by the alien princesses Ayeka and Sasami, Mihoshi the space cop, and Washu the mad scientist.  All of this leads to an epic space battle...none of which the manga reader sees, because all of this happened in the OVA it presumes you already saw.

What actually happens in this volume is that a seemingly evil clone of Ryoko shows up during a picnic with Tenchi and the girls.  The imposter is quickly caught, but the attack leaves the clone without any memory of who she is or why she is there.  The clone escapes, and Ryoko is determined to find the clone at any cost. 

You know, just because a manga is adapted from a TV series doesn't mean that it shouldn't be able to stand on its own as a singular work.  Too bad no one told anyone behind the making of this manga about that.

This manga's biggest failing is that it presumes you've already seen the original OVA series.  If you haven't, then you'll be completely lost, with no idea what's going on and no investment in these people. This wouldn't have been an issue when this series was first released in the 1990s, when the OVA was new.  In 2013, though, that same OVA has only very recently been rescued from out-of-print obscurity and there are anime fans who weren't even born when that OVA was released, so it's safe to say that the majority of modern anime fandom hasn't seen it, including myself.  If you make your readership have to do its homework before reading your manga, you're not going to encourage them to buy some DVDs, but instead encourage them to pick up another manga.

Having not seen said OVA, I was completely lost as to what actually DID go on in this manga.  Sure, I know there are evil clones and spaceships and space villians involved, but I have no idea why either side is fighting one another (other than for some super shiny special Macguffin belonging to Tenchi).  It doesn't help that they keep cutting back to the others on earth, who can only worry for their friend or training for no particular reason.  I can say with certainty that this series lives up to its title, as by volume's end it's blatantly apparent that Tenchi is so not the star of his own series.  I know harem leads are not know for being blazing pillars of personality, but it's downright bizarre for the title character of a series to be so much of a blank, with the supporting cast outshining him at every turn.  That's not saying much for the rest of the cast, though, as they stick to their one-note personalities.  Ryoko's a hothead, Washu is wacky, Sasami is motherly, Mihoshi is Miss Not Appearing In This Manga, and Ayeka is the Yamato Nadeshiko.  I got a better sense of personality from Ryo-Oh-Ohki, and he's a cat/bunny/spaceship thing!

I wish I could explain more about the plot of this manga, but doing so would require me to understand what is going on and why it is going on.  I didn't have much interest in the Tenchi franchise before this review, and after reading this I just might possibly have less interest than before, because it does nothing to invite newcomers into the story.

The most distinctive thing I noticed about the art is the character designs are unusually stylized and cartoony for a harem series.  I wouldn't call Tenchi's harem attractive by modern anime standards, but they are at least distinct, and everyone is very broadly expressive.  The pages are rather nicely composed, with a lot of variety in panel size and a bit of panel layering here and there.  The panels themselves are neatly composed, opening up in space for moments of action or drama, although the brief bits of action tend to be drowned out by the heavy use and large size of the translated sound effects.  Backgrounds are simply drawn, and infrequent in appearance.

There are omakes after each chapter, all of which fail as comedy pieces and mostly end up dull and confusing.  I don't know if something was simply lost in translation or if they were dull to begin with.  I should note that these are older Viz releases, so they are printed in a larger size and flipped.

 If you're looking for an entryway into the Tenchi universe, this is not the place to start.  Those fans who are already familiar with the original OVA might find some enjoyment here, but everyone else will be lost.

This series was published by Viz.  All 12 volumes were released, and all are out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!