Monday, April 29, 2013


There's one last magical girl series for me to look at this month, an unusual little hybrid of magical girl and phantom thief from the early days of Tokyopop.

SAINT TAIL (Kaito Seinto Teru), by Megumi Tachikawa.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2001.

Meimi Hanaka is a seemingly ordinary student at her Catholic junior high, but she has a secret life.  She learns of crimes through her best friend and novice nun, Seira, and uses that information to steal back stolen goods under the guise of Saint Tail, using the athletics and speed she inherited from her ex-phantom thief mother and the tricks and diversions learned from her stage magician father.  Of course, her thefts do not go unnoticed, in particular by one Asuka Jr, the son of a police detective who is determined to be the one to catch Saint Tail.  Meimi must maintain a balance between her nighttime pursuits and her daytime deflections to keep Asuka Jr. from discovering the truth.

As noted above, Saint Tail is unusual in that it combines the magical girl and phantom thief genres, but it's also unusual in that it's a magical girl story that really isn't a magical girl story.  After all, most magical girls receive their powers from supernatural sources, like dead wizards or intergalactic civilizations or fairies or angels or whatever.  Here, Meimi is only magical in that she uses stage magic and sleight of hand to pull of her exploits - everything else comes from either her own mind or strength.  It's a far closer fit to your typical phantom thief story, where noble thieves steal in the name of righting crimes or protecting others from harmful goods.  It's also unusual to find a magical girl series so heavily tied to religion, to the point where her sidekick is a literal novice (even if the mangaka flat out admits that becoming a nun doesn't work the way they do here).  They even say a prayer before each theft.  Meimi's not the most complex of characters - she's a bit spunky and headstrong, and that's about it, and even then she gets more development than the rest of the cast.

I do like how the volume built up the conflict between Meimi and Asuka Jr.  At first he's played as more of a comedic foil to Saint Tail, always falling just short of catching her and raving how next time he will get her.  As the volume progresses, he becomes much more of a romantic foil to Meimi, as his desire to capture Saint Tail transforms into a strange sort of crush on her.  It actually leads up to an oddly sweet moment involving a phone booth at the end.  Honestly, by volume's end I was more invested in their odd little cat-and-mouse game than in Saint Tail's exploits.

 There are a couple of side stories after the last chapter, earlier works from the mangaka.  The first is a Little Mermaid-esque about a morning glory who wishes herself to become a girl so that she can win the love of an ice cream vendor.  The second is about a universe where the heavens must literally be kept in tune, and the romantic schemes of a witch-in-training nearly throw everything off.  The first story was frankly too strange of a concept for my taste, and the erstwhile heroine was extremely passive.  The second story feels more like a half-baked idea, and the concept honestly has some potential for a longer story.  It's more of a satisfying read than the first story, but it's also very rushed, which hurts the overall quality.

So, Saint Tail is a magical girl story that isn't quite a magical girl story, and a phantom thief story that's more about the romance than the thievery.  It may not tidily fit into genre definitions and it's not a terribly deep or complex work, but I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it, in part because it chose to walk the thin line between genres.

The artwork is very typical for 1990s shoujo, in that it is very heavily chibi-fied.  All the characters are short, squat, bobbleheaded, with big poofs of hair and bigger, shinier eyes.  Also true to 1990s shoujo, it's rather busy looking, with the panels packed in the pages like sardines and layered over one another with abandon.  Thankfully, the artwork is drawn rather delicately and screentones and effects are kept to a minimum, which keeps things from descending into sheer visual chaos.  Panels tend to be on the small and tightly focused side, at least until Meimi goes a-thieving, at which point they expand much like the balloons and confetti around her.  Overall, the artwork is very much of its time, but those who don't mind a more old school look to their shoujo will not find too much to complain about here.

Being an older Tokyopop release, the volume is flipped.  The only extras are the aforementioned short stories and some author's notes.

While the art is rather conventional for the time this manga was created, Saint Tail does manage to create a surprisingly timeless and enjoyable twist on both magical girl and phantom thief.

This series was released by Tokyopop.  All 7 volumes were released, and all are currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, April 22, 2013


Last week we looked at a slightly unconventional take on the magical girl genre.  Today's review is older, more conventional, and nowhere near as good.

WEDDING PEACH (Ai Tenshi Densetsu Wedingu Pichi), by Nao Yazawa.  First published in 1994, and first published in North America in 2003.

Momoko Hanasaki is a romantic young lady, who dreams of having the most perfect/beautiful/sparkly/etc. wedding EVAR, just like her dear departed mother's wedding.  It certainly doesn't help that her father is a professional photographer who works at many weddings himself with Momoko as his unofficial assistant.  Momoko's matrimonial fantasies often star one Kazuya Yanagiba, the soccer team captain and resident Cutest Boy in School, but his dark and snarky teammate Yosuke Fuma keeps getting in the way.  Everything changes when a strange bishonen named Pluie tries to steal Momoko's ruby ring, an heirloom from her mother.  As she gives chase, another bishonen by the name of Limone shows up and basically walks Momoko on how to become the magical Angel of Love, Wedding Peach.

I couldn't make this crap up if I tried.

Soon Momoko's best friends become magical girls themselves, and it is up to them to protect love and romance itself from the machinations of Pluie and his master, the demoness Rain DeVilla.

You know, I expect a certain degree of girliness in magical girl stories, more so than your average shoujo story.  When you read a magical girl story, you expect a lot of frills and sparkles and friendship and schoolgirl romances.  There is a point where it can becomes excessive, and Wedding Peach is a shining example of that excess.

I know teenage girls can get rather romantic, but Momoko's focus on weddings and marriage is downright bizarre.  I could get her obsession to a degree if it was more about connecting herself to her dead mother, but it's kind of sad that her greatest goal in life is simply to get married.  Even her best friends are kind of weirded out by the whole thing, although 'best friends' is a relative term considering they do their best to compete with Momoko for Yanagiba's attention.  That's not the biggest issue I had with the story, though.

No, the far bigger I had with it was just how lazy and rote the story is.  It's clearly cribbing more than a few notes from Sailor Moon, which at this point was only a couple of years old, right down to the fact that we have a team of magical girls and even the love themed equivalent of "in the name of the moon, I will punish you!"  The attacks are incredibly bizarre at times - where else will you see a magical girl fighting evil with a camera or lipliner?  It also becomes quickly apparent that even at this early stage, Yazawa is struggling to come up with ways to turn love and weddings into magical girl-style attacks. 

The villians are just ridiculous, including but not limited to their rain themed names and their plots to literally destroy love and enslave the angels.  To do so, they need to seize four items called the Four Somethings.  Later on we learn that these refer to the old rhyme about brides wearing 'something old, something new, etc.," but before then it comes off more like the villians can't remember the name of what they are trying to steal.  "We must possess the!  I don't remember what they are called, but they are very important, and we must take them at once!"  Their methods are equally ridiculous.  Sure, it sounds intimidating to possess other people to attack the girls, but any fear is completely undercut by the fact that the creatures possessing these people look like a cross between a Furby and a Popple, ready made to be turned into plushies.

Of course, it's not a shoujo romance without a schoolroom romance, and we have that thanks to the weak-ass love triangle between flighty Momoko, Yosuke the jerk-ass, and the practically nonexistent Yanagiba.  No surprises here - even blind people can see where this triangle will lead.  But then, why should the romance be any more unpredictable than the rest of the story?  Ok, some of this predictability is a given of the genre - after all, any given magical girl's victory is as guaranteed as it is for any shonen hero.  Everything here is so predictable, though, and it leaves the reader with nothing to invest themselves in.  At the end of the day, this story is nothing but a bunch of ruffles and sparkles and pretty boys with not an ounce of soul or depth behind them.

Based on the character designs, I suspect Yazawa is a Rumiko Takahashi fan.  They're very much in the same vein - small torsos, long legs, big blobs of hair; they've just had a dash of shoujo-style chibification added to boot.  As you suspect from such a description, these are not terribly expressive characters outside of big, broad overreactions.  Sadly, she didn't attempt to imitate Takahashi's clean, crisp take on action scenes.  All the attacks here are a mess of swooping speed lines, sparkles, and screen tones.  Panels are packed like sardines on the page, and even when Yazawa tries to expand the panels for the fight scenes, it doesn't make things any clearer - it just makes it messier on a larger scale.

There's far less to say for the artwork than there is about the story.  It's old fashioned in its character designs and it's kind of a mess on the page, which only adds to the mess that is the writing.

There's a pointless little side story centered on a school sports event, and that's the extent of the extras.

Wedding Peach may be out to save love, but what she can't save is this manga from being something other than a sloppy, soulless Sailor Moon knockoff.

This series was released by Viz.  All 6 volumes were released, and all are out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, April 15, 2013


SUGAR SUGAR RUNE (Shuga Shuga Run), by Moyocco Anno.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2005.

Chocolat and Vanilla are two witches in training from the Magic World.  They are also both candidates to become the new Queen of the Magic World, and to determine the winner the girls are transported to the Human World.  There they will literally capture the hearts of those around them, and she who collects the most and best hearts wins.  The thing is that winning the hearts of young boys works differently between the Human and Magic worlds.  In the Magic World, Chocolat's brash snarky ways make her popular, and Vanilla's gentle kindness is a liability.  In the Human World, Vanilla is so hopelessly moe that boys practically fall over themselves to love her, while they are scared or intimidated by Chocolat.  Worse still, Chocolat begins to fall for Pierre, the class prince whose beauty is only exceeded by his callousness and coldness.  You see, while a witch needs to steal human hearts to succeed, a witch who loses her own heart to a human is banished...or worse.

What happens when an established josei mangaka decides to take on the magical girl genre, that most girly of shoujo genres?  You get something stranger, something snarker, and something more interesting than the rest.

Most of that comes from Anno's choice of lead.  Chocolat is a veritable breath of fresh air when it comes to magical girls, as she is self-confident, tomboyish, and blunt.  She's certainly more compelling than Vanilla, who true to her name is so sugary sweet and kind that she becomes something of a bore.  I get the idea that Anno prefers Chocolat to Vanilla as well, simply based on what drives the girls.  After all, Chocolat has more to drive her to win, as she wants to be just like her beautiful talented mother who was banished years ago for loving a human.  Vanilla's mother is already Queen, and is herself is about as friendly and noncompetitive as they come.

Anno milks a lot of humor out of Chocolat's attempts at winning hearts, but it's not done at her expense; indeed, she's shown to be slowly but subtly winning some of her classmates over.  For example, her first conquest likes her despite being convinced that she is an alien, and her second is an immature bully who ends up becomes something of a friend out of Chocolat's complete inability to be freaked out by little boy pranks.  It's a good way to both build Chocolat's personality and that of the supporting cast, and it's well done.

It's also slightly clever in how this series approaches love and friendship, in comparision to its many genremates.  In a typical magical girl story, love and friendship are treasured qualities, qualities that they may even be fighting to protect.  Here love and friendship are literally little more than currency for witches, and humans themselves are viewed as something of a renewable resource for witches and wizards to exploit.  The only time the subject is taken seriously is when it concerns the friendship between Chocolat and Vanilla; while the girls are competitors, they are friends first and foremost, and Chocolat never takes out her frustrations on her friend.

It also takes love more seriously when it concerns Chocolat's emerging crush on Pierre, and the clear parallels it has to her mother's fate.  Honestly, this is one of the few places where I feel that Anno stumbled, as she telegraphs his true nature a bit too blatantly and reveals him as a villain too soon.  She would have done better to play his character more ambiguously instead of having practically state upfront that he's playing the girls in his class for fools.

Sugar Sugar Rune, in spite of its sugary title, possesses a lot more spice and bite than its concept suggests, boosted in large part by its refreshingly different lead and its somewhat cynical take on magical girl clichés.

I was curious to see how Anno's distinct style would translate to the world of shoujo, and I'm happy to say that it works beautifully.

The character designs are typical for a Moyocco Anno work - slightly bobbleheaded, frequently pretty, and possessing enormous, dark, and frequently cynical eyes.  Sure, the edges are a little more rounded, as befitting the youth of the cast, but all the usual qualities are there.  She also puts a lot of detail and variety into the costumes and backgrounds, although sadly we don't get many glimpses into the Magic World.  She also doesn't abuse screen tones for emotional moments like so many shoujo artists do, saving them instead for the instances of magic. Panels tend to be large and the characters often burst right out of the borders, giving the pages a greater sense of activity and life.

Being a Del-Ray release, there are the standard honorifics guide in the front and the translation notes and untranslated preview of the next volume in the back.   There are also a wide variety of little games and infographics between the chapters.

Sugar Sugar Rune balances the whimsical sweetness of a magical girl story with the spice of a great lead and great art, and highly recommend it to both fans of Moyocco Anno and to those looking for something different in their magical girls.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  All 8 volumes were released, but all are now out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, April 8, 2013


Of course, I can't let a month of magical girl manga pass without looking at one of the many works of one of the best known (and widely published, even in English) mangaka, Arina Tanemura.  There are more than quite a few series of hers to choose from (and I will get to them in time), but today I'll be looking at her most recent series.

SAKURA-HIME: THE LEGEND OF PRINCESS SAKURA (Sakura Hime Kaden), by Arina Tanemura.  First published in 2008 and first published in North America in 2011.

During the Heien Era, Sakura is an orphaned princess living deep in the countryside.  She is supported only by the charity of Prince Oura, to whom she has been betrothed since childhood.  Now at 14 years old, it is time for her to marry, but Sakura wants no part of it.  Her reluctance isn't helped by the prince's emissary Aoba, as the two get along about as well as oil and water.  To the surprise of no one, Aoba turns out to be Oura himself, and bit by bit he begins to win Sakura over.  This is the least of her conflicts, though.

For her whole life, Sakura has been forbidden to gaze upon the full moon, and in a rebellious fits she does just that.  It turns out that Sakura is a descendant of Princess Kagura, a mythical being from the moon, and the countryside is full of demons that are drawn to her.  The only time they can find her, though, is during a full moon.  Luckily, Sakura is not defenseless.  She possesses the ability to call forth her grandmother's magical sword and fight the demons herself.  Once her powers are revealed, Sakura must flee for her life, as it turns out that there are more than just demons who wish to exploit her powers.

This is one mixed-up crazy story.  It starts out as romance, then takes a sharp turn into magical girl territory, only to veer off again into more of a fantasy adventure.  All these genre twists leave the reader reeling, never knowing where the story (and the tone, for that matter) may go.  This might not be such a bad thing if all these twists were centered around a compelling lead, but alas for us our lead is little more than a magical brat.

If I may be allowed to rant for a moment, am I the only one who is sick to death of the 'rebellious princess doesn't want to marry for duty, but for love' story?  It's a cliché that's been trod out time and again on both sides of the Pacific, and it's rare when it works for me as a character arc because it almost always ends in one of two ways:

     1.  The princess will find someone else along the way to fall in love with and marry.
     2.  The princess will end up falling in love with the fiancée whom she could not stand before.

After all, they are princesses - they are almost always raised within cultures or political systems where marrying for political or financial gain is as common as dirt, so what gives them cause to start questioning the system now? (Other than 'because most Western cultures now value love in relationships' and 'because most Western cultures no longer view women as property to be exchanged through marriage.)  Why are these princesses never interested in experiencing a new country or culture, or eager to exploit the newfound influence and power that comes with both being a queen (or equivalent title) and as a married woman?

Ok, with that rant out of my system, let's get back to the issue of Sakura.  She is one of these cliché rebellious princesses to a T, and not even a terribly mature one at that.  Her idea of rebelling against her fate is to run away and pout, like a child running away from a scolding.  She's an incredibly childish and contrary character, and far too annoying and simple to be the least bit sympathetic.    Much like the story itself, her personality runs all over the place and always at extremes, shifting from bratty to sweet to sad to determined on a whim.  Like I noted above, she does eventually come around to her fiancée, but it feels forced, like it's happening solely because the mangaka (or the cliché, or both) demand it instead of happening naturally through character interaction.

Mind you, at least she has a personality (or at least fragments of personalities) - the same can't be said for the rest of the cast.  Oura is your standard shoujo jerkass - not an out-and-out tsundere, but the kind of person who is sweet to Sakura one moment and teasing her the next.  Everyone is one note, ranging from Sakura's wise old guardian Byakuya, her little spirit maid Asagiri, or Sakura's new, energetic ninja girl sidekick Kohaku.

You'd think a story about historical magical girl, especially one tied to a well-known Japanese myth, would be an interesting twist on the genre.  The problem is that it tries to be too much at once by throwing every story idea at the metaphorical wall and seeing what sticks.  Worse still, it's led by an annoying brat whose mood shifts awkwardly with every genre shift, who is in turn surrounded by hollow clichés for a supporting cast.  There are tons of ideas, but none of them have enough thought and effort put into them to make them truly original or interesting, and in the end it's nothing but a mess.

It's not just Sakura-Hime's story that is messy - the art is also too busy for its own good.  Tanemura has a very distinct style of character design, but it's one that's always been too cutesy for my taste.  They are creatures with enormous shiny saucer eyes, stuck into bobbleheads on top of matchstick bodies.  These creatures are in turn plopped into a veritable explosion of long, patterned kimonos, long, swirling hair, flower petals, screen effects, and so much more.  Tanemura damn near throws the artistic equivalent of the kitchen sick at the reader's eyes, and the result is tacky and confusing.

It's a shame because there are points where are some beautiful or striking images, or lovely little touches like the light line work of a kimono pattern or the trees in the background. Her action scenes aren't terrible either, as she uses a handful of well-drawn and staged poses in lieu of lots of speed lines.  Instead, these tiny bits of loveliness are drowned out by the sheer volume of STUFF on the pages.  It certainly doesn't help that the panels are packed in tight on the pages in jumble of size and shape.  Normally a bit of variety in the panels helps to bring some visual interest to the pages, but when they are packed with so much STUFF it just becomes a mess of ink and effects.  It also doesn't help that the panels are rather tightly focused on the characters, and that Tanemura uses screen effects and tones like they were going out of style. 

I can't help but get the feeling that Tanemura could be a good artist, or at least a better at art than she is at storytelling.  If she teamed up with a writer that rein her in and keep her focuses, she could be quite good.  As it is, Sakura-Hime's art is as mixed-up as its story.

There are a couple of sketches of Sakura, along with a brief author bio and an equally brief retelling of the legend of Princess Kaguya.

Sakura-Hime is too jumbled and nonsensical for its own good, wanted to be too many thing at once and succeeding at none of them.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 12 volumes available.  9 of the 12 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.

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

Monday, April 1, 2013


At last! Spring has come!  Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and everything is bright and pretty!  You know what else is bright and pretty?  MAGICAL GIRLS!

Don't worry, there are no contracts here - just a month's worth of reviews.  So to kick things off, let's start with a series by Naoko Takeuchi.

No, not that one, the one before it...

CODENAME: SAILOR V (Kodo Namu wa Sera Bui), by Naoko Takeuchi.  First published in 1993, and first published in North America in 2011.

Before Usagi became Sailor Moon, there was Minako Aino.  Minako is a lively and athletic girl, with a healthy appetite, not a lot of school smarts, and a deep love of video games and idol singers.  One day, she stumbles across a white cat with a moon-shaped scar who turns out to be a talking cat name Artemis.  Artemis gives Minako a device which turns her into Sailor V, giving her magical powers to transform and to fight against the evil forces of the Dark Agency, who seek to drain the energy from the world for their own nefarious plots.

Poor Codename: Sailor V.  It always has to suffer under constant comparison to its much more successful sister series.  Sure, Sailor V came first, and without it Takeuchi wouldn't have created Sailor Moon at all, but the latter was the one that went on longer and became a veritable franchise, while Sailor V never saw an official release here until nearly 20 years after it started.  All that being said, the real question is this: can Codename: Sailor V be enjoyed on its own merits?  The answer is yes...sort of.

Of course, Sailor V doesn't help its own case when you compare their two leads.  Minako and Usagi might as well be the same character, although when put into historical context it's more like that Minako is like a rough sketch for Usagi.  There are some differences - Minako is much less sensitive, much more skeptical, and much more athletic than Usagi at the same point in her own series.  It also doesn't help that Sailor V's powers are extremely similar, complete with a costume pen and a moon-themed beam that dissolves the bad guys into goop.  At least Minako makes much more and better use of the costume pen then Usagi did.  Even the supporting cast looks familiar at times - Minako's best friend is pretty much a carbon copy of Ami/Sailor Mercury, there's a glasses-wearing otaku that follows her around, and the police chief that secretly admires Sailor V looks like a slightly older Rei/Sailor Mars.  Heck, some of the actual sailor scouts (in their civilian guises) make cameos.

The biggest difference between the two works is in their story structure.  Unlike Sailor Moon, Sailor V is very episodic.  There's only the slightest hint of a larger plot, and it's clear that Takeuchi had yet to come up with the whole Silver Millennium mythology because there doesn't seem to be a purpose to the Dark Agency beyond "suck everyone's energy" and "EVIL."  As such, it does get a bit repetitious by volume's end, when we've already had a couple of evil idol singers and an evil tour guide fighting Sailor V in Greece.

I feel like I'm being a bit harsh on Sailor V, because at its best it is plenty of fun.  I also think that Takeuchi starts to get a better handle on Minako's personality and powers as the volume goes on.  Sailor V may be something of a rough sketch for its sister series, but it is also an enjoyable, if flawed, work of its own.

While Takeuchi's writings skills were still being honed with Sailor V, her visual style had already come into its own.  Her character designs are very simple and often least, when it's not going into chibi mode.  The linework isn't quite as delicate as it would get in Sailor Moon, but some of Sailor V's poses and moves are drawn in a downright pretty manner.  The simplicity does sometimes hurt the artwork, as it tends to go off-model at times in earlier chapters, and Artemis in particular suffers greatly from this.  Takeuchi also tends to go a bit crazy with the screentones during the battle scenes which can make them a bit hard to follow.  I do like her use of actual patterns behind the characters during the lighter moments, something rather distinct to her work.  Of course, this means that the panels can often be a bit busy (it is a surprisingly chatty manga), but never to the point where it becomes impossible to follow.

Sailor V's artwork, like its story, is sometime rough and unpolished, but it's also light and sometimes pretty, and Takeuchi's unique style is already in place.

There are color pages in the front, which I rather like as I feel Takeuchi's art looks best in color.  There are also plenty of translation notes in the back, as well as a brief profile on Minako.

Sailor V is a bit rough and amateurish in place, but it can be enjoyed on its own, outside of Sailor Moon, and I for one am glad that North American audiences have finally gotten the chance to read it for themselves.

This series is being released by Kodansha.  3 volumes were released in Japan, and all have been published in 2 volumes, all of which are currently in print.

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