Friday, August 30, 2013


One last old-school work for the month, and I'm taking things out with yet another 1970s series.  This one, though, is very different from the others I've reviewed.  This time it's a horror series by a mangaka who is just as well respected as the others I've covered but is far less well-known or renowned.

THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM (Hyoryu Kyoshitsu), by Kazuo Umezu.  First published in 1972, and first published in North America in 2006.

One morning, Sho wakes up in a bad mood.  It's not his fault, though.  She didn't wake him up on time, plus she threw out all the treasures and things he had kept stashed in his drawer!  So like a brat, he trashes the breakfast table, yells at his mother, and basically acts like a wee little bastard.  That would probably be the most notable thing about his day, if this day were like any other.

That day, Sho's elementary school disappears in a loud explosion.  This sounds like the end of the story, but it is only the beginning, for the school did not truly explode.  Instead it was transported to an unknown dimension, a blank vast wasteland that kills those who venture out into it.  As the families left behind try to figure out what happened, those within the school - staff and student alike - begin to panic as they come to grips with the fact that they are trapped in a place with no way out and no way to communicate their plight to the world.

The best summary of the story would be to simply call it Mass Hysteria: The Manga!  At first this seems like it will solely be Sho's story, but once the school is teleported the story widens its focus to encompass some of the other fellow students and staff members around Sho.  The way people react to their situation, as unreal as it may be, is very realistic onto itself.  Some try to be proactive and try to leave or communicate with the world.  Some curl up into a gibbering mess.  Others give in to their basest instincts and lash out at others. 

This part takes up roughly the second half of the story, and it's so deadly serious in tone as to make the first half kind of ridiculous.  It doesn't help that I found Sho to be an insufferable little brat.  I didn't want to follow this kid's story, I wanted someone to smack him!  Still, he gets the lion's share of character development here, so I guess we the readers are stuck with him.  It is worth sticking it out, though, because once things get supernatural, they do get very good.  Unlike a lot of horror manga, the horror here doesn't come so much from the supernatural forces at work so much as it comes from the despair and horror of the human mind when faced with a disaster it could never imagine, never prepare for, and is seemingly hopeless to fight against.

I'm glad that the story is pretty solid because this has to be some of the ugliest artwork I've seen in a manga.  The faces are strangely realistic, but also very stiff and seemingly too small for the characters' heads.  It doesn't help that their reactions come in one of two variations: Realistic and Completely Over-the-Top Cartoony. The only that does seem to express itself are the characters' eyebrows.  It's particularly weird when characters cry, because it looks like their eyes are melting, which is horrific all on its own but not what the mangaka intended.  There's very little flow of action between panels, and the ones where characters run are the goofiest look things ever, stuck in a jaunty running pose like an action figure floating in the background. 

Indeed, the artwork as a whole is very dark and unshifting, regardless of mood.  The backgrounds are equally dark and detailed, full of hatching.  That's one of the few places where the darkness works, as it effectively matches the dark and foreboding mood of the work.  Sadly, it can't compensate for the stiffness and oddness of the characters within it, and it sometimes undercuts the seriousness and horror of the story.

There's a surprisingly thorough biography of Umezu, as well as a bibliography of his works.  It's nice that Viz chose to give the reader some context for the mangaka as well as this work.

The psychological horror in the story is fascinating, but it sadly can't compensate for the hideous, stiff artwork.

This series was released by Viz.  All 11 volumes were released and are in print.  This series is also available in full in e-book form via Viz Digital.

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

Friday, August 23, 2013


Oh guys have no idea how much I've been looking forward to this review.  Sure, it fits in with the theme because it was created by another Year 24 mangaka, but this is truthfully one of my favorite manga ever and I want you all to know why.

FROM EROICA WITH LOVE (Eroica Yori Ai o Komete), by Aoike Yasuko.  First published in 1976, and first published in North America in 2004.

We start with three cute, pleasant high school students who are not only gifted with ESP, but also super strength and genius-level intellect.  They're not important, though.  Who is important is the beautiful blond man who wanders into their story at an art museum.  This man is Earl Dorian Red Gloria, an admirer of beautiful art and beautiful men.  He is a man who gets whatever he wants, and what he can't get through money or cajolery he will get through theft.  The only person that can stop him is Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, a West German NATO officer who is strict, officious, and disdainful of all that Dorian stands for, and circumstance keeps throwing these two together in all sorts of international crises.

It's rare to see a manga shift focus as quickly as From Eroica With Love does.  It's rarer still that such a radical shift works to the story's benefit, not against it.

It becomes glaringly obvious that the psychic Scooby gang from the beginning can't begin to hold a candle to Dorian.  His stunning, Robert Plant-inspired looks and suave, worldly ways don't just steal the scene, they steal the whole damn storyline!  Yasuko seems to have realized this as well, because those kids all but disappear after that first chapter.  Frankly I'm Ok with their loss, partially because the psychic and superpower angle was really goofy and underutilized, and partially because they had little to no personality, so nothing of value was lost.  Once Dorian takes the metaphorical wheel of the plot, that's when the story finally finds its tone and focus.

From that point on, it's a jet-setting adventure story, where Dorian and Klaus find themselves at varying degrees of opposition over some fabulous piece of art.  The story is full of energy and the tone manages to balance the action and the humor expertly.  You'd think such a story would get tiresome after a while - Dorian sees shiny thing, Dorian like shiny thing, Dorian steals shiny thing, Dorian and Klaus flirt banter a lot.  Luckily, Yasuko keeps things interesting by making their relationship not-so-strictly adversarial.  At points Dorian and Klaus must team up to achieve a common goal (even if they do so for different reasons), and Dorian makes some genuine effort to understand Klaus and his worldview.

The story would work half so well without a worthy adversary, and Klaus is more than worthy.  He's not only a strong character in his own right, but he works as both adversary and comic foil to Dorian.  The greatest joy in this manga is watching these two interact, seeing someone so straight-laced and uptight have get so flustered and frustrated with someone who is at once both cunning and decadent, but yet so outwardly friendly and flirtatious.  Oh, did I mention that this story is purposefully and blatantly slashy?  One of the reasons this work (and the mangaka that created it) is so influential is that at the time of its creation, it was revolutionary to have any sort of man-on-man action.  Yaoi and shonen-ai were only just coming into being as separate genres, and were ones rarely seen outside of the doujinshi circles, so it was and is remarkable to see so much blatant slashiness in something published in a shoujo magazine.  Hell, most modern day yaoi and shonen-ai works could only wish they had half as much plot and adventure as this manga, or had characters that were this engaging.

There's a fair bit of humor to be found outside of our main duo, though.  There are quite a few fourth-wall breaking jokes where characters comment on how they must not be in the right manga or on the quality of their own story.  There's also Dorian's gang of minions, most of which are named and modeled on the other Led Zepplin members, with the most prominent of them being Dorian's miserly, neurotic, and openly gay accountant James (yes, as in Page.)  While the story never becomes an outright farce, it keeps enough humor to keep things very lighthearted, and the heists onto themselves throw in a few unexpected turns to keep everyone (even Klaus and Dorian) on their toes.

I could honestly talk about From Eroica With Love all day because it's just so damn good.  It may have a bit of a shaky start, but it turns itself about very quickly and in doing so becomes an incredibly well-polished, confident, and flat-out entertaining story.

Much like my previous review of Swan, Eroica's art is blatantly rooted in 1970s shoujo style.  All the men (even Klaus!) have long flowing hair, although none can compare to Dorian's lush mane of waves.  The eyes are all narrow, glittering, and dark.  The chins are uber-pointy and the bodies are all ridiculously long and skinny.  People tend to be terribly pretty, if rather broadly expressive.  Yasuko clearly loved drawing all of Dorian's wardrobe, considering all the detail lavished on his many loose, flowy shirts, large draping coats, and impossibly tight pants.  She doesn't leave a lot of room for backgrounds in the panels, but those present are simple but nicely drawn.  The page composition is fairly standard, breaking out the larger panels for dramatic moments.  Overall, the artwork is rather dated, even more so than the story.  Still, it's not as visually busy as some of its contemporaries, which makes it easy to follow, and it is attractive in its own right.

The only thing resembling an extra is a plot summary for the next volume.

This is another classic of 70s shoujo.  It's a great adventure built around two great characters and I'm so glad this got release here, even if it was never finished and never sold well.

This series was released by CMX.  This series is ongoing in Japan, but only 15 volumes were released and all are out of print. 

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: TO TERRA....

Sorry for the delay - I went to visit some college friends this weekend, and it's taken a little bit to get back on track as far as my usual routine.  So, we're moving ahead from the 50s to the 70s (as sadly manga from the 1960s is not terribly well represented on the American market save for the collective works of Osamu Tezuka).  We're also looking at one of the members of the Year 24 Group (also known as the Fourty-Niners), an informal group of female mangaka born in 1949/Showa Year 24 who set many of the standards and subgenres for shoujo as a whole, and this sci-fi classic is a wonderful indication of what kind of groundbreaking she was doing.

TO TERRA...(Terra e...), by Keiko Takemiya.  First published in 1977.  First published in North America in 2007.

Somewhere in the future, the Earth is at absolute limits.  To help conserve the planet, humanity takes off for the stars.  There they establish the age of Superior Domination, where children are bred by a universal computer, placed with foster parents, and then as teenagers are placed on adult colonies where the computer determines who amongst them is worthy of being sent back to Earth, or "Terra."  What the computers could not anticipate was the creation of the Mu, physically handicapped individuals who also possess powerful psychic and telekinetic powers.  The Mu are exiles from humanity as a whole, but they too harbor plans and aspirations to return to Terra.

The story focuses on two young boys: Jomy Marcus Shin, a 14 year old on the cusp of his Maturity Check, and Keith Anyan, a boy on the fast track to leadership.  Jomy is brash, moody, and rebellious, and discovers that he is in fact a Mu.  He is rescued by a hidden Mu ship only to discover that his powers are not just a quirk, but may represent the future of the Mu.  Keith, on the other hand, is a brilliant student on his colony but is distant and cold with others.  It takes a prodigy by the name of Seki Ray Shiroe to make Keith start questioning both the order of his society as well as his own past.

It's not unusual to find a sci-fi story about one or more people rebelling against an oppressive or tyrannical government both inside and outside of manga.  To Terra distinguishes itself from the pack by exploring this well-worn brand of conflict from both sides, from the views of both the oppressed (the Mu) and the oppressors (the humans).  By doing so, she gives this old conflict some moral complexity and ambiguity, making it less a tale of Good vs. Evil and more about two souls who want to explore and break out of the limits set by their own societies.

It certainly looks like a Good vs. Evil story at the beginning, with Jomy representing the Good (albeit a moody, whining sort of Good) and the adults representing the Evil.  Then he is shanghaied by the Mu and all but forced into becoming their leader, since he is the first Mu to possess both great mental powers and a physically hale body.  My only problem with that is that once Jomy becomes their leader, he seems to lose what personality he had for a good chunk of the volume and accepts the role of leader without question. 

He gets better after a flash forward, where we see hints of the old Jomy as he butts heads with the Mu leaders over if it would be better to establish a new home world or to keep pursuing a return to Terra.  Jomy's journey from boy to man and from skeptic to leader would be a perfectly fine story arc on its own, but Takemiya is willing to give the story greater depth by looking at things from the human's side of things by looking at Keith.

Keith seems to be the perfect example of non-Mu humanity, being a top student and athlete, albeit one with few acquaintances and no friends.  He's also a common character in science fiction, one who is a functioning member of an oppressive society until his eyes are opened to the truth.  The truth in this case comes from Seki, who not only beats Keith in practically every field but also questions and rebels against the system and the computers that control everyone's life, and Keith's irritation at Seki soon transforms into questions of his own about himself and his fate. 

By showing Keith's story, Takemiya humanizes both sides of the human/Mu conflict.  We see that those under SD control are not all happy, mindless drones - there are those within the system who question it and their own purpose within it.  Keith and Jomy end up being parallels to one another, despite their never meeting - both are young and gifted, both quickly become leaders within their own societies, and both find themselves questioning the morality and direction of their respective cultures.  It's unknown at this point whether Keith and Jomy will meet, but I can only hope that if they do, the results are just as fascinating and complex as their lives so far have been separately.

Being a manga from the 1970s, it may take a modern reader some time to get used to Takemiya's now old-fashioned style.  Like most older mangaka, Takemiya takes some cues from Tezuka, particularly in their similiarly and somewhat cartoonish character designs.  Still, there is a delicacy to Takemiya's linework, and the dark glittering eyes of her characters are very much a visual signature of 1970s shoujo. 

There are some beautiful vistas in this manga, be they the abstract recesses of a character's mind or the vast scope of space and machinery.  Takemiya puts a lot of detail into the planets and spaceships her characters inhabit both inside and out.  Her page composition complements the beauty of her artwork as well, as the panels tend to be big and loosely bordered, allowing for a lot of layering and lovely-looking montages.  She takes advantage of all that space with plenty of one- and two-page spreads of space itself, which helps to highlight the isolation of both human and Mu, as well as the very literal distance between both parties and their mutual goal of Terra. 

Takemiya's artwork may be a touch old-fashioned, but it's also very beautiful and evocative, using
scale and sheer artistic skill to enhance the drama and conflict of her characters.

This was released early in the life of Vertical, when most of their manga covers took a more Pop Art influenced approach, contrasting the title with selected panels of the work inside.  This was also the time where they would put brief blurbs about selected cast members on the back, but as they only cover about four or five characters at a time, they feel rather incomplete.

This title has earned its classic status by take a well-worn sci-fi set up and turning it instead into two parallel tales of opposing forces, with two future leaders who are sowing the seeds of rebellion within their own cultures.  This story is in turn complemented by its beautiful artwork, which gives their futuristic world a sense of both scale and beauty.  I cannot recommend this series hard enough.

This series was released by Vertical.  All 3 volumes were released, but all are currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, August 5, 2013


 It's August once again, and thus we're taking thing back to school - the old school, that is.  That's right, this month I'm focusing on manga that was created (for the most part) before you and I were even born.  Of course, if I'm going back to the beginnings of manga itself, we simply HAVE to review a work from the God of Manga himself.

PRINCESS KNIGHT (Ribon no Kishi), by Osamu Tezuka.  First published in 1953, and first published in North America in 2001.

In Heaven, the angels decide which children will get a boy's heart or a girl's heart.  One mischevious angel named Puck accidentally gives one child both types of hearts, and this child is born on Earth as the Princess Sapphire.  This should give great joy to her parents, but the rule of the kingdom is that only male heirs can inherit the throne, and the wicked Duke Duralumin is waiting for any chance to stick his weak, hapless son Plastic on the throne.  To protect the throne and the kingdom, Sapphire's parents decide to raise her as a boy.

Over a decade later, Sapphire appears to all the world as a daring and swashbuckling young man.  She begins to feel conflicted over her gender after a chance encounter with the handsome Prince Franz Charming at a costume ball.  Things only get worse when Sapphire's true sex is revealed and she and her mother end up on the run from the Duke's forces.  Along the way Sapphire suffers from imprisonment, demons, angels, swordfights, witches, pirates, and more on her quest to regain her rightful throne. 

If there is one word that best describes Princess Knight, it's 'relentless.'  The plot never seems to stop to take a breath, always leaping from from one situation to the next.  What's truly amazing is that in spite of this, the end result is still very compelling.

The story is simply told, but it's always pushing forward, always pitting poor Sapphire against some new foe or force with little to no time to ponder her situation.  While it keeps the story from spinning its wheels, it also wouldn't have hurt it to have a few quiet moments in between all those action beats, lest the reader suffer a vicarious sort of exhaustion.  This is also a very moral simple story, where the good side is very, very good and the bad side is very, very bad and if anyone changes at all it's simply shifting allegiance from one side to the other.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing - after all, this is meant to be like a fairy tale.  Indeed, it's so much like a fairy tale that it blatantly cribs plot points from real fairy tales like Cinderella and Swan Lake.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that there's isn't some degree of sexism on display here.  We are dealing with a story written in both the 1950s and Japan, and neither time nor place are bastions of liberal feminist thought.  When Sapphire loses her boy's heart, she is weak and defenseless; when she loses her girl's heart, she is violent and callow.  It is only when she has both that she is at her most balanced, able to love and care but also to take action and fight.

An interesting bit of subtext to this story is the running theme about children and the expectations their parents place on them.  Sapphire suffers from having to hide her true identity for the sake of a kingdom.  Plastic clearly has no interest or capability to rule the kingdom his father so desperately covets.  Hecate, the child of the demon that wants to capture Sapphire's girl heart, has no interest in becoming more feminine and playing a role in her mother's schemes, wanting only to be a merry little prankster.  All of these characters are troubled, to varying degrees, because their parents want them to play roles that they were not meant to play, and it's those troubles (Sapphire's mostly) that drive the story forward.  It's interesting to see relatively subtle themes like this in what is otherwise a very simple, black and white, action driven story, and it really speaks to what a good writer Tezuka could be, even in these early days of his career.

It is a well-known fact that Tezuka was heavily influenced by the works of Walt Disney, and rarely is that influence more obvious than in the art for Princess Knight.  The character designs are simple and cartoony, as typical for Tezuka, but there's something about the glitteriness of their eyes or the goofiness of the villains that is highly reminiscent of Disney shorts from the 1930s and 1940s.  Even weirder, the demon witch mentioned before bears a striking resemblance to Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent, even transforming into a dragon at one point, despite the fact that this was released 6 years before Sleeping Beauty was released.

While the page composition is fairly standard, Tezuka does use a lot of larger panels and dramatic angles and the overall look is very clean and polished.  There's a sort of grandness to the backgrounds, as while they are not overly ornate they are well detailed and convey a great sense of vastness and scale. 

It may take new readers some time to adjust to Tezuka's comparatively cartoony art style, but beneath that simplicity will find some well drawn and thought-out artwork.

Nothing to see here.

This is a  true classic of the manga world, much like the fairy tales it emulates.  It's a must-have for Tezuka fans, and a great introduction for those new to his works.

This series was previous released by Kodansha, and has been reissued by Vertical.  The bilingual Kodansha release is out of print.  The series is complete in two omnibuses by Vertical, and is currently in print.

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