Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Giveaway Winner & Year-End Thoughts

Before I go any further, it's time to announce the winner of this year's Holiday Giveaway.  It sounds like a lot of you are reading some good stuff (and more than one of you got hooked on Vinland Saga, which warms my heart after the shock of that series going on hiatus).  Ultimately I had to pick one, though, and this year's winner is usamimi's short but sweet comment:

Definitely "Silent Voice" on Crunchyroll! It was really unique and totally sucked me in. I'm so glad it's getting a print edition soon.
Congratulations usamimi!  If you'll send me an email over at, I will get you that gift certificate code over to you right away, ready and able to be used at your will.

Speaking of RightStuf, I'm proud to announce that starting tomorrow, this site will be part of their affiliate program!  That means that when and where applicable, there will be links in my reviews will allow you to purchase the books I review, along with anime, merchandise, and much more.  It's a great opportunity to not only add some great books to your own shelves, but also to support the site and help keep the Manga Test Drive chugging along.

It's been quite the year for me.  I started out 2014 burnt out on this whole 'manga reviewing' thing and beginning to wonder if I would ever come back to the site.  After a few months and a lot of thought, though, I made my return.  It took me a bit to get back into the groove of things, but now I can say with confidence that my dedication to the site and to reviewing manga is stronger than ever, and I'm grateful to everyone that gives my humble little blog a look.  I'm also grateful that some of you have followed my ventures over at Infinite Rainy Day.  I took on the position there in the hopes of expanding my repertoire a little, and I've been incredibly happy with the results.  I'm also so happy that I was able to participate in a podcast for the first time ever, and those who haven't already should take a listen to hear my thoughts on Kill La Kill and Yamada's First Time.

I have to give a major shout out to the folks over at MangaBlog, who have been so kind as to feature some of my reviews and I'm grateful for each and every signal boost.  I also have to give a shout out to Ash at Experiments In Manga, who brought me to their attention as a long-time fan of the site.  Ash is an excellent reviewer in his own right and you should absolutely follow him and the many other reviews over at Manga Bookshelf.  I have to give some love to my fellow writers at Infinte Rainy Day: Jonathan, Stephanie, Zac, John, Walter, David, and Thomas.  I've greatly enjoyed reading your own reviews and articles and am proud and pleased to be part of such a fine crew of writers.  I also have to do the same for my old friends over at The Five Point Podcast - it was a pleasure to talk with you guys, and I hope that you guys can get back to making more podcasts in the next year. 

Last and by no means least, though, I have to thank every single one of you who reads this site.  It doesn't matter whether you've been reading it from the beginning or simply stumbled upon a link, your views and input are what keep me going and keep me motivated.  You guys are the reason I came back, and you guys are also the reason I plan on keeping this site going into 2015 and beyond.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Let's finish this up on a high note with something just as warm and cozy as the last review.  After all, what could be more appropriate for Christmas Day than a series that's all about relationships and food? 

WHAT DID YOU EAT YESTERDAY? (Kino Nani Tabeta?), by Fumi Yoshinaga.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2014.

Kenji and Shiro are a loving gay couple of three years.  Kenji is a hairdresser who is comfortable with himself, his relationship, and Shiro's fine home cooking.  Shiro is a successful lawyer, but he's also far more neurotic and secretive about himself and his lifestyle.  It's hard to blame him when he has a hard enough time getting his parents to accept him as a gay man; trying to do the same for his coworkers or the world at large is too much for him to bear.  Shiro would rather focus on the things he can control, like his cases, his budget, and his kitchen.  Shiro is not only a great cook, but a frugal one, and he enjoys planning out meals and working through each step of a recipe.  While trials and tribulations may come their ways, it seems everything in Kenji and Shiro's life seems to wrap up contently at the dinner table.

I've made no secret in the past about my fondness of the works of Fumi Yoshinaga.  Her boys' love works are above-average, and her drama and slice-of-life works are some of the finest manga you'll find on the market.  This, her most recent series, is essentially the meeting of those two genres, although its appeal will depend just as much on your love of cooking as it will on the appeal of the main cast.

It's rare to see any manga that focuses on a committed gay couple such as Kenji and Shiro.  After all, most BL is focused on the rush of new love and the build up to the ultimate confession thereof.  Kenji and Shiro are long past that point, though.  They've settled nicely into adulthood, where they work all day and come home to talk over dinner about work, household issues, or whatever may be going on with friends and family.  This is very much a slice-of-life story in the most literal sense of that term, and it's a credit to Yoshinaga's skill with character building that even these everyday conversations are interesting, letting them give insight to the characters without hammering the reader over the head about it. 

While Kenji does get his fair share of starring chapters, most of the narrative focus stays on Shiro.  It's kind of ironic, since Shiro spends so much of his screen time trying to avoid drama and avoid notice.  It's just that he likes to be in control at all times.  He likes to have control of his cases, maintaining his health and good looks, and his home.  He doesn't want a bunch of questions or comments from other people, like the ones he gets from his housewife friend when he first meets her family.  He doesn't want a lot of misunderstandings like he gets from his parents, especially his mother.  She's the sort who thinks that going to a gender disorder support group counts as supporting her son, even as she grows visibly nervous as the suggestion of Shiro bringing Kenji to his parents' place.  You can't blame the man for wanting to retreat from all that and focusing instead on where he can get the best price for tofu or watermelons.  Knowing that, it also helps the reader understand why these two would stay together so long.  Kenji is good at smoothing out troubles with difficult customers, and he enjoys the simple pleasures of life.  Thus, he's very good at helping Shiro relax while always providing an appreciative audience for his cooking.  Yoshinaga's always been skillful at bringing out the nuances in her characters and their relationships, and that skill is in full effect here.  Kenji and Shiro feel like real people you could meet and know, with quirks and foibles that are appropriate for their age and their personalities.  The coziness of their relationship makes for a very inviting read.

I cannot emphasize enough just how important cooking is to this story.  Where her previous work Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me Happy was all about celebrating Yoshinaga's favorite restaurants, here's she celebrating the joy of good home cooking.  Shiro has a tendency to mentally narrate his way step by step through his recipes, and the steps are so thorough that one could almost use them like traditional recipes.  A fairly wide variety of dishes and cuisines are represented, with everything from mapo doufu to baked chicken thighs to strawberry jam, often with plenty of complementary side dishes.  Mostly I'm impressed at how easily he comes up with these recipes, considering that he's never seen consulting a cookbook and comes up with ideas on the fly based on whatever is on sale.  Still, sometimes the chapters can get a little too lost in the process, and those who aren't deeply into cooking or baking might start to get bored.

What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a rather apt title for this series.  It not only reflect the obvious focus on food and cooking, but it also implies the coziness of the relationship that makes up its core.  This is the kind of slice-of-life I want to see, the sort that actually feels like a slice of someone's life and not just overly pleasant wish-fulfillment. 

Yoshinaga's artwork remains, as always, as finely drawn and nuanced as ever.  The characters here still tend towards the sort of square-jawed, lightly lined characters she tends to draw, with a wide variety of ages, shapes, and looks, and everyone is expressive and subtle in their face and movement.  There's a lot more background than what is usually seen in her works, even if those backgrounds are mostly the interiors of office rooms and apartments, and it helps to further ground this story in reality.  What truly gets the benefit of Yoshinaga's pen is the food itself.  Each step is illustrated in almost photorealistic detail, and it's always easy to visually follow the recipes.  I've always been a fan of Yoshinaga's artstyle, but this series might be the best match I've seen yet between it and the story.  Her particular brand of handsome minimalism lends beauty to the quiet, mundane elements of Kenji and Shiro's life without ever distracting from it.

What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a wonderful, low-key celebration of a loving couple and the life (and meals) built around it.  Charm and subtlety abound in both the writing and the art, and I'm so very happy that Vertical finally brought this series over.

This series is published by Vertical.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 9 volumes currently available.  5 volumes are currently available, and all are currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!  The giveaway ends at midnight tonight!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


As we start wrapping things up for our holiday reviews, let's shift our focus to some warm and fuzzy slice-of-life manga.  We'll start with the one that's all about small towns, cute kids, and...calligraphy?

BARAKAMON, by Satsuki Yoshino.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2014.

Handa Seishuu is a bright young professional calligrapher, but he's also got something of a temper.  He needs to get away for a while because he punched his boss for calling Handa's art workmanlike.  So he heads off to an island on the far western coast of Japan, where he can hopefully get away from the world and find some new inspiration.  What Handa finds there is anything but peace and quiet, though.  He soon becomes the talk of the small town, as well as the focus for the curious and hyperactive little girl Naru.  While relaxing may now be out of the question, Handa is slowly coming around to small town living and small town people.

This is a premise we've all seen before.  Some high-falutin' city person comes to the country for some contrived reason, and said person ends up having a lot of fish-out-water moments as they have hilarious encounters with the backwards locals.  In the end, though, the city person comes to love the community and chooses to stay.  While it's too early to say if Barakamon will follow this formula to its end, it builds upon this formula to create something that's wonderfully charming.

While Handa is technically our lead, it becomes clear from early on that Naru becomes the breakout character, and that's a fact that could be potentially distressing.  After all, manga tends to idealize small children in the same way that most forms of media tend to do.  They turn them into cute little performing monkeys, there to act charming and perfect and adorable, but not like a real child.  Naru definitely does not have that problem.  To be honest, Naru is kind of a brat.  She's always butting in, climbing on things, repeating all the bad words she's not supposed to hear, and generally hanging off of Handa at every opportunity she gets.  While she gets a lot of screentime in the course of the volume, Yoshino never wears out her welcome with the reader (the same cannot be said for Handa).  She's cute, she's hilarious, but she never takes either quality to the extremes of obnoxiousness.  After all, she's not all that much different from the other villagers.  Oh sure, they're obvious a little more mature and understanding about Handa and his issues, but they still take every opportunity to barge in his door, ask naïve questions, spread gossip, and cosset him like a small child, and it's all played for gentle good humor.

This sounds like it could become a little cruel towards Handa, but it ultimately works because Handa himself is allowed to be less than perfect and more than a little silly himself.  He's a competent calligrapher, but he's bad at taking criticism, a sore loser, and doesn't really exert himself beyond what is necessary.  He's not exactly a good person.  Hell, if anything he's kind of an immature jerk.  Knowing that, the jokes that the rest of the cast make at his expense feel less like bullying and more like bringing a buffoon back down to earth.  He does make strides as a person as the story goes on.  He proves himself more than adept at handling the village kids, and he does start to warm a little to the other villagers when he sees how far out of their way they'll go to make him comfortable.  He even starts to find real inspiration in his work.  There's a sequence early on where a day out with Naru inspires an athletic bout of artistic inspiration, ending with "fun" writ large, the brushstrokes full of the energy Handa expended and experience.  Slowly but surely, the churlishness is melting from his heart and mind, and while it's not an instant transformation it's still a little heartwarming.

In some ways, this series reminds me of Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba &!.  Both share a casual and humorous tone, along with a focus on the smaller, quainter things in life in conjunction with an adorable, quirky little girl.  That's where the similarities end, though.  Barakamon is faster, snappier, more verbal, and less whimsical than that series.  While it does capture some of the charms of small town life and adorable little kids, it doesn't idealize them either.  So while Barakamon may be built on a familiar formula, it still manages to find its own comedic voice.

While the artwork has a certain charm about it, it's also clear that this is Yoshino's first proper manga series.  The character designs are pleasant enough to look at and have a lot of variety in size, shape, and age, but they're also kind of stiff and the mouths are rather flappy.  Naru tends to be drawn in a style that verges upon super-deformed, as her eyes bug into blank circles and her focus is fixed upon whatever shiny new thing caught her attention.  The backgrounds are suitably well-drawn and homey, but perspectives and shading tend to be rather flat.  Still, it's always easy to follow and Yoshino is fond of layering in jokes in the background, usually in the form of Naru running around doing things.  Overall, like's Handa's calligraphy the artwork is a little rough around the edges but still good looking enough to get the job done.

The charm and humor of the story go a long way towards smoothing out what few, minor issues can be found in the art.  As long as it never looses its slightly snarky spirit or overplays the trump card it has in Naru, I can see this becoming a must-read along the same line as Yotsuba&!.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available so far.  2 volumes have been published, and both are currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway! The contest ends at midnight tomorrow, so don't delay!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


With all this talk of risky titles and safe ones, sometimes quirky little titles like today's selection managed to slip through in the hopes of finding an audience.  Of course, it's easy to pick series like today's selection up when it comes from the same company that's currently sitting on a giant pile of Sailor Moon and Attack on Titan money.

NORIGAMI: STRAY GOD, by Adachitoka.  First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2014.

Yato is a god without a home.  He's so desperate for worshippers that he tags his name and number across the city in hopes of finding someone, anyone, who might need his help.  Still, fighting the odd spirit for pocket change doesn't get him far until it leads him to cross paths with Hiyori.  She saves him from being run over, but the accident has left her own spirit a bit ajar.  Now her spirit can leave her body, and she uses that skill to help Yato at his tasks.  Now the two are more or less stuck with one another: Hiyori can't fix her loose soul without Yato's help, and Yato needs all the help he can get to make some money and find a permanent home.

Noragami is good fun, but the story feels like it's still working out its growing pains even as the first volume comes to an end, and it hurts its potential as a result.

The strongest element here is the titular stray god himself, Yato.  He's snarky, scrappy, a little arrogant and quick-thinking, and it's genuinely enjoyable to watch him hustle his way into finding a worshipper and solving their problem.  The story never lets him get too high and mighty, considering that he's forced to sell himself via bathroom stall walls and neighborhood graffiti, but it also makes it clear that for all his self-interest, Yato does have a good heart.  No matter how much he thinks a wish may be underneath him, he will grant it to the best of his ability.  He's just not much of a people person, considering that every spirit he's teamed up with has quit in tears and frustration and that he still tends to judge his worshippers even as he aids them. 

So of course the best course for such a character is to make him the bad cop to Hiyori's good cop.  Hiyori can't help but suffer a little in comparison to Yato.  She's simply too good-natured and ordinary to do anything else.  Still, her unwitting partnership with him does force the two to start growing a little.  Hiyori finds her inner action hero when she discovers that her spirit self has the power to fight ayakashi, even as she struggles to keep her social and school life afloat in between her involuntary bouts of narcolepsy.  Yato is forced to explain a few things about his world and to look for Hiyori, since her status as a living ayakashi makes her a tempting morsel for the rest of the spirit world.  Their social circle only stands to grow as Yato wrangles another ghost into becoming his weapon, a teenage boy who seems less than impressed with his new master.  As more characters are added, though, the more it becomes clear that Noragami isn't quite sure what direction to take.

It starts out as a sort of monster-of-the-week story, with Yato serving as a sort of wandering hero.  Then it turns into a buddy cop sort of story once Hiyori.  Now just as it ends, it adds another character and shifts the status quo yet again.  I understand that a manga series is prone to change in the early chapters as the creators hammer out the details.  Still, the shifts in direction don't feel purposeful and planned.  It feels more like the creators are swaying in whatever direction the popularity polls or editors demand.  Noragami has a couple of good characters at its core, and it needs to have more faith in them to carry the story on their if this story is going to grow in a positive direction.

For what it's worth, the artwork is attractive and fits well.  The character designs are nothing special; they're grounded and attractive enough, but not all that unique either.  The fights are not all that well-drawn, as they tend to become a little too visually chaotic for their own good.  Still, the urban backgrounds have a lot of detail and the ayakashi designs are suitably gross and inhuman-looking.  Still, the artwork as a whole never quite rises above the average, and this muddles what is otherwise a fun little manga.

There are the usual omakes and translation notes, but the latter are much more long-winded than normal.  There's apparently a lot of wordplay at work here, and one joke requires an entire page to deconstruct. 

Noragami is enjoyable, but the artwork is merely average and the story can't quite decide what direction it wishes to take, and that drags down the rating slightly.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 12 volumes available so far.  2 volumes have been published so far, and both are currently in print.  This series is also available in e-book form through Barnes & Noble.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Monday, December 22, 2014


Of course, the safest bet for any manga licensor is to pick up a series that's tied to an animated series.  We've seen time and again that sales of a manga can skyrocket when it's turned into a popular animated show.  Sadly, it doesn't work so well in reverse, like the series I'm looking at today.

STRIKE WITCHES: MAIDENS IN THE SKY (Sutoraiku Witchizu: Tenku no Otome-tachi), based on the television series by Projekt Kagonish, with original character designs by Humikane Shimada & art by Yuuki Tanaka.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2014.

The world is at war with an alien mechanical force known as the Neuroi.  The only forces that can take them on are the Strike Witches, young women who use a combination of magic powers, heavy firepower, and mechanical jet legs to fight back.  Most girls would want nothing more than to be accepted to the Strike Witches...well, everyone but naïve farm girl Miyafuji Yoshika.  While she's blessed with magic, her only goal is to improve her healing skills so she can take over her grandmother's clinic someday.  When she saves a stray Strike Witch, she discovers a power she never knew she had, a power which makes her an ideal recruit.  While she's not eager to fight, Miyafuji soon discovers that becoming a Strike Witch means new friends for her to meet and new powers for her to discover.

As a series, Strike Witches is notorious for its shameless levels of fanservice, to the point where its marketing mostly centers on the fact that its main cast doesn't wear pants, as if the promise of crotch shots is enough to bring in the leering hordes.  While its manga adaptation mercifully backs away from such naked perversion, it is a shameless dull thing to read.

Miyafuji is meant to be charming and child-like in her simplicity and pacifism, but she feels more like the creators only got halfway through developing her before getting distracted by a shiny thing.  Her innocence and obliviousness to the outside world verges upon the ridiculous, especially since she never shows so much as a flash of a negative emotion.  She comes off less as a complete character and more like someone's idealization of a five year old. 

Even after joining the Strike Witches, it never seems to sink in for Miyafuji that's she's meant to be a soldier.  Mind you, I can hardly blame her since the story spends so much time watching her make friends with other girls and a panty-stealing spirit puppy.  It's only near the end that the volume recalls "Oh wait, there's a war going on isn't there?" and the fight is over and done so fast that I had to flip back through the pages to make sure that I didn't skip a page or two.  Nope, all it takes is Miyafuji getting over her pacifism in record time, pulling some new reserve of power out of her ass to magically improve her sniper rifle, and thus demonstrate herself to be the bestest, most special Strike Witch of them all in a manner that is in no way contrived!

It figures that if they couldn't be bothered to make Miyafuji interesting, then the rest of the cast doesn't fare much better on the personality front.  All of her friends are built around a single quirk, and their superior officer is little more than a substitute mother.  The spirit puppy, which serves as Miyafuji's familiar, is there for an unwanted dose of pervert humor.  Apparently it's the height of humor to have this cute little creature talk and think like a pervy old man when Miyafuji isn't looking.  As you can imagine, this turns a large proportion of the volume into an utter slog, because plot or character development might get in the way of showing off a bunch of precious, cardboard-thin waifus.  Even the whole 'alternate world war' angle is subsumed by the story's need to turn everything into pure preciousness.

While the story itself is mostly content to avoid fanservice, the same cannot be said for the art. It certainly does like to look at Miyafuji's panties as often as possible, and the art is more than content to shove her crotch into the frame to achieve that.  What's really weird is that Miyafuji is the only character who gets this treatment, and I'm not sure I want to ponder why that is.  The character designs were nothing special to begin with on the show, but Tanaka has transformed them here into the most generic little moeblobs possible.  They all have the exact same face, with flat round eyes, flappy mouth, and a dot that's meant to suggest a nose, and if it weren't for their hairstyles the girls would be indistinguishable.  The only time those designs change is when the girls fuse with their familiars.  Then they can add cute little animal ears and tails so that they can achieve the greatest amount of naked otaku pandering possible.

The rest of the art isn't any more distinguished.  Most of the panels are done in the same mid-level shots, save for when it decides to sink down low for a panty shot.  Most of the backgrounds are vaguely drawn, when they're not just completely replaced with screen tones.  As generic as the character designs may be, they're probably the closest this series comes to some visual flair, and I get the sense that the artist was just as bored while drawing this as I was reading it.

I was expecting Strike Witches: Maidens In the Sky to be offensively bad.  Instead it was just really, really dull.  The characters are drips, the story is tedious, and everything in the art is clearly calculated to appeal to both an otaku's baser instincts and their wallet.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is complete in 2 volumes.  Both have been published, and both are currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Sunday, December 21, 2014


You'd think that licensing violent seinen manga would be just as much of a safe bet as supernatural shoujo or harems, and yet the track record for them has been spotty at best.  Still, this title could only be an improvement after something like Terra Formars.

GANGSTA, by Kohske.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2014.

Ergastulum is a dirty city full of dirty people, the sort of place where the cops can be just as crooked as the criminals they chase.  Still, there some jobs in the underworld that not even they can tackle, and the only people who can are The Handymen, Nic and Worick.  Their latest job leads to them crossing paths with ex-prostitute and moll Alex, who ends up joining their motley crew.  The more time she spends with them, though, the more questions seem to pop up, whether it's about Worick's mafia background or Nic's mysterious strength and his own shady background.

Gangsta feels at times like someone crossed Black Lagoon with Sin City.  There are similarities in both content and tone to both, but in spite of its best efforts Gangsta never seems to connect with its audience the way that Black Lagoon did.

I suspect the biggest cause of that is that the audience stand-in character is such a blank that she might as well not be there.  Say what you will for Rock, but early on he had a defined personality that served as contrast to the less-than-legal goings-on around him.  Alex in comparison is passiveness personified.  She spends most of her screentime saying little and staring at whatever goes on around her.  She doesn't so much have so much as a single opinion about what Nic and Worick do or who they are, and we never learn anything about her and her life after her rescue. She simply accepts things as they come.  That's not an invalid reaction to all the violence and cruelty around her, but it hardly makes for compelling reading.

Instead what passes for development goes to Nic and Worick, and even then it's more about getting their backstories out of the way than anything else.  Worick is the brains of the group, a Mafia scion who teamed up with Nic in his teens and wields his charms and comparative good looks as a part-time gigalo.  He's very much a creature of simple pleasures, content to live life in the here and now with no concern for past or future.  Nic, on the other hand, is the brawn of the pair.  He's an ex-mercenary with strength far beyond that of a normal man.  He's a man of few words, mostly because of the fact that he's deaf.  Still, it's awfully convenient that he retains the ability to physically and coherently speak while still being able to sign and to perfectly read lips.  Still, it's rare to see anyone with a physical disability in manga, and so it's nice to see some sort of representation.  They do make a for a well-balanced team, each bringing something different while able to support and protect the other should things go south.  I just wish it was a little less focused on reiterating who they were and more on who they are now, because that part is a little underdeveloped.

Honestly, it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be set in some sort of alternate universe.  The crimes here are so mundane that's you forget that it's a universe where genetically modified mercenaries exist until the town's name comes up or until people start talking about 'tags.'  It's hard to say at this stage whether it's going to have any sort of major impact.  There's certainly plenty of violence to go around, and if you enjoy a well-choreographed fight there will be plenty of them to enjoy here.  I just wish it had more substance to give it all some sort of impact.

I will give Gangsta this much: it is a good looking manga.  The characters are distinct, lanky, strong, and yet seedy looking enough to fit in this world.  The proportions are grounded and the faces are expressive, if a bit grim.  This is doubly important for Nic, considering that Nic rarely speaks, so he must express himself through his face and hands alone.  Admittedly, sign language is a hard thing to capture in a still image, but Kohske doesn't help things when they draw it as a strange hand gesture with a few speed lines.  While the camera does like to linger on rather low angles when it's around Alex, there isn't a lot of traditional T&A fanservice.  No, the fanservice here is the extremely violent sort that is most often found in seinen manga like this.  Swords are swung, kick delivered, and punches are thrown with smoothness and even a bit of grace, and each blow is given a sense of bloody, visceral impact.  There's clear skill behind the artwork here, but the story lets it down to some degree.

Gangsta is violent and visceral with some great art, but unless future volumes invest more time and care into the cast, this series will never develop into anything beyond a string of flashy fights.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available.  4 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print. 

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Of course, it's not just the fangirls who get pandered to.  There's always a healthy selection of safe, stupid harem titles to keep the horny kids at bay.  Today's selection is no exception, save for the fact that it comes from the pages of Shonen Jump.

NISEKOI: FALSE LOVE, by Naoshi Komi.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2014.

Raku Ichijo is the mild-mannered heir to a powerful yakuza family.  He has no intention of taking up the family trade, and wants to instead become a civil servant.  He also wants answers to the strange locket he wears around his neck.  As a child, he gave the key to a young girl he befriended, but he can't remember her face or name.  He really hopes that his mystery girl is his shy and lovely classmate Onodera.  Those daydreams come crashing down when a loud, rude blonde called Chitoge joins his class.  For these two, it's hate at first sight, but it turns out that Chitoge is also a yakuza heir.  To foster peace between their two families, their guardians decide to pair the two up as a couple, much to Raku and Chitoge's mutual displeasure.  Now Raku has to find a way to juggle his fake relationship with Chitoge with his hope for real one with Onodera, all while searching for his locket girl.

Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ, they were right.  Those that don't study their history are doomed to repeat it, and it's certainly true for Shonen Jump.  How else can you explain why one of their most popular current titles be little more than a redressed, simplified version of Love Hina?

While strictly speaking it's less of a harem at this point than it is a love triangle, the character types are all too familiar if you know even the basics about Love Hina.  Raku is our Keitaro stand-in, and like his predecessor he's a giant dork who exists solely to be the world's butt monkey.  If anything, he's less interesting that Keitaro, since Raku doesn't even have his ridiculous levels of self-loathing.  Chitoge, like Naru before her, is a massive bitch tsundere, but I think Chitoge tops Naru in sheer spitefulness.  There's barely a single panel she appears in where she's not screaming bloody murder because something didn't go her way and my loathing for her only grew with each page.  In comparison, there's Onodera, who is the equivalent of someone like Shinobu.  She's shy, quiet, and motherly - in other words, she is the very model of a modern major waifu, and she's about as interesting as wet cardboard.

The locket girl angle is probably the mostly blatantly stolen idea from Love Hina.  No matter whether it's a lost key or a forgotten promise, the purpose of it remains the same: a naked plot device there to stretch out the conflict as long as humanely possible.  Here it takes the form of Onodera having a key of her own, as she mutters to herself about telling Raku something vague and important.  Now, in the real world such a dilemma could be sold in a matter of minutes with just a few questions and the turn of a key.  Here, though, it's being stretched to volume's end and beyond for the sake of cheap and shallow drama, and it's just as tired now as it was a decade ago.  Of course, why should the dramatic elements try for anything original when the comedy is just as forced and tired?  Thankfully, Nisekoi isn't the sort of story that thinks that punching a guy into the sky Team Rocket-style 20 times over is the height of hilarity.  Instead, it thinks that never-ending arguments and passive-aggressive attempts at fake romance are funny.  Trying to decide which is the preferable of the two is like trying to decide between a punch to the face and a kick in the crotch.  No matter what you choose, the result is painful.

It's manga like Nisekoi that just go to prove that you don't have to be original to succeed with otaku.  All you have to do is blatantly recycle a few ideas from something else that was popular, fill it with a few loud, easy-to-digest types, and pad it with enough empty, overstretched drama to keep it going for ages, and you too can have a successful harem series!

Komi's art is round and broad, with lots of soft edges, big moeblob faces, and increasingly ridiculous configurations of hair.  Chitoge's hair in particular comes off as almost sentient as it swirls around her scraggly frame in defiance of physics.  Their expressions are no less round and broad, with lots of dropped jaws and bugged eyes from everyone involved.  The characters' manic energy seems to permeate every page, as if Komi was afraid of the prospect of a single blank space.  Thus, he does his best to fill the panels with more faces, more speedlines, more action, and just more STUFF, and it reeks of desperation.  While it's far from the worst looking series to currently grace the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, Nisekoi's art feels like it's trying too hard to sell the wackiness of its already broken and derivative story.

Nisekoi is so many things: derivative, irritating, hollow, and always, ALWAYS trying too hard.  I wonder if this genre will ever evolve, or if it will remain content to regurgitate its past the way it's doing so here.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 15 volumes currently available.  6 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.  This series is also serialized digitally through Shonen Jump Alpha magazine, and is available in e-book form through

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

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Friday, December 19, 2014


A lot of new shoujo titles for 2014 tended to follow the seemingly insatiable trend for supernatural romance, and vampires were the most prominent of the lot.  Thankfully, this series is far different from the overwrought lameness of series of Vampire Knight in the best ways possible.

BLACK ROSE ALICE (Kuro Bara Alice), by Setona Mizushiro.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2014.

Dimitri is one of the finest tenors in all of 1900s Vienna.  He has the support of numerous lovely patrons as well as that of his foster brother Theo.  Still, he holds a number of secrets, including his Roma background as well as an innocent but all-consuming crush on Theo's fiancée Agnieszka.  A chance encounter with a speeding cart leaves him on the verge of death, but after a strange, dark butterfly lands on him he recovers.  Soon a strange man finds him and tells him that Dimitri is a vampire.  Dimitri tries to use his new persuasive powers to get his way, but the death it brings is too much for him and as a result he destroys his life, Theo, and Agnieszka.  Decades later, Dimitri is living in Japan when he stumbles upon Azusa.  She's a high school music theater who finds herself torn between her duty and her forbidden love for one of her students.  When an accident threatens his life, Dimitri offers Azusa an offer she can't possibly refuse.

While I'm normally very wary of vampire-based shoujo series, I was reassured once I noticed the name of the creator.  In the past I've praised Mizushiro for her sensitive and nuanced take on teenage drama in series like Afterschool Nightmare, and I hope that she would bring that same brand of nuance to this series.  Luckily for us all, those hopes were answered, as Mizushino not only finds a way to bring some new ideas to vampire mythology, but populated with compelling characters as well.

Mizushino uses a lot of insect and rose imagery for her vampires, symbols which help to emphasize the inhumanity of these vampires.  These are not decadent aristrocrats ekeing out an eternal existence, but instead a community tied together through the intangible connection they share through their sire.  Vampirism here works more like a parasite, infecting the corpse and shaping their mind and powers to match that of the sire.  While they resist many things that kill most vampires, inevitably they will seek out a mate.  Upon consummation of their relationship, the vampire will die, bursting forth in a sea of butterflies to start the cycle of infection anew.  If the insect parallels weren't blatant enough, the vampires feed by vomiting tarantulas, who feed on the blood, who are then swallowed by the vampires.  Still, the effect is clear - these creatures may look human, but their behavior is anything but that.  The rose imagery, in comparison, is a little more obvious.  Like roses, these vampire are beautiful yet dangerous, and their powers creep through themselves and their victims like a trailing vine.

While the protagonist is anything but human, the conflict he feels pre- and post-transformation is all too human.  Dimitri's placid smile barely hides his contempt for the decadent world of the aristrocracy, knowing all too well that his status is dependent entirely on their generosity and their overlooking his past as a Gypsy.  He believes his only respite from all this decadence is Agnieszka, whom Dimitri has idolized since she was a child.  He has her firmly placed on a pedestal, believing himself to be unworthy of her even as he clearly crushes hard on her.  He gently chides Theo for his lusty ways even as he beds his patrons.  Clearly, Dimitri has a lot of hang-ups, and Mizushiro conveys a lot of this just through stolen glances, well-timed flashbacks, and a minimum of exposition.  Vampirism gives Dimitri the opportunity to get past some of those hang-up and start exercising power for himself, but when he tries to use that power with Theo and Agnieszka, their delicate love triangle is torn asunder, and Dimitri is left with nothing but regret.  Of course, this is only half the story.

The other half of the story focuses on Azusa, and in some ways her troubles parallel those of Dimitri.  She's caught in a desperate flirtation with one of her students, constantly writing off his feelings for her as a fleeting teenage crush.  The more she protests, though, the more it becomes clear that she's simply trying to deny the strength of her own feelings for her student.  She too is in love with someone she's not socially allowed to have, and these feelings are slowly tearing her apart.  Like Dimitri, she is the victim of a chance accident, but unlike him she is given a choice.  Dimitri offers Azusa a literal life-or-death choice, and without spoiling the ending, it's certain to have a startling effect on Azusa and Dimitri alike.  While I was rereading this, I was surprised at how long this section was, as it seems rather far removed from Dimitri's story until the very end.  While Azusa is a very strong character in her own right with her own compelling issues, her story simply has a hard time holding a candle to the compact perfection of Dimitri's.

Black Rose Alice does so many things right.  It's creative with its vampire lore, it's focused on a collection of well-written, complex characters.  It doesn't try to paint Dimitri as a perfect saint and doesn't let him off easy for his actions, and as the story progresses, the story only grows more unnerving.  It's a great beginning, and it makes me eager for more.

As always, Mizushiro's art is both subtle and beautiful.  The characters here tend to share the same sort of heavy-lidded, wide-mouthed look that all her characters do, but she manipulates them in magnificently subtle ways.  She clearly savored the opportunity to draw Agnieszka in all her Art Nouveau glory, from the top of her flowing blonde hair to the bottom of her willowy, swishy dresses.  She also brings that same level of detail to the settings, be it the Old World glory of Edwardian Vienna or the more mundane neighborhoods of modern day Japan.  Even the insects are drawn with almost photorealistic detail - all the better to give the arachnophobes in the audience the heebie-jeebies.  The panels tend to focus tightly on the characters, but it works to show off the subtlety and intensity of their expressions.  Black Rose Alice is a genuinely good-looking manga, one that is artful and subtle.

Even those who are as tired of vampire media as I am should give this series a look.  It's strange, emotional complicated, beautiful, and unnerving, and it's the best shoujo series I've read all year.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available.  2 volumes have been published, and both are currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Of course, some companies take a risk on niche titles and succeed.  One of the few things I will praise Seven Seas for is for being the first and few manga distributors to take a chance on yuri titles.  This decision has paid off in recent years when they started licensing the works of Milk Morinaga, whose yuri anthology I reviewed last year.  Well, they licensed yet another of her works this year, and it's certainly a change in pace for her.

GAKUEN POLIZI, by Milk Morinaga.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.

Aoba Sasami has a dream.  She wants to be a great policewoman so that she can not only follow in her family trade, but also become a champion of justice.  She's so dedicated to her cause that she joins the polizi, a group of teenage undercover police officers who protect the area schools.  Too bad for Aoba then that she's assigned to Hanagaki Girls' High School, one of the most mild-mannered and peaceful schools in the city.  Worse still, she's partnered with Midori Sakuraba.  She's the chief's daughter, and she's as studious and by-the book as Aoba is exuberant and hasty.  Still, the girls must find a way to work together and help their newfound friends.

So thanks to Girl Friends and Kisses, Sighs and Cherry Blossom Pink, Milk Morinaga has been established as a yuri writer of exceptional quality.  So what happens when she decides to shake up her own formulas and try to write something a little less romantic?  Well, the result is something of a mixed bag.

This is less about schoolgirls in love as it a buddy cop comedy.  Aoba is the bad cop as well as the living personification of 'genki girl,' all heart and empathy but no forethought.  Midori is the good cop, the one who lives by the rules but requires someone like Aoba to show her there is more to life than police work and making manga.  While this combination works more than well enough for the polizi antics, it feels somewhat lacking in comparison to Morinaga's previous works.  This is being marketed as yet another yuri title, and yet I don't get any sense of attraction or romantic tension between these two.  Admittedly, in her previous works Morinaga tends to go for a slow burn sort of approach to her couples, building things gradually to romance, and she do a good job at establishing the building friendship between Aoba and Midori.  I just wonder how she's going to transition this into a romantic relationship because there's no sense of anything beyond the platonic with these two.

The story itself follows a fairly straightforward formula.  Aoba hears a rumor about some terrible crime and drags Midori along to investigate.  The 'crime' turns out to be something mundane and silly, and the two girls have to clean up whatever mess Aoba might have created without revealing their identities as polizi.  The formula breaks up during the last story, where the girls help one of Aoba's friends get over her fear of the police by hunting down her older sister's stalker.  Aoba, true to her nature, confronts him outright, but her investigation forces her to question if someone who committed such a personal crime should be allowed to move on with their lives and if forgiveness can be given with time.  The end result is messy and complicated, but it's a welcome bit of seriousness in what had been up to that point a lot of silly fluff.  I'm hoping that this is the direction that future volumes will take, one where the girls have to deal with a lot more personal issues and conflicts instead of a lot of silly, forgettable wackiness.

While the story might be slacking a little on the story side, her artwork is up to its same high standards.  The character designs are simple and cute as her girls so often are, and befitting the lighter, more comedic tone there are a lot more broad, super-deformed reactions.  The backgrounds are rather infrequent, aside from the odd change in location.  Still, Morinaga never lets the franticness of the comedy impact the flow the panels, as the story is always easy to follow and good looking.

While Gakuen Polizi isn't as strong as Morinaga's more intimate romances, it's still light, charming, and pretty enough to be appealing.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 2 volumes available.  Both have been published and both are currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Of course, taking a manga in a more extreme direction can backfire.  This is especially true for seinen manga, which a lot of times tries to top the others by being more violent and controversial.  This can lead to results like today's review, easily one of the most controversial manga releases of the year.

TERRA FORMARS (Tera Fomazu), written by Yu Sasuga with art by Kenichi Tachibana.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.

No one knows just how the plan to terraform Mars went wrong.  A league of international scientists and soldiers plans on using genetically modified moss and ordinary cockroaches to turn Mars into a planet suitable for humans.  500 years later, those cockroaches have turned into hulking humanoid beings who slaughtered the first exploratory team from Earth.  Now a second crew has been sent to fight the cockroach men, each member having been genetically modified with insects with the promise of a large payday.  They'll need all the powers they can muster against the forces that opposes them - not only those on Mars, but also those amongst them and those still on Earth.

A lot of fuss has been made in the last few months over this series, mostly concerning the cockroach men themselves and if they are or aren't racist by design.  If you ask me, that's selling this series short.  Racism is the least of this story's problems, as it's seemingly soaked in all sorts of noxious ideas and sensationalistic plot devices.

What struck me first and foremost about Terra Formars is that it's misogynistic as hell.  While the male/female ratio of the crew is fairly even, by the end of the volume all but one of them is dead.  The women don't get the flashy offensive powers that the men get from things like ants and hornets.  Instead they get defensive powers from beetles, persuasive powers from parasitic wasps, or downright useless ones like those of the silk moth.  Every woman who gets a backstory features some form of sexual abuse, be it molestation, prostitution, or female genital mutilation.  They're not even safe from it in the character profiles, where their huge cup sizes are listed alongside their vital stats.  The only relief from it comes in their deaths, which are too brief and brutal to use their terror as an excuse to show off their boobs and butts.

It's also got a very conservative approach, verging on xenophobic.  While the crew is composed of people from across the world, only the Japanese members remain standing at the end of the volume, so being a foreigner here is just as dangerous as it is to be a woman.  Worse still, the traitor amongst the crew happens to be both, and her motivation to steal a giant cockroach egg is a blatant power grab in the name of her own country.  Hell, she's far from the only person who realizes the offensive potential of the cockroach men, as one of the surviving Japanese members notes that if Japan possessed them, they too could become a powerful military force once more.  These are sentiments that come dangerously close to those shared by hard-line Japanese conservatives, the sort who still pine for the glory days of WWII.  They're not as blatant as the misogyny, but they're no less uncomfortable.

Finally, I don't know what's more laughable: the cardboard villains or this manga's understanding of science.  It turns out that the shady folks behind the BUGS project are in fact megalomaniacal madmen who do their best to divide the crew and manipulate them for their own means, laughing all the while at the circumstances that forced the crew members to join.  The leader of the space program is probably the craziest of them all, as he's convinced that the cockroach men are the descendants of alien bug-gods who are the true masters of the universe.  Honestly, he makes the men of SEELE look sane and rational. 

Then there's the fact that evolution simply does not work in the way it does in Terra Formars.  It never tries to explain how the cockroaches turned into giant black humanoids in 500 years, probably because Susaga knew any attempts at such would be laughable.  He treats evolution like a ladder that a species climbs until it reaches 'human,' instead of a slow series of branches which extend only as far as the environment allows.  He also struggles to keep what few facts we know about the cockroaches straight, like whether they have children or emerge full-grown from eggs or if they are or aren't capable of speech and thought.  I'm not asking for pure science fact - I was more than willing to go along with the concept of being able to genetically fuse people with bugs to turn them into super soldiers.  What I do ask for a little consistency, a little thought, and villains that don't make Snidely Whiplash look three-dimensional in contrast.

I cannot find a single good thing to say about the story.  When it's not being ridiculous, it's being offensive.  All of it combines into a nasty mixture which taints whatever potential it might have had for enjoyment.

If there's anything good I can say for Terra Formars, it's that the artwork is quite good.  The character designs are distinct and solid, even if the women are all generically good looking and the men are ridiculously buff, and the insect elements are incorporated well.  The fights are well-drawn with a strong sense of movement and tasteful amounts of gore.  The backgrounds are nicely drawn, be the savannah-like plains of Mars or the well-detailed spaceship interiors.  But then, there are those cockroaches.

It's hard to ignore that the design of the cockroach men share certain similarities to those seen in old caricatures of black men.  What's really hard to determine is if these choices were purposeful or accidental on the part of the artist.  Neither Susuga nor Tachibana have made any sort of comment on the controversy, and Tachibana's only other artistic credit is motion capture for a Starship Troopers movie, so we can't look to their words or their previous works for any clues.  I would be willing to excuse it mere coincidence on their part, but when it's taken into consideration with the other un-PC ideas in the story, though, it seems less likely, though.  It's a shame because they do get a lot of good use out the cockroach mens' unblinking, unnerving stares, and the idea of humans fighting a powerful, mute, inhuman enemy has potential.  I only wish Tachibana hadn't gone and made that fateful, questionable choice in design.

Any positive qualities in the art are negated by the repellent undercurrents and laughably shallow characters and developments in the story.  Such extreme content might be good for creating controversy, but it's not good at telling anything resembling a good story.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 11 volumes currently available.  3 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Sometimes, it seems like the only way for a manga series to garner any attention to push its content to the extreme.  Not even spinoffs of Shonen Jump are immune from this.  Today's selection was viewed by its own editors as too extreme to ever get a release in North America.  They even refused to serialize it in Shonen Jump Alpha.  After reading this volume, though, the most extreme thing about it is its title.

ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM (Ansatsu Kyoshitsu), by Yusei Matsui.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.

Koro-sensei is not your typical teacher.  He's a bright yellow tentacled being with permanent smiley face who has already blown up most of the moon and plans to destroy the world in a year's time.  He's also very committed to being the best teacher possible to Class E-3 of Kunogigaoku High School by being perceptive, relatable, and encouraging.  In all fairness, Class E-3 isn't your typical classroom, either.  They are the losers and rejects of the school, shipped off to a far-off annex to serve as examples to the other students.  They are also the ones tasked by the government to kill Kuro-sensei before this year is up.  They are provided with special weapons, and whomever succeeds will win a 10 billion yen prize.  It's a shame they have to kill the best teacher they've ever had, but that's how it goes when every kids becomes a potential assassin.

Assassination Classroom is what happens when someone crosses a Battle Royale tale of killer kids, an inspirational classroom drama, and a lot of goofy shonen humor, and the end result is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

There have been many manga about unconventional teachers who reform a classroom full of bad eggs, but few are as otherworldy as Koro-sensei.  Sure, he's a deadly tentacle creature who can move at Mach 20 and blow up the moon, but he's also deeply invested in building up his students and encouraging their interests, even when that interest including trying to kill him, and therein lies the punchline for the majority of the jokes.  He's got a occasionally goofy sense of humor, where he uses his super speed to execute quick costume changes, attend baseball games during his lunch break, or stop a student's attack and paint their nails at the same time.  He'd be the perfect teacher if he weren't such a threat to the human race.  The story makes no bones about the fact that Koro-sensei could kill them if he wished, but aside from a single vague flashback never explains why he wanted to become a teacher for this particular class. 

In comparison, the kids of Class E-3 are a bit lacking.  Most of them get one quirk or interest established in their particular chapter, which they use in the latest assassination attempt.  Then that kid blends back into the crowd so the next kid can take the spotlight.  Still, it's weirdly amusing in how the kids don't see any conflict between admiring their teacher and trying to kill him, often in the same breath.  It also makes them at least mildly more interesting than the government agent who sets the plot into motion, as it's hard to take him and any threat of him bringing in outside forces seriously when he's the one who passed the task of killing this monster off to a bunch of kids.

In spite of what the title might suggest, this is actually a rather lighthearted and silly series.  A lot of its humor stems from gentle parody and loving tweaks on some well-worn ideas.  It's not the sort of thing that inspires a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but it's amusing enough to keep my attention.

The character designs for the people are pleasant if unremarkable, which for modern day shonen honestly a step up.  Hell, some of the tertiary characters look downright wonky at points, like their faces are slightly melted.  Just as same as the story, though, they're not the main draw here.  It's not their face that is literally slapped across the front cover, after all.

You have to give Matsui credit for Koro-sensei's design.  He was a character that needed to look disturbing, yet pleasantly marketable, and you can't say that he doesn't succeed at both.  Kuro-sensei looks friendly enough with his constant smiley face and old-fashioned teaching robes, but then you remember those robes are hiding a mass of tentacles which would put Legend of the Overfiend to shame and that Kuro-sensei's permanent smile can become unnerving when the conversation turns dark.  Despite the fact that he can't change expression, Matsui still manages to convey his mood through the use of shade and pattern to indicate changing colors, as well as the occasional bit of mood lighting.  The action is fast and fluid, and both Kuro-sensei's tentacles and the students' attacks fly out in flurries of speed lines.  The art is surprisingly restrained for a shonen series that's so blatantly comedic.  There aren't a lot of bug eyes, dropped jaws, or any sort of overreaction.  It's nice to see a series that actually trusts in its writing to convey the humor instead of forcing it, and in doing so Assassination Classroom plays to its greatest strength.

This is wonderfully weird and amusing for a shonen series.  It's not deep, but it tweaks the inspirational classroom drama in enjoyable ways and creates an instantly iconic character in Koro-sensei.  This is one classroom that's welcome to stay in session.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available so far.  1 volume has been published, and is currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Revew: AJIN

More manga titles today are building an audience through digital channels before getting a print edition.  Today's review is just such a book, having built up an audience through Crunchyroll's manga reader before getting licensed by Vertical.

AJIN, written by Tsuina Miura & art by Gamon Sakurai.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.

Kei's world isn't all that far removed from ours, save for the existence of 'demi-humans.'  They look like ordinary people, but they can heal themselves from even the most extreme damage and are even said to possess psychic powers.  This fact didn't have much relevance in Kei's life until the day he was hit by a truck.  He picks himself up afterwards, revealing himself as a demi-human.  Now it seems that everyone is looking for him.  Some want to profit from his body or lock him up for torture in the name of science, but others have powers like his and are willing to kill to bring him into their fold.  As for Kei, he's simply determined to survive.

Ajin is a fascinating and well-crafted bit of sci-fi, taking some familiar ideas and mixing them up with a bit of moody horror to create something with great potential.

Kei's not all that compelling as a protagonist, but then he's not meant to be some complex character.  He's an ordinary guy who finds himself wrapped up in the middle of an extraordinary conflict.  Still, he proves himself to be capable and scrappy, able to think fast and adjust his plans on the fly.  Of course, he's aided by a pretty convenient plot device.  When literally everyone else in the world wants to capture him, Kei is just so lucky to have an estranged childhood friend who still lives in the area, has no other family or friends to stop him from helping Kei, and yet still retains enough affection for his friend to not once consider turning him in for maximum profit.  Still, it's clear that Kei is at the start of a very standard journey, one that will not only transform him from human to demi-human, but also from scared, complacent boy to capable, brave man.

The forces that oppose him are a little more vague, although to some degree it's done on purpose. The government agents that are searching for him are your standard issue sort - shadowy figures working at some equally shadowy, evil goal, even going so far as to employ a demi-human as an investigator.  Of course, the rest of humanity as seen here doesn't come off much better, as most of them turn into greedy thugs at the thought of capturing Kei for big money.  Even Kei's family finds themselves turned into pariahs as the press and the government pressures them to give out more information on Kei.  Even the rogue demi-humans are painted as...well, less than scrupulous.  While they don't seek to harm Kei, they also use this opportunity to exercise their powers and attack others as revenge against their captors.  These fights are easily the most fantastical parts of the story, as demi-humans possess the ability to project skeletal beings called ajin, and their fights are frightening in their ferocity.  Still, they're just a little too far removed from Kei's plot to be much more than a distraction at this point.

While the characters and conflicts that make up Ajin are fairly well-trod and a little shallow, they add up to a moody little manga that's clearly gearing up to something ominous yet thrilling.

The artwork here really helps elevate Ajin beyond its familiar roots.  The faces tend to be rather plainly drawn, but the bodies and backgrounds are well-detailed and all are inked in thick, flowing lines.  The ajin themselves are spooky and iconic, looking like a cross between a skeleton and a mummy, but able to move in fluid, powerful ways.  The fights are visceral, and the art helps gives each punch and stab impact.  The same goes for Kei's horrific injuries, especially the car crash that reveals his powers.  When his body stitches itself together one bone and muscle at a time, the reader can almost feel the pain and hear the hideous cracks.  The presentation for both panel and page are otherwise simple and conventional, but the artwork possesses rich linework and a powerful approach to the violence which helps gives the story some well-needed oomph.

I'm glad to see that this series did well enough to give a physical print run.  It's moody and full of action, and if it's a little predictable at this point, it promises to go in some interesting directions.

This series is published by Vertical.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 4 volumes available.  2 volumes have been published and are currently in print.  This series is also available through Crunchyroll's manga service.

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

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Sunday, December 14, 2014


It's weird that Sword Art Online became the more successful of Kawahara's work, considering that it had already failed before.  He initially wrote it for a contest in 2002, but when it failed to place, Kawahara put Sword Art Online aside to work on other projects.  When Accel World did well, the publishers wanted even more, and thus Sword Art Online finally saw the light of day.  After reading this, though, I wonder if he shouldn't have just left it in storage.

SWORD ART ONLINE (Sodo Ato Onrain), based on the light novel series by Reki Kawahara, with original character designs by abec and art by Tamako Nakamura.  First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.

NervGear is the latest and greatest in video game tech.  It's a virtual reality simulator, where a single helmet allows the user to experience the fanciful RPG world of Sword Art Online.  Kirito is one of the 10,000 there in SAO on the first fateful day.  Soon he and the other players find themselves trapped in the game.  They must conquer all of the 100 levels of the game without dying, for if they die in-game, they will die in real life.  Now Kirito must hone his skills and find new allies if he's ever to return to the real world.

If I had to sum up Sword Art Online in one word, it would have to be the same word I kept saying as I read it: bullshit.  This story is a giant load of bullshit, one that only grows larger with each page.  Kirito is bullshit.  His romance with Asuna is bullshit.  The pacing is bullshit.  The plot twists are bullshit.  Everything about this story, beginning to end, is bullshit.  But if I'm going to explain exactly why I think this way, I have to start with its biggest source - Kirito himself.

Even the stupidest, most shallow shonen protagonist could be considered a towering force of personality in comparison to Kirito.  He spends the first half of the story being an emotionless cipher.  Unlike others, he doesn't seem to be concerned about whether he gets out or not.  Since beta testers like him are seen as cheaters, he purposefully sets himself apart from others.  While he occasionally comments on this, he doesn't seem all that torn up about his isolation either.  Of course, why should he care?  He has god-like powers in the game, so strictly speaking he doesn't NEED others to survive.  Should he ever find himself challenged, all he has to do is pull some new power straight from his ass and everything is better.  Why would he need to develop or be challenged as a person when it's so much easier to have the story hand everything to you on a silver platter, including your perfect gamer girlfriend?

Poor Asuna, she really deserves better treatment than she gets here.  During the few points where she's allowed to fight, she is shown to be fine warrior in her own right.  She's a high ranking guild member, although whatever respect she's shown seems to fly right out the window when she chooses to stay with Kirito.  She even has something of an emotional arc.  Over time we learn that for all her skills, she's actually quite lonely.  She misses her family in the real world and feels disconnected from the other gamers as both a high-level player and one of the few girls in the game.  It thus makes some sense for her to seek out a romantic relationship and to commit to it so fast and eagerly.  I just don't understand what she sees in Kirito, because whether by choice or by story dictate, everything in their relationship comes back to him.  He is the one who essentially has to fight for her honor when she chooses to leave the guild, on more than one occasion.  In their joint battles, he is the only one allowed to make the finishing blow.  He is the one who is waited on hand and foot at their cozy lakeside cottage, and it's his love for her that is apparently as super-powered and special as his swordfighting skills.  The story repeatedly holds them up as this wondrous miracle, the only romantic pairing in all of Sword Art Online, as if they're this epic love story for the ages instead of what they are: a couple of kids playing out a fantasy of what romantic relationships are like.

This story also has major issues with pacing and focus.  It puts more emphasis on Kirito and Asuna's romance than on...well, pretty much everything else going on in the game.  As such, the main conflict   - you know, the whole "defeat the evil developer and leave the game" thing - is outright ignored for two-thirds of this omnibus.  As such, almost everything that doesn't have to do directly with Kirito and/or Asuna is cut out, the price paid for trying to shove two short novels' worth of story into a single omnibus.  There's no sense of urgency to this quest, since any outside threat to the players is negated early on with callous flippancy.  While thousands are said to have died, they're either faceless cannon fodder or side characters there only to serve as motivation for Kirito.  All the while, everyone's sojourn in Sword Art Online is treated like some lovely virtual dream where everyone gets a chance to be a hero, instead of the terrible trap that leaves them in comas and subject to the whims of a madman.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with escapist fantasy, but surely not everyone in the game has lives so miserable that the game world is preferable.

The ending is simply the final load onto the massive pile of bullshit.  Is it a fitting punishment for the person who made so many suffer?  Nope!  Instead it's an opportunity for Kirito to pull a few more powers from his ass, including the ability to defy death itself.  Worse still, there's no resolution whatsoever.  When asked, the villain doesn't even remember why he turned the game into a trap in the first place and simply fades into the virtual ether.  It's not quite forgiving him for his actions, but it's pretty damn close.  I guess it doesn't matter that thousands died in SAO for no reason, because Kirito the video game messiah got a girlfriend!  Surely that makes everything better!

I'm hardly the first person to point out that the story for Sword Art Online is a complete mess.  Our lead is nothing but a blank wish-fulfillment figure, and everything in the story, including his love interest, serve only to glorify him.  The story forgets itself for long stretches, only to resolve in the most self-serving and unsatisfactory manner possible.  So when I say this story is bullshit from beginning to end, I'm not exaggerating in the least.  Everything here is deeply flawed and endlessly frustrating.

Again, we have a separate character designer and artist credited, and the character designer is more of a technicality there to acknowledge the original light novel illustrator.  Mind you, I wouldn't blame this abec person for not taking credit for art that looks THIS bad.  This is Nakamura's first and only professional credit, and it shows on every page. 

The original character designs for Sword Art Online were nothing special, but they're far more attractive in that state then they are here.  Nakamura makes everyone strangely short, round and weird looking, like they've take one too many runs through the moe-blob filter.  While the costumes are faithfully and flatly rendered, they're draped over characters who cannot express themselves beyond the broadest expressions.  Nakamura's also bad at drawing action scenes, which is a major liability in an action series like this.  The panels stay so closely focused on the characters that we never get a sense of scale to the dungeons or the bosses within them.  The high-speed swordfights become incoherent flashes of energy bursts and speed lines in her hands, making hard to distinguish who is doing what. 

Mind you, she struggles with perspective and scale outside of the fights as well.  You never get a sense of how big these game levels are or any sense of beauty about them, as what little we do see is flatly shaded and barely drawn.  She can't even handle humor well.  Early on, there's a horrendously lame boy-falls-into-boobs gag that involves teleportation, but it's drawn in such a way that I still can't figure out what direction Asuna is falling from, much less how Kirito ended up on top of her with a handful of boob.  The animated version of this story often gets a pass because it has flashy, colorful animation, but you'll find no such excuses with the manga version.  It's ugly, incoherent, and amateurish on every level, and the makers must have been hoping that the otaku would buy it up solely on name recognition, not on the quality of the art.

I'm genuinely boggled as to why this story was the Kawahara story that became hugely popular because its flaws are numerous and plain to see.  It's clumsily written and drawn, being more concerned with building up its Gary Stu protagonist than telling a good story.  In many ways, this still reads like a half-finished draft.  Maybe it should have stayed that way.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing, but this story arc is complete in 2 volumes.  Both have been published as a 2-in-1 omnibus, and is currently in print.  This series is also available digitially as 2 e-books through Barnes & Noble.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Reki Kawahara is definitely having a moment right now.  He's a light novel writer who initially found success with Accel World, but it's his Sword Art Online series that became a phenomenon.  Both have been turned into animated series as well as manga, and both deal with young boys who are sucked into an immersive online world.  So let's take a look at both of them, starting with his first success.

ACCEL WORLD (Akuseru Warudo), based on the light novel series by Reki Kawahara, with original character designs by HIMA and art by Hiroyuki Aigamo.  First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2014.

Even in a world where people are more interconnected with technology than before, some people can't escape their own problems.  This is the case for Haruyuki, an overweight junior high student with few friends, a lot of bullies, and even more crippling self-esteem issues.  While online, he ends up attracting the attention of Kuroyukihime, the most popular girl in school.  She convinces him to download a program called Brain Burst, which gives him access to a deadly fighting game called Accel World.  Now Haruyuki must use his skills to fight his opponents, gain levels, and uncover the mysteries of Accel World, with Kuroyukihime guiding him along the way.

As noted above, Accel World has gotten a lot of attention indirectly thanks to the popularity of Sword Art Online, since both are written by the same person and both deal with young men using futuristic technology to enter deadly online games.  So, how does this series compare to its famous successor?  Honestly, I think it's better.  It not only features more complex characters, and to some degree better incorporates the sci-fi elements of the future tech with the story as a whole.

While Haruyuki is a very mentally damaged person, those same issues make him a very relatable and sympathetic protagonist.  His self-esteem is so crippled that it verges upon depression, where his brain rejects even the kind words from his childhood friend Chiyu.  Worse still, it takes a beating every day from the class bullies that use Haruyuki as a go-fer because he's short, fat, and physically weak.  For Haruyuki, the online world is his safe space, the place where no one can make any demands on him.  Haruyuki's depression and awkwardness is almost uncomfortably realistic, to the point that I wonder if it stems from personal experience on Kawahara's part.  Still, that gives him a ready-build emotional arc - he's already so low that there's pretty much nowhere to go but up.  Also, his depression makes him inherently sympathetic.  You want him to feel better, and thus are that much more invested in his successes.  It might not be the most subtle character writing, but there's a kernel of reality in his personality which goes a long way towards getting the reader invested in him.

Kuroyukihime is no slouch in the character department, either.  In the real world, she is the ideal schoolgirl - bright, poised, and loved by all.  In the online world, though, she shows her true colors.  As the volume progresses, she's shown to have some very selfish reasons for bringing Haruyuki into Accel World, and her relationship with him starts to take a manipulative edge.  She's the one who guides him through this secret online world and gives him tips during his fights.  She's the one who makes up a fake relationship between the two to excuse their closeness and the one who casts doubt upon his only friend Chiyu.  It becomes increasingly clear that she's not exactly a good person, and it is so refreshing to see such an approach.  So often, characters like her are shoved to the side by the story, there to serve as cheerleaders for the male lead or as a prize for him to win at the end.  While they may be given a few quirks, their personalities are usually kept simple so they can be more easily hammered into whatever otaku fetish is in style.  So seeing Kuroyukihime being developed as this morally grey puppetmaster was a genuinely unexpected direction.  She has just as much of a stake in things as Haruyuki, and her personality given just as much weight.   I'm just as invested in her as I am in him.

Accel World does a good job easing the reader into the futuristic tech of this not-too-distant future.  It's basically one where the internet is everywhere, and accessible straight from your brain.  Most of the uses don't differ all that much from today - gaming, casual conversation, money transfers, things like that.  Otherwise, the world is more or less like our own, so the culture shock is minimal.  In comparison, Accel World itself isn't all that impressive.  Accel World is supposed to be this super-secret, super-fast version of this future Internet, but it ends up looking like a fighting game with a sandbox-style map.  The fights themselves aren't that complex, as his opponents tend to have a single and obvious weakness for him to exploit at the last minute.  It's a little disappointing that Kawahara put more thought into the background technology than he did with the program that drives the actual plot.

Even if the tech is not full developed, the two main cast member are and in interesting ways.  That alone gives Accel World an edge that a lot of similar series do not have.  I'm genuinely invested in their stories and want to see how they'll develop because they're shaping up in not entirely predictable ways.

As what is becoming all too typical for manga based on light novels, there's a separate credit for both the original light novel illustrator (credited as character designer) and for the actual manga artist.  The original character designs have been transferred more or less intact, from Haruyuki's flat and cartoon-like real form to Kuroyukihime's delicate, gothloli prettiness to Haruyuki's sleek, futuristic avatar in Accel World.  Aside from those designs, there's not much else to say for the art.  It tends to consist of a lot of talking heads that are interrupted only by a few fights, and it's all presented in an unremarkable way.

While the art may be plain, the character writing more than makes up for it.  Accel World is more focused on exploring the minds of our leads than flashy fights, and doing that helps to make this story more compelling than some of its peers.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with five volumes currently available.  Two volumes have been published and all are currently in print.

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

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!