Friday, June 27, 2014

Announcement: We're Branching Out!

Part of the reason I delayed this week's review to Friday was to make sure it could coincide with my new project.  I am proud to announce that in addition to this blog, I will also be one of the contributing writers for a new anime and manga blog, Infinite Rainy Day.

I will be doing manga reviews there as well, although they will be different in both content and style from those found here.  I'll also be writing a regular column.  Mind you, I'm not alone in this - the site will be full of good writers, including a few friends of the site, like Lilac Anime Reviews and On The Dark Side of Things.  The site goes live today, so bookmark it today to start enjoying all the new content!


Today's selection has a similar pedigree to last week's selection, Gankutsuou.  It's the manga adaptation of a well-written and visually distinct series.  Is this manga as magical as the series as spawned it, or does it flop like the rest of those manga:

PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA (Magical Girl Madoka Magica), adapted from the series written by Magica Quartet & drawn by Hanokage.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2012.

Madoka Kaname leads an ordinary life.  She has a loving family with a huge house, she has a couple of great friends.  Really, aside from a few odd dreams, things couldn't be better.  Then a new girl, Homura, shows up at school and speaks to Madoka as if they already knew one another.  A simple visit to the mall leaves Madoka and her friend Sayaka trapped in a savage dreamscape, only to be saved by the radiant Mami and her strange companion Kyubey.  They explain that both Mami and Homura are magical girls, where select girls are granted special powers to fight against the witches of the world, who bring despair and evil into the world.  Madoka and Sayaka are intrigued by what they see, and Kyubey says that it's easy to join them in their fight.  All the girls have to make a wish, then enter into a contract with Kyubey.  What could possibly go wrong?

I don't think I'm going to stir up any controversy when I say that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is easily one of the best anime series in years.  It's simply a masterpiece, one that ties Studio SHAFT's signature style to some of the best and most tightly written 13 episodes I've seen.  It's touching, it's achingly tragic, and it's visually innovative.  Thus, it's so very strange that for all the effort the manga puts into sticking to the story of the series, it just feels so heartless and uninvolving.

I'm not joking when I say the manga is almost a literal translation of the series.  What you see here is essentially all the relevant parts of the first four to five episodes.  The biggest change they made was that Kyubey's mouth actually opens when he talks.  The weird thing is that this doesn't make any cuter, only creepier (which is saying something).  Still, the whole thing seems to lack verve.  It feels like a summary of the events of Madoka Magica,  and as such you lose something of the connection one made with the characters.  Events come and go, but there isn't any real sense of dread or wonder or fear.  I can't imagine how you could make something as wondrous as magical girls fighting witches dull, but they managed it nonetheless.  But then, this is and was always just another way to cash in on Madoka Magica's insane popularity.  Why put effort into something that's little more than just another cash grab?

I suspect that the biggest reason that the Madoka Magica manga fails to connect with the reader is that the show's signature style simply cannot be fully captured on a static page.  The eclectic visual style of Akiyuki Shinbo and company has been in place for sometime, and while stranger and more talkative shows like Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei and all the Monogataris may have used that style to great acclaim, that style always seem more like a trick to liven what are otherwise a lot of talking heads.  Here the style was grafted to a story about weird magical events, and that visual style perfectly capture the otherworldliness of the world of Madoka. 

Hanokage does try to capture something of the style of the show, but so often he obscures the witches' dens with dark screentones to the point where you barely make out anything.  He also manages to moe-fy the characters even more than they already were, and the result is pure blandness.  Here the girls have been moeblobbed to the point where they feel like plain cardboard cut-outs of the cast, flattened out so hard that they all but blend into the background.  Even on the candy-colored cover, their pleasantly vague expressions and dead eyes make them seem more like mannequins than actual characters.  It's just so disappointing to see such a vivid series boiled down into something so bland.

Hanokage has something so wonderful to work from, and yet he manages to make it all seem so distant, so cold, and so dull that much of the magic of the series is lost in translation.

This series is published by Yen Press.  The series is complete in 3 volumes, and all are currently in print.

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Let's bring the subject matter back to something closer to the present, and something unique even for this month.  What we have here is an adaptation of an adapation of a literary classic:

GANKUTSUOU (The King of the Cavern): THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, adapted from the series by Studio GONZO, written and drawn by Mahiro Maeda.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.

Albert, the scion of a noble family, has come with his best friend Franz to celebrate Carnival on the lunar city Luna.  It is there that Albert meets the mysterious and compelling Count of Monte Cristo, who saves the young man in turn.  Months later, Albert learns that the Count is coming to meet his family and their circle of peers in Paris, but none of them are aware of the Count's true purpose for coming.  The Count's past is tied to a man named Edmond Dantes and the three men who betrayed him: a powerful judge, a wealthy baron, and the influential general who married Edmond's fiancée.  Albert wants friendship with the Count, but the Count is only after one thing: revenge.

Gankutsuou is a rare sort of adaptation.  It's very ostensibly removed from the Alexandre Dumas novel that inspired it, what with all the spaceships and lunar colonies and whatnot.  At the same time, it retained the complexities of the novel, and many have declared the series a better adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo than most television and film adaptation could ever be.

Admittedly, the combination of sci-fi and Ye Olde France isn't an entirely smooth one.  People may party on Luna instead of Paris or ride in spaceships instead of carriages, but somehow the systems of power and class remain the same as they were in the past.  Still, the setting isn't what draws the reader to the story.  No, it's the characters that do that, and the Count in particular.  In an interesting twist, the story is not told through the Count, but through naïve, gullible Albert.  You almost can't help but feel a little sorry for him, because it's quite apparent from early on that Albert is the sort who is easily led by the stronger personalities of his friends, family, and the Count.  At the same time, you want to smack him for being so dumb at times, and when he starts fighting with Franz or his tomboyish fiancée Eugenie you wish the story would go back to the Count.

Nonetheless, it's a clever move to switch the protagonist from the Count to Albert, because it allows the Count to retain his mystery and allure.  The reader is left in much the same place as Albert, fascinated by the glimpses and tidbits we can gleam about the Count.  Of course, the reader has an advantage that Albert and the others do not.  The last third of the volume is an extended flashback to the Count's days as Edmond Dantes.  We see the plot against him, we see his downfall, and we witness his descent into madness and despair.  With that knowledge before us, all of the Count's interactions before and afterwards becomes something darker and more twisted.  We get to see the Count as a sort of game master, and behold his manipulations of others.  Poor Albert may not have a chance against such a force of personality, but that doesn't mean that it isn't thrilling to watch.

This all sounds grand, but the biggest problem is that Maeda can't really take credit for most of it.  Since so much has been preserved from the book, much of the credit in turn goes to Dumas.  Maeda and company might have changed the setting and the focus, but what they've done is little more than placing a beautiful gem in a new setting.  Sure, the new setting may highlight different qualities and reflect light in different ways, but they weren't the ones who cut and faceted the gem in the first place.  At the very least, these changes don't do anything to diminish the beauty and perfection of the original.  Instead, they highlight its own natural charms and complexities.

It's hard enough to avoid turning any review of a show-turned-manga into 'well, the show did this, but the manga does that!'  It's harder still to do so when talking about the art, and hardest of all when the show is as visually distinct as Gankutsuou.   It's often held up as one of the best shows ever produced by Studio GONZO, a lush combination of traditional and 3D animation, one where the characters seemingly drift through seas of color and patterns.  Such visual lushness is a challenge to transcribe from the screen to the panel, and on all fronts Maeda fails.

To be honest, it looks unfinished.  While the character designs from the show are retained, they are drawn in rough, sketchy lines.  Facial features disappear and reappear on a whim, and the only shading comes from rough hatching.  Everything just looks so flat and drab.  The only point where any sort of visual imagination is when Edmond starts going mad, and the world around him melts and swirls about him.  It starts with mere visions of his nightmares, but by the end it devolves into abstract expressions of his very emotions, flickering in and out of the oppressive darkness.  It's an incredibly powerful and evocative set of images, and the contrast is all the more stark when it's compared to all the other tall, plain panels full of talking heads.

As I first read this, I felt like I was reading more of a storyboard than a manga.  It was only after I finished and started doing some research that this feeling was explained.  Maeda isn't a mangaka by trade, but instead an animator.   He started out with Studio Gainax in the days of Royal Space Force and Gunbuster.  He's worked on OVAs of all sorts, ranging from Giant Robo to Gunsmith Cats to Doomed Megalopolis.  Most recently, he directed Evangelion 3.33.  It's a safe bet to call him a good animator.  The problem is that being a good animator isn't the same as being a good comic artist.  An animation storyboard isn't necessarily meant to be smoothly read.  It's meant to just be a visual outline of a scene, one that the rest of the animation staff will fill out as needed.  A manga creator may be doing the same thing with a page - tell a story through a series of images - but they don't have the luxury of 24 frames per second to fill out all those images.  They only have so many pages to get their point across, so every panel needs to be both visually appealing and easy to follow to achieve that.  Sadly, for all the skills that Maeda has, he can't quite translate them to comic form.

The story remains brilliant, but the poor art drags it down mightily.  Stick with the show if you want to enjoy this particular version as it was meant to be consumed.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  All 3 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, June 9, 2014


Today we're making a hard shift in topic, going from moe economics to old-school mecha action.  Today's review isn't even the first manga series based on this series, coming 15 years after the original series, but did that time gap help save a manga series that was:

MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM 0079 (Kido Senshi Gandamu), based on the series created by Yoshiyuki Tomino and Hajime Yatate with art by Kazuhisa Kondo.  First published in 1994, and first published in North America in 2000.


It is Universal Century year 0079.  Earth is locked in a war with the Republic of Zeon, a moon colony that wishes not only for independence, but dominance.  The battle has been rough and bloody, but Zeon maintains its edge through the use of Zaku, giant piloted battle robots, along with the guidance of the legendary pilot Char Aznoble.  During one of those battles, a young boy called Amuro Ray stumbles upon the Earth force's secret weapon - a piloted robot of their own, the Gundam.  Now Amuro must join the war and fight if both he and his shipmates are to survive.


Call me crazy, but I always thought that something adapted from another form of media - say, a TV show - should be able to stand on its own.  In a perfect world, it would even be able to explore interesting new angles or expand upon the universe of the original source material.  That's what makes this version of Mobile Suit Gundam so disappointing, because it reads more like a storyboard or an illustrated episode breakdown instead of a stand-alone story.

If the story here were told any more stiffly, it would be completely stagnant.  There's no sense of flow from panel to panel, much less from scene to scene.  People come and go, battles zoom by, and the whole thing is infused with an air of tedium.  You almost wonder at times if Kondo is simply rushing through the whole thing just for the sake of getting it done before a deadline.  The rush not only hurts the pacing, but the characters as well.  Amuro seems to be the only one with anything resembling a character arc, and that's mostly just him going from bland to pissy halfway through because how dare a ship full of soldiers expect him to behave like a soldier when he's the only one who can pilot a military weapon?  Even then, all it takes to get him out of his funk is a well-earned slap from Fraw Bow (easily my favorite part of the book).  Still, that's enough to distinguish him from the rest, who display no personality at all.  Honestly, if it weren't for the character guide at the front of the volume I wouldn't know who half of these people were. 


The action scenes fare no better than the rest.  You could pose a bunch of assembled model kits with backgrounds drawn in crayon and that would still be more dynamic and expansive than the battles seen on the pages here.  That same stiffness extends to the fights, and worse still everything is crammed into small, seemingly inflexible panels.  As such, you never get a sense of scale.  You could easily forget that these are GIANT FREAKING ROBOTS fighting in OUTER FREAKING SPACE.  Honestly, there's only one thing that Kando can seem to do right, and that is draw a proper Gundam.  He lavishes detail upon the Gundam, the Zakus, and even the spaceships.  If only he could have done the same for the characters.  Someone should have told him that he really didn't need to replicate the crappiness of the original series' animation.  Many of the characters look only half-drawn, and they frequently go off-model.  It's weird to think that this particular manga came out in the mid 1990s, because it's so cheap and sloppy that you would think it was done while the series was originally on air, back in 1979. 

Mobile Suit Gundam 0079 is just a failure on every front.  It doesn't engage the reader by drawing them into the drama of the One Year War.  It doesn't delight them with stunning visuals, allowing to savor all the different robots and the epic space battles.  It's just dull, beginning to end.

At leas the folks at Viz tried to give this story some context.  As noted before, there's a character guide at the front to sort out who's who.  There's also a timeline that goes into the Universal Century as well as the One Year War, a necessity for a series that's loaded with backstory but not always willing to share it with the newcomers.  Also, as was true for many older Viz titles, the artwork here is flipped.

If you're looking for a manga about Mobile Suit Gundam, stick with Gundam: The Origin and leave this half-assed tie-in on the shelf. 

This series was published by Viz.  The series is complete in Japan with 12 available volumes.  9 volumes were published, and are now out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, June 2, 2014


It's summertime, which means that the broadcast networks seasons have been over for a number of weeks.  As the days grow longer and hotter and you seek solace indoors, it seems all you can find is reruns.  This month I'm running with that idea, at least as closely as you can in manga.  While many an anime series is based on a manga, there are also quite a few manga which are adapted from a television series, and those are what I'll be looking at this month.  Just remember that everything you see this month is:

SPICE AND WOLF (Okami to Koshinryo), based on the light novel series by Isuna Hasekura, with character designs by Jyuu Ayakura and art by Keito Koume.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2010.

Kraft Lawrence is a travelling merchant who wanders the world in hopes of making his fortune.  During a visit to a farming village, he discovers a naked girl in his cart bearing wolf ears and a tail.  She claims to be Holo the Wise Wolf, a harvest goddess looking to return to her far northern homeland.  She offers to provide her companionship and wisdom to Lawrence in return for a trip home.  Now Lawrence has both a new partner as well as a new opportunity to make some serious profit.

So, does the Spice and Wolf manga add anything that either the light novels or animated series didn't already possess?  Nope!  Mind you, that's not the worst thing possible, because Spice and Wolf is thankfully anchored around a great couple, and this adaptation does nothing to harm that.

Holo is easily the more dynamic of the two.  She is playful and teasing, but she can also be wise, insightful, and even wistful, and as a character she's incredibly engaging.  Mind you, Lawrence is no slacker in the personality department himself.  He's flustered by Holo initially, but he soon learns to give and take with Holo's teasing, and he also learns that Holo's keen ears and innate ability to read body language makes her just as valuable as a partner as she is for casual conversation.  That's good, because they sure do engage in a lot of it - Lawrence can easily go on for pages at a time on some given economic or trade practice.  It's something of a signature for this series, but it's also something of a love/hate sort of thing.  You have to either accept it as is or skim over those parts.

The setting is rather vague on the details.  It seems to be some sort of medieval world, complete with what is TOTALLY not the Catholic Church suppressing the old pagan ways.  Still, we never get a date or a country name.  It's a world where hot peppers ( a New World plant) is an expensive luxury, and the most advanced science appears to be economics.  I guess the focus here is less on world building and more about building the relationship between Holo and Lawrence.  Clearly we're building this towards a romance, but the story wisely keeps the tension to a low, low simmer - just enough to tease, but never enough to derail the story momentum.

It's a shame that the artwork couldn't make as elegant of a transition as the story.  While Koume is clearly trying to stay close to Ayakura's original designs, he's clearly put these characters through the moeblob filter.  Faces are bigger, rounder, simpler, with lots of blushing, and more attention is lavished on Holo's nipples than anything else.  Yeah, that mature rating on the cover is there for a reason - Holo spends the first third of the volume naked.  They even print her big entrance in full color, which wouldn't be remarkable except for the fact that it comes many pages into the book and it's rare to see color pages in North American manga outside of the very beginning.  It's certainly indicative of where the artist's priorities are, and sadly they really aren't on the economics.

In a savvy bit of cross-promotion, there's an excerpt from the light novel version of Spice and Wolf.

This manga doesn't really add anything to the story and the art is something of a downgrade, but it's still a solid romance with a touch of fantasy and a lot of economics.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available.  8 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.

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