Monday, March 23, 2015


You what you almost never see in manga?  All-male harems.  You'd think that at least some yaoi books would try such a thing, but most of those focus on one-on-one relationships.  Those that aren't meant to be explicit tend to be just 'cute guys doing cute things together.'  Well, all except THIS one.

KYO KARA MAOH! (Demon King From Today!), based on the light novels written by Tomo Takabayashi & drawn by Temari Matsumoto.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.


Yuri Shibuya only meant to save a classmate from a couple of bullies.  He couldn't have anticipated that he would get sucked into another world during a swirlie, much less to find strange men declaring him the reincarnation of the Demon King and the new ruler of their world.  Now Yuri has to adapt to his new status along with strange new customs, unexpected connections between his new world and his past, an accidental engagement to a boy, and a duel to the death with his new fiancée.


I remember hearing about this series years ago, back when I would frequent Livejournals dedicated to mocking and criticizing bad fanfiction.  It was usually mentioned in the same breath as shows like Weiss Kreutz and Gundam Wing, so I knew coming into this that this manga would be more than a little homoerotic.  What I couldn't have anticipated was that the homoeroticism was literally the only notable thing about Kyo Kara Maoh

The premise will be all too familiar: an ordinary Japanese kid gets sucked into a magical world through unusual means where they discover that they are some sort of savior figure.  The rest of the story details how they save the world and usually get a significant other in the process.  The only major twist that Kyo Kara Maoh adds is that the protagonist is a boy instead of a girl.  They didn't even change the gaggle of bishonen which normally serve as love interests, they just made their pursuit less obvious by framing it as a power struggle between those who support Yuri versus those who oppose him.  I still might have been willing to go along with that, had it not been for the utterly clumsy way this writer handles worldbuilding.

I was not surprised to learn that this was based on a light novel, because the story is so hung up on explaining everything that it barely moves forward.  The reader is constantly assaulted with  monologues from the supporting cast explaining the world and the premise to our audience stand-in Yuri.  Oh sure, they could have made the exposition interesting by showing instead of telling since manga is a mostly visual media.  They could have even made Yuri a more proactive character by having him do his own research and ask more questions about his new realm, but those would be intelligent choices.  No, instead they chose to more or less copy and paste chunks of Takabayashi's prose straight into the characters' mouths.  This tactic not only makes for incredibly lazy storytelling, but it's tedious and intellectually insulting that Takabayashi thinks that the reader won't understand anything unless she literally stops the story to explain it to us.

It's not like her concept of a magical fantasy world is all that new and exotic to begin with.  The concept of a human boy coming to rule as king over a world full of demons sounds neat, but it's ruin when it turns out that the demons look (and for the most part, act) like normal humans and they even play baseball.  OK, in all fairness this is due to the influence of Conrad, one of Yuri's supporters who has the ability to travel between worlds and has been doing so since before Yuri was born.  Still, Takabayashi could have done a far better job showing the influences of the human world bleeding into the demon realm without it all leading up to an awkwardly executed character moment between Conrad and Yuri.  Baseball and demon kings don't mix well without some concentrated effort on the part of the author, and it's clear that Takabayashi didn't even try.

The only place where she did try was with the homoeroticism, and even then that's not saying much.  The problem is I suspect we're meant to titter over the relationships instead of the characters themselves.  It certainly would explain why Yuri is utterly bland.  Sure, he's meant to be the audience insert character and thus kind of blank and malleable, but aside from a vague sense of nobility we don't really learn anything about him as a person.  He doesn't even achieve anything under his own power, as his title is handed to him upon arriving and he wins his duel through the reincarnation equivalent of a deus ex machina.  I can't see such a blank slate rising to become leader of a book club, much less the ruler of an entire world. 

This same lackadaisical approach to character writing also explains why the rest of the cast is composed of simple archetypes.  Conrad is never anything but the gentle father figure, his brother Wolfram is cast as the resident tsundere, and Conrad's friend Gunther becomes nothing more than a walking gay joke with his weepy, flamingly gay attitude.  There's even a character to serve as a stand-in for all the fujoshi in the form of Celi, Conrad and Wolfram's mother.  The story never lacks for characters, but there's not one bit of personality to be amongst them.  It's little wonder then that they're defined more by their orientation than their actions or thoughts.

It's hard to imagine that this story ever could have been part of some fangirl craze, no matter how fleeting, if simply because it's so devoid of character.  The premise is derivative and those characters that aren't blank slates are as deep and dimensional as the paper they're printed on.  Were it not for its higher than normal levels of ho-yay, I doubt anyone would remember it at all.


After reading this, I was not surprised to learn that aside from doing the artwork for this manga as well as the original light novels, Temari Matsumoto is mostly known for doing yaoi.  It shows on every page, and that's not really a good thing.  Her character designs are exactly what you expect for a yaoi artist - vaguely handsome, tall to the point of gangliness, chins sharp enough to cut glass, and awkwardly long, spidery hands.  I swear some of the character are so awkwardly tall that they have to slouch and crouch to stay in frame, which only makes them look more awkward.  Maybe that was simply because the panels tended to be small and cramped in the first place, since the exposition demands that half the panels be taken up with speech bubbles.  That leaves Matsumoto little room to visually elaborate on Yuri's new realm, which means that what few backgrounds we get are rather anonymous looking.  Not even the size and splendor of a castle seems to come through in her art.  She can't even capture what little action there is to be had, as the characters seem to drown in speed lines and big, jagged magical effects.  A magical story like this needs equally magical art to bring it to life, and Matsumoto simply doesn't have that level of talent.


Man, anime and manga fangirls must have been really desperate for a bit of ho-yay in the mid 2000s if they felt the need to latch on to a series like this.  The story lacks character and subtlety on every level and the art is decidedly average.  Maybe it's precisely because of lackluster manga like this that we don't see a lot of all-male harems.  Maybe that's for the best.

This series is currently published by Viz, formerly by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan with 16 volumes available.  Tokyopop released 7 volumes, and all are out of print.  Viz has published 6 volumes in e-book form, and all are currently available through

Manga like this and much more can be found at!  Any purchase made through this link help support The Manga Test Drive!

Friday, March 20, 2015


Some harem series have no pretenses about what kind of manga they want to be.  They are open about the fact that they're just there to serve up some fanservice alongside their wish-fulfillment fantasies.  Others try to hide their origins in the hope of attractive readers outside of the usual crowd, although this disguise rarely ever works. 

AKAME GA KILL! (Red-Eye Kill), written by Takahiro & art by Tetsuya Tashiro.  First published in 2010 and first published in North America in 2015.

Tatsumi is a country boy who's hoping to make his name as a soldier of fortune in the bustling capital city.  Soon enough his boyish dreams are punctured when his money is stolen, he's taken in by a noble girl, and ends up shanghaied by the assassins of Night Raid.  Night Raid is a vigilante group determined to hunt down and kill those in the capital who use their unearthly strength, influence, and wealth to kill and exploit as many as possible while perpetuating the civil war that tears their country apart.  Now Tatsumi must find a way to use his skills to help Night Raid save their nation.

I'm endlessly amused by the parade of modern harem manga that try to be sneaky about being harems.  They try to lure in readers with the promise of action heroes, sci-fi dystopias, or sprawling fantasy, promising that this particular series will be different.  In the end, though, it ends up mostly being about no more than six girls who all want to bone the leading man to various degrees.  Akame ga Kill! is no exception to this rule.  It promises us plenty of bloody grimdark action, but in the end it ends up being nothing but paper-thin characters enacting a preteen's idea of a serious story.

Part of the problem with this series is that the lead has all the faults of your standard shonen hero without any of the charms.  I expected him to be dumb and naïve, sure, but what makes him really aggravating is that he's got an ego far greater than any talent he might possess.  He's utterly convinced that he's hot shit, even after he joins Night Raid and gets to see the girls' deadly talents firsthand.  He's in desperate need of a reality check and until this series provides it, he's never going to stop being annoying.

As for the other members of Night Raid, they tend to fall in line with the usual assortment of otaku fetish types.  Do we have a quiet, stoic girl who is inordinately talented?  Check.  How about a twin-tailed tiny tyrant of a tsundere?  Check.  What about a busty, lusty, boozy older sister sort?  Check, and she's a catgirl to boot!  They even include a token gay guy.  Of course, he's never considered to be a proper love interest but instead is there to hit on Tatsumi for the sake of a terrible, homophobic running gag.  Some of them do get a bit of backstory, but it's delivered in the most ham-handed manner possible: through story-stopping monologue.  The only mildly interesting thing about those backstories is the running theme of Night Raid members being former imperial assassins.  It makes things a little more interesting.  After all, these girls (and guys) not only chose to rise up against their oppressors, but also to wield the skills they taught them against their former masters and maybe earn some forgiveness for their former actions.  Sadly, any implications about such motivations has been left for future volumes, so for the moment the girls demonstrate any personality facets beyond their respective stereotypes.

Even the villains are treated like cardboard cut-outs.  While some of them are initially presented as normal people like you and I, they end up turning on a dime once confronted with their crimes.  At that point, they turn into cackling madmen who revel in their evil acts because...I don't know, evil for the lulz.  Instead of exploring their reasons for evil, the writer just piles on more evil by showing them committing random acts of murder, torture, rape and various other forms of abuse.  Not even Tatsumi's childhood friends are immune from it, as they are quickly killed off so that Tatsumi will always have a cheap and ready source of motivation.  These acts might be horrifying, but they're presented so frequently and in such a casual off-hand manner that all the horror is utterly negated.

Still, it can't be all action all the time.  There's plenty of downtime between jobs for Tatsumi to learn about the others, and it starts to feel a bit like a sitcom.  We're meant to laugh as Tatsumi is forced to perform menial work or pranked by the others as he yells and grumbles, but most of those jokes are built upon the girls' given stereotypes.  Instead of taking this time to build something resembling deeper relationships or to do some well-needed world-building, we get lame otaku jokes.  It's a shame because this world is in desperate need of some building, as Takahiro couldn't even be bothered to give proper names to the setting.  The country, the capital city, the parties involved in the war, even the Empress that rules over them all doesn't get the courtesy of a name. 

This manga just reeks of authorial disinterest from beginning to end.  No one and nothing is fleshed out beyond what is absolutely necessary, and every plot point and character never stretches beyond their respective stereotypes as they engage in a childishly sensational battle between good and evil.  Akame ga Kill! wants to thrill the reader, but who would be thrilled by such a half-assed story?

That same lack of effort extends to the artwork as well.  All throughout the book, I was constantly distracted by the characters - their faces, to be specific.  Ostensibly, there's nothing all that special about them.  They're all drawn in the same flat, angular, and overly simple manner.  Nonetheless they go off-model with shocking frequency, and it bothered me.  It also didn't help that all these deadly assassins dress like they cut up pieces from Hot Topic, something that stands in stark contrast to the Ye Olde Fantasy world they inhabit but certainly helps the reader objectify them when and wherever possible.

Worse still, Tashiro cannot draw an action scene to save his life.  He tends to blur figures to give the impression of speed and strength, but he went so far with it that it's difficult to distinguish who is fighting whom.  He also tends to shift angles wildly during those fights, often settling on high overhead views, and this combined with the poorly drawn character models only adds to the confusion.  Sadly, the art here feels like Tashiro just dashed it off as quickly as possible to meet a deadline.  He didn't care about the quality or making all the details match, he just wanted done and away from him as soon as possible.  If he didn't care and the writer didn't care, why the hell should the reader do so?

The title suggests bloody action, but the end result is little more than a half-baked harem mixed with equally underdone shonen elements that want to be much more serious and grim than it truly is.  Unless you are a dull and deeply gullible preteen, you'll find this series as tedious as I did.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 11 volumes available.  The first volume is available, and is currently in print.

This volume and many more like it are available through!  Any purchases made through these links help support The Manga Test Drive!

Monday, March 16, 2015


I know, I know, I skipped last week.  Part of it was the fact that I've been playing a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of Xenoblade Chronicles, which is as good as people say.  The other part is that I've been kind of dreading this series, and that dread extends even to writing up the review.

LOVE HINA (Rabu Hina), by Ken Akamatsu.  First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2002.


Keitaro Urashima wants to get into Tokyo University so he can fulfill a childhood promise to a long-lost friend.  There's only one slight problem with that plan: Keitaro is not particularly smart...or talented...or good at anything, really.  Despite two years of cram school, his test scores remain abysmal.  He's hoping that he can get more studying done at his grandmother's hotel, but gets the shock of his life when he discovers that not only had she turned into a girls' dormitory, but that she's made him landlord while she travels the world.  Now Keitaro is surrounded by a bevy of young girls who think of him as an idiot pervert, led by the feisty Naru Narusegawa.  Will Keitaro ever find a way to win the girls over?  Will he ever have a prayer at getting into Tokyo U?  Finally, will he ever figure out who was the girl he made his promise to so long ago?


If you didn't get the jist from the comments above, I was not looking forward to reviewing this one.  I've never made my distaste for harem manga a secret, and few could be said to be as popular or as influential as Love Hina.  Indeed, many of the harem series we've gotten since owe at least a small creative debt to Ken Akamatsu's creation.  After reading this volume, though, I felt like I finally had an understanding of why harem series are like the way they are.  If this series is the model for every major modern harem manga, then it's no wonder that the genre has sunk to such lows.  How can they do anything but that when they follow in the path of such a supremely stupid, irritating story?

This story lost me on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin.  I guess I'll start with the tone of the story overall, which is at once broad to the point of slapstick and needlessly mean-spirited.  The story plays at being madcap and zany, but it spends so much time ridiculing Keitaro that its antics stops being funny and starts feeling cruel for cruelty's sake.  It's not helped that so many of the gags are either lame jokes based around sexist stereotypes or your standard 'boy falls into boobs' sort of gag, which always leads to more slapstick violence and wacky chases.  Worst of all, this story pounds those gags into the ground through sheer repetition, and it expects you to laugh all the same EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  Akamatsu clearly wants this story to be big, cartoonish, and fun, but he goes too far with everything and it instead comes off as loud, obnoxious, and wantonly mean towards its own cast.

Speaking of the cast, let's talk about them, starting with our leading man Keitaro.  He's meant to be a loveable loser, the kind of underdog you cheer for even as you laugh at their failings.  The only problem with that is that Akamatsu forgot the 'loveable' part of that phrase.  This story is determined to not let Keitaro retain the slightest shred of dignity, which is why all the slapstick targeted at him falls so flat.  It's not funny to kick a guy when he's down, only to follow it up by kicking him some more and then having him fall down a cliff like Wile E. Coyote.  What's really sad is that for all the abuse he gets from the girls and all the accidents he has, he heaps just as much abuse on himself.  He constantly complains to himself about how utterly friendless, dateless, and hopeless he is.  Of course, he never really does anything about it, so after a while it just comes off as whining, which only makes Keitaro all the more unappealing.  The only thing he manages to succeed at is winning over Shinobu and talking to Naru once or twice when her mood swings were at their mildest.  I honestly wonder if this series will ever let Keitaro do well or enjoy one thing without turning it into yet another joke to be made at his expense.

Mind you, the girls of the Hinata House aren't handled any better.  Only half of them get any sort of involvement in the story, and it figures that the one who gets the most is the worst of them all: Naru.  Tsunderes are nothing new to manga, and this was true even when Love Hina was new.  That being said, Naru takes the concept of the tsundere to bold, broad new heights of awfulness.  Like Keitaro, all her bad qualities are exaggerated for the sake of 'comedy.'  Naru's hair temper has become the stuff of anime legend, and it's still baffling how quickly she can shift from normal to irrational rage.  I suspect either the readers or the editors responded poorly to this in the early chapters, because her mood shifts dial down significantly in the second half of the volume.  I'm glad they made that change, but I do wish they could have brought that same sense of restraint to the oh-so subtle hints about Naru being the mystery girl from Keitaro's youth or made it a little less obvious that Keitaro and Naru are meant to be our end-game couple.  After all, a harem thrives on keeping the reader guessing who the lead will choose.  Any strong emphasis on one girl right away spoils that sense of uncertainty.

As for the rest of the girls, there isn't much to be said.  Kitsune is a manipulative trickster who likes to troll everyone in the house, including her so-called best friend Naru.  Shinobu is the youngest of the group and if she were any more of a wilting violet she would spend her story time shaking in a corner like a Chihuahua.  Still, Akamatsu was thinking ahead of his time with her, as her bland kindness, domestic skills, and emphasis on her youth and underdeveloped chest make her something of a trendsetter for what was then the emerging notion of 'moe.'  Motoko can give Naru a run for her money in the tsundere department, but her supernatural kendo skills ultimately make her feel like she got lost on her way to a shonen manga and got stuck here.  That's only half the cast, but I guess they're being saved for future volumes.  Meanwhile, they're just have to settle for filling in space when the girls go on a Keitaro hunt or talk and occasionally fondle one another in the hot springs.  What was really weird to me is that we're told that these girls are all good friends with one another, but they're revealed to be rather selfish little things acting for their own cause.  Sure, it's not uncharacteristic for teenage girls to be selfish, but it's in stark contrast to the happy harmonious group they paint themselves to have been before Keitaro showed up.

Love Hina wants to be a wild, wacky, saucy sort of manga, but somehow its forced zaniness only makes its flaws all the more obvious.  It's hard to laugh at or relate to a story about a ridiculous, exaggerated sadsack who is constantly pushed down by life and by half a dozen girls with cardboard-thin personalities as they repeat the same old gags over and over.


Akamatsu's writing may be full of flaws, but he's a lot more tolerable as an artist.  They certainly fit the sort of story he was aiming to create, as they're all generically cute and clean in design while still being broad and flappy enough to fit with all the slapstick.  That doesn't explain why they all have those weird little hair attennae, but that just seems to be a particular little quirk of his.  He's also surprisingly reserved when it comes to the fanservice.  No, it's not that he doesn't use it at all; after all, there isn't exactly a plot-relevant reason there HAS to be a hot spring at Hinata House.  It's more that the girls' proportions are fairly modest and what nudity is present is about as explicit as your average Barbie doll.

If there's one thing in this book that does have some real character, it's the setting itself.  Hinata House is huge, old-fashioned, and almost a bit eccentric in its design, and there's a certain charm to be found in its many winding halls, spacious rooms, and even the hot springs.  He also likes to make use of the background to let the rest of the girls react to events or to have them doing some physical gag, which gives the panels a sense of life and energy beyond what may be going on in the foreground.  It's a shame then that the panels are drawn so small, which is meant to make the big broad overreactions seem all the bigger, but it leaves so much less space for the qualities I did like.  I feel like the artwork is the only place where Akamatsu's intentions were actually fulfilled, as his art possesses the energy of a zany comedy while still being attractive and even a bit endearing.


Unfortunately, I couldn't get my hands on the recent omnibus rerelease of this series, so I'm unable to compare and contrast the translation between it and the original Tokyopop release.  I do know that was retranslated, and that the original Tokyopop translation was mildly controversial to fans of the series.  Seriously, people use to fight over whether it should be Hinata House or Hinata Inn.  Still, as far as Tokyopop's brand of liberal translation goes, this series got off pretty mildly.


I find it hard to believe that people could be genuinely nostalgic for this series as its faults are as plain as day.  It's a loud, obnoxious, and mean-spirited series populated by annoying characters and presented with all the style and cleverness of a pie to the face.  It's truly a shame that this manga, of all the harem series from that time, became the trendsetter because it set a truly awful example for the genre as a whole.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics, and formerly by Tokyopop.  The series is complete in 14 volumes.  The single volumes are out of print, but the 3-in-1 omnibuses are currently in print.

This series and many more like it are available at!  Any purchases made through these links help support the Manga Test Drive!

Monday, March 2, 2015


It's March, which means it's time for another round of harem manga, starting with - wait a minute, I thought I had already covered the Tenchi Muyo manga!  You mean they went and made ANOTHER one?!

THE ALL-NEW TENCHI MUYO! (Shin Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki), by Hitoshi Okuda.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2003.

After the events of the first OVA, Tenchi Misaki is still surrounded by a gaggle of intergalactic girls who create all sorts of chaos around him when they're not fighting over who gets to date him.  This chaos can come in form of anything, be it Ryoko trying to hold down a job, Sasami becoming a baking sensation, or Ryo Ohki turning into a girl so that she can date Tenchi too.

Much to my disbelief, I discovered that Okuda created two Tenchi manga, one shortly after the other.  I wasn't very kind to the first manga, and even after finally seeing the original OVA I still don't think it's a very good series.  It's still alienating to those who haven't seen it, and all the interesting stuff happens to Ryoko instead of anyone else, much less Tenchi.  As such, this second manga didn't necessarily have to do a lot to make a better impression.  All it had to do was to let the rest of the cast get involved with the story, not be alienating to Tenchi newcomers, and find a way to be at least mildly interesting without being redundant with the other various OVAs and series.  Amazingly, I think Okuda managed to do all that with this series, and he does all just be focusing on a bunch of wacky side stories.

First things first, he does a far better job getting the reader up to speed on the premise and cast.  Instead of a dull prologue, he instead gives Tenchi a random stalker who hires a PI to track him, and the PI in turn provides all the necessary exposition about Tenchi and the girls.  Once their purpose as plot devices are finished, the two are summarily ejected from the story and things continue as normal.  This might not be the most subtle, well-executed form of exposition, but it's far more engaging and fits the overall wacky tone of the book, so already Okuda has made progress from his
first attempt at a Tenchi manga.  It's not perfect progress, though, considering that the Ryo-Ohki chapter presumes you've seen the second OVA and thus will NOT be confused and freaked out that Ryo-Ohki can suddenly turn into a girl, so this manga still requires a little bit of homework to make perfect sense.

After this point, the manga is nothing but a bunch of episodic hijinks, and how much any given chapter will appeal to you will depend on which members of Tenchi's harem you like or dislike, as most of them get at least one chapter dedicated to them.  That probably explains why my favorite of the lot was Ryoko's chapter, where Ayeka's neverending guilt trips lead Ryoko to pursue a part-time job, and it ends just about as well as you would expect considering both her impulsiveness and her superhuman strength.  There's also a surprising amount of focus on Sasami, even if both of them are more about her relationships with her sister and Ryo-Ohki.   Ayeka's chapter is just another extension of her endless fights with Ryoko as she tries (and fails) to crash a date between Ryoko and Tenchi, and Mihoshi's is all about her being incredibly dumb and unlucky on the job - in other words, her usual tedious self.  The jokes you see here are the same jokes that this franchise has been hammering into the ground for the better part of two decades - Ryoko and Ayeka fighting over Tenchi, Washu coming up with wacky science-y things, Mihoshi being a ditz, and everything tending to end with some part of Tenchi's house getting blown up.  These weren't terribly original jokes to begin with, and odds are good that the more familiar you are with the franchise, the more likely you are to be utterly sick and tired of said jokes. 

Believe it or not, this manga is an improvement on the previous Tenchi manga.  It's less tedious, better balanced, and the general air of wackiness helps it fit more comfortably with the rest of the franchise.  That doesn't necessarily mean it's a great manga, though.  Much of its humor is focused on the same old lame jokes, and despite its best efforts it doesn't really do much to expand upon the girls' personalities.  It might be more friendly towards newcomers to the franchise, but I don't see anyone other than devoted Tenchi fans getting anything beyond mild interest out of this manga.

Sadly, while Okuda's storytelling has improved somewhat from his previous manga, the artwork managed to get WORSE.  In the previous manga, the characters all looked more or less as they did in the original OVA.  Here they've been distilled into strange, oversimplified forms and the cast as a whole suffers for it.  Noses are only present in profile, mouths are flappy, and everyone has those strange, angular cheekbones that were all the rage in the mid- to late-90s, which gives their heads a strange, squarish look.  He also apparently couldn't get these weird faces to squash or stretch in reaction to things, so there are a lot of superdeformed reaction shots used as response to the wackiness around them.  The only thing Okuda seems to be able to draw well is action.  There aren't a lot of fights, but when they happen the panels open up to contain all the powerful bursts of energy, and Okuda imbues every punch and crash with power and energy.  I just wish he could have infused the rest of the story with that same energy and that he had gone for a more timeless art style to go with it.

Despite what the title might say, this manga isn't really all that 'all-new.'  It's got some nice character moments and it's more welcoming to new-comers, but it just recycles a lot of the same old jokes about the cast and in the end it's still more for fans of the franchise than anyone else.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan.  All 10 volumes were published and all are out of print. 

You can find manga like this and much more at!  Any purchases made through this link help support the site!