Wednesday, April 27, 2016


4-koma is a format that generally sticks to one genre: comedy.  That's not to say that no one else has tried using it for more serious fare, or that they haven't made it work for them and not against them.

SHOULDER-A-COFFIN KURO (Hitsugi Katsugi no Kuro ~ Kaichu Tabi no Wa), by Satoko Kiyuoki.  First published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2008.


Kuro is a lone traveler, a witchy-looking girl accompanied by a talking bat, a coffin strapped to her back, and a lot of secrets.  As she travels the land, she helps those she encounters along the way with their problems.  She even (reluctantly) takes in a couple of child-like catgirls on their quest to find their 'father.'  No one knows the reason Kuro is travelling, but what they do know is that her quest is growing less and less lonely by the day.


Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro is a true oddity even for a 4-koma manga.  It's not a comedy, but instead a wistful drama.  It doesn't read like a 4-koma for the most part.  Honestly, it's debatable if this needed to be a 4-koma in the first place.  In spite of that, the story works because Kiyuoki takes the story and the characters within it perfectly seriously.

That's not to say that there isn't any humor.  There are plenty of little comic moments tucked between the larger story arcs, and these play out in a fashion that's more familiar to 4-koma readers.  For the most part, though, this isn't a comedy but instead the tale of a single woman improving the lives of those around her as she travels the world.  It's not trying to build upon gags as it is building up the mystery behind Kuro and her journey as well as the emotional arcs of those around her.

Kuro herself is a mystery wrapped up in reluctant, somewhat wry blackness.  While she is helpful and empathetic towards others, she's not purposefully seeking to help others.  It's just that so often helping others helps her either move on to the next town or get her something that she needs.  She's also a rather lonely girl, although this is mostly self-imposed for reasons not yet explained.  She doesn't feel a need for friends or travelling companions, which makes it all the more ironic when she takes in what are basically a couple of toddlers with cat ears.  Of course, being precocious little dears the two end up worming their way into her heart and she starts treating them less like little cat-eared burdens and more like family.  Thus she manages to achieve an emotional arc while remaining a mystery thorough. 

She's far from the only character to get one, though.  The catgirls, Sanju and Nikiju, have one as well.  They were the creations of a mad scientist who like Kuro just fine, but they always keep expecting their 'father' to come back someday.  By the end, Kuro's distance combined with their child-like impatience leads them to run away, and when Kuro finds them again the two finally accept that Kuro is their parental figure for better or worse.  Sanju and Nikiju could have been just tokens, but instead they get an emotional arc all of their own.  Even some of the other incidental characters get something of one when we get to see them have a sort of reunion close to the end of the volume.  Most of them were plagued by loneliness and awkwardness before, but now not only can they connect with those in their own communities, but can reach out to similar folk whose lives were also touched by Kuro.  It's not only a nice callback for the reader, but it gives the volume a sense of closure despite being an ongoing story.  I may never understand why Kiyuoki chose this particular format for her story, but she puts more than enough effort into her story and characters that the format ultimately doesn't matter.


Even for a manga, Kuro's artstyle is very stylized.  All of the characters are practically chibi with their giant head and thin, almost unfinished limbs.  Their faces are mostly dominated by their enormous round eyes and their hair tends to be a collection of limp points.  Yet this heavily stylization works.  It gives the story another layer of whimsy and helps to soften some of the harder edges of the story.  Every character is unique - even Sanju and Nijiku have enough differences that you can tell one girl from the others despite being twins.  She even manages to get a lot of expression through despite the fact that faces here aren't really built for a lot of subtle acting. 

Kiyuoki also doesn't slack off on the setting.  Backgrounds are reasonably elaborate despite the small size of the panels, but never to the point of distracting from the real action.  Best of all, every house and alleyway is different from one other; every village Kuro and co. come upon has enough little differences to distinguish itself from the others.  Again, though, this just begs the question of why she used the 4-koma format in the first place. Even the coloring is interesting, as even the brightest, sunniest scenes have a sort of sepia tone to them.  Normally this would indicate something like a flashback, as the color tends to evoke old photography for most.  Here it's used more like an emotional dampener.  It keeps these scenes from looking or feeling too bright, as if Kuro's presence dims them a little just with her mere presence.  If that's a purposeful choice, then it's a rather clever one. 


Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro has an artstyle and a format that would suggest whimsy but it's got more than enough character and emotion to it to make it a surprisingly effective drama.  It's an odd but underrated little gem of a series.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 are currently available and are currently in-print.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


4-koma have long struggled to get any sort of foothold in the US.  It's easy to see why when so many of them were derivative and dull like today's selection.

LUCKY STAR (Raki Suta), by Kagami Yoshimizu.  First published in 2003 and first published in North America in 2009.


Konata, Tsukasa, Miyuki and Kagami are four very different high school girls, but together they united in friendship.  Together they deal with ordinary troubles like homework, the correct way to eat a chocolate cornet, or simply trying to deal with the fact that Konata views everything through the lens of video games and anime.


After reading this manga, I'm genuinely baffled how anyone looked at Lucky Star and thought "This should be a show!  This'll be a big hit!"  The mid 2000s were chock-a-block with a million wannabe Azumanga Daiohs where no more than six girls based around a bunch of otaku-friendly quirks go through high school while enduring a bunch of predictable scenarios that tend to revolve around either the usual series of school events and/or a wackily incompetent teacher.  Lucky Star is no exception to that, yet it manages to distinguish itself by being even more pointless and boring than normal.

It's certainly not distinguished by its main cast.  All of our four leading girls are little more than personifications of one or two quirks and each of those quirks is hammered into the reader's mind for the sake of a joke.  Konata is a hopeless otaku!  Miyuki is smart but moe!  Kagami is angry and self-conscious!  Tsubasa is a ditz!  I hope you found those statements hilarious because Yoshimizu clearly thinks so and never develops any of them beyond those points.  You better think that Konata's gimmick in particular is the height of hilarity because more so than anyone else, you will see the most of her because she's meant to be the stand-in for the otaku readers.  That's why she's so genre-savvy, pervy, and obsessed.  She even openly shills the magazine this manga ran in along with the little giveaway discount cards that came with it!  Not even Digi Charat shilled this hard, and she was literally a mascot for a game store!

Maybe the one-note main cast would be less aggravating if there was a larger supporting cast to support them or at least to pad things out.  While we do see the occasional adult, they are just as much one-trick ponies as the girls.  The teacher likes playing video games too!  Konata's policewoman cousin is lazy!  It goes on from there.  There's also no overarching plot to give all of these so-called gags some sort of structure.  It doesn't even use the concept of the cycle of the school year to keep things moving along, which most of these 4-komas tend to do.  There's an occasional reference, but time just tends to drift along vaguely.  There are also some very time-specific gags, particular one where Konata's shows keep getting preempted by the (presumably 2004) Olympics.

Lucky Star's biggest failing is in its delivery of its jokes, such as they are.  Good comedy 4-komas live and die by their timing.  Some keep thing condensed and make each strip a stand-alone gag.  Others will hold on reactions and stretch things out over two or three strips, letting the rhythm rise and fall before delivering the final punchline. Lucky Star tends more towards the former, but it has no idea how to build on the girls' quirks into something resembling an actual joke.  Every punchline falls flat, and it's hard to tell how much of this is Yoshimizu's fault and how much of this is due to the absolutely AWFUL localization.  This might be one of the most stiff, even mechanical translations I've seen in a professionally published book.  Weirder still, there are a few points where they translate an honorific but leave in the original phrase in parenthesis.  For example, someone might say "sis (one-chan)" or "ma'am (sensei)."  It's needless and distracting, and it makes the whole thing feel like a first draft instead of a finished product.  Lord knows that Lucky Star wasn't terribly good to begin with, but Bandai did this weak material no favors and it shows in a big way.


Even for a moe 4-koma, Yoshimizu's character designs are just bizarre.  They look more like caricatures or chibis of cliché moe girls, with their crude, squishy little faces and their equally crude, almost semi-deformed reactions.  I have a hard time believing even hardened moe fans looking at this and calling them 'cute'.  At least all of them are distinct visually.  It's not just hairstyles that distinguish each girl, but also the shape of their eyes and other little things like Konata's mole.  It's hard to say much more about their designs because we don't see much else of them.  This manga is very much a collection of talking heads assembled in flat medium shots.  There are also few backgrounds to speak of, so most of the comic takes place in vast limbos distinguished only by grades of screentone.  Not even adding color helps much, as there are a few random color pages included.  Visually Lucky Star is just as flat and dull as its sense of humor.


My issue with the translation is especially strange when you consider the size of the translation notes guide in the back.  It's one of the more thorough one's I've seen, but then I just have to wonder why they left all of these other references in but felt the need to leave the original honorific in place.


Lucky Star is anything but lucky.  It's a one-note comedy with no sense of timing and a visual style that's distinct but far from appealing and a terrible translation.  Even fans of the show would be better off sticking with that instead of seeking out this series.

This series is published by Viz and formerly by Bandai.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 10 volumes available.  8 volumes were published.  The physical volumes are out of print, but all 8 volumes are available digitally via

Thursday, April 7, 2016


It's April, so in honor of the fourth month of the year let's take a look at some 4-koma manga!  Now I could start out with the obvious choice here, but instead I was going to look at a more modern example of successful 4-koma manga.

Then I remembered that I had already reviewed Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun.

No matter, though!  I remembered that there was another amusing 4-koma that came out last year, albeit one that flew far further under the radar.

MERMAN IN MY TUB (Orenchi no Furo Jijo), by Itokichi. First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2015.


Tatsumi thought he was just saving some random blond guy washed up on the riverside.  He didn't expect that man to be a literal merman.  He certainly didn't expect said merman (named Wakasa) to take up residence in Tatsumi's bathtub so he can eat Tatsumi's food, read magazines, and generally get overly giddy about the luxuries of everyday human life.  Things only get more complicated as Wakasa's other half-sea creature friends start showing up, along with Tatsumi's extremely possessive little sister.


I actually reviewed this serieswhile back for seasonal reviews over at Infinite Rainy Day.  It had its ups and downs, but I did generally like it.  That being said, I would have never expected its source material to come out in English until Seven Seas picked it up.  Upon review, my opinion of this first volume is pretty much the same one I had of its animated counterpart.  It can be kind of irregular in quality, but it does land a good gag here and there and is weirdly endearing and cozy in its own right.

Tatsumi isn't so much a protagonist as he is a straightman.  After a while, his underreaction to...well, pretty much everything becomes a gag onto itself.  I can live with that, as it's a welcome relief from the standard manzai set-up that so many comedy manga like to use.  The real star of the manga is Wakasa, and Itokichi gets a lot of mileage out of this single character.  You get a lot of the expected fish-out-of-water jokes (pun not intended) and some of them are quite amusing, but he does get to be more than just mere comic relief.  Yes, Wakasa is childish and naïve, but he's a genuinely good-hearted soul who simply cannot contain his enthusiasm for the world around him and tries his best to share that enthusiasm with Tatsumi.  Amazingly, the relationship between Tatsumi and Wakasa is NOT played up for fujo fanservice.  This premise would seem to lend itself to a lot of slashiness, but aside from a few gags here and there (including one that evokes tentacle rape of all things), but it's one of the few places where the writing practices some real restraint.  That helps to keep the focus on the funny and not the shipping.

Still, this premise would have swiftly become boring and claustrophobic if it focused solely on Tatsumi and Wakasa.  That's why it was a good idea on Itokichi's part to regularly keep adding new half-fish people one at a time, and each of them brings their own flavor of humor.  There's half-octopus Takasu, who is handy with his tentacles; jellyfish-man Mizuni, who is calm, gentle, and forgetful; and tiny half-hermit crab Maki, who is reclusive and prickly but good at keeping the tub clean.  Again, the jokes aren't necessarily complex, but the jokes focus more on the personalities of the fishmen and not just loud wackiness.  There's only one addition to the cast that doesn't work: Tatsumi's little sister Kasumi.  Her only gag is that she's an insanely jealous little imouto, complete with all the awkward fanservice that tends to come with that role anymore.  These gags are not only incredibly awkward, but they don't fit the light tone of the story at all. I don't know why Itokichi felt the need to add this unneeded bit of otaku humor when the story (such as it is) works so much better without it.

Merman In My Tub is not necessarily the kind of manga that will leave you regularly laughing out loud, but it every so often make you smile and even feel a little warm and fuzzy.  It's got a great balance of humor and heart, little sister gags not withstanding, and the 4-koma format keeps the gags coming without getting stale.  Good 4-komas are not common, but this one manages to edge its way into that select group.


4-koma manga is a format that doesn't demand great art, and Itokichi keeps things fairly modest because of that.  If the art has any particular problem, it's that the character designs (Tatsumi and Wakasa in particular) are rather overdesigned for such small, modest panels.  Wakasa in particular has this bizarre blond hair cone on the back of his head that never fails to baffle me.  At least she is very good at capturing Wakasa's liveliness on the page.  She loves to draw his big goofy expressions, moments of superdeformed reactions, and his tail thrashing around in involuntary glee.The characters tend to be rather tightly packed into the panels, Itokichi does liven things up through the use of crazy angles and the odd bit of dramatic lighting.  After all, there is only so much any artist can do when 90% of their story takes place inside a single, ordinary Japanese bathroom, but Itokichi manages to make the most of her limitations.


Merman In My Tub manages to become more than pure fangirl bait by putting some care into the characters, some variety in the humor, and adding a little bit of heart to the whole thing.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is ongoing in Japan with five volumes available.  Three volumes have been published and all are currently in print.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


I started with a Star Wars manga, so naturally I had to end with one.  You see, it rhymes.  It's like poetry.

STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE, adapted from the film by Kia Asamiya.  First published in 1999 and first published in North America in 1999.


The planet of Naboo is on the verge of disaster thanks to a trade negotiation gone sour.  Their Queen, Amidala, decided to bring in a couple of Jedi Knights to help with the negotiations.  This fails epically for them, and after a few detours and one annoying Gungan they all find themselves sidetracked to the planet of Tatooine.  This in turn leads them to a slave boy named Anakin with a knack for podracing and the potential to become the most powerful Jedi of them all.


First of all, I hope you all appreciate the fact I tried to distill the boring yet needlessly convoluted plot of The Phantom Menace to less than one paragraph.  Honestly, that's way more difficult than it really should be.  Secondly, despite the fact that this is a completely different film adapted by a completely different mangaka, this manga has the same problem as the one for A New Hope: it's a overly literal translation of the movie.  Unlike that one, though, this is an overly literal translation of a terrible movie.

I'm not shocking anyone by stating the obvious here: The Phantom Menace sucked.  It sucked in 1999, especially once the joys of the opening weekend passed and all we were left with were the dismal dregs and that one scene with Darth Maul.  It still sucks now, despite what the kids who grew up with these films might try to tell themselves.  It's badly written, it's boring, and very little of it has any impact on the later prequels, much less the larger universe of Star Wars.  You could fill several servers full of the thinkpieces, reviews, and alternate cuts that spawned from this film.  Sadly, all of that suckiness was successfully translated from the screen to the page. 

Actually, let me correct that: it successfully translates the suckiness of the first half of the film to the page.  Do we have all the tedious trade negotiation stuff?  Check!  Is there all of the nonsense with Jar-Jar and the Gungans?  You bet!  Do we still have to deal with overly chipper, precocious and virgin-birthed Anakin?  Yep!  At least there were moments and characters in A New Hope that people would have wanted to relieve in manga form.  There is none of that here, as it cuts off just shy of the podrace and all of the good action sequences happen during or after that point.  That means that like the previous Star Wars manga I covered, this one also ends up focusing on all of the most boring bits of its respective movie.

On top of all of that, you can add the complete and utter lack of character for the cast.  There are plenty of characters and they talk plenty, but there's no sense of emotion or character least, where the humanoid characters were concerned.  Asamiya seems to struggle far less with the various alien and robot characters.  If anything, he strives to accurately capture their lines (or in R2D2's case, transcribe his beeps).  This means that he and the translators go out of their way to accurately transcribe Jar-Jar's every single word.  Let me tell you, it doesn't get any less racist or annoying on the page!  Even I had forgotten just how omnipresent Jar-Jar is during this portion of the film.  Every panel he's in is sheer agony and he remains completely out of place in this super serious and stone-faced plot.

This is absolutely a product of its time, that time being that brief period in the summer of 1999 when Phantom Menace merchandise was inescapable and the ineptitude of the film hadn't quite sunk in for most.  It's the last time anyone would have wanted to relive it in manga form, especially when the manga in question is so literal and inept to begin with.


Hisao Takada's big flaw was being rather generic.  After reading this, though, I longed for his brand of artistic decency because Kia Asamiya is an ABYSSMAL artist.  This book might feature some of the stiffest artwork I've seen in a manga.  At best, he can draw maybe two sorts of faces: wide-eyed innocent and squinty-eyed older person.  Worst of all, they are all stuck on a perpetual expression of 'dull surprise.'  Regardless of whichever face he might be drawing, they are drawn in the crudest, most angular possible, and many of them have these weird hatchmarks that I suspect are meant to convey cheekbones but look more like wrinkles. 

He doesn't handle bodies any better, and that makes me dread of how precisely he would have handled the actual action scenes.  His paneling is simply too small and too stiff to even convey the fluidity of a swinging lightsaber.  There's no way he could ever capture the grandeur of all these exotic locations or Amidala's ridiculous wardrobe.  About the only thing he can draw competently are the aliens.  All of them are shockingly on-model, and if he wasn't working from reference materials or screenshots I would be shocked.   It's a shame that he couldn't bring any of that effort to anything else.


This is a terrible manga adaptation of a terrible movie.  There is no charm, no originality, no beauty, and no sensible plot to be found here.  Even the most hardened Star Wars fans would dismiss this manga as completely unnecessary.  Not even the publisher bothered with the rest of this, so why should you?

This series was published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  One volume was published and is currently out of print.