Thursday, September 29, 2016


So like most sensible anime fans, the show I'm looking forward to most is Yuri On Ice.  Sayo Yamamoto working with MAPPA on an ice skating show?  SOLD.  That got me to wondering if there was any ice-skating manga out there.  The good news is that I was successful.  The bad news?  Well...

SUGAR PRINCESS (Shuga Purisensu), by Hisaya Nakajo.  First published in 2005 and first published in North America in 2008.


Maya Kurinoki was simply showing off so inspire her brother to give ice skating a chance.  She didn't expect her impromptu double axel to catch the eye of a local coach.  She certainly didn't expect it to lead her to Shun, a champion figure skater with a bad attitude.  Now Shun has been tasked with coaching Maya (how reluctantly it may be) into his new pairs partner, but the stakes have never been higher.  She's got to compete with Shun's grumpiness, potential rivals, and having the fate of the local skating rink rest upon her next performance.


Did you ever read a manga that left you completely ambivalent afterwards?  It wasn't necessarily good or bad in any particular way.  It was just so generic that it couldn't inspire any sort of feeling afterwards.  That's how I felt about Sugar Princess.

It's weird because I do genuinely like figure skating.  I don't follow it regularly, but any time it's on television (be it Olympic or otherwise), I'm hooked.  That's been true since I was a little girl watching footage of the Lillehammer Olympics, and it's still true now.  That's why I found myself wondering where the mangaka's own passion for it might be.  She knows her stuff - the actual skating techniques are explained well, there are little sketches of actual skaters on the splash pages between chapters, and she even includes a short bibliography of reference books she used for this work.  Despite all that, I don't get any particular sense of passion from Nakajo here and that lack of enthusiasm makes it hard to get all that invested.  Maybe the problem is her own heroine is dampening everything.

That would make sense, as Maya is a veritable drip as far as shoujo heroines go.  She mostly stumbles into the sport.  She shows a bit of fire at first, but spends most of the book apologizing for herself or gazing in awe at others.  It seems any spine she possessed disappeared once Shun showed up.  As for Shun, he's your generic shoujo love interest in the sense that he's a dark-haired grump with a secret tragedy that's meant to make him a prime subject for the heroine's gentle love.  Mostly I just wanted to thump him as he does nothing but grouch at Maya, even when he's trying to be nice.  At least everyone else around Maya is supportive of her work.  Her family, her friends, and even the other skaters encourage her at every turn and give her useful advice.  Normally, I would be thankful for a lack of drama around that, but it seems that Nakajo decided to save it instead for the end of the volume.  That's when she pulls a completely nonsensical bet out of her butt just so the story can turn into "let's put on a show to save the theater community center skating rink!"  I was already doing a lot of eyerolling at the overused tropes here, but that moment made me eyeroll so hard that they threatened to stay that way.

Maybe I'm just more sensitive to the lack of enthusiasm because this is one of the few times where I actually know and care about the sport in a sports manga.  Nonetheless, I wanted some actual love for the sport to be here.  All I got instead were a pile of half-baked shoujo clichés, a lot of technical talk, but not a lot of love of the game.


Maybe Nakajo herself isn't an enthusiastic person.  She's certainly not an enthusiastic artist, that's for sure.  Her characters are scrawny and generic, and her faces in particular are weird.  It's not just the fact that anyone over 18 simply looks bizarre - so many shoujo artists think that they can just slap some wrinkles or scruff on the same old bishonen face and call it a day.  It's not just the fact that so many people have the same, super-pointy chin.  It's the fact that everyone's eyes are just wide-set enough to make everyone look vaguely alien.  The fact that the rest of their faces are so minimal only highlights the weirdness of the eyes.  Nakajo can certainly do better.  The sketches she does of actual skaters look so much better (even if they all tend to have the same face), so the disparity just makes no sense. 

She can't make up for that with the actual skating.  While the poses are nicely drawn, there's not much fluidity to them.  In a sport where graceful movement is everything, this is a serious downside.  She also abuses her shoujo flair, as she's prone to throwing in all sorts of feathers, flowers,  and sparkles into panels.  It's so frequent that it verges upon random.  It's meant to distract from the rather minimal backgrounds, but if anything it only highlights the matter.  Like the story, the art is a mediocre affair from cover to cover that does nothing to elevate the already lackluster story.


It's little surprise that I had not heard of Sugar Princess previous to my search for sports manga.  It's a half-hearted work with no beauty and no passion behind it.  It's too spiritless to work as a sports manga and too generic to work as a shoujo romance.  It's just simply...there, being boring.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  Both volumes are available and are currently in print.  This series is also available as an e-book through Viz's website.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


Of course, these days when people think of sports manga, they think of the fujo-friendly shonen series of recent years.  Y'know, your Frees, your Yowamushi Pedals, your Kurokos.  Let us not forget, though, one of the series that paved the way for such modern successes.

SLAM DUNK (Suramu Danku), by Takehiko Inoue.  First published in 1990, and first published in North America in 2003.


Hanamichi Sakuragi is a tough guy that has no luck with the ladies.  His high school years look to be much the same until he meets Haruko.  She's cute and friendly, but she's only interested in guys who play basketball.  Thus, Sakuragi is determined to become the star of the school basketball team!  He's got a long way to go, though.  He's got to find a way to master the basics, impress the team captain, and win his way into Haruka's heart, all while fending off the goons from the upper classes.


Wait, isn't this supposed to be a sports manga?  It's not like my last review, where the lack of sports was part of the joke.  Slam Dunk is generally regarded as one of the classics of sports manga.  So why is it then that this feels more like a shonen romance or one of those yankii-themed manga from back in the day?

If you've read any of the latter, then Sakuragi will feel very familiar to you.  Hell, all the characters will feel very familiar to you. Sakuragi is kind of dumb, stubborn as a mule, super strong, super girl-crazy, and yet simultaneously terrible with women.  He's got a weird-looking gang of hangers-on who serve as his personal Greek chorus, and Haruka neatly fills the role of the generally pretty positive girl who serves as the prize for the protagonist to win.  There are even the usual, uglier rival gang leaders and a sullen and super-strong rival for both his glory and Haruka's heart.  You have seen these character types done a thousand times and everyone is as one-note as their types would suggest.  I can't say that Inoue write them any better than the others, but they are also far from the worst.  There is one thing that distinguishes them: they all apparently attend a high school for giants.  This is a cast of Japanese high schoolers, but every boy seems to be at least six feet tall and built like brick outhouses. 

So when the story does finally get around to playing some actual basketball, how does it treat the sport?  Mostly it treats it as a substitute for the interpersonal fights.  It doesn't get terribly deep into the details of basketball, as we get a lot of dribbling practices and a few dunks.  We get more information about the local gang structure than we do about basketball, which feels both like a failing and a distraction.  When you combine the lack of sports with the lack of character, all I got out of it was a lack of interest in the series as a whole.  Maybe it gets better and earns that classic status later on, but this is far from a promising beginning.


There is one thing that holds up about this series: its reputation for great art.  While the characters may be ridiculously tall, they are all handsomely drawn, strong-looking, and have lovingly detailed hair.  Sure, Sakuragi's perma-pompadour and the team captain's Kid-n-Play flat-top may be incredibly dated, but Inoue loves drawing them nonetheless.  The only times she deviates from this is when things shift into superdeformed mode for the sake of a gag.  It's jarring at first, but she makes it work with her general style. 

The backgrounds are also exquisitely drawn.  Rarely do you see this level of effort put into something as mundane as a school gym.  Once the guys start to play some games, the action is drawn beautifully.  There's an early shot that evokes the glory days of Michael Jordan, and it only gets better from there.  It's a shame that the panels are so small because it doesn't do the art any favors.  It's hard to believe that such a good looking work could come from the pages of Shonen Jump.


I read the Viz edition, which tried oh-so-desperately to appeal to actual sports fans by including the stats of a random player and tips for improving one's game.  It's a shame that such effort is aimed at an audience that's the least likely to be picking up a manga.


Slam Dunk's story is off a to slow and stereotypical start, but the artwork is remarkable for its time and genre.  It wasn't enough to sell me on the series, but it did make it a lot more tolerable.

This series is published by Viz, and formerly by Raijin Comics.  This series is complete in Japan with 31 volumes available.  The 5 Raijin volumes are out of print.  Viz publishes all the available volumes and is currently in print.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


There are s suprising number of shoujo series about sports.  Few of them could be said to be comedies, though.  Fewer still could say that the point of the series is to not play the sport at all.

MY HEAVENLY HOCKEY CLUB (Gokuraku Seishun Hockey Bu), by Ai Morinaga.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2007.


Hana Suzuki is a lazy girl with two primary habits: eating and sleeping.  Somehow, this endears her to one Izumi Oda, who loves her from afar.  In an attempt to get close to her, he convinces her to join the hockey club.  Hana has no interest in either hockey or Izumi, but she yields to the promises of away trips to nice resorts with gourmet meals.  To get to that, though, Hana has to endure early morning practices and a gaggle of pesky, pretty boys.  It's a good thing that this hockey club tends to be more occupied with planning trips and meals than getting around to the actual games.


Ai Morinaga has made something of a name for herself by turning various genres on their head for the sake of comedy.  Here she's doing double-duty by taking on both sports manga and reverse harems.  True to form, she ends up generating a lot of comedy out of subverting the readers' expectations.

Obviously, Hana couldn't be less suited to becoming the heroine of a sports manga if she tried, being both lazy and aimless.  She's not particularly interested in field hockey and shows no particular aptitude for it, so she's shoved into the role of goalie.  She's also not your standard reverse harem lead, either.  She might fight with Izumi off and on, but it's out of a sense of general annoyance than any sort of romantic tension.  Indeed, she doesn't take the least bit interest in romance or guys or anything that's not food and sleep.  So Hana doesn't aspire to be a great player or to get herself a man, so surely the point of the story is the build-up to the matches, right?

Nope!  That's the biggest subversion and the biggest joke in the entire book.  No matter how far the team might travel, shenanigans occur and the meet is inevitably cancelled.  Sometimes there might be fallout from these events (such as the time where the team is followed around by a bear), but most of the time you just have to accept the increasingly ridiculous circumstances as they occur.  That's pretty much the entirely of the comedy, as neither Hana nor her teammates have that much in the way of personality.  Like with most Morinaga works, it's got a rather particular sense of humor.  Either you will love it or you will be completely baffled.  No matter what, though, My Heavenly Hockey Club can be said to be like no other sports that it's not about sports at all.


I've always like Morinaga as an artist, and this series is no exemption from that.  Her character designs are generic and pleasant, which certainly works with the kind of gags she's going for here.  She's not afraid to veer them off into some ridiculous expression or some super-deformed gag, though, accented with much more wacky screentones than Morinaga usually uses.  At least she uses them well, letting them serve as punctuation for a punchline or an over-the-top expression.  Otherwise, the art is perfectly pretty and competent.


Being an old Del-Ray book, there's the usual trio of an honorifics guide, a food-heavy collection of translation notes, and a translated preview of Volume 2 in the back.


I enjoyed My Heavenly Hockey Club, even if it's arguably the weakest of her works published here.  The gags might be a bit more on the nose when compared to Morinaga's previous works, but it's just as subversive and silly as the rest and thus just as enjoyable.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  This series is complete in Japan with 14 volumes available.  8 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


Now that I'm totally NOT distracted by replaying Persona 4 Golden, let's take things into a more active and athletic direction.  That's right, it's time for sports manga!  So of course the first example I could find was...a kendo-themed drama full of girls?

BAMBOO BLADE (Banbu Buredo), written by Masahiro Totsuka & art by Aguri Igarishi.  First published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2009.


Kojiro-sensei is not having a good year.  His teaching job leaves him hopelessly broke most of the time, living mostly off of instant noodles.  He could distract himself with his duties as head of the school kendo club, but most of the members have graduated and it's on the verge of being shut down.  That's when he makes a bet with an old friend/fellow kendo coach: if Kojiro's team can beat his, then Kojiro can eat for free at his father's sushi restaurant for a year. 

Determined to win, Kojiro sets off to find a winning team, and he first sets his eyes on Tamaki, a kendo prodigy from a long line of kendo dojo masters.  There's just one problem: Tamaki is more interested in tokutatsu than kendo and has no real desire to take up the sport again.  It'll take time, effort, friendship, and even a sense of justice to win her over and forge not only a great kendo team, but some lasting friendships in the making.


Bamboo Blade occupies a strange space, being not quite a traditional sports manga but neither the sort of aimless slice-of-life story that the all-girl cast might suggest.  Still, it devotes enough time and care towards its characters to make it an effective and affecting drama.

The cast is pretty universally endearing, if not all that deep.  Kojiro is mostly defined by his desperation, Kirino is your standard genki girl, Miyako vacillates between her sugary sweet public persona and the brutal girl lying just underneath, and the few boys that gravitate around them are mostly afterthoughts.  If anyone gets the lion's share of focus, it's Tamaki.  It would be all too easy to write her off as just another stoic anime girl, but once we start to see her home life we get a far more complete picture of her.  While she is very skilled at kendo, she's mostly viewed it as a duty up to this point, thanks to her father.  She's also got a very child-like fascination with super sentai shows, and from that she's gained a keen sense of justice and a desire to protect those in need.  As the volume goes on, we see Tamaki open up to others in subtle ways.  For her, the simple act of bringing food to share at lunch is big step forward, and on the whole it's qualities like this that makes her character arc both sweet and subtle.

Despite being about a sport, not much progress is made with the kendo club in this first volume.  Hell, the team isn't even fully assembled at this point and the closest we've gotten to a tournament is a one-on-one match between Tamaki and a bully.  This slow and sedate pace might turn some people off, even if everything else works for them.  Yet it's the sports-related stuff that helps to give the story some focus and forward momentum.  They have something to work for beyond 'make friends.'  They also have things like 'find more members,' 'buy new equipment,' and 'train for the tournament' to complete  Yet it also has a lot of sincere emotion and a minimum of moe pandering.  It's the sort of balance that a lot of manga strive for but that few can truly pull off, and Bamboo Blade is very much one of those exceptions.


Igurashi's artwork is well-suited for this sort of understated story.  The character designs are simple and cute, but also very distinct, very much lacking in fanservice, and fairly expressive.  Well...maybe not so much in Tamaki's case, but her lack of expression is part of the point of her characters so I can let that slide.  She tends to keep the panels fairly tight-focused.  That's not a problem in the conversational scenes, but it becomes one during those rare instances where the girls have to actually practice or compete.  She's got a bad tendency to drown the girls' movements in speedlines.  I understand that kendo is not as dramatic in movement as, say, saber fencing, but it's not enough to truly sell the reader on the speed of the action.  Still, that's probably the biggest flaw in what is otherwise very gentle and appropriate art.


Bamboo Blade is a pleasant combination of sports manga and slice of life.  It's not something that I'm particularly compelled to read more of, but those who want a sports manga without the burning spirit angle would do well to give this a look. 

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is complete in Japan with 14 volumes available.  All 10 have been published and all are currently in print.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


Sometimes the universe lines up in just the right configuration to drop a little bit of luck in your lap.  That's my explanation as for how I managed to stumble across this particular (and not invaluable) volume at my local Half Price Books, tucked away amongst the American comics just in time to close out Old-School Month.

FIST OF THE NORTH STAR (Hokuto no Ken), written by Buronson & art by Hara Tetsuo.  First published in 1983 and first published in North America in 1989.


In a world ravaged by nuclear disaster, there is a hero named Kenshiro who wanders the wasteland.  Trained in the mystic art of Hokuto Shinken, he can take down any opponent with nothing but a few well-placed blows.  What he seeks isn't violence or dominance, though.  What Kenshiro wants is revenge against the warlord who took his fiancé from him and lords over the land with an iron fist.


Reviewing a work like Fist of the North Star is kind of intimidating.  It's not just that it's got a violent reputation, one boosted by innumerable clips from the show and movie.  What's also intimidating is how much its still-dedicated fanbase has hyped it as one of the masterworks of the 1980s.  Now that I've finally had the chance to check it out for myself, I can see where that fanbase is coming from.  Fist of the North Star truly is more than just exploding baddies and "You're already dead."

That's not to say that it isn't violent!  Believe me, there's plenty of violence in the first half, and it tends to play out more or less in the same manner.  Some enormous, hulking marauder threatens others, Ken happens to come along, fights said marauder until he explodes, only to move on.  These instances are brief, but fairly graphic for its time.  It's little wonder that if these moments are your only knowledge of Fist of the North Star, you would presume it's just the story of Kenshiro acting as a wandering badass.  That's selling this series short, though.  There is in fact a lot more story going on here.

Halfway through, we meet Shin, the local warlord.  In fairly quick order, we learn that he has a history with Ken along with possession of Ken's beloved Yuria.  While we've seen moments of understanding, even tenderness out of Ken before this point, it's only in this second half that Ken is shown to be truly human.  He's not just some grim asskicker - he's also capable of love and regret, even in the face of a manipulative bastard like Shin.  There was a reason to care for Kenshiro beyond his great power, and at this point I was compelled.  I wanted to see what happened next, even if the answer to that was him fighting yet another hulking goon and finding a new way to turn him into bloody jelly.  In that sense, Fist of the North Star is a narrative success.  It just takes some time to get there.


It's a little tricky to talk about the art as well because the version I read has been altered from its original state.  In what I can only presume was a move to appeal to American comic readers, this version was fully colorized.  In all fairness, this was done with the full permission and supervision of the original artist, so this isn't a repeat of what happened with Marvel's edition of Akira.  It's also unflipped and printed in a large, almost coffee-table sized format, unlike the previous version released here.  Still, in doing so some of the appeal of Testuo's rich inking and hatching has been lost.  At least the colors are rich, if rather muted in hue as befitting a dark and dismal post-apocalyptic world.

Hara's character designs are both iconic and totally ridiculous.  Kenshiro, Shin, and the various thugs literally tower over everyone else.  Still, there's a fair bit of variety, even if some of the thugs are pretty much just copies of characters from the Mad Max movies.  Still, Kenshiro is distinguished by his relative litheness, an artifact of the influence of Bruce Lee on the character.  He still towers over the comparatively bland normal folk, but he's nowhere near as ridiculous looking as the monstrous, virtually cartoonish thugs he fits.  Hara's also has a brilliant eye for composition.  Every fight and dramatic moment is perfectly framed.  It's not just that every punch, kick and explosion is clear and easy to follow, it's that every panel conveys the awesome, supernatural power they wield through well-chosen poses and angles.  The composition of every page and panel perfectly fits the mood of the scene.  For me, that's what truly takes the artwork over the edge into brilliance.


Fist of the North Star earns its masterpiece status not through its plentiful and memorable gore, but through the heroic heart beating just underneath and the beautifully crafted artwork. That makes all the greater shame that this series has never been - and likely never will - be completed in English.

This series was published by Raijin Comics, and previously by Viz.  The series is complete in Japan with 27 volumes available.  4 volumes were published by Viz and 9 volumes by Raijin, and all are currently out of print.