Sunday, May 31, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Finale: GIRL FRIENDS

To wrap things up, let me say something nice about Seven Seas for once by taking a look at the series that put Milk Morinaga on the map as far as American manga fans are concerned.

GIRL FRIENDS (Garu Furenzu), by Milk Morinaga.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2012.


Mariko Kumakura is a quiet girl, the sort of girl who spends most her days alone studying.  Everything changes on the day that Akiko Ohashi convinces Mariko to get a haircut.  Akiko is bubbly and popular, and under her influence Mariko starts to come out of her shell and start making some friends and enjoy herself.  Mariko becomes very attached to Akiko and the girls' feelings start to grow into something deeper than mere friendship.  Just as they are the verge of confession, Mariko gets a boyfriend and her friendship with Akiko suffers as a result.  Will the two of them ever repair their friendship?  Will they ever realize that the both of them want to be more than just friends?


Yuri is a neglected genre here in the US, and outside of titles like Strawberry Panic, it doesn't tend to get much notice even from manga fans.  That's why I was happy to see Girl Friends make such a splash with the fandom, first when it was on the late, lamented JManga site and later one when Seven Seas licensed it.  It's a very intimate and character-driven story, and much like the better examples of yaoi out there, it understands that we need to understand who our leads are as characters so that we can be invested in their romance.

Between this title, Kisses, Sighs & Cherry Blossom Pink, and Gakuen Polizi, it's clear that Morinaga goes for a particular sort of type when it comes to her couples.  She likes to pair up introverted or bookish brunettes with short hair and extroverts with light, long, loose hair.  I don't know if this is because Morinaga is going along with yuri conventions (like this was something akin the uke/seme deal in yaoi) or if this is just her particular fetishes shining through, but it's a pairing that works really well here.  Mariko and Akiko complement each other well, as Akiko encourages Mariko to engage with the world while Mariko keeps Akiko focused on important things like schoolwork.  It's easy to see why these girls would be fast friends, and the many scenes of Mariko enjoying quality time with the girls is just darling to read.

Of course, this being a yuri, things have to get a bit more complicated, and Morinaga weaves the romantic tension in seamlessly with the main narrative.  Mariko becomes more and more possessive about Akiko's attentions, finding herself longing for her praise and touch.  Akiko is the more physically aggressive of the two, so she tends to find excuses to touch and flirt with Mariko while still trying to play things cool and casual.  At times it becomes frustrating watching these two fumble their way through their problems because we've had so much time to get to know them as people.  You want them to be happy, and it's clear that they would be happiest if they would just have some frank conversations with one another and stopped beating around the bush.  Even their friends realize that the two need one another, even if Akiko's friends are completely unaware of the romantic complications between them.  The falling apart of their friendship ends up neatly paralleling the girls' concerns about being split up as they enter their next year of high school, and it leaves this volume ending on something of a cliffhanger.  Like Mariko, you're left wondering if these relationships are reparable or if it's simply the nature of teenage friendship. 

Girl Friends is the sort of romance that you can't help but get swept up in.  The character are so compelling and real that you can't help but feel what they feel.  You root for them, you despair for them, and you want them to be together.  If that's not testament to Morinaga's ability to write great characters and great romance, I don't know what would be.


Morinaga's designs are very cute and round, although they tend to be a bit generic and a bit bobbleheaded.  She does well at distinguishing all the different girls in both look and attitude, but they do all tend to have the same doe-eyed blushing face.  Fanservice is fairly minimal, a few bared boobs here, a bit of undergarments there, and in a rather meta touch we see a bit of a yuri doujin that can only be described as what happens when you cross Strawberry Panic with a magical girl show.  Backgrounds are nicely drawn, but they mostly feature a lot of ordinary streets, schoolrooms, and bedrooms.  This is a fairly talkative manga between Akiko's chattiness and Mariko's ever-present inner monologue, but Morinaga takes care to keep this from turning into a talking head montage by letting things widen out once in a while or letting things get a bit abstract.  Overall, Morinaga's art is cute but nuanced enough to let the emotion in the story shine through.


There's an extended omake from Morinaga which is surprisingly informative.  It confirms not only that Mariko and Akiko's looks stem from her own personal preferences but also her own experience growing up in an all-girls school. 


You don't have to be a yuri fan to enjoy Girl Friends.  All you need to be is someone who can appreciate well-written characters and romance presented with a subtle but emphatic style and a lot of shoujo-cute girls to go around, and that's enough to make this an instant recommendation from me.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 have been published in 2 omnibuses, and both are currently in print.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Merry Month of Manga: BLOODY MONDAY

It seems like that for every good and/or successful shonen series out there, there are half a dozen titles like today's selection - ones that try to appeal to older kids, try to be grittier, but never quite manage to becoming something other than a mild diversion.

BLOODY MONDAY (Buraddi Mandei), written by Ryou Ryumon & drawn by Kouji Megumi.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2011.


Takagi Fujimaru is by all appearances an ordinary high school kid.  He screws off in class, he helps out with the school newspaper, he even takes care of his sickly younger sister.  He also has a secret that's known only to him and his intelligence agent father: Takagi is also the notorious hacker Falcon who uses his skills for the cause of justice.  When Takagi's father gets caught up in a Russian bioweapon plot, Takagi must find a way to help his father clear his name and potentially save the world to boot.


Bloody Monday is a decent shonen series, doing its best to incorporate a lot of political thriller trappings into a format suitable for teens.  If it has any sort of major failing, it's that it feels the need to explain everything to its audience instead of letting them discover things on their own and make their own connections.

I'm not joking about that in the least.  There are a ridiculous amount of blatantly expositional conversations that exists only for the benefit of the audience.  It's hard to believe that Takagi or anyone else can keep a secret considering how often they blather away about every little thing about themselves or what's going on.  It's also kind of a ridiculous story unless you're willing to accept it at face value.  You have to be willing to accept everything from the idea of some high school kid becoming a world-class hacker with secret government support to the notion that Ebola and smallpox could be spliced together successfully.  It's also not afraid to wallow in some spy story clichés like the Russian femme fatale who serves as the main villain of this volume.  She might have been more intimidating if Ryumon wasn't so focused on reminding us of her enormous rack.  It's not like that Ryumon isn't capable of that; Ryou Ryumon is just one of many psuedonyms used by Shin Kibayashi, creator of many other shonen mystery series like The Kindachi Case Files and Sherlock Bones.  He knows how to create mysteries and thrills that kids can grasp, he just needs to trust in their intelligence a little.

It does at least a sense of the burning spirit that all good shonen needs.  Takagi has a strong sense of justice and wants to use his skills for good, and it makes sense for an idealistic teenager to feel this way.  He manages to convey that enthusiasm to his friends once he informs them of his secret identity, even if they never rise above their one-note personalities and remain little more than lackeys to Takagi.  Just like a hot-headed teenager, though, he's also prone to plunging himself into danger without a thought towards the consequences.  He doesn't listen when his father tells him that his current mission is too big and dangerous for Takagi.  He doesn't notice that his mysterious new science teacher might not be the best person to confide in when it comes to his hacking.  Worse still, his plot and the bioweapons one often feel like they're happening in two different spheres.  Even after Takagi starts to suspect his teacher, the two never quite mesh together.  Maybe they're just saving that for a later volume, much like the payoff for the plot thread about Takagi's father gathering allies of his own while on the lam.  So in spite of some serious flaws and an utterly terrible tag line ("Spy vs. Spy: the 1337 Edition"), it's got enough passion and intrigue to keep me reading.  It's just going to have to try a lot harder before it can become something genuinely good.


Megumi's art is very realistic and more than capably drawn, even if his adult characters are more distinct than his teenaged ones.  He's also terribly prone to throwing in pointless fanservice, finding every excuse possible to have the Russian spy walk around in her underwear or flash some panties.  He even tends to focus on her chest during serious scenes, and at times I wished someone had taken him aside and said "Her eyes are up there, off panel."  It's like he was terribly afraid that we might not get the point that she's meant to be sexy, when really it's just overkill.  Still, the realism goes a long way towards selling the reader on the gravity of the story.  It's just that sometimes that realism gets stretched when he loses himself in the fanservice or makes it a point for Takagi and his father to go weirdly cat-eyed during dramatic moments.  I'm still not sure whether this is just artistic license on his part or whether it's supposed to be a hint to something else entirely.  He does certainly try his hardest to bring some visual excitement to the concept of hacking, with plenty of dramatic close-ups and dark, moody lighting.  I just wish that he had focused more on the serious elements and less on indulgences.


Bloody Monday does have the potential to become a decent political thriller, but if it wants to be great then it needs to stop relying so much on exposition and fanservice and instead focus on tightening its narrative and putting some trust in the reader's ability to put thing together.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available.  All 11 have been published and are currently in print.  They are also available in e-book form through Barnes & Noble's website.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: ZYWORD

It's no understatement to say that CLAMP has been highly influential in the world of manga.  The only problem is that some people are determined to take that influence a bit more literally than others.  Today's review is the result of someone who never got past their own brush with fame to develop any sort of skill or style of their own.

ZYWORD (Gaiodo), by Tamayo Akiyama.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2006.


In the world of Zyword, the kingdom of Araimel lies under an icy sleep.  The only survivor is Princess Luna, a powerful mage who wants to unfrost her kingdom and save herself from a group of powerful goddesses that want her dead.  Her quest takes her all over the realm with her only companion being a mysterious soldier called Ride.  Together they are out to save the world and reclaim Luna's lost memories.


Zyword feels like someone turned a half-finished concept for a JRPG into a manga.  The story focuses on a Chosen One coming to terms with their destiny, where every turn is based on fantasy clichés and every page is loaded with ridiculous names and jargon.  It's just too bad that all this build-up and all these ideas go precisely nowhere.

The cast is completely unmemorable.  Luna comes closest to making an impression, but the most she can muster is a bit of brattiness, a healthy dose of curiosity, and a lot of stubbornness.  Everyone else is merely there to fill their respective token role, be it the stoic warrior, an innocent victim, or a purely wicked villain.  As the story goes on, it finds itself simply drowning in its own sea of terminology.  Spell names, titles, monsters, goddesses, all of this and more get some jumble of letters to describe them thrown at the reader's head, and Akiyama reinforces this by repeating and defining these terms are frequently as possible.  It's especially bad at the beginning, and it happens so often in the first chapter that I wasn't entirely convinced that the audience stand-in character wasn't in fact a human-shaped parrot.  Akiyama clearly wants to do a lot of world building here, but she hasn't the slightest clue as to how to pull it off.

Luna may be the Chosen One of this story, but more often than not she's turned into a damsel herself so that her mysterious sidekick can save her.  Time and again we're told that she can wield all sorts of incredible magic and has a super-special super-secret destiny that we only learn about in full in the last chapter.  Yet every single time she has to face down a villain, she never gets to use her own skills or knowledge to save herself.  It's a patronizing move that only gets more so with each instance, and it undercuts Luna's own importance in her own story.  It's a real shame because her own backstory is mildly interesting.  The story was kicked off when she had a prophetic dream as a child, one that marked her as blessed by the chaos goddesses and ready for a special (and likely deadly) initiation ceremony.  Luna rejected this so-called blessing, and in return her kingdom was destroyed.  Now she's dealing with a buttload of survivor's guilt and simply wants to make things right.  That's a perfectly valid reason for heroics and I wish the story had given itself more time to explore how Luna was affected by these events.

The biggest problem with Zyword is that it was never finished.  Akiyama was clearly gearing up for a multi-volume journey.  She was building up Luna's backstory, she was widening the scope of Luna's world, she even had just received a token cute mascot creature.  Then it all just stops with no attempt to wrap things up.  I can't imagine how poorly this series must have done to be cancelled so suddenly, without even enough time to make up a last-minute ending.  No matter how badly it likely would have turned out, it would have been better than nothing at all.  Maybe if Zyword had gone on longer, it might have found its footing and turned itself into something better.  In its present state, though, it's guaranteed to remain a muddled unfinished mess forever.


I'm pretty sure that Akiyama's connection to CLAMP was pretty much the only reason Tokyopop licensed this in the first place.  Akiyama was a member of CLAMP back when they were a 10 person doujin group.  She left before they got famous, but she still retained some connections with the present members and she's done her best to make her own art look like theirs.  Like a lot of fanart, though, her art is naught but a pale imitation of the original, and worse still she's still trying to imitate CLAMP circa CLAMP School Detectives.  Sometimes she outright steals from her former teammates, as Luna's fairy beast bears a suspicious resemblance to Magic Knight Rayearth's Mokona. 

There are plenty of lush round eyes, flowing hair, swirling cloth, and goofy fantasy armor, but the faces are stiff, flat, and completely identical to one another.  There's no rhyme or reason to the costumes beyond "add more drapery" or "throw on a few more weird-ass horns," and she really shouldn't have tried to add fanservice when she barely knows how to draw boobs.  She also has no idea how to draw action.  CLAMP's earlier work had some chaotic magic fights as well, but they brought a sense of life and moment to them, as if the swirls of magic could come flying off the page.  Akiyama can't manage that, though, and I suspect that she knows as much.  That may be why so many of the fights are obscured by dark screentones, speedlines, and sound effects.  All that clutter means that there's little space for backgrounds, so Luna and company mostly tend to wander through dingy grey limbo.  At least she knows how to compose a page, as the panels bleed into one another in a way that's easy to follow and almost verges upon elegant.  It's too bad then that she can't bring that elegance to anything else on the page or within this book.


Zyword is not only incredibly derivative, but it's bogged down in boring jargon and bad art and stops before it can go anywhere.  Clearly CLAMP didn't lose anything of significance by letting Akimiya go.

This volumes was published by Tokyopop.  It is currently out of print.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: DUCK PRINCE

If there's a mangaka who never got a even break on the North American market, it's Ai Morinaga.  She made some great comedy manga, but not a single one of them were printed in full, and all of them (including today's selection) now have all fallen in sad obscurity.

DUCK PRINCE (Ahiru no Ojisama?), by Ai Morinaga.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2004.


Reiichi is a hopeless case.  He's short, pudgy, and ugly, complete with a bad bowl haircut and Coke bottle-thick glasses.  His family mocks him, his classmates ignore him, and the only person willing to give him the time of day is the lovely and gentle Yumiko.  She thinks he's adorable, even if that's mostly because Reiichi reminds her of her equally odd, ugly dog Mister.  Reiichi gets hit by a car while trying to save Mister, and when he awakes he discovers that he's transformed into a beautiful young man.  Of course, he's now a beautiful young man with the personality of a hopeless, insecure nerd.  Still, now Reiichi might have a chance at winning Yumiko's heart, even if he has to compete with an a ancient prince disguised as a dog and a teacher with ties to the dog prince's past.


Leave it to Ai Morinaga to take something as basic as the ugly duckling story and turn it into a wacky romantic comedy that's more than willing to turn some old tropes on their head.

The big twist here is that the transformation from nerd to bishonen isn't the end of Reiichi's story, but the beginning of it.  He's still the same person underneath, and that person is still the same old clueless sap who knows nothing about girls or socializing and everything about gardening and sappy animal dramas.  He still has to find within himself a bit of courage and some social graces if he's ever going to get anywhere.  Mind you, Yumiko is far from your standard love interest as well.  She's not particularly impressed by Reiichi's looks, and since he's using an alias she doesn't connect this new boy to the sweet little nerd she's pining for.  She herself is kind of a dork, as she shares most of Reiichi's interests, and she's completely oblivious to the love polygon that's forming around her.  Her oblivious is the primary fuel for most of the gags here, as all the men around her compete for her attentions all while trying to keep their true identities under wraps, which soon enough turns everything into one big farce.

Lucky for us, the subplot between these men is just as interesting and fun as Reiichi's attempts at romance.  It onto itself is practically a fairy tale, with Mister and the teacher turning out to be caught up in an ages-old battle.  It was the teacher, Professor Takamura, who turned a prince into Mister the dog, and in turn it was Mister who turned Reiichi into a bishie.  Reiichi now finds himself tasked with helping Mister return to his true form, but he also wants to expose Mister as the dirty dog he is, as he uses his canine form to ogle Yumiko up-close.  This subplot keeps things interesting, as it gives them all motivation beyond winning Yumiko and their in-fighting only adds to the comedy.  Morinaga balances both of these storylines masterfully, so everything keeps moving forward and neither of them get the opportunity to get boring.  Morinaga's also not afraid to let the characters look or act bad but knows just how far to take it, and as such the jokes never descend into cruelty or get too serious.

Duck Prince is a genuinely fun, fast-paced and funny farce.  Its characters aren't deep by any means, but she gets a lot of good humor out of their quirks and conflicts and uses them well to tweak a few shoujo conventions, and it's a genuinely good series to read.


Morinaga's art is suitably broad enough to work for a comedy, but also good looking enough to appeal.  Her character designs are solid with lots of dark, shining hair and eyes to go around, and those that are meant to look weird like Reiichi and Mister are these gloriously goofy little chibi things with googly eyes.  It's all very fluid and lively with lots of broad expressions and action, and it complements the story beautifully.


Morinaga's omakes are funnier and more remarkable than most.  The one she includes here is a great example of her well-timed and slightly immature sense of humor, where a boat trip to Okinawa and an encounter with a beautiful man leads to her learning precisely what happens when you flush a toilet on a moving ship.


It's a crying shame that Duck Prince wasn't finished here, because even in its incomplete form it's one of the rare gems of the CPM lineup.  It's a hilarious farce with great art and if I had my will I'd rescue this one in a heartbeat.

This series was published by Central Park Media.  This series is complete in Japan with 6 volumes available.  3 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: CAFE KICHIJOUJI DE

I've never quite gotten the appeal of bishonen titles.  I suspect that it's because I got into manga much later than most people; instead of getting into it as a hormone-crazed teenager, I got into them well into my 20s, and as such it took a bit more than just a gaggle of pretty boys to catch my eye and keep my interest.  It certainly doesn't help that most of what qualifies for this genre tends to be a lot of middling bits of pointlessness based on things like visual novels or audio dramas, just like today's selection.

CAFE KICHIJOUJI DE, written by Kyoko Negishi & drawn by Yuki Miyamoto.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2005.


Café Kichijouji is a perfectly ordinary café on a perfectly ordinary street, but the employees of the café are anything but ordinary.  There's Taro, the boss who's obsessed with cleanliness and smacking down waiter Maki, who is a dumb lout with no mind-to-mouth filter.  Alongside him is Shuta, who lives in poverty and lives to eat.  There's also Jun, a part-timer whose delicate, feminine looks conceal his enormous strength and potent temper, as well as chef Higumi whose skill for baking is just as strong as his belief in the dark arts.  Finally there's Yuichi, the owner whose task it is to keep all these weirdos on task, no matter what sort of wackiness might come their way. 


As I hinted above, Café Kichijouji de is far from the first manga to exploit the idea of cute boys doing cute things in a cute way.  It's not as common as its female counterpart, but it's long past the point where it could be considered a clever subversion of moe tropes.  Still, few can be said to be going through the motions quite as badly as this manga does, and equally few can be said to be just as painfully unfunny as this manga.

Every cast member is nothing but a one-note joke.  I summed up everything you learn about then in the plot description above, and each single quirk is hammered so thoroughly into the ground that I'm sure they're starting to touch the mantle by volume's end.  Every joke is telegraphed from miles away and all of them involve slapstick, shouting, and sometimes a dose of pure (and often supernatural) wackiness.  Honestly, I'm surprised that the writer left just enough restraint to avoid playing up the obvious homoeroticism in the premise for a joke or for fanservice.  It would have been all too easy to make these goofballs all a little bit gay for one another to appeal to the fujoshi, but all the goings-on here are as innocent as they come.

In some ways, this feels like it should have been a 4-koma manga.  It would force the story to find some focus and get to the punchlines a lot faster.  It's not like Negishi isn't capable of doing just that, as each chapter is capped off with a bit of superdeformed nonsense that's not quite a 4-koma, but pretty damn close.  It's no better than the proper chapters, but it's snappier and have a running gag
with a black cat that keeps interfering with them.  It's truly sad that I'm a total sucker for cute kitties, but not even this gag falls completely flat.  If you can't manage to pull off a cat joke, something that literally everyone on the internet has done at some point in time, then you truly have no talent for humor.

Café Kichijouji de is a manga that's simultaneously trying too hard and yet not trying hard enough to be funny and cute.  It's hoping that the prospect of cute bishies with easy-to-digest personality types will be enough to ensnare an audience and that random or belabored jokes will be enough to get them to stay.  If manga could be summed up as colors, then this would be a bland, weathered beige.


Miyomoto is a competent artist, but her art is just as lacking in personality as the story. 
Her character designs are handsome and distinct, but her brand of bishonen isn't anything that you couldn't get from dozens of other manga.  The same goes for the cafe - the backgrounds are neatly drawn, but the cafe itself doesn't feel particularly special and she mostly uses it for establishing shots.  She is at least trying her hardest to make the most of the comedy, as she draws the slapstick and reactions are all drawn in a lively manner. She also draws very cute chibis for the SD comics, although again they're nothing that you couldn't find elsewhere.  Miyamoto tries her best, but her best simply isn't enough to compensate for the story's failings.


I almost felt generous enough to give Café Kichijouji de a yellow light, but I can't give a passing rating to a comedy that can't even produce a single laugh.  Café Kichijouji de is too boring to be bothered with, even by the most dedicated bishie lover.

This series was published by Digital Manga Publishing.  This series is complete in Japan with 3 volumes available.  All 3 were published and all are currently out of print.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: V. B. ROSE

As we approach June, we launch head-first into wedding season.  Since I already covered Wedding Peach, there's really only one other wedding-themed shoujo series I could review.

V. B. ROSE (V. B. Rozu), by Banri Hikada.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2008.


Ageha loves and idolizes her older sister Hibari.  That's why she is aghast when Hibari announced that she is pregnant and marrying her long-time boyfriend - to her, her idol has been ruined.  Hibari manages to bring her sister around to the idea when she offers to let Ageha help her find a wedding dress, since Ageha has such a keen interest in sewing and fashion.  Together the two go to Velvet Blue Rose, an exclusive boutique run by the handsome duo of Yukari and Mitsuya.  When one of them hurts their hand, Ageha offers to fill in for him, and as she works on her sister's dress she comes to terms with Hibari and her own ideals.


I've read a lot of middling shoujo stories since I started running this blog, but few annoyed me in the way that V. B. Rose did, and all the blame lies entirely on its heroine.  Ageha spent the entire volume acting like an insufferable brat.  She's not just overprotective of her sister, she's outright entitled and has put her sister on this impossible pedestal of perfection.  She treats her sister's pregnancy and marriage like her own failing, and every single time she started to angst I wanted to reach through the page, shake her and scream "YOU ARE NOT YOUR SISTER'S KEEPER!"  Some would try to write off Ageha's drama queen moments as mere teenage melodramatics, but being a teenager is no excuse for being a selfish brat.  It's the sort of drama that could (and is) solved by having a proper conversation with her sister about her feelings, and it's sad that the whole story centers on such contrived melodramatics.

Considering what a brat Ageha was for most of this volume, it's easy to forget that there's also a half-baked romance plotline going on as well.  Both guys have only the barest wisps of personality, and the only mildly interesting thing about them is that the light-haired guy is the moody, douchey one and the dark-haired is the kindly, more princely sort.  There's a bit of romantic tension between Ageha and the light-haired one, but it's fleeting and ultimately without consequence.  That's a good summary of this manga - fleeting, without consequence, and add to that 'kind of annoying.'  It's a shame because the relationship between Ageha and Hibari is by far the strongest element here, but it's hard to enjoy it when Ageha keeps making everything about her and her feelings.


The art is mostly uninspired and a touch out of fashion for the time it was released.  The character designs are simple, skinny, and stylized and their eyes are drawn over their hair, and I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking that they were drawn closer to 1994 than 2004.  It's expressive enough, but it's also kind of flat-looking since Hikada chose not to shade anything and keeps the backgrounds rather vague.  There's simply not much to say about the art and not much to recommend it.


Honestly, if it weren't for Ageha being so aggravating and having such a complex towards her sister,  I doubt I would have remembered anything about V. B. Rose.  Much like last season's fashion, this series should be left on the shelf.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan with 14 volumes available.  12 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: CROWN

I've always felt a little bad for Go!Comi.  They were one of the many B- and C-list manga publishers from the 2000s, and their gimmick was that they focused exclusively on shoujo.  They did have good enough taste and luck to bring out Afterschool Nightmare in full, but a lot of their titles simply flew under everyone's radar and many were never finished.  Even manga like today's selection, a collaboration between a classic shoujo writer and a popular BL artist, suffer a similar fate.

CROWN (Kuraun), written by Shinji Wada & drawn by You Higuri.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.


Mahiro Shinomiya has had a hard life.  After her parents died, she was forced out of her home by grasping, scheming relatives, and now she must work multiple part-time jobs just to get by.  The only mementos she has of her past are a photo of her parents, a pendant with mystic powers, and vague memories of an older brother.  That same older brother, Ren, comes charging back into her life, revealing himself to be a professional mercenary.  It turns out that he's come back for more than just a family reunion.  He and Mahiro are the heirs to a foreign kingdom, and the pretender to the throne is determined to eliminate both of them by any means necessary.  Now Mahiro, Ren, and his partner Jake must work together if they are to survive.


Shinji Wada is something of a legend in Japan, having created the long-running shoujo series Sukeban Deka, about a delinquent girl who solves mysteries. He hadn't done a manga in over a decade before starting this one, but if this story is anything to go by, he hadn't lost his touch.  While things can get a bit clichéd at times, Crown is a highly entertaining and timeless sort of tale.

It does start off a bit roughly.  It's never a good sign when one needs background characters to explain the lead's backstory to the audience, and it's not a good sign when your lead's backstory is so damn tragic that she gives Cinderella a run for her money.  That backstory sets the tone for Mahiro for the rest of the story, as someone who suffers tragically in a noble manner.  If she were any more innocent and sweet, she would have a big poufy ballgown and would be swishing around with all the other Disney princesses.  She even has a magic artifact, the titular gem which does pretty much whatever the plot needs it to do.  It can divinate romance, it can find hidden entrances, it can even define a person's moral character, and it serves as both the resident Macguffin and a Get Out of Plot Complications Free card.  So yeah, Mahiro is a little bit useless and a little bit juvenile for a heroine, and I do wish she had more of a grasp on the severity of  her situation or at least wasn't quite so dependent on her brother, even if he can kill a man multiple times before he hits the ground.

At least Ren and Jake are relatively likeable.  They're both cool and competent but they never come off as superhuman.  Ren himself is charming and affable while Jake is more awkward due to his less than stellar ability to speak Japanese and because he's clearly growing a bit sweet on Mahiro.  They do have a shockingly blasé attitude about collateral damage, though.  At one point they literally fake a hostage situation in a plush Roppongi Hills building, only to blow said building sky-high in the name of stopping their enemies and exposing a gun trafficker.  Their actions may be in the name of good and self-preservation, but it's kind of weird how the story just blows off major actions like that as no big deal, diving straight back into Happy Family Time like it's no big deal.

Maybe their acts would have a greater sense of gravity to them were the villians not quite so broad.  Mahiro's adoptive parents are the sort of family you usually only see in Roald Dahl books.  They're all fat, coarse, greedy bastards who think nothing of trashing the place or wasting Mahiro's inheritance, and they're dispatched so fast from the story that it's almost laughable.  The proper villain is the false queen of Ren and Mahiro's made-up kingdom.  She wants them out of the picture because she's a greedy racist and she needs Mahiro's Macguffin pendant to legitimize her claim to the throne.  That's why she's perfectly ready to spend no small amount of money on weapons and mercenaries to make it all happen.  If she were more blatantly, nakedly evil, she would have a top hat, a cape, and a handlebar mustache to twirl.  The only evil person who gets any sort of character is the ludicrously named Chrondrite Bourne.  He's another ex-mercenary who holds a grudge against Ren and Jake, but he gets disarmed through quick action and Mahiro's infallible belief that he's a good guy deep down.  Just like that, he's on their side, and at this point the story betrays that it's shaping up to be a bit of a reverse harem. 

What's really strange is that for all its faults (and as I've noted, it has many), Crown is a genuinely enjoyable story, successfully merging shonen-style military action with shoujo fluff.  It's just that it falls apart the moment you start to look deeper.  The leads are pleasant but insubstantial.  The action is thrilling, but the villains are ridiculous and any real threat to our leads gets explained away in an instant.  It's content to coast on the thrills of big action pieces and pretty guys but not to turn them into something truly memorable.


You Higuri is no stranger to this blog.  She's mostly known for her BL works, and even those that aren't explicitly yaoi tend to retain a bit of slashiness.  Here she's working solely as an artist, though, so the hoyay is all but nonexistent.  Still, she was a good choice for this work, as her appealingly attractive characters and her nicely rendered backgrounds make this a generally good-looking work.  I still suspect that Chrondrite is nothing but a rip-off of Full Metal Panic's Sosuke Sagara, though.  He's got the same hair, the same cross-shaped scar on his cheek, and the same profession, and that similarity would have only been more obvious when this first came out, as that particular franchise was still going strong at the time.  Higuri also apparently has something against fat people, as both Mahiro's adoptive family and the evil pretender queen are distinctly heavy set for no particular reason other than we're mean to associate non-pretty people with evil.  Higuri does use a lot of dramatic angles and lighting throughout the manga, but Higuri is clearly more comfortable drawing cute girls and sleekly handsome guys than she is with drawing action scenes.  She tends to skip over the actual fights and feats of violence, so Ren and Jake's actions come off like a before and after montage.  That's kind of a problem when this is meant to be an action series.  Higuri can draw really attractive art, she just can't really make it flow in a way that looks and feels exciting.


Crown can be good fun if you let it, but neither the story nor the art stand up to any sort of close scrutiny.  The sum of Crown is far greater than its parts.

This series was published by Go!Comi.  This series is complete in Japan with 6 volumes available.  2 volumes were published and both are currently out of print.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: TRANSLUCENT

You know, I don't cover a lot of Dark Horse comics here.  I need to change that, so let's start with a quiet little gem from their library of titles.

TRANSLUCENT (Toransurusento: Kanojo wa Hantomei), by Kazuhiro Okamoto.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2007.


Shizuka Shiroyama would be, under any other circumstances, a shy but otherwise normal schoolgirl.  She has a few friends, she has an interest in theater, and a lot of the usual teen girl insecurities.  She has one very big, very unique problem, though - she is literally disappearing.  She has Translucent Syndrome, a mysterious condition that appears during puberty.  It can cause random body parts to partially or fully disappear, and over time the translucence can become permanent.  At least Shizuka has the support of her friends like dorky little Mamoru or pretty, popular Okouchi.  Still, she must come to terms with her body and her condition, as well as how she and other people perceive herself in both a figurative and literal sense of the word.


Don't worry yourself with asking questions about why and how Translucent Syndrome exists, as the story isn't interested in explaining and quite frankly it's not concerned with the science behind it.  No, what Translucent is interested in is using Shizuka's condition as a rather on-the-nose metaphor for teenaged insecurity.  In lesser hands this concept could become incredibly melodramatic, but Okamoto wisely takes a low-key approach to things and the end result is a very touching manga.

Shizuka may disappear from time to time, but her biggest problem is that as a person, she's kind of flat.  She can't entirely help it, as Shizuka tends to be introverted by nature; she would be the kind of kid who would fade into the background even if she didn't have this condition.  She does try to get better, though.  She tries to act, against the wishes of her father who simply wants to keep her safe and sound at home.  She talks with her doctors about her future and her condition, and she gets some perspective from Keiko, a glass blower who has gone entirely invisible.  Her snarky pessimism is a stark contrast to Shizuka's timid optimism, but she can give Shizuka some perspective on living one's adult life with this condition. 

What really helps to bring her out of her shell are her new friends, and Mamoru in particular stands out for his efforts.  He's such an endearing little dork, and as much as he's clearly crushing on her he really does try to support her and make her happy.  He even takes up an interest in stage makeup to help her out.  He's balanced out by Okouchi, who starts out envying Shizuka for being able to go unnoticed but comes around quickly to becoming her friend.  She's mostly there to help give Mamoru a smack when he's being especially oblivious or losing himself too deeply in his geekiness.  They help to give Shizuka a sense of stability and positivity, both of which go a long way towards making her a happier and more frequently visible girl. 

The approach Okamoto takes towards her story is one that's closer to a slice-of-life story than it a more tradionally structured drama.  She's simply content to let Shizuka meander through her everyday life and conversations, and while there are misunderstandings and arguments, she doesn't play them too hard for melodrama.  The only time she indulges in that is a tonally weird moment near the end where Mamoru literally has a fistfight with Shizuka's dad in the rain.  This moment does serve its purpose story-wise but it comes out of nowhere and feels ridiculously over-the-top compared to everything else.  Otherwise, this is just a quiet, somber story about a young girl slowly and gradually reaching out to the world before she might literally disappear from it.  Okamoto takes great care with the characters and she doesn't hammer in the morals or the metaphors, however obvious they may seem.  It's that delicate approach that makes Translucent such a fine work in the first place, and it's kind of criminal that such a story has been so overlooked by so many.


Okamoto's artwork isn't the sort that impresses you at first glance.  The character designs are plain and very realistic.  The panels and pages alike are equally plain - there are no dramatic angles, no splash pages, no layers, just a lot of mid-level shots that are set in a lot of ordinary homes, streets, and school rooms.  What does impress you is Okamoto's skill for body language and expression.  Everyone moves and acts in a very nuanced manner and he can get across a lot of mood just through body language.  This is doubly important in a work where some characters are not always completely visible, so even getting things across through the shift in someone's clothing or an object they carry is crucial.  He also handles the varying degrees of translucence well.  Sometimes Shizuka appears in vague outlines, and other times her limbs will simply fade into blank space.  Ultimately his art is quiet but highly skilled, and it's a good fit for the story.


Translucent is a sadly ironic, considering how little-seen it is by most manga readers.  That's really quite a shame, as it's a lovely and quietly dramatic slice-of-life story about a girl coming to terms with a chronic condition and learning to find some happiness in life in spite of it.  It's got enough direction to keep it from feeling aimless and it's restrained enough to give the bittersweet story substance.

This series was published by Dark Horse Comics.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  3 volumes have been published and are currently out of print.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: NO. 6

Whatever happened to shonen-ai?  Once upon a time we used to get manga like FAKE and Gravitation, series that hinted at gay romance, but were focused first and foremost on telling a story.  With the flood of yaoi titles we got in the 2000s, it seemed like the concept had been all but least, until fairly recently.

NO. 6, based on the light novel series by Atsuko Asano & drawn by Hinoki Kino.  First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2013. 


No. 6 is a bustling, futuristic city where crime, illness, and unhappiness are all but unknown.  Amongst its residents is 12 year old Shion, who is on the fast track to a glorious academic career until the fateful night he left his bedroom windows open during a storm.  That allowed Rat, a strange and heavily injured boy, to enter, and Shion sees to his wounds before Rat leaves.  Rat is a fugitive, though, and this single act of compassion ruins Shion's life.  Four years later, his family has been forced into the slums while Shion now must work as a maintenance to help his mother get by.  He stumbles upon a bizarre and deadly secret at his job.  Now Shion is the fugitive, and Rat has returned to show him the truth about No. 6.


If you've been keeping up with YA fiction these days, then the premise of No. 6 is probably going to feel kind of familiar to you.  You've got a dystopian community where the haves and have-nots are separated, where all sorts of future tech is present and possible, and where a single Chosen One rises up against their overlords and leads the way to a better future, usually with a love interest at their side.  Just because the concept may not be all that original doesn't mean that it isn't any good.  No. 6 manages to make those well-worn ideas feel relatively fresh while delivering a bit of subtle fujoshi fanservice.

In all fairness, Shion and Rat make a good couple.  While their personalities are a bit lightly sketched out so far, their skills and knowledge complement one another.  Even their story arcs complement one another, as Shion's selfless act comes full circle when Rat comes back to help him years later.  Yeah, it's more than a little convenient, but it's satisfying nonetheless.  There are certainly things about them that I wish they would change.  For example, Shion is so ridiculous happy-go-lucky that not even being forced out of his home and school and everything he knows isn't enough to phase him, and he's also shockingly oblivious to the fact that his childhood friend Sufa is desperately trying to hit on him.  Then there's Rat, who must be forced at every turn to vaguely explain even the slightest thing, and it feels less like a character quirk and more like a plot gimmick that allows the author to stretch things out as long as possible.  At least he's well-read for being such a stubborn kid.  He even manages to slip in a quote from MacBeth that's not overused and is relevant to his and Shion's situation.

I was a little surprised to learn that this was based on a light novel series.  It's true that knowing this makes the parallels to current YA trends a little more obvious, but No. 6 has been adapted well from the page.  You don't see the sort of obvious infodumps that so many bad light novel-to-manga feature.  No one stops the story dead in its tracks to explain the rules of the world or their epic backstory, a fact for which I am very thankful.  As for this future world, it honestly doesn't seem all that bad.  Yeah, it's built upon a foundation of lies, totalitarianism, and exploitation of the masses, but not even the 'bad' side of town seems all that bad for what is meant to be a run-down slum.  After all, Shion and his mom adapted incredibly fast to their lot and she even managed to set up a nice bakery.  They don't even do that much to keep the two worlds seperate, as Shion and Sufa are able to maintain their friendship even after he's been banished to the slums.  It's only near the end of the volume that the true horror of Shion's world comes into focus as Shion discovers that their oppression comes with a side of biomedical experimentation.  It's a neat twist, but it's not enough to completely overcome the mildness of this dystopia.

I don't want to come down too harshly on this series.  The story might be kind of derivative, but it's all put together in a way that flows smoothly and gives it a good foundation upon which to build some deeper characterization and world building.  It's not perfect, but the first volume of No. 6 is off to a promising start. 


Kino's art is much like the story in the sense that it's pleasant and well-crafted, but isn't necessarily all that remarkable or distinct.  His character designs are pleasant enough to look at, and I will say that he does a good job at aging up Shion and Rat from 12 to 16.  A lot of manga artists struggle to convey age; at most, they tend to add a few crows' feet and call it a day.  Here, the differences are just enough to visually convey the passage of time, but the changes aren't so radical that the two become two completely different-looking people.  The backgrounds are all nicely rendered and there's a clear difference between the sleek, vaguely futuristic places of No. 6 and the darker, shabbier, and more organic forms of the slums.  It's just not shown off very much until the very end, when the scenery opens up into a grand vista. If there's one thing that Kino does excel at, it's fujoshi fanservice.  There's never any sort of explicit action, but Kino does love to take every and all opportunity to have Rat pin Shion against the nearest flat surface as he yells or threatens Shion in a suggestive manner, a move that's only enhanced by the noticeable size difference between the two boys.  It's an understated touch in what is otherwise a nicely drawn but otherwise unremarkable book.


No. 6 won't revolutionize the world, but its story of two boys fighting back against a cruel world makes for a neat and mildly slashy bit of science fiction.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is complete in Japan in 9 volumes.  All 9 have been published and all are currently in print.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: READ OR DIE (R.O.D.)

You know, I have waited far too long to cover this manga, especially when you consider that I use its lead character as my icon both here and at Infinite Rainy Day.  Let's dive into the rousing (if slightly continuity addled) world of Read or Die!

READ OR DIE - R.O.D. (Rido oa Dai), written by Hideyuki Kurata & drawn by Shutaro Yamada.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2006.


Yomiko Readman is a young woman with an immense love of books and a special skill.  She can manipulate paper at will, and the only limit to her power is the amount of paper available and her own imagination.  She also serves as a secret agent to an equally secret library, one that is tasked with protecting the world's rarest and most valuable books.  Her latest assignment gives Yomiko the chance to meet her favorite author, the teenaged prodigy Nenene Sumigawa.  When an insane fan kidnaps Nenene with the intention of forced marriage, it's up to Yomiko to save the day.


It can be hard enough to review a manga based on a series without turning it into a list of "The show did X, but the manga does Y!"  Now imagine how hard it is to review this one when you take into account the continuity of the R.O.D. franchise.  It started as a light novel series, which in turn became a 3-episode OVA.  There was a spinoff manga with a completely different story which became a full-length TV series that was in the same continuity as the OVA.  Then there's this manga, which continuity-wise sits somewhere between the OVA and TV show but tells a completely different story in turn.  This sounds horribly convoluted, but the good news is that you don't really need to know a lick of it to enjoy this manga on its own.  Even a newbie to the world of R.O.D. can appreciate it as the silly, over-the-top bit of action it was always meant to be.

I think the ultimate appeal of Read or Die, regardless of what format it comes in, is Yomiko herself.  She's at once cheerful, naïve, resourceful, and proactive.  She's the kind of woman who can all but squee over her favorite books but when the stakes are high, she can still protect herself and save the day by turning something so thin, fragile, and common into her weapon.  She's not a love interest, she's not a sidekick, she is her own woman.  Best of all, it's all done in a humorous and surprisingly light manner, which helps to minimize the disconnect between the scenes between Yomiko and Nenene and all the secret agent stuff.  Her friendship with Nenene is rather adorable in its execution, as the rather prickly Nenene warms up to Yomiko.  Mind you, I can hardly blame her for doing so when Yomiko herself is so unguarded and such a hopeless fangirl.  Of course, the creators are not above using their friendship as an excuse for some yuri-tinged fanservice, although it never gets too intrusive or exploitative.

The action pieces are just as equally entertaining.  Kurata seems to be a guy whose approach to action is go big or go home, and he certainly delivers on that front.  From the beginning we get things like fights on top of a moving truck, and it escalates until Yomiko has to face off against a fire user who acts like your standard sexy evil seductress and looks like a fire-themed version of Cutey Honey.  Meanwhile, Nenene is having to grapple with a megalomaniacal fan who wants to control his favorite author so that together they can create what he deems the ultimate literary work.  It's clearly a riff on Misery, but again he's taken it to almost cartoonish extremes, which keeps it from getting too dark and keep it in line tonally with the rest of the volume.  Does all of this story make sense?  Oh goodness no.  Does it matter in the end?  Not really.  Read or Die only wants to be big, dumb shonen fun, and it succeeds in a big way at just that.


Yamada's artwork is a perfect match to the story, as it is just as fun and lively as the story itself.  Every character, hero and villain alike, are hammy as hell and seem to bounce and bound through every panel and page.  The character designs are actually pretty nice, as they're round and lush while still wild and expressive enough to fit with the story.  He's not above throwing in some cheesecake, but thankfully the ladies all possess proportions that can be found in this universe.  What, you though there were plot reasons for Yomiko to play dress-up at Nenene's place?  The only place where he plays things conservatively is with the panels.  He tends to keep them small, and to keep things from getting too cluttered he tends to leave the backgrounds out.  This allows everything to flow smoothly from panel to panel, and the end result is just as much of a delight to look at as it is to read.


There's actually some nice commentary from Kurata talking about the series as well as some comments on Yomiko's various redesigns from light novel to screen to manga.  There are also some sketches of her done by some of the animators from the OVA as well.


Read or Die is a silly little shonen romp with a great heroine, a lot of crazy action, and plenty of spirit and liveliness to go around, and it's an utter delight to read.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available.  All 4 were published and it is currently out of print.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: APOTHECARIUS ARGENTUM

Ok, I've had enough of wallowing in bad smut.  Time to focus on something good, and what can be better than a fantasy shoujo series from CMX?

APOTHECARIUS ARGENTUM (Yakushi Argent), by Tomomi Yamashita.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2007.


In the kingdom of Beazol, Princess Primula watches over the kingdom while her father heads off to fight another battle with one of the neighboring kingdoms.  Her only company are the servants in the castle, but the only one she could call her friend is Argent.  He was formerly her food taster and now he runs an apothecary on the edge of city.  After the two discover a poisoning plot against Primula, she has him reinstalled as the royal doctor, despite Argent's protests.  What Primula doesn't know is that he is a Basilisk, an assassin so soaked in poison that his very touch is toxic.  Thus Argent finds himself torn between his dedication to Primula and the ill intentions of those who want to use Argent as a weapon.


Apothecarius Argentum is simply one of those well-constructed shoujo fantasy stories that CMX seemed to specialize in.  It's got interesting characters, political intrigue, a touch of romance, and it even dares to tackle topics like free will, prejudice, and Argent's conflict over his past and his present.

Argent seems like a rather serene, all-knowing sort of bishonen at first, but his placid demeanor conceals a lot of inner torment and struggle.  We spend a fair bit of time inside Argent's head, so we see how miserable his past was, how Primula came to trust in him, and how that trust motivates him to be a better man.  His angst is never piled on too thickly, so Argent's struggle never comes of as maudlin or over-the-top.  In contrast, Primula is more or less as she appears to be.  She's a spunky tomboy whose personality chafes a little with the responsibilities and isolation that come with being a princess.  She is blessed with quite a bit of common sense, though, and the friendship between her and Argent feels very realistic compared to what one usually sees in shoujo.  Sometimes they might butt heads over an issue, but there's also a lot of sweetness and supportiveness between them.  Most importantly, she treats him like an equal - not a subject, not a servant, but as a trusted friend.  There are hints of deeper feelings between the two, but even as things are they make a great platonic pair.

There isn't much to say about the rest of cast save for the king himself.  He's made out to be a tyrant, but we see that he's a bit more complicated than that.  He's a total pushover when it comes to his daughter, but he also makes it clear that he still considers Argent to be a deadly trump card that he intends to keep close by for his own purposes.  It's not so much that he puts on a friendly, loving face for his daughter, it's that his love for her is just as much a part of him as his darker, more scheming qualities, and that uncertainty makes him far more intriguing that any of the one-note villains that come for Primula.  If this all sounds a little aimless, it's mostly because this volume is more about establishing Argent as a character and the relationships around him than it is kicking off any sort of grand plot.  It's time well spent, though, as Apothecarius Argentum does a great job building up Argent and the world around him and it makes me excited and intrigued to see what happens to them next. 


Apothecarius Argentum's art is typical of the genre, but it's solidly drawn and good looking.  Yamashita takes a light hand with the line work, so everything is drawn in a light and pleasing manner.  Everything else is fairly by the book - the character designs, the composition, the backgrounds.  That's not to say that it is boring, but merely that Yamashita's style isn't all that distinctive and she plays things rather safe when it comes to the art.  She's clearly put most of her effort into the actual story, and the art does a perfectly fine job supporting just that.


It's the exceptional character writing that pushes Apothecarius Argentum into a green light.  It's a little more compelling and complex than one usually sees in this sort of shoujo story, and I'm eager to follow Argent and Primula on their next adventure.

This series was published by CMX.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes.  8 volumes were released and all are currently out of print.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: KIZUNA: BONDS OF LOVE

After yesterday's review, I'm willing to look at some better smut.  So let's take a look at a classic yaoi title!  Lord knows it can't be worse!

KIZUNA: BONDS OF LOVE (Kizuna: Koi no Kara Sawagi), by Kazuma Kodaka.  First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2004.


Kei Enouji and Ranmaru Samejima have been a couple for years.  They got together back in high school, when Ranmaru was a kendo champion and Kei was struggling to rebel from his yakuza roots.  While Ranmaru's kendo career was destroyed by an accident, the two have managed to survive and maintain their romance.  Things become complicated when Kei's half-brother Kai comes back into Kei's life, and it turns out that Kai is still nursing a massive, hero-worshipping crush on Ranmaru.  Ranmaru is now caught in the conflict between the two, each of them determined that they are the only one worthy to possess Ranmaru and willing to employ all sorts of sneaky tactics to get their way.


Kizuna is one of the few yaoi titles you could reasonable classic a classic.  It's relatively old for such a young genre, the first major work from one of the genre's best known mangaka, and  it's also one of the few yaoi titles to have been license-rescued.  It's also a melodramatic piece of crap, one that's too sleezy and lifeless to be as intense as it wants to be.

First of all, even for an uke Ranmaru is incredibly passive.  He rarely protests when Kei and Kai start fighting over him, apparently content to be used like an object for their own selfish pleasures.  Mind you, he rarely seems to protest anything.  As such, he seems to be perfectly fine with Kei raping him in the kendo club practice room.  He's a-OK with his professor trying to drug him and rape him at a gay club, and he never says a peep when Kai takes advantage of him while still under the effect of the date rape drug.  Ranmaru seems to be blasé about everything in his life.  He doesn't even get upset over losing his ability to perform kendo, which you'd think would be a big, even traumatic thing.  I get that he's meant to be the cool-headed contrast to Kei, but cool-headed is not the same as emotionally inert.

Kei and Kai are certainly more forceful, but as characters they're no more endearing than Ranmaru.  Both of them are thuggish brats who take what they want at will and punish others as they see fit for getting in their way, all in the name of 'protecting' Ranmaru.  They're both stereotypical semes and I can't take either of them the least bit seriously.  Each of them rapes Ranmaru at least once, although Kai is slightly more loathable for doing so while Ranmaru was under the influence.  Both of them are locked in this ongoing grudge over who is the true illegitimate son of their father and who made the other's life miserable and neither has the slightest compunction about using Ranmaru to make their point.  Kai flat-out stalks both Ranmaru and Kei, and it's only for this reason that Kai is able to stop Ranmaru's professor from his attempted date rape.  If I haven't made the point loud and clear, they're both awful, utterly unsympathetic characters and I wished failure upon them both.  The only time Kodaka could muster any sympathy for them is in a side chapter about wee little Kai wanting his dad to visit his school for Parents' Day and a sympathetic goon trying to comfort him by filling in has his "big brother."  That would be incredibly sweet were it not for fact that Kodama tries to play it up as a romantic gesture in the end, which makes the whole thing in retrospect incredibly creepy.

I am genuinely baffled as to why people consider Kizuna to be such a classic.  It's a very basic love triangle that's populated by two rapey douchebags and a total doormat that only moves forward because of a lot of ham-fisted, exploitative twists.  I've read later works by Kodaka, so I know that she was (and is) capable of better stuff, so why do people continue to hold this up as her masterwork?


I will grant Kodaka this much: she is a good artist, and her skills were already quite refined even at this early stage of her career.  Kodaka apparently used to be an assistant for Sanami Matoh, and if you look closely at her character designs here, you can see a slight resemblance to Matoh's own style, particularly in the eyes.  That being said, Kodaka's style is far less dated and a lot more naturalistic.  She also tends to draw them leering in such a way that it makes me think that rapeface runs in Kei and Kai's family.  Kodaka's approach to the sex scenes is fairly mundane, being neither overly explicit nor tender and fluffy.  If anything, they tend to go on a bit too long and they start to get tedious after a while.  Still, she's got a good grasp on anatomy, far better than most of her contemporaries.  She's clearly not so comfortable with the action scenes, which is why I suspect she tends to obscure them so much with speedlines, and her backgrounds are just kind of blasé and murky.  I may have my misgivings with this series, but most of them do not lie in the artwork.  If anything, the artwork is the highlight of the series.  Yaoi art in general doesn't tend to age well, but Kodaka's art was (and remains) some of the best that the genre offers.


Kizuna is a lame melodrama populated by a trio of terrible characters, and the only thing that saves it from a red light is Kodaka's solid artwork.  I'm glad that she got better as a writer in later years, but it's not worth it to revisit this work.

This series is published by Digital Manga Publishing, and formerly by Central Park Media under their Be Beautiful imprint.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available.  CMP published 9 volumes, all of which are currently out of print.  DMP published all 11 volumes in 2-in-1 omnibuses, and all are currently in print.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: EIKEN

I've put it off as long as I could, but it's time to finally review one of the weirdest, grossest, most tasteless things to ever grace the North American manga market.

EIKEN, by Seiji Matsuyama.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2005.


Densuke has just started at Zashino Academy and he's ready to find a place for himself amongst the student body.  The choice is made for him when he stumbles into the sizeable chest of sweet yet shy Chiharu.  Afterwards, Densuke is whisked away by Chiharu's friends, a collection of busty young ladies who call themselves the Eiken Club.  No one knows just what they do, but their Amazonian president Kirika is determined to bring Densuke into their fold and pair him up with Chiharu.  As for Densuke, he's simply hoping he can survive the club's activities with his life and dignity intact, much less find a way to communicate how he feels to Chiharu.


Have you ever read a manga that was so stupid and pandering that at first you presume that it HAS to be satire?  Did you then realize that there was no joke to be found within and that its perversion was completely and utterly serious and it simply is one of the worst things you've ever read?  Well, then you must have done the same stupid thing that I did by reading Eiken.

I don't doubt at least that Matsuyama was at least trying to be amusing.  If there's one rule here when it comes to the story, it's that wackiness reigns, so it's perfectly OK to teddy-bear-shaped mech suits or make a running gag out of the Eiken Club stealing things from the other school clubs.  The problem is that Matsuyama is under the misapprehension that fanservice counts as a joke.  Believe it or not, I don't have a problem with raunchy humor.  A well-timed sex joke or double entendre can be great fun, but I do have a problem with people who think that you can substitute a lot of cleavage and bulging crotches for actual jokes.  If anything, it's just one lame joke repeated over and over: Densuke sees giant boobs/butt/panties/whatever, freaks out, falls down, and gets a nosebleed.  The only thing that distinguishes this particular version is the outrageousness of the fanservice, but more on that later.

If the plot summary didn't give it away, the plot is little more than a flimsy excuse to give Densuke a harem.  Most of the girls get a dedicated chapter to ostensibly bond with Densuke, but the most prominent plot thread is Densuke's ongoing, awkward flirtation with Chiharu, which in turn is constantly complicated by Kirika doing her best to embarrass the boy with elaborate stunts or just pushing him into the nearest set of boobs.  This might come off as a bit cruel if it Densuke were anything other than the story's punching bag.  He's a bland nebbish who lives in constant, fretful embarrassment, and his lack of personality extends to the Eiken club as well.  Each girl is defined by a single archetype or quirk: Chiharu is shy, Kyoko is obsessed with science, Komoe is motherly and moe, Lin Grace, "Teddy" is a little girl who hides her tininess and shyness in a giant bear suit, and Kirika has her fondness for theft and public embarrassment.  Each girl gets her chance to hammer her particular quirk into the reader's face, and given enough time they'll hammer that same quirk straight into the ground through sheer repetition.

Eiken is nothing but a hollow exercise in harem clichés.  Every single element of the story, be it character, plot, or humor, has only the barest minimum of effort applied and it mistakes randomness and fanservice for good humor.  Honestly, if it weren't for the giant boobs on display, no one would remember this at all.


So let's talk about that fanservice, shall we?  It's not just that Matsuyama shoves it in at every single opportunity, it's that he seems to prefer the sort of fanservice that most would regard as grotesque.  The proportions on the girls' chest are the sort you never see outside of hentai, with boobs that are easily 2-3 times larger than the girls' heads. Sometimes he tries to compensate for that by give the girls big hips or big, virtually sentient hairstyles, but that just makes things look worse.  What makes it truly bizarre is that Matsuyama isn't terribly consistent with the level of detail.  Sometimes he clearly spent ages doing his best to realistically render each seam and wrinkle in Chiharu's panties, and he wants to show off that effort by take each and every opportunity to show them off.  The rest of the time, though, he lets things get shockingly off-model.  Heads and bustlines can grow and shink wildly from panel to panel, faces go off-model near constantly, and any piece of clothing that isn't panties is crudely rendered and no matter how tight it's meant to be, it's all worn with the grace of a burlap sack.  I'm kind of surprised that the backgrounds in and around the school are as nicely drawn as they are, considering everything else.  Maybe Matsuyama handed those off to the assistant so he could focus more on the panties.  Eiken is just a visually appalling book.  It's so inconstantly drawn that it doesn't even work as spank material.  It's just hideous and lazy from cover to cover.


Don't read Eiken.  This can't even be enjoyed on the so-bad-its-good level.  It's an ugly, by-the-numbers harem that's distinguished only by the frequency and bizarreness of its fanservice, and if Media Blasters had any sense, they would have never brought it over in the first place.

Oh what am I saying?  Media Blasters hasn't had any good business sense about anything for the better part of a decade.  They still shouldn't have released this, though.

This series was published by Media Blasters.  This series is complete in Japan with 18 volumes available.  12 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: KIICHI AND THE MAGIC BOOKS

Instead of failed attempts at playing with fairy tale tropes, let's look at a manga series that actually reads and feels like a proper fairy tale.

KIICHI AND THE MAGIC BOOKS (Moto no Moto no Ana no Naka), by Taka Amano.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2008.


Kiichi is a lonely boy.  His only companion was his late mother, and the rest of his village thinks that his pointed ears and the horn on his head makes him look like a demon.  Kiichi's wanderings lead him to stumble into Mototaro, a travelling librarian who brings books from village to village accompanied only by a strange young girl called Hana.  In this world, books are rare and powerful, and if misused the images inside them can come to life and threaten others.  Kiichi saves his village from one of these rogue illustrations and in turn begs Mototaro to take him with him.  Mototaro reluctantly agrees, and now this motley trio travels the world to find new books and a place in the world for a lonely little boy.


Kiichi feels very much like a fairy tale.  That's not a slight against it in the least, as it combines Eastern and Western ideas with some inspired moments of imagination in a way that feels appropriate for all ages without being pandering or awkward.

The characters are all fairly archetypical.  We have a plucky outcast becoming a hero, a reluctant mentor/father figure, a pesky little sister, and so on and so forth.  Most of the differences are merely cosmetic, like the fact that Kiichi looks like a wee little oni.   It's played quite straight as well, and those who like to have deep characters in their manga might be a little disappointed.  The story also seems to meander for a little bit as it tries to find its focus.  It starts out like it's going to become a monster-of-the-week series, but then it takes things in an entirely different direction when we learn that there are other librarians out there who also want Kiichi and his powers for their own purposes.  This plot twist comes near the end of the volume and it's a welcome addition, as the monster-of-the-week thing was already threatening to grow quite stale.  It hints at a world bigger and more complex than the endless woods and tiny villages we've seen so far, and the story and characters promise to grow in size and complexity with them.  That's probably the best way to approach this sort of story - to start small and simple, but then to build upon those simple ideas and let the story bloom forth into something bigger and better.


Kiichi has a slightly unusual style compared to most manga.  Amano's style does have a touch of the ink-and-brush style of yore, which means that everything comes as freshly dashed onto the page.  It's an oddly old-fashioned touch for a manga that started out as a webcomic.  Still, Amano makes the best of it with the flat yet distinctive character designs and the heavy hatching she uses for the woodlands.  It also is beautifully suited to the magic battles, as Amano's style very much suits the notion of illustrations coming to life.  Otherwise her presentation is fairly simple and straightforward, which suits the simplicity of the story as a whole.


Kiichi and the Magic Books is an archetypical but well-told tale with a slightly unconventional artstyle.  It's a series that would be well-suited for younger readers and it's another quiet little highlight of the CMX library.

This series was published by CMX.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 were published and all are currently out of print. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: MERUPURI

Since I was finally able to get to Vampire Knight last fall, it's as good of a time as any to check out one of Matsuri Hino's other, vampire-free manga.

MERUPURI - THE MARCHEN PRINCE (Meruhen Purinsu), by Matsuri Hino.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.


Airi Hoshina has her romantic future planned out to the last detail.  Her life goal is to get married and love someone forever and ever, and it's this goal that drives her everyday life.  She's so driven to find true love that she makes it a point to never be late to school because rumors say that the longer a student can go without being tardy, the better their future boyfriend will be.  Her streak is almost ruined when she loses an heirloom mirror pendant, which is then found by a mysterious little boy named Aram.  She takes Aram in to take care of him, only to get the shock of her life when that little boy physically ages into a teenager overnight!  Aram turns out to be a prince from another dimension on the run from his older half-brother, and that his sudden aging is due to a spell gone wrong.  Now Aram needs Airi to help him regain his throne, and Airi's life and notions of romance will never be the same.


MeruPuri's subtitle is "The Marchen Prince," a title that suggests this will be like the fairy tales of olden times.  Well, having read this, it's hard to see how it really fits.  Oh sure, it's got its fair share of fairy tale princes and magic and whatnot, but it also feels like it's trying to imitate them and subvert them at the same time and doing neither particularly well.

Airi is a sweet enough kid, but even for a shoujo ingénue she's kind of ridiculous.  I know teenage girls can get terribly romantic, but her entire life revolves around romance and enacting every bit of superstition and luck to bring it about.  Sure, it's meant to be super-ironic that such a romantic girl has a literal fairy-tale prince wander into her life, but it's also kind of sad that she has no goal for herself other than to fall in love and get married.  She feels rather empty as a character, a feeling that's only enhanced when she's compared to the other guys.

Aram's situation sounds typical enough at first, being a lost prince from a faraway kingdom who needs to go on an epic quest to reclaim his birthright.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Wrong.  It's hard to be an epic hero when your hero spends at least half of his time looking and acting like a grade school kid.  Still, he's a terribly nice kid and it's cute to see him get excited and distracted over things like omurice or tokusatsu shows like any kid his age would be.  It just gets epically weird when the curse kicks in and he starts aging rapidly.  He looks the part of the romantic lead and Hino certainly tries to push things in that direction, but it comes off as incredibly awkward because Aram still thinks like a child.  As such, their relationship feels less like a proper romance and more like a farce as Airi does her best to hide Aram's true identity from her world.

She also throws in a few twists when it comes to the villain, Aram's half-brother Jeile.  You'd expect him to be a complete ogre of a man, but instead he's much more of a comic villain.  He wants his brother's position, but he still loves his half-brother nonetheless, and he only fails because he's kind of incompetent and something of a lech.  It helps keep everything fairly light-hearted, if a bit distracted at times, but that onto itself is part of the larger problem with MeruPuri.  Light-hearted is not a term one readily associates with fairy-tales.  Most them to be odd or gothic in tone, where the characters and morality alike tend to break down into simple forces of good and evil.  It would be fine to subvert that by turning a fairy-tale quest into a farce, but MeruPuri would need to find a stronger focus and some better jokes to make that work.  As it currently stands, it's just too mixed-up and odd to work.


Hino's art style is a fairly safe one for the world of shoujo, but to her credit she's not a lazy artist.  She does put a lot of detail and fine linework into her character designs and they are terribly pretty.  She especially seems to love drawing exquisitely tousled hair, but she often takes it too far.  Often it looks like Aram and Jeile's hair has grown sentient and is trying to wriggle its many tendrils in an attempt to escape their heads.  She also loves drawing all the fanciful, frilly costumes, especially the more old-fashioned looks that Jeile tends to sport.  I just wish she had invested a little more of her time into their faces, as most of the cast tends to look rather alike and she focuses too much on making them cute instead of making them suitably expressive and dramatic.  She also could have spared some time for drawing some backgrounds instead letting her character drift through a sea of sparkles, bolts, and flowers.  I will say that I'm mildly impressed that her pages read as clearly as they do, considering that she tends to divide her panels into all sorts of pieces and wedges to pack as many images on any given page as possible.  It all can be terribly pretty at time, but Hino tends to lose herself in the details and sometimes the artwork suffers for that.


While I'm glad that MeruPuri isn't melodramatic like Vampire Knight was, it's still a bit too silly, slight, and unfocused for its own good.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available.  All 4 have been published and all are currently in print and available in e-book form through

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Review: START WITH A HAPPY ENDING

Ok, I picked this one pretty much for one reason alone: KITTIES.  YAY KITTIES.

START WITH A HAPPY ENDING (Happy End de Hajime You), by Risa Motoyama.  First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2012. 


This collection of stories brings together a motley crew of people united by two things: they have all recently died, and all of them did something nice for a cat.  As such, the Cat God has given these lost souls a second chance at righting the wrongs of their lives, albeit in feline form and for a limited amount of time, and each in turn discovers what they had been missing all along.


Start With a Happy Ending is a brief and sweet slice-of-life story that's content to deliver trite yet earnest morals alongside a lot of cute cat fanservice.

Admittedly, the entire premise is kind of gimmicky to begin with.  You begin to wonder just how many people are going to die in attempts to save cats from being run over or how many pet cats are willing to sacrifice themselves for their owners.  It's just as gimmick as the notion of a Cat God that happens to possess such a specific power for situations just like these.  They also tend to be a bit rushed, as everyone comes to the necessary revelation or resolves their problem in just a few pages.  Still, all of these stories work in spite of these faults because they do bear some emotional truth.  The lessons they have to teach are simple ones - your family loves you more than you realize, don't overwork yourself, don't pretend to be someone else to please others - but they are lessons given in complete sincerity, and they are lessons that are universal.  It also helps that each character responds in slightly different ways.  Some choose to stay as cats, some chose the afterlife, and some chose reincarnation, but everyone is satisfied with their choices and able to move on from their past mistakes.  It all works out in the end, which is the same that can be said for this anthology in general.  It's simple, sweet and sincere, and sometimes that's all you need to be satisfied.


The artwork for Start With a Happy Ending is as simple as its moral lessons.  The characters (both human and cat alike) are simple and flat, and they more closely resemble the illustrations of a children's storybook than they resemble your average manga. Expressions tend to be big and broad, especially where the cats are concerned, and the same can be said for the backgrounds.  Panels and pages alike tend to be small and simple, but seeing as this is neither a terribly talkative nor an artistically complex work, it all works out fine. 


If you want something simple and heartfelt that involves lots of cutely-drawn kitties, then Start With a Happy Ending is just the sort of diversion you'll be looking for.

This volume is published by Digital Manga Publishing.  It is currently in print.