Thursday, April 17, 2014

Knights of Sidonia vol. 8


If you've been following my blog(who am I kidding? No one does hehe...), you have probably noticed that with today's review of 'Knights of Sidonia' volume eight, that I skipped three volumes. Well, I have no excuses. I'm just a slacker. I love those volumes to death, I just plain couldn't gather enough coherent thoughts to make a full blog post, and I fully believed that my Attack on Sidonia post would be my final words on the matter. But volume eight was so good in several ways that I had to get off my lazy butt and write something up.

Captain Kobayashi has killed off her hibernating fellow captains and taken full control over the Sidonia, deciding that they will no longer sit and wait to act on the defensive, but make the first move and go on the attack. After the Guana wiped out the peaceful settlers unprovoked, I can't see any fault in her logic. The Guana seemingly can't be negotiated with and are incredibly hostile. Why wait for them to hunt you down? At the same time though, as a reader, I feel like there is a sense of foreboding from this decision. Part of that comes from the fact that Captain Kobayashi is a dictator of sorts and just usurped complete power over the ship. Not that she did it for the sake of gaining power, but from a story perspective, I can't see everything going perfectly her way after what she has done. So I think the decision to go on the attack will backfire in some way in the future.

Meanwhile, the hybrid Tsumugi is on the mend from her heroic sacrifice from the previous volume. After she is up and running again, her friendship blossoms even more with Nagate and Izana. This is by far my favorite part of the volume. Not only is there great interactions between the three, but I'm impressed that Nihei managed to humanize and make me care for what is essentially a giant, scary tentacle monster, in such a short time. I actually was sold on Tsumugi last volume just as soon as she put herself in harms way to protect the citizens of Sidonia, but now that her relationship with Nagate and Izana is more fleshed out, this giant tentacle monster is already one of my favorite characters. Tsumugi also comes with some good laughs. Specifically the way she tends to interact with her enormous phallic tentacle(as seen on the cover image), even using it to sleep with him. You could even say she has become a part of Nagate's growing harem, which also includes a clone and a third-gendered person(who sports a new awesome yet creepy ten-fingered cybernetic hand in this volume).

Not unrelated to Tsumugi, but on a different note, Nagate looks for a new place to live in this volume. After having to move out of his dorm, he stays with Izana for a night, which leads to a subtle, but kind of awesome character moment. We all know how much Nagate loves food, so when Izana trips and sends Nagate's dinner flying through the air, we see him eye it passionately, only to see him forget about the rice ball to break Izana's fall instead(comically grabbing her(?) boob in the process) As an aside, Nagate specifically referred to Izana as "her" in this volume. I can't recall if anyone has done that before, but I do remember Izana telling a vendor that she(?) is not a girl, and Yuhata wondered why Izana didn't go to the "middle" bath and referred to Izana as "Mr.". Is there just no third-gendered pronoun in this story, or is this just a Japanese translation thing? Or perhaps Nagate just sees Izana as a girl, and Yuhata prefers to see Izana as a boy so that she can subconsciously eliminate Izana as a romantic rival. Anyway, I'm definitely over-thinking that detail...

Getting back to Nagate's housing issue, so that he can more easily spend time with Tsumugi, he finds an awesome place on the perimeter wall that is close to Tsumugi's living quarters. Close enough for her to easily send her tentacle though the pipes and ducts to hang out with Nagate and Izana, who has also moved in. The house itself is really cool and I can only describe it as a house built on the side of a cliff. I would love to live there(especially if I had a cool tentacle monster friend and a cool third-gendered cyborg friend). Nagate's new house, along with the first good wide shot of the Sidonia residential quarters is definitely Nihei at his architectural art best. Speaking of art, the opening color pages of this volume are kind of a departure from what we have seen so far. They feature some of the settlers that left the Sidonia landing on a brilliant blue ocean planet. A stark contrast from the dark and edgy color pages set in outer space, these color pages are kind of peaceful and hopeful, if only for a brief moment...

I just can't get enough of this series. It's the total package as far as I'm concerned. Good characters and interactions, world building, great art, action, and a compelling story. Volume eight especially epitomizes that. And it steps it up more and more with every new book. This volume ended with Izana in a dire situation and Tsumugi and Nagate are rushing to the rescue, so I have no doubt that volume nine will deliver and continue this series' awesomeness.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Thermae Romae vol. 3


When I first heard of this "manga about bathing", I never would have imagined that it would become one of my all time favorites. Any synopsis you could give this story wouldn't do its comedy, charm and true passion for bathing culture any justice. And with the final omnibus from Yen Press, I feel that 'Thermae Romae' has solidified itself as one of the best manga licensed in English, and a modern classic. I really loved it.

The first two volumes were all about Lucius learning about modern bathing culture, and applying what he had learned to his Roman style bath houses. Things mostly felt episodic in nature, but Mari Yamazaki managed to keep things fresh by introducing a few minor twists and surprises while still keeping the same format. This volume however, freshened things up even more by focusing more on story continuity, making things interesting up to the very end.

When we last left off, Lucius was seemingly stuck in the modern day hot spring town of Ito and had struck up a relationship with the lovely scholar, Satsuki. Always the bath enthusiast, Lucius took advantage of Satsuki's knowledge of Latin to help him learn as much as possible about modern bathing so that he could utilize it to make the city of Baiae the best hot spring resort possible, and soothe the health woes of Emperor Hadrian. Needless to say, a time traveling Roman was a lot for her to wrap her mind around. Not to mention, the town was being overrun by extorting gangsters. With these developments, Lucius concludes that he must have been brought to Ito by fate, so that he can help preserve their wonderful bathing culture from the intruding criminals trying to tear it down to create their own resort that disregards the rich history already present. At the same time as he gathers more bathing knowledge and fights off the thugs, his relationship with Satsuki progresses into romantic territory.

Besides the change of focus to plot progression, one of the most welcome additions to this volume is a new character. That is, Satsuki's grandfather Tetsuzou. He's a hardboiled old man and he looks just like Tommy Lee Jones! I just thought his demeanor was really cool. He helps fight off the gangsters, and will do anything to help his granddaughter. And he didn't even bat an eyelash at being sent back in time to Lucias' era, keeping his cool and handing out chiropractic adjustments where needed. I liked this character a lot and would have loved to see more of him. If I'm lucky, maybe I will one day because in Mari Yamazaki's afterward, she states "I hope to wrap up their stories as well when the time is right.", referring to Tetsuzou and the other side characters.

One curious thing I noticed, and this isn't a criticism, is that the art seemed to change a little towards the end. I feel like the lines got thicker and darker, and I may just be imagining it, but the architecture seemed to get a little more detailed. There could be any number of reasons for this, and it may just be in my head. Either way, I like both the thick and thin line style of art, and while in a past review, I said the art is well done but doesn't stand out, I've really grown to appreciate it especially with this volume. Mari Yamazaki is truly a master draftsman.

Well, all good things must come to an end. And 'Thermae Romae' was a really good thing indeed. I'm thankful that I got to read this wonderful series. While this final volume ended on a really good note, reading more of this time traveling, bath loving universe would make me very happy. As I understand it, there is a spin-off in the works, so hopefully Yen Press will keep an eye on that and keep 'Thermae Romae' fans like me in mind.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Insufficient Direction


I wouldn’t call myself an “otaku”. I don’t know the names of voice actors, I don’t loyally follow certain anime studios or directors, and my manga tastes are pretty modern and mainstream. But even I know who Hideaki Anno is, and I’m familiar with Moyoco Anno through ‘Sakuran’. Vertical Inc. has been a good bet in the past, so I thought, why not give this "Double Anno" one shot a try? And I'm pretty glad I did, because even if I wasn't otaku enough to get all the references, it had more than enough charm and comedy to make up for it.

'Insufficient Direction' is an autobiographical manga about the married life of "Director-kun" and "Rompers". With a bit of artistic license to make real life situations more comedic, Moyoco Anno shows us what it is like to live day in, day out with "one of the big four of Japanese otaku". Torn between being a good otaku wife, and keeping a sense of normalcy, Rompers deals with long car drives listening to nothing but anime theme songs, Director-kun wearing Kamen Rider cosplay to their wedding, and regular couple stuff like taking care of each other when sick.

Right of the bat, I was a bit overwhelmed by the Japanese cultural references. Some chapters, it seemed like every panel had a reference to an old anime, manga or tokusatsu show that I had never heard of. There is thirty pages of comprehensive annotations in the back of the book to explain all the references, but that didn't quite fix my problem. When a chapter is so packed full of references, you can either flip to the back of the book almost every new panel, wait until the end of the chapter and the go back to make sense of the conversations, or read the annotations before reading the chapter. I tried all three methods, and none were as fulfilling as already knowing what they are talking about(so much went over my head, the few times when I did get a reference, it felt like a victory). It's like needing a joke explained to you. If you have to explain the joke, it's not funny. I would have enjoyed this manga so much more if I was a super otaku like Director-kun and could just naturally relate to them.

Luckily, not every chapter was a bombardment of otaku knowledge. There was just as much content based on genuine, cute, and funny married couple interactions that I'm sure anyone can enjoy. There's a funny chapter where Rompers wants to buy a house, but Director-kun thinks it is too much trouble. The way Rompers convinces him it is a good idea is by telling him that there would be enough space to build a fancy model train set and display more Kamen Rider figures! We also get to see them nurse each other back to health when ill, Director-kun get terrible sunburn on vacation, and I really like how they sing together while driving in the car. I know "Director-kun" is a comedic caricature of Hideaki Anno, but he really is a funny guy. I don't think I would want to put up with his not bathing for five days, but as an outside observer, his antics really cracked me up sometimes. And the best part was Rompers gradually becoming a bigger and bigger otaku just by being near Director-kun. I did learn a lot about otaku cultural, but the cute and funny interactions are what made the book for me.

Looking at 'Sakuran', you can see that Moyoco Anno is a great artist. I wouldn't say her full breadth of skill is displayed here though. Not that it was needed. For this type of story, a more simple, cartoony style was much more effective and very enjoyable. She draws herself a baby wearing a onesy and a bib, and "Director-kun" would be easiest described as Hideaki Anno being inserted into a 'Peanuts' comic strip, often sporting a pot belly and a cat-like smile. This style may be more simple than her other works, but it lends itself perfectly to the comedic mood of the book.

Despite initially being overloaded with otaku cultural references, this book appealed to the slice-of-life fan in me and I was able to thoroughly enjoy it. So much so, that if Moyoco Anno ever creates a sequel, I would definitely want to read it...though it might be a good idea to brush up on the last forty years of anime, manga, and tokusatsu so that I can share in their otaku enjoyment more.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Centaur's Life vol. 2


Somehow I have the feeling that this series is getting majorly overlooked. I'm not seeing much social media buzz, or much of a best seller list presence. At least compared to its fellow Seven Seas monster girl manga, 'Monster Musume'. Perhaps that is because 'A Centaur's Life' doesn't go full blown sexualized fanservice(though it does feature some nudity). Whatever the reason, after reading volume two, I am even more intrigued and I think it is a mistake to pass this series up.

The first volume started off with a chapter entirely about vaginas that I noticed annoyed some readers and may have turned them off to the series. This volume starts off with a chapter almost entirely about kissing, and I can see it being viewed in a similar manner(plus, the bathing scene towards the end doesn't really help its cause...). This chapter reads part Yuri fanservice, part progressive stance on lesbian couples, and of course, part simple and cute slice-of-life. It features main character and centaur girl, Himeno, and her affectionate little cousin, Shino. Shino hangs all over Himeno and doesn't like it when anyone else show affection towards her. So she gets really mad when the little sisters of the class president of Himeno's school try to give her kisses. Shino explains that only people that love-love each other are allowed to kiss, and the class president goes on to explain that adult girls don't kiss anymore. Cue the lesbian couple from their class showing up to explain that it is okay for adult girls to kiss. Needless to say, the small children are confused. And interestingly enough, the class president seems very uptight about homosexuality and takes offense at the two girls kissing in front of the children. The manga itself clearly isn't agreeing with the class president(I forget her name...was she named?), but showing the realistic different views of the world, which I think only strengthens the interesting world building aspect that this series has going for it.

Another cool world building detail is that it is illegal for angel-folk to cut their hair halos. It breaks racial equality laws and is considered rejecting your own race. They even takes steps to make sure angel-folk aren't prosecuted if it is accidentally cut or falls out because of illness. This was seamlessly woven in to a normal slice-of-life chapter about what kind of haircut Himeno should get. And on top of that, there was a mini chapter where a teacher gives a lecture about this creature world's evolution and how their many racial differences beyond just skin color make for a very fragile world. She then (incorrectly)speculates that a world like ours with normal humans would probably be much more peaceful and stable. To add to the world building, we are introduced to a new race of creature people, merfolk. Himeno and her class visit a merfolk school, which seems kind of fun because the school is partially flooded and the students swim around from class to class. Though don't throw your trash on the ground, because litterers are shot on sight at the merfolk school! Yeah, you have your cutesy and calm slice-of-life moments that draw people in, but this volume was pretty well rounded with intriguing world building that I think people will stay for.

This volume is capped off with a chapter that I found kind of strange and slightly dark in comparison with the rest of the book. It is about a normal human girl and her dog with a human face. To be honest, I don't really know what to make of it. I'm pretty sure it isn't set in the same world as Himeno's, because we haven't seen any normal humans and the teacher clearly stated that normal humans didn't evolve. So I guess this is just a "what if" type chapter. Anyway, the dark aspect that I mentioned comes from the girl seemingly being imprisoned by her neglectful parents to the point of starvation, and her human-faced puppy going to get help like Lassy. I may not have understood the point of this chapter, but it certainly didn't detract from the volume in any way. If anything, it was thought provoking.

Volume two of 'A Centaur's Life' was basically more of the same pattern from volume one. That is, cute slice-of-life with the unique creature world getting fleshed out in between. And I think that pattern works. As long as the following volumes continue with this formula, I'll keep reading.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blacksad

I guess it's fairly obvious that I tend to stick to manga. I have nothing against comics from other regions. It's just that there is already more manga than I could ever hope to read, that it is even more daunting to try to branch out and try other things. So I usually just keep chipping away at a never ending stack of manga. But thanks to the massive time-sink that is Tumblr, I came across some comic book art that my manga-centric mind couldn't ignore. That art was of Spanish artist, Juanjo Guarnido's 'Blacksad', and I'm really glad I came across it on that fateful Tumblr scrolling session.

John Blacksad is a cat. An anthropomorphic private investigator cat that sticks his whiskers into dangerous cases in 1950's America. If he's not avenging an old flame, he's investigating a kidnapping, all the while, trying to keep himself from ending up on the wrong side of the often corrupt law.

Each chapter is its own story, with John Blacksad, and maybe two other side characters and a few subtle callbacks being the only real overarching aspects. The stories themselves have a familiar feeling that are enhanced by great execution, and not without their surprises and twists. At the same time, it's obvious that they are suppose to be a little recognizable as an homage to the film noir genre. The characters are also kind of familiar, especially side characters who only appear in one story and don’t have enough panel time to be fleshed out into something super original. The ones with the most focus show shades of complexity, but the stories are over before that can be fully realized for the most part. Main character, John Blacksad, is basically your hard-boiled private detective archetype seen frequently in the film noir genre. Still, the devil is in the details and John Blacksad does display some qualities of his own underneath his surface archetype, and a unique character history. The short length of the stories really works against the characters. That’s my main problem with this series. The whole time reading, I just wanted it to be longer. Partly because it was engaging and I didn’t want it to end, but also because I felt like it would be more engaging if it took its time more. The stories are very compact, and there are currently only four individual stories released in English. With the short length of the individual stories, I’m afraid the side characters will always suffer, but John Blacksad, being a recurring character, has the potential to show more and more with every arc.

What brought my attention to this series was the art, and though I found the writing to be more than adequate, in the end, the art is what left the biggest impression on me. Simply put, it's flawless. I love the use of anthropomorphism in 'Blacksad'. The style kind of reminds me of a Disney cartoon from my childhood that I liked called TaleSpin. It having a Disney-esque appeal may not be a coincidence seeing as how the artist once worked as an animator for Disney. And you would think animal faces wouldn't be as expressive as human faces, but I think the facial expressions are probably the most impressive aspect of the art. The sheer variety and fluidity of the facial expressions is astounding. In each and every panel, foreground and background characters convey the full range of emotions. It's all very animated, without you know, actually being animated(would love to see a Blacksad animated movie...). In fact, I'm afraid now that I've been spoiled by 'Blacksad' and when I go back to manga that are often full of "cool" and stoic characters, I will miss this level of emoting. The facial expressions are impressive, but my favorite thing about the art is the group shots. Crowds in comics are often given less detail, favoring the foreground main characters, but in 'Blacksad', crowd shots really make the comic come to life. Random, nameless background characters also get rendered in painstaking detail, really giving you something to look at and examine. I love catching little background details that just make the work seem so much more vibrant than comics where the background is just an afterthought.


Another great aspect of the art is the lighting. The artist is a master at lighting. He can pull off dark and seedy equally well as bright and welcoming. The well lit, colorful sunny scenes are among my favorite in the series. It's interesting that as I read this in the dark and gloomy Winter, Juanjo Guarnido's bright and sunny scenes almost have a brightening affect on me personally, and certainly immerse me into the scene perfectly. Not to mention how well these bright scenes help contrast the dark film noir style scenes. It's not just for show. The lighting is very functional and helps tell the story. As usual, I'm unable to do the art justice with my description. Fortunately, Dark Horse provides a preview that you can judge for yourself. If that's not enough, I'll just say that in my eyes, nearly every panel is a gallery quality piece of work. If I was forced to make one criticism, it would be that the paneling is rather conventional, which isn't really a "con", it just it's a "pro" either.

The 'Blacksad' series is published by Dark Horse in English spanning two books. The first book features three stories in a large hardback with thick, glossy pages. The second book, titled 'Blacksad:Silent Hell', only has one story, but to fill the book out, it has an interesting thirty-five page commentary by the artist detailing his creative process, such as how he gets his colors just right, and what kind of paper he uses. Another extra in 'Blacksad:Silent Hell' is two little short chapters. More of John Blacksad's adventures, even short ones, are definitely welcome. 'Blacksad' isn't quite perfect, but I feel like this foray away from manga was very successful and that I got my money's worth and more. The fifth installment, 'Amarillo', is already published in France, and here's hoping that Dark Horse is already working on their English release, because I'd love to see more John Blacksad and his anthropomorphic world.



Friday, December 27, 2013

Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly


I'm a strange person. I love reading manga, but I have anxiety about it. I'm very picky, I don't like melodrama because it makes me feel weird, and I'm very afraid to read outside my comfort zone. But that often means I'm missing out on genuinely good stories. Not today though. Today I put my weak heart on the line to experience Kyoko Okazaki's 'Helter Skelter'.

Liliko is the modeling world's "it girl" right now. At the top of her game, she is even branching out in to television and music. Nothing can stop her now...Except the fact that her body is falling apart from excessive plastic surgery. With the inevitability of aging and a young new rival nipping at her heels, what depraved lengths will Liliko go to to stay in the spot light?

I don't "like" any of the characters in this manga. Not a one. Normally, that's a deal breaker for me, especially with the main character. But it's a little different with this manga. And it's not just because following Liliko's train-wreck life is compelling in itself. That wouldn't be enough. I don't like her, but I am sympathetic towards her. She's cruel, manipulative, vain, selfish, and just plain crazy. But she's also kind of a victim. Once far from the image of what is accepted as mainstream beauty, she was scouted because of her bone structure, and turned into a fashion monster though intensive plastic surgery. This situation has basis in reality. People see the "beautiful people" in magazines and on television, done up in make-up, plastic surgery, and Photoshop. Completely unattainable by normal means. Body image issues brought on by unrealistic role models and a narrow view on what is considered "beautiful" are a very real thing. Is Liliko completely faultless in this story? No. But you can definitely see the vicious cycle with her innocent little sister following in her tragic footsteps. I don't like Liliko, but I can't hate her for what she's become.

And now my awful attempt to describe the art...I can't quite think of the proper word for it. Not "sketchy". Certainly not "sloppy". It comes across as drawn really fast, with as few lines as possible, and with no erasing. Kind of like the difference between a live rock show, mistakes and all, versus a studio album with lots of takes overproduction. Of course the reality could be the exact opposite of this, with the artist painstakingly drawing for days on end to get it perfect, but this is just how it looks to me. Either way, I like it. And the seven beautiful yet creepy color pages at the beginning of the book where a really nice addition.

With a single volume, this story felt a lot more like a movie than a comic serialization. Very well paced,  and still dense with content, especially with the psychological aspect. Multiple plot threads were handled, with the clinic investigation and Liliko's downward spiral nicely coming together toward the end. And while still part of the big picture, I especially enjoyed the unhealthy relationship between Liliko and her manager, Hada. That aspect of the manga had value in itself. However, I felt like the investigator, Asada, was left a little too mysterious, almost like his character was just a plot device. Although I do suspect there was something about him that went over my head that I might pick up on a reread. Also, I enjoyed the "testimonials" of Liliko's make-up artist, Kin, and would have liked to see more of that and more of his character in general.

As I mentioned, I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to reading outside of my comfort zone. Psychological Josei with an unhinged and rather unlikable main character is just about as far as I can get from my comfort zone. And yet, I enjoyed this story immensely. If you're like me and are often afraid to try something new, I can at least assure you that you have nothing to fear when it comes to taking the leap and reading 'Helter Skelter'.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Centaur's Life vol. 1


Seven Seas Entertainment has kind of been on a roll the last few weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List, and it's all thanks to the "monster girls" featured in 'Monster Musume'. I'm glad for their success, but I'm more interested in another new manga released by them that has "monster girls" of a sort, 'A Centaur's Life'. If you've read my past blog posts, you may know how much I love the daily-life/slice-of-life genre, and after reading volume one of 'A Centaur's Life', I think it captures the daily-life aspect perfectly, and will be right up my ally.

'A Centaur's Life' is essentially a school-life manga, but there's one small difference. The world is populated by fantastical creatures. In fact, our main character, Kimihara Himeno, is a half horse, half human centaur. Following her day to day life, in school and out, we meet other strange creature people, like her best friend Nozomi, who is of the draconid race, which is a species with elvish-like ears, bat-like wings, and a pointy devilish tail. Other races include angelfolk, catfolk, among others. If getting a look into the daily lives of people wasn't interesting enough, this interesting twist on the genre lets us see how these mythological people make due in a real life setting.

So, if you're not familiar with the daily-life genre, the name pretty much says it all. It just shows the day to day lives of the characters, with almost no overarching plot or goals. That may sound boring, but it can get quite interesting, especially with good and likeable characters to follow. With only five chapters so far, I wouldn't say we've gotten to know the characters very well yet beyond their base personalities, but I certainly find them likeable enough.

The whole first chapter deals with Himeno's insecurities with the way her horse vagina looks...which was kind of strange, but it led to good character interactions between her and her friends. Another situation dealt with Himeno and her classmates putting on a school play, which briefly introduced some side characters that I'd like to see more of. And an especially interesting part for me was when they were running for gym class. Himeno's friend Kyoko was out of shape and Himeno offered to carry her on her horse back. Very urgently though, Kyoko declined in fear of being arrested for a hate crime. The manga then goes on to explain how in the past, centaurs were once enslaved and used as mounts by other races. This one little detail seamlessly added in really piqued my interest, and I hope to see more world-building features like this in future volumes.

The art in 'A Centaur's Life' is nice and easy on the eyes. Where it really excels though, is the character designs, and that is mostly due to all the different creature races involved. Main character Himeno stands out as a centaur with a huge, luxurious mane of bushy orange hair, reminiscent of Merida from Pixar's 'Brave'(they're both even archers!). And funny enough, the angelfolk aren't actually descended from heaven, their halo's are a biological feature seemingly made from their hair. There's also frightening looking snake people(Oops! I mean Antarcticans. "Snake people" is apparently a derogatory term in their world.). All these different races are a great way to give variety to the designs, and I look forward to seeing even more creatures(in the afterward, amphibian and merfolk were hinted at). And the nice art is displayed in a larger than usual format that even includes two glossy colored pages.

I thought I would like this series given my penchant for daily-life manga, but I was pleasantly surprised by the intriguing world-building aspect. Normally you don't get that because...well...our world is already built. But just changing the dominate species, how they interact with the world, and changing history up a little really adds a whole new dimension to my favorite genre. So if you are interested in "monster girls", but the heavy fanservice in 'Monster Musume' isn't your cup of tea, then 'A Centaur's Life' might just be what you are looking for. I know I am anticipating what's in store for volume two this February.