Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Anime Film Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

For a little change of pace, today I will be reviewing an anime film, and the subject of today's review is Studio Ghibli's 'The Secret World of Arrietty'. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his Studio Ghibli directorial debut, and written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, this film is based on Mary Norton's novel, 'The Borrowers'.

Here we have a story about a young girl named Arrietty. Arrietty belongs to a family of "borrowers", who are tiny people who live under the floorboards, "borrowing", things from humans that won't be missed so that they can survive. The rules of borrowing are to never take more than what you need, and to never be seen by a "Bean"(what the borrowers call "human beings").  One day, an unfamiliar face arrives at the human house that Arrietty and her family live under. Sickly Shawn has been sent to the country to live with his aunt, so that he can relax before he has potentially live saving heart surgery. Though forbidden, Shawn and Arrietty eventually start up an unlikely friendship. Meanwhile, Hara, the maid, long thought crazy for speaking of the little people under the floor boards, is out to prover her sanity by catching one of the Borrowers, causing certain trouble for the tiny family.

I enjoyed the story, but I would have liked for it to be longer. Though at 94 minutes, it's at about the standard feature length of a film. Rather than make it longer, better pacing may have suited it better, yet I can't exactly think of any key moments where time was explicitly wasted. My main issue is that I don't think there was enough time for Arrietty and Shawn's relationship to develop, and seeing those events unfold would have been the highlight of the film for me. Instead of having a natural building of a friendship occur, the conflict of the film forced the two together and then abruptly apart again, making me as a viewer wish for more interaction between the friends. The characters themselves were done well enough and were quite likeable. The curious and open-minded Arrietty and the gentle-natured Shawn drive the film and both have their share of development. Though the antagonist of the film, Hara, who is not quite good and not quite evil, was more of an annoyance for both the characters and me as a viewer. I realize there needed to be some conflict in the film, but the whole time I just felt like she was ruining any possible interaction the main characters could be having.

I find Studio Ghibli's signature art style to be very pleasant and visually appealing. This film, of course, stays with that style tradition. I have to say though, while the animation quality is consistent with the other Studio Ghibli films, this one felt a little less vibrant and was a little more toned down. I would say that this felt like "Studio Ghibli on a budget", but it seems that it had the same budget as 'Howl's Moving Castle' and a higher budget than 'Spirited Away', which are two of my favorites. It may just be that this film doesn't have the fantastical setting and large scope of story that those two films had, and doesn't really need to be bright and flashy.

I'll admit. I had preconceived notions about the American voice cast after seeing the trailers for both the British and American version. Maybe it is just me, but from the trailers, I felt like the British voices fit better, and as an American, I guess I just find the British accent a little more interesting. I obtusely thought that Disney was just trying to push their stable of teen idols on us, without regard for what would sound good and fit best. I was very wrong and regret that way of thinking. Bridget Medler, the voice of Arrietty, did a fantastic job and sounded very natural and fit perfectly. As did David Henrie, who voiced Shawn, and pulled off the tired and sickly tone of Shawn's voice quite well. The only voice I took issue with was Spiller's, who sounded like a stereotypical cave man and like an amateur among professionals. I don't blame the voice actor though. I think the voice director should have told him this didn't sound good. And one little issue I had with Disney's localization was the changing of characters names. Shawn was Sho in the Japanese, his aunt Jessica was Sadako, and Hara was Haru. It's not a big deal or anything. I just think it is weirdly unnecessary. It's not like those Japanese names are hard to pronounce.

While not my favorite Studio Ghibli film, I quite enjoyed this movie. It was more reserved in tone than others, and that is part of why I enjoyed it. Sometimes you are in the mood for something a little more laid back. But, I can't help to think young children, who this movie and the original book is seemingly geared toward, would find this a bit boring. Even with the addition of the story's conflict, it is never especially exciting. And yes, I know I am not a kid and I can't really speak for them, but I don't think I would like this film if I saw it in my childhood. I wouldn't be able to appreciate the ambiance that this film creates. Or maybe I am not giving today's children enough credit. While I don't recommend this movie for children, I do however believe this is a must see for Studio Ghibli fans. It has it's minor flaws, but it was still an enjoyable viewing experience, and offers up a bit of a different feel than the other Studio Ghibli films I am familiar with, which is a good thing.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Blue Spring

I became an instant fan of Taiyo Matsumoto after reading his masterpiece, 'Tekkonkinkreet'. Needless to say, I wanted to read more of his work, but North American readers have few options since the majority of his catalog isn't licensed. I chose 'Blue Spring' as my second Taiyo Matsumoto manga, and as you will see in my review, it didn't quite live up to my first experience with his work.

'Blue Spring' is a series of short stories about high school delinquents. Bordering on surreal at times, there is not much of a linear narrative, and the stories are only connected by the setting. The dialogue between characters was often nonsensical, like two people talking about different things to each other at the same time, which while lending to the overall weirdness appeal to the book, didn't do it any favors as a whole. I personally wasn't blown away by any of these shorts, but carried by the interesting and odd art, they were often entertaining, comical, and disturbing at the same time.

The first short story "If You're Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands" is about a group of delinquents, seemingly bored with life, aimlessly going about their days, and entertaining themselves with the dangerous "clapping game". Students get on the roof of the school and hang over the side of the building by the railing, feet on the ledge and hands on the railing. The object of the game is to clap as many times as you can without falling backwards. Main character, Kujo, breaks the long time record of seven claps, with eight. Friend of Kujo, Aoki, seemingly looks up to him, but Kujo doesn't want this, and tells him "Get off my jock. You can't rely on me for everything.". "Fuck you. I don't need you.". Kujo comes to find out later, that Aoki has died during the clapping game. Breaking Kujo's record by 4 claps, Aoki fell, clapping all the way to the ground and his death. I know it sounds disturbing, but reading this, I had the very same reaction to Aoki's feat than Kujo. I was impressed by his 12 claps and dedication for some strange reason. I guess I respected Aoki's ambition among a group of guys that are mostly wandering aimlessly through life, accepting their fate of nothing greater than being a delinquent.

Another story I liked was "Revolver". It's about a group of three who are left a gun and three bullets by a dying yakuza boss, who wants one of the three to succeed him. The three are first quite startled by the revolver, gun control being extremely strict in Japan, but soon decide to make use of the gift. The first bullet, they test fire as a loud train passes to see if it is real. The second bullet they sell to a fellow student and gun enthusiast. "One shot, 30,000 yen.". And after trying and failing to get more bullets to sell to the gun enthusiast, they use the third for a game of Russian Roulette, before getting rid of the gun in the ocean, seemingly refusing to succeed the yakuza boss. I found this story interesting for the lack of ambition that characters had. They had this opportunity to rise from petty criminals, to the big times, but rejected the idea. The reason I found the lack of ambition in this story attractive and not the first story, is because these characters seemed content with their lives and doing things their own way, while the characters in the first story seemed displeased with their lives, but afraid to do anything about it. That's just my personal interpretation on the matter though.

And finally, the last story of the book that I enjoyed was "This is Bad". It featured a younger boy, giddy at the thought of a girl who loves him, giggling away on his train ride home. A delinquent, seemingly annoyed by the boy's happiness, accosts him demanding to know what he is thinking. After kicking the delinquent off the train at a stop before he can get back on, the boy thinks he has escaped the confrontation free and clear, but he couldn't have been more wrong. The delinquent proceeds to chase down the train on foot, and pursues the boy all over the city, determined to kill him. The scenes depicting this chase are some of the best in the book, and I found them very cinematic. The delinquent's resilience and determination brought a much needed dose of comical entertainment to the book, and was a great way to round things off.

I think this book's main appeal is the art, though I am pretty confident that most casual manga readers will be turned off by it's weirdness before really taking it in. Taiyo Matsumoto's art style is very unique and unconventional. You won't find anything else like it. Especially licensed for English readers. That is why it is so awesome though. If you take the time to soak up his artwork and really appreciate all the chaotic and surreal imagery, you will have experienced something new and different from what you are used to, and I think it will broaden your art tastes, which is always a good thing. 

One minor annoyance I found with Viz's production of this book was that there is a ton of graffiti written in Japanese on almost every page. The editors add a translation note at the bottom of the page, which is great, but half way through the book, I got tired of stopping to read the foot notes and just skipped them. Stopping after each page to read the translations really ruins any story momentum that has been built up, and these being short stories, there isn't a lot of momentum to be had. You don't want to be taken out of the reading experience by pausing in between pages. Though from the ones I did read, the graffiti didn't exactly add a lot to the story or anything, and that's partially why I decided that it was okay to stop reading the translation notes. The only other option for the editor would be to redraw the graffiti in English, which would have been a lot more expensive, time consuming, and potentially ruin the original art, so I can understand why they did it the way they did. Like I said, it's just a minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.

'Blue Spring' is a series exclusively for mature readers, as noted by the "parental advisory" sticker on the cover, so I certainly don't recommend this for kids. But for adults who are tired of the same old mainstream manga that gets licensed, this book might be a welcome change of pace. If you like odd art and short stories, you also might be able to enjoy this book. Though I have to say, this manga isn't nearly as impressive as 'Tekkonkinkreet'(which I believe is a masterpiece, so 'Blue Spring' had a lot to live up to), nor is it a good introduction to Taiyo Matsumoto's work. At the risk of sounding unprofessional, and letting 'Tekkonkinkreet' highjack this review, my advice is to read 'Tekkonkinkreet' and then check out 'Blue Spring' if you liked it. I'd hate to recommend 'Blue Spring' fist, and have people miss out on 'Tekkonkinkreet' because they weren't impressed. That being said, I think you should check out both and inject some variety into your manga reading life.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gente- The People of Ristorante Paradiso

Already being a fan of Natsume Ono's work, when I bought Ristorante Paradiso, I bought the sequel series, Gente- The People of Ristorante Paradiso, as well. As I said in my review of 'Ristorante Paradiso', I had little doubt that I wouldn't enjoy any of Natsume Ono's work. And I was right to not doubt her. Just as I loved 'Ristorante Paradiso', I also loved 'Gente', it's sequel series.

Gente could be looked at as a sequel and a prequel in that it covers events both before and after the events of Ristorante Paradiso. In 'Ristorante Paradiso', the main focus was on Nicoletta and Olga rekindling their relationship, and Nicoletta building one with Claudio. In 'Gente', the focus shifts to the bespectacled staff of Casetta dell'Orso. This series of vignettes gives us a closer look at the group of men that were mostly supporting characters in 'Ristorante' Paradiso', who at the same time, almost stole the show from the main character. With no real overarching plot, these books read like a set of short stories that are linked only by a common cast. Inevitably, some of the stories were more interesting than others, but all were enjoyable for the most part and only served to add on to the ambiance created in 'Ristorante Paradiso'.

Probably my favorite of the stories, featured Teo, the young, headstrong chef, introduced in 'Ristorante Paradiso', and Vanna, a new face and chef who had to quit before the events of 'Ristorante Paradiso'. At first, it seemed that Teo and Vanna didn't get along so well. Teo would cook uninspired dishes, and Vanna would criticize him for his lack of ambition, and thus, arguments would ensue. One night after work, Teo gentlemanly offered Vanna a ride home on his motorcycle so she wouldn't have to walk past some rowdy street punks. Inviting him up to her apartment, they get to talking over wine and Teo confides in Vanna why he lost his ambition as a chef and why he acts so rebellious to her criticisms. Teo's back story that he shares with Vanna really does well for his character and makes him stand out in this series, as well as give us some of the best dialogue within. And Vanna is definitely my favorite of the new faces we see, being a great foil for Teo and the key to his development. Though we don't get to see as much of her as Teo, she is more than a plot device to me. Teo's two part story is one of the longer plot lines in the series as well as one of the most dramatic, and Vanna is definitely the female lead, and in a way, Teo's love interest. Looking back, it's no surprise that this particular short grabbed my attention the most, being very well balanced and written, it had the most in common with the overall feel of 'Ristorante Paradiso'.

In contrast to Teo's story, which I loved, there were a few stories that I just "liked". Some of them were a little too disconnected for me to care much. For instance, one chapter focused on a couple's troubled relationship. The husband's infidelity naturally caused a rift between the two, and the wife was mulling over divorce. The way the author makes this relevant is by having one of the Casetta dell'Orso staffers convince the husband to amend his philandering ways, and make up with his wife over a nice dinner at the restaurant. It wasn't a bad story by any means, but the whole time, you just want the precious page space to be dedicated to the characters that we know and care about already. Probably the only story of the bunch that I didn't care for much at all featured a politician, torn over the decision to give his support to the new party in power or not. Most of this short doesn't feature any of the restaurant staffers at all, only having Claudio engage in a short, rather uninteresting conversation with the politician and his colleagues while they eat at Casetta dell'Orso, before the politician comes to his final decision on his dilemma. The problem with this vignette is very much the same as the one with the couple, only much worse. It doesn't hurt to introduce new characters, as proven with Vanna, but they need to have some level of relevance, or else I am just going to wish for more bespectacled wait staff, chefs and a sommelier that already had me charmed and interested.

If you liked 'Ristorante Paradiso', this three volume series is a must read. It is the perfect companion, or you might even say extension. It had exactly what I thought was missing from 'Ristorante Paradiso', but couldn't logically be added, and it's great that both series are structured differently. One with a developing story, and the other a series of shorts that compliment the original. This sets them apart enough that you could enjoy one, the other, or both. While not impossible to enjoy 'Gente' on it's own, it doesn't waste too much time reintroducing the characters that we get to know in 'Ristorante Paradiso', so you may feel a little in the dark, but it's definitely not necessary to have prior knowledge of the characters. But, I'm sure lovers of 'Ristorante Paradiso' and Natsume Ono fans have already read or plan to read 'Gente'. To those who haven't, be sure to read my review of 'Ristorante Paradiso', and know that I recommend 'Gente' just as highly.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Abandon the Old in Tokyo

Recently released in a more affordable paperback by Drawn & Quarterly, Abandon the Old in Tokyo is a collection of short stories by gekiga pioneer, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. In case you are wondering what "gekiga" is, it is a term coined by Tatsumi used to describe the type of comics he drew. You see, "gekiga" means "dramatic pictures" and "manga" means "irresponsible pictures". I can see why he and others involved with the movement wouldn't want their work being referred as "irresponsible. It's not unlike how some call western comic books "graphic novels". I previously became introduced to the world of gekiga by Tatsumi's other short story collection, 'The Push Man, and Other Stories'. Fascinated by what I saw within, it wasn't a hard choice to buy his second collection.

This collection of gekiga contains eight short stories. Written in the early 70's, these shorts tell of the down and out lives of every day people of Japan. Those private thoughts and problems that you don't want anyone to see. They are featured in the pages of this book. It's a quick look into the weird, shameful, pathetic, disgusting, and realistic life issues that plague average Joe's.

I found this collection to be an improvement over 'The Push Man, and Other Stories', which was quite interesting, but not always entertaining. In my favorite short in the bunch, "Beloved Monkey", we follow the protagonist as he struggles with the monotony of work and the loneliness of life. The only time he doesn't feel alone and does feel human is when he is with his pet monkey. Things briefly start to look up for him when he meets a woman. He decides to make a change in his life and writes his letter of resignation, but before he can hand it in, an work accident causes him to lose his arm. And on top of that, he realizes his lady friend only wanted him for his money. Literally sick by life, he decides release his beloved pet monkey into the monkey enclosure at his local zoo to be with his fellow simians, only to have the zoo monkey's beat his pet to death as an intruder. With no luck finding a new job due to his missing arm, and no more beloved pet, he feels more isolated from society than ever. With visions of his dead pet, the story ends with him letting out a paranoid scream, surrounded by the judging eyes of his fellow citizens.

I honestly have trouble describing why I like these stories, especially this one. I don't feel like "entertaining" is the right word to describe these shorts. "Fascinating" might be a better word. It's like I'm getting to look at something I'm not suppose to. Or kind of like stopping to look at a car accident. You don't get pleasure from looking at the car accident, but you can't look away. What is that appeal? Whatever it is, this short story gave me that feeling. I didn't enjoy seeing this poor guy's life falling apart, but I enjoyed the ability to see into his life. That sounds weird, I know, but that is just how different I find Tatsumi's gekiga. They are unlike any of the manga I have ever read or any other form of media I have experienced, so I can't properly describe why exactly I found this book good. All the stories in this book are like that. All downers. Some shocking. The thing is, I know I'm not reading it for the shock value, because if I wanted that, I could find things much more shocking to read. If nothing else, I like this book because it is a welcome change from the usual, mainstream stuff that gets licensed here in the states.

The art may best be described as "old school". I personally don't gravitate toward the older art styles, but I can't say that the art is bad. It's a bit cartoony and has a comic strip type feel to it. At the same time, it has mostly realistic and detailed backgrounds. In this day and age, it stands out because it looks old. Some may even say it's dated, but it is very effective for telling these short, gritty stories.

Having enjoyed this book, I can say that I recommend it, but I would only recommend it to a specific group of people. I can't see most casual manga fans enjoying this or even identifying it as manga(they'd be right since it is gekiga haha). People who have experienced and enjoyed alternative comics(like Drawn & Quarterly's other books) from the western world would be more likely to appreciate this book. Or people who are just looking for something a little different to read. The great thing about it is that it is only a single volume, so there really is no harm in trying it out. I actually found 'A Push Man, and Other Stories' at the library, and that's why I bought this one. Checking it out at the library is even lower risk. The worst thing that will happen is you don't like it and waste an hour of your time. If you have an hour to waste, go give this book a read.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Ristorante Paradiso

Natsume Ono is on a roll with me. All three series of hers that I have read have become hits with me. 'House of Five Leaves', 'not simple', and now 'Ristorante Paradiso'. I think I can safely say that she has become one of my favorite manga authors.

Twenty-one year old Nicoletta makes the trip to Rome to find her estranged mother, Olga. You see, when Nicoletta was just a little girl, Olga left her in the care of her grandfather. The reason she left her was because the man she loved "would never marry a divorced woman", so he must never find out about Nicoletta. Nicoletta finds Olga at Casetta Dell'orso, the elegant little restaurant owned by Olga's new husband, Lorenzo. Here, Nicoletta is bemused to see that it is entirely staffed by handsome, glasses wearing, older gentlemen, including, head waiter Claudio, who Nicoletta instantly takes a liking to. Bitter from being essentially abandoned, and jealous of her mother's happiness in love, Nicoletta sought her out determined to tell Lorenzo that she is Olga's daughter.....that is until Olga offers a job at the restaurant, an apartment to live in, and some romantic help with Claudio.

The first thing most people will notice about this manga is the art. In a style similar to Natsume Ono's other work, 'House of Five Leaves', I think most casual manga readers will find it a bit odd. I personally find it to be a great change from the more ordinary manga styles that I, and I think most other mainstream manga readers are used to. It is quite distinctive, and though odd in comparison to the usual, it is visually appealing. You can sample the art, and a bit of the story in a free preview of chapter one at VizManga. If you end up liking the art, splendid. If not, I recommend looking past it because there is still something to enjoy in Natsume Ono's writing.

This manga is very well balanced. It had just enough romance, and just enough drama. No aspect of the story overpowers another. You may say that it sounds as if the story has no focus or direction, but that is not so. Being a slice-of-life, it is laid back, and readers not a fan of the genre may find it boring, but it does have it's key themes. One of my favorite parts of the book is the rekindling of the relationship between Nicoletta and Olga. Starting out as a way to keep Nicoletta quiet, Olga connects with Nicoletta over their common feelings of being in love. Nicoletta with Claudio and Olga with Lorenzo. Olga takes this chance to make up for lost time and teach Nicoletta about being a woman. It's quite sweet to see the once estranged pair become mother and daughter again.

Now this manga isn't just about Nicoletta and Olga. Remember I mentioned the restaurant staff completely made up of handsome, bespectacled, older gentlemen? Well, life at Casetta Dell'orso is made interesting because of them. In the book, the restaurant is made popular because the frequent customers have a preference for this certain type of man. Somehow I have the feeling that this is also a real life fetish of sorts, and women who engage in this fetish might find this book extra appealing because of that. That's not to say our restaurant staff is just eye candy for the women. They are a diverse group of personalities that actually pull most of the weight when it comes to this book's entertainment aspect. Sharing the spotlight with Nicoletta and her story, we don't get to go as in depth with them as I would have liked to, but I think that's where this book's sequel series, Gente, comes in. Which I will definitely be reviewing in the future.

As I said, this book has just the right amount of romance, comedy, and drama, so you never feel like you are watching a soap opera. That's why I think that this story could be enjoyed by both men and women. Though the down-to-earth, slow, slice-of-life type story would probably be most attractive to adult readers, rather than a younger audience looking for something more exciting. Being one volume though, I'd make the argument that it wouldn't hurt for any age or gender to try something a little different. I personally enjoyed it immensely, and it solidified me as a Natsume Ono fan.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Blue Exorcist vol. 1-6

Blue Exorcist, by Kazue Kato, tells the story of Rin Okumura, a rowdy teenage boy who along with his more reserved and studious twin brother Yukio, are raised by by priest, Father Shiro Fujimoto. One day, after a fateful encounter with a demon that Father Fujimoto rescues him from, Rin discovers that he himself is half demon and the son of Satan. Soon, Satan pays a visit to Rin and tries to drag him to the demon realm. Father Fujimoto intervenes, allowing Rin to escape, but dies in the process. Rin vows to use his new found demon powers to defeat Satan and the forces of evil. Off to True Cross Academy, Rin finds friends and enemies alike on his path to become an exorcist.

I'm noticing my opinion on this manga is quite different from most other reviews I have read. Particularly, my opinion on the art. I often read that the art is one of the strongest points of this manga. I have to disagree on that. I personally think the art is pretty drab and just barely acceptable. The character designs are fine, but the style itself is quite ordinary. Not that every art style has to be new and different. It just doesn't excite me. I suppose it does it's job to convey the story, but I wholeheartedly disagree that the art is a strong point. The backgrounds, while drawn well enough, are just there. They don't add anything to the art experience for me. And that's really my main problem. As a visual medium, the art should be a big part of the experience, but it is "just there" for me. I'd also expect a little more art wise from a monthly manga. Sure, there is more pages per chapter, but not as many as an average weekly manga puts out a month. I guess I just think more time to draw should mean higher quality drawings. I suppose that could be a big part as to why I find Kazue Kato's average/passable art as unimpressive. One thing that I think could have raised my opinion of the art is seeing the color spreads in actual color. In the volume releases, the color spreads are rendered in black, white and grey, I assume to conserve printing costs. Even in black and white, I can still tell that a lot of effort and creativity was put into them. It's a shame there was no way to preserve that. My opinion seems to differ greatly though, and art is subjective, so don't take my word for it. You can check out a free preview of chapter 1 at VizManga and see for yourself whether you like the art or not.

While it is still early in this manga's life, the combat has so far been pretty uninspired and the little action that I have seen is sometimes poorly choreographed and hard to tell what is actually happening. And the established systems of combat aren't terribly exciting to look at either. Chanting sutras to defeat a demon? Yeah, as you can guess, talking a demon to death doesn't look cool. Even the characters with traditional weapons aren't especially entertaining in there fights. Spamming enchanted bullets to mow down fodder was entertaining for about one page, and the main character just fights in a demon rage mode with enhanced strength and healing. To be fair, he has yet to finish his sword training, so maybe things will get better with him later. But like I said, a lot of it has to do with poor fight choreography. You could make these things look cool if you were a good enough artist. And as I said, in the six volumes I have read, there really hasn't been that much action beyond a few minor skirmishes and some training. I could excuse the lack of exciting action due to the lack of action in general, but then I would have to fault the manga for not having enough excitement for it's 6 volumes of content. I'm not an action fiend by any means, but this is a manga where the sword wielding main character's goal is to fight and defeat Satan, so I do expect there to be some level of excitement when it comes to combat.

This manga's saving grace is the likeable cast of characters. And while I wasn't impressed with the art in general, the character designs are diverse and fun. As I said, the characters are quite likeable for the most part. They have good interaction with each other, and are easy to care about. This is important if I am going to be following this group through a possible, long running story. They also develop nicely enough for the amount of time we are with them. It is generic development, like "I'm useless so I want to get stronger", and learning to accept/make friends, etc., but development it is. The main character Rin, is a pretty typical shonen main character, but I happen to like typical shonen main characters and I think there is a reason they are so prominent in modern shonen manga. They work for this type of story. There's no great reason to break the mold in this situation. Anyway, I like this group of characters and don't mind following them throughout the story. I just wish there was more of a story to follow them through. I suppose I will have to keep reading to get that, but if the manga doesn't amp up the pace and level of excitement through the next six volumes, we will still just have a good cast of characters in a relatively uneventful manga.

To be honest, I expected a lot more to happen over the course of six volumes. The events that set the story in motion happen, Rin goes to school, does some training, meets a few friends, has a few minor conflicts, and that's really it. Not until the end of volume 6 is a more significant conflict introduced. Yeah, I'm oversimplifying a bit, but no kidding. Nothing big or memorable happened. It is very possible that this manga just needed one or two more volumes to catch it's stride and get it's hooks in me(one of my favorite mangas, One Piece, didn't really get especially exciting until around volume 8), but all I have to go on right now is six volumes, so that's what I'm going to make judgements upon. If my library gets future volumes in, I may check it out, but this isn't a manga I am dying to know what happens next.

Rather than recommend this passable at best manga, I'd like to point you in the direction of Blue Exorcist's Jump Square counterpart, and fellow supernatural manga, D. Gray-man. D. Gray-man, with 21 volumes vs. Blue Exorcist's 8, obviously has much more content, and all the development that comes with it.

In short, this manga is slow to develop an exciting plot, has average to mediocre art, lackluster and confusing action, but a nice cast of main characters. I recommend checking this series out at the library like I did, or purchasing it digitally at VizManga for about half the price. Shelling out $10 per volume of the first six, uneventful volumes is just not worth it in my opinion.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Zoo In Winter

A Zoo In Winter is the first Jiro Taniguchi manga I have had the pleasure to read, and what a pleasure it was. I discovered Jiro Taniguchi, and this book, through the March 2012 Manga Moveable Feast, which his works were the subject of. My To-Read-List overflowed with every English licensed Taniguchi work that month, but A Zoo In Winter seemed the perfect place to start, being a single volume, full length story with rave reviews.

This slice-of-life story, that I feel must be partly based on real life experiences of Taniguchi, tells of Mitsuo Hamaguchi and his journey to become a mangaka. At the beginning of the story, Hamaguchi is working at a textile company in hopes of being a designer. Not getting to do the designing job he wants, Hamaguchi spends most of his free time at the zoo, sketching solemnly, until an incident at work gives him the push he needs to move on. The next phase in Hamaguchi's takes him to Tokyo, where he is abruptly tossed into the world of manga, becoming an assistant to a popular mangaka and honing his craft. In the events that follow, Hamaguchi's experiences in love and life lead him through ups and downs that ultimately shape him as a man.

At first, I thought Taniguchi's artwork was a little stiff, but I quickly grew to love the style(I had a similar experience with Naoki Urasawa's artwork). Character's faces are thoughtful and expressive, telling the story as much as the dialogue. Backgrounds are detailed and realistic. It's a wonderful art experience that really helps the story flow along smoothly and naturally.

Character interactions were a strong point with me in this manga. Hamaguchi, quiet and reserved, makes for a great main character because he doesn't overshadow the interesting folks that he meets. And Taniguchi's masterful writing shows when he builds one of the sweetest romances I have encountered in manga, believably and naturally, in around 20 pages. This is where the story grabbed me emotionally especially.

Hamaguchi's personal experiences over the two or so years that we follow him aren't especially exciting or melodramatic. They are realistic experiences that you or I could easily have. So why is it that I engrossed in this book, not being able to stop turning the pages, and had to fight back tears of emotion? I think that's exactly why. Realism. These very human and down-to-earth experiences are something we are able to connect to in a much deeper way than unrelatable melodrama designed for quick and forgettable, pure entertainment. For this, I am grateful that Jiro Taniguchi decided to share this story with us.

Published in a sturdy, 9.5" x 6.8" hardcover with heavy pages by Fanfare Ponent Mon, this book not only looks good on your shelf, but it will last longer too. I have purchased several hardback manga books now, and I have to say, I really appreciate the extra level of quality it brings. Maybe it is just an illusion that the hardback makes my lowly comic books look like dignified, "real" books, or maybe it just strengthens my faith that publishers are still willing to put money and effort into the ever more turbulent manga industry. Either way, this book is a real treasure that I am proud to add to my collection. I know I will be reading this book many more times, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

One Piece volume 62

In the 62nd installment of Eiichiro Oda's epic pirate manga, the Straw Hat crew goes on their first real adventure together since reuniting last volume. Their journey takes them under the sea past monstrous sea beasts, treacherous ocean currents and erupting undersea volcanoes, en route to the home of mermaids and the last stop before the New World, Fishman Island.

The first half or so of this book covers the Straw Hat's voyage into the depths of the ocean. Beautiful underwater scenery and frighteningly designed sea monsters abound, the first several chapters constitute explanation of the science of the deep and the ways of underwater travel, with a healthy dose of gags to keep us entertained. This seamlessly mixed in with crew interactions that show of each characters individual quirks that we know and love and missed so much. All the while, running into two new enemies before even arriving at their destination. While I enjoyed seeing the crew together again, a few of the chapters dragged a bit and suffered from I like to call "Post-Marineford Syndrome". The war arc was too exciting and action packed for the manga's own good. For a few arcs after, even normally exciting events could seem duller in comparison.

Arriving at Fishman Island, our favorite crew gets separated, which gives us the opportunity to explore different parts of the island and get to know the setting for this story arc. We meet yet another villain, and while welcome at first, the Straw Hats soon fall victim to a mysterious prophecy, and make enemies with the entire nation. Expanded on in this volume is the racial tension between humans and fishmen, first brought to our attention all the way back in the Arlong arc and seen again in the Sabaondy Archipelago arc. Tackling segregation, discrimination and racism seems like an awfully ambitious issue for a children's comic, but that just gets me more excited for the following volumes.

The art of One Piece has always been among my favorite in manga, and this volume doesn't disappoint. The underwater setting allows for lots of beautiful scenery and fantastical sea creature designs. Many double page spread show off these images in great detail. Since Arlong arc, I've enjoyed the kooky character designs of the fishmen and in this arc, we get a whole new set of creatively drawn cast members. Not to mention a cove full of cute mermaids as a bonus.

In regard to the production quality, there was one instance where the translation was confusing. Nami was explaining how the salinity of the ocean affects currents, and Luffy and Zoro being who they are, had no idea what she was talking about. They responded with "I used to play with salinity all the time as a kid", and "I sure would like to get one of those salinity swords one day". This didn't make sense to me. I suspect this is a case of a Japanese pun not having a direct translation, which happens a lot and is okay, but I would have liked a translator note or something. Also, there were a few cases where the ink was very light in speech bubbles. A shade or two lighter and it would have been unreadable. Furthermore, there were two cases of ink blotches. Thankfully, the ink blotches didn't ruin any of the art or block any text, but this is something I don't like to see and I hope Viz amps up their quality control a bit. You might say that I just got unlucky with the book I bought, but I saw several cases on the internet with the same problem. Again, not a deal breaker, but I don't care to see these issues again.

Alone, this is an average book by One Piece standards. Understandably, it is just a small part of the massive One Piece puzzle. For some, getting back into the good old swing of thing with the crew reunited and back to adventuring will be a relief. For others, as I said earlier, this book may be a little slow in comparison to the excitement overload that was the war arc. I don't suspect that will stop dedicated One Piece fans from buying the next volume to see what happens next.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths


Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, to put simply, is a war story. A fictionalized memoir of author, Shigeru Mizuki. The first half or so is kind of a slice-of-life in wartime deal. Digging trenches, building camp, etc. It gave off a Japanese M.A.S.H. kind of vibe. Then comes the fighting and suicide charge that leads to the exploration of the major themes of the story.

The art is a mixture of detailed and realistic backgrounds with simplistic, "cartoony", comic strip style characters. The style isn't really comparable to anything I've seen before. The easiest way to describe it would be to call it "old school". I can't say the art excites me, but I can guess that it was done this way to maybe make things a little lighter and not a complete horror show that people may not want to read, or relive in graphic detail in the case of fellow soldier readers. I could be wrong though because this kind of works against it's most obvious theme of the brutality of war by not being graphic or realistic enough. Not to mention the simplistic character designs don't allow for great emotion to be conveyed, which is a problem when things like desperation and fear are meant to be expressed. The art style also doesn't help with connecting to and caring about the characters. There is no less than 3 characters that look like the main character. The only distinguishing features between them being maybe some stubble or a slightly different shaped head. Not that it matters. The main character is kind of winy and mopey and not especially likeable.

As I said, put simply, this is a war story. And not a very excitingly told war story at that. The first half has the soldiers doing mundane, daily wartime tasks waiting for the enemy to strike. When the battles do start, it isn't exactly a cinematic sequence of action scenes. Nor was it meant to be. So the author must have had a message in mind, right? Anti-war. War is bad. The pointlessness of "Noble Deaths". All pretty much lost on me because I already know and don't need 362 pages to remind me. Maybe I missed the true messages and themes, but either way, this book could have had more visually appealing art to at least give me something more to look at, or have been more entertaining to make it easier to get through.

One major positive aspect is the Japanese soldier perspective that you don't often get in western WWII media. Off the top of my head, the only piece of work like that that I can recall is 'Letters From Iwo Jima'. The "Noble Deaths" in the title refers to the last ditch suicide attack employed by Japanese soldiers when faced with certain defeat, rather than surrender as prisoners of war like most other country's militaries would do. It turns out that the common Japanese soldiers aren't exactly as Gung-ho about this as their commanding officers or as western propaganda would lead you to believe(at least not the ones in this book). They are scared, hungry, homesick and suffer their orders just like their enemy. Again, I think this positive aspect would be stronger with a more realistic art style with more distinctively Japanese characters, but the positive aspect is still there.

I'm realizing this review probably sounds way more negative than I intended, but I'm not going to rewrite it. I don't regret reading or buying this book. It kept my interest throughout and was actually a welcome change from the shonen fighting manga overload that I have been experiencing. In that way, it served it's purpose. I won't shout it from the rooftops that everyone should stop what they are doing and go out and buy this book though. I don't think this book is for the average manga reader. The "different" art alone is enough to turn many away that are used to more conventional, modern styles. The subject matter as well would probably appeal to history enthusiasts, war buffs, and people interested in different cultures, rather than the average reader looking to be entertained.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Rohan at the Louvre

This book is a spin-off short story by Jojo's Bizarre Adventure mangaka, Hirohiko Araki. Not being familiar with JJBA, I didn't really know what to expect. I pretty much bought it solely because I was impressed by the full color art that I witnessed in NBM Publishing's sample pages. I'm glad I took the chance, because Rohan at the Louvre is worth it for the art alone. That's not to say that the story didn't contribute to it's worth.

Rohan at the Louvre tell the story of a young mangaka that travels to France after being intrigued about the tale of a cursed painting using the blackest ink ever known that he heard from a mysterious, young woman. At the Louvre, Rohan finds that his seemingly simple trip to view a painting may have been more than he bargained for.

A shorter manga book than I am used to(only 128 pages), I would have liked for it to be longer, but despite the short length, it manages to introduce you to our main character, get the story underway, and bring the story to a close in a natural manner.

For me, the main appeal here is the gorgeous artwork. The book is published in full color in a large, 10"x7" format that displays the art wonderfully. Araki has an art style that I can only describe as "Roman statues turned fashion models", that I really dig. Sometimes the characters even do fashion model poses out of nowhere.

I bought this book for the art, and it delivered. The nice little story is a bonus.