Saturday, June 30, 2012

Superhero Invasion: Kingdom Come, Thy Kingdom Come, Infinite Crisis & Final Crisis

No. You didn't just come to the wrong website. My manga blog has been invaded by superhero comics. In an attempt to broaden my comic reading horizons, I decided to give some western comics a try. And what better place to start than the iconic superheros that have come to define the American comics business. Here I'll give my thoughts on my very first foray into the world of superhero comics.

Billed as "The Greatest Superhero Epic of Tomorrow!", 'Kingdom Come', created by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, takes place in the not too distant future of the DC Universe. With Superman and the other heroes of the Justice League retired, a new generation of super humans runs wild, fighting amongst themselves for a lack of super villains to deal with. The Justice League, forced out of retirement to deal with the chaos, we follow this story through the point of view of elderly pastor, Norman McCay, and his apocalyptic prophecies of a superhero civil war on the level of biblical Armageddon.
The art is gorgeous. Each page is like a nearly photorealistic painting, with the lighting and color palette that calls to mind 1950's advertising artwork. I didn't care for the Christian religion references, but I liked the theme of adapting to change and the different hero factions different philosophies on world peace were highly interesting. Being new to the genre, I'm glad I only needed a minimum amount of knowledge of the DC Universe to enjoy this and I'm sure you could get by without any prior knowledge at all, though you may miss out on recognizing the more obscure superheros. Strong dialogue, great art, and an intriguing story featuring all the iconic heroes that even new comic readers should recognize, make this a great first step into the world of western, superhero comics.

In the sequel to 'Kingdom Come', 'Thy Kingdom Come', the schizophrenic Starman accidentally pulls the 'Kingdom Come' Superman through a wormhole into an alternate universe Earth. Fearing that the same superhero civil war that happened in his universe will happen in this new universe, Earth-22 Superman sets out with the Justice Society of America to put a stop to the enigmatic "Gog".

I found this series slightly less accessible to a new reader, like myself, than 'Kingdom Come'. It seemed like a little more prior knowledge would have helped in some places. Some plot threads from past story arcs were mentioned, but I caught on pretty quick. Elements such as time travel and parallel universes added a bit to the confusion, but also added to the fun. Two Supermen? Yes, please. I found the artwork to be more conventional than it's predecessor, but it was still drawn very well, and I have to say, it was easier on the eyes. The fancy lighting effect in 'Kingdom Come' got hard to look at after a while. I noticed this series had more action than 'Kingdom Come', which I appreciated. It helped keep me interested throughout. But my favorite part was the well done introduction of some lesser known(to me) characters like Starman and Citizen Steel. I thought their characters were really well done and really served to pique my curiosity about all the other cool characters that I don't know about from the DC Universe. Despite some confusion, I found that this book had more entertainment value than Kingdom Come, and was a great "crash course" for learning more about the DC Universe and it's characters.

Umm....Errr....Uhh....Yeah......I don't even know how to summarize this one. Especially without spoiling it. I can't even name the villain because that is one of the big reveals. How about this: In 'Infinite Crisis', there is an intergalactic space war, a swarm of robots are going berserk on Earth, super villains are teaming up to take down the heroes, and infinite parallel worlds are popping up all over the place within the same universe, wreaking havoc on everything and everyone.

This book was really crazy and chaotic from start to finish. It definitely wasn't very accessible to readers new to the DC Universe. I felt confused and in the dark through most of the book. That being said, it was a pretty epic read. It had pretty much every popular DC superhero trying to save the universe from destruction. It also had a really great super villain. The action was top notch and surprisingly brutal. It was really exciting throughout the entire book. The art style and quality varied, and I can't say the conventional comic book style excites me, but it did it's job, and was fine overall. But yeah, I definitely don't think this is a good book for DC Universe newbies, but I'm glad I read it. It was confusing, but fun, and it helped me learn a little more about the DC Universe and it's large cast of characters.

And I thought 'Infinite Crisis' was confusing...'Final Crisis' takes the confusing infinite parallel universes and time travel up to 11. Again, I really have no idea how to summarize this story, because even after finishing it, I still don't really know what happened. I found it to be very bizarre and I think there must be some supplementary material that needs to be read to understand this book. So, it's not really good for readers new to the DC Universe. I can't even say I particularly enjoyed it because of how confusing the storyline was to me.

Also, the conventional, comic book style art is starting to wear on me. The quality varied a lot in this book. From very detailed, to kind of sloppy. And the full color is not always a good thing. I personally think the coloring can dull details. Sometimes I find myself wanting to see what the original penciling and inking looked like. Anyway, this was definitely not my favorite of the bunch, but I suppose a lot of that is my fault for diving in head first into random DC Universe crossover books without doing proper research.

So, there you have it. My first attempt at getting into the world of superhero comics. I've always wanted to take the leap, but with so many continuities and incarnations by tons of different writers, it was quite the daunting task. I never knew where to start. This time, I just decided to jump right in. I had a few hits and a few misses, but overall, I had a great time and I can now say that the DC Universe superheros have gotten a new fan in me. Don't be surprised if you see a "Superhero Invasion Part 2" in the future.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Vagabond VizBig vol. 1

When I heard that Takehiko Inoue was going to be the subject for the June 2012 Manga Moveable Feast, I just knew I had to participate. But what to write about? 'Slam Dunk'? 'REAL'? 'Vagabond'? All three, amazing series in their own right. I thought about it a while, and eventually settled on 'Vagabond', and my decision mostly came from this beautiful set of VizBig editions that have been sitting on my shelf and calling out to me for a reread.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara, Shinmen Takezo is laying belly up in the mud, contemplating his failure to make a name for himself. Takezo and his childhood friend, Matahachi had gone off to war, determined to do great things with their lives, but they didn't expect that they would end up on the losing side of the battle. Now fugitives on the run, Takezo and Matahachi are eventually found and rescued by a young girl, Akemi, and nursed back to health by her mother, Oko. After a brutal encounter with a gang of bandits, the duo get separated, and Takezo sets out for his and Matahachi's home town of Miyamoto. Intent on informing Matahachi's family that he did in fact, survive the war, Takezo breaks through a province border, killing two men in the process, and becomes a wanted man. After informing Matahachi's mother of his status, instead of given hospitality, he is instead treated with betrayal. On the run from soldiers and his own, fellow villagers, Takezo takes to the mountains, but is eventually caught by resourceful monk Takuen Soho. Strung up from a tree and left for dead as punishment, Takezo soon learns the monk's true motives in not granting him a quick, warrior's death. After much inner reflection, and absorbing the monk's wise words, Takezo is set free, and with a new lease on life, Shinmen Takezo is reborn, "Miyomoto Musashi".

Without a doubt, the highlight of these three volumes for me was getting to the transformation of brutal but insecure Takezo, into the still brutal, but more focused Musashi. On the surface, Takezo had all the confidence in the world. Determined to collect a general's head and become "Invincible Under the Sun". But he didn't truly live by the way of the sword. He was no more than a savage beast. A Demon. Deep down, he actually felt lonely and in pain. Abandoned by his mother and shunned by his father, he questioned why he was even born and if he deserved to live. The direction he was headed was a path of self-destruction. But once monk Takuen got a hold of him, he was able to accept the value of his own life and restart on the right path. After being reborn as Miyomoto Musashi, he is still a brutal fighter with aims of being the best, but as I said, with more focus and a tad bit more maturity. He was able to recognize that the Yoshioka brothers were stronger than him, and cut his losses. Surely he would have kept pressing his luck in his old, "Takezo" mind state and have been killed. Now, he still has a long way to go and a lot to learn, but he developed quite a bit in these three volumes, and we got to see it in a realistic and natural way. With this spectacular introduction, I look forward to following Miyomoto Musashi down whatever path he may take. Takehiko Inoue truly brought this real-life samurai and manga character to life in the pages of the first three volumes of 'Vagabond'.

The art. Oh, God, the art. It's beyond fantastic. Pardon me while I gush over the beautifully crafted images Takehiko Inoue produces in his manga. Now, I enjoy all kinds of art styles, from realistic to avante-garde. I also have nothing to gain by lauding Inoue's artwork. There's no bias here. I just genuinely find his art to be extremely aesthetically pleasing. Making that clear, it is my personal opinion that Takehiko Inoue has the best, realistic style art, that I have come across in manga. It's simply amazing. And this VizBig, three volumes in one, 600+ page door-stopper of a book showcases that incredible art very, very well. It's a feast for the eyes. It even includes the color pages, which most standard manga volumes that I have encountered print in black and white. These color pages are a real treat, and really show off the full range of Inoue's skills. Another interesting aspect of the art is that sometimes Inoue uses brush strokes instead of the usual pen. Now, I don't know how common this is in manga production, but this is the first I have encountered it, and it impresses me. I actually don't care if the artist draws with a chainsaw as long as it looks good. I'm not simply impressed with the fact he uses that technique. It genuinely adds a lot to the art. It has a certain affect on the image it is used in, and while a slight change in style, it doesn't clash with the rest of the art and doesn't take you out of the story. Another area where Inoue excels is facial expressions and conveying emotions. One look at the cover and Musashi's intense glare can tell you that. With this realistic style, we get to see the full range of emotions wash over the characters faces, from wide-eyed fear, to crushing sadness. I'm continually blown away by the art in 'Vagabond', and I think you will be too.

The deluxe, VizBig editions of this manga aren't just good for getting a massive dose of great art. They are also a great way to break into this 33 volume and ongoing series. I know that can seem kind of daunting for new readers, but with these 3-in-1 books, you are getting a great deal. Retailing for $19.99, you are essentially get one out of every three books for free. And don't think that because it's an omnibus, they skimp on the production costs. As I said, you get all the color pages included, printed with fine ink on high quality, thick paper. This book is anything but cheap looking and feeling. Though, if there is any drawback to the VizBig editions, it would have to be their size. They are quite heavy and can be uncomfortable to hold. Not only that, but unless you want to bend the book's spine, the thickness can make it hard to fully open the book in the middle section, and can obscure double page spreads.

If you have read this far into my review, I don't think there should be any question as to whether or not I recommend this book and series. Of course I do. It brandishes stunning art that I think could be almost universally enjoyed, and an exciting main character based on a real-life samurai that lead an amazing life. Fans of samurai stories: This book's for you. Historical fiction fans should also like this story. Though I can't say I recommend this series to young readers. Parents who have been buying their kids volumes of Takehiko Inoue's Shonen, basketball manga, 'Slam Dunk': Be sure not to miss that "Explicit Content" warning on the cover. This series has intense and graphic violence, as well as some nudity. So maybe wait a few years until you let your kids graduate to 'Vagabond'. I highly recommend this series to everyone else though. To me as a manga fan, it is a must read and one of the jewels of my personal collection.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Animal Land vol. 1-4

(contains spoilers)

I discovered 'Animal Land' by chance while browsing my library's manga selection. I had never heard of it before, which is odd because I thought I payed close attention to the American manga industry and I follow lots of manga blogs. Well, after reading these four volumes of 'Animal Land' by Makoto Raiku of 'Zatch Bell' fame, I am determined to pay even closer attention so I don't let more gems like this slip by my manga radar.

Monoko the Tanuki is hungry and lonely. Having lost both her parents in a wild cat attack, Monoko now has no family and barely survives amongst the other Tanukis with not enough food to go around. Spotting what she thinks is food floating down the river, Monoko inadvertently saves a newborn, human baby from certain starvation, and vows to become this abandoned baby's new mother. Soon, Monoko and the other Tanuki's release that this human baby has a very special gift. It can speak. Not just to the Tanukis, but to all animal species. Something that has been previously unheard of. With this unique ability, the newly named Taroza starts to bring about unprecedented, and sometimes unwanted change amongst the animal kingdom. Acting as an interpreter between species, Taroza sets out to unite meat-eaters and plant-eaters to live in peace. He wants to be friends with all the animals. Something that won't come easy.

After seven years of hard work, Taroza is now a young boy and leader of his own territory. In his territory, herbivores of all kinds work together to farm the land and share in natures bounty. No more do the harsh Winters bring the high likelihood of starvation. Though Taroza has yet to be able to reach meat-eaters with his goal of coexistence, and that's where problems start to arise. After saving a young monkey from being eaten by lions, Taroza has a fateful meeting with another human for the very first time. Princess Capri of a lion pride hears of Taroza's existence and is determined to eat his meat! But she didn't count on her feelings as a human being getting in the way of her instincts as a lion. After being warded off twice by Taroza and his clan of herbivores, Capri comes to an uneasy peace with Taroza, but sadly can't come to grips with coexistence with non meat-eaters. Though after learning of an immanent attack by a rival pride of lions, in which Capri and the other cubs will be killed as to not compete with the new alpha's cubs, Capri seeks out Taroza, wanting to ask for help, but only managing to tearily let him know she was going to die. Not willing to let the only other human he's ever met perish, Taroza uses all his cunning and charisma to save Capri and her young siblings, but not before the strong males of her pride are wiped out. Motivated by Taroza's words, the females and surviving young lions of Capri's pride are determined to survive without the alphas protection. Inching closer to peace with the pride of lions, Taroza and his clan of herbivores celebrate and continue to progress forward. Everything seems to be going in the right direction until the third human, Jyu, makes an appearance. This enigmatic young man is anything but a friend to Taroza and seems resolute in crushing his cause of peace and reinstating nature's way of survival of the fittest.

The art in this manga is interesting and really well done. Some of the animal designs are realistic and drawn in great detail. Others are designed partially anthropomorphic, complete with clothing or human-like faces. It's kind of bizarre, but I like it. The Tanukis have the human-like faces, and as you can imagine, a raccoon-dog with a human face is quite the comical sight, as well as having the advantage of being very expressive. Some of the younger animals are drawn to be very cute. Almost like stuffed animals. "Cartoony" in comparison to some of the realistically drawn animals. This clash of styles really works though. Imagine your childhood teddy bear to come to life, only to have it's stomach slashed open by a lion and blood sprays everywhere. It's quite a powerful scene, and in the manga, I think these bad things happening to cute characters only enhances the message of how harsh the reality of nature is. The stylized designs of the anthropomorphic characters are also very imaginative. Unique clothing, cool scars, tribal face paints, as well as the ability to stand up and some human-like features really make this group of characters stand out. The human characters also have really fun designs. I especially like Capri, who fits her lion theme with a grand mane of blonde hair. While a very fun style, don't let the cutesy art fool you and stop you from reading. Like I said, it hides, but at the same time compliments some surprisingly dark themes within.

One of the more well-developed characters in the black wildcat, Kurokagi. Once a staunch meat-eater and a believer in a kill or be killed mentality, until one day, he was changed after witnessing the newborn baby of one of his prey die without it's mother's care. Not being able to bring himself to kill anymore, he resorted to stealing fish from the Tanuki's. This way, he wouldn't have to kill, and in exchange, he secretly protected the Tanukis from other predators. After being brought together with the Tanukis by Taroza's interpreter skills, Kurokagi becomes the very first meat-eater to join Taroza's cause. His willingness to change and go against nature is rivaled only by Taroza himself. Taroza is also an interesting character and while quite similar to your typical Shonen main character, he also has his differences. For one, when we first encounter Taroza, he is just a baby, not even able to walk. And even as he grows, he is still the most physically weak of all the animals. He at first feels like just a burden to his adopted Tanuki family. He can't walk, and he can't even gather his own food. What he can do is talk in all species language and he is determined to use that tool to make friends with all animals. So while he may be a typical, Shonen determinator, he doesn't go about achieving his goal with the strength of his fists, but with his unique, human ingenuity, and his charismatic way with words.

I think the most surprising thing about this series is the level of hidden depth it has. Yeah, if you want, it can just be an entertaining story about a boy and his typical, Shonen goal with lots of crazy looking animals standing in his way. But underneath that, I see a lot more depth than I come to expect from what is essentially a kids comic book. In my interpretation, the conflict between meat-eaters and plant-eaters very much reminded me of the modern day state of politics. You have both sides, unwavering, unwilling to change their antiquated ways, and no progress to be had. Both sides suffering. And in the story, when Toroza introduces the lions to cheese as an alternative to eating meat, you have your compromise. That cheese symbolizes the compromise that we so desperately need, but don't have. That's a topic for another type of blog though.....Point is, underneath the entertainment aspect of this series, are some really, thought provoking question being asked, and I thought that was really interesting and nice for me as an adult reading a comic geared toward kids.

This story also features many, fable-like lessons that I think should be heard by the ears of kids and adults alike. One of the biggest themes of the story is "change" and how resistant the world is to it. Now, in the real world, Taroza's goal of becoming friends with all animals and to have them stop eating each other would cause chaos within the circle of life, but putting the literal consequences aside, it's his belief that he can bring about a change and make a better world that has importance here. Where would we be in real life if nobody ever stood up and fought against the "normal" way of doing things? Like the female lions, who were resigned to let their cubs get killed after their alpha died, just because "this is the way of things". Imagine a world where we didn't have people like Capri and Taroza who "don't want to live that way anymore". Fortunately, we do have people like that in this world. People who are willing to go against the grain and bring about great change and progress. I think that's a good message to readers and I appreciated that about this book.

As you might be able to tell, I really enjoyed 'Animal Land'. I think it is a great, all ages story. Well, not all ages. It might look kind of cutesy in parts because of the art, but the survival of the fittest aspect and the brutalities of nature might be a little much for much younger readers. I personally thought it could get kind of dark in places. Right off the bat, one of the main characters' parents get eaten alive. Death is a very harsh reality in this story, and I wouldn't give this book to kids that are too young yet to understand that. It's also a bit violent. It can get pretty bloody. Besides that, I highly recommend this imaginative series, and I know I'll be looking forward to the release of volume 5 next month.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

La Quinta Camera

With this blog post, reviewing Natsume Ono manga is starting to become a trend of sorts. A trend that I would like to keep going, as I enjoy her work very much. But with my third Natsume Ono review and the fifth Natsume Ono work I've read in all, I've hit a slight bump in the road. What I mean to say is that I surprisingly didn't particularly care for 'La Quinta Camera'.

Set in Italy, 'La Quinta Camera' starts us off with an exchange student named Charlotte. Charlotte, bored with life in Denmark, hitchhikes to Italy as a language student, determined to make a new and more exciting life in a new country. Right of the bat though, she runs into trouble by forgetting her valuables in the truck that gave her a lift. With no money, and running into a fellow that is less than friendly to tourists, Charlotte has a bad start to her new life in Italy. Luckily, she meets a kind street musician named Luca, who helps her earn some money by singing, and takes her to a friend's cafe for a nice meal. With her morale back up, Charlotte goes by her language school to find out where she is going to be staying. With a mix up in housing, the school has no choice but to put her up in an apartment that is occupied by four, middle-aged men. As a young girl, Charlotte is at first nervous at the prospect of having four, older men as roommates, but soon realizes that she is already quite familiar with her new housing companions. Luca, the street musician, and his friend and owner of the cafe they ate at, Massimo are among the four. And to her surprise, Al, the truck driver who gave her a lift into town, is one too, and he brought with him her valuables. Just when things were looking up, the last roommate, Cele, shows up, and it turns out he was the rude man that labeled Charlotte a "boring tourist" earlier. But even then, when Cele finds out she is a student and not a tourist, and he will have a new, female roommate(much better than the sloppy, Canadian male roommate they had previously), he apologizes and Charlotte warms up to him. And with that, we follow the daily lives of the four roommates, and the many exchange students that come to occupy "the fifth room".

I think this book had a lot of potential. It had a great setup with fish out of water Charlotte living in a new country and rooming with a strange group of guys. That concept laid out in the first chapter had promise, but we never get to see that play out. Instead of that, we get a series of vignettes that show a new occupant of the fifth room each time, and we never really get to know any of them enough to care. Charlotte still sticks around after she moves out, but the year she lived their happens off screen and we never get to know her either. She becomes a side character of sorts, no more developed than the four roommates, instead of the budding main character that she could have been if this book had more focus and ambition to be more than just a overly mild slice-of-life.

Don't get me wrong. I love slice-of-life stories. It's probably my favorite genre. But the slice-of-life stories that I think are good develop the characters in a natural way, and have a good blend of comedy and drama that you would find is real life situations. The most developed character in this book would be Al, and even then, we still hardly got to know him. Al is a truck driver who is always sleeping when he isn't working. When Charlotte finds out that Al avoids a particular town to he doesn't run into his ex-wife, she tricks him into accompanying her their, so that she can get him to talk out his issues with his ex. Through her meddling though, we come to find out that his reasons aren't as dramatic as they seem. Al mutually split with his ex because he wanted kids and she didn't. Then he comes to find that she ended up having a child with her next husband. Needless to say, Al is quite bummed out about this, but in the end, it never really turns out to be that big of a deal. And that's about as deep as we get into exploring characters and their backgrounds.

Because of the lack of character exploration, this book ends up being a story full of side characters, with no real main character or focus. Even then, I could see a story like that working if the characters did or talked about anything interesting. The very peak of drama is when the owner of the apartment, Massimo, decides to get married when he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant. With this development, we find out our less than dynamic group has to go their separate ways. Accustomed to having this group of quirky roommates that he kindles friendships with(but we never get to see), Massimo gets a little depressed. But after discussing it over dinner, he realizes this isn't the end of their friendships and that he can continue to see them whenever he wants. That's it. That's the climax of the story. Now, I wasn't expected some exciting soap opera out of a Natsume Ono style slice-of-life story, but to be honest, this was kind of boring.

One of the aspects of this book that I could appreciate was the art. Natsume Ono has at least two very distinct styles of art. One is more refined, less odd, but still distinct from anything you will see in mainstream manga, and it is used in 'Ristorante Paradiso' and 'House of Five Leaves'. The other still has Natsume Ono's signature look, but it is more deformed and simple, and I think would look quite weird to a casual manga reader. This style is used in 'not simple' and this book, 'La Quinta Camera'. I find myself at a loss for words to describe the style, but this is because I am an incompetent writer, not because it is indescribably odd. Again, I'm trying not to fall back on my go-to-word for weird art, "cartoony", but for lack of a better word, that's kind of what it is. It's unrealistic, has asymmetrical lines, and characters are often drawn purposely inconsistent from different angles. I personally love this art style. It's different, and for me, different is good. It's a change. Too often in manga, the art styles are so generic. Reading a manga like this with weird art helps to relieve that "samey" feeling I get from reading a lot of popular manga. That's not to say that is the only reason I like the art. It is genuinely aesthetically pleasing to me. But I'd be willing to bet that casual readers would be turned off by it. And that's okay, but I urge you to take a second to get over your shock of how different it is from the usual, and try to see if you can enjoy something a little more atypical.

With the lack of engaging characters, interesting interaction, compelling drama, or really any one element that will grab you, I can't say I really recommend this book. It's not that it is offensively bad. It's just so mediocre. Especially compared to Natsume Ono's other works, like 'Ristorante Paradiso'. I certainly wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to Natsume Ono's work. To people that are already fans of Natsume Ono, it wouldn't hurt to pick this one up from the library. I'm personally such a fan, that I want to read her whole catalog, good and bad, and I don't regret reading this book.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

Published in English by Last Gasp, 'Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms' by Fumiyo Kouno, had quite the impact on me for such a short book. At only 104 pages, it tells the story of two generations that had to deal with the lingering effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The first part of the story follows a young woman named Minami as she goes through her daily life in Hiroshima, ten years after surviving the bombing. Plagued with survivors guilt and images of that terrible day, Minami often wonders why she survived, and so many others didn't. She also wonders if she is even deserving of love and happiness, to the point that she actually rejects a potential love interest. And even when she finally realizes that it is okay for her to enjoy life, the aftermath of the awful bomb won't ever end...

The second part of this story jumps ahead thirty-two years, and deals with Minami's niece, Nanami, as she encounters the still lingering aftermath of the bombing. In 1987 Tokyo, young Nanami goes to school, plays on the baseball team, talks of future dreams with friend, Toko Tone, and at first glance, is seemingly rid of the aftereffects of the bombing that the previous generation had to deal with. Though with her brother and grandmother in and out of the hospital, one can't help but to think the bomb is to blame for their health problems. Jumping ahead again 17 years later, Nanami is a working woman, long separated from her childhood friend Toko, because they had to move closer to a hospital for her brother's health. Though her brother is now perfectly healthy, and a doctor in training. Nanami notices that her father has been acting strange lately, and decided to follow him on one of his "walks". Running into Toko Tone, who is now a nurse at the same hospital that her brother is training at, together they continue to follow Nanami's father, all the way to Hiroshima. On this trip, Nanami comes to learn of and remember things that bring the impact of the bombing to the forefront of her life, even fifty years after the fact. Mainly, the discrimination of atomic bomb survivors and their children.

This story, while short, was packed with thought provoking material. Most noticeable is the strong anti-war and anti-nuclear weapon message. Though the way this is conveyed is not in your face or preachy. It's more of a secondary effect of seeing the horrible impact the bomb had through a slice-of-life type story. The most striking part of this story for me was the issue of discrimination of bomb survivors and their children. They are called "Hibakusha", which means "explosion-affected people". People incorrectly believed that the radiation sickness due to the bombing was hereditary and contagious. Because of this false way of thinking, Hibakusha and their children have been treated terribly. Refused jobs and outcast from society by their fellow countrymen, they had to endure this unjust treatment on top of the physical effects of the bomb. It's just too much. I can't imagine how it must have felt. This issue with "Hibakusha" is something I didn't know about until reading this book, and while saddened at how low humanity can go, I'm glad to have learned of this. From the afterward by author, Fumiyo Kouno, I gathered that even within her own country, people outside Nagasaki and Hiroshima didn't truly know about the ravages of the bombings and that it is a "subject best avoided". To me, this books shows that it is important to learn of this "terrible tragedy from the past", never forget it, but still be able to move on. In that way, this saddening story with quite tragic subject matter, also educates and we are left with a positive message that gives us strength and hope.

I found the art work in this book to be very well done. While simple in style, it is very beautiful and detailed. The haunting images of the direct bombing aftermath are done in a non-graphic way, that still carries great impact. Backgrounds are full of intricate line work that compliments the characters in the forefront, never distracting from them. Because of my lack of vocabulary, my go to word for art styles that aren't realistic is "cartoony". I don't really think that does this art justice though. Luckily, you don't have to rely on my failure to describe the art to you. You can check out a free preview over at JManga to judge the art for yourself, while getting a small taste of the story at the same time.

This is a book that I feel very comfortable recommending. I would go as far as to say that this isn't only required manga reading, but required comic reading. Being so short, and carrying with it universal emotions and messages, I could see this book being very easily accepted by a non-manga reader. Have a box of tissues at the ready though, because I think this story will invoke some tears from even the hardest of hearts.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


In today's review, I will be taking a look at 'Emma'. No, not Jane Austen's 'Emma. Mori Kaoru's 'Emma'. A manga, completely unrelated to the classic, English novel. Set in Victoria-era England, 'Emma' tells the story of a down and out young girl, picked from the hard London streets by a compassionate governess, and raised to be a capable British maid. Title character, Emma, soon has a fated meeting with wealthy young man named William, and it was love at first sight for the both of them. Unfortunately, the entity that is "true love", didn't get the memo that relationships outside of your social class are forbidden in the strict, English society.

Mori Kaoru is a fantastic artist. The level of detail that goes into her work is staggering. The architecture. The clothing. The furniture. All meticulously penned to recreate the atmosphere of late nineteenth century London. And what a job she did. You almost feel like you are a noble yourself, living in a mansion, going to society balls dressed in the finest clothes, and riding in your horse drawn carriage through the London streets. All of this works in conjunction to bring to us a slice of 1890's London life. And that's not even getting to the character art yet. The characters carry the story with their expressiveness. Their meaningful body language and emotional facial expressions(especially the eyes), pull as much weight in telling the story as the words do. The art is truly "one" with the written narrative.

I think my favorite part of this series were the chapters where Emma moves to the country and gets a job as a maid at a large mansion, so unlike her previous maid job. Learning the ropes of her new, upscale maid job and meeting the colorful cast that make up the servant staff. These chapters were the epitome of "slice-of-life". Daily life stuff with minimal melodrama. A realistic window into the life of a late 19th century English maid. Why these seemingly mundane daily life stories are so interesting to me and other slice-of-life fans, I honestly can't pinpoint. Perhaps it is just getting to know these interesting characters in a realistic and natural way. Sometimes slow paced realism is more appealing than over the top melodrama. That stuff may be good for quick and cheap entertainment, but works like 'Emma', that you take in slowly and savor the details. They're memorable and lasting.

One of the more dramatic aspects to the story, and the strongest theme, is the conflict of social status and it's effect on the relationships. The treatment of Eleanor by her fiance, William, is certainly cruel, but matters of the heart are a complicated beast. Add to that the interference of family, the class system, and the pressures of society life, and you have a recipe for disaster that can't completely be blamed on William. Though William and Emma are in love, their relationship is just not in the stars, and every fiber of proper, English society is out to sabotage their feelings. It's interesting that Richard Jones, William's father, is so dead set against William marrying outside his class. When he first entered society, he was the victim of prejudice from the old aristocracy because he was "new money". You would think he would be sympathetic toward William. At the same time though, it's understandable that he wouldn't want his son to go through the same thing he went through. As well as the fact that he worked very hard to eventually be accepted in society, and William having a relationship with Emma could jeopardize all that. While all this talk of social prejudice can get pretty depressing, there is a glimmer of hope there. Both Emma and William know all too well the forbidding rules of social class that are against them, but no matter how hard they tried, they could not ignore their love for each other. I find that both realistic, and fantastically romantic at the same time.

This is a very balanced story. The romance and drama aren't overbearing. At the same time, there are points in the story that take the drama to the highest, realistic level of entertaining, without turning into a soap opera. The strong, slice-of-life element was the main appeal for me, but there is enough plot progression to keep non fans of the genre interested. I think fans of slice-of-life and romantic drama alike can find great enjoyment in this series. It's certainly one of my all time favorite, and I recommend it highly. That being said; Good luck buying it for a reasonable price. You see, North American publisher of this series, CMX, is now defunct, and 'Emma' is now long out of print. Even used copies are going for exorbitant prices online. If possible, it would be well worth it to check your local library to see if this series is available. I'm personally hoping that Yen Press, who has seemingly taking a liking to Mori Koaru's work since they release 'A Bride's Story' in stunning hardcover, will save 'Emma' from out of print limbo and give it the same hardcover treatment.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Anime Review: Nodame Cantabile Season 1

I had so much fun writing that last anime review, that here I am writing another one, but this time for an anime series. The series that this review will be focusing on is 'Nodame Cantabile', adapted from the manga of the same name by Tomoko Ninomiya.

The title character, Megumi "Nodame" Noda, is a 20 year old piano major in her second year at Momogaoka Music Academy. An eccentric young musician, she favors playing by ear, rather than following the sheet music. In the world of classical music, where it is key to strictly stick to the score, her free-spirited musical stylings are deemed clumsy and careless, and she is relegated to the "failure's class". On the other side of the spectrum, we have her third year fellow student, Shinichi Chiaki, who is pretty much the exact opposite of Nodame. An arrogant perfectionist, talented it both piano and violin, he has aims to become a conductor like his childhood mentor, Sebastiano Viera, though being stuck in Japan due to a fear of flying and the ocean, he is prevented from furthering his career and taking the world stage. Also forced into the "failure's class" for telling off his elite piano teacher, this odd couple strikes up an unlikely relationship based on their common passion for music. In season one of 'Nodame Cantabile', we get to follow Chiaki and Nodame's music school lives as they develop their own friendship as well as make others, strive to advance their musical skills, and ponder the future of their musical careers.

My opinion on the animation quality of this show is mixed. While the art is crisp and clean, and the colors vibrant, there is a noticeable lack of motion that hindered my enjoyment throughout the entire season. This issue is most evident during the orchestra scenes. Rather than show us exciting scenes of the whole orchestra working in concert, we get a series of still shots to music. Instead of dynamic performances full of motion, we get feigned animation tricks like panning and strafing. Occasionally, we are treated to a quick close-up of a CG rendered violin being bowed or fingers striking piano keys, but this was not satisfying. During non-musical performance scenes like conversations between characters, the lazy animation is still there, but it is less apparent and not really a bother. For instance, during a conversation between two characters, the common thing to do was to zoom in on their heads and just make their mouths move. Still a bit lazy, but as I said, I am fine with it in these types of scenes. 

Being a series about music, it is no surprise that the soundtrack is fantastic. An orchestra was put together specifically for this show and the live action version, and they recorded classical pieces from the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, as well as many others. Every episode features at least one classical performance, and whether you are a fan of classical music or not, I'm sure you will find the music pleasing to the ear for the most part. The original score background music isn't very memorable and is overshadowed by the classical pieces, but it certainly wasn't bad and did it's job of subtly helping to create the proper atmosphere of each scene.

I thought the English dub voice acting was really well done and along with the great characters, pretty much made this show for me. The cast was very natural sounding. A lot of the time when you have a bad anime dub, it is because the voices don't sound like they would come from those characters, but the voices fit really well, and were all very distinct sounding. The dub also synced up well with the characters mouth movements and actions, helping you forget that you are even watching it in a dub at all. Unrelated to voice dubbing, but on the related topic of making the show viewable by an English speaking audience, there is one problem I have with this production. There was often on screen text that went untranslated. For every classical performance, a text box pops up revealing the title and composer of the piece, but it is left in Japanese, leaving me unable to read it. It would have been nice for them to translate that so I could identify my favorite pieces of music from the show. Also left untranslated were pieces of text meant to enhance gag scenes. You can still enjoy the show without this, but it just seems like such a simple fix that would make me enjoy the show more.

The strongest part of this show is the characters. Specifically, the two mains, Nodame and Chiaki. Both are very likeable and receive their fair share of development. Nodame, being the goofy eccentric, brings most of the comedy and fun to the table. Despite getting less development than Chiaki, she remains the star of the show with her winning personality and as a perfect foil for the serious Chiaki. That's not to say she lacks in the development department. Lacking ambition at first, she really only wants to play music for fun and rebels against the strict nature of the classical genre when pushed. Eventually though, she develops the desire and aspiration to improve on her musical ability so that she can continue to be with the musically impassioned Chiaki. The antithesis to Nodame's personality, Chiaki, at the beginning of the story, is quite arrogant in his ways. His personality flaws aside, I didn't think him unlikeable. This has to do with the way his relationship with Nodame develops. On the outside, it would appear that he dislikes and is annoyed by Nodame, but often finds himself thinking about her and subconsciously enjoys cooking for her. Nodame helps him lighten up throughout the show, which is instrumental in his success as a conductor, helping him to connect with his orchestra players, rather than thoughtlessly bark orders at them, and expect them to understand what he wants.

Although this show does have it's flaws, I loved it from the first episode to the last. The great characters and excellent sense of comedy more than make up for the just passable animation. So you would think that I would recommend this show, right? Wrong. I cannot recommend this show to you. It would be too cruel if you ended up liking it. You see, not until after getting hooked on this show, did I realize that seasons two and three are not available for English speaking viewers. A little lazy research revealed to me that season one was dubbed specifically for the satellite anime channel, Animax and their Southeast Asian viewers, and was never intended for a DVD release. I only came about the first season through the Sony-owned(Sony is an Animax shareholder), video streaming service, Crackle. So with seasons two and three not available, and the North American manga release being canceled at volume 16, there is no way for me, or other English speaking viewers to get the whole story. So, yeah...Despite loving it, I'm kind of out of luck, and I don't want you to feel that way too. The first season does have a satisfying ending, but knowing there is more and not being able to access it is truly disappointing. So unless you speak Japanese and can access the Japanese language DVDs or manga books, or you don't mind not being able to complete the story, I sadly can't recommend this awesome series to you. If you do decide to risk disappointment and frustration at not being able to finish, you can watch season one for free on Crackle.