Monday, July 30, 2012


When Vertical, Inc. first announced that they would print Moyoco Anno's 'Sakuran' in English, I didn't think anything of it. I had skimmed her other series, 'Sugar Sugar Rune', at the library, and it didn't seem like my thing and the premise of 'Sakuran' didn't grab my attention either. It wasn't until I saw an extended preview of 'Sakuran' that I was immediately sold on the art alone. Now, after reading and getting the whole picture, I can't say I've exactly become a die hard fan of Moyoco Anno or 'Sakuran'.

Kiyoha is a a young woman working in the pleasure quarters in 1800's Japan, but she wasn't always one of the top courtesans like she is now. Parents drowned in a river and sold into a brothel, stubborn and feisty Kiyoha made the transformation from maid in training Tomeki, to courtesans apprentice O-Rin, and all the way up to Oiren Kiyoha. This unlikely and unwanted success didn't come easy. Beatings, dead friends, and lost lovers stained her path through life that she was given no choice in taking. 'Sakuran' explores that sad life of courtesans that is stealthily hidden from the clientele behind fancy makeup, luxurious kimonos, and fake smiles.

This manga kind of reads like a lesson in how the Japanese courtesan world works, and at the same time, acts as a coming of age story for Tomeki/O-Rin/Kiyoha. It's interesting that the women get a new name for each stage of their life at the brothel. From maid to apprentice to courtesan. Getting a new name really fits with their way of life, seeing as how different each stage is. They almost get a new identity. Though Kiyoha never lost her unique and independent personality. For that, I am glad, because it is that personality that was the main appeal of this manga for me. Growing up in a time period and profession that favors obedient and submissive women, Kiyoha more than goes against the grain in regard to what is expected of her. She's loud, rude, ill-tempered, ill-mannered and causes a bit of trouble wherever she goes. Seeing how she applies her rebel attitude to various situations to get through this sad, unwanted life was my sole source of entertainment while reading this book. And her very dynamic reactions and facial expressions communicate just as much information as the dialogue and partially make up for how boring that dialogue could be.

I liked Kiyoha as a character, but there were two times when I thought this character could have been better utilized. One was when all of a sudden, after a seemingly short time-skip, she is friends with a fellow apprentice courtesan. We hardly get any interaction between the two, the friend dies, and I have no time to care. This is a missed opportunity in my opinion. I would have liked to see that friendship develop, but all we get is another harsh lesson in the life of a Japanese whore. Another instance that I thought was a missed opportunity was when Kiyoha is suddenly in love with a man who she only met twice. The first time she served him sake and brushed his hand with hers. The second time, he told her his name and bit her nipple. True love I tell you! Anyway, jokes aside, I would have liked to see this and other relationships develop more. Everyone in this manga is kind of cold and living in a harsh reality. No one really being friends with each other. I think that's why I found the dialogue so drab.

This manga has one feature that will really get it's hooks in you, and that's the art. Specifically, the colored art interspersed throughout the book. The color pages are stunning. The last manga color pages that I can remember staring at for this long was probably Vagabond, which probably has my favorite art in manga, so this is about the highest compliment I can give to Moyoco Anno's art. Though while the regular, black and white art is more than satisfactory, it is unremarkable compared to the color pages. The style is the same, but it isn't as flawlessly neat or detailed as the color work, which is fine. Like I said, it is more than satisfactory. I just couldn't help but to notice the difference in quality. Also, there were a few times when I got characters mixed up because some of the girls look too much a like. With all the courtesans having practically the same hair style, and very similar eyes and lips, their differently designed kimonos are their most distinguishing feature. I was only momentarily confused just a few times, but even so, this is one of my biggest peeves of manga art. I recommend heading over to Comics Alliance where they share a 15 page, exclusive preview of 'Sakuran', so that you can sample the art for yourself.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. I heard nothing but good things about it prior to reading it myself, and I was sold on the art alone. It didn't quite live up to my expectations though. I enjoyed the great art and the interesting main character, but this story was bogged down by mostly boring dialogue. While I definitely don't think my reading this book was a complete waste, to be perfectly honest, it's just not good enough for me recommend you spend $17 for a single volume story. Instead, take that $17 and go get a volume of 'Ooku:The Inner Chambers' or 'Vagabond' if you are looking for some Japanese historical manga.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Zatch Bell! vol. 1-25

I heard of Makoto Raiku after discovering his newest series, 'Animal Land', which is one of my new favorites. Needless to say, I wanted to check out his past series, 'Zatch Bell!'. I saw some of the 'Zatch Bell!' anime years ago on tv, and kind of dismissed it. After reading the manga, I admit, I underestimated this series a bit, but I still have some problems with it.

Kiyo Takamine is a not so ordinary boy, alienated by his genius with no friends to speak of. One day out of the blue, a wild looking, blonde haired little boy crashed through his window with a magical, red book in tow and changed Kiyo's life forever. Sent to Kiyo by his father, the blonde-haired little boy named Zatch Bell has promised to do everything in his power to help Kiyo make some friends and put him back on the right path in life. Little did Kiyo know, that Zatch would drag him into a grueling tournament that happens every one thousand years amongst the mamado in order to crown the next Mamodo King. Together, Zatch and Kiyo encounter friend and foe alike on their path to make Zatch a "kind king".

This series felt pretty generic to me until around volume 10. The first 9 volumes had their moments, but before volume 10, it felt like a glorified Pokemon. The only thing that kept it above the level of Pokemon was that most of the mamodo could talk and had personalities. Then the personalities of a select few started to get fleshed out, and I started to enjoy things more. On top of that, around volume 11, hints were being dropped that the situation was more than just some tournament to be Mamodo King. Around volume 12, the first, focused story arc started to take place. Before that, it was kind of just random battles and comedic chapters. Even though a traditional manga arc was what I was waiting for, this didn't really add a whole lot to my enjoyment. It was kind of just the same thing, except a sub tournament. A distraction from the main Mamodo King battle. Then around volume 20, the story started to come into it's own, but by that time, I was suffering from "fight fatigue". There was just too much repetitive fighting. Thankfully, Zatch and Kiyo teaming up with their group of friends to take down bad guys kind of made me forget about the tired concept of the Mamodo King tournament that had been prevalent for most of the series. Unfortunately, the later volumes were quite serious in tone, so that great comedy that I loved so much didn't show it's face as often. So the series kind of traded in it's comedy for a more compelling story, and because of that, my enjoyment largely stayed the same throughout.

I feel like there are a lot of moments that are supposed to be emotional, that just didn't have that kind of impact on me. This is hugely annoying for me, because emotional impact is at the very top of my criteria for good manga. Getting an emotional reaction out of me is a sure way to make it on to my favorite manga list. 'Zatch Bell!' didn't do a lot for me in that category though. And it's a shame because there were so many scenes that I could tell were suppose to be emotional, but just didn't hit their mark. Tears run like rivers in this manga. And I thought that maybe that was the problem. Over use of crying and what not may have desensitized me. But then I remembered that there were attempted emotional scenes right from the very beginning. There was one moment that got a slight twinge of an emotional reaction from me. A certain mamodo got his book burned protecting his human partner and got sent back to the mamodo world. That scene was pretty well done. And another time when a certain book owner seemingly died, but this moment was kind of ruined because it was so short lived and featured the only instance of ill-timed humor. But with all the crying and friendship speeches in this manga, I would expect to be moved a whole lot more, and I just wasn't.

For me, this series' greatest strength was it's comedy and fantastic comedic timing. Even in a seemingly serious situation, a well placed face fault can lighten things up without breaking the tension. It feels weird saying this is one of the funniest mangas that I have ever read, because comedy is hardly the main focus compared to the action, but it really had me laughing a lot. The thing is, most of the comedy is just juvenile slap-stick and funny faces. It's extremely effective though, and to be honest, I don't remember the last manga that made me literally laugh out loud as much as 'Zatch Bell!' did. The comedy was probably this manga's saving grace for me.

As I mentioned before, at times the fights felt like glorified Pokemon battles, and at others, they were surprisingly creative and strategic. Though for a manga with tons of fights, very few of them stood out as epic clashes. The fighting, while being this story's main aspect, was oddly enough not my favorite part of the series. And maybe that's why it wasn't my favorite part. It was saturated with fights, putting quantity over quality. Sometimes the fights were kind of tedious to read through, and I just wanted to get back to the strong, comedic side of the story. The outcome of fights are determined by spirit and determination just as often as they are by strategy. Which is fine. I'm used to that in shonen fighting manga. But with the mamodo's powers limited only by the author's imagination, there was wasted potential. Some of the mamodo abilities are fun and unique, but what we end up seeing most often is a shield spell, an upgraded shield spell, a projectile and an upgraded projectile. The main character duo pretty much always uses a combination of these, along with some occasional strategy. It kind of gets monotonous after a while. I'd have to say my favorite fights are when there are team battles. That added variable almost always increases the use of creative strategy, which is fun to watch, even if the abilities are the generic shield and projectile spells. The only other time the fights were especially exciting was when a mamodo learned a new spell, and even then, it was more because learning a new spell goes hand in hand with character growth, rather than the spell looking cool.

It's interesting when Kiyo and Zatch run into a new mamodo and book owner. You never know if they are going to be good guys or bad guys, and even when they are good guys, that doesn't mean there won't be a fight. I think one of my favorite aspects of this series is how Kiyo and Zatch make new friends and allies. Though I think that is partly because whenever they meet a new mamodo, I sigh at the prospect of yet another fight, and when they end up being friendly, I am relieved. But I am also a sucker for the strong friendship themes in shonen manga. That theme present sets of a chain reaction of loyalty and determination. I never get tired of that stuff and I think that is why I still read manga meant for kids when I am in my mid 20's.

Something I found particularly interesting about this series was the dynamic relationships between the mamodos and their book owners. The relationships between book owner and mamodo are diverse and complex. Some human book owners only use and take advantage of their mamodo for the sake of power, and some mamodo even take advantage of their human partner. But on the other side of things, some of the pairs have great relationships. Most of them are just friends(which is saying something within the context of the story, mamodo not regarded as people and all), treating each other as equals, but one pair had a father/son relationship and another pair even had a romantic relationship.

I'm still not sure how I feel about Kiyo as a character. He's not a bad character, but as a main character, he's not that great either. At first, he is kind of a jerk who is secluded because of his genius. After meeting Zatch, who helps him gain friends, Kiyo changes drastically into a more typical, friendly, shonen main character. This Kiyo is likeable, but I think it would have been better writing to have him change gradually and more naturally throughout the course of the series. The nice thing about this story is that Zatch and Kiyo are so joined at the hip, it's almost like they are one character. Without Zatch, Kiyo is unremarkable, but together, they are fun and interesting to watch and follow. The same thing goes for most of the other human/mamodo partnerships, and part of me thinks this was done on purpose.

I told myself after my last review when I failed to properly describe the art that I would just stop trying to do so altogether, but it'd be a shame for me to not at least mention all the wonderful character designs in this manga. The humans don't so much fit the bill aside from the select few, but the mamodo designs are incredibly imaginative for the most part. And there are so, so many of them. On top of that, they are as diverse as they are many. They range from gargantuan dragon-esque creatures to cute, little monkey-rabbits. Some look like normal children with funny outfits, and then others resemble miniature, fighting robots. I believe I've mentioned in past reviews that I am a sucker for kooky character designs, and 'Zatch Bell!' didn't fail to satisfy that need in me. 

Maybe I'm just a little too old for what is almost purely a fighting manga. I personally think Makoto Raiku's latest work, 'Animal Land', is a large step above 'Zatch Bell!'. That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading it. There were ample laughs, imaginative character designs, and all the shonen, feel-good tropes my heart could desire. I just grew weary of the non-stop, repetitive battles. Since Viz only printed up to volume 25 for whatever reason, there is eight more volumes of story left, and to be honest, I'm not too broken up about not being able to finish. I can kind of guess how things are going to play out anyway, and I doubt anything groundbreaking will occur in the last 8 volumes if it didn't in the first 25. But, you know what? I'm glad I read this manga if only for how funny it was. Sure, it has lots of faults, but there was a lot of entertainment to be had.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Superhero Invasion part II: 52

Continuing my journey as a newbie trying to get into the world of superhero comics, I take a look at the DC Comics limited series '52'. A direct follow up to 'Infinite Crisis', '52' is made of of 52 issues, published weekly for one year. After the cataclysmic events of 'Infinite Crisis', the "Big 3" of superheros, Batman, Wonderwoman, and Superman, go missing. In the absence of these most prolific superhero leaders, it is up to some lesser known heroes to fill their void and keep the peace.

The structure of this series is easy to understand, and a far cry from the chaotic and confusing Infinite Crisis. Instead of a bungled mess of P.O.V.'s that jump all over the place, each issue or "week" has much more focus and a clear point of view. It's interesting that DC deviated from the usual, monthly serialization for this year long weekly serialization. Chapters are labeled as "weeks" and though it is lost on new readers, the initial serialization played out in real time. While not necessary, knowledge of the events in Infinite Crisis may help to understand some things going on. Fortunately, Infinite Crisis is well summarized at the beginning of the series.

This series features and is told from the point of view of some lesser known characters. I wouldn't say it did a great job at introducing these characters to new readers though. But as you follow their stories, you do get to know them more and more. Batman, Superman, and Wonderwoman are missing, and this is a good thing in my opinion. Even as a new comic book reader, I think these characters are played out(maybe not so much Wonderwoman). Batman and Superman are both iconic enough to have reached the mainstream. Even non-comicbook readers know of them. It also doesn't help that Superman is kind of overpowered. With them gone, this leaves a lot of room for lesser known characters to shine, and they really did in this book.

The characters were this series strong point in my opinion. One of my favorite characters was Booster Gold. Being from the 25th century, it's no surprise that his plot line is heavy with time travel, and I'm kind of a sucker for time travel stories, though not many of them are good in my opinion. They can get really messy and confusing fast. Paradoxes and what not. Though this is one of the better ones I have come across and it launched Booster Gold to the top of my favorite characters list. It really had some good twists that I wasn't expecting. 

Another main character that I really liked was Renee Montoya. She probably the most human and relatable character and her developing relationship with Charles Victor Ssasz was a highlight of the series.

While not my favorite characters because their story line felt detached from the rest. I really liked the group dynamic of Starfire, Animal Man, and Adam Strange. They didn't always get along, but through thick and thin, they fought their way through space trying to get back home. It also didn't hurt that they teamed up with Lobo, a crazy, space bounty hunter turned archbishop of the Three Fish God, who has a pet space dolphin. He added a good amount of unpredictable fun to the mix.

One of the most prominent and dynamic characters featured is Black Adam. As I understand it, Black Adam used to be a recurring, super villain antagonist to the Marvel Family, but in this incarnation of the character, he is depicted as a man on the path of redemption. After falling in love with Isis, she has a great influence on him and he starts to change for the better. He probably has the most profound and obvious character development in this series. And though he has changed a lot, he is no goody-two-shoes. He's a pretty brutal guy. The opposite of the sometimes corny Captain Marvel, even when he is trying to do good. For that reason, I kind of took a liking to him.

Probably the one character that I didn't care too much for was John Henry Irons AKA "Steel". The whole time I just couldn't help but think of the bad Shaquille O'Neil movie based on the character. Really though, it's mostly because I wasn't very interested in his plot line. The main part of his story is kind of cliche and is bogged down by his annoying niece, but despite that, Steel does turn out to be kind of badass. 

Like I said in my first Superhero Invasion post, the generic comic book art is starting to wear on me. The colors dull details and it lacks emotion. When certain characters died, I didn't feel anything for them, and I think the art is to blame, because I actually liked those characters, but the art didn't convey the emotion of those scenes well at all. The art is never stunning and it doesn't contribute to the appeal. It's just there, and it works to tell the story, but it leaves me wanting more. The special features of the collected editions include the original pencil drawn and inked pages. While I understand that the single toned inked pages would be hard on the eyes to tell what is going on, these pages illustrate just how much detail coloring takes away. No offense to the colorists, but I kind of feel like they ruin the art. Also, several different artists work together to complete this comic. That includes several different pencilers, inkers, and colorists all taking turns doing the same characters. Most of the time, the difference in the art is barely distinguishable and not a bother, but sometimes, the same characters are drawn so different than they were earlier in the comic, that it takes a second to even realize who they are. It's kind of annoying. Quality and style inconsistency is something that I am not getting used to.

As I mentioned, after each weekly issue, there is an extra feature section with concept art and creator commentary. I especially appreciated the creator commentary. Sometimes it really helps to understand a work when the writer straight up explains them to you. This helped quell a lot of the confusion I had as a new reader. The commentary also gives insight into the industry and comic making process. We learn interesting stuff like last minute editorial changes and easter eggs are pointed out. For me, these extra features really increased my enjoyment of this comic.

The story started to get a little crazy toward the end. From my few experiences with these DC crossover events, the writers seem to let their imagination get away from them. Fortunately, they kept things pretty reigned in for the most part. '52' was a whole lot of fun for me to read. Where 'Final Crisis' kind of pushed me away from superhero comics, '52' pulled me right back in.  As far as superhero comics go, this is the best I've read so far, and I highly recommend it to new and old comic readers alike.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Attack on Titan vol. 1

Like many, I first heard of 'Attack on Titan' by Hajime Isayama, well before it got licensed in English by Kodansha USA. Noticing it's impressive sales on the Japanese comic rankings and a Manga Taisho Award nomination, it was impossible for me as a manga fan to not be at least a little curious. So I went out and picked myself up a copy. I can't yet tell if this is going to be as big a hit in America as it is in Japan, but I know after reading volume one, I want to see where this new series is going.

The entire human race has lived in peace for a hundred years, hiding behind a series of towering walls. These walls serve to keep the enemy at bay. The enemy being a never ending swarm of titans, hell bent on devouring all of humanity. Then, out of the blue, a colossal titan appeared, smashing a hole in the wall for the lesser titans to get through before mysteriously vanishing. It was this fateful day that spurred Eren Yeager to become an elite, titan killing soldier to take back human territory and accomplish his dreams of a life beyond the wall.

The first thing I noticed about this book was the art. It emits a dark mood that quite fits with the story. Characters' faces display very appropriate fear well. Though it does seem like it needs a little refining. Human character designs don't particularly stand out, which isn't great for remembering who is who. On the other hand, the titan character designs are pretty cool and very scary looking. When they are devouring humans, they remind me of a medieval painting symbolizing gluttony or something like that. The colossal titan looks especially menacing. He looks like a giant, skinless Bigfoot with too many undersized teeth that bellows a cloud of dark smoke. It's quite the sight and because of these well done designs, the terror the characters show is believable and justified.

Aside from the two mains, Eren and Mikasa, the characters aren't particularly memorable. And even they haven't reached the level of "likeable" for me yet, which is a must have for me. I mean, Mikasa is kind of cool and bad-ass, but she is very cold and stoic. Eren kind of feels like the author wasn't quite sure if he wanted to make him a typical, shonen hero or not. He has determination and dreams of going outside the wall and is a little hot-headed, but his personality still came across as kind of plain and he didn't make an impact in that regard. I need to care about the characters I will be following throughout a story. Usually that gets taken care of within the first volume for me, not so with 'Attack on Titan'. I'm willing to give it a few volume though.

If the characters didn't come on strong, the story build up did. I'd call this a strong set-up volume that gave good detail into how this society works and what's going on. Since this story seemingly takes place in a brand new, fictional world not based in our reality, I'd say there was pretty good world building for one volume's worth of content. Also, a cool and unique combat system called "Three Dimensional Maneuvers" is detailed. Humans wear these harnesses and fly around with grappling hooks trying to take slices out of titans with these swords that resemble giant razorblades. There is also a slight sense of mystery that definitely got it's hooks in me. What is the origin of the titans, I wonder? And a brief flash back into Eren's past puts great suspicion on his missing father. Not to mention, we have only got a taste of what life is like inside the wall. There's a whole world out there to see. I'll be looking forward to more of these aspects in future volumes.

I have one, tiny gripe about the production quality. I am almost obsessively careful about not bending the spines of my manga books, but even with how careful I am, the spine bent very easily. I didn't even open the book all the way. It's like the cover is too thin and they didn't use enough glue in the binding. It doesn't help that there is no margin where nothing is printed. To see the art in it's entirety, you almost have to bend the spine, and I'd imagine most people aren't like me, and will do so. Needless to say, I'm going to be very careful with my copy as to not have it fall apart on me. However, it is reassuring that my 'Animal Land' books, which are also printed by Kodansha USA, do not have this durability problem. So hopefully this was just a bad batch and future volumes will be better.

I'm convinced to keep following this dark, new shonen and pick up volume two when it comes out. Are you? Not even decided on volume one yet? Well then, maybe this exclusive preview over at MTV Geek will help you out.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Animal Land vol. 5

When we last left off in volume 4, Taroza and his village of friendly herbivores were face to face with a new human named "Jyu", and Jyu had something in his possession that struck fear into their very hearts. Fire. Fire that can turn a lush forest into an ashen wasteland and kill all the animals within. Taroza has never encountered fire before and is rendered helpless to Jyu's seemingly evil plans to disrupt the peace Taroza has created and revert the animal kingdom back to it's natural state of survival of the fittest. With all of the village's fields and homes burned to a crisp, and some animals renouncing Taroza's peaceful ways, we seem to have a possible antagonist on our hands with Jyu, or so I thought...

After almost giving up his cause himself, Taroza decides with Monoko's help that he was not wrong in his quest for peace and friendship among all animals. Determined to rebuild, Taraza rallies the remaining animals that are still true to his cause. Along the way, some interesting new concepts are introduced. Though Jyu's fire instilled fear into Taroza and the other animals, it also inadvertently introduced them to cooking. They found that the crops that were not destroyed by the fire, such as yams and cabbage, were enhanced with new flavors from the cooking. This reinvigorated Taroza's dream of finding a meat substitute for carnivores. Another new concept that Taroza invented is the use of numbers. With numbers, Taroza is able to more precisely explain how many trees need to be cut down for lumber and are even used by the wacky group of llamas to save some lives, albeit in a most hilarious way. Leave it to the llamas to bring some much welcomes laughs into this volume with a grim start. You've got to love watching Taroza continue to learn and grow, and watching him make use of fire, cooking and numbers is kind of like watching an experiment go down. Everything is new to him and he has no one to teach him this stuff. It's quite interesting to wonder what he will discover next.

Not long after the exit of Jyu, a quest of sorts is triggered partly by the need to find a greater water source to combat the use of fire, and partly by the need to escort a strange new friend back to his mother. This strange new friend is a giraffe named Pinta, and Pinta intrigues Taroza with his tale of the ocean. Taroza isn't the only one intrigued. My interest is also piqued. One of my favorite things about this series is all the weird and imaginative animal designs. Bringing an ocean ecosystem into the mix has the potential to be very awesome indeed. I personally can't wait to see sharks and whales wearing funny outfits and conversing with Taroza. I have a feeling Makoto Raiku will have lots of fun with this. Hopefully we will get a taste of the ocean setting in volume six.

On their journey to the ocean and to return Pinta to his mother, Taroza and gang encounter a fierce, new species. Hyenas. At first, the encounter turns into a battle between Taroza's group and the hyenas, but Taroza quickly defuses the situation with his invaluable skill of talking to all animal species. They soon come to learn that the hyenas are under constant attack from a group of horses, who being herbivores is quite strange. But why? Why are the normally peaceful horses assaulting the carnivorous hyenas. In the midst of the hostilities, we come to learn of yet another human, named "Giller". Giller purposely tricked the horses into waging war with the hyenas, for an unknown purpose. As I said, I at first thought that Jyu was going to be the first, real villain, but after seeing a sample of Giller's work, Jyu doesn't seem so bad. Where Jyu just wants to seemingly restore the natural ways of the animal kingdom(though in a quite violent way), Giller seems to want to spread chaos, discord, and war amongst the animals. The opposite of Taroza's dream of peace. With this introduction of an evil antagonist, the story seems to be taking quite the leap forward.

This volume was fast paced and full of action, comedy and interesting developments. There was an especially big twist there at the end that I won't talk about this time. Needless to say, I'm even more excited to continue reading this story than I was before. I'll be picking up volume six for sure.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Twin Spica vol. 1-7

Ever since Asumi Kamogawa could remember, she has loved looking up at the stars and has always dreamed of getting closer to them. When she was just a baby, Japan's first manned rocket, The Lion, crashed into her home town, taking the lives of many, including her mother. Now fourteen years old and guided by the ghost of The Lion's pilot, Asumi is determined to attend Tokyo Space School to become an astronaut and reach for the stars. Many obstacles lay in wait for her to overcome, including the physically demanding astronaut training, as well as the mental barrier of coming to grips with The Lion disaster. But accompanied by newly made friends and the everlasting beacon that is her dream, Asumi embarks on a remarkable journey of self discovery in 'Twin Spica'.

One thing I could appreciate about 'Twin Spica' was that it had many "layers" or story aspects to enjoy. At it's core, I think it is a coming of age tale. We get to follow this group of characters as they set out into the world and try to accomplish their grand dreams. We also are treated to a school-life story, but with a bit of a twist. this school-life story takes place at an astronaut training school. I personally thought the astronaut training was one of the more entertaining aspects of the story. On top of that, there was a compelling sense of mystery surrounding The Lion rocket disaster and how different characters are connected to it and each other. Whether it was thought provoking dialogue of dreams, entertaining training scenes, or new clues to mysteries, 'Twin Spica' never left me feeling bored with a stagnant story.

I thought the extra chapters at the end of the first few volumes really added to the depth and power of this series. It's interesting because four of the short stories featured at the end of volumes have Asumi as the main character and they act as prequels to the main series. I believe they were actually published before the main series. Now, I'm not sure if they were presented in the Japanese volumes the way they were or if the editors at Vertical Inc. decided on the placement in the American volumes, but either way, for four chapters that came before the main series, they were placed in a way that really compliments their respective books. They act as flashbacks that really fit in where we are at in the story and really served to enhance the books a lot. I've got to say, I kind of enjoyed the flashback chapters more than the main story. They gave a lot of insight on different characters' histories, especially Asumi. They really tied the main story together, and I was a bit disappointed when they stopped being featured at the end of volumes.

'Twin Spica' is a seinen manga that has themes of dreams and friendship that I usually encounter in shonen manga, but they are delivered in a way that is more solemn and realistic. Rather than shonen concepts like "friendship and determination can solve everything!", this series emphasizes the importance of friendship and how it can help you move forward to success, and make your failures seem not so lonely. In that way, it has a message that is a lot more relatable and lasting than the artificially uplifting and very temporary "friendship is magic" message that is so prevalent in many mainstream shonen series. While not new territory, the concept of following your dreams is a heavily and well done theme in this series, but like the friendship theme, I found the delivery very refreshing. Going to space is the dream of the characters, not their goal. I thought about that way of thinking for a while and contemplated the difference between the two. I think that the difference for the characters is that there dreams don't have an finish line like a goal does. They won't be finished when they get to space and they won't let their dreams die there. For me, this was a thought provoking mind set that seemed a little different than the sometimes more shallow delivery of dreams of shonen heroes(become the best...then what?). 

One thing about this series that I didn't care for was the character, Marika Ukita, who is a friend and classmate to main character Asumi. I didn't care for Marika as a character and didn't care for her sub plot much. She starts out kind of mean and cold, but she warms up a bit and becomes friendlier, though she never really became more likeable to me. And without spoiling, the mystery surrounding her is kind of contrived and it bogged down the story for me. I like a certain level of drama. And we had that in this story with Asumi's relation to the Lion disaster. But with Marika's kind of out of place plot line, it takes the drama level up to a melodramatic level, and that's where it loses me fast. Instead of invoking more emotions from me, I was pushed away and sympathized even less with Marika. The whole time Marika was the focus, I just wanted more attention to be paid to Asumi. Despite all that, Marika arguably has the most amount of character development in these seven volumes. At least in terms of personality change. I can at least recognize and appreciate that much. None of the other main group of characters grew on me much either or got a whole lot of individual focus like Marika and Asumi did, but they had a interesting group dynamic and good dialogue with one and other. Besides, there is five more volumes to flesh out the rest of the group fully and make a greater impression on me.

Right now at this very instance, I am sighing out of frustration. Once again, I am at a loss for words at how exactly to describe the art to you. Oh well. I'll give it a try anyway. First and foremost, the art is quite good. I think I've mentioned this before in past reviews, but one thing that I think is often overlooked by readers is distinction is character designs. Ever read a manga where so many characters look too similar and you stop and wonder, who is who? That can really take you out of the story. 'Twin Spica' doesn't have that problem at all. The character designs are very distinct. The style is very pleasant. Easy on the eyes. It's soft and round with just the right amount of detail to not overwhelm you. For some reason that I can't pinpoint, I find the style kind of reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka's art, but less "cartoony", more modern and more expressive. And wouldn't you know it, my terrible way with words is bailed out once again by the good people at Vertical Inc., and their free preview in which you can judge for yourself whether or not you like the art. I know. I'm such a cheater. But art is so subjective, that even if I described it perfectly, you may completely disagree with me. So give the preview a look see what you think.

This manga had a strong first volume, and the rest of the volumes had their moments, but they never really had the same amount of impact as the first. For me, these first seven volumes of 'Twin Spica' have been a series truly great moments that are separated by just good story. The "just good" majority of the story is damn well good enough, but pale slightly in comparison to the brilliant and beautiful, momentous occasions. A very good read that is not quite great, but could end up being so if the last five volumes pull everything together. Word to the wise: If my review piqued your interest in reading 'Twin Spica', go out and buy now, because the editor at Vertical Inc. has stated that due to low sales, 'Twin Spica' will be going out of print. It's likely that it will be difficult to find and/or expensive in the near future.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ghost in the Shell Marathon: Ghost in the Shell 2.0, Individual Eleven, The Laughing Man, Solid State Society

Ghost in the Shell. Who hasn't heard of this iconic anime and manga franchise? I've of course heard of it, but I've never really got into it besides watching a few random episodes of one of the anime shows on tv. In an attempt to familiarize myself with popular, cyberpunk series, I'm sitting down to check out four of the films/OAVs and giving my quick takes on each.

In 'Ghost in the Shell 2.0', we follow Section 9 cyborg, Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team as they try to track down the evasive and mysterious hacker know as "Puppet Master". With this update of the classic anime film based on Masumune Shirow manga, we get all new animation using modern techniques and 3D-CGI. I personally don't care for mixing CG and traditional animation, but it still looked really good. The story however, suffers from lack of any real antagonist. And while some may find the existential, "what is life" theme that is present, I found it kind of boring and overused. The action was top notch though. Futuristic, cyborg gunfights with crisp, high-motion animation where a real treat to look at. It had a few slow parts, but overall, it was quite entertaining.

This recut of the television series, Stand Alone Complex:2nd Gig, takes all 26 episodes and cuts them down to two and a half hours and edits it together to make one, feature length story. This time around, the Major and Section 9 are out to hunt down a terrorist group, known as the "Individual Eleven". Set amongst a refugee humanitarian crisis, government conspiracies and a nuclear standoff, the Major and Section 9 must do everything they can to avert disaster. I enjoyed this OAV a lot. More so than the original movie, though it did have the advantage of being over an hour longer. It had a lot more to the story and gave the characters more focus. I couldn't say if this story suffered from being distilled down to two and a half hours, or if it benefited from being recut, but I thought it was put together very well. It didn't feel like a clip show recap of the television series. It was very smooth and streamlined. The animation wasn't quite as good as the original, theatrical film, but it was still more than satisfactory.

Just like 'Individual Eleven' this film, 'The Laughing Man', is a recut of the Stand Alone Complex anime series. I probably should have done a little research, because it turns out, 'The Laughing Man' is made up of S.A.C. first season episodes and 'Individual Eleven' from the second season episodes. No worries though. They are both stand alone stories. In 'The Laughing Man', Major Kusanagi and Section 9 are up against a cyber terrorist who is hell bent on laying waste to all the micro machine companies, and anyone who supports them, including the government.  No offense to GITS purists, but I feel like this is what the original movie should/could have been. They actually have a bit in common, including a hacker antagonist, who actually does something in this film, and there is even a key scene that shares great similarity with a major scene in the original. Except I think it is done better in 'The Laughing Man'. Though again, this film has the advantage of being over an hour longer, so I'll cut the original some slack. The ending was kind of confusing and anticlimactic, but if I'm judging this by overall entertainment value, I'd put this above 'GITS 2.0' and 'Individual Eleven'. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Two years after the events of 'Stand Alone Complex', the made for TV movie, 'Solid State Society' kicks off and Major Kusanagi is no longer a part of Section 9. To compensate for their missing ace member, Section 9 has expanded it's ranks and is now taking on more and more cases, though they can never fill the shoes of the Major. This time around, Section 9 is out to stop a new cyber terrorist known as "The Puppeteer", who is such a skilled hacker, that he is forcing people to commit suicide. I found this film to have a distinctly different vibe than the rest of the franchise. It had a greater sense of mystery, and was also a bit creepy. The antagonist being able to control people so easily, making people kill themselves and even abducting children. The Puppeteer is by far the most threatening antagonist of the franchise. In none of the previous films that I watched in this series did I feel such a great sense of suspense, and for that, I think this was my favorite of the bunch.

Well, that was a lot of cyberpunk fun. If I had to make one complain about my experience with this franchise, it's that you never really get to know the characters that well. It always feels like you just jump in and hit the ground running with no time to stop, slow down, and add some characterization. This is especially noticeable for some of the supporting members of Section 9, who seem really cool, but like I said, we never get to know them. For this reason, I wonder if I should have watched the entirety of the anime series instead of these compressed OVA's. I'd wager what I am looking for is exactly what was cut out in order to make them into film length. It also may not hurt to check out the manga, but I'll save that for another blog post. If you want to watch any of these movies, you can stream all four of them for free on

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kimi ni Todoke vol. 1-8

'Kimi ni Todoke' is not my first shoujo manga, though it feels like it is. The only other shoujo manga I have read is Osamu Tezuka's 'Princess Knight', which is so old school, that I don't think it has much in common with modern shoujo. A few years ago when I first started reading manga, I wouldn't give a shoujo manga a second look. My mind was so closed off, that I wouldn't even consider reading so far out of my demographic(me being a man in my mid-twenties). Now, I'm very happy that I've changed my ways and opened up my mind, because I got to read an amazing series like this.

Sawako Kuronuma is a shy and socially awkward girl with long, black hair and sports a grim smile. Because of her spooky and uncanny resemblance to a character from horror film, 'The Ring', and a misunderstanding as a child, she is known by all as her nickname, "Sadako". Sawako is a fifteen year old, high school freshman, with no friends and spends most of her time by herself. That is until one day, popular boy, Shota Kazehaya, strikes up a seemingly unlikely friendship with her. With Kazehaya's help, Sawako slowly starts to open up and make even more friends. She starts having experiences that she had only dreamt of before. In her eyes, all these wonderful things are happening to her because of Kazehaya, and she quickly develops romantic feelings for the first boy that was ever nice to her. But love doesn't come easy to our bashful heroine in this school-life dramedy.

My favorite aspect of this manga is the characters. My favorite being main character, Sawako. Sawako is both infuriatingly insecure and extremely likeable at the same time. Watching her get so much enjoyment and happiness out of something as simple as someone showing her kindness is both incredibly refreshing, and terribly sad. You feel bad for her because of the lonely life she has led, and love her for her innocence and unwavering compassion. It really draws you to her and you want to follow this character. The main appeal of this manga for me was Sawako and seeing her grow as a character. It feels like a real achievement when she makes a new friend or goes to her first party, and you genuinely feel happy for her. The amount of changes she goes through and new experiences she has in such a short amount of time are staggering. It's like she saved up all these life experiences that should have happened throughout her childhood, and had them all in freshman year just for us to see. While still very shy, she is no longer the introverted girl with no friends. It's a bigger leap than it sounds , and it all plays out in this manga. It was kind of exciting to read.

Not everything about this manga is the height of perfection. I do have one, very minor issue with the story that kept bouncing around int he back of my mind as I read. Kazehaya and Sawako both being oblivious to each others' feelings throughout eight volumes is slightly annoying. If this was the real world, Sawako and Kazehaya would end up together after one volume, but most of the time, Sawako's insecurities and timidness prevent them at the last minute from becoming involved romantically. As I read, I thought to myself that if this kept happening, the story would feel artificially dragged out. At the same time though, as I got to know Sawako's character more, these misunderstandings felt natural due to her personality. It wasn't until Kazehaya himself decided to purposely hold back his feelings as to not confuse Sawaka, that I felt a little annoyed about the situation. The last thing you want is for a good story to be artificially extended to the point it starts to hurt it. Thankfully, this story didn't quite get to that level yet, and there were even a few methods used that naturally extended the story in an entertaining way. One such method was introducing a romantic rivals for Sawako and Kazehaya. This pretty much took up an entire volume per romantic rival, and gave us some good dramatic as well as comedic moments that didn't feel out of place in a school life story. Now, I don't mind telling you that as of the end of volume eight, Sawako and Kazehaya still aren't a couple, and as I said, that's okay, because the sometimes unbelievable circumstances keeping them apart haven't quite tested the limits of my patience, and the Sawako/Kazehaya romantic plot line isn't the only thing to enjoy about the story. But, as I understand it, there are currently sixteen published volumes in Japan, and though I don't want to speak too soon, I would say that I would have a problem if they still aren't together after eight more volumes and going through the same old awkward misunderstandings to keep them apart and extend the story.

I'm finding that among all my writing inadequacies, my art critique is the worst. I'm just not finding the words. This time is no different, and being my first, real experience with "shoujo art" isn't helping. Though this is my first, modern shoujo manga that I have read, I have browsed quite a few at the book story and the library, and while I recognize that every artist has their own distinctions in style, I am noticing that their is a certain, generic shoujo style, and I don't think 'Kimi ni Todoke' is an exception to that. Now, how to describe this style? One of the most distinguishable characteristics of this art style is seen through the background effects, such as surrounding a panel/character with sparkles/stars or a floral design. The sparkles might be used to emphasize an especially handsome, male character and the floral design might be used to emphasize an especially beautiful, female character. These effects are something that I haven't really noticed in the seinen and shonen manga I read, so I think they are unique to manga for girls. The character art is done with thin lines, detailed hair, and big eyes. I used to think this art style was unpleasant, but as I read through these volumes, I found myself enjoying it more and more. Now it doesn't look weird or different to me at all. That feeling stood out to me. The art that once seemed so unattractive to me, now just looks normal. I no longer view it as "girly" art just for girls, and I and I can't quite place why. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I was able to change my views and open up to this style of art that is completely new to me. Now, if that didn't help you get an idea of what the art is like, have no fear. You can sample the art for yourself with a free preview courtesy of Viz Manga.

This is a very sweet romance with a strong sense of humor, that despite being geared toward teen girls, I think both men and women of all ages could enjoy it. I'm certainly glad that I gave it a try, because it has now opened me up to an entire demographic that I never really considered before. I don't think I could have picked a more perfect introduction to modern shoujo manga and I highly recommend it.