Friday, December 27, 2013

Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Centaur's Life vol. 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wolfsmund vol. 2


The first volume of 'Wolfsmund' really got my attention with its well done action scenes, formidable antagonist, and brutal retelling of the "William Tell" legend. Volume two, however, was almost completely devoid of the things I enjoyed about the first, or made me tired of those aspects.

At the end of the previous volume, we were introduced to William Tell's son, who I thought was going to be our main protagonist, and I was anticipating seeing more of him. Instead, we go back to the mildly repetitive formula of a duo and their experience crossing the Wolfsmund barrier station. A little different though, but in this case not a good thing, our duo are not two people we hope to see successfully make their crossing, but an extremely unlikeable husband and wife. The husband is a gutless traitor to the rebels who has been ratting out his fellow townsfolk for money, and his wife his money grubbing and selfish. Their story takes up two thirds of the entire book, and I can't say I enjoyed reading about them. And it wasn't even as if it was satisfying seeing them get their comeuppance. All I really felt was indifference, which isn't a good way to end a story arc that takes up more than half of the book.

Interestingly enough, they didn't meet their end at the hands of the evil bailiff, Wolfram. Their fate was sealed by none other than the mysterious female innkeeper, who had a small, but recurring role in the last volume. What I also found interesting about our innkeeper, who we now know as "Grete", is that parallel was drawn between her and Wolfram that I didn't notice last volume. Twice she mentioned how her inn was her "station and battlefield", taking her job just as seriously as Wolfram, and even handing down judgement like him. She was portrayed as a sort of "anti-Wolfram". I was really beginning to be compelled by this character when, SPOILER ALERT, Wolfram catches her and kills her...Yeah, I was kind of annoyed by this. Not only because the only real recurring character was killed off, but because now I grow tired of Wolfram's near omnipotent ability to sniff out rebels. I guess I should have known she was done for when I saw her all chained up on the cover though...

At the very end of the volume, our possible protagonist, Walter Tell, shows up making a dramatic and cliche proclamation to nobody listening that "he's back", making me sort of interested to see what happens in the next volume, but after this volume's poor showing, I'm just not sure. We barely know Walter Tell at all, and now that Grete is dead, there is not a single other member of the rebellion to identify with or care about. Then we have a boringly challenging, one note villain, and all we are really left with is what are basically episodic little stories of the despair Wolfram sows. I can't imagine enjoying the next volume if it continues with the same formula and level of plot progression. The next volume doesn't come out until January, so I have plenty of time to think on it, but as things stand, I'm not very excited for volume three.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular vol. 1


...That title...Kind of a mouth full. From now on, I'm just going to use the shortening of the Japanese title, 'Watamote'. Anyway, I had heard some interesting things about this series prior to buying it. From how painfully awkward it is, to how laugh out loud hilarious it is. After reading volume one, I'd say it's definitely both of those, but I'm not sure it's for me.

Tomoko Kuroki is fifteen years old and about to start her freshman year of high school. More than a little delusional, she quite incorrectly thought she was popular in middle school, and she thinks high school is her chance to take her popularity to the next level. Little did she know that the atmosphere of high school is an entirely different beast, and she hasn't talked to a single classmate in the two months since school started! All her training in dating games is for naught! But she hasn't given up just yet. Socially awkward hilarity ensues as we follow Tomoko in her daily life as an unpopular high school girl.

It's not hard to see that the main appeal of this manga is comedy. You might even call it a "gag manga". And that gag is Tomoko failing over and over again in her attempts to have a social life. The chapters are even labeled as 'Fail 1', 'Fail 2', etc. I did indeed laugh at this gag. Out loud even several times, as well as a few internal giggles. Asking for more laughs out of nine chapters might be a little greedy. So on that front, 'Watamote' did its job very well. At the same time though, I found it kind of sad. Maybe even a little depressing. So yeah, while I did plenty of laughing, I also felt kind of bad for her. She even seemingly non-jokingly said she would kill herself when her brother jokingly told her to drop dead...

Tomoko is a loner(she refers to herself in video game terms as a "solo player"). And there's nothing wrong with being a loner, but you can see that she is lonely. She doesn't want to be alone and goes to great lengths to change that. Along with her dating game "training", she also engages in self prescribed cognitive therapy of sorts. After not talking to people for so long, she makes an effort to talk to her little brother for an hour each day in order to improve her communication skills. I actually find that kind of admirable...though her results are not nearly as good as she believes. At other times, Tomoko can(somewhat understandably) let her jealousy and envy get the better of her, making her quite mean. Internally calling the people she strives to be like "sluts" and "scum". She even claimed that she would give up one year of her life if they would all die in a fire. Of course this is all part of the joke, but if you think about it, this makes her more than a one-note gag character, and at the very least, someone you can sympathize with.

Most of this volume was Tomoko being a "solo player" and getting to see her internal thoughts, but there were a couple of supporting characters for her to interact with. I mentioned before her little brother, who though thinks she is an idiot and nuts, still puts up with her eccentricities and listens to her when she needs to talk. Though more prominently featured is her middle school friend, Yuu, who was once plain and nerdy, but has now blossomed into a real beauty. But to Tomoko's delight, Yuu's personality hasn't changed and she still treats her the same, despite their gap in social status. I guess it's because they attend different high schools, but I kind of wonder why Tomoko doesn't take advantage of the situation and spend more time with the one true friend she has. I also kind of wonder how the interaction between Tomoko and Yuu would go in a group situation. Yuu claimed that her new school is like a constant fashion show, and she had to basically adapt and makeover herself in order to maintain a proper social standing, basically doing what Tomoko couldn't do. So I wonder if Yuu would still treat the dorky Tomoko the same if her "popular" friends were around. But I'm probably getting ahead of myself there.

Even though volume one of 'Watamote' had more than the satisfactory amount of laughs, and even though it introduced a sympathetic main character with potential, I'm still not sure this manga is for me. Besides the borderline depressing comedy stylings, I also feel like to keep that "laugh at her pain" gag going, Tomoko is going to have to keep failing and keep suffering, with little development. I'm not sure how much longer I can watch that. So while volume one was worth the read, I think from now on I'll depend on others' reviews to let me know if this is a series I can handle.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Animal Land vol. 8


It's been a while since I read 'Animal Land'. Seven months and it felt like forever. But now it's back, and the story is stronger than ever. While still very good, I felt like volume seven was a mild lull in comparison to the rest of the series. Turns out, that was just the calm before the storm that is volume eight...

The first chapter in this volume starts out with the most juvenile, lowbrow, arguably unfunny poop joke. On the first page, a tanuki takes a huge dump on another tanuki's face...NOT at all indicative of this chapter(and volume) contents as a whole. Far, far from it. The contrast between this brand of humor and the events that proceed it is staggering. Now, I'm not going to tell you what happens just a few pages later, because it would probably be the biggest spoiler in the manga, but I will tell you how it made me feel. As I read on about this "event", my hands are literally shaking because I can see what is coming and I'm afraid. This has never happened to me before and I had to actively steady my hands so I could read properly. Then, at the climax of the "event", tears started gushing from my eyes uncontrollably. I've cried from reading manga before, but not like this. I had to stop and dry my eyes because I couldn't see the images through my blurry tears. In a manga with lots of dark moments, this was by far the most devastating thing to happen, both for the readers and for Taroza. With this "event", Taroza's peaceful life is shattered, and he is back on track to achieving his goal, albeit for much more personal reasons, and with an interestingly different mindset.

This volume is so hard to talk about without spoiling things, but one big change that is kind of a spoiler, but I have to talk about, is that there was a time skip. This much should be obvious if you have seen the volume cover. Taroza is now a young man! After journeying around the world to ready himself for the Tower of Babel, Taroza returns to his old village only to find it under attack by Chimeras. And these aren't just any old Chimeras. They're some of the most grotesque monsters I've seen and would be right at home in a a Cthulu mythos story. Not only that, but they are essentially being piloted by normal animals that have allied themselves with the evil Giller. Well, Taroza isn't having any of that and luckily he has made himself some powerful new allies that share his goal, including some awesome ninja weasels, and a football uniform wearing rhino named O.J.

The main body of this volume is mostly a lot of fighting against Chimeras. The villagers that Taroza abandoned five years ago want to show him just how strong they have gotten, and we get to see a lot of Taroza's animal buddies that were once young and helpless all grown up and super strong. I think the best part of the fighting is the coordination among animals. It ends up looking more like a war than a conventional battle manga fight. Though this can look a little hectic and hard to follow. After the fighting, Taroza reuniting with the villagers was momentarily tense, but they quickly got on the same page and decided to set out for the Tower of Babel. This is when we find out another shocking and spoilerific piece of information. Among Taroza's old friends, there has been a defector to Giller's faction! And at volume's end, Taroza and "that character" are all set to put their ideals and lives on the line against each other in battle. This showdown has me very conflicted, and there being more than meets the eye to "that character's" defection, I can't wait to see how this gets resolved.

I'm still reeling from reading this volume. It has been the most powerful volume of 'Animal Land' to date. Even the author, Makoto Raiku, states at the end of the book, "The first chapter of this volume was the hardest chapter I've drawn in my career as a professional.", and if you're a fan of 'Animal Land', it will be the hardest to read as well. If you're not already a fan of 'Animal Land', but are a fan of other popular shonen fighting manga, you have no idea what you are missing. This manga is amazing. Now for the painful six month wait for volume nine...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Attack on Sidonia: Selling Knights of Sidonia to Attack on Titan Fans



Hey Attack on Titan fans! Good going on supporting the Kodansha USA release of the series. From the looks of the recent New York Times Best Sellers Lists, and the news of a release frequency speed up, it has been a real success. I'm sure that with this level of sales, we'll be able to enjoy many more Attack on Titan volumes to come. But did you know that there is another series currently being published in English with a lot of the same qualities that make Attack on Titan so good? That's right, and it's called Knights of Sidonia, by Tsutomu Nihei, and published by Vertical Inc. Let me tell you some of the reason why you might want to give Knights of Sidonia a try if you've already become a fan of Attack on Titan.

The driving force of both of these series is arguably their respective enemy. In the case of Attack on Titan, it is of course the titans. A constant threat to the survival of humanity, people are forced to live in fear enclosed within a series of massive walls. Main character Eren Yeager wants nothing more than to experience a free life outside the confines of the walls and likens the domination of humans by titans to being held captive in a bird cage. Like the titans of Attack on Titan, Knights of Sidonia has its own monstrous threat to mankind. That being the enormous, shapeshifting alien species known as "Guana". The Guana nearly wiped out the entire population of Earth, and forced a small number of humans to flee on the spaceship "Sidonia". The Guana can take many shapes, from clustering together to make a planet sized super organism, to breaking off into individual creatures and mimicking the shape and function of the human mecha suits. And not unlike the titans' weak spot of the back of their neck, the Guana can only be killed by destroying their placental core with a rare and special weapon called the "Kabizashi". The range of the Guana from cold and mindless murder blobs, to calculated and tactical anti-mecha kind of reminds me of the different types of titans. You have the seemingly mindless eating machines, and then you have the unusual "aberrant" that show some semblance of intelligence and are able to choose their targets. There's even more aspects that they share that I don't want to give away, and plenty of unique traits too, so if you think that the titans are a frightening series "villain", I think the Guana of Knights of Sidonia may impress you even more.

Main characters Eren Yeager and Nagate Tanikaze don't actually have much in common when it comes to personality, but that's a good thing because you don't want to read the same basic character twice. They are, however, in similar situations. They both play the role of the hero. The hope of humanity. Eren, with his power to form and control a titan body to fight against other titans, and Nagate with his uncanny skill at piloting the Garde mecha, "The Tsugumori". You might even say that Eren's titan controlling ability is sort of like a "biological mecha", to Nagate's traditional nuts and bolts version. And just as it is suggested that Eren got this mysterious ability from injections his father gave him, Nagate too has a peculiar past. How did he get so good at piloting a Garde while living underground for most his life? And why is he the only one forced to fight in mission after mission? Nagate's origins, and the origins of his origins are among the most interesting aspects of Knights of Sidonia. And while we are still waiting for some concrete answers about Eren from the basement in his old home, the author of Knights of Sidonia won't test your patience too long. It seems like every new volume another revelation is made, as well as more questions asked to give us more to look forward to.

Another interesting aspect that I noticed that these two stories share is there setting. I know what you're thinking. What do future outer space and and a medieval-ish terrestrial planet have in common? Well, it's more the specific location of humanity's last stand. For Attack on Titan, it's within the series of walls. And for Knights of Sidonia, it's their spaceship, "The Sidonia". Now, so far, none of the main characters of Knights of Sidonia have really shown the level of dread from being confined into their respective location like Eren has, but that theme isn't entirely absent. The goal is to be rid of the Guana and to be able to settle freely on a new planet one day. There is even a faction of civilians on the Sidonia who wish to leave the ship now and take their chances. Neither the humans of Attack on Titan nor the humans of Knights of Sidonia understand their enemy as of yet, but what is clear is that they are both being oppressed. Forced into walled cities and forced to flee constantly in outer space. Even if sometimes it is left unsaid, I'm sure the characters from both series are having similar feelings.

As you know, Attack on Titan is blowing up right now, both in Japan in the U.S. And with Kodansha USA doing a speed up, we should be caught up with Japan by next January. But then what are you going to do? After experiencing a new volume every month, you might have to wait up to three months for a new volume. No worries though. I know Knights of Sidonia can give you your manga fix. And it already has four volumes out now, with volume five slated for October. As a fan of Knights of Sidonia, I want nothing more than for it to attain a great level of success like Attack on Titan has. And with so much crossover appeal, there's no reason why it shouldn't if Attack on Titan fans get on board. Until then, I'll cross my fingers in hope that the upcoming Knights of Sidonia anime gives it even a fraction of the popularity boost that Attack on Titan has gotten this year.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Kitaro


I became really excited for 'Kitaro' after loving Shigeru Mizuki's other work, 'NonNonBa'. The Yokai aspect of 'NonNonBa' especially caught my interest, and I was sure that the Godfather of Yokai manga would give me more of that in his most famous work. But as things turn out, I was wrong...

"Yokai" is like a blanket term for all ghosts, ghouls, monsters and magical creatures. Kitaro may look like a normal boy, but he himself belongs to this mythological group of mysterious beings. With a magical vest made of his ancestors' hair, only one eye, and his eyeball dad living in his empty eye socket, this strange hero uses his power for good, going around and protecting humans from mischievous Yokai.

Having just gotten a small taste of the Yokai appeal from 'NonNonBa', I was itching for more on these Japanese folk monsters, but surprisingly, I didn't find what I was looking for in 'Kitaro'. I didn't get to learn about Yokai in the same fable-esque way that I did in 'NonNonBa'. The Yokai came across as just generic monsters inserted into even more generic short stories with hardly any explanation of their place in Japanese culture. Not already familiar with these creatures, I was forced to refer to the "Yokai glossary" in the back of the book, which features very brief, perhaps even unceremonious descriptions of the Yokai. This is the Yokai series and that's the amount of attention they get? As far as I know, there are entire folktales centering around these creatures, but in this book, they are relegated to the "villain of the week" status. This disappointing experience was nothing like the interesting stories that NonNonBa passed on to young Shigeru in her titular volume. I'm no writer, but I was expecting the history and culture of each Yokai to be seamlessly interwoven into their respective appearances in the story. Instead, they just appear, get beaten by Kitaro just as any generic villain, and are gone.

Kitaro himself is a very boring character. He's kind of like a superhero, going around saving humans from monsters and all. If I had to compare his character to something, it would be the old Superman from the animated serials in all his "blue boyscout" blandness(fight the villain, save Louis, tune in next week for more of the same). There's really nothing to him. To be fair, there is probably like ten more volumes yet to be published in English to flesh his character out, but there is no indication from this book that character depth is a priority or even a goal. Do I expect a multi-layered protagonist from a more than fifty year old kids comic? Maybe I shouldn't, but I do. I have to follow this character through the story, so when he doesn't interest me in any way, there is a problem.

There isn't really any overarching plot going on here. Kitaro is the only recurring element. So what we end up with is these episodic short stories, none especially ambitious. I would be reaching to say that these stories were mildly entertaining, but most of them were a bearable length. Two of them, however, were around fifty and one-hundred pages, making them so tedious that I almost quit reading. If what is featured in this volume is the pinnacle of 'GeGeGe no Kitaro' tales, then I can't see any reason to read further. I would have said that the lack of volume number on the cover made me worry about prospects of future releases, but now I just don't care anymore.

In all honesty and fairness, my expectations were clearly too high and off the mark as to what the subject matter would be. I guess I was looking for a 'NonNonBa 2' with more of a Yokai focus. I wanted to be told these Yokai folktales just like NonNonBa would tell young Shigeru. Instead, I got the episodic adventures of superhero Kitaro as he battles the monster of the week. This is just an old, simple comic, and unless the following volumes are drastically different, I'm at a loss as to how 'GeGeGe no Kitaro' reinvigorated Japan's interest in Yokai and became a cultural phenomenon. I'm mad at myself for expecting 'Kitaro' to be something it was probably never meant to be, but expectations aside, it's still nothing special by modern comic standards, and I won't give it a free pass because of its "classic" status.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island





The Licensing of 'The Strange Tale of Panorama Island', by Suehiro Maruo, was announced all the way back in 2009. That's more than a year before I bought my first manga and caught the collecting bug. Nevertheless, word of this book and its long production reached my ears several times. "When will it finally be released?". "Will it ever be released?". I even had a pre-order in at one point before the listing got removed. I know I haven't been waiting as long as some fans, but even so, this book has been much anticipated by me, and it is finally here for me to enjoy.

Hitomi Hirosuke is a struggling writer with big dreams, but fears of being left behind by the new era. He writes about his very own, personal utopia straight from his own head. "What would I do with a limitless fortune?", he asks himself. But these stories are rejected by his editor in favor of something more grounded. One day, Hitomi's editor informs him of the death of his childhood friend Komoda, who he happened to be the spitting image of, and who happened to be very wealthy. Knowing that at the time, there had been several cases of people "dying" from asthma and mistakenly buried, Hitomi got the idea that he would fake his own suicide, impersonate Komoda and miraculously come back from the dead. With much preparation and not without his anxieties, he managed to pull it off, shocking everyone close to Komoda. Now fully ensconced within Komoda's life, he can now use his vast fortune to make his dream a reality. To build a lavish utopia called Panorama Island.

I'll admit, at first I found Hitomi's plan to be unbelievable. Even as it was unfolding, my suspension of disbelief was pretty much at its limit. Even if he looks just like him, how will he replicate his voice? How will he fool all these people close to Komoda? And these feelings lingered a little longer than I would have liked, but I was soon able to put those worries aside. A quick explanation of "near death trauma wiping out his memories of people", Hitomi's own fears of getting caught in his outlandish scheme, and Komoda's wife not fully being fooled made it all seem a little more believable that he managed to pull this off. Not to mention, I began to not care as much if his plan made sense because I wanted to see his dreams come to fruition.

The main character, Hitomi Hirosuke, is not introduced as a likable guy, even before he digs up his dead friend's corpse and impersonates him…But strangely, I began to want to see him succeed. Not because he became likable, but because I wanted to see his fantastic vision come to life. Hitomi is basically a lunatic, complete with maniacal super-villain laugh that he unleashes periodically. He's also a self-proclaimed layabout and I was unsympathetic towards his writing failures. Digging up his dead friends body so that he can impersonate him and spend his fortune just pushes him over the edge to become completely irredeemable. There should have been no possible way that I would be rooting for him, and yet I was. His vision of a grand and luxurious utopia is something I often dream about myself, so I wanted to see it happen. And despite him being a complete monster of a person, I don't regret rooting for him, because his vision was amazing.

The story was good for a one-shot. Nothing revolutionary, but it kept me engaged and Hitomi was a pretty interesting character. The real appeal for me was Hitomi's dream come to life and the amazing art that came with it. Maruo's style is pretty unique for me. It has a bit of a western feel to it and perhaps it is just the time period of the story showing through, but it also had a bit of a classic feel to it. That's just the character art though. What really caught my attention was the scenery. It was simply beautiful. Almost half the book is just showing off the stunning sites of Panorama Island. Statues, waterfalls, buildings, gardens and an awesome underwater tunnel. I really couldn't get enough of all the double page spreads of Maruo's great artwork. I actually wish the book was a little longer because of that. I'd say that this book is worth it for the artwork alone.

I can very easily see this book appealing to non-manga fans. It doesn't really have any of the modern, mainstream aspects of manga that may be off-putting to western comic fans. And it's all wrapped up in a lovely package. An over-sized hardcover with very colorful cover art and shiny gold lettering. Quite the nice one-shot. But it's not for everyone. Certainly not for children and not for adults who don't care for tons of nudity and even graphic sex. Though I'd love to see more Suehiro Maruo licensed so I hope lots of people go out and buy this.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin vol. 2


If begrudgingly I pried open my wallet for volume one, volume two of 'Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin' was pre-ordered with fervent anticipation. And with its arrival, I am now one step closer to no longer being a Gundam newbie. Adding some nice character development on top of the superb action, volume two impressed me just as much as the first.

After barely escaping Char at the end of volume one, Amuro Ray and the crew of White Base set out for Jaburo across hostile Zeon territory. No sooner do they enter Earth's atmosphere, do they encounter a brand new enemy, Colonel Garma Zabi, commander of Zeon's North American forces. A young, headstrong man with something to prove, he's determined to take out White Base and the dangerous prototype mobile suit on board. Everyone bands together to bolster their defenses and fight off the new threat...That is, everyone but Amuro.

Now, with not much time for character development last volume, I neither actively liked or disliked Amuro. But with the very first chapter of this volume, he took a big step in the wrong direction if I was to like him. Or so I thought. He was acting like a first class brat. Truly annoying. Refusing to fight and acting like a child. That's when I remembered, he is a child. And he just got thrust into an epic space war, killed several men, and barely survived to tell the tale. He's scared and doesn't want to kill again or be killed himself. He had every right to break down like that, and as a reader, I can't hold that against him. And wouldn't you know it, with some encouragement from Fraw Bow, he resolved himself, and though he didn't want to, he stepped up to pilot the Gundam once again and protected the White Base. So while the boy was most certainly an annoying brat no matter how justified, he turned that around pretty quickly and earned some points in my book.

Out of danger for the moment, Amuro Ray and the other crew members of White Base were given some much needed rest and relaxation. While some decided to soak up the Sun by the beach, which they hadn't experienced in ages(if ever, some being born in space), Amuro decided to go find his childhood home to see his mother. Discovering his house trashed by partying Federation soldiers with his mother nowhere to be seen, an old toy brings back memories of when he first set out for space with his father. And with just a one page flashback, we get a nice bit of characterization for Amuro. We find out that though Amuro and his father are the one to leave her for space, she effectively is the one that abandoned him. She had no real good reason for not going with them other than that she didn't wan to live in space. Their interactions when they do finally meet up only further makes me suspicious of her. You can see that she obviously has some connection to him since he is her son, but there is this detachment. Perhaps it is just because they have been apart for so long, but I think there may be more to it. He asks, "Don't you love me at all.", and of course she says she does, but he doesn't believe her and I don't quite either. So at age fifteen, father dead, he leaves his mother behind again, this time for war.

On the topic of war; This time it felt very real. No longer did we have these fantastical battles in outer space. We have both literally and figuratively been brought down to Earth. This applies to war in the visual sense. Sunny, clear, familiar skies replace the dark, foreign setting of space. Making for a whole new action dynamic, adding gravity and terrain to the mix. But what really hit me while reading was how war was less romanticized in this volume. And you can really see this with Amuro's focus. Especially when he is forced to defend himself against a Zeon soldier. This time, without the protection of the Gundam armor. Not only was the Gundam protecting his flesh body, but the enemy Zaku's were hiding the faces of the men he had to kill. And now, face to face with an enemy soldier, he had to protect himself or be killed. "We are at war now.", he says when his mother questions how he became such a scary kid. It kind of felt like I came to that realization at the same time that he did.

Though I'm sure you know this, I can't really talk about this release without at least mentioning the production quality. Vertical really is going all out for this series. Of course you know that it's a well made hardcover, but what really got my attention was the quantity of color pages. So I went through and counted and there is a whopping sixty-eight color pages, including an illustration gallery in the back! This prompted me to go back and check how many color pages volume one had and I counted fifty-six. These two books have by far the most color pages of any manga I own, omnibus or otherwise. And this is rounded off with a round-table discussion and a nice double page color spread by CLAMP. I'll be on the lookout to see if volume three can top this volume's deluxe features. Sixty-eight is the number to beat!


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wolfsmund vol. 1


I knew almost nothing about Mitsuhisa Kuji's, 'Wolfsmund', before I bought it, other than that I had heard that it was a realistic and brutal retelling of the "William Tell" legend, and that it was being published in English by Vertical Inc. Plus, there was a cool looking knight on the cover, so I decided to take a chance on it. Turns out, the first volume was pretty awesome. Lately it feels like putting my money on Vertical Inc, is less of "taking a chance" and more of an investment in entertainment.

Deep in the Alps during the late middle ages lies the Sankt Gotthard Pass, and it was the shortest path between Germany and Italy. For many years, the people of the Alps controlled the pass, gathering considerable wealth from trade going through. The cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden forged an alliance in order to protect their interest in the pass, but they could not match the might of the House of Habsburg of Austria. With the cantons occupied and the pass taken, the citizens were prisoners within their own land. The pass, being the only way into the Italian states, was the only way for rebels to escape isolation and build an army. But the pass featured a barrier station, fiercely guarded by a ruthless bailiff, named "Wolfram", and his barrier station became known by the oppressed citizens as "Wolfsmund", the mouth of the wolf...

I was just telling someone how I don't gravitate toward gloomy stories, and here I am, enjoying this book about oppressed rebels getting their hopes dashed by a smirking tyrant. Several things save 'Wolfsmund' from being a depressing gloomfest, and number one on that list is "suspense". You have this impenetrable checkpoint that everyone wants to get through, but it is guarded by this "eyes always shut", constant giant grin having Wolfram, who loves his job too much. And he always knows when someone is trying to cheat him, but somehow you are still on the edge of your seat, waiting, hoping to see these characters get past unscathed. It comes across as a kind of life or death game(and very much possibly is for Wolfram) where the rebels take every precaution they can and put on their best show in order to fool Wolfram, and Wolfram tries to test and trick them into failure. Even though I kind of knew that Wolfram would come out on top, the suspense was still real and I felt it.

Another aspect that I enjoyed about 'Wolfsmund' was the action. Despite there being a battling knight on the cover, I was not expecting this level of action and the well done choreography. There were several good fight scenes that included two knights dueling with long-swords , and a fierce female warrior, trying to assassinate her way through the checkpoint. But the best part came in the final chapter of the volume when Wilhelm Tell and his son Walter were introduced. As you can probably guess, these are the two featured in the legend of a man forced to shoot an apple off of his son's head with a crossbow. And Wilhelm is shown to be quite the marksman in 'Wolfsmund', but what really got my attention was his mountain climbing scenes, which I considered just as impressive action as the fighting scenes. Doubly so when they were fighting while mountain climbing.

If you are looking for a character to latch onto, you might have to pick the villain, because...let's just say you shouldn't get attached to anyone...The most recurring character in volume one was the bailiff of Wolfsmund, Wolfram, and this guy is one bad dude. Always smiling. Always with his eyes closed. He is the kind of character that I love to hate. And that's just based on his appearance and attitude. Him having everyone killed without touching a sword himself doesn't hurt either. He's also kind of intriguing though. He seems to take his job as bailiff very seriously. Almost as if he feels he is king and the barrier station his country to rule. I think it is pretty clear that he will be one of the main antagonists throughout this story, and I'm looking forward to seeing him fleshed out more and seeing how he evolves. Other characters I'm interested in include an unnamed woman who runs an inn close to the barrier station, and Wilhelm Tell's son, Walter Tell. The unnamed woman is the next most recurring character and seems to be part of the rebellion, but little else is known about her as of yet. I'm pretty sure she will be important though. And though Walter Tell only shows up in the final chapter of volume one, I think he has the makings for the main character of this series. He's a badass, mountain-climbing crossbowman like his dad, so I'm sure he will also be interesting to follow.

'Wolfsmund' started out with a pretty strong first volume. The structure felt a little unorthodox, establishing the antagonist and the setting more so than a sure protagonist, and I kind of liked that. All you people out there impatiently waiting to get some historical manga action out of 'Vinland Saga' this Fall might just find what you are looking for right now from 'Wolfsmund'.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Knights of Sidonia vol. 3


In volume two of 'Knights of Sidonia', Nagate was set up to take the blame for mission failure by Kunato and he wondered if he would ever be allowed to pilot the Tsugumori again. But after the discovery of a Gauna shaped Garde, there was no question that he would be needed to fight once again.

Volume three kicks things off with a fight against three "Garde Form Gauna" that are able to take their new shape after ingesting Nagate's friend, Hoshijiro, and her Garde unit. Now, not only are the Gauna able to mimic the appearance of the Garde mechs, but their weapons and tactics as well. And they seem to be mimicking human intelligence, going as far as speaking some words, laughing and perhaps showing some personality. This drastic change in appearance and actions has greatly improved the actions scenes, and it chips away at my past complaint that the Gauna are just formless, faceless blobs of an enemy that are hard to have any feelings about, let alone hate as a main antagonist. Not to mention, their bastardized Garde copies take their level of scary up a few notches. The opening color spread is a testament to that, showing an up close look at this truly frightening, skeletal mech and its human copy pilot.

There was a lot of Garde vs. Gauna action in this volume. At least three, well choreographed sequences. I think that I am either getting better at being able to follow the action, or Nihei is drawing the action scenes more comprehensible. Maybe both. But it's not all about fighting in this volume. There is a little down time too, and I can really appreciate that. It's important to show the life of the Sidonians beyond the war so that we know what they are fighting for. In this volume, that comes in the form of a date of sorts between Nagate and his third-gender friend, Izana. They go to Izana's grandmother's house for vacation and end up having to fish for some food. Comically, Izana ends up snagging Nagate right in the mouth with her fishhook, when guess who shows up? That's right! It's Yuhata Midorikawa from volume two, who has a crush on Nagate and is officially the romantic rival of Izana competing for Nagate's attention. The mild and kind of cheap laughs from this love triangle and a few other situations may be mild and cheap indeed, but they are an important mood buffer to break up the darkness and death that comes with this space war against the Gauna.

The real highlight of this volume for me came with two very informative flashbacks that acted as more than just info-dumps. The first flashback tells us the story of how the Sidonia came to be in the possession of the only effective weapon against the Gauna. The rare Kabizashi lances. Interesting and entertaining in its own right, the flashback features some familiar characters going on a mission six-hundred years ago to research a seemingly harmless, yet mysterious structure. I thought I was getting a bit of adventure, and it kind of was, but I should have known it would have turned bad...The next flashback tells us how the population of Sidonia was nearly wiped out one-hundred years ago. There are some fascinating revelations that I don't want to spoil, but just know that we do learn about Nagate's true origins and why he is special. Along with all the information we learned from these flashback chapters, we also got some great world building through the history being told, and well done characterization for Captain Kobayashi and Lalah, the talking bear.

While reading this volume, I noticed that I'm getting used to the art. Before I thought it was a shame that Nihei didn't stick to his more gritty style that he was famous for, but now I'm just starting to see Knights of Sidonia as its own project with its own artistic identity. The color covers and color pages have especially helped me take a liking to the art. I'm starting to find the softer, more round features of the character designs to be kind of attractive.

If I wasn't hooked with volume two, I am now. Most of the complaints that I had from the first volume I seem to be either getting used to, or they are actually being improved upon in story. I'm really glad that I stuck with this series and my anticipation for volume four couldn't get any higher. Thankfully, it comes out at the beginning of August, so we won't have to wait long.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thermae Romae vol. 2


'Thermae Romae' was easily my favorite new series of 2012. As soon as I finished volume one, I could not wait to get my hands on volume two. Nearly six months later, the wait is over, and I'm happy to say, it was worth my patience. Now I just have to reign in my anticipation for the third omnibus by Yen Press, which doesn't yet have a release date for me to look forward to...

At the end of volume one, we were left with the ominous cliffhanger of a man planning to make Lucius "disappear", and that's exactly where we pick things up in volume two. Men from the senate who hate Emperor Hadrian's choice of successor, Aelius Caesar, are furious to find that all of the bathing innovations Lucius has made are increasing the popularity of the future emperor. They conclude that the only way to make the public see the truth of Aelius' shortcomings as a leader is to attack his popularity at its source and get rid of Lucius. Their master plan entails tricking Lucius into going out into the bandit ridden wastelands by himself under the impression that Hadrian wants a hot spring villa built out there. Surrounded by deadly bandits who are out for blood, Lucius does what he does best and wins them over with the power of the bath! When I finished volume one, I thought that this new development of a dramatic, overarching plot line could add a lot to the largely episodic story, but now that I read volume two, I'm kind of glad that it didn't last and it ended the way it did in comical fashion. A continuous threat of murder conspiracy just wouldn't allow for some of the fun bathing adventures we got in the rest of the book.

One of the most interesting developments in this volume came when Lucius was commissioned to create a very gaudy and tasteless bath house for a newly rich freed slave. Lucius was reluctant, but agreed in order to help his friend Marcus. In an argument with his new employer, Lucius yet again is thrust into the future by nearly drowning in a fish tank. Cut to modern day Japan, and we are shown an interesting parallel to Lucius' situation. A young engineer named Yoshida, who has a similar passion for baths as Lucius, is also forced to create a distastefully designed hot spring for a newly rich employer. Yoshida is lamenting the job he has to do when out of nowhere appears our Roman bath expert, Lucius. With Lucius' help, Yoshida is able to create a more modest and authentic Roman style bath, and even though it wasn't what his employer originally wanted, it ended up being a big hit. In a nice change of routine, I found it fun that in this excursion to the future, it was Lucius who was able to impart his knowledge of bath engineering on to the "flat-faces" who have previously been the ones to inspire him. And even though their designs were inaccurate, Lucius was just over the moon that the Rome he is so proud of had finally reached the land of the "flat-faces". Yoshida and Lucius' interactions were also very nice and genuine. Though they could not speak to each other, as fellow bath engineers, they bonded and communicated well.

Another very interesting development occurred when Lucius time traveled to the seaside Ito Hot Springs. Emperor Hadrian was just about to make an important request of Lucius when he was transported to the future, so he was in a hurry to get back, but no matter what he tried, he couldn't make his way to Rome again. That's when he met the lovely Satsuki Odate; A lover of ancient Rome who happens to speak Latin! Satsuki is an interesting new character who I hope to see a lot more of in the future. We did get an eleven page, detailed back-story about her, so I'm sure she will be even more important than she ended up being in this volume. The bulk of this latest excursion to the future had Lucius reacting to other modern things besides baths, like television and what not, so we didn't really get to see as much of Satsuki as I would have liked. But, there did seem to be a bit of romance in the air. Lucius is the very image of Satsuki's idea of a "indomitable, spartan" man, and Lucius was captivated by her beauty like he had never been before with the "flat-faces". Even while trying to think of how to get back to Rome, Lucius didn't like the idea of leaving her behind and even thought about taking her with him. And best of all, since Satsuki spoke Latin, they were able to talk to each other. Never before has Lucius been able to speak with the "flat-face" people he has visited, so this was an exciting advancement. Though an advancement that was also underused and that I'd like to see more of in volume three. This journey to the future is also the longest Lucius has been gone from Rome. He seems to be stuck in modern day Japan. So that leaves even more to look forward to from future chapters.

This volume came with a lot of the same laughs that came from Lucius' episodic adventures in bathing that I loved from volume one, but it also had some surprising and enjoyable new aspects. Presumably, there is just one more omnibus volume for Yen Press to release. Ideally, Lucius and Satsuki's relationship will be further explored in the final volume. I can't wait to find out.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunny vol. 1


'Sunny' ,by Taiyo Matsumoto, is one of my most anticipated manga titles of this year. I absolutely adore Matsumoto's 'Tekkonkinkreet' and regard it as a masterpiece. 'Blue Spring' didn't quite live up to my expectations, but the experience wasn't able to put a dent in the vast amount of faith I had in Matsumoto's talent that 'Tekkonkinkreet' brought on. Since hearing of Matsumoto's new series running in IKKI magazine(which has spawned some of my favorite manga), I have been (im)patiently waiting for my chance to read it. Then Viz Media came through with the license announcement last Fall, fulfilling my manga reading desires. I really had no idea what to expect given the short, vague synopsis I read, but my enjoyment of volume one just reinforces my confidence in faith based purchases and Taiyo Matsumoto's ability as a manga author.

In the garden of the Star Kids Home lies a beat up old Nissan Sunny. To the kids of the group home, it is more than just a rusting hunk of metal. It is their clubhouse, their safe haven, and their escape through imagination. To Haruo, it is a place where he can look at porno mags, pretend he is a racecar driver, or just take a nap. To the older kids, it is a place to talk, have a smoke, and just be away from the adults. In Taiyo Matsumoto's 'Sunny', we get to take a look at the daily lives of the foster kids at Star Kids Home, and how they all gravitate towards that old Nissan Sunny.

This is a pure, "jump right in-style" slice-of-life manga. We are just thrust right in to these kids lives as foster children and left to learn about all the details naturally as the story moves forward. I can see how that may sound confusing and unappealing, but it really works in this case. You don't need to be hand-fed a robotic narrative for the story to be good. Just take it slow, understand what slice-of-life is, and it all flows quite nicely. At this point, I've expressed my thoughts on daily life stories over several blog posts, so this may seem redundant, but I'm going to say it all again. I'm fully aware of how and why normal, seemingly mundane daily life events could be boring to read about for some, but for reasons I can't fully or properly explain in words, this type of manga really clicks with me. When things slow down and aren't dictated by an overbearing plot, I can connect more with the characters, appreciate what they appreciate, and almost feel like I am there with them. I especially felt this in 'Sunny' while the kids were playing in their clubhouse car. Don't be afraid to slow down and try slice-of-life books, because you get to experience a whole other side of the characters and the atmosphere that you don't usually get from story driven manga.

There are several interesting characters that live at Star Kids Home, but the one that stands out most for me is Haruo, nicknamed "White" for his white hair(as you can see on the cover featured above). He probably gets the most attention and detail in this first volume, but doesn't monopolize the book with his presence nor screen time. The other characters get plenty of love, but we get to know Haruo just a little more. We get to know where he came from and how much he has changed since then, who he has a crush on, and see several of his daydream sequences while playing in the Nissan Sunny. But one of the most telling scenes was when the house-master's grandson, Makio, came for a visit. You can tell that Haruo looks up to Makio greatly and tries to keep Makio all to himself during his visit. He even confided in him his conflicting feelings on visiting his mother. He does want to visit with her, but he also doesn't. He loves and looks forward to seeing her, but he only gets to see her three times a year and each time he has to say goodbye is painful. So by not seeing her at all, he would avoid that pain altogether. I loved this scene and think it was really well written. Conflicting feelings are so strange but so real. I hope more of the kids get this level of characterization in future volumes. I'm especially interested in Sei, a new boy from Yokohama who makes it known that he doesn't feel at home at the Star Kids Home.

I love Taiyo Matsumoto's art and I think he is in top form for 'Sunny'. Maybe at his best. He still uses his signature, strange, unsymmetrical style that I've seen from 'Tekkonkinkreet' and 'Blue Spring', but somehow I find 'Sunny' to be a lot less chaotic and a lot more coherent. Possible due to the more realistic and clean setting, because he definitely didn't water down his art at all. I think this is a good chance for readers that have previously been scared off by his unconventional style to get into his work. It is easier to read and easier to appreciate the beauty in how different it is from the norm. We also get several stunning, full-color pages that really blew me away. They were a real treat and I hope we get some in volume two as well.

These last few days waiting in anticipating for this book to arrive, I thought I might have been letting my excitement get the better of me and setting myself up for disappointment. That worry was unfounded though. Taiyo Matsumoto put out a truly compelling first volume and Viz presented it in an amazing hardcover that is now one of the jewels of my collection. I'll be preordering volume two for sure and its November release date can't get here soon enough.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Summit of the Gods vol. 1-3


I came across 'The Summit of the Gods' the same way I came across 'A Zoo in Winter'. That is, through the Jiro Taniguchi Manga Moveable Feast. Interested by the Manga Moveable Feast and then captivated by 'A Zoo in Winter', I thought that I would have read every available Taniguchi book by now. Somehow though, other series took priority and I am just now trying my second Jiro Taniguchi work. This time though, it's a collaboration with Taniguchi doing the art and Yumemakura Baku doing the writing. I enjoyed the first three volumes of 'The Summit of the Gods', but not as much as I thought I would, and whenever I get around to reading Taniguchi again, I'll be sure that it is another of his original works.

Makoto Fukamachi is a Japanese photographer wandering aimlessly through Kathmandu, trying to escape his bitter thoughts of a recently failed summit attempt of Mount Everest. Strictly by chance, he made his way to a climbing supply shop when a certain camera for sale caught his eye. A Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Special. The very same model that famous mountaineer, George Mallory, took with him on his Everest summit attempt before disappearing. Could this be the very same camera that belonged to Mallory? And if so, what was it doing in Kathmandu? If it was indeed Mallory's camera and had images of a successful summit on it, it could change mountaineering history as we know it. As a journalist, this prospect made Fukamachi's heart race. Deciding to pursue the mystery behind the camera and how it made it's way to Kathmandu, everything led Fukamachi back to one man. The enigmatic and legendary mountaineer, Jouji Habu. In 'The Summit of the Gods', we follow Fukamachi as he tries to learn the truth about the camera and uncovers the tumultuous life story of Jouji Habu.

I would say in terms of panel time, there are two main characters of this manga. Makoto Fukamachi and Jouji Habu. But for all intents and purposes, Habu is the true main character and by far the more interesting of the two. Fukamachi acts more like the readers' avatar. We experience everything through him and his curiosity and actions drive the story. That's about as much as he was able to offer me in the first three volumes. I don't really like him at all and it doesn't help that his search for the camera inadvertently caused a lot of the story's conflict. Fukamachi is also kind of a "downer". He starts out the story moping around and throughout the series, gives the sense that his life is without direction. I was totally unsympathetic to this though and just found it annoying. "Woe is me! I couldn't make it up Everest and don't know what to do with my life.". And then with so much time spent developing Habu, the plot line between Fukamachi and his ex-girlfriend felt shoehorned in to make him seem more interesting, but it only succeeded in making me resent Fukamachi for taking panel time away from Habu...

Jouji Habu is a different story altogether. His presence makes this series worth the read. What a fascinating and well developed character. Most of the first two volumes are dedicated to telling Habu's life story in the form of Fukamachi interviewing his acquaintances and researching his mountaineering exploits. Though I enjoyed reading about him unlike Fukamachi, much like Fukamachi, he isn't necessarily a likeable guy. He is very selfish and mostly just cares about himself and mountaineering. He's also extremely honest to a fault. Often hurting others' feelings with his bluntness. And even as a middle aged man, he showed himself capable of being very childish. For all his faults though, he was also capable of moments of greatness and growth. As a younger man, he made it clear that he wouldn't hesitate to cut his climbing partner's rope if it meant saving his own life. But later in the story after making a connection with a young protege, not only did he not follow through with these words, but he did everything he could to save him. And man, was he one helluva tough guy. His extraordinary mount climbing feats made him a living legend, and fellow character and reader alike can't help but to admire and be inspired by him. His complicated nature and the exciting path he chooses to take are what made this series so engaging and why I am going to keep reading it.

Volume three is a bit of a departure from the first two. Things move from Habu's backstory and exciting climbing scenes to Fukamachi's present day search for Habu in Nepal to try to solve the mystery of Mallory's possible lost camera. Maybe it's just me, but for some reason, the camera mystery doesn't excite me much. Perhaps you have to be a mountaineering enthusiast to see the true value in that plot line, much like the in story value of the camera itself. Really though, the "camera plot line" is the "find Habu plot line", but somehow it feels like the story and Fukamachi can't decide which one is more important and because of that, things seem unfocused(no photography pun intended). A little more interesting, Ryoku Kishi, Habu's former lover and sister of his diseased protege, has joined Fukamachi in the search for Habu in order to reunite with him and get closure. I was more interested in the human drama this reunion entailed, but what I actually got felt a bit like an 80's crime movie. Kidnapping, extortion, car chases and a harrowing cliff side rescue followed. It felt a little odd and out of place, but it was exciting and probably the most purely entertaining part of this series. All of this led up to learning Habu's main goal, which is to do an oxygenless solo summit of Everest's south west face in Winter. Something never before done and what everyone else in the story thinks is insane and practically suicide. If this series' previous exciting climbing scenes are anything to go by, this summit attempt is more than enough reason to check out the last two upcoming volumes.

Jiro Taniguchi is a pretty great artist. Sometimes I feel like his character faces can be a little off and weird. Specifically the eyes when looking at a character head on. They can look, for the lack of a better word, a little creepy at times. Beyond that though, their faces are very expressive and dynamic. Taniguchi excels at the "thoughtful look", as I like to call it. Strong, furrowed brows and deep, expressive eyes. This is especially well done with Habu, who has the most varied appearance throughout the series because of so much time covered. The cover to volume three above basically personifies what I am talking about. Taniguchi also impressed me with his ability to draw "action" scenes. The mountain climbing scenes were very exciting and cinematic and one of the main draws of this series. Taniguchi also excelled at drawing stunning mountainscapes. I don't know if he used assistants to do them or if he did them digitally with a computer, and I don't care. All I know is that the mountain scenery(and the backgrounds in general) was really well done and painstakingly detailed.  One thing that I would like to see more of is the wonderfully done color pages present in the first volume, but absent in the next two. I oddly prefer black and white art, but a few color pages here and there can be a great treat. You can sample the art for yourself at Ponent Mon's website where you can preview all three volumes.

This series wasn't what I was hoping it would be or what I expected it to be with Taniguchi being connected to it. A bit dry and tedious sometimes, and slightly hampered by one, unlikeable main character, at other times, it is compelling and engaging, and bolstered by the more appealing co-main character. I'd say that the bad outweighs the good, and with Habu's incredible summit attempt to look forward to, I'll definitely be anticipating the last two volumes.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Flowers of Evil vol. 1-5


I was kind of avoiding this series. I really didn't seem like my sort of thing. I thought it would just be about kids being cruel to each other, and it sort of is, but not in the way that I thought. Then the anime came out and caused all sorts of buzz for its controversial use of rotoscope animation, and I planned on giving it a watch to test the waters before I dished out money for a manga book. But as things turned out, my library recently stocked the first five volumes, so I decided to give it a go. The library is always great for stepping out of your comfort zone.

Takao Kasuga is not your average middle school student. He socializes, but deep down, he believes he is different from the rest of them, and prefers to bury his face in his favorite poetry book, 'The Flowers of Evil'. One day after school, he forgets that book in class and goes back to get it. While retrieving the book, he sees the gym bag of his long time crush, Nanako Saeki, and not being able to help himself, pervertedly fondles her used gym clothes. When he hears someone coming, Kasuga panics and hurries home, gym clothes in hand. The next day, the whole class is up in arms about the theft of Saeki's gym clothes and Kasuga is wracked with guilt, thinking he is a sinner. Contemplating his crime on the way to his favorite book store, he runs in to class loner, Sawa Nakamura, who confesses that she witnessed his misdeed, and kicks off a cycle of sadistic blackmail that will make Kasuga question everything he knows to be true.

The first volume of this series was surprisingly comedic, and not dark comedy. Nakamura's crazy smile and expression, her calling her teacher "shitbug" to his face, and the psychological torture she employs on Kasuga just had be laughing out loud several times. And that's rare for me even for pure, straightforward comedies. I'm not really sure if this is intentional, or if there is just something wrong with me. I'm hoping it's the former, because it shocked me that I took pleasure in Kasuga getting mentally tortured. That isn't me. I turn my head when people get hurt in movies, so why did I enjoy Kasuga's angish? It's interesting and odd, but I'll just go with it. Life's too short to apologize for what you laugh at. With bullying being such a sensitive subject these days, I thought this would be an uncomfortable and serious read, but volume one didn't convey that at all. I feel like the overall vibe changed quite a bit in following volumes though.

I couldn't put volume one down. You could say that it was like a drug. Not just in that it was addicting, but I also felt strangely euphoric while reading. Especially during the climax where Nakamura puts her cruelty towards Kasuga into overdrive. Also like a drug, for every high, there has to be a low. After the initial glee of watching Nakamura screw with Kasuga psychologically hit its peak at the end of volume one, volume two kind of leveled off and rather than continue escalating, it was just more of the same. By the end of volume three, I thought that the three way relationship between Nakamura, Kasuga, and Saeki could be really interesting, but more and more I felt like the story was just turning into some kids' self inflicted melodrama.

I'm confused about how I feel about the characters. Technically, they should be super interesting and count as "well written", but somehow they just aren't clicking with me. Both Kasuga and Saeki actually develop quite well for only five volumes of story. Nakamura is still more of a mystery, but I can't fault the author on that because that seems to be the plan. I think the problem is that they are neither likeable or relatable. I thought I liked Nakamura at first, but I was just blinded by how shockingly blunt she is. On the surface, her actions are entertaining for a time, but underneath it all, she comes across as unhinged and just as angsty as Kasuga. Finally you see that she is just plain mean. But there is still a bit of intrigue on her exact motives, feelings and how she came to be this way, so I have not given up on her character quite yet. I briefly enjoyed watching these characters as a fascinated observer, but in the end, not being able to relate to them at all caused my interest to wane.

One thing I don't get is the eye flower imagery. What is it suppose to mean? I know that it is a stylized version of Odilon Redon's flower illustration from Charles Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du mal' poetry book, but I don't get the relevance as a piece of recurring symbolism. Do I have to read Baudelaire's poetry to get this? I doubt I would understand anyway, since I just don't get poetry either. I feel like I am missing a layer of understanding and enjoyment by not comprehending the eye flower's importance and not having previously experienced Baudelaire's work. This actually isn't a bad thing. Perhaps the importance and full meaning is not yet revealed and it is another aspect to look forward to. Or maybe if I read Baudelaire's poems, I will have a new appreciation of this series on future rereads....Or it could already be revealed plain as day for readers smarter than I to see. Then again, maybe it isn't plot important at all and I am over-thinking things. We'll see.

'The Flowers of Evil' has a strangely funny first volume and sets up a great premise. Subsequent volumes don't quite live up to the first, but there were still aspects to enjoy and still more to look forward to. I'm going to keep following this series, though it will mostly be out of curiosity, rather than anticipation.


Monday, April 22, 2013

NonNonBa


Would you believe that I was afraid to read this book? Silly, I know, but even though I bought this book almost a year ago, I kept putting off reading it because I was afraid I wouldn't like it. I had previously read one of Shigeru Mizuki's other works, 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths', and it didn't particularly impress me. Shigeru Mizuki's works are highly regarded and award winning in Japan, and the works released in English have been critically acclaimed as well, so when I don't see what everyone else seems to see, it makes me feel like I have bad taste or something. But I finally decided to sit down and give 'NonNonBa' a read, and I really wish I hadn't waited so long, because it turned out to be a great book.

Very much a memoir of Shiguru Mizuki's childhood, 'NonNonBa' takes a focused look at his daily life in pre-World War II coastal Japan. Most specifically, his interactions with his grandmother, who he called "NonNonBa". NonNonBa was a spiritual expert of sorts and taught young Shigeru all about yōkai, which is a blanket term for ghosts, monsters, demons and other mysterious creatures from Japanese folklore. Through these whimsical and sometimes scary folk tales, NonNonBa passed on life lessons hidden within her superstitions, and greatly bolstered Shigeru's imagination, leading him to become known as the forefather of yōkai manga.

This manga was a most pleasant surprise for me. Not only because I highly underestimated it, but because I wasn't expecting it to be so heavy with aspects of one of my favorite sub-genres. That is, slice-of-life. More specifically, daily life. In past blog posts, I've talked about how I could understand how some would find daily life stories boring, but for some reason, they are oh so endearing to me. I think it's perhaps they feel so natural in the events featured and the pace. There are no convoluted plot lines to artificially make things more interesting and exciting. Things are often slow going and thoughtful and when dramatic things do happen, they don't feel forced or melodramatic. Being a memoir, this story captures all of that. Sometimes a chapter is just Shigeru learning about yōkai. Sometimes a chapter is about him having fun with his friends. And sometimes it is about him coping with loss or his family's struggles. Slice-of-life allows for an evolving pace and tone that never feels unnatural, which you don't often get with plot heavy stories in my experience.

'NonNonBa' has got some pretty interesting "characters". I put characters in quotations because, this being a memoir, as far as I know, these are true to life, real people. One of my favorites is Shigeru's father, Nozomu. He is not your stereotypical, strict Japanese father. This guy was kind of a free spirit, more than a little lazy, and a bit flaky. But he was also rather wise in his life advice to Shigeru, even if he didn't always live by his own words. And I absolutely loved the level of encouragement he gave Shigeru in following his dreams of becoming an artist. And of course, there's the title character, NonNonBa. It seems like she can find a yōkai tale to fit every part of life. Stains on the ceiling? That's a yōkai. Feel like someone is following you? Another yōkai. Didn't clean the bath properly? Watch out for the yōkai. Through NonNonBa, these folk tales are seamlessly woven into the story, and not only did they seem to add more than a bit of fun to Shigeru's life, but they also came across as lessons sometimes. They kind of reminded me of western fables like "the boy who cried wolf" and what not.

For me, the art of 'NonNonBa' is a big step up from the art I experienced in 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths'. It has the same style of cartoony characters on highly detailed, semi-realistic backgrounds, but the scenery of 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths' just didn't seem to allow for dynamic art. Jungles, beaches and uniformed soldiers during a war can be pretty bleak and just plain. 'NonNonBa' on the other hand has a more varied setting and many more uniquely designed characters. Not to mention the imaginative yōkai designs. On top of that, the book starts off with some surprisingly well done color pages. Check out a free preview of 'NonNonBa and sample the art for yourself.

I know I said I didn't really care for 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths', but after reading 'NonNonBa', I have a new, retrospective respect for it. Both being at least semi-autobiographical accounts of Shigeru Mizuki's life, they act as great companions to each other. And the pre-World World II tone of 'NonNonBa' is a really interesting contrast to the thick of battle that is 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths'. That said, I still much prefer 'NonNonBa' and I'm truly glad I finally got around to reading it.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Knights of Sidonia vol. 2


After being unexpectedly disappointed by the first volume of 'Knights of Sidonia', I am very pleased to say that volume two didn't continue that trend. Things kick off with some nice color pages that lead in to a a battle scene with a Guana that I found to be far superior to the first volume's battle choreography. Perhaps due to the increased length, making everything a little more coherent, but Nagate's heroics also spiced things up a lot. Though the Guana as an enemy still don't really excite me. It doesn't help that they are mostly just blob tentacle monsters that can take on any form, so they are essentially a "faceless" enemy with no known motivations, and that makes them harder to hate.

Not only was the battle scene more entertaining this time around, but it brought on another development. In the first volume, the characters(besides Nagate) seemed inhuman and unrelatable. Only the very last scene of the book showed a small display of emotion that saved things for me. This volume is much improved in that area. When Nagate went to save Hoshijiro's life after the fight with the Guana, it inspired the entire Garde battalion to break protocol to save them both. I did not expect this at all from them. And this small detail made me feel more connected to the Sidonia population in general.

This same scene also created a new layer to the story that is much welcomed by me. Romance. Nagate and Hoshijiro were stranded in space in close quarters for about two weeks. Not only did Nagate save Hoshijiro's life, but she saved him from dehydration by giving him her pee to drink! How could they not bond after that haha? This romantic development is followed up with an actual date where they tour the underwater floating tanks. Both of these scenes have a slight twinge of comedy to them, which is also a welcome element when things can be pretty gloomy in the vastness of space with giant monsters constantly attacking. And it's not just Hoshijiro that Nagate is coupled with. He's on the verge of building his own harem with new girl, Yuhata Midorikawa, having a crush on him and the memorable third gender character introduced last volume, Izana Shinatose, seemingly wanting to monopolize our main character's company.

One of the simple yet effective details of this volume was an info dump courtesy of Nagate looking up the history of Guanas and humans on the computer. We learn about the very first Guana attack on Earth and how everyone evacuated. We even learn the dates and that there may be other ships out there. They lost communication long ago, but meeting up with another colony is something I wouldn't mind seeing later in the story. It could add a lot to the story. 

A second battle scene, while not as entertaining as the first, ignites a shocking development that both upset me and really hooked me in to the story. While fighting a "cluster ship" Guana(many Guana cores clustered together to make a massive super-organism), Kunato Norio, that jerk from the last volume that is jealous of Nagate, sets Nagate up for failure with bad orders. It was Kunato that was suppose to be the pilot of the special Tsugumori Garde mech before Nagate showed up, and he seems to be taking it quite hard. To the point where he basically tried to get Nagate killed and endangered the rest of the battalion as well. Nagate survived, but now everyone hates him because the failure appeared to be his fault. It's a shame too, because everyone had just started to warm up to him after his earlier display of heroics. Forget the Guana. For me, Kunato is the real antagonist of this series, and I really want to see him get what's coming to him. As an interesting side detail, Kunato seems to belong to a prestigious family who's company developed the Garde mechs. This same company seems to have replaced Toha Heavy Industries as the primary contractor of Sidonia. Anyone who has read Nihei's previous works might recognize that company name. Probably just a reference, but it could lead to interesting plot developments.

I've got to say, I was quite pessimistic about continuing this series before I sat down to read this volume. I was even bouncing around the idea of canceling my volume 3 preorder(and I would definitely have if this volume didn't deliver). Instead, I'm off to preorder volumes 4 and 5. This volume renewed my faith with more varied and dynamic art, great character interaction, exciting fight scenes, and an all around better pace and story structure. If that wasn't enough, the preview pages for volume 3 imply some interesting questions will be answered. I can't wait.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Animal Land vol. 7


Volume 7 picks up right where volume 6 left off. Giller and his fearsome Chimera's continue to assault Riemu's village of gorillas, but just as things were looking grim, Taroza awakens the powerful ability to sync up with other animals and choreograph their movements mentally. Using the strength of the gorillas and the aerial advantage of birds, Taroza manages to finally defeat one of the chimeras, but not without great strain on his mind and body. I'm not sure how I feel about this new ability yet. Yeah, it could lead to some really creative fights, but the idea of the shonen hero controlling of creatures basically as his puppet weapons is kind of odd. I guess as long as the animals are willing, it's no big deal, but it's not like he asks those birds if they wanted to join a fight to the death.

Even with this new found ability of Taroza's, exhaustion set in and he ended up being no match for Giller's forces. Desperate to save everyone's lives, Riemu attempted to negotiate with Giller. Hand over the notes of the mysterious "Quo", or die. Of course, Giller being the villain felt no obligation to keep his promise, and once he had what he wanted, proceeded to slaughter Riemu's entire village. Luckily, village elder Gorion thought ahead and pleaded with Taroza to use his power one last time to control the village children into hiding, and with the village children safe, Taroza and his group made their escape back home with the distraught Riemu in tow. Back at the village, Taroza concocts a plan to cheer up Riemu and make her feel at home. He puts together a sports festival of sorts, where all the animals work together to complete obstacles for prizes. I was a little too distracted by the main plot to properly enjoy this chapter, but looking back, it was quite necessary for Riemu's character. Besides giving her time to heal emotionally, it gave her a chance to bond with Taroza's village. It was also interesting to see three of the five humans come together to interact. Now we have Taroza, Capri and Riemu all together in one spot for the first time.

Meanwhile, Jyu, the would-be antagonist that we met in earlier volumes has had his own encounter with Giller. Giller deems Jyu to be the perfect test subject for his Chimera's to beat up on. Jyu disagrees and fares much better than Taroza's group. Just Jyu and his wolf Olivia make quick work of the single Chimeras. This is where the Chimeras are explained, and given their name, it's not really a surprise or anything. They can actually absorb the flesh of other creatures and take on their traits to become more fearsome. This time, Giller gives a Chimera some gorilla flesh from when he killed off Riemu's village. This new gorilla Chimera actually looks a lot cooler than the base Chimera design. Kind of like a mutated King Kong. Very scary. And this gorilla Chimera was much more fearsome than the regular Chimeras that Jyu faced before. So much so that it forced him to flee for his life, but not before declaring that he will be the one to kill Giller one day. This is an interesting turn for Jyu's character, if not kind of predictable. For those who have read 'Zatch Bell', Jyu evokes the spirit of Brago in both design and demeanor. Brago is kind of like the Vegeta to Zatch's Goku. I'm not sure if Jyu will become an ally to Taroza outright, but at least now they have a shared enemy in Giller. So in a way, it feels like Makoto Raiku is following an old pattern. Something I haven't felt until now with 'Animal Land'. We'll see how things really turn out though.

Two whole seasons pass and now that Taroza has enough Eternal Fruit seeds to sustain a crop, it is time to test it on some carnivores. Much to his delight, the Eternal Fruit passes with flying colors with Capri's lion friends. Taroza still doesn't know if he will succeed where Quo failed, but at least for this one moment, he can be happy. And this is where things really pique my interest. It seems like in each volume, even if there are some slow parts, there is always a huge plot bombshell. And this one didn't disappoint. Riemu tells Taroza and Capri that though she gave Giller Quo's notebook, he actually had a second one that she kept. This notebook has some very intriguing information. It seems that Jyu, Taroza, Capri, Riemu, and Giller are known as the "miracle children" and where brought to this era where animals rule from all different time periods. According to Quo, the survival of humanity rest in their hands and he also wants one of them to continue his dream of a peaceful world where all animals live in harmony. Quo created a machine called the "Gaia Spinal" that if turned on, would allow for all animals to communicate with each other. Quo speculated that it would most surely cause mass confusion and war, but he felt that it was the only chance of peace. Always in the back of my mind is the thought that both Quo and Taroza's goal of peace among all animals in not feasible. What, are all animals going to come together holding hands and eating miracle fruit with no killing ever again? In the world we live in where there has hardly been a time without war and there are senseless killings every day, this is an idea that just seems impossible and my mind refuses to comprehend it. It's like as a human, I've been conditioned to believe that violence is inevitable, which is quite sad. That's why I really want Taroza to succeed, but Makoto Raiku will really impress me if he manages to do it in a believable way. This "Gaia Spinal" gamble seems like a step in the right direction.

After deliberating about the information found in Quo's notes, both Riemu and Capri believed that they shouldn't turn on the machine and that they should just focus on protecting the peace that they already had in their small village. Surely it is impossible to replicate and sustain these results the world over? Interestingly enough, with some thought, Taroza agreed. This intrigues me because this is basically a shonen protagonist giving up his dream that had previously drove the story forward. But it wasn't due to wavering will. Taroza actually put thought into it and came to the conclusion that his dream was unrealistic, as well as reaffirmed in his mind the things that were really important to him that he needed to protect. I find this mentality to be quite rare for shonen main characters, and I kind of like it. Though I seriously doubt this will be the end of it. The manga is on its 10th volume in Japan, so something must happen to set Taroza back into action. Too bad for me that I'll have to wait until October when volume 8 comes out to find out just what that is...