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.