Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, vol. 3

The story:
The beginning of this volume shows how much everyone has missed their birds during the break. Unfortunately, during the break, the bird of a first-year student, Fenne, died. Cello and Fenne become fast friends, which makes Dr. Guell jealous "for some reason." Later, Cello celebrates her 17th birthday with Dr. Guell, Moss and Fenne. Then, there's Olga, Dr. Guell's bird, helping Cello study and an adventure involving Cello, Dr. Guell and Cello's father, Theo. Lastly, there's another one-shot, "The Apple Family," this time involving an enchanted apple, a nun who exorcises evil spirits and a witch.

Reaction: Okay, so it's fairly obvious Dr. Guell likes Cello, but she's oblivious to it. With her turning 17, I find it less inappropriate than I did when she was 16, especially since she's mostly unaware of it. While one year doesn't make a huge difference, it's "enough" of a difference for me, I guess. Otherwise, this volume is filled with some funny moments, especially the chapter involving a jealous Olga as whip-cracking tutor to Cello. I also found myself wishing there was more than one chapter to "The Apple Family."

Deep thoughts: I thought it was interesting when Fenne found a new bird partner and removed his black coloring (it was a migratory bird, not native to Opal). It's mentioned that soon enough the bird, named Blackie, will eventually develop the coloring of the island's birds once he starts eating the native colorful flowers. This reminds me of flamingos, which are pink because of their steady diet of shrimp.

Artwork: For some reason, I noticed the screen tone a lot more in this volume. Otherwise, there were some cute costumes for both birds (both Olga and Yoyo dress up) and people (when Dr. Guell dresses up as a thug, it's fairly laughable).

The verdict: If only... Again, I think I'd like this a lot more if it weren't for the pseudo-romance between teenage Cello and Dr. Guell. While Cello is quite endearing, Guell's attraction to her makes me wonder just how small Opal is if he can't find someone his own age. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Crimson Hero, vol. 1

I've been reading Crimson Hero in Shojo Beat magazine for a year or so now, but I'd never read the beginning of this story. After seeing it at my local library, I decided to check it out.

The story: All Nobara wants to do is play volleyball. Unfortunately, her parents are the proprietors of a popular ryotei, or a high-class Japanese dining establishment, and expect her to inherit the family business. When she joins Crimson Fields High School, it's for the volleyball team. It's just too bad it was recently disbanded. However, despite all this, she decides to commit herself to starting a new team, while supporting herself through high school by serving as the interim dorm mother for the boy's volleyball team.

Reaction: Wow -- all the characters look so young here! Of course, I was impressed by Nobara's determination and amused by her aunt, Momoko. This volume really sets up the scene for Nobara's continued determination and optimism, despite all the hurdles in her way. This was just a really nice, strong start to a story I already enjoy.

Deep thoughts: When you look at cultural dimensions, Japanese (and most Asian) cultures are quite collectivist, placing higher priority on the group than the individual. In other words, what "everyone else" wants is more important than what "I" want. In contrast, North America and Europe rank as more individualistic, valuing the individual over the group. When looking at Nobara's situation, it's surprising culturally to see her "rise up" against and fight her situation. While this may seem a normal occurence in the U.S., it wouldn't necessarily be viewed the same way in Japan.

Artwork: The character design here was very nice and you could "read" personalities just by looking at their clothing. There were even some unnecessary details that helped paint the scene -- like the hot water dispenser in the kitchen -- and provided a better sense of place by their sheer existence.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This is a very good story about a girl fighting for who she really is and her sense of self, as well as rallying the people around her into believing in themselves. Nobara lives for volleyball and her enthusiasm draws the reader in, even if they have little to no interest in volleyball itself (like me). Crimson Hero is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Chapter Review: Children of the Sea, chp. 2

The story: More of Ruka's world is revealed in this chapter, titled "The Day of Thunder," from her (implied) alcoholic mother to her aquarium-working dad. She's a lonely child at best, a forgotten one at worst. Other characters are introduced, as well, including Sora and Jim, the caretaker of Sora and Umi, who was introduced in the first chapter. It seems that Jim is their legal guardian after having found the two swimming in the Philippine Sea with a group of dugongs, a relative of manatees. According to Wikipedia, "the word 'dugong' derives from the Tagalog term dugong, which was in turn adopted from the Malay duyung, both meaning "lady of the sea."

Reaction: This is another beautifully drawn chapter that really showcases the loneliness of Ruka's childhood. It seems that she's misunderstood by everyone and longs for people who will miss her. I also liked the introduction of Jim, a tattooed scientist who surfs in addition to taking care of Sora and Umi. We also have a momentary peek at Sora and the unexplained and peculiar relationship between Sora and Umi.

Deep thoughts: The story of Sora and Umi being raised by dugongs reminds me of the story of the founders of Rome -- Romulus and Remus, who were raised by wolves. There's an air of mystery behind these two children and I'm interested in seeing if their fate is as "spectacular" as that of the Roman founders.

Artwork: Another beautifully detailed glimpse of the sea and those living on its edges. I loved the flashes of action that Daisuke Igarashi chose to illustrate, as they distill the characters so well -- from surfing with Jim to Ruka leaving for "practice" to Umi swimming in a tank. While they're all very "real," there's a surreal feel to it because of the fleeting moments we're treated to and the underlying meaning we're yet to learn.

The verdict: Again, I haven't read enough of this to form a stronger opinion, but this story is already ranking high in my "most anticipated" list. The artwork is amazing, the storyline intriguing and the characters endearing. Children of the Sea is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

RIN-NE, chp. 5

In the future, I'd like to write and post these reviews on Wednesdays, since that's when the chapters are released. Since this week started with a holiday, I have to admit my "day of the week" awareness has been screwy.

The story: In this chapter, Sakura nearly dies after wandering around in the afterlife. But before she gets to the "wheel of reincarnation," she is saved by Rinne. Finally, the mystery behind Sakura's first "spiriting away" is revealed and the reader is introduced to a new mystery -- how Rinne is both "sort of" human and "sort of" a shinigami.

Reaction: Wow, so Rinne's heritage is like Inuyasha's -- half-human, half-shinigami? Way to be creative...Otherwise, my curiosity regarding how Sakura ended up in the afterlife as a child was satiated.

Deep thoughts: I find it interesting that Japanese culture (including Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan) has variations on anything spiritual, like a giant, evil, bunny-shaped shinigami. This is also seen when it comes to spirits, or kami, that live in everything. See Princess Mononoke for a better idea of all the different spirits that can inhabit (seemingly) inanimate objects.

Artwork: While the paneling seems very basic, it actually shows Takahashi's experience. The reader is drawn along in the story at a precise pacing that isn't too quick, nor too slow. It gives the reader time to consider the scene and any dialogue that goes with it, without dragging them along at a breakneck pace. The composition here is quite well done, even if the character design isn't particularly ground-breaking.

The verdict: Ah, after another cliffhanger that will hopefully reveal Rinne's secrets, I can't say I won't read next week. Takahashi has a knack for putting together characters and we're yet to see why Rinne and Sakura should team up in the long run. I'm interested in seeing what adventure(s) Rinne and Sakura will undertake, especially since it seems that they only work well together a la Zombie Loan. RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, vol. 2

The story: For the first time, Christmas has come to the island of Opal, when a foreign prince visits. Dr. Guell, the only person who has celebrated a traditional Christmas (he's from a cold, northern land), becomes the expert advisor on the endeavor. As Cello grows closer to the prince, Guell's jealousy begins to show. That is, until he finds out the truth about the prince. We also learn about how Cello and Yoyo came to be paired up, as well as see the doctor pay a house call to Cello's family. There's also an extra one-shot at the end, titled "Contract Papillon."

Reaction: I really liked the tropical Christmas. I also found the history of how Cello and Yoyo became partners particularly endearing, especially since Yoyo's such a cute little chick! Also, meeting Cello's family, especially her dad, was pretty entertaining. Lastly, I love, love, loved the one-shot at the end. It had action, mystery and an interesting twist ending!

Deep thoughts: This time around, I wasn't as bothered by the ambiguous relationship between Guell and Cello. I think it was because it's less the focus of the volume and also because the reader is shown the practical limitations of such a relationship in a humorous way -- by attacks from their birds, Yoyo and Olga!

Artwork: I think Opal is more realized in this volume -- there's a better sense of place to me. Then again, that may be because of the flashback and the other two chapter settings. I also really loved the formal wear in the Christmas chapter -- it shows the tropical influence with a few other fun details. And the one-shot at the end was a nice of change of pace, as it's in an urban setting with cobblestone streets, iron streetlamps and brick townhouses.

The verdict: If only... Although, I liked this volume much better than the first, I can't bring myself to say it's highly recommended just yet. But, it's interesting enough for me to continue on with, especially since I have volumes three and four waiting to be read. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Life Sucks

I mentioned at one point or another, I would write reviews of graphic novels from time to time. So, here's the first one.

The story: Dave is the most non-glamorous vampire ever: a "vegetarian" (he drinks expired plasma from a blood bank), he works a dead-end job (pun intended) as the assistant manager at a convenience store, working the graveyard shift six nights a week for his master and boss, Radu. While Dave goes through the motions of "life," he falls in love with a cute, Latina goth girl, Rosa. Things get complicated for Dave when Wes, his "brother" and a rich, white, surfing vampire from Malibu, decides to make a move on Rosa.

Reaction: I could totally relate to Dave and his disdain for his crappy job -- I worked at a 7-11 in college. Hearing him talk about restocking, rotating hot dogs and dealing with customers brought it all back to me in horrific detail. Dave and Jerome, another vampire who works the graveyard shift at the local copy center, also give off a total Clerks vibe, and their banter was a nice comedic touch.

Deep thoughts: I really liked the multicultural casting here -- you have Old World vampires from Eastern Europe, Rosa is a Latina and then there is Dave's best friend and roommate, Carl. But, the best part is, none of these characters play to the expected stereotypes they could so easily gravitate towards. For example, Rosa may be a Latina, but she's chosen to follow her own path as a goth clothing designer, as opposed to going to church, getting married and having babies like her parents want her to.

Artwork: Maybe it's because I've been reading so much manga lately, but I loved reading this in full color. The convenience store lighting is spot on, giving off that awful, looks good-on-no-one halogen lighting; and even though this graphic novel is mostly set at night, there's no loss of color or mood because of it. I also love Warren Pleece's character designs. You can easily read Dave's mood, simply by looking at his face, and all the characters -- from main characters to side characters to those in the background -- are all fully realized in their own ways, with small details showing the care took in crafting them.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Even though I've read plenty of vampire novels and comic books, I really loved the different tact that Jessica Abel and Gabe Soria took in creating the Life Sucks version of Los Angeles, as it is so off the beaten path of what we've come to expect from the "undead" genre. For anyone that likes vampire stories, I'd suggest they check these vamps out as opposed to the more recently popular "sparkly" ones. Life Sucks is available from First Second.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Walkin' Butterfly, vol. 3

The story: After Michiko's manager has a health scare, Michiko recommits herself to her career aspirations with gusto. She finally finds a way to have fun while modeling, on her own no less, and grows even more as a character. She also shares some surprising moments with Mihara.

Reaction: I came to really appreciate Michiko's attitude in this volume. It's like she finally found herself -- her self-confidence, maturity and determined mindset really shine here. As far as the rest of the story goes, I enjoyed watching Michiko's relationships deepen with the supporting cast of characters, including Mihara. After seeing her with Mihara in this chapter, I found myself wondering if Michiko and Mihara could get along as more than professionals. Since Mihara's admiration looks like something nearly imposible to obtain, I was intrigued by his reactions in those moments he shared with Michiko.

Unfortunately, I was also really disappointed when Michiko took another step towards her old ways by running away. I felt like shaking some sense into her, telling her that she needs to stay steadfast to her goals and to not tie her success to whether or not she can be more than friends with Nishikino. As far as frustration went, I was glad to see she found her determination and love of modeling again.

Deep thoughts: I loved the last chapter in this volume, "Michiko in Wonderland," as it drew parallels between Michiko's story and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Going all the way back to the first volume, Michiko, much like Alice, is bored with her life. After a passing interaction with Mihara, Michiko finds herself trailing after him in journey of exasperation, excitement and adventure. Of course, in the end, Michiko's story isn't entirely a dream and she realizes the possibilities that await her.

Artwork: Again, the outfits really shine here and we observe Michiko's transformation not only in her mannerisms, but in her clothing, as well. We see her in an elegant kimono, a fun cocktail dress outfit, modeling various outfits (from beach clothes to businesswoman) and more. By doing so, Chihiro Tamaki visually illustrates how Michiko has changed her self-image and how much more comfortable she is in her own skin. The one thing that got to me were the repeated suprised close-ups by Michiko and Mihara. Then again, maybe it was a visual plot device to portray their increasing parallel torylines and attitudes toward one another.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Ah, knowing that there's just one volume left after this has made me impatient to see just what is in store for Michiko. Will she make it to the show? And, even if she does, will she be able to walk in it? And what will happen between her and Mihara -- will she win the battle or not? Walkin' Butterfly is available in the U.S. from Aurora.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Backstage Prince, vol. 1

The story: Ryusei is a famous teenage kabuki actor. By chance, he and Akari, a female classmate, meet when she injures him with her bookbag after school. Later, they meet again when Akari follows Ryusei's cat, Mr. Ken, back to the kabuki theater. When Akari finds out how injured Ryusei is, she volunteers to be his assistant. Ryusei, who is actually a shy, anti-social misanthrope, only allows her to do so because his only friend, Mr. Ken, seems to like her.

Reaction: Akari comes off as a friendly and positive, yet ordinary, high school girl. When she's mystified as to why her friends are interested in meeting Ryusei, she simply states that all she wants from a guy is to hear him say, "you're the only one for me!" For the most part, this is a fairly pedestrian high school shojo romance and Ryusei and Akari jump into their relationship quickly once Ryusei realizes how much he needs Akari. She really becomes his source of strength when he has trouble performing.

Deep thoughts: While I only have a basic awareness of what kabuki is, I think it makes for a much more interesting setting for this short, two-volume series. I found the inner world of Rien, the traditional term for the kabuki world that is used throughout this story, fascinating in terms of its tradition and hierarchy. I don't think I would have found it as satisfying of a setting had it been set in, say, a regular theater or TV or film set (although Ryusei is cast in a historical drama at one point in this volume).

Artwork: This being a shojo story, there's a heavy use of screen tone throughout and lots of "sparkly" moments that I could do without. Then again, it's pretty par for the course, considering the genre. Kanoko Sakurakoji's art isn't particularly stunning, but it's not bad, either. However, this manga's saving grace are the kabuki explanations between chapters and at the end in an extra story. I also loved the costumes in the historical drama Ryusei and his friend/manager Toshiya star in.

The verdict: If only... This story isn't particularly bad and, honestly, the kabuki setting really keeps it from falling down into "meh" territory for me. I think I'd like this more if only the mangaka had drawn out the romance just a little bit more and made it less of a "I'm not good enough for him" plotline.

Regardless, it's only two volumes, so I'll stick around to see how it all ends, especially considering the expectations placed on who is deemed "worthy" of dating Ryusei (as one might guess, Akari doesn't exactly meet those expectations). Backstage Prince is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chapter Review: Children of the Sea, chp. 1

Earlier this week, Viz launched an online U.S. version of IKKI, a seinen manga anthology. Various series will be made available on the site and successful ones will eventually see print. The first manga they've serialized is Children of the Sea.

The story: This story opens with (presumably) the adult version of Ruka, the main character, relaying her story of the sea to a young boy while they're out sailing. In the opening pages of the first chapter, "Ruka," the reader is treated to a magnificent watercolor rendering of the deep sea. In it, a former deep sea photographer shares his tale of a possible demon sighting while out on assignment.

As the story goes on, the reader meets a much younger and lonelier Ruka, starting her summer vacation. On a whim, she takes the train to Tokyo, looking for the sea. At the end of the chapter, she meets a mysterious young boy named Umi.

Reaction: When I saw the opening pages and their detail (especially the watercolored ones), I was simply blown away. It's fairly obvious the mangaka, Daisuke Igarashi, took extreme care in researching and crafting the world of Children of the Sea.

Deep thoughts: As the reader follows along on Ruka's adventure, you can almost taste the desperation of her youth, her loneliness and the simple despair of a ruined summer. Her character draws the reader's empathy as it's shown more and more what a social misfit she is.

Artwork: While the watercolored pages are stunning in their own right, the real star here is Igarashi's panels. His artwork has a sketchy quality to it, most likely from the liberal use of cross-hatching. Regardless, it imparts a sense of detail that I can only liken to old English-style botanical drawings. The bugs, the flowers and settings are all given such a lifelike, and loving, sense of detail. In so many ways, this is real treat for the eyes.

The verdict: I haven't read enough of this to give it a recommendation, but the mysterious story pulls the reader in easily and the artwork is simply a delight to behold. Unless this series takes a severe turn, I can guarantee I'll continue reading this as long as Viz keeps on putting up chapters. Children of the Sea is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, vol. 1

The story: On the island of Opal in the South Seas, color magicians cum artisans known as "palettes" manipulate colors and are paired with the island's treasures -- brightly colored, tropical birds. Our main character, Cello, is a student at the municipal school that trains palettes. But, with all the trouble Cello experiences, will she ever become a professional palette?

The volume opens with Cello's troubles in moving on to the next grade in school because of her incompetency and dealing with various birdnappers. Of course, Cello helps save the birds from their would-be kidnappers with her newfound skills of long-distance color manipulation. We also meet Dr. Guell, the school's doctor, who frequently helps Cello out, as she often gets stained with the colors she works with.

Reaction: I loved the tropical setting of Opal and the inspiration for its name, as an opal is seemingly white, but comprised of many colors. The mangaka Nari Kusakawa has created an interesting twist on the use of magic -- as palettes can only manipulate colors -- and, at first glance, a fun world.

Deep thoughts: This is an amusing shojo story. But, the thing that kind of irked me was the more-than-meets-the-eye relationship between 23-year-old Dr. Guell and the 16-year-old Cello. There's the implication that he thinks of her as more than "just" a student. Of course, this is all brushed off with sarcasm on Dr. Guell's part and nothing comes of it, but it still bugged me.

Artwork: Honestly, the first chapter was a little rough around the edges -- in the initial panels where Dr. Guell is introduced, his face is oddly shaped. Also, this being a story about color-manipulating magicians, it definitely suffers from not being in color. Only the cover gives us an idea of just how colorful Kusakawa's Opal is and that's to the story's detriment in some ways.

Also, when color is being manipulated out of a bird and onto an object, screen tones are used. It took me a little while to figure out what was happening because of its use. Then again, maybe I was just a little slow on the uptake?

The verdict: If only... While this book has many strong points going for it -- a well-meaning and determined heroine in a brilliantly realized tropical setting -- I couldn't get past the ambiguous relationship between Cello and Dr. Guell. I think if Kusakawa had focused more on Cello and her friendship with her best friend, Mousseline, and less on the undefined relationship with Dr. Guell, I may have liked this a bit more.

Overall, though, this is a good story and I'll continue to read it to see if it improves. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 4

The story: This week's (yes, I'm finally up to the current chapter available!) chapter begins to reveal some of the mysteries behind the main characters, Sakura and Rinne. First, the reader is dropped into the middle of creepy dream Sakura (and, as the reader learns later, the entire school) was having.

Reaction: Finally! Some of the mystery behind Rinne's role as a "sort of" shinigami is answered -- and there's the bonus of the reappearance of the woman who first spirited away Sakura as a child. Granted, we don't get all the answers, but it's a start!

Deep thoughts: Coming from a Judeo-Christian background, I thought it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the afterlife as non-Christians see it, especially in the way that Takahashi has visualized it.

Artwork: Nothing new here, really. But, I did love the boats in the afterlife -- especially since one of them was a panda bear a la Genmo Saotome, Ranma's dad, from Takahashi's Ranma 1/2!

The verdict: I'll follow along for the next chapter, especially since it has such a cliffhanger ending -- will Sakura mistakenly get on the wheel of reincarnation, or will Rinne save her in time? RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 3

The story: "Four O'Clock Behind the Gym," is a continuation of last week's storyline. Will Sakura and Rinne lay the wrong-calling, bike-riding boy's soul to rest? Or will he become an evil spirit?

Reaction: I have to admit that the opening color pages were pretty funny and played on the shojo trope of boys surrounded by flowers and sparkles. Honestly, it was a nice touch that livened things up a bit. Not to mention Sakura's cynical reaction.

Deep thoughts: This chapter highlights one of the mysteries of Rinne Rokudo -- why is he "sort of" a shinigami? Is he poor, much like his gym teacher believes? Or is there another reason completely? Regardless, I like how the gym teacher got wrapped into the overarching story with the ghost. He seems like such a nice guy that I hope he shows up again, especially since he seems to genuinely care about his students.

Artwork: If there's anything I could say about the artwork, it's that the color pages really bring the characters to life. And the "surrounded by flowers" look is ironic, considering how stoic Rinne is.

The verdict: I'll admit that this series has got me pulled in, especially with the ending comedic scene that returns us to Rinne's fake weather hutch legend. I just hope we see more comedic hijinks! RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 2

The story: In this chapter, "The Legend of the Weather Hutch," we're treated to a cellphone/gym class mystery. One of Sakura's classmates is receiving mysterious calls from a wrong number on her new cellphone, demanding "meet me at the gym at four o' clock." In lamenting about her weird, regular caller, Rinne suggests a solution. Of course, that solution involves (unknowingly) leaving him a snack and money. It seems Rinne is motivated much the same as other teenage boys...

Reaction: Okay, the opening page has Sakura running in brief-like jogging shorts. Of course, all I could think about was "Do Japanese school girls still wear this type of uniform to gym class?!?" It was a little distracting, I guess. Also, I kind of find it funny that Sakura is the "money bags" in this pseudo-relationship thus far.

Deep thoughts: I'm really getting curious as to what Rinne means by being a "sort of" shinigami. Did he steal the astral body-creating haori, is he repaying a debt, a la Zombie Loan, or is it something else entirely? While the mystery is part of the reason to keep coming back, I certainly hope Takahashi doesn't leave us hanging for an answer for long!

Artwork: The artwork, of course, is much the same as the last chapter, but I did miss the additional layer of depth that the multiple color pages supplied. Here, only the opening page is in color, showcasing a red-haired Rinne in the foreground and a uniformed and waiting Sakura in the background.

The verdict: Again, another solid chapter that leaves the reader on a bit of a cliffhanger. Will Rinne and Sakura lay the wrong caller to rest, or will something go awry? RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 1

Let's face it, Rumiko Takahashi is a goddess among mangaka, and there's no denying her influence, storytelling ability or popularity. Each week, I'll do my best to review the latest chapter of her newest manga, RIN-NE, as it's dubbed in America by Viz. Be sure to read along here.

The story: Our female protagonist, Sakura Mamiya, has been able to see ghosts and other spirits since the peculiar adventure, called a "spiriting away," she had as a child. The first chapter, "The Mysterious Classmate," opens with color pages of that adventure and then transition to present day, where Sakura is a high school student. The aforementioned mysterious classmate is Rinne Rokudo, the male protagonist of our tale and self-described "kind of" shinigami (or reaper).

Reaction:: The initial color pages are nice and quickly relay the backstory of our tale. As a dog owner, I really thought the chihuahua ghost was entertaining and, as much as a giant version of a toy dog can be, a little scary. While Sakura is in the vein of "everyday schoolgirl" a la Kagome of Inuyasha fame, I didn't get much of a "read" on her character.

Deep thoughts: Honestly, I think it's amazing that Viz is breaking ground with simultaneous English translations of Takahashi's latest work. While so many in the industry have been lamenting the work of scanlators in taking away market share, Viz is actually doing something about it and doing it well.

Artwork: If you've seen Takahashi's artwork once, you've seen it all. Her distinctive style is much the same as her other classic works, like Inuyasha, Maison Ikkaku, One Pound Gospel, Ranma 1/2, etc. Here, her characters are a schoolgirl who usually sports braided pigtails and a black track suit-wearing shinigami with red hair. She's not breaking ground here with a major change in her style, but it's comfortable and, besides, the real focus is Takahashi's storytelling ability, which, understandably, is very straightforward.

The verdict: While I can't exactly recommend this one way or another (one chapter does not a review make!), I doubt it'll prove to be a dud. This first chapter had several key elements going for it: mystery, intrigue, romance and a reason to come back! So, you guessed it, I'll keep reading until I can't take it "no more." RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Walkin' Butterfly, vol. 2

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but I'm rereading this series as I await publication of the fourth and final volume.

The story: In this volume, Michiko starts making *some* headway towards becoming a professional model. Unfortunately, her method amounts to "two steps forward, one step back." While she's found a manager, she's still very much a work in progress, as we see her self-defeating behavior rear its ugly head from time to time. We also get a glimpse into what drives Mihara and see some covert and not-so-covert moments between him and Michiko. It's also a little heartwarming to see Michiko's persistence and how it affects Mihara.

Reaction: My favorite elements in this volume were those in which Michiko was interacting with others. From learning more about her manager, Kyo Tago, a washed-up former model, to her moments with Mihara, Michiko begins to shine in this volume. However, Michiko still has "the fear" and lets her self-doubt get the best of her.

Deep thoughts: Michiko's character growth begins in earnest in this volume, as does Mihara's. Their parallel journeys are less of a protagonist/antagonist and more of the hero/anti-hero as Mihara's decision to stay true to himself creatively makes him more than just an ordinary villain. This volume also reveals what Mihara's had to fight in his past in order to earn the success he has thus far.

Artwork: The artwork in this volume is slightly more refined than the first -- there's less of that erratic sketching quality and I think it reflects Michiko's newfound sense of self. She is less of a volatile personality and the artwork reflects that in small ways. It may also simply be the fact that the artist herself "pinned down" her style in this volume. My only gripe is the similarity between two middle-aged male characters, Samejima and Gotoh. Gotoh is a passing character, so his doppleganger-esque qualities can be overlooked for now.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I still really like where this is going -- we're given glimpses of what Michiko can become if she simply perseveres and believes in herself. The continuing parallels with Mihara show how both characters are changing for the better. Walkin' Butterfly is available in the U.S. from Aurora.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Walkin' Butterfly, vol. 1

The story: Michiko is 19, tall, awkward and lost in life. She despises her gangly body, and jumps from job to job, unhappy and dissatisfied all the while. When she is mistaken for a model one day, she finds there is more to life than what she's known. She's also given purpose in avenging her embarrassment at the fashion show she "crashed" and miserably failed at. Of course, she also finds that, just maybe, her body isn't something worth hating.

Reaction: I felt a lot of empathy for Michiko, but her pessimistic and, at times, just plain rotten attitude at life makes her really unlikable. But, that's what also draws you in as a reader. We've all experienced "stinkin' thinkin'" at one point or another, but Michiko really takes it to another level. However, by wearing her emotions on her sleeve, she comes across as very real and honest. Despite everything that happens, Michiko's saddest, truest moments are those in which she's guarding herself from love -- of herself and of her friend, Nishikino.

Deep thoughts: While this book focuses mostly on Michiko's internal struggle, it's interesting to see the juxtaposition of Koh Mihara, a brilliant, but arrogant, fashion designer. On one hand, Koh dismisses her easily, telling Michiko she's not cut out for modeling because she's just an "ordinary amazon" and can't see her true self. On the other, he finds her "interesting" and seems momentarily intrigued by her passion. It's this dichotomy that makes this story about more than just Michiko and her quarter-life crisis ; how will one, already successful, and the other, a showcase of pure, amplified emotion, affect each another as this story goes on? Their parallel also makes for an interesting motivation -- much like Skip-Beat!, Michiko also wants to become a model simply to prove a point to Mihara.

Artwork: Chihiro Tamaki's sketchy artwork kind of fits Michiko's aggressive and erratic personality. While scenes are given just enough detail to make them recognizable, this story being about modeling and fashion, Tamaki's real focus is on figure drawing and clothing. Much attention is paid especially to clothing designs of characters, giving them another layer of personality: Michiko's boylike outfits and jumpsuits do nothing for her lean figure and match her internal image of herself, while Nishikino's cable-knit sweaters and track suits make him the perfect "boy next door." Her sketchy nudes of Michiko between chapters are simple and screentoned, while the more elaborate watercolors at the beginning of the volume beg to be brought to life with color pages.

The verdict: Highly recommended . While I'm re-reading this series and know more interesting things happen, I really did initially like this volume enough to keep reading. Many people can relate to some degree of what Michiko's going through -- from the unhappiness with our bodies to mere frustration at life to confusion and fear towards love -- the reader can empathize with her. Then again, this series is only four volumes as well, making it a smaller investment (especially since the publisher has a fan appreciation sale through the end of May). Walkin' Butterfly is available in the U.S. from Aurora.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Embalmer, vol. 1

The story: The Embalmer is about an embalmer in Japan, where his work is considered "unclean" since he's working with the dead (and, culturally, is defiling a dead body). The first volume included short stories of the dead that the embalmer works with, including a ballerina who is a friend of a friend, an old man who loves clocks and a father/son story.

Reaction: I cried during the father/son snippet -- it's about a father who had tuberculosis and couldn't hug his son because of it, lest the boy become infected. In the end, the embalmer does his work, making the now-dead man's body sterile so that his son can finally hug him again. It hit a real sore spot for me, especially since my grandmother had TB in the 1950s and was isolated from my mom and aunt (who were toddlers at the time).

Deep thoughts: While the embalmer himself seems like a cold and callous type, it may be more of a defense mechanism as it's clearly outlined later in the volume that he craves a person's touch after working with the dead. He wants to "feel warm." Of course, since he's a young man, this is evidenced in the story by his sleeping around with random women (which is unsurprising, seeing as how he has green eyes and, because of that, draws the attention of women wherever he goes).

Artwork: While I liked the episodic nature of this manga's storyline, it was the art that got me hooked. Mitsukazu Mihara's lines are so stark and gothic, but show great detail in terms of both emotion -- this is about life and death -- and in setting. When the main character, an embalmer named Shin-Jyurou, is working, great care is taken with getting the tools right and creating a descriptive background. And in one panel of the first vignette, an office is prominently featured and one can almost see the scene in full color based on the paneling of the desk, the books on the shelving and the plants scattered about (think 1970-ish: orange, avocado, and tan). And, oh, does Mihara's skill ever extend to drawing the human form -- all the various characters are easy to tell apart, and emotions and other unique characteristics are nicely rendered.

The verdict: Highly recommended. So far, I'm interested in reading the rest of this mature story (only four volumes were published in English) and seeing where the story goes. While I'm not usually a fan of episodic manga -- I prefer an overarching story arc, plotline and character growth -- this really has me thinking otherwise, as I'm drawn in by the exquisite art and poignant stories. The Embalmer is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop.

Reviews and Ranking System

Before I get started with initial reviews, I thought I'd enlighten folks on my ranking system. As opposed to the 3/4 stars method, I thought I'd just create categories based on how much I recommend a particular title. So, without further ado --

Required reading: these are titles that are not only something anyone can enjoy regardless of genre preference, but they're also classics or titles that will soon enough become classics that should be on anyone's bookshelf.

Highly recommended: these are titles that are highly recommended, but for various reasons are not for everyone.

If only...: as you might guess, these are books that would be SO much better "if only..." *something* was changed. Not highly recommended, but not necessarily "meh" material just yet.

Meh: I'll use this whenever a title doesn't do it for me, but isn't necessarily horrible, and is something you could read out of boredom or borrow from the library.

Just say no!: this will hopefully not be used often, but is basically the most negative I can get regarding a book without getting nasty!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

i (heart) manga

As you might have guessed, I ♥ manga. While I like a wide variety of genres, I'll admit that I'm a sucker for shoujo and josei.

I'll use this blog to review manga (and the occasional graphic novel) I'm reading and share recommendations from "READ IT NOW" to "run, run like the wind away from this book!"