Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Heavenly Hockey Club, vol. 1

The story: High schooler Hana loves only two things in life: eating and sleeping. In fact, she loves sleeping so much she studied relentlessly to get into the prestigious high school down the street simply so she could sleep in that much longer. But, when classmate Izumi literally runs into her one day, he asks her to join the field hockey club. Of course, Hana realizes the morning practices will ruin her morning sleeping routine, so she says "no." But, the promise of traveling to away games, with luxurious futons and delicious, regional food, draws her in. Just what has Hana gotten herself into?

Reaction: This is a really hilarious story with a very non-traditional heroine. There's no pining after Izumi (although he does like her), nor trying to attract any of the boys in this reverse-harem comedy. Instead, Hana's true love -- food -- seems to draw her into each silly predicament and adventure the hockey club has. There are also several parallels to that other reverse-harem comedy, Ouran High School Host Club, especially with the rich boys who have the money to do anything and travel anywhere, a cold, right-hand man to the club's leader and goofy twins who play off one another all too well.

Deep thoughts: Hana's sleeping addiction reminded me of narcolepsy, or when people fall asleep suddenly for no reason, at any time. In some ways, she seems to have that problem, too, especially when she performs feats of extreme strength or athletic ability during her naps. I also love Hana's "food comas," wherein she falls fast asleep after sharing a big meal, often with Izumi. Anyway, it's not uncommon for teenagers to sleep a lot, as it's when they're growing the most. When I was in high school, I think the longest I slept was for 17 hours after being awake for 32 hours straight. But, that pales in comparison to the 64 hours Hana sleeps for in chapter two!

Artwork: While Ai Morinaga's art isn't the most detailed I've ever seen, it does seem to be a step up from the standard shojo fare. Although the cast of characters doesn't seem particularly distinct judging from the volume's cover, they are easy to tell apart within its pages (with the exception of the twins, of course). Scenes are also done well, panels flow nicely enough and the food has a realistic look.

The verdict: If only... This book has almost too many parallels with Ouran High School Host Club. While I do enjoy the premise itself and like that there is a heroine who isn't all moon-eyed by being surrounded by all those handsome boys, I can't help but compare the two. But, on its own, My Heavenly Hockey Club is a funny and enjoyable read, and a nice change from the usual romantic comedy. My Heavenly Hockey Club is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Apollo's Song

The story: This story follows Shogo, a sociopath with a penchant for torturing animals. Because he received no affection from his mother, he's never felt love and turns towards violence when it's displayed by the poor creatures he hurts. For some reason, he's been condemned to a life where he always falls in love with the same woman, but is never able to realize that love. Throughout eternity, the endless cycle repeats itself as Shogo watches the woman he loves die in his arms time and again.

Reaction: This is one serious story from Osamu Tezuka and it's an interesting juxtaposition with his distinctive art style. At first, I was revolted by Shogo's behavior, but as the story went on, I felt myself feeling truly sorry for him. The flashbacks and scenes with his mother were heartbreaking in some ways and disgusting in others. All in all, it shows how one person can lose and regain his humanity. Tezuka's storytelling style really shines here.

Deep thoughts: Not only does Tezuka examine love -- fraternal, maternal and romantic -- within the pages of Apollo's Song, but he also looks at other issues, like cloning, the environment and the Holocaust. While it's so easy to look at the creation of life clinically, oftentimes, reproduction is the product of true, romantic love between a man and a woman. I found his dichotomous look at reproduction interesting and, at times, refreshing, considering the prevailing attitudes in 1970, when this work was originally published. Additionally, his attitudes towards man's role in destroying the environment came across quite clearly.

Artwork: It goes without saying that Tezuka has a very unique, cartoonish art style that truly shows the influence Walt Disney had on his work. But, the fact that his art is presented alongside such deeper, more thoughtful themes doesn't take away any of the gravity of his underlying ethical message. Tezuka's art also lends a great sense of place, from the forests to his futuristic version of Tokyo; each is created with the same eye for detail.

The verdict: Required reading. This is really an amazing manga that explores what it means to be human, to love and what humanity's role is in the world. While Apollo's Song is much like the Greek tragedy its title alludes to, there are small moments of hope and joy, too. Whether you want to think, watch love bloom or enjoy action sequences galore, this book is one nearly any adult can enjoy. Apollo's Song is available in the U.S. from Vertical.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

With the Light, vol. 1

When it was first published in English, I actually gave this book to a good friend who is a special education teacher in an elementary school, and she loved it. This is my first opportunity to read the book in its entirety.

The story: Sachiko is a new mother and her son is the light of her life. Appropriately named Hikaru, Japanese for "to be bright," she dotes on him, but begins to notice he's different from other babies. Hikaru doesn't like being held or touched, is indifferent to many noises and is behind developmentally. When Sachiko takes her son to a specialist, Hikaru is diagnosed with autism. While Hikaru's disability has been identified, this is only the beginning of his and his family's story.

Reaction: I cried at least twice during the first few chapters of this book, as it's so hard to watch Sachiko's constant self-punishment for her son's disorder. When things get really tough, Sachiko finds herself alone and wondering what to do. Thankfully, soon enough, she learns new skills and how to best reach Hikaru as his "most important person." Eventually, she builds a strong support system for her son and her family via school, other students and their families, and social welfare programs.

Deep thoughts: It's amazing to see how much has changed in the nine years since With the Light was originally published in Japan. Back then, little was known about the disability and there was little to no public awareness of what autism was worldwide. Now, there are many parents, especially celebrities in the U.S., who have worked to raise awareness of autism and advocated for those afflicted with it. Since the cause of autism is unknown, and there's still no explanation for the recent increase in diagnoses, more research is being done every day to help better understand this brain development disorder.

Artwork: Given the subject matter, everything in With the Light is very realistically drawn. While I usually complain about its heavy-handed use, Keiko Tobe has done a really great job using screentone in order to impart emotions of the characters, particularly Sachiko. By emphasizing particular scenes, giving it a "lightness" or "darkness," the screentone gives an indication of the feeling being expressed. This can help the reader better understand the characters, which is especially important considering Hikaru has little to no emotional expression. Tobe also does a great job of aging the children appropriately, which can be hard to with such a large cast of children.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This is an amazing book that is a helpful resource for anyone who has contact with an autistic child. But, it's also a poignant story of a dedicated mother and her efforts to help her son live as normal a life as possible and to help him grow up to be "a cheerful, working adult." By the time I finished this book, I found myself wondering why I hadn't read it sooner! With the Light is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dororo, vol. 1

The story: The lead protagonist in this tale by Osamu Tezuka is Hyakkimaru, combining "hyakki," or "hundred demons," with "maru," a feudal suffix for boys' names. Hyakkimaru was born with no eyes, arms, legs, ears, etc. because of a deal his father made with 48 demons before his birth. So, Hyakkimaru's various limbs were traded with the demons in order for his biological father to become a powerful ruler within his province. As Haykkimaru travels the countryside, slaying demons in order to gain back his human body, he meets the story's namesake, Dororo. Dororo is a young boy and thief who was abandoned by his parents.

Reaction: This story starts on a terribly sad and dark note, but quickly travels in time to show off Hyakkimaru's perseverance, skill and strength. Despite his disabilities, Hyakkimaru has other overdeveloped senses that compensate for his lack of smell, sight and hearing. And even though Hyakkimaru saves entire villages by slaying the demon attacking them, he's driven out, town after town. However, despite all this, he keeps going. When he meets Dororo, I loved how he thought it would be simple enough to scare the kid off by showing him his disabilities or describing the demons that are constantly following him. Of course, Dororo, being a tough street kid himself, isn't that easy to shake off!

Deep thoughts: It's an interesting concept that Tezuka employs here by sacrificing Hyakkimaru's body parts in order to create a quest of sorts. When Hyakkimaru is sent down the river as a baby, it evokes the biblical story of Moses, who was sent floating down the river and adopted by the Egyptian royal family. However, here, Hyakkimaru is adopted by a doctor who is amazed at the newborn's will to live. Later, the doctor performs surgery on his adopted son, attaching specially made prosthetics. It makes me wonder if there's just some rule that states that babies floating down a river must be adopted by people with an amazing ability to provide for them!

Artwork: Even though this story employs Tezuka's trademark cartoonish style, there are scary character designs, too. Hyakkimaru as a newborn, along with the many demons and ghosts, are frightening in many ways. Dororo, however, serves as comedic relief and plays against type despite his cute appearance. Panels are designed with economy in mind, but are never afraid to explore the gruesome, whether it be a murdered village or a home surrounded by demons.

The verdict: Required reading. This story has all the classic hallmarks of a true hero's tale -- action, comedy, romance and an epic quest. While Hyakkimaru fights to regain his humanity, Dororo and he trudge onward from village to village, fighting whomever or whatever lays in their path. Although slightly grotesque at times, this is a tale that not only excites, but tugs at the heartstrings, too. Dororo is available in the U.S. from Vertical.

Friday, June 26, 2009


The story: This is actually a collection of one-shot manga stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose A Drifting Life was recently published in the U.S. Tatsumi, who created the gekiga, or alternative comics, genre, explores post-World War II Japan in this harrowing collection of stories about perseverance in the decades following the war. As Japan climbs ever higher towards economic prosperity, the middle class and those below serve as a sacrifice.

Throughout the nine short stories, there is a common thread of loneliness and what it drives a person to do in order to fill the void. Throughout, references are made to death and dying, and the artificial closeness one creates through sex. Although all of the stories are reflective of their era -- the early 1970s -- and are set accordingly, the story that serves as this book's title shows the life of a woman and her father during the American occupation of Japan following the war. This is a gritty look at life in a time when Japan's growing pains were acutely felt by those in its lowest rungs, and the lengths people go to fulfill the promise of companionship and human connection.

Reaction: This was dark and depressing in so many ways. Time and again, I found myself not only empathizing with characters, but truly pitying them. In "Woman in the Mirror," a young boy's penchant for cross-dressing is discovered by a classmate; the friend eventually rationalizes it was because of his friend's burden of being the only man in the family. In another tale, "Life is so Sad," a young woman waits for her boyfriend's release from prison, serving as a belittled hostess at a club. These people suffer for those around them, willingly taking the pain, both emotional and physical, that they must endure for another. There were also funnier moments, like in "Just a Man" and "Rash." But, they serve as short respites from the other, darker themes Tatsumi writes about. This book is an exploration of how our humanity survives the worst that life offers.

Deep thoughts: Tatsumi's attitudes towards the nuclear bombings during World War II and Japan's compliance in the Vietnam War come to the forefront in Good-Bye. Here, Tatsumi starts and ends on the subject of the war's toll on the Japanese people, not only showing the physical scars, but also the emotional ones. In "Hell," he even turns the sadness of war into another display of the lingering evil lurking in a man's heart following his mother's death during the bombing of Hiroshima. Tatsumi puts humanity on display here, showing everything from simple joys to the depths of despair.

Artwork: Tatsumi's artwork is nothing like the cartoony style employed by his contemporary at the time, Osamu Tezuka. His backgrounds are realistic, showing the poverty and grime of urban cities. While his panel work is more than competent, it was confusing to see the same character design employed time and again. In several stories, I found myself wondering if what I was reading was connected to another story, especially since the same man seemed to be appearing throughout. Of course, it's also easy to see the influence that Tatsumi has had on comics since -- whether it's in the seinen genre of comics in Japan, or the work done by American graphic novelist (and editor of both A Drifting Life and Good-Bye) Adrian Tomine, of Summer Blonde and Shortcomings fame.

The verdict: Highly recommended. While this book isn't for anyone, this was honestly an amazing piece of storytelling that details the times and attitudes prevalent in 1970s Japan. Life was hard following World War II and it's an eye-opening experience to see exactly how Japan got to where it is today. Lastly, both the introduction by Fred Schodt and the interview between Tomine and Tatsumi reveal more about this powerful and influential artist and his history in the pantheon of manga. Good-Bye is available in the U.S. from Drawn & Quarterly.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 9

The story: In this chapter, "Nuptial Cups," the ochimusha, or defeated warrior, is still stuck in the real world, waiting for his "Hime," or princess. Unfortunately for Sakura's and Rinne's classmate, Kaori, she'll continue to be haunted by the warrior unless she participates in the "nuptial cup" ceremony. In the wedding ceremony, the man and woman drink from the same sake cup in order to join together as one. While Rinne hopes it will go smoothly and that the ochimusha will go to the afterlife as soon as it's done, the warrior has different plans entirely!

Reaction: Maybe it's because I'm married, but I didn't things would go smoothly at all -- even a "fake" marriage to a ghost seems pretty serious and not something to be done so easily. I also loved that Rinne's reputation as the red-headed boy always wearing a track suit preceded him. Despite his "keep to himself" nature, it looks like people can help but notice Rinne!

Deep thoughts: Sharing a sake cup in Japanese culture is a big deal and ties those sharing it to one another, for better or worse. Another use of the sake-sharing ceremony is seen in yakuza, or Japanese gangster, culture. When someone becomes a member of a gang, or when two yakuza groups affiliate, the inductee and his senior, or the two yakuza leaders, will share a cup of sake. Whoever gets more sake in these ceremonies is indicated by their amount of power, and it's expected that the person with less seniority will only take a small sip of the sake, leaving the bulk of the drink to his superior.

Artwork: I loved, loved, loved the color pages that opened this chapter. It really brightens this manga, especially since it isn't complex in terms of scenery or character design. I think it breaks up the "monotony" of the story, although this week's continuing plot has helped do that, too.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I think this week's developments and continuing plotline helped win me over. It took a little while to develop, but I'm beginning to see the distinct personalities of the characters and enjoy the story. While I can see the continuing gag already, it should be interesting to see how Rumiko Takahashi continues to keep this story going. RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 6

The story: This volume starts off with Kyoko and Kanae being hired for their first-ever commercial and their celebration of sorts that afternoon. As Kyoko and Kanae enjoy what Kyoko thinks "normal" girls would enjoy, Kanae's rival and her lackeys are doing their best to get Kanae injured so the rival can substitute her place in commercial. An inspiring confrontation between the two eventually occurs.

Once the commercial finishes filming, Kyoko is then asked to become Ren's substitute manager when everyone at LME becomes ill with a debilitating cold. Of course, touching moments between Kyoko and Ren ensue!

Reaction: The first chapter in this volume is a hoot, especially since the "errand boys" of Kanae's rival are so idiotic. Every time they think they've got Kanae cornered, Kyoko just runs off with her to go check out something she's entirely too excited about. I especially enjoyed all of Ren's flashbacks to when he and Kyoko were children; Kyoko's so precious in them, it's almost hard to believe how different she is today. Of course, her true personality continues to shine through, drawing Ren ever closer to her. Lastly, it was really interesting to see how culturally specific some cold remedies are -- when Ren gets sick, Kyoko gives him a cooling gel pack for his fever and shreds daikon radish with honey to soothe his throat!

Deep thoughts: Kyoko's overexcitement at experiencing new things is very childlike -- throughout this volume, she's marveling at all the things normal teenage girls do that she's now allowed to do, too. It certainly makes for a depressing background story. Because of her past devotion to Sho, Kyoko was never able to experience things like wearing a school uniform or having a best friend. But, there's more at work here, too, considering Kyoko's lonely childhood at the hands of her absentee mother.

Artwork: Kyoko's getting less and less ugly to me, but that may be because her attitude is slowly changing for the better. Or, Yoshiki Nakamura could just be getting better at drawing the character. Additionally, Kyoko's increasing (and subconscious) affection for Ren is illustrated wonderfully without the heavy-handed use of the usual shojo tools -- like sparkles and gracefully falling flowers. Instead, Nakamura shows it in little ways, mostly via Kyoko's facial reactions to whatever Ren has said. Of course, Nakamura still goes for the laughs by using chibis and endearing the reader to Kyoko by frequently showing her as a child.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This story is beginning to deepen in interesting ways and there are more connections being drawn between Kyoko and the people around her. This manga could easily bog down the reader with Kyoko's sob story, but, instead, Nakamura chooses to show the love, humor and determination that is all Kyoko. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Parastye, vol. 1

The story: Alien parasites have secretly invaded Earth, latching onto their host of choice -- humans -- by taking over their brains. Not only are the aliens able to control their hosts, but they're quick to learn, can transform at will and only eat the species they infect -- people. When 16-year-old high school student Shin is incorrectly infected in his arm by a parasite, he learns to live with it and creates a symbiotic relationship of sorts, even going so far as to name it "Migi," Japanese for right (it's in his right arm).

Unfortunately, Shin must also carry the burden of being the only person on the planet that knows what's really going on with the grisly murders happening around the world as the alien parasites eat his fellow humans to keep their numbers strong.

Reaction: I was surprised I liked this as much as I did -- horror isn't something I've ever had a stomach for as genre. But, the overall concept of this manga is intriguing and the most gruesome images are easy enough to glance past. Of course, there are a lot of underlying and serious messages communicated throughout this volume. Despite how easy it would be for Hitoshi Iwaaki to keep this story dark and heavy, he also takes the chance to lighten it up, making jokes at Shin's expense. His parents provide most of the comedic relief, as does Shin's relationship with a female classmate he likes.

Deep thoughts: Out of everything in this story, I found the ethics discussions between Shin and Migi the most interesting. While Migi is cold and logical in his quest for survival -- he only protects Shin in order to protect himself -- Shin is horrified at Migi's attitude and longs to reveal to the world the alien parasite takeover. But, Migi brings up the same point again and again -- Shin's claim that "all life is sacred" is truly only extended to the rest of humanity. To Migi, there's nothing different between the aliens eating humans and humans eating cattle; it's simply survival of the fittest.

Artwork: There's an interesting juxtaposition of the realistic and the surreal in this story. Since the alien parasites can transform at will, their transformations are reminiscent of Salvador Dali's paintings at times. This is in stark contrast to the otherwise normally proportioned and designed human characters. I also found the satsuki, or"killing aura," shown a couple of times throughout the volume to be visually compelling and wonderfully illustrative of just how lethal some characters can be.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I definitely want to know what happens next, especially since this volume leaves on a cliffhanger of sorts. While this could easily be "just" a suspense-filled thriller, Iwaaki certainly presents ethical concepts that most manga don't see fit to explore. Parasyte is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mars, vol. 1

The story: Kira is a shy, artistic girl who keeps to herself. Meanwhile, Rei is an impulsive motorcycle rider who doesn't fear death and lives for the moment. One day, they cross paths and their lives become increasingly intertwined. For Rei, Kira is just another girl. But, it's something altogether different for Kira.

Reaction: My first reaction was "This looks so '90s!" I mean, Kira is wearing a Stussy shirt in the first chapter. It brought back some memories, especially since that's when I went to high school. Anyway, Kira falls hard and fast for Rei, so much so that I almost felt bad for her, especially when she was being bullied by the other girls in her class for it. Somehow, she perseveres through all of this, slowly coming to the realization that she loves Rei. Since she doesn't think much of herself, she constantly tells herself that just the tiniest bit of attention from him is "enough" for her. It's depressing in its own way -- instead of reveling in her first love, Kira simply accepts that it will never be returned.

Deep thoughts: I thought it was interesting to name this manga after the Roman god of war, Mars, similar to the Greek god of war, Ares. Originally, Mars was not considered a god of war and, instead, was worshipped for fertility and to protect farmers. It was only later, when the Roman Empire expanded that he became a god of war. In many ways, it seems that Rei is like Mars -- initially, he protects Kira, but later she looks to him for strength, much like how Mars inspired Roman soldiers. Of course, there's also the fact that Rei is confident and quick to fight.

Artwork: Fuyumi Soryo does a good job in terms of composition and character design. There's also a sparse use of screentone, which is easily overused in shojo manga, and hardly any of the "shojo sparkles." The background scenery isn't overdone, but there are vistas from time to time, especially when Rei's on his motorcycle. Lastly, the character designs for both Rei and Kira perfectly communicate who they are -- Rei's long hair and athletic frame fit him perfectly, while Kira's petite size and girlish looks emphasize her innocence.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Like other high school romance manga, this first volume seemingly cements the relationship between Kira and Rei. However, it won't be easy for the two to be together because of the pure innocence of Kira's love and how Rei doesn't "love" so much as he "likes." What I've seen so far makes me curious to see what comes of the relationship between these two. Mars is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kitchen Princess, vol. 1

The story: Najika is an orphan who loves to cook. Her deceased parents were pastry chefs and she longs to follow in their footsteps. She's also on another mission -- to find her "flan prince," an anonymous boy who shared a delicious flan with her years ago. With the beautiful spoon the boy gave her as her only clue, she heads to Seika Academy. However, once there she finds herself out of her element and longing for home. Fortunately, two brothers with very different personalities who are also sons of the school's director befriend her. Will Najika ever feel welcome at her new school?

Reaction: I loved the concept of food bringing people together and it was great to see Najika overcome her loneliness by cooking. There were even recipes for all the dishes featured at the end of the volume! While on the surface this seems like a romantic comedy, there were some dark undertones, too, which recalled another shojo series I love. From the death of Najika's parents to the bullying she experiences in school to Najika's bright exterior, this story reminds me of one of my other favorite shojo series, Fruits Basket.

Deep thoughts: I loved Najika's ability to remember any food she's tasted. Taste is closely aligned with smell and memories can be triggered by similar smells. There's also recent research showing that overeating can be controlled by smell. By using overwhelming aroma or taking it away completely, people may be able to lose some weight by being satiated by smell or deriving little joy from the eating experience. Maybe that's why we lose our appetites when we're sick.

Artwork: The artwork here is nicely done for a shojo manga. There's certainly enough screentone and "shojo sparkles" to satisfy even the most ardent of fans. But, the best drawings are those of the dishes and snacks that Najika cooks up -- I don't think I've ever been this hungry while reading a manga!

The verdict: Highly recommended. While this seems like your average shojo story, it has so much more going for it with the focus on food. I also like that Najika isn't infallible; while some shojo heroines "never say die," Najika doubts herself and almost gives up. But, because of the love she's spread with her cooking, she finds the support she needs. Kitchen Princess is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Monster, vol. 1

I'm finally digging into this series after David Welsh's column mentioned Monster and its numerous Eisner Award nominations. The Eisner Awards are given at San Diego Comic-Con International each year.

The story: Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a brilliant neurosurgeon working at a German hospital. After a regular patient dies after being "skipped" over in favor of surgery on a famous opera singer, Tenma has a crisis of conscience and vows to save lives.

Since his action in saving a boy dying from a bullet wound ran counter to the hospital director's beliefs, Tenma loses his surgical department chairmanship and is treated as a resident. However, this all changes when Tenma's boss dies. Eventually, Tenma crosses paths with young boy he saved, who seems to have grown into a "monster."

Reaction: Honestly, I felt at home with this manga -- all of my immediate family members work in hospitals, so the politics and science were all very normal to me. So much of this manga explores our humanity, from crying relatives mourning their lost family member to the simple joy inherent in saving lives. But, the fantastic nature of the crimes committed in this first volume, along with the killer's connection to Tenma brought suspense to the forefront. I couldn't have put this down if I wanted to; it was that tense.

Deep thoughts: Neurosurgery is one of the hardest specializations to work in. Even though so many of Dr. Tenma's patients' brains are nearly destroyed before seeing him, it's the miracle of the brain's ability to heal itself that allows people to lead somewhat normal lives following major head trauma. Recent research has shown that while one portion of the brain is damaged, other parts will compensate for that loss.

Artwork: After reading quite a bit of shojo lately, with its "beautiful people," it was a breath of fresh air to see realistically proportioned characters, even if it seemed that too many people possessed bulbous noses. I also loved the nearly photorealistic images, especially in the scenes taking place outside of the hospital and the surgical close-ups.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Really, this is on the cusp of "Required reading." The first few pages of this manga set up who Dr. Tenma is and who he has been up until the moment he makes his decision to help anyone, regardless of their elite connections. Of course, I want to see exactly how this murder mystery turns out and how it changes Dr. Tenma -- for better or worse. Monster is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Blank Slate, vol. 2

The story: Zen's mysterious past is finally revealed in this second, and last, volume. First, Zen visits his old home, where he was found after being severely injured ten years ago. Later, there is a confrontation where those involved in making Zen who he is today come out of obscurity and the conspiracy behind his existence is shared.

Reaction: There are quite a few big reveals in this volume, including the secret pasts of two important characters. When I learned the truth about them, it made me see the events of the first volume in a completely new light. Of course, I didn't particularly like the somewhat ambiguous death of one of the few likable characters.

Deep thoughts: This volume shows how hypnosis is used to control people. I've always found the ability to tap into someone's unconscious fascinating, especially when it causes people to act in a way they never would in real life. Of course, it's threatening on another level as well, as it allows someone to have complete control over you and your actions.

Artwork: The focus here is on the characters and Aya Kanno's art is still beautiful here, especially the younger versions of Dr. Hakka, Zen and Colonel Gia. Since this focus exists, there is very little else as a result. The scenes are sparse, only revealing the most needed details to communicate the setting. Unsurprisingly, the most detailed scenes are those involving the slaughter and death brought on by Zen throughout the years, truly showing his lack of humanity.

The verdict: If only... I really wanted to like Zen here and to support him, but I found myself without reason. While, in the end, he resolved to be the only one in control of his destiny, this story could have been so much more if, at long last, Zen was able to at least exhibit some of the simplest of human emotions. However, this volume is an improvement on the first and a good enough read if you like mysterious thrillers. Blank Slate is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sexy Voice and Robo

The story: Nico Hayashi, code name "Sexy Voice" because of her skill in manipulating her voice, is a teenage girl with a peculiar part-time job as a phone club operator. Iichiro Sudo, or "Robo," is a hapless twenty-something who collects toy robots, hence the nickname. Together, Sexy Voice and Robo work for their mysterious benefactor, an old gangster Sexy Voice regularly meets up with. Robo, for the most part, falls time and again for one of Nico's voices and always ends up along for the ride.

Reaction: Talk about an exciting story! I love the curious situations Nico investigates, with Sudo as her lackey of sorts. Hopping from situation to situation, Nico and Sudo make quick work of mysteries and missing people, making it look seemingly effortless in the process. And right when you've gotten used to the episodic nature of this manga, Iou Kuroda changes things and pushes through some character and plot development.

Deep thoughts: Nico's phone club operation is built for men interested in enjo kosai, or compensated dating. The concept itself is interesting -- men giving women gifts for spending time with them. Of course, I wonder what kind of men call.

While this manga may or may not be a reflection of reality, it seems that either lonely 20-year-olds (like Robo), or men in their 30s call most often. In the way Kuroda tells it, these older men are seemingly disillusioned by the lives they've been asked to build for themselves and their families. Hence, the allure of a relationship without strings in which there's an equal exchange of goods. Thankfully, it seems that when teenage girls enter into enjo kosai, there's actually very little sex, if any, exchanged for gifts.

Artwork: The artwork here is thick-lined and fairly minimalist. Settings aren't so much presented as conveyed -- there's a wild quality to the linework that is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso's Don Quixote. Kuroda has a knack for creating a wide cast of characters, each recognizable in their own way, regardless of the context or close-up.

The verdict:
Required reading. This is what manga should be -- visually interesting and different with a vibrant cast of characters and a premise that may be imitable, but never replicable. I was hooked from page one and know that I'll be re-reading this time and again, while simultaneously crossing my fingers for more from Kuroda. Sexy Voice and Robo is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 8

The story: In this week's chapter, "Afraid to Fall Asleep," one of Rinne's and Sakura's classmates is haunted by an ochimusha, or a samurai who ran away during battle. Every time Kaori falls asleep, the ochimusha appears and tries to give her sake to drink. Since Kaori is so troubled by the dream, not to mention sleep deprived, Sakura wants Rinne to help.

Reaction: The ochimusha is an interesting character and his presence brings up an intriguing question: who is this "Hime" that Kaori reminds him of and how is she related to his predicament in the afterlife? Whenever I see a wounded warrior or soldier it automatically signals a tragic story in my mind. Who is the ochimusha and why is he stuck in this world?

Deep thoughts: Again, I'm fascinated by the Japanese language, which seems to give deeper meanings vis-a-vis a single word, as opposed to English which simply employs compound modifiers and adjectives. While we would say a "defeated warrior," or some variation thereof, the Japanese encompass all that meaning in one word. I guess my friend, a native Japanese speaker, was right; Japanese is more beautifully descriptive than English!

Artwork: While the storyline in this chapter is much more grim than previous ones, the art helps in setting the tone, too. In one panel, Sakura appears with a greyish blood spatter behind her. There are also great illustrations that are great at "showing" emotion, as opposed to "telling" it. For example, Kaori's quiet desperation is illustrated by dark circles under her eyes and a desperate sigh -- all in the space of five panels and four words.

The verdict: If only... This is really on the brink of being moved up to highly recommended, but I won't change it until I have more material to review. Regardless, this chapter really captured my attention more so than those before it. At long last, Rumiko Takahashi is beginning to draw me in with her storytelling style. Here's to hoping my attention stays captured! RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Swan, vol. 1

The story: Masumi is a teenage girl who loves ballet dancing. In the opening chapter, she busts into a professional production of Swan Lake because she wants to meet two of its famous stars. When she meets them, she loses her voice and "dances" her feelings instead. After that, she's asked to head to Tokyo (she's from Hokkaido in the north) for a national ballet competition. Once there, she meets elite ballet students from throughout Japan and international instructors. Given the opportunity to learn from the best, will Masumi rise to the occasion?

Reaction: I really, really wanted to like this book, but I had a hard time getting into it. Masumi is flaky, flighty, impulsive and so naive. For a protagonist, I just found her unlikable. Then again, I think it might have to do with the truly "teenage" personality she has. Otherwise, I found the premise interesting and the other characters quite enjoyable. While the explanation of various ballets and moves got a little long and broke up the pacing of the story, I really did benefit from them because I have zero background in ballet.

Deep thoughts: Even though this manga was originally published in Japan in the 1970s, it was still odd to see the Soviet Union mentioned. I guess my brain is so used to the dissolution of the former U.S.S.R. that it took me a second to register the old name. Granted, its placement makes sense considering the popularity of ballet in Russia.

Artwork: This is another place where the manga dates itself -- from the fashion to the hair to the comedic panels -- you could really tell that this was made in the '70s. It was pretty funny to see what passed as "fashion" back then (suspenders, anyone?).

Also, it seems that the super-deformed style, or chibi, is a more recent art style used for comedic relief. Here Ariyoshi Kyoko uses big, goofy eyes and a wagging tongue to indicate humor. While the art style isn't bad or ugly, it took a little while to get used to it. My only complaints are the ill-proportioned limbs in a two-page spread where Masumi and another dancer are jumping across the pages, the pointy noses used in character profiles and the use of literally blank eyes to indicate surprise (no pupil or iris whatsoever). It's fairly spooky looking!

The verdict: If only... Again, I tried hard to like this manga, especially since it's considered such a classic. Maybe it was the exposition, or just Masumi, but I had a difficult time "feeling" for her. But, the other characters and, again, the plot helped elevate this from "meh" territory for me. Because of its revered status, I'll definitely check out the next few volumes to see if this story gets moving. Swan is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 5

The story: Kyoko's finally found some success with a steady gig. But does she have what it takes to win a part in her next audition? Both Kyoko and Kanae head off to the audition with high hopes, only to have a rival of Kanae's show up to ruin their chance at success.

Reaction: A good portion of this volume is dedicated to the two-day audition. It was really fun to watch the relationship between Kyoko and Kanae grow. I also liked how being part of the Love Me section proved an important way of garnering the director's attention.

Deep thoughts: I've done auditions and improv before, so I was personally interested in how the process was presented in this manga. It's really hard to come up with such good ideas on such short notice, but it proves how much natural talent Kyoko and Kanae possess.

Artwork: With the introduction of so many new characters, it would be easy to mix them up, or to replicate them and make only slight changes to distinguish them. However, Yoshiki Nakamura has such a talent for creating characters that are not only distinct in personality, but also in physical representation. I particularly liked the director's tough-guy, yakuza look!

The verdict: Highly recommended. I loved the character development in this volume. While it's subtle at times, it proves that Kyoko's growing as she deepens her relationships with the people around her. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fullmetal Alchemist, vol. 1

After discovering Hiromu Arakawa's art in the newly licensed Hero Tales in Yen Plus magazine, I decided to finally check out her "other" series -- the wildly popular Fullmetal Alchemist.

The story: Alphonse and Edward Elric are teenage brothers and alchemists. Both survived a horrific accident when they were younger and attempted to resurrect their dead mother. In surviving the accident both brothers were afflicted -- Edward has two metal prosthetics, while Al is simply a soul in a suit of armor. Their story starts with the discovery of a priest abusing the powers of alchemy and then quickly goes into the boys' history and their search for the philospher's stone.

Reaction: Since I was only mildly familiar with this story, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. In this first volume, I quickly learned about alchemy, the Elric brothers' past and the quest they're on. While some series might hit you over the head with expository dialog to set this all up, it never seemed to come off as unnatural or overly explanatory in this book. Additionally, there was just as much "showing" as "telling" when it came to the flashbacks. Also, while the Elrics' story is sad, they don't dwell on it and neither does Arakawa, providing a humorous balance by making Edward overly sensitive to comments about his height (or lack thereof).

Deep thoughts: As a precursor to chemistry in the Middle Ages, alchemy has no place in modern science. However, creating an entirely new element through the manipulation of another is a fascinating concept. Of course, the philosopher's stone that Edward and Alphonse pursue here is referenced in several other works, including various books and movies, as well as cited by early scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton.

Artwork: Edward Elric has one of the most expressive faces in all of manga! He can go from defeat to rage to smugness so easily. The other characters and their costumes are designed well, too, making it easy to differentiate one person from another.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I can't believe it took me so long to discover this interesting series. While I know the Elrics' quest to restore themselves will be a long one, I think I'm willing to go along for the ride. Fullmetal Alchemist is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Backstage Prince, vol. 2

The story: In this volume, which ends the series, Ryusei and Akari face challenges to their relationship from Ryusei's father, the paparazzi, another actor enamored of Akari and Ryusei's fangirls. Will their love survive the assault?

Reaction: Should two high schoolers be thinking about marriage? Because that's what sets up this volume -- the engagement between Ryusei and Akari. Ryusei's stubbornness comes to a head and he announces he has a fiance during a televised interview, so, of course, the celebrity media does its best to capture him and Akari together. This only leads to more hardships for the couple, especially when fellow actor, Naoki, declares he will "never give up" on trying to win Akari's heart.

Deep thoughts: In this volume, Ryusei and his rival, Naoki, pair up together with Naoki as the woman in a story of betrayal. In modern kabuki, most roles are still played by men, including those for female roles. Interestingly, kabuki actually started as an all-female endeavor.

Artwork: The characters are attractive and easy to distinguish from one another, and the kabuki and non-kabuki scenes illustrated equally well. At times, though, there seems to be a heavy-handed use of screentone and blushing faces, but that's to be expected from a shojo manga, especially ones involving high school girls.

The verdict: Meh. There wasn't anything too particularly exciting about the end to this series. Sure, Ryusei and Akari face some adversity, but they both make stupid decisions and Akari never seems to understand Naoki's motives. It's puerile and anti-climactic, and, outside of its kabuki setting, is fairly similar to every other stereotypical, high school romance, shojo manga out there. Backstage Prince is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Blank Slate, vol. 1

The story: The first chapter tells the tale of a bounty hunter in search of a man named Zen, the series' anti-hero. Zen has no memory of his prior 20 years of existence, and death and destruction are left in his wake. After kidnapping the sheltered and blind daughter of a powerful general in the Galay army, Zen finds himself paired up with Dr. Hakka and in pursuit of the truth about Zen's past.

Reaction: Wow -- this manga is unlike any other shojo story I've ever read. While most shojo features magical girls, comedy or romance, Blank Slate has none of the above. This is Devil-may-care, destruction-sowing action, violence and thriller all wrapped into one. It's disjointed feel, especially at the beginning, is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

Deep thoughts: Rian, the blind daughter of the Galayan general, seemed all-too-eager to escape her overly protective parents. Even though kidnapping would be a frightening experience for anyone, she seemed to quietly relish the opportunity to live a spontaneous moment or two. Rian's character also seems to play to the "disabled hottie" trope so often explored in other pop culture mediums. She's a fragile beauty, if you will, who only wants to live an independent life.

Artwork: Aya Kanno's artwork is fairly stylized and distinct. Her characters are all lifelike, while still maintaining an alluring beauty, especially Zen. Even the old fortune teller at the beginning of this volume is attractive in a very bohemian/gypsy way. I also found it interesting that Kanno is also the artist/author of the recently popular Otomen, which is more of a traditional shojo manga.

The verdict: Meh. Although this isn't your everyday shojo story, it reminds me of many other books I've read and films I've seen. It sets up a mysterious anti-hero whose past is a secret even to him. The only problem is, we're never given a reason to be interested in Zen's plight. The reader knows early on that Zen only cares for his basest instincts -- killing and destruction. When he's given moments to show his humanity, he never takes the opportunity for character growth. Blank Slate is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 7

The story: The mysterious origins of both Rinne and the black cat, or bakeneko, are revealed in this week's chapter, "Black Cat by Contract." Evidently, Rinne does live in the abandoned club building in order to save money and there is a very good reason for his penny-pinching ways.

Reaction: I have a feeling Rokumon, the black cat, is going to serve as the comedic (and cuteness) relief in this story. I hate to continue to draw parallels between this story and Inuyasha, but it's hard not to. The more I read it, the more I get the feeling that this could be another very long story by Rumiko Takahashi. And while I enjoyed Inuyasha very much, its length is what deterred me from reading more volumes.

Deep thoughts: I have to agree with The Rumic World blog, Takahashi does handle expository dialog quite well, especially in explaining Rinne's and his grandmother's backstory. Oftentimes, especially in graphic novels, explaining what's going on can bog down a story and mess with the pacing the author has so diligently followed up until now. In using sequential art, it can also become frustrating as dialog bubbles fill more and more of each panel, exhausting the reader mentally and visually.

Artwork: I really liked the wedding scene between Rinne's grandmother and grandfather. The macabre "minister" is a great fit for this series and I find myself really enjoying the undead world Takahashi built for this story. I also loved the "spirited" guests at the ceremony!

The verdict: Honestly, I liked this chapter better than some of the previous ones. There seems to be "a method to the madness" at this point, and we're given a jumping off point for where this story will go in the future. While I'm not going to change my rating just yet, I certainly hope things really get moving in the next chapter! RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 4

The story: This volume continues the end of the acting class scene that volume three ended on. Of course, Kyoko rises to the challenge laid before her and surprises both her classmates and her friends. Hard truths are also revealed about both Kyoko's and Maria's families. Unbeknownst to Kyoko, it seems that she shares history with Ren. Later, she chances upon a job opportunity that brings her into close contact with Sho.

Reaction: Talk about a heartbreaker! This chapter starts off with some serious dramatic moments. Thankfully, it's balanced in the back half with a fairly humorous go-around between Kyoko and Sho. I also particularly loved the scene where Kyoko seems to jump using her hands to reclaim "Corn," her beloved purplish-blue stone.

Deep thoughts: When Kyoko is told she needs parental permission to keep working, she asks if she truly needs to. Being curious, I looked up the age at which people are considered legal adults in Japan. Evidently, Japan is the only country in the world to declare someone a legal adult at age 20. Only Singapore has an older age for legal adults at 21.

Artwork: There are some truly humorous moments in this volume, especially since Kyoko plays the part of Bo, a chicken mascot, on a talent show. The costume is huge and unwieldy, but, somehow, Kyoko manages to wear it well enough to keep up with Sho in a showdown of badminton. It's hard to show movement with such a large costume, but somehow Yoshiki Nakamura handles it well.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This series may not have the best art, but it has an amazing balance of drama and humor. You're never left sobbing, but you won't die of laughter, either. Nakamura keeps it all coming without wearing you out emotionally one way or the other. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Manga at the Library

It's fairly obvious that manga reading can be an expensive endeavor. Unfortunately, I don't have a ton of money for manga, so much of what I read and review is borrowed from the library. I've been an avid library user since I was a kid -- while everyone was content going to the park to play, I'd inevitably end up at the library across the street!

While not everyone has a huge manga library available to them, like the one at Monash University in Australia (pictured), I thought it might be helpful to share a few of my tips, so that you can enjoy more of your local library's resources.

1. Know your library options! Be sure to check around for all of your library options. I have three available to me: my city library, my county library and my university's library (which, coincidentally, has one of the largest indie comic book and 'zine collections in the country). And don't forget to check nearby libraries to see what you need to do to get a library card. For example, people not employed or attending the university must pay an annual fee for access to its library. Luckily, my city and county libraries don't charge any additional fees outside of a one-time application fee.

2. Use inter-library loan. But, what if your library doesn't have too many graphic novels to read? If you only have one library system available to you, be sure to use inter-library loan (ILL) to borrow books from other locations in your library's network. Just be sure to see what ILL policies are for your library, as they may charge a fee for obtaining a book on your behalf.

3. Search for books the right way. Depending on how I search for manga in my city library's online catalog, I can get six pages versus 30 pages and even up to 50 pages of results! Unless you know the specific title you want, always use the advanced search function. Also, if your online catalog employs tags or specific terms for manga, use those in your search. For example, my library has several different tags, so I simply search the graphic novel genre with "Japan" as a key word.

4. Use holds, if you can. In my city and county library systems, you can request or hold a book using the online catalog and have it sent to your local branch. For example, my county library has Kitchen Princess, but it's only available at a branch at least 30 minutes away driving. Instead of making the trek, I just request it and they send it to my local branch to pick up, usually giving me a one-week window to do so.

5. Shelves can be misleading. If you're more the type to physically search shelves at your library for books, make sure you know how your library shelves them. Some libraries have them all in one spot (like my city library branch), while others shelve them according to content (say, historical fiction), like my university library. Also, become best friends with the "new titles" shelves at your local branch, as that's how you'll find the newest acquisitions. That's how I found Life Sucks.

6. Use Book Burro. I really love this Mozilla Firefox widget, Book Burro. Here's how it works: say you're searching for a book on, when you do so, Book Burro searches the online catalog of libraries around the world and lets you know where the book is available and how far away that library is. You can also specify what libraries you want Book Burro to search, too. It's a great way to find a particular title, especially if you're forced to use ILL.

7. Request, please! So, all of these tips are all well and good, but what if your library doesn't have ANY manga to speak of? Well, then, request it! Librarians are always looking for new books to share with their patrons, and graphic novels are growing in popularity each year. Many systems have an online request form that you send out and some will even notify you if they decide to purchase it. Some publishers may also be willing to offer their books to libraries at a discount, so be sure to provide a link to the publisher's website in your request.

8. Don't forget to give back, too. Now, it's so easy to just borrow, borrow, borrow from your library that you can forget to give back, too. So, the next time you have a random volume or series that you're no longer interested in, please consider donating it to your library. Even if you didn't enjoy it, that doesn't mean someone else won't! Of course, libraries always take cash donations, too.

Gankutsuou, vol. 2

I also write reviews for MangaCast and you can read my original review of this volume here. The below review is a rewritten version that includes additional content.

The story: The second volume of the manga, co-authored by Gonzo co-founder Mahiro Maeda, continues the tale of revenge sought by Edmond Dantes against the men who orchestrated his demise many years ago. Here, Dantes, now the Count of Monte Cristo, takes vengeance on the Villefort family. The Villefort family patriarch, Gerard de Villefort, is the highest-ranking judge in futuristic Paris. In these chapters, the family experiences several trying situations involving murder, poisoning, incest and deceit. The reader is practically compelled to watch the Villeforts give in, one by one, to the Count's evil and the madness it brings with it.

Reaction: Being very familiar with both the book and the anime, I was worried that I would find the manga dull in its replication or that it would pale in comparison to the anime. However, I was surprised with an alternate plotline and an overall theme that better reflects the original source material. Then again, this volume's darker tone may be a result of the seinen anthology it was serialized in, Afternoon.

Deep thoughts: There are some interesting visual analogies throughout this volume. One scene with Madame Villefort's shows her greenhouse teeming with life, but in one corner is a rotting rat carcass, filled with maggots. It's a curious juxtaposition that horrifies the senses, especially since there's such an abundance of flora nearby. It also shows just how much darker this alternate storyline is in comparison to the anime series.

Artwork: Much of the artwork here evokes the anime, but also Maeda's prior experience at Studio Ghibli. In one scene where the Count seduces Madame Villefort, the illustration is reminiscent of scenes from Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa. While this black-and-white retelling lacks the brilliance of its animated predecessor, its darkness fits this story all too well. Additionally, the two supplements at the end of this volume expand the reader's knowledge of the world of Gankutsuou with beautiful pen-drawn visuals by Maeda.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I must admit I'm just as engrossed as I was when I originally read The Count of Monte Cristo in junior high and when I watched the anime this past year. Much like a train wreck, I know this story will end badly for all involved, but I can't seem to pull myself away from watching the carnage unfold. Gankutsuou is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 3

The story: Things get even more interesting for Kyoko in this volume as her acting skills are tested not once, but twice! As her personal story unfolds, it seems that Kyoko's acting is a reflection of the hardship she endured as a child. At one point, she's devastated that her desire to please Sho's parents provided her with the tools to succeed. An unexpected side of Ren is also unveiled as he helps pick Kyoko up from the depths of despair over her realization.

Reaction: Kyoko's Cinderella-like story is sad, but it's downright depressing when she realizes that she's "completely empty inside." Thankfully, the rueful moment ends quickly enough with a joke. And that's what great about this series so far -- despite the dark moments Kyoko faces, Yoshiki Nakamura makes sure readers don't frown too long and provides much-needed comedic relief.

Deep thoughts: The beginning of this volume features the tea ceremony, with which I'm particularly fascinated. It seems like such a simple task, but it takes years of training for people to perform the ceremony perfectly. And, on top of knowing the ceremony, there are other expectations of servers, like knowing flower arranging and calligraphy. In many ways, its beauty is in its simplicity.

Artwork: I'll be honest, Kyoko looks downright ugly in some scenes. In one panel, her features are particularly exaggerated and, when she's supposed to look fierce, she ends up looking even more drastically pointy-chinned and her squinty eyes do her no favors. But, in some ways, it really matches her ugly attitude, like when she's thinking of revenge. Thankfully, other scenes and characters make up for this -- whether it's the agency president, Lory, or Kanae, the newest member of the Love Me section.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Despite my opinions on the art, the storyline more than makes up for it. And, in this volume, we're treated to some character growth on Kyoko's part as she finds something worth working towards -- acting. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Gankutsuou, vol. 1

The story: Gankutsuou is a sci-fi retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. Based on the Gonzo-animated film, Gankutsuou weaves macabre revenge amid carnival in Luna Catholic, a city on the moon. Two young men, Albert and Franz, visit the city for its popular festival and (presumably) to help 15-year-old Albert lose his virginity. Enter in the Count of Monte Cristo, formerly Edmond Dantes, who has a grand and horrific plan for extracting his vengeance by first befriending the sons of his enemies. Interestingly, Albert is enchanted by the Count, and so begins the tale.

Reaction: I read The Count of Monte Cristo when I was much younger and, more recently, watched the anime that this manga was based on. Thankfully, neither are needed to understand this story, although it does help in keeping track of the ensemble cast of characters. I found this version to be more reminiscent of the book, especially with its grim retelling of Dante's imprisonment. Although this starts similarly enough to the anime, the manga version takes a different tact entirely.

Deep thoughts: I loved the melding of cultures in the Luna version of carnival. Several different types of imagery were present from the costumes of Brazilian carnaval to skull-like masks echoing the Dia de los Muertos holiday in Mexico to the candles of the Italian carnevale. The fact that Luna is a "catholic" city explained its extravagant celebration before an assumed period of asceticism, much like the world's various celebrations prior to Lent, such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Artwork: While the anime set a high bar for artwork, with its amazing use of Photoshop textures and 3-D animation, the manga version does not disappoint. Mahiro Maeda, one of the founders of Gonzo (the animation company of this same title), also serves as an author here. While the book can't compete with a color version, what is presented is amazing linework illustrating the vast riches the Count has amassed, as well as the extravagance of the world he inhabits. The flashbacks where Dantes considered his fate while imprisoned are dark and, at times, slightly revolting. These same scenes are also suggestive of Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa; this similiary might be explained by the fact that Maeda worked at Studio Ghibli prior to starting Gonzo.

The verdict: Highly recommended. For those that liked the book upon which this is based, or for those who enjoyed the anime, this manga is a great re-imagining and does not disappoint. Of course, those unfamiliar with the source material will find a story worth reading, too. Gankutsuou is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Goodbye, Shojo Beat

I received my last issue of Shojo Beat magazine in the mail earlier this week. I've been a faithful subscriber for exactly two years and eagerly awaited its arrival each month. I've been lucky to discover quite a few great (and not-so-great) manga through this publication. And I've had the opportunity to enjoy classics -- like Honey and Clover -- but also revel in my guilty pleasures, like Vampire Knight.

While reading Shojo Beat was always for fun, it was also a part of my almost-too-covert mission to make reading comics in public acceptable. Much like the "knitting in public" movement of Stitch n' Bitch fame, I read manga and graphic novels in public -- while eating lunch at work, or waiting for the train each day -- to not only pass the time, but to also show that "normal" people read comics, too. And, for 24 issues, Shojo Beat was a part of that slightly defiant act.

But, now, I find myself saying goodbye to a great publication. It's hard to not understand where Viz is coming from -- heck, if this saves them from going under altogether or drastically reducing output or licenses, then, it's a fond farewell to Shojo Beat. At least the imprint will live on and, for fans of the series that ran each month, they might see more frequent releases of new volumes.

As far as this last issue was concerned, I was pretty saddened to see that there was little mention of the magazine folding. Then again, there's anywhere from a two- to four-month lead for magazines, so the announcement may have been made after the issue had closed. The only indications of impending closure in the July 2009 issue were the "favorite Shojo Beat moments" question posed in the front end, and, instead of the end-of-volume and chapter-ending previews, readers were pointed in the direction of the series' latest volume. Otherwise, there was seemingly no indication that the magazine was calling it quits.

Thankfully, I found a good home for my two years' worth of issues -- my co-worker's daughter was a reluctant reader until I lent her some shojo manga. Now, she's hooked! So, my loss is her daughter's gain. I'm just glad they found a good home -- it was either that or donating them to my local library.

Regardless, thanks for the good times, Shojo Beat. You made girls (and women like me) an important part of the comic book industry, regaling us with something more than big-busted girls being saved by various male superheroes. Here's to hoping it made a lasting imprint on a troubled industry, despite its lack of long-term success.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Chapter Review: Children of the Sea, chp. 3

Since Children of the Sea is going to print, regardless of its popularity in Viz's online anthology, IKKI, I will discontinue chapter reviews of this series after this post. I do plan to review this series in its print version.

The story: This chapter, "Hitodama," starts with another "testimony of the sea," or a mystery told to Daisuke Igarashi as he did his research for this series, and it really sets the tone. Following the short three-page testimony, there's another peek into Ruka's troubled relationship with her parents and a quiet moment at school in which she realizes just how lonely she is. As if sensing her isolation, Umi appears and they go off together for the arrival of a "hitodama" that he senses.

Reaction: All the sound effects in this chapter give Ruka's world another layer of depth. While reading along, I could "hear" the hollow footsteps in the school's hallway, the chirping of summer insects and the noise of desks being moved. This manga's details truly immerse the reader in the world Igarashi has created.

Deep thoughts: I had to look up the meaning of hitodama, as I wasn't familiar with the term. Evidently, "hitodama are believed in Japanese folklore to be the souls of the newly dead taking form of mysterious fiery apparitions." I'm constantly amazed at the definitive ability of Japanese language for such specific concepts -- while we simply lump hitodama in with ghosts or spirits, the Japanese language has seen fit to provide a word specifically for these apparitions.

Artwork: There's so much loving care and fine points in this manga, especially with the opening, colored pages. Igarashi's illustrations really provide such a great sense of place throughout, whether it's Ruka's classroom, her home or the beach from which she and Umi watch the hitodama.

The verdict: Again, I don't have enough content to make a sound judgment, but Children of the Sea is certainly the best manga I've read online and I know I'll be "clicking in" to watch this mysterious tale unveil itself in the coming weeks, as well as purchasing the print volumes when they're available. Children of the Sea is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 2

The story: It's been a few days since Kyoko failed the LME audition and she's given up her dream of revenge. But, a chance encounter renews her inner demons and she returns to the agency. Of course, the kooky president has a plan and Kyoko becomes the first member of the new "Love Me" section. While Kyoko does her best to be loved for her work, she is presented with the opportunity to win a role against a selfish singer cum actress.

Reaction: I love this volume's themes of perseverance, confidence and determination. Even though Kyoko could easily become a solitary character (especially considering her roller coaster of emotions lately), she's unknowingly surrounded herself with people who care about her. When Taisho (her boss at Daruyama) gives her a pep talk, she seems renewed and more ready than ever to succeed.

Deep thoughts: The symbolism behind the daruma is one I've seen before -- most recently in Walkin' Butterfly. I love how the daruma never falls over; it always bounces back. Also, the drawing in of a second eye once the goal is reached lends a tangible expression of accomplishment to more esoteric objectives.

Artwork: Again, there's nothing particularly spectacular about how the characters look. However, there are some characters that are so amusingly distinct, like LME President Lory and Kyoko's bosses at Daruyama. The comedic touches, including Kyoko's personal demons and her absurd reactions, provide much-needed visual variety.

The verdict: Highly recommended. My opinion hasn't changed since the last volume -- this story continues to amuse and seems to move along quickly, which matches Kyoko's mercurial personality. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chapter Review: RIN-NE, chp. 6

The story: While some questions are answered in this chapter, "Mystery in the Club Building," Takahashi has also introduced a new character that raises even more questions. In this short chapter, Rinne reveals some secrets about his past, including an odd reincarnation story about his grandfather becoming a mackerel. But, when Sakura's friend Miho notices an odd light in a soon-to-be-demolished campus building, it only raises more questions about Rinne and the company he keeps.

Reaction: Ah, once again Rumiko Takahashi has found a way for me to keep coming back for more! While it's easy to guess what the "odd light" is in the abandoned club building, she finds a way to reel me back in with another cliffhanger-ish ending, wherein she dangles more of Rinne's mysterious past before me.

Deep thoughts: All the cultural references are pretty cool -- whether it's about reincarnation, or how mackerel tastes good simmered in miso. With the exception of Inuyasha, I'd say this is one of Takahashi's most distinctly Japanese series so far. By bringing together spirtuality, religion, food and other other cultural "markers," Takahashi truly illustrates tidbits of Japanese culture without shoving it down her worldwide audience's throat.

Artwork: Alright, I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for cute characters and the new character introduced in this chapter is no exception. Otherwise, nothing amazingly exceptional here -- Takahashi's a deft artist and seems to have a balance of "just enough" detail in scenery and in characters. While I wasn't a huge fan of the character design of Rinne, I must admit that the more his character is revealed, the more his design seems to fit.

The verdict: If only... Six chapters is more or less what would be contained in a single volume. While I admit that this series certainly isn't the worst thing I've ever read (far from it, actually), it isn't what I've come to expect from Takahashi, either. In many ways, this story is reminscent of her most recent series, Inuyasha: a boy with a "mixed" heritage, wildly colored hair, lonely childhood and mysterious background accompanied (and, at times, assisted) by a young, teenage schoolgirl.

Honestly, if Takahashi hadn't set the bar so high with stories like One-Pound Gospel and Maison Ikkaku, I don't think I would have "graded" her so hard. Of course, I'll still keep reading and reviewing this series, especially since I want to encourage Viz's venture into legal, simultaneous translations of Japanese manga. RIN-NE is serialized online by Viz and can be read here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, vol. 4

The story: We finally learn a little more about Dr. Guell and his past when his two best friends visit Opal. The two research scientists/siblings/palettes, Gosti and Mage, help focus this volume on Dr. Guell. Their visit also inspires Cello to think about her future and what she'd like to do once she graduates. The story closes with a tense moment between Cello and Dr. Guell. And, again, there's another cute one-shot, titled "Full-Fledged Housekeeper," about a fox spirit serving as a housekeeper.

Reaction: I liked Mage and Gosti, especially since Gosti's conversation with Cello made her think more deeply upon her future. It was also pretty funny when Cello was sick from "brain fever," which happens to people "when a normally dormant brain is suddenly used." And while I know it's bad form to enjoy the fox spirit side-story more than the actual volume, I was left wishing there was more to "Full-Fledged Housekeeper."

Deep thoughts: I think it's great to have another strong female character in Gosti. While Cello's mother and grandmother are strong women, they're seen infrequently and are carpenters, not palettes. Especially after the initial chapter, where the female teacher cum burglar felt inferior, it's nice to see a successful woman who was able to achieve her dreams of being a palette and leaving Opal.

Artwork: I loved the character designs for Gosti and Mage and their bird partners, especially considering the huge differences in size (Mage's partner is an ostrich, while Gosti's bird fits in her cleavage). I also thought the fox spirit in "Full-Fledged Housekeeper" was super cute and reminiscent of Shippo from Inuyasha.

The verdict: If only... I liked the focus on the new characters, but, again, it was the relationship between Dr. Guell and Cello that got to me. Sure, she's a little older, but now she's curious as to the tense moment with Guell and why it made her feel the way she did. Guell also alludes to what she's doing to him (presumably teasing him), which I can't really say I support. If it weren't for Gosti and the one-shot at the end, I don't know that I would have liked this volume very much. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 1

The story: Sweet, helpful Kyoko Mogami ran off to Tokyo with the love of her life, Sho, who is following his dream of becoming a pop singer. Sho finds success quickly, dumping Kyoko in the process. But, instead of just taking it, Kyoko vows revenge on Sho, promising to become a bigger celebrity than he is. She sets her sights on LME, a rival agency of Sho's, and unsuccessfully auditions.

Reaction: This is one crazy and funny manga! In the first chapter, the reader gets a real feel for just how devoted Kyoko is to Sho; it's hard not to feel sorry for her. But, once Sho reveals his motivations for bringing Kyoko with him on his road to celebrity, she loses it. The evil spirits that surround her and her now-black aura are played to great comedic effect and really make this a shojo manga that stands out against the rest.

Deep thoughts: Of course, when the "box with many, many locks" within Kyoko's heart is unchained by Sho's callous claims, I couldn't help but think of Pandora's box. In the Greek myth, when the box was opened, Pandora unleashed a host of ills upon the world. But, at the very bottom of the box lay "hope." By the end of this volume, I sincerely wanted Kyoko to find hope and to persevere.

Artwork: Okay, this isn't particularly beautiful artwork. The males are of the wide-shouldered bishonen variety and the women often have the stereotypical big eyes, pointy chin look. However, the chibis and evil spirits infuse this tale with some much-needed visual variety and are entertaining to boot. The uncommon panel composition also keeps the eye moving along quickly, pulling the reader along for the roller coaster ride of Kyoko's experiences and emotions.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This volume gets down to the point quickly, showing Kyoko's unwavering support and unrepentant need for vengeance. She's a character of extremes, but it's ultimately a pleasure to read along. Lastly, this comedic story alludes to some darker themes, providing some dramatic elements as well. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.