Monday, August 31, 2009

Maid Sama!, vol. 1

After hearing about this manga some time ago, I had the opportunity to read and review Maid Sama thanks to a giveaway by Sesho's Anime and Manga Reviews. If you haven't seen Sesho's site, I highly recommend it. He reviews a wide variety of anime, manga and related video games. Thanks for the free copy, Sesho!

The story: Misaki is a man-hating teenage girl who has worked her butt off to become president of her school, which was an all-boys' institution until recently. Since the girls are still outnumbered, Misaki has become their hero of sorts, all the while brow-beating any boys who stand in her way. But, Misaki's got a secret—she works at a maid cafe after school! Hating the contradictory nature of her work, she's horrified when one of the coolest boys in school, Takumi, finds out about her job. Thankfully, Takumi isn't one to gossip and instead takes to going to the cafe everyday to see Misaki. But, why is Takumi so interested in her?

Reaction: While so many manga have weak females, Misaki is tough as nails—she's physically strong, a good student and willing to do anything for her family. It's both refreshing and an interesting contrast to her job as a maid, constantly calling customers "master" and serving them despite her antipathy. Usui's a curious character, too, with his unexplained interest in Misaki along with his popularity among all the girls at school (and other schools, too, evidently). The situations that Misaki and Usui find themselves in are funny in their own right and teach Misaki some important lessons along the way.

Deep thoughts: The whole maid cafe thing is both hard and easy for me to understand—while I can understand how an otaku might get enjoyment from such a place, it's hard to believe that someone actually pays for that kind of service. Of course, it seems innocent enough, but I wouldn't want to deal with creepy customers on a regular basis. In a way, I think Misaki is perfectly suited to it because she doesn't take it too seriously (unlike her boss and co-workers) and does it for the right reasons—helping support her family.

Artwork: I don't know if it's the paper that Tokyopop used in this volume, but there's a newspaper-ish quality to the printing that seems to make the artwork look darker than intended. There's also a frenetic pace that's set up pretty quickly by Hiro Fujiwara, with lots of action and movement in the first two chapters. Otherwise, all of the main characters are appropriately good looking and there is a wide cast of side characters, from the other student council members to classmates at school to Misaki's co-workers. But, the costumes are the best part—from Misaki's various maid costumes to the outfits classmates wear during the school festival, Fujiwara does a finely detailed job.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Although it's pretty obvious at the end of the volume where this manga is going, Fujiwara has created a unique character in Misaki and put her in what is a fairly frustrating situation. Thankfully, Usui seems up to the challenge! Maid Sama is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop.

To learn more about Maid Sama!, check out Tokyopop's online preview below.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, vol. 6

The story: We're getting closer to the mystery behind Karatsu's guardian spirit. This volume is split into two main stories—the first deals with the death of an older woman and the daughter she kept hidden in her attic. The person connected to the older woman's murder is a man with a scarred face—much like that of Karatsu's spirit, but also someone familiar to Mr. Sasayama. While the reason for the daughter living a hidden life is never revealed, Karatsu seems intent on finding out the truth. At the end of that chapter, all we hear is a dead spirit shouting "Yaichi, Yaichi!" In the second story, titled "Kunio Matsuoka Demon Hunting Side Story," we travel back in time to the Meiji era. Here a monk with the same name and appearance as Sasayama is escorting a young boy named Yaichi from Kurosagi village to help investigate the gruesome murders of women in Matsuoka's city.

Reaction: While much of this volume focuses on the growing competition Kurosagi is facing, towards the end of this volume, there's a sense of urgency to figure out what's going on, especially since Karatsu is left in a cliffhanger ending. The side story added another layer of mystery with its character and content connections to the modern-day storyline. I found myself hoping I'd learn something that would help the puzzle pieces fall into place, to no avail. I'm hungry to know the meaning of those scarred faces and what connection Sasayama has to everything that's been going on. Of course, the side story could simply serve as a diversion from the main plotline and have no meaning at all.

Deep thoughts: Again, the Japanese language never ceases to amaze me with a specificity not seen in English. For example, in the first story, we learn about the term netsuki miko, or a rooted priestess. While, on the surface, she seems to have the same powers as Karatsu, she actually only has the ability to speak to "particular spirits of the land." Within two words, we find out what would be an entire phrase in English. It's amazing and shows the inherent difficulty in translating Japanese to English.

Artwork: I'll admit, the scarred doctor that Sasayama knew way back when reminded me of another, more popular scarred doctor—Black Jack. While I wouldn't call the resemblance uncanny because of the rather different art style employed by Housui Yamazaki, I will say that the similarities can't be ignored: black hair with a white patch above his right eye, a patchwork of scars covering his face and a great deal of skill in wielding a scalpel. I also enjoyed the historical setting of the side story; it was interesting to see the Western influence on Japan during the Meiji era. There's a balance of Victorian-era England with classic Japanese details and costumes.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I can't wait to read the next volume, especially after being fed small scraps of story regarding Karatsu's spirit. Besides that, there's all the other companies infringing on Kurosagi's business—will Kurosagi survive or will they be beat by the competition? Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beauty is the Beast, vol. 3

The story: Eimi makes a new friend while trying to make a publicity video for the girls' dorm. Satoshi is also taping a video for his dorm, and teaches Eimi a few things about composing a good video. Unfortunately, Satoshi quickly realizes that he likes Eimi and that his main rival is Wanabuchi, although Eimi is totally unconcerned about him romantically. Even worse, Satoshi sees just how cool Wanabuchi is, making it hard for him to be a "true" rival. And Eimi finds out about Wanabuchi's older girlfriend, while Satoshi loses weight and sleep over his crush on Eimi.

Reaction: Things are getting tangled romantically for Eimi and Wanabuchi, with neither of them aware in the least of their unlikely attraction. In some ways, it's kind of annoying to see Eimi go around, all happy go lucky, especially when she's unknowingly torturing Satoshi. The poor guy's health is suffering because he likes Eimi! While I knew I should dislike this bubble-headed part of Eimi, I couldn't—she's endearing in her own odd way, making it hard to hold something like that against her. I also especially liked one of her lines in this volume, "They were kissing the other day. He was like a lion. Watching him, I thought it was so like Wanichin." It's like a perfect encapsulation of their relationship—she's more of a voyeur/fan of Wanibuchi and his seemingly beast-like personality.

Deep thoughts: There's a Christmas chapter in this volume. I find it interesting how, in Japan, Christmas is a holiday for lovers. Since there aren't many Christians in Japan, it's not surprising that they don't celebrate it as a religious holiday, but their transformation of it into a "date night" of sorts still follows the idea of spending Christmas with your loved ones. Of course, regardless of its religious affiliation, Christmas seems to be a highly commercial holiday in both Japan and the U.S. And I love that Christmas cakes are a big part of the Japanese tradition—after seeing the variety and tastiness of the cakes in Beauty is the Beast, I wish Christmas cakes were big here, too!

Artwork: I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I really like the design of all the side characters. From Satoshi to Eimi's dormmates, they're all given different characteristics, both artistically and in personality. I also liked the transformation that Eimi's dormmates put her through—she can be rather cute in the traditional sense when someone's there to guide her (especially when she's more apt to wear old, hole-filled lounge wear covered in crumbs!). Lastly, I loved how Tomo Matsumoto broke the "fourth wall" by openly admitting that Wanibuchi is the "eye candy" in the bonus section at the end.

The verdict: Highly recommended. While the introduction of a love triangle is an all-too-regular trope in shojo manga, Matsumoto freshens it with her approach—neither Wanibuchi or Eimi are actively in love with one another, but poor Satoshi is falling hopelessly in love with Eimi. While I hesitate to call this manga cute, its charm tugs on my heartstrings in a way that's somewhat indescribable. Beauty is the Beast is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, vol. 5

The story: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service seems to be diversifying its business with this volume. This time around they discover a dead body while volunteering at an old folks' home, then try to return the man to his village, which seems to have been wiped off the map. Later, they encounter a fake mummy and try to figure out who's behind the mystery with the help from their old "friends" at Nire Ceremony funeral home, who are diversifying their own business by providing ancient Egyptian-like burials reminiscent of the pharaohs. In another chapter, the group becomes professional mourners for hire and yet another layer of intrigue is laid regarding Karatsu's guardian spirit. Lastly, the gang encounters a cryogenic facility and its ever-youthful proprietor.

Reaction: I was so interested in the professional crying woman. Everyone simply called her "grandma," but she seems to know more about Karatsu than she's letting on. There were also some creepier little mysteries, like the mummy-like embalmer working for Nire Ceremony. There was also a laughably whimsical ending to the cryogenic story. While I don't want to give anything away, it seems that the fraudulent owner finally got his and in an entertaining way!

Deep thoughts: I thought it was interesting that there are actually professional mourners. While I've attended several funerals over the years, I never thought that there would be a need for professional mourners. The way Yata talks about it, it seems that professional mourners were popular in ancient Egypt and Rome, and, up until a few decades ago, were still popular in India, China, Korea and Japan. Surprisingly, professional mourners are still employed in the Middle East and in Africa. There's even an award-winning Filipino comedy, Crying Ladies, that revolves around the lives of three women employed in Manila's Chinatown.

Artwork: There are some jarring close-ups in this volume, from a mummified corpse come back to life to the sobbing face of an old woman to the gold-toothed grin of a severed head. The instantaneously recognizable expressions distill the mood in each scene and provide a shorthand of sorts for what other characters are feeling. I also appreciated all of the Egyptian details in the second story; there was an obvious deal of research done both for the content and the art, lending it a believable amount of credibility.

The verdict: Highly recommended. While there's not an obvious line of continuity here, I feel like we're getting closer to the reveal of the meaning of the spirit that follows Karatsu. She's become a silent seventh member of the group and I'm wondering what her larger purpose is in the story. Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, vol. 5

The story: After her last encounter with Dr. Guell, Cello is doing her best to avoid him at all costs. While the professors are all impressed with Cello's renewed commitment to school, Guell's feeling the effects of her absence in his life. Eventually, Cello realizes she might be attracted to Dr. Guell and decides to accompany him to a wedding to see if she truly cares for him. When she nearly injures herself while helping out at the wedding, she knows exactly how she feels about him. While Yoyo and Olga, Dr. Guell's and Cello's birds, freak out over their partners increasing intimacy, Dr. Guell soon experiences a total personality makeover that's quickly resolved. There are also amusing side stories about Kechonpa and Yoyo, and Theo, Cello's father, as he tries to befriend Guell.

Reaction: This was a rather balanced volume, between the somewhat seriousness of the burgeoning romantic relationship between Guell and Cello, and quite a few humorous moments, including reactions to that relationship. I found myself more accepting of the relationship between Guell and Cello because it was finally addressed. But, the humor involving the birds is what really drew me in. There are some great moments where these colorful animals show some real emotional depth. It would be easy to leave them on the sidelines, as a decoration of sorts, but they are just as much a part of this story as the human characters involved.

Deep thoughts: While it's an all-too-convenient plot device, I did like the way Nari Kusakawa handled the improper relationship between Guell, a school employee, and Cello, a student. When it's finally addressed, Guell undergoes a transformation of sorts in response to a flower given to him by his research scientist friends, Gosti and Mage. When he changes, he becomes much more serious and avoids Cello at all costs. This rational side of Dr. Guell realizes that his relationship with Cello is inappropriate and he doesn't want to ruin her chances of academic success. I felt much more comfortable with the story after this, as it resolved what was my biggest issue—that a high school girl and a so-called responsible adult were getting into a relationship.

The artwork is the same as it's ever been—inoffensive, often cute and in a tropical setting. I especially liked the storyline of Kechonpa, Mosselyn's bird, as he took care of his younger siblings, who are smaller versions of the puffy-looking bird. There were other humorous moments well illustrated by Kusakawa, including the group of birds caught in the rain, Yoyo's escape from the island and Theo, Cello's father, hounding Guell. But, again, this manga suffers from living in a colorful world that cannot be shown to its full effect because of the black-and-white medium it's drawn in.

The verdict: If only... I really enjoyed this volume more than the others, but there was something still amiss. Unfortunately, I found myself enjoying the other scenes that didn't involve Guell and Cello moreso than the more romance-centric ones. And that's a shame since they're pretty much the focus of the manga. But, this is a short series and I am still interested in seeing how Kusakawa resolves everything in the sixth and final volume. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Red Colored Elegy

The story: Sachiko and Ichiro are a hapless and hopeless pair of twenty-somethings, disenchanted with life, working in animation and seemingly scraping along. Although Ichiro works at an animation company, what he really wants to do is make comics. Unfortunately, it's not working out. Meanwhile, both Sachiko and Ichiro are experiencing problems with their respective families from Sachiko's arranged marriage to the suicide of Ichiro's father. They grow apart emotionally, depression abounds and eventually Ichiro pushes Sachiko aside. All the while, they're both suffering in their own ways, unable to communicate their feelings with one another.

Reaction: I've never read or seen a manga like this—it's a stream-of-consciousness tale with pop art touches and an emotionally and historically charged setting. And this certainly is an elegy; only this is a lament for the living, not the dead. This is a seemingly minimalist story that underscores the times and relationship that Sachiko and Ichiro are enduring. Honestly, it became increasingly depressing as the various layers of emotional depth are peeled away as the story goes on. There's a quiet desperation that Seiichi Hayashi communicates, all with a minimal amount of art and text.

Deep thoughts: Similar to the U.S., the 1970s were a time of cultural change in Japan. From the student protest movement to the introduction of feminism, it was a time of change balanced with an economic growth that placed Japan ahead of its industrial peers. By using this as a backdrop, it better illustrates the inherent difficulties in the familial and cultural obligations that Sachiko and Ichiro face with her broken, arranged marriage and his duty to help pay for his father's funeral. While the world around them was changing, Sachiko and Ichiro must still deal with what they've inherited from their families.

Artwork: The artwork here is a mix of modern styles, at times reflecting the pop art and cubist movements. There's also a wide spectrum of techniques, including photorealistic images, and sketchwork and cross-hatching that enhance the surreal and, at times, the macabre. It's highly experimental while still holding true to a minimalist aesthetic. Much of this story takes place in the sparse, one-room apartment that the young couple shares. It proves a fitting visual metaphor for the emotional emptiness they're experiencing. Characters aren't so much unattractive as they are without attraction visually; simple pen lines define the characters at almost all times and, to the untrained eye, they may seem unemotional. But, there are nuances of personality, emotion and character that exist nonetheless.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I can see why this manga received so many accolades—it's a dichotomy in so many ways. From its illustrative minimalism and its emotional depth to the cultural changes versus familial obligations, it puts the universal experience of the quarter-life crisis under the lens of a particular historical era, making it both relatable yet unique. Red Colored Elegy is available in the U.S. from Drawn & Quarterly.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Beauty is the Beast, vol. 2

The story: It's that time of year—for the school festival at Eimi's school. Of course, there's a wrinkle this year when mysterious and somewhat scary Wanibuchi is appointed dorm president prior to the festival. Although it's not his "thing," Wanibuchi quickly adapts and swiftly transforms everyone into "Wanibuchi supporters." After the successful festival, Misao's younger sister is introduced, along with her odd crush on the dorm superintendent and compulsive gambler, Sawaguchi, who also happens to be Wanibuchi's cousin. Eimi gets homesick and it takes some cheering up from Wanibuchi to get her out of bed. Later still, the girls' dorm has to deal with a broken TV and a gross roach problem.

Reaction: There was a lot of "first love" in this volume—from Eimi having a "princely" moment with Wanibuchi during the school festival, to Misao's sister's crush on Sawaguchi, to Suzu's crush on Wanibuchi's roommate, Inui. It was interesting and humorous, especially when Misao's sister was comparing her crush to shojo manga and dating sim games. It also showed the spectrum of young love and the wide variety of ways that people deal with it. I enjoyed seeing more of mysterious Wanibuchi's past and how he came to live with his grandfather in Mexico. All in all, it was a very contemplative volume, with hints of humor throughout.

Deep thoughts: I was really hoping that Sawaguchi's penchant for gambling would really throw off whatever attraction Misao's sister had for him. But, it didn't. While I've mentioned this in reviews of The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, I'm a little concerned about the relationships between adults in charge with students. But, during a conversation with a friend, I realized that perhaps this was more of a cultural difference. In the U.S., romantic teacher-student relationships are frowned upon, but in Japan, they seem to be less taboo. Since no one is getting hurt emotionally or physically, and the relationships usually don't get very serious until the student has graduated, this may be one of those "let bygones be bygones" cultural situations.

Artwork: There was a lot of screentone here, something I don't usually appreciate. But, it did make the action scenes involving the pool table more visually interesting. I hadn't noticed it before, but Tomo Matsumoto draws everyone with the same pointy nose. It's not particularly ugly, but it gets repetitive and lessens the variety between characters. Regardless, chibi Eimi has really grown on me—whether it's that silly, sleepy look or because she's content in some way—it's a fun take on Eimi.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I liked how Eimi's attraction to Wanabuchi started here—it's unexpected and shows the gap between them. Yet, it doesn't faze her as one might imagine. It's a refreshing, youthful romance that shows maturity as opposed to the immaturity seen in so many other shojo manga. Beauty is the Beast is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, vol. 4

The story: This volume is another collection of episodic stories, including the gang's assistance in a rural town's alien-based tourism effort, a Chinese company's involvement in a traveling exhibit showcasing preserved whole and partial human bodies, a woman's possession by her best friend's (and murder victim) spirit and how a parasitic snail is involved in the apparent suicide of people across Japan.

Reaction: There was a lot to absorb in this volume, none of it too telling with the exception of more being revealed about the spirit that constantly accompanies Karatsu. I also liked Yata's unapologetic attention to detail when it came to producing alien-like crop circles. Unfortunately, the last story seemed to introduce a needless buxom blonde from the U.S. This character, Reina Gorn, studies forensic entomology and proves helpful in this one episode. She seems to be a walking stereotype, from her lack of real clothing (she wears a bikini top instead of, you know, an actual shirt of some sort in one scene) to her awful accent. Honestly, I could have done without this character entirely, or at least a more reasonable semblance.

Deep thoughts: I was reminded of Parasyte with the last story because a parasitic snail seems to have evolved enough to infect an entirely new species. It's a great illustration of evolution and what species will do in order to proliferate and continue their life cycle. While the parasite causes some fairly appalling physical effects, its ingenuity is pretty amazing considering the influence of instinct. These creatures aren't thinking about how to infect another species, it simply happens out of necessity.

Artwork: While I've never been compelled to view the BODIES exhibition that's been traveling across the country, I will admit I was impressed by Housui Yamazaki's keen eye for human anatomy. Having such a consistent and reliable recreation of different layers of human tissue is fairly remarkable in my opinion and made this chapter all the more interesting in an almost clinical way. On the other hand, I absolutely could not stand the character design for Reina Gorn. Can we say fanservice?

The verdict: If only... I certainly enjoyed a great deal of this manga, but couldn't get past the seemingly thrown in American character. While she acted as a source of information on entomology, she was a constant eyesore and distraction for me. Hopefully, this is a momentary mis-step and I won't have to see Gorn ever again. Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Beauty is the Beast, vol. 1

The story: Eimi's parents have decided to relocate for work, but she doesn't want to leave. So, she moves into a dorm at her high school. Her first night there, she must complete a dare and stumbles into the room of two boys, one who is considered the most dangerous boy in school. Unperturbed by Wanibuchi's appearance, she quickly nicknames him "Wanichin" and his roommate, Inui, "Nuinui." Meanwhile, she quickly makes friends with her roommate, Misao, and her neighbor, Suzu.

Reaction: I really liked how simple Eimi is—she wears her heart on her sleeve, is accepting of others and loves to eat. There's no complications or drama, which is refreshing in a high school shojo story. Meanwhile, her friends, all of whom are really attractive, are all quirky in their own way and accept Eimi for who she is. And while it's implied that Wanibuchi will be Eimi's future love interest—he's the "beautiful beast"—there's no forcing the attraction and their relationship builds naturally as a friendship first.

Deep thoughts: I thought it was interesting that Wanibuchi had lived in Mexico for some time. Living along the U.S.-Mexico border, I was surprised to learn earlier this year that there is a sizeable population in Tijuana of people whose ancestors hailed from Japan. Since the U.S. interned Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II, many families moved to Mexico where they could escape the persecution of the times. Of course, there were also those who, prior to the war, went to Mexico to work as farmhands on coffee plantations, mirroring the Japanese immigrants in California who worked on the state's many farms from San Diego to the Central Valley.

Artwork: Tomo Matsumoto's work has a light-handed and wispy, almost sketchy quality to it. All of the characters fit well with their designs—Eimi looks as plain as she is simple, while Wanibuchi has an exotic look and mysterious quality to him that matches his personality all too well. Like most shojo manga, the backgrounds don't have much to them and make use of screentone quite a bit. The most detailed work is in a humorous story featuring Suzu, who seems to have a fetish for women's underwear of all things.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I really enjoyed the uncomplicated story here, even if it follows the typical "boy meets girl" pattern at first. There isn't any overt affection, and in many ways, it seems that Eimi and Wanibuchi are simply curious about the other, in a way that one is curious about an animal at the zoo. There's no falling head over heels in love here, just the blossoming of a peculiar friendship. And I like that. Beauty is the Beast is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Vampire Knight, vol. 3

The story: This story starts off innocently enough with a visit from Moon Dorm Vice President Ichijo Takuma's grandfather. Unfortunately, Ichijo is afraid of his grandfather, as he's an old and powerful vampire and holds a seat on the Vampire Senate. Thankfully, Kaname intervenes before a serious disaster ensues. Later, flashbacks abound of Kaname's and Yuki's time together when Yuki was younger. In more recent memories, things change when Zero, the sole surviving member of the vampire-hunting Kiryu family, joins Yuki and the Chairman. In the present day, Zero struggles with his growing vampiric tendencies, but follows orders when the Hunters Society sends Zero on a vampire-hunting excursion in town. Thinking that Zero is running away, Yuki follows him to near-disastrous results. At volume's end, a mysterious new student has joined Cross Academy and it seems that Kaname has been expecting her.

Reaction: It was great to see the history between the three main characters—Zero, Yuki and Kaname. The set-up really helped me understand the complicated relationship they share and explains the hostility and animosity between Zero and Kaname. Thankfully, their disregard for one another is not based on Yuki per se, but they do get along because of her. I also like the way Matsuri Hino lays this all out—while some manga seem haphazardly running along, especially in the first couple of volumes, there's a real sense of deliberateness in Hino's storytelling. It makes the connections and mystery behind all of these characters that much more satisfying to follow.

Deep thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of Millenium Snow, I always find it interesting when authors create their own vampire mythology. While the basics of blood-sucking, nocturnal creatures seems to hold constant, there are always small differences between each author's interpretation. For example, long-standing folklore has always held that vampires burn alive in sunlight, but not all authors include it in their stories. Then again, I guess it would be hard to write a love story (Vampire Knight has always been said to be a tragic love story) if humans and vampires couldn't spend some daylight together.

Artwork: Hino is just as good an artist, if not better, than she is a storyteller. And that's saying a lot considering that this isn't your run-of-the-mill vampire love story—there's also intrigue, conspiracy and plenty of action. I also really enjoyed this volume art-wise because of all the younger depictions of the main characters. They're not simply chibi-fied renditions of the adult characters, but true, childlike depictions. There's also a lot of emotion that Hino seems to easily capture, in both the adults and children throughout the volume.

The verdict: Highly recommended. While Vampire Knight started as a guilty pleasure for me, I can't help but enjoy this volume on a deeper level. I think it's the best of the first three, providing extensive background and revealing bits and pieces of Kaname's as-yet-unseen plan. While I know I'm being led down an intentional path, I'm more than happy to follow along. Vampire Knight is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, vol. 3

The story: This volume is broken up into three distinctive stories: one about an illegal immigrant who is involved with a black-market organ transplant ring, a mysterious group "playing" at homicide and the discovery of a song that causes people to commit suicide. In the first story, Numata and Karatsu come across a near-death immigrant. While the man was not dead quite yet, they do meet up with him—and other pieces of him—soon enough. In investigating a ring of black-market organ transplants, the Kurosagi group meets Mr. Sasayama, a yakuza-looking man with the social welfare office in Shinjuku. Eventually, the group returns the various pieces of the immigrant to his home in the Middle East. In the second story, it seems that Yata, Numata and Karatsu have taken on part-time jobs for the local newspaper. In selling and delivering newspapers, they discover a dead body and a mysterious group of people who have made a game of killing one another. In the last story, the group investigates a rash of suicides near train stations throughout the Tokyo area.

Reaction: There are some pretty funny moments here, from the Rob Schneider-esque baldy nickname jokes to the jokes about a "Halal sausage fest." Of course, this helps balance out the otherwise grim and gruesome subject matter. Out of the three distinct stories, I probably liked the first and last ones the most because of the mysterious appearance of Karatsu's "helper spirit." This helper spirit, a woman with a scarred face, usually appears behind him when he temporarily reanimates the dead. Her appearance intrigues me so much, especially since Karatsu isn't particularly concerned about her involvement and influence over his skill.

Deep thoughts: Black market organ transplants are big business in certain parts of the world. While most countries have outlawed the practice, it's still difficult for those in need of a healthy organ, such as a kidney, to find a match. So, instead, they languish for years on transplant lists until someone appropriate can donate what they need. Still, others will pay for an organ from a willing donor, while others will sell the organs of unwilling donors. It's a dirty business and only underscores the importance of people making sure they're on donor lists, if appropriate.

Artwork: Perhaps I didn't notice it up until now, but Ao really wears some racy clothes, if any at all. From a see-through, spiderweb-patterned shirt to a lace-up, skin-tight shirt, her boobs always seem to be on display. On the flip side, Makino's appearance doesn't bother me as much as it did in the first volume, especially since she just seems to be more of a candy lolita type. In the second story, I really enjoyed seeing the inside of Yata's apartment, since it reveals him to be a toy-collecting otaku. Again, we're treated to a quick flash of his eyes during his one heroic moment. For some reason, he's become one of my favorite characters, probably because he's such a nerd!

The verdict: Highly recommended. While this volume seemed more episodic and disjointed than others, I liked the subjects explored. From war and the black market for organs to suicide, Kursagi Corpse Delivery Service never fails to make me think and laugh nearly simultaneously. Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

MangaCast Review: Dogs: Bullets & Carnage, vol. 1

I just posted a review of Dogs: Bullets & Carnage, vol. 1, on MangaCast. This fast-paced manga has a cinematic quality to it and is full of interesting, yet skillfully violent, characters. MangaCast is a one-stop website for all things manga, from news and reviews to rankings in Japan.

Here's an excerpt from my review:

After snooping around their lair, long-haired and eye-patched Badou is taken hostage by a group of thugs. In a flash of gunfire and violence, his comrade and self-named “stray dog,” Heine, comes to his rescue. With a flair for the dramatic and a seemingly insatiable need to kill, Heine takes out the entire group of captors with his chained semi-automatic handguns ... Having not read the prequel volume, I jumped right into the action, which kept me guessing at who and, at times, what, Badou and Heine are. Are they simple assassins for hire, men out for revenge or something else entirely?

If you're interested in seeing what I thought, you'll have to check out my review! Dogs: Bullets & Carnage is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Mars, vol. 4

The story: After seeing Kira's painting in the local art museum, two old classmates of Rei's show up at their high school. One of them, Shuichi, is a well-meaning friend who wants to see how Rei has been doing since the untimely death of his brother, Sei. But, the other classmate is Rei's ex-girlfriend Shiori. It seems that in the two years since she last saw Rei, Shiori's never let go of her relationship with him. When she sees him again, she's determined to win Rei back, no matter what—or who—stands in her way. When Kira tries to give Rei some advice, he blows up at her and brings her to tears. With all the emotional baggage these two carry, is there any hope of their burgeoning love surviving?

Reaction: This is an emotional volume, from jealousy and anger to sadness and despair, the cast of characters experiences it all in a near-melodramatic fashion. While I initially saw the introduction of Rei's ex-girlfriend as an overused shojo trope, it actually became a catalyst for Rei to further examine his relationship with his deceased brother. While Shiori is by no means a likeable character, there's a certain amount of pity that I felt for her with her lack of closure regarding her relationship with Rei. In many ways, she treats her time with Rei like a drug—she's addicted and will do anything to get his attention.

Deep thoughts: There's a date auction in this chapter as part of a fundraiser the high school is hosting. I usually find these types of auctions awful in their own way, both as a simulation of slave trade, but also because it's kind of creepy to see how much money one person is willing to spend on another, just for the pleasure of their presence on a "date." Not only that, but the causes these auctions usually support are good ones, like fundraisers for terminal diseases or, in this case, for the high school. There's something mildly reprehensible in the idea that raising money for a cause in such a manner is somehow okay, despite the fact that it's the selling of people.

Artwork: Ah, another reminder that this manga was done in the 1990s—Rei once again appears in a Stussy sweatshirt and his best friend, Tatsuya, appears in an Adidas T-shirt. Otherwise, with all the emotion in this chapter there are a lot of tears and blushing cheeks. There are also toner-filled backgrounds, from lightning strikes to a trippy, psychedelic spread. While these can enhance the emotional effect of a storyline when used sparingly, I felt that it was a bit much at times. Outside of that, there are some moments of action and mild violence, too.

The verdict: If only... I think this volume rehashed some of the darker memories of the main characters and simply introduced new characters to create unnecessary conflict. While I still greatly enjoy the core storyline—the relationship between Kira and Rei—I'm getting a little impatient with the extraneous discord thrown in for discord's sake. These two have enough troubles in their way without throwing in crazy, jealous exes. Mars is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Vampire Knight, vol. 2

As I mentioned in my first review, I started reading Vampire Knight midway through its run in Shojo Beat.

The story: In this volume, Zero shares portions of his past with Yuki as he comes to rely on her more and more. Zero's old master, Yugari, also pays a visit to Cross Academy and has a few things to say about how his student has changed. Meanwhile, the Night Class celebrates Takumi's birthday. And it seems that Kaname has plans for Yuki, which is why he excuses the increasing amount of time she spends with Zero.

Reaction: There's action, unresolved romantic tension, beautiful vampires, horror and, at times, even humor. But, the tragedy that's mentioned is almost expected and seems fairly clichéd. However, Matsuri Hino has a way of revealing just enough tidbits of the characters here to keep me intrigued. But, with such a large cast of characters, it's sometimes difficult to keep them all straight. Oh, and the implied love triangle between Kaname, Yuki and Zero is entirely too predictable for my taste. However, I can't say that this series isn't a guilty pleasure for me -- I did start reading it midway through its run in Shojo Beat.

Deep thoughts: I found it interesting that the blood tablets developed by the Night Class aren't entirely tolerable for those vampires who used to be human. While some medications are not tolerated as well by certain people -- perhaps due to allergies or other sensitivities -- health disparities and the effect of medications on different populations are still a relatively understudied area of medicine. Only recently have researchers and funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health sought to examine the differences between various ethnic groups and their tendency to develop certain maladies and chronic conditions.

Artwork: Wow, talk about screentone overdose! It's used to imply blood, color emotions, for shadows, in scenery and almost everywhere else. But, the action scenes are fast paced and well designed, employing "action" streaks or cross-hatching that show movement to great effect. Panel shape and design also plays a role here, too, for when there are action scenes, the panels become jagged and oddly shaped, moving the reader along quickly and instinctively. During "normal" scenes (or as normal as one might see in a vampire high school manga), the panel design is much more sedate and traditional. Of course, Hino also has an all-too-deft hand at character design, making characters distinctive and attractive.

The verdict: If only... This series is my guilty pleasure for a reason—it has little to no depth to the storyline early on and, on its face, is simply filled with "beautiful people." The situations that fill its pages are, at times, all too expected, but intriguing nonetheless, even for the ever-tired vampire tropes it recycles within its pages. Vampire Knight is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Parasyte, vol. 3

The story: Things have gotten complicated fast for Shinichi. He's losing his human ability to feel and experience emotions, two girls are seemingly competing for his attention and there's a new parasite in town who's always watching him. Not to mention, his dad and the government have finally realized what's going on. When the new parasite attacks Shinichi's school, several people die, but there's also a question of how the government will deal with a mass murderer. When Shinichi and Migi realize what they might have to do, will Shinichi's heart be able to carry out their plan?

Reaction: There is a lot of blood, gore and transformation in this volume. While I didn't necessarily cringe, I did pass my eyes over those panels quickly. There's some intrigue in this volume, too, including the girls' ability to sense parasites, to Shinichi's new observer and the government's conspiracy. I was completely glued to this book. Of course, there are a lot of questions about what's going on, but not too many answers. If nothing else, it's an effective method for keeping me reading!

Deep thoughts: The two girls interested in Shinichi seem to be able to sense parasites, as they have an ability to sense Shinichi whenever he's near. I think it's somehow connected to their ability to sense the satsuki, or "killing aura," that Shinichi and others who serve as parasite hosts exude. For some reason, these girls are not only drawn to Shinichi, but one of them—the girl from another school—makes the mistake of getting the attention of Shin's parasitic classmate. It's an interesting ability that I'm curious to see Hitoshi Iwaaki expand upon.

Artwork: Again, there's a lot of blood, gore and guts in this volume to a more gruesome degree than I've seen previously in this series. But, there's also some great detailed illustrations of Shin's changing face, which really displays his volatile emotional state. There are also some nicely done watercolored panels at the beginning of two early chapters; it's almost a shame they're not in color. Lastly, in the middle of this volume there are some fairly humorous renditions of "mouthhead," the urban myth-like creatures the media has created in response to some rumors about the parasites.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This series just keeps getting better and better! While I could do without the all-too-visual horror of certain scenes, I do enjoy the interwoven plotlines and varied intrigue involved. Of course, knowing that the last volume in this series was recently released makes me want to zip through these books as quickly as possible! Parasyte is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 8

The story: Kyoko is singularly focused on getting revenge on Sho when she stars in his latest music video. The only problem is, she can't seem to focus enough to actually do a decent acting job. When she finally succeeds, she's excited and gets a phone call from Ren, whom she had originally called for advice. Just as she's trying to backpedal over the phone, Sho snatches it from her and boasts to Ren about the video they worked on together. Of course, this leads to conflict between Ren and Kyoko. But, that's quickly forgotten when Kyoko learns that Kanae is keeping a big work-related secret from her.

Reaction: Watching the "light bulb" go off in Kyoko's head when she's acting is fun to watch and illustrates her creative process. Of course, I also liked watching the interaction between her and Sho, and her and Ren. Neither of the pairs realize that they're attracted to each other, and that it only fuels the rivalry between Ren and Sho even more. And it's so fun watching Kyoko's sometimes-misplaced determination, like when she's trying to get to the bottom of Kanae's current depression. It's funny, but also shows the caring side of Kyoko, which is important considering she's still giving off those hateful spirits.

Deep thoughts: Kyoko and Maria have a certain penchant for cursing people, with voodoo-like contraptions. While I won't go into why a child is practicing voodoo, it is interesting to me that there's enough knowledge of it for a Japanese mangaka to include it in a story. In the U.S., very little widespread knowledge of Santería is available outside of pop culture references in television programs or via the media because of recent court cases.

Artwork: The opening page of this volume features an illustration of Ren in a costume similar to Sho's character in the music video. It's more dark and depressing than it is fantastical and whimsical, but it sets a mood for the first chapter. While Kyoko plays an angel in the music video, there's nothing that can be done about her sharp and mostly unattractive features. Otherwise, the panel composition keeps the reader moving along quickly and is unconventional throughout. By mixing it up so much, Yoshiki Nakamura makes it almost too busy and difficult to read along, as I found myself backtracking and/or second-guessing where my eyes were supposed to go next.

The verdict: If only... While this volume is one my least favorites thus far, I did like the non-romantic growth in the relationship between Sho and Kyoko. Doing so takes the plot farther away from Kyoko's singular determination to get revenge and takes it into a story about her growth as a person and as an actress. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, vol. 2

The story: While Makoto and Karatsu suffer from a serious lack of work following graduation, Yata decides to find a paying line of work at Nire Ceremony, a popular, interfaith funeral home. But, there's something "off" about Nire Ceremony, especially after Yata sees the owner's adopted daughter bring a dead cat back to life. Meanwhile, someone's been asking a lot of questions about Kurosagi Delivery Service on campus, putting Ao on alert. But, Ao seems to be dealing with some issues of her own. What is Ao's recent obsession with the past and what is her connection to Nire Ceremony?

Reaction: I'll admit, I was a little creeped out by the zombie plotline in this volume, but it was intriguing in its own way, too. Learning about Ao's past was interesting and surprising considering her role on the team. It made me wonder how her past influenced her career interests and her creation of Kurosagi. There was some exploration of the other characters, especially Yata and his feelings of inadequacy in relation to the rest of the team. All in all, this volume revealed the depth of the characters that Eiji Otsuka has created.

Deep thoughts: If there's one prevailing theme in this second volume, it's of revenge. The revenge that the living want from those who have killed their loved ones, the revenge that the dead want against those who have wrongfully killed them and the revenge that hides in the hearts of those left standing on the sidelines. Revenge is so often seen as a defect of sorts, a dark black void in our hearts. But, it's much more than that. It can also inspire us, stengthen us and give some a reason to keep living, much as it does for both Ao and Mutsumi, the adopted daughter of Nire Ceremony's owner. While some would say revenge is unnecessary, I would say that it has its place, but can easily overwhelm those with weak spirits and hearts.

Artwork: Maybe its because of the intimacy of this story and Ao's backstory, but Housui Yamazaki's artwork seems to have a more personal feel to it. From small details like a birthmark on a fingernail to the floral pattern on the tea set at Nire Ceremony, Yamazaki seems to have taken extra care in this set of chapters. There's also some great character design here, too. Lastly, it's funny that I thought of it as such a "treat" when Yata's eyes were momentarily revealed during his heroic act in the last chapter. Since his eyes are almost always covered by his bangs, it was a nice surprise. But, I do have a couple of complaints, namely Ao's seemingly constant lack of clothing and that Hayashi doesn't look as old as one would expect, considering he's about 15 to 20 years older than the rest of the cast.

The verdict: Highly recommended. It would be so easy to simply say that Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is just a good manga, but, it's so much more than that. It explores deep questions about the meaning of life and death, and combines it with mystery, violence, interesting characters and a dash of good humor. I've found myself empathizing with these two-dimensional characters, wondering what their motivations are and noticing what a wonderful balance they have as a group. And there aren't too many books, let alone manga, that drive me to that type of curiosity. Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fullmetal Alchemist, vol. 3

The story: Al and Ed venture back to their hometown for repairs to Ed's prosthetics and Al's body. While Winry and Grandma Pinako welcome them like family, the Elric brothers are soon on their way back to Central to figure out the secret of the philosopher's stone. But, when they finally get there, they find out that the library containing the stone's formula burned down. Thinking that all hope is lost, they're lucky to run into a former library employee with a photographic memory who relays the "cookbook" created by Marcoh. Unfortunately, the Elric brothers soon learn that the creation of a philosopher's stone has a bigger cost than they're willing to pay. Upon investigating research connected to the stone, Ed and Al are caught in a tough situation with Lust and Gluttony. Will they escape the mysterious duo, or is the Elrics' journey at its end?

Reaction: I'm constantly amazed at how much Hiromu Arakawa can pack into one volume! She has a tight and compact storytelling style that not only splashes action scenes across the page, but takes the time to explore the depth that the main characters, Al and Ed, possess. I also really liked Pinako and Winry, as they not only are a great family of sorts to the boys, but because they also have awesome technical skills. It's refreshing to have such a great spectrum of female characters!

Deep thoughts: In this volume, an ex-librarian named Sheska has a photographic memory. Photographic memory, also known as eidetic memory, is the ability to recall an image any time from 30 seconds to decades after first viewing it. While it is a fascinating skill to have, it is quite controversial and many scientists doubt its existence. Many believe that those with so-called photographic memory actually use a pneumonic device of some sort in order to memorize information. In any case, Sheska's skill proves quite valuable!

Artwork: The artwork in this volume was just as competent as it has been in past ones, but I noticed a layer of detail that I haven't seen before. From flashbacks and old, grainy photos to scenes in libraries or out at Pinako's country home, there was a lot to look at in each panel. Speaking of Pinako, her character design was a nice change-up, especially her funny hairdo that Arakawa explains in a couple of panels at the end of the volume.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There's so much going on here, but it's all interwoven together in a compelling main plot -- the Elric brothers' quest to regain their original forms. There's heart, intrigue, comedy and action -- and I'm enjoying every last panel of it! Fullmetal Alchemist is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mars, vol. 3

The story: Rei is off to race in the Suzuka 8-Endurance Spirit, but Kira cannot join him. Kira does as her mother says, and works on a painting of Rei for a local art contest while listening in on the eight-hour race. While he's ultimately disqualified, Rei impresses some important people in the racing industry. Once he returns to Tokyo, Rei and Kira go the art museum where Kira's portrait of Rei, titled "Mars," is displayed and Rei witnesses how Kira truly sees him.

Reaction: There's a lot of action in this volume, due to Rei's motorcycle race in Suzuka. It was also very Rei-centric, with more interaction with Rei's friends. While I liked that it wasn't non-stop action and had quieter moments between Kira and Rei interspersed throughout, it also broke up the fast-paced rhythm being built. Earlier in the volume, there's also a nice friendship developing between Kira and Hasumi, Kira's former rival for Rei. It was nice to see the two of them getting along, especially since it seems like Kira is in need of friends.

Deep thoughts: It was interesting witnessing the creative process that Kira went through, first starting with a sketch of Rei and then progressing towards the eventual painting. She first sketches Rei shirtless, sitting on a chair. But her final painting is more visceral, as noted by Rei who says that "it also looked like the inside of a human body with cells and veins jostling each other." At the same time in the book, Rei and Kira's relationship becomes more raw and real as they discover more about each other. It's an interesting visual metaphor that Fuyumi Soryo uses to interesting effect.

Artwork: Since there's more action here, there's fewer signs of the usual shojo style. But, Soryo still seems to use screentone in unneeded ways, from use in crowd scenes during Rei's race to some weird "cat-tone" pattern in a panel that includes a confused Kira. Meanwhile, the action scenes are well detailed and are done in such a way that you can feel the rush of the crowd and hear the announcer overhead. It's an almost peculiar juxtaposition.

The verdict: If only... It isn't that I disliked this volume, so much as I wish it was simply composed differently. The back and forth of scenes between Kira and Rei, mixed with Rei's racing, broke up the flow of the story in such a way that I found myself rushing through certain scenes when I should have been reflecting instead. Mars is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vampire Knight, vol. 1

I started reading Vampire Knight midway through its run in Shojo Beat. Now that the magazine has folded, I thought I'd start from the beginning of this series and see what the early chapters were like.

The story: From a distance, Cross Academy might look like an ordinary private school. But, upon closer inspection, there are a few peculiar things about it, especially its unusually beautiful "Night Class," which is completely comprised of elite vampires. But, that's all a secret to the humans at the school, with the exception of Chairman Cross and his two young wards, Zero and Yuki, who also happen to be the sole members of the school's Disciplinary Committee. As committee members, Zero and Yuki patrol the grounds daily to keep the vampires' secret and to protect the Day Class from their would-be predators.

Reaction: I'll admit I'm a sucker (pun intended) for vampire stories. From Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton to Stephanie Meyers and Bram Stoker, I've read a lot of vampire novels in my time. Initially, I was intrigued by the peaceful mission of Cross Academy and think it is an interesting experiment that will most likely have deadly consequences at some point. From the first page on, Matsuri Hino draws her reader in with Yuki's tragic history. There are some interesting changes to traditional vampire mythology, but it's not so heavy-handed as it is specific about vampire hierarchy.

Deep thoughts: I find it interesting that vampires are pop culturally back in vogue—from the Twilight movie and book franchise (and soon-to-be manga) to HBO's ever-popular True Blood. I remember reading a fascinating article late last year that blamed the vampire resurgence on the election of a Democratic president. Evidently, some social scientists have traced the popularity of zombie movies to Republicans' fear of "a revolt of the poor and disenfranchised, dressed in rags and coming to the White House to eat their brains." Meanwhile, there are also Democrats who "fear the Wall Street vampires who bleed the nation dry." It's an interesting theory that seems almost too good to be mislabeled a coincidence, although it may be.

Artwork: Hino's artwork is not only beautiful and, at times, comedic, but also oddly contemplative. Sure there are unearthly beauties in the vampires and disproportionately cute girls, but there's also a lot of serious looks and grim faces. Even in this first volume, there are some fanservice-y moments where Zero is half-naked or near upshots of Yuki's skirt while jumping off a high ledge. Other than that, I was surprised to see some growth in Hino's style since I saw the most recent chapters in Shojo Beat. There's more refinement in style and character design, and there's certainly less questionable fanservice content in recent chapters.

The verdict: If only... Honestly, I usually like most vampire stories, but this one seemed a little weak. Whether that was because of my lack of caring for characters or my "been there, done that" attitude as a reader, I'm still not sure. I just know that this is the first volume of the series, but it improves later on with more intriguing plots and a can't-miss love triangle that has become my most recent guilty pleasure. Vampire Knight is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Black Bird, vol. 1

The story: Misao is a 15-year-old high schooler with a secret—she sees ghosts, spirits and demons. While her classmates think she's a little odd, it doesn't deter her from living a mostly normal life. That is, until she turns 16 and everything changes. Evidently, she's the "bride of prophecy," causing every demon nearby to want to kill her in order to drink her powerful blood. Thankfully, she's saved by her first love, Kyo. But, Kyo's got a secret, too, one he never shared when they were children. He's the head of a demon clan and marrying Misao will make his clan the most powerful in the world. Of course, Misao refuses, adamantly stating that she'll never marry a demon. But, will she give in so she can live a safe life?

Reaction: I honestly don't know what to think of this story. On one hand, you've got an interesting and dark back story, and on the other, you've got a guy who forces himself on a younger girl by healing her with his tongue. Misao refuses Kyo, but how will she ever live a somewhat normal life without him? And, on top of all that, she's constantly questioning whether or not Kyo ever cared for her, as they've known each other since they were much younger. In that regard, Misao becomes a fairly typical high school romance heroine—constantly questioning one's feelings for a boy is pretty much the genre's bread and butter. And while I liked the darker elements of this story, I couldn't really get behind this weird, seemingly co-dependent relationship. Misao needs Kyo to protect her and, evidently, Kyo needs her so he can feed off of her energy and lift his clan's status. Then there's all the sexualized healing that I simply don't have the time to get into.

Deep thoughts: I'm constantly amazed at the pantheon of demons in Japanese folklore. There are a variety of demons, or yokai, with various characteristics, from personality to appearance to representative animals. Kyo is a tengu—also known as "heavenly dogs"—and is depicted with large black wings. Tengu are based off a dog-like demon in China, or tiangou, who were harbingers of war. While the tengu were originally known as disruptive demons in Buddhism, their image softened into protective, yet dangerous, mountain and forest spirits. To me, this specificity of demons is rather demonstrative of the spiritual character of Japan and its major religions, including Buddhism and Shintoism.

Artwork: The artwork here is stereotypically pretty, including all of the major characters, and there's an inherent cuteness, too. However, there is quite a contrast when minor demons and spirits are involved, as they usually appear frightening—like a hollow-eyed, ghost-like toddler—or grotesque, like the often "melting" spirits that surround Misao. It's interesting that the most powerful demons are still the most attractive, including both Kyo and a rival kitsune demon, because their inner personalities belie their outward beauty. There are some steamy moments with all the blood-sucking and licking, so there's plenty of screentone and puffs of hot breath sprinkled throughout. It's a bit cheesy, but it's to be expected in a somewhat smutty high school shojo series.

The verdict: Meh. For all the recent fanfare, I wasn't really all that impressed by Black Bird. The set-up is intriguing at points, but I don't find the characters particularly compelling. Kyo's almost too mysterious and controlling, while Misao isn't physically or emotionally strong enough to actually push him away and create genuine conflict. Black Bird is disappointing at best and misogynistic at its worst. Black Bird is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Parasyte, vol. 2

The story: Shin and his parasitic right hand, Migi, are on their own for a few days while Shin's parents take a well-deserved vacation by the sea. First, the parasite and host get stuck in the middle of some sort of gang fight between Shin's high school and another. Later, Shin is subjected to a panicked phone call from his father. When Shin finally sees his parents again, he's thrown into a life-or-death situation that proves an emotional turning point for him. While Murano, the girl he likes, notices he's changing, Shin finally meets someone similarly afflicted by an alien parasite. By volume's end, Shin, who was worried about losing his humanity earlier in this volume, has undergone a fairly amazing physical metamorphosis.

Reaction: Things get moving fast with the opening pages revealing Shin worried about losing his human-ness and then walking into the middle of a fight involving a classmate. While there is a lot of action, much of the book is devoted to Shin's inner turmoil and external conflict with Migi. This compelling dichotomy drew me into this story, which could so easily devolve into an action-only series. It proves Hitoshi Iwaaki's ability to produce a compelling title with a can't-pull-your-eyes-away flurry of activity.

Deep thoughts: Shin's physical transformation is an interesting one, especially considering the usually deteriorating condition we associate with parasites. It seems that he's increasingly adapting and becoming stronger, as opposed to weakening from the increasingly dependent symbiotic relationship. In nature, parasites such as fleas, mosquitoes and ticks not only feed off of their hosts, but they also pass along other diseases and infections, from West Nile virus to Lyme disease. It's interesting to see that Migi is, for all intents and purposes, making Shin faster and stronger.

Artwork: The prevailing artwork here features a life-like and realistic design, interspersed with the surreal depictions of parasitic transformation. While the juxtaposition is, at first, jarring, it quickly seems almost normal, mirroring Shin's experience and that of those similarly afflicted. As far as characters go, I especially liked Uda, another person with a wrongfully attached parasite. His "soft" outward appearance matches his personality perfectly and he's an interesting contrast with Shin.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This manga really has it all—from horror to humor to a dash of romance. The concept is entirely unique and intrigues me so much that I know I'll finish this eight-book series as quickly as I can. Parasyte is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I was first introduced to the graphic novel Skim via an online preview sometime last year. The story, written and illustrated by cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, has been nominated for many awards since its publication in 2008.

The story: Kimberly, better known as "Skim," is a not-so-slim, teenage goth-cum-Wiccan in an all-girls' private school in Canada. When the boyfriend of a popular girl in school commits suicide, Skim's school goes overboard with mourning. Of course, the school starts somewhat meaningless counseling sessions and, soon enough, the popular girls' clique starts a club, Girls Celebrate Life! Meanwhile, Skim is falling further into depression, and falling in love does nothing to help things; in fact, it makes it worse. As Skim writes in her diary about her confusion, despair, loneliness and more, she tries to figure out just who she is.

Reaction: This is a heavy book, but what books featuring teenagers isn't? I found myself identifying with Skim a lot, especially since I hung out with some goths in high school. The book consists mostly of Skim's inner monologue, interspersed with her school life with best friend Lisa and her home life, which mostly consists of the back and forth between her divorced parents. The tone is biting at times, and in others, simply filled with a quiet desperation. At its core, Skim is an honest look at the frailty of our teenage existence.

Deep thoughts: This story revolves around depression and suicide, a not-so-uncommon theme in teenage fiction. Perhaps the most well-known work is J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, where anti-hero Holden Caulfield spends several days in New York City following his expulsion from prep school. The book itself has been banned and challenged for its content, which includes profanity and sexuality. While there are obvious differences between Skim and The Catcher in the Rye, namely the graphic novel format, there are some distinct similarities. They are both told in the first-person, both are troubled and misunderstood characters, and the tale itself is told to someone else.

Artwork: Jillian Tamaki, cousin of author Mariko Tamaki, did the black-and-white illustrations for Skim. Her sketches lend an almost unfinished quality to the work and resemble the impatience with which teenage life is led. None of the characters are particularly attractive, but I think that's the point, since so few of us view ourselves as beautiful at that age. Throughout, black fills the spaces between panels in scenes set at night, lending a more appropriate tone. Since Skim lives many of her loneliest and most painful moments at night, the darkness seems to envelope her as an all-too-fitting metaphor.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I was tempted to rate this as "required reading," but I know that this kind of story isn't for everyone. While I think we all experience some degree of the loneliness and depression that Skim does, her story is an unforgettable one. Skim is available in the U.S. from Groundwood Books.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Skip♦Beat!, vol. 7

The story: With Kyoko finishing up her replacement managerial duties for Ren, it's time for her to move on. While she's still working as the chicken Bo for a talent show, she's also going to school. But, it seems that she's already gotten herself an enemy in classmate Mimori, which proves to be trouble later. Meanwhile, Sho has seen Kyoko's commercial debut and asks for her specifically to star in his newest music video. Knowing that this is her moment for revenge, how will Kyoko fare, especially when her co-star is Mimori happens to love Sho?

Reaction: The reason I love Skip♦Beat! is so apparent here--because of the ridiculous and goofy humor interspersed throughout. While most shojo stories would be content to show the drama and emotion revolving Kyoko's star-studded dreams and revel in her awkward love triangle with Sho and Ren, Yoshiki Nakamura takes it an entirely different, not to mention much more hilarious, direction. Granted, I don't like the backtracking Kyoko does here in terms of character growth, by using acting to take her revenge on Sho, but it is entertaining to watch.

Deep thoughts: I find it interesting that compulsory education in Japan only extends through junior high, making high school optional. Because high school is not mandatory, students must take entrance exams and pay tuition. So, when Kyoko spends so much time and effort studying, it's because she's so determined to go to high school. In many ways, making it into a top-ranked, or similarly your first-choice, high school is much like applying for college. Of course, Japanese students who wish to go continue their education past high school will go through a similar and even tougher process.

Artwork: Some of my favorite artwork in this series so far appears in this volume, specifically when Kyoko tells Ren why she enjoys acting. While she describes how acting is allowing herself to create the "true" Kyoko Mogami, there's thoughtful moments that show her metamorphosis and end with a fairy-like Kyoko emerging from a cocoon. It's a nice way to visualize her character change due to acting and I find the scene wistful and nicely contemplative.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I still really enjoy this series and, while much of this volume deals with the animosity between Kyoko and Sho, it's fairly entertaining while showing Kyoko's growth and subsequent recession when she comes face to face with Sho. Skip♦Beat! is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

MangaCast Review: Venus Capriccio, vol. 2

If you enjoyed my review of the first volume of Venus Capriccio, be sure to check out my review of the second volume on MangaCast. This volume shows a slow evolution of the relationship between Takami and Akira, as they learn about each other's vulnerabilities and strengths. MangaCast is a one-stop website for all things manga, from news and reviews to rankings in Japan.

Here's an excerpt from my review:

Akira is a feminine-looking junior high student who is gifted at playing the piano; Takami is his tomboyish best friend who has always thought of him as a little sister. But their relationship changes one day when Akira kisses Takami out of the blue. What do you do when your lifelong best friend suddenly wants something more? ... While high school romance is by no means a new concept in shojo manga, Venus Capriccio takes all of the usual tropes and turns them on their heads. In other, less entertaining stories, the personalities would be reversed and the conclusion obvious from the first panel.

I really enjoyed this volume, but you'll need to read my review to see what I thought! Venus Capriccio is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Yurara, vol. 1

Since its sequel, Rasetsu, has just started to be released in the U.S., I decided to give Yurara a try.

The story: Yurara is a high school girl who sees spirits and, sometimes, she can even sense their feelings. When the new school year starts, she's stuck sitting in between two boys, Mei and Yako, who are constantly fighting, but they have spiritual powers, too. One day, Yurara undergoes an extraordinary transformation when a guardian spirit takes her over and banishes a spirit. With the three's powers put together, they work to help those spirits stuck on Earth to find peace. But, with the two most handsome boys in school witnessing Yurara's transformation into a beautiful woman day after day, will other personal problems develop?

Reaction: I really liked Yurara's character--she's is somewhat shy and keeps to herself since people think she's odd. She stares off into space from time to time—watching spirits, no doubt—and suddenly bursts into tears because of her keen sense of spiritual empathy. But, when she transforms, she becomes someone else entirely—an assertive and gorgeous young woman who is somewhat violent, but is always looking to help spirits find peace. It's an interesting dichotomy, as are her two partners, Mei and Yako. Mei is a goofy, horny, somewhat stupid teenage boy, while Yako is studious and serious. The differences are often played to comedic effect, which is a nice balance to the serious deaths they're always encountering.

Deep thoughts: I find it interesting that Yako, who uses water to create spiritual barriers, is also afraid of water. While Yako knows that there's logically no reason to fear large bodies of water, his fear still persists. When Mei tries to drop him into the local river, Yako's spiritual powers cause the water itself to repel itself from him. When he and Yurara find some evil spirits residing in the river, Yurara learns of his fear, but deals with it in a much more compassionate manner than Mei did. Interestingly, hydrophobia, or the fear of water, is also one of the major symptoms of progressed rabies infection.

Artwork: The artwork here is pretty standard for a shojo story, but there's quite a bit more violence and scary moments due to the supernatural theme. My biggest gripe—use of screentone—is held steadfast here, but it's used logically during moments involving spirits. There are some great moments involving humorous visual metaphors, both times in scenes featuring Mei. In one, Yurara's transformed self pushes horndog Mei away with a machine gun while both are dressed in military fatigues. It's an interesting way of showing rejection, but, again, lightened the tone.

The verdict: If only... I liked this story well enough, but it didn't do too much for me one way or another. The humor was expected and I found the developing love triangle clichéd. While it isn't by any means unlikeable, I just didn't find it particularly likeable, either. Yurara is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Venus Capriccio, vol. 1

The story: Takami is a tomboyish high school girl who has gotten dumped, yet again, by another jerk. When she goes to her childhood friend Akira for some cheering up via his piano playing, he calls her out on her poor choice in men. While Akira likes Takami, she's only ever thought of him as a little sister, since he's two years younger than her and is rather beautiful for a guy. Of course, everything changes when Akira kisses Takami. While Takami is unsure of how to take Akira's affections, she does know that she likes being by his side.

Reaction: I loved the relationship between Akira and Takami, and the tension created by Akira unexpectedly kissing Takami. The dynamic between them doesn't change overnight, though, and they amble through an awkward series of events with one another. It's both simultaneously endearing and humorous, especially since Akira is such a straight man for Takami's inherent goofiness. The evolution of their relationship isn't forced, though, and comes off as very natural and organic.

Deep thoughts: I like the role the piano plays here, as the connection between Akira and Takami. It not only gives background to the characters, but also sets a tone for this story. While it's not nearly as overt, it is reminiscent of Nodame Cantabile, where the music indicates the type of mood the reader should be in. It also gives another dimension to Akira and Takami; in the first few scenes between them, Akira plays jazz tunes. It's a hard style of music to play and, like the blues, takes far more than technical skill to master. The spontaneous nature of jazz also parallels Akira's and Takami's changing relationship—they're improvising as they go along and, because of their inexperience, aren't sure what to make of their budding romance.

Artwork: While Takami does look like a tomboy with her track suits and baseball caps, she's still quite beautiful. But, Akira is gorgeous, too, especially with the exotic look he possesses (he's half Caucasian and half Japanese). While the scenery is usually unimpressive—it does mostly take place in the pair's piano school—the real delight is all of the facial expressions. Takami often looks exaggerated but it's a great juxtaposition to Akira's cool looks; it's not easy to ruffle his feathers! It's a nice balance that really works, especially since it's played to such comedic effect.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This is a non-traditional high school romance. There are so many reasons for Akira and Takami to not get together—he's younger, effeminate and graceful; she's klutzy and a total spitfire—but I couldn't stop myself from cheering on their unlikely relationship. So, I'll be waiting to see just what becomes of these two. Venus Capriccio is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mars, vol. 2

The story: Kira and Rei become closer emotionally when they begin to learn of each other's tragic pasts. When a classmate takes credit for Kira's artwork, Rei's history starts to unravel and his family situation is simultaneously clarified and convoluted. While naive and innocent Kira is just learning of love and physical attraction, so, too, is Rei beginning to understand love. And even though Rei seems to be emotionally unbalanced in comparison to Kira, Kira is just as prone to emotional swings of her own, oftentimes in reaction to Rei.

Reaction: You know how there's always that criticism about shojo being too heavy when it comes to drama? This volume shows why. While this second volume of Mars doesn't necessarily veer into unnecessary melodrama, it does skate along its edges. Both Kira and Rei have hard pasts to push through, but their ways of dealing with it are completely different. Where Rei comes unbound in violence, Kira retreats into herself and her art. It's an interesting contrast, especially since this seems to only draw them closer together in their complementary ways of comforting one another.

Deep thoughts: Much of this volume revolves around suicide attempts by unseen and bit characters, one of whom is a young man. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide in the U.S. disproportionately skews male and, while young adults aged 20 to 24 are most likely to commit suicide, the demographic to most likely to commit suicide are older adults, aged 65 and older. The strange thing about the suicides depicted in the book was that they're all carried out by people jumping from buildings. While this may be particular to Japanese culture, it proves to be an unpopular method here.

Artwork: The artwork here is fairly typical for shojo, with an obvious use of screentone and "beautiful people." But, the use of inappropriately patterned screentone really threw me off. Just what are little kitties doing in the background of a panel? There's no reason for it and it really throws off the overall serious tone of this manga. I also noticed an increased reliance on what I like to call "the two faces of Kira." If she's not crying with her eyes downcast, she's blushing demurely. Thankfully, Rei has a wider range of emotional reactions.

The verdict: If only... There were many touching moments in this volume, but there weren't enough to overshadow the downsides. I just hope that the inconsistencies between this volume and the first are just that and will be remedied with richer storytelling and less reliance on easy visual cues in the future. Mars is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop.