Monday, September 28, 2009

Note to Readers

As some may have noticed, I haven't blogged for well over a week now. Unfortunately, real-life events have conspired against me, making it difficult to post reviews.

However, I am planning on blogging again later this week, most likely on Oct. 1. Until then, enjoy the archives and know that I'll be back soon. Thanks!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

MangaCast Review: X-Men: Origins, vol. 1

Head on over to MangaCast, a manga news and reviews website, to read my review of X-Men: Origins, vol. 1. Here's a short excerpt:

In this first volume of X-Men: Misfits, the central character is Kitty Pryde, who can “phase” through objects. When Mr. Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, visits her home one day, she learns of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Once there, Kitty finds out she’s the only female student at the school and quickly captures the attention of the Hellfire Club, headed by Angel, an angelic-looking mutant. Surrounded by a bevy of beautiful boys, Kitty’s quickly smitten with her new home. ... Putting aside all of my preconceived notions about the X-Men world, I found very little to like about this version of Kitty Pryde.

As you might have guessed, X-Men is near and dear to my heart; you can read the rest of my review here. X-Men: Origins is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Review copy provided by Del Rey.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Yokaiden, vol. 1

Since I didn't post a review yesterday, I figured I'd double up today. At this year's San Diego Comic-Con International, I had the pleasure of momentarily meeting Nina Matsumoto while she autographed a free copy of Yokaiden for me at the Del Rey booth, where they had daily giveaways of this unique book.

The story: Hamachi is a young boy living with his grandmother. While she isn't the sweet little granny type, Hamachi isn't exactly "normal," either, since he loves yokai, or Japanese spirits! He's known as the local yokai expert in his village and tries to befriend them at every opportunity. But, when his grandmother is killed by a yokai, Hamachi sets off on a quest to find her killer in the yokai realm. The land of darkness, "white blobby things" and plenty of ill-meaning demons is otherworldly, and Hamachi is determined to traverse the landscape to avenge his grandmother.

Reaction: I really loved the concept behind Yokaiden. While Hamachi is similar to some always-optimistic shojo heroines -- think Tohru from Fruits Basket -- he's different because of his love of all things yokai. While this might be annoying to my more cynical side, I found it mostly endearing, even when Hamachi made excuses for his grandmother's atrocious behavior. This first volume moved pretty slowly, with Hamachi only getting so far as one night in the yokai realm, but it provided a strong foundation for the following volumes. Also, the dialogue crafted by Matsumoto really shines here, especially with the use of some of my favorite words -- schadenfreude -- and a tangent on the differences between situational irony and cosmic irony!

Deep thoughts: I love the pantheon of yokai that Matsumoto includes here; I was surprised to recognize as many as I did. While going through this volume, I was reminded of now-defunct Broccoli Books' Kon Kon Kokon, which features a modern-day, elementary school-aged yokai otaku as its main character. Of course, the well-known Inuyasha, by Rumiko Takahashi, has quite a few demons in it, too. And I've watched several films by Hayao Miyazaki, who frequently includes spirits in his movies. Considering the Japanese respect for nature and other Shinto-based beliefs, demons and spirits are fairly common themes in folklore and popular culture properties.

The biggest focus here is the plethora of demons and spirits, and their character design. I really enjoyed the variety of yokai and their respective personalities; there was a good balance and a perfect fit with their appearances and abilities. And the few human characters were distinctive and easily recognizable, too. Matsumoto includes descriptions of each yokai in between chapters and introduces the humans at volume's end, where she also includes some entertaining four-panel strips.

While I'm most familiar with Matsumoto's work from the Eisner-winning issue of The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror, the art is definitely manga-inspired. There are some distinctive and classic touches like the 1970s shojo-era look of surprise captured in pupil-less wide eyes and the occasional patterned screentone. However, I found it visually disruptive when panels switched to a hazy look reminiscent of tracing paper or vellum. It lost that crisp appearance and really broke up the story visually, but it seems it's put to rest after the third chapter or "candle."

The verdict:
If only... While story-wise, this is one of the best original English-language (OEL) manga out there, there are some rough edges to Matsumoto's artwork and the first volume moves a little too slowly. But, now that the foundation has been laid and Matsumoto's had more time to immerse herself in this book's detailed world, I'm anxious to see the second volume. And for anyone who thinks OEL manga is inferior to Japanese manga, I think you'll be plenty surprised by this entertaining book! Yokaiden is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Emma, vol. 9

The story: This is another volume of side stories of other characters in the Emma-verse. I was really hoping to see something with Hans, to no avail; he only appears in two measly panels. However, we are treated to fun stories involving many other members of the Meredith household, from the temporary loss of young master Erich's pet squirrel, Theo, to some background on how the Meredith romance started to a shopping day involving Polly and Alma. There's also a flashback to when William and Hakim first met, as well as a love triangle involving three singers from the opera Eleanor and William attended.

Reaction: Despite the lack of dialogue, I really enjoyed the introductory chapter involving Theo; there's something quietly wonderful about this story. Of course, the story of Hakim's and William's first meeting is entertaining on a more obvious level -- from William's astonishment at the grandeur of Hakim's home to his frustration at Hakim's innate talent at tennis, I found myself quietly giggling. The last story involving the operatic love triangle was also bittersweet, but uplifting, too.

Deep thoughts: When William and his father visit India, Hakim's father speaks about the English colonization of India and how "no foreign nation has ever governed India for long." Interestingly, India was ruled by a company, the British East India Company, until their rule was transferred to the British crown in 1858. India didn't buck the English government until they achieved independence in 1947. While it seems odd that Hakim's father states that no foreign nation has ruled for long and a century seems a very long time, in the grand scheme of history on the Indian subcontinent, it's really quite short as the known history of India dates back to 3300 BCE.

Artwork: Of course, I still love Kaoru Mori's artwork and it has grown on me even since the first volume. I especially loved the fantastic forest scenes involving Theo in the first chapter. The angles and viewpoints chosen really immerse the reader in Theo's world at that point in time. Of course, the opulence of Hakim's palace is well illustrated and I love all of the details that Mori goes to painstaking work to include, from the costumes to the patterned walls and ceilings. Lastly, I really love the hustle and bustle of the shopping district that Polly and Alma visit; all of the architecture is perfectly historical from the brick buildings to the cobblestone streets to the window displays. It shows a great deal of research on Mori's part.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I think it's fairly obvious at this point what I think of Emma. With the tenth and final volume arriving soon, I'll be sad to see this perfectly told and illustrated story end! Emma is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Crimson Hero, vol. 3

The story: Tomoyo's agreed to join the team, so Nobara finally has what she wants -- enough people to play with. Unfortunately, it seems like that's all Nobara cares about as she's ignoring her teammates and completely focused on playing. When Rena has a trip to the nurse's office, Nobara gets a reality check. Meanwhile, Yui, the team captain, has arranged a practice game against Shoei High and Crimson Field must get its act together. Of course, playing isn't free, but Nobara doesn't have any money to spare. When she calls home for funding, she eventually learns of the burden her younger sister must bear. How will Nobara balance the responsibility to her family with her love of volleyball?

Reaction: There was a lot to get through in this volume, including the practice game, Nobara's selfishness and how it affects her sister, and learning that the boys in her dorm are her friends. While the action breaks up the melodrama of Nobara's life, there's a familiar feeling for me when I read this manga. It reminds me of how much more desperate and complicated things seem when you're younger, and Nobara eventually makes a big decision that shows her character growth from her short time living independently. The end of this volume also leaves on a bittersweet moment involving Haibuki and Nobara.

Deep thoughts: According to researcher Geert Hofstede, Japan is a very masculine country, meaning that gender roles are more rigid than they are in feminine countries. I was particularly surprised to read in this volume that in Japan it's customary for women to control the pocketbook. While I was surprised that women are in charge of the accumulation of wealth -- an oft-considered masculine trait -- it was nice to see all of the powerful women in Nobara's family, including her mother and grandmother. In many ways, the ryotei, or fancy family restaurant, has created a matrilineal inheritance, passing along the restaurant to the eldest daughter.

Artwork: Again, this isn't the best art I've seen from Mitsuba Takanashi, but it's certainly better than many mangaka. There are a few more babyish faces here than I'd like, especially since it seems to be inconsistenty applied. There are also a couple of panels where the character appears cross-eyed. It may be the angle or the nature of the profile, but it did look rather awkward.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Out of the first few volumes that I've read thus far, I especially liked this volume. We see a volleyball game, Nobara growing up and the team succeeding in small ways. It's simultaneously reminiscent, motivating and a little emotional, making it perfect for the well-rounded manga reader. Crimson Hero is available int he U.S. from Viz.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Crimson Hero, vol. 2

Sorry I didn't have time to post reviews each day this past weekend, but things got a little (unexpectedly) hectic. But, here I am, back to regular posting!

The story: Nobara's found two other players to restart the girls' volleyball team, but they need at least six people to play. Not only that, but the boys' team is making life tough for the girls by calling them names, making it nearly impossible to recruit. Sick of it, Nobara challenges the boys to a game. If the girls score one point against the top-ranked boys, the guys have to lay off them. But, if the boys win, the girls give it up. Will Nobara and the other ladies be able to eke out a point, or are they doomed to lose out to Nobara's dormmates?

Reaction: This was a well-rounded volume, with plenty of action, emotion and even a hint of romance. I loved the plotline involving former junior high volleyball star Tomoyo. She severly injured herself when she was younger, giving up on playing for the past two years. While she's got feelings of inadequacy related to her lack of playing time, Nobara is persistent in her pursuit. I also liked the new characters introduced; they're all different and are determined in their own ways. But, Nobara is the pull for me with her absolute passion for volleyball. She really gives it her all.

Deep thoughts: At the end of the volume, mangaka Mitsuba Takanashi shares the research she did of girls' high school volleyball. She shares an anecdote and does some realistic sketching of a match; it's interesting to read her layman observations. I'm not very well versed in volleyball, so I could relate to Takanashi's viewpoint. And her hard work paid off by adding another valuable layer of depth and realism to this great story.

Artwork: As I've mentioned before, I started reading Crimson Hero midway through its run in Shojo Beat, so it's entertaining to see the characters so young here. There are a couple of mis-steps, like a panel where Nobara's face is squished up, making her look even younger than usual, and all of the similar-looking guys. But, the art is very realistic here with the usual shojo use of screentone and appropriate sparkliness. Lastly, I'm still enjoying the running gag of Nobara being mistaken for a boy -- Takanashi draws her as such a tomboy, both in body type and fashion.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This volume has a lot going for it and I liked the underlying moral to this story, as well as the end scene between Nobara and Tomoyo. It's also refreshing that this shojo manga isn't entirely focused on romance. Crimson Hero is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Manga at the Movies: Honey and Clover

Since I watched the Honey and Clover film via Netflix, I thought I'd review it. Of course, I'm a big fan of the manga, so I was wondering just how much I'd like the film. Considering the many live-action and animated films based on manga properties, this might serve as a reoccurring feature.

The story: Takemoto is a student at an arts college in Tokyo. One day while hanging out at Hanamoto-sensei's house, he meets Hagu, a shy new student studying painting, and falls in love at first sight. As Takemoto tries to win over Hagu, they form a group of friends with Morita, an immensely talented scultptor and "super senior" who also has a thing for Hagu; Mayama, a soon-to-graduate design student with an overwhelming—creeping on stalker—crush on his intern supervisor; and Yamada, a ceramics major with an equally intense crush on Mayama.

As they go through their year together at school, they struggle with finding artistic inspiration, dealing with unrequited love and exploring the unknown territory of the adult world. When Takemoto's loses out to Morita for Hagu's attention, he sets out on an epic bike ride to somehow put his life in order. Meanwhile, Hagu has her own internal struggle—as one professor pushes her to knowingly create award-winning art, she finds herself sadly uninspired. There's also the almost-too-painful-to-watch love triangle between Yamada, Mayama and Mayama's boss, Rika.

From page to screen: I loved watching this manga come to life in a live-action film. While there's quite a bit less of the slapstick humor, I was happy to see a crystallization of several key, emotional moments. For instance, I loved the opening scene where Takemoto sees Hagu for the first time—just like the manga, there's a windswept look to the scene, while Hagu is surrounded by floating sakura blossoms. I also liked how they illustrated Hagu's and Morita's creative process; at one point, they unknowingly inspire each other and create some fantastic art in the process.

But, there are differences, too, mostly surrounding Morita. While many would be upset at the difference, it would be very difficult to recreate the Morita of the manga without the character looking entirely ridiculous and impossibly unbelievable. One of the biggest differences that I really enjoyed was the imaginary interrogation scenes in Mayama's room—since he's pretty much Rika's stalker, what with collecting her trash and other impersonal items, he dreams of two police officers questioning him for his Rika-centric habits. But, I liked this, too, as it provided a humorous angle to what would be a dramatic moment in any other film.

As a side note, I also loved that Morita was wearing a South Dakota State University T-shirt in one scene—that's a university that is sometimes confused with my alma mater and current employer.

Characterization: The main cast of characters was right on and some were better than my expectations, especially Hagu. One of my more recent criticisms (and one that other reviewers have noted) is the all-too-childlike appearance of Hagu. Thankfully, while the actress that plays her in the film is young looking, she's certainly not a child. Takemoto's appropriately earnest and hard working, while Morita is a handsome and inexplicably talented artist. While we don't see Yamada go Iron Lady here, she does give Mayama a literal run for his money in one emotionally charged scene.

As far as the side characters went, I absolutely adored the Fujiwara brothers; they appear and act exactly as they did in the book and play up the campy twin brother thing to hilarious effect. Professor Hanamoto is also appropriately thoughtful and stoic, with his constant cigarette as a prop in nearly every scene.

The verdict: I liked Honey and Clover and would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the books, or those who like slice of life, coming-of-age films. It's a funny and heart-warming foreign film that reminds us of all of the inherent difficulties we all encounter in growing up and becoming adults. Honey and Clover is available in the U.S. from Viz Pictures.

Interested in seeing Honey and Clover for yourself? Then check out the trailer below.

MangaCast Review: The Battle of Genryu: Origins, vol. 1

I just reviewed The Battle of Genryu: Origins, vol. 1, for MangaCast, the home for all things manga, including news and reviews. Here's a snippet of what I thought of this manga:

Jin’s your everyday, irresponsible, always-hungry teenager. But, there’s something lurking beneath the surface—something that gives him an enormous amount of physical prowess and power about once a month. ... Jin’s once-a-month power-ups are fairly novel and this manga seems like it might have a humorous bent were it not for a flashback showing a younger Jin surrounded by a pile of bodies. The real story here is the mystery behind Jin’s capabilities, nothing of which is revealed in this first volume.

Interested in learning what I thought of this manga? Then check out the rest of my review here. The Battle of Genryu: Origins is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Genghis Khan: to the Ends of the Earth and Sea

The story: Temujin is born into a family of nomadic tribesman, wandering the steppes of Central Asia. When he meets another young boy while hunting in the forest, he and Jamuqa decide to become blood brothers. What they never anticipated was that Temujin would grow to become Genghis Khan, fighting Jamuqa until the bitter end in order to unite all of Mongolia under his leadership. As Genghis Khan's family grows, he sees echos of his own past in his eldest son, Jochi, whose heritage is constantly under question, even by his own brothers. As his tribe attempts to survive its depleted numbers, how will Temujin transform into Genghis Khan?

Reaction: This is a manga, based on a film, based on an original book. And it shows in the odd pacing, large and confusing cast of characters and opaque plot. While this is supposed to serve as a biography of the Mongolian leader, it only looks at two very specific points in time, revealing only a small piece of who he was. As the narration jumped back and forth through time, I had a hard time understanding what was going on and following the storyline. In the end, it served as a sobering tale of what one had to sacrifice and do in order to rule in those times.

Deep thoughts: I'm not sure how much of this manga is truly historically accurate, since I have no frame of reference for Mongolian tribesman. As far as language goes, I didn't read anything too egregious. But, writing a biography of an historic character strikes me as particularly difficult and requiring quite a bit of research. Unfortunately, since there were no written records in Genghis Khan's time, it's hard to know what his early life was like. While the manga illustrated Temujin's birth, I didn't fully understand the omens being pointed out. It wasn't until I read more about Genghis Khan that I realized that it was a blood clot in baby Temujin's fist that signified his future greatness. It was small things like this that made this manga seem almost esoteric at times.

Artwork: Considering its source material, it should come as no surprise that this manga has a fairly cinematic layout. The panels follow a camera's viewpoint, starting a wide shot and moving closer in a subsequent panel, or vice versa. There are also a few flashbacks that are indicated via filling the space surrounding panels with black; it works well as a visual cue. The cast of characters is fairly vast, due to the tribal nature of Temujin's family, with many of similar appearance. But, it was the additional art at the end of the book that served as a nice surprise—there are early character sketches, a nice "thank you" page by an assistant and the afterword by Nakaba Higurashi.

The verdict: Meh. Maybe it was the historical nature of this manga, or the source material used, but I really couldn't get into this story. While I'm sure the film is truly beautiful, especially with the ability to show, in color, the expansive vistas of Central Asia, this manga was not. It seemed derivative at best and failed to capture the true greatness of Genghis Khan, especially since it examined a very specific time in his life. Genghis Khan: to the Ends of the Earth and Sea is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Color of Rage

The story: Two men, one Japanese and the other African-American, escape a slave ship in the Pacific Ocean in the late 1700s. After surviving the near-fatal experience, they make their way across Japan in search of a peaceful place to make their home. Unfortunately, this is Edo-era Japan and things aren't idyllic, to say the least. In their travels, they come across yakuza, sheriffs, criminals and other dark characters. While George, the Japanese half of the pair, knows his way around the customs and rigid social hierarchy, King, with his sense of slave-born justice, understands nothing of it and questions why he must hide himself from view. Will George and King ever find peace?

Reaction: This is an action-packed, violent manga that adds another layer of depth to its tale with the inclusion of a realistic African-American man. The action is hard to follow at times, especially since many scenes take place at night, but the story is worth following for its underlying sense of (out-of-place historically) moral justice. To think that these two, especially King, who was born into slavery in the American South, would survive drowning at sea to encounter nothing but violence, is somewhat remarkable in its creation, especially considering the once-prejudiced depiction of African-Americans in Japanese comics. But, perhaps best of all, underneath all the grittiness and violence of their escape, lies a story of true hope and optimism. This is a unique story that I enjoyed on an emotional level despite the historic inaccuracy, which was too numerous to recount. Overall, though, this manga goes nowhere fast, putting the "fight for your lives, rest, repeat" cycle on full display.

Deep thoughts: The presence of an African-American character in manga is fairly rare. While older manga tend to fall on the side of racist caricature (see: Moon Child), there are others that provide an honest depiction, most notably Me and the Devil Blues. Since Japan is a very homogeneous society, it is perhaps unsurprising, but still rather distasteful. While the U.S. is, for the most part, well integrated, Japan is not. Most recently, the Japanese government paid Brazilian nationals of Japanese descent to return to their homeland in an effort to provide more native Japanese with jobs. Jiro Kawasaki, a former health minister and senior lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, even went so far as to state, "I do not think that Japan should ever become a multiethnic society."

Artwork: Seisaku Kano uses a realistic style to show off Edo-era Japan with great effect and captures the architecture and surroundings of the time well. However, as seen in many action scenes, it's hard to make out who is who and what it is they are doing. I blame this on the fact that manga is published in black and white, then necessarily the fault of the artist, although they do play a large part. Also, the opening pages of an underwater scene are done in watercolor and are hard to make out without any color. The same problem happens when panels are colored in watercolor and/or pastels—it washes out the scene and gives it an unearthly feel. While I could get artistic and say that was the intent, I think it's safe to say that it's simply a poorly executed choice.

The verdict: Meh. On its surface, I liked this historically inaccurate manga for its unexpected emotional and philosophical depth. But the confusing action scenes and constant violence wore a little thin, even with thoughtful moments sprinkled throughout. While I eventually got into the story, the ending was a bit cut off for me, providing an anticlimactic ending to a story I was hard-pressed to enjoy. Color of Rage is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Kitchen Princess, vol. 3

The story: After the events of the last volume, Najika is much happier now that Akane is better. While Akane and Najika are far from friends, they're no longer enemies. Unfortunately, it seems like Akane's friends didn't get the memo and are intent on taking away the lone place where she's comfortable—Fujita Diner. However, Najika wows the PTA crowd with her delicious food and they let her continue cooking for her fellow students. But, Hagio-sensei has fallen ill at the orphanage and Najika makes her way back to Hokkaido with Sora and Daichi in tow. While Najika momentarily wonders if Daichi is her "flan prince," she seems to be falling for Sora instead. Towards volume's end, it seems that Akane's jealousy is rearing its ugly head again and Najika is in for trouble.

Reaction: I liked this volume much better than the last, especially with Najika's humorous, yet touching, trip back home. I loved her way of playing with the kids and her companions' reactions to the large crowd. Of course, Fujita's big "reveal"—from his transformation to his employment history—is pretty amazing, too, given his prior representation in the story. But, there are lots of emotional complications in this volume and I wonder how the growing love triangle will eventually play out, especially with Akane's meddling.

Deep thoughts: As in every volume, Najika makes a couple of different dishes in this one. She makes some blueberry pancakes and curry with carrots. While she mentions that blueberries are good for the eyes, so are carrots. Lack of vitamin A, prevalent in carrots, can cause loss of vision, including night vision. As a kid, I ate lots of carrots in an effort to prevent myself from having to wear glasses like my mother and grandparents. Unfortunately, it was all for naught as I had to get glasses in sixth grade. Since then, my vision has gotten increasingly worse, despite all the carrot eating I do!

While the characters are nice enough, the real star is the food. Natsumi Ando does a great job of showing off the food; I also loved the picnic scene outside of Fujita Diner. But, the funniest parts came while Najika was back at her orphanage. From illustrating all the kids with its accompanying slapstick comedy, Ando captures the moment well. Unfortunately, I do have a bone to pick with the cover illustration on my copy—the highlighter orange color used for Najika's costume and hair are, at best, horrific. Thankfully, it's a small and easily ignored distraction!

The verdict:
Highly recommended. This volume made me laugh and, like always, hungry! And there's something just under the surface with Najika's mysterious flan prince. Will she ever meet him, or is it someone she already knows? I'm willing to find out. Kitchen Princess is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Beauty is the Beast, vol. 5

The story: Eimi makes a visit to her parents' home in Kyushu and invites Satoshi along. Unfortunately, a family emergency keeps Satoshi from joining her, so at the last minute, Eimi decides to take Wanibuchi with her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they quickly become lost and slowly make their way back north. All the while, Wanibuchi recalls his troubled childhood and his role in his younger sister's untimely death. In the end, it's Eimi that pulls him out of his doldrums. Meanwhile, Satoshi is suffering more and more because of his affection for Eimi and eventually confronts Wanibuchi. Given the choice, will Wanibuchi claim Eimi as his own, or leave Eimi to Satoshi?

Reaction: There is a final resolution to the now-tiresome threesome, but I wasn't particularly satisfied by it. It happens slowly, but there's no real confrontation between Eimi and Wanibuchi, which left me wanting more. I wanted to see him make a declaration of some type, but Tomo Matsumoto kept true to Wanibuchi's character by not showing it. Of course, there is a tense moment between Wanibuchi and Satoshi, where a perfect Wanibuchi line is shared regarding Eimi, "The beast is licking his lips." There's another moment where Wanibuchi compares Eimi to the lucky yellow wallet his grandfather owned. It's an interesting comparison, but I think it works for this odd couple.

Deep thoughts: There's an extra story at the end—an early one-shot by Matsumoto, titled "The Release." In it, an "Oriental" slave is kept prisoner before being sold to market. Thankfully, one of her jailers takes pity on her and eventually releases her. While I won't get into my disdain for the use of "oriental" in relation to people, I will point out that while slavery is illegal throughout the world, it is still a thriving underground business. Author Benjamin Skinner wrote about the black market for people in his book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery; I heard about his book during this NPR interview. It's amazing, and yet somehow unsurprising, that such an illegal trade still exists.

Artwork: There's a watercolor portrait of Eimi on the back cover—however, she looks wan, hollow-cheeked and contemplative; the opposite of what she usually looks like. There's also appearances from various family members, including the main trio's siblings. They all look alike in some way and yet are made distinctively different in some way. Lastly, the one-shot at the end showed just how far Matsumoto's artwork has come since whenever she drew it. Her style hasn't changed too much; it's simply become more refined and less amateurish.

The verdict: If only... Overall, I liked Beauty and the Beast. It was unlikely, understated and, yet, somehow very touching. While Eimi never has designs on "taming" Wanibuchi, she still seems to have that effect on him. It was interesting to watch unfold, despite the emotional torture taken on Satoshi. I'd recommend Beauty is the Beast to anyone looking for a high school romance that doesn't follow a predictable path and overused tropes. Beauty is the Beast is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Emma, vol. 8

The story: This volume contains short stories of the side characters in the Emma-verse. From Kelly, Emma's former mistress, to Eleanor Campbell, Kaoru Mori shares glimpses into their lives. There's the opening of the Crystal Palace, a trip to the shore, the life of a newspaper in Victorian London and Tasha the maid's visit home. But, these are no ordinary, "everyday" scenes, and instead capture fond memories, auspicious starts and solidify decisions made by the characters involved.

Reaction: I love Emma, so it's safe to say that I really enjoyed this volume, even with its disjointed, unrelated stories. As someone who works in the media and still reads a real newspaper everyday, I loved chapter five, "The Times." It was really all the little details that got to me—from the ironing of the newspaper by maids (so the ink doesn't rub off onto the reader's fingertips) to how announcements bring people together. Of course, the other chapters are much the same and reminiscent of a simpler time, where courtesy and manners were standard and not optional, like they are today.

Deep thoughts: Because of "The Times," I again lamented the state of the modern newspaper industry. While many dailies have reduced their coverage to shuttering completely, there's been a steep drop in profits not only because of changes in readership habits (why pay for a subscription when you can read the news online for free?), but also because of the current recession. Since display is the lone way for newspapers to profit (classifieds used to be an income source prior to the proliferation of Craig's List), they've lost quite a bit of money as retailers have felt the economic crunch. While I dislike the much reduced volume and news coverage in my local newspaper, it's the layoffs of those involved in its creation—from layout designers to writers and editors—that I deplore the most.

Artwork: Again, Mori does a great job with period costumes, the setting and the finer artistic details. From the bathing suits during the two-part "Brighton by the Sea" to the newspaper close-ups, she captures each with an ease and seeming effortlessness. But most impressive are the panels in the Crystal Palace. Since the structure no longer exists, it's amazing to see it come to life within these pages. Capturing the crowds, the exhibits and the mood is no small feat, but, again, Mori does it and quite well at that.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Even without its main character, this manga is a true delight and captures the life and times of the characters all too well. I continue to be impressed by this ostensibly simple and understated manga, and look forward to the final two volumes, especially with the return of Emma in the forthcoming tenth volume. Emma is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ode to Kirihito

The story: The title character, Kirihito Osanai, is an up-and-coming doctor, engaged to a beautiful woman and researching Monmow disease alongside his mentor, Dr. Tatsugaura. Monmow disease, prevalent in a remote village in Japan, causes a horrific physical transformation, ultimately resulting in a dog- or badger-like appearance until an agonizing death claims its victim. When Kirihito dares to challenge his mentor's theory that the disease is viral, he's sent off to the village to investigate. There, he contracts the disease and his painful and transformational experience begins. From being sold to a Chinese multimillionaire to being kidnapped in the Middle East, Kirihito goes through a Homer's Odyssey of sorts in his attempts to return home to Japan and confront Tatsugaura, who conspired against him to begin with. Meanwhile, his friend and colleague Dr. Urabe goes through a psychological transformation of his own while Kirihito is away, although he tries his best to get to the bottom of what happened to his friend. Will Kirihito ever make his way home and, if he does, will he confront Tatsugaura as a man or beast?

Reaction: First off, this was a rather thick tome and, despite my speed-reading ability, took me the better part of a week to complete. But, that in no way tarnishes its greatness. Much like other Osamu Tezuka series, Ode to Kirihito is a thoughtful meditation on life, from what separates man from beast to how greed and ego can sublate our humanity. There's also a strong tie to Christian values that surprised me, and a parallel to Christ's suffering. There's a carefully balanced duality of storylines at work here, too, between Kirihito's outward transformation into a beast alongside Dr. Tatsugaura's transformation into an ever-obstinate politician. Unfortunately for Tatsugaura, he never yields. Thankfully, Kirihito finds his humanity and his purpose, making this a fulfilling story despite it's seemingly untimely ending.

Deep thoughts: There's a lot of religious imagery and symbolism in this book, from images of Christ carrying a cross to a display of (most likely) Hindu gods in ecstasy. The inclusion is an anomaly, even among Tezuka's other works. While he's always included spirituality in some unspoken way, I've never seen such an overt and purposeful incorporation in his other works that I've read thus far. Also, the character of Sister Helen is an interesting one, and a contrast to the other characters, as she's the only one you could definitively say was truly good. Otherwise, all of Tezuka's characters carefully walk a path of gray morality in a black and white world.

Artwork: While this isn't a steep departure from his prior works, Tezuka does flex his artistic muscles here, including some metaphorical and surreal scenes to illustrate Urabe's descent into madness. There's also the unconventional religious imagery I mentioned prior, as well as some wonderfully and clinically detailed medical moments. But, my favorite panels consistently show Tezuka's attention to detail—whether it's the architecture of an up-and-coming Chinese city to a surgery in a Middle Eastern cave. And, as always, his cartoonish style alleviates the, at times, overbearing seriousness in this manga, allowing a psychological break of sorts.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I hesitate to call this required reading for a few reasons, namely that it's hard to say how anyone will react to a story like this. It's an odd, dark book that shows the worst of mankind. While it tries to find a positive note towards its end, it seemed to end too early, much like Dororo. However, this is still a wonderful book that I heartily recommend, simply for the themes it brings up. Ode to Kirihito is available in the U.S. from Vertical.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Tale of an Unknown Country, vol. 1

The story: Rosemarie is a rather independent princess from a working-class royal family in the imaginary country of Ardela. Thanks to her brother, Mache, she's being forced into a marriage with the prince of the adjacent kingdom in order to bring prosperity to her country, which relies heavily on the tourism industry. Unfortunately, Yurinela's Prince Reynol is a cold, selfish weirdo who never goes outside -- or so Rosemarie thinks. To learn more about Reynol, Rosemarie goes undercover as a maid in his palace. While there, she serves his every whim and gets to know him better. So, is this a fairy tale recipe for disaster or true love?

Reaction: This is a sweet story and once I finished the volume, I wondered just what there could be left. Sure, Princess Rosemarie and Prince Reynol will certainly experience difficulties in getting others to recognize their feelings for one another, but there isn't much to their eventual success as a couple. On the other hand, much of what they experienced was a chaste and innocent interest in one another, which I certainly found endearing in its own way. Of course, I appreciated that Rosemarie is also the opposite of a typical princess—she works regularly and, early on, is pegged as peculiar, if not particularly thoughtful.

Deep thoughts: I thought the contrast between the kindgoms of Ardela and Yurinela was particularly culturally relevant to Japan—Yurinela is a sterile, technologically advanced country, while Ardela is a mostly idyllic, rural country popular with vacationers. While Japan is undoubtedly a leader in technology development (have you seen their cellphones?), they also revere nature in a way that reflects their Shinto roots. Curiously, Natsuna Kawase makes it seem like Ardela is superior to Yurinela because, while Yurinela can have calm machine-produced weather, Ardela has rainbows and other fabulous "spontaneously occurring natural phenomena."

Artwork: Honestly, I found the art to be almost too simple and, at times, awkward. Kawase draws faces awkwardly at certain angles, with thin lips that dip too low towards their pointy chins. Otherwise, the art is particularly unremarkable with sparse backgrounds, even for a shojo manga. And I can't say much about character design, either, as there are few distinguishing characteristics outside of hairstyle. However, Kawase does a great job illustrating Rosemarie's emotions, whether it's a carefree smile or a look of frustration. In contrast to other shojo manga, she doesn't abuse the tools of the trade, either. The artwork may be sparse, but it's certainly not annoyingly busy, either.

The verdict: Meh/Highly recommended. This wasn't a bad title, but it wasn't particularly entertaining to me, either. However, it's important to note that I'm not the target demographic. This is too tame a love story for me, but I could see it's entertainment value for younger girls, particularly those taken with princesses. For that audience, this book would be highly recommended; it's a well-balanced, well-told romance featuring likeable characters. A Tale of an Unknown Country is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

There it is, Plain as Daylight Review: Honey and Clover, vol. 7

Read my newest review at There it is, Plain as Daylight, a blog by fellow manga lover Melinda Beasi. This time around I review Honey and Clover, vol. 7. Here's a small excerpt:

Five unforgettable characters learn about life and love in this coming-of-age tale set in a small arts college. Love triangles abound as they try to figure out what they want from life, whether living as artists is enough and wondering where their next meat-filled meal will come from. But, Hagu, Mayama, Yamada, Takemoto and Morita learn to lean on each other in unexpected ways as they make their way towards full-blown adulthood. ... Honestly, I love Honey and Clover. The characters, the situations they’re thrown in, their (at times) bleak experience in life and love—it all comes together in a perfect storm of the “quarter-life crisis.”

It's no secret that I love Honey and Clover, but read my review to see why you should love it, too! Honey and Clover is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Beauty is the Beast, vol. 4

The story: "Cool Wanichin," aka Wanibuchi, makes an extra special appearance here when he repairs the electricity in his dorms before final exams and goes from last to second in the school rankings. As Satoshi notes, "He has no weaknesses." Of course, Eimi becomes more and more curious about his personal life, finding out about his family situation in bits and pieces. There's also an attempt at a redecoration of Eimi's and Misao's room and Eimi goes to Wanibuchi's girlfriend for interior decorating advice. This volume examines the relationships others have with Wanibuchi and Eimi—specifically, Wanibuchi's older hairdresser girlfriend and the long-suffering Satoshi, who's still pining for Eimi.

Reaction: I liked this volume quite a bit. I learned more about Wanibuchi and his girlfriend, including how they met and her life before she met him. I think it's supposed to come as a surprise, but Wanibuchi has the typical tsundere personality—he seems quite cold and callous on the outside, but inside, he's a caring individual. Of course, Eimi's dormmates intervention in her love life continues to be amusing, but I'm beginning to feel an awkward discomfort anytime the threesome of Eimi, Wanibuchi and Satoshi happens. Unfortunately, I'm beginning to just feel more pity for Satoshi and less amusement regarding his situation.

Deep thoughts: I liked the theme of love being a curse. Eimi notices it when she sees Wanibuchi's girlfriend and Satoshi feels it every time Wanibuchi takes Eimi away. They both want something that they can't have (or, in the case of Wanibuchi's girlfriend, something they can't keep). Eimi's and Wanibuchi's attraction to one another becomes more apparent here, mostly because there are more similarities shown. While Eimi's always compared to a small, cute animal, Wanibuchi is this wild beast. But, at heart, they're both just similarly animalistic in their desires (food for Eimi and sex, it seems, for Wanibuchi) and their personalities seem so complementary. While Eimi looks like someone who needs to be cared for in one way or another, Wanibuchi is the type to take care of people simply because they need it.

Artwork: In the first chapter, there's a funny throwback to a 1970s shojo style—showing surprise with a wide, iris-less eyes. It reminded me of Swan as soon as I saw it. Of course, it's fairly dramatic, but funny considering the situation (Eimi and Misao run out of heating oil in the midst of a cold winter). The rest of the volume plays up the humor, too, especially with the blushing cheeks and nosebleeds on Satoshi's part during his date with Eimi.

The verdict: Highly recommended. We're getting closer to the climax and end of Beauty is the Beast. How will Tomo Matsumoto end this series and how will she finally bring Wanibuchi and Eimi together? Will it be obvious and to the point like Eimi, or mysterious and underplayed like Wanibuchi? Beauty is the Beast is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kitchen Princess, vol. 2

The story: This volume picks up right after the events of the first, and Najika is upset and thinking of leaving. Thankfully, Sora and Daichi convince her to think about it, and Sora helps Najika discover her special talent—an absolute sense of taste. But, this is only the beginning. Even though Njika decides to stay at Seika Academy, she has to deal with her classmate Akane, who seems to hate her guts. Akane, jealous of Najika's relationship with Daichi, challenges her rival to a cake-baking contest. While Najika wins, it's only the beginning of her "love-hate" relationship with Akane. As the volume continues, Akane suffers through a debilitating eating disorder and Najika tries to help her.

Reaction: While this volume started as I expected, I was surprised by the deeper themes it explored with Akane's body image issues. While I'm not sure how to feel about Najika's all-to-simple solution, I did like the basic premise of food serving as a representation of love and people caring for one another. I also liked the vacillation between self-doubt and confidence that Najika showed in the first half; it came off as realistic to me, although I could see how others might get tired of her waffling. Of course, I also liked the love triangle forming between the two brothers and the budding pastry chef. Yes, it's cliched, but it's used because it captures your attention!

Deep thoughts: Akane, an aspiring supermodel, suffers from a couple of eating disorders, namely anorexia (starving herself) and bulemia (binging and purging). And while she seems to have a one-track mind in losing weight for her career, there are actually a host of issues that play into creation of an eating disorder. Besides psychological factors, like feelings of inadequacy, there's also interpersonal reasons, social factors and a possible genetic link. I found the genetic link the most interesting, as it's still being researched, but also because it's mentioned that Akane's mother was a model, too. While we haven't seen to many parents in this manga, the appearance of Akane's mother showed her support of her daughter, but she also served as the main reason spurring Akane towards self-starvation.

Artwork: There are a lot of emotions expressed in this volume, many of them featuring blushing cheeks. Whether you're mad, crying, crushing or something else, it seems that Natsumi Ando is fond of tinting one's cheeks to illustrate it. Thankfully, the facial expressions are well done enough that you can overlook their overuse of blush. Of course, the food is the star here, with lots of attractive dishes throughout and even one that looks disgusting (it's made by Sora and Daichi). Otherwise, expect the usual shojo trappings—screentone, sparkles and floating flowers abound.

The verdict: If only... I'm not sure what to think when I have a true "moral to the story" in a manga. Perhaps it's because I'm an older reader, but I think Najika's answer to Akane's eating disorder is a bit misleading. The exploration of Akane's situation was good, but I felt like there could have been more to her story. Hopefully, the next volume will expand on it a bit more! Kitchen Princessis available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

MangaCast Review: Love Com, vol. 3

Be sure to head over to MangaCast for my review of Love Com, vol. 3. If you've never been to MangaCast before, check it out for the latest in manga news and reviews, and rankings from Japan!

Here's an excerpt from my review:

Risa Koizumi is the tallest girl in her class and Atsushi Otani is the shortest guy. Together, they form their school’s “all Hanshin-Kyojin duo,” after the famous Osaka comedy team. At first, they can’t seem to stand one another, but quickly learn that they do have a few things in common, namely their love of Umibouzu, a fictional hip-hop artist. And as things often go in shojo manga, they swiftly become the unwilling stars in a ridiculous romantic comedy of high school proportions. ... Love Com is one of those series that grabs you by the funny bone straight out of the box. Whether it’s the back-and-forth bickering between Risa and Otani, the situations they’re put in or the supporting cast of friends that surround the main couple, there’s bound to be lots of giggling and guffawing.

Want to know more about this hilarious shojo series? Then check out the rest of my review! Love Com is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Detroit Metal City, vol. 1

Yet another manga that I received as part of a giveaway on a manga blog. This time around, I was lucky to win the first volume of Detroit Metal City from TangonaT. Be sure to check out her blog about graphic novels, manga and young adult literature. Thanks for the free copy TangonaT!

The story: Soichi is a young twenty-something from a small town. He came to Tokyo with dreams of starting a pop band and playing songs reminiscent of his favorite Swedish groups. Instead, he became the lead singer in the death metal band, Detroit Metal City. At every show, Soichi transforms into Krauser II, a hateful, screeching, spit-launching lead vocalist who shreds the guitar with an uncanny ability. Unfortunately, Soichi still dreams of his sweet pop band, but, day by day, he's transforming more and more into his alter ego.

Reaction: This manga is filled with disgusting lyrics, curse words and ridiculous situations—and I loved every minute of it! Once you figure out the tongue-in-cheek humor, it's easy to enjoy this manga for what it is. And it's just one ironic, awkward situation after another, from DMC's aggressive female manager to the appearance of Soichi's old classmates. This is a story you absolutely cannot take seriously; otherwise, you're apt to become really offended really quickly.

Deep thoughts: DMC is full of misogynistic and violent lyrics, disturbing imagery and an odd dichotomy illustrated by Soichi and his alter ego. While it would be easy to write a treatise on why so much of this manga is objectionable, there are actually quite a few strong women here. For example, DMC's manager controls the band's destiny and is a huge metalcore fan herself. She's quite possibly the most messed up person in the whole manga. Now, compare this to the most wholesome person in the manga—Soichi's mom. He's completely devoted to her and, even though miles separate them, she still takes time to take care of Soichi as best she can. It's interesting to see that although Soichi is male and this manga is certainly offensive, some of its strongest characters are women.

Artwork: Unsurprisingly, Kiminori Wakasugi has a knack for the macabre and grotesque. I assume he wouldn't be drawing a manga like Detroit Metal City if he wasn't good at the genre. But, as well as he draws the sickening, KISS-emulating moments with DMC, he's equally amazing at making the mundane appear hilarious. Whether it's Soichi being mistaken as a groper on the subway or an old memory from college, even these fleeting moments are giggle inducing. Nearly every panel of this volume is fabulously exaggerated and makes a joke out of everything and anything; nothing is sacred in the world of DMC.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I will admit outright that this manga is NOT for everyone (not to mention it's rated for mature audiences). It's a special interest manga if there ever was one. But, if you like irony, awkward humor and know when to not take things seriously, this is the manga for you. Detroit Metal City is available in the U.S. from Viz.