Thursday, November 19, 2009

SD CityBeat Blog Post: Does San Diego Need Another Comic-Con?

While it isn't strictly manga-related, I think some might be interested in a blog post I wrote for the Last Blog on Earth by San Diego CityBeat, a local alt weekly in San Diego, Calif. The post, titled "Does San Diego need another Comic-Con?," reports on the new San Diego Quarterly Con, which had its first showing last Sunday, Nov. 15. Here's an excerpt from my post:

With four-day San Diego Comic-Con International passes unprecedentedly selling out in early November, does San Diego need another con? And four times a year at that?

If the hundreds of attendees at the first San Diego Quarterly Con last Sunday are any indication, then, yes, there is a need.

To read more about the event, click here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ooku: The Inner Chambers, vol. 1

The story: An epidemic has struck Edo-era Japan, killing three-quarters of the male population. With men in short supply, women step up to take over jobs traditionally held by their male counterparts, including that of shogun. In the shogun's inner chambers, or ooku, thousands of men toil behind the scenes, serving not only as administrators, but as a harem. When a new shogun takes over 80 years after the first infected boy dies, the monetary wastefulness of the ooku is shed in an effort to "rerelease" these highly desired men back into the general population. At volume's end, the shogun is determined to learn how the epidemic came to pass and the subsequent elevation of women in Japan.

Reaction: I'll admit that I'm a big fan of Fumi Yoshinaga's prior work Antique Bakery and had high hopes for this title. While the settings, characters and plot do not disappoint, I do have to agree with other reviewers initially put off by the flowery language used. However, perhaps due to my familiarity with Shakespeare, it passed quickly.

Otherwise, this is a slice of life-style manga with an alternate history bent. While this volume gives the series a slow start, it does have a lot of "world building" to do, which is to be expected. My largest criticism is regarding the "tell versus show"-style of storytelling Yoshinaga uses. Characters are prone to long bouts of dialogue and there's a narrative voice present throughout, not to mention the occasional soliloquy.

Deep thoughts: Yoshinaga is well known for her yaoi work and makes a point of including homosexual characters and/or situations in her non-yaoi works. Ooku is no different; with so many men quarantined from contact with the outside world, they resort to finding carnal pleasure in the only way available to them (not everyone is in service as a concubine for the shogun). While I am not familiar with Yoshinaga's yaoi work, she avoids the all-too-easy trap of making homosexual characters into glib stereotypes in her non-yaoi works. Since American mainstream media often succumbs to just such portrayals, it's refreshing to read Yoshinaga's works.

Artwork: This being a period piece, there's a great sense of place established from architecture to costumes. Backgrounds are relatively sparse, either reflecting a simple aesthetic or Yoshinaga's ability (or lack thereof). However, the art isn't so much the focus here as the storytelling. There's moments of action, but mostly these are well-drawn characters dealing with their own inner turmoil and their reactions to the sacrifices that must be made when men are in short supply.

The verdict: If only... While I find this story intriguing and the characters enjoyable, there's something to be desired here — mostly less text and more setting/plot movement. However, compared to all the other manga out there, this is still one of the best and well deserves the Viz Signature treatment. I know I'll be first in line to pick up volume two when it hit shelves later this year. Ooku: The Inner Chambers is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Oh! My Brother, vol. 1

The story: Unremarkably normal Masago is the younger sister of fun and charismatic class president Shiro. One day, tragedy strikes and Shiro dies while rescuing Masago from an oncoming truck. While everyone mourns the loss of Shiro, his spirit pays an unexpected visit to Masago and she ends up "possessed" by him. While they try figuring out why Shiro's spirit is still on Earth, the two siblings find themselves closer than they've ever been!

Reaction: Honestly, I shouldn't have tried reading this while waiting for the train the other morning -- my eyes welled up pretty terribly as I read the first few pages. This isn't a happy story, but it does have its comedic moments and a certain wistfulness to it. Masago is so plain that it's a little sad to see her enveloped in her brother's shadow; she's known more as Shiro's sister than anything else. But, I'll admit it's particularly interesting to see her character grow under the influence of her brother's spirit.

Deep thoughts: High school cultural festivals seem like such a big part of Japanese culture, especially since its practically obligatory for every high school manga or anime to dedicate a chapter, episode or volume to the annual event. Besides showcasing students' hard work, these festivals allow prospective students and their parents to check out the school. For some interesting insight into this traditional event, be sure to check out the blog of Japanese "wacky product" importer Peter Payne.

Artwork: The art here is much like Ken Saito's other series, The Name of the Flower. But, I was most struck by the difference in his visual pacing and nontraditional panel structure between this and his other series. Shojo manga often doesn't have actual motion to pull a story along, so pacing is more important. Saito's panels are unexpectedly jagged and of different sizes, emphasizing frequent dialog bubbles that lead the reader along.

The verdict: If only... Saito does another surprisingly well job with this unexpected shojo manga, but I wonder how long Shiro can possess his sister and still keep this story interesting. While he is helping his sister's character growth, is there a point where Shiro's presence will only hinder Masago? While I had mixed feelings about this story, I'm willing to give it another chance since it's a shorter series (it's a total of four volumes). Oh! My Brother is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Apothecarius Argentum, vol. 5

The story: Since he received preferential treatment, Argent's being given a hard time by the local apothecary guild and is challenged to a pharmaceutical duel of sorts by Soda's former master. Later, Garna, who once poisoned Princess Primula, has been forgiven because of his help in curing Navara of its endemic disease. He has returned to his role as head chef and his presence allows Argent to leave the princess's side in order to find a cure for his own basilisk nature. While Argent and Soda explore the lands beyond Beazol's borders, just how will Princess Primula fare without them?

Reaction: This is mostly a transitional volume and shows everyone moving on to the next steps of their lives -- Argent hopes to cure himself while Primula must learn how to rule. There are entertaining moments sprinkled throughout and a strong moral at one point, courtesy of Garna's past. Overall, this is a nice enough volume, but it only hints at the conspiracy that's slowly playing itself out in Beazol and other nearby nations.

Deep thoughts: Like characters of their own, many drugs and poisons exist in the world of Apothecarius Argentum. This volume features opiates made from poppy seeds. Opiates are highly addictive and include opium, morphine and codeine. The cautionary tale of addiction and the subsequent death it causes is used as an example of how quickly a country can be turned upside down when its people are no longer positively contributing to society.

Artwork: The art remains relatively unchanged from prior volumes. As expected, characters are well designed and the flashbacks are done nicely. The highlight of this volume, though, is the details. From an embellished tiara to panels filled with food, Tomomi Yamashita puts just a "little more" into the artwork here, and it's appreciated.

The verdict: If only... After all the progress in Argent's and Primula's relationship, this volume was inconclusive in regards to romance. There's also just a hint at the bigger political plot, without further clues. While I may not have been fully satisfied, it certainly makes me want to read the next volume immediately. Apothecarius Argentum is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ouran High School Host Club, vol. 1

The story: Haruhi is a scholarship student at the ubër-prestigious, private Ouran Institute. One day, while looking for a quiet place to study, she stumbles into a very special club of the school's best, and handsomest, male students. Amazingly, it's modeled after a host club, where young, handsome men entertain women! When Haruhi breaks an expensive vase, she finds herself indebted to the club. To pay back them back, the club members -- who are yet to recognize the androgynous Haruhi as a girl -- force her to become a host. What hijinks will ensue and can Haruhi endear herself to the club enough to get rid of her debt?

Reaction: What's not to love about this slapstick comedy that has the chutzpah to send up some of the best shojo manga tropes? There's a host club member for every fetish -- whether it's shotacon, twincest or the exotically handsome type -- and Haruhi is the perfect straight man for all the other characters, especially since she's just a "lowly commoner." I also liked the other students involved in the story. From an arranged marriage to a fangirl, the side characters bring some much-needed variety to what could easily devolve into a simple gag comedy.

Deep thoughts: In this volume, there's an arranged marriage between two Ouran students. While this is a traditional practice in other countries, it is unheard of in mainstream American culture. While the divorce rate in the U.S. is 50 percent (the highest in the world, I believe), arranged marriages have a lower divorce rate. Whether this is due to commitment to an arranged marriage as opposed to "love matches," or if divorce is simply not considered an option, is still uncertain and merits further research.

Artwork: Since this manga is a satire of all things shojo, the art definitely reflects that. From abundant screentone use to panels with flowers bursting at the seams, there's a lot of the visual trademarks of the girly genre. There's also plenty of blushing cheeks, chibis, doe-eyed looks and extreme close-ups. Thankfully, it's not all pretty boys and girls; Bisco Hatori also does a great job with the many costume designs and the elaborate setting of the private high school.

The verdict: Required reading. This is one of the best shojo series out there, with its entertaining plot and character dynamics. Bisco Hatori really outdoes herself here with a tongue-in-cheek satire of the genre, while still entertaining its committed fans. If you only ever read one high school shojo manga, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining read than this one. Ouran High School Host Club is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Apothecarius Argentum, vol. 4

The story: Princess Primula and Prince Lorca set off to Navara to help heal its people of their endemic disease and to bring peace to their neighboring nations. When they arrive, the two young royals find the king ill and a mysterious woman at his side. To top it all off, they're imprisoned under suspicion of kidnapping the crown prince's missing son, which occurred at the same time Lorca disappeared. While political strife is afoot in Navara, Primula and Argent struggle with their growing feelings for one another. Just what will become of these two kingdoms?

Reaction: The plot thickens in this volume, with spies discovered and traitors exposed. There's also the emotional growth in the relationship between Primula and Argent, as well as the skyrocket-like character growth for Lorca. While I wasn't a fan of Lorca when he was first introduced, I like him much more by volume's end. Of course, I was a little miffed that there was so little Soda in this one!

Deep thoughts: Lorca, bug lover that he is, mentions that cochineal beetles, when crushed, provide the basis for an amazing red dye for textiles and cloth. Carmine, another name for the bug-derived dye, is used in a wide variety of products, from yogurt to lipstick. So, next time you pick up red, processed foods or other products, you might want to check for carmine or cochineal, or you'll get more than you bargained for!

Artwork: The art in this volume is a little more developed from the first three with new characters and a new location. Out of all the scenes, I liked the one between the mysterious woman serving the king of Navara and Prince Daniel. There's just a perfect moment of recognition that captures the emotions involved. While it seems like an effortless capture of the nuances of facial expressions, it shows just how difficult it is to recreate moments like that. This scene is also set in a tropical greenhouse of sorts, giving it an even more mysterious feel.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This story just gets better and better with each volume. While there's romance, there's also the political strife between Beazol and its neighbors. It's a nice balance, along with the science and adept artwork. And while I'm a sucker for romance, I find myself just as invested in the story of Beazol as I am in the romance between Primula and Argent. Apothecarius Argentum is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Two Flowers for the Dragon, vol. 1

The story: Shakuya is the heir to the Dragon Clan, which oversees an important desert oasis. As the heir, she will not only come to rule over the clan one day, but she also has the amazing ability to transform into a dragon. Too bad she has hardly any control over the change! But, Shakuya's got bigger problems than her emotional transformations -- her old fiance, Lucien, has returned after a five-year absence, interrupting Shakuya's engagement to her new fiance, Kuwan. Even worse, Lucien has no memories prior to his disappearance years ago. Just who will win Shakuya's heart and become her husband?

Reaction: This is a fun manga that exploits a love triangle and provides some political intrigue. After reading much of The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, I found myself enjoying this more than that series. Shakuya is a bit of a love-sick teenage girl, but she's also got a lot of responsibility in her role as heir and protector to the Dragon Clan. While there are some small similarities to Nari Kusakawa's Palette, especially when it comes to some characters' personalities, this story provides a fresh, if not an equally entertaining and fantastical, world with its own unique cultures and customs.

Deep thoughts: At one point, Kusakawa mentions polyandry during one of the chapter breaks. Polyandry is a form of polygamy, where one woman is married to two or more men. It occurs, or occurred, in cultures of the Indian subcontinent, including India and Sri Lanka, in some parts of Africa and in some regions of Mongolia. In Tibet, the practice, now outlawed, would occur to many brothers married to one woman and ensured the passing along of property in families.

Artwork: This manga suffers from some of the same artistic issues as The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, namely occasional awkward face composition. But, what I really loved were the Chinese-inspired costumes, including the long tunics with their Mandarin collars. I also loved the illustrations of Shakuya's transformation -- her dragon form is both fearsome and, when appropriate, comedic. It's a great balance that is easy to appreciate.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I really enjoyed this series, much more so than Kusakawa's The Palette of 12 Secret Colors. While both series feature fantastical worlds, there's more at play in this manga, especially with allusions to rising political divisions. Two Flowers for the Dragon is available in the U.S. from CMX.