Thursday, December 31, 2009

What I Should've Read in 2009

With the new year just a few hours away, I thought this would be a prime time to reflect on what I should have read this year. While so many folks have churned out their "best of" lists for 2009 (myself included), there are a lot of great books I missed this year (and, in hindsight, would have proven themselves worthier than what I did end up reading).

In between work and graduate school, I somehow still found the time to read a lot of manga and start this blog. Unfortunately, due to limits of time and money, there were some series that I couldn't get to. Without further ado, here are the manga I should have read in 2009 (and will most likely be getting to first-thing in the new year!):

More josei: Sure, I read the first volume of Fumi Yoshinaga's new narrative-heavy historical drama, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, and the newest mature addition to Shojo Beat, Butterflies, Flowers, but I didn't have time to get to all the new volumes of continuing series that came out this year, like those for Ooku, Flower of Life, With the Light or NANA, nor series like Nodame Cantabile or Minima!. Thankfully, this will be easily rectified thanks to the Borders gift card that's currently burning a hole in my pocket!

Oishinbo: I love food and I love comics, so Oishinbo seems like a perfect read for me, right? Unfortunately, my "I'll grab it next time" mentality at the bookstore always results in me either forgetting or the series being out of stock the next time I end up at a bricks-and-mortar store. We'll see if I can get my act together in '10.

More Osamu Tezuka: While I haven't gotten to Swallowing the Earth, published by Digital Manga earlier this year, I also missed out on new volumes of Black Jack from Vertical. Alas, I won't even get started on the pile of all eight volumes of Buddha that I've been meaning to get to! I suppose it's no surprise that reading more by the "godfather of manga" is at the top of my manga-related list of New Year's resolutions. And while it wasn't written by the godfather himself, the Astro Boy-inspired Pluto by Naoki Urasawa is high on the to-read list, too.

IKKI titles in printed format: I've read a lot of great online seinen manga on Viz's Sig IKKI website, but I haven't taken the time to track down print copies of the lushly illustrated and mysteriously captivating Children of the Sea. But, with Natsume Ono's House of Five Leaves and not simple going to print in the first half of 2010, I just might break this shameful streak.

A Drifting Life: While I've only dipped my toe into the gekiga genre, there's no doubt in my mind that this title is worth the hours I'll have to dedicate to reading it. It's appeared on numerous "best of" lists, and Drawn & Quarterly and Adrian Tomine, the tome's editor, undoubtedly did right by Yoshihiro Tatsumi and his expansive illustrated memoir.

Worthy second volumes: I had the opportunity to read both the first volumes of OEL graphic novels, Nightschool and Yokaiden, but haven't had the chance to dig into the second volumes (for shame!). I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to what the ever-talented Svetlana Chmakova and Nina Matsumoto have come up with in the second volumes of their equally intriguing fantasy series!

More Yotsuba&!: Thanks to my local library, I've been able to immerse myself in the first few volumes of this endearingly cute series featuring the world's goofiest 6-year-old. And thanks to the fabulous folks at Yen Press who picked up this lapsed license, there were even more wacky adventures afoot in '09. Understandably, I can't wait to see what fun Yotsuba gets herself into next!

Give the little guys some love: While I made the time at San Diego Comic-Con International to stop by the booths hosted by Fanfare/Ponent Mon and Drawn & Quarterly (as recommended by this article), I had a hard time finding the time to read all of their amazing manga and graphic novel releases this year (see: A Drifting Life). Alas, these publishers put out consistently high quality work and, if what I've seen from D&Q so far is any indication, I need to get reading stat!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best New Series of 2009

It's that time of year again where everyone puts out their "best of" list. Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list of the best new manga series released in 2009 -- I don't know anyone who has read everything that came out this year and I'm certainly not one of them. This is simply a list of the best new series that I happened to read and review this year. So, read through and let me know what you think!

Children of the Sea: This series was the first published online as part of Viz's new IKKI website. I was immediately drawn in by the realistic art and the mystery behind Sora's and Umi's connection to the sea. This is a series that quietly sucks you in deeper and deeper, much like the tide along the ocean's edge. While I haven't reviewed the online chapters in some time, I've been able to keep up with this intriguing mystery. Children of the Sea is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Detroit Metal City: DMC is a laugh-out-loud comic filled with obscenity and profanity -- and I loved every minute of it! This series doesn't take itself seriously, but it does take the business of satire seriously. In a send-up of death metal bands, Soichi is a pop-loving, sweet country bumpkin who is also lead singer of Tokyo's raging death metal band, Detroit Metal City. While I haven't gotten around to the second or third volumes, I will be doing so soon! Detroit Metal City is available in the U.S. from Viz.

The Name of the Flower: Quietly poignant while illustrating the depth to which some people sink emotionally, this story is about love's power to save people just as much as it is about the main characters' depression. With reclusive writer Kei and teenage schoolgirl Chouko growing closer each day, how will they resolve their unexpected love story, or is a tragic ending truly too fitting? If you've tired of formulaic shojo romance, then please pick up this manga. The Name of the Flower is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers: In this period piece featuring an alternate history of Japan, woman literally rule. By turning the tables on men, interesting parallels are drawn and a medical mystery begins. Fumi Yoshinaga's latest work is heavy on the narration, but the characters are unsurprisingly compelling. If you're yet to explore this prolific mangaka's work, this is a great introductory series! Ooku: The Inner Chambers is available in the U.S. from Viz.

RIN-NE: While it's yet to be seen if this will be as popular as Rumiko Takahashi's older works, there's certainly a great foundation laid in this comedic shonen manga where a "sort of" shinigami and his classmate Sakura help the undead move on to the other side. While it took me awhile to get into this story, I'm glad I've kept up with it online via Viz's Rumic World website. RIN-NE is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Venus Capriccio: Tomboyish Takami gets dumped by her latest boyfriend, when her best friend, pretty boy Akira, tells her how he really feels. In a parallel to their piano duets, this pair deepens their relationship as they learn how to play together. I was pulled in by the quiet tension in this sweetly romantic shojo story. Venus Capriccio is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Yotsuba&!: While some might quibble over whether or not this is "new," I couldn't help but add it to the list. Yen Press picked up this previously lapsed ADV license and published seven volumes of the wacky adventures of the ever-goofy, green-haired, 6-year-old Yotsuba, including the first five volumes originally released by ADV. If my experience is any indication, Yotsuba's childhood innocence and vivid imagination will have you giggling in no time! Yotsuba&! is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Manga Bookshelf Review: Honey and Clover, vol. 8

I've got a new guest review up at Manga Bookshelf, a great manga blog by Melinda Beasi. This time around, I take a look at Honey and Clover, vol. 8. Here's a peek at what I thought:

Love triangles abound in this slapstick-happy manga that mixes comedy with a wistful thoughtfulness that can only be indulged in while attending college. ... This is another well done volume, with an overarching theme of how we try to help one another through pain of one kind or another – whether it’s the pain of the hiccups, pain from love or the pain of living, each of the characters in this volume are trying to help one another in some way.

To read the rest of the review, click here. Honey and Clover is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ouran High School Host Club, vol. 2

The story: In another set of wacky adventures, the club starts off the volume with physical examinations at school. Of course, there's one little problem -- what will happen if Haruhi's cross-dressing secret gets out? The second tale involves an unprecedented fight between the twins, Kaoru and Hikaru, and Haruhi can't help but get involved. But, with the way the twins are fighting, is there any hope of them resolving their differences? In the last adventure, the gang heads to a water park owned by Kyoya's family to hilariously disastrous results!

Reaction: Everything in this series is so out there and it takes nothing seriously. The characters are silly and so exaggerated in their satirical nature that I find myself giggling out loud. As far as the misadventures go, the endings aren't unexpected (things are fairly episodic still), but the physical comedy is at its best here. There are glimpses of romantic moments, but it's blushing cheeks and any feelings are relatively unacknowledged past the initial joke. I like that the focus here isn't on some kind of unending love between two characters, but on interactions between everyone in the club. It's refreshing and makes for some great visual gags.

Deep thoughts: If manga are any indication, full health examinations are a regular occurrence in Japanese schools. While the United States is in the midst of a major health care reform debate, many countries, including Japan, have a nationalized health care industry. With the exception of the United States, every industrialized country in the world has a form of universal health care.

Artwork: Sure, there are plenty of pretty boys here, but Bisco Hatori's talent really shines when it comes to illustrating physical comedy. Whether it's Tamaki's dejected face or the Hitachin twins devious planning or even Mori's stoic silence, it's all played up to great effect. The costumes and settings are another strong point -- I especially like the Arabian-themed outfits from the sixth chapter.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This shojo rom-com has a cast of characters that exaggerate stereotypes to hilarious effect alongside straight woman Haruhi. OHSHC takes all the shojo tropes and takes them to their ridiculous extreme at a breakneck speed that had me zooming quickly through each chapter. If you're looking for laughs in a high school setting with no major romantic entanglements involved, you could do much worse than this series! Ouran High School Host Club is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Shinobi Life, vol. 1

The story: Ever since her mother died, Beni has blamed her father for her death. In fact, Beni hates her father so much that she wants to die in order to punish him. When she's kidnapped one day, Beni is rescued by a time-traveling ninja falling from the sky. Lucky for her, Kagetora mistakes Beni for someone else and continues to protect her. And even though they couldn't be more different, the two slowly fall for one another. But, can their love span the centuries of differences between them?

Reaction: I wanted to read this manga after reading about it in Danielle Leigh's "10 Underrated Shojo Titles" article on Comic Book Resources. And I was not disappointed! The characters are compelling, the situation unique and the love cute and humorous, but not without its challenges. Beni has an unexpected personality, where she's both parts adamant and vulnerable. Kagetora is interesting for his mystery, dedication to honor and sheer devotion. And he's a ninja!

Deep thoughts: From kung fu movies to uber-popular manga series like Naruto, "the way of the ninja," or shinobi, have always been a point of fascination in pop culture around the world. Ninjas, or covert mercenaries, date back to feudal Japan. As masters of weaponry and stealth, ninjas specialized in unorthodox arts of war, often using tactics like espionage, assassination or sabotage.

Artwork: There's some great action in this manga and it's illustrated well with great panel pacing, too. But, there's another manga that I immediately saw a similarity to -- Walkin' Butterfly. When characters are surprised, the irises of their eyes lose color. This is a bit of a throwback to '70s-era shojo manga, but I've only ever seen it used this regularly in Aurora's josei series.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This is a really entertaining and satisfying non-traditional romance manga. It has elements of fantasy, action and comedy, making it enjoyable on several levels. Shinobi Life is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Butterflies, Flowers, vol. 1

The story: Time's are tough around Choko Kuze's house -- her family, once prosperous, lost its fortune and her parents run a little ol' soba shop. To help out, she interviews for several jobs. Unfortunately, the only job she can get is in an office where her boss is a total slave driver (not to mention kind of creepy). So, imagine her surprise when she finds out he used to be employed by her family as her old caretaker, Cha-chan! In work mode, Masayuki Domoto is all business, but outside of the office he insists on calling her "milady." Just how will this unlikely pair fare in work and in life?

Reaction: Oka-ay... So, I'm just going to get it out there -- I think the first pages of this manga are totally inappropriate and creepy. Masayuki asks Choko in her job interview if she's a virgin (and, no, this is not the worst part). Once she confirms that she is, he gets the weirdest grin on his face. Honestly, I got a little skeeved there at the perverseness and quiet misogyny. But, I decided to tarry on -- if this is the only new josei series I'm going to get for awhile, I'm going to finish reading it before fully judging it on its merits (or lack thereof). Thankfully, this story got much better (and funnier) after these inauspicious opening pages.

Deep thoughts: In many OL (office lady) manga like this series, there's always at least a hint of prejudice against women. However, these are josei titles like Tramps Like Us or Suppli, both created by female mangaka, making the prejudice more of an observation or statement regarding the inequality of women in Japan. Culturally, Japan is considered very masculine, to the detriment of the role of women; I've mentioned it here before.

Artwork: There's something very familiar in the shojo-like artwork here. I couldn't figure out what series it reminded me of, but it struck me as a style that I've seen before. Otherwise, there are some funnier moments here, like when Domoto hits an office intruder. As expected of its title, there are, indeed, flowers throughout this manga, along with the requisite shojo sparkles and appropriate screentone. Butterflies, not so much.

The verdict: If only... This manga has a lot going for it in the social class role reversal, goofy characters and physical comedy, but the beginning of the story belies that. Butterflies, Flowers is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Flashlight Worthy Books List: Best Graphic Novels of 2009

See what graphic novels I and others considered the best of 2009 in this list on Flashlight Worthy, a website of books recommended by bloggers and others. My selection was Detroit Metal City, vol. 1, by Kiminori Wakasugi. Here's my recommendation:

Main character Soichi is a sweet-as-pie boy from the country with dreams of starting a pop band. Instead, he becomes the lead singer of death metal band Detroit Metal City, where he sports KISS-inspired make-up as Krauser II. This is not a graphic novel for the faint of heart, but if you like awkward humor and irony — and know when to not take a book too seriously — this is the book for you!

See what other books were chosen by clicking here!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Two Flowers for the Dragon, vol. 3

The story: Shakuya, Kuwan and Lucien, along with other members of Shakuya's retinue, head to the Shade Oasis on official business. While there, they encounter a mysterious sword dancer who ends up being Lucien's old teacher. Lucien, who remembers nothing prior to the five years he spent with his master, pursues her in an attempt to find out how she is connected to Shakuya's father. Meanwhile, a sandstorm approaches, threatening the livelihood of the shade. When Shakuya and her fiances investigate, they find that there is much more to this sandstorm than meets the eye.

Reaction: Ah, the plot thickens! There's a lot of questions answered here, while also raising new ones. We learn a little about Shakuya's father here, as well as about Lucien's past. There's also some political intrigue afoot, but it's only given a set-up. All the while, Shakuya's relationship with her two fiances seems to deepen little by little, making me wonder who she will end up choosing.

Deep thoughts: Dragons play a large thematic role in this manga, with some of mythology about Shakuya's dragon heritage revealed in this volume. In Japan, dragon mythology is an amalgamation of native folklore and that of China, Korea and India. Much like Shakuya's inner dragon and Haku from Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, dragons are believed to be water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water.

Artwork: There's a lot of action in this volume, from chases to fight scenes. At times, I found myself reviewing panels several times to better clarify what was going on. With many characters with similar face types and hair styles, it can be easy to confuse them. But, the confusion is fairly few and far between. Otherwise, this is another well drawn volume where you can really see how far Nari Kusakawa's art has come in comparison to the one-shot at the end, Double Crown.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Not only is Shakuya's love life becoming more complicated, but so is her oasis' future. While a big secret about Shakuya has been revealed, what will it mean for the Dragon Clan? Honestly, this series has sucked me in and I can't wait to find out what happens in the next volume! Two Flowers for the Dragon is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Name of the Flower, vol. 3

The story: Chouko's parents died when she was a teenager and she was forced to move in with her distant relative, Kei, a reclusive novelist. While both of them hide darkness in their hearts, they grow to love one another.

In this volume, Kei has disappeared and Chouko is despondent, missing school and unable to eat or sleep. Eventually Akiyama, Kei's best friend and editor, checks in on her only to find her crippled by depression at the loss of Kei's presence in her life. He vows to find Kei and heads off to find an old mutual friend, Iori. While Iori knows Kei's whereabouts, Akiyama recalls the last time Kei disappeared like this. Will Akiyama be able to bring Kei back home, or will Chouko continue to suffer from her love of Kei?

Reaction: There was a lot of backstory in this volume; the many flashbacks explain not only Kei's depression, but also his history with Akiyama. A lot of emotions were packed into this volume, leaving me near tears at some points and smiling at others. In terms of knowing characters' motivations, I don't think I've read anything this satisfying in a long time.

Deep thoughts: In some ways, it seems that this story is about depression just as much as it is about love. Caused by a combination of chemical imbalance and external factors, nearly 16 percent of all Americans have been diagnosed with depression. This number, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not include people who never seek treatment. While depression is a "disease of the mind," those who suffer from depression are significantly more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, obesity and asthma, among other conditions, illustrating the mind-body connection.

Artwork: This story is all about nuances and subtlety in emotion and Ken Saito illustrates each knowing look well. Backgrounds are sparse, both by design and intent, allowing the reader to fully focus on the story. Of course, flowers continue to provide a thematic element, but never create more than a simple serenity, nor do they overwhelm. Saito is masterful at visualizing the quiet desperation between Kei and Chouko that draws the reader into the darkness and, increasingly, the light of their relationship.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Quite simply, this manga touches the heart and there's a fascinating solace to be found in this story's pages. This is a quiet tale of love and redemption, and finding a reason to live. And if that doesn't touch your heart, nothing will. The Name of the Flower is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

MangaCast Review: Lizard Prince, vol. 1

I've posted another guest review at MangaCast, which features manga news and reviews. This time around, I review Lizard Prince, vol. 1. Here's a small excerpt:

Now that she’s of marrying age, Princess Canary’s father is interested in her getting engaged. So, the king of Lunaria proposes a meeting with Prince Heath, from the neighboring kingdom of Gazania. Only problem is, Heath’s known far and wide as a dolt and womanizer! But, Canary doesn’t mind — it’ll give her a chance to give him a piece of her mind. When Heath catches wind of the plan, he uses magic to switch places with his talking pet lizard. ... I couldn’t help but enjoy this cute manga, particularly since Canary was able to look past Sienna’s physical form in loving him.

To read the rest of my review, click here. Lizard Prince is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, vol. 1

The story: Scott Pilgrim is a "between jobs" 20-something with a band that just so happens to rock. Oh, and he's got a 17-year-old girlfriend named Knives Chau. So what's up with some rollerblading chick skating through his dreams? When Scott finds out it's the new girl in town, Ramona Flowers, he's determined to learn all about her. Too bad Scott's got to fight Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends if he wants to be with her!

Reaction: This is another one of those books I've wanted to check out for some time, especially with the movie coming out next year. Scott Pilgrim honestly reminds me of an old friend -- no job, check; plays guitar in a band, check; dating high school girls, check. Heck, I think my buddy had the same fake fur-lined winter coat, too! So, I enjoyed this on some levels and the humor is definitely "hipster cool" -- make of that what you will.

Deep thoughts: I thought it was fairly entertaining that Ramona worked for, or Amazon's Canadian site. It being the holiday season, Amazon is in a pricing war with Wal-Mart over movies, books, toys and electronics. While Ramona hand delivers products to Scott and others, Amazon just introduced same-day shipping in seven cities throughout the U.S. I wonder if they're employing Ramona-like rollerbladers to help deliver the goods?

Artwork: Bryan Lee O'Malley's artwork is balanced between broad strokes and what always seems to be the perfect amount of white space. His cartoon and manga influences are pretty evident, too; I found myself reminded of some gekiga artists I've recently become familiar with. Characters are designed with modern fashion in mind and, despite O'Malley's minimalist approach, show a fairly broad range of emotions. The changes in perspective are well integrated and the pacing of the panels gets increasingly more jagged as the reader moves through the more action-oriented scenes. Lastly, the ending battle with Ramona's first ex-boyfriend is one of the more entertaining "fights" I've ever seen in print.

The verdict: If only... While I mostly liked this graphic novel, it still skeeved me a little bit to see Scott Pilgrim with a high school girl. Otherwise, this is a fun little tome with an anti-hero if I ever saw one! Scott Pilgrim is available in the U.S. from Oni Press.

Note: While I've tagged this book as an original English-language (OEL) manga, as well as a graphic novel, it's actually a borderline case -- while O'Malley's work is definitely manga-inspired, it hasn't been marketed as OEL and many would argue that it's not OEL to begin with.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, vol. 8

The story: This time around the gang attempts to recruit some new club members, with mixed results. Later, they hire a part-timer and encounter a wedding planner who works for both the living and the dead -- not to mention yakuza. In the last tale, dead infants are abandoned at the local hospital and the gang is determined to find out why. All the while, Sasaki and Karatsu unknowingly grow closer for inexplicable reasons.

Reaction: There was a lot of Japanese culture on display in this volume, mostly in the chapter involving a marriage ritual for the dead and the yakuza thugs who profit off of it. It was interesting to learn about rural traditions and other Far East customs. Otherwise, this was a good volume, but perhaps not as good as the last one.

Deep thoughts: In the same wedding story, the yakuza are shown shooting and killing someone. This is unusual because Japan has a strict gun control policy in place. Unlike the United States, handguns are increasingly rare and rifles and shotguns highly restricted. In the democratic world, Japan has some of the most stringent laws in place.

Artwork: Some truly lonely young people are introduced in this volume, one of whom looks like a female version of Yata, carrying the same constant eye-shielding bangs. Unfortunately, she ends up having a particularly gross death. And on the "eww" scale, this book is definitely leaning towards the truly icky when we're shown and given a narration of how to clean a person's body following death.

The verdict: If only... This may not be Eiji Otsuka's and Housui Yamazaki's best volume, but it's certainly better than a lot of other shonen manga out there. Regardless, I'll still be reading the next volume as soon as I can get my hands on it. Here's to hoping they expand on the resident hacker's and psychic's connection soon! Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Yotsuba&!, vol. 1

While Yen Press picked up the lapsed license for this manga and started printing it earlier this year, I actually reviewed a volume by the previous publisher, ADV Manga.

The story: Yotsuba is an energetic, curious and pig-tailed 5-year-old who has just moved into a new neighborhood with her dad. After meeting her neighbors, the Ayases, she has goofy adventures from learning about the dangers of global warming and air conditioners to catching cicadas with her dad's best friend, Jumbo, and one of her new neighbors. Along with her dad, Jumbo and the Ayases, every day is a new experience for Yotsuba.

Reaction: This is one of those series I've been meaning to read and I'm glad I finally got to it. Yotsuba is a curious little girl and everything she does reminded me of the innocence and wonder of childhood. Each chapter is an unrelated and humorous story, usually where Yotsuba discovers something remarkable and hilarious. Interestingly, her dad seems like a slacker, even if he does work from home as a translator. The only thing that surprised me was his apparent nonchalance when Yotsuba got lost in their new neighborhood. Of course, my surprise disappeared once I learned a bit more about Yotsuba.

Deep thoughts: It's barely mentioned, but Yotsuba is adopted by her father. While it's not a big deal in the manga, there is a social stigma attached to adoption in Japan, whose adoption laws haven't changed since the 1940s following World War II. However, a traditional adoption practice has been held over -- the adoption of grandchildren by older people without descendants. In order to pass on the family name, inheritance or company, an older person without children might adopt an adult into the family to keep their name alive.

Artwork: I love the character design here -- from Yotsuba's green, pigtails-cum-four-leafed clover 'do to Jumbo's impressive height and gaudy Hawaiian shirts! It's very shonen in its design, at times reminding me of Full Metal Alchemist (perhaps it's Yotsuba's surprised and aghast little face à la Edward Elric). Kiyohiko Azuma's paneling paces the story along nicely, rushing us along after Yotsuba and her latest adventure.

The verdict: Required reading. This is the perfect "gateway manga" for anyone unfamiliar with Japanese comics. It's unassuming and endearing in a way that sneaks up on you without blinding you with its cuteness -- kind of like Yotsuba herself! Yotsuba&! is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Kusosagi Corpse Delivery Service, vol. 7

The story: Our fab five(and a half)some is back with another slew of funny, if not zombie-filled, mysteries. In the first story, the boys are being exploited by the girls and get a painful gig moving gravestones. Thankfully, a trio of engineering students lend a robotic hand, but things go from bad to worse when the robot goes on an "hideous mission of otaku slaughter!" The second arc in this volume gets readers one step closer to the mystery that is Karatsu's spirit guide, Yaichi, when a jinmenso, or a haunting where the face of a murdered person appears on their killer's face, becomes bait for the two. The third and last vignette features a director ready to kill for the perfect film -- but, little does he know about the Kurosagi group's true skills!

Reaction: I really liked this volume; it might be my favorite from the series. The first story of a video game-loving, otaku-killing robot had hilarious lines that made me giggle openly and it definitely reminded me of one of my favorite zombie movies, Shaun of the Dead. In terms of overarching storyline, it was interesting to see the Shirosagi Corpse Cleaning Service return, this time with a hidden purpose. But most surprising was the development in Aoi's and Kuro's relationship.

Deep thoughts: At one point in this volume, freegans are mentioned. Freegans are a dumpster-diving subculture of anti-consumerism; the New York Times had an article on the lifestyle named for a portmanteau of vegan and free. While freegans believe what they do is a natural extension of an ethical lifestyle, in this volume it's used as an excuse for stealing dead bodies -- a none-too-ethical choice. Can we say irony?

Artwork: Visually, this volume is much the same as its predecessors. However, I must note that Housui Yamazaki does a particularly good job with the jinmenso tale, especially in his recreation of an "earmouse." And there's some great physical humor in the otaku-killing robot tale. Of course, there are plenty of realistically gruesome deaths, all of them grotesque in their own way.

The verdict: Highly recommended. As I mentioned previously, this is my favorite volume yet -- it has that perfect balance of seriousness and laughs, the hallmark of this series. Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is available in the U.S. from Dark Horse.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

MangaCast Review: Deka Kyoshi, vol. 1

Another one of my guest reviews is up at MangaCast, a blog dedicated to manga news and reviews. This time around, I review Deka Kyoshi, vol. 1. Here's an excerpt:

After an elementary school teacher supposedly commits suicide, detective Toyama goes undercover to investigate. One of his students, a young boy named Makoto Miyahara, sees emotional manifestations that appear as monsters, later dubbed “synthes.” Once Makoto learns Toyama’s secret, the detective enlists the young boy as an assistant of sorts. ... It’s hard to ignore this story’s parallels with the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Kindergarten Cop. But, outside of the funnier moments and the undercover cop plot, that’s where the similarities end.

To read more about what I thought of this new series, click here. Deka Kyoshi is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Two Flowers for the Dragon, vol. 2

The story: Shakuya is heiress to the Dragon Clan and has the ability to turn into a dragon herself. Each arm is tattooed with a flower: one representing her original fiance, Lucien, who recently returned to the desert oasis, and the other representing Kuwan, who replaced Lucien as Shakuya's fiance when the former disappeared. Now, Shakuya has been kidnapped by a snake charmer with ulterior motives. Will Kuwan and Lucien be able to save her?

Reaction: I liked watching the dynamic in the Lucien-Shakuya-Kuwan triangle and the evolution of Shakuya's relationships with both men. But, I found myself a little creeped out by Kuwan's affection when his first meeting with Shakuya was shown in a flashback; she's 11 years old, while Kuwan's 21. What is it with Nari Kusakawa and older man-younger girl couples? While I'm not nearly as uncomfortable about it now (especially since Kuwan is such a cool customer), it was odd.

Deep thoughts: In this volume, a snake charmer has enchanted Shakuya's dragon form. Interestingly, snake charming is a process whereby snakes become hypnotized simply by hearing music. These types of performances started in India, then spread across the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia, then westward towards the Middle East and north Africa. While it was very popular at one point, it has fallen out of favor since a 1972 Indian law banning ownership of serpents and is much rarer.

Artwork: There's been a steady improvement in Kusakawa's artwork since I first encountered The Palette of 12 Secret Colors. Her characters no longer look awkward in proportion or limb length, and paneling is more well developed. But what I love most about the art are the Chinese and Arabian influences, from costumes to settings. It's adds a touch of exotic mystique to this desert oasis tale and illustrates how much more attention Kusakawa pays to the little details.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There's more to this story than a simply love triangle -- there's Shakuya's parents' sudden and unexplained divorce, and some shady characters preying on the young heiress. While it would be easy to let this simply devolve into a romance story, Kusakawa takes care to keep readers entertained in other ways -- and she does it well. Two Flowers for the Dragon is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by CMX.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Manga Bookshelf Review: With the Light, vol. 5

I wrote a guest review for Manga Bookshelf, a great manga and manhwa review site run by the wonderful Melinda Beasi. Here's an excerpt of my review of With the Light, vol. 5:

In this volume, little Hikaru is growing up fast. Now in the fifth grade, Hikaru has a new teacher and several new classmates as he finishes his last year of elementary school. While Hikaru’s new teacher left his old school in scandal, can the newbie instructor handle the group of four disabled students on his own? ... I really enjoy this series — the first two volumes I reviewed were so emotional, they brought me to tears.

Interested in seeing what I thought of this fifth volume? Then just click here. With the Light is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Great Manga Gift Guide

It's that time of year again! While there are some great gift guides out there, those that focus on graphic novels have seen fit to ignore manga entirely (for shame!). So, to rectify the situation, manga readers across the blogosphere are suggesting great manga for gift-giving this holiday season. While my list didn't make the Black Friday deadline, I figured better late than never!

After some consideration, I've decided to give suggestions via genre, pointing others in the direction of a similar manga. The series I've included have 10 or fewer volumes available in English or are manga that can be purchased individually. Links to my reviews of these series are posted where available.

Without further ado, here are my suggestions:

For the adrenaline junkie: these are the folks that like an adrenaline rush -- from superheroes to ninjas to government conspiracy, they're looking for a fast-paced story with some intrigue, bloodshed or explosions along the way:

Dororo: Orphaned as a baby, Hyakkimaru has struggled his entire life due to a curse placed on him by his father. Roaming the countryside, he kills demons in order to restore his body to its true form.
Parasyte: Parasitic aliens have invaded Earth and are latching on to human hosts. When teenage Shinichi is incorrectly infected, he finds himself at odds with his body's new occupant.

For the comedian: being serious is oh-so-boring for these folks. So give 'em what they want -- a good laugh!

Detroit Metal City: Country bumpkin Soichi dreams of starting his own pop band one day. Only problem is, he's the lead singer of one of Tokyo's hottest death metal bands!
Honey and Clover: A group of art college students come of age in this manga that mixes unrequited love with slapstick comedy.
Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service: Five starving college students with a special gift for helping the dead start a business together in this funny, if at times creepy, series.

For the drama addict: so maybe goofy giggles aren't your thing. If what you crave is bittersweetl drama or quietly and poignantly told stories, look no further than these manga.

Children of the Sea: It's summer vacation and Rika, a young girl, is in for a boring one after getting in trouble at school. But that all changes when two boys born from the sea enter her life and bring mystery with them.
Emma: In Victorian Era England, Emma, a maid, falls in love with a man from a well-to-do family. Is there love destined to fail, or can she rise above her social standing and marry the one she loves?
Ooku: The Inner Chambers: In this historical alternate universe, a virus has killed 75 percent of the male population, leaving women in charge of everything -- including the shogunate.

For the fantasy lover: these folks can find reality over-rated at times. So, why not indulge in "what if" stories that range from traditional fantasy to supernatural stories?

Apothecarius Argentum: Princess Primula's fictional kingdom is under seige when her former food taster, Argent, re-enters her life. As these two fall in love, just what does their future hold?
Two Flowers for the Dragon: The love life of Shakuya, heiress to the Dragon Clan (who can turn into a dragon herself), has just gotten complicated when her old fiance returns after a long absence. Only problem is, she's already gotten engaged to someone else!
Yokaiden: Yokai-loving Hamachi ventures into the yokai realm when a yokai, or demon, kills his grandmother. Just what will Hamachi encounter on his journey and will he ever find his grandmother's killer?

For the foodie: for those that love cooking and eating, learning the story of their food is an important part of the process. These tales promise to tickle the tastebuds and the mind!

Antique Bakery: It seems innocuous enough when Tachibana decides to open a traditional French bakery. But, things are not as they seem in this comedic food manga with a serious underlying plot.
Oishinbo: A reporter is on a quest to find the perfect Japanese meal -- from rice to sake to ramen and gyoza, there's a taste of everything for everyone. This series is "a la carte" and each volume stands alone.

For the indie types: mainstream is so...well, uh, mainstream. Whether it's hole-in-the-wall bars that no one else knows about to that up-and-coming band you just have to hear, these folks are independent spirits in every way.

Sexy Voice and Robo: Sexy Voice is Nico, a teenage girl and phone club operator, and Robo is toy robot-collecting 20-something Iichiro. Together, they solve random mysteries and petty crimes.
Red-Colored Elegy: Ichiro is an unhappy artist, as is his girlfriend Sachiko. Depression, death and the quarter-life crisis are explored in this alternative comic.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Heavenly Hockey Club, vol. 2

The story: The hockey club is up to it again -- from Hana's propensity to sleeping on stomachs to traveling across Japan in order to play other field hockey teams -- and hijinks ensue. When the student council's Ota brothers threaten to disband the field hockey team, Hana and crew must win a match or get kicked out. While Izumi is initially not concerned, he quickly changes his tune when Hana gets moon-eyed over one of the Otas. Will the team be able to find another field hockey team to beat, or are they out of luck?

Reaction: This was another fun volume, but it seemed really derivative. There were certainly echoes of that "other" reverse-harem comedy, Ouran High School Host Club. From a fascination with "poor" people to "playing" at judo, the field hockey team certainly mirrors several of the hosts from OHSHC. Thankfully, there are some unique moments that change it up, mostly coming by way of Hana and her unique personality and talents.

Deep thoughts: There's some fat jokes in this volume that subtly communicate the emphasis on thinness in Japan. In fact, it's illegal to be fat in Japan. While outlawing obesity in America would be near impossible with our focus on independence and freedom, it works in a collectivist culture like Japan's. Since priority is placed on the group, rather than the self, working with the group to solve the problem of obesity works in Japan. Notably, Japan has the lowest rate of obesity of all industrialized nations.

Artwork: There are some particularly funny moments in this volume. From playing a super-broke team to the judo team's makeover, Ai Morinaga does a great job with goofy scenes and characters. I particularly liked the first chapter and the exaggerated shojo-ness of it -- there's lots of sparkles and blushing cheeks, but not for what one would expect!

The verdict: If only... This series only comes in a far second to Ouran High School Host Club, which is much more original and entertaining. However, this series is entertaining in its own way and is better than quite a few other shojo manga series out there. My Heavenly Hockey Club is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.