Thursday, January 28, 2010

V.B. Rose, vol. 1

This is another title that I was turned on to by Danielle Leigh's Manga Before Flowers column, "10 Underrated Shojo Titles." I was intrigued enough to check this out since, so far, Danielle is yet to let me down!

The story: When Ageha finds out her perfect older sister, Hibari, is pregnant and will be marrying her "lame" boyfriend, she loses it and says some pretty hurtful things. Feeling bad about it, she becomes determined to help her sister with the wedding in order to make amends. When Ageha finds out Hibari is getting a custom-made dress from specialty store V.B. Rose, she jumps in to assist since she's pretty handy with a needle and thread. Unfortunately, the owner is a jerk and his assistant is a big flirt. Just how will Ageha survive working with the V.B. Rose staff and will she be able to make it up to her big sister?

Reaction: Perhaps appropriately, Ageha is a spoiled brat -- who else would feel betrayed by her older sister getting married? Initially it was annoying and off-putting. Thankfully, she has enough self-awareness to realize how wrong she is and does what she can to apologize. While I think she should just say she's sorry, Ageha wants to make a grand gesture, which, in some ways, shows her immaturity and lack of life experience. However, it is the thought that counts!

Deep thoughts: Having gotten married a couple of years ago, I still can't believe how much some brides are willing to spend on a dress they wear once. Since there are few repeat customers in the wedding industry, it seems like anything that's labeled "wedding" is automatically more expensive. While I think a bride or groom should be able to do whatever they want for their wedding, it amazes me that the average American wedding costs around $35,000.

Artwork: I think it goes without saying, but Banri Hidaka's character design is fairly unique. As the author of I Hate You More Than Anyone and Tears of a Lamb, both published by CMX, she's prone to lithe, effeminate men and girls with long legs and heart-shaped faces. But, Hidaka really mixes up this comic with chibis, cute fashion-oriented details and other visual embellishments, including a restrained use of screentone and the occasional flower-framed panel.

The verdict: If only... I liked the premise of this story and the unique cast of characters, but I had a hard time identifying with Ageha -- maybe it's because I'm an older sister myself, or that I'm just too old to fully appreciate her "struggle." But, I'm a sucker for arts and crafts, so this volume's shortcomings won't stop me from continuing on. If you're looking for humorous doses of teenage angst, needlework and pretty boys, you'll definitely enjoy this book. V.B. Rose is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop (online preview available).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

We Were There, vol. 2

The story: Nana has a crush on popular guy Yano, but he's constantly picking on her in school. When she finally 'fesses to her feelings, all she gets is an ambiguous response in return. But, in this volume, Yano's behavior is explained with flashbacks to memories with his now-dead, ex-girlfriend. From the start of their friendship to her death in a car accident, Yano's emotions run the gamut. But, things change and he admits to his new feelings for Nana; she's understandably elated. But, can they overcome Yano's troubled romantic past, or is Nana forever doomed to live in the shadow of his ex?

Reaction: This is not your standard shojo fare. Where other high school romances run the comedic route, We Were There uncomfortably settles into bittersweet reality. There's a dark place where Yano's personality escapes to and, at times, it's painstaking to watch Nana try to help him while simultaneously being pushed away. But, there's something to be said for Nana's seemingly unending capacity and determination to love Yano; it's an optimism you have to have a certain sense of maturity to truly appreciate.

Deep thoughts: In 2006, We Were There won the 50th Shogakukan Award, which is given annually by Shogakukan Publishing. Interestingly, the award is not exclusive to the company's works. Shogakukan, which started the awards in 1957, is part of one of the largest publishing conglomerates in Japan, Hitotsobashi Group. Along with Shuiesha, also part of the Hitotsobashi Group, Shogakukan also owns Viz Media (and We Were There publisher) in the U.S.

Artwork: As I've said before, there are some visual reminders of Monkey High! in terms of character design. But, more often than not, there are blushing cheeks, mildly humorous classroom scenes and respectfully illustrated serious moments. The art is even-handed in terms of "shojoness" and never veers into the extremes of screentone addiction or ridiculously floating flowers -- it's simply not that kind of manga.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There's a certain tenderness of youth here, with an edge of cynicism. Sure, there's time to appreciate romance, but it's a double-edged sword, too -- love can bring pain. Thankfully, this series only skates on the edges of melodrama and instead reveals a compelling teenage relationship that adults can appreciate. We Were There is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Profile on Manga Views

A few weeks ago, Manga Views put out a call to profile manga bloggers. And today, they published my profile! If you've ever wondered what motivated me to blog about manga, click here to find out.

Manga Views "is a hub for manga reviews and reviewers from around the world. Bringing together writers, their thoughts and a love for manga..."

MangaCast Review: Stolen Hearts, vol. 1

Sorry about the lack of posting these past few days -- life gets in the way, you know? Regardless, it's back to our regularly scheduled programming with a new guest review I wrote for MangaCast, a website featuring manga news and reviews. This time around, I take a look at Stolen Hearts, vol. 1, a new kimono-centric title from CMX.

Here's a peek at what I thought:

Koguma is misunderstood — everyone at school is afraid of him because he’s big and looks intimidating. When petite Shinobu spills a drink on his bag one day, he tells her she’s ruined an expensive kimono and she must repay him for the damage. ... Just like tiny Shinobu, Stolen Hearts has quite a bit of cute appeal. But, it’s also without romantic tension; it’s obvious the author originally meant this to be a one-shot as the first chapter gets our couple together quickly.

Wondering what I thought in the end? Then be sure to click here and read on!

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

We Were There, vol. 1

The story: It's the first day of high school for Nanami Takahashi and she's determined to make new friends. But, things don't go exactly as planned -- plenty of people already know each other, so she feels left out. Then there's Motoharu Yano, the most popular guy in class -- he has plenty of friends (and fans), not to mention he does well in school. But, there's something about him that both attracts and repels Nana. What secret could Yano be hiding that explains his behavior towards Nana?

Reaction: It seems like ages that I've been wanting to read this series and when I saw We Were There in Danielle Leigh's recent Comic Book Resources column, I knew I had to get on it! This a slowly paced story that takes a conventional high school romance story line and gives it some dramatic twists. But, they aren't overdone, nor are they unbelievable. In Yano, Yuki Obata has created an anti-hero of sorts; he's someone you reluctantly cheer for. Luckily, Yano is balanced by the cute and undaunted Nana, who has an amazing ability to bounce back from adversity (and Yano's put-downs). It felt like a very natural progression for an unlikely friendship.

Deep thoughts: In this volume, Nana and her classmates go on a field trip with a 26-mile hike, essentially the length of a marathon. Taking anywhere from just over two hours to several hours to complete, marathons were originally created to commemorate the run of a storied Greek messenger, Pheidippides. I'm not sure if participating in marathon-length hikes are regularly a part of Japanese physical education, or simply a convenient plot device, but I can't imagine a marathon being a required school activity in the U.S.

Artwork: The artwork here actually reminded me of another shojo mangaka, Shouko Akira of Monkey High! There's something about Yano's face that makes me think of that book's male protagonist, Macharu (but not his ears). However, perhaps because of this series's more somber tone, the artwork is understated in comparison to other shojo comics. There's no floating flowers, inexplicably shining faces or other "shojo sparkles." Instead, there are quietly poignant moments, embarrassed looks and blushing cheeks, much better reflecting reality.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There is an earnestness in We Were There that is both admirable and worth watching. Obata has created characters that are multi-faceted; there's no perfect, nor truly horrible, people. And there's not only the usual depth of feeling that comes part-and-parcel in shojo manga, but there's also breadth of emotion, something rarely seen and done this well. We Were There is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Swan, vol. 5

The story: Masumi is a small-town girl with big ballet dreams. After her successful entry into Japan's National Ballet School and the injury of her talented classmate Sayoko, Masumi is chosen to audition for a special production in Moscow, Russia. In this volume, she's auditioning against the talented Larisa Maximova. In the two-day process, the two dancers each perform the roles of the main characters in Swan Lake. Both girls must interpret Odette, the cursed swan princess, and Odile, the "black swan" and daughter of the villain, von Rothbart. Who will prevail in this contest between our heroine and the Russian prodigy?

Reaction: Watching a ballet in print form, explanatory narration and all, may not sound like an ideal plot. But, this volume had me completely enthralled and I read through it quickly, pausing only to admire the artwork. Again, Masumi is challenged and rises to the occasion (and the competition). It was fascinating to see how these same roles are interpreted by two very different dancers -- and it's lovely to see that Masumi's lack of technical knowledge doesn't necessarily hold her back. While the reaction of the audience seems a bit exaggerated, thanks to Ariyoshi Kyoko, it's easy to see why they would be impressed.

Deep thoughts: Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the music for Swan Lake in 1875. Interestingly, the Swan Lake that we know today -- and is performed in this volume -- is actually quite different from the original concept and was created after Tchaikovsky's death in 1893. While there is little record of the original ballet, after Tchaikovsky's death, interest in Swan Lake was renewed. The version most popular today was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov of the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1895.

Artwork: There's some very dynamic and amazingly paced panels here that really showcase ballet. From showing the different positions and movements to the miming and facial expressions, Kyoko really shows why this series is such a classic. Both the imagined backgrounds for the Swan Lake pieces and the studio practices are fairly detailed in comparison to modern-day shojo, dating the series ever-so-slightly. There's some brief comedic moments here, too, and although they are short-lived, they provide a much welcome respite from all of the focus, determination and, at times, despair.

The verdict: Required reading. This volume is a great culmination of everything Masumi's worked up to so far -- despite her limitations as a dancer, she doesn't let that stop her from trying her best. And this volume really shows how far she's come, and hints at how much farther she has to go. Not only that, but there's the thrill of competition, too! Swan is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two Flowers for the Dragon, vol. 4

The story: Ten years ago, Lady Shakuya's fiance Lucien mysteriously disappeared without a trace and the Dragon Clan found their heir a new fiance, Kuwan. Now that Lucien has returned, she must choose between the two and Shakuya will marry whomever she loves most, as evidenced by the magical, floral tattoos that grow with her increasing adoration. This volume picks up where the last one left off with Kuwan injured after protecting Lady Shakuya in battle. While Shakuya nurses Kuwan back to health, Lucien regains his lost memories and the conspiracy against the Dragon Clan begins to unravel.

Reaction: This volume starts off sweetly enough, but gains some real depth from the political intrigue at volume's end. Lucien also experiences some much-needed growth, both as a character and in his love for Shakuya. I particularly liked the scene where the two acknowledge that they lack control over their lives. It's a bittersweet realization, especially since they are both so young. However, they're not so much resigned to their fates as they simply accept them, which is refreshing to see in a story revolving around young love.

Deep thoughts: Lucien's amnesia resolves itself in this volume, but his experience reminded me of a news article I read a couple of months ago. In it, an amnesia patient known simply as H.M. donated his brain to a new research library created at University of California San Diego. Since having an experimental brain surgery years ago, H.M. was never able to form new memories, making every experience new. His donation will allow researchers to better understand amnesia and memory loss.

Artwork: While Nari Kusakawa's artwork has improved over the course of this series (and the concurrent The Palette of 12 Secret Colors), some distorted faces still snuck in this volume. In one panel, the eyes of Shakuya's handmaid look crossed because of the severe slant. In another, Shakuya's face is squashed, making her look younger and slightly unattractive. However, these are minor distractions from Kusakawa's other handiwork. From the use of visual humor and other effects, like Shakuya's nearly blank, surprised eyes, to the Oriental architectural and ornate clothing, Kusakawa creates a unique world filled with interesting characters.

The verdict: Highly recommended. While the love triangle is the entertaining part of this story, the mystery behind Lucien's disappearance is the thinking part. Here, Kusakawa draws in readers with a one-of-a-kind story with great artwork, surprising twists and compelling characters. Two Flowers for the Dragon is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Parasyte, vol. 5

The story: Shinichi used to have a carefree high school life -- until parasitic aliens stealthily attacked the Earth, possessing and eating people as they pleased. But, when Shinichi's parasite doesn't infect him properly, he and Migi (literally "right hand" in Japanese) must learn to live together in order to save mankind. In this volume, Shinichi and Migi team up again with Oda and the renamed "Jaw" to find out who has sent a private detective after them. Unfortunately, once they find out who is investigating them, Shinichi and Migi find themselves in even more trouble as they become the ones hunted. Will the symbiotic pair survive the attack so they can save mankind, or are they already doomed?

Reaction: Admittedly, I did miss the previous volume in this series and it did make a difference in the story. However, I was able to figure out the gist of what I'd missed in the first couple of chapters. Regardless, Hitoshi Iwaaka does it again -- he finds a new twist that makes for a bone-chilling result and another philosophical discussion between the main pair. By blending action, horror and ethics, Parasyte elevates itself from escapist fare to compelling allegory.

Deep thoughts: In Parasyte, Migi and Shinichi have an ongoing discussion of human behavior from the viewpoint of the alien lifeforms. From showing emotion to creating names, humans possess characteristics that make them unique in comparison to other animals. And, not only are we allotted higher-order thought that allows us to do such things, but we also develop ego-centric worldviews. Some would attribute that survival instinct to evolution and Darwin's theory of natural selection. However, there's also evidence that humans are happiest in large groups, where they're able to help one another, which often serves as Shinichi's counterargument more often than not.

Artwork: The art here is once again both surreal and disgusting -- from metamorphosing limbs to piles of dead bodies, there's plenty of jarring images. But, Iwaaka is just as good at the obvious as he is the subtle, capturing Shinichi's intense face perfectly in several panels, especially to illustrate the ebbing loss of his humanity. Lastly, considering the shape-shifting skill the aliens possess, characters are remarkably easy to decipher even in quick fight scenes.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This was another fast-paced volume that gives Shinichi additional emotional depth and reveals the aliens' horrifying plan for the human race. This thriller has pulled me in hook, line and sinker -- and I can't wait to see what comes next! Parasyte is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Seven Magi, vol. 1

The story: The land of Cheironia is in trouble -- a black plague, mysteriously brought forth by their cursed leopard-headed king, has descended upon the people. In a desperate attempt to save his country, King Guin sets out to find the black magic sorcerer Yelisha. While he seeks out Yelisha, he meets some curious characters and dangerous creatures in the Alley of Charms. But, once he finds Yelisha, his quest has only just begun.

Reaction: The Seven Magi is based on the bestselling Guin Saga fantasy novel series in Japan. From what I understand, the manga series shows some of the side stories in the larger series. Unfortunately, a lot of this felt like insider knowledge at times. In a world with its own terminology and history, there wasn't a lot of stage-setting here, confusing me easily. Thankfully, the characters were easy enough to figure out, but I found the king the only compelling one out of the main cast.

Deep thoughts: Amazingly, the Guin Saga novel series has been going strong since 1979, when it was first conceived as a 100-novel series. Written by female author Kaoru Kurimoto, it is the world's longest-running book series by a single author, with a total circulation of 28 million. Unfortunately, Kurimoto died in May 2009, leaving the series unfinished at 126 volumes and 21 side stories.

Artwork: My biggest problem with the artwork here is the typically chauvinistic costume choices -- men are dressed as traders, knights and magicians, while women are dressed in titillating and exotic fashion with big boobs and all-too-revealing outfits. Otherwise, it seems that there are some wasted opportunities in artwork. There are color pages opening this volume, but it's too bad only two colors make an appearance. Action is fast-paced, but there are close-ups that were hard to identify; I found myself asking "what is that?" on several occasions.

The verdict: Meh. I usually love fantasy stories -- I've enjoyed everything from Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings (which this series has been compared to). But, it was hard for me to enjoy this book. Maybe it was my unfamiliarity with the larger series, but the lack of connection to the characters, and their sexist design, definitely played a part, too. The Seven Magi is available in the U.S. from Vertical.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Black Bird, vol. 2

The story: Misao was just your normal, everyday teenage high school girl. Except for the whole "seeing demons" thing. But, when she turns 16, her life takes a turn for the weirder when her first love and childhood best friend Kyo returns from a long absence, demanding she become his bride. As a tengu demon clan leader, Kyo wants to marry Misao for the vast power her blood yields -- their marriage will make his clan the most powerful in Japan. While all Misao wants is to be normal, she can't deny her feelings for Kyo, either. When the teenage girl meets Kyo's vassals and his older brother -- who originally was first in line to head the clan and marry Misao -- she learns more about Kyo's past and wonders why she can't remember it herself.

Reaction: I didn't particularly like the first volume of this manga, but I decided to give the second volume a chance. There was definitely more comedy here, and there were more believable "couple moments" that didn't reek of co-dependency. Although the last chapter really pushes it, there was decidedly less licking/healing scenes involved throughout, which I consider a bonus. As far as characters go, I liked the introduction of Kyo's vassals -- it turned it into a reverse-harem comedy, and it revealed a bit of Kyo's true character and his history, which I think was sorely needed.

Deep thoughts: The harem comedy -- or the teenage boy surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls, or bishojo -- is rather popular in Japanese anime and manga It often includes unnecessary panty-flashing fan service and titillating situations. Increasingly more popular is the reverse-harem comedy; it turns the tables and surrounds a girl with handsome young men. The most popular series of the sub-genre is undoubtably Ouran High School Host Club.

Artwork: Kanoko Sakurakoji knows how to draw handsome young men, unbearably cute tiny tengu and blushing cheeks aplenty. She's also got a hand for turning the usual shojo fare of floating flowers and sparkles towards a decidedly darker, more gothic (and fitting) theme with its blood spatters. There's also some mild groping and rape-like violence involving Misao that's appropriately disturbing.

The verdict: If only... This volume is an improvement, perhaps because Kyo's and Misao's interaction is less one-sided and forced. Revealing Kyo's motivations went a long way towards explaining his (still inexcusable) behavior. But, I still have other issues with this title, namely it's fragile heroine and her unhealthy relationship. Black Bird is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, vol. 6

The story: The island of Opal is home to tropical birds and magical craftsmen -- dubbed palettes -- who can manipulate colors. It's the end of the school year (and this series) and Cello must pass her final exams, or she'll be a third-year freshman! While Cello and Dr. Guell have admitted their feelings for one another, there's seemingly no movement on the romance front. But, when Cello learns some big news it disrupts her focus on school. Will Cello be able to pass her tests, or is her dream of becoming a palette doomed?

Reaction: Even though everything's out in the open, I'm rather uncomfortable about Cello's and Guell's relationship. And while I've considered that's probably due to my cultural bias, it still bugs me. However, there are more important issues at hand here -- like Cello's academic future. Cello's entirely too distracted to take her exams properly because of her feelings for the academy's doctor, illustrating the inappropriateness and inherent challenges in pursuing such a relationship at her age.

Deep thoughts: Throughout this series, Cello has shown an aptitude for using the secret colors to save the day. In the last chapter, she uses the secret colors -- this time a bright orange -- to save someone in danger. In many ways, colors can communicate as much as words. For example, red is a well-known symbol for emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks; it can mean "stop," or serve as an alert message within a spectrum of colors, like the American terror alert.

Artwork: Unfortunately, outside of its vibrant cover, there's no color used in this series. From day one, it's been one of the things that has held this series back artistically. For having created such an energetic setting in Opal, Nari Kusakawa lets it suffer with colorless monotony. A revisiting character returns in this volume, and he has an interesting "look" to say the least. In the end, a change in setting works remarkably better considering it's two-tone depiction.

The verdict: If only... The premise here has always promised so much -- innocent romance, color-manipulating magic, a tropical setting -- but it seemingly falls just a little short each time. In comparison to Kusakawa's other work, this story falls somewhere in the middle in terms of artistic skill, plot and theme. But, that doesn't necessarily make it an unlikable story, either. There's still great characters, beautiful backgrounds and comedy aplenty; it's just the "little things" that hold it back. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

MangaCast Review: Ooku: The Inner Chambers, vol. 2

I've posted my first review of the New Year on MangaCast, the source for manga news and reviews. This time around, I reviewed the second volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers. Here's an excerpt:

In an alternate history of feudal-era Japan, a mysterious epidemic has hit the country’s male population. ... While this started as an AU history lesson, it slowly developed into a twisted love story. Yoshinaga’s set-up of the redface pox receives more political detail and shows its role in starting the female line of shoguns.

To read more of my review, click here. Ooku: The Inner Chambers is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yotsuba&!, vol. 4

As noted in previous posts, this is a review of the ADV release of Yotsuba&! and not the newer release by Yen Press.

The story: It's summertime and the livin's easy for Yotsuba and her pals! From punishing games of rock, paper, scissors and summer fishing trips to a grocery-shopping trip and the pain of heartbreak, silly protagonist Yotsuba is squeezing every last drop of fun from her vacation. At volume's end, there's some breaking news and a major lesson learned when it comes to that signature summer pest, the cicada!

Reaction: What kid doesn't love summer? And if there's anything that exemplifies childhood, it's spending summer vacation goofing off with your friends. Of course, Yotsuba enjoys every last minute of her time with her new friends and I was happy to follow along. There were some great little moments here, my favorite being Yotsuba's roshambo with her dad, a shopping trip involving eggs and tomatoes "for kids" and the creation of the Yotsuba Times.

Deep thoughts: When it comes to humor, it doesn't always translate; what's funny to one group, might not be as funny to another (see: Jerry Lewis or puns). But, in advertising research, the kind of humor that does translate is unexpected humor, where a situation ends differently than what's expected. And that's something that you see in Yotsuba&! quite a bit. Whether it's Yotsuba saying or doing something unexpected for her age (like giving love advice to Fuka), it's a universal joke that anyone can relate to and doesn't require insider knowledge.

Artwork: There's a great visual play on words throughout this volume, involving tsuku-tsuko-boshi, or cicadas; and in another chapter, I really loved the competitiveness between Jumbo and Yotsuba's dad when they played badminton. But, the first opening pages of this volume are my favorite -- everyone's faces are so expressive as Jumbo watches Yotsuba and her dad play rock, paper, scissors. While much of it amounts to facial expressions resembling Japanese emoticons, there's also a smooth pace set along with perfect side-by-side panels showing "before and after." It's little things like this that make the reading this such a delight.

The verdict: Required reading. Another ab-fab volume from Kiyohiko Azuma! Yotsuba's earnestness, combined with the personality quirks of her father and others, makes for an entertaining, giggle-worthy diversion from the everyday. Yotsuba&! is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Real, vol. 2

In recognition of Takehiko Inoue's birthday today, I'm posting a review of the second volume of his basketball series, Real. Thanks to David Welsh of Manga Curmudgeon for the head's up!

The story: Nomiya and Togawa are two young men dealing with disability and a shared inability to play basketball as much as they'd like. After being beaten by an elite wheelchair player, Togawa is focused on rejoining his team, the Tigers. Unfortunately, his burned bridges may make that a tougher order than he expected. Sandwiched at volume's middle is the continuing saga of Nomiya's ex-teammate, Hisanobu, who was hit by a garbage truck and sustained a spinal injury, and whose road to rehabilitation is paved with denial. At volume's end, Togawa's past is revealed, including his life before his disability occurred.

Reaction: There are some purely painful moments to watch -- from Hisanobu's slow acceptance of his permanent paralysis to Togawa's rise and fall in sprinting, Takehiko Inoue has a true talent for relating heartbreaking scenes filled with palpable emotion. And then there is the intensity inherent in every panel -- I watched as someone hit rock bottom, while another felt himself rise to the top. But, this isn't drama for drama's sake, either; it serves a greater purpose in Inoue's hands. It's an illustration of the ways in which we're forced to live in the face of tragedy.

Deep thoughts: Togawa's leg amputation is due to osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. It most often occurs in the knees or upper arms, and most often strikes people between ages 10 and 19. Considering Togawa was in middle school when he was disagnosed, it was a prime time for him to develop this rare cancer. While amputation is an extreme form of tumor removal, it is quite effective.

Artwork: This volume, like the last, opens with color portraits of Nomiya and Togawa, and additional color pages are sprinkled between chapters. Inoue has an uncanny ability to capture subtle nuances of emotion, a simple quirk of the brow or squinting eye, can convey so much. This is especially important when there's no way to incorporate body language as the cast has varying levels of mobility. Perhaps showing his experience with action-oriented stories, Inoue's panel pacing and composition keep the reader steady while setting the appropriate tone.

The verdict: Required reading. Honestly, this is a poignant, amazing, yet humble, portrayal of the human spirit. With Inoue's vast skill apparent, this series moves as deftly from humor to tears as a ball smoothly dribbled across the court. These are troubled young men, with basketball their only hope of redemption. At times both startling and inspiring, I can't recommend this manga enough. Real is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Real, vol. 1

The story: Nomiya is just another teenage guy who loves basketball. But, after a nearly fatal motorcycle accident, he's kicked out of school and off the team, which is glad to let him go. While trying to find some purpose in his mistake-riddled life, he runs across Togawa, a guy just as passionate and intense about basketball as he is. Only, the stoic Togawa plays wheelchair basketball. Soon enough, the two team up to scam other b-ballers out of their cash by winning pick-up games against them. While they're pretty confident in their strategy, they come up against another wheelchair player who is the best Togawa's ever seen and promptly lose the game. Will Nomiya and Togawa be able to conquer their inner demons and find a way to play basketball fair and square?

Reaction: This is a really amazing story of two guys' love of basketball -- but the turmoil they each experience is what makes it more than just a story about basketball. Nomiya is wracked with guilt and, in some ways, is punishing himself by not playing ball at this story's beginning; Togawa has been living in a shell, but Nomiya is slowly picking away at it, forcing him to rejoin society. The short moments of growth shown here reveal a lot not only about the characters, but the type of mangaka Takehiko Inoue is; it's a subtly nuanced story with an emotional depth worth following.

Deep thoughts: This book reminded me of the 2005 documentary Murderball, about a wheelchair rugby team. There's the expected explanation of what happened to make the characters disabled, but these are by no means people or, as in this book, characters who feel sorry for themselves. The reason they play a sport is because they need to -- for as much as physical, as social and mental, reasons. There's a lot of frustration and anger, but there's also determination and toughness.

Artwork: Inoue's artwork here is more mature and developed than that seen in his other popular basketball manga series, Slam Dunk. There's a real grit and intensity throughout these pages, but there's also comedy. While Nomiya isn't a pretty boy by any means (in fact, he looks more lumbering and scary than anything else), there's a lot to laugh at when it comes to his hairstyle emulation of other ballers, like Kobe Bryant or Jason Kidd. The action here is well done, with intense game play and believable movement.

The verdict: Highly recommended. In recent years (and thanks to my husband), I've become a big basketball fan. While this series isn't so much about basketball as it is about the lives of two young men, I found it funny, touching, emotional and, well, real. The characters make this story worth reading while the love of basketball makes it easy to connect with. Real is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Yurara, vol. 3

The story: High schooler Yurara and her friends, Mei and Yako, can see spirits and have the spiritual powers to help the wayward ghosts pass on to the other side. After romantic confessions from both Mei and Yako, Yurara's all a tizzy when it comes to the men in her life. Does she like the goofy, perverted, yet secretly sweet Mei, or the seriously aloof and smart Yako? Regardless, she's determined to find out if it's her they really like, or just her beautiful guardian spirit. And, if things weren't complicated enough, her grandfather stops by for an unannounced visit, too!

Reaction: This volume was all about romantic entanglement and the confusion it brings. While Yurara's worries about who really loves her are unique in their supernatural origins, it's a question many girls and women ask themselves: does he like me for who I really am, or just superficial reasons like beauty? By doing so, it turns this story into a more easily relatable one, freaky ghosts notwithstanding! Meanwhile, there's some intriguing background provided on why Yurara has a guardian spirit in the first place, and the connection between the two.

Deep thoughts: Yurara's grandfather asks for curry when he first arrives at Yurara's home, and Mei suggests adding bananas to it. While adding bananas is certainly non-traditional, Japanese curry is still rather different from Indian curry, as is that of other Southeast Asian countries, like Thailand, where coconut milk is used. Introduced to Japan by the British Navy, Japanese curry is more of a stew mixed with a sweet, savory and spicy curry sauce served over rice.

Artwork: Since this volume focuses a lot on our comedic trio's romantic trials and tribulations, there's plenty of magically floating floral backgrounds. But, other than that, there's some really great comedic moments, like when Yurara's rival pelts her with tennis balls, or when Yurara's grandfather tries changing his appearance to look more hip. Unsurprisingly, there are also some slightly scary evil spirit moments.

The verdict: If only... While I can appreciate that there was a need to get this love triangle resolved quickly, I wish it hadn't taken so much of this volume. The subplot involving Yurara's guardian spirit and her grandfather was much more interesting to me and I would have loved to see more development on that front. Hopefully, the next volume will explore it more in depth! Yurara is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mushishi, vol. 1

The story: In a world filled with mushi, or deadly unseen creatures that can wreak havoc on those around them, Ginko is a wandering mushishi, or mushi master. He heals those affected by the mushi, whether it's a young girl made blind by the mysterious mushi, or a man whose dreams -- and nightmares -- come true due to his contact with the primitive life forms. Other tales include a young artist whose drawings come to life, a boy who grows horns thanks to the mushi and a magical traveling swamp trying to reach the sea.

Reaction: This is a quietly mysterious story with an enigmatic protagonist in Ginko. Episodic in nature, like The Antique Gift Shop or Xxxholic, I found myself visually plodding alongside Ginko as he made his way across this fictional rendering of Japan. With the majority of the chapters involving children, it was easy for me to get emotionally invested. Despite this, Ginko never shows a flicker of feeling; the stories end as peacefully zen as the main character. There's a very que sera, sera, feeling to all this -- "what will be, will be" when it comes to the instinctually troublesome mushi. It's a very mature, yet wistful, way of looking at the uncontrollable events of life.

Deep thoughts: Ginko is frequently seen with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. I don't know what it says about his character, but, in recent years, it has been fairly rare to see a character smoking in film or on television, as it may influence others to smoke. However, this past holiday season, several new films were given the rating of "black lung" for featuring tobacco use by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. Additionally, while smoking in restaurants and bars is increasingly illegal due to public health concerns, it seems to be making a resurgence.

Artwork: The art here is similar to that in other seinen manga, with realistically rendered characters. Settings are lushly illustrated; there's a real sense of the rural countryside. The vast solitude of Ginko's travels is almost palpable, but it never feels uncomfortably lonely. But, the real visual treat here are Yuki Urushibara's fantastic images of the ethereal mushi and their many incarnations, from the innocent-looking to the incredibly dangerous.

The verdict: Highly recommended. Ginko is a character that invites interest because of the quiet, yet entirely self-assured, air about him. While each chapter here seemed to involve a lesson to be learned, it was by no means a bore to understand and, by volume's end, I found myself wanting more. Mushishi is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dokebi Bride, vol. 1

The story: Since she was young, Sunbi's been able to see and communicate with dokebi, or Korean spirits and demons. Born into a shaman family, her estranged father left her with her grandmother years ago when her mother passes away from mysterious causes. When Sunbi's grandmother dies, she moves in with her father and his new family in the city. With no friends or family, her sole companion is her dog. How will Sunbi survive the loss of her grandmother?

Reaction: To say this manhwa is different from the more popular sunjeong titles for girls is an understatement, but a truism nonetheless. The story has few happy moments, with those shown tempered by the stark reality of Sunbi's life. While there were a few humorous bits, this story didn't entertain so much as it made me curious -- curious as to the life Sunbi's grandmother lived, why she kept so much a secret from her only granddaughter and how Sunbi will survive the loss of the one person who loved her. Perhaps it's the cultural differences, or something else, but I found myself wanting to learn more. Otherwise, this story jumps around a bit, making it initially hard to follow.

Deep thoughts: Like Japan, Koreans do not hold fast to one religious tradition. Instead, they blend together shamanism and other indigenous practices, with Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism. Much like other shaman traditions worldwide, Korea's indigenous practice has been in place for thousands of years. While it would seem that the practice would die in the modern world, there's still a demand for shamans to perform everything from personal rites to blessing new retail locations.

Artwork: The art here less resembles traditional manhwa art, but there's a larger sense of realism afoot akin to that seen in Japanese seinen, or comics made for a more mature audience. Characters have telling eyes that seemed odd to me at first, but I quickly got over it. While the people are drawn well enough, the highlight of this manhwa are the dokebi, especially the majestic dragon that Sunbi meets as a young girl. But, it isn't all beautiful mythical creatures -- from sea dokebis to the demons at the story's beginning, there is a hint of the macabre. At times, I was also reminded of the intense art from Parasyte.

The verdict: If only... I did find this title intriguing, but was initially put off by the jumping around in time. However, that won't stop me from picking up the second volume to see how it improves and how Sunbi fares. Dokebi Bride is available in the U.S. from Netcomics.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shinobi Life, vol. 2

The story: Beni is a rebellious teenage girl who hates her father when time-traveling ninja Kagetora drops out of the sky. Originally mistaking her for someone else, Kagetora vows to protect Beni and, in the process, the two develop feelings for one another amongst other adventures. In this volume, Kagetora and Beni are increasingly becoming closer, but Beni's stern father warns the ever-loyal ninja to "know his place" and not get close to his daughter lest he lose his job. This creates some timely tension between the pair and it only increases when Beni becomes an unwilling partner in an arranged marriage with her stoic and aloof classmate, Iwatsuru. Later, someone from the ninja bodyguard's past comes to the fore.

Reaction: I won't lie -- I'm a total sucker for this ninja romance! There's humor in this volume, with some great introductory pages, but there's also a lot of heart in the discovery of Beni's feelings for Kagetora. There are also some scarier moments, when Iwatsuru starts showing his personality. It's rather off-putting and sets him as another villain of sorts, echoing Beni's father in some ways. At volume's end, there's another cliff-hanger that left me wanting to read the next volume immediately.

Deep thoughts: When Beni ends up in an arranged marriage, it is posited as rather traditional and uncommon in the modern world. I've talked about arranged marriages here before, but I failed to mention my own personal experience. My maternal grandparents' relationship is the result of a 1950s-era arranged marriage in the Philippines. While there are can be hardships involved in making an arranged marriage work -- as Shinobi Life presents it -- they can also lead to happiness, if my grandparents' 50-year plus marriage is any indication.

Artwork: Shoko Conami's art is remarkably consistent this time around -- in the first volume, I had noticed that characters' faces sometimes appeared distorted or warped; not so here. In consideration of all the close-ups and various angles of Kagetora's and Beni's faces, Conami's hand is decidedly dependable. In fact, anatomy is well proportioned and there is a wide variety of appropriate costuming and hairstyles, giving Kagetora, Beni and others a visual personality of sorts. There's also some ninja-style action to break up the endearingly cute blushing cheeks and wide-eyed looks.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I'm so glad I took Danielle Leigh's advice and started reading this series; it's funny, entertaining and sweet without being saccharine. Beni is a character you admire for her unwavering independence, while Kagetora is nothing but a trustworthy gentleman and ninja. Shinobi Life is available in the U.S. from Tokyopop (online preview available).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

To Terra, vol. 1

The story: In the future, Earth's environment has been destroyed by the industry of man. Hoping to make the planet once again hospitable, the planet's leaders decide to usher in an era of Superior Domination where computers raise children instead of people in space colonies elsewhere in the galaxy. Raised in a socially controlled environment, Superior Domination creates logically superior humans who can better steward the planet. Unfortunately, this engineering of the human race has also led to a genetic mutation, where people develop extra sensory perception, or ESP. The Mu, as these physically disabled mutants are known, have extra sensory perception and, because of this, are exiled from the rest of the human race. When the normal and healthy Jomy Marcus Shin fails to pass his adulthood exam, he transforms into the most powerful Mu in space and helps his people return to Terra.

Reaction: This combines some of my favorite themes from science fiction literature -- a dystopian future, genetic mutation a la the X-Men and an all-knowing "Big Brother" (or, in this case, a mother). There's action in spades and a subversive attitude that automatically endeared the Mu to me, despite their initial arrogance towards ordinary humans. Jomy is the central character here, but Keith Anyan plays his human counterpart -- superior in nearly every way with an increasingly interesting background. While it almost seems that Keith is a villain, he seemed like more of an anti-hero to me, paralleling Jomy's journey of self-discovery.

Deep thoughts: The era of Superior Domination is positively Orwellian and echoes the novel 1984. While it's not a totalitarian party watching and controlling things, there are so many similarities between George Orwell's vision of the future and this series by Keiko Takemiya. From the sterile surroundings to Eliza, there is a controlling and eerie tone to this manga that starkly realizes the loss of personal freedoms.

Artwork: As a product of the late 1970s, To Terra carries many of the visual hallmarks of that era. I saw a lot of similarities between this series and Swan, another manga from the time frame. While To Terra is set in the future, the settings and costumes reflect that, but the layout of panels, hairstyles and basic character designs are similar to its shojo counterpar. Oddly enough, the costumes do carry other hallmarks of the disco era, like wide, butterfly collars. Otherwise, Takemiya builds an industrialized, sterile and computer-filled world with a varied assortment of easily identifiable characters.

The verdict: Highly recommended. This is a fascinating series that combines exile of a fictional race with a controlled police state, to good effect. It makes for a strong commentary on modern life and the importance of protecting the environment, in addition to the dangers of genetic engineering and mutation. To Terra is available in the U.S. from Vertical.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Yotsuba&!, vol. 3

As mentioned previously, I'm reviewing the ADV release of this series, as opposed to the new re-release by Yen Press.

The story: When Asagi gives Yotsuba a tasty gift, our green-haired heroine goes on the hunt for a suitable souvenir for her neighbor. Later, Jumbo's job is revealed and his father is introduced. When Yotsuba and her dad come into an abundance of flowers, courtesy of Jumbo, Yotsuba decides to go play "flower cupid" and gives them away to strangers. In between, Yotsuba learns the fine art of badminton and reciprocal gift-giving. At volume's end, a summer fireworks show and festival make for more memorable moments between Yotsuba and her friends.

Reaction: There are some hilarious one-liners in here, particularly when Yotsuba yells "I don't need your pity!" to a carnie who offers her a free prize when she doesn't win. There's also a lot of innocence on display, whether it's on Yotsuba's part or whenever Jumbo interacts with his best friend's female neighbors. Although he's a large guy, Jumbo seems pretty inexperienced when it comes to the ladies, young and old. And, while you'd think he'd know a thing or two from hanging out with the tiny and strange Yotsuba, he continues to make the same date-related mistakes.

Deep thoughts: This volume makes mention of Japanese bon festival (alternately known as obon), where the living remember the spirits of their ancestors. During the three-day festival, families honor the dead by visiting and cleaning their loved ones' grave sites. Interestingly, it's held during different times of the year in different regions, depending on whether they follow the Gregorian, lunar or solar calendar. The celebration is very similar to Mexico's Dias de los Muertos.

Artwork: It seems odd to say this, but there's a lot of "life" in this volume -- from the bouquets of flowers to the animals at the zoo, there's a lifelike amount of detail built into each panel. And while I haven't noticed it before, I really felt that there was an amazing sense of place in this volume. Whether it's Yotsuba's neighborhood, or the aforementioned zoo, Kiyohiko Azuma take great care in immersing the reader in Yotsuba's world.

The verdict: Required reading. This is consistently one of the most entertaining series I've read in some time. No matter what, I can always count on Yotsuba and gang to bring a smile to my face! Yotsuba&! is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

The story: In two separate, but connected stories, a hard life follows the victims of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing during World War II. In the first story, it's been 10 years since the bomb changed her life, but Minami still feels guilty for living when so many died, including her father and sisters. When she finally finds love, it's unfortunately short-lived. Decades later and Minami's brother has two children, Nagio and Nanami. One day, Nanami and her childhood friend, Toko, tail her dad as he visits Hiroshima. It is here that Nanami learns the truth behind the relationship between her brother and her friend, and how, no matter how much time has passed, the bomb continues to affect everyday life.

Reaction: This is an amazingly touching story that illustrates the lingering specter of war. I cried throughout this story; it's hard not to. While this story serves as a tribute to those who died and those who survived, it never becomes overly sentimental or sappy. It's a sincere reflection of life following a dark moment in human history, and how the will to live and love can help overcome violence, war and death.

Deep thoughts: The United States dropped "Little Boy," a nuclear bomb, on August 6, 1945, on Hiroshima, and "Fat Man" on August, 9, 1945, on Nagasaki. The atomic bombings and the subsequent tens of thousands of deaths caused by it prompted the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II. Since then, many have died of radiation poisoning and other related diseases, including leukemia and cancer. Because of the bombings, Japan has one of the strongest nuclear non-proliferation policies in the world and it continues to work towards abolishing nuclear weaponry worldwide.

Artwork: This book opens with some beautiful watercolor pages and is followed by pages drawn simply in pen. The thinly penned art uses no screentone and relies on cross-hatching for shadows and the like. Of course, this story requires no embellishment, considering the content. Fumiyo Kouno imparts a sense of place easily, with detailed panels showing the shanty Minami lives in and the changes in Hiroshima as time goes on. Characters are drawn similarly, but it makes sense considering the family the story followed. It's also easy to recognize flashbacks, with their grey coloring keeping readers from being confused with the present-day story.

The verdict: Required reading. This is a story everyone should read, in order to better understand the fateful events of World War II and our own humanity. Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is available in the U.S. from Last Gasp.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Moon Boy, vol. 1

The story: At first glance, boy-crazy fifth grader Myung-Ee seems pretty normal. Except for the fact that her eyes turn red during the full moon! When she finds out her classmate, Yu-da, experiences the same affliction, she also learns that they are both Earth rabbit refugees from the moon. Unfortunately, the next day Yu-da is never seen again and no one except for Myung-Ee remembers him. Five years later, Myung-Ee transfers into a new high school known for its pretty boys. Surprisingly, Yu-da is there, too, but he doesn't remember a thing about Myung-Ee. Just what is going on and will Yu-da ever remember Myung-Ee?

Reaction: This was one weird story with the juxtaposition of cute little kids alongside a sci-fi story of Earth rabbits exiled from the moon by a hungry tribe of fox people. And while the whole "drinking blood and eating livers" thing is fairly gruesome, it's even creepier that Myung-Ee is so boy crazy at such a young age. I had a hard time following this story, as there's a wide cast of odd characters. And what is the deal with the high school teacher dressed up as a tiger with Olympic medals? Is Tony the Tiger in charge or something?

Deep thoughts: The idea of people living on the moon is nothing new. From the man in the moon to Sailor Moon, the concept is rather popular despite there being little evidence of the moon's ability to support life. However, NASA discovered "significant" water on the moon in 2009, which could lead to development of a lunar space station.

Artwork: The art here is more manga-like than other manhwa. It's got a cartoonish quality to it with big-eyed characters and spiky hair, not to mention occasionally bunny-eared people. There's less emphasis on anatomy and even older characters are fairly child-like looking. Humor is relegated to chibi-like characters that are, again, more Japanese in look than Korean, and action goes swiftly and without much build-up. Otherwise, there's a lot of inexplicable panty-related moments and unusual character designs, like the aforementioned tiger-dressed teacher.

The verdict: Meh. This is a truly frustrating manhwa. There's unlikeable characters in Yu-da and Myung-Ee, a weird plot that stretches my ability to exercise suspension of disbelief and an even weirder subplot in Myung-Ee's boy-crazy ways. While the whole "Earth rabbit and fox tribe" story could be more entertaining in a campy sci-fi way, the other elements of this story really held it back. Moon Boy is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Yurara, vol. 2

The story: Yurara's got more trouble on her hands when her female classmates get jealous of her relationship with Yako and Mei. When Yurara is attacked by an evil spirit possessing her classmate, she gets more attention from Mei than she bargained for and finds herself wondering if she's in love. While Yurara tries to figure out her feelings, Yako makes sure to tell her about Mei's romantic past. When the woman Mei once loved comes back into the picture, Yurara's guardian spirit finds herself working overtime!

Reaction: There's some pretty evil spiritual possessions in this volume, which reveals goofy Mei's heartbreaking past. I liked that there's more to Mei than his skirt-chasing ways; it gives him some much-needed character growth, too. I also liked the self-reflection Yurara starts to undergo in this volume. She grows a little by doing so and puts the boys under the microscope for their interest in her.

Deep thoughts: A couple of different times in this manga, Mei calls Yurara's guardian spirit "big sister." It's a reference to the term onee-san, which translates literally into big sister, but is also used as a nickname for a young woman. In manga, you'll often see a younger girl call an older girl onee-san, like in Skip-Beat! where Maria addresses Kyoko similarly.

Artwork: There's the usual beautiful boys, pretty girls, inexplicably floating flowers and an abundance of toner to help convey emotions and evil spirits. But, there's also a balance between the usually bare backgrounds seen in shojo manga and fairly detailed panels, especially in streetside settings. The action scenes throughout this volume keep the pacing clipping right along, and there isn't too much undue introspection to slow things down.

The verdict: If only... I like this series well enough, but it's fairly duplicative and it feels like it can't decide if it's a romantic comedy or supernatural thriller. While there was some decent character growth, if there was more focus on why Yurara has a guardian spirit, it would provide some much-needed substance. Otherwise, this is just another supernatural shojo love story set in a high school. Yurara is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Yotsuba&!, vol. 2

Happy New Year! With the new year comes a renewed commitment to posting blog reviews everyday. For the past few months, I had a hard time keeping up, what with work and graduate school commitments. Nonetheless, the past is behind me, so look forward to daily posts reviewing the latest manga, manhwa or graphic novel I'm reading. Hopefully, I can keep up with my self-imposed schedule through 2010!

In acknowledgment of my last post of 2009, I think it's only fitting that I continue my reviews of Yotsuba&!. As mentioned in my first review of this series, I'm reading through the ADV-published version of this series and not the newer re-release by Yen Press.

The story: Little Yotsuba loves drawing, but she's disappointed when her latest masterpiece gets some pointed criticism from a new friend. Later, she goes on an hilarious and imaginary rampage in search of revenge. In other tales, Yotsuba alternately learns the joys of cake, the "daddy dance," swimming pools and frog catching. There's also a glimpse of the neighbors' life when Yotsuba isn't around.

Reaction: This is such a fun manga to read! I always find myself laughing at something ridiculous Yotsuba has done -- I was in stitches during her search for revenge and couldn't help but giggle at her magic marker moments, especially since it reminded me of a time when my younger sister and I did something similar to our own dad. There's also a great new character in Miura, a tomboy of sorts who doesn't initially "get" Yotsuba's many quirks.

Deep thoughts: One chapter, titled "Revenge," shows Yotsuba watching a violent TV show with her dad and Jumbo. Immediately afterwards, she grabs her squirt gun and starts exacting revenge on the neighbors' house. This is a nice portrayal of media effects, or the theory that what we see in media influences how we act. Here, Yotsuba sees a violent act and then mirrors it. While it's obvious Yotsuba is pretending, it's a pretty clear cut cause-and-effect example of the theory in action.

Artwork: There's a lot of playful emotion here and some great facial expressions. Yotsuba's eyes can communicate a lot, something that other mangaka would do well to learn from. Otherwise, this is situational comedy at its best and Kiyohiko Azuma does a great job at showing the physical comedy at play and characters' reactions to whatever goofy thing Yotsuba is up to.

The verdict: Required reading. This is such a fun series -- I can't imagine someone not liking it. If you're looking for all-around simple laughs at the hand of a kooky grade schooler, Yotsuba's your girl! Yotsuba&! is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.