Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, vol. 1

While the connection to today's review may seem a bit tenuous, I'd like to give a nod to Cesar E. Chavez, who led the first successful farm worker's rights movement in the United States. In California, we celebrate his life's work on March 31 with a statewide holiday. Since this book focuses on farm work and agriculture, it seemed an opportune time to note Chavez's work in providing equal rights to migrant and other farm workers.

The story
: It’s the first day of college for Tadayasu, an agriculture student with a special skill—he can see bacteria and other germs without the help of a microscope or other tools. While he’s kept the secret to himself for many years, his nutty professor, Dr. Itsuki, soon finds out and seeks to use Tadayasu’s gift for scientific research. While all Tadayasu wants is a cool Tokyo college experience, it seems other forces are conspiring against him!

Reaction: This unique story was funny, science-filled and gross—but in a good way! The inordinately gifted main character, Tadayasu, provides a close-up view of all the things better left unseen, like fungus and bacteria. While the obsessive professors and goofy classmates were reminiscent of the art college manga (and personal favorite) Honey and Clover, the similarities ended there. With entertainment and education in equal doses, I found myself enjoying this story on several levels.

Deep thoughts: With a microbiologist mom and a science-filled childhood, I probably enjoyed this book more than most. Growing up, The Anatomy Coloring Book was an unlikely part of my childhood coloring book collection. More recently, I shared this book with a colleague at work—the dean of the College of Sciences at the university I work at, who also happens to be a microbiologist himself. He was so interested in it that he immediately bought the book and then informed me of the anime based on Moyasimon!

Artwork: This is definitely a seinen book in design, with realistic character designs (Hasegawa, in particular, reminded me of Detroit Metal City at times) and detailed backgrounds. But, the cartoony depictions of fungus and bacteria are unexpected, while providing a “fun” balance to the graphic grossness of agricultural life.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There is no other book like Moyasimon, manga or not. From Tadayasu’s unique gift to the disgusting situations he’s thrown into, I found this a promising start to a series I’ll definitely continue reading. Moyasimon is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Twin Spica, vol. 1

Time to dust off my poor, neglected blog! After a month of silence, I'm glad to be back—moving and freelance writing assignments have been keeping me busy. And what better way to come back to manga blogging than with a super-sized review of Vertical's new Twin Spica?

The story: For as long as she can remember, 13-year-old Asumi has wanted to become an astronaut. But, since her mother died a few years ago, she's reluctant to pursue it as a career, lest she leave her dad alone.

But, when she's selected for further testing by the new astronaut-training high school program, her dad tells her to follow her dreams. Can Asumi and her team survive the mentally and physically exhaustive examination process?

Reaction: Take one part astronomy, add a sympathetic heroine determined to persevere and round it out with a compelling cast of supporting characters, and you've got Twin Spica. Kou Yaginuma has created a fascinating alternate future for Japan, where tragedy becomes the foundation of both the protagonist’s story and her country’s entry into the space race.

While I didn't care for the glossed-over physical violence between Asumi and her father (it further complicates their already-strained relationship), I was pulled in by Asumi’s classmates and her mysterious friend, Mr. Lion; the bits of scientific fact peppered throughout; and Asumi’s back story.

By volume’s end, I found myself wanting to see Asumi deal with more hardship. Not out of some misplaced sense of sadism, but because she has an amazing ability to overcome even the toughest of hurdles. She’s a really remarkable character, even in comparison to the oft-used shojo trope of down-on-their-luck, yet-plucky heroines overcoming adversity.

Deep thoughts: In my real-life work, I’ve had the opportunity to work with astronomers, influencing my reading of Twin Spica. About a year ago, I interviewed a San Diego State University professor about his research on the death of a large star; Asumi’s passion for the stars reminded me of my conversation with Doug Leonard (embedded below).

Of course, the main tragedy in Twin Spica also reminded me of the Challenger explosion years ago; the incident has continued to influence space exploration efforts in the United States, much as it does in this story.

Artwork: Yaginuma’s character design is his greatest strength; from the petite Asumi to the self-assured Shu Suzuki, the cast here is wide-ranging in looks and personalities.

There’s a dichotomy of settings in this story, with the main storyline taking place in a sterile, one-room environment, in comparison to Yaginuma’s expansive backgrounds of space and its role in his characters’ imaginations. He’s also deft at portraying the emotional hardships the teams experience during testing. Lastly, flashes to Asumi’s personal tragedy throughout the story help build an unexpected emotional crescendo.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There’s a lot of heartfelt emotion balanced with space-based science in this tale of a young girl’s desire to visit the stars. Asumi’s single-minded dedication to her childhood dream is admirable, with a promising ending to this introductory volume. As soon as I finished this book, I found myself already longing to read more. Twin Spica will be available in the U.S. from Vertical.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Flashlight Worthy Books List: Graphic Novels: About Women. By Women.

Earlier this month, I was asked to contribute to a graphic novel list by Flashlight Worthy, a website with lists of books recommended by bloggers and others. In recognition of Women's History Month in March, the list, "Graphic Novels: About Women. By Women," focused on graphic novels about and by women.

Unsurprisingly, many manga filled the list, including my selection, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. Check out the list for many other "flashlight-worthy" tomes that are worth reading "past bedtime."

MangaCast Review: King of RPGs, vol. 1

While it's been more than a month since I reviewed this book, I'm listing it here as part of some belated blog-related housekeeping.

Last month, I reviewed King of RPGs, vol. 1, for MangaCast, a blog featuring manga news and reviews. Here's an excerpt from my review:

It’s freshman year at the fictional University of California Escondido for Sessions Maccabee and, while it’s a brand-new start, he’s hiding a big secret — he was addicted to online role-playing games in high school, resulting in a serious mental breakdown, hours of therapy and now regularly taking psychoactive drugs. ... First things first, I’m no RPG gamer, online or otherwise. But, I absolutely loved this book because of all the cool references to places and things familiar to me.

To read the rest of my review, click here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.