Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Pint-sized genius Muhyo and his bumbling assistant Roji work in a unique branch of law enforcement: Magic Law, where unruly ghosts must be punished and supernatural abnormalities are set straight. Normally it's just a matter of sending troubled spirits away to the next world, but things get serious when Roji visits the Magic Law Association for a certification exam and chaos breaks loose. Infectious ghosts and grudge-bearing spirits are terrorizing the area, and behind it all is Muhyo's former rival Enchu—another magic-wielding genius who, unfortunately, has chosen to use his powers for evil! Muhyo has the talent to stop him, but the real question is, does Roji have the confidence to jump into the fight as well?
From the first few chapters of Muhyo and Roji Volume 2, one could easily get the impression that this has already turned into a repetitive, generic monster-of-the-week series. Thank goodness, then, for the Magic Law Association arc—not only does it expand on the background of the main characters, but it takes them to a new locale while they're at it. This volume also shows Yoshiyuki Nishi's art beginning to stabilize: more consistent character designs, tighter lines, and fewer misproportions. Yet the cartoonish style still isn't as ghostly and supernatural as it could be, and the story—despite its growing ambitions—is still too sloppy to compare to the best in the genre. It's getting better, but not that much better.
To ease readers into the flow of the story, this volume starts out with a couple of stand-alone cases: a group of friends trying to let go of their deceased buddy, and a young girl coming to terms with her father's death. Although these stories are good at striking the right emotional note, they're still too short to be anything more than light diversions. The real fun starts when Roji gets called up for his exam and heads to the Magic Law headquarters with Muhyo. Thus begins a storyline that actually affects the main characters, provides some background information as to how this supernatural investigation business works, and provides a back-story for Muhyo and his nemesis. Killing three birds with one stone? That's a smart turn of events right there. Even more importantly, this multi-chapter arc also adds more action and high stakes to the series. Helping out troubled citizens and capturing assorted ghosts is one thing ... but taking on a high-powered rival in an epic magical battle is definitely a new level of excitement.
Unfortunately, this excitement seems to have derailed Yoshiyuki Nishi's storytelling abilities: the switch to full-on combat mode instead of stand-alone investigative cases leads to a chain of confusing events. There's a scene, for example, where Muhyo releases some kind of sprite to get rid of some nasty spirits ... except that we never quite see where the sprite came from, so suddenly there's this puzzling sequence where a mysterious creature is wandering around in search of evil. It's enough to make you think that they accidentally printed the wrong manga by mistake. And this happens regularly throughout the arc: the sudden cut from Roji's exam to the trouble caused by Enchu, the poorly-timed scene changes between what the various characters are up to, and a chaotic finish that amounts to "throw enough magical things at the bad guys and they'll go away." Building up action and excitement is one thing, but without a clear sense of how the characters are defeating the villain, it's just a exercise in shiny supernatural special effects that make no sense.
Similarly, the artwork is a mixed bag of flaws and improvements—Nishi's linework is clearly getting more confident over time, as this volume isn't quite as sloppy as the first, but the design aesthetic still looks like a cute and cuddly cartoon with ghosts slapped on it. Granted, some of the creatures are magnificently chilling (the freakish mouths that start appearing all over people's bodies? Genius) and Muhyo's punishments like the "Night Train" to the underworld carry an epic sense of scale ... but the characters themselves still look like they just stepped out of a grade-school coloring book. The backgrounds aren't that great either, consisting mostly of mechanically drawn buildings and interiors, or worse yet, nothing at all. Meanwhile, the page layouts add to both the action and confusion: full-page spreads and big panels give plenty of room to show off those big attacks, but transitional scenes often fail to convey the plot points that matter—when Roji is calligraphing a handful of magical wards, let's see him writing those wards! Instead, vital events like that are shoved off into a small single panel, making the story harder to follow.
As the series becomes more action-oriented, most of the dialogue ends up being exclamatory in nature: "Oh no!" "Run!" "Keep out of the way!" There's nothing too difficult in the translation, and even explanations of how the Magic Law system works are mercifully concise. (Compare this to other supernatural series where the characters talk themselves into corners with elaborate yet useless terminology.) Meanwhile, the focus on action also means more sound effects, but one will not find a trace of Japanese syllabary here—they've all been swapped out for the standard comic-book range of whooshes and bangs. Fortunately, the edited sound effects are not too intrusive; most of them are placed in background areas where they don't interfere with the action and could even be skimmed over depending on your reading speed.
Although Muhyo and Roji has somewhat improved from its first round of adventures, this upgrade brings its own share of problems. The extended storyline jumps from plot point to plot point, creating just as much confusion as it does action. The big finish seems to rely more on random acts of magic rather than some gripping, well-scripted plan of attack. And for a supernatural series, the art just doesn't look all that scary—except for the monsters, of course. Perhaps we should be thankful that it's moved away from the overcrowded supernatural-mystery-investigation field ... but now it's just shifted into the equally overcrowded supernatural-combat field. This volume gets points for trying, but it's still a long way from rising above the rest of the pack.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : C
+ A new, multi-chapter story arc brings plenty of action and excitement, plus some gruesomely designed monsters.
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