Review

by Carlo Santos, Nov 24th 2010

Ultimo

GN 3

Synopsis:
Ultimo GN 3
Ultimo is a karakuri dôji, a mechanical doll that embodies all the qualities of good. His counterpart is Vice, another dôji that embodies pure evil. For centuries, they have been at odds with each other, and at last they shall fight the final battle for the fate of the universe. Ultimo's source of power is Yamato, a high schooler who once fought alongside Ultimo in a previous life. However, Yamato's resolve wavers when his latest foe turns out to be his best friend Rune, controlling the dôji known as Jealousy. Can Yamato's noble intentions overcome the darkness in Rune's heart? That's not the only evil that Vice has in store, however: he also summons forth the seven deadly sins to take on Ultimo and his forces of good, and Yamato finds himself watching the world teeter on the brink of destruction. However, Ultimo's incredible ability to bend space and time might just save the day...
Review:

If Hiroyuki Takei wanted to make something big happen in the third volume of Ultimo, well, he couldn't get much bigger than the end of the world.

And while it's presented as standard action-adventure fare with good guys fighting bad guys, it also contains an echo of truth about human civilization: aside from the polar ice caps melting, meteors crashing into us, the ozone layer going poof, or the sun exploding in a giant ball of flame, we're definitely going to blow ourselves up. (Many would say we are already partway there—and all it would take is a few fantastical weapons, like giant humanoid machines with amazing powers, to push us over the edge.)

Unfortunately, this thought-provoking message about good vs. evil and the nature of humanity gets lost behind convoluted plot machinations and flashy (not to mention confusing) fight sequences. The first half of the volume features all manner of flashbacks and time-travel, revealing that the Ultimo mythos not only reaches back to the past but also into the future. A binding pact is made between Ultimo and Yamato, the surprising origin of Yamato and Rune's friendship is revealed, and Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo as the mysterious inventor Dunstan—but is any of this really adding to the plot, or just mindless churning? If the goal is to make the story feel even grander and more epic than it already is, then yes, invoking the entire space-time continuum usually works. However, as far as exploring Yamato's growth as a hero, as well as his friendship with Rune, the level of hyperbole seems like a whole lot of empty noise for an ordinary shônen plot development.

The noise gets even louder in the later chapters, though, with Ultimo's "six perfections" and Vice's "seven sins" clashing in a your-guys-versus-my-guys firefight. Certainly, Lee and Takei's world-building is fascinating and ambitious: the good army borrows from Buddhism, the evil army borrows from Christianity, and each vice or virtue is represented by both a distinctive human character and their corresponding dôji. However, the way Takei trots them all out with little more than nameplates and descriptions is no way to introduce supporting characters. If anything, it's more like the work of an overzealous twelve-year-old boy who suddenly came up with a great idea for a superhero comic, and now wants to show off his character profiles and sketches to everyone without thinking of an actual story. Such recklessness is also evident in the way the battle suddenly escalates to global apocalypse—after doing basic one-on-one fights just 20 pages ago! Granted, the time-travel aspect suggests that there's a reason for this odd turnabout, but the overall pacing still feels far too rushed.

If there wasn't enough chaos from all the time-travel drama and the sudden surge of combatants, the fight scenes are visually messy as well—full of spindly, fantasy-mecha style, but not a whole lot of clarity or substance. As the grand climax approaches, many of the pivotal scenes end up dazzling to look at but maddening to decipher: who just defeated whom, and how? It's not so much the sequence of panels, but simply the action depicted in each one, that leads to this confusion. Part of the problem is the sudden increase in characters and their dôji: as an individual assembly of curves and corners, each mechanical warrior is a wonder to behold, but in the heat of battle they look too much alike to even figure out which ones are good or evil. Fortuantely, Takei's spiky drawing style is more effective when it comes human characters—the agents of good and evil all have distinct appearances and come from all walks of life—although the big heads and tiny bodies among the younger characters may still look strange.

If the artwork is where Hiroyuki Takei's influence is strongest, then it's in the writing and dialogue where Stan Lee reigns, with many of the characters making heroic (or sinister) proclamations. Even heartfelt flashbacks are full of intense, dramatic speches. After all, it wouldn't be an earth-shattering battle between good and evil if people didn't have big words and big ideas to share—although it does get predictable after a while, especially when Vice is outlining his plan for world domination like every big bad villain does. Meanwhile, the translated sound effects blend smoothly into the art, with English text helping to accentuate the action rather than detracting from it. Those who have grown weary of all this end-of-the-world drama, though, may find solace in the bonus story in the back—a comedy romp where Yamato and friends have a decidedly non-apocalyptic Christmas party.

The end of the world may be a terrifying prospect for some, but the way Ultimo's third volume rushes into it, it's as if it were a big noisy party that everyone's looking forward to. Unfortunately, the way this series rushes toward that plot point—with overblown time-travel melodrama, slapdash character introductions, and eye-crossing fight scenes—only reduces its effectiveness. There are just too many new people showing up at once and too many mind-bending revelations bunched up against each other, and when everything is supposed to be a Major World-Changing Event, then nothing is. There is at least one intriguing point, though: considering the way Volume 3 ends, Volume 4's content will be—and must be—completely different. Whether that's a good or bad thing ... who knows?

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : C

+ New revelations, new characters, and a last-page twist add plenty of wrinkles to an exciting plot.
Newcomers don't get enough face time, pacing is too rushed, and fight scenes are difficult to follow.

Story & Art:Hiroyuki Takei
Original Concept:Stan Lee

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Ultimo (manga)

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Ultimo (GN 3)

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