Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 8th 2005
Ayu Tateishi is one of the most sensible students at school, but that's all about to change when she inadvertently helps new student Nina find her electronic "spellbook." Suddenly Ayu has earned the devoted friendship of a flighty witch-in-training who insists on helping her at every opportunity... with magic. Unfortunately for Ayu, most of Nina's spells end in embarrassment. Whether it's being turned into a boy, zapping any guy who comes in contact with her, giving love candy to the wrong person, or trying to extract the truth from someone, Ayu's school career has just taken a magical turn thanks to the machinations of "ultra maniac" Nina.
Although this manga is centered on girls and features magic as a principal theme, don't be tricked into calling Ultra Maniac a magical girl series. The anime might have fooled some folks, but Wataru Yoshizumi's original vision is something subtler. The only frilly outfits you'll find are the stylish fashion drawings that bookend each chapter, and there's nary an animal mascot or transformation sequence to be seen. Instead, what we get is a charming schoolyard comedy that just happens to involve magic. With distinctive characters and fun, fluid artwork, Ultra Maniac gets off to a promising start.
Some familiar story ideas set up the driving force behind the series: an odd-couple friendship between a straitlaced character and the irritating yet well-meaning comic relief, set in middle school with a dash of wizardry. Okay, so maybe we're thinking something along the lines of Sabrina the Teenage Witch or a goofy version of Harry Potter, but this is a story with its own unique personality. The humor takes its cue from the realistic side of the story, namely the trouble between young teenage girls and boys; from that point, it's Nina's nutty spells that provide the punchline. The situations are often predictable, being standard sitcom fare, but they're delivered with a panache and energy that still makes them fun. There's no epic plot at hand yet—so far, each chapter stands on its own, although sometimes alluding briefly to previous points in the story. This simplicity of structure allows the story to focus more on the characters and the world that they live in, not to mention delivering pure entertainment.
For shoujo readers who prefer complex character dynamics and long, weaving storylines, however, this may not be the title to pick up. The characters of Ultra Maniac aren't the type to be weighed down by conflicting emotions and dramatic backstory, although that doesn't mean that they're uninteresting. They're certainly memorable, if somewhat stereotypical, with Ayu being the calm, collected one and Nina being nothing less than insane. The boys need more development, though: right now Tetsushi is best described as the-guy-Ayu-likes, and his friend Hiroki is... well, his friend, so far. The end of the volume does suggest that there's something more to Tetsushi, so there's the hook to keep on reading. Put all these characters together, though, and that's where the fun happens: Ayu's crush on Tetsushi has all the classic ups and downs of young love, and once Nina starts butting in with her magic, the comedy really kicks in. Equally amusing is the snappy dialogue that continually goes on between Ayu and Nina. Have you ever had one of those friends who's really annoying, yet you can't be mean to them because they're so nice and well-meaning all the time? That's exactly what's going on between the two girls, and it works wonderfully.
Most manga fans know Wataru Yoshizumi through her signature series Marmalade Boy, and it's remarkable how her art—which has changed little from the mid-90's to the modern day—still looks fresh to contemporary eyes. The "shoujo style" is often typecast as big eyes, swishy lines and sparkly effects, but Yoshizumi is one of the few that does it expertly (Yuu Watase is another), attacking the page with bold but elegant strokes. Never does she hide behind the crutch of pale, spineless inking and masses of screentones. Sure, she still uses plenty of tones for effect, but she does so with purpose: to express emotion, to bring out a texture, or for comedic effect. (Just look at the ZAAAPPP lightning bolts in the chapter where Ayu can't touch boys.) The character designs are also an essential part of the humor, with people slipping into chibi form as the situation dictates. Sometimes all it takes to get a laugh is a deftly rendered facial expression; somehow, a handful of lines and dots can become a super-simplified face that means embarrassment, anger, shock, or any other mood. This smart sense of design also carries over to the layouts, where dynamic rectangular paneling and clear partitions between scenes make the visual narrative easy to follow.
Ultra Maniac is one of several introductory series that's spearheading Viz's latest publishing initiative, the new Shôjo Beat line. The fact that it's a dollar cheaper than the average volume should already interest some readers, and the reproduction of the artwork is as clean as it'll come on this kind of paper—yes, even the chapter dividers look fine when greyscaled. (You can thank the Viz-Shueisha-Shogakukan merger for this, as they now have access to the original artwork in digital form.) As is customary for the publisher, sound effects are presented entirely in English, so while purists may take umbrage at the lack of kana in the artwork, the replacement effects are in a variety of fonts and styles that integrate reasonably well into the art. The dialogue of the English adaptation is colorful and fun to read, reflecting the way that young teenagers really talk ("She's like... the cheerleader of DOOM!" says Ayu about Nina in one classic moment). Interestingly, Marmalade Boy also turned out nicely in the dialogue department, so it might just be that Yoshizumi has a great ear for conversation that carries over well into English.
Don't be put off by the fact that Ultra Maniac is drawn in a graceful style and has the "girly comics" label on it—this is a fun series that can be enjoyed by either gender, and by all ages. The first volume doesn't dig into any deep storylines just yet, but the lighthearted laughs and terrific chemistry between characters are entertaining enough in themselves. Maybe it's too light for those who prefer angst, profundity, or meandering multi-volume epics, but if you've ever had that really annoying friend you just didn't have the heart to shake off... well, this is one manga you can sympathize with.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Clean art and layouts, a deft sense of humor, and charming characters.
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