RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Sexy Ai Land

by Carlo Santos, Feb 21st 2006

Forget Courtney Love: the real Princess Ai arrived in 2001. Hailing from the distant land of Fukui prefecture, she made an unusual first impression with her provincial accent and mannerisms. However, her adept voice earned her a spot in Japan's most prestigious girl group, and in less than a year she had sung her way to the vocal frontline. Blessed with girl-next-door looks, she's also been the subject of several photobooks, and now occupies a comfortable place of honor among J-pop's idol royalty. Ai Takahashi of Morning Musume, we salute you.


KAMIKAZE GIRLS
Vol. 1
(by Novala Takemoto and Yukio Kanesada, Viz Media, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

"Momoko is a Lolita stranded in the boondocks of rural Ibaraki prefecture, although she'd much rather be living in the Palace of Versailles. Ichigo is an impulsive member of a girls-only biker gang who firmly believes in honor, loyalty, and fist fighting. Together this unlikeliest of duos strikes out on a journey to find a legendary embroiderer who might just be able to make their dreams come true.
Inspired by the cult-classic novel of the same name, this exclusive manga edition of Novala Takemoto's Kamikaze Girls contains several brand-new stories, including a continuation of Momoko and Ichigo's misadventures that was approved by the author himself!"

PROS:
People love to say "it gets better later on"—an axiom that can apply even to one-shot volumes like this one. Yukio Kanesada's sequel to Kamikaze Girls actually surpasses her original adaptation; the message of being true to one's self comes out clearer when the manga-ka is free to use her own voice. But that's still only half the book. The best part is an emotionally charged, romantic short story about that tricky period between adolescence and adulthood. Kanesada's art style, although fairly conventional for shoujo, is pleasant and accessible.

CONS:
At only 82 pages, the manga adaptation is a pale shadow of the real thing. If you really want to read Kamikaze Girls, just grab the novel. Kanesada struggles with the pacing, turning Takemoto's original story into a hodgepodge of events that are supposed to reveal Ichigo and Momoko's budding friendship. Instead, it'll probably leave readers baffled at the sudden leaps of logic. The non-Kamikaze story, "The Pinky-Ring Princess," suffers the same problem—people behave way too randomly to be believable. Emotional drama at its best, but nonsensical plotting at its worst.

RTO!! RATING: C


LOVELESS
Vol. 1
(by Yun Kouga, TOKYOPOP, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When 12-year-old Ritsuka discovers a posthumous message from his brother Seimei indicating he was murdered, he becomes involved in a shadowy world of spell battles and secret names. Together with the mysterious Soubi, the search to find Seimei's killer and uncover the truth begins!
But in the world where mere words have unbelievable power, how can you find true friendship and happiness when your very name is Loveless?"

PROS:
Yun Kouga lays out some intriguing ideas to kick off this series: magical battles fought with words (does it count as cheating if you use a thesaurus?), a double bond between spellcaster and controller, and, um, cat ears. Yes, there is a reason for the cat ears—a reason that you'll think is either really deep or really dopey. Beyond that, Loveless also has a fun supporting cast that balances out the darker main storyline: air-headed yuiko is a much-needed source of comic relief, especially around Ritsuka, the walking angst machine.

CONS:
Unfortunately, that's all we've got so far: ideas. Kouga's attempt to set the plot in motion is a jumble of confusing battles and even more confusing conversations; Ritsuka's day-to-day school life is actually more engaging than the magical duel aspect. Soubi's relationship with Ritsuka is equally maddening—okay, he kisses Ritsuka and says "I love you" just to rile him up, but so what? The only thing they've got going for them is that they look cute together, and even that gets buried under the crowded artwork.

RTO!! RATING: C-



MIDORI DAYS
Vol. 4
(by Kazurou Inoue, Viz Media, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"A romantic comedy with a bizarre twist (of the wrist)...
With his legendary 'devil's right hand,' Seiji's knockout punch makes him the biggest bully in school. But no matter how many dudes he stomps on, he still scores zero points with the ladies.
Enter painfully shy Midori, whose secret wish to become part of Seiji's life comes all too true when she wakes up attached to Seiji's arm! Now whether Seiji likes it or not, he's got a girlfriend who is literally his right-hand gal.
When freaky otaku Shuichi finds out that Midori is no ordinary doll, his obsession for her increases! Then, an innocent motorcycle drive in the country turns ugly when a motorcycle gang mistakes Seiji for his rough-and-tumble sister, Rin. Ayase doesn't let up in her efforts to capture Seiji's heart, but it's going to take a lot to get through that thick skull of his."

PROS:
Kazurou Inoue's fountain of comedy gold continues to flow in Midori Days. Droopy-eyed recluse Nao swings a mallet and fights a robot clone to save Seiji; Seiji discovers a Midori fan site on the Internet; Japan-obsessed foreigner Lucy makes her rousing debut. Pure energy exudes from each chapter as Inoue finds his stride, letting outrageous characters and dynamic artwork provide the humor, rather than the girl-on-hand gimmick. Midori's cute and all, but it's the supporting cast—the weirdo, the otaku, the evil older sister, the girly boy, the American—that make this series shine.

CONS:
With everyone having some ridiculous personality defect, logical behavior doesn't rank high among the story's priorities. The growing harem of girls (and boy) chasing after Seiji becomes harder and harder to believe, especially with his actions still crass and boneheaded as possible. Readers will find themselves asking, "Just WHAT do they see in him?" The short chapters jump wildly between situations, making it way too easy to spot the filler material. A more coherent focus on each character's specific arc, and their relationship with Seiji, would help.

RTO!! RATING: B


NODAME CANTABILE
Vol. 4
(by Tomoko Ninomiya, Del Rey, $10.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Milch may be down, but he's definitely not out. In fact, he's back to take (or is it to force?) the gang to participate in the Nagano Music Festival. In preparation for the festival, the students go to a band camp where they do much more than just play music. Chiaki confronts his fear of the ocean; Mine spends his time getting a tan worth singing about; and Nodame the "orangutan," after the humiliation of getting kicked out of a master class, gets set to prove that she can really play the piano. There are plenty of high jinks—and nobody escapes unscathed.
Plus, there's a hilarious extra story that takes us back to Nodame's childhood, as she drives her piano teacher insane with bad jokes and month-old sandwiches. With Nodame, expect the unexpected from beginning to end!"

PROS:
Comedy reaches a high point in the series as Nodame and the gang go on a music-school road trip (booze and babes not included, unless you count the ko-gals at the beach). Watch flamboyant Masumi kidnap Chiaki in a rowboat, or Nodame zombie-walking in a piano-induced trance, and you'll agree: classical kids are insane, even more so than punk rockers. Amidst all the laughs, though, the characters still find room to grow, exemplified by Mine's re-discovery of his work ethic. Ninomiya's eccentric sense of humor shines here, backed by her increasingly confident and elegant artwork.

CONS:
Although perverted music teacher "Milch" Stresemann finally redeems himself in the early chapters, that's the least interesting arc so far. Past loves and flashbacks are nice, but it's shallow fare compared to the students' antics. The end of the book has its problems too: mini-Nodame's side story may be as adorable as cake, but it cuts the main plot annoyingly short. Meanwhile, the music community's furtive gossip about Chiaki studying under Stresemann is a jarring, blatant act of foreshadowing, just crying out to be explained in Volume 5.

RTO!! RATING: A-


OH MY GODDESS!
Vol. 22

(by Kosuke Fujishima, Dark Horse, $10.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Hild lays down the condition for changing Peorth back to normal, Urd tells Mom that she can go back to Hell, but Urd sure isn't coming along. Hild's counteroffer promises to combine the magic-circle powers of herself, Belldandy, Skuld, and Urd to restore Peorth, in exchange for a promise for Urd to do . . . well, she'll tell Urd after the ritual! But has Peorth started a trend for tinyness? Things take a sudden turn for the chibi when both Hild and a certain blonde demon demonstrate great evil comes in small packages!"

PROS:
Kosuke Fujishima still has the skills. He busts out an intricate spellcasting scene when the goddesses return Peorth to normal size, combining lyrical beauty with abstraction. Of course, Fujishima's been drawing pretty things for years, and the second half of the volume—where demon Mara tries to capture the goddesses in a cursed teapot—is both charming and hilarious. Where else will you see a cute boy and a cute cat on a cute bike? The final chapter also boasts one of the funniest sequences in the entire series, earning OMG its rightful label as romantic comedy.

CONS:
Despite the beauty of Hild's restoration spell, the events surrounding it—including her deal with Urd—lack emotional depth. Maybe it's her irritating use of the royal "we," or the vague dialogue, but the mother-daughter dynamic never really takes off. Seems like Fujishima planned a lot of things for his characters, but didn't know how to express it on the page. Even Mara's devious plan lacks momentum at first; it really isn't "A" material until the tempest breaks out of the teapot in the final chapter.

RTO!! RATING: B-


READ OR DIE
Vol. 1
(by Hideyuki Kurata and Shutaro Yamada, Viz Media, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Yomiko Readman's love for literature goes far beyond any run-of-the-mill bookworm's! In fact, she has a supernatural ability to manipulate paper in the most amazing ways. From turning a tiny scrap into a lethal throwing dagger to making a single sheet hard enough to block bullets, she's only limited by her imagination. She uses her phenomenal power to seek out legendary books containing secret information that, in the wrong hands, could be dangerous. Backed by a Special Operations Division in England, Yomiko has her hands full battling evildoers, saving the world, and trying to find time to curl up with a good book.
Yomiko is called in to use her special talents to recover a rare book that was stolen from the library 20 years ago. Her commander, a mysterious gentleman simply known as "Joker," has set up a deal to buy the book from the very man who stole it—the slippery Mr. Woo. When accused of the crime, Woo retaliates by attacking Joker but finds himself foiled by the paper-wielding Yomiko. But he's a slippery fella and has a trick or two of his own up his sleeve. Will it be enough to defeat the likes of the determined Ms. Readman?"

PROS:
For pure action, go no further than Read or Die, which should please fans of both the OVA (Yomiko takes center stage) and the TV series (charismatic writer Nenene shows up too). Woo's story is but a prelude to an explosive adventure where Yomiko must save Nenene from increasingly bizarre abductors. Scotch-tape manipulators, a pyromaniac, and an obsessed fan inspired by Stephen King's Misery—it's ridiculous,
but it's just so much fun. Every action scene brings out the exhilaration of paper mastery, from swarms of airplanes to stacks of Shonen Jump.

CONS:
Perhaps they're having a little too much fun with the action: Yomiko's stunts get so acrobatic that the visual confusion forces you to read it over. And like typical action blockbusters, little things like character and story development get glossed over—we learn a bit about Yomiko's history, but the volume leaves plenty of questions unanswered about her former lover. Oh, and if you wanted to see the Paper Sisters
(Anita, Maggie and Michelle) in action, you'll have to wait until the Read or Dream manga gets released.

RTO!! RATING: B


PRINCESS AI
Vol. 3
(by Misaho Kujiradou, Courtney Love and D.J. Milky, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The culmination of Ai's journey of self-discovery is at hand, and salvation is on the horizon. As hunters from her homeland close in on her, Ai's record company unleashes its plan to turn their hot new diva into a falling star. Even with Kent by her side, can Ai avoid her enemies and still find a way to bring peace to her troubled homeland?"

PROS:
Unlike stories that fizzle out towards the end of their serialization, Princess Ai closes with a Hollywood-worthy bang that involves death, vengeance, and of course, saving the world through music. It feels complete, it's emotionally affecting, and it's pretty coherent once you think it over. Kujiradou's delicate but confident artwork brings out Ai's goth-lolita-rocker aesthetic, with her final transformation an eye-popping hybrid of idol singer and Harajuku nymphet. (Well, maybe that credit should go to character designer Ai Yazawa.) If you're gonna save the world, might as well look pretty while doing it.

CONS:
The only real reason the ending feels complete is because it pulls out every cliché ever conceived. A heroine destined to save a distant land, a symbolic piece of jewelry, a lover's fatal sacrifice—heck, they even get in some modern ones like evil music industry execs. The nebulous dialogue doesn't help either: prepare to roll your eyes at new-age platitudes like "finding the answers within yourself." Worst of all, Ai is one big steaming pile of Mary Sue. Everyone just LOVES her! Except the evil characters, of course... and even they change their minds. Ridiculous.

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