RIGHT TURN ONLY!! RTOHolic
by Carlo Santos, Jun 13th 2006
It is easy, with the nebulous anonymity of the Internet, to imagine that the people who "work for companies" are just nameless faceless suits whose sole purpose in life is to ruin the hobby, whether by censoring our favorite series into submission, messing up release dates, or supposedly violating the sanctity of Japanese culture. It is disturbingly easy to wish misfortune upon them, to suggest that they are mentally disabled, or worse.
But with the summer convention season just round the corner, we are reminded that the manga and anime business is run by real people, with real bodies, who might even have minds, feelings, and souls.
It is one thing to be upset about a poorly handled product or to disagree with someone's idea; it is another thing to say that the person responsible for the product, or who stated the idea, is a corporate beast with a negative brain cell count and illicit familial relations. So think about that next time you feel like spewing a round of Internet bile. Would you dare say it to someone's face?
(by Fuyumi Soryo, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Ryousuke Akiba calls himself ES, a code name taken from a mysterious scientific experiment. Ryousuke will live to be at least two centuries old and possesses strange mental powers: He can enter people's minds, discover their darkest secrets, even rearrange their memories so that complete strangers will treat him like family. Ryousuke acts not out of malice but for survival—wandering Tokyo for reasons known only to him. No one recognizes him for what he is . . . until Dr. Mine Kujyou, a determined researcher, meets someone who challenges everything she knows about science—ES, possessor of the Eternal Sabbath gene. But is he the only one?"
What sounds like a really corny idea at first turns out to be a thoughtful sci-fi gem about the frailty of the human mind. Despite his godlike ability, ES/Ryousuke wanders about in an enigmatic way, quietly mind-hacking people out of curiosity more than anything else. It's easy to get caught up in this casual, go-with-the flow story approach, aided by clean, spacious layouts. The arrival of Mine halfway through adds more character intrigue and a unique battle of the brains: her single-minded devotion to research hinders her ability to socialize, but makes her resistant to ES's power. "Normal" human beings are less fortunate; their mind-trips, however, allow the artwork to explode with fantastic imagery. Detailed techniques and surrealism combine to form images that make you stop with sheer admiration. But it's not all about ES-induced psychedelia—real-world scenes are also rendered with the same care and confidence.
The trouble with godlike characters—especially in the main role—is that they make things totally unfair for the rest of the cast. While it's cool to see ES have his way with people, the lack of conflict soon becomes irritating. What's a story without a challenge?! A whodunit involving a school bully and the introduction of Mine test his ability somewhat, but it doesn't change the fact that he still overpowers everyone. Towards the end of the volume, he finally learns that he's not quite invincible, but it also triggers a sudden onset of clichés. A mysterious man from his past! A rumor of an evil twin! Random references to the Bible for added exoticism! Gosh, and the story was doing so well...
RTO!! RATING: A-
(by Shingo Nanami, Broccoli, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Although Atsuma is distraught by the horror he caused on the night of the annual ball, Sumire convinces him to continue with his mission. With Shui's help, they are determined to find out the truth behind NOA, even if it means confronting General Shiki. However, Shiki is just a pawn in a much larger scheme with dark connections to Atsuma's own past."
Epic battles for the fate of the world always look better when they're tragic and beautiful, and Kamui is no exception. Confrontations and revelations are the key element of this volume, and don't expect to reach the end without at least one or two shocking turns. A flashback chapter in the middle also adds some grounding to the story's multi-layered mythos, adding more connecting lines between various characters and events. Visual pacing moves forward at a rapid clip; the best scenes are the ones with minimal dialogue, explosive action, and a sense of page-turning urgency. Fans of bishounen will get their fill here, with pretty faces on both sides of the battle, and the linework during the big fights brings a sinuous beauty to what is otherwise pure, good old violence.
But what on this post-apocalyptic Earth is going on? Like other Broccoli franchises (Aquarian Age, Galaxy Angel, Di Gi Charat), this manga seems more like an excuse to sell related merchandise than actually tell an engaging story. The world that it's built upon is needlessly complex, with fancy terminology and a network of characters that mostly just confuse the issue. The plot twists gain most of their emotional effect from the fact that they've been used in every other sci-fi or fantasy epic before, thus triggering a cheap Pavlovian response among readers who like this kind of story. If anything, it mixes and matches appealing ideas—powerful spirits, warring factions, mystical abilities—to produce a totally unappealing result. Maybe that's why the characters all have that same vaguely angsty look, and why the backgrounds look like plastic props from someone else's second-rate action series. It's a dull creative vision that doesn't know where it's going, except maybe to the merchandise store.
RTO!! RATING: D
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"An ice-cold killer is on the loose, and brilliant Dr. Kenzo Tenma is the only one who can stop him! Conspiracies, serial murders, and a scathing indictment of hospital politics are all masterfully woven together in this compelling manga thriller.
Tenma's on the run! A wanted man, he's the prime suspect for the serial killings he's trying to stop. But he still manages to edge closer to the truth about Johan's mysterious past, and everything seems to point to a now defunct institution of East Berlin—an infamous 'experimental' orphanage called 511 Kinderheim!"
As always, Monster asks the big moral questions: how far can human compassion go? Find out when Dr. Tenma challenges his own principles to save the life of a terrorist. And how far can inhuman hatred go? This, too, is answered in a stark scene where Tenma learns about the orphanage where young killer Johan was raised. However, this isn't just a series that makes you think; it's also one that makes you feel, whether it be in the characters' rich facial expressions, or the expert pacing that knows exactly when to pull back for the big dramatic scene. Armed with little more than rectangular panels and a utilitarian art style, Urasawa controls the flow of the story at every turn. His attention to detail with names, places and backgrounds around Germany also provides a very concrete setting—it's almost like being there.
The sinister mood of the story loses its sharpness this time around, going for some saccharine "Touched By a Surgeon" tales instead of the hard-hitting plot that propelled the first two volumes. One top-notch operation, and suddenly everyone within 50 feet of Dr. Tenma is vowing to change their life for the better?... Come on, even Mother Teresa never had that kind of success rate. And while Tenma does pick up more clues in his search for Johan, there's also the overwhelming feeling that he's just puttering around in the German countryside until the next major twist. As for the lesser twists—those little coincidences that always seem to lead Tenma in the right direction—well, it's one thing to keep the story unified, but some of these pieces just fall into place way too conveniently.
RTO!! RATING: B+
(by Jin Kobayashi, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Harima Kenji has never lost a fight, but his love for the clueless Tsukamoto Tenma is proving to be his greatest challenge. After catching his cherished Tenma-chan and an unexpected rival in a lunchtime tryst, Kenji spirals into the deepest pit of high school Hades—plummeting so low that there's only one thing left to do: draw a manga. When Kenji hits bottom, whom will he find there? Meanwhile, Tenma is determined to learn how to cook—this time preferably without setting the house on fire!"
Although often lauded for its comedy, School Rumble also excels when it comes to action. Whether it's sports, fist-fighting, or straight-out slapstick, the series' vibrant action scenes are the perfect complement to its gag-a-minute pace. Highlights include an impromptu hockey game that could rival any top-tier sports manga, and a fantasy adventure sequence so hilariously overblown that it could only have been dreamed up by—well, you'll see. The story also expands its range in subject matter: no longer limited to just school situations, we see fresh comedy opportunities with Tenma in the kitchen, Harima at the manga publisher's office, and even a flashback of how the two first met. Storylines start to take shape, with Harima's descent into madness forming a main arc, but holding it all together is that wonderfully absurd sense of humor that only happens when all the characters are slightly (or completely) insane.
Trying to cram those jokes in as close as possible results in a crowded look for the page layouts, with speech bubbles and characters all battling for space. Scenes of everyday life suffer the most; sometimes the dialogue gets so dense that this manga becomes more textual than visual (until, of course, the inevitable sight gag). Bland supporting-character designs also muddle the story: apart from the distinctive appearances of Harima and Tenma, their schoolmates look despairingly bland. Straight, short-to-medium black hair seems to be the fashion statement of choice among the girls, while the boys settle for the standard helmet-head look. It's hard enough keeping the classmates' names straight, and now they all look alike? More distinctive personalities would help, too.
RTO!! RATING: B
(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Kimihiro Watanuki has a wish on layaway with Yûko Ishihara, the sultry time-space witch who can grant anyone's deepest desire . . . for a price! Still, working like a slave in Yûko's shop hasn't dampened Kimihiro's enthusiasm for his cute classmate Himawari-chan, nor his irritation with his too-cool rival Dômeki, the guy who always seems to be around during Kimihiro's most embarrassing moments.
But when Dômeki, trying to be a good samaritan, inadvertently becomes the object of a terrible grudge, Kimihiro seeks Yûko's help. However, the cost for her assistance is steep; Kimihiro would be permanently impaired! Is such a sacrifice worth it for someone he would rather have disappear?"
The further xxxHOLiC moves away from the Tsubasa crossover and the CLAMP in-jokes, the better it gets. The series functions best in its own dark world of spiritualism, and Volume 7 sees some strong developments between Watanuki and Dômeki. No, they don't finally give in to the overwhelming Boys' Love tension (much as we'd all wish); instead, a spider's curse leaves their lives irrevocably linked, reinforcing a prophecy from way back in Volume 1. Together they form the ideal comedy duo, with Watanuki's sarcastic jibes constantly rebuffed by Dômeki's aloofness. It's the mysterious atmosphere, however, that really makes the series attractive—a photograph hiding a terrible truth, an all-seeing eye, and a book that eats words are some of the chilling curiosities in this volume. The artwork's sinuous blend of Art Nouveau and Eastern design helps to accent the strangeness of this world, from stylishly exaggerated body proportions to magical effects and backgrounds.
By now, the cautionary tales and sinister morals of Yûko's wish-granting business are getting really old. Be careful what you wish for; everything has its price; an eye for an eye... shallow, old-time sayings like this define the series' philosophy, and it's annoying when it tries to sound deeper than it really is. Predictable plotting also dulls the ingenuity of the mysterious items; when the lady with the photograph shows up, it's obvious that she's going to get her comeuppance in a few chapters, just like all the other customers have previously. Even the main characters aren't immune to this formula—Watanuki and Dômeki, after doing their parts to counter the spider's curse, each have to take on some form of punishment. At least the punishments are permanent enough that they might have interesting repercussions in future installments.
RTO!! RATING: B
AMAZING AGENT LUNA
(by Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir and Shiei, Seven Seas, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Luna's undercover life as a high school student and her real life as a secret agent are about to collide. The principal is missing, the gym teacher is on the verge of discovering her secret, Oliver finds himself caught up in sinister doings, and the only one who knows what's really going on is the mysterious bad boy Jonah von Brucken. Will Luna sort out her two lives before they both come crumbling down?"
This volume opens with a flashback into Luna's childhood that sets a darker tone for things to come—and boy, does it deliver. As she comes closer to unraveling the plans of Count Von Brucken, Luna must deal with cruel biotech experiments, behind-the-scenes double-crosses, and worst of all, confused high school crushes. Teen drama plays out in a compelling way, with best friends, rivals, and bullies cast into a familiar but surprisingly addictive who-loves-who story arc. But don't worry, super-spy action gets into the story too: Luna's mission to save a kidnapped teacher is pure Bond-esque bliss, with explosive combat scenes and a last-minute save. In fact, quick pacing is the guiding principle throughout the series; cleanly spaced visuals and an anime-ready sense of character design make this a fun and fast read. The linework has a light, breezy touch, but not too much: after all, the art still has to be bold enough to pull off the fight scenes, which it does.
A simple and efficient style, however, makes it that much easier to spot little mistakes. The occasional skewed jawline or asymmetrical face throws off what is otherwise a fluid, confident style. Stronger tones and contrasts would also help to improve the visual impact. Meanwhile, the story itself suffers from an overload of cheesy genre elements—ninja guards, genetically enhanced attack owls, a badass female scientist—and that's not even looking at the school environment, which is a cliché paradise all its own. Even the big reveal at the end feels predictable, despite tightening the plot and promising more story momentum going into the next volume. That momentum would be a good thing, too—it's taken three volumes just to get things rolling. The fast visual pacing is fine, but the overall plot? A little kick in the pants would do it good.
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