RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Bye Bye Mr. Battousai

by Carlo Santos, Jun 27th 2006

In less than a week, Anime Expo will be upon us. Dealers are stocking their wares, artists are gearing up for the alley, cosplayers are putting the final touches to their costumes, and people are already lining up outside the Anaheim Convention Center for CLAMP. (Please, I really hope no one is doing that.) The Los Angeles Times has deemed it important enough to merit a 16-page insert section in their paper. Geez, when did this get to be such a big deal?

I'm gonna go play my new DS Lite now.


FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST
Vol. 8

(by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In an alchemical ritual gone wrong, Edward Elric lost his arm and his leg, and his brother Alphonse became nothing but a soul in a suit of armor. Equipped with mechanical "auto-mail" limbs, Edward becomes a state alchemist, seeking the one thing that can restore his brother and himself...the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
The raid on the Devil's Nest becomes a slaughter, as government troops—led by the Führer President himself, King Bradley—exterminate the half-human forces of the Homunculus Greed. But will Ed and Al survive the battle unchanged? As Greed is sent to meet his maker, foreign travelers arrive in Amestris, having crossed the great desert from the eastern country of Xing. Their names are Mei and Ling, and they've come for the Philosopher's Stone...and a secret even the Elric brothers never imagined..."

PROS:
Maintaining plot momentum is the name of the game here: the aftermath of Edward Elric's battle with Greed reveals a key event and a dark conspiracy, while military officers Roy and Riza encounter the once-scary, now-hilarious Barry the Chopper and get up to speed on Homunculus affairs. Meanwhile, the arrival of new characters from a thinly disguised parody of China culminates in a freewheeling battle where alchemists Ed and Al flaunt their skills against the martial arts. There's a lot going on, but it's kept afloat with a strong balance of humor, mystery, and classic derring-do. Minor characters returning from previous volumes also add cohesiveness. Artistically, the fight scenes continue to be the series' high point, but various chibi and gag illustrations also reveal a lighthearted side. Nothing says heroism like Ed skipping nervously into the sunset with his dismembered automail arm, while Winry chases him down angrily with her own idea of "maintenance." 

CONS:
With no big, galvanizing action event or deep emotional punch, this volume feels more like a transition between story arcs than anything else. The highlights are entertaining, but lack the epic quality that the series displays in its finest moments. In fact, even manga-ka Arakawa seems bored with having to do these filler-like chapters: in the fight scenes, there are maybe two or three jaw-dropping panels but a whole lot of ho-hum shounen-style battle everywhere else. Certainly it's still high quality, but it doesn't cross over from "good" to "great" the way a talented artist's work does when they're really enjoying it. Also, the bonus chapter—a prologue to the FMA video game—isn't much of a bonus, being just assorted vignettes that evidently make a lot more sense once you play the actual game.  

RTO!! RATING: B


GUNDAM SEED DESTINY
Vol. 1
(by Masatsugu Iwase, Hajime Yatate and Yoshiyuki Tomino, Del Rey, $10.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Year 71, Cosmic Era. After the terrible battle of Yakin Due, an uneasy peace holds between the Earth Alliance and the ZAFT Empire. But even as Cagalli and Athrun visit Chairman Dullindal to cement the cease-fire, ZAFT terrorists plot to drag both sides into an all-out war. The plan: storm ZAFT territory and steal several Gundam Mobile Suits. But that's only the beginning. The terrorists are also scheming to engineer a catastrophic event, one designed to drive the Earth down a bloody path. Now the crew of the Minerva must prevent disaster, as everything and everyone—including the love between Athrun and Cagalli—is in mortal danger."

PROS:
As the standard for space opera, Gundam can always be counted on for big, world-shattering events. How about an abandoned space colony being blown to bits, with fragments of it crashing unceremoniously to Earth? And believe it or not, that's a secondary plot point in the opening chapters, which focuses more on the ZAFT forces' face-to-face confrontation with the Gundam-swiping terrorists. Naturally, it happens in the middle of a diplomatic meeting as well, just to emphasize the crisis factor. Political rumblings keep the story moving when it's not in the thick of battle, and a fateful wedding later on promises new turns of plot. Visually, fans will appreciate the detailed machinery and dynamic poses, all classic traits of the Gundam look.

CONS:
As it turns out, however, jumping right into the action—in a sequel series, no less—isn't the best idea. People and place-names are referenced at a horrifically confusing rate, but even brushing up on the original Gundam Seed won't help when the Destiny manga itself is beyond help. In an effort to make events happen, the pacing comes off incredibly rushed and choppy, and the political talk, with its lack of context, seems urgent just for the sake of being urgent. But that's nowhere near as bad as the hackneyed displays of emotion, like Athrun and Cagalli's gag-inducing promises of love, or Cagalli's whiny cries of "Waaaaah" when she stresses out. Even the battle scenes, which are supposed to be the series' bread and butter, are poorly planned: bad panel layouts make it hard to see who's fighting who, and the Mobile Suits, to be honest, don't look very mobile. In fact, the artwork is so fundamentally flawed—stiff linework, ugly character designs, and a beginner's sense of visual flow—that it looks like something pretending to be manga. And that is just embarrassing.

RTO!! RATING: F


HOT GIMMICK

Vol. 11
(by Miki Aihara, Viz Media, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"It's official—Hatsumi and Ryoki are no longer a couple...kinda. To avoid seeing her bossy (and totally former) b-friend, Hatsumi agrees to hang out at hunky (and totally adopted) big bro Shinogu's place. Hatsumi's dad stops by to fill the kids in on the Machiavellian scheme he and Ryoki's father were embroiled in, but this only reinforces Shinogu's resolve to sever his familial ties to the Narita household—and to convince Hatsumi to see him as a man, not a big brother. Later Azusa gets more than an earful from an extremely unapologetic Mr. Tachibana, and Ryoki all but hooks up with another lovely lady...kinda."

PROS:                                   
The last chapter of this volume is maddening, exhilarating, and cathartic all at once—basically, it's Hot Gimmick in a nutshell. The rest of the book is just as intense: Hatsumi's emotional ride reaches new highs and lows, from her adopted brother's reckless confession to the sight of Ryoki in a literal breakdown. You'll scream and gnash your teeth as this cast of flawed characters continues to make stupid decisions, but admit it—this train wreck is too good to turn away from. Character motives are often spelled out in just a few lines of dialogue, or even better, no dialogue at all. Aihara controls the visual pace like few other manga-ka can; her vertically oriented layouts and smart use of angled panels create new ways to read the page. Most of all, the artwork puts strong emotions on display, and that's what the series is all about.

CONS:
As this soap opera reaches Wagnerian heights, the things we love about it are also the things we come to hate. Hatsumi's fickle spinelessness keeps the plot churning, but is anybody really this pathetic? In fact, most of the personalities are exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, and yet that's how the story manages to pack its emotional punch. Longtime readers may notice the character designs drifting away from the original models; Hatsumi seems to have lost weight, while side characters like little sister Akane and childhood friend Azusa look rusty from not having been drawn regularly. And, just as a matter of personal preference, I have to mark down any volume of Hot Gimmick that does not contain sufficient levels of cuteness between Akane and resident geek Subaru.

RTO!! RATING: A-


RUROUNI KENSHIN
Vol. 28

(by Nobuhiro Watsuki, Viz Media, $7.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"As the feared assassin of the Bakumatsu, Himura Kenshin killed in the name of the new era. As the rurouni of Meiji, he wielded a sakabatô to protect those who couldn't protect themselves, all along holding true to his vow to never take another life. Now Kenshin's fight with Enishi has entered its final stage, as has his quest for atonement. Will another life be required to complete the circle? The road of redemption has been a long one for the world-weary swordsman, but now that Kenshin has found the will to live, can he muster the strength to survive?"

PROS:
The final volume of this series opens with a rousing battle between noble Kenshin and vengeful Enishi, sword techniques ablaze and honor on the line. It's a fitting finish that brings the adventure full circle: Kenshin coming to terms with the darkest moment of his past, personified in an opponent who's been living for this one chance at revenge. No prizes for guessing who wins, but it is nonetheless heroic and satisfying, drawn with bold lines and pulling off a few surprise turnarounds before the end. From there it's a series of farewells to the series' supporting characters, and a final chapter that uses the "some years later" device to heartwarming effect. Appealing artwork also helps: characters are cleanly rendered, the paneling reads at a brisk pace. This volume brings the action, brings the emotion, and brings it all to a close.

CONS:
Still, this ending is not as stirring as it could have been. The last few volumes combined form a climactic arc, but Vol. 28 by itself features only the "final boss battle" and the resulting tie-up of loose ends. Ultimately, it loses its energy too soon, and the last few chapters—with all their farewells—seem to be playing for time until the series is completely over. Even Watsuki himself admits in his freetalk sections that he's a conventional storyteller, and seeing Kenshin's friends ride off into the sunset is just about the most predictable way to pull one's heartstrings. The final chapter tries to inject some energy back in with one final duel, but by then it's clear that the series isn't going out with a bang, but with a simple, wistful sigh.

RTO!! RATING: B


SHONAN JUNAI GUMI (GTO: THE EARLY YEARS)

Vol. 1
(by Tohru Fujisawa, Tokyopop, $12.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Before Eikichi Onizuka would become the Greatest Teacher in the World, he and Ryuji Danma were members of the infamous biker gang, Oni Baku. When not out riding around and getting into trouble, this duo could be found in school, trying to pick up young women! Hey, Onizuka had to start somewhere!"

PROS:
This is the stuff that Cromartie High School makes fun of—but as it turns out, a straight-up tough guy adventure can stand on its own merits, too. Eikichi and Ryuji's quest to get laid sets up plenty of opportunities for fun lowbrow comedy, whether it be Eikichi's pompadour getting stuck in the train doors or almost being violated by a gay wrestler. It's not that they just fail at getting girls, but that they fail so spectacularly. Of course, being hooligans, they get into their fair share of fights too, and a brutal battle against a cheating street fighter is one of the most gripping arcs in this volume. These guys may be lowlifes, but they've got their honor, and that's what makes them appealing. Eventually, a few girls do warm up to our boys, but for them to remain lovable trash-talking losers, it's only natural that they never consummate their feelings. Oh, and at almost 400 pages for $13, it's hard to turn down a deal like this.

CONS:
For most readers, their first impression will be how old this series looks. Having first come out in 1990, Shonan Junai Gumi brings with it a quaintly embarrassing post-80's hangover: big dorky hairstyles, outdated youth trends, and rough-edged character designs. It's almost like reliving Kimagure Orange Road, but more crass and raunchy. Speaking of which, watch out for the cuss words and genitalia jokes—this isn't the kind of manga you'd recommend to the school library. More troublesome, however, is how the story quickly dissolves into a maudlin double love triangle when the main female characters start falling for Eikichi and Ryuji. It was funny when the guys were getting rejected or getting into fights, but once romance steps into the picture, the plot weakens into a weepy drama of who's upset over whom. Less angst, more violence, please.

RTO!! RATING: C+



NASU

Vol. 1
(by Iou Kuroda, Kodansha, ¥550)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Nasu is a selection of short stories with a common theme: eggplants!
An odd runaway couple stays in the house of a mysterious farmer who grows eggplants! 'San-nin (Three People)' is a story about the young couple's wild and reckless life.
Pepe Bemengeli is competing in the Spanish cycling race, Vuelta Espana. 'Andalusia no Natsu (Summer in Andalusia)' is a story about this racer who aims for victory on the day his former girlfriend marries his older brother.
A young couple rejects the principles of work, love and marriage and decide to play catch by the riverside. This episode, titled 'Lunchbox,' has gained wide acceptance among young people who dream of living like retired people.
The only common thread linking the eight stories is the eggplant. The author fully takes advantage of the potential of manga that has no storyline limit and can move with surprising flexibility from romance to action."

PROS:
Like Iou Kuroda's only licensed work, Sexy Voice and Robo, Nasu takes a sideways glimpse at the unusual lives of unusual people. These short stories wind through their daily routines, sometimes with no apparent goal, but still reveal a variety of characters. The eggplant farmer who appears in multiple stories is perhaps the most enigmatic, but makes his philosophy clear in a later story, "Four People," when asked why he lives so simply. The cyclist in "The Summer in Andalusia" is more understandable, with his competitive nature, but the story's real highlight is in its masterful blend of a cycle race and a wedding—two events that wouldn't normally go together. "Andalusia" also showcases Kuroda's fearless art skills, bringing to life the energy of the race and the contrasting idyll of the Spanish countryside. But of course, this artistic flair extends to all the stories, especially with layouts that expand and contract effortlessly to control the pace.

CONS:
As with all short story collections, the level of appeal varies with each chapter, and Kuroda occasionally stumbles. "Lunchbox" may seem the most accessible, being a story of slacker youths, but it descends too easily into the faux-cute navel-gazing that makes most other alternative comics intolerable. Scene transitions also take a hit from the constrained format: some time-jumps and flashbacks happen too abruptly, a conscious sign of trying to fit within a page limit. But this isn't the only source of confusion—characters sometimes act with inexplicable motives, doing things with no connection to events before or after. Well, that's what happens when you deal with unusual people. Nasu has its moments of beauty, but they don't always string together coherently.


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