RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Freshly Baked

by Carlo Santos, Aug 22nd 2006

Here's my deal with summer weather and wildlife: when I park my car and crack the window open slightly, it's to let the air circulate. It is NOT an invitation for spiders to pop in from the nearest tree, take residence on the steering wheel, and crawl up my arm and scare the hell out of me so that I nearly crash at a leisurely speed down a side street. Honestly, whatever happened to just building webs in the garden and eating other bugs? That's cute. Creeping into people's cars? No.


ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO
(by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Abandon the Old in Tokyo is the second in a three-volume series that collects the short stories of Japanese cartooning legend Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Designed and edited by Adrian Tomine, the first volume, The Push Man and Other Stories, debuted to much critical acclaim and rightfully placed Tatsumi as a legendary precursor to the North American graphic novel movement. Abandon the Old in Tokyo continues to delve into the urban underbelly of 1960s Tokyo, exposing not only the seedy dealings of the Japanese everyman but Tatsumi's maturation as a storywriter."  

PROS:
What a difference a page limit makes. No longer confined to the 8-page quickies of his Push Man period, Tatsumi shows greater depth and variety in the second collection of his works, this time dating from 1970. Once again, the quiet desperation of working-class Japan is a powerful and unifying theme: a frazzled illustrator turning from children's books to porn, a window-washer troubled by his daughter's promiscuity, a disgraced company president trying to settle his debts, and others. Tatsumi packs strong emotions into a restrained style, letting the taciturn characters speak with their actions. Really, there are no words for scenes like a man carrying his mother's corpse through the city, or a moment of bestiality that's both depraved yet pitiful. Simple layouts allow each story to unfold freely, and detailed industrial backgrounds add a strong sense of time and place. Although quiet in their execution, these stories speak volumes about the trials of modern life.  

CONS:
What is it about Tatsumi's endings? Many of the stories in this volume build up beautifully through the exposition and development, only to fizzle on the last page. Maybe it's some kind of gekiga thing, some artsy slice-of-life thing, but maybe it's just an inability to close out the plot solidly. Repetitive character design is also a problem once again, with "everyman" showing up in different chapters and appearing to be the same character when he really isn't. (To Tatsumi's credit, he does manage more variety than in Push Man, especially with the illustrator, the disgraced company president, and various supporting characters.) The uniformly dour mood might also be a drawback for some readers—don't read this when you're having a bad day, because it'll probably just make it worse.

RTO!! RATING:  B+


NARUTO
Vol. 11
(by Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, $7.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Naruto is a ninja-in-training with an incorrigible knack for mischief. His antics amuse his teammates, intense Sasuke and witty Sakura, but Naruto is serious about becoming the greatest ninja in his village!
Now preparing for the finals of the Chûnin Selection Exams, Naruto studies with naughty new mentor Jiraiya and struggles to harness the power of the Nine-Tailed Fox chakra locked within him. Meanwhile, other ninja villages are forming secret alliances against the Konohagakure..."

PROS:
It may seem odd to think of Naruto as a touching series, but Volume 11 has this one utterly tear-jerking moment when Rock Lee, injured beyond all hope, is doing one-handed push-ups in a desperate effort to regain his strength. You know he's got no chance, but he still keeps doing it ... it's scenes like these that make even the most hardened action fan break down. Almost as powerful is a chilling scene where Gaara describes his grim childhood and nihilistic attitude to life. Somehow, the stars of the previous volume have stolen the show yet again, this time with emotion instead of action. The title character still gets into some entertaining scrapes, though—Naruto's training yields plenty of comical banter from Jiraiya ("I am no ordinary pervert! I am... a mega-perv!") and a breathtaking action sequence once he finally gets the hang of his chakra. Kishimoto's background work is what really makes the art stand out—whether it's the technique of summoning giant toads or a Hokage Mt. Rushmore carved into the village mountainside, the world of Naruto is realized down to the littlest detail.

CONS:
Political maneuvering, even in a colorful fantasy world of ninjas, is boring. You can't go twenty pages in this volume without running into some scene where the village elders or spies are planning their next ultra-secret move and commenting on the state of the ninja union. Come on, this isn't the reason people read Naruto—and it certainly isn't what Masashi Kishimoto is best at. He should be out there drawing insane multi-chapter fight scenes, each attack more powerful than the last, but no; instead, we're stuck with a weak attempt at political intrigue and a decided lack of insane fight scenes. Kishimoto also has this habit of constantly slipping into short flashbacks—a useful device to fill out necessary plot elements, but not when it keeps interrupting the flow of the story. Sure, it's still a good story, but the execution in this volume isn't as effective as it could be.

RTO!! RATING: C


PEACH GIRL: SAE'S STORY

Vol. 1
(by Miwa Ueda, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The long-awaited spin-off to the bestselling Peach Girl series has finally arrived—and now Sae is the star!
Kiley and Momo are attending university together and are finally happy...but Sae has been left behind after failing her last year of high school—she should have attended class a bit more! Follow Sae's adventures as she reunites with a childhood love and deals with high school life once again."

PROS:
Miwa Ueda has given herself a unique challenge by putting an unlikable girl in the lead role, but after 18 volumes of the original Peach Girl, she definitely knows her characters well enough to make it work. Sae is irresponsible, selfish, and rude—but, as we find out in Chapter 2, also deeply vulnerable. It seems that the arrival of her childhood friend Kanji has brought up parts of her past that she'd rather avoid. Conflicts and contrasts are the theme of this volume, driving the romantic drama on multiple levels: Sae's brash exterior versus her inner insecurities; loyal and scrappy Kanji versus nonchalant glamour boy Takuma; the college "image" versus campus reality. Ueda draws with a clean line and a straightforward sense of layout, making this an easy read even for the shoujo-averse. It doesn't take too long to get into the story and find yourself caught up in the lives of these flawed but fascinating characters.

CONS:
And just as soon as the story really gets rolling, it stops. The final third of the volume is a recap of the early Peach Girl story arcs from Sae's point of view, and while it's engaging in its own right, it also kills the momentum of the series. Not such a great idea when it's still only Volume 1! As for the main part of the series, the characterization tends to be exaggerated for dramatic effect, relying on quick and easy stereotypes to get various situations going. It's almost too easy to imagine dotted lines and indicator labels pointing to the bad girl, the good girl, the crazy guy, the cool guy, and so on. Oddly enough, the paneling has this prefabricated feel as well—it's easy to read, yes, but so dependent on little rectangles and blocks of dialogue that it seems like an awkward attempt to fit major plot points within page limits.

RTO!! RATING: B-


SUZUKA
Vol. 1

(by Kouji Seo, Del Rey, $13.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Yamato is ready for a fresh start. So when his aunt invites him to stay rent-free in her big-city boardinghouse in hustling, bustling Tokyo, Yamato jumps at the chance. There's just one teensy-weensy catch: It's an all-girl housing complex and spa! Things get even more nerve-racking when Yamato meets his neighbor Suzuka, a beautiful track-and-field star. She's not just the cutest girl Yamato's ever met, she's also the coolest, the smartest, and the most intimidating. Can an ordinary guy like Yamato ever hope to win over a girl like Suzuka?"

PROS:
Can an ordinary manga like Suzuka ever hope to win over a reader like me? The harem setup should raise a few skeptical eyebrows, but Seo handles the story with grace, staying focused on Yamato's budding relationship with Suzuka. The scene at the shrine is the highlight of this volume, using idyllic backgrounds and gentle pacing to create a mood that's sentimental but not cloying. Almost as good is the high jump training scene where Yamato literally raises the bar for Suzuka—in just one sequence, we see the feelings begin to develop between them, without a single canned phrase or cheesy visual cue. The elegance of the sport is not lost on Seo, who renders Suzuka's jumps as split-second flashes of artistry, but also takes the time to put the details into scenes of everyday life—the dinner table, the town, the school. New characters are introduced chapter by chapter, providing a gradual expansion of Yamato's world—and before you know it, you're right in there with him, hoping that he gets the girl.

CONS:
It's just impossible for a young Japanese male to move into an all-women's bathhouse without falling victim to trashy fanservice antics. Volume 1 is not complete without Yamato getting a faceful of panties, a faceful of breasts, and assorted peeks at female body parts that he shouldn't be peeking at. It actually feels like an awkward gimmick to make the series sell, since the story obviously works much better as a thoughtful romance. But what also makes it less than enjoyable is that some characters are downright irritating, including perverted best friend Hattori and the two college girls who keep invading Yamato's room. It's not a good sign when the comic relief turns out to be more annoying than comical. Suzuka's fickle temper and Yamato's whiny attitude also come off as grating, although nostalgic fans might see shades of Kyosuke Kasuga and Madoka Ayukawa (still the best couple of any shounen romance ever).

RTO!! RATING: B-


YAKITATE!! JAPAN

Vol. 1
(by Takashi Hashiguchi, Viz Media, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"England. France. Germany. What common thread binds these three nations together? Answer: each is famous for producing unique, distinctive, delicious bread. But what of the island nation of Japan, home to rice and delicacies of the sea? Is there not a doughy, gastronomic delight they can claim as their own? The answer is no...until now! Kazuma Azuma, a 16-year-old boy blessed with otherworldly baking powers, has taken it upon himself to create Ja-pan, the national bread of the land of the rising sun!
The stakes are high and the competition is fierce, but Kazuma won't let anything prevent him from achieving his nation-changing, freshly baked goal. Relocating to Tokyo, Kazuma seeks to further his studies at Pantasia, a famous bakery chain. But will he rise to the challenge and pass the entrance examination, or will his best intentions fall flat?"

PROS:
If the first volume of Yakitate!! Japan doesn't make your mouth water, you might want to get your taste buds checked. An unabashed passion for bread fills every page of this volume, from the thoroughly researched background information, to the captivating baking sequences, to end products so lusciously drawn that you'll want to dash out to the nearest bakery. Kazuma's infectious confidence seems to be a reflection of manga-ka Hashiguchi himself, who shows no fear in drawing whatever he needs to make the story fun—distinctive characters, detailed backgrounds and baked goods, and spot-on visual gags (check out the random Indian guy in Chapter 3). When he delves into exaggerated, fist-pumping shounen action and dialogue, it's a knowing wink to the reader that we all love this genre even if it's totally ridiculous—and we laugh along with him because he does it so well. A tasty premise and a quest to be the best: together, these ingredients form the beginnings of a very promising series.

CONS:
Maybe, if you really want to be nitpicky, you could say that the series is hopelessly confined to the shounen mold of training to be the best. (Never mind that it's already doing fantastic things within that mold.) And that the dialogue scenes aren't quite as entertaining as Kazuma's baking rampages and the comedy material. (Never mind that those scenes advance the story.) And maybe the tone of the story is too wacky and juvenile—but that's just a matter of taste. If the manga actually has any weaknesses, well, they're completely overshadowed by everything that it does right.

RTO!! RATING: A


ZYWORD
Vol. 1  
(by Tamayo Akiyama, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:  
"Welcome to Zyword, a world filled with sorcery. When Zyword's Araimel Kingdom is put under a spell, it's up to the two sole survivors to save the citizens before they perish in an eternal sleep!"  

PROS:  
With all of CLAMP's major titles licensed, it's time to go after their alumni. Akiyama's epic hews close to the fantasy works of her famous friends, typified by majestic otherworlds, remarkable characters, and stylish battles. Spacious paneling and brief dialogue make this a fast-paced, action-packed read, but with enough detail to explain how sorcery and politics work in Zyword. It's the religious system, however, that pushes the series to another level: heroine Luna has been "blessed" by the goddesses that created Zyword, but these same goddesses are fickle, cruel, and out to destroy her. An extensive flashback near the end of the volume fleshes out the unusual conflict between Luna and the goddesses, as well as establishing her childhood background. Fantasy fans can look forward to a story with solid foundations and some intriguing ideas about spiritualism.  

CONS:  
Ultimately, Volume 1 doesn't follow through with those ideas—it's more concerned with flashy magical fights than exploring why Luna's blessing is so dangerous, thus dooming the story to strictly average fantasy fodder. Akiyama is a slave to the conventions of the genre, from ridiculous names (Araimel? Deke?) to preposterous melodrama to a magic system straight out of a collectible card game (colored balls. No kidding). Is it possible to take someone seriously as she marvels at the destructive power of a magical gold ball? Didn't think so. Some of the battles also venture too far into stylization, looking like messes of random pretty lines instead of actual spellcasting between combatants. It's the exact same problem CLAMP had in their early works, showing that the stylistic influence on Akiyama encompasses both the good and the bad.

RTO!! RATING: C-



SHOKUGYOU TENSHI (OCCUPATION: ANGEL)

(by Touko Fujikawa, Biblos, ¥630)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"A collection of four touching supernatural short stories. Chapter one deals with a man born a Midori, a race of humans who turn into trees when they die. Can the man overcome the obstacles facing his race and live a normal life? Chapter two tells the tale of a young boy who lives in a land of magic. But his first spellbook turns into a pixie when he opens it! Chapter three is about a young boy forced to abandon his cat when he moves. Upon returning years later, the boy finds himself transported to a strange land full of... cats? The final story is about a boy who, in exchange for getting off having to pay a speeding fine, agrees to take an experimental drug. The next morning he wakes up with white wings, wings that only seem to get larger every time he does something wrong!"

PROS:
"Open this book when you want to cry a little bit," says the oddly poetic tagline on the cover. It's no joke, either—every story in this one-volume collection is deeply moving, a perfect balance of tragedy and hope. To achieve this depth, Fujikawa treats the supernatural element in a down-to-earth way, as if breathing life into plants or studying magic spells were just like being a talented gardener or studying algebra. The result is an emotional exploration of how people are affected by these magical traits, rather than focusing on the traits themselves. The artwork is simple but expressive, displaying a full range of emotions with techniques as simple as a curl of the lip or a twitch of the eyes. Sparse, simple layouts move each story along briskly, but Fujikawa can still put on the brakes with a single wordless picture or even a blank space. Even if these tales don't actually make you "cry a little bit," they'll certainly make you stop and think ... and feel.

CONS:
With Biblos going under in the past year, the chances of seeing this licensed are near zero, and even finding it on a Japanese bookstore shelf might be a stretch. It's just an unfortunate consequence of real-world business that something so good is so hard to come by. Commerce aside, the manga itself does have some flaws too. The winged-boy story (from which the volume gets its name) feels more ragged than the first three, stumbling towards its conclusion rather than gliding down a well-defined path. Meanwhile, the three other stories all rely on the same key idea—some form of death or loss. Each one treats it very differently, of course, but as an emotionally powerful theme, it loses some impact when it's used three times in a row.


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