RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Ode to Nodame

by Carlo Santos, Oct 31st 2006


I've got nothing but love for the new Nodame Cantabile live-action series. The spirit of the manga is in full force here: screwball comedy (complete with special effects for emphasis), convincingly performed music, and casting that's absolutely spot-on. It's like they took Ninomiya's drawings right off the page and breathed life into them. Leading the way with kookiness and gyabo is Juri Ueno as Nodame—an utterly unique character, and she gets it right.

noda.




AIR GEAR

Vol. 2
(by Oh! great, Del Rey, $10.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When his new Air Treck skates need maintenance, Itsuki Minami takes them to a local sports shop, where he finally meets Simca Noyamano, the mysterious and very sexy girl he's had his eye on. Ringo and the Sleeping Forest may not like it, but Itsuki develops a fast and furious crush on the elusive Simca. Too bad she has fierce enemies in high places—landing Itsuki in big trouble! On top of that, his skates are almost demolished and nobody will lend money to a jobless scrub. But when Itsuki hears about a dangerous contest with some incredible prizes, he jumps headfirst into a battle unlike any he's ever faced before!"

PROS:
With the novelty of flying skates wearing off, the second volume of Air Gear faces a new challenge: How to keep things interesting? The answer is action, action, action. Itsuki's battle against the Rez Boa Dogs gang is the centerpiece of this volume, with intense camera angles and superhuman moves that keep the energy at fever pitch. Just when you think you've seen the limits of insane Air Treck action, here comes the Rez Boa leader (with the world's longest pompadour) stopping a truck with his bare hands, or Itsuki riding the third rail of a train to get an electric power boost. With obsessively detailed art and speed lines galore, it's a feast of glorious excess: excessive speed, excessive altitude, excessive willpower, and yes, excessively hot girls. (Simca may be the one who puts out, but Ringo wins with the power of glasses.)

CONS:
In between the action, action, action is a whole lot of boring, boring, boring. Take the chapter right after the Rez Boa arc, for example—Itsuki basically wanders around town looking for money. This kind of wimpy epilogue is not what one expects for a guy who's just broken several laws of physics and biology. Worse yet is when Oh! great tries to build the relationships between Itsuki and his female friends—the dialogue between him and Simca at the sports shop is an embarrassment, and it doesn't get much better when Ringo and Mikan show up and basically stand around as cheerleaders. So much for "strong female characters"; it's a boys' world after all—a boys' world where fighting tougher and tougher foes with your burning passion is all it takes to win. Sounds a bit too much like everything else that's come before.

RTO!! RATING: C



KINGDOM HEARTS: CHAIN OF MEMORIES

Vol. 1
(by Shiro Amano, Tokyopop, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The door to Kingdom Hearts was sealed, dealing a blow to the heartless and restoring the worlds to normal, but Riku and King Mickey were trapped inside! Now Sora, Donald and Goofy's search for their friends leads them to the mysterious Castle Oblivion, where a hooded figure tells them, 'Ahead lies something you need, but to claim it, you must lose something dear.' But what could be more dear than one's own memories?"

PROS:
You've played the video game, now read the manga! This sequel to the original Kingdom Hearts is easy to get into, with its bold, friendly artwork and simple premise. How do you create a new quest for a hero who's just finished the whole game and gotten to Level 99? Erase his memory and make him start from zero all over again. A clever move, and one that allows our heroes to re-visit the worlds of Kingdom Hearts from a different perspective—everything looks familiar, but nobody can remember what they did back then. The introduction of Riku's storyline also adds substance, showing how things are going on "the other side of the door," and a revisionist re-enactment of Aladdin in the final two chapters should amuse gamers and Disney lovers alike. Few memories are as powerful as the sentimental attachment of fans to a franchise.

CONS:
Nothing encourages lazy storytelling quite like a spin-off manga based on a video game sequel. This series doesn't bother with world-building because the other related media have already done the job. Witness the bland interiors of Castle Oblivion, the cute but stylistically neutral character art, and the Aladdin arc that swipes entire scenes from the original movie—hey, why should artists bother using imagination when they can borrow everyone else's? Besides, Sora's quest doesn't feel all that compelling because he's obviously just going to wander from world to world having fuzzy discussions about hearts and keys and darkness and light and King Mickey. Doesn't sound very ... adventurous, does it? This is, at best, supplemental material to the games. If you're that much into Kingdom Hearts and want to see it in a different way, this is worth checking out. As a stand-alone adventure, though, it's not much fun at all.

RTO!! RATING: D+



NODAME CANTABILE

Vol. 7
(by Tomoko Ninomiya, Del Rey, $10.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Shinichi Chiaki has always wanted to conduct his own group of musicians. Now, with the Rising Star Orchestra, his dream is becoming a reality. But there are many challenges to overcome: delayed rehearsals, too many soloists vying for the spotlight, and arguments over what piece of music they should play. Meanwhile, Nodame has troubles of her own. Etoh-sensei is trying to give her piano lessons, but she wants nothing to do with him! Nodame would much rather be helping her friend Shinichi—now that a grand hall has been reserved for the Rising Star Orchestra's big debut ... and Shinichi must prepare for the biggest show of his life!"

PROS:
This is about as close to a shounen-esque "training arc" as Nodame Cantabile gets—and even then, it manages to weave in many other layers of plot. Nodame's teacher-switch is both a source of comedy and self-discovery; a national competition almost derails the new orchestra (clearly, there is such a thing as too much talent); an unrequited love blossoms and withers ... all within the space of one volume. For the first time, too, we see Chiaki break down, and even the top orchestra members creak under pressure. Manga-ka Ninomiya is still on top of it all, however, blending these disparate storylines into a single effective arc. No jarring leaps between viewpoints here—it's more like a smooth gliding motion from one character to another. Sinuous, free-flowing artwork helps too, as Ninomiya grows ever more confident in drawing people, instruments, and emotions. Classical fans will also be happy to see the soundtrack extending beyond "greatest hits" repertoire; the main pieces in this volume are a Mozart oboe concerto and Brahms' 1st symphony.

CONS:
In the end, a training arc is still just a training arc. Lacking a true dramatic climax like the Rachmaninoff performance in Volume 5 or the graduation in Volume 6, this one is more about taking the story in a new direction... and then not actually arriving at the destination. (That's what Volume 8 is for, apparently.) With Nodame and Chiaki spending most of their time apart, the sparks of comedy and romance between them are markedly absent. Sure, their characters still develop in other ways, but it's a shame to see the opposites-attraction taking a back seat for the next several chapters. Look forward to the next installment, as this one is, at best, a transitional volume.

RTO!! RATING: B+



ODE TO KIRIHITO

(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $24.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"It may or may not be contagious. There seems to be no cure for it. Yet, Monmow Disease, a life-threatening condition that transforms a person into a dog-like beast, is not the only villain in this shocking triumph of a medical thriller by manga-god Osamu Tezuka. Said to have been the personal favorite of the artist, who held a degree in medicine, and surprisingly attentive to Christian themes and imagery, Ode to Kirihito demolishes naïve notions about human nature and health and likely pre-conceptions about the comics master himself."

PROS:
In order to reaffirm the value of humanity, Osamu Tezuka walks through its most abominable depths—and comes out with a saga of desperation, rage and redemption. When a doctor studying Monmow Disease becomes his own case study, life's big questions soon emerge: what makes us human, our capacity for good and evil, and how we connect with others. Fortunately, an ambitious plot keeps this from turning into a philosophy text; interwoven storylines and gripping characters maintain the suspense for an entire 800-plus pages. Prepare to be moved by scenes of depravity (dead babies), chaos (the madness of Dr. Urabe) and, when it's all over, unspeakable beauty. This is real classic manga right here, all emotions at 100%, plot running at full speed, because if anyone so much as slows down for filler, people are going to die. Wide-ranging art also proves that Tezuka is more than just the Astro Boy guy; rich backgrounds, flashes of abstraction and perfectly paced layouts show complete artistic control. It's like, you think you know what good manga is, and then this shows up. Wow.

CONS:
What is this crazy talk? One does not speak of Tezuka's weaknesses. There aren't any. Maybe just personal influences and matters of taste—Kirihito lies very much within the trappings of action-adventure, because that's what the old master was familiar with in his most well-known works. All the country-hopping (Japan, Taiwan, South Africa, Syria) is a bit outlandish, and because of its plot-driven nature, it takes time for things to pick up. But that's just the way it works. On the translation side, the Anglicization of the Monmow village (Inukamizawa) into "Doggoddale" feels odd—but really, don't let silly nitpicks get in the way of enjoying a fantastic story.

RTO!! RATING: A



R.O.D.: READ OR DREAM

Vol. 1
(by Hideyuki Kurata and Ran Ayanaga, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Michelle is a romantic daydreamer and hardcore book collector. Maggie is a soft-spoken bookworm who always gets mistaken for a boy. Anita is a tomboy who doesn't have time for reading. Together, they're the Paper Sisters, three very different siblings united by a strange power—the ability to control paper in any way they desire! And from their Hong Kong detective agency, they solve any and all cases involving books!
In this volume, the sisters check out books from a secret library, use the power of literature to save the planet from an alien attack, and finally organize their massive book collection. There's never a dull moment at Paper Sisters Detective Company!"

PROS:
If the spy-thriller action of Read or Die was too much for you, then the gentleness of this series should be just about right. True to its title, Read or Dream is mostly about quirky flights of the imagination. Paper manipulation is still part of the series, but the focus is really on the joy of books (and the crushing poverty of a literature/humanities career). The heart of this volume lies in a two-part story where Maggie makes friends with a sick girl; this touching episode shows the true power of books better than any paper-slinging showdown. But lest this turn into a local library Public Service Announcement, let's not forget the bouts of comedy when the girls run out of food or try to get their books organized. Ayanaga's simple linework and clean layouts make this an easygoing volume, but with enough papercraft action too—check out Michelle's stunning paper archery and Maggie's masterful origami.

CONS:
After having done a four-volume serial on the original R.O.D., writer Kurata seems a little awkward with this episodic short story format. His ideas often approach the realms of cute, touching or enchanting, but the execution is bland—almost like a creative writing exercise. Chapter 1, for example, is about two lovers brought together by a book ... in the cheesiest way possible. The phantom library chapter would feel more magical were it not an idea that's been recycled from dozens of supernatural stories. And the less said about the alien chapter, the better—well-intentioned, but another victim of genre cliché. Even the sick girl story teeters ominously on the edge of schmaltz (and some might say it falls right in, terminal illness and all). Let's hope that, by Volume 2, the quality of the writing eventually catches up with the coolness of telekinetic papercraft.

RTO!! RATING: B-





DRAMACON

Vol. 2
(by Svetlana Chmakova, Tokyopop, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"It's Christie's second year at the Yatta Anime convention—and the drama continues to heat up. With her new partner-in-crime, a.k.a. artiste extraordinaire Bethany, she is again promoting her comic. Matt is also back in town, but to Christie's shock, he came with a girlfriend! Now, not only does Christie have to fend off close-minded manga fans, she also has to try to keep her heart clear of Matt. But in the twilight that separates friendship from something more, things often get a little complicated...and at a convention, anything is possible."

PROS:
Dear Japanomaniacs: you're all a bunch of annoying idiots, or at least certain constituents thereof. With Dramacon's lead character having lost that newbie shine, her second con experience is darker and snarkier, with arrows of satirical commentary being fired at all fandom targets within range. Serial glompers, cosplay haters, Artist Alley jerks, "not real manga" purists—YOU'RE ON NOTICE. But far from being a 180-page rant, this volume also offers sharp dialogue, observational comedy ("most useless convention center map evar" [sic]) and career advice, with young artist Bethany learning life lessons that no How To Draw book will ever teach. As usual, Chamkova's pop-cultural awareness shines through, capturing the spirit of a North American con right down to background cosplayers and booth displays. And when she's not drawing cat ears and ninja headbands, it's the cute visual gags and strong displays of emotion that show her artistic confidence. Every panel, every page, is filled with the energy of someone who truly loves what she does.

CONS:
The con's here, but who forgot to bring the drama? Unlike the first volume, which took a serious turn later on, this one lacks a galvanizing event that brings the plot together. Matt still shows up, yes, but his situation with Christie is more of a side-story competing with other side-stories for playing time. If anything, the Bethany arc is given just as much importance, and of course in between everything else is the satirical commentary aspect, trying to get all the jokes in. This volume is clearly more expressive and personal—Chmakova engaging her readers on the fate of the artist and the state of the fandom—but because of that, it turns into a rambling work that's lost sight of the big picture. Will Christie ever get her feelings sorted out? That's a question for the next volume, because this one didn't sort out much of anything.

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