Seven anime Christmas favorites to watch with a cup of hot cocoa.
RIGHT TURN ONLY!! One Year Later
by Carlo Santos, Jan 23rd 2007
It was one year later.
January, 2008. Carlo Santos, former manga columnist for Anime News Network, found himself clutching to the last remnants of his once-comfortable life. The last twelve months had been a harrowing maelstrom of death, murder, death, death, sexual assault and death, all woven into a series of plot revelations so convoluted that even his old college textbooks could not save him now. (They had never been that useful in the first place anyway.) Stumbling through a nameless, faceless strip mall, his only solace in the world was a sign in the bookstore window, one that reminded him of joyful days past:
"Manga sale, buy 3, get 4th free."
Well, let's get back to the present, shall we?
(by Jun Maeda and Rei Idumi, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Some of our most cherished manga characters are blessed with magical powers. Others have an extraordinary combination of superhuman strength and cunning intellect. But Hibiki? Her only real skill seems to be making a pot of delicious tea... or is it?! This heartwarming fantasy story will have you believing in the power of Hibiki's Magic!"
It's easy to scoff at this and say, "Ugh, not another fantasy magic-user series"—but what a uniquely touching series it is. This is Someday's Dreamers with more guts and heart, unafraid to tackle the real emotional issues that come with great power and great responsibility. Just look at the "Magic of Life" story, which uses the idea of a homunculus to bring up thoughts on motherhood, child-rearing and letting go, or "The Magic of Healing," which looks into the psyche of a young man who couldn't save his childhood friend. Even the little side story at the end about Hibiki's mentor is awash in poignancy—how many times can you fall in love with the same person if you keep losing your memory? Other tales of magic focus on how cool and different magicians are, but this one turns the camera around and shows how they're so much like us, weaknesses and all.
Despite the series' good intentions, splashes of forced sentimentality are inevitable. After all, this is all about coping with personal tragedy, so be prepared for lots of goopy crying moments and grand expressions of unconditional love. If you can't handle emotional openness at that level, feel free to walk away. Visual elements are also lacking; the style is cute and neatly drawn, but based way too much on Every Other Fantasy Series, whether borrowing from role-playing video games or ripping off Hogwarts' magic robes and school logo. If J.K. Rowling were a more litigious person, we might have a problem. In fact, the "school of magic" aspect is one theme that could be developed some more, since it doesn't go much beyond saying "Obsessing over theory is bad; magic should be used to help people." Yes, and? Tell us more! It's an intriguing idea, but one that gets lost in all the melodrama.
RTO!! RATING: B+
(by Ken Akamatsu, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"At the Mahora Academy Festival, the Budôkai Martial Arts Tournament is well under way—and it seems that all participants have something to hide. What has awakened inside Asuna during the battle with Setsuna? Everyone remains in the dark about the true identity of the curious 'Ku:nel Sanders'—except Evangeline, a vampire who, not surprisingly, loves the dark. But how exactly did she become a bloodsucker? As for Setsuna, how deeply conflicted is this member of the 'Bird Tribe'? Will she be able to defeat her own worst enemy—herself?"
Somewhere along the way, this series turned into Mahou Sensei Naruto—and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Akamatsu happily fills each page with fight after epic fight, culminating in a clash so brutal it has to be fought in an alternate reality. If it's eye candy you want, though, check out the battle between Setsuna and Asuna (and no, I'm not talking about the maid outfits); the graceful spins and flips make it more like high-speed choreography than combat. But deeper plot revelations also await: shades of Asuna's suppressed memory, the truth about Evangeline's past, and a conspiracy that could bring down the entire magical world. Remember back when Ken Akamatsu introduced 31 girls at the start of the series and nobody thought he'd be able to juggle them all? Well, he seems to be handling this exciting, multi-layered storyline just fine.
So, how many volumes have we been on the School Festival arc now? With the tournament still at the midpoint, it looks like this plotline is going to keep on dragging. Random acts of pointless bishoujo-fetish also continue to plague the work, the most obvious being Asuna and Setsuna's skirt-flashing performance. And just when you thought every cosplay concept had already been put into play, here comes ... a crack team of nuns. (Minor characters, thankfully.) This from an artist whose talents are barely above average: these marginally cute girls all have the same face shape, the same vacant eyes, the same pubescent figure (plus or minus boob size), which ultimately adds up to a very generic style. The backgrounds are even worse, relying on 3D computer modeling to create highly detailed but soulless dioramas. Crowded layouts and screentone overload add the final touches to the mark of a decidedly mediocre draftsman.
RTO!! RATING: B-
OH MY GODDESS!
(by Kosuke Fujishima, Dark Horse, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"As the parent-child showdown between Keiichi and his fa—um, 'Keima-san,' races its way along the night roads of the Inokuradai circuit, his mo—uh, 'Takano-san,' passes the time by whupping the Goddesses at mahjong. But does she realize what they really are? Then, cry 'Roadtrip!' and let Chihiro's Mini Cooper slip into gear, as she, Bell, and Keiichi hit the highway to a hot springs. But the vacation from drama is brief—and readers are advised to prepare for the advent of ... the Fifth Goddess! Plus: after years away, new installments in the Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses!"
When Dark Horse isn't busy reprinting their back catalog, they're nice enough to remind us of just how good Kosuke Fujishima can be with fresh Goddess volumes. This one is especially loaded with striking imagery, from Keiichi's motorcycle race against his father to the goddesses' angels in action to a rainbow over the highway. In fact, Keiichi's little roadtrip is probably the best subplot here, bringing Fujishima's renowned motor-geekery to a more human level—surely most of us can identify with car breakdowns and getting lost more than wild races on ultra-customized vehicles. (Of course, wild races have their good points too; the turning point of the father-son showdown in the third chapter is absolutely heart-pounding.) Streamlined layouts and flawless linework make this volume whiz by smoothly like one of Keiichi's custom vehicles, and by the time it's over, you'll be craving more—especially with intriguing new developments just before the end.
Isn't it a pain getting stuck in between story arcs? This installment hits the tail end of Keiichi's parents' visit, does the roadtrip routine (complete with an ironically named "Hot Springs Episode"), and then barely gets into a fresh round of metaphysical, magic-slinging goddess action. Why, it's enough to make one wish for the old left-to-right volumes that were sorted by story arc. The overall effect is one of shallow storytelling, where there's barely enough time to get into the flow of things before they change direction yet again. And even the most hardcore gearheads may be getting sick of the automotive fanservice—the race with Keima is a little too similar to the earlier Phantom Racer arc, and the recent re-release of Volume 3 had a race in it too. Thank goodness we'll be getting off the road and back into the world of gods and goddesses next volume.
RTO!! RATING: B
(by Hideyuki Kurata and Tomomasa Takuma, Go! Comi, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"On the distant planet of Deloca, teenagers are enrolled in either the standard School Train... or the Special Train, an exclusive education system that takes them across the planet to develop them into above-average adults. Shy and meek Reiichi finds himself onboard the Special Train when a run-in with a rebellious spirit, Arena, turns his life upside-down and forces him to face dangers and situations that make him learn the true meaning of living."
No one can do an action-thriller quite like Read or Die writer Hideyuki Kurata, who can even make a life-or-death matter out of trying to catch the train. That's right, folks, Reiichi doesn't even get on board until Chapter 5 and you'll already be breathless from the sheer energy of everything that happens. Almost stomped to death by an alien, caught in a gunfight between a runaway and her pursuers, and jumping a moving vehicle while handcuffed to each other—is there anything in this series that isn't larger than life? Reiichi's unassuming personality makes it easy to step into his shoes and imagine the sheer bewilderment. Takuma's angular artwork and slick layouts lead the way, keeping the pacing at maximum speed as Reiichi and Arena dash from peril to peril. Might as well call this Galaxy Express 9,000, because the power level is definitely way over that.
With so much focus on being as energetic and wild as possible, the flaws of this series quickly come to the surface: scant character introductions, paper-thin plotting, and very little context about this futuristic world. Personally, I'm still trying to get my head around why a traveling train would make a good educational system. And really, a "Special Train"? Is that like having to ride the short bus? Even the main characters get shoddy treatment here, having personality stereotypes basically slapped on them: a weedy, indecisive kind of guy and an ass-kicking, go-get-'em kind of girl; pair them up and see what happens. By the time the first volume is over, they've only gotten through the first day (and had to face a fanatical bondage nun—could this get any sillier?), and you realize it's like a summer action movie: great fun while it's happening, but barely registers in your brain afterwards.
RTO!! RATING: C+
(by Tomoko Hayakawa, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Poor Kyohei is cursed . . . no, not by evil spirits. Not even by the dark, macabre Sunako, the girl he and his three pals have been trying to transform into a demure lady. Kyohei is cursed by his own good looks. When Sunako rejects him for bring too good-looking, Kyohei runs away. His friends wonder what could have happened to him, but only Sunako, racked with guilt, knows the truth. It appears that the only way for Sunako to save poor Kyohei is to become a true creature of the light. But can Sunako finally emerge from the goth shadows and bring Kyohei home, or will she be drawn back into the darkness once again?"
With the Kyohei-ran-away-from-home arc in full swing, this volume jumps in on a dramatic high point—and promptly turns it on its ear by having Kyohei go on an eating spree and reform a biker gang. Once again, absurdity wins the day. The following chapter is confirmation of that fact, featuring a sports competition where Sunako and Kyohei push each other to ridiculous physical limits. In the world of shounen, it's old hat, but in the world of bishounen, it's hilarious. And look, Tomoko Hayakawa can draw other things besides pretty boys! The speedline-laced action scenes in the competition add some fresh visuals to a series that typically relies on the males standing around and posing moodily. The winter-themed chapter in the last quarter of the book is another charmer, with Sunako and Kyohei going shopping at the market and getting discounts just by virtue of having a hot guy present. Some "curse," eh?
But what do you get when the focus shifts away from Kyohei and toward his friends? Dumb, boring stuff, as evidenced by the chapter where Ranmaru tries to sabotage his way out of an arranged-marriage agreement. Sure, the split-personality antics might draw some laughs ... but the inevitable denouement where he "falls for the princess" is pulled straight from the second-rate shoujo playbook. The spotlight on the supporting cast also brings out one of Hayakawa's continuing weaknesses: the boys all look the same. Same smooth chin, same brooding eyes, same flyaway hair—but lazy character design is small fry compared to laziness in general, whether it's the lack of backgrounds, repetitive gags ("Gosh! Those guys are SO HOT!") or the constant relapses to chibi-Sunako. Over ten volumes, Hayakawa's art has grown clearer and more confident, but it's still easy to see where the corners are being cut.
RTO!! RATING: B-
(by Pop Mhan, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The life of a secret agent is not an easy one, especially when you have amnesia. So when the thick-witted young pervert who calls himself Blank shows up at her school claiming to be one, Aki Clark has every reason to be skeptical. However, between his dedication, his ridiculous way with women, and his ability to make her laugh, Aki finds herself drawn to this man with no memory. But when they find themselves in the midst of a dark plot by the terrorist organization Raizen, Blank had better remember his secret agent skills quickly, or risk losing a lot more than his memory."
This is the stuff that secret agent adventure is made of: nonstop fights and explosions, snappy dialogue, and oh yes, hot girls. Finally, someone on Tokyopop's international roster who's got the chops (and the hormones) to do honest-to-God curve-laden fanservice! But don't let the lingerie fool you—there's also plenty of action and humor going on, with the dynamic love-hate relationship between Blank and Aki and some seriously bloody hand-to-hand combat, some of it even started by Aki herself. There's always talk about the need for strong female characters; well, here's one who leads by example. Mhan's artistic experience in the superhero business guarantees confident linework on just about every page, whether it's intense action scenes, detailed portraiture, or backgrounds ranging from suburbia to Third World wasteland. Here's a guy who knows where his story is headed, has the skills to make it work, and is clearly enjoying the whole experience.
Well, it's nice to be enjoying your work, but that's no excuse for the relentless use (and abuse) of genre conventions. The "secret conspiratorial organization" element is incredibly hokey and probably the least appealing part of the story; they don't even have a pathetically amusing side like, say, Dr. Evil's henchmen. Even the hate-at-first-sight chemistry between Blank and Aki starts to wear itself out after she beats up on him the twentieth time or so. For being a pervert. Again. Clearly, joke recycling can only get you so far. Of course, some of that might also be blamed on the school-comedy portions taking up too much space; the actual spy thriller stuff doesn't start until the last couple of chapters, and doesn't really fill out the story. And is it just me or did the art suddenly get lazy for a couple of pages near the end?
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