RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Shonen Showdown

by Carlo Santos, Feb 19th 2008


Also on my J-drama radar for this season: One-Pound Gospel, a lighthearted adaptation of Rumiko Takahashi's manga about a gluttonous boxer and the Christian nun who turns his life around. (I actually remember when the flipped translation was out in the US ... like ten years ago, but everyone just wanted to read Ranma and Inu-Yasha. Heh.) Now, I understand that Christianity is very much a minority religion in Japan, but after watching Kousaku's hilariously misguided advances towards Sister Angela, I had to wonder: Do people just not get the whole "vow of celibacy" thing? Do they think that women swear their lives to God and dress in penguin suits just because it looks cute?

Perhaps the existence of Chrono Crusade's Sister Rosette already answers that question.



BLEACH
Vol. 21
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $7.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Ichigo 'Strawberry' Kurosaki never asked for the ability to see ghosts—he was born with it. When his family is attacked by a Hollow—a malevolent lost soul—Ichigo becomes a Soul Reaper, dedicating his life to protecting the innocent and helping the tortured spirits themselves find peace. Find out why Tite Kubo's Bleach has become an international manga smash-hit!
Ichigo and his friends return to the world of the living, where life goes on as usual. But the arrival of a new transfer student raises disturbing questions, for outside school he carries a zanpaku-tô and wears the mask of a Hollow..."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Are they still in Soul Society? Actually ... they're just about done. This volume shows the softer side of Bleach with a number of apologies and farewells, from Byakuya's confession to Rukia's final decision. Readers may be surprised to discover that Tite Kubo is not only a great action artist, but knows how to deliver emotional impact as well—heartfelt expressions, perfectly spaced layouts, and knowing when to let a poignant image speak for itself. But if it's hot swordfighting action you want, don't worry, as there's plenty of that in the back half once Ichigo meets his new frenemy and Hollows start popping up. It's an exciting set of chapters with some remarkable revelations—fathers and sons, who knew?!—and it's here that we see Kubo's art doing what it does best, with stunning reveals (that ominous shadow in the lower left panel? Turn the page to find out!), dramatic light and shade, and dynamic angles. In short, Kubo knows how to show the chaos of battle while still making it perfectly clear what's going on, and that may be the greatest talent any artist can ask for.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
The Soul Society story arc is like one of those big family parties where you're trying to leave, but all your aunts and uncles insist on saying goodbye, so it takes 20 minutes just to get out the door. At least that's the impression here with chapter after chapter of self-reflection and confession from seemingly every minor character that so much as picked up a sword during the last dozen volumes. Look, can't you guys just let Ichigo and friends go home? And once they do, it's more non-action and setup until the last few chapters where things finally do start happening. Basically, this volume shows up too late for the climax of the Soul Society arc, getting stuck with leftovers and wrap-up, but it's still too early for the new storyline, and Ichigo hasn't really started doing anything yet. All the battles are left on cliffhangers, dampening the sense of growing excitement, because now we all have to wait for the next volume. Maybe then Ichigo will start kicking ass and taking names.

FINAL VERDICT:
It's a rare thing when a "bridge" volume between story arcs can still be entertaining and engaging. With its heartfelt goodbyes to Soul Society and a striking introduction to new challenges, this one gets a B.


DARK METRO
Vol. 1
(by Tokyo Calen and Yoshiken, Tokyopop, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"What lies below Tokyo's subway system is more frightening than you could have ever imagined...
Deep beneath Tokyo there exists a boundary between this world and the next: the land of the dead—and the mysterious young man Seiya is its guide. In this colleciton of bone-chilling shorts, follow the twisted tales of death and hauntings that inhabit this horrifying underworld, where innocent youth fall victim to the ghosts who lurk in Tokyo's underground."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Who needs innovation? Sometimes you just have to know how to get the most out of what's already out there. Dark Metro proves that by reworking some classic horror formulas that feed upon our most primal fears: modern conveniences gone wrong, past incidents that come back to haunt us, and supernatural visions that drive their victims into madness. That last one is especially effective in Chapters 3 and 4, where a fledgling train driver sees horrors that cannot be unseen and loses his mind, and a male escort is terrorized by the mere thought of his dead ex-girlfriend. Revenge scenarios are also common, and if you prefer mystery more than shock, the last chapter delivers well on that point, focusing on the soft-spoken man who appears to all Tokyo-ites who visit the wrong side of the underground. The art and layout may look pretty straightforward, but that's what makes it work—each shocking moment makes an instant impact, and there's no need for words when a terrifying image will do. Looks like there's a whole new reason to be scared of riding the train in Japan.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
True, it's a solid rendition of some well-known horror/urban-legend themes—but that's also its greatest weakness, as every single story has that withering been-there-done-that feeling. A girl who's haunted by a rival from her acting school? A man who keeps seeing his dead ex-girlfriend wherever he goes? It's hard to see how this can be chilling when it feels more like someone just ripped off their favorite horror stories and slapped a Tokyo subway setting on it. Even the basic ideas behind the series are old hat: hasn't everyone imagined a secret underground world at some point in their life? And the presence of Seiya as an omnisicent "spiritual guide" is poorly contrived—he may provide some necessary narration and explanation, but he's no Rod Serling when it comes to atmosphere. This might also be one of the few times that the art style would be considered too clean: the smooth, sharp lines and sterile city backgrounds just don't match the horror vibe of the stories themselves. A little more dirt, a little more grit, and this horror rehash would have at least gotten the mood right.

FINAL VERDICT:
The stories are familiar and vivid enough to be interesting, but without anything to really set it apart from the stuff it's copying, it's a C through and through.


NARUTO
Vol. 28
(by Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, $7.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Naruto is a ninja-in-training with an incorrigible knack for mischief. He's got a wild sense of humor, but Naruto is completely serious about his mission to be the world's greatest ninja!
It's been two years since Naruto left to train with Jiraiya. Now he reunites with his old friends to find out he's still not the most accomplished of his former teammates. But when one of them is kidnapped, it's up to Naruto to prove he's got the stuff to save them!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
It may have been a two-year jump in the storyline, but it's only a week between chapters for Masashi Kishimoto, so his artistic chops are still in full force: witness the grand detail of the Leaf and Sand villages, the elaborate ninja battles, and the newly redesigned outfits on just about everyone. Yes folks, the new era of Naruto is exactly the jolt of fresh energy that the series needed after the incredibly weighty events of the last few volumes. Our hero's big comeback is full of delight and humor—Naruto's not as much of a brat anymore! Sakura is almost useful now! And Gaara ... well, Gaara's new administrative position is a bit of a surprise, but the even bigger surprise is that he gets to lead the first major battle of the new arc. This is the Naruto we know and love, except with upgraded ninja powers—soaring on sweeping pillars of sand, conjuring massive defensive walls out of the earth, battling enemies in mid-air—now that's some serious action! The dramatic consequences in the last few chapters also guarantee plenty of suspense leading into the next volume. New timeline, new outfits, but still as addictive as ever.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
So Naruto re-emerges with a brand new set of freshly trained ninja powers ... and his biggest achievement in this volume is beating Kakashi in a training exercise? Yawn. This installment spends plenty of time setting things up, but in doing so it neglects the title character, giving him little to do aside from reminiscing and catching up on the latest developments around Konoha. Just look at the chapter where Naruto and his team are rushing to the aid of the Sand village: instead of getting into some action, they're basically having a coffee-table conversation while running through the forest. Even the marquee action scenes in this volume fall short in some way: Gaara's big battle ends up kind of confusing and unwieldy, as if Kishimoto wasn't quite sure which angle to draw from (and who can blame him? Mid-air battles don't have an easy frame of reference). Meanwhile, the other key confrontation involves Kankuro, who's practically a third-string character. So when does Naruto actually get to be about Naruto?

FINAL VERDICT:
An energetic start to the second arc with some cool fight scenes, but with Naruto himself just catching up with old friends and discussing the political climate, this isn't any more than a C+.


PURGATORY KABUKI
Vol. 1
(by Yasushi Suzuki, DrMaster, $9.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"For reasons unknown, former samurai Imanotsurugi is obsessed with leaving the afterlife. To die in battle is a samurai's greatest honor, yet he is determinted to claim 1,000 swords from the fallen warriors who now share his residence in the dark underworld. By these means alone this highly skilled blades master will be allowed admittance back into the living world. But to what end? Upon what stone purpose does he sharpen his edge?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
If nothing else, Purgatory Kabuki is simply beautiful to look at. Imanotsurugi's swordfights are pure ballet on paper, and the world he travels through on his quest is practically a study in East Asian landscape art. Whether it's fighting unimaginable monsters, or braving a castle in search of his companion, everything about Imanotsurugi's quest is massively epic—yet at the same time it's stylish and sleek. Many of the scenes are wordless, and it's just as well, because these are the kind of people who let their blades do the talking. Sure, there have been plenty of other series where a tough swordsman takes on some tough enemies—but few of them have the visual pop of this one, which is dynamic, beautiful, and stunning from start to finish.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Uh ... what the hell just happened here? Yasushi Suzuki's talent as a fantasy illustrator is clearly evident, but that's pretty much the only talent he has, because he cannot tell a story to save his life. Who knew that you could get published for ripping off Blade of the Immortal as long as you were a famous artist and not some sneak trying to win a talent contest? But the whole "Kill 1,000 souls to win" gimmick is only the start of Purgatory Kabuki's problems: it drops the reader in midstream, doesn't bother to explain the situation or the hero's motivation, and when it finally does ("890 swords to go!") it reads more like a plot summary than an actual part of the story. In fact, a plot summary would tell you more than the book ever does, as most of it is just a chain of fight scenes interspersed with ridiculous dialogue like "You shouldn't wield such a dangerous weapon!" and "I will show you my special move!" Goodness gracious, this stuff makes Naruto (see above) look like Shakespeare. And with so many gray tones laid over everything, even the well-drawn art becomes hard to appreciate, and the whole style-over-substance aesthetic makes it impossible to tell the characters apart. Not that anyone cares who the characters are anyway—this is just brainless sword-porn that people will buy because it looks cool.

FINAL VERDICT:
Pretty illustrations are the only thing that save this from getting a lower grade. With so much fluff and so little plot, it's only worth a D.


UZUMAKI
Vol. 3
(by Junji Ito, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"With their town devastated by titanic hurricanes, the citizens of the spiral-haunted town of Kurôzu-cho—including Shuichi, Kirie, and her family—find themselves cut off from the outside world. Reporters and rescue teams cross the mountain range into Kurôzu-cho only to find themselves unable to leave. Trapped inside the cursed ruins, the desperate survivors struggle and huddle together, waiting to turn into giant snails or worse. The very laws of nature are changed as the spiral sucks them in. And to fight it, or to escape, the last survivors must go to the heart of the horror to witness what may be their evenutal fate..."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Uzumaki may not have gotten off to the best start—the stories were too short and stand-alone, and some of it was downright silly—but this final volume is an undisputed horror masterpiece. It's like Junji Ito is on a quest to blow your mind in every way possible: mutations and transformations, disasters of epic proportions, and horrific acts of inhumanity. For his final trick, Ito gradually reveals the truth behind the spiral curse in the last half of the book, creating a chilling experience that may never again be matched in the visual arts. The "rebuilding" of Kurôzu-cho, the fate of its residents, and Kirie's final plunge into the center of the mystery—it's hard to describe things without giving too much away, but let's just say that it's the perfect blend of suspense, fear, and pure visual madness. Who knew that so much bizarre imagery could come out of a single artist's mind? And really, it's not so much the story or characters that will freak you out at the end, but the artwork itself, packed with detail and terrifying in scale. Umezu and Lovecraft would definitely be proud to see their tradition carried to such dizzying heights.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Although it soars to an amazing finish, the first few chapters of this volume are still rather weak, carrying the flaws of previous volumes. It dwells too much on silly things (people blowing at each other to create massive whirlwinds?) and wastes too much time on inconsequential activities that don't advance the plot. A good three chapters are wasted on Kirie and company foraging for food and trying to get out of town—yes, survival is important, but we came to see mind-bending horror, not destitution. Page space is also wasted on a number of secondary characters who basically hang out with the main cast and do reprehensible things; honestly, their subplot could have been removed and the finale wouldn't be that much different. Seems that even a modern master of horror can get caught up in filler material sometimes.

FINAL VERDICT:
The stunning finish of this psychedelic horror tale is everything a masterpiece should be. In other words, an A.




BAMBOO BLADE
Vols. 1-2
(by Masahiro Totsuka and Aguri Igarashi, Square-Enix, ¥530)


FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"Toraji Ishida is a high school kendo teacher. His friend and fellow kendo teacher makes him a bet: if Ishida can assemble a girls' kendo team that can defeat his girls' team in a practice match, he'll treat Ishida to free meals at his father's sushi restaurant for a whole year. Now Ishida must find five girls to join the team."

EVIDENCE FOR:
If you were to dismiss Bamboo Blade as yet another sports series where a young prodigy leads a ragtag team of misfits to athletic success, well ... you'd be missing the point. The characters and the paths they take are more varied and complex than the typical "I've gotta get stronger!" quest, and even the obligatory young prodigy, Tama-chan, is certainly not the typical outspoken hero. In fact, all the characters have unique, fully developed personalities of their own: the bizarrely bipolar Miya-Miya; hyperactive change-hobbies-once-a-week Saya; responsible yet often overlooked Kirino ... Even Ishida himself has obstacles to overcome, being a young, low-income teacher who doesn't quite have full control over his students. A number of thrilling action scenes add the necessary visual appeal, especially in the second volume as the actual match gets underway. That's right, even a traditional sport like kendo can be thrilling when it's presented with plenty of sharp lines and dynamic angles like this. With its charismatic characters and kendo's unique set of rules, it's like all the stereotypes you knew about the sports genre have been rewritten and made fresh once again.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
There's a reason this review covers the first two volumes of the series. And that's because ... the beginning kind of sucks. Bamboo Blade may be a fresh take on the genre, but it takes entirely too long for that freshness to show up—most of Volume 1 is spent on humdrum school activities and other diversions that aren't actually kendo. While this may be essential for setting up the series' slice-of-life flavor, it also makes the story slow and difficult to get into at first. And once the actual match between the rival girls' teams is underway, another problem emerges: the opposing team members just haven't been introduced very well. Sure, we get glimpses of their wacky personalities in a couple of chapters, but the best sports series make it a point to have the villains be just as interesting as the heroes. That doesn't seem to be happening here, and it could be the weakness that reduces Bamboo Blade from a thrilling competitive series a to a one-sided snorefest.

FINAL VERDICT:
A unique choice of sport? Entertaining characters? Eye-catching, action-packed art? This one's got all the ingredients to become the next great sports manga.




Most people know Kaori Yuki as the artist of Angel Sanctuary, Cain Saga and Godchild—but it takes a lot of practice to reach that mastery of the macabre. This review by Hikari introduces us to one of Yuki's early works:

SHOUNEN ZANZOU (BOY'S NEXT DOOR)
(by Kaori Yuki, Hakusensha, ¥410)


Published back in 1998 as a volume of one-shots, Shounen Zanzou (Boy's Next Door) is a collection of short stories displaying Yuki's older art. The lead work, which shares the same title, is a rare gem of under-appreciated work. Please note that the spelling of the names is my interpretation, as there is not an official English version.

Adrian Cray is a teacher during the day, but after the sun sets, he indulges in a sick fetish ... hiring teenage male prostitutes and violently stabbing them. Born from a prostitute himself, young Adrian's turbulent childhood feeds his urge to commit murder after murder. That is until Adrian is spotted during one of his attacks by a male raven-haired prostitute named Lawrence, and is blackmailed into helping him break free from an inescapable life of sex. The unmistakable lizard tattoo on Lawrence's chest marks him as property of his pimp, who is also his brother. As the young teacher falls deeper into Lawrence's will, he finds his heart being controlled by him as well … will he be able to free him, or will Lawrence join the list of the dead?

Shounen Zanzou is an adult piece filled with the kind of stuff that is too sinister for the TV shows CSI or NCIS. Although there isn't graphic sex, there is obvious suggestion of two men engaging in sexual activities, and it's not flowery romance that gets them into bed either. Don't forget that the plot is about a homicidal maniac, so there will be violence, dead bodies, and plenty of ink splatters of blood. For children or those with weak stomachs it is definitely not, nor is it for squealing yaoi fangirls. The art is noire and haunting, the page layouts are unique and interesting, and the characters are uniquely crafted, from Wolfie the iguana to Lawrence's sultry features. Despite a lack of backgrounds in half the frames, where there are backgrounds and screen tones, it is perfectly done. Yuki's artistic talent hadn't yet peaked, but the few odd spots can be easily forgiven.

As for the plot, it's heavy for a one-shot. However, it contently fits into its time frame, tying up all loose ends while at the same time, leading up to one hell of a conclusion. The ending will shock you, and if you're emotional, it might make you cry a little too. I highly recommend getting a hold of a copy. Scanlations are available online.



Is there a hidden gem of manga you'd like to reveal to the world? Is there a piece of garbage that deserves to be bashed in public? Or is there a title that didn't get a fair grade here, and you want to set the record straight?

Now's YOUR chance to be the reviewer! Write a review of 400 words and include:

- Your name
- Title of manga (and volume no., if applicable)
- Author/Artist
- Publisher
- Briefly describe the story, then explain why this manga is great, terrible, or in between. Be objective, but also be entertaining.


Then send it in to rtoreaders (at) gmail (dot) com. One review will be selected out of all the submissions and will be published in the next column. All types and genres are accepted, from past and present, from Japan and beyond—what matters is that it's the Reader's Choice!

P.S. I am looking for a lot more negative reviews! Everyone's sending in reviews of their personal favorites, but I would LOVE to see someone take it out on a manga they really, really hate. Unleash your rage!

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