RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Go Speed Grapher Go!

by Carlo Santos, Sep 16th 2008


That time of year has come again: time to pick out a wall calendar from Japan. A number of tempting choices are calling out to me for 2009 (go away Aya Hirano your swimsuit pinups mean nothing to me!), like the sweet sweet Shugo Chara! calendar, or something classy like the Nodame one, or maybe even Gurren Lagann for manly justice. Out of habit, though, I'll probably order Berryz Kobo like I have for the past two years, but I wouldn't be having to do that if I had an answer to this very pressing question:

Where the hell is my Buono! 2009 calendar?!!



BLANK SLATE
Vol. 1
(by Aya Kanno, Viz Media, $8.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"What does it take to find your true inner self? Zen's memory has been wiped, and he can't remember if he's a killer or a hero. And a lot of people will do anything they can to keep it that way.
Zen's unearthly charm attracts a veritable rogues gallery. A bounty hunter becomes obsessed enough to become his new partner, while the daughter of a general treats him like some sort of guru. But when he meets a mysterious doctor who may know him from the past, Zen learns that the secret of his lost memory is definitely more sinister than saintly."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Taken individually, each chapter of Blank Slate's first volume is your typical gunplay-based action-adventure—but start connecting things together, and a unique world starts to take shape. Each story cleverly twists into the next, creating new experiences for our antihero, as well as fleshing out the details of the bitter world he lives in. Take the political situation, for example: your typical "nation X is oppressing nation Y" scenario, except it actually plays a key role in the storyline. Adding to the intrigue, too, is Zen's do-or-die philosophy—the idea that one must "become evil" to take control of their lives. But, not surprisingly, even a worldview like that is cloaked in shades of gray; Kanno is cleverly subtle about the fact that Zen may not be as evil and in-control as he thinks he is. For those who prefer instant gratification, though, there's still plenty to like, from Zen's dangerously good looks (where do they keep finding these bad-boy bishounen?) to the sparse, stylish action scenes. And with all the guys Zen keeps teaming up with, there's certainly some emotional tension (hiint, hint) to be had...

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
"Sparse" action scenes? Sounds like a euphemism for someone who can't draw them and ends up with awkward-looking poses of guys pointing guns at each other. Indeed, the most striking thing about Aya Kanno's vision of the future is that it involves very little background art, and the backgrounds that do exist fail to evoke any feeling of dystopia. So if she's going to skimp on the art, you'd think she would at least pour some effort into the characters—but Zen is little more than the typical overpowered action-hero who is 50% better than everyone else, making it very boring because he never appears to be in danger of losing a conflict. And as it turns out, the connecting of chapters is the only clever thing in the plotting: Zen's actual adventures are just typical run-and-gun material where baddies pursue him until he gets tired of it and makes mincemeat of them. But the biggest single obstacle to enjoying this work is the horribly overwrought dialogue (and monologue): "Here's my opening thought..." and then the characters discuss their ridiculously existential inner pain, "...and here's the other half of the sentence five pages later." That's annoying! Stop it!

FINAL VERDICT:
Unfortunately, the lazy art, generic action-adventure plotting, and trying-to-sound-cool-and-angsty-but-failing-miserably dialogue make this a C-. Will it get better as we learn more about Zen's world? I hope.


DEATH NOTE: COLLECTOR'S EDITION
Vol. 1
(by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Viz Media, $19.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Light Yagami is an ideal teenager. He's a straight-A student. His parents trust him. His little sister looks up to him. Girls like him.
Life is good ... but boring. Until Light discovers a mysterious notebook called the Death Note. It reads:
The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the person's name, it will happen.
If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

Light Yagami is about to become the most notorious murderer of all time."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Feel like reliving Death Note all over again? Sure you do! But don't bother with those non-canonical live-action movies—pick up this hardback Vol. 1, with dust jacket, bigger pages (to better enjoy Ohba's art) and color printing. Think back to a time when Death Note's chapters weren't completely clogged up with dialogue, when story arcs didn't write themselves into corners, when the characters weren't carelessly making lucky guesses. Once again we can watch in fearful amazement as absolute power begins to corrupt Light absolutely, and how he gradually engages in an epic battle of wits against the great detective L. But it's the little details that make this series so gripping right from the start: the way Takeshi Obata effortlessly flips Light's facial expressions from innocent schoolboy to evil mastermind, the clever little things Light does to make sure he doesn't get caught, the carefully planned experiments and deductions on how Death Note works, and of course, the intricately planned "bus incident." Even with entirely rectangular paneling, the meticulous artwork and carefully selected angles make every scene bristle with tension. Who knew writing names in a notebook could be so ... intense?

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
One popular complaint about the later Death Note arcs is that the logic got sloppy after a certain someone fell out of the picture. But looking back on it, the logic was always a bit sloppy, with fortunate coincidences taking over as needed. Death Note falls into the hands of the smartest kid in the country? Good, now we can prolong the story because he'll be harder to catch. Light's dad is the chief of police who has all the files on all the criminals? How convenient for him! L successfully "guesses" that Light is operating out of Japan? Well, that makes all the deductive reasoning afterward so much easier. And of course, the other trademark of the series—impossibly long stretches of dialogue—starts to rear its ugly head. Both Light and L take up entire paragraphs explaining their intricate methods, and even friendly neighborhood shinigami Ryuk takes forever blabbing about the convoluted "rules" of the Death Note. But it's still not as bad as in later volumes...

FINAL VERDICT:
You know, honestly speaking, the first volume IS one of the best volumes of Death Note. Intense, gripping, and unique ... A- material right there.


GOTH
(by Otsuichi and Kendi Oiwa, Tokyopop, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"'She first caught my eye ... when I saw her white wrist ... peeking out from the edge of darkness. It was pale as porcelain ... and the mark loomed out from it.'
Before they were friends, he had already noticed her. He wanted her hands—those beautiful, enchanting hands—to himself. And he hoped that the local madman who had been 'collecting' the hands of anything that moved—babies, children, men, women, animals—would get them for him ... until the day she asked him to teach her how to smile.
In four gruesome stories, two murder-fixated teens lose themselves in their obsession. But can you handle seeing humanity's darkest side revealed in all its glaring, gory glory?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Welcome to the N.H.K. wouldn't be the first time that Kendi Oiwa has illustrated the darkest, most twisted corners of the human psyche. That honor goes to Goth, which is remarkably inventive in its grotesquerie—people being buried alive, a collector of severed hands, a serial killer who records his accomplishments in a notebook. Author Otsuichi gets the credit for coming up with the ideas, but it is Oiwa's art that brings them to life (or perhaps death)—injuries, torture, and corpses, each more disturbing than the last. But the real stunner is the psychologically twisted finale "Twins," where the main characters' obsession with death finally catches up with them and a multi-layered secret from the past is uncovered. Oiwa clearly has a talent for the timing big reveal until the last moment, and each of the stories in this book is all the more suspenseful and shocking thanks to his careful pacing. The visual style also helps bring out a creepy atmosphere—gloomy shadows and abstract shapes remind us that death is a subject few are ready to face head-on.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
So, who decided that gloomy shadows and abstract shapes meant that the storytelling is also supposed to be near-indecipherable at times? "Twins" is the biggest offender here, as the climactic scene depends on two conflicting characters who look almost exactly alike (although maybe the reason for that is so that the apparent "bad guy" isn't clear earlier on). And sometimes it's not the fault of the artwork or anything—a couple of the other stories rely on twists that look absolutely nonsensical when rendered in a visual format. Maybe it makes more sense in the novel? There's a thin line between "vague and mysterious" and "I have no idea what just happened," and unfortunately this manga crosses that line a few too many times. For other readers, though, what really crosses the line is the material itself—seriously, was Otsuichi trying to come up with a snuff short story collection or something? Of course, other creators like Eiji Otsuka get a free pass on being violent perverts, but Goth just seems like sicko self-indulgence at times.

FINAL VERDICT:
Interesting (if sickening) stuff, but the biggest thing holding it back is that the plot is just too vague and convoluted at times. So don't blame the explicit content; blame the sloppy storytelling for the C+ grade.


HIGH SCHOOL DEBUT
Vol. 5
(by Kazune Kawahara, Viz Media, $8.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Hapless Haruna needs help finding a boyfriend! After failing to win the eye of any guy in high school, Haruna enlists the help of cute upperclassman Yoh to coach her on how to make herself more appealing to the male species. Yoh agrees, with one catch: Haruna had better not fall for him!
Just when things are going well for Haruna, in walks transfer student Leona Matsuzaka. Beautiful Leona's got only one thing in mind—to destroy Haruna's happiness! Who is this vengeful girl and why does she want to hurt Haruna so badly?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
A challenger appears! Although high school rivalry usually mean serious business, this series plays it for laughs, with entertaining results. The great thing about Leona is that she isn't evil, just hilariously misguided—apparently she thinks she can avenge her athletic failures by ruining Haruna's life. The only thing funnier, of course, is Haruna's reaction to all this: at first too dense to notice what's going on ("Why is that girl staring at me? I think she admires me!"), and then bouncing around like an idiot trying to save Yoh from Leona. And just wait until Leona finally finds out exactly why Haruna was able to out-pitch her in school softball ... Fans of romance, however, will still get their fill of Haruna/Yoh sweetness (getting locked into the P.E. storage room definitely helps), and when guy friend Asaoka starts moving in on Haruna, the resulting love-triangle tension is sure to excite. As always, the character artwork lends plenty of visual spark—from Haruna's wide range of comical expressions to Yoh's super-cool demeanor—and the well-spaced layouts make the story lively and easy to follow.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
High School Debut's fifth volume illustrates a classic dilemma of long-running romances: what do you do once the main couple gets together? Throwing in a rival out of nowhere doesn't work when she turns out to be a comic relief who gets dropped after a couple of chapters, and sending in a possible love interest from the existing cast is pretty useless as well when he turns out to be way too passive to truly interfere with the relationship. But at least the Leona storyline was entertaining—the same can't be said for the irritatingly dull Asaoka arc. The whole Haruna-might-like-Asaoka process takes up a good 60 pages, where we basically find out he's such a nice guy that nobody would want to read a totally boring manga about him going out with Haruna. Apparently the author thought so too, cutting off the possibility of Asaoka at the end of this volume. If the story is going to remain interesting, Haruna and Yoh had better find some obstacles to their relationship that are actually challenging for once.

FINAL VERDICT:
Leona's arrival makes for some good laughs, but things quickly slip into generic let's-go-on-a-date mode when Asaoka tries his luck with Haruna. A C because I know this series can do better.


SPEED GRAPHER
Vol. 1
(by Tomozo, original concept by Gonzo, Tokyopop, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Smile for the camera, or perish in the glare of its lens...
In the Tokyo of the future, a second Japanese economic bubble has propelled the city into a feeding frenzy of desire. The epitome of this new ethos is the Roppongi Club, an elite society serving Tokyo's most privileged citizens with fantasies beyond their wildest dreams.
Meet Saiga, an intrepid photojournalist intent on infiltrating the Roppongi's shadowy, secret world. But when he gets there, he discovers much more than just a glamorous hostess club—he meets Kagura, a modern goddess whose touch transforms Saiga into the Speed Grapher, a man with the supernatural ability to make anything and anyone he photographs explode. And that's just the beginning..."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Hey, remember when the Speed Grapher anime came out and the most exciting thing each episode was trying to predict how sloppy the animation quality would be? No such problems with the manga's first volume, which delivers just the right balance of gritty visual detail and intense action. Kagura's delicate beauty contrasts nicely against the grotesque, desire-driven monsters that she and Saiga must face, as well as the numerous explosions that result whenever Saiga puts a camera to his eye. But there's more to this story than just flashy visual effects: it's very much a character-driven piece as well, as Saiga frequently finds himself musing on what motivates him to be a photographer—and why he possesses his unusual power. Even the villains are thoughtfully developed, because if you're going to have a deadly power based on your deepest desire, there had better be a very good reason for it, right? What comes out in the end is not just a conflict of superhuman abilities, but also a conflict of personal ideals ... which just happens to result in lots of stuff blowing up. Good times.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
While Tomozo can certainly draw up a storm with those hot action scenes, the rest of the story struggles to find its spark. Dialogue scenes have this nasty tendency to rely on the same panel layout over and over—in fact, you can probably guess exactly how many boxes and in what orientation they will appear on a given non-action page. Boring! Look a little closer, and other artistic flaws also come to light: the secret desire to be Takeshi Obata (Kagura has Misa's eyes!), a rather dry approach to backgrounds, and occasional goofs of misproportioned character design. Those who are more concerned with the story, meanwhile, should probably start worrying that this is going to turn into some freak-of-the-week scenario where Saiga runs around explosively photographing the goons who are trying to kill him. With that intriguing balance between outwardly intense action and inward character conflict, there is always the danger of leaning on the former as a crutch and leaving the story on autopilot.

FINAL VERDICT:
A little bit run-of-the-mill, with occasionally rough art and an action-laden story that could go either way, but still interesting enough for a B-.




GIRL FRIEND
Vol. 1
(by Masaya Hokazono and Betten Court, Shueisha, ¥590)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"A meek boy who doesn't have a way with girls.
A tough belle who is avoided by the boys.
Together, they share a secret nobody else knows...
Learn more about girls and their complex romantic emotions in the six wonderful stories contained in this book!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
One of my greatest manga frustrations is trying to find a "seinen romance" that isn't populated by stereotypes and complete idiots. So thank goodness for Girl Friend, which boldly takes on the short story format (so at least they don't string each other along for 15 volumes) and features a variety of unusual characters. Don't expect saccharine love confessions or idealized couples around here—instead it's about dysfunctional friends-with-benefits relationships, or unlikely mismatches inexplicably drawn to each other, or (gotta love this one) stealing away your older brother's girlfriend. Clearly, the emotions that result from these situations are quite a touch different from your average romantic drama, especially with the thoughtful slice-of-life pacing and lavish bishoujo-centric art. What's more, this series addresses the fact that high school kids do know about sex, and yes, they do get it on, with sensual imagery that successfully bridges the delicate line between naughty and tasteful. But even though it's that kind of comic, the things that linger most are the rollercoaster emotions, so perfectly expressed on the characters' faces, and the realization that love can take many different forms.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
And how can you tell it's a seinen romance series? Because every single story is an off-kilter variation on the old "ordinary guy hooks up with impossibly hot girl" trope. Come on, with the relationships being as unusual as they are and the emotions running fairly complex, you'd think there would be enough creativity to come up with a scenario where, say, an average-looking fellow might find an average-looking but still cute in her own way girl-next-door type. (But then it'd be in the wrong demographic.) This formula is so blatant that there are even two stories that specifically point out that Miss Popular is going out with some geeky guy. The fact that it's a short story series also brings out the repetitiveness; each chapter follows the same arc where the couple comes together (or is already together), goes through a crisis, and then works it out in the end. Perhaps this is the kind of thing best enjoyed in serialization instead of 200-page bunches.

FINAL VERDICT:
Although formulaic in certain ways, it certainly doesn't feel like the average boy-meets-girl series. Complex emotions and sexual tension offer a rather different view of young love.




Do you love Evangelion? Lots of people do! But do you love Evangelion reimagined as a light high school romance? That's a trickier question! Check out Eric P.'s glowing review of Angelic Days and see what you think.

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: ANGELIC DAYS
Vols. 1-6
(by Fumino Hayashi, concept by Gainax, ADV Manga, $9.99 ea.)


In the final episode of the Evangelion series there's a sequence offering a glimpse of an alternative world where Shinji and Asuka are childhood friends and new student Rei comes to school, initiating the first steps of what would've been a standard harem comedy (I argue that Evangelion in general was a harem series without it actually being a harem series, but that's another topic). Angelic Days is an extension of that, adapting the idea into its own standalone manga series. It's still a world where Angels mysteriously come and attack, and Shinji and his classmates (including Shinji's mysterious friend Kaworu) fight against them as EVA pilots.

In many reviews I remember reading, particularly here on Anime News Network, Angelic Days hardly gets any love. Summation: it's a piece of irredeemable trash that deserves to be forgotten, but I have to totally and utterly disagree. Maybe Fumino Hayashi's artwork is a little uneven at times, but it's hardly noticeable unless pointed out, and I was too absorbed in the story to really care. Some say this "alternative parallel story" cops out and makes things a more uneven mess by bringing back the Angels, but they're really more of a backdrop that supports the main focus story: the triangle between Shinji, Asuka, and Rei, and which girl Shinji chooses in the end (his ultimate choice is very agreeable, in my opinion).

I for one was amazed by this manga. We get to see who the characters would've been like in a different world while keeping their essential personalities intact. It shows that if Shinji and Asuka had known each other earlier in their lives they would've gotten along and grown to be nice and close to each other, as opposed to the complicated, rocky relationship that went almost nowhere like they had in the TV series.

One major character change I consider an improvement was that Rei has a genuine personality, even if it is somewhat stereotypical. She was such a popular character from the TV series, although it may be mostly fanboys who love her for her passive and easy disposition. You don't see that Rei in Angelic Days; here she smiles, has actual conversations with people and grows as a character.

Being an Evangelion fan prior helps a lot to appreciate this, because it's the characters that make this harem story feel fresh and new, and readers would otherwise be lost with Kaworu and the Angels. If you wonder what it would've been like differently for all the characters, and get a chance to see whole new angles of them, then please do give this manga from ADV a chance.



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 about 300-400 words (a little more or less is fine) 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 of manga and manga-inspired comickry are accepted, from past and present, from Japan and beyond—what matters is that it's the Reader's Choice! NOTE: Submissions may be edited for formatting and grammar.

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