RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Axis of Needles

by Carlo Santos, Sep 28th 2010


The Hatsune Miku concert screening in San Francisco was exactly what I expected it to be—a blast, albeit a pre-recorded blast. And the rest of the VizCon J-Pop Summit Festival was pretty festive, too! Did you know that was the first time I've ever been to an anime/Japanese culture event in Northern California? I've never been to Fanime or AOD or Yaoicon or any of those shows. Maybe I should try it one of these days, since I do get free room and board with my folks.



7 BILLION NEEDLES
Vol. 1
(by Nobuaki Tadano, Vertical, $10.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Hikaru Takabe may not be the most social of teens. Always sporting her headphones, she gives off an aloof aura that rubs her classmates the wrong way. But her not being part of the crowd takes on a different dimension when she becomes involved in an intergalactic game of cat and mouse.
Inspired by Needle, the Golden Age hard sci-fi classic by the late Hal Clement, Nobuaki Tadano's debut work brings a unique take on alien invasion up to date and into the maelstrom that is the Japanese high school girl."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Those who associate Vertical's manga catalog with fusty old stuff and sissy slice-of-life slop will be pleasantly surprised by the modern polish and hard-hitting action that is 7 Billion Needles. Volume 1 starts with a bang, builds up some thought-provoking suspense in the middle, then finishes with another jaw-dropping bang—one involving mysterious alien forces. Tadano's artwork shows remarkable versatility in the way it captures scenes ranging from everyday school life to fantastical, superpowered combat as Hikaru discovers the extraterrestrial presence that has come to rest inside her. Especially creative is the way different sensory experiences are conveyed on the page: the buzz in Hikaru's ears as the alien tries to speak to her, the shock of losing an arm, and later the blinding light in her eyes as she comes to accept her powers. But these shiny bells and whistles are nothing without the story, one that has a surprisingly profound side lurking beneath the action. When shy, distant Hikaru is ordered to start communicating with her peers to help seek out the enemy, it says more about who she is as a person—and who we are as humans—than about the otherworldly turmoil going on around her. Now that's deep.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
The marketing hype that says 7 Billion Needles is a breathtaking, one-of-a-kind masterpiece maaaay have failed to notice that this is basically the plot of Parasyte. (And I've never heard of Hal Clement, so pardon my cultural illiteracy.) What this means, anyway, is that Hikaru's progression as a bodily container to an alien invader is hardly original: of course she resists it at first, and of course she finds herself developing strange powers, and of course the alien is this 250-IQ meta-being who lectures its human host about the mysteries of the universe and how insignificant we all are. By the time Hikaru has evolved into a superpowered world-savior in the last chapter, facing off against a mutant clawed creature (and former classmate), well, we've pretty much entered brainless Hollywood blockbuster territory. And it's not like Tadano is that artistically talented, when he's clearly using photographic help and stock high school character types to put the visuals together. In the end, Hikaru's quest as the Everyday Teenager Who Miraculously Discovers Special Abilities And Must Now Save The World is just like all the other ones.

FINAL VERDICT:
Despite some obvious borrowing from past works, the thoughtful character development and fast-paced action in the later chapters still lift it above others of its kind—high enough for a B+, in fact.


BOKURANO: OURS
Vol. 2
(by Mohiro Kitoh, Viz Media, $12.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Giant robots are invading Earth, and fifteen teenagers must figure out a way to stop them. The key to mankind's survival is a towering mecha known as Zearth, but the iron giant's power is not infinite. It gets its strength from the power of life supplied by each teenage pilot. That's a deadly price to pay for someone not yet in high school."

EVIDENCE FOR:
The idea of "a more depressing version of Evangelion" may sound redundant, but here it is ... and it works. Bokurano's second volume, which reveals the terrible secret of Zearth (EVERYBODY DIES), plunges the series into new levels of pathos. With each prospective pilot knowing he or she faces certain death after a fight, the story becomes something much darker: a meditation on mortality and how to live one's life meaningfully. Get ready to shed tears for Daiichi, who must say goodbye to his three beloved younger siblings; his fate is made even more poignant in the way the story focuses on their deep familial bond. The last scene of Daiichi's arc is, without a doubt, a real punch in the heart. The volume's second half isn't quite so affecting, but is still laced with complex emotions: Mako Nakarai, the first female so far to take the pilot's seat, must come to terms with her mother's shady career choice and how she projects herself to the outside world. The menacing monsters and action-packed battles provide the requisite thrills of a science fiction adventure, but it's the conflicts in the characters' hearts and minds that truly make this series what it is.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
The idea that someone even wanted to create a more depressing version of Evangelion is probably the biggest problem with Bokurano, which wallows so deeply in its bleak premise that it isn't even worth parodying. With everybody making sad, pensive faces (the only expression Mohiro Kitoh can draw, apparently) and reflecting on their doomed fates ALL THE TIME, this quickly becomes a one-note series, even with all the different characters. Wait, there are different characters? It's hard to keep track when there are so many kids and so few of them even have a major role. The ones that do, meanwhile, are thrust into mawkish storylines where we're expected to cry over some guy because he has a big family, and other such contrivances. The Mako storyline, meanwhile, isn't cheesy so much as it is just emotionally confusing—are we supposed to pity her or feel proud of her as she tries to understand her mother?—and when the characters get angry and start trading blows, well, it's clear that Kitoh has other artistic shortcomings besides just facial expressions. He'd better stick to the giant fighting robots, because he cannot draw human anatomy worth a damn.

FINAL VERDICT:
Although emotionally moving at times, it can also feel emotionally detached, simply because of the author's restrained style. If it were more fluid and outwardly expressive, it could probably score higher than a B-.


DOGS: BULLETS AND CARNAGE
Vol. 4
(by Shirow Miwa, Viz Media, $12.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"As Campanella Frühling's train speeds on, bearing disaster to the Underground and its denizens, Bishop gives Heine more clues to his past. But the aims of Bishop, who wears his own 'collar,' are unclear: why is he revealing these things now, and why did he save Heine in the first place? Meanwhile, Badou takes on another freelance job from Granny Liza to gather information—and soon discovers it was the information that his brother died pursuing..."

EVIDENCE FOR:
If Dogs is a series that lifts gunplay to the level of high art, then that metaphor becomes literal in the closing chapters of Volume 4, where Badou goes up against a psychotic orchestra conductor in a lofty concert hall. It may be the last place one would expect a blood-soaked battle scene, but that's exactly why it's so memorable: showers of bullets and tuxedo-clad gunmen set against the backdrop of plush seats and gilded architecture, with one hell of a twist at the end of the sequence. Oh, and Badou learns a shocking secret about his past while he's at it; the memories of his brother add another layer of emotion to an already dark and complex story. Another fascinating villain is also revealed when sword-swinging Naoto inquires about her past—because who doesn't love ruthless, mentally deranged killers? As always, Miwa's use of white space, dynamic angles, and letting silence speak for itself give the series a visual rhythm that is both tortured and beautiful. The action scenes are as hard-edged as any in the genre, yet there's also a delicacy and stylishness no other artist can match.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
When action is the main selling point, that often means the story gets neglected as a result—but here the real problem is Shirow Miwa trying too hard to build up the story, creating a tangled, plot-confused mess. With three of the four main characters now digging into their deep, painful pasts, all we get is a parade of bite-size dialogue scenes where someone reveals something Really Important, right before WHEEEE time to jump over and focus on another character! At least Volume 3 had that long, heart-wrenching Heine flashback; this one reads more like a cut-and-paste of scenes from Badou's life interspersed with whatever Supporting Character X is up to. (Yes, I have trouble putting faces to names, maybe due to the fact that random cast members and villains keep showing up then disappearing after five pages.) Even more frustrating is trying to make sense of what the villains are doing, which apparently involves (1) lots of trains; (2) people named after the seasons (in German). The extreme close-ups, near-abstract images, and vague dialogue bubbles floating all over the place don't make it any easier. And because of all this haphazard plot-building, there wasn't even enough action! Now that REALLY blows.

FINAL VERDICT:
Not even classically trained musicians shooting up a concert hall can save this calamity of sloppy storytelling. That's a D grade and possibly remedial classes in How To Draw Comics So That They Make Sense.


HETALIA AXIS POWERS
Vol. 1
(by Hidekaz Himaruya, Tokyopop, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Get ready to brush up on world history with these handsome and hysterical personifications of the Axis Powers as they meet, become friends, and form one of the most powerful alliances the world has ever seen! It all begins when tough soldier Germany stumbles upon Italy who, despite being the descendant of the greatest empire in history, is found hiding in a tomato box. In another twist of fate around a rather lovely kotatsu, Japan hops on board and the Axis Powers are forged. What trials and tribulations will this mighty trio face?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Although billed as a lightweight comedy that relies on a single gimmick, Hetalia shows surprising range in its approach—not just in historical trivia, but also in different styles of comedy. The early strips rely on a standard tsukkomi-boke relationship between Germany and Italy, but this black-and-white contrast breaks out into a rainbow of hilarity as other nations enter the picture. Himaruya really hits his stride when he starts riffing on their stereotypical traits: America's fast-food-chomping self-centeredness, England's uptight sense of superiority, France's love of the arts and humanities, even Japan's passive ultra-politeness. But the series' variety doesn't just stop at ethnic jokes: this volume also steps into a time machine for the "Chibitalia" arc, which details Italy's history from the Renaissance right up to about the 18th century through a series of gags and pratfalls acted out by the ever-changing nations of Central Europe. Archaic history-textbook names like Prussia and Austria-Hungary are made real, and there are even hints of poignancy as alliances shift and colonies change hands. Creatively designed outfits for each character also add visual appeal to what would otherwise be a decidedly dry subject.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Hetalia's haphazard origins as a webcomic are evident throughout Volume 1, where crooked lines, pencil-sketch shading, and cluttered panels result in a 4-panel strip that's sloppy even by 4-panel standards. The full-page chapters flow better, but are marred by another issue: blurry, pixelated print quality, most likely a result of the artist working at web-browser fidelity but not thinking of how it would look in print. (Let this be a lesson to digital artists—always save your work in its original high resolution, juuuuust in case.) And the artistic nitpicks don't stop there: tight spacing and too many characters make it hard to distinguish lesser countries, like the Baltic trio of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, or bit players like Canada. Also, like any 4-panel series, it is often found straining for gags and doing the whole "Hur hur! This character is funny because I say so, and can't think of an actual joke!" routine. On the other side of that coin, however, is when the joke is a complex historical event that has to be explained with footnotes. Yeah, that's ... not so funny either.

FINAL VERDICT:
Although uneven in places—lots of places—there's still a strong sense of humor guiding this series. With more polish it probably has a chance to improve from its current B-.


PINK INNOCENT
Vol. 2
(by Kotori Momoyuki, Del Rey, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Hello, Kokona here. Renji-kun was about to kiss me for the first time, but then he stopped! Did I do something wrong? I'm so embarrassed. I thought boys were supposed to like kissing! How long will I have to wait for his next sweet attempt? And how am I going to practice my technique!?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
While other manga-ka seem like outsiders looking in on the lives of youth, Kotori Momoyuki genuinely seems to be in the heads of her protagonists in Pink Innocent. In Volume 2, Kokona's insecurity over her relationship with Renji continues to roil and rumble, and the way it's expressed so frankly—through action, dialogue, and interior monologue—is as close as one gets to first-person narration in a visual medium. At times Kokona's romantic troubles are pure comedy gold, like when she buys a stack of magazines with kissing tips and learns that the mass media are out to screw you with sensationalist drivel that won't help you at all in your love life. At other times the series delves into high drama, like when Kokona threatens to leave Japan in order to test Renji's heart; the thoughts going through their heads, as well as the essential differences between an impulsive girl and an overthinking boy, add depth to this typical school romance. Exciting action sequences and wordless moments also prove that Momoyuki knows how to use art to her advantage—not to mention the many emotions that cross these characters' faces as they take on the challenges of love.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
The real challenge of love, it seems, is trying to build an interesting story out of it—and that's where Pink Innocent fails. Too much of this volume involves Kokona running around whining, "Why won't Renji kiss me?!?!", and yes, this is as annoying to readers as it is to Renji. Then again, maybe he should have just acquiesced to her demands, because seeing Renji make up all sorts of wishy-washy excuses for not kissing Kokona is irritating in its own way. The series also can't seem to make up its mind about where it stands on the scale between realism and ridiculousness, as the heartfelt drama between the characters is often ruined by wacky outside events—not just comedic pratfalls, but things like a boat trip where the cruise ship suddenly splits in two and both halves stay afloat. Why is this bad physics suddenly happening in the middle of a light teenage romance?! That's just distracting. Also distracting is the cluttered sense of layout, with too many close-ups and screentone effects and panels all crammed up against each other. Then again, it's probably a way to cover up for the boring character designs ... and boring everything else.

FINAL VERDICT:
Although it makes some points about why young relationships have trouble staying together, those points don't connect smoothly at all, and so this loud, messy love story scores a C-.




PEEPO CHOO
Vol. 2
(by Felipe Smith, Vertical, $12.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Originally serialized in a comics monthly issued by Japan's premier publisher, Felipe Smith's exuberant satire rips a new one in the fabric of trans-Pacific understanding, sparing neither the Japanese media nor American manga licensors. The ugly truth about the eponymous anime is revealed in this second of three volumes of shrink-wrapped excellence."

EVIDENCE FOR:
They say it's an outrageous comedy, but Peepo Choo can also be surprisingly dark—the good, unflinching, thought-provoking kind of dark. In this volume, Yakuza thugs slice each other to bits, a troubled young gangster loses his mentor, a jaded teen model vocalizes her hatred of the misogynstic world around her, and Milton finally has his wacky Japanland fantasy crushed. Talk about depressing! Yet those dreams are crushed in a wild artistic maelstrom only Felipe Smith can convey, with his beautifully ugly character designs, over-the-top facial expressions, and uptempo, gag-a-minute pacing. Ultimately, extremes of emotion are what power this story, which vacillates between vengeance-driven gangland wars (including an unsettling "violence porn" moment), riotous fandom-skewering satire, and just plain old culture-clash jokes. Loony Japanese variety shows and robo-toilets get the Smith treatment this time, but so do greedy sex-crazed Americans and convention culture—there's just no escaping the poison pen of an equal-opportunity hater. There's even a documentary-like flashback revealing the true origins and commercial success of the Peepo Choo franchise. Truly, Peepo Choo is your rude, beer-swilling uncle who says all the politically incorrect things you could never say—and makes you laugh the whole time he's doing it.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
And, like your rude, beer-swilling uncle, Peepo Choo kind of stumbles around the house before collapsing in a drunken heap. Fortunately, Volume 2 doesn't actually collapse, but it does do a lot of stumbling around, with two distinct storylines that just don't seem to be coming together. The Yakuza subplot grows ever more intriguing and violent, but still shows little sign of connecting to what Milton and friends are up to (aside from that one guy who's running the show from behind the shadows). At the same time, Milton's misadventures in the land of his dreams don't show a whole lot of focus, with each chapter seemingly little more than a blank wall upon which Smith spray-paints his latest anti-everything rant. Let's see, he's already riffed on crazy Japanese cartoons and comics, magazines, TV shows, toilets, salarymen, idols—yeah, material's going to run out pretty soon unless Milton's adventure actually starts going somewhere. There's also a bit of laziness to the artwork, with big stretches of gray spanning some pages where backgrounds apparently aren't important enough to be worth drawing. For a work so fiercely energetic, it's kind of a shame.

FINAL VERDICT:
Again, it has its imperfections, but that's why everyone loves it—this is a series so deliciously raw in its portrayal of pop-culture madness that everyone can relate to and enjoy it in some way.




Man, Pink Innocent sure left a bland taste in my mouth. So who's up for something a little more appealing? Yorozuya recommends the following modern classic for those who want to feel the stirrings of young romance! (But why the sudden hate on Rumiko Takahashi? That's just mean.)

WE WERE THERE
(by Yuki Obata, Viz Media, $8.99/$9.99 ea.)


Nanami starts high school with the goal in mind of making as many friends as possible but then (surprise, surprise), the most popular and rude boy in the year starts to catch her eye. Could she be … falling for him? However, things get complicated when Nanami realises he's been betrayed before; it won't be easy for her to gain his trust.

Despite how ordinary that sounds, there is something about this very typical story that definitely sets it apart and that is its very quiet, lingering pace. While it is true that the story progresses at a fairly rapid rate (with a confession only a few chapters in); the 'events' themselves don't feel forced on you, in fact they barely feel like events at all. Just small, everyday moments, that catch Nanami by surprise.

Nanami is also very easy to relate to, as most girls will remember going to a party (and getting all dressed up) , thinking he'll be there, only to be disappointed. There are very few (if any) chance meetings between them out of school. Which means there are moments where Nanami has to take control by conciously seeking him out.

Yano (the guy), is also very likeable, though he can be a bit of a douche at times. His 'issues' are a very fundamental part of the story but at the same time it seems as though his personality would cause complications in any relationship as he's very contradictory.

The biggest problem with the series is probably how often very little events escalate, such as when Yano goes to see another girl because he feels guilty—but at the same time it's difficult to fault it for them. I've definitely known other people my age who've broken up over things just as trivial.

The art isn't AMAZING but it's cute enough and doesn't involve too many sparkles. Besides you can tell who is who and that's more than Rumiko can say for herself.

The series is still in print in the UK [and in the US], so if you're in the mood for romance with a little less flustering hyperactivity than usual, this is the series is for you. (There's also an anime, for anyone who's interested.) I wouldn't say this is the best romance out there but it's definitely up there on the scale.



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 (plain text format preferred). 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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