RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Soul Feud

by Carlo Santos, Mar 15th 2011


Even with a few days to process things, I really can't find the words to discuss my thoughts and feelings on the terrible disaster that has struck Japan.

Although I'm here writing words about fictional story-and-picture books, let's not forget that these were all made by real people with real lives, and that they need everyone's support right now.

Let's do whatever we can to help those affected by the earthquake—not just in our words and thoughts, but in our actions too.



BUTTERFLY
Vol. 1
(by Yu Aikawa, Tokyopop, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Ginji Ishikawa despises anything related to the occult. The hatred stems from the visions of his dead brother's ghost that haunt him nightly. When an incident at a haunted mansion lands him in hot water, only the assistance of a child named Ageha gets him out of trouble. However, Ageha suggests Ginji repay the debt by entering the very last line of work he ever wanted: ghost-busting!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Where suspense thrillers are too ordinary to cross over into the occult, and where supernatural actioners are too noisy to sit down and ponder the cerebral, that's where Butterfly treads—in that mysterious, foggy space between the psychological and the paranormal. This series shows its true depth when Ageha explains that the "ghosts" Ginji sees are actually "fakes"—and gives a much more intriguing explanation rooted in the classic wisdom about seeing what we want to see and letting our imaginations give rise to reality. So while it still operates like a typical spirit-hunting series ... there's a distinct twist at the heart of the story that makes it quite unlike any typical spirit-hunting series. The irreverent sense of humor also prevents it from plunging too far into supernatural self-indulgence, with Ginji's amusingly sarcastic attitude towards the occult at the beginning, and later on his confusion over whether his services to Ageha may in fact involve sexual favors. The brief but satisfying fight scenes during Ginji and Ageha's exorcisms also prove that there's an action side to this series, making it a well-rounded story that approaches the genre from an unexpected angle.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Although Yu Aikawa's creativity extends pretty far, there's one thing seriously holding Butterfly back ... the art. The series' visual limitations are obvious early on and never really go away: the pedestrian sense of character design (as typified by Ginji's bland bishounen looks), the shaky inconsistency in the way supporting characters are drawn, and the plain approach to textures and backgrounds. Maybe that's the real reason this series' version of the spirit world rests on the workings of the human mind—the artist simply lacks the ability to draw elaborate, ninth-level-of-hell creations, so it's easier to say that everything comes from the power of imagination. But sometimes, imagination comes up short even in trying to tell the story—the premise and the first few chapters are full of twists and surprises, but by the time this volume gets to the part about the swimming pool ghost who pulls victims underwater, we've regressed right back into urban-legend material that occupies every supernatural-themed manga. The formulaic pattern of having Ginji fight off each ghost doesn't help either. Hopefully the subplot concerning his dead brother leads things down a more promising path...

FINAL VERDICT:
Although it has some strong ideas behind it, the formulaic story patterns and so-so visuals hold it back. C+ with crossed fingers that it improves as the story develops.


CHI'S SWEET HOME
Vol. 5
(by Konami Kanata, Vertical, $13.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"For outdoors felines, the world beyond their home is at their paw-tips. But with a little bit of cat instinct and ingenuity, any tabby can conquer a yard, alley or even small community with ease. And the most ambitious of kitties start young. Chi has the potential to be a wonderful shorthair. If this little one can just keep her whiskers out of trouble, she should make her mama proud."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Volume 5 of Chi's Sweet Home picks up right where the last one left off, with the inquisitive kitten still becoming acquainted with people and places around her new apartment. But where the previous volume seemed to tumble about with the chaos of moving house, this one moves much more smoothly, capturing the joy of discovery as Chi ventures into Dad's 2nd-floor study ... then past the cat-flap into the backyard ... and past the yard to the road outside ... and to the playground at the end of the road ... see where we're going here? As Konami Kanata fills out the details of Chi's neighborhood, the neat lines and bright colors really bring out the suburban shine. The real soul of this volume, though, is found in the animal pals that Chi meets: she gets friendly with the Scottish Fold who lives next door, for starters, but the real attention-grabber is when she runs into a blast from her past. The plot doesn't exactly come full circle, but it does refer to earlier characters and events in a way that thickens the plot and adds a new layer of poignancy to this orphaned kitten's story.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Although this volume takes some daring steps into new territory, there are still some weaker aspects of the series that Kanata just can't let go of. The first few chapters are centered on Chi goofing off around the house, which is exactly the same as it ever was and adds nothing new to the series. Going hand in hand with that is the banal "dawww, cats are so cute and playful" sense of humor that belongs on cheap greeting cards, not charming slice-of-life comics. This absence of plot and emotional shallowness means having to wade through lots of fluff before getting to the good part. And even then, the storyline misses the boat on potential drama: there's a lot of talk about Chi possibly seeing (and even being reunited with) her mother, but the resulting events don't really touch the heart as much as they could have. And a major character reunion ends up being a dud when that character seems more interested in trotting with Chi around the neighborhood than engaging in thoughtful conversation. Then again, the overly simple artwork and design may not be ready for that kind of subtlety anyway.

FINAL VERDICT:
Ah, it comes close to greatness in the later chapters ... but stops just a little short. Chalk it up as a B-.


GENKAKU PICASSO
Vol. 2
(by Usumaru Furuya, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Having cheated death, Hikari Hamura must save himself by using his artistic abilities to help others.
Suddenly the world around Hikari has gotten so much more complicated. Hikari finds that with every new sketch comes a new mystery. With Chiaki's help, will he be able to solve them before it's too late?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Seriously, how does Genkaku Picasso manage to stay so consistently awesome? The series that began with bold, rebellious strokes of creativity still holds to that high standard in Volume 2, with Furuya continuing to push his abilities as an artist. In one scenario he subtly differentiates between 2-D "doujinshi art" and 3-D substance in Hikari's pencil-shaded dreamland, and in another he warps our perception of scale as characters move from doll-sized to human-sized and sometimes even overlap between worlds. And to do it while maintaining proper character anatomy, meticulous shading, and clean, easily understood layouts—it's a textbook example of knowing all the rules in order to break them. But this artistic virtuosity would be nothing without the stories, which take familiar problems of youth—first love, insecurity, gender identity, personal goals—and uses the series' whimsical premise to portray these issues in visually unique ways. (Furuya even parodies the Disney pop-culture empire and the Hello! Project idol system—there's just no predicting his imagination, is there?) And when Hikari finally solves his classmates' problems, causing the visual metaphors to morph into a happier form, those are the moments that make everything worth it.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Well, if Genkaku Picasso's repetition hadn't worn you out by the end of Volume 1, it surely will now, as Hikari's escapades continue to follow a very specific format: he sketches a bizarre portrait of someone's problem, falls into the drawing, and then has to do or say something to make the kid happy and pop back out. Honestly, if Hikari's special ability was being able to see spirits, or being a ninja, and he used those abilities to help people in the same way over and over, we'd all be saying what a generic series this is. And speaking of generic, the problems Hikari takes on are all straight out of the After-School Special scriptbook: how to cope with not having a girlfriend, or learning not to be ashamed of your geeky interests, or coming to terms with transgenderedness (which Wandering Son handles far better anyway). Even the brilliant Disneyland parody is just window dressing for a trite "follow your dreams" type of plot. If Furuya really wants to prove how creative he is, he ought to start thinking up better stories.

FINAL VERDICT:
It may be repetitive and trite, but as they say, sometimes it's not what you do but how you do it. That's why this volume scores a B+ for portraying familiar issues in such unique ways.


SOUL EATER
Vol. 5
(by Atsushi Ohkubo, Yen Press, $11.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"On the night of DWMA's anniversary celebration, every meister and weapon in Death City has gathered at the school for an evening of music and dancing. Little do they know that the witch Medusa is about to crash Shinigami-sama's party. Trapping the meister inside, the witch makers her way into the chamber where the First Kishin is imprisoned. Will the few meisters who've escaped be enough to prevent Medusa from rousing the madness that slumbers far below in the Kishin's domain?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
What could be better than a spirited one-on-one battle? A spirited one-on-one battle drawn by Atsushi Ohkubo, of course! This volume of Soul Eater even offers a special three-for-one deal with multiple characters fighting for their lives. Ohkubo's slick artwork and endless imagination are on display no matter which scenario you turn to: Dr. Stein taking on Medusa and her stylish brand of "vector" magic, Maka invoking some scythe-wielding gymnastics to fend off Crona, and even resident animal mascot Blair showing off her magical manuevers (it takes a pretty sharp sense of humor to name an attack "Smashing Pumpkin"). But all this eye candy has substance to it too, especially in the surprises and flashbacks that emerge from the Maka/Crona battle. It's not just that Crona defies logic and catches Maka off-guard by using blood as a weapon—it's that there's also a dark, unsettling history of psychological conditioning that explains Crona's listless demeanor. And an even darker, more unsettling explanation as to why Medusa has kept Crona around so long. Let's also not forget the tension in the air as Death the Kid races to reach the Kishin, providing plenty of fuel to keep the action going.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Ohkubo may have a sharp eye for design, tossing out dramatic action poses like a gumball dispenser, but there are still a number of holes in his skill set that prevent Soul Eater from being a true artistic triumph. Backgrounds are often an afterthought, with entire pages sometimes being pure fields of white as the characters dance about in the panels. And the backgrounds he does draw show a classic case of Bleach syndrome where the combatants are sealed off in sterile, four-walled arenas. It's just easier to draw fight scenes when all obstructions have been conveniently removed, right? The pacing is also far from perfect, with Maka and Soul's battle with Crona taking up far too many pages and the other fights seemingly just interludes that the author has to jump to before he forgets about them. Medusa and Dr. Stein also end up bogging down the action with their long, expository conversation about the villains' diabolical master plan. But even that's not as much of a buzzkill as the very chapter that begins this volume, the school party that could put readers to sleep before the battle for the Academy can even begin ...

FINAL VERDICT:
How is it that an ambitious, multi-threaded fight scene can feel so ... unexciting? Uneven pacing and artistic blind spots can be the only answer, landing this volume a C grade.


TORIKO
Vol. 4
(by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In a savage world ruled by the pursuit of the most delicious foods, it's either eat or be eaten! While searching for the tastiest foods imaginable, Gourmet Hunter Toriko travels the world with his bottomless stomach, facing every beast in his way.
The GT Robot sent by the Gourmet Corp. has Toriko seeing red. But can Toriko defeat this bionic brute and protect the injured Battle Wolf? And when the gigantic Regal Mammoth is the next target of the IGO, Toriko's going to need the help of another old friend."

EVIDENCE FOR:
The latest Toriko is more "Hunter" than "Gourmet," but with the level of fierceness that our hero fights at, is anyone complaining? Toriko's hand-to-hand showdown with the GT Robot is pure manly-man action—a throwback to those grand old days of shonen manga when a hot-blooded passion for battle was the greatest thing to aspire to. Yet there is still room for finesse, as proven by the detail that goes into the artwork: meticulous hatching and texturing gives the battle almost a 3-D feel, from the hairy hide of the robot to the rock-strewn arena that the combatants fight in. Don't forget the dazzling speedlines and intense camera angles, either—all of which add up to grandiose, larger-than-life visuals. What appears on the page is only part of that grandiosity, though, as Shimabukuro's wild imagination is what really powers this series' sense of scale: a dinner table the size of a baseball field, a mammoth the size of a space shuttle, and the superpowered hunter-gatherers who dare to take them on. With new characters and creatures debuting throughout this book, it looks like Toriko's presence as an over-the-top tough guy is just the tip of the iceberg.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Although it's fun to ponder the insane sense of scale this series is built on—if these guys can defeat a full-grown dragon, I'd like to see the oven big enough to roast it—pure ideas can only go so far in supporting a proper story. The actual conflict between the IGO and the Gourmet Corp. is still just a paper-thin pretext at this point, an excuse to pit ridiculous warriors and ridiculous creatures against each other. Toriko himself remains a one-dimensional character, defined only by the traits of "eating lots of things" and "punching lots of things." And if that's all that can be said about the protagonist, imagine how poorly-developed the supporting cast must be: sidekick Komatsu is about as interesting as the page numbers on the corners, while fellow Gourmet Hunters like Mansom and Sunny are more like collections of superpowers than actual human beings. The storyline that they're involved in also lacks any real cohesion or substance—it's just one exaggerated fight after another, with the search for the Regal Mammoth wedged in as an excuse. At this monotonous rate, Toriko and friends are eventually going to be capturing and eating entire galaxies. And it will be boring.

FINAL VERDICT:
Despite the thrilling battles and mind-bending scenes of excess, the actual content of this volume lacks variety—kind of like eating the same dish for a week. And that's when C- grades are given out.




THE STORY OF LEE
Vol. 1
(by Sean Michael Wilson and Chie Kutsuwada, NBM, $11.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Lee, living in Hong Kong, meets Matt, a fine young Scot. Their relationship becomes stronger by the day, despite their deep cultural differences. But there is Lee's dad to contend with, who views this affair very suspiciously. And there is another contender for Lee's heart, a Chinese young man, whose jealousy takes on twinges of xenophobia. Will Lee and Matt's relationship successfully cross the cultural divide and overcome the negative odds? Two worlds collide creating good sparks ... and bad ones."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Although everyone now knows him as the editor of the AX literary manga anthology, Sean Michael Wilson proves himself equally adept as a writer of down-to-earth fiction in The Story of Lee. Chie Kutsuwada, too, looks to be much more in her element illustrating a romantic manga than trying to adapt centuries-old samurai tales, and the result is a gently flowing work that reflects universal truths about about the challenges of love. With so many different conflicts in play, it's remarkable that Wilson is able to weave all the plot points together: East versus West, young versus old, family versus individuality, and of course a nice healthy dose of man versus woman. The choice of Hong Kong as a setting also provides the perfect nexus for this culture clash—where else in Asia are you going to find a city even more vibrant and cosmopolitan than Tokyo? Matt and Lee's pointed conversations about their differing cultural values provide the intellectual highlight of this volume, but there's a heartbreaking turn of events that proves Wilson's ability as a writer of emotion too. The simple layouts and clean, fluid character designs also provide a contemporary visual style that many will find appealing.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Forgive me if I'm a little cynical about the whole white guys dating Asian girls thing. Despite Wilson's best intentions, it's hard not to see Matt as a wish-fulfillment character who miraculously sweeps an exotic beauty off her feet because (1) he knows a guy who knows a guy from her favorite band, and (2) he writes poetry on the side. (Quick, check if his skin sparkles in sunlight!) Meanwhile, the only legitimate romantic rival—that "other Chinese guy"—is treated as a mere obstacle to be knocked over, while Lee's father is basically a conflation of negative Asian parent stereotypes, making it that much easier to dismiss him as a generic villain. What's so bumpy about this road to romance if all the roadblocks break away on contact? The story isn't helped by the pretentious name-dropping of Hong Kong locales and the even more pretentious insertion of song lyrics from cooler-than-thou rock bands. These references may help Wilson personally to set his scene, but what about readers who aren't necessary familiar with them? The plain city backgrounds and lack of panel variety also give the artwork a sometimes stiff appearance.

FINAL VERDICT:
Although a good try at slice-of-life romance, it also carries an air of self-aware pretension. But don't let that stop you from enjoying the smart writing and gentle waves of emotion.




In this week's Reader's Choice: who knew that a high school drama with a historical twist could get so ... twisted? Well, the ever-prolific Eric P. checks in with the latest volumes of a fascinating yet underrated series.

NG LIFE
Vols. 1-6
(by Mizuho Kusanagi, Tokyopop, $10.99 ea.)


NG Life is a story about high school student Keidai Saeki, who remembers his past life as Sirix from Pompeii, Italy, and now reincarnated into modern Japan. It is a world where his best friend, Loleus, is now his female classmate and still-best friend, Mii, his biggest rival from the past is now his father, and his sister is now his mother. He was soon reunited with his former lover, Serena—who was now a guy named Yuuma. Despite the gender change, Keidai was unable to separate the two persons in his mind, and thus could not stop his attraction, so much so it tormented him. While Yuuma thought of Keidai as a weirdo, they still became friends. At the start Mii seemed unsure whether to really believe Keidai about his past life. She still supported him, partly due to her quiet feelings for him (which may or may not raise questions on Loleus's feelings of Sirix in the past), although she feels that his memories are always keeping them at a distance.

Keidai at one point wondered whether or not his memories were just delusions, but then he met the male teacher Kagami, who not only was Serena's older sister in the past life, Smyrna, but even shared the same memories of Pompeii as Keidai. Since then Keidai has met additional people from his past life, including mercenary Delos, now named Souichi, and noblewoman Aglaia, now wealthy girl Shuna. Souichi retained his memories as well, and Shuna had her memories for a time—before they just vanished. Nobody knows or understands why that is the case, except perhaps Shuna consciously wanted to forget, so she could live her life in this world and perhaps fall in love with Souichi. Yuuma has his moments where he is in the process of reconnecting with his past self, but the spirit of Serena prevents it, saying there is no need trying to remember something that need not be remembered. And lately Keidai suspects of Mii's feelings for him, which further confuses him as to where his true heart lies, and whether the past or the present is more important to him.

How much should we treasure our pasts? Does it disrupt the lives we are living in the present? To what extent should we discard said pasts so that we can be able to face forward and move on? Keidai and all the other characters face this in their own unique ways in this rather intriguing fantasy teen-romance from Tokyopop, their latest entertaining offering since Fruits Basket and Chibi Vampire. I for one am anticipative of Keidai hopefully looking past Loleus's image and just see Mii as the girl she is now at the end of their journey together.



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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