RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Come On And Slam
by Carlo Santos,
As I write this, I'm watching the San Francisco Giants celebrate winning their division once again. I'll spare everyone the baseball chatter and overblown sports metaphors this year. But you know what's funny? In the Japanese pro league, the Yomiuri Giants (whose colors were modeled after the U.S. team) are so successful that they're known as "the Yankees of Japan."
To me, however, the Giants will always be the Giants of San Francisco.
GENSHIKEN: SECOND SEASON
(by Shimoku Kio, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"A new academic year means new members for the lovably misfit Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture! Club president Chika Ogiue now has to manage a fresh-faced trio of yaoi fans (one of whom dabbles in cross-dressing), a surly American transfer student with a penchant for obscure anime quotes, and her own rising career as a professional manga artist. Can she actually find time to draw her own vanity project for Comic-Fest?"
Launching several years after the original, Genshiken: Second Season comes as both a reboot and continuation, proving that geekiness is truly timeless. Several characters are new, but they're just as well-developed as the original cast. Each member has particular tastes and quirks, yet there's more to them than superficial otaku jokes: deeper personal traits and back-stories help to round out each character. Among the newcomers, none is more fascinating than Hato, a boy who's into the yaoi scene and cross-dresses as a girl to fit in. More than just a gender-bender gag, Hato takes center stage in Volume 1, making the other Genshiken members confront their own personal biases about gender identity. The series also rings remarkably true in its portrayal of how fandom has changed: it's a girls' world now, and the stereotype of a male-dominated subculture is fast becoming out of date. Meanwhile, the artwork proves that Shimoku's skills haven't gotten rusty at all—the precise, detailed character designs give everyone a distinct look to suit their personality, while the clubroom is as crammed as ever with anime merchandise. The ever-changing panel sizes also add variety to the layouts, and keep the visual rhythms from getting stale.
Just as in the first volume of the original Genshiken, the biggest problem with this one is that it relies too much on the concept of "geeks hanging out." Nothing against hanging out—that's what I did in my college anime club days as well—but when that's all they do, with no major goals or raging conflicts, the story starts to feel like a pointless one. The opening chapter is especially bad about this: the whole thing seems like a "checklist chapter" where every club member past and present shows up just for the sake of showing up. Ogiue's hectic schedule as a manga artist suggests the beginning of a meaningful story arc, but it's too often overshadowed by random interactions involving the other club members. Character- and relationship-building is a good thing, but not at the expense of actual story progress. Meanwhile, the otaku humor in these chapters can seem too forced and dated at times, like the constant references to Bakemonogatari (which isn't quite as hyped as it used to be). Sometimes it's just better to stick to the made-up franchises and the classics.
Interesting characters, humor that works, and an accurate portrayal of the fandom—what more could you ask for? A more purposeful storyline would have helped, but everything else is good enough that it deserves a B+.
(by Tsukasa Fushimi, Sakura Ikeda and Hiro Kanzuki, Dark Horse, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"High-school student Kyousuke doesn't get along with his cranky, dismissive, and secretive fourteen-year-old little sister Kirino, but he suddenly finds himself forced to protect Kirino's secrets—she's not only a gorgeous fashion model, a track star, and an accomplished student, but she's also obsessed with naughty video games and little kids' fantasy anime! How can Kirino maintain her complicated lifestyle—and how can Kyousuke maintain his sanity? And might the two of them, somehow, just maybe, ever become friends?"
There are plenty of series about the otaku lifestyle, but none quite as unique as Oreimo, where an attractive, fashionable main character plays the stereotypical geek. The early chapters thrive on this unexpected contrast and the resulting chaos: Kirino turning into a hilarious, nervous wreck as Kyousuke unearths her secret, the quick-witted exchanges between sister and brother as they discuss personal interests and social norms, and Kirino's passionate gushing over her favorite anime and dating-sim games. Surely we can all sympathize with the challanges of trying to explain a hobby to someone who doesn't understand. However, the story really hits its stride when Kyousuke takes Kirino out to meet some fans in real life—and fireworks of hatred erupt between Kirino and brooding goth-loli cosplayer Kuroneko. When it comes to the "bitter rivals" archetype, you can't ask for much better chemistry than that. Simple, sharp-lined artwork and distinctive character designs capture the eye, while panel layouts flow naturally from one page to the next. The parody images that mimic typical moe-style art are dead-on as well, making the otaku aspect that much more believable.
How can you tell when something is based on a light novel? When the characters talk too much and the narrator (Kyousuke, in this case) fills up every scene with his commentary. Yes, a lot of Oreimo's wit comes from its writing, but this adaptation seems too afraid to let the images—Kyousuke's expressions, Kirino's antics, the ero-game screenshots—speak for themselves. But even worse than unnecessary dialogue is an unnecessary subplot, which in this case is the friendship between Kyousuke and classmate Manami. Although she serves as a convenient voice of reason, her discussions with Kyousuke seem to be completely walled off from the rest of the story. Other plot elements also feel rather arbitrary—for example, Kirino's success at sports and academics is mentioned in one scene, but it doesn't play into any other part of the story. The artwork, meanwhile, reveals the shortcomings of a novice artist: backgrounds are either left out or drawn with too little detail, and at worst, stock photos end up being the image of choice. The excessive Kirino fanservice in Chapter 1 is also pretty ridiculous to look at.
A fresh take on otaku culture plus a dynamic cast of characters show plenty of promise—but the writing needs to be more succinct and the art more accomplished. Chalk up a B- for this first volume.
(by Ai Yazawa, Vertical, $19.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Yukari Hayasaka is a studious, straight-laced high school senior, racing towards college exams yet with no real sense of purpose in her life. One day she's kidnapped by a troupe of fashion design students and whisked away to their lounge-like atelier. There they ask her to be their model for their school fashion show. At first she resists, scornful of the odd-looking design students, until George, the lead designer, uses his wiles to join them while forcing Yukari to take a good, hard look at her life."
Admittedly, the premise of Paradise Kiss sounds like an improbable schoolyard fantasy—ordinary girl falls for glamorous fashion prodigy, then enters alternate hipster universe—but the emotions are real. Yukari's conflicted feelings for George make up the perfect romantic rollercoaster: is she in love with his suave, independent spirit, or does she hate his self-absorbed, unpredictable coldness? The last few chapters of this volume hit all of those extremes, rocketing between high and low and in-between in a single night. Even the first romantic arc in this volume is wonderfully bittersweet, despite Yukari not being the central character—instead it's lovable ingenue Miwako who must confront past regrets over her two childhood friends. Yet there's more to the series than just who loves who; there are valuable life lessons to be learned in Yukari's struggle between her conservative, college-bound life and the Bohemian ways of the studio kids. That message of individualism is also clear to see in Ai Yazawa's art style, which freely diverges from "normal manga" and instead takes its cue from the worlds of high fashion and counterculture. Highly original character designs, along with opulent surroundings and elaborate design elements, add up to a unique aesthetic experience.
Don't be fooled by the propaganda this manga is spreading about the free-spirited lives of art/design/fashion students. Yazawa creates this unrealistic binary choice where "following creative dreams = good, taking college exams = bad," when deciding one's future is surely more complicated than that. The incidents in this volume show no subtlety: anything Yukari does involving school makes her unhappy, while anything involving the atelier is glamorous and cool, even when she feels uncomfortable. How is she supposed choose her own life path when the author is practically choosing it for her? The story is made even more unrealistic by some of the characters' privileged lives: George gets his own car and apartment because of an insanely rich father, while Miwako's entire family is successful in artistic endeavors. Even the way Yukari falls for George—"Ah, he's so cool and mysterious"—is as clichéd as they come. And it's not just the story that comes off as fake: the photo-referenced, pasted-in backgrounds make it look like the art was half-drawn, then shoved through a copy machine with street scenes of Tokyo. Gratuitous screentones and no gutters between the panels also result in a cluttered look.
With improbable characters and situations like that, it really is just a schoolyard fantasy. But the stylish art and genuine emotions make it worth a B.
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"It's the second half of Shohoku's debut game in the National Championship. Toyotama boasts the top three scorers from the Osaka regionals, and they're bent on nothing less than crushing Shohoku! But Coach Anzai's got a plan: steal the ball, run and score, facing Toyotama's run-and-gun style head on! If Shohoku can't beat Toyotama at their best game, what chance do they have of beating last year's champion Sannoh in the next round?"
Is it possible to capture the speed and exhilaration of run-and-gun basketball in manga form? If Takehiko Inoue's doing the drawing, you bet it is. Practically every other page is a masterclass on how to draw uptempo sports action: the carefully studied anatomy, the dramatic angles (often with the player running straight out of the page), the closeups that reveal intense emotions. However, this doesn't mean every scene goes flying off with wild abandon: the precise, rectangular panels and meticulous background art show that there's still plenty of control and clarity to the visuals as well. And yes, there is a story amidst all the basketball action, particularly when a player-coach dispute turns violent and we learn of the issues that led Toyotama up to this moment. In the closing minutes, a flashback involving Toyotama's star player also adds depth to the team's background—a reminder that antagonists also have their own side of the story to tell. The Shohoku team gets a turn in the spotlight too: Rukawa playing through an eye injury is just plain inspiring, and Sakuragi makes it "fun and gun" with his goofy, self-praising chatter and mad rebounding skills.
Even though Slam Dunk is very good at what it does, the very nature of basketball tournaments has forced the series into a predictable pattern. Once again, there'll be an epic comeback, Shohoku's boys are going to find an amazing hidden reserve of willpower, and the opposing team is going to get a poignant flashback so we can feel sorry for them near the end. It's the same devices that have been used in past story arcs, only this time with different players. The gameplay may be fast-paced, but without no big surprises or new ideas, it's just a one-dimensional storyline involving a one-dimensional team. The panel layouts, in their attempt to capture the frantic energy of the game, can also feel pretty crowded at times—somehow, Inoue insists on drawing every single movement that a player makes, even when it's unnecessary. Just as redundant are the reaction shots showing the faces of various players and spectactors in the arena—honestly, when someone makes a dramatic play, there's no need to point out ten different people gaping at how dramatic it was.
It lacks the originality to reach masterpiece level, but as a dose of uptempo sports action, the polished art and exciting pace are still worthy of a B.
UNTIL DEATH DO US PART
(by Hiroshi Takashige and Double-S, Yen Press, $18.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Protecting Haruka from Ex Solid has gotten Mamoru involved in an even more sinister plot, organized by the terrorist group known as the Plunderers. The swordsman's reckless tactics generate results, but they have also attracted the attention of the terrorists' leader, Edge Turus. Mamoru's allies in the Wall and the very people who hired him begin to fear that Mamoru's methods are too extreme and could endanger those around him, including Haruka herself. Meanwhile, the police are connecting the dots between Haruka's abduction and the recent string of attacks. As they and Edge close in, it may only be a matter of time before Mamoru has nowhere to run!"
The storyline continues to take new and dangerous twists in Until Death Do Us Part, but if there's one thing readers can count on, it's that Mamoru will always have some insane feat of swordsmanship up his sleeve. That he does it all blind, with only a pair of sonar-powered glasses hooked up to his brain, makes it even more amazing—superhuman skill working in tandem with super technology. This volume has no shortage of jaw-droppers, like Mamoru's technique for slicing off a victim's limbs, or a battle against a silent enemy that appears "invisible" to sonic sensing. And it's not just the ideas that are mind-bending and out of this world: the artwork turns every action scene into a showpiece, from the wire-frame "Matrix" look that represents Mamoru's view of the world, to the white-knuckled car chases as Haruka and company dash from one spot to another, to the intense gunfights that inevitably break out. The multi-layered story also goes beyond simple good-versus-evil notions, with various factions (vigilantes, terrorists, special forces, and police) all locked in a complex urban war where tension runs high and Haruka stands at the center.
Until Death Do Us Part is a series with lots of high-concept ideas—but has no idea what to do with them. This story could have been about vigilantism and justice, or the mysteries of superhuman skill like Haruka's ESP and Mamoru's fighting ability, or the use of technology for good or evil ... but no, it's just one overblown action scene after another. If the characters ever do slow down for a serious discussion, all they're doing is planning ahead for the next action scene: "We've got to do this to stay ahead of the terrorists; this is the information we've gathered so far," and so on. The emphasis on action over proper storytelling also means that some plot points can be difficult to follow, especially when secondary characters are in the spotlight. Who are these guys again and what are they up to? may be a typical reponse to, let's say, the police officers gathering around and analyzing a situation (at which point they're three steps behind everyone else anyway). The artwork also turns out rather plain and lacking in detail when depicting scenes that don't involve high-stakes battle.
In the end, this volume is a flashy, action-adventure production that tries to be complex but really isn't. The fights and chases are fun, but the overall quality is a C.
(by Fumiyo Kouno, Futabasha, ¥580/$4.99 online)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"One day, a young woman named Kimiko meets a little lost bird named Pippira. Living with the little bird becomes a series of surprises and discoveries. Before long this little happiness becomes, to Kimiko, an irreplacable treasure in her day to day life."
Fumiyo Kouno brings her soothing style of storytelling to the pets-and-animals genre in Pippira Note, based on her personal experiences of owning a budgie. Immediately it stands out as an example of four-panel format done right: each strip captures a brief, humorous moment without forcing itself to be funny, and Kouno never tries to squeeze in unnecessary dialogue. Indeed, who needs constant chatter when you've got all the amusement you need from a budgie making mischief behind a curtain, or trying to assault its owner's face? The various episodes of Kimi and Pippira's daily life—running a restaurant, dealing with the weather, meeting friends (including an oversized budgie named Jumbo)—could well be compared to the charm of Chi's Sweet Home. However, with a highly intelligent bird in the lead role instead of a naïve little kitten, this series definitely has its own flavor. The art also fits perfectly within the constraints of four-panel manga: simple enough to differentiate the characters, but also sophisticated enough to portray Pippira and friends realistically. Subtle lines and shading also lift this above the standards of typical gag manga—the artist knows what she's doing and isn't using the format as a crutch.
Even a high-level, critically acclaimed manga-ka can only do so much in four panels. Pippira Note could definitely have said more about the heartwarming relationship between pet and owner, but it never does, instead settling for one light gag after another. People who don't like constant repetition may want to steer clear, as the plot goes something like this: Pippira bothers Kimi while she's cleaning house, Pippira bothers Kimi while she's talking to a friend, Pippira bothers her while she's relaxing ... and so it goes for a hundred-plus pages. Shouldn't the two of them show signs of growing more attached to each other over time? Even the interactions between human characters lack substance—Kimi seems happy to make small talk with friends, family and other pet owners, but the bonds never go deeper than that. The humor also struggles to stay consistent, as some strips simply fall flat when they get to the final panel: Pippira suddenly flies into a rage, or Kimi overreacts in a nonsensical manner, and somehow that's supposed to be funny just because it is. Unfortunately, punchlines only work if there's good material leading up to it.
It's not exactly deep or thought-provoking, but it warms the heart with true-to-life tales of keeping a pet. Fans of laid-back, "cute animal" manga will be right at home.
Do you believe in fairies? Then maybe this week's Reader's Choice is for you! Please welcome back faithful RTO reader Jean-Karlo, who shares a few thoughts on a manga that takes on the fairy mythos.
What mysterious creatures spark your imagination? Fairies, vampires, zombies, ninjas? If there's a manga that touches upon your particular interest, send in a review about it and it could be the next Reader's Choice!
(by Kaori Yuki, Viz Media, $8.99 ea.)
Written by Kaori Yuki and published in the U.S. by Viz's Shojo Beat line, Fairy Cube manages to touch upon most everything that a story involving fairies during a contemporary setting would need: restrictive parents, idealism in a cynical world, treachery, wishes gone wrong ... Changeling: The Dreaming fans will feel right at home from page one. The story goes that young Ian is reunited with his childhood friend, Rin. The two would escape their abusive parents to see fairies dancing in the woods. Unfortunately, one of them was Tokage: a red-eyed, green-haired clone of Ian that only he could see. After Tokage steals Ian's body, Ian finds himself in the middle of a plot carried out by "Wing People," men and women posessed by fairies trapped in the titular cubes. (Kaori uses the term almost interchangably with "changeling.")
Kaori Yuki is best known for dark works like Angel Sanctuary and Godchild. While lighter than either, Fairy Cube is still quite dark: childhood abuse (physical or otherwise), bloody murders, and sexual tension are the order of the day. Kaori Yuki also drops several references to fairy folklore: The Seelie and Unseelie courts are mentioned, and many types of fairies appear with named or unnamed appearances—a banshee howls during Ian's murder, for example, and one character outs herself as a Leanan Sidhe. Unfortunately, you need more than references and atmosphere to make a good story, and Fairy Cube suffers fromhaving a plot that not only finds itself buried under all of the shadow games (everyone is plotting against everyone else, it seems) but also feels awkwardly paced. One never walks away from Fairy Cube fully understanding what it was that just happened.
Fairy Cube's artwork draws no complaints, at least: there are better and worse way of drawing cities and schools. The more "outlandish" fairies stand out, as does Ainsel, Ian's cute, tsundere fairy-companion. It's a shame that so many other "fairies" are just wispy-looking people in tunics. The fairy magic is also surprisingly mundane: apparently, it doesn't revolve around jinxes or curses so much as throwing fireballs around. Who would have thought Changelings were so mundane?
The series also includes a minor spin-off named "Psycho Knocker", which not only boasts an extremely unfortunate title, but also feels like a rather obvious pilot for a spin-off series. A decent follow-up, it at least adds closure for two characters.
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)
- 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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