RIGHT TURN ONLY!! - Midnight in Vinland

by Rebecca Silverman, Apr 22nd 2014

I think I've started the introduction to this column about four times. For some reason, I haven't liked anything I've written, which probably means that I shouldn't work on any of my fiction today. But I guess it's just one of those days – you know, where nothing you do seems right and you change shirts five times in the morning because they all feel wrong. I once asked some Australian neighbors if there really were “days like that, even in Australia,” but they just looked at me like I was crazy. Oh well. I guess we can't all have read the (picture book) classics.


VINLAND SAGA
Vol. 2
(by Makoto Yukimura, Kodansha, $19.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

ENGLAND AT WAR   The foolish King Ethelred has fled, and Askeladd's band is one of hundreds plundering the English countryside. Yet victory brings no peace to the elderly Danish King Sweyn, who worries that his untested, sensitive son Canute will never be ready to take the throne. The king's attempt to force his son to become a man places the young prince within the grasp of the gleeful killer Thorkell! Whoever holds Canute holds the key to the thrones of England and Denmark – and Askeladd has his own reasons for joining the fray!

REVIEW:

As Askeladd and his band of merry marauders take on England, Yukimura's story really picks up steam. Now that we know why Thorfinn is hanging around with the group, there's time to focus on other aspects of the story, from the history of England and its conquerers to Askeladd's own motivations. This really makes the volume shine as characters become people with definite motivations and interior lives. Yukimura also tackles the emerging popularity of Christianity as a religion and how it covered concepts virtually unknown to the Vikings, creating culture clashes within a single group. Also noteworthy is new character Ann, a British girl dealing with some very Arya Stark-like emotions, who hopefully will become a bigger player.

Like in the previous volume, there's lots of gore here, although notably fewer eyeballs. The way that the characters revel in it is both disgusting and fascinating, particularly with characters like Thorkell, who seems to take losing part of his hand as if he had just gotten a paper cut. Yukimura's artwork is detailed in the extreme, which makes reading take a little longer, but it's all worth it. When you pick up Vinland Saga, you enter Thorfinn's world. The Ylva short stories are a nice break from them – and Ylva herself is a pretty interesting character, so it's good that she hasn't been forgotten – and there's also a continuation of the Okita story from the previous book, which is somewhat less of a treat as it doesn't show the same depth as the main story. The translation is very readable and even cracks a few nursery rhyme jokes that lighten the mood well.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Vinland Saga is immersive and fascinating and well worth reading. It will be too gory for some readers and suffers from a lack of female characters who play major roles, but it's so good that those are easily overlooked. (Much as it pains me to say that about the latter issue.


PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA: THE DIFFERENT STORY
Vol. 1

(by Magica Quartet and Hanokage, Yen Press, $13.00)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Mami's warm personality has made it difficult for her to adjust to her solitary life as a magical girl, where survival often takes precedence over kindness. When she meets Kyouko Sakura, a fellow lone wolf, she is excited at the prospect of working together with another magical girl and forging a friendship built on ultimate trust. But many are the sacrifices all magical girls must make, and the consequences of Kyouko's choice are only just becoming clear to her. When the pain becomes unbearable, will Kyouko remain standing beside Mami as a force for the greater good...?

REVIEW:

Attention all Mami and Kyoko fans – this is the spin-off you've been waiting for. While Sayaka and Madoka get a mention and a cameo appearance in this volume, it's really all about senior magical girls Mami and Kyoko, looking at what made them enter into their contracts in the first place and the troubles they faced before the main story of Madoka Magica began. While Mami spends more time as the point of view character, and really feels like the one we're supposed to focus on, Kyoko's story is actually much more compelling, as we get a closer view of what made her into the character she is in the main story. It's really pretty heartbreaking, as well as making some interesting statements about religion, and we can clearly understand how things can change for a magical girl. On this note, Mami's character is fascinating – links between she and Madoka are made obvious, and in other circumstances, Mami could have been Madoka, as she has the requisite selflessness that all true magical girls exhibit. Unfortunately there's a bit of a jumbled feel to the story and the artwork, particularly during fight scenes, which can lead to a little confusion and makes this less of a smooth read than it could have been. That the art is an improvement over the other two PMMM spin-offs isn't really saying much (although I do think Hanokage captures the spirit of the anime in her designs), and an over reliance on dark space doesn't help. On the other hand, Kyubey has a totally soulless look that really works...if you know the original story. Seriously, you do need to be familiar with the original (in anime or manga format) if you're interested in picking this up, because otherwise it will prove confusing.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. I was all set to say “borrow it,” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I liked it. It can feel a little confused at times, but Mami and Kyoko are more than strong enough to make for an interesting story on their own.


INSUFFICIENT DIRECTION
Single Volume

(by Moyoco Anno, Vertical, $14.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Long before Hideaki Anno married Moyoco Anno, he was known as the creator of one of the most popular animated works of all time - Neon Genesis Evangelion. But little was known about the author's personal life. Along came comic artist Moyoco Anno...then came love, then came marriage and then came a comic about how they changed each other's lives. ...Hopefully for the better.

REVIEW:

There's a danger with autobiographies that the author's life isn't nearly as fascinating as she thinks it is. In some ways, Insufficient Direction does fall into this trap. When you get down to its core, this is a story about two people who are kind of different but kind of the same starting their married life, and that needs to be interesting to you for this book to work. Yes, there is a lot of fun trivia about Hideaki Anno and Moyoco Anno, but unless you're a die-hard fan of either, that's not quite enough to float this.

Not that Insufficient Direction is bad by any means! Moyoco Anno's quirky sense of humor shine through in both the art and the writing, and her self-portrait as “Rompers,” a giant toddler, adds a lot of humor to the book. She's unhesitating when she talks about her flaws and those of her husband – even those he doesn't realize are perhaps less than normal – and there are some genuinely funny moments, such as when she says she'll be cosplaying as a bride at her wedding. There's also a lot of extra material to pad out the short main story, with commentary from Hideaki Anno and an exhaustive section of notes reminiscent of the ones Dark Horse puts in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. But, as I said before, you have to be interested in the day-to-day life of a married couple to really get everything from this volume, so if you're looking for a continuous, exciting story, this may not be the book you want.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. While Moyoco Anno's skill is evident on every page and parts are amusing, this is still a story about the (semi)ordinary life of a married couple who happen to be anime/manga celebrities, but are still ordinary people at the end of the day.


MIDNIGHT SECRETARY
Vol. 5

(by Tomu Ohmi, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Kaya Satozuka prides herself on being an excellent secretary and a consummate professional, so she doesn't even bat an eye when she's reassigned to the offi ce of her company's diffi cult director, Kyohei Tohma. He's as prickly–and hot–as rumors paint him, but Kaya is unfazed...until she discovers that he's a vampire!!

After Kaya's contract with Erde ended, Kyohei hired her to be his executive secretary at his new company, LVC. Working openly day and night with the man she loves is a dream come true for Kaya, but the honeymoon is short-lived. Mariko, the daughter of one of the LVC executives, has a long history with Kyohei and is determined to renew their special friendship. Can love conquer family ties and vampire politics?

REVIEW:

Don't get in between Kaya Satozuka and what she wants, even if what she wants is you. It was rough going for a few volumes as Kaya seemed to be less of her own person and became Kyohei's meal ticket in a fairly literal way, but with volume five, she is back on her feet and going after what (who) she desires. While she has always been a consenting partner, it really is a nice change to see her do the pursuing, especially when shoujo (and to a degree josei) manga is so saturated with passive or preyed upon heroines. Even better is the way Kyohei responds to her openness. When she tells him that she is a combination of things – secretary, lover, woman – that make her herself, he realizes that he doesn't have to be solely defined by his vampire status. This leads to a much more likeable and honest hero than we've been seeing, the first major character development for him. While there are still some annoying romance clichés in the story, most notably Marika, Kyohei's vampire friend who irritates me beyond reason, the story is much more adult than we usually see in English, not because of the many sex scenes, but because of the maturity of the characters. This isn't about nominal adults who still act like they're in high school. Unfortunately Ohmi's art is very wonky this volume, with a lot of images where anatomy is off, out of proportion limbs and appendages, and perspective not quite working. It's a good thing the story is so engaging...

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. If you're a fan of paranormal romance or bodice rippers, or you're just sick of goopy shoujo, Midnight Secretary is a great read. Ohmi's not the best artist, but Kaya's a really good heroine and the story, despite its flaws, pulls you in.


NURA: RISE OF THE YOKAI CLAN
vol. 20

(by Hiroshi Shiibashi, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

While the day belongs to humans, the night belongs to yokai, supernatural creatures that thrive on human fear. Caught between these worlds is Rikuo Nura. He's three-quarters human, but his grandfather is none other than Nurarihyon, the supreme commander of the Nura clan, a powerful yokai consortium. So, Rikuo is an ordinary teenager three quarters of the time, until his yokai blood awakens. Then Rikuo transforms into the future leader of the Nura clan, leading a hundred demons.

Thanks to rumors, all of Tokyo is terrified of Rikuo, and wants him dead! But Rikuo's got other problems too. In Shibuya, a yokai is turning human girls into monsters. And he's got a special spell in store for Rikuo when he tries to stop him."

REVIEW:

After the cliff hanger volume nineteen left us on – Kejoro about to attack Kubinashi – it's a relief to get an answer to that scenario very quickly. But then the rest of the volume launches at full speed, and any relief we feel at figuring out what was going on there gets swept away as Rikuo and Tsurara find themselves in one life or death battle after another. It certainly helps to up the ante that this particular villain is using the innocent human bystanders of Tokyo to attack. To say that there's a lot riding on the outcome of this fight is putting it mildly. Really, though, the most striking part of this volume is Kiyotsugu's comparatively small role. He's been the anti-yokai crusader for so long that the revelation of who Nura is comes as a major blow. His ultimate reaction, fully revealed at the end of the volume, goes a long way to making one of my personal least favorite characters into someone to cheer for. Maki and Torii also get in on the action, which leaves us with Kana, who...spends the whole time riding around on a flying snake yokai? Really? That doesn't seem like the best use of the character. Even more of an issue, however, is the crowded artwork, which at times obscures the action it is trying to portray, as well as Shiibashi's attempt to show us what a large group of people are doing simultaneously at different locations. The story is exciting, yes, but having a clearer idea of who is doing what where would definitely be helpful.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a friend or the library. Nura has absolutely improved from its earlier volumes, and it's definitely exciting, but cramped art and too many different players given page time at once still makes this just below a top-tier series. Read it, but it's not really a “have to own.”


Digital Spotlight

LOW TEEN BLUES
Vol. 1

(by Akira Mochizuki, Manga Reborn, free)

FROM MANGA REBORN:

Shingo falls in love with his new teacher, Ichijou Yuuko. After a kiss happens on a class trip, and another classmate sees them, the plot of this forbidden love story thickens!

REVIEW:

Dating to 1974, Low Teen Blues' first volume is a combination of classic shounen hijinks and a really disturbing and sensitive story. Shingo Azuma, a second year middle school student, is the youngest child of a prestigious businessman and ought to be leading a perfect life. But he's always felt that something was off in his family, and that inspires him to be the class clown at school, devising pranks that run the gamut from harmless to pretty awful. One of them is to get a look at the new teacher's underwear, and he pulls it off. Instead of getting mad, however, she stands up for him to his parents, and Shingo develops a major crush on her. As the volume goes on, we as readers get a more and more uncomfortable feeling about her, and so does Shingo's classmate Sonoko. Sonoko likes Shingo but hasn't told him, and their relationship is pretty typical of middle school kids. But once Sonoko figures out what the deal is with Miss Ichijou, she has to struggle with what and how to tell Shingo. Basically the story gets increasingly uncomfortable as it goes on. Shingo's behavior hides his wounded soul, Sonoko's impressively strong as she stands up for what she believes, and the adults are unbearably corrupt and clearly hiding secrets from the children. To say that this is grimly fascinating would probably be about right.

RECOMMENDATION: Read it. There are some gaps in continuity and the art is very much of the early 70s, but the growing sense of doom and corruption is impressive. Plus it's legal and it's free. How can you argue with that?


Untranslated Gem

ROCK, MONEY & EDUCATION
Single Volume

(by Noriko Nakayama, price and publisher vary by country)

FROM THE FRENCH PUBLISHER:

“I'm not sex-crazed, but I need to have someone by my side...sometimes I feel so sad, so alone...Who among us can fill the empty spaces of our lives?”

Mako has decided to take what she wants out of life. Party girl, fashionista, pick up artist; she tries in vain to find a goal. One day her chance meeting with a young novelist makes her see her life in new ways, more brilliant and desirable than it ever was before.

REVIEW:

"I never use make-up or buy cigarettes," heroine Mako introduces herself mere panels before having sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall at a party in exchange for a smoke. She's a B-level model who quit high school in favor of her career, lives with her older brother and his wife, and spends her nights looking for the next good time. Most days she crashes at her gay friend's place before heading off to her next party. Sound unsympathetic? She is. But Mako knows she's not a likable character, which at least makes reading about her an interesting experience. She does evolve as the story - half of the 200 page book - goes on, meeting up with the same man from her earlier bathroom escapade and eventually learning to value herself as more than a sex machine. But the story drags in places, and bored or squeamish readers may want to skip right on the the second half of the book. That's the story "Can't Party Everyday," loosely linked to the first by a single character - the cross-dressing celebrity DJ Envy. (Although his boyfriend Yui pops up as well.) This story follows nail-biting Sayuri, a saleswoman in a clothing store who begins dating her coworker Niho. Niho's a nice guy, asking permission before kissing her, taking care of her...basically the perfect boyfriend. But Sayuri can't forget the guy she saw dancing at a club a few weeks earlier, and there's trouble in paradise when he turns out to be Soshu, Niho's brother. Sayuri finds herself engaged in an affair with one brother while dating the other, and eventually has to come to the realization laid out in the story's title.

Nakayama's art is reminiscent of Moyoco Anno or Erika Sakurazawa. No frills have been added here, no sparkles, just life as she sees it and can draw it quickly. It works for these stories, which are themselves devoid of sparkle and prettiness. Sex is everywhere, and it isn't pretty either. These are adult women trying to get their lives together, not big-eyed schoolgirls or sweet office ladies. If you're looking for a grittier take on romantic relationships, Nakayama serves up a good one on this tarnished platter.

DON'T WORRY! READ IT IN: French, Italian


And that wraps it up for this time! Stop by the forums and share your thoughts and wish me luck in keeping my students' attention as the semester winds down!


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