RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Hop, Skip, and a Beat

by Rebecca Silverman,

My sister and I recently moved, which means that I've been simultaneously unpacking boxes and starting the new semester, which, as you may have guessed, has made me somewhat stressed. It also turns out that 90% of what I own are books, which shouldn't be surprising and yet somehow is. Also, unpacking them would go much faster if I didn't stop to re-read my favorite parts or, in the case of Megumi Tachikawa's Dream Saga, the whole series. This would be less of a problem if I wasn't still looking for one of the books I'm teaching later in the semester...


VOICE OVER! SEIYU ACADEMY
Vol. 7

(by Maki Minami, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Hime Kino's dream is to one day do voice acting like her hero Sakura Aoyama from the Lovely ♥ Blazers anime, and getting accepted to the prestigious Holly Academy's voice actor department is the first step in the right direction! But Hime's gruff voice has earned her the scorn of teachers and students alike. Hime will not let that stand unchallenged. She'll show everyone that she is too a voice acting princess, whether they like it or not!!

Hime's summer vacation is packed with work, and she's getting a lot of really great experience. But her successes are overshadowed by a new and looming fear—facing Senri Kudo! Ever since her reaction to his prerecorded voice, the thought of seeing him has sent Hime into a panic. Will her anxiety ruin the beginning of a beautiful friendship…and her career?!

REVIEW:

The fiasco with the BL drama CD over and done with, Hime's moving on to smaller and less horribly embarrassing roles...but she's still partially crippled by her new fear of Senri Kudo's voice. Ever since she had to act opposite him romantically, she just can't seem to handle him, and just the sound of his voice can send her spiraling into a panic. Obviously this is not good for her career, so she's trying to just deal with it, with mixed results. Meanwhile Mizuki is getting more and more fond of Hime, who may be getting more and more fond of Senri, who...thinks Hime's a cat named Gonzales? Yes, this is still a wacky Maki Minami story, but the romantic content has been upped considerably with both Mizuki and Hime, making for some very tense moments. (That candy apple scene!) Unfortunately it's a little late to be pushing the Hime/Senri couple, even though Minami insisted in an earlier volume that that was what she was going for. At seven volumes in, Mizuki feels much more like the romantic lead, and honestly, he's so much nicer than Senri that it's easy to hope that the characters will foil their author's plans. We won't find out if that's likely in this volume, though, because the last few chapters shift the focus to Tsukino and her worries about her own voice and acting career. While it is nice to see Hime through her eyes, as well as to learn her back story, given the tense nature of the rest of the book, this really wasn't the best place to break things up with another character.

Minami's art is pretty varied this volume, with close ups of male (or small-eyed female) faces looking less skillful than her big-eyed characters or distance views. But there's also a beautiful image of Hime turning around with her hair coming out of its braids that is easily the best image in the series thus far. Minami's also getting more creative with Hime's hair, taking her out of the braids and the Shiro wig to try a few other things. It's definitely working.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. The main part of the volume is very good, but trying to replace Mizuki with Senri is meeting with mixed results. Plus the Tsukino chapters really interrupt the flow of the narrative, which is a shame, because things were really heating up.


SKIP BEAT!
Vol. 33

(by Yoshiki Nakamura, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Kyoko Mogami followed her true love Sho to Tokyo to support him while he made it big as an idol. But he's casting her out now that he's famous! Kyoko won't suffer in silence--she's going to get her sweet revenge by beating Sho in show biz!

Kyoko's twin tasks of keeping Ren from breaking under the strain of his characters and playing Setsuka are starting to take their toll on her. But the real danger is revealed when the desires of Setsuka and Kyoko merge. Can Kyoko stay in character and protect her heart with a half-naked Ren in her bed?!

REVIEW:

This volume of Skip Beat is laden with symbolism. As in, there are multi-page spreads larded with symbolic imagery which may or may not include vaguely worded narration from either Kyoko or Ren and the story almost takes second place to the dramatic unlocking of Kyoko's own personal Pandora's box. (And the shattering of Ren's emotional glass ceiling? That symbolism was a bit obscure, possibly because it's such a long time between volumes.) While Nakamura actually handles this all pretty well – after all, Kyoko's emotional breakdown/breakthrough has been building since the whole Vie Ghoul incident – it also makes for a book that is much less about the humor or even the romance and more about the somewhat heavy-handed growth of the characters. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you liked Skip*Beat for the laugh factor or the antics, you may be disappointed.

If you're in this for the romance, however, the first two chapters may give you heart palpitations. This is the most overtly sexual the story's been (not counting that Vie Ghoul bit with all of the Little Red Riding Hood symbolism), and Kyoko manages to stay in charge. These are really the best two chapters in the book. Nakamura balances Kyoko's Setsu act (outer) with her own thoughts and freak-outs (inner), showing us how she is able to channel her own feelings into her character's actions. When things get too uncomfortable, she flips the situation around so that she can handle it. Even Ren realizes that she's the one in charge of this facet of their (pretend?) relationship, and I personally loved seeing her taking, and keeping, control. Kyoko herself doesn't realize the power she has, or even that she's really in charge of her own actions no matter who she is, which leads to her worries about opening the box. Hopefully Nakamura will continue to explore this particular theme until Kyoko sees herself for who she has become – a much stronger woman than she allowed herself to be around Sho. But maybe with a little less symbolism and a little more humor next time?

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. I can't believe I just wrote that – Skip Beat has consistently been a favorite series, but this book just isn't quite up to the series' usual level, with only two really strong chapters and way too much symbolism. Sigh. We'll just have to hope for next time.


BTOOOM!
Vol. 7

(by Junya Inoue, Yen Press, $11.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

How will Sakamoto confront the demon doctor?!

In “BTOOOM!”, a killer live-action survival game underway on a mysterious island, Ryouta Sakamoto has overcome countless near-fatal situations as he seeks a way out with allies Himiko and Kiyoshi Taira. But when Masahito Date, a two-faced doctor who treats the injured Taira, joins the team, is it death they've welcomed instead...? With his wicked shrewdness and past experience as a winner of an earlier round, Date starts eating away at the trust in the group! Will Ryouta and Himiko fall prey to the demon doctor's true colors!?

REVIEW:

Wow, someone at Yen Press really loves their interobangs, don't they? (That's the “?!” punctuation.) But in all fairness, this volume does merit the excited tone of the back copy. Himiko has been suspicious of Date almost since his arrival in the story, and Ryouta is about to find out the hard way that her unease was right on the mark. This volume goes out of its way to show us that he can be too trusting, as it opens with he and Kira – the evil fourteen-year-old – forming an ill-fated and uneasy alliance when they fall into a trap. Ryouta is far too willing to go by outward appearances, and while Himiko can be too leery of people, this makes them a good team, something Inoue seems to point out as the book goes on through the parallel relationship of Date and Murasaki. How is this going to work when Ryouta figures out that his high school buddy Oda is on the island? That, actually, is something I'm looking forward to even more than the outcome of the battle with Dr. Date that ends the book.

Of course, having recently re-read Battle Royale, I could make an educated guess. There are distinct similarities between that novel and this manga, and while the same can be said of virtually any survival story that came after the novel's publication (and that's not a bad thing in and of itself), even the character roles seem very similar to the cult classic. It does take away a bit of the enjoyment once you realize that, but Inoue's story is still fast-paced and unique enough that it's good in its own right. Now if only he could learn to draw Himiko's body without making her breasts look like beanbags glued to her torso – there's one hysterically funny scene towards the end where a BIM hits her in the boob, which basically functions like an inflatable ball, sinking in and then bouncing the BIM off. Her face also has a vaguely creepy doll-like look to it, although that is mostly going away as the story goes on...and with the plot continuing to heat up, these are more annoyances than major distractions anyway. Except that weird boob-and-bomb thing...

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Despite too-close similarities to Battle Royale and some artistic glitches, BTOOOM is still an exciting adventure/survival story, and watching Ryouta smarten up while he tries not to lose his ability to trust people is pretty fascinating. Plus don't you want to know where that sewer goes?


TERRA FORMARS
Vol. 2

(by Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana, Viz, $12.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

In the late 26th century, overpopulation on Earth is reaching the breaking point, and humanity must find new frontiers. The terraforming of Mars has taken centuries but is now complete. The colonization of Mars by humanity is an epoch-making event, but an unintended side effect of the terraforming process unleashes a horror no one could ever have imagined…

Thailand, twenty years after the ill-fated Bugs 2 mission. Two American U-NASA agents arrive to find Akari Hizamaru, a “child born after the operation,” and recruit him for Annex 1, a new mission to Mars. The purpose of Annex 1 is to research the origins of a new disease that is ravaging the earth. But the reasons why U-NASA would need the incredible powers that Hizamaru possesses are still a closely guarded secret. Once again, humanity launches an expedition to Mars that has frightening implications for the future.

REVIEW:

Let's just get this out of the way – the major issue that has been argued to death about Terra Formars is still present in the second volume. The pages most likely to fuel that particular fire are 58 and 59. Happily the misogyny seems to be on the wane with this volume's addition of three main female characters, at least two of whom are far more likable and stronger personalities than any we saw in volume one. Michelle, the daughter of the captain from Bugs 2, is now an officer on the crew of Annex 1, the first attempt to return to Mars in the twenty years that have passed since volume one. She and Bugs 2 survivor Shokichi (the protagonist of the previous book) are heading up this mission, and we first meet them recruiting Akari, a troubled Japanese teen orphan who is trying to save his childhood friend from a mysterious illness. If this sounds somewhat similar to the relationship between Shokichi and his childhood friend in the first book, that's because it appears to be a recurring theme in Terra Formars – men are motivated by their feelings for women. We see that with Alex and Marcos, two illegal immigrants to the USA from Mexico (called Gran Mexico in the book) who end up both coming to America and joining the mission because of their childhood friend Sheila. German officer Adolf is clearly motivated by his unnamed wife. (As a side note, it's a little awkward that the two Germans are named Adolf and Eva.) The women also gain strength from their feelings, but not nearly as much is made of it, which is interesting.

Generally speaking, this volume is less violent than its predecessor, but that is largely because most of it is spent explaining and preparing for the mission. It is made clear that the only official reason for returning to Mars is a new and highly deadly virus that has shown up on Earth; for Michelle and Shokichi, revenge is obviously a bigger goal...and the last chapter of the book makes it clear that the Terra Formars – the roachmen – are not going to take this lying down. And that's when the eyeballs start to roll...

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. This is an improvement over the first book in a few ways, but it still suffers from bodies that look segmented rather than muscular, some uncomfortable, or at least awkward, choices, and a plot that just isn't progressing as smoothly as it could be. But hey, no cup sizes this time!


SAY I LOVE YOU
Vol. 3

(by Kanae Hazuki, Kodansha, $10.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

A LOVE WORTH FIGHTING FOR It's hard for the once-loner Mei to believe that she's been going out with Yamato for six whole months! He's taught her a lot about how sweet love can be, but now she's about to learn a new lesson: Love can be war! When a serious rival arises for Yamato's affections (and a roundhouse kick isn't an option), how will Mei handle it? Let the battle begin!

REVIEW:

Wow, did the anime version of this story tone things down. Kanae Hazuki's original manga Say I Love You deals with a lot more sex and sexuality than its anime counterpart, and for those who've only seen the series rather than read it, it's worth remembering that it hails from Kodansha's Dessert magazine, which is for an older audience than much of what gets translated. This volume deals with Aiko's promiscuity and has a fairly frank discussion (for shoujo manga, anyway) about female arousal between Mei and Asami, and quite honestly, that's part of the book's appeal. It feels like it's about more realistic teenagers than we generally see, and even if you don't see yourself represented here (goodness knows I lived under a rock), chances are that you'll recognize people you did/do know from high school. Also particularly nice is that no one shames Aiko for sleeping around. She enjoys doing it, will have sex with pretty much any guy, and that seems to be, if not okay precisely, then at least not cause for comment.

Unfortunately this volume also features one of the more annoying parts of a shoujo romance – the rival who just won't give up. Teen model Meg shows up towards the end of the book and immediately begins gunning for Yamato. We as readers can see that she really hasn't given up despite the fact that she claims she has, and it's hard to tell who needs a swift kick in the behind more – Meg for being so obnoxious, or Yamato for not seeing what's going on. Of course, Mei needs to speak up too...so there's just a lot of irritation all around. That Hazuki can make us that annoyed does say something about her ability as a mangaka, of course – and it looks like volume four is going to be a bumpy ride when it gets here.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Say I Love You's third volume cements this as a series for both fans of shoujo romance and those who are tired of the genre's gooier qualities. Hazuki's art isn't great, but her storytelling skills are, and this volume is just as good as the first two. There's also less of a margin issue with this book than previous Kodansha releases.



DIGITAL SPOTLIGHT

GIRL MAY KILL
Chapters 1 - 16

(by Azusa Itakura , Crunchyroll, premium subscription)

FROM CRUNCHYROLL:

A port town where the Mafia actively operates behind the scenes. Gohongi is a young man who has come back to this to place where he was born after many years and finds a job working at a video rental store, which also becomes his new home. It is here that he begins to live with a young girl named Mei and a homosexual by the name of Katsura. But both of them are members of the Mafia group, Lovely Town. And fifteen-year-old-Mei is a ruthless hitman.

REVIEW:

When Aki Gohongi moved back to his childhood hometown, he had no idea that it had become the battlefield for two warring bands of mafiosi. He gets a job at a video store, complete with apartment, only to suddenly have two people move in with him...mafia hitmen for the group Lovely Hometown. Suddenly all becomes clear to Gohongi – the man he works for has major ties to the gang and there's a very real danger simmering close to the surface of Gohongi's life. He's just about to put all of this behind him when he becomes fascinated by Mei. She's one of the two hitmen who have joined him in the apartment, and she's only fifteen. A winsome young thing, Gohongi becomes obsessed with her and decides to stay in order to support her – not in her work, but in her ordinary life. While Mei does develop a crush on him, it seems as thought Gohongi's interest in her is purely parental. He wants to give this girl who has been forced into a violent life a chance at normalcy and the support of a real family. That said, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he agreed to a different kind of relationship if he thought it would keep her safer, although I daresay he'd find it uncomfortable.

There's a theme of family and mutual protection running through the manga's first two volumes (and the opening two chapters of the third) that makes it feel like more than just your usual violent story with gun-toting loli. Underneath all of the violence – and sometimes on top of it – the characters are very human and committed to each other. Yes, for some the reason is gang loyalties, but for our main group, it's emotion that binds them together, the need for support in a changing world. This is what sets Girl May Kill apart and makes it really work as a story. The art is quite simple, there's one attempted rape scene (moderately graphic, and no rape is committed), and plenty of blood spray, but it all comes together to form a whole that is strangely compelling and difficult to forget.

RECOMMENDATION: Read it. This is what guest passes and premium subscriptions are for.


AND NOW FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT...

CITY HALL
Vols. 1 &2

(by Rémi Guerin and Guilliame Lapeyre, Ankama, €7.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Imagine a world where everything you write comes to life...What would you do if paper, vanished for more than two hundred years, reappeared in the hands of Black Fowl, the greatest criminal mind of the century?

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

The City Hall police force must call in two of the finest pens in London: Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle!

THOUGHTS:

The back of this first book in the currently five volume OFL (as opposed to OEL) series by Rémi Guerin and Guilliame Lapeyre doesn't do the plot justice. Yes, this is a world where all things hand-written can come to life, which did in fact necessitate the banning of paper and writing tools two hundred years ago because people were using their “papercuts,” beings created by writing, to kill each other, but it is much crazier than the copy would imply. You see, in a steampunk/cyberpunk hybrid of 1902 London, a papercut has killed the Minister of Finance and City Hall is in an uproar. Mayor Malcolm X calls in (hot young) Jules Verne, whose suspicious father Pierre taught him to write. Jules brings along his buddy (hot young) Arthur Conan Doyle, and the two begin to figure out how to beat the evil Lord Black Fowl, a villain who wears a raven-head mask. Because they're better authors than fighters, President Lincoln calls (hot young) Amelia Earhart from her assignment in Chicago where she's helping Elliot Ness fight Al Capone's paper-smuggling ring and sends her to London to help the guys. Later on they get confusing advice from Harry Houdini, run into George Orwell the newspaper reporter, and we the readers discover that Lord Black Fowl is working with (hot young) Mary Shelley.

This series is awesome.

As fun as the lunatic mash-up aspect of City Hall is, there's actually a legitimately interesting story and world being presented here. The characters are all well developed, particularly Arthur Conan Doyle, who has definite Holmesian traits, as well as an endearing curiosity that offsets Jules Verne's egotism nicely. Amelia Earhart, while being the boobs of the operation, is also an interesting person in her own right, devoted to her job, totally fed up with the guys and their inability to defend themselves, and able to kick serious ass. The threat that Mary Shelley and Lord Black Fowl present grows substantially between the two books, and by the end of volume two, there's a real sense of urgency. Lapeyre's style shows a clear manga influence (in France, all manga-style art is called “manga,” while French comics are BD and American comics are “comics”) but doesn't feel derivative – no sweatdrops or the like are to be found. If you can read French, I'd highly recommend picking up this series. Plus then I don't have to be the only one shipping Arthur Conan Doyle and Amelia Earhart...


Okay, there are a ton of boxes waiting for me to unpack them and a twenty-pound cat sitting on top of the one I want to unpack next. Clearly I had better get going. See you next time!


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