RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
True Blue

by Rebecca Silverman,

I love Halloween. The candy is great, but mostly I love seeing what people dress up as. This year I actually only saw one Elsa (although I also saw a Daenerys Targaryen who people kept thinking was Elsa), and a lot of zombies and vampires, but in previous years there've been some pretty neat costumes. One highlight was when two teenage boys rang the bell in tight jeans, scarves, and nothing else and told me that they were Abercrombie & Fitch models. “But,” one of them said in genuine confusion, “people keep asking us if we're Brokeback Mountain.” And I will never forget the little Krillin I once saw, bald head and everything, who was thrilled to be recognized because everyone kept calling him Naruto.

Poor kid. Not everyone knows the classics.


SAY I LOVE YOU
Vol. 4

(by Kanae Hazuki, Kodansha, $10.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

FEAR AND BEAUTY Surviving the first major battle in her relationship with Yamato Kurosawa, Mei feels her ties with her first-ever boyfriend are deeper than ever. But then a budding model with her eyes on Yamato moves into town, and draws the photogenic Yamato into the world of photo shoots and fashion. Now Mei has to grapple with the painful pangs of jealousy, and a creeping fear that she might be left alone yet again...

REVIEW:

You may not empathize with Mai's romantic troubles, but if you were an uncomfortable introvert in high school, you'll probably understand her social issues. For me that is the greatest strength of this volume of Say I Love You – the way that Hazuki writes Mai's inner turmoil. Mai isn't one of those shoujo heroines who goes running to her besties to blab it all; instead she tells them that she really needs to not be around people anymore, and later thinks about how she's really most comfortable by herself. Generally this is a feeling that gets treated as somehow “wrong,” and when classes change for the new school year, Asami's horror at being by herself provides a nice counterpoint to Mai's perspective. Neither is presented as “right,” and Mai does allow herself to be persuaded to spend some time with her friends, but the fact that she finds being alone more soothing is a nice thing to see in a genre that typically puts more emphasis on social life.

That aside, this volume wraps up the modeling storyline, with Megumi's attempts to subtly win the (totally oblivious because he's so in love with Mai) Yamato for herself sort of petering out. The focus is more on Yamato and his compulsive need to be nice to everyone than on Mai's inability to honestly talk to him, although both sides are dealt with. We start to get the idea that Yamato's kindness stems from guilt over his bullied friend Kai from middle school, and when Kai himself becomes a player in the story, we get an interesting perspective on bullying, both from his and Yamato's viewpoints. Perhaps the best moment is when Kai goes to confront one of his bullies – who really tormented him – and the other boy doesn't even remember him. It's heartbreaking and it rings true, which at the end of the day is this series' greatest strength.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Say I Love You is both a good shoujo romance with all the attendant frustrations and joys of the genre and a story that feels truthful as it discusses bullies and introverts and all the other types of people who populate the world. The art has some issues (does Hazuki not know how waists work?), but this volume keeps the story moving, both internally and externally.


TERRA FORMARS
Vol. 3

(by Yu Sasuga and Ken-Ichi 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…

A new mission to Mars, Annex 1, is under way. Their mission: crucial research into the A.E. Virus currently plaguing mankind. The mutant Terraformars, giant humanoid cockroaches, may hold the key to a cure. Unfortunately for the crew of the Annex 1, the Terraformars have somehow gotten on board the ship and have only one goal—total extermination! Led by Akari Hizamaru, the crew will need to rely on their superhuman powers to survive…if those powers don't kill them first!

REVIEW:

Terra Formars wants to be a much better series than it is, one that is more layered, more complex. Volume three again takes a step in that direction, but it's more of a baby step than a giant one. We've known, or at least very strongly suspected, since volume one that there was someone playing an entirely different game than the crewmen of Bugs2 and Annex 1, and this volume returns to that idea when the terra formars themselves appear on the ship, necessitating the implementation of Plan D, which calls for the crew to land on Mars in escape pods, carry out the mission, and wait the forty days it will take a rescue ship to reach them. For those of us who have been paying attention, that's basically a suicide order, because the crew has little-to-no chance of withstanding the roachmen for that long. But wait! The folks at UNASA have a trick up their collective sleeve with the new operations that the crew underwent...which would be much more impressive had not the roaches targeted most of the supply of medication needed to actually reap the benefits of the procedure. Basically this is getting be a case where the cast can't win for losing, and it's starting to get old. At first the device of not knowing who would live or die was exciting, but at this point, when the story is essentially a retread of volume one with different players, it just feels like an excuse not to get attached to anyone. Also unfortunate is the random narration that comes in occasionally, sometimes from an in-world textbook and sometimes not. It has the effect of disrupting the action and removing us from the narrative, further weakening our personal stake as readers in what's going on. That Tachibana's art also appears to have taken a down-turn in anatomy doesn't help – all of a sudden we've got a lot of too-short limbs and monster hands when the characters aren't transformed. All of the decapitated heads with attached spinal columns and contentious roachmen depictions can't cover up what's looking a bit like lazy art.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. This series is wearing on my patience, yes, but it does still have enough action and small victories for the heroes to make it worth giving a couple more volumes. It really needs to start upping its game, though, and fast.


ARPEGGIO OF BLUE STEEL
Vol. 2

(by Ark Performance, Seven Seas, $12.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

HOME SWEET HOME?

The I-401 and her intrepid crew, captained by Chihaya Gunzo, have escaped the trap set for them by the Fleet of Fog outside their home port of Yokosuka. Successfully returning home after two years away should be a triumphant occasion, but there are those who think otherwise. In fact, if they have their way, they will take the I-401—along with her mental model, Iona—away from Gunzo entirely and bring her back under government control.

Human politicians aren't the only players with rival factions. The ships of the Fleet of Fog have very different ideas about how to pursue the I-401, and what to do once they've located her. Worse, some are just as interested in Gunzo himself as they are in his ship!

Yet all these forces have failed to reckon with Gunzo's determination to control his own destiny, or with Iona's willingness to join him wherever he leads!

REVIEW:

This volume of Ark Performance's naval fantasy is a lot of set up, but not in a bad way. Sometimes volumes that take a break from the action to establish where the plot is heading can be plodding, but Arpeggio of Blue Steel still manages to keep the tensions high as it introduces more of the lovely ladies of the Fleet of Fog and spells out just why the higher ups in the Japanese Navy are leery of trusting Gunzou. Here's a hint: it has less to do with the young man himself and more to do with the 401, Iona, who doesn't seem to have a great track record when it comes to her crews. Gunzou's youth and his paternal ties are also an issue, but from the perspectives of both the other Fog ships and high command, Iona's looking like more of a problem, which is certainly interesting. I've mentioned before that growing up I was told that boats are designated female because both boats and women (and by extension, the ocean) should be handled with care, and that certainly seems to be the attitude when it comes to Iona...from a human perspective. The other Fog ships are less clear on how they want to handle her, with a couple of them seeming to advocate outright destruction, which gives us some naval battles at the end of the volume. While they don't have the scope and dynamism of volume one's fights, they're still very exciting, and the fact that they're between a perfectly normal ship without a Mental Model and a Fog vessel ups the stakes considerably – especially since only two of the Fog women are remotely sympathetic, and the ones involved in this battle aren't them. We meet quite a few Mental Models this time, including Iona's sister ships, who look exactly like her with different clothes. I'm not entirely certain how I feel about this, as to a degree it feels like lazy character design, but it also does fit with the definition of a “sister ship,” which are identical vessels of the same class. The lady on the cover, Takao, is an interesting case, as she is actively trying to become more human in order to better appeal to Gunzou – she wants to be captained, which may lead to the discovery of the lost and mysterious Admiralty Code. This actually feels like a pretty clever way of letting us know that the girls are in fact boats: unless her name is Mary Celeste, most vessels do need a captain to get the most out of her. It does set the series up as a harem, but unless that bothers you a lot, this could be one of the more successful weird harem stories out there, plus the mysteries are only getting deeper.

RECOMMENDATION: If you really like naval/maritime stories, buy it; if that's not your preferred setting, borrow it from a library or a friend, because it's still worth reading. This is a lot of fun and is getting more interesting as it goes on. Now if only Seven Seas could decide between “Gunzo” on the back copy and “Gunzou” in the interior text...


BLUE EXORCIST
Vol. 12

(by Kazue Kato, VIZ, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Raised by Father Fujimoto, a famous exorcist, Rin Okumura never knew his real father. One day a fateful argument with Father Fujimoto forces Rin to face a terrible truth – the blood of the demon lord Satan runs in Rin's veins! Rin swears to defeat Satan, but doing that means entering the mysterious True Cross Academy and becoming an exorcist himself.

As the True Cross Academy festival reaches its peak, trouble is brewing. While Izumo confronts Nemu Takara, Rin and the rest of the Exwires race to find her. The betrayal they discover and the tragic details of Izumo's past will shake them to the core and herald the beginning of an all-out war between the Illuminati and the Knights of the True Cross!

REVIEW:

It is hard to pull off a successful red herring, particularly in a story that, while it does have some mystery to it, is an action tale at its core. Kazue Kato, however, has done it. This volume of Blue Exorcist features a reveal that is worthy of an open-mouthed gape before diving into Izumo's past, which is equally unexpected. The main gang doesn't get much page time, but the story is so interesting that it really doesn't matter – Kato keeps you turning pages long after you thought you were going to stop. She doesn't keep things in the realm of the totally unanticipated, however – Izumo's past, although not necessarily something we saw coming, is believable, both in and out of manga. (Let's add another name to the list of “Worst Anime/Manga Mothers Ever.”) It explains her character very well, showing us why she's so prickly and slow to trust while also giving insight into her relationship with her familiars. The Illuminati also continue to evolve as a threat, taking the story from the realm of the strictly supernatural and grounding it a bit in human greed and the fine line between science and fanaticism that I, at least, tend to associate with 1950s pulp science fiction rather than manga. It also gives us some interesting perspective on Rin – someone refers to him as having the power of a god rather than a monster, which certainly would be more in line with his behavior and ideals...and say something about how his brother has been indoctrinated by the Order. Could there be more than one way to look at it that Yukio just isn't seeing? Of course with all of this darkness and depression, Kato still manages to inject some humor into the story with Shiemi's grass sandwiches and some travel humor, all of which blends in very nicely with the more serious parts of the story. Personally, I can't wait for volume thirteen, because as good as Blue Exorcist was before, this volume makes it even better.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Between the plot twists and Kato's consistently attractive and dynamic art, this volume is a terrific addition to an already really good series.


A BRIDE'S STORY
Vol. 6

(by Kaoru Mori, Yen Press, $17.00)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Acclaimed creator Kaoru Mori's tale of life on the nineteenth-century Silk Road heads back to Amir and Karluk. In the year since his marriage, Karluk has grown a good deal, but Amir can't help but feel overprotective of her much younger husband. Karluk wants nothing more than to prove that he can be a strong and competent man--and he may soon have the opportunity to prove just that. Desperate for land to feed their flocks, Amir's former tribe prepares to attack her village with a fearsome arsenal of cannons and guns provided by their new allies. This time the Halgals are not interested in capturing Amir--no one is safe from their terrible assault!

Crafted in painstaking detail, Ms. Mori's pen breathes life into the scenery and architecture of the period in this heart-warming, slice-of-life tale that is at once wholly exotic, yet familiar and accessible through the everyday lives of the characters she has created.

REVIEW:

As wonderful as all parts of A Bride's Story are, it's nice to get back to where it began – with Amir and Karluk. The main thrust of the story is that Karluk is getting older and is ready for Amir to stop treating him like a child, but it's clear that she still has very motherly feelings for him. Their relationship does start to change as Karluk shows her that he's now strong enough to pick her up and that his muscles are developing – and that he's no longer half her height – but it's clearly going to take him a while yet before she really sees him as anything but her child husband. But that's okay, because their relationship is really cute as-is...plus they have bigger problems. Amir's dad has joined with an unsavory tribe to take her back and steal the village's grazing lands, quickly shifting the action from domestic to dangerous. While Amir and Karluk's relationship is still a major factor (I love how they protect each other), Amir's brother Azel and his distrust of the new “allies” adds danger to the book. Mori's action scenes are devoid of the splashy battles of shounen manga, but she gets a lot of power out of quiet panels full of smoke, frightened faces, and slashing swords. Amir's leap from a second story window is breathtaking, and Azel's single-minded determination comes across with no words needed. Mori is truly a master artist, getting across as much with a single panel of someone's face than some writers get with fifty pages of text. That Azel and his buddies get some good character development is just icing on the cake, and the implications of this volume for the future of Karluk's town are quite something. Mori tells us that next time we'll be back with Smith and Ali, but at least now we know for certain that we'll still get Amir/Karluk books. They really are the most developed, and this volume is one of the best in the series thus far.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Not only is Mori's art fantastic, the story is also moving along in both relationships and greater plot. That Grandma is much more badass than we might have thought is an added bonus.


DIGITAL SPOTLIGHT

ARIA THE SCARLET AMMO
Novel 1

(by Chugaku Akamatsu, eManga, $7.95)

FROM EMANGA:

Tokyo Butei High School--- A special school where armed detectives, also known as "Butei", receive education as well as training. Kinji Tohyama, a sophomore, has a unique body that can initiate an ability called "hysteria mode" when it is stimulated a certain way. He tries to keep it a secret but all his dreams of living the life of an Average Joe get shattered when he becomes a victim of a bombing incident and meets Butei High "Assault" department elite, Aria H. Kanzaki.

REVIEW:

I have not seen the anime that came from this novel, but the first book in Chugaku Akamatsu's Aria the Scarlet Ammo light novel series almost reads like an anime script. Narrated by Kinji Tohyama, a high school boy who is looking to get out of the special armed detective school he attends, the story is fast paced and a decent mix of cookie-cutter female characters and Kinji's own deeper problems. Aria herself is a classic tsundere to the point where it's almost a joke, but when we get into her own issues as the book goes on, she becomes much more of a person and less of a popular character type, making the end of the novel much more compelling than its beginning. The main problem is that the book suffers from a lot of over-used tropes – tragic pasts that aren't anything we haven't seen before in other books or crime shows, a heroine who is difficult to like, the usual harem girls, and a superhuman hero who just wants to be normal. Kinji's “hysteria mode,” however, is well described, making us understand it more than we might have expected given the generally middle-grade tenor of the writing, and he really feels like a decently developed character all the way through, with feelings, thoughts, and motivations that have nothing to do with whatever Aria is pulling at that moment. Aria does start to get that same care from the author as it goes on, but it feels as if Kinji was the motivating factor of Akamatsu and Aria became a full-fledged person by accident. Parts of her family history are pretty cringe-worthy in their corniness (poor Arthur Conan Doyle), but by the end of the book, it's hard to stop reading – and given that it was hard to keep reading at the beginning, that's pretty high praise. Unfortunately DMG's formatting isn't great, with some misplaced text and awkward spaces, to say nothing of a couple of spelling and grammar errors. But if you're looking for a new light novel and can't wait for Yen On to get going, this will most definitely fill that need.

RECOMMENDATION: If you're already a fan of the anime, I'd suggest making this a buy. Otherwise it's in the murky digital category known as “borrow someone's e-reader” or see if your library's digital collection includes it. The start is too slow for me to whole-heartedly suggest buying it for everyone.


UNTRANSLATED GEMS

DA! DA! DA!
9 Volumes

(by Mika Kawamura, price and publisher vary by country)

FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:

Miyu Kouzuki is an 8th grade student. Due to circumstances,her parents went to America to work for NASA,leaving her behind. She was sent to live with her mother's long time family friend,the Saionjis. On her first day,Uncle Hosho went to India for training,leaving her with his son,Kanata. More surprises come along as a UFO landed on the temple,an alien baby named Ruu with his sitterpet Wanya.The four lived together,keeping the aliens as a secret. As they grow to love each other,they often end up in funny situations.

THOUGHTS:

Mika Kawamura's 1998 manga about two middle schoolers raising an alien baby who crash-lands in their yard is one of my all-time favorite cute stories. It makes very little sense, granted, but the sheer amount of adorable that both the story and Kawamura's art exude is enough to make anyone say, “Middle schoolers raising an alien baby? Sure, I'll buy that!” The story revolves around Miyu, a fourteen-year-old whose parents have abruptly been chosen to work for NASA (her mom is an astronaut). Miyu's understandably horrified that they plan to move to the US and leave her behind because they won't have time for her, and the next thing she knows, she's been given directions to a family friend's large Buddhist temple, where she's expected to stay. She no sooner gets there then then said family friend decides to go on a religious pilgrimage to India, leaving Miyu with his son (her classmate), Kanata. Before Miyu has too much time to get even more upset, a strange thing happens – a small flying saucer/baby carriage crashes at the temple, delivering little Ruu and his sitterpet Wanya. They were caught up in a space anomaly while Wanya was taking Ruu for a walk, and now they're stuck on Earth until help arrives...and Ruu instantly imprints on Miyu and Kanata as his parents.

A lot of harmless wackiness ensues as the two eighth graders find themselves with an alien toddler who has strange powers. They realize that it's important to Ruu that they actually act like a couple (because nobody likes it when Mommy and Daddy fight), and by and by they really do start to fall for each other. There's a really sweet family core underneath the hijinks, as well as very real worries about raising a child. Da! Da! Da! Walks the line between gooey-sweet and actually touching quite well, and by the end of the series it's really easy to see the group as an honest-to-goodness family unit. It also helps to make Miyu and Kanata's relationship feel a bit more real when they're still together years later at the story's end. The art is ultra-shoujo (as readers of Del Rey's release of Panic x Panic will remember), but this is one manga with its heart on its sleeve that is guaranteed to make you smile.

DON'T WORRY! READ IT IN: French, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese


Since that does it for this edition of RTO I'm going to stop typing and give my cat Simeon the attention he has been craving since I started typing. Of course, the minute I stop, he'll decide he's ready to go do something else...ah, cats. See you next time!


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