House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
Episode CLXI: Crunchyroll Manga
"Between this and Jump, reading authorized manga online is finally a sane proposition for readers." —Jake Forbes, former Tokyopop editor and smart person
I've been burned by manga sites before, but I'm a romantic; I'm always hopeful the next one will be awesome. Okay, okay, so sometimes I've been very hopeful; I gave ComicLoud high ratings for novelty, and because it had Ippongi Bang and Shintaro Kago (both of whom are still awesome!). I've subscribed to GEN Manga and I've subscribed to JManga, I've sampled their manga and hoped that they would help publishers stand up to the inexorable, Titan-like attack of scanlations.
Other people have been more cynical than me: they've said that legit online manga is still too expensive and that a better deal would come if I just waited. They have a point: the digital market is still changing and things are generally getting more convenient all the time. Netflix and Hulu keep improving. Google Play finally makes it a temptingly viable option to just rent movies online rather than run to the last good video store in Seattle (though Scarecrow Video still has a way better selection than Google Play) or screw around on YouTube trying to see if anyone uploaded them. And Crunchyroll is doing well with anime. And now they're doing manga.
So, since I will obviously jump all over any digital manga delivery device that comes along (except motion comics), I just had to check out Crunchyroll Manga. In the interests of full disclosure, I have done work for Crunchyroll in the past, and I also have a comic in the Crunchyroll "Artist Alley", which was opened before the manga site was. (Sadly, the Artist Alley doesn't seem to have taken the webcomics world by storm; I think it's still accepting submissions, but perhaps its secret main purpose was to test the comics-reading Web app that the manga site now uses.) Crunchyroll Manga is the latest attempt by a major publisher to make a commercially viable online manga service that people will actually use. How does it stack up?
The first question about Crunchyroll Manga is how it compares to other commercial manga sites, such as the failed JManga and the still-going-strong Weekly Shonen Jump. Cost-wise, format-wise and content-wise, JManga was the obvious weirdo among the three. Essentially, JManga sold ebooks for $4.99 each (at a 'discount' from $9.99), but you couldn't download them; you had to view them on the site, and when the site closed down earlier this year, I lost a ton of books I'd never gotten around to reading. The nice thing about JManga, for me, was the selection, which was full of obscure titles and seinen madness like Gokudō Meshi; but with Futabasha being the biggest Japanese publisher supporting the site, they didn't have any A-list titles to bring in readers. RIP JManga. In contrast, Weekly Shonen Jump and Crunchyroll Manga don't have a wide selection of niche manga, but they do have big publishers on their side. Jump has Shueisha, and Crunchyroll is basically a web version of Kodansha's "Weekly Shōnen Magazine." (Although 5 of the 12 titles are from other Kodansha magazines: Afternoon, Young Magazine, Morning, Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine and Shonen Rival.)
So with every other online manga service being dead or teeny-tiny, the only real comparison is Jump. Crunchyroll Manga has the advantage of being offered as part of Crunchyroll's overall anime/drama subscription service: you pay $6.95 per month for full anime, 'limited manga' and 'limited dramas', or $11.95 for full access without ads. You can also pay $4.95 per month for a manga-only membership. If you're not a member, you can only read the current chapter (which, like Viz's Weekly Shonen Jump, runs simultaneous with Japan) and you have to endlessly watch the same ad for Best Buy over and over again. (At least, that's what was running this week…) If you are a member, though, you get the real treat: the backlog. (Cue a shudder of delight running up the spine of my books.) Unlike Jump where you have to buy back issues or graphic novels of older titles, on Crunchyroll you can view most of the titles from volume 1 onward, including all 21 volumes of Space Brothers, which must have been a major investment in translation and lettering. The exceptions are the titles that are being published by Kodansha Comics, namely Attack on Titan and Fairy Tail; for those manga, only the current few chapters are available, and trying to click on the early volumes takes you to a bookstore link. (The other exception is A Town Where You Live, which is up to 24 volumes in Japan, but only the most recent chapters are on Crunchyroll.) I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing this means UQ Holder! and The Seven Deadly Sins (both announced as Kodansha licenses for 2014) will also see their back issues disappear from Crunchyroll when the print and ebook versions are available. Essentially, Kodansha handles the side of selling "permanent", downloadable or print editions of the books, while Crunchyroll does the Netflix model.
So, is Crunchyroll a better deal than Jump? Well, not quite. Weekly Shonen Jump costs $25 for a year's subscription (48 issues, with about 11 chapters of manga in each issue), or 99 cents per issue individually. OTOH, assuming you're getting a "manga-only" subscription and not doing anything else, Crunchyroll Manga costs $60 a year for about 48 updates of 12 titles, so if Crunchyroll doesn't add more titles and you've already read all 21+ volumes of Space Brothers, eventually, Weekly Shonen Jump will actually be a better deal. On the other hand, if Crunchyroll adds more and more titles for the same monthly rate, the value of Crunchyroll will keep going up relative to Jump. (Unless Jump, of course, also adds more titles, leading to a manga arms race.)
There's one other major difference between Jump and Crunchyroll, however; the Weekly Shonen Jump issues can be downloaded and stored permanently on your computer, but Crunchyroll Manga can only be viewed online. Essentially, it's the "own" vs "rent" model, and like with JManga or Netflix for that matter, you're betting on whether Crunchyroll will survive. But since you don't have to rent them one book at a time like with JManga, there's nothing to stop you from buying a ticket to Crunchyroll's Virtual Manga Café for $4.95 a month, and just squatting there and READING ALL THAT MANGA! Ahh, bliss!
The other differences are essentially those of packaging. Shonen Jump emulates the print magazine model, with several manga titles bound together in one weekly issue, giving you the experience of a virtual magazine (together with Web-based articles and bonuses, and oh hey, does anyone want some free Yu-Gi-Oh! cards?). Crunchyroll, on the other hand, emulates the scanlation model, where you go to the site, pick a manga, and just read, without having to skip past the ones you don't like. It's like the difference between an ebook for tablets and reading on the Web. The actual reading software is about the same, letting you read Manga ONE or two pages at a time, and much faster and higher-res than any scans sites.
But of course, who cares about the formatting? Ultimately it's about the manga. In the last two days, I hacked my way through the jungles of Crunchyroll. Here are the 12 launch titles and how much I liked them, on a scale of zero stars to four.
Ryū Yamada is the school's #1 delinquent bad dude, until the day he accidentally kisses sweet, smart Urara Shiraishi. BAM! They magically switch bodies! After the obligatory "checking out the goods" scene (PG-13, sorry to disappoint you), both Yamada and Shiraishi are remarkably levelheaded about the whole thing, and when they find out that they can change back and forth by kissing, he beats up people in girl-form while she takes his make-up exams. (Although she doesn't actually want him to beat up anyone, but...)
Yes, it's an old-fashioned body-switch story with Pretty Face style "boy-in-girl's-body" shenanigans... Or that's what it seems like, at first. The first chapter is blah, but before the end of volume 1, the school's Supernatural Studies Club discovers Yamada and Shiraishi's powers and starts doing experiments with them, causing things to get goofier and goofier in logically appropriate ways. Soon, it turns out the school is attended by more than one type of kiss-powered magic-user (spoiler: note the title). Despite the obvious risk that it'll "mission creep" into a total urban fantasy dogpile, as of volume 2 it's a fun, funny, and surprisingly clever magical rom-com. Yoshikawa does a good job drawing body language, so you can always tell who's in whose body, which is a nice touch.
2. UQ Holder! (Ken Akamatsu)
They say that you lose testosterone as you get older, so maybe that's why each new Ken Akamatsu series gets progressively less fanservicey. Or maybe he's just drawn panty shots and boobs in every imaginable configuration and, having perfected love comedies, he's moved on to fighting manga, as part of a mad quest to become the Alpha and Omega of shonen manga. Either way, UQ Holder! is potentially the most-demanded Crunchyroll Manga launch title: a sequel to Akamatsu's hit Negima. 75 years after the end of Negima, the human race at large has discovered the existence of magic, and magic/technology fusions have led the world into a wondrous new age. Tôta Konoe, the orphan grandson of Negi Springfield, is a middle school kid living in a farm town, who dreams of one day going to Tokyo, where the space tower leads all the way to the stars. When he discovers that his sexy teacher Yukihime is actually an immortal vampire who knew his grandfather (yes, it's Evangeline from Negima), the unlikely pair hit the road and head to Tokyo, meeting vampire-hunting assassins, samurai and other strange characters along the way. UQ Holder! just started a few weeks ago in Japan, so it's unclear where Akamatsu will go with this fantasy/science-fiction action/adventure. For me, as someone who never really got into Negima, it's a little hard to enjoy all the injokes. But Akamatsu's art is as good as ever, and it's easy to get caught up in the spirit of excitement.
3. The Seven Deadly Sins (Nakaba Suzuki)
In the tradition of every shonen manga you've ever read, it's a grand, upbeat fantasy adventure! Meliodas, a plucky kid of indefinite age, is the owner of the Boar Hat Inn, a traveling alehouse that he runs together with his assistant, Hawk, a pig. One day, into the Boar's Hat runs the lovely Princess Elizabeth, who begs Meliodas for his help finding the "Seven Deadly Sins", wicked outlaw knights who have been hunted by the authorities for 10 years. Any One Piece fan knows the twist: The Seven Deadly Sins are the real good guys and the Holy Knights, the supposed defenders of the realm, are actually total dicks. The humble Meliodas turns out to have unexpected powers (as well as an appetite for boob-grabbing and panty-snatching), and soon he, Elizabeth and the pig are fighting the Holy Knights, who have Dragon Ball Z style swordfighting abilities, slicing apart mountains with every slash. Whereas Akira Toriyama and Eiichiro Oda started small, however, in Seven Deadly Sins the characters' power level is already ratcheted up so high that it's hard to imagine how the series can keep going for long. Despite the nice art, the plot twists are all predictable and the dialogue formulaic ("No matter what lies you tell, you can't lie to your heart!"). One slight interesting point is the heavy Western European flavor; "Britannia" is a tiny bit more grounded in real lore than, say, Fairy Tail, although it takes me out of the mood when the Crunchyroll translation has knights calling each other "Gilthunder-sama." A bonus half-star for the talking pig.
Where have you been all my life? Mysterious Girlfriend X instantly rockets to the Top 5 kinkiest translated manga I've ever read with its story of bodily-fluid-swapping teenage love. When Mikoto, a new girl, transfers to Akira's high school class, everyone thinks she's a weirdo: she doesn't talk much, she occasionally bursts out laughing for no reason, and she spends a lot of time sleeping with her head on her desk. But one day after everyone in class has left, Akira impulsively tastes the puddle of drool left behind on Mikoto's desk, and afterwards he gets addicted to it, getting progressively sicker unless he can have a taste of her drool. "Drool is our bond, Tsubaki-kun!" Mikoto tells him, and they confess their love to one another. But when he first tries to kiss her, she stops him, saying: "No! That's too commonplace! I don't want something that anyone else could do. I want you to express yourself in a way that Only You can!"
Thus they develop a nonconformist relationship where they hang out together and every day he licks her drool-covered finger. It gets weirder. By sharing drool, they share emotions; she seems to be able to see into his dreams; and she keeps a pair of scissors tucked into her panties for self-defense and to chop random objects into pieces. They're both virgins, but there's many references to sex too; this manga ran in Afternoon, a seinen magazine, so sex and nudity isn't theoretically off limits. Mostly, though, it's about Pure Love, like Love Roma but way freakier and better. Ueshiba's beautiful, sometimes surreal art is the classy element that keeps this manga from turning into, say, Sundome.
5. A Town Where You Live (Kouji Seo)
Kouji Seo's Suzuka surprised me by being a more-serious-than-I-expected shonen romance, not the kind of manga where the hero is constantly falling and grabbing the heroine's boobs. (Not that it didn't happen, just not with the heroine; the cheap fanservice was provided by the two college chicks instead.) A Town Where You Live has the same sense of self-restraint and (relative) maturity, and feels more like a title for college students than the usual Shonen Magazine teen boy set; who could imagine—GASP!—a shonen title where the hero and the heroine actually have a real relationship and have sex?!?! Okay. Take a deep breath. Drink a glass of water. I'm fine, I was just startled. Haruto, a college student from the sticks (represented with a hick accent in the English edition), lives with his girlfriend Yuzuki in Tokyo. The first several volumes of the manga focused on the usual shonen crushes and flirtations, but by the point where the Crunchyroll translation begins (around volume 23), Haruto and Yuzuki have actually started going out. Tension is provided by some romantic rivals in the same apartment building, but there doesn't seem to be any immediate risk of the characters breaking up... but Kouji Seo actually drove this manga over the Virginity Manga Do-Not-Cross Line, so who knows where this crazy story is going to go?
Okay, it's really not that crazy; it's actually fairly tame and episodic, a comedy about the daily lives of two people living together. Buying groceries, cooking food, sharing the household responsibilities, trying to have sex without the neighbors hearing them (oh, and without nudity either, since it's still a shonen manga)... ARE YOU EXCITED YET? I CAN'T HEAR YOU! ARE YOU EXCITED YETTT??? My feeling is that some readers will find this title refreshingly realistic (although it's really still an idealized relationship) and others will find it slow and mundane. Hopefully Crunchyroll will also translate the early volumes soon so we can follow the characters' relationship from beginning rather than just jumping right into placid domesticity like we do now. The manga's other big disadvantage, oddly, is that the art is so detailed; it's the kind of photo-traced screentone-heavy art that looks good in print, but moire-patterned onscreen, making me wonder if there'll be a long-term manga trend towards a different art style (or at least different scanning methods).
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS! Aoyama and Akashi are high school soccer champions who made a promise to become pros one day. They have a fight, Aoyama skips school, and then suddenly something strange happens: a talking robot daruma appears in Akashi's classroom, soaked in blood, and starts forcing the students to play children's games, killing the losers, winnowing them down so that only the fittest survive. Soon it becomes clear that this is happening all across Japan, nay, all across the world. Millions of high school students are dying, no one knows why, and no one is safe...
The best part of this manga is the beginning; it seems like it's going to become a (boring) sports story, but then it takes a sharp right turn and turns into Gantz. Actually, it's even crueler than Gantz, with an even higher body count and even more jokey, meaningless death. It's subtitled "The Second Series," but the untranslated first series was apparently a dry run with only a tenuous connection to this manga (at least, I assume every teenager in the world wasn't killed twice); this is more like a reboot. There's some good shock moments here, and no character is safe. To the extent that the art expresses the mood of the series, though, the mood is pretty cynical; everyone looks so weird and ugly and, well, expendable that the whole thing is more like a sadistic joke than a story where you care about the characters.
In the '90s, when we watched Giant Robo at the college anime club and they make the big reveal "Robo is nuclear-powered!," everyone cheered. Times change. In the world of Coppelion, Tokyo was abandoned in 2016 due to an earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster, turning half of Japan into a radioactive dead zone with Tokyo at its center. Twenty years later, in 2036, a group of three schoolgirls ventures alone into the ruins to see what remains. Genetically engineered to be radiation-proof, they are 'Coppelion': Luger-wielding action girl Ibara, ditzy Aoi, and Taeko, the smart one with glasses.
Considering that it started in 2008, three years before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Coppelion is uncannily timely. The production of the Coppelion anime was temporarily halted after the disaster, but Tomonori Inoue's anti-nuclear message (one character speaks of "the terror of nuclear power") clearly resonated in the wake of the uncannily similar (but much smaller) real-world tragedy, and today the manga is still going strong. At the beginning at first, it's a bit slow-paced; for long stretches there isn't much of a story, just the girls wandering around with Ibara communicating via cellphone with base camp (the "Vice Principal", the Charlie to their three Angels) and Aoi making random comments. Gradually a plot develops, but the story is still secondary to the setting, with endless panels of Tokyo crumbling into ruins and overgrown with grass and trees, not unlike the towns at the center of the Chernobyl disaster. The irony of it all is that, by showing these scenes of nature regenerating itself, Inoue depicts the beauty and tranquility left behind by the disaster; but then there's also scenes of piles of skulls. Despite the focus on the art, Inoue's proportions and linework are a bit wonky at first, but the hand-drawnness of it all adds to the charm... I think?
8. Space Brothers (Chūya Koyama)
Picture Twin Spica if it starred an unshaven 31-year-old man instead of a teenage girl, and that's Space Brothers, baby! Launched in 2008 in Japan's famous "manga pick-me-up for tired professionals" grownups' magazine Weekly Morning, before it was an anime, Space Brothers was a story of middle-aged dudes recapturing their youthful dreams of going to space. The year: 2025. 28-year-old Hibito Namba is a handsome celebrity Japanese astronaut about to go on a moon mission with NASA, which in this universe hasn't canned its manned space program. Back in Japan, his big brother, 31-year-old Mutta Namba, has just gotten fired from his job and moved back in with their parents. Depressed and directionless, Mutta remembers his childhood promise to his brother ("Both of us are going to be astronauts!"), and with some encouragement from his family, he applies to JAXA and takes the astronaut exam, hoping to join his little brother in space!
Of course, there's some brotherly rivalry in all this. "As older brother, I always went ahead of my younger brother. That's a big brother's job," Mutta thinks. Living in the shadow of his little brother isn't what Mutta wanted, and while their relationship is mostly friendly, there's an undercurrent of bitterness and grudges mixed with their fraternal love. Frankly, a lot of it is Mutta's own fault, since Mutta is sometimes so immature that you wonder how he ever got a job to get fired from in the first place—presumably his dorkiness is part of that time-tested appeal to manga readers, so that we can all think, WTF! If this loser can become an astronaut, I could totally do it! Despite being "for mature readers" (not in a sexy way), Space Brothers follows the standard shonen struggle-to-be-the-best manga narrative, it's slow-moving, and it bolds and underlines most of its emotional cues so you won't miss them... but every now and then it gets a little subtler or deeper, and throughout the story it's solid pop entertainment. If you're a fan of the space program, you'll definitely want to check it out. Still, as pseudo-mature Morning manga go, it's got nothing on the saga of the world's greatest wine-taster.
Hitoshi, a 17-year-old loser, has a crush on Ai Wagatsuma, the cutest girl in class. His boring school days with his even-more-losery friends are brightened up by his occasional dreams of Wagatsuma being his wife... but as elements from the dreams start to match up with reality, he wonders if maybe they aren't dreams, but momentary timeslips into the future?!! Will Hitoshi really end up with Wagatsuma, and if so, how? And can he avoid screwing up the present so that his happy future changes...?
After an unpromising beginning (is every Shonen Magazine manga contractually obligated to start with a scene where the male characters are talking about women's breast size?), Wagatsuma-san becomes a pleasant surprise by getting funnier and funnier. The time-slip thing always has the plausible deniability of "it could just be a dream," but there's some nice jokes about time travel: Deb Aoki compared it to How I Met Your Mother, but it's a little Back to the Future-esque as well. "Wh-when did you first realize you liked me?" the hero asks his wife in the future. "When you said you loved me in the middle of class," she says. Our shy hero is horrified: "I'd die before I could do something so... so American!" In another chapter, Hitoshi finds out that his friend Itou is in prison in the future for being a flasher, so he resolves to give him a happier youth and help him meet some girls so he won't turn into a pervert. Soon other girls start showing up, and Hitoshi warps to alternate futures where he's married to them, yet of course, when he's in the future, he never quite has the courage to kiss any of his wives, let alone, uh, you know. It's a cute premise handled in clever, silly ways.
10. Fairy Tail (Hiro Mashima)
The modern classic by Hiro Mashima! There's not much to say about this one if you don't already know about it, but yes, on Crunchyroll you can follow along on the current chapters without having to look at a bunch of crappy talking banner ads and getting your computer infested with malware. It's a Kodansha Comics, so the early volumes aren't available online.
A group of teenagers inside a juvenile prison are among the last survivors when Japan falls to a zombie apocalypse. I'm saving this one to do a longer review later, but in brief, it's a solid, over-the-top shonen action-horror title. Oh, and the zombies are slow, World War Z-type zombies (the book, not the movie)... at least at first.
12. Attack on Titan (Hajime Isayama)
Mix flesh-eating zombies and giants, and you have giant flesh-eating pseudo-zombies, i.e. Attack on Titan. After reading Walter Greatshell's Enormity, I'm hoping giants will be the next big thing; maybe the hideous giants of Titan are the ultimate evolution of Evangelion-style biological mecha. Like in many manga, the hero's powers keep evolving nebulously, which causes some "convenient" plot twists, but cool plot bombs keep getting dropped and the central idea of a postapocalyptic world where humanity must hide behind walls from 150-foot-tall cannibal giants is too good to miss. It's another Kodansha Comics manga, so the early chapters aren't available online.
My first time reading Crunchyroll Manga was 10 hours well spent; if you noticed that I didn't rate any manga below two stars, that's because although some were mediocre, no manga was really awful. Although it's not officially titled "Shonen Magazine," although it doesn't wear its Kodansha-ness on its sleeve, there's a definite flavor to Crunchyroll's launch choices that's distinctly different from Shonen Jump. The comedy of Wagatsuma-san and Seven Witches is more mature (well, in a boob-obsessed way) and self-aware than Jump's rom-com Nisekoi. The horror and gore of Fort of Apocalypse, Attack on Titan and As the Gods Will is way beyond anything in Jump (except in some of Yoshihiro Togashi's grosser moments). Space Brothers, Mysterious Girlfriend X and A Town You Live In also skew distinctly older than any Jump titles. On the other hand, Jump has the Big Three of Naruto, Bleach and One Piece, it has the brilliance of One-Punch Man, and it has some titles with really exceptional artwork. Lastly, Jump's offline-viewing allows potentially better control over image quality than Crunchyroll's online-only viewing. (The Seven Deadly Sins and A Town You Live In both looked sort of pixellated on my MacBook.) For the most part, though, from a technical standpoint Crunchyroll worked fine, although at one point I had problems trying to get manga to load on Safari and Firefox. (It worked after I restarted.)
I'm always optimistic about new digital manga, and my basic verdict on Crunchyroll Manga is thumbs up. The launch of a new manga site makes me optimistic in other ways too. In the past four years, manga publishers have gone from completely flailing and desperate in the digital marketplace, to some increasingly streamlined and appealing sites. Weekly Shonen Jump with its set-course menu is fine, but Crunchyroll's manga buffet is an appealing alternative. Now, like when Tokyopop launched their "100% Authentic Manga" line back in 2002, Viz has real competition once again.
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