House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
Episode CLXII: Manga 2.5
Will manga and comics eventually be replaced by animation? Sure, they're different media, but at every anime convention there's that guy who says “my favorite series is (insert manga series here)!” and it turns out they've only seen the anime. Digital comics and “CD-ROMics,” made by taking existing comics and adding limited animation, first appeared in the 1990s but weren't very popular; Digital Manga Publishing started out selling them, but they weren't successful till they switched to selling manga in print. But now, print sales are down, and major companies like Comixology are using their "Guided View" panel transitions to smoothly incorporate animation into their digital comics. Even YouTube is full of videos made by fans uploading manga scans and adding limited animations and a soundtrack.
As of this year, there's a new company trying it out: Manga 2.5: Japanese Motion Comic, a Japanese company which offers both English and Japanese versions of several manga, all anime-ed up! Available for rental on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play (except for ColorMail, which for some reason is only on iTunes), the Manga 2.5 lineup so far consists of five titles, with four more announced on the way. Never mind dinky little YouTube shorts—each Manga 2.5 title adapts a full graphic novel into a 60-to-90-minute video with soundtrack, voice acting, color and limited animation. Creepy sci-fi detective dramas (Karasuma Kyōko no Jikenbo), whimsical shojo mysteries (The Mystical Detective Loki Ragnarok), shonen fantasy adventure (Otogi Soushi), and moe rom-com hijinks (Hadigirl)—Manga 2.5 carves a middle ground betwen anime and manga, or even more frankly, tries to turn manga into anime without going through the usual costly anime production process. So I rented the videos (on Google Play, a $5.99 “buy,” a $2.99 rental) and spent 4 hours checking them out.
The first title in my queue was Sakura Kinoshita's The Mystical Detective Loki Ragnarok. The story begins with Japan plagued with a series of gruesome “Grim Reaper” killings: the victims are all women with their heads cut off. Fortunately, it's not too gross since it's drawn in a light shojo style, and it also stars a light shojo heroine, pink-haired Mayura, the carefree teenage daughter of a Shinto priest. “I'd rather have my head cut off by the Grim Reaper than die of this boredom!” Mayura sighs in class. Randomly walking in the neighborhood after school, she discovers an odd Western-style mansion, where she meets Loki, a young boy detective, and Ryuusuke Yamino, Loki's handsome cook/manservant/hypnotist/dogsbody. Mayura instantly takes a fancy to them and starts hanging out in their house without permission and trying to get involved their detective cases, starting with the Grim Reaper murders. “This is just the beginning of Mayura, the Pretty Detective!” she declares cheerfully. Of course, Detective Loki is actually the Norse God Loki, who has been exiled to Earth and forced to “play detective in this world of mortals,” using his supernatural power to solve mysteries and defeat evil.
Some of the stories are cute, although the Norse theme is incredibly slim (since when did Norse gods use shikigami, anyway?) and I gave Loki a fairly positive review in Manga: The Complete Guide. Unfortunately, the Manga 2.5 version, far from an upgrade, makes the original manga's mild charm a lot harder to enjoy. It starts out nicely with a pseudo-TV-anime intro (not a full theme song, but character profiles and a little bit of music), but things go downhill the first time we hear the voice actors. The English voice cast for Loki, and all the Manga 2.5 titles, is terrible. My immediate assumption was that the voice cast consisted of random white people who had been dragged in off the street into Happinet Corporation's offices in Tokyo, and it was a little sad to discover that most of them are apparently professional voice actors, although I won't mention anybody by name. (Except, weirdest of all, David Gerrold, former Star Trek screenwriter and science fiction author. He was pretty good as the talking frog in Otogi Soushi.) To be fair to the voice actors, it isn't all their fault: the English script reads like an unproofed product of non-native speakers, and it's clear the actors didn't have the inclination or permission to make any edits to make things sound more natural. (“The Grim Reaper?” scoffs Mayura's dad at his daughter's detecting. “Don't be a fool! That name is nothing but a silly label used by people with weak minds and hearts!”)
These are slavishly literal translations, and the adaptation is too literal in other ways, particularly the attempt to keep every single scene and line from the manga. There's a reason TV anime doesn't bother to do this: it's much too slow, and most of the Manga 2.5 titles would have been improved if some dialogue was cut, or even whole scenes, like the pointless scene with Inspector Niyama in Loki’s first episode. On top of that, for each new scene in Loki, even something that was just a few panels long, there's new background music. It adds up to a slow, staccato, jerky watching experience, like being stuck in traffic that only moves every couple of minutes. The animation itself isn't anything you couldn't learn to do after a weekend-long course in AfterEffects. In most scenes, only the characters’ mouthes move, although at least they actually animated the mouthes and didn't just film the real voice-actors’ lips like in Clutch Cargo. (Although for hentai manga, wouldn't that be strangely alluring?) Since the animators just scanned the original manga and made animations around it, without too many costly additions or redrawing, there are other problems: too many closeups, too much black fade around the edges of the picture (to hide where the image cuts off), weird overly dark colors since the manga was originally designed for B&W, and so on.
Such was my disappointment with Loki that I almost didn't watch any more Manga 2.5 titles: but luckily I persisted, because the others are better. Loki was the first Manga 2.5 title, and apparently the animators got the hang of making the adaptations as they went on. Also, frankly, some of Loki's flaws are in the original manga: Sakura Kinoshita's art isn't detailed or cinematic enough to work in animation. It's more of a manga about witty (well, mildly witty) dialogue, but the bad rewrite, bad voice acting and bad pacing squashes that aspect.
Otogi Soushi, by Yumi Amashi, is both a better adaptation and much more suited to the pseudo-anime format. The setting is "the ancient world of the Japanese gods, the enchanted singularity where gods and yokai live in harmony"! Guren (aka "Gu-chan") is a 5-year-old god, son of Beni, the most powerful god in the Outer Realm. While his dad is away from home flying through the astral plane fighting the Mystic Fish (an apparently evil but poorly-named race of villains), Guren is raised by the kindly Shishi-usagi, one of the Guardians, the gods' animal-headed servant race. (You don't need to have taken much Japanese class to know that shishi-usagi means "Lion rabbit," but I still don't know why Shishi-usagi boasts "They don't call me the leonine rabbit for nothing!")
Unlike his mighty father, however, Guren is sort of a crybaby…actually, he's a total crybaby. But all the adults are keeping a secret from him…on the eve of his sixth birthday, he's snatched away by demons and taken to Hell, like all young gods, to be tested to see if he has the Right Stuff for adulthood! Soon, crybaby Guren is swimming through hot lava, chased by demonic oni, and otherwise tormented. It's not as bad as it sounds, though. "I want the courage to make my tears go away!" Guren cries. Hell is just a place where Guren will learn about growing up (spoiler: no god has ever failed the Hell test). Otogi Soushi takes awhile to get going (the first two chapters are the story of Guren's birth), but it's a feel-good children's story at heart, with one character after another showing up to give Guren a pat on the head, give him advice and tell him what a good boy he is: "As you grow up, do what's right, and keep your heart safe!" (etc.)
Despite the simple characterizations, Otogi Soushi is bizarre and wacky enough that it's an interesting read…er, watch. Like Hoshin Engi which it resembles art-wise, there's constantly something going on, tons of characters, tons of running around and fighting and explosions, whether in Hell or the other regions of the Inner and Outer Realm. (None of the characters or creatures in this manga has the faintest connection to reality.) The fantastical '90s-ish character designs and elaborate backgrounds look good on the screen, and the animators do a good job of making Amashi's manga look exciting, bringing the fight scenes to life. Unfortunately, although the animation is an improvement on Loki, the dialogue and translation is still terrible. It's a toss-up whether it's more excruciating to hear the demons make unfunny jokes or the good characters blather on about truth, love and Yin and Yang energy. (Sample: "When all things in the universe are balanced, peace is the result!" "Yes! Harmony from positive and negative forces creates peace!")
Karasuma Kyōko no Jikenbo ("Karasuka Kyoko, Detective of the Asakusa Police Department") is more my cup of tea, a seinen mystery with supernatural or science fiction elements. It's drawn well by Yusuki Kozaki, and written by Hiroi Oji, a veteran author who's best known for Samurai Crusader (with Ryoichi Ikegami) and the Sakura Wars series. Both of those series were set in the pre-World-War-II period, and Karasuma continues that retro feel: although the story is apparently set in the future when there's I.D. chips in every citizen, there's a distinct early-Showa atmosphere to this world, with a sepia and gray color scheme, fuzzy TVs showing wrestling matches in rundown ramen restaurants, and shantytowns full of tin-roofed shacks. Kyoko, the skinny heroine, is the sole woman in her police department; her partners are two older guys (one the boss, the other a badass with an eyepatch) and a hapless young guy who gets stuck making tea for everyone. When mystery calls, Kyoko and the old dude, Raymond, put on their black trenchcoats, grab their guns, and hit the streets to investigate. Their cases are often otherworldly: the first one involves a mysterious disease that turns people into horned cannibal oni, kind of like a zombie plague. (Kyoko: "The extermination of these abnormal creatures is our top priority!" Other Character: "Why do you constantly have to shine light in the darkness? Let what's hidden in the dark stay there!") It's more dark than it is particularly deep, but it's an intriguing setup, and the limited animation works well for the slow, brooding detective-story mood. Furthermore, there's some nice bits of limited animation, such as a cool sequence of guns firing. Grim, gritty and well done on a technical level, this the best of the Manga 2.5 titles so far.
I know I'm not the only one who's complained about the Manga 2.5 voice acting, and perhaps they've listened: their latest title, Akino Miyabi's Hadigirl, is subtitles-only. OTOH, as much as I hated most of the English voices in their other titles, I have to admit that it was hard to have to pay full attention to the screen, so basically, don't listen to me because I'm impossible to please. Hadigirl ("Embarrassed Girl") is also the most moe Manga 2.5 title. Sae-chan, the title character, is a shy girl who's totally inexperienced with love, hugging or even talking to boys. One day, while she's making herself blush watching a romantic movie at home, a tiny angel, Loverin (looking like one of the charas from Shugo Chara!), appears. "The egg of a love god has chosen you to nurture its host! The egg will be nurtured by your heartbeats!" Loverin tells Sae, giving her a magic bracelet and a magic notepad which contains her 'instructions' which she must perform to keep the angel egg healthy. And the first instruction is…she must hug a boy!!! Heartwarming virtual-pet YA love wackiness ensues: the manga follows Sae's embarrassed misadventures as she finds true love and friendship by following the angel's instructions. In a plot twist, it turns out that all the guys in school have misconstrued Sae's shyness as aloofness, and think of her as "a beautiful, man-hating ice queen."
My verdict on Hadigirl; it's sweet, but when it comes to stories about socially awkward girls, I'm more into something like No Matter How I Look At It, It's Your Fault I'm Not Popular! But if you like stories about shy girls blushing and being cute instead of shy girls being sickly and staying up till 5 am writing mean things on the Internet, this is your thing. While the story's pretty bland, the most impressive thing about Hadigirl was how much better animated it is than the early Manga 2.5 titles. Whether because of the Miyabi's clean-cut manga art or the animators' increasing skill, at first I thought that Hadigirl might have been made specifically for animation. (It wasn't.) Visually, it doesn't look any worse, in fact sometimes it looks better, than a typical Original Web Animation like Neko Ramen or Nyarko-san.
I'm kind of cheating covering Manga 2.5 here on House of 1000 Manga, because essentially it's anime, not manga. In a world where the definition between comics and animation is blurred (that's the opening line in my movie trailer), the clearest definition of comics is that you can read them at your own pace: the story goes as fast as your hands can flip the pages and your eyes can move along the page. Animation, OTOH, brings the pictures to life but also forces you to move as fast or slow as the director wants you to. Despite the awful English voice acting, the soundtrack is essential for this; the music and voices are the glue binding the animation together (a few years ago there was a company doing videos similar to Manga 2.5, but with only subtitles and no soundtracks, and it was much more boring than these videos). Still, after the voice acting (perhaps a thing of the past if future releases are sub-only like Hadigirl), the biggest problem with Manga 2.5 is pacing: 60-90 minutes is eternity for an anime based on a single tankobon. (Of course, TV anime often squeeze 6 or 7 30-minute episodes out of a single tankobon, but unlike Manga 2.5, they often change the plot, add side stories, etc.) I often found myself wishing that the episodes were broken up into shorter chunks, like 15~30 minutes, to make a more manageable chunk of time and to eliminate the pointless chapter breaks scattered throughout the videos. 90 minutes on the Web is a LONG time, with or without bad voice acting. (Real quote: "Loki's some actor. What a ham!")
In the end, the most promising thing about Manga 2.5 is how much the quality of the animation improves over the past few releases, from the subprofessional Loki to the watchable Karasuma Kyoko and Hadigirl. If the animation quality keeps improving at this rate, I'll keep checking out new titles. New titles scheduled for translation currently include Kinusa Shimotsuki's online romance Tonari no Kashiwagi-san, as well as two titles previously translated on JManga: Maru Nagao's Edo Nekoe Jubei Otogizoshi (“Edo Cat Painter Jubei's Fairy Tales”), about a painter in Edo-era Japan and his magical talking cat, and Masakazu Ishiguro's surreal maid-cafe comedy Sore Demo Macha wa Mawatteiru (“And Yet the Town Moves”). (I'm less excited about the other new title announcement, Renai Senka: The Special Class of Love.) It'll be interesting to see if this format becomes more popular, but I can't help but wonder if adapted-for-digital animations will be able to compete with digital-original web animations in the long run. Comixology's Atomic Robo, one of their most successful pseudo-animations so far, was made exclusively for digital; at a certain point, it's easier and cheaper to just create new digital-friendly animation artwork than to spend hours making layers and scrubbing screentone out of images that were originally drawn for printed comics. I'm always happy to see more manga translated, but sometimes you want animation and sometimes you want comics. Is there really a perfect inbetween, or aren't they just two separate things?
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