House of 1000 Manga
Four from Crunchyroll

by Jason Thompson,

Four from Crunchyroll

Crunchyroll has become my favorite digital manga service. I hate to admit it, but I always forget to keep track of Shonen Jump; the read-it-every-week-as-it-comes-out magazine system is easy to fall behind in, and hey, even TV shows on services like Netflix are released 10+ episodes at a time nowadays rather than trickling them out once a week. Binge-reading is the thing. And Viz's digital editions and emanga books are much more expensive (although I still bought JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood, of course), not like the Crunchyroll buffet subscription service where you're paying a flat fee so you can browse through the offerings and try out as many things as you like.

And when I'm traveling, like for the last two weeks over the holidays, it's the first manga reader I use…which is why between Christmas and New Year I read four Crunchyroll manga, picking out ones that interested me (I won't bore you by re-reviewing ones I've talked about before.) When they first opened, Crunchyroll focused mostly on high-visibility Kodansha manga like Attack on Titan and Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, but in the last year they've added a lot of strange titles from smaller publishers, as well as oldies such as Saito Production's catalog. Has the quality stayed high? Are the new titles good? I'd have to do about 20 more reviews to talk definitively about all of them, but hey: if you caught me spacing out on my cell phone over the holidays when everyone else was eating fruitcake and drinking champagne, this is what I was reading. Happy Late New Year 2015!

1. Murder Incarnation
story by Keita Sugawara, art by Shinji Inamitsu

Yumika, Ayaka's beloved sister, is dead. Yumika is still in shock days later at the wake when a mysterious girl approaches her with a strange offer. The cheerfully creepy Maya (“I have a keen interest in corpses”) tells Yumika that she can raise the dead, and makes the grieving sibling a special offer: if she can kill three people in 24 hours, she will bring Ayaka back to life. After a partial demonstration of Maya's powers, Yumika agrees to try, and the moral choice gets easier when she discovers that her big sister was mixed up with a trio of delinquents who may have been involved in her death. But murders still Take Planning…and the desperation level rises as the clock ticks down, since two out of three doesn't count…

Murder Incarnation is an anthology manga; each story involves different desperate individuals who take Maya's offer and choose to kill. There's Tsutsumi, a newlywed teacher whose wife dies in an accident; Asuka, a single mom just trying to raise her son despite the torments of her abusive elderly father and her abusive ex-husband; and Haruhiko, a rich techie whose trip with his young wife and their pals on his new yacht goes horribly wrong when a maniac with a gun sneaks on board. Along the way, we gradually discover more about the inscrutable Maya, such as the fact that she has two sisters who help with the resurrection business (the Three Norns…?).

Unfortunately, Murder Incarnation doesn't live up to its possibilities. The philosophical and logistical implications of people coming back from the dead aren't dealt with, but more frustrating is the manga's tendency to go for cheap twist endings that often defy the characters’ established personalities. The story problems, however, are nothing compared to the art. From the beginning something seems strange about the characters’ Uncanny Valley stares and awkward poses, until a few pages in it becomes clear: Murder Incarnation is drawn with 3D manga rendering software, like ComiPo or the equivalent! While some artists have used 3D modeling to great effect (Gantz for instance), the execution here is terrible. Everyone is clearly based on the same few basic face and body models with little customization, leaving zero room for unique character designs, personal expressio or the other things that make comic (and manga) art good. A bitter view of humanity combined with bad “gotcha” endings and drab, robotic artwork equals a tedious manga. Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

2. Girl May Kill
by Azusa Itakura

Aki Gohongi works at a video store in a port city in Japan. He's second-generation Chinese-Japanese, and though his parents are dead, he's moved back to the old town of his youth, where he lives in a cheap apartment and watches old films in the fading moviehouses. When a space in his apartment building opens up, he meets a strange trio who seem out of place in the rundown streets: handsome and dapper Katsura, elegant cheongsam-wearing Ruka, and Mei, a cute little girl who collects stuffed animals and teddy bears. Aki can't figure out what kind of family they are, till one day Katsura draws a gun in the street and blows away a threatening thug. “I'm part of the mafia,” he explains, and so are the rest of them, even Mei, an innocent-looking assassin who slits men's throats. Soon Aki, who's never held a gun or hurt a fly, is caught up in a war between rival gangs, and his only friend is Mei, the innocent young girl who somehow became a hired killer.

Another entry in the “tiny girls who can overpower and murder huge adults” genre (at least the characters in Gunslinger Girl were actually powerful cyborgs), Girl May Kill is a crime drama about the blooming relationship between a 26-year-old video store employee and a 15-year-old assassin. "Could it be that people think I'm a pedophile who's dating a junior high student?" Aki wonders when he and Mei go on trips around town, but for his part, he just sees Mei as a friend who needs a shoulder to cry on about her terrifyingly stressful job. Mei likes Aki too, possibly not in the same way, but it's hard to take any love elements seriously when she's drawn like and talks like she's 8 years old, not 15. (A scene when a pedophilic villain tries to rape Aki puts the subtext right out in the open.) One thing is certain: when the bullets fly, Aki is sworn to defend him (“Don't worry, I'll protect you”). But is she his salvation, or is he hers?

Unfortunately, the story is unconvincing and the art is horrible. I know not every crime manga needs to have the detail level and tech-fetishistic research of Gunsmith Cats or Dance in the Vampire Bund, but Azusa Itakura's art looks simply subprofessional and (together with Murder Incarnation) made me wonder if Crunchyroll was giving a chance to artists that couldn't make it in Japan…but no, amazingly, this ran in a Japanese publication. The excitement-free action scenes consist of the good guys walking around casually shooting minions and the depiction of Chinese crime syndicates is on the level of “one character wears a cheongsam, another wears a kung fu jacket.” There are some interesting subplots about minor characters, but not enough of them, and the writing isn't great either (nor is the English-language rewrite: apparently Katsura is gay, so gay that we're supposed to be able to tell this from the first thing he says, but the English rewrite doesn't give him any stereotypically gay speech patterns so that the reader is blindsided by Aki's homophobic first impression "A homo, huh..."). I stuck around for 10 chapters until I couldn't take it any longer. Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

3. King's Game: Origin
story by Nobuaki Kanazawa, art by J-ta Yamada

The year is 1977. The place is remote Yonaki village, a tiny town deep in the mountains where everyone knows everybody else. Not everybody is related to everybody else, though, and Kazunari and his cousin Natsuko must go on dates and confess their love in secret, for their parents would never allow cousins to marry. One day the town's tiny group of teenagers—pompadoured goof-off Ryuuji, muscley good ol’ boy Yuuji, Michiko the town slut, Kazunari and Natsuko and the rest—find a scrawled letter with strange instructions: These are the King's orders for today. All villagers between the ages of 10 and 20 must touch a human corpse. You have 24 hours. Those who fail to obey will be punished by hanging. Most of them think it's a joke, but still, that night they unearth a village grave and goad each other to touch the dead man's slimy head. The next day they think nothing more of it, until they discover the only two teenagers who didn't touch the corpse were found dead in the morning, hanging from nooses. The grieving parents, who had never seen the letter, think that they were meaningless suicides. Only the terrified teenagers know otherwise…and then, later that morning, they find the second letter…

As you can tell, I've got a taste for manga involving (1) weird rules and loopholes and (2) shocking deaths. (Doesn't everyone?) One of several manga spinoffs of the cell-phone-novel-turned-film King's Game, also written by Nobuaki Kanazawa, King's Game: Origin stands on its own and actually impressed me so much I looked up the original series. As each day's instructions get more sadistic and bizarre, the situation rapidly goes out of control, and soon the police are called in as the town's tiny population is whittled down further and further. (Luckily, the phase of “The adults think it's just a prank! Only us kids know the truth!” only lasts briefly.) But as the deaths become more obviously supernatural, the police are powerless to stop or even identify the King, and soon all they can do is watch from behind the quarantine as the remaining survivors turn on one another and the town dies down to the Last Man and woman…

If Death Note was about outwitting the “rules” of a supernatural power, King's Game is at heart about something even more disturbing: the sensation of being completely trapped and helpless in the grip of an omnipotent force. Is the King God? An insane child with supernatural powers? Even though astute readers may have guessed the King's identity long before the main character does, there's still enough “Why,” “How” and “What The F***” to keep up the tension and keep you reading every time Crunchyroll updates a new chapter. J-ta Yamada's art is attractive and smooth, and Nobuaki Kanazawa's writing is solid: characters behave believably, people are good, evil and inbetween, and the protagonists vainly attempt to apply logic to a situation where…well, it doesn't seem like logic will do much good. Fans of Higurashi: When They Cry may especially enjoy the retro small-town setting and claustrophobic whodunit feel, but any horror or suspense fan should try out this nightmarish delight. Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

4. Investor Z
by Norifusa Mita

Zaizen Takashi (the “Z” is for his name) is at the head of his class; he's not from a rich family, but he scored so high on his exams he made it into Dojoku Junior High, Japan's #1 school. On his first day in school, Kamishiro Keisuke, a mysterious third-year student, asks Zaizen to follow him and leads him down into the school basement to a room where five other boys are playing mahjongg…the mahjongg club?! But no, mahjongg is just a lead-in to the club's real purpose: “A game that is a million times more alluring…the ultimate game of ultimate thrill…money…INVESTMENTS!!” The 130-year-old Investment Club secretly funds the school from their office and vault in the school basement, controlling billions of yen, perhaps even steering the fate of nations. (“The investment club of Dojoku is the history of the Japanese economy itself!”) Zaizen isn't interested at first, but Kamishiro won't let Zaizen's brilliant mind get away, and things like mahjongg and gambling games all become teaching tools to mold Zaizen into his destiny. But the first rule about Investment Club is, there is no Investment Club, so Zaizen must keep his extracurricular activities a secret…especially from his father, an old-fashioned man who thinks talking about money is distasteful. And what is the seemingly supernatural force that haunts the Investment Club, a ghostly urge that seems to tell Zaizen “Don't think about money! Don't go near money! Get out of here, now!”??! Shonen manga meets hardcore venture capitalism in the world of Investor Z!

Norifusa Mita, the author of Investor Z (and he's by far a better author than an artist) is best known in Japan as the creator of the lawyer-coaches-underprivileged-high-school-kids manga Dragon Zakura, which ran in that most grownup and respectable manga magazine, Weekly Morning. A quick Google search on his new series turns up a not-altogether-surprising fact: despite the shonen manga tropes and cast of kids, it's also a Morning manga, so it's really intended for adult readers rather than 14-year-olds. The manga is loaded with endless lectures, delivered by junior high students who are willing to drop everything to tell their classmates about prospect theory or how money developed out of the barter system; like the old manga pro he is, Mita does a good job of expressing basic economic theories through soundbites and bold, italicized dialogue.

* “Study is irrelevant to interesting! Study what? A year will go by before you know it.”

  1. “There are no rules to investing. Buy low, sell high, that's all there is to it! It's only about guts and intuition! It's gambling! It's a game!”
  2. “Forget the past! Cutting your losses is never a failure!”
  3. “You have to think of it as a game. Otherwise, you couldn't handle 300 billion.”
  4. Money is people! People are money!”
  5. “Money is language! Thanks to money, people had time to spare! They were freed from the basic necessities! Thanks to money, people acquired time to think! Human interactions were enhanced due to money!”

And that's just in the first few chapters. Dense, but in a way that pulls you in like quicksand, Investor Z is one of those manga that's so extreme it borders on parody: a glorification of capitalist principles spoken through the mouthes of junior high students, written for middle-aged men, while the old boy's club of the school (in the manga) secretly watch over the shoulders of their young proteges. (It's a boy's school, with identical uniforms and all, and these are all men, of course.) Perhaps having young protagonists was Mita's excuse for delivering so many lectures the way an adult lectures a child, although he needn't have bothered since most Morning manga are as blunt and simplistic as shonen manga anyway (think of all the earnest lectures on wine in The Drops of God). Like some dinosaur of the early ‘80s Japanese economic boom revived by splicing genes from Yu-Gi-Oh!, Investor Z is fascinating, and it's fun watching it roar and stomp around…at the same time, the text is so thick it's tiresome to read in long bursts, and the worldview expressed within is so Machiavellian and depressing I can only read it as an unintentional dark satire. Perhaps that's why I never went into investing, although I don't recommend manga editing as a surefire money-making scheme either. Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

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