Reviewby Carlo Santos,
First there were the mass suicides. Then there were the ordinary people who developed mysterious powers. For fire-wielding Taisuke Kanou, however, all he wants is to rescue his friends from the other "comrades" who plan to use their powers for malice. Accompanied by space-manipulating Yuta and ice-user Nami, Taisuke comes face-to-face with an oppponent who can kill simply by manipulating words and promises. Can Taisuke and his friends outwit him, or will unpredictable Nami turn on them at the last moment? And what does the scheming, sinister comrade Katsumata have in store for Taisuke if he survives? Meanwhile, Taisuke's captive friends Hirose and Megumi are traveling paths of their own: Megumi is trying to escape and return to Taisuke, while Hirose is doing everything he can to protect her—even if that means harming or killing others.
The first few volumes of Alive made their mark by pitting characters against each other in physical, superpower-driven battle—but Volume 5 is the first one that really digs into the battlefield of the mind. Well, sure, there was that one guy who could fool other people with illusions, but this volume's mind games are of the non-psychic variety, which make them all the more dramatic. Can the power of suggestion turn an already confused boy into a cold-blooded killer? Can a mysterious visit and a few carefully chosen words put doubt into the heart of a single-minded hero? Certainly, these questions are a bit more complex than "can fire beat wind," and these pages lay out the conflict in a way that makes them just as gripping as any physical fight.
But first, there's the issue of that ongoing fight between Taisuke and Okada, whose power involves summoning the Grim Reaper if his victim should happen to break a promise. Okada's vile, man-child otaku character is easily the most interesting in the entire series—what if an insecure geek actually had the power to lash back at his tormentors?—but that part was already explored last volume, and at this point he's just another enemy for Taisuke and company to mow down. There's a sprinkling of moral conflict as Nami jumps into the fray, but the first chapter is mostly routine action-battle fodder—and the second one is a tying-up of loose ends as Taisuke lies in hospital recovering and gets a creepy psychic visit from head villain Katsumata. Other plot elements, like the reporters following Taisuke and the ongoing searching for "Acro's Heart," get some page time but are still just sideshows to the main story.
For the real thrills and mind games, one must wait until the second half of the book, which happens almost entirely from the bad guys' point of view. It's here that Katsumata starts messing with Hirose—suggesting that he might be too weak, that he won't be able to protect Megumi, that Megumi still wants to go back to Taisuke. It's a brilliant, diabolical act of psychological warfare that is just as engaing as any of the series' physical fights. So when it does get physical in the final chapter—not to give too much away, but basically, "Hirose goes nuts"—the action is that much more terrifying, especially when coupled with some well-placed childhood flashbacks. It would have been so easy to keep on portraying the villains as just a bunch of guys sneering and cackling in the background, but the back-story and motivation given to Hirose in this volume makes him stand out for the first time as a truly chilling (and transformed) character.
Although the conflict in this volume changes from a physical to a psychological nature, it doesn't make the visuals any less exciting. Unusual angles, close-ups and dramatic staging bring out the intense emotions of each scene, even if it's something as simple as two characters talking. The 45-page chapters also allow plenty of variety in terms of visual pacing, with the mostly-rectangular panels shrinking and expanding as needed throughout the story. A clean sense of line also makes the artwork easy to follow, but cleanliness does not necessarily mean inventiveness: the character designs are ultimately forgettable (you could stick Taisuke in a harem series and no one would notice), with only a few bizarre villains like Okada breaking the mold. The backgrounds are another weak point in the series, not because they're badly drawn, but because, a lot of the time, they're not drawn at all. For all the slick visual pacing and ebb and flow of intensity, it can be disconcerting to see whole fields of white space behind the characters.
Of course, psychological manipulation would not be complete without the power of words, and the dialogue in this volume is surprisingly effective for being so simple. It doesn't take higher education to understand Katsumata's disturbing philosophy: "What if there were those in this universe who considered 'death' a gift from heaven?" This and other quotable quotes add up to a script that is brief but eloquent. Sound effects are handled efficiently as well, leaving Japanese characters intact and placing small translations next to each word. A glossary in the back fills out the cultural dimension of the story, with surprisingly thorough notes on assorted topics like food, linguistics, and the supernatural.
Readers of Alive may have been worried that the story was slowly devolving into a "Who will Taisuke fight next?" psychic-power tournament series. Fortunately, Volume 5 defuses those worries with an intriguing shift in direction. Taisuke finishes the last of his on-the-road battles (for now), and the second half of the book goes into some serious character development as it explores the making of a villain. And just because people aren't flinging their superpowers around quite as much, doesn't make the artwork any less intense—there are plenty of dramatic scenes and striking moments to be had when differing philosophies and ideals come into conflict. Of course, the biggest conflict—if Hirose and Taisuke should happen to run into each other—is yet to come.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Plunges into new territory with a gripping second half, packed with intense scenes and character development from the enemy side.