Reviewby Carlo Santos,
G. novel anthology: Last Dance Gunparade
In 1945, World War II came to an abrupt end when Earth was invaded by otherworldly beasts called Genjyu. Fifty years on, humanity continues to fight this menace, but a depleted population has forced Japan to send high school students into battle. Piloting mechas known as HWTs (Heavy Walking Tanks), the kids in Unit 5121 spend their days defending Japan from these monsters. But more importantly, they spend their off-hours getting into scrapes, falling in love, coping with their elders, and generally just being teenagers. Last Dance Gunparade is a series of glimpses into that everyday life, be it serious, sweet, or silly.
Where does "proper" manga stop and doujinshi begin? That's not a question that the Gunparade March Anthology addresses, but it's certainly relevant, as many of the contributors in this volume are doujin specialists. Throw them in with artists from other fandom-related disciplines, like gaming, collectible cards, and even some who do actual manga, and the result is a product that fluctuates between sharp humor and near incoherence. Squeezing over 20 artists into 160 pages may not have been the smartest idea, and with many of them being no more than highly accomplished semi-pros, it's like a glimpse into the rising-but-stuck-halfway stars of manga. Are you sure you want to pay $10 for this?
If the premise of Gunparade March sounds like a ridiculous contrivance, well, that's because video game logic can get away with it, and it's just cute to see teenage kids piloting giant robots. From its beginnings as a PS2 game, the franchise has branched out into a regular manga series, a short-lived anime, and now, what's essentially a doujinshi compilation of dedicated fans and creators professing their love for the characters. However, this book provides no introduction to who the characters are, so Gunparade neophytes are best advised NOT to get into the series with this volume. For those already familiar with this world, it's a fun way to see the lighter side of things, as most of the stories focus on everyday situations, sometimes with a crazy twist. In fact, interchange these schoolkids with any other reasonably popular franchise featuring young characters—Naruto, Gundam Seed, Evangelion (oops, they've got a slice-of -life spinoff manga already)—and most of the stories would still function with a couple of adjustments. Battle elements like HWT units and Genjyu need not apply, although they still show up from time to time.
The short stories in this volume vary greatly in structure and theme, although some common ideas do emerge. Comedy pieces are popular, and they range from the wickedly brilliant ("On Happiness" riffs on the commander's penchant for short shorts in hot weather; "So Close, Yet So Far Away" is a mad quest for a usable bathroom) to gags that just fall flat. There's also a tendency to rely on a deadpan last panel as a punchline—it usually goes something like "And then, so-and-so did this-and-that." If the setup's good enough, it sort of works, but is never outrageously funny. Some jokes are also highly dependent on character traits: you have to know that Hayami is the unluckiest guy on earth, Mai is Miss Unattainable, Setoguchi is the promiscuous bishounen, Nonomi is the token lolicon interest, and so on. Even so, most of the characters are pretty simple, making it easy to spin some humor on them. Spinning drama is a more difficult matter, and the handful of stories that try to make a serious point fail to make any real impact. They're thoughtful vignettes at best, and someone needs to tell these people that vague, ambiguous endings are not a substitute for actual emotion or depth.
Flip through this book casually and you might get the mistaken impression that Gunparade fans and staff all draw the same way. However, there are definite nuances in style and technique, and it's fun to see how different artists approach the same series. Although nothing is particularly outstanding, there are some distinctive styles: "5121" is a collection of four-panel strips that simplifies characters to the extreme, "Love Strategy" throws on some shoujo visual clichés to poke fun at a love letter craze, and the thin-lined minimalism of "The Battle at Kumamoto Castle" works surprisingly well for its Zen-like humor. In fact, the more accomplished artwork that stays true to the original designs is usually boring to look at. Having come straight out of a game, the characters are basically anime stereotypes, making them pleasing to the eye but ultimately uninteresting. While layout technique varies from artist to artist, most of them use free-flowing rectangular paneling to tell their stories, with the occasional four-panel as mentioned before.
Media Blasters presents this book in a larger page size than the average manga volume, making it easier to follow the artwork, which can get pretty busy at times. As an added bonus, the first few pages feature color art from other contributors, including the original Gunparade March character designer. However, the color pages should have been scanned in at a better resolution, since they have the slightly blurry look of something that was printed off a home computer. In the back of the book are also some more illustrations and personal messages from other artists. (Most of it is about how excited they were to see the Gunparade March anime.) Sound effects are left unedited and untranslated, which may be a bother to some, and while the translated dialogue is competent, there's the occasional feeling that the staff just didn't get the joke. Some of the punchline pages fail to make any sense no matter how many times you reread them.
If you're already a fan of Gunparade March, then Last Dance Gunparade might be an amusing bit of miscellany. Taking the characters outside of the main storyline and throwing them into non-combat situations has plenty of entertaining possibilities, although some of the contributors in this book pull it off better than others. As middle-of-the-pack manga-ka and doujin-ka, none of them reach any levels of high artistry, and some just can't tell a clear story. As for everyone else who isn't into Gunparade yet—well, you'll probably have to get back to this one later.
Overall : C-
Story : D
Art : B-
+ Some lighthearted fun and a chance to explore the styles of various artists.