RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
by Carlo Santos,
As we enter the month of March, a troubling dilemma has arrived: having to change anime and manga-themed calendars at the end of the Japanese school year. My Animedia calendar stops at February/March 2006 with a Fullmetal Alchemist snowball fight. The Betsucomi calendar, which I only got because it had Hot Gimmick in it, actually goes a little bit over, having started in January/February 2005 but ending with January/February 2006. Then there's my Yotsuba&! daily desk calendar, which stops after March. I have to admit, the superfluous February 29th page made me laugh. The calendar has the same weird sense of humor as the manga.
(by Yua Kotegawa, ADV Manga, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Three people united by a terrifying secret.
Yuri, a young man who killed his own mother.
Mitsuba, who will gladly murder to avenge the sister that was taken from him.
Anna, the mysterious assassin with a chilling beauty.
Together, they'll stop at nothing to bring down a terrorist organization...
And along the way, they'll come closer to the truth that binds them together."
The murder of one's own mother is a pretty shocking way to start a manga, and it just gets stranger from there. It's the good kind of strange, though: an intriguing criminal world lies just beneath the façade of modern-day Japan, and with nothing to lose and nowhere to go, Yuri and Mitsuba are inescapably drawn into it. What's the deal with Mitsuba's family? Who is this terrorist group that Anna is fighting? How long can they run from the authorities? Kotegawa's cleanly drawn art and swift pacing add to the momentum of this thriller.
Like all thrillers, however, it goes through some silly convolutions just to keep the plot alive. Murders happen without any real consequence—it's only done to make sure that Yuri and Mitsuba have no family left and will join Anna's vigilante anti-terrorism spree. In fact, this casual attitude towards death dominates the story, and while some may accept it as "dark humor," others might find it distasteful. Meanwhile, other attempts at humor fall flat: Yuri and Mitsuba's "odd couple" dynamic is more of a comedy contrivance than a real part of the story.
RTO!! RATING: C+
(by Mitsuba Takanashi, Viz Media, $8.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"All that matters to 15-year-old Nobara Sumiyoshi is volleyball—she's an awesome player with big-time ambitions. But sometimes it seems like a girl just can't get a break in the competitive world of high school volleyball.
Nobara's family wants her to inherit the role of 'young mistress,' serving rich patrons at her family's old-fashioned Japanese restaurant. No thanks! When Nobara transfers to Crimson Field High School, known for its top-notch volleyball team, it turns out that her mother will stoop to dirty tricks to keep her off the court. With assistance from her feisty Aunt Momoko, who's got some connections at Crimson Field, Nobara decides to start playing offense."
What kind of sports manga goes through an entire first volume without the main character actually playing the sport? In Crimson Hero, this daring move works, because it's as much a personal story as it is a sports story. Nobara's struggle to be accepted is as gripping as any volleyball match, and her forceful personality single-handedly drives the plot. Tall, strong-willed and boyish, Nobara is the antithesis of the ditzy shoujo heroine, and a character that really sticks in your head. Free-flowing but readable layouts also keep the story moving at a fast visual pace.
Takanashi clearly isn't a big fan of drawing backgrounds; many of the scenes involve people chatting while screentone patterns float behind them. The characters' personalities also take some time getting used to—Nobara's attitude is so forceful that she sometimes comes off as grating, while male lead Yushin definitely comes off as grating with his stubborn boorishness. The romantic tension between the two is obvious, but sometimes you just want to smack them both. The volume could also have closed with a terrific cliffhanger if it hadn't been for a four-page filler scene right at the end.
RTO!! RATING: B
(by Jin Kobayashi, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"She . . . is a second-year high school student with a single all-consuming question: Will the boy she likes ever really notice her?
He . . . is the school's most notorious juvenile delinquent, and he's suddenly come to a shocking realization: He's got a huge crush, and now he must tell her how he feels.
Life-changing obsessions, colossal foul-ups, grand schemes, deep-seated anxieties, and raging hormones—School Rumble portrays high school as it really is: over-the-top comedy!"
Few comedies can thrive on their own sheer insanity like School Rumble. Verbal and visual gags fill almost every page, and Tenma's absurd attempts to catch her crush's attention are matched only by Kenji's schemes to make Tenma notice him. Everyone's in love with everyone else—a familiar setup—but give them a few major personality defects and suddenly it's hilarious. Even the numerous Japanese puns, which would have fallen apart in a lesser translator's hands, are handled with care by Del Rey's staff.
There are only so many variations you can do on the Love-Confession-Attack theme before it gets old. Even the series' wild inventiveness can't save it from the fact that by the end of Volume 1, our lovestruck characters are still in the same situation that they were at the beginning. No doubt it accomplishes the comedy, but if you're expecting it to evolve into romance, that'll have to wait. Meanwhile, the bonus chapters featuring Tenma's younger sister, while cute, aren't as entertaining as Tenma's own screwball antics.
RTO!! RATING: B
SUGAR SUGAR RUNE
(by Moyoco Anno, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Outspoken Chocolate and shy Vanilla are best friends, but only one of them can be Queen of the Magical World. To determine who deserves the title, they must go to the Human World and enter a strange competition. Whoever attracts the most human boys . . . claims victory!
Chocolat's problems in the Human World continue, as sweet and modest Vanilla wins many admirers. But there's more at stake than a contest when Chocolat learns something shocking about Pierre, the boy she's falling for. It is a secret that threatens Chocolat's life and forces her to return to the Magical World to uncover a truth no one in the kingdom wants to discuss. Worse still, as the challenge heats up, the two best friends find themselves drifting apart and their friendship on the verge of ending!"
Another magical girl series, another daring departure from the Monster-of-the-Week formula. Chocolat's confrontation with Pierre and visit to the Magical World breaks the story wide open, introducing Chocolat's old friends, Vanilla's mother, and a political undercurrent. Anno isn't afraid to bring darker emotions into this story, even though her artwork remains as sparkly and charming as humanly possible. With magical complications and social upheaval on the horizon, the world of Sugar Sugar Rune just got a whole lot bigger.
Competing to win boys' hearts—even in a fairytale sense—isn't exactly the most progressive idea, is it? And then there's Vanilla taking the lead by being shy and demure. Come on, what decade is this? (Fortunately, it's brash and outspoken Chocolat who gets most of the focus.) Overall, the story feels strangely shallow, losing its emotional impact among all the magical-world contrivances. The page layouts, although beautifully designed and easy to follow, are so crowded with dialogue and artwork that they're practically begging for white space and breathing room.
RTO!! RATING: B+
WARCRAFT: THE SUNWELL TRILOGY
(by Richard A. Knaak and Jae-Hwan Kim, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In their continuing quest to combat the onslaught of the scourge, Anveena and Kalec travel with Tyri's assistance to Aerie Peak in the hopes that a dwarf there will be able to remove the magical circles around their necks. Yet evil conspires against them as they are attacked mid-flight by a huge frost wyrm.
Deadly confrontations follow, and in a particularly fierce battle Kalec can only watch in horror as Anveena is abducted by an evil figure! Our heroes' fates lie in a dangerous balance!"
Although some familiarity with the Warcraft universe helps, this volume is a compact little adventure in itself. Our heroes from Vol. 1 get separated on an icy peak, and watching them struggle to reunite is a gripping quest-within-a-quest. Kim's near-realistic art supports the story magnificently, filling each page with rich landscapes, gruesome beasts and thrilling battles. For everyone who thinks that fantasy is all but dead, this is proof that straight-up swords and sorcery still works if you just tell an honest story with honest characters.
Okay, maybe the story is too honest—there's nothing here that readers haven't seen before. The characters get themselves into some suspenseful situations, but the resolutions are always predictable; even the plot "twists" are just recycled devices from other adventure stories. (Rule Number 1: Never assume that the villain you defeated is actually dead.) The artwork isn't perfect either, often drowning in masses of gray screentones. It's like playing the actual Warcraft game: good fun for passing the time, but not all that fulfilling.
RTO!! RATING: C
KASHIMASHI ~GIRL MEETS GIRL~
(by Satoru Akahori and Yukimaru Katsura, Media Works, ¥578)
FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"Hazumu Osaragi, a rather feminine boy, confesses his crush to his classmate Yasuna Kamiizumi but is turned down. Later that day, he's hit and killed by an extraterrestrial spacecraft falling to Earth, but then resurrected by alien technology—as a girl. While his (now "her") childhood friend Tomari Kurusu—who has a secret crush on him—finds it difficult to accept the reality, Kamiizumi comes back and tries to approach Osaragi actively, for the reason she originally turned down Osaragi has now vanished..."
So, when does the "Girl's Love" manga revolution start? Kashimashi is a pleasant, accessible example of the genre, cleverly mutating an ordinary love triangle into an all-girl affair. Instead of equating gender-bending with comedy—an overdone concept anyway—this story explores the emotional consequences of suddenly liking someone who's the same sex. With striking layouts and careful visual pacing, it builds up the drama chapter by chapter, until the last few pages where Hazumu, Yasuna and Tomari reveal their feelings in one very touching, very telling scene.
The characters' discomfort over unusual relationships seems to reflect the creators' mindset, as writer Satoru Akahori dreams up various contrivances to justify a girl/girl romance. Why the aliens? Why the sex change? It gets the plot moving, but a simpler approach would have been to just start Hazumu off as a girl. Yasuna's strange eye condition is another unnecessary twist—this one an excuse for her attraction to female Hazumu rather than the male. It's a good story at heart, but too far-fetched for anyone seeking a truly realistic high school romance.
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