RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Cat's Cradle
by Carlo Santos,
My calendar dilemma came to a (sort-of) resolution when the Yotsuba&! 2006 daily calendars arrived in Akadot Retail's inventory. I placed my order on Friday morning, and somehow, it got to my mailbox by Saturday afternoon. Those guys work blindingly fast, although living in Southern California helps too.
Speaking of Akadot, I'm sad to see Isaac Lew go. He's a true fan, a cool guy to hang out with, and one of the most entertaining personalities in the business. Best of luck to the inimitable Aka-san in all his endeavors, manga and otherwise.
(by Kentaro Yabuki, Viz Media, $7.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Train Heartnet, also known as 'Black Cat,' was an infamous assassin for a secret organization called Chronos... until he abandoned that cold-blooded existence to live life on his own terms as an easygoing bounty hunter. But is Train's past as far behind him as he thinks?
Train and his partner Sven go after a huge bounty, attempting to track down a dangerous weapons smuggler who is dealing dangerous new technology on the black market. They cross paths with an elegant thief who offers to help them, but will the alliance be fruitful, or will the burglar bring bad luck to Black Cat?"
With all the popular adventures set in feudal times, spiritual otherworlds, or the far future, Black Cat stands apart with its slick modern-day setting. Who needs swords when you've got explosives? Train's ultra-sharp senses come to life in thrilling gunfights as he dodges bullets, shoots into other people's barrels, and basically embarrasses the opposition. This is one series that epitomizes the action genre, racing from chapter to chapter as Train and Sven seek out new bounty. Even an extended story arc throughout the second half doesn't slow them down.
The trouble with working various "cool things" into a story is that people will have seen them all before—bounty hunters, gunslingers, assassins, secret organizations, nanomachines... need any more examples? Throwing them into one big bowl of coolness doesn't guarantee great execution, and the predictable plot is proof of that. Whenever Train gets into a pinch, he simply pulls out the real-life equivalent of a video game cheat (usually one of Sven's gadgets). Plain artwork and characters don't help either; it's good enough for Shonen Jump, maybe, but not good enough to really impress.
RTO!! RATING: C
(by Akira Segami, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The young ninja Kagetora has been given a great honor—to serve a renowned family of skilled martial artists. But on arrival, he's handed a challenging assignment: teach the heir to the dynasty, the charming but clumsy Yuki, the deft moves of self-defense and combat.
Yuki's inability to master the martial arts is not what makes this job so difficult for Kagetora. No, it is Yuki herself. Someday she will head her family dojo, and for a ninja like Kagetora to fall in love with his master is a betrayal of his duty, the ultimate dishonor, and strictly forbidden. Can Kagetora help Yuki overcome her ungainly nature... or will he be overcome by his growing feelings?"
Imagine the shounen classic Flame of Recca branching out into comedy instead of adventure, and you've got Kagetora. The culture clash of martial arts tradition versus modern life is a natural breeding ground for humor, especially with Kagetora getting himself into numerous awkward situations. (A hot springs bath at Yuki's house? That's just asking for trouble...) Kagetora's ninja techniques showcase Segami's artwork at its best, with action that pops right out of the page. If his classmates get caught in the collateral damage, all the funnier.
Kagetora doesn't use his techniques nearly enough, and the rest of the volume is uninspired romantic-comedy filler. Clumsy, helpless girl? Check. Helpless girl's confident best friend? Check. Older brother who picks on the hero? Check. Add in some stock scenarios like going to the beach or being home alone, and enjoy the resulting boredom. This is pure comfort-food manga: familiar character types, instantly recognizable settings, and gags where you know exactly when to laugh. Even the fanservice is your average magical-spherical-boobs fluff. Cute and pleasant, but utterly predictable.
RTO!! RATING: C
(by Toshihiko Kobayashi, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When Mugi meets the gorgeous Yuu, it's love at first sight. Imagine Mugi's surprise, then, when he learns that they'll be sharing close quarters, along with Yuu's cute and curious little sister. Just when Mugi is finally starting to get used to the idea of living with his dream girl, a third wheel rolls in. Manami-chan is Mugi's old friend from school, but boy has she grown up fast. It turns out that Manami-chan has always had a thing for Mugi, but the innocent young Mugi is completely oblivious. Only Yuu knows Manami's secret. Now Mugi finds himself caught in the middle of a teenage love tug-of-war!"
Kobayashi's wistful vignette of summer continues in this volume, from the sudden afternoon rain showers to poolside visits. Detailed backgrounds add to the idyllic feel of a Japanese small town on the coast. But that's not the real reason you want to read this—no, it's because the girls are unspeakably, jaw-droppingly hot, and the fanservice comes in quantity AND quality. Kobayashi's draftsmanship goes beyond that of typical bishoujo; he achieves his visually pleasing style with clean, sinuous linework and just the right amount of (cough cough) anatomical exaggeration.
Everything that was lame about Volume 1 continues to be lame in Volume 2; Mugi gets himself into improbable situations with predictable results. Either he's busy landing in Yuu's ample bosoms, or taking a peek at Tsukasa's panties, or scaring Manami out of the shower. None of the characters are appealing: the boys are emotionally incompetent to the point of irritation, while the girls behave more like porn-stars-in-training than actual teenagers. Then again, that seems like a pretty accurate picture of how stupid and annoying high-schoolers can be.
RTO!! RATING: C-
(by Norie Yamada and Kumichi Yoshizuki, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
Yume desperately wants to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a magic user in the worst way! She innocently practices using magic to help the people she encounters: struggling soccer players, the wrongly incarcerated, and a student who wants to show his moon-loving teacher a lunar eclipse on a cloudy evening. On this coming-of-age journey filled with genuine imagination and a passionate sense of awe, follow Yume as she learns that the true magic in life can take place right inside her own heart.
Why does the tagline on the back say "A cross between Harry Potter and Sailor Moon" when the story's strength lies in being totally unlike those two? The idea of magic as a regular day job is a unique approach, leading to adventures within a slice-of-life context. Fulfilling wishes becomes a more delicate affair once you realize that you don'thave all the power in the world. The last story, involving a grandmother trying to recover lost memories, is particularly touching, and light-handed artwork adds to the gentle, positive mood of the series.
For a more fitting tagline, think "So You Want to Be a Wizard meets Your Best Life Now." Surely Yume means well, but her constant nattering about making people happy quickly becomes an annoying self-help mantra. The storytelling is similarly shallow, relying on emotions instead of character depth. Blame it on the low page count—at less than 150 pages for Vol. 1, you have to wonder if Yume's magical acts of kindness would feel more sincere, had they been given more room to develop.
RTO!! RATING: B-
YUBISAKI MILK TEA
(by Tomochika Miyano, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
Ever since Yoshinori filled in for his sister Miki at a photo shoot, he has developed a secret passion for cross-dressing. When he slips on a skirt or dress, and steps out in public, he learns a great deal about what it means to be a woman...and a man. But when Yoshinori—dressed as Yuki—hears childhood friend Hidari confess her love for him, things get a bit out of control!
Tomochika Miyano's unique and unforgettable take on sexual identity, emotional angst, and metrosexual chic is a bishonen explosion of excitement, intrigue, and seduction.
Perhaps they meant lolicon explosion? There's something unsettling yet thoughtful about Yubisaki Milk Tea's confrontation of sexual issues that polite readers would rather dodge. Why yes, Hidari is right on the verge of puberty—so where will Yoshinori draw the line between friendship and attraction? And why does his crush only talk to him when he's cross-dressed? Thrown into such odd situations, these "deviant" characters form an intriguing love triangle. Two bonus short stories explore similar ideas, especially "Those Insolent Legs in the Rain," a coming-of-age vignette that's creepy but sweet in its fetishism.
And sometimes, creepy is just plain creepy—the striking emotions of this series could have been better explored without random flashes of underage, flat-chested nudity. (Got to get the fanservice in somewhere, I suppose.) Moreover, it's not even good fanservice—the character designs are superficially appealing, but lack the craftsmanship of top bishoujo artwork. The plot, meanwhile, doesn't develop much beyond the strange triangle; it just gets stuck in a he-loves-she-loves feedback loop. This lack of direction is echoed in cluttered layouts that fail to guide the eye through each panel.
RTO!! RATING: B
(by Mohiro Kitoh, Shogakukan, ¥590)
FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"During summer vacation, a group of 15 children discover a mysterious man living in a seashore cave, along with his high-tech gadgets. The man claims to be a game developer creating a video game with 15 giant robots defending Earth from alien invaders and asks those children to test the game for him. The kids agree happily at first, but soon they begin to find the game horrifying, not only because of its realism but also for the first fatality among them happening right after their first victory. Worse yet, they have no idea how to stop or leave the 'game.'"
Mohiro Kitoh's imagination is at it again, endangering the lives of children for the sake of a fantastic but troubling tale. While other giant robot adventures usually take place in the future, this one brazenly crosses over that time-cushion and invades our own, ordinary world. The first child to pilot the robot—a typical shounen hero—is in for a nasty shock, and the next kid after him is a rather unqualified candidate for protecting humankind. The slender robot designs, part machine and part monster, are as striking as the sketchy but delicate linework.
You can only twist the giant robot concept so far before everything starts to look suspiciously familiar... Shades of the Evangelion style creep into the designs, along with RahXephon's piloting system (albeit with customized seats) and thematic elements—the beach, the fighter planes—of Kitoh's own Shadow Star. The story also stutters in the first few chapters, relying on an abrupt introduction to the "game developer" and a stilted "tutorial" battle. Once the real game begins, however, it slides back into that quietly sinister atmosphere that works so well.