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The Melancholy of Kanji Sasahara

by Carlo Santos,

Ah, Engrish! What could be more entertaining than Japan's unwitting ability to mangle their favorite foreign language? They've got Berryz Koubou, which sounds like something you might eat, except you can't, because it's the name of a pop group. And then there's Asse, which sounds like something you would never want to eat, but turns out to be a tasty chocolate snack. Come on, people! How hard is it to name things properly?

Vol. 1

(by Kouhei Kadono and Kouji Ogata, Seven Seas, $10.99)

"There is an urban legend that tells of a shinigami that can release people from the pain they are suffering. This 'Angel of Death' has a name—Boogiepop. And the legends are true. Boogiepop is real.
When a rash of disappearances involving female students breaks out at Shinyo Academy, the police and faculty assume they just have a bunch of runaways on their hands. Yet some students know better. Something mysterious and foul is afoot. Is it Boogiepop or something even more sinister...?
Uncover the mysteries of Shinyo Academy and piece together the true order of disturbing events in the first volume of this unforgettable prelude to the hit anime series Boogiepop Phantom!"

Because it's the first thing everyone wants to know: Yes, the Boogiepop manga faithfully adheres to the events of the novel. Volume 1 only goes as far as the first half of Boogiepop and Others, but maintains the intricacies of the plot and its mysterious atmosphere. Ogata's relaxed, understated art, with calm faces and watercolor tones, is the ideal complement to Kadono's matter-of-fact writing style. The naturally faster pace of manga makes it easier to keep track of all the little clues, although right now the inevitable conclusion is: "Hurry up, I want to read Volume 2!"

Splitting a novel into multiple manga volumes—especially one with such a clever, nonlinear plot—makes each individual volume weaker as a result. This first one is almost nothing but setup, with page upon page of brooding dialogue between the mysterious Boogiepop and unsuspecting student Takeda. Some action near the end helps to pick up the pace, but barely. It's easy to grow bored with the nondescript school setting and Boogiepop's apparent laziness—doesn't this Shinigami do anything? Is he gonna go kill some Hollows or what? (No, silly, it's not that kind of a story. Just wait and see.)


Vol. 5

(by Shimoku Kio, Del Rey, $10.95)

"The Genshiken has long been famous for its remarkable record of inactivity. But now that Kanji Sasahara has stepped in as the new club president, it looks as though things may change. Kanji wants the club to produce its first fanzine—and when the Genshiken members are accepted as official vendors at the summer Comic-Fest, they are forced to create a real doujinshi... and fast! With only a month until the submission deadline, can this sluggish bunch of otaku actually get anything done? Meanwhile, Kousaka is about to reveal a secret side of himself that nobody has ever seen..."

If you come into Genshiken expecting gag-driven, haha-otaku type humor—well, don't. Instead of exploding with silliness, the comedy is more of a slow burn, and a good joke can go on for pages at a time. How else to explain an entire chapter about a closet fangirl being tempted by the wiles of yaoi? Later on, the doujinshi story arc gives room for all the characters to shine—from reluctant leader Sasahara to lazy artist Kugayama to pretty boy Kousaka, who turns out to be too pretty for his own good. In addition to compelling personalities, the varied character designs (look! actual overweight guys!) and true-to-life portrayal of a convention add to Genshiken's appeal. Best of all, nothing highlights the fandom paradox like "Isn't it kind of hard to draw porn when you don't have any real-life experience?"

That slow-burn style of comedy, however, seems to lock the whole manga into a sluggish pace. Long blocks of dialogue bog down the flow, along with background art that's detailed almost to the point of confusion. On the story side, the premise of creating a doujinshi for a convention isn't something everyone's going to connect with, unless you're a seasoned fan or aspiring creator. Technical matters like figuring out printing fees are certainly an important part of making a comic—but as subject matter, it doesn't need to be in a comic.


Vol. 1

(by Lee YoungYou, ICE Kunion, $10.95)

"Apart from the fact that the color of her eyes turn red when the moon rises, Myung-Ee is your average, albeit boy crazy, 5th grader. After picking a fight with her classmate Yu-Da Lee, she discovers a startling secret: the two of them are 'earth rabbits' being hunted by the 'fox tribe' of the moon!
Five years pass and Myung-Ee transfers to a new school in search of pretty boys. There, she unexpectedly reunites with Yu-Da. The problem is, he mysteriously doesn't remember a thing about her or their shared past at all!"

Remember how Sailor Moon had some vague connection with the Rabbit on the Moon? Now the folk tale gets a more direct treatment in this high-school fantasy, which updates the old legend with stylish characters and a rich back-story. Volume 1 covers a surprising amount of ground, starting with Myung-Ee and Yu-Da's grade-school days, jumping forward to their troubled relationship as teenagers, and setting the stage for a big-scale magical war between the lunar rabbits and foxes. Nonstop action and slick, detailed art create a modern fairytale that successfully blends school life and high adventure.

But aren't we all sick of school life and high adventure? Even Moon Boy's sheer energy and uptempo pacing can't hide its dependence on genre formulas, from the overeager heroine, to the shadowy foes, to a ridiculously elaborate mind-wipe. It's just a matter of using those formulas well ... Also, even though the energy carries into the artwork, sometimes it overflows, cluttering the page with style over storytelling. Don't be surprised if you find yourself re-reading some scenes to figure out what the heck just happened.


Vol. 2 (2nd edition)

(by Kosuke Fujishima, Dark Horse, $10.95)

"Now that Keiichi and the goddess in his life are the hot item on campus, they find themselves constantly putting out fires—mostly set by Keiichi's buddies in the N.I.T. Motor Club, who gently requisition his monthly living budget, make him test-ride a monster funnybike, and toss him on a beach retreat like so much volleyball. After all this, Keiichi just wants to relax and watch some home video... except this video (literally) introduces a second goddess into his life—Belldandy's 'sophisticated' older sister, Urd!"

It's all about the extras in this reissue of the classic series: occasional colored pages to kick off each chapter, and an essay by Toren Smith on the complexities of translation. Oh, and the content's not too bad, either—Keiichi's chronic ineptness continues to amuse, especially once Urd arrives and tries to stir up the boy's libido. (Hint: there isn't any.) Fujishima's slightly nerdy sense of humor manifests itself with pratfalls and automotive-related gags, and while his art style isn't fully formed at this point in the series, certain elements like comedic expressions and technical drawings are already in bloom.

Colored pages may be a bonus, but they also highlight how rough the character designs were at the time, with stubby bodies and oddly shaped hair. Fujishima's layout skills are also still in development; the panels in this volume tend to get overcrowded with detail (despite being spaced quite neatly). The biggest problem, though, is the utter lack of story—it's more like a series of sitcom gags strung together, with an occasional explanation of how the goddesses' world works. And sometimes... sometimes, you just want to slap Keiichi for getting nowhere with Belldandy.


Vol. 1

(by Pink Hanamori and Michiko Yokote, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Lucia is the new girl at school. She and her sister run a public bath that's all the rage. When Lucia meets a terrific-looking surfer boy, there's just one little problem: Lucia is a mermaid—not just any mermaid, but a princess on an important mission to save the seven seas from an evil force bent on taking control of the marine world. Such a responsibility doesn't leave much time for romance. But Lucia vows to protect her world and win the heart of handsome Kaito."

Just call it Aqua Teen Sailor Moon. The coastal setting of Pichi Pichi Pitch provides a whole new playground for the magical girl concept, with mermaid folklore weaving its way into the story. Thankfully, it's more of the positive, dancing-singing-sparkly Disney kind rather than Rumiko Takahashi's cannibalistic water creatures. The character designs are instantly appealing, and better proportioned than the typical grade-school shoujo style—the bodies actually occupy three-dimensional space, and the expressive eyes leave enough room for other facial features.

Sadly, this story reduces the magical girl genre to a level of self-pastiche, where cramming together familiar clichés works as a substitute for story. Lucia's mermaid power is, of course, contained within a precious object (in this case a pearl), and she fights evil with a magical microphone that amplifies her enchanted singing voice. Ridiculous enough yet? Don't forget about the bishounen bad guy who goes by the parody-name of Gackto (and looks like the musician,) plus the usual one-villain-per-chapter structure. It's too weak to take seriously—and too straight-up to take as a joke. Heck, just don't bother taking it at all.


Vol. 1

(by Ai Yazawa, Shueisha, ¥410)

"Injured by a car accident while looking for her missing cat, an elementary school girl is hospitalized, and during her stay she meets an apparition of a friendly high school girl in her dream, who gives her a ring as a token of friendship. After her recovery, this little girl and her friends set out to find the mysterious figure, not knowing they are about to unravel a stranded love story beyond their comprehension."

Who else but Ai Yazawa could transform an ordinary ghost story into a work of poignant beauty? The dominant mood throughout this volume is not mystery or fear, but an incredible sense of longing, as the nameless ghost tries in vain to recover her memories of a lost romance. Gradual pacing and rich artwork wring every last bit of heartbreak out of each scene, especially with panel arrangements that almost border on abstract. The narrative takes a daring turn in the early stages as well, building up an apparent love story and then cutting into the real story some 60 pages later. Piecing it all together from dreamlike fragments, and seeing a supernatural tragedy take shape, is an experience not to be missed.

The emotional impact would be more effective if Hotaru (the elementary-schooler) didn't have her friends show up and turn the later chapters into a talky exposition-fest. Most readers will already understand the situation—so there's no need to re-explain it with a bunch of bratty schoolkids in tow. Also, the sudden plot disconnection and fragmentation—despite being a daring and praiseworthy move—still runs into some hiccups in the middle chapters. Yazawa's attempt to keep the whole truth hidden results in some maddeningly vague moments that don't seem to lead anywhere.

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