RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Sing Na Na Na
by Carlo Santos,
Frankly, I'm excited to be reviewing Nana in this installment, because it gives me an excuse to bring up one of my favorite Nanas, Nana Eikura.
But enough eye candy! Let's check out some manga.
(by Masaki Segawa, original story by Fûtaro Yamada, Del Rey, $13.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The Iga clan and the Kouga clan have been sworn enemies for more than four hundred years. Only the Hanzo Hattori truce has kept the two families from all-out war. Now, under the order of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, the truce has finally been dissolved. Ten ninja from each clan must fight to the death in order to determine who will be the next Tokugawa Shogun. The surviving clan will rule for the next thousand years.
But not all the clan members are in agreement. Oboro of the Iga clan and Gennosuke of the Kouga clan have fallen deeply in love. Now these star-crossed lovers have been pitted against each other. Can their romance conquer a centuries-old rivalry? Or is their love destined to end in death?"
With a simple do-or-die premise, Basilisk sets in motion a plot that should be good for at least several volumes, or however long it takes to kill all the ninjas but one. Suspense is what keeps the pages turning—who will battle next? Who will die? Of course, with superhuman techniques and exaggerated physical abilities, death is never guaranteed, and nothing turns the tide like having a victim from the previous chapter suddenly show up. Fighting takes up a significant portion of the volume, but the revolving roster of combatants and fanciful attacks keep things interesting. Highly detailed art and computer effects intensify the action, while still maintaining clean layouts and a definite sense of who's fighting who. A wide variety of character designs, from gorgeous to grotesque, makes it easy to keep track of the large cast.
Introducing the entire cast right at the beginning may not have been the best idea, though; there are 20 names mentioned in Chapter 1 (not including various historical figures) and you only need to know about eight for the first volume. Even with all the name-dropping, there isn't much depth to the Iga-Kouga rivalry or its historical background; it's explained that they hate each other, which might be good enough to start a fight, but doesn't really justify why the emotions run so high. With so much focus on hatred and aggressiveness, the love story between Gennosuke and Oboro gets overlooked, and they basically make eyes at each other a couple of times without really creating an emotional bond. Those two lovers had better start getting close if they want to earn any sympathy. Lots of great action to start the series, but not enough cake under the icing.
RTO!! RATING: B-
(by Ai Yazawa, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Moving to Tokyo, Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki walk fearlessly toward their new lives. One is hoping to put her capricious love life behind her; the other wants to become a rock 'n' roll star. What follows is a thundering blast of sex, music, fashion, gossip, and all-night parties!
Things are slowly coming together for Nana Osaki. The guitarist and drummer from her old band have joined her in Tokyo and she's finally found a ripping new bass player to replace Ren Honjo. The Black Stones are back and they're ready to kick some ass.
Nana Komatsu, however, can't shake her old nemesis, the Demon Lord. She's stuck in a dead-end job and there's trouble brewing with her boyfriend, Shoji. He's been working late and hasn't exactly been the most attentive lover. Poor Nana. Life in Tokyo is turning out to be a total bummer."
After the setup and character establishment in Volumes 1 and 2, the wheels of drama finally start to turn as Shoji finds himself straying from Nana K. The growing tension between them is captivating, and by the time Shoji faces his moment of weakness (sure to met with resounding cries of "You bastard!"), readers will be completely ensnared by Yazawa's masterful storytelling. From there, it's just a matter of time until the other shoe drops, and some fortunate coincidences set up an intense cliffhanger ending. Yazawa still finds time for humor, though, with best friend Junko dispensing her sarcastic brand of wisdom, and workplace woes at Nana's new job. Aesthetes will continue to enjoy the variety of fashion styles worn by the characters, and sure-handed linework brings their strong emotions to the surface.
Poor Nana Osaki. Our resident rocker girl is stuck in a humdrum "making the band" story arc, signing up musicians for a gig that won't even happen until the next volume. Although inspiring in itself, it doesn't measure up to the melodrama that the other Nana's caught up in. And while Yazawa has a clear master plan for where her characters are headed, she sometimes has an awkward way of presenting it, overloading pages with dialogue that borders on soap-operatic, and cramming panels right up next to each other. That's the price to pay for these intense emotional highs and lows—fickle and talkative characters having an irritating angst party, and having to read it in layouts as crowded as a Tokyo high-rise.
RTO!! RATING: B+
NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: ANGELIC DAYS
(by Fumino Hayashi, original story by Gainax, ADV Manga, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Imagine a Neon Genesis Evangelion in which dating the right girl is more important than saving the world...
Harried, harassed and harangued—that's Shinji Ikari's life in a nutshell. Still, his days are fairly typical for a Tokyo teenager: he's got a pushy pal in Asuka who rudely rouses him whenever he's running late for school, and he's surrounded by the standard assortment of high school goofballs. In fact, everything's just as you'd expect...until one day when Shinji jumps into a strange girl he's never seen before, and she promptly accuses him of peeking up her skirt! But that's not the worst of it. Strange dreams have been haunting his sleep lately—dreams of a robotic 'other' just beyond the horizon..."
Evangelion may be the original mind-bender, but Angelic Days is a head-trip all its own, re-casting the series' fatally flawed characters in a spry high school romance. With just a few minor tweaks, the original cast still entertains with their strong, contrasting personalities. Shinji is the passive yin to Asuka's hot-tempered yang, until Rei shows up and balances it out with her disarming innocence. But some things never change: Kaworu Nagisa is, of course, as mysterious and ambiguously gay as ever. Simple layouts and dialogue make this a breeze to read, a teenage reverie as fluffy and enjoyable as the original was dark and depressing. If you ever felt that Evangelion had a pretty intriguing set of characters, but wished that it wasn't so hell-bent on all the mecha, conspiracy and pseudo-spirituality, then this is the solution—Eva Lite.
For anyone who isn't familiar with the Evangelion mythos—yes, all 2 of you—this will look like just another by-the-book high school romantic comedy. After all, the whole joke is that a psychological action-drama has been perverted into schoolyard fluff, but without that context, well, it turns out to be very average schoolyard fluff. Asuka quickly becomes a predictable, one-note character ("I hate you, Shinji! Except I secretly love you"), Rei is too saintly for her own good, and their relationships with Shinji don't develop anywhere beyond blatant hinting. The sci-fi element tries to sneak its way in with some training and testing at NERV, but it's an awkward move that gets in the way of the school aspect. Meanwhile, sloppy character designs and plain artwork remind us that this is ultimately just a highly accomplished doujinshi.
RTO!! RATING: C
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Lang-bee knows the value of money. After her mother goes on the lam because of a business scam, Lang-bee is alone to fend for herself. She repays the people ripped off by her mom with the money she makes working for her fellow students. When Lang-bee pursues her love interest Dan Won, the rich heir to a corporate empire, she competes against archrival Yuka Lee!
From Young-You Lee, the creator of Kill Me Kiss Me, comes a rags-to-riches story filled with love triangles, double-crosses, and mysterious pasts...in a word: Priceless!"
Economic class struggle truly makes the world go round. Lang-bee isn't just poor, she's near destitute—we're talking even below Tsukushi in Hana Yori Dango. Such an extreme premise leads to plenty of unusual situations—a wannabe stepfather shows up at Lang-bee's doorstep, students clamor for her services—and the story soon develops into a cutely dysfunctional love polygon. Sharp, sarcastic dialogue adds spice to the conflict; when Lang-bee says that she wants Dan Won for his money, her sheer bravado makes it almost endearing. A strong supporting cast adds to the humor: just watch Dan Won spouting his comically bad "poetry," or the predatory ways of best friend Eun-Shil. Stylish character designs give this series an instant visual appeal, dominated by spiky-haired pretty boys and fresh-faced girls-next-door.
Attractive characters aside, Lee seems compelled to fill every blank space with artwork or tones, resulting in messy layouts. Anatomical quirks like long limbs and oversized hands might also take some getting used to. Veteran readers of teen romantic comedies, meanwhile, will probably look right past the wild circus of personalities and see a totally predictable setup: sassy heroine, lovable lunkhead, and rich bitch, all embroiled in a classic rivalry. It's an entertaining ride, but one that goes down a very familiar road. The overall plot also has a tendency to wander—character relationships start to form, but without a strong direction. A weak (albeit intriguing) cliffhanger at the end also leaves the volume on a bland note.
RTO!! RATING: B-
(by I-Huan, DrMaster, $9.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"This story begins in the Sung Dynasty, ancient China. The country is in great chaos due to the infamous Jin Kang Rebellion. Fearing the possible destruction that might come as a result, Concubine Liu tearfully entrusts the care of her baby daughter Princess Yi Fu to a common citizen named Tang Hui. Tang Hui immediately escapes with the princess to the South. And so, Princess Yi Fu's whereabouts become a mystery..."
Whoever said that every young girl dreams of secretly being a princess hasn't met the heroine of this series. Free-spirited Zhi Li is the hidden princess all grown up, but when Tang Hui takes her to the governor's office to reclaim her title, her indignant reaction sets up plenty of friction and amusement for the rest of the story. An equally strong-willed government official, Wu, provides the counterbalance to Zhi Li's attitude, and watching them snipe at each other is pure entertainment. Subsequent lessons in royal etiquette add a cute "My Fair Lady" touch to the story. The historical setting lends itself naturally to exquisite background artwork, from fancy clothes and patterns to classic Chinese architecture. With the time and place so effectively captured, it's like Fushigi Yuugi with more research.
And, just like Fushigi Yuugi, its portrayal of romance is utterly infuriating. The budding love-hate relationship between Zhi Li and Wu is so obvious that you can see it coming from the next province over. Worse yet, stilted dialogue and forced emotions make this look more like a wannabe romance novel instead of a historical love story. When mistresses are spouting lines like "My heart is like this chess game, and you are the general," well, don't expect to be emotionally moved (unless that movement is towards laughter). Bland character designs and unimaginative layouts also hurt the story visually; most of the action involves talking heads and they're not even that pretty in the first place. It's like a rough imitation of shoujo fantasy rather than the real thing.
RTO!! RATING: D
HONEY AND CLOVER
(by Chika Umino, Shueisha, ¥420)
FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"Takemoto, an art college student, lives in a student house with 2 of his sempai, Morita and Mayama. Not knowing what he wants to do in the future, still looking for his real purpose, Takemoto's life takes a sudden turn when his teacher introduces his relative to him, the cute and overly shy Hagumi. Without even realising it at first, he falls in love with her. And so does Morita."
Now this is the kind of Art School Confidential we'd like to see. In several short chapters, Umino quickly sketches out an appealing cast of characters with funny and memorable quirks. Learn why Takemoto fears the word "rococo," or why the boys at the apartment are so fixated on meat; see eccentric Morita turn Hagumi into an internet star, and cheer on ceramics student Yamada as she beats up annoying guys, complete with videogame life-meters. But there's more to life than getting a big laugh out of the little things, and the foundations of a romantic drama are already starting to fall into place. Yamada's unrequited love for Mayama forms the emotional core of this volume, along with Mayama's unspoken affection for his employer. A whimsical, flowing art style holds it all together, with Umino switching effortlessly from broad, bold-lined comedy to delicately drawn, expressive drama.
A classic love-go-round like this one usually takes a few volumes to hit its stride, and readers might find Volume 1 too shallow for their tastes. Nine chapters in 190 pages means that no story gets a chance to develop fully; instead we get stuck with individual scenes that deliver humorous or emotional impact but lack a certain cohesiveness. The love triangle between Takemoto, Morita and Hagumi looks promising, but at this point it's still in the planning stages—most of the character interplay involves Morita doing weird things and Hagumi cowering in fear. Weak spots also exist in the art: backgrounds are treated sparsely or sloppily, and the linework, while expressive, also looks unpolished at times.