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Hikikomori Festival

by Carlo Santos,

So this week RTO!! is trying a few new things. Please speak freely about whether you like them or not! After all, this column is powered by Readers Like You, and honestly, if I weren't sure that my pompous opinions and attention-whoring were reaching out to someone, I'd probably die of ego starvation.

Vol. 4
(by Nobuhiro Watsuki, Viz Media, $7.99)

"High school student Kazuki Muto had no clue what he was in for when he rescued damsel in distress Tokiko from a monster known as a 'Homunculus.' Disguised as humans—who actually eat humans—homunculi are malevolent creatures that affix themselves to people's brains, and once fully grown, the only thing that can annihilate them is a weapon called Buso Renkin!
Kazuki inadvertently reveals his identity as an Alchemist Warrior to the Hayasaka twins, members of the L.X.E. (League of Extraordinary Elects), when he activates his Buso Renkin in front of them. After Tokiko and Kazuki take on the twins in a late-night battle, they learn the location of the L.X.E. headquarters, and head there along with Captain Bravo. Intending to put an end to Dr. Butterfly's organization, they discover that yet another evil plan has been set in motion..."

Who likes action? Who likes battle? Prepare for a double dose in this one as Kazuki and Tokiko take on the Hayasaka twins. You'll finally get to see the techniques that Kazuki has been training for, and everyone who's gotten into this series because "it's the Kenshin guy" will finally see their dreams fulfilled as Kazuki and Shusui dive into a good old swordfight. Speedlines galore, unbelievable attacks, buckets of blood, and the brink of death! While on that brink, a flashback into the Hayasaka twins' tragic past is revealed, adding some new depth to the story and making them the most interesting—and fleshed-out villains—so far. Alliances shift, leaders on both sides make new plans, and the cliffhanger at the end of this volume leaves our heroes on a whole new level of peril. Excitement and energy are on their way up, and the Alchemy Warriors are ready! Are you?

No, I am not ready, and I shall never be ready for a series that uses the stock phrase "I want to become stronger" with no trace of irony. Goodness gracious, it's already the 21st century, and this guy is still living in the Dragonball era? It seems that Mr. Watsuki is a case study in how to make borrowed ideas go wrong (also known as: CLICHÉS). Some folks have a way with cleverly dressing up old concepts in new ways, but this here is just manga meatloaf: "League of Extraordinary Elects," training and battling, tortured childhoods, and half the designs swiped from an earlier series (perhaps admitting to acts of self-plagiarism in the author column is not the best idea). Sadly, this artistic strategy doesn't work, as most of the designs—characters, weapons, and otherwise—just don't look that cool at all. And then you get into the villains and it slides right down into lame. Seriously, who would even want to cosplay Papillon? And that Moonface guy—wasn't there a scary McDonalds ad campaign like that? This series is not much fun to read, and certainly no fun to look at.

FINAL VERDICT: The court agrees that this one's relying too much on shounen style and skimping on shounen substance. (For a clever alternative, see below.) D

Vol. 8
(by Tomoko Ninomiya, Del Rey, $10.95)

"It's showtime for Shinichi's new Rising Star Orchestra. Renowned critics and famous musicians have gathered to see the debut performance. Meanwhile, Nodame is playing hypnotist on Shinichi, trying to cure him of his fear of flying. After all, she wants her true love to be able to perform abroad. But will the concert take Shinichi's career to the next level? And if Nodame succeeds in freeing Shinichi of his panic attacks, will she be left behind? It's anybody's guess in this symphony of conflicted decisions, crushes, and pianos!"

If I had my way, I'd go on about the inherent greatness of the Nodame Cantabile live-action drama and how I long for Juri Ueno's sweet embrace. But that's not the point. Actually, you know what makes this series great? It's got all the drive and excitement of shounen action and tournaments. Seriously. Consider this: Chiaki sets out to prove himself in an electrifying performance of top-tier repertoire, unleashing his bankai with a baton. Then Nodame storms through a piano competition with her idiosyncratic yet captivating style, like she just discovered her fox chakra. With major plot points like these, PLUS the hypnosis therapy on Chiaki, this is clearly a big "event" volume! It's like Renji taking on Ichigo! Even the romantic angle manages to slide in, toned down but still effective—those text messages between Chiaki and Nodame while she's preparing for the competition are just too cute. But where the series truly succeeds is in how it translates the beauty of music into pictorial form. The sinuous lines, the striking layouts, and panel after panel of each player passionately engaged in the music. Repeat for as many performances as needed, and yet the beauty of it never gets old—even the tufts of Chiaki's hair seem to bristle with energy. This, my friends, is a fight manga where they fight with classical music.

Well, if the music is so great, I want to HEAR it. The subject matter of the series is unique, but it is hindered by its very nature: an auditory medium represented in a visual one. It's also getting well into specialist territory with pieces like Brahms' 1st symphony and a slew of challenging Romantic piano repertoire—stuff that's less likely to be common knowledge and more likely to be music-student esoterica. And about those characters: if this is so much like a shounen tournament, why not just read a proper shounen series, for goodness' sake? With "leveling up" storylines like these, Nodame and the gang are just going to play ever more difficult pieces for increasingly critical audiences, with no end in sight, turning into a pathetic parody of an actual classical music career. Also, Chiaki's hypnosis therapy barely qualifies as a plot point; it's just a cheap deus ex machina brought about by his mom, of all people, and then it disappears for another three chapters. Weak.

FINAL VERDICT: Hiroshi Tamaki as Chiaki is a gorgeous manly man of a man, but also, the court was very moved by the music-playing scenes. (In the manga, AND in the drama.) A-

Vol. 3
(by Peach-Pit, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Jun finds himself stuck with Suiseiseki, who is trying to find her twin. She shows her powers to Jun, which makes a little tree grow in his dream. And when Jun sees the dolls undressing, he becomes self-conscious—he realizes that he feels something special for Shinku... But everything comes to a crashing halt when Suiseiseki's hatred for humans begins a fight that escalates into an all-out brawl—and Shinku may have to literally give her right arm to save everyone before the dream collapses!"

One must understand this: Rozen Maiden is highly symbolic. The depth of the story comes out in its symbols—dreamworlds, trees of life, replenishing water, rings and contracts, all of which point to Jun's growth as a character. And boy, does he ever grow in this volume—jumping into battle with the dolls, granting his power to Suiseiseki, and even taking it upon himself to get Shinku's arm back! You believe that actions speak louder than words? Then watch what this kid does, because it's a lot. Fortunately, all that serious business is balanced by comedy as well; keep an eye out for classic moments like the battle on the stairs (although the anime does it better) and the hilarious wrongness of Jun peeping at the dolls minus their dresses. Oh, and did I mention Detective Kun-kun? Because Detective Kun-kun is always awesome. Throw in the feathery, delicate art and you've got a story that catches the eye with its filigree fashion sense and surreal fantasy worlds.

... More like surreal fantasy rehash! Look, this is little more than a mishmash of generic things that look pretty—roses, feathers, gardens, watering cans—okay, maybe not so much the watering cans, but you get the point. And if it's not going for instant-gratification visuals, then it's borrowing story memes that scream of overuse: doors to alternate worlds, which in turn are worlds that you can only visit in dreams, and that whole stupid Alice game concept. What is it with Japan and the word "Alice"? Linguistics aside, the very idea of it should rankle anyone with a sense of self-respect: living dolls battling each other to win the approval of a deadbeat dad? Ooh, call the feminism police! Call child services! While you're at it, call someone who can draw, too, because that feathery art is often lazy as well—just look at all the scratchy chibi heads whenever our dear artists decide they don't feel like drawing anymore. Doubly so for hands. How the hell do professionals get away with cheating on HANDS?

FINAL VERDICT: Although the lazy art and generic story ideas are a concern, the mysteries of the Rozen Maiden world are keeping the court hooked. B-

Vol. 12
(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.95)

"All is not well on Piffle World. The magical land's most popular sporting event—a race for lightweight aircraft called dragonflies—seems to have been rigged by one of the contestants. But winning the competition is the only way Princess Sakura and her friends can recover one of the princess's precious and powerful memory feathers. The five friends are determined to cross the finish line first, but the cheating is taking its toll—even Fai is out of the running! Can the travelers still win the race and discover who's behind the booby traps before it's too late?"

So, you thought CLAMP was only well-loved because of their signature characters and drawing style? Think again! This volume of Tsubasa—if not the whole Piffle World arc—clearly shows a mastery of background and layout that few artists will ever reach. Work this into an action-packed racing scene and you can imagine the kind of heart-pounding excitement that results. Not only a dizzying climax through a maze-like ravine, but also a snazzy retro-future look with the slick curves of the dragonflies and the participants' cosplay-worthy outfits. Cardcaptor Sakura fans should also take special note, as this particular volume has Sakura/Syaoran and Sakura/Tomoyo all over it like Target shoppers on a Wii shipment. In fact, it's not just our main hero and heroine experiencing a growth in character, but conflicted swordsman Kurogane as well. You've got serious business, high-octane business, and (thanks to Mokona) a little bit of funny business—now who would be fool enough to vote against such a fun and memorable arc?

Background, layout, characters, what! Give me a break—nobody needs to hear about how great CLAMP is at drawing. This is, after all, a visual storytelling medium, and if you're not telling a good story, you're not getting it done. Problem number one: was there any doubt about who was going to win? There's no excitement to be found in a race where everything's set up for the "good guys" anyway. Problem number two: the post-race denouement, where the nature of the cheater is revealed, in possibly the most convoluted and illogical way possible. Oh, sure, you can work it out once you think about it, but after all the speed and flourish of the previous chapters, who's going to want to slow down and do the brainwork? Plus the supporting cast and villains are still impossible to remember after all this time.

There's just too much excitement here to let a little bit of narrative sloppiness get in the way. The court rules in favor of Tsubasa. B

Vol. 2
(by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and Kendi Oiwa, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Surrounded by turmoil and tragedy, Satou and Misaki are drawn closer to each other, and the timing couldn't be better. Satou's mother pays him a visit as Misaki comes over to pose as his 'girlfriend.' But will the façade hold up under her scrutiny? Later, Satou is upset by the fact that most of his problems involve women, and he and Yamazaki share their frustration. Misaki is worried that Satou is heading down a path of destruction. Can she save him before it is too late—or is it already too late?"

Now you see where NHK is really going. NOW you see why it's hailed as the blackest of black comedies, the great psychological drama of the modern age, the glimpse of humanity that you never wanted to see but can't help staring at. Dipping into hardcore otaku culture was bad enough, but this one's got the suicide cult storyline! But first, let's backtrack: in the Summer Days chapter, Yamazaki launches into this fantastic rant about the evils of romantic love ("a trap designed to keep the wheels of capitalism turning"). It's a piece of heady, incisive writing that not only says so much about our characters, but also serves as a critique of society—manga at a higher level. Satou's many internal monologues about his hikikomori condition achieve the same thing. But when the story isn't telling, it's also showing: the silent moment when Misaki takes his hand at the fireworks festival, or—and now we're getting back to the suicide cult storyline—when Satou starts to make a bonfire and the people around him gather to help. Visually, the psychology of these characters shines through... although in Satou's case, that might be because it's always crazy-facial-expression time.

Nope. I'm not buying it. That's just too much—a suicide cult? Are you kidding me? How can this be a critique of society, or a psychological drama, when it tackles issues that most people don't really identify with? Here's what's really wrong with NHK: the story's too depressing, too weird, and insane for the sake of being insane. While there are certainly people out there like Satou... and like his friends... they probably don't comprise the majority of the manga-reading public, and so it doesn't make sense to have these ridiculous characters at the forefront. Worse yet is that these louts spend most of their time conversing with each other, resulting in the dreaded "talking head syndrome" of comics where multiple pages of art are wasted on repeated portraits. You say welcome to the NHK? I say goodbye to the NHK.

What kind of counterargument was that? Just because people might not "get" it, doesn't mean that the series isn't pushing boundaries in many ways, and for that, the court awards it an A.

Vol. 1
(by Paul Benjamin, Steven and Megumi Cummings, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Welcome to Pantheon High, home of the fighting Chimeras, divine league basketball champs two years running. Keep at 'em, Coach Hercules!! As a demigod, you'll get the best education a child of Greek, Norse, Japanese or Egyptian divinity can receive here at our Los Angeles-based campus. You may have heard prophecies or seen visions of a great doom looming over the school, but the End Of All Things is no excuse for tardiness and absences will go on your permanent record. The challenges at a school for demigods are great, but if anyone can face them it's the students of ... Pantheon High!"

Things that Pantheon High is NOT: (1) a half-assed debut from a no-name twentysomething; (2) a licensed-property marketing scam; (3) a DJ Milky production. And for that we can be glad, as this is one of the most thoroughly conceived stories to hit the illustrated page, worthy of an entire series of young adult novels if it had decided to take that path instead. Brush up on your mythology trivia and prepare to enter an expansive, well-thought-out world that's extremely erudite and extremely fun. The fun part: it's practically X-Men with mythology references, containing a fast-paced story where super-powered kids—the sons and daughters of various deities—engage in a battle that threatens to destroy the school. The erudite part: more than just tacking on names of deities, Pantheon High brings in all the actual myths, providing a wealth of background for each character and even a reference glossary. The art is as detailed and confident as they come, and the epic fight scene at the end is absolutely drool-worthy. What's more, the Volume 2 preview suggests that we've only just scratched the surface of this series. (Can we say Mesopotamian and Aztec gods? Yeah!!)

Can we say extremely bad writing and dialogue? Yeah!! It's unspeakably embarrassing when old farts, so experienced with "creating" comics, fail miserably at capturing youth culture because they've been out of it so long. Beware the bad puns, SoCal-isms, and confusing in-dialogue references—look, if someone's going to swear, just have them swear; nobody actually says "Great Odin's raven!" or whatever. Not to mention that this is one of those unrealistic "generic American high school" scenarios that went out with 90210. This volume's display of erudition also makes it painfully confusing at the start, throwing in characters from every mythological tradition to the point were you need a B.A. in Humanities just to follow along. (Take someone like me, for example; I'm an engineer by trade, so give me a fantasy high school with all the famous scientists and mathematicians as teenagers, and I'm totally there, but no one else is going to get it.) And even when the plot does get going, it doesn't start to make sense until two-thirds of the way, so you had best hope "it gets better later on" when Volume 2 hits.

FINAL VERDICT: Yes, the execution needs help, but when the principal idea is this good, who cares? The court approves of this series.

In this new section, we're looking at manga titles that might qualify as the Best (or Worst) Ever! This time around it's one of the Worst Manga I've Ever Read:

BOKU WA IMOUTO NI KOI WO SURU (I'm In Love With My Little Sister)
Vol. 1
(by Kotomi Aoki, Shogakukan, ¥410)

You know, maybe the title should have tipped me off on this one. But I'm the kind of fool who's dumb enough to give anything a fair shot once, especially when it's accompanied by the wailing of shoujo obsessives who claim that they were utterly moved by the emotional drama and trauma and anything else that ends in -ama. So I'm reading this series, having at least a mild inkling of what the premise entails, and trying to buy into the depth of this guy's conflicted feelings for his twin sister. Except there ISN'T ANY! (Depth, that is.) This story is basically about a guy who wants to bone his little sister. That is IT. Why the hell did I ever think there would be any sort of expansion on this theme? They basically spend each chapter getting dangerously close with each other, often in explicit ways, and this smut is repeated over and over until you just want to read some conservative, pedantic pre-Tezuka shoujo manga about how little Chieko became a good obedient wife and waits every day to serve dinner to her salaryman husband because he gets so tired from perpetuating the Japanese economic miracle. Now, there are some "taboo" series that have been done well—I'm thinking Koi Kaze or Hourou Musuko—but I would not, among any of them, include "BokuImo," which should be killed with God's purifying fire.

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