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Read Or Don't

by Carlo Santos,

"San Diego: it's Southern California, without being L.A." I thought about the truth of that statement many times last Saturday, when I went to see a screening of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in Hollywood. Terrific movie, but man, that neighborhood ... it's hard to imagine Hollywood Boulevard ever having been an entertainment mecca for anything. Never was I so glad to return to the land of fitness freaks and surfer slackers.

Vol. 18
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $7.95)

"Ichigo 'Strawberry' Kurosaki never asked for the ability to see ghosts—he was born with the gift. When his family is attacked by a Hollow—a malevolent lost soul—Ichigo becomes a Soul Reaper, dedicating his life to protecting the innocent and helping the tortured spirits themselves find peace. Find out why Tite Kubo's Bleach has become an international manga smash-hit!
The execution of Ichigo's friend Rukia has begun, yet Ichigo himself is nowhere in sight. In a matter of seconds, the power of one million zanpaku-tô will slice through Rukia as punishment for sharing her Soul Reaper powers with Ichigo. Is this really how things are going to end?!"

Ha ha! It's so funny when people say they like manga because they're not into superhero comics, and here comes ICHIGO IN A CAPE. (Wait, I think I've used that line before...) But it's all good, because if there's one series that can get away with superhero-ing, it's Bleach, the greatest action-adventure of the modern day. Take a look at the execution scene, for example—it's hard to imagine any artist anywhere improving on it. Get ready for page after page of brilliant, mind-blowing art, crackling with energy and emotion. And even after Ichigo's climactic moment is over, there's still enough momentum to guide the storyline through a fork in the road as it splits into a series of high-stakes battles. Do you like pure power? The showdown with Captain-General Yamamoto should suit your taste. How about dazzling acrobatics? Watch Yoruichi take on Soi Fon. More than just showcasing their fighting styles, though, these battles also dig into the characters' pasts, showing what motivates them to be Soul Society's finest. And you, dear reader, will see what makes this series Shônen Jump's best.

Notice how the synopsis says "Ichigo is nowhere in sight"? That's actually true for most of the volume, as our hero drops to the sidelines to make way for ... ugh ... side-character battles. Seriously, what good are varied fighting styles and looking into people's pasts if the main guy isn't even around 70% of the time? In fact, splitting the storyline into a number of simultaneous battles might be the worst thing to happen in this arc. Jumping wildly from scenario to scenario is a disorienting experience, not an exciting one, and it breaks up a flowing storyline that had been so powerful coming into the start of this volume. Worse yet, it forces the volume to end on a poorly-timed cliffhanger. Even if this hurdy-gurdy pacing is okay with you, don't forget that the climactic events of the execution are going to overshadow everything else anyway, so that even the flaming power of Yamamoto or Soi Fon's pent-up rage will seem unimpressive compared to the stunning first few chapters.

Great action as usual, but there have been better volumes of Bleach. This segment of the Soul Society arc comes out to a messy, disjointed B-.

Vol. 2
(by Shiro Amano, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Sora, Donald and Goofy continue their quest to rescue King Mickey and young Riku. But will they find them in time? And who is the strange Kairi look-alike that Sora sees in his vision? Could she be somehow connected to the shadowing 'Organization' ... or is she another lost soul in need of rescue? It's all inside this thrilling conclusion to Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories!"

I've been having these weird thoughts lately ... like ... is any of this series good or not? Well, it is. The second half of "Kingdom Hearts 1.5" is a big improvement on the first, filling out the plot gaps and reaching a dramatic finish. All the big questions from Vol. 1 find their answers here: the true nature of the mysterious girl Naminé, the goals of the dark-cloaked Organization, and the recovery of Sora's lost memories. The tying of loose ends makes for plenty of dramatic confrontations and blistering fights—the kind of stuff that a fantasy adventure ought to be. A light sense of humor in between all the serious bits keeps it fun as well. Storyline aside, it's also easy on the eyes, with "simple and clean" character designs that stay true to the original game and true to Disney. Meanwhile, the fantasy feel definitely comes out in the rich, surreal backgrounds that represent Sora's dreamworlds and memories. Feh, who says you need pixels and buttons to get fully immersed in an alternate world?

There is no way a 2-volume series will ever be epic, unless maybe it's an epic failure. In the process of tying up loose ends, this one seems to leave just as many plot holes in its wake: Donald and Goofy conveniently disappear for entire chapters, Riku waits in the wings until he's needed to close out the storyline, and even the role of King Mickey has been reduced to a cheap deus ex machina. In fact, the mere existence of an "evil clone" character should be a warning of the shoddy storytelling up ahead. The lack of a true Disney setting is also a letdown: say goodbye to colorful cartoon-world-hopping and get used to the plain, uninspired castle setting of this story. Rich, surreal backgrounds wasted on a generic fantasyland ... what a shame. And even more shameful are the "bad guys," who commit the heinous crimes of looking too much alike, having really dumb names, and never being fully explained or developed. It seems their whole purpose in this series is to battle the heroes in messy action scenes and spit out junk dialogue about Hearts and Memories and Lights and Darks and Fabric Softener. Chain of Memories? More like Chain of Things I'd Rather Forget.

There are too many imperfections, too many holes, and yet the fun characters and swashbuckling spirit still make it mildly likeable. Likeable to the extent of a C.

Vol. 3
(by Hideyuki Kurata and Ran Ayanaga, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Michelle, Maggie and Anita are three sisters united by a strange power: the ability to control paper in any way they desire. From their Hong Kong detective agency, they solve any and all cases involving books!
Maggie always gets absorbed in whatever she's reading. But when she gets her hands on a book called 'The 24 Faces of Maggie Mui,' she starts transforming into one character after another! Also, Anita and Maggie come up with a bibliophile exercise plan for a suddenly pudgy Michelle; Anita visits a mixed-up fantasy world populated by characters from children's books; and the sisters are hired as bodyguards for a very unusual author ... which leads them to another confrontation with Lily the Reader Extraordinaire!"

STOP! You may be reading this manga the wrong way. Start from the back and work your way in reverse, because all the good stuff happens at the end. The battle with Lily the Reader is an absolute whiz-banger of a chapter, closing out this volume on a high note—and it shows just how brilliant the series can be when it comes to action. Sure, everyone's seen the girls work their paper-manipulating magic, but somehow they still manage to use their skills in ways so dazzling, so inventive, that the only appropriate reaction is "Wow." Like when Michelle's paper arrow, fired at Lily, becomes something entirely different. The clean visual style and delicately drawn characters may seem like too light a touch for such an intense battle, but sharp speedlines and layout make it come alive. Keep an eye on the littlest sister Anita as well; her character is the most compelling of the trio as her relationship with them continues to grow.

That's right. Just read the end of the book, as that's the only good part anyway—the rest of it is the most generic sitcom fluff possible. It may be cute, nicely drawn, and easily digested, but these predictable situations reveal a writer on autopilot, using the appeal of the R.O.D. brand name as a crutch for actual storytelling. If the "Read or Die" iteration was too hopped up on speed and action, then this version overcorrects in the opposite direction, dishing out an overdose of banal, sleep-inducing "Dream." (The sisters trying to come up with ways to earn money? Please! If that scenario were any older it'd be a Bible story.) One can also tell from these fluffy chapters that the older sisters are doomed to a cardboard existence—Michelle gets fat! Maggie gets multiple personalities!—not exactly the kind of story highlights you want for the main characters. Even Lily, the only entertaining character besides Anita, doesn't seem to be trying very hard for a villain. Please, someone send Yomiko in.

Paper combat is still the coolest thing out there, but when it's preceded by 150 pages of BORING, it's only worth a C+.

Vol. 3
(by Barasui, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Chika, Miu, Ana, and Matsuri are on the go! They have a sleepover, play ninja, head off to a summer festival, read a playscript written by Miu... But things get really entertaining when Miu tries to analyze her friends' dreams—and attempts to hypnotize them!"

Now, unless you're also following Yakitate!! Japan or something, this is simply the best comedy you're going to read all year. Volume 3 sees the series in full stride, with Barasui's offbeat comedic timing right on the mark as he gets the most out of each character. Whether it's Matsuri getting pranked, Nobue's ruthless sarcasm, or Miu taking another flight of fancy, it's always good for a laugh. The best chapters? Any time the girls are playing in the realm of the imagination, from dream interpretation to ninja warfare (with a sexy jutsu!) to playing dollhouse (with a naked Ken). For a real charmer, though, check out the Cinderella chapter, which puts a mind-warped Miu-esque spin on the classic fairy tale. The "questionable content" of the series is handled with a deft touch as well, with prepubescent boob and panty jokes toeing the line between funny and embarrassing and generally leaning on the side of funny. The artwork remains gentle and appealing, with Barasui's killer move being the silent panel—whenever Miu hits the floor, you just KNOW. It's a sense of humor unlike anything else.

I always like to give episodic series a hard time, so I'm going to do it again! Let's face it, the chapters in this series are of variable quality, and when the girls aren't off in the land of make-believe, they're stuck in formulaic friends-and-family scenarios. For a comedy that's as strangely inventive as this one, it's a shame to see paper and ink being wasted on stuff that you can read anywhere else. Eating out at the restaurant? A summer festival? Come on, these have been in just about every comedy/slice-of-life series ever, and Miu and company's antics fail to add anything new. The lack of an overarching storyline is also a bit of a letdown; it wouldn't kill to have some continuity aside from just the recurring characters and gags. Neither are the visuals perfect—the speech bubbles tend to cramp themselves into corners and disrupt the flow. Too much text, too little space.

Can it get any better? This is, without a doubt, comedy at the A- level.

Vol. 4
(by Takashi Hashiguchi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"England. France. Germany. What common thread binds these three nations together? Answer: each is famous for producing unique, distinctive, delicious bread. But what of the island nation of Japan, home to rice and delicacies of the sea? Is there not a doughy, gastronomic delight they can claim as their own? The answer is no...until now! Kazuma Azuma, a 16-year-old boy blessed with otherworldly baking powers, has taken it upon himself to create Ja-pan, the national bread of the land of the Rising Sun!
The Pantasia Rookie Tournament is in full swing with Kazuma going up against a daunting opponent in every respect—Tsukino's half-sister Mizuno and rival for control of the entire Pantasia chain! Mizuno is ready to knock Kazuma out of the ring with her super-tasty—and super-expensive to make—patented melon bread. Can Kazuma compete against this high-class recipe with a can of regular old melon juice? Plus, some exciting bonus info on the origins of Ken Matsushiro, the afro-sporting manager of the Pantasia South Branch!"

Okay, so THIS is the best comedy you're going to read all year. Yakitate!! Japan continues to charge ahead and succeed on every level. As a shounen tournament, it's truly exciting—every baking challenge is unique, Kazuma's solutions are genius, and it moves at a fast enough pace to avoid turning into one of those draggy one-fight-takes-five-chapters affairs. As a comedy, it's brash and inventive, bringing in visual gags, wordplay and slapstick, sometimes all at once (like the judge's reaction to the "Hot Dog" yakisoba bread). Hilarious characters also keep the laugh factor turned up to 11: it should be no surprise that Ryu, the noodle and martial arts master, is a friend and rival of manager Ken (get it?); and of course, all bakers fear the towering Koala. Yes, an actual guy with a koala head. The culinary details are endless fun as well, balancing serious technical information with the simple joy of fine food. And of course, the art is also in top form, filling every page with enough energy to match any fighting series. But the best part of this volume might be the side stories—honestly, if there was a real "Takitate!! Gohan," I would read it in a heartbeat. And start drooling over the possibilities of rice.

Is this the greatest shounen tournament series ever? Sure, if you say so, but it's still a tournament series—and that means being confined to a very familiar story structure. The first time Kazuma faces a breadmaking challenge and comes up with an innovative solution, it's pretty cool. After he's done it three times in a row, in the same tournament, with the same stunning results ... well, the effect loses its luster. In addition, there's the troublesome brainwork of having to remember which contestant is where in the tournament bracket; it's such a ridiculous trifle that you might as well just sit back and enjoy the matchups. The side characters aren't perfect either, as their outrageousness seems to have been decided arbitrarily—do we really need yet another "wacky foreign guy" (Shachihokou) or "unbelievably tough fighter" (Suwabara) stereotype? They might be worth a laugh or two, but even crazy personalities should at least have a purpose.

People who criticize Yakitate!! Japan are liars. This series is nothing less than a pure A.

Vol. 1
(by ufotable and Tartan Check, Media Works, ¥590)

"The year is 2035 and schools have been suffering from low birth rates, which has caused many of them to close. An energetic girl named Manami Amamiya transfers to a new school where she quickly becomes the student council president and starts to bring back some vigor into the students' lives."

Manabi Straight! is made of pure fun, the joie de vivre of school life solidified into 180 pages before it evaporates with the growing bitterness of old age. Remember when you wanted to try out for every activity and meet tons of new people? (Okay, maybe you were never that kind of student, but let's say for argument's sake.) Manabi's positive, high-spirited character leads the way, and her personality seems to spill right over into the art—bold and expressive linework jumping off every page, drawn from the tradition of mascot characters but with a variety of angles, poses and motion for extra oomph. Don't dismiss this as just another crazy-hyper-fun-time comedy, though: the idea behind the story is intriguing, with shades of social commentary in a future where school is deemed useless by apathetic youths. Manabi challenges that apathetic world with her get-go attitude, suggesting a clash of cultures that goes beyond just Silly Girls Doing Silly Things. The final chapter, where the school bands together to spruce up the student council room, provides a heartwarming finish to this first volume.

Hey, can we slow down a second? High energy is good and all, but Manabi's personality is so dominant that there's no space to settle down and breathe. The series chugs along like a perpetual motion machine, refusing to ease up on the tempo; no wonder it's easy to dismiss it as overly hyper comedy fluff. Lookalike character designs only serve to reinforce this idea of fluff—it's hard to see much variety in an ensemble cast where everyone's got squat faces and big eyes and similarly styled shoulder-length hair. Even the characters' personalities could use better differentiation; most of the girls seem to be toned-down versions of Manabi who are just putting their own spin (the class officer, the athlete, the photographer) on "positive genki." The only exception is Mei, whose brooding attitude is a welcome breeze of fresh air in this overclocked, overheated comedy.

Give Manabi Straight! credit for at least one thing: it takes the wacky character type and makes her fun instead of annoying, which is no mean feat. "Massugu ... GO!"

Ah, so you're one of those fools who likes to read all the way to the bottom of the column. Well, here's a treat for you. This week we lay the dot-smack on dot-hack, one of the Worst Manga I've Ever Read!

Vol. 1
(by Tatsuya Hamazaki and Rei Izumi, Tokyopop, $9.99)

.hack//Legend of the Twilight is a very, very special manga. You know why it's so special? It holds the esteemed distinction of being the only series to ever put me to sleep. Okay, so maybe it was the noontime sunlight or the comfy sofa, but fictional otherworldly adventures should not be knocking me unconscious! On paper, the .hack concept sounds so promising—online RPG gamers uncovering the secrets of a mysterious world—until you realize, upon reading it, that watching online gamers screw around is as boring as hell. And this was before the big World of Warcraft boom, so it's not like I was approaching the series with a reactionary anti-MMO mentality or anything. It's just plain bad.

Two siblings win a pair of custom/rare/legendary/whatever character avatars, and then they go into The World (yeah, now THERE's an original name for an online realm) and engage in monster-slaying adventures while wearing Square Enix reject-pile outfits. Then I think something important happens. I don't remember because I fell asleep halfway through, stopped caring, but eventually finished the volume anyway. The storytelling is generic beyond generic, and the characters have zero appeal. And don't tell me I need to have watched/read/played/dishwashed the 20 billion other .hack tie-in products first. When I read Volume 1 of something, I expect to understand it right away because it's Volume 1. Instead I got this worthless incomprehensible junk. And for that, Legend of the Twilight fails. It fails ... massively.

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