RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Light Yagami and the Deathly Notebooks
by Carlo Santos,
If anyone asks why I bought a Playstation 3, I'll say it was because I found one for sub-$400, it's a great deal for a Blu-Ray player, it makes PS2 games look awesome on HDTV, and a couple of gamer friends told me to.
But deep in my heart, I'll know it's because I like to buy expensive things to make myself feel better.
(by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Viz Media, $7.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The battle ends here!"
Okay, so maybe this wasn't the perfect ending. Well, there's no pleasing all of the people all of the time, so let's look at what Death Note does get right. The finale still has a number of wicked twists up its sleeve: Mello gets back in the game, secondary characters get a chance to shine, and Near pulls off a dizzying switcheroo that will make your jaw drop. This is one of those times in the series when it's worth it to follow the contorted chain of logic, because the payoff is incredible—at last you'll see what it takes for genius to beat genius. Of course, one non-fictional genius who deserves as much credit as anyone is Takeshi Obata, who whips out the drawing pen for an unforgettable, no-holds-barred sequence as the characters confront each other for the last time. Watch Light make his crazy-evil-guy faces and lose his mind. Behold Near's intense stare as he nonchalantly deconstructs his master plan. And get a hold of Ryuk's final appearance as he truly becomes the Death God that we imagined him to be. In the end, it's the combined effect of stunning visuals and a mind-bending finale that make this series one for the ages.
Just as expected—because of the insanely complex plot, and the limited space in which to resolve it, certain characters and situations are whisked away for convenience. Misa-Misa? Forget her, she's been a non-factor since forever, and the resolution of her character arc is a ridiculous cop-out. Newscaster Takada and Kira-protégé Mikami? Well, they didn't really become important until the last couple of volumes, so they get disposed of quite sloppily. Heck, even some of the main players suddenly go out of character, as if they'd been taken over by an alternate-universe writer who decided that they needed to do something "dramatic" (Matsuda's daring move, or maybe Ryuk's final act on this Earth). Yes, it does tie up the loose ends, but does so with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. L would not have approved ... Even Near's denouement, brilliant as it is, bogs this volume down in the middle and puts a damper on what would have been a breakneck, thrilling finale.
Let's be honest ... this is probably one of my favorite volumes of Death Note, a dramatic ending so loaded with wicked "Oh snap" moments that I'm going to be nice and give it an A-.
HE IS MY MASTER
(by Mattsu and Asu Tsubaki, Seven Seas, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Welcome to the day-to-day adventures of the richest, most perverted kid on the block—Nakabayashi Yoshitaka. At 14 years old, he's already a master blackmailer, sports a major superiority complex, and has a uniform fetish to boot.
After inheriting the family fortune upon his parents' deaths, Yoshitaka decides to fire all the old staff and hire some new live-in maids to help him look after his estate. Unfortunately, he gets more than he bargained for when two hot girls and their pet alligator Pochi show up to fill the positions!"
I've got to hand it to this one—the maid outfits in He Is My Master are among the more memorable ones in the subculture, what with the open backs and garter belts. (Equally memorable, but on the other end of the scale: the stiff-upper-lip authenticity of Emma.) And if the outfits should seem brashly irreverent, well, so is the whole series: Yoshitaka is more proactive than the average harem guy, often taking matters into his own perverted hands, and consequently getting smacked down by rivals or (most likely) Izumi herself. It's a nonstop slapstick delight that moves breathlessly from one gag to the next, often aided by the ministrations of one predatory alligator. Oh yes, did we mention the alligator? It's the broadest stroke of genius in this volume, and Pochi—for that is a great name for a ferocious reptile—gets plenty of comedy mileage out of terrorizing people and carrying them away in his jaws. Madness, sheer unadulterated madness.
Don't let the high energy of this volume fool you. It's all a cover-up for the fact that, once you break it down, the humor is very ordinary. Really, there are only so many times Izumi can beat up on Yoshitaka before it stops being funny and starts getting old. That kind of repetitiveness operates on a larger scale, too—each one of Yoshitaka's misadventures somehow leads to Mitsuki staging a contest, and people fighting over who's going to be a maid or not. Even the last chapter, which tries to work some high-stakes action into the plot, still runs on Mitsuki's whims. Gee, maybe the story would be more exciting if it weren't being driven into predictability by a 13-year-old airhead? The art isn't exactly hot stuff either; the girls' cutesy-poo faces and fanservice shots are completely overshadowed by the messiness of layout and more screentone than you can shake an X-acto knife at. Looks like someone needs to learn the princple of "less is more."
Oh, it tries. It really tries. But we do not give grades for effort, and while this volume is crazy enough earn a few laughs, they are mostly empty ones, right around a level of C-.
KINGDOM HEARTS II
(by Shiro Amano, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In the quiet little hamlet of Twilight Town, there lives a boy named Roxas. He and his friends Hayner, Pence, and Olette are trying to enjoy their final days of summer vacation when strange things begin to happen. First the group is falsely accused of stealing photos from all over town. Then they are attacked by bizarre, white creatures. But the oddest occurrences are the recurring dreams Roxas has of a boy named Sora, and the presence of a girl named Naminé, who has a mysterious secret to share with Roxas."
For years, Shiro Amano's greatest strength in manga-fying Kingdom Hearts was his ability to blend Disney and Square's unique character styles. Now it looks like the rest of his talents have caught up at last. The first volume of "KHII" may be nothing more than a prologue, but what a grand prologue it is, carefully building a fresh cast of characters and laying out the groundwork for future plot points. Roxas splits his time evenly between hanging out with friends and swinging a Keyblade in his dreamworlds, and both scenarios are essential in sketching out the makings of a hero. The background mysteries may seem like a tangle of threads—Organization XIII, DiZ, Naminé—but keep your brain switched on and connections do start to become clear. By keeping the art and layouts simple, and finally having enough pages to spread out the story (the first series and Chain of Memories were just too compressed), Amano can focus fully on the epic scale of this adventure. Could it be the best Kingdom Hearts manga yet?
Rarely has there been such a misleading and inappropriately named "Volume 1." Here's a series that doesn't even try to provide recaps for people who haven't quite memorized every plot point of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Instead, it tries desperately to connect everything to earlier events in the series, as if referencing Sora and Naminé and keys and memories will make the plot look deeper. (If you want to get deep, why not just focus on developing Roxas as a character?) If that's not bad enough, this multi-layered mishmash is held together by extremely fuzzy, fantasy-world logic, where Roxas slips in and out of dreams mostly as a plot device and not because it's cool or mysterious. Caught up in a losing fight? Oop! Shift over to Sora's world! About to hear a major revelation from Naminé? Hey, time to wake up! As far as storytelling goes, this has got be some of the grossest misuse ever of the "It was all a dream" principle.
Admittedly, the plotting is pretty fudgy and scattershot at this point, but if Amano can keep it together, and make it fun and epic at the same time, this looks like a promising B.
LE CHEVALIER D'EON
(by Tou Ubukata and Kiriko Yumeji, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"A mysterious cult is sacrificing beautiful young women to a demonic force that has promised them the kingdom of France in return for the blood of their victims. Only one man can save Paris from chaos and terror—the Chevalier d'Eon!"
So, you like Production I.G's froo-froo fancy-pants version of Chevalier, do you? Well, you're in for a surprise! The series' manga counterpart is worlds away from the anime—instead, it's a bloody, brutal vision of Paris, with all the 18th-century elegance stripped away. Oh, you still get Lia de Beaumont in fancy period dresses and touches of architectural grandeur, but the most striking thing about this volume is the boldness of line. Things really come alive in the action scenes, which are so unbelievably dynamic it's like Yumeji's pen possessed her and forced her to draw each chapter in blood (which apparently reproduces quite nicely in black and white). Shadows, monsters, explosions, and entire pages being taken over by slashes of the sword—this is Chevalier distilled into pure adventure, for those who like their possessed transvestite spies with attitude. Also, d'Eon is a slacker policeman in his spare time, which provides a great source of goofball humor (something that the anime sorely lacks).
Hands up if you're sick of episodic monster-slaying stories—yeah, me too. Vivid and violent as this series might be, readers are probably going to start longing for the froo-froo fancy-pants Chevalier anime right around the middle of Chapter 2, when they realize that the manga has decided to take the path of least effort. The formula is despairingly obvious: an unsuspecting French person gets possessed by dark powers, starts writing out Psalms with the blood of virgins, then gets a dose of divine justice in the form of the "Chevalier Sphinx" (as d'Eon has already accepted his cross-dressing destiny in this story). A greater and deeper plot does seem to be in the works—King Louis XV keeps having these cryptic chats with d'Eon, and a Poet of darker, greater powers shows up in the last chapter—but overall, it's a volume that only provides a quick taste and isn't truly satisfying.
The intense action and period setting are first-rate, but it just doesn't have the substance to lift it any higher than a B- (and, let's face it, comparisons to the highly lauded anime are inevitable).
(by Chihiro Tamaki, Aurora, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"As a tall girl, Michiko has never fit in ... literally. She's always felt different and can't accept herself. Her height is matched only by her complex about it.
While delivering pizzas at a fashion show she is mistaken for a model and thrust on stage. Mihara, the show's designer, confronts her and tells her that she can't walk the catwalk because she doesn't know her true self.
From that moment on, Michiko becomes determined to find her place in the world as a model, and as a young woman. Can she find the inner strength to undergo a spectacular transformation? Is Michiko up to the challenge? Just try her."
So, an unusually tall girl is thrust into the fashion world and finds herself at odds with an eccentric but talented designer? Looks like comparisons to Paradise Kiss are in order. However, while Walkin' Butterfly does resembles Yazawa's haute couture hit on the surface, it's a rougher, grittier imagining of the fashion world—like ParaKiss showing its pores. Michiko's hopes of being a model are blocked not by social and academic obligations, or domineering parents, but by the ultimate worst enemy: herself. Can Michiko change her negative attitude and gain enough confidence to become a model? That personal goal, along with her forceful character, is what really drives the story. By the end of the first volume it's picked up enough momentum that you'd be crazy not to want to read the next one. Graceful artwork is also a plus, with the sweeping lines and intense facial expressions that scream of modern josei; it's just damn pretty to look at, and all about conveying the characters' conflicted emotions.
First impressions might work against this title, as it gets off to a really sloppy start—a seemingly unappealing cast of characters, poor transitions from scene to scene, and a bad case of "overdrawing," where the artist tries to draw everything in every panel on every page. It's only after the first half-chapter or so that the story straightens itself out, and yet even the turning point of the story has its drawbacks. Michiko's fashion-show epiphany is the one point in the plot that comes right out of fantasyland: she just happens to be delivering pizza to the show, and she just happens to be mistaken for one of the models, so she just happens to put on clothes and step to the runway. For a high school melodrama loaded with sparkles and bubbles, that turn of events might be acceptable—but this emotionally complex work aimed at twentysomethings ought to be above such contrivances.
It doesn't get off to the greatest start, but by the time the story is in full swing it's definitely worthy of a B.
SORCERERS AND SECRETARIES
(by Amy Kim Ganter, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Josh and Nicole make amends when Josh accidentally reads Nicole's diary—and is amazed by the incredible worlds that she's created inside her head! When he convinces her to submit the story to a fantasy magazine—and manages to get her to let him be her editor—sparks begins to fly between them. But Nicole is torn between focusing on her new-found attraction, and her new-found creative outlet."
Admittedly, the first volume of Sorcerers and Secretaries was good, but not great. However, this conclusion brings the series up to a whole new level. Loose plotlines are tightened and tied up, characters and relationships become fully developed, and the art—oh, the art literally achieves a world of its own. The dreamy little story-within-the-story is a chance for Ganter to stretch the limits of her visual imagination, and honestly, if she were pulling out any more stops, it'd have to be done in full color. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Josh and Nicole's relationship grows in the sweetest of ways; seriously, if you can read the end of Chapter 2 and not feel anything, you have no heart. It's a testament to Ganter's storytelling skills that even as she works toward a predictably happy ending, we find ourselves still rooting for the characters and hoping for them to get together. With picturesque New York backgrounds and a touch of magic in the everyday world, it's a dream of love that really does come true.
Cute as it may be, this is also an aspiring-creator wish-fulfillment story that panders dangerously to the "I wanna be a manga artist" crowd. Just remember, this is a work of fiction—it is highly unlikely, unless you are very talented and very lucky, that you will find some epic story deep inside your heart and get it published and find a supportive lover at the same time. (Why must people keep feeding us these fantasies anyway? It's almost as bad as the "otaku comedy" subgenre.) Not only that, but this is one dream of love that overdoes it with the sugar—be prepared for lots of "aw shucks" cuddly-wuddly dialogue that would make even the most hopeless romantic wince. Meanwhile, the subplot concerning Josh's womanizing roommate really should have been axed—it doesn't lend that much comic relief, and you just end up hating the guy anyway.
It was already pretty good, and then it just gets better and better, all the way to the heartwarming finish. A shining example of how to tell a great story in just two volumes.
Ultra Maniac a little too fluffy fun-time for you? We now turn to a darker-toned short series for another Best Manga I've Ever Read.
KAGEN NO TSUKI (LAST QUARTER)
(by Ai Yazawa, Shueisha, ¥410 ea.)
I'm pretty bad at remembering miniscule plot details, but I do remember whether I've reviewed things or not, and I remember giving the first volume of Kagen no Tsuki an Import Pick for being a haunting, heartbreaking work. Guess what? The rest of it just gets better—as if it weren't good enough already. In this story, a teenage loner named Mizuki loses her grip on reality as she gets involved with a young rock musician named Adam. On the night that she decides to run off with him, she gets hit in a car accident, and apparently ends up in some kind of afterlife. At the same time, a sixth-grader named Hotaru wakes up from a coma, returns to school, and one day stumbles upon an old mansion where Mizuki's ghost is apparently trapped. She can't remember her name, can't remember her purpose, and now Hotaru and her friends must help Mizuki regain her memories of Adam, and the life she once had.
It may sound like a fairly typical ghost story—but that's only because plot summaries tend to over-simplify things. The details and the intricate plot threads throughout this series are among Ai Yazawa's greatest accomplishments as a storyteller, cleverly dropping hints and clues that transcend life, death, and even time itself. A classic rock song, an old photo, a pet cat, are all keys to this wonderfully elaborate mystery. It's complex, but never confusing, and unlike some series, it never makes broad leaps of logic to fill in the gaps. But plotting is just one element of this masterwork—the emotional depth is also top-notch, with Yazawa focusing on lost love and regrets; it seems that every character is filled with an incredible longing for a life they can never have. Their sorrows are the reader's sorrows too, and it is in the artwork that this feeling is made complete: the lyrical facial expressions, the dramatically spaced layouts, the ornate style that seamlessly blends beauty and sadness. Now here's the ultimate mystery: it's only 3 volumes long, it's arguably better than Nana or Paradise Kiss, and Geneon released the (rather altered) movie adaptation a couple of years ago—so why isn't it licensed yet?
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