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Complex and Lovely

by Carlo Santos,

In light of recent events, it has become clear to me that the reviewing system in this column is inherently flawed. Therefore, all future reviews in RTO!! will use the following SIMPLIFIED GRADING SYSTEM:

A+ = really good
A = good
A- = kinda good

No other grades will be issued.

With this simplified system, we can come to a better understanding and enjoyment of manga for all fans and readers. Or you can scroll down below and find out about the new Reader's Choice feature.

(story by Youn In-Wan, art by various, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Unfulfilled love always ends tragically ... or does it? Through different seasons and different eras, two lovers cross paths again and again, trying for that one chance to get it right. Different lives, at different points in history, but one thing remains constant—their love for each other. Spanning the beginning of history, WWII-era Japan, modern-day America, and the far distant future, these stories remind us that love truly has no boundaries."

The idea of destined lovers meeting across different eras may seem like typical romantic fluff, but Youn In-Wan's heartfelt storytelling makes it shine. In just one volume, Deja Vu achieves the feeling of an epic love story, especially with the fairytale-like "Spring" and the challenging sci-fi scenario of "Winter." The stories are short, but each one tells a complete tale in itself—and perhaps that's why they are so emotionally affecting, having to pack an entire lifetime's worth of feelings into a single chapter. The changing roster of artists gives each era a unique style, but if there's one thing they all hold in common, it's the confident linework and attention to detail as each romance unfolds. Marvel at the surreal beauty of "Spring," or the down-to-earth urban feel of "Fall," or the post-apocalyptic snowscapes (take that, Wolf's Rain!) of "Winter." The two unrelated shorts at the end are just icing on the cake, and further confirmation of Youn's talents: the gruesome quirk of Utility and the capriciousness of Ocean take you in directions that few storytellers would even imagine.

Okay, so it's four short stories that repeat the same plotline over and over, and two of them aren't even that good—"Summer" and "Fall" both suffer from being too short, contrived, and predictable. So why are we lumping praise on this again? Perhaps it would have been best to just focus on one continuous story, because the constant changes in style and setting are something of a jarring experience. Not only that, but there's a whole lot of recycled romantic dialogue: you know, the usual stuff about how this guy would die for her, and when everything else is gone his love would remain, and he'll promise to be there for her no matter what, etcetera etcetera. Throw in a poem and some literary quotes and it's the perfect recipe for lovey-dovey pretension. The thick dialogue and overly detailed art also forces the reader into a slow pace—it's like you have to trudge your way through the text and panels, instead of just letting things flow naturally. What a drag.

Whoever said that manhwa artists are lazy hacks copying the Japanese has just been proven wrong. This deeply touching work, despite a couple of hiccups, scores a worthy B+.

Vol. 3
(by Kairi Fujiyama, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Captain Issa and his squad have been deployed on a dangerous mission to investigate a sighting of bloodthirsty Dracules just outside the city. But when a surprise attack from a mysterious villain threatens the very future of Mikuni City, Issa is forced to make a terrible choice: To save his his home, he must reveal a dark secret from his past."

The latest Dragon Eye is hack-and-slash adventure at its finest, a visual tour de force of ominous caverns, massive monsters, and combat so fierce you can feel it just from holding the book. Issa's secret from his past is everything it's hyped up to be—not only is it a shocking bit of background history, but it also opens up the door for some seriously impressive fighting skills. But he's not the only one with a technique up his sleeve: the other members of the squad also put on a great show with technology, sorcery, and swordplay all combining to take down a particularly nasty crowd of monsters. The long chapters give each attack and counterattack as much space as needed to be put on full display, and believe me, they are worth every single page, from quick dashes and leaps to full-blown explosions. In between all that, there's also a darker plot underway: just who are those masked people ordering the Dracules around, and what do they hope to accomplish? We may find out yet, just as soon as Issa and company battle their way out of this one...

This is the fight that doesn't end ... it just goes on and on my friend ... That's the problem with this volume, which basically continues the dungeon crawl that began in Volume 2 and appears to have no end in sight. It's just the same old slashes and strikes and explosions over and over, with the added annoyance of continually switching between two separate fights because Issa and Sôhei are fighting a battle on one front while the rest of the squad is dealing with a different menace. What's the fastest way to erase the thrill of getting caught up in a fight scene? Suddenly cut to another one! Not that either of them are that great anyway—this is a series plagued by complete lack of imagination, from the generic caverns to the generic fantasy-combat outfits to the generic and silly-looking monsters. (Giant hedgehogs? Really?) The attempts at back story and plot depth are laughable, having been copied out of every other fantasy epic ever, and the characters are about as interesting as a set of mass-produced plastic figurines. In fact, the figurines would probably be a better value for money.

Although it might be worth it for the visceral thrills, there's just too much averageness to keep it from being anything more than a C-.

Vol. 4
(by Hideaki Sorachi, Viz Media, $7.99)

"The samurai didn't stand a chance. First, the aliens invaded Japan. Next, they took all the jobs. And then they confiscated everyone's swords. So what does a hot-headed former samurai like Sakata 'Gin' Gintoki do to make ends meet? Take any odd job that comes his way, even if it means losing his dignity.
Everyone desperately attempts to get some R&R this time! Our cute and invincible warrior Kagura spirits a genuine princess out of the confines of her castle to shop for candy, gamble her riches, and fish for kappa (water sprites)—all while dodging a troop of elite police. But rest looks to be in the stars when Kagura wins an outer-space trip for three. Unfortunately, her relaxing vacation with her pals is continually interrupted by dognappers, spaceship hijackers and giant sand monsters. Fortunately, the Odd Jobs Trio returns home just in time for a soothing summer festival. Until ... robots run amuck!"

If you truly want to find the heart and soul of this madcap action-comedy, look to the one-shot chapters in this volume: the one where Gin tries to help out a ghetto drug-dealing couple (did they have such things as chavs in the Edo period?) and the one where he has to trap a roving panty thief. Seriously, when you can do something as hackneyed as a panty thief plotline and still make it laugh-out-loud funny, that's real talent right there. And it's not just the physical comedy that succeeds—like planting mines in the backyard and then forgetting where they are, or playing the shooting gallery at the festival and using the stall owner as a target—but also the biting, bawdy dialogue. Where else can a planet's twin suns be compared to a pair of "solar testicles," or a guy with an afro be referred to as a "pube head"? It's rude, but man, it's hard not to laugh. The whole sci-fi-meets-Edo concept also continues to delight with its incongruousness: one moment our heroes are watching slickly-drawn spaceships and robots go by, and the next they're romping through feudal city streets. Learning alternate Japanese history has never been so much fun.

Have you ever turned a page in a manga and gotten so confused that you turn back to check if you accidentally skipped a page? Unfortunately, this happens quite a number of times here, as Gin and company are apparently so caught up in wacky adventures that "making sense" becomes optional. How, exactly, did dog mascot Sadaharu end up getting dognapped onto the spaceship? And how did the shogun escape those crazy robot terrorist attacks in the last two chapters? It seems that the story is so intent on jumping from joke to joke, cramming all these zany action panels together, that it forgets to actually tell the story properly. Besides, the really good jokes are spaced at about one per chapter, so there are a lot of blah-blah filler pages in between. Much of this blah-blah material can be blamed on uninteresting side characters—the escaped princess chapter is a bore, and nobody cares about the dealings of space crook Catherine, or Gin's spacefaring former friend. If it isn't Gin and his Trio in action, then it isn't any fun.

There are some brilliant comedy moments here, but the lack of cohesiveness and some of the less-than-gripping plotlines make it about a B-.

Vol. 4
(by Aya Nakahara, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Risa Koizumi is the tallest girl in class, and the last thing she wants is the humiliation of standing next to Atsushi Ôtani, the shortest guy. Fate and the whole school have other ideas, and the two find themselves cast as the unwilling stars of a bizarre romantic comedy.
Risa has finally realized that she has feelings for Ôtani and can't wait to confess her love. But dense Ôtani won't take her hints! With the help of all their friends and a romantic beach vacation, can Risa get her affections past his thick head?"

Still awesome? Yep, still awesome. With Risa willfully trying to confess to Ôtani, this installment of Love*Com may offer some of the best one-liners in the series yet—from elaborate quips like "Get me a sharp object!! Something that'll really hurt when I plunge it into him!!" to the more straight-out "You are the dumbest person I have ever met in my entire life!" It's all in the delivery, folks, and Risa Koizumi's rubber face and flailing limbs make her an instant winner in the comedy department. But let's not forget to give credit to her partner in crime: Ôtani's sheer cranial density makes for some infuriatingly hilarious moments, with a peanut gallery of best friends always ready to provide snide commentary. But in between the first-rate comedy and cute, high-energy art, there's also a touching romance in store: the story always manages to slow things down just right for those serious moments, like the fireworks on the rooftop, the classroom confession at the school festival, and the moment of truth in Hokkaido. Deftly navigating through these extremes of emotion—as well as the extremes of artwork (wacky comedy expressions vs. serious shoujo heartbreak)—is a display of talent that few can hope to match.

Did Risa suddenly get shallower as a character? Ever since she went from girl-in-denial to raging-crush-fiend, it's like all the layers of emotion just fell away to reveal this hormonal creature whose sole purpose in life is to mock Ôtani's intellect. It might make for some seriously funny dialogue, but it also reduces her to a one-joke character: "Ôtani, I'm trying to admit my feelings for you, but you don't realize it, so I'm going to insult you." Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It's also a bit depressing to see their circle of friends turn from proper characters into Risa's cheer squad, only popping up every few scenes to give her support or make amusing comments. And then there are those long stretches of dialogue (or monologue) where nothing funny is actually said—just endless rambling about the difficult relationship between the two main characters. Look, we already know about the situation, so a little less conversation, a little more (comedy) action please.

An already great series just keeps on getting better. The intensifying emotions and razor-sharp dialogue win this volume an A-.

Vol. 1
(by Kazuto Okada, Yen Press, $12.99)

"The 'Roman Club,' a school group interested in the occult to which he's practically enslaved, has become boring for one Hideo Aiba. In fact, he finds his entire existence pretty tiresome until one day when a girl named Kurumi Sahana shows up and wants to join up. When the two are left alone in the club classroom, Kurumi makes a special 'request' of Hideo, one which makes him (understandably) freak out. Though he doesn't know what to think, one thing's for sure: Hideo's life just became anything but boring."

Let's be honest: Sundome (which translates to "stopping right before") makes American Pie look positively puritanical by comparison. This teen sex comedy not only pushes the boundaries, but explores territory that you didn't even know existed—who's going to settle for the same old upskirts and downshirts when you can have side-tie panties and collarbone fetish? Blame it on enigmatic female lead Kurumi, whose purpose in life is apparently to tease high school boys and make their lives a Tartarus of sexual frustration—often with embarrassing, shocking, and hilarious results. (Hooray for peeing in the bushes and hiding under sickroom beds!) Somewhere in the mix there's also an occult club that never goes ghost-hunting, a boyhood pact to remain a virgin all throughout high school, and a big-breasted bimbo named Kyouko who embodies the very concept of "attention whore," emphasis on whore. The bizarre expressions on the boys' faces and the cheesecake poses from the girls say it all: this is about as weird and raunchy as it gets ... and that's only because Volume 2 isn't out yet.

Yawn, snore, another fanservice bore. What's so special about this one—better nipple visibility? Shameless panty removal? That's not creativity or innovation; that's just being allowed to go into more risqué material because your publisher lets you. For all its kinks and fetishes, Sundome is surprisingly dull when it comes to plot ideas: a challenge against the brawny martial arts club, a creepy nighttime Ghost Hunt, a sneaky attempt to get into the nurse's office, and other paint-by-number school comedy scenarios. Enjoyment of the story is further hindered by the crowded, frenzied layouts: a lot of essential action is crammed into painfully small panels, with big blocks of dialogue to make things even more visually strained. And if that doesn't hurt your eyes enough, then the designs surely will: it's a fool's errand trying to tell the male characters apart (as if they even had personalities in the first place), and the only way Kurumi would be considered attractive is if you have a thing for oddly skinny girls. Maybe it's time to forget about exploring odd sexual fetishes and get back to the fundamentals of making good comics.

Sexual weirdness and wackiness are far outweighed by generic school-comedy material and messy art, making this a humble C-.

Vol. 1
(by Hekiru Hikawa, Square-Enix, ¥590)

"Rebecca 'Becky' Miyamoto is a child genius with a Ph.D., and she's starting a new job as a high school teacher. The students love to tease her from day one, and she doesn't behave much better. Now we follow this class as they strive to get better grades and cope with their new teacher."

Not quite as confined as the 4-panel format, but not quite as loose as a full-chapter series, the one-page gags of Pani Poni have a bubbly rhythm all their own. Obviously, the main gimmick here is having a genius teacher with all the emotional instabilities of a ten-year-old (she even cowers at the mere mention of icky foods), but the first volume quickly expands into a fun, quirky cast of characters. The class idiot, the president, the gossip—they're all here, along with some delightfully odd teachers and sidekicks (everyone loves Meso-usa the melancholy rabbit). The dialogue comes with a surprising amount of bite to it—Becky and the kids aren't afraid to put each other down, and some of the best humor here comes in the form of a cutting remark. The art may be simple, but it's easy to get a hang of each character's distinctive look, and the one-page format forces each joke to be delivered in quick, snappy fashion. Sometimes all it takes is a single panel, a pause, and a one-liner—and bam, once again you're laughing at what just happened.

Not quite as charming as Kiyohiko Azuma's output, and not quite as absurd as the antics at Cromartie High, this comedy falls squarely in the mid-range where mediocrities go to die. It's as if Hekiru Hikawa is just throwing page after page of random school situations out there, praying that one of them is eventually going to be funny or something. After all, if you didn't like the gag on one page, you can just go to the next one, right? Unfortunately, that makes for a lot of filler material where a student says something silly or sarcastic, but doesn't quite have the wit required to actually earn a laugh. Imagine this shotgun-humor method for a whole 150-plus pages, and it's easy to see why this would get irritatingly repetitive. Worse yet is when personality defects are assumed to be inherently funny, such as Meso-usa's pessimism, or Becky's lack of responsibility, or Himeko's airheadedness. Look, without a proper setup or punchline, there's no humor to be had in displaying someone's personal flaws. It just makes them look pathetic. And it makes this manga look pathetic.

Can we say hit-or-miss? In the hands of the right readers, this can be a fun and quirky diversion, but some may find it too shallow and lacking in wit.

Have you ever felt that a certain manga title didn't get a fair shake in this column? Or that there's a hidden gem that's been totally ignored and needs more attention? Or is there a series so bad that it deserves to be bashed in public?

Well, now's your chance to make your opinions heard! RTO!! Reader's Choice is where YOU can contribute and share your manga likes and dislikes. Just write a review (maximum 300 words) that includes the following:

- your name.
- Title of manga (and volume no., if applicable)
- Author/Artist
- Publisher
- Briefly describe the story, then explain why this manga is great, terrible, or in between. Be objective, but also be entertaining.

Then send it in to rtoreaders (at) gmail (dot) com. One review will be selected out of all the submissions and will be published in the next column.

I'll take just about anything—licensed, import, world manga, positive reviews, negative reviews, reviews written on toilet paper (but you still have to submit electronically), whatever—the most important thing is that it's the Reader's Choice!

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