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Your And My Mushi

by Carlo Santos,

Hey folks ... I'm feeling a bit lonely right now.

Nobody sent in any Reader's Choice reviews for the past 2 weeks!

Sad face.

I want to know what manga you think is awesome. I want to know what manga you think is trash. And most of all, I want to know when my opinions are wrong and yours are right and I'm just a biased, stuck-up reviewer who doesn't "get it." All it takes is 400 words or less! So please, please send in those reviews ... otherwise we go into filler.

Vol. 1
(by Yuu Asami, Go!Comi, $10.99)

"Sui takes everyday robots for granted; they're as common as toasters or washing machines—until her father engineers a new kind of robot; one that walks, talks and looks as human as she is! Her father asks her to teach this new prototype all about being human, and Sui couldn't be happier with her new friend ... until the fabulous new technology starts attracting the wrong kind of attention..."

Oh dear, the North American run of Absolute Boyfriend is over! How are we going to get our bishounen android fix now? By reading A.I. Revolution, of course. This 1995 throwback does pretty-boy robots with an old-school flair: long flowing hair, piercing eyes of manliness, and a sense of gallantry that's so much more than just "What I can I do for you, master." And what could be hotter than one pretty-boy robot? Two of them, of course—and that's when the series really starts to take off, as the rapport between friendly droid Vermillion and hot-tempered Kira leads to some hilariously strange dialogue. The occasional flashes of homoeroticism will also amuse the right kind of reader (you know who you are). Yet there's also a serious side to this flighty comedy, as Sui runs into people who find robots morally reprehensible, or are trying to steal Vermillion's technology, or are performing questionable science experiments. It may not be as saucy as today's build-your-own-boyfriend/girlfriend fantasies, but in tackling issues of artificial-intelligence ethics, it's already ahead of the curve.

If this is what counts as "tackling artificial-intelligence ethics," then One Piece must be a historically accurate depiction of pirates. The storytelling is as fluffy and generic as they come, and any attempts at intellectual depth are just surface dressing. Take, for example, Sui's best friend who hates robots—it turns out the reason is because her deceased father was a robotics engineer, and ... well, it gets really predictable from there. This same predictability can be found in other scenarios like "An evil scientist appears!" and "Sui and the boys go skiing." Just take any average teen comedy plotline from the last 25 years, rewrite it with a hot android guy, and woooh! Instant manga chapter. The art isn't so hot either—there's little here to differentiate it from any of the other styles of its period, and even the highly attractive male characters fall into pre-defined stereotypes. A lack of backgrounds also makes it hard to pin down the setting: they keep saying it's 2020, but it still looks like the present day, except even more boring.

The characters and situations may be interesting to some, but the level of creativity and talent here is only a C at best.

Vol. 3
(by Yuki Urushibara, Del Rey, $12.95)

"They live on the shadowy border between the possible and the impossible—ancient life-forms known as mushi. Rare is the individual who can see them, but those with that special ability, the mushishi, can counter the creatures' deadly effects on humans. After a young boy is orphaned in the forest, he is saved by a reclusive female mushishi. But the lake near the mushishi's home holds a deadly secret, and the boy must find out what it is before his only friend is lost forever."

Mushishi's captivating sense of wonder is alive and well in its third volume, and this quintet of stories contains one particularly unique surprise. For you see, even our resident bug-master Ginko was a little boy once, and it's here that we learn about his past—a past that involves mushi, of course, and some very powerful and mysterious ones at that. But the stories of Ginko's regular clients are equally fascinating, and often at their best when folklore and science connect: acoustics comes into play in the bittersweet "The Cry of Rust," while "White Living in the Inkstone" brings us unusual weather phenomena. But it doesn't take a Bachelor of Science to appreciate the series' outstanding art: the landscapes are truly a world unto themselves, full of texture and shading from oceans to plains to mountains. (And look, stippling is useful for something besides tedious exercises in art class!) Let's also not forget the mushi themselves, which combine everyday imagery—rust, clouds, snakes, seeds, light and darkness—with mysterious powers to become truly surreal. Add in the deeply human characters, and you've got something that feels so much like a classic folk tale ... except that it's a modern masterpiece.

Complaining about the bad parts of Mushishi almost feels morally wrong. But there are definitely some parts of the series that don't work as well as others: "From the Ocean's Edge," for example, arrives at its conclusion with a whole lot of supernatural mumbo-jumbo. ("And then a lot of time passed!") And then there is the structure of the stories themselves: Ginko arrives at a village with a mushi problem, figures out what kind of mushi it is, and then solves it. Every single time. Honestly, it's getting old, and you half-expect the mushi to pipe up at the end with: "And we would have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for you meddling mushishi!" So it'd be nice if Yuki Urushibara played around with the formula a little more, or dug up more tales of Ginko's past. It'd be a shame to see a great series run itself into the ground by repetition.

Beautifully drawn and alive with imagination, but the stories do lose their impact at times. Yet it's still fascinating enough to earn an A-.

Vol. 1
(by Tohru Fujisawa, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Kasumi Asakura is many things—high school student, next-door neighbor, police assault squad ace—but she's not going to let anyone take a picture up her skirt, as Shohei Aiba learns the hard way. When he attempts to find out more about this mystery girl, he gets caught up in her search for a killer—who enjoys carving his initials into women's bodies! Asakura's back for more in this action-packed sequel to Rose Hip Zero!"

Hooray for girls with guns! Rose Hip Rose hits just the right spot as a blockbuster action piece, with its superheroic lead character, flashes of fanservice, and a macho shootout at the end. Yet it's the down-to-earth stuff that sets this one apart from the rest of the genre: most of the story is told through the eyes of pervy schoolboy Shohei, giving us a unique perspective on überbabe Kasumi (a.k.a. Rose Hip). The first half focuses on Shohei interacting with Kasumi at school and at home (and typically getting his ass kicked), which gives a better insight into her character than any number of high-octane adventures. But when the time comes for bombs and bullets, this volume delivers on that end as well: the last few chapters are as intense as they come, with a villain so ruthless and persistent that you almost want to root for him. Tohru Fujisawa's artistic style, packed with urban grit and a flair for the dramatic, is perfectly suited to this Die Hard-esque adventure—and when he shows off the beauty of the female form, the detail and aesthetics really make it worth looking at. Now that's true service for the fans.

Fitting a complete story arc into a single manga volume is usually a good thing—hey, you can buy just one and not worry about it going on forever—but here it turns Rose Hip's latest outing into a shallow one-and-done affair. The search for the killer is painfully short, with clues that take absolutely no brainpower to solve, and the big action finale has only one clever move (good job, Shohei) with all the rest being a matter of "Whoever has the most ammo wins." Plus the lackluster slice-of-school-life segments simply take up way too many pages, telling lame jokes about Shohei being a loser perv who keeps getting dominated by Kasumi. Really, how many times do they have to trot out the "Bwahaha, I still have the memory card with your pantyshot photos on it" gag? Ultimately, it tries to balance school comedy with gun-toting action and ends up falling short at both. Maybe the next volume will have a more solid direction.

It's good enough to be entertaining—the fast-paced action sequences and Kasumi's sensual appeal make sure of that—but the formulaic shallowness of the story sets it to about a B-.

Vol. 3
(by Peach-Pit, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Amu's Guardian Characters have been stolen by her teacher, a bitter man whose dreams died when his own egg was smashed. When Amu goes to reclaim her Characters, the School Guardians are there to help. But can they get Amu's eggs back and put the evil teacher's egg together again?"

What is it going to take to convince people that Shugo Chara is awesome and worthy of your time and discussion? Amu's epic battle against Nikaidou-sensei in this volume is everything we long for in magical-girl combat: slick transformations, shiny powers, faithful friends, and love triumphing over all ... why, it's everything that Cardcaptor Sakura or Sailor Moon ever was! But even more than that, it addresses the complexities of the human psyche, from joke characters like the fortune-teller who doesn't trust her own abilities, to Nikaidou's own personal conflict over his childhood dreams. And to do it with elaborate metaphors like Heart's Eggs and Guardian Characters—that's deep stuff for a little girls' manga. But perhaps the most intriguing dual-sided character is the mischievous Ikuto, who's technically a bad guy, but does everything he can to help Amu and friends—even a heart-melting romantic interlude that leaves little doubt about which way Amu's feelings are swinging. The action-packed storyline in this volume also leads to some fantastic artistry, from stylish outfits to fast-paced attack sequences, and even a clever little poke at the genre ("What's with this girlie magic wand?") that reminds us why Amu is the icon for a new generation. Other heroines have been sweet, or charming, or noble—but Amu's just plain cool.

Got to give Peach-Pit credit for putting their own spin on the genre ... but it still feels like they're just running down a checklist of clichés. The cackling mad scientist with a harebrained plot? Check. The mysterious bad boy who becomes a love interest? Check. The heroine's best friends showing up out of nowhere when she needs them the most? Roll eyes and check. Anyhow, the inclusion of Nikaidou's back-story comes too late in the game—we're so used to him as a wacky "evil teacher" that this development of his character doesn't quite fit. And perhaps that's why the epic battle doesn't really feel so epic: one never gets the feeling that Nikaidou is truly villainous, because he's spent half the series being a bumbling comic relief. In the end, this is really just an excuse for Amu to do all her transformations in quick succession, and invite her Guardian buddies to do the same. So much style, but not so much substance.

Okay, so maybe it's not the greatest thing ever ... but a heart-pounding battle sequence, intriguing characters and cute, stylish art are all worthy of a A-.

Vol. 1
(by Ai Morinaga, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Nanako is the belle of her high school—just as long as she stays quiet. Once she shows her true self, guys' dreams are shattered because she is a tomboy! Meanwhile, Akira has the looks and brains—but his personality is so dull nobody notices him. But one day Nanako's grandfather comes up with a crazy, life-altering invention, and Nanako and Akira are forced to keep a very big secret: When they switch bodies with each other, will they ever want to go back?!"

Body-switch stories may be as old as the hills, but if there's one manga-ka who can make it work, it's the comedic mind of Ai Morinaga. The secret of success is to really bring out the characters' personalities: Akira is a quiet girly-boy, and Nanako is the ultimate alpha type, so when they switch, they suddenly find themselves much better suited to their new genders. And of course, there is the wonderful joy of discovery—like using the bathroom for the first time, or Akira's venture into the girls' changing room. ("Thank you God, for letting me be born!") But the really good stuff starts happening when romantic complications ensue: Nanako's best friend finds herself drawn to Nanako-as-Akira's manly attitude, setting up some fascinating yuri overtones, and the reverse happens when Akira's longtime buddy decides he'd like a piece of Akira-as-Nanako. Confused yet? Good! Morinaga's bold, fast-paced art is perfect for keeping the comedy afloat—just when they're out of one wacky situation, the kids are plunged into yet another one, page after page, chapter after chapter, so let's hope they don't get switched back for a long time.

Unfortunately, the series gets so caught up in jumping from joke to joke that it often forgets about making the story flow properly. Just look at the first chapter, which jams so many arbitrary events together just to make the body-switch happen. Behold, the madness of Nanako! Akira finds some excuse to visit her house! Then he meets her crazy mad-scientist grandfather who is experimenting on her! This all happens in about 20 pages, so there's absolutely no rhyme or reason behind it—we're just supposed to accept that a bunch of odd events happened and now the two main characters have switched bodies. That's not fun or fast-paced; that's just nonsense. And it's a problem that keeps recurring throughout the volume: changes of scenery, character or plot could all happen at a moment's notice, because the chapters are way too short and there's no time to build a story. This may be an entertaining, wacky fun-time series, but it definitely leaves logic at the door.

It's lacking in depth and coherence, but it's just so much fun. And being fun is good enough to earn a B.

Vol. 4
(by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Oni Press, $11.95)

"It's summertime, but who can relax? Welcome back to Scott Pilgrim's nightmarish little existence. His relationship with Ramona Flowers is sweeter than ever, but he's still got girl troubles, seven evil ex-boyfriends still want to kill him, and worst of all, now she wants him to get a JOB?! SCOTT PILGRIM, VOL. 4: Now with more kicks, punches, rock & roll, subspace, half-ninjas, experience points, samurai swords, girly action, and laughable attempts to seek gainful employment!"

Y'know, I was into Scott Pilgrim before it even came out, so I think I'm entitled to be a little late to the party for Volume 4. And what a volume it is: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together is to the series what The Goblet of Fire was to Harry Potter, a towering epic that blows away all the previous books and caps it off with a watershed moment for our young hero. Not surprisingly, Scott's watershed moment arrives in the form of a Final Fantasy metaphor. That's just one of the many reality-bending gags in this book, where geek culture explodes with gleeful abandon: Scott keeps having Zelda dreams, but then his girl shows up because she knows how to bend "subspace," which of course is where you pull out swords and stuff when you need to fight a Hot Topic-clothed ninja. Yet between all this crazy fight-comic madness is a spot-on slice of twentysomething life, full of rollercoaster feelings, artistic aspirations, and razor-sharp dialogue ("Scott, if your life had a face, I'd punch it"). Bold, energetic linework guarantees a completely unique look, and whether it's epic fights or tender dialogue, every page is laid out just right. It's friendship, challenge and victory in the perfect postmodern package, and it will rock your face. (And also, the best "Stop! This is the back of the book" page in the history of humankind.)

No. Just no.

Well, there could probably be more tone on some of those all-white lineart-heavy areas (it's hard on the eyes), and there's maybe too much time spent on the hanging-out-with-friends parts.

But really, no.

If you're not already a Scott Pilgrim fan ... why not? Hurry down to the bookstore and jump the Scott bandwagon, because it just keeps getting better and better.

The next manga-ka to make it to Reader's Choice needs no introduction ... and neither does the reviewer! Daryl Surat of Anime World Order really, really wants you to read Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix:

(by Osamu Tezuka, Viz Media, $15.95-$16.99 ea.)

Osamu Tezuka is to anime fans what William Shakespeare is to most students. Both are commonly considered among critics and scholars to be the greatest of all time at their crafts, and both are considered exceedingly tedious and boring by virtually everybody else. Many who would identify themselves as "manga fans" dismiss Tezuka's works as too outdated to consume recreationally, and a common attitude among those who do read them is one of "I am obligated to read this" instead of "I genuinely want to read this." But titles like Phoenix are what made "manga" the medium it is.

Phoenix is often called Osamu Tezuka's "life work." It's a series of self-contained yet interconnected stories written over nearly 45 years, all reflecting upon the human condition, the meaning of life, and—taken holistically—spiritual change through rebirth. Alternating between the early days of Japan and the far-flung reaches of the future, all of the tales relate somehow to mankind's quest for immortality by way of the omnipotent cosmic entity known as the Phoenix, a mythical and undying bird of fire.

Highly experimental in its scope, layouts, and subject matter, Phoenix is somewhat of a demanding read. Such "heavy" material combined with Tezuka's "old" art style (not to mention his penchant for broad comedy and talking animals) can be off-putting, but don't let that stop you. Tezuka is most frequently associated with Astro Boy, but it's a mistake to overlook the remainder of his immense body of work. Since the volumes of Phoenix are largely standalone they can be read in any order. Volume 2 (the sci-fi tale "Future") and Volume 4 (the feudal Japan era "Karma") are both good starting points. If you read just one Osamu Tezuka manga, let it be Phoenix. More people need to!

Is there a hidden gem of manga you'd like to reveal to the world? Is there a piece of garbage that deserves to be bashed in public? Or is there a title that didn't get a fair grade here, and you want to set the record straight?

Now's YOUR chance to be the reviewer! Write a review of 400 words and include:

- 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. All types of manga and manga-inspired comickry are accepted, from past and present, from Japan and beyond—what matters is that it's the Reader's Choice!

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