Still Alive

by Carlo Santos,

Great job, everybody! I got a ton of Reader's Choice reviews after the last column. Keep up the effort—I want to know more about the manga you love ... and the manga you love to hate (check out the latest one below).

If you're still thinking of sending in a review but don't know what to write about, here are some ideas:
1. Explain to me why Galaxy Angel is good.
2. Bash one of Osamu Tezuka's weaker efforts.
3. Yaoi, yaoi, yaoi!
Inspired yet? Good! Keep those reviews coming.

Vol. 3
(by Tadashi Kawashima and Adachitoka, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Taisuke and Yuta are searching for their kidnapped friends when they are ambused by the wind-wielding Morio. Can Taisuke use his burgeoning powers to escape? Whom can Taisuke and Yuta trust?"

With its action-thriller premise and perfectly choreographed fight scenes, the third volume of Alive is the very definition of cinematic. (And unlike certain other series, the characters don't spend 20 pages powering up and describing how their attack works.) Best of all, Taisuke's battles are more about brainpower than brute strength—he basically has to outsmart the wind-user to beat him in the first chapter, and in the second half of the book, he takes on a mind-bending illusionist. Of course, a special power like illusion opens the floodgates for some wild artistic ideas: the "field of flowers" scene is beautifully disturbing with its creepy multiplying bunnies and insect infestation, and the battle culminates with a dizzying confrontation atop a Ferris wheel. Where Alive truly rises above its peers, though, is in the way each scene is staged for maximum dramatic effect: the ominous pose of an enemy standing atop a ledge, a top-down snapshot of a hundred-foot drop, or the horrors of a flashback that one would much rather forget. It's the kind of experience that will have you frantically turning the pages to find out what happens next.

This series started out with all sorts of wonderful doom and gloom—mass suicides, cold-blooded killers, running for one's life—so how come it's suddenly devolved into some kind of X-Men Tournament? Exciting as it may be, Taisuke's journey to find his friends has become little more than a string of increasingly powerful enemies that he must fight along the way. (The preview for Volume 4 wasn't too encouraging, either.) Factor in all the pages that those fancy fight scenes take up, and what you get is a volume that uses a whole lot of space to say very little. Any attempts at plot development usually end up happening with the supporting characters—namely, the evil "comrades" that are out to get Taisuke and the reporters investigating these strange phenomena—and they're so disconnected from Taisuke's plotline that you might as well stick them in a bonus side-story in the back of the book. Please, please don't let this turn into another generic psychic-battle manga.

Yeah, it'd be nice if there were more actual story content, but the action and suspense built into the fight scenes is truly impressive—impressive enough for a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Machiko Sakurai, Del Rey, $10.95)

"What would you do if your favorite toy came to life and became your best friend? Well's that's just what happens to Ame Oikawa, a shy schoolgirl. Nicori is a super-cute doll with a mind of its own—and a plan to make Ame's dreams come true!"

There's something about Minima! that makes it almost disturbing ... but in a good way. It's like Pokemon Gone Wrong, with a brash, self-absorbed mascot character and a protagonist who's the furthest thing from heroic (Ame is an outcast at school and frequently picked on). Put these strange elements together, though, and you get a unique kind of toy story: Ame's new friend causes her to learn the value of self-confidence, standing up to her peers, and of course, striking up a conversation with the boy she likes. Even Nicori's conceited attitude ends up somewhat endearing—his strong personality gets him into all sorts of funny situations, and they only get funnier when the talking chicken mascot gets in on the action. Also, don't be fooled by the intentionally crude design of Nicori: the art in here is actually pretty slick, with stylish linework and character designs not too far removed from the aesthetics of Moyoco Anno. Widely spaced panels and clean layouts also make for fun, easy reading when you just want to kick back and relax.

It'd be nice if it were all just fun and easy reading, but there are parts of the story that just don't work. The problems start as early as the first chapter, which completely bungles the job of introducing Ame and her friends. Somehow we're just expected to "know" who the Best Guy Friend and the Catty Rivals and the Distant Crush are, and it's a real mess for the first half of the book trying to find out where the relationship lines are drawn. Then there's the part where the media find out about the talking doll and start following Ame around, even visiting her house and offering her a deal—it's too businesslike and serious compared to the mood of the series, and it just feels wrong. The events of the last chapter in this volume also feel wrong for the same reason: Nicori crosses paths with some seriously evil folks and suddenly we're veering off into crime drama territory. What the heck, people? That kind of dark tone just doesn't make sense.

It's got likable characters and strong artwork, but the flawed execution and some off-putting story elements set it to a C+.

Vol. 8
(by Ai Yazawa, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Nana 'Hachi' Komatsu hopes that moving to Tokyo will help her make a clean start and leave her capricious love life behind her. Nana Osaki, who arrives in the city at the same time, has plans to score big in the world of rock 'n' roll. Although these two young women come from different backgrounds, they quickly become best friends in a whirlwind world of sex, music, fashion, gossip and all-night parties!
Hachi's happiness with Nobu is slipping through her fingers as an unexpected complication with Takumi threatens to upend her entire life. And unlike her past romantic woes, the choice she makes now will change the lives of everyone around her."

It's the moment you've all been waiting for: that one earth-shattering revelation in Nana that will change Hachi's life forever. And that's not just hype talking—this is one of those plot points that proves why Ai Yazawa totally deserves to win Oricon's Favorite Manga Artist poll. Not only does she dare to take on a highly controversial topic, but she manages to handle it with incredible realism and depth. The moment that Hachi finds out ... the moment that Takumi confronts her ... the moment that Nobu and Nana O. find out ... each scene is packed with complex emotions, as seen in the characters' expressions, the heart-rending dialogue, and the meticulous layouts. Sometimes, a silent image will say more than words ever could; sometimes, a single sentence will be more profound than any image. That's how Yazawa is able to create such powerful drama—put the right words and pictures in the right places, and the story becomes unbelievably real. And keep an eye out for the subplot about Nana's relationship with Hachi ... it may not stand out as much as Hachi's personal problems, but those bittersweet feelings are as powerful as anything else in this beautifully scripted story arc.

If it were just about the Nana-Hachi-Takumi-Nobu polygon, we'd have a perfect storyline on our hands—but no, they still have to squeeze in all the distracting side-character shenanigans. The ongoing emotional tug-of-war between Reira and Shin feels like a pointless diversion rather than having any connection to the main story, while Nana's continuing involvement with Ren isn't as interesting as it used to be. Heck, even the band rivalry between Blast and Trapnest feels kind of shoehorned in there just to remind us they're still around. Then there's the issue of those draggy, dialogue-laden scenes where people sit around and talk in order to advance the plot. It's Yazawa's one artistic weakness: pages crammed with 8-to-10 panels and tons of dialogue bubbles. She still does fantastic layouts overall, but every now and then one of those pages pops up, and it's a pain.

All right, so some parts of it aren't perfect—but a lot of it is, and the main storyline is dramatic in all the right ways. A well-deserved A-.

Vol. 1
(by Lee Hyeon-Sook, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Daoun is a young, ambitious woman in her first year of teaching high school. Handsome, dark and mysterious, 'prince charming' Ryumin flunked his senior year and is a student in her class with a devastating crush on his teacher. And Hyunwoo, a former classmate and fellow teacher of Daoun's, has been in love with her for years but doesn't have the courage to tell her. As Ryumin's advances toward Daoun increase and Hyunwoo starts to notice, will Daoun follow her head or her heart?"

Are you ready for some romantic mind games? The characters in this series sure are, and it takes less than one chapter for Ryumin to start putting the moves on Daoun—and rattling her nerves in the process. Where other series might roll with wacky plot gimmicks or over-the-top melodrama, this one takes a more subtle route and focuses on the emotional tug-of-war going on in the characters' heads. Things really start to pick up when Hyunwoo arrives to complete the love triangle—his clingy, unrequited love and a slightly geeky demeanor help to balance out the other ultra-cool, fashion-model-esque characters in the story. And it's no exaggeration to compare them to fashion models when you look at the art: everyone is stunningly beautiful, whether male or female, and the precise, stylish linework makes the seduction scenes look even more steamy than they already are. Rarely has there been such style and grace in a portrayal of conflicted love.

It maybe wonderfully pretty to look at, but this battle of romantic intentions doesn't seem to have any proper direction. Obviously, nobody wants Daoun to choose her man too soon (otherwise there'd be no story), but if all she's going to do is hang out with them back and forth and not take anything to the next level, then it just gets boring. And if it's not bad enough being boring, then there's also the issue of being confusing, as various side characters pop in and out of the story but make it impossible to remember who they are. Like how is anyone supposed to recognize Daoun's brother if he has the same hairstyle and looks as Hyunwoo? Worse yet, there are often scene transitions and plot fragments that just come out of nowhere. The biggest flaw, however, might be the lack of likable characters: Daoun seems flaky and unpredictable, and not the type of woman one can easily sympathize with, while Ryumin is one of those moody bad-kid types who just goes around being a jerk. The result is an extra layer of distance between the reader and the main characters that makes it difficult to relate to them.

The art is gorgeous and the premise has potential, but when it's lacking in fundamentals like a plot direction and appealing characters, that's going to make it a lowly C-.

Vol. 4
(by Kazuko Higashiyama and Sakura Kinoshita, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Ever since Kantarou was a child, he has been able to see and talk to various spirits. Now that he's grown up, he moonlights as an exorcist, solving the problems of ghosts and demons everywhere ... with the help of Haruka, the legendary Demon-Eating tengu!
Kantarou and company are duped into exterminating youkai for a beautiful and powerful businesswoman with a nasty secret! And that's just the start of this volume's gripping revelations, as a new enemy appears on the scene. Meet Raikou Minamoto, a fellow youkai exterminator—who is determined to kill the legendary Demon-Eating tengu!"

In this volume: Kantarou goes for a walk in the mountains, while Sakura Kinoshita goes insane with the backgrounds. Seriously! The mountain excursion in the second chapter is definitely the artistic high point here, with landscape after gorgeous landscape—and it also serves as the perfect setting for Haruka's confrontation with a murderous swordsman. Ah, is there nothing as beautiful as two manly men in the heat of battle! But there's plenty of other material to suit every taste: Kantarou's investigation in the first chapter has a "Taisho noir" flavor to it, with ultra-rich clients, illicit opium deals, and a plot twist that does a remarkably good job of keeping itself hidden. Meanwhile, the bonus stories are sure to please comedy lovers, with wacky tales of Kantarou and Haruka's bickering ("I swear! I saw him cursing an effigy of me!"), a mischievous youkai that likes to play with its victims' hair, and the continuing shenanigans of comic relief Sugino and mascot character Muu-chan. Hey, exterminating spirits is serious business, but we're allowed to have a little fun, right?

Okay, so you've got your exorcist-detective whodunit, a pastoral walk in the woods, and bunch of comedy shorts. But is the series actually going anywhere? Doesn't look like it! The side stories actually take up a good third of of the book, leaving very little room for advancement of the main storyline—sure, Raikou shows up for a spell and challenges Haruka, but it's hardly the mind-blowing experience that one might have been expecting. And this is the maddening thing: there is obviously a dark behind-the-scenes scheme where people are after Haruka, but this volume only ever hints and teases at it, dishing out a few pages of foreplay before going right back to Kantarou's Bureau of Supernatural Investigation. If we could just get one full chapter solely focused on Haruka ... In fact, if we could just get one chapter that was focused, period, that'd be nice too—the continual teasing and hinting of the everyone-is-out-to-get Haruka subplot results in disconnected scene transitions and odd leaps of logic. So basically, there's not enough main story in this volume, and the main story that does show up is hard to follow. Talk about unsatisfying.

There's some dramatic stuff, some funny stuff, and some action-packed stuff—but it all just feels so shallow. This volume gets a barely-above-average C+.

Vol. 1
(by Coharu Sakuraba, Kodansha, ¥514)

"The three Minami sisters (Haruka, Kana and Chiaki) live together, taking care of each other. With nobody to answer to but themselves and each other, the three sisters get up to some very odd shenanigans."

What's better than one Yotsuba? How about three Yotsubas! All right, so maybe it doesn't quite measure up to the greatness that is Yotsuba&!, but Minami-ke's wacky portrait of family life comes pretty damn close. This is about as perfectly balanced of a comedy ensemble as you'll ever get—middle child Kana as the nutcase troublemaker, precocious little Chiaki always telling her off, and motherly but naïve Haruka trying to keep the house in order. Along with perfect character balance comes perfect pacing as well: 10 pages per chapter might seem too short at first, but each bite-sized skit fits just right. And here's the critical part: the humor is actually fresh and funny. "If you're so good at math, why don't you just become a calculator!" says Kana when comparing her test scores to a classmate. Or how about when she misinterprets a classmate's love confession as a gang member's challenge? Or when Chiaki tries to understand the "funny things" between boys and girls? There's just no telling what each situation will lead to, and that's what makes it so much fun. Out of all the entries in the "cute girls doing random crap" genre, this is one of the few that actually works.

Guess who doesn't know how to draw backgrounds? That's right, Coharu Sakuraba has just stopped caring! Not only is this series lacking in backgrounds (school desks and home furnishings barely count), but tone and texture are also absent—basically, it's just a notch above crude lineart. Even the paneling relies on the same old square and rectangular patterns over and over, and there are a number of punchlines that would have worked so much better with a more dynamic angle. (Kana's killer pivot-leg kick just doesn't feel emphatic enough.) The humor itself also falters every now and then, falling into formulaic traps—why, of course they had to have a beach chapter, for that is what all-girl comedies do. Thanks, but I'd still rather have Kana yelling at her friend to turn herself into a calculator.

A touch of Yotsuba&! and Strawberry Marshmallow, but with its own loopy twist—if you like your humor in a cute and offbeat style, then come move in with the Minami sisters.

I have always been wary of "By the creator of" taglines ever since I foolishly tried Miki Aihara's Tokyo Boys and Girls after Hot Gimmick (TB&G predates Aihara's big hit by several years; apparently Aihara spent those several years figuring out how to not suck). Our next contributing reader, Carlyn Pocalyko, learned that lesson after picking up Rizelmine:

(by Yukiru Sugisaki, Tokyopop, $9.99)

About a few years ago, when I just got started into reading DNAngel, I read on Tokyopop's online site that they were releasing Rizelmine, proudly boasting "From the creator of DNAngel!" I figured, "Well, I like DNAngel a lot, so this should be good, and judging from the synopsis, the plot seems kind of cute, right?"

Hoo boy, was I EVER WRONG.

What Tokyopop didn't tell me was that the main female character Rizel is a 13 year old nanomachine android made by the government, she looks like she's 6, and for some unexplained reason, she needs an understanding to love. So the Japanese government forces Tomonori Iwaki, a rude, punkish, 15 year old, to be Rizel's husband. But wait! It seems that Iwaki only likes OLDER women (like 18+), so he says no, and Rizel starts crying nitroglycerin tears that decimate his house (and get used to that running gag). Hence the two of them start living together as husband and wife.

The problem with Rizelmine isn't its tried and true story about how two crazy kids get engaged to one another, but the way it seems to present actions that would be considered "horrifying" as romantic comedy. And by that, I mean running jokes of Tomonori punching Rizel "halfway across Japan" and Rizel enjoying it (did I mention she looks like a six year old?), Rizel throwing a tantrum and unleashing explosive tears and teddy-bear missiles, Tomonori unleashing verbal abuse and insults about how "underdeveloped" Rizel is, and the somewhat sneaky (and disturbing) fanservice that Rizel is given throughout this one-volume-too-long manga book. I guess the only thing I should be grateful for is that there wasn't a long, drawn out bath scene between Rizel and Tomonori, like in the anime (which I read about online after the manga scarred me for life), or else I would've pulled a hara-kiri right in my local Borders.

Near the end, Rizelmine tries to throw in a bunch of half-baked explanations about character development and story, but for the most part, it's just a bunch of empty cliches you'll find in many other manga like this out there, only better done. I guess in its defense the art is cute, but that's like saying the best part of a kick in the stomach is the numbness you feel.

Tokyopop should know better than this. Avoid at all costs.

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 an e-mail 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! NOTE: Entries may be edited for grammar and formatting.

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