Welcome to the Host Club

by Carlo Santos,

More cultural collision. Most nights, I like to wind down with a few rounds of multiplayer Call of Duty 4. Now, shooting videogame army guys with videogame guns is all well and good, but one night I noticed something a little odd. Players with distinctively Japanese usernames started showing up in the matches—and by that I mean, usernames/nicknames that actual Japanese people would use, not fake anime names like Gaara10238 or SSJMichaelsama. Sure enough, my observations were confirmed when I heard a couple of them chatting to each other on their headsets. Then I turned around to check my kitchen clock, which informed me that it was 2 in the morning. Which would be about ... 6 p.m. in Japan.

This led me to two vital conclusions:

1. Despite being commonly associated with RPGs, dating sims and all things Nintendo, Japan has its fair share of first-person shooter players too.
2. When Japanese gamers start showing up online, it's time for bed.

Vol. 8
(by Minari Endoh, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"After Rahzel's father kicked her out of the house to test her magic abilities in the real world, she embarked on the adventure of a lifetime when she joined the formidable Alzeid and his search for the woman who killed his father. They finally make it to the town where Alzeid hopes to gather clues—but will he like the answers he finds? The truth behind the night Rahzel was abandoned in the woods is finally revealed—and at long last, Rahzel's father shows his face!"

Revelation! That's the name of the game in the latest Dazzle, which features more dramatic flashbacks than you can shake a stick at. Ever wanted to know why our heroine had a different name when she was younger? Or what kind of father would willfully kick her out of the house? It's all revealed in this volume, which goes for the family-drama angle and pulls it off pretty well in a number of scenes. Present-day events take a serious turn too, when Razhel's dad shows up out of nowhere and demands that she now come home. Of course, she doesn't want to let go of the friends she's made, and the poignancy of the last few chapters really does touch the heart in a way that the series hasn't done before. Occasional touches of gag humor also help to balance out the serious business (in this volume: the wackiest game of poker ever!), and visual appeal comes in the form of the characters' unique fashion sense.

Goodness, don't the characters in this story ever shut up? Bland, roundabout dialogue continues to be the series' most glaring weakness, and it ends up hurting everything else in the manga too. Pacing slows down to a crawl when we've got characters blabbering with exchanges like "Oh, they went off to that village!" "Then maybe I should follow them to that village!" "Yes, I recommend you go to that village!" (paraphrased for brevity) ... and often times it's hard to tell who's even talking. In fact, much of the volume is a horrific drag with the main characters wandering around and chatting with others, along with scene changes and chapter endings that make little sense. Visually, the frequent blocks of dialogue also hurt the reading experience—cluttering up the panels, as well forcing readers to focus on the words rather than the art, thus defeating the point of comics. Not that the art is really worth focusing on anyway: once you've gotten over how cool everyone's outfits are, it turns out that most scenes involve people standing around talking (apart from a couple of flashbacks and critical action moments). And this is supposed to be an adventure? I see no adventuring taking place.

Even as it presents some fascinating revelations about the characters, it does it in the most boring and hard-to-read way possible. Decent story, terrible presentation, C because I'm feeling nice.

Vol. 1
(by Minene Sakurano, Tokyopop, $12.99)

"You never know what surprises await in this story about a befuddled boy and his clueless goddess!
One day, Tasuke, an average high school boy, receives a mysterious ring from his father. Much to his surprise, when he gazes into the dazzling jewel, a beautiful moon goddess appears—and she claims to be his protector! But having been locked away for a thousand years, she has a lot to learn about the modern world..."

The 2-volumes-in-1 packaging might make it look long and challenging, but Mamotte Shugogetten is as light as it gets, a true pick-up-and-read title in every sense of the phrase. Choose a chapter, any chapter, and you'll find Tasuke trying to acclimate his new personal goddess Shao to the modern world, often with amusing results ("Look! There are little people inside the TV!"). Things really start to pick up once the supporting cast arrives—school troublemaker Shouko would love to teach Tasuke and Shao the facts of life (wink wink); smarmy shrine priest Izumo would like to take Shao all for himself; and you can just imagine the chaos when Shao's sun-goddess counterpart shows up. Ultimately, it's the conflicts between characters that lead to laughs, as well as a few spots of romance and drama. The cute, cartoony art style fits well with the series' lighthearted ambitions—simple lines and layouts make this a quick, fun read.

How is it that a series created in 2003 looks like it was drawn in the 90's with a premise ripped straight out of the 80's? (Kosuke Fujishima calling...) Yes, Mamotte Shugogetten feels decidedly retro, and not in a good way—everything in this first volume has a worn-out, been-there-done-that feel to it, borrowed from romantic comedies of years gone by and stripped of any originality. Even if you weren't familiar with the impossibly-wimpy-guy-meets-impossibly-naïve-girl genre, this would still be a very poor example of it: the main characters lack any redeeming qualities, as Tasuke's weak-willed patheticness is just that—pathetic—and Shao's mindless innocence is too stupid to believe. Worse yet, each chapter applies time-honored formulas and manages to suck all the fun out of them: a trip to the beach turns into forgettable romantic mush; a New Year's shrine visit becomes an exercise in watching the main couple not kiss. It's like they took everything that was kind of irritating about Oh My Goddess! and made it even worse! And it's not like it even has strong artwork to make up for it—the cute and cartoony look may be easy on the eyes, but the hairstyles and outfits are a joke, the visual gags are the lowest level of slapstick, and Shao's entire range of expression appears to be googly sad eyes or googly happy eyes. I guess that's the kind of depth one would expect from a series with all the intelligence of a potted plant.

At least it was quick and easy to get through—but that's only because the story is loaded with such mindless, brain-dead fluff that all it deserves is a D.

Vol. 12
(by Tomoko Ninomiya, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Paris is full of young lovers and aspiring artists. Nodame and Chiaki happen to be both, but soon they may have to make a choice! It seems that the more time Nodame spends with Chiaki, the more her piano playing hits a sour note. Will Nodame have to choose between music and love?"

Can we just skip to the second half of this volume? Because that's where all the good stuff is to be found—namely, the chapter where Nodame and company meet the artist who paints music into pictures, the chapter where Kuroki the oboist reunites with the gang, and the part where Nodame starts studying Bach (which is where my inner piano-fanboy comes out). Nodame's struggle to find her creative voice is the highlight of these chapters, as expressed through visual metaphor, character interaction, and Nodame's own idiosyncratic ramblings. Basically, she's trying to figure out the purpose of her musical life after getting a beatdown from her professor—which is much more intellectually stimulating than sitting through yet another competition arc. There's also plenty of emotion in store with the continuing up-and-down relationship between Nodame and Chiaki, with most of it coming in sweet and subtle ways like holding hands or teasing each other. The straightforward art style and low-to-moderate dialogue also make for smooth reading—wherever you are in the story, it flows along like a Mozart sonata, elegant and timeless.

On the other hand ... many of Mozart's lesser sonatas tended to be patchwork pieces of random melodic themes slapped together. Which is what a lot of this volume feels like, jumping between Chiaki's conducting tour and Nodame's piano studies and the non-musical romantic stuff and whatever the side characters are up to. See, at least the competitions provided a framework and a goal for the plot, and without that, all we've got now is a bunch of musicians mucking about and discussing the finer points of theory. Worse yet, even the art quality in the music-playing scenes seems to have taken a nosedive—Chiaki's conducting sequences in the early parts of the volume are just a collection of assorted poses, with none of the eye-catching metaphors and effects that have appeared in previous volumes. Nodame's piano playing isn't so hot, either: she just hits the keys for a couple of scenes while musical notation appears in the background, and we all know Tomoko Ninomiya can draw better than that. Maybe this substandard art is supposed to be part of Nodame's creative struggle, but frankly, in a series that's supposed to be about the joy of making music, there doesn't seem to be a lot of joy coming out of these latest chapters.

Time to be brutally honest: there have been much better volumes of Nodame Cantabile than this one. The plotting is all over the place, the performance scenes are dull, and the enjoyment level isn't much more than a C+.

Vol. 10
(by Bisco Hatori, Viz Media, $8.99)

"In this screwball romantic comedy, Haruhi, a poor girl at a rich kids' school, is forced to repay an $80,000 debt by working for the school's swankiest all-male club—as a boy! There she discovers just how wealthy the six members are and how different the rich are from everybody else...
Ever since the day he helped her up from a nasty tumble, Black Magic Club member Reiko Kanazuki has been obsessed with Hunny. She is devoting all her knowledge of the dark arts to curse him and steal his soul. Will the sweetest member of the Host Club fall victim to her spells?"

Ouran at its best when it plays the culture-clash card, and the first chapter in this volume is a classic example: goth kid tries to win Hunny's heart by applying grade-school love charms as if they were ominous curses. Gotta love those crazy kids from the Black Magic Club! There's also plenty of the usual rich-folk-meet-common-folk humor, with the Host Club going on fact-finding activities like karaoke ("They have rooms this small?!"), riding the commuter train ("Look! All the houses are so close together!") and holding a school sports festival. The other key ingredient to the humor is comic exaggeration, and nobody does it better than lead guy Tamaki, whose flamboyant outbursts are always good for a laugh. But amid this lighthearted banter lies some serious stuff as well—the multi-chapter arc involving Misuzu and Mei (Haruhi's dad's friend and his distant daughter) is a poignant stroke of family drama, proving that Ouran can touch the heart as well as the funnybone. Haruhi finally makes a friend in her own economic bracket, Tamaki shows his caring side, and a strained father-daughter relationship starts to heal. Ah, so sweet!

The humor and dialogue may be a winner, but the artwork ... not so much. As line drawings, the pretty boys and visual gags look fine, but then everything gets screentoned into submission—which means page after page of gray with no black-and-white contrasts to tell things apart. The vague backgrounds and layouts also make it hard to follow the story sometimes: Haruhi's house and the Host Club HQ and the school classrooms all start to look alike when there are few furnishings or interiors to put things in context. (One exception, however: the wonderfully rendered Hitachiin family house.) Oh, and don't bother looking for main-character development in this volume; Haruhi and Tamaki's relationship continues to move at glacier speed, and the twins only get a handful of scenes to address their personal issues. Meanwhile, two side characters get a whole arc devoted to them. Maybe it's time to re-align the series' priorities?

Despite this volume's shortcomings, there are still plenty of laughs to be had from the culture-clash humor. Entertaining enough for a B.

Vol. 6
(by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and Kendi Oiwa, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Satou's hallucinations of an Angel-Misaki are getting worse! Having run away from home, he now turns to arcades and pachinko bars for relief. But he soon learns that these are expensive habits, and that his escapism comes at a cost he might not be willing to pay. Feeling alone, with no one to turn to, especially now that Yamazaki's got his own girl problems, Satou is at an all-time low. Where will he turn? Fates are intertwined and secrets revealed in this, the next volume of Welcome to the NHK!"

This dark comedy may have lost its comedy edge, but that doesn't make it any less compelling. Volume 6 of NHK does a fine job of weaving the various characters' subplots together, creating a unique drama of desperate young people in need. No longer just Satou's story, everyone gets equal playing time here as we follow their personal troubles: Yamazaki's ill-fated fling with an aspiring voice actress, Misaki's desperate suicidal stunt, the loveless marriage of Satou's former senpai Kashiwagi, and of course, Satou's own stint with homeless life and trying to get back on his feet. This volume is a dizzying, soap-operatic sequence of twists and coincidences, pulling the reader in every direction to find out what happens next. A number of poignant flashback scenes also add more depth to the characters—most notably Yamazaki and his troubled otaku life. Spacious paneling and artwork make it easy to follow this wild, twisting ride, and the characters' many facial expressions are as entertaining as ever. It's come a long way from Volume 1, but with these story developments, NHK proves that it still has plenty to say about the ills of modern society.

Why didn't they just quit when the series was still riding high on cultural satire? As the storyline sinks further and further into melodrama, it resorts to coincidences and chance encounters that are just too ridiculous to believe. You'd think there were only seven people in all of Tokyo the way the main characters keep running into each other. Clearly, we've reached the stage where random plot twists are being thrown in just to prolong the series, rather than to arrive at a proper goal. It's funny that the main character is wandering around trying to find his purpose in life, because that's exactly what the plot seems to be doing: wandering around trying to find its narrative purpose. Jump to one character here, pick another one over there ... all right, time for another random plot twist! Yeah, that's not how good storytelling works. Let's hope Volume 7 turns out a little less haphazard.

If only it had a better idea of where to go next in the story. But it's still a gripping read full of pathos and insanity, and in my world, that's worth a B.

(by Judith Park, Yen Press, $10.95)

"Yoshitaka Kogirei isn't very successful with girls, which wears him out a lot. His new classmate, Yagate, on the contrary, seems to attract the ladies with ease. Frustrated to no end, Yoshitaka asks Yagate for his recipe for success—and the master agrees to give him a few tips! When Yoshitaka learns that Yagate is a judge in the school's upcoming beauty contest, his new friend proposes that Yoshitaka should join him by standing in for a sick member of the judging committee. But when his dream girl steps on stage, Yoshitaka can no longer keep his macho temperament in check—and everything goes downhill from there!"

Like David Hasselhoff, Judith Park is a big deal in Germany—but that's about where the similarities end. Park's first American-licensed work is relentlessly modern and cool, with stylish characters and a fast-moving plot. Y Square's recipe for success involves taking the best of manga (complex love polygons; hints of BL; tsundere) and manhwa (impeccable fashion sense; bold and outspoken characters) and adding some quirks that make it its own unique story. Who would have guessed, for example, the real reason why Yagate is so willing to make friends with Yoshitaka? Or the unexpected directions that Yoshi's relationships take as he tries to get the right girl? But don't assume it's some kind of harem romp—the female characters are given just as much opportunity take the lead, like in the final chapter's bittersweet flashback, or simply punching and kicking their way through the storyline until they beat some sense into Yoshitaka. It's a lively, gender-equal school romance, with solid artwork and just the right dose of fanservice (for both girls AND boys). All in all, watching these characters become friends and lovers is a whole lot of fun.

Wait ... that was it? Seriously, I double-checked the cover just to make sure there wasn't a volume number. Entertaining as the plot may be, it ends up cutting off at a really awkward point in the story—Yoshitaka was finally starting to have some romantic success, and suddenly it's all "Our adventure is just beginning!" ... fade out. But even more disorienting, perhaps, is the culturally ambiguous pan-Asian setting: the guys clearly have Japanese names, but then the school name and the girls are Korean, and some new Brazilian student shows up, and I really hope they're attending an international school because that's the only way this would be remotely plausible. Why not just German kids attending a German school? "Write what you know," right? There's also more awkwardness to be found in some of the plot and scene transitions, plus occasionally sloppy artwork and layouts (you can tell where Park got lazy). But hey, I heard there's a Y Square Plus, so there may be hope yet.

Woefully short and incomplete, but still better than half the stuff Japan churns out in this genre. Most importantly, it's just plain fun.

It takes a full spectrum of tastes and opinions to create the diverse makeup of the fan community. And sometimes, that can mean opinions that go against the grain! In a remarkable feat of contrarianism, V. Kraetke dishes out the hate for Yotsuba&! in the latest Reader's Choice:

(by Kiyohiko Azuma, ADV Manga, $9.99 ea.)

I've read nothing but rave reviews of this manga, full of such words as "irresistible," "heartwarming" and "outstanding." And for the life of me, I cannot understand why. Why do people like this drivel so much? Are we so starved for a break from the endless psychic schoolboy angst stories that we'll lap up brainless tripe such as Yotsuba&! without question?

While working my way through volume 1 of Yotsuba&!, the words that came to my mind were "shrill," "annoying" and "asinine." As well as multiple expletives and dejected sighs. The manga is about a small child that reacts to everything she encounters with spastic bewilderment. At the start of the book, she moves into a new home. Her new neighbours are a trio of girls who are equally prone to fits of hysterical flailing at the slightest provocation. And so, we're treated to Yotsuba and friends engaging in such thrilling activities as ringing doorbells and going shopping, with lots of hysterical flailing and woefully unfunny "wacky" faces along the way. It's a very one-note experience, and that one note happens to be a piercing screech. You can imagine how that gets tiresome very quickly.

As for the art, I believe Kiyohiko Azuma can draw fairly well, as evidenced by the odd title page or cover illustration. He just chooses not to, as evidenced by pretty much everything else. Characters spend nearly all their time in "komickal" mode, which means their heads are rendered as featureless blobs with some minimalist doodle filling in for their faces. And someone apparently has to pull the exact same stupid, rectangular-mouthed "augh!" face at least once per page. Hilarious? More like irritating and lazy. Our friends Detail and Finesse have also left the building, leaving everything with a flat, crude and blocky look. This sort of art is usually glossed over with the euphemism "stylised," but it's high time someone called bull on that. The art looks like no effort whatsoever went into it.

Unless you also happen to be a small child that is permanently high on paint stripper fumes, or you derive some kind of bizarre satisfaction from having your intelligence repeatedly insulted, I recommend you leave Yotsuba&! well alone. As for why it's so absurdly popular, I still can't understand that, and thinking about it too much actually rather frightens me.

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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