Haripota Hogwarts Cram School

by Carlo Santos,

No time to talk! Got reviews to write. Still amazed that Tite Kubo is coming to Comic-Con!

(by Akira Toriyama, Viz Media, $7.99)

"Paifu, a half-vampire half-werekoala, is always getting into trouble with his best buddy, José the ghost. But when the Monster Flu sweeps through town, the fun and games are over. If the monsters don't get the medicine soon, everyone will die! With all the adults sick, it's up to the kids to save the day!
Paifu and José are off on a big adventure, but will they get the medicine in time ... or will they become victims themselves?!"

If you thought Akira Toriyama only knew how to draw spiky-haired, constipated-looking guys grunting at each other (and video game characters), then Cowa! comes as a pleasant surprise. This kid-friendly one-shot is a celebration of the cute-horror aesthetic, emphasis on cute—even the villains are bungling and adorable in their own way. The momentum really gets going once Paifu and friends set out to retrieve the monsters' medicine; it's a classic fairy-tale adventure involving deep forests and tall mountains and wacky creatures at every turn. A sense of humor throughout the story (fart jokes anyone?) also adds to the bounciness and fun. The real hero of the story, though, ends up being one of the supporting cast members: ex-sumo wrestler "The Volcano," who turns out to be a lovable grumpy guy with his fighting strength and loyalty to the kids. Clean, rectangular panels make this easy reading—which should be expected considering the target audience—yet the action scenes still crackle with Toriyama's dynamic style.

It may be a cute little adventure, but that's also what makes it feel inadequate at times. For those who like their manga with style and flair, this doesn't really bring any; the simple lines and pudgy characters would be more at home in the Sunday strips (and yes, I know there's a whole demographic of kodomo manga for stuff like this). An even more glaring flaw, however—and one that isn't subject to personal taste—is the overuse of solid screentones. What's the point of having simple, kid-friendly artwork when you're just going to obscure it with 10 different shades of gray? Even the full-color first chapter suffers; the entire episode takes place at night, which apparently is an excuse for making everything eye-squintingly dark. Then there's the story, which goes through the usual heroic-quest paces but never really puts the heroes to the test ("Oh, I didn't really mean to kill you"). But that's what you get for trying to fit a kids' story into one volume.

It's pretty fun, with an entertaining cast of characters on a wild adventure, but the artistic flaws and lack of anything deeper make it a C+.

(by Atsushi Suzuki, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Kokuyo and Harika are a little unusual—and not just because they're sorcery students. They're Obsidians, wizards who must use enchanted swords to help them cast spells. Their fellow students think Obsidians are inferior to 'normal' wizards. But Kokuyo and Harika have something that their cohorts don't: the power of friendship!"

Alternate title: Magic for Physics Nerds! The principles of sorcery in Haridama sound more like potential theory than anything, but that's what sets it apart from other spell-blasting adventures. With the story's intricate yin-and-yang magic system, apprentices Kokuyo and Harika often have to come up with clever solutions to defeat various challenges. And there's certainly no shortage of challenges here: a deadly forest creature, a raging lizard, even a giant enemy crab! (Kokuyo strikes its weak point for massive damage.) Rival wizard Nekome also steals the show whenever he appears, making romantic advances toward Harika and ragging on Kokuyo for maximum hilarity. Best of all, the story in this one-shot volume ends on a high note, with Kokuyo and Harika passing their entry-level magic exams in the most explosive, action-packed way possible. Dynamic artwork also brings these magical battles to life, with plenty of attention to detail in the backgrounds, creatures, costume design and special effects. One thing for sure: it's different enough that it's not going to be called a magic-school ripoff anytime soon.

It may have enough quirks to be different from other magic-school tales, but do those differences necessarily make it better? The entire first chapter (which takes up 1/4 of the full story) is a mess: it tries to explain the yin-and-yang magic system using the most awkward opening narration possible, and then dives into an equally awkward exposition of the relationship between Kokuyo, Harika and their teacher. Then it has another go at explaining the magic system, using an actual battle as an example ... but that just makes it more confusing with Obsidians and swords and whatnot. The middle chapters are a little more comprehensible, focusing more on characters and adventure, but they also feel trivial at times—fighting off a giant lizard is campy at best, and the whole face-off with Nekome is more comic relief than anything. It's only in the magic-exam finale that we see any real development in the characters, and by then it's too late: you've just wasted 192 pages on a generic magic-school story that only seems different from the rest because the magical theory is too complicated for its own good.

Some manga are designed to make you think ... this one is designed to make you rub your head in frustration trying to understand its convoluted system of magic. Not much more than a C.

Vol. 6
(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.
Ôtani wins tickets to the Umibozu concert and asks Risa to go out with him. Could this be the answer to her dreams—their first date?! But as fate would have it, Ôtani gets sick the day before the concert. Concerned (about her friend and the date), Risa visits his sick bed and gets her first kiss! Or does she? Was it an accident? Does Ôtani even remember it?"

How much do I love Love*Com? Enough to review it yet again! And Volume 6 is certainly worthy of the attention: this one marks the arrival of bishounen sensation Kuniumi "Mighty/Maity" Maitake, who singlehandedly takes the plot in a whole new direction. As an individual character, he certainly fills the series' comedy quotient with his over-the-top chivalry, but even more than that, he plants the seeds of jealousy in Ôtani's heart. Now that counts as a major plot development, especially since the storyline was in danger of getting repetitive. Meanwhile, all the other stuff that's made the series so enjoyable can still be found here: the biting dialogue that rockets back and forth between Risa and Ôtani, those moments of emotional depth where time seems to stand still (Ôtani's "She means nothing to me!" scene is an absolute heartbreaker), and those dead-on facial expressions that capture the comedy, romance, drama and everything in between. With stylish art and instantly recognizable characters, this portrait of quirky high school love is a pleaser to the eyes and to the emotions.

Major new character in a well-established series: useful contribution, or desperation ploy? The arrival of Mighty may have introduced the jealousy factor, but it doesn't change the fact that Risa is still chasing after Ôtani and that he's still being a bonehead about it. Obviously, the series can only continue to run as long as both parties fail to reach a romantic conclusion ... which is perhaps why it's so irritating having to read through things like the "non-kiss kiss" or the machinations of the Mighty Fan Club (amusing as they may be). In addition to this roundabout Loves-Me-Loves-Me-Not cycle, there's also the dialogue that seems to revisit the same points over and over again. Not that there's anything wrong with coming up with creative insults and height jokes, but the stuff that actually matters—recognizing one's feelings and recognizing the feelings of others—never seems to go anywhere and ends up as verbal fluff. When did the complexity of love turn into dull repetition?

A hilarious new character arrives on the scene, but the overall plot continues to spin its wheels in place, so it averages out to a B.

Vol. 10
(by Toshihiko Kobayashi, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Kazuki may be Mugi's best friend, but he's also the strangest guy in Japan. Case in point: Kazuki has never tried to kiss his girlfriend. So Mugi and his friends come up with a wacky 'Super Duper Love Strategy' to get Kazuki in the mood—a plan that involves a trip to the pool, skimpy swimsuits, and, best of all, a chance for Mugi to snuggle up to his crush, Yuu!"

Remember back when Kazuki was just the token pervy-best-friend character? Ever since he hooked up with Manami, he's shown a different side and gotten more interesting, as the Super Duper Love Strategy chapter shows. In charge of the plan is Yuu's little sister Tsukasa, who also turns out to be one of the more entertaining side characters in her comic relief role. It's too bad that she drops out of the story later on, but another girl steps in to provide the laughs: Mugi's new stepmother Mako, who just happens to be inappropriately young and ridiculously well-endowed. Feel free to laugh along as the boys around town react to Mugi's new mom, unless of course you're busy "reacting" to Mugi's new mom as well. After all, Pastel is all about being easy on the eyes: the clean layouts, the small-town backgrounds, and of course, the girls. Always the girls.

Welcome to another installment of The Amazing Fanservice Romance Where Nothing Ever Happens! The first chapter is a perfect example of this: Mugi is suddenly called in to run the restaurant where he works part-time, and Yuu shows up to help him, and ... they do the job. End of story. Things go even further downhill in the second half of the book as we get introduced to couple of characters that are about as appealing as getting kicked in the privates. A day trip to Osaka leads to Yuu calling up an old guy friend of hers, and watching Mugi trudge along as the third wheel is pure torture. It certainly doesn't help that he has the worst kind of wimpy-weed personality, forcing readers to sit through his self-flagellating internal monologue. Mako is also maddening in her own way (no 23-year-old should behave with that kind of impropriety), and the very idea that she'll be here for several more chapters is unforgivable. It's not like these are even the kind of characters you love to hate—you just end up hating them and wishing they would go far, far away.

All the bishoujo cheesecake art in the world can't save this from some seriously irritating characters and a directionless plot. At least it's easy to read, which gets it a D.

Vol. 1
(by Yuko Osada, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Kakashi is a small-town boy with a big dream: to travel around the world. He's so determined to leave his little island home that he stows away onboard a marvelous zeppelin—one that just happens to be loaded with treasure and a gang of ruthless criminals!"

Chances are, you looked at the title and thought: "Toto!? Where's Dorothy?" Well, she shows up in Chapter 3—and yes, one of the most charming things about the series is how it openly riffs on The Wizard of Oz. This is a classic fairytale quest taken to new heights, with perilous airship action, breathless escapes from the military, and a cute little dog who may be more than meets the eye. The story wastes little time in whisking Kakashi from one adventure to the next, even if that means leaving other characters behind; the important thing is keeping up the pace and always finding something fresh to discover. That freshness and sense of adventure also comes out in the artwork and world design, which puts a bold-lined spin on the modern-industrial setting. (Or rather, as you will find out in one of the later chapters, postmodern...) Dramatic angles and explosive action scenes are a fact of life as well, and when Kakashi goes dangling 10,000 feet in the air, that's when the name of the series proves itself: it truly is "the wonderful adventure!"

There's nothing wonderful about an adventure where the hero doesn't even know where he's going. He can shout it out as much as he wants, but "I've got to see the world!" is just as meaningless as "I've got to get stronger!" It isn't until halfway through this volume that Kakashi gets some sense of purpose—Dorothy happens to be on the way to the city of Emerald—but even that takes a back seat to getting into random scrapes. In fact, by constantly leaving side characters behind and jumping from one adventure to the next, the story loses any sense of cohesion: Kakashi befriends the mobsters, only to become separated when they get into an airship crash? Well, that was a waste of designing 11 characters (unless he meets them again later on). Even the introduction of Dorothy, who looks set to be Kakashi's permanent traveling partner, seems like an arbitrary decision: "Oh, hey, this series needs a cute girl, so let's throw one in." I wouldn't go so far as to say that the story is clichéd—the setting and the Oz-derived names are distinctive enough to stand on their own—but it seriously lacks any sense of purpose.

The bold artwork and fast-paced adventures are fun, but the story's directionless meandering makes it a C unless it gets better later on.

ICHINENSEI NI NACCHATTARA (When He Turned Into a First-Grader)
Vol. 1
(by Masakazu Ooi, Houbunsha, ¥590)

Iori Takatou was an ordinary high school boy ... until the day he got into an accident trying to save a little girl from an oncoming truck. Unfortunately for him, his life was left in the hands of Yume, a perverted female scientist who decided to restore Iori in the body of a first-grade elementary schoolgirl! Now Iori must learn to live life as a first-grader, but that's only the start of his troubles. The girl he likes from high school is Yume's younger sister, the girl whose life he saved is in the same class as him, and his "little" sister happens to be a sixth-grader at the same school! Will Iori ever return to being a normal teenage boy?

Just when you thought they'd done every possible body-switch and gender-switch ... here comes one that plays right into the hands of the sexual-predator demographic of the fandom. But what's really scary is that it's actually pretty funny and original. Imagine, if you will, the horrors of learning to use a traditional (i.e. hole-in-the-ground) toilet as a girl, or trying to understand the law of the land when it comes to grade-school crushes, or coming face-to-face with the fact that one's "little sister" is now a "big sister" (and starting to go through puberty). Where other body-switch comedies rely on personality differences or gender jokes to earn their laughs, this one really emphasizes the age difference, and that's what sets it apart from the clones and imitators. A simple, fluid sense of layout helps as well—paneling is uncluttered and straightforward, and the art style avoids any unnecessary flourishes aside from the super-cute characters. After all, jokes come first in a comedy series, and this one is intent on making you laugh as hard as possible at a high school boy trapped in a grade school girl's body.

Sick, sick, sick. Sure, fans will be happy to tell you about how the age factor makes this series unique, but what they won't tell you is how it's only too happy to throw half-dressed 7-year-old girls out there for visual consumption. Is it really necessary to constantly bring up the subject of panties for a cheap laugh? Is it really necessary to have a physical exam, a toilet scene and a swimming pool chapter all in the first volume? Although not overtly pornographic (My Balls is way ahead on that curve), it's highly suggestive in places, which is a shame because it could still pull off the same humor without all the pantyshots and undressing. But even if you can look past matters of taste, there are other flaws as well: the buggy-eyed, big-headed character designs, for example, which can look disturbingly unnatural at times. The plot, too, is content to rely on shallow episodic gags, and its one attempt at a more serious tone (involving Iori's sister) seems more like sentimental fluff than real content.

Brushes a little too close to the subgenre that dare not speak its name, but the unique effect of body-switching into someone ten years younger definitely brings out some good laughs.

These days, you can't swing a dead cat around without hitting a boy hero who's on a epic quest. What is far rarer, however, is when a series about such a boy turns out to be original and interesting. Anna Fanti wants shounen adventure fans to know that Hunter x Hunter is one of those quality titles:

(by Yoshihiro Togashi, Viz Media, $7.99 ea.)

Hunter x Hunter is probably the best shounen you've never read. Infamous for its long hiatuses and unpronounceable character names, Hunter x Hunter is a long term favourite in Japan, but criminally ignored in the US in favour of juggernauts such as Bleach and Naruto. So what's it about?

It's the story of a young boy named Gon Freecss and his quest to find his father, a legendary 'Hunter' named Ging Freecss (see what I meant about the names!). Along with his best friend/life partner Killua, and other friends Kurapika and Leorio, Gon's adventures take him all over the world, from the urban city of Yorknew to the terrifying jungles of NGL, facing foes such as mutant ants and a sadistic magician. As the story progresses, things become much more personal for the characters and the plot becomes thicker, darker and quite shocking. The more recent arc—the Chimera Ant arc—is definitely not for the faint hearted or those with a weak stomach.

Of course, it's not a Shounen Jump manga without a few battles, and Hunter x Hunter is no exception. These battles, however, are generally short, fast-paced and ridiculously creative. Characters have attacks based on a dart board, bank interest, rock-paper-scissors and (my personal favourite) a vacuum cleaner. Nobody uses cheap power-ups a la Dragonball Z, nor does anyone shout: "I'm only using 25.8% of my overall power!" or the like. What you get instead is brutal, gory and surprisingly enjoyable.

Perhaps Hunter x Hunter's strong point is its amoral characters and unusual plot. Anyone who's read more than three shounen manga titles can tell you the characters and plot situations that crop up again and again. While this series has plenty of familiar situations (the exam arc, the tournament arc, the… collectable card game arc?) the characterisation pitfalls are quickly avoided. While Gon fits the bill as 'excitable young protagonist' and Kurapika gets 'cute boy with dark vengeful past,' the rest of the cast don't fit into any typical shounen roles. One group of villains all break down and cry when one of their members is killed, the twelve-year-old boys act like twelve-year-old boys and the only thing that even resembles a love interest is a knife-wielding maniac with jealousy issues. Oh dear.

The main significant flaw of the series, however, is the artwork. When it's good, Togashi's artwork is fantastic, but when it's bad, you have to squint at the page to guess which blob's which and what that squiggle over there represents. It's less noticeable in the volume releases, but if you're reading the magazine scans online, it doesn't look nice at all. So do yourselves a favour and go out and grab it in the shops. You won't regret it.

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! NOTE: Submissions may be edited for grammar and formatting.

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