Haruka Kanata

by Carlo Santos,

Gather 'round, children, for another True Convention Story...

I was poking around one of the toy booths at Anime Expo when, a few feet away from me, a Distinguished Elderly Gentleman walked up to one of the displays and regarded a set of figurines with great interest.

"Excuse me," said the D.E.G. to the shopkeeper, "what show are these ... er ... bunny girls from?"
"That's from ... Haruhi."
"Haruhi? That's what it's called?"
"The full name is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya," said the shopkeeper, explaining what the series was about.
"Ah ... " (and at this point I could see he was pondering it very carefully) "...and do the girls go around having their adventures while wearing these bunny outfits?"
"Actually, Haruhi makes them dress up like that to recruit people for their club in one of the episodes."
"Oh, I see ... " said the Distinguised Elderly Gentleman, clearly disappointed that he had not stumbled upon some glorious anime teeming with bunny girls.

Vol. 1
(by Rei Hiroe, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Lock 'n' load with the baddest group of mercenaries ever to hit the high seas of Southeast Asia! Aboard their World War II torpedo boat, the Black Lagoon, Dutch the Boss, Benny the Mechanic, Revy Two Hand, and Rock, the salaryman from Japan, deliver anything, anywhere. In the dangerous underworld of the Russian Mafia, Chinese triads, Colombian drug cartels, crazed assassins, and ruthless mercenaries, it's hard to know who to trust. But if you've got a delivery to make, and you don't mind a little property damage along the way, you can count on the crew of the Black Lagoon!
Rokurô Okajima is just an average Japanese salaryman, living an average life. But when he's taken hostage by the crew of the Black Lagoon, Rokurô finds himself thrown headfirst into a deadly world of outlawed heroes, brutal villains, and blazing gunfights. Where he ends up is anyone's guess, but one thing is for certain—he's in for a wild ride!"

Do one thing and do it well, they say—and Black Lagoon does action very, very well. Volume 1 is the very definition of cinematic: gunplay techniques by John Woo, explosions by Michael Bay, and a host of other visual indulgences that make it a loud, nonstop blockbuster. Good thing they printed this on oversize paper, right? Makes everything easier to see, and with Hiroe's intense, hyperkinetic layouts, you'll want to be up close to all the bullets, blood, and smoke. But gunplay don't mean a thing if the weapons aren't in the hands of someone worthy; fortunately, this series has a highly entertaining cast of characters to fill in all the key roles. Most guys will already be sold on Revy (girls + guns = instant win), but the rest of the crew has its charm as well, even pathetic loserboy Okajima, who saves the day in Chapter 1 with a solution only a whacked-out engineer could come up with. And of course, great heroes must have great adversaries, and the killer maid in the later half of the book is as badass as they come. If you thought Revy was good with a pair of guns, check out what this other girl does with an umbrella.

While this volume does take the action genre to a very high level, it's hard to say if it actually offers anything new. Admittedly, the "Pirates of the South China Sea" setting is somewhat refreshing, but the story material definitely isn't, having been ripped straight from the plotbook for crime dramas and gang wars. Heck, you can almost predict the exact moment when gunfire is going to break out, the way each chapter is paced according to formula. And even with all the familiar clichés in play, the exposition and back-story segments can still be hard to figure out, what with the "we're not going to tell you what's going on but everyone is going to speak in short, clipped lines of slangy dialogue" narrative technique. At best, the story gives off a general idea of the situation—someone wants to make a deal, while somebody else doesn't, or something like that, and then stuff explodes—but perhaps it's to be expected that details like these are going to be fudged over, because everyone just wants to get to the action anyway.

Not the greatest, not the deepest, but entertaining enough if you're up for some babes with guns. That's a B- for those keeping score.

Vol. 2
(by Tohko Mizuno, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Akane is your typical teenage girl ... until she swallows the Dragon Jewels and is transported to the Heian period of ancient Japan! There in the capital city, Akane learns that she has been foreordained to lead the people as the Priestess of the Dragon God!
But Akram, the head of the Demon Clan, has sworn death and destruction on the capital. And as Akane learns her duties as Priestess and deepens her trust in the Eight Guardians who will protect her, Akram is watching with great interest..."

Haruka didn't get off to the greatest start, dumping in all the characters at once and generally making a mess of the plot exposition—so thankfully, Volume 2 slows things down with some less confusing side stories. "The Night Cry of the Nue" is the winner here, drawing from traditional folklore and ending on a poignant note that helps to illuminate Yorihisa's personality. And the one chapter that does relate to the main storyline provides a nice spot of conflict, as a hot-tempered woman from the Demon Clan confronts Akane with a burning question—why does such an ordinary girl get to be doted on by so many hot guys? And certainly, if you're into this series for the pretty things, this volume delivers: elaborate patterned outfits, stylized floral backgrounds, and a graceful sense of line. The frequent use of vertically aligned layouts also makes for some interesting visual flow across the pages; if there's one thing you can say about the Heian era, it certainly looks different.

Wow, how bad of a series is this that 80% of Volume 2 doesn't even have anything to do with the main storyline? In fact, it's so starved for content that one of those chapters is a completely unrelated one-shot! Meanwhile, the rest is a shining exacmple of mediocrity: "Major Tachibana Likes Little Girls" (not actual title) basically wastes 30 pages to show that ... uh ... Major Tachibana likes little girls, but at least that makes sense, unlike the Shimon chapter, which does this utterly disorienting scene change ("1000 Years Earlier") and then abruptly ends 7 pages after that. Honestly, when I first read that chapter in Shôjo Beat, I thought they'd printed the wrong part of a chapter, but no, Tohko Mizuno is just that bad at planning out page count. Then there are the artistic failures, like vague or nonexistent backgrounds, action scenes that appear to have no action, and a general feeling of "I have no idea what's going on; it just looks pretty." Oh, and a technical note—it really wouldn't hurt to try this thing called line width variation.

Any moment now I'll get all the serious fans telling me that I don't "get it" because I haven't played the game. Sorry, but manga isn't supposed to require a modded PS2 to enjoy it, so it's a C for this numbingly average work.

Vol. 1
(by Natsumi Itsuki, Tokyopop, $14.99)

"In 2436 AD, young twins Thor and Rai are living on the space colony Juno. Their entire lives are turned upside down when one day they discover their parents are murdered, and then they are kidnapped and ushered to the forsaken 'Planet of the Beast King' by unknown masked men. The twins must fight for their very survival in this bizarre, harsh world, infested with giant carnivorous plants and populated with criminal outcasts from across the galaxy. And they must confront the 'Beast King' if they ever want to even hope of leaving the planet!"

This week's old-school 90's sci-fi pick ... cannot possibly suck as much as Flat Earth/Exchange. In fact, Jyu-Oh-Sei is quite the opposite of suck, an ambitious tale so epic that it must be sold in double-volume format. These 348 pages move at breakneck pace, offering turns of plot and major character deaths that most other series don't even touch until they get to Volume 15 or something. And if the idea of meaty, no-filler plotting isn't enticing enough, just look at the grandiose world Itsuki has crafted: like all the best speculative fiction, it makes us rethink science and humanity by taking what we know of Earth and twisting things around. Plants at the top of the food chain? Days and nights that last 6 months each? An elaborate tribal system of society driven by survival of the fittest? That's fantastical, mind-bending stuff for fans of "what if" scenarios. Best of all, Itsuki also has the artistic chops to show off what this planet is like: surreal plant life, never-before-seen landscapes, and heated action scenes as Thor fights to survive. When kids get transported to unreal, hostile worlds, this is how you do it.

Classic manga can provide a refreshing change from the modern-day norm, but that means also having to put up with all the stylistic quirks that come with it. Seriously, there is no way Thor and Rai can possibly be more androgynous than they are right now, and the fact that all the men on the Beast Planet keep coming on to them with the fetishistic cheek-stroking makes it even more creepy. But at least they have reasonable hairstyles, unlike the man they call Third, whose waist-length ponytail apparently makes him the most desirable fellow on the planet. Aesthetic issues aside, the artwork does go a bit heavy on dull gray screentones as well, occasionally hampering readability. Meanwhile, on the story side, the romantic plotlines are probably the least convincing part of the series: Thor's relationship with female warrior Tiz never really seems to catch sparks, and the drama between the leaders of other tribes isn't so hot either. Gimme more planetary survival and intense hand-to-hand combat, because that's where Jyu-Oh-Sei's real strengths lie.

A solid entry into the space-adventure genre with unique concepts, an eye-catching setting, and an exciting story worthy of a B.

Vol. 16
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Johan is a cold and calculating killer with a mysterious past, and brilliant Dr. Kenzo Tenma is the only one who can stop him! Conspiracy and serial murder open the door to a compelling, intricately woven plot in this masterpiece manga thriller.
Tenma is lying low, but his brief respite is doomed to be short-lived. Milan, one of Tenma's new friends, is planning to assassinate a man with deep ties to 'Red Rose Mansion.' Can Tenma dissuade him from this drastic line of action? Also, a seemingly unrelated strong of murders by serial killers hints at a sinister connection with Johan. How many more people need to die before the monster's work is complete?"

As a study on the making of a killer, Monster is amazing in many ways, but lately the most amazing parts have been the flashbacks of Johan's freakish childhood. At last, in Volume 16, the pieces really start clicking together. The last few chapters offer some of the most monumental revelations yet, bringing Johan and Nina face to face, recounting how the twins were born, and ending on a panel that will blow your mind with a resounding "WHAT." Even apparent side stories and minor characters can lead to some eye-opening twists; I would suggest being very wary of taxi drivers in the future. Yet for all the praise Urasawa gets for his absolute command of plot, pacing and suspense, it's the artwork that completes this series: detailed backgrounds from all across Europe, perfectly framed scenes that capture the mood of a moment, and the facial expressions. Good Lord, the expressions. If there is one thing that makes Monster's characters so fascinating and complex, it is that they go far beyond "generic manga faces" and show real, human emotions—and seriously, with this latest round of developments, they'll have plenty of emotions to express.

Things I care about in this story: Johan the amazing psychological criminal mastermind. Things I do not care about: the cheesy, second-string wannabe villains tagging along after him. Yes, this volume unfortunately wastes a few more chapters on ill-fated idiots like "The Baby" and Peter Čapek, who aren't nearly as well-developed as the main cast, and so will probably be remembered by most readers as typical sneering bad guys. Sure, they were essential to certain plot points along the way, but let's get back on Johan and Tenma and Nina, shall we? Also a bit irritating is Urasawa's oft-repeated technique of starting a chapter with a short flashback or disconnected scene, and then suddenly jumping into the main action a few pages later. Of course, a critically acclaimed artist can do what he likes, but come on, a little variation in the story presentation never killed anyone.

Writing reviews of Urasawa's work is boring ... because he's always so consistently good. Only the lame second-string villains keep this volume from surpassing B+ as the story races ever closer to the end.

Vol. 1
(by Jyutaroh Nishino, CMX, $9.99)

"Riku lives with Rocky—her gruff, adopted dad who trained her to be a martial artist. Rocky has raised one tough cookie, who doesn't hesitate to use her fist of steel! In Riku's world, humans co-exist with human-like animals, so there's nothing alarming about a 'Pig Man' showing up in the neighborhood one day. But this Pig Man is out to shake down a local merchant and Riku is not about to let that happen!"

You know what feels really good? Reading a manga that you think is going to be horrible, but turns out to be surprisingly fun. Steel Fist Riku's plot description has all the makings of a worthless, brain-dead comedy, yet the snappy action scenes, sprightly humor, and amusing characters actually make it work. Sharp linework and a good sense of motion make each fistfight a joy to flip through, and Riku's "steel fist" technique where her left arm literally hardens is much cleverer than just "beating up people all the time" (like a certain ramen delivery girl). The humor, too, does better than just recycling old gags: Riku's dad's dirty-old-man act actually becomes a key plot point in the fight against his old rival, and the two-part "Moms Are Strong" storyline has a terrific, well-timed punchline waiting at the end of it. Even the supporting cast is a delight: a fighting butler, a sheltered rich girl, and a bumbling street thief are just some of the characters that, along with Riku and dad, make this first volume a whole lot of fun. Oh, and she beats up furries, too.

Well of course it's going to turn out better than expected ... if you set your expectations ridiculously low. It may be action-comedy well done, but it's still just an episodic collection of small-town adventures, and the episodes aren't even all that fulfilling—this volume totals up to just three complete stories in 160 pages. Some background about Riku's dad is about all you get in terms of development, and everything else is just fight scenes or activities leading up to fight scenes. Also, color me disappointed that the best running gag in the series is the one that every comedy manga-ka falls back on—boob jokes. It's not just the story that's lightweight, either; the artwork is so focused on portraying great action sequences that everything else gets pushed aside visually. Minimal backgrounds, generic character designs, and too little screentone (yeah, that's one of the few times I'll ever say that) make this an underachiever in the art department.

Well, it's not like it was ever aiming to be a masterwork in the first place. Still, the humor and energy of this piece get a B- for entertainment value.

Vol. 1
(by Kaworu Watashiya, Futabasha, ¥630)

"Kodomo no Jikan's story revolves around a male twenty-three year old grade school teacher named Daisuke Aoki employed at Futatsubashi Elementary School. Daisuke is in charge of class 3-1, and one of his students, a mischievous young girl named Rin Kokonoe, has developed a crush on him, and has gone so far as to proclaim herself Daisuke's girlfriend. Rin continues her efforts to be with her teacher despite the fact that he will lose his job if she gets too close."

Most people know Kodomo no Jikan as "that one that totally got Seven Seas in trouble where the grade-school girl comes on to her teacher"—and they'd be kind of right, kind of wrong. The real strength of this first volume is in the way Rin plays mind games with Aoki: is she really being that suggestive with him? Or did she just pick up some naughty words from somewhere? Is she truly attached and affectionate toward him ... or just messing with him to get him fired? All right, so it's not Death Note, but this emotional cat-and-mouse game is what keeps the story's main relationship interesting. Kuro's unrequited feelings for Rin deserve a mention too; this "gratuitous yuri fodder" turns out to be one of the sweetest, most heartwarming subplots throughout the early chapters. Even the main storyline takes a more thoughtful turn as the teacher gets to know more about his students. An easygoing art style makes this schoolyard comedy go down smooth, with a sure-handed sense of line and unobtrusive layouts. But the real selling point, of course, is that the kids are just darn cute.

Unfortunately, for the more prudent among us, this series is exactly what you think it is. Despite some occasionally illuminating moments, this volume all too often takes the easy way out with blatantly placed fanservice. It's like, you're getting caught up in the trials and tribulations of a teaching career (a topic that actually does get some serious treatment here) ... and then, out of nowhere, SUPER PANTY FLASH WHOOOA-HOH! This gets especially ridiculous in the "Mimi Usa needs a bra" chapter, which demands enough suspension of disbelief to accept that, somehow, a third-grade girl might be a really, really early bloomer. Look, if you wanted to do boob jokes, why not just draw up a character that's old enough to be believably busty instead of pushing the limits of known biology? Perhaps the real mind game being played here is to guess whether the author is actually exploring the implications of a highly unlikely teacher-student relationship ... or just throwing near-kiddie-porn to the wolves.

We live in a society where a man gets stopped by the police for having lunch with his daughter in an airport. So what do you think about this series?

If there's one thing we already have plenty of, it's long-running romance series about high school kids falling in (and sometimes, out) of love. But what does it take to make a story like that stand out? Chris O'Connell's review of Kare Kano might have some of the answers.

(by Masami Tsuda, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

Anyone who got into anime during the late 90s or early 2000s may be aware of the anime Kare Kano ("His and Her Circumstances" in English). While the anime was good in its own right, it had a vague and inconclusive ending. Wanting to find more about the storyline and characters, I invested in a set of the entire original manga series, and I was not disappointed.

The story begins with the flawless Yukino Miyazawa starting high school. Miyazawa has spent years perfecting her image of being the perfect student: intelligent, kind, athletic, pretty—all the things that make the entire student body look up to her and admire her. That admiration is her drug and she does everything just to get more and more praise. But before she knew it, there was someone even better than her getting all the attention: Souichiro Arima. Determined to beat Arima and win back the spotlight, Miyazawa tries even harder to be more amazing. But when Arima catches her at her home, he sees the real Miyazawa: stubborn, selfish, lazy and unkempt. Miyazawa thinks the gig is up and that Arima will tell everyone that her appearance is all an act. But she didn't count on him falling in love with her, because he too is acting like someone he really isn't and sees a counterpart in Miyazawa.

This is Tsuda's first serial story and in some of the early chapters it's visible in a bit of the artwork, but as the series progresses you can see her abilities evolve as well. The panels are clean and usually simple with a lot of dialog among the characters. It's actually that dialog that makes me like the series so much. Besides Miyawaza and Arima there is interaction with a host of supporting characters. The secondary characters include family, school mates, friends, coworkers, lovers and so on. But Tsuda makes sure to give each of the supporting characters their own unique design, personalities and even story lines. It expands Kare Kano from a story about two high school kids into a story about the ties we have with other people and how they can grow, break and even be mended. The genre term "Slice of Life" is applied perfectly to this series.

Kare Kano is a romantic comedy that focuses on character development over a 21 volume span. Originally published in Japan from 1995-2005 and released in the US by Tokyopop from 2003-2007, you may not be able to find it in brick-and-mortar stores anymore. However, it is available online at the usual locations and is definitely worth picking up.

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 about 300-400 words (a little more or less is fine) 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 formatting and grammar.

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