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Afro Shinigami

by Carlo Santos,

At my workplace, they pipe soft-pop music over the P.A. system to maintain employee morale. Of course, being the fine music connoisseur that I am, all this does is depress me, but after the first few weeks, one learns to tune it out anyway. However, the occasional catchy tune does sneak its way through, and it was not too long ago that the sweet strains of a familiar British crooner came wafting over the airwaves:

We're no strangers to love
You know the rules, and so do I...

I was Rickrolled at work.

I was Rickrolled at work!

Vol. 1
(by Takashi Okazaki, Seven Seas, $10.99)

"It is said that he who acquires the No. 1 headband shall gain enough power to rule the world. It is also said that only the No. 2 warrior may challenge No. 1. And in the shadows lurks a multitude of assassins eager to kill No. 2 and take his place as top contender.
Years ago, the last No. 1 was brutally slain by a power-hungry gunman called Justice. No. 1's son, who witnessed the murder, has grown up to become the cold-hearted warrior known as Afro Samurai. He has honed his skills with a single purpose in mind. With the No. 2 band now around his forehead, Afro sets off to give Justice his due. But with scores of assassins and two-bit swordsmen on his trail, will Afro survive long enough to avenge his father's death?"

How badass is No. 2? So badass that he doesn't have time to fill in the "hero" part of being a conflicted hero. The early fight scenes in this volume are more than just sword-swinging eyecandy: they give a shocking glimpse into Afro's brutal character, as he mows down fathers and brothers and sisters without a shred of mercy. In any other series, the side characters play sympathetic victims who get saved by the pure-hearted swordsman, but not in Afro's world ... here, anyone standing in his path gets killed, even the innocent. But taking out innocents gets boring fast, and the real meat of this series is when the stronger villains show up and start giving Afro a run for his money. The thrill of the later fights is in watching him being thumped to within an inch of his life—and then pulling out some unbelievable move that proves just why he's earned the right to face No. 1. Fountains of blood, epic decapitations, and a jaw-dropping cliffhanger will leave fans longing for the next volume.

Story? What story? Make all the observations you want about Afro's bleak worldview and the foes he faces, but those are just excuses for putting out a gallery of gratuitous violence. How many times, and in how many media, have we already seen the "nearly-mute hero takes on a hundred guys and slices them to bit while you aren't looking" act? Just because it's a guy with an afro doesn't make it any more special. It looks like junk, too, obscured in eye-straining shades of black and gray because that's supposed to be "dark" or "gritty" or whatever. Well, guess what, that's not dark and gritty, that's just "impossible to read!" Add to that a style where fancy swooshes and lines are more important than clarity, and this fight manga emerges as a visual mess. The utter shortness of this volume disappoints as well—165 of near-wordless swordfighting, and not a whole lot of character development or world-building going on. Some of the villain ideas are really dumb, too ... Brother No. 6? Monk No. 4? Given the low level of creativity and craftsmanship, it's no surprise that they ran out of names and switched to numbers.

The art's too grim and messy to look at, and the story's too shallow get into, so here's my tip: avoid this D+ work and watch the anime instead.

Vol. 24
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $7.95)

"Ichigo 'Strawberry' Kurosaki never asked for the ability to see ghosts—he was born with the gift. When his family is attacked by a Hollow—a malevolent lost soul—Ichigo becomes a Soul Reaper, dedicating his life to protecting the innocent and helping the tortured spirits themselves find peace. Find out why Tite Kubo's Bleach has become an international manga smash-hit!
Ichigo and the Soul Reapers wage a furious battle against the Arrancars who are attacking Karakura Town. But this enemy is unlike anything they have ever fought before, and these aren't even the strongest of the Arrancars! If Ichigo and his friends can barely face them, how can they hope to fight off the elite Arrancar warriors, the dreaded Espada?"

Bleach Vol. 24 starts off with an ending—and what an intense ending it is, showing Ikkaku's great resolve as he emerges from his battle bruised and bloodied but still victorious. But maybe these individual fights aren't doing it for you, so how about a three-way? The remaining Arrancar duels all reach their dramatic high point in unison, giving Tite Kubo a chance to draw a bunch of bankai finishing moves simultaneously. Like every other artist, he gets 20 pages per chapter, but he isn't afraid to spread it out, because when you've got something as epic as a guy getting a slab of ice through his chest or a big burly man being completely outclassed in terms of speed, you use all the page space you can get—and an artist with this much style deserves it. Even this, however, is just a lead-up to Ichigo's battle against Grimmjow, which isn't notable so much for the actual fight as for the emotional sucker punch that Ichigo gets when it comes to a premature end. Call it a hot-blooded fighting series, but some of Bleach's finest moments are the introspective ones where the characters look inward upon themselves.

Meanwhile, some of Bleach's worst moments are when the hot-blooded fighting becomes nothing more than a gallery of clichés. This volume invokes the much-overused "I'm only fighting with 20% of my power" gimmick, but not before the villains also trot out the tired old "I'm not even that strong compared to the next guy you're going to face" line. Add in the constant back-and-forth shuttling of three fights going on at once, and it's like having a triple generic shounen combat overload. Even Ichigo vs. Grimmjow is a lumbering, inelegant mess—sure, Kubo can draw pretty, but most of the moves on display are brute-force techniques that come down to "I'm gonna punch you with my spirit pressure!" Maybe it's good that the fight ended prematurely; at least then they can train for some moves that are actually interesting-looking. But this also means that the volume wastes the last couple of chapters on bridge material while waiting for the next arc. Finish your business, folks, and wake me up when something interesting happens.

Action-packed and stylish as always, but it really overdoes it with the "my power is greater than your power because I wasn't showing you my true power" stuff this time around, which means a C+.

Vol. 3
(by Ryotaro Iwanaga, Del Rey, $10.95)

"The Pumpkin Scissors are deployed to the waterworks headquarters after receiving an explosive tip. But when they arrive, Claymore One is already there with orders to shoot to kill. When the Pumpkin Scissors try to defuse the deadly situation, Claymore One strikes back: They demand an execution order against Alice. The Pumpkin Scissors are supposed to be saving the Empire ... but can they save themselves?"

The drug-trade conspiracy and political maneuvering from Volume 2 finally gets its payoff here—a good 100+ pages of battle, betrayal, and the tragedies of military experimentation on humans. It's the darkest that Pumpkin Scissors has been so far, but that's why it's good: at last we get to see the characters' true inner strength (and in Alice's case, some awesome double-blade wielding) when faced with a situation that has no happy endings. Even the chapters after that, although a little lighter in tone, offer some somber thoughts on what it means to be a "reconstruction unit" and the obligation of saving others; meanwhile, the prospect of Alice going to a formal ball provides a nice shift of mood. But through all this, certain higher-ups are piecing together information from previous missions, so don't be fooled into thinking this is just some flashy episodic action-adventure. Visually, the clean linework and layouts make the story an easy one to follow, and the action scenes manage to be striking without overdoing it. The swords, guns and explosions are nice, but it's the serious stuff in between that really sticks.

After building up an intriguing, multi-layered storyline in the previous volume ... this one just drops the ball when it comes to finishing the job. The betrayal on the villians' side is bungled and confusing (and honestly, the Head Evil Person wearing a clown mask just looks silly), the conflict between Section I and Section III never really flares up into what it was promised to be, and the only truly memorable scene out of that whole Waterworks confrontation is when Randel faces the flamethrower guy. Awkward jumps between scenes also hamper the storytelling, and at one point even cuts to several pages of military administrators quietly discussing the situation, which is the last thing a high-tension battle sequence needs. The second half of this volume also feels lacking in direction and energy, and kicking off the next major storyline at the end of the last chapter just makes it an annoying cliffhanger. The art has its faults too; it may be clean and readable, but that also makes it far easier to notice irregularities in character design, a lack of backgrounds, and the general signs of an artist who's not fully confident.

The conclusion of the Waterworks storyline kind of fizzles out, and the chapters after that are interesting but not necessarily exciting. Congratulations on a thoroughly unimpressive C!

Vol. 1
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $7.95)

"Basketball. The court, the ball, the hoop. The hopes, the dreams, the sweat. It takes dedication and discipline to be the best, and the Shohoku High hoops team wants to be just that—the best. They have one year left to make their captain's dream of reaching the finals come true—will they do it? Takehiko Inoue's legendary basketball manga is finally here, and the tale of a lifetime is in your hands!
Hanamichi Sakuragi's got no game with girls—none at all! It doesn't help that he's known for throwing down at a moment's notice and always coming out on top. A hopeless bruiser, he's been rejected by 50 girls in a row. All that changes when he meets the girl of his dreams, Haruko, and she's actually not afraid of him! When she introduces him to the game of basketball, his life is changed forever..."

Having experienced it firsthand, I can say that there were two major factors contributing to the basketball boom in Asia during the 90's: (1) Michael Jordan and the marketing of the NBA; and (2) Slam Dunk. With the second factor, it's easy to see why: Takehiko Inoue created a shounen series where the characters are just as highly developed as the sheer coolness and the thrill of competition. Take Sakuragi, for example—raw, undisciplined, impulsive, girl-crazy—and yet he tries so damn hard you just have to root for him. Standing between him and basketball greatness is team captain Akagi, who in any other series would just play a gruff comedic character—yet here he becomes the force of discpline, a "gorilla man" destined to shape Sakuragi's athletic career. The visuals are highly accomplished too, with slick action scenes (Sakuragi's first dunk attempt? Gorgeous, and in color too) and character designs that have miraculously not aged too badly (a testament to Inoue's innate talent). But what makes it the Jordan of sports manga is that, out of so many other stories, this one has people worth caring about.

Has there ever been an NBA highlight clip from the first two minutes of a game? (Well, maybe, but I sure don't remember it.) Likewise, trying to find greatness in the first volume of a series like this is a bit of a stretch; you can see shades of greatness to come, but it's still rough around the edges and trying to put each character's storyline into play. Sakuragi does play a complete one-on-one game against the captain, but that's just an exhibition match, lacking any of the depth or tension that comes with playing a finals game after you've been with the characters for hundreds and hundreds of pages. But at least the basketball aspect is decent; Haruko, on the other hand, is pretty useless—she just walks up to Sakuragi and says "Hi, let's be friends," which is about the most uninteresting way a boy and girl could possibly meet. Then she spends the rest of the volume wavering between him and his rival? Good grief! I hope for Inoue's sake he wasn't planning on playing up the romance angle.

A promising start with great characters, but that's all it is—a promise, and promises only get B grades until they deliver the goods later on.

(by Matsuri Hino, Viz Media, $8.99)

"In the Mediterranean at the end of the 17th century, former songstress Armeria disguises herself as a boy and boards the ship of the pirate Skulls—the man who kidnapped Luce, her first lover. Captain Skulls is arrogant, violent, and a skirt chaser! And unfortunately for Armeria, he discovers she's a woman..."

I admit, I don't get the whole deal with Vampire Knight, but I'm such a nice guy I'm willing to give Matsuri Hino another chance. Wanted is actually quite fresh in a number of ways—first off, because it provides a more delicate, romanticized view of the pirate life in a typically rough-and-tumble genre. Then there are the daring narrative decisions: secrets that characters usually keep from each other for an entire series are revealed early on, like Armeria disguising herself as a boy and Skulls actually being Luce (even Hino admits it's "not the important part of this story"). The rest, then, is a swashbuckling romance where Armeria must deal with Skulls' dual nature: brutal and heartless like any pirate, yet with a sense of justice, and surprisingly committed to the girl who fell for him. Of course, fueling the fires of romance is easy when Skulls is damn sexy and often goes around bare-chested. But clearly, Hino doesn't mind drawing fine clothing either, as shown by the fantastically detailed costumery and architecture. Like any great pirate adventure, this one takes you away to another time and place.

Unfortunately, this one-volume affair takes you to another time and place and then leaves you stranded there. That's what it feels like when the story ends without any dramatic resolution, unless you count the part where Skulls says "I'll protect you" as resolution. Otherwise, it's just a collection of episodic pirate adventures (followed by a nonsense one-shot) where the girl keeps getting her butt saved by the hottest guy on the seven seas and the only progression in their relationship is back-and-forth arguing, flirting, and occasional threats of non-consensual action. Don't be fooled by the period setting or action-oriented swordplay—it's basically wish fulfillment for girls who dream of going out with "bad boys" (yeah, a few of those and you'll be sorry eventually). And it's not just the story that trundles along weakly; Hino manages to ruin her quality linework by obsessive-compulsively toning over everything. It's as if she thinks her characters would cease to be pretty if they weren't surrounded by every imaginable shade of gray—yet that urge to fill in all the white areas is exactly what kills a lot of the prettiness.

Although charming and exciting in places, the story ultimately doesn't go anywhere, cuts off poorly, and the art has always had the same problem Hino's art has always had, dragging it down to a C.

Vol. 1
(by Surt Lim and Hirofumi Sugimoto, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Kasumi is a special girl—and not just because she's a super-cute high schooler with a heart of gold. She has a major secret: She can turn invisible when she holds her breath. But when she transfers to an elite private school, it gets harder to keep her superpowers secret, especially when she catches the eye of the handsome student-council president, Ryuuki, and becomes the target of his number one fan, mean girl extraordinaire Reina. Can Kasumi keep hiding who she really is?"

Remember how I said Del Rey puts out like 5 different "high schoolers with special powers" titles every week? Well, that's still true, but thankfully this series is more down-to-earth than the typical psychic-energy slugfest. Opening with shades of Ghibli (Kasumi discovers something in a forest), with a sense of wonder akin to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and a lead heroine worthy of Hana Yori Dango, this story borrows from all the best while retaining its own unique character (I blame the super-cute school uniforms). There's something truly glorious and joyful about the moment Kasumi recognizes her power and starts running around making use of it; the chapter where she pranks Reina and her idiot friends is an inspired bit of classic school-story mayhem. And even when she gets into more serious trouble, the sense of excitement is still there—will she be able to pull herself out of a swimming class gone awry? (Find out next volume!) The artwork is confident and instantly likable, with attractive character designs and deft touches of humor, and most interestingly, is likely to appeal to both male and female readers.

Few things are as irritating as international creators self-consciously trying to place characters in a foreign setting. Sorry, Ms. Lim, but allowing random Japanese words into the dialogue does not miraculously make things more convincing. Just let the story tell itself! In fact, storytelling is something of a bumpy ride in the early chapters, as certain events rush themselves just to get to the part where Kasumi discovers she can turn invisible. Making her first friend, her first enemy, and interacting with the romantic male lead all seem to happen in record time, without fully giving room for the characters to develop at their own pace. And because of all that rushing, it comes out as a whole lot of prefabricated ordinary-high-school-girl-meets-rich-kids fluff. That prefabricated feeling also comes out in the art, which relies on character designs seen in tons of other series, and makes the classic mistake of laying on too many screentones—and not even particularly imaginative ones at that.

Another well-polished offering from Del Rey's line of originals. It takes a while to find its groove, but once Kasumi's power kicks in, it's a whole lot of fun.

What does Boys' Love mean to you? Hot sweaty guys breathlessly declaring their forbidden passion for each other? Think again! Tina P.'s review of Rin! proves that the genre has its softer side, too...

(by Satoru Kannagi and Yukine Honami, Digital Manga Publishing, $12.95 ea.)

Rin! is a three volume series that follows the story of Kobayakawa Katsura, a young archery player who aims to become as proficient as his brother Yamato and his childhood friend Sou Shibata, who head the archery team together. However, Katsura suffers from severe anxiety attacks that can only be swayed by a hug from Sou; the result of a childhood incident. Of course this makes for some awkward moments, and one strange relationship. The manga follows Katsura's development in archery as well as his coming to terms with his feelings for Sou.

Rin! is a smooth paced, well drawn BL series, that would be especially of interest to those who prefer the lighter side of the genre. It is relaxed in its storytelling, and the art beautifully reflects this in its soft style. Rin! is a love story, but more importantly, a coming of age tale with a realistic feel that would make it especially enjoyable for fans of slice of life series.

The relationship between Katsura and Sou, if not without its ups and downs, is well developed. Additionally, the 'love rival' dynamic posed by Katsura's teammate Koichi also adds some intrigue to the story. The battleground of archery is what truly ties all the other elements of the series together, and Katsura's progression in archery mimics his progression emotionally. As we see Katsura struggle to overcome his anxiety and improve in archery, we see Sou recognise the need to loosen his hold on the younger boy, and allow him to grow on his own.

While many BL titles tend to have unnecessarily complicated or overly dramatic relationships, Rin! is unassuming, yet effective. It is a breath of fresh air in a genre where over the top is the norm. While the pacing and day to day feel of the story might not appeal to everyone, Rin! succeeds where many BL titles fail in that it manages to be a compelling and reasonably realistic love story that does not harshly conform to the traditional tropes that turn many people off from the genre. Rin! is exceptional for its simplicity.

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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