Bread of Life

by Carlo Santos,

All right, time to bang the drums again. Please submit more stuff to Reader's Choice! I only got ONE review submission in the past two weeks, and somehow I feel that there was more than one volume of new manga (and even old manga) published IN AMERICA the past two weeks! Would some suggestions help? Would you like a prompt as to what to write about? Come on, I thought everyone wanted a chance at Eternal Internet Fame And Glory—just keep the reviews coming!

Vol. 1
(by Mahiro Maeda and Yura Ariwara, Del Rey, $10.95)

"While vacationing on the moon, Albert, a young Parisian nobleman, meets the Count of Monte Cristo, a fabulously rich aristocrat from the far reaches of the galaxy. Fascinated by the count's sophistication and intelligence, Albert is unaware of the older man's dark purpose: to enact revenge for a terrible act of betrayal committed against him twenty-five years ago. Soon, all of Paris, including Albert's own mother and father, will feel the terror of the count's vengeance.
Based on the acclaimed anime, this science fiction version of Alexandre Dumas's classic The Count of Monte Cristo is the story of a young man's seduction by evil—and a grown man's struggle with the past."

When one hears "manga adaptation based on a critically acclaimed anime," conventional wisdom says to run and hide from the cheap cash-in attempt—but with the director of Gankutsuou himself drawing this one, the book is in good hands. To see the dramatic power of this story in action, skip straight to the flashback in Chapter 4 and watch Maeda illustrate the Count's transformation into a revenge-bent maniac with 30 pages of glorious artistic madness. Many recognize the anime for its ultra-modern visual style, and the manga captures that same spirit with a flashback sequence that borders on the abstract. And if that's not already decadent and surreal enough, the backgrounds set in Luna and Paris are just as worthy of repeated ogling. Amidst the gorgeous artwork, though, don't forget that the story is equally captivating—flawed characters corrupted by the lures of money and power, and the standoff with enigmatic man who will bring about their downfall. With Maeda moving the Count's back-story to much earlier in the series, there's plenty of narrative momentum right from the start, and readers should be happy to go along for the ride.

You do realize just how awesome of an anime Gankutsuou is, right? ... And that even sending in the director to draw the manga will never make up for the daring animation technique, the mind-blowing colorscapes, or the fantastic music? While this is certainly a competent adaptation, it still has the look of a rough draft—the slightly off-center character faces, the rushed linework, the use of the same pen thickness for almost every scene. It may be visually powerful, but without a certain degree of polish, everything falls just a little short. The story, too, seems to lack the weight of the original (and I'm not even talking about Dumas' novel), especially with those silly scenes of adolescent bickering between Albert and Franz and the way the other aristocratic characters all just start showing up without proper in-depth introductions. In the end, it still makes the mistake that many other manga adaptations do: blindly reciting the events of the anime (with the exception of the Count's flashback) and going through the motions.

Seriously, did Maeda draw this on his coffee breaks or something? A great story and great visual concept are hampered by sloppy execution, so down to a B- it goes.

Vol. 6
(by Yuki Urushibara, Del Rey, $12.99)

"A father disappears and his son, a hunter, inherits his father's power to lure animals to their deaths, quietly and entranced. But this ability poisons the mind and the body. Can mushi master Ginko cure the son before he shares his father's fate, or will the young man turn his deadly powers on his would-be savior?"

Once again, it's the forces of nature that prove to be the most memorable characters in Mushishi, and this volume provides a wonderful variety of landscapes for its tales of wonder. Even though the settings are familiar—sea, forest, snow—they all come with personalities unique to each story, whether the menacing grayness of the hunter's tale, or the lonely shores of "The Chirping Shell," or the quiet unease that accompanies "Under the Snow." With precise penstrokes and nuanced tones, these portrayals of the countryside are familiar yet awe-inspiring, and the gentle pace gives readers plenty of time and space to drink it in. The last story in the book also comes with an extra layer of world-building as we learn more about what happens when Ginko and other mushishi get together and hang out: apparently, like most other professions, they have drinking parties—except that they get to use the most deliciously potent sake in the universe. Even though the creatures here are fictional and unseen, no other series engenders such a moving and profound respect for nature. (At least, until Moyashimon comes out.)

Anybody notice what was distinctly missing from the list of positives? The real characters—the people in each story. Yes, this volume goes through another one of those stretches where Ginko's supporting cast are easily forgotten as soon as each chapter is over. Take the first story, for example—a wistful romance so lightweight that the girl literally floats off into the air! That story also illustrates one of the still-recurring storytelling glitches: jumping to an abrupt ending that takes place in just 2 or 3 pages, thus negating the flowing pace of everything else beforehand. Meanwhile, even the deeper and more serious stories have trouble connecting on an emotional level. Only the power-hungry boy hunter in the middle chapter seems to have understandably human feelings; others like the voiceless girl at the seashore, the snowbound boy and (to a lesser extent) the sake brewer's son seem intentionally distant. A shame that a series that brings us so close to nature is so detached from humanity.

While the mood and setting are as effective as ever, this one gets a B for being less than perfect in dealing with matters of the human mind and heart.

Vol. 1
(by Naomi Azuma, CMX, $9.99)

"Junior high student Tetsu is alone in a classroom when a small flying saucer crashes into the room. The pilot is a cute human-looking alien girl named Lan. She's searching for some alien life forms that have escaped from her planet and are now on Earth. Lan enrolls into the school and joins Tetsu as the only other member of the soon-to-be-defunct biology club, hoping that together, they can somehow round up the truant creatures. But Tetsu has a deadline to meet—he must recruit at least three more members in three months, or the biology club will be history."

So, if the story is about the misadventures of a biology club, why are the characters' names (and the title itself) based on the chemical elements? Don't overthink it—this kind of gleeful absurdity is what makes the whole series tick, as sci-fi monster-hunting exploits go hand in hand with the rollercoaster ride of school life. As if powered by a perpetual motion machine, Suihelibe! moves quickly from point to point; if Tetsu and friends are fighting off giant turtles in one scene, they're probably trying to recruit more club members just a few pages later. Whatever the situation, the distinctive character personalities make for solid ensemble comedy (especially with Lan's flighty nature), and the balance of visual gags and wordplay keep the energy level high. Heck, there's even enough time to squeeze in an epic, nail-biting game of Old Maid—what better way to solve disputes than by card games? The clean-lined art and easily identifiable character designs make this a fun, breezy read for anyone who fondly recalls the ups and downs of being in a school club.

Nonsense for the sake of nonsense is just ... nonsense. Although not as obnoxious as some of the worst in the comedy genre, the superficial silliness of this series fails to capture the true warmth of gathering with a group of like-minded friends at school. The characters may be distinct, but only because they run on stereotypes (ordinary boy, crazy girl, smart girl, school "idol," make up more as you go along), and their escapades only move quickly because Lan keeps coming up with illogical solutions out of nowhere. Need to win a card game of Concentration? Space-age X-ray glasses should do the trick! Trying to weaken alien creatures or fix up a room you just wrecked? Oh, don't worry, there's a ray gun for that! As a result of all this deus ex machina with actual machina, the action-adventure scenes lose a lot of their excitement, if they haven't already been crippled by artwork where characters and monsters just appear in random places on the page and only speedlines and big explosions make sense. Stick to the school antics, kids.

A cute, lighthearted romp that gets stuck at C after relying too much on prefabricated school situations and cheap, dilemma-solving plot devices.

Vol. 14
(by Takashi Hashiguchi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"England. France. Germany. What common thread binds these three nations together? Answer: each is famous for producing unique, distinctive, delicious bread. But what of the island nation of Japan, home to rice and delicacies of the sea? Is there not a doughy, gastronomic delight they can claim as their own? The answer is no ... until now! Kazuma Azuma, a 16-year-old boy blessed with otherworldly baking powers, has taken it upon himself to create Ja-pan, the national bread of the land of the rising sun!
At long last, the final, decisive face-off of the Monaco Cup is at hand. Kazuma's intimidating opponent from the U.S., Shadow, undergoes rigorous training at the hands of Kirisaki, the very man who has sworn to crush Team Japan and wipe the Pantasia bakery chain off the face of the earth. Boasting a bread so singularly delicious it rockets whomever eats it on a never-ending journey to the stars, Shadow's baking prowess is enough to leave a lesser baker quaking in fear—but not Kazuma. Can our hero pull off a repeat performance of Japan 44, a bread so sublime it sent the judges straight to Cloud 9?!"

Just like the actual tournament contestants, Yakitate!! Japan continues to outdo itself with sheer virtuosity and imagination. One could easily mention the colorful characters, the detailed and delicious artwork, the excitement of each round of competition, the wacky judge reactions, the obscure yet fascinating food trivia ... but come on, we get that every volume. What sets this one over the top—just when you thought Hashiguchi had thought of everything—is none other than an homage to Galaxy Express 999. Not only does this guy have incredible artistic talent, but he has great taste, too! But a trip to the stars is nothing compared to what Kazuma has in store for his grand finale, a timely twist that not only decides the Monaco Cup winner, but provides closure to a dramatic arc about judge Pierrot's parentage that began in Volume 13. We all knew this series could make us laugh, but to evoke tears of heartbreak, sympathy and relief for one of the wackiest characters in the series? Nothing but absolute genius. The Monaco Cup arc may be over at last, but as the last page suggests, there's plenty more to look forward to.

Step back for a moment from the praise, take a look at the big picture, and it's clear that this still keeps falling into the trap of the genre it's parodying: it takes 180 pages just to finish one damn match, spectators keep breaking up the action by explaining every single detail of nutritional science and culinary arts, and in the end, the winner is decided by whoever comes up with the most ridiculous "move." Well, let's be thankful that at least it's not the kind of match where the opponents have to grunt at each other for 25 minutes to power up. Even the Galaxy Express 999 sequence, for all its ingenuity, could be a danger sign that the artist is starting to rely on cameos and parodical references (remember Conan Edogawa back in Volume 13?) instead of his own comedic talent. Come on, Hashiguchi ... I believe in you!

What? How can anyone not think this was one of the greatest tournament arc endings ever? The A earned by this glorious volume speaks for itself.

Vol. 4
(by Shin Mashiba, Viz Media, $9.99)

"For those who suffer nightmares, help awaits at the Silver Star Tea House, where patrons can order much more than just Darjeeling. Hiruko is a special kind of private investigator. He's a dream eater. And he'll rid you of your darkest visions ... for a price.
Dreams on the menu in this volume: a man and woman trapped on a malevolent streetcar, a mysterious woman with a possible key to Hiruko's past, letters in a bottle that aren't the usual call for help, a young girl who dreams of a miserable future, a boy being chased by shadows, and a nightmare in which Hiruko himself disappears!"

Where do dream-eating baku come from? Yumekui Kenbun's fourth volume tries to answer the question, and in doing so, takes its most daring departure yet from the usual supernatural mystery-solving formula. Hiruko's trip to his past (in the dreamworld, of course) is a challenging, mindbending journey that raises just as many questions as it answers, and comes packed with elegant, mysterious art that is the series' trademark. But the more conventional stand-alone stories have their strengths as well, especially "Clockwork," where a girl tries to live an entire lifetime in a single dream—its powerful metaphor and heartbreaking twist ending are what great short stories are made of. What is also striking about these tales is that, even though Hiruko ultimately gets to the root of each nightmare, the endings are rarely happy ones—and sometimes even greater tragedies result once the dreamer realizes what it means. Between the delicate, surreal visuals, and the melancholy tone of the series, this is the kind that makes you stop and think—even if they aren't always pleasant thoughts.

Okay, so this volume takes the biggest plunge into Hiruko's back-story so far ... and promptly makes a mess of it. Sure, the art is beautiful, and the mysterious atmosphere is captivating, but what they won't tell you is that the scene transitions are all over the place, the multiple characters and chains of dialogue are confusing, and heaven forbid anyone try to come up with a straight answer as to why Hiruko took the job and why the previous guy quit. If this is the kind of headache that passes for major story developments, then please stick to episodic nightmare-solving. Really. And even those stories waver in quality—the streetcar chapter, for example, pretty much telegraphs what each of the dream symbols mean, and then tries to cover it up by making up an even more convoluted metaphor involving a snail or something. Then there are ones like "Letters" and "Shadows" that rely on the main characters behaving completely irrationally just to wring those depressing endings out of them. See, this is my personal nightmare—reading a promising manga only to see it constantly trip over itself.

Good for the spooky atmosphere and elegant visuals, but with the storytelling always falling short (especially the key arc that focuses on the main character), this will have to take a C.

Vol. 1
(by Bayou and Rachel Manija Brown, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Alien refugees have come to Earth. They call themselves the 9-Lives. Humans call them cat-boys, and force them to live as collared pets. Conri, a rebellious young 9-Life, ran away to escape this fate.
But when a human named Adrian saves him from capture, Conri is torn between his desire for freedom and another desire he can't quite admit, even to himself...
Can two people meet as equals in a world divided between masters and slaves?"

One: it's not written by DJ Milky. Two: Thank God it's not written by DJ Milky. Even more surprisingly, despite the incredibly cheesy-sounding premise, it actually executes pretty well, delivering equal parts humor, drama, action, and yes, a sprinkling of fetishistic catboy love. (You don't suppose the cover gave it away?) As light entertainment, it coasts along easily, and yet the sudden attack of drama in the second half proves that there may be more ambition yet. But for some, the real appeal might be that this opening volume provides a gentle, entry-level version of genres usually reserved for more "advanced" fans: if real BL and yaoi is too swishy and abstract to look at, then the simple lines and character designs of this should make more sense; if dramatic tales of sociology and class conflict make your head spin, the cutesy "Why can't cats and humans just get along?" allegory here is much more accessible; if the complex fantasy-drama of Loveless gets in the way of checking out hot catboys, then you can still get your nekomimi fix here. And sometimes that's all that matters.

Okay, let me use my amazing powers of logic and reasoning here ... aliens have come to earth, and they all look like catpeople, and humans have essentially bound them to slavery, and the random alien planet they came from actually mandates it. Oh, and they literally have multiple lives, which they willingly sacrifice to help their owners. Who comes up with this crap?! Oh wait, Rachel Manija Brown is a "Hollywood writer"? Gee, that says a lot about what comes out of Hollywood these days, doesn't it! Even decent execution and a mix of moods can't save a story built on a foundation of completely jumbled garbage. It's funny, because any one of these story concepts would do pretty well on its own if developed properly, but instead, by throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, all we get is superficial, poorly-paced treatment of all these different genre elements. Worst of all, the moment when the story becomes more dramatic and action-driven is exactly when the art quality drops because our dear wonderful artist has no understanding of how to capture motion on a page. Might as well stick to saucy catboy illustrations.

Not nearly as bad as one might imagine it to be, and has some genuinely likable moments, but that whole initial story concept is just ... guh! No words.

What's worse than trying a new manga you think you'll like, only to discover that it's horrible? Getting hooked on a manga you do like, only to discover that it has a BAD ENDING! Here's CM Branford with harsh words for the finale of Hana-Kimi, which suddenly makes me glad that the live-action version was made entirely of cheesy, inconsequential fluff. Warning: spoilers follow.

Vol. 23
(by Hisaya Nakajo, Viz Media, $8.99)

The final volume of this popular and funny shojo series tries very hard (I think) to wrap up the story. Mizuki Ashiya, a Japanese girl from America posing as a boy in an all-boys' school in Japan to get closer to her idol, fellow student Izumi Sano, has to face the reality that her secret is exposed. After two years of trying to fool her friends and her (of course) romantic interest and roommate, Sano, Mizuki is finally found out, and instead of continuing to lie and conceal her true gender, comes clean to her friends and classmates. Turmoil and resolution ensue, bringing a great story to a (mediocre) close.

The simple fact of the matter is that this volume smacks of a, "hey, we're cancelling your series, so wrap it up," scenario. Not only does it completely defy the formula for gender-bending comedies by forcing Mizuki's secret out at the end of her second year and not towards the end of her final months of school, but it completely ignores the rule about the romantic "happily ever after."

Now, I'm not complaining that we didn't get to see any love scenes, even though the series was rated 16+ and the short stories included with early volumes had implied sexual scenarios leading one to hope that the actual series might (ahem) consummate at some point, but this story left a pretty major plothole by not resolving the sexual, or romantic, tension. For several volumes leading up to the end, Mizuki and Sano, who had bared all of their feelings and the truth to one another, finally, were now closing in physically. There were condom jokes and awkward "we live in the same room in bunk beds" moments, and when Mizuki makes her "grand" decision to cut and run at the end of the story, all of that tension is thrown completely and conveniently out the window!

Fast forward a year later and, what, we're expected to accept the, "hey, I promised to come visit you in America, so here I am, let's 'smile' at each other," as the "happily ever after" conclusion?! Are you kidding me?

I can only hope that, one day, Hisaya Nakajo will realize this ending is completely unacceptable, disavow it and rewrite the last year of the story properly. Until then, don't bother finishing this series if you're a Hana-Kimi fan. This is one of those times when a self-created fantasy ending would be preferable to the actual one.

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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