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Naruto Cantabile

by Carlo Santos,

All right, here's something new. To promote more reader contributions, I'm starting Reader's Choice Quest! Each month there will be a suggested topic to help inspire more submissions for the Reader's Choice section. This month's topic:

Tell me about a manga that changed your life.

300-400 words. E-mail your submissions to rtoreaders (at) gmail (dot) com. Good luck!

Vol. 25
(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's recent battles with the Arrancars have proven that if he wants to protect his friends he must get stronger, and the only way to do that is to control his inner Hollow. Ichigo turns to the Visoreds, ex-Soul Reapers who have been Hollowfied, to teach him. But before his training begins, Ichigo must do battle against his Hollow self—winner takes his soul!"

When the hero says "I've gotta get stronger!", that's usually the cue for fans to roll their eyes and sit through the boredom. But only the sheer Bleachiness of Bleach can take something as mundane as a training arc and turn it into a work of piercing beauty. Using the most obvious of metaphors—Ichigo must fight himself to reach the next level—Tite Kubo transcends formula by filling each chapter with the excitement and depth usually reserved for life-or-death battles against the main villain. Bold penstrokes, near-abstract special effects and a flair for cinematic staging make every moment larger than life. But artistic technique only goes so far—in the end, it's the characters that help create the ultimate sense of immersion, with Ichigo displaying emotions so raw and palpable that it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to read and act this one out loud. And in between all the theatrics, there's still enough room for other essentials like humor (Ichigo on a crude elliptical trainer?) and intricate plot development (so that's what Aizen is up to!). True enough, this is one action series that has it all.

Ichigo may steal the show in this volume, but he does such a good job of it that he completely overshadows the other folks helping him. Shinji Hirako may have been an intriguing new arrival once ... but now he and his buddies are reduced to mere sparring opponents in Ichigo's quest for Hollowfication. And that's another thing—this training arc, dramatic and beautiful as it may be, is really just a series of sparring matches. Even the climax of the battle is resolved by basic brute force: apparently all it takes to win is being more determined than the other guy. (Admittedly, this is a key principle of the action/fighting genre, but isn't there a way to put a more artful spin on it?) It's also a training sequence that eats up a lot of pages, so even though it feels like a fast-moving volume, it actually advances the story very little. What are they all fighting for again?

This volume sets out to do one thing: to blow you away with a dynamic, dramatic battle for Ichigo's very soul. On that point, it succeeds with a resounding A-.

(by Rie Takada, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Demons like Rara are supposed to cause mischief in the mortal world and draw humans to darkness. They're not supposed to help mortals and they're definitely not supposed to fall in love with them! But that's just what happens when Rara enters high school, where a hot guy named Retsu Aku calls her 'Gaba Kawa'!
While demons gain power by causing mischief, the opposite is also true—if Rara uses any of her powers to help mortals, she'll immediately lose that very power. If she loses enough power, she'll disappear! Poor Rara. What's a 'Gaba Kawa' demon to do?"

How much do I like Gaba Kawa? Enough to re-read the single-volume compilation even after having read it in serialization in Shojo Beat magazine. Rie Takada's flair for romantic comedy rides high in this short piece, with emphasis on the comedy—her chibi figures are the epitome of cute, often injecting more humor and expression into a scene than most artists can do with "realistic" characters. Clarity of line and naturally readable layouts also place this squarely in the upper levels of illustration quality. But artistry aside, Takada's most powerful weapon is her knack for crafting lively situations that will leave readers laughing, cheering, and wondering how the main character will pull herself out of this one. After all, when powers like invisibility, spirit awareness, and passing through walls come into play, it makes the average high school romance that much more unpredictable. Best of all, Rara has an instantly likable charm, miraculously avoiding all the pitfalls that make shoujo heroines irritating—and makes it that much sweeter when she finds her happy ending. (And really, would we want it any other way?)

Was one volume spaced out in five chapters not enough space? Would a little more working room have helped? The ending may be sweet, but it also arrives in a strangely abrupt manner, and that's after a fifth chapter where the whole storyline takes a sudden dark turn. It's the one black mark against a story that otherwise moves along at just the right pace and mood everywhere else. Also disappointing is that the final chapter is the only one that realizes the full potential of Rara's smart-mouthed rival Bibi, who is so delightfully evil that one has to wonder why she doesn't show up more often in the middle chapters. The middle chapters end up revealing another weakness too: Takada isn't very good with action scenes, as evidenced by things like awkward school rooftop fight scenes and a head-scratching driving sequence. Oh well, it's the comedy that counts anyway.

A bit on the light side, with a less-than-ideal ending, but still cute as all get out. And with a lead character like that, what's not to like? Score this one a B-.

Vol. 32
(by Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, $7.95)

"Naruto is a ninja-in-training with an incorrigible knack for mischief. He's got a wild sense of humor, but Naruto is completely serious about his mission to be the world's greatest ninja!
A new ninja causes trouble among the ranks of Team Kakashi when they return from the battle against Sasori. The secrets this stranger hides could be disastrous for Naruto. Meanwhile, Naruto's nemesis Orochimaru has troubles of his own—his stronghold may be infiltrated by a spy!"

So, after the epic and heartbreaking ending of the Gaara rescue arc, the next stage of Naruto ... is actually about Naruto! Miracle of miracles! Our titular hero finally takes center stage as he goes around meeting other Konoha village pals who haven't seen him in three years, while at the same time, the elders raise some concerns about the demon inside him. What this volume lacks in action, it makes up for with character and story-building, often with a touch of humor as well. Then there's the new guy, Sai, with his beautifully unique jutsu—bringing drawings to life—and an infuriating yet enigmatic personality. It's in his arguments with Naruto and Sakura that we're reminded just how strong the bond remains between those two and Sasuke. (Yeah, had to bring him up eventually.) Kishimoto's detailed and flowing art once again brings great action scenes and emotional moments to life, and by the time they get to the meeting with a certain spy, the careful timing brings it all together for the perfect cliffhanger.

The trouble with ending a major adventure arc is that it always takes some time to get going again with the next storyline. So it should come as no surprise that this is another one of those transitional volumes where one quest ends, another begins, and Boring Stuff happens in most of the middle chapters. Calling it "character and story-building" is just sugar-coating—even Masashi Kishimoto himself knows that there's no getting around lots of dull talking-head scenes, so that's exactly what he draws. As if he weren't lazy enough already using zero tones and shading for the character designs. Even the action scenes that do occur in these chapters are basically just training exercises for the characters, failing to capture the true energy of the series when lives are at stake. So let the story plod along on its merry way, as Naruto and company putz around without really accomplishing very much. Surely Vol. 33 gets better than this...

A new character, some cute humor, and the next stage being carefully set—but without the excitement or drama of the series' best moments, this one is merely a C.

Vol. 15
(by Tomoko Ninomiya, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Summer is supposed to be a time for relaxation, but life-changing events are in store for Nodame and her friends. She's about to play her very first recital—at the chateau of a Mozart-obsessed, cosplay-loving Frenchman! Meanwhile, Chiaki is making big plans for his orchestra, Kuroki is rehearsing for a major audition, and Tanya is looking for love in all the wrong places. How will they ever survive this summer 'vacation'?"

No composer elicits gleeful, ardent fanboyism quite like Mozart. I, of all people, should know. So when a volume of Nodame like this pops up, it's an instant win. Fortunately, the composer's ebullient style seems to have rubbed off on Tomoko Ninomiya as well, as the entire recital arc glows with Wolfgang's unmistakable joy and humor. With a hilariously eccentric aristocrat leading the way, and a storyline that pirouettes between bouncy jokes and subtle romance and musical rapture, this is one set of chapters that pulls you in with its sheer effervescence. The captivating visuals should be a big draw as well: period costumes, historic architecture, and the sweeping beauty of the northern French coast. (And for the true otaku, period instruments too.) After too many chapters of seeing nothing but the insides of concert halls and practice rooms, this is just a glorious explosion of creative energy—a heartfelt portrayal of the beauty of France as well as the beauty of classical music. And just when you thought it couldn't get any more awesome, there's even a surprise gag involving some famously cute bacteria ...

All right, so it's a delightful romp, but it doesn't take much time to come crashing back down. The last chapter in this volume, although still peppered with the series' trademark humor, quickly returns to the drudgery of professional musical life with a number of repetitive audition scenes. Geez, Chiaki, just hurry up and assemble your orchestra so you can impress us all again with your genius! And the Mozart storyline, for all its memorable moments, stumbles as well: numerous pages are wasted on the bickering between Tanya and Kuroki, neither of whom are particularly endearing characters. Then come the moments of truth that are supposed to make Nodame what it is—the musical performances—and the artwork just hurries through them in abbreviated fashion, like a quick survey of Mozart's Greatest Hits. His style may have been joyful and bubbly, but his true masterpieces were the ones built upon deep, intense emotions—a point sadly missed by this story arc.

Ah, even storytelling faults can't wreck the awesomeness of cosplaying as Mozart in an authentic French castle and showcasing his music. A well-earned B+ for this volume!

(by Jiro Taniguchi, Fanfare / Ponent Mon, $25.00)

"Mountaineer Shiga made a promise to his best friend following his tragic death in the Himalayas. Twelve years later and he is called upon to honor that promise. When 15-year-old student, Megumi, fails to arrive home from school her mother calls on her dead husband's best friend for help. Shiga abandons his mountain refuge and enters the city to look for the girl. With the police investigation at a standstill, Shiga decides to go it alone. But the metropolis can be a much more hostile and dangerous ground than the mountains. What has happened to the youngster and will Shiga find her before it is too late? Multi-award winning creator, Jiro Taniguchi, builds the tension to a massive climax in this exciting drama!"

Good things come to those who wait. And nowhere is that more true than in this whodunit thriller, which starts out humble but gradually builds up to an epic, jaw-dropping ending. The most remarkable thing is that Taniguchi pulls readers into the story not with improbable twists or eye-candy action sequences (although there are certainly a few), but with gentle tugging and tweaking of the plot until suddenly you realize you care too much about Shiga's investigation to stop reading. Seriously, this guy is even more intense than Kazuo Tenma, and twice as physically fit. But it's not just Shiga's stoic character that powers the story—every locale he passes through is polished to perfection as well, from the bustle of Shibuya to the sheen of the business district to the rustic mountainlands he calls home. Of course, the precision of Taniguchi's linework is a big help in that respect, and his sparse, deliberate pacing gives every scene a stately eloquence—genuine "manga for grown-ups," as it were. You want a real action hero? This guy does it without ninjutsu or spirit powers, thank you very much.

"Good things come to those who wait," eh? Is that a reference to Fanfare's iffy publishing schedule, or the painfully slow first half of this story? Somehow, having a mountain-dwelling bumpkin wander around the city and talk to random strangers is not the way to build a whodunit thriller—unless you're trying to bore the readers into giving up before they get to the good part. It's as if Taniguchi wasn't sure how to develop the plot after the initial premise, and by the time he figures it out, he's already wasted a hundred-odd pages. In between are some flashbacks about Shiga's connection with his former mountaineering buddy, and how Shiga came to be Megumi's main father-figure—but the emotional development never really takes off. Neither do the subplots about Megumi's shady after-school activities or the seeming chemistry between Shiga and Megumi's mom. To top off the overrated averageness of this work, there's also the coldness of Taniguchi's art: precise, yes, but also lifeless. Gripping and epic as the ending may be, it doesn't make up for a rather ineffectual beginning and middle.

Wow, the snobby arty-farty elitists were getting all worked up over this? This ambitious but questionable effort is a C+ at best.

Vol. 1
(story by William Shakespeare and Gonzo, art by COM, Kadokawa, ¥520)

"After being attacked by the Montagues, the Capulet family is left with just one sole survivor: Juliet. To keep her hidden from the enemy, she's been raised as a boy named Odin. However, she also goes on adventures disguised as the 'Red Whirlwind' to protect the peace of the city. Then one day, a chance encounter with a boy named Romeo leads to love at first sight..."

No offense to Britannian OELists, but now here's some real "manga Shakespeare." This daring fantasy rewrite (and anime tie-in) adds new dimensions to the original, while also filling in gaps that ol' Willy might have missed. Why do the Montagues and Capulets hate each other so much? A political power struggle would do the trick. And by making it a very lopsided imbalance of power, the dramatic tension reaches a whole new level for the star-crossed couple: can Romeo and Juliet's relationship even get off the ground if the entire city-state government is out to kill her? Intriguing as these circumstances may be, however, it's still the central love story that shines the most: the Red Whirlwind's first brush with fate, Juliet's midnight encounter with Romeo, and later, the shattering emotional impact once each realizes who the other is. Swift pacing and a confident artistic style give this romantic adventure the momentum it needs; between the dynamic action scenes and otherworldly beauty of each romantic encounter, this is one interpretation of classic literature that brims with life rather than feeling fusty and dead.

Flying horses? Flying horses? You know, there's a difference between adding a new dimension to classic literature and just making stuff up. Sadly, many of the fantasy elements in this story seem to be nothing more than pointless flourishes, and Juliet's existence is made all the more confusing by the inclusion of various throwaway characters. While the supporting cast certainly gives Neo-Verona a spark of city life, they also take attention away from the main story. Speaking of which, what is the main story? The romantic angle doesn't get nearly as much attention as it deserves—which is a shame, because those are easily the best parts of the story—and the space-hogging action-adventure plotline seems to flail about trying to point out how evil Duke Montague is and oh my gosh will they ever catch the Red Whirlwind. Well, of course she'd be hard to catch if all your action scenes were a confusing mess of sharp lines and the storytelling was all over the place. A little more faithfulness to the source material might actually have been a good idea.

Although thrilling and fresh at first glance, the weaknesses in this volume reveal it for what it is: an adaptation of an adaptation, and not a particularly impressive one.

Everyone knows I have a soft spot for CLAMP's xxxHOLiC series. But how does it fare when other authors take it into their hands? Here's M. Gilbert with some thoughts on the recently released xxxHOLiC novel:

Landolt-Ring Aerosol
(by NISIOISIN, Del Rey, $17.95)

Now, to start off frankly, I usually hate spinoffs. It is only occasionally when I come across one that I truly like or think that it was a worthwhile read. What I'm talking about is the xxxHolic: Another Holic spinoff novel. Technically consisting of only three long chapters, its page number adds up to 200; the last few pages are merely some author notes, making it 203.

It starts off with Watanuki standing in front of the coin lockers of a place called JR Glass Station. Inside one of the lockers, he finds a note from him employer Yuuko, asking him to buy her fake glasses. Getting thoroughly pissed with all the random errands, he grudgingly begins to look for a shop which carries fake glasses; a 100-yen shop, of course. So, he finds one, buys the glasses for 100-yen (105-yen including tax), and begins his trek back to his employer's shop. Watanuki stops at a cross-walk along with a few other people to wait for the light to change. He takes notice of a particular woman with something shining on her shoulder. However, before he could make it out, the woman throws herself into traffic.

Continuing on from this point, the writing goes into the first person format, allowing people to read what the woman was thinking while she did this. She wakes up in a hospital, realizing she had "done it again."

Well, some of you who have watched this series before, you'll probably notice this is the beginning of episode seventeen of the (first season) animation. However, even though it redoes this entire episode for the first chapter, it was rather refreshing to read it in novel form. The first person format of the woman's thoughts was a good addition, making it easier to understand the person's feelings and reasoning. It does this numerous times throughout the novel with other side characters.

Anyway, when getting through the first chapter, you'll notice that it was merely there to establish a timeline for the other two, which are completely made up by the author. The summary of the second would pretty much be that it's about a student named Serizawa telling Watanuki about his brother's cram school friend's club sempai's cousin's college sister named Hikage getting text messages from her dead friend. The third introduces an interesting element about something called the Eye World theory.

While reading, I had to admit that the actual side characters introduced aren't very interesting. I found myself rather annoyed by how their attitudes and actions were. In spite of this, their situations were rather appealing. However, in the third chapter, I thought the explanation of the Eye World theory should have been a little clearer. Unfortunately, it seems the author didn't feel the same way I did, seeing that the so called article explaining the entire theory had massive blotched-out sentences.

That being said, it also felt rather lacking in the atmosphere which came off of the original xxxHolic, but it should be rewarded for touching that atmosphere enough to keep it interesting. One other aspect would be, at times, the author/narrator could monologue a bit. But, it being written in a comical style, I found myself enjoying it more than anything else. The main problem I found in it, in my opinion, was that it didn't capture the true personalities of the main characters. It seemed that Watanuki was made out to be more sarcastic than he really was; and Yuuko, of course, was originally insulting to Watanuki but, in this, it was such an extreme.

I probably wouldn't have bought it if I had known it to be a spinoff, which I didn't at the time. And, honestly, I was hoping for something a little better, but, overall, I won't say that it wasn't a worthwhile read. I pretty much have mixed feelings toward it; it's kind of a "caught in between."

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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