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Rosario and Clover

by Carlo Santos,

Many know of Book-Off as the El Dorado of used books and manga, a place where you can spend mere pocket change and still come out with multiple volumes of multiple series in a single shopping trip. But it's a store with many other hidden treasures, and as a musician, raiding the shelves for scorebooks of piano pieces at ridiculous single-digit prices brings a sense of satisfaction all its own. Now if only I could find the time to practice and play them...

Vol. 1
(by Yu Yagami, CMX, $9.99)

"Young Naomi leaves the Far East to search the New World for the family she's never known. Her search takes her deep into the WEST.—which is a good thing, because the agitated horse that comes into her possession will only run in that direction!
Things get more twisted when Naomi interrupts a duel between an outlaw and a bounty hunter—and each of them suddenly believes he is related to her. The outlaw thinks Naomi's his sister and the bounty hunter is convinced he's her dad!"

Although best known for Those Who Hunt Elves, Yu Yagami proves that he's got plenty of other comedy material to spare in wacky Wild WEST. adventure. The story is quick to set up a lively, likable cast of characters, from the outspoken heroine who can actually stand up for herself to the completely loony horse who refuses to travel in any direction other than WEST. Yes, the horse counts as a character because he's that funny and is actually responsible for some of the best gags (a cactus patch!) in the early stages of this volume. Then there are the equally bizarre people Naomi meets on her journey, namely the gunman and the outlaw who claim to be her dad and her brother. There's just one little problem: their ethnic backgrounds don't match Naomi at all! Yep, this series plays the race card and—given the context—actually gets away with the joke. But no historical justification is needed for the expertly drawn backgrounds straight out of the American southwest, as well as energetic action scenes that capture the spirit of gunslinging frontier life. It's a fun ride that could definitely go a long way.

Even ignoring the head-scratching inaccuracies—if Naomi's traveling from Japan and arrives at a frontier town, wouldn't heading directly WEST. send her straight back into the ocean?—the story, much like that hilarious horse, is in danger of only heading in one direction. It still feels pretty fresh right now, but ask again a few volumes later after Naomi's visited several towns in a repetitive, plowing-forward manner. A self-reliant heroine such as herself also seems to be having way too easy of a time once you think about it: the horse is pretty much handed to her, she picks up the necessary equipment and outerwear thanks to the kindness of a traveling merchant, and the most dangerous threat she faces so far is averted because all the other male characters are practically falling over themselves to protect her. As a girl who can clearly stand up for herself, she might want to try actually doing that sometime. Even the artwork, despite being one of the strengths, sometimes gets mired in its own clutter—too many lines and not enough shading makes for difficult reading.

Well, it's at least better than that other Wild WEST. manga by that Shonen Jump guy. It's got good laughs and gunfights, but comes out a bit lightweight on story depth, which averages to a B-.

Vol. 4
(by Chica Umino, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Morita has disappeared, leaving his friends bereft and confused. Hagu and Takemoto turn to their art, while Mayama and Ayu cling to their unrequited loves. When his coworker begins to romance Ayu, Mayama can't help interfering. But what does he care, when he's nursing a flame for a woman he hasn't seen in a year?"

Even with multiple plot threads crisscrossing over each other, Honey and Clover has a way of flowing so effortlessly that one barely notices the chapter breaks. That fluidity is also why it manages to switch moods so easily, bubbling over with humor one moment (ah, that Mayama-sleeping-with-Takemoto gag never gets old) and then sliding right over into matters of the heart. This volume is very much a treatise on the complexities of Mayama's personality: too clingy to let go of his feelings for Rika, too jealous to let the guys from work get close to Ayu, and somehow managing to hurt two women at once simply because he's behaving the way men behave. And on that point, the growing camaraderie between Ayu and Nomiya suggests new opportunities too. As always, the series moves and twists in unpredictable ways, just like real life (or, say, a cicada whirling in the throes of death). Umino's multi-talented artistic style is able to keep up with all the changes too; her delicate lines during those quiet scenes of love and longing are just as powerful as the bold strokes of each little gag, completing the full emotional spectrum.

Is the storyline actually flowing well, or is that just a way of saying that all the events blur together without any true dramatic impact? Although these chapters try to focus on the Ayu/Mayama/Rika situation—clearly the strongest part of the series—the distraction of other characters and humorous asides end up diluting the effect. Yes, let's natter on about the crazy guys who run the Fujiwara design firm. Or blow a chapter and a half on the Takemoto/Hagu/Morita triangle, which can't advance until the mad genius himself comes back anyway. Not that there's anything wrong with these elements—they're all entertaining in their own right—but sometimes they disrupt the flow more than actually making it work. And speaking of disrupting the flow, the walls of dialogue and let's-cram-all-the-art-into-one-page aesthetic needs to stop. The visuals are always so beautifully spaced during the emotional highlights, so how come the same artist suddenly loses the ability to draw coherently when it gets all hyper and silly? Another one of H&C's little mysteries.

Not quite perfect in execution, but on the stuff that it does get right, the heartbreak and humor are still strong enough to earn a B.

Vol. 8
(by Miyuki Kobayashi and Natsumi Ando, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Najika's world is falling apart. Lavender House, the orphanage where she grew up, is being shut down, and there's only one way she can save it. When Najika is challenged to a High Tea cook-off against Seiya, her nemesis, the scheming director of Seika Academy makes Najika an offer: lose the contest on purpose, and he'll save Lavender House from ruin. Will Najika throw the fight—or will her true self shine through?"

Much like its heroine, Kitchen Princess continues to achieve great results with even the simplest of ingredients. At this point in the series, there's really nothing that readers haven't seen before, yet the story continues to captivate at every turn. There's another cooking competition in store, but this time with the added wrench of "throw the match and I'll save your childhood home" thrown in. There's another love triangle in the works, but with bad-boy-turned-noble-hero Daichi on one side and Seiya (who may be the actual Flan Prince) on the other, there are now multiple layers of storyline and emotion factoring into Najika's choice. (Also, there are still bonus recipes that tie into each chapter, but for the less kitchen-proficient, there are stickers in the back!) Ultimately, though, the dramatic heart of this volume lies with Najika's choice to either save Lavender House or defend her integrity as a cook—and the actions Daichi and Seiya take as a result. With sunny, impressionistic artwork and widely spaced panels, it's a brisk yet satisfying read, with emotion infused into every page—emotion that makes the series as wonderful as it is.

Nope ... it's still not Volume 6, and anyone hoping for the dramatic qualities of that masterpiece will have to keep waiting. No matter what kind of heart-wrenching cliffhanger Najika gets embroiled in, the ending always fizzles out somehow. First off, the difficult moral choice between Lavender House and the High Tea competition becomes a lot less difficult when Daichi goes and messes things around. Then the results of the competition itself end up being ... well, not quite as thrilling as one might have imagined. At least these plot points help to construct the essential corners of the new Najika/Daichi/Seiya love triangle, but the relationships go unresolved because it's far too early to swing in any particular direction. And all the stuff about Najika's past involving the Lavender House and the true identity of the Flan Prince? More hints come dropping in, but it's still not a finished story thread. It's like the series has become afraid of dramatic revelations. And the artwork is starting to rely too much on headshots in almost every frame. Beware of artistic laziness!

This volume doesn't quite reach the top level—but in aiming for those heights, it still does better than most other things in its genre and demographic. A solid B+ for this installment.

Vol. 1
(by Natsuki Takaya, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Tamaki Otoya is the last in a line of ancient summoners tasked to battle evil forces that threaten mankind. Burdened by his duty as a summoner, Tamaki has always found strength from his childhood friend, Asahi, with whom he has a deep emotional bond. So when Asahi's friend is found out to be possessed by a demon, he awakens—as the one destined to exorcise demons out of tortured human souls.
Fruits Basket creator Natsuki Takaya delivers a story of love, loss, and the redemptive power of forgiveness, in this heartbreaking tale of star-crossed lovers who are bound by a responsibility that may destroy them."

Wow, they certainly got the heartbreak part right. Unlike other supernatural tales where the exorcist shows up, makes things go "Poof," and everyone goes home happy, this one comes with some surprisingly sad endings. The reason it works so well that way is because negative emotions are intrinsically tied into the plot: every demon that Tamaki fights is a manifestation of human unhappiness, whether it be the guilt over a sibling's death, failure to live up to parental expectations, or worse. It sounds depressing, but there's a certain catharsis to be found in reading through each story, especially as Tamaki wields his spiritual powers and fights his own personal obstacles. And that's the other thing: instead of being some overpowered sorcerer, Tamaki is a character who actually has plenty of room for improvement in his predestined profession—and it's this personal development that adds another dimension to the story. Lastly, the visual flash of Tamaki's spellcasting abilities give the series that extra sheen of supernatural flair that it needs.

Do you looooove Fruits Basket? Do you worship the paper that Natsuki Takaya draws on? Then avert your eyes from this travesty known as her debut work, which showcases some budding talent but mostly a lot of first-timer shortcomings. From scattershot paneling, to lines of dialogue seemingly placed at random, to indistinguishable, sloppily drawn characters, to scene transitions and turns of plot that make no sense, this is the work of an artist who has a lot to say but is yet to develop the mechanics of how to say it. Worse yet, the supernatural logistics in this story are too complex for their own good, caught up in obscure rituals and fancy jargon (although half of that you can blame on translators who think that translating Japanese words is optional). This is particularly troublesome in the final chapter of the story, where the plot is supposed to get a lot more serious—apparently because Subaru from Tokyo Babylon shows up—and instead becomes a lot more confusing and all but throws the reader out of the story. Some may call it beautifully depressing, but honestly, it's just depressing. And bad.

Yikes! Stay away from this one, Furuba fans. Wait until someone licenses some other Takaya work, because this one is a D at best.

Vol. 4
(by Akihisa Ikeda, Viz Media, $7.99)

"All-around average teenager Tsukune can't get accepted to any high school save one ... but on his first day, he finds the rest of the student body doesn't appear average in the least. Best of all, the cutest girl on his campus can't wait to fling her arms around his neck! Wait a sec—are those her teeth around his neck too...? Tsukune's going to have one heck of a hickey when he gets home from Monster High! But does he have a chance in hell of raising his grades at a school where the turf war isn't between the jocks and the nerds but the vampires and the werewolves?
Lesson Four: Carnivorous Plants
Upon taking a field trip to the human world and observing human spawn being preyed upon by carnivorous plants...
a. let them eat the kids—after all, it's not like they're inhuman
b. save them and form an alliance to save the environment
c. harvest yourself a lively salad"

How do you save a series that's in danger of repeating itself for the fourth time in a row? Send the characters into a totally different environment! Tsukune and company's field trip works magnificently in that respect, opening up the most ambitious story arc yet. Not only does it break up the Monster-of-the-Month monotony, but we meet a witch character—Ruby—who is already deeper and more conflicted than any of the girls who signed up for Tsukune's harem. But for those who prefer the current lineup of cuties, don't fret; precocious Yukari gets her turn in the spotlight here as Ruby pulls her into the troubled world of human-witch relations. It's a smart move, as the highlights of this volume all involve witches: the dynamic showdown between Tsukune and Ruby, and then later, the epic battle of Witch's Knoll. And yes, that does mean that the best scenes are action scenes: Akihisa Ikeda is clearly in his element when his pen lets loose with towering monsters, explosive magic, and showy transformations. If this series seemed like fantasy-action trapped inside a romantic comedy, then this is what happens when it finally breaks free.

Well, if you wanted to draw fantasy and action, why didn't you just do that in the first place? This seems like a desperate ploy to inject some drama into the series after realizing that the Tsukune-and-hot-girls antics were starting to wear out; unfortunately, it seems that Ikeda isn't very good at this genre either. The motivation for the witches' hatred of humanity is about as ham-handed as they come—"They're destroying the environment, boo hoo"—and Tsukune's counterargument of "Let's just all be friends" isn't that much better. The result is a conflict that looks epic on the surface but is driven by a very shallow storyline with cheesy dialogue to match. (To say nothing of the terrible cliffhanger that leaves this arc about one chapter short of satisfying...) Even Ruby's personal grudge against humans makes use of one of the oldest clichés in the book. And the artwork, as eye-catching as it is, sometimes gets overambitious with carnivorous plant leaves, vines, and teeth cluttering up the page. Somebody prune those things already!

Still not the greatest storytelling, but definitely a major step up for the series as it was starting to get boring and repetitive. Witchcraft, fancy monsters and breaking free of formula earns this one a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Nina Matsumoto, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Yokai ... Japanese spirits. Most people fear them, and a few people even hunt them, thinking they are horrible monsters to be destroyed at all costs. But young Hamachi wants to be friends with them! He sees them as mischievous creatures that could co-exist peacefully with humans if only given a chance.
When his grandmother dies under mysterious circumstances, Hamachi journeys into the Yokai realm. Along the way, he encounters an ogre who punishes truant children, an angry water spirit, and a talking lantern. Will Hamachi be able to find his grandmother's killer, or will he be lost forever in another world?"

Given that Nina Matsumoto's most famous works are "The Simpsons in the style of anime" and "Death Note in the style of The Simpsons," it may seem completely incongruous to imagine her working on a tale steeped in Japanese folklore. But her artistic fluidity and sense of humor still shine through in Yokaiden, whether it be the fantastical creatures that Hamachi meets or the otherworldly qualities of the Yokai realm. With a bold sense of line, striking visual designs and clearly defined layouts, this is one made-in-America project that avoids the self-consciousness of "trying to look like manga" and lets the artist's style speak for itself. Yet the greatest strength of Matsumoto's style comes not in the art, but the dialogue, where Hamachi and friends (as well as enemies) bounce one-liners off each other and make clever asides that add some much-needed levity to the supernatural genre. But what of the story, you ask? Well, after seeing Hamachi run the hell away from a nue and survive, it's clear that there's plenty of adventure to be had in this haunting folktale atmosphere—and that things are just beginning.

That's exactly the problem: things are just beginning, and right at the moment it really starts getting interesting, this volume cuts off at its page limit (barely 170). There's got to be a happy medium somewhere between trying to cram a complete story into a single volume versus giving a storyteller too much introductory room (which is what happens here). As a result, Hamachi doesn't get into the Yokai Realm until over halfway through the book, and only has one major confrontation with a monster before shuffling off into "To be continued" territory. There's also something about this otherworldly adventure that falls short of a truly haunting atmosphere—perhaps it's in the way the humor forces itself sometimes, sometimes knocking on the fourth wall when it really doesn't need to be. (Yes, thank you for the definition of situational irony, now get back to the storytelling.) Or maybe it's in the artwork itself, where the sharp, bold lines actually work against it in trying to build an air of spiritual mystique. Hamachi's occasionally cross-eyed face doesn't help either.

It may be a Slow Starter, but the confident art and even more confident dialogue and storytelling make it a keeper. Fans of the folklore and supernatural genres will find plenty to like.

What do you do when your burning passion completely consumes you? Max Barnard thinks Beet the Vandel Buster is so great, he just had to let it out!

(by Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada, Viz Media, $7.99 ea.)

There are a few series out there that don't get the attention they deserve, and I think it's safe to say that Beet the Vandel Buster stands atop a pinnacle of hidden gems in a sea of mediocrity. But enough of me gushing about the series, perhaps I should attempt to clarify this statement in a self-serving attempt to justify my rabid fanboy-like tendencies.

Beet's plot essentially consists of various shonen clichés done to nigh on perfection; the gifted youth, his unusual powers (when compared to others), his aggravated love interest and a variety of friends who join him as a team at some point, and of course monsters to get destroyed as a showcase for their skills. "So what makes something so stereotypical such a noteworthy read?" I hear no-one in particular ask. It's all in the execution. Beet contains some of the most well done cliché plot points, some of the best stereotypical shonen art, and pretty much takes EVERY TROPE possible in it's genre and apes how well it can be done, creating a wonderful balance of what would be offputting aspects that's not only acceptable but also highly enjoyable too!

To throw in an example, in volumes 11 and 12 our protagonist is put up against the latest big bad (with connections to a side character, of course) and is soundly trounced. This is followed by the next big bad trying to beat the previously mentioned big bad and whilst looking AWESOME in this attempt still manages to end up in various pieces. Thus begins a tale of the side character's redemption in taking on the superpowerful big bad #1 to overcome his past anguish. This is beyond stereotypical, heck it throws in elements you can see in so many other shonen manga. But this being Beet I'm hardly going to slam it for that, as all the mentioned events are such an awe-inspiring spectacle that you don't care, you just want to keep reading. A small joy the artist of the series can no longer provide as the series enters it's third year of hiatus, with no word of his health improving.

If I was held at gunpoint to make any disparaging statement towards this series, it can only be that like many series past, present and future, the animé adaptation is one of the worst attempts at altering story elements around, and a mediocre effort at best. But with that in mind it still got 52 episodes and a second filler season of 25 episodes, which just goes to show the power of this series when anyone actually pays it any attention.

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.

Looking for inspiration? How about the story of a manga that changed your life?

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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