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A Tail of Two Nanas

by Carlo Santos,

About a month ago, one of my co-workers informed us that he would be taking orders for Girl Scout Cookies on behalf of his daughters.

Thursday of last week, the two boxes of cookies I had ordered miraculously appeared on my desk.

By the end of the day, a quarter of a box had miraculously disappeared into my mouth.

I may have to place another order.

Vol. 14
(by Norihiro Yagi, Viz Media, $7.99)

"In a world where monsters called Yoma prey on humans and live among them in disguise, humanity's only hope is a new breed of warrior known as Claymores. Half human, half monster, these silver-eyed slayers possess supernatural strength but are condemned to fight their savage impulses—or lose their humanity entirely.
In their hunt for Galatea, the Organization's former number 3, Clarice and Miata enter the Holy City of Rabona, but what they encounter there is far beyond anything they could have anticipated. Also included in this volume are bonus stories of Priscilla and Isley's first meeting, and of Clare's training at the Organization."

After some noncommittal mini-adventures, the Seven Years Later timeline finally digs into some serious battle action. The showdown between Clarice, Miata and Galatea may be the best thing since the brutal battle of Pieta, thanks mostly to a certain unwelcome visitor. With an entire town getting into the fray and the main characters taking some daring tactical risks, this is another solid offering of fantasy action for those who like their swordfights bloody and their monsters near-invincible. Miata's full fighting ability is the visual showpiece of this volume, but then again, almost everything Norihiro Yagi draws is pure art—from rich, otherworldly backgrounds to fearsome monsters (see the Priscilla/Isley chapter for this one) to the vibrant layouts that capture the thrill of the fight. And of course, the thrills wouldn't be complete without a handful of dramatic plot points, from the revelation of why Galatea ran off in the first place (it's complicated) to the stunning arrival of some very welcome visitors. Looks like Claymore is finally getting its fighting spirit back.

Side stories? More side stories? Don't be fooled, folks; it looks like Yagi-sensei is still fishing for ideas in this volume because this is basically a long drawn-out fight scene padded with a couple of "back in the day" chapters. Gee, wasn't that just like the previous one? Of course, most people enjoy having gaps from the past filled in (Clare's chapter shows off some smart thinking), but it still distracts from the main arc, which doesn't even progress all that far in the space of a hundred-plus pages. The uninspired character designs also make it difficult to get into this new generation of Claymores, as Clarice and Miata look just like all the other stunningly beautiful cardboard-cutout warriors that have appeared in the series. It gets even worse with the supporting cast, where the local militia at Rabona appear to all be cloned from the same soldier and most of the men barely even look like men. There was a time when Claymore was a brilliantly conceived fantasy world with epic battles. When did it turn into a plotless morass of chicks with swords?

Sorry, but the pretty fight scenes are the only thing that save a storyline still badly in need of direction. This one gets a C and it had better start improving quickly ... or else.

Vol. 5
(by Hiro Mashima, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Gray's old training companion Reitei Lyon is trying to revive a calamity demon, but doing so will make their former master's sacrifice meaningless! What's the secret of Gray's past, and why does he keep taking off his clothing? Gray is revealed (metaphorically speaking) in this pivotal volume!"

So, is all the anticipation and build-up from Volume 4 worth it? You bet! This story arc dishes out a couple of fantastic fights right from the start, with the originality and wit that makes Fairy Tail so much more interesting to read than Grrrr I'm Going To Grunt A Lot And Be Stronger Than You. Natsu continues to find new ways to defeat his foes with fire, including one absolutely hilarious scene where he talks the guy into beating himself, and Lucy's mastery of the Zodiac proves that even summoners can come up with some pretty funny tricks. But the real highlight, of course, is the flashback to Gray's childhood, which is smoothly woven into the second round of his showdown with friend-turned-rival Lyon. It may not be as amusing as the battles that came before, but as an example of how to make a fight more epic by working some back-story into it, this one succeeds. The grand, sweeping artwork also succeeds, with plenty of special effects and dynamic points of view as various forms of magic come into play. The excitement never stops.

What? You mean it isn't over yet? This story arc may not be exactly in tournament format, but it's already showing signs of overextending itself as the final round between Gray and Lyon, as well as the fight between Natsu and the powerful old guy, get pushed to the next volume. Of course, it probably would have helped if Erza hadn't shown up and gone around lecturing everyone for a chapter and a half; in addition, the flashback also eats up lots of time. It's not even a very good flashback, relying mostly on tired old devices like a great hero's noble sacrifice and a shocking secret that's been kept hidden. The series may be good at taking the "action" part of action-adventure and making it feel fresh, but the story aspect ... well, it comes out kind of stale. Even when trying to fill out the characters' backgrounds. Speaking of filling out backgrounds, whatever happened to screentone and shading? The busy style of the art actually works against itself in several scenes, with too many lines, too much stuff going on, and not enough visual cues to tell them apart.

Let me know when the series gets good again. Although this volume improves on its predecessor, the unfinished story arc and predictable plot elements spell a C+ for this one.

Vol. 15
(by Ai Yazawa, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Nana 'Hachi' Komatsu hopes that moving to Tokyo will help her make a clean start and leave her capricious love life behind her. Nana Osaki, who arrives in the city at the same time, has plans to score big in the world of rock 'n' roll. Although these two young women come from different backgrounds, they quickly become best friends in a whirlwind world of sex, music, fashion, gossip and all-night parties!
One of the tabloids hounding Blast and Trapnest have photos that make it look like Reira and Ren are having an affair. With Nana and Ren's engagement recently made public, the photos could spell doom for both bands. Takumi's willing to do whatever it takes to save his band, but how will it affect Hachi and the happily ever after she's still hoping for?"

The current NANA may be caught up in a maelstrom of relationships, but the real crowning achievement of this volume is how it completes the series' morality tale about the curse of celebrity. These chapters put the official stamp on a couple of rock-star marriages, but don't expect any sweeping bridal dresses or flowery backgrounds—instead, the seedy machinations of the tabloids practically force our heroines into shotgun arrangements. (Takumi's deal with the devil also proves just what a brilliantly ruthless character he is.) And perhaps that is the most enduring lesson of the whole Nana/Ren//Nana/Takumi arc: that one sometimes has to pay a terrible price for true love. Meanwhile, more emotional ups and downs can be found among the other subplots, most notably what happens between Reira and Shin, which surely everyone saw coming but it still hurts all the same. As always, Yazawa's lavish art continues to provide the shine and sparkle of the entertainment business—beautiful characters, beautiful outfits, the vibrance of Tokyo—even as everything comes crashing down and everyone makes decisions that will change their lives forever. Perhaps the last few pages provide a glimpse of what is to come...

If you've read NANA this far, chances are you've learned to look past Ai Yazawa's flaws. Like how the past few volumes have become incredibly time-dilated, to the point where this one only covers the events of a couple of days. Maybe that's why it's hinting at a time-skip? Long stretches of dialogue also add to the draggy pace: just look at all the conversation that goes into Takumi's negotiations with the press, or how there seems to be so much idle banter (and pointless mahjong) every time Blast gets together. While the series strives to capture the pace and realism of young adult relationships, it may be trying a little too hard—and thus losing the momentum of actually telling the story. Consider, too, that almost every main character is now romantically occupied, and it's no wonder that the page layouts themselves have also become overcrowded. Somehow, the intro and outro monologues manage to tell more story than all the fluff in between.

Yes, the story's been getting too big for its own good for a while now. But the artistic and emotional dimensions are still as fulfilling as they've always been, and this one pulls a B in that regard.

Vol. 2: Sake
(by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, Viz Media, $12.99)

"In this volume, the focus shifts from food to drink: specifically, to sake. For centuries different types of sake have played the same roles in Japan as wine and beer have in the West, from inexpensive everyday drink to refined single-batch rarities. Above all, sake has been enjoyed as an accompaniment to a meal, and after a revelatory moment one night, Yamaoka decides that drink pairings must be an integral part of the Ultimate Menu. So which foods go best with which drinks? Sit down, pour yourself a glass, and read on!"

If you thought the first Oishinbo was delightfully geeky, just wait until you step into the sake section: this volume traverses the realms of food science, chemistry, process engineering, commerce, and cultural history to explain the intricacies of Japan's signature alcoholic beverage. (It's true, the series really does defy traditional genre labels!) The best part by far is the six-chapter story arc about a financially struggling brewery, which also serves as a dramatic exposé on the sake industry—and how production techniques from postwar Japan almost ran it into the ground. Who says food and drink can't be exciting? Looking at it from a more traditional angle, though, it's not just the subject matter but also the characters that keep each chapter fascinating—from stuck-up pundits touting the virtues of French wine, to everyday guys who learn that there's more to getting drunk than just getting drunk, to the ever-acerbic Yûzan Kaibara (a.k.a. Yamaoka's dad). After internalizing the knowledge contained in this volume, it's pretty much guaranteed that you will never drink a bad bottle of sake again. On purpose, at least.

Well, the good thing is, having a major story arc in this volume solved one of the problems of the "a la carte" format. But it didn't solve all of them, and some awkward issues remain. The biggest one is that the characters discuss previous events on a regular basis, but this being a "best-of" volume, we have no idea what or when those previous events were. (The brief plot recaps in the glossary are hardly a reasonable substitute.) Then there are the explanatory segments where artistic flow goes right out the window and the pages become clogged with big blocks of text—great for enthusiasts who want to learn every little detail about sake, maybe, but terrible for those who were expecting a visual experience. The rudimentary character designs and sparse backgrounds also make these talking-head scenes even more artistically unbearable. And once again, the stand-alone chapters rely on the old formula where some culinary ignoramus says or does something unthinkable and Yamaoka has to show them what's what. Hey, anyone got any original story ideas around here?

Picking and choosing chapters may not be the best way to tell an ongoing story, but the inclusion of a major arc goes a long way. Now excuse me while I hand this one a B and go shopping for some Junmai Daiginjo...

Vol. 1
(by Natsuki Takaya, Tokyopop, $14.99)

"Kotobuki is an ex-thief trying to give up her criminal past. Joined by former military commander Raimon, she has turned to the exciting but simple adventure of finding a 'normal' job. But people seeking the Tsubasa, a legendary object that grants its beholder any wish she or he wants, never stop causing them trouble. Everyone is trying to claim it as their own—and they want to use Kotobuki and Raimon's skills to do so!"

Long before CLAMP regaled us with chronicles of reservoirs, there was this Tsubasa, which reveals a young Natsuki Takaya in fantasy mode. As such, the series is at its most exciting when Kotobuki and Raimon are caught up in various life-threatening situations—whether that involves escaping the clutches of a shifty cult leader or having a dramatic cliffside showdown between a rebel organization and some military goons. But this double-size volume gradually shifts mood in the second half, eventually showing off what Takaya does best: powerful displays of emotion as expressed through flawed yet beautiful characters. Kotobuki's surreal encounter with something mysterious at the bottom of the sea is the turning point in this volume, and it only gets better with the confession of love between her and Raimon (come on, you saw it coming), as well as the flashback to Kotobuki's childhood (which also reveals the story's concern for issues of social class). Best of all, the later chapters show that there may be many more story layers to uncover—which is usually the best reason to keep reading.

I'm starting to wonder, is Natsuki Takaya one of those one-hit wonder artists who comes up with one masterpiece in her lifetime and everything else is junk? She may be forgiven for the mistakes of youth in Tsubasa's early chapters, but even the sudden improvement after Kotobuki falls into the sea ("Hey! I finally figured out where to go with this story!") only brings the series up to about average when compared against its peers. Otherwise, there's some terrible, horrible, no good, very bad storytelling going on—the generic post-apocalyptic setting, the poorly explained legend of the "Tsubasa" itself, the irritaing Kotobuki/Raimon relationship before she realizes her love for him, and over a hundred pages of directionless, near-unreadable escapades. And yes, "near-unreadable" means absolutely no sense of layout (was there some kind of paper shortage in mid-90's Japan that forced manga-ka to cram everything together?), action scenes drawn from all the wrong angles, and more triangular-faced bishonen clones than you can shake a stick at. The art does improve eventually, but how many people are willing to force themselves through a couple hundred pages to get there?

The second half is fairly acceptable, but goodness, the entire premise of the story and the first few chapters drag it down to a C-.

SCOTT PILGRIM vs. the Universe
Vol. 5
(by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Oni Press, $11.95)

"Why did he have to turn twenty-four? Why do robots keep trying to kill him? Why is the band falling apart? Why is Ramona acting so weird? Why won't those brilliant and deadly Japanese twins leave him alone?
See Scott Pilgrim learn the answers inside ... or die trying!"

If Volume 4 was the epic triumph that showed the maturation of the series, then this ... is the abrupt left turn that challenges everything you thought you knew. What's most surprising here is how the key plot points are presented with a subtle touch—so much so that anyone who's too busy fixating on the breathless fight scenes (with robots!) or jaunty humor might miss what's really going on. The doubts creeping into Scott and Ramona's heads, the slow degredation of their relationship, the odd tensions developing between Scott and his longtime buddies, and the hero left to fight alone after a devastating last chapter—this is a far cry from the wacky, hipper-than-thou attitude of the early volumes, and it's a daring move that promises great things for the eventual finale. Of course, none of this would be possible without O'Malley's artwork also developing in terms of style and subtlety: he's cut down on the video game references (don't worry, you can still laugh at the handful that remain) and upped the level of special effects, visual devices and sense of layout that make every critical scene work. Good luck in Volume 6, Scott. Looks like you'll need it.

Alternate working title: Scott Pilgrim Gets ANGSTY! Yes, this "abrupt left turn" is what ruins many a promising comic series, when the author suddenly decides that all the cuteness and fun needs to get trampled by wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Scott/Ramona collapse seems to take forever (seriously, is this what people call subtle? I call it slow), and is further exacerbated by Scott wandering around amongst his friends moping. It gets so bad that everything that made the series good in the first place seems to have been pushed aside—the fight between Scott and the next evil ex-boyfriend (actually, a pair of twins) barely lasts one chapter, the dialogue is notably lacking in sharp comebacks and clever turns of phrase, and there's maybe just one genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud pop culture gag. If it's always darkest before the dawn, then hopefully this means Scott's final battle will be awesome beyond belief.

It's not as good as the 4th. But it's still better than a lot of things. And of course anyone who's read this far knows that it's worth it to keep going.

While the Tokyopop company is to be commended for saving certain series from licensing limbo like Aqua / Aria, tactics, and Peace Maker / Peace Maker Kurogane, they get a big thumbs-down for unceremoniously dropping other series.* Kiersten Hay feels the pain after realizing that one of her personal favorites, Nosatsu Junkie, has gone down the tubes.

Also: it's still not to late to send in a review on The One Comedy Series That You Just Don't Get. Go for it!

*and a big middle finger for, at the same time, continuing to publish Princess Ai spinoffs.

Vols. 1-6
(by Ryoko Fukuyama, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

I've been patiently waiting for the release of Nosatsu Junkie volume seven for months now. As a Canadian manga consumer I've grown to accept later releases and backorders as a fact of life, and didn't think anything more of it. Recently however, I've learned that Tokyopop has dropped the series mid-way, and wouldn't be releasing anything past Volume 6. This ticks me off, as Nosatsu Junkie is one of my favourite shojo manga of all time.

The story revolves mainly around Naka and Umi, female models. Naka is a new model with a nervous "scary by genetics" face that has ruined all her job interviews thus far, whereas Umi is a well-known model at the height of the fashion world. However, through a proctology clinic I.D. card, Naka learns Umi is (gasp) a boy! The gender-bender rambles on as Umi beats and bribes Naka into concealing his secret and the pair's lives continue to entwine.

While most are unimpressed by the standard "boy/girl posing (no modeling pun intended) as a girl/boy" setup, those who've read it stick around for the hilarious banter, slapstick comedy (I'm talking team rocket-esque punches into the horizon), intriguing romances, and daily turned extraordinary drama. All the characters are quirky, but have a deep-set humanity that makes pathos run like Niagara Falls (I'm Canadian, I can make a reference!). Although it's no Van Gogh, the art is smooth and simple enough to get the message across without distracting from the quick dialogue, and extra effort is only apparent during the photo-shoot scenes (i.e. when it's actually relevant to the story).

One of the greatest draws to the story are its characters, who have believable problems when contrasted to the "glamorous fashion" backdrop they've been placed in. They aren't brash or one-sided, and their thoughts and feelings are expressed enough to make the reader understand fully why they just said/did that. Gag characters (like Umi's handmade t-shirt wearing sister) exist purely as secondary characters, and aren't attempted to be filled out or drawn upon for anything more then their gags, which is a nice change in a genre that is usually stocked with half-baked side characters, but when a seemingly secondary character is drawn on (once again, no pun intended), it isn't done lightly. Crucial characters are fleshed-out and given enough relationships and personality to become a regular, if not necessary, asset to the story.

The discontinuation of one of your favourite things is very disheartening, and I can only hope that the series might be miraculously picked up by another publisher, a la Story of Saiunkoku, and can continue to be released in English. It's a fabulous series, and I'm glad to have been able to read it as far as I have, but I remain (even at risk of appearing as an ignorant fan) peeved at a company that would drop a series mid-way and still continue to fully release as many more new, if not lower quality, series as before.

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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