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Gin and Juice

by Carlo Santos,

So, that movie, with the spaceships, and the explosions, and Sylar is in it...


Vol. 1
(by Moyamu Fujino, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"When Neko Fukuta finds herself enrolled in the mysterious Morimori Academy—a secret school for animal-human shape shifters—she soon realizes she must pretend to be a magical cat and not allow any of the other students to find out her real identity... But as she struggles with the trials and tribulations of a new school and new friends, Neko's just-discovered feline side might bring out the true human spirit in all of her human classmates!"

All right, all right, so this is basically the premise of Rosario+Vampire but with cute furry animals instead of monsters and hot girls. Yet in some ways Animal Academy is the one with more depth, offering relationship drama and psychological maneuvering that one might not expect from such a youthful title. The drama comes courtesy of Neko's roommate Miiko, a cat who whose catlike behavior becomes strangely off-putting in human form—thinking only of herself, attacking anyone who competes for her owner's affection, and generally acting on unpredictable feline whims. But Neko gets her turn in the spotlight too, constantly troubled about being the lone human in the school (until she discovers a certain new friend)—and manga-ka Moyamu Fujino deserves credit for expressing the emotional weight of Neko's feelings rather than taking the easy way out with mindless sitcom scenarios. The straightforward layouts, delicate but confident lines, and simple yet distinctive character designs also make this easy to pick up and read, with the visual highlights of course being the adorable animal transformations.

It takes a lot of improbable twists to arrive at the premise of a human girl trapped at a boarding school for anthropomorphs—the campus being in an undisclosed location, the bizarre acceptance/rejection system and entrance exams, the idea that magical animals know just enough to be sentient but not enough to function in human society—and it only gets more improbable from there. How convenient that Miiko doesn't suspect anything about Neko's true species! How convenient that there's exactly one other human at the school! It's artificial coincidences like these that really start to challenge one's suspension of disbelief. If you can maintain your credulity long enough to read through this, though, there's still the issue of the first volume dragging its feet with story content and not getting a whole lot done aside from introducing Neko, her friends, and going through a few school lessons. Then again, the plain artwork and lack of nuance also has something to do with this—widely spaced layouts might make for clear and easy reading, but they also eat up a lot of pages with empty material.

Mildly enjoyable, but it's going to need a more solidly built story if the series is to survive past the first several chapters and earn anything better than a C.

Vol. 28
(by Kentaro Miura, Dark Horse, $13.95)

"Guts, the Black Swordsman, and his companions have finally arrived at the sea, where they discover a mysterious child who seems to share a special bond with Guts and his former lover, the now-mad Casca. The troupe's brief respite at the shore offers moments for quiet introspection and deeper bonding, but such peace is always short lived where Guts is involved, and Guts must once again don the demonic Berserker Armor to take on a force of bloodthirsty beasts emerging from the once-peaceful surf, possessed by the accursed sorcery of a powerful Kushan enchanter! And who knows what will happen when internal strife pushes a member of Guts's band unknowingly into the comforting companionship of an enemy!"

Whew! After all the hot-blooded battle of the last few volumes, it was about time that Berserk took a few chapters just to wind down and cool off. There's a certain miraculousness in Kentaro Miura's timing, the way he always knows exactly when to steer the story arc in a new direction. Even more remarkable is how the mood can shift right over to the sensitive side and be just as convincing as when people are raging and spilling blood. Nowhere is that sensitive side better portrayed than in Schierke's existential crisis, as she discovers that the wider world isn't the most friendly place for a witch. After Schierke makes a new friend and sits through an allegorical recap of the latest arc, it's clear that the story's sense of character and emotion is just as developed as the thirst for action and adventure. But don't worry, there's still plenty of action to be had in the middle chapters as Guts takes on a band of sea monsters—along with the usual quota of mind-blowing artistry, intensely detailed hatching and shading, and evocative backgrounds that are just as essential as the characters themselves.

So, yeah, that allegorical recap? ... The one with all the birds and stuff? That one goes on way too long—and maybe that's why it's better to stick to hot-blooded battles after all. Sure, the character-development scenes might still be "pretty good" by most standards, but when compared against bursts of full-out action, it's clear where Miura is most comfortable as a storyteller. (Let's not even get started on the lame attempts at humor with the elves.) The scene with Guts and Casca having a bonding moment over a lost child is about as contrived as they come, and Schierke's solitary stroll around the city gets rather self-indulgent as she goes around lamenting various acts of injustice. Yes, it's nice that the characters have thoughts and feelings, but the story could do a better job of expressing it. Meanwhile, even the action scenes have some issues with execution, once again caused by the compulsive urge to draw every little thing. Detail and nuance are great, but not when it gets in the way of clarity.

The shift to a more character-driven storyline is a welcome one, even if it's not quite as thrilling as watching Guts lay the smack down. But he still gets to swing his sword a few times, so this one gets a decent B.

Vol. 12
(by Hideaki Sorachi, Viz Media, $7.99)

"The samurai didn't stand a chance. First, the aliens invaded Japan. Next, they took all the jobs. And then they confiscated everyone's swords. So what does a hotheaded former samurai like Sakata 'Gin' Gintoki do to make ends meet? Take an odd job that comes his way, even if it means losing his dignity.

Things I've Learned While Living with Gin (by Kagura)
1. Buildings get destroyed because they are in the way.
2. If you're going to stalk someone, watch out for pit-traps!
3. People who say Santa doesn't really exist actually want to believe in him.
4. Some people (Shinpachi) are always the butt of the joke.
5. No matter what Gin says, ice cream is a great prize for winning a snowball fight, uh-huh!"

Even with spring in the air, there's never a wrong time for Christmas, New Year and wintertime antics—especially when they're delivered with as much irreverence as in this volume. It takes a satirist of Hideaki Sorachi's caliber to wring fresh humor out of the most clichéd time period of the calendar: first off, Sorachi calls out Santa Claus for what he truly is, a stalker and "child-lover" who breaks into people's homes. Then he completely subverts the concept of New Year's Eve festivities and makes it this absurd battle for who gets the meat in the hot pot. And if that's not enough, Sorachi takes a jab at pointless government gestures like Police Day (which is celebrated in Japan on 1/19, the same digits as the emergency number over there), as well as the public's fixation on celebrities. Yes, if there's an irritating foible about modern society, Gin Tama wastes no time in pointing it out. And even then, the series isn't above a little gutter humor, as proven by final chapter—a snow sculpture contest that's basically one long running penis joke. Only in Jump, folks. Only in Jump.

While this volume spins out some great comedy, it also wastes plenty of pages on stuff more commonly associated with the mediocre Shonen Jump titles this series is supposed to be making fun of. The first few chapters close out the arc about the cursed sword Benizakura, which had already been dragged out way too long and at this point has become a "Rawrrr my power is greater than your power" slugfest. And then they have to trudge through an epilogue so that all the characters can have closure. Will the suffering ever end? Nope—apparently the Shinsengumi still have to investigate Gin's involvement in the Benizakura incident, leading to run-of-the-mill slapstick that is far less entertaining than, say, Santa Claus. Of course, getting to those laughs is always a chore when the layouts are crammed into the tightest possible space and trying to follow the dialogue becomes a test of visual acuity. It's true that art should serve the story, but that doesn't give the story the right to beat the art into submission.

As usual, there are fresh and funny gags lurking in each chapter, but one also has to pound through some pretty bland material to get to it. That comes out to about a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Motoro Mase, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Dear Citizen:
Thank you for your loyalty. You've no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You've probably asked yourself: Why isn't anything being done to stop this systematic decline?
Rest assured that measures are being taken. Beginning immediately, we will randomly select a different citizen each day who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is and how important it is to be a productive, active member of society.
Thank you for your continued attention and your cooperation and participation..."

What is it with the Japanese psyche and frighteningly radical social experiments? Following in the lineage of works like Battle Royale and Death Note, Ikigami puts yet another spin on the idea of making the world a better place by making various people drop dead. The first few scenes are quick to illustrate the disturbing consequences of this situation, and the constant moral struggles of main character Fujimoto (a "messenger" who delivers death notifications to citizens) provide plenty of food for thought. But such high-minded philosophy soon takes a back seat as the series digs into the lives of the individuals who have just 24 hours left—the choices, emotions, and actions in the final moments of their lives all resonate at a much deeper level than mere rhetoric about the value of life and death. The tale of a bullying victim bent on revenge comes with a strangely uplifting twist, while the story of a struggling musician is poignant even in its predictability. A clean yet expressive art style lets the storytelling shine through, proving that even radical social experiments can have a gentle, slice-of-life touch to them.

When an entire series is built on a contrived, highly unlikely state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that what follows next are even more contrivances. Really, a story about bullying? There's already been plenty of moralizing about stuff like that. And a musician who sells out before realizing his terrible mistake—yeah, that's not exactly new material either. Ultimately, the only real stroke of brilliance in Ikigami is the tick-tick-tick of protagonists who have just hours left to live, while all the rest is typical "live your life to the fullest" self-help blather. And the more the story tries to explain how the government gets away with such authoritarianism, the more it paints itself into a corner: soon we're getting a convoluted civics lecture about the multiple administrative departments that run this agency of death. With so much belaboring of story details, the visual aspect soon resorts to cheap shortcuts—computer effects here, photocopy-and-paste there, all in the name of getting the work done.

True, it's a difficult idea to believe, but suspend that disbelief long enough and you'll find some moving stories of human drama that are worth at least a B.

Vol. 1
(by RAN, Del Rey, $10.99)

"When the kingdom of Arbansbool is invaded, the prince escapes with a handful of his closest attendants. But these aren't just any attendants. They're maids whose job is to pour tea, not raise an army and help the prince reclaim his throne. Now chief maid Cacao Sardonyx and her five colleagues must take up arms and save a kingdom in this skirt-slashing, tea-spilling epic!"

He did it with Mao-chan, and he's doing it again: RAN is somehow able to take the dumbest concepts ever and wring more entertaintainment value out of them than they probably deserve. This time it's fighting fantasy maids. Yes, this is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, yet after seeing the lead character wielding a sword that matches her height and is three times her weight, one can't help but be in awe. (Think it about it, it's basically Claymore with none of the self-important seriousness!) Even more impressive is when the characters spring into action: RAN clearly knows how to pick his angles, showing off Cacao's acrobatic swordsmanship with big, perspective-bending panels, while successfully resisting the temptation of pantyshots. But there's more to this series than the thrill of the fight: even some of the side characters are worth a laugh, like the "manly man" Captain who runs a fortress on the kingdom's border, and the lecherous antics of the prince himself—who always gets what's coming to him courtesy of Cacao's wicked backhand. Good times!

Not even an artist's ability to turn lemons into lemon meringue pie can save a story that was rotten in the first place. Simply put, Maid War Chronicle takes the worst clichés anyone can think of—fantasy empires with silly names, maid fetishes, epic quests of destiny—and throws them into a blender. The result is barely palatable. Even worse is when elements of other series make themselves blatantly obvious: the maid's names appear to be part Sugar Sugar Rune and part Galaxy Angel, the token dark-skinned girl appears to be a take-off of Love Hina, and, well, the whole harem genre has been oversaturated for years anyway. Meanwhile, the personalities of the maids start out as zero-dimensional and eventually evolve to one-dimensional (as proven by a couple of character-centric chapters), and the story is headed in the predictable direction of the maids fighting off all foes in order to protect the prince. Sloppy, overcrowded layouts make this a challenge for the eyes as well, guaranteeing that none but the most foolhardy readers will make it through Volume 1 alive.

Are you kidding me? While it has some features that, from a certain viewpoint, might be fun, this tale of epic maid battle gets off to a clumsy D+ start.

Vol. 2
(by Surt Lim and Hirofumi Sugimoto, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Kasumi has a simple plan for high school: make new friends and fall in love. She's already got the friends, her faithful fanboy Otaku Ken and the kindhearted Maiko. And she just might be in love with Ryuuki, the hottest guy in school. But fate has something a little more magical in store for Kasumi. Ryuuki seems to know her secret—and hints that he has a few secrets of his own. Kasumi unexpectedly becomes the object of another boy's affections when the alluring 'Feather Prince' declares his love for her, and then she discovers the secret behind her magical powers ... from the mysterious being who holds the key to her amazing destiny!"

It is one of life's great truisms: if you suddenly find yourself sporting awesomely mystical powers, it's probably going to get you in big trouble later. Sure enough, Kasumi soon finds herself threatened by an evil presence, and this volume gets serious with a special-effects sequence that combines flashy thrills with a more contemplative sense of wonder. Connect that to Maiko's spirit-channeling revelation in the final chapter, and the building blocks of the series are now laid out for all to see—but still with many open ends that will leave readers hooked. In between, there's also the discovery of more powered students and an "organization" (isn't there always one?), all of which add up to suspense and action much like the fantastic first season of Heroes (y'know, before that show went totally off the rails). The soft, slightly cute art style helps to keep the series from taking itself too seriously—always a danger in this genre—while at the same time the action moves at a clean, brisk pace. Certainly, with all the bright lights and supernatural shenanigans, this series can hold its own against any other "kids with powers" copycat.

"Copycat" is right, because after the gently pleasing visuals and the thrill of discovering everyone else's powers, all that's left is the exact same series that's been repackaged and resold hundreds of times over the last couple of decades. The methods of plot revelation couldn't be any more predictable: of course you're going to get attacked by evil spirits after messing around in an abandoned shrine, and of course Maiko is going to explain everything to Kasumi by having a séance and miraculously changing voices. The only unpredictable part? The ridiculous ways in which other students continue to bully Kasumi, which seem to have gone past "get back at her for getting on Reina's bad side" and into "pick on her just for the sake of picking on her." Isn't there a better way to generate drama besides mean-spirited horseplay? Well, there's also the method of having mysterious evil people discuss mysterious evil things, which is just as useless in this series as anywhere else.

Although it sticks pretty close to the rules of the genre, the style and sensibilities are a refreshing change from what they mass-produce in Japan—and if anything, the new plot elements and action make Volume 2 even more promising than the first.

Um ...


Just because I asked about which manga has the most beautiful artwork, doesn't mean you can forget about writing the rest of the review.

While I got some very promising paragraphs about which titles have the best artwork, I didn't get any actual reviews.

So please, pick out the series that blows your eyes away and write in! If you really like it a lot then filling up 300-400 words is easy.

Anyway, here's Michelle Tan with a glowing review for the very hilarious-sounding Otokomae! Beads Club.

(by Kyousuke Motomi, Shogakukan, ¥410)

If you have never heard of the term "manly girl", you will certainly understand what it means after reading this manga. Oikawa Ibuki looks like a typical shoujo heroine (outwardly at least), but she certainly is not your typical "Miss Do-Gooder". The first few pages shows her rolling in the mud to save a dog from being run over. Yes, Oikawa Ibuki is a "manly girl", and is rather well-known for it in her previous school. So on her first day of transfer, she vowed to change her ways and become a feminine girl. Unfortunately for her, her dramatic heroic act was seen by a suspicious guy with a dark aura (so dark, in fact, that it attracted a flock of crows around him). She thought it would be the last time she would see the guy, but it turns out that he's an upperclassman in her new school, and the President of the Beads Club! And what's with the odd members in the club anyway?

Otokomae! Beads Club is probably not a book you would have bought based on its title (its direct translation seems to be Handsome Man! Beads Club), but it aptly describes the story, and not in a bad way. Like the summary describes, Ibuki is a manly girl, and while there are many other such characters in other shoujo mangas (Haruna from High School Debut, Misaki from Kaichou wa Maid-sama), she is perfectly aware of her feminine side. She managed to perfectly deceive students outside the Beads Club with her "cute" acts in the first half of the story! Her interaction with the President of Beads Club, Takumi, is simply hilarious. Takumi, like Ibuki, has a secret of his own as well, but that's taken care of in the first chapter itself, so it does not drag on.

The romance between Takumi and Ibuki (this is one of the stories that makes it obvious who the main characters are going to end up with) is warm and fluffy without being sappy. The side characters, the members of the Beads Club all have interesting personalities, and they do not get sidelined unlike in other shoujo manga when the side characters are obviously there for show. The characters in Motomi's works always seem to come alive off the pages, and this manga is no exception. All the characters are unique while still being believable and likeable. The jokes are delivered perfectly (warning: do not read this in public, there is danger of breaking into giggling fits or grinning like an idiot.) and the art is gorgeous (Motomi sensei is a genius in matching screentones to create a certain atmosphere, and does not have flowery background flooding the pages), which can be expected from Motomi's work.

The side stories, "Handsome! Beads Club Hyper Version" and "Very Black White Day" are also a good read. "Very Black White Day" is about a girl named Hitomi who was dumped on Valentine's Day. Her childhood friend, Yuki, helps her to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend in the most heartbreaking way on White Day, hence the title. But is revenge truly what Hitomi wants?

I would really like to have known how Takumi gets the members of the Beads Club to join the club in the first place, as well as their back stories. But I guess for a oneshot, Motomi sensei does well with limited pages.

On an interesting note, Motomi sensei is a guy. After the shock of knowing that male shoujo mangaka existed wears off, I truly appreciate how his works are free from any "ecchiness" that most male mangaka seem to indulge in. There is not even a single panty shot of Ibuki, despite doing a fair share of kicking. It makes for a refreshing change.

Those who enjoy this would definitely enjoy Beast Master (this was licensed by Viz Media, rejoice!).

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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