RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
After School Geass Time
by Carlo Santos,
A recent survey of anime fans in Japan showed that Mio Akiyama of K-ON! was considered this year's most desirable "waifu." However, while Mio's appeal as a marriage partner is clear to see in her maidenly good looks and quirks of personality, it is also apparent that respondents to the survey didn't quite think this through.
For starters, bedroom antics would quickly grow dull as Mio's easily embarrassed nature would prevent anything but the most orthodox lovemaking. You'd have turn off all the lights in the bedroom, and no she is not going to try those "toys" you bought for her in Kabukicho. And even if the two of you should successfully reproduce, who's going to kiss your kids' boo-boos when they hurt themselves? Not Mio, because she can't stand the sight of blood.
Most importantly, Mio is the kind of musician who can never be torn away from her first true love. Did you see the look in her eyes when she saw the left-handed basses on sale? I know that look. I get that feeling every time I walk into a piano shop. You can marry a musician, you can promise your life to them, to have and to hold, as long as you both shall live, but in their heart you will always be number two.
Instead, I'd like to think that the ideal partner is someone with strength and individualism, who can take care of herself when left alone, yet fills the room with laughter when in the company of friends. A girl who is sympathetic to a guy's interests and hobbies, but won't be a doormat for just anyone and freely expresses her opinions on any subject. Someone who's open to a wide range of pursuits and often succeeds at them, yet also has a cool, laid-back perspective on life.
The ideal anime wife, of course, is Konata Izumi.
CODE GEASS: NIGHTMARE OF NUNNALLY
(by Goro Taniguchi and Ichiro Okouchi, Bandai, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"After losing her mother and the ability to walk and see, Nunnally Lamperouge was carrying on because her beloved brother, Lelouch, was by her side. However, the Holy Empire of Britannia proceeded to take him away too! Is Lelouch dead!?
Among the despair and rage, Nunnally obtains the power of the Geass! With a mystic Knightmare she challenges the empire!"
In the standard analysis of Code Geass, Nunnally is a cheap throwaway stereotype: the injured girl, designed to manipulate instant sympathy out of fans due to her tragic situation. But give her Geass powers and an unbeatable mecha, and she becomes a far more compelling character—perhaps even more so than Lelouch in the original. After all, Lelouch still had his legs, his eyes, and his sister, so he could mostly focus on fighting the injustice of the Britannian Empire. But Nunnally, who literally has nothing else to lose, is fighting against the injustice of everything. Her transformed rage, so visceral in the middle chapters, plays the perfect counterpoint to her gentle pacifism when she's in her regular wheelchair mode. In fact, the real battle being fought here may not be the one between nations and cultures, but the struggle inside Nunnally herself, as she tries to stop the bloodshed despite having the powers of the ultimate killing machine. Insane sci-fi special effects and towering robots just add to the thrill factor. Now, isn't that a lot more interesting than Mister I'm-Gonna-Dress-Up-In-A-Cape-And-Mask?
Speaking of which ... why does Zero still get so much face time as a secondary character? Yes, we can guess who he really is and understand why he's still central to the plot, but all he's doing is taking the focus away from the fascinating upheaval that Nunnally is going through. In fact, there are all sorts of distracting subplots going on in this first volume, most of which involve military-political maneuverings that—while faithful to the canon—do little to contribute to Nunnally's situation. It also doesn't help that these subplots often contain mecha battles that result in confusion due to hyperactive artwork and the unidentifiable characters who pilot them. In fact, everything just seems to descend into "Let's re-enact Code Geass except from a different viewpoint and shove in Nunnally wherever we can find a spot." This is not exactly the most effective way to carry out an alternate retelling, and by the time Volume 1 finishes up on a weak cliffhanger, even die-hards may be having their doubts. (For those who are keeping track, Nunnally goes on a Knightmare rampage exactly once in this entire volume.)
Exciting and unique enough to earn a B-, but something must be done about the story elements that don't involve Nunnally. Like, maybe have less of them.
GAKUEN HEAVEN: NAKAJIMA
(by You Higuri and Spray, BLU, $14.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Welcome to Bell Liberty boys school, a place where only the best and hottest get in. As Keita tries to find his own talent that will make him worthy in this school of special students, he must deal with the sometimes forceful affections of Nakajima, the cool student council vice-president. As Keita's love for Nakajima blooms, he finds out that something suspicious is going on in the student council. Is Nakajima misusing his influence? Will Keita's lack of trust doom their love forever...? Gakuen Heaven has never been this heavenly!"
They say that bad guys are more interesting than good guys—and Gakuen Heaven proves it true by putting the ruthless Nakajima in the spotlight. Even though this spinoff volume tries to center on the up-and-down relationship between Nakajima and Keita, it's clear to see who the real focal point is, not only in a gripping thriller of student council intrigue, but also in a flashback side story about Nakajima and student council president Niwa. There's just something so fascinating about watching the methods of a guy who's so cold, so blunt, and so forceful (especially in bed), yet stands firmly by his principles exactly because of those qualities. And it's not like this is some kind of porno slideshow, either: there's real drama and action to be found here, especially in how each story manages to culminate in a macho fistfight, and the way Keita tears himself up for a hundred pages because of his conflicted feelings. After that, well-spaced layouts and bold-lined artwork are simply icing on the cake: hey look, a BL manga with readable pages and identifiable characters! Now that's something special.
Get ready to claw your eyes out starting from page 1—if it isn't cheesy enough starting things off with an explicit sex scene, there's also the matter of an incorrectly placed nipple standing out like some weird blister on Keita's chest. Remember, artists, anatomy is essential! Especially if you're going to draw pictures of naked people. Oh, but that's not all: this volume's attempt at a student council political thriller is elementary at best, and the only reason readers might take a little longer to guess the ending is because the expository dialogue is pretty confusing in the first place. (Then of course there's the post-ending ending, which involves make-up sex between Keita and Nakajima, as if anyone didn't see that coming as well.) Meanwhile, the Nakajima/Niwa flashback is pure fluff, a plotless piece that only exists to fill in a backstory element that's referenced a couple of times before. Let us never forget the true purpose of Gakuen Heaven: to look at (cookie-cutter) pretty boys! Honestly, if the only case to be made for "action and drama" is fistfights and angst, then that's no case at all.
Nakajima's compelling personality and the clean artwork make it a tolerable read, but overall, this kind of BL fluff gets a C-.
(by Yun Kouga, Viz Media, $8.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In the legendary past the gods battled for supremacy and cast out the demon god whose name cannot be spoken. Banished to Earth, the demon found refuge on the mysterious and dangerous island known only as 'G.'
After experiencing a crisis of faith, Father Olivier of the Valaria Order decides to go to G and find out the truth behind the legends. Olivier's journey is unsanctioned, and the head of the Order engages the dark elf Suzu to stop him. As he begins his quest, Olivier encounters Ouri, a young girl from the south who cannot speak. But Ouri reveals another side of herself when Suzu catches up to them!"
No artist creates an otherworldly experience quite like Yun Kouga, who manages to take the classic sword-and-sorcery (but mostly sorcery) formula and turns it into a wild, unpredictable road trip. In fact, Father Olivier's quest for G is almost secondary to the colorful characters and heart-stopping adventures that he has on the way. To get an idea of just how quickly this story moves, consider that the plot summary above only describes the events of the first half of Chapter 1. And then consider that Ouri's "other side of herself" is only the first layer of secrets lurking within her, and that even Father Olivier himself may be more than just a wayward priest on the surface. Where other fantasy stories are content to charge forward with exploration and action, this one also looks inward to its characters, uncovering secrets and mysteries at every turn. However, that doesn't stop this series from delivering a number of hot-blooded action scenes too, where sorcerers and fantastical beasts go at it with dazzling spells and explosions. Add in Kouga's talent for exotic backgrounds and striking details, and this looks like a fantasy winner.
As one goes further and further into this first volume, a certain feeling starts to develop. A feeling of ... What. The heck. Is going. On? It only gets stronger as more characters and twists emerge, a sure sign that an artist has plenty of strong ideas but can't figure out how to get it together. Seriously, how can someone with great world-building skills—just look at the creation story and the maps and the character profiles and the spellcasting system—just let it all go and start fudging the details by about Chapter 5 or so? Eventually it's understood that Ouri is wanted by the bad guys because of some prophecy, or something, but don't expect an explanation, because the story opts for the ever-popular "something ominous but we won't tell you what it is" route. It gets even worse when new characters show up and they look way too much like everyone else, so much so that when one of them casts a spell they are easily mistaken for someone else casting a spell. This is like not knowing who is on which team is in a sports game. And that's bad.
As I hand out a disappointed C, I'm not sure what to be more afraid of: increased confusion levels in Volume 2, or the hordes of Loveless fans who will jump to Yun Kouga's defense just because it's Yun Kouga.
NABARI NO OU
(by Yuhki Kamatani, Yen Press, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Apathetic schoolboy Miharu Rokujou is content to meander through life in the sleepy village of Banten. But his quiet existence is shattered when the Grey Wolves of Iga, a powerful ninja clan, attempt to kidnap him in broad daylight. Only then does Miharu discover that the ultimate power of the hidden ninja realm—a power that can do both great good and great harm—is sealed within his body. As battles erupt among rival ninja clans seeking to control him, Miharu must over come his apathy and learn the ways of the ninja if he wants any shot at survival!"
One of the keys to ninja mastery is the element of surprise—and in that respect, Nabari No Ou succeeds eminently, putting a number of unexpected twists on the action genre. When Miharu steps into his role as the reluctant hero, his apathy is played up to the point of comic exaggeration, while his sensei turns out to have a hilariously irrational fear of moving vehicles. In a world where ninja warfare is usually treated with dead seriousness, this is a refreshing touch. Even the battles themselves rely on well-timed surprises: every time things start to look like a run-of-the-mill slugfest with "rawr I'm charging up my ninja powers," in comes a wicked twist or a brand-new challenger to change the parameters of the game. And it's not like the twists and turns are coming out of nowhere; each scene manages to flow neatly into the next, often aided by sharp-lined artwork where ninja techniques come to life and characters take on a number of dynamic poses. Once you've got the fundamentals of fighting action down, all that's left is to watch the rest of the story unfold.
Oh look, a battle for the fate of a world hidden within our real world, and everything rests on the shoulders of an unsuspecting teenage kid. Where have we heard this storyline before? Right from the start, Nabari digs itself into a hole with its unimaginative premise, and things only get worse as the events of the story take a predictable path. Miharu "wins" his first fight by unconsciously releasing his hidden power (yawn). Then his sensei tries to talk him into taking this whole ninja war more seriously (yes, yes, we know). Then they gather a couple of allies and travel to another ninja village for help (well isn't this just an explosion of originality). Even the villains in this first volume are poorly thought out, being a variety of low-level goons who are easily dispatched with a good punch in the ribs, plus one "boss" character who can control people by waving his hands. There's just nothing new here, and not even the art can save this one—it's the same old roster of school-age type characters, and Kamatani doesn't draw in the backgrounds often enough. You want real ninja action? There's always that orange-jumpsuited blond kid.
Relies too much on the same old fighting-action story tropes, and even a certain level of stylishness in the battle scenes can't save it from a C.
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $7.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Winning isn't everything in the game of basketball, but who wants to come in second? It takes dedication and discipline to be the best, and the Shohoku High hoops team wants to be just that. They have one last year to make their captain's dream of reaching the finals come true—will they do it? Takehiko Inoue's legendary beloved basketball manga is finally here and the tale of a lifetime is in your hands.
Shohoku's (somewhat) friendly game against Ryonan gets underway. Old rivalries reignite with captain Akagi going toe-to-toe with Ryonan's center, Uozumi. Hanamichi has flat-out declared that he will personally shut down Ryonan's ace, Sendoh, but will Kaede Rukawa take care of things before Hanamichi even gets a chance to hit the floor? Either way, this is bound to be a game to remember."
You know how every now and then I sing the praises of a shônen manga where the entire volume is one massively awesome sword fight? This is one of those volumes, except they're fighting with balls, not swords. Inoue creates pure basketball ballet in these chapters, flowing seamlessly from one play to the next as if it were a real game. And that's the key that makes this story arc shine—realism and pacing that mirrors the rhythms of actual basketball, with pinpoint jump shots, fierce blocks, fleet-footed fast breaks, no-look passes, and the occasional dunk. Best of all, the variety of layouts and view angles makes this even more lively than watching an actual game; a blank sheet of paper obviously allows for certain angles that no TV camera can get to. Meanwhile, Sakuragi adds his own brand of energy to the game with his ridiculous sense of humor, pranking the opposing team and generally being a nuisance. But just wait until he actually gets on the court—this is where the comedy gold really begins, and you start wondering why there isn't a basketball equivalent of Major League. Because that would be awesome.
It has been said before, it needs to be again: for all his talent as a storyteller, Takehiko Inoue can be painfully slow at times. Not that anyone would notice when they're caught up in the pace of this volume, but it's a bit of a disappointment as the last page arrives with no heroic moment from Sakuragi because there are still several minutes to play. In fact, all we get this time is several clowning-around moments, and that gets old really fast, especially considering that he probably should have been ejected within the first five minutes. The pace of the game has its flaws too; by the middle chapters, the highlight plays have already been made and things settle into a dull repetitiveness (Akagi is powerful, Rukawa is speedy, Sendoh is multitalented, Sakuragi is nuts). And one last thing about the artwork—the pacing and layouts are great, but the actual poses in each panel have occasional blips of awkwardness. Was Inoue photo-referencing or trying to draw from scratch? Either way, these basketball moves aren't always convincing.
Although completely caught up in the mechanics of playing a basketball game, this is still another entertaining entry in the series and worthy of a B.
(by kakifly, Houbunsha, ¥860)
FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"It's Yui Hirasawa's first year in high school, and she's eagerly searching for a club to join. At the same time, Ritsu Tainaka, a drummer, and her friend Mio Akiyama, a bass player, are desperately trying to save the school's light music club, which is about to be disbanded due to lack of members. They manage to recruit Tsumugi Kotobuki to play the keyboard, meaning they only need one more member to get the club running again. Yui joins, thinking it will be an easy experience for her to play the castanets, the only instrument she knows. However, the other members think their new addition is actually a guitar prodigy..."
It's as if K-ON! is purposely stacking the odds against itself: the premise falls right into the "cute girls doing cute things" pigeonhole, it's in the near-impossible-to-do-well four-panel format, and the strips combine to tell actual story arcs. Yet despite all those obstacles, the series still finds ways to succeed within the strict four-panel layout, always hitting a punchline or advancing the plot no matter how incremental it may be. The humor is at its best with pure music-geek gags, like Yui's obsession with her new guitar (instrument acqusition syndrome, anyone?), the odd feeling of developing finger calluses, and the inherently funny sound of a bent pitch. What also sets this apart from the average four-panel effort is that the characters are actually identifiable, and after a while, distinctively charming—as opposed to other comedies that think being loud and annoying all the time is the fast track to funny. Rather, it's more about the characters being in tune with each other, establishing a good comedic rhythm, following the dynamics of the story, and okay, these music metaphors really need to stop. But you get the point.
Story structure aside, the other problem with the four-panel format is how it allows little room for artistic embellishment, and wouldn't you know it, this one falls short on visuals. Despite the cute, distinctive characters and the occasional well-drawn guitar, this series is still beleaguered by incomplete backgrounds, talking head scenes, and an over-reliance on the same convenient visual gag (yes, Mio is scared of many things, we get it already). Plus, like many comedies of this type, there are just as many misses as there are hits, mostly with the chapters that trot out generic school-year material already covered in most other series—Christmas, New Year's, summer vacation ... The school festival falls somewhere in between, as most other school comedies take the café or stage-play route, but the pratfall at the end of the school festival performance was despairingly predictable. Also fairly predictable is the assigning of personality types to certain characters; they might be charming and likable, but that doesn't stop them from being one-dimensional moe-marketing tools.
Four-panel format is intensely difficult. Slice-of-life comedy is way overdone. But despite all that, the charming characters and element of music in this series still help to make it shine.
I remember watching the anime of this and thinking, "Wait, that was it?" There's at least one other person in the world who puts Saikano in the "Overrated" category. See below for RJ Kirkevold's take on this apocalyptic saga.
Meanwhile, with convention season entering full swing, there's one thought on many people's minds: "Someone please license this series!" So send in reviews of the Manga You Most Want To See Licensed and maybe this summer you'll get your wish...
(by Shin Takahashi, Viz Media, $9.95 ea.)
Saikano tells the story of Shuji and Chise, two high school students who are almost exact opposites (Shuji is tall, athletic and gets good grades, Chise is struggling in her classes, clumsy, and is far smaller than normal), but they agree to fall in love. Their relationship is just beginning when we find out that Chise has been turned into a living weapon. Apparently, Japan and the rest of the world are at war, and Chise is Japan's only hope for victory. Takahashi has created a unique scenario, and one that's great for setting up Chise's inevitable fall as truly tragic. So why did it falter?
To put it bluntly, Shin Takahashi desperately needed a good editor. His dialogue between characters rarely feels natural, especially the dialogue between Shuji and Chise. For example, the phrase "I care for you" is severely overused, and never feels right when it is.
It's also very hard to develop any sort of empathy for the characters. Shuji is suppose to be a very cool character, but comes off as a jerk. As the series goes on, the way he treats Chise becomes more disgusting. Chise doesn't come off any better. She is far to passive and childish for much of the story. In a good tragedy, the reader should be empathetic to the characters, because that creates a more emotional response. So because of his main character's flaws, the story is diminished.
And then there's the sex. It's not like sex cannot have a place in manga, but Takahashi seems to use it as a replacement for actually advancing his plot. The most notable example of this is in the final volume, where there is an essentially X-rated sex scene that takes place over two very long chapters. This scene, much like the number of smaller ones before it, serve no purpose to the story. This is also where Takahashi's character design causes some problems. Chise is physically smaller and far less developed than the rest of the female characters—she literally looks like a junior high student, which is very striking when compared to the average-looking Shuji. It's very disturbing to see this young-looking character treated as a sexual object. This could be showing just how far from innocence Chise has fallen, but I think it's more of a fetishization of the younger design.
Saikano could have easily been a great manga, and it's sad that it isn't.
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)
- 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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