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The Despair of the Letter Bees

by Carlo Santos,

The time: July 4, 2009.
The place: A hotel room in Los Angeles. Ground zero at Anime Expo.

Sometimes, at a convention, you forget what federal holiday it is. I had just seen the concert of my life the day before, and first thing I did after getting up was to reach for my laptop and find out how the rest of the world had reacted to Morning Musume's debut performance in America. At the same time, I decided to check up on AKB48's showing in Paris, and after letting Google do its business, I found something much more interesting: the words "AKB48" and "New York" in the same sentence.

Not ten minutes later, my similarly web-browsing roommate, ANN's expert news guy Egan, mentioned to me: "Did you see this news that AKB48 might be doing a concert in New York?"

I replied with the one thought that had completely swept over my mind: "This is AMAZING if true."

"Well, it's being reported in all the three major Japanese tabloids, and usually, when they all break the same news, that means it's true..."

All that's left now, in one month's time, is for truth to become reality.

Vol. 7
(by Tadashi Kawashima and Adachitoka, Del Rey, $11.99)

"After defeating Asou—who can turn his victims to stone—and shapeshifter Ron, Taisuke reluctantly follows the two comrades as they lead him to the mysterious Acro's Heart. Can he trust them? The mastermind Katsumata awaits them at their destination. What dangers will Taisuke and his friends encounter once they arrive?"

The day of the big battle is here at last—and once again, Alive proves why it stands a notch above all the other series involving teens with destructive psychic powers. Rather than just jump straight into the action, the storyline prepares itself on an emotional level as well; flashbacks and moments of reflection remind us just why it's so important for these kids to be doing what they're doing. Ice-user Nami is the star of the show this time, as she finally gets an opportunity to avenge the greatest tragedy of her past—and certainly, the fight wouldn't be half as gripping if there weren't a good, clear explanation for her motive. The rest of the ensemble gets their share of action as well, with all the enemies from past encounters gathering up for a multiplayer melee against Taisuke's gang. Naturally, Adachitoka is once again on top of things as an illustrator, putting each of the bad guys' powers on display: the explosions, the bubbles, the kamaitachi, the promise breaker ... and at the same time, still showing detail, restraint, and cleanliness of line. This could shape up to be the psychic battle of the year.

It used to be a regular routine with each volume of Alive: complain about how the villains' storyline keeps being doled out in awkward fragments, and how they don't make a whole lot of sense. Even now, with their motives 90% revealed and a head-on confrontation underway, that fragmentation still pops up: the first chapter of this volume, for example, centers on the aftermath of the Asou battle but jumps to a handful of pages about Katsumata's preparations. And once the battle is actually happening, even that gets split up, with Nami going one-on-one while everyone else is brawling in the woods somewhere. In fact, Nami's entire fight never quite evolves into the epic showdown that it's supposed to be, because it keeps getting interrupted by other plot activities, including something that happens at the end of the volume. Such is the difficulty of setting up a final confrontation where all the characters need to get equal play. Perhaps Volume 8 will finally have the glue that can hold it all together...

It could use a little tightening up, but make no mistake, this is still the cream of the psychic-action-adventure crop—and gets a B as a result.

Vol. 2
(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..."

Japan's most shocking social experiment since Death Note continues—and with the second half of this volume, it can now be safely said that Motoro Mase gets it. The three chapters that make up "The Night He Left For War" are as masterful as they come, at times heartbreaking, at other times uplifting, and always emotionally honest. The way Mase accomplishes this is by a technique that was perfected by none other than Naoki Urasawa: don't focus the story directly on the main idea (i.e. the ikigami), but dig into the lives of the characters who will ultimately be affected by it. That's how you get this deeply powerful tale, complete with picturesque sunsets and historical flashbacks, telling us essential truths about the value of human life. The other story in this volume, "The Pure Love Drug," is a bit simpler but no less poignant; the expressions etched into each character's face and the urgency of a 24-hour countdown transform every scene into a moment not to be wasted. Even with seemingly ordinary characters and an ordinary setting, Mase's strong storytelling and artistry yields some extraordinary results.

Even with such moving themes of love, life and sacrifice, one can't help but wonder if Ikigami is not so much about emotional honesty as it is about emotional manipulation. After all, both stories in this volume rely on a number of tropes that are supposed to evoke instant sympathy: a drug abuser and a young struggling couple in the first one, and then the events of World War II and the elderly in the second. Hey, we're supposed to feel sorry for these people because the media tells us to! Or is it because Motoro Mase has built genuinely good stories around each character? This debate could go either way. There are also some instances of artistic laziness, most of which involve conspicuous computer-generated effects. We know that Mase is talented enough to make each scene shine with pure drawing ability—so why do some of the most pivotal moments in the series have to be ruined with distracting Photoshop filters?

How good are the stories in this volume? So good that even technical nitpicks can't bring them down. The honest, human quality of Ikigami earns it one of the few A grades that are only given to the very best.

Vol. 3
(by Koji Kumeta, Del Rey, $10.99)

"One of Zetsubou-sensei's new students—a genius storyteller—can melt even his teacher's black heart. Meanwhile, Chiri, the obsessive-compulsive girl who longs to marry Zetsubou-sensei, is thrilled when the morose young man actually invites her somewhere. Has Zetsubou-sensei asked Chiri out on a date, or is he planning a murder-suicide? Either option may involve flowers!"

Don't be in despair, dear readers! The latest volume of Zetsubou-sensei proves that Koji Kumeta is sticking exactly to what he does best: tossing out witty observations on modern life at such ridiculous speed that you'll miss a gag if you blink. Get ready to laugh at the things that gross people out, the concept of "minimum culture," society's tendency to put even mildly-above-average achievements on a pedestal, and the dark secrets that lie hidden in everyone's past. As always, the quirky characters push these ideas to the point of hilarious exaggeration, and when that's not enough, dozens of pop-culture references help to provide accompanying examples. Even chapters that are more centered on the characters, like the one about the heart-wrenching storyteller and the one where everyone goes into hibernation (except Chiri), provide nonstop laughs as we see familiar personality traits go into overdrive. Of course, no one goes into overdrive quite like Zetsubou-sensei himself, spouting out brilliant lines like "A famous man once said, 'There are no right answers in life,' so life is nothing but a succession of mistakes!" Now that's a philosophy worth living by.

It's true that one shouldn't mess with a formula once it's known to work—but that means having to put up with the formula's shortcomings as well. Unfortunately, Kumeta is such a brilliant satirist that he manages to pull an "In before..." trick and points out all of his own mistakes through the reader mail section in the back. So, fine, let's go down the list of things that need improvement in Zetsubou-sensei: too many characters, some of which are hard to tell apart; not enough screentone, thus making the panels look too plain in black and white; not enough male students (if it weren't for Usui and Jun, how would we even remember it's a co-ed school?); and not enough substance—meaning that there's the tendency to take one comedic idea and run it completely into the ground. While we're at it, let's also mention the extremely crowded paneling, which ruins some of the jokes because they're all competing for space. Maybe the editor ought to give Kumeta more pages to work with?

How awesome is this artist that he even calls himself out on his own mistakes? Once again, this series' unique brand of pessimism earns it an A-.

Vol. 2
(by Kazuki Nakashima and Karakarakemuri, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"The three Takerus attempt to help the kingdom of Jagara protect the powerful Sword of Susanoh from the marauding empire of Amamikado. Unfortunately for them, they hadn't counted on one of the kingdom's three queens going turncoat and sneaking the enemy forces into the palace where the sword is kept! Oguna's secret is revealed, and the true power of the hidden sword proves to be more than anyone bargained for..."

The first volume of Takeru was an interesting if somewhat predictable tale of adventure-fantasy. So what do they do to make it better? Throw predictability out the window! It's a glorious parade of plot twists in these next few chapters, and suffice to say, the original three heroes may not seem so heroic anymore after 180 pages of betrayal and bloodshed. It's not just the main characters who undergo radical changes, either—the queens of the Jagara kingdom have their own web of deceit to work through, with the greatest and most shocking twist reserved for the central object of the story: the Holy Sword. You thought this was going to be a straight good-guy-versus-bad-guy fantasy hack-and-slash? Not anymore! But whichever way the story turns, the vivid artwork and unique quasi-mythological setting keep things interesting from a visual perspective as well. Between the invasion of Amamikado, the revelation of the sword, and a thrilling escape, there's plenty of material to dazzle your eyes—and blow your mind.

If there are so many dramatic twists and turns waiting to happen ... why does the story still feel like it's dragging its feet? Once again, Takeru gives off that vibe of marching methodically through each plot point, as if shocking revelations and changes of allegiance are just chores to be completed before advancing to the next stage of the adventure. Even the artwork, which wins points for being bold and action-packed, ends up defeating itself because it's bold and action-packed on every single page. Seriously, flip through the book at random and try to identify which part of the story it's on just by looking at the pictures. Aside from a few key panels, this is very hard to do because all the pages look the same. Swords! Blood! People fighting! Doesn't anything else happen in this series? Oh yeah, there's the 30 pages of the Jagara village party, which is supposed to stall for time and set up a couple of plot points. Talk about boring.

After the promise of the first volume, this one delivers magnificently with unexpected twists and revelations. Shame, then, about the monotonic pace that just kind of trudges through each plot points, resulting in a C+.

Vol. 1
(by Hiroyuki Asada, Viz Media, $7.99)

"Amberground is locked in darkness. A man-made star casts only a dim light over the land. The pitch-black wilderness is infested with Gaichuu—colossal insects with metal exoskeletons. The Gaichuu make travel between the cities of Amberground extremely dangerous. But thankfully the Letter Bees, a brave corps of messengers, risk their lives in order to keep the hearts of Amberground connected.
Gauche Suede is on his last delivery before a big promotion. In the outskirts of Yodaka, the darkest area of Amberground, Gauche is surprised to find that the package is a young boy named Lag Seeing. Lag had been traumatized by his mother's abduction and is due to be delivered to his aunt. In this remote area rife with Gaichuu, Lag and Gauche face a dangerous journey that inspires Lag to become a Letter Bee."

If Waqwaq got the thumbs-up for fantasy world-building a month ago, then Tegami Bachi deserves a thumbs-up and a couple of big toes as well. The world of Amberground is a universe so complete, and so creative, that the story in this volume feels like just the tip of a fascinating iceberg. Where other series usually end up being shootouts involving bad guys and monsters, this one really puts the emphasis on exploration and survival—which is to be expected when the central characters are letter carriers and not fighters. Because of this, the adventures of Gauche (and later on, Lag) convey a true sense of wonder and discovery, with plenty of surprises springing from the landscape and its inhabitants. A unique artistic style contributes in a big way to this sense of wonder, from the starlit skies to the ever-changing terrain and even the retro-cool character designs. Plus, when the time does come to fight bad guys and monsters, the concept of "spirit amber" and "heart" puts a whole new visual spin on things. Most action scenes are praised for being dynamic; these ones, on the other hand, are downright beautiful.

If exploration and survival are the main draw, then why even have fighting in it? The idea of intrepid letter carriers in a land of perpetual night is awesome enough in itself—but throw in the monsters and that's when Tegami Bachi starts to get silly. The idea of pulling out one's magic gun to shoot giant insects with the power of "heart" may look pretty on paper ... but the underlying concept still sounds like every other "I'll defeat you with my spirit power!" adventure series out there. Meanwhile, the aspect of the series that would really make it shine—the personal relationships between Letter Bees, their partners, and their clients—goes underdeveloped, as proven by the initial story with Gauche and Lag. Those 120-plus pages are supposed to provide the entire foundation for Lag's future aspirations, and Asada even tosses in some flashbacks to fill up the emotional and narrative quotient of the story, but he never really strikes the center of the reader's heart. Too busy drawing those fancy starlit backgrounds, maybe.

A little bit generic, even though it's trying not to be ... but when comparing the visual style against others in the genre, it's clearly worthy of at least a B.

Vol. 1
(story by Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman, art by Anzu, Del Rey, $12.99)

"High school student Kitty Pryde has always been the odd girl out. A mutant, she was born with strange superpowers, magical talents that make her the class freak. But Kitty's world is changed when she's invited to study at Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, a special home for mutant teens. There's just one catch: Kitty's the only girl at the all-boy school, and she ends up just feeling like a freak all over again. Then Kitty meets Pyro and the ultra-hot bad boys of the Hellfire Club. They're the school's elite—handsome, rich, and totally above the rules. Now Kitty seems to have it all: a dreamy boyfriend, super-cool friends, and the chance to develop her extraordinary talents. But why is her heart telling her that something is wrong? Will Kitty ever find the place where she belongs, or is she doomed to be a misfit forever?"

Del Rey's Wolverine spinoff may have seemed like an adequate "manga-style X-Men" at the time—but deep down it was still a manly action-adventure brawl. This, on the other hand, is a complete stylistic overhaul, extending so far out on the shoujo scale that you'll think you accidentally stepped into Ouran High School Host Club with superpowers. Half the fun is in discovering how each of the franchise's major players are re-interpreted, from the senior members of Professor X's cabal (Storm and Beast get the most visually striking makeovers) to the teenage brats of the Academy (get ready to drool over Pyro and Iceman). However, it's Kitty Pryde's girl's-eye-view of the X-Men universe, that really sets the story apart, emphasizing school life and personal relationships rather than the fist-pumping and chest-thumping that usually comes with the genre. Even the big action sequence at the end feels different, because we're now more interested in the characters' interactions with each other rather than pure displays of power. Has the "superhero comics for girls" barrier been broken at last?

Okay, I'll give this one credit for NOT employing the "Eastern martial arts training" gimmick that seems to show up in every manga-style superhero spinoff. But that doesn't stop X-Men: Misfits from bringing in a bunch of other gimmicks from the pages of Ribon, Nakayoshi and Ciao, including sparkly screentone effects (seriously, do not read this volume without proper eye protection), lookalike bishounen who all have the same wind-swept hair, armor-piercing chins and impossibly chiseled abs, and the ridiculous catgirl chibis every time Kitty is overcome with emotion. (The pun on her name is silly enough; is it really necessary to make it a visual gag as well?) Worst of all, the thing that is supposed to be a defining feature of most girls' manga—romance—is one of the weakest elements of the story. The way it's written, Kitty is just kind of thrown into Pyro's arms and then they kiss every half a chapter or so. Is this a professional product or trumped-up fanfiction?

True, this one lays on the shoujo clichés pretty thick, but as far as superhero re-interpretations go, this is one of the most inventive ones yet.

Nothing this week on titles that should never have been licensed! Instead, we'll turn to Rebecca for the good word on another title that deserves a Western publisher.

Meanwhile, with another school year upon us, the new topic of choice is clear: the Most Educational Manga You've Ever Read! And that doesn't just mean manga that's intended to be educational, but any manga that's taught you useless (or useful) trivia. I, for one, know more about breadmaking than I ever ought to …

(by Rinko Ueda, Shueisha, ¥390 ea.)

I'm sick of romances. Gooey, mushy, oh-I-can't-tell-him-my-feelings dreck litters the shelves like wind blown apples, sending a sweet yet gruesome smell into the world. Yes, I'm sick of romances. But...

I adore love stories.

How are the two different? In my mind, a love story is a plot that involves the romance between two characters but also has some other driving factor, like, say, the possibility of a treaty between Spain and Japan in the 17th century. There is meat to the story beyond the coupledom of the hero and heroine, and one of the series that does it best is Rinko Ueda's two-volume Home.

Home is the story of Maria, a Spanish girl who becomes involved with Koujiro, a young samurai attached to a political group nominally interested in forming a treaty with Spain. When things go sour, Maria's family takes Koujiro in and eventually help him return to Japan to stop the machinations of evil politicians. Naturally Maria and Koujiro fall in love, but as neither speaks the other's language well (if at all) for most of the series, they are forced to do so through gestures and deeds rather than flowery pronouncements. Thus a touch or the simple act of giving someone a bowl of soup takes on a significance usually reserved for kisses and hand-holding.

Ueda's art is clear about these moments and is pleasing to the eye in general. Characters in profile occasionally suffer from fish-face syndrome, but largely the lines are clean and the art attractive. One scene on a tall ship is enough to make a sailing buff drool—the lines of the rigging and the feel of the ship are worthy of Treasure Island, if not Patrick O'Brian.

But what's best about this series is the sense of contentment reading it brings. It has adventure, politics, romance, exotic settings, and swordfights, but it also has the feeling of slipping on your old flannel nightgown and fuzzy slippers for an evening by the fire. It's cream of wheat in a sea of cotton candy, filling and good and redolant of coziness.

So go on, Viz and Tokyopop, Yen Press and GoComi—keep licensing sugary and silly romances about empty-headed high schoolers suffering from hormone poisoning. But you'll be neglecting something much richer and filling, and that even comes in a neat two volume package.

Sometimes the savory things are best.

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 (plain text format preferred). 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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