Bleach Holic

by Carlo Santos,

I can't believe stores are already starting to advertise for Halloween.

And then, of course, as soon as the Halloween gear goes down, the Christmas stuff goes up!

I wonder what it's like in the retail world always living 2 months in the future.

Vol. 4
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Kenji wrote 'The Book of Prophecy' in his boyhood. Now this childish fantasy has become the scenario for the Friend's fiendish plot to destroy mankind. Kenji goes underground and waits for a chance to fight back.
Meanwhile, the evil organization is closing in on a man called Shogun in the ganglands of Bangkok. The mystery grows deeper, the fear more intense, as we near the final battle at the turn of the century ... Is there really any way to save the world from annihilation?"

He's done it again. Naoki Urasawa's storytelling talent continues to shine, this time putting the spotlight on Shogun/Otcho—a character who was initially suspected of being a bad guy but turns out to be a badass guy. In several gripping chapters, we get to see a microcosm of what makes 20th Century Boys tick: the arduous journey of a boy into adulthood, with flashbacks to the pivotal events that ultimately shape one's life. Right, right, it's also supposed to be an epic thriller with captivating art and perfectly timed visual pacing, but that coming-of-age aspect is what adds so much depth to the story. After all, just look at that one chapter with Professor Shikishima, which could easily have been a cheap "meanwhile, back at villain HQ" scenario, but instead becomes a comical and nostalgic look at Japan's mecha traditions. These and other casual references to retro pop culture help to keep the series grounded in its central theme: What if all your childhood dreams and nightmares suddenly came true? The answer is found in this tale of suspense, drama, and sometimes even humor that can't be put down.

Even as a multi-award-winning master, Urasawa still gets things wrong from time to time. Like when he gets so caught up in developing Otcho's character that almost everyone else drops out of the story. So what happened to all of Kenji's other childhood pals? I can't tell you, because they're practically MIA for this entire volume. And all of those timeskips between 1997, 2000, and the years between—sometimes they're too subtle for their own good, making it hard to identify whether a scene is happening now, or just a little bit before now, or might be happening sometime from now. Then, after Kenji and Otcho have their climactic, old-time friendly reunion, the storyline seems to go into a holding pattern again as we wait to see where things are headed next. Oh, and ever notice how Urasawa recycles certain design templates for the minor characters? Those who've read enough of his stuff should know.

The dramatic arrival of Otcho is what really makes this volume—well, that and the hilarious conversation about giant robots. The ever-deepening conspiracy gets a B+ this time around.

Vol. 28
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $7.95)

"Ichigo 'Strawberry' Kurosaki never asked for the ability to see ghosts—he was born with the gift. When his family is attacked by a Hollow—a malevolent lost soul—Ichigo becomes a Soul Reaper, dedicating his life to protecting the innocent and helping the tortured spirits themselves find peace. Find out which Tite Kubo's Bleach has become an international manga smash-hit!
Ichigo, Chad and Uryû are determined to rescue Orihime from Aizen's vile machinations. But though the Arrancars' fortress is in sight, the would-be heroes must first pass Tres Cifras—the land of the disgraced Arrancars, who see destroying Ichigo and his friends as a way to redeem their honor!"

Don't let anyone ever say that Bleach has gotten boring. With Ichigo's quest in the Arrancar world of Hueco Mundo now in full swing, the variety of opponents, combat styles, and even places to fight just seems to keep growing. In this volume alone, our heroes journey through an underground room, an open desert, and a cavernous hallway, showing the skills of a 1200-arrow-per-shot archer, a guy with a gigantic right hand, and some classic Soul Reaper swordsmanship, all the while facing off against the likes of high-level Hollows, giant sand beasts and a mustachioed dandy. As always, Tite Kubo's artistic dynamism is alive and well, bending perspective and capturing motion in ways that keep each fight scene fresh. But the real genius of this arc may be the glimpses of what's going on at the enemy camp: Ulquiorra's rundown of how he psychologically "trapped" Orihime is genuinely riveting, adding a level of depth and wickedness that make the bad guys much more interesting than just a bunch of sneering faces. That's going to be one hell of a battle once Ichigo and friends get to it.

The fact that we're going to have to sit and wait for Ichigo and friends to get to that big, highly-anticipated battle is exactly what's wrong with this series right now. Everyone already knows that, at some point, he's going to have to fight off the Arrancar generals to rescue Orihime, and seeing all this small fry being thrown at the squad is just a whole lot of grinding and time-stalling. ("It would've been fun if they'd tunneled right into the throne room," jokes one Arrancar; it also would've helped make this arc less of a drag.) And no matter how creatively designed the enemies are, if all it takes to beat them is sheer brute force—more arrows! More arm strength! More Soul power!—then there's not a whole lot of creativity going into the actual fight itself. Even Kubo's trump cards, his holy-mother-of-all-eye-candy full-page panels, don't show up as often as usual. Then there's the pitiful excuse for comic relief known as Nel and the "desert brothers." They're annoying, useless, unfunny, and they need to be stopped.

You know what happens when you pull off slick, dashing fight scenes, but all of them involve grinding one's way through minor characters? You get a B-, of course.

Vol. 1
(by Wataru Mizukami, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Sachiko is wildly attracted to the quiet, cool Akihiko, the 'Four-Eyed Prince.' But now they've become siblings by marriage—and must live under the same roof, as brother and sister! And if that isn't bad enough, it turns out that Akihiko is hiding a surprise behind those nerdy glasses."

The common complaint about school-age shoujo is that it appears to have been drawn by the visually impaired, or at least the visual-design impaired, who are compelled by a pathological urge to fill every inch of free space with sparkles and mini-panels and and microscopic dialogue. Not so in Four-Eyed Prince, which actually leaves enough space for the eye to maneuver, get into the flow of the story, and move from scene to scene at a decent pace. There's also an unusual directness in the way the characters express themselves and handle their relationships: one of the most memorable scenes in this volume, for example, is where Sachiko stands on a bridge and yells out all her frustrations about Akihiko. But the best place for watching sparks fly, of course, is when the two of them are in the same room confronting each other: their snippy arguments are a driving force that proves why romance is so much more fun when people don't get along.

How can anyone begin to like a series when the characters are so completely unlikable? As the synopsis suggests, there's an "alternate personality" to Akihiko, but as it turns out, all this means is that he turns from an enigmatic jerk who wears glasses to an enigmatic jerk who doesn't wear glasses. Basically, it's an attempt at playing the "mean guy with a sweet side" card (which is already overdone anyway), and then not knowing which side of the card is which. Worse yet is that Sachiko, who is supposed to be the heroine, lacks any of the necessary charm. Instead, she comes off as a flake who has a weird fetish and then whines and whines because her ideal high school romance isn't turning out right. And that's to say nothing of the contrived situations that she and Akihiko end up in, like a pathetically rigged school contest and a bizarre couple-swap at a hot springs. (The one-shot at the end of the book suffers from a similarly unlikable, unconvincing lead couple.) Oh, and everyone is drawn cross-eyed, of course, with outstandingly generic character designs and a minimalist (read: lazy) sense of background. Sounds about right.

I kept trying to like them, but they wouldn't let me! This contrived, charmless love story, with its dull visual style, is lucky to get off with a D.

Vol. 2
(by RAN, Del Rey, $10.99)

"After escaping the attack on the kingdom of Arbansbool, the prince is left with only six of his personal maids for protection. Armed with the Holy Weapons from the royal house's shrine, these women are known as the Order of the Maid. Now they have reached an allied fortress, only to be surrounded by a giant army from the hostile nation of Nowarle. Will these servants-turned-warriors prevail?"

After how things played out in the first volume of Maid War Chronicle, there was the fear that the series would turn into a monotonous running-through-the-woods adventure where Prince Alex and his maids would fight off random opponents until he got his kingdom back. Such fears can be put to rest, however, after seeing the sheer variety of situations in this latest installment. Aside from a hair-raising escape from the forces of Nowarle, there's a pirate adventure on the open sea, a skills contest at a maid academy, a night spent camping in the woods, and a tavern incident that ends this volume on perhaps the most shocking cliffhanger yet. Heck, they're pretty much doing everything except fighting off random opponents! The addition of short-statured, short-tempered maid Kirsch also brings new energy to the cast, and you won't believe what Holy Weapon she picks out. The artistry continues to achieve a pleasing balance between fine-lined moe design and livelier action and slapstick moments—proof that this tongue-in-cheek fantasy is doing everything in its power to avoid getting boring.

Although variety is usually a good thing, losing track of what the series is about is decidedly not. In just its second volume, Maid War Chronicle already seems to be missing the point: cute frilly maids who fight with weapons twice their size. We are not here for maids having a contest to see who is the best servant, or maids camping in the woods, or maids taking on odd jobs to make money. If it's going to be about stuff like that, this might as well be just another generic harem series! And maybe if RAN stuck to the basic theme of fighting various opponents, there wouldn't be all these storytelling hiccups, like the fortress battle where the maids miraculously teleport from being in the thick of battle to running off behind the front lines, or where the evil pirate captain suddenly blips out of existence because he was defeated, or that "Intermission" chapter that doesn't accomplish anything. It's already hard enough trying to remember who all the maids are (yeah, the character designs are pretty awful and generic). Don't make it harder by coughing up chapters full of story holes.

It could have been a lot better ... if the maids spent more time battling with the weapons they'd been given in the first place! This adventure is fun enough to earn a C, but it needs a better sense of focus.

Vol. 1
(by Minari Endo, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Because of her phobia of men, Kanako enrolls in an all-girls school to find her one true love. When she meets a captivating freshman named Mariya who fits her criteria, it turns out that her seemingly ideal mate happens to be a cross-dressing sadistic boy! Can things get any worse?"

Not that this series has anything to do with Maria Watches Over Us, but when both of them are similarly named and similarly themed, one can't help but compare. And where the original Maria was perhaps too sentimental, too goopy, too overloaded with confessions of blossoming schoolgirl love ... this one is a delightfully wicked reversal, full of cattiness and bullying and all the real gossip that goes on at girls' parochial schools. Heck, they even have a primer on how actual Catholic rosaries work, just for that added touch of realism. But back to the story at hand: Kanako may be the central character, but only in the sense that she's the "eye of the storm"—the real fun is in all the whirlwind relationships surrounding her. Between the overzealous fan club of tomboyish senior Ishima, the high-tension rivalry between Mariya and the student council president, the desperate attempts to win an aloof classmate's friendship, this is yuri boarding-school romance with claws and teeth, drawn in bold strokes of comedy and delivered with pointed one-liners. "Gokigenyou" is definitely NOT in the series' vocabulary.

I really should have just bailed out when it was revealed that Mariya was actually a boy. Because when an author mindlessly digs into the gender-bending trope for a cheap laugh, things probably aren't going to get much better. Sure enough, most of Kanako's misadventures are just variations on overused school-comedy plots. Being picked on by the fan club of the hottest girl in school, getting caught up in student council politics, being awoken suggestively by Mariya every morning—wow, you could drive a dagger through every single page in this book and not hit a single original idea. Even worse is that Minari Endoh's poor control of text and visual mechanics turns most scenes into walls of dialogue where the girls just stand and chat. It doesn't matter than the linework is sharp and that the characters are attractive and that the script is peppered with wit and sarcasm—the point is, no one's going to care about that if the pages are too cluttered to read. Do you enjoy trying to guess who spoke which line of dialogue? If so, you're just going to love this series.

Well, at least it tried to put a new spin on the all-girls boarding-school theme. Unfortunately, poor plotting and worse visual layouts knock this down to a C-.

Vol. 1
(by Baku Yumemakura and Takashi Noguchi, Shueisha, ¥590)

"Kuro, a 12th-century man, flees into the mountains after losing to his brother, where he meets a strange, beautiful woman named Kuromitsu. Kuro falls in love with Kuromitsu but realizes she conceals a dark secret. She is unable to die and continues to live for thousands of years as Japan evolves into a future society."

We should all be thankful for Kurozuka, which keeps the tradition of "manly manga" alive in a world where almost everything else has been moe-fied to death. Not content to just have historical warriors fighting over a deadly secret, this first volume puts the "grievous" in grievous bodily harm: limbs go flying, blood goes spurting, and decapitation is a regular occurrence. This visceral experience is enhanced by the sheer detail of Takashi Noguchi's art, who puts a savage pen to paper for the slashing swordfights, and then miraculously pulls back for moments of intense beauty when we see the countryside that Kuro is wandering through. With such rich shading and a strong sense of motion, this is a true artistic heir to the gekiga classics like Lone Wolf and Cub. The story, too, carries rich layers of emotion and meaning, especially with the growing relationship between Kuro and Kuromitsu—a relationship that becomes even more heart-wrenching when Kuromitsu's terrible, gruesome secret is revealed. There's no love quite as powerful as a love borne out of pain, and with Noguchi illustrating so vividly what pain feels like, this fantastical drama really hits hard.

It may be loaded with intense artwork and shocking moments, but half the time it seems like Kurozuka is trotting out a whole lot of gore for gore's sake. Look, we'll allow you some nudity and sexuality, and you can have a reasonable share of blood-stained violence to make a point. But when the main characters are crawling over each other to engage in a round of passionate blood-sucking, well, that's off into the land of freaky-deaky fetish territory right there. As we have already learned from the more mainstream side of the vampire genre (and yes, this series has vampiric overtones), the act of blood-sucking is inherently cheesy, and when a dramatic story like this tries to take it super-seriously, it just makes the cheese factor worse. The addition of sexual subtext is also worth a few cringes. It's a shame, because the series handles the historical aspect so well—the setting, the characters, the swordfights—but gets derailed by supernatural shenanigans. And later on the story jumps a few thousand years into the future. This won't end well.

It's a wonderland of blood-soaked swordfights and shocking supernatural secrets, but yes, some aspects are just too loopy to be taken seriously.

Come on, hasn't anyone out there read an educational manga they'd like to review? Let the world know about your favorite series for learning useless information!

In the meantime, we'll look at Ozu's choice for a series that deserves to be licensed—and this one sounds like a surefire seller.

(by Iwashiro Toshiaki, Shueisha, ¥410 ea.)

Alright, now, before I say anything else, I have to admit that I am a fan of shounen manga. I read Bleach faithfully every week, and I love the whole 'good guy beats up bad guy for truth and justice' thing. It's a bit of my guilty pleasure. But so many people these days seem to associate shounen manga with long-winded, drawn out training arcs and burly guys yelling about who's tougher, so I figure it's my duty as a shounen fan to set people right by showing them a good shounen manga, Psyren.

Psyren is probably one of my favourite series altogether, actually, because I just can't help but love the way the story, which centers around some Digimon-esque looking guy named Nemesis Q who randomly hands out phone-cards to people, is written. These phone-cards, when used, transfer the person who used the card to a separate world known as Psyren, where all manner of monsters are ready to eat you and rip you apart. Fortunately the air in Psyren has a property that awakens psychic powers, allowing people to fight back against said monsters. Sound original? No, not really, but it's just pulled off in such a quirky yet interesting way that it can't help but grab attention. The characters are likable enough, even though they're not exactly the most original, and there just seems to be something for everybody.

The action scenes are very well-done, and the art remains, for the most part, clean and easy to look at. Unlike other series, where I'm wondering what I'm even looking at when I come to an action scene, Psyren pulls it off, and pulls it off well. The fights are entertaining, and some of the powers that the characters have are honestly quite unique and interesting. It does, admittedly, follow the typical shounen-style of storytelling, with the protagonist learning that he has an amazing power but no idea how to control it, which is followed by some quick training and then a series of 'ladder' bad-guys (i.e., beating the weaker ones only to find one stronger), but it doesn't spend too much time focusing on the things that usually tend to drag out in these kinds of stories, and instead focuses primarily on the series' strongest point, which is the action.

However, the one thing that I find to be the best point of the series, is that the main character isn't constantly getting a new power-up or hacking into his 'inner-strength' to beat the enemies. His power never seems to grow stronger, and he never gets a spiffy new costume, but he does get smarter and learns to use his abilities better. He uses his brain to win the battles, and even if he isn't too smart in the beginning, he catches on pretty fast. You gotta admit, that's not something that you usually find in shounen action series.

Of course, Psyren isn't a perfect series by any means. The character designs are almost identical to those of Bleach, which can throw off many people. The series is also still ongoing, and the story tends to take some weird twists and turns along the way, assuming that readers will remember a minor event in chapter three or so that only actually becomes important around chapter seventy-five. The characters, while being good enough to keep my attention, aren't exactly overly original, and the designs can sometimes be confusing (I once seriously thought that I was reading Bleach while looking at the characters).

Still, if you're looking for a fun read and a good, solid shounen series that emphasizes the good points of the genre (the good vs. evil and the action) while trying to minimize the bad (training arcs and long-winded battle-speeches, ugh), then you should really give Psyren a chance. You probably won't be disappointed.

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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