What a Wonderful Gundam

by Carlo Santos,

There is no good anime worth watching this season. So why not curl up with a good book? Like the ones below.

Vol. 1
(story by Hajime Yatate and Yoshiyuki Tomino, art by Kouzoh Ohmori, Bandai, $10.99)

"2307 A.D. The nations of the world are split into 3 major power blocs, each striving to further their own prestige and prosperity. Despite the precariousness of the situation, these groups of nations insist on playing a grand zero-sum game.
To stand up against the state of the world, a private organization calling themselves Celestial Being declare that they will end all war on Earth.
The Gundam Meister Setsuna F. Seiei cries out on the battlefield ... 'I AM GUNDAM!!'"

Depending on your viewpoint, setting Gundam in the "real world" on a "real timeline" is either genius or sacrilege—but either way, it makes things interesting. Suddenly we're looking at a possible projection of our world's current political/military situation, and what's more, the use of known locales and known history makes the series a bit more accessible to normal people. But enough talk about geopolitics and high-minded themes of war: the real reason people get into Gundam is because of epic giant robot battles, and Kouzoh Ohmori nails that part splendidly. The Gundams featured here all have a genuine sense of size and power, and the various battle roles (melee, long-range, speed, firepower) lend themselves to distinctive designs. Meanwhile, the bold lines and sharp angles of Ohmori's artwork are the other key in bringing the Gundams to life. After all, one of the toughest obstacles in comics is figuring out how to express motion, but the sheer intensity of each battle—with robots zipping around and banging into each other—proves that it can be done. And done well.

Hey, if you're easily impressed by explosive displays of futuristic technology, more power to you! But for those of us who like a little depth and story to go with our giant robot warfare, the Gundam 00 manga falls sadly short. Once the premise is explained, and Celestial Being decides to challenge the world, everything descends into self-indulgent display of mecha power. Hey, look at what my giant robot can do! No, look at what MY giant robot can do! Repeat ad infinitum for the next hundred-odd pages. The various trappings of "battle in Sri Lanka" or "battle in South Africa" are just superficial window dressing, much like fighting video games where you pick a certain background but in the end it really doesn't matter. Heck, this war could be taking place in Candyland and the Gundam Meisters wouldn't care, unless maybe they crashed into a giant lollipop or something. And the characters? What characters? It takes half the book to even remember who's piloting which robot and which side they're on! To be fair, the last chapter does bring in some back story and personal conflict—but by then it's too little, too late.

One of these days I'll learn to stop reading manga adaptations of Gundam anime. Another cheap attempt to cash in on the franchise gets itself a D+ this time.

Vol. 4
(by Mamizu Arisawa and Mari Matsuzawa, Seven Seas, $9.99)

"Keita Kawahira and his plucky Inukami, Yoko, have settled into an uneasy partnership when they are approached by the butler for the fabulously wealthy Shindo family. He offers them anything they desire ... if they will take on a simple job for the Shindo family.
Keita's head whirls, especially when he meets the beautiful heiress Kei Shindo. Kei is about to celebrate her twentieth birthday, a day that should be joyful but that marks the end of her life! This is the Shindo family curse: to be visited by the Grim Reaper on her twentieth birthday.
It's Keita's job to face down Death himself! Even with the help of the irrepressible Yoko, can Keita defeat Death and save a young woman's life?"

About 200 words from now, I'm going to complain about Inukami's simplistic art style. But there's at least one way in which it works as a plus: the story is always a breeze to read, and the action scenes move briskly without getting bogged in details. This is especially crucial early on in Volume 4, where Keita gets into a physical struggle with Death himself (how's that for epic?) and combatants start trading blows. It's fun, it's fast, and it's possible to follow the fight without having to stare at the page for half a minute trying to figure out who attacked whom. But the story isn't all about random acts of spiritual magic: there's also a back story to be found, as the third chapter of the Death arc reveals some harsh emotional truths about Kei, her butler, and the tragic fate of the Shindo family. All this while still managing to remain lighthearted—Keita is never too far from cracking a perverted joke, and Yoko is always ready with a smart comeback. Yes, even a battle with Death can be a work of comedy.

All right, time to complain about Inukami's simplistic art style. In an effort to keep things looking clean and cute, the series bends back a little too far, resulting in lots of dull, generic anime faces (good luck trying to remember each character's name and role) and action scenes that fall short of the mark. Death's dramatic entrance, for example, has all the earth-shattering qualities of ... um ... a guy standing in front of a shaded two-tone background. Seriously. And that epic battle that Keita is supposed to be having? It never really blossoms into anything greater than a handful of minor magical attacks. In fact, the real battle is scheduled to take place the next day—except that it gets interrupted by a side story. A side story, right when the main plot is reaching a critical cliffhanger?! Who came up with this clever idea? So now, not only has the dramatic impact of Keita vs. Death been ruined, but it's been ruined by this trashy, shallow diversion about Keita becoming a dog trainer at an all-girls' school. How disappointing.

Honestly, who has the nerve to cut things off right when it's getting good? Some interesting story material here, but the poor plot management gets this volume a C.

Vol. 1
(by Julietta Suzuki, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Odette is a lovely android built by Professor Yoshizawa. Curious to find out what it's like to be human, she convinces the professor to enroll her in high school. And thus, with a new group of friends in tow, Odette sets out to discover the true meaning of life as a human, where even the simple stuff is an adventure!
A touching slice-of-life comedy, Karakuri Odette does nothing if not uncover the incredible possibilities of the 'human' spirit!"

The entire English-speaking, manga-reading Internet won't shut up about Karakuri Odette, and you know what? They're completely justified. This is a true hidden gem of the slice-of-life genre, taking the classic "robot wishes to be human" concept and infusing it with warm, subtle emotions. The first chapter in particular—which was originally conceived as a one-shot—reads almost like a modern-day fairytale, a Pinocchio for the 21st century that makes us all stop and think about how strange and wondrous it is to be human. A later chapter digs even further into the divide between natural and artificial, exploring the Uncanny Valley when Odette meets a robot who expresses emotions freely but is detected as a "fake" by actual humans. But simply having a philosophical viewpoint is not enough: it's Suzuki's quiet, understated artwork that really brings it home, with simplicity of line and a natural gift for making each page flow from panel to panel. Odette may act more subdued than the typical manga protagonist, but that's probably what makes her behavior so captivating. Who knew that a robot could be capable of so much feeling?

Odette may be the feel-good series of the moment, but what happens when you try to peel back the sentimentality and find nothing there? Each chapter succeeds at evoking a certain atmosphere, but often times the story itself is the bare minimum of fluff needed to support 30 pages of wistful robot platitudes. Oh, if only Odette could befriend an enemy robot that was sent to destroy her creator! Oh, if only Odette could clean out the virus inside her without ruining the friendship that she's made! And if only she could change the heart of that ornery guy at school! Basically it's a whole lot of weepy teenage angst except that it's supposed to be "special" now that it's happening to a robot instead of a regular teenage kid. And really, how can you learn about the intricacies of human thought and artificial intelligence when Odette seems to miraculously solve every problem with the ever-nebulous power of love? If the people gushing over this series knew real computer science and engineering, they might think differently about the shallowness of the story.

Yeah, and if I wanted to study "real" artificial intelligence, I'd go bore myself to death with a textbook. This, on the other hand, is a heartwarming bit of escapism that earns a B.

Vol. 1
(by Inio Asano, Viz Media, $12.99)

"A dream recaptured. A life on a new track. The absurdity of death. Laugh in the face of reality.
With this series of intersecting vignettes, Inio Asano explores the ways in which modern life can be ridiculous and sublime, terrible and precious, wasted and celebrated."

Sometimes, out of boredom, I go on Neogaf's off-topic forums and look for threads where people spill out their problems—love problems, school problems, work problems, family problems. What a Wonderful World! is like a manga-fied, plot-coherent version of that, where the reader becomes wrapped up in the tribulations of modern life. Every single story here is a meditation on the decisions and events that shape one's youth: chasing a dream versus settling down, learning to stand up to bullies at school, or even just achieving a happy work-life balance. Some of the best stories, though, are the ones that go beyond everyday life and take on a slightly surreal edge—"The Bear From the Forest" features a highly unlikely but still touching scenario, and "A Town of Many Hills" has a talking crow that serves as a neat little metaphor. Finally, Asano's penwork is what puts the crowning touch on these stories—the many subtle shades of gray, a precise command of hatching and shading, and a knack for character design give life to these vignettes of "normal people doing normal things." As it turns out, exploring the wrinkles of normality can just as fascinating as any out-of-this-world adventure.

Oh, young people and their self-indulgent ways! Any work of art or fiction that can be compared to an online forum is probably not a good thing, and sure enough, What a Wonderful World! reads like the kind of semi-autobiographical woe-is-me hipster garbage that has plagued American indie comics for decades. At least with Asano's solanin, we had a strong narrative structure and a compelling character to lead the way. This, on the other hand, just putters along with misty-eyed depictions of youth, where apparently the great personal choice of a lifetime is deciding between being a rock star or having a real job. The last few stories in the book are the biggest offenders, being mostly 10-page shorts that have no real beginning, middle, or end—just a whole lot of nattering about mundane dilemmas like trying to get one's manga manuscript turned in on time, or choosing whether to accept a certain job offer. It may offer some food for thought on how to live one's life, but even a prettified, manga-fied version of a twentysomething self-help manual … is still a self-help manual.

Not as impressive as solanin, but still packed with insights on young adulthood and with attractive artwork to boot—which adds up to a B.

Vol. 5
(by Suzuhito Yasuda, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Sakurashin Town is a place where—amazingly—humans and demons coexist. But when the borders are breached by demon hunters, Akina and Hime must protect one of their own from the vicious invaders. Can they stop the hunters from using dark magic to destroy their peaceful town?"

Suzuhito Yasuda got his kick-start as a light novel illustrator, and the influence of the medium shows clearly in Yozakura Quartet: rather than spouting off about magical powers and demon battles every other page, the series focuses squarely on the characters, letting their feelings and relationships make the story. Some of the finest moments in this volume are the ones where the kids are just being kids—Hime and Touka trying to grab a hold of Akina's hand, maybe, or making mischief over a bear costume. Even in the middle of a dramatic speech about the bad guys, there's always time for a spot of humor—in this case, wolfing down a freshly cooked pot of ramen. But when the time comes to bust a few heads, Yasuda shows that he's got the chops for action as well: the nighttime fight scenes have a dark, sweeping beauty to them that really puts the "yo" (夜) in "Yozakura." The sparse, stylish linework elevates this series to a different artistic level from the usual "I'll blast you with my chi power" kind of supernatural warfare. It's humans vs. demons—with a dose of cool.

Maybe Yozakura Quartet plays it a bit too cool—much of this volume's first half is a whole lot of nothing, followed by a lackluster attempt at "something." Oh dear, one of the most endearing characters in the series gets attacked by a really bad person from her past! Isn't this the kind of stuff the plenty of other stories have already covered? But really, it's the early chapters in this volume that suck the fun out of Yozakura—there's about one good action sequence in the first hundred pages, and it doesn't even connect to anything that happens later on. And seriously, blowing a whole chapter on Hime and Touka's childish rivalry over Akina? Did I miss the memo where "cool, character-driven story" is supposed to equal "brainless romantic-comedy antics"? Plus, with Yasuda always trying to throw in some humor even during serious moments of exposition, that just ends up lessening the dramatic effect when it happens. Couple that with the lazy artwork, where backgrounds have apparently become optional and screentones are a rare luxury, and it's clear that the series' stylish exterior is simply masking a shallow premise.

Not that bad, but not that great, either—a plotless first half and an action-packed second half cancel each other out to the level of a C+.

Vol. 1
(by Kei Aoyama, Shogakukan, ¥562)

"Hayashi Susumu, his twin brother Tsutomu, and Toyama Sakura are childhood friends. Tsutomu disappeared when he was ten years old. Then two years later he reappeared—this time only in front of Susumu ... And what's more, from inside a mirror! Now, events that no one has ever experienced take place in this bizarre love triangle!"

Add this one to Viz's to-do list for their IKKI line. Although SWWEEET starts off with a strange, fantastical premise, the real surprise in the first volume is how it grounds itself so firmly in slice-of-life territory. The relationship between Susumu and Sakura may seem like a typical one, but when Tsutomu starts offering his acid-tongued advice from behind the wings, it really forces Susumu to question himself and what it means to fall in love with a girl. And it's not like Sakura is your average teenage love interest either—she's willfully promiscuous (without turning it into some kind of ero-game or harem caricature) and often seems to be the one taking charge of the relationship. The result, then, is an examination of young romance that brings up unexpected, complex emotions not usually found in the genre. The cleanly detailed artwork also puts these feelings into relief, with plenty of close-ups that really highlight the characters' expressions. Between the contrasts of light and shade, and ever-changing panels that make each conversation come alive, who says that slice-of-life has to be boring? Then comes the kicker about Tsutomu in the final chapter—and it's clear that this story is only getting started.

Although it's true that these characters are emotionally "different," and don't fit easily into the usual pigeonholes of the school romance genre, there's also something distant about them. The first warning sign is in Susumu's wishy-washy behavior, where he doesn't even achieve the lovable-loser quality of a harem protagonist—it's more like, he just fails to do what needs to be done, and so comes off as the kind of guy you wouldn't want to hang out with. And Sakura, who is supposed to be Susumu's object of desire, makes herself less desirable with the way she forces herself upon him and then goes flitting off doing capricious, irresponsible things. It just seems difficult to trust that girl. Then, when Aoyama tries to bring it all together in one narrative thread, the story scenes have this way of not making sense: Susumu does one thing (usually after a conversation with Tsutomu), Sakura does another thing, and they do something together. Maybe. Not necessarily in chronological order. Maybe it's a way of capturing the awkward disorientation of one's teenage emotions, but all it does is make the story harder to follow.

So maybe the plot mechanics aren't that great, and the characters need to work on their charisma—but there's definitely something about the mood and mysteriousness of this work that makes it hard to put down.

What's this? NOBODY picked a Best Supernatural/Horror/Mystery Manga they wanted to write about? Come on, there's so much stuff in this genre, the reviews practically write themselves! (Except, they don't, so ... please send stuff in.)

This week, we dig into the submission archives and explore the of boundaries of taste with Rednal's review of Eiken.

(by Seiji Matsuyama, Media Blasters, $9.99 ea.)

Sometimes, the very act of reviewing is self-defeating. No offense meant, Mr. Santos. Eiken is a series that, if looked at critically, will be a colossal failure. For anyone who spends a great deal of time thinking about the good and bad points of a series, it's pretty much impossible to give Eiken anything that even resembles a decent score. However, to appreciate the series, you cannot take it seriously. This is why no official reviewer can truly give a fair opinion of the series. Eiken is ridiculous. It is absurd on the level of Ultimate Muscle and Bo-bobo, containing some incredibly unlikely body proportions, an art style that's just a bit weird on the faces sometimes, and so many cliches taken past what their extremes should be that you have to give the creator points for effort, if nothing else. For those who don't know, the story revolves around Densuke Mifune, a completely average boy. His normal-ness is why he's recruited into the otherwise-all-female Eiken club, the purpose of which seems mostly to be having fun and doing whatever they want. Bit like the SOS-dan that way, really. Except while the Haruhi series is quirky and has Nagato, Eiken is perverted. Extremely so. If you have only been exposed to the OAV, you have absolutely no understanding of just how far the series goes without ever actually becoming hentai or drawing certain body parts totally out; I've actually read hentai that was cleaner. As an example of how ludicrous the series is, one of the characters is an eighth-grade girl with breasts about as big as her torso. But I must repeat myself; you cannot approach this series from a serious standpoint, or you will be unable to enjoy it to its fullest. Eiken is hilarious. It goes so far beyond the bounds of probability, common sense, and good taste that it's difficult not to laugh if you just don't care about how weird it is. This series is not for everyone. The OAV, maybe, and that's a good way to tell if you'll like the manga or not. But the manga should only be read by serious manga fans, the sort who have been around for years and will understand all of the humor that has been packed into this little series. I won't give a letter grade, because ultimately, all that really matters is whether you as a person like a series or not. Eiken isn't for everyone. But for those who can pick up a book solely to have fun, this is an under-recognized gem.

A side-note: I've visited a number of manga stores, but I have never seen Eiken on the shelf. If you wish to purchase this series, it may be necessary to order online, get them at a convention (I did), or place a special order with your bookseller.

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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