Tales of Petri Culture

by Carlo Santos,

2012 may be coming a little early. I noticed in the supermarket checkout line that the latest issue of People magazine had a headline trumpeting "Vampires to Die For!"

Please, giant meteor, strike me down now.

(by Miyuki Kobayashi, illustrations by Natsumi Ando, Del Rey, $9.99)

"Najika faces a new challenge, and it may be her toughest one yet. Before their tragic accident, her parents, both famous pastry chefs, made a promise to the grandmother of a classmate of Najika's: to duplicate a white cake the elderly woman once tasted abroad as a teenager. Now Najika hopes to re-create the cake herself.
With so few clues (it's fluffy and heavenly) and so many possibilities, the trial and error might just go on forever. But Najika refuses to give up—for one reason: She knows that all great masterpieces contain a distinct magic: a secret ingredient called love.
Najika will need lots of it to make the wishes of Anju's grandmother—and certain other classmates—come true. And who knows? With so much amour in the air, Najika might just find a little left over for herself!"

How does Miyuki Kobayashi do it? Even in a breezy, 160-page spinoff, Kitchen Princess manages to tug at our heartstrings all over again. Although more a collection of four short stories than a true full-length novel, each of these little vignettes—cleverly themed after the four seasons—is like visiting a distant but beloved friend. Everything that made the original series great is back in full force: Najika's pureness of heart, Daichi's quiet strength and resolve, Akane's razor-sharp attitude, even the kookiness of chef Fujita. In addition, the charming traits of dreamy newcomer Anju prove that Kobayashi can create great characters from scratch, not having to rely on pretty manga pictures to prop up the story. (Nonetheless, Natsumi Ando still throws in a handful of adorable illustrations.) It's the themes and emotions running through each chapter, however, that really make this book sparkle: hope and faith, heartbreak and loss, patience and kindness, and of course, love. You can probably see the ending coming, but that doesn't make it any less impactful when it finally hits. And you thought this series was about food? It's about the very depths of one's heart and soul.

The fact that Kitchen Princess ran in a manga magazine for grade-schoolers never bothered me—until running into the grade-school prose of this novel. Kiddie dialogue is one thing, but page after page of text written in a style designed to suit 8-year-olds, well ... if there's a reason this book feels shallow and dumbed down, that's probably why. The hilariously bad similes and metaphors don't help, either. ("A bright smile like the sunlight that melts the snow"? Stick to writing manga, Kobayashi.) The storyline is a letdown as well, with the quest for Najika's friend's grandma's long lost cake being a cheap plot device to tie the four sections of the novel together. The first half is especially weak, with Najika portrayed as some kind of culinary Mary Sue who can reconcile impending divorces and make little kids fall in love. That's the problem with this whole spinoff—Najika already befriended all her old adversaries and overcame the greatest heartbreak of her life, so what else is there to do? How about snoozing your way to an ending that's given away in the book's title? Sorry, but this novel just feels artificially flavored.

Yes, it's got the Kitchen Princess name on it, and the original author and illustrator and all the characters exactly as you remember ... but as a shallow take-off on the original, it only gets a C.

Vol. 1
(by Majiko!, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"You know what they say: If the century fits, then ... travel back in time to become a pop-singing sensation!
Vivacious Neo loves to sing and test the boundaries of 23rd-century modesty with her short, short skirts. When she accidentally time-travels to the 21st century it's time to sink or sing! Before she knows it, she's teamed up with the handsome Saya as half of the ultimate singing duo. But all her dreams may vanish if they can't put on one great concert. With Saya depending on her, will Neo keep time on her side?"

With its bouncy, irrepressible lead character, Mikansei No. 1 illustrates the big selling point of showbiz success stories: the idea that someone totally ordinary, with minimal skill but maximum determination, can triumph against all odds. The fact that Neo is completely nuts and unaware of 21st-century manners just makes it more amusing. Then, of course, she ends up surrounding herself with characters just as colorful as she is: grumpy Saya can be astonishingly cool when the moment calls for it, and there's always instant hilarity to be had with a record producer who is clearly based off of DANCE*MAN. The squishy-cute character designs, with their modern stylishness, also add to the appeal. What really gives the story life, however, is the central challenge: Neo and Saya must put on a successful concert at the local park within 3 months. From there it's a fast-paced, madcap ride with Neo's wacky behavior and her unstoppable drive to become a star. Crazy thing is, she'll probably succeed.

I really have to learn to stop reading anything by Maijko!. If it's not the pointlessly stupid St. Lunatic High School, or the woeful Code Geass adaptation, it's this frightening overdose of sugar that thinks it can hide all its plot contrivances and unoriginality behind slapstick antics. The very premise of the story is full of holes just waiting to be poked: why did she have to be a time-traveler? Why not just any hyperactive teenage girl from modern-day society? And why does she land oh-so-conveniently in the middle of a live music show? Why is the crazy record-producer guy so willing to take her on? You think people aren't going to notice these gaps in logic just because the story is whizzing by at ludicrous speed? Then, of course, they get into all sorts of scenarios that are already completely played out. Busking at the train station. Getting kidnapped in the school storage locker. The fact that every page is crammed with loud, messy artwork and a sloppy sense of line doesn't help, either. If this is the path to stardom, then someone seriously needs to find a different route.

I'll take my pop idols in 3-D, thank you very much. Meanwhile, this fluffy, candy-coated offering barely manages a D+.

Vol. 1
(by Masayuki Ishikawa, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Tadayasu is a new, fresh-faced university student hiding a bizarre secret: He can see germs with the naked eye.
Between the machinations of an eccentric professor determined to unlock the power of the microbial world and the doomed agricultural experiments of his fellow students, will Tadayasu ever find the cool college atmosphere he so desires?"

It would be so easy to peg Moyasimon as "the microbiology manga," but to do so would be to miss all the other territory it covers: buddy comedy, slice-of-life, even culinary documentary. Seriously, where else can you learn how to make bootleg sake and understand the science behind it? And even for those who don't see alcohol consumption as a way of life, this volume still offers plenty of other trivia tidbits about the microscopic world, showing how microbes play an essential role in our daily lives (or maybe just an essential role in really smelly food). At the same time, Masayuki Ishikawa weaves in the good old college-orientation experience, with crazy students and even crazier professors, rowdy campus activities, and time-honored freshman pranks. The clear, bold-lined artwork, straightforward page layouts, and occasional visual gags also add to the feel of a honest, down-to-earth school story. But let's not forget the adorable microbe characters, which are probably the main reason people want to check this series out—and who can blame them? If real germs were this cute, I wouldn't mind catching a strain of the flu myself.

Unbearably cute microbes and crazy college people ... is that really all this series has to offer? While some might sing the high praises of Moyasimon's originality ("It's the only microbiology manga! Therefore it's the best!"), the meandering storyline and shallow characters prove that Ishikawa still has ways to go as a true artist. Let's consider the case of sidekick Kei, whose friendship with Tadayasu is about as exciting as watching penicillin grow. In fact, sometimes it feels as if Kei is there simply to hold conversations with his buddy, with no other defining personality traits. Then again, that might not be so bad compared to people whose defining traits are simply cheap caricatures, like the Professor Itsuki (completely harebrained, like all other professors) and grad student Hasegawa (the obligatory kickass girl who goes around telling everyone off). The story pacing also leaves something to be desired—does it really take 200-plus pages to get through a guy's first week in college?—as tangential conversations and pointless escapades have a way of sidetracking the central plot.

You've got to give credit to a series that can even make microbiology fun in the first place. Although not perfect, this delightfully oddball series still scores a B.

Vol. 1
(by George Iida and You Higuri, Del Rey, $10.99)

"The world is a lonely place for Naoto and Naoya, brothers with amazing psychic powers that set them apart from humanity. Their parents cast them out—and had them imprisoned in an exploitative research center. But after they make a daring escape from the institution, Naoya has a psychic vision of an even greater threat: a deadly plague that threatens the entire world!"

In a world where psychic-powered adventure usually involves bratty schoolkids and needlessly complicated backstory, there's something refreshing about the raw, unflinching quality of Night Head Genesis. The story moves at a breakneck pace, wasting no time in explaining the dilemma at hand: the world is going to go completely kablooey unless these two troubled young men do something about it. Now isn't that a lot more compelling than hearing about yet another 15-year-old boy who discovers amazing powers that he must use to protect his loved ones? The sense of urgency is so much more amplified here, where Naoto and Naoya have no loved ones left to protect, adversaries seem to come from every corner, and wicked plot twists are leaving major characters dead even before they get out of Volume 1. Also propelling the story forward is You Higuri's precise artwork, which is clean and straightforward enough to keep the pages turning, but also detailed enough to deliver those dramatic moments. Between fanciful visions of the apocalypse and intense physical confrontations, it's a nonstop race to see what happens next.

Yes, this sounds like a great idea for a psychic-powered adventure ... 17 years ago. When it was originally created. As a J-drama (and later adapted into anime). That should help to explain why this story is made of such pure and utter cheese, where a maniacal cult leader has ridiculous dreams about the end of the world, and his followers are all on some wacky death mission, and an esteemed AIDS researcher is going to create a virus that kills us all. Right. A worldwide instant-death virus. Surely this must have seemed shocking and creative back then—but now it rings as hollow as any other silly doomsday scenario, ancient Mayan calendars included. The characters, meanwhile, are just as fake and melodramatic as the stpry itself, with everyone going into full-on rage or despair or whatever emotional extreme is on the schedule today. Subtlety? This series doesn't have it. It doesn't have a good sense of pacing either, rushing from one scene to the next, as if Higuri were just trying to earn her paycheck as soon as possible. Consdering the lameness of this series, I'd also take the money and run.

Well, okay, lots of other psychic adventure series are cheesy as well, but the forced seriousness of this one ultimately ruins it. At least bratty schookids with powers seem to be having fun; meanwhile, this one's a lackluster C.

Vol. 7
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $9.99)

"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.
Though they initially got off to a rocky start, Hanamichi and Ryota Miyagi quickly form a bond based on their mutual experiences with heartbreak (and being all-around losers when it comes to the ladies). Their unlikely camaraderie also helps in firing up the rest of the Shohoku team and gives everyone a substantial morale boost. This all comes to an abrupt halt, though, when a group of thugs with a score to settle with Ryota crash a practice session. Explosive personalities collide as everyone in attendance braces themselves for an all-out brawl!"

Is Takehiko Inoue trying to prove that he can do anything? That certainly seems to be the case with the latest Slam Dunk, which suddenly turns into a face-smashing fistfight. The showdown with Ryota's rivals brings an entirely different sort of intensity to the series, because now, instead of simply winning a game, it's about fighting for one's life. And when the more skittish members of the team get worried enough to lock the doors, that just adds to the oppressive atmosphere even further. This isn't just a common brawl anymore, but a matter of pride among young men, as emotions flare up at the slightest provocation. Takehiko Inoue still throws in a bit of humor for kicks—the sudden blossoming of friendship between Hanamichi and Ryota, the dramatic arrival of Hanamichi's posse—but this time his artistic talent is devoted mainly to crushing depictions of power, with punches and kicks that send a guy halfway across the room and take up the entire page. Definitely a big difference from the world of hoops.

What the...? This is not the Slam Dunk that I came here for. The everyone-against-everyone-else fistfight may be physical and intense, but it seems completely out of place with the rest of the series, which is supposed to be about a goofy young man finding his place in the world through the sport of basketball. Instead, we've got hot-headed teenage boys puffing their chests at each other and trading blows, turning this into some kind of generic schoolyard fight manga (and goodness knows there were enough of those back in Slam Dunk's heyday). Even the emotions on display seem like cheap, two-dimensional parodies of the entire tournament genre: "I'm gonna beat you!" "No, I'M gonna beat YOU!" While it's true that boys really do think like this, it just looks stupid on paper. And the fact that Inoue insists on dragging this fight out over dozens of pages and into the next volume, as if it were as important as a basketball game—what's he trying to pull? There had better be a very good reason for this, because I certainly don't tune in to NBA games to watch WWE.

How do you even grade something that's completely strayed from what it's supposed to be about? Uh, this is an interesting fight, but this volume earns a C+ until the series gets back on track.

Vol. 2
(by Nina Matsumoto, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Yôkai are Japanese spirits, and young Hamachi is fascinated by them. Now he continues his quest deep into the Yôkai realm in the hopes of finding Madkap, the kappa (water spirit) he believes has killed his grandmother. Armed with nothing but a sacred rope and a lucky kappa's foot, Hamachi has made two friends to help him on his journey: Lumi the talking lantern and, new awakened, the umbrella that once belonged to this grandfather! (Don't ask.)
Their first stop is the home of the legendary fox spirit the Ninetails, who promises to help in Hamachi's quest if Hamachi can retrieve three lost items. But can Hamachi really find them, or does the Ninetails just want Hamachi to fail so she can keep the human boy as a pet?"

With the introductory volume now out of the way, Yôkaiden really starts to take off in its second installment, giving us a veritable bestiary of mythical Japanese creatures. Although most of them are familiar from other manga and anime series, seeing them all in one place is just pure folkloric bliss—as well as a testament to the depth of Nina Matsumoto's imagination (and research). Meanwhile, Hamachi's quest itself is so much more than just "beat this monster to get to the next level"; rather, each of his encounters demands wisdom, wit and maybe a little bit of trickery in order for him to succeed. A sharp sense of humor also adds spark to this adventure, whether it's a guy trying to disguise himself as a tengu by wearing a "Hi! I'm A Tengu" nametag, or a minor god pulling out a cell phone when his boss checks up on him. Then there's the confident visual style, where bold penstrokes, dynamic layouts, and the influence of traditional art illuminate a world full of fantastic creatures and landscapes. Somehow, Matsumoto is doing a better Japanese folk tale than most "real" Japanese manga.

The trouble with folk tales, of course, is that they were never meant to be serialized—and that's why Yôkaiden, as of right now, still feels like a pointless ramble through various myths and legends. It's true that Hamachi is aiming toward an ultimate goal, but as soon as Ninetails shows up and gives him this "find three things and then I'll help you" quest, you realize that Matsumoto's just playing for time until she comes up with the next part of the series. I don't like doing fetch missions in video games, and they're not that much fun in fictional stories either. Even the humor doesn't necessarily liven up the proceedings, as some of the sarcastic comments and goofy anachronisms can be hit-or-miss. Meanwhile, the elements that would add genuine complexity to the plot—the background on legendary yôkai researcher Inukai Mizuki, plus a mysterious swordsman who comes crashing into the yôkai world—are brushed aside in favor of shallow one-and-done monster encounters. Perhaps the cliffhanger ending signifies that things are finally going to get serious in Volume 3?

With adventure, fantasy and humor at every turn, this is definitely an improvement on Volume 1—but there's still room to get better if the story can build itself up even further.

What title would you recommend to someone who is new to manga? It is a question that has plagued the fandom for years and years. Send in a review and tell the world what your gateway drug of choice would be!

Meanwhile, you know Hideyuki Kikuchi? The Vampire Hunter D guy? Turns out he's written some other novels as well. But this week's guest reviewer, Raz Greenberg, wonders if it's worth it ...

Vol. 1: Black Guard
(by Hideyuki Kikuchi, Tor/Seven Seas, $9.99)

I've always been a fan of Yoshiaki Kawajiri's film Wicked City. No, it's not a guilty pleasure. True, the film is a sex and violence extravaganza, but in terms of design and direction (especially when it comes to action), it is also a great visual treat, one that stands the test of time very well.

Reading Wicked City, Hideyuki Kikuchi's novel upon which the film was based, made me appreciate the film from another perspective: its clever plot, sharp dialogue, and above all, the complex characterization of the protagonists. Yeah, I'm still talking about the Kawajiri film. Trust me, after reading the Kikuchi novel, that narrative qualities of the Wicked City anime feel almost Shakespearean.

The novel follows Taki, an agent of the elite Black Guard unit, charged with stopping criminals from a parallel demon world who have been sneaking into our world. The peace-treaty between the two worlds is about to expire, and Taki's new mission is to protect a human representative through the night that leads to the signing of a new treaty. This representative, Giuseppe Mayart, turns out to be a dirty old man, whose insistence on hanging out in all of Tokyo's pleasure halls annoys and disgusts Taki to no end (however, given that the novel's opening made it clear that Taki enjoys pretty much the same stuff, readers can't help rolling their eyes at his new saint-like attitude). It also gets him into trouble, since attacks by demon militants intensify as the signing of the treaty gets closer. But Taki isn't alone in his quest to make Mayart's night trip through sin-city a safe one: he's also been paired with Makie, a beautiful Black Guard agent. Even those who didn't see the movie will have little trouble guessing where things are going from here.

Kikuchi seems to have an endless supply of cool ideas that translate very well into animation. But his words just can't these ideas into anything that makes them fun – not even on the "it's so bad it's good" level. The plot simply drags Taki from one deus-ex-machina to another, spicing them with descriptions of action and violence that feel messed up and unexciting, and of supernatural occurrences that feel plain unreadable. And then, of course, there's the sex. While I wouldn't rate the anime adaptation high on any feminist criteria, at least it portrayed Makie's character as a victim when she went through some terrible ordeals of rape and torture. In the book, she's a sex-maniac just looking for someone to treat her bad.

I would have concluded this review with a "just wait for the movie" recommendation, but the movie has already been out for 22 years now. Read the book only if you need appreciate how hard the people behind the film have worked to turn this piece of trash into something watchable.

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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