Ninjas of the Sea

by Carlo Santos,

Man, what's with all this "of the Decade" stuff lately? Is there some kind of generational shift I should know about? Time travel? If had known ten years ago that I would be where I am today, then I would be in a different place today from where I was ten years ago.

(Wait, let me parse that...)

Vol. 2
(by Daisuke Igarashi, Viz Media, $14.99)

"Umi and Sora are not alone in their strange connection to the sea. Forty years ago, Jim met another young boy with the same powers. As penance for letting the boy die, Jim has been searching the world for other children with those same ties to the ocean.
Anglade, a wunderkind who was once Jim's research partner, lures Sora away with the promise of answers. This leaves Umi severely depressed, and it is up to Ruka to help her new friend find his brother. But time is quickly running out..."

There's plenty of talk about creative minds who can turn a town, a landscape, or an entire environment into its own character in the story—but Daisuke Igarashi may be the first to do that with a weather phenomenon. The typhoon in the middle chapters of this volume is one of the series' transformative moments, with Igarashi's vibrant illustrations of wind, water and shoreline taking on a personality of their own. One could stare into that rainstorm forever, getting lost in those big pages of beautiful chaos ... but that would mean missing out on the story, which reaches some dramatic developments after the tentative start of Volume 1. Jim fills in the back story, Ruka and Umi begin to connect on a deeper level, and Sora provides the current that keeps the plot moving, disappearing and re-appearing and pulling Ruka further into the mystery. The natural, flowing narrative style, coupled with fantastical events, is what really makes this series shine: everything seems just barely on the edge of real, as if you could visit an actual aquarium or beach and discover something like this. As a resident of a coastal city, I'm keeping an eye out.

This natural, free-flowing mode of story—along with the high page count for each chapter—could be the double-edged sword that also destroys Children of the Sea. For every plot development, there always seems to be a lot of directionless milling around, staring at the ocean or making philosophical pronouncements while aquatic researchers declare that "something weird is happening" (like we didn't know that several chapters ago). Even the plot developments themselves seem to be poorly timed, popping up out of nowhere with no dramatic buildup—and that's despite this title getting almost twice the page count of a regular manga series, so there ought to be plenty of room to get the pacing right. But the greatest shortcoming so far is still the way it feels distant and inaccessible, as if Igarashi is purposely holding the storyline back because he's afraid of giving away too many secrets. Well, maybe that's the whole point, but it's supposed to feel like "wouldn't you like to find out more?" rather than "everyone is talking in vague terms to confuse the hell out of you." Which seems to be happening a lot.

The plot still hasn't come together fully, but the fascinating mysteries and outstanding, evocative artwork still earn this volume a B.

Vol. 21
(by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In an alchemical ritual gone wrong, Edward Elric lost his arm and his leg, and his brother Alphonse became nothing but a soul in a suit of armor. Equipped with his mechanical 'auto-mail' limbs, Edward becomes a state alchemist, seeking the one thing that can restore his and his brother's bodies ... the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
A diabolical trap is set for President Bradley ... If he is assassinated, a power vacuum will open that Mustang and his allies will be more than happy to fill. Then, while Ed is reunited with someone from his past, Al is separated from his body—his proxy armor body! Now who is filling his heavy metal shoes?
Plus, take a break from all the alchemical intrigue and homunculus backstabbing at the annual Resembool Spring Sheep Festival!"

Yes, it's true—the Resembool Sheep Festival sets up one of the major plot points in this volume! That's the latest twist in Fullmetal Alchemist, which fills up the first half of Vol. 21 with another classic double-cross maneuver. The real highlight, however, is the multi-chapter, to-be-continued fight that pits Ed and company against the deadliest homunculus yet. Were this any other shounen adventure series, that would be momentous enough in itself—but as always, Hiromu Arakawa throws in a couple of wildcards by knocking Al out of commission (yikes!) and bringing back a sorely missed character (AWESOME!!!). The result is the most visually stunning segment of FMA since the time Ed got eaten by Gluttony: jaw-dropping displays of strength and speed, speedlines and special effects galore, and more than a few tactical surprises. But for all the passion and excitement oozing out of the good guys, it may be the enemy's shocking move in the final scene that may be the biggest tactical surprise yet. And as for the other major characters (Scar, Mustang, and Armstrong)? Looks like they're all on the move too. The endgame just keeps getting better and better.

There's just one problem with this grand, earth-shattering, alchemist-versus-homunculus showdown: you have to wait 90 pages for it. Now, the earlier portion of this volume does have the clever Bradley assassination plot, but it also has a whole lot of talking, planning and scheming, also known to fans of the series as "stuff that Arakawa does to play for time because she doesn't want to get to the good part of the story yet." So we end up with Ed reuniting with Winry and recapping everything that he's been up to, and then having a long-winded heart-to-heart about the importance of this fight, while a bunch of other secondary characters also discuss what they're planning to do next, because apparently talking about one's future plans is so much more exciting than just getting things done. Heck, even Edward's daddy issues—which are usually a reliable source of thoughtful, emotional storytelling—are handled rather frivolously this time around. Let's face it, this part of the series is all about getting to that epic fight scene, so it kind of looks like Arakawa did the preceding chapters on autopilot.

All right, so the first half is kind of slow going with way too much dialogue, but once it gets to Ed's big battle, it just blows everything out of the water with a nice healthy B+.

Vol. 2
(by Minari Endou, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Even though Kanako's dream of meeting her female soul mate is severely disrupted by Mariya, her cross-dressing male roommate, Kanako still manages to enjoy school life at Ame no Kisaki ... In the midst of adjusting to her new environment, a mandatory physical examination is held for all students. Surrounded by half naked girls, Kanako is struck with nosebleeds galore! But even that doesn't compare to what she discovers when Mariya steps out from behind the curtain! Will the secret behind Mariya's identity finally be revealed?"

To get an idea of Maria Holic's wicked sense of humor, consider that this volume opens with a gag about Nintendo's Virtual Boy ("God loves things with a tragic history") and closes by likening Kanako's situation to the rollercoaster career of a J-pop idol. In between, readers will find plenty more jabs at the expense of others, whether it be Mariya's unforgiving treatment of his relatives, or Kanako's hilariously inappropriate behavior in the presence of hot girls. Where every other yuri protagonist is a naïve, blushing flower, this one's got the girl who's brash and pervy and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. They even make a running joke about her constant blood loss (just another sign of that offbeat, over-the-top humor). This series also isn't afraid to show the less-than-immaculate side of a parochial school: dorm checks where the students are graded on how well they hide contraband items, rivalry and jealousy between classmates, and the surprising amount of nonbelievers at a Catholic institution. For all its subversive treatment of the yuri genre, Maria Holic might actually be breaking the most ground in its depiction of religious education.

Endou may be covering some controversial subject matter, but she still hasn't figured out how to string things together into a legitimate story. Her exposé on Christian education, for example, seems to be little more than a rant inserted into a chapter about a campus festival, and the dramatic revelation about Mariya's identity (and why he's crossdressing at a girls' school) is mentioned as part of an extremely contrived plot device, then never discussed again. It's as if Endou introduced a plot point explaining the essential premise of this series just as an excuse to get out of a narrative dead end. Then again, most of the book's first half involves this kind of throwaway storytelling, blowing through typical school situations (Dorm room check! Annual physical! A strained friendship with a stupidly precticable twist ending!) with little thought or care. As a result, the execution is just plain sloppy: the dialogue is often of the "let me read this again because I have no clue what they just said" variety, and the artwork is just cookie-cutter characters in a cookie-cutter environment spewing one-liners at each other. Doesn't sound very fun at all.

Although the humor is dark and subversive, it's often ruined by Endou's lack of talent and the series' overall shallowness, leaving this volume at a C-.

Vol. 2
(by Hosana Tanaka, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Raizô is heir to the once-powerful Katana family, and his loyal and lethal new companions—a band of beautiful female ninjas—are determined to restore the family to power. That means the hopelessly dorky Raizô must marry a wealthy bride. But when Raizô's prospective fiancée is the victim of attempted murder, the prime suspects are none other than the lovely ninjas!"

Maybe from now on I should start reviewing things from Vol. 2, after they've had a chance to find their footing. Ninja Girls's second installment shows a marked improvement over the first, launching into a major story arc—find Raizô a wife!—and staying a lot more coherent than the introductory chapters. What's especially striking about this storyline is how it never once yields to the temptation of becoming a generic comedy harem—sure, the girls are hot, but their first priority is fighting for the Katana family's honor, not trying to get into Raizô's pants. In fact, the entire scheme to hook up Raizô with the lovely Princess Hibari is classic situational comedy with a feudal-Japan touch: come up with a wacky scheme to bring the two together, fawn over the sheer cuteness when the scheme actually starts to work, and then have everything fall in the apart in the last couple of chapters so that the ninjas get to show off their skills and save the day. The sharp, polished artwork lends itself naturally to the various moods of the storyline—from idyllic palace life to heated battle—and never drops in quality.

Well, sure, Hosana Tanaka can draw a battle scene that looks pretty, but does it actually flow like a battle scene? A good manga must be able to convey the sense of action and motion, and that's where this one falls short, as most of the fights end up being a tangle of dramatic poses and flashy weapons with no idea as to what people are actually doing. In fact, maybe that's why this volume goes through several chapters without a single fight scene—Tanaka just isn't very good at them, so even though dark forces are trying to assassinate the princess, everything is conveniently set up so that the ninjas don't come flying in to demonstrate the series' artistic deficiencies. This has a knock-on effect on the story content, of course, as those no-fighting chapters turn out to be a snoozefest where Raizô teaches the princess ancient sports, or checks her food for poison, or various other everyday activities. (Let it also be known that giving humble, deferential personalities to both characters of the lead couple makes them far less interesting.) At least they stopped short of Raizô doing the laundry.

Hey, it actually has a decent story now! But seriously, a ninja series that doesn't deliver ninja action (except for a couple of confusing fights)? That's a C+ for you.

(by Mia Ikumi, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Make a wish—if you dare!
It's easy: Just send a text to a certain address and a Dark Angel will appear and grant you a wish—but only one! You can wish for your crush to fall in love with you, for revenge against those who have wronged you, or even the dead to be brought back to life. But choose your wish carefully—sometimes a dream come true can be a nightmare!"

Mia Ikumi may be treading familiar territory with this Hell Girl-esque collection of short stories, but give her some credit: she makes them accessible, and she makes them unique. Yes, even though each chapter starts with the same premise, the results are wildly different—the second story is a double-sided romance with a fantastic twist ending, the third brings in an ingenious element of fantasy, and the fourth doesn't use the angel's wish at all, relying instead on good old serendipity. In fact, the pilot chapter is pretty much the only one that obeys the standard "Be careful what you wish for / Curses come home to roost" horror formula. Even more remarkable is that Ikumi is able to spin out all these ideas while working with the same type of protagonist in each story: a girl in her young teens whose dream is to fall in love. Apparently, there are many ways for that to happen, often with heartwarming results. The attractive but simple artwork is also a plus, with the doe-eyed characters and stylistic flourishes of grade-school shoujo but still laid out cleanly enough to follow the story.

It doesn't matter how much you try to vary the formula. The fact is, everyone is already familiar with this kind of story, and it isn't even scary! As horror tales, they're lacking in fear factor; as romances, they're lacking in warmth. Then again, when everything is based on giddy, shallow, schoolgirl crushes, one doesn't expect to find any level of emotional depth anyway. These tales are littered with the most banal of plot devices: two girls fighting over the same guy, the ghost whose death was caused by trying to save a kitten (who dies from trying to save a kitten?!), the idea of magically shrinking your crush so that you can keep him as a living action figure (uhh ... creepy). The characters are similarly unrealistic and shallow, capable of only one or two emotions, and not very subtle emotions at that. Perhaps that's why the generic character designs are so fitting for them, where Ikumi just slaps on whatever hairstyle and face shape she feels like because it won't matter 40 pages later anyway. Thank goodness this thing was only one volume long.

Although the stories are cute and pretty to look at, they lack the depth and appeal to rank any higher than a C-.

Vol. 2
(by Svetlana Chmakova, Yen Press, $10.99)

"When Alex's sister, Sarah, vanishes and all memory and evidence of her existence is erased, Alex is determined to get to the bottom of her sister's disappearance. What better place to start her investigations than the Nightschool itself? But when she discovers that sneaking into the Nightschool isn't as simple as it might seem, Alex enrolls as a student. But is she prepared for what she might find?"

With every magic-school tale these days being compared to the exploits of a certain British boy wizard, let me be the one to say that Svetlana Chmakova could have the potential to out-Rowling Rowling. So much of Nightschool borrows from Hogwarts—the shifting school layout, the enchanted protection from prying human eyes, the spellcasting classes led by eccentric teachers—yet the visual presentation and mysterious vibe of the series make it feel fresh and distinctly different. There is a particular moment of utter "wow" in this volume, where Alex awakens her latent magical abilities, that is so perfectly orchestrated it can never be matched in prose or in film. It's a moment that uses a page-turn and a double-page spread in a way that you Just. Can't. Do. In regular books or movies. There's also the unique, dry-but-cutesy sense of humor that could only come from a Russian raised in America co-opting the style of Japanese comics: the biting one-liners, the effortless chibi characters (thankfully much reduced since the days of Dramacon), the gentle self-aware mockery of genre fiction. Tying it all together is the confident art style that crosses easily between silly and serious and makes everything magic.

Who is this weirdo who keeps interrupting the story with some faux-dramatic drivel about "hunters" and whatever? Oh wait, Chmakova's doing that part too? At this point, it looks like Nightschool could end up sabotaging itself, with a parallel plotline and a network of characters that has nothing to do with anything. Or at least that's how it appears, considering that the series has had 360 pages to explain what's going on and still hasn't gotten it together. This whole prophecy/hunter/magickry/secret-war mess is practically a case study in bad fantasy fiction: too many characters with weird names, chatting to each other in impenetrable lines of dialogue that only make sense to the author, and caught up in all manner of clichés like people dying of a mysterious curse and a rivalry between magical factions. It's as if Nightschool mirrors its own premise: the bright, brilliant daylight side with its magic and adventure and humor, and then the disappointing "dark" side with its nonsense plot and dull, brooding characters. Which one will win out in the end?

It's still exciting and enchanted enough to be must-read material, but if that other storyline doesn't sort itself out, this series could end up failing fast.

I'm still looking for reviews on Which manga would make a great live-action movie! You've got all of winter break to think about it, so dish out those 300-400 words and send in your opinion!

In the meantime, here's another reader submission from way back in the day. Pachy shares some thoughts on this crazy, sci-fi-esque road trip series.

Vols. 1-6
(by Hideyuki Kurata, Go! Comi, $10.99 ea.)

In the world of Train+Train, people living on Planet Deloca enroll in what are literally school trains, where students get their field educations in locomotives that are cities unto themselves. They either go on the standard School Train, where everything is normal, or the Special Train, where everything is not normal. Through a set of circumstances, average-joe Reiichi winds up on the special train along with rebellious sword girl Arena, the latter taking the train for her own special mission. He meets a variety of people, both interesting and crazy, encounters unique adventures at each stop, and grows from meek to strong on his journey.

This manga is everything and more of what you'd expect from Hideyuki Kurata, the guy that brought us Battle Athletes and Read or Die. The story is at times bizarre and imaginative, the characters are interesting, and he is not afraid of portraying many of the female characters as crazy and/or unique. Although we all have read a variety of journey stories, this one totally stands on its own and each new train stop is equally engaging—at one point they involve themselves in freeing a whole culture of people from inside a mountain, and another where Reiichi and Arena get entangled with a terrorist group of children that demand entry to the Special Train to escape their hellish world. One can draw many parallels of this world with that of ours.

If I have just a couple problems with it, it's that this turns out as one of those stories where the female lead starts out strong and the male lead starts out weak, but as it progresses it becomes the other way around, and it's the male lead that comes to her rescue at the very end. One could just interpret it as the pupil rising and taking after his mentor, but it's still a long-tried formula that I find tiresome after a while. And also, I find it interesting that they maintain a platonic camaraderie through the whole story, but when Arena gets confronted with the question, "What is he to you?" she ponders on it as if totally unsure about it. Does the one simple word 'friend' ever cross anybody's mind? Why does it have to be so difficult because he's a boy and she's a girl?

Regardless, these are easily overlookable as we mainly focus on an overall story about metaphorically choosing a course in one's life. If you're a Hideyuki Kurata fan and like his style of story-telling, then you're in for a real treat with this one.

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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