The Guilded Age

by Carlo Santos,

This year I resolve to:
- Catch up with Naruto (again)
- Stop buying figurines, because I literally have no more flat surfaces at home on which to put them
- Keep writing this column unless it kills me

Have a happy 2010.

(by Kanami Amou and Rena Izumibara, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"As Nanase engages in the popular online game, The World, she falls in love with Silabus, her guildmaster. However, everyone has their eyes glued to the new Arena Champion, Alkaid, and Silabus is no exception! As Alkaid continues to cast a big shadow, Nanase is forced to realize that her quiet, helpless attitude is the source of all her problems. But when Silabus is in serious trouble and her loyalty to the guild is challenged, what action will Nanase take? Can her weakness be her strength?!"

What? They have adventure stories where the protagonist isn't a bratty teenage boy who wants to be stronger? If anything, this one-shot spinoff from the .hack//G.U. sub-franchise is practically the opposite, with Nanase being a shy girl who doesn't even have the guts to enter combat situations. This premise results in a touching story of personal growth, where our heroine learns that MMO games are for everyone, even if you're no good with a sword or a wand. It's no epic quest, but seeing Nanase overcome her own faults is a satisfying victory in itself. It also wouldn't be .hack without real-world events, and when a casual high school encounter turns out to be one of the key plot twists, it makes the ending of the story that much sweeter, revealing that Nanase's friendships may operate on more than one level. Funnily enough, the cutesy artwork fits the mood of this story much better than a mainstream fantasy style would have: after all, this is a gentle story with a gentle ending—and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Ah. So the moe cancer has spread to .hack as well. New coat of paint, same old fantasy garbage; why not just go play some WoW? If that's not bad enough, this is essentially a spinoff of a spinoff, one so poorly done that it seems to begin in the middle of a storyline and ends as if it were about to embark on a new one (except there's no 2nd volume). But the biggest problems with .hack//Alcor are internal to the manga: firstly, the reason cowardly protagonists are a rarity is because they are no fun. How can anyone root for Nanase when all she does is sit there and whimper about her uselessness? Secondly, the supporting characters are all borrowed from the main .hack//G.U. series, so there's no time spent on getting to know them or why we should care. And the art, of course, is a joke, with generic doe-eyed faces and needlessly elaborate fantasy costumes that make it a chore to distinguish the characters from each other. Throw that all into crowded, over-toned page layouts and it's easy to see why this story was doomed from the start.

Heartwarming as this one-shot may be, it's too short to be of any substance, it's hard to sympathize with such a passive main character, and the art is a doe-eyed mess. This is what D material looks like.

Vol. 9
(by Hiro Mashima, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Stylish wizard Loke is the ladies' man of the Fairy Tail guild. But now he's suddenly broken up with all his girlfriends, claiming he simply doesn't have the time! It turns out that Loke's life may be about to end, and Lucy, a freshman, is the only one who can save him! But what can a first-year wizard do that an experienced wizard can't?"

After the explosive finish of the Phantom Guild arc (which concludes in the first chapter of this volume), it may seem that Fairy Tail is all tapped out as far as epicness goes. But even in that lull between big adventures, this series proves that it's still got stories to tell—namely, stories about Lucy. Not to stereotype or anything, but with the heroine taking center stage in this volume, the next several chapters become driven more by emotions and relationships than by macho wizarding firepower. First there's Lucy's confrontation with her father, a stirring discussion of family and friendship that is easily the best monologue she's ever delivered, and then in the second half comes the Loke storyline that breaks out all sorts of surprises and will cut to the center of your heart before barreling toward a grandiose finish. There may not be as much BOOM or POW as when the guild takes on a gang of evil sorcerers, but there's still plenty of stunning, perspective-bending art to drool over, especially in the finale of the Loke arc. See, it's still an action series—but the action is going on in the heart.

Well, yes, if one really cares that much about Lucy then maybe this volume is a winner, but let's face it, this is not Hiro Mashima at the top of his game. The middle chapters prove as much: there's all sorts of mindless filler going on, like the mundane act of cleaning up and rebuilding the guild headquarters, going on a non-combat mission, and visiting a hot springs. Even Loke's story takes a while to build up, because until a certain key plot point, it basically looks like a whole lot of pointless hand-wringing over a minor character. The ending of that arc isn't even all that great—sure, it's flashy and dramatic and full of important messages about the power of friendship, but the final decision is woefully predictable, and perhaps a reminder that this is still a formulaic shounen manga deep down. Oh, and if you're a fan of any character not named Lucy, then too bad, because almost everyone else ends up as persona non grata in this volume. Really, Erza's big highlight involves acting in a play? Now that's a disappointment.

The change of pace from the big fight is a welcome turn of events, but the occasionally dull chapters and overemphasis on Lucy temper it down to a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Kou Matsuzuki, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Welcome to the Happy Café, where romance and happiness are the specials of the day!
Meet Uru: She's a little short, a bit disorganized, often is mistaken for an elementary school kid, and lives by herself after her mother gets remarried. When she decides to pay the bills by working part time at the Happy Café, she meets Ichiro and Shindo, two of the most unsociable guys she's ever had to contend with! And to make matters worse, it turns out that Uru is not exactly meant for the waitress world, as she's a HUGE klutz. But as this hilarious tale unfolds, true happiness—and even true love—might be lurking just around the corner..."

I call it the Mari Yaguchi principle: what Uru lacks in height, she makes up for with attitude, almost single-handedly carrying this comedy on her tiny, five-foot-tall shoulders. Ichiro and Shindo may be the ones with funny things to say, but it's Uru who really makes things come alive with her unique brand of physical comedy. Whether she's trying to crack open a "push" door by pulling on it, or administering slapstick justice to some guy who's picking on Shindo, there's always some kind of pratfall just lying in wait on the next page. Of course, this kind of humor can't happen without the artwork stretching and squeezing to accommodate it, and readers will find plenty of visual delights here: the broad, exaggerated faces, the impossible physical feats, even the layouts that are designed to deliver the punchline at just the right moment. And if Uru is the one taking care of the physical aspect, then it's the guys who provide intellectual amusements in the form of scathing one-liners and snappy comebacks. After all, someone's got to keep Uru's boundless energy in check—and who better than a sardonic, sharp-tongued bishounen?

Happy Cafe may have the basic principles of comedy down, but it's got a long way to go before it can match up to the all-time greats. Surely it doesn't help that the premise reads exactly like every paint-by-number shoujo series where some ordinary schoolgirl suddenly finds herself surrounded by a couple of attractive young men with contrasting hair colors. And of course she's drawn to the bad-boy type who is actually a nice guy deep down. And by facing a number of emotional challenges she discovers who she truly is and what she wants out of life (although not until the later volumes). Even the artwork is plagued with unoriginality, as the character designs, the toning, and even the layouts and pacing all point to the "Hakusensha house style" that turns promising young manga artists into clone-drawing robots. And surely it wouldn't hurt to draw a proper background once in a while. Finally, because everything is so unoriginal and artificial, the budding relationship between Uru and Shindo never feels convincing for even a moment—this series may have comedic soul, but it still doesn't have heart.

It gets a plus for having some great moments of slapstick comedy, but this predictable, pedestrian Volume 1 is a C+ overall.

Vol. 2
(by Fumi Yoshinaga, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Curious about why female lords must take on male names, the shogun Yoshimune seeks out the ancient scribe Murase and his archives of the last eighty years of the Inner Chambers—called the Chronicle of the Dying Day. In its pages Yoshimune discovers the coming of the Redface Pox, the death of the last male shogun, and the birth of the new Japan..."

Usually, when a manga launches into a 200-page flashback, that's a sign that the author is getting way too long-winded. But that's not the case for Fumi Yoshinaga, who knows exactly what kind of story she's weaving and rolls out yet another grand tale in Ôoku. Once again, it's everything you could ask for and more in a historical imperial drama, with tough moral issues, political maneuvering, gamesmanship and deception, sex, violence ... y'know, the usual stuff. What's especially interesting is how, once again, Yoshinaga tells the story from an outsider—this time, a Buddhist monk who is forced to renounce his vows and enter the Inner Chambers—to show just how unsettling it is to live in a feudal sausage-fest. It's an experience that changes our protagonist, but it also changes the people around him, most notably the shogun herself. Only after reading through all those chapters, and seeing the end result, can we truly appreciate the depth of the characterization and storytelling. Let's also remember to appreciate the clean, refined artwork that captures the aesthetics of the era: the costumes, the hairstyles, even the architectural interiors. It takes talent to build such a convincing world—especially one that never really existed.

Seriously, who thought it would be a clever idea to translate this entire series into Ye Olde English? That language barrier is the one thing that stands in the way of full enjoyment of Ôoku, and a second volume of "thee"s and "thou"s and archaic sentence structure hasn't made it any easier to tolerate. The desire for historical accuracy is understandable, but there's got to be a better way to do it than sacrificing readability. And then there's the problem of the story taking a while to build up; Yoshinaga spends a lot of time on formalities and routine conversations in the early going and the real character development doesn't happen until maybe three-quarters of the way through this volume. While some readers may enjoy getting caught up in the regal and dignified atmosphere, it can be quite mind-numbing to sit through over a hundred pages (or what feels like a hundred pages) before another burst of action or even just a heated argument. In other words, alternate history turns out to be a bit too much like studying real history: boring.

With its grand scope, nuanced characters, and historically informed artwork, even the flaws in storytelling and dialogue can't stop it from getting a B+.

Vol. 3
(by Yuki Sato, Del Rey, $10.99)

"It's not easy being a doctor for ghosts and goblins, but someone's got to do it! Kuro, the doctor, and his friend Kotoko have to deal with thieves, dragons, and giant spiders, but their bravery is really tested when someone in the spirit world places a curse on Kuro's head. Kuro has devoted his life to helping others—so who could possibly want him dead?"

Right from the start, Yokai Doctor's third volume is out on a mission—a mission to impress everybody with the depth of its artistry. Kuro's showdown with his traitorous friend Kaie is not just an emotionally charged conflict, but also a showcase for the intense detail and black-and-white contrasts that come second only to xxxHOLiC in the realm of supernatural and horror imagery. And it's not just about the bones and blood and spirits, but also the sheer creativity of the monster designs: from common everyday yôkai to towering dragons, this series is able to take mythical creatures of old and breathe new life into them. And how about that storyline? The time has finally come to learn more about Kuro's background, and rather than dumping it all in one huge flashback, Yuki Sato smartly weaves it into the story: there's a bit about Kuro's childhood friendship with Kaie, and then the explanation of why Kaie did what he did, and then the unusual circumstances of Kuro's half-human, half-yôkai birth—all carefully spaced out as the chapters progress. Those days of episodic stand-alone adventures? Forget that. This is a real series now.

What does it say about Yokai Doctor when the story-behind-the-story is more interesting than the actual story? We may finally be getting into some serious developments about Kuro, but at the time same time there's still ridiculous space-filler like "help an ugly monster make friends in the city" and "cure a dragon's tummyache" and "do surgery on a spider creature" (although, admittedly, the surgery is kind of cool). Even the attempt at building that spider story into something bigger—an epic clan war with star-crossed lovers—comes off as just another formulaic fable. So basically, it's still the same episodic series it always was, except now there are flashbacks and continuity thrown in every couple of chapters. Even then, the story details aren't always worked out clearly—for example, there's a quick scene showing the shadowy villains who want Kuro dead, but that whole plot thread is left open after the Kaie conflict is resolved. Speaking of which, what happened to Kaie after Kuro was done with him? That's another loose end right there. This series needs to tighten things up before going to the next level.

Although still formulaic and episodic at times, this series continues to improve at a steady pace, and with the art being as impressive as it is, it's worthy of a B.

Vol. 1
(by Kenta Shinohara, Shueisha, ¥390)

"In school, one always ends up with a few worries or problems. That's why, to help find a solution to those problems, some folks have banded together to help others out with school life. Their campus support group goes by the name of 'Sket Dan,' and starting today they'll take any request that comes their way!"

In a world where Shonen Jump has become synonymous with pompous fantasy adventures with too many characters and too many volumes, Sket Dance is a shocking slap to the face—a simple, refreshing series about schoolkids goofing around. As an ensemble comedy, it is almost textbook perfection: the brash club leader with hidden talents, the outspoken girl with fists of fury, and the computer geek who only speaks through voice synthesizer—you couldn't ask for a better balance of oddball characters. You also couldn't ask for a better mix of situations in the first volume, where the Sket Dan's assignments range from slapstick absurdity (take care of a pet monkey while helping to dispose of explosive chemicals!) to genuine character-building moments (fists-of-fury wielder Himeko has to stand up for her reputation). Then there are all the in-jokes: this is a series that treats the whole school-life genre with a self-aware wink and a nod, even poking fun at other Jump titles and—in a moment of inspired genius—closing out Volume 1 with a dead-on parody of every shoujo romance ever. Part Gintama, part Haruhi, this could be the next big comedy hit.

If there is one thing that's going to stop Sket Dance from becoming the next big comedy hit, it's that the art is really, really cookie-cutter. Not that there's anything actually bad about it—it's got the distinctive character designs, the slick action scenes (who knew that chasing down a monkey could be so much fun?), the crisp linework—but every mainstream shounen series has that too. All those pompous fantasy adventures in Jump are at least recognizable on sight; it's hard to imagine that being the case with Sket Dance when it looks like Generic School Comedy Manga #6726. And like most school comedies, not every chapter is a winner: Volume 1 dishes out a couple of clunkers like the one about the school ghost, which tries to satirize supernatural clichés but ends up falling into those clichés itself. The wordiness of the script could also drag the series down, as some of the panels start to look like Death Note with nothing but dialogue bubbles in them. It may be biting, sarcastic dialogue, but this is still a visual medium.

No complex fantasy worlds. No arcane systems of magic. Just a classic school comedy with crazy characters, crazy situations and that one essential ingredient—fun.

What's going on, dear readers? No one's submitted anything in a month! Remember, the Reader's Choice section is powered by YOU, sharing your opinions with the rest of the world. So send your reviews in to rtoreaders (at) gmail (dot) com and let us know what manga has caught your attention!

In the meantime, here's another one from the archives: R. Silverman has plenty of praise for this old-school gem.

(by Chieko Hara, Kodansha, ¥650 ea.)

Somewhere in mid-nineteenth century Europe lies a magical glade called Rainbow Valley. Local legend holds that if you pick seven flowers from that valley in the colors of the rainbow and place them beneath your pillow, you will dream of your one true love. Thus begins Chieko Hara's four volume Niji no Densetsu or Legend of the Rainbow, a shoujo piece from 1985 that follows the traditions of the best romance novels.

The story follows spunky country girl Finnie, who grows up near Rainbow Valley with her friend Nils. One day they meet a boy named Adrian, and the three forge a close friendship. Later Adrian turns out to be the unloved heir to the dukedom of Glen, and a cruel trick separates him and Finnie.

Because this is a romance novel, Finnie grows up to be a beautiful spunky young woman while Adrian becomes an embittered handsome man. When they meet again at his family's garden party he pushes her away, leaving her vulnerable to the advances of spoiled and charming Grand Duke Karl, the ruler of their unnamed country. Finnie must then come to terms with who she loves, what will make her happy, and how to heal the two tortured men who are drawn to her.

Obviously we are not dealing with an inventive plot, but this is a case of not fixing what isn't broken. If the story is taken for what it is – a classic romance novel in manga form – it is a wonderful, emotional ride. While Hara's art clearly got its start in the 70's, beyond the sharp noses and dewey eyes are beautiful landscapes and cosplay worthy gowns. The art flows through the story and the seasons with wonderful fluidity. Where it doesn't, the melodrama of 70's shoujo art accents the traditional romance plot nicely, making both less noticeable than they might otherwise have been.

As far as I know, Niji no Densetsu is only available in Japanese or Italian (as La leggenda dall'arcobaleno), but if you can read either of those languages and enjoy a good romance, I'd highly recommend giving this a try. Even if Rainbow Valley sounds like somewhere My Little Ponies would live, it's worth a visit to pick some flowers.

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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