RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
by Carlo Santos,
Man, what is with Anime Expo right now?
Anyone wanna guess who the guests of honor will be this year?
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Ichigo and his friends knew invading Hueco Mundo wouldn't be easy, but even the lesser Arrancars are pushing them to their limits! Can Ichigo, Uryû and Chad find the inner strength to overcome the first line of attack, or will Orihime be stuck in Hueco Mundo forever?!"
Hey kids, are you ready for The Ishida Show?! Because that's what happens in this volume of Bleach, where the coolest human character in the series (Don Kanonji notwithstanding) gets to really show off his arsenal of Quincy weaponry. If anyone ever thought Ishida was just some bow-and-arrow-wielding sissy boy, well ... Tite Kubo definitely knows how to keep a great surprise under wraps. Then, when the time comes to reveal the surprise, Kubo does even better, with his natural artistic flair coming to the forefront. No other artist is quite so adept at capturing the heat of battle in a way that is both powerful and stylish—the lines are bold and the hits are explosive, but at the same time, the action moves through each page with a unique fluidity. That's probably why, even though there are three distinct fighting styles on display (Ichigo slashes through the first few chapters and Chad pounds some fists at the end), each one is equally appealing, and keeps the story moving. Even sidekicks like Nel and Pesche get to lend a hand, so no one can accuse Kubo of giving secondary characters the shaft.
So, is anyone sick yet of Bleach doing the same thing over and over? When we last left our heroes, they were fighting some low-level grunts on the way into Hueco Mundo. So of course, in this volume's dramatic turn of events ... they continue fighting low-level grunts on the way into Hueco Mundo. Although Kubo is clearly enamored with the thrill of the fight, he's losing grasp of the overall story. It seems like years ago that we learned of Aizen's evil plan, and everything else since then has been nonstop Opponent A versus Opponent B. This volume shows that phenomenon at its worst: three guys battling their foes one-on-one in conveniently partitioned rooms, so that there's no chance of any clever surprise attacks or use of strategy. Whoever pulls out the biggest weapon wins (and yes, we are also getting sick of the "actually, this is my weapon's TRUE FORM!!!" device). It's as bad as those video games where the bad guys patiently line up and stand still so you can whack them in the face. Seriously, when did Bleach turn into Blecchh?
The thrilling fights and new weapons are but surface dressing for what is quickly becoming a tired, crumbling formula. Expect repetitive C material until Ichigo and company get to the real bosses.
(by Kazuko Furumiya, Tokyopop, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Much to Kiyo's dismay, Kuroboshi and Alshu begin attending her school, and of course, Kuroboshi is a hit with all the young female students. Kiyo's not the only one annoyed with the new arrival, though. Another student, Fujiwara, doesn't like sharing the spotlight and challenges Kiyo to a tennis match. If Kiyo loses ... Kuroboshi has to leave! Problem solved, right? But when Kiyo realizes her feelings for Kuroboshi might be stronger than she first thought, she becomes determined to win the match!"
Vampire Knight minus the melodrama! Twilight without sparkling abs! Yes, for those of us who can't stand the pompous contrivances of most other vampire tales, Bloody Kiss is a refreshing tongue-in-cheek affair that isn't afraid to poke fun at itself—and the entire genre. Believe it or not, the second volume seems to take things even less seriously than the first: now that Kiyo's bloodsucking buddies have decided to infiltrate her school, the potential for comedy quickly takes an upward turn. Kuroboshi may be the skeevy, comically awkward lothario, but it's Kiyo who really gets all the good punchlines, fending off her vampire predator with a well-timed quip or even an act of slapstick violence. And then, in the tradition of all great school comedies, Kiyo's childhood-friend-who-became-a-dashing-swordsman shows up, and of course his goal in life is to vanquish all evil monsters. Like Kuroboshi. All in all, the story moves at a fun, bouncy pace, and the delicate lines in the artwork make this one go down nice and easy. Like a warm cup of blood.
So that's it? End of story? Well, one should never have expected much from a two-volume series that's so scant it even had room for a quick one-shot at the end. By taking the route of a school romantic comedy, Bloody Kiss only makes itself even more inconsequential; now it's just a copy of 80% of all other shoujo manga. Except with vampires. Speaking of which, the whole Kuroboshi-Kiyo romance aspect is handled about as weakly as one would expect in this genre: she spends most of each chapter going "I hate him! I hate him! I hate him!" 80 percent of the time, and then at the last moment decides she really wants to be with him. Sometimes just to be really interesting (read: confusing), Kiyo will express both of those contrasting feelings on the same page. And let's not even get started on the act of neck-biting, which stands as the epitome of all vampire clichés and at this point has become an empty symbol. Combine that with the artistic clichés—too many screentones, generic character designs—and this is a series designed to be forgotten just like all its other clones.
Is it funny and entertaining? For a bit. But is it also shallow, emotionally predictable, and a complete copy of everything else in the genre? That too, which is why it ends up with a C-.
(by Wataru Mizukami, Del Rey, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Life isn't fair! Sachiko has a huge crush on her new stepbrother, Akihiko, a cute boy whose glasses make him even hotter, but he shows no interest in her. When she meets a group of hard-core fans of eyeglasses, she learns about the dreamy 'Four-Eyed Kiss.' Can she convince Akihiko to give her one?"
Things that make glasses awesome: Elton John. Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn. Mayu Watanabe. And now ... this manga? Yes, after a rocky start, Four-Eyed Prince seems to have found itself, realizing that glasses-fetish is a subject best played for laughs, rather than goopy school-age romance. Hence the establishment of the We Love Glasses squad, which kicks off the first chapter with tons of comedy, then pulls off a rather sharp plot twist, proving that Akihiko's prickly personality may not the only obstacle to Sachiko's affections. Then Akihiko's mysterious and also bespectacled "older brother" steps in, showing just how fun it is to watch Sachiko's heart getting played with. Even a standard-issue Christmas date chapter dishes out a couple of classic, broad-humored gags—but still hits a sweet, sugary finish just in time. The unrelated side story isn't so bad either, with its cute love-triangle turnaround. But what's really satisfying about this series is that, amidst all the sparkles and giant magnifying-glass eyes in the artwork, this is a lot more readable than the average cram-everything-on-one-page shoujo piece. With well-spaced panels and visual variety, it's as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the heart.
Let's be serious here: the only way this would be pleasing to the eyes is if you were reading it with uncorrected 20/500 vision. That's how bad the character designs are, which—aside from being cookie-cutter—often appear to be cross-eyed, or facially deformed, because so many manga-ka these days are learning to draw by copying other manga instead of drawing actual human figures. (One can tell these things.) And how about the classic trick of substituting backgrounds with cheap, copy-pasted screentones just about everywhere? Oh, but lazy art isn't the real problem here—it's lazy storylines, with "Bog-Standard Christmas Date Goes Horribly Wrong" being the bottom of the barrel, and "Sachiko Meets Some Rivals" and "Sachiko Meets Another Boy" floating just slightly above the muck. When one has to resort to games of chance to make the plot work—oh hey, Sachiko goes out with Akihiko because it was decided by lottery at the host club he works for!—that's a true sign of failure right there. Even at the fundamental level, the characters are woefully clichéd: every girl is a romantic dreamer, every guy is a supercool stud. Goodness sakes, let's keep these ridiculous fantasies in the world of fiction where they belong.
Better than the first volume, with moments of bouncy humor, but still too shallow and poorly-drawn to garner anything higher than a C.
(by Hiro Fujiwara, Tokyopop, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The excitement of Sports Day continues as Misaki and co. literally suit up for the Dress-Up Race! And boy do the Idiot Trio have a surprise in store for their favorite Maid Latte waitress! But maybe Misaki's enthusiasm to protect the precious female student body is coming at the expense of some of the guys? Then the excitement continues with new theme days at the Café. Misaki must discover her inner otaku to understand the true nature of Little Sister Day, and the debate rages about the proper color for Misaki's Battle Maid costume!"
It takes some kind of mad genius to do what Hiro Fujiwara does in Maid Sama!—which is to offer witty commentary on the otaku subculture without once falling into the trap of actually pandering to the demographic. This volume touches on topics like Power Ranger theme colors, Sweet Lolita fashionistas, and even the dreaded "little sister" fetish (just one step away from lolicon) ... but don't expect any exposed panties or cute girls in embarrassing states of undress. This series just doesn't have time for that. Instead, it's busy delivering the fundamentals of comedy, from the consistently awesome cast of characters—Misaki continues to forge ahead with her gung-ho personality, while Usui always has a sarcastic comeback for every occasion—to the brisk pacing that guarantees laughs around every corner. There's even time for the occasional surprise twist, like when newcomer Aoi shows up, and you'll never guess that ... well, let's not give it away. The straightforward artwork and layouts also prove that, even within the genre's visual conventions coming into play, it's getting the story and humor across that counts.
Actually, it's probably those so-called visual conventions that are Maid Sama!'s greatest weakness—letting cookie-cutter designs do the work instead of developing its own creative style. Misaki, for all her freshness and attitude, still looks like every other high school girl-next-door protagonist, and Usui might as well just get in line with all the tall, pointy-chinned bishounen. And the supporting cast? Who are they again? (At least the maids get to serve as recurring characters; the Idiot Trio, by comparison, gets relegated to sidebar content after the first chapter of this volume.) Let's also not forget the lack of backgrounds and overly cluttered screentones. Even the story content falters from time to time: the Sports Day chapter looks like it's about to head down a predictable path, then, in an attempt to avoid predictability ... takes a completely boring path instead. In fact, most of the school-related chapters end up as dull asides compared to the maid café shenanigans. Who cares about student council lackeys or mysterious hypnotists when it's the Misaki's wacky double life that carries this entire series?
Still a fun read, but sometimes makes the mistake of trying to be an average school comedy—when it's clearly capable of being above average. Which translates to about a B-.
(by Ume Aoki, Yen Press, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Nothing much has changed at the Hidamari Apartments for some time: Miyako's her usual, wacky self; Sae's still writing novels; Hiro's worrying about her weight; and Yuno's still as thoughtful and adorable as ever! But believe it or not, time has been passing, and Yuno starts thinking about what the future holds for her, her friends, and her art as graduation looms ever closer. The immediate future of the Hidamari residents, however, involves two new first-year neighbors—the shy, polite Nazuna, and outspoken computer whiz Nori! Do these newbies have any idea what they're in for?!"
Anyone who's ever thought that the four-panel format can't tell a story ... well, the fourth volume of Sunshine Sketch just proved you wrong. Although ostensibly a patchwork slice-of-life series about a bunch of girls at an art school, this installment actually strings together some some major events, like the end of the school year and subsequent grade promotion, along with the arrival of new characters—each with her own endearing quirks. The end-of-year graduation project is one of the genuinely inspired moments, calling to mind the actual things that real art students do, while adding a dash of trademark Hidamari humor. Hanging out and getting acquainted with Nazuna and Nori is a blast as well, with crazy Miyako coming up with an icebreaker game, as well as horsing around at the home furnishings store—exactly the kind of shenanigans one could imagine getting into with friends at school. Speaking of which, incidents like Yuno losing her cellphone in a classroom, the challenges of the English language (admit it, "Engrish" jokes are always funny for foreign manga fans!), and an epic quest for crab fried rice promises plenty of fun on campus grounds as well.
While Sunshine Sketch has a deft way of drumming up odd situations and spinning them out into cute little stories, that's all they'll ever be: cute little stories. It says a lot about the depth (or lack thereof) of this series that something as routine as a new school year is considered a "major event." Even worse is that, as these characters putter around doing things of no importance, the humor that we're supposed to find in these situations is often hard to see. Literally. You've got these tiny panels populated with tiny chibi characters cracking tiny jokes where the punchline is crammed into a millimeter-sized blob of art. Like when Miya rips her uniform. Or when Yuno gets up on the wrong side of the bed. (Ume Aoki, you may want to figure out how to draw a wall so that it doesn't look like blank white space.) It seems that the only kind of humor that works is the broad, physical kind—like Miyako goofing off in the store—or wordplay, because when there's barely even enough room on the page to fit the characters in, it's inevitable that the visual aspect is going to take a hit.
Yes, I definitely laughed at some parts ("gram, grammar, glamorous!"). But I also spent some stretches not laughing. It's a B- sort of series, although that grade could swing way up or down depending on one's personal tastes.
KING OF RPGS
(by Jason Thompson and Victor Hao, Del Rey, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"At the University of California, Escondido, no one would guess that freshman Shesh Maccabee is a hard-core gamer—and in recovery to boot, following a court order, a wireless ban, and months of therapy (all because of one little seven-day Internet café episode). His friend Mike—who personally prefers Japanese-console RPGs—is tasked with keeping Shesh far away from any computer with access to World of Warfare.
Everything's going according to plan—until a Ren Faire fangirl introduces them to the campus gaming club, where they meet Theodore, a fanatical tabletop game master whose single goal in life is to run the greatest Mages & Monsters game in the world. And there just happens to be room for two more players. Soon Shesh and Mike are dragged into the dungeon of hard-core gaming—and cops, baboon men, Sri Lankan cave roaches, and Gothémon card collectors converge in the zaniest adventure that ever involved twenty-sided dice!"
If anyone can do a brilliant, all-encompassing send-up of geek culture, it has to be Jason Thompson—a savant whose accomplishments include not only reading every manga published in America (as of 2007-ish) but also being well-versed in dozens of tabletop games. Thompson's passion shines through in this uproarious comedy, which wastes no time in spoofing RPGs of the pencil-and-paper, videogame and MMO variety, as well as collectible card games, game shop dealers, anime otaku, renaissance faires, vampire subculture, and college life in general. (Whew, did I miss anything?) The volume really hits its stride in the final chapter, which turns into an epic Yu-Gi-Oh!-esque card game showdown with dramatized battle sequences and a rigorous set of rules that is exploited hilariously in the finale. Truly, if there's anything more awesome than learning the rules and strategies of a game, it's figuring out the loopholes. But just like in real RPGs, this series wouldn't be what it is without the characters, who prove that geeks come in all different stripes. From the wild, unpredictable Shesh (whose "power-up" is always a welcome intrusion), to Japanophile Mike, to fantasy-obsessed Theodore, this series has it all covered. Except maybe the yaoi fangirl type.
As a resident of San Diego, I feel it is my duty to pass on this vital information to Mssrs. Thompson and Hao: Escondido is not "10 minutes away from the beach," there are no palm-lined roadways anywhere near that city, and there is no "La Jolla Expressway." Okay, yes, the setting is supposed to be all in fun (I guffawed at the very idea of a UC being in Escondido), but, y'know. Fact-checking. Aside from that, there's also the issue of this being Hao's first comic work, and boy does it show in the art. Sloppy linework is everywhere, the character designs are just barely consistent (and most of the time not all that attractive), and the toning shows the classic beginner mistake of trying to color everything in. The fantasy/adventure sequences are an even bigger mess, especially in the first chapter, which looks like someone accidentally shoehorned a bad fantasy manga into a bad geek-comedy manga. And yes, about the geek comedy: some of the early tabletop sequences may bore people to the point of thinking, "Why am I reading a comic about people playing a game when I can just play an actual game?"
If only Hao's artwork could catch up with Thompson's energy and sense of humor, it'd be a success on all fronts. As for right now, let's invest in the hope that "it gets better."
You know what's so awesome right now? The people who sent in reviews after my last column! YOU ARE ALL AWESOME! Thank you for keeping the Reader's Choice section alive! I don't want to be the only person out here spouting out random opinions about manga. I want everyone else to share theirs—so let's keep those submissions coming!
This week we're taking another trip down old-school lane. (Isn't the nostalgic atmosphere wonderful?) Jenna Crawford has the word on this classic yet little-known comedy series.
KYUKYOKU CHOUJIN R
(by Masami Yuuki, Shogakukan, ¥610 ea.)
R. Ichiro Tanaka is an android with the appearance of an airheaded teenage boy, but he loves to eat enormous quantities of rice. He is encountered by a local high school's Camera Club, which leads him to enroll himself in their school not long afterwards. It starts up as what seems like a slightly-altered "boy-meets-girl" shounen romance story, but what follows is nine volumes of R's exploits and sheer chaos throughout the school year. The whole story lags a few times, but there's still so much more fun to be had with R.
R's friends include the timid Sango, the hotheaded Tosaka the Senior, a ghost girl named Sayoko, the transvestite Makoto and the chain-smoking Tawaba who has been held back four years. There's a variety of stories that R is put through...the Camera Club members entering R in the school's beauty contest for a cash prize, R trying to help in a school-wide pellet gun war led by Tosaka, and R adopting a kitten who inexplicably turns into a boy with a cat face (who, might I mention, becomes a recurring student). While this sounds like something typical to most, every story has a twist in it somewhere that is unique to Yuuki's style.
R himself is a definitely unconventional hero, with his naïveté, lanky stature, omni-smiling face and only desire to eat rice. R's delusional creator Dr. Narihara, who built R to be a world domination device, appears every now and then to try and bring him back. What follows is the creation of R-29, R's sister, who becomes Narihara's key tool in taking over the school with his goofy-looking robot army.
Published in 1985 through 1987, it precedes Masami Yuuki's more famous Patlabor and Tetsuwan Birdy. It's much more comedic and wilder than either, and a huge surprise that it hasn't been published in any other language. Yuuki's bold lines and consistant art have held up very well over the past 25 years. There is a 74 minute OVA, made in 1991, that chronicles the Camera Club's trip through Japan, which also has never been translated but does have excellent animation.
R is greatly loved in Japan, but the only access North Americans have ever had to R is through his cameo in the obscure Assemble Insert (based on a manga by Yuuki). He also is a playable character in the PSP game Sunday VS Magazine: Shuuketsu! Choujou Daikessen, but no one who plays it knows who R is. I would openly say that many, many people are being deprived of the fun and originality that is Kyukyoku Choujin R.
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)
- 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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