Portrait of a Hero

by Carlo Santos,

Nick Simmons' real mistake, perhaps, was that he copied Bleach, plus a handful of his other personal favorites, and that was it.

He didn't go nearly far enough.

Veteran comic artist Gary Panter once said: "If you have one person you're influenced by, everyone will say you're the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you're so original!" So to be a truly great plagiarist, you can't just copy one guy's manga. You've got to copy everyone! Try harder, Nick!

Vol. 2
(by Hiromu Arakawa, Yen Press, $10.99)

"With the Imperial Army in hot pursuit, Housei leads Taitou and the others on a little detour to the home of his master. But the 'mean old devil woman' he had described turns out to be nothing of the sort. Master Kouei is a veritable font of wisdom; in addition to knowing a more covert route to the capital, she is well versed in the legends of the Hokushin-Tenkun. There is much she can teach Taitou as he struggles to control the overwhelming power of his star, but will she have enough time to impart her wisdom before tragedy strikes?"

Some fantasy authors think you can just throw some heroes into a fancy medieval world, send bad guys for them to fight, and the rest of the story writes itself. But not Hiromu Arakawa, who continues to build upon the distinctive world of Hero Tales in its second volume. The striking scenery and architecture—carefully modeled after ancient China—gets a chance to shine as Taitou pays a visit to the Imperial Palace, and the fanciful yet realistic costumes add to the authenticity of the experience. As always, however, it's the story and characters that are the heart and soul of this work, and a shocking incident in this volume (plus a hint of an important revelation about Taitou?) proves that it's never too soon for an epic adventure to have a dramatic twist. Well-timed doses of humor balance out the serious stuff, though, especially when Taitou's inadvertently finds himself chatting with the Emperor. Then there are the battles that help to keep the pace moving, like a gorgeously rendered action sequence where Taitou goes berserk. Truly, no one tells a complete adventure story quite like Arakawa.

The problem with being the creator of Fullmetal Alchemist is that ... well, everyone ends up comparing anything else you do to Fullmetal Alchemist. And let me be one to say, this doesn't even come close to Fullmetal Alchemist. Of course, swiping the character designs from that series doesn't help—look, the hero is a dark-haired Alphonse Elric! And the villain is President Bradley! The real problem, though, is the overall lack of originality in the storyline, which trudges predictably from encounter to encounter as our typical heroes continue on a typical quest to retrieve a typical magic weapon. That's not storytelling—that's just slapping down a generic adventure plot and hoping that the unique setting and polished art are enough to carry it. Sadly, it's not working: the characters are all cut-and-paste archetypes with maybe a few personality defects for humorous effect, and the background story about two opposing warriors destined to battle each other sounds like so many things that have come before. And how about that ridiculous "training" scene where Taitou stands in a river and acts really constipated to focus his chi through his body. Enough with the Dragon Ball crap. Give me back my alchemy.

Well, it's a fun ride if all you're looking for is a fun ride—but the predictable story progression and lack of creative spark result in a C+ for this one.

Vol. 2
(by Julietta Suzuki, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Odette is now a sophomore at her high school. She still wants to be as close to human as she can, but finds out she still has a long way to go. From wanting to be 'cute' by wearing nail polish, to making a 'tasty' bento that people would be happy to eat, and trying to figure out the different kinds of 'like,' Odette faces each challenge head-on with the help of her friends Yoko, Chris, Professor, and of course, Asao."

Even though it doesn't really go anywhere, the world of Karakuri Odette is still a very pleasant place to be. Just like in the first volume, our robotic protagonist points out the wonders of being human by highlighting things we often take for granted: having likes and dislikes, being attracted to someone, even having a sense of taste. The series doesn't try to force broad comedy out of these ideas, nor does it try to bury the reader in high-level philosophy—it simply lays out these things as something to think about, a gentle massage for the brain. But while Odette is out there making our neurons tingle, it's the boys in the series who really steal the show this time around: first there's Chris, another android whose development is a few steps behind Odette's and so leads to a unique robot-to-robot relationship; then there's school bully Asao, who adds some necessary friction (Odette is just too damn nice sometimes) and in some ways is the most deeply human character in the series. A clean, understated visual style suits the mood perfectly, with easy-to-pick-out character designs and a smooth flow from page to page.

The art may look appealing at first glance, but simpler isn't always better—especially when it means blatantly avoiding backgrounds and shoving a few screentones in there as a lame excuse. Even the characters are drawn almost entirely in lineart, with just a handful of shadows and textures, making some scenes look very flat and washed-out. But the blandness isn't as problematic as some of the chapters where the storytelling just comes out weird—like aiming toward a certain direction and entirely the wrong path to get there. Like when Odette tries to contemplate what it means to "like" someone, and it somehow turns into this improbable bullying incident that somehow teaches a valuable moral lesson right at the end. Even stranger is the attempt to inject some action-adventure into the series by having some thugs try to capture Chris ... except that it never feels as if he's in danger, because everyone is suffering from a form of stupidity that allows the stilted plot to work out in the end. Perhaps the story should stop trying to get fancy and stick to slices of real life.

Perhaps the most impressive thing is the series' ability to entertain even though it's not particularly ambitious or spectacular. It simply is, which translates to a well-earned B.

(by Natsume Ono, Viz Media, $14.99)

"Ian, a young man with a fractured family history, travels from Australia to England to America in the hope of realizing his dreams and reuniting with his beloved sister. His story unfolds backwards through the framing narrative of Jim, a reporter driven to capture Ian's experiences in a novel: not simple."

In a way, this story is definitely "not simple"—it's a tale of crossed paths, dysfunctional relationships, and enough devastating plot twists to send Naoki Urasawa reeling. Yet that is exactly what makes it so great: the idea that all these events, all these tragedies, can happen to one young man is utterly mind-blowing. If it were any simpler—if it were told linearly, or if it came out with some happy reset ending—then it wouldn't be the masterpiece that it is. Even the unpolished artwork becomes an essential element to the story: those huge, emotion-filled eyes on the characters; the sketchy lines that give off an improvised, natural feel; the page layouts that emphasizes clarity over visual flashiness. It's because of all this that we become absorbed in Ian's tale, experiencing every glimmer of hope and every twinge of shock with him, living the story as it happens. Perhaps the only thing in Viz's library that can match it in sheer scope is Inio Asano's solanin—the difference being that solanin ends by giving you a warm, loving hug. This, on the other hand, is an unforgettable punch in the gut—and it feels so good.

They have another word for stories like this. They call it ... "confusing." And that's pretty much what happens during the first half or so of the book, where too many characters come bouncing in at once, and Ian's motivation isn't fully fleshed out yet, so everything just kind of drifts for several chapters while Natsume Ono is busy putting the pieces in place. The abrupt jumps between different timeframes, including flashbacks, also add to the disorientation, and ultimately the good stuff doesn't start happening until Ian heads off to America to fulfill his quest. At which point the book is already one-third over. Let's not make any excuses for the art, either: there are times when Ono's minimalist approach backfires on her, like the fact that the locales of Australia, England, and America all look exactly the same. Backgrounds, who needs 'em?! Some of the minor characters, too, can be forgettable at first glance—it can take some time getting used to the style and understanding how everyone looks.

This is a grade not given out lightly, but for a work of such scope and emotional pull, that's a pure A right there.

Vol. 1
(by Tachibana Higuchi, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Everyone in the world has a secret that cannot be shared ... and Mitsuru and Natsuhiko are no different. These two lost lambs have one simple desire: a peaceful school life. But as fate would have it, their secret identities are suddenly exposed to each other. Mitsuru is an extreme masochist who finds delight in brutal beatings, while Natsuhiko accidentally unveils his over-the-top narcissism and one true pleasure of gazing at his beautiful reflection in a room full of mirrors.
Will their dream of a trouble-free school life be possible for these poor souls?"

The characters of M & N may not be entirely realistic ... but then again, neither are the ones in all those happy shiny cookie-cutter romances. And that's why this self-contained story is refreshing in its own way, where the protagonists are drawn together by their strange neuroses rather than "well she's an ordinary schoolgirl and he's the hottest guy in class so SNOOOOOORRRRE." The restrained mood and gradual pacing also set it apart from the average school fling—rather than hammering through every single shoujo cliché on the way to a pat ending, Tachibana Higuchi draws us gently (and uneasily) into the unusual world of Mitsuru and Natsuhiko, where companionship is not a prize to be won but a way to cope with one's insecurities. Even more notable is how Higuchi develops a perfectly legitimate back story as to why Mitsuru likes to be hurt. Amidst all these abnormalities and negative feelings, however, there's still comedy to be found, especially whenever Mitsuru gets whacked in the head—okay, she has problems and it's not polite to laugh, but as a fictional story, you can't help but be amused, right?

Consider the following: M & N was Tachibana Higuchi's second manga ever. It predates her biggest hit, Gakuen Alice, by about three years. So who wants to guess how polished the artwork looks? Yes, the correct answer is: NOT VERY. Despite the accomplishments in the story department, it's the visuals that are holding this one back, with stiff character poses and flat scenery dominating each page. The facial expressions are slightly more convincing, but even they appear to be limited to about three different moods (happy, sad, and shocked). For readers with sharp eyes, however, it's the poor sense of perspective that will cause the most suffering, and we can only hope that Higuchi has learned how to draw school corridors properly over the last decade or so. Meanwhile, the story isn't immune to faults either: the introduction of another boy to make it a love triangle feels tacked-on, especially when his psychological issue is revealed to be ... well, pretty lame compared to masochism and narcissism. It just seems like there wasn't room to develop him into a full-fledged character.

Although artistically unpolished, the solid storytelling and unique characters make this one surprisingly enjoyable. Definitely worth a B.

Vol. 5
(by Yashichiro Takahashi and Ayato Sasakura, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Yuji Sakai is beginning what he thinks will be the life of a normal high school student. But everything changes when he is drawn into the struggle between creatures from another world, the Crimson Denizens, and a girl, Shana. He has a crucial role to play in the conflict, despite the fact that ... he's dead!
Lamies the Corpse Collector offers Yuji some advice about his strange relationship with Shana. But Yuji had better act fast if he wants to confess his true feelings, because Shana is trapped in a losing battle with the vicious Margery Daw! Who is Shana's worst enemy ... the Crimson Denizens or her fellow Flame Haze?"

When is a side story better than the main story? When it's this odd little mixture of prose and comics that gives us an inside look at Shana's "early years," when she was a newly formed spirit being still trying to learn the intricacies of the real world. The final third of this volume makes room for that vignette, and it may well be the hidden gem of Shakugan no Shana so far—a refreshing change of pace that shows Shana's human side (even if she's not actually human, but ... you get the point). Part humorous and part heartwarming, it's actually more satisfying than the constant cliffhangers of the main storyline. And the rest of this volume isn't so bad either—the aftermath of the Margery Daw battle leads to a moving reconciliation between Yuji and Shana, and that is only able to happen after Yuji experiences an inspirational moment of soul-searching. In other words, it's the supernatural themes that bring us here—not to mention the fluid visuals and impressive fight scenes—but it's the inner drama that makes us stay.

Nothing says "desperate cry for help" like having the original author of the novel step in and provide some supplementary material. Has the Shana manga really sunk so low that it has to fill out the pages by switching to a side story partially written in prose? The story itself may be decent, but changing mediums like that is completely disorienting, like Star Wars suddenly breaking out into The Marriage of Figaro. And even if one enjoys the tale, it doesn't change the fact that the real adventure is a flop in this volume, with the actual fighting action taking up about 5 pages total. Isn't the whole point of this series supposed to be about a cute little girl being awesome with a sword? Meanwhile, the remaining pages are taken up with Yuji and Shana whining and moaning about their feelings, or worse yet, some time-wasting scenes involving Margery Daw and friends drinking and goofing around. Plus, if you take time to look at the art, ever notice how the backgrounds are always plain or nonexistent? Boring. Just like everything else here.

Yes, that side story is pretty cool ... but its placement in this volume, and the resulting truncation of the main storyline, just messes things up and makes the whole work a C.

Vol. 1
(by Taiyo Matsumoto, Shogakukan, ¥857)

"Shigeo is a high strung elementary school student living with his mother. His only concern is getting ahead in life by doing well in school. He despises his father Hanao (who is separated from them), who's an idealistic free spirit and kid at heart infatuated with the sport of baseball. Shigeo's mother forces Shigeo to take time to visit his father and so begins Shigeo's lessons that there's more to life than excelling academically (courtesy of his very childish father)."

Taiyo Matsumoto may be best known for edgy, mind-bending works like Tekkonkinkreet, but to think that he had it in him to do a coming-of-age baseball manga? Wonders never cease. Like some kind of crossbreed between Mitsuru Adachi and a far-out acid trip, Hanaotoko makes use of Matsumoto's loopy, bold-lined style to tell a surprisingly down-to-earth story. The character designs and backgrounds look unconventional, even ugly—but the strict layouts and clearly defined action show an artist who knows how to get his point across. One has to learn the rules before before breaking them, as they say. As for the story itself, the conflict of personalities between Shigeo and his dad is a constant source of new ideas, some amusing, some thoughtful, and always perfectly designed to fit into an 18-page chapter. Even more interestingly, there's no clear black and white about who's right and who's wrong: obviously, Shigeo could stand to lighten up a little, yet his father also needs to develop a sense of responsibility if he wants to be a good parent. It's this kind of food for thought that makes Matsumoto's work great—it may look like he's just messing around, but he's always got something serious to say.

Although Hanaotoko makes some very good points about finding balance in one's life, the choice of protagonist may strike some as odd. A third-grader, with that kind of attitude and philosophizing at that level? It could happen, given a reasonably precocious child, but Shigeo's words and thoughts do seem more appropriate for someone maybe three years older. (His father, on the other hand, is surprisingly believable as a 30-year-old bum.) And while the story definitely captures a certain mood and mindset, the plot development isn't much to get excited about; were it not for the striking visual style and the name recognition that goes with being Taiyo Matsumoto, we'd probably all be writing this off as just another nostalgic, rosy-cheeked baseball tale. Seriously, the kid moves in with his dad, spends the summer there, gets into some scrapes, then the school year starts up again. That's Volume 1. Not exactly revolutionary, is it? We see Shigeo gradually starting to have a change of heart, but there's no spectacular turnaround to be found here ... at least not yet.

It's almost a bit too laid-back and normal for an artist like Matsumoto—yet that laid-back mood, combined with his outrageous style and characters, is exactly what makes this series worth checking out.

Sometimes, the best kind of comedy is the one that's by fans, for fans. That definitely seems to be the case with this week's Reader's Choice—so check out this review by CJ Thomas and see what you think!

(by Fumi Yoshinaga, DMP, $12.95 ea.)

It's no secret that Fumi Yoshinaga is a well liked mangaka, she comes up with great characters and stories on a regular basis after all, and Flower of Life is no exception. The main difference I find between Flower of Life and, say, the equally amazing Antique Bakery is that Antique Bakery doesn't cater to the crowd of "manga nerds" like Flower of Life does.

This is no doubt a series for manga nerds, but Yoshinaga switches expertly between drama, comedy, and mundane but fun slice of life and a well crafted series comes out in the end that could be for people who might not be manga nerds either. While manga nerds and otaku are going to probably get the most out of this series, particularly shojo fans, that's not to say it's just one big long parody from end to end; we actually get a series that deals with real-life illnesses as our main has just finished a battle with leukemia and it is one half of the driving drama in the series. The other half is a teacher debating between two equally wrong and horrible dating choices in men (and I do mean horrible choices), which comes off as funny at times and rather tragic at other times.

But interspersed within the drama is some of the best comedy I've seen in ages, spurred on by an excellent supporting cast that are living tropes related to being a nerd. We've got the completely unlikable but strangely close to home Majima, the jerk manga snob whose lengthy conversations on anime and manga I was able to follow embarrassingly well for my liking (and only served to prove to myself what an otaku I am), then Shota, the too cute for words kid that everyone looks upon like a cute shotaro boy stuffed animal, and lastly our main Harutaro, who is upbeat and optimistic about life after his recent and difficult battle with leukemia and aspires to be a manga artist. Later, a Sadoko-looking girl (from Ringu) who has been writing a lengthy 70s style shojo epic in all of her notebooks emerges from another class and comes out of her shell, and the teacher Saito-sensei and the *totally not yaoi* situation with romance mentioned above also comes into play.

Then we get to comedy which lampshades itself all over yaoi and cute character stereotypes. I think I'll just quote the manga here: "What's the point of having both men looking burly?! This is just a regular gay couple!! If you make one manly (the pitcher), you've got to make the other one (the catcher) pretty enough so as to be barely distinguishable from a woman!! That's the iron rule of yaoi!!!" But despite this series clearly poking a lot of fun at yaoi (which Yoshinaga also does), Flower of Life itself is not a yaoi and is still funny to yaoi and non-yaoi readers alike. Not all the jokes revolve around yaoi either, some of it just comes from drawing great characters having fun and some pokes fun of other cliches common to both manga and anime ("*gasp* She's a tsundere!").

This is really a series that anyone who considers themselves to be a manga otaku needs to read and then get everyone else they know to read too. Anyone not afraid to read a manga called Flower of Life owes it to themselves to go buy this one right now and it's an absolute must for fans of Antique Bakery and Fumi Yoshinaga in general, but it's also a series that does enough different genres really well that I would recommend this to anyone who has been into manga for at least a few years too.

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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