Black Jack of All Trades

by Carlo Santos,

When I think about the licensing of Cross Game, I am reminded of how glad I am that baseball season is right around the corner. I am also reminded of how the sports genre continues to be a lost cause IN AMERICA, and not even all of America, but only the United States of America, because stuff like Captain Tsubasa is huuuuuge in Chile and wherever else.

Which is funny, because sports fandom has levels of geekiness all its own. As the great sports writer Bill Simmons once said: "There are sausage fests, there are mega-sausage fests and then there's the National Sports Collectors Convention. You have a better chance of meeting your future wife in an all-male penitentiary during a Gay Pride parade."

Suddenly anime cons don't sound so scary.

Vol. 10
(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $16.95)

"In Volume 10, Black Jack's past takes center stage as long estranged family members suddenly decide to play an encore role in his life. Now manga's most famous doctor is not above treating festering wounds and chronic heartbreak. But in this case Black Jack has to take the Hippocratic Oath by heart, as he will have to exercise restraint with his emotions as he comes face to face with memories that haunt him every day."

What makes Black Jack so fascinating is that he is very rarely the compassionate, saintly healer that we would imagine the ideal doctor to be. Instead he prefers to remain morally ambiguous, even going so far as to exact surgical revenge on his deadbeat father in a very shocking but fitting way. And thus it turns out that Black Jack is just as human as the rest of us—it takes the bonds of family to bring out the very best (and perhaps the worst) in him. Even in the more offbeat stories, the good doctor teaches us that "doing the right thing" doesn't always mean doing the right thing: he operates on both a kidnapper and his hostage, he cheats a rich old man while attending to the needs of the poor, he fixes up a cop for free but charges for the stand-up doll used as a crime deterrent. As always, each story is told with bold linework, expressive characters, and clean, fast-paced layouts where everything is neatly wrapped up in 20 pages. Truly, no image is as iconic as that of Black Jack always walking away in the final frame—knowing that justice has been served.

Sometimes, one gets the feeling that Black Jack only walks away from an incident because it's already Page 20 and that's all that can be done. Abrupt endings continue to be the bane of this series, as often times it feels as if Tezuka had more story to tell but ended up running into the page limit. (Just look at the woefully inconclusive last chapter in this volume.) Even the material that looks like it could be promising—Black Jack's dealings with his estranged family, anything where Pinoko gets into trouble—usually ends up being a one-and-done affair, with no continuity from one chapter to the next. Thus, instead of story development, we get all these stand-alone episodes involving wacky South Seas adventures or medically-related crime thrillers that only serve to embellish upon Black Jack's legendary abilities. (Gee, you don't suppose the previous nine volumes might have already pointed that out?) Plus, with some of the side characters being so blatantly exaggerated—both in terms of visual design and in personality—it's hard to take some of this stuff seriously. Moral lessons in cartoon dress-up don't always work.

Admittedly, Black Jack has always been more a collection of shorts than a true series. But the stories always have something meaningful to say, and are always executed smoothly, which is the kind of stuff that earns a B around here.

Vol. 2
(by Kou Matsuzuki, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Inside Café Bonheur, the pursuit of happiness continues...
When two mysterious young men walk into the café to declare war, Uru's passion gets the best of everyone, and they accept the challenge—with one condition: the loser will have to quit the industry for good. However just before the contest, Shindo sprains his wrist! And when Uru's mother shows up at Bonheur, will she convince Uru to go back home? Café Bonheur will have to survive through some turbulent times if it's to stay happy—and in business!"

Nothing spices up a storyline quite like head-to-head competition—especially when it's in the food business. Not only are Café Bonheur's new rivals delightfully detestable (in their first appearance, they saunter right in and start making snide comments in a regional accent), but their specialization in Japanese sweets is the perfect foil to the Café's selection of Western fare. Meanwhile, Uru's gung-ho attitude provides a bottomless supply of comedy moments, whether it's making fun of her rivals or simply getting into one of her classic slapstick blunders. Of course, her seemingly indestructible rubber face also adds to the laugh factor; this is one series that isn't afraid to exaggerate the artwork to gag-manga levels if the situation calls for it. But there are tender moments as well, especially once Uru's mother shows up and we learn a little more about their relationship. The side story in the last chapter also has its own lighthearted charm, with a protagonist who looks mature for her age and gets into some amusingly awkward situations as a result.

What does it say about this series that the side story seems to have more content and depth than five chapters of mincing around in a bake shop? The one-on-one showdown is the one real plot point in this volume, and yet the whole thing seems to be just an excuse to see attractive young men making and selling sweets. Not that they're all that attractive in the first place, what with the slightly crooked facial proportions and visual style that suggest someone trying to emulate the bishounen look but never really getting there. In fact, this whole series seems to be about "never really getting there"—Uru and friends get themselves into this rivalry but the animosity never really takes off; it's as if everyone really just wanted to shake hands and make friends in the first place. The same could be said of Uru's mother's visit, which apparently was supposed to shake up the plot with some possible parental friction, but you never get the feeling that she was all that desperate to bring Uru back home. Even the art, with its lack of detail and backgrounds, seems noncommittal and lazy. How appropriate.

It's hard to get into a series that does everything so half-heartedly. Heck, there are barely even any mouth-watering depictions of what they serve at the café. It's mostly sugar and air in this unsatisfying D-grade confection.

Complete Collection
(by Yuana Kazumi, Tokyopop, $16.99)

"Hana Yamada was all set for her big Tokyo debut—She'd just moved from Osaka, and finally thought she had her rather unusual 'condition' under control. As long as she's got her beloved green tea by her side, she can totally cure the hives she gets whenever she bumps into a cute boy! But her first day starts off disastrous and only gets worse, culminating in Hana's sister bartering her into indentured servitude at a local relaxation room run by two particularly good-looking young men! Can Hana keep her cool around the flamboyant Shinnosuke and, even worse, the hot but prickly Haru? How do you reach out to someone who you can never actually touch?"

You could do a lot worse things than ripping off the artistic style of Honey and Clover—and while Haru Hana may not have the iconic, instant-masterpiece vibe of H&C, it still packs a strong emotional punch. This romantic dramedy has plenty to say about youth and coming of age, and to do it in the space of three volumes makes the story that much more effective. From the unassuming character introductions, to the tempestuous relationship that grows between Hana and Haru, to the surprising yet satisfying final act, this is a story that has it all. Even surface elements that seem clichéd at first—Hana being allergic to contact with the opposite sex, Haru being an immensely talented masseuse—end up having a deep meaning that plays out later in the story. It's all held together by a design aesthetic that is loose and flowing, yet also carefully managed: the linework may be rough and sketchy at first glance, but notice how the layouts never lose track of the action, the dialogue, or the pace of the story. Hana's journey may go in some unusual directions, but in the end, it's clear where she was headed all along.

If anything, this short series is guilty of being too clear about where it's going. Just think, if we were to grade this by the first volume alone it would be instantly dismissed as another case of the "klutzy girl gets part-time job working with hot guys" disease that has spread throughout manga. And it would still be a visual rip-off of Honey and Clover. Fortunately, the later chapters are able to build on the thinly sketched out character traits, but only by employing a number of well-worn plot devices. The entire finale, for example, is an elaborate manifestation of the "dark childhood past" gimmick, complete with a tragic premature death. And was there any doubt that, after various ups and downs, Hana and Haru were going to end up liking each other? Even dramatic moments like a misunderstood kiss, and the threat of Hana moving back to Osaka, are merely distractions in a sweet but predictable love story. And maybe that's why it doesn't grab the heart and mind as much as it could have—because everyone already knows how it ends.

Definitely the feel-good sleeper hit of the spring. Even though it relies on many standard romantic tropes, the characters and story are still charming enough to pick up a B.

Vol. 25
(by Ken Akamatsu, Del Rey, $10.99)

"When the Festival of Ostia begins, Fate Averruncus emerges from hiding to set his evil plans into motion. But first he gives Negi a proposition. If Negi promises not to interfere with Fate's plot, he will allow Negi and the girls to go home unharmed. Now Negi must choose between his students and an entire world."

Just when you thought you had the Negima! universe all figured out ... well, it should come as no surprise by now that this volume uncovers yet another remarkable layer of story in Negi's quest to find his father. This time it's a flashback to the glory days of Nagi Springfield, Jack Rakan, and the rest of the elder generation—all presented with Rakan's humorous self-promotional bluster, of course. It's a tale of war, politics, treachery, and more than a few surprising plot points that connect the magical world's past to its present. The truth behind Asuna's royal lineage becomes a little clearer now, and the motives of the central villain, Fate, turn out to have much deeper roots than simply being some guy hellbent on world domination. Speaking of which, Negi's dust-up with Fate in this volume clearly steals the show in the action-adventure department; we've already seen Negi wielding his dark magic before, but never against an opponent of this level. Negi's allies put on quite the show as well, especially with Nodoka's spectacular mind-reading abilities, and Rakan defeating his opponents by using their panties against them. Yes, you read that right. Panties.

In basketball, it's fundamental team play that wins championships, yet everyone prefers to tune in for the slam dunk highlights. Likewise, in Negima, it's the back story and world-building that make it epic, yet everyone would rather watch magical lightning-bolt-throwing and random acts of skirt-flipping. Which is exactly what's wrong with this volume. Rakan's flashback, which is clearly the area of greatest interest, gets a scant three chapters at the back end of the book (although there looks to be more in the next installment), while the remainder is taken up by Negi and Fate's respective factions battling it out. And it's not like the battle is handled with any particular grace or cleverness: it just bounces disjointedly from scene to scene because there are too many people fighting and they're all in different places. Couple that with the constantly cluttered, magnifying-glass-required visual style, and trying to follow all those fights simply becomes an exercise in self-inflicted pain. A pain that isn't really worth it, because the villains eventually run off to fight another day. Plus, the character who could give us the most potentially interesting confrontation—Yue—barely gets five pages for her appearance. What kind of injustice is this?!

There's some definite promise in the latest flashback arc, but the endless pages of plotless, mindless fighting result in a C+.

(by Natsume Ono, Viz Media, $12.99)

"At the age of 21, Nicoletta travels to Rome to find her mother, Olga, who abandoned her long ago. Nicoletta finds her at Casetta dell'Orso, a charming little restaurant owned by Olga's husband. The staff of bespectacled gentlemen welcomes Nicoletta warmly, but Olga's reception is not so pleasant. Olga has never told her husband that she ever had children—and he must never know.
In exchange for Nicoletta's playing 'the daughter of an old friend,' Olga offers Nicoletta a place to live and an apprenticeship at the restaurant. Nicoletta fits in well among the unique personalities at Casetta dell'Orso. She gets along particularly well with the kindly headwaiter, Claudio, a divorced man who, after years, has still never taken off his wedding ring. As Nicoletta's feelings for Claudio become complicated, she finds a sympathetic ear in Olga, leading the estranged pair to form a friendship neither expected. But as they grow closer, the pressure exerted by the secret the share becomes too much to bear."

Ristorante Paradiso may not be on as epic a scale as Ono's not simple, but that doesn't make it any less accomplished. Once again, Ono plays with complicated feelings and relationships, and how they develop among a unique cast of characters. Nicoletta's growth is the most dramatic, of course—going from an vengeful, estranged daughter to a capable young woman—but the other characters are just as compelling. Olga has plenty to learn as well, and there is no moment quite as satisfying as when the truth finally comes out about her "daughter of an old friend." Then there's Claudio, who as a divorced elder man is not only the most unlikely character ever to be found in manga, but also teaches us about love and letting go from the vantage point of a few decades' experience. Of course, none of this would be possible without the expressiveness and subtlety of Ono's linework, where a single smirk or glance can say all that needs to be said, and every panel flows naturally to the next. Young love may be exciting and electric, but a story like this proves that it's the grown-ups who really know how to experience it in full.

Although this story is clear and expressive in its themes of romance, it also has a way of getting sidetracked by stuff that doesn't really matter. Like the whole deal about the restaurant being staffed by middle-aged men in glasses—it's cute as a fetish element, but it also has about as much bearing on the story as whether or not Claudio is secretly a vampire. The little story-within-a-story about the two half-brother waiters also seems like a waste of a chapter; it's a good idea in itself, but doesn't add much to the central plot concerning Nicolette, Olga, and Claudio. And while the storyline is packing extra baggage that isn't necessary, the artwork leans in the opposite direction by being too sparse at times—a clear epidemic of "two people chatting in an empty room" syndrome. Seriously, how can you do a story set in Italy and not manage to illustrate the ambiance of the country itself? Even Aria does a better job of nailing down the atmosphere of Old Europe—and that one's set on a different planet.

Certainly it has its flaws, but as a grown-up, complicated love story, this one really hits the spot. Consider this a very high B+ that just barely missed the next grade up.

Vol. 1
(by Kenji Inoue and Mosuke Mattaku, Kadokawa Shoten, ¥588)

"Akihisa Yoshii is among the dumbest of the dumb at Fumizuki Academy, where classes are divided strictly by academic performance—and where class facilities are also based on academics. In Yoshii's appropriately named F class, the whole classroom looks like it's about to fall apart. But there is a chance for the students to move up: every quarter, a lower class can challenge a higher class to a virtual battle where they summon avatars whose fighting ability is proportional to their test scores. Naturally, the Summoned Beings that represent F class are painfully weak, but they have one secret weapon on their side. Mizuki Himeji, an A-grade student, ended up in Class F after falling ill during the placement exam—and her immensely powerful Summoned Being could singlehandedly catapult Class F into the lap of academic luxury!"

With scholastic competitions powered by video-game logic and a misfit cast of characters, BakaTest plays out like an unholy marriage between School Rumble and Final Fantasy—and ends up being more fun than it has any right to be. Much of that can be attributed to the one-liners peppered throughout the volume; the only thing better than Yoshii's sarcastic zingers about school life is when his schoolmates snap back at him. And if it's not the words that are bringing out the laughs, it's the action: slapstick comedy is everywhere with moments like Yoshii using a fire extinguisher as a diversion in the midst of battle, or everyone dropping dead from food poisoning after it turns out that the hottest girl in class is also a horrible cook. And who can forget those frighteningly demented faces whenever the characters grimace or scream in horror? Even basic character designs can be a source of humor, as we quickly learn when faced with the alluring androgyny of a character like Hideyoshi. The exam battles may be the meat of this series, but the rampant screwball comedy is the spice that will keep readers coming back for more.

Wacky as it may be, Baka & Test's choice of setting may ultimately be its downfall—if only because we're so sick of school comedies all trying to do the exact same thing with the most psychologically deficient characters possible. This would not be the first ensemble cast consisting of an idiot male lead, his equally idiotic best friend, a tomboy who does the talking with her fists, a girly-girl who has no clue, a resident pervert, and various others. It certainly doesn't help that their character designs are just as generic as their descriptions. The series' other weakness lies in its baffling Exam Battle system, which stops making sense after the "Summoned Being" and "test score" part. Just re-read those scenes where Yuuji discusses his strategy for getting all the way to Class A—and try to figure out the logic behind that, if any. Thus we end up with a whole lot of summoning battles where the action looks cool, and the script is funny, but if anyone asked what was actually going on you'd just shrug in confusion. What else is there to do when the only thing that makes sense ... is nonsense?

A shining example of the principle that, if you throw enough jokes and pratfalls out there, you actually can cover up the deficiencies of a rather average story. This is dumb fun in its purest form.

Really? Really, RTO readership? There is not a single manga out there that makes you want to explode in a 300- to 400-word RAGE about how bad it is? I request—no, I demand that somebody cough up a negative review! Most overrated series, ugliest art, worst ending, anything—come on, this stuff always cracks me up!

Meanwhile, we take a more serious turn with a review by Eric P. for a title that I, regrettably, have not had a chance to cover in this column. But that's why there are readers like you—to pick up on all the stuff that I miss.

(by Keiko Tobe, Yen Press, $14.99 ea.)

One day I scanned my eyes through the manga section at my usual bookstore, until they came across a thick book with the big, bold title words, With the Light-Raising an Autistic Child. Was this really a manga? I grabbed it, paged through it, and found out that, yes, it was. While there are plenty of shoujo drama releases, I never thought there was one existing title that revolved around a sensitive albeit significant subject matter, one that personally hits close to home for me. I purchased it, read it, and I have to say that this is a must-read for manga readers that should be more aware of it.

The story starts off with Sachiko having her firstborn son, who she named Hikaru, and having the highest hopes for a wonderful family life. That idealism breaks later on when Hikaru refuses any and all physical affection from his mother, but that was just the beginning. He develops into a very difficult child for reasons Sachiko cannot fathom, annoying the people around them, making her suffer a breakdown, almost tearing her life apart. Fortune arrives when she finds just the right doctor that diagnoses Hikaru as autistic, and provides her with the information and support she needs, even offering her the chance to connect with other parents going through the same thing. Sachiko slowly but surely rebounds, coming to accept the family she has, and adjusts her whole life and world around Hikaru, helping him develop in a way that is convenient to his needs.

So each following volume follows Hikaru as he grows up from baby, to child, to currently teenager, and to adult in future volumes, shedding light on the difficulties as well as the accomplishments. With the Light leaves room for educational dialogue on what autism is and its different variants, and how people can treat or deal with it. But it is just as much a very real human drama, making a very realistic portrayal of how there are just as many people who are open-minded and flexible and are willing to help Hikaru, as there are those who find disabled people annoying and prefer they were not around for their own convenience. What is most touching is the impact Hikaru and other disabled kids leaves on people's lives around them as it is the other way around.

With the Light is a wonderful manga series through and through. Each volume is thick and may take up some shelf space, but I am well proud of collecting this series for my library.

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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