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Little Twin Stars

by Carlo Santos,

I find it odd that ICv2's report on the state of manga sales in America makes it out to be entirely a demand-side issue. What, do the actions of licensors and publishers have nothing to do with this? Remember a few years back when everyone wanted to license everything? We're paying for it now. And remember when everyone and their mom thought, oh hey, I can start a manga publishing company IN AMERICA and make instant money—how many of those companies have since collapsed (or are on life support)? And do people seriously think that just because Fruits Basket was a big hit, we really want to go through all of Natsuki Takaya's back catalog, or that people will pay 50% extra just because Generic Shonen Manga has Osamu Tezuka's name on it, or that every single anime/game/product tie-in will be an instant seller when it hits the shelves?

These are not things the audience has any control over (aside from voting with their dollars). These are conscious business decisions coming from the publishers, the supply side—and have little to do with whether someone reads scanlations or not, or whether someone feels like collecting multi-volume sets or not. The industry has made its bed. Now they sleep in it.

Vol. 2
(by Majiko!, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"The bond between Neo and Saya strengthens as they prepare for the highly anticipated concert. Will 'Clap=★' end in bittersweet goodbyes or will they have a star debut as promised? And who really is Nanato, and why is he so protective of Neo? Meanwhile, the 23rd century finally makes contact with Neo but..."

After a stunningly bad opening act, Mikansei No. 1 redeems itself in the second and final volume of the series, finally displaying important qualities like a plot, and conflict, and resolution. First there's the issue of Neo and Saya's debut concert, which manages to end on a surprisingly heartwarming note—a much-welcome relief after 180 previous pages of brain-dead pop star antics. But what happens next is when things really start to improve: a number of key revelations show that Neo is not the only time-traveler in this universe, and that the people around her know more than she realizes. One even starts to feel sympathetic towards Neo's situation after realizing that she will have to choose between staying in the 21st century or returning to her own time, ultimately having to sacrifice one group of friends for the other. When the time finally comes to make that decision ... well, it looks like this series has the capacity to pull some heartstrings after all. Bold artwork, outrageous yet stylish outfits, and unexpected comedy moments also provide the necessary energy to match Neo's sprightly personality in this finale.

Sure, it gets better, but it never comes anywhere close to being great. And some would question if it was ever even good. Instead, this series is content to simply exist, rolling through all the usual conventions as a piece of fluff entertainment. Hey look, it's a long lost childhood friend! And here are mysterious benefactors always showing up at just the right time! And why is it that all forms of time-travel technology force the protagonist to make a dramatic, emotionally charged decision? If there's anything creative that Mikansei No. 1 has accomplished, it remains yet to be found, and probably never will, because the series is over. Also, for those who survived all the way through, make sure your eyes get some rest afterward—the messy visuals and near-indechipherable action scenes are surely an ordeal that should not be forced on any human. It also doesn't help that most of the character designs are nondescript teens and twentysomethings that require advanced optical instruments to identify. There's nothing really great to look at, and nothing great to read, resulting in a towering achievement of ... non-greatness.

Although not as painful as the first volume—and at some times even likable—this series finishes on a C note as it fails to rise above the usual themes and plot devices.

Vols. 1-2 Collection
(by Mizuho Kusanagi, Tokyopop, $14.99)

"Yayoi—the 78th Head of Household of the Suzuka Clan—is a mystic with a tremendous power over the spirits. Of course, along with great power comes those with the desire to steal it! Enter Ura, who wants to become the King of the Demons. He comes to the human world to challenge Yayoi, but ends up stripped of his powers—and is sealed away as a black cat instead! Although Ura is still hell-bent on 'eating' Yayoi's power, the unlikely pair find themselves caught up in an adventure they never imagined!"

At first glance, Mugen Spiral may seem like a typical spirit-hunting adventure ... but that's just the disguise it wears to get readers hooked before turning into a girl-meets-demon story full of drama and poignancy. Not that this is supposed to be taken as some kind of swooning romance where Yayoi automatically falls into Ura's arms—rather, it's the ever-changing dynamics between them that makes their relationship so fascinating. The story is particularly effective in the series' middle arc, with its demonic family feud full of heart-wrenching sacrifices and noble gestures. Oh, and the special effects aren't too bad either—expect plenty of lightning bolts and dark magic when the villainous Ouga comes to play (and what a delightful villain he is, with his inferiority complex and pathological hate). The main characters are also compelling in their own way: Ura constantly toes the line between bad boy and shining knight, and can be very endearing when he so desires, while Yayoi's combination of take-charge attitude and self-sacrificial love makes her more than just an average heroine. Plus it doesn't hurt for all the characters to be reasonably attractive. Especially the boys. Yeah, it's that kind of series.

Wow, that was a horrible first three chapters—and a lousy last three chapters as well. In some bizarre feat of bad storytelling, the climax of the series arrives right in the middle, then changes tone and stumbles through a handful of low-level exorcisms to end the series. A poignant "Special Story" is the one saving grace of the book's closing chapters, but it appears that the series got cancelled prematurely, resulting in a lackluster finale that was probably meant to have been a bridge between story arcs. And as for those three introductory chapters—they seem to be a test of endurance for supernatural genre fans more than anything else, churning out typical spirit-hunting clichés (evil spirits attack Yayoi, Yayoi tries to fend them off, Ura switches to demon form and gives her a boost) before getting to the central arc. But regardless of where the story's at the artwork leans too much toward the side of cookie-cutter sloppiness anyway: lots of screentones thrown into the backgrounds just for the sake of having them, confusing scene transitions and action shots, and dialogue bubbles that are hard to follow. It just makes a mediocre series that much more mediocre.

Any promise the series might have had is ultimately destroyed by an abrupt ending, sloppy visuals, and weak stand-alone chapters. This is what a D+ looks like.

Vol. 8
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $12.99)

"While Togawa and the Tigers are finally gelling and coming together as a team, Nomiya finds himself still without a job and without any real direction in his life. His true path continues to elude him until an unlikely source gives him new perspective on it all. Meanwhile, Takahashi struggles with acceptance and rehabilitation, but he hasn't given up on himself just yet."

As Real switches back to Takahashi's struggles in physical therapy, Takehiko Inoue introduces one of the most entertaining characters yet in the series: Hanasaki, a mumbling otaku who provides the perfect counterpoint to Takahashi's jock persona. Part rival, part comic relief, Hanasaki is an instant reminder of how physical disability can be the great equalizer—that even the lowest guy on the social ladder can have the advantage in something as simple as re-learning how to sit down. Takahashi's quest to re-take control of his body is the highlight of this volume, an inspirational arc that is made all the more moving by Inoue's powerful illustrations. The visual metaphors in the early chapters—showing Takahashi's body as wooden blocks, exaggerating the distance between him and the floor—really help the reader "get inside" the character's body and understand how disability feels. Of course, this attention to detail is reflected in all of Inoue's art: when Togawa's teammates shave their heads after losing their match, one can still tell the difference between all the characters by face shape and body type. Plus the pacing and scene-to-scene transitions are flawless as always, moving the story along as it continues to ebb and flow with drama.

As far as balancing the arcs of the various characters in the series, this volume does a fair job of it—Takahashi deserves the extra attention since his story is the most interesting right now—but every time the focus shifts back to Nomiya, he becomes less and less likable as a character. It doesn't make sense, because a guy with a carefree, heart-on-his-sleeve attitude like his ought to be loaded with charisma ... yet whenever we catch up with his latest life issues, he's just constantly feeling sorry for himself. And this is the one main character who still has a working pair of legs! If Inoue is trying to make us not want to hear about Nomiya's story anymore, well, his plan seems to be working. The lack of wheelchair-basketball action also makes this volume one of the less visually exciting ones in the series; the physical therapy sessions with Takahashi are worth a look but everything else is mainly dialogue. In fact, Togawa's storyline may even be a lost cause until next basketball season—because who wants to read about team practice anyway?

Although a bit dry in some places, this volume clearly shines by focusing on Takahashi's development as a character, landing it a solid B.

Vol. 1
(by Kou Yaginuma, Vertical, $10.95)

"In a Tokyo of the not-too-distant future a young girl looks up to the stars with melancholy in her heart and hope in her eyes. Thirteen-year-old Asumi Kamogawa's whole life has been tied to those stars; her future may very well be among them. And she is not alone ... Asumi is one of many young people with ambitions to some day head into space in Japan's first manned space mission."

Forget for a moment today's current state of space exploration. Forget the budget cuts, the rickety Space Shuttle, the near-useless missions. Instead, think of the quiet beauty of Twin Spica, a retro-future look at a world where space travel is still something to be romanticized. Asumi's story is one filled with heart and hope, and more than a few tear-jerker moments—especially in the side-story chapters (which actually predate the main series), explaining the bittersweet connection between Asumi and her deceased mother. In fact, our heroine never even comes close to taking off for the stars in this volume, but her qualification test alone is a stunning physical and mental feat that reminds us why astronauts are still hailed as heroes. At the same time Yaginuma's matter-of-fact storytelling and understated art fill this tale with a gentle sense of wonder. The characters' doe eyes and lightly sketched style would be more at home in a slice-of-life series than a sensationalist sci-fi adventure, but that contrast is exactly why Twin Spica stands out. Rather than reaching for the stars with an outspoken gesture, it looks inward, to the depths of the human soul where we find the courage and will to explore.

But could it be too gentle? While Twin Spica often strikes the right emotional chords, there are times when it seems to be forcing the twee sci-fi aesthetic—you can't just slap adorable little schoolgirls on The Right Stuff and suddenly expect an instant masterpiece. Finding a good balance is tough, and unfortunately this story has a tendency to overload on cutesy contrivances: Asumi's two roommates constantly bickering with each other (the stereotypical high-energy girl and the stereotypical aloof girl, of course); the wistful recollections of wanting to go to space; the weepy parent-child moments. Not that there's anything wrong with displays of emotion, but still—everything must be taken in moderation. The artwork's abbreviated backgrounds and childlike fantasy sequences only serve to reinforce the excessive cute factor; it also doesn't help that Asumi sometimes looks barely a day over ten. (Does it even make sense to be recruiting kids that young for the space program?) The series will only become a true masterpiece once it stops forcing the sentimentality and lets those feelings evolve honestly from the heart.

The style might not click with everyone right away, but as far as pure storytelling goes, this is definitely an inspiring B+ work so far.

Vol. 4
(by Ryu Fujisaki, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Living in constant fear of attack from machines, mankind depends on the cyborg corps known as the Guardians to keep them from harm as they await the arrival of the Kami, a godlike savior with mythical red blood who can grant Only One Wish to one person. Now, Shio, son of a Guardian, thinks he's found the Kami—and all the Guardians are at war to get that wish!
Shio's battles have brought him to the brink of death and back again. Now he must use every ounce of power he has left to save the Kami, his people, and his world! But whose wish will ultimately come true?"

Where other adventure series take forever to build up to anything, Wāqwāq does the remarkable by achieving an epic finale in the space of four volumes. Ryu Fujisaki spares no expense in stressing the sheer magnitude of Shio's quest: multiple Guardian armors fusing together, entire towns being blasted into smoke, bad guys turning out to be good guys and other bad guys turning out to be even worse guys, earth-shattering fistfights, and a climactic scene that's pretty much sci-fi and fantasy and mysticism all rolled into one. Adding to the spectacle is Fujisaki's own artistic command—he mentions in the endnotes how difficult this series was to draw, but it's an effort that clearly paid off. Every increase in fighting power is more impressive than the last, with character designs full of unorthodox curves and lines that look unlike anything else in the genre. The visuals are even more striking when put into action: daring angles, special effects galore, and panels that span an entire page or two. For an adventure that happens in another place and time, it's only appropriate that the ending be out-of-this-world.

For a series with such a unique name and such unique designs, it's a crushing disappointment that the closing chapters turn out to be just as conventional as any other quest to save the world. One character even points out that a certain plot point involving Shio "sounds an awful lot like a shônen manga gimmick." Well buddy, I have news for you: this whole thing is a shônen manga gimmick. From the helpless damsel with world-changing abilities, to the sneering villain whose intentions turn out to be even more villainous than imagined, to the hero's dramatic level-up moment that makes him near-unbeatable, it's hard to find anything that couldn't be predicted well in advance by a reasonably perceptive reader. Even the best qualities of this series often fall short: the designs may look cool, but the characters are always doing generic fighting poses; the action is intense, but the visual unorthodoxy makes it difficult to follow. (Is that a limb? Or an antenna? It's the Crazy Guardian Armor guessing game!) By the time the ending arrives—an ending with absolutely no surprises—the only thing to be happy about is that it's over.

Very polished art, but very predictable narrative. That balances out to a C for flashy but empty amusement.

Vol. 1
(by Hikaru Nakamura, Kodansha, ¥580)

"Buddha, the spiritually awakened, and Jesus, son of God, share an apartment in Tachikawa, Tokyo, taking a secret vacation to the mortal plane."

Is the concept seriously that simple? Yes, and sometimes simplicity is all you need for instant hilarity. But don't get the wrong idea about Saint Young Men—its brilliance comes not from purposely trivializing two of the world's great religions, but by highlighting the quirks of the secular world when these famous religious figures are placed in it. After all, what's Buddha supposed to do when he enters a raffle and ends up winning ... a statue of himself? It's also clear that Hikaru Nakamura has done the necessary research to pull off a convincing spoof: every chapter is brimming with sly references to Christianity and Buddhism, with some of the best gags in the book pulling straight from the lore surrounding Jesus (turns water into wine!) and Buddha (spontaenously starts glowing!). In other words, the better you know the original, the more you'll enjoy the parody—which is exactly as it should be. And unlike other rapid-fire comedies that quickly lose steam, this series just gets better as it goes along; some of the funniest sequences like Jesus maintaining his own blog and being mistaken for Yakuza come in the second half of this volume. Truly a "divine" comedy.

Although Saint Young Men is sure to win over readers with its concept and silly sitcom antics, it remains to be seen whether the series will be able to evolve over time. After all, this whole "Jesus and Buddha hanging out, while normal people do embarrassing things to them" shtick is only good for little outbursts of 15-20 pages each, and when the first volume clocks in at just 134 pages total, it makes the shallowness even more glaringly obvious. Sure, Volume 2 promises even more silliness like Buddha throwing Jesus a surprise birthday party on Christmas, but how about really digging into the two characters and exploring their philosophical differences? How about really developing their personalities instead of just broadly painting Jesus as "the frivolous one" and Buddha as "the serious one"? Consider this: the webcomic strip Sinfest probably does a better job of humorously exploring the dynamics of religion, and that one only gets 4 panels (or 3, or 2) in which to do it. Plus, the plain artwork of this series starts to look pretty dull after getting over the initial amusement of manga-style Jesus and Buddha. Where's the funny now?

Admittedly, the depth of the series only goes as far as "going to church on Christmas and Easter" levels in the first volume, but it's still worth the laughs. The many sacrilegious laughs.

Among other things, Reader's Choice is the place where YOU get to review titles that I haven't covered. So everyone should be sending in submissions saying, "HEY! How come you never put this manga in your column?! Here's a review of it so you can see how great it is!" Feel free to flood the rtoreaders email box with entries!

This week, a Random exchange student in Japan points out another one that I've missed:

(by Taeko Watanabe, Viz Media, $8.99/$9.99 ea.)

This series deals with the Shinsengumi, the famed troop of pro-shogunate swordsmen who guarded the city of Kyoto in the mid-1800s during the Bakumutsu (the period of civil war where the forced opening of Japan by the USA polarized Japanese society into pro-shogunate and pro-emperor camps).

The main character is Kamiya Seizaburou, an orphaned 15 year old who joins the Shinsengumi and is placed under the care of Okita Souji, the most skilled swordsman in the Shinsengumi's inner circle. Within the first chapter, it is revealed that Kamiya Seizaburou is actually a girl named Tominaga Sei (surprise surprise) whose brother and father were both murdered by samurai from a pro-emperor faction. Sei initially joined the Shinsengumi in hopes of avenging them, but in true shoujo form, eventually finds she can't leave because she's in love with Okita.

Anyone who expects Watanabe's Shinsengumi to be anything like the the over-the-top, brooding characters from Peace Maker Kurogane or their zany alternate universe counterparts from Gintama will be sorely disappointed. Watanabe's Shinsengumi is a fairly traditional portrayal; a group of loyal samurai united by camaraderie for their cause; adherence to bushido in a time when the unraveling of Japanese society spelled the end of the shogunate-led samurai order.

What makes this series worth people's time, in my opinion, is that despite being a shoujo manga, it's a solid and entertaining bit of historical fiction. It's an excellent depiction of an exciting, turbulent period of Japanese history from the perspective of those to whom it mattered the most. I also like how it's not all about the girl getting the guy. If anything, the story is more about the history of Shinsengumi, its members, Sei's personal growth and her attempts to mature into a 'true bushi' or samurai rather than her mooning over Okita. And of course, the Shinsengumi means sword fights, political intrigue, and, miracles of miracles for a shoujo manga, bloodshed (right down to the stomach slitting). Though the series is now in its 27th volume in Japan and its 17th in the USA, it shows few signs of ending soon, something I'm not sure if I consider good or bad. After all, the authoress has made it clear that she intends to be historically accurate, and the Shinsengumi found themselves on history's losing side, with most of the members killed by 1869.

The main gripe that I have with the series have mostly to do with the Shojo Beat translation. Watanabe put a lot of effort into doing research for the historical setting, details of everyday life, and the characters' speech, all of which Viz handles with the finesse of a sledge hammer.

I've heard a fair share of readers complain about the art (which is surprisingly lacking in pretty people for a shoujo manga). Some have said that the way Watanabe draws her characters makes their noses look likes those of dogs. In the beginning, the art is rather simple (if clean) and bland, but by the 6th volume, the art noticeably improves both in aesthetics and detail, especially as the historical elements start to seep in. I think another fair complaint is the story's pacing. Sei doesn't start out as a sword genius (quite the opposite, in fact) and the first five volumes go by without our main character being on the front lines. However, if you've got 5 volumes worth of time and patience, it gets there in style. This is a good series for the history buffs and those shoujo manga fans who like the whole girl-disguised-as-a-guy routine with a side of action. Or both.

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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