RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
by Carlo Santos,
I must have started noticing it at last year's convention season. "I'm not attending as many manga panels as I used to," I thought to myself. Just a few years ago, I was running around convention halls like a headless chicken because manga publishers were popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm and everyone single one of them wanted to tell the world about their exciting new licenses. Now, following the events of recent months, it looks like I'll be sitting around boredly in convention halls, counting the number of manga panels I'll have to attend on a single hand, wondering how it all went downhill so fast.
It was a world built by fans, for fans. You had to know the material to get into the business. But you know what?
Fans make terrible businesspeople.
(by YoungBin Kim and Hyun You, Yen Press, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Laon is determined to regain her powers, one tail at a time!
When the latest victim of a serial rapist is found alive, the media is determined not to let the fragile woman have any peace until they get all the facts. But it's not the type of story that would attract gossip reporter Tae-Ha—not until those same pressing members of the press are murdered one by one. Is it just a cruel prank, or does his nine-tailed companion have something to do with their deaths?"
This is where things start to get interesting. With the basic premise of Laon laid down, the story is now free to evolve—which it does in multiple directions. Sharp twists and surprising turnarounds are the name of the game in the series' second volume, which takes our investigative journalist into a world of religious cults, serial murders and occasionally, the supernatural. That's right, the story hasn't forgotten about Laon's ongoing search for her enchanted foxtails—which itself becomes a key plot point as the mysteries around Tae-Ha continue to deepen. And it's not just the story itself that masterfully branches out like a Swiss army knife: it's the themes and genres as well, moving effortlessly from procedural whodunit to supernatural action-thriller to outright horror as the plot shifts back and forth. A confident, strong-lined art style also adds to the effect: at times the pen and ink comes down hard as we're treated to a grisly murder scene, at other times the visuals are almost ethereal as Laon moves through the spirit world, and there are even occasional bursts of gag humor as Laon lets her childlike nature loose. It's as good as getting multiple series for the price of one.
Multiple interlocking storylines usually sound like a good thing, but not when the logic holding them together is sloppy and hard to follow. The biggest offender is Laon's whole deal with her tails, a plot element that seems to pop in and out of the series at its own convenience. "Oh hey, there's a lull in the murder case, let's show Laon goofing around and trying to sniff out spirits." Even more troublesome is Laon's behavior in general, as she seems to be taking her inspiration from those ditzy girls in school romances whose entire purpose in life is to annoy the hell out of the protagonist. Except in this case the protagonist is a twenty-something news reporter, making it even more disturbing and socially unacceptable. At least Laon's rambunctiousness starts to make more sense once she gets involved in the murder investigation—but that doesn't happen until more than halfway through this volume. In fact, making sense in general doesn't happen until after several chapters, since too many of the female characters look alike and there's some spiritual mumbo-jumbo going on that should've been explained better.
The title character is too much of a pain, but the multi-threaded storyline is shaping up to be a pretty solid murder mystery, so it deserves at least a B.
(by Rumiko Takahashi, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"After a mysterious encounter in her childhood, Sakura Mamiya gained the power to see ghosts. Now a teenager, she just wishes the ghosts would leave her alone! Then one day she meets Rinne Rokudo, a boy who is far more than what he seems.
A boy from Sakura's past appears hoping to win a date with her. But the ghost of another lovelorn boy leads to an unexpected triple date. Can an exorcism take place at an amusement park? Does Rinne have feelings for Sakura? Compared to playing the dating game, dealing with angry ghosts and rogue shinigami may be less frightening!"
Just the other day I was looking at what K-ON! would have looked like in the 70's ... and then marveled at how Rumiko Takahashi has kept that aesthetic alive in Rin-ne. The subtle facial features, the elegance of line—it's no exaggeration to say that the Takahashi style is a world unto itself. Even more distinctive is the Takahashi sense of humor, which absolutely bubbles over in this volume: where else are you going to get a pop-culturally aware supernatural satire starring the legendary Toilet Hanako? Or see the traditional shoujo concept of the Hottest Guy In School turned into an absurd, Halloween-esque parody? Even at the micro level, visual gags and slapstick asides pop up all over the place, proving that this is not so much a supernatural genre manga as it is a let's-poke-fun-at-the-supernatural-genre manga. It also pokes fun at the conventions of school romance—just look at the logistical nightmare that is the amusement park date, and the over-the-top bluster of new cast member Tsubasa. After 30 years in the business, Takahashi has pretty much seen everything—which explains why she's taking such a tongue-in-cheek approach here. And you know what? It's working.
All right, so Rumiko Takahashi is clearly having a ball working on this series. But that lighthearted manner may also be stopping Rin-ne from achieving from its full potential. Consider the subplot during the amusement park date—there's a ghost who wants to go out with the girl he liked before passing on to the next world, and it could have been played really sweet and touching, but instead the whole Sakura/Rinne/Tsubasa love triangle keeps getting in the way. Only at the end is there a hint of poignance—and things quickly slide back into silly mode right afterward. The story in the last couple of chapters also seems to be awkwardly lodged in between two genres: on one hand, the idea of a faceless spirit haunting the art classrooms and forcing students to draw her sounds wonderfully creepy, but it never really evolves into the horror-mystery that it could be. The other complaint about the Takahashi style, of course, is that all her characters look the same. Same face structure, same eyes, just different hairstyles and clothes. Ultimately, the clean homogeneity of the art could be the series' biggest weakness.
The stories in this volume are somewhat hit-or-miss, but the humor is always a hit. And the effortless, easygoing linework is a super-hit. For sheer enjoyment it's definitely B+ material.
(by Hisae Iwaoka, Viz Media, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Far in the future, humankind has evacuated the earth in order to preserve it. Humans now reside in a gigantic structure that forms a ring around the earth, 35 kilometers up in the sky. The society of the ring is highly stratified: the higher the floor, the greater the status. Mitsu, the lowly son of a window washer, has just graduated junior high. When his father disappears and is assumed dead, Mitsu must take on his father's occupation. As he struggles with the transition to working life, Mitsu's job treats him to an outsider's view into the living-room dioramas of the Saturn Apartments."
Some stories grab you by the heart, punch you in the stomach, and smack you in the face. Then there's stuff like Saturn Apartments, which brushes gently against the soul with subtle emotions that are almost too easy to miss. For all its well-researched scientific touches—low-gravity spacewalks, water droplets that freeze instantly, and rudimentary robotics—it's the human aspect of this story that shines the most. Is it possible for hard sci-fi and sweet slice-of-life to coexist harmoniously? This volume proves that they can, with Mitsu's space-window-washing encounters full of wonder and sentiment. Sometimes it'll be just an eccentric customer, like the quirky old man who wants to see water splashed on his windows (try that at -25°C), or the picky guy in the last chapter whose motives turn out to be ironically hilarious. And sometimes it'll be a life-transforming encounter with all of creation, like when Mitsu gets his first real view of Earth. Naturally, a moment like that couldn't happen without fantastic artwork, which this volume has in spades. The ambitiously drawn spacewalk scenes have an otherworldly beauty to them, while the cutely understated character designs are full of charm and personality. Just like the whole series, really.
Personality? What personality? If anything, Saturn Apartments is in dire need of a proper heart and soul. Much of the dialogue is painfully dry, especially in the opening chapters where we're being introduced to the people in Mitsu's life. Things only get interesting once he really starts to dig into the window-washing job, and even then he still spends most of his time chatting with the boring people from the first half of the book. Some might call it subtlety of emotion, but it could also be the sign of a storyteller who's afraid to let the characters really act out and be themselves. Adding to the dullness is a certain monotony of character design—apparently, in the future, everyone in the human race has averaged out to the same rounded heads, beady eyes, and matted hair. It may be cute, but it lacks variety. And what of the meandering plot, which tries to make something out of Mitsu's daddy issues but more often just leads to the characters chatting idly about nothing? That's the trouble with slice-of-life sometimes: ultimately, those slices add up to a less-than-appealing whole.
Although flawed in places, it still has that futuristic feel-good vibe to it, and gets a B for its gentle ruminations and likable characters.
SONGS TO MAKE YOU SMILE
(by Natsuki Takaya, Tokyopop, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In these touching and unforgettable stories from Natsuki Takaya, young men and women search for the things that mean the most to them, from the love of a deceased father to the perfect, uplifting melody. And finally, a side story from Tsubasa: Those with Wings!"
Whether it's a 23-volume manga epic or a 40-page short story, Natsuki Takaya clearly has a handle on the range of human emotion—especially when it comes to love. The stories in Songs to Make You Smile are at their best when they get to their warm, uplifting endings, regardless of the paths that the characters took to get there. The classical music-themed "Voice of Mine" is the most poetic, with its sparseness of text and tendency to let the characters' actions speak for themselves. The other entries are also eloquent in their own way: the titular story brings a high school crush to life without a single spoken word from the protagonist (quite a feat in itself), while "Ding Dong" uncovers a poignant expression of parental love. And who can resist the youthful charm in "Double Flower," where a brash elementary schoolgirl becomes the catalyst for the main couple's relationship. After so much sentimentalism, though, Takaya pulls a complete 180 in the Tsubasa: Those With Wings spinoff: a raucous, parodical take on all the classic European fairy tales, complete with a psychotic princess and a slacker prince. And you thought she only did romance.
Well, she pretty much is only doing romance, and anyone thinking to get their money's worth with this anthology will be disappointed to find that Takaya basically tells the same story four different ways. (The Tsubasa thing is off in another universe entirely.) Everything in here is just a recycled how-they-got-together form of high school romance, even in the story about the deceased father (which adds the romance in on the side). It also doesn't help that two of them are themed around musicians—entirely different genres of music, yes, but still revolving around that hammy old cliché where girls fall for guys who can play pretty songs. The hammiest old cliché, however, lies in Takaya's sense of character design, which tries to bridge the sparkly 80's-90's shoujo style with the slicker 00's and ends up falling flat on its face as a result. Boys and girls alike suffer from a lack of distinguishing features, and the poorly detailed backgrounds make it hard to enjoy the world that they're living in. At least the fairytale parody has creative license to go crazy, both in story and visuals—but everything else is just woefully dull.
Despite the feel-good aura emanating from these pages, the level of art and craft is not much more than a C (and besides, it predates Fruits Basket, so that take that into account too).
(by Kazuki Takahashi and Akira Ito, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The shocking sequel to Yu-Gi-Oh!: Duelist and prequel to Yu-Gi-Oh!: Millennium World! When the follower of an old enemy returns to take revenge, Yugi Mutou must duel to save a friend's life. But can he overcome the power of the three 'Jashin,' the terrifying Evil God Cards?
It's down to the 11th hour as Yugi and Jonouchi fight to save their friend Anzu's soul! Bandit Keith, the ruthless American duelist, challenges Jonouchi to a rematch using his own God Card, the 'Wicked Eraser'! Meanwhile, Yugi faces Yako Tenma, Pegasus's favorite pupil, in a battle which pits god against god!"
How epic is the finale of Yu-Gi-Oh! R? So epic that it occupies a hundred thrilling pages for Joey's showdown with Bandit Keith, and then completely smashes that by making Yugi and Yako's battle twice as long. That's three hundred pages of lavishly drawn monsters, explosive magical effects, and remarkably tight card-game strategy. Whereas non-ludological shounen fights always end up degrading into pointless power-up-fests (I mean seriously, what is Ichigo Kurosaki going to transform into next?), Yu-Gi-Oh proves that smartly thought-out tactics can be just as viable as sheer brute force. Yugi's final move in the closing chapter is pure tactical elegance—or at least as elegant as you can get in collectible card games—and watching him pull it off is surely more rewarding than the usual miracle resurrections elsewhere in the genre. And hey, Bandit Keith's blustery performance against Jonouchi isn't so bad either—even though he never says everyone's favorite catchphrase. Add in the ingeniously designed monsters, plus the dynamic panel layouts, and it's clear that this finale satisfies both on a gaming and on a visual level.
Okay, yeah, it was fun. But deep down it's still Yu-Gi-Oh!, which means lots of stupid contrivances and poor design choices all wrapped up into a cookie-cutter shounen package. For example, guess what Yugi does right before laying the final smack down on Yako? He lapses into a preachy, action-stopping speech about the value of friendship. And then of course Yako later repents and bemoans the mistakes in his life. Meanwhile, Anzu is busy being the typical damsel in distress who does nothing, and Joey gets his shining moment in the battle but then ceases to be a factor after that. Plus, some of the cards are a joke—who on earth would really own "Stairway to the Underworld," which is clearly designed for a arbitrary, low-percentage situation that just happened to occur at that exact moment? Talk about pulling that one out of your butt ... oh, and speaking of things pulled out of one's butt, the artwork continues to be repulsive, with hairstyles and faces straight out of the wrong decade and a complete lack of subtlety in the action sequences. You'd better hope you like card games, because no one reads this for the pretty pictures.
Although the dueling strategy adds to the fun factor, there is clearly no originality as far as actual story concept goes, and the monsters are the only redeeming point of the visuals. So on a true scale, it gets a D.
SHITSUJI-SAMA NO OKINIIRI (The Butler's Favorite)
(by Rei Izawa, Hakusensha, ¥410)
FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"After the death of her parents, Himura Ryou is taken in by her grandparents and starts to attend the super elite high school, Souseikan Gakuen. Ryou gets lost within the school's spacious area and it leads her to a guy wearing a tuxedo. He is Kanzawa Hakuou, who attends the butler training course named the 'B Class.' But in reality he is the heir of the Kanzawa group, who wants to test his abilities in a place where he can be judged on his own merits."
Shitsuji-sama is ten flavors of adorable, and all of them are delicious. While it certainly isn't the first manga about the domestic service profession, it does a remarkable job of nailing exactly why people love the genre so much. Stripped away are the absurd excesses of Hayate and the Victorian pretensions of Black Butler, leaving only the very essence: dashing, formally-trained young men who will lay down their lives for one highly esteemed client. In this case the client is Ryou, whose lack of social graces and disregard for aristocratic traditions make her the ideal underdog heroine. This volume is at its best when Hakuou interacts directly with Ryou, conducting himself so gallantly that readers of either gender will marvel at his even-tempered manliness. Yet Ryou has her moments too—when she flouts the protocols at a formal ball just to be with Hakuou, it's clear that her shining individualism is just as praiseworthy as her butler's coolness. The dreamy, elegant visuals add to effect of the master-butler fantasy: classy outfits, fancy architecture, and a sense of layout that moves with smoothness and grace (as opposed to drowning in sparkles). It's a world that is at once unreal, yet beautiful.
The only thing Shitsuji-sama truly succeeds at is being a wish-fulfilment device for those who are silly enough to believe it. While it's fun to imagine a world where some guy in a suit will do everything right and make you feel like royalty, it's hardly the basis for a worthwhile story—especially now that the idea has become commercialized and fetishized to death. Which is a fancy way of saying, it's already been done, and this series adds nothing new. Hakuou is simply too perfect to be interesting—the one time he acts like a jerk to Ryou, it turns out to be for a really trivial reason—and the scenarios covered by this volume are utterly predictable boarding-school fodder. Heck, the author could be playing Japanese School Romance Mad Libs for all we know and just charging through plot ideas at random. Check these things off the list for Volume 1: a snobbish rich girl, a squad of goofy best friends, important school-year rituals, an antique school item that gets knocked over, and various other contrivances. The forgettable character designs don't help either, leading to a perfect middle-of-the-road butler series that accomplishes absolutely nothing.
Clearly something best enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. The dreamy Ryou/Hakuou moments are swoon-worthy, but everything else is as ordinary as they come.
The call of manhwa has been answered! This week, CM Branford looks at Korea's contributions to the BL genre. (And speaking of "Where are they now?" companies, Netcomics is definitely still around—but mostly online.)
(by E. Hae, Netcomics, $9.99)
A subtle BL gem, unfortunately outshined by its flashier Korean brethren, such as Totally Captivated and Let Dai, Roureville is slow to get started, spending more time to develop the characters and universe than most titles in the genre bother to, in Korea or Japan. Evan Pryce, a famous New York Times reporter, is sent by his editor to find this rural town in the American southwest to do a piece on ghost stories, though really he is going into hiding after a particularly dangerous story he published. What he finds when he gets to Roureville will change both his life and the lives of its residents forever.
More than anything, I found myself amazed at the lack of dependency on the supernatural angle of the series. Jayce's condition, while bizarre and confusing at first, becomes a simple metaphor for his struggle with his own self-worth, and Evan's empathic powers, something I generally scoff at when seeing in fiction, underscore his ability to interact with Jayce and the other people of the town, and pave the way for his and Jayce's emotional metamorphoses through the series, nevermind the fact that it is, thankfully, never really a distraction. In fact, so engaging is E. Hae's style, which I became accustomed to in her previous BL work, Not So Bad, that the Korean attempting to write a story set in faraway America didn't seem culturally out of place to me at all, even with the customary "off" character names. The author's ability to weave not only an engaging story, but believable characters, especially in a genre plagued with premise-driven and cliché plots, is commendable. The fact that the BL theme is really only directly addressed very late in the story might turn off those seeking a quick coupling of two male leads, but the subtle and slow-building relationship between Evan and Jayce is the real treasure of the series, not the forgone conclusion of their consummation.
Being that the BL theme is so downplayed, Roureville is easily accessible to non-fans of the genre. As with much of the manwha available in English, the identifiably Korean artwork might turn off some of those accustomed to the Japanese manga style, but it really works quite well in expressing the feel of the series and the emotions of its characters.
Netcomics only printed volumes 1 and 2 of Roureville, which while out of print are still around if you look hard enough. Serialized simultaneously in Korea and the US, volume 3 was a long time coming, ended up numerous chapters in excess and is still only available online in English. My hope is that getting more people to read it online will finally prompt Netcomics to think it worthwhile to print.
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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