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Night Head Kobato.

by Carlo Santos,

Lakers and Celtics in the NBA Finals?
Dragon Ball running on TV?
Thundercats making a comeback?
Hey guys, remind me again what year it is?

Vol. 2
(by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"As Ganta begins to understand his new disturbing power, he becomes more determined to destroy the Red Man. However, his strange abilities prove to be an obstacle to Chief Makina, who is resolute in maintaining peace and order in her territory. With conspiracy and monstrous attacks from every angle, Ganta manages to arrive at Ward G, a mysterious, detached location in Deadman Wonderland where the horrendous bloodbath continues..."

You want to talk about adopting Japanese properties for Hollywood films? Just pick this one. It's that easy. Deadman Wonderland has it all, with thrilling chases and escapes, all-out superpowered brawls, and shocking, brain-melting imagery. Whereas Volume 1 was simply setting the stage for an elaborate, dystopian world, this is the one where that world really starts to spin—culminating in a fantastically orchestrated cage match between Ganta and one of the other inmates. Just when you thought you'd seen all there was to see in manga fight scenes, there comes along something like this: the use of one's own blood as a weapon, the incredible sense of movement, the bold lines, the dizzying angles from scene to scene. Ganta and his friends' exploits in other areas of the prison are no less impressive, with the first few chapters covering a frantic escape from a deadly machine, as well as some fresh information on the horrors of Deadman Wonderland. So even as the world-building continues, and Ganta looks ahead to his ultimate goal, the series is also able to indulge in the rich details that make this kind of dark sci-fi so addictive. (And oh, what a cliffhanger...!)

While the overall concept is still packed with shock and awe, one can't help but feel that this series is constantly teetering on the edge of mediocrity—that at any moment, our hero is going to get stuck in an endless tournament fighting off increasingly tough opponents. It hasn't actually happened yet, but the linearity of the story does seem to point that way: Ganta, in his search for the Red Man, will have to keep escaping murderous robots and fighting crazed inmates to accomplish his goal. (And how is it that a high school kid always manages to come up with a secret move that beats a guy in his twenties?) Ganta's pals seem to be stuck on an even shallower story path, basically following him around as needed. Shiro's dramatic reveal in the last chapter changes that somewhat, but up until that point she's still just a cute girl taking up space. And speaking of taking up space, some scenes definitely touch on the realm of gratuitous torture porn—an easy way to evoke an emotional response, but not necessarily advancing the plot.

It's not the most sophisticated story, but it is still an incredible ride, full of hot-blooded action and striking imagery that adds up to a B.

Vol. 1
(by Miyoko Ikeda and Michiyo Kikuta, Del Rey, $10.99)

"As a baby, Runa Rindô was left in front of a school for foster children, wearing a mysterious pendant. Now she's in fourth grade and strange things are starting to happen around her. It's only a matter of time before she discovers her secret powers—and her quest as the Legendary Fairy Child begins!"

Unlike most other children's adventure manga, Fairy Navigator Runa is adapted from a novel—and that explains many of its subtle differences from similar entries in the genre. A straight-to-manga Runa would have received her powers fully formed by Chapter 1 and be fighting monsters of the week by Chapter 2, but here she grows into her abilities gradually, gaining not just magical prowess but the emotional capacity to handle it. In fact, the dramatic last chapter of this volume—where Runa finds herself torn between delivering a ruthless death blow, or offering forgiveness to an undeserving enemy—shows that this series is ready to tackle real issues of character and morality. Meanwhile, on the more visceral action-adventure side, the use of onmyôdo magic as well as other techniques proves to be an upgrade over the typical made-up incantations and transformations that spew out of the magical girl genre. And Runa's back story, while unsurprising, has enough depth to feel like a true fairytale, not just a cartoonish simulation of one. Which makes all the difference.

And you wonder why the English-speaking manga industry is falling apart. How many times now has Del Rey licensed "Ordinary school student discovers amazing special powers and goes around bopping bad guys on the head"? Despite its literary origins, Runa plays out exactly like its similarly-themed counterparts, from the clumsy protagonist to the strong-willed best friend to the mysterious hot guy to the magical powers that conveniently activate at just the right time. Oh, and goofy animal mascots as well. Even her pendant is a toy license just waiting to happen! (Or maybe it happened already; I don't check the giveaway prizes in Nakayoshi.) It should also be noted that "taking more time to develop her powers" does not count as a significant improvement on an extremely generic plot device. What is even more generic is the downright painful artwork: the character designs are straight out of a how-to manual, and when you can't tell the difference between the girls and the boys that's never a good sign. The backgrounds are the typical screentoned and hastily drawn drivel, and any visible sign of personality or style has been erased by computer clean-up. Not worth reading, not worth looking at, not worth anything.

As far as story structure, it's a very slight step above the norm ... but everything else is so poorly executed that it deserves a D+. On a good day with ideal wind conditions.

Vol. 1
(by CLAMP, Yen Press, $11.99)

"Meet Kobato Hanato, a sweet and rather simple young girl on a quest to have her single, dearest wish granted. But first, she must learn the ways of the world from Ioryogi-san, a gruff, blue dog whose bark is just as bad as his bite! Under his 'tutelage' (read: constant verbal abuse), Kobato puts her efforts into passing various trials of common sense so that she may obtain the key to getting her wish: a magic bottle that must be filled with the suffering of wounded hearts Kobato herself has healed. But with Kobato's common sense sorely lacking, she keeps flunking Ioryogi-san's tests left and right! It looks like the road that lies ahead of Kobato will be a long one indeed!"

Baseball philosopher Bill James once said that the faults of pretty girls are too much tolerated—but when an artistic work is as pretty as Kobato, who's complaining? The visual style is as pleasing as they come, with the requisite population of six-foot-tall pretty boys and doe-eyed young women (including the title character, of course). Every few chapters there comes a moment of eye-catching brilliance: the sight of winter's first snowfall, the swirling petals at the end of the flower-viewing chapter, the sudden fight scene when Ioryogi is visited by a mysterious rival. And it's not just about dazzling the eye with stand-alone scenes, either: the events of this volume are easy to follow, with the cleanly laid out panels telling the story and simple but elegant scenery in the background. The sense of humor also shines in these early chapters, thanks mostly to Ioryogi's rantings and ravings; the highlight of the first volume is Ioryogi demanding a beer, singing the praises of alcohol, and Kobato eventually fetching him a can. Sure, everyone comes to see the heroine—but it's the sidekick who steals the show.

It appears that the fandom's worst fears have come true: CLAMP has become a parody of itself. The very premise of Kobato—"earn enough points to get the bottle so you can collect X number of hearts to fulfill your Very Important Wish"—sounds like a fill-in-the-blank plot device, a story in search of a story because the authors got lazy. Is this perhaps a sarcastic commentary on the sorry state of Japanese popular entertainment? Or a legendary team of artists seeing how much they can get away with on name recognition alone? Either way, it makes for an utterly nonexistent plot: we begin with a generic origin story, mince through the usual gauntlet of winter holidays (I've had it with Christmas chapters, why doesn't anyone ever do a Boxing Day chapter?), and by the time it looks like there may be proper characters and a plot after all, it's already the last chapter in the book. What knowledgeable CLAMP fans may find even more irritating, however, is the use of gratuitous character cameos, to the point of being distracting rather than being cute or clever. Look, it was cool when they did it in Tsubasa. This, however, is just stupid.

If this is CLAMP's idea of a joke, then, congratulations to them! The fact that such a pointless series was allowed to exist past the first chapter is hilarious. Pretty pictures can't compensate for what is essentially D-level content.

Vol. 2
(by George Iida and You Higuri, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Brothers who possess extraordinary psychic abilities, Naoto and Naoya were imprisoned as children in a paranormal research center. Though now free, they cannot escape their past. Mikuriya, the center's head scientist, has tracked the siblings down, forcing them to confront their destiny: Will they use their powers for their own benefit, or will they be the saviors of mankind?"

At its best, Night Head Genesis ventures into philosophical territory that is shared by the likes of X-Men and Death Note: Does having a special power give one the right to exert their superiority over "normal" humans? And even more chillingly, should that power be used to rid the world of bad people? Villainous psychic Sonezaki expresses these sentiments in the volume's first half, and even more than that, puts those principles into practice—making for a harrowing, action-packed round of psychic warfare against Naoto and Naoya. Although You Higuri's art usually falls into the realm of delicate and sinuous (just look at the two brothers' lovely faces), she can also summon up the intensity needed to express horrific scenes of self-mutilation, suicide and mass destruction. By comparison, the confrontation with Mikuriya in the later chapters isn't so overtly shocking, but there are still plenty of thrills to be had ... especially when Naoya's powers reach a new level and things start getting really loopy. The biggest surprise, though, may be the turnabout in the brothers' attitude towards Mikuriya—a sure sign that you never know who your real enemies are, and that this series has plenty more twists in store.

At its worst, Night Head Genesis turns out to be the silliest kind of psychic melodrama—a frantic mess of super-people hurling deadly mind waves at each other, interspersed with New Age gobbledygook about using an increased percentage of your brain. The only thing missing is some kind of spiel about spiritually upgrading to the point of abandoning one's corporeal form ... oh wait, that's mentioned in this volume too. Goodness gracious, people, this is the stuff that crazy death cults are made of. Even more disturbing (at least for some readers, maybe) is the constant barrage of angsty bishounen faces on every page. All right, so that's just how the main characters look, but they're seriously going to put an eye out with all that intense staring. And let's not get too hyped up about the "philosophy" in the first half of the volume, either—it's just another guy with too much power in his hands, trying to take over the world ... which pretty much also describes the evil shadowy organization hunting down the brothers. They say that villains are more interesting than heroes—but why do they always have to be so one-dimensional?

It's very pretty to look at, and full of explosive drama—but sometimes that drama just gets to be too much. Those silly storytelling excesses land it at a C+.

Vol. 1
(by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In a savage world ruled by the pursuit of the most delicious foods, it's either eat or be eaten! While searching for the tastiest foods imaginable, Gourmet Hunter Toriko travels the world with his bottomless stomach, facing every beast in his way.
This is the great era of gourmet food! And only Toriko can hunt down the ferocious ingredients that supply the world's best restaurants. As a Gourmet Hunter, Toriko tracks and defeats the tastiest and most dangerous animals with his bare hands. But has he met his match with an eight-legged alligator the size of a tank?"

In the world of licensed manga, where the food genre is synonymous with either cake-baking shoujo fluffballs or snooty Oishinbo fare, a work like Toriko is absolutely vital. This interpretation of the culinary arts is not just manly ... but MANLY!!! With all caps and exclamation marks! The sheer ferocity of the Gourmet Hunter's exploits will draw readers in right from the start, whether it involves eating a whole restaurant's worth of food in one sitting, or taking down Godzilla-level creatures, or simply being an absolute specimen of humanity that young boys everywhere can look up to. But it's not all just about the main character—every page is alive with bold, eye-popping imagery, from fanciful beasts to mouth-watering dishes to death-defying action. The style is clearly a throwback to shounen manga of decades past, with hand-drawn linework and gag-like character designs, yet there's enough detail and polish to please the modern eye. No other series tries so hard to defy the laws of physics, biology, anatomy, and gastronomy ... which is why it eclipses everything else in the food category. You can keep your sugar-sweet fluffballs and haute cuisine. This is real meat right here.

There is no question that Toriko turns up the dial to 11 ... and unfortunately, that's the only setting it stays at. With our hero already leveled up to the max, there's pretty much no chance of character development; it's not like Toriko has any need to protect the ones he loves or fight to become stronger. The storyline also looks like it's already in danger of repeating itself—Toriko fights ridiculous beasts, consumes ridiculous food, decides if he wants to add it to his Ultimate Menu or not ... over and over and over, for who knows how many volumes. And if that seems like a one-dimensional concept, just look at the secondary characters, who are basically hangers-on watching from the sidelines. Why have a supporting cast at all if the main character is so dominant that he overshadows anyone else who could possibly contribute to the story? Ultimately, the problem with this series is that, in its quest to blow everyone's minds, it has nowhere else to go once everyone's minds are blown.

Come on now, why worry about where the story is headed? Just live in the moment! This is a solid B for anyone who enjoys wild, outrageous adventures.

Vol. 1
(by Lloyd Prentice and Sonia Leong, Sweatdrop Studios, $12.99)

"Great civilizations wobble down the katana's edge of history. They lean toward justice, peace and enlightenment, but are ever checked by ignorance, arrogance and greed. They arise from the dreams and daring of their warriors—those who forget self in confrontation with dark forces. When the warriors fall, so goes civilization.
Great love dances down similar precarious trajectories—at one cheek courage, will and heart; at the other, selfishness, ego and doubt. It is the aria of mortal lovers. Those who give all to receive everything. When lovers lose heart, civilizations are shattered. For what is a lover but a warrior in combat with the dark forces of self?
Aya Takeo is a story of space, time, civilization and star-crossed love. It's a story for our time set in a distant wrinkle of space where some things are familiar and others are forever surprising."

In a world ruled by black-and-white art, Aya Takeo makes its strongest impression with full-color pages—and really, that's the only way to bring out the fantastical quality of this series. More than just a blending of fantasy, feudal, and sci-fi worlds, the story forcibly smashes these genres together like atomic particles, creating an entirely new universe. And that's why the full-color art is so important: how else can a reader truly appreciate Aya's gorgeous traditional costumes, or the mechanical monsters that Takeo faces off against, or the epic magical forces that are keeping the two lovers apart? Despite the slim first volume, the ideas behind this saga are clearly large in scope: they don't tell you the place or time, because the events of the story are beyond such limitations, and the characters themselves transcend all ideas of archetypes and stereotypes. Sure, there are still heroes and heroines and villains in the familiar sense, but they refuse to be pigeonholed into any one genre. It's not just an adventure—it's an explosion of the imagination.

When the back-cover summary contains more depth than the actual story in the book ... that is a problem. The ideas are promising, but the execution is sloppy and rushed, leading to a mess that reads more like Aya Takeo: The Abridged Series. The opening pages jump into the action far too abruptly, taking no time to explain why Aya and Takeo are lovers and why it's so tragic that they were separated in the first place. The subsequent development then jumps around from scene to scene and character to character as if we're already supposed to know who everyone is. Ever have one of those friends who loves summarizing anime shows for you in conversation, but it makes no sense until you actually go and watch the damn thing yourself? This is exactly like that. Except there IS no source material to go with this abridged version. It also doesn't help that the artwork is sort of an "anime summary" in itself, subtly copying character and costume designs from every possible genre until we get something that is utterly unique ... in an utterly generic way. Ultimately, this explosion of the imagination fizzles out before it ever has a chance to get good.

"Based on a webcomic." Really, that's all you need to know about the quality of this series. Make of it what you will. Read it if you dare.

You know what? With summer drawing near, a young man's mind turns to thoughts of ... well. Anyone fancy recommending a good fanservice series? Remember, internet fame and glory could be all yours just for sending in a review of your personal favorite!

Meanwhile, it's nice to revisit something that's been on the shelves for a while. Here's Ingrid B with a review of a series that should be pretty familiar, but may have escaped the minds of some ever since it ended...

(by Kaori Yuki, Viz Media, $8.99 ea.)

Set in Victorian England, Kaori Yuki's gothic manga Godchild reads like a combination of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and the survival horror series Silent Hill minus the grotesque monsters. The plot centers on Cain Hargreaves, a young earl accompanied by his faithful servant Riff and loving younger sister, and the mysteries that he solves. As the plot progresses, Cain frequently encounters members of his presumed deceased father Alexis's secret organization and discovers his plan to resurrect Cain's mentally-disturbed mother who is also Alexis's elder sister. Yes, that last sentence is correct.

Godchild redeems itself by presenting a world fashioned of Gothic Lolita beauties, gruesome murders, Biblical allusions, and disturbing motivations with plenty of homoerotic tension between Cain and Riff. Yuki's delicate, distinct and detailed art highlights one of her major strengths: characterization. All the main characters serve as excellent examples of this; they all harbor unwanted feelings, conceal undesirable parts of their personalities, and are tormented by the past. Yuki creates heartbreaking moments in which no words are said, but the underlying feelings of sorrow, lost innocence, or painful realizations echo throughout. She is a master at manipulating the reader's emotions and at the tragic conclusion of the series, reveals the characters (with the exception of one) to be neither heroes nor thieves, only saddened people trying to cope with cruel circumstances and burdens.

However, for all that is beautifully done in this series, quite a few flaws lurk below its lovely surface. Godchild is the sequel series to Yuki's earlier five volume manga, Count/Earl Cain, which, to be blunt, is dreadful. Hideous, crude art and murky plot contaminate the pages, but sadly, the manga fills in much of the gaps in the back-story and plot of Godchild. Without having first read Count/Earl Cain, Godchild comes across as an excellent example of the writers' trap of "telling and not showing". For example, Alexis's horrific physical and mental abuse of Cain is frequently alluded to in Godchild, but is actually shown in Count/Earl Cain, where it creates greater reader sympathy for Cain. Additionally, the series covers rather explicit topics including suicide, rape, incest and abuse of every kind, as well as containing easily the most disgusting display of animal cruelty.

Despite the flaws and objectionable content, Godchild becomes a tragic story of the blurring of the line between love and obsession and the suffering that results.

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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