Magic Mushi Rooms

by Carlo Santos,

Dear Aya Hirano:

In case you haven't noticed, your crazy fanboys are crazy. So when you deign to acknowledge their existence by pleading to them as your "lifeline," and asking them to stop hating you, that's just adding fuel to the fire. You know how Lebron James took his talents to South Beach and people were burning his jerseys in the street, and he just shrugged it off and walked away from it all? You've got to be like that. You've got to be strong. Be proud of the career move you are making! Ignore the irrational vocal minority with unrealistic life expectations! Even the majority of 2ch thinks they're nuts. You, too, must proudly shrug them off and walk away, because your true lifelines are the people who love you for who you are. Not what they imagine you to be. Let those bridges burn, and don't ever look back.

Vol. 2
(by Sakae Esuno, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Panic and terror continue around Allegory Detective Daisuke Aso! In the midst of all the horror, a subtle bond blossoms between Aso and Kanae when he saves her from a manipulative demon and a suicide club slaughter. However, will their delicate relationship survive once Kanae learns the truth behind Aso's secret identity?"

With supernatural investigators on every street corner these days, and the "folk/urban legends are real" thing having been done to death, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hanako that it still has the capacity to surprise. In Volume 2, Detective Aso does his usual business of exorcising imaginary-horrors-come-to-life, but none of the stories turn out quite like one would expect. When Kanae sells her soul to a demon for the sake of fame, the resulting chaos is not so much frightening as it is hilarious (especially with the ironic ending); when schoolgirls starting jumping off train platforms, the plot curves deceptively toward another familiar horror meme instead of having Aso fight off a spectral beast. And even when Aso does have to face deadly creatures, like in the last chapter, a shocking revelation about the main character adds a whole new layer of drama to the plot. Simple, straightforward paneling brings the story to the forefront and minimizes distractions; if anything catches your eye, it'll be something important like a monster or a corpse or a demonic transformation. Striking supernatural imagery, combined with slick visual pacing, add up to the perfect horror-suspense blend.

The artwork may be highly accomplished on a structure-and-layout level, but man, those character designs are just screaming to be redrawn. Misaligned eyes, off-balance proportions, and just plain unstylish outfits are some of the problems that will keep readers from fully appreciating the visuals. (If Kanae made a deal with the devil to become famous, she should've gotten a better wardrobe coordinator.) The stories themselves aren't perfect either, often lacking a certain depth and darkness that would make them truly terrifying. Admittedly, the first chapter in this volume is an intentional joke, but the more serious ones still feel like they're skirting the true essence of the horror genre. The one about the train-platform deaths gives us an embarrassing, shallow villain in the finale, and the chapter about a girl who loses her five senses gets too wishy-washy and hand-wavy ("We're in her dreamworld! Everything's a metaphor!") to invoke any real fear. Only in the final cliffhanger chapter do things get serious, and even then it's completely given away by previous scenes. How is it a shocking revelation if they tell you it's coming?

It may be rough around the edges, both artistically and plotwise, but the raw energy and suspenseful storytelling nab this volume a B.

Vol. 6
(by Motoro Mase, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Dear Citizen: Thank you for your loyalty. You've no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You've probably asked yourself:
Rest assured that measures are being taken. Beginning today, we will randomly select a different citizen who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is and how important it is to be a productive, active member of society.
Thank you for your continued attention and your cooperation and participation..."

Now THIS is the Ikigami I have been waiting for! Motoro Mase finally lays it all out in this volume, as the series' controversial ideology hits a breaking point, ongoing subplots reach their climax, and human drama collides with real social issues. The first half shines a harsh spotlight on Japan's true economic dilemma: young working-class drifters with nowhere to sleep but Internet cafés, nothing to do but odd jobs, and nothing to lose when one of them has 24 hours left to live. It's not so much the death notice or the character's actions that are shocking, but the fact that the problem is real—with no solution in sight. And if that's not enough, the second half is a pure political thriller, with muckraking journalists taking on a propaganda-spewing police state, a doomed son seeking a final act of justice, and main character Fujimoto pulled into a life-threatening situation. Even the therapist, Dr. Kubo, returns to pull off a surprising twist. Naturally, every moment is brought into stark relief with clear, detailed artwork, strong facial expressions, and dramatic paneling. From working-class despair to anti-establishment rage, this is social commentary raised to the level of masterpiece.

He may have created a masterpiece, but Motoro Mase does so by using same old gimmicks that carried him through Volumes 1-5 of the series and doing little to improve on them. What happens when someone gets their ikigami? The character displays his or her shock face, lit from below or behind, three-quarters view. When their parents hear the news? Shock face. When a plot twist throws a screw into the works? Shock face. The man may have a knack for "strong facial expressions," but he can only draw about three of them. Those who know from previous volumes how the series operates will also find themselves suddenly blessed with psychic abilities, as the plot structure in each story tends to play out very predictably. If a character has a certain goal and a certain tool, guess what? They use that tool to accomplish that goal! And yet these telegraphed moments are accompanied by such loud melodrama that everyone calls Mase a master for it. But hey, if recycling your own artistic and narrative tricks wins you critical acclaim...

The fact that he knows the power of his artistic and narrative tricks, and uses them to maximum effect, is exactly why this is a top-notch installment of a top-notch series. At long last, Ikigami picks up the rare, much-coveted A.

Vols. 8-10 (omnibus)
(by Yuki Urushibara, Del Rey, $24.99)

"Ginko is a master of the ephemeral life-form known as mushi. Their influence can be as visible as a mountain never giving up its winter to allow for spring, or as subtle as a prank played in a child's game. To some they are a curse, to others they offer unimagined possibility. Read the final three volumes of Ginko's journeys in this one remarkable edition!"

So, if you're an award-winning manga-ka penning the last few volumes of a beautiful and mystical slice-of-fantasy series, what's the best way to proceed? "Just keep doing what you've been doing" is the correct answer—and that's exactly what Yuki Urushibara does, with page upon page of gorgeously ethereal backgrounds, otherworldly special effects, and an effortless visual flow that transforms this series into a living, breathing Japanese landscape painting. But the painstaking shadows and highlights sketched into the art are just a veneer for what makes Mushishi a masterpiece: the stories, filled with every dimension of human emotion. The best ones draw out the heart-wrenching power of loss and death, whether it's a dark and violent vengeance story or the empty despair of losing a child, but ultimately joy and sorrow (and respect for nature) always balance each other out. Urushibara also tries a few high sci-fi concepts, including a parallel-world story and a time-travel piece that does the "Endless Eight" thing without being nearly as infuriating as "Endless Eight." The last and most dramatic story even puts Ginko's life on the line—but ultimately he strolls off one last time into the Japanese countryside, the journey continuing forever in our hearts.

If Urushibara finishes out the series by doing what she's always been doing, then that also means letting the usual flaws and shortcomings creep into the work. Once again the character designs are nondescript and ambiguous, with the same stoic, sad-eyed men and women populating every single rural village in the country. Sometimes they even border on confusion when there are lookalike situations (like two brothers arguing with each other, or a girl being mysteriously replaced with a near-clone of herself). This bumper volume also gets the occasional chapter about Ginko's solo explorations, or dredging up some pivotal moments from his childhood, and quite frankly The Ginko Show never turns out as compelling as when he's interacting with other characters who have genuine problems. True, he's a necessary catalyst for getting each story going, but he's a lousy character on his own. And what do you mean this is the final volume? Of every possible point in pro/con analysis, that is the worst con of all time! This series should have gone on forever! Kodansha, I demand justice!

If one volume of Mushishi is therapeutic for the soul, imagine how soothing a three-in-one will be! Although it's sad to see the series go, let's enjoy the B+ art and craft one last time.

Vol. 9
(by Peach-Pit, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Amu and the Guardians are battling the Easter Corporation in order to save Ikuto. But during the fight, two surprising things happen: Ikuto's troubled past is revealed, and the powerful Embryo appears! Who will catch the egg that makes dreams come true?"

Is it weird for a series like Shugo Chara! to make the New York Times manga bestseller list? Well, it's not so weird when you consider what Volume 9 accomplishes: macho, fist-pumping battles fought with one's heart and soul, layered with delicate linework and sparkling acts of sorcery. Truly, it's the best of both demographics—a classic shounen-style beatdown with fantasy shoujo elements woven in. Once again, Peach-Pit's creativity in dreaming up magical attacks shows no limits, with Amu and friends pulling all sorts of new tricks out their sleeves and bringing them to life with dazzling visual effects. See what Yaya can do with her rubber duckies! Guess what weapon Tadase's scepter turns into! And does Amu have another transformation waiting to emerge (to say nothing of Ikuto's dashing new look)? Whether it's physics-defying combat or physics-defying costumes that dazzle you, this volume has it. And that's not the only thing it offers—a public flashback of Ikuto's memories pulls at the heartstrings, answers a lot of big questions, and adds even more humanity to an already complex character. Amu's subsequent reaction is equally poignant—and a reminder that it is always the emotional battles we remember more than the physical ones...

Mirrors and smoke, nothing but mirrors and smoke! As a magical girl series, Shugo Chara! has gotten too caught up in the magic, turning into a pink-tinted version of an all-explosions, zero-plot Hollywood blockbuster. Our heroes and heroines spend most of this volume making stuff up as they go along, yelling out names of attacks until something cool happens. Sometimes, if they're especially lucky, random characters from earlier in the story will show up at just the right time to save their butts! (Never mind explaining how they managed to get up a broadcast tower that quickly.) And the ridiculousness doesn't stop there—it's hard to feel threatened by the bad guys when the next villain after Ikuto is the X-egg equivalent of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Even this volume's one attempt at depth—the mystical flashback sequence—is executed with all the subtlety and grace of a highway car crash, as the entire battle is forced into pause mode and Ikuto's life story is told through a number of disjointed stop-and-start scenes. Look, magic is cool and all, but when it ruins the flow of the whole story, something's wrong.

Dazzling and beautiful to look at, but are the wheels starting to come off this series as it barrels toward a finale...? Either way, it's still impressive enough to manage a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Yui Hara, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"As a child, Kazuki's head was filled with the stories his dad told him of another planet called Artemis. Even now that he's older and his dad has passed away, Kazuki refuses to stop believing. All he wants to do is visit Artemis, and a surprising chain of events may just give him his chance! Now Kazuki begins a quest to learn about the new world he finds himself in and the strange people he meets."

It almost sounds like a writer's dare: take elements of magic, fantasy, and a planet in another dimension ... then mold them into a low-key, adventure-meets-slice-of-life series. Yet The Witch of Artemis pulls it off, with stories about seeking one's purpose in life and making human connections. When Kazuki journeys to Artemis, it is not to be an all-conquering hero, but simply to experience the joy of exploration. When Marie the witch explains her motivation as a spellcaster, it is not to win some arcane war or rule the planet, but in her own words, "to help people." Most tellingly, their first assignment as witch and apprentice is not some monster-hunting combat mission, but to restore a marriage that's been fractured by loss of memory. Who needs high-firepower sorcery when you've got deep emotional warmth? The visuals, too, play into that low-key mood, with a clean, economical style that deliberately avoids calling attention to itself. At its best, the background art subtly suggests the natural wonder of Artemis, letting one's imagination fill in the blanks, and the delicately-sketched characters also rely on the principle of simple being beautiful. Now that's a magic all its own.

Oh, this series is magic all right ... magically able to put you to sleep. For three out of five chapters, it flounders about trying to come up with a sense of purpose, or at least something more than "Kazuki went to Artemis because he wanted to visit Artemis" and "Marie is doing magic because she likes to help people." The mysterious antagonist of the series, who places the curse on Kazuki that leads him to Artemis in the first place, doesn't get nearly as much action as she ought to, the result being that there's hardly any conflict propelling the story in the early stages (and what little conflict there is gets resolved too easily). Let's also not forget Marie's brash attitude, which is more irritating than it is endearing—apparently some kind of tsundere act packed with too much tsun-tsun and not enough dere-dere. If they were trying to shoo away readers before Kazuki could even get started with his explorations, well, it's working. The lazy artwork in the first chapter—backgrounds, what backgrounds?—all but guarantees that most readers will last about 20 pages before tossing this one aside.

It strikes a pleasant mood, and the later chapters show promise—if only the first hundred or so pages weren't such a directionless slog. The result is a C+, but with a high chance of improving by Volume 2.

Vol. 1
(by Fuyumi Ono and Ryu Fujisaki, Shueisha, ¥460)

"The story takes place in a small and what appears to be a peaceful village called Sotoba. However, this is no ordinary village. Death seems to be tormenting the village and it is a common thing in Sotoba. Natsuno Yuuki, a new resident in Sotoba, hates the village and wants to move back to the city. However, he is determined to solve the mystery behind the strange death occurrences."

Well-informed fans already know that the terrible secret of Shiki is a very familiar horror trope—but what Fuyumi Ono does, rather than make a big sparkly deal out of it, is to cloak it in layers of mystery, purposely disorienting the reader with strange characters and strange events. A spunky schoolgirl (typically the main character in just about anything else) is killed off within the first chapter. The local doctor (who would normally be the plot exposition guy) analyzes the evidence and has no clue. The teenage male lead is too emotionally detached to even know what to do. The result is an aura of quiet panic and unease, where all the reliable clichés have gone out the window and the story is now an unpredictable ticking time-bomb of death— creating the kind of suspense that gets readers hooked. Meanwhile, artist Ryu Fujisaki (Houshin Engi, Waqwaq) adds a layer of visual panache to the story, not just in the striking character designs, but also the bold gestures, the unexpected angles, and the sometimes bizarre imagery. It feels real enough to be anyone's rural backyard—but with just the right dose of the unreal to give you the creeps.

Ah, so creative and mysterious storytelling is now defined as shoving in too many characters and subplots at once and stringing people along? While Ono's intentions are understandable, the mechanics of the story seem to have come loose during the transition from novel to manga. Character introductions are tossed about at breakneck speed, never giving the reader a chance to get acquainted; the story pacing trips over itself as the various deaths all start to overlap each other; even the main character's viewpoint is hard to follow because it keeps switching between Natsuno and the doctor. Come on, just pick a main guy and stick with him. Because of all this plot-hopping and flipping between different characters, the first volume—intriguing as it may be—is ultimately an unsatisfying one, a collection of loose ends with no definitive arc. The last chapter doesn't even end on a particularly dramatic cliffhanger. Plus, if you've already figured out the terrible plague that has fallen upon the village, the suspense factor is lost, and it becomes a bunch of characters just flailing about in fear and confusion. Not so thrilling now, is it?

The unusual story path is a departure from the norm, and while there are some flaws, it's sure to appeal to those who want something a little different in the horror and mystery department.

This week, it's ... VENGEANCE OF GUEST REVIEWERS! Yes, it's nice when everybody drops in with their personal recommendations, but it's also equally fun to see truly awful works being savaged in print. That's why R. Silverman is back this time to warn us of a particularly horrid anti-Reader's Choice:

Vol. 1
(by Shamneko, Tokyopop, $9.99)

At the end of one of their escapades, Calvin and Hobbes remark that they have failed to learn an important life lesson from their misdeeds. "Live and don't learn, that's us!" they declare. I've often found myself wondering if I don't fall into that same category. That's the only explanation I have for why I bought Shamneko's Because I'm the Goddess! for $1.98 in the Border's Bargain Bin.

The cover, perhaps, should have been sufficient warning: luridly purple, it features an impossibly buxom woman with an incongruously childish face in a cheesecake pose, like the world's creepiest photoshopped pinup. This, my friends, is the Greek goddess Pandora, whom you may remember from your sixth grade mythology unit as the woman who let all of the negative things in the world out of a box. Well, she's back, this time to round up nebulous Bad Things with Greek names that are possessing women and forcing them to be mean to men, because in Japan PMS is no longer an excuse. Most of the time, however, she's bouncing around causing men's jaws to drop and trying to win the affections of the hero. That would be Aoi, a teen of indeterminate grade who dresses like a thug from the 1970s and thinks Pandora and her voluptuous figure are kind of icky. Luckily for him, when she uses up her magic powers she shrinks to a grade schooler, which he finds more attractive and which I will not touch with a forty foot pole. Unluckily for him, if she kisses him (which she enjoys doing), she's back to her old self. Wacky Hijinks Ensue.

Thus far the book's worth 98 cents. The remaining dollar paid for the entertaining break-the-fourth-wall moments ("That happened three panels ago!"), the art's nice lines, and Pandora's smoking kitty sidekick. To be perfectly honest, I spent most of the volume trying to decide if Shamneko is male or female. Since the pondering kept me reading, I'll count that as a plus.

If any other company had licensed this title, I'd have some choice epithets for them. But this arrived on our shores during Tokyopop's Amazing Licensing Glut, so I'll accept it an move on, because hey, it sure beats some of their other titles. And they did manage to release the entire three volume series, so when I see volumes two and three for $1.98 or under, I can pick them up.

Live and don't learn: the credo of the bargain manga shopper.

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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