Library War And Peace

by Carlo Santos,

Can you believe it's going to be September already?! Where did summer go? Well, at least I don't have to relive the last two weeks of August over and over just because it felt incomplete or something. I took care of everything in July!

I was half-heartedly watching a baseball game on TV, not really caring which team won, when I had the feeling I would be getting a phone call soon...

Vol. 10
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $12.99)

"It appears that Kanna's ambitious gamble has paid off as the leaders of the local Thai and Chinese mafias agree to both call a truce and offer to back her up. This doesn't sit too well with Yukiji, though, who is furious that Kanna would risk her life in such a brazen way. But one thing seems certain: when it comes to fighting the Friends, there's not limit to how far Kanna will go.
Meanwhile, Koizumi Kyoko begins following Kanna in an attempt to tell her about everything she learned while at Friend Land. Her behavior, however, does not go unnoticed by the Friends, and a menacing dream navigator suddenly appears to inform Kyoko that she will need to go to Friend World for further reeducation. Luckily for Kyoko, there are no immediate spaces available, but will she have enough time to get help from Kanna and Yoshitsune before her number is called?"

Once again, Naoki Urasawa takes us on a suspenseful and chaotic journey ... through Kyoko's mind! Having been upgraded from side character to major player (no one else from 2014 has gotten further into the Friend "system" and maintained their sanity), Koizumi is fascinating to watch as she grows ever more paranoid about the agents who are coming for her. Urasawa's greatest talent is in making Kyoko's mad thoughts visible—her constant muttering to herself, her freaked-out facial expressions, her yelping and screaming as she recalls all sorts of unhappy memories. Even more engrossing is the middle portion when Kyoko meets Sadakiyo, a very-briefly-mentioned person from Kenji's childhood; the information he reveals and the actions he takes are one incredible twist after another. The excitement in the story is accelerating toward a new level, yet Urasawa's visual command of paneling and pacing keeps it from spinning out of control—the silent pauses before a big reveal, the measured narration during flashback sequences, the tension packed before each page turn. And how does he always manage to put the best, most cliffhanger-y panels in the bottom left corner?! It's some kind of magic—pure storytelling magic.

There's been something bothersome about Kanna this whole time, and even though she only features lightly in this volume, it's become too obvious to ignore. Kanna is too superpowered for her own good. In the opening chapter we see her uniting the Thai and Chinese mafia by the power of sheer charisma (despite the previous volume's attempts to point out how challenging it was for her), and then in the last chapter she uses her supposed "psychic powers" to trigger a key plot point. In short, the fate of the world rests on a high school girl with special abilties ... which is exactly the kind of cliché Naoki Urasawa is supposed to be rescuing us from. Then again, maybe he's got a really good reason for setting things up this way—but without knowing what it is, it just looks like Kanna is cruising through this whole adventure, catching lucky breaks and breaking the laws of reality to escape tough situations. And somehow even Kanna, who's being watched, manages to dodge everything as well. At some point, suspenseful plot twists really start to look like improbable dumb luck.

You can tell how good a series is when I have to start nitpicking characters to find anything to complain about. This is another meaty serving of suspense and drama—not absolutely masterpiece level, but still B+ material.

Vol. 4
(by Kou Matsuzaki, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Old friends and new faces join Uru for a delightful treat at Café Bonheur...
One complication after anohter befalls our lovely heroine in this volume of Happy Café! A surprise visit from Ichiro's family throws the café into confusion. And after a blackout traps Uru in Shindo's apartment, he falls ill the next day. Can the café survive the day without Shindo to keep everything in order?"

Although some may dismiss Happy Café as yet another form of the ordinary-girl-surrounded-by-unspeakably-hot-guys wish-fulfilment scenario, the series keeps on finding ways to avoid the worst pitfalls of the genre. Instead, it focuses on maintaining a balance between appealing, offbeat comedy (which in this volume is handled mainly by Ichiro's nutty family members, and if you haven't met his younger sibling yet, boy are you in for a shock), and quieter moments of introspection and friendship-building. Shindo gets a lot of attention this time around, with the softer side of his personality being revealed at last—not only in deep, poignant ways like recollections of his childhood, but also in cute little moments like seeing how he reacts when a spider drops in front of his face. It's also the first time we see, perhaps, how he really feels about Uru ... although, of course, this series is always quick to jump back to pratfalls and pranks before things get too serious. Of course, when one draws wacky reaction faces as deftly as Kou Matsuzaki does, why not play up the comedy angle? Life at the café may be sugary sweet, but it's also a lot of fun.

Yeah, Matsuzaki had better keep scribbling those funny faces, because everything else in these pages is artistically vapid. If dull, lookalike bishounen and flat, lazy linework are your idea of fun, then Happy Café is a nonstop party! A party of mediocrity, that is. The artwork is so poorly done that in the chapter where Shindo has an apartment blackout, it's impossible to tell that the lights went out except for this inexplicable gray screentone across the top of each panel. That is not a blackout, people. Blackouts are when everything gets dark. And of course, when scenarios like this happen, Matsuzaki has to jump on the cliché train and emphasize the whole "Ooh we're alone in this apartment together" aspect, along with the obligatory romantic cues that follow. The series' comedy elements also stop well short of greatness—yes, Ichiro's relatives are amusing, but you can't create humor on personality traits alone. They've got to do funny things and get involved in the storyline as well. Then again, story development seems to be a lost cause when there are entire chapters devoted to third-tier supporting characters running daily errands. That's just taking slice-of-life too far.

It has some likable aspects to it, in terms of humor and heart, but too often the shallow plot and awkward art lead it down the C path.

Vol. 2
(by Kiiro Yumi, concept by Hiro Arikawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves—the Library Forces!
When the director of the Kanto Library gets sick, a temporary replacement is assigned, according to regulations. But Iku and her roommate Asako discover a trail of missing books that leads back to the temporary director. Has he betrayed everything the Library Forces stand for and handed books over to the enemy?!"

Try not to think too hard about about the impracticality and political far-fetchedness of a library-run militia. Just enjoy Library Wars as it is: a fantastical and adventurous take on the noble fight for freedom of expression. After setting the stage in Volume 1, this is the part where the action starts to get hot, with an actual government raid that puts Iku and company right in the crossfire. Although billed as a shoujo series, the boldly drawn action scenes and gravity-defying maneuvers have plenty of manly heft to them, proving that even sissy book nerds know how to put up a fight. And it's not just about out-and-out physical combat, either: the political turmoil in the second half of this volume—when the Library chooses to uphold the privacy of an alleged criminal's borrowing records—brings out a lot of charged emotions, especially on Iku's part. Watching her learn to master the balance between bluntly expressing her opinions and maintaining a professional exterior is a personal battle we can all identify with—and one that is made all the more entertaining with the characters' dramatic gestures and facial expressions.

Despite all this high-minded talk of battling Evil Government Censors, Library Wars still spends way too much time on things that shouldn't matter in the military: namely, Iku's romantic entanglements with her fellow officers. An entire chapter is wasted, for example, on Iku's up-and-down feelings as she tries to figure out what to do after studly soldier Tezuka asks her out. And if that's not distracting enough, the last two chapters start implying some kind of development between her and commanding officer Dojo, which by the way would be highly inadvisable in any REAL military force. It's as if the series has to forcibly dumb itself down with this gossipy, who's-going-out-with-who mess instead of focusing on the true heart and soul of the story. Besides, isn't Iku already emotionally stressed enough from political matters that she shouldn't have to worry about dating other guys? Then again, the bog-standard artwork should have clued readers in to the true nature of this series, where even military men are spindly and soft-faced, and screentones and sparkles cover up artistic blandness, and drawing backgrounds is optional. If this is war, it's a rather insipid one.

It'd be far more convincing (and action-packed, probably) if Iku wasn't running around half the time figuring out how she feels about some guy. As it is, this volume falls somewhere in the B- range.

Vol. 6
(by Ken Akamatsu and Takuya Fujima, Del Rey, $10.99)

"While training with his master, Evangeline, Negi Springfield remembers that she knew his father and begs her to tell him anything she can about the Thousand Master. She agrees, and Negi learns things about his father—and his teacher—that he never imagined. But the information doesn't come cheap..."

Could it be? Has Negima!? neo finally given us a plotline of actual substance? Miracle of miracles! Negi's inquiry into his father's past leads to two exciting flashback chapters where old man Nagi not only shows off his magic and combat skills, but also the strength of his heart. At one point, he confronts a tough moral choice—whereupon he chooses the right answer, of course—but since Evangeline is involved in the flashback as well (which is really a magical dream sequence pulled from her memories), even her character is put to the test. The result is one of the most absorbing story segments yet in this spinoff series, and one that provides a more accessible window to the Negima! mythos than the complexity of the original. It also works some hot-blooded, demon-battling action scenes into the story, with lots of slickly drawn special-effects sorcery, high-flying acrobatics, and even a clever little time-slip. And who knew, in the end, that Evangeline also had a soft side to her? The remaining chapters, with their slice-of-life vignettes of Negi's students, also carry that sweetness throughout the rest of the volume.

The remaining chapters? Ugh, don't remind me about the remaining chapters. After actually using some brainpower and packing an interesting story into the Nagi/Evangeline segment, this series goes right back into stupid mode with even more "Girls of Negima!" fluff that accomplishes absolutely nothing. Akira's chapter, which promotes dolphin conservation and kindness to animals, is ultimately a shallow and sentimental piece. But that's nothing compared to the general awfulness of the next chapter, where two of the class athletes go out to buy lingerie and discuss how various underwear styles might make them look more mature. In other words: yay, thirty pages of shamelessly undressed teenage girls! Hey, I thought I bought a comic with a story in it, not a cheesecake illustration book! It's bad enough that the plot is nonexistent, but did they have to make it tasteless, too? Finally, the Konoka/Setsuna chapter is loaded with all sorts of blatant yuri titillation, but none of the good kind—just a lot of kissy-faces and baby talk with the emotional range of a teaspoon. Wrap it up with flat, soulless artwork, and it's clear to see why this will always be Negima!'s ugly mutant step-cousin and nothing else.

They tried with the Nagi flashback, they really tried! But as soon as the series' true purpose as a mindless bishoujo parade is revealed, it turns out to be typical C- material after all.

Vol. 11
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Shoyo's ace, Fujima, drops himself into the lineup and quickly helps his team retake the lead from Shohoku, and despite struggling with fatigue, Mitsui stays on the floor as well. Realizing that they are the keys to winning the game, Coach Anzai focuses on both Mitsui's scoring finesse and Hanamichi's monstrous rebounding, but with only five minutes left on the game clock, Shohoku will need to deliver, and fast. Which player will ignite the spark that will carry Shohoku on to victory? And does Mitsui have enough stamina left to hit some crucial three-pointers?"

They are the moments you never forget: Derek Fisher's 0.4, Michael Jordan's jumper over Bryon Russell, Lebron's buzzer-beating three against the Magic. Now add to that Hanamichi Sakuragi posterizing his opponent near the end of the Shohoku-Shoyo match—in an era when the word "posterize" hadn't even been invented yet! In a single mesmerizing illustration, Takehiko Inoue expresses all the grace, power, and excitement of basketball—not to mention the other hundred-plus pages that come before and after. Once again, the pacing of the manga stays true to the game's rhythms: heart-pounding fast breaks up and down the court (rendered with bold speedlines and freeze-frame poses), bumps and bruises in the paint (the solid character designs really convey their bodily strength), and of course, the occasional pause for scathing trash talk. Even Mitsui's run of three-point shots is executed with a level of realism and detail that shows true knowledge of the game—you half-expect to hear a booming "HE'S ON FIRE!!!" coming from beyond the rafters. Between the flawless, action-packed artwork, and the deep understanding of how basketball is played, this is the volume of Slam Dunk that most likely gets readers hooked for life.

There's no doubt that this is a beautifully drawn second half of basketball—but is there anything else to it? Inoue gets so caught up in drawing as much mind-blowing action as possible that he squanders a couple of opportunities to build upon the already interesting characters. The guy defending Mitsui, for example, is briefly described as a former rival from his junior high days—but the story never gets any deeper than that. (I know I always rail about flashbacks taking too long and derailing the action, but I honestly believe Inoue could have pulled this off.) Even Sakuragi, whose development has been so compelling to watch, gets just that one shining moment of glory and spends the rest of the time mincing about the court, trumpeting his abilities as the Rebound King. If he'd just paused for a moment to have a deep personal epiphany, it would have made things all the more dramatic. And what of Akagi and Rukawa, who figured so heavily in the earlier volumes but have been relegated to the sidelines (not literally, though) as supporting characters? Don't forget, it's still a team game.

This volume may not be big on story- and character-building moments, but as a pure work of action with some incredible sports highglights, this is very deserving of a B+.

Vol. 1-3 Collection
(by Queenie Chan, Tokyopop, $19.99)

"Where dreams turn into living nightmares ... Behind the gates of the exclusive Australian boarding school, Greenwich Private College, await beautiful Victorian architecture, an excellent education, and a terrible secret: students have been known to wander into the surrounding bushlands and vanish ... without a trace! Mysterious forces are at work, and as the rigorous atmosphere of the school starts to slowly crumble around them, twin sisters Amber and Jeanie are about to learn that the key to the school's dark past may lie in the world of their dreams ... "

What is it about The Dreaming that makes it so successfully creepy? Maybe it's because the object of terror is not a creature, or a person, but a place. Over the course of three volumes, Greenwich College transforms from just an old-fashioned boarding school into a terrifying haunted house, closed off from society and loaded with disturbing secrets. It's all the atmospheric details that make it work so well: the remote location, the endless rainstorm, the lights going out, the sealed room, even the shocking images that make up the school's art collection. On top of that, it cleverly unveils layer upon layer of backstory throughout the series, getting every character involved and creating a saga of terror that stretches back almost a hundred years. Premonitive dreams, surreal visions and flashbacks also add to the element of mystery—is this event real? Or not? How does it connect to everything else that's going on? The heavily shaded, high-contrast art also adds the necessary Victorian-Gothic aesthetic to make the story convincing—whether in the form of elaborate costumes, or simply the deep shadows lurking throughout the school. Get ready to be freaked out.

Yeah, get ready to be freaked out by sloppy art, that is! As Queenie Chan's (and yes, that is her real name, people) first serial-length professional work from a few years back, the rookie mistakes are easy to spot: off-balance faces and character designs, stiff-looking backgrounds, and abuse of gray tones to "color in" every space on the page. Oh, she can dish out a ton of stunning period dresses and Victorian flourishes, but all it takes is one misproportioned limb or awkward angle to take you right out of the story. It's a classic case of trying to apply the polish and external detail before getting the basic underlying structure down pat. Meanwhile, the story itself falters at the beginning and towards the end—the first few chapters are too stodgy in trying to capture that boarding-school atmosphere, and the finale gets too melodramatic with the characters all trying to blurt out the denouement so that everything finally makes sense. That always seems to be the case with mysteries like these—it seems so cool when the tension is building up, but some of the magic is lost when all is revealed. Especially when some of it feels like "cheating" with the supernatural element.

Although it bears the earmarks of a still-developing artist, the evocative atmosphere and multi-layered plot show a great storytelling confidence. Plus it's way better than that Odd Thomas thing she did with Dean Koontz.

Hey folks! So how was your summer reading? Did you have any exciting new manga encounters that you'd like to share? This is your chance, so feel free to send in new Reader's Choice reviews! And in the meantime, check out what Anthony Moores has to say about a well-known, fan-favorite series that just didn't click with him...

Vol. 1
(by Yashichiro Takahashi and Ayato Sasakura, Viz Media, $9.99)

Shakugan no Shana starts off in a similar vein to Bleach, with the main character suddenly being thrust into the middle of a fight against supernatural beings that feed off of humans. Except where Ichigo himself starts fighting said monsters, Yuji instead stands in the background and watches Shana fight monsters. That's probably for the best considering he seems to have no strength or power of his own, but considering he's supposed to be the main character you would expect him to be more involved in these fights than he is. He seems more like a plot device since the only purpose he serves is to be a target for the Crimson Denizens, who are after him because he houses some sort of treasure inside himself. The only real personality trait he seems to have is that he's brimming with compassion, a stark contrast to fellow lead character Shana. She's content to fight Denizens anywhere, no matter how many humans might end up dying because of it.

As for the actual content of the volume, well there isn't very much to say, because not very much happens. It sets up the world, introduces the characters and eventually the villain. Other than that it consists almost entirely of Yuji and Shana talking about where she came from, why the Denizens attack humans, what happens to humans who get devoured by them, and those sorts of things. All of this exposition is entirely pointless since the narration during the prologue explains everything Shana and Yuji talk about in a fraction of the time. There isn't much plot advancement until the villain shows up, and even then all he does is tell them that he'll fight them some other time then takes the minion Shana had just beaten and leaves. They don't even establish much of a motive for him besides wanting to capture Yuji because of the treasure he houses, and what that treasure is supposed to be isn't explained in this volume either. Basically, they spend the first eight chapters of this series wasting our time.

Shakugan no Shana is really just mediocre and a bit predictable, and I really can't see who this appeals to. There were only two fight scenes, which weren't very entertaining, so there isn't much if you want action. There isn't very much fanservice until the last chapter of the volume, so if that's what you're looking for you won't find it here. I guess it might appeal to moe fans since Shana does have a tendency to make cute faces while eating melon bread, but even for that there are probably better series you could be reading. It just gets off to a poor start, offering very little entertainment, and really isn't worth reading.

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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