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Sayonara, Krauser-sensei

by Carlo Santos,

Not gonna lie, you guys. I'm flying into San Francisco this weekend specifically for the Hatsune Miku "live" concert (and to see what else New People has to offer). Not that I expect her to perform the Leekspin, but ... that WOULD Make My Day if she did.

Vol. 2
(by Konami Kanata, Vertical, $13.95)

"It has come to our attention that a cat has been causing quite a stir around the apartment building recently. Property has been damaged, meals stolen and young lives were put in danger because of this feline. To prevent this kitty villain from committing more capers in our homes, building management is requesting information on the whereabouts and actions of the furry fugitive.
So if you happen to see a cat or cats in the immediate vicinity terrorizing your plants or children, alert the building manager and beware, as these cats are armed and presumed hungry."

What on earth? Conflict, rivalry, and drama?! Yes, Chi's second volume finally goes somewhere interesting, taking brave turns that were out of reach for the first installment. With the premise of the series now in place, and Chi a little older and smarter, her adventures also grow more sophisticated as a result. Here she is trying to outfox her owners when they want to take her to the vet, or trying to play in the bathtub without getting wet, or—in a brilliant example of comedic escalation—trying to get a sip of cow's milk, only to have her family completely misinterpret her meowing and gesturing. The real source of dramatic interest, though, is when a big, black stray cat comes onto the scene—at first a rival for Chi's territory (and food), but later a confidant, who starts putting existential thoughts into Chi's head. The cat-to-cat interaction is where this volume shines, even more so than the human stuff. Kanata's panel layouts are simple, yet capable of memorable visuals as well: witness the underwater bathtub scene, or Chi's dramatic leap onto the perfect napping spot. Let's also not forget Chi's amusing repertoire of facial expressions, which provide instant humor with a single look.

All right, so they got a new character and he's funny as all get out, but Chi still doesn't have it all together. The extremely short chapters, as well as a lack of story momentum, make it too easy for Kanata to waste several pages at a time on events that go nowhere. Sometimes we get a sequence of something interesting—multiple chapters about Blackie, for example—but there are also filler moments like Chi desperately struggling for attention, or making mischief around the house. And whatever happened to plot threads that did have potential—like Chi's memories of her mother, and the longing to find her true family? It's mentioned briefly in one chapter, but this subplot is soon dropped in favor of more lightweight antics. Also lightweight is the visual style, which relies too much on simplification and exaggeration such that the realism of Chi's feline behavior is lost. When those eyes get too big and the whiskered mouth gets too triangular, she's just not that adorable of a kitty anymore. In its quest to be cute, sometimes this entire series seems to be desperately struggling for attention.

Although full of charm and humor (not to mention a fascinating new character), it still seems to be paddling in the shallow end, earning a B- unless the story can extend itself further.

(by Yuna Kagesaki, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"A collection of touching manga stories that follows the continuing adventure of our favorite vampire. In these Sweet tales and scary legends, finally discover what happened to Karin and her friends all while getting a glimpse of some mysterious vampires from the Marker family that were never before seen in the main series. Also included are special bonus manga strips detailing creator Yuna Kagesaki's trip to Seattle's Sakura-con."

First, a disclaimer: only half the stories in this volume actually relate to the Chibi Vampire universe. Not that this hampers the enjoyability of Kagesaki's work in any way—if anything, her wild imagination and sharp romantic-comedy sensibilities shine even brighter with stand-alone stories. The 44-page "Searching For My Beloved" is the clear winner for sheer creativity, with fortune tellers, split identities, stalker-murderers, cannibalism, and ghosts ... and despite an absolutely terrifying climax, still manages to end on a humorous note. For those more interested in finding out what happened to Karin and friends, though, this one fills in a rather comical gap by revealing the age-inappropriate crush of one of Karin's former schoolmates. Maybe it's being preposterous on purpose—but the bubbly storyline, full of turns and twists and gags, is too much fun to turn away. Equally entertaining is the side story concerning Karin's long lost European relatives, drawing from classic vampires-versus-clergy lore but with some cute romance on the side and a self-deprecating poke at otaku culture. On the artistic side, Kagesaki makes the action flow with well-spaced layouts and lively, expressive characters who aren't afraid to take a pratfall. See, vampire stories can be fun!

Now, another disclaimer, the standard one that applies to all short story collections: sometimes it's great, and sometimes it's not so great. The first story, in fact, might chase away readers right off the bat, with its lack of development and hard-to-understand characters—the male lead is a schoolboy who occasionally lapses into adult-baby mode, which would be hilarious if it weren't also damned weird. Even the Chibi Vampire spinoffs seem lacking in depth, and they're the ones that are supposed to have 14 volumes of storyline to back them up. Perhaps the problem is that Kagesaki spins off too far from the source material in an effort to make the stories stand on their own: an ill-fated vampire/nun relationship might as well be any old tale if the protagonist didn't share Karin's family name, and the one involving her classmates is just a typical screwball romance that happens to borrow a couple of familiar names. Kagesaki's artistic style, too, doesn't always suit her mix-and-match of genres—the vibrant lines that work so well for comedy and action often fail in making horror scenes sufficiently horrific.

Well, yeah, it's just a slapdash short story collection that also throws in some unrelated one-shots as padding. But that doesn't mean it can't be fun—a B- grade's worth of fun.

Vol. 6
(by Kiminori Wakasugi, Viz Media, $12.99)

"By all appearances, Soichi Negishi is a Sweet, well-mannered boy who loves Swedish pop music, trendy boutiques, and all things fashionable. But at the same time he's also Krauser II, front man for Detroit Metal City, an indie death metal band whose popularity increases by the day. Once the DMC makeup goes on and Soichi takes the stage, his natural talents as a death metal god can't help but flourish. Is this the band he's truly destined to be in?"

Could it be? Is Detroit Metal City getting a serious plot going? With the threat of faceless rival "Krauser I" looming in the shadows, the series is making a strong comeback, in many surprising ways. See, here's the crazy thing: the gradual build-up of story that explains Krauser I's origins in this volume is more satisfying than any immediate on-stage confrontation would have been. The seemingly unrelated events, the nameless side characters subtly working their way into the plot, the snatches of back-story told through an outsider's eyes—it's like Naoki Urasawa-style storytelling, as done by that scary kid in the back of your class who wears spiked jewelry and all black. Yet despite the intricate plotline, there's still space for the series' trademark humor, whether it's poking fun at other pop-culture freaks (Visual Kei and rhythm gamers get roasted this time), exploring the absurdities of the Negishi-Krauser duality, or setting up wild situations where Negishi's attempts to be a decent human being inevitably backfire on him. And who can resist the outrageous artwork that goes with this humor? Krauser's crazed facial expressions and bad behavior will always be a shocking, disgusting delight for the eyes.

If you want to talk about something shocking and disgusting to the eyes, look no further than the character designs, which again show no signs of improving. As usual, fans who are into DMC for the humor will have to tolerate ugly, misproportioned faces, little to no grasp of human anatomy, and awkward gestures that may take multiple glances to understand. Even more problematic, however, is when side characters and Krauser-lookalikes enter the picture, and backtracking several pages becomes necessary just to figure out what's going on. (The real Naoki Urasawa would never make such a mistake...) Apparently, the crude and simple style of the art isn't yet ready to convey the new complexities in the story. Come to think of it, the series in general is having some growing pains—half the time it's still trying to proceed as a situational screwball comedy, with one-shot gags and nonsensical plot points, but this slapstick tomfoolery doesn't quite add up to a cohesive narrative about the genesis of Krauser I. There's a great storyline in there somewhere; there's just a lot of noise to filter through.

The humor remains about the same as always, but the new story developments are what make this a promising B, as well as a major improvement over the last volume.

Vol. 1
(by Natsume Ono, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Masterless samurai Akitsu Masanosuke is a skilled and loyal swordsman, but his naïve, diffident nature has more than once caused him to be let go by the lords who employ him. Hungry and desperate, he agrees to become a bodyguard for Yaichi, the charismatic leader of a group calling itself 'Five Leaves.' Although disturbed by the gang's sinister activities, Masa begins to suspect that Yaichi's motivations are not what they seem. And despite his misgivings, the deeper he's drawn into the world of the Five Leaves, the more he finds himself fascinated by these devious, mysterious outlaws."

When one thinks of moral ambiguity in the samurai era, the best examples might be mature, dramatic works like Lone Wolf and Cub and Samurai Executioner. But even those series had strong-willed swordsmen in the lead role, whereas House of Five Leaves cleverly inverts the samurai archetype with a self-doubting beta male who is probably the least qualified person in Japan to be a warrior. With this unexpectedly introspective character, the series is able to explore moral shades of gray in ways that no heroic saga ever could. The more Akitsu is pulled into the Five Leaves' illicit activities, the more conflicted he becomes—and the more interesting the story gets. There's even a bit of ironic humor in the way his attempts to do good end up helping the outlaws' cause—like facilitating a kidnapping by falling asleep on the job. All of this is carried out in a low-key, almost slice-of-life mood, which is perhaps the biggest surprise (there's barely even a swordfight after the second chapter). Ono's loose linework and deliberate paneling are refreshing to the eyes as always, matching the elegance of Ristorante Paradiso but with period costume and the ineffable charms of old Japan.

Well, see, there are some people who like the samurai era because of sword-swinging battles, and if Akitsu's not even going to pull out his blade after the first two chapters, that just about destroys any motivation to read this series. Come on, even a ronin who unwillingly gets into fights and wins by pure dumb luck might be entertaining! Instead we get a whole lot of people standing around, discussing the moral implications of making a living through lawbreaking and vigilante justice. Yawn. Even those who consider themselves more refined in taste and looking forward to a thoughtful, introspective drama may soon grow tired of Akitsu's unrelenting woe-is-me act. It's one thing to be personally conflicted about joining a band of outlaws, but when all you do is whine and mope about the situation, that's annoying—and being the protagonist in a premium-priced artsy-fartsy comic doesn't suddenly make it deep and philosophical. Others simply may find the visual style off-putting, with the droopy eyes and big sad mouths that are the defining feature of every single character. A little more variety in that department, plus more tones and texture, wouldn't hurt.

Let's be honest, some may find it too laid-back for what it is. But historical genre fans looking for an unique, character-driven story will certainly see why this deserves a B.

Vol. 7
(by Koji Kumeta, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Zetsubou-sensei is angry again, and this time he's turned his sights on Inconvenience. Modern-day inventions are supposed to make our lives more efficient, but the sensei sure doesn't see it that way. TV remote controls are meant to save us time and energy, but how much time do we waste just trying to find the remote? Our cellphones are supposed to keep us connected no matter where we are, but we spend half our time walking around trying to find a signal. Zetsubou-sensei has had it with so-called conveniences! Luckily, he's come up with a perfect solution: 'Convenience Through Cloning.' Because what the world needs now is another Zetsubou-sensei, and another, and another and..."

Just when you thought Koji Kumeta had run out of things to rail against in today's modern society ... well, he finds ten whole new rants to fill up this volume, all with Zetsubou-sensei's unmistakable sarcasm. Once again each chapter is a nonstop flood of observational humor, synthesizing and analyzing human behavior, pop-culture trends, and incidents in the news—and then making fun of it all. What other series is daring enough to call out people's screwed-up priorities? ("I quit my job to see AKB48!...") Or point out the herd mentality that possesses just about any group of people with unusual interests? Or make fun of Michael Jackson's bizarre transformation in his later years? (Yep, Kumeta went there—although this was before MJ died.) The compact, rectangular panels also capture the sharp rhythms of Zetsubou-sensei's humor. Over and over, the simple artwork delivers different examples of the same punchline, hammering the point home by repetition, until you can't help but keel over from laughter because it's all so true. Kumeta even shows flashes of virtuosity with his visual parodies of anime characters, politicians, and whatever sacred cow is currently being slaughtered. Ah, the Sweet sound of cyncism.

At one point, the series mocks itself for having too many characters—and in all seriousness, that's one of the issues that keeps Zetsubou-sensei from being 100% genius. Ever since the series stopped focusing on the personality defects of Zetsubou's students, they seem to be there just for show, milling around and passively responding to their teacher's rants. (This wouldn't be much of a manga if it were a one-man act—yet with the way Zetsubou-sensei essentially acts as Kumeta's mouthpiece, it might as well be.) There are also a couple of chapters where the punchline simply fizzles out: Zetsubou-sensei starts raging about a familiar situation and tosses out all the examples he can think of, but the examples don't quite correlate with each other, or the phrase he uses to describe it makes little sense ("Inherited World Heritage Site," what?), or we as non-Japanese readers don't get what it's about. In fact, the sheer cultural overload seems to be getting to the translator as well, considering the handful of incorrect romanizations and fact-checking errors that seem to have snuck into this volume.

Not necessarily perfect ... but still oh so good. If poking fun at life's absurdities is your idea of a good time, then join in the party with this A- laugh riot.

Vol. 1
(by Yasuhiro Kano, Shueisha, ¥410)

"Mx0 follows the adventures of a young, hasty man named Taiga Kuzumi. During an entrance interview for Seinagi Private High School, Taiga is asked what he would want to try if he could use magic. 'Conquer the world' is his reply, and it is followed by a laughter of a cute girl named Aika Hiiragi. Realizing how rude it was of her to laugh at Taiga's answer she tries to apologize, eventually grasping his hands with tears in her eyes. After that point, he does not remember much else about the interview, but after all he failed to enter the school. Blaming the girl for being rejected, he goes to Seinagi to confront her about it. However, a teacher mistakes Taiga for a student skipping class and pulls him through a strange energy barrier surrounding the school. Not realizing what has just occurred, he has set foot on a school teaching its students how to use magic."

Everyone's seen their fair share of stories about schools of sorcery. Not to mention all the non-magical people who are unwittingly thrust into worlds of magic. But a protagonist who has to spend the entire time faking it? That's where Mx0 (pronounced "em-zero") gets a leg up over the competition, adding an unpredictable action-comedy element to an otherwise familiar fantasy premise. Where else are you going to see an everyday schoolboy blow up a science lab ... because he accidentally opened the gas taps, not because of some latent magical ability? Or touch a girl inappropriately because his "conjured illusion" wasn't conjured at all? The disconnect between magical and mundane leads to many hilarious misunderstandings, especially when his classmates start thinking he's some kind of prodigy and he has to start playing along. Even funnier is the back-and-forth bickering between Taiga and Mr. Hiiragi, the teacher who inadvertently dragged him into the school in the first place—and is now the reluctant guardian of the boy's secret. The polished art style and dynamic, perspective-bending action scenes also make the pages a feast for the eyes, combining pure sorcery with rough-and-tumble combat in many entertaining ways.

First, let me commend Mx0 for giving the magic-school genre an irreverent kick in the pants. At the same time, let me also slap it upside the head for dragging all sorts of irritating shônen clichés into the mix. It's not enough for Taiga Kuzumi to simply be faking his way through school; he also has to be lusting after the girl of his dreams, which leads to many pointless cheeseball moments. There are also the obligatory school bullies that Taiga disposes of instantly, apparently because "he got kicked out of his old school for fighting" (a convenient way to explain why an average-sized kid can somehow beat up four guys half a foot taller than him). Even the deal that allows Taiga to attend the school seems like a whole lot of contrived hand-waving: oh, the teachers will let him get away with it in order to save face (and so that the story can exist in the first place). Between that, and the rather boring character designs (don't expect anyone to be cosplaying this series anytime soon), it looks like Mx0's originality is an act of fakery as well.

For those who like slick battles with a touch of magic (and comedy on the side), this one's a winner. Just don't expect it to be the creative masterpiece that more ardent fans might claim it to be.

How many times are you willing to buy the same thing again? J. Douglas Wellington makes an interesting case for a re-release of a modern comedy classic. And who knows, his re-packaging idea might just "save the industry" (which is all anyone wants to talk about these days) ...

AZUMANGA DAIOH (omnibus edition)
(by Kiyohiko Azuma, Yen Press, $24.99)

A title I would like to see licensed in the U.S.: Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko Azuma. But hasn't that already been licensed and published? Yes, but...

Azumanga Daioh was originally released by ADV as four volumes and then collected in an omnibus volume. The review on this website refers to this omnibus volume. I do not have much to add to the review except that, because I enjoyed the humor more than the reviewer, I would give the book at least an A- for story and as an overall grade. This past December Yen Press released an improved omnibus version, which added translation notes for volumes 1 and 2 (as well as the previously provided notes for volumes 3 and 4), and renumbered the notes to conform to the omnibus numbering, not to the numbering of the four original volumes.

Last year, the author released a 10th anniversary reprint of this classic manga, with redrawn art and, in a few cases, different punch lines. This is what I would like to see licensed and published in the U.S. Of course for a publisher the question would be, "who is the buying audience?" Certainly there would be collectors such as myself who would enjoy the manga and would be interested in seeing the changes. But that is a relatively small audience. To expand the buying audience, a publisher should market the manga as a comic. Since Azumanga Daioh is a 4-panel comic, publish it as such. Start the manga at the front of the book and have the panels arranged from left to right rather than up and down. Change the title from "Azumanga Daioh" to something that would attract more American readers, such as "Chiyo's High School Days." I know this may sound blasphemous to many who visit this site. I too would prefer publishing the book in normal manga fashion. But a 4-panel comic lends itself to being published in U.S. comic format. If that attracts more of an audience, perhaps that audience will seek out other Japanese comics. Any increase in readership that strengthens the financial position of publishers can only help the overall manga market.

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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