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Nura of the Dead

by Carlo Santos,

Princess Knight.

Finally, Princess Knight.

And hopefully everyone's favorite fan from the Anime Expo 2010 ANNCast will find peace at last.

Vol. 1
(by Daisuke Sato and Shouji Sato, Yen Press, $13.99)

"A mysterious illness is spreading rapidly through the halls of Fujimi High School. In a matter of hours, the campus is transformed from a place of learning into a hive of nightmares, as the infected students collapse and are reborn as flesh-hungry zombies! Only a handful of students escape the outbreak—among them Takashi Komuro and his childhood friend, Rei. He manages to protect Rei from the initial onslaught, but how long can Takashi and the other students hope to survive when the whole school—maybe the whole town—is out for their blood?!"

In one particularly impressive panel of Highschool of the Dead, we see survivors fleeing the school while the monsters close in from the side—a symbolic meeting of East and West, as elements of Hollywood horror invade a distinctly Japanese setting. And while this may initially be the most striking thing about the series, its true defining quality comes from speed: the infection spreads at a dizzying rate, leaving our heroes with only minutes to plan each course of action. This, of course, means nonstop excitement along the way—every snap decision and improvised weapon (who doesn't love that jerry-rigged nail gun?) leaves the reader breathless, hoping that Takashi and friends can survive all the way to the next set-piece. At the same time, though, there's also this strong sense of being trapped: trapped in a school bus with an insidious teacher, or trapped by a sudden fire that leaves only one way out. The aggressive artwork also fills every scene with riveting, blood-spattered visuals, whether it's a baseball bat to the head or a drill bit to the face. Hey, no one said this was going to be gentle. It's brutal and terrifying—and that's what makes it so fun.

With so much effort going into thrills (and kills), it should come as no surprise that this series falls woefully short on actual substance. The main characters that make up Highschool of the Dead are nothing more than easily pigeonholed types: the everyman-turned-hero, his one-time sweetheart, the chubby geek, the stuck-up class queen, the sword-wielding kendo ace, the school nurse. Come on, you could make up more complex personalities and relationships by inviting friends over for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The plot itself is painfully simple too, moving linearly from one peril to the next with only a single motivating principle: Escape the zombies! (Except the characters refuse to call them zombies, and keep making self-aware remarks about how this is like the movies except that it's real—as if fourth-wall commentary on the genre is somehow clever. No, it's just irritating.) Even the artwork, which ought to be the big draw, often falls short: the pages are just too crammed with detail to show off the action, and the occasional cheesecake illustrations of fine ladies—often from low-angle views—are more of a distraction than a delight. More zombies, please, and less panties.

Admittedly, the brutality and adrenaline are fun, but only in a shallow way. With the simplest of storylines to guide this gorefest, it ends up with a B-.

Vol. 4
(by Kotaro Isaka and Megumi Osuga, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In Nekota City, Inukai and his team of vigilantes, known as Grasshopper, protect the citizens from a rising crime wave and the greedy hands of businessmen bent on turning every block into a modern strip mall. But is this public hero actually a devil in disguise? And can high school student Ando use his mysterious power of 'ventriloquism' to uncover the truth before it's too late?
As Inukai reveals his darl ambitions for the city, Ando is more determined than ever to fight back in any way he can. But when he discovers that his power comes with a painful side effect, how will he respond?"

What makes Maoh so gripping, more than its action scenes or heart-stopping plot twists, is the way it hits frighteningly close to home. In Volume 4 we are treated to vigilante uprisings and acts of violence against public officials—scenes not too far removed from the current political climate. Even more striking is the way these issues are presented in a double-sided, thought-provoking manner: on one hand the punchy artwork, dramatic angles, and eloquent rhetoric seem to glorify the thrill of "sticking it to the man," yet the consequences—a desperate mayor on the run, Ando's friend at school transformed into a pariah—show that there is real human suffering on the other side, too. And amidst all this, there are plenty of other twists to keep readers guessing, like the assassination attempt at the end that takes an unexpected turn, and Ando's bitter decision about whether to continue with the whole battle. The opposing philosophies in this story could have been portrayed as a simple open battlefield, but with so many different characters and ideas in play, it's more like an intricate, winding maze. Now isn't that more interesting than just two dudes fighting?

Talk is cheap, and if we go by the amount of dialogue in this volume, the book ought to be selling for half-price. Look, I love thought-provoking philosophical battles as much as anyone, but the amount of back-and-forth babbling going on here makes it feel like a shrill internet argument that goes nowhere. Even worse is that the verbiage also overshadows the sharp, detailed artwork that sets each scene. Inukai's grand speech of rebellion may be eloquent, but takes far too long, and Ando's subsequent reaction seems to be there just out of obligation. ("Stop being a bad guy! Because it's my job to be opposed to the bad guy!") In fact, the only time Ando's convictions seem genuine is when he's standing up for his classmate Anderson and telling his rabble-rousing peers to think for themselves. And while we're at it, the whole "ventriloquism" thing needs to stop, because the series is getting pretty cerebral, and random superpowers don't really fit the setting anymore. Ando is at his best when fighting Inukai with his heart and mind ... not his wacky voice-throwing abilities.

Despite getting bogged down in words (it's co-written by a novelist, which explains a lot), there are definitely some thought-provoking moments in this volume—as well as eye-catching action scenes. So it gets off with a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Hiroshi Shiibashi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"While the day belongs to humans, the night belongs to yokai, supernatural creatures that thrive on human fear. Caught between these worlds is Rikuo Nura. He's three-quarters human, but his grandfather is none other than Nurarihyon, the supreme commander of the Nura clan, a powerful yokai consortium. So, Rikuo is an ordinary teenager three quarters of the time, until his yokai blood awakens. Then Rikuo transforms into the future leader of the Nura clan, leading a hundred demons.
Rikuo grew up in a house full of yokai, so he always thought they were cool. But the kids in his class talk about yokai like they're bad! When his grandfather announces Rikuo as his chosen heir to run the Nura clan, Rikuo is torn between his human nature and his duties as a yokai. The rest of the clan's not so crazy about a wimpy part-human as their ruler, particularly Gagoze, a high-ranking yokai who would rather eat a human than be ruled by one."

Let's be totally honest here: everyone's just looking forward to the parts where Rikuo goes full-on yokai and starts wailing on evil spirits with his sword. Not only because those are the pivotal action scenes in the first volume of Nura, but also because Rikuo just looks cool doing it, with his two-toned hair flowing behind him and his steely eyes glaring down all comers. It's a feat of character design that is probably only topped by the numerous yokai that populate this series: creatures that should be fairly familiar to those who know their Japanese folklore, but still look impressive because of the way they're framed on the page. It's like looking at one of those traditional folk art pieces, but with specific personalities and a storyline to accompany the visuals. And it's not just any typical boy-meets-destiny storyline, either: Rikuo is far from the generic "I've gotta get stronger!!!" type, with a conflicted personality that constantly fluctuates between self-consciousness in front of his classmates and the desire to live up to his grandpa's demands. Hot-blooded heroes may be inspiring, but it's the reluctant ones that really win our hearts.

Sorry, Rikuo, but your adventures in yokai-land are a mess. The first chapter alone is 60 pages of chaos, trying to cover school life, family drama and monster-hunting action—an origin story with no sense of direction. The following pages eventually try to set things on the right path, but it looks like Hiroshi Shiibashi isn't sure whether he wants to create episodic yokai-of-the-week battles or set up a longer story arc about Rikuo's rise to power. In trying to balance the two structures, the series' early chapters stumble at both: the fight scenes are exciting for a couple of pages but lack solid tension and drama leading up to them, while the feudal intrigue surrounding the Nura clan develops in irregular fits and starts. Hey, here's an important guy who's like a big brother to Rikuo! Then he goes and disappears for several chapters. Visually, the characters' bodily gestures and facial expressions often look slightly off, suggesting some shaky anatomy on the artist's part, and the way the action is crammed onto every page shows that Shiibashi has much to learn about less being more when it comes to layout.

I want to give it credit for trying—especially since the lead character is an interesting sort—but the sloppy execution, both in story structure and artistic quality, land this one at a C.

Vol. 4
(by Jun Mochizuki, Yen Press, $11.99)

"As Oz Vessalius and his valet, Gilbert, catch up with dear Uncle Oscar, they fail to notice an alienated Alice (and lurking Xerxes Break) stumbling right into a trap set by the Cheshire Cat—a powerful, extraordinary chain. When the two are spirited away to Cheshire's lair, where both danger and fragments of Alice's past reside, Oz and Gil must find a way to enter the sealed dimension of lost memories with Sharon's help. But not only do their allies await them there, so too does the man from Alice's recovered memories! Does he hold the key to the truth about Oz's 'sin'?"

Deeper and deeper, down the rabbit-hole ... if there's one thing that keeps fans hooked on Pandora Hearts, it's the kooky netherworlds that Jun Mochizuki keeps dreaming up, and the Cheshire Cat's lair is no exception. Full of winding stairs that lead nowhere, geometrically impossible corridors, and a design sensibility that is at once ornate yet terrifying, Cheshire's stomping grounds are the perfect example of twisted world-building. Mochizuki's penchant for pen-shaded textures and big, deep pockets of shadow add to the atmosphere. But if anyone thought that this rollercoaster of the imagination ended here—well, how about Oz and Gil stumbling into another sub-dimension within that dimension?! Just another shocking revelation in a volume full of shocking revelations, whether it's a snippet of back-story about the Incident of a Hundred Years Ago or a surprise guest showing up in Oz and Gil's world-hopping explorations. If one wanted to learn how to create a true feeling of suspense and unease, it doesn't get much more textbook than this—the technique involves strange worlds, strange characters, and never letting the reader know what's coming next.

It's funny, because one of the biggest mistakes in storytelling sounds a lot like that last line—it's called never letting the reader know what's going on. In its ongoing quest to be mysteeeeerious and ominous, the only thing Pandora Hearts has succeeded at is being utterly obtuse. Even after four volumes, it's impossible to get used to trumped-up jargon words like "The Intention of the Abyss" (apparently some very important evil thing) and self-indulgent Alice in Wonderland references. It's as if some overeager, unpolished writer just absorbed every single work of fantasy/horror/supernatural literature and is now vomiting them up all at once. But some of this volume's problems aren't even errors of genre: sometimes it's just poor plotting, like wasting an entire chapter on a silly arm-wrestling match because somehow that's supposed to lead to the main characters getting pulled into the Cheshire Cat's world. And the character designs, despite looking stylish on the surface, are really just made-to-order Victorian and Gothic types (including one angsty catboy) that lack any distinctive qualities. It's just a whole lot of 19th-century clutter with no real meaning.

Despite the series' best efforts to seem serious and brooding, the unnecessary complexity continues to be its downfall. Until it starts making more sense, it's C- material.

Vol. 1
(by Nanpei Yamada, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Tomo, a sweet high school girl, loves living near the beach. However, after her parents get divorced, her frequent beach visits become no more. Until one day, after getting harassed on her way to school, Tomo is rescued by a selfless, very attractive stranger who somehow reminds her of the ocean. As the stranger leaves, he drops his keys, and Tomo realizes the keyring has the same stone as one given to her by a long lost friend from her childhood. Could he be the same person? Tomo believes the sea can bestow treasures on people, and she may be about to be proven right in ways she didn't imagine!"

Being a country where the ocean is a couple of hours' drive away at most, it's no surprise that Japan has its share of seaside stories, and Skyblue Shore continues that proud tradition with equal parts nostalgia and romance. Volume 1 sets the scene with languid reminiscences of Tomo's childhood—sandy beaches, crashing waves, a setting sun—and then doesn't miss a beat when it skips to the present day, with Tomo wandering back to the shore after years of absence. This atmosphere adds an extra dimension to what would otherwise be a typical high school drama, so much so that one can almost smell the sea spray. For readers who have no personal recollections of the ocean, though, the heart-tugging relationships may be the key: Tomo tries to fight her feelings for the cool older guy, while trying to confirm if a certain schoolmate is indeed the boy from her past, and then things get really interesting when a rival girl shows up. The soft, nuanced artwork—reminiscent of sweet shoujo hits like Sand Chronicles—adds to the bittersweet feeling of this series, where true love seems so close ... yet is still just out of reach.

Take away the coastal flavor, and all you've got is just another superficial Knight In Shining Armor story. Boy meets girl, boy does ONE really nice thing for girl, girl spends entire rest of the series hemming and hawing over whether she likes him or not. We can at least be thankful that Tomo is not the histrionic type—but in lieu of being klutzy or energetic, she's just plain boring. And the personalities of those around her aren't that much better: Riku, the shining knight, is affable and mildly mischievous but lacks any charisma beyond that. And the one-time childhood friend is even less interesting; he rekindles Tomo's interest in long walks on the beach (can't believe that actually happens in a non-ironic sense) but offers little else besides being a really nice guy. And that's the problem with the entire first volume: it's a fluffy schoolgirl fantasy where one gets to meet really nice attractive guys at school, with absolutely no dramatic forces to push or pull between them. At least not until the mysterious dark-haired beauty arrives—and her role ends up being too little, too late.

Although lacking in powerful drama and storytelling, it's still very pleasant—both in art and in atmosphere. So maybe I'll be forgiving at let this one have a B.

Vol. 1
(by Tsukasa Fushimi and Sakura Ikeda, ASCII Media Works, ¥570)

"Kousaka Kyousuke is an average high school student who doesn't get along well with his younger sister, the cute and popular Kirino. Then one day he makes a startling discovery: Kirino's secretly an otaku."

Despite its controversial title and supposed incestuous leanings, the actual story in Oreimo defies these pessimistic expectations, with lines of conflict being drawn in the areas of family, society, and cultural values. The entire first volume is a fascinating, tension-filled balancing act for Kyousuke: how far can he go in supporting his little sister and trying to understand her hobby, without falling into the pit of otakudom and incurring their parents' wrath? (The cliffhanger at the end of this volume provides a very sharp answer.) And digging even further into that situation, why must geeky things be "geeky," and how does a middle-school girl end up obsessed with material intended for young adult males? These are the real controversies the series addresses, but does so in a tongue-in-cheek way, with plenty of nods to the anime/manga/game subculture. A sparse, straightforward sense of layout also keeps the pages turning, with Kyousuke and Kirino's lively arguments providing plenty of entertainment in lieu of flashy visuals. (It's not like this is an action-adventure series, anyway.) Yet artist Sakura Ikeda can still turn up the prettiness when needed, with delicate penwork and a wide range of attractive character designs to catch the eye.

I knew I shouldn't have watched the anime first. With its subject matter being so reliant on things that exist on electronic screens, the manga version of Oreimo (which itself originated as a light novel) quickly reveals the medium's limitations. The pages are just too colorless and silent to convey the charms of Kirino's favorite magical-girl anime, or the interactivity of the moe-riffic video games that she subjects Kyousuke to. But what really makes this volume lackluster is the lazy art, which often crosses the line from "sparse" to "not even trying." Either the panels are completely devoid of backgrounds, or they're unnecessarily huge just to take up space—whatever helps relieve the artist of actually having to draw. (Also note the use of copy-and-paste photo backgrounds for the Akihabara scenes.) However, sensitive readers will probably be even more visually offended by the way Kirino is fetishized in the early chapters, with all manner of uncomfortable fanservice scenes designed as a honey trap for the series' sketchy target audience. Honestly, there are plenty of ways to show that a young teenage girl is cute or glamorous without the distasteful (and distracting) tactics that are found in this volume.

Well, if you can get past the visual inadequacies (and super-creepy fanservice shots), then prepare to be entertained by contentious family dynamics and wry commentary on contemporary geek culture.

Don't you just hate getting into a series, only to find out that the license may not survive long enough for the next volume to be published? Only increased readership and sales can save them! One of our regular contributors, Eric P., wants everyone to know about this unique fantasy series in hopes that it'll win over new fans.

And if there's a little-known manga out there that deserves a bigger fanbase, make sure to send in your reviews so that everyone else discover it too!

Vols. 1-2
(by Minoru Murao, DMP, $9.95 ea.)

In history, there were the Salem witch trials and other similar hunts that were a product of religious fanaticism and paranoia. Once a person was targeted as a "witch," there was nothing that person could ever do or say to prove otherwise. They were doomed either way, and if anyone made any kind of objection it was considered blasphemy.

Knights is a fantasy action title that takes place within this kind of European medieval setting, starring a young but skilled swordsman named Mist. He is part of an organization whose prime objective is to bring down the "Saints," clergy who vanquished so many witches they were endowed with supernatural mutant powers. But he takes it upon himself to personally rescue witches, or people accused of being witches, before they are burned at the stake. He fights and slays any who stand up to oppose him, church officials included. Mist is known as the Black Knight, a fitting title considering he is the only black-skinned character in the story (although for now it remains unclear whether he is a traveler from Africa or was just born with dark pigmentation). His title, appearance, and his rescuing the accused convinces many that he must be a demon, which only gives him incentive to continue standing for his just cause. He is teamed up with a genuine witch named Euphemia, dressed in a Queen's Blade-styled getup, young Nina, the first girl rescued in the story and who falls quickly in love with Mist, and more lately playboy knight Leonardo who once fought on the side of unconditional faith before switching over to fight alongside Mist.

From Minoru Murao, the artist and writer of the Burst Angel prequel manga (the characters from said title make a cameo in the Volume 2 bonus story), this is an entertaining read with decent artwork and a rather likeable and distinctive hero character. It showcases themes of how blind and destructive faith can sometimes be when it is the ultimate law, something that too many people choose to turn a blind eye to. When DMP came out with the first book a few years ago (now out of print, it seems), they printed it just like the traditional Japanese release, with a slipcover and everything. When Volume 2 finally arrived just recently, it came in a regular domestic manga format, an indication of DMP cutting costs just to bring out the next volume at all. As of the time of this review, volume 3 still seems unavailable to preorder, but it is my hope that they continue with this series. There is clearly more secrets to unravel, more plot points to thicken, more character situations to resolve, and this is one unique adventure story I want to follow all the way to the end.

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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