The Amnesiac Butler

by Carlo Santos,

Nothing has amused me quite like the cries of Bleach fans going "FINALLY! I WAITED 308 EPISODES FOR THIS!!!" over the last couple of episodes that aired recently. 308 episodes means the entire series' run so far. What, didn't you like the Soul Society arc?

Vol. 1
(by Nagaru Tanigawa and Natsumi Kohane, Seven Seas, $10.99)

"When high school student Souji Kushiki, an academic achiever and talented athlete from a well-to-do family, returns home from boarding school, he finds that his sisters Harumi, Youko, and Saki have changed. Their strangely clingy behavior borders on the inappropriate and bizarre, yet Souji just brushes off their odd behavior at first.
However, when Souji arrives at school the next day, he learns that, during the summer, one of the students in his class was pushed to his death in front of a subway train. And what's more, two other students were stabbed by an unknown culprit. Are the victims linked, and could Souji's sisters have anything to do with the murders?
With the help of his cheery and spunky new girlfriend, Yukako Sasai, straight-laced Souji is about to venture into a twisted world that might just be the end of everything he believes to be true."

If anyone can put a mind-bending spin on a typical Japanese high school setting, it's Nagaru Tanigawa, whose Haruhi Suzumiya changed the landscape of school-themed fiction forever. But make no mistake about Amnesia Labyrinth: this is no quirky romp about aliens, time-travelers and ESPers, but a dark, unsettling mystery that gladly leaves a ton of unanswered questions in Volume 1. The suspicious elements of this world—the three murders, the lost years while Souji was away, the deceptive leads and clues—contrast strongly against the calm, down-to-earth portrayal of home and school, making the story all the more striking. If that's not enough, Tanigawa also puts a disturbing twist on an increasingly familiar fetish by having all three of Souji's little sisters creep on him. In a decidedly non-cute way. The surprisingly detailed art also adds to the contrast of moods in this series, with careful shading, clean linework and idyllic scenery belying the conspiracy that lurks beneath the surface. Also, some of the best sequences are the ones with few or no words at all, leaving us to wonder what the characters are thinking as they continue to drift within the mystery ...

In the afterword, Tanigawa admits that while he had a concept for Amnesia Labyrinth, he didn't have enough material for a full prose novel, which is presumably why it now exists in manga form. Well, guess what—if you think your story is a bit too skimpy, it probably is. Volume 1 is quick to toss about lots of unanswered questions, and while one may be willing to give it a free pass simply because it's the beginning of the story, there aren't enough hints to suggest that there's anything especially deep and complex at work. It's just a whole lot of ominous declarations and inexplicable events, creepy little-sister subplot included. And who wants to bet that most of these questions will eventually be met with unsatisfying answers or even more mind-boggling questions? The artwork, too, is deceptive in trying to cover up for its lack of substance—the level of detail and texture may be eye-catching at first, but the slightly off-kilter character designs and stiff facial expressions (especially with Souji's perpetually angry eyes) reveal that Natsumi Kohane's talents only extend as far as surface polish. Could this labyrinth be empty inside?

Certainly, the elements of mystery and foreboding make a strong impression, as do the sharp visuals. But with the storyline still only putting the pieces in place, it rates a C so far.

Vol. 4
(by Yana Toboso, Yen Press, $11.99)

"London—the capital of the Great Empire—is once again under siege, as a string of bizarre attacks on British citizens returned from India sends rumours flying and casts a pall on Queen Victoria's rule. Sent in by Her Majesty, young Earl Phantomhive and his most capable butler, Sebastian, follow a trail that collides head-on with an Indian youth who claims to be a prince. And this prince possess an extraordinary butler of his own! As an intense rivalry between the two butlers begins to form, will the kitchen be the dueling duo's final battleground?!"

If you guessed that the high point of Black Butler's fourth volume was an England-vs.-India butler-on-butler fencing match ... you have a very strange imagination. But you would also be right, as the clash of blades between Sebastian and mystic newcomer Agni creates that distinctive blend of stylish action and 19th-century class that make the series what it is. The crisp lines, tilted angles and effortless pacing prove that even a staged swordfight can get one's pulse racing. The excitement doesn't stop there, either—the murder-mystery surrounding returned British expats from India provides enough suspense to pick up right where the Jack the Ripper arc left off. (Yet every time you think this story has taken a seriously dark turn, there's always an unexpectedly comical twist, too.) Naturally, with Indian culture being brought into the fray, Yana Toboso isn't above a few exotic embellishments and ethnic gags: just imagine the spicy new dinner menu when the Prince and his butler move into the Phantomhive household, not to mention the ornate furnishings that suddenly pop up all over the place. The results of Toboso's cultural research is also evident in the detailed outfits worn by Ciel's new pals.

Is there really a murder-mystery afoot, or is it just Toboso messing around with Indian culture after growing bored of all the British stuff? The first half of this volume tries really hard to play up the race-relations aspect of the story, but ultimately lacks the nuance to say anything deeper than "gosh the Indians and Brits didn't get along very well in the 19th century." After that, it goes for the ethnic-humor angle, but again grows dull after the Prince and his butler's stay at the Phantomhive estate ends up being little more than one of those "annoying houseguest" sitcom scenarios. Hey, don't you guys have a mystery to solve? By the time things get back on track with the darker side of the plot, the story is marred by overly talkative characters (with some pages being more notable for the amount of text they hold than for any distinctive artwork) and set-pieces that are too crowded to be visually effective. Somehow, an exhibition fencing match is drawn perfectly, but a round of hand-to-hand combat with actual consequences comes out messy and poorly executed—now that's skewed priorities right there.

The early part of the story drags its feet with plotless dalliances, but there's still enough entertainment value—both of the light and serious kind—to earn this one a B.

(by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and Chie Kutsuwada, Kodansha International, $14.95)

"A fledgling samurai humbly requests to be taught the ways of the samurai by Yamamoto-sensei, the famed author of Hagakure, a book of samurai deeds that has been acclaimed throughout the land. Yamamoto takes on the education of the eager young samurai, and so begins a series of tales reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, with deeds both admirable and atrocious, but each one a lesson in the convoluted Way of the Samurai..."

For those who like their manga in bite-size format, but still want it to contain a satisfying dose of history and culture, this Hagakure adaptation is the way to go. The anecdotes range anywhere between two to seven pages, yet each is a striking illustration of the strict samurai culture—from someone who actually lived it hundreds of years ago. If you're sick of fictionalized Shinsengumi pretty boys or stone-faced, sword-swinging supermen, the real names and faces in this book are a refreshing departure from typical manga accounts of Japanese history. The artwork, too, departs from what one might expect from historical manga: no fancy speedlines or dramatic effects, no gimmicks to exaggerate the action—just calm, carefully researched depictions of the era, from the stately costumes to the tranquil countryside scenes. Even the bloody deaths in Hagakure (and there are many) are treated as matter-of-fact occurrences, as befits the philosophy that losing one's life is preferable to living in dishonor. Looking at it from the distance of centuries, and with foreign eyes, the Samurai Way can seem dense and unapproachable—but this visual interpretation brings it to life as a vibrant, thought-provoking cultural artifact.

Not that there's anything wrong with being respectful towards an acclaimed literary work, but this adaptation of Hagakure is so obsessive-compulsive about staying true to the original that it's almost a joke. For many of the stories, this "visual interpretation" is nothing more than narration superimposed upon imagery, so much so that it might as well have been presented as a children's/YA book with cute illustrations of beheaded samurai. Manga is meant to be about showing, not telling, and ultimately this volume does far too much telling. A lot of it also involves names and places that will mean nearly nothing to the average English-speaking reader, so why bother keeping them in the story? You don't need to know that So-And-So-nosuke was from the Blah-de-Blah Clan to illustrate a point about loyalty to one's master. Because of these misplaced priorities—focusing too much on faithfulness to the text instead of letting the content speak for itself—the artwork also fails to live up to its potential, with many of the scenes being nothing more than stuffy talking-head affairs with the occasional swordfight thrown in. Maybe there's something to be said for dramatized fictional accounts after all.

Although the adaptation takes an unnecessarily stiff approach, the stories still provide food for thought—but only enough for a C+.

(by Arina Tanemura, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Fourteen-year-old Kisaki Tachikawa has psychic powers. She works for PSI, a secret government agency that fights aliens. She's in love with her partner Giniro, but PSI won't allow operatives to get involved. Just when Kisaki thinks she may be getting closer to Giniro, she finds out she's going to be transferred to California!"

Those who follow the manga business in America will know that the real selling point of Mistress Fortune is the appearance of a certain Viz editor as a supporting character. But even without industry in-jokes, this one-shot romantic adventure is plenty entertaining, especially with Giniro stealing the show as an unabashed lech and admirer of Kisaki's chest size. Their alien-battling exploits also prove that shoujo style and high-flying action are not mutually exclusive traits, as Tanemura's ornate flourishes—all speedlines and screentones and diagonal panels—turn out to be a perfect fit for the fight scenes. Of course, her impressionistic art is still best suited to displays of emotion, like the narration of Kisaki's letter to Giniro near the end, while the expressive displays of combat are sure to get one's heart pumping in an entirely different way. The two side-story chapters are also unapologetically charming in the way they shine the spotlight on the series' minor characters, with cute little subplots that emphasize lighthearted humor over the unnecessarily serious hand-wringing that often comes with psychic battle and teenage love. In the end, everyone's just having fun.

Did Tanemura really mean for this story to only be three chapters long (plus two side stories)? Even with the small cast of characters and the simple, predictable plot—boy and girl must confess to each other—it feels more like walking into the middle arc of a series and then leaving with unresolved issues. For example, there's not a clear enough origin about the alien creature that operates as a sidekick to Kisaki and Giniro, not even with one of the bonus chapters trying to provide a flimsy back-story. And the subplot about Giniro's sickly mother, which could have carried so much emotional weight, is treated too casually and just trails off in the final chapter. Meanwhile, the relationship between Kisaki and Giniro is treated with all the subtlety of a car crash—she keeps squealing about how much she loves him, and then midway through the story he goes and admits his feelings out of mad desperation. Buildup and development? What's that? The artwork, too, lacks subtlety and finesse, often overloading with fancy imagery and patterns that get in the way of conveying the story.

Despite the obvious flaws of being too short to get a full story across, it's still a surprisingly fun take on the ESPer action-adventure genre—and the handful of in-jokes for American readers nudge it up to a B.

Vol. 1
(by Koge-Donbo☆, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"It is near the end of the Meiji Era in Japan. Nanao Kaga defies her father's opposition and attends a music academy in Tokyo in search for the 'Prince of Harmony,' the man of her dreams. Meanwhile, Takenomaru Sagami is a violin prodigy on a quest—he looks for Tears of Maria as part of the contract with the Great Angel. When Nanao meets Takenomaru, will Nanao's dream finally come true?"

For anyone who thinks this is another bubbly, brainless cute-fest in the mode of Kamichama Karin, let's just say that looks can be very deceiving. Pavane For a Dead Girl is surprisingly deep, as proven by its painstaking levels of research—the violin-playing scenes are accurate right down to the actual stance and fingerings, and Koge-Donbo☆'s historical briefing on the Meiji Era is as insightful as a single-page summary can be. Let's also not forget the provocative symbolism, where Takenomaru thrusts his metaphysical "sword" into a young girl to do the terrible deed of taking her "Tears of Maria." But these surface elements are just an appetizer for the dark Romanticism that lies at the story's core: a tortured artistic genius, the secrets of his unhappy past, the drastic social changes of the era, and a swirling supernatural conspiracy tying it all together. Even the fine, filigreed art, the doe-eyed character designs, and the carefully spaced paneling are but a sweet facade, hiding the shocks and twists that lie within. Especially the one that comes at the end of Chapter 2. Seriously, just read as far as the halfway point of this volume—and the rest of the series sells itself.

If a single plot point at the end of the second chapter is supposed to be what sells this, then what is the rest of the book doing? Generating a lot of noisy, unconvincing melodrama, that's what. The development between Nanao and Takenomaru is hardly a believable love story, what with Nanao's mindless fawning over Takenomaru, and Takenomaru making a big show of just how dark and tortured he is. In fact, Takenomaru's constant muttering about his skewed moral compass points to a deeper problem with the series—we've all seen plenty of of emotionally troubled musical geniuses in popular culture, so Takenomaru's act doesn't bring anything new to the table, and the fact that he made a deal with an "angel" (as opposed to a devil) to gain his talents is just piling another cliché on top of that. Then comes the hyper-energetic childhood friend in the volume's second half as an attempt to lighten the mood, except it just comes out as a contrived, misplaced outburst of typical Koge-Donbo☆ cuteness—something more fitting for a Di Gi Charat spinoff than a period drama. See, that's the trouble with Romanticism: do it wrong, and it all just looks like bad overacting.

Not thet I should be letting personal biases cloud my opinion, but do you know how hard it is to find a manga-ka who puts in the effort to draw violins and violin players properly? That, plus an emotionally gripping story, wins this piece a B+.

(by Richard A. Knaak and Jae-Hwan Kim, Tokyopop, $19.99)

"The world thought it finally would be at peace. However, when an immense power emanates throughout the land, all eyes turn in search of its source. Kalecgyos, a member of a decimate race of blue dragons, quests towards the elven kingdom of Quel'thalas in search of answers but he will have to deal with a vengeful dwarf ... the army of the Undead Scourge ... and must unveil the mystery behind an enchanting peasant girl before he can finally obtain what he seeks!"

Want to experience the epicness of the Warcraft universe without having to put in countless hours in front of a computer? As a graphic novel, Knaak and Kim's Sunwell saga is as grand as any fantasy adventure, yet finishable in an afternoon. Packaged as a single omnibus instead of three volumes, the arc of the trilogy becomes much clearer—no more cliffhangers left unresolved for months—and the sheer scope of Kalec's quest is that much more impressive. This journey spans idyllic forests, bustling towns, icy mountains and burnt-out wastelands, basically running the entire gamut of fantasy realms withiin a single book. Even more remarkable is how artist Kim takes on each setting with fearless enthusiasm: every dank cave, craggy boulder, and lofty ledge is rendered in rich detail, immersing the reader in the moment. This attention to detail is also evident in the character designs, where the distinctive visual traits of humans, elves, dragons and other races come to life (or death, as in the case of the zombie elves that arise in the third volume). Between the stunning art, the thrilling combat, and more than a few surprising twists, this is pure, classic Fantasy-with-a-Capital-F.

In this day and age, most attempts at pure, classic fantasy ultimately end up being Imitation Lord of the Rings. And even then, such a description would be insulting to Tolkien, since 500-page doorstops like the Sunwell omnibus are just patchwork assemblies of superficial fantasy elements. Kind of like the actual Warcraft games, right? Despite its length, this is essentially a bloated version of the Hero's Journey, and not even a very well-crafted one at that—new characters keep jumping in to confuse the issue, the middle volume's stranded-on-a-mountain scenario relies too much on lucky coincidences, and death is clearly just a temporary setback for most participants in this battle. A number of gaping plot holes also emerge, the kind where the characters could have only known something if the author had secretly whispered it to them. Even the artwork is far from perfect, with visual overload often making the action hard to follow. But the creative team's self-indulgent mediocrity is most obvious in the Warcraft: Legends side story, which is so text-heavy that Knaak should have just written a novel if he wanted to. Oh wait, that's what he does.

Really, it's not bad for mainstream fantasy—but with so many other, more imaginative options out there, this is simply mild entertainment to pass the time.

It's been almost too long since I last sang the praises of Vertical Inc.'s output in this column. That's where reader contributions come in handy! This time, David Kociol points out a sci-fi gem that started coming out last year—and if you missed the bandwagon when it came by the first time, it's never too late to jump on.

Remember, it's readers like you who help to find the undiscovered masterpieces of the manga world, so send in those reviews!

Vol. 1
(by Nobuaki Tadano, Vertical, $10.95)

7 Billion Needles is a science fiction manga about a high school student, Hikaru Takabe, whose introversion and shut-in personality can only become a weapon of her using once a meteor crashes to the Earth, and bringing with it an alien life form of great power, which forms a symbiotic relationship with her.

Named Ciel, this being communicates to her, hidden away in her body, and tells her of it's mission to destroy another symbiotic creature, named Maelstrom, who travels from world to world, obliterating all life it finds.

Hesitant to accept her new internal roommate, Takabe fights Ciel's influences at first, until signs of Maelstrom's budding rampage start to show. What follows is a brutal guessing game, as both parties have to identify and destroy the other.

This manga is great, in the vein of classics like Parasyte, my personal favorite manga. It weaves a clever mystery wherein the reader has all knowledge of the solution, and must persevere to find out how the characters will discover the answers. Also like Parasyte, expect a lot of gruesome "bio-horror" and human transformation, as the cold and uncaring Maelstrom, in an attempt to discover Ciel, kills anyone and everyone he suspects.

The art serves to complement the story, as the characters are plainly drawn to a look of individuality. This is not a fantasy world populated by beautiful people, this is Earth, and it's inhabitants are all unique in both appearance and personality, you actually can't help but be interested in the characters. In effect, you get to see the ugly side to everything, and the gritty story fits well with this.

I must confess to enjoying science fiction in a more modern and realistic setting, liking both the horror works of Junji Ito and the affectionate dramas and mysteries of Naoki Urasawa. It is for my taste in the works of those artists that I must recommend this manga to the comics reader. It is a traditional fare held together by its modest art and glorious narrative and exposition. It creates a sense of wonder within the reader, and it reads like a movie, something I only started to appreciate once I read the works of Tezuka.

I cannot say this enough, read this book. I took the care to withhold a lot of the plot description in an effort to avoid spoiling the surprise. Estimating at four volumes, this story will make a nice, finite addition to your bookshelf. Seriously, four stars all the way, and I am awaiting the next volume with enthusiasm.

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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