7 Billion Yokai

by Carlo Santos,

At last it's come: the time for summer convention guest announcements! I wonder what famous names from Japan will be making the trip this year? Can any other big-name convention match the ridiculawesome manga-ka lineup that was Natsume Ono and Usamaru Furuya in Toronto? As always, the fun part is waiting to see what happens next...

Vol. 4
(by Nobuaki Tadano, Vertical, $10.95)

"Should life on earth just start over from its primordial methanogen form? For a high school girls, that all depends on whether she can connect to her classmates. But what does oneness mean? This concluding volume also includes the short comic 'Hikikomori Headphone Girl,' the series' precursor."

Not to be a cheeseball about it, but I love how the ending of 7 Billion Needles hinges on humankind's capacity for love. It's a beautiful, moving message in a series where so much of the action is centered around fantastical, non-human things. Yes, the artwork is insane and full of flying debris and bolts of lightning and giant primordial masses containing every living thing on earth—but amidst the madness lies one simple, powerful thought. And it is this: that by learning to reach out to one another, we can somehow save the world. This redemption begins in the first chapter, as Hikaru steps into her aunt's thoughts of family, and gradually escalates to a surreal finale where she must reconcile with her schoolmates in order to stop the "macro-evolution." Ultimately, it's an ending that touches both the heart and mind. Funnily enough, however, the greatest emotional triumph may not be in any of those bombastic end-of-the-world scenes, but the slice-of-life flashback that Tadano draws so cleanly—Aunt Maki going about her business, trying to help Hikaru, spreading her warmth and love. Because that's the beauty of being human.

Well, at least it stopped being Parasyte. But as this final volume shows, 7 Billion Needles ventures into other forms of copycat behavior instead, ripping off all those apocalyptic series where a single innocent protagonist must determine the fate of the planet. (And must it always be high school kids? Seriously.) This intense focus on Hikaru has an unintended effect on the other main characters as well—our alien visitors Horizon, Maelstrom and the Moderator suddenly stop being thought-provoking foils and become spectators whose only job is to lend Hikaru their powers. With all those powers building up, the final battle turns into this outlandish celestial light show that would be more at home in Dragon Ball rather than a thoughtful sci-fi masterpiece. It's also hard to get into the story when the characters are designed to all have cute, childlike faces, even the grown-ups. It might be visually appealing on the surface, but that kind of art doesn't gel with the complex thoughts and emotions beneath. Oh, and that one-shot at the end? It's an interesting relic, but too underdeveloped to stand on its own.

In the end, it was the previous volume that did all the heavy lifting as far as philosophy and plot advancement. This one still packs plenty of great ideas and imagery, but just enough to earn a B+.

Vol. 3
(by Shunju Aono, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Shizuo's in trouble. At least, his father is convinced he is. In his ongoing campaign to convince his layabout, forty-something progeny to finally get his act together, Shizuo's father suggests a new approach: maybe Shizuo should just treat manga as a hobby and do something else—anything else—so as to look like less of a reject to both his family and society at large. Can Shizuo's burning desire to create manga triumph over his seemingly bottomless capacity for self-doubt and existential angst? Then again, maybe if Shizuo just comes up with a catchy pen name, everything will be golden and he'll quickly find himself on the merry road to publication. Right?"

The latest volume of I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow pulls off quite the balancing act, somehow finding humor and even uplift in what is essentially a pitiful story. Shizuo's wanderings as a failed 42-year-old may be a cringe-inducing example of how not to lead your life, but the series always manages to find the wit and wisdom hidden within. His brief stint as a manga assistant, for example, connects to a mountain-hiking metaphor about what to do after life's little victories and failures: you've got to come down from the summit eventually. And Shizuo's quest for a pen name—where he inadvertently gets duped by a fortune-teller—adds a touch of cynical humor to an otherwise routine part of the manga-ka career path. But the best part of this volume is the stomach-punch at the end, where Shizuo's progress hits an unexpected roadblock ... and everything is explained in a hilarious (if hard-to-believe) bonus chapter. Meanwhile, artistic limitations are overcome by applying whimsical touches like a parody of Evangelion's final episode, a spoof-take on John Lennon, and a number of dream sequences where Shizuo confronts his past, present and future.

It'd be nice if artistic limitations were Shunju Aono's only problem. It's hard enough tolerating this series' shaky linework, which would be more at home in an amateur mini-comic than in a professionally published work. The lack of toning gives the art an embarrassingly bare appearance, and the crude character designs make it difficult to identify various members of the supporting cast (most of whom are twentysomething males quietly sneering at Shizuo). This sloppiness isn't just visual, however; the storyline also charges forward with a rough, improvised approach that may leave readers wondering when the real plot is going to show up. The interaction between Shizuo and his father, for example, lacks the fire that a genuine parental confrontation should have—and it doesn't really do anything as far as shifting Shizuo's direction in life. Meanwhile, his minor victories in the manga world seem to be just stopping points instead of catalysts for moving the story forward. But that's the risk of putting an unmotivated, unlikable character in the spotlight: if you need all your strength just to summon up some sympathy for the guy, maybe his story isn't worth it.

Although the series still has obvious faults, these chapters show better progress than anything previously—and some parts of it are even fun. Fun enough to earn a B-.

KEKKAISHI (3-in-1 Edition)
Vols. 1-3
(by Yellow Tanabe, Viz Media, $14.99)

"By night, teenager Yoshimori Sumimura is a 'kekkaishi'—a demon-hunter who specializes in creating magical barriers around his prey. By day, Yoshimori's got other demons to battle: an addiction to sweets and a seriously crotchety grandfather! Yoshimori's pretty neighbor and childhood friend, Tokine Yukimura, is also a kekkaishi, but their families are feuding over who is the true practitioner of the art.

Now the two rival kekkaishi must do battle with amphibious demons, the ghost of a pastry chef, charming demon-tamer Yomi and her pet demon Yoki, embittered demon-dog Koya—and more!"

Kekkaishi teaches us that the best offense is a good defense—especially if that defense involves rectangular spirit barriers known as kekkai. Indeed, the greatest strokes of genius in this manga are the many ways in which Yoshimori and Tokine wield their magic: bouncing objects off the kekkai's walls, using the barriers to slow down a powerful attack, or improvising a tiny box to distract an opponent. There's even a touch of humor in the way both families use kekkai for convenience in their daily lives. As a storyteller, Yellow Tanabe also keeps readers guessing about each of the characters that our hero and heroine meet—some foes turn out to be friends, some friends turn out to be foes, and some are just evil through-and-through but require creative planning to outwit them. (Defeating Koya takes forever, but man, what a rush!) And who can resist those lighthearted interludes about Yoshimori wanting to be a patisserie, or the bickering between the Sumimura and Yukimura grandparents? The confident, sharp-lined artwork holds it all together, with distinctive characters, cleanly executed action scenes, and more than a few visual gags for fun. No gimmicks, no weirdness, just pure spirit-hunting adventure.

Perhaps this series could stand to use a few more gimmicks, because what's out there in the first three volumes is just plain boring. Sure, each adventure is executed well, but there's no sense of epic grandeur, no page-turning suspense, not even the hot-blooded attitude that most shonen series pull off just fine. Instead, we've got episodic ramblings that last half a volume at most (and often much less), with the most dramatic twists being nothing more than "the bad guy wasn't actually a bad guy." The one hint of a more serious subplot—a "shadow organization" that steps in during one of Yoshimori's fights—is left undeveloped, and the drama surrounding Yoshimori's animal companion Madarao and former buddy Koya is wrapped up too neatly and abruptly. It's as if Tanabe is afraid of taking the story down a darker road, and that fear leaves us with nothing but one-off escapades and comedic filler chapters. Even the action scenes seem to hold back on their energy—there's maybe one eye-catching panel every few chapters, but everything else is just the good guys firing up their kekkai as usual, the bad guys fighting back, and the predictable results that follow.

If Kekkaishi is supposed to be a beacon of greatness, I'm not seeing it in these first three volumes. The execution is there, but overall work feels bland and soulless, like a C+.

Vol. 2
(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.
When the Kyuso yokai clan kidnaps Rikuo's classmates Kana and Yura, Rikuo transforms into his yokai form to save them. But the plot is far from over. It turns out Gyuki, a top officer in the Nura clan, secretly masterminded the attack! Unfortunately, Rikuo learns of this deceit just as he's embarking on a camping trip to a mountain renowned for yokai activity! Is Rikuo walking into a trap?!"

At this early stage in the series, half the fun of Nura is still playing "name that yokai" (or at least, recognize it visually) with all the new characters. Even those with just a passing knowledge of Japanese folklore will enjoy seeing familiar creatures emerge as Rikuo's friends and foes. And for those who aren't familiar—well, what better way to get acquainted than in this unique hybrid of action-packed shonen and traditional Japanese brush art? As expected, Hiroshi Shiibashi saves his best work for the big fights, with elaborate monster designs, outbursts of magic, and dense speedlines that jump off the page. Rich contrasts of black and white also add to the artwork's bold quality. But visual showmanship is only one part of the equation, and the story arc in this volume is what really provides the substance for each battle. It starts out with Rikuo and company taking on some ragtag street yokai, moves up to a woodland expedition gone awry, and by the final chapter it's Rikuo in "awakened" form taking on the villain one-on-one. If that buildup doesn't get your blood pumping, the cliffhanger ending surely will...

It doesn't get much more basic than a staircase of increasingly difficult opponents, which is what this volume is all about. Sure, it tries to throw in some twists by having a traitor in the Nura clan's ranks and sending the kids on an ominous mountain excursion, but these elements are superficial at best—the traitor's identity and motive are all but given away, and the mountain trip is more about setting up new battles than experiencing a change of scenery. Because the series is constantly rushing forward with the expectation of "Hey, when's the next fight coming up?!", it pushes aside subplots of genuine substance—like Rikuo's personal conflict about becoming the Nura successor, or the power struggle between Nurarihyon and the rest of his officers. And while the storyline suffers from a lack of complexity, the visuals often have too much of it: many of the fight scenes are impressive at first glance, but lack the clarity needed to show what's actually going on. A karasu-tengu in fancy armor wielding his blade is just a stand-alone illustration if it doesn't logically connect to the other moments of the battle.

Although it has some attractive artistic flourishes, it still feels mostly like a bland fighting manga with a folklore twist. Come on, Nura, can't you do better than a C?

Vol. 5
(by Jun Mochizuki, Yen Press, $11.99)

"Guided by Jack Vessalius, the man from Alice's memories, Oz wanders back into the world of lost remembrances in search of Alice. There he stumbles upon the devastating tragedy of Sablier, the century-old disaster that sent the old capital into the Abyss, an incident of which no one has any recollection ... except Alice—who was there?! When Oz discovers the truth of the memories Alice so desperately wants to forget, the powers of the B-Rabbit spiral out of control and threaten the lives of all who are trapped within the dreamlike dimension, including Alice herself..."

You knew things were going to get serious when the last volume of Pandora Hearts was all about hopping into alternate dimensions and wandering the space-time continuum. So here comes the dramatic payoff, with a number of key plot points including a critical glimpse into Alice's past. The flashbacks that reveal this information are masterfully woven into Oz's surreal journey, so that instead of popping readers out of the story, the events of a hundred years ago are very much part of the story. Even more dramatic is when a historic figure suddenly emerges in the present day—the legendary Jack Vessalius taking over Oz's body and launching into an intense, fist-pumping speech. Amidst all these head-spinning revelations, though, it's almost too easy to forget the true mechanism that drives Pandora Hearts: its quiet sense of uncertainty. When Oz questions his desire to protect (or kill?) Alice, when he has to question whether the people around him are trustworthy, that's the real drama. And the surreal, misleading hallways in the alternate dimension provide the perfect visual metaphor for that uncertainty too.

Oh come on, Pandora Hearts. At this point the series is just flailing around trying to look as dramatic as possible, with flashy supernatural-gothic artwork as a shallow substitute for true storytelling. While this volume does answer some questions, it never does so fully: we don't find out the what or why of Alice's existence a hundred years ago, and there's no recap to explain what Jack Vessalius did that makes him so freaking important. True, the series makes its living by feeding out answers that lead to more questions ... but often it results in confusion rather than curiosity. And if the trip through the alternate dimension was bad—with the skimpy backgrounds and disorienting fight scenes—it gets even worse once everyone returns to the real world. Oz and Alice re-appear in one spot and immediately have to run from the authorities, Gilbert and Xerxes emerge elsewhere and are questioned in vague, hard-to-follow terms, and every other line of dialogue is a reference to some ominous place, person or thing that readers aren't familiar with yet. This isn't a story—it's a blindfolded walk down a dark path with no hope in sight.

Sadly, Pandora Hearts is really starting to lose its grip. Bristling suspense and dashing bishounen aren't enough to make up for maddening, confusing story twists that add up to a head-scratching D+.

Vol. 4
(by James Patterson and Narae Lee, Yen Press, $12.99)

"Despite their initial hesitation, living with Anne has softened the Flock, so Max is keenly aware that it's time to leave. With Thanksgiving so near, though, all of them want to stay, at least until they've had their first ever Thanksgiving turkey! But danger is on the horizon as Jeb's plan advances, and while the Flock's new school seems normal and safe, secrets are hidden beneath its prestigious facade..."

The thrill of the chase is what makes Maximum Ride sizzle, a fact that we are reminded of with each dizzying turn in Max and the Flock's journey. One moment they're living a suburban idyll, the next they're scurrying down the very school hallways they believed to be safe—and it all seems to happen within seconds. That's the power of James Patterson's unpredictable pacing, where story-changing twists crop up at the most unlikely moments. The second half of the book, where Max and company leave for Florida, is particularly effective; their return to nomadic living restores the tingling suspense that got dulled by having a place to stay in D.C. Yet the story has heart as well, with a sweetly written middle that covers the Flock's first Thanksgiving and a surprising family moment for Iggy. Meanwhile, Narae Lee handles the artistic duties of drama, humor, and action with equal confidence; the well-designed characters might be smirking and cracking jokes in one scene, then they'll be screaming and raging two pages later. The panels flow smoothly from one chase to the next, and the soaring flight scenes are—as always—thrilling as the story itself.

While Maximum Ride's wild twists might be fun and unpredictable, the actual story content is far less exciting. Like every other suspense thriller, it's got your usual merry-go-round of evil corporations, duplicitous double agents, mysterious clones, and rich powerful guys preying on the weak. At this point, the only thing they're missing is a religious cult, and that would effectively check off everything on the list of conspiracy-theory clichés. But if the hard-boiled suspense is totally formulaic, the soft emotional center is even worse—not only is the Thanksgiving scene a pointless, hackneyed mess, but Patterson and Lee rush through it because of the sheer awkwardness. That's probably also why the subplot concerning Iggy's family gets skimmed over: it's supposed to be this deep, heartwarming encounter, but instead everyone just stands around with nothing to do. Stick to the action, folks, it's less embarrassing. Unfortunately the entire first half of the book is almost devoid of action, instead detailing the Flock's short-lived school life. The sterile background art makes these scenes even more boring, reminding us that the thrill of the chase is pretty much the only thing Maximum Ride gets right.

If you're this far in, you'll probably want to keep reading, buoyed by sheer momentum. But with all the banal story elements, it's quite a chore to get through.

Our stroll down Tokyopop Memory Lane continues this week with a title that's about to hit the big screen. However, as this week's contributor vashfanatic is about to tell you, the story may not be what you expect ...

(And speaking of Tokyopop Memory Lane, isn't anyone going to stand up for .hack? Since I was the one who was always bashing that franchise from Day One.)

(by Min-Woo Hyung, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

Priest is the story of a post-apocalyptic world where humans live in walled-off cities ruled by a totalitarian church to keep the vampire forces outside at bay. When one of the priests' nieces is kidnapped by vampires he—

Wait, no, that's not Priest. That's the crappy action movie that's coming out soon that has the same name. The "acclaimed" manhwa it's supposedly based on (I'd always thought it was a relatively unknown series) is actually set in the Old West (albeit chock full of anachronisms), and tells the tale of a priest whose life is ruined by the fallen angel Temozarela that he and his fellow men of the cloth unwittingly released. In order to get his revenge, he sells out half his soul to an undead sorcerer, who was formerly an Inquisitor, his own life ruined by Temozarela. And Temozarela has taken up residence in our world in the body of a crusader who had given up on God. Oh, and the whole thing is actually being read by a priest in our near-future.

As you might be able to tell from that summary, Min-Woo Hyung's Priest has stories nestled within stories. Flashbacks take place inside flashbacks, the whole story spanning nearly a millennium—if you choose not to include the flashbacks to the fallen angel's original dispute with God, which would put it back millions of years. It's one of its prime strengths, and obviously would not translate well into a movie. But did they really need to chuck the entire premise?

Priest's other strengths include its engagement with theodicy, and how religious dogmatism ultimately makes your faith rigid and brittle. In Priest, the most ardent believers are the most likely to fall. Its art may be love-it-or-hate-it, but I relish the dark angular style, how it looks like it's carved out of black rather than drawn over white.

It's not without its flaws; it takes a while to get into the meat of the story, and even then its action scenes, however gorgeous, tend to go on for too long, meaning that less has happened in 16 volumes than in half of a typical series that length. It's also been stalled at 16 volumes for four years. Plus, the premise of a man on a revenge-spree against supernatural baddies isn't exactly original, even if it is executed well.

Still, if they were going to adapt it, it deserved a better version than this.

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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