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Because You Kan Kan Kannagi

by Carlo Santos,

Comic-con is just around the corner! Yet for many these days, it seems Comic-con exists only for people to lament how hard it is to get passes to Comic-con. Perhaps one day all this Hollywood madness will subside. Perhaps one day it'll be about comics again—oh, who am I kidding. It's war out there, and everyone heading to San Diego had better be well-armed.

Vol. 1
(by Eri Takenashi, Bandai, $10.99)

"Nagi, a strange young girl in many different ways, appears before Jin, a normal high-school-aged boy. She calls herself a goddess, but is she really? Yes, as a matter of fact she is! And soon, the odd pair starts living under the same roof together. Thus begins the first volume of a bizarre manga tale that winds its way through both the comical and serious ... more or less."

At first glance, Kannagi looks like yet another magical-girlfriend story, but what it actually does is turn everything about the genre upside-down. Nagi is the anti-Belldandy, an impetuous brat who seeks to be served rather than to serve, and whose attempts at sorcery either fail hilariously (she super-glues a toy magic wand to a table) or require assistance on Jin's part (just watch their madcap battle against a demon-possessed Superball). It's not just the magical mishaps, though; this volume also puts an amusing spin on typical teen relationships. Things get really fun when Nagi worms her way into Jin's school and, instead of getting all cutesy and flirty, Jin counteracts this by dodging Nagi's attempts to hug him, getting into a wild slapfight, and generally being all indignant about it. Isn't a contentious relationship like that a lot more fun than the usual romantic dalliances? The clean-lined art, with straightforward layouts and easily identifiable characters, make this series easy to follow from the get-go. With the visual humor coming at the speed that it does—from comical faces to slapstick attacks—it's all about keeping the art simple and snappy, which this series does.

It's true that Kannagi comes across as fast, fun, and energetic. But it lacks much of anything else behind the lively exterior, with a male lead as spineless and dull as any romantic-comedy protagonist of the last twenty years, and a heroine who lacks any other traits besides being selfish and yelling a lot. Yes, it's funny to watch Jin bickering with Nagi, but it's not like he ever really stands up to her, you know? And Nagi's one moment of depth, when she invokes her powers to save an abandoned kitten, seems like a calculated ploy to win reader sympathy than a true outgrowth of her character. (After all, she goes straight back to yelling and being selfish after that.) In the last chapter, the plot shows signs of development when Nagi's rival Zange arrives, but the multiple ways in which she is introduced—through an encounter with Nagi, through a passing mention from Jin's classmates, and then by meeting Jin in person—make it an odd jumble. The artwork, meanwhile, shows signs of being too clean as some scenes feel very plain and dry from a lack of backgrounds.

Although painfully shallow in some respects, there's plenty of fun to be had from Jin and Nagi's hot-headed confrontations. Throw in an amusing supporting cast and it's good enough for a B.

Vol. 5
(by Yoshinori Natsume, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Mikito Sakurai is tired of being a punching bag for all the delinquents on campus. But what can he do? By nature he's a gentle and easygoing high school student. That all changes the night he swallows a mysterious orb and meets Zakuro, a strange kid who promises to grant his most heartfelt desire. 'When you wake up,' says the pint-sized apparition, 'you'll be stronger and better than a human.'
Continuing his trials, Mikito stumbles upon a revelation. He's always known the ogre Hunters use weapons that grant superior physical skills. But he didn't know about the catch—eventually, their weapons turn the pursuers into prey. After too long, the Hunters become ogres themselves!"

After a few bumpy stretches of too much action, or too many new characters showing up, Kurozakuro seems to have finally hit the right balance. Volume 5 opens and closes with some slick fight scenes, but the really cool part is in the middle, where a couple of key secrets are revealed. If you've ever wondered about things like "What's up with the Ogre Hunters' weapons?", and "Where did Zakuro come from exactly?", the answers are all in here. But even more impressive is that despite these answers, the story still remains open as to who the real villains and heroes are. That moral grayness is what makes the story so compelling: that a character whose intentions are good may actually be evil when seen from another angle, and vice versa. The pacing is also as intense as ever, with everyone seemingly on the run from someone else, while also racing against time. A wide-ranging cast of characters (including a new, menacing "ogre eater") allows plenty of room for artistic creativity, with a variety of outfits, weapons, and fighting techniques. The high-contrast black-and-white style also gives the art a strong, moody edge to it.

Although this volume finally drops a couple of plot-specific bombshells, the series as a whole still feels like a run-of-the-mill adventure just chugging along. The first few chapters, with their shallow fight scenes, are emblematic of this problem: Show a couple of guys raging at each other! Then change scenery and show more guys raging at each other! Repeat as needed. There's the initial excitement of seeing who wins and who gets hurt, but after that ... what next? What are they fighting for? Kurozakuro seems to be turning into nothing more than random character encounters where they say, "Your ideals and my ideals disagree! Let's battle!" (Just imagine how ridiculous this gets in one of the later chapters, where five characters from three different factions all meet at once to fight over Mikito.) And if these fights are just lazy Person-A-versus-Person-B duels, imagine how bored Yoshinori Natsume must be trying to draw them: a lot of the time he just can't be bothered to sketch out decent backgrounds, or skimps with minor details. The character poses, too, often have a degree of stiffness too them that make critical moments less than convincing.

This one's got major developments and a sense of urgency, but unless the fights and the story progression become more meaningful, it's doomed to remain a C+ series.

(by Natsume Ono, Viz Media, $12.99)

"An apartment in Italy. In four of the rooms live four single men with singular personalities. Into this peculiar ménage steps an exchange student, the new tenant of the fifth room. Brought together by chance, friends by choice, they pursue their dreams together as they days drift gently by."

La Quinta Camera may be one of the truest slices of life you'll ever find. It doesn't try to create earth-shattering drama; it doesn't try to paint a rosy tint over everything; it's a story that just is. Somehow, that simplicity leads to some pretty deep insights. The biggest lesson this volume teaches is about the fleeting nature of friendship, how comrades brought together by chance can be just as easily split apart by the vagaries of "real life." There are also some thoughts on how the littlest coincidences can turn one's life around, how one should cherish even the briefest encounter (because you never know when you may meet again), and how to let go of one's feelings over past regrets. In other words, it's like a handy-dandy manual for life—without all the heavy-handed preaching that usually comes with such subject matter. Ono's distinctive art, all rough and sketchy but still confident, infuses every page with a casual, easygoing quality. That's exactly what the book is going for, filling up the experience with light, pleasant memories.

While the brief vignettes in La Quinta Camera may indeed lead to some thoughtful musings about living one's life, the fact remains that they're only vignettes. Without an overarching storyline to guide the action, and the characters just drifting through their Bohemian lives, there really is no story to this "story." And since it's Ono's debut work, the first several pages are exceptionally poor, showcasing the rookie mistakes of trying to cram too many panels in one page, not applying enough contrasts of dark and light, and failing to show a sense of purpose. ("Meeting lots of cool Italian people" may sound fun, but it's not a story, for goodness sakes.) It only gets more confusing after each chapter jumps right ahead without showing any continuity from the previous one. Only near the end does the story start to gel—previous characters re-emerge and interact, and there's actual conflict and resolution—but by then it's too late. The main cast is treated too loosely for anyone to really care about the characters, and even the beauty of the Italian cityscape is lost to sloppy, simplified art, robbing the entire work of any redeeming traits.

Well, unless you're a big fan of pointless hipster rambling where nothing really happens, this is a big fat stinkin' D (saved only by an actual plot showing up near the end).

Vol. 1
(by Hiro Mashima, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Shiki's mission is to wander to the ends of the Earth to hunt down a terrifying monster of legends! His companion is Ailee, a skilled huntress who would rather have nothing to do with the airheaded Shiki. Now the excitement of the Monster Hunter games meets the creative genius of Fairy Tail's Hiro Mashima in a fun, thrill-filled fantasy adventure!"

Everything about Monster Hunter Orage is tailored toward Hiro Mashima's strengths: lively young heroes and heroines, breathtaking fantasy landscapes, and out-of-this-world fights. As a result, we get the perfect marriage of manga and manga-ka—an artist who's all but destined to work on this source material. Dizzying combat scenes are the highlight of this volume, with Mashima showing off his talent for dramatic angles and special effects as Shiki wields a pair of wind-generating blades. Cool weapons and cool powers, who could ask for more? Shiki's companions in battle are no slouch either, equipped with a "bow-gun" and longswords that look impressive in any situation. Awe-inspiring monsters and richly detailed backgrounds add to the eye candy factor; there may be plenty of fantasy adventures out there, but few as visually polished as this. However, an adventure is nothing without a good story behind it, and each character's back-story proves that Mashima has thought this through. There's a clever inter-generational link between Shiki and Ailee, and the quest that brings a third member to their party reveals a heartwarming father-daughter bond. For a straightforward monster-hunting adventure, this one does have some pleasant surprises to it.

Who knew that there were still series out there that took the "monster of the week" concept literally? Okay, so Monster Hunter Orage actually runs monthly, but the cliché still applies. The first chapter alone is so formulaic that it takes all one's strength not to fall asleep from the eye-rolling predictability: Shiki screams that he wants to go on a quest, then he screams his way into joining Ailee on her quest, then he screams about comrades and strength and believing in yourself until a ridiculously powerful monster falls to his blade. Yes, there is a lot of screaming going on, with seemingly every line out of Shiki's mouth accompanied by four exclamation points. When our hero finally slows down and shuts up long enough to take a breath, it only leads to more predictable story developments: Shiki and Ailee want to upgrade their weapons, so they head over to a weaponsmith, but it turns out she's looking for her father, so they have to help her on that quest. Grind, grind, grind, just like a video game. Then again, video game logic is probably what we should have all expected.

Although it's fun to see a polished manga-fication of the Monster Hunter games, the actual story is so boilerplate that this volume is lucky to get a C.

Vol. 6
(by Fumi Yoshinaga, Viz Media, $12.99)

"The aging shogun Tsunayoshi must name an heir, but her senile father is blocking the ascendance of the most likely candidate in favor of a young, untried lord. But politics and the shogun's own unpopularity may soon take the choice out of her hands."

Volume 6 of Ōoku picks the ideal timeframe for drama: a tumultuous transition between rulers in matriarchal, alternate-history Japan. The novelty of the concept has already worn off—women run the country, while men are just tools for pleasure—but Fumi Yoshinaga still packs the story with intrigue. Naturally, the best subplots are all the lusty, forbidden relationships happening behind closed doors, even bringing incest into the mix at one point. Just as powerful as love is the emotion of hatred, with rivalries and political gamesmanship making the question of "Who will be the next shogun?" far more suspenseful than they ever were in history books. And like a Japanese Game of Thrones, key characters often end up dropping dead when one least expects it—yet this also adds to the historical verisimilitude, reminding us that fatal illnesses and infant deaths were very much a fact of life in the feudal age. Yoshinaga's art is flawless once again, with elaborate costumes and architectural flourishes capturing the distinctive look of old-time Japan, and the characters' strong facial expressions breathe emotion into what was often a very straitlaced society. For a history that never happened, it all feels so real.

Well, anyone who's gotten this far reading Ōoku in English has probably decided to just tolerate the over-the-top Shakespearean translation. But forsooth, good sir or madam, that shalt not maketh me cease from complaining about it. An overdose of formal language continues to be the series' biggest barrier to entry—even more so than plotlines that sometimes ramble along in a dry, pointless manner. For all the saucy love affairs and political jousting, there are also times when Yoshinaga tells a story just for the sake of telling it—it's part of the series' "history," so let's put it out there despite it having little bearing on the main storyline. Case in point: the ladies of the Kii region who apparently have nothing better to do but die of food poisoning. Sudden changes of scenario (usually triggered by someone's death) also result in poor transitions or endings, where a narrative box suddenly pops up saying, "And then so-and-so was never heard from again." The art sometimes falls short as well, either in dialogue scenes (too many talking heads) or simply a lack of facial variation making it hard to tell characters apart.

Goodness gracious, that dialogue. And storylines that trail off with no direction. Without those faults, the passion and drama of this volume would have gotten more than a B-.

IS: OTOKO DEMO ONNA DEMO NAI SEI (IS: Neither Male Nor Female)
Vol. 1
(by Chiyo Rokuhana, Kodansha, ¥440)

"One in every two thousand babies is born intersexual, or IS. This means they have both male and female physical traits, including their sexual organs, and their brains also identify with both genders while not specifically being one or the other. IS tells the story of individuals struggling to understand their condition: Hiromi was raised as a girl and must confront the truth after getting involved in a relationship with a young man, while Ryoma is physically more like a male but psychologically identifies as closer to female."

While everyone else is jumping aboard the Wandering Son hype train, here's something even more progressive to add to your licensing wishlist. IS opens the eyes of manga readers to a world where gender confusion is not only psychological, but physical too. Volume 1 explains things with calm, scientific precision, yet also carries plenty of emotional weight in these fictional accounts. Thoughtful monologues bring out the dark moments of intersexuality—the embarrassment, confusion, and self-doubt—while also being balanced by uplifting scenes where the protagonists learn to accept who they are, and where the depth of familial love shines through. Various interactions with the rest of society also illuminate how things that gendered people take for granted (school life, working life, sports and leisure) can pose unusual problems for intersexuals. The artwork uses a lot of visual language from shoujo and josei to get the emotional message across: floating tone patterns, intense close-ups, and impressionistic collages that reflect the turmoil in each character's mind. But perhaps the most important visual aspect is the flowing sense of layout, where panels move effortlessly from scene to scene as we get caught up in these poignant stories.

Oh, if only gender issues were as cut-and-dried as IS makes them out to be. The two stories in this volume both end in the same cheeseball manner, with the main characters having a personal epiphany ("I'm going to live as I am!") and then giving a talk at an IS-related seminar. Looking at it like that, it seems more like a contrived hybrid of wish fulfillment and public service announcement, rather than a true reflection of the IS world—where a lot of the stories probably don't have happy endings. The series is also a letdown in the way it mishandles more conventional story elements. Hiromi, for example, basically goes through a relationship with a breakup and a reconciliation, but those romantic plot points seem to be just shoved in there arbitrarily, lacking the depth of Hiromi's personal struggle as an IS. That kind of superficial treatment also seeps its way into the character designs and overall style, which uses the big, stylish eyes and delicate lines typical for adult women's manga but lacks a strong personality. The subject matter may be unique, but the art looks a lot like everyone else's.

In some ways the story execution is quite ordinary, but the controversial subject matter—and the strong emotions it brings out—sets this apart as something truly unique.

Guess who's back—back again! It's the ever-prolific Eric P. with his look at a series that should be familiar to all, but is totally different. If this reminds you of any ununusual manga spinoffs you've read in the past, why not send in your own reviews as well?

Vols. 1-4
(by Ming Ming, concept by Gainax/khara, Dark Horse, $10.99 ea.)

Ordinary student Shinji attends a catholic school called Nerv Academy, where Misato is his teacher, his parents are gone from his life, and he lives with his legal guardian, Kaji. Everything changes when he catches fellow student Rei and mysterious new transfer student Kaworu engaged in battle with their Evas against an enemy called Angels. Only in this world, 'Evas' are special powers that manifest into physical weaponry through the user's will—Kaworu's is a sword and Rei's is the Lance of Longinus—and the 'Angels' are beings who take shape by claiming human bodies as vessels. The world itself is supported and structured by the World Tree, Yddgrasil, which if destroyed would send the human race back into the formless void. It is the mission of the Angel Hunters to prevent that, and Nerv Academy and its staff (unsurprisingly) are a front for it. For being at the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, and for the discovery of his own inherent powers, Shinji gets recruited, with his Eva being a gun (many fans should find him sharp-looking wielding it), along with another ordinary albeit unsociable student member, Asuka, whose Eva is a whip.

Campus Apocalypse starts out as your standard shonen action story, but it turns out to have its own soul, and by the final volume it goes into an almost unexpected direction. At the start it's revealed that Yddgrasil is the foundation of all existing realities and dimensions, delving into the philosophy in how all different choices shape possible realities and can branch any which way. It's as if the original Evangelion story is acknowledged being somewhere on the next one or two branches. All this is what leads to a rather intriguing plot twist and an initially unforeseen non-Angel enemy.

The characters are essentially the same people we know and love, to the point where some revelations about them really shouldn't be surprising, but are still naturally given refreshing takes. The story itself is surprisingly character-focused, with some genuine depth. Through the story's whole span we learn of everyone's backgrounds, helping us understand and believe why they choose to do what they do. Shinji is given a chance to exhibit more courage, and we are there with him as he's driven by his passion for his friends. And only here is the Asuka we recognize able to admit friendship with her teammates.

In a past review, I summed up Dark Horse's other Evangelion spin-off release, The Shinji Ikari Raising Project, as a bunch of trudging BS that goes nowhere. Most fortunately, the total opposite can be said about Campus Apocalypse. The one nitpick that might be had is that the ending really is rather blunt—you have the climax and then the wrap-up in a span of just a few pages. Regardless, the story and its characters still say everything they needed to beforehand, and this is the alternative-world spinoff that's worth reading for Eva fans. While short, it's definitely sweet.

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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