Lights and Psyren

by Carlo Santos,

Last week, as tech-savvy types (and the not-so-tech-savvy) reflected upon the passing of Steve Jobs, I found myself in a strange position. You see, I own a Sony Vaio laptop, an Acer netbook, a Sansa MP3 player, a Samsung tablet and cell phone ...

I have never owned an Apple product. But even so, my tech tools and toys are everyone else's attempts to keep up with them. So thank you, Steve, for leading the way.

Vol. 1
(by Yoshinobu Yamada, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Danger and action abound after Akira Sengoku and his classmates crash-land on a deserted island while flying home from a class trip. The island doesn't exist on any maps, but that's not even the strangest part: the animals they find on the island are prehistoric beasts that are supposed to have been extinct for thousands of years! Now Akira and his friends are in danger as the island's residents start eyeing the humans for their next meal. Will they ever solve the mystery of the island and find their way home?"

Ah, nothing like taking a tropical island vacation ... and having to fight ferocious beasts for survival. Cage of Eden is at its best when showing off the bizarre world that Akira has landed in, with its untouched plains and forests contrasting against the horrific prehistoric creations that inhabit it. It's pretty exhilarating seeing our hero try to escape a massive diatryma (think 2-meter tall dodo), and even more of a thrill when a saber-toothed tiger enters the fray. Yoshinobu Yamada shows he's done his research with the detailed, anatomically correct creature designs, and adds plenty of flair with the heavily speedlined action scenes. And then there are all the story details that add up to a gruesome but intriguing mystery: how Akira is only able to find one classmate and a cabin attendant at first, how all the other passengers on the plane are inexplicably missing ... and the big one, how they ever plan to get off the island. More than just a fight for survival, it's about piecing together the evidence and figuring out how the characters got into this situation. And that's a pretty strong hook.

Honestly, this first volume could have used a lot more "fight for survival" material. Instead, it's so intent on filling in the details about Akira's classmates through exposition and back-story that all the cool action scenes account for maybe 15% of the book. The first twenty or so pages, which try to introduce all the kids aboard the plane, end up being filled with the silliest kind of high-school clichés before the crash even happens. The story picks up once Akira is out there fighting for his survival, but another bad plot decision awaits about halfway through: various details about what happened to the other students are explained through extensive videocamera footage. The result is a contrived flashback situation, where instead of simply viewing scenes that happened previously, we're viewing the main characters looking at a video screen showing scenes that happened previously. Yamada's shortcomings as an artist are also evident in the character designs, which boil down to a potpourri of the most common high-school types: the boy hero, the beauty, the geek, the punk, the pervert. Maybe some more time researching human characters, instead of prehistoric beasts, would have helped.

It would be nice to see this series focus more on the monster-battling survival aspect, but this first volume stumbles in a number of ways that make it a C right now.

Vol. 5
(by Mitsuru Adachi, Viz Media, $14.99)

"In the summer of his second year in high school, Ko and the Seishu baseball team must take on mighty Ryuou Gakuin and their genius slugger Keitaro Mishima. With everything on the line, will destiny find Seishu moving on to the next round? Later, new neighbors are setting up shop next to Kitamura Sports, and their daughter bears a striking resemblance to Wakaba..."

Just days ago we were treated to an incredible pitching duel between real-life baseball teams Philadelphia and St. Louis. How appropriate, then, that the first half of Cross Game Vol. 5 shows how it's done manga style. Adachi delivers another two hundred or so pages of flawless freeze-frame action, using economical lines and curves to portray the speed of a pitch and the impact of a ball coming off the bat. Even more importantly, he also portrays the drama between players: the wry looks that they give each other when a play goes their way, the steely determination in their eyes when a crucial matchup looms ... Seriously, if you think low-scoring games are boring—if you think baseball in general is boring—you just haven't experienced its true intensity as brought to life by this series. Then there's the slice-of-life side in the second half, where Adachi shows his knack for attractive, instantly likable characters when a literal girl-next-door shows up in Ko's life. But he never overdoes it with romantic subtext, and seeing the characters live their everyday lives while emotions ebb and flow around them is part of Cross Game's quiet charm.

If we could give awards for hokey plot points, "new girl shows up who looks exactly like long-dead sweetheart" would have plenty of medals pinned to it. The fact that a storyteller as renonwed as Adachi had to throw this development into the series is even more disappointing; the new character's arrival (and resulting storm of gossip) feels more like something out of a delusional high-schooler fanservice manga. And because it happens over summer, after Ko and friends have played in the tournament, that entire story arc lacks a strong sense of direction. No baseball to play? No school to attend? Let's go hang out with the pretty girl who creepily resembles my former childhood crush! But that's not the end of this volume's troubles; the baseball game itself falls victim to the repetitive nature of pitching duels. Suspenseful as a 1-0 or 1-1 score may be, it also means lots of players unimaginatively grounding out to second base, and after a while the action scenes start to look the same. Adachi may draw it (almost) better than anyone else, but even he must realize how repetitive the game can be at times.

Hey, a good ballgame is still a good ballgame! And the pacing moves fast enough that even things like dumb romantic clichés don't stick for too long. Call this one an enjoyable B.

Vol. 2
(by Eri Takenashi, Bandai, $10.99)

"The Goddess Nagi manifested on Earth from a statue carved from the wood of a sacred tree. Now Nagi's younger sister, Zange, arrives on the scene possessing the body of a young girl. On top of that, Jin can't seem to stop Nagi from doing things like starting an official fan club or causing a commotion in a local maid café...
This is the second volume of this whimsical, fantastical comic where nothing quite happens the way you think it will!"

Kannagi is still proudly subverting everything, with Volume 2 taking more sly, self-aware jabs at the entire moe/bishoujo/idol-worship culture. The sudden growth of the Nagi fan club, and the way she "gains a new power" by winning over new friends, pokes fun at society's celebrity obsession where pageviews and Likes count for more than personal accomplishments. Even better is when other characters get in on the fun and the comedic situations start to pile up: the schoolteachers catch on to Nagi's shenanigans and she has to sweet-talk them into letting her stick around; Jin and the art club's excursion to a maid café goes haywire when they realize who the waitresses are; and strong, silent buddy Daitetsu loses his grasp on logic when he tries to comprehend Jin's living arrangements with Nagi. There's also plenty of physical comedy to go with this lively sitcom fare, from outrageous drop-kicks to lightning strikes and magical-girl sorcery (which is perhaps less than magical). Takenashi's clean, crisp artwork is well-suited to the fast comedic pace, allowing the action (and cute characters) to move effortlessly from one scene to the next.

New characters may be joining the fray, but what of the main cast? Amusing as she is, Nagi's act as a flawed goddess who talks funny and is completely full of herself is starting to look pretty one-dimensional. Even if the series is meant to be a loving mockery of the magical-girlfriend subgenre, that's no excuse for it to keep leaning on the "Nagi yells at Jin" gag as a comedic crutch. And the occasional cracks about Nagi's flat chest are just as bad. In fact, if Kannagi really wanted to go against the grain of cheesy wish-fulfilment shounen romances, it would have true character development and believable relationships ... which clearly isn't happening here. The shallow scenarios throughout most of this volume also prove that the jokes aren't as clever as fans might imagine; Eri Takenashi only knows how to deliver unpredictable punchlines but still relies on predictable situations (café/restaurant, teacher's office, shopping trip, and so on) to pull it off. The bland background art and lack of detail also make it look like Takenashi's approach to the art is getting just as lazy as the humor.

Even though the series often falls victim to the trappings of its own genre, there's still this wonderful sense of fun and irreverence that make it worthy of a B.

Vol. 4
(by Seimu Yoshizaki, Viz Media, $12.99)

"A disaffected boy searces for something to put a spark in his tedious life ... and finds a manga that puts the fear of the devil in him.
A guy and a girl can't find anything they have in common—until they discover a multual love of a certain gender-bending martial arts manga.
After a schlubby nerd loses his cool at the handsome manga freaks at Kingyo, a classic horror manga teaches him that beauty is only skin deep.
Natsuki's search for her missing mother takes her to a manga museum that has special meaning for her parents.
Someone is setting fire to used bookstores, and Kingyo may be next—unless two mismatched manga fans can stop the arsonist!"

I've learned to stopped worrying about the fact that Kingyo always brings up obscure, unlicensed manga that might as well be made of unicorn hair. The real magic of this series is how it shows the power of manga as a life-changing touchstone, no matter what the title or who the reader is. Volume 4 brings the message across with an excellent variety of stories, featuring characters from the very old (rediscovering their childhoods) to the very young (elementary-school brats learning the classics for the very first time). The serial-arsonist story even brings an element of crime-procedural suspense to the series, proving that Seimu Yoshizaki does have other story ideas besides just geeks hanging out and chatting. Still, readers who stop and pay attention to those geeky conversations will get the most out of this series, picking up industry trivia and learning manga history the way the Japanese see it. Yoshizaki's character designs are also just as varied as the stories, with manga enthusiasts of different genders, ages, and lifestyles all represented here. Attention to detail and clean layouts also make each page a visual delight—even if people are just standing around talking.

Even though this is one of the better Kingyo volumes as far as story variety and holding the reader's interest, it's still painfully formulaic in the way it invokes the name of a particular manga, gives the plot summary, and then shows how it solves everyone's problems. Trying to impress a pretty girl? Find a manga you have in common! Trying to appeal to an elderly audience? Find manga from their childhoods! After a while it just becomes too unrealistic that every single life issue can magically be fixed by manga. In fact, the only departure from the norm is a chapter where store clerk Natsuki and her mom end up in a museum and learn of a famous editor rather than a specific title. Also, Yoshizaki gets so caught up in the educational aspect of the series that the storytelling suffers: characters keep blabbering on and on with no plot advancement, or flashbacks and scene transitions suddenly occur with little indication that they actually happened. And as for an overarching narrative, or character development among the shop's staff, you can forget about that—like always.

In its attempt to be both entertaining and educational, there are some obvious moments of struggle, but the stories are still interesting enough to earn a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Toshiaki Iwashiro, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Ageha Yoshina just got transported to a warped alternate dimension where you've got to fight your way back to our world—or die trying.
'Save me!' Those were Sakurako Amamiya's last words to her friend Ageha Yoshina before she mysteriously went missing. Now Ageha's on a quest to find her. He's convinced that the mythical Psyren Secret Society has something to do with the recent rash of disappearances. And now he seems to be caught up as a player in their very deadly game..."

They say that first volumes and origin stories have a way of being too predictable. But not in Psyren, which keeps readers on their toes by mixing and matching genre tropes until nobody can guess what kind of story they're getting themselves into. Urban legends, secret societies, unexplained disappearances—and that's just the first chapter, after which Ageha's adventure morphs into this alternate-dimension, monster-battling, possibly post-apocalyptic nightmare. Oh, and instead of scrubby cannon-fodder opponents to start things off easy, our hero is in mortal danger from the moment his quest begins! How's that for exciting? In short, Psyren's white-knuckled sense of peril keeps the momentum buzzing from chapter to chapter, and its habit of withholding information—but explaining just enough to help Ageha survive—adds a touch of mystery as well. Like any good Shonen Jump series, the action scenes also create a spark of energy at all the right moments: either Ageha is running at breakneck speed from serious threats, or he's using every weapon available to lash out at bizarre, unsettling monsters. The sharp lines and details, especially in the alternate dimension, also add some visual polish to this adventure.

Even if you mix and match genre tropes in an attempt to be unpredictable, using the most familiar ones makes things predictable anyway. Despite the surprises up its sleeve, Psyren still falls very much along the lines of "ordinary schoolboy discovers mysterious world/powers and must now battle deadly villains." All it does is add darker elements like secret societies and a kill-or-be-killed game scenario—a thin attempt to mask the obvious clichés. Even the character designs point to how generic the series really is, with its school-aged, spiky-haired boy hero and his lovely but aloof female companion taking the lead roles. Ironically, the secondary characters that come along on Ageha's first mission are more varied in design, but their personalities are so bland that these guys are obviously designed to either die in battle or provide temporary assistance before leaving. The plot itself also moves in a very linear fashion, as the main characters trek through a rocky, featureless world (looks like doesn't care too much about backgrounds) until they get from Point A to Point B, with some battles in between. Imaginative ideas, but unimaginative execution.

If action and adventure are your thing, it may be worth sticking with for a few more volumes, but judged against the best of the best it's more like a C.

Vol. 1
(by Eito Chida, original concept by P.A. Works, Square Enix, ¥571)

"When her mother runs off with her latest boyfriend, Ohana Matsumae is sent to live with her grandmother, whom she has never met nor spoken to. Her grandmother is not pleased to find Ohana on her doorstep, and sets her to work at her Taisho-era (1920s) hot springs inn. It's not a lifestyle that Ohana would have chosen, but she decides not to be discouraged and to make the most of her difficult circumstances."

Not surprisingly, one of the best-loved anime series of the year is also a manga—and it offers a surprisingly different take. Although faithful to the original, this adaptation is written from Ohana's point of view, offering a bubblier, more personal perspective compared to the anime's stately approach. Existing HanaIro fans and newcomers alike will enjoy the energetic pacing of the manga, which plays up the fish-out-of-water angle as Ohana's misplaced eagerness leads to comedic mishaps. However, these are also balanced out by more serious interactions where Ohana learns to conduct herself better in polite society. One particularly touching scenario sees Ohana having an encounter with a struggling author and adopting one of his quotes as a personal motif. The series also presents a visually stunning world, as seen through the inn's historic architecture and its natural surroundings. Artist Eito Chida capitalizes on the unique setting by sketching out a number of full-page spreads, and the last chapter—where the characters find themselves at the seashore—leaves a strong, picturesque impression as the first volume comes to a close. If you already miss the series now that it's over, here's a great way to relive it.

You know what else is a great way to relive Hanasaku Iroha? Just watch the anime again. Sadly, this adaptation is shallower than the original, and worse yet, makes some changes that start it off on the wrong foot. Chapter 1 keeps getting interrupted by flashbacks as Ohana tries to explain the circumstances that landed her at the inn in the first place—interruptions that could have been avoided if those events were simply placed at the beginning of the story. You know, like in the anime. Even after that hiccup, the series continues to be marred by Ohana's constant first-person narration, chirping along like a deranged stream-of-consciousness songbird. Not that there's anything wrong with a bubbly, can-do protagonist, but her personality is so overpowering that the other characters shrink away in comparison. (Not surprisingly, the only other solidly written character in the manga is Ohana's stern grandmother.) Ultimately, the over-reliance on comedy gags, the simple linework, and cutesy character designs add to the impression that this is merely HanaIro Lite—and that fans who want a truly rich, satisfying version will have to get it in another medium.

That's always the problem when something comes out as an adaptation, isn't it? Nonetheless, this is a charming slice-of-life series in a unique setting, and is perfectly enjoyable as long as you don't set expectations too high.

In a column that's all about manga, we love to do the Inception thing and talk about manga-related manga! That's why contributor Avery Lewis is back to look at one of the hottest titles in that field right now.

Is there another "manga about manga" you want to put in the spotlight? Then send in a review to the Reader's Choice section!

Vol. 7
(by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Viz Media, $9.99)

Since its first chapter, Bakuman has gone against all standards that characterize shonen manga, a direct contradiction to what the story actually reveals about the world of creating manga. Volume seven is no different in this respect. One of the slowest volumes in the series, it proves yet again that shouted words can be more exciting than gory violence.

Many important characters get sidestepped like landmines in lieu of the rest of the cast, which is not atypical for this series. Fukuda got maybe two pages total, if even that, while Miho was not even seen, unless one counts her text messages. This volume truly focuses on Mashiro, Akito, Miura, Ko, and, to a lesser extent, Nakai. These characters all have deep moments in this volume that truly allow their characters to shine. The Ashirogi pair argue heatedly against their editor, Miura, while Ko struggles with some advice given to her by her new editor as well as her own emotions. To add to the already overwhelming cast of characters, old faces reemerge and intersect with the current characters. As a final note on the cast in this volume, the characters appear to be better structured in this volume as opposed to the previous one.

It is still surprising that everybody seems to know everybody in this manga. It is like the cast is trapped within a cage that forbids them from interacting with anyone not relevant to the plot. Speaking of being unrealistic, Mashiro and Akito finally seem normal in this volume, at least for a chapter or so, anyway. They (sort of) enjoy free time, go to college, and gaze at girls, just like two healthy teenagers should be doing.

Volume seven suffers from the same problem as the past six volumes: walls of text. The daunting amount of speech bubbles found on every page looks intimidating and might frighten readers away. Though, once one gets past this external appearance, one finds that the enormous amount of dialogue, in some ways, helps the manga excel. More content is covered in Bakuman thanks to its large amount of text, allowing readers to get more substance for their eight dollars than other shonen titles.
Obata and Ohba have twice now proven to the world that all a story needs to be interesting is a solid plot. Excitement does not strictly pertain to action scenes; it can simply be three people sitting in a diner arguing over creative differences. Volume seven, with its superb artwork and even greater storyline, manages to instill a sense of excitement in a reader when exactly that is happening. All in all, this volume won't make anyone sweat with anticipation, but it certainly will grip at one's attention and hold it tight, just as any great story should.

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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