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Scrambled X

by Carlo Santos,

Boy, did I enjoy that extra hour of sleep that came with the end of U.S. Daylight Saving Time ... Wait, did I say extra hour of sleep? I meant extra hour of goofing off on the internet! Even better!

Vol. 2
(by Tow Ubukata and Yoshitoki Oima, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Oeufcoque's former partner, Boiled, comes after Rune and Oeufcoque. A human manifestation of death and violence, nothing seems to be able to stop the relentless Boiled. Rune's only chance for survival is to commit with conviction to a partnership with Oeufcoque. Together, will they be able to overcome the cold fury of Boiled? And what is the story behind his failed partnership with Oeufcoque?"

If there's one thing you can be guaranteed of in Mardock Scramble, it's that the action scenes always go all out. In Volume 2's first chapter alone, there's a gravity-defying assassin who runs down buildings, a breakneck car chase, and a cliffhanger confrontation at gunpoint. The closing pages of this volume are just as tantalizing to the eye—Balot's moves are slick and elegant, even as she disposes of her opponent in a visibly painful way. In addition, the bizarre character designs that make up the Bandersnatch crime syndicate show that Ubukata and Oima have plenty of creative (and disturbing) ideas hidden up their sleeves. The storyline also has more to offer this time around, with flashbacks that dig into Balot's troubled past. With the level of emotional trauma that she goes through, these plot points definitely won't be forgotten anytime soon. Speaking of emotional trauma, the chapter that introduces Bandersnatch also makes a point of showing just how villainous these villains are. Simply put, the bad guys are sick to the core, and by making such a strong first impression, they give our heroine all the more reason to fight them.

It's true that Balot's back-story and the arrival of her newest nemeses leave behind a strong impression—but this series also wades into some very questionable muck along the way. Certain plot points in this volume are downright tasteless, as if Ubukata wanted to write in some shock fiction just for the sake of being shocking. Really, how much do you need to emphasize the point that Balot was sexually abused in her youth? Then again, looking into one's disturbing past probably makes for better storytelling than a confusing present: the chapter that introduces the new villains and their murderous ways is a mess of disjointed dialogue and hard-to-follow scene transitions. The way this volume switches between flashbacks and the main storyline is also clumsy; sometimes characters just stop in the middle of what they're doing because it's time to reminisce on their past. These flashbacks, along with other dialogue scenes, reveal Oima's artistic weaknesses: backgrounds suddenly disappear and white space reigns supreme, all because we're not looking at intense super-detailed action scenes anymore. A truly great artist would stay focused on making sure everything looks good.

Although the story starts to fill out and the action scenes remains impressive, it's not as strikingly good as the first volume. But it does enough things right to earn a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Usamaru Furuya, based on the novel by Osamu Dazai, Vertical, $10.95)

"In honor of the 100th birthday of Osamu Dazai, Usamaru Furuya retells Dazai's most important work, No Longer Human, in modern-day Tokyo, where modern vices can bring ruin to the self-loathing.
Yozo Oba is a young man originally from a well-off family from Japan's far north and a troubled soul incapable of revealing his true self to others. A weak constitution and the lingering trauma from some abuse administered by a relative has forced him to uphold a facade of hollow jocularity since high school."

Think of the English-speaking world's often campy attempts at modernized Shakespeare, and then you'll appreciate what Usamaru Furuya accomplishes with No Longer Human. Not only does he manga-fy a serious, deeply personal work of literature, but he updates it for the 21st century without forcing any silly gimmicks upon the story. Furuya hits all the right philosophical notes, highlighting the issues of Osamu Dazai's day that are still relevant now: the battle between one's inner and outer self, the pressures of conforming to society, the struggle for economic survival, and the desperate need for a human connection. That's a big burden for any protagonist, and the drama comes from seeing Oba bear the load—the matter-of-fact storytelling presents each life event clearly, while concise but powerful internal monologue brings out the heart of Dazai's writing. Furuya also lets loose his artistic talents when dramatizing the turmoil in Oba's head: abstract textures, surreal visions, and some adult-rated sex scenes all reflect the chaos in the protagonist's downward-spiraling life. But no image is as chilling as witnessing Oba's suicide attempt in first-person—a disturbing event in Volume 1 that is sure to leave a lasting impression.

After witnessing the insanity of Lychee Light Club and the creative outpourings of Genkaku Picasso, this work feels disappointingly watered-down by comparison. Maybe it's because Furuya is being constrained by Dazai's original text, but whatever the reason, the events of No Longer Human lack a strong dramatic verve. The scenes are just there for the sake of being there, designed only to take Oba from Point A (living in a tiny apartment, let's say) to Point B (being homeless). Granted, everything about the story is a downer, but that doesn't mean it should be boring. Ultimately, the main character takes everything so apathetically that it's hard to feel any pangs of sympathy, or hatred, or irritation at what he's doing. Even when he does get emotionally worked up and starts bashing on himself, Oba sounds like an angry teenage stereotype than a fully fleshed-out character. Furuya's artwork often feels hollow as well: he may be brilliantly surreal from time to time, but the rest of the story is blandly illustrated, with forgettable character designs and predictable, linear layouts. He simply wipes the emotion out of a literary masterpiece.

Although the ideas in this story hit some strong emotional chords, the plodding execution falls short of Furuya's high standards—and lands at a perfectly ordinary C.

Vol. 10
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $12.99)

"That life-changing moment when you discover what you really want to do—Togawa had his a while back and is determine to achieve his goal. Nomiya just recently had his epiphany and can't wait to take his next step forward. Takahashi is on the verge of finding out what he can aspire to and that it's always been there for him."

Having caught up with the Japanese releases, new volumes of Real now come out super-slow, but they're always worth the wait. Each story arc is inspirational in its own way, showing how even being a school dropout or permanently disabled should never get in the way of your dreams. Sometimes it's the littlest things that make the story glow with hope, like wheelchair-bound Takahashi and his rehab buddies encouraging each other to complete simple exercises at the hospital. And sometimes it's the big, exhilarating moments that jump off the page: when aspiring pro baller Nomiya takes over a scrimmage game, it's thrilling to see how much his talent has blossomed—and how much he still has left to go. It also doesn't hurt that Inoue draws basketball scenes like ballet, making Nomiya's performance dynamic, powerful and beautiful all at once. Then again, that care and attention to beauty applies to all of Inoue's art: those extra little hand-drawn strokes, the hints of shading in the corners, mean all the difference between 2-D representations and stunning, real-life worlds. The basketball gyms are real, the characters are real, their lives are real ... everything about this series is, like the title says, Real.

For a story to be truly inspirational, it needs to start from a low point and show how the protagonist rises up to reach the high point in their life, right? Unfortunately, this volume doesn't get down low enough to show the true drama of the main characters' achievements. Just look at wheelchair-basketball star Togawa, who in this volume basically gets a checkup on his bone cancer, and plans out the next tournament his team will play in. Not exactly the most heart-swelling accomplishments there. Admittedly, Togawa's low point came in a flashback several volumes ago—but it seems like his story's gone on autopilot ever since, simply because he's the most well-adjusted one. By comparison, Takahashi and Nomiya's personal struggles are more compelling, but now another problem emerges: their story arcs are too much like each other. High school basketballer drops out of the program, goes through physical/psychological anguish, and now wants to get back into the game. That summary could describe either character, the only difference being whether it's the pro league or wheelchair league. Inspirational tales are good, but repetition and predictability are still a danger.

Although it's a little short of being a dramatic masterpiece, the absorbing storyline and impeccable art earn this volume another solid B.

(by Natsume Ono, Viz Media, $12.99)

"A treasure of 14 charming stories about family, friends, couples and unexpected bonds. Written by Natsume Ono over ten years, here is the long-awaited collection of her early work, including numerous illustrations and previously unpublished stories!"

Strangely enough, Tesoro succeeds by virtue of what it doesn't do—it doesn't try to be a sprawling crybaby drama (not simple, House of Five Leaves), nor does it drown the reader in Natsume Ono's pathological obsession with Italy (La Quinta Camera, Ristorante Paradiso). Instead, it's a collection of quick sketches from Ono's heart, and the short-story format—about 8 to 24 pages each—is perfectly suited to these snippets of everyday life. Various characters and relationships keep things fresh with each story: sometimes it's an unrequited crush or an old married couple in the spotlight; sometimes it's sibling rivalry or the ups and downs of a father-son relationship; sometimes the focal point is simply the comfort of sharing a meal with a loved one. In only a few pages, each story sets up a situation, then advances the plot to make a point—never an easy task in such a tight space. Ono's breezy sketchbook style also fits the casual tone of these stories perfectly, with seemingly improvised artwork that looks like it was penciled straight into the page in an effort to capture the moment. And judging from the feel of these stories, the effort pays off.

While it's easy to see the energy that goes into Ono's art, it's also just as easy to see all her shortcomings. Although this is a miscellany of early works, that doesn't excuse the odd visual quirks that are part of Ono's style: the dopey-eyed faces, the big, clumsy hands, the barely sketched (or sometimes just bare) backgrounds, and the poor understanding of space and perspective. A lot of times, people's faces are all crammed up against each other in the panels as they hold a conversation. This kind of stuff might fly in Artist's Alley, but for a professionally published work, it doesn't look very pro at all. The stories, too, can be just as hit-or-miss as the art, typically when Italian characters and settings are involved. As expected, Ono is so in love with her favorite foreign culture that characters and plot take a backseat to simply being there. Other times, the story endings fail to reach a solid conclusion, cutting off abruptly as if there were more to tell, but Ono couldn't figure out how to get there. In this slice-of-life assortment, not every slice is carved perfectly.

It's pretty rough around the edges, as might be expected from a short-story compilation, but the varied situations and thoughtful life lessons are enjoyable enough for a B-.

X (3-in-1 Edition)
Vol. 1
(by CLAMP, Viz Media, $19.99)

"Kamui Shiro is a young man followed by mystery. Taken from Tokyo by his mother when only a child, Kamui left behind his dearest friends—the gentle Kotori and her brother Fuma—in the aftermath of a terrible incident that claimed their mother's life.
Returning to Tokyo after his mother's death, Kamui is a changed young man—moody and distant to his old friends, yet determined to protect them from the dark forces that swirl around him. For he is the nexus of a great cataclysm to come, and inheritor to a strange destiny that could decide the fate of the entire world."

Let the mainstream bandwagoners scream about Sailor Moon being the definitive shoujo series of the 90's. True connoisseurs know that it's X, an apocalyptic masterpiece that represents—and still influences—so many genres: dark fantasy, high school drama, and supernatural action thriller. All those copycat series about schoolkids discovering their powers? Blame it on this one, which so strikingly blends mystical themes with modern-day life: a clairvoyant medium lives beneath the parliament building, while psychic warriors hold day jobs like civil servant and manga editor. CLAMP also pulls no punches in expressing the drama between the main characters—concrete-shattering supernatural battles and gory flashbacks to the death of one's parents are all part of the series' vocabulary. But the most effective fusion of story and art comes not from visions of the past and present, but of the future. This is where CLAMP goes all out with surreal images of angels, demons, rivers of blood, and the earth crumbling to pieces. Even now, the elaborate visuals feel as fresh and shocking as the day they were made. That so many other artists have tried (and failed) to imitate these ideas is the ultimate testament to X's greatness.

Although the series makes a powerful first impression, sometimes it just tries too hard. For example, we get 570 pages of the characters dramatically screaming "Kamui!" over and over, to the point where you could make a drinking game out of how many times they repeat his name. And if readers aren't being constantly reminded that Kamui is The Most Important Guy, they're also being informed that this is "the beginning of the battle to decide the end of the world." Why does it take several hundred pages to express such a simple point? CLAMP also tries to add to the aura of epic warfare by having various side characters fight each other (or at least commit heinous crimes) for Kamui's sake—but without fully understanding their motivations or their origins, it's just a lot of extra noise. Let's also not forget the ridiculous character anatomy, where every male wears three-foot-wide shoulder pads and has giraffe-length legs, or the dream sequences going so overboard that they negate the importance of the main storyline. In its quest to be shocking and beautiful, X often leaves common sense behind.

It may be wildly melodramatic, but that's simply because of the artists' passion and the ambitious story they're trying to tell. And what's so wrong with that? Consider this one a highly recommended B+.

BOKU WA BEATLES (We Are The Beatles)
Vol. 1
(by Kaiji Kawaguchi and Tetsuo Fujii, Kodansha, ¥560)

"Shou and Makoto are rock aficionados who play the parts of George Harrison and Paul McCartney in a Beatles cover band. But a strange accident suddenly transports them back in time to 1961—just months before the real Beatles released their first single! Now Shou and Makoto are trapped in an archaic Japan where Hawaiian music is the current fad and rock 'n' roll is still a novelty. When a wandering guitarist hears the two young men perform 'Yesterday,' he thinks he's discovered the next great music sensation, not realizing that their repertoire is from the future. Suddenly, Tokyo's music industry is interested in Shou and Makoto's talents ... but how long can they pretend that the Beatles' songs are their own creations?"

Just when you thought you'd seen enough of the time-travel genre and Beatles fandom, here comes a daring concept that smashes them together. Kawaguchi and Fujii show great humor and creativity in exploring the quirks of time travel: the protagonists can't pay for anything with modern money, they freak out over classic guitars just lying around all over the place, and entire neighborhoods of Tokyo look totally different. It's the attention to detail—especially the well-researched backgrounds and precise linework—that brings out the spirit of 1960's Japan. But where the series really shines, obviously, is in music-related matters: the crowd's bizarre reaction to Shou and Makoto's performance, the excitement of industry professionals discovering a "new sound," and that whole layer of dramatic irony where we know about the Beatles but the 60's characters don't. The artwork is as polished as the story, with Kawaguchi's character designs having a solid, 3-D weight to them—a quality that makes it all the more convincing when they play their instruments. Representing music visually is never easy, but the confident poses and page layouts express the true passion of performing as the Beatles ... even if it's just a cover band.

The idea is great, and the execution works ... so what's with the clumsy setup? The accident that transports Shou and Makoto back in time is as clichéd as they come—a subway accident where the train that's supposed to kill them miraculously doesn't. And that's not the only place where the first chapter stumbles: in those first 40 pages, we're actually introduced to all four members of the cover band, but the John and Ringo characters are never seen again in this volume after the time-slip. Presumably they'll return at some point along the storyline, but to make such a big deal about those characters, and then dump them for the next several chapters, feels like a wasted effort. Readers may also find Kawaguchi's art a bit old-fashioned and stodgy, regardless of how talented he is—every panel is a plain old rectangle, and whenever characters speak to each other, it's always a close-up head shot with an intense look. Even musical performances, which are supposed to be the most exciting scenes, rely on standard instrument-holding poses. How can such a creative stpry not have creative visuals as well?

This is one of the reasons Japanese manga is so great—where else will you find a Beatles-themed time-travel adventure? Rich historical details and solid artwork make this a definite series to follow.

And now, for another modern take on a classic pop-culture phenomenon! This week's contributor, Max Engel, has a personal story to share about how he got into this recent sci-fi masterpiece.

If you want to share your love of the modern classics—and classic classics, too—just read on below and find out how to send your own reviews to the Reader's Choice section!

(by Naoki Urasawa, original concept by Osamu Tezuka, Viz Media, $12.99 ea.)

Pluto is a remake of an already great story from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, re-written and re-drawn by Eisner Award-winning, 20th Century Boys author Naoki Urasawa. The original story from the mid-20th century told of the greatest robots in the world being killed off by an unknown assassin, and Urasawa is able to make Tezuka's work even greater than before. His approach to character design is not unlike Satoshi Kon, with a sturdy blend of realistic detailing and style, but it's Urasawa's storytelling and narrative that is his greatest strength. By the end of the series, you will not believe how much Urasawa has expanded the original story so effectively; the story is easy to follow, yet remains suspenseful and unpredictable, and even with every twist that comes along, they don't feel arbitrary or like they're prolonging the story rather than properly progressing it.

It's a funny thing how I got into this series, and Urasawa in general. I had heard his name before, but didn't know too much of him and thus, I was a bit more apathetic regarding him. But one day, I wanted to get something for my big sister's 21st birthday last year; she already had read and enjoyed Akira and Black Jack. I had heard enough of Urasawa, however, to know that his works were at least worth taking a look at, so the day before my sister's birthday, I bought her the first volume of Pluto. Today, Pluto is her favorite series, even though she reads many other great manga, such as Blade of the Immortal and 20th Century Boys. When I heard how much she enjoyed it, I felt obliged to read it too, since my sister has always been an art fan in general, and so we now really like Pluto, and Urasawa's wonderful work as a whole.

It's $12.99 for each of the eight volumes that Pluto consists of, and it's distributed in the U.S. by Viz media.

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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