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Stereo Spica

by Carlo Santos,

Attention, RTO readers and manga fans! Don't forget the Reader's Choice section is always open for YOUR reviews on the latest (and not-so-latest) manga. The submissions pile has been drying up lately, but I know everyone's got plenty of opinions out there, so don't be afraid to submit!

Vol. 17
(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $16.95)

"Black Jack is a mysterious and charismatic genius surgeon who travels the world performing amazing and impossible medical feats. Through highly trained, he freelances without a license because he disdains the medical establishment. This leads to run-ins with the authorities and unscrupulous, sometimes criminal, individuals. Because Black Jack keeps his true motives secret, his ethics are perceived as questionable and he is considered a selfish, uncaring devil."

Much like its cover, the final translated volume of Black Jack is a masterpiece of many colors, transcending almost every theme and genre. At times it is whimsical: Black Jack puts up Pinoko for adoption, a woman is surgically transformed into a bird, or a human gets a brain transplant from a horse. At other times there are grim, scathing critiques of society, like the medical establishment's fixation on power and money, and the fate of illegal immigrants trying to escape an authoritarian regime just across the waters from Japan. Some chapters even cleverly tie in to Tezuka's other works, or connect to past events in the series. But of all the topics covered, none is as fascinating as Black Jack himself, who does whatever he wants, sometimes just to illustrate an ethical point—and yes, this book has the legendary scene where he operates on himself. Tezuka's artwork once again shines with energy and creativity: action scenes feel larger than life with all the exaggerated car chases and fistfights, while the sheer variety of character designs make each chapter a brand new experience. Meticulously sketched backgrounds also add another layer of artistic depth.

Tezuka always stuck by his style no matter what, so even this final volume is fraught with the same old problems that make Black Jack less than perfect. Some of the stories cut off before they reach a truly conclusive ending; others ramble on and on before making their point (that's the problem with being a master storyteller—you have too many stories to tell). Other chapters are so far-fetched that the outlandishness of the medical procedure doesn't match with the realistic tone. Also, for those who have become familiar with Tezuka's politics, it's a bit silly the way he paints every CEO, leader, entrepreneur, and entertainer with a broad, villainous brush. Somehow, a manga-ka capable of handling such complex issues and storylines suddenly oversimplifies anything that goes against his values. Tezuka also overdoes things in an entirely different way when it comes to art: the stories from the earlier part of Black Jack's run are noticeably sloppier, with lots of wild gestures and pages crammed to the brim with action. It's in these chapters that the "cartoon style" hasn't completely worn off, resulting in a disconnect between goofy visuals and more serious subject matter.

A solid finish to the series, and while not every chapter is an instant hit, there's enough variety and craftsmanship to earn a respectable B.

Vol. 5
(by Mohiro Kitoh, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Zearth's surviving pilots make a promise to each other: they'll never break down, they'll never cry, and no one's to blame. Yet after Maki's battle breaks open the core of her opponent a frightening discovery may test their new resolve. Inside, the children come upon a terrible shock—the truth about who they're being driven to destroy."

Ooh, bet you were waiting for this volume, weren't you? This is the turning point of Bokurano, the big reveal where they explain just where all these deadly giant-robot-creature things have been coming from. Like any well-planned twist, it makes all the other story pieces fall into place, and in retrospect, there are just enough hints that an intuitive mind might have guessed the answer. Also, because the answer is so shocking, it also raises plenty of new questions that will keep the plot rolling through the series' next stage. However, just because Bokurano is tackling big cosmological ideas doesn't mean it's forgotten the little things; Maki's story arc (which covers four of the book's six chapters) still develops her personal story so that we see how her battle and eventual death impact those around her. Zearth's monster-stomping battles continue to be a spawning ground for Mohiro Kitoh's art: the only thing more imaginative than his creature designs are the clever, action-packed solutions devised by our heroes when they win each fight. Yet the light, delicate lines also remind us that the series' sensitive side is what really makes it stick.

Once again, even though Mohiro Kitoh tries to bring out the personal drama among each of the series' characters, he'll never get anywhere if he doesn't get better at expressing human emotion. No matter what the mood, it seems that everyone has the same droopy-eyed, slightly sad face, and even violent physical acts seem to be performed half-heartedly. Kitoh also seems to have a problem coming up with decent character designs—most of the cast looks disturbingly skinny (except for the token fat kid), and some of their wardrobe choices are just plain weird (this volume's offender: Maki's attempt at wearing a "girly" outfit). Even the storylines that are supposed to tug at our heartstrings sometimes feel as artificial as the characters' expressions, failing to deliver any real emotional impact. The end of Moji's storyline—the boy who planned to donate his heart to a friend after dying—comes to an abrupt and not entirely satisfying ending, while the story of Maki's soon-to-be-born baby brother sounds like a prefabricated soap opera device. Therein lies the rub: when every single character has to have some kind of tragic circumstance, you soon start running out of tragic ideas.

The stiff, unappealing character artwork continues to be the series' weak spot, but the massive story revelation in this one is strong enough to propel it to a B.

Vol. 2
(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.
Physically drained after surviving his first trip to Psyren, Ageha's psionic powers begin to awaken! Newly reunited with his formerly missing friend Amamiya, now Ageha must meet with a PSI mentor who holds key information about the terrifying rules of the Psyren game!"

So, after all the wild, neck-snapping twists in Volume 1, you thought Psyren might slow down a bit in Volume 2? Think again! The story continues to charge ahead at an addictive pace as new revelations continue to pop up: the ominous "rules" about keeping Psyren a secret, the overall scheme of how the survival game works, and most importantly, the psychic powers that Ageha has now inherited from being there. That last item also leads into some intense training scenes where Ageha tries to master his abilties—and lets out a few surprises. Just as important as these brand-new concepts, however, are all the people Ageha is about to meet: an old friend from grade school, a rakish celebrity who's been pulled into the game, and a psychic trainer who knows a thing or two. New allies and new information make Ageha's second trip to Psyren just as thrilling as last time, and so does Iwashiro's bold, action-packed art. A fresh post-apocalyptic landscape spreads out before Ageha, shocking new monsters rise up to threaten him, and some visually stunning maneuvers prove to be the difference between life and death. Enjoy the adventure—and don't forget to breathe.

Just when you thought they'd piled on enough silly action-adventure clichés in Volume 1, here comes a whole stack of new ones! Now Ageha has developed psychic abilities and has to train them by thinking really hard? And his latent power is extremely high, but also hard to control? Sounds to me like he could form a support group with Ichigo Kurosaki from Bleach. This whole training business, along with new character introductions, also means that most of Volume 2 is spent in the normal world, which is hardly the place to be for high-stakes action. People talking about the world of Psyren, and how it works, will never be as interesting as actually being in Psyren. In fact, the sheer amount of dialogue ends up being a visual hindrance as well, as the artwork is frequently crowded out by blocks of text. When Ageha and his crew finally do make it to Psyren, there's more disappointment as the main characters sit and watch for an entire chapter—apparently they've decided to be cautious instead of charging into battle. That may be a wise decision, but from a storytelling perspective, it's boring.

The visceral thrills are fun at first, but when you stop to think about all the genre clichés being thrown about here—and the lack of actual battle action—it's really more like a C.

Vol. 10
(by Kou Yaginuma, Vertical, $10.95)

"With only months left in their training, Asumi and those left in the Tokyo Space School's first astronaut training class have a new and potentially defining task at hand. From the moment they enrolled, these teens were under the assumption that the future of space exploration would be at the hands of their generation. At least one of them would lead JAXA into the cosmos to revitalize a dying program. But in the nearly three years they have spent training their bodies and minds, science has almost caught up to them. 
In the tenth volume of Kou Yaginuma's Twin Spica an astronaut will be selected and the choice may not be so obvious. And while this future space traveler has shown plenty of potential and talent, it is clear they couldn't have made it without some help. Though the mystery is whose help, and will this person last without that support?"

Let's start right at the ending, shall we? The final scene of Twin Spica Volume 10 is an absolute dagger to the heart, a moment that's almost too shocking to believe. But it wouldn't be possible without the two-hundred-plus pages that precede it, once again plunging readers into the emotional ups and downs of five kids striving to accomplish their dreams. The first part of the book is another brilliant tale of inspiration: the students are being tested against robots to see who can perform their job better, and in the process they remind us why sheer human determination always wins. After that, another summer vacation arc calls up some deep thoughts about moving forward in life—and, in a surprising development, also features some back-story about the oft-neglected fireworks kid, Fuchuya. The series' range of moods always come across so easily because Kou Yaginuma doesn't over-complicate the visuals: his simple, straightforward layouts bring the point across instantly. With just a few simple penstrokes, the characters' faces say all that needs to be said, and the natural beauty of a seaside town adds to the ambience. Why mess with a perfect formula?

Sometimes it's too easy to get stuck in the lull of warm, fuzzy feelings, and that seems to be what happens in the middle chapters of this volume: the kids make some summer plans and ... spend their vacation together. That's it. Sure, there are some wistful flashbacks as Asumi sees her dad again and Marika thinks back on her difficult past, but these moments have nothing new to say—at least until Fuchuya's flashback. The vagueness of the summer story arc is also to blame for the lack of overall direction: is the series trying to say something about Asumi's feelings as she returns to her hometown, or Marika finally finding a place where she belongs, or Shu's giant leap forward now that he's aiming for the American space program? Ultimately, it seems that only the robot training exercise and Fuchuya's back-story have any real substance, and everything else is just shoe-gazing fluff. The fluff is only made more boring when most of the art consists of hastily sketched backgrounds and blank-eyed faces gazing at each other as they chat.

It's a bit too simple-minded in the middle, but the moments of inspiration are worth it, and how about that cliffhanger at the end? Sometimes, simpler is better, and that's why this gets an A-.

Vol. 8
(by Naoyuki Kageyama, original concept by Kazuki Takahashi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Years after Yugi's legendary battles, the game is so popular that special institutions dedicated to the art of the Duel have sprung up all over the world. Join Jaden Yuki and his pals at the Academy for the adventures of the next generation of Yu-Gi-Oh!
The next series of duels at Duel Academy are about to begin and Reggie Mackenzie's father, possessed by an evil spirit determined to wreak havoc, makes his move. By manipulating members of the group of visiting duelists from America, Mackenzie plants the seeds of destruction on Duel Academy Island. When Jaden takes on his next opponent, will he realize the evil he faces, or will an ancient spirit's scheme to resurrect itself go forward?"

If you're a fan of the tokusatsu genre, then you'll love Volume 8 of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, which is practically a Power Rangers tribute as Jaden Yuki showcases his "Masked Hero" deck. Indeed, if the previous volume was all about the gimmicky "themed" decks wielded by other students, then this one is more about sheer firepower. The battle in the middle chapters says it all: Atticus and Aster confront each other to resolve a years-long grudge, and do it by chaining one incredible attack after another. But the other fights are just as thrilling, often with one combatant seemingly pressed into a corner until he turns things around with clever counterattacks. The subplot about Mr. Mackenzie's spirit possession also adds a dark undercurrent to the storyline; this isn't just about kids tossing cards at each other, but a possible tussle between good and evil. Naoyuki Kageyama's art makes it easier to swallow the technical side of Yu-Gi-Oh! duels, as the massive monsters and special effects add some eye candy to all the number-crunching and strategy. Unusual-looking character designs also add visual interest.

Let's not kid ourselves here: the subplot about an evil spirit trying to take over Duel Academy with cursed cards doesn't really mean anything. The only point of this series, as it has always been, is: "Wow, look at that guy's amazingly powerful cards!" How else to explain that this volume has enough room for three-and-a-half duels, while the actual spirit-possession plot continues to proceed at a snail's pace? Last time it was Mr. Mackenzie watching a duel for a couple of pages; now it's Mr. Mackenzie watching duels for several pages and occasionally stepping in to lend a sinister hand. Not even spectacular attacks and impressive warriors can cover up for the fact that rules and numbers are the main storytelling device here—and that the characters often awkwardly recite those rules as they perform each move. The only thing duller and more repetitive than the story is the art, where lousy anatomy, flat backgrounds, and a textureless, 2-D style make the series look more like a cardboard creation than a realistic dueling world. Then again, considering that all they're doing is playing cards, maybe a cardboard creation sounds about right.

As usual, it's great fun if you're into the strategy of Yu-Gi-Oh!, but horrible if you prefer manga with an actual story to tell. Give this one a D for duels.

Vol. 1
(by Natsuki Takaya, Hakusensha, ¥420)

"In a small town in the countryside, close To the Sea, a young high-school girl lived alone with her cousin. When life seemed to her too painful and too sad, she contemplated the sky and was refreshed by looking at the stars. But one night in spring, she met a boy who sealed her destiny..."

Who else but Fruits Basket's Natsuki Takaya could take something as simple as a boy-girl relationship and turn it into something intense and mysterious? The heroine, Sakuya, is instantly likable with her level-headed, can-do attitude (think Tohru Honda but a little more mature). Still, it's the male lead, Chihiro, who really gets this story's wheels spinning. The funny thing is, Chihiro doesn't even appear all that often, yet his mysterious circumstances—"I thought he was your friend?" "No, I thought he was yours!"—make the reader want to know more about him. Sakuya's thoughtful monologues, along with with Chihiro's mysterious pronouncements, bring out the dreamy side of love in this relationship—a gentler romance for those who are worn out by all the wild, slapstick-driven couples always bouncing around. Which isn't to say that the series has no sense of humor—that's what Sakuya's fun, eccentric schoolmates are for. As usual, Takaya is masterful at using visuals to convey emotion, with expressive facial close-ups and carefully laid-out text that reflect the inner state of Sakuya's heart. The numerous nighttime scenes and starlit backgrounds add to the series' dreamy, mysterious feeling (and also give meaning to the title).

If this is a story made for dreamers, then it clearly isn't for people who like plot and purpose. Sorry to say, but "ordinary girl goes searching for mysterious guy" isn't exactly a strong premise to build an entire series on; it's barely even good enough for a subplot. All right, so Sakuya wants to know why Chihiro suddenly entered her life—that's a reasonable starting point. But when he suddenly starts acting mean to her in the middle chapter, or when he suddenly shows up at her school, it's as if Takaya is throwing in arbitrary twists just to say, "Wow! What a twist!" Logic, who needs it? The series also makes a mess of introducing the supporting cast: they all come bursting in during the first chapter, thus being relegated to the mental compartment of "Sakuya's friends whose names I can't all remember at once," and when they interact with her again in later chapters, the plot developments are quite forgettable. The vague backgrounds and frequent use of tone patterns also result in pages that are often bland to look at—over and over again, it's just characters standing in space talking to each other.

While the story seems a little thin to start out, there are definitely some areas of mystery (and potential romance!) that will compel an interested reader to dig in further.

Is it possible for a much-maligned genre to produce works of quality? Aaron Kooienga seems to think so. Check out his review below!

And feel free to submit your own reviews about manga series that are "exceptions to the rule"—whether in the good or bad sense ...

(by Masakazu Katsura, Viz Media, $9.99)

Shonen romance is a genre of shonen manga that often gets little respect and is too often thought of as empty-headed wish fulfillment fantasies or nothing more than an excuse for cheap cheesecake. With titles like Toshihiko Kobayashi's Pastel, Hiroyuki Tamakoshi's Gacha Gacha, and the legion of manga adaptations of various dating sims and eroge like Love+ or To Heart, this charge is far from baseless. But there is one title that lets you "have your cheesecake and eat it too," and that title is I"s by Masakazu Katsura.

It gives you the heaping helping of fanservice that Katsura is known for (he is the only manga-ka other than Oh! great whose fan service shots I respect from an artistic standpoint), with his attention to detail to girls' panties, elaborate fantasy sequences, along with the obligatory beach scenes with girls in their swimsuits. If this were the sum of the series it would be easy to write off as just another disposable shonen romance title, but what saves this from the slag pile is the story that flows out of this, the simplest of stories, because Katsura bothers to give main character Ichitaka an actual inner life and have him (gasp!) reflect on his actions.

This is clearly shown later on in the series when he's alone with Iori (his crush), and thinks whether he's really in love with her or just this fantasy version of her he's constructed in his head, or the fact that their relationship doesn't begin in earnest until almost two years (!) into the story. These elements give the audience a chance to really know Ichitaka from the inside out, instead of simply project themselves onto the bland, cipher-like lead of so many other shonen romance titles.

Art-wise, Katsura is very much of the "draw what you like" school; this of course means a large amount of fan service shots (some of which were inconstantly edited by Viz in the English edition). The anatomy, rendering, and use of camera angles make it easy to appreciate beyond the titillation they may provide.

Also, over the course of the series, character design gets progressively more realistic. Whereas it starts out with a loose rubbery gag manga style, complete with facial grimaces, elongated sight gags, and some use of "super-deformed," by the end the character design is very realistic, with none of the characters looking the same—an exception being maybe some of the girls who look a little "samey" in the face. This, along with well crafted backgrounds and attention to little details, such as bedding, coffee tables, and walls aid in the appreciation.

Character wise, while Ichitaka is very well developed, having known his inner thoughts from the beginning, some characters are less well developed or even one dimensional. Other secondary characters are given a better chance to develop, such as shy and conflicted Jun, who instead of just being the token "prissy" character, is often the more levelheaded friend Ichitaka goes to when he doesn't know what to do about his relationships. Another example would be Ichitaka's childhood friend Itsuki, who shows up in the first half as a potential rival for his affections. Her playfulness mixed with her willingness to call Ichitaka out when he's doing something stupid is another aspect of the better writing of some of the characters. Although the introduction of the latter revolving door of girls who are introduced as potential rivals for Ichitaka's affections seems contrived, none of the other girls in question seem all that poorly written, be they Ichitaka's kohai, the astrology obsessed Izumi, or his next door neighbor Aso. So while the situations may seem contrived, the characters are developed enough to feel like potential rivals instead of space filling patter.

Considering the fact that Viz decided to quit releasing Ichigo 100%, and Rosario+Vampire is lost between dark fighting arcs and paper light romantic comedy hijinks, I"s is probably one of the better shonen romance titles on the market, for its ability to weave a compelling narrative and display so clearly the pains of adolescence and first love.

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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