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Good Knight, Sweetheart

by Carlo Santos,

The age of Shonen Jump Alpha has begun! ... assuming you use Apple products. Yes, the move toward digital publishing is all flashy and convenient, but as long as it remains a platform-specific thing—and by that I'm thinking of the Nook as well—I'm going to keep getting on this soapbox and crying for some non-hardware-specific Android respect. What do all the publishers have against my Samsung tablet, anyway?!

Vol. 38
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Ichigo 'Strawberry' Kurosaki never asked for the ability to see ghosts—he was born with the gift. When his family is attacked by a Hollow—a malevolent lost soul—Ichigo becomes a Soul Reaper, dedicating his life to protecting the innocent and helping the tortured spirits themselves find peace.
The Soul Reapers must guard the four pillars that are protecting Karakura Town from destruction at the hands of Aizen's minions. Standing guard are assistant captains Yumichika, Kira, Hisagi and Ikkaku! But when Ikkaku goes down, will Karakura Town fall with him...?!"

The common complaint about shonen action series is how a single fight takes forever to finish. Yet in Volume 38 of Bleach, we have a veritable buffet of six or seven distinct fights! Heck, the battle for Karakura Town hasn't even hit the main characters yet—right now it's mostly Soul Society's supporting cast—but Tite Kubo manages to make each of the combatants interesting in their own right. Sometimes it's through the feat of creative character design, like a "whale guy" who blows himself up to sixty feet tall, or a supernatural man-mammoth hybrid. And sometimes it's by revealing particular shades of personality, like Kira's pessimistic outlook on life, or showing how Ikkaku's personal pride ends up costing him. That's a unique philosophy that Bleach brings to the battlefield: the idea that a healthy amount of fear can help win a fight. But the other key to success is having flashy, eye-catching moves, and Kubo's sharp, dynamic linework takes care of that. Even with just a few abstract strokes, a sense of motion and power is achieved—these larger-than-life moves flow effortlessly, making it impossible to complain when the battles are so beautiful and so alive.

Remember when Bleach was about a sprawling supernatural otherworld, intense feudal politics, and powerful emotional bonds between characters? No, me neither, because it's been in battle mode for way too long. If anything, this latest string of fights is even worse than getting tied down by a single one, because now every chapter is flip-flopping between various pairs of characters until all focus is lost. Are we supposed to pay attention to Kira's battle? Or Hisagi's? Or Ikkaku's? All of them? That's a lot to demand, especially when there's no effort to even make the readers care about these fighters. It's always just, "Hey, look at this person's cool sword technique"—then moving on twenty pages later. Such a shallow approach makes all these battles feel like empty-calorie eye candy. Sometimes, it's not even very good-tasting candy, like when Kubo decides he can't be bothered with backgrounds and just drowns everything in speedlines. Some of the paneling is also embarrassingly repetitive: multiple faces grimacing with intensity, dramatic closeups of a single eye, and feet shuffling in motion are just some of the tricks Kubo uses to take up space without really trying.

While the fight scenes still have their impressive moments, the sheer one-dimensionality of the series at this point is a pretty sad C-.

Vol. 1
(by Tohru Fujisawa, Vertical, $10.95)

"After guiding the infamous Tokyo Kissho Academy through a crash course of his unique brand of life lessons, a battered and bruised Eikichi Onizuka takes a well-deserved trip to his old neck of the woods: the typically quiet surfers' paradise called Shonan. Unfortunately, with child neglect and abuse becoming a global phenomenon, the self-proclaimed GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka) quickly finds himself back in the saddle at a foster home with some teens in need. While Onizuka's curriculum may not rely on reading, writing, and arithmetic, he has more than a few good lessons in personal development, fisticuffs, and fun to teach a new generation of troubled teens."

He's been around over a decade, yet Eikichi Onizuka's character still has that unmistakable charm: a grizzled tough guy with a heart of gold. That sensitive side is what will draw fans to 14 Days in Shonan, where the challenge of helping foster kids reveals Onizuka's selflessness in new ways. Sometimes the issues are as serious as parental abuse and self-mutilation, and sometimes it's simply reaching out to a socially awkward teen—but either way, Onizuka's sincerity and sense of humor make him a likable hero. The occasional bursts of action when he lets his fists do the talking are even more fun; there's a sweet satisfaction in seeing gangsters completely taken by surprise by this guy. Between all the personal drama and streetfights, though, a few well-placed jokes help to balance the mood. Fujisawa's art shines most when Onizuka wears his personality on his face—from cheesy grimaces to glares of intimidation, his expressions have it all covered. It's also hard to miss the visual thrill of the fight scenes: dense speedlines, sprays of blood and guys being thrown through windows remind us just how tough Onizuka is. Thank goodness he's fighting for the underdog.

Well, now that we've established the protagonist's fine qualities, what about everyone else in Shonan? That's where the series falls flat, handing us one incomplete character after another. Look at chief antagonist Katsuragi, a girl whose distrust of Onizuka has her conspiring to kick him out of the foster home. That's all her character ever does, making up one ridiculous life-threatening plan after another. While it's important to stress her problem-child nature, she still needs another dimension or two besides that. Other members of the supporting cast are also built on single, simplified traits—and apparently all their personal problems are easily fixed by Onizuka befriending them. It's never that simple in reality, and to think that something like an abusive relationship can be "solved" by having the hero punch out the villain shows how shallow the series is. But lazy art is an even worse problem than lazy storytelling: almost every background is obviously reworked from a photograph, with Fujisawa only drawing in characters or fight-scene effects. Even then he doesn't do so well, with the characters often locked in static poses and only loosening up for fight scenes.

The storyline lacks depth at times, and the heavily photo-referenced art can look odd, but the main character is sincere and charismatic enough to earn this a B-.

Vol. 3
(by Eri Takenashi, Bandai, $11.99)

"Is this Jin's 'hit season' for popularity with the ladies? He has Nagi-sama, Zange-chan, his childhood friend Tsugumi, and he even has Daitetsu ♂...
This manga sounds a bit involved just hearing the synopsis and the setting. But amid it all, the disappearance of Nagi who is questioning her own existence! Call the police! Um, no! Run, Jin! Here is the heart-racing, divine volume 3!"

Who would have thought that even a god could go through an existential crisis? Yet here it is, right in Kannagi Volume 3, which takes an abrupt turn from its usual antics and is all the better for it. Nagi's sudden flurry of doubts—What kind of god is she? Where did she come from? Why is she fighting "defilements" she's not even sure about?—and Jin's desperate quest to restore her confidence end up treading new emotional ground for the series. On a philosophical level, it even transcends the magic-and-battle themes of traditional "magical girlfriend" series like Ah My Goddess, because this one digs deeper and asks: Do you even know why your girlfriend is magical? The eventual answer is surprisingly poignant—a tale of local history wrapped up in Shinto mystique, bringing the arc to a satisfying finish. The uncluttered visual style allows the story to shine through with minimal fuss: the main characters are always distinct and neatly drawn, and there's a fresh, simplistic beauty to the rural landscape where Nagi rediscovers herself. And it doesn't hurt to have a few visual gags and goofy faces to spice up the pages with humor.

Oh, those awful first few chapters ... If it weren't for Nagi's existential crisis suddenly making this series a lot deeper, we'd be stuck in mindless comedy mode forever. The misunderstanding where all of Jin's friends suddenly think he's attracted to Daitetsu is one silly cliché after another, like quotes being taken out of context, and various girls throwing themselves at Jin to get him all flustered. The eventual conclusion to this dilemma is perhaps the worst cliché of all, relying on the "oh no, our well-intentioned solution only made it worse!" punchline. Even the serious side of the story can't escape this ridiculousness: after Nagi and Jin reconcile, we get a stale fanservice gag that ends this volume on a sour note. Takenashi's art, meanwhile, suffers not from triteness but from incompleteness—not enough background details, not enough toning, and a lack of expression when it comes to subtle emotions (broad slapstick humor is about the only time the characters really look alive). The overload of text in the early chapters, where Jin's friends chatter vapidly about his relationship status, also disrupt the visual flow.

The romantic comedy aspect has all but worn out its welcome, but the dramatic change of mood where Jin helps Nagi discover her true self is the saving grace that earns this volume a B.

Vol. 9
(by Kōtarō Isaka and Megumi Osuga, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In Nekota City, Inukai and his team of vigilantes, known as Grasshopper, protect the citizens from a rising crime wave and the greedy hands of businessman bent on turning every block into a modern strip mall. But is this public hero actually a devil in disguise? And now having eliminated his greatest adversary, is there anything standing in Inukai's way as he hopes to further extend his power?
To get revenge for his brother's death, Junya decides to follow in Ando's footsteps. To get to the bottom of who killed Ando, Junya will have to develop his own special powers. But before he can deal with Inukai, another group of misfits might beat him to it."

Even though the final battle still lies far off, Maoh finds plenty of ways to keep us interested. New associates of the "Fraulein" crime organization are introduced, the kind that you love to hate, with their bizarre dress code and sociopathic ways. If villains are indeed more interesting than heroes, here's the proof. There's also the brief interlude where Junya tests his powers of luck at the racetrack—a unique spin on the "training montage" concept, where instead of swinging a sword or gathering spiritual energy, we see him racking up the dollars with one winning bet after another. Then comes the growing momentum of the later chapters, where all the various parties start converging on each other. With people placing bids on human targets and Junya delivering a dramatic ultimatum, it's hard not to get caught up in the suspense. Sharp lines and outlandish character designs give the series its distinctive, cutting-edge look, while the action scenes deliver over-the-top excitement with motion-blur and exaggerated perspective. Even the horse-racing scenes seem to buzz with energy, believe it or not. Yet Junya's glare of determination—an expression that appears plenty of times throughout—may be the most powerful image of all.

There are few things more annoying than an action-thriller trying to build up suspense for the sake of being suspenseful. That's the problem with the last few chapters of this volume, where everyone is planning for a dramatic future event. There's no real payoff, unless you count Junya proudly declaring what he intends to do later; in the end the whole plotline is just vigilantes and serial killers circling around each other aimlessly. Part of this aimlessness is also due to the newly introduced villains being so superficial—they may be fascinating for their ruthlessness and strange looks, but their motivation goes no deeper than "we like to hurt or kill people," leaving their side of the story feeling very empty. Better to focus on characters who are actually trying to accomplish something, like Junya and Inukai, than to keep dwelling on those crazy assassins. Seriously, how much longer until Junya really puts his power of luck to the test? And if the story is plagued by too little going on, the artwork has the reverse problem of too much; dense linework and lots of screentones on every page give the eye little room to rest.

Despite some intriguing developments, this volume still feels more like preparation for a big fight than an actual fight. Dilly-dallying on the story like that will get you a C.

Vol. 2
(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $13.95)

"The adventure charges forward in the second half of Tezuka's beloved Princess Knight! The legendary Prince Sapphire continues her gender-bending quest, capturing the hearts of her readers as she goes.
Sapphire valiantly fights off Sir Nylon, Madame Hell is hell-bent on marriage, and a certain jealous goddess puts Prince Franz in her sights. Witches, wedding bells, magic and mayhem—all in a day's work for our beloved heroine. But will all live happily ever after?"

If you thought the first half of Princess Knight was a wild ride, just wait until this one. People die and come back to life, Satan makes a cameo, and our heroes have to outwit the goddess Venus herself before they get their happy ending. Oh, and somewhere along the way the kingdom of Silverland gets women's rights reform, and Captain Blood makes a cross-oceanic round trip in three days. Seriously, this manga packs more storylines than the current top five sellers combined. Yet it never feels like a brain-busting overload—Tezuka whisks us from one subplot to another with speed and efficiency, always keeping track of what's going on and making sure that the next big twist is never too far away. He also does it while synthesizing so many different folktale and mythological traditions—truly an epic fountain of ideas. As always, the art remains just as varied and exciting as the storyline, with multi-textured garments, towering castles, and fantastical landscapes giving the series its fantasy aesthetic. Dramatically staged layouts and frequent fight scenes also add to the visual excitement. In the end, this remains an adventure unlike any other.

Somewhere along the way, this stopped being a tightly plotted adventure and became a mad improvisatory exercise—see how many story ideas Tezuka can toss around before getting back to the point of Sapphire reclaiming the kingdom. It started somewhere around last volume, but it reaches the heights of ridiculousness here, where Prince Franz almost marries the wrong girl, Captain Blood is captured abroad, and Sapphire gets a sudden case of amnesia—just one plot device after another. The characters also seem to behave in a completely arbitrary manner, depending on the storyline's needs: villains suddenly change their ways, or a neutral party conveniently comes running to Sapphire's aid. Because of this, the characters feel like artificial placeholders for whatever idea Tezuka has next. These sudden 180-degree turns also affect the pace of the story, rushing from one point to another before the reader has had a chance to process "why" and "how" various events occurred. Even the finale feels rushed as a result: instead of some grand climax, all the good guys just walk off after solving the last little problem. So much for a dramatic triumph...

Ultimately, all the haphazard pacing and random story detours are a double-edged sword: they add excitement and surprises, but take away the logic, resulting in a B- for the finale.

(by Yumi Unita, Shogakukan, ¥562)

"Through his hobby, which is exploring (peeping?) through narrow spaces, Heisaku-kun ends up falling in love with his neighbor, Fumio-chan. However, it turns out that Fumio-chan has also been spying on Heisaku-kun all this time ... Will this uncontrollable pair's hidden love ever be realized?"

If you only know of Yumi Unita through Bunny Drop, prepare for a very different experience in Sukimasuki. The college setting is still very much slice-of-life, yet the premise about two mutually voyeuristic neighbors is almost absurd. In balancing the realism of a boy-meets-girl tale and the weirdness of their crawlspace-peeping habits, Unita creates something that is at once warm and familiar, yet unusual. The same could be said of the characters, who all fit the typical college-student mold, yet have distinct personality traits (some positive, some negative) that make them strangely memorable. And unlike other crazy premises that fail to become a proper story, the odd mind games between Heisaku and Fumio eventually build up to a charming romance with a believable, grown-up ending. Although Unita's artwork is simple, it accomplishes so much—the characters all feel alive with their outspoken expressions and gestures, and varying line widths keep the imagery from getting monotonous. The chiefly rectangular layouts also make the story easy to follow, but create visual interest with long, narrow panels (obviously) and unusual angles. As expected, a talented artist can make even the most unconventional subject matter fascinating.

For all that Yumi Unita accomplishes as an artist, it wouldn't hurt to see some backgrounds every now and then. Too much of Sukimasuki is left to open expanses of white, making it look Heisaku lives in a magical blank world. But at least blank areas can be skipped over; the same can't be said for parts of the story where Heisaku and his college buddies talk about nothing and bore everyone to death. If they're going to discuss irrelevant things like the academic system, or how one of their skeevy friends is always trying to sell health supplements, this isn't the story for it. The actual development of Heisaku and Fumio's relationship is also not as effective as it could be; they seem to just coast along on the path to true love rather than making a serious effort and battling obstacles. (There's exactly one rival who shows up in a later chapter, and then slinks off without much of a fight.) A hard-fought happy ending would feel much more rewarding than just casually falling into each other's arms because of a mutual fetish.

While the middle part of the story does drag a bit with pointless distractions and a lack of major conflict, there's plenty to like about the lively characters, confident artwork, and a sweet romantic ending.

You know, I could never turn down a Reader's Choice contributor who kinda-sorta has the same name as me. It's probably a sign of good taste! Here's a review from Jean-Karlo on a cute little one-volume romance from a few years back.

No matter what your name. is, though, Reader's Choice reviews are always welcome, all day, every day. Keep sending 'em in!

(by Rie Takada, Viz Media, $8.99)

Gaba Kawa (written by Rie Takada and published in the U.S. by Viz's Shojo Beat line) is the story of a demon girl named Rara. She wants to meet and fall in love with the most popular demon on Earth so as to be on the covers of tabloids, but instead she meets and falls in love with Retsu, a high-schooler who can see the supernatural. Hijinks ensue as Rara tries to capture Retsu's heart while under the assumption that he's a gay alien.

Rara is endearing as a protagonist: she's bubbly and honest, not to mention silly in her own way. Why else would she depend purely on telekinesis for her morning routine? Her plans for seducing Retsu are fueled by that silly charm, such as when she steals a male student's uniform. The artwork is a major component in Rara's charm: Tanaka knows how to use the super-deformed style like nobody else.

Gaka Kawa takes a serious nosedive, however, around two-thirds into the story: an unexpectedly serious plot element is dropped, and Rara finds herself faced with either killing the man she loves, or dying. The story tries keeping the plot light-hearted (one of the harbringers of Rara's doom is a ferret in a cloak), but this just makes the scenario seem as forced as anything else, which leads to an unexpectedly sad climax. This would have worked...if the story didn't drop a deus ex machina right in the last few pages for the sake of a happy ending. Sure, happy endings are great, but with no previous buildup, readers will be left scratching their heads by the last page.

Gaba Kawa manages to work in spite of its hackneyed ending, however. Rara and company are just too endearing in their antics to dislike, which may just well earn a chuckle from you. The dialogue is snappy and to-the-point, and everyone features a decent amount of wit ("Tell that to my muffler!") The ending drags the rest of the work down, but maybe in this case, the fun is in the journey and not the destination. Lightly recommended.

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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