I'm Yokai, You're Yokai

by Carlo Santos,

The end of Bleach is coming. And I don't even know how to feel about all the TV scheduling chaos! What I do know is that I'm one of those weirdos who stuck with Bleach even through all the anime fillers, if only because those characters gave me a sense of comfort. When something is a part of your weekly routine for years, it always feels strange to let it go, doesn't it?

Vol. 2
(by Sanami Matoh, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Half vampire, half werewolf, Marlo is a bit of an anomaly. When exposed to the light of the full moon, HE becomes a SHE! To make matters worse, it seems as though his rivals have plans to keep Marlo trapped as a woman—FOREVER! Join us as this epic vampire romance reaches its dramatic conclusion in this final volume!"

Sanami Matoh has a great knack for creating likable, visually appealing characters, and the second volume of @Full Moon proves it. Whether one's tastes leans toward dashing young men with sorcery in their veins, or adorable doe-eyed girls trained in witchcraft, this series satisfies those needs. Even better, their brash personalities create sparks of conflict that make each chapter fun and action-packed. No one does it better than goth-loli sorceress and stalker Ingrid, who at first glance seems like a total creep—yet her intrusion into the lives of main couple David and Marlo provides endless entertainment. An endearing flashback in the middle chapter, showcasing the relationship between one of Marlo's suitors and a family friend, also creates a calm little sweet spot amidst all the magical chaos and romantic rivalries. And through it all, Marlo's quest to get his gender-switching abilities back gives the plot a definite direction. Aside from attractive characters, the artwork also succeeds in capturing the look of old-world Europe, from the elaborate outfits to luxurious mansions to ornate floral backgrounds. Nice to look at, and fun to read—that's a fine combination.

It's a bit unfair to criticize @Full Moon's abrupt ending, since the magazine it was serialized in got shut down. But consider yourselves warned anyway: the last couple of chapters drift off into a entire subplot about Ingrid and her ex-lover, and then, out of desperation, the last few pages show Marlo's curse getting fixed. Yet it's not even the first time the series gets sidetracked from the main point: in the first couple of chapters, scheming aristocrat Clive keeps hanging around and being a nuisance. Come on, he already fulfilled his role as the romantic rival last volume. Because of these distractions, David and Marlo are barely even the main characters—instead it's all their friends and foes who keep jumping in, causing the story to wander all over the place. Matoh's art also show its weakness in the way the characters and backgrounds look flat, with not enough subtle shading to give them life. (Lack of subtlety can also be seen in the goofy comedic pratfalls.) In addition, the many panels with plain white backgrounds give some scenes a lazy, unfinished look.

Between the pointless side-character shenanigans, and an abrupt ending (which isn't really the creator's fault), this volume simply isn't satisfying enough—it's a C.

Vol. 6
(by Natsume Ono, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Although Masa has uncovered some alarming secrets about Yaichi, he decides not to share them with the other members of the Five Leaves. Yet despite his caution, the bonds between the gang members continue to fray. And now, in the restless interlude before the crew's final job, it seems that the sins of Yaichi's past are finally catching up to him."

All right, so maybe the pacing of House of Five Leaves runs a bit slow. But that makes it all the more exciting when big events happen, which they do in Volume 6. Natsume Ono does a masterful job of building up the tension just before the gang's "last big job," and then—boom!—an unexpected twist turns everything around. Yet this mid-volume development is just an appetizer for even bigger treats to come. Remember Yaichi's old acquaintance who's been poking around town, looking for him? That subplot also comes to a head in a later chapter, as tempers flare and samurai spirit starts to burn. That's not even the end of it—a flashback into Yaichi's past may well be the best thing about this entire volume, with its grim look into Edo-period gangland. As the story takes this serious turn, Ono's art sets the mood perfectly: lots of blacks and dark grays to capture the gloom of night, and loosely sketched landscapes that make even the picturesque countryside seem threatening. Wordless panels with dramatic close-ups also help to express the tension between characters without saying a word.

"A bit slow?" Let's be realistic here—House of Five Leaves is near-glacial in its pacing, and just because a few dramatic moments occur in the middle and endpoints of the book doesn't make up for all the boredom in between. Prepare to yawn your way through the early chapters, where a visit from Masa's brother is treated like a big deal (all he does is sneer disapprovingly at Masa the whole time) and the Five Leaves chat idly about dull, everyday activities. Then again, the character dynamics would be more engaging if the speech bubbles weren't so vague about who was talking; maybe it really is better for Ono to stick with wordless panels because her dialogue is so vanilla. It also doesn't help that the roughly drawn characters lack clear visual cues to help identify who's who in each panel. This is especially problematic in the Yaichi flashback, which starts off with a bunch of anonymous characters. The long, narrow panels that are part of Ono's style also result in lots of hard-to-decipher moments where extreme close-ups and a couple of background lines are somehow supposed to depict what's going on.

It has a handful of really striking moments, but far too many stretches of idle dialogue and hard-to-follow visuals that leave it at a C+.

Vol. 3
(by Usamaru Furuya, Vertical, $10.95)

"All that Yozo holds dear is completely destroyed when he finds out that the person he loves is potentially even worse off than he. After his wife is sexually assualted by a business acquaintence, Yozo can no longer envision her as the beautiful, pure woman who tamed his soul many months before. Now his wife is little more than a doll for charming men, and instead of confronting her or even devising a threat for divorce, Yozo simply moves on.
But moving forward towards nothingness is not progess; it can only be seen as the end. From here on out Yozo's life is sub-human, and when comic artist Usamaru Furuya realizes that, he is glad he has the opportunity to work and live his life as he pleases (even with the pressures of work constantly lurking)."

Remember how uplifting it was to see Yozo getting his life together in No Longer Human Volume 2? Well, that was just a setup for this rollercoaster finale ... a rollercoaster that goes screaming all the way down. It begins with marital bliss for Yozo and new wife Yoshino, then wrings out as much drama and despair as possible by running them through one crisis after another. As expected, Usamaru Furuya's detailed art doesn't soften any edges in its portrayal of sexual assault, drug abuse, and other transgressions. The contemporary urban setting also adds an extra layer of close-to-home unease. For those who prefer Furuya's artwork in a more surreal mode, however, there's also Yozo's hallucinations: rivers of blood, three-headed bird-men, and people suspended in ceilings. But these visual feats of creativity aren't just for show—they also give us a glimpse into Yozo's seriously unbalanced mind. By establishing a sympathetic viewpoint toward the main character, it makes the final chapters even more saddening as Yozo inflicts pain on himself and those around him. Obviously, the ending isn't a happy one, but the catharsis of living through all that despair is unforgettable.

When a story like this gets to the endgame, it really ought to go out with a bang ... but No Longer Human fizzles in the last chapter, its dramatic power having already been spent. This volume's big pivot point—the attack on Yoshino—happens pretty early, and the rest of it is just seeing what happens next, one incident after another. So while the story may be emotionally intense, the plot structure is less than satisfying. The pacing in the final chapter is also problematic, as Furuya gets self-indulgent with the hallucinatory artwork and makes the "Yozo loses his mind" sequence unnecessarily long. Then, when the story tries to deliver the final shocking blow, it falls flat—the ultimate fate of Yozo's wife and his father feel like bygone conclusions, and are nothing as horrific as what happens in the first half. There's also that silly little gimmick where Furuya inserts himself as a narrator, claiming to have discovered the story through a blog (although to be fair, the original novel did this too). The stiff facial expressions also make the characters look less than believable at times.

A flimsy ending keeps it from being the ultimate masterpiece, but the daring artwork and rip-your-heart-out drama are strong enough to earn it a B+.

Vol. 7
(by Hiroshi Shiibashi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"While the day belongs to humans, the night belongs to yokai, supernatural creatures that thrive on human fear. Caught between these worlds is Rikuo Nura. He's three-quarters human, but his grandfather is none other than Nurarihyon, the supreme commander of the Nura clan, a powerful yokai consortium. So, Rikuo is an ordinary teenager three quarters of the time, until his yokai blood awakens. Then Rikuo transforms into the future leader of the Nura clan, leading a hundred demons.
Rikuo encounters three siblings from the house of Keikain who are from a generations-long line of yokai hunters. Yura, the sister of the trio, is not sure what to think of Rikuo and seems to be unconvinced as to whether he is friend or foe. But her brothers have other ideas. And the battle that ensues is epic!"

If Nura's previous volume was all about overcoming challenges, then this one fulfils that other important aspect of a great shonen series: introducing new characters and widening the world that they live in. The arrival of the Keikain brothers doesn't just bring in the onmyoji contingent as potential foes—it also opens the door to new artistic possibilities as they unleash their brand of magic. Fantastical beasts are summoned, shikigami strips go flying, and illusory spells fool the eye, all in Hiroshi Shiibashi's bold, brush-pen style. But the calligraphic curves and Edo-period influence are still at their best when the yokai army is on the scene, monstrous faces and all. After you're done drooling over the art, though, there's still an important story to tell: one where Rikuo and Yura must face the contradiction of being friends at school but foes in spirituality, and in the later chapters, a flashback into the youth of Grandpa Nurarihyon that fills in many details about Rikuo's lineage. For a series that takes so much of its background mythology and visual style from old-time Japan, it's even more thrilling to be transported there for an actual story arc.

Yes, this installment of Nura is big on filling in background information about the main characters—but does so in the most boring, linear way possible. The encounter between Rikuo and the Keikain brothers is actually a bog-standard shonen standoff where the combatants mouth off at each other, then start exchanging more and more powerful attacks until somebody finally steps in to end the slapfight. Surely there's a more sophisticated way to work new characters into the story besides just screaming, "My magic is stronger!" "No, my magic is stronger!" back and forth. Even more infuriating, though, is Yura's wilful stupidity as she refuses to connect the obvious dots between Rikuo's human and yokai forms. (Is this like how Mamoru can't tell who Sailor Moon is?) The flashback arc also suffers from linearity, although in a less blatant way: its goal is to explain how Nurarihyon and Rikuo's eventual grandmother met, but uses the tired old "dangerous boy meets lonely rich girl" formula to do so. Shiibashi's virtuosic artwork has problems too: often times the panels are so overloaded with details and thick penstrokes that the action is confusing rather than exciting.

The plot is rather simple in construction, and the artwork could stand to be clearer, but the distinctive characters and meaningful story content are still worth a B.

Vol. 2
(by Naphthalene Mizushima et al., original concept by Peach-Pit, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Amu's delightful guardians get their chance to shine in this brand new Shugo Chara Chan volume! Hilarious Christmas stories, adorable romances, and much more—all told in the vertical 4-koma (4-panel) comic strip format."

Wait, there's enough material for a second volume of Shugo Chara! mascot spinoffs? Yes, and the fact it even exists proves just how well the character chemistry works. With their contrasting personalities, Ran, Miki and Su (pink, blue and green) keep the humor bubbling in many ways—especially when it's Miki's deadpan delivery or Su's fixation on food. While some of the humor does depend on Shugo Chara! lore, most of it is general-purpose enough to be accessible to casual fans as well. The way the manga cycles through the seasons of the year, poking fun at various Japanese holiday traditions (New Year, Hinamatsuri, Tanabata, you're all gonna get it), also keeps the subject matter from stagnating. As a special treat, the artwork sometimes even goes into full-page manga format instead of standard 4-panel, allowing the guardians' slapstick antics and super-cute mannerisms to really stand out. And you know what's even more fun than spoofing Shugo Chara? Doing crossovers with other manga from the same publisher! With the creators of series as unlikely as Arisa and Hell Girl lending a hand, the meeting of elaborate and cute art styles becomes one of those irresistible chocolate-and-peanut-butter combinations.

Here's a caveat: if you liked what you saw in Shugo Chara Chan! Volume 1, you may like what's in Volume 2 ... or be disappointed that it's doing the same thing over again. While the seasonal humor does provide a solid base of ideas, it also means getting similar punchlines on the same topics as last time. And sometimes the repetition doesn't even come from seasons-of-the-year stuff: certain gags just keep getting recycled out of habit, like Su wanting to eat everything, or the guardian characters' small size causing normal human activities to backfire on them. It's also disappointing that, given the sheer number of mascot characters in the series, most of the attention is still centered heavily on the Big Three. Art-wise, the usual complaints about 4-panel format apply—there's barely any room to show what's going on (especially if the punchline is something visual), and little room for variety in how text and images are laid out. Then, in the last few pages, we get some bonus strips from an entirely different artist that barely even deserves to be here because of how badly the character designs are butchered.

I probably enjoyed this way more than I should have, but after following the entire Shugo Chara! franchise, some light humor with the side characters is like visiting old friends—and good enough for a B.

Vol. 1
(by Ryo Ikuemi, Shodensha, ¥900/$5.99 [JManga.com])

"An 18-year-old girl who works part-time and never had a boyfriend... Things can't stay this way, right? Receiving a 100% positive response rate in fashion magazine, Zipper, this is a story for those who have ever thought to themselves, 'Am I happy as I am right now?' and for those who want to 'change.'"

Just by looking her, Cousin's lead character Tsubomi is the kind of heroine you instantly fall in love with. Short, chubby and insecure, she's a protagonist for the rest of us—someone real and down-to-earth. Tsubomi's personal struggles, too, hew close to real life: she questions her self-worth in comparison to her celebrity cousin, she fumbles with fashion and makeup in an attempt to boost her self-confidence, and of course, she's bad at dealing with boys. That conflict between youthful hope and jaded self-doubt is what keeps the momentum of Cousin rolling—not to mention the pressures of being a high school graduate trying to fit into the adult world. So much mainstream manga is about "coming of age" in the 14-16 range that it's refreshing to see stories like these, showing how different the picture is at 18. The josei-flavored art style, full of sinuous lines and contemplative faces, also adds a layer of visual sophistication to all the drama. Panel layouts avoid being fussy and move the story along at a steady pace, with one dialogue scene flowing seamlessly to the next until we get the complete arc of a girl who's getting her life together.

After getting wrapped up in all the character drama, it's almost too easy to miss the various ways in which the artwork falls short. With so much back-and-forth dialogue going on, a lot of scenes fall victim to the dreaded talking-heads syndrome (although Ryo Ikuemi does make a valiant effort to make things interesting by varying the panel sizes). As a result of this, backgrounds also get a pretty raw deal—lots of plain white scenery whenever it isn't an establishing shot showing that the characters are at a restaurant or at home. Of course, part of the problem is the dialogue itself—not that it ever ventures into novel-esque Tsugumi Ohba territory, but there are lots of wasted words where the characters make small talk about day-to-day plans or joke around with each other. Trim away 20% of that, and this series could be even more emotionally powerful. The last chapter also ends this volume on a somewhat confusing note, with a vague "here's what all the characters are up to" montage that doesn't match the impact of the progress that's been made so far.

If you want an uplifting story about overcoming personal obstacles, but taken from a more grown-up, realistic viewpoint, this is a very worthy choice. (Best of all, you can read it online legitimately.)

Ah, guess who's back to reclaim his crown! RTO's most faithful Eric P. shares some thoughts on an intriguing supernatural series this week.

But don't let him have all the fun! If there's a manga you've been reading and want to share your opinions, feel free to send in a review. The Reader's Choice spot is your place to be heard!

Vols. 1-5
(by Masayuki Takano, Seven Seas, $10.99-$11.99 ea., $15.99 Vol. 1-3 omnibus ed.)

Blood Alone is about a man named Kuroe, a former vampire hunter now turned author and private investigator. With the help of his special eyesight, he often helps Sayaka, a friend who works in the forensics department, to make out anything supernatural involved in criminal activities. He lives as guardian with a vampire named Misaki, a sincerely sweet girl with a troubled past.

Within these first five volumes, Blood Alone is largely about Kuroe and Misaki's life together and their affections for each other. The general plot is Kuroe hunting the vampire that cursed him with his eyesight, killed his sister, as well as who made Misaki into a vampire. By Volume 4, we get the back-story of how the two met, if not yet how and when Misaki became a vampire, but as soon as that wraps up we get more slice-of-life chapters between them.

The artwork truly reflects and complements the story. One fine touch is that we know when it is either day or night due to either the white or black coloring between panels, which helps when the chapters take place indoors. But in the chapters where Misaki and Kuroe are just spending time together, there are no panels at all. Rather, the imagery just fade into and overlap each other on each page without ever losing the readers, providing a very nice visual effect.

With series like Moon Phase and Dance in the Vampire Bund, it's been something like a trend to have stories between an underage vampire girl and a grown human man. What both of said titles share is the sometimes disturbing lolicon element. In Blood Alone, while there is no denying Misaki's feelings for Kuroe and jealousy against other women (which for some young kids can be considered normal), Kuroe appears to have strictly a father's/big brother's love for Misaki. Sure, they share a bed together, but Kuroe explains it's due to Misaki's fear of ghosts (even though she's a vampire).

Regardless, there will always still be that certain undertone. It doesn't help that a vampire the same age as Misaki named Higure, or rather he's an elder vampire in a boy's body, makes no secret of hypnotizing human men to be his special companions (we never see anything objectionable happen). And a part of what makes Kuroe's character is his "cluelessness about women," which Sayaka personally observes, and sees no chance of a romantic relationship between her and Kuroe due to her feeling like getting in Misaki's way.

Fully depending on where the story's direction will ultimately go, I for one can only hope that Kuroe's and Misaki's love will remain strictly sibling-level. Or at the very least despite whatever subtext there may be, we can easily interpret it as sibling-level all the way to the end.

Come what may, in the meantime Blood Alone is just a beautiful piece of story art that's wonderfully pleasant in atmosphere.

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)
f- 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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