Ghost in the Psyren

by Carlo Santos,

My quest for justice has finally come to an end! The Viz Manga app for Android exists! Now I can enjoy reading digitally on—

... What do you mean it won't install on my tablet?

I guess my quest isn't truly over yet ...

(by Makoto Shinkai and Yukiko Seike, Vertical, $18.95)

"Remember a time before cell phones could be found in every pocket? Or when even accessing the world wide web was something only readily available in a library? Back then letters still filled up postboxes and moments just felt so much more precious when captured on Polaroid film. Now life seems to move at the speed of light. Our memories are captured and shared with the world on social media platforms. And love, which is already capricious, can feel like it is moving at terminal velocity.
In Makoto Shinkai's defining work, the internationally renowned director and animator unfolds a love story that is as timeless as it is fleeting. Yukiko Seike's rendition of this modern classic adds a new level of emotion and intimacy that is unique to its source material."

True to the storyline of the anime, 5 Centimeters Per Second takes readers on a sweeping emotional journey. The three-part tale of Takaki Tohno follows him from elementary school to high school to the working world, a unique approach that reveals the different types of romance in one's youth. There is, of course, the poignant sweetness of childhood and the incredible things you do for love at age thirteen; then comes the frustration of unrequited love; then the eye-opening realization that one's adult relationships are affected by all the things you did as a kid. These stories are so touching because we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Tohno's relationships, and there are life lessons to be learned from each encounter. Yukiko Seike's art is instrumental in capturing the gentle pace of Shinkai's animation: long gazes over beautiful landscapes, realistic views of small-town Japan, and wordless sequences where the characters' gestures say it all. But the greatest achievement of this manga adaptation comes in the final segment, where scenes from Tohno's present-day life are mixed in with his memories, creating a bittersweet effect where we truly step into the character's mind ... and heart.

Although it does so many things well in the storytelling department—and that includes layouts and scene selection—this adaptation is disappointingly ordinary when it comes to art style. The first part is cluttered with too many background details and screentones, making everything look kind of messy and gray—then in the final arc this somehow manages to swing in the opposite direction, and Tohno's adult life is plagued with barely-existent backgrounds or lifeless building interiors. In fact, Seike's overall illustration style feels lacking in personality: there's no variation or dynamic quality to the linework, just a lot of technically precise outlines and shading. This results in stiff-looking anatomy and bland faces that the keep the characters from truly coming to life; they're expressing such powerful emotions yet the artwork doesn't show it. The story is also guilty of too much self-absorbed negativity in the third part, and an annoyingly passive protagonist in the middle—if you like someone then do nothing about it, why is anyone supposed to feel sorry for you? Clearly, some reflections on love aren't poignant or bittersweet; they're just the result of people being stupid.

Even with its imperfections, this is an incredibly moving story. With all the emotional weight it carries, it's worthy of an A-.

Vol. 1
(by QuinRose and Mamenosuke Fujimaru, Seven Seas, $13.99)

"Alice has a new suitor—this time he's pink and furry, otherwise known as Boris, the Cheshire Cat.
After being transported to the mysterious Country of Clover, Alice is relieved to discover that her friend Boris has come along. But she can't enjoy a moment's respite, as the Cheshire Cat keeps hitting on her.
Should she give in to such a self-indulgent cat?
While Alice wavers, their relationship is sure to evolve—for better or worse is anyone's guess.
Sweet, yet dangerous. Love is risky business in Wonderland."

If pet owners take on the traits of their pets, do manga spinoffs take on the traits of their main characters? Cheshire Cat Waltz's storyline is a lot like Boris himself: impulsive, unpredictable, and because of that, hard to put down. Are Alice and the Cheshire Cat finally coming together, or will another character steal her away? It's not just a game of romantic roulette, either: the whimsy of the original Alice in Wonderland is very much alive, with the mysterious dimensional shift from the Country of Hearts to the Country of Clover, doors that open up to unexpected places, and characters that suddenly age by several years. As always, the only logic in Wonderland is that there isn't any, and that's why Boris's emotional impulses are the strongest force in the story. When nothing else makes sense, just follow the heart of a madman in love. The attractive, impeccably dressed characters and fantastical locales (a Victorian tower right in the middle of a forest? Sure, why not?) also add to the visual appeal of this strange world.

Don't be fooled by promises of whimsy or romance. The only thing this story has in common with the true Alice in Wonderland is being complete nonsense, and not in a good way. The shift into the Country of Clover and the mysterious doors are interesting for about one chapter, but an imaginative setting is useless when there's no story to tell. Oh, there are story moments—various scenes in which Boris disgustingly tries to force himself on Alice—but there's no progression, no meaning to them. Worse yet, everyone insists on dealing with their romantic issues by yelling and bickering. Most repulsive of all, however, is a male cast comprised of aggressive creeps who think lewd remarks are the way to a young girl's heart. That's actually kind of disturbing, and no creep is more aggressive than that damned cat. Discerning eyes will also be turned away by the overuse of screentones in the art, making most pages look too murky. The attractive character designs are also wasted on static scenes where everyone is chatting away—and usually drawn from the shoulders up. Is it too early to call the Country of Clover a failed state?

Very hard to recommend unless you're really into the Alice in the Country of Hearts franchise and this particular character. A pointless story and an unlikable cast of characters spells D for this volume.

Vol. 3
(by Yu Kinutani, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Marcelo Jarti, the hero of a democratic revolution, and South American drug dealer, has been coming to Japan periodically and no one knows why. The Major and Section 9 track his movements after he makes his latest appearance in the country. They are determined to figure out the meaning of his visits, but following Jarti leads to more than they could have possibly expected..."

Another volume, another perfectly contained action thriller. Yu Kinutani is a master of fitting each Ghost in the Shell adventure into just about 200 pages, while still getting in all the gunfights, car chases, and forward-thinking philosophy that fans expect. This volume starts from such a simple concept—"Follow this guy and see what he's up to"—but builds up the momentum over the entire story arc, until you can't help but get caught up in it. It's like a joyride sketched out in action set-pieces: the suspense of a hotel stakeout, the thrill of tracking a moving target, the glorious chaos when everyone goes wild with guns and grenades. Kintani's split-second, panel-to-panel layouts let the images speak for themselves, rather than cluttering the flow of action with unnecessary dialogue. But when the time does come to say something meaningful, the story doesn't skimp on that either, with a finale that will make readers reflect on the role of humans and technology in society. Detailed linework and shading also give the artwork a polished, futuristic look to it.

It may say Ghost in the Shell on the cover, but the intellectual level isn't nearly as deep as the standards set by its predecessors. I'm not asking for Shirow/Oshii levels of technobabble here, but the plotline is disappointingly linear—their mission is to follow a guy, and that's all they do ... for the entire volume. Where are the subplots, the political angles, the behind-the-counter deals? What's more, the finale relies on a simple type of future technology that even third-rate sci-fi authors could come up with. In between all the action and negotiation, there's barely any time spent on fleshing out the characters: usually we get some kind of insight on what makes the Major, or Batou, or any of their other team members tick, but here they're just treated as playing pieces moving from one spot to another. The stiff character poses and overabundance of gray also serve as visual reminders of just how "cardboard" this whole operation is. Sure, it delivers some great, high-energy action scenes—but only because the characters are going through the motions.

Yes, it's fun, but only on the level of a popcorn blockbuster. The lack of depth results in this volume scoring a C+.

Vol. 1
(by Touya Tobina, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Born into a family of 'Hunters,' Takamichi's destiny is to pursue and slay demons. When her twin brother is killed, she is saved from despair by a pair of Jiu Jiu—shape-shifting familiars—in the form of two wolf pups named Snow and Night. Now Takamichi is in high school and an active Hunter. Snow and Night can't wait to attend school in their human form to 'protect' her. But are they ready to go off leash...?"

Puppies! Adorable puppies! If a series ever needed an instant selling point, Jiu Jiu has it. But the shape-shifting part makes it even better: if you're the kind of fan who gravitates more to pretty boys than cute animals, Snow and Night's human forms have that covered as well. Or uncovered, judging by all the playful fanservice where the boys show up shirtless. Still, there's more to the series than just having adorable and gorgeous creatures to look at. The spirit of companionship between Takamichi and the boys will definitely win over the hearts of readers, especially the way they all gladly throw themselves into harm's way to protect the ones they love. And how can any heart not melt at the sight of Takamichi cuddling the pups and saying "We'll be together forever"? The middle chapter—a flashback into Takamichi's early days of raising Night and Snow—is especially endearing, as it shows how they each overcame their personal fears and bonded for the first time. This volume also makes room for a few demon battles and fistfights (plus an unexpected twist at the end), adding adrenaline to all the emotional ups and downs.

After getting over the initial charm of cute puppies and even cuter boys, it turns out Jiu Jiu doesn't really have that much to say. Instead, it repeats the same point over and over: Takamichi, Snow, and Night really love each other, and would gladly lay down their lives ... in Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 ... okay, enough already. Worse yet, it seems to take a backward approach to introducing the story: the first couple of chapters involve the boys mostly goofing off and being a nuisance to Takamichi at school, and it's not until the middle that we see how she initially bonded with them. Shouldn't the childhood story come at the start, so that we can care about the main characters in the first place? The pages are also often cluttered with unnecessary dialogue, laid out so randomly that trying to follow the text can be a guessing game. That messiness also carries over to the artwork, where wild, uncontrolled lines and haphazard paneling make it look as if each page is about to collapse beneath the chaos. The plain backgrounds (if there are even any) are also a sign of artistic laziness.

It certainly has its appeal, between the demon hunting, the guardian animals, and cute guys. But the poorly planned story and messy visuals add up to a C.

Vol. 5
(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.
A video recording shows a dark vision of the future, where many of Ageha's friends are ruthlessly killed. To escape the danger posed by W.I.S.E., Ageha, Sakurako and the others must battle their way to freedom. But even if they escape, can they fight fate and alter that treacherous future?"

The latest story developments in Psyren have taken the fight to a new level of excitement. Instead of just flailing about in confusion, our heroes have honed their skills to the point where they know what they're doing—which is much more satisfying than a fluke victory. The villains have leveled up too, going from giant worms and mind-controlled soldiers to devious, flamboyantly dressed overlords (always a sign of danger). The result is a true showdown of good versus evil, amplified by psionic powers. Ageha's newfound control over his black spheres of death not only connects to events from Volume 4, but leads into a thrilling visual barrage of high-speed moves and earth-shattering explosions. But the rest of the party have skills to show off too; Sakurako steals the show in the first half with her arsenal of bladed weapons and a well-planned mind trick. Best of all, the artwork is detailed and dynamic enough to pull off these high-concept ideas: elaborate fighting poses and stunning forms of psychic energy, all set against a post-apocalyptic landscape. The action was already good, and now it keeps getting better.

At the end of Volume 4 and the start of this one, Psyren reveals a brilliant plot point that relates the present-day world to the post-apocalyptic one—then completely misses an opportunity to build on it. Instead, this entire volume takes the safe route with one methodical battle after another. Sure, the attacks are more powerful, and there's a better sense of who the villains are, but all the other shonen fighting manga are exactly like this. Worse yet, the interaction between Ageha's teammates is quashed in favor of mindless eye candy: forget supporting each other through the bonds of friendship, let's just have everyone split off into separate skirmishes and show off how great their powers are! Readers can also tell it's turning into a generic battle manga because of nondescript rocky backgrounds, with none of the urban decay that gave previous installments a distinct dystopian feel. When the story finally does try to expand on the war between W.I.S.E. and the rest of humanity, it does so in the most contrived way possible: dropping a whole bunch of names and faces into an infodump chapter.

Despite the eye-popping action scenes, I can't help but think of the wasted story potential. This volume is pretty average action fare, and average means C around here.

MAKESHIFT MIRACLE (Hardcover Edition)
Vol. 1
(by Jim Zub and Shun Hong Chan, Udon, $19.99)

"A young teen named Colby Reynolds searches for meaning in the world around him after being left on his own for the first time. After an unusual, carefree girl named Iris comes literally crashing into his life, he discovers that she has strange powers and brings magic and menace in her wake! To protect her, Colby must enter a realm of dream and imagination, where nothing—not even his own sense of self—is what it first appears to be."

Want to know how to stand out from everyday, mass-market manga? Just do your comic in color. It's a strategy that works for Makeshift Miracle: the watercolored style gives off a warm, almost magical glow, something that could never work in black and white and screentones. And it's not just about looking pretty: the color selection also serves to tell the story, like "real-world" segments in dull gray or moments of comfort in gentle pink and yellow. Clear, expressive layouts and smooth panel-to-panel transitions also prove that artist Shun Hong Chan understands the essence of visual storytelling. Speaking of story, this one is simple yet intriguing—the kind that guides readers along, dropping hints of magic here and there, until ... boom! Suddenly you're completely addicted and dying to get Volume 2. The secret lies in the way the story brings in familiar elements, but leaves something hidden: a beautiful girl (but how come she can use magic?); a man on the hunt (but what does he want?); a surreal otherworld (but why does it exist?). Even though it's only laid down the introduction, Makeshift Miracle's first volume already says plenty.

Goodness gracious, Colby Reynolds, could you stop saying every little thing that pops into your head? Yes, Makeshift Miracle makes use of first-person narration, but takes it to an obsessive level. Even though he's the main character, Colby's constant self-conscious chatter—"I'm indifferent to the world," "I'm writing this down even though it sounds crazy," "Everything changed in that moment"—completely overpowers the story. Is this a modern-day fantasy tale or self-absorbed adolescent rant? Thankfully he tones it down once there are other characters to interact with, but even the presence of girl-from-the-sky Iris doesn't balance things out all that well—all she does is hang around the house, acting quiet and enigmatic. Kind of like ... every other mysterious girl who suddenly appears in some random guy's life. (It may be beautiful and intriguing, but Makeshift Miracle sure isn't winning any prizes for originality.) The gradual pace of the story may also leave readers feeling unsatisfied: after Iris's arrival, everything else is just table-setting and foreshadowing, and the next "big" event doesn't happen until the end of the book. It may be pretty on the outside, but it's rather thin on the inside.

The story still feels inadequate in its early stages, is but there's no denying the outstanding art. Here's holding out hope for a more substantial next installment.

This week's Reader's Choice is almost universally loved—yet it's also been the victim of TWO company shutdowns. Can anyone save the license of this lost soul? Ben Jonas makes the case for it here.

Now, surely there are other license rescues people are hoping for. Which manga would you like to see published in English once again? Send in your reviews and let the world know!

Vols. 1-6 (of 12)
(by Kozue Amano, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

In the distant future, the planet Mars has been terraformed and inhabited by people from Earth (referred to as Manhome). One such person, Akari Mizunashi, arrives on the planet (now known as Aqua, due to the planet's surface consisting mostly of water). Her goal: to become a top-notch gondolier (known as an undine) in the city of Neo-Venezia, transporting both residents and visitors alike across the flooded city's waterways on behalf of her company, Aria.

The plot focuses primarily on Akari and her quest to become a prima undine (the highest possible ranking for a gondolier), but occasionally devotes time to her friends/rivals Aika and Alice, as well as Aria Company's president and cat, Aria (that's right, a fat cat is the president of a gondolier company). There are also side stories devoted to Akari's supervisor, Alicia, as well as her fellow prima undines, the brash Akira (also Aika's mentor) and quiet and clumsy Athena (who, in addition to being Alice's mentor, has a beautiful singing voice).

All of the aforementioned plot, however, is secondary compared to the artwork, and boy, is it ever gorgeous! Kozue Amano infuses her story with astoundingly-detailed scenery, ranging from narrow alleyways to grassy hills and ancient architecture. One particular scene (in which Akari witnesses a procession of people in fox-masks march through the gate of an old shrine) radiates calm and mysticism. With such amazing attention to detail, it's easy to forget there's an ongoing plot, but that's not the point of Aria. Perhaps the series' underlying message is, "Slow down, look around you, and enjoy the simpler aspects of life." Given Neo-Venezia's rustic lifestyle, that couldn't be more true.

Originally released by ADV Manga in 2003, Aria was license-rescued by Tokyopop at the start of 2008. Six volumes (not including the two-volume prequel, Aqua) were published before the company folded like an accordion. (Ironically, Tokyopop Germany finished publishing all twelve volumes of the series as of last year.) Such a spectacular slice-of-life series should not simply be left adrift, however, as it would fit in quite well with Yen Press or Vertical (hint, hint). In the meantime, book a ticket to Neo-Venezia, find a nice, warm, sunny spot to lounge, and enjoy the series slowly, like fine wine.

(Note: If you simply can't get enough of Kozue Amano's artwork, be sure to pick up three of her art books, "Alpha", "Stella" and "Cielo". [All in Japanese, alas.])

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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