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A Field of Flowers

by Carlo Santos,

Viz continues to break new digital ground with volumes being released online long before they physically go into print. Would it be too much to ask for a time machine so that new manga chapters come out in English before the Japanese artist actually draws them?

Vol. 2
(by Shuzo Oshimi, Vertical, $10.95)

"In this second installment, a surreal triangle begins to form between bookworm Kasuga and two girls from his middle school class: model student Saeki and reject extraordinaire Nakamura. Having stolen Saeki's gym clothes on a whim, Kasuga is forced by Nakamura, sole witness to the theft, to secretly wear them on a date with none other than their rightful owner."

The Flowers of Evil keeps getting better and better as the conflict intensifies: not just the conflict between skittish Kasuga and devious Nakamura, but also the war between purity and perversion raging in Kasuga's head. That's what makes the series so wonderfully twisted—that this self-absorbed kid, who thinks he's better than everyone else, is forever on the verge of falling into the ultimate pit of shame. And all it would take is one push from Nakamura, whose sadistic streak becomes more and more fascinating as she plots all sorts of embarrassments while claiming that she's helping Kasuga. There's a well-planned shocker at the end of Kasuga's date with Saeki, but that pales in comparison to the chaos that erupts in the last chapter, where Nakamura seems to have finally "broken through" in the eternal tug-of-war between carnal and spiritual. The wicked grins and mad-eyed stares on Nakamura's face only add to her appeal as a psychotic villain—the perfect contrast to Kasuga's many expressions of fear and bewilderment. The sense of motion and visual impact in this volume's closing scenes also deliver a powerful emotional release at the moment it's most needed.

As Kasuga's relationships grow more twisted, the story starts to feel fake at times. It's like a pretentious, self-conscious statement, trying to say something about love and emotion ... without understanding how emotions work. The problem is most obvious when Kasuga and Saeki start going out—the two are a self-declared couple, but there's never really a spark between them. How can Nakamura derail the main character's love life if the story fails to communicate the feeling of love in the first place? The randomness of Nakamura's pranks (amusing as they are) also makes her hard to understand: what is her ultimate goal? Is she trying to make Kasuga admit his crimes to Saeki, admit he's a creep to everyone, or just feel really bad about himself? A villain without a purpose isn't as much fun as one with a grand master plan. Visually, the characters' stiff anatomy also makes it hard to connect with them on a personal level—they look like mannequins doing poses. The plain background art as Kasuga and company go about their daily lives also makes some scenes a bore to read through.

Although the series sometimes feels detached and lacking in humanity, its numerous acts of sheer weirdness are still strong enough to earn it a B.

Vol. 8
(by Motoro Mase, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Dear Citizen:
Thank you for your loyalty. You've no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You've probably asked yourself:
Why isn't anything being done to stop this systematic decline?
Rest assured that measures are being taken. Beginning immediately, we will randomly select a different citizen each day who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is and how important it is to be a productive, active member of society.
Thank you for your continued attention and your cooperation and participation..."

Even though Ikigami keeps following the same three-chapter formula—ordinary citizen learns of impending death, has to resolve personal issues within 24 hours, and goes out with a poignant life lesson—the series still finds new angles to explore. This volume's first half is one of the most morally complex stories yet: a protagonist who actually believes he deserves to die after committing vehicular manslaughter, but surely not as a "national hero" of the Ikigami program. To add yet another wrinkle, what about the former lover of the deceased, who still wants retribution for what happened? It seems there's no easy way for anyone to "win" this scenario, yet the story manages to come out with yet another strong conclusion. The second half offers more social commentary, this time on how appearance, self-esteem, and personal happiness often mix into a dangerous downward spiral. Again, there's no easy resolution, but trying to come up with one is what makes the story so compelling. Bold lines and deep shadows give the artwork a crisp appearance, and also add to the dramatic atmosphere during pivotal nighttime scenes. The characters' powerful expressions further add to the emotional impact of both stories.

At times, the emotional impact comes on too strong, and Ikigami feels more like an overblown soap opera. In the first story, the grieving girlfriend becomes a revenge-obsessed maniac, a rather silly caricature that doesn't fit with the situation. Meanwhile, the second half reaches its climax with a mawkish crying-in-the-rain scene, where everyone just sort of forgets the plot and breaks down from sheer emotion. The artwork also has moments where it comes out as too forced—mostly in major close-ups, where the excessive look of shock on the character's face is signaling that this is a really important moment and wants everyone within ten feet to know about it. Ironically, these attempts at heightened drama don't mean much when the subject matter is more abstract than in past stories. While previous volumes were about friendships, families, and lovers, the main issues here are more about the individual versus society, which doesn't grab the heart quite as effectively. Meanwhile, the ongoing storyline about Ikigami messenger Fujimoto and his conflict with the government continues to progress at a disappointing snail's pace.

Not quite as powerful as past volumes, but the quality of storytelling and the thought-provoking themes are still worthy of a B-.

Vol. 6
(by Yuuki Iinuma, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Utsuho's truthfulness as a child resulted in an enormous catastrophe, and he decided to lie from that day forward. Raised in a village of orphans by a monk, Utsuho is an unrepentant troublemaker. The monk eventually inspires him to help people, but there's no way Utsuho's going to lead an honest life! Instead, he's going to use his talents for mischief and deception for good!
With his companions Yakuma, Neya and Pochi, Utsuho journeys in search of the fabled treasures known as the Kokonotsu. The quest leads the group to a village of murderous dolls, and finally to a man who claims to be the guardian of the treasures..."

Even though Itsuwaribito travels a very familiar path—beat bad guys, find clues leading to treasure, repeat as needed—the variety of obstacles (and methods for defeating them) is what keeps the series interesting. The first part of this volume is a good old beat-'em-up against mechanical dolls, but even then, our heroes must unlock some surprising family secrets in order to overcome the villain. And who'd have guessed that Utsuho's next challenge would require him to win a memory/riddle/test-of-skill card game against a free-spirited 500-year-old ... who then joins his team? If that's not enough to keep readers guessing, the final portion of this volume takes place in a "village of illusion," so now every single scene becomes a game of wondering whether something is real or not. Don't feel too weirded out, though: there are still plenty of very real action scenes, where slender, flowing lines bring a sense of elegance to the usual displays of speed and power. The character designs—some charming, some monstrous—also show plenty of creativity in dreaming up new foes and allies. The cuteness of animal mascot Pochi even adds some necessary humor here and there.

For a series that's meant to be about telling lies in order to do good, this volume fails to deliver as promised. Yes, Utsuho still solves some conundrums and ferrets out hidden truths, but otherwise, there is none of the logic-bending trickery that made earlier story arcs appealing. Worse yet is how these chapters resort to some of the worst genre gimmicks to keep the story afloat: "A certain incident makes it impossible to complete your quest, but we're going to drop something in your lap that circumvents the problem anyway." Or what about a mistaken-identity twist that every other story has used since forever? Even the part that would be most conducive to a clever brain-teaser—Utsuho's card game against treasure guardian Hikae—ends on a wishy-washy philosophical note, rather than a stroke of brilliance. And speaking of Hikae, his addition as a major character is questionable: he behaves rudely and selfishly, has no sense of justice, and doesn't fit with the ensemble at all—not even in a "love to hate him" kind of way. Artistic laziness also reaches new heights here with many scenes that are glaringly devoid of backgrounds.

Itsuwaribito continues its disappointing slide downhill. Even though the adventure still comes up with some surprises, it's gotten very conventional and deserves only a C.

Vol. 1
(by Hey-yin Jeon and Ki-Ha Lee, Seven Seas, $11.99)

"Lizzie Newton, a young upper crust lady with a budding career as a mystery writer, is expected to know her place in Victorian society. Her father has arranged for her to marry the handsome Edwin White, who has put his rising career as a lawyer on hold to prove his love to Lizzie.
While the headstrong Lizzie tolerates earnest Edwin, she is not yet ready to accept him as her fiancé. Besides, Lizzie has something else on her mind: a suicide has occurred in the manor, and Lizzie suspects there is more to the case than meets the eye!"

"Oh no, not another 19th-century England series..." Wait, stop right there. Unlike its peers, Lizzie Newton is a manhwa—that's the most obvious difference—but it also surpasses many other Victorian-themed titles by borrowing from the best, and discarding the rest. This one captures the artistic precision of Emma (seriously, look at the character designs, outfits, and architecture), the snappy wit of Black Butler, and the logical rigor of Young Miss Holmes, then throws in a couple of its own twists. Early on, we see plenty of satirical jabs at sexism in Victorian England; naturally, Lizzie steps up as the heroine who speaks for her own interests and scoffs at the demands of "being a lady." As the mystery develops in the later chapters, Lizzie and Edwin's chain of reasoning remains crystal clear—they even use a real, fully-researched chemistry test to analyze the evidence. The clean page layouts, and a well-spaced balance between visuals and text, make this easy on the eyes while still having enough content to satisfy the logical mind. Overall, the art is simple but still ornate—just like this story, where a familiar setting belies surprising depth and quality.

Because it does so many things well, it's a little easier to forgive Lizzie Newton for what turns out to be a very conventional type of mystery: locked room, romance-related, and an apparent suicide that needs to be proven as a murder. It also relies on the divide between upper and lower class—another plot device that gets overused in Victorian storytelling. In the second half, the events leading up to the mystery's solution are hampered by poor pacing: there are a number of distractions like a "feminist lesson of the day" about Ada Lovelace, and forced cuteness between Edwin and Lizzie. (If those two want to develop their relationship, they can do it on their own time instead of interrupting the case.) There's also the issue of the denouement mostly involving Lizzie sitting there and explaining her logic, which isn't exactly thrilling. The artwork might look stiff to some eyes, as the characters typically have very straight-up-and-down poses and don't get into a whole lot of action. Minimal background art (aside from establishing shots) also causes some scenes to look incomplete.

Here's proof that you don't have to reinvent the wheel with every story as long as you do it well. With a clean, well-executed mystery and skilled artwork, this volume earns an A-.

(by Aki, Yen Press, $18.99)

"From on high, the gods make sport of the mortals who toil below them. None know the cruelty of these beings better than Ganymede, a beautiful prince who was torn away from his family by the gods' divine hands. Granted immortality, Ganymede now whiles away his days in an inescapable miniature garden for the amusement of the gods, particularly Apollo. But the gods themselves are no strangers to the boredom of eternal life, and as Ganymede quickly discovers, they will do anything to keep themselves entertained, both at his expense and at one another's..."

If you think you've Olympos figured out, just because it involves pretty boys and Greek mythology ... prepare to be proven incredibly, wondrously wrong. This single-volume omnibus is a mind trip unlike any other, brushing aside every cliché and carving its own path. The first two chapters are daring enough, blurring the borders between dreams and reality—then it pushes those borders further as Ganymede, Apollo, and others question the very roots of philosophy and theology. If gods cannot tell lies (as Apollo declares), how can they create doubt and deceit? If gods are all-powerful and all-knowing, why do we tell stories of them behaving in such whimsical, human ways? The story even turns amusing (and perhaps Gaiman-esque) when Apollo encounters a human in the second half. The story doesn't push any agenda about belief or non-belief, but it will open up your mind. And it does all this with stunning, dreamlike art that puts a surreal spin on things of classical beauty—flowers, feathers, Grecian columns, and beautifully attired young men. The paneling is loose and unpredictable, much like the story, and the detailed linework turns every page into its own work of art.

Olympos may indeed be a philosophy text secretly disguised as a Greek mythology manga, but if that's so, it could benefit from better organization. Although a central storyline does exist—Ganymede's quest to leave the miniature garden—there are too many long, rambling detours that stray away from the tale. Apollo's dalliance with the human who was offered to him as sacrifice is the most obvious example, but various subplots involving Artemis, Hades, and Poseidon also end up being a distraction. The philosophical conversations also get so deep that readers may start to wonder what the point is of this being a manga at all—the meaning of the story could just as easily be gleaned in text-only, Socratic dialogue format. Besides, having those dialogue bubbles floating all over the place can be confusing at times; it's hard to tell who's talking when the words and the layout style are so abstract. Those who prefer something concrete to look at may also be disappointed at how most of the detail in each panel is just "there for decoration" and the real action is happening in blank, nondescript space.

True, it's highly abstract and may turn off those expecting a proper conflict-driven story, but the gorgeous art and mind-expanding ideas are strong enough to be B+ material.

Vol. 1
(by Jeffrey 'Chamba' Cruz and Leonard Bermingham, Udon Entertainment, $29.99)

"All-out action meets off-the-wall wackiness in RandomVeus! Join bouffant-sporting hero Raimundo and the team of One-Dimensional Couriers as they deliver mysterious packages to every corner of the wild world known as the RandomVeus!
Octopus ninjas, jazz-playing demons, cyborg gorillas, samurai mushrooms, turtle monkeys, and one giant furry squid monster are all on tap in this zaniest of zany adventures."

I remember being 12 years old and thinking everything was amazing. RandomVeus recaptures that joyful spirit of discovery, with wild fight scenes, anthropomorphic-yet-alien character designs, and a world so bizarre you'd think Usamaru Furuya and Stan Lee had dreamed it up together. But no, it's nothing as big-name as that—just a couple of creators having fun, remixing every genre trope as something fresh and irreverent. Where else are you going to get a Totoro who thinks he's a superhero? The bold, full-color art really brings out RandomVeus's surreal quality, especially with hues and landscapes that could never exist in the natural world. Still, individual creative elements are just elements; the story is only made complete by action scenes that string everything together with dizzying leaps, breathless chases, in-your-face attacks, and a climactic brawl that demonstrates exactly how to make split-second pacing work. A touch of humor doesn't hurt either, and that's where Raimundo's wise-cracking mouth comes in (but thankfully he doesn't overdo it). A guy who's totally intense, but plays it like it's no big deal—now that's the perfect action hero to lead an adventure like this one.

Like many series of its kind, RandomVeus is content to go all-out with superficial thrills ... at the expense of internal structure. There's no room to explain why this world exists: Raimundo miraculously discovers it, then what? How is it linked to our own reality? Where do its denizens come from? How do they know Raimundo's a human? The story can't be bothered to answer such questions. Even the characters themselves are just typical variations on "cool dudes" and "bad dudes," with lots of surface appeal but no depth to the conflict between them. Instead, we keep getting distracted by pretty colors and crazy fight scenes. Even then the visuals can be more of a headache than a headtrip—RandomVeus suffers from problems like scenes where everything is approximately the same shade of dark, too many blur effects, and a lack of foreground-background distinction. Just because you get the luxury of color pages doesn't mean you should abandon the design principles of black-and-white comics. (Like, let's say, outlining the characters in black, which would make everything so much easier to pick out.)

If you don't mind dealing with a "Plot? What plot?" kind of adventure, then definitely pick this one up to see what happens and brawling action and pure imagination meet. In full color.

Okay, okay, he's back! Please welcome the always-reliable Eric P. as he returns with yet another Reader's Choice review. But hey, you don't have to be Eric to get in on the action—all RTO readers are always welcome to submit their reviews at any time!

Vols. 1-5
(by Yuji Iwahara, Yen Press, $10.99 ea.)

How cool would it be to bring your pet to school with you? That's the opportunity schoolgirl Yumi receives when attending Matabi Academy, a campus made for students to bring their cats with them into the dorms. So she brings her own cat, Kansuke, who she often torments by dressing him in embarrassing outfits she herself finds cute.

As it turns out, the student council of Matabi Academy are all comprised of the 'Guardians of Futakago'. Long ago the spirit beasts, the gods of animals that came to creation before the animals themselves, declared war against the ancient kingdom of Futakago for rising to eradicate their existence to pave way for mankind's complete dominion. Kaen, the cat king of the spirit beasts, led the revolt, only to be defeated and sealed by Princess Kiri and her cat, Shirayuki. It is the job of the current Matabi student council, as well as their cats, to protect the school. Even the cats have their own council and meetings parallel to their owners/partners. With the help of either the human or the feline partner, one is able to give power to the other or both give powers both ways so to fight as efficient warriors against supernatural forces. Yet Kaen returns with a vengeance as well as his followers in finishing the goal they couldn't before.

Yumi and Kansuke wind up right in the middle, and thus get chosen by the spirit of Princess Kiri to be additional Guardians. Yumi is granted the power to, via her magic yarn, transform Kansuke into a humanoid fighter. By that point Kansuke is very shonen-styled, driven to be as strong as he possibly could and be undefeated by his enemies, and protect the girl that loves him. Although he often acts like a typically standoffish cat to its owner, his love for Yumi (that is, the way a cat would normally love its owner) still shows through his choices and actions. Yumi also has the ability to understand Kansuke speak. Although he is able to voice everything that he couldn't before, it still makes no difference in helping her understand his irritation in her dressing him up.

Everything already described only just scratches the surface in this 5-volume series. The story, let alone the battles, take on a truly epic scope, growing even larger than life toward the conclusion. And due to plot complexities and twists, who you thought were the villains that needed to be defeated turn out to be genuinely sympathetic, and make way for an unpredicted villain who also turns out to be non-traditional. This probably would've made a great anime series. On the other hand, considering the budget of most standard series, it's hard to imagine the animation being able to match or reflect the energy and weight of the action and visuals one sees in the manga.

Whether you're a cat person or not, as an animal lover one cannot help but get a kick out of this fun fantasy adventure series about pets and their owners able to communicate and team together.

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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