Come Sailor Away

by Carlo Santos,

As a longtime fan of xxxHOLiC, of course I instantly got excited about the prospect of a live-action adaptation. But, thinking like any "true fan" or purist would, I suddenly realized: how are they ever going to get the actors to match the giraffe necks and rubberband proportions of the characters as drawn in the manga?!

Vol. 2
(by Sacchi, Shinichi Kimura and Kobuichi•Muririn, Yen Press, $11.99)

"Me, I'm a zombie, a 'magikewl girl,' and I have a thing for pigtails, man.
Ayumu Aikawa is settling into his new life—or lack thereof—and enjoying the ties he's building with his new roommates, strange though they may be! But when the opportunity arises to face his murderer, will this zombie/magikewl girl be up to the task?"

All right, Zombie, I'm giving you another chance. Luckily, Volume 2 has a better developed plot than the first: it dives right into the mystery of Ayumu's killer, with a twist that no one will see coming (unless you're already familiar with the novel or anime). But the story isn't content to rest on that accomplishment alone. This volume's got new characters entering the mix (who knew there was another vampire ninja clan?), more unexpected villains lurking in the shadows, and big changes in store for the main cast. Even the silent, all-powerful necromancer Eucliwood is about to have her confidence shaken. Yet through it all, the series' loopy sense of humor remains: eating contests escalate into epic displays of fighting skill, naïve magic-users overreact to an ordinary game arcade, and a high-level mentor turns out to be something of an absent-minded professor. Much of this comedy is also present in the visuals, where frilly dresses collide with magical chainsaws, and deadly monsters resemble giant stuffed toys. It may be standard fantasy/action imagery, but with a little bit of wacky exaggeration or an unlikely twist, something fresh and funny emerges.

True, the characters are better established than in Volume 1, and the storyline is actually going somewhere, but Is This A Zombie? still lacks the level of craft to pull off quality action or comedy. The fight scenes are too disjointed, with panels that jump from full-body poses, to random close-ups on someone's eye, to flailing limbs, all in an attempt to be dynamic. That's not dynamic, that's just messy. Then it even goes so far as to throw in random acts of fanservice—Panty shot! Cleavage angle!—that only disrupt the visual flow of the battle. Those moments ought to be saved for the beach interlude ... which actually does come up in this volume. Unfortunately, Ayumu's seaside respite serves mostly as a filler chapter: it's got some laugh-worthy moments, but also all the usual clichés about cracking watermelons and having the girls compare body types. The forced attempts at humor don't stop there, either. This volume also features the very overdone boy-falls-on-top-of-girl scene, and generic classroom chatter between Ayumu and his schoolmates, which prove that it's still a long way from originality.

Yes, it improves on the first volume, but only a bit. A more solid plot and newly arrived characters are offset by numerous clichés and average-level art, making it a C.

Vol. 1
(by Je-Tae Yoo, Seven Seas, $11.99)

"Jack the Ripper is not what he seems—but the truth may be more terrible than anyone imagined.
A young police detective from Scotland Yard struggles to unravel the mystery behind the brutal slayings that grip 19th-century London. What he learns will turn his world upside down, and pit him face to face against the Ripper himself."

For those who complain that the age of "manly" manga is long gone, maybe it's time to turn to manhwa—namely this one. Jack the Ripper: Hell Blade turns up the violence and gore to levels that will make even jaded fans sit up and take notice. The imagery alone is striking enough: stomach-turning murder scenes, bloody no-holds-barred fights, and elaborately designed supernatural creatures help to create a disturbing atmosphere that few other series can match. The artwork's sharp lines, clear layouts and strong contrasts of light and shadow also result in a fast-paced, page-turning experience. That alone would be enough to satisfy most fans—but then comes the shocking storyline, where paranoia and murder converge into a spiral of ever more horrific acts, and the lines between good and evil are never quite clear. Basically, everything you thought you knew about 19th-century London has a dark side, and the stuff that was already dark has an even darker side. In the last chapter, an unexpected appearance by a famous fictional character—plus hints of more sinister revelations to come—sets up plenty of anticipation for Volume 2.

It was doing so well with the balance between quiet creepiness and full-out gore in the early chapters ... and then came the monsters. A major plot point shifts the tone of the story towards pure action, which actually makes it worse. See, the best part of this volume is about being pulled into the characters' world and gradually learning their secrets, along with the occasional violent killing—so the sudden change into mindless, endless battle is a letdown. Even in the early stages, it seems like the series is constantly begging for approval from horror fans: somehow every scene has to have a dramatic shocker moment, even when it's silly and unnecessary. (Gasp! Creepy old lady!) Eventually it becomes an uphill battle to keep coming up with increasingly horrific images ... which is probably why it devolves into over-the-top fighting later on. And if it wasn't for the shock factor, the characters themselves would be pretty stale Victorian-fiction stereotypes: the starch-collared police investigator, the rich but sad heiress, the creepy clergyman, and all the usual of symbols of society.

Athough the quality of the story drops off in the later chapters, the gothic-horror atmosphere and masterful artwork are strong enough that this volume kicks off the series with a promising B.

Vol. 1
(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $26.95)

"Originally serialized in the '80s in newsmagazine Weekly Bunshun in the first such attempt by comics master Osamu Tezuka, the magnum opus from the last decade of his momentous career returns in two hardcover installments and a new translation.
A graveyard in contemporary Israel has an unlikely visitor. The elderly gentleman from Japan, a former news correspondent, lays a bouquet of flowers at the tomb of one Adolf Kamil. For he remembers the tale of three Adolfs: Kamil, a Jew who grew up in Kobe, Japan, son of a baker; Kaufmann, only child of a German consul stationed at that port city and his Japanese wife; and the Führer with whom the Far Eastern nation made common cause.
A briskly paced political thriller, in this first part Message to Adolf takes us from the Nazi propaganda victory of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the ravaging flames and atrocities of World War II. The disastrous education of Adolf Kaufmann in the ways and prerogatives of the master race begins."

Like Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Message to Adolf is the work of an aging genius whose creative powers could still top all his contemporaries. No one but Tezuka could string this many ideas together and keep it coherent; no one else could sketch up so many characters and give them all purpose. Although the main story is about hunting down documents that reveal a shocking truth about Hitler, the numerous subplots are just as addictive. The story charges at full speed between newsman Sohei Toge's quest to avenge his brother's murder, the wild government goose chase as various agents try to secure the documents, the troubled friendship between the two young Adolfs, and most disturbingly, Adolf Kaufmann's indoctrination into the Nazis. (That last one ends this volume on a powerful, unforgettable note.) The artwork, meanwhile, shines most during key historical moments: Tezuka brings great detail and realism to the horrors of Japan's invasion of China, Nazi Germany's takeover of Europe, and Hitler's oratory performances. But more familiar scenes like chases and gunfights also flow easily on the page, while personal moments involving the main characters can be just as visually striking as the big epic wartime shots.

With such a masterfully produced story, it's hard to think of anything that Message to Adolf gets wrong. But there it is in plain view: Sohei Toge, the only protagonist not named Adolf, who seems almost too superhuman to be true. Even with the "he was a university athlete" rationalization, Toge somehow manages to bleed pints of blood, break a limb, perform Olympic-level feats of endurance, AND escape death by fire, bullets, or falling. Oh, and somehow every woman he meets fails in love with him. It's like a Tom Clancy character (or shooter-game protagonist) accidentally showed up here. The worst part is his storyline taking up hundreds of pages in the middle chapters, as Sohei rambles all across Japan either trying to protect the documents or take them back. Perhaps if some minor characters had been cut out, along with time-wasting scenes that involve them, the plot would be less bloated in this area. Meanwhile, Tezuka's art style can still look too comical and simplified to some eyes, affecting the seriousness of this story.

It's hard to think of another Tezuka work as complete as this one. Not even an unrealistic lead character can stop the thrilling, multi-threaded storyline and important historical context from earning an A.

Vol. 58
(by Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Kabuto's hold over his army of undead minions tightens as he senses that he's losing power over the stronger members of his Immortal Corps, including Nagato Pain. Sasuke's brother, Itachi, may have the best chance of breaking Kabuto's hold. But he's still not completely in control of his actions, which means Naruto may have to take him down once and for all."

A fully charged, powered-up Naruto, facing off against the greatest and deadliest ninjas in history? Perfect. "Naruto vs. Itachi" is merely the headliner among many other great fights in this volume, full of surprising strategies and mind-blowing moves. Sometimes there's even humor: with Kabuto's undead forces struggling against their master, some comical moments come up where the "villains" shout out hints to help the good guys even as their bodies fight them. But the best highlights still belong to Naruto: he outsmarts the near-invincible Third Raikage in slapstick fashion, teams up with an unexpected ally to stop Pain (yep, he's back), and fires off all sorts of variations on the Rasengan. In addition to the familiar energy ball, other ninja techniques also get a new creative spin here—sand manipulation meets gold dust manipulation, metal weapons become useless in the face a magnetism specialist, and so on. The sheer scale of each battle, with fifty-foot summoned beasts and landscape-altering attacks, is sure to make eyes pop as well. Meanwhile, a brief look into Gaara's past reminds us that the series can also be just as effective in matters of the heart.

Even with main characters and marquee villains stepping in, this undead shinobi mass melee is still ridiculously confusing. Last volume, the series seemed to be getting itself on track, but here it falls right back into bad habits. Inconsequential, no-name characters get too much attention (yeah, everyone's a big fan of Generic Ninja Warriors vs. Forgotten Historical Figure), scene transitions often come at ill-timed moments, and what the heck was the point of Sasuke appearing in an isolated scene for 3 pages? Basically, Masashi Kishimoto is up against the wall trying to juggle too many storylines, so he desperately dumps them all in one spot. It's impossible to enjoy an epic fight manga when changes of pace and scenery keep coming so quickly: Gaara's emotional confrontation with his father barely has time to sink in, while the heavily-hyped Naruto vs. Itachi battle gets cut short by a bizarre plot device. Making things even more incomprehensible is the art, which is now so overcrowded with detail—every little spark of energy, every bit of landscape blowing up—that it's hard to tell what to even focus on.

At times, the grand displays of ninja skill look top-notch—but the poorly organized storytelling bogs down the action, resulting in a C+.

Vol. 6
(by Naoko Takeuchi, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Just when all seems well again in the world, another enemy appears! Two new figures from the private school, Mugen Academy, appear and take a special interest in Sailor Moon and company. Who are they, and do they have anything to do with the strange occurrences that are suddenly taking place? Meanwhile, the appearance of two new Guardians takes everyone by surprise as our favorite Sailor heroes must once again face off against new enemies to save the world!"

Two words: Outer Guardians. That alone should sell this volume—the introduction of new characters who extend the Sailor Moon mythos to the rest of the solar system. But it isn't just about bringing new celestial bodies into the picture; the storyline that introduces them is also full of mystery and ambiguity as Usagi tries to figure out who's playing friend or foe. Plus, when you've got girlish, boyish, gender-role-subverting Haruka Ten'ô playing with the heart of the heroine, that's a whole new layer of complexity right there. Meanwhile, the new villains' far-reaching goals—plus the sinister incidents surrounding Mugen Academy—lead to new conflicts just as exciting as everything that's come before. Takeuchi's artwork shows a dramatic improvement from the series' early days: the panels are action-packed, yet clearly laid out during fight scenes, while the linework remains delicate even when the Sailors are launching earth-shattering bursts of energy. But even less extroverted scenes can be just as captivating: the performance of a world-class violinist, and the strange dreams that drop hints about the enemy, all add to Sailor Moon's unique aura where cosmic power and elegant beauty meet.

It may be a great new story arc, but it's going to require some patience. Volume 6 spends most of its time merely setting up future plot points: here's a mysterious new character (but we can't tell you anything about them yet), and here are the names of some important magical items (and then we'll repeat them until you get sick of hearing about "three talismans"), and here are some low-level monsters to occupy the Sailors' time. Yes, even the great Sailor Moon falls into the trap of sending out common enemies that can be disposed of in a single attack. At the same time, the high-level villains are presented in a cheesy, predictable manner: the top boss makes vague yet dramatic statements about her devious plans, while sending out minions on futile missions. That's pretty much the least interesting way of introducing the bad guys. The story also overloads on meaningless dialogue at times, with the characters discussing the situation and making small talk. Yes, schoolwork and daily life are important, but is it actually relevant?

It may be a while until the real drama starts to kick in, but new characters, new mysteries, and elegant artwork are enough to keep the series running up to B standards.

Vol. 1
(by Madeleine Rosca, Tor, $10.99)

"Zounds! It's Victorian London circa 1895, and the sudden impact of steam-driven technology has advanced high society into a new golden age! Sure, the robots have replaced the jobs of London's poorest, and the lower classes are revolting (when aren't they, old chap?) but life is grand, thanks to the mysterious Ember Steambot Factory, its brilliant machines, and its head creator—the amazing Erasmus Croach!
But when Croach's brilliant, troubled niece, Sally, crosses paths with that of Sky, a law enforcement steambot who's started having dreams, the two of them inadvertently discover that Ember is cutting corners on its construction methods in the most gruesome way imaginable! Can a mischievous twelve-year-old girl and a powerful boy robot expose Ember's evil plans—before the city loses its children?"

Having taken everyone on a wild, Hogwarts-meets-steampunk ride in Hollow Fields, Madeleine Rosca now expands her creative playground to the entire city of London. The Clockwork Sky nails all the details of a proper Victorian setting, then throws a sci-fi sheen on top of it: robotics and AI, class warfare, and wild motorcycle rides through underground labyrinths. Just imagine all your favorite futuristic adventures, transported to the steam age. (Besides, who can deny the charm of Sky basically being Astro Boy in a London police uniform?) Familiar genres meet in a fresh new way here, with fast-paced thrills pushing the story forward. As Sally uncovers each layer of the Ember business empire, new questions emerge, promising a strong hook from one chapter to the next. Of course, the fact that Sally typically does things in the most explosive, daredevilish way possible also adds to the fun factor. Furthermore, Rosca's artistic ability is as well-rounded as they come: distinctive characters, smoothly flowing action scenes, and careful mechanical details all give the series its unique look, where modern simplicity blends with 19th-century ornamentation. More than "manga style" or "comic book style," it's simply a great, eye-catching style.

Despite the excitement, The Clockwork Sky can still be a chore to get through, mainly because of its by-the-book storyline. As expected, a plucky young heroine leads the way; as expected, a seemingly perfect society has a dangerous secret to hide; and as expected, an eccentric genius is the pivotal villain behind it all. Nothing new to see here—it's just a lot of classic speculative-fiction elements, watered down and recycled into formulaic patter. In fact, it's so predictable that the "mystery" practically gives itself away by Chapter 2. The early chapters also suffer from too much dialogue and narration, so much so that some pages look more like prose fiction accompanied by illustrations. Better to let the story develop naturally, instead of trying to describe everything right away in a giant cascade of paragraphs. The artwork, meanwhile, has moments of weakness during establishing shots—the buildings look too simplified and are lacking in texture. Action sequences, too, sometimes go overboard with visual tricks: when the characters are constantly popping out of the panel, and every scene is taken at a sharp angle, it's time to relax a bit.

This first volume packs so many "wow" and "this is awesome" moments that the story flaws are easy enough to overlook. Don't miss it if you like a good, fast-paced steampunk adventure.

This week we turn to the import shelf and look at a lesser-known title that may well be "too controversial to be licensed." Here's what contributor George J. Horvath has to say on the matter!

That's right, even the most hard-to-find manga has a place in Reader's Choice, so if that's where your tastes lie, your reviews are always welcome.

(by Haruto Umezawa, Shueisha, ¥390 [out of print])

The year is 1992 and Harebare, God of the 20th Century, is starting to worry about the future of mankind ... because his son Hareluya, who is to be God of the 21st Century, would rather fraternize with female angels and get drunk than look over humans, who he feels are all selfish creatures that aren't worth caring about. With hopes that it will teach his son about love and humility, and become worthy of the name "God," Harebare sends Hareluya down to Earth and makes him experience what it's like to be human.

Hareluya is a 1992, one-volume title from the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, and Umezawa tells an entertaining and enjoyable tale of how much love and soul humans can have. Hareluya himself always points out that he's a god and is "invincible," but at the same time you also see that he has a heart of gold and honestly does care to do good. Within the ten chapters you do see Hareluya evolve from a being that cares only for himself to one who cares for others, both because of his admiration for the power of the human spirit and because of his growing feelings for Sister Chris. Even the recurring characters get some development that makes you feel for them, which is no small feat for a one-volume story.

The title does feature a heavy focus on Christian imagery, with the final villain even wearing a literal "crown of thorns", and this makes Hareluya a title that you'll never see Viz Media release, what with their infamy for censoring Christian imagery; maybe JManga might tackle it one day. Still, Hareluya is worth hunting down if you want a short manga that tells an interesting tale of, much like how humans look to the gods for guidance, the reverse might also be true. And if you enjoy Hareluya, you can always continue onto the manga that followed this, Hareluya II BØY, which is a reboot that removes Hareluya's godhood, making him a delinquent-of-sorts whose goal is "World Domination," and adds much more development to his friends; at 33 volumes it also tells a lot more stories, too. Haruto Umezawa has always been a bit of an "under-the-radar" mangaka in Japan, and it's a shame none of his works have never gotten a chance over here, as his stories are a great mix of seriousness and comedy.

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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