A Ghost of a Chance

by Carlo Santos,

With America deep in the throes of football season, I sometimes think about how much I miss Eyeshield 21. The manga and anime world has plenty of options for baseball, soccer, basketball, and other globally popular sports, but doesn't have much to offer in the way of American football. Still, considering how good Eyeshield 21 was, perhaps it's better that it remains the best of its kind, rather than spawning countless imitators...

Vol. 1
(by Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara, Viz Media, $9.99)

"The paths of one evil god, two rival empires, three unlikely bishops and seven brave ghosts converge in the destiny of Teito Klein, a boy who vows to master a powerful artifact known as the Eye of Mikael in order to lay bare the secrets of the world's—and his own—murky past.
All Teito wants is to forget his dark past as an orphan and slave and to graduate from Barsburg's military academy with his best friend Mikage. But when an overheard state secret triggers treasonous memories, he's forced to flee from the very empire he once sought to defend!"

07-Ghost sets no limitations on itself when it comes to world-building. There's a basic foundation of high fantasy—the Central-Europe-inspired empire, with its snappy military uniforms and towering castles—but then it branches into high-tech, the supernatural, even an elaborate fictional religion. Everyone's got different concepts of ghosts, demons, and the afterlife, but this one actually builds an entire church and scripture around it ... which ends up being a key element in Teito's search for truth. These heavy thoughts lead to a test of morality in the later chapters, where Teito's friend Mikage has to make a terrible choice. The abstract idea of "one's conscience being split in two" comes alive in a heartbreaking series of panels—proof that the series sees no boundaries in storytelling or visual presentation. Of course, there are plenty of more down-to-earth artistic feats, most notably when Teito escapes his military superiors in a flurry of in-your-face angles and exaggerated perspective. Indeed, 07-Ghost never wastes a chance to show off dramatic character poses or fanciful architectural designs. This is one incredible world, and it runs deep with secrets.

Like so many ambitious ideas, 07-Ghost tries hard, but has too many rough spots to live up to its potential. The biggest problem is the way the story copies and pastes ideas from other works of genre fiction: the boy of destiny, the noble child sold into slavery, the magical super-weapon everybody wants, the old man with a dark secret, the choice between love and duty, and so on. Clearly, the only reason this world feels big and elaborate is because it's a patchwork of everyone else's ideas. And instead of becoming greater than the sum of its parts, it just adds up to the exact sum ... minus originality. The series also makes the mistake of confusing readers right from the start, with a parade of overdressed bishonen and military-political jargon that, as it turns out, is far less important than Teito's own story later on. Page layouts are another hindrance, with too many full-action panels crammed up against each other. Nothing against dramatic angles and cool poses, but when I keep having to ask myself, "How did this guy get from here to there?", something is visually wrong.

Give it points for the ambitious world-building and drama-filled story. Then take away those same points for familiar clichés slapped together, and messy artwork ... which results in a C.

Vol. 2
(by Nagaru Tanigawa, PUYO and Noizi Ito, Yen Press, $11.99)

"The casual, quiet literature club meetings are forever changed when Kyon and Yuki encounter a Kouyouen student collapsed in the street! The girl had been up all night trying to contact supernatural beings, but her chance meeting with these two North High students seems an equally good opportunity to break up the monotony of everyday life. Will Yuki make her voice and her feelings heard over the overwhleming presence of the new honorary lit club member—Haruhi Suzumiya?"

I used to think only the canonical Haruhi storyline would ever be any good ... but this sweet, Yuki-centric spinoff succeeds on its own merits. With the scheming, strong-willed Haruhi now entering the picture, the character chemistry really starts to bubble: Haruhi brings energy and amusement to the Literature Club (most notably by dragging in "mysterious transfer student" Koizumi), her search for the supernatural pushes the plot forward, and most importantly, the romantic stakes are turned up with the Kyon-Haruhi-Yuki love triangle. The second half of this volume concentrates on Yuki's plan to make chocolates and confess her love to Kyon on Valentine's Day, and despite the cheesy setup (or maybe because of it), it tugs on the heartstrings as hard as any romantic masterpiece. Over these several chapters, Yuki shows her vulnerability and her courage—remarkable displays of emotion for a famously aloof persona. The simple art style focuses on bringing out everyone's expressions and gestures, which of course are key to a character-driven story. Meanwhile, straightforward panel layouts keep the story moving at a steady pace: just follow the clean visuals and lively dialogue, and soon you'll be drawn into this charming tale.

There's a chapter in the middle of this book that highlights the biggest danger of slice-of-life stories: everyone just keeps talking, and nothing really happens. When dialogue bubbles have to be labeled with the characters' initials—because there's not enough room to show them speaking—then the point of this being a visual medium has been lost beneath all the text. And that's not the only imbalance in this volume: the entire Valentine's Day plot, adorable as it is, throws so much emphasis on the Kyon/Yuki angle that the other recently arrived characters are left out in the cold. When do we get to have fun with Koizumi? Or see Haruhi try to shake up the laws of the universe? It clearly isn't happening in this storyline, because it's all about appeasing Yuki fans who want to see her squishy-sappy moe side. It also doesn't help that the love-confession scenario plays out like all other high-school romances. Artistically, fans will be disappointed by watered-down character designs (still can't tell Asakura and Tsuruya apart), and the lackluster backgrounds that make North High look like every cookie-cutter Japanese school.

Although it disappoints in some areas, this volume soars high on the fluffy sweetness of Yuki's Valentine scheme—and earns a B in the process.

Vol. 1
(by Itachi and Yomi Hirasaka, Seven Seas, $12.99)

"Recent high school transfer student Hasegawa Kodaka is pathetically inept at making friends. When he comes across the brash loner Mikazuki Yozora, who typically chats with her imaginary fried, the two outsiders become the unlikeliest of allies. Realizing that they have no hope of a normal social life, the two outcasts decide to form a group called 'The Neighbors Club' in order to make friends and maybe even learn a thing or two about social skills. This wild and offbeat comedy manga about quirky misfits who are obsessed with fandom is the basis for the hit anime!"

With most school-themed manga, there's usually a weirdo on the sidelines who serves as comic relief—but Haganai ups the ante by making a bunch of weirdos the lead characters. Rather than pitying those who can't make friends, the series seeks out the humor that comes from being socially awkward. Whether it's the two main girls' inability to get along, their habit of taking video games way too seriously, or misunderstanding the logic of dating sims, this series earns its laughs in many ways. Lone male Kodaka tries to be the sardonic voice of reason, but even he gets in on the silliness, unwillingly becoming a "gang boss" when an underclassman gets the wrong idea about him. Witty insults, biting comebacks, and slapstick madness are also all part of the series' comedic language. The slightly loose, sketchy art style adds an energetic look to the characters, as if they're about to spring into action even when they're just sitting around talking. The gaming-related chapters also lead to some visually entertaining fantasy scenes where the characters go all out (in their imaginations). Who knew that having few friends could be so much fun?

The comedy is there, but the point of the series is not. Right now, Haganai is more like a collection of hit-and-miss sketches than a legitimate story. And there's no bigger miss than a poor first chapter: it tries to introduce all the characters at once, which not only confuses readers, but will chase off anyone who sees a guy surrounded by several girls and immediately dismisses it as harem garbage. The story gets into a better groove once we learn how Kodaka meets the two main girls, Yozora and Sena, but even then, the sense of structure is lacking. Instead it jumps around from idea to idea, until no one knows what kind of comedy this is supposed to be: is it about trying to recruit new members, having ridiculous club activities, or parodying well-known game genres? Best to find your niche and stick to it ... yet this doesn't even seem to have a niche. The artwork also lacks inspiration outside of the parody moments and slapstick gags—it's just a typical cast of high school kids attending a typical parochial school, which becomes painfully clear in the visually boring last chapter.

Not that bad, but not that good, either. It's got lively, high-spirited humor, but the confusing beginning and a story that wanders from idea to idea make it a C+.

Vol. 7
(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.
Ageha and his fellow Psionists discover that their actions in the present may be altering the outcome of the future. Now everything they know—and everyone they love—is in danger, including their mentor Elmore Tenjuin. But their attempt to save their beloved Elmore is interrupted ... by a sudden, jolting return to the Psyren world!"

There's no shortage of shocking moments in Psyren—Volume 7 starts off with a twist, then takes another wicked turn halfway through. And in between these surprises, it still manages to balance all the plot elements currently in play. This volume finishes up the present-day battle with the rogue Psionists, adds new challenges to Ageha's time-altering quest, and sends our heroes off once more to fight superpowered villains in the far future. Best of all, it does it with an overwhelming sense of urgency: these kids are trying to stop the end of the world, and storylines don't get much more exciting than that. The way it mixes and matches different time-travel theories—you can alter future events, but apparently the final outcome is still fixed—adds a brain-teasing wrinkle to the story as well. But Psyren does more than just contemplate sci-fi paradoxes: it also indulges in terrific action scenes, like the psychic battle that fills the last few chapters with dazzling explosions and shattered landscapes. Sure-handed linework, strong attention to detail, and an eye for striking character design make Ageha's latest duel as visually intense as the storyline itself.

Yes, balancing different plot elements is a good thing—but is the complexity actually hurting the series? Early on, this volume tries to tie up loose ends with some of the lower-level villains, but they're so unimportant that it seems pointless (if not confusing) for them to even show up. Logic also goes out the window when Ageha charges into battle: everyone's just running around and causing explosions, instead of using the elaborate psychic-power system from first few volumes. What's the point of introducing a concept if you're just going to forget about it? A good story should connect its ideas together, not keep piling everything on—otherwise it'll collapse under the mess it's built. Honestly, between the time-traveling, the apocalypse, and the psychic duels, Psyren is starting to look pretty messy. Even basic things like character relationships are neglected: Ageha and his team appear in one battle after another, like chess pieces waiting to be moved, instead of people striving to understand and learn about each other. Funny how this quest to save humanity has lost its human side.

The series does feel like it's starting to overstretch itself with too many ideas. There's lots of mind-blowing, fast-paced action, but the execution results in a C+.

Vol. 1
(by Io Sakisaka, Viz Media, $9.99)

"What is love, anyway? Ninako Kinoshita's friends tell her it's one thing, but Ninako wonders what this mysterious feeling really is. When she meets Ren Ichinose, the handsome, enigmatic guy that all the girls worship, her life takes an unexpected turn. With just a few words and a smile, he changes her world...
Ninako's friend Daiki throws her for a loop when he expresses romantic interest in her. She cares for him, but can she return his feelings? As she tries to sort out her confusion, Ninako realizes that there are many different facets of love—strange and wonderful sides..."

Strobe Edge explores the familiar "unreachable school idol vs. best guy friend" concept at a deeper level than most. Most romance stories are happy just to take their readers on emotional rides, but this one looks under the hood and reveals the machinery of love (if it can be called that). Everything Ninako goes through—her crush doing something nice for her, peer pressure telling her who she "ought" to be dating, letting down someone when the feelings aren't mutual—shines a light on how real-life personal relationships work. The story's appeal also comes from being neither blindly optimistic nor hopelessly dark: as the love triangle grows into a polygon, it balances moments of happiness with just as many moments of pain. The polished, expressive character art also adds to the emotional impact: a single smile can fill up one's heart, while a look of shock says all that needs to be said about a terrible revelation (see the end of Chapter 3). And while critics may blast "shojo manga style" for being nothing but freeform panels and random sparkles, this one handles those elements adeptly, with clear page layouts that never confuse the eye.

Congratulations! Strobe Edge wins zero points for originality. It's the same old love triangle that's been done by everyone else, right down to the light-haired guy versus the dark-haired guy. And as for those claims that it goes in-depth on how romance works—come on, it's just the main character overthinking everything and belaboring the same point over and over. How many times is Ninako going to say, "Yep, I've fallen in love with Ren," or remind us that people can't help who they like? This is pop-psychology commentary thrown on top of a formulaic story, kind of like when you watch a movie with an annoying friend who analyzes every scene out loud. By the later chapters, the story seems to have run out of points to analyze, and so adopts the gimmick of adding new characters just for the sake of complicating the love polygon. The lack of original ideas also extends to the artwork, which consists almost entirely of dialogue scenes and abstract panels—all of which are set at school, or on the train. It's no surprise that a predictable story leads to predictable art.

True, it isn't doing anything new—but it does it really well, and makes you care about the characters. Making something engaging out of a ratty old cliché deserves a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Satoshi Mizukami, Shonen-gahosha, $4.99 online)

"Asamiya Yuuhi was an ordinary college student ... until the day a lizard showed up and asked him to help save the world. The next thing he knows, he's been given a ring and special powers, plus an enemy stalking him. However, he's saved in the nick of time by the girl next door, Samidare, who's planning ... WHAT kinds of things?! This is an unconventional story that mixes ordinary life with the bizarre and supernatural!"

The Japanese Scott Pilgrim? That's one way of describing this unique blend of youthful slice-of-life and fairytale fantasy. The premise is one flight of imagination after another: animal sidekicks that confer knighthood upon their owners, a giant cosmic hammer of the apocalypse, and a dreamspace that operates like an extension of reality. And yet, despite sounding really weird and disjointed, all these ideas line up into a rock-solid storyline about saving the world and getting stronger. Emotionally strong, that is. Yuuhi's family history and the hurt feelings beneath his cold exterior are essential to the story, proving that there's serious depth to go with the fun, adventurous atmosphere. Indeed, adventure is in the air with bold, page-spanning action scenes, as well as superhuman feats that look all the more striking because they happen in a "real world" setting. The cute character designs, each different from each other, add to the series' visual appeal, as do the simple but energetic layouts. Whether it's Yuuhi and his lizard buddy trading quips, or a dramatic fall off the side of a building, there's always something going on, and all of it is fantastic.

It's no easy feat bringing two disparate genres together, and Hoshi no Samidare does stumble a few times in trying to make it work. On the slice-of-life side, some of the humor is painfully forced: the series resorts to lowbrow gags more than it needs to, with recurring panty jokes and a couple of bathtime incidents. Come on, we've all seen the "awkward boy doesn't know how to deal with girls" routine before, and this series is capable of more originality than that. Some self-referential gags, where the characters refer to clichés and plot devices happening at that moment, also feel like a desperate attempt for laughs. Meanwhile, the fantasy side is hampered by artistic limitations: you can bend perspective and exaggerate the visuals all you want, but as long as the style leans closer to everyday comedy than ultra-detailed action masterpiece, it's always going to feel a bit lightweight. This first volume also gives off that haphazard trial-and-error vibe, where random ideas keep being tossed about (Magic hammer? Evil golems? Samidare's dark intentions?) until it can settle on something.

Some may find it almost too weird and awesome. But that's what makes it so great—various genre elements are stretched to their limits, and then woven into an engaging, imaginative story.

Can depressing things be hilarious? You bet they can if you read this week's Reader's Choice. Please welcome guest reviewer JBRupert, who reminds us of one of the darkest "dark comedies" ever made.

Is there a manga that cheers you up? Or depresses you? Or both at the same time? As always, you can send in a review to RTO Reader's Choice and let the world know!

Vols. 1-14
(by Koji Kumeta, Del Rey/Kodansha Comics, $10.99 ea.)

Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei is a dark satire comedy manga by Koji Kumeta, and yes it's the kind of dark with notions of suicide and the gross underside of society (with a satirical pinch of looking at the light side of the underbelly of things). Each of the chapters are mostly stand alone stories so there isn't a real story to talk about, but rather they're like school lessons. Each chapter goes into a certain topic and solely focuses on such, ranging from cultures to hibernation, from mistakes that people make to why college students who are studying for exams get certain privileges and so on. But not in a normal sense, but from how Zetsubou-sensei himself perceives.

Zetsubou-sensei (literally meaning Mr. Despair), or his actual name, Itoshiki Nozomu, is the main character of the series and a teacher of a predominantly female class in a middle school who looks at everything negatively and wants nothing more than to die by his own hands (you'll see him try to commit suicide on a constant basis). Now when I say he's a teacher, the truth is he doesn't exactly teach his class per se, but instead rants about a specific topic, saying nothing but the bad about it to the class, and then after he's done he goes into despair as he gives up hope on whatever he was rambling about. So after hearing his single minded preachings, several class members decide that's enough as they go on to counter his claims and argue against what their Sensei has said, trying to convince him that not everything about so-and-so is all that bad as he wants to believe. That is the usual routine of each chapter, ending with absurd and bizarre conclusions that you might even learn something from.

Aside from Sensei, the class itself is full of the most unique and hilariously quirky characters. Despite that they all have just one single character trait going for them, they would not be anything anyone would call normal. These characters are not your typical tropes like the tsundere or shy girl, but instead, how about a girl that only sees everything positively (the literal exact opposite of Zetsubou-sensei) or a girl who can only communicate by sending text messages—nasty insulting text messages. Instead of your typical shy girl, why not go a couple of steps further and try a Hikikomori (a shut-in) girl. And with the episodic formula of the manga, expect to see each of them featured in their own chapters from time to time (some more so than others).

Even with all the hilarious and absurd characters, the great satire and dark comedy, and the simple yet effective use of its story in episodic manner, there is one very pressing issue with Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei: the majority of the references and jokes are very, very Japanese. By Japanese, I mean do you know who Hiro Tsunoda is? How about Hitonari Tsuji? And honestly if you do not even know what a hikikomori or what a NEET is, then this will not be very humorous towards non-Japanese manga readers. And these references are not one in a few chapters; they're once a few pages in every chapter common. But if you consider yourself to be very versed in Japanese culture, then hopefully there shouldn't be a problem.

If not, then get yourself a handy dandy Japanese reference notebook or prepare to wiki everything. But for those who want to read from the English language releases of this manga, there is an impressive guide for just about everything referenced in the backs of the manga volumes.

Now when it comes to the artwork, you have to be fair, you shouldn't be reading Zetsubou-sensei for the artwork. It's not bad or anything, just don't go in expecting the artwork to be equal to the comedy. And no, it's not bad or ugly at all (though it is intentionally ugly for humor purposes); it's just simple, but gets the job done. The character designs are diverse enough, but the female characters all look the exact same, just with different hair styles, though not to the point where you can't tell who from who.

Overall, you can still get plenty of laughs from this manga despite not knowing enough Japanese culture, because there's plenty of absurd comedy to please any funny bone. But hey, if you're not knowledgeable in Japanese culture but you want to read a comedy manga anyway, I suggest you go pick up a Shonen Jump and read Gintama. Just make sure you know what Shonen Jump is.

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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