My Manga Review Column Can't Be This Cute

by Carlo Santos,

With AKB48's "Request Hour" concerts being livestreamed over the past week, I have lost any concept of a normal sleep schedule. 6 p.m. Japan time equates to 1 a.m. Pacific time (in the winter), so I've been sneaking my extra hours of sleep whenever I can. Because of online streaming, having an interest in Japanese pop culture isn't just about knowing a different language and culture anymore—it's about trying to live in two different time zones at once!

Vol. 4
(by Shuzo Oshimi, Vertical, $10.95)

"Torn with guilt over their failed escapade, the bookworm visits the reject's home. In having no real reason to rebel other than feeling the emptiness of life with particular acuity, Sawa Nakamura emerges, oddly enough, as the noblest and purest of manga heroines."

After neurotic protagonist Kasuga gets caught for his crimes in The Flowers of Evil Volume 3, it seemed that his descent into madness had finally reached a stopping point—but Volume 4 completely derails that idea. Kasuga's behavior gets even more bizarre, giving all the more reason to keep on reading. Who'd have thought he would come crawling back to Nakamura, even though she's just going to make his life worse? And who'd have imagined he would pull off such an audacious prank in the last two chapters—a desperate stunt to win back Nakamura's favor? The ever-shifting power game between Nakamura and Kasuga is another selling point for this story: their chaotic actions will keep readers guessing dark whether she's still pulling his strings, or whether he's finally given in to his perverted nature. Finally, it's not just the story that's been developing, but the art as well: the characters' outspoken expressions show clear improvement over earlier volumes, and the realistic small-town scenery sets up the perfect contrast against Kasuga's unreal acts of depravity. It may have that relaxed, slice-of-life look, but you'd never want your life to end up like this.

The Flowers of Evil takes some wicked twists and turns, but it also has long periods of dull, straight-ahead storytelling. The first two chapters are a perfect example: Kasuga just attends school day after day, while random students mutter about how weird he is. Boring. Even Kasuga's interaction with his crush, Saeki—a plot point that ought to be interesting—fails to bring much drama. They just chat with each other embarrassedly and go their separate ways, thus bringing that storyline to a weak, suspended resolution. Things don't get fun until Kasuga visits Nakamura's house about midway through the book—so that's a few dozen pages of humdrum school life to wade through. Of course, the second half isn't necessarily that much better, since it tries to pass off a juvenile prank as some kind of dramatic statement. Are Kasuga and Nakamura really heroes of free expression and non-conformity ... or is this all just self-indulgent B.S.? While pondering that question, let's not forget that the art has its lousy moments too, most noticeably when backgrounds disappear and the characters are just talking to each other in blank space.

It may not have the impact that the previous volume did, but the twisted characters and unexpected events are as compelling as ever—so this one clocks in at a B.

Vol. 2
(by Ema Toyama, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Shigure learns Yukina's weakness—that she is terrified to have people look at her without her glasses on—but his threats of exploitation aren't enough to stop her. Fed up, he decides to teach her a lesson by taking her glasses in front of a pack of jealous girls."

The back-and-forth mind games continue in this volume of Missions of Love, and the tension only escalates with each successive chapter. Yes, Shigure has figured out how to get the upper hand on Yukina ... but what if there are outside forces looking to protect her? More importantly, what if these "missions" that Yukina orders Shigure to carry out become something more serious than just a boyfriend-girlfriend charade? It's fun to see Yukina's resolve weakening, as Shigure's charm wears away at her cold exterior and her soft-hearted nature starts to emerge. That's the secret, then: Yukina is so appealing because she's a textbook tsundere! Still, the unpredictability of this "are they or aren't they" relationship isn't the only thing that drives the story: a burgeoning love triangle involving Yukina's cousin promises even more chaos to come. The characters' rollercoaster emotions come out in the artwork as well, where intense expressions and sweeping gestures show just what it's like to fall in love. In particular, key romantic gestures are perfectly timed: the panels lead up to adorable, heart-stopping scenes right when you expect it, and nothing feels better than getting caught up in that thrill.

Now that the characters are caught up in a relationship whirlwind, they've been simplified to basic love-story stereotypes. Remember when the contrast between Shigure's princely exterior and his scheming heart seemed intriguing? Now he just spends all his time playing the cool bad boy. Yukina, meanwhile, is slowly morphing into the dotty, love-obsessed shojo heroine we all dread—she wibbles and wobbles, questioning her feelings about Shigure, instead of being the ice queen who can chase off others with just a stare. It's also kind of dumb that her defensive stance can be so easily derailed just by removing her glasses. That's not a weakness, that's a gimmick. The role of cousin Akira still feels underdeveloped as well; does he ever do anything besides constantly show up as a third wheel? The idiosyncratic art style might also be off-putting to readers, with the numerous headshots and facial close-ups featuring huge saucer eyes. The page layouts during everyday school scenes also lack organization—panels are placed at haphazard angles, with no thought about how they flow from one to the next. Apparently, artistic effort only goes into the big lovey-dovey scenes.

The back-and-forth between Shigure and Yukina is still brilliant, but it could have done more than just playing to the romantic formula. This volume earns a B-.

Vol. 60
(by Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Naruto is a young shinobi with an incorrigible knack for mischief. He's got a wild sense of humor, but Naruto is completely serious about his mission to be the world's greatest ninja!
Now aligned with the tailed beasts and his fellow jinchûriki hosts more than ever, Naruto impresses the Allied Shinobi Forces with his newfound strength. But his comrades are not going to leave this final battle with the forces of Tobi up to Naruto alone. As they rush to assist their friend, Sasuke returns. And this time, he's intent on taking out Naruto once and for all."

Every time it seems Masashi Kishimoto has reached his limits, he finds a way to break them. Everyone's gotten used to ninjas battling ninjas, so how about the hero taking on hundred-foot-tall legendary creatures? That's what gives the volume its "wow" factor, and it's not just about Naruto's physical skills, but also his spiritual and emotional ones. The most memorable scenes are not those with fancy fighting moves, but the times when Naruto communicates with the beasts, winning them over with his pure heart and integrity. Well-placed flashbacks, plus an inspirational speech near the end, also make the story relatable, even as Naruto's abilities push into the realm of superhuman. And if this head-and-heart stuff seems too abstract, the visuals drive the point home in a more direct way. Impossibly quick moves and powerful strikes fill up entire pages with eye candy, and few things are as amazing as seeing a single explosion rip an entire landscape apart. Fans already know this fight is a big deal, but the artwork makes you see just how big it is—especially with human combatants often dwarfed by the effects of their own attacks.

The temptation to make every fight as big as possible is what's slowly choking any sense out of Naruto. We already saw it once when Kabuto resurrected all the dead shinobi and no one could keep track of the characters—and now there's this, where the main character seems to be running and kicking his way through swirly, random scribbles. Wait, those scribbles are supposed to represent the beasts that Naruto is battling. Or maybe they represent his incredible, world-destroying ninja attacks? In any case, the artwork has become so overloaded that even trying to follow a basic fight scene is now an eyestrain-inducing chore. It only gets worse when Naruto enters the spiritual realm of the tailed beasts, and we have to make sense of an ethereal alternate world that Masashi Kishimoto made up. Meanwhile, the other subplots going on right now don't accomplish a whole lot—everyone's supposed to be hyped up about Sasuke finally returning, yet all he does is skulk around for a couple of chapters before deciding it's time to move. Not a very impressive comeback so far.

The story of Naruto's encounter with the tailed beasts is awe-inspiring ... yet the over-ambitious art often detracts from it, making the final grade a C+.

Vol. 2
(by Tsukasa Fushimi, Sakura Ikeda and Hiro Kanzaki, Dark Horse, $10.99)

"Things get even weirder for high-schooler Kyousuke and his vexing little sister Kirino—and everyone around them! While Kyousuke defends Kirino's extensive (and expensive) collection of anime DVDs and erotic video games, he's also running interference in an attempt to keep Kirino's embarrassing inclinations a secret from her nosy, obnoxious, mean-girl friends. It's enough to run a guy ragged—but, to his own surprise, Kyousuke is willing to do whatever it takes to protect Kirino, and no matter how evil and crazy she can be, she's just so cute!"

Kyousuke emerges as a true hero in this volume of Oreimo—even if all he's standing up for is his little sister, and her right to enjoy her hobbies. The first half of this book is a passionate defense of geek culture, with both Kyousuke and Kirino launching into eloquent speeches to make their case. But a debate is most exciting when both sides are equally forceful, and the ultra-conservative attitude of Kirino and Kyousuke's father makes him a worthy opponent. Who needs special powers and physical combat when battling over personal ideals can be just as thrilling? The later chapters, meanwhile, turn toward one of the classic comedy scenarios that any fan can relate to: you've just received a special mail-order package, but there are some people who shouldn't be seeing what's in it. Kyousuke's wild antics, and Kirino's indignance, spark plenty of laughs in that situation. Simple character designs and cleanly-spaced layouts keep the story moving along briskly; the artwork does the right thing by avoiding unnecessary flourishes and letting the storyline speak for itself. But there's still space for a couple of moe-inspired parody images to give the series its irreverent flavor.

The problem with arguing one side of a debate is that it's too easy to build an unrealistic straw man as the opponent—in other words, Kyousuke and Kirino's dad. He may be passionately against otaku culture, but the story also paints him as close-minded, frothing-at-the-mouth maniac, when in reality, there are intelligent counterarguments out there. As a result, his character comes off as a poor caricature of the "overly concerned parent" type. Kirino's schoolmates, who are introduced in the second half, are another example of weak characterization—they just hang around acting cute and normal. One of them is pushed as a possible love interest for Kyousuke, but this feels like a forced move. The shift away from Kirino's geeky life (no Akihabara visit?), and towards ordinary school-and-home activities, also erases what made the series appealing in the first place. Meanwhile, the simplicity of the artwork backfires on itself when Kyousuke and others engage in dialogue: there's nothing to look when the characters talk to each other, as the backgrounds often remain blank. A sudden outbreak of fanservice near the end also falls flat, as it relies on a much-overused, predictable gimmick.

Although it sometimes downslides into mediocrity, the overall story and chemistry between the characters is still entertaining enough for a B.

Vol. 14
(by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In a savage world ruled by the pursuit of the most delicious foods, it's either eat or be eaten! While searching for the tastiest foods imaginable, Gourmet Hunter Toriko travels the world with his bottomless stomach, facing every beast in his way.
In order to convince the world's best cutler, Melk, to fix Komatsu's broken kitchen knife, Toriko plans to get him a superior whetstone that lies within the deepest cave in the world, guarded by terrifying subterranean creatures. But Melk's hiding something big from Toriko..."

A Toriko story arc that isn't centered on eating ridiculous dishes and slaying impossible beasts? Believe it! ... and enjoy it, because the new character and change of pace make it that much more interesting. Master knife-maker Melk is instantly likable, embodying all the qualities of an ideal hero—being amazingly good at something, while still having the drive and diligence to keep on improving. Melk's unusual secret also adds a hint of mystery: instead of just meeting someone and going on a quest, Toriko and Komatsu must uncover the truth—and once they do, it turns out to be pretty heartwarming and inspirational. Komatsu also takes center stage for a few chapters, proving that even a scrawny chef can be the star of a series dominated by big burly men. After these fresh developments, though, the story makes sure to return to its roots: Toriko's underground excursion provides the usual eye-popping thrills as he battles cave-dwelling beasts with his mighty fists. The bold art style highlights every fighting move in impressive detail, while the hostile environment—shadowy caverns, massive rocks, and increased gravitational pull—makes for a particularly imaginative "underground level."

They say that the new character is hiding a secret, but when Toriko figures out part of it within the first couple of chapters, and the rest of it is given away in a brief comedy scene, it's not really much of a secret, is it? Toriko has always been a straightforward, in-your-face series, and that ends up backfiring when it tries to create a mysterious character with something to hide. Anyhow, once Melk's back-story comes out, it's not all that unique anyway—just another application of the "I wanna be the best" character trope. Meanwhile, all this character exploration and knife-sharpening action means that sacrifices must be made in another area: fight scenes. The number of brawls and beatdowns is definitely down in this volume, which will disappoint action fans used to Toriko's displays of power—and when he does fight, it's not particularly memorable. He just waves his fists around, knocks down his enemies (no escalation or clever battle strategies), and runs into another musclebound meathead ... like most other volumes. The more Toriko tries to change, the more it stays the same.

It's no conspiracy-thriller masterpiece, but it doesn't have to be: the unraveling of Melk's story, along with lively artwork, make this volume enjoyable enough for a B+.

Vol. 8
(by Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir and Shiei, Seven Seas, $11.99)

"Luna's control agent, Jennifer Kajiwara, is given an ultimatum by her superiors in the Agency. If Luna fails in her newest mission, Project Luna will be terminated—permanently.
As Luna delves deeper into the shadowy organization known as Knightfall, what she learns may not only derail her mission, but it could tear apart her makeshift family forever."

What's more amazing—the fact that Luna has managed to keep going this long, or that the creators continue to add new levels of complexity to the characters? The basic schoolgirl-turned-spy premise gets shaken up in many surprising ways as a new story arc begins here. Luna's best friends turn against her, cool-headed Jennifer starts to lose her grip on her professional and personal life, and the story's geopolitical dealings suggest that the good guys really, seriously, could lose to rogue forces this time. A dramatic, volume-ending cliffhanger emphasizes that last point, showing how dire things have gotten. A couple of plot elements from the Amazing Agent Jennifer spinoff also add an extra layer to the story (while still making sense on its own, thankfully). There's no comic relief quite like college buddy Kim, who never has a clue what's going on, but always manages to help. Consistent character designs, sharp linework, and a natural eye for layouts also help in bringing the story across visually. Fluid, fast-paced action scenes are the highlight, of course—but the impact of low-key, dramatic scenes like the departure of a major character proves the artwork's versatility.

Do people just not draw backgrounds anymore? For all the cleanliness of Luna's art, it wouldn't hurt to get a little dirty once in a while—throw in some textures, some props, anything to show that the action is taking place somewhere other than a generic white room. Well-drawn backgrounds could show the difficulty Luna faces in trying to infiltrate a high-security buliding ... but instead it looks like a plain old office. Even something simple, like pointing out that this arc takes place in winter, ends up being a failure because there's nothing in the artwork aside from a few clumps of snow. Lack of detail is also a problem in the story itself, where the Agency and Knightfall are both portrayed simply as "shadowy organizations" doing who-knows-what. Just imagine how compelling the Luna-verse would be if the world-building were more complete. Luna's falling-out with her friends is another area where the narrative falls short: we know she stopped getting along with them because of previous events, but it just keeps repeating the point of "everyone hates Luna now," rather than trying to follow up with reconciliation or revenge in some way.

Everything you knew about the characters is wrong! That's what makes this volume so effective, and fans will definitely want to stay on board as the new story arc takes off.

Fans of RTO!!, please don't forget that this part of the column exists! There haven't been any new submissions in a while, and YOUR opinions are necessary to make Reader's Choice work. Don't let this section fade away—send in your reviews and let the world know about your most loved (and most hated?) manga.

Meanwhile, this week sees the ever-faithful Eric P. writing in about a fan favorite that ended up taking a controversial route. Perhaps someday we'll see this go back into print...?

(by Masami Tsuda, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea. [out of print])

Have you ever watched a 13-26 episode anime series based on a longer-running manga, and you were disappointed by the anime's ending, or even lack of one? You then look to the manga, and there you get the complete story, from where the anime left off to a proper conclusion. In most cases, the manga is actually better than the anime for that. But how often does one find oneself more let down with the manga's ending than they were with the anime? Some think of Bunny Drop as an easy example. Another big example would be Kare Kano.

In this story, popular schoolgirl Yukino only pretends to be perfect to the surrounding students, and one day meets new popular schoolboy Arima, who seems to be the genuine article. He finds out about her imperfection, they have a rivalry, but ultimately they fall in love. Yukino learns to let down her guard at seeming perfect, while Arima has a sad, cruel history and a dark side that threatens to be unlocked.
The manga isn't quite as hyperactive as the anime, but it still shares the same stylistic shoujo design and feel. Picking up the story where the anime left off, the characters have the school play, and then—Arima's birth mother comes back into his life. We find out she is a monster, things get more complicated when his birth father comes back, Arima's world sinks into darkness, and Yukino gets dragged down with him.

Everything comes to a conclusion at Vol. 21 that resolves everything, but that hardly makes the manga's ending that much more satisfying than where the anime cut off. It involved guns, in such a way they're out of place. After other failed relationships, a guy finds his future dream girlfriend in a newborn baby girl, and that's exactly what happens later. It's not sweet, ironic, or sweetly ironic, it's just messed up. Last but not least, I won't say who, but a sexual assault scene takes place between romantic interests when things get at their very worst and yet they still live "happily ever after."

If anything, the manga's ending deepens one's appreciation for the anime's ending more, which I believe is Episode 24. Episode 25 is just a side-story, while episode 26 is a disappointing lead-in to the dark route the manga takes. In episode 24, Yukino more or less wraps things up with an "anything can happen in the future" speech, leaving us wondering what future the characters will make for themselves past their high school lives, and it really felt like the story came thematically full circle. That open-ended conclusion really is ironically far more fulfilling than the longer path Masami Tsuda chose to expand on and go with where things just spiraled out of control.

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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