For Eva and Eva

by Carlo Santos,

It's been two years now since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Far be it from me, a humble pop-culture writer, to comment on how an event like this affected thousands, if not millions, of lives—not just those in Japan, but all of us with any connection (however trivial) to the country. Two years later, has it given us a sharper view of our fragile existence, of the bonds that connect people? Do we see past superficial distractions, and remember that the essence of humanity lies beyond fictional stories and constructed images? I know, I know, we're just here to talk about Japanese comics that came out recently in translation. But on a day like this, I remind myself that there is far more to life than just the next few thousand words that follow.

Vol. 2
(by Kōhei Horikoshi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Fresh from SJ Alpha comes an action-packed reimagining of The Prince and the Pauper! Spunky slum kid Astro gets the chance of a lifetime to end the chaos ripping apart his home planet when the playboy prince switches places with him. Now Astro has become Prince Barrage, a boy charged with the duty of restoring peace to the planet ... and given an all-powerful magical spear to do it!
Astro and his loyal knight Tiamat's wild adventure of freeing Industria from alien invaders gets a lot more complicated in the city of Maseille. There they will have to defeat aliens who are subjugating the city with a seemingly omnipotent power known as Dark Energy, and whose leader has a deep connection to Astro's past."

For a series that got cancelled early, Barrage does an admirable job of wrapping things up. The second half of Astro's adventure has it all: a poignant flashback, a likable sidekick, a heart-wrenching death scene, a twisted betrayal ... and a finale that smacks of pure, noble heroism. It's like five volumes' worth of story packed into one. There's even time for some deep, serious thoughts, as Astro confronts a tough moral dilemma in his final fight, and one of his allies must consider the consequences of revenge. The setting is another strong point, seamlessly blending sci-fi concepts with fantasy weapons and touches of steampunk. When the adventure is as exciting as this one, does the exact time period and location really matter anyway? If the story itself isn't satisfying enough, the battle scenes also provide lots of visual appeal: the characters seem to be in motion in just about every panel, stretching their limbs and delivering powerful blows in physics-defying fashion. Detailed character designs and backgrounds also prove that Kōhei Horikoshi isn't slacking off on the art—this series may have been forced to end early, but it still goes out with a blast.

Looking at Barrage's flaws, it's clear to see why this one met the editor's axe. It may have the proper elements of a shonen adventure, but the execution is too textbook—Horikoshi is just checking off items here. When a beloved figure dies, it feels like a pre-scripted event, meant as an excuse to motivate the characters. When the shocking twist behind Astro's past is revealed, smart readers won't be all that shocked, since it relies on a fairly common plot device. Right at the end, the series even tries to make a deep statement about the blurry boundaries between good and evil—but considering that these characters have barely met, and they're basically squabbling over an outpost town, this grand gesture comes across as overambitious. That's the problem, really: this story was supposed to be about a kid saving the planet, and instead he only has time to save one point on a map. Even the artwork can be overambitious, as the characters move with such force that excessive speedlines or confusing angles ruin the fun. Showoff techniques shouldn't get in the way of the main action.

It's not terribly original, and the sudden ending after two volumes does it no favors. Still, the energetic fight scenes and story threads all coming together in the finale are enjoyable enough for a B.

Vol. 8
(by Rei Tōma, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Princess Nakaba of Senan and Prince Caesar of Belquat only married eaach other for the sake of peace between their two warring countries, yet the two find themselves drawn to each other even as political forces threaten to tear their world apart. As Nakaba becomes embroiled in the chaos within the country of Lithuanel, Caesar prepares to return to Belquat to face the possibility of execution! Meanwhile, Nakaba's Arcana of Time power reveals some disturbing details about her attendant Loki's past..."

Dawn of the Arcana may look like a swashbuckling fantasy tale on the outside, but deep down, it's the interpersonal drama that makes it shine. Nakaba and Caesar continue to be the ultimate ill-fated couple: the more they try to look out for each other, the more they go through all sorts of pain. Caesar pushes Nakaba away so she won't miss him, while Nakaba is too afraid to peer into the future because of what it might hold—how powerful the irony that they can only show love by suffering for each other. But these two are far from being the series' only interesting characters; the Loki flashback in the last chapter is an even more powerful stab in the heart. This glimpse into Nakaba's childhood is incredibly dark, showing how oppression and inequality can lead to intense acts of cruelty ... on both sides. It's almost enough to make one forget that Nakaba is currently facing other struggles in a strange country—and that storyline adds an extra layer of intrigue as well.

The great mystery of Dawn of the Arcana is how it has managed to go on this long despite such terrible art. Visually, the series disappoints on every level: everyone's gotten used to the attractive-but-bland character designs by now, and their fancy outfits don't show much variation or innovation. Even the far-off setting is little help—the Middle Eastern-themed attire among Lithanuel's citizens is dull and stereotypical. The backgrounds are just as embarrassing: either they don't exist (Nakaba and Caesar's big dramatic scene takes place in a void of white space and screentones), or are very badly drawn—Lithanuel's main castle and its capital city look so flat and generic that they might tip over and turn out to be a cardboard backdrop. Then again, the Lithanuel storyline also feels the same way: just a weak, poorly conceived prop. In fact, the only aspect of the artwork that escapes critcism is the fighting action, because there isn't any. Nakaba's poor use of her Arcana powers is another huge disappointment: either she's too afraid to use it, or or it's only employed as a gimmicky plot device (the Loki flashback). What a terrible waste.

It's tolerable for the Caesar-Nakaba scenes, as well as the harrowing glimpse into Loki's past, but the bottom-grade art and wasted story potential land it at a C-.

Vol. 2
(by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, original concept by khara•GAINAX, Viz Media, $19.99)

"Once Shinji didn't care about anything; then he found people to fight for—only to learn that he couldn't protect them or keep those he let into his heart from going away. As mankind tilts on the brink of the apocalyptic Third Impact, human feelings are fault lines leading to destruction and just maybe, redemption and rebirth."

This volume covers the period where Yoshiyuki Sadamoto started taking years to work on the Evangelion manga—and as a result, his storytelling starts to mature dramatically. In this volume, the series ceases to be just a dazzling mecha-action piece and starts to deliver the jaw-dropping plot points—Adam, SEELE, Instrumentality, dummy plugs—that made Evangelion legendary. Still, it takes more than sinister buzzwords and a conspiracy against humanity to be a true masterpiece, and that's where the series' emotional dimension comes in. Shinji's strained relationship with his father reaches a turning point as harsh memories are revisited, and the tragic saga of Eva's newest pilot is as much about the pain of love and friendship as it is about piloting giant robots. (The scene on the very last page really twists the knife...) Despite the years of procrastination, Sadamoto's artwork remains confident and consistent throughout each chapter—even more so in scenes where the characters have to wear their emotions on their sleeves. At the same time, background details and mecha battles are handled with precise draftsmanship. Occasional comedy bits and visual gags also find their way into this volume, bringing some necessary lightness to a world that grows ever darker.

Unfortunately, the maturation in Sadamoto's storytelling also highlights just how banal the series was until the serious plot elements kicked in. The first part of this book (equivalent to Volume 4) is embarrassingly cheesy, as fan-favorite Asuka Soryu Langley comes blustering in on a wave of comedy-anime clichés. She makes her debut as a butt-kicking beauty at the arcade, shows up at Shinji's school as the charismatic transfer student, and basically runs the "overachieving princess" stereotype into the ground. Asuka's arrival also marks the infamous "dancing" episode of Evangelion, which, although visually entertaining, is also the very definition of mecha-battling formula: the hero must learn an unlikely skill and forge new friendships in order to defeat the enemy. If it were a less famous series, we'd probably be rolling our eyes. School-life scenes are another low point: not only do the characters engage in idle chatter and bickering, but the art also drops in quality—less detail and more cartoonish behavior—since these segments are of lesser importance. (Yet some of that classroom camaraderie does matter, eventually...)

The weak spots in this volume aren't enough to affect how good the series is when it starts delivering heavy plot points and wrecking one's emotions. This is where Evangelion starts earning the A it deserves.

Vol. 3
(by Ai Yazawa, Vertical, $19.95)

"As the much-anticipated Yaza Arts fashion show gears up, an unexpected visitor from George's past makes an appearance. Yukari's modeling career heats up just as George makes an announcement that shocks the ParaKiss group to the core. George is hearing the siren call of the City of Lights, but where does that leave Yukari? Will she find the key to Paradise?"

The final act of Paradise Kiss does not deliver the perfect fairytale ending ... and that's why it's perfect. They don't get everything they want, but Yukari and George still emerge as better people, shaped by a storyline where character development is real and every plot point has purpose. Carefree George takes time to consider a second-option career path. Yukari buckles down and finally balances creative passions and academics. Even the comic-relief pair, Miwako and Arashi, learn to handle their stormy relationship better, and a touching flashback about Isabella makes her character complete. Minor characters like parents, teachers, and alumni also prove essential: without them, most of the main cast's final decisions wouldn't be possible. Some of Ai Yazawa's finest artistic gestures also get saved for last—the design and detail in Yukari's appearance at the fashion show is nothing less than spectacular, and the occasional abstract panels in the middle-to-final chapters capture the emotional volatility of adolescence. The elaborate, high-fashion exterior of Paradise Kiss may be its initial appeal, but the complex feelings deep down are what linger long after.

Paradise Kiss's ending could have been even more perfect—and more impactful—if the series didn't keep getting sidetracked by minor distractions. The build-up to Yukari's runway debut, for example, is clogged with scenes where George and company are freaking out over accessories, or every single person who's ever been connected to Yaza Arts has to come over and say hi. Cut out this quotidian fluff, and we could have gotten to Yukari's big moment much more efficiently. Even as the story winds its way to graduation day, filler scenes like casual dates and throwaway conversation pad out the page count. These moments may be cute and fun—it wouldn't be ParaKiss without the meta-humor or George's cutting remarks—but there's always the danger of little ornaments becoming more important than the main piece. Artistic flourishes can also be a problem: some pages simply have too much going on, with screentone patterns, clothing details, and small-to-midsize panels causing a visual commotion.

Although some flaws still find their way into this volume, the distinctive art and rewarding storyline ultimately make this finale worthy of an A-.

Vol. 2
(by Ryukishi07 and Kei Natsumi, Yen Press, $18.99)

"Six people are dead, and Battler and his remaining relatives slowly come around to addressing the terrifying reality of their situation: Either one of their number is a murderer, or there is a nineteenth person on the island who wants the Ushiromiya family dead. Regardless, the killer seems to be following the inscription beneath the portrait of Beatrice, the instructions for finding the elder Ushiromiya's vast treasure of gold. But each line of the inscription calls for more death, more blood ... and the revival of the witch Beatrice herself ... Will any remain alive to see the end of this mystery?"

If the first Umineko omnibus was a thrill ride, then this is the thunderous crash at the end of it. We already know everyone's going to die, but the story injects so much drama and suspense into the proceedings that every scene is a must-see. Vicious murders, terrifying prophecies, and head-spinning debates—how can anyone not be hooked? For every question answered (who dies next?), another question emerges (but how?!), spinning one mystery into another like a giant whirlpool of death. Soon enough, Battler is the last one standing at its center, still seeking a logical answer—but what if logic doesn't apply? That's the brilliant, tantalizing catch of Umineko: it operates like a classic closed-room mystery, but refuses to confirm whether magic is also involved. A surreal epilogue chapter adds to this eerie ambiguity. Blood-stained deaths and energetic action sequences make a strong visual impact, with jagged paneling and dramatic angles creating a strong sense of motion. The characters' extreme emotional states are also clear to see; no one masters the "creepy little girl" look quite like Maria Ushiromiya. Between the forceful art and an irresistible storyline, this one's a winner.

This "ending" is actually just the first arc, and Umineko still has plenty more to say—but that unfinished business is what holds back this volume from greatness. What about the family fortune they were supposed to seek out? What about digging into the truth of Beatrice's past? What about solving at least some of the murders? It may be fun to watch Battler and company trying to run from their impending doom, but it does little to address all the little nooks and crannies in the story. The over-reliance on old horror and mystery clichés also becomes wearisome after a while: Maria's creepy cackling is a one-note gimmick, as that's the only thing her character ever does. The series also has a nasty habit of going long stretches without doing anything artistically interesting. When Battler gets into an intense debate over the first two chapters, for example, it's nothing but talk for pages and pages (with the occasional angry face, if that helps). Some scenes also seem to be consciously avoiding backgrounds, making the mansion setting look less luxurious than it should.

Some might accuse Umineko of trying to do too much—hence all the unresolved plot points—but it's still a solid work overall. Credit this volume with a B.

Vol. 1
(by Akira Kawa, Futabasha, ¥580 / $4.99 online)

"A young boy and dog suddenly appear in the life of a carefree couple. The boy is Kota, taken in by his uncle and aunt after the sudden death of his mother. The dog is a mysterious creature named Wonder. The four of them grow as they awkwardly overcome various incidents and troubles."

Wonder! gets its title from the dog, but it's the human characters and their stories that propel this heartwarming series. Whether it's a wife in an "open marriage" learning to take responsibility for others, a young boy facing harsh tragedies, or that same boy years later trying to navigate the social minefield of high school, Wonder! has many thoughtful things to say about the ups and downs of life ... and that's just Volume 1. Even more powerful is the side story in the back, which takes a critical look at suicide, bullying, and image-consciousness in society—while avoiding the preachiness that often comes with such issues. Oh, and the dog is pretty important too: Wonder is often the emotional turning point for each chapter, comforting his owners or offering them advice without saying a word. The loose-lined, easygoing artwork fits the series well, putting more emphasis on natural expressions and everyday activity than flashy artistic techniques. Wonder's detailed appearance makes him adorable and soothing to look at, while the impressive variety of human characters—not just in looks, but also in age—deserves a mention too.

The artwork may be appealing, but some may also find it too dated for their tastes. Style-wise, Wonder! falls somewhere between Sailor Moon and Marmalade Boy, but more as a cookie-cutter imitation of that era rather than an individual expression of the artist. It also doesn't help that the visuals are so crammed together—there's just a lot of story to tell, and some panels barely have enough room to squeeze in the characters' faces. And forget about any sense of spacing to help manage the flow of the story. If that's not bad enough, the dense dialogue creates further competition for page space, often with chatty filler lines that add nothing to the main story. Some of the events in this volume are also a little too wild to be believable: stalkers, murderers, and violent grudges all come into play, which seems strangely contradictory for a sweet housepet-and-family story. The sudden time-skips between the first three chapters—Kota at age nine, then in junior high, then high school—may also throw off readers who were expecting a more straight-ahead serial.

"Slice-of-life" is a term often thrown about to describe nearly everything, but the earnest storytelling and well-sketched-out characters in Wonder! really do bring out the best of this genre.

You know who I can always count on in the Reader's Choice section? Eric P., of course! This time he offers his own take on one of the recent Haruhi Suzumiya spinoffs. Do you agree? Disagree? This is a place for everyone to share their opinions.

Don't stand on the sidelines—send in your own reviews to Reader's Choice and share in the ongoing manga conversation!

Vols. 1-2
(by Nagaru Tanigawa and PUYO, Yen Press, $11.99 ea.)

In The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, what kind of life would Kyon have had if he had chosen to stay in the other world structured by Nagato? We get to find out in the alternative-world spinoff that is The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan. Here, Nagato is a normal girl and an introverted bookworm. Asakura is her best supporting friend, as well as a kind of parental figure. And Kyon is the boy that Nagato met at the library who helped her get a library card, as well as later joins her literary club to help save it. Mikuru and Tsuruya go to the same school, yet are more like friendly rivals from their own club. And in another school, there attends both Koizumi and Haruhi Suzumiya themselves.

Within the first volume, the manga had so far been about nothing much other than the daily lives of the three-member club of Nagato, Asakura, and Kyon, and Nagato seeking the courage to confess her feelings to Kyon. This series being a spinoff of Haruhi Suzumiya alone was what kept this from feeling like another mundane romantic comedy centering around a shy-girl protagonist. But then—Volume 2 turns the first on its head when Haruhi Suzumiya makes her grand introduction into the lives of Nagato and Kyon. Just when you think the spinoff would be its own separate entity, Haruhi literally steals the show from Nagato as she claims leadership of the literary club. True to her inherent character, it's as if she were intentionally taking over the manga itself. And just when you think this manga is starting to cop out and become a copy of the original series, we discover that Haruhi's past meeting with Kyon, something that she remembers (and begins suspecting of Kyon) but he does not, reflects a significant scene from the original story, offering a kind of cryptic connection.

At first it was interesting enough to see these same characters we know and love in another world, from different backgrounds and have slightly different relationships. As an alternative-world spinoff to the original story, the worst thing this series could do is take the soulless BS approach of The Shinji Ikari Raising Project, which so far it doesn't quite reflect, helped further by the lack of consistent tasteless fanservice. But after reading Volume 2 one can't help but wonder if the story will lead to a profound direction that one would never have expected from the first volume alone. Is there an underlying plot to revealing truths that is waiting to surface? With Haruhi's help, will this somehow bridge with the original world in some way? Will Asakura (hopefully) remain the friendly girl she appears to be in this world? Or is it merely teasing us with these suggestive hints and it'll just remain a romantic comedy between Nagato and Kyon? Who knows, time will tell, but it's just enough to keep this reader going.

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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