Remember the Titans

by Carlo Santos,

I've mentioned it before, but the dramatic shifts in the yen exchange rate have become just as exciting as waiting for actual packages to arrive from Japan. With the 97 barrier now smashed, can USD/JPY hit 100? Some are saying 101.5 is a key level. Wherever the numbers end up, I know it can only mean one thing: buying more merch!

Vol. 4
(by Hajime Isayama, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"The Survey Corps develops a risky gambit—have Eren in Titan form attempt to repair Wall Rose, reclaiming human territory from the monsters for the first time in a century. But Titan-Eren's self-control is far from perfect, and when he goes on a rampage, not even Armin can stop him! With the survival of humanity on his massive shoulders, will Eren be able to return to his senses, or will he lose himself forever?"

After building up all this chaos, violence, and despair, Attack on Titan finally delivers a rush of excitement as humanity scores a victory against the Titans. Eren's turn in the spotlight is everything it's hyped up to be, as the raw, heavily-shaded artwork captures the intensity of the moment. Meanwhile, visceral scenes of Titans gobbling up humans, large buildings coming to pieces, and soldiers running about in panic remind us that even this "win" comes at a price. But what happens afterward is even more intriguing: the storyline jumps to a new locale and new timeframe, where Eren and his surviving friends join a new class of recruits on the path to becoming full-fledged soldiers. This new emphasis on personal interaction and military training is a welcome change—at last we get to know the characters as people, instead of as future Titan fodder. What's more, learning about combat at a basic level is surely easier than trying to figure it out in the heat of battle. There's even some occasional humor, so while the new storyline mostly stays off the battlefield this time, there's still enough to keep it interesting.

Sure, the new characters make it interesting, but it still doesn't measure up to the action of volumes past. After that one epic victory, we get a few chapters in a row of training sessions, which basically dials the intensity too far down. This is where the characters should be developing more advanced fighting techniques, or encountering even stronger Titans than last time ... not returning to the basics. A change of mood in the last chapter doesn't help, either—it happens too abruptly, suddenly jumping forward in time, then filling in the gap, and cutting to a new plot point in the most confusing way possible. One may even start to wonder if it's worth caring about supporting characters at all, or if they'll all end up dying untimely deaths. The artwork also continues to struggle with consistency: often times the characters' faces look oddly proportioned, or the scratchy lines and shading seem to be trying to hide visual defects. Action poses can range anywhere from dynamic to awkward, and the panel layouts sometimes get stuck in a monotonous pattern of squares and rectangles.

This volume delivers one great action-packed chapter and introduces new characters to the mix, but a sudden drop in excitement and shaky artwork average it out to a B-.

Vol. 56
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $9.99)

"When a mysterious group of warriors calling themselves the Vandenreich attacks, Ichigo heads to Hueco Mundo to help his friend Nel. And when the Vandenreich takes the fight to the Soul Society, an all-out war between Soul Reapers and Quincies breaks out!"

Bleach's new story arc wastes no time in pulling out all sorts of surprises. No one's allowed to use their bankai ability? Unthinkable! Quincy powers can't be countered in the same way as typical Soul Reaper and Hollow powers? Bizarre! This volume also digs into the history of the animosity between Soul Reapers and Quincies, along with a rundown of why and how the Vandenreich are able to kick Soul Society's tail. So don't accuse this volume of being one mindless battle after another—it's got plenty of story content to chew on. Meanwhile, fans who are here just for the fighting will still get their fill, with battles taking place in both Hueco Mundo and Soul Society, plus spiritual powers of every type coming into play. These varied combat styles also help the artwork: angular lines and dramatic swaths of light give the Vandenreich's powers a unique look, while familiar spiritual attacks benefit from widely-spaced page layouts. Tite Kubo's creativity is also at work with the all the new characters entering the fray.

Oh no, here we go again with one fight scene after another. Bleach tries to avoid monotony by jumping between different places and people, but it's always one fighter charging up, another swinging his sword, someone shooting a beam of energy ... and soon, everything starts to look the same. What's more, there's still the bad habit of switching scenes right when a fight reaches its big moment, a technique that is more disorienting than it is dramatic. More confusion can be found in panels where style trumps substance: cryptic artwork and oblique, zoomed-in angles can make the action hard to follow. The storyline also commits the sin of information overload, dumping in several new characters at once and trying to explain how all their powers work (which often involves fantasy-jargon words in German). That's the problem with maintaining a huge cast of characters and a complex fictional world: even if you balance out the plotlines, and give everyone a chance to make an appearance, it still feels like a chore keeping up with every little thing.

This latest story arc continues to heat up, but there still aren't any brilliant plot twists or eye-popping moments—just the usual ups and downs of battle, only worth a C+.

Vol. 2
(by Mayu Shinjo, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Shrine maiden Miko has sealed the powers of the sexy incubus Kagura, who has vowed to protect her. But now a fox spirit has transformed himself into a human to proclaim his love to Miko, making Kagura jealous. Miko relents and allows Kagura to enter her dreams again, but now he can no longer regain his incubus powers?!"

Demon Love Spell hits a lot of the right notes as a romantic comedy: Kagura continues to make hilariously inappropriate advances, while Miko's attempts to fend him off are just as entertaining. What's more, her plan to set aside one "lovey-dovey day" per month—thus forcing Kagura to "hold it in" for weeks at a time—adds another comical quirk to their relationship. However, dramatic content also holds its own, especially with the fox story: the ending is surprisingly bittersweet, maybe even tragic, and proves that there's more to this series than just romantic rivalries. The other storyline in this volume gets serious as well, with Miko having to face the dangers of demon possession and possibly Kagura's death. The politics of the demon world also plays a role, as some other spirits show up. Visually, Kagura's manly good looks are once again the main draw—although the fox spirit in human form, and the student council president who enters the story later on, will also be appreciated by bishonen fans. The different page layouts and panel sizes are another strong point, helping to vary the mood and pacing.

There may be more to Demon Love Spell than just romantic rivalries, but they still take up the most space. Just look at Miko's interactions the fox spirit—either he's trying to come on to her, or Kagura is trying to get him to leave, and this love triangle keeps going round and round until a pivotal event occurs. That pivotal event, by the way—the ending of the fox tale—feels unusually forced, as if Mayu Shinjo simply had to get it in even if it violates the mood of the series. At least the "lovey-dovey day" antics fit the story better, but again, this is a plot element that moves in circles more than it moves forward. When a big demon battle does happen, it doesn't come until late into the story. Then again, maybe Shinjo cuts down on supernatural action because of her own artistic weaknesses, often relying on prepackaged screentones to portray magic spells. Backgrounds in general have a similar problem, consisting of one grayscale pattern after another. The basics of human anatomy also turn out shaky—check out Kagura's face in profile and try to make sense of that.

It has some quality moments, both from a comedy and drama perspective, but the repetitive love antics and so-so artwork land it at a C.

Vol. 8
(by Tohru Fujisawa, Vertical, $10.95)

"While Eikichi Onizuka is not yet a father, one thing he does understand is the value of family. Familiar bonds always run deep. They may not always manifest themselves in positive ways, but those connections can inspire some to go above and beyond their means. So when the government of Shonan wants to reunite abused kids with their 'reformed' parents, Onizuka knows he can't turn back the tide of change but also that there are plenty of parents that cannot care for their kids. And that's a lesson that cannot be taught in school."

As always, GTO: 14 Days in Shonan delivers its share of crass humor: an Onizuka wisecrack about taking a dump in jail, a comical jab at bald men who hide their deficiencies, and some very unfortunate hostess-club antics involving two school administrators. But this volume also proves, to a surprising degree, that the storyline can get dead serious on real social issues. Shonan's mayor may be an extreme caricature, but his misguided "family values" stance calls to mind many of today's phony, pandering politicians. And the drama hits the heart even harder once we see the horrifying consequences—children being returned to their abusive parents. Thankfully, Onizuka comes to the rescue, with elaborate schemes and fast-paced action scenes providing the usual entertainment. A sudden change in circumstances also leaves this volume on an intense cliffhanger. Whether the story leans comical or dramatic, the artwork always brings plenty of energy to each scene, especially with the characters' wide-ranging facial expressions. A variety of character designs— skeevy old guys, pure-hearted kids, and adults in between—plus well-detailed backgrounds also strengthen the visuals.

Even though the misadventures of Uchiyamada (Onizuka's boss) have finally crossed paths with the main story, his plotline is still more of a distraction than a contribution. The chapters devoted to him in this volume are ill-timed, interrupting the series right when the mayor's awful family-values scheme was starting to get interesting. The abusive parents portrayed here also turn out rather unrealistic: they're presented as one-dimensional, purely evil beings who only want to hurt their kids. Ideally, this story should have gone with a more subtle tactic—well-intentioned parents who don't realize they're being hurtful, which is even scarier. Meanwhile, fans expecting lots of straight-out action and slapstick may be disappointed at how those elements have been pared down: Onizuka throws only one serious punch this whole time, and the schemes he gets into involve more mind than muscle (no all-out brawls or car chases). This puts a limit on how dynamic the artwork can be, while lesser flaws like awkward poses, stray penstrokes, or crowded layouts become more obvious.

Despite some missteps, the strength of the current story—along with a balance of action, comedy and drama—make it worth a B.

(by Hiroaki Samura, Dark Horse, $12.99)

"Blade of the Immortal creator Hiroaki Samura is always in demand, and Dark Horse's new anthology collects seven powerful, short pieces from the manga maestro that have appeared in various Japanese magazines. In 'Emerald,' Samura tells his first explosive adventure set in the Wild West, and a series of humorous vignettes about two swaggering motor-mouthed teen girls is woven through several other riveting tales! A masterful storyteller bounces around genres and time periods in this unique collection, which is a perfect companion to Samura's Ohhikoshi anthology!"

How good is Hiroaki Samura? So good that he can take on any genre he pleases. Admittedly, going from the samurai era to the Wild West isn't too much of a stretch—both are historical periods steeped in violence and codes of honor. But when the final act of "Emerald" suddenly spins out multiple mind-bending twists, it's clear that this is no mere gunslinging tale, but a top-notch story in any field. More surprises await in this smorgasbord of stories: a post-World War I tragedy with a spiritual ending, a tale of an deeply eccentric father, and a slice-of-life chronicle with a sci-fi edge. The schoolgirl vignettes, although shorter and very different, are just as funny and intelligent as the other stories are serious. Samura's art also shows no fear no matter what type of subject matter he tackles; the research on Wild West clothing and backgrounds is evident in every page of "Emerald." Wide-ranging character types, detailed linework, and well-defined layouts are other artistic qualities that serve the stories well. Whether a piercing drama, a comical send-up, or something in between, every piece in this anthology shines.

Every anthology has a few misses to go with the hits, and Emerald and Other Stories is no different. There's a short mahjong tale in here that only proves how hard it is to make the mahjong genre appealing to a mass audience (I actually play, but still found the story lacking). The schoolgirl bull sessions are also an acquired taste—it's easy to get annoyed at the heavy dialogue, fourth-wall-breaking references, and lack of a legitimate story. Sure, complaining about the "Korean wave" in Japan is always a conversation starter, but if there's nothing else to be said about it ... why say anything? What's more, these talky segments end up doing a disservice to Samura's highly skilled art, and excuses like "We'll conveniently forget about backgrounds today" just sound lazy. Even the serious stories contain elements that some may find off-putting—don't wade into this if you're easily creeped out by S&M fetishes or an adult-and-high-schooler relationship. It's true that this collection transcends many genres, but it may not transcend all sensibilities.

These stories are so good, and the art so polished, that it'd be foolish to ignore them on account of a few flaws. This is what an A looks like.

Vol. 1
(by Yusei Matsui, Shogakukan, ¥420)

"Kunugigaoka Middle School has a special class, 3-E. Their teacher is a weird combination of alien and octopus that moves at the speed of Mach 20, and the one who is responsible for destroying the half of the moon which is now permanently crescent-shaped. This creature challenges class 3-E to assassinate him before the end of the year, when he plans to destroy the Earth."

In its own crazy way, Assassination Classroom combines the three great qualities of the Shonen Jump brand: no, not friendship, challenge, and victory, but school life, sci-fi/fantasy, and comedy. Better yet, it does it with a what-the-hell premise that only gets stranger as it goes on. Class 3-E's spherical-headed teacher, nicknamed Korosensei ("unkillable Sensei"), flies around the world sampling global foods, morphs and changes colors on a whim, and weirdest of all, teaches heartwarming life lessons to the students who try to kill him. This incongruity is what makes it so funny: sure, he could totally blow up the planet, but why not toy with humanity and give them a fair shot at fighting back? It gets even better when Karma, a troublemaking student, returns to class and tries to match wits with Korosensei—so much so that the series even parodies Death Note for a moment. Korosensei's unusual character design also opens to door to plenty of eye-catching scenes: either he's darting around at supersonic speed, or flopping about in shapechanging fashion, and even pulling a visual gag or two. Bold, simple lines and cleanly laid out panels also add to the appeal of the series.

Sometimes, a story tries too hard to be wacky just for the sake of being wacky. Assassination Classroom basically makes up its rules as it goes along, always coming up with a new superpower as an excuse for why Korosensei couldn't be killed each time. Remember, this series also has sci-fi and action elements, so the "it's a comedy" excuse can only work up to a certain point. Repetition is another danger in these early stages, with "assassination of the week" plotlines that simply change the student and weapon in each chapter. How many times can Korosensei avoid his death before the gimmick gets old? Thank goodness for Karma's arrival, because his deadly methods are the only thing that pose a legitimate challenge to Korosensei—but even then, it would be better if the other students had a fair chance of beating him too. The artwork falls short when it comes to detail, often relying on a flat 2-D look where screentones and shading are left to a bare minimum. Backgrounds also suffer a similar fate, with classrooms and school buildings only being filled in for big panels and establishing shots.

Who knew that smashing a bunch of crazy ideas together could work? Assassination Classroom is so weird, and plays with so many genre elements, that fans can enjoy it in many different ways.

(by Tomoko Ninomiya, Del Rey)

I don't think my life will ever feel complete, knowing that Del Rey Manga came just a few volumes short of completing Nodame Cantabile but called it quits because (1) the series wasn't selling (2) the company was about to retool itself as Kodansha Comics. Several big-name Kodansha licenses stayed on with the new publisher, but sadly, Nodame never did.

I've always thought of Nodame Cantabile as the series made just for me—I've been around classical music all my life, I know my symphonies and concertos the way most kids know their Power Rangers and Pokemon, and here's this manga about the travails of music students at a conservatory. The lead character, Megumi "Nodame" Noda, is the kind of eccentric genius fans easily fall in love with—she's ditzy, she makes weird noises, her room is a train wreck, and she can play the hell out of the piano. Her counterpart is high-strung piano and conducting student Shinichi Chiaki, who can barely stand Nodame's scatterbrained ways—but that contrast is what makes them the perfect romantic pair. Surrounding them are a whole cast of other mad geniuses, the kind that can only exist in an environment devoted to playing musical instruments ridiculously well: the flamboyantly gay timpanist, the rock 'n' roll violin player, the shy but kindly oboist ... and that's just the Japan arc. Later on, Nodame and Chiaki move to Paris to continue their studies, and it becomes one delightful, quirky musical encounter after another.

The level of music knowledge that goes into this proves that Tomoko Ninomiya is a true enthusiast—but it never gets too technical, and the characters' lively personalities always take priority over theory and repertoire. Although it's impossible to "hear" music being played on a page, the flowing lines and free-spirited layouts get the point across, along with patterned backgrounds and passionate character gestures. The series might be accused of working itself into an endless cycle of romantic ups and downs, along with lessons and music competitions, but a lot of the times the sheer joy of Nodame is what carries it through those rough spots. Alas, if only I could have that joy back.

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