RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
by Carlo Santos,
Aside from increased activity at convention panels, there's another thing I noticed that indicates the health of the manga industry. It's the shelf space at bookstores. It's not expanding rapidly like in the years of irrational exuberance, but neither is it contracting—in fact, my local stores have allotted about the same shelf space for the last couple of years, aside from occasionally rearranging things. Could this be a sign that we've finally figured out the right amount of manga (at least on paper) that America needs?
(by Hinoki Kino and Atsuko Asano, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"With the help of the enigmatic Rat, Shion becomes a fugitive, escaping No. 6 and getting his first glimpse of the desperation and violence that are facts of life outside the city wall. And as Shion learns more about the secret that forced him into exile, his loyalty to the people he left behind and Rat's thirst for revenge threaten to tear the pair apart!"
No. 6 starts getting more intense in Volume 2. Shion's growth as a character drives these chapters forward, and we see him develop from an innocent kid to ... well, still an innocent kid, but one who can fight back. There's also plenty of tension as Shion interacts with his harsh surroundings: Will he get himself killed in the marketplace? Is he going to fall foul of a sleazy ex-journalist? Is his trusted ally, Rat, going to turn on him? Of course, the other possibility—that Rat and Shion are getting closer and opening up to each other—is just as compelling. The closing chapter also fills in many important layers of story: the connection between Shion's mom and No. 6's past, the murky history that no one ever taught him, and even Rat's "extra-curricular activities." Meanwhile, the artwork covers a wide range of moods as the story develops. Busy backgrounds express the chaos of the marketplace, while a few well-placed shadows capture the creepiness of an abandoned hotel. Rat also strikes a number of dramatic poses as he explains things that are slowly but surely transforming Shion's world.
For a series that's supposed to be about the furious clash between liberty and security, No. 6 can be disappointingly slow. The first chapter of this volume—about 40 pages—is almost all conversation between Shion and Rat, in a closed room, recapping past events and explaining new discoveries. That's the most boring method anyone can come up with for plot exposition. Sure, there are tantalizing moments of chemistry between the two—but their tactic of making vague-but-suggestive comments to each other is getting predictable. Even when Shion heads out to find out more information, he gets sidetracked with irrelevant fluff like running into weirdos in the marketplace. Does this build character, or is it just plot stalling? The big revelations all come stacked toward the end, suggesting that the storyline needs to strike a better balance. The dull moments also come with bland artwork: sometimes it's nothing but dour building interiors for several pages, or headshot after headshot framed within rectangular panels. The fairly simple toning and shading also makes the art style look flat, or even incomplete.
It needs to improve in pacing and visuals, but the plot is starting to thicken, and new points of intrigue make this series worth a B.
(by Mitsuru Hattori, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Now a zombie living with Chihiro, Rea's enjoying her freedom from her father, going out shopping by herself. And their relationship begins to blossom, with Chihiro fulfilling his dream of a zombie kiss! But there are bigger things to worry about ... like how quickly Rea's undead body is going to start falling apart, and what insane lengths her father will go to in order to get her back!"
Sankarea may be winning over readers with insane, genre-bending weirdness, but sometimes the secret to success is playing those genres straight up. For example, Chihiro takes Rea shopping in an act of pure-hearted romance—and seeing her face light up is one of the most endearing moments in this volume. Later, Rea's father confronts Chihiro in true shonen-battle fashion, and the resulting fight is as energetic as any conventional action series. In fact, every chapter brims with energy, sometimes in the most unexpected places—who'd have thought that a horror romance would involve a kidnapping and chase scene, or that Chihiro's sister discovering Rea in his bedroom would lead to slapstick madness? Oh, and the running joke about Rea's rotting corpse is always worth a laugh. The lively artwork also injects excitement into the series—tilted panels and unusual angles turn every major scene into a wild, over-the-top experience, and even domestic home life is a nonstop flood of sight gags and goofy behavior. Sure, there are some essential blood-and-guts scenes as Chihiro and Rea dabble in the undead lifestyle—but the action and comedy visuals are just as vital.
This volume feels more like an incomplete collection of scenes, looking for a story thread to hold it all together. That's Sankarea's problem in a nutshell—no strong, defining arc to drive the series forward, aside from "Chihiro takes care of his zombie girlfriend." It's the same idea as any cookie-cutter romantic comedy, and the zombie aspect adds a quirk without creating any real depth. Imagine any of these scenes in an ordinary romance, and it becomes clear how unimaginative they really are. Every young couple goes shopping at some point, skeevy guys will always try to hit on cute girls, and every male protagonist eventually has to deal with his girlfriend's father. Meanwhile, legitimately interesting plot threads (what does Chihiro's grandpa know about reanimation theory?) go unexplored. The artwork lacks polish as well, with many flat areas that don't have enough shading or detail. Yet the panels still look like they're crowded and overdrawn—typically the result of trying to fit too big an image (or too much action) into too small a space. There's a lot of potential here, but not enough control.
It tries so hard, but the story doesn't have enough depth to go with the amusing antics, and the art is still pretty sloppy—so it gets a C.
(by Viz Media, Takehiko Inoue, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Winning isn't everything in the game of basketball, but who wants to come in second? It takes dedication and discipline to be the best, and the Shohoku High hoops team wants to be just that. They have one last year to make their captain's dream of reaching the finals come true—will they do it?
The second half is winding down, and Shohoku is working harder than they ever have before to close the seemingly impossible lead Sannoh has over them. Rukawa has found something inside him and continues to evolve as a player, and Sakuragi is totally in his own zone. But will pushing themselves beyond their limits lead Shohoku to victory or ruin?"
Is Shohoku vs. Sannoh the greatest fictional basketball game ever played? This volume of Slam Dunk certainly makes a case for it. The gameplay itself is outstanding—realistic enough for hoops experts to enjoy, yet full of epic moments and improbable plays that will amaze casual readers. But it's not just about three-pointers or slam dunks: this manga also makes fans appreciate great passing and smart defense. And how can anyone not love the storylines behind the players? Get ready for tears of passion and respect as Akagi reflects on his last chance at a high school championship, and memories of Sakuragi's career as a "basketball genius" flash before his eyes. Masterful pacing also makes each chapter deeply addictive: the story might pull back and cut a single play into split-second increments, then suddenly it'll push forward with breathless, high-speed moves. The crisp artwork is also essential in conveying the feel of the game, with intense facial closeups and perfectly posed basketball moves. Motion and speed also come through in the varied panel sizes and creative viewing angles—with Sakuragi's leaping out-of-bounds save perhaps the most memorable of all.
The only thing that's legitimately a problem in Slam Dunk, at this point in the story, is how long it takes for things to happen. Of course, you can be cute and chalk it up to sports psychology—everything seems to slow down in the heat of the moment—but for those doing the math, 180 pages for several minutes of one basketball game is a lousy bargain. Takehiko Inoue simply insists on covering every angle of the story: the physical action, the internal monologue going on in the players' heads, strategy discussions, and a couple of flashbacks to show what this game personally means to the main characters. Even irrelevant things, like the sideline observations of a player whose team was eliminated, get squeezed in from time to time. But with just one volume left until the end, maybe a little forgiveness is in order for this super-decompressed storytelling.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect volume of sports manga than this one. Intense action and a meaningful storyline get a straight A.
(by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"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 its way.
While Komatsu is on an intense fishing expedition with Toriko and Sunny, Gourmet Corp. is forcibly 'recruiting' the world's best chefs to join their nefarious organization. On their list is Livebearer, the crooked chef of Gourmet Casino and keeper of the next food on Toriko's training list! Can Toriko and his friends survive in the jungle of corruption and crime known as Gourmet Casino?"
Just when you think Toriko is going to spend the rest of its life stuck on shonen fighting clichés ... it goes off and does something like this. Volume 18 is a surprisingly eclectic grab bag, ranging in topics from culinary science (Komatsu's preparation of the Shining Gourami conveniently teaches the mechanics of tempura-frying) to friendships gone sour (Komatsu getting into a war of words with a fellow chef) to gambling (Toriko and friends' trip to the Gourmet Casino). But wait, what about fans who actually like screaming fight scenes and the series' massive sense of scale? Well, there's still plenty of that to spare, whether it's Toriko punching out an impenetrable treasure chest, or a mind-boggling description of how big the Gourmet Casino is. Yes, in the gourmet universe even the slot machines are absurdly huge. Visually, this volume overflows with outrageous artwork, including page-spanning views of the casino and the surrounding city, deliciously drawn meals, and a brief glimpse into the Gourmet Corp.'s sinister headquarters. The only thing more outrageous might be the varied characters (including a few returnees) who pass through these chapters.
Toriko is trying new things in this volume, but not every new thing is a good thing. Whatever happened to the solid formula of going places, fighting beasts, and eating food? Instead we get a scattered collection of plot points: the finale of the Shining Gourami quest, a brief mission to capture a single food item, Komatsu's encounter with his old buddy, the Gourmet Corp.'s shenanigans, and the trip to the Gourmet Casino. If these incidents are meant to be vitally connected to each other, the storyline does a poor job of showing it. Because of all these diversions, the things that Toriko does best—incredible one-on-one battles and forays into the wilderness—are barely anywhere to be seen. Instead of superpowered punches or giant waterfalls, we get scene after boring scene of characters conversing with each other, and their arrival at the casino doesn't improve things much. Using one's super-perception to play a slot machine isn't exactly a visual showstopper. And can you believe Toriko uses his full Spiked Punch in only one chapter of this volume? It just seems like a total waste.
As always, Toriko is brimming with wild ideas and dazzling sights—but the scattershot nature of these chapters, and a lack of all-out battle, means a C this time.
TROPIC OF THE SEA
(by Satoshi Kon, Vertical, $14.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Yosuke Yashiro's family has a strange, unique tradition—once every sixty years they receive an egg from a mermaid where it sits protected in a shrine. Once the egg matures the family dutifully returns it to the sea, where the whole process is repeated. In exchange for this favor, the mer-people bless their coastal town with bountiful catches of fish and calm seas.
But as commercial developers encroach on the sleepy seaside hamlet and Yosuke's father is lured away from tradition towards modern prosperity and turns the mermaid's egg into a tourist trap, what will happen to the promise their family made to the mermaids all those years ago?"
Let's be honest, everyone's interested in Tropic of the Sea just because it has Satoshi Kon's name on it—but in this case the substance lives up to the hype. Just like in Kon's films, this manga effortlessly blends slice-of-life realism and pure fantasy: some scenes capture the natural beauty of a sleepy seaside town, while others are mind-blowing displays of wonder as Yosuke gets involved in the mermaid legend. The storytelling is subtle enough to keep readers guessing—How much of this mermaid stuff is actually real?—and the answer is as haunting as the mystery itself. Meanwhile, the story's down-to-earth side is just as strong, looking at issues of friendship, growing up, and a community's struggle between progress and tradition. Delicate shading and details make the artwork a delight to look at, especially in the closing scenes as the seashore itself becomes a key figure in the drama. Picturesque landscapes also set the idyllic tone throughout. What's most striking, though, is Kon's natural talent for cinematic storytelling—every panel is a beautifully staged scene in itself.
As a story that saves all the excitement for the end, Tropic of the Sea definitely struggles to stay interesting early on. The negotiation between developers and townspeople is especially dull, more suited to board-meeting transcripts than a visual medium. Of course, it would probably also help if the characters were more expressive—a lot of the time people are just sternly arguing their opinions, and the physical action doesn't break out until halfway through. Yosuke's presence as the main character is another problem; he simply doesn't have much of a personality until the final act where he has to be a man of action and protect the mermaid's egg. Before that, he's just a relaxed, good-natured guy that readers will scarcely remember. The art has some weak spots too: although individual panels are well-composed, their overall layout is bland, consisting of one mid-size rectangle after another. The character designs also look plain, hewing to a realistic look but losing visual impact as a result.
Although it starts off sluggishly, the story builds up to something grand, with awe-inspiring artwork and a concept worthy of a B+.
LOVE SO LIFE
(by Kaede Kouchi, Hakusensha, ¥420)
After losing her parents at an early age, 16-year-old Shiharu Nakamura has spent most of her life in a foster home. However, a new family arrangement has popped up in her life: she now babysits the niece and nephew of charismatic young newscaster Seiji Matsunaga. The two-year-old siblings, Akane and Aoi, have quickly grown attached to Shiharu, and she finds herself becoming a major part of Matsunaga's life. She takes care of the kids better than he does, and practically runs the house when he's at work. But as Shiharu spends more and more time with Matsunaga and the kids, could she be overstepping her bounds as a part-timer?
Love So Life is the kind of manga that deserves to be licensed more often: a sweet, uplifting tale about family life. Every chapter has that inevitable big-smile moment, where a certain phrase or a certain gesture fills up Shiharu's heart—and it'll fill up the hearts of readers too. However, the gloomier side of the series is just as important: various flashbacks and asides reveal Shiharu's distant memories of her mother, as well as her struggle to find acceptance. The storyline also shows glimpses of Matsunaga's stressful working life, proving that being a "hot young twentysomething" is often more trouble than it seems—and why it's so important to have a source of inner peace like Shiharu and the kids. Akane and Aoi's super-cute character designs are sure to please anyone with a soft spot for toddlers, but the artwork also excels at moments of subtlety, shifting to more delicate tones whenever Shiharu thinks back on her past. The widely spaced panels also do a good job of highlighting the series' most heartwarming scenes—eye-catching moments where time just seems to stop.
A story like Love So Life always runs the risk of turning into unrealistic, sentimental goop. In the opening scenes, for example, Shiharu comes off as too perfect—a "Mary Sue" type who is magically amazing at childcare and makes friends with everyone. (It's not until the flashbacks that she becomes more well-rounded as a character.) The very light romantic subplot between Shiharu and Matsunaga is another stumbling block—play it too seriously and it's creepy, play it as a joke and it seems like a pointless distraction. Some might also say that the story trivializes the true challenges of child-rearing: the toughest thing Shiharu has to deal with is a temper tantrum or crying fit, and the kids are always comforted within forty pages. The artwork also takes the easy way out frequently, with scarcely any backgrounds—does anyone have a clue what the inside of Matsunaga's house looks like?—and lots of gauzy, light-gray tones as a substitute for detail. Plain character designs (other than the two kids) also make the series look unimpressive at first glance.
Despite some weaknesses in the plot, this is a story with its heart in the right place. Few other series can evoke such a gentle, positive mood.
WOLVERINE: PRODIGAL SON
(by Antony Johnston and Wilson Tortosa, Del Rey)
Marvel Comics is one of the most popular brands in the world, right? And Wolverine is one of its most popular characters. So anything with Wolverine in it has got to be a hit ... right?
Ha! Tell that to Wolverine: Prodigal Son, a short-lived spinoff (one volume and cancelled) that came out during the Del Rey Manga years. In this version, Wolverine is not the impenetrable, adamantium-clawed badass most fans are familiar with, but still just Logan, a teenage kid living in the backwoods of Canada and trying to figure out his life by studying martial arts. Clearly there's some pandering to the typical manga audience here, with the stereotypically angsty youth and a not-particularly-subtle nod to Japanese culture.
The story gets better as it progresses, though, turning into a fairly solid action piece. Logan goes on a trip to New York as part of his soul-searching, runs into a nemesis with connections to his past, and gets into all sort of intense fight scenes with bold, dynamic lines and breakneck pacing. If you wanted a single example of how "manga style" can beat superhero comics at their own game, this is it. The abbreviated (or nonexistent) dialogue, along with stylized art, speed up the storytelling to the point where the reader feels like an actual part of the fight—rather than just observing full-color illustrations from a distance.
Unfortunately, Wolverine: Prodigal Son did not become the raging success that its backers might have hoped for, so no one will ever get to know what happened to angsty teen Logan after Volume 1. But hey, at least we learned that it takes more than putting Wolverine in a comic to make it take off. Maybe next time they'll try it with Iron Man?
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