RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
by Rebecca Silverman,
You know what time it almost is? Berry picking time! For reasons unknown to me, I love picking fruit. The raspberries and blackberries are ripening as we speak, and I am stupidly excited about it, especially since I tend to come home from blackberry picking covered in bloody gashes. (I once had a friend come to visit from an urban area who thought that it would be romantic to pick blackberries in long skirts and big straw hats. Yeah, that lasted about five minutes.) It's sort of a cruel relationship, but it is all worth it when I end up with a big blackberry pie or shortcake or cobbler at the end.
But when you see me complaining about trying to type with band-aids on every finger in a couple of weeks, you'll know what happened.
(by Taeko Watanabe, Viz, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
In the 1860s in Japan, a new era is dawning. During this time fraught with violent social upheaval, samurai of all walks of life flock to Kyoto in the hope of joining a band of warriors united around their undying loyalty to the Shogunate system. This group became one of the greatest (and most infamous) movements in Japanese history...the Shinsengumi!
Now that Sei has been transferred to the third troop under his command, Saito grows increasingly suspicious of Sei's true identity. He is visited by dreams of his old friend, Sei's brother, Yuma. The memories of Yuma's words gradually grow more vivid, and Saito finally realizes Sei's secret. Feeling he must protect her, Saito confronts Soji with an ultimatum: expose Sei to Hijitaka and have her dismissed from the troop, or allow Saito to take her as his bride.
You can keep your Hakuoki - Kaze Hikaru is the best female-oriented depiction of the Shinsengumi out there, at least for my money. This volume is no exception, although it does focus much more on the romance aspects than the historical. With Sei now under his direction, Saito is having a harder time holding back his feelings for the “boy,” and he confronts Soji about it, directly challenging him for Sei. Not, it must be pointed out, for Sei's affections; Taeko Watanabe still gets her history lesson across in a discussion of how marriages worked in 1860s Japan. That marriage even comes up should tell you what the back copy does – that in working closely with Sei, Saito figures out her true gender. This leaves him even more conflicted, and much of the volume is comprised of both he and Soji trying to come to terms with their emotions. It's really just as good as when the series is focusing on historical events, and the differences between Saito and Soji as people are made very clear. Can this story have a happy ending? It's hard to say, and in some ways that doubt fuels this less action oriented volume, particularly when we consider what Sei's brother apparently wanted, something that might prove to be of tantamount importance to our heroine. Watanabe's story continues to build with each book, and this volume is no exception.
RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. From the non-stylized, deceptively simple art to the story that skillfully blends emotion, action, and history, this is a great series. And maybe if enough of us buy each volume, Viz will release it faster...?
THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS
(by Nakaba Suzuki, Kodansha, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
Inside Baste Prison, Meliodas and gang finally find Ban, a daring and brash member of The Seven Deadly Sins. However, trouble is on the horizon as their journey continues. Another member of The Seven Deadly Sins appears! The heroes clash as a feud is revived from their past!
Most shounen action series spend a lot of time powering up the heroes – that's not true of The Seven Deadly Sins. Everyone except Elizabeth is already ludicrously powerful, so Nakaba Suzuki doesn't have to spend any time on training sequences and can just get to the action. In this third volume, that still doesn't really happen until at least halfway through, when missing Sin King turns up and has a major bone to pick with bad boy Ban. That doesn't make this a dull read in its first half, however, as the other major bonus to having fight-ready characters is that Suzuki can also spend time exploring their relationships and giving the story some plot beyond a lengthy succession of “X vs Y” chapters. That's probably the strongest part of this book: Elizabeth and Diane develop a real friendship, we see Meliodas tending to the wounded Elizabeth in a wordless scene that shows how much he cares, and a flashback gives us King's personality before we ever meet him in the present. All of this humanizing of the superhuman characters makes the villains of the piece – who look much more “human” – stand out in their inhumane actions. Guila, the knight who gets the most time in this volume, is pretty creepy, all the more so because she looks more “normal” than any of the heroes. It's a contrast that wouldn't have worked quite as well if Suzuki hadn't given us the chance to get to know the Sins beyond their role as the main characters. The art still shows distinct traces of Akira Toriyama, which can get distracting at times, and pages and panels can be quite crowded, which slows down the reading. We're also starting to get some good old-fashioned love geometry going on, with everyone having a crush on someone else, which frankly feels a little unusual (at least in the way it is handled) for this kind of series. Overall this volume keeps things moving and adds to the Sin roster, keeping the plot truckin' along.
RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. Parts of the book sort of drag as there is less action than the usual shounen action series, but it's still fun to read. There is one “to” that ought to be “too,” which annoys me inordinately, but mostly this recommendation is based on a slow first half.
SWORD ART ONLINE: FAIRY DANCE
(by Reki Kawahara and Tsubasa Haduki, Yen Press, $13.00)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
Kazuto Kirigaya (aka Kirito) has beaten Sword Art Online, a VRMMORPG that transformed into a literal game of death, and returned to the real world. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Asuna Yuuki (aka Asuna the Flash), the girl with whom Kirito fell in love in the virtual world of Aincrad but who has yet to awaken from her game-induced slumber. As his sister, Suguha, sadly looks on, Kazuto continues to visit Asuna in the hospital in the hope of finding answers. But when one day he meets a man claiming to be Asuna's fiancé, Kazuto fears that Asuna may be lost to him forever... That is until a fellow survivor of SAO taken form the latest VRMMORPG sensation, ALfheim Online - a screenshot that features someone being held captive who looks entirely too much like Asuna! His hope renewed, Kirito dives headlong into an all-new virtual adventure, but can true love conquer the game?!
Whatever you may think of the second arc of Sword Art Online (assuming, of course, that you've seen the anime version), its manga incarnation is significantly better than the first arc's. Possibly this is because Tsubasa Haduki is taking a little more time to tell it – this first volume brings us roughly a third of the way through, ending with Leafa and Kirito almost to the neutral town inside the mountain. This slower pace allows for more exploration of the characters' emotional states, as well as more background information and tidbits that didn't make it in from the original novels. We also get a pretty good idea of how some people change their personalities when they're inside the game – Leafa in particular is much more confident than her real-world counterpart.
Unfortunately this is still clearly an adaptation, and a pretty melodramatic one at that. Words like “nefarious” are tossed around whenever bad guy Sugou is talking (or talked of), and he's so unsubtle as to be almost ridiculous. In fact, the level of melodrama is better suited to a bad Victorian play than contemporary manga, and despicable as Sugou's plan is, the ludicrous way he's presented and vocalizes detracts from the shock value. (Who wants to draw me a picture of him twirling a handlebar mustache?) Haduki is clearly trying for a Higurashi: When They Cry look with some of the artwork during these scenes, and it doesn't quite work. Also a bit off in the art are Leafa's bountiful breasts: they change sizes and in one scene in chapter three, one appears to be stuck on with glue or something; it clearly is not a part of her body. That her bosom is such a major feature of the art – the fanservice content is pretty high in that sense – makes these issues more obvious. There's also a sad lack of backgrounds, which is a real detraction in a fantasy world. Otherwise the art is decent enough, with the ALO fairies looking distinctly slimmer and more sprite-like than the real world people, which could excuse some of Asuna's body issues. Her damsel-in-distress, problem, on the other hand...
RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. This is a much stronger manga than Aincrad and is enjoyable in many ways, mostly as escapist reading. (And to be fair, Asuna does show that she's got a plan.) But it has enough issues with melodrama and art to keep it from being a “buy,” unless you're a major fan of SAO...and even then, I might still suggest you borrow it.
(by Nozomi Yanahara, DMP, $12.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
Despite the PhD attached to his name, Harumi was having trouble finding work until he finally snagged a position as an assistant professor. Living with his cousin Kururi (who is nineteen years his junior) has started to feel more normal, but they still have a pile of problems. Just how is Harumi going to deal with Kururi's burgeoning love and his own feelings for his colleague Kosaka? Not to mention all the other drama closing in on him. Bento lunch boxes are the ties that bind this strange family together. Here is the second volume of the heartwarming comedy (with a little romance)!
It's been a year since Kururi moved in with Haru, and not a whole lot has changed. The two are still rubbing along, but thankfully Yanahara has decided to keep the romantic interest that Kururi was showing in her guardian in the background – Haru thinks of her as his child and continues to pursue his co-worker Kosaka, and Kururi's infatuation is treated as just that. For those of you who were worried that this story was going to go in the same direction as Bunny Drop, be at ease – Haru is not interested in raising a wife. In fact, he spends a lot of this volume trying to figure out if Kosaka might possibly be amenable to a relationship with him...and basically falling on his face at every turn. As Yanahara points out repeatedly, “observation” is not one of Haru's best skills when he's asked to apply it outside of academics.
Those academics actually play a fairly large role in this volume, with Kosaka's thesis defense, several work trips, and Haru helping to teach a class. This last scene goes into a fair amount of detail about the anthropology of miso soup, and it's pretty interesting...if you like that sort of thing. If you don't the chapter could quickly become boring. Of course, that could be said for most of this book. It is true slice-of-life, going through the day-to-day interactions Haru and Kururi have with classmates and co-workers, detailing recipes, and just generally meandering along. The recipes are given using American measurements for your cooking ease (assuming you're American), and some of them look really doable. Yanahara's art uses a lot of crowded small panels, so between that and the slow pace, this is not a quick read...but it is a pleasant one, and if you liked the first volume, with or without reservations, you should enjoy this one as well.
RECOMMENDATION: If you like slice-of-life and are in the market for a story about a single dad just raising his daughter, buy it. This is a sweet story with likable characters that is worth your time.
MAGI: THE LABYRINTH OF MAGIC
(by Shinobu Ohtaka, Viz, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
Balbadd is in the throes of upheaval as Alibaba and the Fog Troop confront the corrupt ruler, Ahbmad. With agents of the Kou Empire waiting to pounce, Alibaba, Aladdin, and Sinbad form an alliance to take on the powerful enemies arrayed against them. With Alibaba's newfound Djinn Equip ability and the Sword of Amon, he has the strength, but does he have the will? And will an old friend become his worst enemy?
It is not a good time to be in Balbadd. Alibaba and Morgiana are busy taking on the enemies of the people and Aladdin is still unconscious when this volume opens, and the action just keeps flying from there. Alibaba seems to have found his faith in himself, and it's really nice to see him coming into his own, to say nothing of having the courage to do what he really wants, even if it isn't what his brother Sahbmad and his ally Sinbad are encouraging him to do. By the end of the book, he's got to really challenge himself to stick to that newfound courage, though, as Ohtaka puts an interesting spin on Alibaba and Cassim's relationship from the original tale. That twist to the source material is also very much a factor in Morgiana's character. She's much less subtle in her protection of Alibaba than her namesake, but just as fierce, and the image of her kicking a toothy monster in the face is one of the best in the volume. This book also goes into more detail about the ruhk and Aladdin's relationship with Ugo, doing some serious world building that should help the story to move along at a good clip. Ohtaka's art has also smoothed out, showing improvement in bodies and movement. She also uses some interesting details, such as Sahbmad getting more attractive each time he stands up to Ahbmad. There's a bit too much political detail in between fights and Ren, the Kou Empire princess, takes a pretty big step back from her position in volume six, but overall this is a fast-paced volume that covers some pretty important ground...and leaves us with a major cliffhanger.
RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Magi started out “good enough,” but by this point the story is engrossing and the characters worth paying attention to. Those who have read the source material will also find some interesting tidbits thrown in, which for me at least increases the re-read value.
Chapters 1 - 5
(by Baek Jong In, webtoon live, free)
FROM WEBTOON LIVE:
A girl creates her story in an empty, deserted space.
Webtoon Live is a relatively new site that translates Korean web comics, and while they don't have a ton of content, they do have a decent amount of chapters for the titles present. Unfortunately, the one I chose wasn't particularly strong. Space follows a little blond girl of indeterminate age – I initially thought she was a teenager, but the story keeps saying she's “a little girl” – who lives in a blank space. One day she hears a voice that tells her to make herself happy. Then it provides her with a lump of clay. The girl can form the clay into anything she wants and blow on it to create life. She immediately tries to make another girl, but a blop of clay falls on its crotch and she gets a boy instead. Together they begin to create trees, fruits, and animals. By the end of chapter five, the voice is back, instructing the girl on how to care for her new living companions.
Honestly, this sounds a lot more interesting in theory than it is in practice. There's clearly some sort of Adam and Eve thing going on, and it's tempting to think of the voice as a god-like figure. The boy is really simple and easily made happy, while the girl is much more reticent and kind of confused most of the time. If I were to put my amazing skills of literary analysis into play, I would say that this is about the girl learning both to be human and to care for humans, and then I'd probably say something about motherhood and stereotypes and whatnot. But really, that's much deeper than anything that is implied by these chapters. Space's ambitions appear higher than its reach, and that I could only get through five chapters is probably saying something.
RECOMMENDATION: Skip it. While it's true that you can't argue with free, this isn't really worth the time. The story isn't that good and the art is clearly done in some sort of paint program, and not in an impressive way. It might be good if you need to BS your way through some sort of analytical piece since it wants to be symbolic, but none of it is handled well enough to make it work.
(by Aya Nakahara, price and publisher vary by country)
FROM THE FRENCH PUBLISHER:
Mai Amane, 15 years old, came to Tokyo hoping to become a rock star, but somehow she ended up as half of the idol group “Star Berry,” whose girly-girl aesthetic goes totally against what she was hoping for. Even worse, her partner's a goofy idiot! Even though Star Berry meets with instant success, Mai decides to quit the group, but that choice turns out to be harder than she had initially thought...
Love*Com may have been Aya Nakahara's big hit with multi-national publication and an anime adaptation, but Berry Dynamite proves that she's not just a one-hit wonder. A very silly parody of the idol industry – and probably of the whole idol genre as a whole – Berry Dynamite is overflowing with sparkly screen tones and deliberate cutesiness as it chronicles the adventures of the self-proclaimed Strawberry Princesses from the Strawberry Kingdom, Mai and Kurumi, berry. That's supercute ditz Kurumi's story, anyway. She's the enthusiastic half of the Goth Loli idol duo Star Berry, and much to heroine Mai's dismay, she's always coming up with stories and sayings right out of “Strawberry Shortcake.” Mai, on the other hand, came to Tokyo to be a hard rocker...and somehow ended up being the other half of the queens of cute. She hates it, and thinks she's found a way out when she's approached by super producer Catherine. Catherine wants to make her a rock star, but it's clear that she expects certain...physical benefits. When Mai refuses, Catherine organizes one of the series' best satiric elements: the 100 member idol group Hyakunin Ish. Each member caters to a specific fetish, and introduce themselves as “the married one,” “the tsundere one,” “the loli one,” etc. Mai declares all out war on Hyakunin Ish and she mobilizes Star Berry's lone remaining fan to help with it. From there on out, the series pokes fun at all of the idol conventions with both writing and art (one member of Hyakunin Ish is actually a dog), with Nakahara maintaining a solid core based around Mai's willpower and a sweet romance thrown in for good measure. It's a delight of a series, laugh-out-loud funny in places, and at only three volumes and with a 2009 publication date, someone should really pick this up and translate it. Berry.
DON'T WORRY! READ IT IN: French, Chinese
And so we come to the end of another RTO. Now if you'll excuse me, I have an elderly cat in need of a belly rub. See you in August!
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