Thursday, February 26, 2009

Otomen, vol. 1

Story and Art by Aya Kanno
Published in the US by Viz Shojo Beat

Slugline: What every kendo champion needs for his bokken is a knitted wrap

Asuka is a kendo champion and is among the most admired male students at his high school but he has a secret. Despite his manly abilities, he finds himself attracted to girly things such as cute stuffed animals, sewing and shojo manga. When he finally falls in love with a girl, at first sight of course since that is how it happens in shojo manga, he finds it ever harder to maintain appearances. Worse yet, one of the worst girly men in the school, Juta seems to know all of his secrets. The truth is Juta is secretly a mangaka of a popular shojo series Love Chick that all of the girls and Asuka like. The reason that Asuka can relate to the series is that Juta is basing characters and the storyline on Asuka himself, and in order to give himself more material Juta encourages Asuka to get closer to Ryo, the girl of his dreams. But Ryo has misinterpreted Asuka's love confession to mean that she, Asuka and Juta are all good friends while Juta just wants things between Ryo and Asuka to move forward so he can steal material for his manga. Asuka is left torn between his own uncertain nature and his friends' differing motivations.

This has a very good inversion of the shojo roles. Ryo is a cipher and clueless while Asuka's emotions and confusions are laid bare to the reader. Juta has an interesting, distanting connection with the other characters. He wants their relationship to progress, but not to progress so fast that his manga moves too quickly, nor does he necessarily want Ryo and Asuka to be happy together, because that is the kiss of death in dramatic storytelling. By commenting on the relationship and complaining how inconvenient it can be to try to translate into manga form, Juta can diffuse the normal criticisms of shojo manga of being unrealistic by acknowledging them and moving on. I have not been very forgiving with Aya Kanno's previous titles (seen here), but here she has finally found her stride and a voice, and I hope she continues in this vein.

Otomen, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oishinbo: A la Carte, vol. 1

Story by Tetsu Kariya and Art by Akira Hanasaki
Published in the US by Viz

Slugline: Cooking that reveals more about the characters than the ingredients.

Yamaoka is the son of a famous gourmet, but has rejected his father's life and works. Of course, he unfortunately has been been assigned by the newspaper to cover Japanese cuisine and create the ultimate menu, leading him to multiple confrontations with his father, some of which he walks away the winner others less so. But each chapter of the story talks a little bit more about aspects of Japanese cuisine in factual terms.

This is actually a compilation of the some of the best episodes of the series, which has over 100 collected volumes. Which explains for a rather esoteric topic that the stories here are rather interesting, since they had more than two decades of story to choose from. The interest in these episodes are not in the minutiae of the cooking suggestions and techniques, but in what they represent to the characters. The volume presents a view of a Japan that is far more traditional than what is normally seen in manga. The protagonist is allowed to lose and not know it all, to the primary antagonist, his estranged father. Which both reinforces the traditional values in cooking but violates traditional storytelling rules by having the protagonist being the most competent. Sure, sometimes the actual story itself is simplistic, but there is some interesting balancing between the story and characters, and traditions in storytelling and society.

Oishinbo: A la Carte, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Thursday, February 19, 2009

20th Century Boys, vol. 1

Story and Art by Naoki Urasawa
Published in the US by Viz

Slugline: What if you were kept to your childish promises to save the world?

When Kenji was young, he and his neighborhood friends had a secret club, with a headquarters in an empty field and a secret sign. Now that they are all adults, they barely remember any of it though many of them still live in the same neighborhood, taking over the stores their parents once ran. Unknown to them at the beginning of the story there is a cult, using some of the same symbols as their childish club and whose leader seems fixated on the neighborhood events of more than 20 years ago. Kenji is drawn into the mystery when one of the old gang commits suicide after seeing the symbol, something the other members of the gang who reunite for the funeral for the first time in years have a hard time believing. As the story flashes back and forward, we see the characters as children and as adults, we realize that this is now how the characters will fulfill their childish desires to save the world.

Kenji is the motivating force among the characters, the one that notices that something weird going on and drags the other characters toward figuring it out. If there hadn't been a flash forward at the beginning of the volume giving you a hint what was going on had global consequences, the story would feel like it is just a slice of life. But once you know the stakes, everything takes on more meaning, and you can spot the signs in the story. The story also speaks of the balance between adult and juvenile urges, the juvenile urge to be the hero, to have meaning, but the reality of the adult life is that you very rarely have a chance to be one, and most of the time you don't realize that the opportunity is at it hand until it past. This is a story of lost chances, and being able to take them again, and what their cost can be.

20th Century Boys, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Luuna, vol. 1

Created by Didier Crisse and Nicolas Keramidas
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: Why is the best portrayal of Native Americans I've read in a while is done by the French?

Luuna is of a tribe of Native Americans who are especially close to the spirits. As part of the rituals of becoming an adult, Luuna goes into the forest at night to find her totem spirit, but she has gone into the forest on the worst possible night. During a lunar ecilpse, the evil spirit Unkui walks the land and forces Luuna to accept two totem wolf spirits, one that reflects her good nature the other her evil nature. One night of the month, her evil totem and thus nature will take over during the darkness of the moon and cause havoc. Realizing that it would be too dangerous for her to return to her tribe, Luuna seeks out the advice of the spirit of the forest, then heads south to find a cure for her condition. Along the way she has to deal with cursed braves that are in service to Unkui and a storyteller bearing a heavy burden of despair.

This volume manages to avoid most of the storytelling traps surrounding Native Americans, though the historical accuracy of teepees in forests is doubtful, and the art depiction of Native Americans seems almost, well stereotypical. I want to say I have seen it before with a less than flattering connotation, but I can not pin it down. I guess that is a good thing, that I cannot be sure if it a negative stereotype or not. Nothing in the actual story is that way, with it working, being entertaining, and not telegraphing itself too far. It has the road movie structure, with the original 48 page volumes now serving as individual chapters of the travel south as Luuna looks for a cure for her condition. Sure, sometimes the spirit animals bit is pushed a little bit too far or are a little too cutesy, but overall this is a solid story without any major flaws. Which is a welcome change after the last few weeks.

Luuna, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pixie, vol. 1

Story by Mathieu Mariolle with Art by Aurore
Published by TokyoPop in the US in album format

Slugline: Who is this story about?

Prince Ael is the stereotypical isolated prince, forced to watch the world from behind his castle walls, listening to the endless fairy-like tales that his tutor tells him every night before casting a spell to ensure that his sleep is 'restful.' Pixie is a wandering con man and thief that takes a job to rob the young Prince of a bracelet, unfortunately one that Pixie learns too late that does not come off. Rather than solve the problem in a direct fashion with a knife, Pixie kidnaps the suspiciously unguarded prince, much to Ael's excitement. After all, Ael is finally going to have an adventure like the ones he has heard every night. Unfortunately, that literally begins to happen whenever Ael goes to sleep, and Ael, Pixie and Elvynn (a forest hunter from another world they pick up along the way) begin to travel through the different worlds of Ael's tales, trying to find a way to stop the traveling between worlds.

Reading this, sometimes it felt like that I missed a panel, because the storyline or how the characters read seem to stutter and advance unexpectedly. There are also a couple of subplots that are just hanging out there, that don't seem to connect to the main plot in any way. Character wise, I am not sure who we are supposed to be focused on. The book is called Pixie, but it seems to be more about Ael and for the moment Ael is the one that is advancing the plot. Pixie is a bit too world weary at times to be an active protagonist and Elvynn seems to know what is going on, but was introduced late into the story and seems to have fewer character moments. Because of all that, the story seems a little unfocused with the structure of the story suggesting that they will be changing worlds every 48 pages or so (the length of the original albums) putting another constraint onto it. The art is nice, but they really need to start pulling the story threads together into something that feels whole, even if that is just an illusion.

Pixie, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Orange Crows, vol. 1

Written by James Perry II with Art by Ryo Kawakami
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline: Post-Apocalyptic Witchcraft

Cierra, in an effort to solve a magical problem that her dead mother could not, disastrously failed in a magical experiment, injuring her best friend and scarring herself. Five years later, after serving the five year exile punishment for her crime, Cierra is brought back to a city that she barely recognizes. Her best friend Natalie has changed also, broken in a way that a witch of this world cannot hide or heal from and is emotionally damaged also. Cierra's own scars have grown from strange abilities that marked her in her time in exile. These changes forces Cierra to think that she will never again be able to find a place for herself, with her friends, family or society.

Though this volume is of standard length, it does not feel that much has occurred in it. The main and supporting characters are well fleshed out in asides and flashbacks, but at least in this volume many of those character moments do not pay off. The questions about the plot that we do know about at the end of the volume, such as who is the one-eyed demon and what is the source of Cierra's abilities, those answers have yet to be even hinted at. Considering that this is an original manga, this first volume does not really stand alone, and with
publishing so unstable right now, who knows when or even if the rest of the story will be continued. It is that uncertainty and the fact this volume did not tell a complete story, or even a chapter of one, that lowers the rating of this otherwise well-executed manga.

Orange Crows, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Tantric Stripfighter Trina, vol. 1

Story by Ken Faggio with Art by Fernando Furukawa
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline: Less Tantric, more stripping

Trina is the last survivor of a religious order that emigrated from Earth and it's interstellar empire to a world so they could practice their mixture of yoga, shaolin and tantric practices in peace. That was not to be, with their planet's inhabitants wiped out and Trina trying to hunt down the ringleaders that lead the attack years later. Trina has mastered the signature style of her order, 'stripfighting.' Yes, I can't believe I typed that either, but it is right there in the title, so it has to be taken (somewhat) seriously. She becomes a bounty hunter to gain the credentials she needs to track down the raiders, but has in the process picked up a follower in Abbey, a gunrunner until she was caught up with one of Trana's bounties. Abbey now wants to learn from Trina how to fight, but until Trina agrees, Abbey gets by using her cybernetics and guns. As Trina and Abbey hunt down the ringleaders, following them is the true mastermind of the story, and more mysteries for future volumes to follow up on.

Tantric beliefs are commonly thought to be about sex. While that is vast simplification of centuries old tradition, for the most part there is no need to worry about it since other than some suggestively named moves, there is no sex. But lots and lots of stripping. I never knew that there was so many ways you can beat someone up using a makeshift bra. The manga skirts on the very edge of the 16/18 age divide, with only two very small pasties that hide Trina's nipples preventing the book from being shrinkwrapped and rated 18+. On the other hand, the book's combination of brutal hand to hand violence and barely restrained sexuality, probably means it has the perfect intersection between the action and fan service fandoms. Bluntly, it is for teenage boys who play way too much video games and make crude jokes. Not that is necessarily a bad intersection, and the title hits it's target audience very well. The art and story do what they need to do, not excelling but delivering exactly what the title and the cover promises. In that way, I consider the title successful, though I admit I would feel a bit self-conscious carrying in the book around in public.

Tantric Stripfighter Trina, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Created by Benjamin
Released in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: Emotion is Color

After reading so much manga in black and white, after a while you lose sight of the potential for color to help tell the story. On the surface, this is rather standard story about a suicidal girl who cannot connect with others even though others seemingly can connect with her. A stranger that has both more and less than her makes the grand gesture she needs to see in order for her to find the value of life. In those ways this title is like dozens of other manga, pushed further than most because it doesn't have the weight of a continuing story and with a story that is free (of age ratings) to be as coarse as the characters need it, but with similar themes. But the almost impressionistic (or perhaps expressionistic, I was never too good with art terms) painting style gives heft to the main character's feelings, dragging you along with her into her depression and despair, much more deeply than just words could. The world remains blurred and out of focus to her, and even though she begins to see value to life at the end of the story, it still does not change her problems and perceptions with it.

Though this is from China, the volume physically is close to the European albums (like Biggles, which was reviewed last week. Any you thought that was a completely random choice...) though with a higher page count and glossy paper. This line from TokyoPop is an experiment in a larger format color titles. While Orange title stand alone successfully, the story itself is so depressing and bleak I find it hard to think that readers will be so excited by it to see what else is available from this line.

Orange is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga