Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Arisa, vol. 1

Story and Art by Natsumi Ando
Published in the US by Del Rey Manga

Slugline:  A real psycho high school drama

Tsubasa has not seen her identical twin Arisa in years, and upon meeting her after all that time they decide that Tsubasa will replace Arisa for a day at school. She does so and finds that her sister’s life seems just as good as Arisa had said in her letters. When Tsubasa tells Arisa so, Arisa reveals her deep depression and tries to commit suicide. As her sister lies in a coma, Tsubasa decides to find what hidden secrets in the schoo are resposible for Arisa’s attempt. Tsubasa discovers out her fellow students send texts to someone named the King, and those texts come true.  With that power, the students’ cruelty has come out and Tsubasa needs to discover who the King is, even as she becomes a target.  She may have an ally, the standard bad boy of the class, but his real allegiances are more complicated.

At first this reads like the typical high school shoujo, with Tsubasa being the violent girl that has trouble controlling those tendencies while her identical twin having the perfect life that Tsubasa wishes she could have.  The fact that Tsubasa would be given the chance to live Arisa’s life in the manga was given, but the fact that she would get that chance by Arisa attempting suicide is not.  From there the story takes a darker turn than most shoujo as the class is revealed to have a dangerous secret, and the manga is less about Tsubasa trying out Arisa's perfect life but about uncovering secrets.  Rather than her violent self being a liability, it may be the only thing that lets her survive to find out what is going on.  While the story does not get as dark as others, it quickly moves into the shadows that most shoujo never venture towards even as its visual style remains unchanged.  This is a story that has more meaning than it first appears.

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

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Ghost in the Shell

By Shirow Masamune
Published in the US by Kodansha

Slugline: Philosophical violence or violent philosophy?

Motoko Kusanagi is a paramilitary police officer unit in near future Tokyo.  Cybernetic enhancements and computer use is near ubiquitous, allowing human brains to be hacked to alter memories or have a full body replacement.  Most of the stories in the volume are stand alone as Motoko and her squad rein in government excesses of the rest of the as rampant corruption and self-serving agendas are behind nearly every case they tackle.  In one Motoko encounters a ghost, a living program, and the experience leaves her shaken.  When it looks like that one of the politicians have finally succeeded in getting Motoko thrown under the bus to further his own schemes, Motoko turns the situation around with the help of the ghost.  This leads to her making an unusual decision though debating what is life and its meaning has a lot of resonance in the volume overall.

Ghost in the Shell is a classic manga in American because Shirow Masamune’s long relationship with Dark Horse Comics meant that his titles have been available in the US long before the rise of popularity and availability of other manga.  This story has been retold several times in anime, though this is a case were the retellings have allowed adaptors to boil the story into a coherent whole.  For instance, the Ghost in the Shell movie melded together a half dozen separate stories from this volume into a single narrative.  This makes the source material suffer in comparison to later versions, which is unusual. The art is much softer and fluid than you would expect in such a hard sci-fi setting.  So expecting to read this and find the great original material that all the adaptations have ruined is not realistic but it is still a good story though fond of its philosophical musings. 

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

- Ferdinand

Friday, September 24, 2010

.hack//Legend of the Twilight, the Complete Collection

Art by Rei Idumi with Story by Tatsuya Hamazaki
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: A secret epilogue

Shugo and Rena have won the online avatars of the legendary dot hackers in the MMORPG The World and gather friends that are not just interested in their famous avatars but in sharing their adventures.  Shugo while dying in The World is gifted with an artifact which allows him to break the game’s rules. The appearance of their avatars and artifact has CC Corp, the owners of The World, in a frenzy to prevent what happened the last time they were around.  Shugo and Rena encounter the avatar of a child claiming that the entity that gave Shugo the artifact is her mother and believe returning the child is their quest.  With that goal they explore the seedy underbelly of The World and overcome resistance by CC Corp to return the daughter and tell her mother their stories.  Along the way, colleagues of the original owners of their avatars help them.

While not precisely a sequel to previous .hack stories, Legend of the Twilight draws heavily on the consequences and characters of them.  Roughly the first half of the volume merely refers to them but in the remainder these previous stories become ever more important until it seems that Legend of the Twilight is just an epilogue not its own story.  As the story becomes more of an epilogue the action/adventure aspects become minimal until the whole point is to tell the story to others rather for it to have its own purpose.  While it manages to avoid most of the metaphysical diversions that other stories in the .hack series fall prey to, it still feels the need to ponder the nature of friends and comrades.  In a way, this being a complete collection means taking the less interesting parts at the end with the more entertaining ones.

.hack//Legend of the Twilight, the Complete Collection is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

World of Warcraft: Mage

Story by Richard A. Knaak with Art by Ryo Kawakami
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Treachery that can be seen from up high. 

Aodhan is a trainee mage in the flying city of Dalaran.  He became a trainee despite the opposition of his warrior family that did not see the usefulness of mage skills as compared to the family’s tradition so Aodhan instead follows his uncle Crevan’s example.  When Dalaran is attacked by blue dragons, Aodhan learns that Crevan’s example is perhaps not the best one to follow when he tricks Aodhan into releasing him from prison.  As the attack continues, Aodhan realizes that his uncle is not as virtuous as he had once thought and that the trainers who were so hard on him were so to make sure he did not make the same his mistakes as his uncle.  With that in mind, Aodhan manages to turn the tables on his uncle and help save Dalaran. 

This story would have been better served as a short story rather than filling an entire volume.  Mage is part of the classes line of Warcraft manga but what makes the class different and special wasn’t shown here.  This was a fairly typical ‘boy finds out his inspiration has feet of clay while people he not had much respect for have more wisdom that he thought’ story.  Variations of this story are fairly common but rather than trying to make interesting twists on it, pages are filled up with essentially meaningless fight and chase scenes that only make it clear that Aodhan's uncle is up to something while Aodhan stays clueless.  Meanwhile, some things are hand waved away rather spending pages to set things up for the story in order to make room for those fight and chase scenes.  There are a couple nice bits where items introduced earlier in the story are revealed to have more than one use but it that effort would have better spent working on making sure that the story held together better. 

World of Warcraft: Mage is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Friday, September 10, 2010

.hack//Cell, vol. 1

Art by Akira Mutsuki with Story by Ryo Suzukaze
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Is it surprising that virtual reality screws up your identity?

Midori is a high school girl who becomes ill and is confined to the hospital as she grows weaker.  There is another Midori who is a professional victim in The World, a massively muliplayer computer RPG.  As a victim she allows other Player Character to try to hit her earning money if they fail .  However being a victim can attract Player Killers (PKs) who hunt down and kill other players in the game.  Midori's latest session of being a victim spirals out of a control as a crowd of PKs surround her which attracts the attention of a PK Killer.  The PK Killer is so powerful that the PKs later kidnap Midori's sidekick Adamas who is killed and resurrected repeatedly to attract either Midori or the PK Killer's attention.  Adamas is toughened up by his experience so he asks to meet Midori in real life.  This forces Midori to confront her suppressed memories as the Midori in the hospital struggles to live.

It has been hard to review the .hack titles since they all seem to be too abstract for their own good.  Using computer games as a metaphor to explore reality and identity is all well and good, but .hack tries too hard with characters wondering if anything exists rather than starting smaller such as if they have done what they think they have.  When Midori's view of the world collapses and she is left with nothing, it is hard to care because everything so far in the story has seemed random and meaningless.  The volume also ends abruptly with no satisfying partial resolution or even interesting cliffhanger to draw readers back, just Midori getting more lost and apparently fading away.

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

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Children of the Sea, vol. 1

By Daisuke Igarashi
Published in the US by Viz’s Ikki Comics

Slugline:  Manatees make for good au pairs.

Ruka has been banned from handball on the first day of her summer break so she has to deal with her father, who works at an aquarium.  While there she meets Umi and Sora, two boys who were raised by sea manatees.  Umi and Sora feel a connection with Ruka and act on it by first making sure that she sees a falling star with Umi and later taking her with them when they 'borrow' a boat to swim near where the meteor splashed down.  There they see thousands of fish with phosphorescent spots, reminding Ruka of when as a child she saw a ghost disappear from an aquarium tank.  Umi and Sora seem to know more than what they are saying about what is going on, but Ruka is drawn ever closer to them even as she tries to recover from their dive.  As she practices snorkeling, Sora's weakness and the unusual situations in the surrounding ocean becomes more pronounced.

This is a series where the beginning scenes seem to tell a minor and unimportant story (a kid being kicked out of a school sport, visiting a friend in a hospital) but will lead to major events.  Exactly what those major events are remains uncertain, but you can feel the weight of them in the actions of the the characters as they also seem to be anticipating something.  When the first volume is broken down by scene even though it is longer than the traditional manga volume not that much happens in it.  But the tension and sense of rising action is managed so well that is easy to overlook it.  What also makes this an unusual manga is the art is very impressionistic rather than the heavily stylized like most manga. This is very effective in the underwater scenes, as it helps it give a sense of otherworldliness, that there is of the nearby world that is intimately tied to our own yet still is unfamiliar.

Children of the Sea, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Alice in the Country of Hearts, vols. 1-3

Art by Soumei Hoshino and Story by Quinrose
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Where being in love and wanting to kill the person makes perfect sense.

Alice is resting in her garden with her sister when she is taken by a man with rabbit ears to Wonderland.  She arrives at the clock tower which is at the center of Wonderland’s three feuding territories.  They are the Mad Hatter’s mafia based out of his mansion, the Queen’s castle surrounded a garden maze and the amusement park run by Mary Gowland.  The conflict seems to be mostly between the Queen and the Mad Hatter but none of them really like each other or the clock tower’s master who is traditionally neutral.  Alice is forced into this world, with her unique status of an outsider that making her interact with others to return home.  She learns that a difference between her and Wonderland’s is that she had a heart while everyone else has a clock.  This difference and what it means along with everyone loving her continually surprises Alice as she gradually forgets about escaping Wonderland.

In many manga it seems that every male character that sticks around for more than a couple of panels falls in love with the female lead character.  Here, they take that and make it a plot point!  Everyone in Wonderland is supposed to love Alice, it is part of being an outsider.  But because the Wonderland natives are already fighting this just gives them one more reason to it to continue and get even worse.  The characters reflect their roots from the source material which means they can be very odd making into them both charming and disturbing at turns.  Alice’s shuttling between factions can feel a bit repetitive but every time Alice visits someone the question is whether or not this will be the time the character will stop being charming and become deranged.

Alice in the Country of Hearts, vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3 are all available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Songs to Make You Smile

By Natsuki Takaya
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: When do shojo songs not make you smile? 

Songs to Make You Smile is an anthology volume by Natsuki Takaya, creator of Fruits Basket.  This collection is mostly of one-off stories of young love, though there is a Tsubasa: Those With Wings story included that uses its characters to tell a twisted Snow White tale.  The story that gives its name to the anthology is a high school romance between an unemotional singer whose emotional songs touch the heart of a girl whose own heart has been lost due to bullying.  Next, Chisato feels emotionally cut-off from her recently deceased father but through the actions of her new stepmother she reconnects with him.  Inagaki is a world class violinist who other students often deride for riding on his famous parents’ coattails, but a viola player can hear his true original music playing through.  Finally, a young man given to knitting and other less than manly arts is given the courage to declare his love through the actions of his grade school cousin.

One of the worst parts of any anthology is that often they hide one or more clunkers that just are not very good but rely on the rest of the anthology to get readers.  None of the stories here are that, surprising since it was originally published before Takaya's far better known Fruits Basket, meaning that they were made when she was still gaining experience.  There are several different artistic styles she in the book showing that growth, with the one with the Chisato character looking the oldest but none feeling dated.  There does seem to be reliance on standard storytelling elements but while none of the stories feel original neither do they feel particularly cliche-ridden.  The only story that particularly stands out is the Tsubasa: Those With Wings side story, mostly because it is such a cheerfully abusive tale that manages to avoid being cruel.

Songs to Make You Smile is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand