Durarara!!, Vol. 1

Story by Ryohgo Narita, Art by Akiyo Satorigi, Character Design by Suzuhito Yasuda | Published by Yen Press

Here is the sum total of my Durarara!! knowledge prior to reading volume one of the manga:

1. It is based on light novels.
2. There is an anime.
3. People were really excited about the license.

It turns out that those light novels are by the creator of Baccano!, another exclamatory property with an anime that I’ve never seen, but which has been praised by various reputable sources. So, even though I knew nothing about Durarara!! itself, I was definitely curious.

In the space of six pages, three concepts and one narrative conceit are efficiently introduced. Time for another list!

1. Inside a pharmaceutical laboratory, a speaker (presumably male) promises a girl in a tank that he will “get us out of here.”
2. A trio of anonymous hands chat about the Tokyo neighborhood of Ikebukuro and the twenty-year-old urban legend of the Black Rider.
3. Timid fifteen-year-old Mikado Ryuugamine moves to Ikebukuro to reconnect with a childhood friend and attend high school.

Each of these threads will be developed and expanded upon in the volume to come, with some slight overlap but so far not much. Because of that, I’ll address them separately.

1. We learn the least about this subplot in this volume, but it appears to have something to do with Seiji, a boy in Mikado’s class, who lives with his possibly evil sister. Seiji briefly has a stalker who sees something she shouldn’t, and I wonder if that doesn’t tie in with the next item on our list.

2. We see the anonymous chatters a few times throughout the volume and it soon becomes clear that Mikado is one of them and I’m pretty sure the Black Rider is another. Seriously, the Black Rider is the most awesome thing about the volume. A competent fighter with a body seemingly comprised of shadows, the Black Rider takes courier jobs around Ikebukuro, dispatches thugs efficently, and lives with a “shut-in doctor” who would not be averse to a romantic relationship even though the Black Rider has no head.

3. Mikado, alas, is not so interesting, though the fact that he came to town because he wanted something strange and exciting to happen to him is at least somewhat encouraging. He reconnects with his friend, Kida, meets some of Kida’s otaku friends, and is warned against associating with various unsavory people, including someone named Shizuo, who hasn’t really appeared yet but looks kind of awesome, and Izaya, an informant with bleak ideas about the afterlife who extorts money from those who intend to kill themselves.

There are some series that bombard one with so much information that one ends up frustrated. If I were more astute, I might be able to pinpoint how, exactly, the creators of Durarara!! manage to avoid this pitfall, but they do. Granted, there is a lot going on, but the exposition is sure-handed, leaving one with the expectation that all will eventually make sense. Perhaps it’s the light-novel foundation that inspires this confidence, though that is certainly no guarantee of quality.

“Weird but intriguing” is my ultimate verdict for this volume, and I look forward to the second volume very much. It’s a stylish title, one that’s more cool than profound at this stage, and I realize that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it pushed the right buttons for me so I’ll definitely be back for more.

Durarara!! is published in English by Yen Press. The series is complete in Japan with four volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Yurara, Vols. 1-5

By Chika Shiomi | Published by VIZ Media

Yurara Tsukinowa can see spirits and sense their painful emotions, but she can’t actually do anything to help them. Or so she thinks. When a new school year finds her in the same class as Mei Tendo and Yako Hoshino, two hunky boys who use their spiritual powers to ward off vengeful spirits, she ends up helping them out, but not entirely alone. You see, Yurara has a guardian spirit—also named Yurara—and it’s this spirit who manifests when spiritual nasties are afoot, causing regular Yurara to adopt the spirit’s good looks and feisty personality until the threat is dealt with. “That was awesome!” Mei proclaims after spirit!Yurara’s first appearance. “She’s beautiful and strong!”

At first, the series is pretty episodic. Before Yurara came along it seems the boys simply drove off the spirits—Mei possesses offensive powers of fire while Yako’s water-based abilities lean toward the defensive end—but now that she’s around to actually communicate with the ghosts the encounters typically end with the spirit being able to pass on peacefully. The exception is the case of Mei’s mother, a ghost who claims to be hanging around so that her husband and sons can’t bring chicks over, but who is really worried about protecting her son from an evil spirit.

As time goes on, Yurara begins to learn more about the boys and is especially intrigued by cheerful, glompy Mei, whose skirt-chasing demeanor is really a way to hide his sorrow over the spirit-induced death of his first love. When Yako asks whether there’s someone Mei loves, Mei replies, “You should know. There is… but she’s not here.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it now, the plight of loving someone who is gone and will never return actually comes full circle, alighting upon Yako by the end of the series. Because the more he’s around Yurara, the more Mei falls in love with her. She returns his feelings in her normal guise, but when under the influence of spirit!Yurara, she’s drawn to Yako instead. This makes for much confusion, as you might imagine.

The latter half of the series is primarily focused on this romantic triangle/square, and I ate up all of the attendant angst with a spoon. I sighed a bit when a contingent of mean girls harrasses Yurara for hogging the boys’ attention, but was pleased when she actually ended up befriending one of them. Really, this shoujotastic twist on a supernatural tale was exactly what I was craving when I began Yurara, and so I found it very satisfying. My one quibble is that early on, Yako seems to acknowledge the fact that he’s in love with “a phantom of a person no longer of this world,” but later seems surprised to realize that it’s the guardian spirit who loves him and not Yurara herself. Perhaps that’s not so much a flaw, though, as it is something to ponder over.

I shan’t spoil the ending except to say that I liked it and that it paves the way for Rasetsu (now released in its nine-volume entirety by VIZ), in which a slightly older Yako meets a girl who reminds him very much of spirit!Yurara.

Ultimately, Yurara is not a masterpiece, but it was exactly what I wanted it to be and I enjoyed it very much. Now on to Rasetsu!

Yurara was published in English by VIZ. All five volumes were released.

Haunted House

By Mitsukazu Mihara | Published by TOKYOPOP

I blame my “meh” reaction to Mitsukazu Miharu’s Haunted House—which I honestly wanted to like!—on the back cover, which promises that readers will be “kept guessing—and giggling” by the behavior of Sabato Obiga’s flamboyantly goth parents. I might’ve smiled a time or two, but that’s about it.

The basic premise here is simple and reiterated several times throughout the volume: Sabato would like a steady girlfriend, but they inevitably ask to see his house, which means they will have to meet his bizarre, “death-flavored” family and be scared off by their creepy antics. Sabato’s mother strongly resembles Morticia Addams, his father (despite being a banker) often sports a sort of Victorian dandy look, and his twin sisters have a gothic lolita vibe and spend their free time making voodoo dolls. The Obiga family also likes to decorate their home with skeletons and shrines and threatens to serve the family cat for dinner. Sabato always obtains their promise to behave before inviting a girl over, but this is invariably broken.

Haunted House is pretty repetitive, but I think I wouldn’t have been dissastified with it if the powers that be at TOKYOPOP hadn’t strongly hinted that Sabato’s family has some reason for treating him like they do. Okay, yes, they abruptly promise to support him when it seems that he, after fancying a long string of random ladies, seems to have fallen in love at last, but it’s not like they actually follow through with this in any meaningful way.

Looking kooky is one thing, but they’re frequently just down-right mean. At one point, Sabato is hospitalized with a broken leg and his family comes to visit. Most of what they do is innocuous—bringing him only hospital-themed horror novels to read, for example—but his mother actually feeds him dog food. I just don’t get it. Is that supposed to be funny? Is that supposed to be someone who is merely tormenting their kid, as the back cover implies, in an effort to encourage him to grow up, become an independent person, and stop pursuing meaningless relationships with random girls?

I don’t know, but I am certain that I am thinking too hard about this. And I partly blame the back cover that encouraged me to expect more from a story that is really just a diverting bit of goofiness.

Uzumaki, Vols. 1-3

By Junji Ito | Published by VIZ Media

As with Ito’s two-volume work, Gyo, the best word to describe Uzumaki—despite a back cover blurb promising “terror in the tradition of The Ring”—is “weird.”

High school student Kirie Goshima lives in Kurôzu-Cho, a small coastal town nestled between the sea and a line of hills. She narrates each chapter in an effort to share the strange things that happened there. It all begins when, on the way to meet her boyfriend Shuichi Saito at the train station, she spots his father crouching in an alley, staring intently at a snail. Shuichi confirms that his dad has indeed been acting odd lately, and suggests that the entire town is “contaminated with spirals.”

Mr. Saito’s fixation with spirals grows to the point where he dies in an attempt to achieve a spiral shape, which drives his wife insane with spiral phobia. She too eventually passes away, leaving Shuichi alone to become a recluse who is able to resist the spiral menace while being more perceptive to it than most. Other episodic incidents fill out the first two volumes, including unfortunate events involving Kirie’s classmates (boys who turn into snails, a bizarre rivalry over spiralling hair, etc.), her father’s decision to use clay from the local pond in his ceramics, a mosquito epidemic that leads to icky goings-on at a hospital, and an abandoned lighthouse that suddenly begins producing a mesmerizing glow. Things come to a head in volume three when six successive hurricanes are drawn to Kurôzu-Cho, leaving it in ruins. Rescue workers and volunteers flock to the area, but find themselves unable to leave. Dun dun dun!

Creepy occurrences mandate creepy visuals, but I wouldn’t say that anything depicted herein is actually scary. Oh, there are loads of indelible images that made me go “ew” or “gross,” but was I frightened by them? No. The real horrors of Uzumaki are more subtle: the suggestions that there are ancient and mysterious forces against which humans are utterly powerless and that the spiral’s victims will live in eternal torment. Many tales of horror involve bloodthirsty monsters, but a menace that forces you to live and endure something horrific is much more capable of giving me the jibblies. It’s the ideas behind Uzumaki, therefore, and not the surfeit of disturbing images, that evoke dread.

Uzumaki has a much larger cast than Gyo, which prompted me to notice that Ito actually draws some really cute and realistic-looking female characters. Kirie is a prime example, but her classmates and TV reporter Chie Maruyama also fit the bill. I was pretty distracted by Ito’s rendering of a girl named Azami, though, because she reminded me so much of Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue. Observe:

Flames... FLAMES on the side of my face!

Uzumaki definitely delivers an unforgettable story with memorable art, but I would’ve liked to get to know the characters more. Kirie is a reasonably accessible lead and is smart, strong, and kind, but I felt at times that she was too strong. If anything gross is going on in town, Kirie is the one who’s going to discover it, and though she reacts in the moment, there wasn’t much emphasis on the cumulative effect of having witnessed all this madness. She keeps going and being shocked by things right until the very end, but a more normal person would’ve broken down long before. And why weren’t more people fleeing, I wonder? True, once the storms hit, nobody could leave, but for a while there plenty of crazy stuff is happening and folks are just sticking around.

I also would’ve liked to spend more time with Shuichi. He’s a pretty interesting guy, who wants to get out of town from the very start but remains because of Kirie. He seems to have inherited equal parts fascination with and fear of the spiral from his parents, which keeps him alive if not entirely sane, and is able to function at times when others are mesmerized, allowing him to come to Kirie’s aid on several occasions. Through these actions we see how much he cares for her, but I actually had no idea they were supposed to be a couple until he was specifically referred to as her boyfriend a couple of chapters in. Okay, yes, this isn’t a romance manga and I shouldn’t expect a lot of focus on their relationship, but even just a little bit of physical affection would’ve gone a long way.

Uzumaki is grim, gruesome, and a whole host of synonyms besides. This isn’t jump-out-of-your-skin horror, but a psychological tale with a decidedly grisly bent. I’m not sure I’d universally recommend it—I think I know several people who definitely shouldn’t read it, actually—but if it sounds intriguing to you, give it a whirl.

Uzumaki was published in English by VIZ Media. It is complete in three volumes.

For more entries in this month’s horror-themed MMF, check out the archive at Manga Xanadu.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking, Vols. 1-10

By Koji Kumeta | Volumes 1-8 published by Del Rey, Volumes 9-10 published by Kodansha Comics

When I first set out to read Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, my goal was to finish the first eight volumes in time for Kodansha’s June 2011 release of volume nine.

You can see how well that worked out.

The problem was that this series simply doesn’t benefit from a marathon read. After four volumes, I burnt out and switched to reading it a chapter at a time as the mood struck me. Obviously, it took a lot longer this way, but turned out to be the ideal manga to read on breaks at work or while sitting around in the lobby of the doctor’s office. Interestingly, I found the most recent volumes to be so good that devouring them in their entirety was no problem at all!

There’s not a whole lot of plot to Zetsubou-sensei. Nozomu Itoshiki, the fourth son of a wealthy family, is a high school teacher with a penchant for nineteenth century garb. The title of the manga refers to the fact that when the characters of his name are written too closely together, they can be read as “zetsubou,” or “despair.” Which is convenient, since despairing over various things (and occasionally trying to kill himself) is Itoshiki’s specialty. His class is full of a variety of quirky students, whom we meet gradually, including a girl who sees everything positively, a methodical and precise (and possibly homicidal) girl, a girl who speaks only in text messages, a stalker, a fujoshi, an impoverished housewife, etc. We also meet a few members of his family, including his brother Mikoto, a doctor whose name can be read as “zetsumei,” or “certain death.”

Each chapter follows more or less the same pattern: the first couple of pages establish where the characters are, then something sets Itoshiki off on a rant. (For example, a hinamatsuri display inspires a diatribe about heirarchical societies.) Eventually he spews out a list of items that correspond to the topic of the day. Then the positive girl (Kafuka) will put forth a different opinion and, a couple of pages later, the chapter ends. As I’ve described it, this sounds tedious, but it’s often quite clever and absurd.

Some chapters are more Japanese-centric than others, with copious references to entertainers and public figures or topics specific to Japan, like tanabata or fukubukuro. These can be somewhat less fun to read, especially in earlier volumes when the (admittedly thorough) end notes provide so much information that one ends up reading the book with a finger permanently lodged in the back to reference the explanation as needed. With a change in translator for volume five, most of these notes disappeared.

At first, I was bothered by knowing there were all sorts of references I was missing, but in the end I think I prefer to just cope with ignorance; it helps that more recent volumes have dealt with some universal topics like dream endings, assumptions, jokes you’ve heard a million times, how we perceive the passage of time, modern conveniences leading to inconvenience (“Thanks to Amazon,com, we’ve got piles of books that we haven’t had time to read”), skewed priorities, gifts you feel obliged to accept, and getting sucked into other people’s drama. Somewhat to my surprise, it feels like we’re beginning to learn a little bit more about the characters, as well.

In addition to following the established formula in terms of chapter progression, there are also several recurring gags in Zetusbou-sensei. I’m not very fond of the poor dog with a stick in its butt who appears on occasion, but the creative ways Kumeta finds to insert a panty shot from a particular character are kind of fun, and I’m quite fond of Itoshiki’s stalker, Matoi, who suddenly pops up in the middle of scenes, surprising the characters. “You were here?” And the way in which the characters continue to fail eleventh grade and must repeat it pokes fun at those series—Ouran High School Host Club is the most notorious example to come to mind—where seasons pass but the characters inexplicably fail to graduate.

Artistically, Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has a very unique look. Kumeta uses very little screen tone, and all of his characters (except one) have pitch-black hair and eyes. There are many girls in the cast, but they all have distinctive hairstyles. Even if I can’t remember someone’s name, her hairstyle will clue me in. “Oh, that’s the delusional self-blaming girl!” Kumeta’s got a recurring trick for page layout too: frequently, a character will be drawn full-length to one side of the page and depicted with extremely skinny ankles and extremely large feet. In more recent volumes it seems that facial closeups are happening more often, or that characters are being viewed from some new angles, which is a welcome development.

On the whole, I enjoyed Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei a great deal. I felt that it improved as it went along, and I look forward to remaining current with the series henceforth. It may not have made me laugh aloud continuously, but it was always amusing enough to make me smile, and it’s to its credit that it was still capable of making me giggle in its 100th chapter.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking was originally published in English by Del Rey, who put out the first eight volumes, but is now being published by Kodansha Comics. The series is ongoing in Japan; volume 27 came out there earlier this week.

Review copies for volumes five, seven, eight, and ten provided by the publisher.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek, Vols. 1-3

By Rize Shinba (manga) and Pentabu (story) | Published by Yen Press

The good news is that I liked My Girlfriend’s a Geek more than I expected to. The bad news is that I’m not sure if I should feel particularly good about that.

Taiga Mutou is a penniless college student in need of a part-time job. When he spots Yuiko Ameya—who fits his ideal of the “big sis-type”—in the office of one prospective employer, he devotes himself to getting hired and thereafter attempts to find opportunities to engage her in conversation. He’s largely unsuccessful until a bit of merchandise goes missing and she helps him look for it. They talk a bit more after that, but it’s not until she sees him in a pair of glasses that she really begins to take notice.

At first, Taiga is puzzled but pleased that certain things about him meet with Yuiko’s approval—in addition to the glasses she also appreciates his cowlick and has an unusual level of interest in his methods for marking important passages in his textbooks. When he finally asks her out and she confesses that she’s a fujoshi (“Is that okay with you?”) he’s so exuberant that he agrees without really understanding what that entails.

From that point on, My Girlfriend’s a Geek is essentially a series of situations in which Yuiko’s fujoshi ways make Taiga uncomfortable, and here is where my conflicted feelings begin. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that Yuiko did try to warn him and that she shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone she isn’t. On the other hand, she is so caught up in her BL fantasizing that she never considers Taiga’s feelings, and even ceases to refer to him by his actual name. Taiga is always the one doing the compromising, and when it seems like Yuiko might be on the verge of doing something nice for him, it usually turns out that she has some self-serving motive.

And what if Yuiko’s character was male? How would this read then? She frequently concocts scenarios in which Taiga is getting it on with his friend Kouji and expresses the desire to take pictures of them together. If she was a male character saying such things to his girlfriend this would be the epitome of skeavy behavior! I seriously wonder whether she likes Taiga for himself at all, but that’s not to say he’s blameless here, either, because it’s hard to see what he could like about her except that she fits the bill for the cute older woman he’s always wanted to date.

All that said, there is still quite a bit to like about this series. For one thing, it’s often quite amusing, especially Taiga’s reactions to Yuiko’s flights of fangirl and the fictional shounen sports manga (with shades of Hikaru no Go and The Prince of Tennis) that Yuiko is obsessed with. For another, it does occasionally touch on what it’s like to discover that someone you fancy has this bizarre secret that you’ve got to try to cope with if you want to stay together. Taiga occasionally laments how far apart they are emotionally, and though we’ve yet to really see inside Yuiko’s head, her attempts to sustain a real-life relationship remind me some of Majima in Flower of Life, another hard-core otaku with a moe fixation.

There’s only two more volumes of this series and I plan to keep reading, but I hope that these characters will manage to achieve more of an equal relationship. Even if Yuiko could just learn to see Taiga’s exasperation and take some genuine step to engage him on a serious personal level, then I’d be happy.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek is published in English by Yen Press. The fourth volume has just come out (to be featured in this week’s Off the Shelf!) and the fifth and final volume is due in December 2011. They have also released the two-volume novel series upon which the manga is based.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Vol. 1

By Naoko Takeuchi | Published by Kodansha Comics | Did I Mention Squee?

I think it’s probably impossible for me to be impartial about Sailor Moon. I just love it so much. The third season of the anime comprised one of my first exposures to shoujo anime, and even though I’m cognizant of its shortcomings, I can’t look back upon it and feel anything other than nostalgic adoration.

I’ve read the manga before. I was warned early on that the TOKYOPOP versions changed some characters’ names and relationships, so I never bothered trying to acquire them. Instead, I remember checking the website for Boston’s Sasuga Books (sadly no longer with us) regularly to see whether the latest volume of the gorgeous tenth anniversary edition was available for order. Reading each volume was a fairly painstaking process of matching a text-only translation to the images in the physical book. But one makes do.

Still, as with Codename: Sailor V, I feel like I got much more out of the experience this time when reading a professionally prepared English translation. It felt more immediate to me. Alas, though I would love to be able to report that Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is free from the text errors that plagued Sailor V, I can’t. I only spotted four problems, though: two cases of misplaced sound effects (one only noticeable if you read kana) and two where the word “who’s” is used instead of “whose.” Pretty minor, yes, but still disappointing. I can’t be alone in wishing for a flawless edition.

Moving on!

Because Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon came about due to the earlier success of Codename: Sailor V, there are some obvious similarities in their lead characters. Like Minako Aino, fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsuniko is a below-average and perpetually tardy middle-school student with a fondness for video games. Where Minako craves the spotlight and is somewhat more bold, however, Usagi is a crybaby who’s inclined to take the easy way out. Both are informed of their special destiny by a talking cat—white (male) Artemis for Minako (Sailor Venus) and black (female) Luna for Usagi (Sailor Moon)—and both soon find themselves squaring off against “the enemy” whose plans invariably involve sucking energy out of the populace.

From the start, Usagi handles her duties differently than Minako. She’s more empathetic, but has a tendency to feel overwhelmed and require encouragement. (These are still, of course, early days.) She’s bolstered by her fellow guardians, however, and quickly accumulates three allies: the brilliant Ami Mizuno, guardian of water and wisdom (Sailor Mercury); classy and clairvoyant Rei Hino, guardian of fire and passion (Sailor Mars); and tomboyish yet girlish Makoto Kino, guardian of thunder and courage (Sailor Jupiter). Luna provides them all with information—I enjoy any scene that depicts the kitty in research mode—and handy gizmos that allow them to communicate and transform.

Together they face off against Queen Beryl and her Four Kings of Heaven, who are busily concocting schemes to collect energy to revive their “great ruler” while simultaneously searching for the “legendary silver crystal.” (We learn more about the enemies here than in Sailor V, incidentally, which makes them much more interesting. It’s still slightly disconcerting to see how quickly some of them are defeated, though, considering how long they stick around in the anime. Nephrite, for example, is vanquished after just one chapter!) The Guardians want to find the all-powerful crystal too, and are also searching for “the princess,” whom they are duty-bound to protect.

Also searching for the “legendary silver crystal” is a handsome fellow called Tuxedo Mask, two words that efficiently describe his costume. He has dreams wherein a faceless woman begs him to find the crystal, and so he tries to comply. Usually his efforts consist of lurking around when Sailor Moon is busy confronting the enemy, so as to be ready to bolster her confidence. Meanwhile, in his civilian guise of high school student Mamoru Chiba, he and Usagi keep running into each other and exchanging insults. I never much cared about their relationship in the anime, but it actually kind of works for me here. Maybe manga!Mamoru is appreciably more dreamy than his anime counterpart, because I can at least see why Usagi finds him so appealing. In this volume, there’s also some question as to whether he’s friend or foe, which gives Usagi something to worry about. (In general, while I don’t mind hyper Usagi, I like her much more when she’s being serious.)

I would probably still like Sailor Moon if it were merely the story of a band of cute girls in colorful outfits who defeat the enemy with various nifty/goofy attacks like “moon tiara boomerang” and “flower hurricane,” but its feminist message definitely elevates it in my esteem. While Usagi may be drawn to Mamoru and while Makoto may yet pine for the sempai who rejected her, these girls are fully cognizant that they’ve got a mission that’s more important than romance. Consider this exchange in which Makoto is explaining her reason for transferring schools:

Makoto: It seemed there was something far more important… even more important than falling in love… that was waiting for me here.

Rei: You’re right! We don’t have the luxury of the time it takes to cry over a man.

Though normal teens until just recently, these girls are quickly coming to grips with their destiny and the enormous importance of preventing the crystal from falling into the wrong hands. One gets the sense that this experience, though dangerous, is going to be critical in forming who they become as people, especially lazy Usagi, who is now thrust into a leadership role. And even though Mamoru does help her on occasion, it never comes off as condescending, but more like he’s reminding her of the strength that she already possesses. He, after all, has no powers of his own so it’s up to her to save the day.

Thank you, Kodansha Comics, for licensing this series and giving us a proper translation at last. I’m happy for myself and other existing fans, but I also can’t wait to see what Sailor Moon newbies make of the story.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is published in English by Kodansha Comics. They’ve licensed the tenth anniversary edition, which condensed the eighteen-volume series into twelve volumes of the main narrative plus two volumes of short stories. It also has pretty new covers and some retouched art.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Codename: Sailor V, Vol. 1

By Naoko Takeuchi | Published by Kodansha Comics | Squee

There are few things in this world that can literally make me do “the dance of squee,” but the arrival of the first volumes of Codename: Sailor V and Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon at my house definitely did the trick. My husband can bear witness.

I’ve read Codename: Sailor V before (back in 2003), but that was with the Japanese edition in hand and a text translation on the computer screen, doing my best with my limited Japanese skills to put words and images together. But now it’s out in English, and translated by the venerable William Flanagan, to boot! I feel like I got a lot more out of this time, but whether that’s due to increased comprehension or a change in personal perspective, I can’t really say.

First, a bit of publication history. After completing her first series, The Cherry Project, Naoko Takeuchi and her editor decided that her next series would feature a magical girl in a sailor suit who fights for love and justice. The result was Codename: Sailor V, which premiered in the magazine Run-Run in July 1991. An anime was soon planned, but instead of starring only Sailor V, it would feature a five-person team, with the focus on a new character named Sailor Moon.

The Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon manga debuted in 1992, with the anime premiering shortly thereafter. Chapters of Codename: Sailor V continued to be released periodically, and actually wrapped up a couple of months after the Sailor Moon series. In this way, it functions both as a prequel and as a companion series to the more famous work.

Now to the story itself! Minako Aino is thirteen years old and in her first year of middle school. She’s got some… quirks—she is described at one point as a “binge-eating, nap-taking, below-average student” who “likes standing out in a crowd”—but also thinks fast on her feet and has acute physical reflexes. After observing her for a while, a mysterious white cat introduces himself as Artemis and tells her she has been chosen by the planet Venus. “You were born to fight to protect the world of incandescent heat. And you have a mission. A duty that no one but you can fulfill.” This whole sequence reminds me a lot of a young Buffy, similar in temperament and ability, hearing similar words from her first Watcher.

Minako promptly faints, and when she wakes she thinks the conversation was just a dream. When she spots her crush brainwashing a girl into becoming his slave, however, the “boss” speaks to her through a magical pen (really) and tells her that he is her enemy and that she must defeat him and save everyone. (She’s also got a crescent-shaped compact that can be used as a weapon and for creating disguises.) Her first transformation into Sailor V is accompanied by the following narration:

I feel liberated! I’m overflowing with power!! I’m struck with the urge to act!

And there, in a nutshell, is why this magical girl franchise appeals to feminists like me. It’s not about a girl in a sailor suit looking cute to attract boys or being validated by them. It’s about a girl choosing to become strong herself, to achieve her full potential, and to contribute to the welfare of the planet by actively engaging “the enemy.” If you’re tired of passive heroines—got those Black Bird blues?—then you really do need to read these books.

Further adventures pit Sailor V against a series of idols represented by the Dark Agency, whose modus operandi is to stage concerts and suck out the energy of their fans, who then become their slaves. The Agency president is a woman named Fluorite and she reports to an unseen guy named Danburite, and so far they seem content to try to take over the world by repeating the same tactics over and over, though they do eventually change things up a little near the end. These episodic stories do dull the impact of Sailor V’s mission slightly, but her introductions to her foes are always fun. Here’s my favorite:

Using idols to brainwash both men and women, young and old… Now that’s just greedy! Those are horrendous business practices and the Japanese Tax Office will not stand for it!

I am sometimes a GI Fighting Girl, and sometimes a Debuting Idol Beauty… But my true form is…—Moon Power: Transform!—Codename: Sailor V!! Champion of Justice!! The Pretty Guardian in a Sailor Suit! Sailor Venus… has arrived!

Takeuchi’s art is lovely, if somewhat busy. (Sometimes I wonder if she has a phobia of white space, because a lot of screentone is used to fill those areas. My favorite is the one that inexplicably mixes stamps and penguins.) I’m particularly fond of the chapter title pages, because Sailor V looks especially cool and mature in those. The English translation reads well, too, so it’s really too bad that the rest of the text has so many minor errors. For the most part, these consist of misattributed dialogue or sound effects being placed in the wrong spot. Though annoying, they don’t hamper one’s enjoyment much. The reference to Science Ninja Team Gotchaman (sic) in the end notes did elicit a cry of dismay from me, though.

So, yes. It is truly wonderful to have Codename: Sailor V available in English. Perhaps it won’t appeal to everyone as much as it does to me, but it’s got more depth that one might expect, and is definitely worth checking out.

Codename: Sailor V is published in English by Kodansha Comics. They’ve licensed the tenth anniversary edition, which condensed the original three volumes into two.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Arata: The Legend, Vols. 1-6

By Yuu Watase | Published by VIZ Media

As a fan of Yuu Watase’s shoujo classic, Fushigi Yûgi, I expected that I would like Arata: The Legend, her first shounen series. Turns out, I had underestimated my enjoyment: I really like it!

The story begins in a world known as Amawakuni, where the child-like princess is preparing to yield the thrown to her successor after reigning for 60 years. There are no suitable females in the royal (Hime) clan to take her place, however, and so a fifteen-year-old boy named Arata is coerced into passing himself off as a girl until another suitable candidate can be found. During the ceremony, the twelve retainers of the princess—known as the shinsho, because they are masters of powerful sword-gods known as hayagami—revolt and the princess is cut down before Arata’s eyes. The shinsho pin the deed on him and his flight to evade capture takes him to the mysterious Kando Forest, where he is swallowed up and exchanged with his counterpart from another world: Arata Hinohara.

Hinohara has been having a tough time lately. In middle school, he was bullied so much that he eventually stopped going altogether. Now it’s his first year of high school, and at first everything seems to be going okay. He purposefully chose a school far away, where no one would know his old self, and is able to make friends quickly, thanks to his quick actions in capturing a train groper. After a month, however, his former nemesis Kadowaki arrives and the torment starts anew, capped off by the betrayal of Arata’s closest new friend, Suguru.

When he arrives in Amawakuni—and is taken for Arata by everyone he meets—Hinohara is thrust into Arata’s role as a wanted criminal. When his touch awakens a slumbering family artifact—what turns out to be a legendary hayagami known as Tsukuyo—he is suddenly recognized as a sho, which means he’s part of the battle for the the throne. The shinsho overthrew the princess because they were tired of the control she exerted over their powers, but now they must battle and dominate each other until one stands supreme. Like it or not, as a sho, Arata is swept up in the conflict and has two choices: submit himself (this essentially means death) or force others to submit. (Meanwhile, Arata contends with life in modern Japan, including going to school and eventually beating up Kadowaki.)

I really love how Watase fleshes out Hinohara’s complex character here, because everything he does makes sense based on what he’s been through. When he first arrives, he refuses to trust anyone, but when Arata’s childhood friend, Kotoha, makes good on her promises to stick by him no matter what, it has a profound effect on him. Too, the prospect of forcing others to submit reminds him too much of the domination he suffered.

Because of his experiences—and because of the unique property that allows Tsukuyo to safeguard the souls of other sho without actually causing their death—he is gradually able to win over a few sho by sympathizing with their own suffering, whether it be betrayal, isolation, or loneliness. In a conversation with the princess—courtesy of the special necklace that also occasionally allows him to converse with Arata—he promises to unite the hayagami under Tsukuyo and return to her before she dies completely. He’s got a long road ahead, and it’s one that can only be won by changing the hearts of others.

It is this mission of Hinohara’s—not unlike those usually assigned to magical girls—that makes me want to apply the demographic label “jounen” to this series. It’s definitely shounen in scope and feel, but it’s also attuned to its shoujo side. The slowly developing romance between Hinohara and Kotoha is very well done, for example, with Hinohara cognizant of Kotoha’s love for the real Arata and Kotoha confused because “Arata” is responding to her in a way he never did before. I also like that Kadowaki eventually arrives in Amawakuni because a) that is so very Yuu Watase, for two outsiders to come into a fantasy world and immediately assume powerful destinies and b) the ultimate test of Hinohara’s newfound bravery and purpose is for him to be able to sustain it in the face of Kadowaki’s unrelenting hostility.

The pacing of the series is also outstanding. There’s just enough foreshadowing of significant things—the gravestone that connects one of the shinsho, Kannagi, with his reasons for rebelling against the princess—to make the eventual reveal more significant, but one never has to wait too long for the answer to a question. Similarly, Hinohara frequently actually comes out and says what he’s thinking, so misunderstandings are not allowed to perpetuate for long. In fact, revealing the truth behind things—like when Hinohara finally convinces Kotoha that he is not her beloved Arata—gives the story more places to go rather than reducing all dramatic options.

My one complaint about the series is largely rectified by Kadowaki’s entrance into Amawakuni, and that’s that Arata is given very little to do. At first, there’s only a chapter or two from his point of view every once in a while, but once he meets an intriguing girl named Oribe—who can tell he’s an entirely different person than Hinohara—things begin looking up, especially when one of the shinsho is transplanted to Japan in Kadowaki’s place. Suddenly, Arata is in genuine peril, which is bad for him but good for the story!

In the end, while there’s a lot going on in Arata, it never feels like too much, always makes sense, and yet always leaves one wondering what is going to happen next. Not only am I genuinely excited about continuing the series, it has also rekindled my determination to read Fushigi Yûgi: Genbu Kaiden, of which I have heard good things.

Arata: The Legend is still in serialization in Japan; the twelfth collected volume was released there in August 2011.

Review copies for volumes one, two, four, and five provided by the publisher.

Ekiben Hitoritabi, Vol. 1

By Jun Hayase | Published by Futabasha | Available in English at JManga

Even if JManga didn’t offer anything else to interest me, I think I would still love them forever for introducing me to Ekiben Hitoritabi. (The ekiben in the title refers to the boxed meals sold at train stations throughout Japan, while hitoritabi means “a trip undertaken alone.”)

Ekiben Hitoritabi is a slice-of-life story about an ordinary 35-year-old train enthusiast named Daisuke Nakahara whose wife gives him a ticket to Kyushu by special express sleeper train for their tenth anniversary. Once he gets to Kyushu, Daisuke begins making his way north by taking a variety of local and little-used rail lines. He’s accompanied throughout most of the first volume by a journalist named Nana, whom he educates on railroad history and exposes to the wide variety of tasty ekiben to be found at the stations they visit. When they’re not rhapsodizing over the contents of these ekiben, they’re admiring the scenery or the trains themselves.

I don’t think this is a manga for everyone. The biggest source of tension, for example, is worrying whether Daisuke and Nana are going to miss their train when it’s taking longer than expected to procure ekiben. Daisuke likes everything he tastes—and, indeed, his love of ekiben has inspired him to open a bento shop of his own in Tokyo—and is in perpetually good spirits. There’s always a page turn before the contents of the bento are revealed, so that each always appears on the upper right-hand side, with each component identified. Someone is bound to make a remark about the taste permeating his/her mouth, too.

But it’s just so charming. (One learns a lot about Japanese geography, too.) Daisuke is content with his life and with taking his leisurely time, and he makes it look so awesome that I am frankly envious. Now I want to travel Japan by local rail and sample a bunch of ekiben! I must admit, though, that I’d be reluctant to try some of them. And the one that looked the best to me was the only one Daisuke had anything even slightly negative to say about. Here it is, the Shaomai Bento:

(Click to enlarge.)

Shaomai is the Kyushu term for shumai, and after noticing that many of the ekiben contain kinshi eggs, I had to look them up and I WANT SOME ON RICE RIGHT NOW. That, of course, is the danger with Ekiben Hitoritabi: reading it while hungry is sheer torture.

What’s not torture is the translation, which is better than I expected. I did get the sense that the work was spread between several people, however, because treatment of sound effects was inconsistent and some errors (like “bento’s” instead of “bentos”) cropped up only intermittently. I never had any issues with comprehension, though, and JManga welcomes feedback, so I did leave them a few notes about the minor problems I noticed. Splitting a word between two lines seemed to be an issue, for example:

On the whole, however, I am utterly delighted that I got to read Ekiben Hitoritabi. I doubt it would’ve sold too well in print format, so if digital is the only way I can get it, then I am just grateful to have the chance. Grateful and yet impatient, because I am going to need volume two pretty soon. And some kinshi eggs.

Ekiben Hitoritabi is up to volume thirteen in Japan and is still ongoing.