Psyren, Vols. 1-2

By Toshiaki Iwashiro | Published by VIZ Media

Ageha Yoshina is a first-year highschool student who channels his passion for fighting into helping people (for a fee). When classmate Sakurako Amamiya goes missing, he can’t just ignore it, particularly since she seems to know something about Psyren, a mysterious organization that recently issued Ageha a phone card when he answered a ringing public phone. The quest to find Sakurako leads Ageha to Psyren itself, which is not so much an organization as a place—a dangerous dimension where a chosen few (known as Psyren Drifters) brave the harsh landscape and murderous denizens to reach a particular gate, at which point they return home to be called again in the future, using the interval to learn more about Psyren and hone the psionic skills that Psyren’s atmosphere has infected them with.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Psyren at first. It starts slowly, and neither Ageha nor Sakurako are particularly distinct characters (Ageha because he’s so like every other shounen hero and Sakurako because Iwashiro-sensei is admittedly not aiming for any kind of consistency in her characterization). Once Hiryu—a formerly wimpy elementary school classmate who is now simultaneously hulking and thoughtful—arrives, however, things begin to improve. He provides a foil against which Ageha can be compared, which makes their psionic training sessions (in which Hiryu excels with concentrated effort and Ageha fails time and time again until he unleashes a powerful, uncontrolled burst) pretty fun.

It also helps that the concept of Psyren has elements that remind me of other series: the giant insectoid creatures and dire depiction of Japan’s future remind me of 7SEEDS, the cyborgish enemies remind me of BLAME!, and the contract by which unwitting participants are forced to risk their lives for some vaguely explained purpose reminds me of Bokurano: Ours. It remains to be seen whether Psyren will truly turn out to be as great as these other series, but it does have a dark edge—hinting that one’s performance in the game can somehow impact Earth’s future—that I appreciate.

To be sure, Psyren is not perfect. As mentioned, the main problem is Sakurako. She, quite literally, seems to change personality from panel to panel. At first, I thought that maybe this was happening because she’d used her psionic abilities so much that it had affected her mind, but after Iwashiro’s confession—“I was very careful when portraying [heroine of previous series]’s personality, but I’ve tempered that tendency, allowing for more of a kaleidoscopic view of Sakurako”—that doesn’t seem to be the case. Too, I feel like we’re supposed to find Matsuri-sensei, the concert pianist/biker chick who has beaten the Psyren game, cool and awesome, but she just makes me yawn.

Ultimately, Psyren is better than I thought it would be. It’s also, at sixteen volumes, not a sprawling epic that would require a huge commitment. At the moment, at least, I plan to continue for the long haul.

Psyren is published in English by VIZ Media. The third volume came out this week. The series is complete in Japan with sixteen volumes.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Dawn of the Arcana, Vols. 1-2

By Rei Toma | Published by VIZ Media

In premise, Dawn of Arcana sounds like fairly generic shoujo fantasy. Princess Nakaba of Senan is married to Prince Caesar of Belquat in an arrangement ostensibly meant to ensure peace between their warring kingdoms, but which nobody expects to do so for long. Nakaba is resigned to her fate, but not without backbone, while Caesar is arrogant and entitled and makes remarks like, “Make no mistake. You are my property.” It’s pretty obvious they will fall for each other soon.

Accompanying Nakaba is her demi-human attendant, Loki, who belongs to an enslaved race possessed of heightened strength and senses. He’s been by Nakaba’s side ever since the village in which she lived was attacked by Belquat soldiers—evidently, her mother (also a princess) eloped with a member of a race possessed of precognitive powers, which Belquat was attempting to wipe out and of which Nakaba is now the only survivor—and so she feels much love and gratitude for him.

The first volume mainly focuses on Nakaba’s attempts to fit in around the enemy castle. In Senan and Belquat, only royalty have black hair, so the fact that hers is red has always prompted sneers, curiosity, and contempt, so the reaction would be the same no matter where she resided. Gradually, she gets to know Caesar a little better, and we see that his main problems are youth and actually buying into the “it’s your right” lectures that his mother has been subjecting him to since childhood. Here’s a great sample exchange between them:

Caesar: (After planting a smooch on Nakaba.) I’m a prince, and this is my kingdom. If I want something, I take it.

Nakaba: You may be a prince, but there are some things you’ll never have. Allow me to be the first.

Nakaba actually trusts him to keep his word when he promises to help Loki get out of trouble at one point, and expresses faith in his abilities to succeed in the very endeavors which his mother discouraged him from even trying. In return, he somewhat awkwardly tries to make her happy by bestowing lavish gifts upon her, and learns that a simple thing like caring for a wounded bird does the job better than fancy dresses. It’s certainly nothing new for a surly hero to be thus tamed by a spunky heroine, but I like the development all the same.

And speaking of development, volume two is a lot more interesting than the first. While someone plots to poison Caesar—and attempts to frame Nakaba for the deed—tension is brewing between Nakaba’s husband and her attendant. Loki intervenes to save Caesar from the would-be assassin, but admits that this is only to earn his trust. “I do want him dead… Have you forgotten? They are the enemy.” For too long, Loki’s people have been kept down, and he is now plotting rebellion. “You must not let him into your heart,” he warns, knowing that Caesar must eventually be his target, but though Nakaba attempts to comply, out of loyalty to Loki, she’s ultimately unable to do so.

Despite the fact that Nakaba falling for Caesar is predictable, I still like them together—how she improves him, and how he manages to make her feel safe yet simultaneously guilty—and I really like that she’s torn between these two guys, but not exactly in a romantic sense. Even while her feelings for Caesar are growing, she’s aware of the possibility that she’ll end up betraying him for Loki’s sake. Personally, I’m betting on Caesar becoming aware of the atrocities committed by his father and joining Loki’s cause—there have been some hints in this direction already—but the angst will be fun in the meantime.

Ultimately, this is a solidly good series. It’s not great yet, but it’s also far from bad.

Dawn of the Arcana is published in English by VIZ Media. Volume one is out now and volume two will officially be released on February 7, 2012. The series is ongoing in Japan, where the ninth volume has just come out.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

A Devil and Her Love Song, Vol. 1

By Miyoshi Tomori | Published by VIZ Media

The back cover blurb of A Devil and Her Love Song contains the following lines: “Meet Maria Kawai—she’s gorgeous and whip-smart, a girl who seems to have it all. But when she unleashes her sharp tongue, it’s no wonder some consider her to be the very devil!”

And in my mind, this built up the expectation for a comedy, but that’s not what A Devil and Her Love Song is at all. It’s much more serious and sad than I had anticipated, but if I had done my research beforehand and realized that it originally ran in Margaret, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Beautiful Maria Kawai has been expelled from her prestigious Catholic school, St. Katria’s, and must now enroll in a new school. She carries a lot of mental baggage from her experiences at St. Katria’s, most notably the fact that someone she regarded as her best friend told her “You taint everyone around you.” And, as if to lend credence to these words, Maria stirs up hostilities amongst her classmates almost immediately. The problem is that she’s so perceptive, and so blunt in her delivery, that she points out personality attributes that her classmates would rather not acknowledge, like the fact that they’ve been gossiping about her prior to her arrival, or that one boy is pushing himself to be liked by all even though he is not naturally a people person. Over the first week of school, matters escalate to the point where Maria is shoved down a flight of stairs and a truly odious teacher is telling her she’s “rotten to the core.”

And yet, there are certain lessons from her St. Katria’s days that serve Maria well in tough moments, like “those who believe will be saved,” which provides her encouragement to get through bullying encounters with a group of Mean Girls in her class. But she’s not taking solace from a religious implication of these words; instead, she seems to feel that if she believes in people’s good intentions, has faith that one day they will accept her, that this will actually come to pass. And so, even though she knows the girls have it in for her, she puts herself in the path of their harassment in the hopes that one day, she’ll win them over. As I said, it’s really rather sad and makes her far more sympathetic than I ever expected a sharp-tongued heroine to be.

I regret to admit I made another snap judgment of the series based on the chapter one title page, which depicts Maria and a couple of boys, one a cheerful blond and the other a surly-looking brunette. I assumed these would be her stereotypical shoujo love interests, but though both boys are definitely interested in her, they are far more complicated individuals than I had assumed they would be. The brunette, Shin, is grumpy, rebellious, and not really friendly with the rest of the class, but has a kind heart. It unsettles him that Maria can so clearly see through him, and he’s terrified of what would happen if she could discern what he’s feeling about her, but he still comes through with her when no one else will. There’s one especially nice scene where she’s so happy and scared by his kindness that she can’t even find the words to explain, so she sings instead.

On the other hand, you have Yusuke, who is trying so hard to be everyone’s friend that he’s actually no one’s real friend at all. His philosophy is the “lovely spin,” which is a survival mechanism he tries to impart upon Maria with little success. Turn everything into something palatable and nice, even if you’re being untrue to yourself, is the basic gist. It’s probably good for her to master this subterfuge, to avoid further confrontations and to effect the personal change she seeks, but why is he doing it? Just as he helps her master the art of diplomacy, one wonders whether she will help him drop the charade.

I mean no slight to shoujo comedies when I say that A Devil and Her Love Song is much better, richer and more deep, than I anticipated. To say that I am looking forward to reading the rest of this story would be a gross understatement.

A Devil and Her Love Song is published in English by VIZ Media. The first volume will officially be released on February 7, 2012. The series is complete in Japan with thirteen volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: A Trio of Kodansha Shoujo

I’m catching up on three of Kodansha’s currently running shoujo series, so I thought I’d group them all together here for a Tidbits post! First up are volumes four and five of Natsumi Ando’s suspenseful Arisa, followed by the second and final volume of Naoko Takeuchi’s Codename: Sailor V, with the second volume of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon bringing up the rear. Tidbit power, make up!

Arisa, Vols. 4-5 by Natsume Ando
Tsubasa Uehara continues to attend school in the guise of her sister, Arisa, as she endeavors to find the identity of the King who is fulfilling wishes from chosen students in dangerous ways. Her spirits flag when it seems she’s been unsuccessful in protecting the latest target, but when it turns out her efforts actually prevented the girl from sustaining permanent injury, her spirits rise. Alas, a friend’s betrayal is followed by an explanation of divided loyalties and the introduction of a pivotal new character with kind feelings towards Tsubasa but a burning hatred for Arisa.

So, there are several characters at this point who could be the King, but the strongest possibility seems to be Kudo, a transfer student who I had forgotten about entirely after reading volume three, so that tells you how memorable of a guy he is. Manabe doesn’t seem like the culprit, and neither does Arisa’s boyfriend, Midori, but it’s not out of the question. Mostly we see the King as a shadowy figure, grinning in a dastardly fashion as he does things like arrange for Tsubasa to fall off a cliff. (Side note: any time the female lead of a shoujo manga goes out into the woods at night, she is going to fall off a cliff. It’s, like, the law.) New character Shizuka seems like a potential candidate, until it’s revealed that the King is manipulating her into making wishes that will harm Arisa/Tsubasa.

All of this makes for a fast-paced and suspenseful read, but it does cause me to wonder whether Ando’s just making up all of this as she goes along. Does she really have a plan for who the King is, or is she keeping readers suspicious of everyone until inspired to take the story in a specific direction? I’m not exactly complaining—because, again, it is a fun read—but the lack of any kind of permanent gain is a little bit frustrating. I just hope there’s a satisfying and dramatic payoff in the end!

Codename: Sailor V, Vol. 2 by Naoko Takeuchi
It’s rather hard to like Minako for the majority of this volume, as several of the stories play up her shallow side. First she gets fat by eating too much evil chocolate, then she must contend with a trio of animal-themed siblings who unleash energy-sucking cats, dogs, and mosquitoes upon the populace. Minako slacks off frequently and makes various unkind comments to her long-suffering feline companion, Artemis. She also meets the latest idol sensation, handsome and mysterious Phantom Ace, and becomes one of his biggest fans.

There’s not really a whole lot to recommend these chapters except more of Sailor V’s amusing speeches, like this one, which occurs as she’s foiling the enemy’s scheme to collect energy via blood donation:

You have used clever words to abscond with a precious tribute of blood from weakened hospital patients! That is your crime!

And to add to it, you have sullied a woman’s simple joy of collecting stamps!

Worse, you forgot to give me my reward for donating blood to the tune of 800cc! And that crime is grave!

Luckily, though the premise of the final two chapters is just as silly as what’s come before—Minako is ordered to win the part of Ace’s leading lady in his latest project, filming in China, so that she can observe his potentially evil production company—it doesn’t preclude genuine dramatic impact. Though Minako entertains fantasies of marrying Ace and retiring, when he professes his to love her, she realizes that it’s not what she wants. She loves being Sailor V and, furthermore, remembers making a promise to protect an important person. Eventually, her memories fully awaken and her Sailor V costume is replaced by one matching the design of the other senshi. It’s kind of goosebump-inducing.

Though I’ve read this series before (with translations), I had completely forgotten that Ace had any connection at all to Minako’s past life, so was pleasantly surprised by that revelation as well as by this awesomely grim quote:

Your love will never be granted, for all eternity… Your love or your duty… now you can live the rest of your life never having to worry about the tortures of deciding between them. Your fate is to battle on. Because your true battle starts now.

How could I have forgotten that?! Minako is a girl who is always falling (if superficially) in love, so she can’t welcome this news, but neither does she shirk from her destiny. Ever irrepressible, she ends the series on an upbeat note, poised to show (if I recall rightly) greater maturity and determination when she joins the others in the main series.

Ultimately, Codename: Sailor V is worthwhile despite its flaws. We never learn what the enemy was hoping to achieve, nor the identity of “Boss” (though the second volume of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon provides some insight on the matter), but we do meet a special, spunky girl as she comes to accept her unique destiny, and that can never be a bad thing.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Vol. 2 by Naoko Takeuchi
A lot happens in this volume, which I shall attempt to quickly summarize. When facing off against Zoisite, the girls are rescued by the timely arrival of Sailor Venus. Minako is now in her second year of middle school and comes across as very mature, competent, and serious about her duty. She’s been monitoring Usagi through the Sailor V game and has also been researching the enemy. She provides all sorts of information about the Dark Kingdom and also claims (well, Artemis claims) that she is Princess Serenity. Her proximity triggers some past-life memories in the others, as well.

However, Usagi starts having dreams that suggest that she was actually Serenity, and when Mamoru is injured protecting her from one of Kunzite’s attacks, one of her tears transforms into the Legendary Silver Crystal and her true identity is revealed. (The bit with Venus was evidently a ruse to direct enemy attacks onto a more experienced Guardian.) Mamoru is subsequently kidnapped by the Dark Kingdom and eventually used as Queen Beryl’s pawn, securing the crystal for her by volume’s end.

So, all of this is very dramatic and shoujo-tastic while it occurs and I honestly loved every minute of it. There are a couple of things that I found especially interesting, though. The first is how much information we get on the enemy compared to the dearth of intel provided in Codename: Sailor V. We see, for example, a flashback to the moment in which Beryl was “irresistibly drawn to” the North Pole, where she discovered the remains of the Dark Kingdom. This made me wonder… was Beryl reborn on Earth as a regular human, just like the Guardians? And did she waken to her past memories as the seal imprisoning Metalia faded?

We also learn a bit about the Four Kings of Heaven, who were generals to Endymion (Mamoru’s past identity) that were swayed into becoming Metalia’s devotees. I’m not exactly sure about this, but it seems as if their bodies had been converted into crystals and recently awakened into human form at Metalia’s whim, and that they can be revived as many times as necessary. Somehow this is sadder and more sympathetic than if they had just been some regular guys suddenly remembering their previous lives.

The second thing that struck me was how much certain elements of the story remind me of Please Save My Earth. Usagi and friends living on the moon in their past lives is the most obvious resemblance, but there’s also the fact that Usagi is troubled by questions of identity brought on by these recollections (“Am I becoming the princess? It’s like I’ve stopped being me…”) and that the residents of the Moon Kingdom were tasked with fondly watching over Earth and helping it to evolve in the best manner possible. They actually travel to the moon to listen to a computerized incarnation of Queen Serenity tell them about the tragic events of the past and how Metalia must be sealed away for good. (She was also responsible for waking Artemis and Luna from the stasis they entered after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom, which makes me suspect that she is “Boss.”)

I could probably go on for another five hundred words, which just goes to show how engaging this story is. It wouldn’t be a Kodansha review if I didn’t complain about the typos—seeing the word “it’s” used instead of “its” is even more painful when it’s part of genius Ami’s dialogue—but even their irksome presence does not detract from the enjoyment I derive from reading this series.

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.