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.

Nancy Drew: The New Case Files, Vols. 1-2

By Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney, and Sho Murase | Published by Papercutz

You might wonder why I read a couple of Nancy Drew graphic novels, but when I tell you that these volumes comprise parts one and two of an arc called “Vampire Slayer,” perhaps you will understand. It was the unlikely union of Nancy Drew and Buffy—and yes, said show is specifically referenced in the endnotes—that compelled me and my compatriots at Triple Take to make this our pick for this month. I admit I didn’t expect to like this very much, but the story turned out to be even more blah than I was anticipating.

Here’s the premise: Nancy and friends Bess and George are on their way to see the hot new movie, Dielight. If they arrive in costume, they get a discount, so when they are chased by a pointy-toothed guy in the cemetery (is it supposed to be a fun twist when it’s revealed that he’s actually running from Nancy’s dog?) they assume he’s headed there, as well. He doesn’t show up for the film, but Nancy spots a mysterious-looking cloaked figure lurking alone in the back of the theatre.

Afterwards, tooth dude pops up again and introduces himself as Gregor Coffson. He is super intrigued by the fact that Nancy is a detective and asks her out, prompting this oh-so-hilarious exchange:

Nancy: Thanks… I’m flattered, but I already have a Ned… I mean… boyfriend.

Gregor: So?

Ned: Hi. I’m boyfriend. I mean Ned.

Gregor: Oh.

Oh boy am I ever rolling on the floor now. *eyeroll*

Anyway, things don’t improve very much from here. Gregor indicates that he has a secret, but he won’t divulge it until he is sure that he can trust Nancy. And because Nancy is a big nosypants, she ends up hanging out with him all the time, oblivious to Ned’s growing jealousy. At first I was pleased that Ned was confident that Nancy would not cheat on him, but that doesn’t last long and he soon begins throwing jealous hissy fits. Gregor’s secret turns out to be totally lame—someone’s stalking him because they think he’s a vampire—and so does the resolution of the story.

Ultimately, the adjective that most comes to mind when describing this story is “lazy.” In addition to the fact that Gregor’s secret is a letdown and Ned’s reaction predictable, there are other signs of shoddy craftsmanship. Gregor claims not to have a cell phone, but then how is he receiving threatening text messages from his stalker? The big reveal (spoilers, if you care) that the stalker is actually Gregor’s long-lost sister Garina is torpedoed when Nancy refers to the girl as Garina several pages before the existence of Gregor’s twin even comes up. And I’d swear that one scene of Gregor and Nancy sitting at a table was simply copied and pasted from one place to another, with only a slight adjustment of Gregor’s arm and the application of some green tint to Nancy’s shirt to differentiate them.

Probably they thought that only kids would read this and no one would notice, but kids deserve effort and originality, too. About the best thing I can say about this is that Nancy’s friend, George, is appealingly androgynous. She should get her own series.

Additional reviews can be found at Triple Take.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 8

By Joss Whedon, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

Because I’ve spent so much time and energy in the attempt to quantify why and how Season Eight lost me, I find myself sorely tempted to dismiss this final volume with a simple “meh,” but I suppose I can summon one more burst of effort.

This volume comprises the last five issues of Season Eight (#36-40) and also includes a fun Riley one-shot by Jane Espenson called “Commitment through Distance, Virtue through Sin.” When last we left off, Buffy had turned down sex-spawned paradise to return to this dimension and help her friends fend off the demons that poured in once her mystical boinkage with Angel created a new universe. Then Spike showed up.

As usual, the arc actually starts off pretty well. We see how Angel was convinced (by a talking dog who gets some great lines of Whedon dialogue) to take up the Twilight cause, and some of how Spike became involved. (Please note at this point that Spike has just apparently read Buffy’s name in the newspaper, where she is labeled a terrorist. This will be relevant in a moment.) Now with Buffy and the others, Spike says that “the seed of wonder,” the source of all magic in the world, can stop all of this. And it just so happens to be in the Sunnydale Hellmouth, guarded by the revived Master.

So everyone goes there or maybe they were there already. I have honestly lost track. Anyway, Twilight is very displeased that its parents have abandoned it, and while Buffy and friends are ostensibly protecting the Seed, Twilight possesses Angel and makes him attack Buffy. Long story short: Giles attempts to kill Angel with the scythe, but it’s absolutely hopeless and Angel breaks his neck (just like Jenny Calendar). Buffy, mad with grief, has just had enough and she breaks the seed, severing the connection between this world and magic. Willow, who had possibly been making some headway against the attackers, is promptly stripped of her powers. Though I often criticize Georges Jeanty’s art, Willow’s expression at this moment is some of his best work.

Issue #40 picks up four months later and largely serves to set up Season Nine. Buffy is crashing on the couch at Dawn and Xander’s San Francisco apartment, working in a coffee shop and routinely dealing with confrontations with Slayers and Wiccans who feel that she betrayed them. Dawn has gone back to school and Xander has once again found gainful employment in construction. Giles left everything to Faith in his will (ouch!), including a London flat. She is also apparently the only one willing to care for a catatonic Angel, which I think is pretty awesome. Given their affinity, it makes perfect sense that she’s the one willing to forgive him when no one else can so much as even look at him.

So. Here are the things I disliked about all of this:

1. I swear sometimes that Whedon is actively trying to get me to hate Buffy. In issue #31, she confesses her love for Xander. In issue #34, she boffs Angel. In issue #36, she is still glowy about that, despite the havoc that ensued. “You gave me perfection and you gave it up. That’s not just the love of my life. That’s the guy I would live it with.” Um, did you forget the 206 girls he killed to get to that point? I can buy Faith’s actions so much more easily than Buffy’s because though she forgives him, it’s not like she’s forgotten all that he’s done.

As if this weren’t bad enough, in issue #37 Buffy is talking with Spike and begins daydreaming about making out with him. A throwaway comment suggests that perhaps this is a remnant of Twilight mind control, and I hope that’s true. I’m not suggesting that Buffy is usually virtuous or that she doesn’t make some impulsive choices when lonely, but holy crap. What a horndog!

2. Remember that newspaper that mentioned “terrorist Buffy Summers”? Well, how is Buffy able to resume life in San Francisco under her own name? In a recent Q&A, Scott Allie says “Buffy didn’t become a household name,” but issue #36 sure seems to indicate otherwise.

3. So far, I feel nothing about Giles’ death. It just doesn’t feel real. There wasn’t enough impact or something. Hearing his will helped it sink in more (and he gets a middle name: Edmund), but, odd as it sounds, I want to be sobbing over this, and I am not.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good things in this volume. Looks like there’s 3 of those, too.

1. There are some great scenes between pairs of characters. Giles and Buffy have a nice scene and Giles and Xander do, as well. Probably my favorite scenes involve Spike and Buffy, though, because he is pretty frank concerning how disgusting he finds everything.

Spike: Under all that demon viscera, you still reek of him, and that’s not a treat for me—but it can’t be Buffy if she doesn’t bonk the bad guy, right?

Buffy: Snark!

Spike: Comes with the sizable package.

As mentioned, Willow’s grief is pretty amazing, and Kennedy haters will rejoice to learn that Willow soon breaks up with her. Less awesome is the throwaway reveal that Willow possibly loved her sexy snaky mentor, whom she will now never see again thanks to Buffy.

2. The fulfillment of the “betrayal” issue. Back in issue #10, Buffy and Willow went to visit a… seer or something, who shows Buffy a glimpse of herself (a pose that is finally realized in issue #39 after the seed has been destroyed) and says that it’s due to “Betrayal. The closest, the most unexpected.”

At first, I was kind of annoyed that the traitor was not conclusively identified, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is quintessential Whedon. Buffy betrayed everyone by boinking the enemy, bringing down demon hordes, and then ridding the world of magic. Buffy and Angel betrayed the new universe they created. Angel betrayed Buffy by killing Giles… Ultimately, I think the prophecy refers to Buffy herself, but it’s kind of neat that it can be interpreted in several different ways.

3. One might not expect a one-shot prequel starring Riley and his wife Sam to be kind of awesome, but this one is. It’s full of great dialogue (and when I mentioned my favorite line to Jane Espenson on Twitter she actually replied!) and reminds us once again why Sam is so fantastic. I think I now want a mini-series focusing on these two as they are occasionally summoned away from bucolic corn-growing bliss to save the world.

So now the big question is… will I read Season Nine?

While there were some things I disliked about earlier arcs in Season Eight, Brad Meltzer’s penultimate “Twilight” arc was the proverbial straw that broke the fangirl’s back, and I resolved to stay away from further Buffy comics once this particular season had wrapped up. Advance press for Season Nine, however, has made me change my mind.

Season Nine just sounds so much more like something I’d want to read (and will be co-written by Andrew Chambliss, who penned my favorite Dollhouse episode, “A Spy in the House of Love”). For example, the synopsis for the second issue begins “Buffy continues her nightly patrols while trying to cobble together a sensible life…” That sounds great to me! Much better than all this big-budget sprawl. And the Angel and Faith companion series sounds like it could be even better!

I may end up disappointed, but I just don’t think I’ll be able to resist.

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 7

By Brad Meltzer, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

When I write a review, I do my best to articulate what I liked and didn’t like as clearly as possible. When one is a passionate fan of something, however—as I undoubtedly and unabashedly am of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—such clarity becomes more difficult to achieve. I will do my best to explain my aversion to the “Twilight” arc contained in this volume, but what it really boils down to is that I just don’t like it.

Spoilers abound. Beware.

The volume actually starts off pretty well, with a Joss-penned one-shot called “Turbulence” (issue #31) that finally gets rid of those irksome colorful goddesses for good and contains an amazing scene between Buffy and Xander wherein she reacts to seeing him kissing Dawn by confessing that she has begun to see him in a romantic light. He is appropriately incredulous:

Xander: Yoooou… have feelings. At me.
Buffy: Would that be good?
Xander: That would be great. If it was a bunch of years ago and you actually meant it.

He also points out that, even if her feelings were genuine, once she saw him and Dawn together she should’ve realized that the decent thing to do would be to keep quiet. Honestly, I’m a little bothered by how immature and selfish Buffy is here, but her desperate loneliness coupled by Xander’s rejection might play a part in her actions a few issues later. Xander, on the other hand, comes off as entirely in character; I think he is probably the best thing about the Season Eight comics, actually.

Really, the first 2.5 issues of the “Twilight” arc are pretty good, too. Buffy and Xander explore the extent of her newfound superpowers. Dawn is concerned, pointing out that “you don’t get power for free,” and she is proven correct when Willow’s search for the missing Faith, Giles, and Andrew leads to the discovery of a bunch of dead Slayers. It turns out that 206 Slayers have died since the start of the conflict, and Buffy has inherited all of their powers. She’s understandably pretty freaked out by this. “If I’m sucking their power… it makes me a vampire.”

Meanwhile, the missing trio are being held at Twilight headquarters, where Giles recognizes the enemy’s voice and many hints are dropped concerning what’s going on and Giles’s knowledge of it. “Every Watcher wonders if his Slayer might be the girl… and you’ve had more reason than any.”

The high point of the arc is when Buffy interrupts this conversation to attack Twilight, at which points he unmasks himself. Angel. Buffy’s anger is initially white-hot. “You killed my girls! Two hundred and six girls!” and “Why did you put us through this fucking hell for the past year?!” Angel rationalizes his actions as a way to keep the body count lower than if governments had gotten involved. If he posed as the masked villain and talked of “master plans,” he would distract others who might’ve wanted to take action. Simultaneously, he would focus Buffy and help her superpowers develop.

And here’s where things start to break down for me. What it boils down to is this: by activating all the Potentials, Buffy upset the balance of the Universe. But also, there’s this prophecy (referred to as merely a myth by Giles when he’s accused of not sharing his awareness of the possibility) that a Slayer and Vampire will be used to usher in a new reality of superbeings. Or something. It’s all very vague. When this new reality is established, the old one (and humanity with it) will be discarded. This is what the whole season has been building toward, and it’s just such a disappointment. Ugh.

What I really hate about this idea is that it basically retcons Buffy’s personal attraction to vampires and makes it something that the Universe’s grand plan was engineering. How much of what is happening is free will, and how much is the Universe controlling their actions? Does Angel really believe all this stuff? Or is he essentially possessed? Did Buffy really want to jump his bones so desperately (which she does, in fact, proceed to do) because she’s in a lonely and vulnerable place, or did the Universe make it easy for her to put aside her fury and make with the sexy times?

I also hate how their sexual encounter is treated, with a peanut gallery making jokes about it and many silly panels where they zoom across the sky, bodies entwined, while the world erupts in seaquakes and cyclones. It just looks stupid, but more than that, I think it was done to shock the reader. Is this juxtaposition (NSFW) of imagery and text coincidence? I think not, especially after the whole Buffy/Satsu thing.

The final issue of the arc offers some redemption, with Buffy gradually regaining her focus after sexual bliss and being dissatisfied with the pleasure paradise to which she and Angel have ascended. He is ready to believe in it (and, again, is this really his personal opinion?) and dwell there together forever but she doesn’t trust it and, more than that, can’t be happy in a nirvana while her friends are fighting for their lives. Her exact words are “Fuck evolution,” and, after a brief sad smile to acknowledge what might have been, she and Angel return to help her family fight off the hordes of demons who have invaded “the lower plane.” Willow is suitably pissed at Angel—“What you got coming you better hope never comes”—and then Spike arrives, seemingly with the intent of knocking a bunch of sense into everyone. Yay, Spike!

So, anyway, I just don’t like this arc. I don’t think it was thought through very well, and I don’t like the implications it retroactively conveys upon the events of the series. While I’m airing grievances, I shall also point out that Meltzer gets a basic fact wrong—Faith did not become a Slayer upon Buffy’s death—that no one on the editorial staff was knowledgable (or attentive) enough to spot. Too, Georges Jeanty’s renderings of Faith continue to be extremely ugly. The only way to enjoy her scenes is to just try really hard to imagine Eliza Dushku in her place.

The volume is rounded out by “Willow: Goddesses and Monsters,” another Joss-penned one-shot set before the beginning of Season Eight. In it, Willow takes some sort of magical journey that she originally skipped over in her accelerated path to power. There’s really not a lot going on here, and a lot of the dialogue is supposed to be funny but isn’t, but it’s noteworthy because it’s the first time we’ve glimpsed Tara in the comics.

One more volume to go, and it includes Spike! I never did read the final two issues, so though I am spoiled on one pivotal event, much of it will be new to me. I hope I don’t hate it.

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.

Flower of Life, Vols. 1-4

By Fumi Yoshinaga | Published by Digital Manga Publishing

When Fumi Yoshinaga sets a series in high school, you just know that she’s not going to do it like anybody else.

Harutaro Hanazono is beginning his first year of high school thirteen months behind schedule due to a bout of leukemia. The manga begins as he introduces himself to his new classmates in a manner that communicates much about his character. He’s an honest, simple, and idealistic soul, so is very forthright with his classmates about his illness because he doesn’t like the prospect of keeping secrets from all of them or having to explain multiple times. What he fails to consider, however, is how this information will affect his classmates’ interactions with him, since they all treat him with more consideration than they might otherwise have done.

Harutaro quickly becomes friends with Shota Mikuni, a gentle, smart, and adorable overweight boy whose main flaw is his timidity. Mikuni is also friends with Kai Majima, an arrogant otaku who is such a fascinating character that he’s going to get his own paragraph later. Harutaro and Majima don’t get along very well, but this doesn’t stop Harutaro from joining Mikuni and Majima in the manga club, where he collaborates with Mikuni and gradually develops the ambition to become a professional manga artist.

Meanwhile, readers become acquainted with the rest of the class in the same organic way any new student would. The homeroom teacher is Shigeru Saito, who at first appears to be an effeminate gay man but who is actually a woman. (Yoshinaga fooled me there, I must admit.) Other classmates include Yamane, a mature student with a love for books; Sakai, a perpetually tardy girl with a knack for English; Aizawa, a girl sensitive to the feelings of others; Jinnai and Isonishi, close friends and nice, normal girls; Ozaki, a rather boisterous fellow; and Tsuji, a guy who looks so much like Ono from Antique Bakery that it’s disconcerting to see him nurturing feelings for a woman.

Because Yoshinaga introduces the cast of students in such a natural-feeling way, I found myself caring about them much more than I ordinarily do in a series set in high school. For one thing, I’m not sure there is any other series where I could rattle off the names and personality traits of seven supporting classmates. It doesn’t matter that these characters may not get tons of page time; they’re still fully realized people with their own problems and passions. I’ve written before about my weariness regarding school cultural festivals, but in Yoshinaga’s hands, the festival in the second volume of the series is the best I have ever read, hands down. For the first time, I really engaged with the excitement the characters were experiencing. The same holds true for the Christmas party they hold in volume three. (Plus, that dinky tree was genuinely amusing.)

One of the major things I love about Flower of Life is how Yoshinaga works in some subtle lessons on friendship into the story. Sumiko Takeda is not in Harutaro’s class but becomes friendly with them when her original shoujo manga is circulated around and becomes a hit. Takeda doesn’t care about fashion or clothes, and she’s at a loss when her mother gives her some money to buy an outfit for herself. While shopping, she runs into Jinnai and Isonishi, who decide to come along as consultants. Their first shopping experience is kind of a drag, as Takeda is unenthused by the clothes shopping and Jinnai and Isonishi are bored when Takeda geeks out in an art supply store, but on a second attempt, they’re able to work out an arrangement where everyone can pursue their individual interests and yet still have a good time together. This seems to say “You can like different things and still be friends.” Other lessons that crop up later include “You don’t need to try to impress your friends,” “There can be one-sided feelings even in friendship,” and “You might think it’s nice to be coddled, but is it really good for you?”

Another lesson, “You can disagree and still be friends,” is vitally important to Mikuni. He begins the series a timid guy, unwilling to stand out by expressing his opinion. When he gets passionate enough about something, though—and it’s usually manga—he will speak out. The first time this happens with Harutaro, Mikuni is worried that he’s damaged their friendship, but Harutaro is actually thrilled that Mikuni was able to express himself so honestly and their friendship deepens as a result. By the end of the series, Mikuni has gained enough confidence to express his vision to Takayama, the manga editor who gives their work a harsh critique, and rebound from criticism with a zeal to improve.

I’ve talked quite a lot about the student characters, but the adults figure into the story in big ways, as well. The manga club members discover early on that Saito-sensei is carrying on an affair with the very married Koyanagi-sensei, who used to be her teacher when she was a student ten years ago. Their troubled relationship dominates her thoughts until she finally calls it off in volume three, saying that she loved him because he was such a good father, and it pains her to see him sneaking around and betraying his family. Koyanagi’s unexpected successor is Majima, whose solution to Saito’s woes is to give her something else to be “moeh” about.

And now we come to Majima. I love that in painting this portrait of an otaku, Yoshinaga didn’t just give us a heavy-breathing perv with a penchant for maid costumes, but really shows us how he thinks and attempts to process the world. He is arrogant and a little creepy, with a large quantity of disdain for his fellow students. He seems to prefer 2-D representations of women with specific physical qualities over real women, whom he appears to resent. And yet… although initially detached and unfeeling in his relationship with Saito, he eventually comes a bit unhinged when her behavior—saying she loves him yet sleeping with Koyanagi—does not follow logical patterns. I don’t think he loves her, or is capable of really loving anyone, but he expected her feelings for him to stay the same—the only thing he knows about relationships he’s learned from manga and dating sims, where you win the girl and then she loves you always—and is completely thrown when this doesn’t turn out to be the case. I think the experience makes him a tiny bit more empathetic to others, and maybe it’ll be what he needs to become a better person, but man, how thoroughly unfair of Saito to embroil this poor kid in an adult love triangle that he was not remotely equipped to participate in. My opinion of her suffered a great deal as a result.

The plight of Harutaro’s homebound sister, Sakura, also plays a major role in the story, furnishing some surprisingly dark moments and eventually culminating in the revelation that Harutaro is not, as he had believed, fully cured. He takes the news hard, but once he’s had the chance to process it, he returns to school for his second year a changed man. For, you see, he has learned to lie. He has learned to consider the feelings of others before he speaks. Gone is the Harutaro that can’t abide secrets. Now we see that he has learned discretion—he might want to tell Mikuni the truth, but he will wait for a time when his friend is ready to hear it. He can keep it to himself for as long as it takes. He has grown up.

Lastly, I wanted to touch upon the art in the story, especially the nonverbal storytelling that Yoshinaga employs with such aplomb. The page below is from volume three, when Harutaro has gone to the hospital for his monthly exam. He speaks with the nurse about a fellow patient who has since died, and when he emerges from the hospital, he pauses to look up at the sky for a moment then continues on his way. He doesn’t say a thing, but it his thoughts are absolutely clear: “She will never see this sky again.”

Another trait of Yoshinaga’s art is the repetition of similar panels to highlight the evolution of a facial expression (see Melinda’s example from Antique Bakery in a Let’s Get Visual column from last October) or situation. In the example below, from volume four, she not only uses this technique to show Majima as someone not fully invested in the drama of the moment, but also for simple humorous effect.


Flower of Life is really an extraordinary series. When Harutaro and Mikuni are working on their manga, they express the desire to include some universal truths about friendship and growing up in their story, and that is precisely what Fumi Yoshinaga has done. It’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s a classic. Go read it.

Flower of Life was published in English by Digital Manga Publishing and is complete in four volumes. I reviewed it as part of the Fumi Yoshinaga Manga Moveable Feast, the archive of which can be found here.

Review copy for volume four provided by the publisher.