Immortal Rain 3-5 by Kaori Ozaki: A-

It’s been a year since I read the first two volumes of Immortal Rain, and though I was initially somewhat lost when I started the third, the heartbreaking nature of Rain’s backstory immediately pulled me back in.

Hints had been sprinkled through the first two volumes, but here we get the whole, terrible story. We learn about Rain’s relationship with Freya—the woman he once loved—and with Yuca, the friend with a dark secret that would ultimately lead to Freya’s death and Rain being cursed with immortality. Yuca is similarly cursed himself, being reborn over and over again while conscious of the memories of all his past lives. He’s ready for this cycle to end—ready for the whole world to end, in fact—and so has chosen Rain to be his perpetual executioner.

It’s Rain’s task to wait for Yuca’s rebirth, which he’s been doing for 600 years so far. If Rain feels like humanity is worth saving, then he must kill Yuca to protect them. If he should weary of humanity and the way they treat him, he can join forces with Yuca and work to end the world. Gentle soul that he is, Rain detests this duty but is resigned to it.

But then Machika comes along to complicate things, saving Rain from his loneliness but promising future sorrow. “Being with you hurts,” he tells her. “It hurts. Because you remind me of sadness.” Later he says, “You’ll disappear so quickly.” It’s one of those doomed immortal-mortal romances all over again, like Buffy and Angel or The Doctor and Rose, and I love it to bits. It’s especially satisfying that they confess their love for each other in the fourth volume, without playing any of those delaying games shoujo series often employ. In this world, loving each other isn’t enough to guarantee a happy ending.

In fact, it’s his love for Machika that weakens Rain’s resolve. He was prepared to kill Yuca—and his own heart—over and over again forever if not for her, but now he has found love. At the same time, if he doesn’t fulfill his duty and Yuca is allowed to run free, what does this mean for the world? When Yuca actually does return and Rain is unable to defeat him, Machika roams the world for a year, refusing to believe all evidence that Rain is dead and determined to find him.

It’s all very dramatic and poignant, and I enjoy it quite a lot, but sometimes it seems a little… surface-y. I can’t really explain it better than that. It’s such a quick read, and while everything seems to make sense while it’s happening, upon reflection one wonders, “Well, why does Rain love Machika?” It just doesn’t feel like we’ve had enough time with these characters when they weren’t running for their lives. This isn’t to say that their romance feels unbelievable, just that I wish this story were unfolding somewhat more slowly. The fact that some of Rain’s foes are kids is also an unwelcome note of silly in a series that otherwise has a serious, almost seinen, kind of feeling to it.

In the year since my first review, there’s been nary a peep from TOKYOPOP regarding the future of this series. The series doesn’t come out too quickly in Japan—the latest is still the tenth volume, which was released in October 2009—so it’s frustrating being so close to having all of what’s currently available. I hope that, even if these volumes never merit a print release, they’ll be available via the publisher’s new print-on-demand feature. We shall see!

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor: B

Book description:
The first lesson Lister learned about space travel was you should never try it. But Lister didn’t have a choice. All he remembered was going on a birthday celebration pub crawl through London. When he came to his senses again, he was living in a locker on one of Saturn’s moons, with nothing in his pockets but a passport in the name of Emily Berkenstein.

So he did the only thing he could. Amazed to discover they would actually hire him, he joined the Space Corps—and found himself aboard Red Dwarf, a spaceship as big as a small city that, six or seven years from now, would get him back to Earth. What Lister couldn’t foresee was that he’d inadvertently signed up for a one-way jaunt three million years into the future—a future which would see him the last living member of the human race, with only a hologram crewmate and a highly evolved Cat for company. Of course, that was before the ship broke the light barrier and things began to get really weird…

Review:
Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers retells a handful of episodes from the first two seasons of the BBC sci-fi comedy, Red Dwarf, and provides additional background information on its two main characters, priggish Arnold J. Rimmer and slovenly Dave Lister.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it takes place aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf. Rimmer is a lowly technician—just about the lowest rank on the ship, tasked with things like unclogging chicken soup nozzles on vending machines—and his only underling is Lister. While Lister is in stasis as punishment for smuggling a (pregnant) cat on board, Rimmer causes an accident that floods the ship with radiation, killing the entire crew.

It takes three million years for the radiation to reach levels safe enough for the computer to let Lister out, which triggers an iconic scene wherein Lister wanders around while the computer, Holly, repeats, “Everybody’s dead, Dave,” with varying inflections until the Liverpudlian finally gets it. Holly brings Rimmer back as a hologram, judging him to be the companion best suited to keep Lister sane, and they soon discover that the cat’s descendants have evolved into a highly fashion-conscious civilization, of which only one member now remains. Episodic silliness ensues.

The book follows this basic outline, too, but adds some scenes to flesh out the characters. For example, rather than meeting Rimmer and Lister aboard the ship, we first encounter them on Mimas, one of Saturn’s moons, in a scene in which Lister has stolen the equivalent of a taxi and picks Rimmer up as a fare. We learn that Lister joined the Space Corps solely as a means of getting back to Earth—and purposefully got caught with the cat so that he’d be put in stasis and the journey home would feel shorter—and receive additional insight on Rimmer’s desperation to become an officer. Both benefit from this treatment and emerge as more sympathetic characters.

Not every episode from the first two seasons is represented—Lister isn’t shown taking the chef’s exam in order to outrank Rimmer, for example—but some, like “Future Echoes,” are included almost verbatim. Because of this structure, there’s not so much a cohesive plot as a string of linear events, culminating in the crew believing that they’ve managed to return to Earth. The material, both old and new, provides quite a few giggles, but can also be extremely unfunny, like when Rimmer and his holographic double squabble interminably.

In addition, a few changes have been made that outright contradict the show. The captain, once male, is now female. Although Lister never was able to tell his long-time crush, Kristine Kochanski, about his feelings on the show, in the book they enjoy a month-long fling. There’s no obvious reason for these alterations, but it’s better to think Grant Naylor—the pseudonym adopted by the show’s creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor—made them for some purpose rather than merely by accident.

What this all boils down to is that the content of this book is decently entertaining, though not excellent, and probably deserves somewhere in the vicinity of a B-, which is the grade it likely would have received had I read the print edition. But I didn’t. Instead, Hubby and I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by Chris Barrie (the actor who portrayed Rimmer) and holy freakin’ crap! He was amazing!

Okay, true, Barrie mispronounces the occasional word—“irrevocably” being the most egregious—but his skill in impersonating his castmates is truly incredible. So good, in fact, that I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait until they discover Cat so I can hear Chris Barrie do his voice!” Every single one is great, and though Kryten is perhaps the most eerily accurate, I found myself most transported by Barrie’s take on Lister. Many, many times I forgot that I was not actually listening to Craig Charles in the part.

Barrie’s performance bumps the grade up a notch, and I’d go so far as to say that one should eschew the print edition entirely. He really does bring that much to one’s enjoyment of the book.

Karakuri Odette 4-5 by Julietta Suzuki: A-

When a manga’s back cover features the lines “She’s a hot robot in high school! What’s the worst that could happen?” one might be forgiven for expecting some sort of titillating romp to ensue. In reality, Karakuri Odette is about as far from that as it’s possible to get.

Odette is the crowning achievement of her creator, the genius roboticist Professor Yoshizawa, and when she expressed interest in attending high school, he made it happen. She’s now in her second year and has a small group of friends, only one of which (a misunderstood delinquent named Asao) knows her secret. Volume four begins with Odette making a delivery for the professor to the Ringozaka family, where lonely seventeen-year-old Shirayuki lives alone and still plays with dolls. Shirayuki is thus isolated because of a supernatural ability that allows her to hear the inner thoughts of others if she touches them. She can’t hear anything from Odette, though, and after learning Odette’s secret, decides to join her at school.

Prickly and awkward Shirayuki is a wonderful addition to the cast, and I love that most of this volume is devoted to the girls and their strengthing friendship. Shirayuki arrives at school with visions of being Odette’s protector, but discovering that Odette has more friends than she does makes her feel defective. When she learns that Odette’s being exploited for her friendly nature, however, she realizes that she’s needed after all. From Odette’s perspective, Shirayuki’s inexperience makes Odette feel much more like a real girl. When both of them are about to embark upon their first class trip, for example, Shirayuki’s nervousness causes Odette to happily think, “I’m just like Shirayuki.”

It’s those type of moments that I love best about Karakuri Odette. In terms of plot, it’s a gentle, episodic slice-of-life story that’s never boring but likewise not terribly dramatic. Odette’s progress, though, is really a delight to witness, and comes through in chapters like the one in which her friends all share photos of themselves as kids—and her dejection when she learns she has none of her own—or when her heart inexplicably feels constricted when Asao seems on the verge of befriending another girl. For a long time, Odette has struggled with the concept of what it means to like someone, and it seems she might be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Volume five is a little less satisfying, as it introduces a suave robot named Travis who’s looking for a bride, along with his unscrupulous creator, but there are definitely some good moments. One particularly nice chapter finds Odette worried that her strength makes her not cute, so she refrains from using her abilities when she and Asao fall victim to the grand shoujo cliché of being locked in the gym storage shed. Although some of the challenges Odette faces are a result of her particular nature, this sort of situation is something many a human girl has faced as well. Happily, Asao talks some sense into her and she ends up concluding that “using my skills is so much better than wasting them.”

For a feel-good story that simultaneously tugs at one’s heartstrings, I definitely recommend Karakuri Odette. To see what others have had to say about it, check out the Manga Moveable Feast archive over at Manga Report!

Bokurano: Ours 1-2 by Mohiro Kitoh: B

I reviewed the first two volumes of Bokurano: Ours for Comics Should Be Good. It reminds me a lot of Ikigami, a comparison I elaborate on in the review, and while its structure makes it hard to care about individual characters, the story is interesting enough that I plan to continue.

You can find that review here.

Bokurano: Ours is published in English by VIZ, who also hosts free chapters online at their SigIKKI site. The series is complete in Japan with eleven volumes.

Review copy for volume two provided by the publisher.

BLAME! 1-10 by Tsutomu Nihei: B+

While I do my best to appreciate manga art, I generally do not choose to read a particular series solely because of it. The exception to this is BLAME!, a ten-volume series by Tsutomu Nihei that boasts “an endless labyrinth of cyberdungeons filled with concrete and steel.” Thinking that sounded pretty durn awesome, and prepared to encounter an occasionally incomprehensible story, I took the plunge.

And man, is BLAME! gorgeous! Killy, the unemotional and practically unstoppable protagonist, spends most of his time roaming a giant structure known as “The City,” looking for humans who might carry Net Terminal Genes, which pre-mutated man once used to communicate with the Netsphere (overseen by The Authority). It’s not unusual for a whole chapter to go by with no dialogue at all as Killy continues his journey, sometimes reduced to no more than a tiny speck on a narrow bridge spanning a dark chasm. The place is gloomy and cavernous, filled with pipes, corridors, stairs, and the occasional abyss. Nihei excels in creating his enormous and dangerous world, and also in conveying Killy’s progress, as demonstrated by a couple of pages from volume six that I scanned for a recent Let’s Get Visual column.

Killy encounters a few small pockets of civilization but has no luck finding anyone with the Net Terminal Genes, which are necessary to curtail the endless expansion of The City, since the builder bots who construct it were never given the instruction to stop. He does team up with a former scientist, Cibo, whose attempt to access the Netsphere with synthesized genes ended in disaster and introduced The Safeguard to The City. The Safeguard are mechanical creatures who can derive their bodily forms from the City itself. Originally designed to protect the Net from unauthorized access, their chief focus now is exerminating humanity. Humans must also contend with the Silicon Creatures, a race of cyborgs who also want to access the Net.

Killy and Cibo engage in countless fights against the Safeguard and Silicon Creatures, resulting in some pretty massive damage. Cibo goes through about three bodies throughout the course of the series, while Killy must lose his arm about eight times. (There is a lot of limb loss in this series, as well as quite a few still-conscious partial people.) It gradually becomes clear that Killy is not exactly human himself and that he’s able to heal from even the most devastating injuries. He also can’t remember where he got his gun—a powerful Graviton Beam Emitter that creates a straight line of destruction 70 kilometers long—but it’s awfully similar to one carried by Sana-Kan, a powerful Safeguard who was able to get close to Killy and Cibo in a humanoid guise.

Eventually Killy and Cibo enter a quasi-independent realm, which seems to be the headquarters of a company called Toha Heavy Industries. The artificial intelligence in charge has stored the genetic information of humans that used to dwell within, and it’s from there that Killy finally gets his sample. Unfortunately, it falls first into the hands of a pair of sympathetic temporary Safeguards (seriously, one utters the line “Also, you might see my arm lying around somewhere. If you could pick it up, that’d be great.”) and finally into those of a Silicon Creature, whose attempt to access the Net somehow leads to one final mutation for Cibo and a pretty crazy resolution to the story. The final page gives one a lot to ponder, and I’m sure there are a variety of fan opinions on what exactly happened.

This is, of course, a vast simplification of the plot, and I am omitting quite a lot that I am at a loss to understand or explain. But here’s the thing… it doesn’t matter. BLAME! is so fascinating and its world so grimly compelling that it simply doesn’t matter if sometimes one has to stare at a panel and wonder what the hell one is even looking at. From someone like me, who usually demands that a plot make sense, that’s pretty high praise indeed.

BLAME! was published in English by TOKYOPOP. All ten volumes were released.

Planetes 1-3 by Makoto Yukimura: B+

Planetes is the story of Hachirota Hoshino, dubbed “Hachimaki” by his crewmates for his propensity to wear a headband (hachimaki), who dreams of earning enough fame and fortune to buy his own spaceship and achieve complete freedom. As the series begins, however, he’s part of a crew of “extraplanetary sanitation workers” who clean up space debris.

The first volume introduces readers to the crew of The Toy Box. In addition to Hachimaki, there’s Yuri, a Russian of indeterminate age whose perpetual staring into space (literally!) is explained when the story of his wife’s demise in a space liner crash is revealed. Yuri achieves some closure in the first chapter, when he finally finds a compass that was precious to his wife, and becomes a livelier character (and occasional font of wisdom) from then on. Tomboyish pilot Fee is a Floridian with a family back home and an ardent passion for cigarettes, which prompts her to go after some environmental terrorists who’re going around bombing smoking lounges.

The environmental terrorists become a more important factor in volume two. Hachimaki, who has been somewhat of a slacker up until now, learns that a rich inventor is mounting an expedition to Jupiter. Hachimaki develops a single-minded determination to be on the Jupiter mission, which leads to him working out endlessly and being sort of an ass to Tanabe, the (female) newcomer to the crew set to be his replacement. The environmental group—the Space Defense League—attempts several times to sabotage the protect, since the purpose of the mission to Jupiter is not exploration but to mine its resources. Hachimaki isn’t particular about the reasons—he just wants to go—and when his former friend, Hakim is revealed to be the terrorist mastermind, Hachimaki nearly kills him, saved at the last minute by Tanabe.

Hachimaki makes the crew for the Jupiter mission and by volume three is participating in mission training simulations. He’s haggard, though, losing weight, having visions of some sort of mystical cat, and feeling disconnected from everything around him. His crewmate, Sally, attempts to get through to him, and eventually succeeds (via boob therapy). Hachimaki has spent a great deal of time pursuing solitude, but Sally makes him see that in the end that Tanabe was right all along—“space is too dangerous and wonderful a thing to face alone.” Like his father before him, Hachimaki marries before heading out into space in order to anchor himself with a home.

Planetes is definitely an interesting tale, offering a mixture of science fiction and philosophizing about what it means for humans to go into space. One might notice, though, that in each of the paragraphs above dedicated to a particular volume of the series, Hachimaki seems like a different person. And, indeed, an inability to identify with the lead is what prevented me from awarding these volumes an “A.”

These volumes take place between 2074 and 2077, and it makes sense that a person could change a great deal in that time, especially given what Hachimaki has experienced, but sometimes I couldn’t trace the path between one incarnation of Hachimaki and the next or fully buy into his feelings for Tanabe. Also, even though it would have been unfortunate if Hachimaki had remained on the debris-collecting crew forever, I really missed Yuri and Fee as the story moved away from them. The first volume may be the most episodic of the first three, but it’s also a little less heavy than the others.

Ultimately, I liked Planetes a lot, though it wasn’t a quick read for me. I’m looking forward to the fourth and final volume.

Planetes is published in English by TOKYOPOP. There are technically five books in this series, but the last two comprise volume four, which was split due to length.

Additional reviews of Planetes can be found at Triple Take.

Darker Than Black by BONES, et al.: C+

I reviewed the omnibus edition of this shoujo manga based on the Darker Than Black anime for Comics Should Be Good. Basically, all of the elements borrowed from the anime are pretty intriguing, but the manga’s storyline just doesn’t hang together very well.

You can find that review here.

Darker Than Black is published in English by Yen Press in a 384-page omnibus edition that contains both volumes of the series.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Apollo 23 by Justin Richards: B

From the back cover:
An astronaut in full spacesuit appears out of thin air in a busy shopping centre. Maybe it’s a publicity stunt.

A photo shows a well-dressed woman in a red coat lying dead at the edge of a crater on the dark side of the moon—beside her beloved dog ‘Poochie.’ Maybe it’s a hoax.

But as the Doctor and Amy find out, these are just minor events in a sinister plan to take over every human being on Earth. The plot centres on a secret military base on the moon—that’s where Amy and the TARDIS are.

The Doctor is back on Earth, and without the TARDIS there’s no way he can get to the moon to save Amy and defeat the aliens.

Or is there? The Doctor discovers one last great secret that could save humanity: Apollo 23.

Review:
In the run of the Doctor Who: New Series Adventures books, this one comes in at number 37. At some point I’ll go back and read the earlier ones, but I’m really enjoying the new season with the eleventh doctor and couldn’t resist the temptation to check out the first book to feature him and his spunky Scottish companion, Amy.

I’m used to media tie-in books being fairly crappy, so Apollo 23 was a pleasant surprise. Oh, it’s not great literature or anything, but the characterization of Eleven and Amy is very solid, with dialogue that I can easily hear the actors delivering and several lines that elicit a grin. The basic plot is somewhat reminiscent of Dollhouse: there’s a secret base on the moon where experiments are being carried out on prisoners. The goal of the experiment is ostensibly to remove memories of bad experiences that led to criminal activity, but the technology winds up being used to create “Blanks” whose personalities are stored elsewhere while alien minds are imprinted upon them.

There’s more involving quantum links between Earth and the moon, but it’s really a sort of alien invasion/body snatchers story. The Doctor gets to zip around impressing people with his brilliance while Amy does a lot of snooping about. If this were an episode of the show, I’m sure it would be a disappointment, but in this format, it’s a quick and enjoyable read that might help ease the pain of the long wait ’til the Christmas special. I’ll be reading more!

Afterschool Charisma 1 by Kumiko Suekane: B-

I reviewed volume one of Afterschool Charisma for Comics Should Be Good. It’s about an elite academy whose students are clones of famous historical figures. The concept is an intriguing one, but the tone is erratic, juxtaposing ominous speculation with abrupt fanservice. I hope the series finds its footing in the next volume.

You can find that review here.

Afterschool Charisma is published in English by VIZ and serialized on their SigIKKI website. One volume’s available in print so far while in Japan the fourth volume has just been released.

Saturn Apartments 1 by Hisae Iwaoka: B+

I reviewed the first volume of Saturn Apartments for Comics Should Be Good, where I describe it as “low-key, dystopic sci-fi.” I think that description really works because, though a large part of the population lives in darkness without much hope of future prospects, they don’t really seem to be too miserable about it.

You can find that review here.

Saturn Apartments is published in English by VIZ. One volume has been released so far, though two chapters of volume two are available on the SigIKKI website. The series is still ongoing in Japan; five volumes are currently available there.