The Prince of Tennis 40-42 by Takeshi Konomi

Although the final three volumes of The Prince of Tennis contain many ridiculous things and are, objectively speaking, really not that good, I still think the story wraps up reasonably well.

Volume 40 begins with the tail end of the set between Seishun’s captain, Tezuka, and Sanada of the Rikkai team. Tezuka is dragging things out to buy time for absentee Ryoma to arrive, and ultimately ends up losing. Then Momoshiro and Kaidou lose, but not before we get this sentence that has never been written before at any time in the course of human history: “The tornado snake won’t work against a player with red eyes.” Good to know, that.

Fuji is up next, taking on a player with the ability to mimic anyone’s ability. And who should he emulate but Tezuka, so we get a match that is drawn like the two of these guys playing against each other. Somehow I think this was intended to appeal to the fujoshi, but I’m certainly not complaining. “Maybe we’ve both been avoiding facing off against each other. Because we’re afraid of finding out who’s better,” Fuji thinks at one point. Too bad the promise of a real face-off between them is not realized before the end of the series.

Fuji wins, so we move briskly on to the second doubles round, and somewhere around here Ryoma arrives with, and I am quoting the back cover here, “a wicked case of amnesia.” It’s completely stupid, and while Oishi and Eiji stall for time, various players (including rivals) go reacquaint Ryoma with his tennis memories by playing him off-camera. Why even employ an amnesia plot if it’s going to be cured so simply? It just makes me shake my head.

Anyway, it should be no surprise to anyone at all that Ryoma regains his memory and, though he starts off his match at a disadvantage, he soon summons the ultimate skill—“the pinnacle of perfection”—with which to vanquish his opponent. (Everyone can tell that he has achieved this because white light bursts from his body. As it often does in tennis.) And Ryoma’s dad drops by to tell everyone this is happening because Ryoma is playing simply for the joy of the game, and so that everyone can finally learn that Ryoma is the son of the famous Samurai Nanjirou. So, Seishun wins and there’s a montage while the lyrics of a song penned by Takeshi Konomi scroll by. It’s all very silly. There’s also a brief prose epilogue depicting the third years’ graduation.

I just really don’t know what to say about The Prince of Tennis at this point. In the pursuit of ways to make games even more exciting, Konomi crossed my personal “suspension of disbelief” border with all these physically observable glowy states. Somehow, I was willing to accept Inui making instant probability calculations or Tezuka being able to control his spin so well that all return shots come directly to his location, but make a guy sparkly and have someone in the stands cry, “L-look at that! All his aura’s concentrated around his left arm!!” and it’s suddenly too much for me to take. Still, it’s not like the series was ever so fabulous that I’m actively disappointed. Just resigned.

Anyway, thus concludes The Prince of Tennis. The sequel, Shin Prince of Tennis (“Shin” means “new”), is currently serialized in Jump SQ magazine. The fifth collected volume came out in March of this year. It lamentably remains unlicensed for US release.

Hikaru no Go 21-23 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata

Nearly seven years after it began, the English edition of Hikaru no Go has finally reached the final volume. I was originally both curious and skeptical about the final arc of the series, in which Hikaru and long-time rival Akira Toya represent Japan in the first Hokuto Cup (against China and Korea), but this was mostly because I’d liked where the anime chose to bring the story to a close. Having now finished the manga, though, I find it comes to quite a satisfying conclusion, after all.

Volume 21 wraps up the qualifying rounds, with a few final moments of character insight for Ochi—who, even though he wins his game, can’t stand the thought that he’d be the weak link on the team—and Waya, who realizes he hasn’t got Ochi’s pride, and was relieved not to have to play against tougher opponents. Once the Japanese team is set, consisting of Hikaru and Akira plus Yashiro, a player from the Kansai go Association, they spend the days leading up to the tournament crashing at Akira’s house, staying up all night studying game records and devouring the bento boxes Hikaru’s sweet mother prepared for them. (Hikaru treats his mother somewhat dismissively here, but after learning that Yashiro receives no support from his parents regarding his career, he has a change of heart and sort of, kind of invites her to watch him play.)

Right before the tournament begins, Hikaru learns that one of the Korean players, the handsome Ko Yong Ha, has made disparaging remarks about Shusaku, who was actually, of course, Sai. While Akira wonders why Hikaru takes the insult so personally (he will never actually learn the answer), Hikaru gets all fired up and ends up getting in a tough spot in his first game against China. There’s a nice moment where he realizes he’s going to have to stage his own comeback—“There’s nobody else here to do it”—and though he fails, his performance is impressive enough to convince Kurata, the Japanese team leader, to agree to Hikaru’s request to play in first position against Korea, so he can challenge Ko Yong Ha head-on.

For Hikaru, of course, this isn’t about personal glory. It’s about honoring Sai’s legacy. “The whole reason I play Go is…” he starts to say, but he doesn’t complete this thought until later. While he and Ko Yong Ha play a riveting game—and how awesome is it to see a packed crowd raptly following the analysis of the game, including familiar faces like Tsutsui (looking rather foxy, I must add)?—Toya Meijin and Yang Hai, the leader of the Chinese team, talk about Sai, the mysterious player who appeared on the Internet a few years ago, and indulge in some fanciful speculation that he might’ve been the spirit of Shusaku.

It’s kind of neat that they got it right, but will never know it, and it’s wonderful that Sai was responsible for reinvigorating a genius player like the Meijin, and inspiring who knows how many others. Indeed, though Hikaru ends up losing the game by a close margin (I actually love that the Japanese team didn’t cruise to an unlikely victory), his performance is shown to inspire a pair of insei and in this way, Sai’s legacy continues.

As Hikaru explains, he began playing go “so I could link the distant past to the far future.” The conclusion of the series, though open-ended, shows that he is succeeding in this goal, even though his current match ended in defeat. As Akira wisely points out, “It doesn’t end here, y’know. In fact, it’s barely started.” This idea is echoed by the lovely cover to the final volume, on which Hikaru and Akira gaze with clear eyes at the path that lies ahead.

For more discussion of Hikaru no Go, please check out the commemorative roundtable at Manga Bookshelf!

Tidbits: Shonen Jumpin’ Jehosaphat

Sometimes I just crave some shounen manga! Here, then, are a few short reviews of some shounen I have lately read: the third volume of Bakuman。, the 31st through 34th of Bleach, the second of Genkaku Picasso, and the thirteenth through fifteenth of Slam Dunk. All are fairly recent releases and all published under VIZ’s Shonen Jump imprint; Bakuman。 and Genkaku Picasso also have new volumes due out in May.

Bakuman。3 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
This was my favorite volume of Bakuman。 so far!

It begins with Mashiro and Takagi struggling to create a mainstream battle manga, over the objections of their editor, because they believe this is the ticket to popularity in Shonen Jump. They improve a lot between attempts, but in the end, Takagi requests some time alone over summer break to think of a new story, leaving Mashiro free to work as an assistant for Eiji Nizuma, their rival.

Melinda Beasi adores Eiji, and when he first appeared in this volume I was wondering how that could be, since he comes across as bratty and weird. Once you get to know him, though, it turns out he’s actually kind of endearing. He simply says what he thinks, and is incapable of being malicious or devious. After watching him happily and genuinely soak up feedback from his assistants—apparently his editor at Jump is too in awe of his genius to offer any useful guidance—I kind of love him, too!

To top it off, we see some growth from the female characters. Miho makes some progress in her dream of becoming a voice actress, although right now she seems to be succeeding mostly on account of her good looks. Miyoshi comes up with the goal of being a novelist, though her primary function in this volume is to captivate Takagi with her general awesomeness and make Mashiro doubt that his partner is working on the promised story at all.

In the end, the future of the partnership appears to be in jeopardy, even though both guys have independently hit upon the idea of a detective manga as the way to go. I’ve always found this series interesting for its inside glimpse into the publication process, but now I’m starting to find it interesting for the characters, as well. I eagerly await volume four!

Bleach 31-34 by Tite Kubo
You might not think that battles against creepy supernatural foes with bizarre powers could be boring, but it turns out that Bleach somehow manages it.

Volumes 31 through 33 are chiefly comprised of fights against weird-looking dudes during which nearby structures often go “boom” and crumble. It’s pretty much impossible to tell what’s going on, so I just sort of coast along until there’s a panel that shows someone actually being hurt by something. There are but two bright spots in these volumes. One is the predictable but still gratifying revelation that Nel, the toddler who’s been accompanying Ichigo in his journey across Hueco Mundo, is actually a badass (and buxom) former Espada. The second is an honestly riveting scene in which a hollowfied Ichigo appears before Orihime for the first time and terrifies her.

Things improve a bit in volume 34 with the timely arrival of some Soul Reaper captains. Okay, yes, their explanation for their arrival is pretty flimsy, but I will accept any excuse if it means Byakuya will be around. This also leads to a crazy battle of one-upsmanship between one of the stranger Soul Reapers, Kurotsuchi, and his Arrancar opponent. It goes something like this:

Arrancar: Fear my leet skills! I will turn your innards into dust!

Kurotsuchi: Oh, actually, I infected [Uryuu] with surveillance bacteria the last time we were fighting, so I’ve been watching your battle and, aware of your abilities, have replaced all my insides with fakes. Too bad. Now my gloopy pet will eat you.

Arrancar: Lo, I have been et. But before that happened I implanted [Nemu] with my egg, which will hatch and grow a new me! Plus, there are bits of me still in your pet, which will allow me to use it to attack you.

Gloopy pet: *splat*

Kurotsuchi: Oh, but before you did that I programmed my pet to self-destruct if anyone ever tried to use it against me. Also, I filled Nemu’s body full of drugs for the same reason, so now you’re going to see everything in extreme slow mo while I kill you.

Arrancar: Crap.

Honestly, it’s so outrageous one kind of can’t help admiring it!

Genkaku Picasso 2 by Usamaru Furuya
I really wish I could like Genkaku Picasso more. Mostly this is because Usamaru Furuya’s art is really impressive—true, in their normal states the characters don’t look all that exciting (and the lip-glossy sheen on the boys’ lips is somewhat distracting) but the illustrations created by artistic protagonist Hikari Hamura are detailed and gorgeous, and I like that Furuya continues drawing in that style when Hikari and his ghostly advisor, former classmate Chiaki, enter into the drawings in order to help solve the problems plaguing their classmates.

The problem is that I just don’t like any of the characters! Hikari is creepy, anti-social, and perverted, and is always reluctant to help out his classmates, putting Chiaki in the role of always being the one who reminds him that he has to help them, otherwise he’s going to rot away. (He cheated death in volume one and this is the manner in which he must pay for that.) I could possibly like Chiaki if she were given something to do besides pester Hikari all the time, but that’s not the case.

The manner in which the classmates are helped by Hikari and Chiaki is also odd. The pair enters a drawing based on the “heart” of said classmate and attempts to figure out what is worrying them. One boy has created a fictional girlfriend, for example, while another girl sees herself as a mecha rather than an actual girl. While inside the drawing, Hikari and Chiaki attempt to reason with the classmate, while in the real world, the classmate answers them aloud, making them look totally freaking crazy to the people who happen to be around. If I was hanging out with my friend and he began to break up with his imaginary girlfriend right in front of me, I think I would be quite alarmed.

That said, there is one bright spot in this volume—the tale of Yosuke, a girl born in a body of the wrong gender. Perhaps it’s a little too optimistic, but I liked it anyway, especially the fact that the “heart” of the transgender kid is the calmest and healthiest place we’ve seen yet.

If Genkaku Picasso were any longer, I might not continue it, but since there’s only one volume left, I shall persevere.

Slam Dunk 13-15 by Takehiko Inoue
Ordinarily, if a series took two-and-a-half volumes to cover less than an hour of action, I might be annoyed. Not so with Slam Dunk, which takes that long to finish Shohoku High’s exciting prefectural tournament match against Kainan, a team that has made it to Nationals every year in recent memory.

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when one reads Slam Dunk. Hanamichi Sakuragi, the hot-headed protagonist, has matured somewhat since the beginning of the series, though he’s still inclined to proclaim himself a genius at every opportunity. Hence, it’s pretty satisfying to see him humbled, and to watch him realize that he hasn’t yet got the skills to carry the team or hog the spotlight. And yet, there comes a point where the humbling has been sufficient, and one wants to see him triumph.

When Captain Akagi sprains his ankle during the game, Sakuragi, realizing how immensely important this game is to Akagi, does his best to fill the captain’s shoes. How can you not root for someone trying so hard to make someone else‘s dream come true? Yes, it’s the talented Rukawa who is single-handedly responsible for tying up the game by halftime, but Sakuragi is just trying so damned hard that his bluster actually becomes a source of strength for his teammates. When he finally makes an impressive slam dunk in front of a cheering crowd, I convince that I got a little sniffly.

Shohoku ends up losing the game, though this doesn’t put them out of the running for Nationals just yet. The disappointing experience makes Sakuragi more serious than ever before and he returns to school with a shaved head (as penance for an unfortunate mistake during the final seconds of the game) and a fierce desire to improve.

Why do I love sports manga so much? I’m honestly not sure I can articulate it, but with Slam Dunk part of it is the fact that the hero, who previously had no goals in life, has found a place to belong and something to care about. That kind of story pushes my personal buttons in a big way.

Review copies for Bakuman。, Genkaku Picasso, and volume fourteen of Slam Dunk provided by the publisher.

One Piece 46-56 by Eiichiro Oda

With a mighty final push, I have finally become current with One Piece! Because reviewing an entire arc at once worked so well for Water Seven, I’ve decided to split these volumes up into their appropriate arcs: Thriller Bark, Sabaody, and Impel Down. Let the wait for volume 57 commence!

Volumes 46-49 (Thriller Bark): B+
The Thriller Bark arc is named for a massive pirate ship, large enough to support an entire village full of zombies. Not just your average zombies, though, but zombies with bodies created by corrupt surgeon Dr. Hogback and animated courtesy of shadows stolen by one of the Seven Warlords of the Sea, Gecko Moria. Not that our heroes learn all of this up front, of course.

First, the Straw Hats drift into a region of the sea known as the Florian Triangle, where they encounter a ghost ship. The only occupant is Brook, “Gentleman Skeleton,” who intrigues Luffy immediately by virtue of his being, well, a living skeleton. Luffy immediately invites him to join the crew, but the others are not so keen. Brook declines the offer, since his shadow has been stolen and exposure to direct sunlight will make him distintegrate. Luffy, of course, is keen to help get Brook’s shadow back, but it’s only when Nami, Usopp, and Chopper accidentally land on Thriller Bark that the whole crew disembarks to see what’s up.

What follows is basically lots and lots of shadow-stealing, zombie-fighting action, which comes with good and bad points. Early on, the slapstick nature of the series is emphasized, full of the characters goggling (all except Robin, who never goggles) open-mouthed at various things and making stupid jokes. There’s this whole sequence where Nami is about to be assaulted in the bath (they’ve been escorted to a spooky mansion by this point) by an invisible man but Usopp and Chopper keep talking about farts. I suppose one could argue that this is because they trust Nami can take care of herself, but it bugged me anyway.

On the positive side, besides depicting how well the crew works together in a fight, Oda finds time for some excellent character moments. Robin, who had previously referred to members of their crew by their position, is now calling them by name. Usopp is the only one who can withstand the depression-causing ghost minions of one of the Thriller Bark residents because he’s “already extremely negative.” Brook reveals that he must keep on living because he made a pact to a friend, which gets Franky sobbing (he loves stories about loyalty and friendship) and when that friend is revealed to be Laboon, the lonely whale the crew met back in volume twelve, he cries even more. “Waaaagh!! I love both the skeleton and the whale!” And I love both the cyborg and the commitment to continuity!

To top it all off, we glimpse part of a battle between Ace and Blackbeard that provides some ominous hinting. “This battle between pirates would later be identified as the trigger for the major events that were to follow…” Awesome. Bring it on.

Volumes 50-53 (Sabaody): B-
Sabaody is less an actual arc and more a world-building interlude. While most of volume fifty is devoted to wrapping up Thriller Bark—Oda is great at showing a satisfying degree of celebratory aftermath, which in this case involves a big meal under the sun for all of those who have finally regained their shadows—and fleshing out a few lingering details of Brook’s history, we also begin to hear talk of four pirate emperors and a pirate empress, nightmares that await in the new world, and the pending execution of Luffy’s brother, Ace.

Eventually, the Straw Hats resume their journey toward Fish-Man Island. On the way, they come across Camie, a mermaid who once appeared in one of those stories told across consecutive chapter title pages, who informs them that her friend has been kidnapped. Volume 51 mostly consists of the rescue, and I lament to say that I found it all pretty boring, even though the culprit eventually comes in handy later when they get to the Sabaody Archipelago and it’s Camie‘s turn to get kidnapped.

Arrival at Sabaody presents some problems, as well. Not only is is infodump time in a big way, we’re also introduced to about a dozen new characters simultaneously, all of them pirates who will be Luffy’s rivals in the new world. Things have evened out a bit by volume 52, however, when a common foe—a Navy force responding to Luffy’s assault on one of the world nobles—causes these pirates to fight on the same side and show off their nifty abilities.

In the course of these events, the crew meets an inspirational figure, faces off against a powerful Warlord of the Sea against whom they are surprisingly useless, and ends up scattered across the world (Luffy ends up on an island of warrior women, whom he subsequently charms) by the latter’s banishing power. There’s a completely ominous cliffhanger in the chapter in which that happens—“That day, the Straw Hat pirates… were eradicated.” I envy those who had to endure excruciating anticipation after reading that!

Ultimately, Sabaody is pretty uneven. It seems like Oda was in somewhat of a rush to get some of the mechanics of the world down on paper. There are definitely good points, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the crew manages to reunite after this major setback.

Volumes 54-56 (Impel Down): B+
With the Straw Hats separated, Impel Down actually turns out to be a solo Luffy adventure (though the chapter title page illustrations provide glimpses of the rest of the crew). With the help of “pirate empress” Boa Hancock, who has fallen in love with him, Luffy makes his way to Impel Down to rescue his brother Ace, who is about to be executed.

Once inside Impel Down, Luffy encounters a few former enemies and works together with them to make his way to Ace’s cell. He arrives too late, however, as Ace is already on his way to Marineford where the execution will take place. Then Luffy has to fight his way back out and get to Marineford. By the end of volume 56, Ace is on public display with three hours left to live, the forces of Whitebeard have gathered to try to rescue him, and several Warlords of the Sea and navy admirals are on hand to try to prevent that from happening. It’s a pretty exciting cliffhanger!

There are a lot of really good things happening in the Impel Down arc. While I miss the rest of the crew, it’s kind of nice seeing Luffy on his own, especially because it emphasizes his trusting and accepting nature. The fights are also more entertaining than usual, since the warden of Impel Down, Magellan, has a cool Devil Fruit power. And where else are you going to see a giant koala facing off against men wearing fishnets and heels?

Fishnets and heels, you ask? Yes, it turns out that quite a few of the prisoners in Impel Down have embraced their feminine side. I love that this doesn’t prohibit them from being heroic in the least. For instance, the head drag queen, Ivankov, is an officer in the revolutionary army commanded by Luffy’s father, and the very best part of the arc so far involves Mr. 2 Bon Clay. Seriously. I cried.

One Piece continues to be an amazing series. I am torn between satisfaction at being caught up and dismay that I must wait three months for the next installment.

Review copy for volume 56 provided by the publisher.

Rurouni Kenshin 1-6 by Nobuhiro Watsuki: B+

It feels like I last read Rurouni Kenshin eons ago, even though it’s only been five years since the US edition came to an end. The siren call of a potential reread has been increasing in volume lately and finally, I could take it no more. Joined by my friend and fellow Kenshin fan, K, I’m yielding to temptation and diving back in! Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be reviewing the entire series, starting with the individual volumes and finishing up with the final VIZBIG edition, which contains some bonus material not included in the series’ original run. You can find an archive of both K’s and my Kenshin posts at Triple Take.

To summarize the general premise, during the Bakumatsu era a skilled young swordsman named Himura Kenshin fought on the side of the ishin shishi (pro-Emperor) patriots and earned the nickname hitokiri battōsai (essentially: a manslayer who has mastered the art of battōjutsu) before vanishing and becoming a figure of legend. While many of the ishin shishi eventually took up powerful positions in the new Meiji government, Kenshin was not interested in profiting thus from his actions, since he had fought only with the aim of providing a more peaceful future for Japan’s people. Instead, he becomes an unassuming rurouni (wandering samurai) and wields his sakabatō (a reverse-blade katana nearly incapable of killing) on behalf of those needing his help.

Before commencing this reread, my recollection was that Rurouni Kenshin gets good in volume seven, when one of Kenshin’s old enemies (the awesome Saitō Hajime from the pro-Shogunate Shinsengumi) pays him a visit. It turns out, though, that that’s not exactly true, since the first two volumes are very good.

The story begins in Tokyo during the eleventh year of the Meiji era (1879 or thereabouts). As he travels through the city, Kenshin is accosted by Kamiya Kaoru, the feisty instructor of Kamiya Kasshin-ryū (a school of swordsmanship that emphasizes non-lethal techniques), who is searching for the murderer who has tarnished the name of her school (and driven away its students) by claiming to be one of its devotees. Kenshin helps out, since this fellow is also claiming to be the hitokiri battōsai, and during the course of events, Kaoru discovers some of his violent past. Still, she asks him to stay, saying, “I don’t care who you used to be!” He agrees to stay put a while and moves into the dojo.

Like any good shounen series, our hero needs a band of friends, so volume two sets about fulfilling that requirement. The first addition to the cast is Myōjin Yahiko, an orphaned boy of samurai lineage who has been forced to steal in order to survive. He becomes Kaoru’s first student, and though somewhat obnoxious at first, he matures a lot in a short time, especially after he gets confirmation that all the training is paying off. Next is Sagara Sanosuke, “the fight merchant,” who was once a member of a civilian army that was betrayed by the ishin shishi. He has been hired to fight Kenshin, but realizes the rurouni is different from the other, corrupt patriots and ends up becoming his right-hand man.

In addition, much is made during these first two volumes about the Meiji government not delivering on many of its promises. Watsuki also works on building the relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru, showing the former contentedly helping out with the chores and the latter putting herself at risk when Kenshin is challenged by another former hitokiri simply because she’d rather be in danger than be alone again. It’s significant that when the battle triggers Kenshin’s battōsai mode, Kaoru is the one who prevents him from killing his opponent, for which Kenshin is profoundly grateful.

Volumes three and four are not quite as good, but close. I just can’t summon much interest in Takani Megumi, a woman from a long line of doctors who was coerced into making opium for a greedy industrialist, and she frustrates me by attempting to take her own life after Kenshin and Sanosuke have weathered some tough fights attempting to rescue her. Still, the introduction of Shinomori Aoshi, a former guard of Edo castle who is bitter about not seeing any fighting during the war, is significant, and the fates of his less-able-to-move-on-with-their-lives companions are compelling.

Where the story really sags, though, is in volumes five and six. Watsuki’s sidebars are full of comments like he can’t believe the series is still ongoing, how much work it is, and how certain stories were written “during a period of extreme exhaustion.” I must say that it shows. First, Yahiko defends a young girl named Tsubame against some dudes who are making her an accomplice to a burglary. Then a swordsman tries to recruit Kenshin to the cause of reviving a more lethal version of “the Japanese art of swords.” Lastly, Sano encounters a former comrade from his army days and must decide whether to participate in his anti-government plans. Zzz. Volume six, in particular, was a bit of a slog to get through.

Artistically, Watsuki’s style is attractive, featuring quite a few bishounen characters (somewhat to his apparent dismay, this results in a lot of female fans) as well as bizarre-looking ones. It takes a few volumes for the characters’ looks to settle down, and sometimes the metamorphosis is even faster (Aoshi looks a good bit different even just two chapters after his original appearance, though he’s still immediately recognizable.) One thing I find slightly weird is how often Watsuki openly admits to borrowing character designs from other sources (though in at least one case he specifies that he had the original artist’s permission to do so). Tsubame, for example, appears to be an exact replica of Tomoe Hotaru from Sailor Moon.

So, to sum up… Kenshin starts strong, but gradually falters, culminating in the rather boring volumes five and six. Take heart, though, because if memory serves, volume seven is truly fabulous, and sets off the Kyoto arc, which most Kenshin fans will probably name as their favorite part of the series. I’ll be reviewing the first half of it next time, so watch this space!

One Piece 32-45 by Eiichiro Oda: A

Tired of tackling the epic One Piece in three-volume chunks, I decided to do something new and review the entirety of the Water Seven arc—comprising volumes 32 through 45—at once. If you’ve never read the series, this isn’t the place to start, but man, is it ever worth waiting for!

Typically, the drama in One Piece comes from some sort of ongoing conflict the crew discovers whenever they land on a new island. The civil war on Alabasta and the tyrannical ruler on Skypiea are examples of this. The crew gets involved as a group, fighting together for the sake of strangers, and earns the gratitude of the islanders as a result. What immediately makes the Water Seven arc startlingly different is that this time, much of the drama is coming from within the crew.

After departing Skypiea, the Straw Hats decide to head to Water Seven, an island known for its shipbuilders, because the Merry Go needs repairs and Luffy would like to recruit a carpenter to join the crew. On their way, they run into Admiral Aokiji, who drops some ominous hints about Nico Robin, insinuating she will inevitably betray them. Luffy being Luffy, he refuses to doubt her, but the seed has been planted all the same. Also significant is that a demonstration of Aokiji’s power causes Usopp to express insecurity about his abilities. “Are guys as powerful as that gonna be coming after us from now on? All I did was run around a lot.”

Once they arrive at Water Seven, several important things happen. First, Robin is approached by a member of Cipher Pol No. 9, a group that tackles “shadowy jobs” for the World Government, then the Merry Go is declared unsalvageable, and the money received for the gold from Skypiea is promptly stolen by “The Franky Family.” Suddenly, there’s all this tension within the crew! Usopp feels that Luffy is being cold-hearted with his decision to ditch the Merry Go in favor of a new ship (and secretly frets that he’ll be the next one casually tossed aside) and actually quits! Robin participates in the attempted murder of Water Seven’s mayor, and the Straw Hats get the blame! The disintegration of the crew is awful, but it’s especially weird seeing Luffy so upset. At one point Zolo says, “Don’t doubt yourself. If you start becoming unsure, who can we have faith in?!”

I could go on and on describing the intricacies of the plot as it develops from here, but I’ll refrain. I’ll say instead that it is impressively multi-layered, involving blueprints for an ancient weapon and traumatic backstories for both Robin and Franky, who becomes very endearing very quickly. The scale of the story is truly epic and I admire how everything falls into place. The action on Water Seven culminates in the discovery that Robin has been helping the government in exchange for the Straw Hats being allowed to go free. The Straw Hats, upon learning of her sacrifice, respond in their typical way: “Now that we know she needs to be saved our strength will be infinite.” A chase by sea train ensues, followed by a huge battle on the island of Enies Lobby, from where Robin and Franky are scheduled to be conveyed to Impel Down, the notorious prison from which no one has ever returned.

Aside from simply being riveting, there are several things to commend about how Oda has constructed his story. Most importantly, even though the plot is complex it’s clear that it’s real purpose is to compel some genuinely poignant emotional high notes. Quite a few scenes made me cry, including a triumphant moment for Usopp in his guise as Sniper King, Robin’s tearful confession that she wants to live, and the real doozy—the noble rescue at the end of volume 44. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have goosebumps as I type this just thinking about that scene. It is too good for me to spoil. If you do not cry buckets at the end of volume 44, you may be made of cardboard.

I also admire how easily Oda integrates Franky into the story, turning him from a brash thief to a cyborg with a heart of gold (fueled by cola!) by showing how moved he is by the crew’s feelings for each other. He’s so touched by their bond that he’s willing to risk his own life on their behalf. After using the wood he bought with the stolen money to build the Straw Hats a new ship, it feels natural that he should join them as their new shipwright, though it takes a… special sort of incentive. I’m really looking forward to future adventures with him along. Robin, too, has finally found the place she belongs, where she need never fear that her comrades see her as a burden. Will the chance to finally relax change her? I’m eager to see.

Also, while endless fight scenes do tend to tire me out after a while, I must praise Oda’s sense of place. As mentioned previously—during the Alabasta arc, I believe—it’s always completely easy to tell where the crew is in relation to each other during moments when they are separated. Everyone gets a chance to contribute, as well, and show off some new abilities. Too, his battles seem to feature a lot of valiant animals, and he’s always careful to show you their fates. Even someone as small as the mayor’s pet mouse is never forgotten!

Satisfying high-stakes battles. Character growth. Sorrow and joy, triumph and redemption. It’s a rare manga that combines all of these things so seamlessly. One Piece isn’t just a great shounen manga, it’s a classic of the entire medium.

Tidbits: Sports Manga for the Win!

Welcome to another installment of Tidbits! This time I turn my attention to sports manga, a genre for which I nurture an inexplicable adoration. First up is Crimson Hero, a shoujo tale that attempts to balance volleyball and romance, followed by six early volumes of Eyeshield 21 and four later ones from The Prince of Tennis, in which the Seishun Academy tennis team finally makes it to the semifinals of Nationals.

Crimson Hero 14 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B
I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate to classify Crimson Hero as sports manga. Ostensibly, it’s about Nobara Sumiyoshi and the rest of the girls on the volleyball team at Crimson High as they pursue their goal of winning the Spring Tournament. In reality, there are only a dozen pages of volleyball in this volume, and only half of those feature the girls.

When last we left off, Haibuki, one of the aces on the guys’ team, had run off because he learned that Nobara was secretly going out with his teammate, Yushin. Also, some other guy named Kaz was spreading rumors about Nobara that caused her to break up with Yushin. It was really a mess, which I ranted about in more detail here.

Thankfully, Takanashi almost immediately addresses all of the things I found so annoying! Kaz abruptly apologizes and disappears. It was totally random, but whatever; I’m glad he’s gone. Yushin and Nobara discover where Haibuki is and both implore him to return. When Yushin goes to great lengths to win Haibuki back from another school that’s been attempting to recruit him, Haibuki realizes that Yushin kept his relationship with Nobara a secret only because he thought it would be best for the team and finally stops being a petulant brat. Hooray!

Though I mock some of the emotional moments in this volume, the truth is that when done well, it’s honestly very entertaining. It’s not the most original story in the world—earnest but academically challenged girl is sought after by two boys with contrasting personalities—but I like it. I still wish they would just play some volleyball already, though.

Eyeshield 21 4-9 by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata: B
In addition to his fearsome talent for gathering information and blackmailing others to get his way, Hiruma, the demonic captain of the Deimon Devil Bats football team, also excels at motivation and promotion. It’s through his efforts that a crowd of Deimon students turns out to watch the Devil Bats defeat the Zokugaku Chameleons, which in turn leads to a record turnout at the next recruitment meeting.

A handful of new players joins the team, including the absolutely adorable Komusubi, who looks like a muppet and idolizes Kurita, and the Devil Bats proceed to a tie game against their next opponent, which earns them a spot in a televised face-off against a visiting American team. A summer training trip to America soon follows, with the all-important fall tournament season only a few weeks away.

At this point, Eyeshield 21 is following the sports manga formula pretty closely: the team gets better, important positions are filled, and everyone tries hard to get stronger as they face increasingly more formidable opponents. Just because it’s formulaic, though, doesn’t make it any less good. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to be derived from watching someone earnestly work hard to achieve their goals, and even if much of what happens in this series is completely over-the-top, it’s still a fun read.

My favorite aspect of the story, though, is how those with less inate talent are not forgotten. This is best exemplified by what’s going on with “The Hah?! Brothers.” These three thugs were originally blackmailed into playing by Hiruma, but have gradually become genuinely invested in the team’s goals. Jumonji, their leader, was particularly upset to see his friends’ contributions belittled in an article, and works hard to help them improve themselves. I’m not sure why, but I find the idea of a former delinquent finally finding something to care about and strive for really moving. A scene in which the crowd cheers them for the first time actually made me teary-eyed!

Now if only there were fewer poop jokes…

The Prince of Tennis 36-39 by Takeshi Konomi: C+
When one is a long-time fan of The Prince of Tennis, as I am, one becomes accustomed to and can forgive a lot of the ridiculousness that goes on in the series. For example, it’s a given now that characters will be introduced who are supposed to be in junior high, even though they look thirty, and who have at their disposal an arsenal of highly improbable shots with silly names like “Super Ultra Delicious Swinging Mountain Storm.” Sets will also almost always end at 7-6, after a grueling tie-break, and characters frequently are one point away from defeat when they suddenly “evolve” and rally valiantly. It’s repetitive, but hey, how much variation can one really expect?

For the National Tournament, mangaka Takeshi Konomi kicks things up a notch with the introduction of a technique so eyeroll-inducing that even I can’t refrain from snerking. It’s called “the selfless state,” and manifests as a glowing aura that spectactors can detect instantly. “There it is!!” cries the peanut gallery, “The selfess state!!” It enables the player to instinctively recreate any opponent’s move that he’s ever seen, which results in even more shouting from the sidelines as familiar shots are recognized by the crowd. Our hero Ryoma Echizen can do it, naturally, but he’s been doing so for ten volumes or so now so it’s time to tweak it still further.

Volumes 36 through 39 of the series focus on Seishun’s semifinal match-up against a school from Osaka called Shitenhoji. After Fuji loses the first singles match, Seishun retaliates with a doubles victory followed by a singles win via forfeit. If they win the next doubles match, they’re going to the finals. Enter Seishun’s captain, Kunimitsu Tezuka, who not only can achieve the selfless state, but a special variation thereof called “the pinnacle of mastery.” Not to be outdone, Shitenhoji puts up Senri Chitose, whose ability to access “the pinnacle of brilliance” makes him go all sparkly.

Stoic Tezuka is my favorite character, so I don’t begrudge him the opportunity to be a badass, particularly since he missed most of the Kanto Tournament due to injury, but there’s only so much ridiculousness I can take. I mean, there’s one two-page spread where these guys just stand there and glow at one another! Tezuka ultimately wins, of course. After a brief interlude provided by a yakiniku eating contest, the finals begin, but Ryoma is nowhere to be found and Tezuka seems poised to reinjure himself in pursuit of victory.

These volumes make me sigh heavily. And yet… for all my complaining, I will eagerly buy the last three volumes of the series and be bummed out if the sequel isn’t licensed soon.

Review copy for volume 39 of The Prince of Tennis provided by the publisher.

Genkaku Picasso 1 by Usamaru Furuya: B-

From the back cover:
Having cheated death, Hikari Hamura must save himself by using his artistic abilities to help others.

Hikari Hamura, nicknamed Picasso because of his natural artistic abilities, survived a horrible accident, but his friend Chiaki wasn’t so lucky. Suddenly, Chiaki appears in front of him and tells him in order to keep living he must help the people around him. Can Hikari save people with his sketchbook and a 2B pencil?

Review:
Moody and misanthropic Hikari Hamura doesn’t want to have anything to do with his classmates. He’d much rather practice drawing in the style of his favorite artist, Da Vinci, and dream of becoming an important artistic figure. His only friend is a girl named Chiaki, but one day, while she’s reading nearby as he’s sketching a river, they are both killed in a freak helicopter crash.

Chiaki is the only one who stays dead, however. At the moment of her death, she prayed that someone would intercede and save Hikari’s life. Her request was granted, on the condition that Hikari use his artistic skills to help people. This she explains to him when he pulls her miniature winged form out of his front pocket and starts freaking out in the middle of class.

Hikari isn’t interested in this arrangement until she points out that he’s going to start rotting away unless he complies. Over the course of the volume, Chiaki and an increasingly less reluctant Hikari help out four fellow students. Somehow, Hikari is able to see the state of their “heart” and draw a symbolism-heavy picture, which he and Chiaki can then enter and attempt to decipher what’s going on. There are aspects of this premise that I like a lot. For example, why does Chiaki suggest Hikari attempt to draw her heart before the helicopter crash? What was it that she slipped into his pocket? Is she really there at all? Is Hikari just crazy?

Frankly, I hope that’s the case, because most of these scenarios are pretty simplistic and silly (not to mention repetitive). The worst is probably the case of Akane, a classmate who is perpetually weak because of a vegetable allergy. By drawing her heart, Hikari realizes she has a childhood trauma stemming from the death of a pet rabbit and, while inside the drawing, gives Akane’s baby self a big hug while reassuring her that “vegetables aren’t scary.”

Furuya’s art is definitely one of the more impressive aspects of the manga, as he completely switches his style when drawing as Hikari and maintains that style when the characters are sucked into Hikari’s drawings. Even though the heart drawings are full of fairly ridiculous symbolism they’re quite detailed and obviously took some time to create.

In the end, Genkaku Picasso is not quite as good as I thought it would be. Still, it’s only three volumes long and I’m curious enough to see it through to the end. I hope that what I’m reading as hints about Chiaki really are meant to be so, which might mean more interesting material lies ahead.

Genkaku Picasso is published in English by VIZ. Volume one is available now and volume two is scheduled for a February 2011 release. The series is complete in three volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Shonen Jumping for Joy

Welcome back to Tidbits, a new feature for shorter reviews! This time I take a look at three continuing series from VIZ’s Shonen Jump imprint. First up, it’s volumes 28-31 of One Piece, followed by volumes 9-12 of Slam Dunk and a single volume (the third) of the aesthetically pleasing Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee.

One Piece 28-31 by Eiichiro Oda: B+
Volumes 28-30 consist almost entirely of fighting, as the forces of the all-powerful “Kami” of Skypiea, Eneru, clash with the Shandians (fighting to regain their lost city), while the Straw Hat pirates (just lookin’ for some gold) are caught in the middle. Eneru, as it turns out, has staged the whole thing as a survival game, and figures that after three hours, only five of the original 81 combatants will survive. After this, we get periodic updates as to how many remain, a device I found strangely satisfying.

Although some of the battles are between characters we’ve never seen before, those encounters are usually brief. While Luffy spends the entirety of volume 29 stuck inside a giant serpent, many of the other Straw Hats get a chance to shine, especially Chopper and Robin, whose battles with Eneru’s minions show off the versatility of their respective powers. Nami, too, gets more experience using her new weapons and Conis, a resident of Skypiea, marshals her courage to defy the Kami and warn the people of his plans to destroy the island. There’s been some discussion lately about manga that passes the Bechdel Test, and these volumes exemplify why One Piece does so with flying colors.

Speaking of Robin, I am liking her more and more. This is the first time we’ve really seen her on her own and though it’s always been evident how intelligent and competent she is, it’s nice to see she’s also trustworthy and kind of a badass. She’s generally reserved but is passionate about archaeology, and through her we begin to get hints about a 100-year gap in the history of the world, something that could turn out to be huge. At one point she references “the unspoken history that the land below has ceased to talk about,” and later discovers that Shandora “fought against the enemy.” Thirty volumes in and we’re just starting something so big and potentially awesome? Oda, I think I love you.

After Eneru puts in motion his plan to destroy Skypiea, a mass exodus of its residents ensues. Volume 31 departs from the present panic to flesh out the history of the island and how it ties in with Mont Blanc Noland. This is actually the best part of the Skypiea arc so far and explains quite a few things while being a durn good story in and of itself. The arc doesn’t quite wrap up here, but now that I fully understand the significance of the golden bell in the city of Shandora, I care a lot more about the outcome than I have done in recent volumes!

Slam Dunk 9-12 by Takehiko Inoue: B+
It takes some willpower not to devour each new release of Slam Dunk, but it’s so immensely satisfying to read multiple volumes back-to-back that the wait is worth it!

Volume nine marks the start of the Kanagawa Prefectural Tournament, in which the Shohoku team is able to take part thanks to Hanamichi’s friends taking responsibility for the on-court brawl that occurred in the previous volume. Shohoku is underestimated at first, but the return of Miyagi and Mitsui to the team—both of whom are greeted with somewhat awed recognition from the crowd—makes them a force to be reckoned with. They progress steadily through the tournament, eventually ending up in the final four against Kainan, a school that has made it to Nationals sixteen years in a row.

Hanamichi is his usual annoying self to begin with, demanding that the ball be passed to him and proclaiming himself a genius at every opportunity. After fouling out in each of the first four games, and after recognizing the skills and strengths of his teammates, he finally realizes that he’s not such hot stuff after all. Despite occasional relapses, this marks a real turning point for Hanamichi, as he is able to accept tutelage more readily and function better as a part of the team. For example, though he originally harbored dreams of outscoring Rukawa, once he makes snagging rebounds his focus instead, he’s able to contribute a great deal to Shohoku’s success. His progress and maturation combined with a slightly more humble attitude go a long way toward making him more likable, and it’s quite touching when he gets his first rousing cheer from the crowd.

Structurally, Slam Dunk is very similar to The Prince of Tennis. Though I love the latter a lot, Slam Dunk is the more exciting read, a fact I’d chalk up to the nature of the sport. In tennis, our lead characters battle either singly or in pairs against their foes, while the rest are relegated to commentary until it’s their turn. Here, all the principle characters are on the court at the same time, which gives more immediacy to the way they’re able to motivate each other. True, the characters in Eyeshield 21 all play simultaneously, too, but because basketball moves at a faster pace than football, the effect here is exhilarating, bordering on addictive.

Unfortunately, there’s no more Slam Dunk due until December! Perhaps I’ll investigate whether Inoue’s more dramatic basketball manga, REAL, can help stave off the cravings.

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee 3 by Hiroyuki Asada: C+
Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee is the story of Lag Seeing, a twelve-year-old boy who has just become a Letter Bee (government mail carrier) in the perpetually dark country of Amberground, inspired by Gauche Suede, a Letter Bee he met five years ago. Lag had hoped to reunite with Gauche, but after learning that his hero disappeared six months after he last saw him, he meets with Gauche’s sister, Sylvette, and promises to find out what happened to her brother.

Gauche was by far the more interesting of the two characters featured in volume one, so it’s nice to get a few glimpses of him here. These tibits—and the bonus story about reuniting an aging dingo (animal companion) with the Letter Bee he faithfully served—are the best things about the volume. Lag is still not a very interesting protagonist and I’ve grown to pretty much hate his dingo, Niche. I’m sure she’s intended to be comic relief, but the story would be better served by cutting her unfunny antics and devoting that page space to clarifying the narrative, which is still going on and on about the importance of “heart.”

Back in January when I reviewed volume two, I said I’d give Tegami Bachi one more chance to win me over. As problematic as the series continues to be, after what we learn about Gauche’s disappearance and mysterious memory loss in this volume, I can’t imagine myself stopping without learning what happened to him. I don’t think this counts as “won over” so much as “minimally intrigued,” but either way, I’ll probably keep reading.

Review copies for volumes nine, eleven, and twelve of Slam Dunk provided by the publisher.

Bakuman。 2 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata: B+

From the back cover:
Average student Moritaka Mashiro enjoys drawing for fun. When his classmate and aspiring writer Akito Takagi discovers his talent, he begs Moritaka to team up with him as a manga-creating duo. But what exactly does it take to make it in the manga-publishing world?

After Moritaka and Akito collaborate on a manga together, they venture to publishing house Shueisha in hopes of capturing an editor’s interest. As much potential as these two rookies have, will their story impress the pros and actually get printed?

Review:
The second volume of Bakuman。 picks up where the first left off, with artist Moritaka Mashiro and writer Akito Takagi taking the final draft of their one-shot manga to Jump headquarters for consideration. This kicks off a series of fascinating meetings (spanning from summer vacation to the start of the next school year the following spring) in which the boys receive feedback from their editor, Hattori, and try to create a story that will be popular enough to merit serialization.

I loved all the meetings with Hattori, especially how specific he was about story and art requirements for Jump and how, as the boys improved, he went over their storyboards panel-by-panel with useful suggestions. As befits shounen protagonists, Mashiro and Akito are both very talented, but they’re not instantly the best around and go through many ideas and an immense amount of work before they’re able to craft something that is worth publishing.

When they finally do manage to get a story published, it takes third place in the popularity poll for that issue. The winner is Eiji Nizuma, a fifteen-year-old mangaphile who has been drawing since the age of six and practically does nothing else. He’s an exceedingly weird kid, but he fulfills the Akira Toya role here of “genius rival of comparable age.” He’s the first obstacle our leads will have to overcome, and I think it’s pretty fun how this is shaping up to be a sort of tournament manga.

Unfortunately, I’m still bored and fairly annoyed by Mashiro’s relationship with classmate Miho Azuki. They’ve pledged to marry once their dreams come true, but in the meantime aren’t even going to date. To some extent I understand—it’s suggested that Miho’s in favor of this because she wants to be able to focus on her dream without being distracted by Mashiro—but they still hardly know each other. Thankfully, Miho’s friend, Miyoshi, finds this just as bizarre. Also, while the overt, spoken sexism is absent from this volume it’s not exactly absent from the characters’ behavior. At one point Mashiro informs Miho that they’re going to be together when he becomes a manga artist, whether she’s realized her dream (to be a voice actress) or not. Nice, kid.

Though Bakuman。 has some flaws, it’s still an utterly captivating look at the manga-creating experience. I can overlook a banal relationship plotline if it means getting a glimpse inside the editorial process at Jump!

Review copy provided by the publisher.