Off the Shelf: Ayako

Melinda and I have deviated from our typical Off the Shelf routine to bring you a column devoted entirely to Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako. We both agree that the work is problematic in some respects but is nevertheless masterful.

You can find that column here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Chi’s Sweet Home 4 by Konami Kanata: B+

From the back cover:
Welcome to the neighborhood, Chi and family! Now in her new residence, Chi will be introduced to many friends of the furry and feathery kind. With so many fresh smells to investigate, endless adventures await. So settle in, because here pets will never be chased… unless they are chasing each other.

Review:
Chi’s Sweet Home is one of those series that goes to the top of the to-read pile whenever a new volume is released. It’s always a true pleasure to read, with colorful cuteness guaranteed on every page.

This volume focuses mostly on the Yamada family’s move to a new, pet-friendly apartment complex and Chi’s reactions to her new environment. I love that so much time is devoted to her acclimation, and how familiar smells gradually embolden her enough to rub herself all over all the new stuff and proclaim it to be hers, too. She also meets a few animals at the new place, though more of her interactions so far have been with a gregarious (but well-trained) dog named David than with snooty long-haired kitty, Alice.

As usual, mangaka Konami Kanata perfectly captures several moments that ought to be familiar to cat owners: the pitiful mewling and pawing at a door that separates the kitty from its people, the inability to fathom what a scratching post is for, and the perils of claw trimming. In fact, I think this last was actually understated; I’ve had cats practically all my life and I still feel unqualified to attempt this task!

It’s not all cuteness, though. Chi’s Sweet Home has occasionally had some bittersweet moments—early volumes contrasted Chi’s cozy new home to her fading memories of her mother and siblings—and this volume is no exception. It’s sad to see how much confusion human-induced change causes to poor Chi and how baffled she is by her friend Blackie’s abrupt departure. I don’t know whether to hope and/or expect that a reunion will be forthcoming or to admire this slightly darker streak in the story.

We’re getting close to being caught up with the series in Japan. The fifth volume is due in February and then, after being spoiled on a bimonthly release schedule, we will suddenly be called upon to wait much longer for our Chi fix. I guess we could always turn to Crunchyroll for solace.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Chi’s Sweet Home 3 by Konami Kanata: A-

From the back cover:
Kitten-rearing is something, but raising a street-smart feline in a building with a strict no-pets policy is another story altogether. When mentoring a curious kitty, tactful tabbies must teach with patience and a firm paw. Remember, cats are a special breed. While we can survive well enough on instinct, those same feline responses can lead to unwanted attention. This long-whiskered one recommends spending lots of time with your little furballs, for they will intuitively look for mischief unless thoroughly entertained.

Review:
I think I’d be perfectly happy if Chi’s Sweet Home simply offered episodic tales of exceptional kitty cuteness without bothering with any kind of cohesive narrative. That’s not something I’d say about just any series, but the scenarios are so familiar to any cat owner—the difficulty of capturing a feline’s cuteness on film, the tendency of cats to snag a claw on something—that they really work for me. The fact that the series does begin to develop a kind of narrative is just icing on the cake, then.

Chi has become friends with “Blackie,” a huge black tom cat who’s been making a nuisance of himself around the pets-prohibited building where Chi lives with the Yamada family. He’s her mentor, of sorts, teaching her how to hunt, how to claim turf by spraying, and how not to look down before leaping but to “smile and look ahead.” Here’s the adorable result of Blackie’s advice:

Alas, hanging around with Blackie has gotten Chi noticed by the superintendent, leading the Yamadas to debate what they’re going to do. I must say, for people who are trying to keep their cat from being spotted, they’ve certainly got a very casual attitude about leaving their patio door open. You’d think they’d try a bit harder. Eventually, after Chi is nearly captured but manages to escape and return home, she’s confined inside, which leads to a pathetic scene I’ve recently witnessed in my own home:

Rather than give up their cat, Blackie’s owners decide to move, and Chi’s gradual realization that her friend has gone away is adorable and touching. Although it’s pretty clear the Yamadas are not going to give Chi away, this storyline does touch a little bit on the responsibilities of pet ownership, and how often people take pets into their homes and lives without being able to properly care for them in the long term.

I wish the Yamada parents took their role a bit more seriously—it’s a shame when Yohei is the one to tell a rambunctious visiting cousin not to scare Chi—but at least they listen to their son when he insists Chi is part of the family.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Chi’s Sweet Home 1 by Konami Kanata: A-

From the back cover:
TAKE THIS KITTY HOME

Chi is a mischievous newborn American shorthair who, while on a leisurely stroll with her family, found herself lost. When we found Chi it was clear to us she was completely distraught as she longed for the warmth and protection of her mother. Feeling sympathy for the little furball, we quietly whisked her away, inviting her into our small apartment home… where pets are strictly not permitted. While we dread parting with her, there is no way she can stay.

Little Chi is a happy and healthy litter-box trained kitten. And while she can be a little bit of a handful, she has been a great source of joy in our lives and a wonderful companion to our young son. Living with Chi has completely changed our lives, and we are sure she will have the same impact with whomever gives her a good home.

Review:
One day, a small tabby kitten is enjoying a stroll with her mother and siblings when she’s distracted by a fascinating bird and ends up getting separated from her family. She’s found by a small boy named Yohei, and his parents end up taking care of her in their no-pets-allowed apartment while they try to find someone willing to take her. Eventually, of course, they wind up falling in love with the adorable kitten and decide to keep her.

At first, Chi is determined to get home, but pesky distractions like bowls of milk and tantalizingly drippy faucets keep delaying her departure. In time, memories of her feline mother fade and she begins to look on her human caretakers as her new family, even though they subject her to horrors like baths and trips to the vet. Chi’s kitty behavior is not idealized—a few chapters deal with her struggle to find an acceptable place to “wee,” for example—but is sympathetic because a) she’s incredibly cute and b) readers have insight to her thoughts, be they earnestly confused (see above re: wee) or simply exuberant (her delight in the discovery that Daddy’s jeans are the ideal surface for sharpening one’s claws).

I had fully expected to find Chi adorable—it took only eight panels for me to say “Aww!”—but hadn’t considered that Yohei would be just as cute. I’m not sure how old he is—not quite old enough to be perfectly potty trained himself—but he’s a clever little boy, and it’s he who ends up giving Chi the clue she needs to figure out that the box in the bathroom with all the lumpy stuff in it is sadly not a playpen but her new toilet. (As a side note, I had always figured that Chi’s name was related to chiisai, the Japanese word for small, but it actually relates to pee. Poor kitty!)

Although unusual for manga, the full-color artwork in Chi’s Sweet Home is absolutely gorgeous. It’s vibrant without being garish, and is such an integral part of the story that I find it impossible to imagine how this series must look when it runs in Morning, at which point in time the art is still black-and-white. I don’t think I even want to know! The warm colors, small trim size, and left-to-right orientation (a smart marketing decision on Vertical’s part) all contribute to a book that looks and feels like something kids would be drawn to. I’m going to test this theory by loaning it to my coworker’s daughter.

On a final note, Chi has at her disposal a vast array of facial expressions. As I read, a thought kept niggling at me: “This reminds me of something. What is it?!” After much pondering, I realized that some of the faces Chi makes remind me of Kimi ni Todoke’s Sawako in super-deformed moments. Presented for your consideration:

Chi’s Sweet Home is published in English by Vertical, Inc. Volume one will be released on June 29, 2010. The series is ongoing in Japan, where volume seven came out two months ago.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

To Terra… 1 by Keiko Takemiya: A

From the back cover:
The future. Having driven Terra to the brink of environmental collapse, humanity decides to reform itself by ushering in the age of Superior Domination (S.D.), a system of social control in which children are no longer the offspring of parents but the progeny of a universal computer. The new social order, however, results in an unexpected byproduct: the Mu, a mutant race with extrasensory powers who are forced into exile by The System.

The saga begins on educational planet Ataraxia, where Jomy Marcus Shin, a brash and unpredictable teenager, is nervously preparing to enter adult society. When his Maturity Check goes wrong, the Mu intervene in the great hope that Jomy, who possesses Mu telepathy and human physical strength, can lead them back home, to Terra…

Review:
There’s no shortage of sci-fi stories in which the natural resources of Earth have been used up, prompting humans into space in search of new homes. In To Terra…, this situation works out a little differently. Instead, the humans are deemed to be the problem, and the original population of Earth (Terra) is forcibly removed while a eugenics program begins to breed a new race of people willing to submit to the will of Universal Control, part of the Supreme Domination system devised to regulate all aspects of life.

Fourteen-year-old Jomy Marcus Shin is a product of this system and has spent his life thus far on Ataraxia, a planet where children are raised by carefully selected foster parents until such time as they are ready for their Maturity Check. Jomy chafes against this orderly society, however, and is repeatedly subjected to tests designed to weed out ESP abilities—a sign that he is actually a Mu, a race of evolved humans noted for their telepathy and “emotional instability.” None of these tests detect Jomy’s latent powers until the Mu leader hijacks his Maturity Check and recruits Jomy to be the new leader of the Mu and help them achieve their goal of returning to Terra.

Meanwhile, those children who pass their Maturity Check have their fate decided for them by the computer. Some go on to their assigned jobs while others are destined for further schooling. Among these is Keith Anyan, an elite student destined for a position as one of Terra’s most powerful citizens. Currently, Keith is the star pupil at an educational satellite, though he’s not without his doubts about the system. His world is shaken up by a rival student, Seki Ray Shiroe, who refuses to relinquish his own free will, no matter the consequences.

There’s a lot going on in To Terra…, but though it’s definitely a complicated story, it never stops being a compelling one. No matter the differences between characters or their circumstances, all are united by yearning of one kind or another. Jomy yearns for a family life that was real, and it’s his recognition of the depth of the Mu’s longing for a home that helps him to finally understand them and agree to be their leader. Keith, though repeatedly assured of his own place on Terra, secretly yearns for a more inclusive system that would enable his less talented friend, “gentle Sam,” to achieve the same. As it is, Sam will probably spend his entire life in space, not being deemed good enough for a place on the surface.

Nobody is happy with things the way they are, but change requires action. Jomy is bold in his approach, starting the Mu off towards Terra immediately after taking charge, but Keith is constrained by expectations and some surprising revelations about his background. Too, anyone around him who might be of aid either conveniently forgets their dissent after a visit with the mother computer or ends up like Shiroe. In a way, this reminds me of Tezuka’s Adolf, as we are introduced to sympathetic characters on both sides of a conflict and seemingly poised to follow them over many years. In that scenario, Keith would be the Adolf Kaufmann, the sympathetic young man being educated by a fascist government who will either learn to embrace their beliefs or risk losing his place of prestige.

Visually, To Terra… is just as epic as a story like this warrants, with many gorgeous two-page spreads and pages upon pages of star-flecked darkness, emphasizing the vastness of space and the isolation between worlds, cultures, and individuals that’s causing so much pain to the characters. It does bother me that the sound effects haven’t been translated, though, since sometimes they could add a lot to a scene.

Even though To Terra… is technically shounen, the emphasis on the emotional lives of the characters and their simple desire for a home results in a story with universal appeal. No pun intended.

I reviewed To Terra… for May’s Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Kate Dacey. Other reviews and commentary can be found at Kate’s blog, The Manga Critic. The series is published in English by Vertical and is complete in three volumes.

Twin Spica 1 by Kou Yaginuma: A-

The year is 2024. Fourteen years ago, Japan’s first attempt at a manned space mission ended in disaster, as something went wrong 72 seconds into the flight, causing the craft, “The Lion,” to crash in the middle of a city. The crew, and many civilians, lost their lives. Asumi Kamogawa’s mother was among the wounded, lingering in a coma for five years before finally succumbing to her injuries.

Even so, Asumi grew up with a passionate love of the stars, and spent many hours stargazing with her mysterious friend, a young man—wearing a lion’s-head mask—that no one else seems able to see. As a child, Asumi wasn’t shy about sharing her dream, but lately guilt over leaving her father behind compels her to take the entrance exam to the Tokyo Space School without telling him. When he finds out, Dad proves he’s not so helpless after all, since he’s been working and saving for years in order to be able to make his daughter’s dream come true.

This frees Asumi to continue with the admissions process, the next step of which is a test that requires her to live with two strangers in a room for seven days. This is a fun glimpse at the space school world she’s about to enter, as well as Asumi’s strengths relative to those of her prospective classmates. Physically tiny, she possesses a child-like sense of wonder, which sometimes leads her to ask seemingly stupid questions, but is also able to see patterns in things that others miss. While most of the other candidates fail, Asumi’s team is a success, thanks in no small part to her contributions.

Instead of forging ahead with her promising future, the rest of the volume is composed of short stories—the success of which was ultimately responsible for Twin Spica becoming a series—depicting incidents from Asumi’s childhood and revealing the true identity of her masked friend. The second tale, “Asumi,” in which Asumi dreams she is able to help her mother’s spirit reach its destination, is especially touching. I admit it: I cried. The existence of Mr. Lion, and the supernatural possibilities he introduces into the story, means that this encounter really could have happened, too.

Artistically, Yaginuma’s work is clean and attractive, with lots of white space—as is appropriate for the “closed-off environment adaptability test”—and a variety of panel layouts. The one thing that bugs me is that Asumi looks really, really young throughout. She’s supposed to be smaller than others her age, but she winds up resembling a second or third grader in comparison. I hope this isn’t a hint of moe infiltrating what is otherwise a very fine story.

With this first volume, Twin Spica is just, if you’ll pardon the awful pun, getting off the ground. I definitely look forward to discovering what is to come, and especially appreciate Vertical’s commitment to releasing all sixteen volumes of this series by 2012. I could make another pun here about climbing aboard now, the better to experience the journey, but I’ll spare you.

Twin Spica is published in English by Vertical, Inc. Only the first volume is out so far, but the series is complete in Japan with sixteen volumes. The review copy I received included the following publishing schedule:

Volumes 1 to 4: 2010
Volumes 5 to 10: 2011
Volumes 11 to 16: 2012

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Sayonara, Mr. Fatty!: A Geek’s Diet Memoir by Toshio Okada: B

sayonara125When Toshio Okada, co-founder of Gainax (Neon Genesis Evangelion, among others) and Japanese pop culture expert, began to wonder exactly why he was so overweight, he decided to analyze his eating patterns in the hopes of discovering an explanation. What he found was that the simple act of recording what he ate helped him to lose weight. This revelation led to the development of his own method, which he calls the Recording Diet. In Sayonara, Mr. Fatty!, Okada describes the six stages of the Recording Diet while incorporating advice and anecdotes from his personal weight loss journey.

Just to be clear about things, even though this book is written by a renowned otaku, it is still 99.99% about his experiences losing 110 pounds in a year. The references to Japanese pop culture are scant and confined to sentences like, “If I had the time to exercise, I’d rather use it to read manga and watch anime.” For the most part, it’s a lot like any other self-help book. There are some sections that tell you things you already know (“It can be a mistake to follow a celebrity’s style without considering whether it suits you”) and others devoted to proving why the Recording Diet is superior to various other ways to achieve weight loss. Okada tries to make his method sound fun and easy, touting its applicability for “people who are not good at exercise, who are sedentary and fond of reading books and thinking deeply.”

As a geek who has dieted off and on for years, I did indeed find some of Okada’s insights useful—I particularly like how he differentiates between people who eat because the brain desires the experience (D-types) and those who eat only when the body needs sustenance (N-types)—and can see myself recalling them in future. Some of his advice was a bit confusing, however. At one point he says, “Don’t exercise while you’re losing weight!” only to later write, “Exercise is another recommendation.” I think the difference depends on what stage of the diet one happens to be in at the time, but these boundaries are not always clearly delineated. One might think one is in the final stage (Orbit), for example, but upon testing one’s ability to quit eating a favorite dish when the body signals fullness, find that one is actually still a couple of stages back (Cruising).

The bottom line: if you’re a geek who’s looking for a self-help diet book to which you might relate, then Sayonara, Mr. Fatty! may be for you. If you just want to read about a guy who helped introduce the world to Shinji Ikari and Nerv, however, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Dororo 3 by Osamu Tezuka: B

Book description:
Hyakkimaru and Dororo search for the treasure hidden by Dororo’s parents, but are thwarted in their search by a traitorous bandit, man-eating sharks, and greedy samurai. Afterwards, they continue to encounter demons and tales of the misdeeds of Hyakkimaru’s powerful father.

Review:
This final volume of Dororo was a disappointment on a few fronts.

At the end of the second volume, it seemed that Hyakkimaru had a new goal: find the money buried by Dororo’s parents and use it to fund a revolution against the samurai. They started off this volume looking for it, but after the location marked on the map turned out to be a bust, they never spoke of it again. Instead there were stories about angsty horse demons and voracious ghouls and a random revelation about Dororo that was probably groundbreaking for its time but has been done better since.

There were a couple of spots of snerkworthy dialogue, like this gem of deep characterization: “Wait. If I kill you, I’ll get another body part back… That’d make me glad.” And let’s not forget Hyakkimaru’s stirring farewell to the lady who’s just fallen in love with him and died in the space of five pages: “See ya.”

The biggest disappointment, however, was the lack of any meaningful controntation between Hyakkimaru and his father. Oh sure, the villagers Daigo had been exploiting rose up in revolt and won the ensuing battle, but it was all very anticlimactic. The end was pretty abrupt, as well, though I did rather like the melancholy aspect of it, and at least a few loose threads were tied up.

All in all, I did enjoy reading Dororo and I think it was an excellent place to start my Tezuka education.

Dororo 2 by Osamu Tezuka: A-

Book description:
Hyakkimaru and Dororo continue to travel the land, protecting ungrateful villagers from demons and collecting missing body parts along the way. An encounter with a former mentor causes Hyakkimaru to reexamine his goals, however, and start considering what he wants to do with his life after the last of the demons has been defeated.

Review:
I really liked this volume of Dororo! The stories were continuous rather than purely episodic and Dororo really grew on me as a character. Hyakkimaru gained some angst when he learned about his family and also a cause, when the existence of a cache of money destined to fund a revolution was made known to him.

Although I liked pretty much everything (pesky anachronisms aside), my favorite bit was a story about a spirit dedicated to collecting new faces for a demon possessing a statue. She’s supposed to collect Dororo’s face, and takes on his mother’s visage to beguile him, but he ends up charming her by calling her “mama” and stuff, and in the end, she can’t sacrifice him.

I liked the first volume fine, so wasn’t expecting such an improvement for the second one. I’m not really sure how the story can wrap up with just one more volume—Hyakkimaru still has 27 or 28 demons left to vanquish—but hopefully it’ll deliver on the promise exhibited here.

Dororo 1 by Osamu Tezuka: B

Book description:
Dororo is Tezuka’s classic thriller manga featuring a youth who has been robbed of 48 body parts by devils, and his epic struggle against a host of demons to get them back.

Daigo Kagemitsu, who works for a samurai general in Japan’s Warring States period, promises to offer body parts of his unborn baby to 48 devils in exchange for complete domination of the country. Knowing the child to be deficient, Kagemitsu orders the newborn thrown into the river.

The baby survives. Callling himself Hyakkimaru, he searches the world for the 48 demons. Each time he eliminates one, he retrieves one of his missing parts. Hyakkimaru meets a boy thief named Dororo, and together they travel the countryside, confronting mosters and ghosts again and again.

Review:
This was my first time reading Tezuka. Although I have a couple of other things by him, the shounen adventure qualities of Dororo made it seem a more accessible starting point.

While I enjoyed the volume overall, I ended up liking the beginning more than the middle or the end. The setting for Daigo’s bargain was immediately atmospheric and interesting. The second chapter recounted how baby Hyakkimaru (who looked kind of like Jack Skellington) was found by a doctor who raised him and fitted him with snazzy prosthetics.

From that point on, things were a bit more episodic, with varying degrees of success. It was interesting to see how Dororo probably influenced shounen tales to come. For example, a skilled swordsman and his companion(s) must wander around, collecting bits of something from a whole bunch of demons. These demons enjoy terrorizing innocent villagers. Hmm, what does that remind me of? One difference I appreciated was that the villagers in this series actually take part in fighting off the monsters, and they’re also not particularly welcoming of the freakish Hyakkimaru and the thieving Dororo after the battle’s been won.

Much suspension of disbelief is required for this series, and it was kind of weird which things I just accepted and which bugged me. For instance—a baby born missing 48 body parts not only survives but somehow possesses special sensory abilities enabling him to see, hear, and speak telepathically. Okay, fine. His foster dad is able to perform surgery on him and fit weaponry inside his prosthetic limbs (swords in his arms and poison spritzer thingies in his legs). Sure, why not? But then when Hyakkimaru is somehow able to bend the arms with swords inside, my illogic detector went, “Hang on just a minute!”

I’ll definitely be reading the rest of this series; there are only 2 more volumes, anyway. Now that flashbacks and such are out of the way, I hope that we’ll see more of the collection of Hyakkimaru’s missing bits, though I still have no idea what to expect when he’s succeeded in getting them all. He doesn’t seem to have a goal beyond that at this point.