Vagabond, Vols. 1-3

By Takehiko Inoue | Published by VIZ Media (first VIZBIG edition)

One of my goals for this Manga Moveable Feast was to finally read some of Vagabond. I’ve been collecting the VIZBIG editions since they started coming out, which means there were ten of these on my shelf (with their spines forming a group portrait) unread. Now that I finally have read some of Vagabond, I’ve found it so different from the Inoue I’m familiar with—and yet containing some of the same themes—that I’m rather at a loss for words.

Shinmen Takezo is the son of a legendary swordsman, though we don’t really find that out until volume three. Since the age of thirteen, when he killed a man who came to Miyamoto village looking to challenge its strongest occupant, he’s been ostracized by all save a couple of childhood friends and he’s recently been off to battle with one of them, Hon’iden Matahachi. They both survive a bloody battle, but Matahachi takes up with a thieving widow, leaving Takezo to return to Miyamoto with tidings of Matahachi’s survival.

To make a long story very short: Takezo meets with an unfriendly welcome and is manipulated by a clever monk named Takuan into reevaluating his life. Four years later, now going by the name Miyamoto Musashi, he shows up in Kyoto looking to challenge the head of the Yoshioka sword school, and though he defeats many of their members, he learns there are still those stronger than him. A drunken Matahachi accidentally sets the blaze that allows Musashi to escape, and the VIZBIG ends with him realizing that the old friend he left for dead might actually have survived.

Even though I knew this was about swordsmen, I somehow didn’t expect it to be as gory as it is. There are a lot of death blows being dealt here, as Musashi is obsessed with measuring/proving his strength against others and willing to sacrifice his life to this aim. That said, at times the art is absolutely gorgeous, and there are a few color pages that look like bona fide paintings. The scope, layout, and pacing of the story all lend it a cinematic feel that is genuinely impressive. There’s one scene early on, when Musashi turns around to face the one opponent left standing and it’s genuinely terrifying.

But yet, I mostly found it unaffecting. I expect there will be more insight into the main character as time progresses, but for now he’s so closed off, so proud of his strength and being hailed a demon that I can’t grow fond of him or endorse his goals. I have a feeling I’m not supposed to. I did identify with Matahachi a lot, though, especially his inferiority complex in regards to his friend and his inability to follow through with the heroic deeds he imagines himself performing. I like Otsu, the fiancée Matahachi left behind, and I’m intrigued by Takuan, the monk. I’ll keep reading for them, if nothing else.

One thing about Musashi reminds me a lot of Hisanobu Takahashi in Real. As a child, Hisanobu was attempting to master a particular basketball move that his father showed him. He worked very hard on it, but was never able to show his father because the latter abandoned the family. Musashi has also been abandoned by his mother and shunned by his father, and part of his drive to test himself seems due to the desire to show them his strength, show them that he doesn’t need to depend on anyone else. Musashi is a real historical figure, not a character Inoue created, but it seems like he’s drawn to these confident yet wounded types.

Ultimately, I can see why Vagabond is hailed as a masterpiece, and I will certainly keep reading it, but my heart will always belong to Inoue’s sports manga, Slam Dunk in particular. The heart wants what the heart wants!

Vagabond is published in English by VIZ Media. Single volumes up through 33 have been published, as well as ten “VIZBIG” editions comprised of three volumes each. An eleventh VIZBIG edition is scheduled to be released in December. Inoue has recently resumed the series in Japan, so the upcoming release of volume 34 (October) will be the first new Vagabond released in English in two years.

Let’s Get Visual: Takehiko Inoue

MICHELLE: It’s been a while, but Let’s Get Visual has awoken from its hibernation in time to celebrate the Takehiko Inoue Manga Moveable Feast. Joining me for this occasion is special guest host Anna Neatrour, who is also co-hosting the MMF with me! Welcome, Anna!

ANNA: Thank you! I am excited to join in on a Let’s Get Visual post for Takehiko Inoue, because I think he is one of the top contemporary manga artists. He has an incredibly detailed and realistic style that really sets his manga apart from other series.

MICHELLE: I just started reading Vagabond the other day, and there was one close-up picture of Takezo drawn with extreme care and obvious skill, and I thought, “Y’know, this should be the image that all manga fans carry around to immediately dispel the misconceived notion that all manga looks alike and/or involves big, sparkly eyes.”

ANNA: I think that Inoue’s style (particularly in Real and Vagabond) is probably more reader-friendly to Western comics fans who haven’t read much manga before.

MICHELLE: Yeah, probably so. I’ve often thought that Western comic fans would probably like a bunch of seinen manga if they’d give it a chance.

Anyways, I suppose we should proceed to get visual! The images I’ve chosen are the very first pages in the very first volume of Real.

Real, Vol. 1 (VIZ Media)

I chose these images because they demonstrate how well Inoue is able to communicate Togawa’s character here without needing any words at all. Okay, sure, this guy is in a wheelchair, but he’s clearly driven. He’s pushing himself, possibly to the point of pain (if that’s what that one black panel represents). He has bulging muscles, so he’s clearly been at this a while. He’s moving fast. He may have a disability, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t take being an athlete seriously.

And then you turn the page and see that he is all alone. Inoue pulls back to show the entirety of the gym to emphasize Togawa’s solitude, and if that wasn’t enough, we get a glimpse of the empty school campus, as well. This sets the stage for what we later learn (which you mention in your review)—that Togawa’s attitude toward his wheelchair basketball team does not mesh well with his hobbyist teammates. Here’s a guy who is giving it his all, and he is the only one.

There’s just so much we can tell from this elegant introduction that it kind of blows me away.

ANNA: I agree that one of the things I like best about Inoue’s art is how much the images are able to contribute to the storytelling of his manga without overtly telling the audience anything. The themes touched on in the images you showed are addressed again later in the manga. Togawa’s ego and isolation contribute to his central struggle in the manga, and at the same time his willingness to practice all by himself shows just how dedicated he is to his sport.

MICHELLE: I will always, always be a big fan of nonverbal storytelling, so Inoue really wins my heart here by going above and beyond impressive art.

Want to tell us about the images you picked?

ANNA: The panels I chose were from Volume 26 of Vagabond, collected in the ninth VIZBIG edition of the series.

Vagabond, Vol. 26 (VIZ Media)

One of the reasons why I love Vagabond so much is that the fight scenes are never merely about two people fighting. There’s always a psychological or philosophical element involved. We see Miyamoto Musashi in a midst of battle against 70 members of the Yoshioka sword school, an ambush he willingly walked into. As he battles, he’s focused on centering himself and living in the moment. The close-up panels of his face show the process of self-reflection even as he is mowing down his opponents.

MICHELLE: That’s a really striking sequence. I like how he seems to be looking off into the horizon as he tells himself to have no aspirations for the future, as if to acknowledge the existence of other paths that he’s not allowing himself to take. Granted, I’ve not read the series that far—I’m barely on volume two—but it almost seems to me like he could walk away from this fight if he wanted to, but he’s not letting himself do it. Is that anywhere near the case?

ANNA: I don’t think Musashi is capable mentally of walking away from a fight like this. There are a lot of things that lead up to this sequence of many chapters where Musashi takes on the entire sword school, but one thing that struck me about the battle as a whole is that while you see Musashi getting beaten down and injured, towards the end Inoue almost has the reader concluding that it was really unfair to the 70 men who were planning on ambushing and attacking Musashi from behind that they had to go up against this one particular single opponent. Vagabond’s
fight scenes are always interesting, even when they stretch on for hundreds of pages, simply because the exquisitely rendered battles are contrasted with the internal struggles of the people who are fighting. Battle is as much of a mental exercise as it is a physical one.

MICHELLE: That’s an interesting point! So far I’ve only seen a few fights, and there hasn’t been much on Takezo’s (as Musashi is known at that point in the story) mental state yet. But I definitely admired the pacing and structure of Inoue’s artistic approach to battle—even watching Takezo just turn around and notice one opponent still standing becomes something frankly terrifying.

ANNA: One the things I enjoy about Vagabond is seeing the way Musashi changes over time. The man fighting the sword school in these panels has a measured sense of self and an inner stillness as he fights opponent after opponent. This is totally different from the way Takezo is portrayed in the earlier volumes, where he is more arrogant and animalistic.

MICHELLE: I definitely look forward to seeing how he gets from point A to point B. I admit, I still prefer Inoue’s sports-related series, but there’s just no denying that Vagabond is a masterpiece.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and we hope we’ve inspired you to check out some Inoue!

Tidbits: Now We Are Six

Originally, this post was supposed to go up several months ago, when the sixth volumes of these series were newly released, but time conspired against me. And so, belatedly, I present reviews of volumes five and six of Kamisama Kiss and Oresama Teacher. Also included is perennial favorite Skip Beat!, which is on a similar trajectory, just twenty volumes ahead.

Kamisama Kiss, Vols. 5-6
It’s hard to believe now that I ever had my doubts about Kamisama Kiss, because I’m enjoying it more and more with each volume.

Volume five finds Nanami determined to correct public opinion that her shrine is a creepy, dangerous ruin, especially since her shinshi, Tomoe, works so hard to maintain it. And so, she decides to hold a festival, spending two weeks preparing for a special performance while soliciting amusingly misguided advice from her supernatural acquaintances. It’s a success in the end. In volume six, Nanami is called upon to compete against another human girl for a spot at a prestigious kami conference.

In these two volumes, mangaka Julietta Suzuki nicely balances the expansion of the supernatural world (including the introduction of several new characters) and Nanami’s abilities with further development in her relationship with Tomoe. It seems to me that Tomoe is finding himself somewhat in awe of his kami these days—particularly when purification powers on par with his first master’s manifest themselves—and also more prone to emotions like fondness and jealousy. One of the best things about their relationship is how he is able to encourage and reassure her before the festival without being condescending about it. “I acknowledged you as my master,” he says. “Don’t be afraid. Prove yourself to everyone… like you did to me.”

I think the main appeal for me is that Kamisama Kiss is shaping up to be the story of Nanami’s growth. She may be in love with Tomoe, but winning his affections is not her sole ambition, or even her focus. Instead, she wants to develop as a kami and become someone that her parishioners can depend upon and respect. Because progress has come slowly, watching her actually achieve some truly remarkable things in these volumes actually leaves me a little verklempt. This has become less a story about a human girl thrust into the wacky world of yokai and more about someone embracing their destiny and striving to reach their full potential. I eagerly look forward to the next volume.

Oresama Teacher, Vols. 5-6
I was worried there for a minute. It seemed to me that volume five was showing signs of Tsubaki-sensei running out of ideas, what with a chapter about Takaomi and Mafuyu helping a wealthy girl find love with her self-denying servant, a chapter about the school’s bancho being stalked by a flower fairy, and a chapter about the Student Council’s resident ninja gathering intel on the Public Morals Club.

Although it’s not the neatest bow—I still don’t fully grasp why the Student Council is so opposed to Takaomi’s plans to attract more non-delinquent students to Midorigaoka, but at least I have an inkling now—Tsubaki does manage to tie things together by the end of volume six. Okay, not the flower fairy bit, but the significance of Takaomi going out of his way to help Marika (the rich girl) ties in with the backstory of why he’s become a teacher and why he’s made a bet with the school’s director. It brings new depth to his character and even relates to some things he said back in volume one.

I also really enjoyed the chapter in which the members of the Public Morals Club—now including Shinobu the ninja, who has decided to obtain information on his enemies from within their midst—explore the school, finding oodles of empty classrooms and realizing that it was once a thriving place with high-caliber students. Also significant is that, when Mafuyu is frustrated by Takaomi refusal to reveal his true motivations, she complains that all she’d wanted was to be a regular high school girl, but then got forcibly recruited to his agenda. Hayasaka overhears and, thinking he has kept Mafuyu from the life she’d wished for, avoids her. Mafuyu attempts to hang out with some girls, but in the end realizes she prefers being with Hayasaka. It’s really sweet.

This description might make it sound as if the series has suddenly gone in a plot-heavy direction, but that’s not really the case. There’s definitely something happening, but there are still plenty of amusing moments. My favorite is when Hayasaka and Super Bun are reunited and we get a panel of her carrying him in her arms while he thinks, “You’re so dreamy!”

Skip Beat!, Vols. 25-26
It’s a rare series that still genuinely delights me this far into its run, but Skip Beat! consistently manages to do so. I think the key here is that Nakamura has developed a cast of characters whose personality quirks enable her to take the plot in unexpected directions.

For example, volume 25 is all about the aftermath of Valentine’s Day. Sho has learned that Kyoko gave chocolates to Reino, and so shows up on the set of Dark Moon with an ostentatious bouquet in hand. He’s not out to win Kyoko’s love—so her explanation of the true nature of the chocolates (hatred) makes no difference—he just wants all her thoughts to be focused on him once more, and he temporarily ensures this by stealing her first kiss. Kyoko freaks out, according to plan, and is briefly talked down by Ren, but when she gives Ren his own special valentine, he can’t resist driving thoughts of Sho out of her head by administering a smooch of his own. This one’s on the cheek and he plays it off as a foreigner’s expression of gratitude, but it definitely leaves a trace in her heart.

Backing away from all of this progress, Nakamura eases us into the next arc by having Kyoko and Kanae return to the Love-Me Section, where they are joined by new member Chiori Amamiya, a former child actress whom Kyoko recently inspired to regain her love for acting. Each girl receives a personalized assignment from Lory, and Kyoko’s involves picking up Cain Heel, a dangerous-looking guy who is the president’s guest. Turns out, this is Ren going undercover and Kyoko’s new assignment is to stay by his side as his doting and scantily clad goth sister, Setsuka. And they have to live together in a hotel room. Ordinarily, a twist like this would be completely out of left field, but because this is Lory and because this is Skip Beat! I can just roll with it and eagerly anticipate the complications that will ensue.

If you’ve never read Skip Beat! before, now is a great time to start, as an omnibus edition of the first three volumes has recently been released!

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Psyren, Vols. 1-2

By Toshiaki Iwashiro | Published by VIZ Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Dawn of the Arcana, Vols. 1-2

By Rei Toma | Published by VIZ Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copies provided by the publisher.

A Devil and Her Love Song, Vol. 1

By Miyoshi Tomori | Published by VIZ Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: The Jibblies

MICHELLE: So, in our last installment of Let’s Get Visual we celebrated the pretty, so it seems only fitting that this time we devote our attentions to images that make us shudder with a feeling I like to call “the jibblies.” Just like beauty, creepy is a subjective thing, so we’ve each chosen a variety of images that get our personal hackles rising.

Melinda, you want to go first this time?

MELINDA: Sure!

So, as I was perusing my manga collection for things that creep me out, it became increasingly clear to me that I’m very simple when it comes to what scares me. All it takes to really get to me is a single disturbing image—especially one that distorts something human into something sinister. I’m apparently not scared of monsters so much as I am of monsters in human clothing.

My first example comes from Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare. In this series, a group of teenagers is regularly drawn into a shared dreamworld in which they each appear as physical manifestations of their own worst fears. Some of these are visually more disturbing than others. The series’ main character, Ichijo, for instance, most fears his own confusion about gender, so his skirt-wearing dream self is really horrifying only to him. Some of the other students, however, wear their fears in a much more visually distorted manner. This short spread features two of those students.

After School Nightmare, Vol. 1 (Go! Comi)

First, you’ll see a student who appears only as an arm and hand, twisting itself around Ichijo. Second, a girl appears with giant cavities replacing her face and chest. While the second of these has the most stunning, immediate affect on my psyche, the first creeps up on me as I try to move away from the page. Both images stick with me long after I’ve put the book down, and this seems to be the real key to scaring the bejeezus out of me. If I can’t get the image out of my mind, it easily haunts me for days. That’s the power of a single, shocking image.

MICHELLE: My first thought upon hearing of your aversion to “a single disturbing image” is that you shouldn’t read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, followed by the thought that you should read it.

My reaction to the image above differs from yours, though, in that while these images certainly provoke in me an “ew” reaction, they aren’t the type that haunt me. I definitely think that the slinky arm creature is the more creepy in the image you displayed. For me, it’s because the gaping images of emptiness are immediately recognizable as symbols for what that character is feeling, but what on earth is causing that other student to appear like a grasping, creeping arm?! I feel like their circumstances in life might ultimately be the more disturbing! (This comes from someone who’s read only one volume of After School Nightmare, so I don’t know if this turns out to be the case.)

MELINDA: I think part of what makes the gaping holes in the second student so horrifying for me, is that (for whatever reason) I’m strongly affected by a lack of face. I have the same reaction to images of people with blank faces. It creeps the hell out of me when I can’t assess a person’s feelings/personality from their expression. It feels very threatening to me.

Perhaps it’s further evidence of how much a face means to me, actually, that both of my follow-up images are pretty much face-only. First, from CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, we have the face of a dead child who pleads with her mother to avenge her, and secondly, from Jun Mochizuki’s Pandora Hearts, the face of a girl that reveals itself to be a monster underneath.

Tokyo Babylon, Vol. 4 (TOKYOPOP)

Pandora Hearts, Vol. 1 (Yen Press)

I actually find both of these to be creepier than the images from After School Nightmare, though they are much simpler. Something they have in common is that they are presented against a stark, black background, giving the distorted expressions full focus. After that, though, they are nearly opposites of each other. The face of the girl in Tokyo Babylon is all too real, distorted by the power of raw emotion, while the character in Pandora Hearts is revealed to have no emotion at all, or at least none that matched what was on her false human face. Yet in the end, which is more monstrous?

MICHELLE: It’s interesting how much the things that creep us out reveal about us, isn’t it? I’d wager you get the same threatening feeling from the girl who is revealed to be a monster underneath as you do the girl with no face at all. People pretending to be what they’re not, hiding their real selves, etc. That’s definitely something all of us have experienced at one time or another.

Getting back to actual attempts at visual analysis, those deep black backgrounds really do focus the reader’s eye on what the mangaka wants them to see. It’s as if they’re saying, “I don’t want you to be distracted by anything else.”

MELINDA: Your analysis of me is spot-on, that’s for sure!

And yes, I think the black backgrounds achieve exactly that, while also evoking our natural fear of the dark, or what we can’t see. It’s a powerful tool for both showing us something and not showing us something, if that makes sense.

MICHELLE: It definitely does.

Now I’m reflecting on what the images I’ve chosen say about me. There’s hardly a face among them, for one thing, because I am less creeped out by shocking images than I am by imagining an experience, specifically an experience during which one is forced to endure something horrible for a really, really long period of time with no means of escape. Ugh, just thinking about the short story my images come from—”The Enigma of Amigara Fault” by Junji Ito—has given me the jibblies while typing this paragraph!

Gyo, Volume 2, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” (VIZ Media)

Page 178

Page 185

Page 198

Page 203

Page 204

I’ve chosen this particular sequence of images from this short story because they illustrate the entire plot without me needing to introduce it beforehand. By now you probably don’t need me to explain that when the TV news reports on a mountainside full of people-shaped holes revealed by a recent earthquake, people flock to the site and can’t be dissuaded from climbing into their personal holes, where long, icky agony awaits them. At first the site seems innocent enough, if a bit strange, but soon people are walking into holes, having nightmares about what happens to you in a hole, and eventually discovering the exit and…. Holy crap, it’s terrifying. This is the kind of thing that will haunt me for ages.

I’m honestly trying to analyze Ito’s artistic techniques dispassionately here, but I find that the disturbing power of the images is so great that it is affecting my ability to reason even now!

MELINDA: Hmmm, I’m wondering if what it’s saying is that while I’m terrified of people betraying me, you’re terrified of your environment betraying you. Or something like that.

In any case, these panels are undeniably creepy. Even if they creep me out in a less personal way, I can certainly see what’s giving you the jibblies! Interestingly, we again see the human form distorted, though in this case it’s happening sort of *to* the character we’re relating to rather than in front of him. (Maybe I’m afraid of the people I trust being compromised, and you’re afraid of yourself being compromised?)

This has a Twilight Zone feel to me, where some unexplained supernatural phenomenon is turning the lives of ordinary people into a nightmare. The artist does a great job of evoking the real terror of what’s happening, too. The texture of the stone walls around the man gives the images a three-dimensional look that makes it feel more real than a lot of what we see in manga. It’s the only thing that has that kind of thick texture, too, so it really stands out.

MICHELLE: More like I’m terrified of taking a step that can’t be undone and ending up in eternal torment because of it!

And yes, now that I’ve regained my senses, I agree that it’s the realistic three-dimensional detail that really makes it so disturbing. The details of the setting itself establish it firmly in the here and now, and then we’re shown that within the here and now exists something completely alien and unexplainable! Regarding the texture of the stone walls… it’s that bit of dialogue about how they’re carved to prevent backtracking that really gets to me. It’s mute, immobile stone, and it’s going to be your tormentor for the next several months, slowly inflicting more gruesome horrors upon you than something living could ever do. Uh-oh… jibblies.

MELINDA: There, there!

MICHELLE: Thanks. I also really love the bottom left panel on page 185, when you see the outside world from inside the tunnel. Interestingly, this is an angle from which the guy who just entered the hole could never have seen the characters. He’s got his back turned to this world, and is resolutely leaving it behind. And, too, I love the “less is more” approach here. We don’t see the distorted figure actually emerge from the mountain and thrash around terrorizing people. One glimpse is enough to confirm what has happened. It’s almost kind of elegant in its structure.

MELINDA: Yeah, I agree, the threat of what is about to happen is actually scarier by itself than it might be if we actually saw it happen. Or at least it’s creepier that way.

MICHELLE: Well, I fear this column has actually been more about us than the art, but it’s been the art that made us feel that way, and that’s something, isn’t it?

MELINDA: It is!

MICHELLE: So, that’s it for us this month. What gives you the jibblies?

Yurara, Vols. 1-5

By Chika Shiomi | Published by VIZ Media

Yurara Tsukinowa can see spirits and sense their painful emotions, but she can’t actually do anything to help them. Or so she thinks. When a new school year finds her in the same class as Mei Tendo and Yako Hoshino, two hunky boys who use their spiritual powers to ward off vengeful spirits, she ends up helping them out, but not entirely alone. You see, Yurara has a guardian spirit—also named Yurara—and it’s this spirit who manifests when spiritual nasties are afoot, causing regular Yurara to adopt the spirit’s good looks and feisty personality until the threat is dealt with. “That was awesome!” Mei proclaims after spirit!Yurara’s first appearance. “She’s beautiful and strong!”

At first, the series is pretty episodic. Before Yurara came along it seems the boys simply drove off the spirits—Mei possesses offensive powers of fire while Yako’s water-based abilities lean toward the defensive end—but now that she’s around to actually communicate with the ghosts the encounters typically end with the spirit being able to pass on peacefully. The exception is the case of Mei’s mother, a ghost who claims to be hanging around so that her husband and sons can’t bring chicks over, but who is really worried about protecting her son from an evil spirit.

As time goes on, Yurara begins to learn more about the boys and is especially intrigued by cheerful, glompy Mei, whose skirt-chasing demeanor is really a way to hide his sorrow over the spirit-induced death of his first love. When Yako asks whether there’s someone Mei loves, Mei replies, “You should know. There is… but she’s not here.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it now, the plight of loving someone who is gone and will never return actually comes full circle, alighting upon Yako by the end of the series. Because the more he’s around Yurara, the more Mei falls in love with her. She returns his feelings in her normal guise, but when under the influence of spirit!Yurara, she’s drawn to Yako instead. This makes for much confusion, as you might imagine.

The latter half of the series is primarily focused on this romantic triangle/square, and I ate up all of the attendant angst with a spoon. I sighed a bit when a contingent of mean girls harrasses Yurara for hogging the boys’ attention, but was pleased when she actually ended up befriending one of them. Really, this shoujotastic twist on a supernatural tale was exactly what I was craving when I began Yurara, and so I found it very satisfying. My one quibble is that early on, Yako seems to acknowledge the fact that he’s in love with “a phantom of a person no longer of this world,” but later seems surprised to realize that it’s the guardian spirit who loves him and not Yurara herself. Perhaps that’s not so much a flaw, though, as it is something to ponder over.

I shan’t spoil the ending except to say that I liked it and that it paves the way for Rasetsu (now released in its nine-volume entirety by VIZ), in which a slightly older Yako meets a girl who reminds him very much of spirit!Yurara.

Ultimately, Yurara is not a masterpiece, but it was exactly what I wanted it to be and I enjoyed it very much. Now on to Rasetsu!

Yurara was published in English by VIZ. All five volumes were released.

Uzumaki, Vols. 1-3

By Junji Ito | Published by VIZ Media

As with Ito’s two-volume work, Gyo, the best word to describe Uzumaki—despite a back cover blurb promising “terror in the tradition of The Ring”—is “weird.”

High school student Kirie Goshima lives in Kurôzu-Cho, a small coastal town nestled between the sea and a line of hills. She narrates each chapter in an effort to share the strange things that happened there. It all begins when, on the way to meet her boyfriend Shuichi Saito at the train station, she spots his father crouching in an alley, staring intently at a snail. Shuichi confirms that his dad has indeed been acting odd lately, and suggests that the entire town is “contaminated with spirals.”

Mr. Saito’s fixation with spirals grows to the point where he dies in an attempt to achieve a spiral shape, which drives his wife insane with spiral phobia. She too eventually passes away, leaving Shuichi alone to become a recluse who is able to resist the spiral menace while being more perceptive to it than most. Other episodic incidents fill out the first two volumes, including unfortunate events involving Kirie’s classmates (boys who turn into snails, a bizarre rivalry over spiralling hair, etc.), her father’s decision to use clay from the local pond in his ceramics, a mosquito epidemic that leads to icky goings-on at a hospital, and an abandoned lighthouse that suddenly begins producing a mesmerizing glow. Things come to a head in volume three when six successive hurricanes are drawn to Kurôzu-Cho, leaving it in ruins. Rescue workers and volunteers flock to the area, but find themselves unable to leave. Dun dun dun!

Creepy occurrences mandate creepy visuals, but I wouldn’t say that anything depicted herein is actually scary. Oh, there are loads of indelible images that made me go “ew” or “gross,” but was I frightened by them? No. The real horrors of Uzumaki are more subtle: the suggestions that there are ancient and mysterious forces against which humans are utterly powerless and that the spiral’s victims will live in eternal torment. Many tales of horror involve bloodthirsty monsters, but a menace that forces you to live and endure something horrific is much more capable of giving me the jibblies. It’s the ideas behind Uzumaki, therefore, and not the surfeit of disturbing images, that evoke dread.

Uzumaki has a much larger cast than Gyo, which prompted me to notice that Ito actually draws some really cute and realistic-looking female characters. Kirie is a prime example, but her classmates and TV reporter Chie Maruyama also fit the bill. I was pretty distracted by Ito’s rendering of a girl named Azami, though, because she reminded me so much of Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue. Observe:

Flames... FLAMES on the side of my face!

Uzumaki definitely delivers an unforgettable story with memorable art, but I would’ve liked to get to know the characters more. Kirie is a reasonably accessible lead and is smart, strong, and kind, but I felt at times that she was too strong. If anything gross is going on in town, Kirie is the one who’s going to discover it, and though she reacts in the moment, there wasn’t much emphasis on the cumulative effect of having witnessed all this madness. She keeps going and being shocked by things right until the very end, but a more normal person would’ve broken down long before. And why weren’t more people fleeing, I wonder? True, once the storms hit, nobody could leave, but for a while there plenty of crazy stuff is happening and folks are just sticking around.

I also would’ve liked to spend more time with Shuichi. He’s a pretty interesting guy, who wants to get out of town from the very start but remains because of Kirie. He seems to have inherited equal parts fascination with and fear of the spiral from his parents, which keeps him alive if not entirely sane, and is able to function at times when others are mesmerized, allowing him to come to Kirie’s aid on several occasions. Through these actions we see how much he cares for her, but I actually had no idea they were supposed to be a couple until he was specifically referred to as her boyfriend a couple of chapters in. Okay, yes, this isn’t a romance manga and I shouldn’t expect a lot of focus on their relationship, but even just a little bit of physical affection would’ve gone a long way.

Uzumaki is grim, gruesome, and a whole host of synonyms besides. This isn’t jump-out-of-your-skin horror, but a psychological tale with a decidedly grisly bent. I’m not sure I’d universally recommend it—I think I know several people who definitely shouldn’t read it, actually—but if it sounds intriguing to you, give it a whirl.

Uzumaki was published in English by VIZ Media. It is complete in three volumes.

For more entries in this month’s horror-themed MMF, check out the archive at Manga Xanadu.

Arata: The Legend, Vols. 1-6

By Yuu Watase | Published by VIZ Media

As a fan of Yuu Watase’s shoujo classic, Fushigi Yûgi, I expected that I would like Arata: The Legend, her first shounen series. Turns out, I had underestimated my enjoyment: I really like it!

The story begins in a world known as Amawakuni, where the child-like princess is preparing to yield the thrown to her successor after reigning for 60 years. There are no suitable females in the royal (Hime) clan to take her place, however, and so a fifteen-year-old boy named Arata is coerced into passing himself off as a girl until another suitable candidate can be found. During the ceremony, the twelve retainers of the princess—known as the shinsho, because they are masters of powerful sword-gods known as hayagami—revolt and the princess is cut down before Arata’s eyes. The shinsho pin the deed on him and his flight to evade capture takes him to the mysterious Kando Forest, where he is swallowed up and exchanged with his counterpart from another world: Arata Hinohara.

Hinohara has been having a tough time lately. In middle school, he was bullied so much that he eventually stopped going altogether. Now it’s his first year of high school, and at first everything seems to be going okay. He purposefully chose a school far away, where no one would know his old self, and is able to make friends quickly, thanks to his quick actions in capturing a train groper. After a month, however, his former nemesis Kadowaki arrives and the torment starts anew, capped off by the betrayal of Arata’s closest new friend, Suguru.

When he arrives in Amawakuni—and is taken for Arata by everyone he meets—Hinohara is thrust into Arata’s role as a wanted criminal. When his touch awakens a slumbering family artifact—what turns out to be a legendary hayagami known as Tsukuyo—he is suddenly recognized as a sho, which means he’s part of the battle for the the throne. The shinsho overthrew the princess because they were tired of the control she exerted over their powers, but now they must battle and dominate each other until one stands supreme. Like it or not, as a sho, Arata is swept up in the conflict and has two choices: submit himself (this essentially means death) or force others to submit. (Meanwhile, Arata contends with life in modern Japan, including going to school and eventually beating up Kadowaki.)

I really love how Watase fleshes out Hinohara’s complex character here, because everything he does makes sense based on what he’s been through. When he first arrives, he refuses to trust anyone, but when Arata’s childhood friend, Kotoha, makes good on her promises to stick by him no matter what, it has a profound effect on him. Too, the prospect of forcing others to submit reminds him too much of the domination he suffered.

Because of his experiences—and because of the unique property that allows Tsukuyo to safeguard the souls of other sho without actually causing their death—he is gradually able to win over a few sho by sympathizing with their own suffering, whether it be betrayal, isolation, or loneliness. In a conversation with the princess—courtesy of the special necklace that also occasionally allows him to converse with Arata—he promises to unite the hayagami under Tsukuyo and return to her before she dies completely. He’s got a long road ahead, and it’s one that can only be won by changing the hearts of others.

It is this mission of Hinohara’s—not unlike those usually assigned to magical girls—that makes me want to apply the demographic label “jounen” to this series. It’s definitely shounen in scope and feel, but it’s also attuned to its shoujo side. The slowly developing romance between Hinohara and Kotoha is very well done, for example, with Hinohara cognizant of Kotoha’s love for the real Arata and Kotoha confused because “Arata” is responding to her in a way he never did before. I also like that Kadowaki eventually arrives in Amawakuni because a) that is so very Yuu Watase, for two outsiders to come into a fantasy world and immediately assume powerful destinies and b) the ultimate test of Hinohara’s newfound bravery and purpose is for him to be able to sustain it in the face of Kadowaki’s unrelenting hostility.

The pacing of the series is also outstanding. There’s just enough foreshadowing of significant things—the gravestone that connects one of the shinsho, Kannagi, with his reasons for rebelling against the princess—to make the eventual reveal more significant, but one never has to wait too long for the answer to a question. Similarly, Hinohara frequently actually comes out and says what he’s thinking, so misunderstandings are not allowed to perpetuate for long. In fact, revealing the truth behind things—like when Hinohara finally convinces Kotoha that he is not her beloved Arata—gives the story more places to go rather than reducing all dramatic options.

My one complaint about the series is largely rectified by Kadowaki’s entrance into Amawakuni, and that’s that Arata is given very little to do. At first, there’s only a chapter or two from his point of view every once in a while, but once he meets an intriguing girl named Oribe—who can tell he’s an entirely different person than Hinohara—things begin looking up, especially when one of the shinsho is transplanted to Japan in Kadowaki’s place. Suddenly, Arata is in genuine peril, which is bad for him but good for the story!

In the end, while there’s a lot going on in Arata, it never feels like too much, always makes sense, and yet always leaves one wondering what is going to happen next. Not only am I genuinely excited about continuing the series, it has also rekindled my determination to read Fushigi Yûgi: Genbu Kaiden, of which I have heard good things.

Arata: The Legend is still in serialization in Japan; the twelfth collected volume was released there in August 2011.

Review copies for volumes one, two, four, and five provided by the publisher.