Rocket Girls by Housuke Nojiri

From the back cover:
Yukari Morita is a high school girl on a quest to find her missing father. While searching for him in the Solomon Islands, she receives the offer of a lifetime—she’ll get the help she needs to find her father, and all she need do in return is become the world’s youngest, lightest astronaut. Yukari and her half-sister Matsuri, also petite, are the perfect crew for the Solomon Space Association’s launches, or will be once they complete their rigorous and sometimes dangerous training.

Review:
I was really looking forward to reading Rocket Girls. I’ve long been intrigued by VIZ Media’s venture into Japanese sci-fi, Haikasoru, but this is the first title in the lineup that I’ve read (unless you count Brave Story, which I read before it was grandfathered into the imprint). Alas, I ended up disappointed.

The basic plot is that Yukari Morita, a high school student weighing 37 kg. (81 lbs.) has traveled to the Solomon Islands during summer vacation to search for her deadbeat father. She ends up meeting scientists from the Solomon Space Association just when they’ve determined that they need a really light person to pilot their rocket, and when the director promises to help her find her father, she agrees. Later, her similarly petite half-sister Matsuri joins up to serve as backup. The SSA folks have a lot of trouble getting a rocket into orbit, but eventually succeed (sort of) and Yukari becomes a national hero.

I guess I was hoping for the novel equivalent of Twin Spica or something, but Rocket Girls doesn’t even come close to achieving the passion and poignancy on display in that series. In fact, it almost totally lacks any depth whatsoever. The book is about 80% dialogue, with very little insight into Yukari’s thoughts, let alone anyone else’s. As a result, many of the characters’ reactions and decisions are inexplicable. Here are some examples:

  • The director of the space program, Isao Nasuda, calls up Yukari’s mother to obtain her permission for Yukari to become an astronaut. Without asking any questions at all, her mother agrees. I could accept a similarly carefree mom in a manga comedy, but it’s harder to swallow in a sci-fi novel.
  • Very quickly, Yukari finds her father, who had no idea she even existed (having disappeared during his honeymoon). His reaction? “How about that?” What, that’s it?!
  • Yukari decides she doesn’t fancy dying in an unsafe spacecraft, but her father won’t come back to Japan with her if she outright quits, so she decides to gain weight so that Matsuri will have to take her place. And then, suddenly, she’s done with that idea. I think this is because one of the scientists guys waxed poetic about his spacefaring dreams, but I’m not sure.
  • Yukari then decides to become hyper-vigilant about the safety of the craft and goes on a hunger strike protesting some new fuel mixture. And then later, when she’s strapped in and ready to take off, the team finds a problem. Her response? “If we let every little thing scare us, we’ll never launch.” Uh, then what was that whole protest about? She even had a sign.

At first, I was bothered that none of the adults seemed to have any empathy for Yukari. They treated her as a tool and spoke dispassionately of bringing her to her breaking point so they could test the jungle-survival capabilities of the new skintight spacesuit they’d designed for her. But then I realized that I had lost all empathy for Yukari, too! Probably I was supposed to care when she nearly died during the flight, but I did not. I just wanted the book to end. After a kind of cool but very brief visit to Mir, I got my wish.

Is one slightly nifty bit near the end enough to recommend the book? I think not. There is also a sequel, but I’ve no intention of reading it.

Kamisama Kiss 2 by Julietta Suzuki

From the back cover:
Nanami Momozono is alone and homeless after her dad skips town to evade his gambling debts and the debt collectors kick her out of her apartment. So when a man she’s just saved from a dog offers her his home, she jumps at the opportunity. But it turns out that his place is a shrine, and Nanami has unwittingly taken over his job as a local deity!

Nanami doesn’t want to miss out on the fun when a hot teen idol joins the student body. Tomoe reluctantly agrees to let her go, as long as she conceals her divine mark. After all, what could possibly go wrong at high school…?

Review:
Nanami has been out of school for three months, living in the shrine that is her new home, but the appalling lack of worshippers means her days are very dull indeed. When she sees a TV news story about a famous pop idol transferring to her high school, her school spirit is suddenly reinvigorated and she decides to return, even though Tomoe (her fox-eared familiar) insists she wear a stupid-looking headscarf to cover the mark that identifies her as a tochigami (deity of a specific area of land), lest yokai detect her presence and attack.

The pop idol, Kurama, turns out to be a jerk, but he’s intrigued by Nanami’s ability to resist his charms. The other students aren’t too friendly, either, and tease Nanami about her poverty. Enter Tomoe to save the day, clearing her name when she is accused of theft, delivering a delicious lunch when she’s too poor to afford something from the cafeteria, and generally making it appear as if she’s now under the care of a wealthy family. When Tomoe later finds himself in need, having been shrunk by another deity who has taken over the shrine, Nanami is grateful to be able to give back to him, watching over him as his child’s body struggles to contain his powers. In the end, when the other deity is ousted, Tomoe chooses to reenter into a contract with Nanami.

I’m still unsure exactly what to make of Kamisama Kiss. I definitely like its sense of humor—it’s pleasantly absurd, like when Kurama (who predictably turns out to be a yokai) is chased through the halls of the school by one of Tomoe’s fireballs while in the form of an ostrich—and the supporting cast (like the two onibi-warashi who occupy the shrine along with Nanami and Tomoe), but the main characters have yet to really intrigue me. It’s nice that Tomoe and Nanami are building a more friendly relationship, and that both clearly care about each other, but there’s nothing to really distinguish this development from all the other stories in which two argumentative sorts wind up falling for each other.

I think part of the problem is that I am still mentally comparing it to Suzuki’s other series released in English, the very charming Karakuri Odette. I shouldn’t, because they’re very different types of stories, but every now and then Nanami gets an expression on her face that reminds me so much of Odette that I can’t help myself.

Because Karakuri Odette turned out to be so good, I am reasonably confident that Kamisama Kiss will eventually win me over, but in the meantime I’m left a little bit disappointed.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Cross Game Color Commentary

As part of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast on Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game, Kate Butler and I engaged in a bit of conversation about our love of sports manga in general and this series in particular. As we reference the plot and characters, this page from VIZ’s Shonen Sunday website might come in handy.

MICHELLE: I’m fighting the compulsion to start this thing off by going, “So. Cross Game, huh?” But perhaps I had better begin by introducing my fellow interlocutor, Kate Butler. Kate and I have been friends for about a decade now, and share a markedly similar taste in books, which extends to a love (somehow this word doesn’t seem quite strong enough) for sports manga. In fact, I am pretty sure that it was from Kate that I first heard about The Prince of Tennis and Hikaru no Go, both of which have been long-time favorites of mine.

What was your first exposure to sports manga, Kate?

KATE: The very first sports manga I read was the first couple of volumes of Harlem Beat. Was TOKYOPOP still calling itself Mixx back then? In any case, it was a long time ago, and I remember being surprised that this story about basketball, something which I find incredibly boring in real life, was holding my attention. But the real truth is that my love of sports manga comes about because of my strange attraction to shounen battle manga (and their insanely lengthy anime counterparts)—you really can’t describe The Prince of Tennis as anything else, even though they battle using tennis and not swords or super saiyan techniques.

But even though Cross Game shares a number of elements with that particular genre, I doubt anyone would peg it as a pure battle-sport manga.

MICHELLE: The closest I’ve come to a shounen battle manga that actually involves literal battles is probably Rurouni Kenshin, which I adore. I have yet to read any of the Dragonball series, but I suspect that I’d probably like it, too, since I enjoyed the pair of Toriyama one-shots I read.

You’ve touched upon one of the central mysteries of sports manga for me: how come I never want to watch live sports, but I gobble up the manga like candy? If forced to name a favorite sport, I would probably say basketball or tennis, which some might take as evidence for why I love Slam Dunk and The Prince of Tennis, but I can honestly say that I have never, at any point in my life, ever found baseball interesting. And yet I love Cross Game.

KATE: I wonder at my interest in sports-related manga as well. My adoration for The Prince of Tennis knows no bounds, and sometimes it even makes me think I must have been wrong—of course I must enjoy watching actual tennis! But then I try and am disappointed to discover once again that it’s as boring to me as it ever was.

Baseball is probably my most favorite of all the major league/professional sports popular in the U.S. But that’s not saying a whole lot—I always enjoyed my outings to Fenway Park with my dad, but much of my attention was focused on when I got to buy my next hot dog or ice cream.

I guess my next question would be, is Cross Game really about baseball? At least in the earliest volumes, while there’s plenty of baseball-related content, it’s not -about- baseball, at least not in the way The Prince of Tennis is about tennis.

MICHELLE: I think that’s an excellent question, and the key to its appeal. I’ve spoken on this theme several times in recent months, but I adore stories about lazy or disinterested characters who find something to be truly passionate about and/or a place where they belong. That’s why, of all the sports manga I’ve read, Cross Game reminds me the most of Slam Dunk. But even that is not really any comparison, since we learn much more about Ko and his motivations than we do about Sakuragi, and he certainly seems to be coming from a much deeper place than “get the girl” or “be the best.” The story becomes more about Ko and his personal journey rather than the actual specifics of his goal.

That isn’t to say, though, that the baseball games aren’t riveting and masterfully drawn, especially those between “the portables,” the lower-tier members of the baseball team, and the hand-picked varsity squad. Here again, I think Adachi’s stressing the importance of really loving something, no matter what it is, because simply doing that can bring one joy.

KATE: Yes, if I were going to try to identify Ko’s motivations, “be the best” and “get the girl” wouldn’t be among the first to spring to mind. Though it’s interesting that they wouldn’t, because we’re told early on in the manga that he’s actually far more competitive than he appears.

Your description of his journey from indifference to passion sounds a lot like Godai from Maison Ikkoku, though I personally am finding Ko much more difficult to get a handle on than Godai, whose faults and temptations and misunderstandings were all very much on display. Ko, on the other hand, feels slippery to me. Not to say he doesn’t have motivations and desires, but he’s very hard to read. It may have something to do with the way he’s drawn—I find his expression to be inscrutable most of the time, giving me little information about what’s passing in his mind.

Here are some examples of Ko’s expressions, captioned with the emotion he is experiencing at that moment:

Sly

About to Get Beat Up

Annoyed

Confused

Just Saw a Ghost

Puzzled

Shocked

Aaaand sly again

MICHELLE: That’s a good point, and especially true during the portions of the story where others are observing Ko and how much he’s grown. With the lack of facial cues, I pretty much just rely on his commitment to baseball as indication that he’s still doggedly on the path of making Wakaba’s dream come true.

Adachi’s art in general sends me mixed messages. In matters of pacing and paneling he excels, but his depiction of anatomy is more inconsistent. He seems to draw some bodies quite well. Ko’s when pitching, for example, and Aoba’s, especially on the chapter title pages on which she’s wearing revealing attire. I love how her body looks positively normal for a healthy, athletic teen, and don’t even mind that her clothes are a bit skimpy because they’re still practical and plausible. But then I look at her face, and it just seems incongruously cartoony compared to the rest of her. And then you’ve got the supporting characters like Nakanishi who—and I really appreciate that there are several awesome yet stocky characters in the cast—frequently looks too dumpy to even be able to run.

KATE: Well, maybe he can’t run very fast. Or more accurately, he’s not a distance runner. Baseball isn’t really a distance game, though: similar to American football, it’s mostly short bursts of high exertion followed by a bunch of standing around. Which is why your top soccer, basketball and marathoners tend to have a different body shape from football players and baseball sluggers. So I don’t particularly find the body shapes completely incongruous with high school baseball players.

The faces and the rest of the art—well, I’ll admit it, it took me quite a while before I was able to tell Aoba and Ko apart with any consistency. At first I found it annoying, but then I started to think it was probably on purpose that their character designs were so similar. They are meant to be two peas.

MICHELLE: I’m sure that’s intentional. She definitely looks different from Adachi’s other lead heroines, who tend to resemble the Wakaba type. And really, everything else—from the inscrutable hero, to the mild fanservice, to the dumpy bodies—is simply part of Adachi’s style. He’s remained quite consistent, as Joe McCulloch notes in his excellent post at the Panelists. It’s definitely an effective style for conveying this type of story.

KATE: Is that a Seishu uniform I see depicted on one of the panels from Nine? Interesting. I suppose given that so little of Adachi’s work has been translated into English, it’s not exactly unsurprising that I’m not intimately familiar with most of his series, but I do feel it’s a lack. The other series of his to which I’ve had the most exposure is Touch, and that just the anime. So while I can agree that the art is remarkably consistent, I can’t speak toward greater thematic consistency through his work.

On the other hand, Cross Game itself employs many plot elements to which I’m very partial. You said earlier that you enjoy stories where a less-than-inspired protagonist evolves into a passionate pursuer of something. I happen to adore stories where the arrogant and insufferable are brought up short by a plucky underdog. (That is, after all, one of the prime plot components of Pride and Prejudice, my favorite book of all time.) And in this first half of Cross Game we’ve already had a payoff on that particular plot thread.

MICHELLE: It is a Seishu uniform! I didn’t even notice that. And yes, I was only referring to artistic consistency because, sadly, like you, I haven’t enough experience with his long-form stories to know how the they compare. I’m hopeful that Cross Game will do well enough that VIZ will license more by Adachi. Alex Hoffman of Manga Widget recently speculated that Katsu! might be a contender, and I concur.

I’m with you regarding the payoff! Perhaps I should have expected that something like that would happen, but I still thought it was handled rather elegantly. In fact, one could probably predict several things about where the Cross Game story is going to go, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be enjoyable.

KATE: Well, after that random Seishu uniform, I must say my interest in seeing Nine has shot up about tenfold. I do hope Cross Game is selling well enough to spur more Adachi licenses.

The way the payoff of that particular plot was handled was excellent—but the buildup to it was also interesting, especially since neither of our protaganists was actually the original instigator of the portable team’s secret plan. I do love it when characters presented initially as thuggish turn out instead to be quite clever and nice. (At least to those who deserve it.)

MICHELLE: Me, too. And I think I’d read an entire manga about Okubo, the cheerful yet underestimated manager of the portables. I think that in it, she should solve crime. Also, I think I now ship her with Nakanishi.

KATE: I would so read Okubo: Girl Detective. Someone needs to write this manga!

Ahem. Getting back to the actual discussion again: Cross Game is very enjoyable thus far, we both agree. But there are few stories I find so perfect there’s not at least one or two things I might change. Is there anything in particular you haven’t liked so far?

MICHELLE: Hmm. Well, I’m not crazy about all the fourth-wall breaking that’s going on. I expected it more in volumes two and three, and so it bothered me less, but Adachi complaining about his schedule or depicting the characters reading his earlier series is just never going to amuse me. There was a bit in volume three that I laughed at, though, where someone threw something at a box of omniscient narration.

I also think Aoba’s dad is really creepy. For Ko, a teenage boy, to be curious about girls and to go into a daze while looking up the skirt of the girl ahead of him on the escalator doesn’t bother me, but for a grown man to hang around a batting cage so that he might catch a glimpse of a young woman’s underpants is, like, a criminal offense or something. And that his daughters know about and freely discuss his proclivities is also pretty gross.

How about you?

KATE: I’m completely with you on both points. It may be possible to break the fourth-wall in a way that blends almost seamlessly into the story, and there are a couple of instances even within Cross Game where it works out all right, but most of the time it just serves to jar you right out of the story.

And I don’t even know where to begin with Mr. Tsukishima. The existence of numerous other lecherous father figures (Shigure from Fruits Basket springs to mind, along with Nanjiro Echizen from The Prince of Tennis) suggests he’s part of some grand tradition I just do not understand. We may have to wait for someone to make this a topic of their dissertation before all the cultural dots are connected.

MICHELLE: Maybe so. I mean, it must be funny to someone, right? Probably Japan is just more relaxed about that sort of thing than Americans—it is the land of used-undies vending machines, after all—but I’d think actually ogling a customer would cross some sort of line even there.

Now that I think about, there are loads of fellows in Cross Game who are unabashed about their girlie mags. Azuma’s brother, Junpei, has a pile in his delivery van when we first meet him. Ko’s got his own stash. His dad left one lying about at one point, too.

KATE: I can’t claim to be an expert, but anecdotally, that kind of soft-core porn seems much more out in the open. Salarymen reading it on trains, etc. So is it really meant to be funny? I guess the idea that it’s a joke is less depressing than the idea that it’s meant to be serious and no one cares.

MICHELLE: I don’t think the act of reading the magazines is really supposed to be funny, just a casual thing, but I bet that Mr. Tsukishima’s antics were intended to be. For the most part, I bet Adachi uses those magazines to show that these are just regular guys and, though they may be talented, or be able to summon great dedication for something that they love, in the end they all still get goofy for teh boobies.

KATE: That’s probably true. And in that sense, the T and A quotient of this series is really not any more than you’d find on your average American sitcom. Or maybe even in Archie comics, considering how that’s been going lately.

I think as long as these things remain in the background as the series progresses they’ll continue to be ignorable offenses for the most part. My larger concern going forward is, of course, the bane of authors everywhere: the conclusion. So many authors are so incredibly talented at the beginning parts of a story. Quite a few authors can sustain a story admirably through the middle portion. But then the endings! Oh, the weak, underwritten, cop-out finales. I’m both eager and afraid to see which side Cross Game falls out on.

MICHELLE: Oh, indeed. Like I mentioned before, certain aspects of the tale can be predicted, and that’s simply because of the kind of story it is. I mean, I suppose Adachi might never allow the Seishu team to make it to Koshien, but I’d consider it highly unlikely for a sports manga to go that route. I must admit, though, that I have heard that some of his endings are rather open-ended.

KATE: I think the baseball-related developments are probably set in stone—it would be unthinkable not to see them get to Koshien eventually, though whether or not he’ll take us through the entire tournament is less determined. But the character side of the equation is where the possibility of letdown really exists. So far things there have been developing at a nice pace, so hopefully the ending won’t disappoint.

MICHELLE: I guess we will just have to wait and see!

Thanks for joining me to talk about Cross Game!

KATE: Thanks! This was a lot of fun!

Cross Game 2-3 by Mitsuru Adachi

The first volume of Cross Game (well, the first collected volume from VIZ, which includes the first three volumes of the Japanese version) introduced the characters and established the motivation for average boy Ko Kitamura to devote himself to becoming a good enough pitcher to reach the Koshien tournament. It’s very good, but there’s little actual baseball. Volumes two and three (four through seven in Japanese) make up for that in a big way.

Ko has now entered high school, but the publicity-hungry interim principal has hired Coach Daimon, who is known for getting teams to Koshien, and has built a dorm to house the students who’ve been especially recruited for the team. Neither seems to care about the boys or their enjoyment of the game—the interim principal is merely out for acclaim, and the Coach doesn’t put forth any effort to instill a team mentality in his players, seemingly content with a top sixteen placement because it’s good enough for him to keep his cushy job.

Anyway, Ko and his two close friends, Akaishi and Nakanishi, have refused to even try out for the varsity team and spend their time amongst “the portables,” which is the nickname for the leftover players who must practice under inferior conditions and with a coach who’s considered past his prime. Twice over the course of these volumes the portables challenge the varsity players, and both times the game is riveting in a way I have never experienced before with baseball.

Adachi’s great at pacing and setting the scene, and the flow of each game is easy to follow. The first match-up results in a close game, with the portables ultimately losing. A special training regimen ensues, and Ko works on building up his stamina and his arsenal of pitches. When the teams have their rematch, he’s a changed pitcher, and better than anyone the varsity team faced during their progress through the spring tournament. It’s true that we don’t get into Ko’s head much during all of this intense effort on his part, but I take this to mean that he’s got a singular focus—there’s no need to constantly reiterate that he’s attempting to fulfill the dream his childhood friend, Wakaba Tsukishima, had before her accidental death.

While the games occupy the most real estate in these volumes, there are some important character moments, too, mostly between Ko and Aoba, Wakaba’s younger sister, who always resented how much attention Wakaba gave him and who has never been able to shake the belief that he’s no good. I love that when Ko gets serious about pitching, it’s Aoba’s form and style that he emulates. Sure, Aoba is likely going to wind up in a love interest role, but that’s not her only purpose here, and it’s refreshing that the female lead is so thoroughly competent.

Words aren’t going to get anywhere with Aoba, so Ko can only prove by his actions that he’s dedicated and reliable, and we begin to see some very incremental signs of thawing. Small, episodic intervals chart the development of their relationship, and my very favorite moment in these two volumes—even with all the exciting sports action—falls into this category. It happens at the end of volume three. As a child, Ko used to accompany the Tsukishima siblings to visit their grandparents in the country, but he hasn’t gone in the five years since Wakaba’s death. Now he and his parents have been invited to come along and Aoba recognizes, from silent clues like Ko’s breakfast dishes and his solitary footprints heading out through the snow towards the woods, exactly where he is headed (to a spot he used to go with Wakaba) and prevents her youngest sister, Momiji, from going after him. She’s now ready to acknowledge how deeply he cared for her sister, which strikes me as a very mature moment.

Cross Game offers readers the best of both worlds. There’s intense baseball action for sports manga fans like me to avidly devour, but there’s also character drama, a strong female lead, and a sure artistic hand. Need I say again how ardently I hope we’ll see more Adachi manga in English in the future?

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Breaking Down Banana Fish – The Final Installment

On one hand, it seems like ages ago that the Banana Fish project started at Manga Bookshelf. When I think of some of what happened in early volumes—the death of Ash’s friend, Skip, and the single kiss he shared with Eiji to pass him some information tucked into a pill—it seems like the distant past. And yet, I can’t quite believe that we’ve finally reached the end! I think I could’ve gone on reading this series for nineteen more volumes.

Volumes seventeen and eighteen are the very personification of action-packed, as Ash must face off against not only Papa Dino but also Colonel Foxx, the creepy and sadistic mercenary hired by Papa Dino to do his bidding. Scandals come to light and all the bad guys receive their just deserts. Beyond that, I offer no spoilers, other than to say I love the ending almost without reservation.

If you’re not afraid of spoilers, come check out the final installment of Breaking Down Banana Fish!

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!

Maison Ikkoku 10-15 by Rumiko Takahashi

Maison Ikkoku is a series I’ve been meaning to read for a decade now. I watched a lot of the anime, and got up to volume nine in the manga a few years ago, but it took an MMF dedicated to Rumiko Takahashi to finally concentrate my determination sufficiently to conquer the final six volumes. Since I am writing specifically about the end of the series, and the methods Takahashi employs to bring it about, please beware of spoilers.

For those who are unaware, Maison Ikkoku is the story of the occupants of the titular boarding house, specifically bumbling but good-hearted Yusaku Godai and Kyoko Otonashi, the beautiful young widow who manages the property. Godai is in love with Kyoko and would like to propose, but wants to prove himself reliable first by finding work. Meanwhile, Kyoko is trying to decide whether she even wants to remarry and, if she does, should she wait for Godai to get his act together or accept the proposal that handsome, rich tennis coach Shun Mitaka has made.

Volume ten finds Godai job-hunting. He has recently concluded a spell as a student teacher at the same all-girls’ high school Kyoko once attended, where he caught the eye of Ibuki Yagami, who pursues him relentlessly. It so happens, however, that Yagami’s dad is the hiring manager for a major company, but Godai has botched the chance for an interview due to a medical emergency with a random pregnant lady. Honestly, this whole arc is frustrating, because Yagami is so wrapped up in the romance of supporting her impoverished man that she regularly makes a fool of herself, and Godai keeps getting dragged into situations that torpedo his chance for success. Even here, though he finally gets a job, he just can’t win, for the firm immediately goes bankrupt.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this marks a turning point in the series. Originally conceiving of it as a stop-gap measure until he finds other work, Godai begins working at a preschool and discovers a real aptitude for it. This is the first time we’ve actually seen Godai be really good at something and, not only that, the first time he begins to think of a possible career rather than just a job. Alas, he’s laid off in volume twelve, but is determined to get his teaching certification and continues to study while operating a nursery for the employees of a risqué cabaret in the evenings.

So, while on one hand we have the beginnings of maturation for Godai, on the other we have the beginnings of thawing in Kyoko. Although she thinks of Godai more as a little brother than a potential husband in some ways, she’s still obviously fond of him, enough that she can’t quite accept Mitaka’s proposals, even though he would seem to be the better match. “Please. Come home soon,” she thinks at one point. “Please tell me not to marry him.” This maturation+thawing trend until the end of the series, with many advances and setbacks, but it really starts here.

Various hijinks ensue while Godai and Kyoko are gradually growing closer, involving myriad misunderstandings and an arranged marriage for Mitaka, who hasn’t given up on Kyoko and is working on conquering his fear of dogs in order to woo her without her friendly mutt causing any problems. The next big step in the main couple’s relationship occurs in volume thirteen, when one of the employees at the cabaret leaves her children in Godai’s care while she runs off with a customer.

Godai is primarily concerned with the happiness of the children, and brings them home to Maison Ikkoku to look after. This creates a homey feeling, and causes Kyoko to notice how Godai is able to shoulder additional burdens with equanimity. Gone is the Godai who thinks selfishly—he simply wants to do the best for these kids, and later we’ll see him express concern for Mitaka’s fiancé’s happiness where a younger Godai might have exulted that Mitaka was soon to be out of the running for Kyoko’s affections. I applaud how smoothly Takahashi is able to make this transition, because it seems natural that Godai has become this kind of man, though it’s impossible to say precisely when.

Before Godai and Kyoko can really be together, however, their secondary significant others must be dealt with, so a lot of time is devoted to resolving the Mitaka situation, with Kyoko finally saying she can’t marry him, and, later, to getting Kozue (Godai’s long-time platonic girlfriend) sorted out. I really love how Takahashi accomplishes this, because she basically twists the same sort of comic misunderstanding plots that have populated the series this entire time so that they actually have lasting repercussions that wrap things up for these love rivals in satisfying ways. No threads are left hanging!

By the final volume, Godai has become a reliable prospect. He dedicates himself to studying for his exam and passes on his first attempt. Again, it is simply great watching him be good at something, and though this stability will help him win Kyoko, it’s also something that he wanted for himself. While Godai waits for the right moment to propose to an expectant Kyoko, the pair works through some trust issues, and when he finally pops the question, it’s completely awesome. Also in the category of awesome is the amazing scene in which Godai, no longer threatened by Kyoko’s past, visits the grave of her first husband, Soichiro. I got majorly sniffly when he said, “You’ve been a part of her since the first day I met her and I still fell in love with her. So… I’m taking you into my life too. As part of her.” In fact, I got verklempt again just writing that.

I won’t spoil the exact details of the ending, except to say that it couldn’t possibly be more satisfying. Although Maison Ikkoku was at times a frustrating read, it was also an affecting and amusing one. Takahashi has created a cast of characters who, even if frequently wishy-washy, are immensely appealing. In addition, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the role Takahashi’s artwork plays in making the series successful, for though she absolutely excels at depicting adorable children and dogs (especially Mitaka’s delightful McEnroe), she’s also nails the emotional moments. I’m especially fond of some scenes in later volumes in which characters shed their shells to various degrees, with Mitaka losing his ever-present smiling glint and Kyoko opening up emotionally.

I’ve written over a thousand words now, and could probably write a thousand more about this fantastic series. Rather than do that, however, I think I’ll merely conclude with a heartfelt recommendation: you simply must read Maison Ikkoku.

Please Save My Earth at The Hooded Utilitarian

For our second joint venture at The Hooded Utilitarian, Melinda Beasi and I take a look at the sci-fi shoujo classic, Please Save My Earth.

Summarizing a series this long is a daunting undertaking, but Melinda does an admirable job:

Please Save My Earth is a 21-volume soft sci-fi epic about seven Japanese children (six teenagers and one elementary school student) who discover that they are the reincarnations of a group of alien scientists who once studied the Earth from a remote base on the Moon. Their discovery is made through a series of shared dreams, in which the children re-experience their past lives, including the destruction of their home planet and their eventual deaths from an unknown illness that spread rapidly through the group during their final days. Now reborn on earth, the children seek each other out, burdened with unfinished business from their past lives while simultaneously struggling with the present.”

To check out the rest of our conversation, which touches upon the series’ themes, characters, humor, and artwork, please visit The Hooded Utilitarian.

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.

Breaking Down Banana Fish 14-16

The seventh installment of the Breaking Down Banana Fish roundtable has been posted at Manga Bookshelf, featuring disussion of volumes fourteen through sixteen of the series.

There is a ton of action in these three volumes, as Ash’s friends rescue him from Papa Dino and must then contend with retribution both from the Chinese forces of Yut-Lung and a band of mercenaries hired by Papa Dino. A plethora of gunfighting and tactical maneuvering ensues, and it’s all very exciting. Beyond that, it also challenges conventional ideas of what shoujo manga is. As a downside, though, there’s very little time for interaction between Ash and Eiji.

Still, I am enjoying this series very much. I can hardly believe there are only three more volumes (and one more roundtable) left to go!