Adolf 1: A Tale of the Twentieth Century by Osamu Tezuka: A

adolf1From the back cover:
On the eve of World War II, the destinies of three men named “Adolf”—including the infamous dictator of Germany’s Third Reich—became inexorably intertwined…

I had already requested Adolf via interlibrary loan when Connie posted her excellent review of the series at Manga Recon. You can see what she has to say about it here.

In this later work, serialized between 1983 and 1985, Tezuka masterfully intertwines the stories of three men (though two are technically boys) named Adolf. The story begins in the summer of 1936, when Japanese journalist Sohei Toge is in Berlin covering the Olympics. His brother, Isao, is enrolled at the university there and when a suspenseful competition keeps Sohei from making it to a prearranged meeting with his brother, he arrives a couple of hours late to find his Isao’s body in a tree with what seems to be plaster dust under his nails, a clue that reminds Toge of the murder of a geisha he reported on back in Japan. Some policemen promptly show up and carry the body off, but when Toge makes his own way to the precinct they claimed to be from, nobody knows anything about the incident.

Thus begins Toge’s quest to find out what happened, aided by some initials Isao left behind on a scrap of paper, anonymous phone calls, and a woman named Rita who claims she was in love with Isao until he became obsessed with some radical groups on campus. In a riveting sequence, Toge is captured by Nazis just as he locates his brother’s body in a shallow grave and is tortured because, it is revealed later, Isao didn’t have what they were looking for and they believe he managed to pass it on to his brother. Toge’s story comes to a pause in 1936 after he brutally beats and, it is implied, rapes Rita after discovering her true allegiances. Probably we are supposed to excuse this because of all of his anger, fear, and frustration, but it (and the aftermath) is really quite horrible.

Next, the setting shifts to Japan where we encounter two boys named Adolf living in the city of Kobe. Adolf Kaufmann is the son of a German father and Japanese mother. His dad is a staunch Nazi supporter and forbids his son from befriending Adolf Kamil, a Jewish boy whose family runs a bakery. Kauffman can’t understand why it isn’t okay to play with Adolf, since he’s German too, and some poignant moments ensue when people attempt to essentially destroy his innocence with their views of Jews as an inferior race. Kamil’s parents aren’t keen on his friendship with Kaufmann, either. The boys’ story intertwines with that of Toge because Kaufmann’s dad is involved both with the murder of the geisha as well as the search for the information Isao was supposedly in possession of, and when, in 1938, the boys stumble upon this revolutionary bit of information, the fallout isn’t pleasant and ultimately results in Kaufmann being reluctantly shipped off to Germany to attend a school for Hitler youth.

As Connie attested in her review, Adolf is quite amazing. Tezuka’s storytelling is supremely skilled, combining passages of narration with an economical and cinematic visual flow that sweeps one along quite effortlessly. There are no awkward moments, nothing unnecessary, and though one might wish for a little more time spent on, say, the anguish of Adolf Kaufmann’s mother as her world falls apart, the fact remains that she is but a small part of this epic tale. In this grim world, only the children are truly innocent, but one wonders how long that will last; although the boys plan to reunite and remain friends, Kaufmann will undoubtedly be changed by his experiences in Germany while the security of Kamil’s parents in Kobe might be in peril.

By reading only the first volume, I feel I’ve just barely scratched the surface on what will surely develop to be an incredible series. Some awful things occur here, and some awful things are set in motion, and yet reading Adolf ultimately is a pleasurable experience simply because it is so very well done. Rest assured that, even before I finished this volume, my ILL request for volume two was submitted.

Kaze Hikaru 6-8 by Taeko Watanabe: A-

kaze6Even though I’ve enjoyed the earlier volumes of Kaze Hikaru, it is these three volumes—which expertly combine romance, humor, character development, and historical events (with exciting bits of foreshadowing)—that have secured my undying love for the series.

We begin in the summer of 1864. The Shinsengumi is waiting for the Bakufu government to take a stand regarding exclusionism and is growing frustrated with the hesitant leadership. Instead of protecting the shogun, they’re being used to round up members of the radical Choshu clan. At one point, we see Vice Captain Hijikata torturing one of these fellows for information. I love that Watanabe-sensei doesn’t shy away from depicting these characters doing unheroic things (although I do weary of Sei objecting every time and showing no deference to authority) while managing to make them sympathetic anyway; it’s not as if Hijikata enjoys torturing someone, but he takes up the role of the hardass villain so that beloved Captain Kondo doesn’t have to.

The intelligence obtained by the torture indicates the Choshu clan will be gathering at an inn called Ikedaya to discuss an attack on Kyoto, which leads into one of the most awesome scenes in the series so far. Sei and Okita head out into battle together, and when he appears to’ve been killed, she is transfigured by fury and turns into quite a competent fighter. Further awesomeness occurs when, after seeing Okita safely to the infirmary, she doesn’t linger by his side but instead leaves him to return to the fray where her brothers are still fighting. It’s wonderful to see Sei so thoroughly exhibiting the qualities of a bushi, and I also love how much the Ikedaya incident will continue to influence the story from here on out.

kaze7One consequence of Sei’s impressive performance at the Ikedaya is that Captain Kondo wants to adopt her as his heir, an honor Sei must decline on account of her gender but without giving either a full explanation or offense. She wonders why Okita, who has essentially been raised by Kondo since the age of nine, isn’t the heir, and it is revealed that Okita has vowed to commit seppuku when Kondo dies. This explains a lot about Okita and his undying devotion to Kondo (further fleshed out in volume eight), and appearance of maintaining a carefree life. He can’t think about things like love, even though it appears at one point that he has begun to see Sei as something other than a child, because his life is not truly his to do with as he wishes. What a great reason for keeping two leads apart!

Meanwhile, two members of the Shinsengumi, Vice Captain Yamanami and Assistant Vice Captain Todo, receive a lot of attention in these volumes. Yamanami wasn’t able to participate in the Ikedaya incident due to illness, so he doesn’t receive the bonus pay that some men get and proceed to spend on whores. They feel sorry for him and lend him some money, and when he goes to the red light district, he meets Akesato, the lady with whom Sei stays three days a month while menstruation is in progress. Yamanami is a simple and kind fellow, and he and Akesato end up falling in love, but he’s reluctant to pursue it because it’d be a betrayal of his friend. Akesato finally admits Sei’s secret, so that makes two members of the Shinsengumi who know it now.

kaze8This development of Yamanami makes sense when, after a huge battle (Kinmon no Hen) ravages the city with fire, he and Todo (the sick members of the group who’ve been left behind to guard headquarters) think to head over to the nearby prison to help with evacuation. When they arrive, they find the magistrate in the act of murdering the prisoners rather than release them and react with hostility to his actions. While they await being sentenced to seppuku for their disrespect, Todo seeks out the source of rumors that the Shinsengumi was responsible for the atrocity and ends up falling in love with a prostitute. I guess no proper ladies want anything to do with these rowdy fellows.

I really don’t have any complaints. The historical moments are positively riveting, and though the slice-of-life aspects are understandably less so, they’re still quite good. I am kind of sad, though, that Okita’s backstory includes a scene where he runs into Sei as a child. What a shojo trope that is; I’m always kind of annoyed wherever it turns up, even when it’s in a great series like this one. And, make no mistake, it is great.

Kaze Hikaru 3-5 by Taeko Watanabe: A-

kaze3Tominaga Sei, a teenaged girl who has assumed the male identity of Kamiya Seizaburo in order to join the Mibu-Roshi and avenge the deaths of her brother and father, has achieved her revenge. As volume three begins, her mentor and unrequited love, Okita Soji, is urging her to leave because she has accomplished her task, but Sei doesn’t want to go and demands acceptance as a man. They engage in a wager in which Okita agrees that she can stay if she manages to score one hit on him. The way she manages to do this is rather underhanded, and I can’t cheer her methods, but I do like that Sei chooses a life of honing her skills in order to be able to protect the one she loves rather than returning to her original gender, even if it would mean a better chance at living a romantic life with him.

After this entertaining but uneventful start, I was unprepared for the utter awesome that comes next. It begins when Serizawa, a drunken hothead who nonetheless deserves much of the credit for the Mibu-Roshi’s existence, is visited by the beautiful wife of a merchant to whom he is indebted. He’s enchanted by her loveliness and is initially content to just moon about over her. When Sei finds out that the woman is actually not the wife but a mistress, and therefore available, she thinks she’s doing the right thing when she encourages Serizawa to go for it. Of course, his behavior only worsens from that kaze4point on, further sullying his reputation with the public. These events coincide with the Mibu-Roshi earning the name Shinsengumi (for their bravery during a coup attempt) and an order from on high to rid the group of troublesome elements.

Matters come to a head in volume four. If I had been a better student of this period of Japanese history, instead of barely able to grasp the political maneuverings, I would’ve known what was going to happen, but in this case I can firmly attest that ignorance is bliss! With this storyline, Kaze Hikaru shows its real power to be dramatic, moving, and brutal, and has seriously hooked me for the long haul. The recurring theme of the series seems to be “Sei gets more than she bargained for,” and that idea is front and center here as she has serious problems with the way discipline is being carried out, though she comes to see the necessity for these new rules—and enforces them—after a condemned man, to whom she was inclined to show mercy, kills another during his escape attempt.

After the dark days in volume four, the story shifts into more lighthearted territory, featuring chapters that reveal more about some other Shinsengumi members. Despite encountering certain grim truths—and unpleasant revelations upon the nature of men—Sei kaze5manages to remain her optmistic self, a quality which prompts the laconic Saito Hajime to develop feelings for her. He fights his attraction, which could not be more unrequited, as Sei continually confuses him with her older brother, whom he apparently resembles greatly. This is a recurring thread throughout volume five, which also features tales about the captain, Kondo Isami, who the men think has been going out whoring; details about Okita’s past; a woman seeking revenge against vice-captain Hijikata for the death of her brother; Sei trying to learn a new sword technique that’s too advanced for her; and the appearance of a man who proclaims his love for Hijikata before promptly absconding with his valuable katana.

All in all, this was an excellent trio of volumes to read together, as they exemplify all the things that Kaze Hikaru does well. The balance between human interest stories and historical drama is well-maintained, aided by beautiful art and likeable characters. If I could be said to have a problem with the series, it would be that Sei frequently raises objections to matters decided upon by the leaders and has to be shown by Okita how she is wrong. He almost always manages to do this without being patronizing, but I’d like to see her grow into a more hardened warrior. Now that I’ve seen the darkness of which the series is capable, this seems at least somewhat possible.

Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller: B-

9780449210079From the back cover:
Early in the nineteenth century, in a puritanical New England town, two women did something unspeakable, something unheard of—they fell in love with each other. With nothing and no one to guide or support them, Patience and Sarah tried to follow their hearts.

And when family pressures separated them, the two women dreamed of leaving their homes, of being together. Defying society and history, they bought a farm and discovered they could live together, away from a world that had put limits on them and their love.

Patience White has been provided for. Her father’s will made certain that there would always be a place for her in her devout brother’s Connecticut home, but that isn’t enough to make Patience happy. She doesn’t want the things that a woman of her age (late twenties) should want, and though she helps out around the house, Edward’s wife, Martha, makes her feel guilty for desiring privacy to work on her paintings. When she meets Sarah Dowling, conscripted to serve as “Pa’s boy” in the absence of any male siblings and entirely unaware that her manners shock more proper folk, she is immediately intrigued.

Kisses soon ensue, followed by Sarah’s inability to realize that some things should be kept secret, a journey in boy’s clothes, vague yet plentiful sex scenes, manipulation by Patience to get Sarah to agree to come away with her, familial discovery, further journeying, and finally settling into farm life in New York. The narrative alternates between perspectives with occasionally amusing results (I enjoyed their differing accounts of their final parting with Edward) but with much repetition, since each woman experiences periods of insecurity as well as triumph in the knowledge that she can leave the other wanting her. One strange side effect was that although I disliked Sarah at the beginning of the novel, due to her remarkable lack of common sense, by the end I thought she was by far the better (and more genuine) of the two, since Patience could be deceitful in her quest to get her way.

I had expected, owing largely to the rhapsodies experienced by the leads in Annie on My Mind as they read and reread this book, that Patience & Sarah would be at least a little romantic, but really, it is not. Instead, I’d describe it as carnal. When I say that “kisses soon ensue,” I mean really soon, and with little preamble as to why these women are drawn to each other. Suddenly, it’s just instant passion. There are some parts of the novel that I liked—slice-of-life passages about chopping wood and sewing curtains, card games they play with Sarah’s mother, or the stray dog that promptly adopts them when they get to their new home—but I couldn’t care much about the characters or their relationship. Plus, all the parts that I liked are sullied by the ending, in which Patience declares that now that they have their own place they will “make the bed gallop,” which makes it seem that everything they’ve done has been with coital goals in mind.

Another thing I noticed is that nearly everyone else in the novel is made to desire the protagonists. Sarah’s sister offers to do for her whatever Patience does (eww), it’s suspected that Edward likes to imagine the two of them together, Sarah’s traveling companion tries to put the moves on her (granted, he thinks she’s a boy at the time), and one of Martha’s main objections to the relationship is that Patience is fooling around with someone “outside of the family.” I’m not sure what to make of this, honestly. With Edward and Martha it could be a case of pointing out their hypocrisy, but what of the others?

In the end, Patience & Sarah was not what I’d expected it to be. If this had been a straight romance, I might not even have finished it.

Additional reviews of Patience & Sarah can be found at Triple Take.

The Color of Water by Kim Dong Hwa: C

colorwater-125The story of Ehwa, as begun in The Color of Earth, continues in this second volume of a trilogy. Like the first book in the series, The Color of Water is mostly about sex. Ever-curious Ehwa discovers some new things in this volume, often spurred along by crude scenes involving fields of phallic peppers or copulating animals. She also begins a romance with Duksam, a sweet-talking farmhand, and starts to understand her mother’s wistful feelings towards her own itinerant lover.

The first half of the volume is pretty listless, consisting mainly of sexual escapades interspersed with countless discussions between Ehwa and her mother in which women are compared to flowers. I singled these mother-daughter conversations out for praise in my review of volume one, but their talks have become so repetitive that now I find these same scenes to be downright tedious.

In the second half of the book, more of a narrative thread develops, as Ehwa and Duksam make some progress in their courtship and Duksam’s elderly employer decides he wants Ehwa for himself, heedless of her mother’s objections. Unfortunately, Duksam is another one that spews flowery language both literally and figuratively, so it’s hard to care much about his relationship with Ehwa.

Still, I applaud the series for not saddling Ehwa with the very first boy she ever liked and allowing her to meet and be attracted to a stranger. Of course, there is one more volume and the back cover promises a story of “first love and second chances,” so perhaps I’d do well to remember the old adage about counting chickens.

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

Kaze Hikaru 1-2 by Taeko Watanabe: B+

kh01_140pxAfter seeing Kaze Hikaru praised by multiple people whose opinions I respect, I finally got my hands on the first two volumes, courtesy of my local library, and have reviewed them for Comics Should Be Good. You can find that review here.

Kaze Hikaru is published under Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint and thirteen volumes have been released here so far. The series is still ongoing in Japan and released its 26th volume there in May 2009.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: A-

kindredFrom the back cover:
Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

This is the third book that I’ve read by Butler, and like the others it tells a gripping story about a strong black woman protecting herself amidst dangerous circumstances.

The crux of the book hinges on the relationship between Dana and her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin. When she first travels back in time, Rufus is about five years old and Dana takes advantage of his age to encourage him to form enlightened opinions about the treatment of black people. In any other book, she would’ve succeeded in cultivating Rufus into a kind-hearted abolitionist. It’s far more intriguing, then, that Rufus instead turns into such a complicated man. He can be loving and generous, but his love is an extremely possessive variety, and he’s often blaming others for making him hurt them. It would’ve been so much easier if they’d just complied, you see. Dana finds herself forgiving him for his various misdeeds, and their relationship goes into some uncomfortable but wonderfully unpredictable places.

Secondarily, Dana gets to know the other slaves on the Weylin plantation, most of whom are subjected to sorrows and degradations at the hands of their white masters. Dana is initially disdainful of their acceptance of this life of slavery, but gradually learns—through bitter experience—just how difficult it is to break free. She herself must constantly be on guard for her own personal liberty and towards the end of one of her later stays, finds herself acquiescing to the whims of white folks with alarming ease.

About the one complaint I could make about Kindred is that it gets a little repetitive, with the countless trips to Rufus’ time and back to 1976, especially toward the end when only a few months have elapsed between visits. Also, and this is specific to the unabridged audiobook read by Kim Staunton, the fact that the voice used for Rufus doesn’t substantively alter between childhood and adulthood really takes one out of the story. He would’ve come across as far more menacing if he had sounded properly like a man.

This book was recommended by Margaret, who said, “I think it will be a book that stays with me for a long time.” I concur.

The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa: B

Ehwa and her mother, a young widow, live in the village of Namwon. Ehwa’s mother runs a tavern and bawdy local fellows often attempt to convince her to go to bed with them. When seven-year-old Ehwa overhears a couple of villagers insinuating that her mother is loose, she begins to wonder about the differences between men and women.

As the years go by, Ehwa matures. She sees firsthand how a man’s attentions bring out liveliness in her mother, and meets two local boys that catch her eye. Chung-Myung, a monk in training, returns her feelings but chooses his religious vocation over pursuing a relationship. Sunoo, a refined and educated boy, is polite to Ehwa but leaves town without a backward glance.

Stories of first love can be poignant and affecting if done right, but The Color of Earth unfortunately fails in this regard. The problem is that instead of dealing with Ehwa’s growing emotional maturity, the focus is almost exclusively on sexual maturity. From practically the first page, more time is spent on charting landmarks of sexual discovery—oftentimes rather crudely—than on any other aspect of Ehwa and her life.

Women are consistently compared to flowers throughout the book, and not in a way that is complimentary. A woman’s burgeoning sexuality is likened unto the bloom of a flower, and comparisons are made between the way a flower waits for a butterfly to alight upon it and the way a woman waits for a man to bestow his attentions upon her. Sometimes this metaphor is used well, though, as when Chung-Myung uses the camellia—a flower that blooms only in the winter and therefore never sees a butterfly—to make Ehwa see that it would be better if she didn’t care for him, as he must devote himself to his training.

There are two warring styles in evidence in the art, which features realistically drawn landscapes but almost cartoonish people. While this style works well for the cuter and/or cruder moments, ultimately it bears some of the responsibility for why the story lacks emotional resonance. It’s difficult to take Ehwa’s feelings for Chung-Myung seriously when he always looks so bumbling and childish.

The story does have its good points, the relationship between Ehwa and her mother chief among them. The volume’s final pages also ratchet up the drama, which may bode well for the second and third books of the trilogy. As it stands, though, this first installment is a bit of a disappointment.

The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, volumes two and three in the trilogy, will be released in June and September 2009, respectively.

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

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian: B+

From the back cover:
“We’ve beat them before and we’ll beat them again.” In 1803 Napoleon smashes the Peace of Amiens, and Captain Jack Aubrey, R. N., taking refuge in France from his creditors, is interned. He escapes from France, from debtors’ prison, from a possible mutiny, and pursues his quarry straight into the mouth of a French-held harbor.

There were certain things about this book that I loved very much, but on the whole it was sprawling and went on a bit too long. In addition to the events listed above (note: Jack did not escape from debtors’ prison; he evaded those who wished to send him there) there were many more, including romance, jealousy between Stephen and Jack, an interval in which Jack is disguised as a dancing bear, a planned duel between the two protagonists, riveting navel battles, a promotion, and the appearance of approximately sixty thousand bees.

Probably the most significant thing that happened in Post Captain was the conflict between Stephen and Jack, arising partly over women and partly over Stephen’s secrets. When peace is initially declared, Stephen and Jack took a house in the country and there became acquainted with a family of eligible daughters (and a cousin). Jack was quite taken with the eldest daughter (Sophie) and Stephen with the cousin (Diana), though neither man had wealth enough to be considered a good prospect. After Jack’s prize agent skipped out with all of his money, he was so out of matrimonial contention that the girls’ mother whisked them off to Bath to get away from him and everyone discovered that they’d never liked Jack much anyway.

For the rest of the novel, the guys mooned about over their chosen women, though Jack also seemed to fancy Diana. After witnessing all sorts of hidden sides of Stephen (a capacity for “a hard ruthlessness,” a proficiency with weapons, general secrecy), Jack finally erupted and they got into a jealous quarrel, culminating in insulting accusations and plans for a duel. All of this conflict was extremely interesting, though it reflected well on neither of them. Jack could not make up his mind about the two women, and Stephen was fixated upon Diana, whom I just couldn’t like. I thoroughly understand a woman’s need to do as well for herself as possible, but she was very manipulative of the guys’ feelings and about as high maintenance as they come.

I liked better the funny bits between Jack and Stephen, during which there were many lines and scenes to crack me up. One of the best was the method by which they escaped from France, and how it took a few pages before one realized that the bear trainer and his furry charge were actually our two protagonists. There was also an absolutely wonderful bit where Jack pondered giving a sermon to the crew and Stephen erupted in uncontrollable, squeaky laughter.

Another big thing in Post Captain was the amount of development Stephen received. I’m not exactly sure when he began spying for the Admiralty, but he was doing it all over the place here, and displaying all sorts of hidden talents and such. In many ways, he and Jack are the perfect slashy couple. You have the open-hearted, robust one who follows his passions with little self-governance, and is hurt when he discovers facets of his friend that he hadn’t previously been aware of, since he himself has withheld nothing. Then you have the cold and logical one who nonetheless adores his friend and looks out for him and his happiness. It’s pretty squee-inducing.

Though I did enjoy this novel, it was, as I said, quite sprawling. I think I’ll take a little break before I continue on to the next installment.

Blade of the Immortal 1 by Hiroaki Samura: A

From the back cover:
Manji, a ronin warrior of feudal Japan, has been cursed with immortality. To rid himself of this curse and end his life of misery, he must slay one thousand evil men!

His quest begins when a young girl seeks his help in taking revenge on her parents’ killers.

His quest ends only after he has spilled the blood of a thousand!

Wow. I had no idea something could be beautiful and gross at the same time.

Blade of the Immortal is the story of Manji, a samurai who became a criminal when he killed the lord he’d been serving after learning of his corruption. As the story opens, he has been granted immortality (originally to keep him from running off and getting himself killed and abandoning his insane sister) and has struck a bargain with the nun responsible—he will make up for killing good people on the orders of the corrupt lord by killing one thousand bad ones. When he achieves that goal, the immortality will be lifted.

Into his life comes Rin, a teenager who witnessed the death of her father at the hands of a group of swordsmen who seek to abolish all other sword schools but theirs. She asks Manji to help her get her revenge and, after grumbling that it’s hard to rely on another’s definition of a “bad guy,” he agrees. This leads to a fascinating moonlit meeting with one of the men responsible for the murder. Atmospheric and engrossing, this segment features one of the strangest villains I’ve ever seen.

The art is amazing, alternating between traditionally inked panels and ones that I believe are done in pencil. The inked panels occasionally remind me of the art in Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, at least in terms of how shadow is achieved with cross-hatching rather than screentone. The pencil illustrations are especially good, which is disconcerting when what you’re looking at is a guy getting his head sliced into quarters (a recurring theme in these opening chapters). My only complaint is that, because of the way the panels were flipped for publication, Manji’s missing eye kept switching sides, but that’s hardly Samura’s fault.

The story is riveting enough that the gore didn’t really bother me much. I like the characters, too, and find Manji to be especially charismatic. An interview with Samura was included in which he described his hero, and I’m just gonna use his words here.

On the character side, in the protagonist Manji I’ve drawn a totally straight, unvarnished version of my own ideal hero—a person who never reveals his or her own weaknesses to others but who, at the same time, is not as unassailably powerful as he or she may seem.

He does things like kill a bunch of guys and then walk back into town carrying his own leg. If that’s not badass, then I don’t know what is.

Despite my protestations about not liking icky things, I can’t deny that these bloodthirsty seinen epics have a real appeal. I’m definitely going to be reading more Blade of the Immortal.