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.

Flower of Life, Vols. 1-4

By Fumi Yoshinaga | Published by Digital Manga Publishing

When Fumi Yoshinaga sets a series in high school, you just know that she’s not going to do it like anybody else.

Harutaro Hanazono is beginning his first year of high school thirteen months behind schedule due to a bout of leukemia. The manga begins as he introduces himself to his new classmates in a manner that communicates much about his character. He’s an honest, simple, and idealistic soul, so is very forthright with his classmates about his illness because he doesn’t like the prospect of keeping secrets from all of them or having to explain multiple times. What he fails to consider, however, is how this information will affect his classmates’ interactions with him, since they all treat him with more consideration than they might otherwise have done.

Harutaro quickly becomes friends with Shota Mikuni, a gentle, smart, and adorable overweight boy whose main flaw is his timidity. Mikuni is also friends with Kai Majima, an arrogant otaku who is such a fascinating character that he’s going to get his own paragraph later. Harutaro and Majima don’t get along very well, but this doesn’t stop Harutaro from joining Mikuni and Majima in the manga club, where he collaborates with Mikuni and gradually develops the ambition to become a professional manga artist.

Meanwhile, readers become acquainted with the rest of the class in the same organic way any new student would. The homeroom teacher is Shigeru Saito, who at first appears to be an effeminate gay man but who is actually a woman. (Yoshinaga fooled me there, I must admit.) Other classmates include Yamane, a mature student with a love for books; Sakai, a perpetually tardy girl with a knack for English; Aizawa, a girl sensitive to the feelings of others; Jinnai and Isonishi, close friends and nice, normal girls; Ozaki, a rather boisterous fellow; and Tsuji, a guy who looks so much like Ono from Antique Bakery that it’s disconcerting to see him nurturing feelings for a woman.

Because Yoshinaga introduces the cast of students in such a natural-feeling way, I found myself caring about them much more than I ordinarily do in a series set in high school. For one thing, I’m not sure there is any other series where I could rattle off the names and personality traits of seven supporting classmates. It doesn’t matter that these characters may not get tons of page time; they’re still fully realized people with their own problems and passions. I’ve written before about my weariness regarding school cultural festivals, but in Yoshinaga’s hands, the festival in the second volume of the series is the best I have ever read, hands down. For the first time, I really engaged with the excitement the characters were experiencing. The same holds true for the Christmas party they hold in volume three. (Plus, that dinky tree was genuinely amusing.)

One of the major things I love about Flower of Life is how Yoshinaga works in some subtle lessons on friendship into the story. Sumiko Takeda is not in Harutaro’s class but becomes friendly with them when her original shoujo manga is circulated around and becomes a hit. Takeda doesn’t care about fashion or clothes, and she’s at a loss when her mother gives her some money to buy an outfit for herself. While shopping, she runs into Jinnai and Isonishi, who decide to come along as consultants. Their first shopping experience is kind of a drag, as Takeda is unenthused by the clothes shopping and Jinnai and Isonishi are bored when Takeda geeks out in an art supply store, but on a second attempt, they’re able to work out an arrangement where everyone can pursue their individual interests and yet still have a good time together. This seems to say “You can like different things and still be friends.” Other lessons that crop up later include “You don’t need to try to impress your friends,” “There can be one-sided feelings even in friendship,” and “You might think it’s nice to be coddled, but is it really good for you?”

Another lesson, “You can disagree and still be friends,” is vitally important to Mikuni. He begins the series a timid guy, unwilling to stand out by expressing his opinion. When he gets passionate enough about something, though—and it’s usually manga—he will speak out. The first time this happens with Harutaro, Mikuni is worried that he’s damaged their friendship, but Harutaro is actually thrilled that Mikuni was able to express himself so honestly and their friendship deepens as a result. By the end of the series, Mikuni has gained enough confidence to express his vision to Takayama, the manga editor who gives their work a harsh critique, and rebound from criticism with a zeal to improve.

I’ve talked quite a lot about the student characters, but the adults figure into the story in big ways, as well. The manga club members discover early on that Saito-sensei is carrying on an affair with the very married Koyanagi-sensei, who used to be her teacher when she was a student ten years ago. Their troubled relationship dominates her thoughts until she finally calls it off in volume three, saying that she loved him because he was such a good father, and it pains her to see him sneaking around and betraying his family. Koyanagi’s unexpected successor is Majima, whose solution to Saito’s woes is to give her something else to be “moeh” about.

And now we come to Majima. I love that in painting this portrait of an otaku, Yoshinaga didn’t just give us a heavy-breathing perv with a penchant for maid costumes, but really shows us how he thinks and attempts to process the world. He is arrogant and a little creepy, with a large quantity of disdain for his fellow students. He seems to prefer 2-D representations of women with specific physical qualities over real women, whom he appears to resent. And yet… although initially detached and unfeeling in his relationship with Saito, he eventually comes a bit unhinged when her behavior—saying she loves him yet sleeping with Koyanagi—does not follow logical patterns. I don’t think he loves her, or is capable of really loving anyone, but he expected her feelings for him to stay the same—the only thing he knows about relationships he’s learned from manga and dating sims, where you win the girl and then she loves you always—and is completely thrown when this doesn’t turn out to be the case. I think the experience makes him a tiny bit more empathetic to others, and maybe it’ll be what he needs to become a better person, but man, how thoroughly unfair of Saito to embroil this poor kid in an adult love triangle that he was not remotely equipped to participate in. My opinion of her suffered a great deal as a result.

The plight of Harutaro’s homebound sister, Sakura, also plays a major role in the story, furnishing some surprisingly dark moments and eventually culminating in the revelation that Harutaro is not, as he had believed, fully cured. He takes the news hard, but once he’s had the chance to process it, he returns to school for his second year a changed man. For, you see, he has learned to lie. He has learned to consider the feelings of others before he speaks. Gone is the Harutaro that can’t abide secrets. Now we see that he has learned discretion—he might want to tell Mikuni the truth, but he will wait for a time when his friend is ready to hear it. He can keep it to himself for as long as it takes. He has grown up.

Lastly, I wanted to touch upon the art in the story, especially the nonverbal storytelling that Yoshinaga employs with such aplomb. The page below is from volume three, when Harutaro has gone to the hospital for his monthly exam. He speaks with the nurse about a fellow patient who has since died, and when he emerges from the hospital, he pauses to look up at the sky for a moment then continues on his way. He doesn’t say a thing, but it his thoughts are absolutely clear: “She will never see this sky again.”

Another trait of Yoshinaga’s art is the repetition of similar panels to highlight the evolution of a facial expression (see Melinda’s example from Antique Bakery in a Let’s Get Visual column from last October) or situation. In the example below, from volume four, she not only uses this technique to show Majima as someone not fully invested in the drama of the moment, but also for simple humorous effect.


Flower of Life is really an extraordinary series. When Harutaro and Mikuni are working on their manga, they express the desire to include some universal truths about friendship and growing up in their story, and that is precisely what Fumi Yoshinaga has done. It’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s a classic. Go read it.

Flower of Life was published in English by Digital Manga Publishing and is complete in four volumes. I reviewed it as part of the Fumi Yoshinaga Manga Moveable Feast, the archive of which can be found here.

Review copy for volume four provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Fruits Basket

MICHELLE: So, we’ve been talking about Fruits Basket all week, but I’m certainly not yet weary of the topic. How about you, Melinda?

MELINDA: I suspect I could discuss Fruits Basket for weeks on end!

MICHELLE: Me too. We’ve already discussed the general awesomeness of the story and characters this week, but one thing we haven’t talked much about yet is the art. Takaya’s style evolves a good bit over the course of the series, and while I used to think I preferred her earlier style, I’ve lately realized that that is not the case at all. Do you have a preference yourself?

MELINDA: Hm, well, I definitely appreciate the prettiness of the series’ early volumes, and I do think there is some detail lost later on, but one thing the series never lacks is expressiveness, and that goes for the artwork as much as anything else.

MICHELLE: I think the expressiveness actually improves later on, at least insofar as Tohru is concerned, since she loses those really, really, really big eyes of hers. I will forever mourn the changes to my beloved Hatori, though, who goes from looking like this to looking like this.

It’s not that he’s become unattractive; he’s just lost a certain bishounen quality that I had certainly appreciated.

MELINDA: I do think Takaya does a wonderful job of aging the characters subtly over the course of the story, and I’m not necessarily just referring to their physical ages. I think she matures them overall, letting their outsides reflect their insides.

MICHELLE: That is definitely true, especially with Kyo, Yuki, and Momiji. Probably Momiji most stunningly of all.

MELINDA: Yes, there is quite a bit made of Momiji’s growing up, isn’t there? And though it’s more difficult to see that transformation as “subtle,” it’s certainly striking and oddly poignant.

MICHELLE: Takaya really does well with “striking” and “poignant,” doesn’t she? Which leads us to our specific picks for this month’s column!

Many of the most powerful and affecting moments in Fruits Basket occur between just two characters. To exemplify this trend, Melinda and I have both chosen scenes starring only Kyo and Tohru.

Melinda, why don’t we start with you?

Volume 15, Chapter 87, Pages 129-134 (TOKYOPOP)

MELINDA: Okay, well, I’ve chosen a scene from late in volume fifteen. After losing his temper in a confrontation with Yuki, Kyo returns to his classroom to find Tohru waiting for him, alone. In terms of script alone, the scene is not especially remarkable. There are some dramatic moments in Kyo’s inner monologue, but they’re both being careful not to *say* anything out of the ordinary. What makes the scene really work, though, is their body language.

At this point in the series, both Kyo and Tohru are just barely beginning to realize how they feel about each other, and Takaya plays this beautifully. The way Tohru lights up the moment she realizes Kyo is in the room, Kyo’s impulse to lean against her, their excited nervousness about being close, and especially Tohru’s last page alone—you can actually feel the tension between them in every panel. It’s so well done.

I especially like the last panel, with a flushed Tohru hurrying out of the frame. Somehow, leaving us with the empty space behind her keeps us lingering in the moment, much as she would herself, if she hadn’t been called away. There’s a sense there that the moment still looms large for her, too, even as she’s hastily left it behind, emphasized by the flowers still present in the frame. Like her absence in the frame is saying, “Really intense and possibly scary feelings happened here… run away, run away!” Does that make any sense?

MICHELLE: It absolutely makes sense! I’m always interested in how mangaka use open space, and I think you’re quite right that in that final panel it’s being used to keep us in place while Tohru dashes off. On the first page, the oddly tall panel of Tohru alone in the classroom employs empty space to emphasize how she really is the only one there.

This example reminds me of your pick for our “Duds” column, Baseball Heaven, and how the artist in that case utterly failed to establish convincing body language between two characters who were meant to be attracted to each other. Perhaps Ellie Mamahara needs to read more Fruits Basket!

MELINDA: Oh, good call, Michelle! Yes, that’s the perfect choice for contrast here. Everything that’s missing in that scene from Baseball Heaven is demonstrated spectacularly here, and as a result, this actually plays as a love scene much more convincingly, despite not actually being one. Even the use of small frames to emphasize the hand or face—something that just felt distracting and fragmented in Mamahara’s scene—adds to the tension here. It’s wonderfully done.

So what about you, Michelle? What scene did you choose?

Volume 22, Chapter 128, Pages 96-99 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: The scene I’ve chosen is from volume 22, quite near the end of the series. Tohru has been hospitalized and her friends have barred Kyo from seeing her while she recovers, since she gets stressed at the mention of his name.

As Kyo makes his nervous way to the hospital, the size and shape of the panels reflect his mental state. They’re cramped, dark, and dominated by his inner monologue. “Do I really still like her? What do I like about her?” We catch incomplete glimpses of the things Kyo passes on his journey, because he is so wrapped up in his thoughts that he too is hardly noticing them. Finally he arrives at the hospital, and the tension as he catches Uotani’s eye is palpable.

And then… Tohru appears and the world falls away. Suddenly, everything is so clear. The doubts are wiped away as if they have never been, because the minute he sees her, it is so very simple. “I love her.” Even as Kyo’s focus narrows to include only Tohru, the pages still have a wide-open and airy feeling that suggests gentleness and infinite possibility. This is the first time Kyo has really allowed himself to acknowledge these feelings, and it’s so beautifully done that it gives me goosebumps.

MELINDA: Oh, absolutely, I have the same reaction here! Everything you’ve said about the size and tone of the panels is exactly spot-on. Also, watching Kyo’s face the few times we see it is striking, panel-to-panel. His first expression, as he’s approaching the hospital, is one of extreme trepidation, and it feels to me that he’s sort of hiding behind his bangs. He doesn’t want to be seen by anyone, especially someone like Uotani, whose gaze he reacts so intensely to. He’s terrified of his own feelings and of screwing things up, and he knows that he’s historically bad at dealing with emotional situations. He’s simply terrified on all fronts.

Then, when he sees Tohru, all of that just drops away, leaving him with an expression of pure longing and vulnerability we’ve really not seen on him before. Just as the air opens up, so does Kyo, completely unguarded for one long moment. It’s really stunning. I think both of these scenes we’ve chosen would play just the same with all the text removed—they’re so much driven by the emotion in the artwork.

MICHELLE: Longing, vulnerability and sheer wonder, I think. 🙂

And yes, I think we have a knack for picking scenes where text is not really necessary. Even here, body language is certainly telling a lot of the story for us, even in small ways like Kyo’s tensed, half-flexed arm and clenched fist as he finally reaches his destination. You can almost see him willing himself to get through this without messing up.

MELINDA: There’s just so much emotional nuance here, in every panel. When I’m reading scenes like this in context, these are details I don’t consciously notice as I let the emotions just sweep me along, but when we actually take the time to break it down like this, I can’t help but be amazed by how much thought has gone into each line on the page.

MICHELLE: Me too. It sounds like we’ve convinced ourselves that, yet again, Fruits Basket is awesome.

MELINDA: Indeed we have!

MICHELLE: Thank you, Melinda, for joining me once again! And to those reading this column. Do you have a favorite artistic moment in Fruits Basket? Tell us about it in the comments!

Fruits Basket 21-23 by Natsuki Takaya

As I recounted in this week’s Off the Shelf column, I have been a fan of Fruits Basket for nearly a decade now. I followed the end of the series in Japanese, and because I knew how it ended, I was able to postpone reading the final English volumes and delay the sad moment when the series really would be over. This week’s Manga Moveable Feast, however, prompted me to finally take the plunge.

Volume 21 is extremely tense, with Kyo continuing the story of how he redirected his feelings of guilt regarding the death of Tohru’s mother into a hatred of Yuki (just like his father redirected his own guilt in the death of his wife onto Kyo). Meanwhile, an ominous, knife-wielding Akito creeps up on their location. After Kyo seems to reject her feelings, Tohru runs off and crosses paths with Akito. A vitally important scene occurs between them in which Akito, weakened by lies and uncritical kindness perpetuated by various Sohma family members, is finally receptive to the kind of acceptance and sympathy Tohru offers. I’m a little disappointed that Tohru immediately falls off a cliff at this point, because that’s rather meloramatic, but I adore how urgently Akito attempts to summon help.

All of the Sohmas are worried, but none more so than Yuki (in cold fury mode) and Kyo (deeply grieving), who eventually have it out and end up finally confessing that they each aspired to be like the other. I love how this plays out, and I love that Yuki continues to nudge Kyo when necessary to ensure that Tohru ends up happy. Are they super pals by the end of the series? Not exactly, but they’ve definitely made their peace and come to an understanding. I’d say they’re closer than mere friends, actually, because they’ve gone through so much together, treasure the same person so much, and have finally realized that, despite appearances and insults, the person they are is valued by the other.

While Tohru recovers in the hospital, Kyo realizes that she’s given him something worth fighting his “fate” for. A visit to his father leads to paternal hysterics, but Kyo’s resolve is unshaken: he is going to live “outside,” no matter what. Meanwhile, Akito has made plans to demolish the isolation room. In the aforementioned Off the Shelf column, I wondered whether Akito’s actions might partly be due to some unconscious influence by the God who originally created the bond, as we later learn that he laments that something forged in love has now become a source of pain. He’s grateful to those who “shouldered that exhausted promise” for so long, and willingly lets them go. So, did he convince Akito in some way? Did Akito convince him? The latter would be more in line with the themes of the series, actually.

Uotani and Hanajima keep Kyo away from the hospital while Tohru is recuperating, since the mere mention of her name prompts her to start crying (she still believes he is disillusioned by her confession of love), but he’s finally tipped off regarding her release date and goes to see her. It’s an amazing scene: as Kyo heads there, he’s full of doubts and uncertainty regarding his own feelings, but the moment he sees her, everything is clear as day. “I love her.” I can’t help getting a bit choked up even discussing it, because it seems like I’m watching cherished friends finally find each other. They talk and work things out, and it is as lovely as can be. “I really do love you,” quoth Tohru, when Kyo warns he’ll probably cause her pain because the curse is still between them. “And that feeling is invincible.” They embrace and are profoundly shocked when Kyo does not transform. His curse is broken.

A wonderful chain-reaction montage ensues as the members of the Zodiac are freed in turn, with Yuki the last of all. “You’re the last,” says God. “Thank you. For keeping the very distant promise.” This happens just in time for Yuki, who had been on the verge of telling Machi about the curse, to embrace her in tears.

Loose ends are wrapped up in the final volume, more loose ends than I actually realized needed wrapping up, making for a very thorough and satisfying conclusion. It’s a little convenient that nearly everyone ends up romantically paired off by the end, with the exceptions of Momiji and Kagura, who are still not over their respective unrequited loves. Other things, however, aren’t wrapped up so neatly, with Rin unable to forgive Akito just yet, long-time family servants unable to adjust to the dissolution of the curse, and many painful feelings still remaining.

But, as a certain image reminded me, Takaya-sensei maintains the idea that “there is no such thing as a memory that’s okay to forget” to the end. The formerly cursed Sohma don’t need to forget what happened to them in the past in order to be happy in the future. Tohru believes this fully, collecting each of the beads from Kyo’s broken bracelet and displaying them as precious items alongside family portraits even until the day she and Kyo are lovey-dovey grandparents.

I cannot express enough how wonderful this series is. I feel so fortunate that I was able to witness the growth and transformation of such a memorable cast of characters, many of whom I dearly love.

Let’s Get Visual: Wild Adapter

MICHELLE: Hey, Melinda, did you know there was a Wild Adapter MMF going on?

MELINDA: I’ve heard rumors to that effect. Terrific series, Wild Adapter. Whoever is hosting it must have great taste!

MICHELLE: I’m relieved you think so, because in honor of the Feast, we’re devoting this month’s Let’s Get Visual column to that series!

MELINDA: We are? Oh! Yes, we are!

MICHELLE: One of the hosts has already done an admirable job scanning some of the many significant images from the series (at great personal cost) but that won’t stop us from talking about a few more.

In Wild Adapter, creator Kazuya Minekura tells her story through the eyes of observers. Sometimes these figures are opposed to our main protagonists—Makoto Kubota and Minoru Tokito—in some way, such as the detective in volume four or the new youth gang leader in volume six, and sometimes they are with them, either in a personal way (their young neighbor Shouta in volume five) or a more business-like fashion (Takizawa the journalist in volume three). In every case, though, we rely on their interactions with Kubota and Tokito to learn more about said fellows, since we are denied access to their thoughts.

As I reread the series, I noticed that Minekura also uses her art to support this narrative choice, and that she, in particular, uses a similar device several times where Kubota is concerned. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Volume 2, Chapter 11 (TOKYOPOP)

Here, Tokito stops Kubota, who has violently come to his rescue. Kubota instantly sheds any vestige of excitement, and throughout this two-page spread, his eyes, like his thoughts, feelings, and motivations, remain shielded. He’s distant and aloof. Yet when Saori suddenly realizes that Kubota is the one who’s possessive of Tokito, he offers her a small smile. She finds the experience scary, and I agree that it could be construed as an ominous expression, but it’s also a stunning moment of access to what Kubota feels.

MELINDA: I agree that it’s a stunning image, and while I can appreciate Saori’s response, like you, I’m mostly fascinated. As you say, Kubota is a character who deliberately shuts himself off from other people, and now, as we’re granted this tiny moment of access, it becomes really clear why. In these rare moments, with just a small smile and a real look into the eyes, he’s suddenly wide open to us, and the guy that we see in there is nothing like the person he displays the rest of the time. And that’s a guy he really doesn’t want people to know. Maybe he thinks that guy is scary, I don’t know. But it’s clear that when he does grant access, he’s pretty much an open book—probably more so than characters who are generally open to begin with. Does any of that make sense?

MICHELLE: It does, and you’ve provided me with an excellent introduction for my next example!

Volume 3, Chapter 18 (TOKYOPOP)

This scene takes place near the end of volume three, during which Kubota and Tokito have infiltrated a cult that they erroneously believe is connected to Wild Adapter. Here, the guys are looking very casual and cozy, and while Kubota admits to Tokito that he has become more human, he does it while facing away from the audience. We see the back of his head and a hand holding a cigarette as he speaks. This is a moment reserved for he and Tokito alone.

Kubota doesn’t say it outright, but it’s clear that it’s Tokito making him feel this way. And when Tokito goes on to lament their progress in their investigation, the warm and open-eyed smile of Kubota’s at the bottom of page two makes it clear he hasn’t yet changed mental gears. He’s still thinking about Tokito.

MELINDA: To me, these soft, openly caring eyes are just as much of a shock as the more terrifying look we see in your first example. It’s clear that both of these looks are genuinely Kubota, but you get the feeling that Tokito is the first thing that’s ever inspired the feelings behind this look.

I have to really admire Minekura’s skill with expression here, too. Though some aspects of her artwork are very detailed, she actually doesn’t include a lot of detail when it comes to eyes. Yet what she’s able to do with just the barest nuance is, frankly, incredible.

MICHELLE: But wait, there’s more! Minekura uses this technique again in volume four, with very different results!

Volume 4, Chapter 22 (TOKYOPOP)

Here, we see Kubota being interrogated by Hasebe for a murder that was committed in a hotel. Kubota’s not giving up any information, so it makes perfect sense that he would be evasive, as indicated by the closed eyes on the first page. Hasebe continues to push, however, and Kubota finally gives up pretense and opens his eyes, allowing us access once more. Only this time, we’re not seeing a warm and friendly Kubota; we’re seeing a coldly resolute one. The grey screentone over his face emphasizes that this is just a partial disclosure—he’s revealing the extent of his determination, but anything else is still off-limits.

MELINDA: It’s the narrowness of his gaze that really achieves this effect, but again, it’s done with most subtle detail. And you’re right, he’s giving the detective just exactly as much as he wants to give him, no more, no less. It really gives you a strong sense of how carefully he controls everything about himself, and just how rare the two previous examples really are.

MICHELLE: Yes, you’re quite right! The amount of openness Kubota will permit with other people is infinitesimal compared to what Tokito is allowed to see.

Well, that’s it for me and Kubota’s eyes. What images did you want to talk about?

MELINDA: I’d like to talk about a scene from the end of volume two. It’s one I’ve discussed a couple of times before, both in my initial review of the series and in my infamous post on “intimacy porn.” It’s one of my favorite scenes in the series, and I’ve already explained quite a bit about why.

Volume 2, Chapter 12 (TOKYOPOP)

As you can see, Tokito has hidden himself away in the shower to deal with pain in his claw hand, and as he wrestles with both the physical pain and emotional turmoil the hand causes him, he realizes that Kubota is on the other side of the shower door, doing laundry.

When I’ve talked about this scene before, my focus has always been on the incredible intimacy of it, and how beautifully Minekura creates this intimacy while putting a physical barrier between them. What I’ve never discussed before, however, is the detail that, in my view, is almost solely responsible for bringing us into the scene as readers, and that would be the sound effects.

I have no idea what the sound effects really say. I don’t read Japanese, and I haven’t asked anyone to interpret them for me, but really, I don’t have to. It’s actually the visual effect of the Japanese sound effects that makes them so effective.

We feel it from the beginning, with just Tokito—the soft sounds of the shower accompanying his thoughts. Then the rumble of the washing machine joins in as Kubota enters the scene. By the end, we’re surrounded by it all, the soft shower and the muffled rumbles of the machine, creating a shell of sound around the characters, isolating them from the rest of the world, but including us as intimate onlookers.

I’m always impressed by writers and artists who can create a real sense of place on the page, and Minekura has done this by surrounding us in these familiar sounds. We can imagine ourselves in the room—feel the rumble of the washing machine under our feet and the thick humidity of the steam as it wafts out around the edges of the shower door. It’s so beautifully done.

MICHELLE: Oh, I love the image of a shell of sound. I like, too, how the initial thump of the washing machine literally intrudes onto Tokito’s thoughts in the way that the sound effect bleeds over the edge of its panel and onto the next, where Tokito, with water streaming down his face, has now been momentarily distracted.

MELINDA: Yes, I love that frame you’re talking about, where the sounds of the washing machine suddenly intrude into Tokito’s thoughts. It’s as though the washing machine has spoken up to say, “We can hear what you’re thinking in there, and yes, he would be angry if you cut off your hand.”

MICHELLE: Do you actually want me to tell you what the sound effects say? Or is it better not to know?

MELINDA: Sure, tell me!

MICHELLE: The first one you see, and the one that appears most often and prominently, is “zaa,” which is frequently used alongside rain or falling water. It’s the “a” sound that travels down that first page and drifts across the final two-page spread. On the second page, when Tokito clenches his hand in pain, the sound effects say “zukin zukin,” or “throb throb.”

I was unfamiliar with the “goun” sound accompanying the first image of the washing machine, so consulted Google and found a site that helpfully describes “goun” as “the sound of a washing machine.”

MELINDA: Ah, helpful indeed.

MICHELLE: One of my motivations for teaching myself kana in the first place was to be able to decipher untranslated sound effects. It slows me down, reading each and every one, but it does add something to the atmosphere, I find.

Another thing I notice in this example is how Minekura treats the “zaa” sound effect, allowing it to trickle down the page along with the water in the first instance, and in the last, depicting it wafting laterally past Kubota, almost like escaping steam.

MELINDA: What’s really amazing to me, is how successfully this effect is achieved even without understanding the kana. The visual representation of the sound is so powerful all on its own.

MICHELLE: Definitely. Even if the sound effects weren’t there at all, one would still imagine the sound of running water. Their presence emphasizes the sound and its insular quality, though. I’m reminded of an earlier column, where we talked about the sound effects in Banana Fish. There, an image of a passing train automatically conjured the associated sounds, but the sound effects, through their domination of the page, took it to the next level by mirroring how the sound dominated the moment for the characters.

MELINDA: Here, the sound sort of cradles the moment, creating a sense of comfort and familiarity around something extremely vulnerable.

MICHELLE: Ooh, good verb. In both cases, the sound effects define the sound in some way, rather than simply reiterating that it’s there.

MELINDA: When I first started reading manga, I found sound effects distracting. I was so new to comics, I had a lot of trouble digesting all the visual information on the page, and sound effects just made that more difficult. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate just how much they contribute to the atmosphere of a scene, and how powerful they can be in the right hands.

MICHELLE: It’s like this whole other tool in the mangaka’s kit, and one that we don’t automatically think about.

MELINDA: Well said!

MICHELLE: Which brings us back around to the inescapable truth that Kazuya Minekura is brilliant and everyone should read Wild Adapter.

MELINDA: Yes, they should!

For more reviews, roundtables, and essays on Wild Adapter, check out the complete MMF archive.

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!

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.

Aqua 1-2 by Kozue Amano

Aqua is a slice-of-life charmer ideal for architecture buffs like me.

The year is 2301 and Akari Mizunashi has left Earth (Manhome) for Mars (Aqua), whose surface is now 90% water thanks to man’s tinkering. It is Akari’s goal to become an undine, or female tour guide who conveys sightseers by gondola through the canals of Neo-Venezia, a city modeled on Venice, which we are told existed until “the latter half of the 21st century.” She finds a place with the Aria Company and spends her days exploring the city and training to improve her skills.

Somehow, Kozue Amano (whenever I see this name I think “That’s what would happen if Godai’s girlfriend from Maison Ikkoku married Ginji from GetBackers!”) has achieved a story that feels extremely leisurely and yet which spans about ten months in two volumes. The most significant thing to happen is that, after six months, Akari graduates from apprentice status to journeyman. The rest of the time one gets chapters like “the president of Aria (a cat, by the way) feels useless, so he dresses up as his favorite superhero and returns a forgotten doll to a little girl” or “the gang takes a gondola ride to the floating island of Ukijima to watch fireworks.” This might sound dull, but it really isn’t.

One of the loveliest things about Aqua is its setting. Almost immediately, it seems as if one can feel the breeze, smell the air, and hear the lapping of the water. The anime must be gorgeous. One important thing Akari realizes is that even though life on Manhome is convenient and perfectly climate-controlled, she prefers the way things are done on Aqua, where every endeavor must first be preceded by a boat ride, where a crew of people maintains the giant cauldron that distributes heat across the land, and where the old-fashioned way of doing things evokes a feeling of nostalgia. One of the characters describes the planet as, “A treasure chest from long ago, filled to the brim with wonderful memories.”

I wasn’t sure whether I was actually supposed to laugh at some of the humor, or just sort of smile complacently at it. I think perhaps it’s the latter, because the overall feeling of the manga is a calming one. There are no spazzy characters here. No battles or drama or rivalries. There’s just a group of laid-back people enjoying where they happen to be at the moment, and there’s definitely value to be had in that.

Aqua was published in English by TOKYOPOP. It’s complete in two volumes, but the story continues in the twelve-volume series Aria. The change in title is due to a change in publisher in Japan; Aqua was serialized in Monthly Stencil for Square Enix, and Aria in Comic Blade for Mag Garden. Online sources indicate a variety of demographic classifications for Monthly Stencil, but I’ve gone with “shounen” for the purposes of this review, so as to match Aria.

I reviewed Aqua as part of the Manga Moveable Feast. Other contributions can be found here.

Barefoot Gen 1 Keiji Nakazawa: B

From the back cover:
Barefoot Gen is the powerful, tragic story of the bombing of Hiroshima, seen through the eyes of the artist as a young boy growing up in a Japanese anti-militarist family. Of particular interest is Barefoot Gen‘s focus on family in a militarized culture, and the special problems which they encounter. Barefoot Gen brings home the reality of an event in our history which we must never allow to happen again.

Review:
Barefoot Gen is a largely autobiographical, slightly fictionalized account of a young boy’s perspective of the bombing of Hiroshima. It’s drawn in a cartoony style reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka, and puts the experiences of the Nakaoka family into broader historical context.

My initial reactions to the first volume of Barefoot Gen made me feel like a bad person. I had expected to instantly like Gen and the Nakaoka family, but found them very difficult to sympathize with at first. Part of the problem for me is what Art Spiegelman describes in his introduction as “casual violence.” Certainly in a series about war and the aftermath of an atomic bomb, I expected there to be some disturbing imagery. I did not expect, though, that the members of a “peace-loving family” like the Nakaokas would be so violent themselves.

Daikichi Nakaoka, the father of the clan, is outspoken about his opposition to the war, which makes him and his family the target of much harrassment by their neighbors. You’d think that being against the war would mean that Daikichi is opposed to violence in general, but that’s not true. I lost count of how many times he smacks someone (usually a child) and sends him or her sprawling into a wall. This tendency for violence extends to his wife (who brandishes a knife on several occasions) and his youngest sons (who twice gnaw off the fingertips of admittedly odious people).

It got to the point where I actively began heckling them! Heckling the victims of a nuclear holocaust!

When the family’s wheat field—upon which they were relying as a future food source—is trampled, Daikichi cries, “Who in the hell would do such a thing?”

My response: “Uh, everyone?”

After Kimie, Gen’s mother, holds his eldest brother Koji at knifepoint because he wants to join the navy and thereby improve public opinion of his family, Daikichi says, “The fool. He doesn’t have to go off and get killed in the war.”

My response: “He can get killed right here at home!”

Just when I was sure I was going to the special hell, however, things began to improve. Koji’s decision to enroll in the Naval Air Corps somehow triggers a better meld between the tone of the story and how the characters behave. Gen, who is initially merely an excitable kid who doesn’t think too much about what he says or does, begins to grow up a bit and becomes much more sympathetic as a result.

My favorite part of the volume is when Gen discovers his younger brother, Shinji, humiliating himself for an opportunity to play with another kid’s toy battleship. He puts a stop to it, and when he spots another toy battleship in the window of a glass repair shop, attempts to buy it. While he’s waiting to talk to the owner—who tells him it belonged to his dead son and isn’t for sale—he overhears him being threatened by men to whom he owes money and decides to help out, Gen-style, which entails throwing rocks and breaking tons of windows to bring in business. The owner is so grateful he bestows the ship on Gen as a gift, who generously turns it over to Shinji. They make plans to take it down to the river the next day.

Except that the next day is August 6, and that’s when the bomb hits. This whole sequence is truly stunning, and actually included a few historical facts I didn’t know, like how the Enola Gay returned after the air raid sirens had ceased and that the casualties were greater because people thought the danger had passed and emerged from their bomb shelters. It’s also interesting how Nakazawa puts the blame for everything squarely on the Japanese leaders. Even from the start, he’s referring to the war as something “that Japan began with the USA and England.” He’s critical of the government’s refusal to surrender while they’re not the ones suffering, starving, and losing loved ones. The casualty totals are truly overwhelming, and for what? It makes me wonder if the leaders’ stubbornness was some kind of remnant of samurai pride…

Although it was tough going at the beginning, by the end of this volume I was genuinely excited to continue reading the series. I do feel it’s something that’s going to be best in small doses, however. And let’s hope the days of gratuitous finger-chomping are behind us!

Barefoot Gen is published in English by Last Gasp. All ten volumes have been released.

For more on this series, check out the Manga Moveable Feast archive at A Life in Panels.

Karakuri Odette 4-5 by Julietta Suzuki: A-

When a manga’s back cover features the lines “She’s a hot robot in high school! What’s the worst that could happen?” one might be forgiven for expecting some sort of titillating romp to ensue. In reality, Karakuri Odette is about as far from that as it’s possible to get.

Odette is the crowning achievement of her creator, the genius roboticist Professor Yoshizawa, and when she expressed interest in attending high school, he made it happen. She’s now in her second year and has a small group of friends, only one of which (a misunderstood delinquent named Asao) knows her secret. Volume four begins with Odette making a delivery for the professor to the Ringozaka family, where lonely seventeen-year-old Shirayuki lives alone and still plays with dolls. Shirayuki is thus isolated because of a supernatural ability that allows her to hear the inner thoughts of others if she touches them. She can’t hear anything from Odette, though, and after learning Odette’s secret, decides to join her at school.

Prickly and awkward Shirayuki is a wonderful addition to the cast, and I love that most of this volume is devoted to the girls and their strengthing friendship. Shirayuki arrives at school with visions of being Odette’s protector, but discovering that Odette has more friends than she does makes her feel defective. When she learns that Odette’s being exploited for her friendly nature, however, she realizes that she’s needed after all. From Odette’s perspective, Shirayuki’s inexperience makes Odette feel much more like a real girl. When both of them are about to embark upon their first class trip, for example, Shirayuki’s nervousness causes Odette to happily think, “I’m just like Shirayuki.”

It’s those type of moments that I love best about Karakuri Odette. In terms of plot, it’s a gentle, episodic slice-of-life story that’s never boring but likewise not terribly dramatic. Odette’s progress, though, is really a delight to witness, and comes through in chapters like the one in which her friends all share photos of themselves as kids—and her dejection when she learns she has none of her own—or when her heart inexplicably feels constricted when Asao seems on the verge of befriending another girl. For a long time, Odette has struggled with the concept of what it means to like someone, and it seems she might be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Volume five is a little less satisfying, as it introduces a suave robot named Travis who’s looking for a bride, along with his unscrupulous creator, but there are definitely some good moments. One particularly nice chapter finds Odette worried that her strength makes her not cute, so she refrains from using her abilities when she and Asao fall victim to the grand shoujo cliché of being locked in the gym storage shed. Although some of the challenges Odette faces are a result of her particular nature, this sort of situation is something many a human girl has faced as well. Happily, Asao talks some sense into her and she ends up concluding that “using my skills is so much better than wasting them.”

For a feel-good story that simultaneously tugs at one’s heartstrings, I definitely recommend Karakuri Odette. To see what others have had to say about it, check out the Manga Moveable Feast archive over at Manga Report!