Pandora Hearts 2-5 by Jun Mochizuki

Reading Pandora Hearts is like mentally treading water. There is so much going on that one is constantly churning the plot waters, trying to stay afloat. It’s not that I’m saying this is a bad thing or that I object to thinking—far from it!—but that I never appreciated episodic lulls so much as when they weren’t around to give me a chance to understand and process what just happened.

The first volume introduced readers to fifteen-year-old Oz Vessalius, who is banished to a mysterious dimension known as “the Abyss” during his coming-of-age ceremony. He escapes by entering into a contract with a “chain” (denizen of the Abyss) named Alice, who wants to search for her scattered memories in the real world. When they arrive, ten years have passed and they are welcomed by a strange trio, one of whom (Raven) bears a striking resemblance to Oz’s childhood friend, Gilbert.

The search for Alice’s memories begins in the second volume, with strong hints that the answer Oz seeks—what was the “sin” that led to his banishment?—lies within them. Oz and Alice have agreed to help an organization known as Pandora (which has several goals regarding investigating and gaining control over the Abyss) and have been assigned by one of its employees, the eccentric Xerxes Break, to take down an illegal contractor whose chain is devouring humans.

Now, at this point, I was thinking, “Okay, here’s our episodic gimmick. Oz and Alice deal with the dangerous contractors and collect memories and it’ll be a sort of basic shounen fantasy.” But that’s actually not how it turns out. Any time Xerxes arranges some sort of encounter with a contractor or chain, it always leads to major plot developments. Sometimes this involves answering some questions—the identity of the braided man we keep seeing in Alice’s memories, for example—but just as often generates several more. I considered keeping a scorecard of questions raised and questions answered so that I could keep track of what issues were still outstanding.

Mangaka Jun Mochizuki also skillfully employs flashbacks to flesh out our understanding of Oz, who is far more complex (and clever and resilient) than he initially appears. His affinity for and faith in Alice, for example, persists despite various people advising him not to trust her, and we gradually learn that this is because he sees a lot of himself in her. Both he and Alice have cause to question why they exist, and since he, as a child, was afraid to pursue the truth regarding his father’s animosity towards him, he admires that Alice is fearlessly pursuing the recovery of her memories. Too, Oz displays an almost alarming equanimity about his situation, which can again be traced back to his father’s coldness, when Oz learned to “accept everything as it is.”

The end result is a story that combines a non-stop spooling out of multi-layered plot threads with some genuinely affecting character work. I particularly appreciate that the female leads—Alice and Sharon, a Pandora employee—are not the character types they initially seem to be (tsundere and meek girl, respectively) and just about any scene wherein Alice feels left out at the signs of affection between Oz and others or just vulnerable in general is a big favorite of mine.

Another aspect of Pandora Hearts that I must commend is the artwork, which, as Melinda Beasi amply illustrated in a Fanservice Friday post on Manga Bookshelf, is definitely fujoshi-friendly. Consider the evidence:

Shallow confession: although I really like Raven for himself, I admit that I also enjoy just looking at him. It’s not all pretty fellows, though, as Mochizuki’s renderings of the Abyss are creepy and imaginative, and the inhabitants even more so. There are a few references to Alice in Wonderland scattered throughout, too, but it’s nothing that even comes close to dominating the story or its landscape.

As of the fifth volume, Pandora officials have vowed to protect Oz, who is destined to play a major role in their conflict with the Baskervilles, remnants of a clan that battled the four great families (who eventually formed Pandora) 100 years ago and sacrificed the capital city as an offering to the entity in control of the Abyss (not to mention being responsible for sending Oz there in the first place). Plus, Sharon has been abducted and someone just may be in league with the enemy. Many other questions—about both past and future—abound, which ensure that I will keep reading (and hoping everything is ultimately resolved) to the very end.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that Pandora Hearts is a slog, because it truly isn’t. It’s engaging, intriguing, and sometimes even funny. What it never is is tranquil or relaxing, so be sure to save it for a time when your brain needs a little exercise.

Review copies for volumes three through five provided by the publisher.

The Prince of Tennis 40-42 by Takeshi Konomi

Although the final three volumes of The Prince of Tennis contain many ridiculous things and are, objectively speaking, really not that good, I still think the story wraps up reasonably well.

Volume 40 begins with the tail end of the set between Seishun’s captain, Tezuka, and Sanada of the Rikkai team. Tezuka is dragging things out to buy time for absentee Ryoma to arrive, and ultimately ends up losing. Then Momoshiro and Kaidou lose, but not before we get this sentence that has never been written before at any time in the course of human history: “The tornado snake won’t work against a player with red eyes.” Good to know, that.

Fuji is up next, taking on a player with the ability to mimic anyone’s ability. And who should he emulate but Tezuka, so we get a match that is drawn like the two of these guys playing against each other. Somehow I think this was intended to appeal to the fujoshi, but I’m certainly not complaining. “Maybe we’ve both been avoiding facing off against each other. Because we’re afraid of finding out who’s better,” Fuji thinks at one point. Too bad the promise of a real face-off between them is not realized before the end of the series.

Fuji wins, so we move briskly on to the second doubles round, and somewhere around here Ryoma arrives with, and I am quoting the back cover here, “a wicked case of amnesia.” It’s completely stupid, and while Oishi and Eiji stall for time, various players (including rivals) go reacquaint Ryoma with his tennis memories by playing him off-camera. Why even employ an amnesia plot if it’s going to be cured so simply? It just makes me shake my head.

Anyway, it should be no surprise to anyone at all that Ryoma regains his memory and, though he starts off his match at a disadvantage, he soon summons the ultimate skill—“the pinnacle of perfection”—with which to vanquish his opponent. (Everyone can tell that he has achieved this because white light bursts from his body. As it often does in tennis.) And Ryoma’s dad drops by to tell everyone this is happening because Ryoma is playing simply for the joy of the game, and so that everyone can finally learn that Ryoma is the son of the famous Samurai Nanjirou. So, Seishun wins and there’s a montage while the lyrics of a song penned by Takeshi Konomi scroll by. It’s all very silly. There’s also a brief prose epilogue depicting the third years’ graduation.

I just really don’t know what to say about The Prince of Tennis at this point. In the pursuit of ways to make games even more exciting, Konomi crossed my personal “suspension of disbelief” border with all these physically observable glowy states. Somehow, I was willing to accept Inui making instant probability calculations or Tezuka being able to control his spin so well that all return shots come directly to his location, but make a guy sparkly and have someone in the stands cry, “L-look at that! All his aura’s concentrated around his left arm!!” and it’s suddenly too much for me to take. Still, it’s not like the series was ever so fabulous that I’m actively disappointed. Just resigned.

Anyway, thus concludes The Prince of Tennis. The sequel, Shin Prince of Tennis (“Shin” means “new”), is currently serialized in Jump SQ magazine. The fifth collected volume came out in March of this year. It lamentably remains unlicensed for US release.

Cross Game 2-3 by Mitsuru Adachi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Hikaru no Go 21-23 by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata

Nearly seven years after it began, the English edition of Hikaru no Go has finally reached the final volume. I was originally both curious and skeptical about the final arc of the series, in which Hikaru and long-time rival Akira Toya represent Japan in the first Hokuto Cup (against China and Korea), but this was mostly because I’d liked where the anime chose to bring the story to a close. Having now finished the manga, though, I find it comes to quite a satisfying conclusion, after all.

Volume 21 wraps up the qualifying rounds, with a few final moments of character insight for Ochi—who, even though he wins his game, can’t stand the thought that he’d be the weak link on the team—and Waya, who realizes he hasn’t got Ochi’s pride, and was relieved not to have to play against tougher opponents. Once the Japanese team is set, consisting of Hikaru and Akira plus Yashiro, a player from the Kansai go Association, they spend the days leading up to the tournament crashing at Akira’s house, staying up all night studying game records and devouring the bento boxes Hikaru’s sweet mother prepared for them. (Hikaru treats his mother somewhat dismissively here, but after learning that Yashiro receives no support from his parents regarding his career, he has a change of heart and sort of, kind of invites her to watch him play.)

Right before the tournament begins, Hikaru learns that one of the Korean players, the handsome Ko Yong Ha, has made disparaging remarks about Shusaku, who was actually, of course, Sai. While Akira wonders why Hikaru takes the insult so personally (he will never actually learn the answer), Hikaru gets all fired up and ends up getting in a tough spot in his first game against China. There’s a nice moment where he realizes he’s going to have to stage his own comeback—“There’s nobody else here to do it”—and though he fails, his performance is impressive enough to convince Kurata, the Japanese team leader, to agree to Hikaru’s request to play in first position against Korea, so he can challenge Ko Yong Ha head-on.

For Hikaru, of course, this isn’t about personal glory. It’s about honoring Sai’s legacy. “The whole reason I play Go is…” he starts to say, but he doesn’t complete this thought until later. While he and Ko Yong Ha play a riveting game—and how awesome is it to see a packed crowd raptly following the analysis of the game, including familiar faces like Tsutsui (looking rather foxy, I must add)?—Toya Meijin and Yang Hai, the leader of the Chinese team, talk about Sai, the mysterious player who appeared on the Internet a few years ago, and indulge in some fanciful speculation that he might’ve been the spirit of Shusaku.

It’s kind of neat that they got it right, but will never know it, and it’s wonderful that Sai was responsible for reinvigorating a genius player like the Meijin, and inspiring who knows how many others. Indeed, though Hikaru ends up losing the game by a close margin (I actually love that the Japanese team didn’t cruise to an unlikely victory), his performance is shown to inspire a pair of insei and in this way, Sai’s legacy continues.

As Hikaru explains, he began playing go “so I could link the distant past to the far future.” The conclusion of the series, though open-ended, shows that he is succeeding in this goal, even though his current match ended in defeat. As Akira wisely points out, “It doesn’t end here, y’know. In fact, it’s barely started.” This idea is echoed by the lovely cover to the final volume, on which Hikaru and Akira gaze with clear eyes at the path that lies ahead.

For more discussion of Hikaru no Go, please check out the commemorative roundtable at Manga Bookshelf!

Tidbits: Shonen Jumpin’ Jehosaphat

Sometimes I just crave some shounen manga! Here, then, are a few short reviews of some shounen I have lately read: the third volume of Bakuman。, the 31st through 34th of Bleach, the second of Genkaku Picasso, and the thirteenth through fifteenth of Slam Dunk. All are fairly recent releases and all published under VIZ’s Shonen Jump imprint; Bakuman。 and Genkaku Picasso also have new volumes due out in May.

Bakuman。3 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
This was my favorite volume of Bakuman。 so far!

It begins with Mashiro and Takagi struggling to create a mainstream battle manga, over the objections of their editor, because they believe this is the ticket to popularity in Shonen Jump. They improve a lot between attempts, but in the end, Takagi requests some time alone over summer break to think of a new story, leaving Mashiro free to work as an assistant for Eiji Nizuma, their rival.

Melinda Beasi adores Eiji, and when he first appeared in this volume I was wondering how that could be, since he comes across as bratty and weird. Once you get to know him, though, it turns out he’s actually kind of endearing. He simply says what he thinks, and is incapable of being malicious or devious. After watching him happily and genuinely soak up feedback from his assistants—apparently his editor at Jump is too in awe of his genius to offer any useful guidance—I kind of love him, too!

To top it off, we see some growth from the female characters. Miho makes some progress in her dream of becoming a voice actress, although right now she seems to be succeeding mostly on account of her good looks. Miyoshi comes up with the goal of being a novelist, though her primary function in this volume is to captivate Takagi with her general awesomeness and make Mashiro doubt that his partner is working on the promised story at all.

In the end, the future of the partnership appears to be in jeopardy, even though both guys have independently hit upon the idea of a detective manga as the way to go. I’ve always found this series interesting for its inside glimpse into the publication process, but now I’m starting to find it interesting for the characters, as well. I eagerly await volume four!

Bleach 31-34 by Tite Kubo
You might not think that battles against creepy supernatural foes with bizarre powers could be boring, but it turns out that Bleach somehow manages it.

Volumes 31 through 33 are chiefly comprised of fights against weird-looking dudes during which nearby structures often go “boom” and crumble. It’s pretty much impossible to tell what’s going on, so I just sort of coast along until there’s a panel that shows someone actually being hurt by something. There are but two bright spots in these volumes. One is the predictable but still gratifying revelation that Nel, the toddler who’s been accompanying Ichigo in his journey across Hueco Mundo, is actually a badass (and buxom) former Espada. The second is an honestly riveting scene in which a hollowfied Ichigo appears before Orihime for the first time and terrifies her.

Things improve a bit in volume 34 with the timely arrival of some Soul Reaper captains. Okay, yes, their explanation for their arrival is pretty flimsy, but I will accept any excuse if it means Byakuya will be around. This also leads to a crazy battle of one-upsmanship between one of the stranger Soul Reapers, Kurotsuchi, and his Arrancar opponent. It goes something like this:

Arrancar: Fear my leet skills! I will turn your innards into dust!

Kurotsuchi: Oh, actually, I infected [Uryuu] with surveillance bacteria the last time we were fighting, so I’ve been watching your battle and, aware of your abilities, have replaced all my insides with fakes. Too bad. Now my gloopy pet will eat you.

Arrancar: Lo, I have been et. But before that happened I implanted [Nemu] with my egg, which will hatch and grow a new me! Plus, there are bits of me still in your pet, which will allow me to use it to attack you.

Gloopy pet: *splat*

Kurotsuchi: Oh, but before you did that I programmed my pet to self-destruct if anyone ever tried to use it against me. Also, I filled Nemu’s body full of drugs for the same reason, so now you’re going to see everything in extreme slow mo while I kill you.

Arrancar: Crap.

Honestly, it’s so outrageous one kind of can’t help admiring it!

Genkaku Picasso 2 by Usamaru Furuya
I really wish I could like Genkaku Picasso more. Mostly this is because Usamaru Furuya’s art is really impressive—true, in their normal states the characters don’t look all that exciting (and the lip-glossy sheen on the boys’ lips is somewhat distracting) but the illustrations created by artistic protagonist Hikari Hamura are detailed and gorgeous, and I like that Furuya continues drawing in that style when Hikari and his ghostly advisor, former classmate Chiaki, enter into the drawings in order to help solve the problems plaguing their classmates.

The problem is that I just don’t like any of the characters! Hikari is creepy, anti-social, and perverted, and is always reluctant to help out his classmates, putting Chiaki in the role of always being the one who reminds him that he has to help them, otherwise he’s going to rot away. (He cheated death in volume one and this is the manner in which he must pay for that.) I could possibly like Chiaki if she were given something to do besides pester Hikari all the time, but that’s not the case.

The manner in which the classmates are helped by Hikari and Chiaki is also odd. The pair enters a drawing based on the “heart” of said classmate and attempts to figure out what is worrying them. One boy has created a fictional girlfriend, for example, while another girl sees herself as a mecha rather than an actual girl. While inside the drawing, Hikari and Chiaki attempt to reason with the classmate, while in the real world, the classmate answers them aloud, making them look totally freaking crazy to the people who happen to be around. If I was hanging out with my friend and he began to break up with his imaginary girlfriend right in front of me, I think I would be quite alarmed.

That said, there is one bright spot in this volume—the tale of Yosuke, a girl born in a body of the wrong gender. Perhaps it’s a little too optimistic, but I liked it anyway, especially the fact that the “heart” of the transgender kid is the calmest and healthiest place we’ve seen yet.

If Genkaku Picasso were any longer, I might not continue it, but since there’s only one volume left, I shall persevere.

Slam Dunk 13-15 by Takehiko Inoue
Ordinarily, if a series took two-and-a-half volumes to cover less than an hour of action, I might be annoyed. Not so with Slam Dunk, which takes that long to finish Shohoku High’s exciting prefectural tournament match against Kainan, a team that has made it to Nationals every year in recent memory.

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when one reads Slam Dunk. Hanamichi Sakuragi, the hot-headed protagonist, has matured somewhat since the beginning of the series, though he’s still inclined to proclaim himself a genius at every opportunity. Hence, it’s pretty satisfying to see him humbled, and to watch him realize that he hasn’t yet got the skills to carry the team or hog the spotlight. And yet, there comes a point where the humbling has been sufficient, and one wants to see him triumph.

When Captain Akagi sprains his ankle during the game, Sakuragi, realizing how immensely important this game is to Akagi, does his best to fill the captain’s shoes. How can you not root for someone trying so hard to make someone else‘s dream come true? Yes, it’s the talented Rukawa who is single-handedly responsible for tying up the game by halftime, but Sakuragi is just trying so damned hard that his bluster actually becomes a source of strength for his teammates. When he finally makes an impressive slam dunk in front of a cheering crowd, I convince that I got a little sniffly.

Shohoku ends up losing the game, though this doesn’t put them out of the running for Nationals just yet. The disappointing experience makes Sakuragi more serious than ever before and he returns to school with a shaved head (as penance for an unfortunate mistake during the final seconds of the game) and a fierce desire to improve.

Why do I love sports manga so much? I’m honestly not sure I can articulate it, but with Slam Dunk part of it is the fact that the hero, who previously had no goals in life, has found a place to belong and something to care about. That kind of story pushes my personal buttons in a big way.

Review copies for Bakuman。, Genkaku Picasso, and volume fourteen of Slam Dunk provided by the publisher.

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.

One Piece 46-56 by Eiichiro Oda

With a mighty final push, I have finally become current with One Piece! Because reviewing an entire arc at once worked so well for Water Seven, I’ve decided to split these volumes up into their appropriate arcs: Thriller Bark, Sabaody, and Impel Down. Let the wait for volume 57 commence!

Volumes 46-49 (Thriller Bark): B+
The Thriller Bark arc is named for a massive pirate ship, large enough to support an entire village full of zombies. Not just your average zombies, though, but zombies with bodies created by corrupt surgeon Dr. Hogback and animated courtesy of shadows stolen by one of the Seven Warlords of the Sea, Gecko Moria. Not that our heroes learn all of this up front, of course.

First, the Straw Hats drift into a region of the sea known as the Florian Triangle, where they encounter a ghost ship. The only occupant is Brook, “Gentleman Skeleton,” who intrigues Luffy immediately by virtue of his being, well, a living skeleton. Luffy immediately invites him to join the crew, but the others are not so keen. Brook declines the offer, since his shadow has been stolen and exposure to direct sunlight will make him distintegrate. Luffy, of course, is keen to help get Brook’s shadow back, but it’s only when Nami, Usopp, and Chopper accidentally land on Thriller Bark that the whole crew disembarks to see what’s up.

What follows is basically lots and lots of shadow-stealing, zombie-fighting action, which comes with good and bad points. Early on, the slapstick nature of the series is emphasized, full of the characters goggling (all except Robin, who never goggles) open-mouthed at various things and making stupid jokes. There’s this whole sequence where Nami is about to be assaulted in the bath (they’ve been escorted to a spooky mansion by this point) by an invisible man but Usopp and Chopper keep talking about farts. I suppose one could argue that this is because they trust Nami can take care of herself, but it bugged me anyway.

On the positive side, besides depicting how well the crew works together in a fight, Oda finds time for some excellent character moments. Robin, who had previously referred to members of their crew by their position, is now calling them by name. Usopp is the only one who can withstand the depression-causing ghost minions of one of the Thriller Bark residents because he’s “already extremely negative.” Brook reveals that he must keep on living because he made a pact to a friend, which gets Franky sobbing (he loves stories about loyalty and friendship) and when that friend is revealed to be Laboon, the lonely whale the crew met back in volume twelve, he cries even more. “Waaaagh!! I love both the skeleton and the whale!” And I love both the cyborg and the commitment to continuity!

To top it all off, we glimpse part of a battle between Ace and Blackbeard that provides some ominous hinting. “This battle between pirates would later be identified as the trigger for the major events that were to follow…” Awesome. Bring it on.

Volumes 50-53 (Sabaody): B-
Sabaody is less an actual arc and more a world-building interlude. While most of volume fifty is devoted to wrapping up Thriller Bark—Oda is great at showing a satisfying degree of celebratory aftermath, which in this case involves a big meal under the sun for all of those who have finally regained their shadows—and fleshing out a few lingering details of Brook’s history, we also begin to hear talk of four pirate emperors and a pirate empress, nightmares that await in the new world, and the pending execution of Luffy’s brother, Ace.

Eventually, the Straw Hats resume their journey toward Fish-Man Island. On the way, they come across Camie, a mermaid who once appeared in one of those stories told across consecutive chapter title pages, who informs them that her friend has been kidnapped. Volume 51 mostly consists of the rescue, and I lament to say that I found it all pretty boring, even though the culprit eventually comes in handy later when they get to the Sabaody Archipelago and it’s Camie‘s turn to get kidnapped.

Arrival at Sabaody presents some problems, as well. Not only is is infodump time in a big way, we’re also introduced to about a dozen new characters simultaneously, all of them pirates who will be Luffy’s rivals in the new world. Things have evened out a bit by volume 52, however, when a common foe—a Navy force responding to Luffy’s assault on one of the world nobles—causes these pirates to fight on the same side and show off their nifty abilities.

In the course of these events, the crew meets an inspirational figure, faces off against a powerful Warlord of the Sea against whom they are surprisingly useless, and ends up scattered across the world (Luffy ends up on an island of warrior women, whom he subsequently charms) by the latter’s banishing power. There’s a completely ominous cliffhanger in the chapter in which that happens—“That day, the Straw Hat pirates… were eradicated.” I envy those who had to endure excruciating anticipation after reading that!

Ultimately, Sabaody is pretty uneven. It seems like Oda was in somewhat of a rush to get some of the mechanics of the world down on paper. There are definitely good points, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the crew manages to reunite after this major setback.

Volumes 54-56 (Impel Down): B+
With the Straw Hats separated, Impel Down actually turns out to be a solo Luffy adventure (though the chapter title page illustrations provide glimpses of the rest of the crew). With the help of “pirate empress” Boa Hancock, who has fallen in love with him, Luffy makes his way to Impel Down to rescue his brother Ace, who is about to be executed.

Once inside Impel Down, Luffy encounters a few former enemies and works together with them to make his way to Ace’s cell. He arrives too late, however, as Ace is already on his way to Marineford where the execution will take place. Then Luffy has to fight his way back out and get to Marineford. By the end of volume 56, Ace is on public display with three hours left to live, the forces of Whitebeard have gathered to try to rescue him, and several Warlords of the Sea and navy admirals are on hand to try to prevent that from happening. It’s a pretty exciting cliffhanger!

There are a lot of really good things happening in the Impel Down arc. While I miss the rest of the crew, it’s kind of nice seeing Luffy on his own, especially because it emphasizes his trusting and accepting nature. The fights are also more entertaining than usual, since the warden of Impel Down, Magellan, has a cool Devil Fruit power. And where else are you going to see a giant koala facing off against men wearing fishnets and heels?

Fishnets and heels, you ask? Yes, it turns out that quite a few of the prisoners in Impel Down have embraced their feminine side. I love that this doesn’t prohibit them from being heroic in the least. For instance, the head drag queen, Ivankov, is an officer in the revolutionary army commanded by Luffy’s father, and the very best part of the arc so far involves Mr. 2 Bon Clay. Seriously. I cried.

One Piece continues to be an amazing series. I am torn between satisfaction at being caught up and dismay that I must wait three months for the next installment.

Review copy for volume 56 provided by the publisher.

Rurouni Kenshin 1-6 by Nobuhiro Watsuki: B+

It feels like I last read Rurouni Kenshin eons ago, even though it’s only been five years since the US edition came to an end. The siren call of a potential reread has been increasing in volume lately and finally, I could take it no more. Joined by my friend and fellow Kenshin fan, K, I’m yielding to temptation and diving back in! Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be reviewing the entire series, starting with the individual volumes and finishing up with the final VIZBIG edition, which contains some bonus material not included in the series’ original run. You can find an archive of both K’s and my Kenshin posts at Triple Take.

To summarize the general premise, during the Bakumatsu era a skilled young swordsman named Himura Kenshin fought on the side of the ishin shishi (pro-Emperor) patriots and earned the nickname hitokiri battōsai (essentially: a manslayer who has mastered the art of battōjutsu) before vanishing and becoming a figure of legend. While many of the ishin shishi eventually took up powerful positions in the new Meiji government, Kenshin was not interested in profiting thus from his actions, since he had fought only with the aim of providing a more peaceful future for Japan’s people. Instead, he becomes an unassuming rurouni (wandering samurai) and wields his sakabatō (a reverse-blade katana nearly incapable of killing) on behalf of those needing his help.

Before commencing this reread, my recollection was that Rurouni Kenshin gets good in volume seven, when one of Kenshin’s old enemies (the awesome Saitō Hajime from the pro-Shogunate Shinsengumi) pays him a visit. It turns out, though, that that’s not exactly true, since the first two volumes are very good.

The story begins in Tokyo during the eleventh year of the Meiji era (1879 or thereabouts). As he travels through the city, Kenshin is accosted by Kamiya Kaoru, the feisty instructor of Kamiya Kasshin-ryū (a school of swordsmanship that emphasizes non-lethal techniques), who is searching for the murderer who has tarnished the name of her school (and driven away its students) by claiming to be one of its devotees. Kenshin helps out, since this fellow is also claiming to be the hitokiri battōsai, and during the course of events, Kaoru discovers some of his violent past. Still, she asks him to stay, saying, “I don’t care who you used to be!” He agrees to stay put a while and moves into the dojo.

Like any good shounen series, our hero needs a band of friends, so volume two sets about fulfilling that requirement. The first addition to the cast is Myōjin Yahiko, an orphaned boy of samurai lineage who has been forced to steal in order to survive. He becomes Kaoru’s first student, and though somewhat obnoxious at first, he matures a lot in a short time, especially after he gets confirmation that all the training is paying off. Next is Sagara Sanosuke, “the fight merchant,” who was once a member of a civilian army that was betrayed by the ishin shishi. He has been hired to fight Kenshin, but realizes the rurouni is different from the other, corrupt patriots and ends up becoming his right-hand man.

In addition, much is made during these first two volumes about the Meiji government not delivering on many of its promises. Watsuki also works on building the relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru, showing the former contentedly helping out with the chores and the latter putting herself at risk when Kenshin is challenged by another former hitokiri simply because she’d rather be in danger than be alone again. It’s significant that when the battle triggers Kenshin’s battōsai mode, Kaoru is the one who prevents him from killing his opponent, for which Kenshin is profoundly grateful.

Volumes three and four are not quite as good, but close. I just can’t summon much interest in Takani Megumi, a woman from a long line of doctors who was coerced into making opium for a greedy industrialist, and she frustrates me by attempting to take her own life after Kenshin and Sanosuke have weathered some tough fights attempting to rescue her. Still, the introduction of Shinomori Aoshi, a former guard of Edo castle who is bitter about not seeing any fighting during the war, is significant, and the fates of his less-able-to-move-on-with-their-lives companions are compelling.

Where the story really sags, though, is in volumes five and six. Watsuki’s sidebars are full of comments like he can’t believe the series is still ongoing, how much work it is, and how certain stories were written “during a period of extreme exhaustion.” I must say that it shows. First, Yahiko defends a young girl named Tsubame against some dudes who are making her an accomplice to a burglary. Then a swordsman tries to recruit Kenshin to the cause of reviving a more lethal version of “the Japanese art of swords.” Lastly, Sano encounters a former comrade from his army days and must decide whether to participate in his anti-government plans. Zzz. Volume six, in particular, was a bit of a slog to get through.

Artistically, Watsuki’s style is attractive, featuring quite a few bishounen characters (somewhat to his apparent dismay, this results in a lot of female fans) as well as bizarre-looking ones. It takes a few volumes for the characters’ looks to settle down, and sometimes the metamorphosis is even faster (Aoshi looks a good bit different even just two chapters after his original appearance, though he’s still immediately recognizable.) One thing I find slightly weird is how often Watsuki openly admits to borrowing character designs from other sources (though in at least one case he specifies that he had the original artist’s permission to do so). Tsubame, for example, appears to be an exact replica of Tomoe Hotaru from Sailor Moon.

So, to sum up… Kenshin starts strong, but gradually falters, culminating in the rather boring volumes five and six. Take heart, though, because if memory serves, volume seven is truly fabulous, and sets off the Kyoto arc, which most Kenshin fans will probably name as their favorite part of the series. I’ll be reviewing the first half of it next time, so watch this space!

Tidbits: A TOKYOPOP Assortment

TOKYOPOP released a slew of books towards the end of 2010 and quite a few among them are from series I’m either reading or buying and hoarding (as is my wont). In a desperate effort to stay current, I’m tackling some of them in Tidbits format! Alice in the Country of Hearts is up first, with my take on volumes four and five, followed by volumes four through six of Happy Cafe, volume seven of Maid Sama!, volume three of Neko Ramen, and volume eight of Silver Diamond. Happy reading!

Alice in the Country of Hearts 4-5 by QuinRose and Soumei Hoshino: B
Reading Alice in the Country of Hearts is a lot like having a lollipop for a snack. It’s pleasant while you’re consuming it, but doesn’t provide any actual sustenance.

While things do happen to Alice in these two volumes, nothing appears to have lasting consequence. For instance, Julius the clock maker encourages Alice to move elsewhere—to a place where she won’t feel obliged to earn her keep—but Alice doesn’t want to leave! She explains this to Julius and, okay, she can stay.

Then Ace, the resident sociopath, decides that since proximity to Alice and her newfangled morals (she spends a fair amount of time convincing the people of Wonderland that their lives have value) hasn’t changed him like it has changed others, he ought to kill her. So he shows up at the clock tower with that intent, but Alice talks to him earnestly and he changes his mind. The same basic thing happens when she confronts the Hatter, Blood, for saying nasty things about her.

I still like Alice a lot, though, and was happy to see that the magical vial she was given at the start of the series finally makes another appearance. The gist of the game was that she had to fill this vial through interaction with others, and now it’s nearly full. The sixth and final volume in this series only recently came out in Japan, which means we’ve got quite a wait, but I’m interested to see whether it will manage to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Happy Cafe 4-6 by Kou Matsuzuki: B-
Happy Cafe—the story of a child-like high school student named Uru Takamura who works at a café with a pair of bishounen, surly Shindo and narcoleptic Ichiro—can sometimes be pretty boring. The episodic chapters frequently feature uninspiring plots (Uru plans a party for her bosses!) and stock shoujo situations (Uru’s class is doing a café for the school festival!). I’ve also lost count of how many guys seem to fancy Uru.

And yet, the series can also be quite charming. For every chapter where the plot is “our heroine tames a bratty kid,” there’s a good one that offers insight into the characters, like the story of why Shindo kept his surname (and kept his distance) when the proprietor of Café Bonheur took him in as a child or a glimpse at Ichiro when he was a suffocating model student just finding, through his job at the café, the means to bring happiness to others. The overall tone is light and warm, and though sometimes the humor fails to amuse—Uru is a bit too spazzy for my tastes—it’s also occasionally genuinely funny.

In short, Happy Cafe is like the manga equivalent of a sitcom: the setting and the characters don’t change very much, and sometimes the situations in which they find themselves are pretty silly, but it’s still enjoyable to spend short spans of time in their company.

Maid Sama! 7 by Hiro Fujiwara: B
No one could ever accuse Maid Sama! of being a great manga, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it anyway. In execution, it reminds me most of Ouran High School Host Club, in that each volume is predominantly made up of episodic hijinks but yet manages to include at least one genuinely romantic scene between its two leads. The subsequent squee causes readers to conveniently forget about anything less-than-stellar that might have come before.

I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I suffered through a rather dull chapter about Misaki’s incognito participation in a sweets-eating contest and a bonus chapter about Aoi, the insufferable cross-dressing nephew of Maid Latte’s manager, but all is forgiven because Misaki actually tells Usui that she likes him, in her own Misaki kind of way!

The fact that this takes place at a school festival, and that they smooch to the accompaniment of fireworks, is pretty clichéd. Perhaps I’m remiss for not skewering the series for its flaws, but it’s got me in its clutches now. I just don’t want to dwell on what it does wrong when the relationship between Misaki and Usui is so satisfying when they’re actually open about their feelings. Oh, I’m sure they’ll go back to bickering soon enough, but this moment of honesty will probably sustain me for a while.

I have a hard time recommending Maid Sama! because it really is merely adequate sometimes, but if one goes into it forewarned, I think one could be surprised by how enjoyable cliché can be.

Neko Ramen 3 by Kenji Sonishi: B+
Neko Ramen had me worried for a moment there. Its truly funny first volume easily cemented it as the best 4-koma manga I’ve ever read, but the second disappointed me with its dogged (har har) insistence on gags related to the wacky gimmicks feline proprietor, Taisho, comes up with to promote his ramen shop. I missed the cat-related humor.

That’s not to say that wacky gimmicks are wholly absent from this third volume—indeed, there are many, including the introduction of a hot towel service, complete with a sensitive “hot towel artist,” and “boomeramen,” where ramen is served to patrons on frisbees—but the humor feels more well-rounded. The cat humor is back (hooray!), and I giggled when a kitty is given responsibility over the hot towel service and when a group of kitties, caught up in World Cup frenzy, attempts to play soccer.

The cast is expanded, as well. Shige-chan, the thieving part-timer, is back and Sonishi-sensei manages to make me like him by virtue of a short feature in which he’s unable to resist sharing his lunch with various hungry animals. There’s also Tetsuo, a truck driver with an enthusiastic fondness for card games (the rules of which he hasn’t bothered to learn), and a pair of new characters—female otaku Watanabe and bishounen eating champion, Akkun. They bring with them all kinds of new opportunities for silliness.

All in all, this is a big improvement over the second volume and restores my faith in the series.

Silver Diamond 8 by Shiho Sugiura: B+
Although Rakan and friends set out for the imperial capital in the previous volume, they hardly make any progress toward that goal in this one. Instead, they come across a pair of giant, underground-dwelling snakes who have become cognizant of the fact that the land is dying and that they, too, will soon perish.

In true Silver Diamond fashion, however, these snakes are neither monstrous nor malevolent. Instead, they’re afraid of death and confused about what’s happening to them and about what they even were in the first place. The first snake swallows Rakan and friends and conveys them a short distance before dying and turning into a river. When the group later encounters a second snake who is freaking out about what his fate will be, Rakan is able to calm him by giving an answer. It’s all very sweet, far more sweet than one would think a volume devoted to the fates of giant snakes would ever be.

Along the way, Rakan wins the respect of still more villagers and does a lot of planting with the seeds he’s acquired so far. Additionally, the serpentine encounters remind Narushige of when, as a child, his cold-hearted mother once tried to sacrifice him to a similar creature. This actually reminds me a lot of Yuki Sohma in Fruits Basket, whose mother basically surrendered him for the advancement of her family. Like Yuki, Narushige is a reserved character who here resolves to try to forget his cruel mother and change through proximity to his new group of friends. No wonder he’s emerging as my favorite character.

Again, I admit that the pace of this series is leisurely, but it’s lovely and compelling all the same. I recommend it highly.

Review copies for the fourth volumes of Alice in the Country of Hearts and Happy Cafe provided by the publisher.

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.

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.