Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking, Vols. 1-10

By Koji Kumeta | Volumes 1-8 published by Del Rey, Volumes 9-10 published by Kodansha Comics

When I first set out to read Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, my goal was to finish the first eight volumes in time for Kodansha’s June 2011 release of volume nine.

You can see how well that worked out.

The problem was that this series simply doesn’t benefit from a marathon read. After four volumes, I burnt out and switched to reading it a chapter at a time as the mood struck me. Obviously, it took a lot longer this way, but turned out to be the ideal manga to read on breaks at work or while sitting around in the lobby of the doctor’s office. Interestingly, I found the most recent volumes to be so good that devouring them in their entirety was no problem at all!

There’s not a whole lot of plot to Zetsubou-sensei. Nozomu Itoshiki, the fourth son of a wealthy family, is a high school teacher with a penchant for nineteenth century garb. The title of the manga refers to the fact that when the characters of his name are written too closely together, they can be read as “zetsubou,” or “despair.” Which is convenient, since despairing over various things (and occasionally trying to kill himself) is Itoshiki’s specialty. His class is full of a variety of quirky students, whom we meet gradually, including a girl who sees everything positively, a methodical and precise (and possibly homicidal) girl, a girl who speaks only in text messages, a stalker, a fujoshi, an impoverished housewife, etc. We also meet a few members of his family, including his brother Mikoto, a doctor whose name can be read as “zetsumei,” or “certain death.”

Each chapter follows more or less the same pattern: the first couple of pages establish where the characters are, then something sets Itoshiki off on a rant. (For example, a hinamatsuri display inspires a diatribe about heirarchical societies.) Eventually he spews out a list of items that correspond to the topic of the day. Then the positive girl (Kafuka) will put forth a different opinion and, a couple of pages later, the chapter ends. As I’ve described it, this sounds tedious, but it’s often quite clever and absurd.

Some chapters are more Japanese-centric than others, with copious references to entertainers and public figures or topics specific to Japan, like tanabata or fukubukuro. These can be somewhat less fun to read, especially in earlier volumes when the (admittedly thorough) end notes provide so much information that one ends up reading the book with a finger permanently lodged in the back to reference the explanation as needed. With a change in translator for volume five, most of these notes disappeared.

At first, I was bothered by knowing there were all sorts of references I was missing, but in the end I think I prefer to just cope with ignorance; it helps that more recent volumes have dealt with some universal topics like dream endings, assumptions, jokes you’ve heard a million times, how we perceive the passage of time, modern conveniences leading to inconvenience (“Thanks to Amazon,com, we’ve got piles of books that we haven’t had time to read”), skewed priorities, gifts you feel obliged to accept, and getting sucked into other people’s drama. Somewhat to my surprise, it feels like we’re beginning to learn a little bit more about the characters, as well.

In addition to following the established formula in terms of chapter progression, there are also several recurring gags in Zetusbou-sensei. I’m not very fond of the poor dog with a stick in its butt who appears on occasion, but the creative ways Kumeta finds to insert a panty shot from a particular character are kind of fun, and I’m quite fond of Itoshiki’s stalker, Matoi, who suddenly pops up in the middle of scenes, surprising the characters. “You were here?” And the way in which the characters continue to fail eleventh grade and must repeat it pokes fun at those series—Ouran High School Host Club is the most notorious example to come to mind—where seasons pass but the characters inexplicably fail to graduate.

Artistically, Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has a very unique look. Kumeta uses very little screen tone, and all of his characters (except one) have pitch-black hair and eyes. There are many girls in the cast, but they all have distinctive hairstyles. Even if I can’t remember someone’s name, her hairstyle will clue me in. “Oh, that’s the delusional self-blaming girl!” Kumeta’s got a recurring trick for page layout too: frequently, a character will be drawn full-length to one side of the page and depicted with extremely skinny ankles and extremely large feet. In more recent volumes it seems that facial closeups are happening more often, or that characters are being viewed from some new angles, which is a welcome development.

On the whole, I enjoyed Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei a great deal. I felt that it improved as it went along, and I look forward to remaining current with the series henceforth. It may not have made me laugh aloud continuously, but it was always amusing enough to make me smile, and it’s to its credit that it was still capable of making me giggle in its 100th chapter.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking was originally published in English by Del Rey, who put out the first eight volumes, but is now being published by Kodansha Comics. The series is ongoing in Japan; volume 27 came out there earlier this week.

Review copies for volumes five, seven, eight, and ten provided by the publisher.

Arisa 1 by Natsumi Ando

From the back cover:
Tsubasa thinks that her pretty and popular twin sister, Arisa, has the perfect life. Everyone at school loves Arisa—unlike the hot-tempered Tsubasa, whose nickname is “the Demon Princess.” But when Arisa attempts suicide, Tsubasa learns that her seemingly perfect sister has been keeping some dark secrets. Now Tsubasa is going undercover at school—disguised as Arisa—in search of the truth. But will Arisa’s secrets shatter Tsubasa’s life, too?

So, you’ve read After School Nightmare and are casting about for more creepy and suspenseful school-based shoujo to consume. Have I got the manga for you!

Despite their different surnames, Tsubasa Uehara and Arisa Sonoda are twin sisters who, due to split custody arising from their parents’ divorce, have not seen each other in person for three years. They’ve kept in contact via letters, however, and tomboyish Tsubasa has envied her sister’s seemingly perfect life, as conveyed by her letters. When Arisa proposes they meet, Tsubasa is overjoyed, and she also goes along with her sister’s suggestion to pose as Arisa for the following day at school. Everything seems to go so well—Arisa is popular, respected by classmates and teachers, and has a cute boyfriend—until the end of the day when Tsubasa discovers a cryptic card in her sister’s shoe locker. “Arisa Sonoda is a traitor.”

Arisa is surprised to hear that Tsubasa had fun, and after cryptically remarking, “You don’t know their secrets… or mine,” leans backward out of the open apartment window. Trees break her fall enough that she survives, but the accident leaves her in a coma. Tsubasa, determined to find out what’s going on, returns to Arisa’s school and soon discovers a weekly ritual known as “King Time,” during which the students submit a wish to some mysterious person, who grants one per week. On this particular occasion, a pervy gym teacher is made to disappear quite effectively. When a fellow classmate questions his fate, she too receives the “traitor” notice and is thereafter bullied and ostracized. Did Arisa raise similar objections and receive the same treatment?

Mangaka Natsumi Ando handles Tsubasa’s confusion expertly, as students (particularly Arisa’s best friend, Mariko) go from chipper to menacing in the blink of an eye. Whom can she trust? Manabe, the bad boy who attacked her with a 2×4 but who also expressed a desire to destroy “the King”? Midori, Arisa’s mild-mannered and considerate boyfriend? At least she has an ally in her friend Takeru, who does some investigation on her behalf. I like how the initially friendly mood of the class breaks down into genuine creepiness, and am really looking forward to seeing how the mystery progresses from here.

The first volume of Arisa was published in English by Del Rey, but Kodansha Comics took over beginning with the second volume, which was released last Tuesday. (I’m saving that one for Wednesday’s Off the Shelf column.) The series is still ongoing in Japan, where it is currently up to seven volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Shugo Chara! 1-9 by Peach-Pit

Shugo Chara! has all the basic requirements for a magical girl series: costume changes, loads of sparkles and hearts, and a focus on dreams, believing in one another, and protecting the people one cares about. And yet somehow, it doesn’t feel generic at all!

The main character is Amu Hinamori, a shy fourth grader who, because of her awkward communication skills, comes off as tough and cool. As a result, her classmates admire her but keep their distance. One day, Amu wishes for the courage to “be reborn as the person I want to be,” and the next morning, she wakes up with three brightly colored eggs in her bed. One by one, the eggs hatch into Guardian Characters. There’s perky Ran, who is good at sports; level-headed Miki, who is good at artistic endeavors; and sweet Su, who is good at domestic tasks, especially cooking. Each one represents something that Amu would like to be, and can lend these traits to her as needed.

Eventually, Amu is invited to join a group at her elementary school known as the Guardians. Each of the other students has a Guardian Character of their own, and soon they become involved in fending off the efforts of an evil corporation known as Easter, who is extracting heart’s eggs from children (these represent their dreams for the future) and casually destroying them in their search for a particular wish-granting egg known as the Embryo. This aspect of the story reminds me of Sailor Moon, specifically the S season, where the villains are targeting victims with pure hearts and extracting their “pure heart crystals,” which are then examined to see whether they happen to be a “talisman.”

So far, the action in Shugo Chara! has spanned nearly two years (it’s the winter break of Amu’s sixth-grade year in volume nine) and is paced very well. The Guardians go up against Easter time and time again, but actually make progress—usually by reforming its operatives by reminding them of their own dreams—instead of being stuck in a “monster of the week” loop. New characters come and go, characters harbor and hint at their secrets, and everyone powers up at a believable rate of speed. Of course, Amu is the awesomest, eventually hatching a fourth Guardian Egg, and has the most power and tranformation potential, but this is somehow never irritating, nor is the fact that several boys fall for her over the course of the series.

The interpersonal relationships between the kids are also important. Amu has long had a crush on Tadase, the “king” figure of the Guardians, and though he initially rejects her, then goes through a period where he’s infatuated by one of her transformations, he eventually comes to return her feelings. Complicating matters is Ikuto, the tortured high school senior who’s being manipulated by Easter into doing their bidding. Amu can’t help but be interested in him, and he’s certainly flirty enough in his own right, but this brings about conflict with Tadase, who hates Ikuto due to an incident that occurred before the beginning of the series.

Friendship is equally important. Amu quickly becomes close with Nadeshiko, the “queen” of the Guardians, but Nadeshiko has a secret that she still hasn’t shared with Amu, and which might damage their friendship. Rima, who replaces Nadeshiko as queen after the latter departs to study dance abroad, is rather obnoxious at first, but once Amu understands where she’s coming from, a friendship begins to develop between them that allows Rima to enjoy her life more. A similar thing occurs with Utau, Ikuto’s little sister, who worked with Easter for a time in an effort to save her brother.

Even while expertly managing a long-term plot and evolving character relationships, Shugo Chara! doesn’t forget that a magical girl series needs a lot of cute. As mentioned, sparkles and hearts abound, as do feathers and twinkly crystals, like the Humpty Lock Amu carries, which matches the Dumpty Key in Ikuto’s possession. Sometimes things are carried to a silly extreme, though, particularly in the realm of the Character Transformations, which occur when a child merges with one of their Guardian Characters. Yaya, the youngest and most immature of the Guardians, wishes to forever remain a pampered baby, so her character transformation is suitably ridiculous, with a bib and a mysteriously large posterior. Her attack moves involve rubber duckies and mobiles. Tadase, meanwhile, transforms into a frilly and ruffled princely personage known as Platinum Royale. Hands up if you think that sounds like a stripper name!

Ultimately, Shugo Chara! is a lot of fun to read. It’s the perfect shoujo blend of feelings and fighting, and emphasizes the importance of figuring out one’s own goals and desires. Though the series is rated for ages 13+ (presumably because of the slightly steamy interaction between Amu and Ikuto), it would probably be suitable for kids the same age as its protagonists.

Shugo Chara! was originally published in English by Del Rey, who put out the first nine volumes. Kodansha Comics then took over releasing the series, the tenth volume of which just came out on May 10th. (I’m saving that one for an Off the Shelf column on Wednesday.) The series is complete in Japan with twelve volumes, and will wrap up in the US in September. Kodansha has also licensed Shugo Chara Chan!, a spin-off four-panel manga, which will debut in November.

Review copies for volumes seven and nine provided by Del Rey.

Let’s Get Visual: Duds

MICHELLE: After a few months of this column, I feel like I’m better able to think critically about the artistic aspect of manga. I expected to be able to better appreciate good art when I see it, but hadn’t anticipated that I’d also more readily notice flaws. This month, MJ (of Manga Bookshelf) and I turn our attention to problematic pages or, as I like to call them, “duds.” (Click on images to enlarge.)

Fairy Tail, Volume 10, Page 84 (Del Rey)

MJ: Wow. I’m… a little bit stymied by that image.

MICHELLE: It is a doozy, isn’t it? Actually, that page was the inspiration for this whole column. There I was, innocently reading volume ten of Fairy Tail, then I turned the page and was brutally accosted by that monstrosity!

So, as is probably pretty obvious, the speaker is unhinged. Mangaka Hiro Mashima has opted to depict this by freezing the guy in the act of making a weird face and forcing readers to read two huge bubbles full of ranting speech before we can proceed to the final (and uninteresting) panel on the bottom of the page. Now, maybe this is a tactic to make us feel as trapped as the girl does, having to sit there and listen to this lunatic ramble on, but it doesn’t do a good job at conveying his insanity. The page feels flat and lifeless; a better choice would have been to inject more movement into the scene, break up the speech, and maybe allow the guy the opportunity to change expressions throughout his tirade.

MJ: I honestly feel accosted by the page. Its primary image is loud, but not particularly expressive in any other way than that, and the text feels overwhelming to the point where I can’t really even bring myself to try to read it all. Not only that, the page is so top-heavy, I find it difficult to even look at. That bottom image is completely wasted there, not that it’s much of a waste.

MICHELLE: Yeah, it’s weird how an amount of text that would be perfectly reasonable to read in a prose novel suddenly looks so daunting in a speech bubble, but it really does. And you’re absolutely right that it’s loud without being expressive. Everything about this page is just so glaringly bad that I knew we had to build a column around lousy art so that I’d have an excuse to talk about it with someone!

MJ: Well, feel free to talk as much as you like, because I’ve rarely seen something so pointlessly hideous. And though I hate to think that I’m reacting purely out of aesthetics, I can’t deny that it offends me greatly on that level.

MICHELLE: I think that’s pretty much the only basis on which you can be expected to react, since you haven’t read the manga in question. For me, it completely yanked me out of the story, which I find inexcusable.

And though I appreciate the offer to further vent my spleen, perhaps we should proceed on to your dud of choice.

Baseball Heaven, pages 133-134 (approx.) (BLU Manga)

MJ: Okay, then. My “dud” comes from Ellie Mamahara’s Baseball Heaven, a BL manga I expressed no great love for in our BL Bookrack column a couple of months ago. I assume I don’t need to describe what’s happening in the scene, and chances are I don’t need to tell anyone what’s wrong with it, either, but of course that’s why we’re here.

I look at this scene, and there’s simply no passion in it. None at all. Here we have a guy, supposedly in an altered state of mind, making the moves on his teammate who has rebuffed him in the past, and not only do we not get any real sense of how either of them are feeling (we wouldn’t even know the one was drunk if it wasn’t for indications in the word balloons and flushed cheeks), but there’s absolutely no sexual tension between them conveyed through the artwork. And while I can appreciate that perhaps we’re meant to believe that athletes might be stiff and awkward with each other, surely the drunk guy, at least, would have a little heat in his body language here.

The artist goes through the motions, placing them physically near each other and indicating that the one is, perhaps, touching the other’s behind, but there is just no real feeling between them at all. Even when their faces are so close together, Mamahara is unable to provide any magnetic reaction between them. I should feel that they *want* to touch each other. It should feel painful for them not to. Instead, it leaves me completely cold.

MICHELLE: I definitely see what you mean! Personally, I keep staring at that first panel on the second page. They look so stiff and awkward. It’s not that I expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of a scene, but when they’re as oddly placed as the blond guy’s are, it feels unnatural and, by extension, makes everything else going on in the scene feel the same way.

MJ: I think I’d go so far as to say that in a scene like *this* one, I kind of *do* expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of the scene. It’s just as I was saying before, there should be a sense that the characters want desperately to touch each other (this includes legs) even if they might be scared to do so. I should see that in the legs and every other part of the body, at least in the drunk guy who is initiating the contact in the first place. It’s a seduction scene with no actual seduction going on.

Also, I feel like the panels are getting in the way of us viewing the scene, which is a weird and uncomfortable feeling. And unlike in last month’s selection where this was done to elicit response from the reader, here it just feels like clumsiness on the part of the artist. She provides these little glimpses of their faces and legs in the smaller panels, but since there is no tension in those panels, they don’t add anything to the scene. They just steal space from the main action, such as it is.

Wow, I’m really ranting now, aren’t I? Please stop me.

MICHELLE: You’re quite right, but I shall stop you as requested by introducing my second dud!

Moon Boy, Volume 9, Page 3 (Yen Press)

MICHELLE: Initially, it was the affronted rooster in the lower left that caught my eye and made me pause to really take in the complete and utter randomness of this page.

You’ve got a young person of indeterminate gender, swaddled in coat and boots, flushed and exhaling a gust of wintry air, possibly due to the exertion of just having decapitated a nearby snowman. This person is surrounded by such seasonal items as a piece of pie, a cookie, a beehive (with fake bees), an inverted dog bowl, and a pair of barnyard pals.

This was enough to have me snickering, but closer inspection reveals several problems in proportion and perspective. For one, take a look at that snowman’s nose. I’m pretty sure that is supposed to be the traditional carrot, but the artist was unable to draw it from a head-on perspective so instead it looks like a giant almond. Secondly, check out the boots. The right foot is clearly much larger than the left, and I don’t think it’s just an issue of angle—the detail on the top of each foot is different! Finally, actually wearing the mitten dangling by the person’s right hand on said hand would cause the heart pattern to appear on the palm side rather the back of the hand, where such designs typically go.

This is just sloppy and, above all, weird. What do these items have to do with each other? I also found it odd that one of the designs in the border is actually a musical symbol called a mordent. The mordent belongs to a class of musical embellishments called “ornaments,” which could carry a Christmassy connotation, except that I don’t credit this artist with that much cleverness.

MJ: I’ll admit I’m not too picky about things like perspective and such, but I am somehow disturbed by the way his fingers are digging into the poor snowman’s head. What did that poor (decapitated) snowman ever do to anyone? It’s as though he’s digging right into its scalp. Which looks oddly fleshy. And now I’m feeling shuddery.

MICHELLE: I don’t think I would have noticed the perspective problems if not for the chicken, to be honest, but spotting it here did spur me to notice other problems in the rest of the volume, notably a few deformed thumbs and some confusing action scenes that I wrote about in my review of the volume. I wasn’t sure what to make of the hands, honestly. If it’s that cold, why aren’t you wearing your mittens, kid?

MJ: If he put on his mittens, he wouldn’t be able to grab that piece of pie when it comes down. 😉

MICHELLE: Well, pie is important…

And that’s it for us this month. Do you have some duds of your own you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!

Fairy Navigator Runa 1 by Miyoko Ikeda and Michiyo Kikuta: C

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s this clumsy, kind-hearted girl who learns she’s really a princess and… Oh. You’ve stopped me.

When the female protagonist of a series is “a completely uncoordinated fourth grader,” you just know you’re dealing with a magical girl story. Fairy Navigator Runa is an unoriginal example of the genre, starring a clumsy but kind-hearted girl who learns that she is not only the princess of the fairy world but also possessed of a great power. Yawn.

Runa is resistant to this news at first, but when one friend—whose sole character trait is “the one who clutches a teddy bear”—is nearly struck by a car and another is captured by an evil ferret creature, Runa’s desire to protect her friends awakens her awesome ability to… send fairies back home. Yes, that is her amazing talent, and the inspiration for the manga’s title.

This manga is simply boring. It’s also full of cheesy dialogue like, “I am the one who holds the key to your destiny.” The only original elements are the creepy third eye on the back of Runa’s neck—such an uncute element is rare in this kind of tale—and Sae, the tomboyish best friend who looks at Runa in a very special way upon being rescued. Slashy!

There’s no shortage of magical girl manga out there, so if that’s what you’re after, it shouldn’t be hard to find one better than this.

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

Mushishi 1 by Yuki Urushibara: A-

From the back cover:
Some live in the deep darkness behind your eyelids. Some eat silence. Some thoughtlessly kill. Some simply drive men mad. Shortly after life emerged from the primordial ooze, these deadly creatures, mushi, came into terrifying being. And they still exist and wreak havoc in the world today. Ginko, a young man with a sardonic smile, has the knowledge and skill to save those plagued by mushi… perhaps.

Mushishi is the timeless (quite literally, as the protagonist’s clothes are the only element suggesting modernity) story of a young man named Ginko as he travels to various isolated spots, investigating cases where mushi—an ancient form of life—are interfering with humans. This first volume presents five such tales, and the fact that they are titled instead of numbered creates the impression of self-contained short stories rather than sequential chapters in a narrative. In the fifth story, however, Ginko does think back on an earlier case, so a sense of continuity is not completely absent.

There are some common threads amongst the tales. In several, mushi have become parasytes, affecting the hearing, sight, or dreams of their unfortunate host. In these cases, Ginko is usually able to encourage the mushi to abandon their nests—this is definitely not a series where the hero vanquishes his foes with displays of fighting technique and bravado—and remarks that they are not to blame for what has happened; they’re simply trying to live their lives. Ginko is also shown to occasionally do what he thinks best for a person, despite what their wishes might be. At one point he withholds information from someone, with devastating consequences, but in another instance, his decision to intervene results in a positive outcome. It’s clear that there are no real rules here; Ginko—who is shown not to be infallible—is largely on his own in terms of how to treat each situation, and sometimes doubts whether he has done the right thing.

While the stories themselves are unique and intriguing—my favorite is the fifth, which succeeds in making a swamp of mushi into a benevolent character—Ginko himself is quite the mystery, too. We meet him already on the job, with no knowledge of his past or how he came into this line of work. It’s not until the fourth chapter (written first, Urushibara reveals in the Afterward) that we receive a scrap of a clue about what he may have been through, and not ’til the fifth that we understand how he makes a living from what he’s doing. He’s not an emotive character by any stretch of the imagination, and seems quite detached most of the time, but it’s clear he sympathizes with humans and mushi both, and truly does want to help if he can.

Reading Mushishi puts one in a mellow mood, largely because of Urushibara’s atmospheric artwork. The remoteness of Ginko’s destinations comes through strongly, and with every character but Ginko wearing kimono, it feels like this might be happening in “a simpler time.” In fact, some of the villagers remind me of the townsfolk frequently encountered in Rumiko Takahashi’s period piece, InuYasha, who also typically appear in the context of some kind of bizarre supernatural manifestation.

The nature of this series doesn’t lend itself to multi-volume binges, but I look forward to consuming each one calmly and carefully, which seems to be the approach best dictated by the story. Seven out of a total of ten volumes are currently available (published by Del Rey), with the final three coming in an omnibus in July.

I reviewed Mushishi as part of the Manga Moveable Feast; more reviews and commentary can be found here.

X-Men: Misfits 1 by Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman, and Anzu: C-

Having fortified myself with some small exposure to Marvel-style Kitty Pryde, I felt equipped to tackle the first volume of Del Rey’s X-Men: Misfits for Manga Recon. Whether you’re an X-Men fan or a shojo manga fan, you’re bound to be disappointed (if not dismayed) by this hybrid.

In this shojo-style X-Men “remix,” Kitty Pryde is a fifteen-year-old girl who is an outcast because of her mutant abilities. When Magneto invites her to attend Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters, she accepts. Apparently, she’s the first girl to qualify as a gifted youngster in quite some time, because when she gets there she finds herself surrounded by members of the opposite sex.

Kitty quickly falls in with the wrong crowd: a group of boys calling themselves “The Hellfire Club.” Fans of the comic series will recognize this name as belonging to a band of villains, but here it’s more like a host club of rowdy hotties with disdain for normal people. Kitty starts dating Pyro and ignores many signs that he’s a creep until he finally gets in an altercation with humans while on a school trip to New York City.

Some scant attention is paid to Kitty learning to control her powers and accept her mutant identity, but it’s all very shallow. Some important things happen without any insight at all into her feelings (her first kiss with Pyro, for example) and other moments are too on-the-nose to carry much weight (“But am I really ready to accept this part of myself?”). The best thing that happens is that she quietly befriends Nightcrawler and Gambit, both of whom treat her much better than her so-called boyfriend does.

Kitty is rendered here about as vapidly as possible. She has a tendency to sprout cat ears and a tail when flustered or when she spots cute boys and is often depicted in the act of flailing her limbs around. She’s also extremely dumb where Pyro’s concerned—evading him for an afternoon after he breaks into her room then engaging in smoochy times with him at the next available opportunity. One wonders what Iceman, who leaves her a token of his affections in the final pages, could possibly see in her.

Anzu’s art has been described by Publisher’s Weekly as “shojo parody.” I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion myself, but I hope it’s true, because these pages are positively slathered in screen tone. Her artwork wouldn’t be bad if it were less cluttered; some of the guys genuinely look quite studly and even if Beast does bear more than a passing resemblance to Pokémon’s Snorlax, he is still kinda cute.

Coming on the heels of the incredibly kickass Kitty I just read about in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, this incarnation is downright lame. Also lousy is the implication that this is what someone thinks shojo manga is all about. The preview for volume two promises a fashion show and a cooking showdown. Gee, I can hardly wait.

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

Fairy Tail 8-9 by Hiro Mashima: B

fairytail8The battle between Fairy Tail and rival guild Phantom Lord rages on. Two of Phantom Lord’s elite group, Element 4, have been defeated, but Gray must finish off his opponent (Juvia, a lovelorn lady possessed of rain magic) while a wounded Erza summons the strength to achieve a victory of her own. Though they’ve foiled part of Phantom Lord’s plans, however, Lucy still ends up getting kidnapped by Gajeel, the Dragon Slayer of Phantom Lord.

After some encouragement from Erza, Natsu heads to Lucy’s rescue and several chapters of fighting between he and Gajeel ensue. Unfortunately, I didn’t find these very fun to read, since there seemed to be more speedlines than usual and sometimes the action was confusing. Also, there was an unnecessary pervy spectator who kept commenting on Lucy’s undies whenever the latest explosion of battle happened to toss her about.

While this is going on, the headquarters of both Fairy Tail and Phantom Lord are destroyed, at which point the Fairy Tail guildmaster, Makarov, recovers his powers and proceeds to be a great badass. A subsequent investigation by the Magic Council finds Fairy Tail innocent in the affair, but Lucy feels responsible (it was, after all, her wealthy father who hired Phantom Lord to retrieve her in the first place), so she heads home. I really like how this chapter plays out; I was all set for a tiresome and angsty, “Oh no, it’s my fault. You’ll all be better off without me” story where her friends have to show up and convince her that she’s worthy. Instead, Lucy goes home simply to tell her dad that if he pulls anything like that again, he’ll have made an enemy of her and Fairy Tail, which is like her second family and, so far, much better than her first one.

fairytail9Upon her return, Lucy, Natsu, Gray, and Erza officially become a team and handle a couple of episodic missions without straying too far from home. I really like that most of the focus these two volumes has been on Fairy Tail itself, which has presented many opportunities to introduce or flesh out other members of the guild. The latest character to merit that treatment is ladies’ man Loke, who has a rather surprising backstory and needs Lucy’s help in order to continue to survive. Help that she, I might add, very competently provides (although it is managed a little too easily, I thought). Even though Mashima continues to use Lucy’s appearance for fanservice, he is, at least, allowing her to grow in confidence and general usefulness as the story progresses. At first, it was inconceivable that she could be an equal member of a team with powerhouses like Natsu, Gray, and Erza, but now it doesn’t seem so unlikely at all.

Although it has its ups and downs, Fairy Tail continues to offer a fun escapist story that works on a few levels; if you aren’t thrilled by the requisite shounen battles, then perhaps Lucy’s impassioned speech about finally finding acceptance will be more your cup of tea. Or maybe it’ll be the giant cow-man. Who knows?

Review copy for volume nine provided by the publisher.

Ghost Hunt 10 by Fuyumi Ono and Shiho Inada: B

ghosthunt10Osashiburi, Ghost Hunt! When last we left off, Naru, the head of Shibuya Psychic Research, was hospitalized after revealing a glimpse of his mysterious and dangerous powers. As volume ten begins, Naru has checked himself out of the hospital and seems to be back to normal, but on the way home he begins acting strangely, setting up camp in a rural village and ordering divers to dredge the nearby lake. Gradually, some information about Naru’s past comes to light and he reveals that the whole reason he created SPR in the first place was to find this spot. While awaiting the divers’ results, the team is commissioned by the town’s mayor to check out rumors of spirits haunting an abandoned elementary school. It turns out the job is a lot more dangerous than they were led to believe and the volume ends on a gigantic cliffhanger with the team trapped and the fates of two characters uncertain.

What Ghost Hunt does best, when it’s at the top of its game, is evoke an atmosphere of delicious creepiness. After a bit of a sputtering start, this volume settles into a nicely spooky groove. The nature of Naru’s search is marvelously macabre, and the scenes in which the team explores the rickety remains of the school are full of tense moments and grisly discoveries. On top of this, Mai has begun to realize that she doesn’t know enough about her colleagues to be able to call them friends, and so takes some welcome steps towards remedying that. Unfortunately, what Ghost Hunt does worst—achieving and maintaining consistency in character designs—is still a problem, but one to which I’ve simply become resigned.

Who knows when we’ll see volume eleven here—it just came out in Japan a little over a month ago—but the quality of volume ten assures me it’ll be well worth the wait.

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

Fairy Tail 7 by Hiro Mashima: B+

From the back cover:
Fairy Tail’s rival guild, Phantom Lord, has taken the competition to dangerous levels by smashing the Fairy Tail building and nearly killing three wizards. What is Fairy Tail’s response? A full-frontal assault on Phantom Lord! But this clash is all part of the Phantom Lord’s evil plot to capture a coveted prize.

Volume seven of Fairy Tail is a lot of fun. The battle between Fairy Tail and Phantom Lord continues on, and not only are some nifty villains introduced on the Phantom Lord side, we also learn more about some members of Fairy Tail who’ve remained in the background thus far. True, a couple of the chapters could be summarized as “Mirajane and Elfman have angst,” but it’s about time some of these folks got some attention.

Showcasing the new faces on both sides means Mashima gets to show off his talent for devising interesting new magical abilities. The most devastating new power to be introduced in this volume is called “drain,” wielded by a wind magic user, which essentially blows a person’s powers right out of them. Elfman turns out to have a pretty cool ability too, and now that he’s overcome his angst enough to use it, I wonder whether he’ll figure more prominently in the story from now on.

Lastly, I must commend Mashima for not taking this in the exact direction I was expecting. I was dreading another entry into the “our heroine is kidnapped by the enemy and our heroes bravely battle to retrieve her” school of shounen plotting, but Lucy surprised me by escaping her confinement pretty quickly. Everyone does still battle because they refuse to hand her over, but at least she wasn’t wholly passive about it.