Let’s Get Visual: Tricks of the Trade

MICHELLE: It’s time for another installment of Let’s Get Visual, a monthly feature in which Manga Bookshelf’s MJ and I work to expand our artistic horizons!

This month’s column is inspired by a recent TOKYOPOP release, How to Draw Shojo Manga. Instead of simply offering tips on drawing faces, poses, or cute little animals, this book surprised and impressed me by its wealth of specific advice on many aspects of the manga-creation process. I covered it in a recent Off the Shelf column, and concluded by saying, “Even a casual manga fan would find this book illuminating. For a reviewer, particularly ones like us who are trying to improve our skills in artistic criticism, I’d go so far as to call it positively indispensable. There’s so much practical advice about what a mangaka should be—and theoretically is—striving for in his/her work that I found it quite a fascinating read.”

I put together a list of some of the techniques suggested by the book, and MJ and I kept our eyes out for shoujo manga that puts them into practice. Happily, I stumbled upon a perfect example almost right away in the series Karakuri Odette, recently the topic of the Manga Moveable Feast.

Karakuri Odette, Volume 5, Pages 1-2 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: These two pages exemplify several elements from How to Draw Shojo Manga. On the first page, for example, we have a variety of different-sized shots of the scene and characters, as recommended on page 60. (“Each page needs a rhythm. If all the panels are the same size, and the characters just sit there talking, that’s no fun to read.”)

In the middle of the second page, when the danger of the falling boards is realized, the use of diagonal lines evokes this piece of advice, from page 68: “By placing a character at a diagonal within the panel, the composition becomes unstable, allowing you to express the character’s anxiety, nervousness, or fear.”

Lastly, you’ve got the cliffhanger page-turn to build up the reader’s anticipation, as advised on page 59. “If you can hook the readers at the bottom of the page and make them ask “What next?!” as they turn the page, then you’ve succeeded.”

I’m starting to wonder if mangaka Julietta Suzuki read this book, too!

MJ: Well, if you think about the fact that the book was written by editors from the publisher that released Karakuri Odette, it seems likely that these are standards to which they hold all their artists!

You know, aside from obvious two-page spreads, I’d never really put a lot of thought into how important it can be for a chapter’s right and left-hand pages to be so precisely displayed. But it’s clear here that the bottom left panel of the left-hand page must immediately precede the page turn in order to have its intended impact. This actually brings up some questions for me about the effectiveness of digital distribution, given that most of the readers I’ve encountered favor (or at least allow) single-page views. How much page-to-page impact are we losing by reading manga on a portable device without even realizing it?

MICHELLE: Yes, I had meant to mention that the book was produced by the editors of Hakusensha’s shoujo manga.

And yes, that’s a great point. I believe the viewer at the NETCOMICS site preserves the two-page view, which is excellent, but others don’t. I suppose this is the argument in favor of shelling out loads of money for an iPad instead of trying to read shrinky-dink manga on one’s Kindle, but eh. I think I’ll stick with paper books!

Moving on to pages three and four…

Here we’ve got the resolution to the cliffhanger, in which Odette swoops in to save the day with her android strength. Suzuki uses a nifty trick to express Odette’s predicament simply through composition: placing her alone in the middle of a wide shot (as advocated on page 68) emphasizes her isolation from her classmates in this moment, bringing into focus how different she is from them, in that she can pull off this feat with ease.

Not that this stops her, as she chivalrously scoops up her classmate—”It’s effective to have a panel that draws the eye to the top of the left page,” notes the book—and carries her off. We know they’ve gone to the nurse’s office because Suzuki has followed the advice about using a sign or placard as an establishing shot when changing scenes (page 76).

I’ve got to say, it feels a little odd to be able to match up practically every panel to a specific piece of advice in the how-to book because when I read this scene, I really didn’t think of any of these things. Suzuki may be employing common practices when drawing her series, but that doesn’t make it feel generic.

MJ: I’ve definitely found it a bit jarring to realize just how much these pages adhere to a fairly strict artistic formula. It all seemed so natural when I was reading them! I suppose what this really demonstrates, though, is how much careful craft goes into creating something that can flow naturally for millions of individual readers. The visual language that Suzuki uses to tell an effective story using just a series of still drawings is key to our understanding.

Also, it’s important to remember that this kind of structure is only the framework for displaying a story to readers, and not the heart of the manga itself. Suzuki puts a soul into her story that would never be possible by way of panel formula only. The structure just makes some of the storytelling easier, by giving us visual cues our brains can process with little effort. It’s clearing the way for the heart of the story, I suppose.

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s a lovely way to put it. I mean, really, when you think about it, if a creator went to a lot of trouble to come up with some wildly innovative new way to do an establishing shot, for example, it could either not quickly make visual sense to the reader or could detract from their enjoyment by yanking them out of the story. You used the phrase “visual language,” and I think that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here.

MJ: Yes, exactly! There’s a reason you weren’t thinking about any of these things when you were first reading the book. The point of this kind of visual language is that you don’t have to. Our brains do that work automatically because we’re already fluent in the language. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in artistic innovation. Of course there is! But with a story like this, you want the focus to be on the characters and their relationships. The craft should be invisible, so as not to distract from the point at hand.

MICHELLE: All I can do is nod, because you’ve said it so well!

How does this visual language manifest itself in the pages you’ve chosen?

MJ: Reading How To Draw Shojo Manga, I was struck by how really modern it feels. All the artwork inside is very consistent with what we’ve seen coming over for the past few years, so I thought it might be fun to look at something a little older, as well as something that falls well outside the romance genre, which is what we mostly see these days. To that end, I dug out a volume of CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, which is about fifteen years older than Karakuri Odette (give or take) and, though there’s a sort-of-romance element involved, leans heavily towards dark fantasy.

Tokyo Babylon, Volume 6, Pages 109-109 (TOKYOPOP)

Here in the first set of pages, the story’s protagonist, Subaru, is clearly waking from a nightmare. You can see that, like Suzuki, CLAMP is also using varied panel sizes to establish rhythm, as well as a number of different camera angles for cluing us in to Subaru’s state of mind. The contrast between Subaru’s dramatic awakening and the realization that he’s very much alone is especially effective, I think. At the bottom of the first page, we feel his unsteadiness as he pulls back the curtains to let light into the room, and then our eyes are drawn easily to the top left by the reflection of his hand in the mirror, given emphasis by its position in the foreground of the panel.

As the image of Subaru’s sister enters the scene, the panel frames fall away, leaving her sitting freely on the page, indicating both a change of scene and a sunnier, more open space, in contrast to the darkness of everything that comes before. While this bottom left panel lacks the “cliffhanger” feel we saw in the Karakuri Odette pages, this change of time and place gives us a compelling reason to turn the page.

MICHELLE: I agree that the moment of Subaru’s lonely awakening is striking—even though it’s so much smaller than the panel below it, it still packs more of an emotional wallop, I think.

Are you familiar with the musical concept of an agogic accent? In one type, a note is accented simply by being delayed for a fraction of a beat. In other words, it stands out all the more because it’s been given a little bit of space. The bottom-left image of Hokuto reminds me of the same idea—because we’ve busted out of the panel framework and given her some space, she seems all the more significant. The white background behind her does a nice job of evoking happier days, as well.

MJ: Oh, what a perfect analogy, Michelle! Yes, I think this is exactly the same concept, applied to visual art. I suppose if you think about it, music and comics have something in common, both being sequential in a manner of speaking.

The first page here is drenched in light, with almost no background detail at all, aside from the mirror and one look at the floorboards, both of which help establish that the scene takes place in the same room that Subaru woke up in. It’s a warm scene in every way, from the brightly lit room to Hokuto’s cheerful dialogue. It would really be the sweetest scene in the world, if our eyes were not inevitably drawn to the heavy darkness of the top left panel.

Hokuto’s still there, of course, but it’s obvious that something is horribly wrong, with Subaru reduced to a tiny figure, trapped in the darkness with his own mirror image. I say “trapped,” because that’s what this feels like to me, with the oppressive darkness surrounding Subaru and the mirror. This feels even more dramatic to me than the lonely image on the first page—an impression enhanced by the violent panel that follows.

Again, we’re not seeing a cliffhanger here. This feels more like a period than an ellipsis, if that makes sense, though it’s pretty effective as is.

MICHELLE: In a way, CLAMP is using some of the same techniques mentioned in How to Draw Shojo Manga on these two pages. Using just enough background to establish the scene—”About one or two panels with backgrounds per page is good,” quoth page 86—and placing a striking image on the top left. And wow, there is just really no escaping the gloom of that left-side panel! Even if you’re not looking at it directly, it certainly registers and tinges one’s read of the brighter page with expectation of sorrow.

MJ: Oh, well said! Yes, it makes the bright panels bittersweet simply by being in the peripheral vision of that page.

I expect what we’re seeing here is just how basic and long-standing these visual techniques are, even the background guidelines which seem very specific to shoujo manga. It seems likely that these things became part of the rule due to their effectiveness in practice, rather than the other way around, and I expect we’d see most of these techniques utilized in any country’s long-form comics.

MICHELLE: Oh, definitely. These aren’t arbitrary rules imposed by some official body—they’re effective techniques distilled from what has come before. I could blather on with more comparisons to music here, but perhaps I’ll save that for another day!

Thank you for tuning in to this month’s column. If you have examples of shoujo techniques in practice you’d like to share, or opinions of where we’ve gone right or wrong, please join in the discussion! We’d love to hear from you.

Immortal Rain 3-5 by Kaori Ozaki: A-

It’s been a year since I read the first two volumes of Immortal Rain, and though I was initially somewhat lost when I started the third, the heartbreaking nature of Rain’s backstory immediately pulled me back in.

Hints had been sprinkled through the first two volumes, but here we get the whole, terrible story. We learn about Rain’s relationship with Freya—the woman he once loved—and with Yuca, the friend with a dark secret that would ultimately lead to Freya’s death and Rain being cursed with immortality. Yuca is similarly cursed himself, being reborn over and over again while conscious of the memories of all his past lives. He’s ready for this cycle to end—ready for the whole world to end, in fact—and so has chosen Rain to be his perpetual executioner.

It’s Rain’s task to wait for Yuca’s rebirth, which he’s been doing for 600 years so far. If Rain feels like humanity is worth saving, then he must kill Yuca to protect them. If he should weary of humanity and the way they treat him, he can join forces with Yuca and work to end the world. Gentle soul that he is, Rain detests this duty but is resigned to it.

But then Machika comes along to complicate things, saving Rain from his loneliness but promising future sorrow. “Being with you hurts,” he tells her. “It hurts. Because you remind me of sadness.” Later he says, “You’ll disappear so quickly.” It’s one of those doomed immortal-mortal romances all over again, like Buffy and Angel or The Doctor and Rose, and I love it to bits. It’s especially satisfying that they confess their love for each other in the fourth volume, without playing any of those delaying games shoujo series often employ. In this world, loving each other isn’t enough to guarantee a happy ending.

In fact, it’s his love for Machika that weakens Rain’s resolve. He was prepared to kill Yuca—and his own heart—over and over again forever if not for her, but now he has found love. At the same time, if he doesn’t fulfill his duty and Yuca is allowed to run free, what does this mean for the world? When Yuca actually does return and Rain is unable to defeat him, Machika roams the world for a year, refusing to believe all evidence that Rain is dead and determined to find him.

It’s all very dramatic and poignant, and I enjoy it quite a lot, but sometimes it seems a little… surface-y. I can’t really explain it better than that. It’s such a quick read, and while everything seems to make sense while it’s happening, upon reflection one wonders, “Well, why does Rain love Machika?” It just doesn’t feel like we’ve had enough time with these characters when they weren’t running for their lives. This isn’t to say that their romance feels unbelievable, just that I wish this story were unfolding somewhat more slowly. The fact that some of Rain’s foes are kids is also an unwelcome note of silly in a series that otherwise has a serious, almost seinen, kind of feeling to it.

In the year since my first review, there’s been nary a peep from TOKYOPOP regarding the future of this series. The series doesn’t come out too quickly in Japan—the latest is still the tenth volume, which was released in October 2009—so it’s frustrating being so close to having all of what’s currently available. I hope that, even if these volumes never merit a print release, they’ll be available via the publisher’s new print-on-demand feature. We shall see!

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!

Hetalia Axis Powers 1-2 by Hidekaz Himaruya: B+

I really wasn’t sure how I would fare with Hetalia. I knew that its cast featured characters based on countries and that it had a rabid fan following, but that was about it. I expected a screwball gag comedy that would probably not amuse me much, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Hetalia is actually far more clever than that.

Really, there isn’t a plot here, or even a linear series of events. Mostly, it’s a history lesson made entertaining, with plenty of edifying notes to explain the references being made. The country characters interact in the present day, whenever that is actually supposed to be, and also frequently reminisce (or complain) about their shared histories. Stereotypes are often employed for the sake of a joke, but never mean-spiritedly. More, the vibe is a satirical one and though Himaruya gives America lines like “By the way, nobody is allowed to disagree with me” and Italy ones like, “I’ll do anything you say, just don’t hit me!” he doesn’t spare his own native land, either, as Japan’s introduction proves:

I am Japan. My hobby is to read the atmosphere of a conversation and answer in the least offensive way possible.

At first, the jokes only had me smiling but the effect was cumulative and soon their sheer absurdity had me giggling, like when America’s alien buddy randomly arrives. His name is Tony. Hetalia is definitely one of those series where one must fight the temptation to quote all the funny bits!

The second volume introduces more characters, including a few female ones, like Liechtenstein, who is watched over by protective Switzerland, and Russia’s bizarre sisters. There’s also a running gag about how nobody ever seems to notice when Canada’s around. It’s essentially more of the same, but I did encounter a couple of surprisingly serious moments in these volumes, including a sad kappa leaving the company of humans who no longer believe in him and America’s victorious moment in the Revolutionary War.

The lack of plot doesn’t hamper Hetalia‘s ability to be entertaining, but the one thing that really bothered me about it sometimes was the art. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but it often looks like it was drawn by a very soft pencil and as a result has a tendency to appear dark and smudgy. It’s a shame because some of the characters are genuinely cute—Austria is my personal favorite—and Himaruya has true talent for drawing adorable fluffy animals.

I never thought I’d learn anything by reading Hetalia, but I did. As a word of warning, though, this series will totally change how one digests international news stories. As I was driving to work this morning I heard a piece on NPR about China providing economic aid to Spain and all I could think about was those two characters hanging out, eating churros and ending their words with -aru.

Hetalia Axis Powers is published in English by TOKYOPOP. Two volumes have been released so far. The manga is ongoing in Japan where three volumes are currently available.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

The Stellar Six of Gingacho 1 by Yuuki Fujimoto: B+

From the back cover:
Mike, Kuro, Iba, Q, Sato and Mamoru star as the Stellar Six, the children of various store owners of the Galaxy Street’s shopping district. Once inseparable childhood friends, they find themselves falling out of touch. But when a store on their home turf falls victim to vandalism, the Stellar Six come together again to help out, remembering the roots they share and the bonds that keep them close. In this story of true friendship, six best friends learn the importance and power of growing up together.

Well, TOKYOPOP, you’ve done it again. I’ve lost count now how many times one of their review copies has sold me on a series I’d previously heard nothing about. Trust me, it’s been a lot.

The Stellar Six of Gingacho is the story of a group of six friends, each the child of a merchant in the Gingacho Street Market. When they were younger, they were inseparable, but when they entered middle school, the unthinkable happened: they were all in different classes. As time went on, they made new friends and drifted apart.

Although adults try telling her that’s just the way it is, Mike (pronounced Mee-kay), the second-eldest daughter of the green grocer, refuses to accept the dissolution of this friendship as inevitable. Stubborn and child-like, Mike decides that participating in a dance contest is just the thing to get everyone together again, and is upset when no one seems all that keen on the idea. When a local bar owner’s establishment is trashed by a hoodlum with a grievance, however, the kids band together, compete in the contest, and donate their cash winnings to the repair bill.

Now, I admit… this looks like your typical wacky shoujo plot. Characters are forever getting involved in thoroughly random tournaments, it seems, but this one somehow made me kind of verklempt. I think what elevates The Stellar Six of Gingacho over, say, the random beach volleyball contest in a recent volume of Maid Sama!, is that it’s genuinely nice to read about friends reconnecting after some time apart. There’s something important happening story-wise beyond just the pursuit of a particular prize.

The second chapter focuses on the especially tight bond between Mike and Kuro, the son of the fish merchant, who was born in the same hospital and has always been the same height and weight as Mike. “Kuro is more than just my best friend,” she thinks at one point. “He’s my partner.” Somewhat predictably, Kuro nurtures more serious feelings for Mike, but she is too oblivious to notice. Although this chapter rolls out the old “characters are locked in the gym storage shed” cliché, I quite liked the scenes where Mike realizes that Kuro’s hands have grown much bigger than hers and that, yes, he is a guy. Again, this is familiar territory, but it’s presented in such an amusing and comforting way that it really appeals to me.

I also appreciate the fact that families and other adults are present in the story and frequently step in to curtail the kids’ (mostly Mike’s) behavior, as needed. Additionally, one of the girls—Iba-chan, daughter of the rice store proprietor—is rather stocky, but this is never mentioned in the story at all nor is she drawn as a caricature. Her weight is not an issue and does not define her character. In fact, she’s quite awesome—the most level-headed of the bunch, she frequently serves as the voice of reason within the group. The only tiny reference to her weight is one panel during the dance competition when two of the boys strain a bit to lift her up, but they never say a word about it.

Overall, I enjoyed The Stellar Six of Gingacho quite a lot. There’s no exciting plot here, but I suspect I’ll enjoy learning more about the rest of the kids and other denizens of the market. If it’s feel-good shoujo you’re in the mood for, this should do nicely.

The Stellar Six of Gingacho is published in English by TOKYOPOP. The series is complete in Japan with ten volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Of Sakura and the Sea

MICHELLE: Welcome to the November edition of Let’s Get Visual, a monthly column in which Manga Bookshelf’s MJ and I attempt to improve our understanding of manga art!

We don’t have any particular theme this month, but that hasn’t stopped us from assembling some interesting pages to talk about! MJ has chosen a two-page spread from the fourth volume of Children of the Sea, which is due out from VIZ next month. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Children of the Sea, Volume 4, Pages 328-329 (VIZ Media)

What is it you find noteworthy about these pages, MJ?

MJ: Well, there isn’t a *lot* I want to talk about here. Mostly I want to discuss panel size and how it affects the reader’s experience and understanding of this scene.

Certainly it goes without saying that a mangaka may use a full-page panel to give weight to a specific scene or piece of dialogue, but what I hadn’t considered before analyzing these pages is how much the panels leading up to a full-page panel can be used to influence the way a reader feels when he/she gets there.

In the first page I’ve provided here, mangaka Daisuke Igarashi chops everything into pieces. Our view of the characters who are speaking to each other in the scene is limited to a single eye; half of a face; legs; a brief, narrow profile; and finally a view from a doorway that shows us their entire bodies, but with a maddening lack of clarity. No matter where we look on that page, we are prevented from getting a clear view of either of them. Our efforts are obstructed at every panel, creating a sense of frustration that I, at least, felt keenly while reading that page.

As a result, when I finally reached the full panel page that came next, my first reaction was a sense of relief. This feeling eclipsed everything else, including my understanding of what was actually being said. And honestly, it affected my feelings about what was being said, which is significant particularly since the character doing the talking is generally unreliable. My strong sense of relief actually gave him more credibility than he would have had with me otherwise. I believed him, because he was the one who eased my frustration. That’s some pretty powerful storytelling.

MICHELLE: What surprises me in what you said is “either of them.” From the way the panels are constructed, to someone who has never read the series before it seemed like several people were actually present. Even so, I too experienced a profound sense of relief at escaping the claustrophobic first page into the open space of the second. That’s pretty appropriate for a scene talking about birth!

MJ: Well, and I did misspeak on one point, which is that actually only one of them is speaking. The other is being led along in confusion and frustration, just like the reader, right up until the moment that the full-page panel appears.

Iarashi’s artwork is stunning to look at throughout this series, but this was the first time I really paid attention to the way it was structured and how that alone might affect me as a reader.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I think this is a very clear example of how panel size makes a difference. Good choice!

MJ: So what have you got to share with us today?

MICHELLE: My selections come from the omnibus collecting volumes four and five of the josei series, Suppli, and are actually not consecutive pages. A little background information is required.

Suppli, Volume 4, Pages 151, 162, and 164-165 (TOKYOPOP)

Single again after her boyfriend, Ogiwara, takes a job in America, Minami Fujii is nursing a growing attraction for a pervy photographer named Sahara. When they’re on a group trip scouting locations for a commercial shoot, with sakura blooming all around and memories of Ogiwara intruding, Sahara catches Fujii when she stumbles. Though she knows he’s bad news, the shock of contact prompts the realization, “I don’t want to be careful.”

A few pages later, she ends up hurting her ankle and Sahara misses an important meeting to take her to the hospital. As he ruffles her hair and tells her not to worry about it, wispy trails of sakura begin to appear. It’s like a sort of visual shorthand mangaka Mari Okazaki is using to reveal Fujii’s emotional state. The sakura has come to represent her attraction for this man—a kind of mental static obliterating the reasons why she shouldn’t want him.

The feeling only grows when Sahara touches her leg to replace the bandages, and when Fujii realizes he must have carried her into her apartment, the sakura runs amok across the bottom half of the page, symbolizing how she’s being swept away into a possibly doomed relationship by feelings and associations that she can’t control. It’s quite effective!

MJ: As someone who hasn’t read these volumes of the series yet, I was particularly struck by the way everything you’re talking about is brought together in a single box of narration. “The memory of contact.” Perhaps I’m way off base, but I feel like that’s a verbalization of exactly what you’re talking about. It begins with the “shock of contact” as you mention, and is carried through by repeated physical contact—even just the ruffling of hair. And you’re right, it’s very effective! You can follow the thread of contact through the sakura blossoms.

MICHELLE: Okazaki has used symbolism in Suppli before, but this one is more subtle than most. When I read page 162 for the first time, I thought, “What are those frazzly little thingies?” It wasn’t until I got to pages 164-165 that I realized they were significant, and then had to flip back and find the point of the story with which they correlated. Then I went, “Ohhhhh!”

MJ: It’s one of those things that would just move along quietly in your subconscious if you weren’t actively thinking about it.

MICHELLE: Probably so, yes! Both of our examples today highlight the care and consideration mangaka put into their work—especially, it seems, those writing for older readers. In addition to being able to draw beautifully, they can also wring sympathy and (perhaps unfounded) allegiance out of readers by the simple way they structure their stories.

That’s it for this installment of Let’s Get Visual! Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your feedback and personal interpretations of these selections!

BLAME! 1-10 by Tsutomu Nihei: B+

While I do my best to appreciate manga art, I generally do not choose to read a particular series solely because of it. The exception to this is BLAME!, a ten-volume series by Tsutomu Nihei that boasts “an endless labyrinth of cyberdungeons filled with concrete and steel.” Thinking that sounded pretty durn awesome, and prepared to encounter an occasionally incomprehensible story, I took the plunge.

And man, is BLAME! gorgeous! Killy, the unemotional and practically unstoppable protagonist, spends most of his time roaming a giant structure known as “The City,” looking for humans who might carry Net Terminal Genes, which pre-mutated man once used to communicate with the Netsphere (overseen by The Authority). It’s not unusual for a whole chapter to go by with no dialogue at all as Killy continues his journey, sometimes reduced to no more than a tiny speck on a narrow bridge spanning a dark chasm. The place is gloomy and cavernous, filled with pipes, corridors, stairs, and the occasional abyss. Nihei excels in creating his enormous and dangerous world, and also in conveying Killy’s progress, as demonstrated by a couple of pages from volume six that I scanned for a recent Let’s Get Visual column.

Killy encounters a few small pockets of civilization but has no luck finding anyone with the Net Terminal Genes, which are necessary to curtail the endless expansion of The City, since the builder bots who construct it were never given the instruction to stop. He does team up with a former scientist, Cibo, whose attempt to access the Netsphere with synthesized genes ended in disaster and introduced The Safeguard to The City. The Safeguard are mechanical creatures who can derive their bodily forms from the City itself. Originally designed to protect the Net from unauthorized access, their chief focus now is exerminating humanity. Humans must also contend with the Silicon Creatures, a race of cyborgs who also want to access the Net.

Killy and Cibo engage in countless fights against the Safeguard and Silicon Creatures, resulting in some pretty massive damage. Cibo goes through about three bodies throughout the course of the series, while Killy must lose his arm about eight times. (There is a lot of limb loss in this series, as well as quite a few still-conscious partial people.) It gradually becomes clear that Killy is not exactly human himself and that he’s able to heal from even the most devastating injuries. He also can’t remember where he got his gun—a powerful Graviton Beam Emitter that creates a straight line of destruction 70 kilometers long—but it’s awfully similar to one carried by Sana-Kan, a powerful Safeguard who was able to get close to Killy and Cibo in a humanoid guise.

Eventually Killy and Cibo enter a quasi-independent realm, which seems to be the headquarters of a company called Toha Heavy Industries. The artificial intelligence in charge has stored the genetic information of humans that used to dwell within, and it’s from there that Killy finally gets his sample. Unfortunately, it falls first into the hands of a pair of sympathetic temporary Safeguards (seriously, one utters the line “Also, you might see my arm lying around somewhere. If you could pick it up, that’d be great.”) and finally into those of a Silicon Creature, whose attempt to access the Net somehow leads to one final mutation for Cibo and a pretty crazy resolution to the story. The final page gives one a lot to ponder, and I’m sure there are a variety of fan opinions on what exactly happened.

This is, of course, a vast simplification of the plot, and I am omitting quite a lot that I am at a loss to understand or explain. But here’s the thing… it doesn’t matter. BLAME! is so fascinating and its world so grimly compelling that it simply doesn’t matter if sometimes one has to stare at a panel and wonder what the hell one is even looking at. From someone like me, who usually demands that a plot make sense, that’s pretty high praise indeed.

BLAME! was published in English by TOKYOPOP. All ten volumes were released.

Maid Sama! 1-4 by Hiro Fujiwara: B

When I started reading Maid Sama!, it was with the goal of catching up on the series so that I could cover the review copies I received of volumes five and six. I planned to give my personal copies of volumes one and two—as far as I ever got in actually buying the series—to my (awesome) local library when finished. Volume one went into the to-donate box as planned, but somewhere in the middle of volume two I fell not quite in love, but at least in profound like (and removed volume one from the box).

The premise of Maid Sama! is this: Seika High School was formerly an all-boys school, and despite the introduction of female students still remains 80% male. Misaki Ayuzawa ends up attending Seika because of its reasonable tuition but is determined to make the school a more pleasant place for the girls. She works hard to earn the position of Student Council President, and makes it her mission to whip the rambunctious boys into shape. Little do they know that when the “demon president” leaves school she heads to her part-time job at a maid café.

Most of the boys obey Misaki, if unwillingly, but handsome Takumi Usui is the exception. It’s no exaggeration to say that Usui can do anything and do it well, and one of his special talents is convincing Misaki to consider the boys’ perspective when arguments arise. He quickly learns about her secret job and thereafter always shows up at the right time to protect her from dangers like overzealous fanboy patrons and scheming students from a rival school. This forms the basic plot structure of Maid Sama!. Something wacky happens, Usui whips out some previously unknown talent, and the day is saved. Alas, most of these scenarios are uninspired, some painfully.

The most egregious example of plot lameness occurs in volume four. The staff of the café takes a group vacation to the beach, whereupon their hostess proclaims that her nephew can crossdress to his heart’s content if only he wins a random beach volleyball tournament. I’m pretty sure I groaned aloud when I got to that part. Still, I found myself remembering a comment from MJ, the basic gist of which was that she can forgive shoddy plotting if the character relationships are compelling. Indeed, it’s Misaki and Usui, both individually and together, who really save this series and make me want to read more.

Misaki starts out as rather abrasive, but mellows a bit thanks to Usui’s influence and by volume two is more often depicted as cool and intelligent. She never fails to give 100% in whatever she is trying to do and at times is downright valiant in her desire to protect the female students. Usui is one of those effortless genius types and is in love with Misaki, though his teasing nature prevents her from ever taking his declarations seriously. I love that Usui respects Misaki for her brains and strength—though it saddens me that he seems to believe that because Misaki is a girl there are limits to what she can expect to accomplish—and is impervious to advances from other girls.

It’s obvious that these two are meant to be together and it’s the rare pulse-pounding moments between them that make Maid Sama! such a fun read. Indeed, though the volleyball part of volume four is pretty dumb, it nevertheless leads to frustration on Misaki’s part when Usui, always her ally, is now suddenly her opponent. This, in turn, leads to one of the most romantic moments yet, which is unfortunately interrupted. Still, Misaki has been gradually warming to Usui, and it’s at the end of this volume that the narration observes that “Completely unnoticed, feelings had begun to grow.”

While I can’t claim that Maid Sama! is groundbreaking in any way, it is nonetheless extremely enjoyable and I’m looking forward to continuing with it. It would be nice if the plotting got more interesting, but so long as Misaki and Usui’s relationship continues to develop as it has been, I’ll be satisfied.

The Dreaming Collection by Queenie Chan: B+

From the back cover:
Where dreams turn into living nightmares… Behind the gates of the exclusive Australian boarding school, Greenwich Private College, wait beautiful Victorian architecture, an excellent education, and a terrible secret: students have been known to wander into the surrounding bushlands and vanish… without a trace! Mysterious forces are at work, and as the rigorous atmosphere of the school starts to slowly crumble around them, twin sisters Amber and Jeanie are about to learn that the key to the school’s dark past may lie in the world of their dreams…

Due to unexplained family circumstances leading to the departure of their father for Singapore and the sale of the family home, twin sisters Amber and Jeanie find themselves shuffled off to Greenwich Private College, where their aunt works as headmistress. Said aunt promptly heads off to a symposium and funeral, leaving her nieces to get used to the place on their own. Before she leaves, she cautions the girls to hide the fact that they’re twins, since the Vice Principal is really weird about that.

Pretty quickly Amber and Jeanie begin hearing rumors about disappearances at the school, and the weird dreams they begin sharing, together with a mysterious sealed room and a bizarre series of paintings, suggest that there may be some truth to the legends. After a clandestine midnight party involving a séance, one classmate (Millie) goes missing, and Amber starts acting strangely. Jeanie begins to investigate the earlier vanishings, assisted by a young teacher whose roommate disappeared eleven years ago, and gradually uncovers what’s been going on.

As I read, I kept feeling like I was playing one of those first-person adventure video games like Dark Fall, where one explores the deserted building where one’s brother was last seen and looks for clues to his disappearance. The fact that the school is set in the middle of the Australian bush, and is quickly isolated by torrential rains and flooded roads, only reinforces the feeling. The interiors of the school are lovely; I wish there actually was a game based on this series, because I’d love to be able to wander about the place.

There are some minor things I could complain about. Amber is occasionally kind of annoying, one classmate pops up a couple of times only to dispense important information, and Jeanie fails to realize that tugging on the cloth under a candelabra is going to make it fall over and start a fire. Also, one of the best moments is when some of the vanished girls suddenly emerge from the bush to surround the school, looking for all the world like they’ve simply been caught out in the rain in their nightgowns. Jeanie implores her classmates not to let them in and then… we don’t hear about them again for quite some time.

Still, one sure way for a graphic novel of any kind to win my heart is to maintain a certain creepy atmosphere, and The Dreaming accomplishes this admirably. From the first volume to the last, Chan never allows the suspense to flag, and though there are a couple of points about which I’m a little fuzzy, the conclusion hangs together very well. The fate of the twins is especially intriguing, and I have some questions I’d love to discuss with someone else who’s read it. (Seriously, let me know if you’re interested!) In fact, some of the best elements of the story, especially the common ground between the present set of twins and the last set to inhabit the school, are things that I’m determined not to spoil.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Dreaming this much, but I have to say that it has quite effectively deposed Nightschool as my favorite OEL series. I can see myself rereading it again in the near future.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Planetes 1-3 by Makoto Yukimura: B+

Planetes is the story of Hachirota Hoshino, dubbed “Hachimaki” by his crewmates for his propensity to wear a headband (hachimaki), who dreams of earning enough fame and fortune to buy his own spaceship and achieve complete freedom. As the series begins, however, he’s part of a crew of “extraplanetary sanitation workers” who clean up space debris.

The first volume introduces readers to the crew of The Toy Box. In addition to Hachimaki, there’s Yuri, a Russian of indeterminate age whose perpetual staring into space (literally!) is explained when the story of his wife’s demise in a space liner crash is revealed. Yuri achieves some closure in the first chapter, when he finally finds a compass that was precious to his wife, and becomes a livelier character (and occasional font of wisdom) from then on. Tomboyish pilot Fee is a Floridian with a family back home and an ardent passion for cigarettes, which prompts her to go after some environmental terrorists who’re going around bombing smoking lounges.

The environmental terrorists become a more important factor in volume two. Hachimaki, who has been somewhat of a slacker up until now, learns that a rich inventor is mounting an expedition to Jupiter. Hachimaki develops a single-minded determination to be on the Jupiter mission, which leads to him working out endlessly and being sort of an ass to Tanabe, the (female) newcomer to the crew set to be his replacement. The environmental group—the Space Defense League—attempts several times to sabotage the protect, since the purpose of the mission to Jupiter is not exploration but to mine its resources. Hachimaki isn’t particular about the reasons—he just wants to go—and when his former friend, Hakim is revealed to be the terrorist mastermind, Hachimaki nearly kills him, saved at the last minute by Tanabe.

Hachimaki makes the crew for the Jupiter mission and by volume three is participating in mission training simulations. He’s haggard, though, losing weight, having visions of some sort of mystical cat, and feeling disconnected from everything around him. His crewmate, Sally, attempts to get through to him, and eventually succeeds (via boob therapy). Hachimaki has spent a great deal of time pursuing solitude, but Sally makes him see that in the end that Tanabe was right all along—“space is too dangerous and wonderful a thing to face alone.” Like his father before him, Hachimaki marries before heading out into space in order to anchor himself with a home.

Planetes is definitely an interesting tale, offering a mixture of science fiction and philosophizing about what it means for humans to go into space. One might notice, though, that in each of the paragraphs above dedicated to a particular volume of the series, Hachimaki seems like a different person. And, indeed, an inability to identify with the lead is what prevented me from awarding these volumes an “A.”

These volumes take place between 2074 and 2077, and it makes sense that a person could change a great deal in that time, especially given what Hachimaki has experienced, but sometimes I couldn’t trace the path between one incarnation of Hachimaki and the next or fully buy into his feelings for Tanabe. Also, even though it would have been unfortunate if Hachimaki had remained on the debris-collecting crew forever, I really missed Yuri and Fee as the story moved away from them. The first volume may be the most episodic of the first three, but it’s also a little less heavy than the others.

Ultimately, I liked Planetes a lot, though it wasn’t a quick read for me. I’m looking forward to the fourth and final volume.

Planetes is published in English by TOKYOPOP. There are technically five books in this series, but the last two comprise volume four, which was split due to length.

Additional reviews of Planetes can be found at Triple Take.