Let’s Get Visual: Takehiko Inoue

MICHELLE: It’s been a while, but Let’s Get Visual has awoken from its hibernation in time to celebrate the Takehiko Inoue Manga Moveable Feast. Joining me for this occasion is special guest host Anna Neatrour, who is also co-hosting the MMF with me! Welcome, Anna!

ANNA: Thank you! I am excited to join in on a Let’s Get Visual post for Takehiko Inoue, because I think he is one of the top contemporary manga artists. He has an incredibly detailed and realistic style that really sets his manga apart from other series.

MICHELLE: I just started reading Vagabond the other day, and there was one close-up picture of Takezo drawn with extreme care and obvious skill, and I thought, “Y’know, this should be the image that all manga fans carry around to immediately dispel the misconceived notion that all manga looks alike and/or involves big, sparkly eyes.”

ANNA: I think that Inoue’s style (particularly in Real and Vagabond) is probably more reader-friendly to Western comics fans who haven’t read much manga before.

MICHELLE: Yeah, probably so. I’ve often thought that Western comic fans would probably like a bunch of seinen manga if they’d give it a chance.

Anyways, I suppose we should proceed to get visual! The images I’ve chosen are the very first pages in the very first volume of Real.

Real, Vol. 1 (VIZ Media)

I chose these images because they demonstrate how well Inoue is able to communicate Togawa’s character here without needing any words at all. Okay, sure, this guy is in a wheelchair, but he’s clearly driven. He’s pushing himself, possibly to the point of pain (if that’s what that one black panel represents). He has bulging muscles, so he’s clearly been at this a while. He’s moving fast. He may have a disability, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t take being an athlete seriously.

And then you turn the page and see that he is all alone. Inoue pulls back to show the entirety of the gym to emphasize Togawa’s solitude, and if that wasn’t enough, we get a glimpse of the empty school campus, as well. This sets the stage for what we later learn (which you mention in your review)—that Togawa’s attitude toward his wheelchair basketball team does not mesh well with his hobbyist teammates. Here’s a guy who is giving it his all, and he is the only one.

There’s just so much we can tell from this elegant introduction that it kind of blows me away.

ANNA: I agree that one of the things I like best about Inoue’s art is how much the images are able to contribute to the storytelling of his manga without overtly telling the audience anything. The themes touched on in the images you showed are addressed again later in the manga. Togawa’s ego and isolation contribute to his central struggle in the manga, and at the same time his willingness to practice all by himself shows just how dedicated he is to his sport.

MICHELLE: I will always, always be a big fan of nonverbal storytelling, so Inoue really wins my heart here by going above and beyond impressive art.

Want to tell us about the images you picked?

ANNA: The panels I chose were from Volume 26 of Vagabond, collected in the ninth VIZBIG edition of the series.

Vagabond, Vol. 26 (VIZ Media)

One of the reasons why I love Vagabond so much is that the fight scenes are never merely about two people fighting. There’s always a psychological or philosophical element involved. We see Miyamoto Musashi in a midst of battle against 70 members of the Yoshioka sword school, an ambush he willingly walked into. As he battles, he’s focused on centering himself and living in the moment. The close-up panels of his face show the process of self-reflection even as he is mowing down his opponents.

MICHELLE: That’s a really striking sequence. I like how he seems to be looking off into the horizon as he tells himself to have no aspirations for the future, as if to acknowledge the existence of other paths that he’s not allowing himself to take. Granted, I’ve not read the series that far—I’m barely on volume two—but it almost seems to me like he could walk away from this fight if he wanted to, but he’s not letting himself do it. Is that anywhere near the case?

ANNA: I don’t think Musashi is capable mentally of walking away from a fight like this. There are a lot of things that lead up to this sequence of many chapters where Musashi takes on the entire sword school, but one thing that struck me about the battle as a whole is that while you see Musashi getting beaten down and injured, towards the end Inoue almost has the reader concluding that it was really unfair to the 70 men who were planning on ambushing and attacking Musashi from behind that they had to go up against this one particular single opponent. Vagabond’s
fight scenes are always interesting, even when they stretch on for hundreds of pages, simply because the exquisitely rendered battles are contrasted with the internal struggles of the people who are fighting. Battle is as much of a mental exercise as it is a physical one.

MICHELLE: That’s an interesting point! So far I’ve only seen a few fights, and there hasn’t been much on Takezo’s (as Musashi is known at that point in the story) mental state yet. But I definitely admired the pacing and structure of Inoue’s artistic approach to battle—even watching Takezo just turn around and notice one opponent still standing becomes something frankly terrifying.

ANNA: One the things I enjoy about Vagabond is seeing the way Musashi changes over time. The man fighting the sword school in these panels has a measured sense of self and an inner stillness as he fights opponent after opponent. This is totally different from the way Takezo is portrayed in the earlier volumes, where he is more arrogant and animalistic.

MICHELLE: I definitely look forward to seeing how he gets from point A to point B. I admit, I still prefer Inoue’s sports-related series, but there’s just no denying that Vagabond is a masterpiece.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and we hope we’ve inspired you to check out some Inoue!

Let’s Get Visual: The Jibblies

MICHELLE: So, in our last installment of Let’s Get Visual we celebrated the pretty, so it seems only fitting that this time we devote our attentions to images that make us shudder with a feeling I like to call “the jibblies.” Just like beauty, creepy is a subjective thing, so we’ve each chosen a variety of images that get our personal hackles rising.

MJ, you want to go first this time?

MJ: Sure!

So, as I was perusing my manga collection for things that creep me out, it became increasingly clear to me that I’m very simple when it comes to what scares me. All it takes to really get to me is a single disturbing image—especially one that distorts something human into something sinister. I’m apparently not scared of monsters so much as I am of monsters in human clothing.

My first example comes from Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare. In this series, a group of teenagers is regularly drawn into a shared dreamworld in which they each appear as physical manifestations of their own worst fears. Some of these are visually more disturbing than others. The series’ main character, Ichijo, for instance, most fears his own confusion about gender, so his skirt-wearing dream self is really horrifying only to him. Some of the other students, however, wear their fears in a much more visually distorted manner. This short spread features two of those students.

After School Nightmare, Vol. 1 (Go! Comi)

First, you’ll see a student who appears only as an arm and hand, twisting itself around Ichijo. Second, a girl appears with giant cavities replacing her face and chest. While the second of these has the most stunning, immediate affect on my psyche, the first creeps up on me as I try to move away from the page. Both images stick with me long after I’ve put the book down, and this seems to be the real key to scaring the bejeezus out of me. If I can’t get the image out of my mind, it easily haunts me for days. That’s the power of a single, shocking image.

MICHELLE: My first thought upon hearing of your aversion to “a single disturbing image” is that you shouldn’t read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, followed by the thought that you should read it.

My reaction to the image above differs from yours, though, in that while these images certainly provoke in me an “ew” reaction, they aren’t the type that haunt me. I definitely think that the slinky arm creature is the more creepy in the image you displayed. For me, it’s because the gaping images of emptiness are immediately recognizable as symbols for what that character is feeling, but what on earth is causing that other student to appear like a grasping, creeping arm?! I feel like their circumstances in life might ultimately be the more disturbing! (This comes from someone who’s read only one volume of After School Nightmare, so I don’t know if this turns out to be the case.)

MJ: I think part of what makes the gaping holes in the second student so horrifying for me, is that (for whatever reason) I’m strongly affected by a lack of face. I have the same reaction to images of people with blank faces. It creeps the hell out of me when I can’t assess a person’s feelings/personality from their expression. It feels very threatening to me.

Perhaps it’s further evidence of how much a face means to me, actually, that both of my follow-up images are pretty much face-only. First, from CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, we have the face of a dead child who pleads with her mother to avenge her, and secondly, from Jun Mochizuki’s Pandora Hearts, the face of a girl that reveals itself to be a monster underneath.

Tokyo Babylon, Vol. 4 (TOKYOPOP)

Pandora Hearts, Vol. 1 (Yen Press)

I actually find both of these to be creepier than the images from After School Nightmare, though they are much simpler. Something they have in common is that they are presented against a stark, black background, giving the distorted expressions full focus. After that, though, they are nearly opposites of each other. The face of the girl in Tokyo Babylon is all too real, distorted by the power of raw emotion, while the character in Pandora Hearts is revealed to have no emotion at all, or at least none that matched what was on her false human face. Yet in the end, which is more monstrous?

MICHELLE: It’s interesting how much the things that creep us out reveal about us, isn’t it? I’d wager you get the same threatening feeling from the girl who is revealed to be a monster underneath as you do the girl with no face at all. People pretending to be what they’re not, hiding their real selves, etc. That’s definitely something all of us have experienced at one time or another.

Getting back to actual attempts at visual analysis, those deep black backgrounds really do focus the reader’s eye on what the mangaka wants them to see. It’s as if they’re saying, “I don’t want you to be distracted by anything else.”

MJ: Your analysis of me is spot-on, that’s for sure!

And yes, I think the black backgrounds achieve exactly that, while also evoking our natural fear of the dark, or what we can’t see. It’s a powerful tool for both showing us something and not showing us something, if that makes sense.

MICHELLE: It definitely does.

Now I’m reflecting on what the images I’ve chosen say about me. There’s hardly a face among them, for one thing, because I am less creeped out by shocking images than I am by imagining an experience, specifically an experience during which one is forced to endure something horrible for a really, really long period of time with no means of escape. Ugh, just thinking about the short story my images come from—”The Enigma of Amigara Fault” by Junji Ito—has given me the jibblies while typing this paragraph!

Gyo, Volume 2, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” (VIZ Media)

Page 178

Page 185

Page 198

Page 203

Page 204

I’ve chosen this particular sequence of images from this short story because they illustrate the entire plot without me needing to introduce it beforehand. By now you probably don’t need me to explain that when the TV news reports on a mountainside full of people-shaped holes revealed by a recent earthquake, people flock to the site and can’t be dissuaded from climbing into their personal holes, where long, icky agony awaits them. At first the site seems innocent enough, if a bit strange, but soon people are walking into holes, having nightmares about what happens to you in a hole, and eventually discovering the exit and…. Holy crap, it’s terrifying. This is the kind of thing that will haunt me for ages.

I’m honestly trying to analyze Ito’s artistic techniques dispassionately here, but I find that the disturbing power of the images is so great that it is affecting my ability to reason even now!

MJ: Hmmm, I’m wondering if what it’s saying is that while I’m terrified of people betraying me, you’re terrified of your environment betraying you. Or something like that.

In any case, these panels are undeniably creepy. Even if they creep me out in a less personal way, I can certainly see what’s giving you the jibblies! Interestingly, we again see the human form distorted, though in this case it’s happening sort of *to* the character we’re relating to rather than in front of him. (Maybe I’m afraid of the people I trust being compromised, and you’re afraid of yourself being compromised?)

This has a Twilight Zone feel to me, where some unexplained supernatural phenomenon is turning the lives of ordinary people into a nightmare. The artist does a great job of evoking the real terror of what’s happening, too. The texture of the stone walls around the man gives the images a three-dimensional look that makes it feel more real than a lot of what we see in manga. It’s the only thing that has that kind of thick texture, too, so it really stands out.

MICHELLE: More like I’m terrified of taking a step that can’t be undone and ending up in eternal torment because of it!

And yes, now that I’ve regained my senses, I agree that it’s the realistic three-dimensional detail that really makes it so disturbing. The details of the setting itself establish it firmly in the here and now, and then we’re shown that within the here and now exists something completely alien and unexplainable! Regarding the texture of the stone walls… it’s that bit of dialogue about how they’re carved to prevent backtracking that really gets to me. It’s mute, immobile stone, and it’s going to be your tormentor for the next several months, slowly inflicting more gruesome horrors upon you than something living could ever do. Uh-oh… jibblies.

MJ: There, there!

MICHELLE: Thanks. I also really love the bottom left panel on page 185, when you see the outside world from inside the tunnel. Interestingly, this is an angle from which the guy who just entered the hole could never have seen the characters. He’s got his back turned to this world, and is resolutely leaving it behind. And, too, I love the “less is more” approach here. We don’t see the distorted figure actually emerge from the mountain and thrash around terrorizing people. One glimpse is enough to confirm what has happened. It’s almost kind of elegant in its structure.

MJ: Yeah, I agree, the threat of what is about to happen is actually scarier by itself than it might be if we actually saw it happen. Or at least it’s creepier that way.

MICHELLE: Well, I fear this column has actually been more about us than the art, but it’s been the art that made us feel that way, and that’s something, isn’t it?

MJ: It is!

MICHELLE: So, that’s it for us this month. What gives you the jibblies?

Uzumaki, Vols. 1-3

By Junji Ito | Published by VIZ Media

As with Ito’s two-volume work, Gyo, the best word to describe Uzumaki—despite a back cover blurb promising “terror in the tradition of The Ring”—is “weird.”

High school student Kirie Goshima lives in Kurôzu-Cho, a small coastal town nestled between the sea and a line of hills. She narrates each chapter in an effort to share the strange things that happened there. It all begins when, on the way to meet her boyfriend Shuichi Saito at the train station, she spots his father crouching in an alley, staring intently at a snail. Shuichi confirms that his dad has indeed been acting odd lately, and suggests that the entire town is “contaminated with spirals.”

Mr. Saito’s fixation with spirals grows to the point where he dies in an attempt to achieve a spiral shape, which drives his wife insane with spiral phobia. She too eventually passes away, leaving Shuichi alone to become a recluse who is able to resist the spiral menace while being more perceptive to it than most. Other episodic incidents fill out the first two volumes, including unfortunate events involving Kirie’s classmates (boys who turn into snails, a bizarre rivalry over spiralling hair, etc.), her father’s decision to use clay from the local pond in his ceramics, a mosquito epidemic that leads to icky goings-on at a hospital, and an abandoned lighthouse that suddenly begins producing a mesmerizing glow. Things come to a head in volume three when six successive hurricanes are drawn to Kurôzu-Cho, leaving it in ruins. Rescue workers and volunteers flock to the area, but find themselves unable to leave. Dun dun dun!

Creepy occurrences mandate creepy visuals, but I wouldn’t say that anything depicted herein is actually scary. Oh, there are loads of indelible images that made me go “ew” or “gross,” but was I frightened by them? No. The real horrors of Uzumaki are more subtle: the suggestions that there are ancient and mysterious forces against which humans are utterly powerless and that the spiral’s victims will live in eternal torment. Many tales of horror involve bloodthirsty monsters, but a menace that forces you to live and endure something horrific is much more capable of giving me the jibblies. It’s the ideas behind Uzumaki, therefore, and not the surfeit of disturbing images, that evoke dread.

Uzumaki has a much larger cast than Gyo, which prompted me to notice that Ito actually draws some really cute and realistic-looking female characters. Kirie is a prime example, but her classmates and TV reporter Chie Maruyama also fit the bill. I was pretty distracted by Ito’s rendering of a girl named Azami, though, because she reminded me so much of Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue. Observe:

Flames... FLAMES on the side of my face!

Uzumaki definitely delivers an unforgettable story with memorable art, but I would’ve liked to get to know the characters more. Kirie is a reasonably accessible lead and is smart, strong, and kind, but I felt at times that she was too strong. If anything gross is going on in town, Kirie is the one who’s going to discover it, and though she reacts in the moment, there wasn’t much emphasis on the cumulative effect of having witnessed all this madness. She keeps going and being shocked by things right until the very end, but a more normal person would’ve broken down long before. And why weren’t more people fleeing, I wonder? True, once the storms hit, nobody could leave, but for a while there plenty of crazy stuff is happening and folks are just sticking around.

I also would’ve liked to spend more time with Shuichi. He’s a pretty interesting guy, who wants to get out of town from the very start but remains because of Kirie. He seems to have inherited equal parts fascination with and fear of the spiral from his parents, which keeps him alive if not entirely sane, and is able to function at times when others are mesmerized, allowing him to come to Kirie’s aid on several occasions. Through these actions we see how much he cares for her, but I actually had no idea they were supposed to be a couple until he was specifically referred to as her boyfriend a couple of chapters in. Okay, yes, this isn’t a romance manga and I shouldn’t expect a lot of focus on their relationship, but even just a little bit of physical affection would’ve gone a long way.

Uzumaki is grim, gruesome, and a whole host of synonyms besides. This isn’t jump-out-of-your-skin horror, but a psychological tale with a decidedly grisly bent. I’m not sure I’d universally recommend it—I think I know several people who definitely shouldn’t read it, actually—but if it sounds intriguing to you, give it a whirl.

Uzumaki was published in English by VIZ Media. It is complete in three volumes.

For more entries in this month’s horror-themed MMF, check out the archive at Manga Xanadu.

Bokurano: Ours 1-2 by Mohiro Kitoh: B

Fifteen kids—most of them, except for one boy’s kid sister, in 7th grade—are taking part in a summer program called “Seaside Friendship and Nature School.” Chafing at the instruction to go out and observe nature, the kids decide to explore a nearby cave, where they inexplicably discover a computer lab and a strange guy who calls himself Kokopelli.

Kokopelli tells the kids he’s working on a game in which the “chosen heroes” will pilot a giant robot as it faces off against alien invaders, and offers them the chance to play. Of course, they’re all interested and when he asks them to seal their contract before explaining the rules, they comply. It’s only when Kokopelli’s subsequent demonstration claims the life of a fighter pilot that they begin to grasp that the battle—and the damage it causes—is real.

Over the course of these first two volumes, the kids begin to learn exactly what they’re in for. After the disappearance of Kokopelli, “assistance” is provided by (possibly untrustworthy) Koyemshi, a floating creature almost cute enough to be a plushie if not for his menacing set of pointed teeth. He doles out information sparingly, and it’s not until two of their comrades have died that the kids learn the truth: the giant robot will fight to defend humanity from the invaders, but derives the power to do so from the life force of its pilot.

Obviously, the kids want to quit, but Koyemshi points out that they signed a contract and warns that if they should refuse to fight, Earth will be destroyed within 48 hours. The same fate awaits if they should lose a battle. As he puts it, “Win, save the planet and die… or lose and die when your planet is destroyed. Those are your options.” Believing that they really are helping to save the world, the kids soldier on.

At this point, the feel of the story reminds me a lot of another VIZ Signature title, Ikigami. For those unfamiliar with the story, Ikigami envisions a Japan in which the government attempts to encourage its citizens to lead a more productive life by instilling in them the fear of death. Anyone could receive a death notice (an ikigami) at any time informing them that they have 24 hours left to live, and the series follows each recipient in turn as they deal with the news.

Bokurano is structured similarly, focusing on each pilot as he or she “gets the call.” There are merits and flaws to this approach: obviously, the current pilot receives a lot of attention, and it’s interesting to see how each approaches the responsibility differently. One boy cares nothing for human casualties while another carefully takes the battle out into the harbor to minimize damage. One girl uses her final hours to sew morale-boosting uniforms for the group. Unfortunately, this also means that at any given time there are about a dozen characters relegated to the background, waiting for their turn to contribute to the story.

Because of lack of time spent with individual characters, it’s hard to care about them much, despite their awful predicament. I might realize I like someone based on how he handles his turn as pilot, but I know the opportunity to see things from his perspective will be brief. The most compelling aspect of the story to me is the notion of where these invaders came from in the first place, and what the human population as a whole thinks about giant monsters in their midst.

During Kokopelli’s demonstration, as he occupies the sole chair in a circle of many, he admits that he’s as much a pawn as the kids are and that he isn’t from our planet. It would appear, then, that he is the final pilot from a previous incarnation of this “game” who was sent to Earth to find a new set of players. Is this “invasion” real? Why are there precisely fifteen enemies and no more? This may not be a game for the young pilots or the humans threatened by these monsters, but is it a game for someone, somewhere?

Dark, grim, and mysterious, Bokurano is probably not for everyone, but I’ll definitely be reading more.

Bokurano: Ours is published in English by VIZ. The series is complete in Japan with eleven volumes.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Review copy for volume two provided by the publisher.

Gyo 1-2 by Junji Ito: B+

Walking fish aren’t the usual sort of monsters one associates with Halloween, but their invasion makes for creepy reading nonetheless!

Tadashi and his high-maintenance girlfriend, Kaori, are vacationing in Okinawa when Kaori begins complaining of putrid smells. Soon after, a chase ensues between Tadashi and a barely glimpsed, fast-moving creature, culminating with the discovery that said critter is actually a fish with four spindly mechanical legs. This is just the tip of the fishberg, though, as Okinawa is soon overrun by walking fish, which quickly spread to mainland Japan and eventually the rest of the world.

Despite the attempts of the back cover to induce me to regard the series as “horrifying,” the primary adjective I’d use to describe it is “weird.” The scenes of walking fish—and sharks, squids, and whales—swarming down city streets are alarming but fun in a disaster movie kind of way. For most of the first volume, I actually smiled as I read. Things get more serious in the second volume, with revelations about what the creepy legs will do once they run out of fish bodies to use as fuel, but the weird only gets weirder—there’s a critter circus, for example—and the series never loses its page-turning momentum.

While I’d primarily classify Gyo as something fun that’s not too deep, it does offer some commentary on scientific ethics, particularly in the person of Tadashi’s uncle, who immediately begins trying to create a walking machine of his own. Some will be put off by the lack of a finite ending, but I find it interesting. If this were a disaster movie, we’d probably be given the opportunity to cheer on our battered heroes as they figure out the creatures’ vulnerability and blow them all to smithereens, but Gyo stops short of that point. Will mankind prevail? Will the world be overrun? We’ll never know.

Two short stories are included in volume two. “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” is short and random, but I liked “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” a lot. In it, an earthquake has revealed a rock formation riddled with human-shaped holes that go farther back into the rock than researchers are able to measure. People have flocked to the site after seeing it on TV, somehow drawn to holes that seem to have been tailor-made for them. A young man named Owaki tries to keep his new female friend, Yoshida, from entering her hole, and suffers some vivid (and way more horrifying than the fish-monsters!) nightmares about what could happen to a person who enters. The final page suggests he was right.

In the end, I wouldn’t classify Gyo as amazing, but it—and “The Enigma of Amigara Fault”—are certainly entertaining and memorable. I may have to check out more from Junji Ito, like the spooky spiral menace of Uzumaki!

Gyo is published in English by VIZ and is complete in two volumes.

Black Lagoon 1-3 by Rei Hiroe: A-

If asked for a one-word description of Rei Hiroe’s seinen action series, Black Lagoon, my response would be “kick-ass.” I’d quickly follow that up, however, with “and a lot more intelligent than one might assume.”

Black Lagoon is the story of the Lagoon Traders, a group of seafaring couriers based out of the fictional city of Roanapur, Thailand. African-American Dutch, an ex-military man who keeps cool in any situation, is their leader and, as the series begins, his crew consists of a trigger-happy Chinese-American girl named Revy and a Jewish Floridian on the run from the FBI named Benny. (Benny is totally the Wash.) The Lagoon Traders acquire a fourth member, Japanese salaryman Okajima Rokuro (immediately dubbed “Rock” by Dutch) after a job during which they’ve taken him hostage to use as leverage with his employer. When the latter opts to leave him to die, Rock decides to forsake his old life and joins up with his captors.

From there, the crew takes on a variety of jobs. Sometimes they’re the “good guys”—as in volume three, when they’re helping bring documents detailing Hezbollah plans into the hands of the CIA—and sometimes they’re the “bad guys,” like when they’re hired to arrange a getaway for a murderous child assassin. They don’t trouble themselves with value judgments like that, though; to them, business is business. Dutch will take a job if it pays well, even if it puts him into conflict with the powerful Balalaika, leader of a Russian gang known as Hotel Moscow, with whom he has worked closely in the past. “We both have jobs we gotta do. That’s all there is to it,” he tells her at one point. (Yes, “her.” There are tons of badass women in Black Lagoon.)

Aside from the (very violent, very riveting) action spawned by these dangerous jobs—including many gunfights, explosions, and high-speed chases—the story also focuses on Rock’s integration into this seedy world. His origins may be more ordinary than his crewmates’, but he has a backbone and proves useful on a number of occasions. His main source of conflict early on is with the dynamically damaged Revy, and the two have some fascinating conversations. Her early life was extremely bleak (“I stole. I killed. I did all sorts of vile crap. My story ain’t worth shit.”) and she seems to feel that Rock, with his more idealistic outlook on things, is passing judgment on her. He isn’t, at least not in the way she thinks, and when he is able to explain his perspective on things (and is probably the first person in her life to believe in her ability to be a better person) she becomes more accepting of his presence.

There’s something about the label “action” that makes me worry that the art is going to feature incomprehensible panels full of speedlines, so I was happy to discover that Hiroe’s art is actually much cleaner than I’d anticipated. He seems to have a fondness for cross-page panels, which is kind of neat, and varies up scenes of dialogue so that they’re more than just talking heads. Vessels and guns are all extremely detailed, and if Revy does have a predilection for extraordinarily skimpy clothing, she’s so strong and interesting a character that this comes across as entirely her personal choice and not merely an attempt to provide some fanservice.

The very best thing about Black Lagoon, though, is that it really is a mature manga. Many manga receive the “mature” rating because of boobs and violence, but really, maturity is not required to understand and enjoy those things. To fully understand this series, one needs a basic knowledge of geography—the Southeast Asia setting is wonderfully unique—as well as history and current events. There’s an international cast of organized criminals, as well as terrorists and other groups, and having some idea of their ideologies beforehand is essential. I think the story is supposed to be set in the mid-’90s, but was written after 9/11, so when a member of Hezbollah speaks of planned attacks against New York City, it’s pretty chilling.

I’m excited to continue with this series. It’s not for the faint of heart, and sometimes the violence does get a little much for me, but it’s so damned good that I just have to see what happens next.

Black Lagoon is published in English by VIZ. The ninth volume has just been released, which is also the most recent volume available in Japan, where the series is ongoing.

Afterschool Charisma 1 by Kumiko Suekane: B-

Sigmund Freud. Florence Nightingale. Napoleon Bonaparte. These are not merely the names of eminent historical figures. They are also the names of students at a certain high school. These children are the fruit of leading-edge genetic engineering technology. In other words… they are clones.

It’s the year 2XXX A.D. and St. Kleio Academy is home to many students, all clones of famous historical figures. All, that is, except for Shiro Kamiya, son of a professor at the school and the only regular kid in attendance.

The students are expected to not only live up to the “monumental legacies of [their] originals,” but to strive to surpass their achievements. While some students are seemingly content with this arrangement, others strive to be their own person. Marie Curie, for example, lacks passion for scientific study and instead wants to be a pianist. When the school’s first graduate, a clone of John F. Kennedy, is assassinated while dutifully following in his original’s footsteps and campaigning for president, the astute Sigmund Freud does some digging and confirms the existence of a group whose agenda is to kill all of the clones.

Like me, you might find this concept very intriguing. Like me, then, you’ll likely be disappointed to discover that the tone of this volume is quite erratic. After some ominous hinting that Marie Curie—who the students believe has been allowed to transfer to music school—has been scrapped (“Another do-over,” according to Shiro’s dad), the story abruptly veers into fanservice territory, with Shiro and Freud shoved into the girls’ changing room by their friends. So, now we’ve gone from “Ooh, creepy!” to “Ooh, boobies!”

As the story progresses, it wanders seemingly without direction. There are still some hints about the anti-clone organization sprinkled throughout, but the focus becomes more on a sort of cult operating within the school whose members carry around plush toys in the likeness of Dolly, the famous cloned sheep. Also, because Mozart disdained Marie Curie’s musical ambitions, Shiro decides he needs to get fit so he can challenge him to a fencing match after which Mozart seemingly hangs himself to teach Shiro what it’s like to be a clone. Or something. It’s very odd.

In the end, I’m still interested enough in the story to read the next volume. I have suspicions about Shiro’s origins, for one thing, and the fact that the anti-clone folks have their faces hidden can only be significant. There’s a lot of potential here—I just hope the various elements coalesce into something more purposeful.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Afterschool Charisma is published in English by VIZ and serialized on their SigIKKI website. One volume’s available in print so far while in Japan the fourth volume has just been released.

Saturn Apartments 1 by Hisae Iwaoka: B+

In this low-key, dystopic sci-fi story, a boy named Mitsu takes up his missing father’s occupation as a window washer in the hopes that it will yield answers about his disappearance, or maybe just life in general.

Humanity has vacated Earth. They were not, however, willing to move too far away from their former home, now declared a vast nature preserve, and have instead taken up residence in a gigantic ring around the planet. Within the ring, a very stratified society exists, with public facilities located on the relatively airy middle levels, spacious homes for the wealthy in the upper levels, and dark and cramped living conditions for everyone else in “the basement.” Saturn Apartments is essentially a slice-of-life story that follows Mitsu as he begins his new job (washing the ring’s external windows) and interacts with residents from the various levels of society. Most of the guild’s work is either assigned by the government or commissioned by the very rich, so when his first job is cleaning windows on the lower level, it’s rare.

This job has been requested by a young couple who are about to get married—the groom-to-be is Sohta, a very bright young man who obtained an advanced degree with the hopes of finding a job in the middle levels. Only after Sohta graduated was he told that, even if he goes to grad school, he’s still not going to be employable because he’s from the basement. He ends up settling for a job as a technician in a power plant instead. Many of the following stories also serve to illustrate the plight of the basement-dwellers while offering in contrast the excesses of the rich, including one eccentric fellow who keeps a near-extinct sea creature in his home and another who tinkers with robots all day long and has the crew back to redo his windows over and over without offering any explanation as to what they’ve done wrong.

Meanwhile, Mitsu seeks to learn more about the accident that apparently claimed the life of his father, Akitoshi. Five years ago, Akitoshi’s rope was cut and he plunged toward Earth. Mitsu had always suspected that his father cut the rope intentionally, but when he’s sent to work at the same spot, he notices some damage to the ring’s hull that could’ve been responsible for severing the rope, along with many handprints that suggest his father fought to stay alive. Later, he meets his Akitoshi’s former partner, Tamachi, and begins to hear about a side of his father that he never knew.

As I wrote in my introduction, the world of Saturn Apartments is what I would call a low-key dystopia. Those who dwell in the basement aren’t too happy with their lot, but they seem resigned to the fact that they can’t do anything about it. The only one who really has any spunk is Jin, the experienced window washer with whom Mitsu is partnered, but his frustration at rich folks manifests as bursts of ill temper that pass quickly. Iwaoka’s art excels at depicting the oppressive feeling of life in the basement—narrow alleyways and towering buildings reinforce the notion of insurmountable obstacles and one can almost feel the weight of all the rooms above Mitsu’s pressing down on him.

Mitsu himself is perhaps the weakest link here because he is so much an observer. We do learn that his mother died when he was very young and that, after his father’s death, some kindly neighbors attempted to care for him but he always kept a respectful distance from them. Now that he’s finished school and is working, he is determined to pay his own way and seeks to find meaning in the work that he’s doing. Too, he believes that following in his father’s footsteps and working hard will enable him to learn something. What that is, exactly, he doesn’t know, but perservering feels important.

I certainly find Mitsu’s quest interesting and will keep reading about him and his world, but it’s as if he’s keeping a respectful distance from the reader, too, which makes it difficult to become more than simply curious how things will turn out.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Saturn Apartments is published in English by VIZ. One volume has been released so far, though two chapters of volume two are available on the SigIKKI website. The series is still ongoing in Japan; five volumes are currently available there.

Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono: B+

Twenty-one-year-old Nicoletta arrives in Rome with the intention of confronting her absentee mother, Olga, and revealing the fact of her existence to Olga’s husband, Lorenzo, who had believed his wife to be childless. Instead, she becomes entranced by her mother’s world and ultimately finds a place in it.

Olga and Lorenzo run a restaurant, and though the food is excellent, many of the patrons come just to see the waiters, a staff of mostly older men who all wear glasses (whether necessary or not) to indulge Olga’s whim. At first Nicoletta is perplexed by the multitude of women swooning over these men until she begins to notice the particular charms of Claudio, the head waiter. Claudio is graceful, sexy, and very kind, though he’s still hung up on his ex-wife and continues to wear his wedding ring. Although Nicoletta originally wrangles a job as a kitchen apprentice in order to be near him, she proves to be genuinely good at cooking. She becomes part of the restaurant’s family, and her relationship with Olga improves as a result.

Ristorante Paradiso is a completely different kind of story than not simple, the other Natsume Ono title currently available in English. It’s happy, for one thing, with a cozy, slice-of-life storytelling style and the kind of predictable yet comforting conclusion that would be perfectly at home in an Italian holiday kind of chick flick. Things between Nicoletta and Olga work out too easily, but most of the focus is on the guys anyway, so I’m not as annoyed as I otherwise would be.

Let’s talk about those guys for a minute. Sexy Claudio is definitely the star among them, but grumpy yet kind Luciano is another standout, as is Gigi, Lorenzo’s eccentric half-brother who seems to have a completely unspoken thing for the boss’s wife. Nicoletta is continually upstaged by these men—and by Olga, whose zeal for life makes her a sympathetic character despite the mistakes she made in the past—and it’s no wonder that Gente, the prequel/sequel series due from VIZ in July, focuses on them and not her. Nicoletta starts out as a directionless twenty-something in search of her place in the world, but we just don’t get to know her well enough to find her journey truly compelling. That said, I did appreciate her confidence in certain situations and she has a terrific final line.

It might just be an illusion, but Natsume Ono’s art looks a little more traditional here than in not simple. There’s no way you’d mistake her work for anyone else’s, but the characters seem more normally proportioned and she really does a great job in conveying Claudio’s gentle demeanor and appeal whenever he appears. While the “show don’t tell” rule gets broken on several occasions, there are still a few examples of good nonverbal communication, too. My one artistic complaint is that I wish we could have seen more of the food! Then we might have had something like the Antique Bakery of Italian cuisine. The subtle inclusion of a hilariously oversized ravioli made by Olga is some compensation, however.

In the end, Ristorante Paradiso is definitely worth reading. The plot won’t knock your socks off, but the experience will likely put a smile on your face nonetheless.

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

Kingyo Used Books 1 by Seimu Yoshizaki: B

Book description:
Every bookstore has a thousand stories to tell. An art student finds inspiration. An archer hits a bull’s-eye. A homemaker rediscovers romance. A teenager discovers his true self in the pages of a manga magazine. All this and more at Kingyo Used Books, a place that helps people find their dreams.

We have the manga you’re looking for.

No matter what ails you, there’s a manga that’ll make it better just waiting to be discovered at Kingyo Used Books. Each chapter in this episodic first volume adheres to this general premise, whether it features a struggling archer regaining his focus thanks to a gag manga, an art student finding inspiration in the story of a famous painter, or a half-Japanese kid growing up in America finding qualities to emulate in a boy detective. My favorite chapter in this line is about a housewife who rediscovers a stash of her old shoujo manga in her parents’ house, which ultimately leads her to recall why she fell in love with her husband.

After a few chapters, the format does begin to vary somewhat. At first, the staff of the bookstore are mainly present in the background as we spend more time with the customers, but gradually we get to know Natsuki, granddaughter of the owner and acting manager, and Shiba, manga enthusiast and procurement expert, somewhat better. Other recurring characters include a couple of sendori (book scouts) and Natsuki’s grandfather, who has amassed a drool-inducing amount of stock for his store. The last chapter in the volume isn’t about Kingyo at all, but about the sendori helping to save the rare inventory of a manga lending library from damage in a storm.

The low point of the volume is the introductory chapter devoted to the arrival of Natsuki’s cousin, Billy. Essentially, this shy half-Japanese kid living in America is having trouble making friends until he reads the manga Billy Puck, which stars a courageous boy detective and teaches him about bravery and justice, et cetera. This would be fine, except his obsession persists into adulthood, and he arrives in Japan dressing and acting exactly like his favorite character. The other characters react as if he is merely kooky, and maybe somewhat to be admired for his commitment, but all I could think was, “This guy is mentally ill!” Besides, I found it implausible that someone so obsessed as to hand-knit a sweater for Billy Puck’s creator would not also know that said creator died decades ago.

Throughout the volume, many different classic manga are mentioned, and ample footnotes are provided regarding creators, length, and publisher, should one be compelled to track them down. Also, several pages at the end of the book furnish additional detail on the few series that feature more prominently in the narrative. If there ever was a manga to make a person feel like renewing their commitment to learn Japanese, this is it!

In the end, Kingyo Used Books is pleasant and educational, capable of inspiring book lust and a yearning for many titles that will most likely never make it to our shores. Unfortunately, it seldom exceeds the bounds of pleasantry, outside of a few nice moments in the stories of the housewife and the lending library, so there is little here to move or excite the reader. I can see myself continuing to read the series because I care about the manga to which it can introduce me, but not because I particularly care about the characters.

Kingyo Used Books is published in English by VIZ, and is also serialized online at their SigIKKI site. One volume has been released so far, though the still-ongoing series is currently up to ten volumes in Japan.

Review copy provided by the publisher.