All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga: A

allmydarling“A mother is an imperfect woman.”

So thinks Yukiko Kisaragi, the central hub around which the collection of stories in All My Darling Daughters revolves. As the story begins, Yukiko’s mother, Mari, has just undergone a successful cancer operation and decides that, from now on, she’s going to live her life the way she wants. To Yukiko’s dismay, this involves getting remarried to an aspiring actor and much younger man, Ken Ohashi, whom she met at a host club. At first, Yukiko is convinced it’s a con, and maintains a guarded demeanor around Ohashi, but once he proves his love for Mari really is genuine, she breaks down. “She’s always belonged entirely to me,” she sobs.

From there, stories focus on those Yukiko knows. The second chapter is about a strange student named Maiko who forces herself on Izumi, a lecturer friend of Ohashi’s; the third features Sayako, a pretty friend of Yukiko who has decided to investigate arranged marriage; the fourth is about middle school friends of Yukiko and how their career plans went awry; and the final chapter focuses on Yukiko’s grandmother and her relationship with Mari. Meanwhile, we catch glimpses of how Yukiko’s life is evolving through a series of revelations about what has occurred “off-camera.”

At first I had a hard time understanding how some of these stories related to each other. Sayako’s story, for example, is incredibly touching and sad, but her mother does not play much of a role. The story of the forceful student seemed entirely out of place. But then the common thread hit me: this book is not just about mothers and daughters. It’s about the relationship between any caregiver and a child, and how something that might seem inconsequential to one could affect the other for the rest of their lives.

Sayako is crippled in love because her well-meaning grandfather told her, “You mustn’t discriminate among people.” Maiko has a warped view of relationships because someone indoctrinated her with a servile disposition—even though Izumi repeatedly says, “Who told you that?” it’s a perception she is unable and even unwilling to shake. Yukiko’s middle school friend is unable to fulfill her lofty goal of being a trailblazer for women in the workplace because an abusive father forces her to leave home early and quit school. Even Mari’s not immune, since her mother’s denigrating comments (made with good intentions, we later learn) about her appearance gave her a lifetime complex about her looks.

By the end of the volume, it’s apparent that Yukiko really is living a charmed life. Mari may be an imperfect mother, but she’s honest about her foibles and the two share an incredible relationship. Yukiko even achieves a sense of peace about her new step-dad, realizing “this strange boy is necessary for my mom.” Yukiko’s husband, Jun, is sweet yet equally imperfect, and a casual remark near the end of the volume reveals they’ve made headway in conquering a problem of equality in their marriage. Career-wise, Yukiko is the most successful of her group of middle school friends, prompting former chum Saeki to think, “At least one of us fulfilled her modest dreams.” And who is it whose fierce yet loving care enabled Yukiko’s life to turn out so well? I’ll give you one guess.

In addition to all of this thoughtful, integrated writing, Yoshinaga also employs her distinctive artistic style in the service of the story. True, the bulk of the panels contain talking heads in white space, but sometimes these headshots are exactly what one needs to get the point across. The most effective example of this occurs in the third chapter, when a two-page spread of close-ups is used to convey how Sayako and a prospective husband, Mr. Fuwa, have instantly achieved a content companionship. And if you don’t get sniffly when this technique is used again in the final two pages, you might just be a robot.

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

not simple by Natsume Ono: A

notsimpleFrom the back cover:
A story within a story,
A book within a book,
A tale about the search for family,
For an emotional home.

Ian, a young man with a fractured family history, travels from Australia to England to America in the hope of realizing his dreams and reuniting with his beloved sister. His story unfolds backwards through the framing narrative of Jim, a reporter driven to capture Ian’s experiences in a novel: not simple.

I normally reserve my comments about a comic’s art for somewhere near the end of my review, but since the fact that Natsume Ono’s style deviates from the manga norm is glaringly obvious, I thought I’d address it first. Her art is spare and kind of squiggly, true, and yet it’s absolutely perfect, adding to rather than detracting from the narrative. I honestly cannot imagine this heartbreaking story being illustrated in any other way; to pair it with pretty art would be too wrong for words, so don’t let the lack of same be a deterrent.

If you, like me, have ever thought, “Why don’t more stories have sad endings?” then not simple is the manga for you. That’s not even a spoiler, really, since the structure of the story reveals the fate of Ian, the hapless protagonist, practically immediately. The book begins with a conversation between Jim, a writer, and Ian, in which Jim announces, “You’re going to be my next novel.” From there, a prologue depicts the end of Ian’s story, in which he is a drifter looking to keep a rendezvous with a woman he met years earlier, before shifting back in time to chronologically cover his life from childhood until the moment he leaves for the meeting.

The hardships and misfortunes of Ian’s existence are beyond many, and just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. Growing up in Australia as the child of a drunken mother and absentee father, he’s extremely close to his sister, Kylie. When Kylie is sent to prison for robbery—her means for funding a new life with Ian by her side—he’s left alone at home, and after his parents divorce, ends up living in London with his mother. Upon her release, Kylie finds him there and they have the briefest of brief reunions before she sends him back to Melbourne to be with his dad and promises that they’ll meet again once he achieves his dream.

Years pass. Ian has always loved running, and his dream is to break a certain runner’s record. He and Jim originally met when Jim was assigned to interview him, and they reconnect when Ian’s peculiarly jubilant response to placing fourth in a race attracts the notice of Jim’s editor. Ian, having achieved his goal, now feels free to seek out his sister. His search is long and disappointing, hindered by a series of terribly unlucky near-misses and a set of relatives that don’t care much about Kylie or Ian, let alone helping them achieve a reunion.

If this sounds like just about the most depressing story around, that isn’t far off the mark. And yet, it never strays into implausible territory. Ian is a likable guy—a strangely pure and innocent person who is, simultaneously, somewhat of an enigma—but the stresses of his life begin to take their toll and the final time he shows up at Jim’s place, after an absence of two years, the change is palpable. For years, he’s been matter-of-fact about the horrible things that have happened to him, but finally is so worn down that he’s become haggard and yearns only for the warm personal relationships that have been denied him. Jim’s an interesting observer, as well, ignoring his own family about as strenuously as Ian searches for his. If there’s anything I could complain about with not simple, it’s that we don’t learn more about Jim’s particular circumstances.

Depressing or not, not simple is masterfully told and completely unforgettable. If I had to sum it up in one word it would be this: haunting.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Detroit Metal City 1 by Kiminori Wakasugi: C

dmc1From the back cover:
By all appearances, Soichi Negishi is a sweet, well-mannered boy who loves Swedish pop music, trendy boutiques, and all things fashionable. But at the same time he’s also Krauser II, front man for Detroit Metal City, an indie death metal band whose popularity increases by the day. Once the DMC makeup goes on and Soichi takes the stage, his natural talents as a death metal god can’t help but flourish. Is this the band he’s truly destined to be in?

I knew going in that there was a chance I wouldn’t like Detroit Metal City—the front cover describes it as “gleefully profane” and “wildly ridiculous,” after all—but there were also some aspects that suggested I might, like a sense of the absurd (Krauser II riding a tractor must be seen to be believed) and songs with titles like “Death Penis.” In the end, I struggled to finish the first volume and must conclude that this series is simply not for me.

This is the story of Soichi Negishi, who moved to Tokyo for college with the ambition of starting an indie pop band. Instead, he finds himself taking the stage as Krauser II, frontman for the death metal group, Detroit Metal City. While DMC has legions of screaming fans, no one is much interested in Soichi’s music except for a few old classmates from whom he hides his affiliation with DMC. Throughout the volume, he tries to find an outlet for his own musical sensibilities, but gets humiliated one too many times and seems to be on the verge of embracing his role as Krauser by the final pages.

Predictably, I did not enjoy the rampant profanity or crude characters like DMC’s boss and drummer, but I might’ve been able to overlook that if Soichi, in his normal, everyday guise, was actually a likable person. In fact, his “normal” mode is as much of a guise as Krauser is, since beneath the mild-mannered surface lurks a person capable of plotting revenge on DMC fan who accused him of groping her on the train by dressing as Krauser and planning to have lots and lots of sticky sex with her. I understand that that’s probably the point—the line between Soichi and Krauser is much more blurry than he’d care to admit—but I personally don’t enjoy stories in any medium where I can’t find anybody to like.

On the positive end of the spectrum, there are some funny moments (see above re: tractor) and some entertaining juxtapositions, like when Soichi’s classmate sings one of his old songs while a DMC tune plays in the background, or when an e-mail from Soichi’s mom asking “You eating enough, hon?” is superimposed over a gruesome video shoot in which Krauser chomps on some bats. My favorite line comes after Krauser, in full make-up, helps a rival band member get over his nerves by rehearsing in a bathroom. The other guy is all grateful, to which Krauser replies, “I am the devil. You shouldn’t get too attached.”

Ultimately, I didn’t hate Detroit Metal City, but I’m not planning to read more. I might, however, follow plot developments from afar to see whether anything interesting comes of Soichi’s decision to accept his death god fate.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers 1 by Fumi Yoshinaga: A

From the back cover:
In Edo Period Japan, a strange new disease called the Redface Pox has begun to prey on the country’s men. Within eighty years of the first outbreak, the male population has fallen by seventy-five percent. Women have taken on all the roles traditionally granted to men, even that of the shogun. The men, precious providers of life, are carefully protected. And the most beautiful of the men are sent to serve in the shogun’s Inner Chamber…

After a mysterious illness wipes out most of the young men in Edo Period Japan, women step up to take over the roles traditionally filled by men, becoming laborers, merchants, heads of families, and even shogun. Over time, the illness grows less virulent, but remains a common threat, resulting in a population made up of four times as many females as males. Healthy men are prized—families use them as pawns to negotiate alliances, and it’s tough for the average woman to secure a husband, requiring her to visit a brothel if she wishes to have a child.

It’s into this world that Mizuno Yunoshin (name order left intact!) is born, the son of an impoverished family of the samurai class. He’s in love with his childhood friend, Nobu, but because she is of the merchant class, they are not considered a good marital match. Rather than assent to marry someone else, Mizuno instead goes into service in the Ōoku, the Inner Chambers of the shogun’s palace—where many men are kept either for the purpose of becoming concubine to the shogun or for serving those who have been deemed worthy for that honor—which will award his family enough money to perhaps attract a suitable husband for his sister. The majority of the volume focuses on Mizuno learning of the Inner Chambers’ elaborate customs as well as his unexpected rise in rank when he happens to catch the eye of the senior chamberlain.

If I had to pick one word to describe Ōoku, that word would be “intrigue.” In the noun sense of the word, Ōoku delivers abundantly, as jockeying for position within the Inner Chambers is the favorite past-time. There’s some fairly elaborate scheming going on that takes the plot in unexpected and interesting directions. And, of course, in the verb sense of the word, Ōoku intrigues readers by not being easily classified as a simple gender reversal tale.

Instead, it emphasizes the fluidity of the notion of gender, showing how males in a certain situation can exhibit traditionally feminine attributes while females can possess qualities that are generally regarded as masculine. The new shogun, Yoshimune, is an absolutely fascinating example. In this world, where women reign, Yoshimune’s intelligence and political savvy have flourished, and she is a very effective ruler, making unorthodox decisions and sidestepping the ploys of her underlings, all while frequently sating her robust sexual appetite. Her advisor, Hisamichi, is also wonderful, with a mild-mannered countenance that conceals the full extent of her cleverness. Towards the end of the volume, Yoshimune begins to question why it is that women in power are required to adopt manly names, so that it appears in historical records as though they have been men all along. I’m eager to see what will happen next!

Artistically, Yoshinaga’s distinctive style is deceptively simple; one might think that without elaborate designs to distinguish so many dark-haired, similarly garbed men, keeping them straight would be a problem, but it actually never is. Also, I’m particularly fond of the way Yoshimune is drawn; her haughty expressions manage to simultaneously capture her senses of humor and of self-importance. My one complaint here is that though Mizuno is often described by other characters as being handsome, he really doesn’t look it.

Published under the VIZ Signature line, Ōoku has the beautiful packaging generally afforded titles in that imprint, with French flaps, color pages, and a gorgeous vellum title page. Even the “You’re reading the wrong way!” page has been given a classy facelift. I applaud the adaptation for retaining the proper order of names, but am less enamored of the choice to render the dialogue in a very formal sort of English. I get that VIZ must’ve been trying to recreate the feel of the original, but it’s a bit distracting at first. Thankfully, I did get used to it eventually. It’d be a shame to let something so trivial mar one’s enjoyment of so excellent a work.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit 1-2 by Motoro Mase: B

ikigami1From the back cover:
Dear Citizen:

Thank you for your loyalty. You’ve no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You’ve probably asked yourself


Rest assured that measures are being taken. Beginning immediately, we will randomly select a different citizen each day who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is and how important it is to be a productive, active member of society.

Thank you for your continued attention and your cooperation and participation…

In this dystopian tale, Japan has passed the National Welfare Act, designed to help its citizens lead more productive lives by instilling in them the fear of death. To this aim, one in a thousand children entering the first grade is injected with a nanocapsule along with their standard immunizations. This nanocapsule is preprogrammed to rupture in the pulmonary artery sometime between the ages of 18 and 24, killing the person instantly. The identities of the supposedly randomly selected capsule recipients are tracked by the government and 24 hours before the capture’s rupture, a messenger dispatches an ikigami (or death paper) notifying them of their selection. We follow Fujimoto, one such messenger, as he delivers these ikigami and struggles with questions about his work that he cannot express, lest he himself be injected with a capsule.

Rather than focus on Fujimoto exclusively, each volume contains two three-chapter stories about a recipient of an ikigami delivered by Fujimoto and how they spend their final day. In volume one, a store clerk who was bullied in high school uses his final day to exact revenge upon his tormenters and a singer who had chosen an opportunity for stardom over his best friend uses his last live performance to sing his friend’s composition on the radio. In volume two, a director squabbles with his girlfriend over his drug use but tosses aside his big break when she receives an ikigami and a young employee at a nursing home makes a connection with an elderly woman right before he receives his death notice.

Almost without exception, these tales are extremely depressing. The first story in volume two is the worst on that score, but basically, any time you see two people who mean anything to each other in this series, you know that they are about to be torn apart, one way or another. Even the most grim tales manage to offer something optimistic, though. In volume one, the final act of the store clerk is to give advice to another victim of bullying while hearing his own song on the radio inspires the singer’s former partner to take up music again. In volume two, the death of his girlfriend spurs the director to finally clean up his act. It’s only the last story of volume two that is actually uplifting, though, because Takebe, the recipient of the ikigami, is truly satisfied by how much he was able to help the woman in his care, and so dies without regret.

ikigami2One thing that becomes clear in these stories is that the law is not having its desired effect. No one—with the possible exception of Takebe, who has tried to be his best because that’s his nature rather than due to fear of death—in these stories has become particularly productive. Because only 1 in 1000 people have the capsule, they had believed it wouldn’t happen to them. Some are spurred to action after they receive the ikigami, but others are too paralyzed to do much of anything as their time slips away.

Fujimoto is merely a recurring character throughout and we don’t learn too much about him. It’s clear that his job is taking a toll on both him and his personal relationships, though, and though he succeeds in burying his concerns for a while, they do have a way of returning to the surface. Through his eyes, we see the training seminars given by the government about the process and how the recipients are theoretically entirely random. Fujimoto, however, notices that, in practice, things are rather sloppy, with ikigami arriving at the last minute and with incorrect case notes attached. By the end of the second volume, he’s feeling numb, and a brief flare of hope when he meets a therapist that genuinely seems to be offering solace to the recipients is cruelly extinguished when she reveals that her clients only appear to’ve been calmed because she drugs them.

Mase’s art is dark and gloomy, as befits the story, but manages to move the story along rather than hinder it. Characters’ faces are frequently distorted into expressions of anguish or other raw emotion, so the art is sometimes a bit unattractive, but again, that still serves the story. One thing I especially like is that most everyone actually looks Japanese. Fujimoto, in particular, has a nice, understated design that looks pretty realistic.

Ultimately, while I’m curious to see whether Fujimoto will be able to continue to rationalize his job or if he’ll become a “social miscreant” and attempt to effect change, I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing with this series. It’s just such a tremendous downer. In fact, I must now seek solace in some girly manhwa as a mental palate cleanser.

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is published in English by VIZ. Volume one is out now and volume two will be available in August 2009. In Japan, it’s currently serialized in Young Sunday and six volumes have been released so far.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka 2 by Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka: A

Robots and humans continue to die in this second volume of Urasawa’s re-imagining of Osamu Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy story, “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” Gesicht travels to Japan where he meets with Atom, another of the seven strongest robots allegedly being targeted. After accessing Gesicht’s memory chip, Atom is able to assist the Japanese police as they work a similar case and discovers the common factor between the human victims. Meanwhile, Gesicht continues to warn other robots on the list while questioning mysterious gaps in his own memory.

While volume one did a good job of setting up the plot and the world, volume two really gets the ball rolling. There’s action and plot twists aplenty, as well as answers to questions that only serve to beget more questions. I certainly can’t complain when a story proceeds to go somewhere, but I still missed the “robot interest” stories that made the first volume so stellar. There were a few touching moments scattered throughout, but mostly the focus was on plot advancement.

Urasawa’s art is uniformly excellent, as usual. I’m a big fan of the futuristic city scenes, but perhaps my favorite thing in this volume is actually Atom’s hair. No matter which way he turned, Tezuka’s incarnation of Astro Boy always had two triangles of hair poking up. Atom’s case is far subtler, more like tufts really, but it’s definitely there. I love attention to detail like that.

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

20th Century Boys 1 by Naoki Urasawa: A

I reviewed the first volume of this well-regarded series for Comics Should be Good. Check it out!

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka 1 by Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka: A+

In the Astro Boy story “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” available in the third volume of Dark Horse’s edition of the Astro Boy manga, a power-hungry sultan creates a robot named Pluto and gives him instructions to destroy seven other powerful robots that could challenge Pluto’s claim to the title of King of the Robots. Pluto dutifully carries out his orders but bears no personal animosity for his opponents. The story is notable because Pluto and the other robots are highly sympathetic characters, though some are more fleshed out than others.

In this reimagining of “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” Naoki Urasawa is, in many ways, adhering closely to the original story, though he adds new layers and provides additional background for some of the robots that get less attention in Tezuka’s version. Where the original presents the story from the perspective of Astro Boy and addresses the question of what attributes really make a robot great, Urasawa’s approach is more like a sci-fi mystery novel. His protagonist is Gesicht (Gerhardt in the original), a highly-advanced robot detective with sensors that allow him to make Holmesian pronouncements about crime scene details. He’s investigating two cases with striking similarities: the killing of a much-beloved robot named Mont Blanc and the murder of a human involved with a movement to preserve the existing robot laws. The evidence seems to indicate a robot culprit is responsible for both deaths, even though robots are forbidden to harm humans, so Gesicht pays a visit to the last robot known to have violated this prohibition. It’s there that he first hears the name Pluto and learns that he himself might be a target.

The result of Urasawa’s story tweaks is nothing short of amazing. I am by no means a fast reader, but with an almost cinematic feel for scene and pace, the pages of Pluto just fly by. This isn’t a story that gets bogged down by its own weight. Even when Urasawa takes the time to flesh out a character—as in the touching tale of North No. 2, a robot formerly used in war who gradually becomes indispensable to a crotchety composer—the momentum doesn’t suffer. Urasawa extends this humanizing treatment to robots with more machine-like visages, as well. There’s one memorable sequence where, as the wife of a police bot receives news of her husband’s death, Urasawa devotes three panels to a close-up of her face, acknowledging the presence of the grief that she is facially incapable of expressing.

Urasawa’s seemingly limitless arsenal of character designs is on full display in Pluto, though the percentage of people with huge noses is still higher than normally occurs in nature. Like Monster, Pluto is set in Germany, so it’s a bit like coming home to see the Düsseldorf tag on a scene. It’s a futuristic Düsseldorf, though, with multi-tiered highway systems and seamlessly integrated bits of swanky new gadgetry.

The packaging itself is quite nice, with an innovative spine design, larger trim size, satin finish, French flaps, and color pages. And though Viz isn’t responsible for the title font and the way the “U” looks just like Pluto’s horns from the original story, it’s still really cool.

While it’s not necessary to have read “The Greatest Robot on Earth” to enjoy and understand Pluto, I still recommend doing so. It makes Urasawa’s achievement all the more impressive to see what he started from and, without it, you might miss out on some of the impact of various scenes. Seriously, I got geekbumps at least twice.

Pluto is still ongoing in Japan with six volumes released so far. In English, it’s licensed by Viz.

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

Monster 18 by Naoki Urasawa: A

After eighteen action-packed volumes of murders, secret organizations, suppressed memories, and the most exciting book donation ceremony known to man, Naoki Urasawa’s Monster has come to a close. With its multitudes of well-developed characters, unique setting, expressive art, and interwoven plot threads, the tale of Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a gifted surgeon who is out to stop a murderer whose life he saved in the operating room, has been a rich and rewarding reading experience. It can be hard to have faith that such an ambitious undertaking will hold together, however, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who had put off reading it until they’d heard whether all of the lingering questions had been satisfactorily answered in the end.

Well, the answer to that question is “mostly.” Throughout the course of the series, various people have played a part in the creation of the monster that is Johan. Unfortunately, anyone expecting the final volume to provide a conclusive explanation for exactly how he turned out the way he did will be disappointed. Some additional insights are revealed, though, which at least will give readers a basis upon which to come to their own conclusions.

On the positive side, several of my other questions were unambiguously addressed. On the whole, I found the conclusion of the series to be a satisfying one. In a volume full of important scenes, my favorite moments were those between Tenma and his pursuer, Inspector Lunge, who’s quite the fascinating character. The penultimate chapter also catches up with a few characters who haven’t been seen in a while; I can’t think of anyone whose fate was left to dangle.

While Monster is not without flaws, they are far outnumbered by its virtues. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this series to anyone.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Monster 17 by Naoki Urasawa: A-

From the back cover:
In the little mountain town of Ruhenheim, life is simple and peaceful. Neighbors greet each other on the street, and the biggest case the local authorities have to worry about is a lost dog. But this bucolic splendor is about to change. Will Tenma, Grimmer, and Inspector Lunge be able to prevent the massacre Johan is planning for this sleepy village and its unknowing inhabitants? Or will the cobbled streets of Ruhenheim soon run red with innocent blood?

Of the unanswered questions listed in the review for volume sixteen, only the fifth is answered. The identity of the child who was taken to Red Rose Mansion and what they experienced is, indeed, cleared up.

Plotwise, we get one of those situations where some characters seem to know where to go and what Johan’s planning without the audience having any idea how. Eventually, some explanations are given, but I think my confusion over that kind of hampered my enjoyment of the malevolent happenings going on in a secluded mountain town. It’s fairly interesting, but not nearly as good as the previous half a dozen volumes or so have been, even if Grimmer and Lunge are awesomely working together.

At this point, it’s kind of hard to say anything that isn’t a spoiler of some kind. If it’s not evident by now, Monster is not a series without flaws, but it’s got an exciting story full of twists, turns, and random awesomeness.

Oh, and I still love Dieter.