Tidbits: Shonen Jumpin’ Jehosaphat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloopy pet: *splat*

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

Arrancar: Crap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Down Banana Fish 14-16

The seventh installment of the Breaking Down Banana Fish roundtable has been posted at Manga Bookshelf, featuring disussion of volumes fourteen through sixteen of the series.

There is a ton of action in these three volumes, as Ash’s friends rescue him from Papa Dino and must then contend with retribution both from the Chinese forces of Yut-Lung and a band of mercenaries hired by Papa Dino. A plethora of gunfighting and tactical maneuvering ensues, and it’s all very exciting. Beyond that, it also challenges conventional ideas of what shoujo manga is. As a downside, though, there’s very little time for interaction between Ash and Eiji.

Still, I am enjoying this series very much. I can hardly believe there are only three more volumes (and one more roundtable) left to go!

One Piece 46-56 by Eiichiro Oda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy for volume 56 provided by the publisher.

Rurouni Kenshin 1-6 by Nobuhiro Watsuki: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NANA Project #9

MJ, Danielle Leigh, and I have completed our penultimate (for now!) edition of the NANA Project over at Comics Should Be Good. You can find that post here.

Volumes seventeen and eighteen are full of drama, most notably when a tabloid prints a story about Nana’s long-lost mother and when Shin, lost after the end of his relationship with Reira, makes a real mess of things and derails Blast’s first big tour. Nana accepts the agency’s suggestion to go solo, pledging to bring in even more fans so that Blast won’t go bust, but even as she embarks on this path, buoyed by dreams, it’s becoming clear that whatever happens to send her running away to England will be happening very soon.

And yet, I didn’t find these volumes as depressing as I have others in the series. I suspect this is because Hachi is by Nana’s side. She attempts to prevent the publication of the story about Nana’s mother, and when she fails, rushes to Nana’s place and stays with her over the New Year’s holiday. The relatively new character of Miu, Yasu’s new girlfriend, also grew on me in these volumes with her ability to see the truth about people. She instantly, for example, realizes that it’s Hachi who’s really the strong one.

In the future (or present) timeline, Hachi receives a mysterious package with clues to Nana’s whereabouts. It seems Hachi’s faith in her is the only thing keeping Nana alive, and that she needs to be found, pronto. The series goes on hiatus after volume 21, so I’m hoping that happens within the next three volumes!

Review copy for volume seventeen provided by the publisher.

The Story of Saiunkoku 2 by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino: B+

From the back cover:
Shurei Hong, destitute but of noble birth, has always dreamed of working as a civil servant in the imperial court of Saiunkoku, but women are barred from holding office. The emperor Ryuki, however, refuses to take command, leaving everything to his advisors. Shurei is asked to become a consort to the emperor to persuade the ne’er-do-well ruler to govern.

After realizing Ryuki has been faking his ignorance, an enraged Shurei demands to be sent home immediately. Ryuki then locks Shurei in her room, unaware he has now put his consort in great danger…

With this volume, The Story of Saiunkoku proves that is more than just a romance. Even though the developing relationship between Shurei, a poor yet noble lady brought in to the imperial palace to serve as consort and tutor, and Ryuki, her vacuous-seeming charge, remains the driving force for much of what happens, more space is devoted here to exploring the political rivalries and ambitions of others and how their schemes impact the main characters.

Essentially, in order to motivate Ryuki to give up his charade of stupidity and become a worthy emperor, one of his advisors puts Shurei’s life in peril. Ryuki rises to the challenge admirably, shedding his foolish façade and employing badass sword skills and cleverness to come to the rescue. Along the way, he admits why he was acting so dumb in the first place as well as why he has been avoiding relationships with women, even though he actually does fancy them as much as men. Both explanations make a surprising amount of sense.

If volume one served to introduce us to Shurei and her awesomeness, volume two does the same for Ryuki. He’s not only capable of great competence, but he’s also an honest guy and genuinely loves Shurei. She, however, sees her position at court as only temporary and when it becomes obvious that Ryuki doesn’t need a tutor after all, she heads home.

Other nice things about this volume are the brotherly reunion scenes between Ryuki and Seien, who was technically banished thirteen years ago but whose current identity has been obvious; a thoroughly surprising revelation about the Black Wolf, an assassin who did the bidding of the previous emperor; a plethora of attractive bishounen; and the bonus chapter about Ryuki’s love of Shurei’s steamed buns, which he has unknowingly been consuming since childhood (his tutor was Shurei’s father). Thanks to this last, I now have a serious craving.

I’m really enjoying The Story of Saiunkoku a great deal, especially now that it’s gotten beyond the few episodes I saw of the anime. I’m hopeful that the balance between romance and politics will continue, since both leads are at their best when required to exercise their intellect.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: The Verklempt-Makers

MICHELLE: It’s time for another installment of Let’s Get Visual, the monthly column in which MJ and I attempt to better understand the visual aspects of manga!

This month we’re looking at scenes that have impacted us emotionally. Personally, I had always assumed that a sympathetic reaction to an emotional scene was due purely to my empathy for the characters and whatever they happen to be feeling. Having learned more about an artist’s bag of tricks, however, I began to wonder if the creators weren’t somehow influencing readers to respond in the desired way. To that end, MJ and I have each picked a scene that made us verklempt and will attempt to look at them from a more critical perspective.

MJ, why don’t you start us off this time?

MJ: Sure! Well, as you know, my original idea when we were talking about this column was to focus on romantic imagery, so I’m going to still go in that direction for my, uh, verkelmptedness.

NANA, Volume 6, Pages 123-125 (VIZ Media)

The scene I’ve chosen comes from volume six of Ai Yazawa’s NANA. Here, Nobu has finally gotten up the nerve to confess his feelings to Hachi, though she’s still involved with Takumi. What I think is especially brilliant on Yazawa’s part, is that she’s managed to create real romantic tension while keeping the characters physically apart, but without the kind of melodrama that might typically involve.

The symbolism seems obvious. The two are standing at the edge of the jetty (maybe less dramatic than a cliff, but similar in feel), separated from each other by the solid sections of the structure. So they’re both out on a limb (metaphorically) by just being there, though circumstances keep them from getting too close. Yazawa sets this tone immediately by establishing their position in the very first frame.

Recognizing the tension of the situation, Hachi tries to lighten the mood, but Nobu’s got a mission, so he gets right to the point. He doesn’t draw things out at all. There’s almost no anticipation, and the dialogue is fairly sparse. Still, with little more than a few camera angles and some subtle body language, Yazawa manages to create a deeply affecting scene, more romantic, even, than in the next volume when the two actually get together. It’s beautifully done and really shows off her powerful talent for romance.

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s such a good point regarding the jetty and their position on it! I totally did not notice that when I read this volume. What strikes me is how different the darkness in this scene feels from the oppressive use of screentone we saw last month in your pick from Tokyo Babylon. For me, the darkness here reinforces the feeling that, for this moment, these two might as well be the only people in the world. I swear, too, that I can almost feel a night breeze when I look at that first page. Perhaps it’s the wide angle used, which emphasizes openness and yet utter solitude.

MJ: The night breeze is absolutely there! The flutter of Hachi’s skirt, the still-visible clouds creating a coolness in the air… it’s all there! The wide shot at the end reinforces this too.

And while one might think that it’s the dialogue that makes it romantic (Nobu does say “I’m in love with you.” right at the end, of course), I think the real testament to Yazawa’s skill here is that, even if you take all the dialogue away, the scene reads the same. Take a look:

MICHELLE: It does! I bet if you tasked someone with filling in the dialogue with no knowledge of the series, they would still get the basic gist right, even if they missed some of the specifics of Hachi’s attempt to lighten the mood. Her mute, blushing shake of the head stands out more this way, as well.

MJ: This is what makes great comics, in my opinion. Obviously dialogue is important, but Yazawa really lets the artwork tell the story here, and it’s so powerful. This is probably one of my favorite scenes in the whole series.

So what verklemptotomy have you got up your sleeve?

MICHELLE: Well, you’ve probably heard people say, in regards to One Piece, something like, “Wait until you get to volume nine! That’s when it really gets good!” Heck, I have said this, because I think that it is true. For today I’ve chosen the scene that, for me, is the emotional crux of this pivotal volume.

One Piece, Volume 9, Pages 199-200 and 202 (VIZ Media)

At this point in the story, independent and avaricious Nami has been keeping secrets from the other members of the Straw Hat pirates. She is in over her head, trying to deal with an enormous problem on her own, and even though Luffy doesn’t know the specifics of what’s going on, he still wants to help. Here, we finally see Nami break down and finally ask for his assistance, and I swear that this scene gives me goosebumps. I love stories about someone finding the place where they belong, and that’s really what this scene is all about. We’ll see this again when another solitary, wounded woman joins the crew—it takes time to let down one’s guard and accept Luffy’s offer of unquestioning acceptance, and the notion that the crew really becomes a family is an important theme for the series.

Artistically, Oda depicts Nami’s state by putting her in a pose in which she appears almost literally weighed down by her burdens, and also by drawing her very small. It’s a wide angle, and she’s trying to hide her despair, but on the second page she finally allows herself to be open with Luffy and communicate how much she needs him, which is where we finally see the true extent of how upset she is. Of course, Luffy agrees instantly, and the loan of his treasured hat silently communicates many things, like, “You are trusted,” “You are valuable,” and, perhaps most important when up against a powerful foe, “Don’t worry; I’ll come back.”

The final image is one of my favorite pages in the entirety of One Piece. There we find that the other members of the crew have just been waiting for word from Nami. They are all there, ready and willing to come to her aid, and the change in Luffy’s expression in that final panel just says it all: “Nobody messes with a member of my crew.”

MJ: I agree, it’s that final bit, the strong demonstration of the support Nami’s got behind her that really punctuates the scene. I think what really strikes me, too, as someone who hasn’t yet read past the first few volumes of the series, is how powerfully Oda uses what is really a very cartoonish art style to create this emotional impact. Luffy’s so goofy, even down to his rubber-man powers, yet there’s nothing goofy at all going on here. Even his “shwing”-y little jump feels weighty in this scene.

MICHELLE: I must admit that I did not scan page 201 because it’s a full-page illustration of Luffy bellowing “Okay!!!!!” in a rather unattractive manner, but otherwise, you’re quite right. Oda’s style takes some getting used to at first, but long acquaintance with the series will reveal that he has crafted a story far more in touch with its emotions than most shounen fare.

And, you know, I suspect this scene would work equally well with all the dialogue stripped away.

MJ: I expect you’re right!

MICHELLE: So, in the end, I think it’s fair to say that artists are emphasizing certain elements of emotional scenes to influence a reader’s response, but it doesn’t come across as outright manipulation. That’s probably not even possible. I know we’ve both read series in which the artist tried very hard to wring pathos from flat and lifeless characters to no avail.

MJ: Yes, that’s really a great summary of what we’ve seen here, Michelle. Both Oda and Yazawa display their real skill through their subtlety, even though most might not characterize either of these series as “subtle.” They use their artwork to do most of the heavy lifting, so that they don’t have to tell us everything through dialogue, which would be much more obvious and much less effective. That’s their real craft.

MICHELLE: I concur. I raise my Coke in salute to them both. Well done.

Banana Fish 11-13 by Akimi Yoshida: A-

When last we left off, Ash was attempting to escape from a mental institution where the plan is to make him a Banana Fish test subject. Pages of escapey goodness ensue, and Ash has just gotten outside when he realizes that Max and Ibe have been caught trying to help him and has to go back in to save their troublesome butts (awesomely, the background in one panel during this scene is pumpkins, referring to Ash’s fear of same). This plan involves dressing as a nurse.

The escape is ultimately successful. While Ash and Eiji reunite and share a hug after some initial prickliness from our hero, Ash’s foes, Papa Dino and Yut-Lung, make an arrangement by which they will take care of each other’s obstacles. This involves bringing in Blanca, an expert assassin and virtuoso marksman who trained Ash in the past. Ash senses instantly that he’s being followed, but this doesn’t stop him trying to get information from Kippard, the corrupt senator largely responsible for sending him to the institution. While Ash attempts to blackmail the skeevy fellow with compromising photographs, Kippard is suddenly shot before he can talk. The circumstances of the shot are so impressive that Ash begins to suspect who he’s dealing with.

I find Blanca a little problematic as a character. On the one hand, it’s good to have someone around who Ash can’t easily best—“I’m just dust against him,” Ash angsts at one point—but on the other, if he’s so important a figure in Ash’s past and such a formidable adversary, why haven’t we had so much as a tiny hint about him before? It feels like Yoshida needed to create a character like this to make Ash do what the story dictates he must do. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much if he came with a package of ambitions and vulnerabilities, like Yut-Lung, but he’s fairly impersonal about his job so far.

And who exactly is his target? It’s Eiji, of course. It seems like Eiji is forever in this position and Ash always having to protect him, but this time, because it’s Blanca, Ash is more worried than ever and actually goes along with Papa Dino’s plans. It’s fairly shocking to see this happen. At one point, Yut-Lung promises Eiji will be left alone if Ash kills himself right then, and he actually puts a gun to his head and shoots without a second thought. Later, he even begs for Eiji’s life. He begs! This stunned me more than anything else that goes on, because it shows how he’s truly willing to give up everything he has and is to save the one person who he feels genuinely cares about him.

Ash can’t earn Eiji’s safety with his mere death, however, and must comply with some other demands, including handing over all of the Banana Fish research so far, before taking up his position as Papa Dion’s right-hand man and heir apparent. While Ash begins to waste away in that situation, Eiji—and I swear he’s lost that innocent look in his eyes—vows to rescue him. “Give me a gun,” he tells Alex, who Ash left in charge of the gang. “I want you to teach me how to shoot.”

As much as it feels like we’ve been here before, and as random as Blanca’s arrival seems, if this is the point in the story where Eiji finally, finally gets to become a competent badass, then I can’t complain. I’m a little sad that he’s on the verge of becoming a criminal in his own right, but at the same time, I am eager to witness such a fascinating transformation.

For more on these volumes, check out the latest installment of Breaking Down Banana Fish over at Manga Bookshelf!

Tidbits: Catching Up with Shojo Beat

New and recent Shojo Beat releases are piling up, which means it’s time for another Tidbits column! In this installment, you’ll find reviews of three newer series—volume three of Dengeki Daisy, plus volumes five and six of Honey Hunt and Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You—while two old favorites, Ouran High School Host Club and Skip Beat!, bring up the rear!

Dengeki Daisy 3 by Kyousuke Motomi: B
In one of her author’s notes, Kyousuke Motomi writes that Dengeki Daisy was originally intended to be only three chapters long. This was pretty obvious in the second volume, where the sudden introduction of a lot of plot felt pretty awkward, but things have evened out by this third volume.

Though the threat that someone is after the software that Teru Kurebayashi’s brother, Soichiro, was working on before his death persists, the focus here is mostly on Teru’s relationship with Tasuku Kurosaki, the surly custodian at her school who secretly doubles as DAISY, the anonymous contact Soichiro recommended Teru seek out in times of trouble.

Teru’s been living at Kurosaki’s place after her own was burglarized, but feels as if she’s imposing. She’s unable to tell whether he cares that she’s moving out, and he’s unable (or unwilling) to admit that he’ll miss her, so she goes through with the move, only to realize her new roommate has rented the place next door. I would find this terribly cheesy in any other series, but somehow I’m okay with it here.

Similarly, a couple who obviously has feelings for one another and yet stubbornly refuses to confess would normally annoy me, but there’s something about these two that I find sympathetic. Kurosaki’s been giving Teru mixed signals, so she can’t tell exactly what she means to him. Kurosaki has the advantage of knowing Teru’s feelings—she’s confided in DAISY—but feels unworthy because of something he did in his past that he’s unsure he’ll be forgiven for. Their relationship progresses at just the right speed, and though I might wish they’d spend less time saying mean things to one another they don’t mean, it’s nice getting both characters’ perspective on their strong feelings, rather than solely the female’s point of view.

I was a little unsure about Dengeki Daisy after the disappointing second volume, but this one has assured me that it’s a keeper.

Honey Hunt 5-6 by Miki Aihara: B-
When Honey Hunt is at its dramatastic best, it can be a fun read, but sometimes it’s so immensely frustrating I contemplate hurling it across the room.

Yura Onozuka is the daughter of celebrity parents, and after they divorce in spectacular fashion, she vows to best her mother in show business. Even though her success as an actress comes quite easily, this is still the most interesting aspect of the story, since she seems to have found something she truly enjoys and is surprisingly good at. Unfortunately, lately Yura has begun to lose focus on her career goals, instead spending most of her time mooning over her pop-star boyfriend, Q-ta.

Probably I am supposed to find the efforts of Yura’s manager, Keiichi, to break up the lovebirds sneaky and wrong, but I honestly applaud him. I find Q-ta creepy—he says things like “I wish she’d give up acting so she could be all mine”—and want to shake Yura violently by the shoulders every time she ignores someone telling her she should forget about him and concentrate on her work. As much as Q-ta wants her to give up everything to be with him, the minute he gets the chance to work with his idol, he bails on a special date without a moment’s hesitation. His career is important but hers isn’t.

What makes it worse is that when Q-ta asks Yura to accompany him to New York—even though things are starting to go quite well for her professionally—she drops everything and goes! She says at one point that she’ll at least fulfill her current obligations and graduate high school, but we never see her actually do these things. To her, it’s more important to be needed by some dude than to do something for herself. Ugh.

Honey Hunt went on hiatus after these chapters, so at present, the story remains in limbo. As much as it gets on my nerves, if the series should ever relaunch (as Aihara claims it will), I will undoubtedly continue reading in the hopes that Yura gets a clue at last.

Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You 5-6 by Karuho Shiina: A-
Unintentionally scary-looking Sawako Kuronuma began to come out of her shell when befriended by her well-liked classmate, Shota Kazehaya, and she has recently come to realize that what she feels for him is not only admiration but love. This discovery is spurred in part by the machinations of Kurumi, another girl who loves Kazehaya.

I love how mangaka Karuho Shiina deals with Kurumi, because the girls actually end up bonding over their feelings for Kazehaya. They both like the same qualities in him—his ability to see the best in people, his honesty—and come to understand each other through their shared appreciation of the same person. If not for their rivalry, they might even have become friends, but, as Sawako wonders, would they have understood each other so well without it?

Never entirely setting aside progress between Sawako and Kazehaya, the romantic woes of Sawako’s friend, Chizu, soon take center stage. It’s pretty common for a shoujo manga to focus on the heroine’s pals once the main couple has reached a kind of stasis, but here it feels organic and not like filler (I’m talking to you, Love*Com). Sawako, having awoken to the possibilities of romance, wants for her friends to be happy, too. She believes the guy for Chizu is Ryu, a childhood friend who adores her, but Chizu’s heart belongs to Toru, Ryu’s older, newly engaged brother.

Chizu is a really fabulous character—she experiences any and all emotions with gusto, and somehow appears tough and girly simultaneously—and easily carries the story about her unrequited love. Like Sawako, I think Ryu’s the guy for her, and I would totally read a spin-off manga about the two of them. Chizu’s starring turn gives me hope for a similarly illuminating focus on Ayane, who seems to have no difficulty acquiring boyfriends but hasn’t yet managed to find love.

Ouran High School Host Club 15 by Bisco Hatori: B
The president of the Host Club, Tamaki Suoh, has been uncharacteristically serious lately, so the other members organize a Curry Creation Orienteering Tournament to cheer him up, with the secondary purpose of teaching a new student how to express her own opinions. Lesson learned, she promptly disappears, but not before Tamaki admits to her (and himself) that he’s in love with Haruhi and “probably [has] been for a long time.”

Later, Hunny and Mori, the two third-years in the club, announce that they’re about to graduate and that they’ll be pursuing different majors at Ouran’s affiliated university. The fact that mangaka Bisco Hatori has finally acknowledged the passage of time is a sign that the series is winding down, and I am amused by some of the characters’ baffled reactions. “For some reason I feel as though we’ve spent several long years together already,” muses Haruhi.

For the most part, this is all hijinks as usual, but Ouran can usually be counted upon for at least a few pages of genuine romantic progress between good-hearted but excitable Tamaki and pragmatic Haruhi. On a couple of occasions throughout in the volume, Haruhi tentatively reaches out to comfort Tamaki, who’s always spazzing about one thing or another, only to withdraw at the last moment. Finally, in a very sweet scene, she discovers him dozing in the club room and pats his hair while he sleeps. That might not seem like much, but for someone as undemonstrative as Haruhi, it’s truly a significant step! Moments like that are what keep me reading this series.

Skip Beat! 21-22 by Yoshiki Nakamura: B+
Skip Beat! is one of those series that doubles as a panacea for me; I highly recommend it for raising one’s spirits when one has been sidelined with a stomach bug.

Kyoko Mogami has achieved a small measure of success as an actress, most notably as Mio, a villainous role in a drama. She’s been tapped to essentially recreate that character for a new drama, but it just doesn’t feel right. These two volumes deal with Kyoko’s efforts to get into her new role, Natsu, and differentiate her from Mio. Meanwhile, the director is demanding, her co-stars are snooty, and one in particular seems bent on getting Kyoko fired.

The process of Kyoko learning to understand and then wholly inhabit a role always makes for a great read. For help, she turns to the more experienced Ren Tsuruga—a successful actor who loves Kyoko but keeps mum because of their age difference—and with only a little bit of scolding and advice ends up discovering the essential qualities that make Natsu tick.

I love how Nakamura draws Kyoko in character, too—she’s clearly identifiable as the same person, but her expressions and body language change completely. Maybe the awed reactions from the director and co-stars are a little much once she returns with her new take on the part, but I can’t be bothered to care. Skip Beat! is a story about a talented girl who works very hard to achieve her goals—who doesn’t want to see her succeed in spectacular fashion?

Review copies for Honey Hunt 6 and Skip Beat! 22 provided by the publisher.

One Piece 32-45 by Eiichiro Oda: A

Tired of tackling the epic One Piece in three-volume chunks, I decided to do something new and review the entirety of the Water Seven arc—comprising volumes 32 through 45—at once. If you’ve never read the series, this isn’t the place to start, but man, is it ever worth waiting for!

Typically, the drama in One Piece comes from some sort of ongoing conflict the crew discovers whenever they land on a new island. The civil war on Alabasta and the tyrannical ruler on Skypiea are examples of this. The crew gets involved as a group, fighting together for the sake of strangers, and earns the gratitude of the islanders as a result. What immediately makes the Water Seven arc startlingly different is that this time, much of the drama is coming from within the crew.

After departing Skypiea, the Straw Hats decide to head to Water Seven, an island known for its shipbuilders, because the Merry Go needs repairs and Luffy would like to recruit a carpenter to join the crew. On their way, they run into Admiral Aokiji, who drops some ominous hints about Nico Robin, insinuating she will inevitably betray them. Luffy being Luffy, he refuses to doubt her, but the seed has been planted all the same. Also significant is that a demonstration of Aokiji’s power causes Usopp to express insecurity about his abilities. “Are guys as powerful as that gonna be coming after us from now on? All I did was run around a lot.”

Once they arrive at Water Seven, several important things happen. First, Robin is approached by a member of Cipher Pol No. 9, a group that tackles “shadowy jobs” for the World Government, then the Merry Go is declared unsalvageable, and the money received for the gold from Skypiea is promptly stolen by “The Franky Family.” Suddenly, there’s all this tension within the crew! Usopp feels that Luffy is being cold-hearted with his decision to ditch the Merry Go in favor of a new ship (and secretly frets that he’ll be the next one casually tossed aside) and actually quits! Robin participates in the attempted murder of Water Seven’s mayor, and the Straw Hats get the blame! The disintegration of the crew is awful, but it’s especially weird seeing Luffy so upset. At one point Zolo says, “Don’t doubt yourself. If you start becoming unsure, who can we have faith in?!”

I could go on and on describing the intricacies of the plot as it develops from here, but I’ll refrain. I’ll say instead that it is impressively multi-layered, involving blueprints for an ancient weapon and traumatic backstories for both Robin and Franky, who becomes very endearing very quickly. The scale of the story is truly epic and I admire how everything falls into place. The action on Water Seven culminates in the discovery that Robin has been helping the government in exchange for the Straw Hats being allowed to go free. The Straw Hats, upon learning of her sacrifice, respond in their typical way: “Now that we know she needs to be saved our strength will be infinite.” A chase by sea train ensues, followed by a huge battle on the island of Enies Lobby, from where Robin and Franky are scheduled to be conveyed to Impel Down, the notorious prison from which no one has ever returned.

Aside from simply being riveting, there are several things to commend about how Oda has constructed his story. Most importantly, even though the plot is complex it’s clear that it’s real purpose is to compel some genuinely poignant emotional high notes. Quite a few scenes made me cry, including a triumphant moment for Usopp in his guise as Sniper King, Robin’s tearful confession that she wants to live, and the real doozy—the noble rescue at the end of volume 44. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have goosebumps as I type this just thinking about that scene. It is too good for me to spoil. If you do not cry buckets at the end of volume 44, you may be made of cardboard.

I also admire how easily Oda integrates Franky into the story, turning him from a brash thief to a cyborg with a heart of gold (fueled by cola!) by showing how moved he is by the crew’s feelings for each other. He’s so touched by their bond that he’s willing to risk his own life on their behalf. After using the wood he bought with the stolen money to build the Straw Hats a new ship, it feels natural that he should join them as their new shipwright, though it takes a… special sort of incentive. I’m really looking forward to future adventures with him along. Robin, too, has finally found the place she belongs, where she need never fear that her comrades see her as a burden. Will the chance to finally relax change her? I’m eager to see.

Also, while endless fight scenes do tend to tire me out after a while, I must praise Oda’s sense of place. As mentioned previously—during the Alabasta arc, I believe—it’s always completely easy to tell where the crew is in relation to each other during moments when they are separated. Everyone gets a chance to contribute, as well, and show off some new abilities. Too, his battles seem to feature a lot of valiant animals, and he’s always careful to show you their fates. Even someone as small as the mayor’s pet mouse is never forgotten!

Satisfying high-stakes battles. Character growth. Sorrow and joy, triumph and redemption. It’s a rare manga that combines all of these things so seamlessly. One Piece isn’t just a great shounen manga, it’s a classic of the entire medium.