The problem with being immortal is that it’s a package deal from hell. Yes, you get to live forever, but it usually comes at a drastic cost — like, for instance, the fact that while you might get to live forever, anyone else you could come to care about typically doesn’t. And then there’s all that nasty, unwanted attention if your secret ever gets out, and the way that bad hair day you’re having never goes away, and …
That’s how it works in Blade of the Immortal, Hiroaki Samura’s widely-acclaimed, long-running, and blood-splattered manga epic about a (theoretically) unkillable rōnin in feudal Japan. The story doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming immortality is some great treasure — here, it’s a curse written in the blood and entrails of the undying, and it comes at a cost so huge that only the most wretched would ever want it. Small wonder it ends up being inflicted on Manji, a former samurai now turned freelance death merchant. To atone for his crimes as a mortal, he now has to deliver the corpses of one thousand evil men to his new master, the old hag Yaobikuni. Read more
"You should buy this book immediately. If necessary, you should also spend the cab fare needed to get to the nearest bookstore. You should do this because this is a book that knows perfectly well that you are seething inside."
— from Algis Budry’s review of Harlan Ellison’s SF anthology Dangerous Visions
And yes, Tanpenshu knows you’re seething inside, too. This is praise, since so few manga ever reach for anything like that. They may entertain, but they don’t always touch us. Tanpenshu doesn’t just touch you; it cuts you, and it draws blood as well.
I’d actually encountered part of Tanpenshu before (the chapter entitled “For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe in God,” in a fan-translated edition), and it shook me so badly that by the time the whole book came out in a legitimate edition, thanks to Dark Horse, it ended up sitting on my shelf for weeks, still in the shrinkwrap. It was one of the most profoundly intimidating manga stories I’d ever read — not just the subject matter or the treatment shook me, but the sheer amount of insight and talent Hiroki Endo had to burn in that one story made me feel like I simply couldn’t measure up. I finally choked down my nerve and broke open the plastic — and yes, I was again intimidated. Made jealous, even, but in a good way, a way that made me want to go out and create something at least as good so I could measure up.Read more
It’s always an interesting experience to see Japanese history treated in manga form — in fact, a fairly major subgenre of manga there (which hasn’t seen much in the way of translation here) are retellings of history from as far back as ancient China. Here we have one of the most durable bits of Japan’s past — the story of the Shinsengumi — resurrected in the context of a romance between a young girl and one of the historical figures involved, and it manages to be spry and compelling throughout. Done wrong, this kind of thing can seem off-putting or jarring, but here it remains rooted just firmly enough in the historical record to be enjoyable.
Kaze Hikaru takes place in the 1860s, a period in Japan’s history when the Shinsengumi (“Newly Selected Corps”), a militia assembled from both samurai and commoners, rallied around the embattled Shogunate and did their best to keep the country from being Westernized. The Shinsengumi have become popular heroes in Japan — the subjects of endless novels, movies, and yes, manga — although they probably are admired more for the zeal they brought to the job than the specific work they were doing. (Most people reading this will remember the Shinsengumi and the Meiji Restoration as bits of the backdrop from Rurouni Kenshin, where they fictionalized about as freely as they were here. They also figured into Peacemaker Kurogane, where they were fictionalized almost to the point of incoherency.) Read more
The current crop of reviews for The Bourne Ultimatum describe it as one big non-stop chase scene. That’s kind of how Banya: the Explosive Deliveryman plays out, too. Take our hero (Banya, the “Postman of the Wasteland”), give him a goal, send about six thousand bad guys after him, and watch him run, run, run until he either keels over or actually accomplishes what he set out to do. Back at the end of Volume 1 Banya was high-tailing it through the blighted desert that makes up a good chunk of his world, with a package under one arm and a cadre of death merchants nipping at his heels. Not the most original setup, to be sure, but Banya makes it work by simply putting its head down and charging forward through this premise at top speed.
Banya has three approaches to any given problem, used in this order: 1) run the heck away, 2) trick your enemies into feuding amongst themselves, and 3) kill ‘em yourself. All three get used here. That oversized kitchen knife hanging from his waist is there for a reason, and right in the first pages of this volume he puts it to good use — he blinds one of his pursuers with a smoke bomb, then severs the poor sap’s hamstring. (There’s more, but it happens out of frame.) When one of his own friends’ lives also happens to be on the line — in this case, his “sister” Mei — he has all the more reason to slice someone up. But on the whole, he’d either run faster than they can, or use another time-honored tactic you can employ when you’re bracketed by different varieties of enemies: Why kill them when you can get them to kill each other? Mei, too, now a prisoner of the same gang of goons after Banya’s package, improvises wildly to stall her captors … until Banya shows up and pulls off a diversion, and lands them both in possibly even bigger trouble. Read more
Volume 9 of Kekkaishi confirmed what I’d suspected before: what we have here is a good series that feels like a hybrid of tropes from Bleach and Naruto, and falls somewhat short of both of them. It doesn’t stand far enough apart from the spate of other, better series in the market right now that overshadow it. But it is entertaining, and there are bursts of ingenuity and fun throughout that make it a nice diversion.
This book also goes a long way towards confirming a theory I’ve had about anime and manga, one I call the Theory of the Brightly Shining Toss-Off. Sometimes in a series, the incidental characters — the walk-ons, the second-, third- and fourth-banana roles, and the people who just show up and vanish — command the attention a lot more than the main characters do. Why? Because they’re incidentals — they don’t have the burden of carrying the story on their shoulders, so the author (and artist) don’t feel as restricted by what they can make them into. They can be as wild-and-wooly as they wanna be, and they often upstage everyone else as a result. Read more
The second volume of Hoshin Engi continues everything that got started in the first volume: a fast-moving and wildly colorful story based, however loosely, on a Ming-era Chinese classic novel. There’s been any number of manga adaptations of classic Chinese literature, and from what I’ve seen they typically just take the bare bones of the original material and drape a far more outlandish story around it.
Hoshin Engi is no exception, and while I confess I haven’t read the original story, I’m not sure the vast majority of people encountering the manga in English for the first time will have, either. But does it matter? Not really, since the point of Engi is to give us one wild bit of adventure after another, and in that sense it succeeds completely. Like the Dragonball sagas (also adapted, in however loose and open-ended a fashion, from Chinese mythology and fantasy), it gives us a hero and a spate of villains with powers far beyond the human norm, and watches them collide. Read more
Early on in volume four of Monster, Dr. Tenma pulls a gun on a bar full of neo-Nazi skinheads and growls, “Watch it, I have enough bullets for all of you” — not long after he’s threatened to shove a ballpoint pen into the carotid artery of one of the biggest bruisers in the place. (Nice thing about being a doctor: you know exactly where to stab someone to make them really bleed.)
This is not the only hint of how far Dr. Tenma’s come in his violent odyssey through the German underworld, but it’s one of the bluntest. The man who once worked tirelessly to save a young boy’s life has now evolved into a hardened and disciplined soldier of fortune, whose self-appointed mission is to seek out the young man that boy has grown up into, and kill him without mercy. He only does this because the boy he seeks, Johan, has become something infinitely more dangerous than Tenma could ever be: a predator who will seek out even other predators as his prey. Read more
When my fellow reviewer Michael Bartholow looked at the first two volumes of the Oldboy manga, he gave it fairly low marks but admitted that it was mostly due to the movie just being far more to his taste. I understand exactly what he meant: I thought the movie of Oldboy was one of the single best movies I’d ever seen, and anything was likely to pale in comparison to it. But I was also prepared to forgive a great deal, and I was deeply curious about what the original story had been before director Park Chan-wook used it as only the barest inspiration for his existential gut-puncher.
There’s a lot that’s different about Oldboy the manga, not just the story. It’s a more deliberately-paced story, one where each little step in the plot is savored and chewed over at length, and it stays focused on a relatively small cast of people with smoldering intensity. Compare this to another thriller that I’m currently burning though, Monster, where we’re practically grabbed by our lapels and flung headfirst through the story, which encompasses a broad gallery of characters and hops frenetically from location to location. I prefer Monster’s approach, but there’s nothing wrong, strictly speaking, with Oldboy; it’s just a different story, differently told, and one that appeals to different tastes. Read more
“Tell me — do I need a reason each time I put myself in harm’s way for your sake?”
The sixth volume of Berserk opens with those words, spoken by Griffith — words startling to Guts in the extreme since he’s never had anyone else put himself in harm’s way for him before. Being one of the Band of the Hawk has forced Guts to rethink his place in the world. He’s no longer just one alone, but one of — so maybe he’ll stay and wield his sword for Griffith’s sake, if only for a while. Maybe until something better comes along … without considering, of course, that may be nothing better in this world will come along for him, and that this is as good as it gets.
It’s this kind of insight that makes Berserk so much more than just a war story or a gory adventure, and volume six provides some of the finest character-driven moments in the series on everyone’s part so far. The book doesn’t forget to give us a generous helping of mayhem, either, but always in context: this is, after all, a story about violent men in violent times, and talking about men of war without actually seeing how they wage war kind of misses the point. In this volume we see yet another extension of that theme come into play: what people do when they are faced with the prospect of scrapping one way of life entirely for another. It could be the untested and innocent being forced to take up arms, or it could be noblemen faced with the prospect of having their power pass into the hands of commoners. Read more
It’s amazing how educational some manga can be. By the time I finished the second volume ofGunsmith Cats: Revised Edition, I knew how to take out an antitank gun (aim for the ammo box), outfox a police roadblock at the mouth of an embankment, and perform an end-run around a posthypnotic suggestion reinforced with drugs. Not that I’m expecting to use this knowledge anytime soon, but it’s nice to know it’s all socked away for a rainy day.
And so once again I’ve returned to the over-the-top action-movie world of Kenichi Sonoda’s Gunsmith Cats, a classic manga now reissued for a whole new generation of readers in a lavishly remastered set of omnibus reprints. It’s also one of the few but apparently growing manga that seems to be at least as aimed at Western readers as it is its native audience. This sort of thing was mostly unheard of ten years ago, when GC was new, but today it’s not nearly as outlandish — look at Black Lagoon, which I’m betting dollars to doughnuts was crafted with at least some prospects of being an export item. Sonoda’s unquestionably got a burgeoning love of American pop culture, though, and it shows up throughout GC in details both big and little. (Look fast for the license plates that say THX 1138 and USS ENT.)Read more
The name Yasushi Suzuki probably doesn’t ring a bell with you yet, but if The Art of Yasushi Suzukiis any kind of harbinger, he’s bound to become a household name before long. Nominally a concept designer for video games (he’s done designs for Treasure's Arcade / Dreamcast / GameCube title Ikaruga and also their N64 titleSin and Punishment), he’s also contributed illustrations for book covers and card games, and is right now putting the finishing touches on his first foray into manga, Purgatory Kabuki.Purgatory Kabuki’s due out later this year (and believe me, I’ve been waiting very eagerly for it), but if you like what you see here then you have every reason to add this volume to your artbook collection. That said, don’t look for more here than just the pictures, or you’re likely to be a bit let down.
Describing any artist’s work is always a hard job, because so much of what you could say is easily eclipsed by just showing a few pictures and calling it a day. But after "re-reading" Art… a couple of times, I think I finally singled out the elements that make his art special. He applies colors like a painter, but understands line and posture like an illustrator, so in every picture you can see the best of both tendencies. This especially shows up in his designs forPhantoms: The Soul in the Cage (another manga production slated for 2008 from publisher DGN Production Inc.), or the designs for Purgatory Kabuki itself. He’s also equally comfortable drawing the curves of human bodies and the angular contours of machinery — look at the Card Masters designs later in the book — although many of his more outré character designs have the same sharpness to him, but there it works. Read more
Calling Space Pinchy a guilty pleasure would be a grand disservice to all the guilty pleasures I’ve ever known. It’s awesomely, condescendingly dumb — I felt my brain cells leaping to their deaths by the millions as I turned the pages. It makes the knowing wink-wink stupidity of Adult Swim look like a Chicago University Great Books course in comparison.
This is the first manga I’ve seen that gives the despicable Eiken a run for its money in the No Conceivable Audience Department. In other words, if you’re old enough to buy a copy of this thing, you ought to know better — and if you don’t, then you owe it to yourself to learn, because life is short and there are a dozen better things you can blow $15.95 on. (It’s also not explicit enough to be a full-on adult title, so it is essentially one giant brain-dead tease.)Read more
“Man wields the sword so that he might die smiling.”
Those words cover most of one page in the fifth volume of Berserk, right as the heroes of the story — Guts, Griffith, Casca, and the rest of the Hawks — all prepare to do exactly that. Their mercenary band fights not merely to kill, but to perhaps even guarantee themselves a happy death, something they have a far better chance of seeking as a group than any of them do alone. Thus is explained the motives of any clan, any city-state, any nation that ever existed.
It’s heady stuff for a manga, but the consistently amazing thing about Berserk is how it can tackle these massive ideas and somehow come out on top, and not be defeated by them. On the surface, it’s a bruising adventure story of blood and ambition, and just under that it’s something else entirely — an epic about one of the biggest questions we ask ourselves: Are we really “the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul,” or are we just the puppets of unknown gods? (And if we did find out, could we stand up under the weight of the truth?) Read more
The first copy I bought of The Guin Saga, Book One: The Leopard Mask ended up in the garbage, but not because it deserved to be there: the copy I’d ended up with somehow had a good chunk of the text missing from the book due to a manufacturing error. At least I was able to get my money back — but I had to gnash my teeth for days on end until I could order a replacement copy. What little I could read offered a tantalizing slice of something I wanted very badly to experience at that point in my rather drab day — to be someone else, somewhere else, and to experience something new. Sometimes that’s all you really need.
I understand now, I think, why the Guin books have run to over one hundred volumes in their native Japan, and why each volume in that series has sold something like 250,000 copies. It’s a fiery, rousing adventure story that does everything right — it puts a noble and compelling hero at the center of the action, it throws him up against impossible odds, it gives him things to care about and fight for, and it makes us want more when it’s all over. It breaks no ground, but it doesn’t have to: we’ve gotten to a point where to just be able to do this sort of thing well is in itself somewhat groundbreaking because there are far too many examples of it not being done well at all.
When he wakes up in the Forest of Rood, face-down in a stagnant pond, our hero remembers only two things — his name, “Guin”, and another word, “Aurra”, although whether that too is a name is anyone’s guess. Even more mysterious is his head, ensconced in a mask that gives him the face of a leopard. His fearful appearance terrorizes the two children who stumble across his half-dead body — Remus and Rinda, heirs to the throne of a kingdom now destroyed by a tyrannical invader. Of the two, Rinda is slightly more comfortable with peril, and also that much more charged with the purpose of her station in life: in one of the book’s best lines, she puts her brother in her place when she tells him “My name is to be spoken, not whined.”
They’re perplexed by Guin — doubly so when he single-handedly devastates a squadron of soldiers sent to massacre them all, only to collapse at their feet once more. When the forest yields up yet another wave of horrors — this time in the form of a battalion of the undead — they survive through a combination of quick thinking and sheer luck, only to be captured and taken to Stafolos Keep, where the diseased Count Vanon holds court. Literally diseased, as every inch of his body is swathed in metal and fabric to keep his plague from spreading to those who might catch a whiff of his effluvience. The keep soon comes under siege, a few more cronies are thrown into the mix for good measure, and one amazingly violent escapade follows another.
The Vampire Hunter D books and the Conan adventures have reawakened me to the possibilities of epic adventure outside of the Tolkien template, and the Guin books offer more of the same in their own vein. I think part of the reason these books work as well as they do, while most of the current crop of mainstream fantasy writers haven’t drawn my attention as strongly, is because they don’t try to pack the world into a six hundred page tome. The individual books are shorter, with appropriately tighter focus; the first four books of the Guin series would probably have been published as a single volume in English, but when broken into smaller individual books, they become that much more manageable (and, I suspect, that much more lucrative for the publisher).
But most importantly, these books know their real job is to give us a thrill ride, and there’s very little that gets in the way. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Guin (and Rinda and Remus, and many of the rest) become strongly-delinated characters over the course of just this first book. They’re not painted with a great deal of psychological profundity, but they don’t really need to be: we may know what to expect from them, but we get it in strong, basic ways that complement the story and put us into the action. Said adventure also takes place without a lot of boring detours into politics and geography. (Truthfully, there’s a bit of this kind of info-dump here — delivered with Guin on the receiving end, as you might expect — but it’s fairly swiftly over with and it doesn’t come at the expense of the original mission.)
What Guin does best, and it does it extremely well, is something very primal: take us someplace where really amazing things are happening and make us want it to never end. The book also concludes with a very literal leap into the unknown that sent me back to Amazon to order the next volume — which is, I suspect, what the publishers believe all good fantasy should do. I’m not complaining; I’m celebrating.Read more