Here’s where the going gets (slightly) grimmer. The second book in the Guin Saga series doesn’t quite have the same propulsive energy as the first, if only because it’s essentially a transitional story: it deals with what happens immediately after the leopard-headed hero Guin escapes from the chaos of Stafolos Keep with the royal twins Rinda and Remus in his care. The first book ended with a literal leap into the unknown, with the three of them plunging headfirst into the dangerous River Kes as hordes of the monkeylike Sem barbarians snap close at their heels.
That first book delivered the kind of rush I hadn’t gotten from a fantasy book in ages, partly because it was completely unabashed in its willingness to entertain. Here there were no attempts at socio-political analysis, no analogies or allegories to “current events”, just flat-out meat-and-potatoes adventure fantasy for the eleven-year-old soul, no matter what his biological age. Small wonder the second book felt like a step back and a retrenching, but now that I think about it, Warrior in the Wilderness really isn’t all that bad: it’s just that once you start with that kind of breathless burst of energy you sometimes need something else to leaven it. Read more
The girls of CLAMP have been serving up a heady brew named ×××HOLiC (typically just pronounced “holic”) for some time now, and it’s one of those series that gets almost incredibly unfairly dismissed. First there’s the bizarre name — although you get around that fairly quickly — but then there’s the question of what exact pigeonhole to allot to this mix of frothy situational comedy and Gothic-mystical morality play. It’s fun and funny, to be sure, but there are times when its waters run much deeper than you might expect, and that throws people off. But it also reeks of the kind of pungent originality that I read manga to find in the first place, and it has some of the most luscious (if also at times heavily oversimplified) artwork throughout CLAMP’s canon.
The premise actually isn’t that complicated, but the CLAMP team have rung a great many changes on it over the course of the previous nine volumes, so you’re almost certainly going to need to back up to the beginning and read from there. Watanuki, a young man in high school, has an unwanted affinity for spirits — he can sense them and interact with them even if he doesn’t want to. Enter Yūko, the boozy, leggy, cigarette-holder-wielding owner of a curio shoppe (it makes sense to spell it that way in this series). Her forte is cutting deals of a supernatural bent: she can give you what you want, but always at a cost, and sometimes you won’t know the dimensions of the cost until it’s too late. Likewise, she can remove Watanuki’s “curse,” but only if he puts himself in her employ … and the depths he’ll have to traverse to work off the cost will in time take their toll on him. There are also intermittent crossovers with CLAMP’s other ongoing series, Tsubasa (and also previously in Legal Drug), but you can read either series without having to read the other (although according to the creators you get more of a perspective on what’s going on if you read both). Read more
After the fascinating “shojo space opera” of To Terra… (also adapted into a TV series now licensed by Bandai Entertainment for us lucky folks in the West), Vertical Publishing picked up another of Keiko Takemiya’s works for English publication. Andromeda Stories features Takemiya’s art but a story by one Ryu Mitsuse, nominally known as an author of historical fiction and SF in Japan, and he was apparently a major influence on Takemiya to begin with. Their collaboration’s yielded up a story that’s markedly unlike Terra but at the same time clearly informed by the same kind of imagination. Terra gave us a rogue, telepathically-enabled offshoot of humanity reaching out across the stars to its brothers on Earth; Andromeda gives us a machine civilization that’s crossed the universe to colonize an unsuspecting and peaceful world by literally and figuratively tunneling under and invading from within.
Takemiya and Mitsuse make an ambitious creative team, and they kick things off with a bang — as in, the Big Bang. The creation of the universe itself occupies the first several pages, a nice way to signal to the readers that the fate of the cosmos itself hangs in the balance (although exactly how that’s the case won’t be clear for a good long while). Then Takemiya’s camera eye zooms in a little closer — down to Planet Astrias of the Cosmoralian Empire, where a royal wedding is about to be staged. Pricess Lilia of the Kingdom of Ayodoya and Price Ithaca of Cosmoralia (that’s King Ithaca to you, now) are brought together with much rejoicing by the common folk. But all is definitely not well under the surface: through the celebratory crowds strides a serious-faced young woman who wields a sword as well as any man, and with a deep sense of foreboding hanging over her. Her name is Il, and only by degrees do we learn the real nature of her presence — along with many others who have concealed themselves in secret for generations. Read more
Every time I crack the spine to another Gunsmith Cats omnibus collection (this is #3 out of 4), I end up with the same lopsided smile. Female bounty hunters, prostitutes turned explosives experts, drivers-for-hire, criminals, cops, and assorted underworld scum — it’s the best of every Hollywood action movie rolled into one, and it’s all in a manga. Heck, if all four Lethal Weapon movies had ended up being this good, I might never have gotten disenchanted with Mel Gibson.
Volume 3 opens with Rally Vincent, everyone’s favorite bounty hunter and girl gunslinger, still trying to live down the mess from the end of the last book. After being dosed with a powerful hallucinogen, Rally’s had her gun license pulled in the interest of public safety — and Rally without a gun is like a fish in an empty swimming pool. Worse, everyone around her makes the ghastly mistake of rubbing her nose in it (again, and again), and gun license or not, she’s determined to catch up to the man who screwed things up so badly: Bean Bandit, the man you hire to drive cargo from A to B , no questions asked. Rally goes after Bean and discovers, to her fury, he’s about to cut a deal to run another batch of the same drug that messed her up. Never one to pass up a challenge, Bean cuts her a deal: if she can prevent the whole thing from going down without firing a single bullet or calling in the cavalry, he’ll swear off dealing with the drug gangs for good. Read more
It’s difficult to write about Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White without explicitly comparing it to the movie that it inspired. I was actually worried the book might not measure up, since Tekkonkinkreet so far outpaced any other animated production I’ve seen this year, and so comparing it with the book might seem unfair. But TK:B&W was written and drawn by Taiyo Matsumoto, whose other works have stood up wonderfully on their own (No. 5) and have also been adapted into live-action films of distinction (Blue Spring, Ping Pong). If Tekkonkinkreet was such a wonderful movie, it was only because the book itself had that much going for it.
Now we have proof of that, in the form of the comic that inspired the film, and I plan on filing it on my shelf along with Sexy Voice and Robo, Hiroki Endo’s Eden, and Robin Nishi’s as-yet-untranslated Mind Game (also made into a stupefyingly wonderful movie, by the same animation studio that brought Tekkonkinkreet to life). I should point out that Black and White was originally published in a set of standalone volumes back in 2000, but those have been out of print for some time, and so having them all restored to print in a single omnibus edition is hugely welcome. Read more
Now this is a bit more like it, although I’m starting to see how even a series that runs to maybe fifty thousand words a book could withstand a bit of editing. The third book in the ongoing Guin Saga, over a hundred books strong in Japan and still going but only a pitiful four or five in English, kicks the series a little closer to the kind of action we saw and savored in the first book. To use a quote I’ve employed before, it may not be Bach but it is sure Offenbach — and it is exactly the kind of straightforward adventure fantasy that we have come not to know much of lately.
When we last left the leopard-headed Guin and his comrades — the royal twins Rinda and Remis, the mercenary Istavan and various allies from the ranks of the monkeylike Sem — they were trying to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, the armies of the Mongaul, pushing ever deeper into the wastes of the Nospherus that the Sem call home. They find themselves stuck in a valley populated by one of the weirder monsters found in the desert, the yidoh — giant amoebalike monsters that will probably make any Dungeons and Dragons player mutter “Gelatinous cube!” under their breaths. One of these walking stomachs is bad enough, but a whole gorge filled with them, and with no way around? Read more
The diabolically sexy anti-heroine of Kurohime leers out at us from the cover of volume one, skintight outfit stretched over acres of curves. Then you open the book and find out she spends most of her time looking absolutely nothing like that, and if you shelled out $7.99 to goggle at some skin there’s a chance you’ll feel … cheated. There’s a good reason this book isn’t sold in shrinkwrap.
So what do you get for your $7.99? Well, Kurohime takes a premise that would normally be turned into something “dark” and “edgy” and stands it on its head for laughs. This is never a bad idea in the abstract — after all, there’s enough “dark” and “edgy” material out there to keep the manufacturers of black eyeliner in business for decades, so why not turn that stuff upside down and see what falls out? Incidentally, the whole thing has been penned and written by someone with the single best name I’ve seen in manga since Oh! great (Ogureito): Masanori • Ookamigumi • Katakura. (Yes, the dots are on the original copyright page, too.) Read more
The second volume of Gin Tama cracked me up in a way that hadn’t happened since, well, the first volume of Gin Tama. I chalk this up to GT being a truly whacked-out original; it’s got the goony glee of Buckaroo Banzai* when so many other manga are the stale Star Wars prequels. The jokes are that much funnier if you’re already a general J-culture fan, but I think anyone can laugh at the sight of a giant alien dog thinking that his new owners are tasty as well as fun to play with.
What I loved right off the bat about the first book in this series was the setting — a reworking of post-feudal Japan that swapped “aliens” for “foreigners,” and combined that with an acid streak of irreverent humor to make sly jabs at the world we live in now. Also, the lead character was a true original as well — the perpetually broke and hypoglycemic odd-job man Gintoki, henpecked by everyone from his landlady to his buddies, and despite all that somehow living up to the ideals of a bygone age in his own way. Read more
Muhyo and Roji couldn’t be a more mismatched pair. Roji is a tall, light-haired fellow with the minimal skill set and the can-do attitude of many a shonen hero. Muhyo’s a short, morbidly-grinning little imp who looks like a chibi version of Peter Lorre, and with a library of magical incantations at his command. From the third floor of a tiny Tokyo office building they operate a “Bureau of Supernatural Investigation,” where clients come to them with problems involving misbehaving spirits and they lay yards of smack down on the offenders thanks to Muhyo’s command of “magical law.” (Plea-bargains do not appear to be part of the deal.)
That’s the premise for Yoshiyuki Nishi’s Muhyo and Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation or BSI for short, a fun new Viz title that takes a few basic manga patterns — the all-knowing genius detective and his hapless sidekick — and spins them in clever new directions. For one, the genius detective and the hapless sidekick seem to be about the same age, although Muhyo, with his weird “onion-head” appearance (he’s called that more than once), will probably look the way he does for decades on end. Muhyo reached the dizzying heights of the title of “Executor of Law” at a very young age, and delights in gloating about that fact in front of the lowly Roji. Put them together, though, and they make a sharp team — although Muhyo still does most of the leading. Read more
Norihiro Yagi’s Claymore’s been dismissed as “Berserk lite,” but I don’t think that’s a fair description of what is one of the better new manga I’ve come across lately. It’s got some of the same elements of Berserk — a medieval setting ruled by violence and superstition, a single warrior alone against all, and so on — but it’s not a clone or a retread, and it carves out a very worthy niche for itself. Part of my curiosity about the series was sparked by watching the animated series that has been adapted from the comics with a remarkable degree of fidelity, and when I was offered the chance to read the comic itself I jumped on it.
The premise: In a world reminiscent of Middle Ages Europe, creatures called yôma, which are carnivorous monsters that prey on humans, have appeared. They’re tough to destroy, not just due to their strength but also their ability to disguise themselves as other humans, and they also assimilate the memories and personalities of those they consume. To deal with them, there exist a special class of warriors called Claymores — young woman who have been biologically modified in certain ways to grant them exceptional strength and regenerative ability. They hunt down yôma and exterminate them, often without the help of society at large, which fears them almost as much as the creatures they hunt. Worse, Claymores (all of which are female) have a very limited lifespan: since they’re created from yôma, they eventually turn into yôma, and if they know the end is near they can elect to have one of their own kind finish them off before they devolve entirely into beasts. Such beings have a label of their own — “Awakened Ones” — and are in many ways far more dangerous than the original monsters. Read more
Even a “slow” volume of Naruto is still a good one. The amount of action in Volume 18 is relatively minimal compared to the last time we checked in, but that only allows the other things that are so good about the series to step forward. The most important is how character and motive, not coincidence and happenstance, drive this story: things happen in Naruto because of the way people are, not because the plot demands it happen just-so.
Volume 18 gives us two parallel bits of story that intersect, each fueled by their respective characters: Naruto and “Pervy Sage” Jiraiya, student and mentor; and Orochimaru and the future Fifth Hokage, Tsunade. In the former, Naruto’s on the verge of making a key advance in the command of his powers thanks to Jiraiya’s close tutelage. In the latter, Orochimaru preys on one of Tsunade’s hidden weaknesses — the loss of her lover and her younger brother — and offers her a deal that would make the devil jealous. “I’ve mastered the forbidden jutsu,” he tells her — you guessed it, the ability to bring the dead back to life (or at least he says so). All he wants in exchange for that is the use of her prodigious healing skills to repair his damaged arm … and maybe her assurance that she won’t get in the way when he levels Konoha for keeps. Read more
What a day. One minute Banya’s being chased by toothy sandworms that eat anything slightly more tasty than rocks, and the next he’s slathering himself in dragon droppings to keep from being sniffed out by yet another kind of monster. And then there’s this horde of black rats dripping fatal venom from their fangs, and that enclave of kill-crazy warrior monks, and …
Welcome back to the dog-eat-rat-eat-beast-eat-man world of Banya: The Explosive Deliveryman, which specifically ought to give a broad chuckle to anyone who actually walks a delivery route with a mailbag on their shoulder. Dealing with that testy old terrier that likes to fray your trouser cuffs doesn’t seem quite so bad when you’ve walked (or run, or staggered) a few hundred kilometers in Banya’s rather raggedy shoes. His job is to get your package to its appointed destination, even if what lies between you and it is like something out of one of those movies where various ragged tribes have gone to war over gasoline and canned goods. Read more
For its first three or so volumes, Banya: The Explosive Delivery Man had set up a good, regular groove, and seemed to be thriving in it. The premise was nifty and creative: Postal worker in grim, vaguely post-apocalyptic setting braves all manner of challenges — human, natural and supernatural — to deliver his cargo on-time and on-budget. Then at the end of Volume 3 (something that I could really only talk about now in the context of Volume 4), author and artist Kim Young-Oh sprung a twist on us — something meant to widen the scope of his story a bit and dig into the past of his main character.
At the end of the last volume, Banya and his young sidekick postman-in-training Kong were charged with delivering a young girl (wanted by the authorities for her magical powers) to safety. After being cornered by a gang of assorted plug-uglies, something inside Banya snaps and he turns into a one-man slaughter machine. And right before his enemies are torn in half, they realize they’ve seen this man before. That’s right — before Banya was a postman, he was a “Slayer,” one of a group of elite government assassins, but apparently went rogue, butchered the rest of his company, and then (conveniently) lost his memory. It takes another gang of goons going after Banya to bring this information to the surface — and this time, when faced with the prospect of death, Banya provokes himself into unleashing the demon within. Read more
So why would someone kidnap a total stranger off the street, lock him in a custom prison cell for ten years for no apparent reason, and then just as blithely let him back out again? The fourth volume of Oldboy begins with the first real hint as to why all this happened to Goto, the Everyman hero of the story whose life as a cipher in urban Japan ended when he was spirited away a decade ago. “Look into your childhood,” a woman moans to him after she agrees to trade sex for secrets, and Goto soon begins digging into everything from his high school yearbooks to his estranged family members.
In an attempt to determine if something in his past led him here, Goto reaches into his own history and excavates an unexpected amount of unease. He wanted to be as unextraordinary as possible, he confesses to his girlfriend Eri (his sole confidant for now), and he eventually slid into gambling and alcoholism — and then one day he ended up in that little cell. Was it something he did in a fit of drunken rage, or something deeper — something that he hasn’t been able to unearth yet? Read more
There’s what we do, and then there’s what we say we do. It’s all too easy to say you didn’t do something out of guilt or foolish pride, when the things you have done speak far louder. No one, not even Griffith, the charismatic leader of the mercenary Hawks, is immune from this. Certainly not Casca, the girl who joined Griffith out of admiration for his purity of purpose, or Guts, the bruiser who chose to follow Griffith (for now) as a way to perhaps find a place in the world.
Volume 7 continues Casca’s reminiscences about how she came to meet Griffith and ride with his band — and also how she came to realize, by degrees, the depth of his commitment to his vision. At one point Griffith prostitutes himself to a wealthy lord with a taste for handsome young men; the next morning, while compulsively scrubbing himself clean in a river (this part is hardly subtle but absolutely on the mark, psychologically), he admits he did it for the sake of the group as a whole. Or did he do it as a way to assuage the guilt he buries away about those who die in his services, whose names he never even knows? Read more
When I received the first installment of Mysterious Journey to the North Sea, I had to wonder: How would the nominally fleet-on-its-feet Vampire Hunter D deal with suddenly having twice as much room to tell its story? This is a series I’ve savored for being fast and furious, and for not getting bogged down in the kind of prolonged plot gymnastics that are the stock in trade of most fantasy novels these days. The idea of seeing it bloat up into something big and boring didn’t thrill me.
The good news: for the most part, that hasn’t happened. The second half of North Sea, by and large, contains the same spring-heeled step as the first, and preserves the lively pace of the whole rest of the series. Hideyuki Kikuchi has made good use of the additional length of the book — he gives us details about the world he’s created and the people in it that don’t feel like filler. In each book he’s used the locale — whether it’s a city that floats above the surface of the earth or a frightened frontier town — to address different aspects of his outlandish setting. He does that here, too, with his seaside setting of Florence, a former resort for the Nobility (i.e. vampires), overlooking an ocean brimming with monsters … and with the hidden laboratory of the mysterious Baron Meinster. There’s not much more about everyone’s favorite Vampire Hunter, though, but I suspect only because a little goes a long way — and we get one amazing hint near the end of this book about what D really is. Read more
Terms like genius and renaissance man get thrown around so casually these days, it’s a bit of a shock to run into the real thing. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better example offhand than Takeshi Kitano, the Japanese multi-hyphenate — writer, director, author, TV personality, social commentator and stand-up funnyman — introduced most broadly to the West through his quirky remake of the Zatōichi movie franchise. But he’s been around a lot longer than that, and for a long time I lamented the only things we were getting to see of his creative prowess were his films, and sometimes not even that. (Many of his movies are not even in print on DVD in the USA anymore, and many that are exist only in wholly uncomplimentary editions.)
Leave it to Vertical Inc., magnates of Japanese pop culture in translation, to bring one of Kitano’s books to English-speaking audiences. Which book to give us was, I imagine, the subject of at least some deliberation: he’s written dozens, both fiction and non-, some of which have also been filmed by other parties. I half-expected to see a translation of Many Happy Returns, the story of an unassuming man who becomes indoctrinated into one of Japan’s “new religions” (read: cults). What they chose instead was Boy, which seems to amount to a sort of Kitano taster — a slim book of three short stories. Despite their length, they radiate a lovely combination of affection and nostalgia, the sort of thing Kitano has mined for the best of his own movies time and again, and they both complement and extend on his other work. They show up his genius for what it is. Read more