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Weekly Recon, 8/15/07

August 12th, 2007 by Katherine Dacey-Tsuei Bookmark this post diggdel.icio.usYahooMyWeb

embalmer.jpgIf last week’s Tokyopop shipment was a wave, then this week’s is a veritable tsunami, with twenty-five new books scheduled to arrive on Wednesday. The latest batch of Tokyopop titles includes the seventeenth volume of Fruits Basket, the sixth volume of Loveless, and the fourth volume of Mitsukazu Mihara: The Embalmer, a somewhat macabre but always compelling look at Japanese attitudes towards death. (I know, I know… that sounds about as entertaining as watching a triple bill of Fanny and Alexander, The Seventh Seal, and Cries and Whispers, but The Embalmer is a great manga, on par with Doll.) Alongside such long-running favorites as Battle Vixens and Dragon Knights, you’ll also find a slew of new series—Missing, Peace Maker, Pick of the Litter, St. Lunatic High, Stand By Youth—a fresh crop of global manga—Bombos vs. Everything, Undertown, We Shadows—more yaoi—Love Mode, Love Pistols—and a new light novel, Trinity Blood: Reborn on the Mars. And wait… is that ANOTHER title from Fumi Yoshinaga I see? Yes—it’s Truly, Kindly, an anthology of short, steamy stories by everyone’s favorite purveyor of baked goods and beautiful boys. What will manga publishers do when they exhaust the Yoshinaga catalog?

Reviewed This Week:

  • Pop Japan Travel: Essential Otaku Guide (DMP)
  • Undertown, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)

Shipping This Week:

  • 1 World Manga Passages Omnibus (Viz)
  • Apothecarius Argentum, Vol. 2 (CMX; click here for a review of volume 1)
  • Atelier Marie and Elie Zarlburg Alchemist, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Battle Vixens, Vol. 12 (Tokyopop)
  • Beyond the Beyond, Vol. 4 (Tokyopop)
  • Bizenghast, Vol. 3 (Tokyopop)
  • Bombos vs. Everything, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Chibi Vampire, Vol. 5 (Tokyopop)
  • Dragon Knights, Vol. 25 (Tokyopop)
  • Fruits Basket, Vol. 17 (Tokyopop)
  • Fumi Yoshinaga’s Truly Kindly (BLU Manga)
  • Initial D, Vol. 27 (Tokyopop)
  • Kids Draw Manga Monsters (Watson-Gupthill Publications)
  • Love Mode, Vol. 6 (BLU Manga)
  • Love Pistols, Vol. 2 (BLU Manga)
  • Loveless, Vol. 6 (Tokyopop)
  • Missing: Kamikamushi no Monogatari, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Mitsukazu Mihara: The Embalmer, Vol. 4 (Tokyopop)
  • Mugen Spiral, Vol. 2 (Tokyopop)
  • Musashi #9, Vol. 12 (CMX)
  • My Cat Loki, Vol. 2 (Tokyopop)
  • Peace Maker, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Pick of the Litter, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • St. Lunatic High School, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Stand By Youth, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Trinity Blood: Reborn on the Mars, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Undertown, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop; reviewed below)

  • We Shadows, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
  • Wizard Anime Insider No. 48
  • Yubisaki Milk Tea, Vol. 5 (Tokyopop; click here for a review of volumes 1 & 2)

New Arrival: Undertown, Vol. 1

Story by Jim Pascoe, Art by Jake Myler
Tokyopop, 208 pp.
Rating: 13+

undertown.jpgWhile visiting his father in the hospital, ten-year-old Sama meets a creepy stranger in the waiting room. The stranger, sensing Sama’s feelings of futility and guilt over his dad’s condition, lets the boy in on a secret: if he can retrieve the Sugar Stone from Undertown, Sama can cure his father. All Sama has to do is crawl under his bed, close his eyes, and count to ten. As one might guess about advice from creepy strangers, retrieving the Sugar Stone proves anything but easy, as Undertown is a hellish place occupied by oversized insects. No one has seen the Sugar Stone in ages—most of Undertown’s denizens believe it to be a mythological object—and the few that are convinced of its existence seek it for their own twisted purposes. A handful of Furmen, anthropomorphic critters that live under the insects’ yoke, agree to aid Sama in the hope that he holds the key to the insects’ defeat.

Tokyopop gives Undertown a 13+ rating, yet so many details struck me as more appropriate for younger readers. Sama’s teddy bear, for example, comes to life when the two arrive in Undertown, morphing from stuffed animal to wise-cracking sidekick and survivor of a teddy bear holocaust. Remembering my cynical, 13-year-old self, I have a hard time imagining too many teenagers warming to a fantasy whose premise sounds dangerously close to The Care Bears Movie. I also found the artwork wanting. Though Myler is a skilled draftsman, the images were too small and too detailed for a manga-sized, black-and-white treatment; Undertown cries out for a larger trim and broader palette to make Myler’s designs pop. This is especially evident in many of the fight scenes, which are hard to parse owing to the large number of eyes, limbs, and mandibles slashing their way across the page. The biggest disappointment, however, is that Undertown isn’t much fun. Yes, there’s considerable evidence of Pascoe and Myler’s talent in the story’s efficient execution and occasional flashes of inspiration, but the book is joyless and sentimental, faring poorly by comparison with other recent coming-of-age tales like Brave Story.

This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. Volume one of Undertown arrives in stores on August 15th.

Recent Arrival: Pop Japan Travel: Essential Otaku Guide

By Makoto Nakajima
DMP, 148 pp.
Rating: All Ages

poptraveljapan.jpgIt may only be August, but I already have a strong candidate for the Worst Manga of 2007. Billed as “everything the otaku needs to experience Tokyo at its best,” Pop Japan Travel promises readers a humorous look at the company’s nerd-friendly tours. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but figured at the very least I’d pick up a few useful travel tips and phrases while improving my grasp of Tokyo geography. What I didn’t anticipate were ugly American stereotypes and Manga 101 explanations of such familiar phenomena as maid cafés, cosplay, and yaoi. (Which begs the question, if you’re going to shell out the cheddar for an “otaku tour” of Tokyo, wouldn’t these terms be firmly entrenched in your vocabulary already?)

The problem lies with the creator’s decision to relate all of this information through an episodic story rather than a straightforward narrative. The first chapter introduces us to a motley assortment of Americans, from Isaac, a gas station attendant, to Jack, a know-it-all computer programmer, to Anne, a college student erroneously described as “fourth generation Japanese-American,” all of whom have signed up for a Pop Japan Travel tour. With their easily flustered guide in tow, the group visits a maid café, a manga studio, a comic convention, a hostess club… you get the idea. (About the only place they don’t visit is a high school cultural festival.) At each destination, one of the tourists inadvertently causes a scene by violating some Sacred Japanese Behavioral Norm, prompting an etiquette lesson from their guide and an impromptu lecture on, say, cosplay basics, shopping in Akihabara, or avoiding yakuza entanglements.

More disappoining than the script’s condescending tone is its portrayal of Isaac, who spends most of the manga acting like JJ Walker’s anime-addled cousin. We’re supposed to see Isaac as a stand-in for ourselves, I think, as his frequent bouts of culture shock stem largely from his all-American frankness and curiosity. But Isaac comes across as a bumpkin and worse, owing to his character’s unsophisticated view of Japan (formed exclusively through watching anime and movies like The Last Samurai) and his just callin’ it like I see it comments that would be inappropriate in any context. I’m sure whoever greenlit this project thought that Isaac’s character added meaningful diversity to the cast—a laudable goal, if it weren’t achieved at the expense of his dignity. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I strongly encourage would-be otaku tourists to look elsewhere for travel tips.

Pop Japan Travel: Essential Otaku Guide is available now.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jon Haehnle  |  August 12th, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    Jon Haehnle

    PCS’ Joe Doughrity actually went on a Pop Japan Travel tour a couple years ago with Isaac Lew as a tour guide. Joe made a short film — Seven Days in Japan — about the experience which won Best Documentary at San Diego Comic-Con 2005.

    I know Isaac actually left Pop Japan Travel a few months ago to start his own tour company, Intermixi. Now I’ve never met the guy, but from what I saw of him in Seven Days he seems like a very cool, personable, capable guide. (There’s a bonus section on the DVD called Aka-San’s True Japanese Stories that’s greatly entertaining). I know Joe says he’s cool people, and beyond that, it seems like he’s had plenty of satisfied customers over the years.

    I kind of wonder if Isaac even knows he’s the main character in a PJT book, and if he does what he thinks about the portrayal. (Well, I was just telling Joe about all this and he said he’d hit Isaac up, so guess we shall see).

  • 2. Katherine Dacey-Tsuei  |  August 12th, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

    Just to be clear: I’m referring to the way the character Isaac Lew is portrayed, not the real person. (In the book he’s a member of the tour, not the guide.) I’d certainly be curious to hear what the real Isaac Lew has to say about his manga counterpart; he may feel my assessment is way off base, especially if he knows the manga-ka.

  • 3. Jon Haehnle  |  August 13th, 2007 at 12:15 am

    Jon Haehnle

    Never fear Kate, I think we knew you were talking about the way Isaac the character is portrayed, not the man himself.

  • 4. danielle leigh  |  August 13th, 2007 at 8:25 am

    hmmmm…first time I tried to comment the internet crapped out on me…

    anyway, just a note that Fruits Basket 17 isn’t the penultimate volume since the series runs 23 volumes.

  • 5. Katherine Dacey-Tsuei  |  August 13th, 2007 at 8:48 am

    Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

    Thanks, Danielle–correction made. For some reason, I thought Fruits Basket was only 18 volumes.

  • 6. jake myler  |  August 13th, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    Aww man! I never have gotten a C in my life! Is there any chance that I could retake the test? This is totally going to screw with my grade point average.
    I’ll study better next time I swear!

  • 7. Katherine Dacey-Tsuei  |  August 13th, 2007 at 10:56 pm

    Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

    I don’t usually give make-ups, but you do get an A for responding to a tough review with an awesome sense of humor.

  • 8. Joe Dizzle  |  August 14th, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    Hey guys, just wanted to clarify the Isaac in this manga is BASED on Isaac but nothing like the actual guy himself.

    The real Isaac is a great guy and speaks TONS of Japanese. He’d never violate Japanese cultural norms as he’s been there over a dozen times.

    This might be an okay comic (well apparantly not from the review), but it doesn’t represent the Isaac/Aka-san I know.

  • 9. Katherine Dacey-Tsuei  |  August 14th, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

    I hope other readers see your comment, Joe, as I tried to make it clear that I was discussing the character, not the former DMP/JPT employee. Thanks for the clarification!

  • 10. Aven Chati  |  August 15th, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    hey, a little anonymous info from someone who knows some of these people… Isaac was involved in the creation of this when he was at DMI, and the original idea, but it was completed after he left and the details of the story were scripted by the Japanese artist. I’m sure Isaac could elaborate more on exactly what he did and didn’t do… but I’m guessing what you’re really looking at here is a look at how a Japanese mangs-ka sees American tourists. Yikes.

  • 11. Katherine Dacey-Tsuei  |  August 16th, 2007 at 11:51 am

    Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

    That would certainly explain the Gaijin Do the Stupidest Things! tone of the book.

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