04 Mar, 2008

Weekly Recon: Super-Sized Shojo Spectacular

By: Katherine Dacey

andromeda3.jpgPaging Helen Mirren! This week’s shipping list includes several titles worthy of The Queen herself, as well as a healthy selection of manhwa and shonen series. I haven’t had an opportunity to read Queens or The Queen’s Knight (Tokyopop), however, so my top pick is Keiko Takemiya’s Andromeda Stories (Vertical, Inc.), a totally awesome mixture of sci-fi paranoia–the machines are taking over!–shocking plot twists, and taboo-busting romance. Takemiya’s artwork is flat-out gorgeous; her gloriously old-school character designs, dynamic layouts, and meticulous attention to detail put her on equal footing with manga gods Osamu Tezuka and Hiroshi Hinata. If you’re not a fan of sparkly-eyed shojo, fear not–there are plenty of other titles worth adding to your shopping basket, including the second volume of Dororthy of Oz (UDON Entertainment), a Korean update of the Frank L. Baum classic; the second volume of Pumpkin Scissors (Del Rey), a military drama with so-so artwork but a timely premise; the first volume of A Seduction More Beautiful Than Love (Tokyopop), a new manhwa in a josei vein; and the eleventh volume of xxxHolic (Del Rey), a series that proves just how versatile the CLAMP collective really is.

Beginning today, the Weekly Recon moves permanently to Mondays. To mark the occasion, I’ve taken a page from the network television playbook and staged an event worthy of sweeps week: a shojo spectacular of super-sized proportions. This week’s column focuses on six recent releases: A.I. Revolution (Go! Comi), Black Sun, Silver Moon (Go! Comi), Minima (Del Rey), Monkey High! (Viz), and Be With You (Viz), which Viz has released in both its original form and its subsequent manga adaptation.

One final note for the budget-conscious otaku: from now until March 5th, Right Stuf! is discounting all CMX titles by 33%. Click here for the coupon code.

SHIPPING THIS WEEK
Andromeda Stories, Vol. 3 (Vertical, Inc.)
Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, Vol. 11 (Tokyopop)
The Devil’s Bride, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
Dorothy of Oz, Vol. 2 (UDON Entertainment)
Fever, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
Go Go Heaven, Vol. 5 (CMX)
Guin Saga Manga: The Seven Magi, Vol. 3 (Vertical, Inc.)
King of Hell, Vol. 18 (Tokyopop)
Kung Fu Klutz & Karate Cool, Vol. 2 (Tokyopop)
Life, Vol. 8 (Tokyopop)
MPD Psycho, Vol. 4 (Dark Horse)
Negima, Vol. 17 (Del Rey)
Never Give Up, Vol. 7 (Tokyopop)
Psychic Power Nanaki, Vol. 2 (Tokyopop)
Pumpkin Scissors, Vol. 2 (Del Rey)
Queens, Vol. 5 (Tokyopop)
The Queen’s Knight, Vol. 10 (Tokyopop)
Samurai Deeper Kyo, Vol. 27 (Tokyopop)
A Seduction More Beautiful Than Love, Vol. 1 (Tokyopop)
Spy Goddess, Volume 1: The Chase for the Chalice (Tokyopop)
Star Project Chiro, Vol. 2 (UDON Entertainment)
Tactics, Vol. 4 (Tokyopop)
Teru Teru X Shonen, Vol. 1 (CMX)
Voice or Noise, Vol. 2 (BLU Manga)
xxxHolic, Vol. 11 (Del Rey)
Zig Zag, Vol. 2 (Tokyopop)

A.I. Revolution, Vol. 1

By Yuu Asami
Go! Comi, 206 pp.
Rating: Older Teen (16+)

airevolution1.jpgDavid Welsh beat me to the punch with his excellent review of A.I. Revolution, noting the fluid script and elegant artwork. I haven’t seen too many other bloggers tackle this title, however, so I decided to post my two cents in the hopes of inspiring more readers to try it. The story itself isn’t anything remarkable; fans of Isaac Asimov or even Yuu Watase have encountered similar tales of human-robot relationships. What makes Asami’s drama so compelling is its marriage of familiar sci-fi themes–what differentiates man from machine? can robots have a theory of the mind? do ethics govern human/robot interactions?–and shojo drama. The human protagonist, Sui, initially view robots as household appliances, not unlike vacuum cleaners or toasters. But when her father builds a companion for her, Sui develops a strong bond with Vermillion, discovering that he has a capacity for feeling that far outstrips her expectations. (In a neat twist, Vermillion proves more sensitive than Sui’s human fiance.) Asami doesn’t shy away from action scenes, but the emphasis remains squarely on relationships. In Vermillion’s interactions with Sui and her father, we see different types of love dramatized; Sui’s father, for example, has modeled Vermillion in the image of a colleague that he admired, leading to a few funny, awkward moments of human-robot homoeroticism, while Sui seesaws between sisterly protectiveness and romantic attachment to her handsome companion. (Really, is there any other kind of robot in shojo manga?) Asami’s art reminds me of Keiko Nishi’s with its slightly stylized character designs, delicate linework, and sparing use of screentone. It’s a little dated perhaps, but a welcome change of pace from the slicker, busier layouts characteristic of the titles licensed by CMX, Tokyopop, and Viz. Highly recommended for fans of old-school shojo.

Volume one of A.I. Revolution is available now.

Be With You (Manga)

Written by Takuji Ichikawa, Art by Sai Kawashima, Script by Yoko Iino
Viz, 216 pp.
Rating: Teen

Be With You (Novel)

By Takuji Ichikawa, Translated by Terry Gallagher
Viz, 268 pp.

bewithnovel.jpgFirst published in 2003, Be With You enthralled millions of Japanese readers before enjoying even greater popularity as a movie, television show, and manga. The story focuses on Takumi, a widower struggling to raise his six-year-old son Yuji. While strolling through a forest, Takumi encounters a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mio, his recently deceased wife. This woman suffers from complete amnesia, however, and doesn’t recognize Takumi or Yuji. Takumi brings her home knowing that he faces a difficult choice: should he convince this woman that she’s his wife and carry on as if she’d never died, or tell her the truth?

As portrayed in the novel, Takumi is a neurotic whose grief and crippling anxiety make him a less-than-ideal parent to his fragile son. The manga, however, offers a kinder, gentler Takumi whose chief fault is his inability to keep a clean house. Yuji, too, morphs from odd, morose little boy to energetic, resourceful character who demonstrates maturity well beyond his years. In softening their personalities, script writer Yoko Iino may have made the manga more teen-friendly, but she’s also eliminated the novel’s chief source of interest: Takumi’s tartly self-aware narrative. Throughout the novel, Takumi acknowledges his failings as a parent and a husband, revealing himself to be a difficult, selfish, and awkward man whose wife was his salvation. His blunt voice adds some badly needed edges to a story that grows increasingly sentimental in its third act, culminating in an ending that ties up all the narrative threads into an overly neat little package.

Readers unfamiliar with the original novel may find the manga’s introductory pages confusing, as Yoko Iino has compressed several chapters’ worth of material into a mere twenty pages. These first scenes have a choppy, hectic feel, introducing several characters who play little role in the main story and giving us a brief (and irrelevant) peek at Takumi’s job. The art has a bland quality to it that conveys little of the novel’s bittersweet tone, a problem reflected in the generic character designs and clip-and-paste backgrounds. My suggestion to fans of the “Pure Love” genre: read the novel or wait for Viz Pictures to acquire the movie rights.

Both the Be With You novel and manga are available now.

Black Sun, Silver Moon, Vol. 4

By Tomo Maeda
Go! Comi, 194 pp.
Rating: Older Teen (16+)

blacksun4.jpgThe first two volumes of Black Sun Silver Moon were an agreeable mess, notable for their button-cute character designs, faint whiff of shonen-ai, and abrupt shifts between scenes of domestic comedy and scenes of zombie slaying. Midway through volume three, however, manga-ka Tomo Maeda found her footing with the material, moving away from the Odd Couple squabbling of volumes one and two (Shikimi, the priest, is a slob, while Taki, his demon-slaying apprentice, is a neat freak) and beginning a longer story arc of surprising emotional depth. Volume four picks up where volume three left off, revealing the devastating events that transformed Shikimi from mere mortal to lethal demon. Maeda creates an atmosphere of palpable dread, decluttering her once busy layouts and using a dark palette to underscore the parishioner’s growing sense of fear and suspicion that Shikimi is, in fact, the cause of the mysterious illness that’s thinning their ranks. There are a few slightly confusing moments in the narrative; it’s never entirely clear if Shikimi’s helpmate and friend Eva turns on him or remains loyal, nor is it clear whether Shikimi’s love interest is, in fact, the cause of the town’s misfortune. That said, volume four of Black Sun Silver Moon is a solid, entertaining exercise in psychological terror. And if Maeda can figure out how to reintroduce Taki and his ridiculously cute undead dog without spoiling the mood, I’m upgrading this series to an A.

Volume four of Black Sun Silver Moon is available now.

Minima!, Vol. 1

By Machiko Sakurai
Del Rey, 182 pp.
Rating: 13+

minima1.jpgIf you’ve ever thought that the basic premise of The Velveteen Rabbit was nifty, but found its passive hero too much of a sad sack, have I got the manga for you: Minima!. Nicori, the stuffed mouse who comes to life in this tale, is a feisty, media-savvy fellow who’d never allow real rodents to mock him. Nicori’s story begins when he’s rescued from a discount bin by Ame, a lonely girl with an unreliable group of friends. In a display of gratitude, Nicori punishes Ame’s classmates for their unkind words with a stinging rebuke and some perfectly timed karate chops. Word of Nicori’s incredible feat quickly reaches the press, forcing him to choose between a life of celebrity (and probable exploitation by unscrupulous handlers) and a life with Ame, who isn’t certain that she wants to be in the spotlight with her talking toy.

Machiko Sakurai’s artwork is bit unsatisfying; she has a limited repertoire of character designs, and a tendency to draw vaguely alien faces with bulging eyes and foreheads. Still, she delivers the goods when the story calls for real displays of emotion, conveying Ame’s frustration at being ostracized by her peers through simple but effective close-ups of Ame’s tearful face. Sakurai also does a good job of revealing Nicori’s character through the artwork; though crudely rendered, his body language and huge eyes speak volumes about his true nature, a mixture of selfish desire to be famous and selfless interest in Ame’s welfare. Throughout volume one, Sakurai strikes a good balance between broad physical comedy, showbiz intrigue, and romantic drama, crafting a funny, engaging story that should appeal to teens who’ve outgrown their favorite stuffed animal.

Volume one of Minima is available now.

Monkey High!, Vol. 1

By Shouko Akira
Viz, 186 pp.
Rating: Teen

monkeyhigh1.jpgHaruna Aizawa, the prickly protagonist of Monkey High!, is the daughter of an ambitious politician. After her father is implicated in a scandal, Haruna transfers from an elite private school to a decidedly less fancy public school. In her mind, however, not much has changed; as she explains in the early pages of chapter one,

School life is like being on a monkey mountain. Monkeys in the same gang constantly fight and get back together again and a hierarchy gets established. There may be slight differences, but it’s pretty much the same anywhere you go.

As one might infer from Haruna’s comments, she views herself as a kind of anthropologist, watching her classmates pair off, squabble, and form new alliances from a safe distance. Her efforts to remain invisible to her classmates are quickly thwarted by two boys, Kido and Macharu, both of whom take a shine to her. Though Macharu is the shorter and less suave of the two, his sincerity and enthusiasm crack Haruna’s cool facade. Is romance in the cards for this improbable pair? (Is the Pope Catholic? C’mon, people, this is Shojo Beat–the question isn’t if, but when!)

Though the monkey mountain metaphor isn’t terribly profound–and may remind you of a similar motif in Mean Girls–it proves an effective gambit for revealing what kind of girl Haruna is: intellectual, aloof, and deeply afraid of being rejected. Shouko Akira tries, with varying degrees of success, to extend the analogy to other characters, even chibi-fying Macharu by giving him a tail and a Curious George grin in several panels. Her character designs are cute and appealing (if a little two-dimensional), and her layouts clean and unfussy–a rarity in shojo comedies, which are often a riot of muttered asides, in-jokes, and panels-within-panels. But what really puts Monkey High! at the head of the class is Akira’s ability to depict ordinary moments–awkward conversations, jokes, classroom banter–and make them a compelling part of the drama instead of weigh stations between comic misunderstandings and tearful confessions of love. Her story is a potent (and amusing) reminder that life is what happens when you least expect it.

Volume one of Monkey High! is available now.

4 Responses to "Weekly Recon: Super-Sized Shojo Spectacular"

1 | Erin F.

March 4th, 2008 at 4:46 pm

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Wow, I really hated A.I. Revolution, but I really liked the sample I read of Monkey High… but you gave them both the same grade!?! OMG!!!

2 | Lori Henderson

March 4th, 2008 at 6:34 pm

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Hey, only one title this week. But I’ve got three review titles to work on. Eeek!

I did enjoy the last volume of Andromeda Stories. I think I might have liked 2 more if I had been able to read 1, but oh well. I can’t wait to read Volume three of Guin Saga: Seven Magi and see if the end lives up to it’s beginning. And I loved the sample chapter of Monkey High. Can’t wait to read that one either.

But, they are going to have to wait, as I am determined to get through the 11 volumes of Naruto I had to buy, so I can get to reading my Shonen Jumps again. I said I wasn’t going to read them until I was caught up on Naruto, and now I’m 4 issues behind!!

3 | Isaac Hale

March 4th, 2008 at 8:24 pm

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Oooh. I’m totally checking out “Monkey High” from the library now. And I can’t wait for my copy of “Andromeda Stories” to come in the mail!

4 | Katherine Dacey

March 4th, 2008 at 10:33 pm

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I can’t say enough good things about Monkey High!. Haruna was such a refreshing departure from the stereotypical spastic, wishy-washy shojo heroine–she has some serious edges! And Andromeda Stories, too. Takemiya does a better job of tying things up at the end of volume three. (I’m still not 100% sure what happened at the end of To Terra, though it was Deep.)

As for A.I. Revolution, Erin, all I can say is that sometimes our tastes are frighteningly similar–Club 9, Swan–and other times it’s as if we’re from different planets! (I’m still mystified by your positive review of Fall in Love Like a Comic.) But that’s what makes reviewing so much fun… I can never predict what books we’ll both enjoy.

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