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Cowa! by Akira Toriyama

Continuing on with my impromptu spooky manga for the rest of the month, I just finished reading Cowa! by Akira Toriyama. While I’m aware of the whole Dragonball phenomena, I haven’t read that manga because super-long manga about fighting is generally not my thing. So I was happy to sample this single volume about the adventures of Paifu, a half-vampire half-werekoala.

Paifu lives with his mom and friends in a little monster village in the country. He hangs out with a little ghost named Jose Rodriguez and struggle with his nemesis Arpon, a self-proclaimed monster kung-fu expert. The first few stories of the collection deal with the mischievous antics of the monster kids ditching school and visiting the scary house where a human murderer lives. The murderer is a retired sumo wrestler who was exiled after getting too enthusiastic in the ring. When monster flu strikes down most of the residents of the town Paifu and his friends decide to go fetch secure the antidote from a witch who lives on top of a mountain far away. They get the human Maruyama to drive them, and the quest begins.

There are plenty of misunderstandings as the odd group enters human territory on their way to find the medicine they need. Maruyama ends up having quite the reputation in his former life as a sumo wrestler nicknamed “The Volcano.” They make friends along the way, and defeat enemies when needed and end up getting a new car and some cotton candy. Toriyama’s drawing style for Cowa! is cute and whimsical. I could easily see making all of the characters in the book as amigurumi. As you might expect, there are plenty of fart jokes, and Paifu’s hulked-out were-koala form comes in handy whenever Maruyama’s sumo strength can’t solve a problem. I really liked the muted and dark color palette used in the first story in the collection, the rest of the book was in black and white. Cowa! is rated for all ages, and I don’t think I’d have a problem giving it to a younger child, because all the violence in the book is so cartoony and bad things only happen to bad people. Maruyama’s beady-eyed expression of constant resignation as he deals with the monster kids is funny and there’s plenty of humor throughout the volume. I think one of my favorite scenes was when Maruyama was fighting a forest spirit who was armed with gigantic razor sharp knives, waving them around and causing inadvertent deforestation while yelling “Trees of Wood Weep!” I’d recommend Cowa if you enjoy your Halloween stories to be light and funny instead of super-spooky.

Detroit Metal City #6

I’m not ambitions enough to do a while month of Halloween-themed posts like Bully’s Riverdale Hellmouth, Andrew’s Halloween Countdown and Dorian’s Decade of Schlock. But I thought I’d try to post reviews of manga that fit in the Halloween spirit during the month of October. Thus, Detroit Metal City #6!

Detroit Metal City Volume 6 by Kiminori Wakasugi

Wakasugi’s central idea for DMC of a bland pop-music loving hapless man forced to take on the identity of metal god Krauser II is a good one, but after getting over the shock and delight at the first two volumes inspired profanity I was wondering if the later volumes would still be as funny. Seeing some of the same jokes repeated diminishes the funniness a little bit. There are a limited number of times a joke about parental rape and killing can be funny. On the other hand, by focusing on some of the other band members in DMC and offering up hints of an ongoing plot, this volume seemed like a slight departure in direction for the series.

The opening story of the collection was by far the funniest. Negishi goes to visit the apartment of the girl he has a crush on and winds up taking a bath. Unfortunately her overprotective father comes over and is determined to throw out the boy in his daughter’s bathroom. Negishi’s instinctive fight or flight response is to don the protective armor of his other self, so he quickly throws on Krauser’s face using Aikawa’s makeup. Aikawa and her father keep trading off opening the bathroom door and the makeup goes off and on depending on who’s knocking. Negishi grows increasingly desperate and runs off naked into the night.

The next couple stories feature different aspects of Japanese culture that also get the DMC treatment. Bassist Wada toys with the idea of leaving DMC and joining a visual kei band, but a combination of card tricks and horrible lyrics ensures that everything goes wrong. Nishida’s otaku desire for a limited edition Thrusting Squadron Little Bloomer figure is foiled, and he takes his revenge by entering a drumming competition at a local arcade. The hint of ongoing story that’s explored in this volume concerns the inexplicable appearance of Krauser I, a superfan who has insane guitar chops. Could he be Negishi’s chance to escape his death-metal torture, or DMC’s greatest rival?

This volume was nowhere near as outrageously funny as the first couple volumes in the series, but it did have a few amusing moments. DMC’s female manager is still using evocative language to describe her nether regions. Negishi leaves terror in his wake despite his desire to quit metal and write songs about lovely cheese tarts. I’m happy to check in on this series now and then, but there’s an element of sameness in the repetitive jokes that doesn’t make me feel like I need to read every volume. Still, I’m glad that this series is being published here, with all of its references to dead animals in uncomfortable places and unsavory things being done to the Queen of England. This has to be a very fun manga for the people working on translating it.

Review copy provided by the publisher

Vagabond VizBig Volumes 7 and 8

Vagabond Volumes 7 and 8 by Takehiko Inoue

I’ve fallen behind with reading Vagabond, but that makes catching up all the more enjoyable since I was able to read 6 volumes of awesome sword fighting action all at once in these two omnibus editions. This is a series that I sometimes find difficult to write about because it is honestly as close to perfection as I think any manga series can possibly get. I mean, there’s not a whole lot to say other than it continues to be a great comics. The fight scenes in Vagabond are never just fight scenes. Instead they are conversations between two characters who just happen to be trying their best to kill each other. Nowhere is this more apparent than the first two parts of Volume 7, which show Sasaki Kojiro finally fighting to preserve his life as he’s abandoned near a battlefield filled with crazed and starving opponents. Kojiro is finally facing fear and in doing so is transforming his abilities with the sword. He’s past the point of exhaustion, but enters a trance-like state when fighting for his life reveals new aspects of his technique with the sword.

Kojiro is a deaf-mute, so when he fights with his opponents, he can only communicate with his body language and actions. As I was following Kojiro’s fights through the first 2/3rds of this volume, I appreciated the attention Inoue pays to blocking out the fight scenes based on the character’s personalities. Kojiro’s so close to nature that his reactions are primal and instinctual. Musashi approaches fighting with more of a shrewd and calculated brutality. Seeing the contrast between these two rivals as they slowly journey towards each other had me anticipating their meeting even more.

Musashi is showing signs of philosophizing as he journeys towards his confrontation with the Yoshioka School. The reader gets glimpses of the man who will eventually write The Book of Five Rings as he ponders the true meaning behind the idea of becoming invincible. When Musashi kills one of the Yoshioka brothers, the other members of the school want to find a stand-in so they won’t lose the last heir of the school. Musashi’s childhood friend Matahatchi has been posing as Kojiro based on accidental possession of a hereditary document, but when he finds out that the real Kojiro is in town promptly renames himself “Satsaki Koujiro”. Matahatchi is such a weasel he always just barely manages to preserve his life by coming up with a new and inventive lie, which is a different kind of strength.

Vagabond is filled with references to nature. Kojiro’s inner self is represented as a raging sea. The Yoshioka School fight takes place in winter and Musashi struggles to deal with the elements. He doesn’t want his body to stiffen up when he’s outside, so he keeps moving. Musashi and Kojiro meet when they are both staying at the house of a renowned sword-sharpener. The way they meet shows how surprising Vagabond can be. Kojiro starts practicing his technique by swinging a stick at a snowman Musashi made, and the two men soon find themselves battling it out with twigs instead of swords. Seeing these two men develop a camaraderie when they are destined to become rivals is part of what makes Vagabond so rewarding to read. After their meeting Musashi reflects that Kojiro’s instinctive ability is a part of himself that he’s lost somehow along his journey. Musashi concludes that he’s been lucky to survive so far, and he has to work to get back what he’s lost.

Gente Volume 1

Gente, Vol. 1: The People of Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono

I liked this spin-off of Ristorante Paradiso more than than the first, standalone volume. The problems with the way Ono set up the mother/daughter relationship in Ristorante Paradisio are left behind as Gente just focuses on the way the bespectacled gentlemen of Casetta Dell’Orso started working together as Lorenzo decides to open a restaurant to cater to his wife’s peculiar taste in waiters. I like it when manga tends to display the author’s interests. For example, it is obvious to anyone reading Fumi Yoshinaga that she’s an incurable foodie. After reading two volumes of this series by Natsume Ono, I’m guessing that she only makes passes at men who wear glasses.

A few of the waiters get a stories that focus on their lives and a stories about customers make it into the collection as well. The widowed Luciano juggles his schedule at the restaurant with watching over his daughter and grandchild. An older woman at the restaurant starts to take an interest in him, inviting him to a concert where his daughter happens to be performing. Father and daughter walk home together at night through the cobblestone streets. Vito chats up a neighbor who he sees at the gym. She’s struggling with seeing her sister trapped in an abusive relationship. They get trapped in the rickety elevator in their building and enjoy a companionable game of sudoku. The staff get together to celebrate the one year anniversary of the restaurant, with plenty of companionship, good food, and wine.

Gente focuses more on brief character portraits and the atmosphere of the restaurant as opposed to any overriding plot. For a manga that focuses so much on place, I think one of the most important considerations is if the reader would actually feel like hanging out at the restaurant that is so important to the characters. I did feel like I’d enjoy running off to Italy and having a glass of wine at Casetta Dell’Orso after finishing this volume. Gente featured so much less of the unsympathetic soap opera that marred Ristorante Paradisio, I ended up enjoying the character sketches and camaraderie in this manga without feeling irritated.

Viz Quick Takes – Butterflies, Flowers, Arata, and Otomen

Butterflies, Flowers Volume 4

I think with every volume the situations in Butterflies, Flowers grow more cartoony and thus even more hilarious. Yanagi, the president of the company where Masayuki and Choko work has decided that Choko will be his new personal assistant. Oh, and he just happens to be the man who sexually harassed her at a group date a few chapters ago. Despite Masayuki’s utter devotion to the company president, he will not let him take Choko and thus the men are locked in a battle for her nether regions. Masayuki vows to protect her. Unfortunately Yanagi just happens to be the ultimate rich otaku, with a home office tricked out like the set of a spaceship’s bridge, and an evil villain chair that seems to be able to pop up anywhere in his house. The men are constantly jumping out of windows and battling with giant robots and rocket launchers. Masayuki of course prevails, but his behavior begins to change. No longer is he constantly sexually harassing Choko. She begins to wonder what is wrong since he’s no longer constantly trying to show her his underwear.

Butterflies, Flowers does a great job combining slapstick comedy with emotional upheaval. Usually the over-the-top antics of the characters serve as a stand in for the revelation of some sort of emotional truth – the real reason Masayuki devotes himself to his job, or the insecurity of people in a new relationship. Combining all the robot and bikini underwear with heartfelt confessions of Masayuki and Choko as they begin to grow closer really produces a manga with a unique and funny point of view.

Arata: The Legend Volume 3

After reading the third volume of this series, I think I’m resigned to not seeing much more of the Arata in Japan. He shows up for a few panels to deal with his substitute’s school bullies, and then is shuffled off stage in favor of the Japanese Arata’s adventures in a fantasy world. This is a series that I wish I liked a little more than I do. I think that Fushigi Yugi Genbu Kaiden just has more depth, due to the relationships and history between the characters. Maybe part of it is just due to the general tendency of shoujo series to focus more on emotion and shonen series spending more time on action. The action here is very competently done as Arata visits the home of the person he considered his first enemy and learns that his motivation might be more complex than he originally thought. Arata approaches his upcoming struggles with a vow for peace. While he might have to make other magic users submit to him, he vows only to collect the powers of those Sho who submit to him voluntarily. Since Arata’s motivation is more nuanced than the typical shonen hero who is going to battle for more power, Arata: The Legend does remain interesting to read even though this type of heroic quest story seems to be one of the main things that Watase specializes in, and I do feel like I’ve read it before. I just still find myself caring more about Takiko in Genbu Kaiden than I do about Arata. But maybe a few more volumes will win me over more, since the first three focused more on world building and setting up Arata’s quest.

Otomen Volume 7

This series continues to display the message of “Be true to yourself” in different stories. The battle of the bands set up in the previous issue ends up with the glam rock and rockabilly rivals revealing a shared sugary j-pop past. Juta struggles with his own disguise of posing as a female manga artist when it turns out that his first love is one of his avid fans. There’s a fairly typical “ghost at camp” story, and then Otomen returns to familiar territory as Juta tries to meddle in Asuka’s relationship with Ryo in order to get more material for his manga. Asuka’s been content to remain fairly passive about taking his relationship with Ryo to the next level. He’s not even sure of her feelings. Juta tries to start a rumor to bring the couple closer together, but the end result might mean that they will part.

I’d always liked what I’d seen of Ryo’s character, because her prowess at martial arts and her secretly unfeminine interests seem to make her the perfect match for Asuka. But while we’ve had stories from the point of view of plenty of the other characters, her inner life hasn’t really been detailed for the reader. I hope the upcoming storyline fills in more of her details so she doesn’t remain a sort of cipher that is just brought out whenever it is necessary for Asuka to act awkward around the girl he likes. Still, with the variety of situations shown in this volume, I still put it down feeling satisfied.

Review copies of Butterflies, Flowers and Arata provided by the publisher.

House of Five Leaves Volume 1

House of Five Leaves Volume 1 by Natsume Ono

This is one of my favorite series on the Sigikki site. I find Ono’s art style very refreshing and the story about a hapless ronin provides an interesting contrast to all the fighting samurai manga out there. Masanosuke is the poor unemployed samurai with a personality disorder. He’s skilled at fighting, but he freezes up whenever anyone pays attention to him. Masa is shy and passive, living in a poor apartment and apologizing to his cat every day for not having enough food for him. Due to his absolutely intimidating personality, he’s fired from the few bodyguarding jobs he’s able to get but he’s unwilling and incapable of taking on a job doing labor.

The turning point for Masa comes when he meets a man named Yaichi, who hires him for a yojimbo job. He tells Masa to stand up straight instead of hunching over so he’ll look more intimidating. Masa follows Yaichi around, fascinated by the way the other man seems to have a natural charisma when dealing with other people on the street. It soon becomes clear that Yaichi isn’t an innocent man wanting protection, he’s the leader of a kidnapping and extortion gang called the House of Five Leaves. Masa tries to resist joining the group, but Yaichi finds him intriguing and is determined to keep using him for jobs despite the fact that other members of the gang think that the poor ronin is useless. Yaichi explains “I don’t want him simply for his skills. He doesn’t bore me. I want to observe him for a while longer and see what kind of man he is.”

Ono draws with a great economy of line. The backgrounds are just detailed enough to evoke the historic setting, with screens, tatami, and the kitchens where the gang hangs out being the main settings. She does great things with body language evoking character. Masa is constantly hunched over as if he’s trying to disappear. Yaichi is loose and confident in the way he holds himself, wearing a cynical smirk as a mask to hide his secrets.

Masa needs to send money back home to his family. He’s so naive and passive, he accepts whatever job Yaichi recommends him for, not realizing that he’s actually going to take part in a kidnapping plot. Everyone in this series seems to have murky motivation for participating in criminal acts, some members of the gang follow Yaichi out of habit and others need the boost to their income. The House of Five Leaves tens to target corrupt people with their kidnapping schemes. Yaichi claims to be running the gang for money, but his personality is so complex that can’t be the only reason for his behavior. The smooth secretive gang leader and the bumbling credulous ronin each inspire feelings of fascination in each other. It’ll be interesting to see how this unlikely relationship develops.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Hyde and Closer Volume 1

Hyde and Closer Volume 1 by Haro Aso

How much you enjoy this manga largely depends on how amusing you find cigar-chomping, chainsaw-wielding magical fighting teddy bears. I always enjoy the juxtaposition of chainsaws and cute cuddly things, so I found this manga amusing despite the fairly unsurprising shonen storyline. The Closer in the book is Shunpei Closer who displays many of the prototypical sad-sack hero traits shown in the first volumes of almost every shonen manga. Shunpei has absolutely no self confidence. He’s bullied at school and not particularly talented at anything. But his life is about to change.

Shunpei’s beloved grandfather turns out to be the Sorcerer King of the 20th Century. Grandpa’s gone missing so now Shunpei is the target of rival magicians who want to tear out his heart and consume it in order to inherit the magic of his bloodline. The way sorcerers do battle is to send cursed stuffed animals to their enemies. Shunpei gets a delivery of a little stuffed monkey. When he turns his back on the monkey it comes after him with an exacto knife. The deranged cursed monkey informs Shunpei of his predicament. Shunpei freaks out and runs away, only to be rescued by Hyde, the teddy bear his grandfather gave him years ago. Hyde wears a fedora, swigs honey out of a shot glass, and chomps on chocolate cigars. The bear has a world-weary cynical attitude and level of care for Shunpei that is explained by his personality taking after the traits of his creator, Shunpei’s missing grandfather.

One thing I enjoyed about this manga was the character designs. The sorcerers that Shunpei battles are all very distinct, with cursed stuffed animals that reflect their personalities. Having magical battles take place through sentient stuffed animals is funny, and the contrast of the weak and sniveling Shunpei with the old-man tough-ass attitude of Hyde was amusing. In some ways Shunpei seemed almost too weak in the first volume. It is easy to see that Hyde will train him to perfect his magical abilities, but Shunpei always seems to be drenched in flop sweat or on the verge of tears. I’d probably panic too if stuffed monkeys with knives were coming after me, but it would have been nice if Shunpei’s personality was a tiny bit more nuanced.

Still, with many shonen manga titles just consisting of dudes with rippling muscles duking it out I found the idea of battle through magical stuffed animals a little refreshing. I also find Hyde as a character totally amusing. His button eyes and diagonal stitched mouth gives him an air of casual menace that is at odds with his teddy bear body. He always seems to have an evil grin on his face as he’s helping Shunpei out of magical death traps. I think that the combination of humor and vicious teddy bear battles make Hyde and Closer more entertaining than the typical shonen fighting manga.

This is a Shonen Sunday title, so you can read some of the chapters of the manga online.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Biomega Volume 1

Biomega Volume 1 by Tsutomu Nihei

I’ve been meaning to read Biomega ever since Kevin posted this lovely panel, go look at it if you haven’t read the series yet, then come back!

I think that there are some defining questions you can use to get a sense of someone’s personality – Beatles or Elvis? Mac or PC? Red Sox or Yankees? Taking bear with gun or no talking bear with gun? Either you are the type of person to find the idea of a talking bear holding a machine gun intrinsically delightful, or you are not. And if you don’t like talking bears with machine guns, I’m not sure if we can still be friends anymore.

In Biomega the future has turned into a dark, moody zombie apocalypse. Humanity has been infected by a horrible virus that turns most people into a gooey shambling undead army, but a few precious people are able to contract the virus and still retain their humanity along with super-healing powers. Zoichi Kanoe is a kick-ass artificial human on a mission. His mission appears to be driving a motorcycle awesomely and shooting zombies even more awesomely. Zoichi finds Eon Green, a girl who is able to accommodate the N55 virus, along with her protector the talking bear Kozlov L. Grebnev. Zoichi loses Eon and goes to get her back.

Dialog in Biomega serves more as random punctuation for a parade of fight scenes and dystopic scenery. Fortunately Nihei happens to be really good at drawing run-down urban backgrounds and bullets hitting people and zombies in the head. What makes Biomega better than your typical zombie tale is all the inexplicable elements that seem initially weirdly out of place yet function just right within the story. Why is Eon inexplicably wearing a bear costume when she’s captured? Why does her tower home look like it has been transplanted into the future from London? I don’t particularly care about the reasons why because it is all so lovely to look at.

Zoichi’s interactions with Kozlov L. Grebnev are hilarious and wonderful action pieces that could only work in the comics medium. Usually I tend to get annoyed when manga is too dark, but in Biomega’s case it serves to enhance the feeling of darkness in the world the characters inhabit. If I’d read a lot of zombie comics, or if Biomega didn’t feature a talking bear I’d probably be a little less interested in this title. Fortunately now I know I can pick up the next volume when I’m in the mood for some good old-fashioned head exploding violence.

Afterschool Charisma Volume 1

Afterschool Charisma Volume 1 by Kumiko Suekane

My favorite Sigikki titles are Afterschool Charisma tied with House of Five Leaves. House of Five Leaves isn’t out in print format yet, but I really enjoyed the first print volume of Afterschool Charisma. Shiro’s father is a scientist, and as a result he goes to a unique private high school. All of Shiro’s classmates are clones of famous historical figures, and as the only person there with a father, Shiro stands out. The story opens as Clone Marie Curie is experiencing a crisis of faith. She’s supposed to be studying science to model herself after the original Marie Curie, but Clone Marie Curie just wants to play music. Shiro’s childish faith in his parent leads him to ask his father if Clone Marie can study music instead. Overnight it is announced that Clone Marie is going to transfer to a music school and she’s never seen again.

There’s an increasing amount of tension within the school, especially after the political assassination of their most famous graduate. New security guards patrol the halls, and the clones have trouble managing the expectations placed on them for being copies of famous people. Clone Napoleon is experiencing a growth sport and Clone Mozart is an elitist jerk. I wish the female characters were a bit less traditionally feminine but their character traits are funny, as Clone Florence Nightingale has a tendency to burst into tears and clasp people to her ample bosom. Shiro’s planted in this high school as an ordinary guy with adjustment issues, who may eventually realize that his father isn’t as benign as he thinks.

The most delightful character in Afterschool Charisma is Clone Freud, who skulks around the school observing people with his pageboy haircut tucked behind his ears. While it seems that Shiro might not really want to wake up to what’s going on in his high school, Freud is on the case doing research and then quickly filling up his computer screen with pictures of naked women if it looks like he might be observed. Clone Freud also provides an acerbic counterpoint to Shiro’s blind optimism. When Shiro mentions talking to his father too many times, Clone Freud just stands there with an unholy expression on his face saying “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” I’m looking forward to seeing if Clone Freud and Shiro eventually team up if they discover the truth behind the organization sponsoring the high school.

Suekane’s art is probably the most conventional and commercial of all the Sigikki titles. The illustrations wouldn’t look out of place in a more mainstream manga, but I think the combination of the accessible art and off-kilter high school story works well. While the hints of something sinister at the school are one plot element, Suekane adds an additional layer by showing the societal aspects of a bunch of cloned high school students. How they relate to each other individually and as a group is interesting, as Shiro turns to different friends when he needs help and towards the end of the volume observes the birth of a unique clone religion. Thinking back over the volume after reading it, it is pretty amazing what Sukane was able to pack into the first few chapters of Afterschool Charisma. I’d read this manga for Clone Freud alone, but I’m intrigued by the story and looking forward to seeing what happens to the clone teens. With so many skilled leaders and tacticians from history trapped in high school, it’ll be interesting to see what would happen to the human race if the clones finally graduate.

Viz Quick Takes – Kimi ni Todoke 4, Arata 2, Magic Touch 8

One thing that’s a little tricky about review copies is when you get sent mid-series books and you haven’t necessarily read the first volumes. If you write about how accessible the book is for someone to pick up midstream, the review becomes less than useful. I think I remember reading a review of the 8th volume of Seimaden from someone who had no familiarity with the story, and it was a painful exercise. Fortunately since I read a lot of manga blogs, I’m fairly familiar with all of these series even though I haven’t been reading them all along. So I’ll attempt to just concentrate on my reactions to these volumes, and you can chime in on the comments if I’m missing some essential back story!

Kimi ni Todoke Volume 4 by Karuho Shiina

I skipped over buying this title when it first came out because I’m sometimes overwhelmed by Shojo Beat titles, and I was worried that this series about a girl who is ostracized due to her resemblance to a Japanese horror movie character was an overly sentimental version of The Wallflower. But I found myself charmed by the character interaction on display in this volume and now I’m worried I’ll have to add the rest of the series to my shopping list.

The fourth volume of the series opens as formerly scary Sawako and the most popular boy in school Kazehaya are almost ready to move forward with their relationship. There are obstacles in the way in the form of Sawako’s “friend” Kurumi who has been nursing a long-standing crush on Kazehaya. Sawako has been isolated for so long, she’s utterly unaware of the nuances of human interaction. So when Kurumi starts playing mean-girl games like asking Sawako if she can help her go out with Kazehaya, Sawako just comes out and says that she can’t because she has feelings for him.

Kurumi has been out spreading false rumors about Sawako, and Sawako’s unlikely friends Chizu and Ayane confront her. While mean girl manipulation and budding first crushes are shoujo manga staples, I found reading Kimi ni Todoke unexpectedly refreshing. Sawako’s straightforward nature ends up moving plot points forward that in another shoujo series would keep dragging on for a couple volumes just due to more typical heroines being afraid to confess their feelings.

I tend to enjoy manga artists when they have a very individualistic style. You can’t read anything by Moyoco Anno or Ai Yazawa and not recognize the way each of them has a unique approach to character design and composition. Shiina’s art is competent, with plenty of focus on facial expressions as her character’s react to each other. But I found the art to be leaning towards the modern generic shoujo that we see in so many recent series. There are a few quirks that I enjoyed, like the way Shiina tends to favor a more spastic line when drawing Sawako’s belligerent and excitable friend Chizu. It was fun seeing Sawako navigate the murky waters of high school friendship. She’s a genuinely sweet person, although with her lack of social filters she ends up doing things like having a heartfelt conversation about the nature of love with a boy she’s barely met due to Kurumi’s manipulation. Sawako’s blunt honesty ends up helping her out of any sort of sticky situation even if there’s something shady going on.

Arata: The Legend Volume 2 by Yuu Watase

I read the first few chapters of this shonen fantasy series on Shonen Sunday. It didn’t really grab my interest, which was odd since I usually tend to like Yuu Watase series. Like many of her previous series, this features protagonists thrown into a strange world and forced to go on a mystical quest. In this case two boys named Arata have switched places. The Japanese boy Arata Hinohara needs to deal with court intrigue and mystical powers, while the Arata from the fantasy world has to figure out how to attend high school in modern Japan.

The second volume focuses entirely on Japanese Arata’s adventures. He’s trapped on the prison island Gatoya and accompanied only by the overly subservient female healer Kotoha. The prison island is run by a warden who also has possession of a mystical weapon called a hayagami. Arata has a hayagami too, but he’s not sure how to use it. Arata and Kotoha observe life on the prison island, which is a warren of different corridors and levels. The residents live in fear of “the reckoning”, giant tentacle-like tubes which will randomly grab people and spirit them away in order to pronounce sentence upon them. Arata learns about friendship as he encounters the prisoners and he begins to take control of his own power. The events and plot direction of Arata: The Legend are all fairly predicatable. What I ended up enjoying most about this series was the design of the prison island, which looks like a battered steampunk maze.

It probably is a product of both series being aimed at different audiences, but I enjoyed Arata much less than Watase’s other recent series Fushigi Yugi Genbu Kaiden. There’s much less character development in Arata, and I found myself a little annoyed by the healer Kotoha, who helps Arata out but still treats him as though she’s his servant. As you would expect from shonen manga, there’s probably a budding romance going on there, but it just wasn’t very interesting. I think I would have enjoyed this volume more if the chapters were more evenly split between the two Aratas, but the one stranded in Japan only made a brief appearance at the end of the book. Still, there’s plenty of fantasy quest type action on display in this series.

Magic Touch Volume 8 by Izumi Tsubaki

If you read high school romance manga, there are certain plot elements that come up again and again. Preparing for the school festival! Running a cafe at the festival! Romantic misunderstandings! Sometimes featuring a high school group with a wacky hobby can provide the author with some fresher plot ideas. This is one of the reasons why I like V.B. Rose so much, the dress shop setting takes it away from some of the plot devlopments I’ve seen over and over again. Magic Touch features a high school massage club, which I hoped would make the manga a little less typical, but unfortunately this manga features yet another school festival storyline as the hero and heroine sort out their feelings for each other.

Masseuse Chiaki and the boy with the best back in the world Yosuke are now in that nebulous “sort of dating” stage that happens so often in shoujo manga. They have recently entered into a period of extreme physical awkwardness with each other, but they aren’t really talking with each other so misunderstandings abound as the massage club preps for the annual school festival. I seem to remember Magic Touch getting panned in the manga blogosphere, and while it isn’t horrible the best I can say about it is that the manga is incredibly bland. I didn’t feel very interested in the main characters, and the large supporting cast of massage club members were largely indistinguishable from each other. I actually found the last story in the book, about the supporting characters Mihime and Ayame, more interesting than the main storyline. There was a glimmer of quirkiness in the interactions between the perpetually sunglasses wearing Mihime and the sheltered Ayame, so I ended up wishing the manga had focused more on them.

Review copies provided by the publisher