Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
I was once quite the connoisseur of manga – so much so that I once spent over $1000 on it in a single year, and amassed a collection that could fill most of my living room.
Unfortunately, the sheer cost of that hobby caused me to abstain from then on out, and I’ve lived my life almost completely manga-free for the past three years. Now, however, my place of employment is starting up a manga reading club that I get to run, so I finally have a legitimate excuse to get back into one of my favorite pastimes. I figured I would take the opportunity to catch up on a few of the series that had caught my eye at work, all under the convenient guise of “research!” Also, since March had five Fridays in it instead of the usual four, I had time to sneak in a few regular books as well.
(P.S. If you live near the Acworth, GA area and are interested in manga, check out the BAM Manga Club link at the top of the page for more information! Our first meeting is tonight!)
The Earl and the Fairy vol. 1 by Ayuko and Mizue Tani
Lydia Carlton is a Fairy Doctor, a person who can communicate with the mischievous spirits that also occupy our world. Unfortunately, she lives in turn-of-the-century England where belief in spirits has all but faded away completely. She is viewed as an eccentric, and though she is confident in herself and knows that her abilities are not all hogwash and superstition, she is still hurt by the accusing stares she receives from strangers and neighbors alike. With her outsider status weighing on her mind, she accepts her father’s invitation to visit him in London, only to be kidnapped en route. She’s ultimately rescued by a man calling himself Earl Edgar Ashenbert. But Edgar is too smooth and too charismatic to accept at face value; is he really what he claims, or is there some other darkness hiding at the corners of his character? And what of the serial killer escaped from America, and the attack on a nobleman in England itself?
I read a [review of this manga] that called it “not as intense as Black Butler, [and] not as nuanced as Emma,” two other manga famous for their Victorian-England setting. There’s some merit in this accusation, I think, but I like The Earl and the Fairy regardless. I found the premise to be fascinating, and if it lacks the bombastic Heaven-and-Hell nature of Black Butler, I think it’s a matter of aesthetic rather than failing to live up to the same standards. It also doesn’t have the true-to-life feeling of Emma, but since this is a story firmly entrenched in the fantasy camp (even if there aren’t many fantasy creatures in the first volume), I find it hard to hold that against it. Lydia may not be the most stand-up-and-take-charge protagonist to ever come out of manga but she isn’t inherently unlikable either, and Edgar has that dangerous mix of smooth talking and easy likability that is going to make him a treat to watch. Consider me hooked.
Gate 7 vol. 1 by Clamp
Chikahito Takamoto has always been in love with the city of Kyoto – he loves the history of it, and he would give almost anything just to visit the city once. His chance arrives in high school, and he scurries around the city of his dreams until he stumbles across an ancient shrine. It’s here that Chikahito is attacked by a mysterious creature and only saved by the intervention of the childlike warrior Hana and her companions/guardians, Tachibana and Sakura. It turns out that Chikahito should never have been able to witness the attack nor its aftermath, and the trio’s attempts to wipe it from his memory all fail. Chikahito, it seems, is more than he appears, even if the student doesn’t realize that himself.
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Clamp fan. There have been Clamp properties that I have enjoyed in the past – X/1999 comes to mind – but I have found a lot of their other works to be too cloyingly cute (Cardcaptor Sakura) or borderline creepy (sorry, Chobits, I will never really go for the amnesiac robot love interest). As such, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Gate 7, but that caution just made it all the easier for Gate 7 to sneak up on and overwhelm me with its fantasy action, surprisingly sympathetic characters, and historical bent. I’ve learned something about myself with this manga: if a show or manga mentions the Sengoku Era in any capacity, I will probably love it. There are even a few pages of historical and cultural notes in the back pages that shed some light on the references (and puns!) made throughout the volume. As for the art, this is Clamp we’re talking about: there are splash pages that you could frame and put on your wall and no one would question it. Character designs and outfits are executed with an almost compulsive level of detail. Gate 7 is an absolutely gorgeous manga with just the right balance of cute, light-hearted fun and serious stakes.
Grand Guignol Orchestra vol. 1 by Kaori Yuki
Up until this point, I’ve absolutely adored everything I’ve read by Kaori Yuki: Angel Sanctuary, Count Cain, Godchild. I love the gothic aesthetic and the life-and-death dramatics of it all, and though the artwork has an older style to it, I’ve never been turned off by the look. I picked up Grand Guignol Orchestra assuming that it would be like slipping back into a favorite outfit: easy and comfortable. Instead, I found that I had grown out of it, at least a little.
My issue with Guignol stems almost entirely from the organization of the story, rather than the story itself. I can get behind a world overrun by zombie porcelain dolls and main characters who battle them with music. That off-kilter otherworldliness has long been a part of Kaori Yuki’s works. But it always felt like such elements were more carefully explained before – if not in the first chapter, then certainly before the first volume was over. Guignol tosses you into the depths of its universe with only a single cryptic page to set up the backstory, and even that is more confusing than helpful. Answers aren’t quick in coming after that, either. You’re just kind of thrust along with the members of the Grand Guignol Orchestra and the other heroes and villains they come across, grasping at whatever straws you can find. A trio of protagonists with a mysterious past and a supporting cast full of potential aren’t enough to rescue the first volume from its awkward start. I might give the second volume a shot simply due to nostalgia, but I don’t see myself continuing much farther with the series if I’m not given a firmer footing on which to ground myself.
Gender-confusion, cross-dressing, violence, and bizarre imagery abound and therefor might not be for everyone. This is Kaori Yuki, after all.
Jack Frost vol. 1 by Jinho Ko
Speaking of violence, steer well clear of Jack Frost if oceans of blood aren’t your thing: by page five the main character has already been decapitated, and Jinho Ko seems to relish in drawing all sorts of bodily fluids leaving the body in creative ways. This manga is definitely not for kids.
The story, however, is fairly standard (for manga). Noh-A transfers to a new school only to find herself targeted and decapitated by a madman who goes on to attack one of her fellow classmates, Jack Frost. She narrates the ensuing battle from her unique vantage point as a severed head but doesn’t panic – it’s the same nightmare she’s had for a while, after all. Unfortunately, it isn’t just a dream this time. Noh-A is really and truly dead, stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth in an alternate world known as Amityville Private High School, where Jack Frost is the deadliest student around.
Jack Frost doesn’t suffer from the same stutter-start that plagued Guignol, or at least it doesn’t suffer from it for as long. The opening chapters are a jumble of images intended more to shock (“Holy hell, that is a lot of blood coming from that severed head!”) than to explicate (“Here is why that head was severed in the first place.”). Answers come slowly but steadily, and the reader feels as though they are figuring things out alongside Noh-A rather than being left in the dark. The manga has a decent cast that looks to be on its way to becoming quite expansive; the art is well suited to the dark imagery that Jinho Ko favors, even if the glowing-demonic-eyes look is overused; panty-shots and abundant breasts put in their obligatory appearances as well. Jack Frost in its first volume strikes me as the R-rated version of a Shonen Jump piece like Bleach or Naruto, or a step down on the maturity ladder from something like Hellsing or Gantz. If that makes it seem like it might be right up your alley, give it a glance.
Soulless vol. 1 by Gail Carriger and Rem
“Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette. Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire – and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?”
How can you not love a novel or manga with such a unique premise, especially when it’s rendered with such a humorous hand? It’s a romance for people who don’t like romance; a paranormal story for people who don’t like the paranormal. But these praises can be applied to either the novel or the manga. What about the manga alone?
To be perfectly honest, I’d have to recommend the novel over its visual adaptation, if only because there is so much more to the novel than could ever fit into the significantly shorter manga. More detail, more humor, and more questions answered, and it isn’t as though the novel is any more expensive. The art, though, is clean and beautiful, and appropriate detail is paid to the appropriate places (Alexia’s dresses and parasols, the locales of London, and the individual designs and faces of each character). My only gripe – and it’s a tiny, insignificant personal one – is that Lord Maccon isn’t drawn in a way that is nearly manly enough. It all comes down to the standards of manga art, but the man really is just a bit too… pretty (this coming from a self-professed lover of pretty boys). Still, if that’s the only strike this manga has against it, then there’s really not much room to complain.
Read the novel first, then give Rem’s adaptation a shot for a visual treat.
Timeless by Gail Carriger
No one tells a supernatural steampunk love story quite like Gail Carriger – her Parasol Protectorate series has been one of my guilty pleasures for the past couple years, and I never miss the opportunity to recommend it to everyone I meet. Now that the series has come to its conclusion, I figure it was as good a time as any to give it its proper place on the blog.
Because it is the final book in a five-book series, Timeless doesn’t lend itself well to an individual review, at least not without massive spoilers. See my review of the Soulless manga adaptation above for a quick and dirty summary of the first novel’s plot and assume that the successive four novels all follow accordingly. Timeless carries on in the same hilarious vein as its predecessors, with Carriger applying her trademark wit to the daintiness and decorum of upper-class London and to the exotic far reaches of Egypt. What this novel does differently from the others however, is largely a matter of tone. There is a tension in this final novel that was not present before, a sense that things cannot end happily for all involved and that sacrifice is the order of the day where immortality and supernatural abilities are involved. This shift in tone creates an uneasiness in the reader that wasn’t present before, and it forces one to worry much more about the main characters than the previous installments ever did. It’s another new angle from which Carriger approaches these characters that readers have grown to love. It was sad to see them go, but at the very least, the novel ended in such a way that another sequel is not out of the question (or, barring that, in such a way that a reader’s imagination can take over from there).
If you like steampunk, read these novels. If you like supernatural romance, read these novels. If you like strong female characters, read these novels. If you like your books to have a sharp and witty sense of humor, read these novels. If you like tea, for the love of all that is holy, read these novels! (Seriously, you can read them each in a day if you’re quick about it. You have no excuse!)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I resisted this novel for as long as I could under the assumption that this was just going to be another Twilight – a novel of dubious standards being praised because it tapped into some subconscious zeitgeist of the modern teenage girl. It wasn’t until my father’s 50-something boss read and recommended the books that I decided it might be worth a shot, and even then I didn’t buy the box-set until my 60-year-old father himself read the whole series. That fact coupled with growing curiosity led me to leave my assumptions at the door and approach The Hunger Games with a more open mind.
And you know what? Yeah – I totally get it now. Sure, there’s some awkward pacing issues in the beginning of the novel, and the idea of the teenagers-battling-to-the-death has been done before, but Collins brings a personability to her characters that is surprisingly deep and her pacing becomes near-perfect when Katniss is enmeshed in the dangers of the games. This novel may be marketed toward teens but the ideas in it are enough to make people of all ages think hard on their own moral compasses. Would you stand by and allow your neighbor’s children to slaughter one another for sport? Or would you find small ways of rebelling? Would you lose yourself in the madness of the Hunger Games if it meant your survival? Or would you cling to your identity through the thick of it, even if your death was the reward? Furthermore, Katniss stands out from other recent female protagonists in that she isn’t either the limp-noodle love interest or the infallible warrior woman: she feels very much like a teenage girl caught in unfortunate circumstances who rises to the occasion. She certainly isn’t without her flaws, and that makes it so much easier to sympathize and associate oneself with her. (These become much more apparent in the next two novels, which you should certainly read as well.)
The movie is already out and whether you’ve already seen it or not, I urge you to give the novel itself a try: there are nuances in text that can never be replicated on the silver screen and many of the unanswered questions left hanging over the movie like a cloud are actually given answers in the books. Give yourself the gift of the full and proper Hunger Games. It only took me six hours to read – a single sitting from 9 o’clock at night to 3 in the morning. I couldn’t put it down.
No videogames this week! Or, rather, I’ve still been playing Final Fantasy XIII-2, even though I managed to beat it a few weeks ago. The completionist in me won’t let me move on until I’ve at least found most of the Paradox Endings!
So, for those of you who have been more involved in the manga community than I have in recent years: what series would you recommend to me? I’m looking to expand my horizons and read some things I might otherwise have passed up!