Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
So, I took an accidental hiatus last month when it came time to do this end-of-month recap post. I just happened to be smack-dab in the middle of both a book and a videogame, which meant I didn’t really have much to talk about. This month, however, I made up for lost time in spades. Let the reviewing commence!
Dawn of the Arcana vols. 1-3 by Rei Toma
“Princess Nakaba of Senan is forced to marry Prince Caesar of the enemy country Belquat, tantamount to becoming a hostage. While Caesar is pleasing to the eye, he is also selfish and possessive, telling Nakaba outright: ‘You are my property.’ With only her attendant Loki at her side, Nakaba must find a way to cope with her hostile surroundings, her fake marriage…and a mysterious power!” – (blurb on the back of volume 1)
This is actually one of the first mangas I picked up once it was decided I was going to be running the [Acworth BAM Manga Club], and even though I’ve read what feels like countless volumes since, it still sits fondly in my memory. I was originally drawn to the beautiful cover art – that striking red hair, the simple beauty of Nakaba’s face, the eye-catching design of the title. (Is it weird that typography sways me this easily?) The artwork inside matches nicely, with painstakingly designed outfits and hairstyles that flow across the page. Perhaps, however, the emphasis is too much on these things – backgrounds are usually ignored entirely, and characters strut about in empty space. The story may be focusing on the usual love triangle that dominates shoujo works, but the setting of the countries-at-war adds enough complication – and Nakaba is a strong-willed and likable enough protagonist – that it elevates Dawn of the Arcana above the ordinary.
Durarara!! vols. 1-2 by Ryohgo Narita, Suzuhito Yasuda, and Akiyo Satorigi
“Welcome to Ikebukuro, where Tokyo’s wildest characters gather!! Meet an ordinary boy who daydreams about the extraordinary. A naive stalker girl. The strongest man in Ikebukuro. A shut-in doctor with questionable credentials. A hedonistic informant…and the ‘headless rider’ astride a pitch-black motorcycle!? As their paths cross, this eccentric cast weaves a twisted, cracked love story…” – (blurb on the back of volume 1)
I’d seen about three episodes of Durarara!! years before picking up the manga, and though I’d never fallen in love with the show, I was intrigued enough by the characters that I knew I wanted to eventually experience more. Volume one was pretty much retouching everything that I’d learned in those early anime episodes, but I latched onto it because the printed medium made it easier and more interesting for me to digest the enormous amount of information thrown at the reader. But while the first volume made me like Durarara!!, volume two made me absolutely love it. Volume one gives you a million mysteries and hopes at least one of them hooks you; volume two gives you the clues you need to start piecing them all together. The artwork is fantastic as well, and the backgrounds are copious and incredibly detailed. There’s also a rampant amount of manga-related in-jokes going on in these pages – especially rewarding for those die-hard fans in our community.
Itsuwaribito vol. 1 by Yuuki Iinuma
“Utsuho’s truthfulness as a child resulted in an enormous catastrophe, and he decided to lie from that day forward. Raised in a village of orphans by a monk, Utsuho is an unrepentant troublemaker. The monk eventually inspires him to help people, but there’s no way Utsuho’s going to lead an honest life! Instead, he’s going to use his talents for mischief and deception for good!” – (blurb on the back of volume 1)
I really liked the idea of Itsuwaribito when I first read it – a trickster using his powers for good. A Loki-figure with a heart of gold (Norse-mythology-Loki rather than Avengers Loki, but I guess that works too). Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work in practice. Utsuho isn’t a particularly clever character, and the plot doesn’t do him any favors. Most of his lies consist of him saying something and then immediately declaring, “Psych!” But the twist is… sometimes even that’s a lie! … … Maybe there are schemes on a grander scale later into the series, but there’s nothing interesting going on early (unless you count a surprisingly excessive amount of gore). Add to that the fact that everything is incredibly rushed, so even when an entire village of children is slaughtered, there’s no emotion behind it behind knee-jerk revulsion. Itsuwaribito walks through the necessary emotional beats, but they ring as hollow as Utsuho’s every word. The honest-to-a-fault, talking tanuki is adorable, though.
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei vol. 1 by Koji Kumeta
“Nozomu Itoshiki is depressed. Very depressed. He’s certifiably suicidal, but he’s also the beloved schoolteacher of a class of unique students, each charming in her own way: The stalker. The shut-in. The obsessive-compulsive. The girl who comes to class every day with strange bruises. And Kafuka, the most optimistic girl in the world, who knows that every cloud has silver lining. For all of them, it’s a special time, when the right teacher can have a lasting positive effect on their lives. But is that teacher Itoshiki, a.k.a. Zetsubou-sensei, who just wants to find the perfect place to die?” – (blurb on the back of volume 1)
First and foremost, if you’re going to pick up Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, you have to commit to reading each volume twice. On the first run through, everything’s a little confusing and not-quite funny. But after reading the translation notes at the end of the book, you begin to realize how perfect a satire this manga really is – every panel is chock full of tiny, throw-away details that you don’t notice at first but which add extra depth to the entire story. The artwork and character designs are uniquely simple and striking. However, there’s no real plot here, so unless you’re a fan of character-driven satire, it’s probably not going to be the ideal manga for you. Did I enjoy it? Yes, especially the second time through. Will I be continuing on to volume two? Probably not.
The Story of Sauinkoku vol. 1 by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino
“Shurei Hong, destitute but of noble birth, has always dreamed of working as a civil servant in the imperial court of Saiunkoku, but women are barred from holding office. The emperor Ryuki, however, refuses to take command, leaving everything to his advisors. Shurei is asked to become a consort to the emperor to persuade the ne’er-do-well ruler to govern. Shurei enters the palace as Ryuki’s consort, but he has yet to seek her out. It is rumored that men, not women, share the emperor’s bedchamber. Shurei must think of a way to stop the emperor from shirking his responsibilities, but she has to find him first!” – (blurb on the back of volume 1)
One way I judge how much I like my manga is to see how much I remember about it a few days after the fact. When it comes to Saiunkoku, I don’t really remember anything. Sure, it’s been more than a week at this point, and I’ve been reading a lot of manga between now and then, but shouldn’t I at least be able to think of a plot point or a character not mentioned in the book’s blurb? I remember that the art was pretty enough, the sort of stuff you see in a lot of shoujo manga, but Shurei just wasn’t gutsy enough to stick in my mind, and there’s no real life-or-death struggle going on in the first volume. If Itsuwaribito had the problem of not giving enough build-up, Saiunkoku has a bit too much.
Tegami Bachi vol. 1 by Hiroyuki Asada
“In Amberground, a dangerous terrain where a man-made star casts a permanent twilight, young Lag Seeing aspires to become a Letter Bee: a postman entrusted to deliver the hearts of people separated from the ones they love.” – (blurb on the back of volume 1)
This is the first manga we read for the BAM Manga Club, and maybe I went into it expecting a bit too much. I wanted to start things off with a series that blew everyone out of the park – and it was overwhelmingly popular, just not with me. Poor Tegami Bachi, I think I’ve just read too many shonen manga to really fall head over heels for you. After falling in and out of love with the shonen standards like Bleach and Naruto, I just don’t have any room to get dragged into another “plucky hero saves the day” tale of good versus evil. The manga has decent artwork with a lot of details that I didn’t catch until they were pointed out to me (there’s a horse that waves good-bye to our protagonist in one panel), but I’d still take something as stylistic as Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei or as technically proficient as Black Butler over it any day. So sorry, Tegami Bachi, but I don’t be continuing on your adventures, even though I really liked Gauche as a character.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
“When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms.
Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.” – (blurb on the back of the book)
If you don’t already know about this book, then I don’t know if I can help you. You obviously live in a world well-insulated from fad-of-the-day news stories and the army of middle aged women beating down the doors of bookstores to get their hands on this thing. It started out as Twilight fanfiction and was later converted to an original property, and it has sold millions of copies. We still occasionally run out of copies at my workplace. I bought the book for two reasons: 1) morbid curiosity, and 2) I flipped a coin on it.
Ultimately, I’m pretty much ambivalent to this book – I don’t hate it like I thought I would, but I definitely don’t love it, either. I think Fifty Shades of Grey sits in the unfortunate position of being a perfect example of the romance genre, including all of the things I hate about it. A vapid main character who flashes so quickly between sympathetic and annoying that I get whiplash; stilted prose that spends too much time praising the color of someone’s eyes; a three-novel length plot that probably could’ve been condensed into a single one. Is it a terrible book? No, and there are co-workers of mine who would kill me if they heard me talking about the novel so flippantly. But I absolutely cannot sit through another two novels of a woman trying to decide if it’s okay to love the impossibly hot, thoughtful billionaire just because he happens to enjoy some whips and chains in the bedroom. (Also, I didn’t think the sex in the book was anything special. I don’t know what that says about me…)
Xenoblade Chronicles, Wii
If you’ve been with the blog for a while, you might remember back in September when I lamented the fact that Nintendo had refused to release [three mature-minded RPGs for the Wii]. Well, Xenoblade Chronicles was one of those three games, and here I am, eating my words. (Since then, Nintendo has actually announced that the second of those properties – The Last Story – will be coming out in July. Still no favorable news on Pandora’s Tower, however.)
But all of this is background information, a way to explain to you just how excited I was to get my hands on Xenoblade Chronicles when it came out in April. My poor Wii had been gathering dust for months. It was finally going to get its chance to shine again! And boy, has the poor thing gotten a workout. At 63.5 hours, I’m roughly 3/4ths of the way through the game, with plenty of side quests waiting for me to get around to them. This is a long, involved J-RPG in the vein of the old Final Fantasies. And just as with the Final Fantasies before it, Xenoblade Chronicles is all about a small crew of do-gooders trying to save the world.
First and foremost, let it be said that the Wii is not particularly well suited to hosting a game of this nature. The general lack of buttons on the traditional Wii-mote makes the interface unnecessarily difficult, and though I’m used to it now and the movements feel like second nature, it took me a good few hours to finally get into the swing of things. The game box itself recommends the “classic” controller, which has its buttons, joystick, and c-pad in more traditional positions. I can see that vastly improving the few small gripes I still have. The camera controls in particular are finicky, and sometimes cause you to plummet to your death.
The game, however, is forgiving of such missteps. There’s no demoralizing game over screen or need to slog around again from your last save point. It just plops you down at the last landmark you passed, pats you on the head, and sends you on your way. Which is not to say that Xenoblade is not occasionally difficult – this is a game in which a one or two level difference between you and a boss can mean victory slipping through your fingers and utter annihilation taking its place. Grinding is generally the answer to this, and though that can get dull, the excessive number of side quests and other distractions are suitable to keep you coming back for more.
For its part, the story takes a few risks here and there that make it more than your standard cookie-cutter property, but I can’t point to anything in it that is groundbreaking. The environments are absolute fun to run around in, though — at any point, you can look up into the sky and see the colossus on the cover towering above you. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the graphics (it’s a Wii game after all), but character designs are surprisingly detailed with dozens upon dozens of interchangeable armors that look differently on each member of the cast. Furthermore, the European voice actors all seem to have done a serviceable job with their roles, and no one speaks in a way that is ear-splitting or off-putting. Perhaps the script is a bit needlessly repetitive (you will get sick of hearing the name of the main character’s sword, I assure you), but that’s a fault that’s built in to make it easy to jump in and out of a very long narrative.
I feel that Xenoblade Chronicles may have been a bit overhyped for me, but it’s still the most fun I’ve had in a long time with a J-RPG that doesn’t have Final Fantasy in the title. If you’re a J-RPG fan at all, the game it worth your time and money, and I urge you to give it a try. If we don’t support the games we’re getting now, we might not be getting any like them in the future.
Just a quick heads-up! June is right around the corner, which for me means it’s time for Camp NaNoWriMo! Throughout the month, I’ll be writing 50,000 words of literary goodness, which doesn’t leave a whole ton of leftovers for the blog. I won’t be taking a hiatus – certainly not like I did in November… and December… – but my posts will probably cover a few episodes of a currently running show, rather than the season reviews I’m accustomed to posting. The June 1st post will be the same as usual, but after that, we’ll just consider it a new flavor of Armchair Madcap. I call it Armchair Madcap Lite – all of the fun, none of the calories!
Wish me luck, and see you in June!