The Armchair Madcap

Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews

All Manga, All the Time: From “Bakuman” to “Toradora” and Back Again

Most of these reviews were written before I started NaNoWriMo this month, and apparently I was feeling wordy in preparation, so this post is long enough without me rambling here. Let’s jump on in!

Bakuman vol. 1 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

“Average student Moritaka Mashiro enjoys drawing for fun. When his classmate and aspiring writer Akito Takagi discovers his talent, he begs Moritaka to team up with him as a manga-creating duo. But what exactly does it take to make it in the manga-publishing world? Moritaka is hesitant to seriously consider Akito’s proposal because he knows how difficult reaching the professional level can be. Still, encouragement from persistent Akito and motivation from his crush push Moritaka to test his limits!” – blurb on the back of volume one.

Okay, I’m going to have to review this one from two different perspectives. First, as an introduction into the inners workings of making a manga from start to finish, you really can’t go wrong with Bakuman. Ohba and Obata have been on the frontlines of the industry for years, and you can’t really argue with the methods of the people behind such manga mainstays as Death Note and Hikaru no Go. It’s beyond fascinating to see the very pages of Bakuman in their in-progress forms, from Ohba’s storyboarding to Obata’s rough sketches.

Second, though, I have to look at Bakuman as a story, and that’s where things begin to fall apart. Specifically, I have major issues with most of the cast – Moritaka is initially a listless teenager with no direction who only throws himself into making manga when his middle school crush agrees to marry him when he’s successful. I do understand that there are people who just kind of trip into their passions like this, but it makes everything he does after that reek of insincerity. Because this is a shonen manga, I’m sure Moritaka follows through with his dreams and succeeds, but if this were a real middle schooler, I’d expect the fad to fade within a week.

Even more troubling, though, was the book’s treatment of its female characters. Direct quote: “She knows what it means to be a girl. She knows by instinct that the best thing for a girl is to get married and become somebody’s wife […] She’s the smartest girl in class grade-wise, but I don’t like how she takes pride in that. That’s why I actually think she’s dumb.” I get there’s a huge cultural difference between Japan and America, and it’s a little easier to swallow when I remember it’s coming out of the mouths of young teenage boys with no real experience around women, but it threw me out of the story so quickly my head was spinning. (Unfortunately, the adults in the manga aren’t really any better; Moritaka’s mother wants him to study instead of pursuing manga, but gives up when her husband tells her, “Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand.”) Things might change in later volumes, and I do love the details on the manga-making process, so I’m willing to give more of the series a shot. I guess I’ll just have to steel myself up for it, first.

Also, as far as the art goes, it’s the same high-quality stuff you’d expect from veteran Obata. He does a good job of varying his character designs from property to property, so while every project he works on is obviously his own, the characters from Bakuman are different from Death Note are different from Hikaru no Go. There was one panel where Moritaka looked suspiciously like L, but considering how many times Ohba and Obata poke fun at/mention their previous masterpiece, it was probably intentional.

Black Butler vol. 1 by Yana Toboso

“Just a stone’s throw from London lies the manor house of the illustrious Phantomhive earldom and its master, one Ciel Phantomhive. Earl Phantomhive is a giant in the world of commerce, Queen Victoria’s faithful servant… and a slip of  twelve-year-old boy. Fortunately, his loyal butler, Sebastian, is ever at his side, ready to carry out the young master’s wishes. And whether Sebastian is called to save a dinner party gone awry or probe the dark secrets of London’s underbelly, there apparently is nothing Sebastian cannot do. In fact, one might even say Sebastian is too good to be true… or at least, too good to be human…” – blurb on the back of volume one.

I’ve read the first volume of Black Butler half a dozen times already, but it’s always nice to go back and have a bit of a retrospective on one of one’s favorite series. So instead of being overly critical with the first volume of a manga (as I am wont to do), I spent the entire time looking at the pages through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. I love Yana Toboso’s characters, from devilishly cool Sebastian to bratty Ciel to the comic-relief hired help. The Victorian setting and all of its beautiful details are a treat for the eyes.

There are some strange anachronisms in volume one, though, like the cell phone Sebastian confiscates from Italian thugs. There’s also a reference to Superman a good half-decade before Superman existed. It adds to the delightful whimsy of the first volume – things don’t really get serious until the last two chapters – and these things continue to crop up all the way into the most recent chapters. (Grell’s motorized chainsaw and Ronald Knox’s sleekly modern lawn mower come to mind.) These little blips in the realism – alongside all of the supernatural elements, of course – are one of the things that lend Black Butler its charm, even if they do leave you scratching your head.

The other thing is, of course, the artwork. There has not been a single outfit featured in Black Butler that I did not personally want to own nor a full-page spread that I wouldn’t frame on my wall. It’s interesting to look back on volume one and realize how much better Toboso’s artwork truly gets. Volume one is far from ugly, but the improvement between then and the most recent chapters is astounding! Ultimately, I love Black Butler and pretty much have since its inception, and I recommend it to everyone I can get to listen to me.

(However, there is one thing I think the official English language release may have gotten wrong, as opposed to, say, the early scanlations. Sebastian’s unofficial catchphrase, “I am one hell of a butler,” sounds so much cooler than the official, “I am a devil of a butler.” Much more subtle, too. Ah, but now I’m nitpicking.)

Nabari no Ou vol. 1 by Yuhki Kamatani

“Apathetic schoolboy Mikaru Rokujou is content to meander through life in the sleepy village of Banten. But his quiet existence is shattered when the Grey Wolves of Iga, a powerful ninja clan, attempt to kidnap him in broad daylight. Only then does Miharu discover that the ultimate power of the hidden ninja realm – a power that can do both great good and great harm – is sealed within his body. As battles erupt among rival ninja clans seeking to control him, Miharu must overcome his apathy and learn the ways of the ninja if he wants any shot at survival!” – blurb on the back of volume one.

Why is it that, while reading Bakuman, I was frustrated by Moritaka’s lack of drive and ambition, but loved that about Miharu in Nabari no Ou? I guess it’s all got to do with context. After all, Miharu is downright dedicated to not getting involved, even when events are spiraling towards an all-out ninja death match right in front of him. The characters of this first volume – from Miharu to his well-meaning teacher Kumohira, from would-be ally Kotaru Fuma to enigmatic bad guy Yoite – are the real draw here, because the plot is doing no more than the bare amount of work. There are ninjas. They are fighting over Miharu. Okay, go. That’s it, really, and not a lot of background information is tossed around to clutter things up. This might have been a strike against another series, but luckily, Nabari no Ou has a good sense of humor and an impeccable sense of pacing to keep you from noticing this flaw until after the fact.

The art isn’t the most fantastic thing out there, either. A lot of empty backgrounds and an abundance of speedlines, and feet that are always weirdly disproportionate to the rest of the body. That last one is a consistent sore thumb, so I guess it’s a style thing for the artist rather than a failure of anatomy.

My hope for volume two is that we get a little meat to go along with our ninja fights: some plot and history to make us care even more for these characters and their quirks. It’s also been hinted at to me that some intrigue is in order, as well, which makes it more than worth my time to pick up the next volume at the first opportunity.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica vol. 1 by Magica Quartet and Hanokage

“When a new girl joins her class, Madoka Kaname thinks she recognizes the mysterious, dark-haired transfer student from one of her dreams…a dream where she is approached by a catlike creature who offers Madoka an opportunity to change destiny. Madoka had always thought magic was the stuff of fantasy…until she sees the transfer student fighting with the very cat being from her dream! And just like in Madoka’s dream, the cat gives her a choice. Will Madoka become a magical girl in exchange for her dearest desire? What will be the cost of having her dream come true?” – blub on the back of volume one.

I missed out on joining the Madoka Magica bandwagon back when the show first aired, and it’s always been something that I wanted to catch up on. Luckily, now the anime is coming out episode by episode on Crunchyroll, and this first volume of the manga cropped up in my place of employment completely unexpectedly! Huzzah! I’ve never been a huge fan of the magical girl genre, so getting the chance to read something that turns the tropes on their heads and twists the saccharine sweetness into disturbing darkness is right up my alley.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to talk about my initial experiences with this because I’ve had so many of the major events spoiled by the Internet and by [this fantastic AMV] in particular. Still, I definitely enjoyed how the story rockets up the tension from the very beginning. You never really trust the adorable animal mascot, Kyubey, and Homura’s warning puts the reader on just the right amount of edge. Unexpectedly, some pretty major events happen a lot earlier than I realized, which makes me understand how this adaptation is only going to be three books long.

The artwork is perfect in its imitation of magical girl cuteness, and I love how the amount of dark, muddy screen tones increases as the plot grows darker. Maybe all that ink in the last half is the reason for its expensiveness: $11.99 for a book that looks to be 2/3rds as long as many of its contemporaries. It’s a bit rich for my blood, but I guess with a series as popular and sought after as Madoka Magica, you can charge what you like.

Toradora vol. 1 by Yuyuko Takemiya and Zekkyo

“Takasu Ryuuji has learned the hard way that appearances can be deceiving. For despite his inwardly sweet personality, his naturally sharp gaze and aggressive features give him the air of a delinquent thug, putting his chances at making new friends, let alone a girlfriend, next to zilch. It’s Ryuuji’s first day of his junior year of high school and it seems as if things are looking up. He gets to sit in between his only friend, Kitamura, and even better, the girl he’s secretly crushing on, Kushieda Minori. But just when he thinks the stars are aligned in his favor, he unwittingly crosses the ultimate mean girl in school, Aisaka Taiga. What’s worse, the fierce Taiga happens to live right next door to Ryuuji and is Minori’s best friend! Can this school year possibly get worse?!” – blurb on the back of volume one.

It’s starting to feel like a running gag now, but you all know that a well-designed title and good typography can be enough to get me to try a series. I just love those colorful dots on Toradora’s covers! And hey, without that little push, I probably never would have given this surprisingly charming romantic comedy a shot. Even though I knew I liked the art style and character designs from the anime’s opening, the back description didn’t win me over. You mention “mean girl” and I’m forced to assume we’re talking Lindsay Lohan mean girls, and that’s not good for me. But five brightly colored dots gave me the incentive to read Toradora volume one, and I’m glad they did.

There’s nothing revolutionary going on in the plot, but the chemistry between Taiga and Ryuuji is obvious from the start and fun to watch as it evolves. I love characters who aren’t what they first appear to be – they rank right up there under charismatic sleazeballs – so Ryuuji is a joy to follow. Meanwhile, I identify with Taiga far more than I should! She’s holding down the fort for tomboys with fierce reputations! (But my real favorite may be Ryuuji’s ditzy hostess mother!)

The artwork inside the book is quite a bit different from that on the stylized cover, but that works for me. I love the sketchy quality and vibrant, blocky colors of the front, but I like the interior artwork of my manga to be cleaner, and Toradora delivers. It’s surprisingly sparing in its use of shoujo bubbles too. So, despite my usual ambivalence towards romantic manga in general (not romance, mind you), I find myself more than willing to follow Ryuuji and Taiga on their continued misadventures!

I’m really very lucky that I work at a bookstore; I’d never be able to try out so many new series if I didn’t! Are there any series you’d recommend? Any must-reads that should be on my shelves?

Oh, and I apparently managed to completely overlook my own blog’s one year anniversary (which was on June 3rd). So, uh, happy birthday…! And stuff…! ^_^;

4 comments on “All Manga, All the Time: From “Bakuman” to “Toradora” and Back Again

  1. bluemenpachi
    June 29, 2012

    I couldn’t really get into Black Butler or Nabari no Ou…
    But I really loved Madoka Magica. I had no idea that it was such a dark anime!
    Especially with ClariS singing the opening song. Psh… Mind = Blown by the time I finished that series.

    • AnonFleance
      June 29, 2012

      Actually, after reading the second volume of Nabari No Ou, I’m less enamored with it than I was after the first. It didn’t quite deliver on the intrigue I’d been promised, and it was slow in giving up any more background info. So it might not be my cup of tea any longer, either. Still love me some Black Butler, though. And as soon as the second volume of Madoka Magica comes in, I’ll be snapping it up. Or I may cave and watch the anime sooner than that. Just depends. Always good to hear from others who’ve loved it!

      • bluemenpachi
        June 30, 2012

        Definitely a good anime series. Unless you got some high quality streaming, don’t watch it. :p
        Whenever they fight a witch, the animation sequence is pretty damn cool!
        Even though it gets “dark” the girls still maintain their “innocence”.
        That’s why I liked this series so much. To me, this particular magic girl anime is definitely in a category all their own. 5/5 stars from me~

  2. Pingback: 2012 Retrospective: The Armchair Madcap Looks Back on a Year Fondly Spent « The Armchair Madcap

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