Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
Only three manga to cover this week, and no regular books or videogames. I’ve had a wonky work schedule (4am shift on Wednesday, 9pm shift on Thursday), and Olympic soccer has pretty much filled my free time for the past three days. But enough about me: on to the reviews!
Darker than Black by Nokiya, BONES, and Tensai Okamura
“Ten years ago, the mysterious Hell’s Gate suddenly materialized in the middle of Tokyo, and the stars in the night sky were obscured in darkness. In their place, new stars emerged, each corresponding to an individual empowered with supernatural abilities. Devoid of emotion and conscience, these powerful kills have come to be known as Contractors. But most people know nothing of the Contractors in their midst, and high-schooler Kana Shinoh is no exception. […] Determined to prove her father is still alive, Kana begins her search, but her mission is attracting some rather dangerous attention. Fortunately, she is rescued from the clutches of death by Hei, the most wanted Contractor in Tokyo. […] But just how much should she trust the Contractor known as the Black Reaper?” – (edited) blurb on the back of the omnibus.
I was actually somewhat reluctant to pick up this title, since I was a huge fan of the first season of the anime and I knew that spin-offs tend to not be as good as the source material. Then I remembered that it couldn’t possibly be worse than the abomination known as the second season of Darker Than Black! Turns out I was half right – it’s not worse than the second season, but it’s exactly as bad in nearly the exact same ways. Points for consistency, I guess.
The first problem stems from the fact that, once again, main character Hei has been pushed aside for a prepubescent girl who likes to walk directly into traps. I mean, honestly BONES, you’ve got a badass character with a pretty serious personality complication and tragic past, and you give more screen time to the brand new high school chick? Hell, this one isn’t even a Contractor. There is literally nothing special about this girl other than she “wants to help” even though she acknowledges she’ll only get in the way. If this was the only sin committed by the plot, I could have overlooked it, but the manga isn’t even that loyal to its source material. Contractors have always been weirdly handled by the writers of the show, but at the very least the rules of being a Contractor have always been the same: you gain a single fantastic power, and in return you pay the same remuneration time and again. Instead of sticking to Hei’s established control over electricity and general assassin awesomeness, the manga attempts to also give him memory wiping powers and a magical glowing attack that does… nothing? I don’t know, it clears up a seemingly desperate situation without much effort, so we’ll just call it the Deus Ex Machina. It felt cheap, and it made Hei seem like a less talented Contractor than he was in the show.
But the writing isn’t solely to blame for my lackluster response to this manga: Nokiya’s artwork is lacking in a few areas as well. Namely, there’s no real sense of motion or action. Even frantic battle scenes seem more like the characters are posing between each frame rather than attacking one another. It’s just another blow to Hei’s cool factor that was so instrumental in getting me hooked on the first season of the anime. Now, it is a large book – two standard volumes in one – and there are a greater number of colored pages inside, but you’re paying the increased price in exchange. It’s hard to call this omnibus edition a bargain.
Finally, once again police officer Misaki Kirihara is missing in action. Her underling and altogether minor character Yusuke Saitou makes an appearance, and British contractor November 11 shows up to be vaguely menacing and drop the phrase, “Smashing,” but there’s still no love for the high strung working lady who was all but throwing herself at Hei. Does no one at Studio BONES care to give her arc any sort of conclusion? Didn’t the first season end with her swearing to track him down? And didn’t the second season have some weird pseudo-reunion between the two that went absolutely nowhere? Am I the only one who cares about Misaki!?
Olympos by Aki
“From on high, the gods make sport of the mortals who toil below them. None know the cruelty of these beings better than Ganymede, a beautiful prince who was torn away from his family by the gods’ divine hands. Granted immortality, Ganymede now whiles away his days in an inescapable miniature garden for the amusement of the gods, particularly Apollo. But the gods themselves are no strangers to the boredom of eternal life, and as Ganymede quickly discovers, they will do anything to keep themselves entertained, both at his expense and at one another’s…” – blurb on the back of the omnibus.
On the one hand, this manga’s blurb is a little deceiving; it reads like the lead-in to a shounen-ai or yaoi manga with a supernatural twist, emphasizing as it does the beauty of its male protagonist. But what sounds at first like a run-of-the-mill mythological love story turns out to be more of an examination of what it means to be immortal, godly, and worshiped in a world populated by human beings that live brutally short lives. It’s a slow and methodical look at the things many people claim they want – eternal life, the worship of the masses – but which come attached with a thousand dangerous strings we could never anticipate.
On the other hand, the blurb is almost painfully accurate about what you’re really getting: Greek gods being bored and talking with one another (and with human-turned-immortal-prisoner Ganymede) about the nature of boredom. Thus begins my curious relationship with Olympos.
At 352 pages, this omnibus edition collects Aki’s two-volume story into a single piece, making it significantly more expensive than your average volume but providing you with more bang for your buck in the process. The first half is predominantly occupied with Ganymede’s plight as a prisoner of the gods, his desperation to escape, and the false hope that is sometimes presented to him as a joke by Apollo. The second half is an examination of Apollo as a character; a study into why he behaves the way he does, and an explanation of the rules of godhood according to a mixture of Greek myth and personal inventiveness on Aki’s part. The first half is more engaging on a surface level, as it comes with clear stakes and motivations on the parts of its characters; but the second half is the more intriguing read, if slower.
To be honest, it’s all fascinating and full of big ideas, but there’s neither real physical action to speak of nor a great culmination of events that leave the reader feeling that things have been resolved. It’s a quiet, rolling turmoil that gets under your skin when you least expect it. It’s a thinking man’s book, is what I’m trying to say. No shounen action heroes thumping their chests here. Just pretty boys and beautiful, beautiful artwork.
Aki is a master of fantastical landscapes, from a sea of white flowers that stretches as far as the eye can see to vivid coastlines and a pallid underworld. Even more impressive however are the character designs that stand out on every page. Ganymede is classically pretty, with an appropriately detailed outfit that keeps the reader from getting bored of him every page. Aki’s interpretation of the Greek pantheon, however, is particularly inspired, from multi-winged and aloof Zeus to spoiled brat Apollo; from beautiful but evanescent Artemis to coolly unsettling Hades. In fact, Hades is probably my favorite, reminiscent as he is of a less scowl-y Ulquiorra from Bleach.
I wouldn’t recommend Olympos to everyone, though I might actually be inclined to lend it to someone looking to get started in reading manga. After all, it’s a complete story in a single concise volume, has beautiful artwork, nearly ten full-color glossy pages for your viewing pleasure, and is devoid of the violence and sexuality that sometimes scares newcomers away. Just be aware going in that you aren’t getting your run-of-the-mill, formula story here; this one requires your mind be turned on and ready to go.
Tales of the Abyss: Asch the Bloody vol. 1 by Hana Saitou and Rin Nijyo
“Asch is the lost prince of a country torn asunder by prophecy. Cloned and replaced by a new prince, Asch finds himself amongst the ranks of God-Generals, fighting to destroy the very prophecy for peace that his clone will fulfill. This manga side-story is based on the Tales of the Abyss anime series from Sunrise … and the video role-playing game from Namco Bandai Games Inc.! War, magic, and science clash and Asch the Bloody stands at the heart of the conflict!” – (edited) blurb on the back of volume 1.
There are two words that best exemplify everything this manga stands for: flowy hair. (Also, “product tie-in,” but the hair is more important.)
Seriously, Hana Saitou has the incredible ability to draw beautiful locks all across the page: flaring out behind a character after a dramatic turn; obscuring their face as they fall from a devastating attack; flipping over shoulders because why the hell not? I’m in awe of how she managed to actually give the hair… emotion! That having been said, this emphasis on hair (and, on a related note, fierce expressions of either rage or disdain) results in a manga that is mostly a bunch of talking heads (and their hair!), standing around making faces at one another. There are occasional bursts of action that are handled deftly enough, but this is definitely a talky manga.
As for the plot, it’s imperative to at least be familiar with the first part of the Tales of the Abyss storyline. Not having played the game, I can only say that this manga roughly correlates to the first 9 or so episodes of the anime, which makes sense since this volume came parceled with the first DVD in a special edition pack. The reason this familiarity is so necessary is because TotA: Asch the Bloody is not so much a direct port of the videogame storyline as it is a reimagining. It doesn’t follow Luke and company as they dash around trying to save the world; it follows Asch and views events through his eyes. This means knowing about some of the major plot twists a lot earlier, including the identity of one of the important villains before the good guys do. It also means not having your hand held when it comes to learning about the history of the world. This manga assumes you already know it.
It’s difficult for me to judge whether the manga really satisfies when it comes to explaining Asch’s point of view – I don’t know him as a character well enough to say for sure – but I enjoyed it nonetheless and would not be against reading the second volume of the manga when it comes out – provided I’ve also watched the episodes on the second DVD as well. Though, I do remember Asch calling Luke a “dreck” more often than a “replica” or “copy.” Come on, localization team, stick to the established lingo!
I’m starting to run out of manga at work that I’ve been meaning to try out, so my choices are probably going to start getting a bit… eclectic in future months! Any you’d recommend I pick up?