Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Monthly manga reviews

Minima! Vol. 1
Del Rey Manga

Here’s the high-concept pitch for Minima!, a darling high school comedy from manga-ka Machiko Sakurai: Shy, quiet Ame and her classmates take a field trip to an amusement park, and there she acquires a cute little stuffed animal that almost immediately begins talking to her. Its name is Nicori, and it turns out that all dolls can talk to humans, there’s simply a rule forbidding it.

I was pleasantly surprised that Sakurai didn’t go the expected route with the concept, and have Nicori’s animated, Japanese-speaking status be a secret shared only with Ame. Rather, Nicori is out and proud, immediately chatting up his new owner’s friends and enemies, granting media interviews, entertaining sponsorship deals, and making his feelings known to the mean girls who talk about Ame behind her back, and the chicken stuffed animal character whose popularity far exceeds Nicori’s own.

There’s a tangle of relationships introduced at the beginning that took me embarrassingly long to straighten out—I blame the fact that the Japanese kids call each other alternately by their first and last names, depending on how close they are, in effect being introduced twice a piece—but Ame seems to be neighbors with a boy named Midori, who is friends with Sasaki, the cute boy in school all the girls adore (including Ame), who is friends with Kei, a pleasant, tomboy-ish girl.

Once Nicori enters the picture, everything gets solidified nicely, and Sakurai has great fun playing with the animal characters burgeoning prima donna attitude—he laps up the attention being a talking stuffed animal affords, he’s jealous of Sasaki’s popularity with his public, he’s insanely jealous of that chicken character, he’s insulted when people can’t figure out what kind of animal he’s supposed to be, and so on.

His stuffed-animal perspective on human relationships gives a somewhat fresh angle to the more rote crush romance story elements to the book, and there seems to be a great deal of potential to his trying to figure them out, which apparently causes plenty of problems.

(Oh, and I don’t understand the title. I asked the only two people I know who speak Japanese—one of whom is a native speaker—and neither had a guess. “Mini-Mama” was the best they could come up with).

Short Sunzen! Vol. 1

Aya Sendou hates to see his classmate Satsuki Kurokawa fight, because he is secretly in love with her, and he’s both unwilling and unable to confess it, since he's a teenager just coming to grips with his feelings for the opposite sex.

Plus, there seems to be a really good chance she would either laugh at him or think he's a sissy, since Satusuki loves to fight. "Tomboy" doesn't really seem to cover her; she's a brawler who can out-arm-wrestle everyone in school and is quick to come to the aid of the bullied, seemingly as much because she enjoys punching people in the face as because of some sort of noble, protect the weak impulse.

It's a pretty cool conflict to drive a high school romantic comedy, ensuring the requisite melodrama and mushy stuff will also occasionally involve scenes of, say, Satsuki jumping out of a second story window to land knees-first on the head of an evil upper classmen.

Manga-ka Susugi Sakurai introduces the leads in an opening chapter that plays a bit like the Prince and The Pauper. Satsuki and Aya go to Tama High, the toughest school in the Kansai region, a school so widely-known for it's violent and ill-mannered student body that its uniform alone is enough to strike fear in the hearts of other local teens. So after Satsuki rescues a rich girly-girl from Narujo High from attackers, the two girls secretly change uniforms for the afternoon.

Establishing a pattern, Satsuki offers to walk around with Aya and pretend to be his girlfriend, so he'll look cool with a rich girl from a respectable school on his arm, unaware that he would be happier with her as his girlfriend.

The next chapter jumps back to show how they met, and there are a few more adventures involving he two in this volume. In one Satusuki masquerades as a boy to join the school’s male cheerleading squad, and in the other Satsuki takes Aya to an all girls school to check out the chicks, but he only has eyes for her.

That brings us to what I guess you'd call a back-up feature (in old school Western super-comic parlance), which switches to another cast, but tells a similar story of young almost love.

In “Girl Boy,” Abe and Komugi are the two tallest kids in their school and have always been friends, on account of their shared height (every time they look across a crowded room, they can't help but see each other). But once they begin spending more time together outside of school, that friendship looks like it could be becoming something more.

Neither relationship is completely resolved this volume, and good thing. The Satsuki/Aya story at least has the potential to go on for a few more volumes before it gets too frustrating. (“Girl Boy” might have simply have had an open-ending ending; I guess we’ll see next volume).

Finally, the book includes a few fun little stories about the author’s deadline troubles. One multi-part story tells of her trip to Tokyo to hand in her assignment, which includes working on it on the bullet train there. And the volume ends with a short piece called “Lights out Sunzen!”, in which Satsuki and Aya stop by Sakurai’s house to help her work on her manga starring them. It’s pretty cute stuff, and a head and shoulders above the more typical stories by manga creators, in which they portray themselves as weird little animals or whatever.

As for the art, Sakurai's figure work is pretty quirky. Her characters all have long, elongated bodies with gigantic hands the size of their heads and sometimes way too-small faces. The anatomy isn't always perfect (that is, of course, within the confines of the style), but the panel layouts are all easy to read and Satsuki at least is a nice character design, which Sakurai has fun designing outfits for (there are even paper dolls). The early chapters look pretty rough, but by volume’s end Satsuki seems to have found her footing.

(As for the title of this one, “sunzen” is apparently Japanese for “on the verge” or “just in front of,” and “short” is English, so…? My friend guesses “To Be Close To Short Out.”)

Yozakura Quartet Vol. 1
Del Rey Manga

Hime is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl superhero, using her super-strength, superior fighting and a lacrosse racket to defend her city. And I do mean her city; see, Hime is also the town’s mayor. She works with Ao, a cat-eared girl who can read minds, and Kotoha, a busty, bespectacled girl with the power to create things by saying magic words.

Together they’re some sort of heroes-for-hire organization operating out of the Hizumi Life Counseling Office under the leadership of Akina, an 18-year-old guy who’s pretty much just a guy; he’s the Charlie to their Angles, but he doesn’t seem to bring anything to the table besides his courage and friendship.

They’re often accompanied by food delivery girl Rin and Hime’s brother, who, like her, has two-toned hair and fearsome powers. Although his are kept in check by magic shackles. Because he’s a demon, I think. And maybe Ao’s older brother is too; he has ears and powers, at any rate, and seems to be pretty evil.

Suzuhito Yasuda’s manga boasts some very well designed and interesting characters. I know they all sound pretty stereotypical as explained above, but Yasuda sure makes them all look pretty great, particular Hime, with her always-angry eyebrows, who is often pictured standing atop a street light, watching over her city.

Only Hime and Ao get much exploration in this volume, and while the latter’s conflicts simply revolve around doubts about her powers and missing her older brother, Hime’s are somewhat complex, as she places so much import on the greatness of her town and the safety of its people (Civic pride’s just not a motivation you see much in comics anymore).

The rather casual, gradual introduction to the characters, their relationships and their situation made getting into the book a lot harder than I would have liked (I thought Hime and her brother were the same person for a while, and I had to keep counting characters because while the title promised a foursome, there were usually five or six people seemingly on the team and in each scene).

The cases they take on run the gamut between super-serious and small potatoes, but I liked the insular, small-town feel of their endeavors. In one story they face a guy shooting the place up, in another they try to figure out why a little schoolboy is so sad. Later they try to find the parents or owners of an orphaned corgi puppy, only to end up fighting it when it becomes possessed by a demon.

By the volume’s end, after I’d spent a few hundred pages hanging out with the characters, I started to like being around them, but, like I said, it takes the book a while to get going. The two stories that really stand out are the one with the puppy—who is incredibly adorable—and one in which the characters spar using their super-powers, thanks to the novel uses of “magic words” Yasuda comes up with (Basically, the characters are throwing block-lettered words at each other and sifting through discarded spells and sound effects for particular words to hold up and communicate with).

Oddly enough, the story I think I liked the most was the space-wasting one in the end, in which Yasuda, in the form of a funny-looking animal, tells us of how the feature came to be and interacts with the cast.

(Oh, "yozakura" is "cherry blossoms at night," so this one's pretty self-explanatory).

Death Note Vols. 7-12

I’m not normally one to give spoiler warnings here, since I figure if you’re reading about a comic, then you’re already actively seeking information about it, but this is one of those cases where I feel the need to do so, as when you take out the surprises of Death Note, you pretty much ruin the series. So, if you haven’t read Death Note yet, and I highly recommend that you do, you can stop reading now, okay?

So despite my freakout about the unforeseen, game-changing event that happens about 3/4ths of the way through Vol. 7, I got sucked right back into the series, and was satisfied by the ending, if disappointed that it did, in fact, actually end.

While the Light vs. L conflict is what was making Vols. 3-7 so addictive, and the goofy-ass jump into the future in which Kira was suddenly a popular enough force that whole countries were surrendering to him (which conveniently ignored things like, oh, how Light finished college), L’s heirs slowly grew on me to the point where I was actively rooting for Near at the end, just as I was actively rooting for L earlier.

L is still a superior character I think, particularly in terms of design (I just like looking at and reading his posture and expressions, as much as anything else), but Near’s toy habit was pretty endearing. The bit with the Kurbricks near the end, especially.

Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata recovered the loss of momentum with the change in the conflict pretty well, I thought—if The Event in the second half of Vol. 7 came at the very end of that particular volume, I could have easily seen myself losing interest in the series (particularly if I were reading it as it was originally released, rather than now that all 12 volumes were available to be read one after the other), but the kidnapping cliffhanger ensured I’d be picking up Vol. 8, and they continued to wring real suspense out of the various set-ups that followed.

Also, Sidoh? I love that guy, particularly when he was passing out fliers in the Shingami realm, and this panel, in which he finally recovers his lost Death Note:


Anonymous said...

I felt that so many ridiculous and convoluted factors got introduced in Death Note 8-12 that the tight logic that had guided the early volumes really fell apart. The Mikami stuff was a bit of a copout (the chapter devoted to his "origin" almost gave away that they were out of ideas and had to quickly shoehorn in a new guy to fix some loose threads) and Misa got almost completely sidelined.

And I hated Near and Mellow. They're just thoroughly unlikable. Near suffers Scrappy Doo syndrome and Mellow just has no redeeming qualities.

Dumma said...

Minama is spanish for minimal (well feamale minimal)which could be seen as "small" which kinda makes sense when your protagonist is a small stuff animal (also minima is easy to pronounce in japanes so there's that too)

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