Archive for the ‘Manga Reviews’ Category
Lots of people who’ve read the Akira manga claim that it’s much more complex than the film, that the story is much bigger and more epic in scope, and that it’s just generally better than the anime.
They’re right. While I don’t like applying the word “better” to comparisons of art, the manga is more than the film in just about every conceivable way.
For this review, I’ll assume you’ve seen the Akira film. You don’t need to have seen it to read this review, but the movie’s such a foundational work within anime fandom that it’s silly for me to assume you haven’t seen it, and it’s very useful to compare the manga to the film.
The first, most important thing to know about Akira is that the manga ran in the young men’s manga magazine Young Magazine from 1982 to 1990, while the film was released in 1988.
The movie only covers the first third of the manga’s plot. The destructive release of Akira (the boy), far from ending the story as it does in the film, propels the manga’s story forward to deal with Tetsuo and Akira building an empire, other characters trying to figure out how to stop them, and the mass of survivors in the middle struggling to live in the wreckage of Neo-Tokyo.
Young Magazine also published the dystopian cyberpunk story Ghost in the Shell, and Akira fits into the same mold. Make no mistake: Akira is primarily a sci-fi action story, filled with chases and explosions. It’s rare for more than 20 pages to pass without at least a tense confrontation, and usually a firefight. Its depth derives from occasional quiet character moments and flashes of kindness or brutality. The manga’s plot does feel more realistic than the film’s; the arrival of the American military makes sense given the apocalyptic events unfolding around Tokyo.
I was most surprised at the much greater subtlety of the characters in the manga. The film suffers from its action genre heritage: there’s no time to develop the characters very deeply when there are so many bike chases and psychic face-offs to animate. Purely because of its much greater length, the relationships in the manga grow and mature over time. For example, by the end of the manga, you understand why Kaneda is so grimly committed to killing Tetsuo, while in the film he’s awfully quick to turn a laser gun on his former gang mate.
The characters in the manga also differ significantly from their anime incarnations. The manga Kaneda is more of a goofball who’s in way over his head. Kei is a determined young woman with strong reasons for her decisions. The Colonel is a Terminator, relentless in his pursuit of Tetsuo and Akira to rectify the mistakes the Colonel made in the past. The esper children feel like a community of very special people.
More importantly, the characters actually have something to do in the manga. The film leaps from set piece to set piece and crisis to crisis so quickly that the characters spend the vast majority of their time reacting. In the manga, characters plan and talk. They get at least a few minutes to think.
This also provides Otomo with more space to establish a basic moral framework. The film feels like random people reacting to random events, and in which almost everyone dies anyway. The manga shows us moments of desire and struggle. A delaying tactic here actually allows innocent people to escape death. One person’s determination pays off in the end.
Akira‘s dialogue always shone at differentiating characters, and Otomo is just as adept in the manga. Kaneda and Tetsuo’s speeches are filled with off-hand swearing, the Colonel speaks with military precision, and Kei maintains an ordinary street patter.
Otomo uses panels with a deftness and confidence that frankly blew me away. I normally avoid using terms like “the author showed confidence in this act,” as it’s such a vague and un-verifiable phrase, but it expresses my impression perfectly. When the situation calls for a bold layout, Otomo creates one. Otherwise, he uses layouts judiciously, sequencing panels with just the right rhythm for each scene. This is critical for an action story, as there’s so much information to parse about character positioning and intent.
Otomo intensifies the action with an almost obsessive amount of detail. You will rarely find a panel that lacks a completely realized background. While the character designs are about as detailed as that of any other manga work, all those backgrounds add a level of weight and realism that firmly grounds the characters in a real world with real consequences. This is not a fantasy series where characters are routinely thrown dozens of feet, then stand up with barely a cough (well, except for Tetsuo and Akira). When buildings crumble, people die. Everyone here (well, again, except for Tetsuo and Akira) is extremely mortal.
As such, Akira feels real in a way that most other manga does not. This is not a criticism of other manga, but I think it explains why Akira attracted such a large following in the West. The average Westerner will struggle far more with the fluid realities of Please Save My Earth, Phoenix, or Rurouni Kenshin. Many works of manga aren’t even trying to feel real in this way.
As with so many works, I can’t recommend Akira to everyone. It’s a dark, bloody story in which a lot of bad things happen. But its story ultimately centers on survival and a struggle to do the right thing, even if it’s not always rewarded. And that’s a story I’ll get behind. With a laser gun.
This is a manga about the appreciation of manga. That should explain the extent of its potential appeal.
While readers from other cultures can certainly grasp the concept, Kingyo Used Books relies on the uniquely Japanese experience of growing up surrounded by manga. In America, many kids read comics, but they generally aren’t exposed to the breadth of subject matter available to kids in Japan.
This first volume of Kingyo tells several disconnected short stories about people reconnecting with their childhood love of manga. This works because each person has a favorite manga in a particular genre. A sports manga series will teach different lessons than a shoujo story.
Kingyo Used Books centers on a manga bookstore (of the same name as the title) that also hides a secret that is appropriately improbable: beneath the store lies a massive manga library. Kingyo Used Books‘ employees all love manga and, just like the titular character in Bartender recommending drinks that resolve customers’ problems, they recommend manga titles to customers that suffer from emotional crises.
On the one hand, the overall thrust of the manga feels pretty heavy-handed at times: manga is wonderful, and can help you solve life’s problems! On the other hand, manga could use the defense in a world that sees comics as temporary, disposable pop culture.
The art is clean and easy to parse, avoiding lots of close-ups or odd viewing angles. There are enough backgrounds to ground you in a location, but long dialogue scenes omit backgrounds where they’re unnecessary (avoiding the strong sense of reality in, say, Akira or Ghost in the Shell).
Those looking for a complex, long-form narrative or incredibly complex characters should look elsewhere. Kingyo uses manga as a crystal to reflect a rainbow of stories and emotions evoked by an idiosyncratic medium.
Kingyo Used Books volumes 1–4 are currently in stock at U.S. retailers like Amazon and RightStuf.
Artist/Writer: Naoko Takeuchi
Published in: 1991–1997 (Japan), 2011-present (America)
American Publisher: Kodansha/Random House
Genres: Magical girl
Premise: A ditzy schoolgirl, Usagi, gains the power to transform into a magical girl. Oh, come on; it’s Sailor Moon. Next you’ll be asking me for the premise of Star Wars.
Is it dumb? Nope. It’s carefully structured, pulling the girls together one by one, introducing their personalities and hinting at the big plot.
How’s the art? Heavily stylized. The girls have very long legs, and the panels tend towards extreme zooms on faces. Some faces are actually too big for their panels.
So, should I read it?
I’ve been debating that question ever since I read this volume.
On the one hand, the story is carefully structured, pulling the girls together one by one, introducing their personalities and hinting at the big plot. Novice writers would do well to study the information revelation used here.
Besides, Sailor Moon is a classic. It inspired an untold number of shoujo series, so if you want to understand them, Sailor Moon will help.
On the other hand, the art is heavily stylized. The girls have very long legs, and there are very few backgrounds. The panels tend towards extreme zooms on faces; in fact, faces are often too big for their panels. The pages felt
I also had a tough time with Usagi’s personality. She’s as much of a ditz as she is in the anime series, and while she at least seriously acknowledges this defect near the end of the volume, her energetic cluelessness has all the charm of a clumsy puppy: cute in short doses, but a real pain in long stretches.
Overall, the first volume of Sailor Moon is a good example of contrasts. It’s gathered legions of fans, and stands as a true classic of its genre, but its appeal remains limited to that genre. It showcases the best and worst of the shoujo style.
Artist/Writer: Naoko Takeuchi
Published in: 1993–1997 (Japan), 2011 (America)
American Publisher: Random House/Kodansha USA
Genres: shoujo, magical girl
Premise: A lively 13-year-old girl is given the power to transform into a magical girl and fight crime
Volumes: 2 (Japan), 1 so far (America)
Availability: Easily available on sites like Amazon and RightStuf.
Codename: Sailor V is both surprising and dull.
It’s the precursor to Sailor Moon, as well as its inspiration. Apparently, Sailor V was picked up for an anime adaptation, at which point the anime studio sat down with V‘s manga-ka Naoko Takeuchi to re-work Sailor V for the anime adaptation. The result was Sailor Moon. Takeuchi then began working references to Moon into V.
V is very much not Sailor Moon. It’s a traditional magical girl story containing only one 13-year-old magical girl, with a much lighter, goofier tone than Moon. It’s fundamentally a sitcom. Indeed, the heroine spends most of her time fighting crime rather than a long-form antagonist. While life lessons are dispensed, most of the story focuses on comedic misunderstandings and the protagonist’s silliness. There’s almost no larger story arc.
The art works; neither crowded nor sparse, it stays out of the way. Takeuchi’s characters do have a slightly elongated style common to shoujo.
Ed Sizemore pointed out that the artwork focuses on the clothing to an almost fetishistic level (my words, not his). While there is a lot of attention paid to this, it’s no worse than I’ve found in other shoujo works like Card Captor Sakura, and I chalk it up to many girls’ almost fetishistic attention to fashion.
So, the manga has a problematic dual problem. If you come looking for Sailor Moon, you’ll find instead a traditional magical girl comedy. If you prepare yourself for a magical girl story, you’ll find a very traditional magical girl comedy, with little to recommend itself beyond that.
Artist/Writer: Nobuaki Tadano
Published in: 2008–2010 (Japan), 2010–2011 (America)
American Publisher: Vertical
Premise: A girl is inhabited by a sentient alien creature, which is itself seeking a xenocidal creature that can take any human’s form.
Show x Show: It’s Boogiepop meets Degrassi
What are the themes? The high school girl protagonist has blocked herself off from those around her–for very understandable reasons, it turns out. Because she now is forced to seek out this creature, she is forced to come out of her shell.
The result is a combination of
How’s the art? Modern and
Does the art vary from chapter to chapter? Not noticeably. Tadano’s got a strong sense of character design.
How complex are the characters? The protagonist is the most dimensional, and Tadano manages an impressive feat. This is a story about a character’s internal life, which is expressed visually and externally. While there is a fair amount of monologue inside her head, Tadano follows the ”show, don’t tell” maxim closely.
How’s the plot? Pretty evenly balanced between action and quiet drama. The second volume, particularly, is much more about the protagonist’s past.
Can I show it to my Mom? Yep, and this should appeal to adults. It’s about teenagers, but it’s about universal themes.
Can I show it to my kid brother? Sure. He’d probably get a kick out of the action, though the relatively slow,
Can I show it to a
Does it have any memorable moments? Yes.
Okay, so technically Usagi Yojimbo isn’t a manga; it’s an anthro comic drawn in English by a third-generation Japanese-American.
However, it’s extremely Japanese, and uses manga pacing and stories.
Usagi Yojimbo tells the story of a ronin (master-less samurai), Usagi, in a world of anthropomorphic animals, such as rabbits, boars, and pigs. The small animals of this world are reptiles, so scenes are enlivened with 2-foot-tall apatosauruses.
These two volumes are entirely episodic. Other than a few recurring characters and a story that involves Usagi returning to his hometown, each volume contains a few stand-alone stories of Usagi’s adventures.
Usagi is a stereotypical samurai protagonist: pleasant, cautious, extremely skilled with a sword, and quick to moral outrage, with a strong sense of honor. As a result, the stories are more interesting than Usagi himself.
Some stories are comedic, others are serious, and some contain elements of both. Most deal with moral conundrums in some way. They feel very much like traditional samurai stories: ruffians threatening a village, overbearing lords, etc.
I was struck by how many Japanese language elements that Sakai put into the dialogue. Remember, this isn’t translated from Japanese. But the book is full of -sans and -donos. It certainly gives the book a foreign air, though I found it often unnecessary. Sakai does a fine job of getting across respect or familiarity without adding dialectical affectations.
The black-and-white art is clean and cartoony, with lots of round shapes and negative space. It’s a refreshing switch from the intense lines of manga and the crowded panels of American comics.
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Artist: Osamu Tezuka
What’s he done? Astro Boy, Black Jack, Kimba the White Lion, Dororo, and many others
Volume published: 1971–1978 (Japan), 2006 (U.S.)
Genre: SF / drama / philosophical
Premise: Phoenix is Osamu Tezuka’s masterwork, several thousand pages of manga that explore the human condition. Volume 6 is a self-contained story that explores the old “Not If You Were The Last Person On Earth” chestnut.
Show x Show: It’s The Twilight Zone meets Survivor
Length: This volume stands alone
Is there a plot? Oh boy, yeah. The story keeps driving forward–one of Tezuka’s strengths–but remains easy to follow. This is partly thanks to the small cast.
How’s the art? Classic Tezuka, with a minimum of his trademark goofy comedy. Characters rarely jump through panel borders or otherwise break the fourth wall.
Does the art quality vary from chapter to chapter? Nope.
Is it philosophical? Very much so. This is the story of ordinary people forced to make very hard choices, and living with the consequences.
Moreover, it’s not preachy. Characters espouse different philosophies, and others reject or debate, but I never felt that Tezuka was telling me which one was right or wrong.
Can I show it to my Mom? As the characters struggle to survive, there’s a lot of nudity and, well, incest. If your Mom’s cool with that, go for it. It’s certainly good proof that manga is art.
Can I show it to my kid brother? Nah. It’s too heady, really.
Can I show it to a non-manga fan? Yes, though it may be a tough sell, considering Tezuka’s cartoony style. It’s perfect for an intellectual comic fan.
While all of Tsutomu Nihei’s manga BLAME! was released in English, a few volumes have grown rare and expensive. As in, they cost a minimum of US $60 wherever I’ve looked.
So I’ve read every volume that I could buy for a reasonable price, meaning I had to skip volumes 4 and 6. Fortunately, it’s a slow-moving story, so I hoped I was skipping less-important volumes.
Judging by the ending, I was wrong.
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Artist: Tsutomu Nihei
What’s he done? Biomega, NSE, and NOiSE
Published: 1998–2003 (Japan), 2005–2007 (America)
Genre: SF / action / thriller / dystopia
Premise: In a completely enclosed dystopian world where humans are under constant attack from biomechanical horrors, one man journeys through the superstructure in search of a human with the fabled Net Terminal gene.
Who thought it up? This is Tsutomu Nihei through and through
Show x Show: It’s The Matrix meets Mad Max
Length: 10 volumes, complete
Is there a plot? Yes, but it’s quite slow. This is mostly an action story, so many chapters are purely face-offs between Killy (our protagonist) and various random biomechanical thugs. The back-story is dripped out in occasional, one-off conversations, so if you’re not paying attention, you’ll get lost quickly.
That said, I had to skip a few volumes, so that certainly didn’t help my comprehension.
Moreover, Killy wields a pistol that causes massive damage with each blast. This is good and bad. In several fights, I was just waiting for Killy to pull it out. In others, the opponents either block his weapon or can regenerate, which creates interesting tension as Killy tries to bring his weapon to bear.
Are there any other characters? Killy meets Cibo, a woman scientist, who helps him by hacking into various computer systems. Cibo adds a layer of interest primarily through Killy’s protectiveness of her. There’s no romance here — BLAME!’s world is thoroughly asexual — but they show clear signs of caring for each other’s safety.
How’s the action? A bit confusing at times, but overall, exciting and always a little different. By the end of the series, most of the villains are just there to be defeated by Killy, but that’s intentional; he’s slogging his way through the final bad guys.
How’s the art? Weird, but intentionally so. All the biomechanical bad guys are Giger-esque, gross parodies of the human form.
Does it feel real? This is one thing I love about Nihei; his architectural background is clearly shown in his detailed artwork. Every location feels real. He also has a good feel for human proportion, though in this series, characters can stretch during action a bit more than in, say, Biomega.
Can I show it to my Mom? I wouldn’t. There’s too much violence (zombies with their heads blown off, weird mutants, etc.).
Can I show it to my kid brother? Pre-teen? It’s pretty violent (thus the ”Mature Content” sticker). Teen? Sure.
Can I show it to a non-manga fan? This is actually a pretty good candidate. It doesn’t have underage nudity or uncomfortable sexual situations, and it doesn’t use specifically Japanese language elements (honorifics, sailor fuku, etc.).
Does the art quality vary from chapter to chapter? Nope. But then, this is Nihei’s fourth manga series, so he’s got that down.
Availability: All but volumes 4 and 6 are readily available used from sites like Amazon.com.