The Manga Revue: Ultraman

Ultraman made his television debut in 1966, defending Earth from the dual scourge of aliens and giant monsters. What began as a 39-episode series soon blossomed into one of Japan’s most prolific franchises, yielding dozens of sequels, spin-offs, movies, video games–and now a manga, which has been running in Monthly Hero’s magazine since 2011. Today’s column looks at this incarnation of the Ultraman story, which arrived in stores on Tuesday.

For extra insight into Ultraman‘s history, I encourage you to check out Brigid Alverson’s interview with Tomohiro Shimoguchi and Eiichi Shimizu, the creators of the latest Ultraman manga.

Ultraman_2011Ultraman, Vol. 1
By Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Media, $8.99 (digital edition)

Dusting off a beloved franchise and making it appeal to a new generation is a hazardous undertaking: stray too far from the source material and incur the wrath of purists, but hew too closely to the original and risk redundancy or camp. Manga-ka Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi have found an elegant strategy for introducing Ultraman to contemporary readers, using the original premise of the 1966 TV show as a starting point for a new chapter in the story.

The prelude to volume one neatly outlines Ultraman’s origins. Shin Hayata, member of the Science Special Search Party (a.k.a. the Science Patrol), unwittingly becomes the host for Ultraman, a powerful alien tasked with ridding Earth of dangerous monsters. Only a few members of the Science Patrol know Ultraman’s true identity–a secret they keep from Hayata, who is unaware that he is the vessel for Ultraman’s powers. The story then leaps forward thirty years: Ultraman has returned to his own world, Hayata has retired from the Science Patrol, and his son Shinjiro is beginning to manifest powers of his own.

In contrast to the introduction, which is a model of economy, the first chapter sags under the weight of too much expository dialogue. The pace improves with the sudden appearance of Be Mular–one of Ultraman’s old adversaries–who lures the inexperienced Shinjiro into a rooftop battle. Although the script has a familiar rhythm–powerful attacks punctuated by snappy one-liners–the fight choreography is well executed; you can almost feel the force of Shinjiro’s punches. Equally important, the fight’s outcome is not a foregone conclusion: the confrontation ends on a poignant cliffhanger as Shinjiro realizes that he isn’t strong enough to protect his family from Be Mular… yet.

Though Shimizu and Shimoguchi have done a nice job of bringing Ultraman and Be Mular’s appearance in line with contemporary seinen aesthetics, they’ve preserved the look and feel of the original characters. Ultraman and Be Mular don’t exactly resemble their rubber-suited predecessors, but a long-time fan will recognize them as spiritual descendants–a fair compromise for a series that’s toeing the line between 1960s kitsch and 2010s pop culture.

The verdict: The first chapter is a tough slog, but the combat is staged with enough panache that I’ll be checking out volume two.

Review copy provided by VIZ Media.

Reviews: Here at Manga Bookshelf, Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith tackle the latest volumes of Black Rose Alice, Citrus, Evergreen, and Food Wars! Further afield, Megan R. takes a nostalgic look at Kare Kano: His and Her Circumstances; Aimee A. deconstructs shojo stereotypes in Skip Beat!!; Seth Hahne praises Ajin: Demi-Human for its “fantastic cat-and-mouse” plotting; and Erica Friedman reviews Manga de Tsuzuru Yurina Hibi, a “non-fiction comic essay” about the relationship between a businesswoman and her girlfriend.

Alice Vernon on Akame ga Kill! (Girls Like Comics)
Wolfen Moondaugter on vol. 22 of Arata: The Legend (Sequential Tart)
Austin Lanari on The Art of Satoshi Kon (Comic Bastards)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 5 of Assassination Classroom (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Nick Smith on Awkward (ICv2)
Emma Weiler on vols. 1-5 of Crimson Spell (No Flying No Tights)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 10 of Deadman Wonderland (WatchPlayRead)
Lori Henderson on vol. 1 of The Demon Prince of Momochi House (Manga Xanadu)
Frank Inglese on vols. 5-6 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (Snap30)
Sheena McNeill on vol. 7 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (Sequential Tart)
Johanna Draper Carlson on vol. 10 of Happy Marriage?! (Comics Worth Reading)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto (Anime News Network)
Erica Friedman on vol. 2 of Hayate x Blade (Okazu)
Allen Kesinger on vols. 4-5 of High School DxD (No Flying No Tights)
Matthew Alexander on vol. 6 of Judge (The Fandom Post)
Sarah on vol. 2 of Karneval (Anime UK News)
Anna N. on vol. 5 of Kiss of the Rose Princess (The Manga Report)
Austin Lanari on The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Omnibus Edition: Book One (Comic Bastards)
Ian Wolf on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Anime UK News)
Kristin on Manga Classics: Emma (Comic Attack)
Ken H. on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (Sequential Ink)
Ash Brown on The Science of Attack on Titan (Experiments in Manga)
Frank Inglese on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (Snap30)
Michael Burns on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (Ani-TAY)
Michael Burns on vol. 2 of Tokyo Ghoul (Ani-TAY)
Julie on vol. 2 of Tokyo Ghoul (Manga Maniac Cafe)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 1 of Ultraman (WatchPlayRead)
Elizabeth Lotto on vol. 1 of Ultraman (The Outer Haven)
Nick Lyons on vol. 1 of Ultraman (DVD Corner)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 9 of What Did You Eat Yesterday? (Anime News Network)
Wolfen Moondaugter on vol. 2 of The World’s Greatest First Love: The Case of Ritsu Onodera (Sequential Tart)

The Manga Revue: A Brief History of Manga

I’m taking a break from shojo romances and shoot ’em ups this week and reviewing Helen McCarthy’s A Brief History of Manga, a slim introduction to the medium’s history, stars, and influential series.

9781781570982A Brief History of Manga
By Helen McCarthy
Ilex Press, $12.95

A Brief History of Manga is an odd duck: it’s too short and impressionistic to be a reference work, but too focused on historically significant titles to appeal to a casual Attack on Titan fan. That’s a pity, because Helen McCarthy’s generously illustrated book provides an accessible introduction to manga, from its prehistory to the present.

A Brief History of Manga begins with Toba Sojo’s famous Choju-jinbutsue-giga, a twelfth century scroll depicting frogs, rabbits, and monkeys engaged in human activities, then jumps ahead to the nineteenth century, when European ex-pats helped popularize new cartooning styles via influential publications such as The Japan Punch (1862). The rest of the book explores the emergence of longer-form storytelling, from the newspaper-style comics of Rakuten Kitazawa (1876-1955) to the cyberpunk manga of Masamune Shirow (b. 1961). Sprinkled throughout the book are callouts highlighting specific artists’ contributions to the medium, as well as summaries of famous series, thumbnail histories of important magazines, and milestones in the globalization of manga.

For a reader familiar with Frederick Schodt’s venerable Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (1983), many of McCarthy’s insights are old news. Schodt covered the early history of Japanese print culture in considerably more detail, painstakingly connecting the dots between Sojo’s frolicking animals, the birth of the Japanese publishing industry, and the emergence of the post-war manga market, bringing his narrative up to the 1980s. The final section of McCarthy’s book is a useful coda to Manga! Manga!, however, offering insights into more recent trends and titles, some well known–Boys Over Flowers, Death Note, Hetalia: Axis Powers–others less so–51 Ways to Save Her, Field of Cole, XX.

A Brief History of Manga has a more fundamental problem, however: its layout. Although the book’s designer has taken great pains to group images thematically, and link each entry with a timeline, the visual presentation is sometimes misleading. The 1931 entry, for example, pairs images of “manga pup” Norakuro with robot cat Doraemon without acknowledging the forty-year gap that separates the two characters. (Norakuro’s first story appeared in Shonen Club in 1931, while Doraemon debuted in 1969.) A caption informs the reader that Doraemon creator Hiroshi Fujimoto was born in 1933, but the main text never explicitly establishes the influence of Suiho Tagawa’s series on Fujimoto’s; even a simple, declarative sentence stating that Fujimoto had grown up reading Norakuro would have made this entry more valuable by demonstrating the role of pre-war children’s magazines in popularizing certain character types and storylines.

The first mention of gekiga–“1959: Manga’s Punk Movement Takes Root”–is similarly confusing. Although the text introduces gekiga pioneers Takao Saito (b. 1936) and Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015), the featured images are drawn from Fukushima Masami (b. 1948) and Kai Takizawa’s ultra-violent Prince Shotoku, a fascinating oddity from the late 1970s. While these images are among the most striking in the entire volume, they are not representative of early gekiga; it’s as if someone saw the word “punk” in the manuscript and set out to find the most visually outlandish artwork to emphasize McCarthy’s word choice. Complicating matters further is that the text never mentions Fukushima or Takizawa, or explains how their work built on the legacy of Saito and Tatsumi–no small oversight, given the pronounced differences between Prince Shotuko and Baron Air (1955) and Black Blizzard (1956), Saito and Tatsumi’s debut works.

I’m less bothered by McCarthy’s omissions than earlier reviewers were*; though it’s easy to cavil about missing works, McCarthy has chosen a representative sample of titles and authors across a wide spectrum of genres, demographics, and time periods. A manga newbie would find enough here to pique her interest, and perhaps steer her towards more comprehensive treatments of manga’s history. Knowledgable readers may find the quasi-encyclopedic format and emphasis on familiar material more frustrating, though they may be pleasantly surprised to discover new names and series through a careful scrutiny of the timeline. I did.

The verdict: A Brief History of Manga would make a swell gift for a new reader looking for information about the P.N.E. (that’s the Pre-Naruto Era).

* It’s worth noting that I heartily agree with Prof. Kathryn Hemmann’s concerns about the dearth of female creators in A Brief History of Manga. As Hemmann persuasively argues, this omission effectively silences some of the medium’s most influential and interesting voices. Click here to read Hemmann’s thoughts on the subject.

Reviews: Over at The Comics Journal, weekly columnist Joe McCullock compares the Dragon Ball comic with its most recent big-screen adaptation. Closer to home, Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith post a new installment of Bookshelf Briefs. Kathryn Hemmann reviews Buchō wa onee, a bara title “about ferocious anthro muscleheads being adorable.”

Matt on vol. 11 of BTOOOM! (AniTay)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 55 of Case Closed (Sequential Tart)
Al Sparrow on vol. 1 of Chaika, The Coffin Princess (ComicSpectrum)
manjiorin on Clay Lord: The Master of Golems (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Johanna Draper Carlson on Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats, and Ramen — A Comic Book Writer’s Personal Tour of Japan (Comics Worth Reading)
Ian Wolf on vol. 1 of The Demon Prince of Momochi House (Anime UK News)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 10 of Dogs: Bullets and Carnage (Sequential Tart)
Ken H. on vol. 49 of Fairy Tail (Sequential Ink)
Nick Creamer on Fragments of Horror (Anime News Network)
Austin Ganari on vol. 36 of Gantz (Comic Bastards)
Al Sparrow on vol. 1 of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (ComicSpectrum)
Matt on vol. 2 of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (AniTAY)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 3 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part One: Phantom Blood (WatchPlayRead)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 3 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part One: Phantom Blood (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Kate O’Neil on vol. 2 of Let’s Dance a Waltz (The Fandom Post)
Ash Brown on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Experiments in Manga)
Rebecca Silverman on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Anime News Network)
Ash Brown on vol. 3 of Maria the Virgin Witch (Experiments in Manga)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
SKJAM on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (SKJAM! Reviews)
ebooksgirl on vol. 1 of Recorder and Randsell (Geek Lit Etc.)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 18 of Rin-ne (Sequential Tart)
Julie on The Secret Princess (Manga Maniac Cafe)
Matthew Warner on vol. 5 of Seraph of the End (The Fandom Post)
Joceyln Allen on Sorairo no Kani (Book vs. Brain)
Anna N. on vol. 5 of Spell of Desire (The Manga Report)
Austin Lanari on issue 37-38 of Weekly Shonen Jump (Comic Bastards)
Wolfen Moondaughter on The World’s Greatest First Love: The Case of Ritsu Onodera (Sequential Tart)

The Manga Revue: Back to School Special

My inbox is overflowing with emails touting back-to-school deals on everything from sneakers to school supplies–a sure sign that the fall semester is right around the corner, and a nice reminder that Seven Seas, VIZ, and Vertical all have new (well, new-ish) school-themed comedies arriving in stores this month. Today, I take a look at Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, a comedy about the World’s Most Fascinating High School Student; My Hero Academia, a shonen adventure about a teen who’s studying to become a superhero; and My Neighbor Seki, a gag series about a slacker who elevates procrastination to an art form.

sakamotoHaven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, Vol. 1
By Miki Sano
Rated Teen
Seven Seas, $12.99

Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto is “The Aristocrats” of manga, a basic joke that yields endless variations, each more baroque than the last. The premise is simple: transfer student Sakamoto is handsome, brilliant, and athletic, making him a natural target for bullies and lovelorn girls. Any time a challenging situation arises–a bee in a classroom, a classmate injured by a softball–Sakamoto effortlessly meets that challenge, in the process revealing a previously undisclosed talent.

In the hands of a less imaginative storyteller, Sakamoto might be a wish-fulfillment character for every teenager who’s ever been tongue-tied or harassed by other students. Nami Sano puts a distinct spin on the material, however, portraying Sakamoto as so calculating and unflappable that he’s genuinely creepy; Sakamoto never smiles, laughs, or shows any discernible human emotion, even when confronted with other people’s tears or anger. (The real joke seems to be that everyone admires Sakamoto anyway.) I’m not sure that I LMAO, but Sakamoto’s odd persona and equally odd talents are a welcome rebuke to the school council presidents and earnest strivers who populate most teen-oriented manga; I’d much rather spend time with him than a standard-issue shonen prince.

The verdict: You’ll either find Sakamoto’s antics inspired or too weird to be amusing.

academiaMy Hero Academia, Vol. 1
By Kohei Horikoshi
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Media, $9.99

Meet Izuku Midoriya: he’s an ordinary teen living in a world where 80% of humanity possesses a super power. That doesn’t stop Izuku from aspiring to become a professional hero, however; since childhood, he’s dreamed about the day he might gain admission to prestigious U.A. High School, a training ground for future crime-fighters. A chance encounter with All Might, a celebrity superhero, gives Izuku a chance to prove his mettle and get the coaching he needs to pass the U.A. entrance exam.

Though the plot twists are unsurprising, and Izuku’s classmates familiar types (e.g. the Bully, the Spazzy Enthusiast), the breezy script propels My Hero Academia past its most hackneyed moments. The clean linework, playful superhero costumes, and artfully staged combat further enhance the series’ appeal; Kohei Horikoshi could give a master class on the reaction shot, especially when a supervillain is wrecking havoc on a downtown skyline. Most importantly, Horikoshi respects the sincerity of Izuku’s ambitions without letting the character’s earnest intensity cast a pall over the fun–in essence, it’s a Silver Age comic in modern shonen drag, with all the corny humor and fist-pumping action of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s best work on Spider-Man.

The verdict: My Hero Academia is as predictable as death and taxes, but a smart script and crisp artwork help distinguish it from other titles in the Shonen Jump catalog.

sekiMy Neighbor Seki, Vols. 1-3
By Takuma Morishige
Unrated
Vertical Comics, $10.95

Like Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, My Neighbor Seki is a one-joke series: middle-school student Seki goofs off during class, much to the consternation of his seat mate Rumi. Seki isn’t just doodling in his notepad, however. He pets kittens, builds elaborate sculptures from shoji pieces, runs an intraschool mail service, and hosts a tea ceremony. To vary the rhythm of the joke-telling, artist Takuma Morishige occasionally transplants the action from the schoolroom to the playground, though the set-up remains the same; Seki does something outrageous and Rumi reacts, prompting the teacher to scold Rumi for not paying attention.

Given Seki‘s slender premise, it’s not surprising that each volume is a hit-and-miss affair. In volume one, for example, Seki knits a cactus plushie using a double-ended afghan hook. Rumi initially scoffs at his choice of tool; as she observes, “The hallmark of afghan knitting is its unique thickness and softness. It’s a texture best utilized when making sweaters,” not stuffed animals. When she sees the final results, however, she concedes that Seki has chosen the perfect technique and materials for his cactus, sending her into a rapturously funny meditation on yarn. Not all the gags are as successful: Seki’s penchant for staging elaborate scenes with action figures is moderately amusing at first, but grows more tiresome with each new and less imaginative iteration. Still, it’s impossible to deny the energy, creativity, and specificity with which Morishige brings Seki’s exploits to life, making this series more “win” than “fail.”

The verdict: My Neighbor Seki is best enjoyed in one or two chapter installments; when read in large bursts, some scenarios read like 4-koma strips stretched to epic and unfunny proportions.

Reviews: Over at Manga Connection, manjiorin reviews the first four volumes of Princess Jellyfish, which are currently available on Crunchyroll. TCJ columnist Joe McCulloch jumps in the WABAC machine for a nostalgic look at Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. In honor of 801 Day, Megan R. reviews a title from the Tokyopop/BLU Manga catalog, Shout Out Loud.

Matthew Alexander on vol. 1 of Aoi House (The Fandom Post)
Michael Burns on vol. 5 of Assassination Classroom (AniTAY)
Nick Creamer on vol. 4 of A Bride’s Story (Anime News Network)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of First Love Monster (Anime News Network)
Michael Burns on vol. 7 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (AniTAY)
SKJAM! on Fragments of Horror (SKJAM! Reviews)
Connie on vol. 1 of Junjo Romantica (Slightly Biased Manga)
Sean Gaffney on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Sequential Tart)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (WatchPlayRead)
Adam Capps on vol. 3 of My Neighbor Seki (Bento Byte)
Connie on No Touching At All (Slightly Biased Manga)
Adam Capps on vol. 75 of One Piece (Bento Byte)
Ken H. on vols. 9-11 of Sankarea: Undying Love (Sequential Ink)
Matthew Warner on vol. 7 of Say I Love You (The Fandom Post)
ebooks girl on vol. 1 of Shiba Inuko-san (Geek Lit Etc.)
confusedmuse and Helen on Shugo Chara (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Marissa Lieberman on vol. 1 of Spell of Desire (No Flying No Tights)
manjiorin on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (Manga Connection)
Ian Wolf on vol. 1 of Twin Star Exorcists (Anime UK News)
Connie on vol. 1 of Twittering Birds Never Fly (Slightly Biased Manga)
Connie on vol. 2 of Twittering Birds Never Fly (Slightly Biased Manga)
Lori Henderson on vols. 3-4 of Until Death Do Us Part (Manga Xanadu)
Sarah on vol. 9 of What Did You Eat Yesterday? (Anime UK News)
Connie on vol. 1 of World’s Greatest First Love (Slightly Biased Manga)
Alice Vernon on xxxHolic (Girls Like Comics)
SKJAM! on vol. 1 of Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches (SKJAM! Reviews)
Ash Brown on vol. 2 of Your Lie in April (Experiments in Manga)

The Manga Revue: The Demon Prince of Momochi House

I’m hitting the road for a brief vacation this weekend, so this week’s column is more of a drive-by than a full-on review. On the menu: The Demon Prince of Momochi House, a supernatural rom-com that recently joined VIZ’s Shojo Beat line-up.

demon_princeThe Demon Prince of Momochi House, Vol. 1
By Aya Shouoto
Rated T, for teen
VIZ Media, $9.99

The Demon Prince of Momochi House follows a tried-and-true shojo formula: a plucky girl inherits a house–or a school, temple, or dojo–that’s already inhabited by a posse of good-looking boys. The wrinkle is that Himari–said plucky girl–has inherited a haunted house that sits atop a portal between the demon and human worlds. Her arrival triggers a flurry of supernatural activity, as ayakashi descend on Momochi House to investigate its new resident. Protecting her is Aoi, a seemingly ordinary seventeen-year-old who transforms into a fox-eared demon whenever an unruly spirit appears, and Yukari and Ise, a pair of shikigamis whose human form screams “boy band!”

The plot is as road-tested as the premise. In every chapter (1) Aoi warns Himari not to explore Momochi House on her own (2) Himari ignores him and is promptly attacked by a demon and (3) Aoi then rescues Himari, causing her to blush, stammer, and wonder why she feels flustered when he’s around. Must be heartburn…

If the story barely deviates from the Kamisama Kiss playbook, the brisk pacing and cheerful banter between Himari and her tenants prevents the story from devolving into pure formula. So, too, do Aya Shouoto’s sensual character designs and smart-looking yokai, both of which suggest the influence of CLAMP’s xxxHolic or Gate 7. I’m not sure that snazzy artwork and a spunky heroine are enough to sustain my interest for ten or fifteen volumes, but I’d certainly pick up the next installment to see if the story moves in an unexpected direction.

Reviews: Megan R. takes Full Metal Panic: Overload! for a spin at The Manga Test Drive, while Sean Gaffney posts an early review of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto. Over at Otaku USA, Sean O’Mara posts a generously illustrated essay on Hayao Miyazaki’s manga.

Sheena McNeil on vol. 15 of 07-Ghost (Sequential Tart)
Adam Capps on vol. 5 of Ajin: Demi-Human (Bento Byte)
Leroy Douresseaux on vol. 55 of Case Closed (Comic Book Bin)
Kaylee Barton on vol. 1 of The Demon Prince of Momochi House (Bento Byte)
Matt on vol. 1 of Final Fantasy Type-0 Side Story: The Ice Reaper (AniTAY)
Amanda Vail on vols. 1-2 of Drug & Drop and Legal Drug (Women Write About Comics)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 6 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (Sequential Tart)
Patti Martinson on Fragments of Horror (Sequential Tart)
Allen Kesinger on vol. 1 of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (No Flying No Tights)
Majin Oni on Jaco the Galactic Patrolman (majinoni6)*
Matt on vol. 2 of Kagerou Daze (AniTAY)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (Sequential Tart)
Majin Oni on vol. 1 of Prison School (majinoni6)*
Matt on vol. 1 of Prison School (AniTAY)
Kane Bugeja on vol. 5 of Seraph of the End (Snap30)
Sarah on vol. 2 of Servamp (Anime UK News)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 7 of Tiger & Bunny (WatchPlayRead)
Adam Capps on vol. 1 of Twin Star Exorcists (Bento Byte)
Majin Oni on vol. 1 of Twin Star Exorcists (majinoni6)*
Joseph Luster on vol. 1 of Ultraman (Otaku USA)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 10 of Voice Over! Seiyu Academy (Sequential Tart)
Alberto Cadena on vol. 9 of What Did You Eat Yesterday? (Bento Byte)

* Denotes a video review.

The Manga Revue: Prison School and Twin Star Exorcists

This week, I take a look at two new releases: Prison School, a hotly anticipated series about five boys trying to break out of an all-girls’ school, and Twin Star Exorcists, a shonen manga about two teenage onmyoji who hold the fate of the world in their hands. (Let’s hope they do their best–otherwise, we’re toast!)

Hiramoto_PrisonSchoolV1Prison School, Vol. 1
By Akira Hiramoto
Rated M, for mature readers (18+)
Yen Press, $20.00

Paging Russ Meyer! Prison School is a veritable parade of big-bosomed, wasp-waisted women brandishing whips, kicking ass, and eschewing bras. The target of their scorn: Kiyoshi, Kingo, Gackt, Joe, and Andre, the first five men to enroll at the Hachimitsu Private Academy in its fifty-year history. These hapless souls want nothing more than to “catch glances of breasts and panties,” but their efforts to spy on their classmates incur the wrath of the school’s Shadow Student Council, a secret organization whose primary role is to “crack down on illicit sexual relationships.” After a dramatic show trial in the school’s courtyard, Kiyoshi and friends are sentenced to hard time in the school penitentiary.

I’d be the first to admit that the premise has potential: what woman or girl hasn’t fantasized about coolly administering a karate chop to a lecherous jerk on the subway or in the street? What prevents Prison School from rising above grindhouse fare is Akira Hiramoto’s complete dehumanization of his characters. The Student Council members are portrayed as ball-busting man-haters, intent on humiliating the boys for their sexual proclivities, while the prisoners are depicted as sniveling pervs. The only genuinely sympathetic pair are Kiyoshi and Chiyo, a cute girl who shares Kiyoshi’s passion for sumo wrestling. Kiyoshi’s desire to have a normal relationship with Chiyo provides the story’s few emotionally authentic moments; by contrast, most scenes revel in the lurid, psychosexual relationship between the boys and their jailers.

Though all of the characters are objectified, no one fares as poorly as Meiko Shiraki, the Shadow Council’s Vice President. Hiramoto always draws her from an extreme angle–upskirt is one of his favorites–that emphasizes her monstrously distended breasts and reveals her penchant for wearing thongs. Perhaps a fifteen-year-old boy would find her terrifyingly sexy, but an older reader who’s seen actual breasts would have a hard time viewing Meiko as anything but a fetishist fantasy.

All of which is to say: Prison School could have been a sly riff on Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, or even Caged, but Hiramoto’s strenuously raunchy scenarios overwhelm the other elements of the story, stopping it dead in its tracks.

The verdict: Prison School is an all-or-nothing proposition: you’ll either love it or hate it.

twin_starTwin Star Exorcists, Vol. 1
By Yoshiaki Sukeno
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Media, $9.99

Twin Star Exorcists is a love story dressed up as an action-packed supernatural adventure. At the beginning of volume one, the principal characters have a meet-cute that establishes their personalities in broad strokes: Rokuro is gifted but reluctant to use his exorcism skills, while Benio is gifted but trigger happy, nuking monsters at the slightest provocation. Making their Darcy-and-Elizabeth dynamic more complicated is that Rokuro and Benio are destined to marry and have a child who will save the world from the Kegare, a demonic race that lives in a parallel universe. (Rokuro and Benio are also fourteen, a point underscored by their endless bickering.)

Although the fight scenes are competently executed, the beats are so familiar that the combat feels superfluous. And therein lies Twin Star Exorcists‘ biggest problem: it’s boring. The plot lines, characters, and demon lore are so familiar that the story lacks a distinctive personality; even the setting is cliche. (Rokuro and Benio attend an exclusive academy for onmyoji in training.) Just two days after finishing the volume I couldn’t remember the principal characters’ names–a sure sign that the author treated each element of the story as something to be checked off a list, rather than an integral part of the narrative.

The verdict: Zzzzzz…..

Reviews: GC4K contributor Mike Pawuk praises Svetlana Chmakova’s Awkward, just out from Yen Press. Over at Heart of Manga, Laura posts brief reviews of He’s My Only Vampire, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, and Let’s Dance a Waltz. Joe McCulloch dedicates his latest TCJ column to CoroCoro magazine.

Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 17 of 07-Ghost (WatchPlayRead)
Connie on Alice in the Country of Clover: Nightmare (Slightly Biased Manga)
Alice Vernon on Awkward (Girls Like Comics)
Connie on vol. 29 of Blade of the Immortal (Slightly Biased Manga)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 7 of Deadman Wonderland (Sequential Tart)
Allen Kesinger on vol. 1 of The Devil is a Part-Timer! (No Flying No Tights)
Chris Randle on Fragments of Horror (The Guardian)
Frank Inglese on vol. 6 of Gangsta (Snap30)
Sarah on Kitaro (nagareboshi reviews)
Matthew Alexander on vol. 13 of Knights of Sidonia (The Fandom Post)
Leroy Douresseaux on vol. 1 of Love Stage!! (Comic Book Bin)
Johanna Draper Carlson on vol. 1 of Love Stage!! (Comics Worth Reading)
Marissa Lieberman on vol. 1 of Midnight Secretary (No Flying No Tights)
Thomas Maluck on vols. 1-3 of My Love Story!! (No Flying No Tights)
ebooksgirl on vol. 3 of My Neighbor Seki! (Geek Lit Etc.)
Helen and confused muse on Natsume’s Book of Friends (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 2 of No Game No Life (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Erica Friedman on Okujou no Yuri Yurei-san Side B – Nakayoshi Quiz (Okazu)
A.J. Adejare on vol. 2 of Oreimo: Kureneko (The Fandom Post)
Connie on vol. 1 of Paradise Kiss (Slightly Biased Manga)
Connie on vol. 3 of Phantom Thief Jeanne (Slight Biased Manga)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 3 of Pokemon X.Y (Sequential Tart)
Lostty on vols. 1-4 of Princess Jellyfish (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 17 of Rin-ne (WatchPlayRead)
Ash Brown on vol. 2 of Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends (Experiments in Manga)
Frank Inglese on vol. 6 of Terra Formars (Snap30)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 9 of Voice Over! Seiyu Academy (Sequential Tart)
Lesley Tomsu on vols. 1-2 of Witch Buster (No Flying No Tights)
Ken H. on vol. 2 of Your Lie in April (Sequential Ink)

The Manga Revue: Fragments of Horror

I’m too squeamish for horror movies–the blood alone is enough to send me screaming for the exits. But horror manga? That’s in my wheelhouse, as manga allows me to engage with the material as much–or as little–as I wish. Junji Ito’s work is largely responsible for showing me the possibilities of comic book horror; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of an enormous great white shark climbing a flight of stairs in pursuit of his next meal, or an entire village consumed by a voracious plague of… spirals. (It’s scarier than it sounds.) So when VIZ announced that they would be publishing a new collection of Ito stories, I knew I would buy it. But does Fragments of Horror deliver? Read on for the full scoop.

fragments_horror_vizFragments of Horror
By Junji Ito
Rated T+, for older teens
VIZ Media, $17.99

Uncanny–that’s the first word that comes to mind after reading Junji Ito’s Fragments of Horror, an anthology of nine stories that run the gamut from deeply unsettling to just plain gross. Ito is one of the few manga-ka who can transform something as ordinary as a mattress or a house into an instrument of terror, as the opening stories in Fragments of Horror demonstrate. Both “Futon” and “Wood Spirit” abound in vivid imagery: apartments infested with demons, floors covered in eyes, walls turned to flesh, rooves thatched in human hair. Watching these seemingly benign objects pulse with life is both funny and terrifying, a potent reminder of how thin the dividing line between animate and inanimate really is.

Taut–that’s another word I’d use to describe Fragments of Horror. Each story is a model of economy, packing 60 or 70 pages of narrative into just 20 or 30. “Dissection Chan,” for example, explores the forty-year relationship between Tatsuro, a surgeon, and Ruriko, a woman who’s obsessed with vivisection. In a brief flashback to Tatsuro’s childhood, Ito documents the unraveling of their friendship, capturing both Ruriko’s escalating desire to cut things open and Tatsuro’s profound shame for helping her procure the tools (and animals) necessary for her experiments. Three or four years have been packed into this seven-page vignette, but Ito never resorts to voice-overs or thought balloons to explain how Tatsuro feels; stark lighting, lifelike facial expressions, and evocative body language convey Tatsuro’s emotional journey from curious participant to disgusted critic.

Not all stories land with the same cat-like tread of “Dissection Chan.” “Magami Nanakuse,” a cautionary tale about the literary world, aims for satire but misses the mark. The central punchline–that authors mine other people’s suffering for their art–isn’t executed with enough oomph or ick to make much of an impression. “Tomio • Red Turtleneck”  is another misfire. Though it yields some of the most squirm-inducing images of the collection, it reads like a sixteen-year-old boy’s idea of what happens if your girlfriend discovers that you’ve been stepping out on her: first she’s angry at you, then she’s angry at the Other Woman, and finally she forgives you after you grovel and suffer. (In Tomio’s case, suffering involves grotesque humiliation with a cockroach–the less said about it, the better.)

Taken as a whole, however, Fragments of Horror is testament to the fecundity of Ito’s imagination, and to his skill in translating those visions into sharp, unforgettable illustrations like this one:

ito_horror_interior

PS: I recommend pairing this week’s review with 13 Extremely Disturbing Junji Ito Panels, a listicle compiled by Steve Fox. (The title is a little misleading: the images are unsettling, but are generally SFW.)

Reviews: Sean Gaffney reads Pandora in the Crimson Shell and Magika: Swordsman and Summoner so that you don’t have to. At Women Write About Comics, Amanda Vail compares the light novel and manga versions of The Devil is a Part-Timer!

Connie on vol. 3 of Alice in the Country of Clover: Knight’s Knowledge (Slightly Biased Manga)
Jennifer Wharton on vols. 1-6 of The Betrayal Knows My Name (No Flying No Tights)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 55 of Case Closed (WatchPlayRead)
Kristin on vol. 1 of The Demon Prince of Momochi House (Comic Attack)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of First Love Monster (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Frank Inglese on vols. 3-4 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (Snap 30)
Megan R. on Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden (The Manga Test Drive)
Connie on vol. 6 of Gravitation (Slightly Biased Manga)
Dave Ferraro on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Comics and More)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 13 of Library Wars: Love and War (Sequential Tart)
Connie on vol. 6 of Love Pistols (Slightly Biased Manga)
Ash Brown on vol. 4 of Mushishi (Experiments in Manga)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 5 of My Love Story!! (WatchPlayRead)
Leroy Douresseaux on vol. 10 of Nisekoi: False Love (Comic Book Bin)
Joe McCulloch on Pandora in the Crimson Shell (The Comics Journal)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 28 of Pokemon Adventures: Emerald (Sequential Tart)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 1 of Requiem of the Rose King (Sequential Tart)
Leroy Douresseaux on vol. 18 of Rin-ne (Comic Book Bin)
Matthew Alexander on vol. 10 of Sankarea: Undying Love (The Fandom Post)
confusedmuse on Skip Beat! (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Kate O’Neil on vol. 4 of Soul Eater Not! (The Fandom Post)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 4 of Spell of Desire (Sequential Tart)
Courtney Sanders on vol. 1 of Twin Star Exorcists (Three If By Space)
Ken H. on vol. 5 of Witchcraft Works (Sequential Ink)
Matthew Alexander on vol. 6 of Wolfsmund (The Fandom Post)
Matthew Alexander on vol. 5 of World Trigger (The Fandom Post)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 3 of Yukarism (WatchPlayRead)