The Manga Revue: Behind the Scenes!!

It’s a snowy day here in Boston, giving me the perfect excuse to tunnel under a blanket and read a goofy, light-hearted story. My escapism of choice: Bisco Hatori’s latest series, Ouran University Host Club Behind the Scenes!!

BehindTheScenes-01Behind the Scenes!!, Vol. 1
By Bisco Hatori
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Media, $9.99

Behind the Scenes!! embodies what’s good–and not so good–about Bisco Hatori’s storytelling.

In the plus column, Hatori has a knack for writing ensemble pieces in which the principal characters exhibit a genuine fondness for one another. The stars of her latest series are Shichikoku University’s Art Squad, a scrappy outfit that makes props for the Film Club–or, more accurately, clubs, as there are several students groups competing for the Art Squad’s services, each with their own aesthetic objectives. Ranmaru, the series’ protagonist, gets a crash course in film making when he stumbles into the middle of an Art Squad project: a low-budget horror flick. As penance for disrupting the shoot, Ranmaru joins the Art Squad and is quickly pressed into service painting props, folding paper cranes, and building a fake hot spring.

These scenes–in which Ranmaru and the gang tackle set-design challenges–are among the series’ most enjoyable. Not only do they give us a sneak peek at the movie-making process, they also show us how the club members’ friendly overtures embolden the timid, self-doubting Ranmaru to let go of his painful childhood and become part of a community. In one poignant exchange, for example, Ranmaru tells a fellow squad member about a black-and-white film that made a powerful impression on him. Hatori cuts between scenes from this imaginary film and Ranmaru’s face, registering how powerfully Ranmaru identified with the film’s principal character, a toy robot who dreams of flying.

In the minus column, Hatori often strains for comic effect, overwhelming the reader with too many shots of characters mugging, shouting, and flapping their arms. The Art Squad’s interactions with various student directors give Hatori license to indulge this tendency; the auteurs’ snits and whims frequently force the Art Squad members to behave more like the Scooby Doo gang–or Hollywood fixers–than actual college students juggling coursework and extra-curriculars. (The Art Squad even has a goofy dog mascot.)

At the same time, however, these wannabe Spielbergs bring out the best in Hatori’s draftsmanship. Each one’s personality is firmly established in just a single panel: one looks like a refugee from Swingin’ London (or perhaps an Austin Powers film); another dresses like a Taisho-era author, swanning around campus in a yukata; and a third sports a shaggy mane, Buddy Holly glasses, and a female entourage. The efficiency with which Hatori introduces these characters, and the range of personalities they embody, demonstrate just how crisp and distinctive her artwork can be. That Hatori’s heroes are visually bland by comparison says less about her skills, I think, than it does her desire to make Ranmaru’s new “family” seem normal–well, as normal as anyone who specializes in making fake zombie guts can be.

The bottom line: Tentatively recommended. If Hatori can tone down her characters’ antic behavior, Behind the Scenes!! could be a winner.

Reviews: Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith post a fresh crop of Bookshelf Briefs. Also new at Manga Bookshelf: Sean tackles the first volume of orange (no, that’s not a typo), Anna N. reviews Takeshi Obata’s kiddie-thriller School Judgment, and Ash Brown weighs in on Hiroaki Samura’s stylish (and bloody) manga Die Wergelder. Further afield, translator Jocelyn Allen posts her annual doujinshi round-up.

Sara Dempster on The Angel of Elhamburg (No Flying No Tights)
Matthew Warner on vol. 5 of Ani-Emo (The Fandom Post)
Michael Burns on vols. 7-8 of Barakamon (AniTAY)
Johanna Draper Carlson on vol. 12 of Chi’s Sweet Home (Comics Worth Reading)
Adam Brunell on vol. 12 of Deadman Wonderland (ComicSpectrum)
SKJAM! on Dream Fossil (SKJAM! Reviews)
Josh Begley on vol. 2 of Emma (The Fandom Post)
Patrick Moore on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (Bentobyte)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Ken H. on Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu (Sequential Ink)
Kory Cerjak on vol. 13 of Magi (The Fandom Post)
Megan R. on Millennium Prime Minister (The Manga Test Drive)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 12 of My Little Monster (Anime News Network)
Exile on vol. 1 of My Monster Secret (AniTAY)
Jocelyn Allen on Night Worker (Brain vs. Book)
Matthew Warner on vol. 2 of Puella Magi Tart Magica (The Fandom Post)
Matt on vol. 5 of A Silent Voice (AniTAY)
Terry Hong on vol. 2 of Ultraman (Book Dragon)
Nick Creamer on vol. 2 of UQ Holder! (Anime News Network)
Frank Inglese on Uzumaki Naruto: Illustrations (Snap 30)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 3 of Yo-Kai Watch (Sequential Tart)

 

 

The Manga Revue: Giganto Maxia

Kentaro Miura’s Berserk is a rite of passage for manga readers: you may not have soldiered past the second volume, but you tried because a Real Manga Fan told you that it was The Most Amazing Manga Ever. I freely admit that I didn’t finish Berserk–too violent for me, I’m afraid–but I marveled at its intricate plotting, feverish pace, and deadly seriousness. (Also: Miura’s penchant for awful names.) When Dark Horse announced that it had acquired Giganto Maxia, I decided to treat this new series as a second “date” with Miura–a chance to decide if I’d judged his work unfairly the first time around. Here’s how that date went.

giganto_maxiaGiganto Maxia
By Kentaro Miura
Rated 16+, for older teens
Dark Horse, $13.99

Let’s start with the good: Giganto Maxia is a visual feast that’s every bit as imaginative as Hayao Mizayaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Kentaro Miura’s pages abound in war-ravaged landscapes, fantastic fighting machines, and bizarre creatures that straddle the fence between human and animal. The specificity of his vision, and the care with which he stages battle scenes, obviates the need for dialogue; we can almost hear and feel what the characters are experiencing on every page.

Miura’s script, however, is as tin-eared and self-serious as a high school literary rag. The two leads–Prome, a pale mystic who looks like a young girl, and Delos, a warrior slave–spend an inordinate amount of time describing what’s happening around them, even when the pictures make it abundantly clear. Yet for all their chatter, neither character provides much useful information about the post-apocalyptic world in which Giganto Maxia takes place: who are the Olympians? Why are they so intent on annihilating other tribes? And what, exactly, are the Giganto? The absence of these details leaves a big hole in the story: the characters’ motivation for fighting the Giganto. At the end of the volume, we’re not really sure what Prome and Delos stand for, or what’s at stake if they fail–two fatal flaws in a series that desperately wants the reader to get swept up in their quest.

The bottom line: A talky script and barely-there characters sink this smart-looking fantasy series.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Reviews: Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith round up the latest volumes of Arpeggio of Blue Steel, Kimi ni Todoke, and Non Non Biyori at Manga Bookshelf; Sean also reads The Testament of New Sister Devil so that you don’t have to. Over at Women Write About Comics, Amanda Vail and Paige Sammartino offer “short & sweet” reviews of Barakamon, Are You Alice?, and My Hero Academia.

Nick Creamer on vol. 3 of The Ancient Magus’ Bride (Anime News Network)
Gary Thompson on vol. 10 of Black Jack (The Fandom Post)
Demelza on Fairy Tail (Anime UK News)
Megan R. on Gate 7 (The Manga Test Drive)
Nick Creamer on vol. 7 of Genshiken: Second Season (Anime News Network)
Sean Rogers on A Girl on the Shore (The Globe and Mail)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (Sequential Tart)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (Anime News Network)
Matt on vol. 2 of Inuyashiki (AniTAY)
Sean Gaffney on Kagerou Daze III: The Children Reason (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Claire Napier on Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen (Comics Alliance)
Michael Burns on vol. 13 of Nisekoi (AniTAY)
Matthew Warner on vol. 76 of One Piece (The Fandom Post)
Matthew Warner on vol. 3 of One-Punch Man (The Fandom Post)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 4 of One-Punch Man (Anime News Network)
Matthew Warner on vol. 3 of Peepo Choo (The Fandom Post)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 5 of Pokemon X.Y. (Sequential Tart)
Helen on vol. 1 of ReLife (The OASG)
Matt on vol. 4 of A Silent Voice (AniTAY)
Saeyong Kim on vol. 3 of Thermae Romae (No Flying No Tights)
Sarah on Tsubasa WoRLD CHRoNiCLE: Niraikani (Anime UK News)
Charlotte Finn on Wandering Son (Comics Alliance)

 

 

The Manga Revue: Idol Dreams and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun

Happy New Year! (Is it too late to extend that greeting to readers?) For my first column of 2016, I dove into my pile of unread books and chose two that I’d meant to review last year. The first is Arina Tanemura’s Idol Dreams, a body-swap comedy about a thirty-something office lady; the second is Izumi Tsubaki’s Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun, a 4-koma series about a hunky high school manga artist who just happens to be the author of a popular girls’ comic.

idol-dreams-vol-1Idol Dreams, Vol. 1
By Arina Tanemura
Rated T, for readers 13 and up
VIZ Media, $9.99

Chikage Deguchi is at a crossroads: once a pretty, popular high school student, she’s become a sexless, thirty-something office drone who’s mocked by her co-workers. After making a fool of herself at a high school reunion, Chikage’s childhood friend Tokita stages a unique intervention, offering Chikage a drug that transforms her into a 15-year-old girl for a few hours a day. Chikage then does what any self-respecting 31-year-old would do: she pursues a (part-time) career as a teen idol.

Setting aside the question of whether anyone would voluntarily relive their teenage years, Idol Dreams has a bigger problem: tone. Arina Tanemura can’t decide if her story will revel in its absurdity or play things straight, and veers wildly between wacky show-biz hijinks and clumsy office scenes that are meant to establish just how awful Chikage’s adult life is. In the afterword to the story, Tanemura cheerfully vents her frustrations at being asked to do “a magical girl series for adults” without recourse to “too much screentone,” “gags and comedic touches,” or “super-stylish atmosphere.” Oddly enough, I don’t think these restrictions are the true source of the problem; if anything, Tanemura’s artwork is more polished and appealing in Idol Dreams than in Phantom Thief Jeanne or I.O.N. The real issue is the lead character: Tanemura never really explains why temporarily impersonating a 15-year-old would solve any of Chikage’s issues, especially since Chikage’s teenage alter ego is a wet noodle, too. The underlying message seems to be that recapturing youthful beauty is a pathway to empowerment–not a particularly novel or uplifting idea, given the developed world’s obsession with Botox, face lifts, wrinkle cream, and 17-year-old models.

The bottom line: I never thought I’d say this, but Idol Dreams is the rare Tanemura manga that would benefit from more zaniness and sparkly backgrounds.


monthly_girlsMonthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun
, Vol. 1
By Izumi Tsubaki
Rated T, for teen readers
Yen Press, $13.00

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun is a textbook example of what happens when a great idea bumps up against the limitations of a restrictive format. The set-up is comedy gold: tenth-grader Chiyo Sakura confesses her romantic feelings to hunky classmate Umetarou Nozaki, only to have him casually respond, “Do you want to come to my place right now?” Flustered, Chiyo agrees but is surprised when Nozaki doesn’t put the moves on her; instead, he puts her to work on a chapter of his hit shojo manga Let’s Fall. Chiyo’s attempts to extricate herself from Nozaki’s employ or clarify her feelings for him only make things worse, as Nozaki is both romantically inexperienced and genuinely obtuse.

So far, so good: the concept provides plenty of fodder for jokes and pratfalls. The four-panel format, however, locks each character into a holding pattern in which he or she is doomed to repeat the same behavior over and over again. The supporting cast is big enough to prevent Monthly Girls from reading like a month’s worth of Cathy or Garfield strips, but the rhythm of every gag is virtually the same, whether author Izumi Tsubaki is introducing a new character, poking fun at shojo manga cliches, or demonstrating just how socially inept Nozaki really is; long stretches of Monthly Girls read like a Henny Youngman set, albeit with stranger–and funnier–material. Take my manga… please!

The bottom line: Some of the jokes are genuinely funny, but the series already feels like it’s chasing its tail by the end of chapter three.

Odds and Ends: Organization Anti-Social Geniuses has a new look, a new name, and a new URL. You’ll now find Justin Stroman and the gang at http://www.theoasg.com/. Manga vlogger Pluto Burns took a break from reviewing books and conducted a great interview with Carolina Manga Library founder Laura Mehaffey. If you’re not familiar with the good work that Mehaffey and her staff are doing, click here to learn more about this traveling book collection.

Reviews: Sean Gaffney, Anna N. and Michelle Smith post their first Bookshelf Briefs column of 2016. On the agenda: D-Frag!, My Love Story!!, Pandora Hearts, and Saki. Elsewhere on the web, Rebecca Silverman and Kory Cerjak review the first volume of Yowamushi Pedal, my pick for Best New Manga of 2015.

Chris Kirby on vol. 1 of 7 Billion Needles (The Fandom Post)
Karen Maeda on vol. 7 of Assassination Classroom (Sequential Tart)
Matthew Warner on Ayako (The Fandom Post)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 1 of Bloody Mary (Sequential Tart)
Megan R. on CLAMP School Detectives (The Manga Test Drive)
Justin on Confession (The OASG)
Kate O’Neil on vol. 5 of Demon from Afar (The Fandom Post)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 3 of Emma (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of Honey So Sweet (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Ash Brown on vol. 3 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood (Experiments in Manga)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 19 of Kamisama Kiss (Sequential Tart)
Ken H on vol. 1 of LD♥K (Sequential Ink)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Livingstone (Anime News Network)
Lori Henderson on vol. 1 of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun (Manga Xanadu)
Dustin Cabeal on vol. 2 of My Hero Academia (Comic Bastards)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of Of the Red, the Light, and the Ayakashi (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Kane Bugeja on vol. 3 of One-Punch Man (Snap 30)
David Brooke on vol. 4 of One-Punch Man (AiPT!)
Dustin Cabeal on vol. 4 of One-Punch Man (Comic Bastards)
SKJAM! on vol. 18 of Rin-ne (SKJAM! Reviews)
Ken H. on vol. 9 of Say I Love You (Sequential Ink)
Helen on vol. 1 of Student Council’s Discretion (The OASG)
Patrick Moore on vol. 8 of Tiger & Bunny (Bento Byte)
Che Gilson on Tokyo Ghoul (Otaku USA)
Marion Olea on vol. 2 of Tokyo Ghoul (No Flying No Tights)
Frank Inglese on vols. 8-9 of Vagabond: VIZBIG Edition (Snap 30)
Ash Brown on vol. 7 of Vinland Saga (Experiments in Manga)
SKJAM! on vol. 7 of Vinland Saga (SKJAM! Reviews)
Megan Rupe on vols. 1-2 of Yo-Kai Watch (No Flying No Tights)

 

The Best and Worst Manga of 2015

After a two-year hiatus from blogging, I donned my critic’s cap again in 2015. I’ve enjoyed writing my quasi-weekly column, but composing a year-end list reminded me why I stepped off the reviewing treadmill in 2012: mediocre books! This year yielded a veritable bumper crop of so-so manga, titles that were competently executed but otherwise unmemorable thanks to an abundance of generic characters, cliché settings, and predictable plot twists; you’d be forgiven for feeling that you’d read many of 2015’s debuts before, even if the artists were new to the US market.

Lurking among the paint-by-number romances and boy-saves-world titles, however, were a few gems. I’ve done my best to highlight the titles that made me feel something, whether that feeling was love, hate, or a mixture of both. To that end, I’ve included my nominees for the worst manga of 2015 alongside the books that made me laugh and cry.

Yowamushi-Pedal-Volume-1Best New Series: Yowamushi Pedal
By Wataru Watanabe • Yen Press
You know the rap on sports manga: American readers won’t buy it, and don’t like it. Yowamushi Pedal might just change that, however, thanks to a story that plays well across the nerd-jock divide. Onoda, the hero, is a self-professed otaku whose weekly bike rides into Akihabara have transformed him into a secret Lance Armstrong clone. Though Onoda wants to revive his school’s anime club, his amazing hill-climbing skills and stamina get noticed by more seasoned riders, all of whom convince Onoda to join the cycling team. The series’ races are nail-biting, page-turning affairs, but it’s the in-between stuff that makes Yowamushi Pedal work. Onoda doesn’t just discover a new skill; he discovers a community of people who share his passion for riding and respect his talent. In short, Yowamushi Pedal is a coming-of-age story in which a bike becomes the nerdy hero’s vehicle—pun intended—for self-actualization.

One-Punch ManBest New Shonen Series: One-Punch Man
By ONE and Yusuke Murata • VIZ Media
One-Punch Man is the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too manga. On the surface, it’s an affectionate spoof of shonen clichés that pokes fun at goofy costumes, over-the-top training sessions, and speech-prone villains. On a deeper level, however, One-Punch Man is a great adventure series about an ordinary but strong-willed individual who sets out to rid his city of monsters, only to discover that there’s a much greater threat to mankind than the lobster-men and were-lions that roam the streets. The result is a sincere, gut-bustingly funny manga that reads like a Silver Age superhero comic, splats and all. (Reviewed at Manga Blog on 6/12/15.)

Horimiya_cover1Best New Romance Manga: Horimiya
By Hero and Daisuke Hagiwara • Yen Press
Horimiya is one of 2015’s most pleasant surprises, a teen rom-com that avoids cliché situations by focusing on the characters’ lives outside school. At first glance, its lead characters look like opposites: Kyouko is the class queen, while Izumi is a quiet loner. When they bump into each other off campus, however, they quickly realize they have more in common than their carefully constructed identities would suggest–a realization that leads to friendship and flirtation. In less imaginative hands, Kyouko and Izumi’s budding romance would be subjected to endless tests–school plays, beach trips, hot transfer students–but the authors resist the urge to trot out these over-used scenarios, relying instead on more ordinary settings for comedic (and dramatic) grist. It’s the perfect antidote to the wacky misunderstandings that drive the plots of Cactus’ Secret, Special A, and a dozen similar titles.

Cat_DiaryBest New Gag Manga: Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu
By Junji Ito • Kodansha Comics
Draw a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between Junji Ito fans and cat lovers, and you’ve found the small but perfect audience for Junji Ito’s Cat Diary, a collection of anecdotes about Ito’s beloved pets Yon and Mu. Though the manga’s jokes explore familiar terrain, Ito’s exaggerated reaction shots are priceless, capturing the mixture of love and disgust that cats inspire in their owners. (Imagine Edvard Munch drawing a gag manga about cats, and you get the general idea.) Ito is refreshingly honest about the way animals change the dynamic between people, too; in some of the manga’s most memorable scenes, Ito and his fiancée compete fiercely for their cats’ affection, plying Yon and Mu with toys, treats, and cuddles. Though the prevailing tone is campy, Ito’s obvious affection for his cats helps prevents the Diary from becoming too arch. (Reviewed at Manga Blog on 12/12/15.)

ludwig_kansiBest Historic Title: Ludwig B.
By Osamu Tezuka • DMP, Inc.
Left unfinished at the time of Osamu Tezuka’s death, Ludwig B. is a fictionalized biography of Beethoven. Tezuka only completed two volumes, but oh, those two volumes! Tezuka draws evocative scenes of Beethoven at the keyboard, using striking visual metaphors to convey the sound of Beethoven’s music. Tezuka also does a good job of capturing the dynamic between Beethoven and his father, revealing the extent to which Johann’s drinking, gambling, and stage-parenting cast a long shadow over Beethoven’s adult life. Purists should note that Tezuka takes frequent liberties with the historical record, creating a mustache-twirling villain named Franz Kreuzstein to serve as a foil for the young, determined Beethoven. If you’re not offended by such creative license, however, Ludwig B. offers an interesting glimpse into Beethoven’s development as a composer, and Tezuka’s lifelong fascination with Beethoven.

planetesBest Reprint Edition: Planetes
By Makoto Yukimura • Dark Horse
Listen up, manga publishers: if you’re going to do a new edition of a fan favorite, Dark Horse’s two-volume omnibus of Planetes is a swell example of how to do it right. The story has a crisp new translation, full-color pages, and a bigger trim size that gives Makoto Yukimura’s artwork room to stretch out. Better still, the new edition collects more chapters in each volume, allowing newcomers to read far enough into Planetes for Yukimura’s episodic character studies to gel into a more coherent story about space travel and social inequality; by the time newbies reach the end of volume one, they’ll be hooked, too.

sakamotoBest Manga I Thought I’d Hate: Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto
By Nami Sano • Seven Seas
In theory, Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto is a one-note samba: the titular character is handsome, good at everything, and unfailingly logical in all situations. In practice, however, Haven’t You Heard? is the Goldberg Variations of gag manga, taking stock scenes and putting a bizarre twist on them. The secret? Sakamoto is just a little too perfect, behaving more like a well-programmed android than a flesh-and-blood person. His peculiar brand of sangfroid confounds enemies and admirers alike; no one can decide if he’s cool or crazy, or where his loyalties might lie, making it impossible to predict how he’ll respond to each new challenge. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 8/7/15.)

jojo_phantom_blood1Worst Manga I Thought I’d Love: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood
By Hirohito Araki • VIZ Media
At the risk of becoming the Armond White of manga critics, I’m nominating Hirohito Araki’s bone-crunching, chest-thumping saga for Most Exhausting New Series of 2015. That’s because Phantom Blood is a prime example of all-caps theater, the sort of manga in which every word balloon is filled with emphatic punctuation, and every plot twist seems like the brainchild of six teenage boys hopped up on Mountain Dew. In small doses, this more-is-more approach to storytelling can be amusing, but in longer installments, the cumulative effect of so much narrative excess is numb resignation; I didn’t feel entertained so much as punched in the face. (Reviewed at Manga Blog on 5/22/15.)

mizuki_hitlerMost Disappointing Manga: Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler
By Shigeru Mizuki • Drawn & Quarterly
Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler is one of the artist’s lesser works, uncomfortably see-sawing between character study and history lesson in its efforts to show us the man behind the Third Reich. Mizuki’s signature blend of cartoonish figures and photo-realistic backgrounds have been deployed to powerful effect in Non Non Ba and Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths. Here, however, Shigeru’s hybrid style is a poor match with the subject; seeing Hitler reduced to a crude caricature makes it all too easy to view the book as a curiosity, rather than a serious meditation on evil. The virtual absence of the Holocaust is an even greater shortcoming; Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler never grapples with the Fuhrer’s most disturbing legacy save for one blurry image of stacked corpses. Perhaps Mizuki felt the subject was too complex to explore in this biography, but it’s hard to imagine any dramatization of the Fuhrer’s life that fails to examine his virulent anti-Semitism.

* * * * *

So what are other folks saying about 2015’s best titles? My Manga Bookshelf colleagues just posted their Pick of the Year, with Ash Brown posting a separate, more detailed run-down of his favorite titles at Experiments in Manga. At the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Brigid Alverson has posted separate lists for her favorite new and continuing series.

The Manga Revue: Junji Ito’s Cat Diary

2015 has been a banner year for Junji Ito. In April, VIZ re-issued Gyo, Ito’s ick-tastic classic. Two months later, VIZ introduced readers to Fragments of Horror, the first new Ito title to arrive in the US in a decade. That was soon followed by the stateside debut of Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, a humorous anthology published by Kodansha Comics. I first heard about Cat Diary back in 2011, when Ryan Sands posted a few images at Same Hat! It sounded like something I’d like–I’m on record as being an animal sap–so I was delighted when Kodansha announced plans to release it this year. Here are my somewhat biased thoughts on Yon & Mu.

Cat_DiaryJunji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu
By Junji Ito
Rated T, for readers 13+
Kodansha Comics, $10.99

On the surface, Junji Ito’s Cat Diary is a gag manga. J-Kun–a lightly fictionalized version of the author–reluctantly agrees to let his fiancee bring two cats into their home: Yon, a black-and-white cat with sinister markings on his back, and Mu, a Norwegian forest cat with a cute face and a wicked bite. Each story depicts Yon and Mu doing normal cat things, from coughing up hairballs to resisting unsolicited human affection. Readers familiar with Ito’s previous manga will get a chuckle at J-Kun’s over-the-top reactions to cat poop, scratched floors, and feather wands, as his grotesque facial expressions have been swiped from the pages of Gyo and Uzumaki. Surprisingly, these grimaces work just as well in the context of a domestic comedy, capturing the mixture of revulsion and love that cat behavior elicits. The uninitiated reader may also find these scenes amusing, if a bit excessive; surely a grown man realizes that cats can be jerks?

On a deeper level, however, Cat Diary is a meditation on human relationships. Though the ostensible plot focuses on J-Kun’s struggle to overcome his dislike of cats, the real story is Yon and Mu’s role in bringing J-Kun closer to his fiancee. J-Kun comes to love the cats–spoiler alert!–but the way in which he expresses those feelings demonstrates his journey from “me” to “we,” as his selfish concerns about the house give way to a shared sense of responsibility for the cats’ welfare. This human dimension of Cat Diary infuses it with a warmth that’s frequently missing from Ito’s work, and prevents the stories from reading like a collection of cat GIFs. (I can haz laffs now!)

On a totally shallow note, reading Cat Diary made me want to get my own Norwegian forest cat. I’m not sure if that’s an endorsement of Ito’s comedy chops, but it’s proof that he can draw the hell out of cute, furry things.

The verdict: You don’t need to be a cat person–crazy or otherwise–to enjoy this idiosyncratic manga, though a healthy respect for cats definitely helps.

Reviews: In the mood for shojo? Megan R. of The Manga Test Drive has you covered with in-depth reviews of The Demon Prince of Momochi House, First Love Monster, LDK, and Requiem of the Rose-King. Comics Alliance contributor Tom Speelman reflects on the legacy of Naruto, one of the world’s most popular manga.

Michael Burns on vol. 4 of Akame ga Kill! (Ani-TAY)
Megan R. on The Angel of Elhamburg (The Manga Test Drive)
Jordan Richards on vols. 5-7 of Assassination Classroom (AiPT!)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 7 of A Bride’s Story (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 56 of Case Closed (Sequential Tart)
Lindsey Tomsu on vols. 1-3 of Dictatorial Grimoire (No Flying, No Tights)
Nick Smith on vol. 1 of Dragons Rioting (ICv2)
Michael Burns on vol. 8 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (Ani-TAY)
Justin Stroman on vol. 1 of Horimiya (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Lindsey Tomsu on vols. 1-9 of Kanokon (No Flying, No Tights)
Jordan Richards on vol. 2 of Komomo Confiserie (AiPT!)
Karen Maeda on vol. 4 of Master Keaton (Sequential Tart)
Sarah on vol. 1 of Merman in My Tub (Anime UK News)
L.B. Bryant on vol. 1 of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun (ICv2)
Sarah on vol. 1 of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun (Anime UK News)
Austin Lanari on vol. 7 of New Lone Wolf & Cub (Comic Bastards)
Chris Beveridge on vol. 1 of Planetes (The Fandom Post)
Matt on vol. 2 of Prison School (Ani-TAY)
Matt on vol. 1 of School-Live! (Ani-TAY)
Josh Begley on vol. 6 of Vinland Saga (The Fandom Post)

The Manga Revue: Deadman Wonderland and Livingstone

The November release of Jinsei Kataoka and Tomohiro Maekawa’s Livingstone provided me a nifty excuse to try Deadman Wonderland, an earlier series written and illustrated by Katoaka. Fans of Deadman Wonderland may know its complex licensing history here in the US: Tokyopop was its first publisher, releasing five volumes before going bankrupt in 2011. VIZ acquired the series in 2013, and is now just two volumes shy of the series’ grand finale, which arrives in February 2016. Whether you’re new to Kataoka’s work or have been a long-time fan, this column has something for you–so read on!

deadman_wonderland1Deadman Wonderland, Vol. 1
Story & Art by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou
Rated T+, for Older Teens
VIZ Media, $9.99

In the not-so-distant future, visitors flock to Deadman Wonderland, a prison-cum-theme park in Tokyo Bay where inmates fight to the death in front of paying crowds. Our guide to this Roman circus is newly minted prisoner Ganta Igarashi, an ordinary fourteen-year-old who’s been wrongfully convicted of murdering his classmates. Ganta’s fundamental decency is challenged at every turn; try as he might to cling to his humanity and clear his name, the prison’s arbitrary rules and roving gangs make it hard to be principled.

From my thumbnail description, you might conclude that Deadman Wonderland was cobbled together from parts of Judge Dredd, Rollerball, and Escape from New York–and you wouldn’t be wrong. What prevents Deadman Wonderland from reading like Rollerball 2: The Revenge is imaginative artwork. Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou have created a Bizarro World Disneyland with rides, concessions, grinning animal mascots, and attractions like the Happy Dog Run, a lethal obstacle course featuring swinging blades and spike-filled pits. The characters who inhabit this landscape are a motley crew: though some telegraph their bad-guy status with tattoos and goofy haircuts, there are enough ordinary-looking prisoners that it’s impossible to judge who’s trustworthy. That uncertainty creates a strong undercurrent of tension in every scene, making Ganta’s routine activities–a conversation in the bathroom, a trip to the cafeteria–as fraught with peril as an actual contest.

The manga’s other great strength is pacing. Kataoka and Kondou resist the temptation to dole out too much information in the first volume; we’re never more than a clue or two ahead of Ganta, though perceptive readers may finish volume one with some notion of the prison’s true purpose. The authors’ expert timing also prevents us from dwelling on the story’s most shopworn elements, instead focusing our attention on how Ganta responds to new characters and new challenges.

All of which is to say: Deadman Wonderland is more fun than it has any right to be, considering the high body count and recycled plot points. Count me in for the next twelve volumes!

The verdict: Great art, smart pacing, and an appealing lead character make Deadman Wonderland a winner. (A note to parents, teachers, and librarians: this manga’s rating is justified.)

livingstoneLivingstone, Vol. 1
Story  by Tomohiro Maekawa, Art by Jinsei Kataoka
Rated 16+
Kodansha Comics, $10.99

Livingstone is a handsomely illustrated bore, the kind of manga in which the writer has dressed up a simple concept with a profusion of fussy details that don’t add depth or interest to the story. The title refers to human souls–or, more accurately, the rock-like form that human souls take after a person dies. Sakurai and Amano, the manga’s protagonists, work together to harvest livingstones, thus ensuring that a soul is properly passed from one person to the next. If a person dies before his appointed time, however, his soul curdles into a gooey blob of bad juju.

The manga has the rhythm of a cop show: in each chapter, Sakurai and Amano solve or prevent one unscheduled death, usually by negotiating with someone who’s planning to kill himself. Livingstone‘s intense fixation on suicide is off-putting; none of the would-be victims are particularly sympathetic, and Sakurai and Amano’s ministrations are so tone-deaf that it’s hard to know what message author Tomohiro Maekawa is hoping to impart to readers. Sakurai and Amano’s antagonistic bickering is supposed to inject a note of levity into the proceedings, I think, but the timing of the jokes and the staleness of the characterizations do little to offset the dour tone. By the end of volume one, I found myself feeling bummed out and irritated–never a good sign for a series that’s exploring a subject as serious as death.

The verdict: Nice art, lousy script; I liked this story better when it was called The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service.

Reviews: At Comics Worth Reading, Johanna Draper Carlson dives into the eleventh volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, which she describes as “something like Macbeth in kimonos.” Megan R. of The Manga Test Drive offers an in-depth assessment of Oishinbo, “the longest running food manga in Japan,” while Seth Hahne, proprietor of Good OK Bad, weighs in on Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches. Feeling crafty? Vertical Comics shares some early reviews of their latest Arnazi Aronzo book Cuter Stuff.

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Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 2 of My Hero Academia (Sequential Tart)
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Sheena McNeil on vol. 1 of Yo-Kai Watch (Sequential Tart)
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PS: Our Manga Bookshelf colleague Ash Brown is giving away the first volumes of four awesome shojo titles from Kodansha Comics, including LDK, Let’s Dance a Waltz, My Little Monster, and one of my personal favorites Say I Love You. Don’t dally; the contest closes on December 2nd!