Review: Barakamon, Vol. 1

Yoshino_Barakamon_V1_TPBarakamon, Vol. 1
By Satsuki Yoshino
Rated T, for Teens
Yen Press, $15.00

Barakamon is a textbook fish-out-of-water story: an impatient city slicker finds himself in the country where life is slower, folks are simpler, and meaningful lessons abound. Its hero, Seishuu Handa, is a calligrapher whose fiery temper and skillful but unimaginative work have made him a pariah in Tokyo. His foils are the farmers and fishermen of Gotou, a small island on the southwestern tip of Japan that’s inhabited by an assortment of eccentrics, codgers, and naifs.

If this all sounds a little too familiar, it is; you’ve seen variations on this story at the multiplex, on television, and yes, in manga. (I think I liked it better when it was called Cold Comfort Farm, and starred Kate Beckinsale and Rufus Sewell.) Satsuki Yoshino does her best to infuse the story with enough humor and warmth to camouflage its shopworn elements, throwing in jokes about internet pornography, dead frogs, and bad report cards whenever the story teeters on the brink of sentimentality. The mandates of the genre, however, demand that Handa endure humiliations and have epiphanies with astonishing regularity—1.5 times per chapter, by my calculations.

From time to time, however, Yoshino finds fresh ways to show us Handa’s slow and fitful progress towards redemption. The first chapter provides an instructive example: Handa angrily dismisses his six-year-old neighbor Naru when she declares his calligraphy “just like teachers write.” After seeing Naru’s wounded expression, Handa chastises himself for lashing out at a kid. Handa never musters an apology to Naru, but makes restitution by joining her for a series of small adventures. The experience of swimming in the ocean, scrambling over a wall, and watching a sunset prove liberating, leading Handa to an explosive outburst of creativity punctuated by a few high-flying kicks. (Now that’s what I call action painting.) The results are messy, but the message is clear: Handa has the potential to be a genuine artist if he can connect with his playful side.

Like the story, the artwork is serviceable if not particularly distinctive. Yoshino creates enough variety in her character designs that the reader can easily distinguish one islander from another—an important asset in a story with many supporting players. Yoshino’s grasp of anatomy, however, is less assured. When viewed from the side, for example, Handa’s Tokyo nemesis has a cranium like a gorilla’s and a chest to match; when viewed from above, however, the Director appears small and wizened. Other characters suffer from similar bodily distortions that exaggerate their necks, arms, and torsos, especially when Yoshino attempts to draw them from an unusual vantage point.

Yoshino is more successful at creating a sense of place. Through a few simple but evocative images of the harbor and coastline, she firmly establishes the seaside location. She also uses architectural details to suggest how old the village is; though locals enjoy such modern conveniences as television, their homes look otherwise untouched by modernity. Yoshino is less successful in creating a sense of space, however. It’s unclear, for example, if Naru lives a stone’s throw from Handa’s house—hence her frequent intrusions—or if she lives a mile down the road.

The dialogue, too, plays an important role in establishing the setting. Faced with the difficult task of rendering the Gotou dialect, translators Krista and Karie Shipley chose a broad Southern accent for the local population. That decision neatly illustrates the cultural divide between Handa and his neighbors, but at the cost of nuance; a few jokes that hinge on vocabulary simply can’t be conveyed by this particular adaptation strategy. (The Shipleys’ translation notes are helpful in demystifying these exchanges.) Most of the punchlines, however, need no such editorial interventions to enjoy; certain elements of city slicker/country bumpkin humor transcend culture.

My verdict: Barakamon has enough charm and energy to engage the reader, even if the story isn’t executed with enough precision or subtlety to transcend the basic requirements of the fish-out-of-water genre.

Review: Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution, vols. 1 and 2

UGLYDUCK_1Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution, vols. 1 and 2
By Yuuki Fujinari
Rated T, for Teens
Yen Press, $10.99

This story is based on a dating-sim game, which explains a lot—the lack of backstory, plot, and character development, for instance. It’s kind of like a boy-harem version of Aria, a pleasant slice-of-life book in which the characters interact cheerfully but nothing much actually happens.

The main character, Hitomi, is fat and unattractive, and the story makes no bones about that. It wasn’t until I read the Wikipedia entry on the original game (Otometeki Koi Kakumei Love Revo!!) that I learned that she actually does have a backstory—she used to be a beauty queen, in fact, but she gave in to the temptations of junk food and put on a ton of weight. The story ignores all possible physical or psychological explanations for this—we’re here for good-natured fun, not complexity.

Hitomi goes to one of those high schools where the most popular boys have been chosen by some type of secret ballot, so we get introduced to them right away, in order. They fit the standard stereotypes: The alpha male, the hot misunderstood guy, the sporty guy (he doubles as the token shouta character), the yakuza heir who is trying to shake off his past, and the bookish, sickly guy. There’s also a doctor, of the type that pops up a lot in manga—young, hot, drinks and smokes a lot, and flirts outrageously with his patients. There are a couple of girls other than Hitomi but they might as well be cardboard cut-outs for all we see of them.

By an astounding coincidence, Hitomi and her brother (who is also quite cute and has a weird little-sister complex) live in the same residence as the doctor and the five hot guys. Hitomi’s brother is the apartment manager, and a number of their little adventures are centered around this building.

So what do they do? In the first chapter, the guys staple some papers for school orientation packets. Seriously, that’s the main action in the chapter. OK, it’s a way for us to get to know the characters and start getting a feel for the story, but really… In the next chapter, Hitomi can’t figure out a math problem and keeps asking everyone to help her, without success. It turns out (spoiler alert!) that she was mistakenly using a college study guide. In the third chapter, Hitomi and her friends make a special sitting area in their apartment building’s sunroom for the sickly, bookish character. And so it goes. My favorite chapter: When Hitomi is away at summer camp, the boys go shopping, eat candied apples, and win a bunch of plushies for her at a shooting gallery.

And that’s how it goes. Little stories about everyday life, played out by characters with very few neuroses or conflicts. It’s bubble-bath reading, blatant wish-fulfillment with little connection to everyday life.

At some point, Hitomi starts dieting. You would expect that there would have been some dramatic turn of events—she was rejected by a potential boyfriend because of her weight, or someone said something hurtful—but nope, she just starts dieting because it’s the right thing to do, and in one chapter she wins free tickets to a pool so she starts exercising there. Once the chapter is over, the pool never shows up again; continuity is not this story’s strong suit.

Hitomi’s character is drawn in a completely different style from the rest of the cast. The other characters are very much in a standard shoujo/bl style, willowy boys with fairly detailed faces, hair, and clothing. Hitomi is a set of simple curves, and her eyes are mere dots in her face. Presumably that is because she stands in for the reader, and too much detail would make that hard to achieve. There is one male character, Touru, who is chubby and bespectacled and is drawn in the same style; he seems to have a very small part, and according to Wikipedia he eventually goes to America and loses the weight and the glasses.

The one icky thing about this book is Hitomi’s brother, Takashi, who is beyond overprotective and well into stalker territory when it comes to his little sister. In the last chapter of volume 1, Hitomi and her friends dig up a mysterious box which turns out to contain Takashi’s diaries of his day-to-day observations of his sister. There is no explicitly sexual content, but it certainly is weird. Takashi takes this cheerfully in stride, although Hitomi is mildly embarrassed by the episode. And then she swoons in Takashi’s arms. Again, you could connect some dots regarding Takashi’s attitude and Hitomi’s weight, but this book certainly isn’t going to do it for you.

Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution is fine for what it is, a daydream world in which the boys are hot but still friendly with an unattractive girl (and with each other, for that matter). The art is quite competent and the dialogue isn’t bad, although more translator’s notes would be helpful. I imagine it would work even better in the format in which it originally appeared, as chapters in a weekly or monthly manga magazine; when those chapters are gathered together, the weaknesses are more apparent. If you’re looking for action, give this one a pass, but for simple stories, the manga equivalent of a cup of tea, a rocking chair, and a cat, this series will fill the bill nicely.

Review: Dystopia

by Judith Park
Rated OT, for Older Teens
Yen Press, $10.99

This book is a disappointment, with one-dimensional characters, an artificial setup, and weak art. The conversations seem weirdly stilted—do you hear teenagers say “That’s very commendable” to one another? Ever?

The story seems like it was thought up in a day, without much reflection; it lacks emotional resonance. Dionne’s older brother, Lyon, has a heart defect, so her parents favor him and pick on her. Lyon tries to compensate by being extra-nice to Dionne. Dionne’s best friend, Shikku, has a crush on Lyon, and we get to watch them go through the paces of their very ordinary romance for a while—there’s a bit of uncertainty and pulling back, and lots of dreamy introspection, but it’s not really very interesting.

And then, just when you’re ready to drop off to sleep, the story takes a bizarre and very manga-ish turn: Lyon is hit by a car and dies. While Dionne is still mourning him, her parents spring a new surprise on her: Because they feared that Lyon would die young because of his heart defect, they had him cloned, and now the clone, Gabriel, is coming to live with them. Where has Gabriel been for the past 16 years? That’s a plot hole you could drive a truck through, but everyone is too busy chewing the scenery to ask. Dionne hates Gabriel because her parents are using him as a replacement for Lyon, and because she feels they never loved her; Dionne’s parents are frustrated because in her anger, she shuts them out; Shikku sort of hopes things will work out with Gabriel; Gabriel resents his new place in their lives and wants to be his own person. More panels of introspection, and then the book winds up with an emotional denouement that doesn’t really solve the problems proposed by the plot but does leave everyone a little wiser.

The story revolves around Dionne and her emotions, and if it has a saving grace, it’s that the teenage girls who are likely to read it will identify with Dionne, as she is completely misunderstood by everyone. It’s hard for an older reader not to conclude that she’s being a brat; her resentment seems to be out of proportion to the way her parents treat her.

Park’s art seems amateurish—it’s a good example of why a lot of people don’t like global manga. She puts emphasis on style at the expense of structure. The characters don’t quite hang together, and the anatomy and foreshortening are way off. She makes a lot of newbie mistakes, focusing on faces but getting the shape of the head wrong. On the other hand, some pages hang together really well. This is the first of her books that I have seen, but I gather from reviews that her other work is stronger.

I am not the audience for this book, that’s for sure. I think it has serious structural defects, but I can see a teenage reader enjoying it nonetheless, simply because the main character is someone they can relate to.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Guest Review: Hissing, vols. 1-6

hissing1Hissing, vols. 1-6
By Kang EunYoung
Rated T, for Teens
Yen Press $10.99

Review by Melinda Beasi.

High school freshman Da-Eh is an aspiring manhwa artist who carefully ignores constant cries for attention from her doting younger brother. Fellow freshman Sun-Nam, the youngest of three boys, is bound and determined to become a “bad guy.” Finally, senior Ta-Jun, the school hottie, finds himself drawn to the one girl who can’t stand him, Da-Eh. If this is where the story stopped, there would be nothing at all remarkable about it, and over the course of the first volume or so, that’s seemingly where things stand. Fortunately, both the story and Kang’s method of telling it soon become more complex.

As the three teens’ lives become further entwined, the truth of each of their circumstances begins to be revealed. It is soon apparent that Da-Eh’s coldness toward her little brother is due to her inability to forgive him for being the product of her dead mother’s affair. Similarly, Sun-Nam’s desire to be “bad” is symptomatic of his oppressive guilt over having wished his unfaithful father dead on the very day he died. Meanwhile, Ta-Jun’s infatuation with Da-Eh is little more than an escape from the much more complicated love he’s carried around in his heart for years.

The series is technically a high school romance, and as such contains plenty of the usual clichés. The “mean girl” love rival, for instance, makes a number of tiresome appearances, as do the ever-present love confessions, and even a jealous best friend. But Kang renders all of this insignificant by the middle of the fifth volume by pulling off a fantastic act of authorial self-insertion that alters the tone of the entire series.

One of the series’ most notable aspects early on is its resistance to establishing a single main character. By using a wandering POV that shifts not only between the three teens, but also to each of their family members and quite a number of their schoolmates, Kang prevents any one character from becoming the focus of the series. Then in volume four, as Da-Eh struggles to come up with something “different” for an upcoming manhwa contest, she hits upon the idea of creating a story in which every character is treated as the main character. She’s pretty excited about the idea, until Ta-Jun pipes in to complain, “But if you do that, there’s no center.”

After this, the story quickly becomes much more chaotic, finally exploding in the middle of the fifth volume, where Da-Eh discovers the true center of her world (and the world of the series as a whole) as it is thrust upon her in the wake of a single event. The result is quite moving, and not something that would have been expected based on the series’ first couple of volumes.

This is not the series’ only strength. It’s primary romance between two loners, Da-Eh and Sun-Nam, is just stilted and awkward enough to help its flowery moments read as charming rather than clichéd. And speaking of flowers, Kang’s running gag featuring a magically-appearing background of Japanese shojo-style flowers that randomly surrounds Ta-Jun serves as a clever wink to a romance-weary audience. Da-Eh, too, is refreshing as a romantic heroine whose personal interest in romance is mainly as something to be studied as a subject for her work.

Kang’s artwork is nothing special, and her male characters frequently look confusingly alike. Fortunately, she has a greater gift for drawing distinctive females. She shows her greatest strengths in the series’ later volumes, where her use of paneling genuinely shines during the story’s most dramatic moments.

Though likely unintentional, Kang’s real message for readers here is, “Good things come to those who wait.” While the series undeniably gets off to a slow start, the payoff for those willing to commit to all six volumes is significant. Patient fans of romantic manhwa would do well to check out Hissing.

Read more from Melinda Beasi at her blog, Manga Bookshelf.

Review: Daemonium, vol. 1

DaemoniumDaemonium, vol. 1
By Kosen
Rated OT, for Older Teen (16+)
Tokyopop, $10.99

Kosen is a Spanish duo who have been writing and drawing BL manga for some time now, and their professionalism shows through in this horror story about a teenage boy whose world gets turned upside down.

Daemonium starts out like a lot of high-school graphic novels. Seisu is returning home from a trip to an amusement park with his parents, everyone is laughing and happy, and then in a moment, the car crashes, Seisu’s parents are dead, and he is left with a terrible scar. Fast forward to high school, where everyone notices the jagged scar running down Seisu’s face and no one notices the fact that aside from that, he’s very handsome. Instead they call him a freak and the school bully beats him up. Seisu’s awesomely beautiful sister, Alys, rescues him from the thugs and cheers him up—just like she always does, apparently.

A few pages later, Alys announces that she is going to take her brother on a surprise trip, and off they go to a remote monastery where they are practically the only guests. What could possibly go wrong? The story takes off from there in a things-are-not-what-they-seem direction that is at once comfortably familiar to fans of the genre and unpredictable enough to be interesting. The story is a bit offbeat, with two hunky angels fighting to save Seisu’s soul, a trip to a hospital where angels go to detox after being in hell (complete with fetish-y angel nurses in old-fashioned nurse uniforms—nurses never wear scrubs in manga), and our hero taking a mad drive down a dark road with a straitjacketed girl in the passenger seat.

The storytelling lopes along at a nice pace until the last third of the book, when suddenly the plot gets a lot more complicated and the dialogue gets a lot more expository, as the characters explain the rules of heaven and hell in order for the plot to make sense. It all moved too fast for me, and it felt artificial, as if people were being put into place in order to have a dramatic moment.

All this sped-up storytelling might have made sense if there had been a volume 2, but Daemonium must have been one of the victims of Tokyopop’s restructuring, as I see no evidence that a second volume was ever published.

BL fans should be aware that there is only the very faintest hint of yaoi in this book; it’s a horror story, not a love story. There is some horror-style female nudity (i.e. nude female hanging upside down from the ceiling). Kosen fans might want to pick up this volume to enjoy the art or to complete their collections, but it’s a tough sell for the rest of us.

(This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.)

Review: Toriko, vol. 1

Toriko1Toriko, vol. 1
By Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro
Rated T, for Teen
Viz, $9.99

There is something very primal about Toriko: It’s a story about hunting for food, and although there is a veneer of gourmet sensibility over some of the quests, it always comes down to the massive, overmuscled Toriko having a showdown with some enormous animal over who is going to eat who.

Other food manga, such as Oishinbo and even Kitchen Princess, hinge on the main character’s refined palate and esoteric knowledge. Toriko’s world is much simpler: The best foods are the ones that are hardest to get. Deliciousness, it seems, scales with difficulty, and the prizes in the first two volume present formidable challenges: Garara Gator, a huge, dinosaur-like creature, and Rainbow Fruit, which grows on a tree protected by massive four-armed apes.

Toriko is a basic shonen battle manga, in which the battles take place between Toriko and the creatures he plans to eat, or who are getting in the way of a meal. His companion on his hunts is Komatsu, a chef at a hotel run by the International Gourmet Organization. Komatsu is small and more at home in a kitchen than a jungle, and he spends most of the first adventure cowering in fear, but his reactions are an important part of the story. (Presumably the creator’s choice to name him after a brand of construction equipment was deliberate irony.)

Although he seems to spend a lot of his time eating, Toriko does have a plan, of sorts: He wants to construct an ideal multi-course meal of the best foods on earth. His quest to track down the hard-to-find foods, in order to determine whether they are worthy of this meal, adds a bit of structure to the series. Also, the characters mention that Toriko is one of Four Heavenly Kings, the four top gourmet hunters, although the others aren’t seen in this volume.

Like many shonen heroes, Toriko combines crudeness, strength, and extraordinary knowledge: When a leech attaches itself to Komatsu, for instance, he squeezes the juice from a mangrove leaf onto it; the juice contains salt, which leeches cannot tolerate. Later on, he makes a rather remarkable leap of logic: Just as the Komodo dragon (a real creature) has bacteria in its saliva that weaken its prey, so the Garara Gator (not a real creature) allows leeches to live in its mouth, because the leeches travel and draw blood from potential victims, and the scent of blood leads the gator to its prey. There is an interesting sort of reasoning that runs through the book, and for someone who rips things apart with his bare hands and tears into raw animals with his teeth, Toriko has quite the philosophical streak. He won’t kill the four-armed apes, for instance, because he doesn’t plan to eat them; instead, he stuns them with a double needle.

There is a lot of food in this manga, but most of it is imaginary: Plants that grow leaves of bacon, banana cucumbers, cod with the claws of a crayfish, and the wondrous Rainbow Fruit, which changes its flavor seven different times in the process of being eaten. Toriko has an enormous appetite and seems to be constantly eating, but he doesn’t so much prepare his food as rip it out by the roots and tear it apart. Then he rips a branch from the cigar tree and lights up. Toriko has a penchant for fine old brandies bourbon as well; he can slice the bottom off the bottle with his bare hand and down the contents in a single gulp.

At its heart, Toriko is a battle manga, so all this talk of rare fruits and delicate tastes is accompanied by depictions of the gargantuan Toriko slobbering as he shoves hunks of meat into his massive jaws. The art style is also crude, with strong emphasis on the grotesqueness of the creatures and the action of the fights.

With its Rabelaisian hero and imaginative array of preposterous foods, Toriko is a fun read, and it’s not surprising that it is one of the top five series in the Japanese Shonen Jump. It is clearly pitched at teenage readers, and the nonstop shonen action doesn’t stray far from the confines of the genre, but older readers may enjoy the flashes of wit and the portrayal of the ultimate iron-man gourmet.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.