Twin Spica

July 12, 2011

 

My rating (so far): 4 out of 5 stars

Another multi-step review here.  I find these quite interesting to write and read back through at a later date, though I hope they’re not too disjointed for people who aren’t me to enjoy.  Anyway, onwards and upwards!

EDIT: this is actually as seinen series, however seeing as it struck me as shojo-y I’ve decided to leave my original notes as they were.

After reading vol. 1:

(Rating: 3 stars)

Shojo sci-fi manga about a schoolgirl who wants to go to Tokyo Space School and learn to fly spacecraft.  I’ve read to the end of volume 1 and so far its engaging enough to make me want to get hold of more.  Its a bit on the sentimental side rather than straight up quirky and fun, but the art style suits the themes involved, and the characters are so far easy to understand and get on with.  I would also recommend this for younger readers.

After reading up to vol. 6:

(Rating: 4 stars)

I’m really enjoying this series now! I would say if you liked volume 1 at all then its well worth giving the next few volumes a chance to pull you in further.  This series is basically about the yearning some people have to travel into space, and astronaught training, mixed with a high school slice-of-life shojo manga, mixed in with some deaths and ghosts.

A big plus of this series is that, alongside the everyday lives and loves of our main characters, its not afraid to tackle some pretty serious questions about whether we should put humans into space. It starts off by detailing a massive shuttle crash and the impact that the subesquent deaths and injuries have on some of the main characters of the story.  Plus, the students at the Space School have to deal with people protesting their training as a waste of money and too much of a risk to life.

Not that the everyday lives and loves of the characters aren’t important though.  Although the overriding theme of space travel is an interesting and compelling one for me, its the drama amongst the characters that keeps me hooked.  Each person in the main group of high school friends is believeably flawed, but you can’t help but root for all of them in their own way.

The fantasical, ghostly, aspects of the series are perhaps the part that I could do most without, however they’re not as overwhelming as volume 1 led me to believe.  Although overall I find that the more fantastical elements don’t mesh as well as everything else in the series, I do quite like the connection that some of the living characters still have to the dead throughout.  The series seems to inextricably link space travel with hardship and death, which only makes the striving of the students for their goal of outer space more compelling: they know full well the hardships involved, and yet they still want to achive their dreams anyway.

This series has 16 volumes in all, so I guess there will be at least one more update to this review once I’ve finished the whole thing – here’s hoping I can bump it all the way up to 5 stars next time :)

Ristorante Paradiso

July 10, 2011

 

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I didn’t get on all that well with this one. It wasn’t terrible, but I’m not quite sure how it’s got so much critical acclaim.

The story setup intrigued me: a girl is abandoned by her mother as a child because her mother falls in love with a man that doesn’t want to date women with children.  Once she’s grown into a young woman, the girl decides to go and confront her mother (and the man that she is still with), with the truth.  Throw in the backdrop of an Italian restaurant staffed incongruously with only older bespectacled men, and you’ve at least got a good hook for people like me who are after something a bit off-the-wall in their comics entertainment.

The main problem I had with the comic though was the writing.  Things just seemed to happen because that’s what the author wanted to write, rather than the characters seemingly causing things to happen because of who they were.  One example: at the start, the daughter thinks to herself that she doesn’t understand the appeal of the all-older-bespectacled-male waiting staff at the restaurant, but the very next time she sees one of the staff she immediately starts to think how sexy he is.  The author could have written it as if the daughter’s mind changed over time, or even that there was something specific about the man that suddenly caught her attention, but in fact she just seemed to contradict herself entirely in the space of just a couple of pages at the start of the book.

There also really isn’t much of an emotional impact anywhere in the book around the daughter and the mother’s relationship, which is a missed trick in my opinion, given the plot.

The artwork is probably going to be marmite to a lot of people: you’d love it or hate it. Its drawn with nib pens in quite a scratchy, quick style.  Personally there are moments where I think the artwork is quite beautifully balanced, but most of the time its quite ugly to me.  It’s reminiscent of the kind of pen illustrations you might get in a magazine about wine (which is actually pretty fitting, considering the Italian restaurant backdrop), but I’m not really a fan of that style of illustration unfortunately.

All of the supposedly sexy male staff at the restaurant were drawn looking rather similar, so at points they were very hard to tell apart from each other.  The choice to give everyone elongated, spindly bodies and hands was probably 100% conscious on the part of the creator, but again, I’m just not a fan of that style of art (it screams ‘I’m out of proportion!’ to me).

So I would say flip through a few pages of this book if you can before buying and take a look at the art – if you love the art then you’ll probably forgive the story a bit.  But if you’re a fan of enigmatic tall older men with glasses, you should probably just go straight out and buy this anyway ;)

Bonus side note: although I was initially put off Ono’s work by reading this book, recently I’ve had the chance to watch the anime and read a couple of volumes of another of her series, ‘House of Five Leaves’, which is newer.  I wouldn’t say Five Leaves is my favourite comic ever, but I very much enjoyed the volumes I borrowed and am considering collecting the series for myself too, so if you felt the same as me about Ristorante Paradiso perhaps don’t close yourself off to everything Ono just yet.  If I do end up collecting it, then I’m sure I’ll write more about Five Leaves in the future :)

Ouran High School Host Club

July 8, 2011

 

My rating (so far) 5 out of 5 stars.

This review is a bit of a saga – it has three updates (at volumes 1, 3 and 9).  And even then it isn’t finished because the series is 18 volumes long, so there will definitely be at least one more update to come! (I’ll try and keep it to just one more)

After reading volume 1:

(Rating: 1 star)

I couldn’t stand the art (having seen the anime first), and ended up selling my only volume off at a con bring and buy without even finishing it! Glad I went back to it though…

After reading up to volume 3:

(Rating: 4 stars)

I can imagine that most manga/anime fans will have probably seen or heard of the anime adaptation of Ouran before picking up the manga. Those wanting more of the same should be pretty happy with the manga, as it follows the anime almost to-the-letter so far, plus there is the certainty of new material that goes beyond where the anime series finished.

Ouran High School Host Club is basically reverse-harem shoujo crack at its finest: a normal teenage girl is mistaken for a boy, knocks over an expensive vase by accident and somehow winds up paying off her debt by masquerading as a boy and becoming part of the school’s Host Club – where filthy rich pretty boys with too much time on their hands entertain filthy rich pretty girls with too much time on their hands.

So the series is about a normal (albiet quite sharp and cynical) girl, who spends her time surrounded by a doting group of various beautiful boys: what’s not for a teenage female reader to like? And yes, it sounds kind of rubbish when you explain it like that, but there are 2 great things that make Ouran deserving of its 4-star score!

1. Character depth and relationships: outwardly the Ouran characters are pretty shallowly designed – there’s your glasses-wearing guy, stoic guy, babyface guy, twins etc. etc. but once you get into reading the series their personalities, backstories and interactions with each other make them much more unique people (albiet still comedically over-the-top people).

2. Sense of humour: the way the author plays with the boundary between normal (‘poor’) people and the filthy rich Ouran students is hilarious, plus some funny moments come simply from the range of character traits of the Host Club members, and subversion of them.

The only thing that lets the manga version Ouran down for me is the artwork – originally I was really turned off by the art style in issue 1 as the characters seemed way uglier than their anime counterparts. However, the giant eyes do get steadily downplayed as the series goes on, and after flicking through a random copy of vol. 10 in the shops one day I could see that the art did eventually converge more with the look of the anime.

After reading up to vol. 9:

(5 stars)

Absolutely loving this manga series! The art has got a lot prettier and more consistent now that I’m on volume 9, making it easier to read and more enjoyable all round.

So far there has only been one chapter with events that I don’t recall from the anime – everything else is very similar, and with the improvements to the artwork I’m enjoying the manga now at least as much as the anime, which is just what I wanted from it.

What I love about reading manga over watching anime though is that you do it at your own pace, so I can read quickly past some of the silly school side stories but savour the moments of character development and chuckle-able funny bits :)

A Drifting Life

June 10, 2011

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is an autobiography of the manga creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who was one of the fathers of ‘gekiga’ – a subset of manga that was created back in the ’50s in order to differentiate manga written for adults from children’s comics (as, at that time, almost all manga were still written for children).

As well as the differentiation between adults and children’s books, gekiga artists were instrumental in taking manga from its beginning as 4-panel gag comics towards the form we see it in today – lots of long-form works with pretty much infinite styles of art and panel pacing on the page.

Readers who are already interested in gekiga would probably get more out of this book than I did as someone who has only heard the term in passing and never read any gekiga works before. I bought this book as I wanted to read about the life of this famous manga artist – when were his big breaks? How did he achieve what he did? Did he ever go through hard times? What kind of person was he?

These questions were addressed more in the first half of the book, so I preferred the first half to the second. As the book goes on it becomes more of a chronological list of what gekiga artists lived where and which circles and publishers they were affiliated with, and seeing as I didn’t recognise most of the names involved, it wasn’t very interesting to me.

Overall I found this book to be a good read – its surprisingly easy to get into, and for its size (doorstop) a surprisingly quick read. This has made me want to read some of Tatsumi’s actual gekiga comics, so hopefully I’ll be able to write about Black Blizzard or The Push Man and Other Stories at some point.

My star ratings

June 10, 2011

Originally I was against putting a letter grade or star rating on my reviews (which might have been because I started out writing purely small press reviews, and I didn’t really want to give people’s personal work a straight-up letter grade :S ), but after using the star rating system on Goodreads for a couple of years now I’ve gotten used to it and actually find it pretty interesting.

I enjoy looking back over things I’ve given similar grades to and realising things like, for example, where my cutoff point is for ‘I have to own this!’ vs. being happy to just borrow it (or even, ‘I own this, but now I must get rid of it as quickly as possible’)

So here’s a brief ramble about what my each star rating actually means to me:

5 stars – I love this series!  If I don’t own it its on my to-buy list.  I probably felt some kind of connection to each 5 star entry that went beyond just ‘this is a good solid story with good solid art’.  Some of these will be universal recommendations that I think practically everyone could get something out of (e.g. Yotsuba&!), but others will be a purely personal thing, so I might still recommend that people try one volume before jumping all the way in.

4 stars – I really liked this book.  It was above-averagely entertaining with a good solid story and good solid art.  Recommended.

3 stars – I liked this book.  This is probably the most volatile category.  A lot of entries here will be very strong in one element, but fall down on another (e.g. Benjamin’s ‘Orange’ – I adore the artwork, but couldn’t stand the story).  The other reason for a book ending up here is that it was still an all-round entertaining read, but it just didn’t quite hit the highs of a 4-star.  A 3 star review certainly does not mean the book was bad though – an awful lot of what I read day-to-day ends up as 3 stars, but I still enjoyed reading it.

2 stars – This book was OK:  the book was alright, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone bothered getting hold of it unless there was something in particular about it that piqued your interest.  Usually 2-stars are books that are either a bit boring, with lacklustre art and story, or too confusing to continue reading.  This is probably my least used rating – I can’t remember many books I didn’t hate but didn’t like enough to give a 3-star rating to either.

1 star – I didn’t like this book. If I own it, its probably in my ‘take to a bring-n-buy at my next con’ pile.  This is probably because either I found the art too horrendous to stick with, or the story too non-existant, or a particular combination of art and story being way too confusing or boring to bother with.  Some of these will be ‘I found this book to be bad in general, don’t bother reading it’, but others will be ‘I personally didn’t get on with this book, but others might’, e.g. Natsume Ono’s ‘Ristorante Paradiso’ (conveniently forgetting that I actually gave it a 2 rating, not 1) I don’t really like that book, but it still has merit for other people to try.

So that’s my rating system in a nutshell!

Not Love but Delicious Foods

June 9, 2011

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you liked Oishinbo you’ll probably get a kick out of this. Mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga gives a glimpse into a version of her everyday life via a lead character called ‘Y-naga’, and a group of friends with similarly (consciously) badly hidden fake names. I get the feeling the book is written loosely based on herself and her friends, with details tweaked or embellished to make a better story (though I have no idea if that is really the case).

Anyway, the meat of the book is based around visiting their favourite restaurants in Tokyo and enjoying/describing many of the dishes at each one.  The descriptions are lovely and really make you want a taste of what they’re having.  The restaurants are all real and factual information about each restaurant is given at the end of each chapter – perhaps not super-useful if you’re not living in Tokyo, but it makes for a unique foody manga volume (of which there aren’t an awful lot to choose from with English translations).

Emma

April 27, 2011

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sadly out of print now with the demise of CMX, ‘Emma’ is a beautiful 10 volume manga series which centres around a love story between William, the son of a wealthy businessman, and a maid called Emma.

The author perfectly captures the bittersweet nature of their romance (seeing as it was practically unheard of in Victorian times to form close relationships like that between class boundaries), and this main plot forms a very strong opener and backbone for the series as a whole.

However, Emma does not purely focus on the two main characters: a lot of thought and detail is put into the side characters who help, hinder, or otherwise cross paths with Emma and William, plus the many places they inhabit. The comic is set in an intriguing and believeable version of Victorian England, which is quite a feat considering the creator, Kaoru Mori, had not even visited England until she had finished at least 2 or 3 volumes of the series.

The artwork for Emma is some of the best I have come across in manga: the style of pen and inkwork used (especially in the backgrounds) perfectly suits the Victorian setting. The characters are beautiful and, to me, felt like they are drawn by someone who delights in studying the human form (which is later evidenced by Mori mentioning ‘drawing hands and hair to my heart’s content’ in one of the afterwords).

The main love story plot finishes off at the end of volume 7 (though it is brought back right at the end of volume 10 to cap off the series). Volumes 8-10 focus solely on the ‘private lives’ of some of the side characters, and these volumes are some of the most satisfying reading for a comics fan in my opinion. Mori lets her hair down a bit and produces some very interesting, more experimental, chapters. For example, there’s one chapter that is a series of vignettes centred around the distribution of ‘The Times’ newspaper – who reads it, and its other many uses in Victorian society (like wrapping fish and chips, or of course prviding a comfy seat for a cat).  Chapters like this reminded me of Will Eisner’s ‘New York: Life in the Big City’ collection – intriguing observations of people’s daily lives.

So yes, if you can get your hands on it, I would greatly recommend this comic – it is a million miles away from stereotypical exploitative maid-fetish manga, and extremely high quality work.

20th Century Boys (vols 1-12)

April 14, 2011

My rating (so far): 5 out of 5 stars

20th Century Boys is a 22 volume series which is being brought out under the Viz Signature line.  Unfortunately its not all out in English yet so I can’t talk about the series in its entirety, however I’m finding it interesting to write about it in chunks as I read up to certain volumes.  Speaking of which, I wrote the first section of these notes after only having read volumes 1 & 2, and the second section after having read up to volume 12.  I’ll probably update this post with a review up to volume 22 in 2013 or so when the entire series has been translated and published ^_~

Its difficult to give a good idea of the plot of 20th Century Boys without spoiling one thing or another, so suffice it to say there’s more to the series than I can write about here, but here goes:

In the 60s a group of Japanese boys are close friends: they build a secret base in a field of high grass and spend a summer having a great time playing together.  Flash forward to the present day: the boys are now adults and have put most of their childhood memories to the backs of their minds.  However, strange occurrences start to bring the group together again.  A symbol keeps turning up frequently, linked to what seems to be a cult…how is this connected to the group of men, is the world on the edge of disaster, and will they have to somehow save the world?

The author of 20th Century Boys, Naoki Urasawa, is a veteran manga creator and has produced a large body of critically acclaimed work in a variety of genres. Two of the most famous of these are ‘Monster’, a medical thriller, and ‘Pluto’, a sci-fi series inspired by one of Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Astro Boy’ stories. Reading ’20th Century Boys’ you can see why Urasawa’s work is so acclaimed: the series is tightly plotted with many mysteries, twists and turns, and well developed characters.

The artwork is similarly masterful: drawn in pen and ink, each character has a unique look coupled with varied body-language that brings him/her to life. Backgrounds are meticulously drawn to a high level of detail and the pacing of the panels is fantastic, with the build up and execution of the most dramatic moments coming across especially well.

I have now read up to volume 12, so its time for an update!

All in all the storyline and characterisation remain just as strong in volumes 3-12 as they were in the first two volumes. The plotline, which has now expanded to take place over three distinct time periods in the characters’ lives, is handled deftly by Urasawa.  Along with many well-timed melodramatic moments as befitting a mystery/thriller series, he weaves in some subtle foreshadowing of future events, and paralleling of things that have happened in the past.

The art remains just as masterful too: many more characters are introduced and they still each have their own unique look and feel, plus background work and panel pacing are still some of the best I have seen in manga.

20th Century Boys is not the perfect comic though. I seem to recall reading on the net somewhere that the author was working on another series (Pluto?) at the same time as this, and the story here does devolve into having a meandering and distracted feel about it. Some events are drawn out over over many more chapters than they needed to be, and some scenes seem to stretch to a whole chapter when really they might have worked better if they were shorter and more snappy.

What’s so annoying about this is that the basic plot is still very gripping! The characters are also incredibly compelling as their lives are covered from a time when they are children until at least late middle age, so you understand their personalities and motivations over practically their entire lives.

In conclusion (for now), I will certainly still be collecting 20th Century Boys, however I would caution anyone who doesn’t feel they have the patience for reading a long manga series to perhaps think twice, as similarly to many series that go longer than 10 or so books, the pace gets rather muddy in the middle :S

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

March 29, 2011

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I was interested in this book as I’d heard that Moto Hagio was one of the pioneers of sci-fi comics for girls as part of the ‘Magnificent 49ers’ group in the 1970s. This group included Keiko Takemiya, and I’d already read and enjoyed Takemiya’s ‘To Terra’, as well as Hagio’s own short sci-fi series ‘They were Eleven’, so thought I’d give this one a go.

When I first received the book, I have to say I was a bit put off by the print format. This is a big hardback volume with some colour pages, and very much reminds of those old ‘A Treasury of 100 Stories for Children’ doorstop-type hardback books I remember from my childhood. I was expecting more of a Viz Signature style slightly-posh tankoubon, so this threw me a bit. In the end though I enjoyed the feeling of reading Hagio’s work at a larger size, and will be keeping this book in part as a 70s shojo art reference book, as much as a story book.

This book is a collection of several short stories. They do not seem to be grouped around any strong central theme or genre in particular (bar the obvious shojo connection), but they can all be characterised by a degree of sentimentality, a focus on emotion, and leaving the reader with something a little bit philosophical to ponder after finishing each story.

The most thought provoking tales are ‘Hanshin: Half God” and “Iguana Girl”. Hanshin centres around a set of conjoined twins: a beautiful one who gets all of the attention but does not have the mental faculties to look after herself, and the more intelligent twin who constantly looks like she’s at death’s door, because she has to prop up her sister. It is very much about the relationship between love and hate, and the fact that it could be possible to both love and hate someone else, or even parts of yourself.

“Iguana Girl” is a story about the relationship between mothers and daughters. In this story the author is directly addressing issues she has faced in her life with her mother completely dismissing her desire to become a professional comics creator (and perhaps in turn, completely dismissing the parts of her daughter’s personality or life choices that she didn’t agree with) – the author talks about this a bit in the interview at the back of the book. I get the feeling that any girl or woman could find something to relate to in this story (and perhaps anyone who has become a mum and wondered why they weren’t automatically the ‘perfect’ mother).

Stories like ‘Bianca’ and ‘Girl on Porch with Puppy’ are rather more sentimental and dated-feeling. However if you are a lover of 70s shojo manga artwork these are lovely to look at, with some of the most striking illustrations in the book.

I also can’t finish this mini-review without mentioning the title story ‘A Drunken Dream’ as its the only sci-fi one in the book! I found the plot a little dated and formulaic (it reminded me a bit of Tezuka’s ‘Apollo’s Song’), but the story nails that pulp entertainment feeling perfectly: science fiction mixed with mythology and a dash of surrealism.

All in all I would definitely recommend this book to those who like older-style shojo artwork. The format means that it can definitely work as an art reference book as much as a collection of stories, though I am a bit dissappointed by the lack of sci-fi here. The slightly surreal and thought-provoking tales remind me of Haruki Murakami’s short stories (though with much more of a female perspective, and a little more dated). But even so, I would recommend this also to people who have enjoyed Murakami’s short stories, or anything involving real life with a twist of the strange.

Jyu Oh-Sei

March 17, 2011

Jyu Oh-Sei is published by Tokyopop.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

These notes cover the complete series, which wraps up in a tidy 3 volumes.

Delicate white-haired, white-skinned twin brothers Thor and Rei are kidnapped and left to fend for themselves on a dangerous prison planet after their politician father is killed. Can they survive on a planet populated by criminals and giant man-eating plants, and will they ever be able to get back to their home and find out why this happened to them?

This series is presented as 3 chunky volumes, each at least 1.5 times as thick as a normal Tokyopop manga volume.

The story may sound a little harsh but this is no Battle Royale: its more action/drama than horror or thriller.

The two elements I loved most about this series were:

- The plot is well paced and the story wraps up very satisfactorily. It really feels as if the author knew her ending before she started writing the series. Also, no character is safe from injury/death so any peril keeps you on the edge of your seat.

- Characters grow and evolve over the course of the series. The main character, Thor, especially is almost entirely unrecogniseable by the final volume as he has grown from a child to man. Seeing as so much time goes by, other characters also age and change their appearence over the course of the story.

The artwork is proficient: environments are very imaginative as the settlements characters live in are built to withstand some pretty scary weather conditions, and species of man-eating plants.

Extras:

I was delighted to find a section at the back of volume two with design sheets for some of the vehicles, objects and settings that turn up in the comic. In volume 3 I was surprised to find the main story finished a couple of chapters before the end of the book. In this extra space there is a side story featuring some of what happened to a couple of important secondary characters in the middle of the main story timeline. Initially I was a bit dissapointed to have finished the main story early, but the side story did fill in some info and its a big plus that it was within the Jyu-Oh-Sei world and timeline, not completely unrelated (like most of the random ‘bonus’ stories you get at the back of manga volumes).


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