Manga Review: Spice and Wolf Vol. #10

Spice and Wolf is a wildly popular light novel series that has spawned off an anime, an Internet radio show, and a manga series. While its European medieval setting is typical of high fantasy, this series has  a unique bent to it. Rather than swordfights and magic, the plot focuses on economics, trade, and peddling in a way that skillfully blends adventure and romance.

Yen Press has recently released the tenth volume of the Spice and Wolf manga, and you can read on for the review. (For my reviews of previous Spice and Wolf releases, click here.)

Back cover blurb

The struggle for the legendary sea beast is underway, but how will it end? Drawn into the fight over the narwhal in Kerube, Lawrence finds himself in a dangerous position. Despite this, Holo continues to scold him and plead with him–but why?!

The Review

Volume 10 begins by finishing Lawrence’s secret conversation with Eve and follows up with a recap of the North/South Kerube conflict. The arrival of the narwhal has complicated the situation exponentially, especially when the under-the-table deals get added in. The diagrams in Chapter 56 provide a comprehensive picture of the players and stakes, much better than the description in the light novel; even so, I had to read that section a couple times carefully before I finally grasped Lawrence’s position in the negotiations and why his first instinct is to leave town.

In the midst of these developments, Holo and Lawrence let Col in on Holo’s secret. Since they’ve been careful to hide it from him, I expected the moment to be dramatic, but it’s actually rather anti-climatic. At any rate, the revelation brings down the last wall between Col and our lead couple, making him a fully trusted part of their team.

Kieman and the trade guild then start making their move. Lawrence plays along, but despite the enormous stakes and his misgivings, his actual actions in the negotiation amount to little more than glorified messenger boy. Koume-sensei, however, makes up for the lack of grand action with intimate moments with Holo. In one, the wisewolf reminisces on her past; in the other, she expresses uncertainty over the course she’s pushed Lawrence toward. She’s unusually vulnerable in both scenes, but considering how sharp her tongue usually is, having her show a softer side to her traveling merchant isn’t a bad change of pace.

Extras include a character profile, world map, story thus far summary, creators’ closing remarks, and a bonus mini manga that revisits Holo and Lawrence’s first meeting.

In Summary

Unlike other Spice and Wolf arcs, which illustrate different principles of economics, the Kerube conflict is more about pure deception. The situation makes clear that Lawrence is a minuscule fish in a giant pond, but the complicated details take a bit of effort to fully grasp. Fortunately, Koume-sensei intersperses Eve’s and Kieman’s scheming with simpler moments like Col’s delight at seeing Holo’s tail for the first time and rare moments of understanding between Lawrence and Holo.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Light Novel Review: Spice and Wolf Vol. #13

Spice and Wolf is a wildly popular light novel series that has spawned off an anime, an Internet radio show, and a manga series. While its European medieval setting is typical of high fantasy, this series has a unique bent. Rather than swordfights and magic, the plot focuses on economics, trade, and peddling in a way that skillfully blends adventure and romance.

Yen Press has  released the thirteenth volume of this series, and you can read on for the review. (You can also click here for my reviews of previous Spice and Wolf releases).

Back Cover Blurb

This collection of short stories from the world of Spice & Wolf features three new vignettes from Lawrence and Holo’s journeys, as well as a novella that follows Norah the shepherdess and her faithful sheepdog, Enek, as they put the city of Ruvinheigen behind them and try to forge a new path for themselves…

The Review

Hasekura-sensei detours from our main journey once again in Volume 13! In the manner of the previous Side Colors collections, Side Colors III presents four more short stories set in the Spice and Wolf world: The Wolf and the Honeyed Peach Preserves, The Wolf and the Twilight-Colored Gift, The Wolf and the Silver Sigh, and The Shepherdess and the Black Knight.

Those who savor the more romantic nuances of Holo and Lawrence’s relationship will likely enjoy the first two tales. In The Wolf and the Honeyed Peach Preserves, Lawrence exerts himself to the utmost to obtain a rare treat for Holo, but his well-intended efforts rub Holo the wrong way, as they often do. However, the story provides one of the clearest illustrations of their different perspectives on what’s most valuable in life, and after attaining a bit of understanding, the couple is able to reconcile. In addition, they ultimately attain their goal together using a scheme made possible only by boomtown economics and the protection of a wisewolf.

The Wolf and the Twilight-Colored Gift is a much shorter episode. While it demonstrates how advantageous a wolf’s nose can be in the herb trade, the story’s really about Lawrence thoughts on how much Holo means to him and the unusually sweet gesture that results. The fact that he also manages to render Holo speechless with his words is a bonus.

The Wolf and the Silver Sigh is also a short piece, this one told from Holo’s perspective. While there is a fur-related moneymaking scheme that sends Lawrence running all over town, Holo only gets the vaguest explanation of what’s going on. As such, the story’s content is mostly Holo’s reflections about the character of her traveling companion. So often she calls Lawrence “fool,” and this vignette offers a glimpse into the strings of thought that lead to that pronouncement. However, despite being a wisewolf, Holo is ignorant of many things in the human world, and she unwittingly makes a fool of herself even as she looks down on her companion.

The volume wraps up with The Shepherdess and the Black Knight, which features  Norah, the shepherdess that Lawrence met in Ruvinheigen. I have been wondering how Hasekura-sensei would continue her story, and the most surprising thing is that it’s not told from her perspective. According to the afterword, the author just couldn’t get into using her so he decided to use her dog Enek instead. Blessed with the ability to understand human speech, the sheepdog offers a pretty good narrative of their journey to the town of Kuskov, and to his credit, most of the heroics (and the benefits that follow) are because of his actions. Even so, the story’s ultimate resolution is somewhat lacking. Kuskov’s post-plague circumstances do create the environment for extreme measures, but Norah’s appointment to deacon and her acceptance seem far-fetched, especially given how abusive her employers were in Ruvinheigen. As for the ending, it certainly leaves the door open for another Norah story, but as a standalone tale, The Shepherdess and the Black Knight feels incomplete.

This light novel includes the first four pages of illustrations printed in color as well as twelve black-and-white illustrations.

In Summary

Holo and Lawrence seem to be getting caught in bigger and more complicated schemes lately so for those who miss seeing Lawrence  making small town deals, Side Colors III will be a nice change of pace. The shorts also provide some warm and fuzzy moments for Lawrence/Holo fans. The collection wraps up with a continuation of Norah and Enek’s story. While much of their tale is enjoyable, certain twists are far-fetched, and though it ends on a hopeful note for our shepherdess and her dog, it’s too open-ended to be satisfying.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Voice Over! Seiyu Academy Vol. #10

For hard core manga and anime fans, the voice acting world has the same kind of glamor and mystique as Hollywood. So it’s no surprise that the world of Maki Minami’s manga Voice Over! Seiyu Academy portrays it as such. Viz Media has just released Volume 10 of the series and you can read on for the review. (To see previous reviews of the series, click here.)

Voice Over Volume 10 CoverBack Cover Blurb

Hime Kino’s dream is to one day do voice acting like her hero Sakura Aoyama from the Lovely ♥ Blazers anime, and getting accepted to the prestigious Holly Academy’s voice actor department is the first step in the right direction! But Hime’s gruff voice has earned her the scorn of teachers and students alike. Hime will not let that stand unchallenged. She’ll show everyone that she is too a voice acting princess, whether they like it or not!!

The Review

Having gotten Shiro (Hime) and Senri to be buddy-buddy, Minami-sensei now uses Shiro’s career to drive a wedge between them. Hime’s behavior pretty much validates her decision to distance herself from Senri. In one scene, she tells Senri she can’t come over and winds up bursting into tears. Two chapters later, she glomps him in front of his apartment. To be honest, her girlish behavior is so obvious Senri should either figure it out or get weirded out by his guy friend’s behavior. Instead, he gets pretty weird himself, first forcing himself to be cheerful, then undergoing a massive makeover.

But despite the blow to his delicate emotional constitution, Senri is able to accept the reason Shiro’s staying away. He focuses on removing the barriers that are keeping them apart, which is more than I can say for Hime. At this point, she really can’t be considered a super-amateur. She’s got an agent, has had all sorts of training and help, and has actual work experience. To see her flailing around the recording booth made me want to throw her out rather than cheer her on. So it was refreshing when Senri lashes out, telling her to shape up or quit. And because this is a shojo title, his yelling is exactly what Hime/Shiro needs to suddenly deliver an amazing performance.

Inspired by Shiro’s progress, Senri makes progress in the social arena. This of course takes place at school, and Hime’s eager to help by inviting him into her circle of friends. Considering the difference between Senri’s talent and that of the Stragglers, I expected mob comments/backlash when they team up for the class project. Instead, Minami-sensei focuses on Hime’s inability to keep from spouting out everything she’s learned about Senri as Shiro. It’s meant to be funny, but when she blabs his address to everyone, she truly and honestly sounds like a stalker.

Extras include embedded author’s remarks and three bonus mini-manga.

In Summary

Hime distances herself from Senri to reduce the chances of being found out as a girl. Sounds logical enough, except she gets so emotional over it that it’s counterproductive. The focus quickly shifts to Senri’s social awkwardness, and Hime’s determination to do something about it. She is living up to her Lovely Blazer philosophy by doing so but she’s so sloppy going about it that Senri would have to be an absolute idiot not to figure it out soon.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Kiss of the Rose Princess Vol. 3

Magical girls and reverse harems are standard fare in shoujo manga, and you can find both in Aya Shouoto’s Kiss of the Rose Princess. Read on for Volume 3 of the series! (For my review of previous volumes, click here.)

Back cover blurb

Seiran has been kidnapped, and the seal placed on the Demon Lord is breaking! Anise must make a True Contract with her knights in order to save Seiran and stop the Demon Lord from entering this world. But is Anise ready to accept the terms of this new contract with her knights?

The Review

Volume 2 left our heroes in a desperate situation. As such, they take desperate measures to rescue the Blue Rose Knight. The battle to thwart the Yellow Rose’s plot finally gives the guys a chance to act like real knights for once. Unfortunately, it ends all too quickly. I had thought the Yellow Rose would join the regular cast as a nemesis, but he’s pretty much done his job and exits by the middle of Volume 3.

Shouoto-sensei then begins the next arc by adding another layer of complexity to Anise’s contract with her knights. Apparently, the guys can “level up” in power, depending on their relationship with Anise. The whole arrangement has a distinctly videogame vibe, as does their new quest to collect Arcana Cards to keep the Demon Lord at bay. Add to that the knights’ new transformation sequences and uniforms (?), and Kiss of the Rose Princess really starts to look like a mishmash of tropes.

With this new card quest, I anticipated the story continuing in a more serious tone, but Shouoto-sensei instead returns to comedy. Anise’s dad, who’s been working in the shadows, abruptly shows up as Shobi Academy’s new doctor. He promptly imposes a schoolwide fitness exam as a means to gather data on the Rose Knights, but the exam mostly serves the purpose of reinforcing Anise’s impression that her knights are all weirdos. The volume closes with Anise forcing the guys to enter an idol contest to win an Arcana Card. Despite all Schwarz’ talk of punishment and despair, most of the Rose Knights’ efforts go into pretty superficial stuff.

Extras include the opening splash illustration and table of contents printed in color; character profiles and story thus far; a mini-manga about the mangaka and her editor; and bonus illustrations.

In Summary

Kiss of the Rose Princess changes gears again. After a desperate battle to contain the Demon Lord and proclamations of self-sacrifice, the story shifts back to Anise’s embarrassing social life and a ridiculous school fitness check imposed by her dad. While the general thread of sealing away the Demon Lord continues, the plot’s a bit schizophrenic in its mood swings, which makes it especially difficult to take Schwartz seriously as an enemy.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Are You Alice? Vol. 7

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has inspired all sorts of spinoff works, from visual art to movies to manga. However, Ai Ninomiya may have conjured up the most unusual Alice yet.  Are You Alice?, which originally began as a CD series, features a gun-toting male as its Alice! Yen Press has recently released the seventh volume, and you can read on for the review. (If you’re interested in my reviews for previous volumes, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

It’s a very special holiday in Wonderland–the one day a year when everyone can take a break from Alice. In celebration, the Queen of Hearts is throwing a grand bash, and everyone in Wonderland is invited! Everyone except Alice, that is. Outraged when the Hatter abandons him for the festivities amidst reassurances that absolutely no one is bold enough to break the rules and come after him, Alice knows well enough that he’ll never be so lucky. But even Alice is surprised when, of all people, the Jack of Hearts attempts to abduct him!

The Review

The March Hare arc concludes in Chapter 37 of Are You Alice?. The chapter is a bit of its own Wonderland trip with flashbacks of the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and even the Dormouse. Figuring out the March Hare’s issues requires quite a bit of effort, and I was rather annoyed at having spent so much time unraveling the Hare’s convoluted story only for him to exit at the arc’s jolting end.

Fortunately, the next arc dealing with the Alice Fixed Holiday is much simpler to understand. This time, the mute Jack of Hearts takes center stage. I’d written him off as a bit part character, but he apparently has his own back story and grievances. However, Jack’s functioned predominantly as comic relief, and Katagiri-sensei continues to use him in that vein. Even when Jack does the unthinkable in challenging the Queen, humor always diffuses the tension. Yet it works, and if you enjoy Alice and the Hatter’s snarky quibbling, you’ll enjoy Jack and Alice’s kidnapper/hostage bickering.

The plot then refocuses on the game to kill the White Rabbit. Chapter 42 is mainly foreshadowing at the change about to befall Wonderland. After all, Alice now has a goal, and the Hatter’s time is moving. The end of the volume also gives glimpses of new characters, but whether they’re players inside or outside of Wonderland remains to be seen.

Manga extras include the mini manga Are You Areha…?; closing remarks from the creators; and the title page and table of contents printed in color.

In Summary

For all the effort Katagiri-sensei puts into relating the March Hare’s inner angst, his arc’s conclusion comes much more quickly and abruptly than I would’ve guessed. Fortunately, the Hare’s convoluted story gets followed by a much more straightforward one about the Jack of Hearts. The absurdity of Alice’s hostage crisis provides some well needed laughter before the plot returns once more to the “Kill the White Rabbit Game” and the dark mystery that overshadows Wonderland.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Kiss of the Rose Princess Vol. 2

Magical girls and reverse harems are standard fare in shoujo manga, and you can find both in Aya Shouoto’s Kiss of the Rose Princess. Read on for Volume 2 of the series! (For my review of Volume 1, click here.)

Back cover blurb

Fearing her absent father will return and discover her rose choker missing, Anise commands her knights to do a search for the necklace. Before they can set out, new transfer student Haruto Kisugi appears. Anise and he were friends back when she was living in Osaka, but her four knights—especially Kaede—do not trust him.

The Review

The initial volume of Kiss of the Rose Princess wasn’t very serious. Our high school heroine discovers she has guardians with mystical powers, but without a nemesis, she has nothing better to do with them other than search for her missing choker. That changes with the introduction of transfer student Haruto Kisugi.

Volume 2 opens with the same fluffy humor by introducing Haruto as an old friend of Anise and an aspiring standup comedian. However, the mood quickly changes when he reveals himself as the Yellow Rose Knight. Unlike the other knights, he doesn’t draw his power off her blood nor can she control him. Things escalate when Anise discovers that the sealed Demon Lord, who was written off as a non-issue in Volume 1, actually poses an imminent threat and that the Yellow Rose is bent on making sure he gets free.

In explaining the origins of the Yellow Rose’s vengeance, Shouoto-sensei manages to tie together Anise’s father, her choker, and the ultimate destiny of the sovereign of the cards. While this new information does give Anise and company a mission, Anise seems to side against her father a bit too quickly. In addition, her dad is an adversary of the Rose Knights and supposedly the greatest sorcerer in the last thousand years, yet he still couldn’t manage to hide his daughter from the Rose Knights. However, if plot weaknesses don’t faze you and you’re more interested in bishounen putting themselves on the line for the girl they’ve pledged loyalty to,  you’ll probably enjoy the direction Kiss of the Rose Princess is headed.

Extras include the opening splash illustration and table of contents printed in color; a mini-manga about the mangaka and her editor; and bonus illustrations.

In Summary

The lightheartedness of Volume 1 gets replaced by a darker mood of betrayal and vengeance. With the introduction of the Yellow Rose and Anise’s father, Anise and her Knights finally have enemies to contend against. Granted, having her and her father on opposing sides is a rather convoluted turn of events, but at least the plot is actually headed somewhere now.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Barakamon Vol. 2

The contrast between city and rural life has been a source of entertainment since the time of Aesop’s fables. It remains a popular subject in manga and anime today, and joining the ranks of Silver Nina, Non Non Biyori, and Silver Spoon is Yen Press’ series Barakamon. Read on for my review of Volume 2! (For my review of Volume 1, click here.)

Back cover blurb

His house suddenly a hangout for the local kids, weird rumors about him getting spread all over the island in the span of day…handsome young calligrapher Seishuu Handa, unused to rural life, can’t take it anymore and collapses from the weight of it all! The heartwarming and hilarious tale of a sullen city-boy teacher and his tolerant island neighbors continues! Will Handa finally start to learn that living life at a slow pace isn’t all that bad?

The Review

A month has passed since Handa moved to the island. The constant intrusion of kids into his home was a major cause of strife in Volume 1, but now he’s so used to them he’s even stocking up on candy for when they come over. With the Naru-getting-into-Handa’s-hair element not quite so strong, the focus expands to give other characters more airtime. A visit to the Cat Man’s house brings out an unexpectedly sweet side of Handa, and there’s a fun exchange at the local store with two women whose accents are so thick they misunderstand one another.

The side character that gets the most development in Volume 2 is Tama. She’s an aspiring mangaka, but her work and tastes aren’t what you’d expect from a middle school country girl. Barakamon has an “All Ages” rating, but Tama’s a closet fujoshi, and the text includes definitions for BL and fudanshi for those unfamiliar with yaoi. She witnesses an accident between Handa and Hiroshi, and her misinterpretation of the completely innocent incident turns into a running joke.

Volume 2 also shows more of the island at the expense of Handa’s pride. Thanks to a combination of heatstroke and insomnia, he lands at the local hospital. Of course, the middle and high schools are close by, and his hospital stay turns into an opportunity for the kids to yawp at him about IVs and suppositories. Then there’s the visit to the beach. Reluctant chaperone Handa looks more like a city slicker than usual when the rocky shore knocks him out cold, not once, but three times. In contrast, the kids do a great job of showing how much fun a sand-less beach can be.

Extras include a character lineup, bonus two-page manga, translation notes, and information about the story’s island setting.

In Summary

Although the newness of rural life has worn off, Handa still has a lot of city slicker-meets-the-country moments. The main difference now is that he’s less outsider and more an accepted member of the island community. Naru continues to dominate his attention, but he interacts more with the adults of the village, which provides variety to the kids-are-bothering-Handa-yet-again brand humor.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Anime Review: Non Non Biyori Complete Collection DVD

Let’s face it. Anime is thought of by many in the States as cartoons, and cartoons in the U.S. are synonymous with kids, but most anime really isn’t appropriate for a child audience. However, once in a while, I come across a series that I CAN recommend to younger viewers, and the slice of life comedy Non Non Biyori is one of them.

Back Cover Blurb

When Hotaru Ichijo transfers from a school in bustling Tokyo to a tiny school in a quiet countryside village, she should be experiencing major culture shock. After all, there are only three other girls in the school, and none of them are even in the same grade as her. But adjusting isn’t too hard for Hotaru thanks to first grader Renge and the Koshigaya sisters, Natsumi and Komari, who are in the seventh and eighth grade respectively.

Even though it takes 20 minutes by bicycle to get to the only place that sells comics and the video store is 10 train stations away, there’s something about the laid-back lifestyle that makes her feel right at ease. It’s a big change from the big city, but there are still plenty of new adventures to look forward to as Hotaru learns that home really is where the heart is.

The Review

Many anime titles categorized under “Slice of Life” are a bit of a stretch. Crunchyroll’s Slice of Life listings include Polar Bear Café and Moyashimon, neither of which falls remotely close to my definition of the genre. But even if your Slice of Life universe includes talking bears, I think we can all agree that Non Non Biyori lies safely within that category.

The series, comprised of twelve 25-minute episodes, follows four girls in a countryside village over the course of a year. The story opens with fifth-grader Hotaru Ichijo’s first day at school. She recently moved from Tokyo because of her father’s job, and she’s instantly in for a culture shock. The population’s so small that the entire school body, including her, is a mere five students.

This school definitely doesn’t suffer clique struggles, not with everyone in a different grade, ranging from 1st to 9th. It’s a given that they all have to be friends, and although their temperaments vary widely, they are a close-knit group. At least the girls are. Ninth grader Suguru is the only boy and his lack of spoken lines is a running joke. He’s also brother to the two girls old enough to date so romance doesn’t really factor into this anime. As such, Non Non Biyori focuses mainly on how the girls entertain themselves out in the sticks.

So no superpowers, aliens, espionage, or fate-of-the-world-depends-on-it elements. The anime moves slowly, like My Neighbor Totoro slow. The opening segment for Episode 1 is a couple minutes of the village’s fields, mountains, flowers, and waterways sans dialogue. The depiction of this scenery is gorgeous but not much is happening. If you need explosions or magical transformation sequences to hold your attention, Non Non Biyori will likely put you to sleep. Even so, the anime holds its own charm. Most contemporary anime take place in urban or suburban settings so it offers a different aspect of Japan. Watching characters dry persimmons for eight minutes might be boring for some, but my husband and I, who have a great interest in the lives of ordinary Japanese folk, found it fascinating.

Fortunately for us foreigners (and probably many Japanese urbanites), Hotaru provides a natural way for the characters to highlight things mundane to rural folk but unusual to city dwellers. It also works the other way around. In one scene, Hotaru unintentionally outclasses her seventh grade sempai Komari on the topics of music and fashion.

Although the series starts with Hotaru’s perspective, it shifts such that all girls get a turn. The eccentric first grader Renge gives a sense of what it’s like to grow up without peers when another first grader visits for the summer and abruptly leaves. Rowdy Natsumi and diminutive Komari are sisters, and their episodes center around how members of a large country family annoy one another. The rural setting also has a definite presence as characters respond to the seasons, from partaking in spring planting to getting snowed in overnight at school.

For the most part, it’s goofy kiddie antics at a laid-back pace, which is why I’m surprised at its PG rating. There’s no swearing or violence. The closing credits show the girls in the tub together, but there’s no actual nudity. Animals don’t get carted off to the slaughterhouse like in Silver Spoon. Hotaru does have a kind of crush on Komari, which manifests as a massive Komari-plushy collection, but I’d label it more innocent adoration than yuri.

In Summary

Non Non Biyori is a slice of life comedy that provides a real taste of the country. With an entire half episode devoted to a walk to the candy store and lengthy segments devoted to mountain valley scenery, it certainly moves at a country pace. Watching five kids throw Japan’s most underwhelming cultural festival might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Non Non Biyori does possess its own flavor of simple, innocent fun.

Japanese 2.0, English subtitles, clean opening and closing animation, and promos for other Sentai Filmworks anime

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Master Keaton Vol. #1

I became an instant fan of Naoki Urasawa in 2004 when I saw the Monster anime. Psychological thrillers are definitely NOT my cup of tea, but he had me hooked with his combination of realistic artwork and gripping plot. As such, I was thrilled when Viz Media decided to release a translation of an earlier Urasawa action/adventure: Master Keaton.

Back Cover Blurb

Taichi Hiraga-Keaton, the son of a Japanese zoologist and a noble English woman, is an insurance investigator known for his successful and unorthodox methods of investigation. Educated in archaeology and a former member of the SAS, Master Keaton uses his knowledge and combat training to uncover buried secrets, thwart would-be villains, and pursue the truth…

The Review

The actual field of archaeology may be dry and tedious, but pop culture has cast a glamorous glow upon it. Golden artifacts, exotic locations, and Nazi bad guys are a typical day’s work for swashbuckling scholars. And in the vein of Indiana Jones, we have the adventures of archaeologist Taichi Keaton!

Keaton encounters as much treasure and danger as Indy, but he’s a completely different personality. In addition to being a lecturer at a Japanese university, the half-British, half-Japanese archaeologist is a former survival combat expert of the British Special Forces. That means that he doesn’t take on his enemies with whips and guns blazing; rather, he uses whatever is at hand, be it a wooden spoon or a can of epoxy, to extricate himself out of a scrape. And in lieu of a fedora and khakis, Keaton sports a suit and tie, even in a desert dig. After all, he’s an insurance investigator for the prestigious Lloyds of London Insurance Organization.

Keaton’s freelance insurance job is probably the oddest element in the story. However, the narrative claims that “archaeological investigations and insurance go hand in hand,” and the investigation of false claims does actually work as the rationale to get Keaton jumping from country to country. Indiana Jones’ Nazis are long gone, but Cold-War era terrorists, the Mafia, and crazy ex-military keep Keaton on his toes.

For the most part, each chapter is a self-contained arc that features a bit of history and allows Keaton to show off an aspect of his eclectic skill set. While Keaton is in his mid-30s, the combination of his goofy personality and international exploits should appeal to younger shonen readers. But not TOO young. While Keaton is largely an upstanding fellow, his job pits him against the darker elements of humanity, and Volume 1 includes illustrations of graphic violence and a half-naked prostitute snorting drugs.

Due to the manga’s episodic structure, Keaton deals with a different group of troublemakers on each adventure, but there is a recurring supporting cast in the form of his family. His spunky middle-school daughter Yuriko has a sharp tongue that she doesn’t hesitate to use on her father, and Keaton’s dad, a professor of zoology, is a longtime womanizer. Even so, there is affection between the three highly intelligent but very different family members. Keaton’s estranged wife never appears in person in Volume 1, but she’s very much on his mind and in his heart. However, Keaton’s irregular lifestyle and absentmindedness get in the way of his intention to reconcile with her, which paints a pretty clear picture of why she left him.

Extras include the first pages of Chapter 1 and Chapter 6 in color and a sound effects glossary.

In Summary

Combine Indiana Jones, MacGyver, and an insurance investigator and you’ve got Taichi Keaton! He’s more of a daydreaming academic than a macho sexpot, but this mild-mannered university lecturer makes for a surprisingly compelling hero. With Cold War era adventures that take him around the globe, Master Keaton makes for fantastic fun.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Progressive Vol. 001

Sword Art Online was undoubtedly one of the most popular anime of 2012. Based upon a series of light novels by Reki Kawahara, SAO’s near-future characters, gorgeous fantasy setting, and life-or-death stakes drew an enthusiastic fan following. Yen Press has recently released Volume 1 of the Sword Art Online: Progressive manga adaption, and you can read on for the review. (For my review of  other Sword Art Online manga, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

Yuuki Asuna was a top student who spent her days studying at cram school and preparing for her high school entrance exams–but that was before she borrowed her brother’s virtual reality game system and wound up trapped in Sword Art Online with ten thousand other frightened players. As time passes, Asuna fears what will become of her life outside the fantasy realm–the failure she might be seen as in the eyes of her peers and parents. Unwilling to wait on the sidelines for more experienced gamers to beat the game, Asuna employs her study habits to learn the mechanics of the game–and swordplay. Her swiftness impresses Kirito, a professional gamer who invites Asuna to join the best players on the front line. Is Asuna ready to swap class rankings for player rankings and join Kirito?

The Review

Sword Art Online: Progressive covers the same general territory as the Aincrad manga and the first season of the Sword Art Online anime. Instead of following Kirito’s perspective, however, it follows Asuna’s. While Kirito is enough of a gamer enthusiast to participate in the SAO beta test, SAO is Asuna’s first experience with gaming. As such, her journey is markedly different than Kirito’s even though they’re trapped in the same world.

The manga opens with a 16-page sequence that draws a picture of Asuna’s home life and then proceeds to the early days of Aincrad when the players had yet to clear Level 1. Unfamiliar with even RPG basics, Asuna quickly gets into trouble, and of course it’s Kirito to come to the rescue. Here, the manga deviates from the anime in that the pair meet and interact before Diavel’s call to defeat the Level 1 boss. However, Asuna’s less a weepy damsel in distress and more a determined competitor striving to get to the top of the game. As such, her jump from utter noob to frontline fighter, while remarkable, is believable.

Helping Asuna along is “The Rat,” an informant. She was not part of the anime cast, and, somewhat refreshingly, is a rare female who is not besotted with Kirito. In addition to providing Asuna with resources that unleash her fighting skills, the narrative strongly hints that The Rat, like Kirito, is a beta tester.

While Asuna is as far from a beta tester as can be, beta tester hate is interwoven into Progressive, and The Rat and Kirito show how those players are coping in Aincrad. Sometimes though, that prejudice seems overly forced. Kibaou, the beta tester hater in the Level 1 boss rating party, is even more outspoken than in the anime, and in the heat of the battle, he’s more dismayed about discovering a beta tester in the group than the deadly attack heading everyone’s way.

That aside, the storyline is strong and provides a fresh perspective over familiar territory. Also, of the three SAO manga I’ve read, I find Progressive’s artwork the best. Himura-sensei’s illustrations are clean with an excellent blending of details and tones. Her action sequences are easy to follow with a nice variety of CG and hand-drawn effects to convey impact. I should also mention that while they are not nearly as blatant as Fairy Dance, Himura-sensei does incorporate fan service elements, including a rather lengthy bathtub scene at Kirito’s quarters.

Extras include the first three pages in color and closing remarks from the creators.

In Summary

The SAO franchise for the most part follows Kirito’s perspective so Progressive will be a treat for Asuna fans. It doesn’t add much in terms of major Aincrad events, but it does fill in Asuna-centric details that weren’t in the anime or Sword Art Online: Aincrad. When you consider that Asuna entered SAO unfamiliar with even the basics of RPG party combat, her rise to the top of the Aincrad lineup is as extraordinary as Kirito’s solo feats, and I look forward to discovering more about her journey.

First published at the Fandom Post.