Manga Review: Barakamon Vol. 7

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 7! (For my reviews of previous volumes, click here.)

Back cover blurb

With the exhibition behind him, handsome young calligrapher Seishuu Handa returns safely from Tokyo. Between a full-moon night spent with the islanders, a grade-school recital, and a discussion of Hiroshi’s career plans, life is plenty hectic as autumn arrives at the island! The evening sun warms straight to the heart in Volume 7 of this super-popular hot ‘n’ hearty island comedy!

The Review

Now that Handa’s gotten things settled in Tokyo, it’s back to the village and Barakamon’s usual format of stand-alone chapters. Yoshino-sensei also reverts to standard formulas for several scenes. Act 53 has Handa at his most city-boy-in-the-country hapless/helpless as he settles back into his home. In Act 54, the instant Handa’s window shows up in the story, it’s pretty obvious glass will break by the end. And Act 55 is a series of four-panel comics capitalizing on Handa’s unfortunate attraction to cats.

However, the volume manages to branch out beyond the clueless sensei humor even as Handa humiliates himself time and again. When the kids practice their school play, it’s a given that they will cause grief for Handa, but the big surprise is Hiroshi’s mom. Stage mothers aren’t just limited to the city, and her particular passion for drama is an unexpected source of hilarity. The other person who gets a lot of attention in this volume is Hiroshi. He might not be a character out of his element, but as the villager who carries the label “ordinary” like it’s a curse, he suffers plenty of mortification in the name of comedy. By the end of the chapter, he winds up with a new hairstyle and new nickname that just gives the others more ammunition to tease him with.

Still, it’s not all silliness. Hiroshi’s concerns about his future career reflect the quandary many small-town young people face. Amid the rambunctiousness of the village’s version of Halloween is a touching portrait of the respect and affection the youngsters have for their elders. And as the elementary school students conclude their school recital, Handa once again wonders about Naru’s family circumstances.

Extras include a bonus four-page manga, translation notes, and pictures of a Barakamon limited-edition figure (which is sadly only available in Japan).

In Summary

I would have thought that Handa would have a clear picture of Naru’s family circumstances by now, but Yoshino-sensei only drops another tiny hint and sticks mainly to comic episodes. The Handa/village kids interactions are getting predictable, and Yoshino-sensei changes things up by giving some of the villagers a little more panel time. Hiroshi in particular winds up the butt of a lot of jokes, but his  “ordinary” complex starts to get a bit stale by the end of the volume.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Spice and Wolf Vol. #11

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 released the eleventh 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

Scheming abounds in Kerube, and the fate of the entire town hangs in the balance! Lawrence has gotten swept up in machinations–again–and this time he’s not even sure which side he’s on. With Holo’s help, he’s going to have to see through the lies to discover the truth of the plans surrounding the narwhal, and if he fails, not only will crucial information about Holo’s homeland slip through his fingers, but the merchant woman Eve could pay the ultimate price!

The Review

The balance of power and money in Kerube is complicated, so much so that Koume-sensei’s diagrams really are necessary to understand what’s going on and who is involved. And of the players, the one whose true intentions are least clear is Eve. However, in Volume 11, Ted Reynolds of the seemingly impoverished Jean Company drops a deal on the table that throws everyone for a loop. Unfortunately, we don’t get a diagram that outlines its full effects, but what is clear is that Kieman holds Eve responsible. As a result, the woman who had been a wolf in the negotiations winds up a damsel in distress.

Lawrence has been on the receiving end of Holo’s help for much of their journey, but this situation gives him the chance to play hero. His goal quickly simplifies to proving Eve’s noninvolvement with Reynolds’s source of funds. It’s then that the coin packing scheme that Col discovered earlier in the arc truly comes into play. What started as a geometric puzzle winds up the key to accounting fraud although I had to read Lawrence’s reasoning twice before I understood it. What is much more straightforward is when he gallantly charges in to take out Eve’s captors.

In the end, Lawrence gets out of a tricky situation unscathed and with both Eve and Kieman indebted to him. The tone of the manga implies that the narwhal negotiations also end happily, but even with a final diagram, it’s unclear whether the transaction changes the balance of power in the Kerube marketplace. Lawrence and Holo, however, obtain the lead on the book they’re investigating and set off for their next destination.

For those familiar with the light novels, Fran and Hughes get the briefest of cameos before the setting shifts to Lenos. To be honest, they don’t have much to do with the manga version, and their appearance seems rather forced. That’s also the case with a rather lengthy scene at the Beast and Fish Tail. As such, the volume closes before the next arc can begin in earnest. However, the creators do leave readers with a tantalizing hook, an unexpected encounter with Elsa from Tereo.

One other thing I noticed about this volume is that the women seem to be a lot more…er, curvier. Holo’s one thing, but when Eve collapses on Lawrence’s bed without her cloak, her chest is so big it seems impossible she could have hidden her gender. And their visit at the Beast and Fish Tail seems more about showing off the barkeep’s ample bosom than anything else.

Extras include the title page in color and closing remarks from the creators.

In Summary

The Kerube arc finally concludes! It’s been a difficult story to follow with so many players and backroom deals. Although Col’s coin mystery fits neatly into the wheelings and dealings, I can’t tell whether the northerners or southerners get ahead at the end. Lawrence and company, however, definitely profit, and they move on to the next arc, which apparently will lead to the manga’s final conflict.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Souvenirs from Asia: Sanrio Bonanza Part 4

If my husband’s November trip was the Haikyu!! bonanza, his December trip was the Sanrio bonanza. The variety of Hello Kitty goods never ceases to amaze me. Nor does my husband’s appetite for them. As with the Haikyu!! bonanza, I’ll be splitting this batch of souvenirs into a few posts.

fabric

Last in our Sanrio bonanza are several pieces of Hello Kitty themed print fabric. Cute as they are, they’re actually a consolation purchase. See, my husband has been wanting a piece of Japanese clothing, either a yukata, haori, or happi coat. However, he wants one with a Godzilla pattern, more specifically a chibi Godzilla pattern. Everything we found remotely resembling this was always for very small children. So we figured we’d make one on our own.

Unfortunately, finding the appropriate fabric has been a challenge. Searches on eBay and Amazon have turned up nothing, and local fabric stores don’t carry anything of the sort. We hoped to find something during our 2012 trip to Japan, but Akihabara’s goods don’t include bolts of cloth, and forays to Tokyu Hands and department store fabric sections also turned up nothing.

Then last fall, I got a new lead from-of all places-manga. I was reading Higashimura’s Princess Jellyfish, and in one chapter, the characters need fabric so one gets dispatched to the Nippori district.  I’d never heard of it before, but a quick Internet search revealed that it is Tokyo’s Fabric Town.

As such, my husband took the train to Nippori Station with high hopes of finally getting his hands on the elusive Godzilla fabric. What he found were stores with shelves packed floor to ceiling with bolts and bolts of a mind blowing variety of cloth. Unfortunately, everything was in Japanese, he had no idea how things were organized, and his Japanese speaking skills are rough. So if Godzilla really was there, my husband couldn’t locate him.

However, he did spot a pile of Sanrio fabric. Ergo my textile souvenirs.

Now I just have to learn how to use the sewing machine…

Manga Review: Barakamon Vol. 6

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 6! (For my reviews of previous volumes, click here.)

Back cover blurb

Handsome young calligrapher Seishuu Handa has returned to Tokyo for a calligraphy competition. But being away from the island is preventing him from perfecting his work?! Meanwhile, Sensei’s sudden absence is causing turmoil for his island neighbors!

The Review

The interesting thing about Volume 6 is that our main character and the islander cast spend nearly the entire volume apart. Thus, we get an extended look at Handa in his native environment. Yet the craziness that characterizes this series is not limited to the country and continues in the city. This is partly thanks to Handa’s own high strung temperament and delicate ego. The rest can mostly be attributed to his mother. Unlike Handa’s stone-faced dad, his mom looks young and acts even younger. She’s kind of a cross between Hina’s ultra sensitivity and the island nurse’s ill temper. Between her and Kousuke serving as a kind of Naru substitute, it’s as if Handa never left the island.

However, Handa has gone home for a purpose, and the impact of his time on the island is evident as he accomplishes his goal and more. Not only does he reconcile with the Director and grow as an artist, he matures as a human being. And in the midst of an intense Handa family discussion, we get an unexpected look at Handa Senior’s past with the island and another snippet of information connected to Naru.

Meanwhile, back at the island, the kids are feeling Handa’s absence. He may be gone, but he dominates Volume 6′s three island arcs. Act 45 is packed with the kids’ mini-anecdotes about Handa so it’s like he’s never left. Act 48 shows the fruits of the calligraphy lessons he’s given Miwa and Tama, and it’s a fun change of pace to watch the girls, who usually gang up on their sensei, turn on each other. And in Act 51, we get a variation on Handa’s house getting messed up with Hiroshi subbing in as the adult figure trying to get everyone to clean the place up. In short, our highbrow calligrapher may have rubbed off on them some, but some things won’t ever change.

Extras include a bonus four-page manga, translation notes, and pictures of a Barakamon limited-edition figure (which is sadly only available in Japan).

In Summary

Volume 6 is both pivotal and revealing. Not only does Handa return home to apologize for the incident that resulted in his island exile, he also makes decisions that will determine the trajectory of his life and career. On top of that, Handa’s parents bring out a whole new aspect of our genius calligrapher. For those who favor Barakamon’s boisterous style of humor, fear not. Handa may not have the villagers driving him nuts, but his mom does a fine job on her own, and it’s a nice change from the usual clueless-city-boy-in-the-country fare.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Souvenirs from Asia: Sanrio Bonanza Part 3

If my husband’s November trip was the Haikyu!! bonanza, his December trip was the Sanrio bonanza. The variety of Hello Kitty goods never ceases to amaze me. Nor does my husband’s appetite for them. As with the Haikyu!! bonanza, I’ll be splitting this batch of souvenirs into a few posts.

mech toys

transformerThese next items were a truly unusual find. For some products, combining it with Hello Kitty is a match made in heaven. Then there are others that leave you wondering who proposed the match and who was crazy enough to approve it. To me, the marriage of Kitty and Transformers is an absolutely bizarre one. I can’t think of anyone who would want a Kitty Optimus Prime. No, I take that back… My husband finds it irresistible, but the age 40-50 male Hello Kitty market is a really tiny one.

The improbability of this product aside, its packaging is pretty amusing. Kitty aficionados know that she weighs three apples, and they incorporated that fact into her technical specifications.

TRANS FORM

truckNext we have a toy a bit more in line with what I’d expect from a Hello Kitty toy: a Kitty penny racer. Or, more accurately, a 10 yen coin racer. (My husband bought these gems in Hong Kong International Airport, but they were made for the Japanese market.) It’s cute and actually reminds me of the Hello Kitty food truck that goes around California. And if the food truck people were able to add it to their merchandise I’m sure they’d make a killing.

So there you have it. Who says Hello Kitty can’t expand into traditionally boys toys?

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Progressive Vol. 003

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 released Volume 3 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

Having reached the second floor of Aincrad, Asuna decides to have a player-controlled blacksmith upgrade her beloved sword, a rare Wind Fleuret – but when the unimaginable happens and the sword is shattered in the attempt, Kirito suspects foul play. Did the blacksmith really just happen to destroy an incredibly valuable item? And if not, is there any way to get it back? If there is a conspiracy of thieves, how can they be stopped before they spread too much mistrust? The game of death is bad enough already!

The Review

Progressive’s sister series Fairy Dance lays on the fanservice pretty thick, but with Asuna as the main character in Progressive I thought the mangaka would be more high-minded in those matters. Well, Volume 3 proved me wrong. Two tense scenes turn into panty-revealing moments for Asuna, and when Kirito has her materialize all her items, it’s practically a rain of lingerie. The series might as well be called Underwear Art Online. On top of that, the Rat spends as much time making lewd insinuations about Kirito’s intentions toward Asuna as she does providing game-relevant information. Perhaps this is to raise Asuna’s moe level for males, but as a female reader, I find it irritating to have those elements diminish Asuna’s dignity.

Moving on to the plot, both the SAO anime and the Aincrad manga painted Kirito as a lone wolf who, after the defeat of the Level 1 Boss, doesn’t really interact with Asuna until many levels later. However, the Progressive storyline depicts them as a kind of dynamic duo. They’re still only in Level 2, but they are widely perceived by the SAO community as an item. After Asuna’s Wind Fleuret shatters, they investigate the incident together, and they also continue teaming up in the dungeons.

Asuna is not your typical gamer, and thanks to flashbacks of her upbringing, we understand why she thinks and acts the way she does. At times, those differences give her an edge over Kirito, but for most of Volume 003, she’s the weaker partner. Kirito’s constantly helping and bailing her out and often winds up slapped for his efforts.

Volume 003 also brings recent cast addition Nezha to the forefront. When he first appeared in the middle of Volume 002, I considered him an insignificant extra. However, the mangaka very cleverly puts the blacksmith at the center of a mystery, and immediately thereafter involves him in an NPC quest with Asuna. Progressive takes a much closer look at the early trials of SAO than the other versions, and Nezha demonstrates the difficulties of a player handicapped by hardware issues, which is a compelling twist on the game of death.

Extras include the title page and table of contents in color and bonus illustration.

In Summary

Progressive ratchets up the fanservice in Volume 003. Fortunately, the increase of panty shots doesn’t signal the end of good writing. Asuna’s shattered sword leads to an intriguing mystery followed by the introduction of a devastating hardware-related predicament that wasn’t included in the Aincrad arc. In addition, Kirito/Asuna fans will be gratified to see the pair together more often than not despite Kirito’s decision to go solo.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Souvenirs from Asia: Sanrio Bonanza Part 2

If my husband’s November trip was the Haikyu!! bonanza, his December trip was the Sanrio bonanza. The variety of Hello Kitty goods never ceases to amaze me. Nor does my husband’s appetite for them. As with the Haikyu!! bonanza, I’ll be splitting this batch of souvenirs into a few posts.

Our next items were purchased at the Shenzhen 85° Daily Cafe. 85°, for those unfamiliar with the establishment, is a Taiwanese chain specializing in coffee and baked goods. It’s spread to several countries, including the United States. However, merchandise varies by region, and I’m pretty sure there were limited to Asia.

mugs

It’s a series of Sanrio mugs. As you can see, they showcase various characters, but Hello Kitty’s trademark bow marks them all. Functionality-wise, the design’s a bit clunky. The mugs are awkwardly huge, and the covers are made of silicone, which makes me question their insulation effectiveness. Also the figurines inset into the mugs are plastic not porcelain (which is probably why they’re not microwave-safe).In short, it’s not really practical tableware.

mug

As a decoration or collectors item, however, it’s cute. It could also serve pretty well as a holder for your Sanrio pens and pencils. And the nice thing for Sanrio fans is that the collection includes characters I’ve not seen in a while. In addition to Hello Kitty, my husband returned with the ones for Badz Maru, Purin, and Little Twin Stars.

I’m not sure what kind of deal 85° struck with Sanrio, but if they put out more character dishware, I hope they maintain the cuteness factor, but level up the practicality aspect.

 

Manga Review: Oresama Teacher Vol. #19

Mafuyu is a high school delinquent who wants to turn over a new leaf. So when she transfers schools, she thinks she’ll finally be able to live the life of a normal girl. There’s just one problem: her teacher  Mr. Saeki is a bigger delinquent than she is!

Oresama Teacher is a shojo manga that offers humor of the silly variety. Volume 19 has been released, and you can read on for the review. (For those who are interested, you can click here for my reviews of earlier volumes).

Back Cover Blurb

Hayasaka is losing his memories! It’s a stressful situation, but he doesn’t really remember his friends in the Public Morals Club, so he doesn’t have anyone to turn to for help. When he gets suspended for fighting, he decides there’s no reason to go back to Midorigaoka. But Mafuyu and Yui aren’t going to give up on their friend, even if they have to travel deep into the mountains to a house full of dark secrets to find him!

The Review

Just as Volume 17 was all about Yui, this volume is all about Hayasaka. Tsubaki-sensei has been dropping hints for some time that something isn’t exactly right with our plain and simple delinquent. Now we discover the depth of his dysfunction, and although Momochi is the catalyst that unravels everything, Hayasaka’s brokenness goes beyond anything Momochi’s meddling could inflict by itself.

Hayasaka hasn’t said much about his family life, and all this time Tsubaki-sensei has never revealed his given name. Now we learn why. I’ve been dying to know what was in the picture in Hayasaka’s wallet (the one that Yui stole during the “Art of The Echo”), and it took me completely by surprise. In fact, I doubt anyone will be able to guess what it shows. But that’s not the only shocker, and they keep piling one on top of the other. At one point, the other members of the Public Morals Club declare it “sounds like a soap opera,” and it does. Yet crazy as the new details are, they do jibe with what we know of Hayasaka so it does work.

In the midst of Hayasaka’s drama, we also get the scoop on Momochi’s “power” and the true purpose behind the Student Council. As Mafuyu suspected in the previous volume, the President’s bet is completely separate from his father’s bet with Takaomi. Although there are still unknowns about motives, these revelations put Momochi and the President in a different light. As Volume 19 closes, well-established battle lines look like they’re about to be redrawn, and I look forward to seeing who will side with whom.

Extras in this volume include Characters and Story Thus Far, 4-panel comics, End Notes, and a character relationship chart.

In Summary

Momochi’s machinations result in Hayasaka getting into a brawl. He goes home for the duration of his suspension from school, and Mafuyu and company get a hitherto unseen look at his family life. Tsubaki-sensei lays the dysfunction pretty thick, but a strong “power-of-friendship” thread carries the story through Hayasaka’s over-the-top past to a feel-good conclusion.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Souvenirs from Asia: Sanrio Bonanza Part 1

If my husband’s November trip was the Haikyu!! bonanza, his December trip was the Sanrio bonanza. The variety of Hello Kitty goods never ceases to amaze me. Nor does my husband’s appetite for them. As with the Haikyu!! bonanza, I’ll be splitting this batch of souvenirs into a few posts.

kitty senbei

To start we have a box of “Hello Kitty no Ebisenbei.” Translation: Hello Kitty’s shrimp flavored rice crisps. Hello Kitty snack items are fairly common even in the United States, but few package designs have this level of refined cuteness. It’s a nice blend of traditional Japanese themes plus the adorableness that can only come from having Kitty-san in crustacean costume.

The other unusual thing about this particular product is that the senbei pretty much looks like the rice crisp Kitty’s holding in the picture. Most Hello Kitty branded foods incorporate some aspect of her into their appearance. For example, brandishing a stamp with her outline. The senbei is just a regular senbei with a small shrimp in it. If I didn’t see the box, I’d have never guessed they were specifically Hello Kitty’s.

And like the Haikyu!! manju, the senbei were average in terms of taste. However, the box is so cute I might just have to keep it!

Manga Review: Master Keaton Vol. #4

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. Read on for the review of Volume 4. (For my reviews of previous volumes, click here.)

The Review

Volume 4 begins with the three-part “Hamelin” tale, unusually long for this series. It brings together several of the elements that drive Master Keaton’s appeal: mystery, action, and justice with history and legend interwoven throughout. While it is thrilling to watch Keaton outmaneuver his Eastern European adversaries and unravel the riddles from a gypsy concentration camp, the actual basis for all the codes and hidden messages is rather weak. Given the situation the gypsies were in, it seems more plausible for their leader to spread the name of their betrayer rather than keep it under wraps.

That weakness also shows up in the two-part “Fake Tricolor Flag.” This arc has the Northern Ireland conflict as a backdrop, and Keaton faces off against another former SAS. The creators do an excellent job depicting the IRA/SAS tension and showing the humanity of both sides. Yet when Keaton finally unravels the secret of the murdered IRA bomb specialist’s “detonator,” it feels contrived and a bit of a letdown.

For the most part, Keaton is insurance investigator in this volume. Only in “The Thistle Coat” is he fully an archeologist and historian. That arc is delightful in how Keaton retraces a cross-cultural journey starting with only a couple of clues. But despite his desire for a university position, he’s ever on the outside of academia looking in. As such, his character development remains stagnant. The stories themselves are engaging, but in half of these chapters, Keaton’s more of a supporting character than the main player. In “The Missing Blue Bird” (which has definite similarities to Urasawa’s subsequent Monster), Keaton barely has a part at all. The lack of character development also extends to daughter Yuriko and dad Taihei. They get their usual cameo chapters, but much like Keaton, those stories are less about them and more about the people they encounter.

Extras include the first pages of Chapter 5 in color and a sound effects glossary.

In Summary

Political conflicts fuel most of the tension in this installment of Master Keaton. From Nazi atrocities to unrest in Ireland to South African apartheid, these elements make for a vibrant backdrop, especially for modern history enthusiasts. As in previous volumes, if you’re more interested in action than character development, Master Keaton shouldn’t have any trouble holding your attention. However, the underlying premise for some of the intrigue is weak, and Keaton himself often seems a secondary character rather than the main driver of the action.

First published at the Fandom Post.