Manga Review: Master Keaton Vol. #9

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

Back cover blurb

Constantly flying around England, Japan and Europe, Taichi Hiraga Keaton is one busy insurance investigator! With a gentle heart and an abundance of combat and survival skills gained from his days with the SAS, Keaton solves numerous difficult cases even while his love of archaeology calls to him…

The Review

Keaton doesn’t seem to get academic gigs anymore. But though his dream of a university position has turned into a running joke, Volume 9 does give him one chance to help on yet another colleague’s dig. Those who prefer Keaton as archaeologist will enjoy the ancient Celtic setting of “The Forest Where A God Lives.” As with so many digs, Keaton’s friend faces an adversary out to sabotage his excavation. However, the creators do an excellent job weaving the local legend into the excavation mystery, and the end does have a truly unexpected twist.

Aside from that chapter, Keaton doesn’t handle artifacts much. Just as his academic opportunities have dried up, his investigative assignments have less of an archeological angle. Out of the five jobs he gets, two of them (“A Gift from the Dead” and “House of Roses”) read like standard murder-mysteries. A third (“The Heart’s Walls”) is mostly social and political commentary on East Germany. The remaining two, “Tom Bower” and “Knight of the Lions,” have historical components, but they are literary and not archeological. I should mention that “Knight of the Lions,” which is the only two-chapter arc in the volume, had a disappointingly weak plot. The creators do a nice job of setting the stage with shadowy enemies, but the Don Quixote clue used by the kidnapping victim seems too vague for Keaton to draw any kind of conclusion. However, this story is unusual in that Keaton and his allies do not claim complete victory over their adversaries. In addition, those more interested in Keaton’s SAS skills will get to see them at work.

He also leaps into action against gun-toting bad guys in “Twilight of the Migratory Birds,” ”Island of the Coward,” and “Interview Day.” Interestingly, all these stories involve attacks by various Mafia during Keaton’s time off. The tone ranges widely, however. The hostages and wounded detective keep the tension high in “Island of the Coward.” On the other hand, the blithe attitude of Keaton’s womanizing dad in “Interview Day” turns a run-in with the Chinese mafia into a comedy. “Twilight of the Migratory Birds” also has light moments but blends in a healthy amount of introspection.

The remaining two stories in this set seem like filler, quite frankly. “The Legendary Faint Smile” follows a lonely Japanese housewife, and “Man of the Tower” is about a businessman friend of Keaton’s. While the characters suffer personal pain and loss, their tragedies are more mundane than earth-shattering, and they don’t stick around long enough for us to really care about them. On top of that, Keaton’s unique abilities don’t come into play, making those chapters a tiresome read.

Extras include the first four pages in color, twelve pages partly in color, and a sound effects glossary.

In Summary

A mixed bag of stories and story quality. Keaton gets portrayed as archeologist, bodyguard, detective, and long-suffering son, but while some plots are rock-solid, others are shaky, and two arcs don’t seem to go anywhere at all. As such, every Master Keaton fan will probably find a chapter to like and another to dislike in this installment.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Liselotte & Witch’s Forest Vol. #2

Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket was one of the most popular shojo titles in the United States in the previous decade. Now Yen Press has released Takaya-sensei’s Liselotte & Witch’s Forest, which showcases the mangaka’s distinctive art style, a new upbeat heroine, and a fantasy setting. Read on for the review of Volume 2 (For reviews of other volumes, click here).

Back cover blurb

Liselotte, the daughter of a feudal lord, has been exiled to the land’s easternmost reaches by order of her older brother. Despite the bitter past that put her in these straits, Lise enjoys her new life with her twin attendants, Alto and Anna, the familiar Yomi, and Engetsu, a young man who not only harbors a secret, but also bears a striking resemblance to an old acquaintance, Enrich. However, Lise’s quaint idyll is shattered when none other than a witch comes calling!

The Review

Takaya-sensei mentions in her notes that “Volume 1 unfolded at a relatively leisurely pace.” Well, she makes up for it with Volume 2. She starts with flashbacks and a conversation with the local villagers that shed light on Liselotte’s circumstances and brings context to En and Liselotte’s mutual attachment. His reappearance in Liz’s life is no accident. And random though Yomi’s entrance seemed, he also has a reason for hanging around Liz and En.

Then the witch from Volume 1 reappears, this time by Liz’s house. Overall, the illustrations do an excellent job of creating an air of tension and mystery. Unfortunately for one forest scene, sound effects are key to that terrifying atmosphere, and I spent several confused seconds hunting down Yen Press’ tiny sound effects translations (which are almost buried by the original Japanese sound effects) before I could figure out what was happening. To offset the creepiness of the witches, Takaya-sensei inserts silliness in the form of Liz’s blithe decision to embrace the witches as neighbors. Thus continues the somewhat hackneyed joke of Liz’s inedible food.

Her ditzy attitude seems inappropriate for approaching a powerful enemy, but it turns out to be entirely fitting. In one fell swoop, Liz exposes the witch and her familiar to be just as silly as Liz herself. That discovery is a letdown, especially after all that hair-raising anticipation, but Hilde the inept, crybaby witch does make a suitable companion for Liz and company.

Takaya-sensei, however, quickly replaces the witches with another enemy, one whom Liz definitely won’t offer a slice of cake. Magic takes a backseat to swordplay when an assassin explodes on the scene. Apparently, humans are more dangerous than witches, and we get to witness En’s heroics in a duel interspersed with glimpses of a past fight. Some of En’s dagger skills are a bit difficult to follow, but overall, the battle brings Volume 2 to a thrilling and emotional close.

Extras include embedded author’s notes, the title page in color, and translation notes.

In Summary

Volume 2 fills the blanks of Volume 1 to make what felt like a random assemblage of characters without clear direction into the tale of tragic lovers grasping at a second chance. Takaya-sensei had done a marvelous job of painting the witches as a malevolent threat to Liz, so when she reveals their true nature, it’s a disappointment. However, they’re quickly replaced with another adversary, one that sheds light on the past and leaves us with a heart-pounding cliffhanger.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Behind the Scenes Vol. #3

There are a LOT of anime and manga centered around glamorous idols and movie/TV stars, but what about the humble folk that do the grungy, tedious work behind the camera? The unseen teams charged with creating film sets, costumes, and props are the subject of Bisco Hatori’s Behind the Scenes!! Viz Media has released Volume 3, and you can read on for the review. (Reviews of previous volumes can be found here.)

Back cover blurb

Ryuji Goda, Art Squad president and sterling example of self-confidence, has become anxiety-ridden Ranmaru’s greatest role model. Surely under the guidance of such a genius, Ranmaru will come into his own? But now a film camp at a remote mansion is putting Goda’s assurance to the test. Is Ranmaru up to the challenge of saving his mentor from his greatest fear—a child?

The Review

In anime and manga, the camp setting is generally used for clubs to practice, train, and bond. However, even though the Art Squad says they are going to “Film Camp” in Scene 11, it’s actually a multi-day shoot at a borrowed vacation house. Aside from the fact that they are staying at the shoot location overnight, the Art Squad is just slaving away for student director Riichi Kai again. In other words, it’s the usual unreasonable demands sprinkled with set design techniques. The only truly new element is that this film cast includes Rin Debito, a child actor (and a paid one at that). While the clash between the snooty Rin and child-phobic Goda is entertaining, Hatori-sensei also tries to paint the kid in a sympathetic light, but Rin’s personal dilemma only makes him come off as inconsistent. As such, when Ranmaru gets Rin back on track with a cliche phrase, the resolution seems much too convenient.

Once film camp is over, we get a chapter dedicated to Tomu. Aside from the fact that he’s a ball of energy and his family’s loaning the Squad studio space, we don’t know too much about him. However, Hatori-sensei fills in a lot of blanks when Tomu and Ranmaru lend a hand to the Modernist Cinema Club. For a simple-minded character, Tomu winds up in rather complicated situations, and it’s fun getting into his brain.

The volume closes with the Squad’s summertime fundraising projects. While these arcs feature the usual art design and crafts, they are different in that the Squad isn’t under the thumb of a director. In other words, we get to see them direct themselves–with hilarious results. Whereas they only dealt with one kid at Film Camp, they field a whole bunch when they hold a craft workshop. Then they tackle something more in line with their skills when asked to create a haunted house. While this project definitely showcases Maasa’s talents, mouse-hearted Ranmaru winds up key to their success in a surprising (and amusing) way.

Extras include bonus mini manga, embedded notes from the creator, glossary, and author bio.

In Summary

Although it’s billed as “Film Camp,” the Art Squad’s off-campus getaway is really just the usual student film set chaos, albeit with a child actor in the mix. However, we do get to see the Squad in a different element when they tackle summer fundraising. A healthy amount of art/craft techniques are, of course, incorporated throughout (including detailed instructions on shrinky dinks), and those curious about the Squad members will get some intriguing glimpses into their personal lives.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Handa-Kun Vol. 4

Fans of Satsuki Yoshino’s Barakamon can now get even more Handa-centric comedy. Yen Press has released Handa-Kun, a prequel series which chronicles the high school days of our favorite genius calligrapher. Read on for my review of Volume 4. (Click here for reviews of other volumes).

Back cover blurb

The trials of high school life continue to vex poor Handa-kun. This time he’s drawn the attention of the school’s wannabe manga creators and a passive aggressive library rep, but the true horror high school has in store for him waits just around the corner…

The Review

Of the Handa Army, Yukio is the only one who isn’t delusional. He’s also the one member who doesn’t actually want to be part of the group. But the others won’t let him go, and it’s only a matter of time before Yukio’s reputation is affected. Thus, we have Chapter 16: Handa-kun and the Mundane, in which Yukio experiences a classic high school manga scenario, the letter in the shoe locker. But instead of romance, it turns into a parody, thanks to his association with the Handa Army. While the Handa Army’s commentary on the subject is predictably off the wall, Yoshino-sensei does a good job of setting up Yukio’s expectations and then pulling the rug out from under him.

Then the story moves on to introduce new characters. In Chapter 17, we meet the Beautie-Girls Art Club, an otaku mangaka club. Although they make Handa the subject of their next bulletin in hopes of boosting sales, this chapter mainly pokes fun at extreme geek culture and mannerisms, which, for some reason, include an inordinate amount of puking. To add to the club members’ already unstylish appearances, Yoshino-sensei doesn’t seem to put much effort into drawing them. And despite devoting a 38-page chapter to the club’s creative efforts, we don’t actually see any of the Handa-centric manga they make.

Chapter 18 follows with yet another new character. Kasumi Hirayama is a more typical personality in that she is a Handa fan who admires him from afar. And as library representative, she does most of her admiring amid the bookshelves. However, just as Chapter 16 was more about Yukio’s interaction with the Handa Army than Handa himself, Chapter 18 winds up more about the Handa Army’s impact on the introverted student librarian than her interactions with Handa.

Then as if to showcase all those who’ve fallen under Handa’s spell, Chapter 19 offers a massive convergence of HND-sufferers stalking–I mean, lovingly watching over him as he walks home. The funniest is the most recent evolution of Miyoko Kinjou, whose nickname Eraser is surprisingly fitting. For the most part, Handa avoids direct interaction with his classmates but under such an onslaught, the chapter culminates in a rare moment where he directly addresses the fanatics (but gets completely misunderstood as usual).

Extras include bonus manga, translation notes, and an installment of “Handa-Kun News.”

In Summary

A little Handa goes a long way. Although his actions are minimal in the first three chapters, they’re still enough to save a club and revitalize the school’s neglected library. We do experience a bit of Handa’s thoughts when fanatics descend en masse after school, but even then, the focus in more on the victims of HND syndrome than the angsty teen himself.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Barakamon Vol. 12

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

Back cover blurb

Santa, huh…? Guess each household tends to have its own customs…. Jingle jingle jingle jingle….Christmas has come to the island!Handsome young calligrapher Seishuu Handa tries his hand at the Santa business for the first time! But could it be that Handa Claus isn’t the only one who’s come to visit all the nice little children…? The love of every dad warms the world in Volume 12 of this hot ‘n’ hearty island comedy!

The Review

Volume 12 opens with two filler chapters, both highlighting the immaturity of our cast, no matter what their actual age. Act 88 has the first graders’ lesson in personal pronouns turning into a three-way challenge between Hina, Naru, and Handa. Act 89 focuses on the middle school kids with Shin Yoshida correcting Miwa and Tama’s misconceptions about Higashino (I thought he was Dash, too, girls!) and farmer Higashino winding up with a worse replacement nickname.

The story then dives into a three-chapter Christmastime arc that addresses one of the long-standing mysteries of the series: what happened to Naru’s parents. As it turns out, the truth isn’t tragic or dramatic at all. It’s so disappointingly mundane that it’s a wonder the islanders, with their supposed penchant for local gossip, haven’t mentioned Naru’s dad Yuuichiro. Despite his infrequent visits home, he’s still considered part of the community, so much so that he can’t take ten steps through the village without someone stopping him to chat.

But even though the reasons that keep him away from Naru are hardly titillating, Yuuichiro does make an exciting entrance when he first appears. His return is preceded by an intense Christmas Eve debate among the children regarding the existence of Santa Claus. Of course, Handa gets dragged into it, and as midnight approaches, readers get to see how Christmas in Japan is like and unlike western celebrations.

With the villagers treating Yuuichiro’s return as no big deal, Handa’s finally able to broach subjects he’d previously assumed were taboo. In fact, Yuuichiro is the one to invite Handa to chat with him. The conversation that follows is an interesting one. Although Yuuichiro does not communicate with his daughter and is mostly absent from the village, he calls Handa, who has been watching over Naru, “an outsider.” This gets Handa thinking about who the insiders and outsiders are in his life, once more causing him to reflect upon the connections he’s made in the village.

Extras include two bonus manga, translation notes, and another installment of “Barakamon News.”

In Summary

Christmas comes to the island! With small children eagerly anticipating gifts, Handa takes on the role of Santa Claus only to get upstaged by Naru’s dad. If you’ve been wondering where Naru’s parents are or if they even exist, this is the volume to get.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Sweetness & Lightning Vol. #02

Dads rarely play a large role in shojo manga. In fact, fathers are often completely absent from the cast. However, Kodansha’s food-centric Sweetness & Lightning has a single dad as its lead. Read on for the review of Volume 2! (For the review of Volume 1, click here).

The Review

This series is set up such that the characters gain new skills and tackle progressively more complex dishes as the story progresses. However, because one character is a preschooler, there is the added element of appealing to a youngster’s palate. As such, Chapter 6 deals with an apparently universal dilemma: getting a child to eat vegetables. Western readers will easily relate to Tsumugi’s dislike of peppers and Kohei’s ploys to coax her into eating the dreaded veggies. Then, after that massive effort to get Tsumugi to eat healthier, Amagakure-sensei follows up with a story about making donuts.

When the focus isn’t on food, kiddie humor and antics predominate as most secondary characters are from Tsumugi’s world, either fellow preschoolers or their parents. However, Kotori’s friend and neighbor Shinobu, who was introduced in Volume 1, gets more appearances in this volume, and having Shinobu’s company on weekend outings makes Kotori seem more like a regular high school student and less a friendless lone wolf. Volume 2 also brings Kohei’s old schoolmate Yagi into the story, although he’s portrayed mainly as Tsumugi’s emergency babysitter. But in addition to serving as peers for Kotori and Kohei to open up to, Shinobu and Yagi also bring kitchen expertise, giving our newbie cooks much needed guidance in Chapter 9′s gyoza party. (Although Kotori’s mom has been providing recipes all along, she’s yet to teach them in person.)

With more people aware of their “dinner dates,” Kotori becomes increasingly self conscious about her possible crush on Kohei. However, that attraction remains firmly one-sided with Kohei’s focus fixed on being a good parent to his daughter. Perhaps feelings between teacher and student will eventually result in some drama, but for now, it’s all about working together–Shinobu and Yagi included–to keep Tsumugi well fed and happy.

Extras include recipes with conversion notes, a three-page mini-manga, creator’s afterword, and translation notes.

In Summary

Five new chapters and five new recipes! We also get more characters to help cook with Kotori’s friend Shinobu and Kohei’s buddy Yagi joining them in the kitchen. However, Tsumugi’s needs are what dictates the menu items and dominates the story arcs.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Everyone’s Getting Married Vol. 3

Most romances in Viz Media’s Shojo Beat line are targeted toward a high school audience, but Everyone’s Getting Married is actually aimed toward older readers. It’s twenty-something angst instead of teen angst, and you can read on for the review of Volume 3. (For the review of previous volumes, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

Successful career woman Asuka Takanashi has an old-fashioned dream of getting married and becoming a housewife, but popular TV newscaster Ryu Nanami would rather die than ever get married. Ryu’s work brings Yuko Sakura—the married woman he had an affair with before he met Asuka—back into his life. Is she the reason Ryu will never marry?

The Review

In the last volume, Ryu and Asuka were struggling to find time for romance in the midst of their busy schedules. Now new characters threaten to tear them apart. Yuko Sakura is the married actress rumored to be the reason Ryu got transferred to New York. Their love affair has been mentioned since Volume 1, but this is the first time we see Ryu and his old flame together. Not surprisingly, circumstances at the TV station put the two together for an assignment, and even though their affair is supposedly water under the bridge, their behavior during their press conference makes Asuka wonder if he’s really over Yuko. Not to mention, Yuko is a ridiculously formidable rival. Not only is she beautiful and famous, Yuko, unlike Asuka, will never pressure Ryu about marriage.

However, Asuka’s not the only one having to contend with jealousy and insecurity. Enter Akito Kamiya, Asuka’s acquaintance in the banking industry. No sooner has he stepped into the story than he’s offering Asuka exactly the kind of married life she’s dreamed of. He’s not a hideous reject either; he and Ryu are so similarly drawn, it’s difficult to tell them apart unless Ryu’s wearing his glasses. Kamiya’s abrupt interest in Asuka seems contrived, but his blunt honesty has a refreshing quality that makes it difficult for me to dislike him.

Although it’s overly convenient how these two rivals pop up at the same time, I do appreciate the fact that it isn’t just Asuka or Ryu who suddenly feels threatened. Asuka is forced to reevaluate what she truly wants and how she’s treating Ryu. As for Ryu, we get glimpses of the type of relationship he had with Yuko. His reasons for rejecting marriage, however, remain a secret, and that’s the tidbit Miyazono used to lure you into the next volume.

Extras include a note from the creator and the seven-page bonus story “No Smoking for Nanaryu.”

In Summary

New characters appear! Ryu and Asuka’s relationship faces its first real test when Ryu’s former lover reenters his life. At the same time, a handsome acquaintance offers to give Asuka the homemaker life she so desperately wants. As such, the sizzle between Asuka and Ryu takes a backseat as emotional turmoil takes center stage.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Todai Bunkasai: The University of Tokyo Komaba Campus Festival!

Todai's froggy mascot Komakkero

Todai’s froggy mascot Komakkero

Two months ago, I wrote about FC, who was taking his anime fan girlfriend to the University of Tokyo  (Todai) school festival. Though it sounded like fun, Todai’s festival took place the weekend after Thanksgiving so I completely ruled out the possibility of my husband or myself going. However, as it turns out, our crazy endeavor to get to the Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! Musical put us in Tokyo that very weekend. So we actually went, too!

Todai holds two festivals per year, in November and in May. I’m not sure where the May one is located, but the November one takes place at Todai’s Komaba Campus, which is where lower division classes are located. (As such, all Todai students spend their first year at Komaba.)

This was my second bunkasai. I’m fairly confident that my experience at Komajo Girls School was more representative of a typical school festival. Having said that, I would absolutely recommend Todai’s bunkasai to the casual English-speaking tourist over a high school event. One, it is easily accessible. From Shibuya Station (a major Tokyo hub), you take the Keio Inokashira Line three minutes to the Komaba-todaimae Station. The campus entrance is literally right outside the station, and on festival day, you can’t miss it.

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Todai main gate on festival day!

That leads me to my second point: it is an open event. While many school festivals are for alumni and family/by invitation only, Todai’s is a massive public event. When we went, our train was packed, and it completely unloaded at the festival. These weren’t just college students. Packs of high school students, parents with toddlers and elementary age kids, and random foreigners like ourselves filled the University grounds.

 English language program guide

English language program guide

Three, unlike most bunkasai, this festival actually prepares for foreigners. For the 2016 festival, Todai had an English language web page and festival guide (available online and by request at the festival information centers). Plus, because Todai is Japan’s number one university, you have a pretty good chance of encountering an international student or one who’s travelled abroad who can speak English.

Now, even though I’ve stated that the Komajo bunkasai was a more representative experience, that’s not to say you’ll be missing out by going to Todai. Rather, it’s the opposite. Todai’s festival was like Komajo’s, only ten times bigger and chaotic. Crowds pack the halls and walkways, and students–some in costume–drum up business for stands of meat skewers, takoyaki, choco-banana, and crepes. Whereas Komajo only had one stage, Todai had three. Komajo had three or four rock bands; Todai had at least three classroom tuned “live”-style club venues with a different band scheduled every hour and that doesn’t include the bands on the main stages or the non-rock musical groups.

Todai students advertising something, but I have no idea what.

Todai students advertising something, but I have no idea what.

That was one of the biggest surprises for me. I think of the University of Tokyo  as an elite academic institution, not a hotbed of artistic activity. But the number and variety of musicians at the festival was staggering, ranging from the University’s choral group to jazz ensembles to the folk musicians playing Irish tunes at the Irish Cafe to hiphop vocalists soloing by the takoyaki stand. Our favorite was the AniOke (Anime Orchestra), a dozen string and woodwind musicians who played pieces from anime soundtracks. We were fortunate enough to hear their arrangements of Rozen Maiden and Your Lie in April themes before they left the stage.

Anime Orchestra!

Anime Orchestra!

I was equally surprised by the number of dance groups at the bunkasai. At least ten separate hip hop dance groups were practicing routines in the courtyard adjacent the cafeteria. I don’t how what event they were practicing for, but they were all quite skilled. Hula Circle KaWelina had about forty dancers performing hula at the Main Gate Plaza, and they were followed by a cosplay group doing The Prince of Tennis Musical 2 (a lot like Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!!, except with tennis rackets).

Hula dancers and cosplayers at the

Hula dancers and cosplayers at the Main Gate Plaza

Yet Todai’s elite academic institution aspect wasn’t completely absent from the bunkasai. Amid the festival style stands, haunted house, cafes, and performances, they had robotics and formula car displays and a kind of open house in the Life Sciences building with amphibians for elementary school boys to grab. After all, the University of Tokyo is THE school to aspire toward in Japan, and I’m sure many parents bought their children to inspire them toward that goal.

Well, my husband and I are way past our college years so we were more interested in the fun aspect. Here are a few more highlights.

Karuta demonstration. Karuta is a Japanese poetry card game I never would have heard of were it not for the anime Chihayafuru. It’s not exactly popular in the United States so it was a treat to see it live. The match we saw had college students playing against kids, and one player even wore hakama.

Karuta in real life!

Karuta in real life!

Cosplay cafe. Perhaps it was just this particular shift, but all the servers were male and most were cross-dressing. Not sure why that was so, but we had a pleasant conversation about anime with a third year law student in a magical girl costume (he’d studied abroad in Australia so his English was excellent) and his friend in a Halo-style outfit. This cosplay group was also responsible for the Prince of Tennis Musical 2 show at the Main Gate.

Tea ceremony. This was hosted by the University of Tokyo Urasenke Tea Ceremony Club, and the most traditional of the attractions we participated in. Located away from the festival hustle and bustle at Hakuinsha Pavilion, the tea ceremony was a formal affair, requiring us to sit seiza style for approximately a half hour (after it finished,my poor husband nearly fell over trying to get up). If you decide to participate in this, make sure to bring a folding style fan. (We were the only participants without one!)

Hakuinsha Pavilion

Hakuinsha Pavilion

I’d like to conclude by sending a big THANK YOU to FC in Belgium. We wouldn’t have made it if you hadn’t told me about the event. I hope you and your girlfriend had a fabulous time at the bunksasai. I know we did!

Manga Review: Are You Alice? Vol. 12

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 released the final volume, and you can read on for the review. (If you’re interested in my reviews for previous volumes, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

With the game to kill the White Rabbit abandoned, the remaining denizens of Wonderland set out to escort the White Rabbit to the final page of the story. But this is easier said than done because it’s no longer only Lewis Carroll’s interference with which they have to contend.

As “Probably” Alice and his ragtag group of allies undertake their first and last mission, they vow to uphold the sole rule of this new game-no matter who is sacrificed, there is no looking back…

The Review

Katagiri-sensei has consistently crafted beautifully illustrated scenes that brim with emotion, and this final volume delivers no less. The desperation of the remaining Wonderland residents resounds off the pages as does the Cheshire Cat’s complicated feelings toward the Alices we’ve encountered. Somewhat more convoluted, however, is the ultimate resolution to this Wonderland journey.

What started off as the game to kill the White Rabbit turned into a story about the correct way to kill Alice that somehow erupted into a battle of wills between a deranged writer and his characters. With reality invading the world of story and multiple forces manipulating the plot, this final volume feels like a race from scene to scene to wrap loose threads. Granted, Katagiri-sensei’s comical interchanges are funny as ever, but between all the fake Alices, Alice Liddell, and the elusive Alice in Wonderland, it’s difficult to keep track of what everyone is striving toward. However, the final showdown between Carroll and those trying to force him to complete his work is quite dramatic with a conclusion both surprising and violent.

The last few pages present an epilogue that shows where the survivors wind up. Those characters brought to Wonderland by the White Rabbit return to the real world, and its interesting to see the disparate places they came from. Our final glimpse of Carroll is somewhat troubling, but the future of the 89th Alice/Little Brother/Explosive Device is hopeful. As the Cheshire Cat says, his story “has yet to begin.”

In Summary

Not surprisingly, the Wonderland game ends with a gunshot and blood. To be honest, though, it’s a bit of a relief. On top of Wonderland’s inherent weirdness, the series has had so many different layers of violence, deceit, and insanity, it was difficult to keep track of it all. At any rate, readers who envision Lewis Carroll to be as crazy as his Hatter can consider Are You Alice? an uber-violent origin story for Alice in Wonderland.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Sweetness & Lightning Vol. #01

Dads rarely play a large role in shojo manga. In fact, fathers are often completely absent from the cast. However, Kodansha’s food-centric Sweetness & Lightning has a single dad as its lead. Read on for the review of Volume 1!

Back cover Blurb

Having lost his wife, math teacher Kouhei Inuzuka is doing his best to raise his young daughter Tsumugi as a single father. He’s pretty bad at cooking and doesn’t have a huge appetite to begin with, but chance brings his little family and one of his students, Kotori Iida, together for homemade adventures. With those three cooks in the kitchen, it’s no wonder this dinner table drama is so delicious.

The Review

Food-centric titles definitely form a legitimate manga genre. Many series like Shokugeki no Soma and Yakitate!! Japan use the kitchen as a battleground where cooking techniques resemble ninja skills with exotic tastes and ingredients as the rule. Sweetness and Lighting, however, falls on the other end of the spectrum. All of its foods and recipes are firmly grounded in reality. The characters are fairly ordinary as well, but the circumstances that bring them together are a little farfetched.

High school math teacher Kouhei Inuzuka is a widower struggling to raise his young daughter Tsumugi. Kotori Iida is a student whose restaurateur mother has taken a new media job that keeps her away from home. Neither Kotori nor Inuzuka can cook. However, thanks to a chance meeting in the park, the three begin preparing and sharing meals together in Kotori’s mom’s restaurant.

Generally speaking, storylines that have a high school teacher meeting with a student of the opposite gender outside of the classroom tend to lead to an illicit love affair. However, Sweetness emphasizes and reemphasizes the fact that Inuzuka has no perverted intentions toward Kotori. His supervisor at work knows about their meals, and Kotori’s mom is all for it. As far as everyone’s concerned, Kotori’s just a girl in an empty house who wants company at dinnertime, and lnuzuka’s just a guy desperate to give his daughter a home cooked meal. That innocent dynamic has the potential to change (Sweetness has a Teen rating, after all), but for now, the person that takes up all of lnuzuka’s love, thoughts, and energy is his daughter.

As far as the story goes, each chapter has a featured dish or meal, and the goal is for Inuzuka and Kotori to successfully make Tsumugi something yummy to eat. That’s where Kotori’s mom comes in. She’s too busy to spend time with her daughter yet able to leave ridiculously detailed cooking instructions for Kotori and Inuzuka. In a sense, this is a cooking primer. Each chapter includes a recipe, and the characters demonstrate the necessary techniques to get the job done. And while some of the ingredients and dishes may be foreign to Western readers, they are simple basics of Japanese cooking.

Extras include first three pages in color, author afterword, and translation notes.

In Summary

Food has a way of bringing different people together, and Sweetness and Lightning uses that premise to create a relationship between a single dad and one of his students. While teacher-student interactions in manga usually lead to a certain kind of drama, this story focuses solely on the efforts of two inept cooks to make a tasty meal for a motherless little girl. And if you’ve ever wanted to learn the basics of Japanese home cooking, this title might not be a bad place to start.

First published at The Fandom Post.