Archive for June 2010




Alice 19th

TITLE: Alice 19th
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Yuu Watase
PUBLISHER: Viz
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
CATEGORY: Shoujo
NUMBER OF VOLUMES: 7
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Yuu Watase (mangaka of Ceres: Celestial Legend, Fushigi Yugi, Imadoki, etc.), Card Captor Sakura, romance, drama, comedy

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We’ve all heard the saying, but in reality, words do have the power to hurt people on an emotional level, and the scars they leave behind on a person’s psyche can last much longer than a physical bruise or scratch.

In Alice 19th, battles are not fought with swords and guns. They are fought with words.

The heroine, Alice Seno, is an introverted teenager who lives in the shadow of her prettier and more popular older sister, Mayura. She has a crush on handsome upperclassman Kyo Wakamiya, but she doesn’t have the courage to tell him how she feels about him. Unfortunately, Mayura is also in love with Kyo and beats Alice to the punch by asking him out. Alice, not wanting to upset her sister, decides to keep her feelings for Kyo a secret and support their relationship.

One day, Alice comes across a mysterious rabbit named Nyozeka, who has the ability to transform into a cute little human girl. She gives Alice a special bracelet and informs her that she is a Lotus Master — a person with the ability to use Lotis Words. Lotis Words are a set of twenty-four runes that can be used to exorcise mara (bad feelings) from people’s hearts. In reference to the title, the first word Alice masters is the 19th word “rangu” (courage), when she saves Nyozeka from being hit by a car.

As a Lotis Master, the words Alice says have more power than those of regular people. She discovers this the hard way when during an argument with Mayura, she tells her sister to disappear. Mayura literally disappears, having been pulled into the darkness of the Inner Heart. Now Alice, along with Kyo, who is also discovered to be a Lotis Master, must learn to use the rest of the Lotis Words — as well as the legendary “lost word” — in order to save Mayura from being consumed by the hatred in her heart.

I’m a hardcore Yuu Watase fan, but in some ways, Alice 19th is the most disappointing of her works. Not because it is bad — it’s very good, in fact — but because it could have been a lot better. The problem is, the story is much bigger than the seven volumes she was given to tell it in. I would have liked this series to have been at least ten volumes, and preferably even longer. Alice and Kyo only really “master” maybe around five or six Lotis Words each; the rest they just memorize like studying for a vocabulary test, which comes off as such a cop-out when other Lotis Masters can study for years without learning all the words. Yes, perhaps reading about Alice, Kyo, and Frey (another Lotis Master from Norway who acts as their mentor and is in love with Alice) exorcizing the mara from people’s Inner Hearts might have become repetitive after a while, but I would have liked to have seen them learn to master the words, rather than just being told. That’s not good story-telling. A few of the Lotis Words aren’t even used in the series itself by anyone, instead only mentioned in bonus pages describing all the words!

Another major problem is that the rules of this series’ universe are terribly inconsistant. I don’t know if it’s a matter of translation, or if the original story is just as sloppy, but it seems like Watase changes the rules whenever it suits the plot, rather than having the plot work within a set list of guidelines. The biggest example is when the trio go inside Alice’s father’s Inner Heart. For some reason that I still don’t really get, only Alice’s Lotis Words will work there, when previously none of them have had trouble using Lotis Words in other people’s Inner Hearts. It’s really just an excuse to have Alice be the one to save her father by herself.

The story itself, however, is still good despite some short-comings in how it is told. I love the theme running through the story about the importance of communication and being true to your feelings, and the idea of fighting with words instead of weapons is a great way of conveying that theme. The great cast of characters also helps hold the plot together. Though Alice 19th comes off as being a plot-based story, I think it’s more enjoyable if you look at it as a character study. I don’t think I would have liked it as much if not for the characters, who make up for the weaknesses in the plot.

Loner Alice is very different from the usual Watase heroine, lacking the extroverted personality of say, Aya from Ceres or Tanpopo from Imadoki. I tend to like all of Watase’s female leads — yes, even the much-hated Miaka from Fushigi Yugi — but Alice is the only one I personally identify with. Like Alice, I tend to keep my feelings and opinions to myself, not wanting to cause trouble or take the risk of being hurt. I also can empathize with having a prettier and more popular sister (though in my case, I’m actually the older sister) and not having any close friends. In a lot of ways, reading Alice’s story is like reading my own diary, so it was very easy for me to understand her feelings and root for her to succeed.

I also really liked Kyo, who gets some fantastic character development throughout the series. Coming across at first as simply a nice guy with a penchant for using multi-syllabic words in conversation, as the reader learns more of his sad backstory, it is clear that he has a dark side to him that he tries very hard to hide from others and overcome. His feelings for Mayura and Alice are also refreshing in that, because of the things that happen in his backstory, he doesn’t really understand what he feels for them at first. It’s more realistic than falling for either one of them at first sight, and his confusion comes across as very believable.

Then there’s Frey, who is tons of fun. He’s the comic relief in the story, a shameless flirt who decides Alice will be the girl he marries the very first time they meet. Though he’s never a serious contender for Alice’s love, Frey and Kyo develop this great friendship/rivalry that leads to some of the series’ biggest laughs (and, I’m sure, fuels the slash-y dreams of yaoi fangirls). Like everyone else in the series, though, he too has a tragic past that he has to overcome. His story is probably the saddest in the series, in fact; I just wish it had been more foreshadowed in the beginning. As written, it kind of seems to come out of nowhere.

Disappointedly, the other three Lotis Masters who join the trio later on are not as fleshed out — another reason why I feel the manga needed to be longer. Chris, arriving about mid-way in the series, gets an adequate amount of development, I suppose, but most of the information about Mei Lin and Billy comes solely from their profiles. It’s quite frustrating because the two of them had the potential to be such awesome characters. Mei Lin is a cute up-an-coming starlet from China, while Billy is an African-American postal worker (of all professions) who grew up living in the projects. Though even a few of the minor villains are given short backstories to explain their motivations, the two of them are practically ignored and might as well not even exist. I honestly don’t see the point of introducing them if Watase wasn’t going to do anything with them. (There is a bonus short story at the end of the last volume about one of Mei Lin’s ancestors meeting Nyozeka and learning one of the Lotis Words, but I’d say that hardly counts as Mei Lin’s backstory.) 

As this is Yuu Watase we’re talking about, the artwork is gorgeous, of course. Though some may criticize the lack of individuality in her characters’ looks from series to series, I think the majority of the characters in Alice 19th actually have a distinct look to them compared to her other characters (except for Kyo, who looks a lot like most of her male leads. Still hot, though). I also liked the designs of the various mara they have to face and thought the battles were well drawn.

On the whole, Alice 19th is a decent series, but it could have been even better had some things been expanded on. There was so much potential… When asked what manga series I would like to see turned into an anime, Alice 19th is always at the top of my list. The manga laid the groundwork for what could be an awesome 52-episode (or even longer!) anime series, in which Alice and Kyo properly master all the Lotis Words and Mei Lin and Billy get an expanded role. It could be like the anime for Card Captor Sakura, which took an already wonderful manga and made it even better! (Heck, Alice even looks like an older Sakura.) Too bad that will probably never happen, but a girl can dream, right?

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Add a comment June 30, 2010

Aishiteruze Baby

TITLE: Aishiteruze Baby
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Yoko Maki
PUBLISHER: Viz
RATING: Teen (13+)
CATEGORY: Shoujo
NUMBER OF VOLUMES: 7
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Yoko Maki, Bunny Drop, Baby & Me, romance, drama, comedy

There’s nothing like raising a child to teach someone the meaning of “responsibility”.

In Aishiteruze Baby, Kippei Katakura is a seventeen-year-old playboy who has girls throwing themselves at him no matter where he goes. He certainly doesn’t mind the attention, taking advantage of his good looks and charm to the fullest with little regard for his admirers’ feelings. However, his carefree life of chasing girls and having fun is put to an end with the arrival of his five-year-old cousin, Yuzuyu Sakashita. Abandoned by her recently-widowed mother, Yuzuyu comes to live with the Katakura family until her mother can be found. In order to teach him to be more responsible, Kippei’s older sister decides that Kippei should be the one to look after Yuzuyu.   

This series is simply adorable! In my opinion, there is nothing sexier than a guy who is good with children, and I love how Kippei does his best to be a good “mommy” to Yuzuyu without complaining (too much). It’s actually rather surprising how well he does with her, considering how ineffectual his own parents are. (They aren’t bad parents, per se; they just seem to leave all the major decisions to their bossy older daughter for some reason. It’s an unusual family dynamic.) Though he’s not the perfect parent — he’s often late to pick Yuzuyu up from kindergarten, and he’s not the best at preparing her bento — he always tries to puts Yuzuyu first, even above Kokoro Tokunaga, the one girl who has managed to capture his heart. Kippei’s and Yuzuyu’s relationship is truly heartwarming and almost guaranteed to bring out the warm and fuzzies in even the most disgruntled reader.

But underneath the exterior cuteness, Aishiteruze Baby deals with some fairly heavy and mature themes. The most notable is, of course, child abandonment. Yuzuyu is greatly affected by the disappearance of her mother so soon after her father’s death, and Maki does a fantastic job in realistically portraying a five-year-old’s feelings. Yuzuyu — far from being the precocious brat you might find in other series — actually seems like a child you might meet in real life.

Other topics that are explored in the series include child abuse, bullying, sexual assault (well, since the series is targeted to younger teens, it only goes as far as a forced kiss, but the victim reacts similar to somebody who had been raped), attempted suicide, self-mutilation, infertility, and a pregnancy scare. Some storylines are handled better than others, but they do serve to give the series more depth beyond “hot teenage boy taking care of adorable little girl” (as cute a premise as it might be).

Since the main focus of the series is the relationship between Kippei and Yuzuyu, the romance between Kippei and Kokoro is more of a secondary plot, but still well done. I liked Kokoro quite a bit because she’s different from the boy-crazy, ditzy shoujo heroines you usually see in the genre. She’s cool and mature, yet there’s a quiet vulnerability about her that is rather appealing. Since her mother died when she was about Yuzuyu’s age, the two of them share a bond, and Kokoro helps Kippei out a lot whenever Yuzuyu is missing her mom, knowing exactly what to do or say to make Yuzuyu feel better. I also liked how understanding she is of Kippei’s situation. Not to say that Kokoro doesn’t feel jealous or upset when Kippei focuses too much of his attention on Yuzuyu, because she does at times, but she never demands that he choose her over Yuzuyu, knowing how important Yuzuyu is to him. In fact, it is one of the reasons why she loves him.

Visually, Maki’s artwork is really cute and well-drawn. I particularly like her characters’ facial expressions. It’s easy to read how the characters are feeling, just by looking at their faces. I do think the body proportions when she draws Yuzuyu and her friends are a little off at times, though, like their heads are too big for their bodies. It becomes less noticeable as the series goes on.

Overall, Aishiteruze Baby is a cute series, and I really enjoyed reading it. It has just enough drama to prevent the reader from overdosing on the sweetness of Yuzuyu and Kippei’s relationship, but it will still bring a smile to your face. Highly recommended.

Add a comment June 16, 2010

High School Debut

TITLE: High School Debut
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Kazune Kawahara
PUBLISHER: Viz
RATING: Teen (13+)
CATEGORY: Shoujo
NUMBER OF VOLUMES: 13
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Kazune Kawahara, Imadoki, Fruits Basket, romance, drama, comedy

Ah, high school romances — the backbone of shoujo manga. Many mangaka have tried their hand at drawing one at least once in their careers, but few are truly memorable. Fortunately, High School Debut manages to rise above a cliched story line to become one of the best examples in the genre.

Freshman Haruna Nagashima gave her all to softball when she was in middle school; now that she’a a high school student, she’s dedicated herself to pursuing another goal: finding a boyfriend! Putting into practice all the things she’s learned from reading shoujo manga and teen magazines, she tries her best to attract guys, but has no success. Her best friend Mami suggests she might have better luck if she found a coach to teach her how to be more appealing to boys, just like the coach on the softball team helped make her a better pitcher.

Taking Mami’s advice, Haruna decides to ask popular upperclassman Yoh Komiyama to be her love coach after overhearing some people talking about how he knows what appeals to guys. Though Yoh rejects the idea at first, having a dislike of girls after a bad break-up with his first girlfriend, he eventually changes his changes his mind, under one condition: Haruna has to promise not to fall in love with him. Of course, since this is shoujo, it’s inevitable that she does.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for Haruna and Yoh to confess to each other and start dating. A premise like that could wear really thin over thirteen volumes. I mean, can you imagine how repetitive it would be to have Haruna go after a new guy every volume and Yoh trying to help her get together with him, all the while the two of them denying their obvious feelings for each other because of a silly promise? Instead, Kawahara wisely decides to focus the story on their relationship as a couple, deftly portraying the high and lows, the awkwardness and the excitement of a teenage romance.

The key to High School Debut’s appeal, in my opinion, is the chemistry between its main characters, Haruna and Yoh. The two of them make a great couple and are terrific characters in their own right. It’s hard not to love Haruna, who is so enthusiastic and determined. She truly does give her all when she puts her mind to something — maybe even a little too much at times, yet she never comes off as annoying. Whenever she makes a mistake, she endears herself to the reader and makes us root for her even more.

As for Yoh, I love how he accepts Haruna for who she is, no matter embarrassing she can be at times. Even when he was “coaching” her to be attractive to guys, he never really tried to turn her into someone she wasn’t. (For those fearing from the summary that Yoh turned Haruna into his idea of a perfect girl before falling in love with her, don’t be. The bulk of his coaching was more along the lines of helping Haruna find clothes that suited her sporty style (instead of the trendy stuff she tried to pull off because of what a magazine said) and giving her advice on dealing with guys. There were a couple of things he said that I thought were a little on the questionable side, but this isn’t a manga version of My Fair Lady.)

I also enjoyed seeing Yoh’s growth as a character after he begins dating Haruna. He starts out the manga kind of stand-offish, very blunt and straightforward, but due to Haruna’s influence, he becomes warmer and more open, though still keeping his refreshing honesty. I think one of my favorite parts of the manga is when Yoh is chosen as captain of the rooters for the school’s sports festival. It’s not a position he particularly wants — he’s not somebody who likes being the center of attention, despite his popularity — but seeing how excited Haruna is about the festival, he decides to give it his all, too.

The supporting cast, consisting of Mami, Yoh’s younger sister Asami, and Yoh’s friends Fumiya and Asaoka, are also a fun bunch. The portrayal of Asami impressed me the most because even though she’s selfish, greedy, and self-centered, she never crosses the line into becoming unlikeable. I’m still not sure how Kawahara managed to pull that off, because Asami does some pretty terrible things and never really does anything to redeem herself. Asaoka’s another interesting case, because while he can be quite the manipulator at times, he never comes off as being truly malicious. (Kind of like Shigure from Fruits Basket, I suppose.) He’s more of a jokester than anything else.

Though the plot itself does feature some of the usual cliches of the genre, Kawahara has a way of making them seem fresh and original. For example, Yoh’s ex-girlfriend (of the infamous “beads incident”) shows back up a little later in the series, wanting to see Yoh, but the plot doesn’t go where you might expect, with Haruna having to compete with her for Yoh’s affections. In fact, though both unaware of their connection to Yoh, the two of them actually become friendly with each other. Even though their budding friendship (understandably) comes to an end once Haruna learns who she is, it’s not like they become enemies either, something I found refreshing.

I will say that I think the series does start to lose a little steam near the end, though. There was one particular plotline I didn’t care for, involving the appearance of an unexpected rival for Haruna in regards to Yoh. I don’t want to spoil too much about it, but I hated how Haruna and Yoh let her get in between them when one of the great things about them is how well they communicate with each other.

I also found Yoh’s decision of what to study in college to be completely out of left field. There were no hints whatsoever that he ever had an interest in that particular subject prior to that point. Admittedly, that was kind of the point, since Yoh had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, but even just an offhand remark earlier in the story that he had an interest in such things might have made it seem a little less random and out of the blue. At least Haruna’s choice of career made sense, although I could have lived without hearing Haruna saying the words, “My dream is to be your wife,” to Yoh when he asks her what she wants to do with her life. Nothing wrong with wanting to marry the man you love, of course, but I never pictured Haruna as someone who would be happy being a housewife. (As shown when she decides to get a part-time job, Haruna enjoys working.) Glad that she managed to find a more ambitious goal that really suits her.    

As for the artwork, the style is not my favorite, but I give Kawahara props for giving most of the characters unique, distinctive faces — great character designs, definitely not cookie-cutter. (It’s not often, for example, you see a main character like Yoh, who is supposed to be super-handsome, drawn with permanent bags under his eyes.) I especially love how she draws smiles.  It’s like the character’s happiness is jumping off the page. Seriously, I dare you to flip to a page where either Haruna or Yoh is smiling and not feel the urge to smile back. It’s impossible; they’re infectious. At times, though, Kawahara’s body proportions seem a bit…off. In the beginning, I thought it was a stylistic device to show Haruna’s inability to dress for her body type, but the problem extended to other characters as well, most notably Fumiya.

Despite a few minor problems, the series overall is one of my all-time favorites. If you only read one high school romance in your life, I highly recommend you make that title High School Debut. It’s one of the best.

Add a comment June 9, 2010

Clover

TITLE: Clover
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: CLAMP
PUBLISHER: Tokyopop and Dark Horse
RATING: Older Teen (16+)?
CATEGORY: Shoujo
NUMBER OF VOLUMES: 4
SCORE: 8 (Very Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of Card Captor Sakura, Chobits, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, xxxHolic, etc.), experimental manga, steampunk

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that this review covers the recent Dark Horse omnibus release. The four individual volumes that Tokyopop put out are now out of print. You’re going to want the new omnibus, anyway. It’s fabulous. (By the way, the omnibus doesn’t seem to show a rating. If it does, I can’t find it. But there are scenes of a (kind of mild) sexual nature present, so I feel safe in saying that is in the Older Teen range. If anybody knows for certain, feel free to let me know.)

What is happiness, and how do you find it? That’s the question at the heart of Clover, a series from manga superstars CLAMP.

Clover begins with Kazuhiko Fay Ryu, a former black ops agent, being assigned a mission by General Ko despite the fact that he is now a civilian. His job is to deliver a package.

The “package” in question is a mysterious young girl who goes by the name of Sue, and she is the only person who knows their final destination. As part of the Clover Leaf Project, she has been kept isolated from other people inside of a very large cage for most of her life. Her only form of human contact has been through the distant voices of General Ko and Kazuhiko’s dead girlfriend Ora, a singer whose songs Sue loves. Sue has only one wish, and Kazuhiko is the only one who can make it come true.

Right off the bat, I’ll say that this title probably isn’t going to be to a lot of people’s tastes. It’s very experimental in style, but those who have previously enjoyed CLAMP’s other works or are looking for something a little more off-beat than the usual mainstream manga, Clover is worth a look, especially the gorgeous new Dark Horse omnibus edition.

The plot, as you can probably surmise from the summary, is a bit on the thin side, but Clover isn’t about the plot. It’s about how the plot is presented. The first two volumes, which make up what is considered Part I of the series, cover the main storyline as described in the summary: Kazuhiko and Sue traveling to the secret destination so that Sue can fulfill her wish. The third volume, Part II, goes back to a time before Part I when Ora was still alive and first “met” Sue. The last volume is Part III and goes back even further to reveal the backstory of another character who is a part of the enigmatic Clover Leaf Project.  

There were actually two more volumes (Part IV) originally planned by CLAMP, but the magazine the series was serialized in folded before the story could be completed. Normally, I do not care for unfinished series, but the way this series was concepted and written, with what is presumably the ending already shown in the second volume, those last two volumes aren’t really necessary. Yes, a few questions remain unanswered, but as a reader, those unanswered questions didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the series as a whole. In fact, as a writer, I almost feel inspired to come up with my own version of the answers. (Why, yes, I do write fanfiction.)

Another interesting technique used to tell the story is the use of extremely short chapters. Chapters range from a single page to probably no more than ten for some of the longer chapters. I didn’t bother to count, but that seems about right. The shortness of the chapters gives the story a bit of a… Well, I guess I would say “disjointed” feel at times, but it’s still relatively easy to understand despite some moments of randomness.

In addition to the non-typical narrative structure, the art style is similarly experimental in regards to paneling. Many panels are on the small side, mostly focusing on the characters’ faces, and tend to be spaced out, leaving quite a bit of unused space on the page. These empty spaces do a great job of conveying Sue’s loneliness and the disconnect she feels to others due to her isolation. The artwork itselt is stunning, as is most of CLAMP’s work. I think Ora in particular is one of the most beautiful characters they have ever created. I love her tight spiral curls and her gothic-inspired wardrobe. Sue also has a great design to her.

If there is one thing to complain about concerning the style of the series, though, it would have to be overdose of song lyrics that are repeated on almost. every. single. page. I’m not kidding. Probably over a third of the text in this series consists of the lyrics to Ora’s songs alone, and they aren’t great lyrics. Take this verse, for example, from the song I consider the series’ theme song, since it is also called “Clover”: I wish for happiness/I seek happiness/To find happiness with you/To be your happiness/So take me/Somewhere far from here. Not exactly the work of say, a John Mayer or a Taylor Swift. Maybe the lyrics come across as more profound in Japanese, but they seem kind of trite in English.

Now, if you all will allow me to gush… WOW. I love, love, love what Dark Horse did with this omnibus. I am a total sucker for colored artwork, and Dark Horse delivers with a total of seven double-page drawings separating each volume and twenty-one — yes, twenty-one — more drawings in a bonus gallery at the end of the book, which includes the artwork that was used for the covers of the original four volumes. I adore omnibuses (omnibusi?) for their value, but one of the drawbacks in my opinion has always been the loss of the colored cover art, so it’s great that those were included.

I am just in love with these drawings. Words can’t convey just how gorgeous they are. I find myself randomnly grabbing the book throughout the day just to look at them. They’re seriously almost worth the price of this omnibus just by themselves. (Well, okay, twenty dollars for twenty-eight colored drawings may be a bit much, but I got my copy at Right Stuf and only paid fifteen.) 

(Note to self: Stop stalling and buy one of the CLAMP artbooks already. You know you want one.)

Clover may be more style over substance, but, man, does it ever have style. If you’re the type who likes a meaty plot in your manga, this is not the series for you. For those looking for something a little out of the ordinary, though, Clover is a possible gem. Even if the story doesn’t win you over, the artwork probably will.

1 comment June 2, 2010

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