Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Pile of Manga I Should Have Reviewed Three Months Ago

I read all of these books in mid-February, expecting to dive back into regularly reviewing my review copies -- if any publicists are lurking out there, it annoys me nearly as much as it does you how little of that I've done recently -- but we all know where good intentions lead.

They're all manga; all interesting, to one degree or another; and all from Yen, save one book in the middle. And here's a quick look at them, in case anything turns out to be of interest to you:

Kaoru Mori: Anything and Something is the obligatory "odds and sods" collection from the popular manga-ka behind Emma, Shirley, and the current A Bride's Story, collecting just about every bit of her other art from the first decade of her career. There are a dozen short stories -- all about women, and several of them about maids, unsurprisingly -- and then a lot of more ephemeral stuff, like comics essays on aspects of Agatha Christie and corsets, signing sheets, concept drawings, and several "hey, here's the artist talking directly to the reader" pieces from the backs of collected volumes and other places. It's very, very miscellaneous, but Mori's art is precise and engaging, and several of the short stories  (especially the longest, last one, "Sumire's Flowers") are strong and striking. It's probably not the best introduction to Mori's work, but it does show a smart, hard-working creator trying different things and engaging directly with her audience.

BTOOOM!, Vol. 1 is from Junya Inoue, and it's a very shonen story: a young slacker, only good at an online multi-player combat game that uses only explosives, finds himself kidnapped to an isolated island where he has to play that game in real life! This volume is mostly set-up: we meet Ryouta Sakamoto and then see him danging from a parachute in a tree on the island, and then dive right into combat and the details of the different "BIMs." If you thought the big problem with Battle Royale was that all of the kids already knew each other, then you'll be crazy about Btooom! (And, yes, the exclamation point is part of the title, as it must be.)

Knights of Sidonia, Vol. 1 begins a melancholy giant-mecha series by Tsutomu Nihei. Mankind was nearly wiped out centuries ago by giant, hideous barely-sentient space monsters, and perhaps only one starship, Sidonia, escaped. Sidonia defends itself against those space monsters by sending out pilots in giant robots, but it's been a long time since the last battle -- so there are no veterans, only new recruits. One of those is Nagate Tanikaze, who grew up secretly in the bowels of the ship with his grandfather and knows nothing of the new post-human society, where everyone can photosynthesize, new genders are common, and the dorm matron has a bear head. But, even with all of the weirdness and culture shock, one thing must be as expected: Tanikaze turns out to be an awesome pilot. Knights is surprisingly understated and quiet for a manga -- or maybe it's just a kind of manga that doesn't make it across the Pacific all that often -- with the depth of a novel and a willingness to be obscure and indirect for as long as it takes.

Aron's Absurd Armada, Vol. 1 is something else again, a wacky 4-koma series about incompetent pirates by MiSun Kim. There's the distracted, dim captain -- from a rich family, and sent away by his scheming mother for inadequate reasons. And his minder, the devastatingly handsome and deadly family retainer, who cares only about money and has his own gaping holes where social graces should be. And there's the Royal crew chasing them, with their own tangled connections. And a young woman picked up from a shipwreck, who immediately falls in (silly, manga) love with the minder. It's all broader than the side of a barn, and written with very different cultural norms than Americans would expect, which makes parts of it funnier and parts of it just surreal. But the title says that it's Absurd, so we all should have expected that.

Blood Lad, Vol. 1 is a big, fat (360+ pages, around the length of two average manga volumes) series-beginner from Yuuki Kodama about Staz, a vampire and district boss in the demon world. Of course, Staz is also obsessed with all things from Japanese culture -- because this is a manga -- and so he does nuts when a real, live (well, at least briefly) Japanese schoolgirl appears mysteriously in his district. After a misadventure, the girl is left as a ghost, so Staz vows to return her to life (and then drink her blood) -- and that sets in motion what I expect the series will mostly be, a sequence of odd characters and events that might (or might not) add up to anything particular. So far, Blood Lad is the kind of shonen story that has more energy than sense, but it does have a lot of energy, plus amusing art and quirky characters.

And speaking of quirky, Thermae Romae, Vol. 1 takes the cake in that area; Mari Yamizaki's story follows Lucius, a Roman bath designer from Augustus's time who time-travels (through various kinds of plumbing) to modern-day Japan, to see and be amazed by their bath culture and technology. Lucius then returns to his own time -- not by his own control, but inevitably -- to incorporate what he's learned into his own designs and to become ever more popular and acclaimed. There's a whole lot of panels of Lucius making a stunned face and proclaiming (in a language the Japanese can't understand, of course) how wonderful every last detail of their lives is. Luckily, Yamizaki appears to be playing it all for laughs, because this would be difficult to take seriously. Thermae Romae is very silly, and somewhat weird for an audience that is neither ancient Romans nor modern Japanese, but it has enthusiasm in spades -- maybe too much enthusiasm on Lucius's part -- and it's definitely not a story you've ever read before.

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