A star is scorned: The driving pulse of “Skip Beat!”

Skip Beat 1

Today’s profile: Skip Beat! vols. 1-3
Author: Yoshiki Nakamura
Publisher: Viz
Suggested age rating: Teen 13+
Availability: In print & readily available

It’s been a while since I last participated in the monthly blogger celebration of manga creators and/or series known as the Manga Movable Feast. A looooooooooong while. So long, in fact, that I can’t remember offhand the last post I contributed to an MMF. (For the record, it was this post from the “thankful” MMF back in November.)

So why come back now for this month’s Skip Beat! MMF, hosted by Laura over at Heart of Manga? Part of it was because I was curious if I could still turn around one of these kinds of posts seven months since the last one. Part of it was because I’m a bit sad to see the low participation in this month’s MMF — owing, perhaps, to the shifting priorities of many of us longtime manga bloggers (myself included).

But the main reason is that I’ve been curious for a long time about whether Skip Beat! is worth the sizable investment. Let’s face it: Once a manga series goes past 20 volumes with no signs of stopping any time soon these days, you either start worrying that (a) it’s going to go on forever (see: 67 volumes of One Piece, 61 volumes of Naruto, 56 volumes of Bleach) or (b) sales are going to drop as the series meanders along, to the point that the publisher pulls the plug, leaving you with a really long story with no resolution whatsoever unless you learn Japanese (I don’t think tag-team in partner Wilma J. has forgiven anyone yet for leaving Initial D stalled at 32 volumes). The U.S. just got volume 31 of Skip Beat!; Japan is up to volume 32 and a handful of chapters beyond that as Yoshiki Nakamura and her team of assistants continue to plug away in the pages of Hana to Yume.

It’s certainly proven popular enough — volumes 18 through 31 have all landed on the New York Times manga bestseller list within a week of their releases, and Viz has seen fit to re-release earlier volumes in its 3-in-1 VizBig format. (Omnibus 5, containing volumes 13-15, is due out next week, in fact.) So cancellation isn’t really a concern. But with that many volumes, that first taste you get of it had better be good enough to justify future purchases.

After reading what Laura’s characterized as the series’ first arc — volumes 1-3 — it’s safe to say that I’ll probably end up buying the rest of the series. (Those screams of despair you may be hearing now are coming from my wallet.) What really makes this series fun in these first volumes is the main character.

Meet Kyoko Mogami.

Kyoko 1

… no, no, not that Kyoko. This Kyoko.

Kyoko 2

Or perhaps more specifically, this Kyoko.

Kyoko 3

How Kyoko goes from a sweetly smiling fast-food clerk to the living embodiment of that classic saying about hell and fury and scorned women happens over the course of one chapter. For most of her 16 years of life, she’s been eager to please others, even if it means sacrificing her own well-being. And the person she adores and wants to please the most is her friend since childhood, Sho Fuwa. She spent a lot of time at his parents’ inn growing up, learning many of their methods of serving guests in the process. When he rejected his destiny to take over the inn, moved to Tokyo to pursue a career in show biz and asked her to come with him, she happily accepted. Sure, it would eventually mean juggling two jobs to pay for a luxury apartment that he rarely visits, and he becomes increasingly distant to her as he becomes more and more famous, but who cares — he’s a prince, she’s that plain girl in tatters whom he’ll eventually sweep up and turn into a princess, and they’ll live happily ever after, right?

Wrong. Ohhhhhhh so very wrong.

When Kyoko catches Sho talking about how he’s just using her as a maid and never really liked her and sees him ogling his hot female manager, to boot … well, that’s when the fun begins. Anyone who’s ever sacrificed so much of themselves for someone, only to see that someone betray them in the end, will feel a sense of delicious satisfaction in seeing Kyoko’s demonic rage explode against Sho. From that point on, she’s hell-bent on gaining her pound of revenge-filled flesh. And to do that, she gets a physical and emotional makeover — goodbye long black hair, hello short, sassy dyed ‘do — and decides to break into show business herself to become an even bigger star than he is, decisively proving in the process that he gave up something pretty special when he betrayed her trust.

Passion can only carry one so far in the competitive entertainment industry, though. For every subsequent step forward that she takes in these first three volumes, there’s always some corresponding event that knocks her back a bit. She has the dogged determination to land a tryout at the prestigious L.M.E. talent agency and manages to impress the judging panel without a lick of experience … yet she still can’t get in on her first try. The agency president likes her enough to create a new agency division just for her and people like her … but that Love Me Division is also the most lightly regarded in the whole organization. Her drive to succeed is enough to elevate her standing in the minds of some of the more important players within the agency … yet her victories are rather small when compared to her ultimate goals, and helping others succeed more than she does, to boot. And then there’s the matter of Sho’s rival, Ren Tsuruga, whom Kyoko is conditioned to hate out of principle … but who is also represented by L.M.E. and shows her some flashes of kindness, to boot.

Yet to characterize these developments as an endless hamster wheel for Kyoko to run would ignore the greatest asset Skip Beat! has: the way the story slowly, organically nurtures growth in its main characters. We readers are going to root for Kyoko regardless of what happens — that’s a given, especially after the events of that first chapter. She’ll also have her comically explosive demon-summoning moments from time to time. But we also see her quietly shift her focus a bit from straight-up “RAAAAAWR I WANT REVENGE ON SHO RAAAAAAAGE” to “Hmm, I want to try hard, get better at this acting thing, be the best person I can be at this … oh yeah, and RAAAAAWR I WANT REVENGE ON SHO RAAAAAAAGE.” It makes her character that much more compelling. And while Sho and Ren seem like mere foils for her at the moment, I get the sense that they’ll get their time to shine, their characters more fully fleshed out, over the course of the series.

Seems like it’ll be a fun ride. I, for one, can’t wait to take more of it.

Taking stock and giving thanks

I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to contribute to this month’s Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Matt Blind over at Rocket Bomber. It was the same problem that doomed my participation in last month’s MMF: too much stuff to deal with in life outside of Otaku Ohana, not enough time to sit down and commit some thoughts to pixels. Last month, it was the ramp-up to the general election that kept me busy. This month? It was preparing for that garage sale with tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. that I noted in my last post.

So I was pleasantly surprised to fire up Haruhi after the sale was over on Sunday — yes, if you remember a post from aaaaaallllll the way back in 2009, my home computer is still named Haruhi and my laptop is still named Yuki, although my iPad has inherited the name “Mikuru” — and find that Matt had delayed his wrap-up post for this month’s MMF to today and tweeted his intent to still accept links for it.

And then that wrap-up post went up while I was working on the post this morning. But dagnabbit, I’d already written 700+ words at that point. I wasn’t abandoning this post that easily.

Besides, this month’s topic is so intriguing: Rather than focusing on a single title, author or genre as it has in the past, the bloggerati were asked to take inventory of their manga blessings in this, the season of camping out in line for five days to buy a $199 50-inch flat-screen TV giving thanks. Check out his call for participation to see the inspirations we were given.

A few of my favorite manga series over the years.I meditated for a little while on what I’ve been thankful for in the world of manga. Those meditations, however, kept getting interrupted by thoughts about this one particular young woman who showed up toward the beginning of our sale. She was excited to be there. Virtually bouncing up and down. She dropped a bunch of money on a replica animation cel of Hitsugaya from Bleach, a few more dollars on Ranma 1/2 wall scrolls and an old Inu-Yasha bag and other stuff, then she came back with her friend and ended up buying a Vampire Knight journal and a pack of Bleach cards. Incredibly enthusiastic about the stuff she was buying, for certain. Heck, she even showed me a few volumes of Kare Kano — already tucked into said Inu-Yasha bag — that she had checked out from the library.

I love seeing fans like that. Reminds me of the enthusiasm I had when I first really got into manga in the late ’90s. Sure, I’m older now. Saw the rise and fall of Tokyopop and a bunch of other publishers, had several favorite series canceled on me before they were finished (hello, Nodame Cantabile and Moyashimon, may you return to our shores someday), looked on as publishers’ bottom lines have been ravaged by scanlation sites all over the Internet and the Borders shutdown. I’d be lying if I said all of this, plus the constant harping about problems with this publisher and that publisher and the publisher over there and so forth and so on, hasn’t dampened my spirits over the years.

All things considered, though? I’m thankful that the manga publishers that remain in the domestic market continue to believe that there are those enthusiastic fans out there. And that those publishers keep bringing over new series that they hope will garner the same amount of enthusiasm on the market as there was when the negotiations to license those series took place. There’s always that little thrill I feel whenever a convention rolls around, and a news item pops up on Twitter or Anime News Network or somewhere that “Publisher A has licensed this, this and this,” and there’s something in that list that sounds interesting enough for me to give it a shot when it finally shows up. And that publishers are willing to try new ways of getting manga out to the masses — I really want JManga’s digital-distribution model to succeed. I want publishers like Viz, Yen Press and Dark Horse to do well with their digital initiatives. I’m hoping that Digital Manga Publishing’s temporary suspension of print publication doesn’t end up hurting them in the long run, because they’ve seemed willing to try new things, like using Kickstarter for niche Tezuka titles to complement their print and digital offerings.

On the left, a volume of Tokyopop's release of "Paradise Kiss." On the right, Vertical's new edition.But above all, I’m thankful for the eternal hope of second chances. When you’ve seen as much manga as I have over the years, and when you’ve seen some of the really good series eventually start to fade out of print, it’s really nice to know that there are people making decisions for those publishers who think, “You know, that series did well for someone else, but it’s no longer around for whatever reason, so let’s bring it back.” JManga has a bunch of niche titles from the days of Aurora, Del Rey, Go!Comi and other such publishers that don’t exist in those forms today. Kodansha’s redoing Sailor Moon and Love Hina. Much of CLAMP’s body of work is seeing new life in Dark Horse omnibus volumes. Blood Alone and Gunslinger Girl sailed back with Seven Seas. Viz has 07-Ghost and Loveless. Vertical brought Paradise Kiss and Message to Adolf back into print. I mean, Message to Adolf! We hadn’t seen an English translation of that in more than 15 years, and those Cadence-published books were long out of print and nigh impossible to find! It keeps hope alive that a new group of fans can enjoy in the present what we long-time fans may have enjoyed in the past.

While this post has focused primarily on manga, keep in mind that what I’ve written applies to the anime industry as well. Recently, I received in the mail from Funimation the review DVDs for their reissued edition of Serial Experiments Lain. Lain, believe it or not, was the first anime I ever watched that I recognized formally as anime all the way back in 2000. Here’s the profile that I wrote about it in 2009. Seeing those discs in the envelope gave me a bit of a thrill. Maybe I’ll watch those again sometime when I have free time (which, as I’ve probably said before, has been distressingly sparse of late, but I’ll try).

The joys of being an anime and manga fan.

Yeah.

That’s what I’m thankful for, too.

“Orchestra” manga plays to a different Beat

Grand Guignol Orchestra vol 1Today’s profile: Grand Guignol Orchestra vol. 1
Author: Kaori Yuki
Publisher: Viz
Suggested age rating: Older teen 16+
Availability: Suggested retail (print) $9.99; rare locally, available online. Suggested retail (digital) $4.99.

This month, the Manga Movable Feast — hosted by Manga Report blogger/Fake AP Stylebook “bureau chief” Anna Neatrour — is an all-Shojo Beat, all-the-time affair. While the Feast lasts just for a week out of every month, this one could theoretically last for an entire year if the manga bloggerati deemed it so. There are a lot of titles carrying the Shojo Beat banner these days, and clearly the imprint has moved on from “ill-fated monthly anthology in the vein of Shonen Jump” to become a lineup that could go toe-to-toe with the Shonen Jump lineup for bookshelf dominance (taking Shonen Jump’s current Big Three of One Piece, Naruto and Bleach out of the equation first, of course).

The problem was in picking which series I’d focus on for this post — would it be a proven mainstream favorite like Ouran High School Host Club, Skip Beat or Vampire Knight? A so-good-but-no-one-is-reading-it-other-than-us-manga-bloggers series like Otomen, We Were There or Kaze Hikaru? The wide-eyed sparkly shoujo that is Arina Tanemura? The enigma that is B.O.D.Y., stuck on its 10th of 15 volumes for two years now and presumably canceled? So. Many. Good. Choices.

And then the inspiration hit me. Or rather, my eyeballs. It had to be Grand Guignol Orchestra.

See, there was something about Grand Guignol Orchestra that struck me as … different, somehow. Sure, it’s by Kaori Yuki, who’s contributed titles both to the Shojo Beat catalog (Cain Saga! Fairy Cube! Godchild!) and Viz’s pre-SB lineup (Angel Sanctuary!). But … well, here, have a look at this cross-section sampling of Shojo Beat volumes from my collection. Or more specifically, the spines of said volumes.

SB titles

The majority of series, from Short-Tempered Melancholic on the left through Vampire Knight, use what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “SB Sans Serif” font for the titles and author names. Most of them are consistent on the number font, as well, although there’s some variety in the numbers for Dengeki Daisy and Butterflies, Flowers. Then you get a bit of variety with Oresama Teacher, Seiho Boys’ High School!, Kamisama Kiss and Natsume’s Book of Friends. Even with that variety, though, you still see one design consistency throughout: white background, pink Shojo Beat logo at the top. Quite consistent, easy to pick out on a bookshelf.

And then there’s Grand Guignol Orchestra. Look at it, all black and Gothic and alone on the right. If it was an actual person, it would have a dark cloud hovering over it at all times, sulking off in the corner with Depeche Mode playing on the stereo. Not even Yuki’s Godchild pulled off that feat. There are a few other times when Shojo Beat spines have deviated that drastically from the norm — Black Bird, Library Wars: Love and War, Jiu Jiu, Sakura Hime. But in general, you just don’t see the same kind of spine design variety that you do in the Shonen Jump line. I know I keep bringing up the Borders liquidation sales of a few years back and how I ended up picking up several good series by virtue of the fact that no one else would touch them despite the ever-plunging percentage cuts; this was another of those series. It looks that different, apparently.

But is this shoujo manga? Ohhhhhh yes. Take a good look at that cover up top, the person holding the accordion. That’s Lucille, the orchestra’s leader. Long flowing hair, rather dainty facial features, a person with a beautiful singing voice. All qualities of someone who’d make a lovely young woman.

Or so you’d think. Because Lucille is a man. A very pretty man, but a man nevertheless. He’s what’s known in this series’ universe as a philomela, or nightingale, “people who undergo treatments to eliminate their gender, in order to become people with voices like angels,” as some expository dialogue helpfully points out. To complicate matters further, the group’s pianist, Eles, the one who joins them in the first few chapters, the one who looks like a boy and acts like a boy … is actually a girl, commanded by her father to assume the persona of the brother that she had to burn to death a few years back.

Ahh, shoujo manga, with your androgynous pretty boys and headstrong girls. Don’t ever stop bringing the crazy.

Gender-bending hijinks aside, what we have here is a good, fun action-packed romp. The orchestra itself is a band of rogues — “made up solely of convicts and sinners with sinister pasts,” as their would-be employer points out in the first chapter — called upon to battle what amounts to a zombie apocalypse and taking all the jobs that the royally sanctioned orchestra simply won’t touch. These aren’t your garden-variety zombies, though — they’re “guignols,” once-normal people transformed into freakish living-dead dolls from the effects of a virus spreading across the land. The music the trio — or quartet, with the addition of Eles — performs together is powerful enough to eliminate guignols. And when you have situations like an entire town surrounded by guignols, or a duke who has a harem of obedient maids filling his castle for some strange reason, that special music will definitely come in handy.

With all that going for this volume, though, there’s one flaw: We learn much about Lucille and Eles in this volume, but the other two orchestra members just don’t seem to matter quite as much yet. We know the cellist, Gwindel, keeps a hedgehog in his top hat for some reason, and the violinist, Kohaku, is prone to solving every problem with a healthy dose of violence. But that’s pretty much it. There are clearly more mysteries to be solved in this five-volume series, chief among them a statement Kohaku makes: “We’re Lucille’s prisoners. We’re together by contract, not by choice.” Yuki demonstrates in this volume, through the way she reveals Lucille’s and Eles’ gender secrets, that she has a knack for making readers think they know what’s going on … and then pulling the rug out from under them and changing the rules.

It’s great. And based on its strong start, it seems like a series that’s certainly worth tracking down.

A special “Delivery?” But of corpse!

kurosagi 1Today’s profile: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (12 volumes available, vols. 1 and 2 reviewed)
Author: Eiji Otsuka (writer) and Housui Yamazaki (art) 
Publisher: Dark Horse
Age rating
: N/A, but suggested for mature audiences 18+

It feels as if The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service — the subject of this month’s Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Philip over at Eeeper’s Choice Podcast — has had one foot in the grave for a veeeeerry long time.

You can’t really blame fans for being a bit nervous about Kurosagi‘s English-translated future. Here in the U.S., the only thing regular about Dark Horse’s publishing schedule has been its irregularity. If the publishing date records kept by Right Stuf and Amazon are any indication, fans so far have had to endure a seven-month wait (between volumes 1 and 2), a nine-month wait (between volumes 9 and 10) and, perhaps the one that really made their hearts stop beating and made them wonder whether the series had any kind of future or would just be quietly canceled, a wait of a year and seven months (volumes 11 and 12). Assuming things stay on track, it’ll be another eight months between volumes 12 and 13, currently due out in November.

As for finding a complete run in print? Good luck finding volume 5, which seems to have disappeared from the ranks of affordable volumes at every online retailer. (Fortunately, Dark Horse has added Kurosagi to the ranks of its digital comic offerings, so you’ll just have to endure staring at a screen for a long time in exchange for getting every volume for just $5.99 each.)

It would seem that Kurosagi is one of those series infected with a common manga malaise: the Great Series That Hardly Anyone Knows Exists And/Or Follows. When Borders was in its death spiral last year, I noticed that volumes from the series were among the last to go. (I should know; I was usually the one who’d pick them up.) It’s easy to see why it’s gone unnoticed: Just look at that cover image above. Stylish? Certainly. Does it say much about the story contained within? Who knows, considering the “Psychic,” main character Kuro Karatsu, is the only one facing forward. (Turns out it’s a running gag; the other covers in the series, featuring a similar layout with three members of the delivery service on the front and the other three on the back, all have Karatsu facing forward and the others doing something, well, different.) Shielded from “manga cows,” that breed of fan who clogs the manga aisle and turns any bookstore into their own lending library, much to the chagrin of people who actually want to buy stuff? Oh yes, definitely; the volumes are shrink-wrapped because of all the violence and nudity.

So it takes a fair amount of effort to ferret out the story … and what a story it is. What we have here is a “super team” of Buddhist students for hire, summoned to help souls trapped in corpses attain the eternal peace they desire, whether by clients or the dead themselves. (Seeing as how they’re college students, they’re also eternally scrounging around for enough money to keep the lights on.) We meet Karatsu, a guy who has the ability to hear the voices of the dead, just as he’s meeting the other main players: Makoto Numata, a dowser who can find corpses using his special pendulum; Keiko Makino, a rather young-looking gal who’s a licensed embalmer; Yuji Yata, a guy who has the ability to channel other beings but mostly channels a foulmouthed alien who manifests himself in the form of a hand puppet; and Ao Sasaki, the brains, businesswoman and buxom beauty behind the creation of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service.

kurosagi 2Fair warning: Anyone grossed out by gore and/or in-your-face nudity would best steer away from this series. Six pages into the first chapter of the first volume, there’s a close-up of a hanging corpse, flies buzzing around its head. Many breasts get bared, many body parts go flying and much blood goes flowing from that point forward.

But it’s rarely gratuitous; in fact, it serves to enhance the sheer shock value of the tales contained within. Consider, for example, the story of that first corpse, who committed suicide after he was kept apart from his girlfriend, a budding pop idol, and now wishes to reunite with her. Let’s just say that the young lady committed suicide herself and throw in the phrase “patriarchal necrophilia,” and leave it to your imagination to fill in the gaps. (Just note, though, that you probably could never come up with the twists and turns that Eiji Otsuka devises on your own.) There’s also an elderly corpse who wishes to return to a place called Dendera, a stylist who cuts far more than hair, and an actuary who has the uncanny ability to predict the chances of someone dying. The team handles all of these situations with a splash of humor and a few meditations on what gives life (and death) its meaning.

But while the first volume with its various stories is certainly good in its own right, the story really hits its stride with volume 2, a seven-chapter arc that starts with a criminal’s hanging and ends up with — take a deep breath here — a girl who can raise the dead, a doctor gone rogue, a man with a mysterious marking on his fingernail, conspiracies piled upon conspiracies, Yata quitting the delivery service to take on a side job, a company that gives bereaved victims the opportunity to take revenge upon the dead, a merger proposal between the delivery service and this company, the tragedy of Sasaki’s past and a bloodthirsty zombie cat.

That’s right, a bloodthirsty zombie cat.

Trust me: When you can type the words “bloodthirsty zombie cat” as part of the description of a particular volume, and that’s not even the most messed-up thing to show up in that volume … you know you have to check it out. And then you’ll be hooked on the series. It’s to die for. Really.

CLAMP’s “Gate 7”: The grand experiment that wasn’t

Dateline: the last weekend of July 2007. The Simpsons Movie had just opened in theaters, Barry Bonds hit the 754th home run of his asterisk-appended career, and hotel rooms were sold out throughout downtown San Diego.

Yes, it was Comic-Con International time, and the eyes of fans of all things pop-culture related were pointed in the direction of southern California. Anime and manga fans certainly had much to be excited about — Viz announced it was adding Bleach to Shonen Jump, Funimation picked up Vexille from the production team that did Appleseed (well, it certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, although in retrospect, perhaps not so much), and several publishers snagged good series that were criminally under-read by U.S. audiences and subsequently stopped before their full runs were complete: Seven Seas’ Hayate X Blade, Del Rey’s Me and the Devil Blues, pretty much everything announced by Broccoli Books and CMX.

And then there was the announcement relevant to our interests, seeing as how this is CLAMP month for the Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Melinda Beasi over at Manga Bookshelf. Five years ago, on July 28, Dark Horse announced that it was teaming up with the four-member artist collective to usher in “a new era of manga.” From the original press release:

CLAMP’s original manga with Dark Horse will be launched simultaneously in the United States, Japan, and Korea. The story will come out in a small digest consisting of about eighty pages each, which will then be collected into trade paperbacks with bonus material. CLAMP and Dark Horse are coining the bilingual term Mangettes to describe this innovative new format for manga distribution. This digest format, or Mangette, signifies CLAMP’s personal wish to reach their large international readership by now speaking to them directly as artists through Dark Horse, and on a basis of equality with their Japanese fans.

CLAMP and Dark Horse chose the term Mangettes to describe this revolutionary format, whose Japanese pronunciation, mangetsu, means “the full moon.” The two kanji in mangetsu also have the individual meanings of “fulfilled” and “monthly,” reflecting what will be a monthly appearance of each CLAMP Mangette.

According to CLAMP, “Mangettes are a completely brand new experience for us, too, and we’re really happy to be working on this. And we’re really looking forward to the day when we can bring you this new story from CLAMP, and the day when we can meet our fans face-to-face to hear what you think about Mangettes!”

Anime News Network followed up with the news that these mangettes would be released in 2009, CLAMP would have full creative control over the contents, and they would be 5 inches by 7 inches in size.

It was a can’t-miss proposition. For years, CLAMP had attracted a flock of U.S. readers with series like Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, Chobits, xxxHolic and Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles. Tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. did her part in sharing the CLAMP love by writing about Clover, Wish, Shirahime-syo and a double feature of Suki: A Like Story and The One I Love. And now we were getting a new story from them, day-and-date with two other regions, monthly? Sign us up.

mangettesgate7Turns out fans would be eager to meet CLAMP — and, by extension, Dark Horse — face-to-face to echo one common thought about the mangettes: “Where are they, and what are they going to be about?After the grand reveal, the project promptly burrowed into a deep, dark corner of Dark Horse headquarters in Milwaukie, Ore., and was rarely heard from again. In April 2008, Dark Horse confirmed to Anime News Network that the mangette had no official name. In December 2008, that name quietly leaked onto Amazon’s Canadian site, where it was promptly snagged and shared by Lissa Pattillo at Kuriosity: Gate 7. The first cover image, seen at right, surfaced on Amazon’s Japanese site in March 2009.

And that was it for Gate 7, the revolutionary mangette. 2009 turned into 2010, CLAMP put the project on the back burner as they worked on xxxHolic for longer than they expected. Then Dark Horse prioritized new omnibus releases of Clover, Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth. By the time Dark Horse reintroduced Gate 7 to U.S. audiences in April 2011 prior to the release of the first volume in October, the series had been running in Japan for several months, the 80-page format had been scrapped in favor of traditional chapters, and it was … well … like pretty much every other manga that’s been released before and since.

That similarity to other manga ended up extending to Gate 7‘s story. It’s your typical fantasy fare, where an average, nondescript person somehow gets pulled into an alternate dimension where forces for good are battling a mysterious power beyond all human understanding. (No, really, trust me — you’ll read the first volume like I did, and then you’ll try going through it more slowly, and you still won’t understand what the forces for good are fighting against aside from “hulking snarling beasts dripping with evil.”) These average Joes or Janes usually have no idea what’s going on, but naturally (a) they gets pulled into the fray for the long haul and (b) they has some latent power that has everyone oohing and ahhing over them, even though no one can fully comprehend what that power is.

In the case of Gate 7, that seemingly unremarkable person is Chikahito, a high school student who gets yanked into the aforementioned other dimension while visiting his beloved Kyoto. Our forces for good are Hana, a mostly quiet girl with a penchant for noodle dishes, animal caps, making her hands go “wriggle wriggle wriggle,” and styling her hair somewhat like Misaki Suzuhara’s in Angelic Layer (compare it: here’s Hana, and here’s Misaki); Tachibana, the more stoic, analytical member of the group, with dark hair to match; and Sakura, the more easygoing, calming presence, with light, spiky hair to reflect that personality. Tachibana and Sakura are drawn as bishonen, or pretty boys, which will undoubtedly send the more hard-core (read: crazy) fans scrambling over themselves as they write various boys’ love fan fiction tales featuring the two, umm, interacting with each other and other similar bishonen across the CLAMP-iverse.

In the process of skewering these tropes, though, one can’t help but think: This is a CLAMP series we’re talking about here! The group’s had fans worldwide following their work since 1989! Surely there’s some redeeming quality, some point where things start clicking and the story kicks into a higher gear! There always is!

To which I reply: Sometimes there is no higher gear. Just look at what some critics said about CLAMP’s Kobato at San Diego Comic-Con’s “Best and Worst Manga 2012” panel. (It wasn’t pretty.)

Gate 7 v1 manga coverAs for Gate 7, it looks like that redeeming quality is going to have to wait for a future volume. Because aside from the group’s trademark gorgeous artwork, teeming with lines and strokes that are at turns intricate and delicate and bold and energetic, it takes a considerable amount of effort to figure out exactly what’s going on. There are eight pages of translation notes in the back of the book. You will be referring to them frequently to refresh your memory on what the ura-shichiken is (it’s a term referring to “Seven Secret Houses” or “Seven Back Houses”) or how Chikahito is not from an inou family (a term described as being comprised of the kanji for “unusual” and “mind”) or to investigate one of the multiple historical details about Kyoto that CLAMP has injected into the Gate 7 mythos.

Whether readers stick with Gate 7 beyond the first volume really depends on how willing they are to put in this extra effort to understand what’s going on, and how patient they are to see things through.

But here’s one more point to consider: The ground covered in this first volume — 168 pages worth — would have covered roughly two mangettes worth of material that would have been released over a two-month span. Volume 1 of the Gate 7 manga was released in October; volume 2, in February. It may be like comparing apples and oranges at this point, but it seems highly likely that readers would have given up on Gate 7, with its current story, faster with its condensed release schedule than they would with several months in between to process what they read.

Perhaps, in the case of Gate 7, it was for the best that the mangette revolution remained just a patchwork of dreams rather than a concrete reality.

Feasting on ramen, “Oishinbo” style

There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple, uncomplicated things often actually requires a lot of thought and work. It’s especially intriguing with something you’re a fan of or that you particularly enjoy.
And so enters the manga “Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza.”
eagerly drink up
In Japan, the manga “Oishinbo” clocks in at a whopping 100-plus volumes, and it’s still going.
because of the way viz decided to bring out this series in the U.S. — taking stories from different parts of the entire manga and compiling them into volumes by subject — this manga is something that needs to be enjoyed carefully and digested slowly.
Numerous notes at the back of the book explain the (vagrancies, quirks) of not only Japanese cuisine but the Japanese culture. While such notes are becoming more common, I really have to give props to Viz for also including numbers on the majority of its pages. Many other manga released in the U.S. lack this basic feature, which makes it very difficult to figure out what page the notes refer to.
There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple, uncomplicated things often actually requires a lot of thought and work. As someone whose ramen feastings are either prepackaged instant noodles or steaming bowls brought to the table that are immediately devoured, I certainly had no little thought left for the care that goes into just the creation of the raw noodles.
I love ramen, but that love is mostly limited to either prepackaged instant noodles at home or steaming bowls brought to the restaurant table that are immediately devoured — forget about all the meticulous work that went into making the noodles perfect or the char siu tender or the broth not too salty.
If you’re not already familiar with many of the basic noodle dishes or common ingredients served in Japan or China, the terminology might cause your eyes to cross as you keep flipping back and forth to the end notes for their descriptions. Most of us in Hawaii have been immersed in Japanese culture one way or another from small-kid time without realizing it, so things like miso and nori are everyday items here that need no explanation.

(Jason’s note: The monthly Manga Movable Feast virtual gathering of manga bloggers usually celebrates series and artists. This month, though, the Feast, hosted by Khursten Santos over at Otaku Champloo, is hewing a bit closer to its name and celebrating … food. Or, to be more specific, Oishinbo and other food manga. With that in mind, here’s our contribution to this month’s potluck.)

There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple and uncomplicated often actually requires a lot of thought and work. It’s especially intriguing with something that you particularly enjoy.

And so enters Oishinbo, a manga written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki that’s been serialized in the pages of Big Comic Spirits since 1983. The story follows Shiro Yamaoka, a journalist with the Tozai Times and a serious foodie who’s been tasked by his editor to come up with the “Ultimate Menu” as part of the newspaper’s 100th anniversary. The meal is meant to embody the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, so Yamaoka and his partner, Yuko Kurita, set out to discover the best of the best.

oishinbo ramenThe books being released in the U.S. by Viz are actually only a small part of the entire Oishinbo series. There are more than 100 volumes in Japanese, so rather than taking a chance with a relatively niche subject and publishing as is, Viz has instead taken highlights from the overall story and compiled them into so-called “a la carte” editions on one topic. And the particular one that caught my eye was the Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza volume.

I do love ramen, and in fact I’ll urge my ever-patient fiance to out-of-the-way places to try a shop that I’ve been told has good stuff. (And by the time I finished this review, my keyboard just barely managed to escape the destructive slobber of a stomach made ravenous for hot noodles topped with tender char siu and crunchy menma and garnished with green onions and … I’m going to have to stop there. My keyboards have come much too close to destruction lately.) But with those ramen feastings consisting of either prepackaged instant noodles or steaming bowls brought to the table that are immediately devoured, I certainly have far more interest in the delectable finished product before me and have little thought left for the care that goes into the individual elements.

But that very enjoyment is also what leads me to appreciate the detail that “Ramen & Gyoza” goes into regarding the many factors — including the science! — that can influence the taste and texture of each ingredient and, therefore, the entire product as well. Despite the title, the book centers on ramen and has just one story on gyoza, although, like an Iron Chef episode, that story is just as dramatic and insightful as the others.

Because of the way Viz decided to publish the series, readers miss things like people’s introductions and backgrounds, interactions and story progression. However, because the manga is episodic, brief descriptions of the characters and a synopsis of the overall story at the beginning are sufficient enough to grasp the plot. The only part that needs explanation — which is given in the numerous notes at the back of the book — is the sudden declaration of Yuko being out on maternity leave and the situation surrounding that.

Those notes also explain the intricacies of not only Japanese cuisine but the Japanese culture. So if you’re not already familiar with many of the basic noodle dishes or common ingredients served in Japan or China, the terminology might cause your eyes to cross as you keep flipping back and forth to the end notes. Most of us in Hawaii have been immersed in Japanese culture one way or another from childhood without realizing it, so things like miso, nori and even the Obon festival are well-known here and need no explanation. Aside from that, the notes aren’t required reading, but do give more background for those interested.

While such commentaries are becoming more widespread, what I really have to give props to Viz for is including numbers on the majority of its pages. Many other manga released in the U.S. lack this basic feature, which makes it very difficult to figure out what page the notes refer to.

One thing that remains obvious despite the omissions is Yamaoka’s advocacy of pure, natural ingredients and farming methods to make healthier, better-tasting food. This focus on organic methods — with all the assertions made by both Yamaoka and his father, Yuzan — isn’t annoyingly preachy and definitely opens your eyes to all the additives and shortcuts that go into making food these days that you don’t realize, and that may not necessarily be great for your health.

The characters are likable enough, and there’s enough conflict among all involved as well as non-food plot to keep things interesting. Yamaoka’s humorous stubbornness is clear throughout, and we see the hint of the romance starting between him and Yuko. Still, the main draw of Oishinbo is the depth at which they explore food and the discerning palates of Yamaoka and his cohorts. The series isn’t geared toward gourmets so it’s easy to follow along and doesn’t make you feel like a food fool. Oishinbo is a manga that is ultimately thoroughly enjoyable.

Disappearing ink: The forgotten Viz Signatures

This month, the Manga Movable Feast, under the guidance of host Kate Dacey at The Manga Critic, is celebrating manga past and present that have appeared under Viz’s Signature imprint. Any series that garners the Signature label likely has several qualities going for it: It’s a title geared toward older audiences; it’s probably beloved by Manga Movable Feasters (and, by extension, manga bloggers in general) the world over; and, save for a few exceptions (i.e. Tenjho Tenge … for now, anyway), you’d be really hard-pressed to find anything more than the latest volume of it at your local retailer amid the sea of 500,000 Bleach, Naruto, One Piece and Sailor Moon volumes.

IKKIbanner-NOART-120x60-3rd-yellowAll this talk about the Signature line reminded me of when Viz tried its hardest to nudge it more into the spotlight. Flash back to one week in May 2009, when, in one fell swoop, Viz announced that it was canceling Shojo Beat magazine and starting a new, online-exclusive anthology: Viz Signature Ikki (SigIkki to all its friends), based on a Shogakukan magazine in Japan targeted at young men. The intent was to gauge reader interest in the series posted, with the most popular series getting print runs down the line. I even wrote a Cel Shaded column about it, because really, shock and awe were the moods of the day: Print anthologies, canceled? Legal manga distributed on the Intarwebz, and for free? Revolutionary!

So here we are now, looking back to that seemingly quaint time in the present day (present time, muhahahaha). The print editions of Yen Plus and Shonen Jump also were canceled, moving from print to digital. Shojo Beat’s thrived quite nicely, thank you very much, as a Viz manga imprint. Viz has itself jumped wholeheartedly into digital, offering downloads on both computers and Apple’s iOS devices. (Sorry, Android users.)

And the Ikki initiative? It seems to be drifting into the Black Hole of Manga Websites.  Those of you who were around to watch as the U.S. manga industry boom slowly imploded upon itself over a five-year span, rendering a good chunk of the “Publishers” chapter of The Rough Guide to Manga outdated within a year of its publication in the process (*sigh*), have seen the signs before: First, the updates become inconsistent; then they become infrequent; then it becomes painfully clear that no one cares about updating the thing at all; and finally you either get one of those lame “THIS DOMAIN IS AVAILABLE FOR SALE” splash pages or an “ERROR 404 PAGE NOT FOUND” message in your browser.

I’d say Ikki’s hovering somewhere around the second stage right about now, gradually sliding into the third stage. After several years of updating four times a month with new manga chapters, the schedule slipped to twice monthly last October. After December 9, the updates stopped altogether. Many of the chapters listed in the update calendar are already gone, having been compiled in print volumes. A poll inviting visitors to “Create The Comix Future!” is blank. The last published interview, with Dorohedoro editor Mr. Kouga, was posted on March 25, 2010; the last “Ikki Underground” update was made on Dec. 10, 2009.

It’s all good, though, as long as the manga’s still coming out somewhere.  And for the most part, the series launched on sigikki.com have continued to live on in print and paid digital apps.

All of them, that is, except for four titles.

For a line that musters modest readership at best, these four — Bob and His Funky Crew, I Am A Turtle, Tokyo Flow Chart and What’s the Answer? — appear to have been unable to garner enough reader support online to make publishing them worth Viz’s time. Here are the stories of the Forgotten Four, along with their SigIkki debut dates and a few thoughts on whether readers really missed out in seeing more.

Bob and His Funky Crew (Nov. 19, 2009)

Viz’s synopsis: Meet Bob, the Major League’s legendary cleanup batter who can’t run, can’t field, and can’t play under pressure. His experience, raunchy jokes, and the fact that no one else wants to take his position makes Bob an irreplaceable designated hitter…until he gets traded to the previous year’s division-title team, the Bulldog City Bullies. Together with his funky friends, Youngman “The One-way Runaway Train” (brawling 3rd baseman), “Stink Bug” Jo (2nd base conman), and “The Game Breaker” Jack (relief pitcher with a flea’s heart), the underdogs will reign this baseball season!

Bob and His Funky CrewImpressions: I noted during the Cross Game Manga Movable Feast last year that I love baseball. It stands to reason, then, that I would’ve loved to have seen more of this series. Would it have fallen into the usual sports story cliched cycle of “introduce the lovable losers, drag them around in the dregs of the league for a while, then watch them slowly pull themselves together and win a championship through determination and sheer force of will”? Probably.

Yet at the same time, I want to believe that Bob and the boys are cut from a different cloth. I want to believe that they’re such pathetic losers, they won’t have that championship moment for a long, long time, so that we can see them fumbling about for a bit and have fun doing so. These are guys traded from the Los Angeles Earthquakes to the league leaders, the Bulldog City Bullies, in exchange for the Bullies’ manager, after all. Absurdist humor prevails throughout, whether it’s the Earthquakes’ GM wanting to advertise for a new manager on Craigslist with “moderate compensation,” an argument between teams that ends up throwing in a discussion on the definition of “permafrost,” or Bob and Youngman debating over whose slump is worse and, thus, who can claim more personal responsibility for letting down the team. Those of you who remember Cromartie High School and its dopey delinquents will find a similar feel here. (Although sadly, nothing could possibly equal the comic brilliance that were Cromartie’s Mechazawa and Freddie.)

I Am A Turtle (Aug. 20, 2009)

Viz’s synopsis: Follow this turtle down a Zen path through the wondrous natural world of Japan. Witness his simple life on a tea farm with his young master. Meet other animals such as his neighbor, the Sea Dog, an owl, a family of boars and, of course, more turtles! Come see how much better life can be when you’re a turtle.

I Am A TurtleImpressions: Well, we never do get to meet any of  Turtle’s friends and neighbors, save for a two-page spread with labels denoting who’s who. What we do see in our short taste of this series, is how  Turtle got from Africa to Japan (he fell out of his original owner’s pant leg as he was smuggled into the country) and Turtle’s musings on how furry things are often cute. All of this is told in the style of 4-koma, those four-paneled strips that resemble the traditional U.S. newspaper comic strip.

The thing about these 4-koma series, though, is that they’re wildly inconsistent in quality. When the humor clicks, people buy them in droves — see Azumanga Daioh, K-ON!, Lucky Star and Hetalia. When it doesn’t … well, look at Tori Koro, the bland tale of a bland girl and her bland mom who take in two bland teenage boarders, where it was difficult to tell the characters apart and ComicsOne/DrMaster’s splotchy printing sucked out what little life there was left in the drawings. I Am A Turtle certainly doesn’t fall on the Tori Koro side of the scale — Temari Tamura’s detailed drawings of the various animals certainly eliminates any potential issues with character design — but it also doesn’t reach the humorous heights of, say, Azumanga. It’s definitely not as charming as my current gold standard for the “stories told from the perspective of an animal” category And for a customer who needs more substance before committing to buying a volume of manga, it doesn’t feel like I Am A Turtle could deliver on anything more than a series of hit-or-miss gags.

Tokyo Flow Chart (July 30, 2009)

Viz’s synopsis: Have you ever wished that somebody else would just DO SOMETHING about the chaos in your life? Then this is the perfect manga for a slacker like you! Tokyo Flow Chart is (probably) the world’s first four-frame comic strip in flow chart format. It breaks down the complexities of life and aids in the mastery of brain skills such as flow-chart-manga comprehension or mental bullet-dodging. As Confusious (sic) say: “let your brain flow with the chart!”

Tokyo Flow ChartImpressions: Actual quote from a blurb at the beginning of the chapter: “The journey toward mastery of Brain Skills begins with a single step. In Chapter 1, we will learn basic flowcharting. First, observe that the flowcharts are organized in two ways: on dark ‘main routing’ lines, which connect frames along the main flowcharting route and on thinner subrouting lines, which connect frames along secondary flowchart routes. Reading these flowcharts is simple: Read along the main route until you reach the endpoint. Then return to the beginning and follow each subroute in turn.”

Translation: “These are 4-koma strips. You can either appreciate the first gag we came up with, or you can take one of the branching paths and hope you like one of the other gags instead.”

This, of course, brings back the whole “problem with 4-koma series/why this probably didn’t succeed” discussion from I Am A Turtle, except multiplied up to six times per strip with with a flowchart gimmick. And while it’s clear that artist Eiji Miruno deliberately draws each individual panel with multiple elements in them so that subsequent panels can riff on different elements, what’s less clear is his reasoning for choosing what he does. It can be the T-shirts the characters are wearing, a pigeon that happens to be walking in the background or even flavor crystals in concrete — it just ends up coming off rather funny, and not particularly in the “ha-ha” sense.

What’s the Answer? (Oct. 22, 2009)

Viz’s synopsis: What do you get when you mix absurdity, surrealism, and potty humor, and serve it on a bed of wicked satire? The answer is … What’s the Answer? That’s the answer! Each chapter begins with a set-up question. Then you turn the pages to find out not one, not two, but three three (or five, or sometimes seven) possible punch lines. Can you handle the alternative comic alternatives?

What's the Answer?Impressions: If the question was “What’s the best way to get American audiences to read What’s the Answer? and get them to want more?” the correct answer probably should have been “great googly moogly, why are you even considering publishing What’s the Answer? KYAAAAAAH RUN FOR YOUR LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE BEFORE IT’S TOO LAAAAAAAATE.” In the single published installment that remains, we see a six-panel setup that sets up the question, “What does Santa do on the day before Christmas Eve?”  Then we get three answers: “Fabreeze,” “Preparing to risk his life again,” and “Shadow clone jutsu.”

That’s the chapter.

At least visitors to the Ikki site that week got new chapters of Saturn Apartments and Children of the Sea and an interview with Mr. Sato, the editor of Bokurano: Ours, so it wasn’t a completely wasted visit.

To its credit, that small snippet does deliver on the promised “absurdity, surrealism and potty humor.” Wicked satire, though? Doubt we’ll ever see that show up. In fact, the thought of an entire book filled with chapters like these has me recoiling a bit in horror — sure, there’s a chance that there were better examples of artist Tondabayashi’s humor, but there’s also a greater chance that future installments were even more surreal and unintelligible to the average American reader. Perhaps in this case, the fact we never got anything else from this series was more the result of a mercy killing.