Ota-cool Incoming: And lo, ‘The Last’ shall be first

Ten years ago in September, the story of a certain ramen-loving ninja descended from a nine-tailed fox hit American airwaves on Cartoon Network for the first time.

Naruto the LastWe’ve seen about a bazillion thingy-no-jutsus, battles, double-crosses, triple-crosses and sordid slash fanfics written since then. Heck, the entire cast has aged as Plain Old Naruto evolved into Naruto Shippuden. And now, as Masashi Kishimoto’s manga ends and the anime likely to follow suit eventually, we have the last Naruto movie ever. I mean, it even says so in the title: The Last: Naruto the Movie.

… wait, what? There’s another one scheduled for release this year? Well now.

Semantics aside, The Last is notable for being the first big-screen anime feature with screenings scheduled for Honolulu this year. There are two screenings, in fact, both at Consolidated’s Ward Stadium 16 complex: noon Saturday, Feb. 21 and 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23. Both will be in Japanese with English subtitles. You’ll also be able to nab a free commemorative poster while supplies last.

So why is this movie called The Last if it isn’t exactly the last movie of the franchise? It’s a reference to the last days of Earth, as the moon is somehow approaching the Earth, meteorites threaten to rain down on the planet and, presumably, Sailor Moon and her friends are stuck in another franchise and have no interest in resolving the matter. To make matters worse, Hinata’s younger sister, Hanabi, has been kidnapped by a mysterious man in Konoha. It’s up to Naruto and the gang to save her, save the world, and … ummm … set up the next movie, I suppose.

Here, have a trailer.

Tickets aren’t on sale yet, but I’ll try to keep an eye on things and let you know when they do. Update 2:55 p.m. 1/16: Fandango ticket links are live! Tickets are $15 each; here’s the Feb. 21 screening, and here’s the Feb. 23 screening.

Other ota-coolness

Aiea Library Anime Club: This month, young adult librarian Diane Masaki is screening two episodes of Polar Bear Cafe followed by two episodes of “something action-y,” as she puts it. At the library, 99-374 Pohai Place. Have I ever mentioned that there’s plenty of parking now? Because there is. For more information or to RSVP, call 483-7333 or e-mail aiealibraryanimeclub@yahoo.com. 3 p.m. Saturday.

portal_20150116_103030_1Random Ingress Portal of the Post: Speaking of The Face of Hawaii Ingress … it’s apparently been so long since I’ve done one of these Ota-cool Incoming roundups (and by extension these random portal profiles) that Niantic, the game studio behind this game, finally got around to sticking a portal on the new Aiea Library. So here it is, a portal that you’ll have to get out of your car to visit, since it’s tucked away a bit from the road. Shown here is the proper alignment — Enlightened-held — for a portal that the aforementioned Face of Hawaii Ingress (tm) seems to want to switch to Resistance control during regular library hours. To each his/her own, I guess. I think it looks prettier in green … but maybe I’m just biased on that matter. Just a teensy bit.

Kawaii Kon Karaoke Competition preliminary rounds: So you think you can sing, and you’re planning to go to Kawaii Kon this year? Give the annual Karaoke Competition a try, then. This year, two out of the three preliminary rounds will be held at a new location: Nocturna Lounge, the video game/karaoke bar just downstairs from our editorial/advertising offices here at Waterfront Plaza/Restaurant Row. (The other round will be held at its traditional location, Orvis Auditorium on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.) For the Nocturna rounds, sign-in starts at 3:30 p.m. Sunday and March 15, with the actual singing starting at 4 p.m. on both days. The Orvis round will be held on Feb. 15; exact times have yet to be announced. Full details on what you need to do to prepare are available at bit.ly/Karaoke_Prelims.

Comic Jam Hawaii: This group of collaborative cartoon artists meets every first and third Sunday of the month at Pearlridge Center; locations within the mall may vary. Visit www.facebook.com/groups/ComicJamHawaii (Facebook login required). Next meeting: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

MangaBento: This group of anime- and manga-inspired artists usually meets every second and fourth Sunday of the month at the Honolulu Museum of Art School (1111 Victoria St.). This month, the front door of the art school may be closed, so enter through the sides or via the basement. Check with the guard for room number. Visit www.manga-bento.com. Next meeting: 1 to 4 p.m. Jan. 25.

Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses: Ever since the last time we looked at the seating chart for this orchestral tribute to the long-running Nintendo video game series, the Blaisdell Concert Hall has filled up quite nicely. Here’s a look at where things stood as of 9 p.m. Thursday.

zelda ticket map


For those of you who were procrastinating on buying something in the cheap seats, you waited too long; those $45 tickets are now sold out. The cheapest seats available now are $69.30 each ($59 + $10.30 fees); those hard-core fan VIP seats ($138.55, includes a limited-edition poster and a meet-and-greet with the producers following the show) are also still available. There are also other options available for those of you who prefer something in between those two prices. If you did procrastinate, though, you’ll have one advantage that those of us who rushed to buy tickets didn’t have: a discount code. Enter “HEYLISTEN” at checkout to receive 15 percent off (and curse the powers that be for getting this stuck in your mind once again). Click that seating chart above for tickets; for concert information, visit zelda-symphony.com. 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30.

Anime Swap Meet: Hosted by Kawaii Kon, this opportunity for local otaku to buy and sell assorted preowned collectibles from one another will be part of the 25th Annual Hawaii Collectors Expo from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. Interested in selling? Check out kawaiikon.com/anime-swap-meet for all the details; registration deadline is midnight Feb. 18. This year, the rules are a bit more liberal: $20 will get you a 5-square-foot space for both Saturday and Sunday, and you can share your space with one other person. Interested in buying? Stay tuned for those details; I’m still waiting to see them myself.

Moyoco Anno at the Honolulu Museum of Art: Hopefully your short-term memory is good enough to remember the details from my post on Wednesday; if not, here’s your refresher. Starting 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 22.

‘Tiger & Bunny,’ c’mon and raise up

It’s been a while since we last updated this blog … credit this cartoon cat from another dimension for pulling a Time Vacuum from his four-dimensional pouch and sucking up all the free time that we’d usually allocate toward writing posts here.

This Doraemon statue may accurately reflect how I'm going to look after finding all the Doraemon statues around town. Just sayin'.

Yes, that’s a Doraemon statue, one of three sitting in the lobby of H.I.S. Travel’s Lea Lea Lounge on the third floor of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. No, it has no direct promotional relationship with “Meet Doraemon: Japan’s Time-Traveling Cat,” the Bishop Museum/Fujiko F. Fujio Museum exhibit opening next Saturday. Yes, H.I.S. Travel and the Lea Lea Trolley do have something to do with the statues and a few others spotted around town. And yes, we’re busy working on pieces about the statues and the exhibit, and at least one of those will be showing up next week.

Tiger and Bunny The Rising movie posterBut while we’re focusing on working on all things Doraemon, news keeps on trickling in to Otaku Ohana Central. One of those items maintains Eleven Arts’ early streak so far this year of screening all their theatrical anime acquisitions in Hawaii. The latest pickup: Tiger & Bunny: The Rising, the latest film in the Tiger & Bunny franchise that’s opening in Japan on Saturday.

Those of you unfamiliar with the Tiger & Bunny franchise, you have a little over a month and a half to catch up before The Rising comes here. (Your friendly neighborhood anime/manga blogger will be joining you in doing so.) The complete subtitled series is available for free streaming on Hulu. Viz has the license for the anime and manga, so you could also watch the series on DVD or Blu-ray, read the manga or watch it on their Neon Alley streaming service on PC, Playstation 3 or Xbox 360. (The latter service is also the only outlet I know of where you can watch the first movie, Tiger & Bunny: The Beginning legally online.)

For those of you who are familiar with the franchise, here’s the official Eleven Arts synopsis:

Picking up after the events of the Maverick incident, Kotetsu T. Kaburagi, a.k.a. Wild Tiger, and Barnaby Brooks Jr. resume their careers as heroes fighting crime in HERO TV’s Second League. But their partnership comes to a sudden end when Apollon Media’s new owner Mark Schneider fires Kotetsu and moves Barnaby back into the First League, pairing him up with Golden Ryan, a new hero with awesome powers and a huge ego to match.

When the heroes are sent to investigate a string of strange incidents tied closely to the city’s Goddess Legend, they discover three superpowered NEXTs plotting to bring terror and destruction to Stern Bild. With the lives of millions hanging in the balance, Barnaby and Golden Ryan must overcome their differences to contain the approaching doom, while a jobless Kotetsu’s resolve as a hero is put to the test as he struggles to help his fellow heroes from the sidelines.

And here’s a trailer filled with heroes and villains flying all over the place and EXPLOSIONS.

Locally, we’re getting this movie all nice and English-subtitled for two showings, at noon Sunday, March 23, and 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 26, at the Ward Stadium theaters. Tickets are $15 each and available here … and there may be a few promotional giveaways as well, seeing as how the autograph prints and “Letters From Menma” packs made their way to the Anohana movie screenings a few weeks ago.

Oh, and before you ask: No, there isn’t any update yet on The Wind Rises screenings. A bit weird how that works, that we can get info on a limited-run show next month before the info about the cinematic centerpiece for this month — but I suppose that’s how the industry operates.

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.

“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.

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.