All ends with beginnings; Naruto’s swansong

Naruto is making me cry with each chapter it releases. The rebloggables are suddenly through the charts on my tumblr dashboard. Open Facebook or Twitter on a Jump release date, and there are people there to commiserate with. It’s the ending we always dreamed of, quietly gripping our rubber prop kunai, gleefully purchased as preteens at our first anime conventions.

General spoilers for the manga; but very little in the way of specifics.  

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Rin’s labyrinth

“If you were stronger, I don’t know how this would have ended. But I know one thing. That woman would be dead. Those who gain power must pay a price, something in exchange. If you seek to be stronger than others you may have to lose what you value above all else. Remember this well.” –Giichi, Blade of the Immortal

In Blade of the Immortal, being strong means everything. When Rin loses her parents, looking on as they are humiliated and butchered right in front of her, she vows to avenge them, but talk is cheap. When your enemy’s strong, you’ll need to be that much stronger, but what does it mean to be strong, anyway? If it weren’t for what happened to Rin’s parents, she’d have just been another normal kid. Timid, likes sweets, curious about boys. Instead, she’s now walking this dangerous road with Manji.

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And Punpun is just fine, today.

I spent two days reading up to the latest releases of Oyasumi Punpun. I spent two days kicking myself for not reading Inio Asano’s longest-running work sooner; assuming it would be inferior to the tight, refined narratives of his one shots. I spent two days crying over the fact that no-one picked up the English-language publishing licenses when Tokyopop folded (goddamnit, just take my money, I’m begging you!)

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The shrinking of Attack on Titan

Back in 2011, I wrote two posts about the manga series Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) and since then, it’s only grown in popularity, and in addition to a live-action movie, now has an anime series starting in April, too. I can’t wait to see how it turns out, but in the meantime, I figured I’d catch up with the latest chapters, and, man, is it still good or what? But there’s something else I have to note too, in that by beginning to explain many of its mysteries, Attack on Titan is shrinking.

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Japanese punk

Lately, I’ve felt a little empty. Waiting for something to spark a little inspiration in me. So, as I often do, I ended-up on YouTube, listening to music, when The Blue Hearts appeared with their song, Linda Linda. It’s a Japanese punk-rock song that you’ll have heard before if you’ve seen the film Linda Linda Linda (which I reviewed years ago.) Anyway, I’ve always liked punk music, aesthetics and all, and it’s interesting to see such a Japanese take on it. Ripped jeans, snarling faces and funny dancing.

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The Flowers of Evil

First, imagine an alternate version of FLCL, where Naoto hooks up with the loose-canon Mamimi and revels in her pyromania, falling ever deeper into her psychosis, burning away their boring world together. This is The Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana,) a manga series (and soon to be anime) that begins like any of the other thousands of stories written about teenagers. Bored, disillusioned and harbouring a secret crush, our main character is the whimpering Kasuga, the archetypal, spineless harem lead without a shred of pride. When he steals his crush’s gym clothes, a vortex opens through which the trouble-making Nakamura steps. She spied him stealing the clothes and blackmails him into becoming her slave.

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Say I love you or they won’t want you; sexual capital in Sukitte Ii Na Yo

 

I read quite a bit of shoujo manga. As such, I was quite pleased to see that Sukitte Ii Na Yo  received an anime adaption this fall.  It’s an interesting one, because, while stubbornly about teenagers’ romantic involvements, it really isn’t. If you’re watching Sukitte Ii Na Yo, or if you’ve written it off as ‘just another shoujo show’, you’re missing the point. Sukitte Ii Na Yo is an examination of sexual capital, disguised as a shoujo series.

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Wanderlust girls: The manga of Tsuruta Kenji

Have you ever travelled, my friends? Have you ever packed your bags, left home, returning months later? Or not at all? With a nervousness that travels from the soles of your feet to the soles of your feet to the whites of your eyes, borded a plane, feeling as if every atom in your body was quivering? I have. Tsuruta Kenji’s protagonists – wandering girls – have as well.

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Liking Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse? See also…

One of the biggest surprises of the summer season has been Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse. A name as bad as that is enough to scare away most, but that this is both a mecha anime and a bloody brutal one at that is stranger still. Whether it can live up to the intensity of these first two episodes is another question entirely, but right now, it’s just nice to reflect on a job well massacred! The root cause of it all? Aliens, of course! Earth’s invaded, humanity’s out-matched and Japan’s moe legions are our first line of defence. Would you feel confident?

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Out of print: First world problems

Last night I started learning French. Why? Because I want to read manga.

This all started earlier in the year, when I noticed how a lot of English-translated anime and manga were going out of print. And when stuff goes out of print, it either gets expensive (often ridiculously so) or just totally disappears.

I was always aware of this happening, but it never seemed to effect me. I just assumed my favourites would always be there, ready for dispatch when I decided to come calling. We live in the modern world, after all.

Earlier this year, then, I decided to make good on my intention to own Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame! manga. It’s a 10-volume science fiction opus about a guy trapped inside an ever-expanding sky-scraper. I’ve loved it for years and re-read it often enough for it to be worth my shelf-space. Decision-made.

It’d slipped my mind that Tokyopop imploded in 2011.

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Don’t forget the side characters

In alot of ways, what keeps a longer manga engaging isn’t its main characters, but the side characters. Though our initial emotional investments as readers are in the main characters, the supporting cast and their links with those main characters are what keeps the story fresh.

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We offer up our heart’s blood: Courage and spirit in Shingeki no Kyojin

Since writing my first post on the manga series Shingeki no Kyojin (the official English title is apparently Attack on Titan,) it’s been licensed for an English-language release by Kodansha USA, whilst a Japanese live-action movie has also been announced for 2013. With the inevitably small film-budget it’ll receive, I’m not convinced it’ll look good enough , but then again, it still sounds better than the forthcoming Akira film!

Last night I finally caught up to volume 5 of the series and, man, I just want to keep going. For those that haven’t read my first post on it, Shingeki no Kyojin is a large-scale survival-horror manga about a future-Earth dominated by man-eating giants (known in the series as Titans.) With humanity on the brink and walled up in one last city, the series begins as the Titans break through the city’s first line of defence.

Imagine any zombie film you’ve ever seen, and then replace the zombies with giants. Mankind’s fucked, right? It’s lucky then that the main character, Eren, can transform into a Titan, too!

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The wonderous parts of the world

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally had a moment to sit down with the Mushishi manga. I say a long time coming because I was the most ardent of fans during the anime’s original airing. The 2006 anime holds a special place in my heart. Between it and Eureka SeveN, my faith in quality anime was restored. I could’ve been the typical anime fan, who gives up when they hit some form of adulthood (I graduated high school in 2006,) but because of Mushishi I persisted, and am now the ultra-nerdy woman you see.

And it’s with that sentiment that I let myself sink into the green world of Mushishi once more.

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Eaten by giants!!

Apparently, Shingeki no Kyojin can be translated to ‘Advancing Giants’. It’s a new-ish, still on-going manga (began serialisation in 2009) that I started reading at the weekend. In it, humanity has been brought to the brink of extinction by an unstoppable wave of man-eating giants. Where did they come from? Nobody knows! And why do they eat only humans? Again, nobody knows! The giants don’t feed on us for sustinance, they do it because they can!

Mankind somehow survives by sealing itself within a city, surrounded by 50 metre-high walls to keep everything else out. 100 years later, it’s an era of relative peace, but suddenly, this guy appears… More than double the size of any giant ever seen before, he (literally) kicks a hole in the city’s previously impregnable defences and unleashes the horrors outside waiting to get in.

And so, the real story of (the award-winning) Shingeki no Kyojin begins.

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Yankee-kun to Megane-chan and the world of shounen manga apprentices

I’ve always found the idea of an apprentice palatable. The idea of learning directly from a ‘master’ on real-world projects is, to me, a better way of doing things. Over my years in university I can’t count how many lazy students (including the lazy student in the mirror) I’ve met who slack off simply because they can’t feel the real world gravity of  what they’re working on.

Just about every shounen mangaka has spent time as an apprentice: Eiichiro Oda (One Piece) began as Watsuki Noburhiro’s (Rurouni Kenshin, most notably) assistant, alongside Hiroyuki Takei (Shaman King).  In turn, Nobuhiro (among others) were mentored by Takeshi Obata, of Death Note and Hikaru no Go fame. Naruto‘s Masahi Kishimoto claims to have been struck with an inescapable motivation to become a mangaka after seeing an Akira poster (penned by Katsuhiro Otomo), and all of these, including Hiro Mashima of Fairy Tail fame, are spiritual successors to Osamu Tezuka and Akira Toriyama.

And where, you ask, is this lengthy preamble taking us? Towards Yankee-kun to Megane-chan!

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Feel like being scared?

I’ve been going through a lull in blogging lately. Although I’ve been trying hard (and succeeding, surprisingly!) to keep up with a certain trio of currently airing series, I’ve also been feeling quite passive, too. Even still, the desire to trudge on with this whole writing thing has never left me, so, thank you if you’ve been persevering with me for a few years now. I honestly wish I could be a more consistent blogger for you, but let’s forget all that for now, for I have finally found something ‘new’ to write about!

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I need a job so I wanna be a mangaka writer

Dragon Ball Z, Slam Dunk, Bleach, Hajime no Ippo.  Most shonen series are based on physical activities like sports or fighting.  Surprisingly, the general shonen formula can also work well with a non-physical activity.  In Bakuman,  J.C. Staff and NHK successfully tell a shonen-style story about two aspiring manga creators.  The result is an interesting show that I anticipate watching each week.

The two male leads act like an old married couple with relationship issues

Seeing the forest through the trees with Sailor Moon

If you haven’t done yourself the favour of reading the original Sailor Moon manga, I suggest you drop whatever stigmas or preconceptions you have of the series and find yourself a copy. Naturally, it suffers from the cliches it helped to establish: baddies-of-the-moment, elaborately named attacks, and a penchant for all the bad parts of 80s women’s fashion. Coupled with the toxic sweetness of Mamoru and Usagi’s relationship, if you go in expecting anything less than the crown jewel of the magical girl genre, you’ll be going in horrendously underprepared. That said, the manga has its merits, and Sailor Moon is definitely one of those “read the manga, skip the anime” type affairs. Any fan of really, really well-drawn and well-paced manga should read Sailor Moon.

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“Next time, let me see a Matsuri Special.”

Something about the transience of adolescence never fails to inspire. More often than not we wake up, 20, fully grown, and confused as to how we got there. For this reason, mangaka like Kamio Youko are a particularly rare breed. Time and time again, she manages to lushly recreate both the frame of mind and the emotional state of adolescence for her readers. Matsuri Special, her latest manga in a successful career is no exception.

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Eden in name only

Hiroki Endo calling his manga ‘Eden‘ is a hint. Eden is supposed to be a paradise on Earth, but Endo‘s version is more like Hell. It’s sarcasm on his part, I think, because this is a contrary and brutal series, where anything that’s good is crushed and anything that’s innocent is (often literally) raped. For the last few days I’ve hardly been able to believe my eyes whilst reading this; everyone keeps dying, and even those who do survive, do so minus their humanity, or, even worse, minus their eye-balls. Continue reading

The tide of violence

Thorfinn the Viking

I’ve read only 26 chapters of Vinland Saga so far but its quality is such that I have to admit it’s already one of my favourites.

Thorfinn is the main character, an Icelandic warrior joined with a band of Viking mercenaries sailing the seas of Europe and sacking the villages and cities of Norman France and England. His talent as a fighter is chilling, if just because he’s still just a small boy!

This had me hooked straight away. You have this kid (a rag-doll, really) fighting in a bunch of gruesome, heavy battles, cutting the throats of soldiers and decapitating their Captains for the rewards.

It doesn’t shy away from the violence or cruelty of the infamous era of the Vikings, but there’s more to it than just brutality.

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The harsh beauty of Tsutomu Nihei’s Biomega

Looking out on Tsutomu Nihei's new world

Happy new year, everyone! Time sure flies and it’s now looking likely that this blog will live to see it’s fourth anniversary on the 4th of March, which is just… surreal!

This time of year also provides me with the rare opportunity to immerse in some new worlds of fiction. Last year I fell under the spell of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but this time it was to be Tsutomu Nihei and his six volume Biomega that caught my eye.

Nihei is probably my favourite mangaka. It’s not like I’ve read a lot of manga, but this guy has held my admiration for a long time, ever since I stumbled over his first series, Blame!, where the dialogue is sparse, action is rapid and landscapes are wide, sprawling stretches of textured emptiness.

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Island manga: an isolated town enclosed by huge, unscalable walls…

An image of the Island

The island is an isolated town enclosed by huge, unscalable walls, where the outside world is a mystery that no-one even has laid eyes on for 400 years. As its culture dies a slow death, the town’s people have forgotten how to read and write, but the children still dream of escaping, wondering what they might see on the other side, where something as vast -and as salty- as the sea seems impossible to imagine, because their town, their world, is so small, but while the children still run and laugh and dream, the adults are altogether more melancholy, long since resigned to living their lives within the shadows of the unscalable walls.

Island is a very short, one-shot manga that spans only 45 pages, yet it has a vivid and brilliant premise. The walls loom large over everything, an unrelenting reminder of what it means to live life within boundaries and without adventure, where it’s easy to slip into a routine, to work year after year at the same place, to sit in the same stupid chair every day, all without question or concern. It’s about having the courage to take that first step, not knowing what you might find on the other side, but going there anyway, because it’s fun and new and exciting.

Delighted with some devilishly delicious horror

Never one to refuse an opportunity to read some delicious horror manga, I’ve whiled away these last couple of weeks plunging my eyes into the many dark crevasses of the internet, hoping in vain to uncover another crawling Enigma of Japanese terror. Forget about all this torture porn nonsense, forget about reality, for me, Halloween is about monsters and ghosts; weird, gross, malevolent abominations of nature inconceivably twisted by a mysterious ill-intent. Until last night, this hunt was rapidly failing. I had resigned myself to a Halloween of ghastly nothingness, but alas, at this most hopeless of hours, my damned savoir and his demented smile lurked forth from the shadows. His name was none other than Go Nagai and his bloody offering was Devilman. And it was perfect. Perfectly and utterly disturbing.

I mean that. When I’d finally finished reading Devilman, I was left in a state of genuine unease. This 5 volume manga series begins in a relatively innocuous fashion when, much like Batman, our anti-hero Akira Fudo agrees to merge his body with a super-powered demon in order to prevent those very same beasts from feasting on the powerless herds of mankind. This half of the story is typically episodic, with him fighting off any number of ghoulish imps. It’s certainly not scary, but contains a strange charm; monsters aren’t supposed to have feelings, they aren’t supposed to love each other, and yet, in Devilman, they do, and for their mystical, twisted romances, they will sacrifice everything.

A brutal devil, a frightening devil. However, a form that should have been ugly and frightening, was beautiful to me. Unspeakably beautiful.

What happens next can only be described as Armageddon.

After being profoundly frightened by an invasion of horrible demons, the world’s human populace is sent crawling back into the dark ages. Fearful of the monsters hiding amongst them, cowardly, heartless people incite impromptu witch-hunts and the executions of those randomly suspected to be the enemy, including Devilman and his friends. In this purge, no-one is spared; women, children, even babies are slaughtered. Every time you expect someone to be saved, it doesn’t happen. Everyone dies.

Early into the last volume, this ever spiraling sense of hopelessness deeply affected me. There is no escape from such chilling logic and these last two volumes contain some of the most shocking horror I’ve ever read. Go Nagai refuses to compromise on any level and forges ahead, determined to capture man’s self-inflicted and shameful end.

After everything that has happened, after Devilman has lost all that was dear to him, he understandably realizes that the human race isn’t worth saving, but he fights Satan anyway. The outcome is sad but that is fine, for this is real horror. It has monsters, violence, mythology, and, just as important, it has a point, a blunt, painful, affecting stab to the heart.

When bunny boilers attack

Ahh, my saviour is the weekend! I know my last post wasn’t exactly beaming with enthusiasm for all things animated, but with two more weeks under my belt, the gloom has lifted and I’m now tucking into tasty helpings of spring stuff on an almost daily basis. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of new series I’m feeling; in particular, Kure-nai and Macross Frontier, both of which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy quite as much as I am, while the likes of Soul Eater and Kaiba remain, as ever, firm favourites.

Anyway, this weekend is special in that it’s an extended one. Come Monday morning, I won’t be dragging myself out of bed for another draining shift at work, but instead, will be feasting on the varied fruits of Japan’s lovely pop culture. Sorry, that’s probably gloating, but the thing is, whenever I get the time to relax for much longer than a few days, I often gravitate towards manga. I’ve never been much of a manga reader, but every now and then, usually during extended, lazy weekends, I get an urge to read something. Like how this morning, I woke up with a vague interest in tracking down the nice looking (in a weird way), post-apocalyptic Dragon Head, but once that proved a little too hard to find, I turned to ZashikiOnna instead, “Regularly chosen as “the scariest manga ever” in magazine horror specials.

ZashikiOnna, creepy girl

ZashikiOnna is definitely chilling. It’s not scary in a violent or supernatural way, but it’s realistic, believable horror. The story revolves around college ‘player’ Hiroshi, a relatively normal, love-sick young man living a regular student’s life. One evening, he wakes to the sound of someone banging loudly on his neighbour’s door. It’s clear he isn’t in, but the loud knocking continues for a long time. Hiroshi pops his head outside, into the hallway, to find that the knocker is this rather odd-looking girl; messy hair, dirty clothes, tall and thin, she sees him too, her gaze is strange, intense. Saying nothing, he retreats, but suddenly, the banging starts on his door too. It’s the beginning of her deadly obsession with Hiroshi.

It’s a creepy situation to be in, to have someone you don’t know, have never seen before and looks a little unhinged, invade your life. The darkness, ambiguity and mystery surrounding the girl’s fascination with Hiroshi is chilling, there’s no logic or no past connection, she’s an absolute stranger, no life of her own and hell-bent on his constant attention. The worst thing is that, despite being only 1 volume in length, ZashikiOnna is unreleased outside of Japan and only partially scanslated, hence, we’re left hanging in the midst of terror with no end in sight.

If you’re looking for some atmospheric and imaginative scares, I have to recommend ZashikiOnna. It’s the kind of horror best read on your own in a darkened, silent room with nothing but shadows and street-lights for company. For my part, I’d love it if you could recommend to me some one-shot/short manga (of any genre), I’ve got a lot of time to waste over the next few days and I’d love to fill it with some unique reading.

Spiralling into insanity, looking at Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzumaki

uzumaki_500.jpg

I’ve been reading a lot of manga lately. In the past, I’d go through brief fits of reading the stuff, but it always felt temporary, like a fling while my romance with anime hit the buffers. This time, it’s totally different; I’m ready to devour as much as I can find.
By and large, anime is defined by its limitations; it only looks as good as the money spent on it, but manga is typically drawn by one talented artist; someone with a consistent vision, capable of imagining a fantastic landscape without ever needing to worry about budgets and frame-rates. It’s an untainted, purer style of story-telling, burdened only by the singular abilities of its author.

With my above enthusiasm in-tow, the first stopping point on this fresh journey into the black/white country of comics was always clear; Uzumaki by horror maven Junji Ito. Given I’m still reeling in claustrophobia thanks to his deliciously weird short-story “The Enigma of Amigara Fault“, the idea of slipping into his most acclaimed work to date was an ambition I’ve held for many months.

Uzumaki is the Japanese word for “spiral”. If you know your anime, it will immediately conjure up two obvious references; the main character of Naruto is named “Uzumaki Naruto” and, of course, spirals (and anti-spirals) represent living energy, perhaps even the soul itself, in the excellent Gurren Lagann. I’m not sure why this symbol in particular seems so prevalent in Japanese culture, but Ito’s sinister ideas are quite persuasive. Spirals are obsession.

The dread conjured by completing Uzumaki was similar to the fright I felt when reading of Africa’s army ants. These aggressive colonies, which number in the millions, are constantly on the move. They form a “living architecture”, using their own bodies to build bridges and protective walls against the ravages of the African climate. They feed on almost anything by hunting en-mass, crawling over their prey in their millions and stripping it to the bone; even animals as big as horses have fell victim. Just reading about them, I’m disturbed by their unrelenting aggression and ambiguous intelligence. There is no point in trying to understand their intentions, it’s simply a case of running for your dear life, and that’s Uzumaki in a nut-shell too. A town haunted by a faceless, creeping, crawling malevolence, an unfathomable, undiscriminating curse hell-bent on the total destruction of every man, woman and child.

Beginning in a fine fashion then, the first chapter is brilliantly weird. To the utter bemusement of his relatively normal family, a typical Japanese salary-man is suddenly obsessed with spirals; at first he’s satisfied by merely staring into a snail’s shell, but as his mind gradually unhinges, he starts experimenting with his body too. He doesn’t simply admire the spiral, he wants to become one.

The first two volumes (out of three) are fairly episodic, making up a series of bizarre encounters with the spiral obsession, most of which range from the darkly comic to out-right disgusting. When I say the latter, I’m talking about cannibalistic pregnant women and insane doctors feeding their hungry patients umbilical cords and placenta that, for whatever reason, take root and grow when chopped from newly-born babies; and there’s more, but I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. All of the horror in Uzumaki is, as is Ito’s signature style, sticky and organic; we’re supposed to be sickened, disturbed and freaked by the way he twists and contorts the apparently flexible human body to new extremes.

uzumaki_350.jpgIt would be fair to say that I enjoyed the first two volumes, but they were merely fun for the sake of horror; I felt nothing for the characters, and the thread-bare plot offered little more than an uneven patch-work of horrific adventures. That is to say, I wasn’t heading into the third (and final) volume over-flowing with enthusiasm, yet it’s a quite remarkable end.

The entire town, now well beyond rescue, has been completely smashed by the dreaded curse. The last few survivors are starved and confused, tightly grouped together in small wooden huts, hiding from the many terrors roaming the streets outside, including tribes of cruel children capable of riding giant twisters through the wretched remains of modern civilisation. These last few chapters are post-apocalyptic, bereft of hope and beautiful; the landscape is desolate and open, forcing a real fear of loneliness on this reader that’s far more potent than the cheap thrills of earlier volumes.

Ito’s true strength isn’t necessarily his detailed depictions of gore, but his manipulation of human nature, the way he exploits our physical relationship with life and our worries of the unknown; he knows what’s lurking in the darkest caverns of reality, willing to fathom the moon-lit shadows being cast across our bedroom walls.

Creepy horror manga? The Enigma of Amigara Fault is the answer

fault.jpgHalloween is fast approaching and it’s time to indulge in some frightful Japanese horror. Sadly, it’s not a genre that translates well to anime and manga, but having recently discovered the abnormal works of manga-ka Junji Ito, there may well be hope for us yet. This time I’m talking about the claustrophobic “Enigma of Amigara Fault”; a remarkable 30-page short that has abducted my thoughts since falling victim to its spell last night.

The ambiguous story begins as an earthquake scythes open the titular Amigara Fault; a gigantic rock riddled with human shaped caves. Nervous people from all over Japan are inexplicably drawn to the landmark, haunted by nightmares and convinced they have recognized individual caverns that perfectly match their own unique body shapes. Continue reading