.hack//CELL Volume 1

1.0 out of 5 stars The cover is the best thing about this book

.hack//CELL Volume 1

“.hack//CELL Volume 1” has been sitting on my “to be read” pile for quite a long time, more than a year. Now that I have finally gotten around to reading it, I realize I should have let it sit awhile longer. Or just never read it at all.

“.hack//CELL” takes place at the same time as “.hack//Roots,” in The World R:2. The connection to the other .hack series is tenuous, however. Haseo makes a brief appearance in his hunt for Tri-Edge, and Silabus and Gaspard show up as well, almost as if to say “See! This really is .hack!” But other than that, “.hack//CELL” is really the story of two Midoris.

One Midori is a PC in The World, a Professional Victim who wanders around with her companion Adamas. Midori carries some sort of secret, which Adamas knows but Midori seems to have forgotten. The other Midori is an average school girl who doesn’t even play the game. Her friend, Kaho, tries to lure her into The World, but it isn’t until Midori becomes hospitalized with some unknown illness that she sees the appeal of escaping into a fantasy world. The reader is left to guess how much—if at all—the two Minoris are linked, and what is the secret behind them both.

To start off with, this novel had an amateurish translation. The sentence structure and storytelling was clunky, and the translator had difficulty with the Japanese word for blue/green. Midori would talk about her green eyes in one paragraph, and then her blue eyes in the next. There were several other errors, and the text just didn’t flow.

But even with a good translation, I don’t think “.hack//CELL” would have been a good read. The author, Suzukaze Ryo, says in his afterword that he didn’t know much about the .hack universe, and wasn’t given much guidance on what kind of story to tell. He emphasized the real-world Midori, which could have been interesting as most .hack series emphasize the game, but Midori was a lifeless and ultimately boring character whose internal dilemmas and fuzzy philosophizing on the nature of reality didn’t make for a compelling read.

I wasn’t expecting anything amazing when I picked this up, just some light entertainment. Unfortunately, it was one of those books I had to grind through till the end. Even then, you don’t get a complete story. This is followed up by  .hack//CELL Volume 2, but I won’t be along for that ride.

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Happy Cafe – Volume 7

3.0 out of 5 stars The School Festival.

Happy Cafe, Vol. 7

Any manga involving high school kids will eventually do a couple of things. They will go to the beach. They will go to a local celebration. And eventually they will have a school festival.

It makes sense. School festivals are a huge part of the lives of Japanese kids from first grade in Elementary school till High school graduation. So with volume seven of “Happy Café” it is finally time for Uru and the gang to do what they do best and compete in the Café Competition for Uru’s school festival. Hijinks ensue.

But there is more than just baking going on. The love-triangles are starting to solidify, and Sou finally throws down the gantlet against Shindo to battle for Uru’s heart. Only it is a pretty one-sided battle, as Shindo isn’t exactly stepping up to the plate and declaring his love. Urur just sits in the middle, fairly oblivious that she is the prize in any battle, and muses over her own feelings.

“Happy Café” has gotten more serious in tone with recent volumes, and moved away from the light-hearted fun of the initial releases. Shindo is having issues with his missing mother, lots of new characters are moving in each with their own agenda. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy Volume 7 as much as I did previous ones. Much of the fun for “Happy Café” was lack of angst or any real downer issues, and as they sneak into the storyline I enjoy it less.

Kou Matsuzuki has brought in some other characters from her previous manga, and this volume she focuses on Hajime Aizawa and Ichi Arimoto from her one-shot “Number One Deluxe.” She has done this before, but this time I felt the characters were a derailment from the story. They don’t really fit in with the “Happy Café” group, and it seemed like an akward way for Matsuzuki to shoe-horn in previous creations.

There are some good parts to Volume 7, some of that old light-hearted magic. Uru is still as goofy and lovable as ever. But there wasn’t enough fun to overcome the dark bits that I felt didn’t really belong.

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory, Vol. 3

4.0 out of 5 stars The Secret of Kanae

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory, Vol. 3

“Hanako and the Terror of Allegory” is a series that started out on a weak note,  but keeps getting better with every volume. Artist Sakae Esuno (Future  Diary) has moved away from the panty-gags from the first volume, and is  positioning the series as a horror-comedy rather than a comedy-horror. Esuno has a real talent for visual horror, and I love seeing his interpretations of popular Japanese urban legends. There was a clever nod in the volume when a thinkly-disguised Ge ge ge no Kitaro showed up as well, which I really enjoyed.

Volume three picks up right after the cliff hanger of volume two, where Allegory Detective Aso has transformed completely into an allegory to do battle with the powerful Kokkuri. With Kokkuri’s ability to predict the future, Aso seems to stand no chance. Also, as the battle is being chatted about live on the internet, the two are creating more folklore as they go, adding power to the belief-driven allegory of Kokkuri.

Can he win? Well, of course he can,  or the series wouldn’t continue. Thanks to some quick thinking by Hanako of the Toilet the day is saved, but the battle makes Aso realize how dangerous it is getting the human Kanae involved in his battles against the allegories. Aso must decide if protecting Kanae is too much of a liability, or if he needs to push her away for her own good. But Kanae has secrets of her own, and Aso discovers that pushing her away might be pushing her even further towards danger, with no one to protect her.

The thee allegories (urban legends) in volume three were the Gap Girl, Red Paper/Blue Paper, and Merry-san. The creepiest of these was the Gap Girl, a phantom said to hide in the spaces between bookshelves and walls, and is responsible for that eerie feeling you get of someone watching you when you are home alone. I thought combining the Gap Girl with a shut-in who never left his room was brilliant, and the ending took me by surprise. Red Paper/Blue Paper is a legend about sitting alone in the bathroom, when a voice whispers “Red paper or blue paper?” to which either answer is deadly. Finally, Merry-san is a vengeful doll who resents being thrown away in the trash by an owner who has outgrown her, and comes back to take her revenge.

The Merry-san story really pumps up the violence, and there was one scene in particular that was downright disturbing. I haven’t seen anyone draw horror as well as Esuno, and it is nice to know I can still get the chills from a comic book.

Black Gate, Vols. 1-3

3.0 out of 5 stars The Black Gate is Death

Black Gate, Vols. 1-3

Sometimes I wonder why manga authors put those little self-depreciating notes in the margins of their comics. Too often I find myself agreeing with them. In “Black Gate,” for example, Yukiko Sumiyoshi writes that this is her first time attempting a long story in a comic, instead of the usual short strips that she does, and that she doesn’t really know how to structure a long story.

 She is correct. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really know how to structure a long story, and <em>Black Gate</em> suffers for it. All of the elements necessary to a great manga are here. Interesting premise, good plot, nice art…all that is really missing is characterization and good story-telling.

The premise of the comic is that in this world when someone dies their spirit passes through a White Gate into the afterlife. Occasionally, instead of a White Gate a Black Gate is opened, and instead of being content with the single spirit the Black Gate will try and suck up the spirits of the living as well. The very existence of a Black Gate unsettles things, causing accidents that can lead to deaths to feed the hungry gate. Only a few people have the ability to see these gates and close them, and they are known as Mitedamashi.

The story follows Senju, and adult Mitedamashi and his young charge Hijiri. The two are perpetually poor (For some reason being a Mitedamashi doesn’t pay very well even though it is an elite and necessary profession. There is no real reason given for this, other than it is funnier to have Senju and Hijiri poor and scrounging for food) and Hijiri is more of a bother than a help to Senju. Hijiri is a stereotypical “scrappy kid,” thinking he is tougher and more powerful than he actually is and annoying everyone around him. Senju has some deep bond with Hijiri, and some reason for watching over the kid that even Hijiri doesn’t know. Senju does his best to keep Hijiri from danger, even though Hijiri tries to tackle Black Gates far beyond his power level.

Over time, it is revealed that Hijiri is the last of a line of Gate Keepers, a race who had the ability to see and close not only the Black Gates but the White Gates as well. The leader of the Gate Keepers went mad and attempted to close all of the Gates in the world and end death, which is something that never goes over very well. There are those hunting the last Gate Keeper, to ensure that they never mess with the balance again, and there are others hunting the last Gate Keeper because they think the insane leader had a pretty good idea in sealing off all the Gates and ending death, and they want to give it another go.

I like all of the bits and pieces of “Gate Keeper,” but not so much the whole. The premise and plot are great, and if Sumiyoshi had gotten a little help with the story telling and characterization, then this could have been a smashing series. But too many of the characters are flat, especially Hijiri who never moves beyond the annoying kid stereotype (Hijiri never ages either, so even though several years pass in the manga, we have to deal with him as a little kid for the whole series). Some of the story jumps are too abrupt, like the sudden change from Gate closing to hunting a serial killer that murders Mitedamashi.

The art is great in “Black Gate.” You can see from the cover that Sumiyoshi is a very strong artist. And if you are the type of manga fan who likes to look at the art, with just a bit of story stringing it together, you might love <em>Black Gate</em>. But me, I am first and foremost a reader, and the story matters more than the art. And there just isn’t enough story here.

Tokyo Pop has packed all three volumes of “Black Gate”together for this collection. As far as I know, they were never released separately. It makes the collection affordable, although the large size makes it unwieldy for carrying around with you in your backpack if you read your manga out and about like I do.

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Shinobi Life Volume 6

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Torn between the two Kagetoras
 

Shinobi Life Volume 6

The course of true love never did run smooth.” So wrote William Shakespeare and nowhere is that quote proving more apt than in the latest volume of “Shinobi Life” by Shoko Conami.

Beni Fujiwara is back in the past, with a fourteen-year old Kagetora as her protector. But while Beni has finally come to terms with her love for the grown up Kagetora, this young boy doesn’t know her at all, and is confused as to why Beni is treating him with such familiarity. Beni, in the meantime, is feeling emotionally conflicted as she is as attracted to this younger version of Kagetora as to the one she knows, and wants the comfort of his hand and kiss but is worried about messing around with the past that might compromise the future she knows is awaiting her when she returns. It’s a time travel dilemma. Can you cheat on someone with a past, younger version of themselves?

Meanwhile, in the future (present), the adult Kagetora is proving his unswerving love for Beni by jumping over and over again into the time portal, trying to find his time-lost love. The time portal is not targetable, and Kagetora constantly finds himself in the wrong time, and returns to the present in order to leap again. He will never stop trying to find Beni, unknowing that she is currently with him even now. Rihito, Beni’s chosen fiancé, is shamed by the Kagetora’s devotion and forced to confront his own feelings for Beni, knowing that he lacks the drive necessary to hunt for her as relentlessly as Kagetora.

“Shinobi Life” always delivers some good romance, and I really enjoyed Volume 6’s further complications of a complicated relationship. Some things are explained here, like why Kategora found Beni familiar when they first met (because he had memories of meeting her as a young boy) and the depth of Kagetora’s feelings for Beni are shown by his constant time-leaping to find her. There are some really great scenes in Volume 6, and the reader is as torn between the two Kagetoras as Beni is herself.

Artists Shoko Conami manages to keep the human element on the forefront of all this time-travel and ninja adventures, and that is really the strength of the series. The story could easily be lost in all of its random and fantastic elements, but because the characters are so believable even the most outrageous scenario is grounded in human emotion

Demon Sacred Volume 2

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun Fashion with the Beast of the Apocalypse

Demon Sacred Volume 2

Having successfully trapped the Beast of the Apocalypse in a human form that is the duplicate of a popular idol singer (which is pretty funny to type. That almost seems like a joke but it is the real story…), Rika and Mona are having to deal with having a monster houseguest that doesn’t know how to live in a human world. Even though he is bound in human form, K2 still has some pretty remarkable powers and resilience, as well as a growing attachment to Mona who is his “chain” binding him to Earth. Demons, it seems, somewhat enjoy being bound if their keeper is strong enough. A confrontation with some bad boys brings K2 rushing to the scene, but restraint is not his strong point and his rescue can be a little too deadly for human tastes. Also, Mona and Rika are finding that giving the Beast of the Apocalypse the face and body of idol singer Keito brings some complications, like not being able to bring him out into public with such a famous face. Eventually, the real Keito comes on the scene, and things get even more complicated.

This volume was almost all relationship-building, only a little action beyond what was happening in people’s hearts. It is a nice contrast to Volume 1 and it always is worth taking the time to develop characters. Some scenes stretched credulity, like Mona and her friend Maiko being rescued from a gang-rape by K2, then getting upset with him for being to harsh on the bad guys. I don’t know many women that would have so much sympathy for their rapists. But this is fantasy, not reality, and a shojo manga so kind hearts and flowers are more to be expected than brutal revenge.

There is some more information on the nature of demons in “Demon Sacred,” and we find out more about the relationship between “demons” and “chains.” It looks like author Natsumi Itsuki is dipping into world mythology to set up rivals and enemies for Rika and Mona, and so far we have a Unicorn (Mika), the Beast of the Apocalypse (K2) as well as some new players in the form of a Griffin, an Oni and a Kakoku the origin of which I am not sure. Also looming on the horizon is a conflict with the Red Dragon, the most powerful of all of the demons.

The art is good and consistent, and I enjoyed this volume but I am going to need a stronger mix of action with relationships to keep my interest with “Demon Sacred.” The first volume had a better balance, and while Volume 2 has some important exposition for me to keep interested the story will need to be leveled up. The mythological elements work well, as well as the sci fi aspect of Return Syndrome. However, if you have all of these earth-shattering demons running around I want them to be doing more than posing for fashion photo shoots and munching on snack food.

Demon Sacred Volume 1

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Unicorns and the Beast of the Pit
 

Demon Sacred Volume 1

“Demon Sacred” seems to be a bit of an experiment for Tokyo Pop. Both Volume 1 and Volume 2 are being released on the same day, and at about half the price of their usual manga. I am not sure if this is just a tactic to get people hooked or if they will keep it up for the whole series but I have to say that I approve.

Aside from the pricing , “Demon Sacred” is pretty good. When I saw that cover, I thought I was in for a typical “Flowers and Pretty Boys” shojo series, and when the opening page has a heard of beautiful unicorns charging out of the Aurora I was even more worried. But this is the author of the Hard Science Fiction series JYU-OH-SEI and Natsumi Itsuki rarely delivers pure fluff. Diving into fantasy like this is different from her previous work, but it turns out that she handles it just fine.

In fact, “Demon Sacred” is almost a mix of Sci Fi and Fantasy. The series takes place in an unknown future when over 100,000 people have become victims of “Return Syndrome,” a disease that causes the body to age in reverse until you disappear (ala the Sci Fi epic Hyperion). Scientists are working around the clock to find the origin of this condition, but without success. Once scientist in particular, Shinobu, is obsessed with finding a cure as the disease is directly affecting one of the twin girls in his care. Rina and Mona are twins, but whereas Mona is their true age of fourteen Rina has regressed to about nine years old and doesn’t have too many more years to go.

Into the lives of Shinobu, Rina and Mona comes Mika, a demon in the guise of a Finnish composer who died long ago. It turns out that Mika was one of those unicorns from the opening scene, and he was bound into this form by Rina and Mona’s mother. The “Return Syndrome” turns out to be the effect of demons and other magical creatures returning to Earth, and their eternal existence wrecks havoc with the time-sense of normal humans. But in a rare effect, come humans can bind the demons to do their bidding, and Mika was so bound by Rina and Mona’s mother. The only way to cure Rina is to bind a more powerful demon and force him to slow down Rina’s rapid regression.

So you can see, it is actually a pretty thick plot with some heavy concepts being bounced around. Of course, Natsumi delivers plenty of eye candy as all the demons seem to be bound in the forms of idealized men by the girls around them, and Mona eventually binds her own demon (THE demon, as in the actual one bearing the mark 666) in the form of a pop star she admires. The art here is very nice, and the volume never gets so deep into shojo territory that guys can’t enjoy it as well.

I haven’t read through Volume 2 yet, but that is next on my list. I think Tokyo Pop has done a smart thing here by making these comics cheap enough to pick up on a whim, and good enough to keep the reader hooked.

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