Cardcaptor Sakura Volume 3

4.0 out of 5 stars Master of the Clow Cards

“Card Captor Sakura Omnibus Volume 3” is almost exactly where I stopped reading the TokyoPop editions of “Card Captor Sakura.” Although I loved the first volumes, I thought the series was losing some of its magic as the storyline went along. There were too many characters, and some of the elements I didn’t enjoy–like Yukito’s revelation of his true form as Yue the Judge. I liked Yukito better as just Yukito. Budgets were tight. Decisions had to be made. I had read the series up until Sakura completed her task of capturing all the Clow Cards, and I didn’t see much point in continuing. What is a Card Captor with no cards to capture? And so I stopped picking up the Tokyopop collections.

But I always wondered how the series ended. And I figured I would get around to reading it someday.

Enter the extremely cool Dark Horse Omnibus series. Along with a larger format, nicer paper, a new and improved translation, and full-color pages, I could get the entire Cardcaptor Sakura series in four affordable volumes. The Omnibus volumes were too good to pass up, and I could finally read the end of series.

“Omnibus Volume 3” starts off with Sakura Kinamoto as a 5th grade elementary school and Master of the Clow Cards of the magician Clow Reed. She has finally captured the last of the errant cards, and assumed her destined role. However, capturing the last of the cards has left here without a purpose. A magical warrior with no one to battle isn’t of much use. Fortunately, some danger and intrigue arrives at Sakura’s school with a new exchange student arrives from England, Eriol Hiiragizawa. Sakura and the Clow Cards are called upon once again, but Sakura quickly finds herself outmatched. It is not enough to be Master of the Clow Cards. Sakura must transform the cards, making her own magic instead of just borrowing someone else’s.

And of course, much of the fun of “Cardcaptor Sakura” has nothing to do with battle. I have loved reading all of the bizarre–yet perfectly sweet and innocent–little love stories intertwined in the series. In one story, the gang learns of a superstition involving handing out hand-made teddy bears to the one you love, so soon teddies bears are getting made and exchanged everywhere. Sakura’s classmate Rika gives one to their teacher. Li Syaoran makes one but can’t decide if he wants to give it to the girl Sakura or the boy Yukito, both of whom make him swoon. And then Valentine’s Day comes around, and it is the same problem all over again. Good times.

Getting back into “Cardcaptor Sakura” after more than a decade was easy. The ladies at CLAMP seemed to have assumed that there would be new or returning readers, and recaped the story and re-introduced the characters in the first few pages. After everyone is comfortable in their settings, they then drop the gang into new adventures against new opponents and get the ball rolling for the second half of Sakura’s series.

While I am enjoying the series, I personally don’t think that Volume Three is as good as volumes one and two. Some of the new characters seem a bit forced. They have gone the “dark mirror” route making sure that everyone in Sakura’s battle group has an opposite to fight. If Sakura has a cute little winged lion that turns into a fierce guardian, then they will have a cute little black kitty that turns into a massive winged black panther. And so on. Once the reveal is made of the identity of Sakura’s new opponent, the story makes a little more sense, but there is less immediacy to the storyline. She isn’t a girl on a mission anymore, and is being battered around by mystic forces.

Even so, I will definitely be getting the final Volume 4 to see how it all plays out. And since Dark Horse has put out these excellent Omnibus versions, I am glad I waited.

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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.

Solanin

5.0 out of 5 stars Standing at the crossroads

Solanin

“Solanin” is good. Really good. Really, really good. Inio Asano has crafted a perfect little story that summons up raw emotions and captures that stage in life when you stand with one foot in adulthood and one foot in childhood, and you wonder if your body has enough strength in it to drag both feet solidly on one side. And what it will mean if you do.

Meiko is in her mid-twenties. She works at a job she hates (that pays well), and lives in Tokyo with her boyfriend of six years,Taneda (which her parents don’t know about). Taneda is in a band that only practices but never plays live, and pretty much relies on Meiko to take care of them. Meiko sees a path stretching out in front of her, but she is pretty sure it isn’t one she wants to take. Is this what life means as an adult? To work for pay in a soul-crushing career? Or to be completely irresponsible and still act like a teenager like Taneda? In the end, decisions must be made, and some of those decisions we get to make of our own free will, and some of those decisions are thrust upon us by circumstances.

I don’t know if everyone has this same dilemma. Some people seem to leap feet-first into adulthood—career, wife, house, kids—without batting an eye or ever looking back. I didn’t. I graduated college, fooled around in bands that never went anywhere, went back to college just so I could put off the real world again for awhile, dabbled in this and that, all the while shying away from that Big Bad Wolf known as adult responsibility that lurks around the corner.

Maybe because of my own experience, “Solanin” was a story I could relate to. And I don’t want to give away any spoilers, because discovering the story is part of the wonders of this comics, but I was happy it didn’t end on a fairy tale. The band doesn’t suddenly strike gold proving that the slacker’s route was the best after all. The whole story was just really … real.

And Asano’s art is beautiful. There is a fantastic balance between the stylized, simplistic faces of the characters and the richly detailed world they live in. The art is for the most part realistic, but Asano slips in the occasional manga trope just as a reminder that these are cartoon people in a cartoon world. The shading is also impeccable. The blacks and grays are rich, and the artwork has a great sense of depth-of-field and perspective.

Most of all, I loved the characters. Meiko is not gorgeous. She isn’t sexy. She just looks like an average girl, the kind that you might pass on the street every day. When she crys, she gets ugly. When she smiles, she glows. And her friends are the same. Some are overweight, some are funny looking, some are pretty. One the whole they are just—average.

As Asano says, “There is nothing cool about these characters. They’re just your average 20-somethings who blend into the backdrop of the city. But the most important messages in our lives don’t come from the musicians on the stage or stars on television. They come from the average people all around you, the ones who are just feet away from where you stand. That’s what I believe.”

That’s cool. I believe that too.

Bunny Drop Vol. 2

5.0 out of 5 stars Mother Quest

Bunny Drop, Vol. 2

By the second volume of “Bunny Drop,” Daikichi has all of the logistics down of being a single father to his six-year old aunt, Rin. He has switched jobs to the distribution center, which has less prestige but allows him time to drop off and pick up Rin from Nursery school. Rin and Daikichi have their daily routine down and settle into a comfortable rhythm, and Daikichi’s family are finally starting to accept Rin.

But it is all a little too comfortable. With some time to relax and think, Daikichi worries about whether or not he is doing the right thing with Rin. Maybe she would be better off with her birth mother, the mysterious young woman who had an affair with Daikichi’s grandfather and gave birth to Rin. In between his daily duties, Daikichi does detective work to track down the woman called Masako, and to find out just what kind of a woman can so completely abandon her own child. And maybe, just maybe, Daikichi should take the plunge and formally adopt Rin as his daughter.

It’s hard to describe just what kind of comic “Bunny Drop” is. It is easy to say something like “sweet” or “heartwarming,” which it is, but that doesn’t cover it. Artist Yumi Unita has created two wonderful characters in Daikichi and Rin, and it is a pleasure just to watch them go through their story. Rin is a troubled girl, emotionally scarred from being abandoned, but under Daikichi’s love and guardianship she emerges from her shell, and finds normal things to worry about, like if she is cute or not, or if a “grown-up” first grader can still sit on laps. Daikichi also is surprised by how much he enjoys being a parent, how the things he had to give up, like going out drinking with friends, just don’t seem to matter anymore when you are responsible for someone else’s life.

Unita does a nice job matching the art to the story as well. “Bunny Drop” is all about faces, with almost every panel having a close-up of someone’s face, with minimalist backgrounds. That style works perfect, as “Bunny Drop” is an intimate, emotional tale that plays out where it should and hits all the right notes.

My Bride is a Mermaid, Season One Part Two

4.0 out of 5 stars Under the Sea

My Bride Is a Mermaid: Season One, Part Two

“My Bride Is a Mermaid: Season One, Part Two” finishes up the first (and only) season of this funny and oddball anime. There are thirteen episodes on two DVDs, bringing to a close the complete twenty-six episode series.

I really dug this series, for its mix of over the top antics combined with some outright parody and some nice sweet moments. If you have seen Season One, Part One (and why would you be watching Part Two without having seen it?) you know pretty much what to expect in terms of humor and fun.

Part Two starts out with a bang as Nagasumi brings a stray kitten to school. Cats, it turns out, are the one thing all mermaids are deathly afraid of, and this kitten running around school has all of the fish folk in a frenzy. Some of the best laughs in the series are had here, showing the terrible monster from the mermaid’s perspective, and then the real scene from the human’s. Some additional rivalry is brought in when the class president (whose real name is unknown) is shown to hide a deep love for Nagasumi behind her thick glasses and shy demeanor. Next, Akeno Shiranui comes into town. She is an inspector for the mermaids who tests to see how the mermaids are doing fitting into human life, and anyone who reveals themselves is exiled back into the ocean. Hijinks ensue.

Of course, all sorts of other wacky stuff happens. A field trip to Kyoto. Sun and Luna’s tough fathers running around in school girl outfits. Kai heading to the hot springs wearing his full astronaut suit. Pretty much nothing makes sense in “My Bride is a Mermaid,” and that is exactly how I like it.

One thing I really liked about “Part Two” was the ending. In too many series they don’t wrap things up properly, but this series was really satisfying. Nagasumi even got a chance to man-up at the end, and the final freeze-frame shot at the end had me rolling. Very well done.

My complaints with the series are the same as with “Part One.” Whoever did the subtitles went overboard trying to capture the Seto accent and Sun and her group come off sounding like a bunch of hillbillies, which is not at all how it sounds in Japanese. There are a few other lame misses with the subtitles, such as when Luna’s father (who is a clear parody of the Terminator) gives the classic line “I’ll be back” but it winds up in the subtitles as “I’ll return soon.” The joke is lost in translation.

But weak subtitles can’t bury a great comedy, and that is what you get here. No fan service. Not an amazing series. But it keeps up a good pace and delivers with every episode. Good times.

Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge

 
4.0 out of 5 stars More than Schoolgirl vs. Chainsaw Man

Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge (Sub Ocrd)

 
“Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge” (A direct transliteration of Japanese title “Negatibu happi chenso ejji”) was an entirely different and better film than I was expecting. From the name and cover, I was looking forward to a cheesy Japanese chainsaw slasher flick with a healthy dose of panties. Instead, I got a sweet superhero-themed romance tinged with some grief psychology.

I should have known better when I saw that “Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge” is based on a manga and novel by Takimoto Tatsuhiko (Welcome to the N.H.K.). Takimoto generally deals with deeper social and psychological issues under the veneer of slick pop culture, and that is exactly what he delivers here.

High school student Yamamoto Yosuke is a self-confessed wuss. He lives in a tiny one-room school dorm with a roommate who wants to be an artist but never finishes anything he starts, and both of them live in the shadow of their friend Noto. Noto was the cool guy, the leader of their trio who even went out James Dean-style dying in a high speed motorcycle crash that left him forever young and cool. Without the spark of Noto in his life, Yosuke is slowly sinking down into depression and surrender. Suddenly, he runs into Eri, a beautiful “Pretty Soldier” who seems straight out of a comic book. In her schoolgirl uniform and doing impossible martial arts, she battles a massive, dark Chainsaw Man each night, who vanishes when Eri manages to penetrate his exposed heart with one of her knives but reappears again the next night. Yosuke decides that his purpose in life is to support Eri in her battle, and the two slowly become close together as Yosuke learns of Eri’s own grief, and uncovers the true origin and meaning of the Chainsaw Man.

So, those things I was expecting…gore, blood, panties…never show up here. (Although the lead actress Seki Megumi is without question a hottie, even when she dives into a swimming pool in full schoolgirl costume we never get a peek. She has one of that magic skirts that never flips up even when upside-down.) “Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge” is far from a cheap exploitation flick and actual requires some thought on the part of the viewer to penetrate the plot. Director Kitamura Takuji never tells us directly what is going on, and instead lays out the puzzle pieces for the viewer to arrange.

Although it does have some amateur moments, for a first film Kitamura did a surprisingly good job mixing the CGI enhanced martial arts action with the more staid pleasantries of Yosuke and Eri having coffee together. Pacing wise, the film spends much more time on the relationships than on the nightly battles. The teachers at school are interesting secondary characters and provide some comic relief, and there are nice moments of humor and slice-of-life reality punctuating the story.

I don’t want to make the film sound more brilliant than it is, but it definitely exceeded my expectations. This is a film not to be judged by its cover. Instead of that scene on the front, there should have been a quaint picture of Eri riding on the back of Yosuke’s bicycle to give you a better feel of what to expect. But maybe it is the surprises that “Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge” throws you way that makes it really worth while.

The Witch of Artemis Volume 1

3.0 out of 5 stars The girl in black and the girl in purple

The Witch of Artemis Volume 1

“The Witch of Artemis” is a little too…typical. The art is typically good. The storyline is typically interesting. The characters are typically cute and sassy. Nothing here is bad or sub-par, but at the same time there isn’t a lot to hook you into the story right off the bat.

Kazuki is an eleven-year old boy who grew up on his father’s stories of another world called Artemis, and a promise from his father that they would journey there someday. Kazuki’s brother never believed the stories and is a level-headed realist, but even after their father’s death Kazuki still has faith in the childhood fantasy realm. One day (of course) two outlandishly-dressed girls appear on Earth and are able to do magic. Kazuki gets in their way and is branded with a death-curse for his trouble by the girl in black. The other girl in purple (the one on the cover) suddenly whisks Kazuki to the planet Artemis which is the only place she is powerful enough to break the curse. Of course, she doesn’t have enough power to return him to Earth, and Kazuki is strangely calm about now being a permanent resident of Artemis.

The girl in purple turns out to be Marie, the immortal Grand Witch of Artemis who has dedicated her life to doing good deeds even though she does them in secret and is feared by the people of Artemis. We find that they are slowly forgetting how to do magic and the remaining magic-users like Marie are becoming outcasts. Kazuki seems to have been recruited by the woman in black for a specific reason, and something secret is driving Marie’s desire to do good deeds. Kazuki decides to help Marie help others, and takes on his first challenge a woman whose husband has forgotten her, even though he paints her image in his magical paintings.

There is some potential here, and I think whether or not “The Witch of Artemis” will be worth reading regularly will be decided by the next volume. Marie makes a good foil for Kazuki, and is far away from the typical “magical girlfriend” role. In fact, she appears to be more of the “magical girlfriend’s bratty little sister who tries to get in the way” -type stepping up to the main character spot instead of the supporting role. I am interested in why Marie is compelled to do good deeds, and just who she is trying to save. I assume that Kazuki has some deeper connection to Artemis, most likely through his father, and I would like to see that played out as well.

But author Yui Hara is going to have to go a little deeper in the next volume to really keep my interest going, and to move “The Witch of Artemis” up a notch from just being…typical.

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