Gate 7, Volume 2

4.0 out of 5 stars Same lovely art with a thicker plot

Gate 7 Volume 2

I wasn’t overly impressed by the first volume of Gate 7. It was all style and no substance, with things happing too rapidly and with no characters I could care about or story I could get into. The best thing about it was the beautiful art, but that isn’t enough to carry a comic book.

“Volume Two” was a huge leap forward. The story started to come together, the characters started to flesh out, and the art remained as beautiful as ever.

The story starts off right where “Volume One” ended, with Hana under a flaming attack by Mitsuhide Akechi and his oni. They are seeking the corpse of Nobunaga so that they can capture his oni Dairokuten-Maoh, reputed to be the most powerful oni in existence. Standing against them is Masamune Date, the one-eyed Dragon. Standing with them is Tokugawa Iemitsu.

If all of those names mean something to you, then you have a decent grasp of Japanese history, specifically the Siege of Sekigahara and the Warring States period. “Gate 7” pulls fast and loose from Japanese history, merging real historical figures with fictional characters like Yukimura Sanada and the Sanada Ten Brave People. I have a pretty solid understanding of the era but there are still characters and personages I didn’t know. Fortunately for us readers, the one human character, Takamoto Chikahito, is a Kyoto history buff who gives a running commentary on new characters as they show up.

“Gate 7” uses a unique mythology vaguely based on Shinto and Japanese folklore–and I mean very, very, very vaguely based. Basically, the mythology of Gate 7 revolves around those who were enshrined as kami after death being born again as magical-based creatures in symbiotic relationships with oni. The oni in “Gate 7” are nothing like traditional oni. Instead of multi-colored giants with horns and leopard-skin loincloths the oni of “Gate 7” look almost like children clinging to their masters. Most of the magic seems to be elemental based, with lots of fire being flung around.

What I liked about “Volume Two” was how the story was developing. Chikahito actually came in handy instead of being the pointless buffoon required of the human-in-fairlyland character. Hana remains as mysterious as ever, although she seems to care for Chikahito. Tokugawa Iemitsu was an interesting addition to the cast. I was surprised that they would use Iemitsu instead of his more famous father Tokugawa Ieyasu, but it makes sense in that Iemitsu is more of a blank slate and doesn’t carry the baggage of using someone like Ieyasu.

There are still parts of “Gate 7” that are off-putting. I had some issues with the translation. I have no doubt that the translator is being faithful, but some of the turns of phrases and dialog is so awkward I am surprised it made it past an editor. There are some puns and humor that are entirely lost. The running joke about Hana loving to eat noodles has gotten old after only two volumes, and I hope they drop it soon. And there are some internal logic issues, like how is Masumune Data resurrected as a powerful magic-being, yet still be a child forced to attend Elementary school? And although Chikahito was a little more useful, he needs to magic-up a bit and stop being such a liability to the team. So far, aside from his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Japan his only ability is to be immune to magic–not a bad trait, I suppose!

The story is still more flash than substance; this is a series clearly going art first, story second. But at least now with “Volume Two” I feel like the series is going somewhere, that all that prettiness is being connected with some interesting plot and that CLAMP has a good story to tell. I will definitely pick up Volume Three and keep up with the series.

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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.

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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