Graphic Novel Review: Del Rey Manga Round-Up, Part One
Let me be honest: I don’t know all that much about manga. I’ve read a few series (going back to Area 88 and Kamui, twenty years ago during the first attempt to bring manga to the US), but I’ve never really gone really deeply into the field. Well, I’m hoping to remedy that now. I’ve got a big pile of first volumes of various manga series, and I’ll be doing weekly reviews of about four of them at a time. (I’m aiming for Fridays; let’s see if I can hold to that schedule.)
We’ll start off with some books from Del Rey (all originally published by Kodasha in Japan), mostly aimed at young teenagers. (At least, all but one of these is marked “Teen: 13+,” but, from the content, I suspect the real Japanese readership, and possibly the American readership as well, is tweens to young teens.) This week’s batch also are primarily aimed at girls — I think.
First up is Shugo Chara!, which translates roughly to “Guardian Characters.” It’s by two women who work under the name Peach-Pit, and it’s about a fourth grader who discovers three eggs in her bed one morning.
Okay, I have to back up already. Amu, our heroine, is explicitly in fourth grade — we’re told that several times — though the structure of the school, and the maturity of the characters, would seem to put them more naturally in middle school. (Trust me; I’m the father of a fourth grader.) And, from an American perspective, it’s really bizarre that a story about fourth graders would be marketed to teens – or even tweens, as I suspect is actually the case here. In the US, kids generally only want to read about other kids their own age (maybe) or, preferably, a few years older. Fourth and fifth graders read stories about middle schoolers, middle schoolers read Sweet Valley High and the like, and high school students either stop reading for pleasure entirely or read stories about people in their twenties. Maybe, like so much else, that’s different in Japan – there is the well-known love of the small and cute there
Anyway, this is a story aimed at tween girls, about a fourth grader who wants to change her “character.” She thinks she can be, or perhaps should be, a different person than the one her schoolmates think she is. That’s very common for kids, though the specifics of how it’s handled here are very Japanese. Her three eggs hatch “guardian characters,” each of which can help her change her character in certain areas. This leads, as of course it would, to highly emotionally charged situations, as when Amu declares her love for a cute boy in front of the whole school. The plot is mostly about Amu being reluctant about her new role as one of the school’s Guardians (the bizarre, self-selected equivalent of student government, with great powers, immense social status, and cool capes – all of them possessors of the fairly rare Guardian Characters), and her crush on one of them. But there’s also a devilish antagonist who shows up a few times without doing much, and who presumably will be more important later in the series.
All in all, there’s much more dialogue — nearly always about emotions — than action, and the plot looks to be taking its own sweet time to get anywhere. On the other hand, the art is gorgeously detailed and intricate, though it an exceptionally cutesy-poo style that will not be for all tastes. Shugo Chara!, to put it mildly, is an extremely girly comic, and I bet its fans will be those who love it for that.
For a complete change of pace, there’s Dragon Eye, the only really boyish manga this week. It’s by Kairi Fujiyama and is set in a fairly standard post-apocalyptic world of walled cities; a strange virus can instantly transform humans into “Dracules,” which are monstrously strong, fast, and evil. Our heroes, of course, are part of the force that battles the Dracules to keep the remnants of humanity safe. This book, unlike Shugo Chara!, explains all of the background quickly and economically up front, and then dives right into the story. It might be the Westerner in me, but I appreciated that.
The story proper begins with a training class of new VIUS warriors, the police/army/bounty hunters who track down and destroy all manner of Dracules. (In typical manga style, Dracules come in a great variety of styles and types, suitable for collecting and trading on small bits of cardboard.) We think our viewpoint character will be the spunky young woman, Leila, who intends to revenge the death of her entire family. But the mission goes sour, one of the trainees turns out to be the head of the mysterious Squad Zero, and things start getting complicated.
[[[Dragon Eye]]] isn’t as complicated and baroque as [[[Shugo Chara]]]! – it’s a story about killing monsters, with conflicted, damaged heroes who will inevitably learn to work together, heal their damage, train in new techniques and skills, and finally kick the pants of the biggest, baddest monster in the world. They’ve got some time; that won’t be until a dozen or more volumes from now. Dragon Eye isn’t a great fighting-monsters manga, but it’s a perfectly respectable one, and if there’s any boy (of whatever age) has money left after buying the Naruto flood this fall (and isn’t already hooked on something like Beet the Vandel Buster or Bleach, depending on his age), this is a good choice.
My weirdest manga this week is My Heavenly Hockey Club, about a high school girl who really only wants to eat and sleep, but gets shanghaied into a field hockey club for odd reasons having to do with a rich boy’s damaged car. Well, it’s supposedly a field hockey club, but they’ve never played a game, and don’t know how to play. And there aren’t enough of them for a team. And they never practice. It’s by Ai Morinaga, and it’s exceptionally goofy – mostly about food and sleeping.
As you can see from the cover, most of the characters look like other characters. I think this is deliberate, but I’m not sure why. [[[My Heavenly Hockey Club]]] is incredibly stylized and odd in many ways – most of the stories end the same way (which I won’t reveal), and there’s a realistic-looking but not always realistic-acting bear wandering through the last story. Really, this defies description. I know the “sports manga” is a big genre, and the reluctant hero/heroine who turns out to be really good at said sport is also a cliché, but knowing that doesn’t prepare you for Hana Suzuki as a goaltender.
Of all four of the manga this week, I enjoyed My Heavenly Hockey Club the most. It’s weird, it tells strange stories in its own odd ways, and it has characters I can believe in who also can be very funny. (The art is nice, too – not quite as cutesy-cutesy as most girls’ manga, but still with a great lightness of line, sense of movement, and facial expressions.) This is the one I’m most likely to pick up volume two…I really want to know if this club will ever play a hockey game!
Last this time is Princess Resurrection, by Yasunori Mitsunaga. It’s the most appealing visually, but the most annoying on the level of story – in two hundred pages, Mitsunaga never gets around to explaining the set-up. (There’s this princess, who can heal people with her blood, sort of, and she and her siblings are battling over control of the world, also sort-of, and there are possibly a wide variety of “monsters” who may or may not be connected to that family, or something.) I do get the feeling that this is something of an established subgenre of manga, and that mentioning that our title character is a monster-fighting princess is about as much necessary explanation as saying some new Marvel character is a mutant (and maybe carries as much baggage). Could be, but, whatever background is supposed to be there, it’s not in the book, so it passed me by.
A young boy (I have no idea how old he’s supposed to be) named Hiro shows up in a strange town, with a map leading him to an abandoned mansion, where he’s supposed to meet his sister. But he’s soon killed (and resurrected – come on, it’s in the title!) by a chainsaw-wielding princess whose sidekick is a killer robot in the shape of a cute toddler (if Arale Norimake couldn’t talk, and wasn’t very funny, she’d be Flandre). Hiro dies in most of these stories, but it’s neither funny nor horrific; he’s just a bit of a klutz, and kinda slow to pick up on things, and this is dangerous business.
There’s a lot of violence without much explanation (this one is rated “Older Teen,” for a 16+ audience) and, in the middle, Hiro’s sister shows up in a maid costume, which she wears throughout. (Hiro and his sister never believably interact like siblings.) The violence is stylish and keeps the pages turning, but since we don’t really know why any of this is happening, it doesn’t add up to much. I should admit that might be because I’m not familiar with the genre – apparently, this is a “[[[Gothic Lolita]]]” story, one of many – so those of you who are used to chainsaw-wielding princesses might lap this right up.
As I said above, the art is quite impressive – gloomy and atmospheric, with the most unlikely things rendered matter-of-factly. I might not know why any of this is happening, but I liked looking at it. But I think Princess Resurrection is best for gore-fans, and those who don’t really care why monsters are getting slaughtered, as long as the slaughter keeps happening.
Next week: four more Del Rey manga, for older teens, including [[[Parasyte]]] and Mu Shi Shi.
Shugo Chara! Vol. 1
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $10.95
Dragon Eye, Vol. 1
by Kairi Fujiyama
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $10.95
My Heavenly Hockey Club, Vol. 1
by Ai Morinaga
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $10.95
Princess Resurrection, Vol. 1
by Yasunori Mitsunaga
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $10.95