published by Tokyopop
Reviews by Ed Sizemore
Mugen Spiral: The Complete Two-Volume Series
by Mizuho Kusanagi; adapted by Christine Schilling; $14.99 US
Yayoi Suzuka is a high school student and a powerful mystic. She has defeated the demon prince, Ura, by sealing his powers with a curse. To further control him, Yayoi places a cat god’s rosary on him, which transforms Ura into a cat. The two are trying to live together at the Suzuka family shrine.
Mugen Spiral is a cliche-ridden shojo romance. It’s based on the trope of two enemies spending time together and then falling in love. Of course, there are lots of obstacles to their love that they will need to conquer together.
The basic plot of each substory involves Yayoi getting tricked by a demon and rendered helpless. Ura must be temporarily freed of his curse to save her. Once the opponent is defeated, Ura is returned to his cat form. You would think that after the second or third time this happened, Yayoi would grow suspicious of any stranger seeking her skills as an exorcist. Yet she seems of incapable of such learning.
The characters are as generic as the plot. Yayoi is the typical good-hearted shojo heroine. Given her exorcist abilities, it’s disturbing how often she is reduced to the hapless victim. Ura is the typical bad boy with a heart of gold. Once we get past his macho facade, we realize what a kind, wonderful person he truly is. Unfortunately, neither character transcends these stereotypes.
The most disappointing part of the series is the artwork. The drawings are very uneven. There are times when the drawings are nice and Kusanagi shows some skills as an illustrator. However, very often, the art is flat and amateurish. Occasionally, a figure is so badly drawn that it threw me out of the story. It’s the worst-looking art I’ve seen in a published manga. I’m amazed that this was serialized and an editor approved these pages.
It’s no wonder Mugen Spiral only lasted two volumes. The story doesn’t really advance. By the middle of the second volume, all momentum is gone, and the story just boringly drones on. Readers do best to avoid this series completely.
Red Hot Chili Samurai Book 1
by Yoshitsugu Katagiri; adapted by Bryce P. Coleman; $10.99 US
Kokaku is the son of the Hanshu (lord of feudal Japan). He is in charge of a small, elite band that covertly helps maintain the peace. They investigate activities such as crooked gambling dens and illegally run brothels. Kokaku has the habit of chewing on chili peppers constantly, thus the book’s title.
In some respects, Red Hot Chili Samurai reminds me of Samurai Champloo. The lead males are tall, lean men with angular features; one even wears glasses. Although set in feudal Japan, both works contain some modern-day anachronisms. Finally, both series have a healthy dose of humor.
Red Hot Chili Samurai is an enjoyable read. Each chapter works as a stand-alone story, although there isn’t any real dramatic tension. Kokaku and his squad are so powerful you never doubt they will defeat the bad guys and restore proper order. The fun comes in seeing what crazy schemes they will use to achieve this goal. Think a dumb-downed version of Mission Impossible set in historic Japan.
The artwork is well-done. Katagiri uses a lot of closeups to create emotional tension and add drama. Given this focus, it’s no surprise that Katagiri is gifted at facial expressions. It’s easy to read a character’s emotional state at just a glance. This helps bring life to the storytelling. Readers looking for an action series with a lighter touch might try Red Hot Chili Samurai. It’s by no means a must read, but it’s a good distraction while traveling to the cons this summer.
Alice in the Country of Hearts Books 1 and 2
story by Quinrose; art by Hoshino Soumei; adapted by Lianne Sentar; $10.99 US
Alice in the Country of Hearts is an unusual shojo take on Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland. In this version, most of the characters have been recast as attractive men and boys. So the White Rabbit, named Peter, is now a young, handsome rabbit man, obsessed with making Alice love only him. The Mad Hatter is a striking, moody mob boss. The Cheshire Cat is a playful, good-looking teen who works at an amusement park.
Another twist on Carroll’s classic is that Alice is stuck in Wonderland. Peter has forced Alice to drink a potion upon her arrival. She can’t leave Wonderland until the potion vial has refilled itself. The vial slowly fills the more Alice interacts with the inhabitants of Wonderland.
Carroll’s tale always had a dark side to it. Quinrose has chosen to make that dark side much more prominent. This comes from the general personalities of the leads. All the men are psychologically unstable and prone to homicidal tendencies. Peter is the most bloodthirsty of the bunch. The Mad Hatter tells Alice that he finds her interesting, for now. Should she come to bore him, he’ll probably have her killed. It’s disturbing to see life treated so lightly in this series.
There is a slight justification given for this blase attitude toward murder. However, I can’t discuss it without spoiling a major revelation in the second volume. Suffice to say, it has to do with what makes the inhabitants of Wonderland tick, literally.
I do like Quinrose’s characterization of Alice. She comes across as more mature and self confident than Carroll’s Alice. She is not scared to stand up to Peter, even in his most murderous moments. She’s not comfortable living in the Clock Tower without performing some work in exchange for her lodgings. She provides a desperately needed sense of normalcy in the midst of madness.
Hoshino is an excellent pretty-boy artist who creates for Alice a very eye-pleasing harem of male suitors. The costume designs are original but maintain a Victorian feel to them. I like that the Queen of Hearts’ soldiers are actual men in uniforms designed to look like playing cards instead of animated playing cards. Also, each area of Wonderland has a unique look, while still making all the regions feel like they are part of a unified design style.
Alice in the Country of Hearts is too psychotic for my taste. Even admitting characters like Peter are creepy doesn’t make him any more acceptable. The male cast is just too capricious for me to enjoy the series. Readers looking for a more mature, darker version of Alice in Wonderland might like this series. Others wanting a manga version of the classic will have to look elsewhere.
created by Koichi Sumimaru; story and art by Various; adapted by Peter Ahlstrom; $12.99 US
.hack//4koma (pronounced dot hack four koma, the backslashes are ignored) is a collection of 4-koma strips and comedic short stories set in the .hack universe. The majority of the book is by Koichi Sumimaru, but there are three other significant contributors. Each author has a unique art and humor style.
I’ve discussed the problems of 4-koma manga in my podcast review of Lucky Star. The 4-koma strips in this book suffer all the standard problems of that genre, plus they have the problem of requiring the reader be familiar with the dot hack universe. This makes the book inaccessible to those that haven’t played the games or watched the anime series.
The short comedy stories are more accessible both in terms of subject matter and humor. There are a few in-jokes about characters, but those are throwaway gags and not central to the story itself.
All the artists do a good job with the characters. They alter the designs slightly for comedic effect but never go far off-model. It’s obvious that the section by Inumaru was done in color, and I wish Tokyopop had reprinted them in color. This section looks like photocopies of color art done with a low contrast setting, so the artwork is muddy. It’s a shame, since if the color pages are half as nice as I imagine, then it would be a delightful-looking color story.
Fans of the dot hack franchise will already pick this book up. People new to the franchise do well to avoid this book until they’ve at least seen the .hack//sign anime series. Otherwise, .hack//4koma is typical of the genre.
A Note to the Publisher
One brief word to Tokyopop itself. You need to bring back translator notes in your books. All of the books reviewed would have benefitted greatly from having such a section. You need to explain the Japanese terms you leave untranslated. You also need to explain cultural jokes and setting when they are important to the story.
For example, in Mugen Spiral, Ura is called a demon, but he is nothing like the traditional demons of Western culture. I suspect he is called an Oni in the original Japanese, and they are more morally ambiguous beings than Western demons. You are doing your readers a grave disservice when you leave out such important background information. Someone new to manga wouldn’t know that and needs that knowledge for the story to make better sense.
I know it’s cheaper to print books without these extra pages. Since you are trying to reach both new and established fans of manga, such omissions will only alienate new readers. In addition, translator notes are industry standard. It doesn’t reflect well on your company to offer less than the competition. (The publisher provided review copies.)