- Posted by Johanna on March 2, 2014 at 6:22 pm
- Category: Manga Reviews
- CREDITS: by Mari Yamazaki
- PUBLISHER: Yen Press; $40 US
Thermae Romae Book 3 picks up in the middle of events from the previous volume, which meant I had to find and reread Book 2 before I was sure what was going on. Given that it’s been nine months since that was released, a little bit of “story so far” would have been a help.
It’s not that complicated a plotline, though. Lucius is still stuck in modern-day Japan, and a horse that has fallen in love with him (because he’s so masterful with animals) is rampaging through the inn, but Lucius is able to calm the animal. He then rides it bareback through the town, which immensely impresses the Rome-loving Satsuki.
Her grandfather, who’s drawn to look exactly like Tommy Lee Jones, is an acupuncturist and chiropractor. He’s celebrating that Satsuki has finally found someone to fall in love with, even if she doesn’t recognize or acknowledge it yet. Lucius calls her Diana, since he first saw her in a bath by the light of the moon. She’s essential, since she’s the only one who can translate Japanese to Latin for him, but he’s starting to feel more for her as well.
There’s a bigger plot here, with young punks wanting to redevelop the hot springs town into a more modern resort. Satsuki’s grandpa gets information from an old buddy, who’s drawn to resemble Lee Van Cleef, but all of that winds up seeming a distraction. Lucius wants to learn all he can from his unusual stay in Japan, but he also worries about what’s going on with the aging emperor Hadrian back in his own time.
My favorite sequences were the wordless ones, first where Satsuki’s grandpa and Lucius size each other up in the bath, and a couple with the horse, who’s a majestic animal even if older. That’s an underlying theme here, with Lucius demanding respect for elderly farmers from younger tough guys. It suits his style of architecture, too, designing buildings in classic style to last through time. The idea that bathing is a way to achieve harmony and relaxation becomes prominent throughout this volume.
The last half of the book becomes a quest, as Lucius and Satsuki are separated by time but seek to find each other again. Some of the previous plots are forgotten as the author races to a happy conclusion. The price has risen $5 for this installment, but I’m just glad we got this final volume (the equivalent of books 5 and 6 from the Japanese releases). (The publisher provided a review copy.)
- Posted by Johanna on March 2, 2014 at 5:10 pm
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: written by R.J. Ryan; art by David Marquez
- PUBLISHER: Archaia; $29.95 US
I have the sinking feeling that this is another graphic novel, like Asterios Polyp, where the visual hijinks will distract enough people that no one will want to talk about how stereotypical and pointless the story is.
The Joyners in 3D is actually printed in 3D, requiring red/blue glasses to read it. It comes with two pair and a cute note about sharing. (The gimmick made review copies particularly difficult for the publisher, who had to send out paper glasses to go along with digital downloads. Perhaps that also explains why the book, originally promoted in 2012 and due in 2013, is a year late.) Oddly, the art is mostly readable without them, done with strong black lines and shapes with greyish-olive tones. It’s the text that is entirely doubled up, making the word balloons pop off the page.
The story is set in the near future, complete with flying cars, although it’s treated as a cosmetic overlay, without much significance. George Joyner is a rich tech inventor who’s too selfish to get divorced; he’d rather stay in an unhappy marriage than share his fortune. It’s for the kids, he says, the underdeveloped son Rochester and the autistic Michelle. Sonya, his wife, has little character motivation. She’s a plot device, fooling around with a guy her son’s age, while George is stupid enough to make a play for Michelle’s live-in psychotherapist.
The author has an odd tendency to introduce side characters — the wife’s father, the nanny’s boyfriend — and maim them without then following up on their expressed purpose or quest. Sometimes the chapters read as though they were written for different projects and just lumped together to make a page count.
Thanks to the 3D, which didn’t play well with my regular glasses, it took me much longer than usual to read this, and I resented that. I didn’t like spending time with any of these people, and while good reads can have unlikeable characters, there wasn’t any compensating factor to this story, no deep observation about human nature, no funny lines, no particularly standout, well-captured moment. Everyone has the same voice, too.
I’m mostly left with questions. The biggest is why tell this story, an internal family drama driven by conversation, in 3D? But also, why is this set in the future? Nothing about the story requires that. Why are the characters so flat and predictable and stereotypical? No one wants to change themselves in any way or demonstrates any self-awareness. (The publisher provided a review copy.)
- Posted by Johanna on March 2, 2014 at 2:42 pm
- Category: Movies/TV
Out this week is a two-disc collection of the six-episode miniseries Bible Secrets Revealed. I was curious to see it mostly to find out what perspective it took: skeptic or avoiding controversy?
Turns out I could have found that out by googling the title and seeing how many religious sites had posted responses. If the show had comforted and reassured them about the holy book, they wouldn’t have felt the need to answer back about its supposed anti-Christian bias and disrespect for faith. I tend to agree with them that this was a sensationalist presentation of the material (you can guess that from the title of the last episode, “Sex and the Scriptures”), but I imagine that’s what it took to get the show made.
The structure is similar to other series of this type — lots of talking heads interspersed with various scenes of floating text, pictures of books, and pans across images to make the show more visually interesting. The occasional short reenactment or location footage makes for a pleasant change. Exaggerated and tabloid-ish in the telling, the subject matter could still be of interest for those Christians who’d like to approach their faith with open eyes.
“Lost in Translation” begins by pointing out how scholars tackle the issues of authorship in different ways from the faithful. Various contradictions are pointed out — including the stories of David and Goliath and Jesus’ birth — so those who want to read the Bible literally will be upset. The source material is not historically accurate, as one professor points out, but rewritten to promote the religion and its heroes. Very little of the information was new to me, but then, I’ve always been a questioning Christian interested in the boundaries and odd spots. There are more specifically historical tie-ins about 2/3 of the way through the episode, when they talk about the creation of the Book of Mormon and using the Bible to justify slavery during the Civil War.
“The Promised Land” looks at the history of the land of Israel, specifically in terms of Biblical commands and references, and how Jews, Muslims, and Christians all find it sacred. Exodus is particularly examined, as are the history of the Crusades and key buildings in Jerusalem. A number of violent verses are shown as background for current struggles in the Middle East.
“The Forbidden Scriptures” is about some books left out of the Canon, those which would be considered Apocrypha, such as the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Peter, or the Gnostic Gospels, including those of Thomas and Mary. By referring to those books that were left out as “suppressed”, the series attempts to make otherwise dry history more salacious, postulating political and sexist reasons for the choices.
“The Real Jesus” compares the Gospels to the historical record. Key moments discussed are the virgin birth, his early life, his relationship with John the Baptist, the political nature of his teachings (particularly the anti-wealthy ones), his relationship with Mary Magdalene, and the resurrection.
“Mysterious Prophecies” explores whether the prophets were really trying to tell the future, specifically related to the coming of the Messiah, and whether Revelation was inspired by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. There’s also some history of Kabbalah.
“Sex and the Scriptures” looks at Biblical rules about sex, family, and procreation. Examples include the story of Ruth and Boaz, Abraham and Sarah using Hagar as a surrogate for children, Jesus’ treatment of prostitutes, marriage in the Bible, priestly celibacy, David and Bathsheba, and the depraved cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so they could get pregnant by him gets mentioned.
The show is under the auspice of the History Channel, so I was a bit surprised to see opening trailers for Duck Dynasty and a whole series of Ancient Aliens DVDs that take the subject seriously. They’re all A&E products, I guess. I quite liked the trailer for Houdini, airing in May, though. (The studio provided a review copy.)
- Posted by Johanna on March 1, 2014 at 10:19 pm
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: by Kean Soo
- PUBLISHER: Capstone Young Readers; $12.95 US
I’m thrilled to see it, since when I first read it five years ago, I somehow missed appreciating the wonder and skill Kean Soo uses to build this world. Often, it’s not you or the book; it’s the blend and the context of when you read it that determines how much you like it. This time around, it clicked for me, and I loved the simplicity of the fantastic encounter.
Portia is bored in school and spends her time alone. One night, she wakes to see a cute purple monster in the woods. He seems scared and hungry, so she feeds him a tuna fish sandwich. Once her classmate Jason finds out about the monster, they name him Jellaby and set out for the city to discover more about him and where he came from.
Soo’s mastery is on display in his use of wordless sequences to convey key moments. This is a comic, after all, so why not use images to show us time lagging in class or how lonely it can feel walking home alone or the details of preparing for a nighttime excursion or the joy of shoofing feet through fallen leaves. The scene, in particular, where Portia has a bad dream and seeks out the comfort of cuddling with Jellaby is beautifully done, making it all the more heart-breaking.
The purple-toned art is distinctive and unusual but works surprisingly well (with the additional exception of Jason’s carrot orange shirt for a lovely pop of contrast). Soo’s big-headed figures look like kids and have the charm of Lego people or manga chibis. In this new edition, Kazu Kibuishi (Flight, Amulet) provides a foreword and new cover. There’s a short Q&A with Soo and some background art also included.
The biggest flaw in this comic is that it ends when the story is just beginning. Here’s hoping that enough people check out this charming title that Capstone follows through on plans to reprint the second, sequel volume. Jellaby will have a Free Comic Book Day issue; you can learn more at the publisher’s website. There’s more Jellaby material at Kean Soo’s website while we’re waiting. (The publisher provided a review copy.)
- Posted by Johanna on March 1, 2014 at 4:59 pm
- Category: Manga Reviews
- CREDITS: story by Yukito Ayatsuji; art by Hiro Kiyohara
- PUBLISHER: Yen Press; $29.99 US
This super-sized manga — 720 pages! the whole story in a single volume! — is based on a horror novel that also spawned an anime and a live-action movie. Clearly, there’s something about this story that seized the imagination of various audiences.
It’s gripping, a creepy puzzle all the more involving for its everyday dimensions. It begins with a simple ghost story. 26 years before, the most popular kid in the class died suddenly in an accident. The other students, unable to cope with the trauma, kept pretending that Misaki was still there. When it came time to take the class photo at graduation, Misaki appeared in the picture. (Shades of The Shining!)
In 1998, the time this manga takes place, Koichi will be starting at a new school. His father is abroad, and his mother is dead, so he’s living with his grandparents and his young aunt, and he’s come back to class late due to medical issues. At the hospital, he encounters a fellow student, a mysterious girl with an eyepatch named Mei Misaki.
Early on, he’s warned that, at a country school, the group is more important than the individual so he must follow what the class decides. Then, on his first day, he’s quizzed about whether he believes in ghosts and other unusual phenomena. The entire book is driven by an air of unease, wondering what’s really going on. Is Mei a ghost? A living doll? A psychic? Does she exist at all? Should Koichi follow the group’s lead in how to interact with her or his own impulses?
The typical elements of manga suit this kind of suspenseful storytelling well. The emphasis is on faces and reactions, easy to understand in black and white contrast. Pages are easy to read quickly, which helps with a story where you’re trying to figure out what is really happening and what’s next. So much is driven by mood and tone that the book’s size, while unwieldy, encourages you to stick with it as one odd incident piles upon another.
As the story progresses, events become more deadly. This particular class is cursed. If certain superstitions aren’t followed, students and their family members start dying through bizarre accidents. (Shades of Final Destination!) It’s because some didn’t go along with sacrificing themselves to the good of the larger group, a particularly Japanese warning. There’s also the theme of how much responsibility someone should feel towards something that happened because of their actions, regardless of how unpredictable it was. Even if Koichi couldn’t know that his choices would result in disaster, he still feels guilty.
When the class finally tries to take action, the fear of death, of being the next one to lose someone, causes the group members to turn on each other. (Shades of Lord of the Flies!) Overall, the message is that death, even accidental death, is part of life, and it has to be accepted and acknowledged. Ignoring it will make you worse off in the long run, since death is apparently proud and demands to be recognized.
I haven’t seen the story in any other format, but I prefer such spooky tales to be read, not viewed, so I enjoyed this manga. (That way, I can go at my own pace.) Imagination is so much more powerful spurred by a book, too. (The publisher provided a review copy.)
- Posted by Johanna on March 1, 2014 at 2:41 pm
- Category: Movies/TV
Disney has been the biggest holdout from participating in UltraViolet, the movie studio digital copy system. UltraViolet isn’t available on iTunes — from this observer’s perspective, it appears to have been set up to purposefully take customers away from that preferred outlet — and Disney and Apple have long-standing connections through Pixar.
Now comes news that the studio is launching Disney Movies Anywhere, a digital copy system using iTunes and iOS devices. The goal, of course, is to allow you to access digital copies you purchase from more locations by using a central permission server. Except by setting up yet another service, my collection is once again split. I have “owned” digital films in Flixster, Vudu (both with underlying UltraViolet), iTunes, and now DMA. My DVDs, on the other hand, all go on the same set of shelves. Plus, in this case, these movies are already available to me in iTunes. Installing the Disney Movies Anywhere app just shows me a filtered list to that one company. I suppose parents might like that. An Android version is promised to be coming, although with no date yet.
Right now, if you set up an account and connect your iTunes account, you get a free copy of The Incredibles, the Pixar superhero movie (which I already had). I was surprised, once I signed in, to find a number of movies in my collection. It appears that they’re loading things I previously had digital copies of (from DVD purchases). Weirdly, my legal (obtained with the Blu-ray) Thor copy didn’t register.
Digital copies are now widely available for purchase (at a typical price of $15, which is a lot for a bunch of bits) long before the home video version on disc can be bought. For example, Frozen, which comes out on DVD March 18, is now available through Disney Movies Anywhere. Companies love selling them, because they make more profit with fewer costs.
- Posted by Johanna on February 25, 2014 at 3:44 pm
- Category: Movies/TV
Out today is Thor: The Dark World on home video. (It’s been available for digital purchase since the beginning of the month, February 4.) Your options for purchase are as follows:
|Thor: The Dark World 3-D combo pack||Thor: The Dark World Blu-ray||Thor: The Dark World DVD|
The only multi-disc pack is the 3-D version, which comes with two Blu-rays, one standard, one 3-D, and a digital copy. The other versions are single discs, either Blu-ray or DVD. Which means that there’s no way to get a Blu-ray/DVD combo without paying twice. And the Blu-ray version is widely available at roughly $20, the same price as the previous movie’s Blu-ray + DVD + digital copy edition. So customers are being asked to pay more for less.
Clearly, Disney seems to think that doubling up is either something fans no longer care about (not the case, judging from Amazon review comments, where people talk about how handy the DVD is for car players, loaning out, or other purposes) or something we should be required to pay for. After all, they’re the company that for a while was charging $5 more for a digital copy with its combo packs.
I’m no longer qualified for Marvel’s review copy list, so I was expecting to buy the movie today. But when I realized this was the situation, I passed. I’ll wait until the price goes down, since for a single Blu-ray that isn’t a must-have-immediately, I aim to pay about $10. If I could have gotten a combo pack (a format that matched the previous film), I would have paid the $20 on release day.
It’ll be interesting to see if more of Disney’s releases follow this pattern.
- Posted by Johanna on February 23, 2014 at 9:53 pm
- Category: Manga Reviews
- CREDITS: by Kyoko Okazaki
- PUBLISHER: Vertical; $16.95 US
Although similar in tone and approach to her Pink (but with a stronger, less episodic storyline), Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter may be more approachable. It’s a more recent work, for one thing, and the subject matter may be more sympathetic.
Liliko is a top model, beautiful and well-built. She knows she’s in demand, so she treats those around her — so long as she’s not in public — like dirt. Her secret is that she’s a creation of plastic surgery, almost totally reconstructed, and now the work is beginning to break down. Her boss and her mother see her as product, so they’re working to keep her marketable. She’s an investment, something that needs to stay desirable to make back her costs.
She’s afraid of losing her lifestyle, since she’s gotten used to being spoiled. But she can’t sleep, which affects her skin, and she’s taking too many pills to compensate. Her plan is to find a rich man to marry, but her popularity is a two-edged sword, not something the well-off necessarily want to be associated with.
Liliko is awful, someone you love to hate, but Okazaki still makes her, in the midst of her anger and acting out, someone you want to keep reading about. Many women will identify with her rants about how much hard work, time, and money it takes to be thought pretty. The procedures she — and others — indulged in require continuing maintenance, which costs. There’s no choice, though, once you get on the merry-go-round; the techniques cause breakdowns, which require more work, but if you try to stop, the degeneration accelerates. There’s no going back to youth.
Liliko is driven to be popular, but she has no one who really knows and cares about her. She creates a twisted dependency in her assistant instead. She’s told to rest, but she doesn’t know how to be alone. She’s a media creation, a lonely star like so many others. Her fear of aging is a common one in our youth-obsessed culture, and it requires more and more soul-destroying work to avoid.
The visual medium of manga makes perfect sense for a story about being observed all the time. It’s a cautionary tale about wanting stardom, fame, and fortune, familiar in its structure but oddly unfocused in its ending (explained by a morbid editorial note that talks about the author being struck by a drunk driver in 1996 and still recovering). I’m very glad that Vertical is bringing these women-focused stories to the English market, since not many companies support such challenging material.
Sean Gaffney makes a good point about the title, reminding us that a “helter skelter” is a British term for a roundabout slide, one that makes you want to go back to the top even after reaching the bottom. Many who read these kinds of stories think “ok, that happened to her, but if it were me, it would be different. I’d be smarter/stronger/healthier about it all.” Okazaki even hints at that idea with the presence of Liliko’s younger competition, a natural beauty who keeps modeling without apparently losing her mind. Helter Skelter is a depressing, gripping look inside the kind of personality who seeks out the validation of modeling, of wanting one’s appearance affirmed by the public, at any cost. (The publisher provided a review copy.)