6 of 6 chapters read
Swan maidens are a reasonably well-established element of general mythology and Japanese theatre in particular -- notably Sagi Musume -- and while adapting mythology or fairy tales into a contemporary setting is nothing new, Hagoromo Mishin is an interesting instance of the swan maiden myth not simply adapted but integrated into a contemporary story of love, purpose, and everyday life. Kodama Yuki's sensitive yet pragmatic storytelling balances the elements carefully, allowing her to tell a quirky, unique, and compellingly fresh story that combines various familiar aspects from varying origins into something short yet remarkably memorable and enjoyable.
Hagoromo Mishin's story divides itself to cover the relationships and personal trials of each of its characters; it's a more or less ordinary approach to hashing out the various problems that arise that can be seen in pretty much any genre or demographic, but the familiar and trustworthy approach is handled expertly and allows the story to move along smoothly. The particular difficulties faced by the characters are nicely varied, allowing a ready to find familiar and relatable elements, whether it be Youichi's first love, Kutsuzawa's difficulties in measuring up to his successful mother, or Shiori's troubles sorting out her feelings when she suspects she's fallen for someone she shouldn't have. The added fantasy element Miwa contributes doesn't clash with these real-life troubles as one might expect; rather, her situation brings with it its own more-or-less relatable troubles, and the peripheral fantasy element simply adds a unique and rather cute touch to the story.
The art is consistent with Kodama Yuki's other series and overall style; reasonably simple and realistic character designs in line with the general josei approach, but attractive and appealing nonetheless. She doesn't pull any punches, either -- Youichi's plainness and Shiori's cute but fairly ordinary looks emphasize Miwa's classic Japanese beauty and make it clear why Kutsuzawa is a something of a local idol. Her style emotes well without having to go totally overboard, and it's easy to read the characters' moods and emotions as the story moves along. The backgrounds are typically simple, and many panels have no background at all; this serves to emphasize the characters in the frames and draw attention to what they portray, as well as giving the art a generally uncluttered impression.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Hagoromo Mishin -- if you can even call it a problem -- is that the attention given to each of the characters' problems throughout the duration of the single volume results in the characters coming across as slightly underdeveloped. What the reader gets is something akin to vignettes of their personalities, rather than the full picture. Nonetheless, what is portrayed is a set of likeable, if somewhat quirky, characters navigating young adulthood and contending with some very real troubles -- and some fantasy ones, for good measure. Miwa in particular is especially likeable; her unfamiliarity with common elements of daily life may lead to a variety of inconveniences, but a reader can't help but sympathize with her and maybe chuckle a bit at the outcome of her mishaps. Her personal victories endear her all the more.
Hagoromo Mishin is a sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter-sweet story with some of the traditional markings of a typical josei story, but just as many of a fairy tale. At once a slice-of-life coming-of-age story and a fantasy love story, it combines the appeal of each of its elements into a whole that has something for everyone. read more
3 of 3 chapters read
Yoshitomi Akihito is an author with a diverse body of work, ranging from cute girls love oneshots to medical dramas to shounen sci-fi stories. For a horror series to pop up on such an eclectic resume isn't all that unusual, but beyond being unique among his works its subject matter and distinct method of storytelling stands out as memorable even among similar series in the same genre. Although its brief duration limits the overall impact of the delivery, School Ningyo is a delightfully creepy story that knows just when and how to deliver the final blow to the reader.
The story of School Ningyo initially presents as offbeat but simple enough; in fact, its greatest strength is likely how convincingly the premise is established and how long it goes before hints of the story's true darkness begin to seep through and command attention. Earlier foreshadowing is enough to provide the reader with a flash of insight into the continuity of the overarching timeline and details of the mermaid hunt itself, but does not go so far as to give away the darkness lurking just under the surface. It's just enough to hint that there's more than the reader is initially told, only to be inevitably forgotten as the plot moves along -- until the payoff, at least.
Although far from bad, the art is probably the weak point of the series. The girls -- both the heroines and the mermaids -- resemble each other so strongly that it can be tricky to tell them apart without other clues present, and at times even difficult to follow the action. For anyone familiar with a handful of Yoshitomi's other works, the designs' similarities to those that turn up in his girls love works may also be offputting, and even those who aren't may find the generic cute factor out of place in a horror story. Nonetheless the artwork is not bad by any means and does convey the story; the cuteness suits the characters themselves well enough and even provides an eerie dissonance once things start getting creepy.
As expected from a story limited to three chapters, characterization is decent but not exactly elaborate. For the bulk of the story Haruko and Yoshiko's personalities are painted in such broad strokes that they can come off as relatively generic and even interchangeable. Nonetheless toward the ending there is sufficient development to provide Yoshiko with palpable depth, and the suddenness of the personal revelations only serve to heighten the impact of the series' true horror elements. By comparison Haruka's characterization seems underdeveloped, but as the narrative focus shifts from her to Yoshiko this works subtly to impart Yoshiko's view of Haruka; simple, slow, and ultimately uninteresting, just as she is shown to the reader.
School Ningyo is the kind of series that can appeal to a wide range of audiences. Although its primary audience is that of horror fans, it lack of overtly frightening imagery and its gradually developed creepy aspects can lend appeal to those who don't normally seek out horror, or even those who spook easily but want a beginner's horror story to test the waters with. And while its small chapter count does impart limitations on the story overall, it's really the perfect length to draw in anyone who wants to take a stab at a story that's quirky and creepy in just the right ways. read more
3 of 3 chapters read
Ishinomori Shotaro's Skull Man (or Skullman, or The Skull Man, depending on your preferred romanization) is a 100 page oneshot that ran in Weekly Shounen Magazine in January of 1970 as the third entry in a string of one shots from various popular authors celebrating the New Year. Its biggest cultural achievement is likely its role as the predecessor of Kamen Rider, but Skull Man itself has enjoyed a decent amount of popularity both at the time of its release and up into the present. Although the story is not without flaws and does date itself in a handful of ways, a quick read through is all it takes to show even a modern reader just why Skull Man is so persistently popular and compelling.
The plot of Skull Man is a bit tricky to talk about because it can come off as a bit predictable but was almost certainly much fresher and comparatively innovative at the time. (Remember that Skull Man had a significant influence on Ishinomori's later series Kamen Rider, which completely changed the face of science fiction and super hero media in Japan and is still incredibly popular to this day.) Given a bit of leeway in light of the temporal dissonance, Skull Man's use of a vengeful antihero as a "masked hero" protagonist in a mainstream shounen magazine reveals itself to be rather innovative and speaks well of Ishinomori's preference for good stories over just going with popular trends. Skull Man also does a good job of creating tension in regards to its title character's motivation and backstory, with various events leading up to the revelation finally clicking into place in the final pages. One unfortunate glaring flaw in the story is how rushed the ending seems. Kagura's backstory is dumped into blocks of text surrounded by related images over two pages instead of being told in story form -- even compressed -- to match the pages leading up to it. The denouement that follows is rushed and confusing, giving the unfortunate impression that Ishinomori was sloppy with his storyboarding, ran out of pages, and had to cram as much as he could into the last dozen pages or so.
Similar to the plot, the art of Skull Man benefits from keeping the temporal context in mind. Like a number of other shounen series from the '60s and '70s, Skull Man demonstrates Ishinomori's artistic skill with its beautifully detailed backgrounds but by contrast has rather disappointingly simplistic character designs. This sorts itself out quickly and characters like Kagura and the police have designs that fit the overall tone of the series well enough, but it's hard to deny that the scientist characters that appear during Skull Man's first appearance are unfittingly cartoonish, looking more like something from one of Tezuka Osamu's more kid-friendly works or even early Disney. This makes some sense, as Ishinomori got his start as an assistant to Tezuka, but it still gives a poor impression of the work's overall tone to have such cartoonish characters appear so early in a work intended to come across as thematically dark and even horror-oriented. Sandwiched between a dark and violent opening and later more fitting character designs it seems to not be a significant problem, but considering both the relatively brief length of the story and the scene's importance as the first appearance of Skull Man, it at the very least merits a mention.
On the topic of the limited page count, an area where it really has an impact is character development and characterization. Skull Man's primary content focus is on action and intrigue, developing the plot rather than revealing much about the characters until the infodump at the end. Much of what is known about characters, particularly Kagura Tatsuo, is gleaned from offhand remarks and vague implication. While this subtle and thought-provoking method meshes well with the overall dark and serious tone of the manga, its lack of clarity leaves something to be desired. Nonetheless the characters are interesting enough and consistent in their actions even when they might seem a little less than well-rounded, so for a work more focused on action and intrigue it's certainly not the disaster it could be in other genres.
Although stilted character development, occasional quirky character designs, and a mildly predictable storyline might make Skull Man sound unappealing, in reality each is an issue that pops up only in isolated incidents that provide brief hiccups in a reading experience rather than ruining it outright. Above and beyond its significance as an influential early sci-fi super hero manga and a work by a prolific and highly regarded creator, Skull Man does in fact still provide an entertaining and compelling read that I would comfortably recommend unconditionally to any fan of '70s shounen manga, short sci-fi works, Japanese masked heroes, or the works of Ishinomori Shotaro in general. read more
1 of 1 chapters read
Neogandhara is the self-published thirty-someodd page oneshot pilot chapter of Saiyuki, predating the series proper by about two years. Although it has the characters and core plot elements fans know and love, like many other series' pilot chapters it has a number of differences -- but despite its discrepancies in style and characterization and a page count a bit too short to clarify its intentions with the plot, it's a fun read for anyone and a priceless artifact for any Saiyuki fan.
With its limited page count, Neogandhara doesn't have a lot of space to spread out its story, and it does a good job of hitting on the main themes and hinting at some subtler ones without trying to stuff too much in. The story is a familiar one, setting up the ragtag quartet traveling west and a clash with some youkai who overestimate themselves; content-wise, it would be fairly at home between any given story arcs in the Saiyuki series. The team's reasons for traveling are briefly explained, the primary villains make cameos, and Goku's backstory is hinted at -- it even ends with the jeep headed west into the sunset. It doesn't really give anything that the manga volumes don't provide, but its nicely consistent with the material fans will be familiar with and presents itself skillfully and entertainingly.
The art style is easily the most obvious discrepancy between the doujinshi and the Saiyuki manga, but it's not without its merits. It presumably predates Minekura's recognizable trademark style and is practically unrecognizable, but the characters are still readily identifiable and visually appealing enough to dodge complaint. Compared to the more familiar style seen in Saiyuki, Neogandhara's style is simple (though not simplistic), more typically 'shounen manga', maybe even a bit cartoonish. While it's strange to see familiar characters in an unfamiliar style, the art is nonetheless consistent, adequately detailed, and conveys the story and action without difficulty.
Although the characters are sufficiently recognizable, this is not to say they're the same as the series' better known characterizations. Perhaps because the limited duration prevented the inclusion of any backstory save an offhand mention of Goku's, the characters lack the brooding, restrained qualities of their series incarnations. Notably, Sanzo is almost peppy -- he smiles! Frequently, even! The characterization might seem to lack complexity compared to the emotional depths the manga demonstrates, but for a short entry there's not as much need for it, and it is definitely charming in a quirky kind of way. Peppy Sanzo has me charmed, I'll admit it!
Although its self-published nature and limited duration result in what might seem to be a string of shortcomings from anyone hoping to find the same style and substance as the manga, Neogandhara provides the comfort of a familiar story coupled with entertaining and charming unfamiliar aspects that give a peek into Minekura's development of a story that has become well-known and well-loved. Its value to a fan who holds Saiyuki close to their heart can't be underrated; for anyone who wants a look into what Saiyuki was before it really 'was' or just wants another chapter to devour, Neogandhara is a must read. read more
4 of 4 chapters read
At only a single volume, Line has a limited space to fit its ambitious concept into. What results is a fast-paced, frenetic, somewhat haphazard but ultimately compelling story about the value of life and the power of one person. While the story can seem a bit thin and disorganized and thematic exploration is limited, to say the least, the brief chapter count, quick pace, and inherently compelling subject matter make it hard to pass up.
Line's strength is in its core concept, which managed to take much of the danger out of a "game of death" premise without losing the bulk of the suspense or drama. Plot progress is fairly sparse, with about one point of development per chapter and the rest of the time spent on characters running around at top speed. It follows, then, that its weakness is in its focus on the running rather than the implications. The manga never bothers to name the people Chiko is seeking to save, or to explore the reasons they need saving. They're implicitly brushed off as inconsequential with a cry of "Well everyone has problems!" Task's identity and motivations are brushed off and glossed over with a line or two of inadequate explanation at the end that really don't give enough information to satisfy or even spark the imagination. Line ultimately relies on the reader's prerogative to mull things over in the aftermath, but is sparse in the delivery of salient plot points to think over.
The art of Line is similar to the plot: good, but not great. The character designs are somewhat generic but cute and nice enough to look at without being inappropriately cutesy, and while the art tends to be rather stiff much of the time, it conveys the plot well. The backgrounds are detailed enough for one with a knowledge of Tokyo geography to recognize the setting of various scenes (for example, Shibuya Crossing) without being so cluttered as to distract from the characters as they rush about. It's good enough to get the job done, but there's nothing really special about it.
The issues of characterization and character development in Line is an odd one. Chika seems like a fairly straight forward character: a calculatedly popular and stylish girl who learns about the a darker aspect of society and the value of life over the course of the plot. Still, the story tosses in random traits that seem intended to round out her character but ultimately seem puzzling in their lack of relevance -- for example the fact that she only pretends to be endearingly clumsy (but has klutzy tendencies nonetheless), or a baffling throwaway line about how she's working hard to get along with her stepfather. What was that all about, anyway? Bando is an even more hopeless case, with practically nothing being explained about her character. The readers knows there's a rumour she's a lesbian -- but that goes nowhere. She smiles in inappropriate situations -- but an explanation isn't even hinted at. Aside from her being a model student, there's really nothing to characterize her with. It's hard to believe a handful of pages spent doing nothing but running couldn't have been put to better use with a bit of basic character development.
But while Line can seem a bit sparse in its core elements, just scraping by with a passing grade, it's hard to begrudge such things of such a quick read. And it's quick not just for its limited chapter count -- the frantic, kinetic disposition of the characters and the story itself demand a quick move from panel to panel and one page to the next. Even if the story doesn't reveal much, the desire to know just what will be revealed is hard to resist, and the single volume is all too easy to devour in a single brief session. Although Line leaves much to be desired, it is definitely the kind of work one can get more out of than was put in, and even if only for that, it is well worth the paltry timespan it'll take to read. read more
13 of 13 episodes seen
Now and Then, Here and There is a series that has attracted a certain degree of notoriety for its uneven, gradually declining emotional level; that is to say, it starts off optimistic and goes to hell spectacularly. This in and of itself is not necessarily a flaw, and the series does it well, but this is unfortunately not the only aspect in which it's uneven, and to call some of the other areas flaws would be kind indeed. Of course it's not a particularly bad series; it has its high points and they are rarely the exception rather than the rule. But (at the risk of stating the obvious) a flaw is a flaw and the larger ones definitely have an effect on the overall quality and enjoyment of of the series.
The plot is, when stripped down to its most basic components, fairly straightforward: Shu is a relatively typical shounen hero who's thrust into a strange new world and he and everyone around him suffers a lot and it's sad. Okay. The premise is likewise not too hard to figure out: There's two sides and there's good people and not-so-good people on both, sometimes war makes good people do bad things, war is hell, and so on. It's an entirely valid point and the series pulls it off nicely; it's a difficult subject that requires a steady hand and a great deal of care, but Now and Then, Here and There executes it in a way that works well. The problem lies in the other morals Daichi Akitaro tries to shoehorn into the story. (Spoilers follow, be aware.) The need to preserve resources and not take the environment for granted is a subject that can easily be overdone and come off as cheesy, and this is exactly the problem Now and Then runs into; Lala-Ru's sob story about people taking her water for granted is hampered by both her emotionless, apathetic delivery and the story's uneven, hamhanded, ultimately inadequate handling of the subject prior to that point. It's a moment that's easily overlooked in light of its questionable handling, but when the problems surrounding Sara soon thereafter come to the forefront it's easy to see it as a prelude to something even worse. The issue of Sara's rape, pregnancy, attempted suicide, and assumed hatred of her unborn child is a very sensitive and potentially volatile issue, and of course every person is equally welcome to and deserving of their own thoughts and perspectives on the matter. It highlights the horrors of the war taking place and the delicate innocence of the child characters in that setting. It has a lot of potential to demonstrate the ambiguities and subjectiveness of the situation. Instead the story drags it through what to me came off as a preachy, self-righteous diatribe against abortion. Shu's shouting about how Sara unambiguously HAS to get over the unspeakable things she had come through to live a life she wanted to end and raise a child she didn't want for little reason more than he thought and said so literally made me cringe. It was a delicate matter that essentially got dropkicked across the room with a "because I say so and I'm the hero so what I say is right". No, Daichi Akitaro, no. BAD DIRECTOR, NO BISCUIT FOR YOU.
The art has similar issues in a different way. As with any series the character designs are a matter of personal taste, so I can't say anything unambiguous on that matter, but I was personally quite keen on them. They have a somewhat simple style that speaks to the sometimes obscured inherent innocence of the younger characters without straying into the generic cuteness of a more typical moe aesthetic, keeping the characters distinct, easily recognizable, and memorable. Unfortunately this style does not seem to lend itself to an animation style clearly held back by obvious budget limitations. (Then again, does any?) There's not much to elaborate on; corners were cut for the sake of cost, and it shows. While Daichi's apparent affinity for extensive focusing on static stillframes could possibly be passed of as a stylistic choice despite being a typical sign of underfunding, there's no such excuse for the spotty and occasionally distressingly offmodel animation that occurs fairly consistently throughout the series. Of course the animation quality is not all that below average, so once a viewer has adjusted to it it is possible to ignore. It's simply a shame this has to be done.
Luckily the Japanese voice cast of Now and Then, Here and There is nicely assembled and by and large performs their roles with a great level of skill. The exception to this, not in skill but in success, is Imai Yuka, whose voice falls short in the role of Nabuca. Okay, don't get me wrong, I like Imai Yuka and normally I'll give her a big thumbs up on her work. The problem here is that she sounds not like a boy but a young woman trying to sound like a boy. Of course this is exactly the case, but it should not be so apparent and there's really no excuse for it. All other aspects of her voicing are flawless, but it's an issue that's noticeable and apparent every time Nabuca speaks. The dub cast, on the other hand, has exactly the opposite problem: none of the child characters sound their age. In fact, many of them sound like grown men. Is this a clever commentary on the fact that they are forced to grow up too quickly in the harsh setting they find themselves in? No, probably not. But one component of the audio of Now and Then that I cannot find a single flaw with is the soundtrack. Iwasaki Taku is a composer who is highly talented but not without the occasional slipup or low point; the soundtrack for this series, however, is uniformly excellent. I don't really have the technical vocabulary to give this point the attention it deserves, so let me just put it the only way I really can: YOU GUYS, THE MUSIC IS SO GOOD! So, yes.
All in all, Now and Then, Here and There is a truly vexing series, because it tells an important story and does it the disservice of diluting it with fumbled tangents and heavyhanded aesops that drag the story to a halt in order to play out. TV Tropes helpfully refers to this as an author filibuster, and Daichi Akitaro needs to Stop It Now. All that said, I'll say again that Now and Then, Here and There tells an important story. It delivers some uncomfortable truths. And some eyeroll-worthy moments and technical weaknesses may detract from the delivery, but it doesn't change the fact that it's a series very much worth watching. read more
12 of 12 episodes seen
SCANDAL's dozen one minute episodes are by nature quite restrictive, but this is a series that knows how to make the most of what it has! ...is what I would like to say, but unfortunately when the question of how to utilize a handful of 60 second segments was posed, SCANDAL had trouble finding an answer. Luckily, it's not without its charms.
SCANDAL's brief duration doesn't give it a lot of room to develop much of a plot, and I came into it with low expectations accordingly. After all, semi-plotlessness can be fun too! Sadly, SCANDAL failed to get within even a stone's throw of my already low expectations. The vignettes are sparse, with very little to connect them and no semblance of segue from one to the next. Just when it seems they've found something to focus on, the episode will end and the next opens with something entirely different; the dawning realization that the new topic introduced will be dropped just as quickly is a frustrating one. The closest SCANDAL has to an overarching storyline is the girls' intent to put together a band so they can perform at their school festival. After the first episode this purpose is touched on only twice in the entire duration of the series: first when one girl comments they need to be sure to return home in time for the school festival, and then the last line in the series, quoted above. The entire purpose is almost immediately lost in the series' "free association" style plot, and it's not creative or entertaining. It's simply poor storytelling.
This would be much less damning if the series was character-driven, but it falls flat in that respect as well. The girls are not developed; I'm hard pressed to say they're even established to begin with. They are generic to the point of being interchangeable. They're stylish, trendy, allegedly musically talented, and entirely forgettable to the point that I can't even remember their names. At least the one personality they all seem to share is a cute one...
SCANDAL doesn't have a lot to brag about aesthetically, but my expectations were low there as well and I'd say they were pretty much met. The cute, oversimplified style works nicely with the sparse plot and characterization but in a substantially less troublesome manner. The animation itself is choppy and somewhat awkward, but again, it just seems to work somehow.
The audio aspect is split down the middle, unfortunately, with the half falling flat being the voice work. As the characters are voiced by the girls they represent and these girls are obviously not voice actors I was not expecting much, but they delivered so little I had to wonder if they were even trying. Their collective tendency to slur and mumble becomes grating quickly; even though they are meant to represent themselves, it seems they gave no consideration to the requirements of the animated medium or the benefits of enunciation. Perhaps fittingly, though, the music is pretty good, although the episode lengths limit exposure to it.
I think the overall problem with SCANDAL is that it's geared toward existing fans of the band, and I am simply not in that demographic. If you're looking to become a fan and are thinking of this as a place to start, do reconsider. That said, existing fans will probably derive much more enjoyment from these brief, random episodes that I did, so they shouldn't let my criticisms dampen their enthusiasm. And heck, I wouldn't watch the series a second time, but I certainly don't regret watching it through once, and I doubt it would hurt anyone to sacrifice the 12 minutes required to give it a try themselves. After all, it's not without its charms. read more
10 of 10 episodes seen
Akiba-chan is an odd series, to put it mildly. After all, it's not often you come across a series acted out entirely with dolls and a little CG magic. Luckily in the case of Akiba-chan it works quite nicely, albeit while lacking the depth and staying power of many series utilizing more classic tried-and-true techniques.
Rather than having an ongoing plot carry over from episode to episode, Akiba-chan has episodic storylines arranged in five-minute vignettes. Each episode has a cute but somewhat shallow story; one episode has Akiba-chan and Milk-chan making chocolate, another has Akiba-chan trying to lose some weight. Rather than developing any kind of depth, the stories are driven by the personalities of the characters, most commonly Akiba-chan and her dojikko nature. Really, in place of a story they've substituted cute characters being cute.
And combined with Akiba-chan's aesthetic, it actually works nicely. The dolls take a little getting used to, but the CG that smoothes out their movement is nearly seamless and speeds up the 'getting used to it' process. In keeping with the characters' dollish appearances, the colours are bright and vibrant; as the title suggests they look like items any otaku could proudly display on their shelves. Of course while the style has its high points it also has its limitations; the characters' movements are often jerky and awkward, and they don't emote very well.
Perhaps attempting to compensate for this, the voice cast puts around twice the amount of inflection and emotion into the characters' voices that they might normally. The result is a perpetual boucy, cutesy, overacted banter that would kill all realism... had it not gone out the window the second the sugary earworm opening theme kicked off the first episode. Because of the over-the-top cutesy nature of the show itself, the over-the-top cutesy nature of the voicework is actually a perfect fit. The fact that the leading ladies keep to relatively realistic tones instead of heading straight for the old 'gratingly squeaky-cute' standby really doesn't hurt things either.
Of course the problem with an episode series built on cute and little more is that, 3D though the characters may be, they still come across as totally flat. Akiba-chan is a dojikko, Riki-chan is a tomboy, and so on... but they don't get any development at all beyond the sparse cover provided by their generic labels. Granted the short episodes don't give time for character development any more than it gives time for deep, thought-provoking storylines, but after a few episodes 'Akiba-chan does something silly and it's cute' gets kind of old.
Overall, Akiba-chan is like a sugary desert: it's good while it lasts, but once you've finished you really don't want even a little more. Akiba-chan's ten episode course is the perfect duration. It goes until its shtick gets stale and then stops; even one episode more could very well be too much. I feel that if it was a series of the usual 23-minute installments that lasted a full season I would probably want to pitch my laptop out the window by the end of the first episode, but for what it was it was just right, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. read more