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GUNDAM SEED DESTINY VOL.1-4
Story by Hajime Yatate and Yoshiyuki Tomino and Art by Masatsugu Iwase
Translated and Adapted by Ikoi Hiroe
Published by Del Rey

I came to this four volume series at a significant deficit: I’ve never watched so much of a single minute of any of the GUNDAM animes. So the best hope I had in my corner was that the creative team would give me enough background to figure out what was going on (beyond “kewl armored guys being the snot out of other kewl armored guys”). In this, GUNDAM SEED DESTINY is only partially successful.

As volume one opens, a war had ended and peace is on the way, but terrorists have stolen some of the armored suits and are doing their damnedest to make sure the peace doesn’t take hold. Into this scenario fall a number of characters that have clearly been introduced in previous mangas and the animes. There are three sides in the war, basically, and a big part of where I got lost in the beginning was in figuring out who was on which side (it’s completely impossible when it comes to the suits for the most part) and which side I should actually be rooting for (ultimately: not Earth, as it turns out). As the volumes progress, the characters find themselves embroiled in political intrigue, tragic romances, shifting allegiances… pretty much everything you’d expect from an epic story of death, destruction, and deliverance.

To be fair, about halfway through the second volume, I began to get a better grasp on the characters and what was actually happening. But the series would have worked so much better (and I mean- if I graded by letters, it would gain a letter grade) if there had been some sort of genuine guide to the GUNDAM saga at the front of volume one. DESTINY is really written as a series purely for the long-term fans of the GUNDAM series (animated and drawn both). Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s important to keep your fanbase happy, particularly with something that has been popular for so long. But by the same token, DESTINY isn’t going to grow the fanbase, either. By forcing me out on my own, lost, for three hundred pages, I wasn’t encouraged to go out and bring more GUNDAM product into my life.

The volumes are action-packed, drawn nicely, and certain keep up a nice pacing with the plot movement, and if you’re a fan, I’d heartily encourage you to pick these up. But if you aren’t… I’d be hesitant to put these in your hands, and point you towards something else a little more accessible to the new reader.

Marc Mason

KURO GANE VOL.4-5
Written and Drawn by Kei Toume
Translated and Adapted by Ikoi Hiroe
Published by Del Rey

Jintetsu of Steel’s saga concludes, as he faces a number of new challenges along his wandering road. First he meets Ayame, a female con artist whom he perceives as a kindred spirit, as she strives to face her own demons. Then his living sword, Haganemaru, discovers that the woman he left behind when he died has taken on a new life of a living doll and draws Jintetsu in to a web of murder surrounding the girl. Later, he will also deal with being wrongly arrested for being a drug dealer and a reputed monster that has been killing the locals in a mountainside village. But none of those match his final obstacle: the vengeful daughter of a man he was paid to kill is on his trail, and if she doesn’t get him, then Makoto, the young girl with a grudge introduced in previous volumes, will.

Kei Toume created a very fine manga in KURO GANE, and one that subtly changes course midway. In the beginning, this book truly was Jintetsu’s story; but midway, Jintetsu became… well, in a way, he became Godzilla. No, he didn’t become a giant lizard; instead, he became a catalyst, a force of nature… the weather. The rest of the characters lived their lives, and Jintetsu sort of moved in and out of those stories, changing their courses here and there. The book became Ayame’s. It became Haganemaru’s. But mainly, it really morphed into Makoto’s story. Her insistence on being the one to put Jintetsu in a grave, and her willingness to put others who tried into a grave of their own, is the driving force in these two volumes. And her character grows to the point that you know she realizes that her path is not a true one, even before she voices it on the page. It’s terrific character stuff, which only enhances the excellent action that Toume pours into the fight sequences.

Like gymnastics and far too many Hollywood films, sticking the ending in a manga is the ultimate goal, and like those other items, it usually doesn’t happen. Look at how badly the ending to a book like BATTLE ROYALE got dragged out if you need to see an example. But KURO GANE lands it; there’s a resolution here that feels right. Has every question been answered? Has every possible story been told? No. But it doesn’t need to be. It needs to feel satisfying and worth the investment you gave the series, and it does. This is an earned conclusion. Pick up these five volumes, and you’ll walk away a very satisfied reader.

Marc Mason

HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS VOL.8
Written and Drawn by Towa Ohshima
Translated by Michiko Nakayama
Published by DrMaster Books

Towa-chan’s gaggle of girls heads off on a school trip. Destination: Okinawa! What kind of trouble and idiocy can Kouda and company get themselves into? Plenty, as it turns out.
 

Drunken tour bus guides, attempts to assimilate other students into their clique by force, bath times interrupted by inopportune period arrivals and leering local men, an island adventure to kidnap a creature that doesn’t exist… pretty much the usual level of shenanigans that you’ve come to expect from this motley crew of femmes. All wrapped in the author’s personal remembrances of her own youth and her twisted and absurd sense of humor.

HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS continues to be one of the funnier mangas on the shelves, as just when you think that Ohshima can’t figure out a way to make her book and cast of characters more ludicrous, she does just that. And even with the heavy dose of fanservice that she throws in for her male readership, the book never quite loses sight of the fact that it is a very character-driven series, and that it only works because you get invested in the girls… no matter how strange they might act or how nasty some of their actions are. I mean, I can think back to high school, and I know some of the girls in my class were every bit as messed up and goofy as the cast of GIRLS. (And I know that because some of them delighted in sharing their… oddities… with me.)

The only real issue I have with this series is that Ohshima’s art is still fairly generic after all this time. The characters are still fairly basic in their look, and her panels and storytelling aren’t very dynamic, instead remaining mostly static. Beyond that, I continue to be delighted by this series as a whole, and it remains my favorite series coming out of DrMaster.

Marc Mason

AIRGEAR VOL.3-4
Written and Drawn by Oh!Great
Translated and Adapted by Makoto Yukon
Published by Del Rey

When last we left Ikki, he was continuing to master his Air Trecks and had begun to participate in races/battles against other skaters in the new subculture he found himself living in. But each step forward means he must get better, smarter, and faster if he is to defeat his opponents. Then he must also face the question of whether or not fighting and racing is truly what he wants out of his Air Trecks… or whether he will find another path. Gangs, girls, gravity… Ikki’s life is one big mass of confusion and lunacy. But somehow, you just know he’ll pull through.

These two volumes definitely kick the story into a higher gear, as the somewhat simplistic battles from volume one and two are replaced here by much more fearsome opponents, including an enormously large skater with a gift for ballet-like movements, as well as a split-personality skater with homicidal tendencies and bi-sexual leanings towards Ikki. There’s also some surprisingly wicked scatological humor, as at one point, we’re treated to our main character taking a publicly pixilated dump. In fact, just about everything in these two volumes only serves to make this book infinitely stranger. Simca, the girl he fell for in the first volume, gets weirder, engaging to seduce Ikki, but mostly antagonizing the four sisters he lives with. Ikki’s friend larger-sized Onigiri gets a girlfriend, then loses her to a bigger guy, as it turns out she’s an FFA. The skater he goes to watch battle turns out to not only be a homicidal MPD case, but also winds up in his bed. You find yourself wondering what Oh!Great was drinking when he thought some of this stuff up.

Still, his art looks terrific, and manages to cover some of the deficiencies in the storytelling; Oh!Great gets lost in his battles and his girls and sometimes forgets that he needs to service the characters. Honestly, at this point, four volumes in, I’m not sure if I actually like this book. But it was so damned freaky that I couldn’t put it down, wondering what would happen next. From what I can tell, there are at least twelve more volumes of this that we haven’t seen in translated in North America yet; I have to admit, I’m fully curious about where exactly they’ll go. I may not like it or love it, but I look forward to reading it. Go figure.

One last note- as a child of the 80s, I was even then very interested in the craft that went into every bit of the comic-making process. Therefore, it warms my heart to see Janice Chiang credited with the lettering on this book; she’s a veteran pro whose work I have always appreciated, and I’m pleased to still see her name in the credits list in 2007.

Marc Mason

STRAWBERRY 100% VOL.1
Written and Drawn by Mizuki Kawashita
Translated and Adapted by Yuko Sawata
Published by Viz Media

Junpei Manaka is your traditional teenaged manga protagonist: he knows little about girls (except that he wants one), struggles with his studies and the exams required to get into the school he wants to attend, and surrounds himself with friends who are generally even worse off than him. But unlike many young manga heroes, he does have a solid idea of what he wants to do with his life: he really wants to direct. But before the wannabe filmmaker can deal with his future as an auteur, he must first cope with the blessed site that greets him one afternoon when he sneaks onto the school roof: a pair of strawberry-patterned panties that immediately capture his imagination. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t get a good look at the face of the girl wearing them. Now he must sort through his memories and figure out the object of his obsession… even if it means accidentally making the hottest girl in school his girlfriend along the way and becoming part of a bizarre love triangle.

It’s really somewhat difficult to get a grip on STRAWBERRY 100%, because much of it plays to type, yet some chunks of it play so far against type that you aren’t quite sure if Kawashita is playing with your head a bit. Junpei is fundamentally decent at heart, and even though he gets obsessed with the pair of panties he met up close, he never quite crosses the line into becoming a grotesque lech about it. He also doesn’t turn into the classic nose-bleeding manga boy, either. And by rewarding his bravery by actually pairing him with the entire school’s dream girl, Kawashita adds an element of confusion for the boy and backs away from making him too obsessed with the girl on the roof. He’s forced to learn something about how to treat women and comes out better for it. And even though we know that the other girl who fills out the triangle is the better girl for him (at least right now) and the wearer of those strawberries, Junpei’s girlfriend isn’t written in such as way as to make it an easy path to figuring out his heart.

So, I suppose what I’m saying is that there’s more than meets the eye in what on the surface appears to be a classic, smutty teen-romp. And frankly, for a book that was shrinkl-wrapped, there’s really nothing here that earned that plastic. Nudity is absent, fanservice is at a minimum, and the language is fine. Perhaps later volumes have more of those elements, but this was pretty tame.

The one real issue with volume one is that very little happens in the way of total plot movement. This is pretty much all setup, putting pieces into play on the board. Pacing could easily be a factor as later volumes ship if Kawashita doesn’t pick it up a bit. Still, for something I expected to be a somewhat disposable lark, I found myself surprisingly drawn into the story and characters. I’ll be here for volume two.

Marc Mason

REAL/FAKE PRINCESS VOL.4-5
Written and Drawn by I-Huan
Translated by Yun Zhao and Adapted by Ailen Lujo
Published by DrMaster

When last we left off with Zhi Li, her true ancestry as Princess Yi Fu had been denied when a former concubine tried to usurp her place in a fit of jealousy. But after the concubine met her demise, Zhi Li was back in the catbird seat for reclaiming her heritage. Unfortunately, more questions about her mother’s “extracurricular activities” have arisen, and her parentage is in question again, this time to the point where she must flee for her life. But, more pressing for her, is the question of whom she loves: the man who raised her as his sister, Hui Tang, or imperial seeker Zhong Lu. This is a shojo, after all.

Back when I reviewed volumes two and three of this shojo series, I had middling feelings about it at best, as it seemed like Huan had more interest in her love triangle (which was really a square) than in her uber-plot. Unfortunately, that trend continues in volume four, as the threat to Zhi Li’s life never really feels real or has any depth to it. It isn’t until we get halfway through the fifth and final volume of the series where Huan finally invests in scenes that bring gravity to the threats facing her main character and her supporting cast.

Credit where credit is due: when she does, the book comes to life for the first time. Hui Tang makes a startling sacrifice, some genuine peril enters all the characters’ lives, and the pacing of the storytelling picks up. Huan still immerses herself in the love story (briefly down to a triangle, but picking up a fourth side tout suite), but there’s definitely a better mix in the plotting. She illustrates it all nicely, but even with a late rally, REAL/FAKE PRINCESS never quite rises to the level it needs to in order to consider it a solid success. Good shojo finds a balance between the presentation of the background story and the romance, and Huan just never quite finds it in this series.

Marc Mason


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