Category Archives: Manga

Blame! – Manga Review

Japanese Title: BLAME!

 

Related: NOiSE (prequel)

 

Genre: Action Horror Science Fiction

Length: 66 chapters (10 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • It’s different
  • Art has a grim, chaotic quality

Negatives:

  • Lack of dialogue translates to lack of context and emotion
  • Character faces

Blame takes readers into a cyberpunk hellscape far beneath the ground – or is it a tower above ground? Who knows… All sense of direction and sanity has no point of reference in this labyrinth haunted by creatures out of Hellraiser and Warhammer 40k. Killy, seemingly the one man in this place with a functional gun, fights his way through one dangerous floor after the other in search of someone with the “Net Gene,” a genetic marker that can access the central control network of this technological wasteland.

Blame (pronounced “Blam” like a gunshot) sports minimal dialogue as its unique selling point. Art conveys most of the narrative, told in chaotic, messy lines dripping with grim cyberpunk aesthetics. I like the look of this world. I’m a big cyberpunk fan, so this should come as no surprise. The enemies look great too, drawing inspiration from several sources of which I am already a supporter. One could make a great sci-fi horror film with their kind. A notable visual irritant is the human faces, which look sketched on as the manga went to print. It’s like artists that have excellent skill at drawing people except the hands are always munted (fingers are frustrating to draw!).

Anyways, this is an atmospheric piece more than anything. The world and this environment must have a special draw to you should you want to enjoy Blame. The characters aren’t anything to boast about, so with minimal dialogue there is a singular appeal here.

In between blasting enemies with his gun, Killy does meet various characters from isolated groups trying to survive against the cybernetic monsters. Most dialogue is in these encounters. Scenes of dialogue are moments of rest in the dangerous City.

I haven’t much to say about any character in this manga, for there isn’t much too any of them. The most personality comes from the main enemy in how threatening it is. The mute story translates into muted character depth. There is plenty of background and environmental story work though little foreground and central storytelling.

Some may recommend Blame as some secret masterpiece, so daring and avant-garde in its decision to forgo most dialogue and let the world around speak for itself. However, if you step back and examine it once the feeling of reading something different has worn off, you realise there isn’t much to the story and the lack of dialogue often feels like the author didn’t know what or how to write a scene. It would have been too difficult for him. I’m not saying he couldn’t have done it, but it feels like it.

If you’ve never seen a dialogue-free story before, Blame will be a fresh experience and worth your time. It’s a quick read by virtue of the minimal dialogue. Don’t go expecting this to sit amongst the greats. This is no opening scene from Up or Clarice hunting Buffalo Bill.

Art – High

Story – Medium

Recommendation: For those after something different. Blame is from a unusual crop and won’t be to everyone’s taste.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Beastars – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Beastars

 

Related: Beastars (anime)

 

Genre: Action Drama Slice of Life

Length: 196 chapters (22 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • Unique art is full of expression
  • The world building
  • Louis’s and Legosi’s arcs and themes
  • Memorable side characters

Negatives:

  • Introduces concepts only to leave them unresolved
  • Forgets so many characters
  • Abrupt and rubbish ending

This may be the most difficult review I have had to write. I finished the Beastars manga months ago, the week of the final chapter’s release. However, I have been stuck on what I think of it and thus, what I would write in a review. This might end up being an incoherent ramble. I have to get it out.

Beastars is an excellent manga set in a world of anthropomorphic animals where an uneasy peace rests between the herbivores and carnivores, the latter often viewed with prejudice as bloodthirsty killers. Some carnivores have killed herbivores; therefore, all carnivores are murderers. This tension is perhaps no tighter than at Cherryton Academy, a mixed diet school of herbivores and carnivores, an arrangement on which it prides itself. Public relations take a turn when an unknown attacker eats an alpaca on campus. Legosi, a massive grey wolf and friend of the victim, searches for the predator while grappling feeling of lust and hunger of his own for the small white rabbit Haru.

Most of the first arc centres on the drama club, of which Legosi partakes as a stagehand. His shyness precludes him from the stage. Then we have the red deer Louis, Legosi’s opposite in every way – slender, upright, confidant, popular, and destined for greatness as a Beastar, the most prestigious position in society.

The heart of Beastars’ greatness is in its handling of themes as told through a cast of compelling characters in a rich world. Prejudice, nature versus nurture, and belonging play a major role throughout the narrative. It’s a brilliant twist on the premise to have the carnivores be the “lesser” part of society, those discriminated against. Even within the carnivores, some groups suffer more than others do. The venomous, for example. Instinct for such a setting is to have carnivores dominant, like vampires dominating humans. Beastars’ approach flips the concept and leans into social and political conflict instead of going for the expected violent conflict of such a dynamic. Yes, there is violence, but that hides in the background most of the time.

Legosi struggles with his love of a rabbit, his potential prey, and his care for all living creatures in general. How is a hulking creature with immense jaw strength to be a friend of the herbivores? Who’s going to buy that? On the other side, Louis is envious of carnivores for their strength and inherent superiority. He sees carnivores hiding their true strength as weakness. Why was such strength wasted on them instead of given to him? He could do great things, if only…

The dynamic of these two characters, whether on screen together or walking their separate yet mirrored paths keeps you turning the pages. Many of the side characters are similarly compelling, but more on them later.

Then we have the world. Wanting to know how this society operates raises endless burning questions. If they don’t eat meat, how do carnivores survive? How do interspecies relationships work? Procreation? Are marine mammals intelligent as well? If so, how do they communicate and live? You want to know more.

I love the answers to all of these questions.

Then you notice the forgotten and half-finished concepts. First one, then a few, and then many until you have more incomplete content than complete. Everything starts to devolve past the halfway mark.

Beastars is a rubbish manga for how it presents so much and discards most of it, from characters to plots. Never have I read a story that neglects so much of itself.

When a group of writers get together for a TV series or movie, they will often brainstorm ideas of what needs to go into their story and what optional elements could they include. Do we want a romantic subplot? What about two? Do we include family drama? How are the backstories going to work? And so on. Anything and everything goes on the board before they refine those ideas into a tight narrative full of engaging events. Unused ideas might find a place later. Beastars is like reading that brainstorming board. Seemingly every idea the author had went in without thought of where they would lead or how they integrate with other ideas already in place.

This predicament is particularly egregious when it comes to the side characters. Author Paru Itagaki has a real knack for memorable characters, even minor ones, with such efficient and impactful introductions. You don’t see this skill that often. It recalls J.K. Rowling’s ability to make every character in Harry Potter memorable after one scene. There is the giant snake working as the school security guard (one of my favourites); then we have the beloved “seal bro,” nudist extraordinaire (another favourite); the Michelin Star egg-laying chicken; the rodent leading the newspaper club; the stripper zebra giraffe; and so many more. Each of these are worthy of recurring roles in any story. Sadly, Itagaki likes to buy new toys every few chapters before throwing them away for the next thing. For some of these characters, it’s okay, they need mere chapters. More often than not though, many have such a strong presence and importance in the story (as presented by the author) that you expect them to return. You’ll get to an incident further along and think, “Oh, we’ll see that character again! This is the perfect moment for them.” But no, she’s forgotten they exist.

Let me reiterate. The problem isn’t the plethora of minor characters. The problem is the promise made by the author of their importance each time, yet rarely delivering on that promise. It gets worse.

Major characters also suffer. Most notably, Haru, the main love interest and a driving force in Legosi’s arc, drops off the face of the plot for what feels like a dozen volumes at times. The anime has given her more screen time (for the material covered) and developed her into a better character within two seasons already. If all you have seen is the anime, then you probably can’t imagine a logical way to remove her from the [potential] upcoming seasons. How do you remove the third most important character? Of course it isn’t logical, yet the manga does so.

Every problem comes to a crescendo in the final arc, which introduces a herbivore-carnivore hybrid villain to present a possible outcome for Legosi and Haru’s future. The world expands with a ton of lore, more questions, and even more characters. Almost none of this comes to fruition. Furthermore, the style of the story turns into a battle anime with superpowers (don’t even get me started on these, which also appear once before she forgets them next battle), combat training arcs, and a climactic fight. Gone is the subtlety and social commentary of the earlier arcs – for that matter, gone is the commentary setup at the start of this arc. Yes, the second arc/season has a climactic fight, but it isn’t about the action.

Beastars is up there amongst the most disappointing endings of all time, and not just across manga. I have experienced an absolute ton of stories and few come close to going from such a high quality down into absolute rubbish. Off the top of my head, only Game of Thrones (TV) has outdone it in terms of the quality drop.

You could create a several-page list of characters, subplots, and questions on which Itagaki fails to deliver. When I read the final chapter, I didn’t believe it was the end at the time. I called my friend who introduced me to Beastars to ask if this was right, if it really was the end. Perhaps this was a Naruto situation, where it returns as a “sequel” Naruto Shippuden, surely.

That was it. The end.

The author gave up. There’s no simpler way of putting it.

She has continued the franchise by returning to the Beast Complex series that introduced this world, but it’s just a series of single-chapter stories independent of each other. You know, those short stories that make you want to see a grander continuous story set in this universe…

I don’t really know what to rate Beastars the manga or whether to recommend it. Do I recommend a series with moments of absolute brilliance knowing where it all leads? Do I rate it well for the high points or poorly for the atrocities?

I truly hope that the anime changes a great many things in future. Season three will still be great, but season four onwards will need to change 50% of the material to avoid disaster.

Art – High

Story – ?

Recommendation: Try it. Maybe? Beastars is a great manga until it isn’t. By reading this, you will find many elements to capture the imagination in this animal world, but much of it leads nowhere. Beastars is a fascinating study in storytelling and the dangers of concept bloat.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Red River – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Sora wa Akai Kawa no Hotori

 

Genre: Historical Action Drama Romance

Length: 96 chapters (28 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • Good use of historical events and characters
  • An engaging and grand plot
  • Quite a few beautiful art compositions

Negatives:

  • Uses the same set of plot conundrums each arc
  • Characters are thin on dimensions

Red River uses a story type more common in the West than in Japan – you could have called it the West’s “isekai” at one point – time travel. Fifteen-year-old Japanese girl Yuri’s greatest troubles are the flutters in her heart from the boy she just kissed. A mysterious force yanks her into the water and takes her back to 14th century BC Middle East. The Hittite Empire is on the rise, set to rival the Egyptians and Yuri will be at the fore of it all. That is, if she can survive plots from the evil queen, rival lovers for the prince’s affection, rival lovers for her affection, and assassination attempts.

Prince Kail takes her as a concubine for protection, but love soon blossoms between the pair. Yuri will have to make the choice between staying by Kail’s side – even if he must marry a foreign princess for duty – or finding a way back to her family in Japan. Some say she is a reincarnation of the goddess Ishtar. This story of love and war spans several countries and draws in many characters.

Red River reminds me of classic epics like the Mahabharata or Ramayana, where the characters are simple, designed for their one role with a straightforward personality, and plot drives the story (complex characters are relatively modern). It’s easy to remember so many of these characters because they are simple. “Wasn’t he the one that fed insider information to the queen?” Around 95% of characters can have their complexity covered in only one sentence. Even the handful of major characters are quite simple. There are no hidden motivations, subtext, or deeper truths to unravel on closer inspection. This may be a problem for readers who like their characters as complex as a labyrinth with no end.

The romantic conflicts are easy to follow. Yuri loves Kail, but he’s a prince, so they can’t be together. Kail loves Yuri, but he knows he’s a prince, so they can’t be together. This other guy also loves Yuri, but she’s with Kail, so they can’t be together. The queen is trying to sacrifice Yuri to curse Kail because she wants her son to be the next king, therefore Kail must protect Yuri. It’s easy to follow.

However, if you can accept this fact, Red River is an engaging saga over its 28 volumes (an easy read) as the Hittites wage war with various surrounding kingdoms involving real people from history. This is the time of Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Ramses II, and Mattiwaza. Because they lived so long ago, details are thin on what they were like in reality, which gives plenty of room for creative freedom by the author. Key historical events and alliances also play prominent roles throughout Red River’s plot. The historical aspect of the manga is the most interesting part to me. Had it been all fictional characters and fictional events, it wouldn’t have captured my attention anywhere near as well.

Where Red River falters most in its plot is with repetition. Expect to see the following devices several times. Yuri kidnapped by the enemy; a prince from a rival kingdom falling for Yuri (often the kidnapper); the queen using Black Water to mind control innocent people to kill others (there is a minor magic element); and someone close to Yuri such as a servant or advisor framed for whatever evil the queen committed, followed by an unfair trial. Plenty else happens, yes, but you start to notice when it’s one of those four again. Leaning more into the politics could have avoided the need to resort to these staples. Instead of the queen controlling someone to kill her 30th victim, why not have here use some clever political scheme to corner her opponents?

Red River could have been a High quality manga even with the simple characters had it not been for this repetition problem. When you see Yuri kidnapped again by a love rival, you know where the story will go. And when the plot is meant to carry the series, such predictability kills motivation. It is particularly egregious when the final arc use the Black Water, Yuri kidnapping, a foreign prince, and the false accusation towards an ally all over again.

Still, Red River is a good manga that I recommend to any history fans who want it spliced with shoujo romance. I enjoyed my time with it.

Art – High

Story – Medium

Recommendation: For history fans. The romance is quite typical of shoujo, but the use of real historical characters and events makes this war drama something different.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department – Manga Review

Japanese Title: ACCA: 13-ku Kansatsu-ka

 

Related: ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department (anime)

 

Genre: Drama

Length: 37 chapters (6 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • Unusual art style
  • Easy, comfy world
  • A fun charm

Negatives:

  • Story is light on depth

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department the manga came across my sight as I was looking for other manga to read. Having already reviewed the anime, I felt unlikely to read the manga (I don’t bother unless an anime is incomplete or vastly different), but then I remembered liking this unusual and unique anime. I still listen to that killer opening song each week. I added it to the “maybe” list.

Two weeks later, I got the urge.

For those who haven’t seen the anime or read my review, ACCA 13 is a story about a small world at rest and the government department that checks the 13 territories for signs of anything that may disrupt the peace. We follow Jean Otus, second-in-command of the inspection department, as he goes on tour around the Kingdom of Dowa.

Jean is as easy-going a man as you can imagine. His subordinates love him. His superiors have nothing to complain about. His sister, of course, adores him. Everyone gets along with Jean (except that one guy with a crush on Jean’s sister). You will never hear a cross word from him. It comes as a surprise to hear rumour of a coup brewing across the kingdom with Jean at the centre! That can’t be right…can it?

The tone of ACCA 13 is a leisurely one. Jean’s tour is as easy as a stroll through the park. Each territory has their own culture and quirks, which we explore alongside Jean. One territory is made up of abnormally tall people. When he arrives at the hotel, the concierge asks how he likes his toast. He is about to order his usual thick cut, but remembers where he is and asks for a thin slice instead – just one slice. Next morning, we see him eating a slice of toast the size of an oven tray. I love ridiculous throwaway details. Another territory has no electronic technology, so his retro mobile phone is the fascination of the people.

Reading this manga is like going on holiday. He stops at restaurants and bakeries every chapter. It also cuts away to his subordinates or sister back home to show us what food they will delight over today. Author Natsume Ono has a serious love for baked good. Perhaps even a fetish! I cannot overstate how often they eat from a bakery.

“Dude, seriously. Could you put down the cheesecake for one second and listen? There might be an insurrection building right under our— Is that a crème brûlée? Oh alright, just one bite. Could I have a cappuccino to go with it? Lovely.”

Such good food must be the secret to their peace with all the love these people have for it.

The story takes its time to reveal itself. Most events occur in the final volume where it all comes together. The coup plot is peppered (in between scenes of eating) with light moments of conversations behind closed doors about the situation. Who is traitor to the crown? On paper, should you look at only the essentials of this story, it sounds like a spy thriller from the perspective of an intelligence gatherer, yet there is nothing James Bond or the like about ACCA 13. If it is a spy thriller, it is the most peaceful one you will ever read.

And that is where many readers will probably lose interest. ACCA 13’s unique approach to such a premise, the tension being no denser than a peaked meringue, will leave some wanting a dense filling to keep them engaged until the end. It’s as if Ono didn’t want to disturb this perfectly peaceful holiday with drama.

Should someone ask, “Is there a manga/anime you love that isn’t widely known or critically acclaimed that you wish people would read?” ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department is my answer. I can’t quite put into words why I love this series. Is it the gentle style of the minimalist art even though it could use more environment detail? Is it the pace of a world where story stops for pastry? Or perhaps the characters being free of drama even in dramatic moments puts me at ease? I don’t really know. I just love it.

Now I want to watch the anime again.

Art – High

Story – Medium

Recommendation: Read it for light and cosy experience. ACCA 13 is a comfort read of mine.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Ghost in the Shell – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Koukaku Kidoutai: The Ghost in the Shell

 

Related: Ghost in the Shell 1.5 (included in review)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface (included in review)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (included in review)

Ghost in the Shell (anime movie)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (anime series)

 

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 71 chapters (across the four series)

 

Positives:

  • Deeply imaginative future world
  • High detail art
  • The crimes take full advantage of the cyberpunk society
  • Packed with lore

Negatives:

  • Stand Alone Complex manga doesn’t have the art or density of the original works
  • Ghost in the Shell 2’s experimental approached hasn’t aged well

Ghost in the Shell is a remarkable franchise in how varied it is. No two versions of it are all that similar, yet one instantly recognises their connection. The popular first movie of the same name isn’t an adaptation of the manga, while the Stand Alone Complex series is a little closer to the source but still so different. The Hollywood film is yet again a wholly original version (and much more accurate than its critics decreed – more on that later). Today’s focus is the original manga and its sequels, with a little on the Stand Alone Complex manga.

Ghost in the Shell, for the uninitiated, takes place in a near future cyberpunk society where the lines between human and machine have blurred almost beyond recognition. Every cyborg connects to the network through a “ghost,” offering incredible conveniences to users. With such advanced technological developments come new crimes. Major Motoko Kusanagi and her unit at Public Security Section 9 specialise in dealing with the most egregious of cybercrimes. When a dead man walks across security cameras like a living person, you call Section 9.

I love this franchise. It’s up there amongst the best and is one of my favourites. The depth and detail of this world is so creative and sparks such imagination. It’s a world that lends itself to myriad adaptations. Anyone can find new story ideas within the world of Ghost in the Shell without needing to expand the world, much like The Lord of the Rings. Author Masamune Shirow created a brilliant foundation.

I should provide a warning for this manga. It is dense. The first series clocks in at a mere 11 chapters, but don’t let that fool you. They have enough text to rival 50 chapters of the average manga, and not just any text – specialist text crammed with technobabble, explanations of how the technology works, and police jargon. Take your time.

Then we have the art. As if trying to outdo the text, details pack the art on every page. Not just detailed, but clear as well. Plenty of manga fall either into the “clear but low detail” camp or on the “detailed but messy” side. Ghost in the Shell has the best both worlds.

As for the story itself, this is a series of crime cases with a light connection between them, akin to the standalone episodes of Stand Alone Complex though they are still complex. The most interesting element of each case is in how it explores the “what if” scenarios of such a future. If one could transplant a brain and spine into another body, what kind of new crimes could arise? Do they even have to have a human body? Why not become a tank? Every case is engaging from start to finish. This is what great cyberpunk is made of.

A peculiar point to note regarding the Hollywood film, as alluded to earlier, is how true to theme and Ghost in the Shell “lore”, for lack of a better word, it is. Regardless of the final quality of the story itself, casting Scarlett Johansson as the Major 100% fits with the world. “But she looks nothing like her!” I hate to break it to you but neither does the Major. The brain and spinal cord are her only human parts. She changes appearance within this manga to someone “fans” would say doesn’t look like her – and she’s a comedic character in the manga. To say Johansson is incorrect is to not understand Ghost in the Shell or cyberpunk.

I should also bring up the Ghost in the Shell 2 manga. In classic Shirow style, it’s a complete departure from his previous work though still equally dense. Released in 2001, six years after the first, this sequel blends a ton of CG into the art to create a cyber-mindscape for the Major to explore and hack into. I like the cyber world. CG characters, water, and vehicles though? They have not aged well at all. Like cyberpunk itself, this experimental manga could have blown your mind at the time. It turns your mind off today. The story also focuses on the singular concept from start to finish and drags its feet by chapter two. An interesting experiment. Not one I recommend.

Lastly, I want to mention the Stand Alone Complex manga. It is apparent from the first page that the manga does not come from Shirow’s pen. Gone is the art detail and depth of writing. A straightforward anime tie-in manga isn’t worth your time, though it isn’t bad by any measure. There is simply no need for it once you see the anime. It doesn’t justify your time, unlike the original.

The Ghost in the Shell movie and Stand Alone Complex are better than any iteration of the manga, as they take more time to build the world and spread out the specialist text, amongst other improvements. However, as the manga is a different set of stories, and great ones at that, it’s still well worth your time.

Art – Very High

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. Ghost in the Shell may be one of the most difficult manga to approach, yet I still recommend it to anyone with a love of speculation.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)