This is why I like to browse manga by random. Sure, I read a lot of crap, but it’s worth it for when I discover a gem that I’ve never heard of before. I love receiving great recommendations. However, there is a different sort of excitement when you realise an art piece is great as you are consuming it. With Kasane by Daruma Matsuura, the cover of the first volume caught my eye for how weird one of the women looked. I considered it was bad art, yet the other woman looked normal. Then I read the blurb and added it to the list.
Kasane is about an ugly girl who loves to act in theatre. When I say ugly, I don’t mean ugly in the film world sense, where a shower, a comb of the hair, and a little make up could turn a girl into a knockout. Kasane is the sort of ugly that no makeover can fix. Her skull misshapen, her mouth too broad and uneven, and her eyes oversized and in the wrong place, Kasane scares people with her appearance. This ugliness is at the heart of what shapes her character and if she could simply powder it away, this story wouldn’t work (more on that later). The first hint that I was in for a great manga was seeing the author’s commitment to the ugliness. How condescending is it when Hollywood tries to pass a gorgeous actress as “the ugly one”?
Kasane is the daughter of a celebrated late actress for both her acting talent and beauty. Her mother left behind a tube of lipstick with instructions that she should apply it and kiss that which she desires. Should Kasane wear the lipstick and kiss another person, they will swap faces and voices for some hours. After a few tastes of what it is to be beautiful, Kasane meets stage actress Nina, a woman with little talent, a lot of pressure to succeed, and stunning beauty (no one gave her the part because she could act). She also suffers from Sleeping Beauty syndrome (can randomly sleep for months on end). So, she makes a deal with Kasane.
“Swap with me when I need to perform and you will live out your dream of a being beautiful actress. In exchange, I get the credit.”
This seems a match made in heaven. However, pretence can never match the real thing, and both women simmer with dark thoughts about the other, especially where it concerns a man they love. The face swap doesn’t require both people to be awake either.
The destructive dependence between these two makes for gripping drama.
The story spirals and the drama rises. I couldn’t stop turning the pages well into the AMs. Kasane starts strong with a brilliant premise that I thought could last a few volumes, so I grew concerned when I saw that it was in fact 14 volumes. You know me, I hate padding and stories that drag. Just when Kasane seems to have run its course, the author adds another layer, and then another. Her mother’s past comes to the fore. Twisted actions perpetuate more twisted behaviour, continuing the cycle of pain, desperation, and loneliness. Other characters become embroiled in this twisted secret and I had to force myself to stop each night.
The best writing has to be Kasane herself. She is both villain and tragic heroine of this tale. I feel both sorry for her and disgusted by her actions. Matsuura presents this deep character with a complex psychology and leaves it to us to agree or disagree with her.
The one area for improvement is in subplots. Kasane’s subplots bar one are quite bare. More subplots wouldn’t have gone amiss either, such as involving law enforcement and the wider world of acting. The story is a little too insular. That said, the main thread is excellent.
One other positive I want to touch on is the use of acting to reinforce the theme of one’s outward appearance contrasted with the inner self. The story wouldn’t have worked near as well to the theme if this centred on something other than acting. They could have had much the same story with an office job, but then you weaken the theme. Matsuura certainly knows a thing a two about acting, incorporating it neatly into Kasane’s plight (whenever an anime/manga involves acting, I fear another Glass Mask).
In the afterword of later volumes, there is mention of a Japanese film adaptation, so once done reading the series, I gave it a gander with one question in mind, “How will they pull off Kasane herself?” The film builds up to the face reveal (Kasane has lank black hair over her face all the time like in the manga) and I nearly died of disappointment. They went full “movie ugly”. The actress has pretty eyes, a perfect jawline, delicate cheekbones, and sculpted lips. A Joker-like scar from the corner of her mouth and up her cheek is all the ugliness she possesses. How are we to believe that Kasane could have such mental damage over her appearance (remember, she repulses everyone) when a bit of theatre makeup could cover a single scar? It undermines the essence that makes this a story. They should have hired the makeup artist from The Elephant Man. An anime adaptation with exaggerated art – preferably directed by Masaaki Yuasa – could do Kasane justice.
Art – High
Story – High
Recommendation: Read it. This tragic page-turner of a psychological drama is a hidden gem I recommend to all (except children).
As I read manga by the truckload these days, I think it best to review some of them in quickfire batches. I won’t be reviewing all that I read. These won’t be the best, most likely not even good. I simply have a little to say about them. This is a selection of my October reads.
Astra Lost in Space caught me with the cover image and title. A sci-fi story about people lost in space? That’s my kind of story. It does deliver on that promise, but I don’t remember anywhere in the contract that said it would include asinine characters and misplaced dialogue.
The story follows a group of teens sent off to space camp on another planet free of adult supervision. When they arrive on this planet, however, a sphere of light swallows them up and transports them into distant space with only an abandoned spaceship nearby (they survive the teleport by having space suits on from the previous journey). These teens must operate this ship and survive the unknown journey home.
I love this premise. It should give me that “cosy” feeling of a crew on a long journey through a harsh environment, but with a safe home base. Astra Lost in Space couldn’t be further from.
In past reviews, I’ve talked of how if you see errors in the first episode / first chapter of a story, those errors will echo through to the finale. Astra Lost in Space is a perfect example of this and one people could use as a case study. For example, the first chapter has an instance of misplaced dialogue. The instructor tells the kids, before their trip, that they will have one more student than normal with them and that their special task (every group has one) is to teach a little girl. He tells them this and then immediately, a student asks, “Hang on, didn’t you mention something about an extra member?” (paraphrasing) as if it had been said a while ago and everyone had forgotten. It’s very jarring, akin to taking censorship edits of Hollywood films in foreign countries, where they do a hard cut mid-scene spliced with dialogue a few sentences later. Except this doesn’t have the excuse! A few chapters later, a second line that doesn’t fit what came prior.
Another example of error echo is with the characters. The opening scene is of protagonist guy coming to the rescue of love interest girl. Within the same volume, after they teleport, he once again has to rescue her (just her) out in space. Is her role to remain as the rescue baggage for protagonist? Research into later volumes reveals that this is indeed the case. Her personality is dumb anime girl. Her purpose is to be rescued all of the time.
Possibly the worst moment of volume one involves the “high IQ” guy of the team. They’re on this ship, in the middle literal nowhere, with seemingly no way of getting home since none of them can pilot the thing. Except, one person does question if Mr High IQ is a pilot, no? Yes, he is. Why didn’t he say it sooner in this life or death scenario? “It was too troublesome.” Please jettison yourself from the airlock. Look, just because Shikamaru managed to pull off the lazy genius, doesn’t mean you should go copying it. The type has become such a cliché amongst bad writers.
This manga (and the inexplicable anime adaptation) is nothing but asinine characters living behind a premise to draw suckers in. Art is weak too.
Overall Quality – Dropped
Result: Dropped in one volume. Garbage.
* * * * *
A Fool and a Girl
Korean Title: Babogaewa Agassi
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Length: 35 chapters
I’ll keep this short. A Fool and a Girl is a bad ℌệ𝔫𝔱ằ𝔦 masquerading as romance. It’s about a virgin woman and a wolf boy (?) who fall into lust then into love.
This story is actually about rape. The only question is, “Who is the rapist?” Either he is the rapist for never taking “no” for an answer and forcing himself upon her, or she is the rapist for taking advantage of a guy with the mind of a three-year-old.
It tries to sell this as romantic, but it is vile. The attempts at romantic dialogue make one want to throw up.
The art is okay for a full colour strip, though has zero creativity.
Overall Quality – Very Low
Result: Finished. Wasted my time.
* * * * *
6000: The Deep Sea of Madness
Japanese Title: 6000: The Deep Sea of Madness
Genre: Supernatural Horror
Length: 22 chapters (4 volumes)
6000: The Deep Sea of Madness is a horror manga about a group of scientists and engineers sent to a deep-sea facility to investigate a past disaster that left many dead. It’s The Thing meets Dead Space underwater.
For most of these 22 chapters, the horror is of the “was that real or my imagination” variety as the claustrophobic and isolated location begins to drive people mad. Claims of monster sightings start and the sounds of past horrors echo in the dark. I am making 6000 sound better than it is, for in truth, this is one boring horror series.
First issue, the art. It is too messy, often difficult to discern (I’m sure this was intended to emulate unknown shapes in the dark), and has the equivalent in movies of making the set and lighting so dark that you can’t see anything. When you don’t have the sound of a movie to terrify the audience in pitch-blackness, you need to compensate with horror art. A black comic panel isn’t scary!
Author Nokuto Koike had a horrible time conveying a sense of space and location. Even with pictures, we have no idea of what this place is really like. Apart from a couple of rooms, it is hard to know where anyone is in a given scene.
One could still have a good manga, albeit not a frightening one, if the story and characters were good. This story is standard for the premise and the characters have no personality. None. The one character with a hint of it is the douche manager, who is as complex as the douche manager stereotype.
Though I finished 6000: The Deep Sea of Madness (it was short), I didn’t care for it.
Overall Quality – Low
Result: Made me want to play Dead Space instead.
* * * * *
Chinese Title: Ayeshah’s Secret
Genre: Drama Horror
Length: 11 chapters (2 volumes)
For a different kind of horror, we have Ayeshah’s Secret, a dark take on the classic Cinderella. A girl’s father remarries to a nasty woman with three sons and as is of the fairy tale, the mother and children torment the girl, even turning her into a servant after the father dies. Where Ayeshah’s Secret differs from the norm is in what occurs after that point.
There is no fairy godmother, magical ball, or glass slipper. Ayeshah’s Secret turns into a story of murder and revenge. I’m going to have to spoil a little here to talk further, so skip to the next review below if you want to read this manhua (I don’t recommend it). So, a lawyer comes to visit soon after the father’s death with his will, which the mother reads to discover that his vast estate and fortune are to go to Ayeshah. Before the lawyer can reveal this truth, however, the mother kills him and buries him in the woods. This one act cascades into further atrocities, including the mother taking an axe to Ayeshah’s throat and burying her as well.
At this stage of the story, I am interested and eager to turn the page (I read all chapters in one sitting). The art is good, suitably creepy for this domestic horror, and the twist on Cinderella has me hooked, especially when Ayeshah stumbles back into the mansion – alive – with a wound sealing on her throat. She begins her revenge.
Then the final act arrives and everything goes down the toilet. The reveal of Ayeshah’s backstory? Absolute nonsense. The shoehorned romance? Worse than Domestic Girlfriend. The big twist? Undoes everything good about this story.
I have to talk about these points, so if you still don’t want to have the finale spoiled, skip to the next review.
Alright, the three twists are that Ayeshah is actually an identical twin; the sisters would swap places with one living in a shack by the woods and no one came back from the dead (the kinder sister did die); and that she ends up with the eldest and nastiest of the three brothers. (The mother accidentally kills the other two in trying to kill her.) The explanation for keeping the twins a secret is that it was their mother’s dying wish. It’s so stupid. This pathetic idea exists solely to setup the twist. There is no logic. This is clearly a case of someone having an idea for a twist with no clue how to set it up.
The reveal that nothing supernatural was at work is a classic twist of domestic crime (Agatha Christie used it several times), but when the reveal is this twin situation, it would have been better to keep it supernatural. And lastly, the romance, the dumbest of them all. This guy is an abusive twat without a moment of kindness for her, yet a few clichéd lines later – “We aren’t so different, you and I” and the like – she falls for him and the series ends on scenes of them living happily ever after. There isn’t even an attempt to make us believe that while we may see him for a monster, she sees him as a saviour in this messed up world she’s endured. Romantic, we are to find them. Never mind that he’s barely a character until the end.
This is a romance for the YA Twilight, Mortal Instruments crowd with the tragic protagonist meets handsome boy who is actually an abusive brute.
Overall Quality – Low
Result: Volume two takes a nosedive into awful.
* * * * *
Doctor Du Ming
Chinese Title: Yisheng du Ming
Genre: Psychological Drama
Length: 15 chapters (1 volume)
Now a manhua that never showed any promise beyond the front cover, I present to you Doctor Du Ming. Don’t be fooled by the nice cover – the art inside is ugly. The writing is even uglier.
I’m going to tell you everything that happens because one of Doctor Du Ming’s failings is lack of clarity. The first half of the series seems entirely pointless because there is no direction to the story, obfuscated by a nonsensical non-linear narrative that jumps between past and present (maybe future as well – not sure). At first, you think it’s about a doctor struggling with the pressure of work, but that’s irrelevant. It turns out to be a revenge story over the suicide of a woman this guy had a crush on. Her roommate, bribed by a group of men, left her alone to be raped. The shame circus that followed led her to suicide. (The rape is the twist used to explain his murderous actions and finally tell us what the hell is going on.)
Doctor Du Ming is too vague at the beginning and remains dull throughout that even when he kills a seemingly innocent woman, you don’t care. It also uses one of my most hated writing techniques of Eastern media: the cut away in the middle of scenes (often mid-sentence) to add artificial “mystery”.
The idea could have worked with better structure and more character development to make the audience give a gram of a damn.
Overall Quality – Low
Result: Fooled by the cover.
* * * * *
Chinese Title: Beloved
Genre: Drama Romance
Length: 16 chapters (1 volume)
Now for another Chinese manhua – one that has good qualities.
Before I even touch on the story, I must praise the art. This long strip comic painted in gorgeous watercolours evokes a strong sense of place and emotion. It isn’t just beautiful. It amplifies the story. Shame then that the story doesn’t live up to the art.
Beloved is a story of taboo love between a 34-year-old woman and a 16-year-old girl. The older woman, a doctor, met the girl at a bar she had no place being in and didn’t know she was so young. The doctor tries to get rid of the girl and pretends it never happened, but the girl is clingy and does several stupid things to get her attention. Before long, the doctor realises she can’t get the girl out of her head and must decide what to do.
Do note that this take place in China, where the age of consent is 14 (there are no consent “brackets” either, so as long as both people are over 14 and consenting, it’s legal [there has been a recent push to up the age]). However, just because something is legal, it doesn’t make it morally acceptable (morality will vary by the individual of course), so this woman still faces a tough decision and my following opinion of the story would be the same if the girl was 20 in university and the doctor was 40.
Beloved is a drama that sits in the doctor’s head most of the time. We have many point of view shots, vivid memories of hers, and swirling thoughts as she tries to grapple with her feelings. There is a bit of humour, but this is serious drama for the most part. Additional drama stems from her former first love, who also works with her at the hospital and plays a voice of reason, in a sense.
This drama, despite being quite depressing and all about the mental, doesn’t push far enough. Too optimistic. Even though this takes place where the relationship is legal, there are many tough questions and challenges to face, which it does offer to the story, but then ends on, “It will all be okay.”
Beloved could do with more depth and exploring the dicey content on more levels. This manhua is only half way there.
Overall Quality – Medium
Result: Love the art! Story needed another few layers.
Japanese Title: Eve: Koi wo Kagaku suru Uruwashiki Megami
Length: 71 chapters (7 volumes)
Good dating advice
Surprisingly compelling for such a simple premise
A little too intent on happy resolutions
I picked up reading manga again about a month ago and have since been on a tear, completing or starting a few dozen series. Unlike when I started my catalogue of anime, where I compiled a list of 500 titles based on the slightest recommendation, I’ve taken the explorer’s approach to manga. I already had 20 or so series in mind to read, but outside of that, I’m going in as if browsing a bookstore alone. Does the cover grab me? What about the title? That blurb sounds interesting. Why don’t we concentrate of one genre’s section of the store?
This blind dive does find more duds than successes, but it’s fun to explore and I never know what I’m going to get.
One hidden gem I found that I’ve never seen anyone mention is Eve: The Beautiful Love-Scientising Goddess. It follows the titular Eve and her assistant at a love research centre. Clients with relationship troubles – sometimes unknown to them – come to Eve in desperation for advice. She has all sorts arrive on her doorstep from playboys to desperate women and everything in between.
Most surprisingly with Eve is how much good relationship advice it has. Anime and manga don’t have the best track record in this department (see Rent-a-Girlfriend). The first case is of a man who fell for a “business date”, which involves a materialistic girl asking her new sugar daddy boyfriend to buy expensive things. After the purchases, she disappears. The items turn out to be fake, of course, and the girl received a commission for each sale. Of course. No sensible person would fall for this. However, take a lonely guy with no idea how to talk to women, with his head in clouds that true love will only drop into lap if he waits long enough, if he’s nice enough, and you have a grade A sucker. One of Eve’s pieces of advice to him is to go for quantity over quality. Yes, you might meet the perfect person in an unexpected place, but to find “the one”, it’s much better to meet lots of people (you don’t have to sleep with them) and see with whom you form a connection. Hell, those who wait around are likely to miss the ideal partner because they live under this delusion that the one will be perfect at first sight. How can they be perfect if you know nothing about them? And how can you get to know them if you don’t talk?
The cases follow a detective mystery structure, wherein a client will approach with what he or she think is the problem, but as Eve investigates further, there’s more to the story. She will talk to friends, family, colleagues, and exes to complete the picture before arriving at a conclusion. They test ideas and theories, much like a crime case, and adjust based on findings. And along the way, some will challenge her views and her own love life, so there is a through line that carries across the cases. A case or two even get personal.
The mystery compels you to finish the case. The characters make you want to read the next one.
A favourite case and character combo of mine is that of Leon, the rich playboy. This guy struts into the centre with such confidence that he doesn’t even see he has a problem. He’s God’s gift to women after all. I love the way Eve crushes his ego by talking to his exes to see what they actually thought of him. He becomes a permanent character and the manga is all the better for it. His dynamic and humour with Eve is great.
Apart from so-so art, Eve’s main negative point is the insistence on positive endings for each case (except one, if I recall). Sometimes, it would be more satisfying and interesting if it didn’t work out, the lesson being to pick yourself up and move on. I suppose that might be too heavy for the tone intended by the author. Though Eve deals with serious relationship issues, it keeps matters fairly light-hearted and away from dark territory. You won’t see a guy blow his brains out because his girlfriend cheated on him in this manga, for instance.
I had a good time with Eve, finishing all seven volumes in about a week and I could keep going for more. It is complete, however, to a satisfying end and so, as Eve would suggest after something ends, it is time to move on and see what else is out there.
Art – Medium
The characters are a little…chunky in the face. Everyone has the same face type, which is off-putting at times when all the bodies are different. In fact, I confused a panel from another of the author’s manga with Eve because the protagonists look the same. The environmental art is a little rough. If you pause to take it in, you notice how unpolished it looks. It’s decent overall.
Story – High
Recommendation: Read it. Eve: The Beautiful Love-Scientising Goddess is a fun read, easy to pick up for a few chapters at a time, and full of good relationship advice built on a framework of odd characters.
Related: Edge of Tomorrow / Live Die Repeat (live action)
Genre: Action Science Fiction
Length: 2 volumes
Gritty, brutal art
Engaging concept and execution
A little limited
Since having heard several years ago that the Hollywood movie Edge of Tomorrow came from a manga, I’ve wanted to read it. After all, manga to film adaptations don’t have a reputation for quality, yet Edge of Tomorrow is great. It turns out we have quite a lot different between the manga All You Need is Kill and the movie, with each being good in their own rights. Both versions understand their mediums.
All You Need is Kill isn’t a spectacular manga. It’s a simple though interesting concept: human soldier finds himself trapped in a loop in the fight against aliens invading Earth. He goes to battle, dies, wakes up in his bunk again, and repeat. With each loop, he trains harder, studies the enemy further, and lives a few minutes longer. Key among the soldiers is a woman, a war hero known as the “Full Metal Bitch”. No one kills aliens better than she does.
The manga characters are on the younger side, him as a new recruit and her age used to contrast her combat prowess. The movie ages up the characters and employs Tom Cruise as the protagonist and Emily Blunt as the woman that trains him. The protagonist isn’t a new recruit either, in the movie, instead coming from a non-combat division and he runs from duty. This gives him more dimension as a reluctant hero. Conversely, manga protagonist goes down the trauma route harder with each death eating away at him.
The most notable difference between the two is the alien design. Movie version has them as this undulating mass of tentacles/cables on four legs tearing across the battlefield. The manga aliens are floating balls of teeth, a.k.a. Langoliers. If you’ve seen the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, you know they don’t translate well, something I’m sure the Edge of Tomorrow team was are of. I agree with the change. They’re fine in the manga, as you don’t need to animate them and the art illustrates them in gruesome detail.
The increased realism in the movie also extends to the power suit designs. The manga versions are very “anime” in design, akin to Bubblegum Crisis, whereas the movie employs exoskeletons similar to what the military is developing today. Could anime battle suits work in live action? Sure. Greater risk of cocking it up though.
If I have one notable complaint of the manga, it is the limited scope. I wish the story were at least one volume longer to give it more time to develop the relationship and to explore the aliens further. The two volumes we have are solid and work as they are, but I’m left wanting more. That’s where the movie improves upon the source. The couple get together sooner (keep in mind that she forgets everything each reset) and there is more to the aliens with a concrete end to the story. Movie version is a little more satisfying.
Forced to pick one or the other, I think the movie is better though the manga certainly has its merits. As I said at the beginning, they both succeed in their mediums.
Art – High
There is a nice contrast between the “softness” and youth of the characters paired against the gritty art used in the action. It evokes the trauma of these young people on the battlefield.
Story – High
A soldier relives the same battle repeatedly, progressing further each time. All You Need is Kill’s engaging hook and strict script makes for an easy page-turner.
Recommendation: Read All You Need is Kill and watch Edge of Tomorrow (also referred to as Live Die Repeat in some territories). Both are great.
The further you read, the less engaging it becomes.
Sexual content with no purpose.
Ken is a young Japanese guy in love with a Korean girl. When she moves back to Korea to become a policewoman – “Officer” – to become a policewoman-officer, he follows her with designs of becoming a policeman-officer, but through circumstances too ridiculous to comprehend, he finds himself as the leader of a gang.
After reading this hilarious setup, I thought I was in for a great time with Sun-ken Rock. Then it settled into its core, the meat of the story, which is a series of repetitive arcs (with no end in sight) of Ken being an idiot, stumbling across someone – usually a woman – mid-abuse/rape, calling the gang, and getting in a fight. Rape? Sounds serious. Except that the comedy undermines any chance of taking such a subject seriously. And it’s not as though Sun-ken Rock handles this humour with the genius skill of South Park, raising an interesting point through the unusual choice of comedy, which is a shame because the comedy is good when not breaking a serious scene.
If you’re here for main element – action – prepare for disappointment. Sun-ken Rock’s action looks nice (the artist put all his effort in these 2-page spreads), but is repetitive and the characters are too stupid to enjoy.
By the way, the plot about Ken and the Korean girl is superfluous with how little importance the author placed on it. Sun-ken Rock is not a good manhwa. How did it receive 25 volumes…? I should become a detective to find out.
Art – Medium
The action shots look great, while the rest is so-so. Most female characters have the same design.
Story – Low
A boy with a crush on a girl follows her to Korea to join the police, but becomes a gang leader by accident instead. Sun-ken Rock suffers from repetitive story arcs and shallow characters. Even its one selling point – comedy – doesn’t mesh with the serious, particularly in relation to sex.
Recommendation: Skip it. Whether manga or manhwa, the action genre isn’t empty enough to require you dig this deep in the slush pile to find a worthwhile series. Go for The Breaker over Sun-ken Rock any day.
(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)