Review of Sunny, Vol. 5 (Sunny, #5) by Taiyo Matsumoto

A relaxing and contemplative series from a creator I now look forward to reading.

The abandoned kids home, or orphanage, if you prefer that designation, which comprises the setting, provides a dense interplay of childish communications. The way the characters talk over one another reminds me of Robert Altman’s films. This series is primarily a realistic portrayal of its times, alluding to real-world wrestlers, idols, and other celebrities to remind readers of its setting. The current of subtext is moving and ever-present. There are rock and roll lyrics, porno mags in the back of beat-up old car fort, kids playing in the pond, running wild in the streets, eating dinner amid a messy chatter of quibbling siblings. Despite the huge roster of characters, and the quick-cut method of storytelling, the ups and downs of these chilluns, and a few of the adults that orbit around them, makes for an entertaining and heartwarming read. The feels are there to be grasped. And I can only hope that the immersive atmosphere and soft-focus lens will guide me into further nostalgic byways of ordinary Japanese life.

Review of Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White by Taiyo Matsumoto

One of the few masterpieces of ‘realistic’ manga.

By which I mean it contains whimsical touches, flights of fancy, imagination, heart, and friendship without succumbing to any of the cheap thrills so often associated with this medium like giant robots. ghost hunters, or revealing costumes. A genuinely admirable and affecting work of art, molding a relatable and satirical atmosphere of mingled wacky comedy and disarming violence into a beautiful synthesis of love, disturbing cruelty, and concrete jungle adaptation.

Review of Eyeshield 21 Vol. 37: Ready Set Hut by Riichiro Inagaki, Yusuke Murata

“Eyeshield 21” is a sports manga with wide appeal. Like most great sports stories it understands that the true heart of the game is the people playing it.

“Eyeshield” verges on being on a shonen manga due to its clever take on football. Every game is a battle between warriors. All the stars have special moves that they use to give them an edge and the plays are often spectacles to behold with constant strategic interplay. This less then realistic take gives the manga an infectious quality, making the games feel like life or death struggles. Some of the games could be likened to battles in Naruto and Dragon Ball for the intensity and lasting impact.

The art also propels this clash of titans along and brings it to startling heights. The artist Yusuke Murata, of One-Punch Man renown, shows his usual level of excellent detail and understanding of form. The funny light-hearted moments and sense of comedy are expressive and charming. The action is tight and easy to read. Even in scenes of dialogue the mastery of anatomy shows how to combine the cartoonisms with realism effectively. When he pushes things to more unrealistic levels it feels like an organic extension of his realism due to his ability to judge how far to go. This is a manga that can be looked at purely for the art and framing even if football means nothing to you. Read it for the superb characters.

The characters are where “Eyeshield” truly shows its amazing plays. All the main characters are fleshed-out with compelling if not complex motivations. All have arcs, and watching them grow with each other and fight through there struggles is the highlight of the storytelling. Even all the teams they face have likable and memorable characters. Many of conflicts feel like true tests of ability and endurance for the main cast. More than once in the story you are left wondering how the Devil Bats will compete against their foes only for their heart and talents to come bursting forth in interesting ways.

There is a lot this series does right but it has a few weak points. While the writing is good, the story structure is repetitive. The series falls into a loop: of a volume for preparing for a game and then 3 volumes for the game. The games are intense but almost always come down to a few seconds and one point. This cliché and unrealistic approach to every game does get tedious.

Fans of action, sports, and great characters need to give this a try. Even if you are none of those, picking this up to look at the art is well worth your time. Every tackle hits like a truck, every victory screams from the page, and defeats drips with bitter sweat. Experience the thrill of sports vicariously and cheer for the characters.

Review of Azumanga Daioh: The Omnibus by Kiyohiko Azuma

“Azumanga Daioh” is not deep, thought provoking, or complex. However it challenges the reader in the best way possible. It challenges them not to laugh till they cry.

“Azumanga Daioh” is about friendship, growing up, and living with a “all cats bite me” disability. The jokes come fast, loud, and often in this 4-panel compendium work. It is not subtle but it is all the merrier for it. The format helps this rush of gut-busters. Most of the gags are a few panels in a small story that leads up to a punch line. This keeps the pace brisk and even though some of the jokes don’t land, another one is always only moments away.

The characters are the heart amid the insanity. Though none of them are too layered and most of the backstory we get are asides and inferences, they are a blast to follow. The enjoyment is in their personalities and the wonderful hi-jinks they get each other into. Whether its surviving a teacher’s spectacularly bad driving or the warfare of “field day” how the characters interact in the ever-change landscape of high school is endearing and nostalgic. Some of the characters can be annoying, but they are balanced out by the other characters who either act as foils to them or show just how ridiculous they are. This manga is a prime example of using a cast of personalities to its fullest.

The art is also well-done. The jokes land because of Kiyohiko Azuma’s excellent use of physical comedy and framing. The characters fly off the panels, their kinetic energy and personalities apparent in every line. The reactions are the right amount on the over-the-top scale and the art changes from complex to simple erratically but is expressive in all the right places. Azuma is a master of knowing how far to go and how best to display a joke.

This manga is not without its inconsistencies. Like those old Garfield cartoons, the main draw is following the characters over time. The author creates the illusion that the characters are real, no matter how absurd they act. That means that occasionally, for the sake of a gag, we don’t get to follow them on. After some punchlines, you might be left wondering what happens next. There are no distracting subplots and the action is contained to a limited area, but like stage plays, the props and repeated scenery are used well.

It is always about surviving high school and the craziness of certain friendships. This is obviously aimed at fans of lighthearted comedy of the teenage variety. But I hope readers will keep an open mind and remember that doom and gloom are not the only intellectually stimulating literary ingredients. I enjoy artists and writers who know how to take simple situations and find the heart and beauty in them. Grounding this over-the-top comedy is a sense of reality we can all relate to.

“Azumanag Diaoh” is not an existential work of genius, but it doesn’t have to be. Its only concern is entertainment and at this it succeeds. It is a safe avenue for those unfamiliar with manga tropes. While it has many of the usual Japanese comic quirks, the more esoteric references one might find in other titles are largely absent. Anyone interested in physical comedy, comic strips like Calvin and Hobbs and those wishing to refresh their brain after something difficult will find joy between these pages. Then they will split their seams like a teddy bear being hugged too tightly.

Interestingly, Azuma is still writing a subtle, hauntingly beautiful work in the same vein called Yotsuba! (14 volumes). The level of sophistication is still low but the characters are masterful. A must-read if you enjoyed this.

Review of Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu (Buddha #1) by Osamu Tezuka

Tezuka manages to sustain a gripping pace while inserting subtle philosophy and universal themes.

If the other 7 volumes are as good as this one it might be his greatest series. I like this first volume more than most of the volumes of Phoenix.

While the narrative is not bound by the strictures of its underlying faith – at least not yet – the moral compass of the plot is geared toward that expression of enlightenment, whether through sacrifice and death or through patience and love. The love of humanity is present in many if not all of Tezuka’s work. He is famous for his heart. He never loses sight of this central concern in his characters. He knows that the reader will sympathize with someone who is performing either evil or magnanimous acts out of love or other well-established motives. By clarifying the motive the action proceeds smoothly and the characters are allowed to react as the situations arise. I got the sense that the world extended far beyond the borders of the comic frame and could sink into the pages and feel the dirt and grit of the landscape even when every extraneous detail was excluded.

He was a utilitarian artist and consummate storyteller. No matter how complex the plot becomes I cherish the moments I spend reading with Tezuka’s creations because they shed light on the beauty of the human soul. When he wants to show the soul’s wickedness it is depicted nakedly and in lurid ways, but when that beauty overcomes the inherent flaws in mankind, you can appreciate his work as more than mere entertainment. Tezuka winds a convincing yarn even when he bends the laws of physics and plays around with anachronisms.

One of the few times when manga becomes indistinguishable from literature. At least it seems to have placated most critics of the medium. The most sophisticated work by the most important graphic storyteller in Japanese history.

Review of Uzumaki: Spiral into Horror, Vol. 1 by Junji Ito

Many of Junji Ito’s themes and motifs are simple and even nonsensical, but they tend to stick in the mind.

They have the ineluctable quality of nightmares, of good horror films. His concepts have the same staying power as a cheesy slasher flick, with the advantage of impressive artwork. No matter how far he takes the mutilation and monstrosities, they are rooted in true nightmares and real-life phobias. One gets the sense that the author is of a delicate sensibility and exorcises these demons in his work. Maybe horrors accumulate inside his mind and he has no choice but to draw manga for temporary relief.

Inanimate objects take on ominous contortions and morph into a dramatic diorama of blood and guts in most examples. Something as tame as clay pots are twisted into mesmerizing terror in his most representative work, Uzumaki. More so than in Tomie or Gyo, this is considered his stand-out production.

Reading it once is enough to start seeing spirals, to be infected by the madness. He points out society’s flaws indirectly, and you can usually dig beneath his nonsensical fables for subtle commentary. It was easy for me to acquire a taste for this brand of obscuring reality and blending it with nightmare. There is a gnawing madness to this and most of his other stories. Everything from marionettes to advertisements to snails to hot air balloons become objects to be questioned, or even to be abhorred. In Junji Ito nothing is as it seems. But under the horrid images, I can sense humor. The surface is only one layer. The true heart of his manga lies in a pervading irony and solid sense of grotesque joy that is easy to miss if you only consider the bones of the story.

Like in any good horror story, the characters in Uzumaki are constantly acting contrary to reason. I have heard of the unsuccessful live action film based on the manga. His ideas really only work on paper if you ask me. The exaggeration becomes silly when mishandled. That’s why I’m a fan of the manga alone, and will remain a fan, as we’re finally getting more of his titles and collections in English.

Review of The Book of Human Insects by Osamu Tezuka

With the Book of Human Insects, Tezuka’s appeal is reaches new heights. He compressed an incredibly fascinating character study into a short space.

It is what he did with MW, but you’ll see even more compression here. One eternally gets the sense that Tezuka suffered from too many ideas. He simply could not draw fast enough. In fact, I would have been okay with him just resorting to stick figures or blocking out his stories and allowing apprentices and assistants to finish his works. But no, he chose to work much harder than anyone else and do everything himself.

The Book of Human Insects, with its bleak commentary on art, is actually prophetic. How many artists would discover Tezuka and then copy and reinvent his ideas? He single-handedly created a market for anime with Astro Boy, and revolutionized manga into a legitimate career path. After leaving behind 150,000 pages of drawings in the famous 700 volume Tezuka collection, he still didn’t want to stop at the end of his life. The inspiration he found from Hollywood and Disney is clear in some of his work, but in the end he showcased a capacity to invent ideas at a greater rate than any other creator of his time.

The Book of Human Insects is a good place to enter into Tezuka’s work. Before embarking on Ode to Kirihito or Barbara or MW, this one, solid volume is enough to convince anyone with literary leanings that Tezuka was more than just a serious contender in the medium. He might have been the Mozart of manga. He makes everyone else look like Salieri. Sure, he had his flaws. You can find plenty of jokes that really aren’t funny and plotlines that come out of nowhere only to go nowhere, but you won’t find that kind of thing in this volume.

After reading The Book of Human Insects I needed no more convincing. I wanted to reread it. But I knew there was too much Tezuka left. I couldn’t pause to linger over this fine work of storytelling. I had to move on to his other works. The quality of Tezuka is such that even when he is not at his best, he is still addictive. And even when he was just starting, his brilliance was recognizable. When the medium didn’t allow for much space or experimentation, he still found ways to innovate with works like The Mysterious Underground Men. This work is marked by adult themes, adult atmosphere and a total lack of appeal for children. Tezuka was making an effort to elevate manga above the level of the funny papers and to spread appreciation.

The Book of Human Insects categorizes many typical characters, recognizable in part, from other examples of his work. It contains journalists, writers, actors, assassins, businessmen, lovers, but is devoid of children. It is fairly obvious when Tezuka is trying to be mature. It is a testament to him that he could dash off something like The Book of Human Insects while working on other projects simultaneously.

Tezuka must have internalized the basic themes he wished to explore: the human spirit, sacrifice, religious dogmas, futurism, dystopia, love, jealousy, etc. etc. And he conjures scenes organically, invents plot twists at the drop of a hat, inserts the right amount of conflict, tension, and mixes up the atmosphere as necessary. This book occupies a special place in my mind as one of the most crystallized Tezuka works. It’s hard to beat for sheer intense storytelling. It contains all the drama and comedy and tragedy you could ask for from a graphic work. All he needed to do was dream, and let the characters come to life, and draw them into being in the midst of their frantic worlds.