Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shojo Beat: In which I try to get all critical and whatnot

Hey, internet arguments can be fun!  Not that I'm inviting people to disagree with me here (because I'm obviously right when it comes to Shojo Beat), but I've been enjoying the discussion fostered by Noah Berlatsky's review of the first volume of 100 Bullets.  It's one of those cases where I hope people can actually discuss differences of opinion without getting their feelings hurt because somebody didn't like their favorite comic book.  It didn't quite work out that way, but I found it to be an enjoyable talk.

Anyway:

Shojo Beat
November 2008



There's a nice editorial in this month's issue, in which editor Narasu Rebbapragada talks about how at the Shojo Beat panel at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, they received a lot of feedback from readers about what they wanted to see in the magazine.  The consensus seems to be: more manga and anime news, more video game coverage, and more content about Japanese culture.  Sounds good, and the magazine gets right to it: this issue sees a new feature in which some Japanese high school students answer questions about their lives and tastes (and vice versa), another entry in what seems to be a regular video game column (this one mentions LittleBigPlanet and Samba de Amigo, among others), and more of the usual DIY instructions and recipes.  Oh, and a poster for Ouran High School Host Club, which might elicit celebration among some, but not me, since I haven't read it.  I guess it's supposed to be good?  Maybe I'll give it a try sometime.  Also, there are some nice illustrations by Pascal Campion:



I like the trees in that one.  Anyway, manga:

St. Dragon Girl
By Natsumi Matsumoto

I guess there's supposed to be a heart in that title, but screw it; I have enough trouble figuring out if she's supposed to be a saint.  This is the preview chapter for the month, giving a glimpse at what seems like a promising series.  The story goes: Momoka is from a family of martial artists, and her longtime friend/secret crush Ryuga's family uses magic to fight demons.  In order to protect his cousing Shunran from a serpent demon who decides to take her as his bride, Ryuga summons a super-powerful dragon spirit, but in one of those oh-so-wacky manga complications, it ends up entering Momoka instead of him.  So she has the power of this awesome spirit, but Ryuga can control it by sealing it off with his magic, so they have to work together to defeat the bad guy (and any future villains, I'm sure).  It's a nice setup, with plenty of potential for fun stories, and Matsumoto goes out of her way to establish romantic tension, with both leads all but confessing their secret love for each other.  I'm not so keen on the art style, but it's nothing terrible.  The huge eyes and severely pointed chins remind me of Arina Tanemura, and unfortunately, so does the occasionally hard-to-follow action.  But I do like some of the designs and layouts:



So maybe it could turn out to be pretty good.  It's always hard to judge a series by its first chapter; sometimes series will obviously not be worth following, but mediocre-to-decent series can often go either way.  Let's hope this is one of the good ones.

Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time
By Tohko Mizuno

Even though I dislike it immensely, I continue to read this series each month.  Sometimes I wonder why I bother, since it usually just angers me, but I think at the least it highlights how even the series that I don't always like (hello, Vampire Knight) can at least tell a competent story.  But I decided not to bother reviewing it each month, because I don't want to waste the energy coming up with a different way of saying "it sucks and I hate it" every 30 days.  But I had to mention it this month, if only because of the following page, which, while not exactly summing up everything I dislike about the series, at least manages to display one facet of its perfect storm of awfulness:



So, a little background (which probably won't make the image any clearer):  the guy in the foreground is Tenma, and he's attacking Akram, the mask-wearing demon bad guy.  Problem number one: Tenma is weilding some sort of magic sword, which we briefly saw being handed to him by another character several pages earlier.  But on the previous page, he was rushing at Akram in such a way that the sword was obscured; that choice makes it seem like the sword appeared out of thin air.  And its appearance on this page, with only the hilt being visible in the corner of the panel, deemphasizes the fact that he even used it at all.  Problem number two: you can see a strap just below Tenma's left armpit that appears to be breaking.  At first, I thought this was some sort of harness that Tenma was wearing, or something connected to the sword, but then I realized that it's actually Akram's belt.  Apparently, that means the sword slash cut through the belt, which doesn't seem possible from the angle shown.  On the next page, we see that blood is dripping from Akram's hand, so maybe Tenma cut him from the shoulder all the way down to the waist.  it's impossible to tell from the angle here, and it looks very awkward and non-dynamic.  Problem number three: the arrow.  What the hell is going on with it?  It was fired by another character on the previous page, but he was facing the other direction.  Then it was shown hovering in front of Akram's face, traveling (hovering?) in the same direction as it is here.  The angled black area surrounding the tail of the arrow seems to indicate some sort of "cut" (but not an effective one, since the arrow extends outside of that area, making it seem like part of the main, full-page panel), but does it mean it missed Akram completely?  Or did it hit him?  It isn't visible on subsequent pages, so it doesn't seem to be an important detail; what was the point of including it here?  Problem number four: the flow of the page.  The speed lines and angle of Tenma's arms pull the eyes down and toward the left of the page (and also emphasize how the negative space surrounding his right forearm make him appear to have a gigantic wrist if you don't look carefully), but the word balloon, the "SLASH" sound effect, and the arrow all pull the eye toward the bottom right, making the page a distracting jumble of movement rather than a clear depiction of movement.  Ugly, ugly, ugly.  And don't even get me started on the pointless flower petals.

I could probably come up with more nitpicks, but that will suffice to show how just one page of this story is aggravating to read from a simple movement and panel-flow viewpoint.  That doesn't even begin to address the nonsensical, convoluted plot; the tiresome, paper-thin characters; or the heroine who only seems to exist in order to whine a lot and be rescued by the various male characters.  This is a terrible series, and I would be much happier if the magazine dumped it.

Honey Hunt
By Miki Aihara

Well, Miki Aihara doesn't seem to be changing her ways anytime soon; as with her other notoriously insecure characters, Honey Hunt's Yura is a stumbling wreck, barely able to get a few coherent sentences out of her mouth, which is not a good quality for an aspiring actress.  It does make for some funny scenes though, as she heads off to auditions, giving one wooden performance after another:



I love the square eyes.  It's actually an interesting character study though; Yura charged into this acting thing with little in the way of a plan outside of "defeating" her mother.  Why her father's agent thought she would be a good person to throw support behind is anybody's guess, although we do get a hint of some sort of spark in this chapter's climax, which ends up being pretty triumphant even in its small measure of victory.  But until that point, she comes off as ridiculously dense, treating love interest Q-ta's suggestion that she "put herself out there" and actually try to make her prospective employers like her as if it's an amazing revelation.  But I guess you have to start small.  And I'm hoping Aihara continues to develop her heroine into a fuller person.  Or tear her down relentlessly; that could also be fun.  We'll see what happens.

Vampire Knight
By Matsuri Hino

As I've often said, this series can have its moments, but I get bored when it gets bogged down in vampire politics and arcane manipulations among members of the Night Class.  Actual plot developments are nice, or real secrets revealed, which we got a hint of a few chapters ago, when Yuki was trying to delve into her past.  Unfortunately, we've moved on from those scenes between chapters, and now she and Zero are back at school, moping around like usual.  And, we end up hanging around with vampires, including a boy named Senri Shikiwho might have been introduced at some point earlier in the series, but damned if I can remember it.  It looks like he's going to be important though, as a creepy scene involving a recovering vampire corpse serves to set up a new villain who might or might not be the mastermind behind the plot against Kaname (and maybe Yuki as well).  I have no idea what happens in that scene, but it involves a bath of blood and some sort of skinless nastiness:



So I can sort of accept it, just for the freakiness quotient.  There's also a kind of weird scene between Yuki and Zero, as he continues to rely more and more on her blood:



That sort of thing evokes sighs at the soap-operatic convolutions of their relationship, but I have to admit that it's compelling.  If this series stopped running in the magazine, I would probably end up missing it and wondering what ended up happening.  While I often say that it's not my cup of tea, I can see why it's popular, and can attest that it grows on you if you give it the chance.  That's either a recommendation or a warning; take it as you like.

Crimson Hero
By Mitsuba Takanashi

More setup here; I'm sure we'll get to some dramatic volleyball action eventually (next month, unless Takanashi manages to delay it some more), but this time around, we get more buildup and small character moments.  While there does seem to be some time-wasting going on, some of those moments are pretty great, especially one in which the girls' team realizes how much Rena, their smallest-statured member, is working to be able to compete among the more athletically-inclined members of the squad.  When the others discover her practicing her serves on her own, Takanashi gives us a great depiction of the determination on her face:



We also get some interesting character development as Nobara starts to wonder about her relationship with Yushin.  They decided to hold off on starting an actual romantic relationship until they both reached the Spring Tournament (the national championships, basically), but this has created an odd tension between them in which they both have to hold back from acting on their desires.  Into this gap has stepped Keisuke, Nobara's childhood friend who has already confessed his love for her, and while she wants to be friends with him, she might not be able to prevent things from developing into something more.  It's a nice, subtle progression, and I expect it will blossom into some excellent confrontational moments somewhere down the road.

So, yeah, this is good stuff.  Look at what a girl it's turned me into.  Ooh, does she love him, or him?  I love reading this magazine, but sometimes I do feel like I have to follow it up with something like MPD Psycho or Gantz.

Honey and Clover
By Chica Umino

We've got another couple of laid-back chapters this month; Umino should probably bring Morita back soon to liven things up a bit.  But that's not to say that there aren't some nice moments here, including Mayama being forced to make the decision to chase after Rika, even though he knows she will probably never love him.  Also nice: Ayu realizing that the heartbreak that Mayama has been putting her through is exactly what she has been doing to the neighborhood boys, all of whom have been nursing a crush on her for years.  It's a good moment of realization (although Umino goes over the top with it and plays the results for comedy), as suddenly, all her heartbreak turns upon itself and makes her reevaluate her feelings about everything important to her.  Nicely done.

But my real favorite moment here involves Takemoto's senior project a giant tower that he's become obsessed with, nearly turning catatonic.  It looks like he might get a rejection from the judges: 



But Professor Hanamoto saves the day by giving it a title: "The Tower of Youth".  This leads to a hilarious turn in the judges' opinion:



But it hits home, because what they're describing is Takemoto to a T.  Hanamoto seemed to think he was giving Takemoto a hand, but he managed to sum up the latter's character extremely well, giving insight to the readers.  Again, nicely done.

So, while this might not be the best part of the series, it's still quite good.  I love this series.

Sand Chronicles
By Hinako Ashihara

This month sees some excellent drama, full of realistic examination of relationships.  Ann travels back to Shimane with Fuji, and tries to work out her relationship with Daigo.  It's breathtaking to watch; Ashihara isn't settling with the fantasy of young love; their relationship has to grow up along with them.  This leads to heartbreaking scenes like this one:



They've got a lot to work out, from being able to communicate without hurting each other to figuring out how to interact with others without endangering their own relationship.  That's the problem with love affairs that start out when people are young; the relationship tends to stay at the same level, and they eventually outgrow each other.  That's why I worry, as sweet as these two are, that they're doomed.  We'll see what ends up happening, but I commend Ashihara on her realistic, adult depiction of how people interact with each other, and on the way characters react to each other.  As sad as it can be, it's beautiful to watch play out, and that's the mark of a good storyteller.  This is good stuff.
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And that seems to be everything.  Next month: more!