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Anime Talk Extra: Manga reviews
Anime Talk's Manga Review

by Todd Douglass & John Sinnott

You know, in the past we sometimes had a hard time filling columns with content. While we typically review piles of anime in any given month, the blurbs just never add up to much. Lately we've been featuring manga reviews, and this past month we had so many for the column that we exceeded capacity! This is a first for Anime Talk, and it's something we're actually excited about!

Being lovers of anime means that appreciation for manga is inherently in our blood. They simply go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Without further ado here's the selection of manga that didn't make it into the main column:


Bokurano: Ours

A group of teenage kids who pilot a gigantic fighting robot are the only things keeping the Earth from being totally annihilated. Sound familiar? It is a frequently used plot in mecha anime and manga, but Mohiro Kitoh's comic Bokurano Ours (Volume 1) gives the concept a bit of a twist to make it feel fresh if not necessarily unique. The first volume of the manga was published by Viz under their Viz Signature banner in mid February.

Fifteen school children sign up for a summer program and end up at the beach, an excursion they find very dull. Instead of seeing what sea life they can find, the group heads off to a cave in the side of the cliff that they spy. They explore the cavern and discover that it goes a long way back, and at the end there's a strange collection of computers on desks.

The kids start to wonder if a homeless bum lives in the cave when a rather ordinary man walks in and introduces himself as Kokopelli. It's his equipment that they've discovered, and he has a great idea... if the kids would be interested in playing a game, they could help him test his new design. In this game the planet Earth will be attacked by a series of enemies and its only defense is a giant robot that will be piloted by the kids, if they volunteer.

Who wouldn't jump at the chance to play such a game? The kids agree and Kokopelli has them place their palms against a contract. The next thing they know, they wake up outside of the cave, a cave that doesn't look that deep at all.

The next day Kokopelli contacts the group and teleports them into the giant robot of presumably his design that eventually gets the name "Zearth". He announces that the first of the attacks is about to begin and that he'll battle this enemy to show the kids how it's done. Sitting on levitating chairs, Kokopelli makes quick work of the other giant machine, and then declares that their training is finished. He won't be around to help them any more. They are on their own.

When they get back home, the kids see the battle replayed on the news, with a casualty report of people who were killed by the robots. It may be a game, but the results are serious.

The first thing I thought when reading the beginning of this manga was "not again... how many times do they have to remake the kids piloting mecha plotline?" As the story progressed though, the author threw in a few unexpected twists that really took me be surprise and made the tale much more interesting. There's also some ominous foreshadowing that implies the children won't make it out of the game alive, which gives the manga an intensity that many similar mecha stories lack.

You'll notice that I didn't list any of the characters aside from Kokopelli. That's because with such a large group of characters it's hard to keep all of the kids straight. It's still early in the series though, and they are developing the characters one at a time, focusing on each child before they take their turn piloting Zearth. So far Kitoh has done a good job of bringing the young warriors to life and making them distinct but real people.

Though it may sound like a retread of every other mecha story, Bokurano Ours Volume 1, tells an interesting story that's promises to grow more complex and exciting as the series progresses. Check it out.



Alice in the Country of Hearts Volume 2

Originally released in Japan in 2008, Alice in the Country of Hearts (Wonderful Wonder World) provided to be a rather unique look at the Alice in Wonderland tale. Written by QuinRose and illustrated by Soumei Hoshino, we received the first volume of the English translation from Tokyopop recently. Well, the second installment is upon us now, and that's the true test of any manga. Does Alice live up to the expectations set by the premier?

The first volume of the book was an entertaining piece that left a lot of questions unanswered. There's a mystery at play here, and even after reading the second book I can honestly say we only have partial answers. In case you missed it, let's recap what transpired in the first installment.

Basically Alice was kidnapped by a guy with bunny ears named Peter White. The fell down a deep chasm and Alice soon found herself being force-fed a potion which involved her in a game of sorts. She's unable to leave Wonderland until the game is complete, or so she's told. What transpired from this point was Alice's discovery of the world and her meeting of its various inhabitants. There's the Hatter who runs the mafia, the Queen who controls the kingdom, Mary Gowland who operates an amusement park, and Julius the mysterious man in the Clock Tower. For each of those main players there are also secondary ones such as Ace, Elliot, the twins, and Boris the cat boy. As Alice makes friends in Wonderland the vial of potion refills slightly, and it's only when it's filled that she'll be able to leave. Interesting, huh?

The second volume of Alice in the Country of Hearts kicks off right where the first one left off with Alice at the Hatters for a tea party. Elliot lets his guard down and shows his true colors around Alice, and the Hatter does to an extent as well. Alice finds herself confused about some parts of their conversation, but leaves on good terms with talk of love in the air. It's clear that just about everyone in Wonderland is smitten with Alice in some way or another, and in the case of the Hatter it would seem that his love is a dangerous thing.

Peter seems to be the most obsessive about his feelings for Alice, however. Several times in this volume he appears either to look for her when she's not around, or hits on her when she's right in front of him. Throughout it all though, he seems to be genuinely pleased even to not be with her as long as she's happy. He often comes to her defense when she thinks someone will do her wrong. It's charming in a way, despite his being a perverted creep and all.

What really stands out in this installment is the revelation about clocks in the world. As an outsider Alice is shown to be one of the only people in all of Wonderland with an actual heartbeat. It would seem that every person we've met so far as a clock for their ticker, and that puts an even more mysterious spin on the Clock Tower and Julius. He repairs people's clocks when they are killed in order to allow them to be reborn in another body. It's interesting, yet haunting in a way, and we even get to see impressions of this work from characters such as Peter and Elliot. What this holds for the future installments of the series remains to be seen, but I'm sure this will be a major factor in the story since it's made such a big deal of in this volume.

Once again the artwork and translation of this book are downright awesome. The quality is on par with expectations set by the first volume and all around it's a very entertaining read. It's a rather wordy manga and as such it lasts a bit longer than others, so that's a definitely plus as well. All in all if you ever enjoyed Alice in Wonderland, then Alice in the Country of Hearts will most likely be right up your alley. It's engaging, mysterious, and extraordinarily unique in many ways. Give it a shot if you haven't read it yet and you may be pleasantly surprised!



Remember

Remember is a rather peculiar title for Tokyopop's lineup, but it's one that leaves one with the impression that it's a format worth exploring. I say it's odd because Benjamin isn't your typical artist, and the oversized, full-color book is definitely off-kilter from the usual manga expectations. This graphic novel is more akin to what American comic book fans are used to, and the style from the creator is definitely all its own for better or worse.

Remember is broken up into two short stories and it's not designed to be a long series with multiple installments. Basically if you're familiar with Benjamin's works you'll undoubtedly want to check it out for that merit alone, but if you're new his style then the look of the book is the first thing that will grab you.

I'm more of a substance-over-style kind of guy, but the first thing I wanted to mention was the artwork in Remember. Benjamin has an extremely unique approach to creating a graphic novel. Rather than go the traditional route with pencil and paper he does a breathtaking watercolor-like painting style. This allows for a greater sense of movement and more striking details. For instance in the first story in this book he uses soft blues and greens with the occasional red hue added in for impact. In the second story there's a much more varied employment of color and even some sections that borderline seem to be done with a charcoal template. No matter which one you're reading you're assured to get a different feeling from each panel and the experience is memorable because of that.

With the style section out of the way looks talk about the substance, which unfortunately isn't as solid as one might hope.

The first story, "No One Can Fly, No One Can Remember" features a tale about a struggling comic book artist who can't catch a break in the industry. It would appear that no matter what he produces, publishers just aren't interested. It's not that the kid's work is bad by any means, but according to the publisher people are only interested in something familiar and says you basically have to plagiarize something in order for it to sell. Could Benjamin be soap-boxing about the Chinese comics industry? Hmmm.

At any rate the artist is rather temperamental and self-centered. He doesn't see those around him, or really seem to care, which makes him seem like a total dick when a kind-hearted girl named Yu Xin takes a liking to him. She used to be in the industry, but has since quit since it doesn't really pay the bills. She sees something in him though quite honestly I don't know what since he treats her like crap, yells at her, and sleeps with other girls. Flawed characters, lame dialogue, and a plot that goes virtually nowhere hold this one back.

The second story, "That Year, That Summer" is a little more interesting, though nowhere near as long as "No One Can Fly, No One Can Remember". This one follows a student attending an art college while working on his relationship with his girlfriend. Meanwhile he befriends a fellow student who happens to be poorer and finds himself constantly abused by those around him. It's a darker tale and a little more interesting because of the more sharply defined characters. Ultimately it's the better of the two despite being less than half the length of the first. Additionally there is a preview for one of Benjamin's other works "Orange".

Remember is an interesting release, though I fear it's a rather polarizing one. On one hand the two stories provided here vary greatly in terms of quality and focus. The first drags on for too long while the second doesn't last long enough. They strike a balance somehow, but neither is a tale that will stick with you long after reading. What does leave an impression, however, is the absolutely gorgeous artwork on each page. Benjamin has a style that is unlike anything else in the world of manga. I'd liken it to a sketchier version of Alex Ross, but with an Eastern flare. It's a seductive kind of art style that really draws you in, and because of that this book recovers some lost ground.



Blood Honey

What happens when a vampire family's bloodline begins to run thing? Their descendent gets a job at a blood donation clinic, that's what!

That's vaguely the premise behind Blood Honey by Sakyou Yozakura, which is the latest from Tokyopop's Blu yaoi lineup. For a better description, here's what the back of the book has to say for itself:

"Nurse Yuki Akabane is a descendant of a line of vampires. He's often visited at the hospital he works at by a donor nut named Osamu Mayuzumi, the insatiable cram school teacher. Yuki never really thought twice about Mayuzumi, but when he drinks some of his blood on a whim, it tastes so good to him that he tries to get closer to him to savor more... Will he ever be able to drink another's blood again?!"

When Blood Honey starts out that's exactly what we get within the first couple of pages. Yuki is a relatively good natured vampire and he's quite sick of Mayuzumi coming around constantly and asking for him. One could say that Mayuzumi is Yuki's stalker, but since Yuki is so adept at drawing blood for humans he naturally has quite the clientele. When Yuki does sip the deliciously sweet blood from Mayuzumi, he devises a way to get the man to come to his house and give him his blood outside of the clinic. During such efforts Yuki cooks him "stamina" dinners and the two hang out for a time almost like a date kind of.

Eventually Yuki is caught at work by his boss, and we are soon treated to the knowledge that his employer is a hound dog and seems to lust after Yuki. Luckily for the vampire his favorite client showed up in the nick of time to save him from being sexually assaulted. That's more or less the beginning of their relationship, but as the book continues Yuki finds other lovers as well.

Now, let me just state that I am not a fan of yaoi. At all. I appreciated Yuki's character and found some of the writing and moments in this book to be rather amusing. The story has a lot of promise as well and Yozakura created a very interesting world and some fun characters. Unfortunately there's quite a bit of hardcore yaoi material here and, well, it's just not my cup of tea. I personally don't want to see guys having sex with each other or jerking each other off, but if you're into that kind of thing then there's plenty of stuff here that you'll enjoy. Trust me on that. The book has relatively uncensored pornographic material aimed directly at yaoi lovers.

Blood Honey will score well with fans of the yaoi genre, but as stated I'm just not one of them. I tried to objectively ignore the content I didn't want to see, and what's here for a story is quite entertaining. Yuki's character is a lot of fun and the book really comes to life when it's focusing on him, but even so there are times where plot gets sidetracked or introduces a character that doesn't quite jive with what has already been establish. Overall this book will entertain yaoi fans, but the content will be lost on everyone else (which includes me, unfortunately).



Red Hot Chili Samurai Volume 1

Dang, has it really been a week since I've made a post? It's amazing how much time flies when you're not having fun! The story of this past week is work, work, and more work. While I do have several other reviews in the works, much of my spare time lately has been spent watching anime and reading manga (such as the massive pile of books that just arrived from Tokyopop). The first title I've cracked into in their latest lineup is Red Hot Chili Samurai.

Created by Yoshitsugu Katagiri, Red Hot Chili Samurai actually has nothing to do with the "Red Hot Chili Peppers", contrary to what the hot red chili comparison would have you believe. This first volume was originally released in Japan in 2007, and becomes available here in the States March 30, 2010.

The first thing I want to say about Red Hot Chili Samurai is that the book just doesn't pop in any way. Sure it's whimsical and the world it takes place in is fairly interesting, but the characters are rather generic and hardly developed at all in this opening installment. You'll feel no connection with the hero or his sidekicks, and some things just aren't explained well enough to draw you in. This isn't a grievous strike against the manga, but rather an example of its lack of a hook. You won't feel endeared to it with this volume and you won't wait with bated breath for the second installment.

So what is the book all about? Well, it centers around the exploits of a young chili pepper loving samurai named Sento Kokaku, who is also referred to as Hanshu. What's a Hanshu? Well, it's not really explained, but basically what I gathered from reading this volume is that his bearing of a black crane tattoo is a status symbol that identifies him as the son of the Hanshu. You know, whatever the Hanshu happens to be.

Anyways, Kokaku works for his father and pretty much just goes around helping people out. He's joined by a silent ninja, named Shou, who supplies information and two more active members: Ento and Ran. Together they form a group that gets involved in things that just don't seem right. For instance there's a brothel where some bad stuff is going on, a kid finds himself getting picked on, and there's a gambling den that's cheating its customers. In each instance it's basically up to Kokaku to jump into things feet first, beat the snot out of everyone, and call it a day.

The only really interesting bit in this installment is the introduction of a rival of sorts called Shikki, the Turtle. Shikki basically comes along and contrasts Kokaku's heroic ideology. Where Kokaku doesn't necessarily kill people indiscriminately, Shikki does and he's not afraid to bare the sharp part of his blade. They clash at first and square off, but eventually they come to an understanding of sorts. It's an interesting relationship that shows potential for future installments.

The stories here are broken up into chapters, as are most manga, and for the most part each chapter is exclusive. There's no overarching storyline that carries through, and this unfortunately detracts from the development of its characters. Sure Ran and Ento get some decent interactions with Kokaku, and Shou is a great source of comic relief, but beyond that you don't really see much of the background characters. Kokaku gets the most development here, though the only thing we really learn about him is how he grew to love peppers so much and how he developed his hero code. It's unfortunately very light and in some instances it does not make much sense.

Red Hot Chili Samurai's first volume is not a complete failure. It's entertaining to read, there's a great deal of humor, and the action is pretty good as well. Katagiri's artwork is fantastic and throughout the book there are solid designs from the background to the characters. The sense of movement and emotion is fantastic and the translation of this manga is smooth as well. Despite the many positives the series has going for it a lack of development and standalone storylines don't necessarily help things out here. Hopefully that will change in the coming volumes, but for now consider this one lightly recommended.



Happy Café Volume 2

A little while ago we got the chance to check out the first installment of Kou Matsuzuki's Happy Café thanks to the team over at Tokyopop. The book originally launched in 2005 and found itself with a second volume later that same year. In case you missed the review of the first volume here it is. If you don't want to bother with that link here's a brief description of the manga:

Happy Café follows the exploits of a 16 year old girl named Uru Takamura who comes to find herself working at a place named Café Bonheur. Her only goal in life is to basically make other people happy and when she sees the kind of pleasure the guys at Bonheur churn out she naturally must get a job there. The café is operated by a mysterious manager who leaves it run by two guys named Shindo and Ichiro. Shindo is the baker and all around gloomy gus, but he's happy when he's baking and his treats put a smile on anyone's face. Ichiro is easy going, but prone to falling asleep when he's hungry, which is a crux of the humor in this manga.

To put it bluntly, the set up for Happy Café is simplistic almost to a fault, but there's an endearing charm to it all. The first volume shows as Uru gets acquainted with Shindo and Ichiro, and in general, life in the café. Nothing really happens in the first volume and basically it kicked it into neutral only to introduce the characters and setting. Thankfully some of that changes with this installment.

The opening chapter presents more of the same with Uru, Shindo, and Ichiro operating business as usual. Things change, however, when a pair of troublemakers from a rival pastry shop shows up and causes quite the stir. Their appearance instantly creates tension in Café Bonheur, which is a good thing. Competition is good for business, they say, right? Well, when the guys post a "closed" sign on Bonheur's front door and spread rumors about the cost of their sweets the gloves come off, sort of.

In addition to their appearance this volume also heads down some amusing paths as Shindo hurts his baking arm trying to save Uru from a nasty fall. This sets up an awkward situation during a contest between the two bakeries. Not only does all this happen, but Strawberry Girl makes several appearances, and Uru's mother makes a café house-call. It all comes together to make a volume of the manga that's far more interesting and entertaining than the first. It's clear that Matsuzuki's book no longer relies on Shindo's mysteries and Ichiro's narcolepsy to provide interesting material for the reader and the events in this book actually left me curious about what would happen next. Once again Matsuzuki's art style is a standout with some attractive designs and solid backgrounds. Again there's a simplistic nature to it all and not every panel is brimming with detail, but it's done for emphasis and it's effective. The translation is good as well and there were only a couple of minor mistakes in the book.

The first volume of Happy Café left me a little underwhelmed, but I'm pleased to report that things are far more interesting in the second installment. The characters are livelier, the world is developed more, and the secondary characters worked perfectly. I'm interested in seeing where it all goes from here, and if this installment is any indication, it can only get better (hopefully).



Mugen Spiral Complete Series

Originally released in Japan in 2004 Mugan Spiral has made its way to the States in the form of a collection of its two volumes. Created by Mizuho Kusanagi, Mugen Spiral came out in America back in 2007. Tokyopop has collected both volumes and is presenting them as a massive 400-page edition slated to be released next week. If you already have the prior release then there's really no need to get excited about what's here (unless the special stories at the end weren't included in the first printing?), but if you haven't read the book before then you may want to give this a shot.

In some ways Mugen Spiral reminded me of a cross between Natsume's Book of Friends and Inuyasha. The series follows the exploits of a mystic named Yayoi who happens to be 78th in the line of Suzaku mystics. As it stands she's pretty powerful, but despite this ability she's also quite lonely. Her parents are both dead and she pretty much just gets by due to the fact that demons continuously try to kill her in order to ascend in rank. When one such demon, Ura, tries to take her down he finds much more than he bargained for.

Ura is strong, even by demon standards, and he's the son of the current demon king. Taking down Yayoi should have been an easy job, but she used her powers and the magic of some rosary beads made of cat bone to turn him into a black cat. Now Ura lives with Yayoi as a pet of sorts, though he becomes a trash-talking demon kitty hell-bent on taking Yayoi down and eating her. Normally people would be a little put off by that, but Yayoi just goes with it and brushes his constant tirade of threats aside.

Early on in the book it becomes clear just what kind of relationship the two are going to have. While Ura does remain in his cat form he is able to release his powers and turn into his true form whenever Yayoi kills off one of the beads on his necklace. She winds up having to do this quite a bit because Ura isn't the only demon gunning for her head. Sure she's more adept than most other mystics and she can pretty much take care of herself, but other demons want to become king and in order to that they basically have to kill her. Lucky for her Ura won't let another demon eat her before he does, so he becomes himself at just the right times to rescue her when she is in over her head.

Predictably over the course of the book a relationship forms between Ura and Yayoi, despite their adversarial beginnings. Yayoi sees through Ura's tough exterior and she begins to grow on the demon after a while. She perplexes him in ways girls often confuse boys and the manga is full of development of the character's personalities and their relationship. Through the course of the story other characters are introduced as well, such as Ura's brothers, and they certainly shake up the continuity and dynamic of the series.

Kusanagi's Mugen Spiral was a fun book with some fantastic artwork. The designs were sharp with a wide range of expressions (I particularly enjoyed Ura's cat form and how he was portrayed). Backgrounds were rather simplistic, but there were a few panels packed with details. The translation work was solid as well with some liner notes and sideline commentary.

Despite feeling rather familiar in some respects, Mugen Spiral is a fun two-volume manga presented at a very affordable price here. You can pick this up on Amazon for around $11 and frankly you can't argue with that. Sure it's a little predictable and the setup is nothing new, but it packs in plenty of laughs and personality.



Spice & Wolf

I'd be lying if I said I didn't fall in love with Spice & Wolf the animated series when I first saw it. The show just popped in every way from the intriguing characters to the story and personality. Everything about the anime caught me off guard in a positive way and stood out as unlike anything I had seen before. Then again, it all started somewhere, right?

Spice & Wolf began as a novel by Isuna Hasekura and was published in manga form back in 2008. It took a couple of years, but Yen Press has translated the book and we finally have the first volume in hands. How does it stack up? The short answer to that question would be that I enjoyed this first installment as much as I liked the anime. Then again, that wouldn't make a very compelling review now, would it?

Spice & Wolf is about a traveling merchant named Lawrence who is always out to make a dollar (or Trenni Silver coin, if you will). He roams the land with his carriage and horse making trades and working the market to his benefit. At the beginning of the story he travels to a village where a pagan ritual is underway involving a wheat crop and a wolf god named Holo. It would seem it has become a tradition for the villagers to chase someone with a stock of wheat as the embodiment of Holo, however it's more of a game now than anything religious. There used to be a time before farming technology improved that Holo was truly looked upon as a deity.

Lawrence takes all this in and winds up leaving with some of their wheat crop after a trade. That night he's surprised by a beautiful naked girl sleeping in his wagon, however, the fact that she had a long fluffy tail and ears were more startling to him. This girl happened to be Holo herself! After convincing Lawrence that she is indeed who she says she is, Holo goes on to describe how she had essentially become a prison of the wheat. She can only go where the wheat goes and will only disappear when the wheat dies, which is basically never in this case. She wishes to travel north to her homeland and Lawrence reluctantly allows her to tag along.

Holo and Lawrence become unlikely traveling companions, yet at the same time they are nearly of a kindred spirit. Lawrence's awareness of money and Holo's intelligence, abilities to lie, and ears that can decipher the slightest irregularities in the purity of coins go hand in hand. As they travel Holo finds ways to help Lawrence to repay him for freeing her and allowing her to head back home.

Much like the show, the book is really about Lawrence and Holo and the relationship that develops between them. They play off each other very well and whether Holo is teasing Lawrence, or they're working together on a deal, it's always a joy to see the two together. Adding to the richly developed characters is a robust world surrounding them. All the talk of markets, currency, and trading is quite unique in the manga world, and in that regard Spice & Wolf is truly fascinating. Hasekura truly went the extra mile to think of every minute detail in order to craft an original and expansive world.

As was the case in the anime, the artwork here is absolutely fantastic. With character designs by Jyuu Ayakura and detailed artwork by Keito Koume, Spice & Wolf literally leaps off the pages. Every panel is packed with careful brush strokes and the characters display all kinds of emotions and facial expressions. Likewise the translation job provided by Yen Press is certainly noteworthy. Holo has a unique way of speaking that I'm pleased to see represented here in true form.

Whether you've read the book, have seen the anime, or simply never heard of it before, Spice & Wolf is a franchise worth picking up without hesitation. The first volume of this manga is highly entertaining, full of charm, and features two of the most interesting characters to grace the manga world in some time. I can't say enough good things about this book and story. I loved every detail about it and highly recommend it without hesitation.



Yotsuba&! Volume 8

Ever heard of Yotsuba&! before? If you haven't then it's time to come out from that rock you've been living under. This hilarious manga series has been around since 2003 and is the brainchild of Kiyuhiko Azuma (the creator of Azumanga Daioh). The series is going strong in Japan and is up to the ninth installment, though no animation has been announced (sadly it seems Azuma doesn't want one). However, here in the States we have plenty to cheer about because the eighth installment is on the horizon thanks to Yen Press.

In case you truly don't know Yotsuba&!, all you really need to know is that it focuses on the adventures of five year old Yotsuba as she experiences the wonders of life in a way that only someone of her age could do. She views everything as a naïveté and spends most of her time with her adopted father, Koiwai. Even by little kid standards she's considered strange and often views things that are a part of every day life as though they are biggest, coolest thing in the world. Needless to say there's a lot of charm in this manga and Yotsuba truly is an entertaining character to watch and read about.

In the eighth volume of the manga Yotsuba has returned from the ranch with thoughts of cow-milking and ranching running through her head. She shares some of her souvenirs with the neighbors and in return she gets a gift as well. Thus Yotsuba determines that the day is opposite day and continues to pester Koiwai with statements such as "I'm Full!", when she means she's hungry, and "Yucky!", when she means it's good. This continues as the two go out for lunch and wind up bumping into some friends.

The next leg of their journey takes them into town during a festival as Yotsuba meets a panda and shakes his hand, experiences a haunted house for the first time, and eats some traditional cake. Of course she wanted strawberries and they didn't have a strawberry cake, so the people running the stall have to think of something else for her on the fly. After the festival a typhoon comes to town and Yotsuba is utterly fascinated by it. She drags her dad out into it and they wind up going to their neighbors house for some snacks. As the volume continues there's more festival fun and Jumbo and Yasuda head over to their house while Koiwai is away.

As always Yotsuba&!'s art style is absolutely gorgeous. Azuma has a style all his own and frankly it's one that I can't get enough of. I loved his work in Azumanga Daioh, but with this series it seems like he's really come into his own. Every panel is overloaded with detail and the characters all stand out through their expressions, especially Yotsuba. The translation for this volume is great as well and all around it will keep fans, and newcomers, of the series happy.

If you've been following Yotsuba's adventures then you'll be picking this installment up without hesitation. It's entertaining, charming, and laugh-out-loud funny from the first page to the last. There's a little bit of magic in this book and it's a shame that no animation has been planned yet. With only one more volume to go, it may be a long wait for fans of the book who want to see what happens next. Still, this series is highly recommended and this volume exemplifies why. Check it out.



Cirque du Freak Volume 5

While Cirque du Freak is a major motion picture at this point, it all started with a series of novels by Darren Shan. In 2006 a twelve volume manga was released in Japan with artwork by Takahiro Arai, and today we're looking at the fifth volume translated into English by Yen Press.

The manga follows the exploits of a young boy named Darren, who is turned into a half-vampire one fateful night. He struggles with the loss of his humanity and attempts to find acceptance in the world of vampires. Having left most anything from his former life behind, this installment of the book sees young Darren taking the necessary steps to moving to the next level. You see, typically it's unheard of for a vampire to be made at such a young age, and as such he isn't really accepted anywhere.

This installment sees Darren undertaking some trials that basically make or break a vampire. If you survive, you are revered in the vampire society and everyone pretty much has instant respect for you, however, if you fail you die. Yup, there's no do-overs with these tests. He doesn't necessarily know full-well what he's getting himself into at the outset, but Darren eventually steals his resolve to soldier forth.

The first trial he faces is a fascinating maze where he's blindfolded, tied to a boulder, and dropped somewhere in the center. From this point he must use his senses to find his way to the door in order to be released. Adding pressure to this event is the fact that water continuously pours into the entire maze, leaving him with roughly fifteen minutes before there's no room to breathe anywhere. Naturally he feels the pressure here, but he actually makes it through in the nick of time.

The next trial involves a lengthy crawl along a cavern riddled with needle-like stalagmites and stalactites. It's pretty brutal to read through as he's cut up badly, and even tougher once he realizes the slightest tremor or noise causes the deadly stalactites above him to fall. Yet again he makes it through alive, but he's quite injured without a lot of time before the next trial is to begin. That's where some mysticism comes in and we get to see Darren's bond with spiders play a beneficial role.

From this point forward the book goes on to take Darren through two more trials, and things take a rather surprising twist towards the conclusion of the second. It sets things in motion for the sixth installment, and quite frankly I won't divulge what transpires. It was out of nowhere and something fans of the book will want to experience for themselves.

The story here is quite good and the artwork by Takahiro Arai keeps in step. The characters are richly detailed with unique features and great expressions, and the backgrounds are just as detailed and dynamic. Some moments seem a little exaggerated, but these were done more for effect than anything else. The translation of this volume is good as well.

Cirque du Freak is a fascinating vampire story in its own right, and this manga is just as entertaining. The character development is top notch, the world is imaginative, and Arai's artwork suits the material. If you've been reading the series then you'll be pleased to know that the fifth volume lives up to expectations. However, if you're new to the franchise you'll definitely want to take the time to go through the first four installments. In the end you should consider this book recommended.



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