Interesting new titles are popping up right and left.
AJIN: DEMI HUMAN (Gamon Sakurai/Tsuina Miura, Vol. 1-2)
This is the first of three newly licensed ‘gory cat and mouse seinen starring young male protagonist with newfound body issue’ series here, along with Tokyo Ghoul and the classic Parasyte. I plan to follow all three, which…does feel a bit redundant, but eh, I found enough interesting things from each of them. In any case, the first couple volumes of Ajin earned a rave reception, and it’s not hard to see why. The action’s fast-paced, the mystery’s intriguing, and Gamon Sakurai’s art (characterized by heavy inking and thick line work) brings to mind the classic gritty feel of old-school seinen with slightly re-calibrated character design for modern audience.
Based on what I’ve read, I won’t necessarily expect a lot of thematic depth or poignancy, but it should serves well as a pulpy action/suspense series. The narrative sure doesn’t waste much time moving from point A to point B, and through the course of these two volumes we already got a bike chase, a pure sociopath character and possible Final Boss, decapitated body parts, self-mutilation, shady researchers, and a protagonist who’s going to be (even more) progressively screwed up. The biggest draw for me so far is the tantalizing mystery regarding the origins of the eponymous immortals and their mummy-like summon creatures/substance known as Invisible Black Matter or kuroi yuurei, with the ‘how’s and ‘why’s being withhold for presumably shocking reveals way down the road.
Former model student turned Ajin fugitive Kei Nagai doesn’t struck me as a particularly endearing or charismatic main character, but there’s a logical and cold side in his thought process that makes him kind of interesting. There are also three other immortals/Ajin introduced, and it makes me wonder just how the author is planning to have them compromise each other eventually. Mind games and toxic power dynamics based on manipulation and control seem to be the answer for now: by the end of second volume, Kei had fallen to the lap of Sato, a treacherous fellow Ajin and assuredly the most dangerous figure we’ve seen so far.
KASANE (Daruma Matsuura, Vol. 1-3)
Ajin might be the big hitter, but Kasane is the new title that grabbed me the most. I actually knew nothing about this manga before, but the striking cover design and back page summary are just enough to lead to an impulse purchase, and it paid off handsomely. This is a story about Kasane, a talented girl cursed with grotesque facial figures, who could trade faces with somebody else for a limited period of time by applying her late thespian mother’s magical lipstick and kissing her target. Thus, a psychosexual journey exploring the pursuit of artistic excellence and its self-destructive ramification, as well as vicious social commentary on the societal valuation of beauty.
Again, Daruma Matsuura is a previously unknown name to me, but Kasane’s the kind of title that quickly earn its author my admiration and long-term goodwill. Matsuura’s artwork mixes up the beautiful and the grotesque of character design for a visual identity that’s accessible and impactful at once, relying on the very expressive characters to convey gravitas. Stage play being central to the plot is another big plus to me,(as a former theater club member and big fan of the legendary shoujo manga Glass Mask), with this manga depicting stage productions and even interweaving themes from classic works like Anton Chekhov’s The Seagulls and Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad into its character arcs.
Kasane (the character), meanwhile, is shaping up to become one of the most unforgettable heroines I’ve ever encountered. The manga could turn wearying whenever she lapses into her intensely self-loathing rumination, but as much darkness as she has within, Kasane remains a sympathetic character. She’s a fundamentally good kid being dealt an atrocious hand by life, and it’s gut-wrenching to see the brutally honest glimpses into her headspace and the way people are treating her. After short but effective chapters depicting her early experiences with the Face/Off lipstick, the plot has really got going as adult Kasane forms a dangerous pact with shady manager Habuta and struggling actress Nina (another deeply flawed but sympathetic character). There’s nothing but ‘this won’t end well’ vibe here, but I really wish otherwise as Kasane is so deserving for a happy end and she’s just so damn human it hurts. Fingers crossed.
BIRDMEN (Yellow Tanabe, Vol. 1)
Investing in on-going shounen action series tends to be a risky proposition; before you know it, you already have grandkids while the main protagonist of your childhood series is getting his 1,378th nakama and still looking for his absent father. However, Yellow Tanabe (of Kekkaishi fame) seems like the right author to follow for those who are still interested in the genre, but have grown jaded with the bloated and/or formulaic examples. Having apprenticed under Mitsuru Adachi and Makoto Raiku, Tanabe-sensei have developed a style that’s emblematic of Shounen Sunday hallmarks—softer art work, more grounded characterization, and more deliberate pacing than your typical shounen works (particularly compared to their Jump counterparts).
The first volume of Birdmen certainly possess those qualities, along with the thematic building blocks that are quintessentially shounen: discovery, camaraderie, and heroism. Can’t say that I’ve been taken with the characters yet (especially the angsty teen of an MC), but there’s already enough to indicate that this manga could, ahem, soar high through combination of exciting action, thoughtful adolescent drama, and strong sentai vibe. A promising opening volume.
-Another new title (this one’s already resolved in three tanko) that I’m decidedly less excited with:
SECRET (Yoshiki Tonogai, Vol. 1-3 [Finished])
The latest in Yoshiki Tonogai’s offerings of one-word titles, teenager murders, and sinister rabbit suits. Focusing on the aftermath of a school bus accident that killed majority of a class, Secret attempts to conjure paranoia-fueled suspense by revealing that the survivors have some sinister, er, secrets they’re hiding. The problem with this manga is its lack of imminent survival horror vibe that the previous Tonogai titles have in spades, as it leans more heavily on character drama and rumination on loss and grief—areas which soon proves to not be the author’s forte at all. They’re not exactly high art, but Doubt and especially Judge are at least effective enough as pulpy page-turner (they’re basically Saw with problematic Japanese teens); whereas Secret is a tepid affair with very flat art work, whose attempts at poignancy are severely undermined by bad pacing and occurrence of Melodramatic Plot Twist every other chapter or so. The twists and reveals here basically boil down to the sort of contrived ‘V is the jilted lover of W who has grudge against X who is the neighbor of Y who ate Z’s dog’ pattern, with ‘angsty people drawing hasty conclusions and taking dumb-ass actions’ being the ultimate take away. An easy skip, even for a Tonogai fan.
Oh, and the appearance of rabbit suits in this one is downright inexplicable.
–Finally, checking up on established personal favorite:
BARAKAMON (Satsuki Yoshino, Vol. 5-9)
As the sixh volume corresponds to the end of the anime (depicting Handa’s temporary return to home),from there onward marks an uncharted territory to me. And it’s just as strong as ever, with Handa visibly growing ever more comfortable within the island’s surroundings—though he’d be the last person to admit that. The great thing about Barakamon is how it doesn’t need to tell us that, and instead simply shows Handa doing things I wouldn’t imagine him doing in early volumes, e.g. helping out in the funeral for the island’s beloved baa-chan (in itself a demonstration of how the manga could turn introspective and thoughtful without going schmaltzy or abandoning its uplifting nature), planning out an intervention when he thought Miwa was being abused, dishing out (questionable) career advice for Hiroshi, training hard for the annual intra-island sports festival, etc. Such a great and natural progression.
The widening focus on the islanders’ lives also contributed a lot to my enjoyment. The series’ initial hook may be Handa and Naru, but there’s so much rich material coming from the other characters, too. The Gotou Island setting accommodates the inclusion of characters from every age range, providing Handa a broad range of foil to bounce off from, and even letting a few of them to carry their own story at times. Over the course of nine volumes and seventy-four chapters, I’ve grown accustomed to the familiar sight of the island’s shopkeeper lady and rascal children, entertained by ebullient adults like Iwao (Tama’ dad) and Hiro’s mom, marveled at the wisdom and knowledge of young Akki, and root for the passionate aspiration of Hiro and Miwa.
Everyone’s favorite ball of energy, Naru, is also still here to serve up hilarious and heart-warming moments with Handa—the part where Handa walks Naru home from her school’s theatrical production has to be one of the series’ emotional high point thus far. The manga has been very coy about the whereabouts of her parents, and it’s kind of baffling how Handa still doesn’t know at this point (I got that he wouldn’t ask Naru directly, but why won’t he ask literally every single other islander about that?). We’ll see what’s up with that, I hope; in the meantime, Barakamon has cemented itself as the best thing I’m reading at this moment.