Raging Violence and High School Zaniness times.
While waiting for the finale of several titles I’m following (most notably Yoshitoki Oima’s The Shape of Voice, which is due here by this month’s end), I did some taste-testing on a bunch other manga. Apart from Montage, all the other titles in this post are fairly new titles in the past year that I hadn’t pick up when they first came out. Predictably, I ended up liking some of them, and not so much on some others! The interesting thing is the titles that I’m cold on are the ones that generated the most amount of buzz, so gotta assume that my personal taste just don’t work out for them and/or I went in with overly inflated expectation… c’est la vie.
Some nights you breathe in fire….
GREEN BLOOD (Masasumi Kakizaki, Vol. 1-3)
A straight up tribute to spaghetti Western is something I haven’t experienced much from Japanese media, and now there’s Masasumi Kakizaki’s five-volume manga. Set in Five Points, New York, circa late 18th century (post-civil war industrial revolution in US), Green Blood is a gruesome tale of gangland warfare anchored by two orphan brothers Brad and Luke Burns as the leads—the former is a deceptive bum who moonlights as the ruling gang’s deadliest assassin, while the latter is a honest hardworking boy whose uprightness is completely at odds with the moral cesspit they’re living in. Generally speaking, it hews much closer in tone to Unforgiven (a scene where a prostitute got savaged for giggling at a nasty cowboy’s dick is pretty much lifted straight from that movie) than A Fistful of Dollars, composing a jet black portrait of Wild West setting that’s entirely devoid of romanticization (although not fantastical embellishment—see Brad’s gunblade).
There’s not much fun cowboy times to be had here, unless your definition of ‘fun’ includes the likes of rampant corruption, racism, and senseless violence against anyone (a raped and brutally murdered woman is one of the first things we see in the manga). These are things that would understandably drive away people from the manga, and it does veer uncomfortably close to the realm of misery porn. The villains are almost caricature-like in the depiction of their sheer awfulness, and all these are only tempered by the humanity (occasionally sentimentality) in the Burns’ sibling connection.
Apart from the early hook of wondering how long Luke would find out about Brad’s unsavory night job (not very long, as it turns out), the plotting isn’t especially compelling. Kakizaki’s art is ultimately the main draw of the manga, with each volume boasting an array of cinematic imagery that jump off the pages through gorgeous shading and sheer vividness. I seriously lost count of how many times a spread page take my breath away, as Kakizaki zeroes in on a given moment and constantly produces one knock-out frame after another.
SKET DANCE (Kenta Shinohara, Vol. 1-5)
Shinohara was an assistant to Gintama’s Hideaki Sorachi, and the initial similarities are striking: like Gintama, Sket Dance has a trio of protagonists and shares a genre identity that I like to call ‘lolrandom zany comedy with a big heart’. I wouldn’t call it a poor man’s Gintama (as I found some Gintama fans wont to do), as although it’s deceptively more generic in premise and setting, SD is very much a series with its own strengths and quirks.
Revolving around unassuming leader Bossun, tough gal Himeko, and stoic weirdo Switch, the title refers to a high school club that those three run together, dedicated to solve any sort of problems faced by their peers. Initially looking like a light mystery series where the three investigate bizarre happenings in their school, it soon showcases its narrative flexibility: among others, one whole chapter is about the three chasing a monkey (cleverly titled Ape Escape), another one is them helping a fellow classmate to be able to stand out more, and a multi-chapter arc is dedicated to their showdown against the Student Council members. To my delight, Shinohara provided lengthy notes by the end of each chapter, sharing details about how each story came to be and fascinating discourse on general writing mechanics—in spite of its constant silliness, there’s real serious amount of thought and heart that went into this series.
I love this, and it honestly doesn’t take very long to reach that point. The comedy is consistently strong, primarily anchored by the three leads riffing the hell off each other. There’s a large amount of funny man-straight man routine as well as referential jokes (Roman Saotome’s constant callbacks to Glass Mask is one that’s made for my heart), but the fluid set-up and ridiculously endearing characters help them from getting stale. I’m also impressed by the amount of times the manga caught me by surprise (Shinohara is one sneaky dude for sure) and genuinely moved me. The final chapter of Volume 5 is the highlight in that regard, being a gut-wrenching shocker that re-adjusts a given reader’s perspective of the series while also leave me absolutely wanting for more of these delightful dorks in my life.
MONTAGE (Jun Watanabe, Vol. 6-7)
As can be surmised from my previous impression, I haven’t truly rise above ‘mild enjoyment’ with this crime drama series… until the seventh volume, that is. The sixth volume raises the stakes by unleashing the chessmasters and sociopaths on our runaway teens and their increasing number of allies, but it’s the follow-up that (quite literally) blows the doors off. Everything is on a knife-edge in volume 7: starting with a bang as main character Yamato makes a desperate escape, all the way through to its dynamite cliffhanger. It did stretch the suspension of disbelief a lot, particularly in regards of the big Terminator-esque villain Sekiguchi (who had survived mutilation, gunshots, and freaking dynamite thrown at his face so far), but this is one of the cases where I can’t really be arsed due to how exhilarating and skillfully paced the execution is.
Watanabe is very much in the zone throughout , as every page crackles with intensity and makes me wonder just how good the highlight sequences would be in live action (and to a lesser extent, anime) format. This already felt so darn climactic it’s hard to believe there’s still 12 more volumes to go, and I suspect there’s going to be a timeskip, or more crucially an extended flashback story that would provide the tantalizing missing pieces of information. Either way, if Montage can maintain this kind of crazy forward momentum for even just a while longer, I’m pretty much down to the end—having considered to drop it just a few months back, no less.
…and some nights you’re carved in ice.
YO-KAI WATCH (Noriyuki Konishi, Vol. 1-2)
Well, I’m not really one to say “I’m too old for this”… but yeah, I’m too old for this. The catch-em-all premise of this multimedia smash hit is similar to Pokemon, but the narrative structure of the manga reminds me more of Doraemon, only with ‘youkai’ in lieu of ‘future gadget’. Compared to that (admittedly an unfair bar in many ways), Yo-kai Watch just felt much less fun, interesting, or immediately charming. While I do like a couple of the stories, it’s generally too repetitive and relies a lot on simplistic slapstick humor. It’s also a bit of wasted opportunity to have a vast majority of the youkai being so… one-and-done. The three main protagonists not clicking with me at all is the biggest drag though, with Jibanyan somehow achieving the impossible by being an un-cute talking cat character (even more surprising since I dig its look a lot).
Perhaps it needs more time to win me over, or this is just a weaker byproduct of the game and animated series. Still, I already decided to cut bait by donating these volumes to my students, although I may try to catch a random episode on the Sunday morning telly.
GEKKAN SHOUJO NOZAKI-KUN (Izumi Tsubaki, Vol. 1-2)
This one kind of baffled me, since I thought I would’ve liked it more. It took me until the back end of volume 1 before I finally laughed (*at the best friend/Tomoda gag, which is absolutely golden), and as a whole I just find it to be mild amusement rather than a personal must-have. This whole thing is brimming with playful subversiveness against shoujo tropes that I can dig, but there’s a lot of jokes that felt like they should’ve worked better. I was tempted to say that maybe I’ve simply outgrown a high school comedy series, but then I realized I literally just spent a bunch of words gushing about Sket Dance (different narrative details and all).
It’s probably the visual story-telling method. Nozaki-kun is drawn as a 4-koma series that frequently features linear continuity between each set of panels, and it’s an awkward zone for me, who prefer my comedy manga to either be in freeform paneling (Barakamon, Seki-kun, Sket Dance) or stand-alone 4-koma sets that could be read at completely random order (Masashi Ueda’s works). The necessity to break down a sequence into multiple small punchlines felt detrimental at times, and in the particular case of Nozaki-kun, counter-intuitive to the nature of its story and characters. For references, I looked up the anime counterpart of the aforementioned Tomoda sequence, and it works even better there by covering up the transitional seams present in the original work.
I like enough of its base gags and characters to give this more chance, but I think I’ll wait for discount sale or something.
THE SLUGGISH TANAKA (Nozomi Uda, Vol. 1)
I have similar reaction to Tanaka as to Nozaki-kun, but I like this even less. Also drawn in continuous 4-koma style, and the additional problem I have here is how the flat style of background art and Tanaka’s mug left me feeling sleepy and lethargic… wait, I think that might be the whole point. Regardless, the manga isn’t horrible or even bad, but it’s hard to subscribe to Tanaka’s Zen-like philosophy when he came across as a bit of douche and people still somehow flocking to him for no good reason (“well, I never ask to be a main character, after all”, he’d say while nodding listlessly). Ohta’s super cool dude and all, but the humor and the rest of the characters aren’t enough to keep me in. Sweet dreams, Tanaka.