March Comes in Like a Lion, Vol 1

March Comes in Like a Lion Volume 1 by Chica Umino

March Comes in Like a Lion was one of the releases I was most anticipating this year, and it was so worth the wait. The opening panels show Rei Kiriyama waking up, getting ready, going to a shogi hall, playing a game against a man he knows. Throughout this introduction Rei says nothing, and the panels of the shogi game are intercut with scenes from Rei’s childhood. When Rei wins the game and his opponent gets up and mentions that he and his family members are worried for him, Rei waits until he’s alone to say “Liar.” Rei then heads home, just as isolated, but he’s interrupted by a flurry of texts and goes over to the Kawamoto sisters’ house, where he’s immediately enveloped in a warm family gathering.

March Comes in like a Lion

Umino balances portraying isolation, trauma, and depression with great skillfulness and moments of humor. She packs in so many slice of life character development vignettes into just a few panels. I appreciated the shonen battle stylings of Nikaido, who proclaims himself Rei’s rival and soon-to-become best friend. Rei goes to the hostess bar where Akari Kawamoto works with some other shogi players, and she cheerfully manipulates his companions into promising to look after Rei. Rei’s background is shown through a series of non-linear flashbacks, and while by the end of the first volume the reader has a sense of what has caused Rei to be so isolated, it is certain that there will be plenty more revelations ahead. One thing I really enjoyed is that the relationship between Rei and the Kawamoto sisters isn’t one sided – Rei also supports the sisters in his own quiet way.

Denpa’s production quality is excellent, with extras like french flaps and a color fold-out poster included at the start of the volume, which makes the manga feel like a bit more of a special collector’s edition. I also appreciated the essays about shogi that accompanied the story. I’m all in for this manga and seeing how Rei’s journey unfolds.

Gangsta Vols 4 and 5

As I embarked on getting caught up on Gangsta, I found myself very grateful for the character bios and plot summaries in front of the volumes. The first couple volumes focused on the slightly more intimate lives of Alex as she meets and is taken in by the Handymen Worick and Nic inter cut with various scenes of violence, but the series is now headed into a full on gang war, and it is useful to be reminded of just who is who in the ever expanding cast of characters.

Gangsta Volume 4 by Kohske

The fourth volume deals with the personal problems of the characters as well as introducing more members of the sprawling underworld in the city of Ergastulum. The handymen are cleaning up after an attack, and Alex is distracted with memories of her younger brother. After shaking the dependency on the drugs she was previously addicted to, more of her normal memories are starting to come back, but she’s not yet able to recall the details of her past life. One of the things I like about this series is the artful way Kohske portrays her action scenes. Alex goes on an errand for the Handymen, and when she happens on a scene where another woman is being attacked, she grabs a stray piece of lumber and rushes in to defend a stranger without thinking of her own safety. Alex is about to get attacked herself, when on the next page a single panel of Nic in motion, mid-leap behind her attacker shows that the problem is being taken care of with almost frightening efficiency.

Alex and the Handymen go to a party thrown by the Cristiano Family, one of the weakest mafia families who is also the most charitable when it comes to taking care of Twilights who would otherwise not have a place to claim sanctuary. The head of the family is a tiny young girl named Loretta, who pragmatically surrounds herself with skilled bodyguards. An equally young twilight hunter shows up at the party and sets off a bloodbath. Another hunter names Erica appears, and while the Handymen and their allies manage to fight off the attack, they sustain huge losses in the process.

Gangsta Volume 5 by Kohske

In this volume it seems clear that the mafia factions in Ergastulum are going to be headed into war. The team of Destroyers becomes more defined, and the situation for regular Twilights not affiliated with an organization is looking worse and worse. Alex has gained even more of her memories, remarking to Nic that she knew him before, only to not get a response. Worick is forced to use his sense for objects to identify corpses, and he and Nic are separated throughout most of this volume, with dangerous consequences. The Destroyers begin to tear through the city, and identify themselves as agents of the Corsica family. Still, even in the middle of a tidal wave of violence, there are quick scenes of normal daily life, when Nic hands Alex a mug as soon as she wakes up from some disturbing dreams of her past. Nic heads off to help out Loretta, and Worick is left to help fend off an attack at the Monroe family house. Things are looking fairly grim for the found family the Handymen have built for themselves. We’re starting to get more caught up with the Japanese release of Gangsta, and I know I’m going to start getting impatient as the wait between volumes grows longer.

While Gangsta does feature plenty of action and grim themes centered around drugs, class issues, and the mafia, the core story circling around Alex and her relationship with the Handymen ensures that the violence in the manga always seems to have a narrative purpose. Koshke’s narrative start small and builds up to a intercut scenes of a sprawling cast headed into some serious confrontations is building more and more suspense and tension as the series progresses. I’m also always impressed with the variety of character designs and defined looks as the manga includes more and more characters. I’m glad that Viz is continuing to give quality seinen some serious attention in the Signature Line with this title.

Real Volumes 1-5 by Takehiko Inoue

I suspect that while co-hosting the Manga Moveable Feast this month will be fun, I’m going to find this week more rewarding as a reader than as a host, simply because I’ve been waiting to explore Inoue’s sports manga series. Real is one of those titles that I’d heard about and was intrigued by, but hadn’t read before. I thought that I was only going to post a review of the first volume this week, but after reading it I promptly decided to order the next few volumes in the series and indulged myself in a mini-marathon of this seinen manga focused on wheelchair basketball. I would have read more volumes of this series if I’d had them on hand but I decided to pursue moderation in my manga choices for this week since I also had a mini-stack of Slam Dunk and a couple Vagabond omnibus volumes to get to. One of the things I just love about manga is the variety of topics. The fact that an 11+ volume ongoing series about wheelchair basketball even exits is pretty great, and when it is produced by someone with the artistry of Takehito Inoue it makes it even more special.

Real centers on three main protagonists. Tomomi Nomiya is a wanna-be tough guy who is a bit of an outcast at school even though he is on the basketball team. He was involved in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed his passenger, a girl named Natsumi who he had just picked up randomly. Hisanobu Takahashi is the arrogant new basketball captain who is about to experience something that will change his life forever. Kiyoharu Togawa is an elite athlete who had most of one leg taken off due to a childhood brush with cancer. His driven personality isn’t a good match with the hobbyists on his wheelchair basketball team.

Real Volume 1

The opening chapter of the series introduces Nomiya, and it lead me to think that Inoue excels at portraying loveable lunkheads. Nomiya shows up at school in street clothes to drop out. He kicks people around, confesses his love to an indifferent girl, obliviously gives his ex-teammates advice, and to conclude his visit he gets naked and defecates near the school gates. All of his previous behavior is then immediately placed in a different context when he is shown carefully smoothing his hair down and rearranging his clothes before he goes to visit Natsumi, who is still recovering from their accident. She refuses to talk to him, but he is stupidly persistent. He takes her on a walk and they hear someone practicing basketball. Nomiya promptly assumes that the young man in the wheelchair can’t play due to his disability, but Togawa promptly challenges him to a game of one on one after announcing that he’s not impressed with Nomiya. When Togawa shows Nomiya his moves, Nomiya demands a handicap for the match, asking to borrow Togawa’s sports wheelchair while Togawa rides in Natsumi’s hospital issue chair. Nomiya and Togawa’s lives begin to be more entangled when Nomiya recruits Togawa for a grudge match against his old team when he finds out that a former teammate is being bullied. Togawa reveals that he’s capable of using his disability to run a hustle on anyone, showing up at the match and making a most uncharacteristic speech about how he’s “Earnest and sincere…always with good cheer…I work hard and try my best..Even if I’ll never match up to you able-bodied folks.” Togawa deliberatly plays the role of a simple disabled person who is optimistic in order to endure that his opponents will underestimate him.

Real Volume 2

As this volume opens Nomiya and Togawa’s scheme of basketball street hustling has been derailed by the presence of an elite wheelchair basketball athlete named Mitsuru who has recently returned from Australia. Hisanobu has just suffered a spinal cord injury and isn’t capable of focusing on rehabilitation, because he can’t accept what’s happened to him yet. Togawa decides to rejoin his wheelchair basketball team, deliberately humbling himself because he wants to train again in order to match up with Mitsuru. Togawa’s childhood friend Azumi serves as manager for the Tigers, and she promises the other players that he his trying to change. But Togawa is still the only person on the team playing with the intensity of an athlete who really wants to win, so the basic cause of tension in the wheelchair basketball team is unresolved. Nomiya drifts from dead-end job to dead-end job. Nomiya and Hisanobu both face their old team playing the final game of the season. Hisanobu is alone in the hospital, hoping that they lose without him. Nomiya attends the game as a spectator in disguise, remembering all of the training he put in on his own to lead up to the last match. While Nomiya and Hisanobu face a low point, Togawa flashes back to his days as a track and field athlete with the potential to become something special. While his sprint times might be dropping, he has a nagging pain in his leg, that might be over training or something more serious.

The scenes of Hisanobu in the hospital are particularly well executed. The panels change perspective to show that Hisanobu can only look up at the people who bend over his bed to talk to him. Mundane details like a bowl of uneaten food or the curtain that separates his area from his roommate’s space contrast with the dynamic action Togawa is still able to experience on the basketball court, as he pushes himself and his team to win their next game despite his teammates’ hostility.

Real Volume 3

The real source of tension between Togawa and his team is the fact that they have innately different attitudes and approaches to the sport. Togawa is determined to push himself to win just for the sake of winning. His teammates say that winning is for the able-bodied. Wheelchair basketball doesn’t make it to the paper – it is only a human interest story, “Nobody expects anything from us. It’s about overcoming our disabilities. Put on a happy face and be optimistic. That’s all anyone wants to see.” After that speech, one of the Tigers reacts with violence, and for a change it isn’t Togawa. Yonezawa throws a cup of water in the face of the speech-maker and says “I want to win.” For the first time the Tigers play with intensity, even though they are about to lose to the Dreams who have two all-star players from the All-Japan team on their roster.

Nomiya sees that Togawa is making progress with his dream, while he’s still a high-school dropout whose post traumatic stress syndrome is preventing him from getting a driver’s license. He goes to Nagano to visit Natsumi but when he sees how much of a struggle physical therapy is for her, he’s unable to talk to her. He vows to become a better person and come back. Hisanobu’s stay in the hospital becomes a parade of horror, as he’s increasingly confronted with the fact that he won’t walk again. He’s uncomfortable being given a bath by the nurses, and shocked when he’s raised upright and immediately becomes dizzy. He dreams of running, but awake he begins to realize that he really doesn’t have any feeling in the lower half of his body. Hisanobu’s immobility contrasts with Togawa’s relentless pursuit of sport. When his old team comes to visit him, he kicks them out. When he asks for his long-lost father to visit, he experiences a psychological break and tries to kill himself. What follows is one of my favorite scenes in the series, as Nomiya turns up in the hospital for a vist, unaware of the exact details of Hisanobu’s condition. The two share a moment where they replay the final game of their former team in their imaginations as if they were still there – Hisanobu with a bandage over the side of his face making a game-winning shot. Hisanobu is so hostile that when Nomiya finds out about his condition, he can’t bear the thought of someone he thought of as a loser pitying him. Hisanobu’s nurse points out that he’ll e able to move around for himself when he starts rehabilitation, but Nomiya contrasts Natsumi’s quiet determination with Hisanobu’s petulance and concludes that Hisanobu is just like the way he was at basketball practice, looking for ways to slack off, making fun of people who were working hard and yells “You don’t have what it takes! Don’t kid yourself! You aren’t a loser because you can’t walk…you were already one to begin with!” Nomiya might not be the most intelligent person around, but his nearly pathological bluntness does allow him to see the truth of a situation.

Real Volume 4

Togawa’s experiences often serve as a spark for other characters to assess their own place in life. As Togawa becomes more energized when he sees some of his teammates finally show up to practice with a competative attitude, Azumi and Nomiya sit and watch him. She thinks that Togawa is finally back to the way he used to be and remembers him in his prime sprinting in track and field. Nomiya is aware that he’s being left further behind as Togawa seems to be on the verge of fulfilling his dreams of competition. Mitsuru watches the first game of the wheelchair basketball tournament with interest, thinking that Togawa’s team doesn’t suit him, and pondering the nature of Ego in team sports.

This ends up being a very Togawa-centric volume as the reader gets a bit more of his backstory, seeing how he reacted to his leg amputation surgery. Togawa ends up becoming a shut-in, only to be distracted one day when a man in a wheelchair named Tora sees him shuffling along with a prosthetic limb, gropes his knee area and discovers evidence of Rotationplasty, yells “Perfect!” and tells him to practice using a wheelchair before zipping off. Togawa also meets Yama, whose wasting disease is going to progress to a point where he will no longer be able to move at all. Yama and Tora show Togawa the possibilities of wheelchair basketball and suddenly Togawa has a new mentor and direction in his life. Tora is drawn as a sweaty beast of a man in a wheelchair, cracking jokes and always going at top speed, yet able to slow down and get Togawa to talk about his experiences adjusting to his new reality. It is easy to see why Togawa is so invested with the Tigers after seeing their former leader Tora.

Real Volume 5

After focusing on Togawa, this volume swings back to show how Hisanobu is doing with his rehabilitation. Driven on by the memory of Nomiya calling him a loser, Hisanobu is actually putting forth an effort for the first time. One of his former teachers urges him to consider going back to high school, and she takes him back there so they can make a list of the accommodations he might need. Real has an apt title, because the topics it deals with are never glossed over or treated superficially. As Hisanobu’s visit winds up, an official at the school looks at the projected costs for bringing him back and says “High school isn’t everything, is it?” He begins to talk about high school equivalency exams and special schools for the disabled. Nomiya finally gets his lisence and goes to visit Natsumi and she confronts him finally, telling him not to visit her because she thinks of him as her assailant.

Togawa gets a boost as he’s scouted for the national team and Mitsuru decides to join the Tigers. When he goes to visit his friend Yama, he’s confronted with Yama at his lowest point. Yama can no longer even palm a basketball. He’s hostile and depressed, asking Togawa and Azumi if they’ve done it yet and announcing that he wishes he could have sex before he dies. Togawa and Yama end up being able to communicate better through text message, when Yama tells Togawaa “I’m scared. I don’t know who I am anymore. By the time I die I’ll have turned into some awful person. Togawa is late to basketball practice as he texts back “I’ll tell you this, Yama. You’ve always been my hero, and you still are.” Yama is confined to his bed as Togawa yells to his team on the basketball court.

I don’t think I’m overstating anything by saying that Inoue is one of the best manga artists working today. He is able to tell an absolutely gripping story weaving together the lives of three very different people, and the supporting cast always seems well-developed and interesting. As one would expect, the art is a standout. Even a meathead like Nomiya is able to display some poetic moments of fluidity and grace when he goes in for a layup. Togawa’s power in his wheelchair is shown to be absolutely intimidating when able bodied opponents see him coming down the court at top speed. While Real centers around the wheelchair basketball world, it uses that setting as a way of exploring the underlying psychological issues of the protagonists. Nomiya desperately searches for a form of redemption. Hisanobu’s toxic habits of personality and thought patterns threaten to derail his rehabilitation. While there is no question that Togawa has the drive and personality to be an elite athlete, his lack of people skills while playing a team sport might threaten his bright future. Real is just an absolutely gripping manga, and I know I’m going to be seeking out the remaining translated volumes of the series as soon as possible.

Afterschool Charisma Volume 3

I’m always happy to read a new volume of Afterschool Charisma. This series about teenage clones of historic figures, their vaguely menacing high school, and the seemingly normal boy trapped with them just has a certain kind of pulpy appeal that I find enjoyable. The cover model for this volume is the uncharacteristically tall teenage Napoleon Bonaparte. At the end of the previous volume non-clone Shiro got a nasty shock when an older version of himself showed up with a pint-sized resurrected Marie Curie, nicknamed Pandora. Mozart yells “Welcome to the clone world, Shiro!” Freud points out that other than the fact that there’s someone that looks a lot like Shiro, they don’t have any confirmation that Shiro actually is a clone. Shiro wants to find his dad so he can ask him about what’s going on. Mozart goes around acting unhinged, and Joan of Arc is preparing to reenact her predecessor’s fiery death.

School director Rockwell reveals a maniacal side underneath his seemingly breezy personality. The shadowy group of people orchestrating the Dolly the Sheep religion finally make themselves known as the school festival draws a variety of visitors who wish to observe the clone’s special talents. One disappointing thing about this volume for me was that we didn’t see much of Clone Freud being awesome. He’s mostly just taking in everything about Shiro, wondering who he actually is, and observing the reactions of those around him. I’m expecting something dramatic from Clone Freud in the future. The pacing for this manga is very good if sometimes a little frustrating. There’s always a dramatic cliffhanger at the end of each volume which leaves me wondering what will happen next.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Butterfly Volume 1

I’m probably much harder to please with monster-hunting manga than any other subgenre. There’s just so much of it, it usually has to be both outstanding and irresistible to really catch my attention. Butterfly doesn’t really fit into this category for me, but there are a few things about it that make it quirky and potentially interesting. First of all, this series is actually seinen manga written by a woman. I have great fondness for other seinen by female authors like Soryo’s ES (Eternal Sabbath), so those publication details did make me more intrigued about the title. While this is a seinen series, it is set in high school with a male main character who is not all that great at school. Ginji refuses to write any career goals as he heads into his final months of school. His life is changed when he meets Ageha, an elementary school kid with glasses and long hair who promises to pay his debts if Ginji will work them off by doing some ghost busting.

Ginji hates the idea of ghost, but he’s haunted by an event that happened to his older brother. When Ageha suddenly appears before him, asking if he wants to “Go and kill…all the ghosts in the world together,” Ginji is extremely skeptical. He tags along on one of Ageha’s missions and finds out that the exorcisms he’s going to be involved in are a little different than he expects. It turns out that Ageha has the ability to manifest images of the things that haunt people, and Ginji has the ability to destroy them. So Ageha is effectively exorcising people’s worries and fears by giving them a form that Ginji battles with. Ageha and Ginji have complementary powers, but the way they work isn’t fully explained in the first volume. Ageha is a bit of a mysterious being as well, because while people tend to assume she’s a girl, others maintain that she’s a cross-dressing boy.

Aikawa’s art is clear and easy to follow during the action scenes, but lacks a unique style. I was fond of Ageha’s mannerisms, just because after reading The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako, I’m happy to see yet another glasses-wearing protagonist with social issues. While Butterfly didn’t totally win me over with the first volume I was intrigued by the idea that Ageha is manifesting people’s internal demons, and Ginji’s destruction of those illusions brings the afflicted some peace. I’m curious to see if some of the mysteries behind Ageha’s origin and the nature of the duo’s complementary powers are explored more in the next volume. I think that Butterfly would probably appeal most to older high school students and adults who want a slightly different spin on monster hunting manga.

Review copy provided by the publisher