Knights of Sidonia, Vol. 2

Knights of Sidonia, Volume 2 by Tsutomu Nihei

As I was reading the second volume of Knights of Sidonia, it occurred to me that Nihei ably manages a narrative balancing act of giving the reader just a little bit more information in each volume, but not so much that everything feels completely filled in. My curiosity about the history of Sidonia was fulfilled with a bit of backstory about why the massive ship seems to be moving through space alone, isolated except for occasional attacks by the Guana. I’m still intrigued to learn more about Nagate Tanikaze and why he happens to be so good (in a somewhat bumbling way) at piloting the Tsugumori. He also seems to be continually singled out by those in command.

I enjoy the general sense of scale expressed with the illustrations of interior of the giant spaceship – it does really seem massive. The human cost that occurs when it has to maneuver itself suddenly makes it clear that even safely inside a spaceship death can come at any instant. Reading this manga, I get the sense that Nihei plans out all the details of his worlds very meticulously. One negative thing is that generally the characters in this manga suffer a bit from samefaceitius, making it sometimes difficult to sort out who is who absent any extreme differences in hairstyle. However, this is a minor quibble next to the general awesomeness of seeing the Guarde units fly through space in their ringed locked arm formation.

This is not a happy manga about giant space robots fighting aliens. The evolutionary capabilities of the Guana give some scenes a horror comic vibe, and bad things certainly happen to good people. But there’s enough humor in the strained interpersonal interactions of the people aboard the Sidonia that when finishing up a volume of this manga, I’m not feeling oppressed by tragedy but very interested to see what happens next.

Also, for those of you reading this manga solely for talking bear appearances, there is some talking bear in this volume!

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, Vol. 1

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin Volume 1 by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

It has been a long long time since I’ve encountered the Gundam franchise. I’m familiar with the basic story, but the Gundam that made a big impression on me wasn’t the first series but Zeta Gundam, which I watched back in the day when people’s only access to anime was attending random university-affiliated clubs that showed fansubbed VHS tapes. I don’t even remember very much about Zeta Gundam other than the fact that young teenage me thought it was awesome. Most anime mecha featuring protagonists with daddy issues owe a lot to the original Gundam series, so it was fun to experience it again through this manga interpretation.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin opens with a glimpse of a future where the human race has a tenuous hold on life in outer space. Humans have migrated to space colonies, which are now gripped in a civil war as the colony Zeon has decided to become independent. Amuro Ray is the young teenage protagonist, and while he does fit in generally with the type of character the reader would expect to see, he’s still interesting and sympathetic. He’s a moody teenage boy who spends his spare time neglecting to clean his room and hacking into his father’s work computer. His father is a scientist who has invented a new type of Zaku (mechanized battle suit). Amuro is out with his friend Fraw when their colony is attacked by Zeon fighters. Amuro stumbles across the unmanned Gundam prototype that he recognizes from his father’s plans and he throws himself into the defense of his colony. Amuro changes from frightened to angry when he sees the civilians under attack, and he stumbles through his first battle aided more by the Gundam’s advanced capabilities than his own skill.

One of the interesting things about Mobile Suit Gundam is the way the story doesn’t only focus on giant battle robots with light sabers fighting each other. The military ship protecting the colony has to take on a large influx of civilian refugees. Amuro is installed as the pilot of the Gundam, and Fraw starts helping out with the civilians. Char Aznable, the masked commander who is the Zeon ace pilot is the Red Baron to Amuro’s Snoopy, but Char is dealing with his own troubles related to the way he keeps losing Zaku that go up against the Gundam prototype. Char’s skills as a pilot outmatch Amuro, but he seems to enjoy the challenge provided by the advanced weaponry of the Gundam. As Char and Amuro clash, Char is toying with the young pilot in a gleeful way that makes him a very entertaining villain. In addition to the growing rivalry between Char and Amuro, there’s a well-developed supporting cast. I was particularly fond of Sayla, whose imperious attitude and willingness to brandish a gun were a good contrast to Fraw’s more gentle personality. Seeing Bright struggle with his new command responsibilities as well as Amuro’s issues with dealing with military protocol helped enhance the general sense of the story taking place in a larger society, where the civilian and military points of view were often at odds even in the middle of a war.

I had a pleasant jolt of nostalgia as I was reading when I encountered dialog like “Release the Minovsky particles at battle density!” and to and was able to experience again what an intriguing antagonist Char Aznable is. This is without a doubt one of the nicest manga volumes I’ve owned, since Vertical chose to print this in an oversized hardcover format with glossy paper. This is a must buy for any past and present Gundam fans, and if you haven’t encountered the franchise before, I’m betting this manga will win you over. I’m actually happy that I don’t remember the exact details of this story so I can be pleasantly surprised as the story unfolds in the next three volumes.

Paradise Kiss, Vols 2 and 3

I was very happy to have the chance to experience this great series again in the new editions from Vertical. Paradise Kiss is one of the most emotionally nuanced josei manga that I’ve read, and these gorgeous oversized editions make it possible to appreciate Ai Yazawa’s art. One of the reasons why I like this series so much is that for a manga about a group of fashion kids putting on a show, it manages to explore the subject of love in an extremely unromanticized way. Beginning model Yukari is beginning to go through a process of self-examination, deciding for herself what her priorities in life are. She’s pushed to this in part by George, who is one of my favorite romance manga leading men, just because he’s so atypical. Bisexual, ruthless and driven to produce his vision of haute couture fashion, George is showing Yukari a new world but he doesn’t have the emotional sensitivity to be a 17 year old girl’s first love. Add in a wonderful supporting cast in the form of cross-dresser Isabella, the punked-out Arashi and painfully cute Miwako, and the reader of Paradise Kiss gets a manga masterwork.

The second volume shows Yukari deciding to drop out of school. Seeing the ParaKiss team work together to create something meaningful has made the deficiencies in her own life far to clear. Yukari has been dedicating her life to studying due to her mother’s ambitions, and she wants to put school aside and work until she figures out what she wants to do. She ends up running away from home when her mother is less than thrilled with her new life plan. The ParaKiss team is dismayed, but somewhat supportive. George intones “Even if you end up in hell, I refuse to take any responsibility.” Yukari ends up staying at Arashi’s place while he visits his home, and this entire volume shows how sincere and well-meaning he is. Yukari and George end up becoming closer and she moves in with him, but she’s too restless to enjoy lounging around his apartment all day. She looks around for work and helps out with the dress for the big fashion show. The only person from Yukari’s old life who seems to be concerned about her absence from school is Miwako and Arashi’s old friend Tokumori.

There’s more dramatic tension in Yukari and George’s romance, because it is clear from the start that things aren’t going to work out. Yukari is too anxious, trying to meld her personality to reflect her idea of George’s ideal woman, and while George cares for her, he has the self-involvement of a true artist. His work will always come first. Even while Yukari tries to cling on to George, she knows that they are going to end up being incompatible.

Everything turns bittersweet in the concluding volume of the series, as Yukari begins to launch herself into a modeling career, and the ParaKiss group prepares their showstopping dress. Preparing for the show isn’t going all that smoothly as Yukari starts having health issues and difficulty dealing with jealousy when one of George’s old classmates comes back for a visit. There’s a general sense that everything is going to end one way or another after the show. George is making unsuccessful attempts to launch Paradise Kiss as a label, and having difficulty. If the label can’t sustain them, everybody is going to have to split up and get jobs separately. In a more conventional manga, the show would happen, George would get a grand prize for his dress, and everybody would live happily ever after. Paradise Kiss explores the fashion world in a much more realistic manner. While Yukari is tall, she lacks the towering height of a supermodel. George’s own elaborate sense of aesthetics is holding him back from the type of commercial creations that a successful fashion label would require, but he’s not going to compromise his vision. Yukari and George’s relationship goes from a whirlwind of love to a relationship where they’re both burdened by each other’s expectations.

What makes Paradise Kiss so interesting as a romance manga is that so much time is spent exploring the reasons Yukari and George are going to split up. The book basically takes place entirely in Yukari’s head, so it is easy for the reader to be just as uneasy as she is about George’s true feelings. When his grand romantic gesture comes at the end of the series, it is easy to see just how much he cared for her. Paradise Kiss had a very satisfying and realistic ending, which elevates it among most romance manga. It is rare for me to feel like all the aspects of an emotional story arc were fully explored, but Yazawa is just that good. Reading Paradise Kiss again made me pine for more Nana or the possibility of a Gokinjo Monogatari translation. The oversized volumes make it possible to appreciate all the intricate details of the fashion-centric world the characters inhabit. These great editions from Vertical deserve a place on any manga fan’s shelf.

Knights of Sidonia, Vol 1

Knights of Sidonia, Vol 1 by Tsutomu Nihei

I was excited to see that Vertical was releasing Nihei’s Knights of Sidonia, because I greatly enjoyed Biomega. As I was reading this manga, I realized that there really is a dearth of giant mecha manga being published in English. One viewing of the Evangelion anime was enough for me, so I haven’t been following the various manga spinoffs. Most shonen seems to be more of the monster of the week/fantasy variety now, and it wasn’t until I was reading Knights of Sidonia that I realized how much I missed GIANT ROBOTS FIGHTING IN SPACE!

Nihei’s manga centers on Nagate Tanikaze, a human on the seed spaceship Sidonia which is carrying humanity away from the destruction of the solar system by aliens called Guana. Nagate lives in an underground area, sharing his cramped apartment with his grandfather’s corpse and spending his time training in an alien combat simulation fighter. The human race has been split to an extent, with most opting for a procedure that allows them to photosynthesize. Nagate still needs regular human food and he is captured by others on the spaceship when he ventures out for rice. Nagate begins to assimilate into current human society, and he gets signed up to pilot a Garde – the mecha who fight the Guana that attack the Sidonia. Nagate is socially awkward but seems to have an odd ability to tolerate pain and heals up very quickly. Being a regular human might give him a bit of an edge over his modified compatriots?

As Nagate trains to fight he meets Izana, a human who can be both genders. He also meets a variety of photosynthesizing clones. Nagate’s isolation causes him to be several years behind with recent developments, but he throws himself into piloting the Tsugumori, the Guarde unit he is assigned to. There isn’t anything else going on with his life. The space battles are where a horror element comes in as the semi-sentient Guana can shift their shapes, even taking on the outward appearance of a human that they’ve killed. They’re blobby and somewhat fetus-like, if a fetus was a giant shifting alien.

One of the things I like about Nihei’s work is that he tells a compelling story without over-explaining everything. I’m getting to the point where having an origin spelled out in the first couple chapters of a manga starts making my eyes glaze over, but Knights of Sidonia manages to be intriguing without being frustrating. I’m interested to find out more about the human society on the Sidonia, the reasons for Nagate’s previous exile, and to learn more about his progress as a Guarde pilot. Knights of Sidonia doesn’t yet have some of the great desolate scenes of beauty that I enjoyed so much in Biomega, but one of the things I enjoy about Nihei’s art is his ability to convey scale and space in his backgrounds. When Nagate falls through a hole into an enormous rice storage bin, it is easy to get a sense of just how massive the Sidonia is.

Most importantly for fans of Biomega, there is a talking bear in Knights of Sidonia. She doesn’t have a machine gun yet, but she does have an artificial arm. Seriously, a talking bear in outer space with an artificial arm is reason enough to buy this manga, and all the great mecha/alien battle scenes and Nagate’s journey are really just a bonus.

New Shojo From Vertical – Limit and Paradise Kiss

Limit by Keiko Suenobu volume 1

After reading Limit, I could totally see why Vertical chose to publish this series about high school girls reenacting Lord of the Flies, because the combination of social commentary and horror totally fits into Vertical’s tendency to go for artistic and edgy manga to add to their catalog. Mizuki Konno is a popular girl. Not the most popular girl in her class, but just popular enough to enjoy a social life in high school as one of the anointed ones. Mizuki is part of the inner circle headed up by Sakura, the most popular girl in school. Mizuki’s calculated goal is to just float along on the surface, never doing anything that might stand out and attract undesirable attention. Mizuki’s foil is one of the unpopular girls named Kamiya who seems to possess more than average intelligence and self-awareness for a high school girl. More importantly, Kamiya is actually willing to speak up against the injustices perpetuated by high school cliques. Mizuki’s orderly world abruptly changes when a bus crash during a class trip kills most of her classmates and strands her in the wilderness. Suddenly the scapegoat of the class, Morishige has the upper hand because she scavenged a scythe. She’s also become seriously unhinged, drawing pentagrams and consulting tarot cards to determine the likelihood of rescue. Kamiya goes along with Morishige but Mizuki seems unwilling or unable to adjust to her suddenly changed circumstances. Food is running out, and Morishige’s memory of past wrongs makes her all too willing to get back at her past tormentors.

Limit is like a refreshing sorbet of violence and societal critique for people who might be weary of too much romance in their shojo. Limit would also be an excellent crossover title for people who don’t tend to read much manga targeted at girls. Suenobu does a great job showing Mizuki’s inner life and contrasting her thoughts with the growing horror and tension of the hopeless situation she’s found herself in. The dynamics of high school friendships when they become stressed beyond endurance are explored, and so much drama was packed into this first volume that I’m very intrigued about what might happen next. This manga is published at the same size as Japanese manga and I must say it is awfully cute even though my inner cheapskate quails a bit at a $10.95 sticker price on a 4.5 by 7 inch volume. Character designs are a strength in this title, as it is very easy to distinguish between the cast members. Suenobu’s art is very clear and doesn’t suffer from being printed at a smaller size from what I’m used to seeing in North American manga editions.

Paradise Kiss Part 1 by Ai Yazawa

Paradise Kiss is a manga that is so good, I don’t mind buying it twice. While I’ve read the entire series and collected all but one volume of the Tokyopop edition, I was very excited to see that Vertical is releasing the series in an omnibus, large-size format. Paradise Kiss is the story of an ordinary girl named Yukari whose life revolves around school, cram school, and the occasional chance to muse upon her crush Tokumori. She doesn’t have much purpose in life, but her psyche is shaken up when she has a random encounter with a group of art-school students headed by the enigmatic George. He’s looking for a muse and model for his capstone collection from art school and while Yukari at first thinks that the punk Arashi, cross-dressing Isabella, perpetually cute Miwako, and maddeningly attractive George are all crazy, she begins to be drawn into their world due to their commitment and shared sense of purpose. Yukari has just been working to get into a good college because that’s what’s expected of her, but when she sees the group of teens her same age working with a true passion for fashion, she decides she will join them as a model.

Yukari quickly starts leading a double life, ditching cram school to learn how to sew beads on a dress. She develops a growing attraction to George, and it is fascinating to see her personality start to shift. She’s no longer able to maintain her cool exterior at school and Tokumori starts to notice her more as she displays occasional moments of goofiness. The art in Paradise Kiss is fabulous. The series originally ran in a fashion magazine and the characters all look like walking, talking fashion illustrations. Even better than the style displayed in the art is the way the fashion in the manga is so perfectly set up to showcase the differences in personality between the characters. I could easily look at outfits designed for Arashi, Isabella, and Miwako and know who was going to end up wearing them. George’s more malleable style signals his changing nature as he shifts from suits to glam cowboy to mod with almost too much ease. I enjoyed revisiting this series in this updated, more deluxe edition. Manga Bookshelf covered some of the differences in translation between the old and new editions. I’m going to buy this new edition from Vertical because I love this series, but I’m probably going to keep the old Tokyopop edition as well. I hope that this does well enough for Vertical that we could see some other work by Ai Yazawa translated, like Gokinjo Monogatari. In any case, Paradise Kiss is a series that I think deserves to be in print, and I am happy that Vertical is reissuing it.