The Gods Lie

The Gods Lie by Kaori Ozaki

I waited a long time to read one of my favorite manga of the year. I bought The Gods Lie shortly after it came out, but it has been sitting on my to-read pile for months. This is a coming of age story showing the developing relationship between Natsuru, a soccer prodigy, and Rio, a girl who stands out at school for being overly tall and silent. When the story opens, it first seems like a slice of life manga, but soon the reader sees that death overshadows the lives of the characters. Natsuru lives alone with his quirky writer mom, because his father died recently. His grandfatherly soccer coach is in the hospital with cancer, and while the replacement coach actually knows how to play soccer, Natsuru doesn’t react well to his new coaching methods.

Natsuru and Rio develop a friendship when he rescues a kitten his mom is allergic to. She offers to take care of it if he’ll help pay for the cat. It is clear that Rio has a stronger sense of household budgeting than is normal for a 6th grader. Her younger brother Yuuta just sails through life cheerfully, seemingly unaffected by their run-down house and need to economize on everything. When Natsuru visits their home, Rio tells him that her father is fishing in Alaska, but will be back in time for the spring festival. Natsuru decides to secretly ditch soccer camp and stays with his new friend over the summer. As the story develops, it is clear that Rio is guarding a secret that she can’t share with her new friend.

There’s a sense of clarity and assurance in Ozaki’s art, it is expressive without being bogged down by too many details. She perfectly portrays the stuck-up and clueless attitude of the class princess, the disrepair of Rio’s house, and the freedom of unstructured summer days. It is a rare manga that is perfect in one volume but The Gods Lie has the feeling of a great short story, capturing a range of experience for the characters in just a few pages, and hinting at what they’ll become as they grow up.

Insufficient Direction by Moyoco Anno

Vertical is such a great publisher. I’m turning into even more of a fangirl because Gundam: The Origin, What Did You Eat Yesterday?, and Insufficient Direction all make me very happy. Some of the online reviews I’ve skimmed about this manga tend to focus more on the opportunity to find out what Hideaki Anno is like, but I always found myself more intrigued by getting a bit of an autobiographical glimpse into Moyoco Anno’s home life. She’s obviously fiercely intelligent, with a cynical edge to her manga like Happy Mania and Sakuran.

Insufficient Direction
is an affectionate and humorous look at what it is like to be married to the Ultimate Otaku. Anno portrays herself as a toddler wearing a one piece suit named Rompers and her husband looks like a bearded five-year-old with a beer belly, who is referred to as Director-kun. The manga details the hazards of geekdom, including how to shop for wedding outfits when one part of the couple wants to cosplay as Ultraman, anime song earworms, large collections of action figures and dvds, and superhero posing contests. Rompers gradually finds her personality slowly adjusting to Director-kun’s as she accidentally binge watches Gundam and finds herself making random geeky cultural references.

Anno’s style in Insufficient Direction is basically a cartoonish chibi way of drawing both her and her husband, but I was amused by the panels here and there where her normal manga style peeked through, when she was sitting around talking to her assistants or portraying a goofy story made up by her husband. Overall, this manga is an affectionate portrayal of a marriage, with give and take on both sides as Rompers tries to get Director-kun to be more healthy and Director-kun tries to get his wife to become the ultimate otaku bride.

There’s an essay by Hideaki Anno in the back of the book, and it is clear how much he respects his wife’s talent. I also appreciated the copious notes included in this volume, which are necessary for anyone who doesn’t have a ton of knowledge about Japanese tv shows and anime from the 60s and 70s. I enjoyed the episodic nature of this manga, which made it easy to pick up and put down if I was just in the mood to read a chapter or two. This is a must read if you enjoy slice of life manga, or if you are a fan of either Hideaki or Moyoco Anno.

What Did You Eat Yesterday, Vol. 1

What Did You Eat Yesterday? Vol 1 by Fumi Yoshinaga

What Did You Eat Yesterday?
is one of those holy grail manga that I thought would be tough to get here in America in translated form, so you can imagine my delight when Vertical announced that they would be publishing it. No one does slice of life foodie manga like Yoshinaga, so I was looking forward to this series about a gay couple and the food they eat.

Shiro Kekei is a lawyer for his day job, determined to take on boring cases that will allow him to leave work by 6 every day. He doesn’t share much about his personal life at work, seeming very aloof. Shiro’s enthusiasm comes out when he’s shopping for and preparing food for his outgoing boyfriend Kenji who works at a salon. Ordinarily reading someone’s thoughts as they scan the supermarket for bargains and contemplate the nuances of the seasoned rice that they are cooking wouldn’t be all that exciting, but Yoshinaga’s wit and humor makes these every day occurrences fascinating. What Did You Eat Yesterday? is all about food, but Yoshinaga also includes details of character interaction that make you want to spend more time with the people she introduces. Shiro’s mother calls him and browbeats him about not being out at work, yelling over the phone “Proclaim it loud and proud! Being homosexual is nothing to be ashamed of!” Shiro zealously guards his privacy, while Kenji brags about his hot lawyer boyfriend at work while he’s cutting hair.

Shiro has another close friend outside of work, an older housewife who he bonds with over their shared love of cooking, and they meet in an amusing way. Seeing the contrast between Shiro’s job as a lawyer and the hobby that takes up so much of his interior life is interesting, as well as the way the different personalities Shiro and Kenji complement each other. There are a few recipes in the book, and for the dishes that Shiro prepares that aren’t as fully described, it would be easy to track down a recipe online. I did find myself wondering towards the end of the book if I could start using my rice cooker more creatively. This was a pleasure to read, from the opening scenes to the next volume preview that includes a list of all the foods the reader can expect to see in volume 2.

Josei from Vertical, Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly and Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist

Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly by Kyoko Okazaki

It has been a very good year for fans of josei. Viz appears to be committed to disguising a few josei titles like Happy Marriage and Midnight Secretary as mature shoujo. I’m enjoying those very much, but I’m also very happy that Vertical is releasing josei as well, with the kind of more raw and uncompromising titles that you’d expect from them.

Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly
is a slap in the face for fans of titles like Paradise Kiss or Walkin Butterfly. While neither of those titles presented a totally romantic view of the fashion industry, Helter Skelter’s story of a dysfunctional model is packed with both rage and almost unrelenting ugliness. Liiko is a supermodel at the top of her game due to massive plastic surgery. She’s incredibly self-obsessed and driven to achieve even more by her surrogate mother/manager. Liiko’s beauty and charisma serves as a snare that draws the people around her into her incredibly warped world, resulting in some incredibly warped plot twists that all make sense. Hada, Liiko’s young manager finds her own personality changing as she becomes more and more subservient to her mercurial boss.

Liiko’s surgeries are starting to break down, and there’s an unsettling theme of body horror that is prevalent throughout the title, as Liiko’s facade literally begins to crack, and she becomes more and more desperate to preserve her beauty. She’s a charismatic monster, but as the story progresses and her condition worsens it is almost possible for the reader to start viewing a broken down supermodel as the embodiment of raging id, albeit an id with a really good shoe collection. Okazaki’s art is deliberately rough and skewed, showing the fashion world as anything but glamorous. Liiko has a few panels of looking polished and perfect when she’s modeling, but mostly all the characters are portrayed in a sketchbook type style, with exaggerated features and the occasional rictus-like expression that serves to underscore just how false fashion industry concerns are.

Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist by Asumiko Nakamura

This manga is an interesting mix of genres. There are elements of noir, thriller, psychodrama, and a meditation on the meaning of identity in this story about a novelist who gets caught up in plagiarism and a young woman who turns herself into a character from one of his stories. The manga opens with the body of a young girl falling from the top of a building. Shun Mizorogi, a famous author who affects traditional Japanese clothing is called to the hospital to identify the body of the girl Aki. Sitting in the hallway of the hospital is a girl who is apparently Aki’s twin. Nakamura weaves together an intriguing mystery with Mizorogi and the supporting cast, which includes his painfully naive niece, the detectives investigating Aki’s death, and Tsuji the editor who is suspicious about Mizorogi’s sudden late in life outpouring of productivity. Mizorogi tries to unravel the mystery behind the sudden appearance of Sakura Miki, and all of the mysteries surrounding the death of Aki are about to converge in a very interesting way.

Nakamura’s style is both delicate and detailed, with some panels reminding me a little bit of art nouveau. This sophisticated illustration style makes the psychosexual developments in the book even more unsettling. Utsubora has some amazingly unsympathetic characters, but it reminded me very much of classic noir works where the dark side of human nature is fully explored.

Both Helter Skelter and Utsubora are omnibus editions, and as always the production from Vertical is a treat. Both manga have the type of memorable stories and characters that will linger in the minds of readers long after they’ve finished reading. For challenging josei manga with plenty of psychological twists, you can’t go wrong with picking up both of these titles.

7 Billion Needles, Vol. 1

7 Billion Needles, Vol. 1 by Nobuaki Tadano

I was happy when I saw that Vertical was releasing some of their titles for the Kindle, but I already had print copies of the main series I was following like Twin Spica. I remember hearing interesting things about 7 Billion Needles, so I decided to give the first volume a try. Hikaru is a typical teenager, spending most of her time shutting out the world by keeping her headphones on. She’s a teenager with something other than angst churning inside her though. On a school trip she had an encounter with an extraterrestrial object that vaporized her body, leading to an alien intelligence named Ciel who reconstructed her body and establishes a symbiotic relationship with her.

Tadano does a good job establishing a slightly unsettling slice of life tone for this manga. Hikaru goes through her life someone aimlessly, and gradually more and more strange events begin to occur around her. Ciel makes contact and tells his host that he’s hunting an even worse threat – an entity called Maelstrom that might also be inhabiting a human. The title 7 Billion Needles refers to the needle in a haystack like task of hunting down an evil alien intelligence hiding somewhere in the human population. The manga is based on the Hal Clement novel Needle, and Tadano does manage to strike a good balance between the thought experiment vibe of classic science fiction and manga action as Hikaru and Ciel strike an uneasy truce and start hunting together.

The reading experience on my Kindle Paperwhite was just fine. I was intrigued by the first volume, and this is the type of digital series I can easily see myself stocking up on when I’m about to go on a trip and can’t haul around a bunch of physical copies of manga with me.