Comic Book Review: 47 Ronin

Comic Book Review: 47 Ronin by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai

The tale of the forty-seven ronin is one of the classics of Japanese culture.  It’s based on actual events that occurred in 1701-2.  Lord Asano was provoked into an offense that caused him to be sentenced to ritual suicide, his lands were confiscated, and his samurai warriors were made ronin (masterless) and forbidden from seeking revenge against Lord Kira, who was responsible for Asano’s downfall.

47 Ronin

Forty-seven of these men  decided to disobey that order, but their leader Oishi realized that Lord Kira would be expecting them to do that, and in fact had gotten extra bodyguards from a powerful relative because of this.  So the ronin began a year-long plan to lull Kira into complacency before their attack….

This version is ably illustrated by Stan Sakai, creator of Usagi Yojimbo, but without the more cartoony touches of that series.  His research into the period gives the comic weight.  The author of the series consulted with Kazuo Koike, creator of Lone Wolf and Cub, to make sure that the story stayed faithful to its roots.

There’s a considerable amount of violence, especially in the big battle scene at the end, but the depiction is relatively tasteful.  Oishi spends time in a red-light district as part of the plan.  And just in case you didn’t notice the mention before, this story could be triggery for suicide.  With this last, it’s important to remember that Shogunate era Japan had a culture very different from ours, and ritual suicide was viewed as a way of preserving one’s honor.

The series has just ended, but a collected volume will be out soon.  Highly recommended!

For those of you who prefer prose, here’s a review of The 47 Ronin, a book with that and other tales of Old Japan.  http://www.skjam.com/2013/07/02/book-review-the-47-ronin/

A movie called “The 47 Ronin” starring Keanu Reeves as a half-British 48th ronin and having about zero to do with the original story, will be out soon.

Webtoon Review: The Awesomes

Webtoon Review: The Awesomes

Long-time superhero comic book fans will be familiar with the phenomenon.  You’re enjoying a run of your favorite team,  all your favorite characters working together like a well-oiled machine, you could enjoy this forever.   Then suddenly everything changes.  All the good characters leave, your least favorite is suddenly the leader, and a whole bunch of new characters who seem like a bunch of losers come in.  It might be a mandated change by editorial, or the writer changed, or there’s a trademark issue, but your favorite super-team will never be the same again.

The Awesomes

That’s more or less the premise of The Awesomes, a Hulu original series that recently concluded its first season.    Mr. Awesome is the world’s greatest superhero, and he runs the world’s best super-team, which he named after himself.  But it’s come time for him to retire.   Unfortunately, Mr. Awesome’s hand-picked successor Perfect Man decides he wants to go solo instead, and the retiring hero reluctantly has to accept the request of his son, Professor Doctor “Prock” Awesome, to step up.  Prock is very bright and a huge superhero enthusiast, but he’s also a complete wimp with no leadership experience.  And yes, technically, he has a superpower.  But  every time he uses it, it brings him closer to death, and the doctor has told him not to do that.

Since the other Awesomes don’t respect Prock, they all quit except his one friend, the loyal but none too bright Muscleman.   Things immediately get worse when it turns out that Awesome Mountain, the Awesomejet, the Awesomes’ support staff, none of those things actually belong to the Awesomes.   They’re all on loan from the United States Government based on Mr. Awesome’s reputation.   Unless Prock can refill the roster with the aid of Concierge (the support staff member who didn’t say “not me” fast enough) within a very short time period, the Awesomes will be shut down.

Since no self-respecting superhero wants to be on a team Prock leads,  he eventually has to dive into the reject file for heroes that are powerful, but deeply flawed in various amusing ways.    Meanwhile, Mr. Awesome’s archenemy Doctor Malocchio decides this would be a really good time to break out of prison and start his master plan for world domination.

Can the Awesomes pull it together in time to save the other superheroes and defeat Malocchio?

The good:  The animation is pretty good for a low-budget series, and the voice acting is decent to excellent.  Dr. Malocchio’s actor is clearly having the time of his life.  Also, most of the heroes actually are heroic to the extent that they can manage it.   Too many superhero parodies in recent years have been mean-spirited, depicting costumed crime-fighters as anything but  good people.  The Awesomes may have problems that prevent them from being effective heroes, but they’re out there trying.  And many of the jokes are funny, always a good thing in a comedy.

Not so good:  There’s an unnecessary level of crassness to many of the jokes that turned me off–and the time Muscleman casually kills a couple of innocent bystanders and it’s supposed to be funny was not in any sort of taste.   The Jack Links Jerky ads also got to be too much.

Overall:  The crassness makes this series not an unreserved recommendation.  But that may endear it to the more immature viewers who are usually referred to as “mature viewers.”  Parents of younger viewers should watch it first before letting their kids see it.

Manga Review: Voice Over! Seiyu Academy #1

Manga Review: Voice Over! Seiyu Academy #1 by Maki Minami

Hime Kino isn’t much like her name would imply (“Hime” means “Princess.”)  She’s clumsy and tomboyish, and none too bright.  Plus, she’s got a voice like a gravel pit, that only gets worse when she tries to sound cute.  But she’s a huge fan of the Lovely Blazers magical girl anime series of series (basically a thinly veiled Pretty Cure) and especially the first star of the show, Sakura Aoyama.  Seems that Ms. Aoyama helped Hime out of a jam when she was little, quoting the show.  So Hime’s dream is to become a seiyuu (voice actor) and star as a magical girl on Lovely Blazers.

Voice Over! Seiyu Academy

So it is that Hime has come to Holly Academy High School, which has the nation’s top voice acting program.   Because of her odd voice and lack of proper training, Hime is placed in the “Stragglers” group with a ragtag bunch of misfits.  Plus Hime becomes very irritated with Senri, a naturally talented voice student who is Sakura Aoyama’s son, not that he seems to appreciate it.  Senri is moody, and seems to blow hot and cold towards Hime…when he can remember who she is!

Of course, this not being a grim and gritty manga, Hime discovers that she does have the potential to become a talented voice actor–in male roles!  How is she ever going to get that cute magical girl role on Lovely Blazers?

As I have mentioned before, one of the neat things manga does that American comics don’t do as well is series about people pursuing a career.    Readers can learn all about what it takes to be a firefighter, or an anesthesiologist, or in this case a voice actor.  (The manga creator was inspired to do this after her previous series, S*A, got animated and she met the voice-over people.)  For this series, the author has chosen the “enthusiastic rookie who doesn’t have the skills yet” version of the plot line.

Hime is specifically a little dim, which justifies the mistakes she makes and the need to give her info dumps every so often.   And irritable, so she’ll clash with the guy who is the obviously set up love interest.  This makes her seem pretty generic shoujo manga heroine, except for her voice, which the reader will have to imagine.  The Stragglers are pretty likable, but seem to have two character traits each, and it’s unclear if they’ll get more depth.

As opposed to Senri, who as the rival/love interest, is shown to have multiple facets and a backstory we will be learning about over the course of the series.  This “boy who the girl can’t get along with, but will eventually warm up to her” subplot also feels pretty generic.  But other bits feel fresher, such as the idol duo with one member who is unreasonably jealous of his partner’s attention.

The art is decent, and if the school uniforms seem overly busy, that’s deliberate and editorially mandated.

The primary audience for this series is teen-aged girls, but anyone with an interest in voice acting or voice actors should be able to enjoy it.

Open Thread: Books Is Your Worst Enemy: Eight Ways To Defeat It!

This headline brought to you by Widgets for Creating Misleading Headlines that People Will Click On.

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

First, a reminder that my giveaway contest is still running through 9/30/13, but not past that, so drop on by there.  http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/16/giveaway-autumn-giveaway-ends-september-30-2013/

And in keeping with the headline, kind of, tell me about a book you really struggled with finishing.

I personally have never gotten all the way through The Silmarillion.  It’s one of the very few books I actually fell asleep during the reading process, several times!

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer by Pat Toth-Smith

Disclosure:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wild Among Us

This is a coffee-table book of wildlife photographs, with chapters for each kind of animal and the stories of how the photographer got the pictures.    There are indeed some lovely photographs in here.

The stories will be familiar to anyone interested in wildlife photography.  The elaborate preparations,  the missed chances, the miserable conditions and the brilliant moments when that one perfect shot is available.   Ms. Toth-Smith has several terrifying encounters with wildlife, but usually comes out okay, except for that one time with the mosquito.  (There are no mosquito photographs in this volume.)

Depressingly, the photographer details how she needs to take extra precautions from human threats because she is a woman who often travels alone.  Lucky so far, but a few terrifying moments.

The book is kind of expensive at $45 suggested retail price; consider it as a gift for people who love wildlife photography or animals in general.

Book Review: Global Friendship Vol 5 United Kingdom – Zambia

Book Review: Global Friendship Vol 5 United Kingdom – Zambia by H. Aitoro

Disclosure:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.   (Technically I won Vol 3, but I’m certainly not going to complain about a free book!)

Global Friendship Vol 5

This is a part of a series of books aimed at children 4 to 7 years of age, to introduce them to the concept of international relations and cultural diversity.  It was published in the United Kingdom, so may be difficult to get hold of in the United States.    (You can tell by the little things, like calling your mother “Mum.”)  This volume covers the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,  Vietnam, West Samoa, Yemen and Zambia.

Each country gets an outline of its borders, a picture of its flag, introductions to typical children in their national costumes, pictures of a few landmarks and stock phrases in the local language.  The national costume of England is a gray business suit with bowler hat and umbrella, but his Welsh, Irish and Scots counterparts are a bit more colorful.

The art is simple, with all the children having identical faces.  The language is also simple, but be warned that most of the foreign words do not have pronunciation guides.  Parents should probably look up the words before reading this to their children.  The paragraphing is off on the introduction of children pages– Each new person speaking should have their own paragraph, even in children’s books.

At the end of the book is a world map that gives a better idea where these countries are.

This is, as said above, an introductory series of books for small children.  Ideally, your kid will become interested in one or more of the countries shown, so that they and their parents can learn more details about that place and its people.  Or maybe they’ll just start singing the “Small World” song over and over.

Movie Review: Viking Saga: The Darkest Day

Movie Review: Viking Saga: The Darkest Day

A fairly low-budget film based very loosely on the real-life events surrounding the Book of Kells.  Viking raiders have sacked the monastery at Lindesfarne, killing most of the monks.  In addition to their usual spoils, the Vikings desire a book.  This illuminated copy of the Bible is particularly well-done, even a masterpiece, and is considered almost holy in itself.  The one who possesses the book would hold great political power over the region.

darkest

To protect the book, the Lindesfarne monks sent it with two of their number, young Hereward and elderly Athelstan, on a perilous overland journey to the religious community of Iona.   The monks are assisted by a Saxon warrior named Aethulwulf, and there is a clash between the peace-loving monks and the pragmatic swordsman.   While the trio flees from a raider squad led by chief Hadrada, they run into a young woman staked out as bait for bandits…

The American DVD art is rather misleading, showing a horned Viking and making it look like this is a huge epic.    It’s a chase movie, with a small cast (a rugby club is reused as extras a couple of times) and shot on location in Wales.   The setting is gritty, with dried blood and filth accumulating on faces and clothing.  The fights tend to be short, brutal and un-cinematic.  (Some liberties are taken with the final fight scene that veer into the unrealistic.)

Religious themes play a big part in this movie, the Christian faith of the monks, Aethelwulf and a random doomsday cult they encounter, the Aesir worship of the Vikings, and the Celtic stories of the bound woman.  Hereward grows to understand that there is more than one way to serve God, and that protecting the people of the land is also important.  He also has a fever dream of Christ’s suffering during the Crucifixion.

The movie’s rated “R” for violence, and for some full-frontal male nudity (kind of blurry) in a non-sexual context at the beginning of the film.

I used a free Redbox rental to see this movie, and it was worth every cent.   Don’t go into expecting a big spectacle, great acting or fancy special effects, and you should be fine.

Comic Book Review: SMASH: Trial by Fire

Comic Book Review: SMASH: Trial by Fire by Chris A. Bolton & Kyle Bolton

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

SMASH

Life is hard for Andrew Ryan, short, wimpy fifth-grader in the city of Seatown.  Divorced parents, troubled older brother, bullies…and he has to settle for a homemade Defender costume sewn with love, instead of a cool storebought Defender costume like the other kids.  He dreams of becoming Sparrowhawk, a powered sidekick for Defender.

Life is good for Defender, Seatown’s greatest (and since Wraith retired, only) superhero.  Cool powers, a job he loves, the adoration of the people and a costume that kids want to wear for Halloween.   But he does have enemies, and he hasn’t realized quite how many.

The day comes when Defender’s archenemy Magus attempts to steal his powers.  Magus doesn’t get the powers, but in the explosion, Defender apparently dies, and somehow Andrew finds himself with most of Defender’s super-abilities.  Emboldened by the loss of Defender, the criminal element becomes active in Seatowh.    Andrew decides he’s going to have to step up as the superhero Sparrowh–SMASH!

Andrew Ryan reminds me of early Peter Parker in that his superpowers don’t make his life any easier.  He doesn’t have a good grasp of how to use them–he gets his super-name  from the property damage caused by his poor flying skills.  He doesn’t trust his older brother or the adults in his life, so keeps his identity secret, which means he still has to put up with the bullies (who are really persistent, and their leader Gareth clearly has a future in the financial industry given his fondness for fees and penalties.)

The police aren’t too thrilled with SMASH either, wanting to arrest him for his own good…or worse.  Plus Magus wants to retry that “steal the hero’s powers” thing, without the pesky not getting the powers himself thing.

The art is pretty good, and the writing is okay.  This book should be suitable for children of about nine and up, though parents may want to read it with younger ones and discuss when it is and isn’t appropriate to keep secrets from adults.  The production quality is high, so the book is good value for money.

Book Review: A Wilder Rose

Book Review: A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert

Disclosure:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

A Wilder Rose

Most of you are familiar with the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, about her life as a pioneer’s child.  If not the much beloved books themselves, then from the also beloved TV series starring Melissa Gilbert.  You may also be aware that scholars now believe that Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane was much more involved in writing the books than either woman ever told the public during their lifetimes.

This is a fictionalized biography of Rose, focusing on the period of 1929-1939, when the bulk of the Little House books were written.  Ms. Albert has based the story on information found in Rose’s journals and letters, plus the scholarly research of such non-fiction biographers as William Holtz, author of Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane.  It’s an appropriate approach, given that the Little House books were a fictionalization of Laura’s life.

While the rest of Rose’s long and interesting life is covered in asides (and a wrap-up chapter at the end,) the focus is on on the difficult mother-daughter relationship between two strong-willed women who were more alike than either would care to admit, despite their deep differences.  There’s also a theme of Rose’s foster children and how they helped her fill a need in her own life.

Rose knew many famous people in her own career as a writer, including living with Helen Boylston (author of the Sue Barton nurse series) for several years in Albania.  These connections turn up at odd moments to advance the story.

One bit that really struck me was Laura complaining how kids these days have it too soft…in the middle of the Great Depression.  Some things never change!  There’s also a look at how Rose’s politics became more Libertarian over time.

There’s a bibliography of the books written by Laura and/or Rose, as well as a list of books about them for further reading.  A list of real people mentioned in the book is included, and a caveat that names of less famous characters have been changed for privacy reasons.

Because it’s based on things that really happened, the ending may seem a bit weak, but it’s well-written and I would recommend this book to older teens and adults who fondly remember the Little House books.

Book Review: A Reader’s Book of Days

Book Review: A Reader’s Book of Days by Tom Nissley

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My review is based on the Advance Reading Copy; there may be small changes in the finished product.

A Reader's Book of Days

Unlike most of the books I review, I have not read every word of this volume, though I certainly intend to.  The format is a page a day of births and deaths of authors, interesting incidents in writers’ lives and fictional events that happened on that day.  In addition, there is an introduction to each month, and a recommended reading list of books that take place during that month or are thematically  appropriate.  Small illustrations by Joanna Neborsky break up the text a bit.

Like many people do with such books, the first date I checked out was my birthday, then an assortment of other relevant dates.  (For example, September 21st (today as I write this) is the birthday of both H.G. Wells and Stephen King.)  I’ve read a few of the monthly essays, and checked the reading list.

As might be expected, the tidbits shared on each day are somewhat scattershot, some fascinating, some trivial.  They’re short, and if one doesn’t please another comes right after.  There seems to be a wide selection, not just the standard dead white men authors being represented.  The introduction mentions an index, but that has not been included in the advance copy.

Overall, this strikes me as the sort of book you give to a reading-loving friend or family member as a Christmas present, and would work well for that purpose.

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