Manga Review: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10

Manga Review:  Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10 by Hiromu Arakawa.

In the country of Amestris, the highest form of science known is alchemy, the ability to transmute substances into another form.  It seems limited only by the Law of Equivalent Exchange “to obtain an object, something of equal value must be lost.”  Transmutation of humans is therefore forbidden.  But grief-stricken child prodigies Edward and Alphonse Elric decide to break this taboo when their mother dies prematurely.

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 10

They do not get their mother back; Ed loses an arm and leg in the process, and Al’s entire body is consumed.  Ed is able to preserve Al’s consciousness by binding it to an empty set of armor.  They both gain the ability to perform transmutation without the cumbersome necessity of an alchemical circle, and Ed has his missing limbs replaced by automail, a form of cybernetic prostheses.

Edward Elric is determined to find a way to restore Alphonse’s body, but to do this he’ll need information on the Philosopher’s Stone, an item that allegedly allows transmutation to be performed without equivalent exchange.  To do this, Ed joins the State Alchemist corps, becoming “a dog of the military” and codenamed “the Fullmetal Alchemist.”  He soon finds himself and Al enmeshed in a government conspiracy, and about to learn even more hard truths about the nature of alchemy.

Fullmetal Alchemist was originally published as a monthly shounen (boys’) serial in Monthly Shounen Gangan.  It did very well, spawning two anime series (one with a different ending than the manga, which was still being written at the time), video games and light novels.  Arakawa went on to write Silver Spoon, the anime of which I’ve previously reviewed.

In the volume I have at hand, Alphonse, the military team led by Roy Mustang (“the Flame Alchemist”) and Ling, prince of Xing (essentially China) have temporarily teamed up with Barry the Chopper (serial killer who’s also been bonded to a suit of armor) in an attempt to make the government conspiracy break cover.  They engage in battle with the homunculi Envy, Gluttony and Lust.  The battle between Roy Mustang and Lust is particularly heated.

Meanwhile, Edward and Major Armstrong head across the border into the wasteland  that was once Cselkcess before the unknown disaster that destroyed it overnight.  In the ruins of the capital city, they meet with an old friend who gives them information on the conspiracy.  Edward also meets a group of Ishbalan refugees, and learns the fate of the parents of his friend Winry Rockbell.

In addition, the Elric boys’ father Van Hohenheim resurfaces after many years.  He had abandoned the family some time before his wife’s death, and hadn’t been heard from until now.  Ed is…less than pleased to see him.  The readers know, but Ed does not, that Hohenheim looks almost identical to the person codenamed “Father”, creator of the homunculi.   That’s pretty suspicious.

This is a pretty nifty series.  The monthly format allows more plot and character development per chapter, and Arakawa doesn’t let that opportunity pass.  There are some heartwrenching moments, as well as exciting battles.  (Even in this volume, Roy finally manages to defeat Lust, but at a terrible cost.)  The art is distinctive and competent, if never spectacular.

Alchemy, which is basically magic, works by a set of rules which is easily understood, and seeming exceptions are carefully explained over the course of the series.

Less good is that some of the comedic bits get overused, particularly Edward Elric’s oversensitivity about his height.  And while yes, the particular usage of the Seven Deadly Sins for the homunculi is nifty, that particular structure for a villain group is nearly a dead horse by now.  (And Lust is the only female in the group.  So shocking.)

I understand there are omnibus volumes out now, which will make collecting the series faster.  Also, because this series was very popular, the hipper libraries may stock it in their teen rooms.

Recommended for fans of shounen manga.

And now, the first opening for the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood anime:

 

 

Book Review: Slow Dancing Through Time

Book Review: Slow Dancing Through Time by Gardner Dozois in collaboration with Jack Dann, Michael Swanwick, Susan Casper and/or Jack C Haldeman II.

The art of collaboration is an interesting one; two authors (rarely three) blending their skills to create a story neither could produce individually.  Ideally, the reader should be able to see the fingerprints of the collaborators, but not the seams between them.  Gardner Dozois wrote a number of fine collaborations in the 1970s and 80s, before taking on a full-time job as editor for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Slow Dancing through Time

This volume reprints fourteen of those stories, along with essays by the collaborators on the collaboration process, and afterwords for each story written by Mr. Dozois.  (It also has a list of his other collaborations if you want to hunt them down.)  The stories cover science fiction, fantasy and horror, with a couple of them on the edge between genres.

The first story is “Touring” (with Jack Dann & Michael Swanwick), in which Buddy Holly gets a chance to perform with Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.  It’s a Twilight Zone type story, although the language is saltier than Rod Serling would ever have been allowed to air.  The book ends with “Down Among the Dead Men” (with Jack Dann), a chilling tale of a vampire trapped in a Nazi concentration camp.  It was quite controversial at the time, and still packs a punch, despite where the horror genre went during the Nineties.

Standouts include  “A Change in the Weather” (with Jack Dann), a bit of fluff about dinosaurs that hinges on the last line (and provided the endpaper illustration), “Time Bride” (with Jack Dann) about the use of time travel to emotionally abuse a girl (and with a downer ending as the cycle continues), and “The Clowns” (with Susan Casper & Jack Dann), another chiller featuring a little boy who sees clowns that no one else can.

Some of these stories may be hard to find elsewhere, such as “Snow Job” (wth Michael Swanwick.)   This tale of a con artist and a time-traveling cocaine addict first appeared in High Times, which can be difficult to find back issues of.

Overall, the quality of the stories is good, but budding writers may find the essays on collaboration more useful to them.  Recommended to speculative fiction fans.

Manga Review: My Hero Academia #1

My Hero Academia #1 by Kohei Horikoshi

Izuku Midoriya’s dream is to become a superhero, like his idol All Might.   The problem with that idea is that Midoriya belongs to the minority of people on his world who were born without a Quirk, a superpower of some kind.  His former friend Katsuki Bakugo, who has a powerful Quirk and is naturally gifted, rubs this in at every opportunity, calling Midoriya “Deku” (no good qualities.)  Midoriya has been training hard, but even when he meets his idol, he’s told that there’s no way he can become a superhero if he doesn’t have any powers.

My Hero Academia

But then Midoriya proves he has the heart of a hero, attempting to rescue Bakugo from a powerful villain despite not having a chance of doing so.  All Might reveals that there is a way Midoriya can earn a Quirk, and go to U.A. High, the magnet school for aspiring superheroes.  Izuku Midoriya can turn around the “Deku” nickname, and make it mean “never gives up.”

This shounen manga homage to American superhero comics was something of a sleeper hit; Mr. Horikoshi’s previous two efforts had a lukewarm reception, and the immediately preceding series, Barrage, tanked.   So the online edition of Shonen Jump didn’t even bother running a preview when it debuted.  But this time Horikoshi is firing on all cylinders.

The setting is an alternate Earth where superpowers began appearing about five generations ago–it’s not clear if it’s the present day with huge changes, or a future where fashion and technology stagnated.  Eighty percent of the population was born with some sort of power, called Quirks.  Most Quirks are pretty minor (has tail, can attract small objects to hand from a foot away) but others are very impressive (Bakugo can create firey explosions from his sweat, Mount Woman can become a giant.)  There are many criminals who use their Quirks for evil, so there are professional superheroes who stop them.

There’s a lot to like about this series.  Deku (as everyone winds up calling him) is not the idiot hero so common in shounen, but a thinker who wins battles and solves problems with observation and planning.  Even when he earns the powerful Quirk “One For All” the power is difficult to use, so his brain is his greatest weapon.  And yet he still possesses the compassion and courage of a true hero.

There’s also a good supporting cast.  Bakugo makes a strong contrast as the kid who has had all the advantages handed to him by birth, and takes it as his rightful due.  His arrogance and sense of entitlement make him an ass, and he doesn’t lose much of that even after learning that no one at U.A. is going to put up with his crap.  He does, however, quit with the bullying after events in Volume Two.

Other classmates include nice (but dangerous) girl Ochako and the overly serious Iida, who get the most focus in this volume.   Unlike other school-based series, where we only follow the hero and a handful of his friends, every classmate is a distinctive person and many will get spotlights in future volumes.  There’s also an assortment of teachers with varying personalities.

The tone is closest to Bronze Age DC Comics; some bad things happen, but the general tone is optimistic, never overdosing on grimdark or angst.

As mentioned, there’s some bullying in the early chapters, and superheroic violence.  There’s also fanservice in the form of female superheroes wearing skin-tight costumes (but not every female character chooses to do so.)  Nothing a junior high or up reader can’t handle.

Highly recommended to fans of teen superheroes and those who like their comics light-hearted.

Manga Review: Bokurano (Ours)

Manga Review: Bokurano (Ours) by Mohiro Kitoh

Fifteen middle-schoolers are at summer camp when they discover a seaside cave and decide to investigate.  Inside, they find a man called Kokopelli, who is surrounded by electronic gear.  He claims to be developing a new game where you pilot a giant robot to defend the Earth against alien invaders.  He asks the children to help him test it, and they agree to become mecha pilots (but one boy prevents his little sister from participating.)

Bokurano

That night, the children find themselves transported to the cockpit of a giant robot (which will become known as Zearth) and watch as Kokopelli demonstrates how it works and defeats an enemy robot.  He then tells them it’s up to them now, and teleports them back to the beach, with a robot creature called Koyemshi as their guide.

Each of the children must now take their turn as pilot of Zearth, defending the blue planet of their birth.  But they soon learn that Kokopelli concealed important information from them, and the “game” is far crueler than they could have imagined.

Despite the age of the protagonists, this manga was aimed at the seinen (young men) demographic, and is not at all kid-friendly.  I’d rate it for senior high schoolers and up.

I’ll be discussing spoilers below,  so for those who prefer to go into series with some secrets preserved, I will say that this is a well-presented story, with disturbing themes.  The artist’s style works well with the awkward middle-school anatomy.  There is also an animated series that softens the ending a teensy.

SPOILERS beyond this point!

In a neat narration trick, the narration of the first few chapters is by Takashi, the first pilot and typical shounen genre protagonist.  It’s done in the past tense, making it sound as though Takashi is remembering it years later.   And then, after Takashi’s battle, Jun accidentally knocks Takashi off the 500 meter tall Zearth’s shoulder, and the narration cuts off mid-sentence.

Shocking, but that was an accident, right?  Until the second pilot just up and dies after their battle.  Turns out Zearth works on life force, and each child will die from piloting the mecha.  Oh, and the “alien invaders”?  They’re actually from parallel Earths, no better or worse than “our” Earth.  The losing robot’s universe is destroyed, and there’s an infinite number of “games” going on.

Meanwhile, the children (and a handful of adults who are let in on the secret) must live their own lives, and we learn about each pilot’s backstory and issues.  Some of them have normalish kid issues, others are Afterschool Special-worthy, and one story is Law & Order: SVU territory and may be triggery.

The volume at hand is number 11, the final book in the series.  We are down to our final pilot, Jun.  He’s not exactly the person you would have picked as Earth’s last defense, having been a real jerk in the earlier volumes.  But he’s learned that most of the assumptions he made to justify his horrid behavior were false, and seen the sacrifice that others made for him and the Earth.  And Koyemshi is finally opening up a little now that all the secrets are out.

Jun prepares for battle, but the enemy’s plan will give him one more cruel set of choices to make.  There is no escape from the cycle of death.

Anime Review: Argevollen

Anime Review: Argevollen

When Tokimune Susumu’s sister Reika is killed in a mysterious “training accident”, the boy decides to join the Arandas military as a Trail Krieger (basically walking tanks) pilot to work his way up the ranks in hope of eventually having enough access to learn the truth about her death.  He’s still very green when he is assigned to the 8th Independent Unit under Captain Ukyo Saimonji.  The unit is swiftly mobilized when the neighboring country of Ingelmia mounts an invasion, breaking through a previously impenetrable fortress.

Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen

On the way to the front, the 8th stumbles across a convoy that was ambushed by Ingelmian forces.  Tokimune is ordered not to reveal himself, but charges into battle when he sees there is a survivor of the convoy.  For his troubles, his mecha is shot to bits.  The survivor, rookie engineer Jamie Hazaford, decides to have Tokimune use the convoy’s cargo, a prototype war machine codenamed Argevollen.  Despite Tokimune’s inexperience, Argevollen is so advanced over the enemy mecha that he is able to defeat them easily.

Due to the emergency field activation, Argevollen now requires both Jamie and Tokimune to operate, and the shadowy Kybernes Corporation instructs their employee to stay with the 8th so the unit can be tested without having to rip out all the activation hardware.  Tokimune must learn to work with his machine, Jamie and his fellow soldiers if Arandas is not to go down in defeat.  But dark secrets abound, and Argevollen may be more connected to its pilot than was the intention.

Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen is a 24-episode anime series by the Xebec studio, and as of this writing, can be watched on the Crunchyroll website.

This series tends to come across as very generic for the mecha subgenre, especially in the first few episodes.  There are some notable features, however.  The first is that the series takes place in a world where aircraft were never invented.  This is never explained in a satisfactory manner, but does justify some of the military tactics used.  (The first episode has Ingelmia unveil Trail Kriegers that can jump over walls, the first time this has ever been done in history.)

While Argevollen is a “wonder weapon” it is made clear that it’s not a total game-breaker.  It’s like having one 21st Century tank in a World War Two setting, really effective when it works, but where are you going to get spare parts and a mechanic who can fix it?  Worse, when the production model is developed, Kybernes Corporation withdraws their software support.

The Ingelmian military are not the villains of the series, as such.  They’re mostly well-meaning soldiers obeying orders, told by their leader that they are “liberating” Arandas from its dictatorial king.  (“Just like they liberated my homeland,” notes one officer cynically.)  Even Richtofen, who becomes Tokimune’s self-appointed nemesis, is a pretty decent chap at first.  The real baddies are international arms dealers, a coalition of whom have been secretly exacerbating conflicts world-wide and convincing countries to start wars so they can sell weapons to both sides and test their latest creations.

Most of the characters are stock mecha anime types, for good or ill–this works least well with Jamie, who often comes across as much younger than she actually is, and best with Saimonji, whose stoic determination to spare the lives of his fellow soldiers leads him on a dark path, and an alliance of inconvenience.

The ending is rushed, with several plot threads brutally cut off, and a clear sequel hook; the series is selling poorly, I’m told, so we are unlikely to have that sequel.

Mecha fans are likely to find the show too generic for their tastes, with the fights somewhat downplayed.  Several episodes have little or no giant robot action at all!  But the more sober take and slower-paced episodes might appeal to viewers reluctant to watch more flashy mecha shows.  Parents should be advised that a couple of episodes have scenes where the characters are undressed (but tastefully blocked) and there is of course some bloody violence.  Probably not suitable below junior high.

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