Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6 by Yoshiki Nakamura

Quick recap:  Kyoko Mogami dropped out of school and moved to Tokyo to support her beloved Sho as he tried to break into show business.  A couple of years later, the now rising star let slip that he has never liked Kyoko back, just using her as a free servant.   Enraged, Kyoko has vowed to get revenge by defeating Sho at the one thing he truly cares about, public popularity.

Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Despite no training in the field or immediately obvious talent, Kyoko managed to get a internship at the LME talent agency, because she amused eccentric president Lory.   Kyoko and another young woman with difficulties due to attitude, Moko, have been assigned to the “Love Me” section where they do humiliating chores in an effort to get noticed.

At the beginning of this combined volume, Kyoko manages to pass an audition to acting school by flipping a schmaltzy script to let her acid tongue shine.  She doesn’t get the full scholarship, though, because Lory’s granddaughter Maria (whose home situation mirrored the script) interfered.  Maria and Kyoko bond, and Lory begins to get an idea of how bad Kyoko’s mother was.

Next up, a series of coincidences wind up placing Kyoko in a chicken suit on a TV variety show just as that show has Sho as the main guest.  When Kyoko hears Sho telling fibs to make himself sound more cool, she decides to use her anonymity to get revenge by making the heartbreaker look bad.  It doesn’t quite work out the way she planned, but does allow her to see a different side of her coworker Ren.

We also learn that Ren has deeper connections to Kyoko than she’s aware of, but keeping them a secret because of his work ethic.

The following story has Kyoko and Moko  trying out for a soft drink commercial, and we’re introduced to Moko’s self-appointed arch-nemesis Erika Koenji.  A spoiled rich girl, Erika has never forgiven Moko (real name Kanae, by the way) for getting the lead in a third-grade play over her, and has used her wealth and connections ever since to quash Moko’s acting aspirations.   This is at least partially responsible for Moko’s attitude problem and unwillingness to be friends with other girls.

Learning bits of this makes Kyoko, who has never had a female friend either, feel a connection to Moko, and their unique acting styles (plus some dumb luck) gets them the commercial spot.

The next big storyline has a cold going around the office, knocking out Ren’s manager, and since all the regular replacements are also sick, this leaves Kyoko with the job (while she’s also studying for a high school entrance exam–she really wants to complete her education.)  Kyoko isn’t very good at a talent manager’s main job duties, but her skillset comes in handy when Ren falls ill as well and needs a nurse.  Ship tease!

While Kyoko’s negative personality traits are still present, this collected volume allows her to show the positive ones as well.  The appearances of her (literal) “inner demons” are less frequent.   We also get some nice development for a few of the supporting characters, and hints of deeper backstory.  I like the balance of comedy and dramatic elements, and the romantic hints aren’t overwhelming the story.

The character art is good, but backgrounds are often sketchy or outright absent.

Kyoko’s absentee mother comes across as a real piece of work; parents of younger readers may want to discuss unreasonable expectations with their children.  Aside from that, this book is suitable for junior high kids (especially girls) on up.

Recommended to shoujo readers who like a little tartness in their heroines.

Movie Review: The Chinese Cat (1944)

Movie Review: The Chinese Cat (1944) directed by Phil Rosen

Six months ago, Thomas P. Manning, businessman and chess expert, was shot to death in his study, the door locked from the inside.  The police have been unable to solve the case.  Daughter Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury) is dismayed to discover that a new book has come out, a roman a clef that accuses her mother of the murder.

The Chinese Cat

Leah learns that famous detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is in town, and rushes to his hotel.  She instead finds his #3 son Tommy (Benson Fong) there, which turns out to be a good thing.  Tommy’s a sucker for a pretty face, and convinces his father to take the case.   However, the elder Chan must catch a flight out of town in 48 hours, so there’s no time to lose!

Charlie Chan was invented for the 1925 novel The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers.  He was inspired by real life Honolulu police detectives Chang Apana and Lee Fook.  Mr. Biggers did not like the stereotyped “evil Chinaman” so common in media of the time, so wrote Chan as a hero and clever detective.

Because of the way Hollywood worked back then, movie adaptations of Charlie Chan did not succeed until a white actor wearing heavy “Oriental” makeup was placed in the central role.  Chan was also made somewhat more “stereotypical” by spouting fortune-cookie aphorisms, a move Mr. Biggers did not like.  Nevertheless, Warner Oland’s performance was big box office, and Asian actors were allowed to be in lesser roles, such as Keye Luke as #1  Son Lee Chan.

When Mr. Oland died, the role was taken over by Sidney Toler, who played Chan with a bit more bite to his personality.  He enjoyed the role so much that when Fox stopped making Charlie Chan films, Mr. Toler purchased the rights and got Monogram to continue the series.

The Chinese Cat is one of these late-period films.  The budget had been slashed, and fog is used to minimize the amount of detail needed in outdoor scenes.   Much of the runtime is taken up by the comedy antics of feckless Tommy Chan (who is away from college for reasons he never actually explains) and chauffeur/taxi driver Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland.)  The latter character has also been somewhat controversial, as he plays into stereotypes about African-Americans at the time, servile and superstitious.  The act doesn’t come off as badly as in some of the other Chan films I’ve seen.

Ian Keith has a nicely sinister turn as Dr. Paul Recknik, the criminologist who wrote the accusatory book, and believes that police detective Harvey Dennis (Weldon Heyburn) is shielding Mrs. Manning because he’s sweet on Leah.

Charlie Chan, of course, quickly realizes the importance of a couple of clues the police overlooked, and uses his Chinatown connections to establish the real motive for the murder.  Then there’s a big showdown in a fun house that’s been closed down for the duration of the war.  (The World War Two setting is also reflected in the tight transportation schedule Chan has, and a mention of the Chinese War Relief Fund.)

Keeping in mind the time period in which this film was made and the cultural milieu, this is a fun, light entertainment piece.  Parents of younger viewers may want to explain the concepts of “yellowface” and limited roles for minority actors to their offspring.

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2017)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2017) by various

This is my blog’s fifth anniversary!  And thus this is my sixth annual review of the state of Weekly Shonen Jump, the online version of the popular manga anthology Weekly Shounen Jump.

Weekly Shonen Jump 2017

The online edition, being aimed at the North American audience, is substantially different from the Japanese newstand edition.  Several of the Japanese serials are not considered suitable for translation, and instead monthly serials from other magazines are brought in to fill pages.

Let’s take a look at what’s currently running.

Weekly

“One Piece” by Eiichiro Oda: The epic series about stretchable pirate Luffy D. Monkey and his wacky crew on a world that’s mostly ocean continues to be the tentpole for Shonen Jump.  The current story centers around cook and ladies’ man Sanji, who was kidnapped by his abusive birth family to be married into the Big Mom pirate clan.  The arc appears to be winding down as the wedding went about as well as one written by George R.R. Martin, and now the Straw Hats crew and their temporary allies are attempting to escape Big Mom’s territory.  That will depend on whether Sanji and his would-be bride Pudding can create the perfect substitute wedding cake in time!  Cast bloat continues to make this series move at a snail’s pace, but oh! what characters.

“My Hero Academia” by Kohei Horikoshi: Deku, formerly one of the Quirkless minority on a world where 80% of people have superpowers, has been gifted with One For All, a rare transferable quirk that will someday make him the world’s greatest superhero, if it doesn’t kill him first.  That’s why he’s enrolled in the superhero training school Yuuei High, along with a number of other niftily powered teens.  This series has just finished an arc in which Deku aided in rescuing a little girl from an attempt to make the Yakuza big time again by wiping out superheroes.  The baddies’ plans were smashed, but not without cost.  This continues to be one of the best battle manga around, with plenty of neat characters and fun battles.  Plus it’s nice to see optimistic treatment of superheroes.  The last arc did, however, kind of shortchange the female heroes.

“Dr. Stone” by Riichro Inagaki & Boichi: For reasons yet unknown, humanity was petrified nearly four thousand years ago.  A handful of people have been unpetrified, most prominently Senkuu, a high school science prodigy.  He now strives to bring the wonders of scientific knowledge and technology back to this world of stone.  This series is new for 2017, and is notable for its emphasis on smarts and facts as a way to get ahead.  (The first few chapters made it look like Senkuu’s strong but not very bright friend Taiju was the protagonist, but he’s since been moved offstage.)  For the last umpteen chapters, Senkuu has been trying to gain access to a primitive village whose priestess may have information he needs–if he can cure her of her mysterious illness.  His rapid introduction of useful things like glass and magnetism helped, but since this is a shonen manga, it all came down to a fighting tournament.

“Black Clover” by Yuuki Tabata: In a world where everyone can use magic, Asta was the only person who seemed to have no mana or talent.  That is, of course, until his power turned out to be summoning anti-magic swords!  Asta has joined the Magic Knights misfits squad known as the Black Bulls, and dreams of becoming the Wizard King!  After several attacks by a terrorist group known as the Eye of the Midnight Sun, a strike force has been cobbled together of the most effective Magic Knights (plus Asta) to attack what appears to be the Eye’s headquarters.  This series is kind of generic, and average in quality, but does the battle manga thing well enough to keep people reading.

“Food Wars: Shokugeki no Souma” by Yuuto Tsukada & Shun Saeki: Souma Yukihira is a cocky young chef being trained at the prestigious Totsuki Culinary Institute, a cooking-obsessed high school with a 1% graduation rate.  He must battle to prove his skills are worthy of being a top chef.  Currently, we are finally approaching the finals of the team shokugeki (cooking battle) between the Elite Ten under the evil Director Azami and the rebels led by Souma.  With both sides whittled down, we may next year finally see Erina in action, as her cooking ability has been hyped since Chapter Two without ever being seen in the present tense.  The ecchi elements have been toned down since the early chapters, but we still do see naked women (and men) from time to time.

“Robot X Laserbeam” by Tadatoshi Fujimaki: Also new for 2017!  A stoic boy, Robato Hatohara, nicknamed “Robo” for his apparent lack of emotion, discovers that he has a special gift for golf, and then that it is the one thing that truly excites him.  By the creator of the hit series “Kuroko’s Basketball”, this series tries to do the same thing with professional golf.   Amazingly, after Robo is introduced to the love of the sport, the manga skips the entirety of his high school career, and we’re now reading Robo’s professional debut match against a South African giant.  I find most of the characters, except lovable goof Dorian Green (the afore-mentioned giant) bland and uninteresting, but the creator has a good reputation.

“We Never Learn” by Taishi Tsuitsui: Also new for 2017!  Nariyuki Yuiga comes from an impoverished family and despite not being above average intelligence, uses hard studying and learning techniques to get excellent grades, just below math genius Rizu Ogata and humanities expert Furuhashi Fumino.  If he could get the special VIP Scholarship recommendation from his school, Nariyuki might be able to get into a first-class college, make it into a decent job and move his family up to middle class.  The principal dangles this prospect in front of the young fellow, but first he must successfully tutor Rizu and Furuhashi, as they want to get into colleges that specialize in majors the opposite of their strong suits!  As the teens begin to learn how to deal with their studies, they also begin developing feelings for each other.  This “harem” romantic comedy has since added a third girl for Nariyuki to tutor, athlete Uruka Takemoto, as well as a couple of other young women that probably aren’t really in the love market but provide other fanservice.  I find this series a bit cringey, especially as it’s moved away from the study skills premise, and I would like to see more male friends for Nariyuki.  The fanservice art is nice.

“The Promised Neverland” by Shirai Kaiu & Demizu Posuka: Children raised in a happy orphanage discover that instead of being adopted by loving families, they’re actually being raised to be eaten by demons.  The children have finally escaped from the orphanage, only to discover that the person they were hoping to meet to take them to safety hasn’t been at the rendezvous point in years.  Emma and Ray are currently proceeding to the next rendezvous point with a nameless older survivor, but Emma abruptly finds herself in a demon noble’s canned hunt.  This series continues to be excellent.

Monthly

“Blue Exorcist” by Katou Kozue: Rin Okumura may be the son of Satan, but he defies his demonic heritage to join a school for demon-hunting exorcists.  Currently, Mephisto has been badly wounded, weakening the barriers between Earth and Gehenna.  More personally, Rin’s brother Yukio appears to be going over to the dark side, may be the one who shot Mephisto, and is invited to join the Illuminati.  This time we may be looking at a permanent threat escalation.

“Seraph of the End” by Takaya Kagami, Daisuke Furuya & Yamato Yamamoto: After a plague wipes out most of humanity, the remainder are either enslaved by vampires, or ruled by armies that use demons as weapons.  Yuichiro escapes the vampires and joins the Japanese Imperial Demon Army to avenge his fallen friends, but discovers over time that the JIDA might not be the good guys either.  Currently, Yuichiro has reunited with his old friend Mikaela, who has become a (weak) vampire himself, and they have allied with the remains of Yuichiro’s squad and some rebel vampires against the true threat…God?  Seriously?

“One Punch Man” by ONE & Yusuke Murata: Saitama was once an unemployed loser who dreamed of becoming a hero that could defeat any opponent with one punch.  After some training, he became exactly that, but learned to his sorrow that ultimate power is ultimately boring.  This superhero parody is considerably deeper than you might have guessed.  Currently, it’s in a long arc where the Hero Association faces two threats: the Monster Association that is its opposite number, and Garou, a man who hates stories where heroes always win.

“Boruto: Naruto Next Generations” by Ukyo Kodachi & Mikio Ikemoto: A sequel to the enormously popular Naruto manga, this one features his son Boruto and other second generation ninja in a world that has been at peace for a while.  Currently, Boruto and his team have been diverted from their ninja gadget testing mission to check up on some missing scouts.  They’ve been told not to engage any enemies, but this is after all a shounen manga.  This series has been surprisingly good for a cash-in sequel.

“Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc V” by Shin Yoshida, Masahiro Hikokubo & Naohito Moyashi: Yuya Sakaki is a Duel Monsters (children’s card game) player with multiple personalities (that at some point were actual people) who’s come back from the future in search of the GOD card that will end the world unless properly contained.  I think.  This series is a confusing mess.

“Hunter X Hunter” is back on hiatus due to creator bad health, and it looks like the “Ruroni Kenshin: Hokkaido Arc” has been suspended indefinitely as the creator has been arrested for possession of child pornography.  (Ow.)

Despite some relative duds, Weekly Shonen Jump online still remains one of the best bargains in manga, with several excellent series.

Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners

Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners by Ron David

Opera is one of the great art forms, blending theater and music into a powerful emotional experience.  But it also has a stereotype of being incomprehensible melodrama that boring rich people drag their unwilling spouses to.  And many of the books about opera are written by scholars who got their Doctor of Musicology degrees in the subject and expect you to follow along.

The History of Opera for Beginners

This volume is by an interested layman who presumes that you have very little knowledge on the subject and want a good place to start.   It begins with the roots of opera in older forms of musical theater, then moves on to Italy in the Sixteenth Century, where the opera as such was invented.  It covers the spread of opera across Europe and the major composers that created the most popular or influential pieces.

Then there’s a section on the part of opera that’s most accessible to the casual fan, the singers.  It talks about what castrati were, and the historical performers we know about because the audience wrote about them.  There’s rather more material about singers who have been recorded, starting with Enrico Caruso (who should probably replace Columbus as the official Italian-American holiday celebration.)

This is followed by a selection of the “best” operas with plot descriptions (most fit in a single page as opera tends to very thin plotlines.)

The book winds up with the author’s thoughts on where to proceed if you’re interested in more scholarly approaches to opera, a bibliography, and a guide to his favorite Youtube clips.

The general tone is snarky humor, enhanced by comedic art from Sara Woolley.

Recommended primarily for casual music fans, bright teenagers who want to know more about opera, and as a gag gift for opera lovers.

Speaking of Youtube, let’s all enjoy Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”).

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Manga Review: One Piece #27 & #28

Manga Review: One Piece #27 & #28 by Eiichiro Oda

On a world covered with oceans, pirates run rampant.  Not so many years ago, the so-called King of Pirates, Gol D. Roger, was executed, but before he went, he proclaimed that he’d left all his fabulous treasure in “one piece.”  It’s assumed that finding that treasure would make you the new Pirate King.  One of the pirates looking for that treasure is Luffy D. Monkey.  As a boy, he ate the Gum-Gum Fruit, a “Devil Fruit” that made his body like rubber, able to stretch at will, at the cost of being unable to swim.  (not a good thing for someone who travels on water!)

One Piece Volume 27

Enthusiastic but not overly bright, Luffy set sail to assemble a pirate crew full of wacky characters.  The Straw Hat Pirates sail the seas in search of the One Piece and their own individual goals, and along the way they help people–especially if it involves treasure or a good scrap!

This manga series has been running in Weekly Shounen Jump since 1997, and is still going strong after twenty years.  The general plot structure is that the Straw Hats  sail into a new area, meet a new cast of local characters, discover a problem in the area that must be solved (usually through a series of battles), resolve the problem, then sail off.  Every so often, a new member will join the crew.  This structure has served the series well, and Oda often brings older characters back for cameos or extended stays.

The series is primarily comedic, and often has laugh out loud moments, but also has heartbreakingly dramatic passages.  The art is cartoony, well suited to the many characters that have transformation powers of some kind.

The volumes at hand, #27-28, are set in the Skypiea arc.  Having learned of the existence of the White-White Sea, a semi-solid to solid cloud area, the Straw Hats modified their ship, the Merry Go, to be able to survive being launched into the air to visit this natural wonder.  They arrive in Skypiea, a cloud island within that sea.

One Piece Volume 28

At this point in the series, the Straw Hats crew consists of:  Luffy (captain), a jolly fellow with stretching powers; Zolo (mate), a former bounty hunter and master of the Three-Swords fighting style; Nami (navigator), former thief and the greediest member of the crew, she wields a staff with some weather modifying powers; Usopp (sharpshooter), a cowardly liar who’s good with distance weapons and has some gadgeteering skills; Sanji (cook), a ladies’ man who fights with his feet; Chopper (doctor) a young reindeer who ate the Human-Human Fruit and became a were-human; and Nico Robin (historian), an archaeologist who ate a Devil Fruit which allows her to manifest extra body parts…anywhere she wants.

Shortly after arrival in Skypiea, the Straw Hats are declared criminals by the mysterious “Kami” of the island.  They do have some allies, however, including “Sky Knight” Ganfor, the previous Kami.  He explains that “kami” is normally just the title for the ruler of Skypiea.  And it’s time for some tragic backstory.

It seems that objects from the surface world that come up to the White-White Sea are called “varse”.  And the most valuable varse is ground that can grow plants, extremely rare in these parts.  But about 400 years ago, half of a large surface island somehow got blown up into the clouds and fused with Skypiea.  Yay, land boom!  The bad news was that the land was already inhabited with surface dwellers.

The sky people drove the surface dwellers from their home and took over.  The displaced people became the Shandians, a resentful tribe that trains in guerilla tactics to regain their homeland.  Ganfor was trying to negotiate a peaceful solution (not helped by Shandian leader Wyper being a hard-liner) until six years ago, when Eneru and his vassals arrived.  They’d heard of a resource the Skypieans had (gold) that Eneru wanted (but not for the reasons you’d think.)

Eneru defeated Ganfor, making him the new kami, and took over the island.  His rule is harsh and tyrannical; no one can enter the forest beyond which Eneru lives, outsiders are forbidden, and speaking against the government is a crime.  But you can still oppress the Shandians if you like, Eneru’s cool with that.

Eneru’s four vassals are a step up from the opponents the Straw Hats have faced up to this point.  They are among the minority of sky people who are born with “mantra”, a sense that allows them to predict people’s movements by listening to their bodies.  This is a distinct advantage in combat!

Eneru also controls the Heavenly Warriors that used to work for Ganfor; they’re loyal to the office, not the person.  And Eneru himself (though it’s not explicitly stated in these volumes) is not just able to control lightning, he is lightning.  This makes him so much more powerful than any other sky person that he considers himself a true “kami” (god.)

The Shandians are anti-Eneru, but refuse to ally with any sky people or surface people due to pride.  Thus they’re as likely to attack people who want the same goals as their actual enemies.  Eneru finds this hilarious, and when the Upper Yard is invaded by those who oppose him, he treats the whole thing as a game.

There’s a bit of moral complexity here; Ganfor sincerely wants to make peace with the Shandians, but comes from a place of privilege, wanting them simply to forget the wrongs of the last four centuries and behave as though the Skypieans are doing them a favor by sharing the land.  Wyper, meanwhile, can only see the wrongs done his people, and demands revenge rather than compensation.  He refuses to compromise, even when it would improve the lot of his followers.

There’s some fun use of powers and unusual weapons–this arc is where the “dials”, seashell-like objects that can store qualities like impact, heat or scent for release later, are introduced.  And as so often in One Piece, there are amazing battle scenes.  All the Straw Hats get moments to shine.  There’s even a bit of movement on the “Missing Century” plotline, as Nico Robin discovers relics from that period.

However, because these are middle chapters in an ongoing battle arc, people who want complete stories might find these volumes less than satisfying.  (And Chopper’s victory is pretty much handed to him rather than won.)

There’s also a “splash page” story concerning the villain of a previous plotline, Wapol, going from homelessness to success as a toy manufacturer.  He might not be a king any more, but he’s rich and has a hot wife.

Overall, One Piece is a fun and engaging manga with twenty years of continuity to catch up on.  I especially like that it took fifty volumes for a female character whose primary motivation was being in love with the male hero (Luffy) to show up, and then she turned out to be a parody of that kind of character.  (On the other hand, there’s some transphobic “humor” in some volumes that does not sit well with many readers.  Recommended for teenagers and people who love shounen manga.

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Book Review: Merton of the Movies

Book Review: Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson

Simsbury, Illinois might just be a wide spot in the road, but twice a week, the Bijou Palace shows movies made in far-off Hollywood.  Perhaps the most fanatical attendee of these showings is young Merton Gill, assistant shopkeeper at Gashwiler’s Emporium (general store.)  Merton has studied these film stories carefully, subscribes to several photoplay magazines, and has taken a correspondence course in acting.  (With a specialization in face journeys.)  While ordinary folks only idly think of going to Hollywood to be in movies, Merton (aka Clifford Armytage) is going to actually do it!

Merton of the Movies

This comedic novel is by the author of Ruggles of Red Gap and was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919.  It was rapidly turned into a hit play, then released as a book in 1922.  There have been three movie versions, the 1947 one starring Red Skelton.

Merton arrives in California at the height of the silent era, woefully unprepared for the realities of the movie business.  He only wants to work for one studio, the ones that put out a Perils of Pauline style adventure serial starring his favorite actress, Beulah Baxter.  An idealist, he hasn’t noticed how sanitized the magazine articles about the stars of Hollywood are.  (One of the running gags is the stock phrases used in every interview.)  For quite some time, he doesn’t even make it past the casting office’s waiting room.

While cooling his heels day after day, Merton becomes acquainted with (quite against his will) “Flips” Montague, a sassy, irreverent young woman who’s been in show business all her life.  She’s not exactly film-heroine pretty, and far too familiar in her manner.  Merton can’t quite fathom why she insists on acting as though they were warm acquaintances.

I should mention here that Merton has no sense of humor; he recognizes that such a thing as comedy exists, but doesn’t grok it.  Slapstick, insults, wordplay, none of them seem funny to him, and he goes through life entirely seriously.

Finally, just as his monetary situation was looking grim, Merton gets a chance to be an extra in a cabaret scene.  He’s supposed to be suffering from ennui due to the Blight of Broadway.  As it happens, Merton is very uncomfortable in the scene, especially as he’s being forced to smoke cigarettes even though he detests the habit.  This makes him look perfect for that scene, and Miss Montague takes notice.

After that, there’s a long dry spell until a day’s extra work gives Merton just enough money to choose between paying rent and eating.  He chooses eating, then ingeniously uses the studio’s backlot resources to have shelter for the next week.   Down to his last nickel, Merton is stunned to run into Flips again at her part-time job as stunt double for Beulah Baxter.  (Ms. Baxter had claimed to do all her own stunts.)  He’s even more stunned to learn that Beulah is married…for the third time.

Flips (who prefers not to use her given name of Sarah Nevada Montague) treats Merton to breakfast and learns his life story…and realizes she’s found a gold mine.  She stakes Merton a couple of weeks rent, then contacts a director friend of hers.  She and Mr. Baird agree on a plan.  Merton will star in a movie, being told he’s playing a straight role, and not being allowed on the set for any scenes not involving his character.

Baird fibs to Merton that he wants to move up from comedy to serious films, and our hero buys it.  Clifford Armytage is on the rise at last!  Before the first film is released, Baird has Merton in a second movie with the same conditions.  Merton does have some suspicions…if this is a serious movie, why is the notorious funnyman with the crossed eyes involved?  But he puts them aside, after all he’s still a rookie and the director surely knows what he’s doing.

Shooting wrapped up, Baird signs Merton to a three-year exclusive contract (carefully looked over by Miss Montague.)  Merton realizes he’s fallen in love with Flips, and she likes him a whole bunch too…but the first movie with Clifford Armytage as straight man in a slapstick comedy is about to hit theaters.  Will this make Merton a star, or break his heart?

Good stuff:  There are many genuinely funny bits, and it’s fascinating to have a window into the Hollywood of the silent era.  There are things that are very much the same: Merton overhears as a worthy film idea is watered down and butchered to match what the moneymen think the audience wants, until the final product is unrecognizable.  There’s also bewailing the intelligent movies that don’t get made because there’s no money in them.

Not so good:  Period racism, sexism and ethnic prejudice.  One of the standout lines here is “He knows all about money, even if he doesn’t keep Yom Kippur.”  Flips is kind of an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope some folks are tired of.  And there’s animal abuse by a film crew, true to the period.

Recommended to movie fans, especially those interested in the silent era.

And now, the trailer for the 1947 film:

Book Review: Goblin Quest

Book Review: Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines

Jig has always lived in the mountain, only hearing third-hand stories about the outside world.  Even stepping outside the goblin warrens is dangerous, why risk going any further?  Still, he dreams of being promoted from his lamplighter duties (a child’s job) to a patrolling warrior.  Jig’s smart, but that counts little in goblin society when he’s also small and weak, with poor vision.

Goblin Quest

Then  one day Jig is bullied into acting as a scout for a lazy patrol, only to find himself captured by adventurers who have killed the rest of the goblin patrol.  A captive, Jig is forced to become a guide for the party of four.  There’s Prince Barius, a younger son touchy about his honor and his low status among his siblings; Ryslind, Barius’ brother whose magic seems to be adversely affecting his sanity; Darnak, a dwarven cleric and tutor to the brothers, and Riana, an elvish pickpocket who was also dragooned  into serving Barius.  It seems they’re after the Rod of Creation, a powerful artifact that supposedly created the mountain itself.  Jig’s chances of survival just keep dropping!

This is the first volume in the “Jig the Goblin” trilogy of comedic fantasy novels by Jim C. Hines, who was a Guest of Honor at Minicon 52.  It’s heavily based on the kind of “kill monsters and take their stuff” style of fantasy common to games of Dungeons & Dragons, and in specific seems to be parodying aspects of the Dragonlance series of D&D tie-in novels.

One of the common hallmarks of comedic fantasy is to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t the typical hero of heroic fantasy stories, and in this case, it’s one of the “monsters” who would normally be cannon fodder to allow the protagonists to show off their prowess before getting to really tough opponents.

Jig is initially only sympathetic because of his underdog status; he’s cowardly, selfish and all too willing to let others suffer or die in his place.  As the story progresses, Jig has his horizons expanded as he learns about the adventurers from their perspective, and realizes that goblin social norms put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already had due to their small size and lack of technology.  He even finds a god!

Meanwhile, the adventurers are no heroes; Prince Barius’ motive for seeking the Rod is entirely self-centered, Ryslind has a hidden agenda, Darnak is at least honorable, but must serve the brothers’ will, and Riana is only serving due to a threat of prison or execution.

And that’s not getting into the truly strong and evil monsters that wait deeper within the mountain.

Once Jig is dragooned into the party, the plot is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl with some backtracking towards the end.  The back half of the book reads quickly, and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

Recommended primarily for fans of the tabletop role-playing games the setting is based on.

Manga Review: Futaba-kun Change! Vol. 1

Manga Review: Futaba-kun Change! Vol. 1 by Hiroshi Aro

Futaba Shimeru is a junior high school student whose voice has recently changed, and has started noticing girls, especially his pretty classmate Misaki.  One day, a wrestling club teammate gives Futaba a girlie magazine, and the young fellow retreats to the boys’ room to read it.  The revelation of what girls look like under their clothes is exciting, and Futaba realizes this would apply to Misaki as well, and he becomes so excited he passes out.

Futaba-Kun Change Vol. 1
Actually the Studio Ironcat cover for the sixth story, depicting both Futaba forms at the same time.

When Futaba wakes up, he is startled to discover that he himself is now possessed of female anatomy, and partially undresses to check that yes, it’s for real.  It’s at this point Futaba’s wrestling teammates burst  in looking for him and find a half-naked girl instead.  Some scary moments and the discovery that the transformation is not permanent later, Futaba arrives home and discovers that (unbeknownst to him) his entire family switches sex on a regular basis!

This 1990s shounen manga series was a fairly blatant “follow the leader” of Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2, but soon goes off in its own direction.  Most notably, while Ranma’s female form was treated more or less as a flesh disguise for the very male Ranma, Futaba’s two forms are both natural to his/her biology and over the course of time he/she is able to switch mental gears as quickly as the physical changes occur.  There’s also more attention to what those physical changes involve, which leads to some body function humor over the course of the story.

The series ran eight volumes with an abrupt genre change in the last volume; the author had to wrap it up because of falling sales.  It was originally brought to the U.S. by Studio Ironcat but has long been out of print.  This new version is only available on Kindle.  Nipples have been erased, and there are a couple of instances where the junior high school is referred to as “university.”

Most of the characters have over the top personalities for the sake of humor; for example, Misaki is very superstitious, while her friend Negiri is a money-grubber.  This is less pleasant in the case of Futaba’s older sister Futana, who is very lecherous (even hitting on Futaba!) and Mr. Sabuyama, a teacher who lusts after teenage boys.  The humor also relies heavily on selective obliviousness; not only has Futaba somehow failed to notice his entire family changing sex, but the very distinctive school principal runs around in a superhero costume every so often and his own daughter fails to make the connection.

There’s a lot of male-oriented fanservice, with the occasional pretty boy tossed in.  There’s also quite a bit of slapstick violence–especially in the battle tournament in later volumes.  The sexual harassment humor has not aged well.

Recommended (with reservations) for gender-bender comedy fans, and those who like Nineties manga.

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