Anime Review: Shiki

Anime Review: Shiki

Megumi, post vamping

Megumi Shimizu hates living in an isolated mountain town in the middle of nowhere.  She wants to move to the big city with its bright lights and fashion centers.  So she dresses like a fashion model and yearns for the hot big city boy who moved in last year.  She feels unappreciated by the hicks in her village, and wonders if she can get in good with the posh-looking people who just moved into the European-style mansion on the hill.

Yuuki Natsuno hates living in a hick town too.  Ever since his hippie wannabe parents moved the family here, he’s been looking forward to getting back out.  He’s trying to ignore the crazy stalker girl in the silly outfits, but she’s not taking the hint.  At first, he denies that the strange things going on in Sotoba are any of his business.

Dr. Toshio Ozaki doesn’t mind living in Sotoba, but he did back when he was a teenager.  Right now, he’s got other things on his mind.  Suddenly, a number of villagers are falling ill, suffering from a form of anemia that is invariably fatal.  It doesn’t seem to be caused by any known infectious agent, but if it’s not a disease, what is it?

Shiki is a horror anime (based on manga) about a small town that is rapidly being taken over by vampires (or “shiki” as they come to be called.)  And when I say “horror”, I don’t mean just the genre, I mean that it is genuinely horrific.  Both the shiki, who are not all bloodthirsty monsters at heart, and the humans, some of whom are bloodthirsty monsters at heart, find themselves doing anything they must to survive.  There’s a lot of blood onscreen, particularly in the second half once the existence of the shiki becomes more generally known.

There are a number of very good bits–the shiki are smart enough to only officially move into the neighborhood after the anemia cases start, to throw off the timeline for anyone who might guess the truth, and quickly replace the government officials who might alert the outside world.  Also, there are different types of shiki with slightly different rules, which hides some of the obvious patterns.  Dr. Ozaki, in turn, proves to be far more resourceful than he first appears.

On the other hand, many of the character designs are silly-looking, particularly some people’s hair.  Megumi has the excuse of being a wannabe fashionista, but some of the others–wow.  One of the female vampires dresses in fanservice outfits almost exclusively, although that may be overcompensation on her part.  Some vampire fans may be frustrated by the relatively slow opening; it takes several episodes before the action parts of the plotline kick in.

If you liked Salem’s Lot or are a vampire story fan in general, I can recommend this as a good example of the genre.  The gory bits, however, mean that this is not suitable viewing for small children or the sensitive.

Anime Review: Muromi-san

Anime Review: Muromi-san

Muromi

Takurou “Takkun” Mukoujima is a quiet lad who enjoys fishing off a lonely pier.  (Apparently the fishing is normally terrible, since we never see any other fishermen there.)  One day he catches a green-haired mermaid named Muromi.  She quickly takes a liking to Takkun, though he’s not as impressed with her, and soon she and her wacky friends are hanging around the pier too.

Namiuchigiwa no Muromi-san (“Muromi of the Seashore”) is a thirteen-episode animated series based on a gag manga by Keiji Najima.  Much of the humor derives from Muromi not quite thinking the way humans do.  Her fish side is very strong within her, and she’s functionally immortal, so she will often say or do things that humans wouldn’t.  Even when Muromi is acting human, she’s what the Japanese call “wagamama”, self-indulgent and capricious, and everyone else just has to put up with that.

This mostly leads to funny moments, such as Muromi being helpless in the face of penguins one-tenth her size because she’s a fish.  But there’s also some pretty tasteless fanservice jokes dealing with fellow mermaid Fuji’s large breasts, including a protracted breast-mauling sequence from the jealous Muromi.  Also, Muromi and the other mermaids have some odd turn-ons.

Despite what might look at first like kid-friendly character designs, this one is for older teens and up.  The episodes are only twelve minutes long, so you won’t waste too much time sampling an episode to see if you like it.  Currently available on Crunchyroll.

Manga Review: Triage X

Manga Review: Triage X by Shouji Sato

Triage X

This is an entry in the ever popular “vigilante justice” sub-genre.  Mochizuki General Hospital is the secret headquarters of Black Label, a small group of assassins that target “seats of disease” that spread the cancer of crime.  All but one of the field agents are well-endowed young women, with a token high school boy.  (The head of the group is an old, terminally ill man.)

As is traditional in vigilante fiction, the police are either useless (having been bought off by wealthy criminals) or stupid (so they don’t figure things out as fast as the vigilantes do.)  The main police character, Detective Tatara, is more in the latter category, though he might get something done if he weren’t constantly on the same investigations Black Label is.

The violence levels are about what you’d expect for a vigilante series (TRIGGER WARNINGS: torture, attempted rape), but the fanservice is overdone.  The naked shower scene is excusable as a plot point to reveal the male lead Arashi’s horrifically scarred body (and that he, unlike his female teammates, does not have nipples.)   But frequent and intrusive shots of underwear, cleavage and suspiciously clingy clothing leave no doubt that the primary audience is horny young men.

Aside from the medical terminology and some use of chemicals, it’s a fairly standard vigilante plotline with villains who are cardboard cut-out evil and nothing creative in the way of plans.  If this is your first vigilante series, and you likes you some gratuitous fanservice, it’s not bad, but it’s nothing to write home about either.  (This does not preclude better villains in future volumes.)

There has been an animated adaptation, which I have not watched.

Book Review: The 47 Ronin

The 47 Ronin by A.B. Mitford

47

This is an abridged and dolled-up reprint of A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan with lots of color illustrations.  Tales was originally published in 1871, as Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, a member of the British legation in Tokyo, witnessed the rapid modernization of Japan.  He decided to set down some traditional stories before they were completely altered by new attitudes and customs.

The centerpiece, of course, is the mostly-true story of the forty-seven ronin who avenged their lord’s death against the enemy who caused his downfall.  The ronin are culture heroes of Japan, who have been imbued with the virtues of honor and self-sacrifice by the frequent retelling of their story.  As such, the behavior shown in this version may seem exotic and a little puzzling to modern Western readers.  They’re all so polite!

(There is an upcoming movie which casts Keanu Reeves as a forty-eighth ronin character written specifically to shoehorn a partially-white person into the story so that Americans will watch it.  I recommend the Stan Sakai comic book adaptation instead.  Read the review for that here.  http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/)

There are several other stories of revenge and bloodshed, but also some light-hearted moments, and tales of the supernatural, including both evil and good cats.  In between stories, Mr. Mitford has scattered information on the samurai swords, sumo wrestling and other interesting topics.  The book finishes with scholarly appendixes on ritual suicide and funerary rites as they were then practiced in Japan.

The writing style may seem overly formal to modern readers, but is free of the more purple filigree often associated with Victorian literature.  I strongly recommend this book to students of Japanese culture, and to manga/anime fans interested in the roots of some stories they’ve only seen modern adaptations of.  (The original text is in the public domain, so should be easy to find in less expensive formats.)

Comic Book Review: Bully Eater

Comic Book Review: Bully Eater by Raymond Brown

Bully

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

Isao Akio has been bullied most of his life.  Deciding enough was enough, he went out and got himself some martial arts training.  This helped until he transferred to Longwei High, where the bullies have superhuman powers.    Things are not entirely lost–there’s another new student who has personal reasons for standing up to the local bullies, and powers of his own.  Can Tien Lung help make Longwei High a better place to get an education?

I like that Tien Lung is nearsighted; too proud to wear corrective lenses, but serious enough about his studies to want to see the chalkboard.  It’s a nice touch.

This volume collects the first two issues of the comic book.  While the series is clearly inspired by manga (Tenjou Tenge is a really obvious influence), I am more strongly reminded of the independent comics boom of the 1980s.  It’s a labor of love, and the creator’s enthusiasm really comes through.  But the pitfalls of a one-man show also are evident.  The art is crude and graffiti-ish, the proofreading is poor, and the exposition is clumsy.

Most of the independent comics creators of the Eighties out out an issue or two, then vanished, but a few found fame and appreciation.  This series does not look like it will be the breakout for Raymond Brown, but I hope to see improvement by his next effort.

Manga Review: Ayako

Manga Review: Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka is best known in the United States for his early children’s manga and their subsequent animated adaptations like “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion.”  But later in his prolific career, he also produced quite a few works for more mature readers, such as “MW” and “Ode to Kirihito.”  Ayako falls into the latter category.

Ayako1

The year is 1949, and the last of the Japanese POWs are returning to Japan.  Among them is Jiro Tenge, second son of a wealthy landowning family.  Times are tough for the Tenge clan due to the occupation’s land reforms breaking up their holdings.  They’re desperately trying to hold on to their remaining prestige, a task made more difficult by the family’s dark secrets.  Jiro has his own secrets from the time he was in American captivity, and soon there is death in the story.

Soon, it is decided that the only way to protect the Tenge clan is to seal away the youngest  daughter, four-year-old Ayako, in a cellar.  There she remains for over twenty years while the rest of the family sows the seeds of their own destruction….Given the recent cases of women escaping from long captivity, the story has a resonance today.

Even Tezuka’s children’s work did not shy away from deep themes (parental abandonment and racism in Astro Boy, questions of gender identity in Princess Knight), but this is a particularly dark work.  In addition to the nudity and sexual situations you might have guessed from the cover, I need to issue TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, child abuse, incest, torture, abuse of the developmentally disabled and domestic abuse.  None of this is depicted as good things, but it can be seriously disturbing.

This story uses few of Tezuka’s trademark “stars”, instead trying to come up with new faces for its cast.  One notable example is police officer Inspector Geta, who seems to be heavily inspired by Dick Tracy.

Inspector Geta
Inspector Geta and his mentor, Inspector Tanuma.

Bits of real Japanese post-war history are woven in, and there are footnotes indicating where this has happened.  Tezuka’s explanation of events is not kind to the American Occupation.

Again, this is a book for mature readers.  Late high school students might be able to handle it, but certainly not children.  (Given the NSFW cover, you might not want to read it in public even if you’re an adult.)  Recommended for Tezuka fans and those ready to explore the darker side of post-war Japan.

Book Review: Shanghai 1937

Book Review: Shanghai 1937 by Peter Harmsen

Shanghai

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This is my 25th win!

This is the first English-language book specifically about the battle for Shanghai in 1937, which is considered by some to be the start of the Asian portion of World War Two.  It’s notable for having unusually comprehensive press coverage for the time.  This was because both the Chinese and Japanese were very careful to involve the foreign quarter of Shanghai in the fighting as little as possible.  Neither of them wanted the Western nations to side with the other due to attacks on their citizens.

What that means is that there’s a wealth of contemporary sources of information about the battle, even if it’s obscure now because of the larger conflicts that followed.  AFP reporter Peter Harmsen has woven this into a chronological retelling of the conflict.  There are accounts from both the Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as well as the foreign observers.

A couple of points that stuck out to me:  having the large foreign quarter be neutral ground created tactical problems for both sides, and both sides frequently made tactical blunders that prolonged the three month battle.  Chiang Kai-shek does not come off at all well, demonstrating the qualities that would eventually result in his retreat to Taiwan.

There are excellent photos and maps, as well as the battle order.  There are copious footnotes, bibliography,and an index.  The prose is clear and understandable

This volume is a bit pricey at $32.95, but will be worth it to the World War II and military history buffs.  Everyone else should check it out at the library.

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1 by Takehiko Inoue

Vagabond Vol. 1 by Takahiko Inoue

Miyamoto Musashi, author of A Book of Five Rings, was one of the greatest swordsmen of his time (the 1600s) and something of a warrior-philosopher.  He’s become a legendary figure, and there have been many fictional accounts of his life in Japanese media.  The most influential of these is Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, a novel that created many of the “beats” that subsequent tellings of the story often use.

Vagabond is a manga by Takehiko Inoue, better known for his pioneering basketball manga Slam Dunk.  This Vizbig edition collects three volumes of the series into one thick tome.  There’s little of the philosopher part of Musashi’s personality in this first book.  Still going by his birth name, Shinmen Takezo, we first meet our protagonist having barely survived the battle of Sekigahara, a conflict in which he notably failed to bring glory to his name.

With fellow survivor and childhood friend Matahachi, he decides to become “invincible under the sun,” the best swordsman in all of Japan.  Matahachi, sadly, has a flaw in his character that causes them to part paths and only Takezo returns to their home village of Miyamoto.  As far as most of the villagers are concerned, the wrong soldier came home from the war and Takezo is soon a fugitive again.

An encounter with a particularly hard talking monk helps the young swordsman find his way again.  Although the village has rejected him, he takes the village with him in his new name of Miyamoto Musashi.  He moves to Kyoto, where he challenges the Yoshioka school of swordsmanship and begins a rivalry with the Yoshioka brothers.  Matahachi is also in Kyoto, but has fallen on hard times.

The artwork and action sequences are excellent with reasonably distinctive faces allowing the large cast to remain distinguishable.  There are several color pages, which is a nice treat.

The three-in-one format really helps here, because at this early point in the story, Musashi is not a very likable character.  To be honest, he’s an asshole and it’s no wonder the villagers don’t welcome him home.  While we do see quite a bit of character development for Musashi, he’s still very much an asshole by the end of the volume, just one on the path that will lead to his enlightenment.

Matahachi, by contrast, starts more likable but makes bad choices and doesn’t learn from his mistakes.

There’s quite a bit of gory violence, and some sex scenes.   There’s a scene that would be rape by deception, except that the woman is clearly shown to have figured out what was happening before the act.  It should be okay for older teens and up

I recommend this series to fans of samurai drama who have the patience needed to get through the many volumes it will take to get to “the good stuff.”  For those with less patience, I recommend the movie trilogy based on the same material that came out a few decades ago.

Movie Review: Hissatsu (Sure Death)

Movie Review: Hissatsu (Sure Death)

hissatsu

A group of seemingly ordinary Edo citizens, mostly of the merchant class, are in fact a loose team of assassins.  But fear not, they’re good guy assassins who only take money to kill people who really deserve it.  Problem!  There’s a new assassin in town, who’s exclusively targeting the local professional killers.  Can our anti-heroes discover the secret of Copper (so named because of the coins he leaves on his victims) and defend themselves against his small army?

Hissatsu is based on a 1970s television show about the same characters, and it shows.  Most of the characters never get a proper introduction to the audience, and their many quirks and relationships go mostly unexplained.

The character that gets the most focus is Mondo Nakamura, a policeman who carries a wooden sword on duty (but not when he’s killing people), has a nagging mother-in-law and we are led to believe he has a small penis.  His downtrodden, bumbling daytime persona sharply contrasts with his professional killer side.

There’s also a guest star character, a puppeteer that kills with his paper fan.  The final fight sequence takes place in the puppet theater, and this is used for maximum stylism in the battles.

There are some striking set pieces, a couple of amusing bit characters and the fights are good.  The dialogue is more groan-inducing, particularly a flirtation between Mondo and Copper’s female accomplice.

Warnings:  One of the minor bad guys abuses a woman and a cat.  A fair amount of blood, but tastefully done by samurai movie standards.  Brief toplessness.

I found it streaming on the Crunchyroll website–it may also be available elsewhere.  If you like good guy assassins and don’t mind a nonsensical plot, it’s a funny movie.

Manga Review: Anesthesiologist Hana

Manga Review: Anesthesiologist Hana by Hakua Nakao and Kappei Matsumoto

One of the manga genres that doesn’t get a lot of press in the US is “work manga”.  These are more realistic looks at an unusual career, showing the day-to-day life and challenges, as well as what it takes to get and keep the job.  Firefighter, forest ranger and in this case, anesthesiologist.

Hana

Hanako Hanaoka is a young anesthesiologist at a small hospital connected to a major university hospital, which is being upgraded to a tertiary care (the most drastic emergencies and operations) facility.  Her specialty is relatively rare (and there don’t seem to be nurse anesthesiologists at that facility) so she’s constantly overworked and underappreciated.  Worse, sexism and sexual harassment from her fellow doctors are everyday hassles.

However, the job does have its own rewards, so Hana perseveres.

There’s a lot of interesting medical tidbits about a specialty you might not have been informed about before (not exactly a TV-friendly set of procedures, after all.)  Excitement is kept up with the introduction of more difficult cases and the hidden background of a couple of Hana’s colleagues.

However, the fanservice gets out of hand; and in a couple of cases is awkwardly shoved into stories that don’t really need it.  There are some really painful cases of “male gaze” as well, and the sexual harassers never seem to face any actual consequences for their actions.  And then there’s Hana herself.  To allow the audience to be filled in, she is often shown as being dense and uninformed about her own job; she’s a grown woman, a medical doctor, heck, she’s not even an intern anymore, how is she such an immature novice?

Worth looking at for the medical information, but the ecchi elements may turn off some readers.  This manga is out of print in North America as of 2014.

 

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