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.

 

Manga Review: Ninja Papa

Manga Review: Ninja Papa by Yasuhito Yamamoto.

papa

Nobuo Matsuri is a typical Japanese salaryman (office worker.)  At thirty-two, he’s got a low-paying dead-end job at a second-rate food company, an incompetent boss who treats him like dirt, a heavily-mortgaged home and a nagging mother-in-law who never hesitates to point out all the many ways in which he’s a disappointment.  But he also has a lovely wife, two adorable children, and happiness.

Also, Nobuo Matsuri has a dark secret.  Up until age 21, he was a top assassin for the Nakuru ninja clan.  When he fell in love with Aya, he left the clan, violating their rule forbidding meaningful contact with outsiders (and experiencing actual love.)  As a result, Nakuru Clan ninja often attack Nobuo, and he must kill them to survive.  More troublingly for this man of peace and reason, he often runs across people who cannot be reasoned or negotiated with and who threaten those he cares for with mortal danger.  Then he must reluctantly use his ninja skills to kill those people.

This manga is very much a wish-fulfillment fantasy for salarymen.  A ordinary working schlub who is meek, mild and bumbling at the office, but has great sex at home and kicks the ass of those who thoroughly deserve it.  As such, it goes over the top sometimes.  Nobuo’s manager is incompetent and cartoonishly sexist in a way that would get him fired at any real company, even in Japan.  And it never occurs to the Nakuru clan assassins to just look Nobuo up in the phonebook–he hasn’t even changed his name!

But as an office worker, I can well identify with many of the situations Nobuo finds himself in.

This is an 18+ manga for bloody violence and sex scenes. It is not currently in print in the U.S.

Overall, a fun book, but not very deep, and has elements that may not appeal to many readers.

 

 

 

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Shonen

Let’s start with something hefty, shall we?  Shounen Jump is the #1 manga anthology magazine in Japan, selling in the millions of copies.  Its emphasis on the themes of “friendship, struggle, victory: have made it a favorite of both its primary demographic of teenage boys (“shounen”) and the general public.  The series featured inside often get animated adaptations, which feed back to the popularity of the magazine.

Thus it was that Viz comics, , which imports manga to the North American audience, had a magazine called “Shonen Jump” which brought monthly installments of some of the most popular series to Western readers.  But the print magazine market is such that that approach wasn’t working as well as the company would like, so they’ve switched to an online magazine format instead, “Shonen Jump Alpha.”

Alpha comes out weekly at http:shonenjump.viz.com with chapters two weeks later than the Japanese print edition.  As of January 21st, they’ll be speeding it up to same-day release.  There are at present six weekly features licensed, and several monthly offerings; depending on the scheduling and if one of the regulars is having a skip week, this can make for a thin issue or a very large one.

Weekly Features

One Piece: In many ways the flagship title of SJA.  A boy named Luffy decides he’s going to become the pirate king.  He sets off on his adventure and gains a crew of wacky characters to assist him while fighting evil pirates, monsters, and the corrupt government. Cartoony art, engaging characters and a good variety of emotional tones have made this a standout series.  At present, the crew has answered a distress call from the supposedly deserted island of Punk Hazard, site of a chemical weapons disaster some years before.  The island is of course not nearly as deserted as it would appear.

Naruto: Orphaned ninja Naruto, despised and mistreated by his fellow villagers, decides that he’s going to become the Hokage, the chief of his village.  He is both aided and hampered in this quest by the fact that his body is the prison for the legendary Nine-Tailed Fox, a powerful spirit that attacked the village long ago.  The characters are more superhero than ninja per se, but this series can be a lot of fun  Presently, it looks like the Great Ninja War is finally winding down, with Naruto and his allies confronting the real (for sure this time!) mastermind behind everything.

Bleach: Ichigo Kurosaki, a boy who sees ghosts, suddenly finds himself thrust into the battles of the Shinigami (“reapers”) whose job is to assist the flow of spirits to the afterlife, and battle spirits that have lost their way and become “Hollows.”  As time goes by, more and more factions are introduced, and Ichigo unlocks more and more ultimate potential, in addition to learning things about his rather unusual heritage.  Not as good as the above two.  The current arc is supposedly the last, with a group called the Vandenreich attempting to destroy the Soul Society (the primary afterlife) altogether.  Naturally, it turns out that Ichigo has a surprising connection to them…

Toriko:  The adventures of a superhuman gourmand named Toriko on a world where the more dangerous/difficult to get a food ingredient is, the more tasty it is.  He partners with an aspiring chef named Komatsu to track down the rarest and most delicious of creatures.  This is an audience participation manga, with readers sending in their ideas for cool new foodstuffs.  It can be fun, though I am not as affected by the munchies as some other readers by it.  Presently, the characters are involved with a cooking tournament, which with any luck will be interrupted by an evil food company invasion.

Nisekoi: “False love” is the name of the game, as Raku and Chitoge, scions of feuding gangster clans, are pressured into pretending to date to calm the squabbles.  Only problem is that they can’t stand each other!  Meanwhile, Raku made a childhood marriage promise to a girl whose name and face he doesn’t remember.  At least three girls turn out to carry keys that could fit his lock (Freudian!)  This series is generic romantic comedy done right.  Yes, all the elements are out of the standard playbook, but the writer does them so well!  Currently, Chitoge has finally realized that she’s beginning to have genuine affection for Raku…but what does that mean for their fake relationship?

Cross Manage:  Former soccer star Sakurai is adrift in life after leg injuries sideline him.  That is until he meets the ditzy but very earnest Toyoguchi, whose struggling lacrosse team desperately needs a good manager.  This is a gender flip of the usual Shounen Jump sports story, in which a boy’s team has a cute female manager.  Unfortunately, the story so far has spent less time developing the team’s personalities and play styles than on Sakurai’s deep manpain.  This may explain why the series has been struggling in the ratings in the parent magazine, and looks ripe for an early cancellation.  Which is a pity, because there’s a lot of potential here.  Currently, the team is trying to get up to minimum competency to enter a spring tournament.

 

Monthlies

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okumura discovers that his father is Satan, making him part demon and a danger to everyone around him.  Turns out Rin has inherited his father’s rebellious nature, and chooses to join exorcist school so he can learn to battle against his father’s evil plans and save humanity.  But his heritage also makes him a target, so there’s always trouble brewing.  Despite the subject matter, this series often comes off as more juvenile than scary.  Right now, someone or something is opening multiple Hellgates that can’t be closed by normal exorcists.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan:  Rikuo Nura is one-quarter yokai, (Japanese spirit monsters) so can access his superhuman abilities only for a limited amount of time each day.  Which is a real problem when he’s the heir to the yokai clan leader.This series was in Shonen Jump until earlier this year, but doing very poorly.  Since it was on its final battle arc already, the series was moved to a monthly magazine so the creator could really cut loose and do it up properly without having to worry about the ratings poll.

Rurouni Kenshin -Restoration-:  A distillation of the popular series about an assassin turned technical pacifist during the Meiji Restoration period.  It’s kind of a tie-in to the recnt live-action adaptation.  Think of it like a “Best HIts collection, or an alternate universe retelling.  You can tell that Watsuki is having a ball drawing these characters again, but Kaoru comes across as even more useless in this version.  Currently they’re building up to a fight with the hypnotic gaze fighter.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  In the far future, Yuma Tsukuno is a huge fan of the Duel Monsters children’s card game…in the abstract, but has no idea how to actually play it.  when he gains a not-so-imaginary friend named Astral, Yuma starts improving, and soon finds himself battling evil plots to misuse the cards.  Yeah.  This latest installment of the Yu-Gi-OH! franchise continues most of the trends that have annoyed non-fans in the past, including substituting expensive overpowered cards for actual skill as the sign of a strong player.  (And despite our hero being supposedly a huge fan of the game, not recognizing half the cards or basic strategies he’s up against.)  How I miss plotlines that have almost nothing to do with the game.  Just at the moment, the good guys are trying to collect all the Numbers cards, a goal shared by the villains but for opposite reasons.

 

Overall:

An excellent value for money, provided that you are a big fan of the general shounen manga style of storytelling.  There are some lesser parts, but the variety is overall strong.  More new series are scheduled to start soon, so keep an eye out if the current titles aren’t enough to excite you.

 

SKJAM!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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