Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki

Blood bank worker Mizuki (no relation) is sent to investigate a report of tainted blood provided by his business, which has turned a hospital patient into the living dead.  Narrowing down the possibilities, Mizuki is startled to learn that the blood donor put down his, Mizuki’s, address!  It turns out there are squatters in the abandoned temple out back of his house.

The Birth of Kitaro

These squatters are yokai, a married couple who are the last of the Ghost Tribe.  Once, the Ghost Tribe was numerous, and lived all over the country.  But as humans encroached on their territory, the Ghost Tribe was forced first into the wilderness, then underground.  Over the years, their numbers have dwindled, until these two and their unborn child are all that remain.  The wife sold her blood to buy medicine, as both of the yokai are ill.  Out of pity, Mizuki agrees to keep their secret until the baby is born.

Months later, Mizuki visits the temple to find both of the yokai dead, and buries them.  But their child, Kitaro, lives, and Mizuki adopts him, even though he is repulsed by the sight of the little monster.

GeGeGe no Kitaro is Shigeru Mizuki’s best known work, a horror manga for children.  According to the introduction, he took inspiration from Hakaba  Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro), a kamishibai (paper theater) performance series that had been popular before World War Two.  Most of the records of the series were destroyed during the war, but Mizuki took what was known and refashioned it for 1960s children.  It was an enormous hit, and there have been numerous anime adaptations.

This volume collects “best of” stories from the Kitaro series, rather than have them in order of publication.  Thus, Kitaro’s character design is very different in the first chapter, before he’s learned to groom himself.  Eventually, Kitaro is kicked out of Mr. Mizuki’s house to fend for himself with the aid of Medama Oyaji (Eyeball Dad), the animated eyeball of his deceased father.

The remainder of the stories in this volume guest star Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), a filthy, greedy fellow who constantly tries to find ways to profit from foolish humans and other yokai.  Often, he’s personally responsible for the peril that Kitaro must deal with, but other times Nezumi Otoko just finds a way to chisel some extra yen from the situation.

Another recurring character that makes an appearance is Neko Musume (Cat Daughter), a part-feline girl who is Nezumi Otoko’s natural enemy.  Kitaro uses her to convince the rat to give back all the money he’d swindled from a group of humans to grant them a form of immortality.  In this early story, Neko Musume is much less pretty than later adaptations make her.

In the early chapters, Kitaro isn’t too fond of humans due to being bullied for his hideous appearance and strange behavior; as he gains a heroic reputation the humans become friendlier and Kitaro reciprocates.  However, he knows that he can never be fully welcome in human society and wanders away at the end of most stories.

There’s a variety of yokai in this series, the most difficult to defeat is the gyuki (bullheaded crab), because anyone who kills the gyuki, becomes the gyuki!  Kids tend to be important in the stories, either as potential victims or the ones who call Kitaro in.

At the end of the volume are pocket descriptions of the yokai in this volume, and activities for kids like a maze and word search puzzle.

Keeping in mind that what the Japanese consider suitable for children varies from what many American parents will accept (there’s some rear male nudity, and people die), this would be a great gift for a horror-loving elementary school kid.

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.

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows  by Meg Kassel

Cadence, Pennsylvania used to be a mining town.  The economy never fully recovered from the mines closing down, but the town survived.  But there are some disturbing signs.  There’s an unseasonably high number of crows for February, and an even more unseasonable number of unusually aggressive bees.

Black Bird of the Gallows

Angelina “Angie” Dovage doesn’t pay too much attention to that at first.  She’s trying to survive her last year of high school, live down her past life with her drug-addicted mother, keep her identity as Sparo (the town’s hottest DJ) secret from her classmates, and checking out the hot new boy who just moved in next door.  The tall, dark, brooding boy who has a mysterious past.

This is a young adult paranormal romance, so Reece Fernandez turns out to be a supernatural being with strange powers, and also a strong attraction to Angie.  And of course he feels the need to “protect” her by not telling her relevant information until much later than it would have been useful.

There’s also Rafette, a much less pleasant supernatural being who has taken an interest in Angie, and knows way too much about her mother for his appearance in Cadence to be a coincidence.  Unlike the crow-based Harbingers, Beekeepers can’t be killed–or at least that’s what everyone’s been told.

On the more normal high school drama side of things, there’s Angie’s musical friends Daniel “Deno” Steinway and Lacey Taggert, and mean girl Kiera Shaw.   Deno still seems to carry a bit of a torch for Angie, and is oblivious to Lacey’s interest in himself.   Kiera seems intent on bringing up Angie’s supposedly sordid past at every opportunity.

Things get progressively worse in Cadence as increasing numbers of people go mad, and the real reason the Harbingers are in town approaches.

At my current age, I sympathize more with Angie’s well-meaning but out of the loop father when it comes to her apparent relationship with Reece.  The story fudges a bit on the “much older guy falls in love with a teenage girl” thing, but it still comes off icky.

Thankfully, Angie’s reasonably competent on her own; it’s only supernatural problems that she needs a supernatural rescuer for.

A third kind of supernatural being comes into the plot briefly, creating a sequel hook.  (Yes, of course this is a series.)

Overall…I’m not the audience for this book.  It seems competently written, and I didn’t actively hate any of the characters, but they didn’t engage me either.   It will probably work much better for teenagers, and more likely artsy young women.

Let’s have a video of crows being annoying!

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Something has gone drastically wrong aboard the generation ship Matilda .  Centuries after it left the uninhabitable Earth, the ship seems no closer to its destination, if there is in fact a destination at all.  Society has become stratified, with the darker-skinned humans confined to the lower decks, called “Tarlanders”, and treated like servants at best and often like animals.   Those on the higher decks justify this with their religion, which puts straight white men above all others, who are sinners.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Aster is one of the few medics available to those below decks.  She’s something of a genius, and has been allowed to study under/assist the ship’s most esteemed doctor, the Surgeon.  (She knows him as Theo.)  That doesn’t excuse her from backbreaking work in the field decks under the whip-wielding overseers, though.

Recently, the Matilda has been suffering a series of blackouts for the first time in a quarter-century.  Lieutenant, Theo’s cruel uncle and de facto ruler of the ship, has decided that the lower deck people are somehow overloading the power and cut the heat to that part of the ship to “conserve energy.”  The oppressed are suffering, and Aster has been called to amputate a child’s gangrenous foot.

After this gruesome task, Aster returns to her secret botanarium where she grows medicinal plants and performs scientific experiments.  Her childhood friend and confidante Giselle is there and being contrary as usual.  More surprisingly, the Surgeon arrives.  Theo needs some of Aster’s special steroids for his post-polio pain symptoms, and also her help.  The Sovereign Nicolaeus, official ruler of the ship’s people, is dying of a mysterious illness, something Theo has never seen before.

Not having any great love for the ship’s government, Aster turns Theo’s request down.  But then Giselle reveals that she’s been reading the journals of Aster’s long-missing mother Lune, and cracked some of the code they were in–Lune had the same symptoms as Nicolaeus during the last series of blackouts, twenty-five years ago.  Is there a connection?

Aster is a protagonist very different from most I’ve read, being gender ambiguous (but using female pronouns) and having some form of neurodivergence.  The latter is both a strength and a weakness for Aster; it gives her insights that others might miss, but also makes understanding subtleties of language difficult for her to parse.   Metaphors are hard for Aster to grasp, thus her failure to notice that the anomalies in Lune’s journal entries were deliberate.

Most of the book is told in tight third-person following Aster, with three first-person chapters where other characters inform the reader of things Aster is unaware of or not present for.

The storyline largely consists of Aster reacting to other people’s actions; until near the end her few attempts at being proactive backfire.   Theo (who has many secrets) and especially Giselle (never stable, but having gotten worse after much abuse) are far more active, but are mostly off-page doing their things.  The vile Lieutenant seems to relish making life more complicated, deluded by his self-justified mindset.

Matilda‘s society is a pretty clear metaphor for the American South during slavery and Jim Crow (mixed together as needed) and this can come across as heavy-handed from time to time.  We get very little background on how it turned out this way, although one bit of history suggests the social stratification was there from the beginning.

Content notice:  rough language, implied rape, physical and mental abuse, and torture.

The conclusion drastically changes things; there is room for a sequel, but the society will not be the same.

Overall, a mixed bag.  An interesting protagonist and unfolding of events, but often heavy-handed and some key elements seem to be there simply to create the desired metaphor.

Note:  I got this book through PageHabit, so my copy has author annotations on Post-it notes inserted throughout.  This was an interesting extra dimension, but my financial circumstances make it unlikely I’ll order from this vendor again in the near future.

 

 

Manga Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1

Manga Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1 by Kore Yamazaki

Chise Hatori has had a rough life.   Her father ran off with her little brother, her mother committed suicide (probably), and her ability to see magical creatures got her bullied and abandoned.  She was on the verge of suicide when Chise was approached by a black market auctioneer who explained that she was actually special, and valuable under the right circumstances.  He convinced her to allow him to sell her into slavery.

The Ancient Magus' Bride Vol. 1

It’s probably fortunate that the high bidder is Elias Ainsworth, a not quite human mage from Britain.  He removes Chise’s chains and whisks her to his home to become Elias’ apprentice.  Oh, and eventually his bride.

This shounen (boys’) fantasy manga is now getting an anime adaptation, and has been generally well-received.

Elias explains some, but not all, of what’s going on.  Chise is what mages call a sleigh beggy, a powerful natural mage that attracts other supernatural beings.   Children with magical talent have become rare in the modern world, especially as many of their possible progenitors were slain in “the last great war”, but sleigh beggy are one in a generation.  Elias is anxious to teach her how to control her powers.

Chise also meets some Ariels, who are of the Fair Folk.  They don’t like the term “fairies”, perhaps “neighbors” is a good word?   They can be helpful, but also very dangerous as their idea of “help” is not always what humans would think of that way.

In the next chapter, Chise meets Silky.  She’s a “neighbor” who acts as Elias’ housekeeper, and does not speak.  As well, Elias takes Chise to meet Angelica, an artificer specializing in magical jewelry.  Angelica explains some of the basic rules of magic, and notes the difference between mages (who bend the world’s energy to their will) and alchemists (who use a more scientific approach.)

Then Simon Cullum shows up.  He works for “the Church” though it’s unclear if that means Catholic or Anglican.  Simon is supposed to be keeping watch on Elias, but is hands-off in exchange for the mage taking care of magical matters that the Church should not be handling.

First off, there’s an ancient dragon dying in Iceland, the last known dragon sanctuary.  A bit sad, but not the tragedy you might have expected.

Then it’s off to Ulthar, where it is a crime to kill a cat.  (See also H.P. Lovecraft on this subject.)  Long ago, a resident was driven to despair and broke this law, killing many cats in cruel ways.  He was…dealt with.  But his unclean spirit still remains, and has grown dangerous again.

Elias’ magic is not suited to the task of banishing the spirit, but Chise’s might be.  Untrained, this will be her first true test.  But before Chise can begin the ritual, she’s ambushed by a mysterious pair that have other motives, and a grudge against Elias!

This early part of the story is heavy on the sense of wonder as Chise learns more about the world of magic and her own potential, but maintains an undercurrent of menace.  Even the friendliest of “neighbors” can lead you astray.  It’s clear that Elias has a past that has not always been on the straight and narrow.

And many questions are raised.  Why did Chise’s father abandon her?  Are any of her relatives still alive?  If her gifts are so powerful, why did no one contact her until now?  What, precisely, is Elias, with his animal skull head?  Why does the Church have a watch on him?  (Some of these, at least, will get answered.)

The slavery thing is icky, though Elias and Chise’s relationship quickly drops those terms for “apprentice” and “bride.”  The latter might also be rather icky, depending on what that actually means in a mage relationship.

There’s also bits of humor, such as Elias crafting his “human” disguise after Simon as he was under the impression that man was handsome.  (Chise finds the face “sketchy.”)   The overall art style is good, and Elias manages to be expressive despite his immobile features.

Chise is rather passive in these chapters, more concerned with being safe than expressing her own opinion, but does show flashes of personality.  She can be rather blunt when need be.

Elias seems pleasant most of the time, but exhibits a lack of understanding of human society and emotions from time to time.

This is a promising beginning which should work well for young adult fantasy fans.

Book Review: Enchantment Lake

Book Review: Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus

Francine Frye isn’t a detective.  She played a detective on TV.  On a children’s show.  For a few episodes.  But that still makes her the closest thing to a detective Francie’s eccentric aunts Astrid and Jeannette know.  So when a series of perfectly explainable but statistically improbable deaths strike around their cabin home on Enchantment Lake, they make a (badly worded, static-filled) call to their great-niece which cuts off abruptly.

Enchantment Lake

When Francie can’t get the authorities or even her grandfather to investigate, she decides to head to Walpurgis, the small town in northern Minnesota Enchantment Lake is closest to.   She’s relieved to learn Astrid and Jen are alive and well, but now that she’s here, the aunts suggest the young actor snoop around some.  Especially as there’s been a new death, the most suspicious yet.

This middle-grade mystery is the first in the “Enchantment Lake” series, which does make certain developments in the story pretty obvious.  Francie’s on the lower end of seventeen, which allows her to be fairly mature (she was living in New York City on her own while trying to continue her acting career) but still be viewed as a child by most of the adults around her.  This includes her grandfather, who makes use of his control of Francie’s trust fund to order her around.

Francie is perhaps a little too ready to believe there’s a connection between all the seemingly unrelated deaths, as there’s plenty of mystery in her own life.  Her father died in a statistically improbable car crash, her brother moved to Europe a couple of years ago and never communicates with Francie, and absolutely no one will tell Francie anything about her mother.

This last one comes up more than the others, as a couple of the suspects seem to know more about Francie’s mother than she does, and a clue pops up suggesting the woman may be alive.  This plot hook is left dangling for a future volume, alas.

Not being a detective, Francie (known to the older locals as “French Fry”) makes several rookie mistakes, including being alone with murder suspects without having told anyone where she’s going multiple times.  And several people who have information that would be relevant either don’t bring it up or are refusing to tell Francie for their own reasons.

The language is suitable for middle-schoolers, but not so simple that young adult readers would be embarrassed to be seen reading this book.  Romance is limited to Francie noticing certain boys are attractive and being mildy jealous of one paying attention to another girl.  Suicide is mentioned.

The small town Minnesota setting will be familiar to most Minnesotans and many other people from the upper Midwest.  It allows for a quirky cast without going into demeaning “hick” stereotypes.  (The most stereotyped person is actually a spoiled city girl who sees no attraction in a lakeside vacation.)

The solution to the mystery is pleasingly complex, and younger readers should be pleased if they figure most of it out in advance.

Recommended for young mystery fans, and older mystery fans with a love of small town Minnesota.

Since the book mentions the sound of loons several times, here’s a video set on Loon Lake, not far from where Enchantment Lake would be:

Manga Review: Princess Jellyfish Volume 1

Manga Review: Princess Jellyfish Volume 1 by Akiko Higashimura

Amamizukan is not your average apartment building.  For one thing, it’s a small, old-fashioned building of the type rarely seen these days.  More importantly, all the residents are fujoshi (“rotten women”) who for one reason or another have fallen outside the society-approved get job/get husband/have kids way of life for Japanese women.  These eccentric women fear the “fashionable”, and especially fashionable men, which is why Amamizukan is also know as the “Nunnery.”

Princess Jellyfish Volume 1

Tsukimi Kurashita is the newest resident, an aspiring illustrator with a penchant for jellyfish.  She knows all about these aquatic creatures, and is appalled to learn that the local pet shop has put two species together that will cause the death of one of them.  The shop assistant is a “fashionable”, which makes Tsukimi terrified of talking to him and thus unable to speak normally, and apathetic which makes him not care to the point he physically throws her out of the store.

At this point, a “princess” appears.  A stunning, fashion-forward beauty, she nevertheless listens to Tsukimi’s explanation and helps liberate “Clara” the endangered jellyfish from the store (with proper payment.)  It’s very late when they arrive at Amamizukan, so the princess, a very self-confident person, invites herself to sleep over.

In the morning, however, Tsukimi is shocked to learn that her princess is named Kuranosuke, and is in fact a young man.  How the heck is she going to keep the other “Amars” from finding out she’s got a boy in her room?

This josei (young women’s) manga has had a short animated adaptation (available from Funimation), and a live-action movie.  In the author notes, it’s revealed that the creator had an obsession with jellyfish for a few years in her teens, and she uses that in the story.  “Ama” is a word for a Buddhist nun, so “Amars” would be kind of equivalent to a women-only U.S. apartment building having residents who called themselves “Sistahs.”

One of the running themes of the manga is that everyone is eccentric in their own way, even the people who seem to function well in normal society.   The Amars are just more obvious about it.  Most of them are unconventional in appearance, and entered the job market just as it crashed after the bubble economy collapsed, so were unable to find steady jobs.  So they earn a marginal living as assistants to a manga creator (who never appears on panel, being a nocturnal shut-in) and supplement this with handouts from their parents.

Kuranosuke, as it turns out, is the second son of a bigwig politician, and indulges in his hobby of dressing in women’s clothing partially to create enough scandal that he’ll never be forced to go into the family business, partially because he’s so pretty that he looks smashing in the outfits, and partially for…other reasons.  He often clashes with his disapproving father, and to a lesser extent with his older and more dutiful half-brother Shuu, though the brothers do really care for each other.

A plotline comes in when it’s revealed that Amamizukan’s neighborhood is being redeveloped, and their beloved Nunnery is a target for acquisition and bulldozing.  With the Amars’ crippling lack of social skills, they aren’t going to make a good case against the developer’s fashionable and sexy spokesperson, Inari, who has set her eye on seducing (or if that fails blackmailing) Shuu to get his father behind the project.  Kuranosuke will not let this stand, and rallies the troops for some zany scheming.

Part of this is giving the Amars makeovers.  Tsukimi’s is played pretty straight, as she is much more attractive with a little makeup, no glasses and some nice clothes (which blows Shuu away, and introduces some romantic complications.)  The other Amars mostly just get “looks” that play to their strong points, and kimono aficionado Chieko is told that she doesn’t need a makeover at all, just the right context–put her with well-dressed people, and she looks like a woman of substance.  It’s not about making them “pretty”, it’s about donning “armor” to present strength to the world.

The art is good, and manages to convey who people are even when they change their appearance.

Content issues:  there’s some homophobia and transphobia, as well as both virgin-shaming and slut-shaming (by different characters.)  Inari drugs and disrobes Shuu to make it appear they had sex, and marital infidelity is in the backstory and is responsible for psychological issues for both Shuu and Kuranosuke.

For the most part, this plays out like one of those Eighties movies where a ragtag group of misfits must get it together to battle an evil rich person who wants to take away something important to them.  (Fittingly, Inari seems to have gotten her behavior patterns from Eighties “business woman” manga, and sometimes slips into ’80s slang.)  This book, which collects the first two Japanese volumes, only sets up the conflict, so there is still the possibility that later events will subvert the plotline.

Tsukimi is a protagonist it’s easy to root for, and Kuranosuke makes a good foil for her–though it looks like he won’t be hooking up with her in the end.  Most of the other characters are likable to some degree.

Recommended to people who liked the kind of Eighties movies I mentioned, and fans of innocent people falling in love.

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