Manga Review: Assassination Classroom

Manga Review: Assassination Classroom by Yusei Matsui

Things are tough for the students of Class 3-E at Kunugigaoka Junior High School.  3-E’s where the elite school sticks all the losers and freaks, the bottom 5% of the student body.  Their classes are held in a decrepit outbuilding, they aren’t allowed any extracurricular activities, and the testing regimen is rigged to keep them from getting out.  Oh, and their teacher is an unstoppable tentacled monster who plans to destroy the Earth after the graduation ceremony.

Assassination Classroom

Except that he’s not quite so unstoppable after all; the students are issued BB guns and rubber knives made of the one substance that is his Kryptonite.  And the government will pay ten billion yen to the student or students who kills Koro-sensei.   Naturally, it’s not going to be easy.  Koro-sensei destroyed 70% of the Moon’s mass just to say “hi” in the first place, flies at Mach 20 and is constantly pulling new powers out of whatever it is that’s under his robe.  So every day the students try to come up with new plans to assassinate their teacher–who is also the best teacher they’ve ever had!

Despite his avowed intention to destroy the Earth, and his antagonistic relationship with his students, Koro-sensei really cares about being a good teacher, and gives the class valuable lessons about life between and even during murder attempts.

This comedy-action manga runs in Shounen Jump in Japan, but due to concerns about school shootings was initially not considered for the American edition.  Only its hit status in Japan has convinced Viz to take a chance on it, and even now it’s rated for older teens rather than the junior high students it was originally aimed at.  Let’s face it, it has the kind of premise that younger teens really love, but gives their parents the vapors.

The students tend to be pretty non-descript until their focus chapters, at which point they develop personalities.  In this first volume, we’re introduced to calm and analytical Nagisa (who’s way too calm about killing someone for a junior high student); Sugino, a baseball enthusiast who let his grades slip after being cut from the school team; Okuda. who’s a whiz at math and science (especially chemistry) but whose lack of facility with words betrays her; and Karma, who’s actually brilliant and an excellent fighter, but attacked the wrong bully.

It should be noted that while most of these kids are in the bottom 5% of the school, it’s a very competitive one, so they’re not stupid.  Most of them.

There’s some decent art, and some clever plot twists.  Experienced manga fans will note a resemblance to Great Teacher Onizuka, another series about an unorthodox educator that turns out to be just what his students need.  Except this series has less creepy fetishization of high school girls and more assassinations.

By all means, check this one out, but don’t bring it to school.

Book Review: That Ain’t Right

Book Review: That Ain’t Right edited by Jeremy Zimmerman & Dawn Vogel

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

That Ain't Right

Howard Phillips “H.P.” Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a minor writer of horror fiction in the early 20th Century.  But thanks to a gift for purple prose, a strong philosophical unity in his stories’ viewpoints and (most importantly) a willingness to share his ideas, he’s been immensely influential in the development of the horror field.  He’s best known for the Cthulhu Mythos, a series of stories involving cosmic “gods” that are implacably hostile to humanity as we know it, not out of malice as such, but because humans are irrelevant to the universe at large.

A number of his stories were set in the Miskatonic Valley region of Massachusetts, a fictional backwater including such shadowed locations as Innsmouth, Dunwich and Arkham.  That last one will be familiar to Batman fans.

Which brings us to the book at hand, an anthology of first-person narratives set in the Miskatonic Valley.  They range in time period from about the 1890s to the far future, and one is set in an alternate history.  As is traditional in Lovecraft-inspired fiction, several of the narrators cannot be telling their stories to any living person, although none of them are quite to the level of that one Lovecraft protagonist who was still writing in his journal even as the monster was actually entering the room.  An especially nice touch is that the fictional narrators have their own author bios at the end of the stories.

Some standouts in the anthology include:

  • “Arkquarium” by Folly Blaine:  A high school student working part-time at the Arkham Aquarium tries to impress the girl he likes by sneaking into the locked laboratory section.  Turns out there’s a reason no one is supposed to go in there.  The protagonist shows some gumption, but isn’t unrealistically competent beyond the average teenager he is.
  • “The Reservoir” by Brian Hamilton:  A direct sequel to Lovecraft’s classic “The Colour Out of Space” which has a microbiologist investigating particles in the water of the title lake.  He finds an old well still calling–or is it a hallucination of the deep?
  • “The Pull of the Sea” by Sean Frost:  A ghost learns that not even death can protect you from the worse horrors that come from the ocean.  The story carefully sets up rules, then the creatures that break the rules come along.
  • “The Laughing Book” by Cliff Winnig:  A college student studies the title book in the restricted stacks of Miskatonic University.  This story is more influenced by Lovecraft’s “Lord Dunsany” period of dark fantasy than his straight-up horror.

The quality of writing is generally good, absent a couple of typos, and the annoying use of phonetic dialect in “Dr. Circe and the Shadow Over Swedish Innsmouth” by Erik Scott de Bie.  Horror tends to be subjective as to whether it works for you or not; I found most of the stories nicely creepy, with a couple going a bit too much for the gore for my tastes.

Recommended for fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the more literate horror fan in general.

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (USA) 2014

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (USA) 2014

It’s the second anniversary of this blog, so it’s time for the annual look at the online edition of Shounen Jump Weekly, the best-selling manga anthology in Japan.

Shonen Jump 2014

The big news this year was the end of the long-running and popular Naruto series (see my previous post on the topic.)   But there was also a switch in the way new series are added to the online edition.  Previously, new weekly series were added on the week they replaced an ending series in Japan, unless it was felt for whatever reason they would be unsuitable for Western audiences.  Series that didn’t happen to hit the right dates would be skipped.

This resulted in the online edition posting series that didn’t do well, while the ones that got skipped went on to great success.  Not a particularly useful marketing strategy.  So now they have “Jump Start”, a program in which the first three chapters of all new series are published in the online edition, so that if any of them do well, they can be promoted to full-time status.

Let’s start with a quick rundown of the current Jump Start contenders:

Takujo no Ageha:  Ageha’s Table Tennis by Itsuki Furuya:  A ping-pong based story.  Ageha is a table tennis champion who has returned from Germany for advanced training from one of Japan’s former world champions.   Ririka is the beautiful but spoiled granddaughter of that champion.   Grandpa wants to ensure that his ping-pong center will continue in the family, so wants them to get married.  But first, Ageha must battle twelve other Golden Successors to become the table tennis champion.  Some exciting ping-pong action, plus generous fanservice.  A running gag is that Ageha is trying really hard to be totally devoted to table tennis and training for same, but just below the surface is desperate to get laid.

E-Robot by Ryohei Yamamoto: Yuuki is a typical high-schooler who wants to date Hikari, the school idol.  His shyness has prevented him from even talking to her directly.  Meanwhile, Yuuki’s father wants to create world piece through the use of erotic robots.  No, seriously, this is his plan.  In aid of this, he sends an e-robot named Ai to help his son out through the power of sensuality.   Have I mentioned that this is a young adult magazine?   The conflict comes in when it turns out Hikari is repulsed by the least hint of perversion or sexuality, so Ai’s efforts to help Yuuki get with her are not terribly helpful.  The fanservice is just slathered on here, and the female lead is literally a collection of body parts used as tools to please men.  Very skippable.

Gakkyu Hotei: School Judgement by Nobuaki Enoki and Takeshi Obata:  In the near future, a collapse in discipline has changed the way grade schools handle rules violations.  Now there’s a court system in place, with prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.  Our protagonist is Abaku Inugami, a renegade defense attorney, who along with prosecutor Pine Hanzuki transfers into a class where a crime has taken place so that the case can be tried.  Abaku is rude and enjoys verbally tearing down other people’s reasoning, but is smart and observant.  In a nice touch, the first chapter ends with an Ellery Queen-style “you have enough facts to solve the mystery, can you figure it out before next week’s chapter?” moment.  The Obata (Death Note, Bakuman) art should help this one be popular.

In addition, each issue now has a “Jump Back” feature, which shows the earliest chapters of a previous hit manga.  Right now, they’re running the first bits of Naruto, which means that even though that series is now over, they can still draw in the orange-wearing ninja fanbase.

And now, a look at the regular features, starting with the weeklies:

Food Wars! (Shokugeki no Souma in Japan):  A young fellow named Souma has been an assistant cook in his father’s restaurant since childhood.  He has higher ambitions, and applies to a prestigious school of higher cuisine.   Despite his lower-class upbringing, he’s able to barely pass the entrance examination.  Now, he must compete in a series of cooking duels to prove his true worth.  This is new to the online edition this year; it was originally not carried due to heavy fanservice (women seemingly orgasming from delicious food) in the early chapters.  It’s dialed back the fanservice, concentrating on the food porn.   The most annoying thing about this series is that Souma is depicted as the underdog every. single. time. despite winning every. single. time.  You’d think people would catch on.

Bleach:  Ichigo can see ghosts, which is mostly an irritation to him until the day he meets a Soul Reaper and becomes involved in the afterlife’s violent politics.   This one is still on its final plot arc as the hidden Quincy army invades the Soul Society, apparently so their leader can take control of or destroy the entire afterlife.   Most of the last year has been minor characters facing off against lesser members of the invaders and showing off their weird powers.

One Piece:  Monkey D. Luffy, who lives on a world that’s 90% ocean, decides he wants to be the Pirate King and gain the One Piece treasure.  To this end, he assembles a wacky crew, and sails around the globe, finding adventure and fighting evil pirates.   The crew is still in and around Dressrosa, where many of the dark secrets have been revealed, and the entire city has been turned into a combat zone.  Luffy and his temporary ally Trafalgar Law  have engaged main villain Doflamingo, which is causing massive flashbacks.    This continues to be one of the magazine’s top series.

Toriko:  Toriko is a Gourmet Hunter, who searches for new food sources on the former Earth.  He and his companions are currently attempting to revive the human world by reconstructing a menu that revives those who are exposed to it.  Team chef Komatsu is in critical condition, and the heroes must battle a King Monkey who throws around mountains as skipping stones.

Hi-Fi Cluster:  In near-future Japan, “Ability Labels” allow anyone to gain skills instantly, and society has re-formed itself around this technology.  Young Peta is unable to use these labels, and feels disaffected.  But one day he discovers that he is able to use a super-powered Hi-Fi label and joins a special law enforcement unit that handles label abuse.  Someone claiming to be the labels’ inventor, Landscape Mole, has appeared, and declares that society hasn’t changed enough–so he’s going to smash it himself.  This was the winner of the previous Jump Start vote…it hasn’t been doing too well in the rankings.

World Trigger:  Earth is being invaded by the Neighbors, illegal aliens from a parallel dimension.  Fortunately, we are protected by the agents of BORDER.  Our main protagonists are Osamu, an underpowered but compassionate  strategist, Yuma, an undocumented immigrant with many secrets, and Chika, a tiny girl with huge amounts of the series’ gimmick, Trion power.  After staving off a raid from one sect of the Neighbors, the team is trying to get good enough to be promoted to field agents.  Also, the series now has an anime adaptation that has been poorly received.

Nisekoi:  Raku and Chitoge are the scions of rival criminal syndicates.  They meet and almost immediately take a strong dislike to each other.  But for peace treaty reasons, they must pretend to be dating.  Over the course of the series, Raku attracts several other attractive young women, many of whom are actually his childhood friends and thus possibly the girl he made a marriage proposal to years ago.  The most recent development is the appearance of substitute teacher Yui, who Raku thinks of as an older sister–but she may think more warmly of him than he’s comfortable with.

And then there’s the monthly installments:

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  In the children’s card game obsessed culture of Heartland City, Yuma is a great enthusiast of Duel Monsters–theoretically, since he is really bad at it.  Then he gains a mysterious spirit partner named Astral.  Things have escalated from there, and now he and his friends/rivals must battle a goddess of despair for the fate of two worlds.

Seraph of the End:  A mysterious disease has wiped out ninety percent of the world population, and most of the remainder are held as food reserves by vampires.  Only the Demon Army stands against them, but are they really any more healthy for humanity?  Yuichiro hopes they are, as he’s finally bonded with his unit, and their friendship helps him control his cursed weapon.   A search and destroy mission has gone slightly awry as several of the troopers have been taken hostage.

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okamura discovers that he is the son of Satan, and decides to fight against his father’s works by becoming an exorcist.  Rin and his allies have finally rescued Izumo at the cost of Shima’s betrayal (what is he up to, anyway?)   Now Izumo must learn what remains of her family heritage.

 

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair by Barbara & Robert Tinker with Pendred Noyce, illustrated by Yu-Yu Chin

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Once again the Galactic Academy of Science must reach out to kids from the 21st Century to preserve the timeline.  This time Dr. G is sabotaging the International Science Fair to crush the spirits of budding scientists and create a public impression that junk science is just as valid as real science.  Future teen  Quarkum reaches out to two new field agents, Ella and Shomari.

Shomari and Ella must travel through time to learn about cryptography and cryptoanalysis, codes and ciphers, so they can crack the coded messages Dr. G is sending his minions while protecting their own communications.  From Julius Caesar’s shift cipher to Whitfield Diffie and the public key, the experts of the past inform the children of the present to save the future.

This is the latest in a series of children’s books about science, with the framework of ethnically diverse youngsters traveling through time to learn about subjects firsthand.  The language is suitable for fourth graders on up, with more difficult words defined in the text.  It helps that Ella and Shomari are very literate for their age and bright enough to bring up examples when they’re appropriate.

Important or notable words are emphasized with colored text, and the illustrations are good.  There’s information on how to find more codes and ciphers on the publisher’s website if the reader wants to play along.

There is some mild peril–Dr. G’s minions aren’t very threatening.  And the story acknowledges that there are difficult topics that come up in the past, such as slavery, religious discrimination and sexism, which hinder or offend the children from time to time.    However, they are treated as problems of the past, with no mention of such topics in the present.

Like many kids, I went through a codes and ciphers phase, and this book would have been fascinating to me then.   Check out your school or public library.

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

The movie starts with chorus girls’ feet and legs kicking behind the title sequence.  Then the camera is pulled back and we discover that the “chorus girls” are all men.  The Zeta Fraternity of all-male Quinceton University are putting on a drag revue.

All-American Co-Ed

Matilda Collinge (Esther Dale) sees a description (but no pictures) in the paper and strongly disapproves.  As president of Mar Brynn Horticultural College, she would never allow such shenanigans on her all-female campus.   Still, enrollment has been falling off, and the college needs something to boost its profile.

Matilda’s publicist Hap Holden (Harry Langdon), a newspaperman, and her niece Virginia Collinge (Frances Langford) come up with an idea.  Rather than only admitting upper-crust girls, this year the college will offer scholarships to twelve young women from across the country who’ve won contests with their produce (who also look pretty.)

As an additional attention-grabber, these scholarship students will be referred to as “likely to succeed” in direct contrast to the loathsome oafs of Quinceton’s Zeta fraternity.  When this dig comes to the boys’ attention, they decide to dress up Bob Sheppard (Johnny Downs) as Flower Queen Bobbie DeWolfe and submit that picture.  Bobbie is chosen, so now Bob must go undercover as his alter ego, to seek revenge for the Mar Brynn slight.  Hilarity ensues.

This 1941 musical comedy has a disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual college life is purely coincidental.”  It’s from a time when “man in a dress” was considered comedy gold all by itself, and then adds some gags.  Let’s face it, Bobbie desperately trying to not be unmasked before “she” achieves her goal leads to some pleasant silliness.  I note that the disguise is helped by fashions of the day giving every young woman linebacker shoulders.

The first few songs are good, but the final agriculture-themed performance just drags on with labored rhymes.

Less good stuff:  There’s 1940s-style sexism, as Virginia declares, “Girls don’t want minds, Auntie, they want a husband!”  One comedic sequence turns on the stereotype of black people being superstitious and a little dim.  And sexual harassment is played for laughs, because it is just so hi-larious when a man is doing it to another man under the impression he’s a woman.

You may not want to watch this one with younger viewers in light of the last thing, or be prepared to remind them that in real life sexual harassment’s not funny.

This was nominated for two Oscars, so clearly has some merit, but it’s a specialty taste.

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction by Roderick Cyr

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

An Accidental Abduction

Katy Byrd is from small-town Minnesota, and seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus and her Christian faith.  She accompanies her father on a (“non-denominational” but later specified as evangelical) mission trip to Morocco to help out a struggling local church community.  She get separated from her group and is kidnapped by terrorists.

Azir Ahmed was turned on to radicalized Islam in college, and has joined AQIM.  Despite his admiration for some of their goals, he’s really not down with the terrorism part of being in a terrorist organization, and is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their violent actions.  When a foolish AQIM hanger-on kidnaps an American, Azir is assigned to guard the prisoner until the organization can figure out to capitalize on the situation.

While this book was self-published, the subject matter and treatment indicate that it’s meant for the Christian young adult market.  The writer for this market faces difficulties beyond the normal ones facing a YA writer, since certain topics are off limits or required to be presented in a specified way–without, one hopes, turning off or boring the young readers who are the target market.  Not everyone can handle this balance.  I regret to say that this is not a very good book.

The positive:  The basic plot idea is a good one; I like that the abduction is not planned, but a bungle by someone who only has a job in AQIM because his big-shot cousin was required to take him in.

I like that it’s not an “insta-conversion” story with the Sinner’s Prayer and an altar call, and a minor atheist character is not depicted as a sneering villain.  And if you wish, you can read it as non-supernatural, with the placebo effect of prayer, and some amazing coincidences.

Less good:  This book desperately needs an editor.  The  prose is clunky, there are spellchecker typos, and there is a lot of extra verbiage dedicated to telling, not showing.  This is especially evident in the first chapter, which is a prime example of what TV Tropes calls “character shilling.”  A secondary character spends most of the chapter extolling the virtues of the main character in order to impress the reader as to why they should like Katy.  (Pro tip: starting by listing all the superlative qualities your heroine lacks does not make it not character shilling.)

It takes about a third of the book to get to the main plotline, and the early chapters feel padded.  For example, there’s an attempt to build suspense with an untrustworthy-looking bus driver that goes absolutely nowhere–there’s not even a sigh of relief that he turns out not to be untrustworthy.

There’s also a weird political digression where the president of the United States is depicted as not being willing to help Katy because her father might possibly have voted against him in the last election, and only publicly identifying as Christian for political purposes.  The book is very careful not to mention the president’s name or skin color, but since the story is set in 2015, the odds are slim it’s Joe Biden.  (Shades of the “secret Muslim” canard.)

It’s also kind of weird that a cute white girl being kidnapped by terrorists somehow doesn’t cause a feeding frenzy by the American media–in real life, the parents would have been constantly harassed by opportunistic reporters and paparazzi.   Here, only the local media are interested, and then only after Katy is partially rescued.

Fatal:  Azir, a fervent Muslim, is gobsmacked by the concept of a merciful god that forgives sin.  He’s never heard of such a thing before!   This would seem to indicate that he has never read the Koran, the first verse of which describes God as merciful, and which goes on to describe God’s mercifulness and forgiveness of sins several times.  Nor has he ever seen a list of the ninety-nine names of God, which include “the Merciful.”

Slightly less untenable is the treatment of Allah and the Christian God as two separate entities; from the Muslim point of view, they’re the same being, the Christians are just worshiping Him wrong.  This should be even more evident as Azir and Katy are conversing in French,   In that language, the word for both “God” and “Allah” is “Dieu.”

It’s also notable that Katy, who’s been spending her spare time studying the Bible, seems never to have read Job or Ecclesiastes, with their perspectives on the problem of suffering.  Another odd bit is when her pastor uses his Christmas sermon to talk about how Jesus’ birth should influence lives in the present day, and this is treated as unusual, when it’s a standard pastoral topic that comes up every Christmas in most churches.

(There’s also a bit of gender essentialism when it’s just assumed that men going on a mission trip will be doing construction work while the women cook and clean, without checking to see if their skill sets lend themselves to that.)

So, no, I cannot recommend this book.  It needs a total rewrite with a good editor to bring out the good book that is buried in there.

Anime Review: Invaders of the Rokujyoma!?

Anime Review: Invaders of the Rokujyoma!?

Satomi Kotaro’s father has gone abroad on business, but he’s staying in Japan to attend high school.  Their family is not well off, and to stretch his living allowance as far as possible, Satomi jumps on Room 106 at Corona House because it costs the equivalent of $50 a month.  Turns out the reason it’s so cheap is because the apartment is reputedly haunted, but Satomi doesn’t notice anything the first few nights.

Invaders of the Rokujyouma!?

Shortly after he takes a bad fall at an archaeological dig and has a vision of a goddess talking to him, Satomi is confronted by Sanae Higashihongan, the cute ghost girl who haunts Room 106.  Turns out he’s a very heavy sleeper and all her nocturnal hijinks failed to make any impression.  Sanae wants Satomi out, but he’s already paid his rent, thank you.  Just as they get really heated in their argument, a new girl comes up through a trapdoor.

She’s Kiriha Kurano, a priestess of the Underground People, and this room happens to be a sacred site of her culture.  She needs to rededicate it as a temple of power so that the Underground People can take over the surface world.  Neither Satomi nor Sanae likes that idea!  The new round of argument is interrupted by a glowing gate appearing in one of the walls.  Satomi tries to block it, but only gets a faceful of girl for his troubles.

Enter Theiamillis Gre Fortorthe,, an alien princess, and her faithful servant Ruth.  Seems that Theia must gain the loyalty of the primitive lifeforms at the “randomly selected” coordinates which happen to be Room 106 in order to be considered in the line of succession for her Empire.  Once again, everyone else objects.   And then yet another girl trips in through the window.

She claims to be Rainbow Yurika (aka Yurika Nijino), a magical girl here to protect a powerful magical energy in Room 106 from evil magical girls, and she’ll need everyone to clear out so she can do that.  Ghosts, mole people and aliens?  Fine.  But cutesy magical girls just break everyone’s suspension of disbelief, and Yurika is unanimously declared to be an overenthusiastic cosplayer (a fan who dresses up as a favorite character.)  She strongly objects to this characterization, and is about to show off her magic while the others quarrel–

When Kasagi, the young landlady appears, kicks all of their butts with her ki-powered martial arts, and forces them to sign a contract agreeing to abide by Corona House rules.   With violence no longer an option, the claimants on Room 106 must find a new way to resolve their property dispute.  Let the wacky hijinks begin!

This animated series is based on a series of light novels titled Rokujyouma no Shinryakusha!?  by  the team of Takehaya & Poco.  It’s in the “harem comedy” subgenre (the main feature of which is a young schlub who inexplicably has a bunch of hot women fall for him and maintains the suspense as to which if any he will hook up with going as long as possible; the reverse harem is an average woman getting hot guys.)

What makes this series a little different is that the women don’t in fact start out by all being interested in the same man, but in the apartment he happens to be living in.  And by the time the women do start warming to Satomi, it becomes evident that he’s romantically interested in yet another young woman, Harumi, who appears to have nothing to do with the Room 106 shenanigans.

It soon becomes evident that Satomi is anything but normal, and that everyone’s backstories are much more connected than they ever could have guessed.  However, the anime is only a “best hits” compilation of the light novels, so the full story is not yet legally available in English.

Of the characters, my heart goes out most to Yurika, who is clumsy, unlucky and generally treated like dirt in the early parts of the story.  Her heroics go unnoticed except by her enemies.  Harumi shows her good qualities by being the only person who’s kind to Yurika in the early episodes.

Things that are carried over from standard harem comedies:  a moderate amount of fanservice, although the first episode is the worst about this with breast jokes and underwear exposure.  Also, Satomi only has one male friend “MacKenzie”, who is also the only other maile character of any consequence in the series, and exists primarily to get Satomi in trouble.

This series should be fun for junior high viewers on up who enjoy harem comedies, though the backstory stuff not being available may annoy those who prefer everything spelled out.  The complete season of twelve episodes is available on Crunchyroll as of 2014.

Book Review: The Invisible

Book Review: The Invisible by Amelia Kahaney

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there may be changes in the final product, due out 10/7/14.

The Invisible

Spring has come to Bedlam City, and Anthem Fleet is beginning to recover from the events of the winter.  The Syndicate seems to be lying low, and she no longer goes out every night to fight it.  But now a new threat raises its ugly head.  The Invisible, a group that seems to have a grudge against the wealthy North Siders, is engaging in ever more deadly “pranks.”  They also seem to have an interest in the New Hope, Anthem’s hero identity.  Things quickly get personal for Anthem, who is more closely tied to the Invisible than she could have imagined.

This is a sequel to Ms. Kahaney’s previous book, The Brokenhearted.  In that book, Anthem lost her human heart and had an experimental “chimeric” heart implanted by a black market scientist.  This gave her enhanced speed and strength, and as of the beginning of this volume, ultrasonic hearing.  This is listed as a middle grade book, but Anthem is a high school senior, and there are sexual references and drug use that puts this more in the young adult category.

There are a number of flashbacks to the time of Bedlam City’s original hero, the Hope, which eventually tie back in to the present day action.  Some background is given as to how Bedlam City became so sharply divided between rich and poor, and the Syndicate became so powerful.

Anthem is thankfully not as blindingly stupid as in the first book, though this may be less because she’s wised up and more because the nature of the plot keeps her from getting too wrapped up in her own love life.  She’s still a bit too trusting of the wrong people, who go against their own best interests to do the evil thing.

The Invisible try to come off as an Anonymous-style social movement, but it is obvious from the beginning that their expressions of regret at people getting hurt or killed are self-serving at best, and their political philosophy is incoherent.    Their leader’s plan turns out to be nothing less than mass murder for reasons that make sense, but diminish that person’s ability to attract empathy.

And even when the Invisible have been stopped, Anthem has to deal with another villain who has gone unseen by her.

One boggling moment is that the city has two separate power grids, with no way to relay power from one to the other in case of failure.  it kind of makes sense the way the background is set up, but a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Again, due to the subject matter and themes, I would not recommend this to below junior high readers, and conservative parents might want to skim the book first.  That aside, it is better than the first volume in the series and should appeal to fans of action girls.

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

The Kappa Psi Delta fraternity on the Rawley University campus is abuzz with excitement.  They’re getting a new frat brother and member of the rowing team, Bob Terry, who was a champion stroke at his prep school.  No one’s ever seen a picture of him, but with his help, Rawley might actually win the big meet this year for the first time since 1928.

Let's Go Collegiate

Then Tad (Jackie Moran), fraternity president, bandleader and second stroke on the team, learns that Bob’s been drafted and will be unable to come.  He and coxswain Frankie (Frankie Darro) try to break this news to their girlfriends from the sister sorority Bess (Marcia Mae Jones) and Midge (Gale Storm), who have been planning a huge party to welcome Bob.  They can’t quite bring themselves to let the girls down and are unable to tell the truth before the girls leave.

Frankie and Tad are being driven around by the house servant Jeff (Mantan Moreland) when they spot a strong-looking young fellow hoisting a safe onto a truck.  (It doesn’t occur to them to wonder why he’s doing this.)  They approach “Herk” with the notion of posing as Bob Terry for the duration of the party, buying him off with ten dollars.

At the party, the tall, relatively handsome and outgoing Herk is a hit with the ladies, despite his uncouth speech and mannerisms.  He decides he wants to be Bob Terry some more, or he’ll spill the beans.  Thus Herk must attend classes as Bob, despite having little education, and serve on the rowing team, despite a seasickness problem.  Tad and Frankie are assisted in this by their fraternity brother Buck (Keye Luke), who acts as the rowing team coach’s assistant.

Things get tighter for Frankie and Tad when their respective girlfriends dump them for “Bob”, and their own grades suffer from having to spend their time tutoring Herk.  Worse yet, a couple of overly inquisitive alumni arrive just before the big race, and begin to piece together what’s really going on.

This 1941 film is on my””Musicals” DVD collection, though it’s more of a movie with musical interruptions.  It’s pretty precisely dated because of the peacetime draft (started September 1940) being a plot point.  it’s a lighthearted film with some nice music, and some bits are still funny.  If you like the “wacky scheme that snowballs way out of control” plotline, this is your kind of movie.

I like that Kappa Psi Delta will pledge Chinese-Americans; Buck is treated as an equal by his frat brothers, although there’s a little ethnic “humor” at his expense (and the alumni are outright rude to him.)  Not so good is the treatment of Jeff, who is stuck with the role of comical sidekick and forced to do anything the white students demand of him.  (On the other hand, he’s a lot more honest with his love interest Malvina (Marguerite Whitten), the servant at the sorority house (she gets the “sassy black woman” stereotype.)  Compared to Tad and Frankie, Jeff comes off pretty good.)

And Midge and Bess are depicted as shallow young women who are easily fooled by Herk’s “aw shucks” demeanor–it’s not until the big race that they realize he’s been playing them.

As for Herk himself, he’s a more complex character than he might look.  He’s a bad person, but he seems to genuinely want to learn when he gets the chance, and help the team win.  If only he weren’t so self-centered, Herk might have had a redemption story here..

Treat this movie as a time capsule, and it’s not half bad, but if you are watching it with younger viewers, prepare to discuss some important ethical topics.

Anime Review: Matchless Raijin-Oh

The fifth-dimensional Jaku Empire (literally, “the Evil Empire”) has decided to conquer the third dimension, starting with Earth.  Good thing Earth has a powerful guardian spirit named Eldoran.  Or perhaps we should say had a powerful guardian spirit, as Eldoran blocks the invaders’ one-shot superweapon at the cost of crippling himself to a near-death state.

Matchless Raijin-Oh

Eldoran has a back-up plan.  He bestows the remainder of his power, in the form of giant robots that combine into larger giant robots, on a class of fifth-graders who are in school on Saturday doing make-up work.  The military isn’t too thrilled with the fact that the world’s fate is in the hands of a bunch of pre-teens, but the Earth Defense Class is the only ones who can use the mighty Raijin-Oh against the weekly monster attacks.

Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh was a 1991 anime series for children, the first of the “Eldoran Trilogy.”  It falls into the “super robot” subgenre of the mecha genre, which means that it generally ignores questions of practicality and treats the laws of physics as mild suggestions.  (As opposed to the “real robot” subgenre where they at least handwave explanations as to how the mecha work in realistic terms.)

There are eighteen kids in Class 5-3, nine boys and nine girls of varied size, shape, social status and personality, so it’s easy for most viewers to have a favorite.  And all of them are important.  Sure, some of them get much more screen time, but even if your job is just to pull the transformation lever, no one else can do that, so if you go missing, the team will lose.

The kids who get the most screentime are:

  • Jin, the pilot of Ken-Oh, a swordsman mecha, and lead pilot of Raijin-Oh when the robots combine.  He’s a typical boys’ anime lead, spiky-haired, hot-blooded and book-dumb.
  • Asuka, the pilot of Hou-Oh, a bird mecha.  He’s a handsome and diplomatic lad, and a hit with the girls.  Asuka likes being treated well because of his looks, but doesn’t really grok why being liked by women is a thing.
  • Kouji, the pilot of Juu-Oh, a lion mecha.  He’s a dreamer and UFO nut, who’s a bit timid, but is better at understanding people than his two buddies.
  • Maria, the class leader.  She’s an all-rounder who’s good but not the best at many skills, and coordinates the Command Center when monsters attack.  Her only flaw is a bit of a temper, mostly caused by Jin’s antics.  (The series is clearly setting Jin and Maria up for a romance in their teens.)
  • Tsutomu, the class nerd.  He’s the one who handles technical issues and discovering new powers for the robots.

While the adults are shut out of being able to save the day, Mr. Shinoda (the homeroom teacher), Miss Himeji (school nurse) and the Principal (who is skilled in kung fu) often are able to help the kids out with real-world problems.  Even the General eventually is a bit helpful, though he never completely warms up to the notion that military might is not the answer.

Over on the villain side, the leader is Belzeb, who is literally heartless.  Instead, he has an evil fairy named Falzeb living in his rib cage.  He’s assisted by the bumbling Taida, a chubby, childish fellow who isn’t really cut out for the villain lifestyle.   The monsters start out as akudama (“evil balls”), round bits of darkness that are scattered around the landscape.  When activated by the word meiwaku (“troublesome”, “annoying” , “problematic”) then turn into a small monster that takes its theme from whatever was described with the code word.

Thus we have things like a pollution monster, a flu monster, a superhero monster (that one had some serious “which side am I on?” issues) and so forth.  At some point, Falzeb would energize the monster, turning it into a larger, more powerful version, and Raijin-Oh would need to fight it.

The plots do tend to be formulaic.  One of the children has a spotlight subplot, such as being afraid of dogs.  The monster may or may not relate to that subplot, but generally defeating the monster will also resolve the subplot.  There’s plenty of stock footage of the various uniform changes, robot launches and transformations and special attacks.  One episode about halfway through is a clip show, though it does answer a few pertinent questions.  (The robots combining to form Raijin-Oh takes less than three seconds real time, not the over a minute it looks like in the stock footage.)

Some of the spotlight episodes are more disappointing for fans of those individual characters, as Jin has his own secondary subplot, meaning that the character whose spotlight it is gets even less time.

The series is being brought to the U.S. by Anime Midstream, a small independent company formed for the purpose.  They’ve titled it Matchless Raijin-Oh and five volumes are currently available on DVD.  The disks have both subtitled and dubbed versions, with the dub being done mostly by enthusiastic amateurs.  (It’s okay, but not quite up to professional standards.)

The series is kid-friendly, but parents should be aware that Japan has different standards for how much nudity is acceptable for children (we see a couple of naked butts in a non-sexual context) and some old-fashioned ideas about physical discipline of children are on display.  (Jin’s  parents especially believe in the usefulness of a good smack to the head.)  The blooper reels are less kid-friendly; the worst words are bleeped out, but parental no-nos are still heard.

If your kids already enjoy loud exciting action cartoons, please consider supporting this small business.  Older anime fans may find it a bit childish, but there’s still plenty to love.

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