Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2  by Takehiko Inoue

Quick recap: In 17th Century Japan, failed soldier Shinmen Takezo has reinvented himself as wandering swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Dedicating his life to perfecting his own style of swordsmanship, he travels to Kyoto and starts a feud with the Yoshioka school of kendo.  Unknown to him, his childhood friend Matahachi is also in town, and accidentally sets fire to the Yoshioka dojo.

Vagabond Volume 2

This volume opens with Musashi being nursed back to health by the rough-edged Buddhist monk Takuan.  Realizing he still has a long way to go, Musashi decides to travel to Nara, there to pit himself against the spear style of the Hōzōin Temple monks.  A chance encounter with an elderly gardener may be more valuable than any battle.

Musashi is distracted by thoughts of his other childhood friend, the lovely Otsu.  She’s now the servant of a master of the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, who Yoshioka Denshichiro has come to train with in preparation for his next duel with Musashi.

Others are also on the road.  Gion Toji of the Yoshioka school is tracking Musashi to kill him, and is none too restrained about maiming other people along the way.

Matahachi’s on the run because of the arson thing, and a chance encounter allows him to also reinvent himself as the respected warrior Sasaki Kojirō.  His sections of the story are tragicomedy, as he keeps having good intentions, but the flaws in his character prevent him from following through in a crisis, and we watch him make excuse after excuse for doing less than he ought.

Miyamoto Musashi is better at learning from his mistakes; while he is not the sharpest katana in the armory, he’s partially grasped the concept of critical thinking and examining his own mindset.  Still has a long way to go before being the best swordsman in Japan though.

The successor to the Hōzōin spear style, Inshun, has his own issues.  He’s a natural combat genius who has never known “fear”, or had a truly serious challenge to his skills until now.  Thus his growth has stalled; Inshun must learn how to deal with defeat to become stronger.  His multi-chapter duel with Musashi is the centerpiece of this volume.

The art is stellar, but much of the credit for the plot and characterization must go to Eiji Yoshikawa, author of the novel this manga is an adaptation of.

There’s a lot of violence in this volume, some of it quite bloody.  There’s also a brief sex scene with female nudity–this is a “mature readers” title.

This continues to be a good choice for fans of samurai action stories.

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

Sho Fukan, a simple wanderer, just wanted an umbrella to ward off the rain.  But the sly stranger called Rin Setsua manipulated Sho Fukan into helping out a damsel in  distress.  The woman’s name turned out to be Tan Hi, a shrine maiden whose family was dedicated to keeping a powerful magic sword locked away.  Tan Hi’s brother had already been killed by Betsutengai, leader of the foul organization Genkishu, who now desires the part of the sword she has to unlock the mystic barrier around the blade.

Thunderbolt Fantasy
Sho Fukan and Shyu Unshou discuss one of their group. But which one?

By assisting Tan Hi, Sho Fukan has made an enemy of the Genkishu, and is thus roped into Rin Setsua’s plan to go to the Seven Sins Tower and defeat Betsutengai.  There are many hazards along the path, so Rin Setsua recruits others for special skills:  demon necromancer Kei Gai, one-eyed archer Shyu Unshou (and his impetuous sidekick Ken Sanun), and the assassin Setsumusho.   It’s not the most cohesive group–Kei Gai and Setsumusho openly plan to kill Rin Setsua for previous wrongs once the objective is reached, Sho Fukan is only going along under duress, and everyone else is wondering if Sho Fukan is really as ignorant as he acts…or is the world’s best actor.

This show is a Taiwanese-Japanese co-production, with writing by Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica) and puppetry by Pili Co.   Yes, that’s right, it’s a hand puppet show!  Based on the popular wuxia (mystical martial arts) subgenre, the fight choreography and use of body language are masterful.  This makes up some for the expressionless faces.  I should mention here that the show was broadcast in three different languages; I am using the Japanese versions of the names for convenience.

The setting is more or less a fantasy version of China; a demon invasion two centuries before has split the country in half with a new mountain range and wasteland.   Various mystic weapons were created to drive the demons back, the most powerful of which is rumored to be the Tengyouken that Tan Hi’s family guards.  Kei Gai is a lesser demon who chose to stay in the human world for her own motives, and does not get on well with mortals.  Since everyone is wearing elaborate full-body robes, this helps conceal the puppeteers.

As expected from an Urobuchi story, there are some nasty plot twists in the last third of the series, some fairly obvious (what part of “openly plans to kill the leader” did you not understand?) and others more shocking.  It’s a wonder that anyone is left to appear in the sequel (already in production.)  Viewers unfamiliar with wuxia may find some conventions of the subgenre like random poetry recitation a little baffling or off-putting.

There’s a fair amount of blood in the combat scenes, and a surprisingly gory moment towards the end.  I’d say junior high school viewers and up should be able to handle it.

Highly recommended to wuxia and/or puppetry fans.  These are really cool puppets!  As of February 2017, the show is streaming on Crunchyroll.

And now, the opening song, created by T.M. Revolution!

 

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Anime Review: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

Anime Review: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

This is the sequel to last year’s Magi: The Magical Labyrinth so please see my review of that show, and the Magi manga if you don’t want to be spoiled for those.

Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

After defeating another dungeon, our heroes are in high spirits.  But soon new matters come up.  Prince Hakuryu must return to his homeland of Kou (basically dynastic China) as his father is dying.  Alibaba decides that he needs instruction in combining his swordsmanship with his djinn powers in Leam (roughly Imperial Rome.)  Morgiana wants to visit the place her tribe came from, even though no one lives there any more.  And Aladdin?  Well, he wants more magic training, so he’ll go undercover as a student to the land of Magnostadt, the only kingdom where wizards rule.

After some adventures getting to the continent where all these places are, the main characters split up, having separate adventures.  We mostly follow Aladdin, who may have great power as a magi, but needs much more training for finesse and versatility.  Magnostadt is a great place for wizards, but there are some strange things that don’t quite fit the outward image, and the city has a terrible cost for its power.  Also, one of Aladdin’s fellow students has a secret that could lead to global war–if El-Sarmen doesn’t bring about the end of the world first!

The most interesting new character in this storyline is Mogamett, leader of Magnostadt.  He clearly wants to be the Professor X of wizards, but has fallen into Magneto territory instead.   The contrast between his kindly demeanor and his cruel acts stuns Aladdin, and me as well.

The biggest weakness of this season is the absence of Morgiana through most of it.  Her quest is left hanging about halfway through, then we don’t see her until  the penultimate episode, when she shows up out of the blue with a new power.  At least Alibaba got to show up a few episodes earlier for some character development.

The manga is not yet complete, so the series ends on a sequel hook in case it gets renewed for another season.

Aladdin continues his obsession with breasts, and the script obliges him every so often.  On the good side, we get a bit more skin tone variation.

If you liked the first season, you should enjoy this one too.

Movie Review: Kill Devil

Movie Review: Kill Devil (2004)

A teenager wakes up on a deserted beach, sometime in autumn.  He doesn’t remember who he is or how he got there, but the blanket he was under indicates he wasn’t on that beach by accident.  He’s wearing a strange metal wristband with the name “Shougo” on it, so that’s what people call him.

Kill Devil

Shougo soon meets other amnesiac teens, some reasonably friendly, and others lethally unfriendly, especially “the scythe man.”  Shougo and the others stumble around the island looking for the reason they’re there, and someplace safe.

Then about fifteen minutes in, we’re told exactly what is happening, not in dialogue, but a straight-up voice-over.  It seems that Japanese scientists have isolated the “murder gene” that causes some people to flip out and casually kill others.  Sixteen teenagers who carry the gene were brought to this island, and had their memories wiped as part of an experiment code-named “Kill the Devil.”  (We never learn the precise goal of the experiment.)

This 2004 Japanese film is transparently following in the footsteps of Battle Royale with the young people being coerced into killing each other for the benefit/entertainment of adults.  It’s not nearly as good; the amnesia gimmick means that we learn little to nothing about any given character before they die, and most of them do.

There’s also a samurai sword duel in the middle of the movie that has nothing to do with anything else.

If you liked Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, but thought there was too much plot and character development, this might suit your needs.  The US DVD release comes with a trailer and alternate ending; don’t watch either before the main feature as the trailer spoils one of the few actual surprises, and the alternate ending won’t make sense at all (not that it does much anyway) without seeing the rest of the movie first.

In addition to R-level violence, there’s some side-on male nudity.

After this point, I will be discussing SPOILERS for Kill Devil.

SPOILERS!

It’s a bit difficult to say what the theme of the movie is, beyond “grownups suck.”  Perhaps the futility of trying to overcome your genetic destiny; or a warning against being so invested in a certain outcome of your scientific research that you rig the experiment until you get the outcome you want.

The ending of the film is a downer, with all the teenagers dead, and most of the adults getting away with their actions.  And then there’s a stinger at the end of the credits that’s foreshadowed in one line in the rest of the movie, involving a character we’ve never seen before and leaves you asking “why?”  Perhaps it was meant to be a sequel hook.

The alternate ending is just like the regular ending except that the last teen killed suddenly rises, goes into a dance routine, and then several of the other teen characters join him for a big dance number.  Then the others vanish, the last teen lies down dead, and fade to black.  (Same stinger after the credits.)  Given that several members of the cast were members of the Diamond*Dogs dance troupe, this may have been the original intended ending.

Both the ending credits and the trailer show a still of what is apparently a scene deleted in the US release in which two of the characters do a rap.    I am mildly grateful that this was not included.  The trailer also gives away the stinger.

END SPOILERS

Again, not particularly recommended, unless perhaps you are a fan of the Diamond*Dogs dance troupe, or one of the actors in the cast list.

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.

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