Skip Beat!, Omnibus 1

Creator: Yoshiki Nakamura
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421542263
Released: March 2012
Original release: 2002-2003

The first omnibus volume of Yoshiki Nakamura’s manga series Skip Beat!, published in 2012 by Viz Media, collects the first three volumes of the original English-language release—all three of which were published under the Shojo Beat imprint in 2006. In Japan, the first three volumes of Skip Beat! were released between 2002 and 2003. Currently, Skip Beat! is the only manga by Nakamura available in English and it is the series for which she is best known. In addition to the original manga, Skip Beat! has also been adapted as a drama CD, a twenty-five episode anime, a live-action television series, and even a video game. Skip Beat! was selected as the topic of the June 2013 Manga Moveable Feast. I had previously read several volumes of the series and vaguely remembered enjoying them, but I was glad for an excuse to give the series a closer look.

Kyoko Mogami left home after graduating from junior high, following her childhood friend and love Sho as he pursues his career as an idol. Now living in Tokyo and working two jobs just to afford their apartment, Kyoko is happy as long as she can support and be with Sho. But then she finds out that he’s been taking advantage of her the whole time—he harbors no feelings of love for Kyoko and instead views her as a convenient if sometimes annoying maid. Betrayed, Kyoko is determined to wreak havoc on Sho’s life and take her revenge in the only way that he’ll deign to recognize: she has decided to enter show business. Kyoko has her sights set on joining LME, one of the biggest talent agencies in Japan and coincidentally home to Ren Tsuruga, and incredibly talented and successful actor who Sho hates. Kyoko doesn’t have a particular interest in show business, nor does she have any training, but what she does have is guts.

At the beginning of Skip Beat!, Kyoko’s life is consumed by Sho and her love for him. After his betrayal, her life continues to be consumed by Sho, but love has been replaced by hatred and vengeance. Sho’s a total jerk, so I can’t really blame Kyoko for her change of heart. At first Ren comes across as a jerk, too, but its really more that he can’t be bothered by people who don’t take show business seriously. This is why early on he and Kyoko don’t get along—he appreciates her guts and willpower, but dislikes her motivation to succeed. Kyoko is focused on making it big just to show up Sho. But as can already be seen in the first Skip Beat! omnibus, over time she starts to change. Initially she wanted to be a celebrity solely for the sake of revenge, but she is slowly gaining pride in herself and in her work for its own sake. Granted, getting back at Sho, and to a somewhat smaller extent Ren, is never far from her mind.

Kyoko is one hell of a character. She’s brash, stubborn, and determined. And she’s not the only one—Skip Beat! has many strong-willed and incredibly eccentric characters. I like Kyoko a lot. I appreciate a heroine who is willing to take control of her own life and work through her mistakes. Skip Beat! itself is a highly entertaining manga. With so many strong personalities involved there’s bound to be conflict and the results are very funny. The characters frequently end up in outrageous situations and their over-the-top reactions are priceless. Nakamura’s visual gags in Skip Beat! are great, too. Kyoko’s inner demons often make an appearance to spur her on and occasionally are even strong enough to affect those around her directly. All told, Skip Beat! is a tremendous amount of fun; I enjoyed the beginning of the series even more than I remembered.

Chicago, Volume 2: The Book of Justice

Creator: Yumi Tamura
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781569318294
Released: May 2003
Original release: 2001

As part of the Yumi Tamura Manga Moveable Feast, I decided to take a look at the first of her works to be released in English—a short, two-volume series called Chicago. The second volume of Chicago, The Book of Justice, was initially serialized by Viz Media between 2002 and 2003 in its monthly shoujo manga magazine Animerica Extra and was subsequently released as a trade collection later in 2003. The volume was first published in Japan in 2001. Tamura is probably best known for her series Basara; I have seen almost nothing written about Chicago despite the work being her first official introduction to English-reading audiences. The two volumes of the series are now also out of print in English. I read the first volume of Chicago, The Book of Self and was intrigued enough by it to track down the second volume as well.

Operating out of a bar called Chicago in south Shinjuku is a privately organized team of agents who take on rescue missions that the police won’t or are afraid to touch. Originally Rei and Uozumi were a part of the Self-Defense Force’s Rescue Squad Four, a rescue team that was wiped out after the Great Tokyo Earthquake. The only survivors of the squad, Rei and Uozumi have been recruited by Chicago, joining the reserved but talented gunman Shin and Zion, a pilot who seems happier making gyoza than he does flying. The members of Chicago’s rescue squad might need to work a bit on their teamwork, but there is no denying that they are all very good at what they do. As the team takes on more rescue missions a troubling pattern emerges: they all appear to somehow be connected to the demise of Squad Four and Rei and Uozumi’s pasts. Rei and Uozumi are determined to uncover the truth, but digging any deeper may very well end up costing more than just their lives.

Much like the first volume of Chicago, The Book of Justice is filled with outrageous but entertaining and engaging action sequences as the team members carry out their rescue missions. It’s great fun even when it’s not particularly believable. What is more believable are the characters themselves and their complicated and frequently antagonistic relationships with one another. I enjoyed watching them interact (and get on each other’s nerves) a great deal. Sadly, since not much is revealed about Shin other than a few ominous comments and implications, he largely remains a mysterious, handsome stranger. However, The Book of Justice does reveal more of Rei and Uozumi’s history, including how they met and came to work together and why they’re so close. Even Mika, Uozumi’s boyfriend, is given a chance to briefly take center stage in The Book of Justice.

Because Chicago has so much going for it—an intriguing mystery, great action scenes, interesting character dynamics—it’s particularly disappointing and frustrating that Tamura ended the series just as things were pulling together so nicely. The second volume of Chicago is much more even and focused than the first; Tamura seemed to be hitting her groove with the story and characters. Unlike in the first volume, all of the character and plot elements serve a distinct purpose and the more awkward attempts at humor are missing. Tamura ties up most of the major plot points in The Book of Justice, but the series is still brought to an abrupt and rushed close. She assures readers that Chicago wasn’t cancelled—she just felt that it was time to move on, which I find almost worse. It’s a shame Tamura decided to end the series after only two volumes. Chicago had great potential and I would have liked to have seen more.

Chicago, Volume 1: The Book of Self

Creator: Yumi Tamura
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781591160410
Released: November 2002
Original release: 2001

Although Yumi Tamura is probably best known for her post-apocalyptic epic Basara, her later two-volume manga series Chicago was her first work to be officially released in English. Chicago, Volume 1: The Book of Self was released in 2002 by Viz Media after serializing the manga in the monthly shoujo magazine Animerica Extra between 2001 and 2002. The collected volume was originally published in Japan in 2001. Chicago is now out of print in English but still fairly easy to find at reasonable prices. Because May 2013’s Manga Moveable Feast focused on Tamura and her work, I decide to track down the short series. I’ve actually been meaning to read Basara for what seems like ages now, but I thought it would be interesting if my introduction to Tamura’s manga would be through her introduction to English-reading audiences.

Rei and Uozumi are the only remaining survivors of the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s Rescue Squad Four. The rest of their team members died in Bay District D while on a rescue mission after the Great Tokyo Earthquake. The official press release described the deaths as an accident, claiming that the squad was caught in a fire after the quake. Rei and Uozumi know differently and because of that their lives are still in danger. Down on their luck and barely scraping by, the two partners are approached by a mysterious man looking to recruit them for a rescue mission of a different kind. A young, aspiring photojournalist has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. At first it appears to be a case of mistaken identity but it may in fact have ties to the annihilation of Squad Four in Bay District D. Looking for answers, Rei and Uozumi agree to take on the job despite their misgivings.

Rei is a pretty kick-ass heroine. She’s a competent fighter with top-notch knife skills that are more than a match for those who would try to do her harm. She doesn’t take crap from anyone except maybe for some good-natured ribbing from Uozumi. Rei also seems to have some vague supernatural powers, such as the ability to sense danger and an odd intuition that leads her to be in the right place at the right time, allowing her to prevent several tragedies in The Book of Self before they can happen. She and Uozumi also share a very strong bond with each other that borders on ESP. Rei is actually in love with Uozumi and he obviously cares for her as well. However, he already has a lover and as is revealed towards the end of The Book of Self, there are other reasons why Rei has no chance with him. That doesn’t make the pain and frustration of her heartbreak any less, though.

So far, Chicago is a rather odd series even if it does have some great action scenes and a quirky charm to it. Much of the story relies on convenient coincidences, but these incidents may be attributed to Rei’s intuition or some other sort of fate. Tamura does include some seemingly strange character details in The Book of Self. Some, like fellow rescue agent Shin’s apparent abhorrence of celery, add a weird bit of humor to the story. Others, like Rei’s work as a model, seem an unnecessary distraction. Still others appear to be innocuous at first only to play an important role later on—Uozumi’s extensive knowledge of classical music actually ends up saving his life. Chicago can be a little over-the-top, ridiculous, and unbelievable, but ultimately I found the first volume to be a fun read. I have no idea what’s in store for the second volume, The Book of Justice, but I look forward to finding out.

Grand Guignol Orchestra, Volume 1: Overture

Creator: Kaori Yuki
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421536361
Released: October 2010
Original release: 2009

For the Kaori Yuki Manga Moveable Feast, I decided to take a look at Overture, the first volume in Grand Guignol Orchestra, the most recent of Kaori Yuki’s manga series to be released in English. The first volume of Grand Guignol Orchestra was originally published in Japan in 2009. Overture was subsequently released in English in 2010 by Viz Media under its Shojo Beat imprint. Although Yuki has had several of her works licensed in English, the only other manga of hers that I have read is Godchild. It took a while for that series to grow on me, but I ultimately enjoyed its dark, Gothic horror. However, I never quite got around to pursuing more of Yuki’s manga until Grand Guignol Orchestra was released. What particularly appealed to me about Grand Guignol Orchestra and convinced me to pick it up was its fantastical use of music.

As members of the Queen’s unofficial Grand Orchestra, Lucille, Kohaku, and Gwindel tour the countryside, journeying to places that the official orchestra wouldn’t dare. With the outbreak of the virus that causes Galatea Syndrome—transforming people into violent, doll-like zombies known as guignols—traveling is a dangerous endeavor. But it is the responsibility of the Grand Orchestra, even the unofficial one, to seek out and destroy the guignols and investigate the often bizarre circumstances surrounding the spread of the disease. The highly trained and capable musicians use their musical talents and a bit of combat training to annihilate the threat to the general population. Unfortunately, their people skills can be somewhat lacking and their help isn’t always welcomed by the people they are trying to aid. Guignols aren’t the only ones who pose a danger to the orchestra and its members.

Yuki’s artwork is one of the highlights of Grand Guignol Orchestra. She describes the series’ setting as taking place in the Middle Ages with a French flair to it (and with some very obvious anachronistic deviations.) The attention given to the costume designs with all their layers and frills is particularly marvelous. The guignols themselves also have a great design and are suitably creepy with their haunted eyes and cracking skin. In general, the artwork creates an excellent atmosphere for the Gothic tale. Unfortunately, it often seems at odds with the humor that Yuki attempts to introduce into the series. Although somewhat entertaining and a relief from the wonderfully melodramatic plot, the more comedic aspects of the series don’t seem to mesh quite yet with its darker elements. At times Grand Guignol Orchestra is deadly serious while at others it’s purposely ridiculous. The result can be awkward.

Considering how many elements there are in Grand Guignol Orchestra that I actually really like, I am very surprised that I didn’t enjoy the first volume more. I love the destructive and redemptive power granted to music in the series and get a huge kick out of the ability to take out zombies with a tuning fork. I also like the gender-bending aspects of the story and characters. Lucille, much to his dismay, is mistaken for a woman more often than not, but is generally happy to use this to his advantage. He’s not the only character who plays with gender, either. Overture is very much an introductory volume. Although the deliciously tragic pasts of the musicians have been hinted at, very little is actually known about them at this point and will be revealed later on in the series. But if I had to judge by the first volume alone, I would have to say that I appreciate and enjoy Grand Guignol Orchestra more in concept than I do in execution.

Manga Giveaway: Historical Manga Winner

And the winner of the Historical Manga Giveaway is…Dawn H!

As the winner, Dawn will be receiving a new copy of Shigeru Mizuki’s award-winning, semi-autobiographical manga Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths as published by Drawn and Quarterly. The timing of this giveaway happily coincided with the Historical Manga Moveable Feast, and so I asked those entering to tell me about their favorite historical manga.

Normally, I would take this opportunity to compile a list of historical manga. But, depending on how one defines historical manga, that could end up being a very long list, indeed. So instead, I’d like to briefly ramble on a bit about the manga mentioned in the giveaway’s comments.

Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura
One of my first manga series and still one of my personal favorites, Blade of the Immortal is the current focus of my monthly review project. For all of my reviews for the series, check out the Blade of the Immortal tag or the individual links from the Review Index.

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
It’s been a while since I’ve read A Drifting Life (a bit before I began Experiments in Manga). A massive tome, Tatsumi’s memoir looks at both the creator’s personal life as well as the cultural history of  manga in Japan.

Drifters by Kohta Hirano
Most people I know prefer Hirano’s earlier series Hellsing, but personally I’m more fond of Drifters. It does take some outside knowledge of the series’ historical inspirations to fully appreciate the manga, though. Drifters is intense and doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense, but I do enjoy it.

Emma by Kaoru Mori
I unfortunately discovered Emma too late—it’s now out-of-print and hard to find in English. Fortunately my library had a complete set I could read. I really hope that the license is rescued because Emma is a wonderful series. (Yen Press, pretty please?)

The Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio
Not only does The Heart of Thomas take place in a historical setting, it is also a historically important and significant work. I’m thrilled that it is now available in English, and Fantagraphics’ release is gorgeous. You can find my in-depth review here.

Kaze Hikaru by Taeko Watanabe
I actually haven’t read Kaze Hikaru yet, although I really have been meaning to. After all, Kate Dacey (who I admire greatly) has declared it to be her favorite shoujo manga. Plus, Shinsengumi!

Kids on the Slope by Yuki Kodama
I would love to read Kids on the Slope. Unfortunately, it’s probably unlikely that we’ll ever see the series licensed in English. But, at least we do have the anime adaptation.

Lone Wolf & Cub written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima
I am so glad that Dark Horse is re-releasing Lone Wolf & Cub in a larger format. The smaller editions are going out of print and, while cool, were difficult for me to read because of their size. Finally, I’ll have the chance to really appreciate and enjoy this extremely influential series!

NonNonBa by Shigeru Mizuki
Another award-winning, semi-autobiographical work by Mizuki, Nonnonba is a wonderful tribute to the woman who inspired his love of yokai. You can read my in-depth review of the manga here.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga
Yoshinaga does some really fantastic things with history in Ōoku. I love the series even though the English translation is rather awkward. I’ve only reviewed three of the volumes so far (which you can find here or linked to from the Review Index), but expect to see more reviews from me in the future.

Sakuran: Blossoms Wild by Moyoco Anno
I personally think that Sakuran is one of Anno’s strongest works available in English. As I mention in my review, it’s one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of sex work in the Edo period that I’ve come across. And Anno’s color work is phenomenal.

Thank you to everyone who shared their favorites with me!