My Week in Manga: May 2-May 8, 2011

My News and Reviews

Last week was one of the slow weeks at Experiments in Manga. I announced the manga giveaway Return of Ranma Winner and posted April’s Bookshelf Overload. One thing that I’ve noticed about the last few months is that I have posted quite a few book reviews and that many of the other features haven’t been, well, featured. I still have the goal of completing two in-depth manga reviews per month but will now also make an effort to vary the rest of the content on the site so that the literature reviews won’t overshadow the other material quite so much.

Some changes have occurred over on the Resources page. I’ve removed the links to Tokyopop and Blu since they’re no longer valid. As for additions, In Spring it is the Dawn and Three Steps Over Japan are now listed in the New and Reviews section.

Quick Takes

Apothecarius Argentum, Volumes 4-8 by Tomomi Yamashita. Apothecarius Argentum gets better and better with each volume. This is somewhat problematic since only the first eight of eleven volumes managed to make it to publication before CMX went defunct. And the eighth volume ends with one heck of a cliffhanger! I like how the characters actually seem to be developing and maturing in a natural way instead of remaining the same over a long period of time. Argent is adamant about finding a way to detoxify his body even though he realizes that what he truly desires, a relationship with the princess, can never come to pass. Also, I think this is the first manga I’ve read that has a frank discussion about abortion.

Biomega, Volumes 2-4 by Tsutomu Nihei. As I mentioned in my in-depth review for Biomega, Volume 1, it’s really Nihei’s art that carries this series. For as much action as there is, there seems to be very little character or plot development to go along with it. To be honest, I’m not completely sure what’s going on story-wise most of the time. To some extent, I don’t really care since I’m usually happily distracted by the illustrations although I do have a difficult time telling some of the characters apart at first glance. But overall the art is wonderfully dark and creepy and though it might be odd to describe it as such, beautifully disconcerting. Buildings and cityscapes a given great amount of detail and attention.

Iron Wok Jan, Volumes 5-17 by Shinji Saijyo. I find Iron Wok Jan to be an incredibly amusing series. Plus, if you’re paying attention, you might actually learn something about Chinese cuisine and cooking. Things can occasionally get violent and bloody in the kitchen, so it’s not a manga I’d recommend to vegans or those with weak stomachs. All of the chefs and trainees are extremely serious about food and cooking. With Jan around competitions frequently turn into all out battles and he’ll do anything it takes to win. Saijyo captures the often maniacal intensity of the characters perfectly with exaggerated artwork. Granted, Kiriko and Celine’s… ahem…well-endowed figures seem like they should get in the way of cooking.

Karakuri Odette, Volume 6 by Julietta Suzuki. Ever since the January 2011 Manga Moveable Feast I’ve been waiting for the sixth and final volume of Karakuri Odette to be released. It’s a charming series, so I was glad that Tokyopop was able to finish it before disappearing. The sixth volume is less episodic than some of the previous books and finishes up the plot arc from volume five. It provides a more or less satisfying conclusion to the series although things are left pretty open ended. I was a little disappointed that Chris and Professor Yoshizawa, two of my favorite characters, didn’t make much of an appearance. Asao is definitely in there, though. Art-wise, Suzuki provides some fantastic facial expressions and (over)reactions that are delightful to behold. The final volume is a nice little goodbye.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, Volume 1 by Hiroshi Shiibashi. Rikuo is one-quarter yokai and the grandson of Nurarihyon, who wants him to become the next leader of the Nura Clan of yokai. Normally human, Rikuo temporarily transforms into a yokai on occasion. I would like to see more tension developed between the human and yokai Rikuos; right now they seem to fairly oblivious of each other. For the most part I enjoyed Shiibashi’s artwork, although Kiyotusugu’s character design really bugs me for some reason that I haven’t been able to identify. Even though I don’t feel a tremendous desire to rush out to pick up the next volume, I still think the series has potential and is off to a good start. Also, I really like the covers.

Random Musings: The Androids of Karakuri Odette and the Three Laws of Robotics

When you talk about androids in science fiction, it doesn’t take too long for Isaac Asimov and the Three Laws of Robotics to come up. Asimov was an extremely prolific and important author in both fiction (particularly science fiction) and non-fiction. His Three Laws of Robotics form the foundation of most if not all of his robot stories and have been applied by many other creators to their own works. His laws have even been considered and reflected upon while developing robots and artificial intelligences in real life. At first glance, the laws seem fairly clear-cut and simple. However, there’s actually quite a bit of grey area and assumptions involved, which is what makes Asimov’s robot stories so fascinating.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now, I realize it’s kind of silly to apply the rules created by one author to another author’s work. However, Julietta Suzuki never really spells out exactly what the laws are for the androids in Karakuri Odette or if there even are any regulations. Quite a bit can be gleaned from context though and a few of the androids do explicitly indicate whether they have restrictions regarding the harming of humans. So, using the Three Laws of Robotics as a starting point, I’d like to take a closer look at the androids of Karakuri Odette. (Warning: Spoilers up through Volume 5 may be involved.)

Odette (developed by Hiroaki Yoshizawa): Odette is probably the android that most closely adheres to both the spirit and letter of the three laws. Compliant to the First Law, her programming explicitly forbids actions that would harm a human. Throughout Karakuri Odette she is also seen taking deliberate action to protect the well-being of the humans around her. She tends to follow the Second Law, although she may argue or put up a fight when given an order. So far, Odette hasn’t really had to worry about self-preservation much but I think it would be pretty safe to say that she also conforms to the Third Law.

Chris series/Chris No. 2 (developed by Alex Owen): Also known as “Bomb Boys,” this series of androids was specifically created to self-destruct in the presence of a specified target. As designed, the Chris series does not take into consideration bystanders and may cause them injury as well. Obviously, this violates the First Law and causes a tension between the Second and Third since self-destructing and self-preservation can create a conflict.

Chris No. 7 (developed by Alex Owen,  modified by Hiroaki Yoshizawa): Chris No. 7 exhibits unanticipated variations from the Chris series due to faulty programming or some other flaw. He knows he is to self-destruct, but takes steps to protect Odette, who at the time he believes is human, meaning he does follow the First Law to the extent he is able. However, contrary to his programming and the Second Law, he never does self-destruct. Otherwise, he will and does carry out orders given to him. After Yoshizawa’s upgrades Chris No. 7 can be seen to be completely First Law compliant. Chris No. 7 is unique in that he is the only android in Karakuri Odette who is clearly concerned with and actively pursues his own self-preservation.

Chris No. 10 (developed by Alex Owen): Another interesting deviation from the Chris series, Chris No. 10 was unable to successfully complete his original programming due to unforeseen circumstances and is largely left to his own devices. He does end up having to deal with one of the classic First Law conflicts. (Sorry to be vague, but I’m trying not to be too spoilery.) Chris No. 10 is shown to follow orders and the Second Law although his compliance to the Third Law is suspect, something that is somewhat expected for the Chris series.

Asia (developed by M. Nichol): Whether the extraordinary capability of massively creeping out a person counts as an injury to a human or not is up for debate. Otherwise, it would appear that Asia follows all three laws, although too little is known about her to say for sure.

Alice 2500T (developed by Hiroaki Yoshizawa): Technically, Alice is a prototype body that Odette uses while her original body being repaired. She exhibits the same concern that Odette does for others, but she is also capable of getting into scuffles and therefore is probably not completely First Law compliant. She’s also a bit flaky when it comes to the Second and Third Law, but after all she is only a prototype.

Travis (developed by Alex Owen): Almost the complete opposite of Odette, the only law that Travis seems to follow is self-preservation. He specifically states that he has no restrictions against harming humans and is repeatedly seen physically intimidating them. Although he may start by following instructions given to him, in the end he usually ends up doing whatever it is he wants. Since he violates both the First and Second Law, Travis is highly unpredictable and is actually pretty scary, especially as he seems to have a significant attitude problem, too.

Grace (developed by Alex Owen): Grace is equipped with weaponry, but when she uses it in Karakuri Odette she does not cause injury to any of the humans nearby. However, it is implied that she could have and so like Travis probably does not have restrictions in place to prevent this. Grace appears to be compliant to the Second Law, doing what she is told as long as it is an explicit order. She most likely follows the Third Law of self-preservation as well.

So, I readily admit that this exercise was questionable and frivolous, although I don’t think it was completely pointless. Obviously, the Three Laws of Robotics do not apply to Karakuri Odette. But, it did allow me to think about Suzuki’s androids in a structured manner, and I feel like that I’ve gotten to know them better in the process. Upon close examination, it doesn’t appear that there are any overarching laws when it comes to the androids in Karakuri Odette. However, individual creators seem to have their own styles and self-imposed rules. And on that note: will someone please stop Alex Owen from designing robots?

This post is part of the Karakuri Odette Manga Moveable Feast.

Karakuri Odette, Volume 1

Creator: Julietta Suzuki
U.S. Publisher: Tokyopop
ISBN: 9781427814074
Released: September 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: Hakusensha Athena Newcomers’ Award

I was very excited when Julietta Suzuki’s Karakuri Odette was selected for the January 2011 Manga Moveable Feast. I had seen positive reviews for the series, but hadn’t gotten around to actually reading it yet. Plus, I have a thing for androids and advanced artificial intelligences (which are often, but not always the same thing)—they are some of my favorite tropes when it comes to science fiction. At six volumes Karakuri Odette was Suzuki’s first completed series. The collected volumes were published in Japan between 2006 and 2008 and the series won her a Hakusensha Athena Newcomers’ Award for Outstanding Debut. Tokyopop began the English publication of Karakuri Odette in 2009. So far, five of the six volumes have been released and the final volume is scheduled to be published later this year. After reading the first volume, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

A few weeks after she was built, Odette convinces her creator, the roboticist Professor Yoshizawa, to enroll her in a local high school. She’s a state of the art android and wants to understand just what the difference is between her and humans. Thinking he might be able to get some good data for his research out of it, Yoshizawa agrees. But her requests don’t stop there and Odette continues to ask for modifications that will make her more human-like. None of the students are supposed to know that Odette is a robot, although that doesn’t last for long; but for the most part, everyone treats her like she’s a normal high school girl. And as Odette learns more about humans, she also learns more about herself and other androids.

No in-depth explanation is given regarding Odette’s creation other than Professor Yoshizawa is a specialist in robotics and that he considers her his masterpiece. He also appears to find her useful to have around, but no details are really given about that, either. Personally, I would have liked to know a bit more about Odette’s development. While I found Suzuki’s artwork and character designs in Karakuri Odette to be appealing, I don’t think I would describe them as particularly stunning. However, she has done some really nice things with the art. Odette’s eyes and subdued facial expressions visually set her apart from her classmates, but the effect is marvelously subtle. Suzuki also is able to capture the good-natured eccentricity of the professor in how he dresses and behaves—an aspect of his character that isn’t immediately obvious from dialogue alone. And both his and other characters’ (especially Asao’s) frequently over-the-top reactions are a lot of fun to see.

Although there is nothing really new or groundbreaking about the first volume of Karakuri Odette when it comes to robot stories, I still found it to be quite charming and very enjoyable. Suzuki explores what it means to be human and the existence of free will which is fairly standard for the genre and somewhat expected. Even telling the story primarily from the androids’ perspectives, while slightly less common in my experience (although not by much), isn’t that unusual. However, the balance Suzuki strikes between Karakuri Odette’s more humorous elements and the serious nature of the questions it raises is utterly delightful. The story never gets too heavy, but neither is it ever too silly. Odette is closer to being human than she knows and doesn’t realize that some of the things that distinguish her as an android also help define her as a decent person. That right there is probably one of the reasons I enjoyed Karakuri Odette as much as I did and why I’ll be following the series to the end.

My Week in Manga: January 10-January 16, 2011

My News and Reviews

This week is the Manga Moveable Feast for Karakuri Odette, hosted by Anna at Manga Report. I’ll have in-depth review of the first volume up on Wednesday and a related silly something to post on Friday. Technically, today’s post features a quick take of the first five volumes. That means every post this week will have at least a little something to do with Karakuri Odette and the Manga Moveable Feast, so go me! I happen to really like androids and had never read Karakuri Odette before, so I’m particularly interested in seeing what people have to say.

In not-so breaking news, I won a ticket to the Gantz World Premiere event taking place on January 20th! In honor of this, my giveaway for the month will be a brand new copy of the first volume of the Gantz manga. The contest will open next Wednesday, the 26th, and run for a week, so be on the look out.

As for last week, I posted some tips on effectively finding and buying manga at Borders—Finding Manga: Borders. I love Borders and really hope they’re able to pull through their troubles. I’m doing my part by buying lots of stuff from them, manga and otherwise. I also posted a review of a financial thriller that takes place in Tokyo, At the Sharpe End, which was sent to me by the author Hugh Ashton.

Quick Takes

Beyond My Touch by Tomo Maeda. I was a little surprised by how much I enjoyed Beyond My Touch. The volume collects three stories, all with a sort of melancholy feel to them. The titular story was probably my favorite. A young man is haunted by the ghost of a recently deceased classmate and discovers just how alone he was before. Maeda could have gone for the tragically sad ending, but instead goes for a more bittersweet one. What could have simply been silly and goofy was actually rather touching. I wasn’t quite as fond of the second two, shorter stories (“Cool Lips” and “Recipe”), although I did enjoy them as well. It’s a cute collection.

Crying Freeman, Volumes 1-5 written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. Yo Hinamura is the world’s greatest assassin and as the appointed heir to the criminal syndicated known as the 108 Dragons, there are plenty of people after his and his loved ones’ lives. For some inexplicable reason, all fights apparently must be conducted either nearly or completely in the nude. But Ikegami’s bodies are gorgeous and his fight scenes beautiful, so I must say I’m not going to complain too much (at least about that). The large tattoos that cover many of the characters are stunning and intricate I don’t envy Ikegami having to illustrate them panel after panel.

Deadman Wonderland, Volume 1 written by Jinsei Kataoka and illustrated by Kazuma Kondou. I haven’t heard much about Deadman Wonderland and don’t remember why I picked it up, but I’m glad that I did—this was another manga that I was surprised by how much I liked it. Ganta is a survivor of the Great Tokyo Earthquake which sank 70% of the city. Ten years later, he’s the only suspect in the massacre of his middle school class and is sentenced to Deadman Wonderland, a privately owned detention facility cum violently bizarre theme park. I have no idea what is really going on at this point (granted, neither does Ganta), but I want to know!

Karakuri Odette, Volumes 1-5 by Julietta Suzuki. Perhaps surprisingly, Odette is actually not my favorite character in Karakuri Odette. That honor probably goes to either Professor Yoshizawa or Chris and I liked the story best when at least one of them was around. Although, Asao is pretty great, too. I found that I enjoyed the heavier science fiction aspects of the series than I did the school life aspects, but overall the series is quite charming. My biggest complaint about Karakuri Odette is that characters seem to be introduced only to disappear (and sometimes reappear) with very little justification. Still, I like the series and look forward to the final volume.

Seven by Momoko Tenzen. Separated after the orphanage they were institutionalized in burned down, Mitsuha has been unsuccessfully searching for his younger brother for years when he meets a young man with an eerily similar background and name. Meanwhile, his brother has his own reasons for not reaching out to find his older brother. The most interesting aspects of the manga, the mysterious backgrounds of several of the characters, are actually only hinted at and mostly left up to the imagination. The dialogue can be a bit difficult to follow at times and it’s not always clear who is speaking. Overall though, I did like the general atmosphere of the manga.

Hula Girls directed by Lee Sang-il. Based on a true story and winner of quite a few film awards, Hula Girls is heartfelt and inspiring. I first learned about the film because ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro (who I am a huge fan of) was responsible for most of the music and soundtrack. A small mining town in rural Japan is slowly dying as the world turns away from coal to embrace oil. The company initiates a plan to build a Hawaiian themed spa in an attempt to keep at least some of the workers employed. They face adversity, and most of the town is against the retreat, but the coal miners’ daughters pour their hearts and souls into the project.

Planetes: Complete Collection,  directed by Gorō Taniguchi. Many of the things and moments that I loved from the manga were absent from the anime, but the animated series has its own charms. The two start out very similar, but the ending of the anime is quite different and more thoroughly explores aspects of the Planetes universe that the manga only touches on. The manga and the anime complement each other nicely and are different enough that it’s hard to say which I prefer. If I had to choose, I would probably say the anime, but I really liked them both. Planetes is great, believable, near future science fiction with plenty realism and a lot of heart.