Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, Volume 8: Operation Odessa

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, Volume 8: Operation OdessaCreator: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
Original story: Yoshiyuki Tomino and Hajime Yatate

U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130686
Released: December 2014
Original release: 2011

Although I was vaguely familiar with Gundam before reading Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, the manga series was my first real introduction to the ever-expanding franchise. I was actually more interested in The Origin because it was created by Yasuhiko than for its Gundam connection, but I’ve been enjoying the series so much that I’ve started to look for other manga, novels, and anime set in the universe. Operation Odessa is the eighth volume in Vertical’s English-language release of The Origin. Published in 2015, the volume is based on the Japanese collectors’ edition released in 2011 and includes an essay by Makoto Yukimura in addition to a gallery of some of Yasuhiko’s color artwork for the series. The Origin is a reimagining of the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime from 1979. The last several volumes of The Origin have been an extended flashback not found in the original anime series, but with Operation Odessa the manga returns to the story’s current timeline.

After successfully defending itself from Zeon forces at Jaburo—though not without significant casualties—the Earth Federation has set out to reclaim more of the planet and its aligned space colonies. The key to its plans is the newly developed and highly advanced Gundam mobile suit which the ragtag crew of the White Base was somehow able to deliver to the Federation’s headquarters mostly intact. The Gundam prototype will serve as the basis for a mass-produced mobile suit that will hopefully be able to rival those developed by Zeon. Up until this point in the devastating conflict between the two factions, Zeon’s impressive technological achievements have given it a distinct advantage over the Federation. But now the tide of war seems to be changing. However, neither side will remain unscathed. The battles are still incredibly destructive and the loss of life continues to be immense. Even so, the end of the war may still not be coming anytime soon.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, Volume 8: Operation Odessa, page 146The Origin began in space and has since moved Earthward, the space battles giving way to air and land battles. And now with Operation Odessa, sea battles have an important role to play in the conflict as well. With new arenas of warfare come new weapons, mobile suits, technology, equipment, and vehicles. It can actually be a little overwhelming at times, this sudden introduction of very specialized tools that don’t have much more explanation given beyond a name and a visual design. Inundated, readers are mostly left to glean the details of the differences in the capabilities and purposes of the individual units from their context within the manga. Much of Operation Odessa seems to be devoted to showing off these new toys of war in a way that is probably more meaningful to someone who is already well-versed in Gundam lore. Especially in the last half of the volume, the narrative tends to be jarring as it jumps from battle to battle, or from different points in the same battle, without much connecting material to smooth the transitions.

While Operation Odessa could arguably be considered overly focused on equipment and technology, it is important to note that the manga still has a prominent human element to it, which is what makes The Origin such a compelling series. In particular, Kai, one of the young pilots connected to White Base, is heavily featured in Operation Odessa and develops significantly as a character. For the most part he has largely been a secondary character who provides a fair amount of comedic relief in the series. Except now he’s quite seriously fed up with all of the fighting and even tries to leave, only to find himself drawn back into battle and the tragedy of war. As Yasuhiko has shown repeatedly throughout The Origin, those who are directly involved in the conflict aren’t the only ones who are impacted by it. Civilians and non-combatants must also take action out of necessity, doing whatever they can to survive and protect those they love. It’s a lesson that Kai must learn the hard way in Operation Odessa if he is to understand his own role as a soldier.

A Caring Man

A Caring ManAuthor: Akira Arai
Translator: Marc Adler
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781935654179
Released: 2011
Awards: Golden Elephant Award

A Caring Man is Akira Arai’s debut novel and his first book to be translated into English. The novel was brought to my attention primarily because it, along with Fumi Nakamura’s Enma the Immortal (which I absolutely loved), shared the inaugural Golden Elephant Award’s grand prize. A Caring Man and Enma the Immortal are two very different novels, but they are both engaging. Both novels were also released in English by Vertical. The purpose of the Golden Elephant Award was to “produce and publish promising entertainment stories in multiple languages in the global arena.” With that in mind, the jurors from the first award committee were from Japan, the United States, China, and Korea. It was this emphasis on global appeal that inspired Arai, who had previously worked in the music and film industries, to submit A Caring Man. After winning the award, the novel was simultaneously released in 2011 in Japanese and in English with a translation by Marc Adler.

On August 26, 2011, Japan fell victim to an unprecedented tragedy. Without any sort of warning, bombs strategically placed within Tokyo Tower were detonated, bringing the massive structure toppling down, killing and injuring a huge number of people. The special investigation team, a joint operation between the police force’s Criminal Investigation Department and the Public Security Bureau, is treating the incident as a terrorist attack. However, no group has emerged to claim responsibility for the bombing and the team quickly runs out of leads. There seems to be no concrete motive for the attack beyond a perverse desire to destroy for the sake of destroying. Mariko Amo is a freelance photographer working for scandal and gossip magazines who captured the fall of the tower on film, nearly losing her life in the process. Soon after she is given the opportunity to write a feature article on Yoshio Iizuka, a seemingly upstanding young man who recently established the Society of Victims of Abuse for the Prevention of Abuse. Little does she know that he is the very mastermind behind the Tokyo Tower attack.

A Caring Man deals with some very heavy subject matter. In addition to the attacks of terrorism and mass murder, personal killings and more intimate violence, such as child abuse, are also present in the novel. Yoshio himself was a victim of such abuse. Mutilated and abandoned as a newborn infant, he still carries scars on his body. He uses these and his story to gain empathy from others, employing his striking intelligence to manipulate them even further. Yoshio has an odd sort of intensity and charisma; he knows just what to say and how to act to exploit and control other people. A Caring Man, which takes its title from the characters used in Yoshio’s name, in part explores the mind and nature of a psychologically dark, twisted, and damaged young man. Yoshio’s plans are terrifying, and even more frightening is the fact that he has the abilities and influence needed to actually carry them out. The bombing of Tokyo Tower is only intended to be a dramatic prelude to even greater tragedies to come.

The story of A Caring Man is largely seen from three distinct perspectives, although they do intersect at various points in the novel when major players come into contact or become more deeply involved with one another. Those perspectives also reflect the prominent viewpoints of many modern-day crises. Yoshio and the cohort of young men aiding and in some cases nearly worshipping him form one faction as the perpetrators. The detectives, police, and other law enforcement officers are the investigators and protectors, while the third group consists of Mariko and other members of the media and press. They are the observers, chroniclers, and witnesses with the power to influence the opinions of the general public. Overall, A Caring Man is a well-written and engaging novel, particularly impressive as it is Arai’s debut. A few of the plot twists towards the end weren’t as believable or as effective as the rest of the novel, but otherwise A Caring Man is a solid crime thriller with an intense psychological component.

What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 6

What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 6Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130815
Released: January 2015
Original release: 2012

Fumi Yoshinaga’s series What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a manga that I’m very glad is being released in English. Part slice-of-life manga focusing on contemporary gay relationships, work relationships, and friendships, and part food manga, the series holds a tremendous amount of appeal for me. Plus, it’s created by Yoshinaga whose manga as a whole I tend to enjoy. I particularly appreciate the subtle and nuanced depth that many of her characters exhibit, which is certainly true of the characters found in What Did You Eat Yesterday?. The sixth volume of the series was originally released in Japan in 2012 while the English-language edition was published in 2015 by Vertical. Although this particular volume does have some translation issues—some awkward phrasing as well as questionable word choices (such as “pepper balls” instead of “peppercorns”)—generally Vertical’s release of the series has been great.

Although Shiro will soon be turning forty-seven, he still has room to grow and has only recently started to really become comfortable with his sexuality. He and his boyfriend Kenji have been living together for years but its a relationship that he has largely kept private. Shiro’s parents know he’s gay, as do a select handful of close friends, but he hasn’t mentioned it to his colleagues and he’s terrified of being found out by straight strangers. Kenji, on the other hand, is able to be much more relaxed and open about who he is. Happily, Shiro and Kenji have developed a good friendship with another gay couple, Kohinata and Wataru, which has allowed Shiro to become a little less anxiety-ridden in public. He continues to worry about appearances, and he’s still fairly reserved when it comes to outwardly demonstrating his affection, but it has become easier for Shiro to enjoy time spent with Kenji outside of the house, whether it be a major grocery shopping trip or a bento lunch picnic in the park.

What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 6, page 48Although I am a huge fan of food manga in general, and meals and their preparation are certainly a major component of What Did You Eat Yesterday?, what I find most appealing about the series is its characters and their lives. But the manga works best for me when the food and recipes tie directly into the plot and character development instead of being a more tangential element. Some volumes of What Did You Eat Yesterday? bring the characters and food together better than others, but overall the sixth is fairly successful in doing that. High-quality ingredients are given as gifts of thanks, meals are prepared as a way to offer comfort and support, recipes are modified when finances are tight, the qualities of a proper bento are debated, and more. Food is obviously important to the characters in the volume.

What Did You Eat Yesterday? tends to be fairly episodic, each chapter exploring a small part of Shiro and Kenji’s lives and featuring a recipe detailed enough that an adventurous reader or experienced cook could actually attempt to make the dish. However, recurring characters and continuing story threads do help to tie the series together as a cohesive whole. There may not be a grand, overarching plot to What Did You Eat Yesterday?, but there is still character and story development to be found. Each reappearance of an established character adds more depth to them as a person and reveals more about the complexities of their relationships with other people. Each volume of What Did You Eat Yesterday? explores more about Shiro and Kenji as well as about their families, friends, and coworkers. And with the sixth volume specifically, I’m especially happy to see Shiro becoming gradually more confident and accepting of himself.

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2Creator: Gamon Sakurai
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130853
Released: December 2014
Original release: 2013

I tend to enjoy darker-toned stories about immortals, so I wasn’t particularly surprised that I enjoyed the first volume of Ajin: Demi-Human. The manga series was conceived of by writer Tsuina Miura and artist Gamon Sakurai, but by the second volume it appears as though Sakurai has taken over the story of Ajin as well. (Although, it should be noted that Miura and Sakurai’s pilot chapter for Ajin, “The Shinya Nakamura Incident,” is also included in the series’ second volume.) Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2 was originally published in Japan in 2013 while the English-language edition of the manga was released by Vertical at the end of 2014. The first volume of the series established an intriguing premise—immortal beings, considered to be less than human, who are persecuted and subjected to cruel experiments—as well as an exceptionally dark atmosphere, and so I was particularly interested in seeing where Sakurai would take the story next.

Kei is on the run. Recently discovered to be an immortal demi-human—only the third to have been officially confirmed to exist in Japan—he is trying to avoid capture by the Demi-Human Control Commission and hoping to find allies in other immortals. When he is contacted by two rogue demi-humans, Sato (also known as “Hat”) and Tanaka, it seems as though Kei’s hopes have been answered, except for the small matter of the two men having taken his sister hostage. But with a little bit of effort and some unexpected theatrics, Sato is able to readily explain away the kidnapping and even manages to earn Kei’s trust in the process. Though Kei is unaware of it at the time, that misplaced trust will have severe repercussions for him. Sato and Tanaka are very interested in the young man. Not only is he a demi-human, just like the two of them Kei is a variant immortal capable of manifesting and controlling a black ghost. However, it is a power that he has yet to understand or to completely control.

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 2, page 61Despite being a large focus of the first two volumes of Ajin and around whom much of the manga’s plot revolves, currently Kei is actually one of the least compelling characters in the series. The people and events surrounding Kei tend to be much more engaging. Sato in particular is a tremendous presence. It is easy to see why he instills such fear among those in the Demi-Human Control Commission—he cannot be controlled. Sato is a coldly calculating and ruthless strategist with extraordinary combat skills and the ability to manipulate both the people around him and the situations in which he finds himself. He is terrifyingly effective in the execution of his plans. At this point only some of those plans have been completely revealed, but it is obvious that Sato is willing to sacrifice anyone in order to accomplish them. In comparison, Kei seems to be incredibly weak-willed and naive, lacking a strong sense of self. Granted, almost anyone would when compared to Sato, but it’s also somewhat understandable since Kei’s entire worldview has been shattered. With his new-found immortality, he is still trying to understand who he is.

Ajin is a very dark and violent manga. The experiments carried out on the demi-humans are brutal and cruel. Generally, the most graphic moments are implied rather than seen, but that makes the torture no less disturbing. Demi-humans, especially those controlling black ghosts, are more than capable of fighting back, though. For example, Sato’s repeated attacks on research facilities associated with the Demi-Human Control Commission and his complete disregard for life are astonishing. Sakurai’s artwork is particularly effective during action sequences, of which there are plenty in the second volume of Ajin. The second volume also addresses some of the social issues surrounding demi-humans, in particular the fact that not everyone feels that demi-humans should be discriminated against just because they happen to be immortal. So far, Sakurai has been able to strike a good balance between the series’ intense action and horror and its exploration of deeper moral and ethical concerns. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how the series continues to develop.

Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist

Utsubora: The Story of a NovelistCreator: Asumiko Nakamura
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781935654766
Released: June 2013
Original release: 2010-2012

Although several of Asumiko Nakamura’s manga have been licensed for digital release, Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist is currently her only work that has been translated into English and made available in print. I truly hope it isn’t the last to be seen from her; although I was already familiar with Nakamura’s distinctive art style, Utsubora was my introduction to her manga and I loved it, and with each rereading love it even more. With the arrival of the Female Goth Mangaka Carnival, I was inspired to take another, deeper look at the manga. In Japan, Utsubora was a short, two-volume series published between 2010 and 2012. The English-language edition of the manga was released in 2014 by Vertical and collects the entire series in a single volume. Due to its mature themes and its erotic content, Utsubora is one of Vertical’s relatively few manga specifically intended for an audience of adults who are at least eighteen years of age.

Although Shun Mizorogi is still considered to be a successful and respected author, it has been quite some time since he has written anything of note. As a result, he has become withdrawn and is tormented by his lack of ability. Finally, his most recent work Utsubora shows great promise. A return to his roots as an author, Mizorogi has given his fans and critics what they have been waiting for. But when a young woman plummets from the top of a building to her death, the apparent suicide somehow connect to Mizorogi, the authorship of Utsubora begins to be called into question. Both Mizorogi’s close friend and fellow author Yatabe and his newly appointed editor Tsuji suspect something. Even Mizorogi’s niece Koyomi, who lives with and adores him, is able to recognize that her uncle has been behaving out of the ordinary. Utsubora and a young woman named Sakura Miki are the only remaining connections Mizorogi has to the death of Aki Fujino, and they are consuming him.

Utsubora is a dark and twisting tale. Nakamura’s distinctive artwork is exceptionally effective in adding to the manga’s moody, erotically charged, and slightly disconcerting atmosphere. The lines of her illustrations are very thin, creating at the same time a sense of sharpness and focus as well as a feeling of softness as they cut and curve across the page. Nakamura’s art in Utsubora is undeniably sensual and arresting. The eyes of her characters are particularly expressive and draw attention to themselves. The artwork of Utsubora, much like the manga’s story, can simultaneously be vaguely ominous and oddly beautiful. It’s really quite stunning and Nakamura is incredibly skilled. Through her artwork and through the body language of her characters, she is able to convey their uncertainties and their desires, their inner turmoil as well as their outward actions. Overall, Utsubora is an intense and even compelling work.

The plot of Utsubora is complex, the relationships and connections between the characters forming a tangled knot that is drawn tighter and tighter. The manga can be confusing and there is quite a bit of ambiguity that is never completely resolved. The only person who really understands everything that is going on is Sakura, and she is deliberately manipulating the situation, mixing together both truths and lies in order to influence those around her. She can’t control everything, though, and some matters in Utsubora are only tangentially related to what she is trying to accomplish. Although sometimes obscured by layers formed by the other characters’ personal struggles and pasts, the core of Utsubora is the despair surrounding Aki, Sakura, and Mizorogi. Granted, most of the characters are reaching their breaking points and are in danger of losing themselves completely; Aki’s death was simply the catalyst that triggered a dramatic sequence of events from which very few will emerge unscathed.