What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 5

What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 5Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130808
Released: November 2014
Original release: 2011

I have thoroughly been enjoying the English-language release of Fumi Yoshinaga’s manga series What Did You Eat Yesterday?. This probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since the series brings together so many of my loves and interests: manga, Fumi Yoshinaga, food, and queer life, just to name a few. What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 5 was originally published in Japan in 2011 while the English translation of the volume was released by Vertical in 2014. Vertical made many fans of Yoshinaga, myself included, very happy when it licensed What Did You Eat Yesterday?, a somewhat niche title, but a series with the potential to appeal to a variety of audiences. Food and handsome gay men are common themes in many of Yoshinaga’s manga and are frequently even found within the same work, which is certainly the case with What Did You Eat Yesterday?. Though not my favorite Yoshinaga manga, it’s still a great series and one that I enjoy.

Food brings people together, sometimes in unanticipated ways. Shiro’s friendship with Kayoko, which started when they decided to split a watermelon that was on sale at the supermarket, has continued to deepen. Though they were once complete strangers, they have now become regular cooking buddies, sharing recipes and food. Her family likes Shiro as well, though at times he’s treated as something of a novelty simply because he’s gay. Kayoko’s husband even makes a point to introduce Shiro to a member of his tennis club, assuming they’ll get along well since Kohinata happens to be gay, too. They actually do, in an odd sort of fashion, and eventually Shiro, Kohinata, and Kenji and Wataru—their respective boyfriends—all end up sharing a meal together. In a roundabout sort of way, it’s thanks to that watermelon that they ever met. Food can help turn acquaintances into friends and can strengthen the existing bonds between family members as traditions are passed along from one person to the next.

One of my favorite chapters in What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 5 was actually when Shiro visited his parents for the New Year holiday. For the most part, What Did You Eat Yesterday? is fairly episodic, although there is ongoing character development. However, Shiro returning home for the New Year celebration is a recurring event in the series which has already happened several times in the manga’s earlier volumes. Generally, there’s also some family drama involved with these visits. Shiro’s parents initially struggled when he came out to them, but it’s marvelously touching to see how much more accepting and even supportive they have become of their son’s homosexuality. There is a really wonderful scene with Shiro and his mother cooking together in the fifth volume of What Did You Eat Yesterday?. Sometimes the series’ focus on food feels completely separated from its story, but here it was a perfect combination, the cooking furthering the characters’ personal growth and connections.

While the food and recipes are prominent parts of What Did You Eat Yesterday?, not to mention some of the reasons that I enjoy the series, the characters and their relationships are just as important to the manga and are what really make it successful as a work. It makes perfect sense to me since I associate family with food, but family relations are a frequent focus in What Did You Eat Yesterday?, especially those between Shiro and his parents as well as those between Shiro and Kenji as they continue to make a life and home together. The fifth volume also reveals more about Kenji’s past and his own unfortunate family situation. What Did You Eat Yesterday? largely tends to follow Shiro and therefore not as much is known about Kenji, so I particularly appreciate when the story turns towards him for a time. Yoshinaga’s characters in What Did You Eat Yesterday?, are believable flawed and complex individuals with histories and subtle depth, making the series particularly gratifying.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, Volume 7: Battle of Loum

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, Volume 7: Battle of LoumCreator: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
Original story: Yoshiyuki Tomino and Hajime Yatate

U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130679
Released: September 2014
Original release: 2011

Battle of Loum is the seventh volume in Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s manga series Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, a reimagining of the original 1979 anime series Mobile Suit Gundam which launched the massive Gundam franchise. The Origin provides an excellent entry point into the rather daunting Gundam universe for those who don’t know where to start with it. I’d even recommend the manga to readers who don’t have a particular interest in Gundam but who are looking for a great military science fiction series or space opera. Generally, I would consider myself a part of that latter group, though after reading The Origin I find that I am more curious about Gundam as a whole than I previously was. I have thoroughly been enjoying Vertical’s deluxe release of the The Origin which is based on the Japanese collectors’ edition. The seventh volume, originally published in Japan in 2011, was released in English in 2014 and includes additional commentary from Mamoru Nagano as well as the extra chapter “On the Eve” as bonus content.

After the Republic of Munzo declared itself the independent Principality of Zeon, political tensions continued to mount between it and the Earth Federation until an all-out war between the two groups ignited. Some of the other space colonies rally under Zeon’s flag, demanding their autonomy and freedom from the Federation’s rule. Others support the Federation and its efforts to keep humanity united. Neither side of the conflict is entirely in the wrong, but as the war continues so do the crimes against innocent civilians and colonists, many of which are manufactured by members of Zeon’s ruling House Zabi who would use the war for their own designs. There are warmongers to be found among the Federation’s ranks as well, though. But then Zeon does something unconscionable. Supposedly in an effort to end the war quickly and decisively, an entire space colony is crashed into the planet and the effects are devastating.

Battle of Loum recounts two of the most pivotal events of the war between the Federation and Zeon. The first chapter or so is devoted to the colony drop of Side 2 and the massacre of the colonists that precede its ultimate destruction. It is an appalling tragedy and the number of casualties is enormous, both of Side 2’s residents and the worldwide population of Earth. Yasuhiko’s stunning portrayal of the colony drop is extraordinarily effective. In addition to the showing astonishing damage inflicted, he explores the motivations behind it, the controversy and doubt surrounding the act, and how individuals respond and react to the plan and its execution. The colony drop is nothing short of an atrocity. It’s chilling to see the propaganda touting the glory of war contrasted with the very grim reality and horror of it all. The images of the colony breaking apart and smashing into Earth and the resulting devastation and loss of life are haunting.

As can be assumed by the title of the seventh volume, the Battle of Loum is the other major incident of the war upon which Yasuhiko turns his attention. Although the Federation has the advantage of numbers and resources, it is outmatched strategically and technologically as Zeon proves just how powerful and versatile the newly developed mobile suits can be. The Battle of Loum is a turning point in the war. Neither side comes out of it unscathed, but the Federation suffers a major defeat. The seventh volume of The Origin is very dramatic, with intense space battles and devious political machinations. There are those who honestly desire peace, but there are also those on both sides of the conflict who seek war. The inclusion of “On the Eve” brings the narrative full circle to the events that begin the series. The Origin is a magnificent piece of science fiction. It’s scope is epic, but Yasuhiko never forgets the very personal human drama that underlies it all.

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 1

Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 1Author: Tsuina Miura
Illustrator: Gamon Sakurai

U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130846
Released: October 2014
Original release: 2013

It was the cover art of Ajin: Demi-Human, Volume 1—a creepy image of disconcerting skeletal figure—that first sparked my interest in the series. When I learned that the manga was at least in part about immortals in addition to being fairly dark in tone, I knew that I wanted to read it. The exploration of immortality and its repercussions in fiction fascinates me. Series like Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal and novels like Fumi Nakamura’s Enma the Immortal have actually been some of my favorite works of recent years. And so, I was very curious about Ajin. The first volume, written by Tsuina Miura and illustrated by Gamon Sakurai, was originally released n Japan in 2013. (Later volumes of the series are both written and illustrated by Sakurai.) The English-language edition of Ajin, Volume 1 was published by Vertical in 2014. The production values are particularly nice, with high-quality paper that really shows off Sakurai’s ink-heavy artwork.

Seventeen years ago, the first demi-human was discovered. Immortal, and perhaps something a little more, demi-humans are considered to be less than human—feared, despised, reviled, and subjected to horrific experiments in the name of science and for the advancement of humankind. Demi-humans seem to be rare, only forty-six have so far been identified, but that’s only because they appear to be normal humans, at least until they survive their first death. Most assumed Kei Nagai was an average high schooler, preoccupied with studying for his college entrance exams. But Kei’s hopes and dreams of becoming a successful doctor are shattered when he dies in a traffic accident, his body smashed into pieces. And then he comes back to life. Now he’s on the run, pursued by the general population, the police, the Demi-Human Control Commission, and even other demi-humans. His only ally is his friend Kai, who tries to help him escape, but that simply means that the two of them are in danger instead of Kei alone.

As in many other works about immortality, Ajin shows that living forever isn’t always something to be desired and can in fact bring a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. There’s the physical torment of death and injury in a body that revives again and again, but there’s also the mental and psychological damage to take into consideration as well. Kei has suddenly lost all of his rights as a person, he is being hunted as something not worthy of being human, his family and friends are filled with disgust towards him—of course this is going to have an impact on the young man. It would be exceedingly easy for him to lose his humanity or his sanity. Glimmers of those possibilities can be seen in the first volume of Ajin as Kei struggles to realign his worldview with his newfound reality. Granted, Ajin, Volume 1 largely focuses on the action surrounding Kei’s escape and explaining (not too subtly) the unusual abilities of the demi-humans. Not much character development has happened yet, but the potential is certainly there.

Ajin, Volume 1 is a good start to the series, though there is still room for improvement. In general, the artwork tends to be a little stronger than the writing at this point. The premise is interesting, and promising, but Sakurai’s illustrations are what really give Ajin its effectively dark atmosphere. Particularly chilling are the “black ghosts”—malignant extensions of the self capable of extreme violence which are able to be manifested and controlled by certain demi-humans. (That disconcerting figure from the cover? That’s a black ghost.) Humans are quite capable of shocking violence as well. Several examples of the gruesome experiments that have been conducted using demi-humans as test subjects are shown in Ajin, Volume 1. The methods are tortuous and the repeated deaths are cruel. So far, the only real difference between the two groups is that when bodies are mutilated or torn apart—which is not at all an uncommon occurrence in the first volume of Ajin—for better or for worse the demi-humans actually survive.

Attack on Titan: Before the Fall

Attack on Titan: Before the FallAuthor: Ryo Suzukaze
Illustrator: Thores Shibamoto

Translator: Ko Ransom
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781939130860
Released: September 2014
Original release: 2011

Hajime Isayama’s manga series Attack on Titan has become extraordinarily successful not only in Japan but worldwide as well. The series has inspired numerous manga spinoffs, anime, games, and more. Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is the first of three light novels written by Ryo Suzukaze and illustrated by Thores Shibamoto which serve as a prequel to Isayama’s original series. The second and third novels have been adapted as the manga series Attack on Titan: Before the Fall, illustrated by Satoshi Shiki, which is being released in English by Kodansha Comics. The first Before the Fall novel, however, was licensed and released by Vertical in 2014 with an English translation by Ko Ransom. Currently the novel, which was originally published in Japan in 2011, is chronologically the earliest story set in the Attack on Titan universe. I’m fascinated by the Attack on Titan phenomena and the large fanbase that it has developed, not to mention the series itself, so I was very interested in reading the Before the Fall prequel.

Angel Aaltonen may be young, but his ingenuity is impressive. A master craftsman, he and the others at the workshop he is a part of strive to design, create, and improve the weapons used in humanity’s fight for survival against the Titans. Except that Angel has never actually seen a Titan. Neither has most of the human population which seeks safety within a series of enormous walls. But while for a time they may be safe, they are also trapped by their own defenses. Only the members of the Survey Corps and Garrison forces have directly confronted the Titans, gigantic monstrosities that devour humans and bring destruction and terror. Even more dire is the fact no one knows how to stop or defeat the Titans. Angel and many others fear that one day the unthinkable will happen and the walls will fail. They are determined to discover the Titan’s weaknesses before that can happen, but the existing political and religious situation will make that prospect even more difficult than it already is to accomplish.

Most of the stories in Attack on Titan as a whole follow those characters who serve in the military—the people who are on the front lines directly fighting the Titans. Before the Fall, however, focuses on those who work behind the scenes to make those battles possible—the scientists, craftsmen, and engineers. (Granted, by the end of Before the Fall, Angel has become fairly hands-on himself.) It’s an interesting approach, giving a slight spin to an already familiar story, and one that I particularly liked and appreciated. Among other things, Before the Fall shows the development of some of the most iconic technology in Attack on Titan, the three-dimensional maneuvering gear. But as intriguing as the story is in Before the Fall, sadly the writing itself isn’t particularly engaging and the novel ends up being fairly slow going despite several intense action sequences. There were also a few frustratingly obvious oversights made by the characters; I found it difficult to believe that their logic would have been so flawed. Ultimately, I liked the premise of Before the Fall much more than its execution.

Although the writing might not be the best, where Before the Fall excels is in providing Attack on Titan with more thoroughly grounded worldbuilding, backstory, and lore. Suzukaze not only explores the development and creation of the equipment and weapons that will be used to fight the Titans, he also shows the beginning of the unrest between the general population, the military and government, and the religious cults and factions. There is enough of a basic introduction to the world that even readers who aren’t familiar with Attack on Titan should be able to easily follow Before the Fall, but the novel will appeal most to those who already know and enjoy the franchise. Before the Fall doesn’t tend to have the overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere of the original manga series, but it is still definitely a part of Attack on Titan, meaning that there are many casualties and several gruesome and horrifying turns of events. The air of dark mystery generally found in Attack on Titan remains in Before the Fall, as do the desperate punctuations of human hope and determination in the face of annihilation.

Dororo, Volume 3

Dororo, Volume 3Creator: Osamu Tezuka
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781934287187
Released: August 2008
Original run: 1968-1969
Awards: Eisner Award

Osamu Tezuka was an extraordinarily prolific and influential creator of manga and anime. So far, only a small fraction of his total output has been released in English. Out of those, one of my personal favorites is his short manga series Dororo. With yokai, an accursed swordsman, and the inclusion of historical elements, I can’t help but like Dororo. Although eventually releasing an omnibus containing the entire series, initially Vertical published Dororo in three separate volumes which earned an Eisner Award in 2009. Dororo, Volume 3, released in 2008, contains the portion of the series that was originally serialized in Japan between 1968 and 1969. It was also during that time period that Dororo went on hiatus. Tezuka abandoned the manga for a year, leaving it without an ending, before returning to it when the Dororo anime series began. The manga was then given a proper conclusion, albeit a much shorter one than was first envisioned. The finale admittedly ended up being a bit rushed, but I love Dororo anyway.

Chased by demons and in turn chasing them down, Hyakkimaru is slowly regaining his forty-eight missing body parts one at a time; each demon he defeats brings him closer to becoming whole. Often it’s not the terrifying supernatural beings that Hyakkimaru must really worry about, though. Humans—with all of their failings, greed, and lust for power—can be just as dangerous as any monster. Hyakkimaru’s father, who selfishly sacrificed his own son’s body in exchange for demonic aid, has become an oppressive warlord. Hyakkimaru isn’t the only one suffering because of his father’s ambitions. The country is being torn apart by war and it’s the farmers and commoners who are being forced to support and fight for leaders they didn’t choose. Dororo, Hyakkimaru’s young traveling companion, also has a family legacy left to deal with. The diminutive thief’s late father was a bandit who amassed a significant amount of wealth. The map to the location of his treasure was tattooed upon his child’s back and now Dororo is pursued by those who want the riches for their own corrupt purposes.

Dororo is one of Tezuka’s transitional works as he began to develop more mature, adult-oriented stories in contrast to his more lighthearted manga generally intended for younger audiences. Dororo addresses serious issues like war and discrimination, but it also incorporates charm, humor, and bittersweet joy. One particular bright spot to balance the darker elements of the series is the titular Dororo. The small thief has led a hard life and can empathize with others and their misfortunes, becoming an exuberant and enthusiastic champion for their causes, while somehow remaining optimistic and cheerful in the face of all the unfairness and tragedy. Hyakkimaru, on the other hand, has an even more dire past than Dororo and has grown weary of the injustices in the world. But the time Hyakkimaru has spent with Dororo as they travel across Japan has changed him. Dororo’s positivity has rubbed off on Hyakkimaru and he has come to care for the youngster immensely. Whether Hyakkimaru realizes it or not, he desperately needed someone like Dororo in his otherwise bleak life.

The relationship that develops between Hyakkimaru and Dororo is only one component of many that makes me appreciate what Tezuka is doing with the series, even if it did end up being truncated. I was initially drawn to Dororo because of Hyakkimaru’s horrifying origin story and his fight to regain what he lost, searching for somewhere to belong and wanting nothing more than to live in peace. His specific situation may be unique, but that desire to be accepted by others is nearly universal. I also liked the supernatural elements in Dororo and how Tezuka slowly shifts the focus of the series to issues more firmly based in reality. The demons and monsters never completely disappear from Dororo, but as the manga progresses the historical influences and more realistic aspects of the manga become increasingly prominent. Among other things, Tezuka’s artwork and storytelling in Dororo takes inspiration from traditional legends and tales, samurai films, and events from Japan’s Warring States period, but he also incorporates his own touches and imagination and pulls it all together in a way that only Tezuka can.