JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood, Volume 2

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood, Volume 2Creator: Hirohiko Araki
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421578804
Released: May 2015
Original release: 1988

For years the only part of Hirohiko Araki’s epic and fashionably strange shōnen manga series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure that was available in English was the third story arc, Stardust Crusaders. A standalone side story, Rohan at the Louvre was released as well, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the very beginning of the series, Phantom Blood, was translated and released in print, and in a lovely hardcover edition, too. (I have a feeling that the popularity of the recent JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure anime adaptation probably had something to do with that.) Phantom Blood was originally published in five volumes in Japan between 1987 and 1988, but in 2002 the first story arc was re-released in three volumes. Viz Media’s English-language edition is based on that 2002 release. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood, Volume 2, published in 2015, collects part of the second volume, all of the third volume, and part of the fourth volume of the original Japanese release.

JoJo’s life isn’t exactly turning out the way that he would have hoped or expected. His father lays dying in his arms after having taken a fatal blow that was intended for him. Behind the knife that will end his father’s life is Dio, a man who was raised as his brother but who has turned against the Joestar family as was always his plan and intention. Not only that, Dio has gained untold powers from a mysterious and ancient stone mask. Now a vampire, Dio is nearly immortal and possesses great strength. Even he doesn’t know the full extent of his astonishing abilities, but he has already begun gathering followers who are drawn to his charisma and promises of power. With the help of a curious man named Baron Zeppeli, JoJo becomes one of the only people who might have a chance of defeating Dio. Zeppeli unlocks JoJo’s own latent talents, training him in Sendo and its use of Hamon energy, an impressive martial technique which when mastered may make it possible for JoJo to destroy Dio and save the world.

PhantomBlood2-72JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a very aptly named series. It is an exceedingly strange manga with nonstop, over-the-top action and drama. Nearly every phrase of narration and dialogue in Phantom Blood, Volume 2 is an exclamation. Even the few relatively quiet moments are fervently intense and the calm never lasts for very long. Most of the second volume of Phantom Blood consists of extended fight scenes and training sequences. Araki keeps Phantom Blood moving along at a breakneck pace which sometimes includes the actual breaking of necks. Blood, gore, dismembered body parts, splattered guts, eyeballs, and brain matter are all fairly common in the series. There is definitely a strong element of horror in the early part of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. While Araki’s artwork in Phantom Blood understandably doesn’t show the same refinement found in his later illustrations, it still has a sense of visceral dynamism and the occasional panel can actually be quite beautiful or striking.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a very odd manga. The story, artwork, and characters are all memorable if for no other reason than they are so over-the-top and strange. Additionally, Araki freely mixes historical events with historical fantasy in Phantom Blood. For example, Jack the Ripper becomes one of Dio’s earliest followers and England’s bloody dynastic struggles of the sixteenth century form a dramatic backstory for some of the other warriors that JoJo must face as he pursues his adoptive brother. Plenty of Phantom Blood is completely Araki’s own creation, though. And lest there be any confusion about all the weirdness, JoJo’s faithful and at times even useful companion Speedwagon is there to explain everything that’s going on, as well as to narrate the obvious. Speedwagon’s help isn’t needed to realize how much of a villain Dio is, though. Even before becoming a vampire Dio delighted in his own evil and the evil of others, but with his newfound powers he is in a better position than ever to make his malevolent schemes a reality. How successful he will actually be remains to be seen, but so far the results are marvelously terrifying and outrageous.

Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1

Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1Creator: Hiro Fujiwara
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421581309
Released: August 2015
Original release: 2006-2007

Maid-sama! is an eighteen-volume manga series created by Hiro Fujiwara. The series was initially licensed for English translation by Tokyopop, which released the first eight volumes of the manga between 2009 and 2011. More recently, Maid-sama! was rescued by Viz Media. The manga is being released under the Shojo Beat imprint in an omnibus edition, each English-language omnibus collecting two volumes of the series’ original Japanese release. The first Maid-sama! omnibus was published in 2015 and includes the first and second volumes of the manga published in 2006 and 2007 respectively. (The first volume also contains Fujiwara’s earlier short manga “A Transparent World.”) Maid-sama! was Fujiwara’s first major success as a mangaka. However, it wasn’t until Viz’s release of Maid-sama! that the series came to my attention when I noted the enthusiastic response of fans surrounding its return. I was therefore very happy to have the chance to read a review copy of the first omnibus in order to see what the excitement was all about.

Seika High School, previously an all-boys’ school, has only been co-ed for a couple of years. The student population is still largely male—the boys outnumbering the girls four to one—and Seika High still has a bad reputation. And so Misaki Ayuzawa has decided to take things into her own hands, becoming Seika’s first female student council president in order to clean up the school’s act, improve it standing, and create a more welcoming environment for young women. Misaki rules over Seika with an iron fist, though not everyone appreciates her strength and intelligence or the changes she’s making. Because of that, she’s particularly careful to keep the fact that she works part-time at a maid cafe a secret; she doesn’t want to ruin her image or risk losing what little authority she has. But then her classmate Takumi Usui discovers how she’s spending her time after school. Misaki has caught his attention and interest, perhaps even romantically, though understandably she’s not very happy about the awkward turn of events.

Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1, page 34I absolutely adore Misaki. She’s a smart, strong, motivated, hard-working, competent, capable, and highly accomplished individual. She’s not perfect though. Her drive to overachieve and handle everything by herself along with her reluctance to rely on the help of others means that she frequently overextends herself, wearing herself down. Misaki could stand to relax a little, but the believable combination of her strengths and weaknesses make her the most well-developed character in the series. While I love Misaki, I am significantly less enamored with Takumi. Sometimes he can be a great guy, but on occasion he can be an utter creep. His skills and talents match and even surpass those of Misaki, often in superbly ridiculous ways which are admittedly amusing, but he seems to frequently be emphasizing that she’s a girl as if that somehow makes her inferior. I want to see the Takumi who supports Misaki for who she is and who doesn’t feel the need to dominate her. Early on in Maid-sama! it seems this would be a possibility, but the more of the omnibus I read the less likely it appeared that the series would be going in that direction.

Although in part Maid-sama! is a romance, ultimately that particular plot line in the manga is the one that interests me the least. (If I actually liked Takumi more than I currently do, I would probably feel differently.) I enjoy the series most when it focuses on Misaki as she grows as a person. I like seeing her become less of a tyrant as the president as she learns to consider other people and their needs instead of completely overruling them without making an effort to hear their concerns. At first she is disliked by almost all of the students, but as time passes more and more of them, male and female alike, come to admire, trust, and appreciate her and where she is leading Seika High. Although there are certain things about Maid-sama! that bother me—most notably the distinct possibility of Takumi being idealized as a romantic lead—overall I did find the beginning of the series to be entertaining and a lot of fun. And since I do like Misaki so incredibly well, at this point I definitely plan on reading more of Maid-sama!.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1 for review.

The Legend of Kamui, Volume 1

The Legend of Kamui, Volume 1Creator: Sanpei Shirato
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781569313183
Released: August 1998
Original release: 1990

Sanpei Shirato’s The Legend of Kamui had its beginnings in 1964 as one of the first series to be published in the influential alternative manga magazine Garo. In the 1980s, Sanpei would continue the manga with a second series, Kamui Gaiden. It was Kamui Gaiden that became one of the earliest manga series to be translated into English and widely published in North America. Between 1987 and 1988, Viz and Eclipse Comics released thirty-seven issues of Kamui Gaiden under the title of The Legend of Kamui, serializing edited versions of two stories: “The Island of Sugaru” and “The Sword Wind.” “The Island of Sugaru,” which was later compiled by Viz into two volumes in 1998, is probably one of the most well-known Kamui stories, and not just because of the Kamui Gaiden live-action film adaptation from 2009. The Legend of Kamui, Volume 1 collects the first half of “The Island of Sugaru,” material from a volume of Kamui Gaiden that was originally published in Japan in 1990.

Kamui is an apostate ninja during Japan’s Edo period, on the run from the members of his clan who consider him to be a traitor when he tries to leave. While traveling through Yumigahama he encounters a woman who, like him, once belonged to a clan of ninja. Sugaru has been able to avoid capture and death long enough to establish a new life with a husband and three children who love her, but she is still being hunted and must be constantly vigilant. Sugaru has managed to survive because she doesn’t trust anyone, and that includes Kamui. Although he helped to save her life when she was attacked by Iga ninja, Sugaru can’t take a chance that Kamui might be trying to kill her as well. After an intense battle in which they are both injured, they part ways. But in a strange twist of fate, Kamui is later shipwrecked on the very island where Sugaru and her family reside. Kamui lives peacefully for a time in the small, remote fishing village and Sugaru’s family becomes very fond of him, but Sugaru would rather see him dead.

The Legend of Kamui, Volume 1, page 255From reading The Legend of Kamui, Volume 1 alone, not much is known about either Sugaru or Kamui’s past lives beyond the fact that they are trying to escape them. The hunted versus the hunter, whether the prey chooses to flee or to fight, is a theme that recurs throughout the manga, mirrored in both nature and human society. Kamui and Sugaru do have the advantage of being exceptionally adept fighters. Although Sugaru does strain under the burden of keeping both herself and her family safe, she is actually one of the strongest characters in The Legend of Kamui, Volume 1, exhibiting both great determination and martial prowess. Her skills rival and in some cases surpass those held by Kamui. Tragically, and understandably, due to her circumstances Sugaru has lost her ability to trust others; it’s simply no longer an option for her. Kamui, on the other hand, has so far managed to retain that part of his humanity, even though it has put his life in danger on multiple occasions.

I really wish more of The Legend of Kamui had been released in English because the series is excellent. The characters are complex, as are their personal struggles and their searches for freedom in an era that could be unforgiving, harsh, and violent. The action sequences are exciting and dynamic. Although a few ninja tricks are employed during the life-or-death battles—secret techniques, impressive acrobatics, illusions and transformations—there is a sense of realism that pervades The Legend of Kamui. In between the dramatic conflicts are the quieter moments of everyday life in a fishing village. Initially it appears as though Kamui, like Sugaru, will be able to outrun his fate and have a chance at a peaceful, happy existence. He learns to fish and becomes friendly with the villagers who are more than happy to welcome a strong young man into their midst. The Legend of Kamui, Volume 1 offers hope that such changes are possible, but ultimately taking charge of one’s own destiny is a difficult path to follow.

Gyo: The Death-Stench Creeps

Gyo: The Death-Stench CreepsCreator: Junji Ito
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421579153
Released: April 2015
Original run: 2002

Gyo: The Death-Stench Creeps is a short, two-volume horror manga series created by Junji Ito. Originally published in Japan in 2002, Gyo has had several English-language releases by Viz Media. It was first translated between 2003 and 2004, a slightly updated second edition was released between 2007 and 2008, and most recently, published in 2015, was the deluxe hardcover omnibus. In addition to Gyo, the omnibus also collects two of Ito’s short horror manga: “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” and “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.” The deluxe edition of Gyo is very similar in design to the recent omnibus of Ito’s manga Uzumaki; the two volumes look great on the shelf together. Uzumaki was actually my introduction to Ito’s work, and I consider it to be one of the best horror manga that I’ve read. Despite Gyo having been released in English three times, and despite the fact that I’ve been meaning to read more of Ito’s manga, the series’ deluxe omnibus is actually the first that I’ve read since Uzumaki.

While vacationing in Okinawa, Tadashi and his girlfriend Kaori witness the harbinger of what will eventually become a plague overrunning the entirety of Japan—a small, rotting fish walking on land with what appear to be mechanical legs. Accompanying it is an overwhelming and nauseating stench. Soon, countless fish and other sea creatures begin streaming out of the ocean. The only things that they have in common are the bizarre appendages and the sickening smell. Kaori and Tadashi cut their vacation short and return to Tokyo, but Kaori in particular is traumatized by the events in Okinawa and soon the creatures begin to be found in the city as well. No one knows where the walking fish originated or how they evolved; of much greater concern is the death and disease caused by their presence on land. And things are only getting worse with the passage of time.

Gyo: The Death-Stench Creeps, page 66The back cover of the omnibus describes Gyo as Ito’s “creepiest masterpiece of horror manga ever.” Admittedly, some of the artwork in Gyo is fantastically creepy, not to mention gruesome and grotesque. Ito is an extremely skilled illustrator, creating images that are horrifying and nightmare-inducing. And as a whole, Gyo can be exceptionally gross. However, the manga’s story ends up being so utterly ridiculous that I would be hard pressed to call it a masterpiece, especially when compared to his earlier work Uzumaki. Whereas Uzumaki is surreal and bizarre, Gyo is so absurd as to be ludicrous, and only increasingly so as the manga progresses. I simply can’t take Gyo seriously; I can only read the series as a comedy, whether or not it is actually intended as such. The manga is perhaps closer to being a cult classic, which I suppose might make it a masterpiece of a different sort, but that’s something that could be argued either way. If nothing else, though, Gyo is a brilliantly outrageous spectacle.

Gyo is certainly not a manga that will appeal to every reader, even those who are already fans of horror manga. Though disconcerting and disgusting, especially the illustrations, the plot of Gyo is too silly to be truly terrifying. Taken alone, the art is superb, but the ridiculous nature of the story creates a weird disconnect. However, I can’t deny that I was entertained by the progressively over-the-top, illogical, and random developments in the manga: sentient gas, a circus out of the middle of nowhere, characters who are oddly oblivious or overly accepting of what is going on around them, and so on. (Though, it is rather sweet how Tadashi sticks beside Kaori through to the very end.) Assuming that one can find it palatable to begin with, Gyo is a very strange manga that is difficult to look away from as Ito presses further and further into territory that is beyond believing. I kept turning the pages to see just how far he would be able to take things. Gyo may very well be one of those manga that’s so good simply because it’s so bad; whether that’s deliberate or not, I’m not sure.

Gene Mapper

Gene MapperAuthor: Taiyo Fujii
Translator: Jim Hubbert
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421580272
Released: June 2015
Original release: 2013

Gene Mapper is Taiyo Fujii’s debut work as an author. Originally, he was employed in design and software development, a background that to some extent informs Gene Mapper. In 2012, he self-published the novel as an ebook and it became a bestseller, catching the attention of Hayakawa Publishing, a major Japanese publisher of science fiction. Fujii subsequently expanded and revised Gene Mapper for release by Hayakawa in 2013. It was this edition of Gene Mapper that became the basis for Jim Hubbert’s English translation of the novel released by Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru in 2015. In addition to being a bestseller, Gene Mapper has also been critically well-received. Although ultimately the novel didn’t win, Gene Mapper was nominated for both a Seiun Award and a Nihon SF Taisho Award (which Fujii would later earn for his second novel Orbital Cloud). I was thus very happy to have the opportunity to read an early review copy of Gene Mapper.

Mamoru Hayashida is a gene mapper specializing in style sheets for color expression and design. Although he works as a freelancer, many of his recent projects have been for L&B, one of the leaders in distilled crops, a science in which plants have been designed from their DNA up to produce bountiful harvests with high nutritional value that are resistant to disease and pests. The problem of world hunger has been solved because of distilled crops, but there continue to be people who are skeptical of these synthetic creations, believing them to be unnatural, unethical, and unsafe. When SR06, an advanced strain of Super Rice that Hayashida helped to design, begins to inexplicably mutate, it seems as though those criticisms may be justified. In order to investigate and hopefully put a stop to the impending crisis before the media and the rest of the world finds out about it, Hayashida is first sent to Ho Chi Minh City to hire Yagodo, an expert Internet salvager, and then to the SR06 fields in Cambodia along with his agent Kurokawa. It’s only after they are there that they discover just how dire, and dangerous, the situation really is.

Gene Mapper falls into the category of realistic near future science fiction and it is an excellent example of that subgenre. A few elements initially drew me to the novel, specifically the developments and applications of new agricultural and biotechnologies, but the more I read the more I found to capture my interest, such as the implications of the collapse of the Internet (an event that occurred before the beginning of the story proper) and the prevalent use of augmented realities of varying types. Some of those new technologies and systems are unnecessarily over-explained towards the beginning of the novel, bogging down the story, but soon the details become better integrated into the narrative and Gene Mapper begins moving along quite quickly. Although human society in Gene Mapper is still believably imperfect, Fujii’s vision of the future and the role of technology in it is largely a positive and optimistic one. While the potential for technological developments to be used for great harm is a recognized concern in the novel, those same advancements are also shown have the potential to be used to greatly benefit humanity. The tension between those two possibilities is one of the driving forces behind the novel.

What makes Gene Mapper such a thought-provoking and engaging work is the importance placed by Fujii on technology and science and how people interact with them. The novel’s exploration of the tremendous potential presented by new technologies as well as it’s examination of related concerns and fears is extremely relevant to issues being discussed even today. I grew up in a farming community and so am well aware of the debates and controversies surrounding the use of genetically modified crops and other advanced agricultural technologies. Gene Mapper presents one plausible future based on logical extensions of current genetic, agricultural, and information technologies without ignoring the dangers that they present or how they impact society in both positive and negative ways. Just as in reality, scientific advances in Gene Mapper don’t exist in a vacuum. There are personal and societal interests as well as business and commercial interests at work in the direction that the future will take. Missteps have been and will be made, but innovations will continue as long as humanity is able to survive them. Gene Mapper argues that in time solutions will be found to old problems and new challenges will arise as a result.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of Gene Mapper for review.