Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Naruto (manga, vol. 31) by Masashi Kishimoto

Sakura and Chiyo continue their battle with Sasori. Sakura almost manages to defeat him, but Sasori can easily rebuild his puppet body when it's been damaged. Chiyo and Sasori start launching armies of puppets against each other. For a moment, it looks like Chiyo has won, but Sasori tricks her and attacks her with a sword. Sakura shields Chiyo with her body and is impaled by Sasori's sword. Sasori frees himself and tries to attack Chiyo again, but he's finally pierced through the heart by Chiyo's puppets, the parent puppets that were Sasori's first creations. In this position, Sasori is still alive, but he can no longer move. Chiyo then uses a transference technique to give up some of her own life force in order to heal Sakura. Usually, this technique would kill the user, but Sakura isn't dead yet, so Chiyo survives. Before Sasori dies, he tells Sakura how she can meet one of his spies, who is also one of Orochimaru's henchmen.

The focus of the story now changes to Naruto and Kakashi, who are chasing after Deidara. Kakashi unleashes Mangekyo Sharingan on Deidara, but his control isn't as good as it could be. Rather than killing Deidara, all Kakashi manages to do is teleport his arm away from his body. Kakashi and Naruto team up to try to defeat Deidara, and Naruto does manage to get Gaara's body back from him, but then Naruto's chakra begins to form the nine-tailed fox demon. Kakashi is forced to seal Naruto's chakra so that he can stay in control. Meanwhile, Guy has managed to defeat his lookalike foe, and Sakura and Chiyo have caught up to Naruto and Kakashi. Guy's team tries to fight Deidara, but Deidara uses a special jutsu that apparently causes him to explode. No one has time to get away, but Kakashi is able to avert disaster by using his Mangekyo Sharingan to teleport Deidara someplace else.

Now that the battles have ended, Naruto and the others have to face the fact that Gaara is dead. However, since Naruto has retrieved Gaara's body, Chiyo decides to use her transference technique to bring him back to life. She doesn't have quite enough chakra, so Naruto agrees to give her however much of his own she needs. When Gaara opens his eyes, he sees around him Naruto and all the other people who rushed to save him, as well as all kinds of people from Sunagakure. Rather than fearing him as they used to, people act relieved he's alive and proud of his strength. At this point, Naruto (and anyone who didn't already know) discovers that Chiyo gave her life for Gaara. The volume ends with the revelation that Deidara is still alive (the thing that exploded was a doppelganger he created) and that someone named Tobi is going to replace Sasori in the Akatsuki.

It's a good thing that Kishimoto didn't have Chiyo reveal her transference technique in an earlier volume, or it would've been obvious much sooner how Gaara's death would be dealt with. I'm glad that Gaara is really still alive - he's always been one of my favorite characters. Since the demon inside him has been removed, I wonder what he's capable of now. I had always thought that many of the things he did were due to the power of the demon inside him, but I doubt that Kishimoto will now say that he's not powerful enough to be Kazekage.

One part of this volume that I found particularly touching was Chiyo's hint to Sasori that she had planned to use the transference technique to breathe life into Sasori's parent puppets, thus giving him his parents back. It's a bit freaky (just because the puppets would have life doesn't mean that they'd be his parents, no matter what they look like), but still sweet. I was really surprised that Sasori dies in this volume. I had expected him to live longer, all the better to throw his angst around some more.

Kakashi's Mangekyo Sharingan was a bit of a surprise. I can't remember if it's come up before in the series - it sounds familiar, but I read enough spoilers that it's possible I might've heard about this on the Internet rather than in the manga. It took me a bit to figure out what the Mangekyo Sharingan was actually doing. With all the things that the various Sharingan can do, Byakugan seems pretty limited. I wonder if Kishimoto will be making up new things for Byakugan as well. Anyway, it appears as though Kakashi has also been training hard in the past three years. Besides being able to use a new ocular technique, he's also able to use it for a significant amount of time without passing out. Go, Kakashi!

Overall, I enjoyed this volume. Naruto's come a long way from what it used to be. The art is cleaner, clearer, and easier to follow than the art of the earliest volumes, and the story is definitely moving forward, if slowly. I love Gaara, but I really want to see what Sasuke's been up to. As far as extras go, there's only a thank you from Kishimoto for all the fan mail he's gotten.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Shaman King (manga) by Hiroyuki Takei - Manta, a rich but wimpy kid who can see spirits, meets Yoh Asakura, an apparently lazy shaman. They become friends, and Yoh gains Amidamaru as a spirit partner (spirit partners can lend their skills to shamans, and Amidamaru was a samurai). Gradually, Yoh befriends others, participates in battles against other shamans, and sets out on the path to becoming the Shaman King. Those who'd like another lengthy series featuring intense battles and friends saving one another might like this manga. There is also an anime based on this manga, but I haven't seen it yet and can't say how similar it is to the manga.
  • Bleach (anime TV series); Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo - Ichigo Kurosaki has been able to see ghosts for as long as he can remember, but it's not until he meets Rukia, a Soul Reaper, that his life really gets strange (not to mention dangerous). When a battle with a Hollow goes badly, Rukia tries to lend Ichigo some of her Soul Reaper powers but ends up accidentally giving him everything. Now a full-fledged Soul Reaper, Ichigo battles Hollows with Rukia's help and guidance and gradually becomes even more powerful. Those who'd like another long-running action-packed story with lots of battles and well-developed characters with amazing abilities might like this anime/manga.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie (anime movie) - In a world where alchemy is considered science, Ed and Al, two young brothers, have broken the primary rule of alchemy, the law of equivalent exchange, in an attempt to resurrect their mother. As a result, Ed lost an arm and a leg, and Al lost his whole body. Now they're on a journey to find the Philosopher's Stone and use it to restore their bodies. Those who'd like another series with fantasy elements that features humor, drama, and action may enjoy this series. In addition, this series occasionally has messages about peace very similar (in my opinion, anyway) to the one this volume of Naruto ended with. Both the anime and the manga are good, although the anime is very different from the manga after a certain point. Once you finish the anime, there's also a movie that wraps things up in a grand battles and multi-world spanning way - it's not advisable to watch the movie before finishing the anime TV series.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Prince of Tennis (manga, vol. 26) by Takeshi Konomi

Shusuke continues his match despite his temporary blindness. He's doing a great job, but Akaya's determined to win. It's a tense match, and when it begins to look like Akaya can't quite keep up, he achieves something called the "selfless state," which allows him to use the shots of every player he's ever played against. The only reason Shusuke manages to win is because of a tip Ryoma yells out and Akaya's physical inability to keep up the selfless state for long. The next and final match is between Rikkai's Genichiro Sanada and Seishun's Ryoma Echizen. Everything is riding on this match - although Ryoma is good, he may be too young to handle Genichiro. Apparently Ryoma's aware of this, because he starts using the selfless state right away.

Ryoma has played against many tough opponents, so he has a lot of shots to draw from, but Genichiro uses Furin Kazan, a mode of playing so powerful and effective that his opponents always lose their will to play. However, Ryoma seems to be able to handle even Furin Kazan while in the selfless state - at least until it becomes apparent that the energy drain from the selfless state may be tiring him out too quickly. Suddenly, Genichiro brings out the real Furin Kazan, and Ryoma is too exhausted to fight back. By the end of the volume, Ryoma appears to be near defeat.

In this particular volume, Konomi seems to have dropped any pretense of writing a mostly realistic tennis manga. I mean, come on. Characters who can mimick any shot that's ever been used against them, as swirls of selfless state power whirl around them? A tennis player capable of playing excellently against someone from a number-one ranked team while temporarily blinded? I suppose Furin Kazan might be possible (I'm not entirely sure what's involved when Genichiro uses it), but the others seem far-fetched.

That doesn't mean the series isn't still exciting - it's fun to see what sorts of things the characters will do in an attempt to win. It's just that it was even more fun when there was a possibility that the matches could theoretically happen the way Konomi wrote and drew them. I'm looking forward to seeing how Ryoma manages to win his match (he can't lose, or it's all over for Seishun getting into the Nationals), but I'm not expecting that he'll manage to win in any kind of realistic way.

Sometimes I wish that Konomi would allow readers to see Ryoma's thoughts during matches. He sounds cocky and confident when he talks to Genichiro during the match, but he knows that the selfless state is sapping his energy - is he actually worried and afraid inside, or is there no doubt in his mind that he'll win? If the former is true, that it would be nice to see that, because it would make Ryoma seem a little more human. If the latter is true, then Ryoma really needs to lose a little more often - confidence is nice, but too much confidence is just annoying.

As far as extras go, there are a few pages inserted here and there throughout the volume, basically just a few parts of the "Rikkai Question Corner" (Rikkai team members answer questions submitted by Japanese readers) and a short author note.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - Naruto, a young ninja, is determined to become the best ninja in his village, but he must first learn teamwork and better fighting techniques in order to survive all the tests he needs to pass in order to become a full-fledged ninja. Those who'd like another lengthy series with intense matches (in Naruto's case, these tend to be life-and-death battles) might want to try this title. In addition, Prince of Tennis's selfless state makes me think of Sharingan, a technique a few characters in Naruto use that allows them to copy other people's moves.
  • Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - During the violent Bakumatsu era, the assassin known as Hitokiri Battousai paved the way for the Restoration, killing many. Years later, this man, now known as Rurouni Kenshin, has given up killing and chooses to wander from town to town. After he helps a woman named Kamiya Kaoru, his wandering life becomes more rooted, at least temporarily. Kenshin is willing to fight to help others, but he does whatever he can to avoid having to kill. Those who'd like another lengthy series with intense matches (again, in this case the matches are life-and-death battles) might want to try this title. In addition, a bit of the commentary at the end of this volume of Prince of Tennis compares a technique Genichiro uses to a technique a swordsman might use; it reminded me of some of the descriptions of new techniques Kenshin uses.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE (manga, vol. 18) by CLAMP

Sakura, Syaoran, Kurogane, Fai, and Mokona are still in the world with acid rain. Yuko tells them all about Fei-Wang Reed, the man behind nearly all of their major misfortunes. Fei-Wang stole Sakura's memories for the express purpose of scattering them across dimensions in the form of feathers. Fei-Wang's goal is to obtain the power to cross dimensions and manipulate both space and time. In order to make his wish come true, he needs the mysterious ruins found in Sakura's world, and he needs Sakura to travel to many universes looking for her memories, because Sakura's body will commit those dimensions to memory.

Fei-Wang abducted Syaoran, who knew what he was plotting, and replaced him with another Syaoran whose main priority was to help Sakura collect all her feathers. He murdered Kurogane's mother in order to set into motion events that would eventually lead to him becoming part of Sakura's party. Yuko doesn't explain how Fei-Wang interfered with Fai, but Fai seems to already have his own answers. Only Mokona wasn't part of Fei-Wang's plan - Yuko and other magic user (Clow Reed, I believe) created Mako and Mokona in an attempt to block Fei-Wang's wish from being granted. Despite what Yuko has just told them, they all, for their own reasons, decide to continue their quest to find Sakura's memories.

The group leaves the acid rain world, and Yuko goes off to pass on the egg that Sakura found for her as payment for the water (see the previous volume). If you read CLAMP's Xxxholic, you know that Yuko gives this egg to Watanuki (there's a picture of Watanuki, all bandaged up, on page 20 of this volume of Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle), who then chose to give it to Himawari, the girl he likes. The egg hatches into a bird that Himawari names Tampopo - it's the only living creature unaffected by Himawari's uncontrollable ability to bring misfortune to those who touch her.

While the group continues traveling, the previous Syaoran is out continuing to do Fei-Wang's bidding, hunting down feathers and destroying anything in his path. Sakura's feelings of guilt over the destruction he has caused leads her to enter herself, Kurogane, Syaoran (the new one), and Fai into a dangerous "chess" competition (chess is in quotations because the things everyone does bears no resemblance to chess, even though this is the name used in the volume) - she plans on using the prize money to help the people who have been hurt by Syaoran so far. The competition is run by a mafia family, and it's not unheard of for the human chess pieces to die or get hurt. Each group in the competition is composed of several pieces (people who act as fighters in the game) and a master whose willpower allows the pieces to manifest their powers. Fai, Syaoran, and Kurogane are pieces, and Sakura is their master.

Sakura is a very strong master because her will to win and help those hurt people is so strong. However, she begins to falter when she finds herself noticing things about the new Syaoran that remind her of the old Syaoran. In fact, the new Syaoran even knows things that the group members had thought only the old Syaoran had known, because the new Syaoran had always been there in the background, watching everything. The new Syaoran cares for Sakura but knows that Sakura wants the old Syaoran back, and this is causing some strain in the group. Sakura's faltering emotions almost result in the group losing their latest match (it also doesn't help that the other group is cheating). At the end of the volume, Fai is contacted by Chi (his companion or something from his own world, and also a character from another CLAMP series), who tells him that the one he fears has awoken.

The character relationships in this volume are interesting. From the look of things, Syaoran confides mostly in Kurogane, while Sakura confides mostly in Fai. The whole Syaoran/Kurogane thing isn't too surprising, since they'd already built something of a relationship though Kurogane training Syaoran (the old Syaoran). Also, Kurogane's got a pretty good head on his shoulders and can adjust to a new Syaoran. Fai/Sakura was a little more surprising to me, because I'd never really noticed before that the two of them have such a strong bond. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but at one point (page 37) it looked to me like Fai was practically swearing fealty to her (I'm sure there are fan fic writers who'll read even more into it than I did - maybe something to do with unrequited love on Fai's part...). For those fans of Fai/Kurogane, this is the first volume where Kurogane has to act as food for Fai's new blood-drinking vampire self - Kurogane doesn't seem to mind (in fact, he says something to the effect of, "drink, or I'll just let myself bleed anyway") and, although I was expecting at least some resistance on Fai's part, Fai drank Kurogane's blood without any real protest.

This story is getting pretty dark, but also really interesting. While I suspect that CLAMP won't wrap this series up in a completely happy way, I don't think they'll end it in a completely depressing way, either. I'm looking forward to seeing how things end. As far as extras go, this volume has four pages of translation notes - this isn't much, but I really liked one of the notes, in which the translator explains difficulties translating a particular line (this note could come in really handy later on, if it turns out that the translator, who also doesn't know how things will progress in this series, was off in his interpretation).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Loveless (anime TV series); Loveless (manga) by Yun Kouga - Twelve-year-old Ritsuka's life isn't very normal - his older brother died not too long ago, his mother is physically abusive, and a strange 19-year-old man named Soubi has shown up, claiming to have known his brother. Soubi says he is Ritsuka's Fighter, while Ritsuka is a Sacrifice. Ritsuka slowly comes to understand what this means, as he learns to battle other Fighter-Sacrifice pairs who may be able to lead him to knowledge about his brother's death. Overall, this series has very little in common with Tsubasa. However, the game in this volume of Tsubasa reminded me a great deal of the look and feel of Loveless, with its super-cool Gothy outfits and masters who control fighters. Also, Loveless has a somewhat dark tone that matches Tsubasa's current tone. The Loveless anime is beautiful and follows the manga pretty closely, but it ends well before the manga does, and therefore doesn't actually resolve or explain much of anything. I own both (at least, as much of the manga as has been published so far in the US) and consider it worth it.
  • Chobits (manga) by CLAMP - There is also an anime version of Chobits, which is very similar, but the manga is better and, at eight volumes, quite possibly cheaper. Hideki, a cram student, comes from the country and knows almost nothing about persocoms, robots that look and act almost like humans. Unfortunately for Hideki, almost everyone has one now for their computing needs, and there's no way he can afford one. However, Hideki gets lucky and finds one abandoned next to a dumpster. She's a bit broken and can only say "chi", so that's what he names her. Chi adores Hideki, and, as the series progresses, he comes to care for her, despite his concern about the implications of humans falling for their persocoms. Since Chi (or at least someone who looks an awful lot like her) makes a brief appearance in this volume of Tsubasa, I thought I'd suggest this sweet and surprisingly thoughtful series.
  • Xxxholic (manga) by CLAMP; Xxxholic (anime TV series) - Watanuki is a high school student who is plagued by the ability to see spirits. One day, he meets a woman named Yuuko who can help rid him of this ability. Anybody who receives her help must pay a fair price in return, so Watanuki becomes her cook, housekeeper, and errand boy for an undetermined amount of time. Until he has worked enough to earn her help, Watanuki will continue to have to deal with his abilities, which often come in handy when Yuuko gives him special errands to run. This series includes lots of mini-stories, as Yuuko deals with clients who need her special skills and knowledge. Sometimes things turn out well for the clients, and sometimes things end badly, and, due to these experiences, Watanuki gradually grows and changes. Xxxholic frequently crosses over with Tsubasa in small ways, and characters from this series show up in Tsubasa and vice versa.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Xxxholic (manga, vol. 12) by CLAMP

This volume begins with a celebration of Watanuki's birthday, which is on April 1st, and almost immediately dives into even weirder territory than usual. All throughout the events of this volume, Watanuki keeps falling asleep (or at least that's what he thinks is happening) and having dreams about Haruka (Domeki's grandfather) and Sakura (see Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle if you don't know who I'm talking about - Sakura showed up very early on in Xxxholic, but hasn't had much of a role since then). While Watanuki tries to puzzle through his dreams, he's also worried about events that are happening when he's awake. For instance, Kohane, the young medium Watanuki befriended, has been having problems as a result of others believing that she's a fraud. Watanuki, accompanied by Domeki, goes to visit Kohane with a gift of food, which makes her happy, but Kohane's mother is angered by his visit and hurts him.

After Watanuki has another dream of Sakura, Domeki and Watanuki are on their way to school when they get caught in the rain and seek shelter in an inn - they barely manage to get away from the inn's inhabitants, ravenous birds who hide themselves in the forms of beautiful young women. Later, Watanuki is having lunch with Himawari when he notices a dark hole no one besides him can see. A scaly and webbed hand reaches out of the hole and grabs Watanuki's sherbet, and shortly after that the sherbet container is returned, full of flowers. The volume wraps up with a strange dream conversation and Watanuki's confusion over what is real and what is a dream.

There is so much that I wasn't able to put in this summary, simply because I'm not really sure what's going on yet. This series started off as somewhat strange and fairly episodic - this volume makes it clear that it's become more than that, or maybe that it's always been more than that and I just never noticed. So much of Watanuki's life is strange: he can't remember his parents' names, he can't remember ever eating any of the food he so often makes, he shares the same birthday as Sakura and Syaoran (again, see Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle), and he's no longer even sure which of his experiences are dreams and which are real.

Some of the things Yuko says in this volume make me wonder if Watanuki is actually in a deep sleep or in a coma somewhere, hiding his mind from the real world and only now starting to feel for the things and people he's left behind. Yuko says that Sakura will eventually die if she stays in dreams too long, and Watanuki is horrified at that prospect because of all the people who will be saddened by her death, but I can't help but wonder if Watanuki isn't unwittingly in the same situation. If he really is constantly stuck in dreams, that could be the case. Watanuki also mentions that the only things he can remember having eaten are the nectar given to him in volume 6 and the oden the fox spirit made - both foods are things of the spirits, so maybe he's in some kind of spirit world or he's a spirit himself.

Sakura reveals that coming into dreams was the price she paid Fai from being stabbed by Syaoran. I don't think I've read that volume of Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle yet, and I have to say that this is the first volume of Xxxholic I've read that makes me think that readers might actually have to read both series in order to really understand what's going on. The two series have been linked since nearly the beginning of Xxxholic, but the events of this volume seem to indicate that the characters and series are more closely linked than CLAMP had previously indicated. For instance, people keep telling Watanuki that he and Syaoran are either very similar or the same in certain ways. I wonder if Watanuki is some missing part of Syaoran, or vice versa.

The ending of this volume, with Watanuki confused and in tears, trying to sort through the jumble that his life has become and wanting to grant Yuko's wish, whatever it might be, was lovely and heartbreaking. I've really come to like Watanuki, and I like him even more now that he's finally developed the strength to try and sort through his own problems. I also like him for thinking to ask Yuko what her wish is. He asks her twice in this volume, but judging from the surprise on her face I don't think she really takes it seriously until the second time.

As far as extra go, there are four beautiful full-color pages and five pages of translator's notes. Unfortunately, considering how many odd and confusing things happen in this volume, I don't think the translator's notes are very good. While the explanations that are included are useful, they're only the tip of the iceberg of all the things that the translator could've written about. Just as an example, I would've liked a reminder about the identity of the boy Watanuki sees in a dream near the end of the volume - he looks familiar, but I can't remember what volume he appeared in.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (manga) by CLAMP; Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (anime TV series) - Those who were intrigued by Sakura's appearance in this volume and references to Syaoran may want to try this series. The plots and characters of this series and Xxxholic occasionally cross paths, which can be a bit maddening if you're only reading one series. In Tsubasa, a group composed mostly of strangers travels from one dimension to the next, trying to find the missing pieces of Sakura's memory, which have taken the form of glowing feathers.
  • The Cell (live action movie) - A psychotherapist uses a revolutionary new technology to help patients by exploring their dreams. She enters the dreams of a comatose serial killer in an attempt to save his latest victim before she dies. This movie is considerably more frightening and horrific than this volume of Xxxholic. However, those who don't mind that and would another story in which it isn't always clear what's real and what isn't might like this movie.
  • Paprika (anime movie) - In the near future, a device has been created that allows psychotherapists to access their patients dreams. Unfortunately, someone has stolen one of the prototypes and is misusing the technology, interfering with people's dreams and minds. Dr. Atsuko Chiba and her dream alter-ego Paprika may be the only ones who can put everything right again. Those who'd like another story in which it isn't always clear what's real and what isn't may enjoy this movie.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yakitate!! Japan (manga, vol. 12) by Takashi Hashiguchi

The Japanese professional bread baking team is now going on to the Monaco Cup finals, with Team USA as their opponent. Before that gets underway, however, the sports breads that Azuma and Shadow baked in the previous volume must first be tasted by F1 driver Mikael Shumapa. Although Shumapa likes both breads, his uncontrollable reaction is based on Shadow's bread (the bread prompts him to tell a story about his past, much to his own confusion), and he admits that Shadow's bread is the one he prefers. Kuroyanagi worries about Azuma's reaction to what could be considered his very first defeat, but Azuma barely even notices and continues to be fired up by the thought of baking incredible breads.

Later, Team Japan and Team USA are told that the finals will be composed of three matches with three different assignments. The first assignment, couture, is to create a bread with beautiful form. The second assignment, comfort, is to create an everyday bread for the home. The third assignment, country, is to create a bread that captures the quality's of the baker's country to the fullest. Any team that loses its first two matches loses the finals, meaning that the third match won't be held.

Azuma is naturally chosen for the "country" assignment, because of his lifelong goal to create Ja-pan. Kawachi takes the "comfort" assignment, while Suwabara takes the "couture" assignment. There's some nervousness that Kawachi and Suwabara might lose, meaning that Azuma would not get to compete, but Suwabara is confident he'll win (the assumption being that Kawachi will probably lose). Suwabara will be competing against Monica Adenauer, Kawachi against Shachihoko, and Azuma against Shadow.

Kuroyanagi tries to find information about the members of Team USA and has some difficulty. Shachihoko is relatively simple for him to gather information on, and Azuma has competed against him before. However, the others don't seem to have ever taken part in professional bread baking competitions before. Although Kuroyanagi still can't find information about Shadow, he discovers Monica's shocking secret - she's the world's top confectioner. This makes her perfect for the first assignment, since appearance is so important in the world of confectionery. Rather than being worried by this information, Kuwabara is energized.

When the match actually occurs, Kuwabara's bread is an amazing golden-colored crown with jewels made of fruit. Monica's bread is a multi-layered rye bread with a candy sculpture in the shape of a rose "growing" out of it. Although Kuwabara's bread is wonderful (the judge's reaction has some creepy aspects), Monica's bread is declared the winner (in this case, the judge's reaction involves turning himself into the cops and getting put in jail). Kuwabara may have lost his match, but love seems to be in the air - Kuwabara finds Monica's hands, scarred from years of working with molten sugar and razor-sharp candy, beautiful, and the compliment has Monica sticking to Kuwabara like glue and even teaching him confectionery techniques.

Now Team Japan's chance at winning depends on Kawachi, who doesn't even believe in himself and who hasn't been thinking about the kind of bread he'll be baking at all. Everybody from the South Tokyo Branch shows up in Kawachi's room and expresses their disapproval when Kawachi wimps out and tries to take the easy way out of his match. For the sake of the South Tokyo Branch and his family's pride in him (his family will also be there to see his match), Kawachi must win his match - and the good thing is, he's finally gotten himself fired up.

As usual, the reactions to the bread are odd and corny. It took me a while to figure out what Shumapa's reaction had to do with Shadow's bread - let me tell ya, it's a groaner. The puns and plays on words in the judge's reactions to Kuwabara and Monica's breads were also pretty out there, although I thought they were funnier and easier to understand.

In the previous volume, I thought the breads had gotten a little outlandish, but the breads in this volume, although amazing, seemed much more possible. It's too bad this volume was entirely black-and-white - Kuwabara's bread sounded like it would've looked amazing in color. Monica's bread was beautiful even without color. I sometimes wonder if these incredible breads actually could be baked, and I found myself wondering that again in this volume, especially when one of the South Tokyo Branch people starts talking about "ice bread" - bread with ice cream in it. According to the footnotes, such a bread actually does exist, and there's even a waiting list for it. The person who created that bread assists in the research for this manga, so the breads that turn up in this series can't be totally off-the-wall.

I also enjoyed the small amount of romance in this volume - Monica and Kuwabara seem like they'd make a good couple, although Monica's probably going to have to hit him over the head to get him to do anything that's not in some way related to bread baking. Monica and Kuwabara were also responsible for lots of fanservice in this volume. Monica shows up to her match in a bikini, hoping to fluster Kuwabara into making mistakes during his match, so Kuwabara retaliates by ripping his clothing off so that he's dressed only in a loincloth. After my jaw finished dropping, I couldn't stop laughing. I couldn't help but like Monica - she's not a bad person (her bread is influenced by her mother), and she and her family came from Germany (I'm half German).

Overall, this was a fun volume. I predict that Kawachi will win his match - for one thing, it'd be lame if things ended at this point, and, for another, Kawachi is finally fired up, and his experience with family should make him perfect for his assignment. As far as extras go, there are four short funny manga starring the author/artist, footnotes here and there throughout the manga, and a couple paragraphs on candy-making at the end of the volume.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (non-fiction book) by Steve Almond - This candy-obsessed author, who has eaten a piece of candy every day of his life, reminisces about the candy brands of his youth, tours candy production factories, and more. For those who'd like to read something from the perspective of someone who loves candy as much (almost as much?) as Monica might enjoy this book.
  • The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars (non-fiction book) by Joel Glenn Brenner - This is more of a corporate history than a book about making candy, but those who loved the candy-making aspect of this volume of Yakitate!! Japan and who like the general idea of varied personalities battling it out in the arena of food might enjoy this book. Brenner writes about the ongoing competition between Hershey and Mars and its beginnings with Forrest Mars Sr. and Milton S. Hershey, two very different men who each became successful in the world of chocolate.
  • Gin Tama (manga) by Hideaki Sorachi - Gintoki is a broke samurai in a world that no longer needs samurai. His life gets a little more complicated when he starts living with Kagura (a super-strong alien girl who looks tiny and cute) and Shinpachi. The group takes odd jobs, trying to save people and earn enough to eat and pay the rent. Those who'd like another manga series with weird and sometimes crass humor might like this series.
  • Eyeshield 21 (manga) by Riichirou Inagaki (story) and Yuusuke Murata (art) - Sena, a freshman in high school, has been bullied for years and, as a result, has learned to run really fast. His talent is spotted by Hiruma, the hilariously sadistic president of the American Football Club, who forces Sena to join the club as the mysterious "Eyeshield 21." Those who'd like another manga series with weird humor that focuses on competition might enjoy this series. Even if you don't like football, I'd still suggest this series - Inagaki, aware that many Japanese readers might not know how football works, explains many of the rules (so even American readers who don't know the rules can follow along) and keeps things fun, even for non-football lovers, by cranking up the wild and weird humor.
  • Hikaru no Go (manga) by Yumi Hotta (story) and Takeshi Obata (art); Hikaru no Go (anime TV series) - Twelve-year-old Hikaru is looking through his grandfather's things for something he can sell when he comes across a haunted Go board. Sai, the ghost of a long-dead Go instructor, is delighted that Hikaru can see him and basically forces him to give him opportunities to play Go. Hikaru is reluctant, at first, but he gradually learns to love the game and starts on the path to becoming a professional Go player. I'm sure that Japanese readers don't consider the premise of this manga (focusing on a board game and professional Go playing) to be nearly as odd as Yakitate!! Japan's professional bread-making competitions, and it's really not. However, Western readers unfamiliar with Go may find a manga about a board game just odd enough to be interesting. Those who'd like a manga series with exciting one-on-one competition might like this manga. Yes, I did say that a manga about a board game has exciting competition - Hotta and Obata do an excellent job of making the Go matches both exciting and believable.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bleach (manga, vol. 24) by Tite Kubo

This volume begins with the tail end of Ikkaku's battle against the Arrancar from the previous volume. Ikkaku beats him, and there's a flashback to the time Ikkaku first met Kenpachi Zaraki. In a slightly more recent flashback, Renji asks Ikkaku to become one of the new squad captains, a replacement for one of the traitors, since Ikkaku can perform Bankai. However, Ikkaku's ability to perform Bankai is a closely guarded secret, because all he wants to do is "fight and die as Zaraki's subordinate." Renji agrees to honor Ikkaku's wish to keep his Bankai a secret.

In the present day, Renji and others are continuing their battles against the Arrancars. Ururu goes into massacre mode during Renji's battle and joins the fight - unfortunately, the Arrancar (Ilfort) releases his Zanpakuto and impales Ururu. Ginta gets her away from the Arrancar and Renji continues the fight on his own.

Meanwhile, Captain Hitsugaya is also fighting an Arrancar (Shawlong Qufang) using his Bankai, while Rangiku is lying on the ground, apparently too wounded to fight. Ichigo continues trying to fight another Arrancar (Grimmjow), while Rukia also lies wounded on the ground. Ichigo is forced to activate his Bankai and must even used Getsuga Tenshou, the technique used by his Hollow side - Ichigo can only use this technique a few times before the Hollow part of himself tries to take over. Although this technique allows Ichigo to wound Grimmjow, it's still unlikely he'll manage to beat him. Before that becomes an issue, however, former Soul Reaper Captain Tosen appears and forces Grimmjow to abandon the fight.

Although things looked grim for all the other fighters, everyone's odds get much better after the Soul Reapers are authorized to remove the restriction upon their powers. Every one of them (Rangiku, Hitsugaya, and Renji) manages to kill their opponents. After all the battles are over, Orihime heals everyone who was badly hurt (except for Ururu, who gets healed by Tessai at Urahara's shop). Back in Hueco Mundo, Tosen lops off Grimmjow's left arm as punishment for his disobedience.

As the volume wraps up, Kubo shows a bit of the training Uryu is going through to restore his powers, Hitsugaya worries about how the Soul Reapers will manage to fight the Arrancars in the future (they had to fight with their full power, and even then they only barely managed to survive against the weakest Arrancars), Chad asks Urahara to train him, and Ichigo disappears, possibly to join up with the Visoreds.

As usual, things looked really bad during most of this volume, until the Soul Reapers revealed they had an ace up their sleeves. Of course, things can't be too easy, so readers are reminded that the Arrancars everyone managed to beat were only the weakest of the bunch - no one in the group, not even Ichigo or Captain Hitsugaya would, at this point, be able to beat stronger Arrancars. That's a bit bleak, though, so I'm sure that they'll all figure out a way to beat the Arrancars anyway - no matter what Ichigo goes up against, he always figures out a way to get himself and his friends out of bad situations alive.

I'm really curious about what Ururu is. Did Urahara create her as a Hollow fighting machine? It certainly seems like her fighting skills are something automatic. Ginta doesn't seem to be the same sort of thing - I wonder if he's human and Ururu is something else (or maybe a human with add-ons).

Overall, I enjoyed this volume, and I'm really enjoying this series. I figure I'll probably end up buying volumes of this series form here on out, just so that I can find out what happens next. Here's hoping the series doesn't go on for too long beyond this point - even at $8 a volume, it's going to get really expensive to keep up with this series if it goes into 30, 40, or more volumes. As far as extras go, there's the results of Japan's 3rd Bleach popularity poll and a prolonged gag comic that appears in the blank pages between chapters. The gag comic mainly involves Shuhei, who's been invited to take part in a snowball tournament between the 11th through 20th place popularity poll finishers. At first, Shuhei doesn't want to take part, but then he sees that Rangiku will be involved and spends some time fantasizing about saving her during the snowball fight. I wonder if Shuhei's as interested in Rangiku in the main story as he is in this gag comic?

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Shaman King (manga) by Hiroyuki Takei - Manta, a rich but wimpy kid who can see spirits, meets Yoh Asakura, an apparently lazy shaman. They become friends, and Yoh gains Amidamaru as a spirit partner (spirit partners can lend their skills to shamans, and Amidamaru was a samurai). Gradually, Yoh befriends others, participates in battles against other shamans, and sets out on the path to becoming the Shaman King. Those who'd like another series that includes lots of battles and spirits might like this series. There is also an anime based on this manga, but I haven't seen it yet and can't say how similar it is to the manga.
  • Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - Naruto, a young ninja, is determined to become the best ninja in his village, but he must first learn teamwork and better fighting techniques in order to survive all the tests he needs to pass in order to become a full-fledged ninja. Those who enjoy Bleach's battles, characters with amazing abilities, and fantasy elements may enjoy this manga series. Like Bleach, this series features action, humor, and drama.
  • Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - Kagome is an ordinary schoolgirl living in present day Tokyo. One day, she travels to feudal Japan by way of an ancient well and discovers that she is the reincarnation of the priestess who once guarded the powerful Shikon Jewel. After the jewel is accidentally shattered, Kagome, a half-demon named Inuyasha, and others team up in order to recover all the shards. Those who'd like another story involving big action scenes and powerful opponents might want to try this series.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Psych: The Complete Second Season (live action TV series)

If you'd like to read more about the premise of this series, please look at my post for the first season.

Just like the first season, there's really no overarching storyline. Every episode (or almost every episode - I wasn't exactly keeping track) begins with a flashback of Shawn's childhood. The flashbacks usually involve either Gus (Shawn's best friend) or Shawn's father. In the present, someone is killed or something is stolen, and the flashback into Shawn's past usually has something to do with some aspect of the present day crime (for instance, child-Shawn once caught his dad watching a soap opera, and then the present day crime involves the cast of a Spanish-language soap opera).

I don't think there's a single episode in this series that isn't self-contained. Although several episodes in the previous season indicated that there might be romance brewing between Shawn and Juliet (one of the cops Shawn often works with), their relationship doesn't actually progress any further in this season. They almost kiss, but that's about it. Shawn's dad starts dating in a few episodes, Gus is revealed to have gotten married a few years ago (his wife shows up asking for a divorce so she can marry someone new), and, in the final episode of the season, Shawn's mother shows up.

There's usually at least one scene in each episode that I really like. I loved Shawn's stint as an astrologer for the local newspaper - rather than taking his job seriously (after all, it was only a cover designed to make his investigation easier), he writes each of his horoscopes for specific people he knows (things like, "The man of your dreams will be wearing an Apple Jacks t-shirt"). I really enjoyed the episode where Shawn becomes an actor in a Spanish soap opera, although I'm sure it might upset and offend some people (when Shawn starts ad libbing, he resorts to a phony accent). I'm amazed that Gus finally got a few episodes of his own - in one his parents are the murder suspects, another involves the woman he married a few years back, and in another one Gus has to pretend to be the psychic detective in order to make one of his relatives proud of him.

There are plenty of extras in this DVD set. Each disk has deleted scenes (which usually didn't interest me, since they weren't always that different from what actually aired), podcast commentaries, and often audio commentaries. I didn't listen to any of the commentaries - there just wasn't enough time (I checked this boxed set out from the library). There was also one gag reel, "Where's the pineapple?" (clips of all kinds of Psych scenes involving pineapples, which can be found, I think, in every episode), "The Name Game" (a montage of clips in which Shawn gives himself and Gus funny names), Psychouts (I think this is some ad libbing by the cast - in my opinion, it's funnier than the gag reel), and "The Adventures of Lil' Shawn and Gus" (cartoons). The cartoons were a little over the top, and most of the other stuff wasn't all that interesting (although the pineapple clips drew my attention to pineapple references I'd missed). However, I always appreciate gag reels, and I really liked the Psychouts.

I don't think I'd ever buy this series, but it's still fun to watch. It worked really well as entertainment while I was packing up boxes for my big move - I didn't mind if I missed some of what was going on onscreen, and the humor worked well to keep my mood light.

Unfortunately, my read-alikes and watch-alikes are the same as the ones I used for the first season - since both seasons have exactly the same feel and neither season has a theme of its own, the same book and show suggestions apply.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Monk (live action TV series) - Adrian Monk is a former cop who's wife was killed. Most episodes of this show can stand alone, but the overarching plot, when there is one, is Monk's attempts to discover who killed his wife. Monk, like Shawn, is excellent at helping the cops solve crimes based on details he can see that no one else does, but he's crippled by his OCD and fear of just about everything. He travels with a nurse so that he can at least function in public and at crime scenes. Viewers who want another humorous and quirky mystery show with interesting characters might like this one.
  • Dexter (live action TV series) - Dexter and his whole family are cops, although he works as a technician specializing in blood spatter. Dexter is also a serial killer. Dexter's foster father realized what he was becoming when he was younger, taught him how to keep from getting caught, and taught him how to choose worthy victims (the bad guys that the legal system can't catch or keep). Dexter now has two lives, his life as a serial killer, and his life as a guy trying to look as ordinary and normal as possible. This show is more graphic than Psych (blood, cut up body parts), has more bad language, and the humor tends to be darker. However, if the thing that most interested you about Psych was the father-son relationship, you may want to give this one a try. Like Psych, Dexter has flashbacks to Dexter's childhood, showing how his foster father molded him into the person he is today.
  • One for the Money (book) by Janet Evanovich - One for the Money is the first book in Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. If you'd like something with lots of humor and quirky characters who manage to bring in the bad guys and solve crimes in spite of their aura of amateur-ness, you might like this book and this series. Although the main character is a woman and doesn't even have anything like Shawn's level of skills, she and her mostly incompetent friends (except Morelli the cop and Ranger the badass bounty hunter with a past) manage to get everything to mostly work out by the end of every book. In the first book, Stephanie, a resident of Trenton, NJ who's desperately in need of money, gets a job as a bounty hunter for her cousin Vinnie - never mind that she doesn't know the first thing about being a bounty hunter and doesn't even own a gun. Her first assignment is to bring in Morelli, a cop who's been accused of murder and the guy who charmed her out of her virginity when she was 16.
  • Burglars Can't Be Choosers (book) by Lawrence Block - This is the first book in Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Bernie is a professional burglar who's intelligent, ordinary, and as honest as someone in his profession can be. In this first book, he starts off on a job finding a leather-bound box in a house. Unfortunately, the box isn't there, there's a dead body in the house, and the police find Bernie in the place and assume he's responsible for everything they find there. Bernie doesn't know if he was set up or not, but he's got to stay ahead of the law and prove he didn't commit murder. If you'd like something with humor and a main character who is both likable and only honest according to a certain narrower definition of honest, you might like this book and this series.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Wallflower (manga, vol. 16) by Tomoko Hayakawa

This volume (like all the others) is basically composed of several fairly standalone stories. In the volume's first story, Sunako becomes determined to make up for a past missed opportunity by going to Harajuku, where she discovers a store that is perfect for her. In the second story, Kyohei is broke, gets hit on the head after he's told that he should become a host in order to make lots of money, and starts pumping out pheromones and hitting on Sunako. In the third story, it's Valentine's Day, one of the most dangerous days of the year for the guys. The guys retreat to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, taking Sunako with them, but the girls still manage to find them. The girls attack, much like crazy zombies, but everything turns out okay and Sunako manages to get some of the guys' Valentine's chocolate, which is all she really wanted. In the fourth and final story, Sunako's aunt wants her to go to a party, but she needs to lose 20 lbs. first (she's gotten fairly overweight). Instead of just getting slim, Sunako becomes obsessed with building muscle and looking like something out of an anatomy diagram - not the image the guys and Sunako's aunt wanted her to present, since Sunako's aunt hopes to match her up with a prince at the party.

The volume has its funny moments (I couldn't help but laugh at the sight of Kyohei hitting on Sunako and her response to him), but still, it feels like more of the same. Sunako's come out of her shell a lot - a comparison between this volume and the first volume makes that clear, since Sunako would never have been able to withstand going to Harajuku at the beginning of this series. However, after 16 volumes you'd think the characters would have changed than they have. At this rate, the series could potentially wrap up in the next volume, or 100 volumes from now. Despite a few funny moments, overall it gets a little boring.

In this volume, one thing in particular bothered me. When Hayakawa sticks with drawing androgynous clothed pretty people, she does well enough, but there are some things she just doesn't have the skill to handle. In this case, it's muscles. It's bothered me in the past, since I found her previous half-naked drawings of the guys to be more horrific than sexy - I'm a fan of lean guys, but these guys aren't lean, they're bony. Their arms and shoulders are painful to look at. In the final story of this volume, Hayakawa's weakness becomes extremely apparent. When Sunako goes to the party, she's apparently supposed to be muscular, but she actually just looks like a bunch of stringy sinew stretched over bones. It's awful.

I continue to read this series because of its occasional funny moments - also, I can't help but be hopeful that Hayakawa will finally have Sunako and Kyohei realize their feelings for each other. However, if I couldn't get it for free from my public library, I wouldn't still be reading it. Nothing ever really changes, and that gets old after 16 volumes. Since I'm now no longer in an area where I can get access to this series for free, I doubt I'll be writing more about it.

As far as extras go, there's a note from the author with a nice picture of her Scottish fold cat, an afterword from the author with another picture of her cat and a short comic starring her and her cat, five pages of translator's notes, and a six-page translated preview of the next volume. Also, each chapter begins with a note from the author.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - Haruhi, the only scholarship student at an elite school for the rich, is forced to become a host in the Ouran High School Host Club after breaking an expensive vase. Unfortunately, Haruhi is actually a girl - in order to stay in the host club and pay off her debt, Haruhi must make sure that no one outside the host club finds out that she's not a guy. Those who'd like another story starring a bunch of hot guys all the girls at school and elsewhere drool over might like this series. Personally, I prefer the anime over the manga, but they're both good. Like The Wallflower, this is another humorous series in which there's the potential for romance, but the main female character is too oblivious for anything to really happen.
  • Gravitation (manga) by Maki Murakami; Gravitation (anime TV series) - Shuichi Shindo is a singer in a band that he hopes will become famous. One day, he loses a page of unfinished song lyrics. The handsome and caustic man who catches it insults the lyrics and sticks in poor Shuichi's mind. Schuichi later discovers that the man was Eiri Yuki, a famous writer, and Shuichi seeks him out. The two eventually become lovers, but Yuki's emotional issues and Shuichi's rapidly developing musical career may tear them apart. Those who want another humorous story with famous and almost-famous guys and crazily obsessed fans might like one of the various versions of this series. The manga came first, and has some moments that I really enjoy, but overall I think that the TV series and OAV (not listed here, since it's best not to start with that) have much better and tighter plotting. This series isn't for everyone, since it features romance between two men - although neither the manga nor the anime are explicit, the anime keeps the physical aspects of the romance slightly more "off screen" than the manga.
  • S.A. (manga) by Maki Minami; S.A. (anime TV series) - Hikari Hanazono has always taken second place against Kei Takishima, which only adds fuel to her desire to finally beat him in something. Hikari has considered Kei her rival since childhood and is completely oblivious to his love for her. The two of them are students in the S.A. (Special A), an elite group at their school, and the story occasionally focuses on the S.A. as a whole or on one of the other S.A. students. Those who'd like another story in which there's the potential for romance between an oblivious heroine and one of the other characters might like this romantic comedy. I'll admit, I haven't read hardly any of the manga, but I've seen most of the anime (which has yet to be licensed in the U.S. - I plan to get it if it ever does get released here).
  • My Heavenly Hockey Club (manga) by Ai Morinaga - Hana Suzuki's favorite things to do are sleeping and eating. She'd never dream of joining a school club on her own, because it would interfere with her precious sleeping time, but circumstances force her to join her school's hockey club. The club is full of rich, attractive guys who hardly ever practice playing hockey, much less participate in hockey games - this club is mostly just an excuse for field trips. Those who'd like another humorous manga starring an unladylike main female character surrounded by a bunch of attractive guys might like this series. As with The Wallflower, there's the potential for romance between Hana and one of the members of the hockey club, but Hana's too oblivious to notice.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Naruto (manga, vol. 30) by Masashi Kishimoto

Pakkun gets everybody as close to Gaara's location as he can, but the entrance is blocked and sealed. Neji uses his Byakugan to find all the talismans that need to be removed in order to unseal the entrance, but it turns out it was all a trap designed to separate Sakura, Chiyo, Kakashi, and Naruto from the rest of the group. Both groups now have their own dangers to deal with - this volume doesn't focus too much on what Guy, Neji, Tenten, and Lee have to do, although readers do get to see a few panels of Guy fighting an opponent who has exactly copied his appearance, jutsu, and power.

Now that they're through the entrance, Kakashi, Naruto, Chiyo, and Sakura discover that Gaara is now dead. While Naruto and Kakashi go after Deidara, who has Gaara's body, Sakura and Chiyo are left to fight a powerful and dangerous puppet. Although Sakura's training has given her great strength and medical skill, she doesn't have the experience to survive this fight, so Chiyo uses her puppetry skills on Sakura just enough to allow her to fight the puppet and avoid being hurt too badly. After Sakura breaks the puppet open, Chiyo discovers Sasori, her grandson, inside, looking just as he did when she last saw him. Sasori begins fighting Chiyo and Sakura again, this time using a human puppet made from the body of the Third Kazekage, which is capable of performing all the Third Kazekage's jutsu.

Chiyo continues to use her puppetry skills to help Sakura fight, but Chiyo switches to actual puppets after Sasori attacks Sakura using poison gas. Chiyo's puppets are the first Sasori ever created, puppets based on his mother and father. They're helpful for a bit, but then Sasori's Kazekage puppet uses Satetsu, the Iron Sand, and manages to not only cripple the mother and father puppets, but also one of Chiyo's arms (her arm is that of a puppet). Sakura has Chiyo use her as a puppet again - Sakura does well and manages to destroy the Kazekage puppet, but, even so, she gets wounded and poisoned. However, Sakura's medical skills keep her in the fight. At the end of the volume, Sasori has revealed what Chiyo and Sakura must now battle: Sasori himself, whose entire body appears to be a puppet. Unfortunately, Sakura's poison antidote won't last much longer.

The Naruto filler episodes currently airing on TV might be boring me to tears, but the Naruto manga is still going strong (I can't wait to see how this is all translated into anime in Naruto Shippuden). Sakura's becoming a force to be reckoned with, although I don't think that this volume showed how much she's grown as well as it could have - basically, all readers see is that Sakura has become a pretty good medical ninja, she's enormously strong, and she learns quickly during battle.

Sasori's pretty interesting as well. I only know what's been revealed about him so far, so I don't know much about him. His puppetry skills made him an interesting fighter, but his mother and father puppets made him an interesting character. The flashbacks show him playing happily with these puppets and having them give him a hug, but they don't show why he made these puppets or where his actual parents are. In the past, the only puppetry jutsu I saw was whatever Kankuro did - I have to admit, it didn't really interest me. However, I really liked what I saw in this volume, although I can't help but wonder if all puppet masters get as deeply into body modifications as Chiyo and Sasori do. I don't think Kankuro has turned part of himself into a puppet yet, but maybe that's what his future holds.

I wonder if the Third Kazekage actually has any kind of consciousness. The little bit about him that is revealed in this volume indicates that he wouldn't have wanted to be controlled by Sasori this way, so he'd resist if he could, but there's no sign of resistance. I'm guessing that Sasori's human puppet technique just turns people into perfectly controlled puppet shells that are capable of using the original person's jutsu, rather than something more like the resurrected dead readers saw earlier with Orochimaru during his fight with the Third Hokage. The resurrected First and Second Hokage had their own minds when they were first brought back and lost their wills after the battle began.

Near the end of the volume, Kankuro and Temari are shown setting off to help the group that's gone after Gaara, so I imagine they'll be showing up to save the day for somebody (considering there's any number of people who could use some saving, I don't have a clue who they'll be helping - but I'm guessing Kankuro won't be joining the puppetry battle, since I'm not sure his skills are up to the challenge). At any rate, Kakashi and Naruto, at least, should be fighting soon. Since Kakashi's come up with a plan (one not yet revealed to readers), it should be good.

As far as extras go, there's even less than usual, just one page of comments by the author (more about his personal history), but this volume is good enough that I don't think that really matters so much.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Bleach (anime TV series); Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo - Ichigo Kurosaki has been able to see ghosts for as long as he can remember, but it's not until he meets Rukia, a Soul Reaper, that his life really gets strange (not to mention dangerous). When a battle with a Hollow goes badly, Rukia tries to lend Ichigo some of her Soul Reaper powers but ends up accidentally giving him everything. Now a full-fledged Soul Reaper, Ichigo battles Hollows with Rukia's help and guidance and gradually becomes even more powerful. Those who'd like another long-running action-packed story with lots of battles and well-developed characters with amazing abilities might like this anime/manga.
  • Ghost in the Shell (anime movie) - This movie takes place in a future where just about everyone has some sort of cybernetic implant, if not entirely cyberized bodies. Unfortunately, this leaves people vulnerable to brain-hacking. Section 9, a group of cybernetically enhanced cops, is called in to investigate a brain-hacker called The Puppetmaster. Those who were most interested in the idea of "people puppets" and would like another action-packed story might like this. The sound effects and look of this movie are a little dated, in my opinion, but it's still an excellent movie (although it may require more than one viewing in order to figure out what's going on), and it's a great place to begin before trying any of the newer incarnations of this franchise. It should also be noted that this movie is based on the Ghost in the Shell manga.
  • Puppetry: A World History (non-fiction book) by Eileen Blumenthal - This book gives an overview of the history of puppetry from prehistoric times to the present, organizing information thematically rather than by time period or region. It's a coffee table book, which makes for some unwieldy reading, but those who found themselves interested in puppetry after reading this volume of Naruto may want to try this book out. At the very least, there are 350 illustrations to look at.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Another boring blog update...

Lately, I've just barely managed to keep to my publication schedule. Today, I've made up for that a bit by writing enough posts to last me for about a week. In theory, that means that I can afford not to finish up posts every once in a while, but I can almost guarantee that I'm not going to be writing anything again until I run out of the scheduled posts I've just finished. I have a decent excuse, though - work pays my bills, and therefore deserves a bigger chunk of my time than my blog, which doesn't pay me a cent. I do want to give myself a better blogging cushion, however, since I'm going to be going to a conference next month to learn more about how my library might start doing authority control.

I'm happy to see, though, that I seem to be getting more visitors lately, and that more of the visitors I do get are actually staying to look around and maybe even read things. Very nifty.

Dead Over Heels (anthology, book) by MaryJanice Davidson

The three stories in this anthology each involve different types of paranormal characters that readers who've read Davidson's various paranormal series will recognise. Overall, this is a humorous paranormal romance anthology involving vampires, werewolves, and mermaids. I'm going to write a separate section for each story, with a read-alike or two for each section.

"Undead and Wed: A Honeymoon Story":

Betsy and Sinclair are now married, and all Betsy wants to do is have an enjoyable honeymoon in New York, having sex with her new husband and shoe shopping. However, her friend Jessica and Jessica's boyfriend Nick unexpectedly tag along. Jessica's excuse for this is that she hopes the experience will make Nick get along with Betsy better - he hates and fears her and Sinclair for messing with his memory after Betsy inadvertently made him her willing slave. Betsy still feels guilty about what she did to Nick, so she agrees to let him and Jessica stick around.

Unfortunately, the hotel everyone is staying at is staffed mainly by vampires, not something Nick is glad to hear. When someone starts killing children near the hotel, Nick is convinced that one of the vampires at the hotel, maybe even Betsy or Sinclair, is the killer. Sinclair isn't happy with Nick, but he agrees that the killings must stop, so everyone tries to find the killer, only to discover the hotel's dark secret.

Davidson's explanation for Nick and Jessica's presence in this story wasn't terribly convincing, in my opinion. Nick has a perfectly good reason to fear Betsy, Sinclair, and other vampires - I don't see how a little exposure to them while they're on their best behavior is supposed to make him forget what they can do when they want or need to. I also don't see why Jessica had to arrange for this during Betsy's honeymoon - you'd think there'd be other times when she could trick everyone into being together, maybe during a vacation later on. Davidson tries to make it seem as though the events of this story might have initiated some sort of change in Nick's feelings for Betsy, maybe made him hate and fear her less, but I've already read the most recent book in the series, and he's so venomous towards her that this story might as well not have happened.

Read-alikes:
  • Interview with the Vampire (book) by Anne Rice - Louis tells the account of his transformation into a vampire by the charismatic vampire Lestat. The two seek out others of their kind and eventually turn a young girl into a vampire. I wouldn't normally list this as a read-alike for anything Davidson has ever written - they may both have written about vampires, but Rice's writing style is very different from Davidson's, much more philosophical. However, when I tried to think of another story with a messed up child vampire in it, this book came immediately to mind. So, those who particularly found the idea of a child vampire interesting might want to try this book.
  • Dead Until Dark (book) by Charlaine Harris - This is the first book in Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series. Sookie is a telepathic barmaid. Most of the people in her small Southern town know about her special abilities, but most people can also forget about it a bit because Sookie makes an effort to either not read people or not show that she's read someone. It's an exhausting life, however. Before the beginning of this book, vampires revealed their existence to the world, and in this book Sookie discovers something she thinks is wonderful - it's very hard, if not impossible, for her to read the thoughts of most vampires. Soon, Sookie is dating a vampire, but, unfortunately, being around him gets her involved in more danger than she's ever experienced before. Those who'd like something else with vampires and a similar tone might like this book and series.

"Survivors":

Con is the star of a survival show. The latest episode of his show is supposed to be about survival techniques out in the ocean, but the boat he's on ends up getting separated from the filming crew and all the food. Although he's supposed to be a survival expert, he's not doing too well on his own until he's approached by silver mermaid who offers to help him. She does her best to feed him, keep him hydrated, and tow him to land. While they're on land, she changes her tail into a pair of legs and continues to keep him fed. The two of them soon have sex, and it isn't long before Con starts wondering if he really wants to be rescued. Once he's found, he'll have to go back to doing his show, and mermaids can't be far from water for long.

I might get made fun of for saying this, but I actually enjoyed this story. Con came across as a bit of a likable idiot - I mean, come on, a survival expert who refuses to do things he knows will save his life and doesn't make sure to be properly equipped for ocean survival? The mermaid, Reanesta, pretty much stole the show, and I'm so glad that Davidson alternated chapters written from Con's point of view with chapters written from Reanesta's point of view.

Because of her coloring (which she calls a noncolor), Reanesta is convinced that she's ugly, so she's sure that Con wouldn't find her attractive or want to sleep with her. Those who find "woman who thinks she's ugly finds guy who thinks she's hot" stories to be appealing will probably enjoy that aspect of this story. I particularly found Reanesta's non-humanness appealing. Since she hadn't ever interacted with humans before, she didn't really grasp why Con would be uncomfortable with her biting the heads off fish, and she had no problems with nudity. She also didn't have a great grasp of humor - at one point, she teases Con by calling him her pet, because she has to care for him and he's helpless without her. She doesn't mean what she's saying, but he doesn't know that (actually, I wasn't even sure she was kidding, at first).

Read-alikes:
  • Diary of a Radical Mermaid (book) by Deborah Smith - The story focuses on Juna Lee, a spoiled (but not malicious) mer-woman, and Molly Revere, a children's author who doesn't know she has mermaid ancestry. The two fall in love with a couple mer-men and deal with an oil company's plot to ruin the ocean as we know it. Those who'd like another light-hearted story with merfolk, romance, and humor might like this book. Also, this is actually book 2 of Smith's Waterlilies series, which began with Alice at Heart (the tone of the first book is very different from this one).
"Speed Dating, Werewolf Style: Or, Ow, I Think You Broke the Bone":

Cain is a competitive werewolf who's just realized that she's almost the last of her friends from childhood not to be married. She determined to fix that, but she's only got 22 days. She enlists the help of her best friend Saul, who's her only remaining single friend and who doesn't seem to mind that status. Saul sets up a speed dating event for her, but none of the werewolves he's found for her are suitable. When she goes on a blind date with a werewolf who's heard she's looking for a mate, she almost gets raped and is saved by Saul. The experience scares Cain a bit, but it scares Saul, too, and he starts making it even harder for her to find a mate. The truth is, Saul has never married because he's loved Cain for years, even if she's never noticed.

If I hadn't known who this story was by, I might not have figured out that Saul loved Cain and was sabotaging her attempts at finding a mate as quickly as I did. As it was, I figured it out almost immediately, which made Cain seem like an even bigger and blinder idiot. Overall, though, I enjoyed this story. I'm a big fan of "the guy who's right for her is right under her nose" stories.

Read-alikes:
  • One for the Money (book) by Janet Evanovich - In the first book in Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Stephanie, a resident of Trenton, NJ who's desperately in need of money, gets a job as a bounty hunter for her cousin Vinnie - never mind that she doesn't know the first thing about being a bounty hunter and doesn't even own a gun. Her first assignment is to bring in Morelli, a cop who's been accused of murder and the guy who charmed her out of her virginity when she was 16. Those who'd like another story with quirky, sometimes goofy humor and a bit of romance (Stephanie has at least two guys who are interested in her, if only she could decide between them) might like this book and series. Sorry, no werewolves.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Undead and Unworthy (book) by MaryJanice Davidson

Betsy Taylor, newly married Queen of the Vampires and lover of shoes, has to deal with complications and dangers in her life yet again. Betsy's dead stepmother, who was the bane of her existence when she was alive, has come back to haunt her - she's annoying, overly critical, insulting, and no one can see her except Betsy. Before Betsy can even begin to try and get rid of her, she's got another problem to deal with: the Fiends (feral vampires) are thinking clearly again and have decided that all their anguish and problems were Betsy's fault. They're determined to kill her, and they don't mind hurting her friends in the process. Garrett admits that the Fiends' new condition is his fault (he fed them his blood), but Betsy forgives him - in fact, she forgives just about everybody, and lets her own feelings of guilt and responsibility get in the way of solving things the way most vampires would, by just killing anything that endangers her and her friends. Nick, Betsy's best friend's boyfriend and a cop who hates her guts, drops by to ask for Betsy's help finding a vigilante killer - despite the other complications in her life and the possibility that Nick is just trying to get her killed, Betsy agrees to help.

The note to the reader at the beginning of this book explains that this book is the beginning of a new story arc. As far as I can tell, that story arc is going to be about Betsy actually shaping up and beginning to do the tough and possibly not nice things that one must do when dealing with vampires. In the past, Betsy has tried to rule by human rules and ideas. This hasn't always been successful, but it's never gone as badly as it has in this book, which leads me to the other change in the series - MaryJanice Davidson actually kills off two of Betsy's group. They're not characters who've had a large part in the series, but it's still sad when they die. In previous books, when a character appears to have been killed, Davidson always pulls some new vampiric ability of Betsy's out of a hat. This time, however, unless Betsy can bring people back from the dead and restore brain matter, the dead good guys are not coming back.

Pretty much everyone shows up in this book: the Fiends (many of whom finally get to reveal their real names), Betsy, Sinclair, Tina (Sinclair's incredibly loyal bodyguard/secretary/whatever), Antonia (both Betsy's stepmother and the werewolf Antonia), Garrett (a former Fiend), Nick, Marc (a doctor and Betsy's gay friend - there are jokes about his gayness, but they aren't meant to be taken as mean jokes), Jessica (Betsy's rich black friend - once again, I remember jokes, but they're not meant to be taken as mean jokes, and Jessica gives as good as she gets), and maybe others I'm forgetting. With all of these characters, some of them naturally get less time than others - Marc is hidden away pretty quickly, and Jessica doesn't show up much more often than him. Antonia (the werewolf) felt like an extra, something that makes a lot of sense once you get to the end of the book. Nick drove me crazy sometimes, with his unwavering dislike of Betsy (it's understandable that he hates her, but it gets to the point when you want to shout, "enough already!").

Tina got a few interesting scenes, and there were parts where I found myself thinking, "It would be awesome if a future book focused on Tina more." It's sometimes easy to forget that Tina is a powerful and dangerous vampire, since she usually acts like everybody's efficient secretary/waitress/bodyguard. I liked reading about her getting truly angry - she didn't sound as frightening as Davidson seemed to want readers to think she was, but she was definitely different. I also can't help but think that she was in the right. Betsy might've had fewer problems if she had just killed all the Fiends she could find after they got loose and started threatening her, or if she had let someone else kill them. Instead, Betsy wanted to apologize to the Fiends and talk things through with them. She wouldn't have been the same Betsy if she'd killed them all, but there might have been less worry and hand-wringing.

In the middle of all the danger, Betsy takes a bit of a break and takes Sinclair to meet one of her few living relatives, her grandfather, a bigoted veteran of World War II who now lives in the care of a nurse. I enjoyed those bits, and I especially liked the part at the end, when Betsy gets advice from her grandfather about dealing with killing and death.

Overall, I liked this book, but this may be the point at which the series becomes much darker. Throughout most of the earlier books in the series, the main appeal was the humor and the bits of romance. This book still had humor, and Sinclair and Betsy are still in love (they have sex, she drinks his blood, she takes him to meet a family member, etc.), but, if Davidson isn't careful, all the lighter stuff is going to start clashing really badly with the darker stuff in later books. Since Betsy can't help being part of the lighter stuff (she's not the brightest crayon in the box, and she can be a bit ditsy at times), the fact that she will be the one who has to deal with the darker stuff, since she's the Queen and all, means that Davidson has a tough road ahead of her.

Read-alikes:
  • Dead Until Dark (book) by Charlaine Harris - This is the first book in Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series. Sookie is a telepathic barmaid. Most of the people in her small Southern town know about her special abilities, but most people can also forget about it a bit because Sookie makes an effort to either not read people or not show that she's read someone. It's an exhausting life, however. Before the beginning of this book, vampires revealed their existence to the world, and in this book Sookie discovers something she thinks is wonderful - it's very hard, if not impossible, for her to read the thoughts of most vampires. Soon, Sookie is dating a vampire, but, unfortunately, being around him gets her involved in more danger than she's ever experienced before. Those who'd like another story with vampires, action, and a bit of romance might like this book and series. Like Davidson's Betsy Taylor books, this series starts off on the lighter end of the scale and gets darker as things progress.
  • You Slay Me (book) by Katie MacAlister - This is the first book in MacAlister's Aisling Grey series. All Aisling wants to do is deliver an old, gold dragon statue to her uncle's client in Paris. Instead, she comes across a dead woman and a mysterious and sexy man. The man (who is also a dragon), named Drake, disappears, along with the statue. Aisling has to prove she didn't kill the woman and recover the statue, all while dealing with the revelation that she is a Guardian (basically, the Keeper of the Gates to Hell). Those who'd like another story with fantasy, action, humor, and a bit of romance might like this book and series. Similar to Davidson's Betsy Taylor books, this series gets a bit darker as it progresses.
  • One for the Money (book) by Janet Evanovich - In the first book in Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Stephanie, a resident of Trenton, NJ who's desperately in need of money, gets a job as a bounty hunter for her cousin Vinnie - never mind that she doesn't know the first thing about being a bounty hunter and doesn't even own a gun. Her first assignment is to bring in Morelli, a cop who's been accused of murder and the guy who charmed her out of her virginity when she was 16. Those who'd like another story with fast-paced writing, humor, and a bit of romance might like this book and series. I'd especially recommend this to those who enjoyed Undead and Unworthy but could have done without the sadness and character deaths - as far as I know, Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series isn't going to get dark anytime soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gin Tama (manga, vol. 6) by Hideaki Sorachi

This volume, like other Gin Tama volumes, is made of up several distinct and fairly unrelated stories.

First, Gin, Kagura, and Shinpachi go mushroom hunting and end up finding a nasty parasite that attaches itself to a person or animal's head and happens to look like a mushroom. The parasite that infects them is attached to the head of a bear that's been made crazy by its alien mushroom parasite - the man who originally raised the bear and was responsible for it being turned loose in the wild now feels responsible for it and is determined to kill it to stop its mushroom-fueled rampaging. In the next story, Gin is roped into investigating illegal death match fights by Okita and tries to help the star of the death matches, who, in his personal life, has lots of abandoned children who depend on him. In the third story, Kondo has to deal with the fallout resulting from the outcome of the previous story and tries his best to avoid being killed - unfortunately, a creepy TV horoscope predicted his death. In the fourth story, Gin, Shinpachi, and Hasegawa try to give a young nurse a chance to confess her love to Katsura, but things don't go quite as planned. In the fifth story, everybody's trying to survive giant killer alien cockroaches - if Gin were only watching the news, he'd find out how to beat the cockroaches, but he's too busy fighting for his life. In the final story, everyone tries to help out an idiot girl who's gotten herself roped into a cult that believes that if they give their money to the cult leader and wear a hairy mole on their face, all their dreams will come true. The cult leader does seem to have the mysterious ability to make small dreams (like not wanting to be bald) come true, but something still seems fishy about him.

When I first started reading this series, back in volume 1, I wasn't really sure how I felt about it. I'd heard about the series before, that it's a comedy, and that Sorachi put the Shinsengumi (Japanese historical figures) in some kind of future time. I fell in love with the Shinsengumi in Peacemaker, and was looking forward to seeing them again in another series. That was part of my mistake - personally, I feel that the Shinsengumi connection is mostly unimportant to the series, with a few exceptions here and there. In order to enjoy this series, you have to be able to enjoy the humor, and the humor is weird. I'm all for weird humor, but the jokes just weren't all that funny to me.

I still don't feel strongly enough about this series to want to buy future volumes of it (so, sorry Gin Tama fans, this is probably the one and only Gin Tama post I'm going to be writing). However, it's grown on me since that first volume. This particular volume actually starts off incredibly serious, for Gin Tama anyway. I was reminded a bit of Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop. Both of those series tend to be light, fun, and funny as a whole, but they take time for occasional serious moments, as well. I was also surprised/pleased by Gin's actions in the second story - for a guy who's often lazy, he was pretty sweet, helping a child who could only offer him a sticker as payment.

I enjoyed the cockroach story the most. Every time a news report said people shouldn't do something (like kill the cockroaches), Gin was off doing it, all because he didn't bother to watch the news and simply assumed the giant roaches were his fault. Sorachi did an excellent job drawing people's expressions of horror at seeing the roaches. While the humor in Gin Tama might not always be my cup of tea (although it's also quite possible that the jokes are losing a good deal in translation), this particular story had me laughing. In addition to the cockroach story, I also loved watching Kondo try to deal with the prediction of his death. "A lot of Virgos are going to die today... Especially the ones with goatees who are brushing their teeth right now. The color red will bring you a little luck. Plus the red will make the blood less obvious" - all this from a TV weather girl! Is it any wonder poor Kondo was a bit freaked out?

Sorachi does his best to pack humor/weirdness in every part of his series - even the chapter titles. If you've picked up a volume of Gin Tama and haven't stopped to read the chapter titles, you should. In this particular volume, my favorite chapter title was "People With Dark Pasts Can't Shut Up."

Another nice thing about this volume is that Sorachi includes a few of the original character designs for some of the characters. He doesn't say too much about them, but it's still really interesting to see what the characters might have looked like. I enjoyed recognizing certain aspects of some of the character designs in entirely different characters in the current incarnation of the series. Also - here's a surprise - Okita used to be a girl! As far as the current character designs go, Katsura is my favorite, so I'm glad he showed up in this volume, even if only briefly.

Unfortunately, since this is a Shonen Jump title, there isn't really anything else in the way of extras - nope, sorry, no translator notes at the end of the volume explaining how they had to change a Japanese pun so that it would make more sense in the English language. Overall, I liked this volume, and, like I've said, the series has grown on me. The humor can be a bit weird sometimes, and it's also sometimes a bit crude, but I've come to like it. Also, Gin has shown that he's more than just a slacker with low blood sugar - he has a heart, too.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Cowboy Bebop (anime TV series) - Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter with a laid-back attitude, amazing fighting skills, and a dark past. He's partners with Jet Black, a former cop, and, as the series progresses, his group grows to include Faye Valentine (a sexy, tricky gambler who can't really remember her past) and Ed (a weird and cheerful young hacker). There are a couple manga series based on this anime, but they're not nearly as good as the anime. In addition, there's a movie that takes place fairly late in the series timeline - I'd recommend watching the series before seeing the movie. Those who'd like something with lots of humor and a few serious moments might like this series. Like Gin Tama, this series is set in the future but isn't what I'd call sci-fi. The main characters also remind me of the characters in Gin Tama - they're often broke and, although the thought of earning money makes them drool, that doesn't stop them from occasionally helping people out who can't pay them back with much (or anything).
  • Samurai Champloo (anime TV series) - Fuu, a somewhat ditsy waitress, enlists the help of Mugen, a fierce and undisciplined fighter who incorporates break-dancing into his fighting style, and Jin, a samurai with a more traditional fighting style and a calmer and more controlled personality. Somehow the three of them have to get along while they try to find a samurai who "smells of sunflowers," someone from Fuu's past. Like Gin Tama, this is another series with a bunch of mismatched characters are stuck together, trying to survive their adventures and scrape enough money together to have a decent meal. Most of the series is humorous, but there are occasional serious moments.
  • School Rumble (manga) by Jin Kobayashi; School Rumble (anime TV series) - When Tenma learns that her secret crush is going to be transferring to a school in America, she writes a long (but anonymous) love letter to him. Karasuma, her crush, ends up postponing his transfer, and Tenma realizes that she's got to work up the courage to tell him how she feels before he finally does leave. Meanwhile, Tenma is entirely unaware that Harima Kenji, the school delinquent, has a huge crush on her, but he's too nervous to confess his feelings to her. Aside from the messy and bumbling love story, there's a whole cast of friends, classmates, and Tenma's younger (but more thoughtful and mature) sister. Those who'd like something else with bumbling, idiot characters, weirdness, and humor might like this series. I've read the manga but never seen the anime - however, from what I've heard, the two sound pretty similar. Check out Anime News Network for reviews of several volumes of the anime.
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