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Bartender – Joh Araki and Nagamoto Kenji

And Araki Joh’s obsession with all things alcoholic continues…bartender

In this manga, a bar is never just a bar – it is a field hospital for the soul, (let us ignore any dubious implications for the mean time).  People who walk into Sasakura Ryuu’s bar have their own problems and, whether they realise it or not, they are seeking “the glass of the gods.” This is where genius bartender Sasakura  comes in. He’s a chirpy, wise young Yoda of a barman that always knows the precise cocktail to use as a metaphor for the life of the customer in front of him and how that self-same cocktail will provide the answer for the customer’s problems. As well as learning about life, love and family, we as the reading public also have our knowledge of liqueurs, cocktails, history and culture taken up a level or five.

This is a really lovely seinen that knows how to avoid being too episodic in what is, let’s face it, quite an episodic format. Nagamoto Kenji’s artwork is precise, but dynamic and whilst it does change over time I don’t have as big a problem with that as other people have. (Although some of the over the top “wow!” reaction panels after people have sipped various cocktails make me smile for the wrong reasons). Eventually, a sort of plot and some regular characters do emerge, although for better or worse they don’t really infringe on the “drink of the week” plot unless it’s necessary – mind you the plot-integration does improve as it goes on. We’re currently on chapter 91 as far as updates go and I’m still looking forward to the next one, which surely has to be a good sign.The stories themselves are nicely-told vignettes that ring true with real life, and aren’t generally as exaggerated or bitter as traditional bar-stool, slice-of-life confessionals; Sasakura himself is really well done, he could have been so monumentally annoying and smug as a character – but thankfully he’s done as a modest, likable, know-it-all man-child of sorts.

The idea of cocktails being quite literally the answer to everything is more than a little disturbing at first; through repetition you gradually get numb to it, but I personally still have this lingering sense of unease. Maybe that’s because I’m from the U.K, a nation not famed for its quiet and civilized drinking manner, and am as a result slightly over-aware of this angle. I know that Araki Joh isn’t seriously suggesting that alcohol is the solution to all of life’s problems, but I can’t help but feel he might think it in his heart of hearts. Don’t believe me? Bartender has a sister series called Sommeliere, which does a similar thing with wine but with a female wine-waiter and more of a running plot.

With the alcoholic elephant in the room out of the way, I can say that is a genuinely educational and interesting series in places. If nothing else it does wonders for your pub quiz knowledge of alcohol; did you know that mead is the oldest liqueur in the world? And that we get the word “honeymoon” from the mead (which is honey-based) that newly-weds were meant to drink whilst they were having sex? And my cocktail recipe database has infinitely improved, which can only be a good thing (if even as a student I don’t necessarily have the funds to try half these things out).

I’ll give it a 3.5 out of of 5, on account of minor issues, i.e. hints of alcoholism, plot and OTT reactions but it is a lovely, but insightful and interesting series. Go and read it!

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Annarasumanara – Ha Il Kwon

It takes a couple of attempts before you can say the title…

annarasumanara-2669343

At school there is a rumour of a strange man who claims to be a magician who lives in an abandoned fun-fair; however Yun Ai, an extremely poor honours student, does not have time for such nonsense. She is far more concerned about where she can get the next meal for her and her sister from and the compromise between buying rice and replacing her hole-ridden tights. If anything, she wants to grow up faster so that she can escape the situation. That is, until one day she stumbles into the  fun-fair and she is asked the question: “Do you believe in magic?”

Okay, let’s start with the basics. This is a Korean webtoon and the artwork is freaking brilliant. It embraces what it is and uses the fact that it was created on a computer to its advantage, instead of pretending that it’s just a colour manwha with computerised buildings in the background. As well as good use of effects and patterns, the entire thing is in black and white with splashes of colour used for dramatic effect (Ai’s lips and L’s postbox) that really underlines the delicate and distinct draughstmanship of the characters themselves. I also love how each character’s personality/mental state (even relatively minor ones) is reflected in the use of lines – this makes more sense the further you go along in the story. There is absolutely no way in hell that you could mistake Annarasumanara for anything else, it has its own truly distinctive style – which something very few artists in this field ever achieve, see Yuki Kaori and Lee Nicky other Far Eastern exemplars, so hats off to Ha Il Kwon for joining this distinguished band. With a webtoon, of all things.

The story has quite a nice pace to it, but there is at least one character change which takes place a bit suddenly and events do escalate and resolve themselves in the denouement equally suddenly. Otherwise, it’s a very affecting tale about trying to control your own destiny and the value of childish things in a constricting world controlled by faintly sinister adults. It’s about the constant fight of the eccentric individual against a conventional and narrow-minded society that fears and attempts to destroy what it doesn’t understand; against this backdrop, the personal stories of the three protagonists make perfect sense and become all the more affecting. Watch out for the character of Na Il Deung, his transformation is very effective and is one of my favourite moments in the story.

4 out of 5, on account of dramatic pacing issues where events and character development are concerned. But all the same, read it. It really is very good.

Tune in next time folks!

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A Bit of Shameless Plugging…

If you’re in the mood for something slightly more cerebral/less socially awkward, try hopping over to my other blog, Book Vampire, for fiction, non-fiction and poetry reviews. It’s essentially the same deal as this site,but in slightly more detail and without all of the licencing rants. http://bookvampire.wordpress.com/

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Tokyo Crazy Paradise – Nakamura Yoshiki

A great antidote for kawaii-fatigue.

“Kyaa! Sempai is so cool!” Is NOT sentence you will find in Tokyo Crazy Paradise, believe me I’ve read it a couple of times. (Cue a load of smart-ass comments linking me to a page where it’s said in a background character’s stupidly small speech-bubble). TCP is set in the not too distant future in a Tokyo that has long-since gone to hell in a hand-basket, gangs and thugs rule the street, corruption is rife and nobody puts themselves out to help a stranger – least of all a woman being attacked. So all in all it’s not surprising that Tsukasa’s policemen parents have decided to raise her as a boy, but they’re both killed and she and her brothers are thrown out onto the streets by their landlandy; desperate she goes to a classmate for help, Ryuu. But, Ryuu just happens to be the youngest ever head of the Kuryugumi – the largest Yakuza group in the Kansai region, so when Tsukasa’s brother’s manage to ring up a massive debt “he” needs to work it off, as Ryuu’s bodyguard.

For the first few chapters a very big part of me was wondering if this was a shounen and not a shoujo,  lack of kawaii-factor, the lead wasn’t powerless, the plot isn’t really romance-centric (there is some romance later on in the story, but it never really takes over from the main plot). There are a lot of car-chases, blood and gore, explosions, power-politics, drugs with weird effects – so no classic shoujo-fodder. It’s not really angsty, it does have those moments (hey, the main cast is made up of teenagers in the criminal underworld) and does have some wonderful moments of slapstick humour and general visual comedy. It’s nice to not have cutesy, pink, bubbly optimism shoved in my face because I’m a girl and we’re supposed to be into that kind of thing.

The plot for the first volume or so is a little episodic and in places repetitive, but then all of a sudden it seems as though Nakamura-sensei has been given the all-clear for the series and suddenly starts building up the main plot-arc – which of course means things all of a sudden get really interesting. It ran for 19 volumes, so inevitably there are a couple of chapters we could do without (the school-trip and Christmas mini story-arcs spring to mind), this happens in manga quite a lot because the artist needs to produce a chapter a month/fortnight/week depending on the magazine, so you do get filler whilst the mangaka’s busy plotting the main story. Filler notwithstanding, the story does eventually build up and crescendo in an awesome finale, which randomly peters away to one of the most annoying final panels to an amazing story I’ve ever seen in a series.

4 out of 5, because of stupid final panels and filler – thou shalt not mess with a cheated reader. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend reading this because it’s just good, clean fun and the artwork only gets better as it goes along. It’s the equivalent to sitting down on a Saturday afternoon with Spiderman (the first one, the other two are uninspiring), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or X-Men (any of them are good).

Stay tuned folks!

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Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan (Royal Doll Orchestra) – Kaori Yuki

What? I’ve had this site for two years and I haven’t reviewed any Kaori Yuki?! This simply will not do!

I don’t think “quest” quite covers the odyssey that was finding the final volume in a language which I could read it in… Like most things I started reading Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan online on a manga reader, and then it started being updated less and less frequently – until it stopped entirely for over a year. Word came that it was licensed, the jig was up and if you want to see how the story ends – fork out! “Okay,” I thought to myself. “That’s fair enough. I’ll support Kaori-sensei’s work; she’s so good I’ll be just staring at the artwork for years.” I went to the bookshops that sell manga in my area. No luck; fair enough, most UK chain-stores think that Naruto, Bleach and Death Note are the only mangas in existence. I go on Amazon; no, no UK-based sellers – just some hideously-expensive US editions, some raws and lots of ads for Angel Sanctuary. I pushed it to the back of my mind with a sigh, when lo and behold! Almost a year later in a large bookshop in Montpellier (a city in the South of France) where I was for a summer school, what should I find but a whacking great manga section! On the off-chance, I looked under “K” and voila! There it was. And cheaper than dear old Britain too. I’ve been using French scanlation sites to improve my translation skills for a while now, so language wasn’t a problem; it even came with the one-shot Camelot Garden as a bonus. Victory is sweet.

Anyway. Epic quest over, let’s get reviewing. The Shadow Royal Orchestra is made up of dubious-looking misfits with a penchant for finding trouble: An androgynous conductor/chanteur with a silver tongue, a psychopathic violinist and a gentle giant on double bass who becomes far less gentle if you touch his pet hedgehog, (no that isn’t a euphemism). Despite being like this, their music has the power to subdue the guignols, humans that fell victim to the dreaded Galatea  syndrome and became flesh-eating dolls as a consequence. What adventures will the Orchestra chance upon, and – more importantly – who will they pick up along the way?  

It’s Kaori Yuki, which for those of you who don’t know translates as mind-twisting, gender-bending, horror, Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic, apocolyptic fun. As always with Kaori-sensei, she manages to convey some of the most horrific things (read: zombie bloodbath in this case) with some of the most beautiful line-drawings that you will ever come across anywhere. It is the femme fatale of manga artwork, beautiful but complicated. It’s extremely easy with Kaori-sensei’s work, not just Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan,  to forget that she’s technically a shoujo artist. Well, no clutzy, earnest heroines here – the Orchestra are pretty god-damned rock ‘n’ roll as characters go – or indeed predictable plotting. She goes very deliberately out of her way to lead you down false avenues, whilst chucking the odd real clue in with the red herrings just to give you a chance to keep in on the act.

Ningyou Kyoutei Gakudan is a beautifully-crafted story that never becomes episodic, which is forever a danger in journey-based narratives, but builds gradually and economically to a dazzling finale that satisfies you just enough to reward your time and effort – but leaves you curious about the fates of the characters concerned. Each of those characters has their moment in the spotlight and is allowed to gradually unfurl their story to the reader.

It’s not just horror, splat and gore – it’s poetry in manga: 5 out of 5 stars. Although a word to the wise: Read too much in one go and you do begin day-dreaming in Kaori-vision.

Stay tuned folks!

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Shitsurakuen – Naomura Tooru

Lovely artwork, shame about the plot…

Himoto Sora is an extremely chivalric girl. One day she’s accepted into the  prestigious Utopia Academy out of the blue, and even more confusingly she’s sent the boys’ uniform; but that’s nothing compared to what happens once she actually gets there. It’s not just a school, it’s a training ground for the Iwhaijiri corporation to ingrain chauvinism and a natural sense of superiority into the male students – and what’s more, the girls are both the weapons and the prizes. It’s up to Sora, as the honourary “Prince” of the piece to save as many girls as possible – but is everything as straightforward as it seems?

Ehm… Yeah. Shitsurakuen is an interesting one to say the least. On the one hand it makes a very interesting point about the oppressors being as oppressed as the ones they tread on, as well as structures of power and psychological shackles etc. But on the other, all of this is part of a very focused initial couple of volumes which turn into quite flabby final ones. “Flabby” because the plot loses focus towards the end and you get the feeling that the clues, relationships and explanations which should have been there throughout the story to come together at the finale, were sacrificed for gratuitous panels of big-breasted and cute girls blushing. I don’t have a problem with shoujo-ai, there are places in Shitsurakuen where bosomy babes looking vulnerable works – trouble is there are too many panels of this at times when you need plot-work. Everything is explained extremely randomly at the end and you feel a bit cheated that both the main action and the emotional storyline are wrapped up so haphazardly; as if Naomura-sensei is saying: “Yeah, I know that you’ve invested your time and energy into seeing this through – but I’m just gonna chuck it together as I go. Deadlines, y’know.”

All that aside, the artwork is extremely pretty and I enjoy the ongoing fairytale and Paradise Lost motifs. There’s something very fluid and elegant in a simple way about the drawing, like a girl who doesn’t wear much make up or flashy clothes and yet still looks absolutely radiant when they turn up at class having  just fallen out of bed.

I’m awarding 3 out of 5 for Shitsurakuen; whilst I feel cheated and annoyed, there was enough content before the flabbiness kicked in to redeem it – along with the artwork and some very nifty motif work it’s just about salvageable.

Stay tuned folks!

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Addicted to Curry – Katzuki Funatsu

I’m addicted to Addicted to Curry. 

Y’know, I resisted reading this for a long time as I was prejudiced against this naff title that seemed to appear on update pages constantly – when other titles that I was desperately following wouldn’t. And it’s a seinen and I was into shoujo and josei at the time. More fool me. At the time of writing Addicted to Curry is on 92 chapters and counting, and it still hasn’t run out of steam.

Sonezaki Yui is a high school girl with an inabilty to cook. Which is unfortunate, because her curry chef father went AWOL a few years ago – leaving her in charge of their already failing curry house (“Ganesha”). All of a sudden Koenji Makito, a perverted guy with awesome culinary skill in the area of curry, appears out of the blue and offers to help her save the business from being absorbed by Suiren, a snobbish multi-national chain of restaurants – for free. He says he was Yui’s father’s friend in an another restaurant – but why should he help her? Why is he travelling across Asia picking up curry recipes? What is Makito’s real goal?

Every single chapter features at least one curry at its centrepiece, and includes the complete recipe – which you think would get quite dull/contrived after a while, yet somehow Katzuki-sensei makes it work. And who knew that so many different types of curry existed?! Not just Indian, but Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Nonya (which I was very happy to see included as a Rick Stein fan) too. Whilst the story does occasionally get repetitive (I get think there have been four curry competitions thus far), it does get done genuinely differently each time that does happen, with different stakes, locations, curry style etc. I can sort of forgive repetition, because at least there is real dramatic tension – even if you think you know what’s going to happen each time. The artwork is good, if not particularly original, but you have to have respect for the guy that can make curry look good in black and white, (it’s a dish that’s notoriously hard to prettify).

One of the things I do like about this manga is that despite it’s length (so far) it’s mostly killer and very little filler. Whilst there is an ongoing plot and story-arcs within that, the nature of the story is such that it allows Katzuki-sensei to meander off-piste every so often without you really noticing or caring too much – even if you do notice you learn something about the history of curry-bread, or how to improve your onion-chopping technique. It is laugh out loud funny in places with some splendid visual gags, and some pretty well-observed characterisation – where even the background characters aren’t just standing jokes, but are eventually given the chance to be three-dimensional, (the notable exception thus far being a square-jawed gyaru, think “chav”, but hey I’m sure there are plans). At the heart of Addicted to Curry is a very sweet, refreshing and realistic love story that is slow-burning to say the least; it’s the perfect antidote for shoujo, some josei of the harlequin kind, and shounen which always seems to depict a hopelessly perfect individual as the love interest – and if they have a flaw, it’s usually cute/noble/there’s a good reason for it. It’s always good to remember that real guys aren’t likTsuruga Ren in Skip Beat, they’re closer to Makito.

I give it or 4 out of 5 so far, but I reserve the right to revise the score up OR down as the series goes on. I think it’s well worth a go and  I really fancy trying out some of those recipes. On the other hand it ought to carry a health warning, you really do find yourself craving curry 😛

Stay tuned folks!