Welcome to the first installment of Bookshelf Briefs, a new, weekly collection of short reviews from the Manga Bookshelf crew covering both recent releases and some blasts from the past. This week, David, Kate, and Melinda look at ongoing series from Viz Media and Yen Press, while guest Michelle Smith chimes in with an oldie from Dark Horse.
Black Butler, vol. 5 | by Yana Toboso | Yen Press – The fifth volume of Black Butler pits Sebastian against a rival butler in a curry cook-off reminiscent of an Iron Chef episode. (Queen Victoria stands in for Chairman Kaga as the ultimate arbiter of whose curry reigns supreme.) As inspired a development as the curry battle may be, it reveals the biggest problem with Black Butler: the story relies so heavily on gruesome supernatural plot twists that the narrative comes to a grinding halt whenever Yana Toboso depicts more mundane situations. The supporting characters are two-dimensional at best, doomed to sound the same notes over and over, while Sebastian is so relentlessly perfect that the outcome of every conflict is never in doubt. About the best I can say for volume five is that Toboso pulls out all the stops while drawing the interior of the Crystal Palace; every steel arch and palm tree are rendered with loving precision. – Katherine Dacey
Itsuwaribito vol. 2 | by Yuuki Iinuma | Viz Media – This series has such a terrific premise – an habitual liar decides to use his inherent dishonesty to help people – that I keep hoping it will start to make the most of it. Unfortunately, Utsuho is a rather inscrutable protagonist, and there aren’t enough hints at hidden depths to give his adventures the kind of weight the premise promises. It’s pleasant and attractively drawn, but it doesn’t really go any farther than that. Iinuma could build an interesting and novel mythology with the underlying idea, which could transform the series into something quite special. I’ll probably stick with it for a bit longer to see if that happens. – David Welsh
Kimi ni Todoke, vol. 7 | by Karuho Shiina | Viz Media – Sawako’s slowly burgeoning relationship with Kazehaya leaps boldly forward in this installment, leaving Sawako finally certain of her own feelings. Unfortunately, insecurity prevents her from recognizing that those feelings are returned. Though the pace of this series remains as leisurely as the growth of its heroine’s self-confidence, its unabashed sweetness saves this from ever becoming stale. Shiina’s smart, honest writing and expressive artwork serve as a how-to manual for creating effective shoujo manga, with a touch of wry humor as a special bonus. A scene in which Chizu and Ayane give Sawako a whirlwind makeover is worth the cover price, alone. Still recommended.– Melinda Beasi
Seiho Boys’ High School!, vol. 4 | by Kaneyoshi Izumi | Viz Media -Though Seiho Boys’ High School pretends to be a soap opera about hunky, horny guys trapped at a geographically isolated boarding school, it’s actually a smart comedy about teenage dating rituals. Male and female characters alike struggle mightily to impress the opposite sex: they pretend to be easygoing, or feign indifference, or mistake friendship for romantic attraction, embarrassing themselves in the process. In keeping with the realistic spirit of the comedy, Kaneyoshi Izumi doesn’t always find a way to unite her would-be couples; their interactions are as messy and complicated as real-life relationships, even if her characters are handier with snappy one-liners than most teenagers. Only the dorm room hijinks fall flat, with predictable jokes about the slovenly habits of the adolescent male — a minor complaint about an otherwise entertaining series. Recommended. – Katherine Dacey
Seiho Boys’ High School!, vol. 5 | by Kaneyoshi Izumi | Viz Media – A series of ghost sightings at Seiho High force Maki to confront his lingering feelings for the love of his past, while his present girlfriend pushes for some understanding of where she stands. Meanwhile, Hana finds a new calling in providing photos of his classmates to a nearby girls’ school, and townie Fuyuka makes unexpected progress with her crush, Kamiki. Kaneyoshi Izumi may not be revolutionizing the genre, but she’s surely livening it up with this decidedly indelicate, humorous look at the inner lives of boys left to wallow in each others’ company. As a die-hard fan of shoujo, it’s hard not to be charmed as she alternately mocks and pacifies her readers, and her increasing focus on deeper characterization only makes the series stronger. Five volumes in, Seiho continues to be one of Shojo Beat’s most enjoyable current reads. – Melinda Beasi
Toriko, vol. 3 | by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro | Viz Media – It’s hard to imagine a manga that both Ted Nugent and Michael Pollan could agree on, but Toriko comes pretty close: while it celebrates the manly valor of hunting game, it also focuses on the importance of eating “real” food. (Or what counts for “real” food in the fantasy-universe of the manga.) The tonal shifts can be dramatic, with characters waxing poetic about the delicate properties of puffer whale meat in one panel and engaging in brutal, hand-to-hand combat with rival gourmet hunters in the next, but the prevailing spirit is exuberant; every line of dialogue is delivered with emphatic punctuation, and every character seems thoroughly committed to the pursuit of delicacies. I’d be the first to admit that many of the game animals seem more ferocious than delicious, but Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro’s feverish energy and imagination help sell the more improbable story lines. Recommended.
– Katherine Dacey
From the Archives
Metropolis | by Osamu Tezuka | Dark Horse – According to the back cover, the 1949 Tezuka work Metropolis inspired an “astonishing” animated film. Alas, it didn’t inspire me much. For the most part, the narrative consists of a band of vertically challenged middle-aged sleuths pursuing an over-the-top villain who is himself pursuing Michi, an artificial being who is neither male nor female. Later, the villain’s robot slaves, led by Michi, stage a revolt. True, one could talk about the themes present in the work, most notably that life is sacred, no matter if it’s biological or artificial, but the story zooms by too quickly for anything to make much of an impact. I’m left wondering what Naoki Urasawa could make of this one. – Michelle Smith