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Off the Shelf: Getting Better All The Time

MELINDA: Well, hello Michelle! Once again, it feels like forever since we’ve been here!

MICHELLE: It does! Why do we ever leave, anyway? We could just dwell safe within our little Off the Shelf cocoon.

MELINDA: Sounds like bliss.

MICHELLE: Doesn’t it? Stupid real life.

So let’s distract ourselves! Got any completely made-up drama that you’d like to contemplate for a while?

MELINDA: I do, but you first!

MICHELLE: Well, if you insist!

Not only are both of my selections this evening published by Kodansha Comics, but each is also the first volume of a new series and based on a CAPCOM video game. I’m not much of a game aficionado, so I can’t speak to how well these manga do at capturing the essence of their respective game universes, but I can at least consider how they work for new readers. I’ll start with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, a five-volume seinen series that originally ran in Bessatsu Young Magazine. I’ve never played the game, but I do love a good mystery, so I hoped that I would like this manga very much. Alas, it was not to be.

Phoenix Wright is a defense attorney who is beginning to make a name for himself. He has a plucky female assistant, Maya Fey, and as the volume begins, they are checking out a wind chime festival. There, Phoenix runs into his acquaintance Larry, a real trouble magnet, and his new girlfriend. They seem happy, but two days later, Phoenix is defending Larry in a trial. Yes, in those two days, Larry has been arrested for the crime of murdering his girlfriend’s former lover and the case has already gone to trial. Evidence is presented swiftly, with Phoenix unaware of most of it, until he eventually solves the case in the courtroom and elicits a dramatic confession. (Incidentally, it was completely obvious from the outset who the real culprit was, so readers are forced to just tag along until Phoenix catches up.)

Next, Phoenix is summoned to the house of a rich businessman who expects to be charged in the death of an employee. He’s got a suspicious family, including a snooty wife, a rebellious daughter, and a creepy brother who lives on the premises in a building full of spider specimens. There’s potential for a diverting little mystery here, but once again, everything just falls flat.

“Fun” is the key ingredient that is missing so far. This is not a serious series, and one shouldn’t go in looking for depth or realism, but it should at least be fun to read. Instead, the word that best describes it is “blah.” All it would take to liven things up would be characters with some personality or some clever cases, but I don’t hold out much hope of either.

MELINDA: It’s surprising to hear that this manga is so uninteresting, considering how much media the franchise has spawned. Surprising and depressing, I have to say.

MICHELLE: It’s possible that it will work better for fans of the original game. Sean Gaffney enjoyed the volume, for example. I will at least give it another volume to hook me, but it may be that it’s not just my thing.

Okay, now it’s your turn!

MELINDA: Okay! Well, I’ll start with the most self-consciously dramatic of my week’s selections, which would be the first volume of Hotaru Odagiri’s The Betrayal Knows My Name, just released by Yen Press.

As selfless orphan Yuki is preparing to move out of the orphanage he grew up in, so as to cease being a burden to anyone, he meets members of a supernaturally-talented “family” who change his life forever. As it turns out, Yuki is the reincarnation of the “light of God,” a member of this same “family” with the power to heal other people’s wounds by taking them on himself. He also meets a “duras” (demon) named Zess (aka “Luka”) who he has dreamt about repeatedly, and who is strongly hinted to have been Yuki’s lover in their previous lives. Eventually, Yuki realizes that he’s really found his family, and agrees to move to the group’s mansion to join their battle against a demonic foe.

Oh, Michelle, if only I’d read this when I was thirteen, I think I would have eaten it up with a spoon. The story is earnestly dark and melodramatic, the UST level is high, and the character designs are the sequential art equivalent of the pages of Tiger Beat magazine. Unfortunately, as a jaded 40-something, I spent most of the series’ triple-sized first volume sighing heavily and rolling my eyes.

The series reads something like Ze with an actual plot, which sounds like a positive thing on the face of it, but without the true, dramatic seriousness of a teenager to lend a helping hand, everything just feels too carefully contrived to be believed. Even sexy love interest, Zess, is too obviously crafted for its target audience. Having fallen for Yuki’s soul in female form during their former lives, he manages to provide homoerotic excitement while still appearing accessible to female readers. Perfect? Maybe. But as an older reader, it’s a bit hard to take.

On the plus side, somewhere around three-quarters of the way in, I found myself getting sucked into the delicious drama anyway, so there may be addictive potential for all!

MICHELLE: I’m sorry to hear about the sighing and eyerolling, since I picked this as one of my Picks of the Week not too long ago. Is there anything that would be a problem for a thirteen-year-old reader? I know a teen that might enjoy it.

MELINDA: Not that I can recall. It’s certainly no more “adult” than, say, Flowers in the Attic, which was definitely part of my 13-year-old library. And, you know, I make a fuss, but as I said, I was pretty well engrossed by the end.

So what’s your other Kodansha offering for the evening?

MICHELLE: The first volume of Monster Hunter Orage (“Orage” is French for “thunderstorm.”) by Hiro Mashima, creator of Fairy Tail, which I’ve previously discussed in this space. Of my two choices this week, this is the one I thought I might not care for much which, of course, ended up being thoroughly enjoyable.

Openings don’t get much shounenier than this one, where a small boy is told, “Your weapon has the power to capture your dreams.” The boy is called Shiki and the speaker is his master, a man named Greylee who promises to teach him everything there is about monster hunting. While they’re training, Greylee also emphasizes the importance of having companions one trusts. Greylee dies in an accident before Shiki’s training is complete, but he’s learned enough to receive a special tattoo that marks him as a Seal Hunter, a hunter privileged to travel and hunt at his own discretion. (Other hunters operate through a guild on an assignment basis very similar to that seen in Fairy Tail)

Some years later, Shiki arrives in town with a list that says 1) arrive in town and 2) find comrades at the guild. Shiki proceeds to step two and, although no one is much impressed when he clambers atop a table and issues a rallying cry for comrades, he ends up following one of the strongest (and most solitary) hunters, a girl named Ailee, and piquing her interest by believing in the same dragon legend she does. As they begin their quest, they meet Sakya, the daughter of a famous armorer. After they defeat a monster responsible for killing Sakya’s father, she joins the team.

What makes Monster Hunter Orage so refreshing is its characters. Shiki is a hero in the style of One Piece‘s Luffy, in that he’s fearless and optimistic and has no preconceived notions about anyone. Of course Ailee could be a thoroughly badass hunter and of course Sakya could be a thoroughly badass armorer! What does their being female have to do with it? I also love how Mashima depicts others’ reactions to Shiki—at first his grandiose declarations about comrades are ignored, but eventually his enthusiasm begins to win people over. He’s got magnetism. Lastly, though it’s a little cheesy that Ailee turns out to be Greylee’s daughter, this is handled in an interesting way, with Ailee realizing Shiki is the boy she was always jealous of because of how much time her dad spent with him, and Shiki realizing that this is the girl he always envied for having such loving parents. There’s no inkling of romance yet, just a trio of friends going off to slay a dragon. And lo, it is good.

MELINDA: That sounds good indeed! What a treat, after your first Kodansha pick. So, since you’ve already likened the story’s hero to that of One Piece, you know I had trouble getting into that series in the beginning, but it sounds like this hits its stride right away. That’s pretty enticing.

MICHELLE: It does! It’s also only four volumes long, which is much easier to commit to than One Piece and its 62+ volumes! It would also be great for teens; in fact, I wrote my local YA librarian immediately about it, since Fairy Tail is popular with patrons.

I could feign ignorance here about your second book of the evening, but I happen to know that we’re in for a bit of squee regarding the sixth and final volume of Time and Again. Right?

MELINDA: Yes, we certainly are. When I look back at my review of Time and Again‘s first volume, it’s pretty astounding to see note far this series has come in just six volumes. Though I liked it from the start, none of my initial criticism, from the underdeveloped leads to the confusing visual storytelling, is evident in the slightest here by series’ end. In fact, I’d have to count Time and Again as one of my favorite comics of any kind in the past two years, and this final volume is a perfect example of why.

Finally the full truth comes out regarding Baek-On’s past, revealing for the first time how he really became the man we met at the beginning of the series, but more importantly, revealing the man he will be to his death and why that is so important. Previously, I thought that no character arc could be more heartbreaking than Ho-Yeon’s, but boy was I wrong. I cried through a major portion of this volume, though this manhwa is far from syrupy.

Time and Again kicks you in the gut with elegant brutality, just as karma does its doomed protagonists. Yet if there’s any coherent feeling I came away with at the story’s end, I’d have to say it was “hope.” For once, it’s not just the slasher in me that appreciates a story’s male bonding. There’s just something incredibly comforting about the thought that two people doomed to spend their lives alone don’t actually have to be lonely.

I could certainly go on about the progressive maturity of Yun’s storytelling and her powerful skill with expression, but mostly I just want to sigh contentedly and begin the series all over again. That’s how much I’ve enjoyed it.

MICHELLE: I love the phrase “elegant brutality.” This is what I was talking about in my review when I said that though it’s an exceedingly sad and painful story, Yun is not reveling in the pain. The way she tells it is almost matter-of-fact, and then the enormity of what it means for Baek-On slowly sinks in. And, as it does, readers come to realize what the title has meant all this time.

MELINDA: I think one of the most compelling reasons I have for wanting to start the series over with fully knowledge of Baek-On’s story, is to see how he deals with karma from the beginning. It’s been a theme throughout the series, but only at the end do we really understand.

MICHELLE: Yes, same here. Plus, now that we know what happened with the girl in his past (Wan), I want to see how that informs his behavior towards women and relationships with others in general.

MELINDA: Yes, I do too!

I feel like this column has traveled on a steady incline from kinda bad to definitely great. Not too shabby, eh?

MICHELLE: Not at all! It’s, like, an omen or something.

MELINDA: Well, let’s hope so!

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Comments

  1. I think fans of the Phoenix Wright video games will find more to love in the manga, because it reads just like the games. I’m a HUGE fan of the games, but even I was finding the manga a tad boring. It reads like the games, minus the interactivity. It captures the game really well, but doesn’t hold the same amount of tension you get from playing the games. For a hardcore fan, it’s enough to see my favorite characters doing what they do best. For people who aren’t into the games…I’m not sure there will be much for them there.



Trackbacks

  1. [...] column at ANN. Michelle Smith and Melinda Beasi dialogue about some new releases in their latest Off the Shelf column at Manga [...]

  2. [...] Ace Attorney, Vol. 2 | By Kenji Kuroda and Kazuo Maekawa | Kodansha Comics – I described the first volume of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney as “blah,” and I’m pleased to report that second volume [...]



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