MJ: So. Hi!
MJ: I’m feeling extremely frazzled and not at all witty. How about you?
MICHELLE: Kind of sleepy, actually. Maybe readers should just think up a joke here and pretend one of us said it.
MJ: Good call. So. Read anything lately?
MICHELLE: Indeed I have! I decided to make it a CLAMP week, and first up is volume four of Kobato., currently being released by Yen Press.
I wasn’t very impressed with the first three volumes of this series, which follows the dim-witted titular heroine in her attempts to fill a magic bottle with wounded hearts so that her wish can be granted. Kobato is very compassionate, so she heals hearts pretty well when given the opportunity, but has been spending a lot of time with two particular wounded people—Sayaka, the proprietor of a kindergarten, and Fujimoto, her part-time assistant—and so hasn’t made much progress on filling her bottle. In this volume her guide, the irascible Ioryogi (some kind of supernatural being currently stuck in the body of a stuffed dog) learns that she’s only got six more months in which to complete her task. If she fails, her wish can’t be granted and he can’t regain his original body.
Getting background information on Ioryogi and his motives—mostly revealed in conversations between serious-faced animals—at last is very welcome, making this volume an improvement over the last, but I still can’t say I am enjoying Kobato. all that much. I wish I could like someone, but I just don’t. Kobato would be okay, especially as she works out her burgeoning feelings for Fujimoto, except CLAMP seems to have a fixation with her falling down as much as possible. Ioryogi is always yelling, and not even a mysterious background can make him a compelling character for me. The kindergarten employees seem to have one default emotion each. Heck, the most interesting character in the whole series is the yakuza who’s trying to close the kindergarten down. Let’s jettison everything else and just follow him for a while, eh?
Still, there are a few mysteries that will keep me reading. What is the precious thing in the Heavenly World that Ioryogi is after? What is Kobato’s wish? And why is it so important that she not remove her hat? With either two or three volumes remaining, I figure I can stick around long enough to at least see whether these questions are answered.
MJ: I haven’t gotten as far in to this series as you have, though I think I might like it a bit more. Mostly because I actually do like the title character. But I admit I rather wish CLAMP were spending their time continuing Legal Drug instead. Is that terrible of me to say?
MICHELLE: Not at all. And, in fact, they just finished Kobato. in Japan, so at least it’s not actively consuming any more of their time.
It’s not that I hate Kobato, either, but more like I feel CLAMP is doing her a disservice, if that makes sense.
Annnyways, what have you been reading this week?
MJ: Well, earlier this week, I dug into the first issue of GEN Manga, a new “indie” manga magazine available online or in print from GEN Manga Entertainment. I happened to have the print version, provided in a small, red volume about the same trim size as a standard volume of manga in the US.
GEN‘s promotional material is pretty up-front about their artists being unknown. “GEN puts on no airs about how grand their authors are. In fact, they readily admit that their authors are underground. GEN is manga the way it should be without the flash, for the fans, raw and fresh.” They make a lot of noise about the magazine’s “indie” feel, too. “This original work of graphic fiction boldly challenges the industry while breaking new ground. It presents what manga readers are hungry for, the release of fresh underground work from Japan.”
Trouble is, the stories don’t really read as ground-breaking so much as amateurish. Each of the volume’s four stories has its strengths, certainly, but it’s rarely enough to compensate for its flaws. Both Nakamura Shige’s “Wolf” and Suzuki Yu’s “VS Aliens” suffer from convoluted plotlines that fail to live up to an initial, fairly ambitious premise. Karino Arisa’s “Souls” is intriguing, but artistically immature. Mihara Gunya’s “KAMEN,” the story of a man controlled by a mask he can’t remove, holds up the best, but offers just the barest glimpse of what the story might be.
On the other hand, the volume is currently free for download, ($9.95 in print), which renders it worth checking out at the very least. Don’t get me wrong. I really like what GEN is going for, as a concept anyway, and I’ll definitely be watching to see what kind of work might come out of it in the future. There’s just not much there for me so far.
MICHELLE: I’ve certainly been interested to see what happens with GEN, but admit that I haven’t personally been tempted to try it out. I guess I’m less hungry for “fresh underground work,” especially in short story format, than I am for “much-loved classics” that offer multiple volumes to enjoy.
MJ: I admit I’d be more interested in some of these stories if I knew they were first chapters of something that’s going to be serialized. But that’s not what the promo material suggests, sadly.
So, what’s your other CLAMP selection this week?
MICHELLE: My second CLAMP selection is the Magic Knight Rayearth Omnibus Edition, which was recently released by Dark Horse.
I’ve seen the Rayearth anime, and read TOKYOPOP’s second edition of the manga (with unflipped art), so this was really my third time through the material. I’d never previously counted this as among my favorite CLAMP series, so I thought a reread might be kind of a slog, but I ended up really enjoying it! The first story arc (originally comprising three volumes) benefits greatly from being contained in one volume, where momentum propels one through the adventure at a steady clip and doesn’t let up until the not-exactly-what-one-expects ending. The remastered art looks great, the color pages are beautiful, and, in the end, Rayearth has vaulted up several levels in my esteem.
Another really neat thing about the series is how CLAMP subverts demographic expectations. (Which they continue to do with series like Kobato., which has a shoujo-sounding premise but is, if anything, seinen.) Consider this description of the plot:
Three junior high students are visiting Tokyo Tower on a school trip when they are suddenly summoned to Cefiro by its princess, Emeraude. Emeraude has been kidnapped and the students are tasked becoming the Magic Knights of legend, rescuing the princess, and saving Cefiro, which has plunged into chaos in her absence. They agree, and are outfitted with magical armor and weaponry. As they head out on various tasks, their abilities grow and weapons evolve even as they forge a tight friendship. They are absolutely determined to save Cefiro, vanquish many menacing monsters along the way, and are frequently depicted in fierce and badass poses. Eventually, they awaken some giant mecha and defeat Zagato, the high priest who is holding Emeraude captive.
Now cast the students as girls and remind yourself that this ran in a shoujo magazine. The shounen-style fantasy flare makes for a fun adventure, but there’s a pretty powerful shoujo punch waiting in the final pages. I really enjoyed this series on a reread—though I’m not too enamored of the silly comedy—and eagerly await the omnibus of the second half.
MJ: Well, wow, you’ve inspired me to want to read this as well! I have to admit that despite being a CLAMP fan, I bogged down in the first volume of the TOKYOPOP editions. But you make this sound genuinely fascinating and fun!
MICHELLE: I remember bogging down myself when I first started the anime, but this time I breezed right through the story and ended up with a greater appreciation of the characters and the art, which is often quite pretty. I’d definitely say it’s worth another look. Plus, any Tsubasa or xxxHOLiC fan should enjoy seeing where Mokona originally came from!
What’s your second pick this week?
MJ: Well, It’s a bit of a strange one, or at least strange for me. While I’m used to receiving a variety of manga for review from Viz, I admit to being quite surprised when my latest review package contained volume one of Pokémon Black and White. I can say with complete honesty that I’ve never had the slightest interest in Pokémon, and really I missed its initial craze entirely, but there it was, in my apartment, Pokémon Black and White. So without any real knowledge of the Pokémon universe, I decided to sit down and read it.
Thankfully, as a series for kids, it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been to try to pick up the basic premise, though I can’t say I actually understand what Pokémon are, or why they are being raised up for “trainers” to have battles, but that indeed is what is going on. The main character being introduced here is “Black,” a guy who is so deeply obsessed with winning the “Pokémon League,” that in order to think about anything else at all, a creature named Musha must empty his brain— literally wipe it completely clean—so that new information can be introduced into it.
Though this all sounds a bit creepy, I admit I find the concept pretty compelling (I could use a Musha of my own, these days). Unfortunately, very little is made of Black’s periodically emptied brain at the time, and the rest of the volume is pretty much devoted to his first “trainer battle” with a guy who can’t tolerate heat.
Obviously, I am not the audience for this series, and I’d be hard pressed to find a reason to buy volumes of it on my own, but it does contain some surprisingly interesting elements, along with a slew of genuinely cute creatures. I developed a particular fondness for one called a “cottonee,” that was so distressed by its inability to protect its heat-intolerant trainer from fire, that it put itself in harm’s way to try to overcome its weakness.
MICHELLE: You win the gold star for diversity in this column!
I actually do know a little bit about Pokémon because I was teaching piano at the height of its craze and, of course, wanted to get the best stickers with which to motivate my students. At one point, I could even tell you which creatures morphed into which, but now all I really remember is that Snorlax is adorable. I even had a plushie.
Anyway, even though I can’t say I want to rush out and read this for myself, it sounds like kids are for in for a treat.
MJ: I do think it is pretty vital for kids to have at least some introduction to Pokémon before trying to make sense of this bit of the series, which is actually why I didn’t end up sending it off to our own Jia Li for review, but yes, kids who are interested in the franchise should find quite a bit to enjoy in this volume, I’d think.
MICHELLE: I think kids would probably find Rayearth a lot of fun, too, actually. Dark Horse lists the age range as twelve and up (there are a few ladies in butt-floss garb) but the real issue would be whether a kid could actually lift the durn thing.
MJ: Heh, that’s good to know. I’d say that Pokémon skews younger, but it’s always nice to see manga out there that the under-13 crowd can enjoy.