DRAWN & QUARTERED
2 publishers join in manga mania
The alphabet for new manga last year ran from A to Y.
That's talking about two new U.S. publishers who started releasing their first translated manga last year: Aurora Publishing, affiliated with Japanese publisher Ohzora, and Yen Press, a division of Hachette Book Group USA.
The publishers have taken a different approach in their releases. Aurora is releasing josei manga, a genre targeting female readers in their late teens and up, and its Deux imprint offers yaoi with pretty boys aplenty having relationships with each other. Yen Press is going for a broader market, releasing Japanese manga, Korean manhwa and original English manga.
As far as production values, Yen Press' titles have an edge -- translation notes are included, and sound effects and signs are left in the original Japanese but with small, translated footnotes close by. Aurora's presentation, by contrast, seems a bit spare and sterile -- the feeling one gets when a Japanese publisher takes its products directly to the American market.
Here's a sampling of the titles the two publishers have released to date...
"Walkin' Butterfly," by Chihiro Tamaki, Aurora Publishing,
Michiko is a young woman who has always been insecure about being too tall. She wanted to be Snow White in a school play; she was cast as a tree.
Her excessive height has given her an excessive chip on her shoulder. At 19 she's dropped out of high school and has trouble holding a job because she's bitter about life. So when she takes a job as a pizza delivery person, she's expecting nothing will come of it.
But on one of her delivery runs, she's mistaken for a replacement model and gets thrown into a fashion show. The results are somewhat unexpected: She's not an instant modeling phenom. Famed designer Ko Mihara hates her, and the audience snickers when she goes out onto the catwalk.
And thus, her quest begins to prove that snooty designer wrong. It's a quest that's unmistakably mature, with drugs coming into the picture at one point and Michiko stripping naked in front of the head of a dingy fashion agency to prove how serious she is.
An interview with Tamaki published in the back of the book reveals that the second volume will develop Michiko's romances as well as probe deeper into Mihara's life. If it's any bit as compelling as this volume, count me in.
"Zombie Loan," by Peach-Pit, Yen Press,
This series has all the potential to take a cliché-ridden path in its early pages -- there's a clumsy girl with glasses, two good-looking but seemingly aloof boys, and a point where their paths intersect. One could be forgiven for thinking this leads into a tale of awkward, slow-burning romantic comedy.
But there's no romance waiting for Michiru. She has the "shinigami eyes," the ability to see lines around people's necks signifying whether they're destined to die. The two boys, Chika and Shito, have black lines around their necks, a sign they should already be dead.
And they are ... well, sort of. While their classmates consider them to be the "Miracle Survivors," the only two to live through a freeway overpass collapse that killed 20 people, they actually died. An apparent deal with a mysterious business, Zombie Loan, allows them to live on ... albeit under the employ of Zombie Loan chief Bekkou. Michiru soon finds herself in need of Zombie Loan's services, but not quite in the way she expects.
It's a darker turn for Peach-Pit, the female duo that has also worked on "DearS," "Rozen Maiden" and "Shugo Chara." It's also an action-packed volume, with mysteries presented and resolved in relatively short order. While the series does have the potential to devolve into a Michiru/Chika/Shito-versus-monster of the week slugfest, there's certainly the potential for a good story.
Here are looks at a few other titles available from Aurora and Yen Press:
"Alice on Deadlines," by Shiro Ihara, Yen Press, 1/2
Lecherous shinigami (death god) Lapan is sent to the human realm to retrieve a shibito, or the soul of someone who has died and yet continues to cling to life. To accomplish this goal, Lapan's essence is thrown into a corpse ... or at least that was the plan. But when buxom schoolgirl Alice steps in front of the coffin at which Lapan was hurled, curious as to why there was a coffin sitting out in the open in a graveyard, the resulting explosion accidentally knocks Alice's soul into the skeleton and leaves Lapan to inherit Alice's body.
Lapan's thrilled. Alice ... not so much. She was always one of the more conservative girls at the all-girls' school she attended, and with Lapan in her body, she can only watch in horror in her new sidekick role as he transforms her image in other peoples' eyes from "girl next door" to "girl gone wild." If this happened in real-life America, sexual harassment lawsuits would be flying all over the place.
Yet there are actually times when Lapan isn't feeling up the student body. There is evil afoot, after all, and it must be dispatched in energetic action sequences. The shinigami world also resembles the human corporate world, with different agencies offering soul-reaping services, an element that looks like it could come into play in future volumes.
For the time being, though, it's a festival of fanservice, that manga mechanism where undergarments are flashed regularly, the female chests are always ample, and there's always one male character that calls attention to such perversions. It makes for a decent read ... but one comes out of it feeling a bit dirty for the experience.
"Nightmares for Sale," by Kaoru Ohashi, Aurora,
This is one of those series that appears to aspire to so much more than what it actually delivers to readers. On its surface, it's a collection of horror/morality tales in which the featured character or characters usually end up getting what deserves to come to them ... usually in ways they don't expect.
A model who wishes she looked beautiful in pictures, for instance, ends up looking beautiful ONLY in pictures; rings symbolizing friendship end up spawning a finger-chopping frenzy after betrayals reveal themselves; and the spirit of an unborn child haunts the mother who aborted him.
But what makes these horror series so captivating to readers is some underlying mystery that makes the reader want to delve more into the story ... and it's in this area that this series falls short in its first volume. At its core are the enigmatic Shadow and his assistant Maria, the proprietors of Shadow's Pawnshop. Their "loans" for people's valuables often turn out to be much more than their customers bargained for, triggering the consequences mentioned earlier.
Yet for characters that ought to be driving the stories, Shadow and Maria are actually quite forgettable, floating in and out of each story without making much of an impact. There might be something more to their backgrounds revealed in future volumes, but there's no real reason to care about them at this point. The only trait of the two characters that I can recall after reading this is that Maria dresses in the Gothic Lolita style, with its frills and Victorian-era fashion sense, and totes around a stuffed bunny. While that may appeal to fans of moe — that category of characters who are youthful-looking and inspire loving, caring thoughts from the audience — others might just shrug and move right on along.
"Nightmares for Sale" offers moderate value, but there are certainly better horror anthologies to be had elsewhere.