Japan's manga for kids can often inspire


POSTED: Sunday, June 28, 2009

Every manga fan has to start somewhere. Traditionally for U.S. manga publishers, that “;somewhere”; has been an audience in the teens-and-older age range, with manga for ages younger than that relegated to “;Pokemon”; books, books tied in with other hot pop-culture properties and “;ani-manga,”; still frames from popular movies published in a comic book format.

Japan has always had a different attitude toward children's manga. One of the most beloved children's manga series—and one that in turn helped inspire a bunch of manga artists—is “;Doraemon,”; about a blue, earless robotic cat sent from the future to help a boy deal with life with the aid of whimsical gadgets. Having read a few volumes of the Kodansha Bilingual editions myself, I can say that series is everything a children's manga series should be—simple, easy to understand, able to stir the imagination.

Viz and Udon Entertainment have expanded their children's offerings recently, licensing series with original stories that aren't based on existing pop-culture properties. Whether they meet the standards set by “;Doraemon,”; however, is a mixed bag.


'Ninja Baseball Kyuma'

This series sounds like it ought to be cool. Throw a young ninja into an unfamiliar situation—like, say, playing baseball—and something entertaining should emerge with a bit of action, a bit of humor, and a lot of fun. Yet “;Ninja Baseball Kyuma”; takes that fat pitch and whiffs on it with bland characters, a choppy plot and not much to really engage younger readers.

Young Kyuma has learned the ways of the ninja with his dog Inui, sequestered in the mountains, But when he's recruited by Kaoru, team captain for the Moonstar City Youth Baseball Club, he must struggle to understand that the game is just a game and not a small-scale ninja battle, discover the value of teamwork and learn how to hit more than just pop flies.

Repeat that premise over several chapters, and you have the first volume of “;Ninja Baseball Kyuma.”; There isn't much beyond that; more is learned about the characters from biographical blurbs between chapters than from reading the actual story.

While the Udon Kids line is geared toward 7- to-12-year-olds, the artwork and translation in this book makes me believe that the older end of that range would appreciate this book more. The art is typically chaotic for an action-filled shonen (boys') series, with images overlapping panels and speed lines going everywhere, which may make it difficult for younger readers to grasp what's going on. As for the translation, I don't think “;liege,”; a word thrown around frequently in reference to the Kyuma/Kaoru partnership, is a word easily understood by young folk.


'Leave it to PET!'

“;Leave it to PET!”; is a series I'd recommend to children of all ages. Humor has a way of transcending age boundaries, after all, and Kenji Sonishi's story delivers that in spades.

Noboru Yamada (age 9, as a caption helpfully points out in every chapter), once recycled a bottle that was tossed away by someone else. That bottle becomes PET, the recycled super robot, who helps Noboru whenever he's in trouble.

Well, sort of. Thing is, this super robot is as much of a child as the child is. When Noboru successfully calls on him, there's no guarantee that PET will show up right away—those video games aren't going to play themselves, after all.

Sonishi's artwork is simple and easily understood; his character designs are cute, with a fleet of recycled super robots—plastic box Plaz, aluminum can-robot Alu, tin-can robot Tiny Tin—making favorable impressions. (Unfortunately for Noboru, they're equally as ineffective as PET is.) The plot twists are always unpredictable, keeping anticipation high as to what PET and the others will do to turn a simple problem into an all-out crisis.

All this is packaged in a very kid-friendly book. The cover biography notes that Sonishi liked crafts as a child and enjoys making things out of plastic bottles—a skill that comes in handy in helping children create their own real-life versions of the recycled robots. Special bonus games in the back are sure to entertain as well.