Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Crimson Labyrinth

by Yusuke Kishi
Some horror get their scares by making you forget you are reading horror, then sneak up behind you with the big scare. Movies like “Ringu” and “Audition” are good examples. A book like The Prestige is another. Other times we are dropped into the horror right from the get-go. For example, “Tomie” and “Ju-on” don’t give the viewers much time to get settled before the scares begin.

The Crimson Labyrinth succeeds in employing both these techniques. From the opening page we know unemployed businessman turned, Fujiki, has been transported to a faraway strange and unfriendly place as he awakes from a heavy sleep.

“He felt something hard against his spine and shoulder blades, and
realized he was lying on the bare ground…
Where am I?
It was a reasonable question, but no answer came to mind.”

We soon learn that Fujiki, along with a woman he meets, Ai, are two of nine participants in an evil and deadly game. These nine Japanese participants, seemingly selected randomly, are trapped in a maze of red rock valleys. Initially they only have handheld game devices that give them instructions on how to proceed. Initially the idea is for everyone to work together, but this is a game and in a game there can be only one winner. The evil individual or group that put this game together did not have cooperation in mind…

The Crimson Labyrinth has been compared to a host of other stories – Battle Royale meets The Running Man meets “Lost” meets Lord of the Flies – and all of them do have factors recognizable. Like most of the stories it is compared to, the author seems to be making a statement about the state of society today. Within the manageable group of nine (easier to keep track of than Battle Royale’s forty combatants) we see different parts of society, and how decisions and promises are made and broken makes the reader think of what he or she would do if found in this seemingly impossible situation. Because of the Japanese nature to tend to create harmony rather than conflict, the game masters (and the author) have to come up with a few ingenious ways to put kinks in the already unstable trust the group builds. (Is it any wonder that the Japanese version of “Survivor" was a total bust, while the American series is still going strong? I understand there just wasn’t the fun-to-watch conflict in the Japanese version.)

The way the game plays out, through cryptic messages from the game machines keeps the story very mental and heady. But let us not forget that this is still a horror novel...

Difficult to put down, The Crimson Labrynth isn’t the deepest reading from Japan, but it is both thoughtful and frightening, a fun combination not to be missed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Coffin: The Art of Vampire Hunter D

Yoshitaka Amano

Before my vacation, I had to let you know about a recent release that will make a great present...for yourself!

There are reasons a title can stay on the lips of readers for decades without losing momentum, only to increase its growing legions of fans. In the case of Vampire Hunter D, it's because of it compelling writing and striking original artwork. Coffin: The Art of Vampire Hunter D gives us a definitive look into the second reason this series of manga, anime and fiction of has a vampire-like lifespan.

This book is massive. With almost 200 full page illustrations and paintings in a large format you can really get up close to, this will be a book that is treasured by longtime fans, and studied by students of Yoshitaka Amano. From pen and ink to full-on paintings, a range of styles can be seen.

Included among the opening pages is an original piece of short fiction by creator Hideyuki Kikuchi (presented in both Japanese and English). It sets a nice mood for the rest of the book, and it's easy to see what a great match Kikichi and Amano make.

There is a feeling of a dark warmth in characters depicted. The images are not always pretty, but are not revolting in any way. In fact, they are very inviting, drawing the viewer closer in. Amano's craft often tricks the reader at the turn of the page, making one initially think the image is of one thing, but after a second the truer form appears, giving this title a re-readability art books of this size don't always maintain. There is little doubt that 20 years down the road there will even more Vampire Hunter D fans exploring this unique treasure.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I've gotten a little behind with this, but will be caught up soon. Off to Japan on Sunday for a few weeks, but I will try and keep you updated (with pics) about what's new in Japan.

And here is a piece of good news.

If you have ever been to Japan, one of the biggest differences you will notice is the lack of green grass in parks and school playgrounds. Many times when I saw places that did have green grass, like the city halls and such, there were signs saying "Stay off the grass!" posted all around.

Well it seems that Tokyo officials are making a change for the better.

The Tokyo metropolitan government has decided to turf the schoolyards of all the capital's primary and middle schools over the next 10 years, it was learned Friday.
This is the first time a prefectural government has made such a decision.
When the project--involving about 2,000 public primary and middle schools--is completed, the turfed area will be equivalent to twice the size of the Imperial Palace's grounds.
The metropolitan government hopes the move will moderate the so-called heat island phenomenon and provide children with an improved environment for outdoor
Tokyo's school playgrounds were mostly soil-based until the 1960s, when the trend of covering them with asphalt began--initially in urban areas. Recently, due to its drainage properties, crushed limestone has been used to surface playgrounds. Rubber chips, which are often used in all-weather tennis courts, are also popular. Currently, only 44 primary and middle schools have playgrounds that are totally covered with grass.

Here's a link to the whole story.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


by Hiroaki Samura
A romance comedy by the writer of Blade of the Immortal with cover art based on a Thin Lizzy album cover…translated into English? Yes, yes, yes (the album “Fighting”) and an enthusiastic yes! After much anticipation by Hiroaki Samura fans, Ohikkoshi is now available in the US.

Don’t let the “romance comedy” distinction throw you. There is nothing sappy or sticky here... no fairy princesses with fuzzy side-kicks or poofy-haired heroes with 20-inch waistlines. This collection of stories is funny, frentic, and surprisingly moving.

“Ohikkoshi” is the story of a group of college friends, bumbling and stumbling through life. The most simple of decisions are made with the help of heaping amounts of alcohol, in an effort to avoid the real issues of finding love and starting adult life. The multi-branched story is honest and touching, while at the same time very entertaining.

“Luncheon of Tears Diary (Vagabond Shoujo Manga-ka” is the fantastic tale of a manga-ka (comic artist), Natsumi, who takes poor advice from her perverted editor, and ends up ruining her serial comic. Depressed and frustrated she quits the comic world and goes on a 14-year life adventure with so many unfortunates twists, losing her manga series is only a drop in the ink-well. From gambling with gangsters to fetishist boyfriends, Natumi’s luck always runs out at the most inopportune moments, leading her deeper into more dangerous and harrowing situations. Where the travel-worn and experienced manga-ka finds herself in the end wraps up this treacherous tale nicely.

The final short tale, “Bloodbath at Midorigaike (Kyoto Super Barhopping Journal)” is a funny little ditty about a visiting a supposedly haunted lake in Kyoto. Bonus pages include a afterward actually worth reading, and bonus drawings. Translator notes (with page and frame number references) give explanations to the dozens of pop culture references most non-native Japanese speakers wouldn’t catch or understand. How translator Kumar Sivasubramanian is able to assemble these tidbits and trivia is beyond me, but the non-Japanese reader can come very close to enjoying the same experience as the readers of the original Japanese.

Hiroaki Samura’s drawing style is on of the most attractive things about this Ohikkoshi. Unlike the very clean and sharp (and beautiful) titles we have seen recently (i.e. Reiko, The Zombie Shop), Samura’s style seems rough, yet calculated. It doesn’t feel rushed – quite the contrary –some of the pen strokes shading clearly took patience and time to complete. As a result his style exudes a certain warmth and personality which is very appropriate for how close we get to the characters we meet. He creates an intimacy that fits perfectly with the storyline.

As a reader, it’s easy to appreciate Dark Horse’s reverence for Samura's writing, and there is a real sense that they are attempting to create a complete and definitive document of his original work in English. Ohikkoshi is smart, smarmy and very hard to put down.


Friday, November 10, 2006


by Yua Kotegawa
On her way to school the beautiful and charming Chiko finds a cell phone someone has dropped. Before she has the chance to take it to the train station lost-and-found, the phone starts ringing. The voice on the other end tells her that a person will die in front of the train station at 3:50! Just as Chiko is about to drop off the phone, the phone rings again. This time the voice instructs Chiko, by name, to get to the roof. Naturally, Chiko hesitates at such a command from a stranger, but moments later the reason for the stranger’s command is clear, as a suicidal girl jumps from that very roof at the exact time predicted.

Chiko and her bookish friend, Bando, witness the suicide, and are the only ones who know about this mysterious phone caller. The adventure that follows, a night of rescue attempts and exploring the mystery of the mysterious caller, is intense and exhausting.

Chiko and Bando’s adventure is not only a race around Tokyo, but also an personal exploration for this odd couple. Chiko is outgoing and popular, and Bando is introverted and largely ignored at school (despite her athletic talents). Both girls learn about themselves and each other as they follow the directions of the strange voice in an effort to prevent suicides around the city.

Who is the mysterious caller? Is he predicting or causing the rash of suicides? The elusive answers to these questions take a back seat to the connection to Chiko and Bando make. This story is more about the ride than the destination, although the reader may be left with unanswered questions, there is a sense of closure at the end. This makes the reader wonder, what will the second volume be about?

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Banya: The Explosive Delivery Man 1

by Kim Young-Oh

Banya: The Explosive Delivery Man represents Dark Horse’s entry in the new world of Korean manhwa (comics), and what an explosive entry it is!

Banya is the story of barren, war-torn world littered with armies of ogres and massive man-eating monsters. Living within this chaos is Banya and his small band of delivery men, who make it a point of being “Fast. Precise. Secure.” Mei is the sassy young girl, whose mouth can get her into as many tough situations as it gets her out of. Kong is the dedicated side-kick, always trying to impress. There is no package they won’t take, no message that can’t be sent, as long as payment is made up front.

The first chapter introduces us to Banya, and it is one of the best intro to a comic we’ve seen in a while. As humans and the mutant-like Torren engage in an epic battle, (some great full-color pages of battle open the chapter), a single figure hops, skips, and hacks his way to the human leader. But he is not an assassin – this is Banya, delivering a properly paid-for message to the general, enemy axes and arrows be damned.

The heart of the story is about an exhausted messenger who chances upon the postal carriers. He is being followed, and the small group of messengers must figure out how to help the dying man and get his package delivered, and at the same time avoid be killed by the ruffians following him. Mei and Kong use their guile to distract the bad guys as Banya gets a head-start, but losing his camel to a gwichi (essentially an over-sized sarlaac) is going to make staying far ahead difficult…

Good story-telling is good story-telling, whether it’s from Japan, Korea, or anywhere. Banya is a dynamic tale where the world the delivery men live in is really the main character. From mountains to forests to deserts, we see a variety of terrain as well as a range of unusual creatures that inhabit this strange land. What is unique and interesting about this first volume of Banya is how the small group of postal workers don’t seem to be effected by the wars and danger so close to them. They seem to live only to deliver the packages of paying customers, and to be unable to do so would be the epitome of failure.

The dialogue in Banya is certainly written with a sly, and sometimes snide, sense of wit. In some places this sense of humor is successful, and in others a little more immature than the mood should allow. The members of the post office appear very young, and their comments reflect this a little too directly at times. The most memorable scenes, in fact, are dialogue-free.

The frames without word balloons allow you to really see the superb art and composition of Banya. The bonus color pages, rich details and epic full page shots make Banya a sandy feast for the eyes. Once you devour the story, you’ll want to go through again and soak in the rich details of the landscapes and creatures. Kim’s artwork is stunning.

Banya: The Explosive Delivery Man is an exciting new series that pulls the reader in, literally from page 1. The occasion groaners in the dialogue are quickly forgotten after the bloody swing of a sword or bizarre monster attack. Even for a fantasy-type title, Banya is very accessible. It is directed less at fantasy fans, and more at those that like intense action and a fierce story. Banya 2 is released on December 20.

Monday, October 30, 2006

WHO FIGHTER and Heart of Darkness

by Seiho Takizawa

As a young boy, I remember the great pleasure I got out of reading U.F.O. comics of the day. Sold as true tales of alien invasions, the classic comics were as much about the “top-secret” government cover-ups as they were about the bizarre experiences of the military men who encountered the other-worldly visitors. I hadn’t been reminded of those fantastic tales in years until I read the first story in Seiho Takizawa’s first English title, WHO FIGHTER.

WHO FIGHTER is a WWII manga, with two complete stories and one short vignette. The title story tells the experience of a Japanese fighter pilot who shoots down a strange fireball over Japan during WWII. What follows is a strange and twisty tale, and the only thing more odd than the suspicious G-men investigating the incident is the fireball itself. Are the bizarre events that follow the result of this alien phenomenon, or are they all in the pilot’s head. There is strong evidence to suggest both, which makes WHO FIGHTER an exciting and unique story, right up through the final frame.

The second complete story is Takizawa’s version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which will also be recognizable to readers as the story Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” was based on.) A Special Ops soldier is sent on a secret mission to find and “remove from command” a Colonel who has deserted his post and taken his men into the jungles of Burma to build a utopian society. The story is as much about the journey into the jungle to find Colonel Kurutsu as it is about the struggle the Special Forces soldier has with the mission. “This time…my target is Japanese,” he reminds himself as he drinks sake with a geisha in an attempt to relax before the mission starts. This is a thinking person’s war story, and the tone and delivery make it a very worthy rendition of Conrad’s classic. In the Afterward Takizawa makes some interesting comments on adapting Heart of Darkness, and on the writing process in general.

One cannot get more than a few frames into WHO FIGHTER without being struck by the artwork they hold in their hands. The distinguished and precise drawings are very realistic when it comes to machinery, vehicles and buildings. Whether you are a World War II buff or not, the attention to detail is clear. The characters have a distinct look, and the thin-line shading is done to perfection.

Although almost all the characters are soldiers, and the stories are set during wars, these tales are hard to call simply “war stories”. These stories are on the edge of war, and the edge of reality. Now we can only hope and wait to see more of Takizawa’s work in the near future.