Sunday, May 29, 2011

Upcoming Posts for the Month of June

What a crazy month May was. TCAF happened, I posted the Color of Earth review I'd been working on for ages, the Cross Game MMF, the streaming season (good god, the moe!)... But June will be a much more mellow month. As summer begins, so does the time to chill here at Cat Demon Spirits. So kick back, relax, have some watermelon, and watch the big robots kick the stuffing out of aliens.

6/4: NO POST

6/5: NO POST

6/11: NO POST

6/12: Some link-blogging.

6/18: NO POST

6/19: A list.

6/25: Shocking news!

6/26: July Posts.
"Why Are There So Many Cat Demon Spirits!?"

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Spring Streaming Season Part Three: Boys Will Be Boys

The Spring Season also brings us a healthy batch (or heaping pile, depending on your tastes) of new anime blockbusters from the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump and the fattening wallets of Toei Animation. In the first installment of these reviews, I talked about potentially "unforgettable" anime, but these are the ones we'll REALLY remember for years. Why is that? Because they'll be running for years and years and decades, until the cash cow milk runs dry.

SKET Dance
Just about any frequent Shonen Jump reader will agree with the following statement: to be successful, a Jump series needs to have either an interesting setting or interesting characters. While SKET Dance is plenty watchable and good fun, it is blazingly obvious that it features neither qualities.

SJ franchises in the past have had diverse and fascinating settings, such as a "Grand Line" inhabited by pirates, or maybe a "Soul Society" where shinigami lurk. Not for SKET Dance though, which settles for a normal high school home to (mostly) normal students. This unnamed mystery school is home to the SKET Dan, a small club (Okay, trio) dedicated to helping people (SKET is short for Support Kindness Encouragement Troubleshoot) with problems, a la after school special, though they will occasionally do odd jobs like taking care of monkeys (?). Only one of these members of SKET Dan is at all interesting, the brainiac Switch, who is shy enough to only talk out of a simulated computer voice, but egotistical enough to declare one moment the "Switch, you're Awesome!" Segment. However, Switch is given less attention than the remaining two thirds of the group, Himeko, a boring example of the "tough chick" cliche, and the protagonist, Bossun, your typical SJ funny guy with a secret power (in this case, goggles that make him more focused [?] ). In short, though the show can still get better, the horribly straightforward concept bars it from greatness.
SKET Dance is streaming on Crunchyroll.

Blue Exorcist
When the Blue Exorcist manga made its North American debut from Viz a few months back, it was received a generally warm welcome from the blogging community at large, though often noting that the first chapter was... not so great. I can't really say how accurate these opinions are, as I have yet to get to reading the manga. 10 bucks is a lot of money to plunk down on a new manga that will likely take me 10 minutes to read (What can I say? I'm quick with shonen), so I decided I would sample the series through the anime, and I am glad to report that if the manga is at all as enjoyable as the anime (save the apparently bland first manga chapter), then Blue Exorcist has a good chance of joining the ranks of the best shonen manga.

The plot of these first two episodes (which cover the aforementioned bland first chapter) is rather cliched: Trash-talking badass Rin and his brother Yukio have been raised by the kindly (but also badass) priest Father Fujimoto. However, Fujimoto is not really Rin's father in any way other than his title, as Rin is actually the spawn of Satan! After a violent encounter with Satan and some other demons, Father Fujimoto is dead and Rin vows to become an exorcist and "Beat the shit out of Satan." This is story is kind of silly (And when in the christian bible were there ever demons at all like the ones in this show?), the series makes the creaky cliches feel new again with impeccable pacing and snappy dialogue. The mix of familiar tropes and bold storytelling is comparable to Fullmetal Alchemist, another shonen series by a female author. Overall, Blue Exorcist is a fun, exciting new series that deserves attention for the outfits alone, not to mention all the other great stuff.
Blue Exorcist is streaming on Crunchyroll.

Toriko
Of all the current (by which I mean less than 10 years old) series running in the Japanese Weekly Shonen Jump magazine (not counting Jump Square, V Jump, Jump X, etc.), the second best would probably be Toriko, second only to the fantastic unlicensed comedy Beelzebub. Though I have yet to getting to reading past the first volume, it impressed me enough that I was actually moderately excited about Toei's hotly anticipated new anime adaption. The anime was good enough, but as an adaption, the show is sorely disappointing.

The anime, just like the manga, is set in a Gourmet era where mutated animals are as delicious as they are deadly. Meet Toriko, the most badass gourmet hunter ever, and his milquetoast assistant Komatsu. Together they defeat and devour the most terrifying and tasty animals ever! GRAAAH! Not exactly the most substance-heavy, but unless you're a devout member of PETA, it's good fun nonetheless. Even so, the anime version is neigh-unwatchable, for just one simple reason: the color scheme. Toriko was not a particularly pretty series in the first place, but this just destroys it. Bright colors are a good choice for saturday-morning type cartoons like this, but this just goes too far! Pink gators? Green apes? Ugh! The adaption's one saving grace is the inexplicable casting of Rumi Park (Fullmetal Alchemist's Ed, Nana's Nana Osaki) as Komatsu. Even though this can be very distracting, it's weirdly entertaining to hear the voice of an alchemist and a punk rocker reduced to a complete and utter wimp.
Toriko is streaming on Funimation.


Also Streaming
Aria the Scarlet Ammo, Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi, Tiger and Bunny, Tono to Issho, Battle Girls - Time Paradox

AND THAT IS ALL

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May MMF: Review: Five Reasons to Read Cross Game

The day is fairly clear in my memory. I walk home after a very good game of basketball with some friends, and upon my doorstep lies an Amazon package containing the first two volumes of Mitsuru Adachi's fantastic baseball manga Cross Game. It was one of those rare days where sports seemed to be a dominant aspect of my life. Cross Game is easily the best new shonen manga to hit this side of the world since Detective Conan/Case Closed, and also the most underrated. Indeed, though I'd imagine the series is doing a lot better financially than Conan, there is no denying that Cross Game has gone a bit below the radar, mostly due to the fact that manga and sports don't have much of a crossover audience (pun intended) here, and no matter how much noise we bloggers make, the blog-free readers don't seem to be listening. But, make more noise we shall, because here are 5 reasons to pick up this amazing title:

5: Good Value for a Short Shonen
 In Japan, Cross Game is a mere 17 volumes long, which in comparison to the 30+ volume narratives of pretty much every single other shonen out there (Might I remind you that Inuyasha staggered to a length of 52 before the powers-that-be let it end?). For a new manga reader, even 17 volumes seems daunting, but never fear! Viz, well aware that sports manga never sell, they began selling Cross Game in omnibus editions, cutting down the volume numbers from 17 to 8! The first volume is a 3-in-1 edition, priced at $20, and the subsequent volumes collect two of the tankobon at a time, and are $15 each.

Takahashi's Lum, as drawn by Adachi

4: Mitsuru Adachi has a Strong Working Relationship with Rumiko Takahashi
 Both Adachi and Takahashi have their works serialized in Weekly Shonen Sunday, and have called each other "friendly rivals." To quote Wikipedia:
 At the end of Weekly Sh┼Źnen Sunday issue 43 in 2006, the authors were asked, "If you could pick one penname to use which was different than your own, which one would you pick?", and Takahashi replied, "Adachi Mitsuru."
The two creators also recently collaborated on a one-shot story for Shonen Sunday's 50th anniversary. Fans of Takahashi may want to give Cross Game a look, as well as any other series by Mitsuru Adachi that ever floats over here.
3: A Strong Emotional Focus
Cross Game may be a shonen manga, but it's not at all about battles; in fact, the story is as emotional as any shojo manga. Its a tale about young love, coping with loss, and how a shared interest in a sport can change you. Many manga boast about the power of friendship, but few manage to feature it in as charming and thoughtful a way as this one. The characters in this series are not cliches, but real people, people I could easily meet in real life, with problems and quirks that can be seen in ourselves.



2: About People, Not Sports
As I mentioned earlier, sports and manga don't really have a crossover audience here. If you aren't sure about reading Cross Game because of a lack of interest in baseball, don't worry! Cross Game is not about the baseball you see on TV. Cross Game is about kids who go to play baseball at parks and at school, and friends sharing joys and woes in and out of the diamond. If you don't play the sport, it doesn't really matter that much, because it is secondary to the real focus: the people who play it.

1: Cross Game is FUN!
Here is something people don't seem know about Cross Game, and the main reason to read it. As much as we bloggers like talking about the "emotions" or "meaning" of the series, there's one thing that I don't think has been said enough and deserves to be known: it's fun! Cross Game isn't some arty book from IKKI, it's in the same magazine as Rumiko Takahashi! There's action, humor, romance, and all sorts of great stuff that brightens up any day. No highbrow forces are at work here, and just about anyone can enjoy Cross Game. Trust me, you'll love it.

Spring Streaming Season Part Two: Revenge of the Little Sister

Ucch, Moe. On this blog, I have previously defended the style/genre/cult/whatever at a time when no-one seemed to see any good in it, but that's besides the point. 90% of Moe, like everything else, is crud, and TV anime seems to be one of the main creators of that percentage. With last season's drop in moe shows, not to mention the whole Bill 156 thing, I thought to my self, "Well, that's the end of petty syndicated moe blobs," and breathed an innocent sigh of relief. I even speculated which ugly, perverted trend was next. Oy vey, how did I not see this coming. This season sees a resurgence in the cult of cuteness' vice-like grip on the tellie, with at least 5 shows (not even counting what's not streaming) beaming to your screen for 20 minutes you will never get back. Here's my take on four of these titles, My Odinary Life, A Bridge to the Starry Skies, We Without Wings, and Astarotte's Toy.

My Ordinary Life
One of the more interesting (or at least less offensive) sides of the moe symptom is 4-koma. 4 koma are four-panel comic strips, but unlike their western cousins, are often serialized in magazines dedicated to them, rather than newspapers.And with magazines means demographics, so there are countless moe 4-koma mags. And these moe 4-koma are perhaps the purest example of moe. Sexuality is completely absent from these series, and instead places strong emphasis on kawaii cuteness, witch is perfectly fine. The one notable problem with these comics is that, like our comic strips, these 4-koma are so decidedly innocent that very little happens and it's boring and not funny. The key difference is that instead of this dullness pleasing kindly grandmas, it is intended to sucker LFB (a term coined by Erica "Okazu" Friedman, short for "Loser Fan Boy"), slash fiction reading, slobbering Otaku. I expected My Ordinary Life, an anime adaption of a manga of the same name, to be another one of these droll experiences, and even though I was right to the extent that this is another friggin' show about cute girls in high school who look about 6 years old, the series does have one trick up its sleeve: it's actually funny.

My Ordinary Life follows a couple of girl's, well, ordinary lives, while casually undermining said ordinariness. One girl is actually a robot. One boy commutes to school by goat. Bumping into a random passerby creates an explosion taken right out of Akira. The brilliance of the show is that it balances the ordinary and the not without ever devoting itself entirely to either extreme. If all a moe series needs to be good is to go well with a cup of tea, then My Ordinary Life is perfect for those who like their tea with a bit of sugar.
My Ordinary Life is streaming on Crunchyroll.

A Bridge to the Starry Skies
If you are reading this, as I'm sure the more sensible of you have already stopped reading, do know that this anime sickened me. It sickened me to the very core of my moral fibers. To give the show credit, I did have a very strong emotional response: Those poor voice actresses! Doesn't it hurt to talk in a high pitch voice like that? I feel sorry for everyone who worked on this turkey. The animators who are only allowed to put care in to the depiction of panty shots, and must otherwise resort to bad CGI busses and cardboard-cutout motion. The director(s) and screenwriter(s), who for all I know are truly creative people, forced to cull from the Database. What do I mean by Database? Let's take a look at the plot:

We begin with a childhood memory. AWWW! Now cut to bad CGI bus. Self-insert-fantasy character H of earlier childhood memory is on bus with his shota-moe brother. Take it from me, younger brothers are never that nice around an older sibling. Some creaky exposition reveals that they have gone to the place of CHILDHOOD MEMORY AWWW! They get lost. Then, a monkey steals Shota-boy's hat, reminding us that we are supposed to this what we are watching is "wacky."  H chases monkey, falls off a tree, and realizes... he's at the lake from his childhood memory! AWWW! Meanwhile, shota-boy wonders where his oniichan is. Then, cute girl! She is most certainly the one from the childhood memory (AWWW!), and gives us the show's first panty shot, also reminding us the show is supposed to be "wacky," but in a different way. Then, it's the "Oh no I fell and kissed you!" scene. I could go on for longer, but I think you get the idea. Anyway, skip this.
A Bridge to the Starry Skies is streaming on Crunchyroll.

We, Without Wings - under the innocent sky
Many moe and harem anime in the past have what I like to call "the Self-Insert Male Protagonist" (or SIMP, for short). Normally the only prominent male, the SIMP has essentially no personality, and is surrounded by cute girls. The reason for this is that the SIMP is really the LFB, who fantasizes about being the chick-magnet SIMP, or more to the point, replacing the SIMP. The SIMP may be meek, and even be hated by most of the girls, but this only adds to the LFB's fantasy, creating tantalizing thoughts, such as If I were him, I'd do that different! However, We, Without (Chicken) Wings (Sorry, couldn't help it) does not feature a single SIMP, even though the characters are possibly based on that very same LFB demographic. This is because the two (Two!) main characters are complete and utter arses. The arses in question are Shusuke and Hayato, backstabbing, lecherous money-grubbers who happen to frequent the same bar (maid cafe?). Watch as they try, fail, and try, and fail (etc) to pick up women! Fun!

It's nice to see that the folks at work on this series are actually putting some effort into their job, because it made the show significantly better than I would have expected. The humor is funny, the pacing is sharp, and the characters are interesting. That does not save the show, though. The anime is crammed with over the top, distracting fanservice, some of which is literally pedophillic. I simply cannot imagine continuing to watch a series in which a girl who cannot be older than 15 asks one of the protagonist about his "monster." It's really a shame though, because the show seems to be brimming with promise. Oh, well.
We, Without Wings - under the innocent sky is streaming on Crunchyroll.

five minutes of Astarotte's Toy 
*Repeatedly bangs head against wall* Excuse me. Sorry. OK. No matter how hard I try, I can't really seem to get past the first five minutes or so of Astarotte's Toy. So, let me give you a review of those five mintues. Here we go. We begin in random bright colors magical land where a girl who looks five-years old gets chased by a cute dragon while being told to do her homework. Then the girl, Astarotte, screams "I HATE... MEN!" Still with me? Then in an absurdly sparkly bath scene we find out that Astarotte is a Ten-year old Succubus, which apparently means she has to start "sucking the life-seed" out of men. That was when I started banging my head against the wall.
Astarotte's Toy is streaming on Crunchyroll, but I'm not giving you a link. Think of it as a favor.


BILL 156
I wonder how, in a post-Bill 156 world, that a show like Astarotte's Toy gets on TV. In fact, how did ANY of these shows get on TV? Rather than a decrease in shockingly awful moe, we have gotten more. The problem is, even though Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo (and also a homophobic, misogynist, nationalist pig), believe the bill is anti-child pornography, it's not! The bill prevents "offencive" material portraying sexuality from being sold to minors, and whether you're for or against that, it doesn't change a hell of a lot. The really bad stuff is already 18+, and the Bill is vague enough that subtexts will generally not be much of a problem. AND MOE IS BUILT ON SUBTEXT. Mind-numbingly obvious subtext, but it's still subtext. So, nothing has changed. Nothing Will change. We are doomed.

IN PART THREE: JUMP For Joy

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Spring Streaming Season Part One: Say it Four Times Fast

The winter season was disappointing. Few shows were especially good to begin with, and two of the best, Level E and Fractale, never found their footing and floundered their great potential. Even so, the year may bring us a great new anime yet, as we see in the spring season. Here are four new shows with promise to be remembered for years to come: [C], Hanasaku Iroha, Deadman Wonderland, and Steins;Gate.

[C] - Control: The Money and Soul of Possibility
Fuji TV's Noitamina programing block has consistently produced engaging contemporary anime, some failures (Fractale), others successes (Eden of the East), but all ambitious and stylish exercises in pushing the limits of TV anime. [C] may be Noitamina's most ambitious production to date, a thinking man's Yu Gi Oh where entrepreneurs duke it out in a fantasy world for financial success. Kimimaro Yoga is a second year economics student who aspires to live a normal, stable life. All this changes when he meets Masakaki, a strange, jester-like figure who gives him a credit card granting him access to the Financial District, a simulated reality where entrepreneurs, or entres for short, duel weekly for access to vast fortunes. Win a duel, and you're set till next time. Lose, and you go bankrupt and are doomed to spend the rest of your life penniless.

First of all, this anime is a total mind f@#k. Kudos to Kenji Nakamura for creating what may be the most bizarre otaku-inclined creation since FLCL. The show is consistently flashy, stylized, interesting, mysterious, and most of all involving. We have yet to see if [C] can achieve anything deeper than that, but appears to hint at rich layers beneath the surface. [C] may not be the best anime you'll see all year, but it will definitely be worth your time. After all, time is money.
[C] - Control: The Money and Soul of Possibility is streaming on Funimation

Hanasaku Iroha (The ABCs of Blooming)
Have you ever seen a TV show that made you feel smarter? If you have not, Hanasaku Iroha could very well be your first. Iroha is a fun little anime about love, life, growing up, and a little inn in the country. The inn in question is Kissuiso, a hot springs run by the stern grandmother of the series' protagonist, Ohana Matsumae. Ohana is a resourceful girl (and I mean really resourceful, not just shojo heroine resourceful) who practically raised herself due to her single mom's negligence. Said negligent mom is also the reason Ohana has gone to Kissuiso, as she has run off to elope with her boyfriend. Ohana takes the trip to the country well, after some romantic complications and other problems at home, and dreams of a storybook adventure in the country, rife with beautiful landscapes and kindly elderly women who give kids candy. Her dream is immediately crushed upon arrival at Kissuiso. To put it in Ohana's words, "Yes, it really was a fairy tale. A pretty girl reached out her hand to me... and told me to die!" Despite this, Ohana works diligently, and learns to love her new surroundings.

I cannot put into words how lovely this show is. Free of pandering exploitation (save one bizarre yet clever sequence in the third episode), Iroha is easily the most genuine and heart warming thing you will see all year. Not only that, but the show is aesthetically beautiful too; Look at the detail in the background art, the softness of the character designs, the subtle ebb and flow of the animation. This is easily the best anime of the season, if not the whole year. If the show is about blooming, there's no way series director  Masahiro Ando is a bud. I look forward to seeing where this show will go, and how Ohana will blossom.
Hanasaku Iroha (The ABCs of Blooming) is streaming on Crunchyroll.

Deadman Wonderland
I organized this reviews to only spotlight the shows that looked like they had Classic potential, or at least some staying power, but I'm sad to report that Deadman Wonderland is nothing but what you would call a "Genre Show." However, it is still a good show, and worth the 60 minutes that watching the first three episodes took up. Based on the manga of the same name by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou (published *partially* in english by the now defunct Tokyopop ^_^), Deadman Wonderland is a pulse-pounding, prison-break-grindhouse-thriller-whatsit about and emo dude named Ganta whose classmates all get murdered and stuff and gets sent to prison even though he's obviously innocent. And of course, this being anime, it's not a normal penitentiary but an !EVIL MOTHER****ING HEVY METAL PSYCHO DEATH KILLER MONSTER JAIL FROM HELL! - Deadman Wonderland, a privately owned prison built on the ruins of Tokyo (Shades of Akira?) that doubles as an amusement park where prisoners must star in potentially deadly performances. Throw in lots o' bad@$$, and you've got an anime.

The premise may just be plain exploitation, but you have to give the show credit: it's friggin' gripping. I knew this anime was not merely grindhouse after only the first few miniutes of exposition, a seemingly bland scene with some soon-to-be-dead high schoolers chatting about how cool the field trip to Deadman Wonderland will be. These opening moments are infused with a palpable sense of dread, a mood which carries through the whole series and has yet to fail to impress me. The story is trashy pulp brilliance, but the viewer is forced to take it seriously. The action is tense and lavishly animated, possibly improving on the manga (can't say for sure, as I haven't read it). That's not to say the show's THAT good. I Often wished the show would stop taking itself so dang seriously, eliminate all self-pity, and just focus on the pulp. And no matter how you slice it, supporting characters like Shiro are as one dimensional as a straight line drawn with a pencil. Ganta is a far from a unique protagonist, a shallow imitation of Shinji Ikari with some instability and McFarlene-esque super powers thrown in for fun. I'm not loving this anime, but I think I'll keep watching for now.
Deadman Wonderland is streaming on Crunchyroll

STEINS;GATE
And so, we begin with a mind f@#k, and end with a mind f@#k. In fact, mind f@#k is the only word I can think of to explain Steins;Gate, a show that cannot be described, only experienced. I cannot really say what the plot is, but I do think it has one. Mad scientists and conspiracy theories, I guess. Anyway, the main problem with the show at the moment is that there isn't really anything more to it than that. I guess the idea of a mindf@#k anime with neither GAINAX, Mamoru Oshii, or Noitamina attached to the project isn't a good idea. So far, I'm a tad indifferent to Steins;Gate, but I'd like to see where it goes.

( a quick minor aside: the fat dude on the far left looks a bit like me, which is the main motivation for my continued viewing of this show)
Steins;Gate is streaming on Crunchyroll

IN PART TWO: The Good, The Bad, The Moe

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review: The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa (part two of two)

NOTE: THIS IS A CONTINUATION OF PART ONE
 
I was greatly moved by a scene from page 173 through 177, in which Ehwa has her first period. Earlier in the chapter, Ehwa has been talking with her mother and some of her friends, and mentions that her stomach hurts. in the first panel of page 173, Ehwa is on her own, and is suddenly shown in shock! After Ehwa observes a bump on her chest, we are shown a provocative image of a bleeding line, followed by a close-up on Ehwa, panicked and sweating. Page 174 is a single image of Ehwa drawn shakily without shading, suddenly in a mysterious shock, illustrated with a giant wobbly exclamation point. The next four panels are a POV shot of ehwa slamming and locking the room door. Emphasis is placed on her slight disorientation, stemming from concern. She lifts her skirt (the camera tastefully moving the side), and in a wide shot on the next page, featuring a large white space surrounding Ehwa implying her aloneness, she states the obvious: “Something’s dripping down there!” Four ridged rectangular panels depict a  hand (assumed to be Ehwa’s) reaching to touch the same line we saw earlier with her finger, lifting up to reveal a drop of blood. Page 177, the highlight of this set of pages, where we are shown her mortification at the sight of blood, and a slow, believable decent into tears in three panels. As a male, I have never had a period, but this sequence was highly enlightening to me as to how one would deal with such an experience. I am constantly surprised by the fact that the author of this comic is also male, for this volume is consistently enlightened me to truths of the female experience, and the human experience in general.

 Even stranger than Hwa’s incredibly positive depiction of women is his oddly negative depiction of men. While he is clearly not sexist; Chung-Myung and The Picture Man are definitely nice people; there are several instances where the author can’t seem to think of anything but how disgusting and loathsome men are! The main instance of this bizarre treatment of the male gender is the character of Dongchul. Dongchul is the polar opposite of The Picture Man, only ever depicted as a horrible wretch. He first appears at the begging of the book (at which point Ehwa is very young; they are both the same age) having a “peeing contest” with a friend, and calling Ehwa deformed for her lack of a Gochoo (a korean euphemism for penis). Later in the book, we are shown Dongchul has grown up into an ugly young pervert, masturbating in front of Ehwa while trying to bribe her with butterflies and beetles to show him her “persimmon seed”. To make matters worse, he has already successfully bribed Ehwa’s plain friend Bongsoon, depicted now as both helpless and impossibly vain. While I understand that The Color of Earth is a feminist work, and that men do deserve criticism for past treatment of women, this absurdly animalistic depiction is insulting, unhelpful, and worst of all, bad storytelling. With three pages of straightforward evil, The Color of Earth goes from and incredible creation to a greatly flawed one.

The Color of Earth is set in rural Korea, generations ago, in an unspecified year. In the book’s introduction, Hwa explains through two short poems that his intent is to tell a fictionalized account of his grandmother’s youth. Through this generational gap, the story becomes both more universal and more personal. If one goes a certain amount back in history, the entire world’s civilizations all look somewhat similar. When I read this comic, I observed that this version of Korea did not look too different from historical versions of Japan, China, and to some extent, any other part of the world at a certain time. This is not to say there are no cultural differences, but this ancient place halfway around the world feels oddly familiar. This presents one of the central morals of this book: the importance of human emotions. The reader is shown a world very different than anywhere in the 21st century but can connect and empathize with what is shown, because the story is not told through setting, but through emotions, the most universal language.


This manwha reminded me of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated, which, like The Color of Earth, features fictional characters stated to be the author’s ancestors, a concept used to make the story more personal. In Color of Earth, this side of the story is kept to subtext; had I not read the Hwa’s introduction, I would not even know that Ehwa is meant to be the authors grandmother. However, Everything is Illuminated reminds us of the significance of the people of the city of Trachimbrod throughout the narrative, and has a parallel story in which Foer finds information for the book. Despite this, I think The Color of Earth is a much more personal story While Illuminated spends more time elaborating on Foer’s family tree, and through that does achieve an incredible level of emotional resonance, the reader never doubts the fictitious nature of the book. Trachimbrod is not a real city, its inhabitants are not real, and according to the back cover of the novel, Jonathan Safran Foer is not the author, but someone who has the same name (And looks the same. And has the same religious beliefs). However, Hwa’s story may well be based on truth, and has not been disguised for the reader’s sake. Since the town they live in is never named, it could (and most likely is) real. Ehwa is, without a shadow of doubt, Hwa’s ancestor. This knowledge makes The Color of Earth an even more emotional read than it is otherwise. The book discusses things I wouldn’t say about myself, let alone my grandmother. Perhaps this is why fiction exists, to let us say things about life we never could otherwise.

CONCLUSION:

Despite flaws, Color of Earth is an impressive graphic novel, and a perfect English language debut for Kim Dong Hwa. Featuring incredible art, elegant prose, and intelligent storytelling, Color of Earth portrays an elegant and unique mastery of graphic storytelling.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa (part one of two)


The Color of Earth, the first volume of korean cartoonist Kim Dong Hwa’s The Story of Life on the Golden Fields trilogy, is a sunjeong manwha (a comic intended for girls) with themes of “coming of age” and Sex Ed. Sunjeong, like its japanese counterpart shojo, has often been pigeon-holed for its sparkly art, annoying protagonists, and frequently ridiculous romances. Also, the labels of coming of age and Sex Ed, unless meant as a cheap joke, seem completely contradictory as a coming of age story requires emotional focus, while Sex Ed needs to be, well, educational. Kim Dong Hwa manages to balance these elements by shedding the so-called sunjeong-style and potential educational sterility, and focusing on an adolescent girl's relationship with her mother. Puberty is depicted both realistically and beautifully, and the story is told from such a uniquely feminist perspective that makes it hard to believe the author is male. The core of story, however, is young Ehwa and her Mother, a familial bond so strong nothing could ever break it.

In some ways, The Color of Earth is not so much a comic as it is an epic poem. Dialogue is spoken in stanzas, and the illustrations suggests traditional asian artwork, namely woodblocks, which sometimes have poetry written on them. It may be surprising for some to see literary technique so openly celebrated in a comic book, especially one like this with a heavy emphasis on gorgeous artwork. And yet here it is, some of the finest modern poetry, in a comic book. The emphasis on a structure unlikely to ever be heard in real dialog never detracts or distracts from the telling of a natural story; the book attains almost a Shakespearian mood while rarely ever feeling pretentious or clunky. Were it not for the artwork, this would be the highlight of the book.

Kim Dong Hwa’s artwork is incredible, both intricately detailed and wonderfully minimal. The characters are drawn in a style suggesting influence from calligraphy, manga god Osamu Tezuka, and possibly newspaper cartoonists such as Charles Schultz. While occasionally guilty of equating ugliness and meanness, a common fallacy of cartoon art, for the most part Hwa manages to use this simplistic style to create expressive, emotional imagery. Ehwa in particular looks visually stunning, growing and changing naturally over the course of the volume, with numerous distinctive facial expressions. Even more impressive than this feat of character design are the incredible, woodblock-like, photorealistic background and nature art. Many artists these days don’t even bother drawing backgrounds, and instead make use of screen tones and Photoshop to create an emotionless, detached, but easily crafted environment. Yet here, not only do we get hand-drawn scenery, but breathtaking, unforgettable, naturalistic artwork poignantly illustrating visual metaphors of character’s emotions. Combined with the expressive characters and poetic verse, The Color of Earth is an unforgettable example of graphic narrative.

In this volume, the main story seems minimally influenced by Korean culture, focusing more on human experience in general. However, there is at least one subplot that hinges heavily on Korea, and Asia in general. What I am referring to is the story of Chung-Myung, a young Buddhist monk who falls in love with Ehwa after a chance encounter while crossing a bridge. Chung-Myung becomes conflicted between his duty to serve Buddha and his desire for Ehwa. This internal conflict can be seen not only as a nice story, but also as a possible metaphor for Korea’s own political conflicts. After the Japanese surrendered their occupation of Korea at the end of World War II, Korea was separated into two separate nations: the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the democratic Republic of Korea. In short, it may not have been what Hwa intended, but the nature of Chung-Myung’s inner troubles is a very Korean one.

 Love is the main focus of this story, and it manifests in various ways throughout the book. It is in moments where love is discussed where the comic is most poetic. The main romance of the book is a love triangle, in which Ehwa is conflicted between feelings for the young monk Chung-Myung, and an unrequited love for the seemingly flawless young Master Sunoo, the crippled son of an orchard farmer. Ehwa and Chung-Myung met while crossing a bridge from opposite sides, from different worlds that suddenly meet at a bridge. After engaging in a highly poetic, if somewhat stilted, conversation, the two exchange flowers (flowers are often used metaphorically in Color of Earth) and leave to the other side of the bridge, their lives changed forever. They cross paths again several times later in the volume, but these times are as brief as their first meeting on a bridge. Ehwa meets young Master Sunoo only twice, ounce by a reflecting pool, and ounce at an orchard farm. Ehwa is immediately smitten, but before she can tell Sunoo, he has left on a train to the Kwangju province to study.

Running parallel to Ewha’s story is her widowed mother, who has fallen in love with a traveling artist. Within this volume, we are always shown The Picture Man through Ehwa’s eyes, a perception shaped by her mother’s stories; in fact, he is never called anything other than The Picture Man. While this perception of events is interesting, we are never shown The Picture Man in any other light. Not only does he only have one interpretation, but only one facial expression as well! I hope that in later volumes we will see more sides to his character, because Hwa is clearly a very capable cartoonist.

However, the most powerful love in this manhwa is not of the romantic kind, but maternal. Ehwa and her mother are as close as a parent and child can get, sharing secrets and helping each other. Their relationship is even stronger in contrast to Chung-Myung’s relationship with the Master of his shrine, who treats Chung-Myung’s puberty as a nuisance, a simple distraction from enlightenment. Ehwa trusts her mother with difficult questions, and her mother always answers them. Their love and respect for each other rings true and clear throughout the narrative.

This love is handled with delicate care, in a medium once used exclusively for children’s entertainment and propaganda, and a genre/demographic sometimes infamous for its heightened melodrama. It is shocking to see such delicacy handled in a story not only told in a historically kiddy medium, but in a story intended for a pre-teen audience as well. How Hwa gives Color of Earth this surprising emotional resonance is through use of visuals and representations. Many of the original cartoonists of the 20th century relied heavily on descriptions and dialog, rendering the illustrations redundant attention-grabbers, only adding to the melodrama. Hwa, on the other hand, relies on his artwork to convey the story, using the dialog to add an element of prose, amplifying the reality of the already resonant emotions. There are no sentences like “After that, she went to the other room”; The reader is never talked down to, and is generally assumed to know what an image depicts. Hwa is more than aware that in graphic storytelling, less is always more, and uses subtlety to make his story and characters more relatable.

Continued in Part Two

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tokyopop Closes Doors, Pigs Continue To Not Fly


 Earlier this year, I wrote 5 predictions for this year in the manga industry. My second prediction claimed the fall of Tokyopop. I wrote:


The fact of the matter is, T-Pop has been publishing too much, and the only big hit they've had outside of the out of print CLAMP titles now published by Dark Horse was Fruits Basket, a title that may very well be eventually forgotten in a sea of already read that. Well, Hetalia is pretty huge, but the series is basically a ton of internet memes, and it's origins as a web comic make it ripe for scanlation. Also, let's face it, anyone who's ever bought a volume of Karakuri Odette can tell you that their marketing sucks, (Hot robot? I think not!) a bad sign when it will soon be a fight to get people interested in your titles.


 Well, it seems I must be psychic, because starting May 5th, Tokyopop is dead! Confusingly, Tokyopop's German branch has not been closed, and Tokyopop Media, owning the rights to the OEL properties and in charge of a "lucrative" licensing buisness (it has produced one bad cable TV show no-one saw and one movie everyone will forget). While I will miss T-Pop's numerous good titles, I do not plan to mourn the loss of this early company. Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy, aka DJ Milky (?), is/was one of the least likable people in the industry, and I'm glad to see him go. I advise all readers to go buy any T-Pop title they may have been considering reading, finished or not, as soon, cheaply, and legally possible. Those reading a title now canceled, I advise a) looking for an anime version b) waiting patiently for the series to get picked up again (mainly for Hetalia fans) or c) use scanlates, but only if three volumes or less of the manga remain unpublished.

Now, some links:

ANN has a more or less accurate list of every Tokyopop title.

On Robot 6, Brigid Alverson tells us what Tokyopop did right...

...And Matt Blind tells us what went wrong.

Sean Gafferney lists every series you can now never finish.

Jason Thompson (Manga: The Complete Guide) weighs in on OEL.

Kate "Manga Critic" Dacey writes a link-tastic retrospective on the company.

About.com's Deb Aoki reports a somewhat mean-spirited "Garage Sale."

Notable translator and Shojo historian Matt Thorn details the dent Tokyopop's cost-cutting practices put in the industry.

And Stu Levy himself attempts a garbled excuse. Something about "winning" the "manga revolution"?