North Americans might not recognize the name Osamu Tezuka, a significant percentage of them know about Astro Boy – which, along with Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, was the first anime´ to really connect with that audience. One of the best Astro Boy adventures – both in a twelve-part manga serial and as an episode of the anime´ series – was The Greatest Robot in the World. Naoki Urasawa, best known for his manga series, Monster, has chosen to take that epic adventure and re-work it for today’s audience.
Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys is an odd and interesting manga. It’s about a group of men who formed a club when they were kids and now find the symbol they used for their club appearing in their adult lives.
As Kenji and his friends come together for the funeral of one of their old gang, Kenji receives a letter from the deceased – a letter that includes the symbol [which the others in the gang have long since forgotten]. At the same time, there is a mysterious fellow who calls himself Friend, who performs feats, like levitation, above a stage floor on which is inscribed the circle. There’s also a mysterious girl who is troubled by unusual noises that emanate from something big in the night.
Disappearing families, deaths made to appear to be suicides, seeming supermen – and the evilest twins in history – make for an exciting read. Urasawa balances the mundane and the unusual with deftness. He has a gift for delineating a solid character with a minimum of information, and his layouts are fresh and frequently subtle. The story’s complexities – it frequently moves between time periods and groups of characters – are intriguing, and Urasawa builds layers of mystery which each shift.
I finished the two hundred-pages of Volume One: Friends in almost no time at all. Indeed, 20th Century Boys practically read itself to me – Urasawa’s storytelling skills are that sharp. If this isn’t classic storytelling, I don’t know what is.
Final Grade: A
Oishinbo is a long-running manga series that encompasses more than one hundred issues in Japan. Perhaps it’s because VIZ Media is uncertain about the North American reaction to a manga about the world of cooking and food culture, but the North American market they have chosen to publish a kind of “greatest hits” series of select stories taken from the series and present them in “a la carte” editions. Japanese Cuisine in the first in this unique series and the unique challenge presented to an estranged father and son.
Kaibara Yuzan is the father – an artist and founder and director of The Gourmet Club. Yamaoka Shiro is the son – he’s a journalist for the Tozai News. They are estranged because of both their headstrong personalities and because Yamaoka destroyed all of his father’s paintings and pottery to punish him for always placing his family second to his obsession with food. When Ohara Daizo, publisher of the Tozai News, places Yamaoka in charge of the Ultimate Menu Project and asks Kaibara to work with his son, the reaction is not what he was hoping for.
Japanese Cuisine is not just a tale about the creation of a menu – it’s about the kind of people it takes to do things right, and whether Japan even has a cuisine. In the pages of this manga you will find intriguing and entertaining characters who grow as people even as they learn about Japan’s food and food culture. The manga starts off with two sashimi recipes before the story even begins – and within the pages of the manga, we learn why what appears to be so simple is really not.
Between the ongoing clash between father and son, and the responses of their friends and colleagues, we learn as much about Japanese culture as its food. Oishinbo A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine is an enthralling look at Japanese culture from a perspective we’ve never seen before. Tetsu Kariya [story] and Akira Hanasaki have created something, here, that is not just extremely good, but something that is genuinely unique.
Final Grade: A
Akira Toriyama is best known for the manga/anime series Dragon Ball Z, but he has done a good deal more. One of his most entertaining is COWA!, the tale of a half-vampire/half-werekoala named Paifu and his friends as they seek a cure for Monster Flu – a disease that affects ghosts, were-beings, vampires and all other monsters, but not humans.
The world of COWA! is one where humans and monsters generally co-exist in peace – human children go to school during the day, while their monster counterparts go to the same schools at night. Paifu and his best friend, a ghost named Jose Rodriguez, are typical kids who like to play pranks, skip school and enjoy their lives/unlives. When a strange illness strikes their friends and relatives, the two set out to find the cure. They enlist the aid of a curmudgeonly former sumo named Mr. Maruyama – but known as The Volcano – and another kid, Arpon, who considers himself Paifu’s arch-enemy, tags along [to swipe the credit if they’re successful].
Toriyama’s storytelling is clever enough, and his art guileless enough, that COWA!, although aimed at younger readers, is terrific fun for everyone. The characters are beautifully developed; the plotting is more than sufficient to hold one’s attention; the twists aren’t telegraphed, and the ending is satisfying enough that I, for one, would love to see more of the characters.
The first chapter [sixteen pages] of the book are in color – and beautifully done – which allows the reader to imagine the “real” look of the black & white remainder of the story. It’s kind of amazing to see the range of color to be found in Toriyama’s nights.
COWA! is thoroughly delightful.
Final Grade: A
Let’s be clear on this – I have never seen any of the Speed Racer anime´ nor have I seen any of the manga, and am barely aware of vintage merchandizing. Now that we have that out of the way, I have to say that, as a Speed Racer virgin, the brightly-colored film by the Wachowski Brothers is a lot of fun.
Emile Hirsch rocks as the title character, a boy in the process of becoming a man – and a believer in fair play when it appears that there hasn’t been any in professional racer since, well, ever. His rock solid family [John Goodman as Pops Racer, Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer and Paulie Litt as younger brother Spritel], pet chimp, Chim Chim and girlfriend Trixie [a very anime´ looking Christina Ricci] give him the courage to turn down an offer to sign with the top team – at which point he learns of the real nature of his beloved sport. From there it’s only a matter of winning a couple of races [against an entire field of cheaters] and bringing down the Royalton Racing Team [the team he turned down]. Nothing to it – not!
While there’s not a lot of plot to Speed Racer, there’s almost always lots going on as Speed – with the help of the mysterious Racer X [sure it’s not hard to make the connection between him and Speed’s older brother, who is supposed to have died, but it’s a convention – just like nobody recognizing Superman behind Clark Kent’s specs. Deal with it and move on!]. The races are beautifully staged exercises in gladiatorial driving; the fight sequences really capturing the odd, freeze-frame style of anime´ and manga; the cast is clearly having more fun than should be legal, and the whole thing just feels good. The only real flaw in the film is that it’s just a wee bit too talky – but that hardly matters.
For a movie with a candy-colored world [the bright, shiny color of fresh hard candy – not the pastels of rock candy], the emphasis is on the kind of grounding that a good family provides and the kind of justice that is most deserved – the justice of the untouchable evil being brought down by one man with a mission. This may be my first encounter with Speed Racer but it won’t be my last.
Final Grade: A