Monday, September 28, 2015

Manga Monday: Santa-related shenanigans for Seki

Even the holidays are inspiration for the ever-distracted Seki in My Neighbor Seki Volume 4.

Note: My Neighbor Seki Volume 4 is part of an ongoing series. Check out the review for Volume 1 here, and Volume 3 here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The sympathetic side of murderous Japanese spirits

Bookstore shelves are packed with books drawing from Western folklore. Elves, fairies, sprites, even selkies have found their way into books recently, especially ones targeting the ever-growing young adult market.

Part of writing young adult, it seems, is to not expect too much outside knowledge of the reader going in. It's assumed that readers know about European fantasy creatures, since that's what most of the fairy tales and Disney movies they've grown up on focus on. But once a piece of another culture's folklore hits the public knowledge, it's fair game.

Enter Okiku, and The Girl from the Well. Okiku was introduced to most Western audiences in the 2002 movie 'The Ring,' but there's much more to her than popping out of old VHS tapes. In the intervening years, Okiku has moved on from haunting the well where she was killed. She's made it her passion to exact revenge on those who have hurt children, and she has left a trail of gruesome, unsolved murders in her wake.

But one day, while drifting around looking for a new victim, she comes across Tarquin. Tark is, in many ways, just an ordinary 15 year old boy. He and his father have just moved, and he's having some of the normal problems fitting in to his new school. He's quiet by nature, so it's hard to get him to come out of his shell.

And, well, accidentally summoning a flock of headless birds in the cafeteria might not make him homecoming king either.

The problem started when he was very young. Before his mother married his father, she was a shrine maiden who spent her days putting spirits to rest with her sister back in Japan. Later on, during a visit back to the shrine, and exorcism went terribly wrong and the only way to keep the malicious spirit from destroying the town that the shrine protects was to bind it to her young son.

The trauma and guilt from that night broke Yoko, and after a few instances of trying to kill Tark and the spirit trapped within him, she's been committed to a mental hospital.

Tark's father has been doing his best, trying to balance a demanding job, a mad wife, and a son who understandably has a few issues.

And the binding left Tark with tattoo-like symbols covering his arms, hips, and chest, without a mother, and a history of bizarre, alienating events surrounding him.

It's no wonder Okiku notices him, and takes an interest.

We also get to know Tark's cousin Callie. A teacher's aide at the school he's now attending, they were close when Tark was young, and she feels a bit of a motherly responsibility for her young family member. She knows that he's been having a hard time, especially since they've moved closer to his mother's hospital and there's been a bit more interaction with her, and she wants to do whatever she can to help Tark out.

And perhaps figure out what's going on with the strange spirits that have been following him.

For as he's growing up, and becoming a less 'pure' vessel, the binding symbols his mother used to shut away the evil spirit have begun to fade. The strange occurrences have become more frequent, and if that spirit escapes, it won't end well for anyone involved.

The Girl from the Well doesn't read like a traditional Stephen King horror novel. Like many Japanese novels, it's much more contemplative and slow-building than that. Most of the bad reviews on Goodreads seem to be coming from people who are expecting a different sort of book. This isn't a hack-and-slash, bloody horror novel. Rather, the creepiness builds as the story progresses and the reader becomes invested in the characters. The tone of the novel rather than graphic imagery is what will keep the reader up at night, either to finish the book or wondering what that shadow behind them in the mirror is.

Highs: This is a great starter book for people who aren't too familiar with Japanese folklore, since The Ring was so popular, and can easily spark an interest in other books with Japanese settings.

Lows: Once again the father is clueless - bordering on neglectful - and mostly ignored throughout the book.

Verdict: A wonderfully creepy young adult horror novel with a distinct East Asian flavor.

Further Reading: The Suffering, Another, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Monday, September 21, 2015

Manga Monday: How bad can a public high school really be?

It's not Takashi Kamiyama's fault. It really isn't. He could have gotten into a much better high school if he wanted to. 

In middle school, Ichiro Yamamoto helped him stand up to the bullies who called him 'pencilneck' and stole his lunch money. So when high school exam time came around, and Yamamoto was discouraged, Kamiyama told him that a good student can learn anywhere, and that he would apply for Cromartie High School, the easiest school to get into, with him.

Unfortunately, Yamamoto didn't even get into Cromartie, so now Kamiyama is at a very, very rough school all by himself in Cromartie High School Volume 1.

Cromartie is a rather...unique school. To begin with, it's a school for delinquents. Since no good student in their right mind would ever go to Cromartie, it's assumed that you've built up a hard reputation for yourself in middle school. This works to Yamamoto's advantage, since only a boy with the worst reputation ever could afford to seem as weak as Yamamoto does.

Since delinquency is to be expected at a school like this, it takes some extremely special circumstances for Cromartie to stand out.

Like the 'kid' in Class 3 with a striking resemblance to Freddy Mercury.

Or the gorilla in another classroom.


Cromartie High School is a comedy spoofing the popular 'yankii' (juvenile delinquent) manga genre of the 1970s and 1980s. The randomness abounds, the laughs are constant, and by the end, perhaps your own high school experience won't seem so bad after all.

Highs: Motion sickness is a terrible disorder that does not need to be made light of.

Lows: This isn't a starter manga, as a reader without a good founding in manga tropes would probably be lost.

Verdict: Cromartie High School Volume 1 may not be for everyone, but those with the right sense of humor will enjoy it immensely.

Further Reading: Shiba Inuko-san Volume 1, My Neighbor Seki Volume 1

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Zombie outbreak survivors are just as factionalized as before

A world with superheroes could be a wonderful thing. With great power tends to come great responsibility, and it seems as though people with the ability to protect those in need gravitate towards such hobbies. 

Los Angeles has certainly benefited from its superpowered saviors. Gorgon has a particular vendetta against the street gang calling themselves the Seventeens. Mighty Dragon has been keeping an eye on the streets as well, and Stealth seems to be keeping attacks on women in check.

And then...the virus gets loose.

In Ex-Heroes, Peter Cline combines the very popular superhero and zombie genres to create a very interesting post-apocalyptic world. Taking place one year after the outbreak began, with flashbacks to the superheroes' experiences before the crisis, a band of superheroes has made a 'safe zone' out of the old Paramount Studios lot. They go on raids outside of the walls of the Mount for supplies, but have also converted rooftops on the lot to farming land, and are fairly self-sustaining.

They're not the only humans left in LA, however. Gorgon's old enemy, the Seventeens, also have a stronghold. Unfortunately, they're not nearly as nice to their civilians as the Heroes are.

But beyond that, there's been some strange developments amongst the ex-humans. When the Heroes captured three of the Seventeens, they each attempted to kill themselves in their holding cells. And one of the one who succeeded seemed...intelligent. Instead of launching himself at the nearest warm body, it was able to converse with the Heroes, and tell them what the Seventeens had in store for them.

Peter Cline has created a fascinating world in Ex-Heroes, filled with flawed heroes. No one comes through an apocalypse without at least a bit of baggage, and through the flashbacks Cline shows us exactly where each character is coming from. Even the revelation of how the outbreak started is equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking.

Ex-Heroes leaves a huge world to explore in subsequent books, characters who have an uphill battle before them, and a satisfying conclusion.

Highs: While a bit cookie-cutter to begin with, both female characters hold their own well.

Lows: While death is inevitable in a series like this, I wish a few of the characters we lost had made it through.

Verdict: An excellent genre mash-up that satisfies fans of zombies, superheroes, and both.

Further Reading: Under a Graveyard Sky, World War Z, V Wars