(Also see the post Children’s Fiction.)
Courtney Crumrin; Polly and the Pirates
Ted Naifeh brings great characterization and detail to all of his art (including Gloom Cookie and Kin) but it is the stories that he also writes that we get to truly appreciate his storytelling. It may seem odd that the best stories from a 20 or 30-something bearded male author living in San Francisco would feature plucky, fearless, pre-teen girls; but the other-than-fully-human characters around Courtney and the quite improbable swashbuckling opportunities afforded Polly are much odder – and yet still very easy to accept in the logic of their respective worlds. I appreciate that both girls mature emotionally in their story arcs – as opposed to a focus on the acquisition of new powers – and that the story endings aren’t all unambiguously happy. The Courtney Crumrin deluxe edition hardbacks reprint earlier editions but the story titles and cover art are confusingly not the same. Also note that Volume 2 of Polly and the Pirates was, unfortunately, not illustrated by Ted Naifeh – it’s hard to tell if this volume is less engaging than the first solely due to the inferior artwork or if the story is also at fault. (The artwork in some scenes seems unfinished; in others Polly is either too mature or too young… or too cross-eyed.) Courtney Crumrin is a much more satisfying series.
Glister vol 1 is an amusing little British trifle. With items such as teapots and vicars I’m not sure how much of the story your average American kid would understand. That aside, the artwork conveyed the settings without getting too fussy.
Kekkaishi, a manga by Yellow Tanabe, follows young teens who are students by day and ayakashi (ghost) hunters by night. Starting the series with Volume 4 was a little disconcerting since the first story arc concerns a formerly human daytime-appearing ghost who needs closure with his brother before passing on while the second story introduces the hero’s somewhat dark older brother who puts the hero and heroine through a nasty test and the story at the end of Volume 5 involves a trio of lethal-minded ayakashi with inhuman abilities and humanoid features only when they are in their more passive state. The comic relief in this series for the most part is less jarring than in much of the other shõnen (boy-oriented) manga and the female characters are much more realistically voiced and depicted – not surprising given the (female) gender of the series’ author. That said, it does have the common problem with depicting gay men as overly swishy. Most notably the third chapter in Volume 6 opens with the overly pretty, Caucasian looking, English teacher in a halo of roses, soap bubbles, and diamond lights serving tea (English-style) to the protagonists. Not only does this scene seem unnecessary and tacky, but it also seems out of place in contrast to the proceeding chapter which ended with a bad guy (figuratively) callously leaving an ayakashi to die from injuries sustained in faithful service.
A charming series by Ashley Spires about Binky’s adventures as a Space Cat.
Binky Takes Charge
In this volume, Binky trains a new cadet – a puppy named Gordie (Gordon). Funny moments and lots of little tidbits for adult readers (such as the box of VHS tapes stored in the basement) but not as enjoyable as other volumes – the race relations simile in the inter-species (feline / canine) misunderstandings were too easily resolved. Also, Binky’s brawn comes off as a poor contrast to Gordie’s technical smarts. Favorite line (on the copyright page): “No carpets were peed on in the making of this book. There was a hairball on the stairs, a serious case of kitty-litter foot and one mysterious poo nugget in the bedroom, but all rugs remained dry and urine-free.” (If you don’t relate to this line then you probably haven’t had four-legged companions – or have too many and the litter tracks are still fresh.)
Binky : License to Scratch
The “elite space team” of Binky, his canine housemate Gordie, and feline neighbor Gracie are taken by their humans to the vet while they (their humans) indulge in a short vacation (into “outer space”!). This volume has a brief darker moment when a new feline character shares her backstory – her humans abandoned her, leaving her behind when they moved – that is ameliorated when she gets a new human. The ending is purrs and hugs all around. Be sure to take note of the quirky end-paper pattern and the disclaimer box on the copyright page.
Chi’s Sweet Home
Chi’s Sweet Home is a Japanese comic strip (appearing in a periodic magazine) about a kitten’s adventures in a contemporary, suburban Japanese neighborhood. The series is translated into many languages and published in full-color in a kid-friendly bound form of about 150 pages. The dialog of the cats and other animal characters is subtitled providing them with their own ‘voices’. I do wonder what to what extent the cat sounds are translated. For example, is “Meow” standard Japanese as well as English? Is there a Kanji for meow? And sometimes Chi says “Meown” or “Mya” which is not standard English; is it standard Japanese? Note that the name ‘Chi’ comes from the Japanese word for urine (‘shikko’).
Volume 9: In the first episode the recovering Chi is wearing a cone – referred to in the story as an ‘Elizabethan collar‘. The frustrations of a cat wearing a cone are amusingly depicted – though my big guys have managed to either rip off the cone (and rip out the catheter tube) or pull out the bottom tummy staples despite wearing the cone. Sigh. Anyway, Chi’s family finally wises up and turns Chi into an indoor cat. (Cats – especially those in urban areas – should always be kept indoors unless they have a safe screened in outdoor space or a human companion supervising.) After Chi fusses to get outside, the father gets the bright idea to buy Chi a collar and leash so that he can take Chi for a walk. Chi’s response was pretty typical: become one with the ground; it’s not very seemly to take your feline companion for a drag down the sidewalk. The next reaction was also pretty predictable (at least for a cat owner who’s gone through converting an indoor/outdoor cat into an indoor cat): Chi pops out of the collar. Recalcitrant cat walking (or tethering of a cat to a stake) requires a snugly-fitted harness.
Anyway, the escapee flees to meet up with Cocchi as promised pre-cone. Stomachs rumbling, Cocchi escorts Chi to his mooching spots. First is the pub at which a group of portly cats are gobbling down a kibble dinner. Next is the kindly older lady who provides leftover chunks of chicken (nuggets?) and then, in response to Chi’s unrepentant begging, what looks like fried rice. At least Chi typically gets feed canned food at home – cats are obligate carnivores… that means no grains, no produce. Raw ‘feathers or fur’ (e.g. chicken or rabbit) is best – including the organs and raw bones. Unfortunately Chi (in English) is also given milk; lacking the digestive enzymes to process pasteurized cow’s milk, the result is diarrhea. (Pasteurized animal milk isn’t very good for humans either.)
With full bellies, Chi and Cocchi eventually collapse into sleep. (Since the normal cycle for adult cats is eighteen hours of sleep a day, this scene is actually not too unrealistic.) They wake up to find themselves in Chi’s home. After a few hours of easy living, Cocchi decides to stay. Though in reading the story I accepted the premise of near-instant conversion from feral to content housecat (mainly because Chi’s lazy living antics – aided and abetted by her human companions and mirroring my those of my three four-legged feline buddies – and Cocchi’s reactions to her antics were so amusing), it’s pretty unrealistic to expect that even a kitten will adapt quite so readily. Also, unless the Japanese suburbs are lack fleas, I seriously doubt that a neat and clean family would plunk an unwashed, untreated kitten down in the middle of the living room rug.
The “Homemade Special” section at the end of the volume describes a 2011 December 26 – 2012 January 18 Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in China advertising campaign featuring Chi. During the campaign 5 million cellphone straps were given away. Attached to each strap was a Chi doll with one of four facial expressions: moe, happy, pitiful, or annoyed. Not knowing the meaning of ‘moe’, I turned to Wikipedia. Since Chi’s moe look is blushing with her eyes closed, the ‘burning’ reference in the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article sounded promising, but reading through the ‘Criticism’ section left the impression that the ‘burning’ was in the sense of ‘burning passion’ – not exactly a feeling that I’d ascribe to Chi. While I’m still not certain as to the definition, the TV Tropes article referred to on the article’s Talk tab made me much more comfortable with defining moe (at least in a Chi context) as a helpless and hapless individual whose cuteness enables him / her / it to survive by triggering a protective response in others. (As a companion to a Birman cat, I totally understand this definition: a google of ‘birman’ and ‘clumsy’ returns 492,000 hits.)
Volume 10: This volume in particular makes more sense if read after the previous volumes – otherwise the references to Chi’s feline siblings and mother lose meaning. Though Chi and her siblings don’t have classic Birman markings, in this volume they further exhibit a genetic propensity to an endearingly cute, clumsy ineptness at standard cat activities such as stalking, pouncing, and gracefully jumping up to and landing on low, flat surfaces. The story is best when focused on Chi and her feline friends – though Chi’s dawning realization that she’s not human was more canine than feline; the story dragged when Chi’s human “parents” dithered over whether to respond to the ‘Lost Cat’ poster featuring Chi.
This section includes anthropomorphic tales.
Squish, Brave New Pond, #2 by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm: Peggy, Squish’s bighearted (?) amoeba friend sums up this volume when she exclaims “Oh no! The Algae [the grade school bullies] just got wiped out by an asteroid!! That’s so sad!!! Gee, I wonder if tomorrow is pizza day!”. Though Squish’s father provides better advice than in volume #3, rather than helping Squish, it serves as an after-the-fact confirmation of Squish’s decisions. Instead, Squish translates the lessons learned by his favorite superhero to his own situation – providing a great example of how to see yourself in what you read. I also appreciated the positioning of superhero comics as learning tools. Kudos also go to the representation of the class brain, Squish’s buddy Pod, as not totally clueless about social dynamics – but also content to remain his own person.
Squish, The Power of the Parasite, #3 by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm: Breaking up is hard to do – even if you’re a young amoeba named Squish. As promised in the teaser, this volume of Squish makes the connection between pirouettes and black holes. While Squish’s father isn’t hopeless and hapless (a la Father Bernstein Bear and Homer Simpson), he isn’t much use in the “helpful fatherly advice” department. Instead Squish gets problem-solving guidance from his favorite comic book hero, Super Amoeba. Not a whole lot of science; Pod presents a very simple science experiment at the end, but does not pose questions or provide answers about the science involved. Read this as a lighthearted morality play that’ll appeal to your inner five-year-old – or even better, read it with a five-year-old.
Squish, Game On!, #5 by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm: Squish gets enmeshed in the handheld video game “Mytosis” (cell division) to the detriment of the rest of his life (and to any sort of life). With the help of Super Amoeba and Moby Dick Squish has an epiphany and successfully sets aside the game. New while this is a nice story about the emptiness of electronic gaming (especially the single-player form), it doesn’t begin to address the difficulties of breaking and withdrawing from a gaming addiction. In this volume Squish’s Dad is game instead of handing out gamey advice. Thanks to the game (Mytosis) and bit players (such as Squish’s teacher Euglena), readers get a bit of science – though one needs to sort out the tongue-in-cheek pseudoscience bits such as the Kitten and Rainbow effects in Mytosis. The sly Babymouse references were amusing – I especially liked the Babymouse-costumed amoeba at the comic convention. (The convention is a nod to Comi Con. Squish and his Dad cosplay Super Amoeba and Plant Monster respectively.) The best pun was written on the blackboard in Euglena’s class: “A Tale of Two Ponds” (after Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities).
Babymouse is an anthropomorphized mouse whose pleasant daydreams starring herself in a variety of triumphant roles are rudely interrupted by the exigencies of the real life triggers for those daydreams. Babymouse’s usual antagonists are her school locker, Felicia Furrypaws (the feline leader of the mean girls), and her (Babymouse’s) grandiose visions and general ineptitude. Her conscience and inherent goodness, her friends, and the narrator are her saving graces. Sometimes Babymouse does actually save the day – but not in the expected fashion and not in a way that’s implausible. The books are created by brother and sister team Jennifer L. Holm (writer) and Matthew Holm (artist). Boys shouldn’t be hesitant about reading this series because though Babymouse loves all things pink (especially pink cupcakes) and is a head-in-the-clouds, athletically disinclined, girl with an English major demeanor; most of her close friends are boys. Budding mean girls are the group most likely to not care for this series.
Babymouse Mad Scientist, Volume 14
First let me say that one of the theorems discovered by Dr. Babymouse should have involved π (pi). In addition to the real and fictional science allusions (including a Star Trek daydream sequence), there’s a cute Suessian shout out. Thanks to the introduction of Squish, the amoeba, the story has shades of puce in addition to the usual Babymouse palette of pink, black, and white – but only for Squish and his pond water. I appreciated that though Babymouse’s father is a little overenthusiastic in getting Babymouse interested in science and in entering the Science Fair, and though he supplies materials (a microscope) and gets her to the pond to look for amoebas, he steps out of the picture when it comes to the research and experimentation for Babymouse’s Science Fair entry. And who knew that amoebas snore and burp?
A Very Babymouse Christmas, Volume 15
A Very Babymouse Christmas, Volume 15 is an opportunity to work Christmas traditions and stories through Babymouse’s fertile imagination. Thanks to Babymouse’s friends we also get a little Hanukkah and a little Nutcracker Ballet thrown in. The PC message hasn’t totally overtaken her classroom: the blackboard reads “Happy Holidays” but the activity is ‘Secret Santa’ – though I guess that technically Santa is secular. Warm and fuzzy family togetherness ending.
Babymouse For President, Volume 16
In Babymouse For President, Volume 16, Babymouse decides to run for Student Council President. Gentle jibes are made about the difficulty of keeping your soul while trying to woo various constituents to your camp and about motivations for holding office. The story also depicts the hard work of campaigning – at which Babymouse, with coaching by her intense Campaign Manager, credibly acquits herself. The scene I liked best opens with Babymouse and others in Art Class wearing painters’ smocks and with brushes, palettes, and easels at the ready. Their teacher, a monkey in a ruffled dress, open class by pontificating “Today we will be painting, which should be exciting, but listen closely as I tell you how I will make this subject boring and tedious blah blah…”. Babymouse then paints a self-portrait in the style of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster only in shades of pink, white, and black instead of red, white, and blue and with the caption ‘Typical’ at the bottom (instead of ‘Hope’, ‘Progress’, or ‘Change’). The narrator then comments “I’m pretty sure somebody did this already, Babymouse” – to which she replies “I think mine is much better!”. Will Felicia win and relegate the uncool kids to the bumpy seats on the bus? Will Babymouse get her soul back? Can Principal Silverback be bribed (with bananas)? For these answers to these and other questions, read Volume 16 of Babymouse.
Happy Birthday Babymouse, Volume 18
In Happy Birthday Babymouse, Volume 18, Babymouse is thwarted by reality in her attempts to have her dream birthday party. Not only is she limited by the financial resources of a mere moustal, but she also has to compete with the much more organized (and wealthy) head mean girl, Felicity Furrypaws. Babymouse is a can-do kind of gal – she uses the phone to book entertainment and signs the contract. “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to…” but she’s resilient and can (in retrospect) laugh at herself and the predicaments that her grandiose ideas get her into.
Though the three volume graphic novel series The Dreaming by Queenie Chan is set in a very isolated boarding school in Australia and incorporates an aboriginal tale, its tone reflects the creator’s Hong Kong heritage. I found the first two and a half volumes to be an entertaining, quick read but was left unsatisfied with the ending. I didn’t mind that some questions were left with multiple answers depending on your interpretation, but I did mind the flat epilogue and the dangling threads (such as what happened to the aunt who brought the twins to the school and then got called away?). Also, some of the character motivations were weak – pushing more sleeping pills on your twin whom you’ve noticed is getting harder and harder to wake up??? And how about going into the gallery without the adult leading the way?? Big eye roll. The artwork is nicely detailed and you can generally tell the characters apart – though what’s with the matching ruffled nightshirts?
Princess at Midnight
Though much of the action in Princess at Midnight takes place outside of school, since it’s driven by the day and night dreams of the home-schooled twins Holly and Henry I’ve included this story in the ‘School’ category. The escalating tit-for-tat battles interspersed with picnic breaks, strategy sessions, and discussions ranging from battle uniforms to the nature of war are amusing – and are reasonably gender-neutral though Holly is dressed in a princess gown and crown when she’s not in full battle armor leading the charge. The ending has a nice little twist – though I’m not sure that either twin learned any lessons from the weeks of dreamland fighting. The two-tone artwork was compatible with the story; it helped move along the without being distracting but both the art and the text lack the depth and/or detail that would warrant re-readings.
Archie’s Pal Kevin Keller
This collection of Archie’s comics is notable for its gentle introduction of a gay character to the girl-chasing-boy world of Riverdale High. Not pushing the boundaries too hard, other than his sexual orientation Kevin is a Caucasian, blond haired, blue-eyed guy with loving, supportive parents and two younger sisters. His mom is a homemaker and his dad is a stable, well-adjusted, PTSD-free, recently discharged veteran. I guess that it’s good to update the saccharine world of Archie but in some ways I think that it’d be less misleading if it were maintained more obviously as a cultural relic… unless this is one of the few ways to offer American kids outside of the coastal metropolises positive LGBTQ teen role models.
Hikaru No Go
Our favorite series starts with middle-schooler Hikaru’s discovery of the game of Go and ends a few years later with his establishment as one of the new young lions in world of professional Go. (High school is not compulsory in Japan; Hikaru opts for going pro instead of going to high school.)
The Story of Saiunkoku
The Story of Saiunkoku art by Kairi Yura, story by Sai Yukino, published by Viz Media (and by Shojo Beat in Japanese). Read Vol 1 – 3. Good (pseudo) period details. A bit ‘shojo’y’ but not too bad. Unlike some of the other manga series, in this one I can tell most of the characters apart. The female lead is only occasionally ditzy and only temporarily rendered helpless; more often she takes the initiative, expresses her convictions, acts with a sense of purpose, and demonstrates her intelligence.
One of our favorite series tells new and recycled tales of Japan in the early Meiji period under the shogunate. The anthropomorphic characters – the hero is a rabbit who walks on two legs and keeps his ears tied together in a flowing topknot appropriate to his ronin (lordless samurai) status. The author and illustrator Stan Sakai is a Kyoto native who grew up in Hawaii and resides in Southern California. Consequently his work is very accessible to an American audience: the volumes read from left to right, it’s written first in English, it’s easy to identify a character’s gender, and the variety of animal types used make it much easier to distinguish between the foreground characters. Sakai’s extensive research of the period and of Japanese folklore is readily evident in the Usagi stories. The artwork is also an important part of Usagi’s richness: Stan Sakai draws and letters by hand and eschews screentones.
Each bound volume collects five (or so) comics. In bound form, stories carrying the main plot line of the journeys of Usagi or one of the other main characters (such as Gen, a rhino and fellow ronin) are interspersed with folklore (which may or may not involve one of the main characters) and flashbacks – sometimes for comic relief and often without an immediate connection to the main plot line.
Usagi isn’t perfect but he acts with honor, compassion, and empathy; and though he makes mistakes he tries not to repeat them.
In the Japanese name ‘Miyamoto Usagi‘, ‘Miyamoto’ is the surname and means ‘base of the shrine’; ‘Usagi’ is the given name and means ‘rabbit’. ‘Yojimbo‘ refers to Usagi’s role as a samurai bodyguard – even once his master, Lord Mifune, is killed in battle.
A married peasant couple carrying bundles of kindling on their backs appear at opportune moments and make amusing observations – a nice little literary device… especially since they are essentially invisible to the higher class main characters. They are part of Usagi’s Greek chorus. Another recurring character is the short, hooded peasant with the wide gap-toothed grin who is prone to double-dealing. Does he fill the court jester role? Is he a greedy weasel literally as well as figuratively?
Definitions (mostly provided in footnotes)
abayo = so long;
kashira = chief; shogun = military dictator; ama = nun (ama-san = nun with the honorific ‘san’ appended); jonin = ninja leader; kashira = chief; tono = lord; metsuke = shogunate spy (or inspector or censor); hatamoto = top-ranking samurai (under the Tokugawa shogunate, the scope of hatamoto was narrowed to just those who had the right to an audience with the shogun – direct retainers of the shogun, literally those ‘under the banners’ or ‘at the base of the flag’); ronin = masterless samurai (warrior);
kendo = ‘Way of the Sword’ and ‘kenjutsu’ = traditional Japanese swordsmanship; reishiki = pre-fight etiquette; teppo = literally ‘iron cannon’ – especially the Portugeuse arquebus (muzzle-loaded firearm), a type of matchlock gun; tanto = dagger; shuriken = a small-bladed object (used as a weapon – typically concealed), the most well-known form is the ‘shaken’ (throwing star);
mon = an emblem (badge) identifying an individual, family, patron, or organization similar to the European heraldic device; zeni = Meiji-era small denomination copper coin; ryo = pre-Meiji era gold piece; ri = 3.9 kilometers; dairokkan = sixth sense; wa = harmonious spirit;
sakura = cherry blossom; takagi = tall tree; tokage = tree and grass lizards (which in Usagi’s world are many times larger than life); hebi = snake; sai = rhinoceros; neko = cat; kitsune = fox; obake = shapeshifter or ghost (of a deceased human) – an ‘obake-neko’ is a shapeshifting ghost cat; tengu = heavenly dog;
Waraji are sandals made from straw rope. Hakama are a form of wide-legged pants which tie at the waist. ‘Edo’ is the former name of Tokyo; it was renamed in 1868 when the shogunate came to an end. Fire was a constant danger, particularly in populated areas since building materials were very flammable.
The bushido code (literally ‘the way of the warrior’) lists seven traditional virtues. Per Sakai, these are justice, valor and courage, compassion, courtesy and respect, honesty, honor, and loyalty. Seppuku (aka ‘harakiri’ – the latter pronunciation is more commonly used in speech) is ritualized suicide by disembowelment, originally only a samurai practice under the bushido code. (Literally ‘seppuku’ means ‘stomach-cutting’ and ‘harakiri’ means ‘cutting the belly’.) A samurai committed seppuku in order to die with honor instead of dying at the hand of enemies (or revealing secrets under torture) or being punished for being associated with a shameful act.
Seasons – Volume 11
This volume underscores that Usagi (at least not in this point in his development) isn’t the most skilled swordsman roaming the country and he doesn’t win all battles. Where have I seen that bobcat bandit with the slash through his left eye? Or am I recognizing him from a later volume?
Buddhist medical treatment includes hanging a small sack (filled with herbs?) over the sleeping patient with the bottom of the bag resting on the patient’s forehead.
Life is hard. Strong class hierarchy. Lots of political intrigue with those maneuvering to restore the rule of the emperor.
Temples are places of sanctuary and in most orders the monks do not get combat training.
The courage of the plum tree and the loyalty of the gingko tree.
The song about the sea dragon wanting a monkey liver at the beginning of the chapter titled “The Crossing” is based on a legend of Ryujin, the dragon god. I’m not sure as to the meaning of the symbol (a ‘~’ in a circle) on the mainsail. Jei and the child Keiko make an appearance and voice their quest to slay Miyamoto Usagi. The samurai who challenges Jei brags that he’s a master of the “Mutekiryu style of swordsmanship”. Per Wikipedia, Heiji Muteki Ryu was founded by Yamanouchi Renshinsai around 1668 as a form of kendo.
The preface to the chapter titled “The Patience of the Spider” speaks of the ‘Age of Wars’. Per Wikipedia this period of Japanese history is called the ‘Sengoku period‘ or the ‘Warring States period’.
In the chapter titled “The Lord of Owls” Usagi sings a song with the verse “Spring Has Come“. This is the traditional Japanese song “Haru Ga Kita”. The tenth Wiggles album includes this song as the final track. According to one source the song was written in 1918. The Lord of the Owls does not appear to have a historical source beyond the owl’s meaning in Japanese folklore: “a sign of evil and an omen of death”. In Japanese the word for horned owls is ‘zuku’ or ‘mini-zuku”). while the word for those without tufts (horns) is ‘fukuro’ (or ‘fukurou’). ‘Fukuro’ may be written as either ‘fuko’ (which means ‘lucky’) or ‘fu kurou’ (which means ‘protection from (no) hardship’). (The Oriental scops owl (Otus sunia japonicus) is known as (in Japanese) konoha-zuku.) Interestingly this brief appearance in Volume 11 made the Lord of the Owls a very popular Usagi character – even though he was not seen again until more than 100 issues later (in comic issue #135 published 2011 February 23).
The chapter titled “The First Tenet” starts with a meeting between Lord Hebi (fittingly a giant snake since ‘hebi’ means snake in Japanese) and one of the ninja leaders in Jorenji Temple – which today is a point of interest in Itabashi, Tokyo. Not having arms, Lord Hebi fights with his mouth and tail.
Reference to a turnip joke – was the choice of a turnip coincidence?
The last chapter is titled “The Green Persimmon” (green – unripe – persimmons are still used as a waterproofing and anti-bacterial agent for canvas and paper). Usagi is given a small pouch to deliver to Lord Noriyuki by a dying courier… so of course the first thing that Usagi does after the courier expires in the open field is to open the pouch. Uh, should he be more concerned with keeping the pouch out of site and getting ahead of the courier’s killers? A short time later, after killing the courier’s killers, Usagi stops at an inn for tea and sits on the bench out front contemplating the green persimmon; again, why invite trouble? Usagi emulates Prince Yamato to escape a flash fire – is the Yamato reference to Prince Yamatotakeru, a figure similar to King Arthur?
Fox Hunt – Volume 25
In the first chapter, “Kitsune Gari” (literally ‘fox ginger’) a peach (a ‘momo’) is said to be the “imperial fruit” but I could not find confirmation. Subsequent events cause Gen to question his fondness for shortcuts – a fondness which is quite an expected response for his personality type (an ‘8’ on the enneagram – one of the gut types). Also note Gen’s very hearty appetite and occasional gluttony (as seen in his attempts to get Usagi’s pickles – tsukemono).
The peach highlight carries into the second chapter, “Sakura” (‘cherry blossom’): the name of the daughter traded into servitude is ‘Momo’. Could “Boss Kaneko, owner of the Black Peony” be a reference to Japanese-born ceramic artist Jun Kaneko? Kaneko has an installation in the Peony Garden in his current hometown of Omaha, NE. Sakura is searching for her lost younger brother by working as an itinerant bakuto in the chou-han gambling dens. (‘chou’ is also written as ‘cho’ with a horizontal bar over the ‘o’; ‘cho’ means ‘even’ and ‘han’ means ‘odd’.) When she slips her right arm free of her kimono to bare her throwing arm (but not her discretely wrapped breasts – this is an all-ages manga after all, and I expect that it’s culturally accurate) her extensive cherry blossom tattoo can be seen.
The fourth chapter is titled “Saya” which is Japanese for sword or knife scabbard. The chapter opens with a drummer (not a taiko drummer since technically ‘taiko’ means ‘wide drum’) singing “Oh, please, Mr. Samurai, don’t draw your sword today…”. (Presumably Sakai has translated a traditional folk song.) The music is part of the ritual for ‘taue‘ – the backbreaking work of manually transplanting rice seedlings into the paddies (‘ta’) – along with liberal consumption of sake (a fermented rice beverage). Note that the drumming sound effects – “…Don Doka Doka Don Don” – are used today (by English-speaking musicians) to record taiko patterns. In the end-notes Stan Sakai refers to an anecdote about the famous swordsman of the early Sengoku period, Tsukahara Bokuden in which, without drawing his sword, Bokuden protects a peasant who had accidentally touched a samurai’s scabbard.
A cursory search for the “Red Cloud Castle” and “Lord Awase” at the center of the chapter titled “The Fortress” didn’t result in any hits – so I assume that Sakai changed the names or synthesized a few historical events to get a compelling narrative.
In the last chapter the infant son is given the name Fukuo because it means “man of good fortune”. As was stated in the Volume 11 discussion about owls, ‘fuko’ means ‘lucky’ and ‘fu kurou’ means ‘protection from hardship’ (i.e. ‘no hardship’).
Traitors of the Earth – Volume 26
Netsuke and komainu make appearances in this volume – but living with honor takes a lot more page space than mythology and cultural references. So there’s motivation for the fighting but I don’t find the storyline quite as engaging as some of the prior volumes.
A Town Called Hell – Volume 27
A thread on the usual Usagi theme of coming to the rescue of beleaguered villagers starts this volume but is interrupted with a story of Usagi on the road dealing with mythological creatures. – the flow was a little confusing on the first pass. A sweet-until-the-end story line involves teru teru bozu.
Other World Quest
The Key to the Kingdom
The Key to the Kingdom (or, as somewhat pretentiously subtitled, ‘La clef du la royaume’ – the French translation of the title) offers a fairly classic quest tale in a six volume graphic novel series. Fortunately the publication of the English translation was completed by CMX long before they closed shop in 2010. As with a lot of Japanese manga, the characters are more Caucasian than Japanese… in an odd Barbie doll fashion. The young teenaged female lead, Leticia, is petite but relatively (compared to typical Japanese girls) buxom. Both she and the male lead, Astarion, have heart-shaped faces, big doe eyes, thick black eyelashes and thin arching eyebrows (not withstanding Leticia’s (long and wavy) blond hair), and bangs into their eyes. Their hands are delicate with long, tapered fingers. Though Winslott (Astarion’s older brother) and Baddorius (Winslott’s companion at arms) are both experienced warriors in their twenties, they are both very effeminate looking – notwithstanding the stray bits of stubble perpetually appearing on Badd’s chin (the markings look more like a bad shaving job than five o’clock shadow) – and to American eyes the ‘dragon men’ are ‘dragon women’.
The Key to the Kingdom Volume 1
Volume 1 sets up the story, introduces the major characters, starts to develop the relationship between Asta and Badd, and provides snippets of dragon lore.
The Key to the Kingdom Vol 2
Letty muses about being a never-been-kissed-13. Assuming that Asta is the same age, then even taking into account Asta’s sheltered upbringing and (physically) pacifist nature, he’s drawn and written unbelievably young at points. The contrast with Badd would be even greater if Badd were more of an American warrior rather than a Justin Bieber / young Orlando Bloom teenaged puppy. That said, if you’re used to shojo, then on first read those inconsistencies don’t detract from the unfolding story and the character developments are believable. I particularly liked the graveyard weed.
The Key to the Kingdom Vol 3
More with the pencil-necked geeks – oh wait, maybe they’re supposed to have graceful, swan-like necks… though the swans that I’ve been acquainted with were all pretty nasty-tempered. Asta meets Lord Asloane Fairheart, the fifth contender for the throne, and impresses him (Fairheart) with his bravery and thoughtfulness and collects more important tidbits on the history of dragon men and dragon tamers while Letty proceeds with her quest by getting jealous of Latona. Hmmm, who’s got the better story line? Meanwhile we’re given a reason to dislike General Bardus while learning (sort of) the story behind Prince Winslott’s death.
The Key to the Kingdom Vol 4
More graveyard weeds and more cryptic warnings from Gaius. Letty’s jealousy causes her to force Alex into an unreasonable test of his regards for her. Some of the hints become understood… though the dragon hills one was pretty easy to discern. Letty with a dragon eye: not attractive… but more attractive than the view of Letty as queen with a neck longer than her head. Then again Letty throwing a temper tantrum to get her way in proceeding to the tower was likewise not attractive. X marks the spot: Asta is the first to make it to his “tower of power” – and the first to learn the bigger plan enabled by the towers. And the summer solstice arrives.
The Key to the Kingdom Vol 5
After a brief pre-dawn interlude on the day of the Summer Solstice between Asloane and Ceianus, the story kicks into high gear with a momentous confrontation between the post-dawn Gaius. Then the scene shifts to Letty in oh-so appropriate crag-scaling attire: white knee-high boots and a just-above knee white peplum over a one piece with a dark fitted bodice and long sleeves puffed at the shoulders and fitted white from mid-bicep down. At least she’s not burdened with the full-length cloak as is Alex and the rest of her retainers. And what’s with the “ZAZA ZAZAZA” sound effect? It’s volume 5 and Letty – though admittedly under the influence of the dragon tamer’s spell – is less mature and less admirable a character than in volume 1. Letty and the other non-Asta contendors for the throne enter their respective towers more or less in parallel though the drama (and ink) is reserved for Letty and Asloane – especially the latter. I did like the twist in the resolution of the Asloane – Ceianus / Dahres thread – not what I’d expected. Asta, Badd, and Asloane all get to be rightously honorable; Letty gets bitch-slapped and faints. Oh, and Badd has enough time to tell Asta rest of the story after he conveniently acquires all the memories of Gaius / Kalvis.
The Key to the Kingdom Vol 6
Letty in mourning clothes – how did she know just what to pack for a trip into the windswept wilderness? Snivel, bawl, and wipe… and Asta and Badd have their touching parting of the ways scene… “your a man now grasshopper”? Now we get the Queen, Asta’s mother, wobbling and gasping. “…I would think that day… …was the last one of my childhood.” At least the Letty thread finally reconnects in a useful fashion with Asta’s though now to goad him on unintentionally with tears instead of innocent boldness; personally I preferred the original version. And I’m not sure that there’s a good distinction between Asta fighting Klavis in revenge for Badd’s death and fighting to make Klavis pay for manipulating Letty’s unrequited love. At least in the battle prep Letty helps boost morale and support for Asta’s leadership… amongst the women of the castle. The Certes battle offers interesting military strategy and opportunities for Asta to show compassion as well as courage. The ending with its ‘guardian dragon’ and ‘real key to the kingdom’ to me was a letdown after the preceding battles – but I guess that’s reflective of the differences between shojo and shonen.
The manga series Vermonia is the coming-of-age story of a quartet (two boys and two girls) of adolescents who are bonded through their love of skateboarding and music. (A single by Veracity, the quartet’s band, is available on the Vermonia Web site.) Unlike many other Japanese manga, the boys are boys and the girls are girls – but not girlie girls, all speak in an adolescent vernacular, and each of the four is of a different ethnic background.
Volume 1: Quest for the Silver Tiger
The battle between brothers Uro and Boros (temporarily) destroys Vermonia and results in the rebirth of four aspects of her spirit (Veras) in four children on earth: Mel, Naomi, Doug, and Jim. In this volume Mel is captured by Uro, and in the quest to rescue her, Doug is contacted by his guiding spirit, the warrior tiger Raitetsu. The drama is entertaining but not nail-biting. Perhaps the necessity of having all four unite with their guiding spirits removes a lot of the uncertainty that would normally cause readers to be more deeply engaged.
Volume 2: Call of the Winged Panther
Doug and Jim unite with their guiding spirits. The story ends with the cryptic tarot card reading trope.
Volume 3: Release of the Red Phoenix
Naomi connects with her Guardian spirit, Suzaku, and acquires the power of fire. They are given various special weapons. Mel connects with her Guardian spirit, Ruka, and acquires the power of water – but is not able to free Ruka or herself. Arussha, one of Uro’s four deras (as opposed to the four veras), sets up a confrontation between Mel and Naomi. Mel is wearing a most unattractive halter-top bikini over an off-the-shoulder long-sleeved shirt. The fight teaches them about the use and misuse of their powers. The deras Managbo and Omus are briefly introduced. News of the Water Pillar falling to Uro spurs the quartet and the Turtle Realm’s elders to protect the remaining three Pillars: Fire, Thunder, and Wind. (Gee, a connection do ya think?) “Wow”… such earnest rightness (righteousness?).
Volume 4: The Rukan Prophecy
Now that the quartet of “warriors” have connected (more or less) with their respective guardians, the story picks up and becomes a little less predictable: people die (“Aqamaria” a takeoff of “Ave Maria”?) and the good guys lose some battles. The Council of Elders meeting provides an opportunity for the trio to dress up (to respect the elders – though that courtesy doesn’t extend to keeping quiet during the meeting… I guess that you can blurt out when you’re channeling powerful forces). Cute animals have cute dialog (S = Satorin, C = Caudacis / Soleite): S: “They take me as I am.”, C: “Your friends are really nice”, S: “Yes, I know…”; and then a few pages later: S: “I’m glad they put us together”, C: “Me too. I feel a lot better when you’re with me.”. Penetrating dark forces and pillars under siege. Satoran created as Uro’s evil doppelganger to Satorin by Captain Acidulous (a new Marvel Avenger – NOT! – I have to wonder as to the connotations of the original Japanese version of this characters name). Captain A. makes quite the couple with Mel (“Why… Why is my heart pounding?”): scrawny guy who needs a good hair stylist and has painted nails wearing a double-wrapped belt, jodhpurs, and an eye mask making angst with the drama queen (princess) wearing a fringed collar, shoulder-bearing top held in place with an outer bra, and color-contrasting saddle bags that make her hips look extra-wide. Doug rides his skateboarder through the air (to rescue Jim from his own folly) providing a purely physical, pale allusion to the Silver Surfer.
Volume 5: The Warriors’ Trial
Mel has a new, even sillier outfit – though her hair is nicely styled in a long shag – that is only an issue for the unwelcome distraction it poses to the reader. More pairing up in this story – aren’t these kids a little young for that – and the readers even more so? At least this volume is less adolescent trauma and more classic drama with the exploration of the tension between the two brothers at the heart of the conflict.
Volume 6: To the Pillar of Wind
Battle preparations are made – AND EVERY BIT OF DIALOG HAS SUCH URGENCY… too much, too stilted. Once the quest to free the prisoners held by Uro’s minions gets underway the story regains a better flow with more tricky decisions as to innocent or evil intent. This volume ends with an abrupt surprise.