Saturday, March 22, 2014

Gotta have something, so let's talk manga!

You know, I thought I'd be able to stay on top of this better than I have.  My initial goal is one post a week, but since it's been a few weeks since that first one, I'm already not keeping up!  What also doesn't help is the fact that at time of posting, this blog really doesn't look very good.  I need a banner and maybe a few other touches, and until I have them, I'm reluctant to post things and have people come look and read them.  Maybe I'm just coming up with excuses, but I don't know if I'd look twice with a blog that looks like this!

Oh, well.  At least I should try and put up something, so let's talk manga.  I've been reading Japanese comics for a while now (probably started 2000-ish), so it takes something pretty interesting or unique to get me excited about it.  Fortunately, there are a handful of series that get my full and undivided attention when I can get my hands on them.

Just as a side note: I generally don't care much for reading tons of manga online.  Maybe it's because I grew up with book-loving parents, but I prefer to read the physical versions of these series when I can, which means that sometimes I'm not always up to date with Japan, so to speak.  Of course, this doesn't happen all the time, as scanlations are the only way to get some of these series.

So let's begin!

Just look at that sneer!
Teppu by Moare Oota

Probably the manga I'm the most excited about is something that is pretty different.  Oh, sure, there have been manga about boxing and MMA and other fighting sports, but none have been quite so twisted.

The story is about Natsuo Ishido, a talented, athletic high school girl who can't seem to get interested in any sport, because she quickly and naturally masters anything she tries her hand at.  As a result, she becomes bored and quite often has to deal with others who can't stand her lack of passion despite her talents.

However, she ends up running into Yuzuko Mawatori, a girl who has been training under a famous MMA master for years.  She's cheerful, talented, hard-working, and everything a manga hero should be, and Natsuo HATES her.  Having taken some karate, she challenges Yuzuko to a match, only to be taken off guard and overcome her quickness.  So Natsuo takes up MMA, looking forward to an actual ladder to climb and for the opportunity to wipe Yuzuko's perpetual smile off of her face.

And I think that's the weird hook.  The happy, hard-working character is the antagonist, as you follow someone who seems much more villainous.  Natsuo has a serious sadistic streak and isn't afraid to show her violent tendencies.  She ends up getting a rival in Sanae Sawamura, the high school's karate captain (though they've known each other for years), who takes up MMA to get revenge for Natsuo walking into the dojo and beating up her fellow students in a dojo challenge as a "warm up" after not participating in karate for a few years (just in case you weren't sure if Natsuo was twisted enough).

However, Natsuo isn't all evil smiles and torture.  Outside of MMA, she seems stunningly normal, and has a friend who's comparatively smaller and bookish by nature.  Then there's her "relationship" with her older brother, where she suddenly becomes very submissive and fearful.  It's almost strange, to the point of mood-whiplash, how quickly Natsuo seems to break down in her brother's presence (there are clues going back to some childhood trauma involving bullying, but not all of them have been revealed, which only makes me want to read more!).

Despite all of these high-flying personalities, the action is actually very down-to-earth realistic, quite often going over the rules and techniques in detail.  Natsuo ends up spending a considerable amount of time at an MMA dojo run by a short and stocky MMA fighter named Kotani Karin, who has her own rivals and history, which become relevant to Natsuo's progress as things develop.

This series is still fairly new, and since no one has picked it up, I'm reading scanlations, which has been fine (though I'd totally buy them if someone printed an English language version!).  I look forward to each chapter, just to see how Natsuo will keeping going and her strange reactions to her progress.  At the moment, we're deep in a tournament, but there's only been about 25 chapters, so it's easy to get caught up and follow Natsuo on her twisted journey.

A true basketballman

Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue

When I'm not reading scanlations of something, I'm usually relying on my local library, which has put together quite a nice and robust collection of manga.  One series they picked up was the celebrated Slam Dunk, of which Viz recently published the last volume.

Having finished the series, I fully understand now why on Japanese polls for "best manga ever" and such keep putting this one in the top 10, if not at number one.  While it tells the story of Hanamichi Sakuragi and his endless quest for a girlfriend, which results in his joining the high school basketball team, it ends up becoming something of an introduction to the sport of Basketball to the general Japanese Shonen Jump readership of the mid 90s.

Of course, it helps by having a handful of truly fiery personalities on your team to maintain interest: Sakuragi's innocence and attention grabbing antics, Kaede Rukawa's brooding stoicism and dynamic playing on the court, Hisashi Mitsui's punkish attitude and quest for redemption, Ryota Miyagi's passion on and off the court, with Takenori Akagi's loud authoritative voice keeping all these hotheads in line.

Having just finished the series, there is one thing that is quite undeniable: Takehiko Inoue's art is AMAZING!  It's one thing to draw characters in different poses, and since this is basketball, these guys are twisting all over, but it's another to really convey their emotional state so well in something that looks rather realistic.  As I was reading, it was easy to mentally put the games together and follow the action, like I was playing in the game myself and feeling the character's exhaustion, and that's pretty incredible.  Fortunately, Inoue has taken his talents on to other projects, such as the celebrated Vagabond, a retelling of Musashi Miyamoto's life and philosophy, and the underrated REAL!, which is about wheelchair basketball (also amazing!).

I know there are a lot of other manga artists that people celebrate as being the "pride" or "jewel" of Japan, such as Naoki Urasawa (who I think isn't bad, but not incredible either), but I personally think Takehiko Inoue should hold that title, not only for having a great art-style and fun characters, but also for pushing it as a medium of art capable of calling upon emotions and conveying them to the viewer.  And the thing is, he's not doing this with stories about big robots or magical girls or superheroes.  Nearly everything he's done is realistic, so he doesn't rely on special effects or world-building as a crutch to get his point across, and I think that's pretty incredible.

Slam Dunk finished in Japan nearly 20 years ago, but it still stands of one the best sports manga from the country, and I think it's awesome that Viz was able to get them all overseas to the US.

I got nothing to add here.  That's a pretty good cover for this series.

Psyren by Toshiaki Iwashiro

Quite often, when you hear about or begin to read another action/adventure published in a mainstream magazine like Shonen Jump, it's hard not to assume that it's full of all of the same old cliches, so when something like Psyren comes along, it is strikingly refreshing.  Sure, it's not really breaking out of the shonen manga mold THAT much, but in a time where every action manga tries to be like Dragon Ball, Psyren seems to be following a different path, one laid out by classic 80s sci-fi stuff like Akira.

The story focuses on Ageha Yoshino, something a rascally high school do-gooder with a unique sense of justice, willing to beat up bullies for money.  After one such job, he ends up calling on a pay phone only to get invited to participate in a strange game.  Before long, he is thrust into a strange, barren, and post-apocalyptic world.  He is also able to make a few friends and together they figure out they are in their own future.  They also develop psychic powers to face the massive monsters in the other world.  They are forced to transfer back and forth between their time and the future, but when they can, they begin to piece together what happened to the world and, perhaps, how they can prevent it from happening, and how it's related to a mysterious group known as W.I.S.E.

While this doesn't feel drastically different upon explanation, as shonen manga has done these kinds of things before, there's something about Psyren's delivery and attitude that makes this stand out.  In a demographic rife with stalling tactics to set up the big showdown at the end of an arc, this series prefers to charge ahead at a break-neck pace, throwing in any idea that seemed cool in the 80s (psychics, an apocalypse, human experimentation, etc.), but giving all a 21st century update that makes it all seem so very relevant and relatable.  There certainly are quite a few subplots that get thrown around, and with all of the time-jumping, it can be a bit confusing, but if you're paying attention, it all adds up quite well.  Also, the art style is very clean and dynamic, with characters throwing all kinds of supernatural powers at each other.

I haven't finished this one yet, as I'm waiting for the volumes to show up at my local library, so NO SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS, in case you somehow find this blog on your own, but I look forward to each volume.  I'm at about volume 14, so I know there isn't much left, and I did read that the ending had to be thrown together, as the series got cut short (which is a shame as it's probably the freshest action series SJ has had since Bleach started, before it turned into DBZ with swords).  I'm just hoping that the ending is good enough, and I think I might end up buying this series if it does end well.

Hachiken having a rare peaceful moment with some cows.
Silver Spoon by Hiromu Arakawa

Let me just say up front that I loved Fullmetal Alchemist.  Not everyone would put their fantastical epic in something resembling 1930's Germany without coming across as pretentious or obtuse, but Arakawa made it seem like a natural place for a complex action/thriller that was still completely accessible for mainstream audiences.  It's sheer go-for-broke story-telling and memorable characters made FMA one of the best things to happen in anime and manga in the last ten years.

I also enjoyed Hero Tales, the martial arts series that she co-created back around 2006.  I know a lot of other critics panned it for not being FMA, but I find that a bit unfair.  For one, Arakawa didn't write it, and for two, she was doing on the side.  Just by reading through it, I can tell that she's just having fun with the material, drawing a straight-forward and enjoyable martial arts epic.  Sure the characters or story aren't deep, but it never tries to be anything more than it was, and I found it quite enjoyable.

So when I heard that Arakawa would be going away from action and thrillers, and focus on doing a comedy that takes place in a high school for Shonen Sunday, the "sell-out" flags were waving pretty high.  I admit that I had reservations for the direction she was taking, so I started reading this series with my fingers-crossed.  Ten chapters later and I am l laughing my head off.  Apparently my concerns were for naught.

Silver Spoon tells the story of "poor" Yugo Hachiken, a young man from a middle-class, urban family, who fails his high-school entrant exams and runs away to an agricultural high school at the suggestion of his middle school councilor.  Seeing this as an opportunity to get away from the high-pressure city life and his father's over-bearing expectations, he starts his classes only to end up lost in the middle of nowhere with a baby calf.

So it tells the story of a city-slicker having to adjust to the rural and physical lifestyle of farmers and farming, and many of the jokes stem from there, but as the series goes on, you realize that Hachiken ends up acting as a catalyst for opening the minds of the students around him, as his non-rural perspective sees things that the locals had taken for granted.  Before long, he's gathered a handful of friends around him, from the simple-minded horse-riding nut Aki Mikage to the stern baseball pitcher Ichiro Komaba to the money-focused and overweight Tamako Inada.  You end up falling in love with all of the characters and how they interact with each other.

Of course, Hachiken can't run away from his problems forever, as time insists that he get his act together.  Though, given his tendency to help everyone else out, his friends wonder if he ever has anytime for himself.  As a consequence of all that gets piled on the main character, fans of the series have created the nickname "Poor Hachiken" as a subtitle for the series.

As wonderful as this series is, as each chapter I gobble up with enthusiastic frenzy, I have become increasingly frustrated with Viz Media's lack of urgency in licensing this series and bringing it west.  To be fair, manga about the farming life full of farming terminology doesn't exactly scream best-seller.  Del Rey tried that with the hilarious and underrated Moyasimon before they went on hiatus to hand their titles over to Kodansha's new American division, but only two volumes got made and Kodansha hasn't bothered to bring over the rest.  However, with all of the awards its winning and the successful two season anime adaptation on the high-profile Noitamina block, you'd think this series would get picked up on sheer principle.  I know I'd buy every volume if I could.  But no, scanlations are all I have (which have been fine, by the way, and full of thorough notes on the various tidbits of farming life for those of us who, like Hachiken, know very little about this stuff).

The final concern is that trying to sell them with the tagline of "same author as Fullmetal Alchemist" might not be enough to convince Viz Meda to bring it.  While Brotherhood helped the series stay relevant, the FMA hype train has slowed to a crawl, so I doubt it would help carry a series like Silver Spoon, despite how good it is.  I'm also afraid that Viz might pick it up, but only sell it digitally, and I am highly reluctant to buy digital manga when I prefer the physical version so much.  Now that the series is almost at 100 chapters, my only hope is that some other licensor picks it up or VIz decided to do a "print-on-demand" service or something.  I'd be willing to spend $15 a volume if they promised to do them all.  Is it so wrong to want this series on my shelf next to my FMA volumes?


Well, that's a rundown of the manga I've been excited about lately: an MMA series, a basketball series, a psychic action series, and a high-school comedy series.  Manga really does allow for quite the variety, doesnt' it?  Such a shame that anime doesn't seem to be following suite.

I will try to post more often, as I continually wander around my handful of interests.  I've been listening to a lot of interesting music lately that might be worth some discussion, though if I were to write about what I spend most of my freetime doing, it would probably be about how much video game speedrunning I watch!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Good heavens! What is this place!

Welcome to my new blog: The Wandering Nerd!  I've tried to do blogs before, but I want to start over, this time with a much broader approach than before.  Instead of trying to pigeon-hold myself into a specific medium or genre, I figured I'd simply write about whatever crosses my mind (or at least whatever I think its blog-worthy).

While this may seem like I might not have an idea of what I'm doing (which is partially true), I do want to at least stay focusing on my main pursuits, all of which have a certain nerdiness to them, but I like them and they are what I want to talk about..  Which I suppose brings me back around to myself.

Who am I?

Well, I'm a nerd, though I suppose that may mean different things to different people.  For what it's worth, I define the word "nerd" to mean "a person who has a great appreciation of a particular thing" or "someone who is passionate about something."  With that in mind, there are all kinds of nerds, even about things that might not be "traditionally" nerdy, like sports, cars, handicrafts, baking, history, film, and music, as well as all the classic nerdy stuff.  (Just as a side note, I consider "geek" to be slightly different, in that a geek can actually DO the things he or she is passionate about, whereas a nerd might not.  For example, I enjoy martial arts movies, but I don't do martial arts, so I'm a martial arts nerd.)

So what am I a nerd for?  Well, a lot of the classic stuff, really.  Fantasy, science-ficiton, cartoons, comics, video games, anime, manga, movies, etc.  Even my taste in music is somewhat eclectic and strange.  The phrase "humanities nerd" feels quite appropriate.  While I have been fairly good at math and science, they really didn't excite me like these other things do.  I think it simply boils down to being a fan of stories, and enjoying all the different ways stories can be exciting.  I did get a B of A in English where my emphasis was in Creative Writing.  Not that I've written anything of note, but I did learn how to analyze and understand stories, which has only helped me to appreciate them even more.

That being said, I do sometimes feel that I'm spread a little too thin, that I'm into more things than I have time to really appreciate and get into.  All of the anime that I want to watch competes with all of the video games I want to play, all the movies I want to see, all of the books I want to read, and all of the music that I want to listen to.  There are times where I don't know what to do with myself because I have so much I want to dig into, so I end up doing nothing (I know; first world problems).

Still, I enjoy these various things, but I end up shifting from one passion to another, making me something of a "Jack of All Nerds."  I would have named this blog that, but it turns out to already be taken.  I eventually settled on "The Wandering Nerd," mostly because that's how I feel at times: I'm wandering from one nerdy camp to another, picking up a few things, having a good time, but then finding something else to focus on.

Which brings me back to this blog, which I think will have two main purposes:  One, to share my opinions about the stuff I like.  Not necessarily reviews (though that may happen), but my thoughts or reactions to the various things that entertain me.  And two, to help me break out of my shell.  One of the things that's been bugging me lately is how I simply observe and consume entertainment without really giving anything back.  I see talented people putting their work and ideas out there for me to enjoy, but I am not contributing anything myself, and I think that needs to change.  At the moment, I don't know what I can commit to, but I feel confident that I can keep a somewhat regular blog going, so I'm starting there.  Maybe I try something else, but I really want to give this thing a shot.

As you may have noticed, I have a bit of a rambling style.  Probably because it's been years since I finished my English major (though I did get a Masters in something else), and I'm sure commenting all sorts of internet threads doesn't help, but it's what I've ended up with at this point, and I think I want to keep it this way.  I'm a wanderer, so maybe rambling is natural.

In any case, if you happen to stumble across this blog for any reason, you're more than welcome to join me on my strange journey.  Even if no one reads my blog, even if my words end up being drowned out by the massive ocean of information that is the internet, I still want to try and say something.  Maybe it's only for myself, but maybe that's all that matters for now, but I want to try nonetheless.

And if you see that I haven't made a new post in a while, go hunt me down on reddit or twitter or something and give me a swift kick in the pants.  My mood may change later, but for right now, I really want to make this thing work!