Four ways to forgiveness

There’s no two ways about this: Spirit Circle is a damn good manga. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to discover this for yourself, as all the synopses I’ve read make it sound incoherent or unremarkable. Take this one, for example:

Fuuta Okeya is a normal 14-year-old boy, except for the fact that he has the ability to see ghosts. A cute girl transfers into his class one day, but acts particularly aggressive towards him. This girl called Kouko Ishigami is followed around by a ghost called East. Fuuta tries to get along with her but ends up failing after she sees the birthmark he usually keeps covered. She then declares him as her enemy, his birthmark as a cursed brand and claims they have a long history, while talking about reincarnation. Who is this girl and how are they connected?

“Oh, it’s another high school story,” you might think. “Is it like Bleach? I’m guessing from the art it’s a comedy-romance and the reincarnation angle is the only unique thing about it. Oh well, high school comedy-romances are a dime a dozen.”

A girl and a boy fighting in the present day, as two young people in the pre-Hispanic Americas, as an old witch and a young knight, and as a ninja and a feudal Japanese swordsman

Hell no. I would never have tried this manga out if I hadn’t known it was written by the same person as the one behind Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, but I’m glad I did. I think I have enough samples of his writing now to say without hesitation that Satoshi Mizukami knows how to write a moving story.

Basically, Spirit Circle is about the dispute between a boy and a girl that stretches backward and forward to the past and the future and back again, through different reincarnations and universes. In the present day, the boy searches through his past lives to find the reason for the girl’s animosity, while in each life the two fight and try to find a way to stop fighting.

Don’t get me wrong, this manga is definitely funny. There actually is comedy and romance in this series. But each reincarnation of the two rivals lives rich and full lives with their share of tragedy and suffering and peace and joy. Some heavy shit goes down, and not in just the past lives of the two.

The series is available on Crunchyroll’s online manga service. I do have to mention that I read it on my tablet and the app has the annoying tendency to occasionally show me a page that I’d already read. If that happens to you, I recommend exiting the manga and entering it again; that should make the proper page show up.

I’ve found Crunchyroll’s online manga offerings to be rather sparse in number and in quality. One might call it hit-or-miss but in my case I’ve found more misses than hits. This manga, though, is definitely one of the good ones. It’s also being simultaneously published, which means that it’s still not finished. However, from the way the story is going I think it’s almost done. If it sticks the landing then it’s going into my list of favourite series.

Go, go, Power Rangers

Despite never having read the manga, I’m sure you already know the story of Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer. Briefly, the protagonist is awakened to his destiny by an animal guide and told to find his reincarnated teammates to fight an evil sorcerer bent on destruction.

It’s been done and redone by series as diverse as Sailor Moon and god knows how many tokusatsu shows (i.e., Power Rangers type shows). So you can kind of guess where the story is supposed to go, but it keeps going the opposite way. The series even gets meta with the characters watching a magical girl anime and snarking about the cliches to be found in the destined hero narratives that their own story deconstructs.

A woman cheerfully being recruited in her bedroom by a talking snake

This is a joyfully clever comic, and in small ways and large ways – like in this scene – it keeps pulling the rug out from under you. I’d be more specific but I don’t want to take away from the enjoyment of anyone who wants to try this manga out. Read it already, people.

The festival of dolls

Hinamatsuri is a manga about a powerful young psychic who’s adopted by a yakuza gang member. You might think it’s an action series fill of violent battles, secret conspiracies, and barely disguised metaphors comparing child soldiers to the academic pressure placed on modern Japanese kids. However, it’s actually a comedy about the daily nothings in the lives of a group of slackers and screw-ups.

The main character mostly eats, sleeps, and watches TV, while she uses her powers to move her video game controller so she can keep her hands free for eating potato chips. Of the people sent to capture her, one ends up homeless and sleeping in the park, while the other almost starves to death in a crappy apartment because she ran out of money. Her adoptive yakuza father accidentally gets her to attack a rival gang, but otherwise the most he’s done to exploit her is to use her existence to elicit a sympathy date from a woman he was pursuing.

Wisely, the author knows how superb the side characters are and does not hesitate to shift focus to them. Over time the series becomes more of an ensemble comedy. For instance, there’s a running gag about the protagonist’s 13 year old classmate that begins with her accidentally getting a job as a bartender and slowly builds up over time, culminating in the classmate being trained as a sniper at a Special Forces boot camp.

Continue reading “The festival of dolls”

The gray world

Princess Ran in her Nike sneakers cutting her way through the vines to her sleeping prince

I’m currently reading Ran and the Gray World, which is a manga about a girl growing up in a family of sorcerers. It’s a whimsical and beautiful magical realist story, like one of the more child-oriented Hayao Miyazaki films. The manga contains scenes of childlike exuberance on the one hand, and scenes of terror and crushing sorrow on the other, but the tone never feels dissonant. Describing more of the plot would make the story sound nonsensical – like I said, it’s magical realist – but it does hold together with its own internal logic.

I think the series does a good job of showing how kids can handle more than adults tend to give them credit for. The art is wonderful, so the manga is enjoyable just on the visual level, but I do like how well it shows the eternal resiliency of children. I can see why it’s big in Japan.

Boy meets girl

Yui and Yuuta at different stages of their lives: from elementary to middle school to high school.

I started reading a new manga, Shishunki Bitter Change, which is about a boy and a girl inexplicably swapping bodies back in grade school. Which makes it sound like a lot of other body swap stories, but instead of taking place over a single wacky weekend, the status quo has still not reverted years later. In fact, by the latest issue the kids are in high school and still hoping that they’ll wake up in their correct bodies.

The series is also not comedy, but is more about the ways the kids cope with their new bodies over the years. The conflicts are small and low key: The girl feels down that the boy is getting her first period, the boy feels left out when the girl and his best friend discuss boxers versus briefs. The two meet everyday and tell each other about the life that the other is living for them, and they promise each other that they’ll live the best possible life for the other person to return to. It’s very sweet and sad and I’m guessing from the title that this series won’t have the ending the protagonists want.

An interesting point to consider is that this began as a webcomic. I know of other body swap stories, but this is the only one I’ve come across that focused so much on issues of identity instead of getting caught up in plot shenanigans about posing as one’s own boyfriend or that kind of thing. The tone reminds me of Onani Master Kurosawa, another webcomic turned into a manga, in its quiet realness.

Anyway, I do recommend checking this thing out. A quick google will reveal all to the curious.

Uhh . . .

This is seriously one of the most batshit synopses I’ve ever read:

Akikaze Cosmos is a regular elementary student who also helps take care of the hostel that her mom operates in the town of Hanami. She is incredibly responsible for her age and seems much more mature than the other older residents of the hostel, like the high school girl Soyokaze, the college drunk Sonoko, and the pervert Raita. Everything about this hostel and the town of Hanami seems normal except that everything outside of the town is a nuclear desert where no one is allowed to enter. But when Cosmos unwillingly wanders into the lifeless desert, she is somehow transformed into a magical angel.

The Angel of Future History

Alita, the cyborg angel rising from the scrapheap of history














Another new recommendation. This one isn’t very obscure but it’s rather old, so it might have fallen off the radar by now. The manga I’m talking about is called Battle Angel Alita. It’s about an amnesiac cyborg making her way in a post-post-apocalyptic world, which is to say a world where the end has ended and a grimier, crappier version of civilization has been cobbled together.

There’s a formula to this type of thing: mysterious hints at the origin of the protagonist, savage battles of survival rendered in loving detail, betrayals, reversals, friendships, death. Alita follows that formula to the letter.

Still, I only started reading Alita on the recommendation of the fellow who makes the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court – read that posthaste, by the way – so I knew there was something to the manga. And it delivered on that front as well.

Picture a murderous rollerball tournament played by cyborgs (and don’t overthink the premise). Picture our heroine fighting with gritted teeth and desperate urgency. Then picture genuine character growth in the midst of this frenetic shounen action sequence. Whilst reading I had to stop and take a moment to admire what the comic was doing.

There’s a reason James Cameron is making noises about doing a live action adaptation. I think the story is best early on, when its setting and its conflicts are smaller and more immediate. The latter portion of the series isn’t bad but by the end too many battles have passed by to give the climax its proper narrative weight. Apparently the author was dissatisfied with the original ending (something about being ill at the time) and has rebooted the series as Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. I’m only talking about the first series and have no idea if the semi-continuation is any good.

The English translation is from that older era when translators would put more of a stamp on the finished product. For example, in Japanese the protagonist’s name is Gally and the series is called GUNM. I prefer the alliteration of the alternate title, and honestly, what the hell is a GUNM?

Overall, I would suggest reading at the very least through the first four volumes. That’s what made this series one of the early seinen sensations in English. Give the manga a skim, let its images assault you, allow its battles to excite you, and imagine what it would have been like to see this kind of thing for the first time in translation. This series is remembered for a reason.

World without end

Cover to Volume 3 of Eden: It's an Endless World














Eden: It’s an Endless World is one of the standout manga in my many years of experience with the medium. I’ve wanted to write about this series for years. It’s just taken me this long to digest its ideas, as you can see from the meandering summary I wrote a while back. The story is so big and its scope so grand that I’m daunted at the idea of ever reading the series again, but it’s also so compelling that I know I will revisit this manga someday.

Eden is a science fiction story about a world where the apocalypse didn’t happen, which is to say that it’s a science fiction story about our world.

In this cyberpunk future the Closure virus has ravaged humanity, killing two percent of the global population (which, let us be reminded, means the death of millions). The old order is dead, and the new order – the New World Order of the conspiracy theorists – has descended upon humanity in the form of the leviathan named Propater. Opposing Propater are an eclectic mix of drug lords, terrorists, and gangsters.  Mostly they fight not out of ideological zeal but because they also want their cut.

The near-apocalypse of the setting invites millenarianism in its fictional universe, which the story covers extensively. In fact, the series draws heavily on Gnosticism, though not gratuitously and not gratingly. It’s possible to enjoy the manga without having any idea of the theological significance of aions, for instance.

The creator, Hiroki Endo, is an unrepentant leftist, and his politics suffuses every page. This is the only manga I know of which invites readers to check out Noam Chomsky in the appendix. The story is better for being overtly political. Otherwise it would be the type of reactionary fantasy that makes vague calls to fight for great justice while being so naive and so divorced from the everyday that it invites the opposite action. It’s heavily cyberpunk in that it’s a science fiction story distrustful of the establishment, but it also avoids the provincialism of much of cyberpunk. Be it New York, Los Angeles, or Neo-Tokyo, the classic cyberpunk stories are rooted in particular and specific urban geographies.

By contrast, this manga spans the globe, from brothels in Peru to private schools in Australia, with the story being the most compelling when it deals with the dispossessed. The manga even touches upon what the Zapatistas call the Fourth World, or the indigenous peoples so far out of the orbit of the powerful that they don’t fit into the totalizing categories of First and Third World.

As well, Endo is fascinated by the interface between humanity and its technology, personified in the form of the cyborg. He’s fond of images like the one above, where the hard and mechanical is revealed underneath the feminine and organic.

As you may guess, the subject matter guarantees that this manga is full of violence, but of the more grounded type. This is an example of the seinen genre, which is targeted at men. I guess it might be characterized as a thriller in the vein of a more leftist Spartan or Ronin.

This is not a story for everyone, but at times it felt like it was made for me. Perhaps I misspoke when I said that I’ve taken years to digest the ideas in this story, for I’m still grappling with them. Too many action stories and too many manga retreat into fantasies of empowerment and away from actual political engagement. It’s refreshing to read one that faces the political head on.

It is accomplished

I have finally watched all non-filler episodes of Bleach. I’ve been watching this show for most of the 21st century, so realize that I feel like I’ve hit some kind of personal milestone. A dumb and inconsequential milestone, but still one nevertheless. Like many other anime series in the genre of boys’ action (shounen, for the initiated), it dragged on for far too long, not least because the anime’s production of episodes quickly outpaced the manga’s story. Yes, the anime was based on a comic book series that wasn’t finished yet.

The ending didn’t feel essential. The final bit is basically a season-long epilogue, with the real ending being the one two seasons ago where the actual central villain was defeated.

But, it’s done now, so kudos to Kubo Tite for joining the ranks of creators who have successfully brought a long-running series to a close. I’m just glad I can finally cross this entry from my lifetime list of unfinished stories. Onwards to the next one.