Ani-Imo, Vol. 1

By Haruko Kurumatani. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Aria. Released in North America by Yen Press.

The inside color pages of this book helpfully reveal that the title is short for “Big Brother Becomes Little Sister, Little Sister Becomes Big Brother”, which should help to explain why Yen went for the shorter version. The author, Haruko Kurumatani, has bounced around the shoujo world for many years, usually in Shogakukan’s Shoujo Comic, but I believe this is her first North American license. A quick visit to a page listing her works might tell you why – they’re all riding the edge of what’s appropriate for that age group, and they all seem to focus on ‘forbidden’ passions, particularly between siblings. And that’s what we have here, even though the story makes it clear right away that they are only stepsiblings – in fact, that’s the discovery that drives the plot.

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But there’s a twist, as this isn’t just a romantic comedy about pseudo-incest, it’s also a bodyswap comedy. We meet our hero, Youta, as the older brother of a set of “twins”, and he’s the sort of over-the-top “I love my sister so much” type we’ve seen time and again in these sorts of manga. His sister Hikaru is another type, though they aren’t usually paired together – she’s introverted to the point where her mere presence terrifies her family, and seems a bit overattached to her brother, the only one who “gets” her. The twist is that when the stepsiblings reveal comes, Youta is the only one in the family who didn’t know about it… and Hikaru is horrified to find he really *does* only love her like a sister. She then runs off to get hit by a car, he tries to save her, they end up in the hospital, and well, yeah. Bodyswap.

If you’re thinking this sounds out of place in a shoujo manga, you’re not alone, but pseudo-incest in shoujo has been around forever – anyone remember Marmalade Boy? – and Aria is somewhat ‘edgy’ for a shoujo title. In any case, that’s all in Chapter 1, and the rest of the volume is the fallout from what turns out to be the actual big reveal: Hikaru, now in Youta’s body, doesn’t want to switch back, really wants to have sex with her “sister”, and is something of a sadist (in other words, Youta’s personality now matches the character design he’s gotten). He’s helped along by a somewhat perverse doctor (who reminds me of the doctor from Excel Saga in some ways) and the girl in school that Youta always had a crush on, who turns out to be sadistic as well – and gay, with designs on Hikaru’s body. (The character design is also worth noting – the girls look extra young, appearing to be in elementary school even though they’re all high schoolers.)

How much you like this depends on how much you like comedy with overtones of creepy humiliation. I won’t deny there are a few situations here where the sheer ridiculousness of what was happening made me smile, but in the end, I couldn’t help but feel that everyone in the book bar Youta was terrible – and Youta’s a siscon! (I was highly amused at the girls in school noting he’s attractive and nice, and they all just avoided him as his obsession with his sister was beyond creepy.) Take these terrible people and turn them loose in a manga which once again has the offputting “once siblings find out they’re not related, it’s totally OK for them to bang” vibe and you have, oddly, a shoujo manga that I would only recommend to young men who like this sort of vaguely sexual comedy.

Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, Vols. 1-2

By Satoshi Mizukami. Released in Japan by Shonen Gahosha, serialized in the magazine Young King Ours. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

(This review contains spoilers.)

I reviewed the first half (i.e., Volume 1) of this series when it was digitally released by JManga a while back, but want to revisit it. It’s a new translation, and we get the addition of the 2nd volume, where things start getting a lot more serious. But also it’s a story that really holds up well when you reread it. What appears to be a standard story of superheroes uniting to defend the planet has a lot more going on under the hood, and you wonder if our hero and heroine are actually the least trustworthy people in the entire book… or if they’re just angsty teenagers dealing with life for the first time.

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Yuuhi is a really fascinating and messed up character. The second time around I wasn’t as fond of the resolution of his past childhood traumas, which seemed a bit too pat to me, but then that was the point – Yuuhi was so angry that all the hardships he grew up with that twisted him into what he currently is could be resolved without his input or presence. He’s clever and calculating, and has latched onto Samidare in order to gain a tether he lost when his grandfather apologized, but there’s also a lack of an emotional center in the young man, something the series will slowly draw out of him, starting with the shocking events at the end of the first omnibus.

Biscuit Hammer is hardly the first series to introduce an amazingly cool and competent cast member and then kill them off – it’s actually a very common Japanese trope – but all the beats are handled well, including his nascent romance with Samidare’s sister (who is fantastic throughout) and the mere fact that he’s so powerful – he’s a giant threat to Yuuhi’s plans of world destruction, and thus his death settles on Yuuhi like a giant ball of guilt (with, of course, perfect timing in his younger brother immediately showing up). For the audience, the death of Hangetsu lets us know this series is going to be more seinen than shonen, and that we shouldn’t get too attached to our main cast.

As for Samidare herself, she’s just as screwed up as Yuuhi, but in a more extroverted way. Fatalistic due to her illness and its remission while she has powers, she’s determined to make the most of her short life, and one of the best (and most chilling) moments in the book is when she turns to Yuuhi, smiling, and asks him to die with her. It’s especially chilling as she’s such a great person otherwise – gung ho, cheerful, smart – and you can absolutely see why Yuuhi has started to fall for her.

There’s a lot more to discuss, such as the fact that the Yuuhi and Samidare that show up in dreams seem to be entirely different characters to their waking selves, or the suffering that is Noi’s daily life, where he deals with the fact that a talking lizard is the only sane character in this series – but again, that’s the beauty of a series like this. It has enough complexity to reward a reader more than just on a first read through. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more Knights in the next omnibus, and that makes me happy. Enjoy this twisted take on superheroes saving the Earth.

Ranma 1/2, Vols. 9 & 10

By Rumiko Takahashi. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

This particular omnibus is very illustrative of the perils and pitfalls of being a Ranma fan, both in terms of its ongoing tendency towards “everyone is terrible, comedy trumps everything”, and in terms of the fact that it was written in 1980s Japan, and is, shall we say, a little less than progressive. We’ve already seen Ranma’s treatment of Shampoo fall into the typical Chinese stereotype, complete with broken English. Now in this volume we get two characters introduced as boys who may (or may not) turn out to identify as someone else. I’m not asking a 1980s ‘aquatranssexual’ comedy to be progressive on LGBT issues, but even for that time this is pretty bad. But let’s begin with brighter stuff, and the first of our two gender-confusing newbies.

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Ukyou Kuonji is the last of the major Ranma cast members to join us, even if her role decreases as the series goes on. She’s also the last of the major antagonists in the battle to win Ranma’s heart, one that begins the moment that she realizes he never knew she was a girl, and he actively calls her the “cute fiancee” to Akane’s “uncute fiancee”. She’s a lot like Ranma, which makes them very believable as childhood friends, and clearly her chasing of him has less to do with her family honor and more due to the object of her “revenge fantasy” becoming a crush.

She also provided fandom with what seemed, at the time, to be a more “reasonable” choice than the hyperviolent Akane (note how violent Ukyou is in her introduction and the Tsubasa chapters), and thus became very very popular among fanfiction writers, who were frustrated by Akane and Ranma’s denial, and Akane’s tendency to hit Ranma, which was taken very seriously. Not that Ranma really returns any affection – even if he does enjoy teasing and mocking Akane, he does pick up when she’s seriously hurt and works to correct it. This doesn’t really happen with Ukyou, though he at least offers to let her get revenge for the idiocy his father perpetrated. (Also, asking a 6-year-old to choose between a friend they knew for maybe 3 weeks and food – wtf?)

(As for Ryouga and Ukyou, a very popular fan pairing, I will remain mostly silent, except to note that within minutes of meeting Ryouga, Ukyou is screaming at him in frustration.)

This volume also sees a very funny Kuno and Kodachi runaround, which balances Akane and Ranma’s love/hate relationship just right, as well as a beach episode featuring Happosai and Cologne (who ran into each other in their youth – big surprise), which does not get the balance right. Mousse returns, and has a Jusenkyo curse now to boot – one which he immediately tries to give to Ranma (or Akane – he claims he’s just bluffing about cursing her, but I doubt he’s care much if it happened). I’ve talked before about my dislike of Mousse, but I will note with amusement Shampoo’s rejections of him are immediate and incredibly blunt. Mousse is not a man that will take a vague answer. “Shampoo, do you hate me so much?” “Yep. Hate you.”

And then there’s the introduction of Tsubasa Kurenai. I believe we’ve seen the last of Tsubasa in the manga, though I think he becomes a recurring character in the anime like most of Takahashi’s one-shot antagonists. Tsubasa is from Ukyou’s old school, and is chasing after her out of love and to destroy Ranma, the one she is engaged to. Tsubasa’s gender reveal comes right at the end (which leads to some awkward translations – in Japanese, it’s much easier to hide gender pronouns) and for about a chapter and a half they think he’s a girl – and a lesbian. Then we also have the fact that Tsubasa makes a cuter girl than Ranma in her girl form – something that deeply stings his pride. (It’s also explicitly mentioned here, by the way, that the entire school bar Kuno knows Ranma can change.)

So Ranma decides to “date” Tsubasa. The line that is the worst in the volume comes after Akane tells (male) Ranma she assumed he was taking Tsubasa on a “girl-girl” date. He responds that he’s “trying to set her on the correct path”. There really isn’t much that I can add here except “ugh.” Takahashi frequently uses “uh oh, they may be a lesbian” for comedy, and yes, I realize Takahashi uses absolutely everything in the world for comedy, but this doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be called out on stuff like this, particularly when it makes the cast look homophobic. The whole thing isn’t helped by a wacky reveal ending where we see Tsubasa is just a guy who likes to cross dress, and Ukyou tells the others “I thought everyone knew that already”.

So, for me, this omnibus consisted of one excellent to good first half, and a mediocre to bad second half. The danger of omnibuses. Next time we’ll meet another incredibly annoying antagonist, but at least he’s more fun than Happosai. And surprise, he’s another abusive, horrible father! Find out why the Kunos are not just another insane brother and sister duo, but from a family of insanity!