Terra Formars, Vol. 1

By Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Young Jump. Released in North America by Viz Media.

I should note up front that I actually noted this as a license request a long while back, as part of a post where I looked at Japanese bestsellers and gauged which was most likely to succeed over here. This take on the ‘Starship Troopers’ type story looked like a winner, and indeed I think still will do pretty well. It has some very good action sequences, the art is well-defined with every character easy to recognize, the horror and gore are overflowing (this is a title whose primary readers I think may be horror fans), and the villains are truly loathsome. And no, I don’t mean the roaches, I mean the human villains. That said, there are a few reasons why I think this is not the title for me.

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Let’s start with what was discussed on the Bookshelf last week when we did our picks: the aliens that are being fought here are the descendents of cockroaches, which were dropped on Mars to help terraform the planet, with humanity planning to simply kill them off once they’d achieved their purpose. Now, they’re evolved, and look much like homo erectus, a somewhat controversial ancestor of humanity. The problem here is they look African, and they spend most of the book silent and killing off the mostly White and Asian cast. There is a crewmember from South Africa, notably… but she’s a villain, betraying the team in order to get a specimen back to Earth. I don’t think this was intentional racism on the part of either author. But it’s an unintentional racism that I’ve been discomfited by in Japanese manga before, reminding me of other Jump series like One Piece, where Luffy wears an Afro to give him the strength of black men, or Eyeshield 21, where the football players extol black tendons.

That said, the reason I’m so cool to the series did not end up being that, but rather the entire attitude of the manga, which falls squarely into the ‘kill 90 percent of your cast so that you can show off the strength of humanity against adversity. (Humanity being the two Japanese guys who are the only members of the multi-racial, multi-ethnic crew to survive.) I’d mentioned that most of this manga is an extended action sequence, but what most of the manga really is is a horror movie, killing the crew off one by one and showing the surprise and horror on their faces. Some of them fight back valiantly, or get to take out a bug or two. (Each of the crew has been genetically modified to have insect powers, which they use in lovingly detailed ways against the enemy – this is another drawback of the manga, as the author expects me to care about the various insect powers more than I really do.) And of course we get a few backstories to make it extra tragic – the tsundere childhood friend who was rescued from an abusive father is the first one to die.

This is all being orchestrated by forces from Earth, all of whom seem to want to exploit the crew in various ways – they were all chosen as they were under desperate circumstances, and are cheerfully told they have no rights and are no longer really human anymore. The villains even conspire against each other, with one set trying to get a cockroach egg to Earth while the other merely watches the carnage from hidden cameras while chuckling. I’ve no doubt that the next volume of this series (it’s 9+ in Japan) will introduce a somewhat longer-lived cast, with this first volume serving as sort of a prologue.

As I said, the series has its strengths – good action, lots of intrigue, some interesting if overly explained sci-fi concepts. But I don’t want to read about a series this bleak and cynical, especially if it’s already making me uncomfortable in how it’s portraying race. So I’m going to move on.

UQ Holder!, Vol. 2

By Ken Akamatsu. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

I still get the impression as I read this second volume that Ken Akamatsu is doing a victory lap, showing off the fact that he can do what he wants now and is not as constrained by editorial fiat. Much of the time we spend here is seen watching battles between our heroes and antagonists, be they monsters, bad guys, or even jealous girls who are supposed to be on the side of justice. There’s also a healthy dose of things Akamatsu likes to write no matter what – comedy, nudity. The large number of new male characters, however, and the minimal harem antics (they are there, but it’s part of the background events for the most part) must be a relief for him, and I think he’s having a ball here. But are we?

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The biggest change between Akamatsu’s prior works and UQ Holder is the role of the hero. Keitaro and Negi both seemed to be of a certain type – somewhat shy, a tendency to worry, a tendency to overthink everything, and a tendency to fall into other people’s boobs. Tota is very much a complete 180 change – he goes by instinct, doesn’t really dwell on anything much, and gets by on having fun and being awesome. He’s a traditional shonen hero in a battle manga, which for the most part this is. And as such he comes with the traditional shonen hero problems – he seems to be painted as exceptional far too fast. Everyone remarks here on how Tota’s ability to learn new techniques is simply superhuman beyond belief. He escapes an inescapable dungeon in only a week, learns shundo in a day, etc. Sure, he may get beat in arm wrestling, but if you don’t like ‘boring invincible hero’ types, this may not be for you.

The other two major characters here fair better, as Evangeline/Yukihime takes a step back for a bit. We finally get the story on the gender ambiguity of Kuromaru, who is actually genderless – reminiscent of the anime Simoun, when he turns 16 he’ll decide if he wants to be a man or woman. I say he as Kuromaru is clearly leaning towards the male choice. Kuromaru not only looks a lot like Setsuna from Negima, who I suspect she may be related to, but also shares many of her self-loathing traits, so it doesn’t take much for Karin to completely destroy her, noting Tota is drawn to inner strength that Kuromaru doesn’t have. Karin herself is also intriguing, having a somewhat disturbing attachment to Yukihime that is mostly played for comedy, and a corresponding hatred of Tota that is played likewise. There’s nothing comedic about the kind of immortality she has, though, and the revelation that she still feels the pain of attempts on her life is rather chilling.

There are a few more Negima teases here (the nun in the slums they’re sent to protect is named Kasuga, and some of the monster girls in UQ Holder are reminiscent of Fate’s minions), but not as much as the first volume. I’m sure we’ll here more of Negi and company later, but Akamatsu is content for now to just take the cast where it wants to go and show off awesome fighting moves. And if it all feels a bit lightweight and fluffy, I’m sure that won’t last long. For now, let’s laugh along with our boring invincible hero.

Ranma 1/2, Vols. 5 & 6

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

One of the benefits of re-reading this series after so many years is seeing which characters I’ve changed my opinion on in the interim, and after more experience with anime and manga in other forms. Most of this volume deals with the Chinese Amazons – Shampoo, who returns to Nerima; her great-grandmother Cologne, who is determined to marry her to Ranma; and Mousse, Shampoo’s childhood friend who loves her but is unable to take no for an answer. I’ve never really liked any of the characters, and made an effort to avoid writing any of them in the Ranma fanfics I wrote back in the day. To an extent, that’s still true; Mousse is a creep, and his “master of hidden weapons” schtick is something he uses as a license to fight dirty. Shampoo is surprisingly passive in this volume, mostly relying on either her body or her grandmother in order to win Ranma; she still needs a stronger personality. That leaves Cologne, and she was the one I found myself appreciating more this time around.

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Cologne is your standard trickster mentor character, and for all that she’s here to ensure Shampoo marry Ranma, this becomes a secondary concern once she realizes that Ranma has real potential. She’s sizing him up, testing his resolve and his stubbornness along with his martial arts skills. Not to spoil anything, but it’s notable that she’s the one major antagonist he never defeats through the series – at least not in a physical fight. After their first major battle, which is mostly ‘you will stay a girl forever till you agree to marry Shampoo’, Cologne surrenders the cure because Ranma actually made her try hard in a fight – something she hasn’t done in “over fifty years”. This isn’t just about Shampoo’s spouse anymore, Cologne wants to train Ranma personally.

That said, Ranma is not the type to simply acquiesce to this, so we see the start of many training matches couched as something else – in this case, a fight with Ryouga deep in the mountains. Ryouga too is reluctant to accept Cologne’s help in training, until he realizes that Ranma, driven by the events in the first half of this book, has grown MUCH better as a martial artist – to the point where Akane is almost giving him a pitiful look, his worst nightmare. Cologne takes him on, not so much for Ryouga’s sake as to drive Ranma into more desperate situations. Ranma tends to learn fastest when he’s under duress or threat of some sort, and Ryouga’s sheer toughness helps there. Akane, unfortunately, is used as kidnap bait here – she’s as disgusted with this as we are, thankfully, and for the most part rescues herself.

Speaking of Akane, she’s now settled into her standard characterization – whenever jealous, embarrassed, or otherwise emotionally overwhelmed, she lashes out at Ranma, mostly with drop kicks. Now that the majority of the cast are miles above her in martial arts talent (leaving her merely one of the most talented martial artists in the entire town – just wanted to note that), she tends to function as a Greek Chorus a lot, and her sideways flat glance, with implied, “…really?”, will also become a trademark. Akane has, I think, been burned out by too much chaos in her life all at once, and it will take a long time to sort out.

If I forgot to mention Gosunkugi, that isn’t a surprise. He’s played up as a non-entity from the start, with people not even noticing him till he draws attention to himself. He’s a grade A stalker creep, though, managing to learn of Ranma’s secret weakness by hiding under floorboards, in bushes, etc. He also has a fondness for voodoo dolls, which seem to accomplish nothing. The anime wrote him out of the early episodes, replacing him with the Kuno’s comedic ninja, Sasuke (who is anime-only). It didn’t really affect anything to see him dropped, either. He does, however, allow us to see the Cat Fist, which shows off the sheer stupidity of Genma Saotome. Genma tries to imply that he hadn’t read the instruction noting how stupid the training was, but honestly, I think he’d have done it anyway – certainly Ranma’s cat Fist *is* strong, and I think mental and emotional trauma would not bother Genma in the least if this was the result.

There are some long running gags that get introduced here: Akane’s horrible cooking, and her inability to swim, as well as the Saotome Secret Technique, one of the best gags in the entire volume. We also get Martial Arts Watermelon Smashing, which given it’s a beach story I can just about accept, and then we see Martial Arts tea ceremony, which is right about where the idea loses touch with reality altogether. Though it doesn’t help that this is easily the weakest arc in the book, with Sentaro being painfully stupid, and the story being too short to really develop anything further than ‘lol, my fiancee is a gorilla’.

The art is, as with the previous two omnibuses, taken from cleaner scans and looking much nicer in general. The translation is pretty much the same as before, with some nice lines (“Shampoo, I think it’s time we had a talk about bathtubs and men”.) Shampoo still talks in broken Japanese, but Cologne does not – her excellent Japanese is commented on, which is fine, as she’s over 100 years old. Mousse seems to speak perfect Japanese too, and one worries that Takahashi is using Shampoo’s accent for comedy effect. It also has a tendency for Western readers to devalue her intelligence (which varies from story to story, but generally she’s more with it than one would expect).

By the way, the design of Cologne is striking – Cherry was short and wizened in UY, but still looked vaguely human. Cologne’s wizened form in Ranma resembles a bird more than an old woman, something not helped by the way she pogoes around on her walking stick. In the next volume of Ranma 1/2, we’ll meet her male counterpart – one of the most loathed characters in the entire series, both in universe and out. Duck, everyone, Happosai is coming soon to a bookstore near you.