The Isolator, Vol. 2

By Reki Kawahara and Shimeji. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On.

The first volume of this series introduced us to Minoru, a broken young man who wishes to live his live with minimal emotional contact with anyone – and has secret suicidal thoughts. In this second book, he seems much better, even if the reason for that is because he hopes to achieve his goal, which is to erase the memory of him from everyone who knows him. Of course, as he finds out, this is not going to be as easy as he thought. Even those who already had their memories erased, such as last volume’s victim Tomomi, still feel drawn to him for reasons other than memory. And, as he grows closer and bonds with the new Superhero Organization he’s a part of, he finds that new emotional experiences are just impossible to avoid.

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It’s rather surprising how serious-minded this book is. Sword Art Online has lots of amusing comedy bits sprinkled throughout, and even Accel World throws in some light relief from Haru’s worrying and low self-esteem. The Isolator is grim, though, and even the odd joke or two (such as Olivier’s otaku-ish jokes) highlights how depressing everything here is. We meet the team leader of the troop, and she’s… a fourth-grader whose black gem gave her super analysis powers, so she’s now a scientific genius. Bored as I am of the ‘loli genius with an adult’s mindset’ type in this sort of series, the book does not let you forget that this was still an elementary school girl, and due to the nature of how gem powers work my guess is she was doing badly in school as well. I suspect she’s not a happy camper.

But the winner of the bleakest past here goes to Yumiko, who I had mentioned last time looked like she had hidden depths. Indeed, I think Kawahara overeggs the pudding here, as we get not one but *two* tragic backstories. It does serve to show Minoru, though, that he is not a special tragedy snowflake, and remind him that there are other ways to cope with grief and loss besides isolation. As with the first volume, the villain also gets a well-thought out backstory. Sadly, though, his personality is identical to all of Kawahara’s other psychopaths – you can give depth and tragic history all you want, but when the villain in the end is still laughing madly and going on about fools and his grand plan to destroy the world, it’s still not working.

The best reason to read this series is still the action scenes, which cry out to be animated at some point in the future. I’m not sure where the series is going from here – the book ends very abruptly, as if the author was working to a set page count. But I do know that while it’s gripping and a quick read, I wish it were more fun. I feel like isolating myself after reading it.

Log Horizon: The West Wind Brigade, Vol. 1

By Mamare Touno and Koyuki. Released in Japan by Fujimi Shobo, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dragon Age. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Given that Log Horizon contains a huge cast with at least a dozen named guilds, set over a wide area, it is not particularly surprising that we’re seeing spinoffs about some of those guilds. This also allows the series to show the same events, such as the moment when everyone realized they were in the game, with different viewpoints, and see how crises are solved when the lead is not Shiroe. Most importantly, it also allows us to try out a different genre, as Shiroe, as a harem protagonist, fails miserably. Soujiro, meanwhile, is not only an excellent oblivious harem protagonist, but he even has a guild that has become famous as a “harem guild”.

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In many ways this is played absolutely straight. The guild is almost entirely female, with the one non-Soujiro exception appearing to be a gay man (or is he trans? it’s unclear, and I doubt the manga will bother to get into that sort of thing anyway). The girls all have various feelings of love for Soujiro, none of which he acknowledges in the slightest, at least romantically – he’s the sort to charge in, say he will protect everyone, etc. the polar opposite of someone like Shirou, in fact. When they first discover they’re trapped in the game, we see his reaction, and it’s one of complete and total delight, contrasting with almost everyone else. As for the girls, the two that get the most attention are Isami, who is the cute girl with no confidence type, and Nazuna, who is the cool big sis type.

But I doubt readers are reading this for harem antics – or if they are, they’ll be disappointed. Where the series succeeds is in showing off new aspects of Elder Tales, or in giving us different perspectives on the same events. Sometimes this can be chilling – we see Touya and Minori getting taken into the Hamelin guild, with none of our heroes really seeming to notice the danger yet. There’s also a moment when Soujiro, defending his teammate against a guard who’s trying to dole out justice, is killed, and everyone has to frantically rush to the temple to see if they can be revived like they were before.

Mostly it’s what you’d want to see – a band of adventurers bonding like a family and looking out for each other. One of the maid NPCs, Sara, is fleshed out as well, and we see her perspective on things – these adventurers, who used to barely give them the time of day, are suddenly opening up and being friendly and rescuing them from attempted rape. (I am starting to get weary of the hints that attempted rape is rather common in this world, though I agree that this would be depressingly realistic. Thankfully, it is averted here.) If you enjoy Log Horizon and want to see a simpler, more shonen take on the world, this is a very good place to start.

orange: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

By Ichigo Takano. Released in Japan by Shueisha and then Futabasha, serialized in the magazines Bessatsu Margaret and Manga Action. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

I always feel a certain need to geek out when reviewing titles like these, such as explaining that it’s not a typo in the header, orange really is meant to be spelled with a small O. Or talking about the odd move from a shoujo magazine (Betsuma) to a seinen one (Manga Action) when the author switched publishers. Or that the complete series is out digitally via Crunchyroll (though I haven’t spoiled myself). But honestly, there’s enough to talk about in this title so that I don’t need to go into that at all. (cough) This is three volumes in one, and tells us the bittersweet story of a group of friends, struck by a tragedy from their youth, who unite in order to stop it happening. It’s a chunky book, but is absolutely worth the time.

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orange, for the most part, reads like a shoujo romance, as you’d expect for a series begin in Betsuma. Naho, our heroine is cute but shy, and Kakeru is cute but troubled, in the best manga tradition. There’s a guy with an obvious crush who suppresses it in order to support his crush’s true love, and those two girls who exist to contrast with the heroine; one spunky, one grumpy. It honestly reads a lot like Kimi ni Todoke in many ways, but there’s a twist: Naho has a letter from herself ten years in the future, telling her she has to prevent a tragedy; the fact that Kakeru killed himself when he was just seventeen. It’s the science-fiction premise that’s what really drives this book.

The doubts and self-awareness that comes from teenage love meshes well with the doubts and self-awareness that comes from changing the timeline. It’s all the more poignant when we see flashes forward to the future, the one without Kakeru, and see that Naho and Suwa are married with a child. It weighs so heavily on the two of them that they’re willing to sacrifice everything in order to save their friend. Of course, it’s not all angsty drama, there’s a lot of fluffy humor and fun here. Everyone’s basically a good kid. The issue is Kakeru has a huge amount of stress in his life – he’s moved from the city, his mother just killed herself and he takes the blame for it, and of course he’s also falling for Naho, even as he tries dating someone else.

We get the first three volumes here, and by the end you realize that Naho is not the only one who got a letter from her future self. This of course makes you want to go back and reread what you’d just seen, to see if it’s now more obvious that everyone was acting based off of future knowledge. And there still remain the question of whether or not they’ll succeed – these sorts of series can also be tragic, and it would not surprise me if things ended with Kakeru dying in any case. I certainly hope not, though, as I want to see everyone here happy. In the meantime, fans of shoujo should absolutely make orange a must buy.