The Isolator, Vol. 1

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

You have to figure that Reki Kawahara is definitely listening to his critics. Sword Art Online features Kirito, who does have deeper issues than people give him credit for, but in the end is pretty much defined by how cool he is. Accel World has Haruyuki, designed to be different, a short, pudgy guy who’s spent much of his life being bullied and has low self-esteem. And now with The Isolator, we have Minoru, whose entire family was massacred while he was hidden in the pantry, tries to live his life in a constant state of the present by never thinking about any past memories, and is, as we see towards the end of the book, actively suicidal much of the time. When Yen talks about angst on the back cover, it’s not kidding.

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The girl that you see on the cover is not, of course, the star. Indeed, posing demurely on a chair in the middle of what seems to be a garden of some sort does not actually happen in this book. Instead, Yumiko seems to serve as a sort of inspiration and mentor for Minoru, showing up to save him and being a member of a shadowy organization dedicated to fighting evil. You get the sense that most of her backstory and depth is being held for future volumes. Alas, she’s probably the best developed female character here. The other two, Minoru’s new friend Tomomi and adopted big sister Norie, are there to serve as bait in order to spur our hero onward and nothing more. A pity, we’re seen Kawahara can write better women if he tries.

The villain fares better – a lot better. One of my biggest criticisms of Fairy Dance was the two-dimensional patheticness of its antagonist. The Biter may in fact remind a few people of Sugou, but he’s a lot scarier, a lot more dangerous, and his backstory lets you know where he’s coming from. Indeed, his memories of his stressful childhood and the damage it did to his teeth are harrowing, some of the best writing in the book. That said, he’s also a terrifying psychopath, particularly when combined with the red gem possessing him, and seeing how much he Just Won’t Die forms much of the climax of the book.

As with most Kawahara books, the action may be the biggest reason to read. There are two main fight scenes, and each are told crisply and with care to detail, thrilling the reader into continuously turning the page. In between, we mostly get Minoru’s POV, which can be… disheartening. He’s a messed-up young man, clearly suffering from bad PTSD that is not particularly being treated. It’s realistic yet horribly sad that his goal is to have the chief of the organization he joins at the end (who can erase memories with consent) erase the memory of his existence from everyone who knew him. And his life goals seem to have progressed from ‘I will throw myself in the river and rejoin my dead family’ to ‘I will die nobly in battle and rejoin my dead family.’ It’s scary. Even his superpower is related to cutting himself off from everything.

The second volume only just came out in Japan this February, so don’t expect it till at least next spring. Still, fans of Kawahara’s other works, particularly those who like to see young men shouting at each other and fighting with supernatural powers, will enjoy this.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Vol. 14

By Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki. Released in Japan as “Kurosagi Shitai Takuhaibin” by Kadokawa Shoten, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young Ace. Released in North America by Dark Horse.

It’s been a long time since the last volume – two and a half years, in fact – even though the manga is still clipping along at a reasonable pace in Japan. Sadly, the reasons for this are the same reasons that we aren’t seeing Eden: It’s an Endless World or Translucent. Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service doesn’t sell well enough to justify its continuing expense. That said, Dark Horse are certainly giving it more chances than the other two (the potential movie rights help a lot), and Carl Horn talks about the Omnibus Editions coming out in the fall – specifically, that we should get folks to buy them if we want to see Vol. 15. Like corpse delivery, manga can be a cutthroat business.

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What we get from this volume are 3 solid stories, all of varying types, which show us why this series is such a hit. The first is one that cries out to my Higurashi loving soul, as the premise is a corrupt politician who is trying to get a dam put in that will destroy a backwater town, and the dam protests that happen as a result. Of course, this politician is taking care of the problem in a more murderous way, the better to involve our heroes. What’s more important here is the introduction of a new sort-of antagonist, who has created an app that lets him find corpses and see their thoughts, and thus creates his own fake Corpse Delivery Service to lure out the real one. This series is fond of picking up plot arcs and dropping them, so I suspect he may not show up for a bit. He certainly makes himself known, though, casually solving the murder of Numata’s family just to show off.

The second story explains the title portraits, drawn in a simplified “western” style. We get a couple of chapters of what the series would look like transplanted to America, with a bit more snark and grotesqueries, but the same old horrible murders, this one of a couple with a fancy tattoo cut off of their bodies. It was cute, but honestly made the least impression on me, and I felt the comedy ending was a bit forced.

The last part gets back into the dangerous political waters this series is also known for – it’s courted controversy several times, bringing up stuff the government would rather the Japanese people forget. There’s no real-life comparison here, but certainly it’s a great example of bureaucracy taken to fatal extremes, particularly when up against a politician trying to cut down on wasteful practices. Ranou’s death is sudden and horrific, made all the more tragic by the fact that we actually meet and sympathize with her first – she’s someone Sasaki can intern for, so we know she’s respectable. She gets the last word, but sadly only in the way all the dead people in this series do.

This was a good, solid volume of the series that will make fans happy it came out. As for those who haven’t read the series – please, I beg you, get the first omnibus when it comes out this September.

Toradora!, Vol. 7

By Yuyuko Takemiya and Zekkyo. Released in Japan by ASCII Media Works, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

I’ve frequently heard companies asked why they don’t get closer to Japanese release dates, and why they think ‘caught up with Japan’ means still being one or two volumes behind. Well, Toradora! is an excellent answer in and of itself. Here is a series where we are definitively caught up. The manga came out in Japan in February, and SS has it out at the end of June. That’s an amazing turnaround. But Volume 6 came out in February 2014, and given that the 8th volume is not remotely close to being out in Japan, we could be looking at Fall 2016 to resolve the plot points this volume introduces. It’s hard to keep a fanbase with 16-month breaks between releases. Especially with the anime long done, and the light novels all fan translated – and also done.

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And this is a shame, as the manga adaptation is really excellent. We resolve the tortuous cliffhanger from last time, with Taiga’s father being the worst man ever. I was particularly happy that my critique of Minori from last volume was called out… by Minori herself, who admitted she didn’t tell Ryuuji about Taiga’s father as she was jealous that she wasn’t Taiga’s first choice for comfort. (The OT3, always strong on this title, was particularly strong here, particularly given the results of the footrace to be King of the School). As for Taiga’s dad, his end seems oddly fitting – after we realize what he’s really like, he’s simply forgotten about.

The rest of the book begins to adapt the 6th light novel, meaning we’re finally past the halfway mark of the series. The strong, confident woman on the cover would be Kanou, the queen of the school and class president, who I’m sure we’ll get to know better soon, but for the moment seems to be a bit cold and harsh. The other mysterious boy on the cover is, surprise, Kitamura, who has a complete breakdown on learning Kanou is transferring overseas in a week, and it leads him to pointlessly “rebel” by dyeing his hair blond. Kitamura has shown occasional hidden depths throughout the series, but this is the first time we’re really seeing what makes him tick – unsurprisingly, like the rest of the cast, he has a lot of internalized issues he avoids.

As for the rest of the volume, it’s exactly what you would want from Toradora!. There’s a lot of hysterical comedy, much of it involving Ami. There’s many heartwarming and tearjerking moments, such as seeing Taiga beat herself up when she realized that Kitamura is suffering and she hadn’t seen it. There’s also a reminder that our lead couple are in fact still supposed to be in love with other people – the rumor that Taiga and Kitamura are dating both angers and delights her, and Ryuuji and Minori have never felt closer. Not that anyone suspects this title will end – whenever it does end, possibly in 12 years time – with anyone but Ryuuji and Taiga. For a title that is theoretically a harem manga, it’s the sort of harem manga you could happily introduce to your parents, so to speak. Pickup this volume and remind yourself why it’s great.