Ranma 1/2, Vols. 11 & 12

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

My resolve to do full reviews of the whole Ranma series as it comes out can sometimes give me pause, as this is not only a series that fights against a deeper analysis but which actively becomes worse when you treat it too seriously. Treating Ranma as shallow entertainment is something people have to do to get enjoyment out of it, due to the vast cast of unlikeable people in it. And it’s also a lot less serialized than even I remembered it being, with plots and people coming and going as Takahashi saw fit. For example, remember I was talking about Ukyou being such an important major character last time? She’s not even in this. Also, I knew Nabiki didn’t appear much in these early days, but I’d forgotten HOW little.

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Ryouga is still a major player here, of course. We get a few plots involving him in this omnibus. The first, where he finally manages to go to his house and invites Akane there (with a jealous Ranma following behind) shows off all of what makes Ryouga who he is: his basic sweetness and shy nature around Akane, his stubborn pigheadedness and anger (which can verge on stupidity), his poor sense of direction (which we discover is a family trait in this story, allowing Ranma to pretend to be his “sister” and get away with it), and his plain old bad luck. In the second story, a soap that Shampoo bought as a Jusenkyo cure is used by Ryouga instead, and his attempts to take advantage of not being cursed anymore show a frightening turn, as he almost becomes a berserk stalker. Best line, after we find the “cure” is temporary like all the other ones, and Akane is reflecting on Ryouga’s unthinking brute strength: “Whoever ends up being Ryouga’s girlfriend will have to be made of sterner stuff than me.” Well, does raising sumo pigs count?

Ranma and Akane appear throughout, of course, and the volume shows off why fans of the couple love them and those who hate them (and by them I mean Akane) can’t stand it. Akane jumps to conclusions all the time (albeit in situations that simply would not happen to normal people), punches Ranma into next week when she’s angry or jealous, and refuses to admit any affection. Ranma, meanwhile, jumps to slightly more reasonable conclusions but makes up for it by having his jealousy be more obvious. And of course he refuses to admit affection even more, even when he thinks Akane is being particularly cute (The end of the “whiskers ramen” story is the first of several that show off Ranma’s handsome face smiling at Akane with genuine affection.) And of course together they make a very effective team. They’re held back by their hot bloodedness and insecurities, but if this weren’t Nerima they’d be dating by now.

There is a new character introduced in this volume, thought he turns out to be related to two old friends. I’d forgotten how long the Principal Returns storyline ran before it was finally revealed that he was Kuno’s father, but it makes sense, given he seems to be just as divorced from reality as his children are. He went to Hawaii to study discipline techniques, and much of his behavior is stereotypical Hawaiian, but the teachers point out that he was always over the top even before this. And on his return, he’s obsessed with giving everyone old-fashioned school haircuts – shaved heads for boys, “pudding bowl” for girls. This leads to a giant melee battle, a frequent appearance in this series, as everyone searches for the coconut that can free them from this fate. (Nice lampshading when a man-eating tiger is set upon the students: “What part of this is Hawaiian?”

Of course, no one should be thinking about whether Kuno and Kodachi’s mental trauma is a result of their father’s upbringing, any more than they should worry about Genma being a horrible father, Akane punching Ranma so hard he flies several blocks, etc. Don’t analyze the series, just laugh along with it. It’s a lot of shallow, shallow fun. That said, join us next time for a plotline that is at least a little more serious, and takes over half the omnibus to resolve.

My Neighbor Seki, Vol. 1

By Takuma Morishige. Released in Japan by Media Factory, serialization ongoing in the magazine Comic Flapper. Released in North America by Vertical Comics.

By all rights, I shouldn’t really love this title as much as I do. At heart, it’s a variation on a standard Japanese comedic trope: a) person does funny thing; b) Other person says “WAIT ARE THEY DOING FUNNY THING?”; c) person seemingly has explanation for funny thing; d) Ah, OK, so it’s ____; e) Person does even funnier thing; f) Other person says “WAIT ARE THEY DOING EVEN FUNNIER THING?” Rinse and repeat. And yet My Neighbor Seki is a wonderful series, because the things are genuinely funny and strange, the chapters are short enough so that each one is just about the right amount of time devoted to one situation; and there’s a surprising amount of character development given that this is, at its heart, a series about two people at adjoining desks.

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Basically, Yokoi is a “normal” middle-school student attempting each day to pay attention and study what the teacher’s saying, but can’t because the boy next door, Seki, keeps distracting her by doing… odd things. Elaborate domino setups, shogi with trapdoors, knitting cactuses… Seki’s imagination is topped only by the impossible nature of some of the tasks he performs. Seki himself is silent (and honestly Yokoi is much of the time as well)… we only get how elaborate Seki’s imagination is by Yokoi narrating everything he does and filling it in with her own interpretations. Which of course should clue us in that Yokoi is not really all that normal a girl after all.

The majority of this manga consists of Seki’s setups and Yokoi’s reactions, but it’s fun seeing how it occasionally dips its toe outside the box. The rest of the class apparently are fully aware of what Seki is doing; when he sets up his note-passing post office in one chapter, Yokoi is really the only one surprised by it; the rest of the class merely thinks “Cool!”. Of course, they’re not sitting near him, so he’s not the annoyance he can be to Yokoi. During a fire drill, we see (but don’t hear) Seki being normal and outgoing with other male students, and realize how much of his life we have filtered through Yokoi’s perceptions. And when another, clueless, classmates interrupted his Ouija board shenanigans, we see why he HAS to be filtered through her.

The art is fairly simple (just look at that cover), but highly expressive, and the main reason to read this in the end may be Seki and Yokoi’s facial expressions. They’re both so immature, in ways that only teenagers can pull off, even as they show amazing flights of fancy. You wonder at times if this is some demented form of courtship (Yokoi leaving notes in Seki’s locker after school really isn’t helping deny that), but this isn’t a romance. Yokoi gets punished several times through the series – for being distracted, for getting caught doing something Seki was doing, etc. – but it’s always her own fault for getting too involved, so she’s not really a total victim. Seki avoids getting discovered by anyone but Yokoi, but this means she’s the one who punishes him. They’re becoming rather codependent.

Basically, I enjoyed this as a funny comedy, but was surprised at how much depth it had. Of course, like Yokoi, I could be reading too much depth into it. But I’m absolutely buying more to see if I’m right, and you should as well.

One Piece, Vol. 73

By Eiichiro Oda. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

I’ve talked about the disparate chaos going on in this One Piece storyline for a couple of volumes now, and while it doesn’t decrease in this new volume there seems to be a purpose behind it. The Tontatta Army states its intended objective – turn all the toys back into humans, give everyone their memory back – and then point out they realize this could lead to an outcome even worse than what they have, but they want to leave that up to the people – a sort of controlled, directed chaos. That type of chaos is seem throughout here, as we get a lot of explanations about what’s been going on, both here and through the series.

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It’s not just order vs. Chaos either – the reveal that the old king of Dressrosa is still alive allows the series to contrast his rule of peace with Doflamingo’s suppressive, violence-led style. Like Crocodile, he comes into the kingdom as its supposed savior, having first set up the circumstances where he can do so. He talks about the heritage of his ancestors, but I’m not sure he actually cares about that, and a more telling speech is seen when he’s yelling at the melee fighters who tried to run away during their match, saying that taking a hit and getting bloody was better than any act of cowardice. It’s not just chaos, Doflamingo loves brutality.

We get a little more revealed about the past of One Piece’s universe, in what for Oda is a giant block of exposition, as the disgraced fighters bring each other up to date. I’m not particularly surprised that it ends up having royalty and aristocracy as the villains – the cruel rule of the powerful over the oppressed has been one of this series’ top themes, with Alabasta being such an exception that they actually had to single it out here as being different so as not to paint Vivi and company with the same brush as the others. In addition to that, there’s a strong anti-terror message here in seeing the reaction of everyone to the King’s demand for ransom money – pacifism is a noble intent, but unless one realizes that there’s a limit to it, it may lead to an even bigger tragedy, because people can be bastards.

Through all this, we have the ongoing adventures of our heroes. Sanji gets a few moments to try to look cool, which I would enjoy more if they weren’t so telegraphed and obvious. Nami has an inspiring speech used as a comedic undercut, which made me facepalm, but she redeems herself a bit with a better rousing speech towards the end. As for Luffy, he mostly spends this volume just watching everyone, but we do get a dramatic revelation as a cliffhanger. It’s presented as a mystery (indeed, Viz’s ‘next volume’ blurb has us wonder who the mystery stranger is), but anyone who recalls the flashbacks to Luffy’s childhood will have guessed it by now. It’s nice to see confirmed what most already expected.

So after as much exposition as I think we’re going to get, I expect Vol. 75 to be a series of giant fights. Should be fun. One Piece: Still Excellent.