Emma, Vol. 5

By Kaoru Mori. Released in Japan in two separate volumes by Enterbrain, serialized in the magazine Comic Beam. Released in North America by Yen Press. Translated by Sheldon Drzka.

The final omnibus of Emma picks up where the last one left off, and is mostly a collection of side-stories, some of which are only vaguely related to the actual Emma series. Mori tries to explain why she did various stories in the afterwords, but it’s not hard to see that she’s simply getting bored, and using the excuse of a popular series as a way of testing her abilities and letting herself draw whatever she wants. Sometimes this is excellent. The scene with the Molders in their bed, and the flashbacks to how they met, is amazingly sexy, as the author herself tells us, and you really see how much the two adore each other, even if Wilhelm remains as stoic as ever. On the flip side, Teo’s Amazing Adventures in the Wild is a nice excuse to draw a wordless animal story plot, but the resolution hangs disbelief by the neck till it’s dead.

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This volume is at its best when it’s dealing with the murky world of Victorian emotions – or, as the series ends, Edwardian emotions, as we move into a new century for Emma’s wedding. The three-part story of a troupe of opera singers and a love triangle is well-done if melancholy, and as ever benefits from multiple minor plot points flittering throughout the main one. Eleanor meets her college student again, and this time it’s more romantic than the last volume – indeed, Mori seems to revel this time around in seeing how many people she can try to hook up, and even the kids seem to have chemistry with each other. There’s even a series of Emma 4-komas in one chapter, mostly following the other characters, as we learn Grace is cute when she’s embarrassed, Hans has no weaknesses (except when he does), and that the butler is just a big softie.

Of course, it all eventually DOES come back to Emma, as her marriage to William is the last quarter of the book. It’s mostly a very good time, but there are reminders that this is still a bit of a status thing – Grace is still upset with William for breaking up with Eleanor, and even though she realizes it’s not Emma’s fault she’s still awkward around her and has to excuse herself. And the Campbells are, of course, not there. But for the most part it’s a glorious event and a party, and there’s a wonderful heartwarming moment where Emma has to write her name and is almost forced to admit she doesn’t have a last name, till William tells her to use Mrs. Stowner’s. Wedding, saved, everyone dances, bride gets completely smashed (in a genteel, repressed way – this is still Emma).

Despite dragging things out a bit with the side stories, Emma is still a wonderful series, and I’m very happy that Yen gave it this deluxe hardcover re-release. It may have some historical inaccuracies and unbelievability, but it’s so emotionally moving that you don’t really care. It’s also a series with a huge cast where, by the end, I was almost able to name everyone without resorting to the internet, which is am impressive feat. Very happy to have read this.

Ranma 1/2, Vols. 31-32

By Rumiko Takahashi. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz. Translated by Kaori Inoue, Adapted by Gerard Jones.

The mid to late 1990s was a very strange time for anime fandom on the internet. Information was scarce and fleeting, and most fans relied on hearsay and textual spoilers. We’re a long ways before the era of scanlations and raws being available on all good pirate sites. As a result, Ranma fans who wanted more information (since the anime wasn’t adapting the final volumes, clearly) had synopses and that’s about it. this did not, of course, stop them from using said characters in fanfics, particularly if they helped pair up someone who didn’t really pair up easily before.

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For example, we meet Rouge here, a Chinese girl (you can tell she’s Chinese as Takahashi names her after a beauty product, even though she’s not from Shampoo’s village) who ends up in a cursed spring thanks to Pantyhose Taro, and is now determined to have her revenge – most of which involves destroying the Tendo home. It’s an amusing story, relying on her falling in the spring of drowned ASURA, which is drawn with as much ridiculousness as it is possible to have. The denoument, where we see what she’s been fighting to retrieve all this time, is also funny in that Takahashi “so it was all completely pointless” way. Now, Rouge never shows up in the manga again, but several fanfic writers decided she made a good pair with Pantyhose (why they didn’t not write Pantyhose is beyond me, but hey) and thus she had a larger effect on the fandom than she did on the manga itself.

The same goes for Asuka the White Lily, who if she’d appeared ten years later would absolutely have been shipped with Kodachi – even leaving aside the Lily nickname, she’s a ojousama from a private school with a hate on for her childhood friend. But this is 1996, not 2006, and thus the battle between them over who has the best boyfriend (the joke being that because they’re both so horrible neither one has ever found a boyfriend) is taken by fandom somewhat at face value. Don’t worry, Asuka, someone will write a tortured yuri scene with you and Kodachi one day. Oh yes, and Akari shows up again, the only one of these girls who is making repeat appearances, as she visits Ryouga’s home (where, for once, he actually is) and gets caught up in a drawing room farce so broad I was expecting a plate of sardines.

For those who want ship tease with the regulars, well, there’s the hilarious Umbrella of Love story, which features the only known Kuno and Nabiki tease in the entire manga (even under the power of a mind-controlling umbrella, she’s still taking his money), but this is all about Ranma and Akane. As if knowing the end of the series is near, we get a truly incredible amount of moments between them. The umbrella is mostly played for laughs, but shows their feelings for what they are. The story with the Cursed Doll is almost horror, as Akane tries desperately to regain her body before Ranma is either dead or seduced. And most of all we have the arc where Akane gains a possessed armor with a mind of its own, one that makes her stronger than Ranma, and can only be removed if the wearer loses their heart to another. This should be the cue for more hijinks, but it’s played more seriously than I expected, with Ranma realizing how beautiful Akane really is, and trying to defend his true feelings even as she thinks he’s being like this to deceive her (as, to be fair, he has done over and over again).

Ranma never ends with any canon ships, though some are so close that you’d have to be a 1990s Ranma fan in order to deny them. Putting that aside, though, this is a particularly strong volume, one where even the Happosai story made me smile (not because I sympathized with him, it was simply ridiculous). Classic manga comedy at its finest.

Sword Art Online, Vol. 8: Early And Late

By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.

This is the second of two short-story collections in the SAO series, though two of the three stories aren’t so short. The Safe Haven Incident was written early enough to actually be used in the first season of the anime, though they sadly cut the funniest scene. Calibur (as in Excalibur) is more recent, and was adapted into the 2nd season. The final story here, The Day of Beginnings, was written specially for this book, and is also the darkest story in the book, showing off a scared, desperate Kirito and why he’s so insistent on being a solo player. All of the works are good, fleshing out this world further and giving fans a bit of a treat before we jump headlong into the next arc, which is ten whole volumes long.

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The Safe Haven Incident is a murder mystery, though the murder and its investigation are probably the least interesting part of it. What is good is seeing Kirito and Asuna bond with each other immediately, almost despite themselves, and showing off the two of them seamlessly working together before they became a couple. (Kawahara apologizes to the reader for the continuity not matching the first two books precisely. Given that SAO: Progressive has kicked continuity in the groin and stolen its stuff, I think that’s the least he has to worry about.) We also see Laughing Coffin here, including some retroactive setup for the Phantom Bullet arc that we get as readers even if Kirito doesn’t. As always, a group of players who kill for fun are chilling. The best part of the story, though, bar none, is Kirito and Asuna’s talk with Heathcliff in a ramen restaurant. From Heathcliff’s deadpan hatred of the ramen (his asking “why is this restaurant even here?” is twice as funny after you know his secrets) to Asuna saying the ramen “felt lonely” and determined to figure out how to make soy sauce in Aincrad, it’s pure comedy gold, and it’s a crime the anime had to cut it.

Calibur is more lighthearted, even with a sort of apocalyptic deadline forced on the story. It takes place in Aflheim, so there’s no danger of actual player death, but there is a very real chance the game might ruin itself by starting Ragnarok. But mostly it’s an excuse to see the full cast all reunited one last time and working towards a common goal as a unit. Even Klein gets in on the action, and in fact it’s his samurai desire to help a lady in distress that accidentally ends up winning the day, though of course Klein does not get the girl. Oh, and more comedy cold, as Kirito’s immature pulling of Sinon’s tail (Kawahara tries not to state outright that the tail pull’s effect on its characters is arousing, but it’s somewhat obvious) results in her getting epic revenge later by taking advantage of the fact that every girl in the group is in love with Kirito.

The new story is last, but in terms of continuity it’s first, as it shows what Kirito did immediately after leaving Klein when the game first began. For all the times we’ve seen players complain about “beaters”, here we see they had a point – Kirito absolutely it trying to level up as fast as possible using knowledge only the beta players have, and that will adversely affect the area for other players. We also meet another player, Kopel, who contrasts with Kirito by trying to kill him to save his own skin, though Kirito is not as far from Kopel as he might like. As I said, this is a dark and sad story showing us how a somewhat antisocial young man becomes even more so in a game of death.

This isn’t a book to get if you haven’t read any of SAO before – there’s too much continuity, broken or otherwise, going on – but it’s a nice little addition to the series, and a bit of a breather after the drama of Mother’s Rosary. In the meantime, there’s another Progressive in October, and then in December SAO begins its epic arc: Alicization. Be afraid.