A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 4

By Kazumi Kamachi and Kiyotaka Haimura. Released in Japan as “To Aru Majutsu no Index” by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On.

The early Index novels tend to follow an unfortunate pattern, which luckily goes away as the series goes on. The odd-numbered books, for some reason, are significantly better and more thought out than the even numbered books. And given that this volume of Index is 4, you can guess how I feel about it. Not that there aren’t great moments in the book, or good characterization. But like the second book, it reads more like the author trying to stall while he figures out to expand his far-more-popular-than-he-expected series into a huge franchise. Also, Kamachi’s attempts at wacky humor are pathetic in every way.

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Introduced in this volume: Motoharu Tsuchimikado (who appears much earlier in the anime, to better effect, as he’s sort of out of nowhere here), Touya Kamijou, Shiina Kamijou (looking like Index), Sasha Kreutzev (appearance only), Angel Gabriel (looking like Sasha). For Railgun manga readers, this takes place around when Kongou is introduced (and quickly brought down to earth). For Railgun anime watchers, the anime-original ending to the Railgun S series (with Febrie) is taking place.

The first 30 pages of this volume are almost painful in the forced, unfunny wackiness that ensues. Even after Tsuchimikado and Kanzaki arrive, things still have to wait for comedy at times, as Kanzaki’s desire to kill Touma seems less due to Angel Fall and more due to her being embarrassed about looking like Stiyl. After this, things settle down to what we’ve gotten used to in the Index novels – pages upon pages of explanation of how magic works and the various systems behind it, which is mixed in here with a healthy dose of bizarro Christianity – in case any devout religious fans were still reading Index, I suspect they’ll likely stop here.

And then there’s Jinsaku Hino, the serial killer. As with the 2nd book, the anime decided he was irrelevant and completely cut him. And, as with the 2nd book, I can’t blame them at all, as his plot *is* almost totally irrelevant, serving to pad out the page count till we see who’s really behind Angel Fall and giving us a lot of discussion of split personalities. He’s certainly a creepy psycho, but we never get any sense that he poses a real threat to our heroes, and the main thing his plot seems to have done is show us the Kamijou home and thus show Tsuchimikado who the real culprit is.

Luckily, once we find out who that culprit is, the novel takes a huge upswing, and the 2nd half is much better than the first. Touma’s talk with his father is one of the most heartwarming in the series, as well as a really depressing glimpse back at his horrible childhood. Kanzaki, when she’s not being embarrassed about Touma in general, is also very well done, showing off the fact that she was holding back against Touma in book 1 a lot. Her past is also somewhat tragic, even if she and Touma are meant to be contrasted as polar opposites. As for Tsuchimikado, there’s a bit too much heel-face revolving door here, but you at least get the sense he’s trying to be on the right side, whichever one that may be, and he does get away with a cool (temporary) exit. And I did like him pointing out that Gabriel’s disguise is really obvious to anyone familiar with Russia, as it really, really is.

Yen Press’s translation is decent, though it’s fighting on multiple fronts here. Kamachi’s amazingly wordy prose is simply hard to translate in a way that doesn’t sound like an encyclopedia threw up. Tsuchimikado’s speech quirks are handled pretty well, but his habit of giving everyone nicknames runs up against Yen’s no honorifics policy. So Kamiyan is now Kammy, and Oneechin is now Zaky. Which is OK, but tends to make them sound more like J-pop band members than Index characters.

Luckily, we’re in for a big upswing with Book 5, and the even numbered books get better from here on out. This particular book, though, suffers from a stapled on subplot and bad humor (I did enjoy Misha’s obsession with chewing gum, the most subtle joke and therefore the best). I definitely recommend it for Kanzaki fans, but honestly, the rest might just want to wait till Book 5, where we’ll be discussing another divisive plot twist.

Black Bullet: Those Who Would Be Gods

By Shiden Kanzaki and Saki Ukai. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen Press.

One of the more difficult things about reading modern Japanese manga and light novels is a certain tendency to follow what’s popular and throw things in that appeal to a certain audience – even if they may not actually be appropriate for the book that’s being written. As an example, Fujino Omori wanted to call their new fantasy novel series Familia Myth, but editorial convinced them to use the ever popular ‘long long title’ in order to get readers, resulting in Is It Wrong To Try To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon?. Which works OK, because there are other elements of that sort of genre in the books – harems, etc. But when you have a dark, brutal corpse-filled dystopian series about child soldiers, somehow populating it with lolicon jokes and tsundere grumbling seems even more jarring than it normally is.

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There’s a very good dark action thriller in here as well. Rentaro spends most of the book talking about how useless he is, but this makes sense in terms of his characters and allows a genuinely surprising reveal towards the end of the book. Enju, like the other Cursed Children, is a giant bucket of adorable, and unlike most of the other cursed children she generally tends to be happy and upbeat – provided Rentaro is around. The relationship between them when she’s not going on about marrying him or trying to show off her prepubescent body is heartwarming. They’re contrasted well with Rentaro’s dark mirror and the villain of this first novel, Kagetane and his child Kohina. If Rentaro tries to be a big brother to Enju, Kohina sees Kagetane as her father, and he’s raised her, sadly, to be a sociopath. The fights between them are the high points of the volume.

I’d mention Kisara – that’s her on the cover, with a far bigger picture than Enju – except she really has a smaller part in this volume than you’d expect. Indeed, there were points, especially when she arrived in the middle of the council meeting with evidence of a conspiracy, that I really wish the book had a double narrative so that I could see what makes her tick. She seems to be driven by a white-hot anger against her grandfather, but what that is I’m guessing will have to wait till future books. As it is, so far she’s all potential. Oh yes, and Sumire is the classic eccentric weirdo scientist, complete with suggestions of necrophilia and a major role in Rentaro’s past.

If you removed all the elements that appeal to the typical Japanese otaku, this would not be out of place in Viz’s Haikasoru imprint. I know I’ve talked about this sort of thing earlier while reviewing No Game No Life, but that at least is fairly light-hearted and comedic with the occasional dramatic cliffhanger. Black Bullet is a brutal world where all that the heroes can hope for is making the world happy for the Cursed Children in the brief time they have available, and the last couple of pages show that even this rarely works, and that death is all that awaits. I really don’t need “tee hee, Rentaro is a pedophile’ jokes on top of it.

Assassination Classroom, Vol. 5

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

One of the things that makes this such an interesting manga is the tension between the standard cliched ‘teacher takes a class filled with losers abandoned by teachers and makes them care about learning and themselves’ cliche and the actual plotline that they are trying to kill their teacher to save the world by learning assassination. Koro-sensei is too straightforward and strange to really swell on this, and Irina is not at a point yet where she really particularly cares (she’s still mostly here for breast jokes and to get humiliated). But Karasuma is normal enough, even if he is a tactical military guy trained in dozens of methods of killing a person, to be aware of what they’re actually doing to these children. And to be disturbed when one of them shows signs of being really really GOOD at killing.

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Naturally, it’s Nagisa, who is the closest we have to a ‘main character’ amongst the students. We’ve already seen how he has a talent for research and tends to try to think his way to a better assassination. Now we see that he doesn’t even need to use strength and power to be able to achieve this – he can rely on his natural unassuming, slightly feminine personality (there are several jokes here about him looking like a girl) and go right for the kill. And thank goodness for that, because he’s up against the government’s replacement for Karasuma, who gets results by being a complete psycho, and thinks nothing about belting a 14-year-old girl across the chops.

This leads to the other interesting thing about this book, which is the school principal. He’s clearly the main antagonist of the series, and we’ve seen how his method of teaching requires Class E to be at the bottom of the heap for everyone to bully. I was, honestly, surprised at the ending of the baseball story – not necessarily because our heroes won, but more because the principal didn’t punish the main baseball team in retaliation. That said, as an antagonist he’s great, being able to almost hypnotize his students into doing what he wants, and sticking to his principles even if they are twisted. That’s why his appearance at the end of the arc with Takaoka is wonderful, as he strolls up to and casually talks about how dull and boring his class was. Not even worth sticking around like Irina does, he’s terminated right there and then.

Koro-sensei actually doesn’t have much to do in this volume – the main story is all Karasuma, with Koro-sensei merely commenting occasionally, and the revelation that he can’t swim will carry us into the next book, but doesn’t do much good now. Still, the series has now gotten to the point where we don’t need to have killing Koro-sensei being the focus of every chapter. There’s a lot going on here, and as the series hits Vol. 5 you can tell that Matsui has realized he’s not on the verge of cancellation and is drawing out a larger plotline. I look forward to seeing where it goes.