Kagerou Daze I: In A Daze

By Jin (Shinzen no Teki-P) and Sidu. Released in Japan by Enterbrain. Released in North America by Yen On.

Writing something that is merely one part of a massive media franchise can in many ways be even more difficult than it is to create an original story – even if you’re the original creator. The writer has to balance out giving the fans who know everything already exactly what they’ve been expecting, and trying to create a space where new readers who may pick up the book sight unseen are encouraged to continue. Kagerou Daze is one of these books. It’s based on a series of songs created for the Vocaloid series, which became wildly popular. They thus spawned this light novel series (6+ volumes), a manga adaptation (also 6+ volumes), and an anime series with a completely different name (Mekakucity Actors, complete in one season and highly controversial.)

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The novel is told in two parts, essentially. The first concerns Shintaro, a young man who has been holed up in his room for the past two years and whose narration verges on the histrionic, and Ene, his sentient AI whose job is apparently to annoy him so much that he forgets to be depressed. When his keyboard and mouse are damaged and the Obon holiday means he actually has to leave the house to replace them, he goes to a department store and gets caught up in one of the stupider terrorist attacks I’ve ever seen. The second and third sections are narrated by his sister Momo, a pop idol despite her best efforts who is having tremendous trouble dealing with the fame and the fact that she apparently causes it without really knowing why. She meets up with a group of teens who all have superpowers stemming from their eyes, and finds they can teach her how to control her own abilities to make everyone watch her.

So far so good, and the characters are all mostly likeable, though I think the guy whose outward persona is ‘be a jerk until people relax around each other’ is trying a bit too hard. There’s typical anime ‘types’ here – said jerk; the grumpy NEET; the ditzy younger sister (I know she’s bad in school, but 2 out of 100 is pushing it); the stoic girl with a side of tsundere, the shy to the point of extremes girl. The problem for me is that after finishing the first book (it’s quite short, probably the shortest of the recent Yen On releases), I’m not actually remotely sure where it’s going or what the plot is. There’s a cliffhanger ending of a sort, involving danger to someone we’ve never met before. There’s also interludes featuring a young sort-of couple who are apparently reliving the same trip to the park over and over again, possibly as one of them keeps dying, and it’s almost Higurashi-esque.

It’s diffuse. There’s very little to hang your hat on, so to speak. As I said above, these are based on a series of songs that, taken together, tell a sort of plot. I admit after listening to the first, “Artificial Enemy”, I am very glad that the creator chose to not end it by killing off the AI, who is annoying but probably the most amusing part of the cast. But it reads very much like a series where the author knows he can take his time to draw the plot out over several books as he has a built-in audience which will get it no matter what. That could be the case here as well – Kagerou Daze has over 2K stories on Fanfiction.net, even more than Sword Art Online. I just wish I knew more about what was going on.

Dorohedoro, Vol. 15

By Q Hayashida. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in a Shogakukan magazine to be named later. Released in North America by Viz.

Readers of this manga will know already that it can be very, very violent and blood-filled. It’s not all buff babes and gyoza, there’s a good deal of death and dismemberment – the main reason it’s rated M, in fact. But even for Dorohedoro, Vol. 15 really pushes the envelope of what its readers can take, offering up some truly disturbing and grotesque imagery. And it’s actually rather fitting, as the main character sees his various personas fractured beyond belief… oh yes, and we find out that the main character has been a lot more characters than we may have previously believed.

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This is not really news for anyone who has been following the plot of the last few volumes closely (and if you are one of those people, I commend you – I love this series, but half the time I can’t remember what’s going on), but this volume spells it out: Caiman = Aikawa = Kai = Ai. Of course, we as the reader know this, but the cast are still somewhat in the dark. The cross-eyes wonder why their boss doesn’t have the distinctive markings. Risu needs to know more about the details of his curse. And En’s group don’t really care about Ai, as they’re still trying to find a way to resurrect En, who is busy attempting to incite rebellion in Hell (and failing), thus showing us that he really is dead. But as we’ve seen in Dorohedoro, death rarely means much. (Unless you’re Natsuki. Sorry, Natsuki.)

Dorohedoro is so addictive in part due to its imagery, and there are some excellent examples here. It rains in the Hole, which is pretty much unheard of – and bad news for most sorcerers, who find it nearly crippling to them. Nikaido may now be able to use her magic to change time and other deus ex machina things, but it comes at a cost – her magic is now literally rendered as a giant gun with only 5 shots, and she’s already used one of them – four left and then she has no more magic ever. Oh yes, and she’s still dealing with the whole ‘devil horns’ thing. And as for Ai, fusing with a giant mutated monster covered with severed heads seems all too appropriate given what’s been happening with him.

This far into the series, I’m not sure there’s much to offer the new reader, but there’s also not much to make old readers drop it, either. What we’ve gotten before is what we get now. There’s some amusing humor scattered throughout. There’s some nudity and fanservice once in a while (for a certain definition of fanservice). Sometimes we get both together, as when a recovered Ebisu realizes she’s naked among a group of her close friends and completely freaks out. But most of all, Dorohedoro has finally started to answer most of the mysteries it’s been posing, and we’re eager to see what’s going to happen next. Will En be resurrected? Will Nikaido manage to save Caiman? Is there even a Caiman to be saved? Provided you can accept the fact that this volume is twice as disgusting as a normal Dorohedoro volume (is there such a thing?), you’ll enjoy pondering these questions as well.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride, Vol. 1

By Kore Yamazaki. Released in Japan as “Mahou Tsukai no Yome” by Mag Garden, serialization ongoing in the magazine Monthly Comic Garden. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

There have been so many fantasy series released over the past few years that it can be a bit difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and you find yourself looking for some plot point or character that makes the new license stand out from the pack of selkies, vampires, goblins and fairies that dot the manga landscape. I’m not sure that The Ancient Magus’ Bride possesses anything that makes it immediately leap out at a reader, expect perhaps for the skull of said magus himself. But what it does have it a strong plot, likeable characters, solid, pretty art and a desire to get the next volume in the series the moment you set the first one down. In other words, no flashy stuff here, just a very, very good book.

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The premise is that a teenage girl who has spent most of her life shunned by friends because she can see “invisible things”, and whose mother has passed away, is kidnapped by a bunch of alchemists, who realize that she is a Sleigh Beggy, which is to say a giant magical sponge. Luckily for her, the one who purchases her is Elias, who may have a face like a cow skull and claim that he plans to make her his bride one day, but in practice seems happy to take her on as an apprentice, showing her the joys and dangers of a world where magic is slowly dying but still present, and allowing her to use her considerable power to try to help those in need.

As I said above, I’m not sure where the ‘bride’ thing is going, but given that Chise is 15, I hope it’s nowhere anytime soon. Chise herself is a fairly quiet, reserved type, as you’d expect from a child with her past – we see her pondering suicide in one flashback – but she is also very much attuned to the wonders of the world she is now part of. This can be dangerous – in the first chapters, she’s almost kidnapped again by “helpful” fairies who try to take her to their own land – but also tremendously heartwarming, as when she’s kidnapped AGAIN, but this time manages to help a dying dragon have a vivid and wonderful final dream before he passes on.

It’s a bit difficult to know what else to say in a review like this, as I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that I was smiling a great deal as I read it. There’s likeable supporting characters – Angelica in particular is awesome, and there are some interesting bad guys who pop up near the end as well. As I said before, the art is excellent, showing off the world it’s creating without being too complex or showy. And you really want to see Chise learning more and growing into her power fully, as well as realizing what life can hold for her and learning to love herself after spending so long on the edge of despair. There’s also some humor, mostly from Elias – or rather, against Elias, who gets beaten up for not remotely recognizing the trembling of a young maiden’s heart.

There’s nothing specifically outstanding about this title so far, but it doesn’t put too many feet wrong, and as such ends up adding up to something excellent. Mag Garden’s titles are somewhat genreless, but I think this is a title that could appeal to both men and women, even if it has a bit of a shoujo feel to it. Seek it out immediately.