Akame Ga Kill!, Vol. 1

By Takahiro and Tetsuya Tashiro. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialization ongoing in the magazine Gangan Joker. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I frequently say to people that I don’t read depressing manga, or horror manga, or anything where the basic plot is “let’s try to find a dim light of hope in between the chapters of lovingly detailed murder and torture.” And to a certain extent this is ridiculous, given how much I love Higurashi, Umineko, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, etc. So I tend to give these series a try, to see if they’re my thing, or to see if they would appeal to their intended audience. So, regarding Akame Ga Kill!, I will admit straight up that it is not my thing. That said, if you like dark fantasy along the lines of Berserk, but with a few more strong women kicking ass, and don’t mind the constant brutal violence, this is absolutely a good title to start picking up, as it does those things very well.

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I think most manga readers by now have learned never to read the solicitation or back cover copy for any given volume, as it has a tendency to spoil, especially for first volumes. That said, I think most readers would be savvy enough to know that when our hero, already depressed at how the big city is nothing but a pack of lies, and having all his money stolen by a buxom thief, is taken in by a very beautiful and nice young princess and her also beautiful and nice young family, that SOMETHING HORRIBLE IS COMING. Particularly when said girl is not the stoic swordswoman on the cover. And sure enough the sweet young thing has not only tortured to death many young people in the name of… well, being insane, but her older sister has a taste for the research scientist from hell. And worst of all, his two best friends are the last two victims, one surviving just long enough to tell him he he has to be strong and go on.

Enter our heroes, who the main lead will end up joining. They’re a wacky band of misfits, and include the cover girl, the buxom thief (who I notice never does give his money back, and seems to essentially be Mitsune from Love Hina), and the tsundere with twintails who totally isn’t falling for him (and also drags out a ‘wheel of morality’ with all of Gangan Joker’s main series on it, including many other Yen licenses, though they haven’t picked up Corpse Party just yet). Gradually our hero shows what he’s made of and begins to impress the others despite himself, and they open up to him, telling their backstories so that we don’t need flashbacks at all.

This may seem a bit cliched and yes, it is. But it’s laid out nicely, the art is good, and you begin to like this ragtag band of assassin misfits even as you realize that this is the soft of series where you shouldn’t get too attached to anyone. That last point is likely why I won’t stay aboard, but if you like dark fantasy with a bit of an otaku bent, Akame Ga Kill! should be right up your alley. Also, fear not, Akame does in fact kill in this volume, thus proving the untranslated title correct.

Sword Art Online: Progressive Manga, Vol. 1

By Reki Kawahara, abec, and Kiseki Himura. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks, serialized in the magazine Dengeki G’s. Released in North America by Yen Press.

These days fandom is used to seeing multiple tie-ins and spinoffs of popular franchises, and SAO is no exception. That said, usually they’re more along the lines of a cute 4-koma thing, or a side story following other characters (such as Girls’ Ops, which we’ll see in May.) This is an odd duck, though: it’s the author rewriting the series after he realizes he wanted to stay in his world a bit longer. SAO was originally a series of online web novels, and the main light novel adaptation is essentially a straight reworking of those. Here, though, Kawahara goes back into Aincrad proper and gives us a closer look at its early days… while also sort of retconning our lead couple into having been meant from each other from the day they met.

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Fans of the anime may be very familiar with some of the material seen in this first manga volume, as it was made around the same time and many things were taken from it to use in the adaptations, such as the presence of Argo the informant, and much of Asuna’s somewhat suicidal attitude at the start. The main reason to read this, though, is that it’s mostly from Asuna’s point of view, with Kirito as the mysterious stranger who may have ulterior motives. We see a nightmare where she flashes back to her life in the real world before the game, and also her poor relationship with her mother, things that never really came out in the main series till the seventh book. And the reaction when Asuna speaks up at a strategy meeting from all the guys in the game reminds readers what women in Aincrad have to deal with all the time – and why Asuna is cloaked most of this volume. (The manga, of course, also features a long, lingering nude bath scene for Asuna – this is still a product made for its known market.)

While this is a reboot of sorts, I’d argue that it only works really well if you’re familiar with the source material. Asuna is a LOT more tsundere in this volume, as the creators lampshade, and while we see her obvious skills, she lacks the confidence and poise of the Asuna we know. Likewise, we know what Kirito is likely thinking in these early meetings, with all its discussion of “let’s find the beta testers and get our revenge’, as we saw his thought processes in the original SAO – without that, he would be something of a flat character. This is meant to complement, not replace, the original. It’s not perfect – the leader of the group planning to take out the boss of the first floor is a very flat character, and his death is signposted from the moment we meet him. And some of Kirito and Asuna’s interaction at the start falls into the standard comedy romance tropes – oh no, I just walked in on you in the bath! – which just made me sigh.

I suspect, like the main series, that I’ll be enjoying it even more once I read the light novel in March – note I had to add ‘manga’ to the header to differentiate in advance. For manga readers who enjoy SAO and would like to see a book from Asuna’s POV, this is a deent start, and I look forward to more.

Whispered Words, Vol. 3

By Takashi Ikeda. Released in Japan in three separate volumes as “Sasameki Koto” by Media Factory, serialized in the magazine Comic Alive. Released in North America by One Peace Books.

In this final omnibus of Whispered Words, both Sumika and Ushio have come to terms with their feelings for the other, but Sumika realizes that there’s also other aspects to life besides love, and that staying together forever is not necessarily something easy to achieve. The rest of the cast watches the two of them struggle as they march towards graduation. And their own struggles and successes are also seen throughout, as we watch Mayu’s burgeoning crush and social ineptness come together in a horrible way, Akemiya being clueless about his love life but finding that he enjoys his newfound career, and Kyori being blissfully ignorant of everything.

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As the cover might suggest, everything really does work out in the end. There’s a certain amount of angst on Sumika’s part, though, as she has to content with realizing that Ushio really does love her back, her family’s expectations for her “taking over the dojo” (meaning siring an heir), what she plans to do for a career (sports medicine? she’s not sure), and the fact that they aren’t in school anymore so she may not be seeing Ushio on a regular basis. Last volume we had a major Ushio breakdown, this time it’s Suminka who does the crying, as she realizes that she may have realized everything too late to do something about it. Ushio, meanwhile, has matured after her experiences in the last volume, and really comes into her own here, especially after being voted Student Council President. Admittedly, she and her brother are still playing “I can sacrifice my happiness for my sibling better than you”, but luckily neither of them succeeds.

A lot of this volume is told in a non-straightforward manner, which seems oddly fitting. There are flashbacks and present-day panels mixed together so that you really have to pay attention to the black borders to realize where you are. There’s lots of wordless dialogue, including whole pages where we see the characters dealing with fallout (usually caused by Mayu), but don’t hear them. We get the story of Ushio’s brother and his ex-girlfriend, who still have feelings for each other, mostly in the one-page ‘extras’ after each chapter. Oh yes, and Cooking Papa shows up towards the end, for reasons I can’t quite figure out.

In the end, the happiness outweighs the angst, and we get an unabashedly happy ending. Sumika and Ushio are openly together, and while some of the school mutters about it most seem to accept it. Akemiya becomes a famous model, and seems to be friends with Lotte, who has gained about 3 feet in height and 3 cup sizes as she hits puberty like a truck. Kyori finally finds out what’s been going on, and after some brief worry that she was in the way (which she totally was), she gets over it. Food helps. Mayu and Koi finally finish their ‘we are Sumika and Ushio two grades lower’ dance around each other. And our main couple is happily holding hands, as their brother, at his wedding, suggests they can’t get married now but maybe someday?

That someday is now, actually, and I’d like to think Sumika and Ushio are taking a trip to Tokyo Disneyland in their future. In the meantime, this was a great end to an excellent yuri story, and I think it worked very well in the omnibus format. A fantastic release from One Peace Books.