School Judgment, Vol. 1

By Nobuaki Enoko and Takeshi Obata. Released in Japan as “Gakkyu Hotei” by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz Media.

It can sometimes be difficult, particularly for a Western audience, to remember that Weekly Shonen Jump’s demographic remains young boys in Japan, with the ideal age between 8 and 13 years old. They know the reality of writing for children, which is kids want to read about other kids a few years older than they are, which is why the less fantasy-oriented Jump series feature a bunch of middle and high schoolers. (Speaking of which, when did Bleach last attend high school anyway?) But sometimes there is a series which does give us elementary schoolers, and we have that in School Judgment. There’s a catch, though – some of the students are lawyers, and what follows is, if not exactly a ipoff of the Ace Attorney franchise, at least highly influenced by it.

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It becomes fairly clear a few pages into this series that you really have to leave your suspension of disbelief at the door. While true for most Jump series, the combination of 12-year-old lawyers, some of whom are also ex-convicts, and 4-year-old baby judges may make a few people at least raise an eyebrow. But it fits with the manga’s overall mood, which is over the top, a bit loud, and somehow both painfully earnest and deeply cynical at the same time. The main reason that it succeeds is the hero, Abaku, is *not* your standard Jump hero. In fact, he’s more like the cynical, grinning mentor who’s gradually won over by the shiny idealism of the normal hero. No idealism here – Abaku is obnoxious, superior, selfish, and acts refreshingly like a 12-year-old at times.

The cases we see and characters we meet are fairly standard shonen fare – the boy with the pudding bowl haircut is disliked by everyone, who knew? There’s scholastic rivalry, nascent crushes, and intense drama over whether or not to eat the classroom’s pet fish. In the midst of all this, we start to get a bit of a larger ongoing plot – Abaku clearly has a past, and may have at one point been imprisoned in Japan’s maximum security elementary school prison island. (I’m not making this up, you know.) He’s in that classroom for a reason. I was less impressed with the prosecuting attorney, Pine, who seems to be the standard “I pretend to be sweet but am secretly angry all the time” girl, destined to always lose to our heroes. I hope she gains depth in the next volume.

This is not terrific by any means – the mysteries are rather perfunctory, and I’m not sure I agree with using the Japanese word “ronpa” throughout instead of just translating it as “cross-examination” or somesuch. And the baby judges are a hideously stupid idea. Despite Obata’s usual excellent art, this reads like the work of a Jump newbie, and it will not surprise anyone to hear it only has 2 volumes to go. But it held my attention, and is ridiculous in a way that makes you smile wryly, rather than just want to put the book down. Worth a look.

How To Raise A Boring Girlfriend, Vol. 1

By Fumiaki Maruto and Takeshi Moriki. Released in Japan as “Saenai Kanojo no Sodatekata” by Kadokawa Shoten, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dragon Age. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I think you have to be very careful when part of your work has “boring” in the title. I’m not sure if the original Japanese conveys quite the same meaning, but if the core of the work is that you feature a heroine who is meant to be uninteresting, then you’re already climbing up a larger hill than normal. Now, of course, this is something of a comedy, and the point of the whole exercise is that we have a hero who is surrounded by stereotypes of the standard light novel girl, and yet he decides to take the average, nebbish girl and turn her into heroine material. Unfortunately, at least by the end of this first volume, most of what I get from it is that the other two girls really *are” more interesting.

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That is not, of course, the boring girl in the foreground – it’s Eriri, the hero’s tsundere childhood friend who’s a famous doujinshi artist who has at least four different traits for a harem romance. The actual boring girl is sitting in the seat at the back. Our hero’s other close friend is Utaha, who is a bestselling novelist and fills the ‘cool yet snarky’ part of the otaku equation. Naturally, they dislike each other hovering over our hero Tomoya, who is something of an otaku who has grand ideals for a dating sim, but no actual talent to turn them into anything beyond cliches. He needs his two friends to actually do the work and make it good… particularly since his heroine in this dating sim is based on Megumi, who is simply there.

This is one of those series where Yen On did not pick up the light novel it’s based on, and I suspect that it would do better without the manga format. The writer of the original story jokes about the fact that the titular heroine “will never be in the center of the panel frame”, but even a cursory glance can tell you that’s not true – Megumi is present and paid attention to throughout, she’s just dull. This is the sort of series that cries out for exaggeration, and I could see her being drawn in a way like Sunako from The Wallflower, who only appears out of “superdeformed” mode in cool moments. Instead, Megumi’s presence and the delivery of the lines feel like the author explaining a joke that isn’t as good as they think it is. The premise is that we’re meant to wonder why this obvious visual novel hero is pulling away from the two cliched girls to find the ordinary one. But as a reader, I know why – cliched or not, Eriri and Utaha are far more interesting than Megumi is, and I’d like to actually know about *them*. Saekano (not to be confused with apocalyptic romance Saikano) sells its tedium a bit too well.

The Isolator, Vol. 2

By Reki Kawahara and Shimeji. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On.

The first volume of this series introduced us to Minoru, a broken young man who wishes to live his live with minimal emotional contact with anyone – and has secret suicidal thoughts. In this second book, he seems much better, even if the reason for that is because he hopes to achieve his goal, which is to erase the memory of him from everyone who knows him. Of course, as he finds out, this is not going to be as easy as he thought. Even those who already had their memories erased, such as last volume’s victim Tomomi, still feel drawn to him for reasons other than memory. And, as he grows closer and bonds with the new Superhero Organization he’s a part of, he finds that new emotional experiences are just impossible to avoid.

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It’s rather surprising how serious-minded this book is. Sword Art Online has lots of amusing comedy bits sprinkled throughout, and even Accel World throws in some light relief from Haru’s worrying and low self-esteem. The Isolator is grim, though, and even the odd joke or two (such as Olivier’s otaku-ish jokes) highlights how depressing everything here is. We meet the team leader of the troop, and she’s… a fourth-grader whose black gem gave her super analysis powers, so she’s now a scientific genius. Bored as I am of the ‘loli genius with an adult’s mindset’ type in this sort of series, the book does not let you forget that this was still an elementary school girl, and due to the nature of how gem powers work my guess is she was doing badly in school as well. I suspect she’s not a happy camper.

But the winner of the bleakest past here goes to Yumiko, who I had mentioned last time looked like she had hidden depths. Indeed, I think Kawahara overeggs the pudding here, as we get not one but *two* tragic backstories. It does serve to show Minoru, though, that he is not a special tragedy snowflake, and remind him that there are other ways to cope with grief and loss besides isolation. As with the first volume, the villain also gets a well-thought out backstory. Sadly, though, his personality is identical to all of Kawahara’s other psychopaths – you can give depth and tragic history all you want, but when the villain in the end is still laughing madly and going on about fools and his grand plan to destroy the world, it’s still not working.

The best reason to read this series is still the action scenes, which cry out to be animated at some point in the future. I’m not sure where the series is going from here – the book ends very abruptly, as if the author was working to a set page count. But I do know that while it’s gripping and a quick read, I wish it were more fun. I feel like isolating myself after reading it.