Emma, Vol. 1

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.

I wasn’t reviewing manga online when Emma first came out via CMX back in the day, and I’ll be honest: I never did finish the series. I think at the time I found it a bit too slow-moving and tedious. Which, to be fair, it is at times. But as the years have gone by, I’ve come to appreciate what Kaoru Mori does a bit more, and I now see the mood she was trying to evoke with this story of romance and class drama. Indeed, the heroine, Emma, reminds me very much of the heroine of A Bride’s Story, in that I find it very difficult to get a handle on what she’s thinking at all. Her love for William is so subtle that it creeps up on you.

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William’s love does not creep up on anyone, being very much a love at first sight sort of thing. William is perhaps the most difficult thing to like about this series so far; he’s reserved when compared to the rest of Emma’s suitors, but still has a tendency to seem like a lovesick puppy compared to the rest of the Victorian era cast. This makes it a bit easier to understand his strict father, who is 100% against his son marrying a common maid, despite the fact that the Joneses are fairly new money themselves – they’re merchants, and have to keep up appearances far more than inherited money would. Indeed, the rest of William’s siblings look like they’ll make things more chaotic as the series goes on, particularly tomboy Vivian, who is quite happy to climb up roofs and run down halls to make her opinions knows.

For the most part, though, the best moments of Emma are the quiet, slow ones, sometimes not even needing dialogue. Emma cleaning the house after her mistress has passed away is one of the more heartbreaking things I’ve seen in some time, as if the cliffhanger ending for this omnibus, showing Emma leaving London to move North, with William just missing her. There’s also a sad and bittersweet element to Eleanor, a young woman who is arranged to be married to William and is clearly smitten with him, but I suspect she’s going to be very unhappy down the road. Even the past is tinged with menancholy – Kelly Stowner’s marriage to her husband being tragically cut short, leaving her a widow at twenty. You can see why romance is so hard to pin down, and why it would take getting locked in the Crystal Palace overnight to even kiss.

It’s not all stiffness and decorum, though – Mori still loves the East, and that’s apparent with the introduction of Hakim, a childhood friend of William’s who comes visiting with his harem of dancing girls/servants and his elephants in the garden. Hakim is briefly shown as a rival to Emma’s affections, but in reality he’s here partly to add an air of lightness and exoticism to this series, and partly as the author really likes this sort of thing – which is also why she’s drawing Victorian England, for that matter. This sort of creative freedom on a debut series is something that surprised me, but then Comic Beam is sort of a ‘5th genre’ magazine, known for experimentation and freedom. It allows for well-crafted storytelling, which is the main reason why everyone should be happy to see this back in print, and want to see where it goes next.

Ranma 1/2, Vols. 15 & 16

By Rumiko Takahashi. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

Takahashi has settled into a groove by now, and it shows in these two volumes, which have some of the strongest combinations of comedy and action in the entire series. Unlike the last omnibus, there’s no real serious plotline here – indeed, several of the plotlines are best known for their complete and total ridiculousness. But that just allows Takahashi to mine them for ridiculous and hysterical comedy, and show you why she had such an amazing reputation back in the 1990s. And it also shows off a bit more Ranma and Akane not-romance, for those who watch for that.

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We start with ludicrous right off the bat, in the form of the Gambling King. (Well, OK, there’s a story with Kuno getting a sword that grants wishes, but it’s the weakest in the book, so let’s skip it.) The King is not unlike your typical Ranma one-shot villain – grossly egotistical, somewhat thick, tends to cheat in order to gain temporary victories – but of course what makes the comedy truly work is that he looks exactly like the King on a deck of playing cards, and therefore there’s always a comedy visual dissonance when he interacts with anyone. Add to this Ranma’s laughably awful attempts at a poker face, and you have a definite winner. (It was also nice to see Nabiki take on the King – she was winning handily till he cheated – though she’ll need to wait for the next omnibus to finally get her turn in the spotlight. It’s also fantastic whenever Kasumi and Nabiki emit ‘giant scary auras’, which they both do here.)

Next we see why Ranma always has his hair tied in a pigtail, and it again involves comedy villains (more pathetic than anything else) who look ridiculous – this time they all look like dumplings. This has some nice Ranma and Akane interaction, but also plays up a man’s vanity for laughs. The strongest story in the volume, though, involves a Hot Spring Resort that is doing a contest, the winner of which can travel to any spring in the world – including Jusenkyou. If you guessed this content involved an increasingly ridiculous series of obstacles that can only be defeated by martial artists, you are 100% correct. We also have the three ‘main’ fiancees present and correct (sorry, Kodachi), and they’re all thoroughly pissed off at Ranma, while also trying to help him. Even at this point, still not quite halfway through the series, everyone unconsciously knows if Ranma is cured, life will move on and he’ll have to decide who he likes once and for all. Takahashi’s final joke, of course, being that this never happens.

Possibly the most terrifying of the stories here – if only for the grotesque faces – sees Ranma taking on Picolette Chardin II, a master of martial arts eating, helped along by the fact that his family all have giant, stretchy mouths. Again, in a situation where the laughs come from the premise, all you really have to do is drop the cast – here Ranma, Akane, and their two fathers – into it and have them be themselves. So Ranma is stubborn and determined to be the best at this because it is a martial art, Soun is determined to ensure that Ranma remains engaged to Akane by the end of it, Akane stands to the side making deadpan wisecracks and occasionally helping when Ranma doesn’t insult her, and Genma eats.

So, for Ranma fans, this is pretty much the classic period. It maintains its high quality next volume, too, as we see Nabiki finally emerge as the amoral shyster she remains the rest of the series, and are introduced to possibly *the* most bizarre enemy of Ranma’s ever, Pantyhose Tarou.

A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 3

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.

Index had a good start, but I felt the second novel was a bit rushed and inconsequential. Luckily, there’s no such issues here, as Kamachi puts out one of the strongest books in the Index series, and one with a lot of consequences, not least of which is the inspiration for side-series A Certain Scientific Railgun, which especially in the West has become more popular than its supposed parent. We continue to examine the world our heroes live in, this time entirely on the ‘Science’ side of things, and see just how far researchers will go in the search for knowledge and power, a running theme in this series on both the Science AND Magic sides. And we also meet a few characters who will prove very important down the road, for reasons that I will awkwardly try not to spoil here.

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Introduced in this volume: Kuroko Shirai, Misaka 10032 (aka Misaka Imouto) and her clone sisters, Accelerator, Maika Tsuchimikado (who I had forgotten gets introduced before her brother, though blink and you’ll miss her appearance.) For Railgun readers, well, you know this one. In fact, you know more than Index readers, as Railgun expanded this arc greatly.

The series may have as one of its main themes that trying to achieve knowledge for its own sake is a dangerous thing, but I can’t really ignore the fact that the series also has its unironic shonen side to it. This seems to aggravate readers, and not just in Index, as I know a lot of long-running shonen series have fans who keep hoping people will get killed off or the heroes will fail just so that manga can be more like DC Comics. Likewise, Index (who, along with Himegami, barely appears in this volume) is a lazy, hungry ball of moe, and therefore jars with anyone who wants to take A Certain Magical Index seriously. But I think it’s the tension between the two that makes it interesting – Touma goes through a ridiculous amount of hurt here, and the idea that he’s still getting up near the end of the book is laughable – but that’s what you do in shonen. You get back up.

Mikoto gets her first major role here, and I’m amused at the difference between the way she acts around Touma and the way Kuroko says that she is afterwards – dealing with Touma relaxes her, which is important given what she’s been trying to achieve. This isn’t her series, so she doesn’t get to save the day, but it’s her pain, and desire to kill herself if it will help to save her clones, that drives Touma to go beyond the impossible again and save her. She’s a serious girl, who clearly places a lot of weight on the choices she makes, even if she’s ignorant of what they mean. After this book, her popularity skyrocketed even higher, and I imagine Railgun was in development by around the 5th volume of Index.

Kuroko does appear here, but doesn’t do much beyond glomp Mikoto a couple of times and give exposition to Touma. Her lecherous habits will have to wait for a future volume for me to be irritated by them. Accelerator is more interesting. I’d forgotten that he actually had some depth here beyond “I am the villain of this arc”. He’s clearly bored with the entire experiment, demanding from the Sisters that they at least make it worth his while to bother coming out. He also states outright why he’s doing this – to be left alone. Being the most powerful Level 5 in the city means that everyone tries to challenge him all the time. This is why he gets so excited when Misaka Imouto, and later on Touma, actually manage to hurt him a little bit. It elevates the tedium. Unlike Isard from last volume, he’s not mentioned at all in the Epilogue beyond the experiment being suspended. The last we see of him is flying through the air via Touma Airways. I wonder if he’ll be back? (Spoiler: Yes, he will be back.)

This was also the first volume where I didn’t find Kamachi’s writing style difficult to get into. He’s still a very eccentric writer, and his narration can meander much of the time, such as when he’s discussing Japanese baseball pitchers, or explaining the plot of Index Volume 1 because Touma’s lost his memory and Mikoto wasn’t there. But it’s a page turner, even more than the last two, and you really want to find out what happens next. Also, his exposition, though frequent and voluminous, can be quite interesting. Not so much worldbuilding as a world textbook. Yen’s translation is quite good. Note they have a company policy of no honorifics, so Misaka Imouto is Little Misaka, and Kuroko says Big Sister rather than Oneesama. I think this is fine, though don’t be surprised if I tend towards what I’m familiar with in future reviews. More importantly, Misaka Imouto’s eccentric speech pattern is kept intact, which is hopeful news for Last Order fans waiting for Volume 5.

If you haven’t read any Index and want a volume that will show you why it’s popular, skip the first two and get this one. It really is excellent. Also, a reminder that Touma and Index spend the entire volume carrying cats around.