Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Vol. 3

By Izumi Tsubaki. Released in Japan as “Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun” by Square Enix, serialization ongoing in the online magazine Gangan Online. Released in North America by Yen Press.

There’s not really much in the way of plot or character development in a series like Nozaki-kun (indeed, much of the comedy relies on everyone not growing or learning in any way), so when it comes to reviews such as this, I need to look elsewhere to find things to talk about. This is another great volume, and Chapter 27 is one of my favorites in particular. It’s a pitch-perfect example of how everything is about the gags, but it doesn’t overuse the same gag, and its comedic rhythms are highly suited to the 4-koma style. It bears examining, so let’s do so.

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We begin with what is probable the ‘default’ gag in this series, as Nozaki and Mokoshiba show up pretending to be delinquents because Nozaki has to write in a rival character. They’re horrible at it, of course, so this leads to 2-3 pages of them doing something silly or out of place and Sakura giving her best tsukkomi comeback. She fulfills her traditional straight man role. However, we can’t forget that Sakura is in love with Nozaki. And, as we see when he attempts to climb a tree, fails miserably, and her heart skips a beat, she seems to especially be in love with Nozaki being an adorable loser. We then have 3-4 pages devoted to Mikoshiba and his issues, ranging from his embarrassment to simply being unable to climb back down the tree, and both Nozaki and Sakura serve as dual straight men. Finally, they leave and Seo shows up, being a genuine “delinquent”. Now it’s Mikoshiba who’s the straight man, observing Seo’s uncaring, oblivious antics. And Seo ends up getting the final punchline: “I’m late ‘cos a cute guy fell from the sky”.

In non-Chapter 27 news, Seo proves that she can use her obliviousness for good as well as evil when she buys a new exacto knife for Wakamatsu, and they also go on the worst date ever (at last from Wakamatsu’s POV); we see that everything horrible in Ken’s life is a result of Maeno’s very existence; While searching for a flaw that Suzuki could have, Nozaki misses the obvious, which is Kashima’s incredibly horrible singing voice; We find that Hori really is an excellent actor, but has trouble distinguishing between the actors and the characters they play, be it wanting to beat up Kashima or Miko-rin’s resemblance to a shoujo heroine; And Sakura’s attempts to show her affection fail miserably, be it old Valentine’s Day chocolate or someone mistaking her for the third wheel in a love triangle.

If you dislike standard Japanese comedy, this may not be as funny to you – much of the humor still relies on screaming “what the heck?” in disbelief. But for me, this is top drawer humor, and the 4-koma format means it doesn’t have to stop for pesky story development like Oresama Teacher, her other series. I love this series.

Also, though they aren’t as prevalent as before, the tanukis continue onward.

Overlord: The Undead King

By Kugane Maruyama and so-bin. Released in Japan by Enterbrain. Released in North America by Yen On.

Given the extreme popularity of Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, and similar titles in Japan (and now in North America, where you can’t seen to walk ten feet before hearing about a similar series being licensed), it makes sense that we’d start to see series that play around with the format, or use it as a springboard for something else. Such a series is Overlord, which spends much of its first quarter or so making you think that the main character is going to find himself trapped in the game he loves so much only to end up being somewhere a bit different – he, and all his NPCs, are transported to a different fantasy world. Oh yes, and he played the game as an evil undead skeleton, and his minions are equally evil.

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With SAO, we saw a brand new game just opening. In Log Horizon, it was a popular game receiving a brand new update. And Overlord has Yggdrasil, which is a popular game whose time has now passed, and it’s getting its servers shut down. Our hero (who has three names throughout the book, but who I’ll call Ainz for convenience) was one of about forty players who had their own guild, which was composed of “monsters”, i.e. non-humanoid characters. Of course, that was a while back. Now he wants to have a party to celebrate the end of the game, and only three other players bother to show, and they all bail early. Right away you get the sense that he is more intensely devoted to the game than the others, but also that he is far more unfulfilled in real life than they are – he admits all he does is work, eat and sleep.

And now he, his group of somewhat cliched NPCs (all of whom have detailed backstories written by the other players, which is how we find out about them), and his giant hellish fortress are bounced into the middle of this fantasy world fighting a battle among three various empires. Luckily, there’s one tiny village that seems to be a focal point for all three, either as “killing everyone in the village will set an example” or “we are heroes, so must save this village no matter the cost”. Into this wanders Ainz, who tries to remain aloof and dispassionate but is still not about to let a cute teenage girl and her sister get run through.

I’ve summarized a lot of plot here, usually a sign that I don’t know what else to write about, but that’s not really true here. There’s a lot to work with after this first book has finished. Ainz is dispassionate because his undead form suppresses emotions – is he even human anymore? He still seems to regard this as a game he’s trapped in – will this change? And then there’s his NPCs, suppliers of most of the humor in the title – Albedo, his main subordinate, has a massive crush on him do to his being stupid before the “server shutdown”, and this leads to typical anime yandere humor. His NPCs also have motivations that go beyond obeying his command, something I don’t think he grasps yet.

So there’s a good many ways this title can go, and I am quite pleased I read it. That said, I do hope that it continues to play with its cliches rather than embracing them – there’s always a danger that this becomes a straight=up male power fantasy sort of title, and I think it could be much more than that.

Baccano!: The Rolling Bootlegs

By Ryohgo Narita and Katsumi Enami. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On.

If you’re familiar with Durarara!!, then you may know that this was the author’s first major series. It also had a (far less successful) anime. That said, the two fandoms don’t really interact, particularly in North America. DRRR’s fandom is very much about two or three characters that people obsess over, while Baccano’s tends to be more about the books themselves, and overanalyzing its cast to death. Given that DRRR is doing well over here, it was a natural pickup, and I am very pleased to see that Yen On is releasing it. This first volume introduces us to much of the main cast, and shows us how they became involved with demons, alchemy, and immortality.

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Those familiar with the anime may be disappointed, as we don’t jump around between various time periods in this book (you’ll have to wait till Book 2 for the train). It’s all about what happens in 1930, where various plots are all happening at the same time. A young punk named Firo is joining the ranks of the Camorra (think Mafia, only less Sicilian and more Italian); two incredibly eccentric thieves are trying to turn over a new leaf by stealing for the right reasons, only their reasoning is highly suspect; and an old man and his female chauffeur and bodyguard are trying to resurrect a liquor that will grant complete immortality to anyone who drinks it – something the old man already has, but he wants to recreate it anyway just to show that he can. Gradually these plots and others interact with each other until it all ends in one giant confrontation and there are many dead bodies… of course, given we’re also dealing with immortality, are they really dead?

I suspect the average Baccano! reader over here will already be spoiled as to its plot, which is a shame, as there’s a lot of twists and turns to let us wonder who’s really immortal, who really knows who’s backstory, and what exactly is going on. Like DRRR, the ‘heroes’ of the book are morally ambiguous, in this case mostly being mobsters. Firo is a sweet young kid, except he’s also got a way with a knife, is unflinching at running an illegal gambling den, etc. It’s a matter of degrees. The worst is clearly Szilard Quates, the aforementioned old man, who will use anyone and anything to get what he wants. That said, if you’re looking for a protagonist of this particular volume, I’d say that it’s Ennis, the chauffeur/bodyguard. Thanks to interaction with the cast, she grows and changes more than anyone else, and her inner monologue is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

And then there’s Isaac and Miria. They may never be the protagonists of the individual books, but they are the poster children and mascots for the series itself, and their glorious idiocy is on full display here. They both possess an illogical logic, reminiscent of Gracie Allen, and I suspect an entire book of them would be exhausting. But as a spice, they’re perfect. The book gives depth to several characters via thoughts and actions not seen in the anime, and even Isaac and Miria are no exception. It’s never clear if they’re actually lovers or not, but they are most certainly in love with each other. They are a joy and a treat.

It’s hard for me to look at Baccano! with a fresh mind, as I’m so familiar with the series as a whole. For fans of the anime, you’ll see new and changed things. For those who like DRRR, it has a similar chaotic style. If you like characters who are completely trash scum, Dallas Genoard is right up your alley. I would argue that if you are unsure and want to sample the absolute top of the line books in the series, you might wait to sample books 2 and 3 (which come as a set). And the art gets better, honest – it’s very sketchy here, with some characters bearing only minimal resemblance to what they look like 6 or 7 books later. But honestly, this is also an excellent introduction to the clamor and noise that is Baccano!.