Sasameke Volume 2

By Ryuji x Gotsubo. Released in Japan by Kadokawa Shoten, serialized in the magazine Shonen Ace. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Having just read through my review of the first volume of this manga, I did not particularly like it at all. So it may be somewhat of a surprise to see me reviewing the 2nd volume. I’m a stubborn guy, though, and one feature of that review was that I was defending the second volume’s right to exist, saying that it should not be cancelled based on bad word of mouth, even if it was a horrible manga. Well, Yen has now put out the second volume, and I thank them for that.

That will be the last word of praise you hear in this review. This volume actually managed to be worse than the first. MUCH worse.

On the somewhat bright side, there is a lot more soccer in this volume than there was in the first. Given this is a soccer manga, that can only be a good thing. Sadly, we continue to follow the exploits of the most annoying team ever, so the soccer does not rise to the occasion. We meet new players who hadn’t appeared (or barely) in Volume 1, such as Antonio. We then meet his four older brothers, who are playing for the other team, and who are all better than him. We have another team where the two stars are brothers, and the younger one tries to sabotage our heroes by kidnapping Inae because he loves his brother so much. Oh, and Rakuichi meets his archrival who he knew in Italy.

But wait, I hear you cry. What happened to the large amount of plot in Volume 1 regarding Maiko’s mother? Well, it was totally abandoned. She doesn’t appear in this volume. Hell, Maiko barely appears in this volume, mostly showing up as a comedic foil for whatever foolishness is going on and to provide the book’s climax. Indeed, every time we seem to be getting any plot development, it simply ends. Matsuri rescues a child, and proceeds to flirt with the kid’s mother, who is the wife of the opposing coach… except that’s it. Done just so the opposing coach can cry.

Then there’s Rakuichi, who spends this volume much like he did the last one, whining and bitching. He gets no chance to score a goal or justify everyone calling him talented (OK, he can run downfield with the ball well), and still has no desire for teamwork whatsoever. The author admitted in a note that he wanted to try drawing a team where the heroes were all lazy slackers, but he ended up with this instead. I’ve got news for him – he succeeded. There are precisely zero characters that you feel any empathy towards or want to see succeed.

Despite all of this, they manage to get through the qualifying rounds and end up in the final tournament in Tokyo. I was rather leery at this point, as I saw we only had about 40 pages left in the book. And then we get the ending. Oh my god. I’ve seen endings where the author was told “you’re cancelled next issue, wrap it up” before, but this really takes the cake. The team gets disqualified due to its president’s financial irregularities (which was lampshaded a bit earlier, somewhat incoherently, but lampshaded), and the school forces the team to disband.

My jaw dropped. This isn’t just ‘we only got to the second round, but next year we’ll be the champions’ ending you see in so many sports mangas, this is an active ‘screw you’ to everyone who has been reading this. It reminded me of the final episode of Seinfeld in the way that it seemed to show a total antipathy to its readers. Then it spends the last 10 pages showing everyone but Rakuichi is now successful, and dissolves into incoherence. No really, the last page is merely shonen one-liners spouted off, even the author notes it’s incoherent.

I haven’t mentioned the art, I notice. Suffice to say that it didn’t improve from Volume 1, and has the same issues. It reads like the author put out his first draft every week due to time constraints, without bothering to fix anything. Heck, the plot reads like that too, not only dropping things from chapter to chapter, but sometimes form page to page!

Apparently this manga did succeed fairly well when it first came out. The author mentions merchandise for sale a few times, and it doesn’t seem to read like a put on. There’s also some fanart on deviantart that seems to date from 2007, so some folks must have enjoyed it. And there’s a 4-volume sequel, god help us all. But to be honest, I spent most of my time reading this wondering what possessed Yen Press to license it in the first place? It being a sports manga doesn’t seem to be a big selling point, and it’s not a parody of sports manga or a gag manga, despite flirting with both of those slots unsuccessfully. It’s just a formless shapeless mess.

I did note, on Googling, that the author is known for one other thing besides his manga (which apparently continue in Shonen Ace to this day). When Twilight came out in Japan, they added illustrations and manga covers to the books, to make it more like a ‘light novel’. And Ryuji Gotsubo did those illustrations. Now, this is mere baseless speculation, but I wonder if, upon Yen getting the rights to the Twilight graphic novels they’re doing, there was a rider indicating they had to put out some of this author’s work? After all there have been weirder contracts.

I worry that some people, on reading this review, might think that Sasameke is one of those ‘fun’ bad manga, something to enjoy along the lines of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Let me tell you straight out, it isn’t. It is one of the most frustrating, irritating, and annoying manga ever put out in North America, and you will be grinding your teeth by the end if you even manage to get through it. Yen put out Volume 2, and good for them, but I beg them now: don’t license the sequel. Please?

Sasameke Volume 1

By Ryuji x Gotsubo. Released in Japan by Kadokawa Shoten, serialized in the magazine Shonen Ace. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I had responded online to a review of this manga by Alexander Hoffman, where he not only commented on how bad he felt it was, but actively told Yen Press, the publisher, to cancel the title and leave Volume 2 (its final volume) unpublished. I felt this was imprudent, and noted that even if the publisher did listen (which I doubted), that there was bound to be a fan of Sasameke somewhere who would be upset at their title being headhunted like that. I try to pimp out enough poor-selling titles (coughExcelSagacough) that I always get twitchy at any work being discontinued mid-run.

However, this reminded me that I hadn’t actually been able to get very far into Sasameke, and it was sitting on my pile of ‘get around to that sometime’ books. So I girded my loins and forced myself through it, and I feel that I can now safely say that I was merely defending the manga in a hypothetical sense, as a title that Yen publishes, rather than of its own merits. As it’s hard to find a merit in this. This manga is *horrible*. I don’t say that too often, as those who recall my Magic Touch reviews know. I’ve often said that I feel ‘worst manga ever’ is doled out too much, and that people seem to get enraged by books that are merely average, mediocre, or boring. I noted that ‘bad’ should only be doled out to works that actively offend me as well as having obvious story/character flaws, such as Qwaser of Stigmata.

I am now prepared to back off that position slightly for this title. It’s bad. There’s nothing actively offensive about it, except perhaps its slapdash inattention to any of its characters, but nevertheless; it is bad. And this is an omnibus. The original was 5 volumes in Japan (with two sequels that give us 5 more volumes in total – as yet unlicensed, thank God), and this volume has the first 2 1/2, similar to Yen’s release of Dragon Girl, which was flawed but much better than this. The omnibus format makes this even harder to read, as you keep looking down to see if you’re done and realizing there is oh so much still to go.

I should actually talk about Sasameke itself now. It is, essentially, a sports manga – soccer, to be precise. The lead is Rakuichi Nagahama, who has just returned to Japan for high school after 3 years in Italy. As a kid, he was a brilliant player, and everyone believes that he went over there to make it big in Europe. Now he’s back, strangely grumpy and truculent, and wants nothing to do with soccer. His childhood friend, Inae, is the manager of the school’s soccer team, and tries to recruit him. The book then loosely follows him as he slowly begins to regain the love of soccer he once had, and introduces us to a broad cast of eccentric characters.

Let’s start with the leads. Rakuichi is a grumpy jerk, and anyone waiting for him to grin in happiness as he rediscovers the joy of the sport will be left wanting by the end of this volume. Even when he gets back into the game, he’s still a complete ass, with the other teammates even lampshading this, wondering if that’s why he failed in Italy. He’s a showboat and a slacker, and would clearly be a horrible match for Inae even if she wasn’t an obsessed stalker trying to watch her sempai’s every move (which she is).

Then there’s Maiko, the blond beauty we meet early into the volume. I was all set to obsess over here – she hit a lot of my fan buttons, being a cool long-hair beauty who kicks guys into oblivion – but then the manga slowly unfolds, and we get to know her… and she’s dull! She seems to enjoy writing up weird gossip-y newspaper articles, and has a broken family life that I’ll get to in a moment, but the chemistry I was expecting her and Rakuichi to share given that they’re on the cover together is completely absent.

Leaving characters aside for now, we move to the plot. It reads like a hyperactive animal of some sort. Ostensibly about soccer, it can’t resist jumping off at tangents, leading to the ridiculous climax of this omnibus where we meet Maiko’s mother Catherine, who seems to be a Russian ninja of some sort. Maiko is the result of an affair her mother had with Touzan’s father (Touzan is the sempai Inae obsessed over), and apparently there are still unresolved issues over it, as her mother is fleeing from prison (or is it a hospital? By this time things were almost totally incoherent, so I may have missed it), and apparently seeing her mother turns Maiko into a goopy mess. She’d been avoiding her mother earlier, possibly as she knew she’d turn into someone completely different.

Saving the worst for last, the art. Ah, the art. I sometimes complain about Hana to Yume’s shoujo titles being too messy and busy, but they have nothing on this. Every page is crowded with signs and effects (which Yen translates right there on the page, which I’d normally approve of but simply looks messy here, possibly as there are so many of them), lending a haphazard quality to the whole thing. When the artist does close-ups or dramatic shots, they can briefly be effective, but they’re undercut by shots of his extras, which are not so much ‘superdeformed’ as ‘ugly’. The artist seems to revel in drawing his characters poorly for comedic effect, but since the jokes aren’t that funny, it just comes off as sloppy. The whole thing has a cumulative effect of looking like a lazy first draft, only this is happening with every chapter.

Are there any positives? I suppose the title has a certain manic gonzo charm to it. Sometimes the chapters fly so far beyond common sense that you have to admire the sheer gall of the creator. Clearly Kadokawa likes him, as he not only had the two sequels to this but draws for Shonen Ace to this day, his current title being the otaku-centred ‘Anikoi’. This was written a good ten years ago, so I hope that he’s improved, or at least gotten a better editor. But as for Sasameke? Even the gonzo energy gets exhausting by the end. It starts as a dull sports manga where you want the lead to just suck it up and stop grumbling, and somehow ends with ninjas doing spinkicks and family drama. It’s 460 pages of almost total incoherence.

I had recommended people read ‘How to Draw Shojo Manga’ from Tokyopop even if they didn’t draw, as I felt it gave a good idea of how to *read* the manga as well as write it. If people want to try the opposite tack, pick up a copy of Sasameke, which is in almost every way a fantastic example of what NOT to do.