Forbidden Dance


By Hinako Ashihara (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59182-345-2

This is the charming, if eccentric, tale of Aya, a young girl who has seemingly lost the ability to dance after an accident at the National Ballet Competition damages her ankle.

Her ruined, psychologically-scarred, miserable life finally drastically spins around again after she witnesses the astounding Akira Hibiya dancing with the COOL ballet troupe. The boy quite turns her head and makes her want to dance once more…

Revitalised, she makes joining COOL her life’s ambition, and nothing – not even the fact that Akira thinks she is just another crazy girl-fan stalker or, more importantly, that COOL is an all-male company – is going to stop her…

Aimed at a young teen audience, Forbidden Dance is replete with the school angst and constant, overwhelming pressure to succeed that dominates this branch of manga fiction, but the energy, power and enthusiasm of Hinako Ashihara’s story-telling elevates the tale above the crush of its peers.

As Aya’s story progresses (through 4 translated volumes originally released in 2003) the ending is never a foregone conclusion and even the most jaded reader must wonder “what next?”

In a crowded and conservative market, it’s good to see quality story-telling in varied settings, and many jaded comics fans or newcomers to our weird world would probably benefit from giving this book and its sequels a chance… if they can find them.
© 2003 Hinako Ashihara. All Rights Reserved.

Girls Bravo volumes 1-3


By Mario Kaneda, translated & adapted by Asuka Yoshizu & Steve Bunche (TokyoPop)
ISBNs: 978-1-59816-040-6, 978-1-59816-041-3 & 978-1-59816-042-0

Here’s another large, strange slice of manga magic that took the world by storm when it inevitably transferred to the anime screen, and another of those uncomfortably inappropriate teen-sex comedies that so delight the Japanese and generally bewilder we less socially ossified westerners.

Aimed at older teens, this type of tale fully acknowledges and draws seemingly endless amusement from the fact that boys and girls of a certain age are hormone-crazed muskrats desperate to catch furtive snatches of each other’s proscribed bits, and only conscience and social pressure keeps them from being even more intolerable than they are.

If only it got any easier with advanced age…

These stories first appeared in Japanese magazine Shōnen Ace from 2000 to 2005 and were eventually collected in ten volumes of frantic, frenetic slapstick, excruciating comedy-of-manners gaffes, replete with gusset glimpses, shower-scenes, fantasy fun and burgeoning young love.

‘Gārusu Burabō’ is the story of a hapless high school student named Yukinari Sasaki, a short, dim nebbish who is so put upon, teased and bullied by girls – and even his female teachers – that he has developed a condition which brings him out in hives every time anything with no Y chromosomes touches him.

His unfortunate condition is further compounded by the fact that the neighbours’ daughter Kirie, a girl he has known since childhood, and one he can at least talk to, has recently changed.

Her shy and awkward nature has developed into a crush he is utterly oblivious to, but unfortunately said crush has devolved into a series of violent assaults every time she gets flustered, and with Sasaki, she gets flustered a lot…

At some time when nobody was paying attention, she blossomed into an astonishingly well-endowed young woman – something else that embarrasses her greatly and often leads to red-faced punches and breath-curtailing kicks…

After a particularly trying day Yukinari returns home and stumbles into Kirie using his shower. He’s flustered, she’s naked and while he’s being pummelled by the blushing, panicked girl he falls into the bath… and emerges into another world and another naked girl’s bath…

But this is a completely different kind of girl. She is genuinely concerned, solicitous, even shorter than him and – most importantly – not screaming or hitting. Moreover, Miharu can touch him without setting off his allergic reaction. All she cares about is his welfare and what earth food is like.

The world of Siren is a revelation; a magical place where women outnumber men 9-1. When Miharu’s older sister Maharu spots the unattached male she makes a violent play for Yukinari, chasing him into the streets where every female in range also competes to capture the fleeing boy-toy.

Miharu rescues him and they double back to her bathroom, but the pursuers are too close and the fugitives fall into the bath – and arrive back in Yukinari’s shower. It is still occupied by the perplexed, naked and fuming Kirie.

Miharu is apparently stuck on Earth: the perfect companion for the gynophobic lad. She never attacks him, doesn’t cause hives, has magic powers and only cares about food. Unfortunately, she’s bewitchingly beautiful and as naive as a newborn hamster, so the hoi-polloi at school trail after her like dogs after biscuits, especially wealthy school stud Fukuyama.

He’s a real catch: a glorious young god of legendary manliness, but conceals a tragic secret of his own. Unknown to all, he is so male-phobic that he has an attack of hives every time a male touches him. Fukuyama is driven crazy by Miharu’s indifference to him…

Meanwhile, hopeless Yukinari is still being teased and bullied by girls of every type and regularly stumbling into situations where Kirie is undressed, volatile and trigger-primed to explode…

The first volume covers the set-up of the formulae, with lots of stories about simplistic Miharu’s desire to eat anything not nailed down, platonically care for Yukinari and her tendency to be duped into wearing revealing or fetishistic clothing by the lecherous Fukuyama.

Despite being always hungry and able to consume practically anything Miharu is a brilliant cook, unlike Kirie whose recipes are only really appreciated by terrorists looking for new bio-weapons. Yukinari increasingly has to spend his time protecting the gullible alien’s non-existent modesty…

Gradually the series takes a more supernatural turn as the unhappy ménage-a-trouble encounter an undressed ghost girl (and Fukuyama’s sister) Risa: a young sorceress convinced that beleaguered Yukinari is her predestined husband and thus willing to use all her wiles and witchcraft to make him hers. Even if it means destroying or even befriending Miharu and Kirie…

The first volume ends with a light-hearted and hottie-filled adaptation of traditional Japanese folk-tale Momotaro (the Peach Boy).

Volume 2 continues Risa’s campaign. She casts spells on Yukinari, and tries to convince Miharu that her attentions are preventing the diminutive lad from forming normal relationships or shaking his allergic phobia. Things get completely crazy when the Siren girl drinks alcohol and begins to replicate herself uncontrollably…

Yukinari still keeps getting accidental, unwelcome and concomitantly painful glimpses of undraped girls whilst growing increasingly fond of Miharu, even battling the hulking alpha male Fukuyama to protect her, but when amnesiac Koyomi appears thing get very strange indeed.

For one thing she is the only other girl able to resist the school stud’s dubious charms; she doesn’t give Yukinari contact-hives and, when she is flustered or scared, giant pits open in the floor under her…

She is in fact an agent from Siren sent to recover the missing Miharu, and when her memory returns Koyomi transports her quarry home before Yukinari’s tear-filled eyes…

Of course, the adored catalyst does return, and volume 2 concludes with another side story; a day in the life of sexy super-stud Fukuyama – or at least in his fevered, fetid mind…

Volume 3 opens with the cast being coerced by the loathsome Lothario into a game of strip Mah-Jong with the returned Konomi (on a secret mission for Miharu’s sister): Fukuyama’s latest lewd target. Sadly for him, she suffers from the same condition as he does – she too is androphobic and repelled by the touch of men…

Konomi’s mission is at last exposed and she begins searching for a perfect husband for Miharu’s strident, overbearing sister. This inevitably leads to some very uncomfortable situations, as do the girls’ communal attempts to earn some extra money, before everything goes really crazy after Kirie falls through Risa’s mirror into a world where all her friends have reversed personalities…

Sweet-natured Miharu’s attempts to buy all her friends New Year’s Gifts go painfully awry before all ends well, and her celebration of the Setsubun festival (where bad luck is symbolically removed by throwing Soya beans out of the house) also falls flat – but only because Risa summoned real evil spirits to the party…

The volume ends on a heartbreakingly beguiling tale of a little girl abandoned in the snow – a story so moving it’s worth buying all three volumes just to read this sparkling gem in perfect context…

Irrepressibly juvenile and hormone-fuelled but great fun and beautifully drawn, this is a series as likely to titillate as offend, but it’s all good clean smut really, harmless and charming and bound to delight girl watchers and anyone enduring puberty or recalling it with any degree of honesty…
© 2001, 2002 Mario Kaneda. English text © 2005, 2006 Tokyopop Inc. All rights reserved.

Tramps Like Us volume 1


By Yayoi Ogawa (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 978-1-595321-39-8

Returning to TV screens in 2017 – for the second adaptation since the manga originally debuted – this intriguing, introspective love story offers a beguiling and surprisingly tasteful exploration of modern relationships at the margins of societal norms.

Eventually wracking-up 14 collected volumes, the series originated from stand-alone story ‘Pet’ published in the June 2000 issue of Kiss Carnival. It quickly reappeared in expanded form in Kiss as ‘Kimi wa Pet’: running to 82 chapters between December 2000 and October 2005.

The serial was a global comics hit, translated into many languages and spawning a Japanese live action TV drama series airing in 2003 and a South Korean movie in 2011 plus – as previously mentioned – a new television iteration.

Sumire Iwaya is a thoroughly modern woman, with a good job, promising prospects and all her priorities properly sorted. But like so many career women – especially in Japan – the romantic side of her life is problematic.

Comfortably situated but still recovering from a messy affair with the boss’s son, she is constantly evaluating her admittedly high relationship standards. What this actually means is that most of the time now she’s tired, stressed and terribly, terribly lonely.

For no reason she can explain then, when she one day discovers a beautiful young man inhabiting a dumpster, Sumire grudgingly gives him shelter in her home. The full-grown waif appears to be an utter innocent: vital, energetic and totally without guile – or manners…

Fed up with her life and with the kind of men she seems to attract, the salary woman enters into a bizarre pact with the vagrant. Naming him Momo – after a dog she had as a child – Sumire adopts him as her secret pet.

She will feed, bathe and pamper him in return for companionship, warmth and the kind of unconditional love only an animal can provide.

But what is “unconditional”? As her life proceeds, with friends, career and even a new boyfriend all piling their respective pressures on, her secret pet increasingly becomes her only haven of contentment. But Momo is not a dumb animal. He has his own life no matter how ardently he might seek to deny it….

And in this classic When Harry Met Sally dilemma the couple are being compelled by their own incessantly and increasingly inharmonious natures to reassess their relationship and thereby endanger the only emotional refuge each can retreat to…

Sharp, charming and strikingly drawn, this out-of-print saga is long-overdue for revival: a proper grown-up comics story that manages to be mature and sophisticated whilst still being decorous.
© 2000, 2004 Yayoi Ogawa. All Rights Reserved.

Manga Sutra – Futari H, Volume 1: Flirtation


By Katsu Aki (Katsuaki Nakamura) (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 978-1-4278-0536-2

I don’t think I’ve offended anybody for a while now, so with St. Valentine’s Day fast approaching I think we’re about due.

Therefore, if you are made uncomfortable, easily offended or embarrassed by the mention of graphic cartoon nudity and sexual situations, or if you have any problems at all with the oddly coy forthrightness of manga, please skip this review and move on.

Otherwise this peculiar coagulation of earnest soap opera and sexual self-help manual might be worth a moment of your attention. You might even be interested and want to see more…

Billed as “the best-selling sex guide from Japan” this initial volume – of at least 5 to my knowledge – is more accurately a sweet but explicit soap-opera love-story – albeit related in a staggeringly clinical-yet-chatty manner.

Makota and Yura are just married, but unbeknownst to each other, both still virgins. In short narrative episodes we follow their stumbling first steps to a healthy sex life, peppered with diagrams, statistics and a disturbingly jolly commentary. And lots of hilarity…

The act and any experience-improving techniques themselves are almost of secondary importance to the telling of a sweet and innocent RomCom yarn, with unsubtly-vamping co-workers, interfering know-it-all siblings and inquisitive parents all incessantly queuing up with advice and questions and inevitably making an embarrassing situation agonisingly worse…

There’s lots of nudity and oddly graphic-yet-(self)-censored copulation on show (neither male nor female primary sexual organs are ever depicted – it’s assumed you already know what they look like and besides, the Japanese consider their depiction to be in poor taste) but in no way does this resemble any Western style of “How-to-Do-It” (better) manual where the emphasis is on dispassionate, clinical education and task-oriented elucidation.

Of course, I’m just guessing about the last bit – I’ve never needed a manual or even a map in my life, no, not me, nope, Nuh-Uh…

Seriously, though, this isn’t so much an educational experience as much as a fascinating and beautifully drawn insight into the acceptable face of Japanese sexuality, and as such has lots to recommend it.

Which I do, as long as you’re old enough and promise to stop sniggering…
© 1996 KATSUAKI. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2008 TOKYOPOP Inc.

Doing Time


By Kazuichi Hanawa (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
ISBN: 978-8493340902

Something of an obscure recommendation, this, but I wanted to highlight something different in manga, as I’m a little burned out with big eyes, big explosions, and big hair at the moment.

Doing Time doesn’t fall into any generally perceived Western stereotype of Japanese comics. For a start it’s an autobiography and bleak admonitory documentary. It’s a journal along the lines of Samuel Pepys’ with disquietingly intimate revelations calmly and casually rolled out at every available juncture. The account is also a moving insight into the psychology of the Japanese culture and mind-set as the pages unfold in relentless understatement with a complete lack of flash, dazzle or grand showmanship.

Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1947, Kazuichi Hanawa began creating manga in 1971, generally specialising in historical tales, Buddhist legends and fantasy subjects. A keen collector of imitation firearms, in 1994 Mr. Hanawa was caught firing a remodelled pistol in an isolated wooded area. The creator then served three years in prison for possessing and using replica guns, which seems pretty stern to me, but clearly retribution he feels he deserved every moment of…

At the risk of being accused of racism, I cannot imagine the thoughts here portrayed coming from an individual of any other culture. Mr. Hanawa constantly and genuinely bemoans the quality and quantity of the food. It’s too good for the miserable likes of him…

“Is it right for us to live so well in spite of having perpetrated such misdeeds?” he asks. The attention to detail and meticulous cataloguing of minutiae almost makes this a cookbook and journal planner. The narrative structure is so fluid that all one comes away with is a fine pattern of detail and no big picture… probably just like being banged up in jail…

On its release AX Magazine in 1998 and in 2000 as collected book Kemusho no naka (In Prison), the visual and philosophical diary swiftly garnered domestic and international acclaim and was made into a live action movie All Under the Moon.

I have to admit that I was bewildered and captivated in equal measure with this collection of strips drawn with astounding veracity and authenticity. Japanese prisons – at least at that time – apparently allow no records of any sort (including drawings) to be kept by inmates, so the chilling pages here were produced from memory, and to my mind read like moments you’d prefer to forget, but if you’re of an adventurous mien this may brighten your jaded day and will certainly open your eyes to the power and potential of the comics medium.
© 2000, 2004 Kaziuchi Hanawa & Ponent Mon.

Et Cetera volume 1


By Tow Nakazaki (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59532-130-5

Western adventures and cowboy escapades are very much in the eye of the beholder. Many global cultures offer a unique spin on the already vastly protoplasmic genre and this tragically out-of-print series features one of the most engaging treatments I’ve ever seen.

As created by Tow Nakazaki, Etosetoro was originally released in Japan as nine volumes between February 1998 and January 2001 before being translated into French by Glénat and English by TokyoPop, to entertain and delight between August 2004 and April 2007. The exceedingly eccentric series is long overdue for revival…

An irreverent, genre-bending hilarious western pastiche, this delightful romp is not for you if history and logic are personal bugbears, but if it helps think of it all happening on an alternate Earth…

The story sees star-struck teenaged girl Mingchao quit her mountaintop shack and wild west roots to travel in search of the American Dream: that means a glitzy showbiz career in Hollywood.

With her she takes the fantastic Eto Gun built by her grandfather. This one-of-a-kind pistol fires the spirits of the (Japanese) Zodiac with fantastic bullets manifesting in the form of animate animal ghosts.

Naturally it takes a while – and lots of trial-and-error – for her to discover how it works. This eventually resolves into dipping the gun in the “essence” of a specific totem animal. That could mean food or clothing made from them but more often as not it demands dealing with their droppings…

Happily, the trouble she inevitably finds herself in is best dealt with by Mingchao’s innate feistiness and ingenuity. And along the trail to fame long she is been befriended by a mysterious, young and good-looking “Preacher-Man” named Baskerville.

As they make their way to far-distant California the ever-growing band of pilgrims encounter many of the icons of the untamed bad-lands, such as cowed townsfolk, villainous outlaws, evil cattle-barons, cows, ornery ol’ coots, cow-punchers, distressed widow-wimmin’, cows…

This light-hearted meander through the iconography of a million cowboy movies is fast paced, occasionally saucy and laugh-out-loud funny, and offers the inestimable benefit of sheer freshness afforded by seeing such old clichés through differently-conditioned Eastern eyes.

The first volume also includes a number of themed puzzle pages for anyone wanting to take a deeper dip into the legends that underpin the animal ammo…

Beguiling and irresistibly enticing, Et Cetera is a slice of marvellous mirth and magic for jaded fans and tops my list of Manga series in urgent need of contemporary revisiting and re-release
© 1998, 2005 Tow Nakazaki. All Rights Reserved. English script © 2005 TokyoPop Inc.

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound and Other Stories


Adapted by Gou Tanabe, translated by Zack Davisson (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-312-1

If you’re one of those people who’s never read a manga tale, or who’s been tempted but discouraged by the terrifying number of volumes these tales can run to, here’s a delicious feast of fantasy fables complete in one book revealing all that’s best about comics from the East in one darkly digestible big gulp.

Most manga can be characterised by a fast, raucous, even occasionally choppy style and manner of delivery but this volume of emphatically eerie adaptations is atmospheric, suitably scary and marvellously moody: just as you’d hope when recreating classic tales by the undisputed master of supernatural terror…

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a frail, troubled and particularly ill-starred man. Born August 20th 1890, he was truly afflicted with the hunger to write but only achieved any degree of success after his death in March 1937 – following a life of desperate penury – from the complications of intestinal cancer. Once he was gone, his literary star ascended and posthumous publications made him a household name who changed the face of fiction forever.

His stories have deeply affected generations of readers all over the world. One person particularly moved is international literary specialist Gou Tanabe who has previously adapted the works of Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekov to manga form.

Perfectly capturing the relentlessly oppressive and inescapably sombre sense of approaching fatality that permeates most of Lovecraft’s potent prose, ‘The Temple’ was written in 1920 and first published five years later in the September issue of Weird Tales. The adaptor’s mildly updated version originated in esteemed anthology magazine COMIC BEAM in March and April 2009. It details the depredations of German U-Boat U-29 and the doomed fools who man her.

After a particularly rewarding campaign Commander Karl Heinrich Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein and his officers are taking the night air when they notice a dead British mariner gripping the sub’s handrail. Whilst trying to unlock the death grip and discard the corpse, one of them salvages an ancient artefact – a small carved head – and pockets it.

From that moment on their mission is doomed…

Soon, madness and mishap plague the vessel. Death decimates the crew and inexorably the survivors drift ever deeper into depths both physical and metaphorical. When only one remains, he finds the U-boat drawn to a fantastic city and magnificent temple sunken beneath the waves, filled with statuary like the little head in his pocket…

Just as he raises his pistol to end the horror, the shattered sole survivor sees shining lights in the sunken edifice…

Lovecraft penned ‘The Hound’ in September 1922 and Weird Tales published it in 1924. Gou Tanabe’s chilling interpretation debuted in the July 2014 online edition of Comic Walker. The tale is grim, grisly, exquisitely decadent and supremely shocking, detailing the extravagant excess of English gentleman grave-robbers and diabolist magical parvenus St. John and our unnamed narrator.

Bored and indolent, they renew their sordid, blasphemous hobby in a Dutch boneyard, exhuming an arcane trinket from a grave sealed for half a millennium and reap a ghastly bounty after releasing a vengeful howling horror…

After its first foray into the material world the surviving dabbler attempts every stratagem to escape or expiate the beast, and finds some things have no use for apologies or reparations…

Concluding this first (hopefully of many) Lovecraft treasure trove is another export from Comic Walker (August 2014 this time).

‘The Nameless City’ was written in January 1921 and published ten months later in The Wolverine. Tapping into the then-vogue for arcane exploratory adventure also favoured by the likes of literary horrorist brethren Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, and latterly August Derleth and Robert E. Howard, here Lovecraft shares the story of an itinerant western wanderer (think Indiana Jones without a sense of humour or chance in Hell) who survives the Arabian deserts only to stumble upon a previously unsuspected deserted conurbation suddenly exposed by the roaring eternal winds.

Genned-up on local legends, the explorer cannot resist entering the vast metropolis. However, as he plunges deeper within, he finds thousands of boxes like a legion of coffins and realises the occupants are far from human. They may not even be dead…

Enthralling, understated and astoundingly effective, these classic tales – printed in the traditional ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format – have been reverently adapted and packaged in an inexpensive, digest-sized monochrome paperback that will delight avowed aficionados and beguile terror-loving newcomers alike.
© 2014 Gou Tanabe. All rights reserved. This English-language edition© 2017 Dark Horse Comics, Inc.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-504-8

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature.

An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976 and was an immense hit.

Those tales soon prompted a thematic companion series, Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972 to 1976, but the major draw – at home and soon, increasingly abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble Ōgami Ittō and his solemn child.

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco with.

The original saga has been successfully adapted to many other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey with its timeless themes and iconic visuals has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to this masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative.

We in the West first saw the translated tales as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, of about 300 pages each) between September 2000 and December 2002.

Once the entire translated epic had run its course it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project.

A certain formula informs the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido.

Protagonist Ōgami Ittō is also – probably – the most dangerous swordsman in creation…

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ on stylistic interpretation this third moodily magnificent monochrome collection truly gets underway with another grimly compelling fable as The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’ finds Ōgami and Daigoro aboard a ship where they encounter three bounty hunting brothers on a mission of their own. Seemingly favoured by the gods of fortune the BenTenRai siblings are lethal, unbeatable ninja warriors who instinctively comprehend the mettle of their taciturn travelling companion. Suspecting his true identity and fearing his task is opposing their current assignment – escorting a crucial witness to the Shogun’s Court – the brothers constantly test the father and son, without ever violating the strict formality of the traveller’s codes of conduct.

They even become tenuous allies when a third faction attacks with oil and flame, setting the waters ablaze. Tragically for the brothers, their fortunate reputation is not equal to their so-accurate assessment of the Lone Wolf assassin, and when the final clash comes only Ōgami walks away…

‘Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice’ then pits the wanderers against Headless Sakon, an aging warrior master who apparently whiles his days away testing his skills against punters all paying for a sporting chance to decapitate him. When one such joust almost injures Daigoro, the veteran tries to strike up a friendship with the boy’s father, but he has ulterior motives.

After intense philosophical debate fails to sway the assassin from his sworn course on the road to hell, the elderly Ronin is forced to resort to his martial prowess and one final performance…

‘The White Path Between the Rivers’ then delves back to the beginning and reveals the details of Ōgami Ittō’s downfall. The vengeance-driven killer-nomad was once the prestigious Kōgi Kaishakunin: the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke.

An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami loses everything when, soon after the birth of his son, his wife is murdered and his family eternally dishonoured due to the machinations of the politically ambitious Yagyu Clan.

Framed for plotting against the Shogun, Ōgami is ordered to commit suicide. Instead he rebels, choosing to become a despicable Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they are all dead or Hell has claimed him.

Now, despite the machinations of enemies at court he roams Japan pushing his toddler son in a tricked-out weaponised pram; two doomed souls hell-bent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

Although little more than a baby, his son Daigoro also chooses the way of the sword, and together they tread the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of destruction with death behind and before them…

When a freshly purchased girl accidentally kills the procurer who is delivering her to a brothel, she stumbles into little Daigoro and falls under the protection of the Lone Wolf. A valuable property, the local Yakuza Madam tries every possible tactic to regain her but is unable to shift Ōgami from his sworn intent to liberate ‘The Virgin and the Whore’

The martial arts mayhem concludes at ‘Close Quarters’ when Wolf and Cub become embroiled in a localised political war between generations.

The authorities in a rich lumber-producing region are divided between cutting down their forests for a quick sale and preserving the mountain woodlands that stave off calamitous flooding. After one faction occupies the arboreal tracts and threatens to burn them, the jōdai (Castle Warden and official in charge) hires Ōgami to kill the rebel leader and safeguard the precious trees.

A feat of monumental audacity and determination follows, but when the greedy jōdai attempts to cheat the assassin, all hell is unleashed…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us Westerners just can’t grasp on first reading – even with the help provided by bonus features such as the copious Glossary, providing detailed clarification and context on the terms used in the stories. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating…

Also included in this edition are profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the next instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ – an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate – this time discussing the decline of the Samurai and transformation of Bushido principles.

A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you simply must read.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Drops of God volume 1


By Tadashi Agi & Shu Okimoto translated by Kate Robinson (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-27-8

Every so often a graphic novel jumps the ghetto walls and makes a splash in the wider world and this intriguing manga monolith is the latest: eschewing the usual icebreakers of horror, sci fi or blood-soaked action to target the lofty and insular world of the high-end vintner trade and the obsessive fascination of oenophilia (I’m chucking in a bunch of technical terms all enticingly explained in the book, but you can cheat and use your search engine of choice).

Created by brother and sister thriller-writing team Shin & Yuko Kibayashi (Kindaichi’s Case Files, GetBackers) under their nom de crime Tadashi Agi and sensitively illustrated by Shu Okimoto, Kami no Shizuku debuted in 2004 in Kondansha’s Morning with book compilations beginning a year later.

The siblings are also two of the most influential wine connoisseurs in the world and their expertise and passion shine through every page of this monolithic manga tome which took the wine world by storm and won the Gourmand and Cookbook Award in 2009 – presumably a first for any work of fiction, let alone graphic novel. It was described by Decanter Magazine as “arguably the most influential wine publication in the past 20 years.”

Of course, all I care about is comics, but even on my terms this is a thoroughly entertaining, immaculately realised soap/thriller drama that would make fans of Jackie Collins or Dick Francis rethink their allegiances.

The tale stars follows prodigal son Shizuku Kanzaki; raised from birth to follow his father’s obsession only to rebel and seek his own path until tragedy and circumstance pull him back to his destiny, …

The first eighteen chapters of the delectable saga are contained in this first English translation, beginning with ‘The Scent of a Hundred Flowers’: introducing apprentice Sommelier Miyabi Shinohara who almost shames her wine-bar/restaurant employers in front of a prominent – but boorish – wine snob until a dashing young man saves the day with a bit of daredevil decanting…

It transpires that the lad is a small cog in a vast beer-making concern and has never tasted wine: a shocking admission since Shizuku is the son of global superstar of wine criticism Yutaka Kanzaki

It seems old man Kanzaki had great hopes and aspirations for his son, training the boy from birth in flavours, odour detection and discrimination like a vintner version of Doc Savage, but the boy rebelled and rejected his father’s passion.

The situation changes when Shizuku is informed of his sire’s death and a unique will…

‘A Prayer to the Fruitful Earth’ reveals the elder Kanzaki had a vast and valuable private collection of stellar vintages and has left them, his house and a fortune to his wayward son under a bizarre condition.

The heir must indulge in a duel with dark prince of wine-tasters – and inheritor of Kanzaki’s mantle as greatest critic in Japan – Issei Tomine in a dozen blind tastings of the greatest vintages in the collection – the “Twelve Apostles” – as well as the mysterious thirteenth bottle known only as “the Drops of God”. To the one who most closely agrees with the master’s own description goes everything…

At first Shizuku doesn’t care, but the arrogance of Tomine and a burning desire to understand the father who pushed him to such extraordinary lengths moves the orphan to an alliance with Miss Shinohara. Her crash-course in the history, lore and philosophy of the wine industry and craft in ‘The Profound and Subtle Queen’ as well as his first ever actual taste of the magical elixir precipitates a major transformation in the lad…

For reasons even he doesn’t understand, the neophyte decides to accept the challenge of the Drops of God in ‘Over the Bed Wafts an Aroma of Awakening’. Thus begins his education, inestimably assisted by his incredible sense of smell, expanded palate and physical skills he never even knew he possessed, all courtesy of his early training.

In episodes with such evocative titles as ‘The God of Burgundy’, ‘A Maiden Fleeing through Strawberry Fields’, ‘Tasting in the Park’ and ‘Cradling God’s Blessing in Both Hands’, what follows is a dazzling display of hard fact and the theosophical fervour of the grape-grower’s art, seamlessly blended with a canny melodrama of rivalry, redemption and (perhaps) burgeoning young love as Shizuku discovers the obsessive power of his father’s life.

With surprising intensity the cast expands as the story unfolds: the nigh-mystical nature of wine is seen to mend fences, restore lost lovers and even diagnose illness in ‘Draining the Glass of Reunion’, ‘A Maiden Smiling in the Strawberry Fields’, ‘The Sweet Dessert of Parting’ and ‘The Ones Who Watch Over’.

Even Shizuku’s career alters as he transfers from sales to the Beer company’s small and struggling wine division where he finds that even all he has learned is not enough after falling foul of snobbery and bigotry in ‘At All the Battles’ Start’, ‘A Lovely Cruel Flower’, ‘Tough Love for a Saucy Lolita’, ‘The Mystery Man of the Wine Division’ and ‘Merry-Go-Round’

Meanwhile Tomine has begun to stack the odds in his favour by introducing a seductive secret agent into the lives of Shizuku and Miss Shinohara during ‘A Fantastico Night’, wherein some nasty facts about the true character of the Prince of wine-critics is exposed…

As much religion and philosophy as science and art, the cachet and inherent excitement of the wine trade transfers readily and effectively in this tale to make for a superbly readable tale for older readers.

The Japanese excel at making superb comics which simultaneously entertain and educate (check out economics textbook Japan Inc. by Shotaru Ishinomori to see what I mean) and the powerful, evocative imagery used to capture the sensorial effect of wine on the tongue and myriad fragrances in the nostrils is staggeringly effective – a brilliant use of the disciplines as only comics can muster them.

This is an astoundingly compelling comics-read and might well be the perfect gift for all those people you thought you couldn’t buy a graphic novel for…

This black and white book is printed in the traditional ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format – even if you pick it up as a digital edition.
© 2011 Tadashi Agi/Shu Okimoto. All rights reserved.

Wandering Island volume 1


By Kenji Tsuruta, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-079-3                  eISBN: 978-1-63008-771-5

Kenji Tsuruta was born in 1961 and studied optical science, intending to pursue a career in photography, but instead made the jump to narrative storytelling as manga artist, designer, book illustrator and anime creator.

A lifelong fan of “hard science” science fiction authors like Robert A. Heinlein and the comic works of Tetsuya Chiba and Yukinobu (Saber Tiger) Hoshino, after years of producing self-published dōjinshi whilst working as an assistant to established manga stars, the 25-year-old Tsuruta began selling his own works in 1986 when his short fantasy serial Hiroku te suteki na uchū ja nai ka (‘What a Big Wonderful Universe It Is’) was published in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning magazine.

Soon after, he began Sprits of Wonder: a dazzling scientific romance of gently colliding worlds. It ran in both Weekly Morning and monthly magazine Afternoon between 1987 and 1996 before making the smooth transition to animated features and an award-winning TV series. Dark Horse Comics published the first translated episodes as a 5-issue monochrome miniseries in 1995-6.

After that the artist pretty much moved out of the manga business, instead concentrating on science fiction illustration and character design; a field of endeavour where he won many awards.

Then on July 13th 2010 Wandering Island debuted in Kodansha’s anthological Manga Box AMASIA before being serialised in Afternoon. The first collection was released in October 2011 and Dark Horse began their English language editions in July 2016.

The slow-moving, elegiac saga is Mr. Tsuruta’s first major narrative work since the turn of the century: a beguiling and enticing modern-day mystery set against a fascinating geological backdrop in a fascinating cultural backwater…

Like Great Britain, Japan is composed of a vast number of islands, many of them located in areas far beyond commercially viable air routes. To cater to those small communities, independent pilots act as postmen, delivery specialists and rapid freight-hauliers.

Freewheeling Mikura Amelia flies an old Fairey Swordfish on her rounds, enjoying a pretty idyllic life as she hops from cetacean research station to trading post to fishing village delivering whatever needs moving for whatever fee she can get.

She used to work with her grandfather Brian Amelia in the family Air Service, but now it’s just her and the cat Endeavour. Her parents moved back to civilisation after the old man died but Mikura loves the freedom of the skies and can’t let go of her grandfather’s great obsession…

Amongst his effects was an undelivered package with her name on it for delivery to Is. Electriciteit – which she translated as Electric Island. There are a few fables about the place, but most people think it’s a myth…

Mikura, however, armed with a keen mind, decades of detailed logs and a strange yearning, becomes as obsessed as her mentor with the mystery. Old Brian vanished trying to find the island, but his logs have entries written after he seemingly perished.

And then one day Mikura actually sees the perpetually shifting, cloud-cloaked atoll – complete with a small town – but cracks up trying to land there. She is rescued by a passing freighter but the frustration of being so close is agonising and unbearable…

She slowly heals and gets back to work and starts to doubt her own memories, but somehow cannot let go. Eventually she puzzles out its secret: Electric Island moves around the Pacific in a complex and convoluted three year cycle.

That only leads to more puzzles, especially after she learns of a friend of Brian’s who shared his fixation: her old English teacher who was actually a brilliant geophysicist…

Another quick trip and one last revelatory interview and at long last Mikura is flying off to a long-awaited rendezvous with the unknown…

To be Continued…

Accompanied by text feature ‘Notes on Wandering Island’, detailing the specifics of floating islands, the antecedents of the series and Tsuruta’s history, Wandering Island is a superbly welcoming introduction into what promises to be a sublime treat for every lover of untrammelled wonder…
© 2011 Kenji Tsuruta/Kodansha Ltd. All rights reserved.