Grotesque Anatomy
Tuesday, April 27, 2004
  Bargain Bin Reviews: Three Manga
Recently I went to a Gamestop to look for some used Xbox games and stumbled upon a rack of various manga, all on sale for 50% off (i.e., five bucks apiece).  There were several series represented, but not all of them had the first volume available.  On a whim, I decided to check out the following three series.

SGT. FROG v1SGT. FROG: I remember awhile back someone spotted this book and commented on how outrageous the cover looked.  (Ah, the magic of Google:  I had thought it was Augie De Blieck Jr. but it was actually Dave Farabee over in The Fourth Rail's "Down The Line" feature.)  I felt the same way when I saw this sitting on the shelf:  The concept of a gun-toting, alien Kermit was so bizarre I just had to try out the book.  (Perhaps this is part of the reason behind manga's success:  Manga does a better job of capturing that elusive "I have to know what the story behind that odd yet compelling cover is" effect that American comics have, for the most part, lost since the Silver Age.  Or in other words, manga's not afraid to be goofy, silly fun.)

The good news is that the book doesn't disappoint:  It's funny in a surreal, madcap sort of way, with plenty of jokes that work largely because of the comic pacing and staging of creator Mine Yoshizaki.  The basic premise is simple:  Sergeant Keroro, a tiny alien advance scout who strongly resembles a frog, is discovered and adopted by the Hinata family (brother Fuyuki, sister Natsumi, and mother Aki).  Much of the humor comes from the comic contrast between Keroro's adorable appearance and his militaristic mindset (he's here to prepare Earth (known to his race as Pokopen) for invasion, you see).  Seeing the cute Keroro alternate between plotting against his human family and obediently helping with household chores provides plenty of opportunities for humor both dark and sitcomish.  And making this megalomaniacal mercenary so minuscule is comedy genius:  Sgt. Keroro easily joins the classic comedic ranks of other deluded, diminutive alien conquerers, such as Marvin the Martian.

Attacking Mom
Attacking Mom...

Helping with the chores
...helping with the chores.  It's all in a day's work for a busy alien invader.

A big part of what makes Sgt. Frog work is Yoshizaki's charming artwork.  It's simple in terms of detail but sophisticated in terms of storytelling:  Yoshizaki is one of those rare creators who can pull off subtle visual gags without disrupting the narrative flow.  Yoshizaki is also to be commended for getting so much mileage out of Keroro's limited design.  As Yoshizaki jokes in an extra feature at the back of the book, Keroro's expression almost never changes:  it's always the same "unblinking gaze" and unclosed mouth.  Yet Yoshizaki is able to suggest a variety of Keroro's moods using other devices:  shading, body language, props, etc.  (OK, Yoshizaki does "cheat" a couple times by giving Keroro other eye expressions, but it's still informative to see how much a skilled cartoonist can do with so little.)

Sgt. Frog is by no means a perfect work:  The multi-personalitied Momoko character is more grating than funny; and the obligatory fanservice elements (several panty shots and a mother who is (as Tokyopop's character bio puts it) "extremely well-endowed") are even more distracting than usual.  Still,  Sgt. Frog made me laugh much more than it made me squirm, so I'll definitely be getting the next volume.

AI YORI AOSHI v1AI YORI AOSHI:  Well, I only have myself to blame for getting this book.  The titillating cover art combined with the back cover copy ("Kaoru Hanabishi...runs into the childhood sweetheart he hasn't seen since leaving home....and she has come to be his wife") made me feel uneasy, but Craeyst C. Raygal's review over at Anime News Network convinced me to give it a chance, mainly by comparing it to Oh My Goddess, one of my favorite manga series.  Let's just say I should have followed my gut.

I'm sure a big part of my displeasure with this book stems from my personal tastes:  I'm not a big fan of romantic comedies, finding most of them to be overly sappy and sentimental.  In this case, however, my distaste goes beyond a mere aversion to the sweetly saccharine.  The idea of a woman who has devoted her entire life to becoming the perfect wife for a man she knew only when they were both children is more than a little creepy.  The story reads like some disturbing male fantasy about a perfect woman who has no desires outside of serving her man.

The art by creator Kou Fumizuki is the best part of the book.  His style looks like a mix of Kosuke Fujishima (Oh My Goddess), Hiroyuki Utatane (Seraphic Feather), and Kenichi Sonoda (Cannon God Exaxxion).  Unlike Raygal, I thought Fumizuki's backgrounds were one of his strongest points.  The backgrounds aren't omnipresent (most of the time panels are simply filled with Kaoru and Aoi talking) but when they do appear, the backgrounds are simple, elegant, and convincing.  I'm not much interested in continuing with this series, but I would buy a book collecting Fumizuki's illustrations of Japanese locations.  (Tokyopop has a couple sample pages up on their site that include some of Fumizuki's drawings of a subway station, but they don't really reproduce very well at the smaller size.)

FULL METAL PANIC v1FULL METAL PANIC:  My initial take on this manga could be summed up in one word:  Incomprehensible.  It's not that the plot (such as it is) is hard to follow.  What's hard to get a handle on is everything else:  Characterization, motivation, setting, and so on.  The gist of the story is this:  Kaname Chidori, popular high school student, is constantly being "protected" by the eccentric and enigmatic Sosuke Sagara.  Sosuke seems to be under the impression that Kaname's life is in danger, but Kaname is just annoyed by Sosuke's disruptive (and destructive) behavior.  The back cover blurb hints that Kaname is more than she seems ("Unbeknownst to her, a group of terrorists believes she possesses the special powers of 'the Whispered.' MISSION: KIDNAP KANAME.")  The only problem is that the actual story does nothing to establish this, so Sosuke's constant supervision comes across as stalking.  Further, a convincing setting is never established.  One character attempts to justify Sosuke's actions to Kaname by offering that he "lived in a disputed territory ever since he was a kid," but it's never explained what a "disputed territory" is.  Does this mean the story is supposed to take place in some dystopian future or alternate history?  Who knows; the story never provides the readers with any context one way or the other.

I get the feeling that writer Shouji Gatou was trying to create a sense of mystery that would bring readers back to discover what the true story is behind Sosuke's bizarre behavior.  Instead, the result is a baffling, disjointed story that frustrates the reader.  I'm certainly not interested in reading any further installments in this series.

On the positive side, the art is generally pleasing.  Towards the end of the book, artist Retsu Tateo really seemed to be hitting his stride, coming up with more innovative and interesting layouts and designs.  (One image in particular stands out:  A panel where Kaname's pointed finger is extended so far the reader can see the swirls of her fingertip.)  Also, I enjoyed the scene where Sosuke battled the cruel coach:  Having Sosuke remain calm and courteous in the face of the coach's increasing insanity was a nice touch.  Other than that, though, there isn't much to recommend this book.

Kaname's got a point
Funny, I was thinking the same thing after finishing this manga.

Conclusion:  Well, one out of three isn't that bad, especially at those prices.
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