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Blue Moon Reviews — Summer Fun with Shonen Jump

In this column I take a look at four entries from VIZ’s Shonen Jump/Shonen Jump Advanced line-up, with mixed results. On the agenda are Tegami Bachi, Gin Tama, Waqwaq, and Naruto.

tegamibachiTegami Bachi: Letter Bee, Vol. 1 by Hiroyuki Asada

Grade: B-

Gauche Suede (yes, really) is employed as a Letter Bee in Amberground, a land of perpetual darkness. Letters are very important to the people of Amberground, who might be living far from their loved ones and unable to cross the dangerous wilderness between towns, and Gauche takes his job delivering them very seriously. When one of his letters turns out to be a young boy called Lag Seeing (yes, really), Gauche faithfully delivers the boy to his aunt, but on the way they battle a bevy of giant bugs and share some of each other’s memories. The second chapter takes place five years later, with Lag on the way to becoming a Letter Bee himself.

Tegami Bachi is easily the most beautiful Shonen Jump manga I’ve ever seen. The cover is gorgeous and the artwork within is also very attractive, featuring a plethora of sparkly stars and a faithful canine companion who looks like she came straight out of xxxHOLiC. If this were merely the tale of Gauche and Lag traveling across a desolate, nocturnal landscape, pausing to admire the strange scenery while learning to trust each other—and there are moments like these—I’d probably love it quite a lot.

Unfortunately, each fellow is saddled with an angsty backstory of absurd proportions and the repeated emphasis on the importance of heart (some mix of sentiment and magical energy) gets old quickly. These flaws aren’t enough to dissuade me from checking out volume two, but they do prohibit me from giving the series my unqualified endorsement.

gintama13Gin Tama 13 by Hideaki Sorachi

Grade: D

After aliens invade Edo and pass a law outlawing swords, former samurai Gin Sakata, as The Story Thus Far puts it, “sets up shop as a yorozuya—an expert at managing trouble and handling the oddest of jobs.” In volume thirteen, these odd jobs take the form of a mother who is searching for the son who left home years before, a wife who is convinced that her husband is cheating on her, and a shopkeeper who needs Gin’s help in a contest against some alien competition. There are also a couple of chapters featuring the wacky adventures of side characters.

I don’t wish to offend fans of Gin Tama, but I must ask… what exactly is it that you see in this series?! I’m honestly confused, for I find it to be extraordinarily crude, unfunny, and pointless, with characters so unlikable they border on despicable. It required an effort of will to finish it. The art isn’t bad—if one can look beyond what’s actually being drawn, like flatulent old ladies and guys crapping themselves—but egads! Pass the mental soap, please.

waqwaq1Waqwaq 1 by Ryu Fujisaki

Grade: C+

In a land known as Waqwaq, conflict between humans and machines has raged for centuries. Humans carve villages out of mountains and live in hiding while seven Guardians (humans who merge with friendly machines for the purpose of battle) take on the task of fighting the machines. Many pray for the return of the kami, a legendary being with red blood (the humans of Waqwaq have black blood) who is believed to have created humans and machines and who has the power to grant one person’s wish. There are some who seek to manipulate this situation for their own good, like the shadowy figure who summons a teenage girl—evidently from our own world and time—and proclaims that she is the kami. He visits two of the Guardians and urges them to fight their brethren for the right to have their wish granted. And, apparently not suspicious of amorphous dudes who appear out of nowhere, they take the bait and try to claim the kami for themselves.

Standing in their way is the newest Guardian, Shio, who inherits his position when his father dies after defeating a particularly nasty conglomeration of machines. It’s Shio who is tasked with protecting the kami and seeing her safely along her journey and Shio who begins to see the effect she has on the world—though she protests that she has no powers at all—when she is able to free a machine from its compulsion to attack humans.

If this plot sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. There’s a lot going on and Fujisaki’s muddled art doesn’t aid the reader’s comprehension much; I still don’t have a clear idea of what Shio’s Guardian form looks like, for example. Even with its flaws, though, I found Waqwaq to be pretty interesting, especially the post-apocalyptic setting. I’ll probably check out the second volume to see how the story develops.

naruto45Naruto 45 by Masashi Kishimoto

Grade: C

It’s been a really long time since I’ve read any Naruto. In the meantime, everyone got older and Sasuke went rogue, vowing revenge on the village of Konoha because of something bad that happened to his brother in the past. As the volume starts, he and some other folks are trying to capture a guy called Killer Bee, whose possession by an Eight-Tailed Beast allows him to transform into a bull-headed octupus… thing. Meanwhile, Naruto is receiving lessons on a new source of chakra from little amphibious guy. The rest of the volume is mostly a lot of people I’ve never seen before talking about things I don’t understand. Oh, and Konoha gets attacked.

The one thing I was reminded of most while reading this volume was a Saturday morning cartoon. And really, that’s exactly what Naruto was intended to be: entertainment for young boys. For an adult like me, and a female one at that, it’s kind of fun to pop in for a volume and see what’s going on, but I can’t imagine reading this series regularly. If you want to see ninja frogs or Sasuke’s monumental levels of angst, this volume’s worth checking out, but definitely don’t go into it expecting much to make sense.

Review copies provided by VIZ.

22 Comments

[…] the agenda are: Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee 1 by Hiroyuki Asada: B- It’s very pretty and atmospheric, but some aspects of the story are […]

In regards to Naruto ( my primary manga/anime obsession, which I love to pieces ), I think it has a lot more merit than you give it credit for; its depth is similar to that of the better Silver Age/Bronze Age American superhero comics. You might not get that from just popping in, but following the series ( which many do, in the West as well as the East ) gives a lot of depth.

I agree that Sasuke is a colossal pain in the ass, and gets way too much of the spotlight. However, Naruto’s developed into a great character. Before the time-skip he was a well-intentioned dimwit, an annoying pest who relied on his inherent demon powers as a crutch. Teen Naruto’s more sophisticated; he’s still got the childish idealism, but it’s not just shonen stereotype determination. It’s more like he’s actually seeing what’s wrong with the ninja world, and is realizing that it’s his burden to set things right. Sasuke, on the other hand, represents what’s wrong with the ninja world, a boy who’s simply been broken by tragedy and is just acting reflexively in the name of a destructive vengeance motto.

Which is alarmingly self-aware on Kishimoto’s part, since this is a series about a world where child soldiers are socially acceptable. Plenty of things have happened in Naruto that I’ve disagreed with, such as Orochimaru’s premature and unceremonious demise, but it’s still an easy favorite of mine.

I do really like the art for Tegami Bachi. And the story, while it does use some cliche themes like you said, is unique enough for me that I think it compensates for the cliche-ness.

And I still have no interest in Naruto.

Speaking as an unoffended Gin Tama reader, and at the risk of killing a joke by explaining it, I’d say the appeal is:

1) In earlier volumes, Sorachi was basically drawing a straight shonen comic, and then having viciously hilarious things coming out of the characters’ utterly straight faces. Not at all what I was expecting from something that looked to just be “Rurouni Kenshin w/ Aliens”.

2) The story engines (aliens, odd jobs, and the political powderkeg that is Edo), basically allow Sorachi to tell whatever story he wants, be it funny or (occasionally, and never oppressively) serious, without a huge amount of limits on what makes sense in the context of the world. Opening it up to sci-fi also opens up the stories to take pokes at the whole of pop culture, starting with the deeply rooted themes of shonen comics themselves.

3) It’s the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” of shonen comics, basically. Mean, funny, and based largely on characters getting into situations and doing the worst thing possible in them. I honestly have no idea how it ever got picked up in Jump, but that just makes it even funnier.

Honestly, Gin Tama’s probably my favorite Japanese comic not by Urasawa or Taiyo Matsumoto that I’ve run into in the past few years, but it’s probably not for everyone.

Tegamibachi gets really awesome starting in vol. 2. Vol. 1 is mainly just backstory for the real plot.

re: Gintama….I haven’t read volume 13 but I found I can both be highly amused by a single volume of Gintama and then become rapidly tired of it. And I can cycle through those emotions very quickly. The series walks this strange line…but then sometimes decides just to throw up on it (or *cough* do other indelicate things on it) just because. And that pretty much sums up my experience of Gintama. ;-)

Tegami Bachi sounds like someone took the concept behind The Postman (post-apocalyptic mailman) and extended it. Many mangas/animes do things like that, and the results are usually good. Still, I’d like to know more about Tegami before I follow it.

Gin Tama is obviously a low-brow humor comic, which is actually an appealing to some people. To each his own.

Waqwaq actually sounds pretty typical to me- unusual premise, “mistakenly chosen” protagonist, cute kid heroes. But many mangas start like that. Could go in any direction.

Naruto’s problem is not that it’s hard to understand, it’s that it’s been going on too long (and the individual chapters are frustratingly short.) Still I think it is pretty good. The one big problem I have is with Sasuke’s revenge obsession. First he hated his brother for killing everyone in his villageexcept him, now he feels sorry for him because his brother was forced by the Konoha elders to kill his clan, so that now he wants to destroy the village that raised him and where his friends live? I think this is intentional- as mentioned above, Naruto has actually grown up as a person, while Sasuke, the once more mature kid, is now a fanatic. It’s still annoying, tho. And I just can’t feel sorry for Itachi when he killed even the children of his clan just because the adults were planning on revolting.

@Nitz: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Perhaps this was just a bad volume to sample, for, though I could tell Naruto had matured, there really wasn’t anything about his opinion on the ninja world as a whole, since he was training in seclusion throughout.

@Josh: And another thoughtful comment! The way you describe it, Gin Tama certainly sounds admirable and I can see from my brief exposure how what you say about it is true. I guess my reaction can be chalked up to the same reason I don’t like shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” or half the popular comedies on TV today—I actually feel an almost physical discomfort when a character goes into a bad situation and makes it worse. Perhaps it’s the Southerner in me.

@Travis: That is awesome to hear! Like Okman, I believe the story compensates for the cliché elements, but moving away from angsty backstories can only be an improvement.

@Sijo: Thank you for explaining why Sasuke wants revenge on Konoha! The volume never actually revealed what had happened with his brother. It definitely appears that there’s more to the contrast between Sasuke and Naruto than I was able to appreciate from a single volume.

I can understand that; I have trouble watching The Office for that same reason.

[…] Michelle Smith takes a look at four recent Shonen Jump titles at Comics Should Be […]

@Josh: Exactly! The Office was a prime example for me.

As much of a prick as Sasuke is, keep in mind that he’s a 15-year-old boy who saw his entire family murdered by his brother when he was 8 years old, and didn’t receive anything even resembling emotional support afterwords. Friends like Naruto temporarily gave him something to care about, but the ninja world still raises kids to be killers and little else. If power is the only thing of value in that world, then power is what he’s looking for.

Naruto himself is the good example of a kid alienated by ninja society who managed not to give into bitterness; even though he was treated as a pariah because of the demon sealed inside him, he managed to channel his energy into positive goals and make friends in the process. A lot of his enemies tend to be characters who haven’t done that; for example, Haku ( treated as a pariah for his genetic ninjutsu gifts, taken in as a apprentice by the heartless mercenary Zabuza ), Neji ( child of a branch of the Hyuga clan that was literally enslaved by the higher-class members, became bitter and fatalistic almost to the point of sociopathy ), Gaara ( created by his own father as a genetic weapon, had a demon inside him with nobody giving him any incentive to control it ), etc. And as Haku showed us very early in the series, Naruto doesn’t always reform them successfully. But he does have that compassion towards others, something almost none of the adults in the world seem to have.

I should note to Michelle that this is a series with a LOT of material to read, and doesn’t really work if you just pop in, but I personally find following the whole thing very rewarding.

Sasuke’s tragic backstory is pretty off-the-shelf for the genre Naruto works in (what I like to call the Shounen Punching Epic, though it may also concern Swording or Shooting as the protagonist’s powers dictate). As a result I’ve never had any particular sympathy for the character. He’s unchanged from his forebears in the 80’s who were raised to be killers because of the whims of the gods as opposed to the whims of ninja society.

Naruto is likewise a stock character, pretty much off the same peg that gave us Luffy in One Piece. I find Luffy a far more realized and sympathetic take on this type but obviously people’s mileage will vary (based largely on how much they like or dislike the art styles involved). The approach to his villains is stock for Shounen Punching Epics, too, the villains are always guys who are outsiders or pariahs who fail to try hard enough to fit productively into society.

As a result of Naruto being so stock, I’ve correctly predicted outcomes and plot twists just based on hearing descriptions of situations and being passingly familiar with the founding Shounen Punching Epics of the late 70’s and 80’s. This is not really a series that merits in-depth study or has any great artistic potential a quick read doesn’t betray. You like it because it’s a competently executed example of a genre that can be appealing, or you don’t.

I’m not denying Naruto has a lot of stock elements, but what makes me prefer it so much more than other Shonen series ( exception made for Rurouni Kenshin ) is the depth to which everything connects back to the complex and morally ambiguous ( if not outright cruel ) operations of the ninja societies.. Especially since the Time Skip, the hole that the world is in gets deeper and deeper; even figures who once were shown as heroic, like the Third Hokage, are revealed to have a lot of blood on their hands. The villains don’t seem to be pariahs so much as kids whose humanity has been literally weaponized, such as Sasuke, Itachi, Gaara prior to the end of the Attack on The Leaf Village arc, Pain, and to an extent Orochimaru ( is it any wonder that, in response to the kind of world he observed as an orphaned child, he’d go to the lengths for power that he did? ). I’ve seen Crapsack Societies in other shonen manga, but none as pervasive as Naruto’s, and the world’s complexity really contextualizes the traditional shonen stories as something a bit deeper than the norm.

Similarly, while Naruto started as a stock character, he’s developed a lot. The Time Skip, again, has contributed greatly to this; he’s not trying to become Hokage as a little boy’s dream of power and respect anymore, so much as the fact that the world’s really fucked up and it needs him to get it in a humane direction.

I find nothing especially complex about the setting for Naruto. it’s very baroque, certainly, but that’s an intrinsic trope of the genre (go read a list of the Saints of Lucifer from Saint Seiya sometime). Is it based on institutionalized cruelty? Sure, that’s a trope that goes all the way back to Hokuto no Ken, which frankly got a lot crueler (and transformed the protagonist in a far more nuanced way).

Kenshin is actually a bit more developed than Naruto as iterations of the Shounen Punching Epic go. It’s a story that actually does a few novel things in the genre, dropping some tropes and arguably developing some new ones. I’m not a huge Kenshin fan but I could have a substantial discussion of it. With Naruto, any attempt to discuss it in depth would degenerate into talking about the book’s forebears. (Which I have, in fact, already done!)

The only way you can find Naruto novel is to be getting it as your introduction to certain genre elements of the Shounen Punching Epic, which is fine. It’s just something that needs to be acknowledged when it comes time to recommending the book. Stories that are pretty much all stock elements are much less likely to click with those disinterested in the genre or already very familiar with it.

Couldn’t have agreed more with your assessment of Tegami Bachi, Michelle! I thought the art was gorgeous and moody (and who wouldn’t like a fight scene set in a giant broccoli forest, for Pete’s sake!), but the “heart” concept was half-baked. I wasn’t totally sold on volume one, but I’d love to see what happens in subsequent volumes.

I’m also impressed by your ability to make sense of Waq Waq–your review may be the only one whose plot summary didn’t doggedly follow the back cover blurb!

Thanks on both accounts! In the case of Waqwaq, I feel that it’s proof of the old adage “forewarned is forearmed.” Because I knew to expect difficulty in comprehending it, I read with more determined attention than I might otherwise have done.

Lynxara,

Fair enough; I admit that my knowledge of shonen is limited to more recent stuff. Given what I’ve said I like about Naruto, what would you recommend to me?

Well, it’s hard to say. One of Naruto’s virtues is that it has very clean, almost anime-like art that tends to appeal to the aesthetics Americans find most pleasing in manga. Bleach, for instance, has a similar style and is if anything more popular while also being if anything more completely off-the-shelf.

Older manga are going to use very different styles that are probably going to feel more cartoony to you. While this doesn’t seem to put off Japanese audiences, it does seem to bother their American counterparts when it comes to everything that’s not Toriyama.

I don’t know if Hokuto no Ken is the really the first of the Shounen Punching Epics, but I often see it cited that way. There were action comics previously but they didn’t use the whole formula approach. You can see predecessors of the formula in boxing comics of the period like Ashita no Joe and Ring ni Kakero– of the two, Ashita no Joe is the better comic.

Saint Seiya is hugely important to determining the genre’s formulas and is in many ways a prototype for Naruto, but it’s drawn in a somewhat crude and frankly unappealing style. It’s a hard read. A more modern foundational series is Yu Yu Hakusho, which introduced a bunch of new tropes and solidified certain character archetypes. Dragonball is also a fairly important read.

Of the ongoing series, the most influential is One Piece by far in terms of spawning imitators. That said, for someone who likes Naruto’s visuals, I’d suggest Fullmetal Alchemist. The art style is similar but the mangaka is quite gifted when it comes to layout and developing startlingly original character types and plot twists. You may also get a kick out of Kekkaishi if you find Naruto’s world-building appealing.

I admit my own ignorance of earlier shounen works, but I second the recommendations of everything mentioned in Lynxara’s final paragraph.

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