Tag Archives: Japan

The Shadow of Black Wings (The Year of the Dragon #1)

Title: The Shadow of Black Wings

Author: James Calbraith

Series: The Year of the Dragon #1

Bran is a young dragon rider eager to graduate from the Academy and go on with the rest of his life—even if he’s not too sure what he wants to do. A journey taken with his father on a ship bound for places he’s never heard of sounds like a good start. But destiny has some marked him for something else . . .

The land of Yamato is more isolated than the Qin behind their barrier. An island unreachable by most sailors, it nonetheless contains a civilization to rival the rest of the world. But strange divinations foretell great changes. A shrine maiden and her best friend, a female samurai, are more involved than they suspect in the turmoil to come.

I really liked this, but the book suffers greatly from a lack of cohesion. The worldbuilding is excellent, picturing an alternate-history where Bran, who is from either Scotland or Wales (I never looked up what the new names referred to), finds himself on a sea voyage that takes him all the way to China and Japan. Along the way we see various kinds of dragons and magic, and the ways different cultures approach them both. The majority of the beginning and middle is devoted to this, with the greater plot only picking up at the end.

The biggest flaw is that the narrative doesn’t flow well at all. The initial scenes put a great deal of emphasis on Bran’s time at school and the bully that torments him. Both of these things drop out of the story after he graduates (hopefully they’ll surface in a future book so the time spent developing them wasn’t wasted). Then the sea voyage is less of a journey and more of a series of vignettes about various places Bran sees along the way (and the frequent switches from Bran’s point of view to his father’s don’t help much). Then we switch to Yamato and spend a good amount of time setting things up there before the story ever circles back around and connects the two threads. And the story cuts off in the middle of rising action, with nothing resembling a climax, even a minor one.

The ending may be less of a problem if you read the bundle, since I presume the second book will pick up immediately after this one left off. But whether or not you enjoy the book is probably going to come down to how much you like exploring the world, as the rest of the story feels like it needed another draft. I would have preferred alternating chapters between Bran and the girls, as it would have allowed the moment their stories merge to come much closer to the event that caused it.

Overall, I suspect I’ll keep going with this, because I do like it, but you’re probably better off getting the first book while it’s free and sampling it that way. I rate this book Neutral.

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Title: Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Author: Richard Parks

Series: Yamada Monogatari (technically there are more about the same character but I was unable to track down what order they are supposed to go)

Yamada no Goji is a minor nobleman with a keen mind and a tolerable blade, but he has little influence at court. So when the conspiracies of the nobility reach out to ensnare him again, he’s reluctant to get involved. But for the sake of an old friend, he agrees—and finds himself confronted by a silent killer who is leaving dead bodies around the city. If he can’t solve the mystery fast enough, he’s bound to lose more of the few people dear to him.

I’m reading these incredibly out of order, I suppose, but it didn’t make much difference as far as I could tell. The story is good about introducing characters, places, customs and so on as needed, without assuming too much knowledge beforehand. I liked the historical Japanese setting, and how naturally the supernatural intersects everyone’s lives. Yamada is smart but not impossible to follow, and the layers of mystery generally work well.

I wasn’t as fond of the alcoholism, or the way the story breaks between its first segment and everything that comes after (largely because Yamada spends four months drinking his life away). It’s a little harder to sympathize with his poverty when he’s wasting multiple opportunities to stay farther out of it.

All in all, though, it worked far more than it didn’t, and I would be interested to read more in this series. This story is fairly self-contained, so it doesn’t hurt to read out of order or as a standalone. I rate this book Recommended.

Tokyo Ghoul (anime)

Tokyo Ghoul

Episodes 1-12

– minor amounts of nudity, ghouls eating human flesh (mostly not shown), and an intense torture scene (the main reason to stay away if this will bother you)

Ken Kaneki is an ordinary human in a city where ghouls lurk. Ghouls eat people, and a special task force hunts them down. But it’s all distant from his everyday life—until a date gone bad leaves him no longer quite human himself. And even if he wants to live a quiet life, people from both sides have taken an interest in him . . .

This was far less of a horror story than I initially expected, although by the end it does go quite deeply into some hard things. I doubt I’ll watch the last episode or two again, as sitting through someone being tortured while chained to a chair was bad enough the first time. So I want to reiterate up front that this is NOT a children’s show and the Mature rating is for a reason.

On the more positive side, though, the characters are really strong. Although the whole “must eat people” bit would make it easy to characterize ghouls as monsters, both sides have a lot of gradations. There are members of the CCG (the anti-ghoul force) that have far crossed the line with their obsession to wipe out all ghouls. Similarly, some ghouls don’t see the point of giving humans any dignity, or restraining their own excesses. Ken isn’t the only character caught in between those two sides. He falls in with a group of ghouls who only want to be left alone, and try to exist in ways that minimally impact the general human population.

This comes to a head in tragic scenes like the confrontation in episode 8, where the person giving the speech about ghouls having the same right to live as any ordinary person is telling the one person who can’t be convinced, and the one who might be convinced is fighting someone who can’t figure out how to say the same thing. And it probably wouldn’t be as easy as winning that one man over to the ghoul’s side, but that would have been a start. A start that never happened, and might never happen, which leaves the world stuck in the same struggle it’s always been, where ghouls and humans mischaracterize and kill each other.

Some threads might be better in the manga, as, for instance, Ken’s best human friend, who is a major character early on, disappears from the story for no obvious reason. It would have been interesting seeing the two of them interact more after Ken was turned. However, the heart of the story is Ken and his relationship to the group of oddball ghouls who dare to believe they can coexist quietly with humans, and find ways to take the nourishment they need without becoming monsters.

Oh, and although this can be a dark and serious show, the space after the credits where the preview would normally go tend to be lighthearted side stories told in about 30 seconds, and are well worth watching.

Overall this is nothing like what I expected, and I enjoyed it a lot. I watched it in Japanese because I streamed most of it, so I’m not really sure how the English cast performed. I haven’t read the manga yet so I can’t say how faithful or not it was as an adaptation, but I understand a great deal of manga was condensed into these episodes, which may explain why some characters don’t get as much time as I thought they should. I rate this show Recommended.

(As a side note, regardless of what you think about the second season, episode 13 does make a much better ending than episode 12, as it finishes that fight and gives a better sense of an ending. But the box set will only come with episodes 1-12.)

A Mortal Song

Title: A Mortal Song

Author: Megan Crewe

Sora has lived on Mount Fuji with the kami for her entire life, until a demon and his army invade. Then she learns she’s not kami herself, but only a substitute—a human traded for the real kami princess, a hedge against a prophecy of darkness that her parents hoped wouldn’t happen until the kami girl had grown strong enough to handle it. With the only home she’s ever known in danger, Sora is determined to save it . . . even if she is destined to be nothing more than support for the real princess.

This was fascinating on a number of levels. Sora wants desperately to be the hero. It’s her mother and father, her friends, her people that are suffering under the brutal tyranny of the invaders. Nor is the wider world immune, for without the kami’s guiding influences, various natural forces will get more and more unbalanced. But wish as she might, she continues to stumble across her own weaknesses and inadequacies. The need for food. The need to rest. The terrible truth that her inner self is changeable, not an incarnation of strength like Takeo’s nature is to loyalty. And the humiliation that another girl exists, a kami that is everything she thought she was.

The people around her are fascinating, too. Takeo’s loyalty is to the princess—but which one? Sora can’t figure out if their friendship since childhood will put her above the true princess . . . or if it’s for the best if he doesn’t. I liked the difficulty Chiyo has in accepting her own role, which is even more poignant because this struggle comes through Sora’s point of view, who is dealing with the same thing herself but is less able to admit it. Keiji is also a good foil to Sora, as his own humanity and weakness helps her to come to grips with her own. I do wish Haru had gotten more time, though. He felt barely developed, and once I realized his character wasn’t going where I expected, I was a bit disappointed not to know him better.

The setting is also wonderful. The story takes place in Japan, but since this is the world everyone knows, the story doesn’t waste time over-describing things that may not be familiar to a Western audience. In fact, the various kami, ogres, and other creatures justly get more attention. And what a nice variety! I knew a fair number of them and still found a couple I hadn’t seen before. Also some of the ones I had given up on seeing made a surprise appearance right before the end.

And the ending! I kept wondering if the prophecy would play out straight or get subverted, like the whole plot has subverted the typical tropes. I think it’s a testament to how well told the story is that it kept me guessing right up until the last. It felt like a very fitting way to finish things.

I was less fond of the romance, more because I dislike love triangles in general, and I felt that Sora’s new attraction happened really fast. But it never got pushed hard enough to overwhelm the rest of the plot, and I did like that it ended relatively positively for everyone involved.

The plot does wrap up well enough that a sequel doesn’t seem likely. Still, this was a very good read, and one I’m likely to come back to again and again. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Nightmare Ninja (Moonshadow #2)

Title: The Nightmare Ninja

Author: Simon Higgins

Series: Moonshadow #2

Silver Wolf has not forgotten the young shinobi who humiliated him previously. He’s got a plan to usurp the Shogun and take over Japan, but first he schemes vengeance for his own honor.

Moonshadow and Snowhawk are called away on a rescue mission. Some unknown force is threatening the White Nun, and she’s specifically asked for their help. An extended solo mission comes with plenty of dangers, but Moonshadow also struggles with his own role as the leader. Is he going to have to choose between Snowhawk and his own duty as a shinobi?

This remains an excellent series. Japan’s history comes to life, and the fights in particular show a good understanding of the martial arts involved. I particularly liked the early fight on the rooftops—even when swords are drawn, neither swordsman dares actually block the enemy’s strike, because that would be noisy. And Moonshadow is an excellent fighter—as is just about everyone up against him. Seeing that in action is a lot of fun.

I also liked the various abilities the shinobi have mastered. They add a nice touch of fantasy to the historical fiction, and an extra element of uncertainty as Moonshadow and Snowhawk have to defend themselves against increasingly unusual attacks. And the mythological monsters were great.

Character-wise, I liked the progression for both Moonshadow and Snowhawk. Moonshadow is maturing in leadership, in his ability to make the split-second decisions that might save or doom him and others. He really liked Snowhawk, as a friend, and perhaps more than that . . . but he’s deeply committed to the ways of the shinobi, and she’s breaking code in ways he shouldn’t be excusing. Snowhawk, for her part, is finally free of the tortures of the Fuma clan, but her heart is still chained to them through her anger and unforgiveness. It’s a fatal flaw in a shinobi: she knows she has to master herself, but how?

Overall this is a second book just as strong as the first. I’m eager to see how this continues. I rate this book Recommended.

Assassination Classroom

The students in class 3-E are the outcasts, the rejects, the troublemakers. No one expects them to succeed. Which is why it’s all the more puzzling when an alien creature who blew a huge hole through the moon insists on teaching their class. The creature further claims he’ll destroy the earth in exactly a year—so this year’s classroom, in addition to the usual subjects, is secretly and intensely focusing on a single goal: kill the teacher.

To be honest, although I’d heard a lot of people reviewing this series positively, it took a while for it to grab me. The early episodes feel like they’re all over the place. For a show that’s supposed to be about class 3-E, the beginning spends a lot of time on teachers, outside assassins, and so on that has little to do with the students. And the students are so beaten down by their position that even this highly unusual assignment can fail to make them interesting. The way episodes were often two different stories each told in about ten minutes didn’t help keep my interest. Also, the show would tend to really emphasize something, like the split between class E and the other four classes, then totally forget about it for quite a few episodes, which gave the early pacing especially a jerky feel.

But I kept going because it was okay, if not an instant favorite, and was very pleased with how everything turns out. The long arcs that comprise the end of the first season and the end of the series were much more what I had been hoping to see, as the class pushes themselves to use all their newfound skills in serious situations. I also liked some of the smaller moments scattered around, such as the baseball game, Nagisa’s trick against his new PE teacher, and the Nagisa-versus-Karma fight (well, the whole paintball episode was amusing, but that fight made it one of my favorites).

For the characters, the demure and girlish Nagisa, who narrates much of the story, ties with Karma for my favorites. Nagisa’s not one to stand out most of the time. He’s average at most things, but where other students start showing talents for brawling or sharpshooting, he’s got talents much more in line with actual assassins. He can read situations and react appropriately, which is often creatively. And when he goes for the kill, he goes for the throat. Yet he is still a kid, and sometimes despite having the right instincts, he’s just up against someone too good for him. His backstory was also extremely good, surprising me with reasons for things like his long hair and his personality.

But Nagisa tends to be highly entertaining or drawing in short bursts. Karma is the series-long selling point for me.

Karma is the kid who, when told on his suspension about the new teacher, remarks: “Oh? I’ve always wanted to kill a teacher.” He’s unflappable, smart, and always smiling—usually while doing some vicious prank or needling with words designed to provoke a fight. The uses he finds for wasabi had me in tears because I was laughing so hard. I’m not sure how this goes in English, because I have a sub-only subscription, but this show is worth watching in Japanese to get the full context of how he’ll use English against English-speakers to taunt them. Basically, whenever Karma gets a particularly devilish smile, I knew I was in for a good time.

The other class members get a fair amount of focus, as do the other teachers. I liked what happened with Asano from the main campus, and how stereotypes don’t control more minor characters like him. (It’s also funny how his basic arrogance hasn’t really changed, despite everything . . . and I wish there was some bonus content showcasing him and Karma going head-to-head when they’re older.)

I really liked the ending. It’s a solid ending that ties up everything for the students and the teachers. After all the drama, we get to see the graduation, and even a bit of what happens next. And although it closes many things, it’s the openness that’s really appealing. You can see these students are now people living out their dreams to the full—taking everything they’ve learned in sometimes surprising ways to tackle the challenge of an adult world. Although I’d LOVE for Nagisa to have a bonus half-episode or so going into more detail, because his looks the most amusing, his final visual is a powerful statement of how much what he learned shaped who he is.

All in all, even though I didn’t care for everything about how the story was told, I overall had a blast. The story has its laughs, but also its heartaches, and it ends as a love letter to the teachers and mentors who have had an unforgettable impact on their students’ lives. I rate this series Highly Recommended.

My Hero Academia

In a world where 80% of the population has some Quirk granting a supernatural ability, real life has come to resemble a comic. Villains prowl the streets, and heros rise up to stop them. Izuku Midoriya wants nothing more than to be a hero, but he’s one of the few Quirkless. Undeterred, he’s set his sights on the most prestigious hero-training high school: UA. Then an encounter with the greatest hero, All Might, gives him an unexpected chance to live out his dream.

I’ve always been fond of superpowers, and My Hero Academia gleefully portrays a huge variety. From augment quirks like the ability to harden one’s body to the ability to manipulate elements like ice and fire to the more alien-looking who sport extra limbs or animal-like features, Quirks can be pretty much anything. Which is not to say all of them are particularly useful, especially for those who want to become heros.

With such a huge percentage of the population sporting some type of power, heros have somewhat supplanted the police when it comes to managing crime. Most of the villains they deal with are low-level criminals, and some heros choose to focus more on rescue operations than crime-fighting. Either way, heros tend to be celebrities, and none more so than All Might. His trademark smile and catchphrase—combined with a staggering amount of physical strength—has made him the top hero.

I really liked what the series does with All Might. He’s traditionally heroic, with a strong sense of justice, but he can also be goofy. His larger-than-life public persona hides a wrecked, weakened man failing from an old injury. I liked his brutal honesty telling Izuku that attempting to be a hero without power was pretty much impossible, and pointing him towards the police as an alternative if he wants to still help people out. I liked that he can admit when he makes mistakes (although I still don’t think he was wrong pointing out that what Izuku can do against superpowered villains is going to be severely limited without some ability of his own). It’s also interesting that for all his greatness (and he is great in a lot of ways), All Might isn’t perfect, and he has his own areas to grow. The strong teacher-student relationship between the him and Izuku, which in many ways is also a father-son dynamic, lends a touching depth to the story.

Because Izuku does end up with a Quirk after all: he inherits All Might’s powers.

From there Izuku must struggle to master the insanely powerful Quirk he now possesses, because although he now has the power to be the hero he always dreamed, the Quirk is in many ways too much for him. So he ends up trying to solve most of his problems without using his Quirk, as using it will break whatever part of his body he tried to strengthen. Izuku is an interesting lead because he frequently shows his thinking is going in a totally different direction than one might expect. He’s a long-term planner, and his hero-worship gave him a vast knowledge of various Quirks and fighting styles. But even beyond that, as he quickly demonstrates in the initial chapters, he’s humble, and inclined to believe better of others than himself. He also understands that he’s starting from the bottom in many ways, and that drives him to work incredibly hard to try to catch up.

In addition to Izuku, the story digs into many of the other students that share his class. The most prominent is Bakugo, someone Izuku has known since they were little, and whose strong Quirk has left him with a mountain-sized ego and a vengeful attitude. But it’s the little nuances to his character that make him such a fun one to follow. Bakugo’s always been the best—but at UA, all the students are the best of the best, and he’s in the odd situation of not only having peers but being outclassed. And despite his looks and attitude proclaiming him a delinquent, he works just as hard as Izuku and refuses to do anything that might get in the way of him becoming the top hero. (Amusingly, one chapter reveals he’s actually got higher grades than Izuku: he may be hot-tempered and short-sighted, but he’s NOT stupid. Which will get very interesting if he manages to put the pieces together about Izuku’s transformation.)

The class, teachers, and villains who round out the cast are also interesting for the most part, though for the sake of length I’ll avoid talking about all of them. Aizawa, Izuku’s homeroom teacher, is one of my favorites. His Quirk is the ability to erase other people’s Quirks (which seems incredibly useful for a teacher at this kind of school, although he rarely has to use it on the students). Although he’s scruffy and disinterested in those without potential, he cares just as much for his students as All Might, and goes to tremendous lengths to protect them from evil.

All in all, if you’ve read or watched any shounen manga or anime you should have a good idea what you’re in for: lots of high-octane fights, a massive cast, interesting powers, and an epic story slowly unfolding through the various smaller challenges the characters must face. As of this post, the anime just finished its 13-episode run, which was my initial introduction to the series. It was hard to stop after episode 13 so I got caught up on the manga in the meantime; the anime is a faithful adaptation, though it’s only gotten through a relatively small part of the chapters released to date. But season 2 is coming! I rate this series Highly Recommended.