Wanderers, remorseful stuffed animals, haunted bluesmen and a hockey club that's defected to pastry cooking. Just a few of the recent offerings from Del Rey. Isn't manga lovely?
Minima! vol. 3
A manga about a shy girl who owns a talking stuffed meerkat seems like a simple concept, but Minima! continues to go to strange—and sometimes dark—places.
Content: It's not unusual for a shojo series to contain dollops of drama, but Minima! remains a strangely dark affair up through its third volume. Shy schoolgirl Ame is still having trouble communicating her feelings for the popular Sasaki. Her friend, Midori, attempts to helps out, but ends up confused over his own emotions for Ame.
Nicori, the stuffed Meerkat who initially turned Ame's life upside-down by revealing his ability to talk, makes an unsettling discovery. Since going public with his talent (and assuring the population that all dolls can in fact talk if they want to), people have been buying massive quantities of dolls, then abandoning them when they refuse to talk. News anchors speculate that Nicori is merely a complex toy that was assembled by Ame because she was unpopular and lonely and wanted attention. Nicori surrenders himself to an amusement park and the media spotlight in order to prove to the world that Ame was not lying about him. He quickly discovers that his new caretaker, the elderly owner of the amusement park, is estranged from his grandson. When Nicori finds out the “who” and “why” of the situation, he crosses paths with a grimly familiar individual.
Me and the Devil Blues, vol. 2
“The unreal life of Robert Johnson” continues to be magnificently unreal.
Akira Hiramoto's Me and the Devil Blues is a real departure from what we comfortably expect from manga and anime. R.J., a Negro plantation worker who exchanged his soul for the chance to become the world's greatest bluesman, runs afoul of an evil town that plans to lynch him for a murder he didn't commit. His only hope for rescue lies with the travelling companion he involuntarily picked up: the vicious, half-insane outlaw, Clyde Barrow.
But Clyde falls into his own problems when he disguises himself as a journalist and is taken in as the guest of the town's evil patriarch. “Mr McDonald” thrives on a dark hobby that warps and destroys the lives of young boys, and despite being blind, he has a keen suspicion about Clyde's motives.
Again, Me and the Devil Blues takes the less beaten manga path, but there's certainly plenty of surreal action and characterization that the medium is known for. Hiramoto takes the legend of Robert Johnson to a level that's a bit beyond legend. There are intelligent, killer dogs, conversations with The Devil and murders involving whiskey and cigarettes. Even so, Hiramoto often brings the story back down to Earth with a heart-stopping thud: when Clyde is forced to beg for help from a Negro speakeasy that's well-soured on whites, the tension in the scene strains on a fragile leash.
Mushishi vol. 6
Ginko is on the road again as he stalks the unnatural, and the unnatural stalks him.
Like previous volumes of Mushishi, volume six is a series of short stories about Ginko's life as a wandering scholar of “mushi,” the ethereal, primitive life forms that often have unwanted encounters with mankind. There is a certain formula that the Mushishi series follows, and volume six of the series doesn't deviate far: Ginko comes across a human being with unusual powers that are usually attributed to some kind of mushi, and he does what he can to separate the victim from the mushi, or at least make him or her more comfortable.
However, Mushishi carries itself so peacefully and so intriguingly that the formula never gets old. It's rare that one story will remind you of another, and volume six is full of memorable battles with the mushi. Additionally, the tone of the stories range from calm and slightly romantic (“Heaven's Thread,” in which a young man must turn against town gossip about his fiancee, who has been afflicted by a mushi) to the dark and brooding (“The Hand That Pets the Night,” in which a genetically-inherited mushi causes a boy to lose himself slowly to bloodlust).
One of the most welcome aspects of the Mushishi series is manga-ka Yuki Urushibara's autobiographical sketches, through which she shares her inspirations and the stories her grandparents told her about the spirits and legends that once haunted Japan's countryside. It's always interesting to get a glimpse on the inside of an author's head.
My Heavenly Hockey Club, vol. 7
The comedy shojo manga about the worst hockey club in Japan breaks character a little to allow in some romance and conflict.
My Heavenly Hockey Club is another manga series that's normally episodic, with an emphasis on comedic events and situations. Surprisingly, volume seven is a bit more serious and has a focus on the unspoken romance between Hana and Izumi (the two protagonists have long had feelings for each other, with Izumi being too proud to admit to them and Hana simply being too lazy).
The volume is split into two stories instead of the usual five or six. The first story focuses on the discontent of Wacky, the hockey club's mascot/pet chicken. Wacky finds solace in a new owner, but discovers that there's no place like home.
The second story, which makes up the bulk of the manga, is about Hana's new part-time job with a handsome pastry chef who aspires to cook in France—and wants Hana to come with him. Izumi is immediately opposed to the idea and even turns the hockey club into a “pastry-cooking club” in order to shoehorn themselves into the restaurant and keep an eye on the budding romance. Izumi likewise tries to express his feelings for Hana, but bungs it up badly and makes her furious instead. If you've followed the hockey club's exploits to this point, volume seven delivers a bit of an interesting twist.