Volume 1: Batgirl

My friend Holly’s thoughts on the New 52 Batgirl series.

Mah Muse Comics

I’m savoring the New 52 female line-up. So far, I’m quite impressed with what I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to the coming volumes. I have a long way to go before I can think of being caught up, though. So, first thing’s first, Batgirl, Volume 1: The Darkest Reflectionwritten by Gail Simone. The art is lovely and the story is compelling. I enjoy and am intrigued by how it is on the edge of darkness, but retains the light-heartedness we know of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon.

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A Year of Anniversaries Part 1: Ten Years of Rurouni Kenshin

2013 is an anniversary year of sorts for me. It turns out that between ten and fifteen years ago I was discovering a lot of media (books, music, TV, movies, comics, etc.) that would shape my tastes to this day. I have quite a number of anniversaries to talk about this year, but for now, I want to talk about a media franchise I first encountered in the Spring of 2003 just before I graduated high school, Rurouni KenshinBelow is the original promo seen on Cartoon Network that first introduced me to the series:

The Meiji era in which the story of Rurouni Kenshin (RuroKen) takes place was a time of transition for Japan. The country was becoming increasingly modern, and influenced by Western culture. During this time the class system was abolished, and the samurai slowly began to fade into history as their way of life came to an end. By the time the story of RuroKen takes place, it was actually illegal to carry weapons, including the signature weapon of the samurai, the katana, in public. Some samurai were able to make this transition with little difficulty. They sheathed their swords, and hung them on the walls of their home and found new ways to live their lives. Others were not so adaptable, and clung to their swords to the bitter end. (This transitional period and the struggles the samurai faced during the time are depicted grandiosely in The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe.) Enter Himura Kenshin. In the war known as the Meiji Restoration, Kenshin was known as Hitokiri Battousai, a hitokiri and Ishin-Shishi fighting for the deposition of the Tokugawa Shogunate that had ruled Japan since the year 1600 (Kenshin’s character is fictional, but like many of the characters of RuroKen he is based on a real historical figure, Kawakami Gensai). According to this fictional story, Kenshin’s sword was a key factor in the defeat of the Tokugawa, but where many of his former comrades moved on to serve in positions of the new Meiji government, Kenshin disappeared at the end of the war and his deeds became the stuff of legends. Ten years later, Kenshin appears in Tokyo, where he bumps into Kamiya Kaoru, daughter of a samurai and the sole heir to the Kamiya Kasshin style of swordsmanship. After resolving an incident involving an impostor posing as Hitokiri Battousai and revealing that he has taken an oath to never kill again, Kenshin begins to stay at the Kamiya dojo and much of the story takes place in surrounding Tokyo while also moving to Kyoto for the first long story arc.

Kenshin as he appears in the TV series.

Kenshin as he appears in the TV series.

RuroKen is a story of redemption. Kenshin carries a tremendous burden of guilt for all the lives he took as an assassin during the revolution, and has vowed to never again take a life. For Kenshin, using his sword to protect life, even the lives of his opponents, is a way for him to atone for his past. For me at least, this makes his use of the sakabato especially symbolic. A samurai’s soul is said to be sealed in his sword. The sakabato cannot take a life when used properly because the sharp and dull edges are reversed with the blade itself facing the wielder rather than the opponent, and this actually makes it dangerous for Kenshin to wield his sword as it has greater potential of harming him than his opponents. Whenever Kenshin swings his sword, he is endangering not only his life, but his soul, and there are a few instances in which he nearly breaks his vow never to kill. He knows that if he were to kill again that he would never be able to go back to living a peaceful life, and his soul will be gone forever. I think, Kenshin’s sword is a beautiful symbol that reflects the constant struggle his character faces extremely well.

The main cast of RuroKen. From the left, Kenshin, Kaoru, Sanosuke, and Yahiko at the bottom.

The main cast of RuroKen. From the left, Kenshin, Kaoru, Sanosuke, and Yahiko at the bottom.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the series. I’ve talked a lot about Kenshin, but the rest of the characters are pretty strong and memorable as well. In the main cast, there’s Kamiya Kaoru, the young swordswoman and Kenshin’s primary love interest; Myojin Yahiko, an orphan and the last in a long-line of samurai who is the only student at the Kamiya dojo through most of the series; Sagara Sanosuke, an angry punk and brawler who falls in with Kenshin and the gang after Kenshin thrashes him in a fight. Each of them are memorable, lovable, and all grow and develop throughout the series into unique, rounded characters. The rest of the supporting cast as well as many of the villains are just as memorable.

My interest in the series has been renewed over the last year as it has actually been rebooted. A live action movie was released in Japan (and some international areas, but not the U.S.) last year. To accompany the movie, the creator of the series, Nobuhiro Watsuki (to this day I’m not sure which is his family and individual name) was approached by his old editor who said he should rewrite RuroKen and help generate buzz about the movie. The result is the new, short series, Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration (more on this below). I’m definitely biased, but I don’t think that anyone who loves comics, or even a great story, could be disappointed with the original RuroKen manga. However, there are some things you may want to avoid in the various other RuroKen media, so I thought I’d create a short guide for anyone new to the series who’d like to learn more.

Rurouni Kenshin, the Original Manga

The first volume of Rurouni Kenshin, published by Viz Media.

The first volume of Rurouni Kenshin, published by Viz Media.

This is where it all started. I first discovered RuroKen through the anime and I enjoyed the anime a lot, even though it is much more talkative than I really like. But it was the manga that made me truly passionate about the series. Watsuki’s art and story are both great, and his ability as an artist/writer matured exponentially as the series progressed. It is published in the U.S. by Viz Media, and the English translation is very readable and each volume features a glossary of terms at the back for unfamiliar Japanese phrases and terms. It looks like some of the original manga volumes Viz released may have gone out of print, but there are still a few floating around out there on Amazon and B&N. Viz also released the series in a collector’s edition format referred to as the VIZBIG editions. These books have a larger trim size and larger art by extension, decorative French flaps on the covers, a few color pages, and are printed on much higher quality paper. The Vizbig editions are still readily available, but it looks like they may be going out of print now as well. If all else fails, each volume is also available digitally through the Viz Media app and the Viz website. To top off the original manga, there was a one-shot sequel story, Yahiko no Sakabato, and a short epilogue called Haru ni Sakura. Both of these can be found in Volume 9 of the VIZBIG editions.

Rurouni Kenshin, the TV Series

The anime series proper was first released in the U.S. in 2001 by Media Blasters on DVD. Then it was picked up by Cartoon Network and aired on the Toonami block in 2003. The Media Blasters dub isn’t great, but it gets the job done. The voice acting was pretty decent, but the translated scripts could get pretty atrocious, especially Kenshin’s lines. The animation is pretty good and some of the fight scenes are fantastic with the coolest being the fight with Saito Hajime at the Kamiya dojo at the start of the Kyoto story arc. Even with the dub being average at best though, the story is still really great through episode sixty-two. Starting with episode sixty-three, the series enters a long string of filler episodes (these are episodes created by the anime production staff and the stories they depict never appeared in the manga series). To put it bluntly, everything from episode sixty-three on is atrocious, and the anime was actually discontinued after ninety-five episodes. The final story arc from the manga was never animated for the TV series as a result and the series comes to a hurried, dissatisfying conclusion. You might watch these thirty-three episodes that finish off the anime series out of curiosity, but my advice is to ignore them. Anyway, the DVDs are pretty hard to get a hold of these days, but the series is available to watch for free online on Crackle. A word of warning though, the dub featured on Crackle is actually even worse than the Media Blasters dub. Media Blasters at least had some good vocal talent at work even if their English script wasn’t great. The dub on Crackle, which from what I can tell was done by Columbia Pictures Television, which is now Sony Pictures Television, does not have that vocal talent (though Kenshin’s voice actor is the same) on top of a bad script. A lot of the names have also been butchered, and the dialogue has been censored. I haven’t watched enough to know whether or not any of the more violent scenes were censored, but it is highly possible. I think this dub was probably made before the Media Blasters dub as it is more consistent with anime translations from the mid-to-late 1990s that Americanized many of the character names and censored a lot of the content; Yu-Gi-Oh!, dubbed by 4Kids is probably the best example of this trend. It appears that this is the dub that appeared in other English markets outside the U.S. If you can stand the bad script and voice acting, then give it a shot, and maybe if you search hard enough you could find the original Japanese version with English subtitles.

Rurouni Kenshin OVAs and Animated Movies

As well as the TV series, there were two OVAs, and one theatrical movie. The two OVAs are known as Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal, and Rurouni Kenshin: Reflection here in the U.S. They were originally released under the name Samurai X, and you still see that name pop up sometimes. The first of the OVAs, Trust and Betrayal, tells the story of how Kenshin received the “x” shaped scar on his left cheek, and is based on the same story that originally appeared in the manga. This OVA is fantastic. The animation is downright gorgeous, the story is as tragic as it is beautiful, and the action scenes, though few, are brutal and intense. Also, whereas the English dubs of the TV series range from okay to awful, the dub of Trust and Betrayal that was first released in the U.S. by ADV is really, really good (I’m unsure if Aniplex, the company that owns the U.S. rights now, redubbed it). The voice acting is spot on and the script is poetic even though it does change a few details of the story here and there. The second OVA, Reflection, is nowhere near as good. The animation is still stunning, but the story is a rushed version of the final arc of the manga, which was never animated in the TV series. Reflection also has some stories that take place after the ending of the manga. Everything about Reflection just seems rushed and there is no real narrative flow to anything. Lastly, like the latter episodes of the anime, Rurouni Kenshin: The Motion Picture features an original story not seen in the manga. It explores some of the darker consequences that came as a result of Kenshin’s days as a hitokiri by introducing the family of a man he killed who have been nearly irrevocably affected by the death of their loved one. One of this man’s relatives, a wealthy samurai, plots to overthrow the government, and it’s up to Kenshin to stop him while also facing the consequences of his actions as a hitokiri. Unlike the filler arcs that made up the last third of the TV series, the story of the movie is pretty good, though the climactic fight at the end is a little confusing and tries a little too hard to be emotionally charged. The animation is decent, but nowhere near as good as the OVAs that came later. Both OVAs and the movies are also no longer readily available for purchase here in the U.S. though I’m sure they can be tracked down somewhere.

A second movie, Rurouni Kenshin: New Kyoto Arc was released in two parts in late 2011 and mid-2012. This is a remake of the popular Kyoto arc. I actually haven’t seen this yet, so I can’t really comment on it, but it is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray here in the U.S., and I plan to get my hands on it in the next few weeks.

Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration

Cover of Volume 1 of Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, published by Viz Media.

The cover of the first volume of Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, published by Viz Media.

Next up is the new manga series I mentioned above, Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration. It was first translated into English last year and was serialized in Viz’s digital Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. The first volume, featuring four chapters, was released last week. The core of the story is essentially the same, but many of the details have changed and it is far more condensed than the original series. Watsuki has matured into a fine artist and the new updated character designs and his artwork are great. I can’t give my full opinion of it yet considering I haven’t read the whole series, but I was very pleased by the first volume, and I think it would be a great intro to the franchise for those unfamiliar with RuroKen.

Rurouni Kenshin, Live-Action Movie

Now, finally, Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration was conceived of to market and promote a live-action movie that was released in Japan last year simply titled Rurouni Kenshin. The movie adapts the a few of the short arcs found in volumes one through six of the manga, and primarily the Jin’e and Kanryu arcs. It hasn’t been released on DVD or Blu-Ray yet in the U.S. I’m really hoping that Warner Bros., who has the first shot of releasing the movie in the U.S. chooses to do so, and if they decline perhaps Viz or Aniplex will pick up the rights similarly to the Death Note movies and release a proper Blu-Ray/DVD edition with quality subtitles. The casting is perfect, the sets and setting are beautiful, the fight choreography is fast, furious and fun, and Kenshin’s character is wonderfully depicted (he also doesn’t talk nearly as much as he did in the anime, which is a boon). I’ve seen some people criticize it because it isn’t realistic, but seriously people, it is based on a manga after all and I see no problem with warping reality a little bit. There aren’t all that many wire stunts, and the few that are present aren’t that bad with the only, hilarious exception being Saito’s flying Gatotsu-Sanshiki in Kanryu’s mansion. I personally think it is a fantastic adaptation of the manga, and I freakin’ love it! Also, the movie’s producers hope to make a series of movies, and it sounds like a sequel has been greenlit, so that means there should be another movie coming soon!

Rurouni Kenshin Novels

The cover of Rurouni Kenshin: Voyage to the Moon World, published by Viz Media.

The cover of Rurouni Kenshin: Voyage to the Moon World, published by Viz Media.

One last bit of media, there were also a few novels that were published alongside the original manga series in Japan. These are not written by Watsuki. Only one of them was translated and released here in the U.S., Rurouni Kenshin: Voyage to the Moon World. I haven’t read it. I tried, but I wasn’t really impressed. I’m not sure if the translation was just really bad or if the writing was, but I just wasn’t into it after the first 20 pages so I didn’t finish reading it and I didn’t buy it. Looks like it is out of print now, though  it seems as though it is readily available through online used booksellers. Maybe I’ll give it another shot.

That’s it! I hope that I didn’t bore anyone with such a long post, but I do love RuroKen and given that it has been ten years since I was first introduced to the franchise I wanted to give it plenty of attention in this post. If you haven’t read or seen any Kenshin, I hope you’ll maybe consider picking up a volume of the manga, or even watching one of the atrociously dubbed anime episodes on Cracked. I think Kenshin’s story has something that will appeal to everyone, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Post-Apocalyptic Vampires, World War II, and The Escapist: Man Books Are Awesome!

As always, I’ve read a lot of books the past few months. Most have been books published by my company and I’ve already stated before that I won’t really talk about those books, so that leaves me with only a few books I’ve read since Fall that I can actually write about. So here is a small selection of what I’ve read since my last book post!

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin is the first book that I read this year. The Passage is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi epic that tells the story of a small band of humans struggling to survive in a world overrun by genetically mutated humans that are very similar to what we’d call vampires.

F.B.I. agent Brad Wolgast recruits death-row inmates to be genetic guinea pigs in an underground research lab in Colorado where scientists are working on a virus that could be the path to immortality. After recruiting the twelfth death-row test subject, Wolgast is contacted by his superiors and instructed to secure the thirteenth and final subject. But the thirteenth is no hardened criminal, she is a little girl named Amy who was recently abandoned by her mother. Wolgast had misgivings about the nature of the research happening in Colorado, but when he receives the orders to secure Amy as a test subject he takes it upon himself to be her guardian. However, Wolgast’s chivalrous intentions do not prevent Amy from becoming the thirteenth test subject at the facility in Colorado where the death-row inmates have been mutated into inhuman, telepathic monsters. Toward the end of Amy’s “treatment” the other test subjects stage a violent escape from the facility and Wolgast and Amy barely escape with their lives. Wolgast and Amy run to Oregon and hole up in an abandoned cabin in the mountains while the rest of the world falls into chaos as the virus spreads, turning more and more people into vampires. While in Oregon, Wolgast begins to understand that Amy is the key to humanity’s survival, but despite the happy contentedness of their lives in the mountains, Wolgast knows that nothing gold can stay, and eventually Amy must face the shattered remains of the world on her own.

…That’s just the prologue. The story picks up again about a hundred years later when the seemingly immortal Amy finds her way to a small colony of survivors in California and the rest of the story picks up from there.

The premise and the story are both engaging, and while it is hardly an original post-apocalyptic story, the characters, setting and plot are created with a lot of care and I wanted to know what would happen to everyone as I kept reading. Unfortunately, there is a point where characters are given too much care in their creation and The Passage is guilty of such a charge. At times there are pages, and pages of interior monologue that explains every little detail and emotion of a given character’s life. The prologue is a great case in point as it is book length on its own. This coupled with Cronin’s slow-paced writing style make this read oftentimes tedious especially considering the fact the edition of The Passage that I read is 871 pages! Luckily some action happens later in the book, and these scenes stand in stark contrast to the emotional baggage that fills most of the pages of The Passage. Cronin is definitely capable of writing riveting action sequences. I didn’t want to put the book down when I reached an action scene, but they are few and far between. At one point Cronin even forgoes writing an action sequence and instead details in retrospect what could have otherwise been an intense scene. But Cronin is more concerned about his characters’ emotions, and they have a lot of them, to the point that the book suffers and is oftentimes boring. Still, the world of The Passage has caught my attention, and I’m interested in seeing what happens so I may pick up the sequel, The Twelve, sometime later.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein is the story of two British friends during World War II. Maddie is a tomboy, who knows more about engines and machinery than most boys her age. Shortly before World War II, Maddie begins training to be a pilot, and when the war breaks out she volunteers to help on airfields and later she also ferries planes and troops across England. During this time, she meets Julie, a Scottish aristocrat working as a radio operator. The two become friends, and in the meantime Julie’s fluency in French and German is noticed by a British secret agent of some sort, and Julie becomes an agent herself. Later in the war, the need for British pilots reaches the point that Maddie is allowed to fly a mission over France. Once in the air she learns that this mission is to drop Julie into occupied France where she will work as a spy behind enemy lines. But Julie makes an error that blows her cover and is captured by the Germans. She is imprisoned and interrogated. To make matters worse, Maddie is shot down over France on her return flight, but is luckily able to join up with the French resistance. Learning that Julie has been captured, Maddie and her French allies plan a rescue mission, but the odds are definitely not in their favor.

I was originally turned off by Code Name Verity. Having read a lot of YA novels over the last year, I’ve grown kind of tired of the snarky, sarcastic narrators that seem ubiquitous in the genre. But this voice is the only thing Julie really has left while imprisoned and it is her best and only way to maintain any strength in her situation. So I guess I can forgive the sarcasm this time, and Julie’s story is pretty compelling although it is a little disorienting and slow-starting at the onset. The narration duties switch to Maddie midway through the book, and though the story isn’t as narratively complex it is still just as engaging as Maddie works to rescue Julie. On top of all that, the story builds to an unexpected and riveting conclusion. I can’t spoil it, but the ending was more than enough to make Code Name Verity worth reading.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon is the fictional story of two cousins of Jewish descent who break into the fledgling comic book industry in the late 1930s. Sam Clayman lives in Brooklyn and is the son of Jewish immigrants. He has become completely enamored with those newfangled comic books and the superheroes that populate them, and dreams of breaking into the business and making “a whole lot of dough.” Sam isn’t sure how to accomplish this until his cousin, Josef Kavalier, arrives on Sam’s doorstep after fleeing Europe due to increasing anti-Semitic laws and restrictions. Joe left his family behind in Europe, and his single purpose upon arriving in the U.S. is making enough money to secure his family’s escape. When Sam learns that Joe actually spent two years in art school and is an adept artist, he sees his opportunity. Upon seeing that Joe and Sam may be able to deliver a character along the lines of Superman, Sam’s boss, the owner of a novelty company, agrees to see what the two young Jewish boys can do. Together, Sam and Joe create a superhero,The Escapist, and their creation becomes a smash hit. But as their bank accounts begin to fill with their salaries (and the small royalties that they were able to negotiate for their creations), the two boys learn that living in “escapist” fantasies and having a lot of money does not protect them from the harsh realities of life.

This is an amazing book. My description makes it sound far more simple than it really is. The depth of the characters, the complexity of their relations, their successes and tragedies, are all keenly depicted and it is hard for the reader not to empathize with all that happens in the lives of these two young men. The narrative is very nearly epic (and yes I know that word is overused, but it is the correct adjective in this case) in its scope, yet still manages to maintain its immediacy and tightness throughout most of the book. The last hundred or so pages are the only part where the narrative begins to meander, and it was much slower reading than the rest of the book. Still, even though the immediacy and tension were not as prominent in these last hundred pages, they did manage to bring the story of the various characters to a satisfying conclusion. I savored reading this book. Of all the books I’ve read over the last year since finishing my master’s degree, I think this is probably the only book I’ll consider reading a second time. I’ll definitely be checking out more Michael Chabon books in the future as well.

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