Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in A Dungeon? On the Side: Sword Oratoria Volume 1 Review


danmachi-on-the-side-sword-oratoria-volume-1Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
(henceforth referred to by its Japanese abbreviation DanMachi) is one of my favourite light novel series, so when a spin-off series was licensed in the form of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? On the Side: Sword Oratoria (henceforth known as Sword Oratoria) I was excited. I love this universe and the chance to experience it from the perspective of different characters was a welcome one. However, has this first volume managed to live up to my love of the main series?

Sword Oratoria focuses on the famous adventurer Aiz Wallenstein as the main character, someone that readers of the main DanMachi series will be familiar with. Aiz belongs to one of the most powerful Familia in the city, Loki Familia. This first volume takes place during the same time frame as the first DanMachi volume and starts off with Loki Familia’s expedition down to the deepest depths of the dungeon. The dungeon is where all adventurers go to battle against monsters to earn a living. This is the journey that eventually led to Aiz saving Bell from a Minotaur, which had gotten away from her while she was hunting a pack of them. Her encounter with Bell is one that we know changed his life significantly, but seeing it from Aiz’s perspective is also quite interesting.

The furthest we’ve been in the dungeon with Bell thus far (as of Volume 6) is down to around the 20th floor, so being able to go much further in with the Loki Familia group is a welcome change of pace. Author Fujino Omori openly admits that Aiz is too powerful a character to frequently use in DanMachi (she’d instantly save the day for Bell just by clicking her fingers) so giving her a series all of her own works out very well. Sword Oratoria gives Aiz the chance to take on enemies that are more suited to her level and fighting abilities. It also gives Omori the chance to write more about Loki Familia and spend some time with the characters we’ve come to know through DanMachi itself (like Loki and Bete).

Being the same author as the main series, Omori has the ability to freely overlap the Sword Oratoria and DanMachi plotlines. Thankfully the overlapping is kept to a minimum for this volume, which I feel is important because it allows a new story to develop. Aiz and Bell interact a lot more going forward in DanMachi, so one of my main concerns for Sword Oratoria is that portraying the same scenes as DanMachi could begin to feel redundant beyond being from Aiz’s prospective. Running Sword Oratoria alongside the main series also means that nothing of importance can happen that could impact on the main storyline, at least not until it catches up with the timeline of the latest volume.

I think Sword Oratoria is important to the DanMachi series as far as newcomers are concerned. While not everything is explained in as much detail as it was in the main series, stuff like Familia, levels, stats and the world are explained in enough detail that even if you’ve never watched the anime, or read the original books, you’ll still be able to slip into Sword Oratoria quite comfortably. It’s not just a good starting point, though, as veterans of the DanMachi series will find a lot to love here too. Omori has very obviously set out with the goal of exploring Aiz as a character and leaves various hints throughout the plot that Aiz wasn’t always the quiet, often emotionless girl we’ve come to know. Couple this idea with some impressive battles and we’ve matched the quality of DanMachi at its best – although I will confess that I do miss our usual dungeon exploring with Bell.

Omori has written Sword Oratoria from a third person perspective with the occasional jump to first person if Aiz has anything on her mind (which, admittedly, is rare), and his usual style of writing shines through in his detailed explanations of the world around the characters. This series has a new illustrator named Kiyotaka Haimura (he also provided illustrations for A Certain Magical Index) and the art on offer is really good. One of my favourite pieces is a two page spread dedicated to Aiz delivering the final blow to a high level monster, but the opening colour pages also depict this same battle with other members of Loki Familia and looks pretty cool in its own right.

While I have some concerns about the future of Sword Oratoria and the overlap and consistency it requires with the main series, I’m equally really excited by getting to spend some real time with Aiz. I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed my time with the first volume as much as I do DanMachi itself but I’d still highly recommend it to other fans of the series and newcomers alike. This is definitely a series to keep an eye on.

Title: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in A Dungeon? On The Side: Sword Oratoria Volume 1
Publisher: Yen Press
Genre: Fantasy, Action, Comedy Romance
Author(s): Fujino Omori (author), Kiyotaka Haimura (illustrator)
Type: Light Novel
Original vintage: 2014
Format: Book (digital edition available)
Age rating: Teen
Length: 240 pages

Score: 9/10

Review of Scumbag Loser

scumbag-loser

SAITEIHEN NO OTOKO -Scumbag Loser- vols 1, 2, 3 © 2012, 2013 Mikoto Yamaguti / SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.

“Employee of the month is a good example of how somebody can be both a winner and a loser at the same time.” – Demetri Martin

Released as a single omnibus edition, horror manga Scumbag Loser is a series that seems hard to appreciate. Maybe this is the reason why Yen have released it as one large book rather than three separate volumes, because the overall feeling reading it is that if the volumes were individually released the chances of stopping after the first volume would be much greater.

Perhaps one issue it is has is the unappealing central character, the “scumbag loser” in question. Masahiko Murai is a high school student who is pretty lower down in terms of popularity in his class. The only positive quality he seems to have is that he has a very good sense of smell, but this is outweighed by the fact that the smells he likes are usually unappealing. For example, the first thing he is seen smelling is a pair of girl’s knickers.

Murai is also obsessed with people he considers to be losers and trying to prove that is above what he calls the “biggest losers”. In his class the biggest loser is the ugly and smelly Yamada, but things then suddenly change when Yamada announces that he has a girlfriend, which in Murai’s mind means that he is now the biggest loser, something that he cannot handle. Thus, he falsely claims to have a long-distance girlfriend, and picks the name Haruka Mizusawa, a girl he knew five years ago. But then, to his horror, he finds that Haruka Mizusawa has transferred to his class – and she does indeed claim that Murai is her boyfriend, completely unprompted. The reason why Murai is filled with horror? Mizusawa died five years ago.

After school, Murai and Mizusawa meet up. Murai asks Mizusawa to actually be his girlfriend, and promises that he will do anything to keep the relationship going. Mizusawa, who appears to have a sadistic streak complete with a menacing grin, demands that from now on she wants Murai to introduce her to the “biggest losers” that he knows every Wednesday. This then begins to snowball, partly because of Mizusawa’s disturbing personality, but also because the personalities of everyone in Murai’s class, as well as those of his family, start to change dramatically.

As stated, it is a hard manga to like, primarily because the characters are relatively unappealing. The manga is called Scumbag Loser for good reason. Murai is unpleasant and unattractive, while Mizusawa is manipulative. However, as a horror manga, unpleasantness is what you should expect. The best character in my view comes later on in the story. Yumi Ookura is a wannabe pop idol who auditions for an idol group whose manager wants unappealing members. In the case of Ookura, it’s that she has no social skills. She too also becomes obsessed with Mizusawa, who also auditions for the group.

However, there are some positives to this series, the main one being the artwork. Mikoto Yamaguti’s art is suitably creepy, especially when it comes to drawing Mizusawa’s toothy grin. It kind of puts you in mind of the Titans in Attack on Titan, in that you can almost envision her eating those she torments. Plus, this smile starts to spread towards other people, making it even creepier in its sudden uniformity.

Having said this though, sometimes the artwork is not so great. The “Mature” rating of Scumbag Loser mainly comes from the violence as there is a fair amount of blood spilt in this manga. Whenever there is nudity or a sex scene, what are seen as the rudest parts (i.e. the groins and the nipples) are always obscured – sometimes in odd ways. For example, there is a scene where Mizusawa and Ookura’s idol group entertain some fans sexually, so they have their buttoned-up shirts unfastened and opened so you can see part of their breasts, but not fully so the nipples are covered. However, at some angles it feels like the shirt is covering so little that you feel that the nipples are almost on the sides of the boobs rather than on the front.

Scumbag Loser is a hard manga to get through: the length, the characters, the plot make it a bit of a slog. The artwork in some areas does make it enjoyable, but sometimes when you are reading through the book it feels that it just isn’t worth it.

Title: Scumbag Loser
Publisher: Yen Press
Genre: Horror, Psychological
Author(s): Mikoto Yamaguti
Type: Manga
Original vintage: 2012
Format: Book
Age rating: 18
Length: 600 pages

Score: 4/10

Re:Zero #1Review

Re-Zero Light novel 1If you asked me which anime was being talked about the most from the Spring/Summer 2016 season then I’d answer without a doubt with Re:Zero. For better or worse the series has captured viewers and held them on the edge of their seats. Today I’m here to review the first volume in the original light novel series and find out if it holds my attention the same way as the anime does.

Re:Zero tells the story of a fairly average teenager, Subaru Natsuki. One day Subaru is magically transported from his local convenience store to a fantasy world. There’s no one in sight to inform him why he’s been brought there.  Surrounded by unfamiliar sights and sounds, just what has Subaru gotten himself into? Filled with determination to work out why he’s been summoned to this place (and to live his life like you would in a video game), Subaru sets out to explore this brave new world.

Okay, I know this all sounds very generic but stick with me. I promise by the end of this review it won’t feel quite as familiar as those fantasy stories you’re used to.

It’s not long before Subaru gets himself into a spot of bother with three thugs. Just when things begin to look their worst, he’s saved by a silver-haired girl, who introduces herself as Satella. Satella uses ice magic and has a spirit familiar named Puck, who introduces himself as Satella’s father and is quick to mention that he works from 9 am till 5 pm. It turns out that Satella has had something very important stolen from her and was in the process of searching for it when she encountered Subaru. As thanks for saving his life, Subaru agrees to help her find the thief and reclaim the item.

It’s not long before Subaru and Satella work out where the thief intends to sell off the stolen item, but when the two arrive at the tavern/storehouse they find that everyone inside has been murdered. Stumbling upon this gruesome scene ultimately leads to the deaths of Subaru and Stella as well by the hand of the killer (who was still lurking in the darkened tavern). In his dying moments Subaru wishes that he could have protected Satella and spent just a little longer in this world.

Unsurprisingly the story doesn’t end with the deaths of our protagonists. It turns out that Subaru has some kind of special ability that allows him to return from death, which he’s dubbed “Return by Death” as upon dying it sends him back to a designated point in time. Perhaps with this ability he can prevent the deaths of himself and Satella, while also helping her retrieve her stolen item.

Return by Death is an interesting ability and author Tappei Nagatsuki handles it rather well. You would think that reliving the same day multiple times over would become boring, especially in book form where there isn’t much to distract you from the fact you’re rereading the same situations over and over, but that’s simply not true here. The first time Subaru experiences the day over again, some things are very similar but they’re also different just enough to keep it interesting. However, as the plot progresses we get the chance to see a new plot line where instead of travelling with Satella, Subaru ends up becoming close to Felt (the thief) and comes face-to-face with the one who killed everyone at the end of his first ‘life’.

Nagatsuki has written Re:Zero from a third person perspective, which works very well for the drama and character interactions. I’d say it’s a shame that we’re not inside Subaru’s head but as he has a tendency to voice all of his thoughts aloud there wouldn’t be a notable benefit to writing the story from his perspective. I found this to be an interesting style of writing because it’s not one that I’ve personally stumbled across in my light novel collection (although when a good portion of my collection has been written by Reki Kawahara perhaps that explains some of it).

Re:Zero started life like a lot of popular light novels, in that it was originally a web novel that was later edited and published as a series. Some of the exchanges between characters go on too long and there is a bit of awkward wording here and there, which has no doubt resulted from the original web novel being rough around the edges compared to a professionally published book. That said, I think Nagatsuki has a good handle on how to write this story and future volumes will likely solve all of the problems in Volume 1.

Illustrations for the series have been provided by Shinichirou Otsuka, who currently doesn’t appear to have worked on anything beyond Re:Zero (at the very least I couldn’t find mention of anything online). Either this is the first (now major) work Otsuka’s produced art for, or the internet just cannot provide me with answers! Regardless, what we have on show for the first volume of Re:Zero looks very nice and character designs are suitably detailed. Volume 1 opens with various colour pages that showcase the characters which, I have to say, look a lot better than the fan-service- laden images we’d usually have for other series. It’s sad that none of the action scenes have been drawn in favour of a picture of each of the main characters, but hopefully future volumes can deliver. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of Otsuka’s work.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the writing and the story, so let’s talk about the characters now. It’s worth saying that Subaru is not going to win any awards for being a likable member of the cast. He’s annoying, doesn’t know when to stop talking, and more often than not I wanted to punch him. Having said that, Subaru has a good heart and his determination to do his best (despite really not having any redeeming qualities) is perhaps what keeps him from being a total waste of space. In a way it’s actually refreshing that Subaru wasn’t made to be a likable character. There are far too many series that try their hardest to make a lead that you’ll be rooting for from the start and I appreciate the fact Re:Zero hasn’t fallen into that cliché.

Satella, Puck, and Felt are all interesting characters whom I grew immensely fond of. Satella has a cold manner but inside she has a good heart. There is obviously more to her than what we see in this volume, and having watched the anime I know just where her story is going. Puck and Felt don’t get quite as much time in the spotlight as Satella but when they are present they, too, shine and leave me wanting to know more about them. It’s a good cast which is only going to grow to become even better as the story progresses.

For those of you who are watching the anime (as I am) it’s worth noting that the light novel handles itself better than the anime adaptation does in certain ways. To begin with, the light novel doesn’t spend as much time on how Subaru was in Japan one minute and then the fantasy world the next. Rather than dealing with his shock and surprise we’re dumped into the scene about 20 minutes after, where things have calmed down and Subaru calmly explains what happened to him. I found this a much better way of starting the story because it’s refreshing to not have the protagonist overreacting to every little thing in a fantasy world. Overall the light novel also has a much better handle on the flow of the plot due to the anime studio creating certain inconsistencies in the story. For example, in one anime scene Puck knows Subaru’s name despite not yet having met him in that life. Subaru is also a lot more tolerable in the light novel than I found him in the anime, which has got to count for something.

Overall Re:Zero Volume 1 makes for a good read and handles the ‘transported to a fantasy world’ idea in an interesting way that, hopefully, won’t become stale anytime soon. Subaru might not be the most likable character but his future in this world seems like it’ll make for an interesting story. I’m a huge fan of the anime and reliving the story through the light novels is something I’m very much enjoying.

Score: 7/10

Light Novel Quick Information
Title: Re:Zero
Original vintage: 2014
Author: Tappei Nagatsuki
Illustrator: Shinichirou Otsuka
Published by: Yen On
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Age rating: 13 +
Material length: 231 Pages

Karneval Volumes 4 & 5 Review

Karneval 4

Circus has rescued young Nai’s friend and protector Karoku from the clutches of the sinister organization Kafka at the Smokey Mansion – but to Nai’s distress, Karoku doesn’t recognize him. It seems that Kafka have been tampering with Karoku’s mind and memories, although no one at Circus is sure how to restore him. Gareki begins his new life as a student at Chronome Academy, sponsored by Captain Hirato. When Nai and Karoku manage to activate the old Circus ID bracelet, Gareki hears Nai crying out for help. Forbidden to leave the academy on pain of expulsion, Gareki finds himself suddenly transported far away. Has he been summoned by Nai – and, if so, can he find him in time before something terrible occurs? Whatever happens, his future prospects at the academy look bleak. Meanwhile, Kafka are planning revenge for Circus’s attack. Uro’s replacement, Ryuu, is determined to show utter ruthlessness to prove his worth to Kafka and orders his forces to kill everyone they encounter. A vicious battle ensues – and it’s far from certain who will emerge unscathed from this latest Varuga attack.

Karneval 5 cvr

Touya Mikanagi really gets into her stride here by seriously upping the ante in these volumes. The Circus combat specialists are forced to fight for their lives as they are ambushed by Varuga, leading to the summoning of ‘Silver’ Yogi, the sweet-natured combatant’s ‘other’ personality. And all the while, the hints increase as to the possible links between the biotechnology that has created the monstrous Varuga also being used in the creation of Nai.

In what begins as a typically frivolous, fun research trip to the Ancient Ocean Mermerai – where, for research purposes, the crew members are required to bathe naked in the warm waters to attract the Peranoa, native marine creatures – Yogi’s underwear goes missing. (Yes, it’s a wonderful excuse for fan service, but…) The thief turns out to be a cat. And the cat turns out to be connected to something – or someone – both sinister and sad. There’s the hint of a parallel with the underwear thief and Nai’s origins; although it’s not ever spelled out in so obvious a way, it gives the reader plenty to think about. And what begins as a farcical hunt for missing panties (no one blushes better than Yogi) turns into something far more dangerous.

As Karneval reaches its fifth volume in Yen Press’s English edition (Volumes 9-10 in the original Japanese) it raises an issue that has been intriguing and annoying me in equal measure. Some manga series which are serialized weekly/monthly manage to maintain a sense of onward momentum, pulling the reader along with the promise that the overarching plot issues set out at the beginning will be resolved and all the mysteries solved. But others dilly-dally along the way, going off down what turn out to be blind alleys and losing the narrative drive that is so important for sustaining reader involvement. I realize that this is often not just the fault of the mangaka; we see in series about the way manga is written and delivered from Monthly Girl’s Nozaki-Kun to The World’s Greatest First Love (okay, these are often emphasizing the crazy/humorous side of the process but nevertheless…) the very significant role played by editors in the final product we get to read.

karneval cvr fr 10

Karneval is published in Zero Sum, the magazine that has also brought us Loveless, Devils and Realist and 07-Ghost. All of these popular series have been made into anime before the manga was anyway near a conclusion – and this also seems to put the mangaka off their stride in terms of plot development (because why would you, when someone else – the anime script writer – has already finished it off for you or taken it in a different direction from the one you were intending?) Karneval’s strengths lie in its artwork and the character interactions, as young fugitives Nai and Gareki are rescued and then sheltered and educated by the eccentric and colourful crews of both ships of Circus. But the underlying mysteries are developing painfully slowly: who – or what – is Nai? Why was Gareki shipwrecked as a child from what seemed to be a sinister slave ship? Who was responsible for developing the terrifying genetically altered monsters called Varuga? Are Circus really the Good Guys? And how are all these issues related (as they most assuredly are)?

Karneval cvr fr 8

(This cover image is taken from the French Ki-oon edition but is also used on the reverse of Volume 4 from Yen Press.)

It seems that mangaka are very much at the mercy of the popularity of their series (the magazines carry out frequent reader polls). If the series is popular, they’re encouraged to eke out the material as far as it will go. If its popularity starts to wane, editorial pressure is imposed to bring things to a swift (sometimes brutally swift) conclusion. This wreaks havoc for the mangaka in sustaining anything resembling a coherent, satisfying plot. So how well has Touka Miyanagi coped in what is (after all) her first major series (it’s been running for nine years now)? The good news is that she’s really developed as a storyteller. Karneval was full of good ideas at the start but the delivery was rather random at best. A shame, because this may have deterred some readers. But by now the story’s well underway and she’s much better at pacing the action and directing the reader to what’s really important without distracting them with fun but irrelevant stuff (like the charming rabbit and sheep crews on the two Circus ships). Well, most of the time, anyway.

The artwork is just as attractive as before and these trade paperback Yen Press editions are very handsome indeed, with the original colour splash pages and all the delightful extras (including, if you’re a seiyuu fan, the mangaka’s drawings of the cast of the drama CDs and the anime).

In Summary

If you’re looking for a fantasy steampunk manga with a likable cast of characters and an underlying mystery that needs to be solved, then Karneval is well worth your time – as long as you don’t mind the occasional meander down a plot side-street.

Score 8/10

Touya Mikanagi Yen Press 2016, translated by Su Mon Ha  OT c. 400 pages