This last week was a BIG manga week (appropriately just before ANIME NORTH as well...), with two new titles in particular coming out from DEL REY that are sort of interesting to compare, as they're both aimed at the same audience... TOTO: The Wonderful Adventure and HARIDAMAO: Magic Cram School.
TOTO: The Wonderful Adventure by Yuko Osada
TOTO is basically a very loose re-imagining of the WIZARD OF OZ, taking only elements of the original story, characters names, and a goal: to reach the city of Emerald.
TOTO is the story of Kakashi, an excitable young boy trapped on a small island city, who dreams of seeing the world. Like any good hero of a children's story, he's an orphan, abandoned by his Father, whose only keepsakes are the journal his father left him; a diary of his travels through the world, and note in the written on the first page, "The World is vast! So my Boy, you do not need a reason... go on an adventure!" Taking this challenge to heart, Kakashi eventually manages to leave his nest, stowing away on a luxury Zeppelin, which just happened to be hijacked by bandits that look like slick 1920's gangsters, decked out in black suits and googles. Kakashi finds a dog roaming around in the cargo hold he is also hiding in, and they immediately become friends, though there seems to be some sort of mystery surrounding the puppy. Unable to eject Kakashi from the Zeppelin, he instead ends up bonding with the leader of the gang (it might be my imagination, but he MAY actually be Kakashi's father...), and learns about honor, before the Zeppelin is shot down by the military. Finally on his own, with only a world map and his dog, Kakashi's real adventure starts when he meets up with a young girl named Dorothy, who wants to meet her parents in the city of Emerald.
TOTO is one of those books that has everything I love about manga, particularly manga aimed at children. The protagonist is full of guts and determination, with uncompromising ethics and unyielding bravery. He's a wide eyed optimist and a dreamer, which is both his reason and motivation for going on an adventure in the first place. Later, when Dorothy shows up, she becomes a good foil for Kakashi, who left to his own devices might just wander aimlessly with no real goal, whereas Dorothy has a definite goal for herself, and, being more of a realist, she manages to ground Kakashi in reality, pointing out the things they need and providing information about the state of this fantasy world that Kakashi doesn't have, being from "the boonies" as it were. Toto, for his part, is the ever adorable McGuffin; the series mascot and mystery, a small dog with a huge amount of hidden power. His association with Kakashi and Dorothy provides an antagonist in the form of the Military, who are attempting to recover Toto, for unknown reasons.
The story is very well paced, and moves fast, but in a very decompressed way, taking time at the beginning to establish Kakashi's character, and then giving him the tools he'll need to progress in the story. It's actually almost like playing an RPG, picking up items of signifigance as he moves along... the World Map, his over-sized coat, Toto, a motorcycle with side car... each item is signifigant to progressing the story or building his character. As the story progresses, Kakashi learns and grows; it's all very much a coming of age/hero's journey type story.
In terms of it's references to THE WIZARD OF OZ, it's all very loose, but clever in it's own way... it bears almost no resemblance to the original stories, or the movie, in terms of it's plot, but references a number of the characters and other signifigant elements. Dorothy, for example, still looks very much like a small town Kansas girl, but is the head of her school's Tornado Senjutsu team (ha ha ha! Japanese LOVE puns), making her a formidable opponent rather than a helpless tag-along. Kakashi's name means "Scarecrow", and though he's not especially bright, he's not really off in search of a brain. Dorothy gives Toto his name, but he's actually Kakashi's friend first. And I'm sure many more references are to come.
The art in TOTO is fantastic! It's the kind of art you don't really see in a a lot of modern manga... it stands out as being more cartoonish, with exaggerated expressions, extreme, gestural , posing, and lots of contast, shadows, and detailed backgrounds. The line work is has a lot of variety and is very well thought out, and screentone is used very sparingly, either for dramatic lighting, or to create depth by separating foreground and background elements. The character designs are all very diverse and imaginative, with no two characters looking alike or unconsidered. The storytelling and page layouts are very dynamic but clear.
TOTO is definately a wonderful adventure, that I enjoyed from beginning to end.
HARIDAMAO: Magic Cram School by Atsushi Suzumi
HARIDAMAO was described to me as being "Manga Harry Potter", which is a fair, if slightly misleading, description. It doesn't have nearly the depth of mythology that Harry Potter has, being that it's a one-shot, but it is about kids at Magic School.
HARIDAMAO is about a world where there is a power called YING and YANG, and spells can be cast by moving you Ki from Ying to Yang and vice versa. In this world there are also though who are born without both Ying and Yang, who are called Obsidian's, as they are required to carry a small Obsidian stone to supplement whichever power it is they're missing. Obsidian's are considered handicapped because they can never be as powerful as an ordinary magician. HARIDAMAO is the story of two Obsidian's, Kokuyo and Harika, who both share the same dream of becoming the world's greatest Magician despite their mutual handicap. Together they fight monsters, overcome obstacles, and study to overcome their limitations, learning to turn their weakness into strength.
HARIDAMAO is a pretty standard shonen, "I want to be the best whatever it is I am" type story, about a character that has lofty ambitions, but appears to be a slacker, while harboring great hidden potential. It's a very by the book story that I've read a number of times in other manga, and doesn't really add anything new. It's just a wholly unremarkable book. ^_^;;; The resolution in particular is very predictable... you see it coming a MILE away. As such, the characters are also fall into predictable arch-types; Kokuyo is the underachiever with hidden potential and unexpected tenacity, and Harika is the "tsundere" character (Tsundere is a term used for a type of character that seems aloof or cold but can unexpectantly show warmth or become cute) that nags him while secretly harboring feelings, and Nekomi is the rival that becomes a friend.
The only real saving grace is some really nice art, but even the art is very generic and unimaginative... there are a number of books that looks like this, and the mixing of traditional Japanese costuming with British formal dress is rather jarring and doesn't mix that well. It's all very well drawn, but there's nothing particularly special or engaging about it.
HARIDAMAO is just an all around lackluster book that will probably become popular anyways, as these kind of lackluster books inexplicably tend too. It's not particularly terrible, just not that great.
I think the main point of difference and the reason why I chose to compare these books is the issue of accessiblity. I have three nieces (well... second cousins, but it's easier to say nieces and it's closer to the kind of relationship I have with them) for whom I buy books, and I mostly try to buy them manga, as it's the only thing I've found that has any sort of appeal to girls. The problem I've found with a lot of manga and anime when buying for young readers is finding books that bridge the cultural divide between North America and Japan... it's already tough enough explaining to them why they have to read it backwards (something I now take for granted, having done it for years), without having to explain all the different cultural aspects to 8, 10, and 12 year old girls... things like the honorifics, school uniforms, etc etc. People that are already familiar with manga already have that cultural shorthand, and tend to take it for granted, but it's weird and jarring to a young kid that has no regular exposure to manga or Japanese culture as a whole.
I think that's the thing I like most about TOTO, and stories like it... it's more universally accessible, having no real specific cultural or periodic setting, as well as making reference to something that's already familiar, bringing in a new kind of shorthand for the story, as you already know these characters, in a way. HARIDAMAO, for it's part, is somewhat more accessible than your average manga, but there are still cultural references that your average North American 8-12 year old has probably never encountered... such as the philosophy behind Ying and Yang. This is part of why I've become partial to DEL REY's manga... they're really the only publisher that puts in liner notes explaining cultural references or things that otherwise don't translate directly to North American culture (VIZ and DARKHORSE do this sometimes, but not all the time... EXCEL SAGA has the most extensive liner notes of any manga being published, though).
Anyways... just some thoughts.