Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ansatsu Kyoshitsu, vol. 2 comments

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Ansatsu Kyoshitsu vol. 2, by Yusei Matsui, Grade B+

(Irina leads Koro-sensei into an ambush.)

As mentioned in the entry for volume 1, I don't want to do a full summary or character guide for Ansatsu Kyoushitsu because Viz has the U.S. English rights to the manga. But, I do kind of want to mention that I am reading each book as I go along, so I need to pick something to write about. I think what I'm going to do is make a few general comments, and talk about new key characters as they are introduced.

In volume 2, Karasuma, the dark-featured teacher that kind of is in charge of getting Koro-sensei killed at the school, has been told by the school chairman (initially a faceless guy that hides in the shadows) that 11 professional assassins have been summoned from around the world and that Karasuma has to manage them when they're in Japan. The first outsider is the 18-year-old black widow killer, Irina Jelavich, who works as a seductress to get close to her target before offing them. Koro finds her way too attractive, and claims to be unable to defend himself against her. He has no problems dealing with her henchmen, though. Irina is brought in as a language teacher, but her arrogance immediately turns the 3-E class students against her. Koro gives her a lesson in humility (rather, he tells her to be a better teacher) and she settles down a bit. However, the students continue calling her "vich-sensei", which with the Japanese inability to pronounce "v" and "ch" correctly, keeps coming out as "bitchy-sensei." Later, she's treated mainly as comic relief.

(Introduction of the school chairman, Gakuhou Asano.)

Gakuhou Asano runs the junior high school, and is an incredibly calculating man. When he first appears, he says that the fastest way to solve a Rubik's Cube is to dismantle it with a screwdriver and reassemble it correctly. He uses a metal wire puzzle to entrap Koro-sensei, and claims that the status quo in the school has to remain intact. That is, class 3-E is the bottom of the totem pole, insects swimming in the mud, used as incentive to the other students to not screw up and get demoted. The problem with this system is that the other students bully the 3-E group, and when anyone like Nagisa stands up for themselves, they get punished by the other teachers instead. This gives Koro-sensei extra work in trying to protect his students more surreptitiously. Gakuhou gives a test to the entire school, and Koro gives cram lessons to his students in an attempt to get the entire class to earn decent grades on the exam. The testing company schemes with Gakuhou to manipulate the scores anyway, and Koro falls into despair. Turns out, though, that Karuma got some of the best scores in the school, but he's not interested in being promoted to the next level, and had intentionally failed the test. He talks Koro into getting revenge on the next test. And Koro is ALL about revenge.

(Karuma tries to cheer up Koro-sensei after the class does poorly on a school-wide test.)

At the end of the volume, the school gets ready to go on a trip to Kyoto. Koro prepares a 40-pound "sightseeing guide" for each of the students. One entry in the index is - if someone kidnaps members of your group, go to page 1243. So, when a gang of dropouts beat up Nagisa and Karuma, and drive off with Kaeda Kayano and the most beautiful girl in the class - Kanzaki, the guide is there to help them.

What's interesting about this manga is that Koro-sensei views himself as a teacher first, and assassin and assassination target second. He's there to help everyone who needs him, including other assassins, become better people through focused killing techniques. And, like most manga, the core values include taking care of your "nakama" (friends, or in this case, classmates). Lots of humor in with the more serious elements. Recommended.

Inside cover quote:
"His regular expression is to have a yellow face.
When he really thinks that something is too below him, he looks like a barber pole."

Back inside cover quote:
"Small birds understand not the will of the tentacle.
(Baby birds can not understand the larger intent of a tentacle.)
- Koro-sensei
(??? - 209 B.C.)"

Friday, July 22, 2016

Ansatsu Kyoshitsu, vol. 1 comments

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Ansatsu Kyoshitsu vol. 1, by Yusei Matsui, Grade B+

I'm not really sure how well-known this manga/anime is in the U.S. It's relatively popular in Japan, but a few of my students have never heard of it, so it's not as ubiquitous as something as, say, Dragonball, Naruto or One Piece. I do know that Viz has the rights for the manga in the U.S. so I'm not going to bother doing full summaries or character guides this time. I do want to make a few observations as I go along, so this is more of a commentary than a review.

(The inside covers have a brief description of Koro-sensei's color schemes as a form of mood ring. This time: "His regular expression is to have a yellow face.
But, the colors of his face tend to change often.")

The artist, Yusei Matsui, first came to my attention with his series, Neuro: Supernatural Detective (English title), back 7 years ago (when I was still in Tokyo) and that was a bit disturbing. The artwork on Neuro was ok, although kind of on the primitive side, and the story could be funny and educational in turns. Unfortunately, the entire premise was "who's the most sadistic creature in the demonic plane, and on Earth?," and yes, there was a strong S&M theme running through each of the stories. It was handled in a childish, cartoony way, so it was hard to take seriously, but, still...

(The inside back cover has commentary or a short poem by Koro-sensei.
"I don't know what weapons will be used to fight World War 3,
but WW4 will probably be fought by tentacle.
- Koro-sensei")

According to the wiki entry, Matsui worked as an assistant for Yoshio Sawai, on Bobobo bo, Bobobo. He also shows up in volume 6 of the Jump Ryu DVD magazine series on how to become a manga artist.

(Nagisa tries to assassinate Koro-sensei.)

The premise for Ansatsu Kyoshitsu (Assassination Classroom) if you're not familiar with it - A yellow alien with a smiley face and an octopus-like body, destroys 70% of the moon, and announces he will wipe out Earth at the end of a year if no one can stop him. He becomes the homeroom teacher for class 3-E at Kunugigaoka Junior High School, and these students are tasked to become assassins and kill the alien. He is soon nicknamed Koro-Sensei (korosu = kill), and the story follows a fixed pattern. People try to kill him, and he uses his ability to travel at mach 20 to avoid the attacks. The $100 million bounty on his head attracts a lot of outside killers.

(There are few things that make Koro-sensei mad. Putting other students at risk of injury is one of them.)

There's a lot of physical humor and tongue-in-cheek gags in the early chapters. One student (previously kicked out of the school for being too violent) buys an octopus and sticks a knife through it as a way of insulting Koro-sensei. The teacher, rather than getting upset, races out to grab a missile the Japanese Navy launches at him, a knife and carving board, and uses the missile's exhaust to cook tako-yaki (battered octopus dumplings) that he pops in the boy's mouth. In another chapter, a girl who is a poor cook, but a decent chemist, mixes up a set of poisons that she asks Koro to drink. He does so, and then advises her on how to make them more effective (the first poison makes horns grow on his head, and the second gives him wings. The third makes him look like a text emoji.) I found the reactions to the poisons to be pretty funny. Every time he races to Hawai'i or Italy to buy food (Koro loves food, but can't buy much on a teacher's salary) he brings back a surface-to-air missile as souvenir.

The character artwork is better than on Neuro, but is still kind of old-school. The backgrounds and school buildings are good, and the action scenes are fun. Personally, I think the gags are funny. And, even in volume 1, there are hints to the backstory, with a creature kind of looking like Koro holding a female teacher following what looks like a fatal classroom explosion, and she says that she loves him. Koro takes care of the main protagonist - the overly feminine-looking male student Nagisa Shiota. And we also meet Karuma (Karma) Akabane, a very strong, unhappy boy. Karuma had been one of the best students in class 3-E, but when he went overboard in beating up one of the school's most popular 3rd year students (who had been bullying a weaker, younger boy), Karuma's teacher, rather than praising him for standing up to a bully, attacked him for humiliating the school by hospitalizing their "sports hero." Karuma lost his faith in teachers at that point and turned into a delinquent. Koro tells him that he shows promise as an assassin. This interaction between Koro and his students is part of the charm of this manga.

Overall, recommended.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Vending Machine Free Manga Challenge

Ad campaigns on the vending machines come and go every few weeks. The current one is a free manga give away. According to the sign, if you get a seal on one of the products from this machine, you get free manga. There's nothing here I have any interest in, but I was curious as to what the seal would look like. There are 4,000,000 seals available, total, but the odds of getting a winning can don't seem to be that great. The only reason for buying anything from these machines is that you usually do, and you are not changing your patterns in anyway. In this case, if you do win, bonus. Otherwise, don't bother wasting your money.

On a side note, I decided to get the cafe au lait premium coffee advertised in the above photo. Stuff tastes like sweetened creamer. No matter how much I concentrated on it, I couldn't taste any coffee at all. 140 yen. Not recommended.

Ok, a couple weeks after I wrote the above section, I wanted to get some can coffee, and I walked over to a vending machine near my apartment where I'd gotten some of the coffee before, and it was no longer part of this campaign. I looked at a few other machines in the area, and they'd been changed over, too. I was starting to wonder if the campaign had been discontinued already, then I eventually did find one machine that still had the ad sheets on it. I bought a can of coffee, and there it was.

The Suntory site is a bit of a hassle to navigate, but I did find the right link for typing in the serial number. There are only the manga shown on the vending machines, and it's only one chapter each. I decided to sample MMR (MMR Magajin Mystery Chousanhan (Investigation Group)), which is a kind of UFO/paranormal mystery series that ran in the 1990's. There's very little on it in English on the net. The artwork is old-school, and the story is silly, with the characters yelling and acting surprised a lot, and in the middle of the story there's a huge product placement bit for Boss coffee. So, yeah, it's just an ad tie-in. The manga is presented in e-book format, and you can't save the pages to disk to read later when you're offline. The browser is clunky, too. While you can sample the other manga titles on the Suntory page, you only get the first 1-2 pages of each one, then a warning saying that you should go buy more coffee to get another serial number to activate the next manga chapter. As I mentioned before, your best bet is to buy the can coffee only if you like Boss, and if you get the serial number label by accident, fine. But, it's not worth it to get the coffee simply to try to win the "free" manga.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Egypt Exhibit

The Reimeikan history museum is hosting an Egyptian exhibit until the first week of September. I was interested in seeing what they have, so I dropped in on the 17th. The museum does allow cameras in the exhibit space, but most of the objects are behind glass, and none of the pictures would have come out well if I'd bothered taking photos. So, I didn't. On the other hand, the exhibit is billed as having "100 treasures" from ancient Egypt, and a number of them are just rocks...

Entry is 1,400 yen ($14 USD) for adults, and you can pretty much see everything in about 15 minutes. There are some nice necklaces, a few good statues, and what's supposed to be a solid-gold face mask pounded from a single sheet. None of the really famous pharaohs are represented, though. Some of the signs are in English, so I could read those ok. And there was a space set aside for a theater, showing a few modern archeological sites. The film looked more like an advertisement for a travel agency.

The real point of the exhibit was to get people to buy over-priced sleeping masks, t-shirts and olive oils.

$10 for pyramid chocolate. And, they did have the "magical plastic pyramid power" kits, too, if you wanted to get one of those...

Overall, not really a bad exhibit, just on the pricey side. If you really want to learn more about old Egypt, you could spend more time reading the signs. And the author of a coffee table book sold at the store is supposed to give a couple presentations in August.

One thing I found interesting was one sign that made a point of dismissing the belief that the pyramids were built by slaves. This supposedly was an unconfirmed statement made by someone that had never been in Egypt. The sign went on to state that the manual labor was voluntarily provided by farmers wanting to enter the afterlife along with their pharaoh, and that the entire project was a coordinated team effort. The Japanese love stories about how "one person can't do anything alone; that everything important must be the result of selfless team effort."

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Yumeria Re-open

The name "yumeria" kind of has the meaning of "shop of dreams". Originally, it was a local produce store that tried to be all things to all people in terms of selling fresh vegetables, oden, and shochu. They opened in 2015 or so, then closed their doors somewhere around March of 2016. Finally, they re-opened in the same location after a major remodeling.

They're still effectively a grocery store, but they have a selection of books on the shelves in front of the store, too.

I haven't tried reading the sign next to this figure, but I'm assuming that he represents some region here in Kyushu. I'm told that he's of Chinese origin, though. I can't tell if this is a very large pull toy, or if he's using the wheeled platform like a big skate sled.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Rokugatsu-gou, 2016

Sigh. Mediafire is messing up again. At least two of the links to the photos aren't working right. Try clicking on the broken square for the photo to go directly to the mediafire page for that picture.

Rokugatsu-gou is the local 2-day festival that generally starts at 6 PM and runs until 10 PM both nights. It celebrates Nariakira Shimamazu, the local feudal lord that kind of led Japan into the modern era back in the 1850's. The festival ran on the 15th and 16th, Friday and Saturday. I had a class in the area from 3 to 4 PM on Friday, so I swung by Terukuni shrine on my way home. The food booths were just being set up.

Well, maybe not so much. No one was in much of a hurry to get the booths up in this heat. We've been getting rain almost every day, and there was a potential typhoon a few days earlier. This Friday, though, the sky was mostly clear, and very muggy.

The lanterns were all set up, though.

Not a lot of high-quality art this time to take pictures of. I'm reading Ansatsu Kyoshitsu right now, so I did find the presence of Koro-sensi to be pretty funny.

I got home, did some work, and had dinner. I didn't get back outside until 9 PM. By that time, things had gotten crowded.

One more lantern that I liked.

The nature of the festival never changes. There are the food and games booths lining the street from Central Park to the shrine entrance. There's the lanterns, women in yukata, and people visiting the shrine to pray for good luck. And, there's the pine hoop, where couples do figure-8s around the hoop three times to wish for good relationships into the future.

Plus the shine employees selling protective amulets.

And, there's the live stage off to the side. My understanding is that there's some kind of dance contest both nights, with certain groups getting a prize envelope, or something, at the end of their performance. Friday night, there were a few hula teams, where the members were all over 50 years old.

This was followed by 3 pop idol dance group wannabe teams. When I arrived, the seating area was packed and I couldn't get a good spot for taking video. That, and the songs were all copyrighted. I worked my way to the other side of the stage and recorded one group dancing to Nickleback's "Burn it to the Ground." I tried uploading the video to youtube Saturday night, but youtube kept crashing. I tried again on Sunday, and had the same error message ("check network connection"). I tried switching from Firefox to Google Chrome, and that fixed the uploading error, so I assume Norton anti-virus is interfering with Firefox for youtube uploads. Sigh. Anyway, the video is now on youtube, where it's being flagged for having copyrighted material (the Nickleback song) sigh.

The dancing ended at 9:20, so I wandered around for a while before going home. The problem for me is that the festival is largely for couples out to pray at the shrine, then eat. There's not a whole lot else to do otherwise, except for watching a few minutes of pop idol dancing.

Saturday, we had rain. A few hard cloud bursts followed by light drizzle. Because of that, I didn't mind having to work most of the day. I had a 1-hour break between 3 and 4 PM, but nothing was going on then. I did run into one of my former English students, though, who was working one of the food tables, and I kind of promised her I'd come back after my last class ended at 9 PM, before the festival wrapped up at 10 PM. However, one of my other students canceled, and I got out of the school a bit earlier, at 8:20 PM. Instead of going to the festival, though, I headed over to Tenmonkan to hit a bar. I'd made a papercraft electric guitar the week before, and I'd written about it on my Gakken blog. I'd brought the guitar to the school show off to the students, and after the classes were over, I wanted to see if I could find a new home for it. So, I went to Wicky's House, which is a live music stage and bar at the south end of Tenmonkan. I'd met Wicky during the Kagoshima Music Fest in June, so he does know who I am, and he's friends with Bon, of Bon Deluxe. Wicky's House had a band playing Saturday night, meaning that there was a 1,500 yen ($15 USD) cover charge, which included one drink free. I was hoping to trade the guitar for another free drink, but that didn't happen. I got to listen to a fairly decent Japanese folk-pop group (don't know the name), and Wicky did agree to keep the papercraft guitar in his bar. So, that worked out ok.

The set ended at 9:30 PM, by which time the dancing at Terukuni Shrine had finished, and a lot of the food booths were being torn down already. The former student wasn't at the one table I'd seen her at, but she'd mentioned that she had to work two different tables. I spent 10 minutes wandering around before tracking her down to a yakisoba table in Central Park. I bought the last remaining package of yakisoba and fried egg for 500 yen, and had that for a late snack. Then I went home again for dinner.

I would have liked to see some of the dancing on Saturday, but the combination of work, and going to Wicky's House made that impossible. On the other hand, I watched the live show at Wicky's, in a cool, air-conditioned room, and that was ok, too. I don't know of any events on Sunday, and the next big event is going to be Ogionsa on the 23rd and 24th...

(If youtube prevents you from seeing part of the video, let me know.)

Direct youtube link

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Final Fantasy - A2 Tactics

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here are for review purposes only.)

Final Fantasy A2 Tactics: Grimoire of the Rift (Square Enix, 2008)
I wrote in the review for FF - 4 Heroes of Light review that I'd gotten A2 at the same time, for 950 yen, and that I wasn't going to play it right away because I'm burned out on tactical rpgs. Well, I had some free time when I was having trouble getting Norton anti-virus reactivated on my laptop, and I figured that I might as well break the game out (since I'd already read all of the manga in the apartment). After a few hours, I remembered exactly WHY I'd gotten burned out, and put the game back in the holder case.

A2 is part of the Ivalice universe. It's a turn-based tactical game that consists of 400 missions. I have no idea how many of the missions are tied directly to the story, and they're not numbered in the walkthroughs I've looked at. 100 of the missions are random encounters, and the rest are optional side quests. The map is broken up into areas, which each have mission locations, and one town. The towns only consist of a pub and a shop. Meaning that there's nowhere to wander around to talk to NPCs directly, and you can't direct your party to go anywhere else if you're not on a mission. The pubs have the mission control center (where you can try to get a new mission, or cancel one you're on) and the rumor mill. The shops let you buy and sell equipment, and enter the "bazaar" (more on this in a minute). When you ask for a mission, it usually costs money, assuming you meet the requirements for it - such as paying cash, but also only if you have certain monster drops in inventory, or specific party mixes. The optional missions also have time requirements, and if you don't take one fast enough, it becomes unavailable for a certain number of "days." If you do accept a mission, you need to go to the main map and look for the spot with an exclamation mark (it's impossible to miss). If you press "x" on that spot, you go directly into battle. (You can save your game at anytime from the main menu when on the map.)

(Party make-up screen, and a view of one area on the map. The town is at the upper right of the area, the "!" marks a mission location, and the blue up-arrow at the left of the area connects to the next area of the world map.)

The battles have fixed requirements (keep an NPC alive for "n" number of turns; defeat all enemies; etc.) There's also a Judge that imposes "laws" on your party (no water-based magic or affiliated weapons; nothing that uses MP; you need to have certain job types in your party; etc.) The game is based around the idea of "clans." Your clan is made up of whoever joins your party (you start with 6 members, but you can recruit up to 24 or so), and you can unlock various clan specials that take effect during the mission, such as pluses to strength or magic, or a 10% boost to experience gained, but only one bonus per mission. If you break the "law" for that mission, you lose the clan bonus, all experience for the party, and whatever rewards the Judge would have given you at the end. I'd gotten up to level 8 with the party, and had never lost a battle. But there were a number of times where I'd violated the "law" because I couldn't figure out exactly what it was. Once, the law was "nothing that uses MP." I was doing fine until one of the monsters hit my main character with Confusion, and he then pulled out some kind of monster drop item that buffed the entire party, burning MP everywhere and causing the Judge to rush forward to punish the clan. Yeah, I turned off the game at that point. You really need the Judge rewards at the end because they include rare drops, and better weapons and armor.

Now, about the bazaar system. When it unlocks, fairly early in the game, you get a chart that lists various things that have S, or A through D ranks for them. If you have enough monster drop items to unlock something, there will be an orange circle intersecting that thing and rank. If you select that orange circle, you're prompted to pick one gem, one bone fragment and one organic from your inventory. If those three things can be used together, they unlock the specific piece of equipment identified for that bazaar list thing and rank, such as a dagger with some action specials attached to it, armor or accessories. Now, this just makes that piece of equipment available in the store. You still have to pay money to buy it.

(Inside the pub in one town. The options are: Free Paper (news stories), Take a Quest, Give up a Quest, Clan Trial, and listen to rumors. The clan trial is a special fight mission that can unlock new bonuses if you're strong enough.)

On a side note, you can choose to change jobs for each of your characters, such as a black or white mage, a thief, a warrior, etc. Each job type has abilities it can perform, and it can only use weapons, armor and accessories associated with that job (mages use staves and robes; warriors use broadswords and heavy plate armor; etc.) Which gets expensive if you want to equip your primary party with the best weapons and armor for their current jobs. And, since this is a tactical game, you can't simply run around on the map to fight monsters whenever you want to for leveling up or gaining the more rare drops.

The story: Your main character (whatever name you choose for him) is a school student in Tokyo. You get asked three questions (what are you going to do during summer vacation, what are your goals, etc.) and each question has three answers (play with my friends, play video games, study, learn a new language, get my warrior up to level 99). Then your teacher holds you back at the end of the day, saying that you need to take remedial classes because your grades are so bad. He tells you to report to the library, but when you get there, the teacher is absent. There's a magical book on the desk, and when you read it, you're teleported to Ivalice, arriving right in the middle of a battle between a group of hunters and their target - a monster bird plus minions. You quickly turn into a soldier, join that hunter clan, and fight the big bird. When you're through with that, you join that clan, and they promise to help you get back to Earth. Not a lot of plot, actually. Also, depending on how you answered the three questions, you get a small bonus to one of your stats.

(Battle map. The top screen shows the law (a ban on certain actions), the clan ability (bonus to experience) and the order of who gets to attack next. The bottom screen shows the party here (the enemy is off-screen), and the command menu. The next one to act is Arurisu. She can move, attack or defend. That is, you can move, then attack or defend; defend only; or attack and then move. Each character has a movement stat, and attacks depend on what actions you enabled in advance, plus the stuff associated with your weapon, armor or job class. But you can only have 3 things in your action menu, such as use item, swing, and cast magic. If you're next to a treasure chest, a fourth action is enabled - open chest.)

Overall, it's not a great game, and I'm surprised to see it as part of the Final Fantasy franchise. The character artwork is mainly flat 2D drawings during the conversation parts, there's no voice acting and the music is ignorable. I didn't see any cut scenes, and the maps look like something from a board game. The background artwork is good, while the monster designs are lifted from other FF games. As I keep saying, I'm not a fan of tactical rpgs, and A2 is just so S-L-O-W. It can take 10-15 minutes to finish one mission, even if you don't violate a law and have to start over again. With 400 missions, I'm not seeing a lot reason to wade through it all. Having the laws for each mission is one of the reasons things get so dragged out. Not being able to use MP (magic) really slowed that one mission down excessively. I've got better things to do, and now that my PC is working correctly again, I'm going to do them. This game goes back into the case.