It's been a while since I last wrote about manga that I like, so here goes.
Ryoko Yakushiji's Strange Case Files (written by Yoshiki Tanaka and illustrated by Narumi Kakinouchi): Grade A.
Last year when I visited Japan, I was idly checking out Kinokuniya Books for something new to read when "Ryoko Yakushiji's Strange Case Files" caught my eye. I liked the character designs (attractive, and without thick heavy lines) and I ended up getting the first 3 books. They didn't disappoint. The artwork is mostly shojo style, but without all the cutesy flowers in the background. The story follows Ryoko Yakushiji, an elite, flamboyant Tokyo cop that specializes in paranormal cases. As Ryoko, and her hapless male assistant, investigate further weird murder cases (murderous plants; weird little squirrels with human faces that eat human brains), it looks like there's something darker taking place behind the scenes.
Yoshiki Tanaka wrote the original novels, setting the tone and direction for the series. But, it's Narumi Kakinouchi's artwork that keeps bringing me back to the manga. I thought that the character designs felt familiar, but it wasn't until now that I realized why. Narumi has a long and illustrious history, having worked on the "Dr. Slump", "Kimagure Orange Road" and "Urusei Yatsura" anime series. And, she illustrated the original "Vampire Princess Miyu" manga (which I also really like).
The TV anime is currently running late nights on Tokyo's TVK network.
Summary: If you like intelligent, fashionable female ghost busters and cute gun-toting maids, you'll love Ryoko Yakushiji.
Mushishi (by Yuki Urushibara): Grade A-.
"Mushishi" is an ongoing series running in monthly Afternoon magazine, and brought to the U.S. by Del Rey. It is another entry in the supernatural genre. When I first encountered Mushishi in Afternoon, I was unimpressed. The artwork is mostly pencil and brushed watercolors, and it comes out looking muddy. The character designs are inconsistent, and various characters often are difficult to tell apart. The backgrounds are largely forests or woods, and therefore don't standout all that much. It wasn't until I started reading the Del Rey editions that I realized that the appeal to this story isn't in the art, but in the spiritual element.
A long, long time ago, when life was just getting starting on Earth, there was a splitting point where life as we know it got started, but the original proto-life also continued to thrive. Normal people can't detect this proto-life, called "mushi" (insect), but special shamans (mushishi) can. Every so often a human gets entangled in the life force of the mushi, and it's up to the mushishi, Ginko, to figure out what's happening and to try to minimize the damage to both sides.
Japan's Shinto religion has long held that places have power - the tops of mountains and the bottoms of valleys - and small temples are placed there to worship those "local gods". "Mushishi" is an attempt to reframe the Shinto system to explain where these places get their power (from the abundance of proto-life) and how humans can occasionally run afoul of it.
Summary: "Mushishi" is a supernatural series that tries to avoid slipping into horror, while still telling variants of well-known ghost stories (like the bamboo baby). Recommended.
Kimagure Orange Road (by Izumi Matsumoto): Grade A:
You may notice that I tend to give high grades to manga that I review here. Largely that's because I tend to review only manga that I either enjoy, or that pisses me off for some reason. And, I really like KOR. It's not a pure supernatural adventure story like the above two titles, but the main family are all ESPers, and some of the anime was drawn by Narumi Kakinouchi, mentioned above for "Ryoko Yakushiji's Strange Case Files".
KOR is a love triangle sitcom. Our primary hero and the narrator of the series is Kyosuke Kasuga. His family's secret had been discovered again and they've moved to a new town. On his way to his new school, he encounters local thug Madoka Ayukawa and falls in love with her. Unfortunately, Madoka's best friend, Hikaru, decides to claim Kyosuke for herself, and that's where things get messy.
The original KOR manga ran in Shonen Jump, and ended after 156 chapters. The artwork is a little cartoony, and the use of ESP is generally just done for comic effect. The character designs don't stand up all that well over time, but it's one of the first series that I found when I started reading manga, and it has a soft place in my heart because of it.
Summary: A high school romance comedy with bad girls and clueless boys. Recommended.
Alive - The Final Evolution (by Tadashi Kawashima and Adachitoka): Grade A-.
Another ESPer story. This one a lot more action oriented, and a lot more grim. Taisuke Kanou is an average high school student who enjoys spending time with his friends Hirose and Megu. Then, the world is plunged into "nightmare week" as thousands of people commit suicide. At the end of the week, Hirose has developed the ability to drill large holes into people and buildings, and he kidnaps Megu before running off to join a group of power users planning to take over the world. Taisuke slowly discovers that he too has powers (creating fires, later healing injuries) and he chases after Hirose in the hopes of proving that his friend is not a villain. Along the way, more power users come out of the woodwork, all heading to Hokkaido and all leaving trails of bodies behind them.
The artwork is clean, and the character designs are consistent. Adachitoka is a skilled artist, giving his characters a wide range of emotions while also presenting highly detailed fight scenes. Tadashi's writing keeps the story flowing, while skating just this side of "believable" with his explanations for why the world's been thrown into turmoil. The best part of this story is that the characters all realize that they're in a fight to the death, and they don't waste time whining to each other that it's not right to kill under any circumstances (ref. Code Breaker and Elfen Lied).
Summary: "Alive - The Final Evolution" is a boy's action fantasy series pitting power users against each other for the fate of the planet. The current plot arc is nearing its end, and I'm hoping that it doesn't wimp out in the finale. Recommended.