Read This: A Centaur’s Life

This week I polished off the latest English volume of A Centaur’s Life. It brought home two main facts:

1. This manga is damn good.

2. This manga is damn underrated.

acentaurslife_vol5

A Centaur’s Life is largely overshadowed by that other monster girl manga from the same publisher, Monster Musume. It’s marketed in the same way, but the two manga are worlds apart. Unlike the surprise New York Times best seller, A Centaur’s Life isn’t packed full of T&A fanservice. Instead, it’s packed full of fascinating world building and down-right weirdness.

For example: there’s an entire chapter with the dialogue in a non-existent language. After transfer student Sassassul meets a fellow snake-person visiting Japan, they stop into a coffee shop to discuss philosophy. The entire time, their word balloons are filled only with pictographs and the the snake-people’s alien alphabet. Except, of course, for when they order their drinks and say thanks to the waitress. Even without using words, the chapter manages some of the greatest emotional impact in the whole volume.

For the final chapter, rather than a slice of high-school life, we get a historical look at the bloody centaur uprising during the Napoleonic Wars. I’d think I was reading a different manga, except that it snaps back to modern times for a subtle commentary on today’s race relations.

A Centaur’s Life is, unabashedly, a slice-of-life comic with plenty of “cute girls doing cute things.” And it does that damn well. The chapter with Himeno’s niece Shino is diabetes-inducingly adorable. Unlike many other similar comics, though, it can hit those buttons while still being wildly inventive. It’s like hot chocolate spiked with Frangelico liqueur: warm and nostalgic, but with an eye-opening kick to it.

English Doujinshi: Witches of the Sphinx Volume 4

This is the shortest volume of the series yet, with 60 pages instead of the 90-100 pages previous volumes had. This volume lacks a short story from Takaaki Suzuki, which is sorely missed. The absence of his leisurely prose heightens the volume’s action-packed feel; this one is all about explosions, unending enemy waves, and dramatic last stands. There are a few pages devoted to Mami and Charlotte’s relationship concerns, though. It’s good to see the side characters get some focus. Not to mention bad ass cameos from Major Miles, the Patton Girls, and the magnificent bastard Patton himself.

It doesn’t quite top the 3rd volume, my current favorite. This one falls in the awkward position of building up to the awesome, “F-yeah!” climax, while not actually being the awesome, “F-yeah!” climax. Still, it’s a must-have addition to the Strike Witches-verse.

The only real bad part of volume comes on the last page. Coming Next: “Vol. 5, the last episode: Know what you want.” Aww! Well, it’s been a great run with these characters. Nogami has given them so much life. With the Strike Witches movie coming out, and the franchise going strong, who knows what’s next? “Africa Witches: The Animated Series?”…I can always dream. Well, on to the 5th volume, and whatever great thing comes after.

 

Buy on MangaPal

List of Nogami Takeshi’s Bilingual Doujinshi

Witches of the Sphinx 4 to be sold online soon.

…and my fanboying over Strike Witches continues. With the dust of Winter Comiket settling, I got an email back from MangaPal:

Dear customer,

Thank you for your inquiry.
Witches of the Sphinx Vol 4 (with English Subtitiles) (by Firstspear) will be available from this or next Friday at MANGA PAL online store.
Sorry for keeping you wait so long.
Thank you very much.
Should you have any question, please feel free to contact us.

Your sincerely,
MANGA PAL

Yay! The wait felt awfully long, after Volume 3’s cliffhanger ending. This installment promises plenty of the hot-blooded, cigar-chomping grit the TV anime lacked. There are some preview pages on Melonbooks; it looks like  my reader response questionnaire wasn’t the only one asking for more of the Patton girls and Major Miles.  America! Bad-ass sword drawing! Heck yeah! And all in glorious imperial English. I’ll post a review as soon as I have a copy in my hands.

Internet Censorship, Hachette, and Yen Press

Are you a US citizen? Have you taken the time to contact your congressional representative, and urge them not to vote for a destructive internet censorship bill that emulates China? If you haven’t, please do so before reading the rest of this post.

Back? Ok, good. There’s a list of the companies behind the lobbyists for SOPA going around: http://philbowyer.com/proud-sponsors-of-internet-censorship-sopa. This might be the best guide out there for where not to spend your entertainment dollars. These are companies willing to sacrifice our online freedom and culture for the sake of squeezing profits. But the list has one name very troubling to me: Hachette Book Group. Manga readers might know them best through their graphic novel division, Yen Press. Which is, to be honest, my favorite US manga publisher (although Seven Seas is getting up there). This sort of dirty lobbying strongly discourages me from buying their books, and I’ve written a letter to Hachette explaining just that. They might ignore a single letter, but not as easily as hundreds…or thousands of lost sales.

Hachette’s Contact Form

(Yen Press isn’t the only manga publisher on the list: Del Rey (a branch of Random House) is too. Although, they don’t print much manga these days.)

The Bittersweetness of Digital Manga

A lot of Japanese companies are putting their manga online for an English-speaking audience. This is a wonderful trend, but it’s bittersweet for me. On one hand, online distro is great for manga too niche or risque for US print publishers. But on the other hand, I just can’t accept the “streaming only”, “no-ownership” way most companies are doing their digital manga.

Let’s take a look at J-Manga, one of the biggest disappointments. In their system, you pay cash to buy “points.” With these points, you can pay to put chapters or volumes on your “shelf,” and read them online. “Streaming manga” might sound weird, but it’s basically the same thing as streaming video sites. You can only read the manga you’ve payed for through your web browser, and maybe some mobile apps in the future. There are no downloads, and no true ownership. You only pay for access rights, which can be revoked at any time for all sorts of reasons (their TOS reserves the right to ban users for a number of arbitrary reasons, from “causing embarrassment” to the company). If any of JManga’s JP publisher partners change their minds and take down titles, you will lose permanently lose stuff you’ve payed for. This will happen; there are already plenty of Crunchyroll shows that’ve been taken down as the licensors go elsewhere. Not even just because shows are licensed for R1; JP publishers seem to remove things on random whims (No idea what happened to Book of Bantorra, not like I care much). The publisher consortium providing JManga’s content have shown an especially large amount of disunity and grumbling.

I love the idea of digital content distributed via the internet. And I’m quite glad to pay for it; it’s not just a matter of wanting everything free. My folder of “digital files I’ve payed to download” is 21.9 GB. But the trend toward access rights, instead of ownership, is disturbing. I don’t want to be at the mercy of some corporate gatekeeper. Progress should mean consumers gaining rights, not signing them away. Even beyond principle, a DRMed market is still a huge headache that customers shouldn’t have to put up with. So when I buy manga online, I only buy it as DRM-free downloads. It’s not like that’s a totally unrealistic, utopian dream…GEN Manga sells their issues as a DRM-free PDF, while both BOST TV and Crunchyroll used to sell DRM-free anime. Every single file in that 21 GB folder is DRM-free. And until the digital manga market evolves into an acceptable form, I’ll be waiting for it. In the mean time, I have tons of manga on paper to catch up on.

Covers of GEN Manga volumes 4, 5, and 6

GEN Manga, doing it right.

Importing Nogami Takeshi’s bilingual doujinshi

Updated 2012 Jan 15: I emailed Nogami Takeshi asking if he could restock some books on MangaPal, and he actually wrote back and did! How nice.

I decided to make this collection of links to Nogami Takeshi’s bilingual Strike Witches doujinshi, to make importing them less confusing. Here’s a list of all books with a full English translation, and links to their item pages on MangaPal and Amazon.co.jp. Ordered by in-series chronology, they are:

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English Doujinshi: Fragments, by Aiwa (Umineko no Naku Koro Ni)

Finally, one of the first books from doujinPress. This new site makes it easier for fans around the world to sell original doujinshi, both by selling second-hand and handling print runs for artists.

So, my first question with this book was: How good’s their printing? With the book in hand, it looks pretty nice. It’s a proper off-set book, with a thick glossy (and beautiful) color cover. It also came with a neat postcard of Ange (for pre-orders only):

The b/w interior printing compares well to mass-market manga; it’s even better than some of Tokyopop’s lower quality.

The content is just as impressive. I’ve been following Aiwa’s art for a while, on her Pixiv and deviantArt pages. It’s incredibly cute, but also with a good eye for composition. She could be a professional manga artist with the stuff here. The story is broken up into three short vignettes: Shannon’s day off with Yasu, Battler and Beatrice’s memories, and a young Eva struggling against gender discrimination. The cover might seem all cute, but it’s a mix of light and dark, more bittersweet than just sweet. With their shortness, they can’t draw the reader in as much as they could. But they’re still some interesting takes on the characters; I especially liked Yasu’s story.

The book’s only other imperfection is the English. Aiwa’s native language is Spanish, so the English this book is entirely written in can feel slightly awkward. It’s not that it’s written poorly, mind you…just not as well as it could be. Over all, it’s a great book. If you’re a fan of Umineko, you should definitely get it.

Aiwa has also uploaded an earlier Umineko doujinshi, “One Winged Eagle,” on her new Tumblr account. It’s also quite good, and more gag-oriented than “Fragments.”

I’ll be following DoujinPress in the future. I think it could do a lot for encouraging doujin culture outside Japan. Plus it has a focus on yuri doujinshi, which works for me. There are two things about the site, though, that give me pause:

1. The cut of profits that the artist gets in sales seems rather small. Although this is balanced by the artist not worrying about costs, since DoujinPress handles all the printing, stocking, shipping, etc. It might still be better for the artist than other options.
2. They refuse to accept any doujinshi containing rape, or which “extraordinarily sexually objectify women or men.” So they’re not a conduit of completely free expression; all those ahegao-packed ero doujinshi will have to find somewhere else.

So doujinPress is no final solution for original doujinshi, but it’s an interesting step forward.

I also got two English Madoka Magica doujinshi in the same order: “Soul Wishes” by Kenneos and “Erinnerungen Ferne” by Hinagi. I won’t be reading or reviewing them yet, though…I don’t watch fansubs, so I’m still waiting for Aniplex USA to release it on BD here (woot). They look pretty good, too, though.

Moe Propaganda

Otaku culture is often interpreted as a postwar reponse, but moe’s roots definitely predate General MacArthur. Just look at this Imperial officer’s oddly otaku-ish comments:

   “The Government of Japan attempted many times to alienate the allied forces protecting Australia. The Japanese aimed their ‘Divide and conquer’ tactics at the Aussie Troops fighting in New Guinea and Papua. Their attitude toward this subject is mentioned by Lieutenant Colonel Mahmood Kan Durrani in The Sixth Column, Cassell and Company, 1955. The LTC was a prisoner of the Japanese and quotes a lecture given by a Japanese officer on how leaflets should be prepared. One of his six recommendations was:
    ‘The leaflet should have, if possible, the picture of a beautiful woman, after the method used by the Germans in the First World War. This device would insure that the soldier would be attracted and would be unable to resist looking at the picture over and over again. This would rouse his passion, and his heart would be inclined for love and to hate fighting.’

The text and image are from the fascinating page, “Sex and Psychological Operations,” composed by Herbert A. Friedman, about sexual propaganda in WWII. His conclusion, ultimately, is that sexual propaganda doesn’t work. At least, it didn’t work in WWII. I reckon in modern times, outside a military context, it could be much more effective. Back to otaku culture, 55 years later, we find that officer’s sentiment in a much nobler vision:

From 『サルでもわかる都条例都条例対策 ~Monkey Business~』, or An Idiot’s Guide to Tokyo’s Harmful Books Regulation, by Nogami Takeshi

Now that’s the sort of propaganda I can get behind (despite all the grad school critiques to be made about its feasibility). Speaking of propagation, this doujinshi’s author actually gave permission for it to be freely scanned/reproduced online, with a unique “copyleft” notice:

“The book has received the copyright protection under the Japanese Copyright Act and international treaties such as the Verne Treaty. However, taking into consideration the contents and purpose of this book, the authors of this publication provides expressed permission for others to reproduce, share, redistribute the contents of this publication so long [sic] such activity does not result in financial or material compensation for the agent conducting the activity.

You are free to spread the word, but please don’t rip us off.
If you would like to reward our efforts, please attempt to buy this book in its physical form at doujinshi consignment shops or Nogami’s online doujinshi mail order service, and find out more about the other books we publish.”

So download a copy without guilt if you’d like; it’s pretty interesting.

English Doujinshi: Keiko Kato North Africa Military Photos 1943, by Nogami Takeshi (Strike Witches)

Like Nogami Takeshi’s other doujinshi, this one is bilingual, with a complete English translation alongside the Japanese text. Unlike the others though, it’s not being sold online. He kept it an event-only book, sold only at Comiket for one day…to preserve the intimacy or specialness of the experience, I guess. Luckily, I managed to get it via deputy service. Very expensive deputy service, orz…but it was worth it!

The book is wonderfully printed, with textured covers and metallic embossing on the title. Since it’s written as an actual book in the show’s continuity, this helps the “authentic historical item” feel. It’s a collection of photographs and writings by Keiko Kato, who worked as a journalist before returning to service on the North African front. The photographs are candid and realistic, showing witches and servicemen in their daily routine. And, of course, glamor shots of famous aces for promotional/propaganda use.

The paragraph-long captions are full of detail, technical and logistical, from the Second Neuroi War. If you love Strike Witches for the historical references, this is the book for you. Its details flesh out the characters, too, like Charlotte‘s last name (“Leuder”), and that Marseille finds it cute when Raisa drools in her sleep.

Some large-size previews can be found at Nogami’s blog. It seems to be sold out at most second-hand doujinshi shops, but you might be able to find it on Japanese auction sites.