Ninja Girl Ko! Indie Special #1-2 and Video Girl Ai Vol. 15

Today's reviews are all about the kind of girls shonen manga fantasizes having around the house - inexplicably loyal to the passive male whom they happen to share the same roof.

Ninja Girl Ko! Indie Special #1-2 by Marco Dimaano, Kriss Sison
Ninja Girl Ko! Indie Special #1-2
by Marco Dimaano, Kriss Sison

Ninja Girl Ko! began in the pages of the original pinoy manga anthology Mangaholix in 2007. With that magazine no longer an ongoing concern (as far as I can tell. Their website hasn't been updated lately), series creator Marco Dimaano has decided to go the self-publishing route, resulting in a big drop in production values. Succeeding the previous glossily colored work, NGK lives on as a pair of cheaply-printed minis. Ironically, this change brings the comic much closer to the look and feel of Japanese manga magazines.

NGK takes its cues from traditional shonen tropes from the Eighties. Filipino teenager Anton Alcazaren wanders into the woods during a school excursion, where he runs into Michiko Yamashita, a beautiful kunoichi and surviving daughter of a WWII-era Japanese soldier. At first enraging her with his patented clumsiness, he manages to earn her loyalty by saving her life. Michiko follows Anton back to Manila and becomes his bodyguard/housekeeper. But it isn't long before her presence attracts the unwelcome attention of a shadowy nativist organization called The Kamao. While the premise sounds like the setup to a domestic farce along the lines of Ranma 1/2 or Tenchi Muyo, both the artwork and preference for combat hews closer to later series like Naruto and Bleach.

Ninja Girl Ko! Indie Special #1-2 by Marco Dimaano, Kriss Sison

The story has not yet gotten too far, so the two indie specials are a suitable enough jumping on point for new readers. Prior events are summarized and things pick up where they left of. In order to pay to replace a previously wrecked bike, Michiko enters an underground cage-fighting tournament. She easily thrashes the competition, but is then attacked by an equally skilled escrimador. Naturally, she's also a cute teenage girl. Named Maya Luna, she's later revealed to be working for The Kamao. Much of these two issues is devoted to building her up as a worthy martial arts rival to Michiko. And she's contrasted as the short-haired, genki girl equivalent to Michiko's more reserved personality.

The change in format seems to have freed-up series artist Kriss Sison. He's more willing to break with the grid and utilize a more Japanese style of layout. The results are more elaborately staged fights scenes accompanied by more "decompressed" storytelling. And the computer coloring of the past is now replaced by more straightforward stippling. The upshot though is that the series is now paced like mainstream shonen manga, while subject to the irregular release schedule of an indie comic. This could get much more irritating with the passage of time.

Video Girl Ai Vol. 15 by Masakazu Katsura
Video Girl Ai Vol. 15
by Masakazu Katsura

Any knowledgeable fan who's read Video Girl Ai could have predicted that nonentity/wish fulfillment character Yota Moteuchi would end up with magical helper Ai Amano. That's how the formula goes. How the story arrives at that endpoint is what attracts the reader to a particular series. Masakazu Katsura accomplishes this through a mixture of tortuous personal growth and shameless fan service. Characters are often expressing their niggling insecurities through extended monologues. Then the scene suddenly shifts to someone staring at some cute girl's ass. The pain and suffering isn't always confined to people's headspaces. There are scenes involving actual torture, assault, and attempted rape. Then there's the fantasy elements embodied in Ai. Unlike other would-be magical girlfriends, she exudes spunk. Her tomboyish behavior doesn't make her immediately attractive to Yota, so it's a slight subversion when he begins to favor her over the more traditionally feminine love interest. Not that this hasn't been seen before in romantic comedies were the leads start out hating each other before they fall in love at the end. However, the meaning of Ai's very existence is tied to getting Yota a girlfriend. So when she begins to develop feelings for him, her mission is not only deemed a failure, her life becomes imperiled as well.

The saga of Yota and Ai lasts for an emotionally-laden thirteen volumes. But rather than ending there, the last two volumes of the series feature side stories involving a different cast of characters. I skipped reading Vol. 14, which forms the first part of "Len's Story". I didn't really find that I missed much, as the it mirrors a lot of the main narrative. Hiromu Taguchi is a Yota version 2.0, and is helped by new Video Girl Len Momono, whose personality and appearance is also very similar to Ai's. The main difference is that the emotional issues Hiromu faces are resolved a lot more quickly and with less fuss. The last volume apparently ended with Hiromu thrown into turmoil over rumors about his love interest Ayumi Shirakawa. Vol. 15 starts with Len berating Hiromu for thinking less of Ayumi just because she might not conform to his virginal fantasy of her. It's very candid for a shonen romance. But hey, it turns out that the rumors are lies being spread by Aumi's conniving ex-boyfriend. The ex is confronted. Problem solved. When Hiromu starts to take Ayumi for granted, triggering the couple's first big fight, Len tells him to rediscover what he loves about her through art. Len is a repository of practical dating advice, embodied in a cheerful and assertive teenage girl. It's a more lighthearted approach. But the relative brevity of "Len's Story"  doesn't allow much room for its cast to establish a stronger separate identity from the main cast.

The last story "Video Girl" is actually an early prototype for the entire series. The art is a lot less refined, the visual gags are a bit more obvious, the humor tends towards slapstick, and the characters' personalities are portrayed in broader strokes. Compared to what came after, it fares badly. So it's more of a curiosity than integral reading material.