K-On! College

K-On! College Created by Kakifly.
Created by Kakifly

Moe-themed comics are a matter of taste, and K-On! walks the fine line that separates adorable from annoying. Are shy girl Mio Akiyama’s cringing and whinging whenever she's pressured into confronting anything new and unexpected kinda endearing or kinda frustrating? Is space cadet Yui Hirasawa’s inability to function without the help of her far more capable younger sister Ui an expression of familial devotion or creepy codependence? What about Yui’s constant glomping on Azusa Nakano? Is that joyful affection or a form of harassment? Humor has a subjective component, and the cast of K-On! isn't so much populated by well-rounded creations but an assemblage of foibles finely balanced for cute interactions. But if the gags fail to amuse the reader, the results are just a bunch of characters overreacting to the most mundane of things.

To his credit, Kakifly is one of the more talented manga-ka working in the highly constrained yonkoma format. His designs are appealing without being too pandering. His linework is polished. And the story told of a clique of high school students forming a pop band is sweet and mellow, even if it can be a little too saccharine at times. When the original band members graduated, it seemed like a natural place to close the series. So I have to wonder if commercial considerations convinced him (or more likely the publisher Hōbunsha) to extend the story. In any case, the tone of K-On! College will feel familiar to fans, just without a tidy conclusion. For whatever reason, this spinoff never lasted long enough to establish its own identity.

One would think that having Yui, Mio, Ritsu Tainaka, and Tsumugi “Mugi” Kotobuki in a college setting would help create new and interesting setups. They’re all inhabiting the same dorm but attending different classes. They’ve joined the school's pop-music club, which has a much larger membership than their old high school club. There are new characters, most notably a rival band composed of a talented trio. But it isn’t long before it becomes apparent that the new cast members are mostly filling the same roles vacated by the old cast members. No more Sawako Yamanaka to act as the cosplay-crazy authority figure? The club president also has a cosplay fetish. No more Azusa for Yui to glomp on? Hey, there’s this other tsundere that will do just as fine. And the manga continues to rely on old standbys like Ritsu and Mio’s boke-tsukkomi routine, Yui’s sleepiness, or Mugi’s fascination with convenience store snack foods.

Thankfully, the manga does present several moments of character development. The college setting forces the four of them to consider whether they might actually want to become professional musicians after they graduate. This precipitates a mini identity crisis in both the ditzy Yui and lazy Ritsu. The new environment also pushes Mio and Mugi out of their respective comfort zones. Mio takes a few tentative steps to conquer her shyness, while Mugi, missing her wealthy family and household servants, learns to become more self-sufficient. There's just no follow-up to these incremental changes. And the new cast members suffer from not being sufficiently fleshed-out. The one exception is punk rocker Akira Wada, the only one with a backstory, and with a love interest to boot. It’s too bad the series was cancelled before anything could get going.

K-On! College is a commercial manga, so it’s no surprise that it conforms to the formula that previously made it a huge success. Fans looking for more of the same will not be disappointed. But there are times when the world the characters inhabit feels hemmed-in by those small panels, and I wonder what would happen if they could break free from them.


The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine (2013), directed by James Mangold

The Wolverine is the most straightforward superhero movie I’ve seen this summer, possesing none of the gravitas of Man of Steel and Iron Man 3. That’s probably a good thing. It's a star vehicle for the charismatic Hugh Jackman, who’s finally aging into the heavily muscled yet battle-scarred comic book character fans know and love ever since he started playing Logan back in 2000. Yes, ladies and gentlemen. If you can remember that far back, you too are old.

The Mutant vs. Human struggle gets left far behind as the eponymous hero travels to Japan and becomes entangled in the political intrigue of the extremely wealthy and powerful Yashida family. As a fish out of water tale, the movie is a throwback to the days when Japan was overwhelmingly defined by the West as the land of samurai, ninja and yakuza. Not surprising since the story is loosely based on a comic book from 1982 (incidentally, neither Wolverine creator Len Wein or original comic story creators Chris Claremont and Frank Miller get any recognition in the film credits, though Len was apparently paid by the studio. That's nice). There’s the usual cliched banter about honor, duty, loyalty and sacrifice that often describes those inscrutable Japanese, with an arranged marriage thrown in for good measure. Damsel in distress Mariko Yashida (a vision of delicate beauty played by Tao Okamoto) naturally gets rescued by handsome outsider Logan who labels her “princess”, probably for the benefit of the audience members who haven’t figured out what’s going on. The movie doesn’t employ the well-worn trope of the wayward White Guy who learns martial arts and bests the treacherous Orientals at their own game, but Logan is almost immediately identified by the locals as a “ronin” anyway. That’s a samurai without a master, in case you didn’t know. However, there's this one small lesson on how to handle a katana that becomes crucial later on.

What else? There’s the inevitable humor about cultural misunderstandings. Logan cluelessly walks into a love hotel with Mariko at one point, innocently hoping to rent a room for the night. Ha ha! When Mariko meets Logan for the first time, he looks pretty much the stereotype of the uncultured, dirty, hairy, and presumably very smelly gaijin. This leads to a bath scene involving some stern-looking house servants brandishing wash sticks. On the other side, virtually every Japanese male is a scheming, chauvinist SOB who treats Mariko and best pal Yukio (played by a red-haired Rila Fukushima fashionably dressed like a hip young lady going about the town) like personal property, though Yukio does get her share of badass moments. The plot makes no sense as it depends on the separate machinations of all those schemers to perfectly line up. I’m sure nitpicky fans have already expressed their thoughts all over the Internet. Then there’s the junk science about transferring Logan’s mutant healing powers to mere mortals. Apparently, all it takes is a direct infusion from Logan’s bone marrow, though why it requires removing his claws with high-tech samurai armor made of adamantium completely escapes me.

If the viewer can get past those little contrivances and massive plot holes, the reward is a stylish noire story with some very thrilling set pieces. Tokyo is shot as a gorgeous dreamland, whether it be the glittering modern skyline or more traditional structures, and where everyone is dressed to the nines. All except for grizzled mountain-man Logan of course. Like so many major Hollywood studio efforts, it falls apart in the third act. But hey, Hugh Jackman's back. And for completists, it connects X-Men: The Last Stand to the next movie in the series.