Last year, UDON Entertainment announced that it would be launching a new line of kid-friendly manga, to debut in April 2009. Acknowledging the paucity of titles for the under-twelve set, Chief Operating Officer Erik Ko promised to deliver “captivating,” age-appropriate stories in a variety of genres. I’ve had a chance to read two series from the new imprint—Fairy Idol Kanon and Ninja Baseball Kyuma!—and found them too pat for tweens, but suitable for grade schoolers who aren’t quite ready for Naruto and Full Moon. I also read BakéGyamon: Backwards Game, the latest addition to the VizKids line. Like Fairy Idol Kanon and Ninja Baseball Kyuma!, BakéGyamon uses fantasy elements and humor to teach younger readers about self-esteem and personal integrity. Read on for my thoughts about the pros and cons of these manga morality plays.
BakéGyamon: Backwards Game, Vol. 1
By Mitsuhisa Tamura
Rating: All Ages
Viz, 2009, ISBN: 978-1421517933
200 pp, $7.99
Sanshiro Tamon lives on a small island off the coast of Japan. Though he yearns for adventure, his grandparents insist that he remain on the island until he reaches adulthood, lest he meet the same fate as his absent father, who also suffered from acute wanderlust. Sanshiro’s routine is upended by the sudden arrival of Fue, who identifies himself as Sanshiro’s "guide to BakéGyamon." Before Sanshiro can ask what, exactly, BakéGyamon is, Fue whisks him off to an alternate universe where humans team up with monsters to compete in a series of challenges, from finding magical objects to running a gauntlet of VW-sized fish. Ever the enthusiast, Sanshiro embraces the opportunity to play, make friends, and visit new places. His opponents, however, have their eyes on the grand prize: the granting of one wish, be it millions of dollars or rock-n-roll stardom. They view Sanshiro with a mixture of disdain and suspicion, even as his generosity proves beneficial to all the players.
BakéGyamon is at its best when Sanshiro is facing a direct challenge on the battlefield, as he demonstrates grit, guts, and resourcefulness. During the qualifying round, for example, Sanshiro finds himself paired with Dorokozo, a round, genial mud-creature that looks about as menacing as a Barbapapa. After recovering from his initial shock at Dorokozo’s small stature (the other "monster allies" are large and toothy), Sanshiro systematically tests his monster’s powers until he finds one that will allow him to complete the task and advance to the next round. Yet Sanshiro isn’t focused solely on winning; he frets over his ally’s safety, and nearly abandons the challenge when it appears that Dorokozo has been mortally wounded. When Sanshiro tries to interact with the other kids, however, the story comes to a screeching halt, thanks to his annoying behavior. He seems fundamentally incapable of reading other people’s emotions or respecting their personal space, wearing down their resistance with nicknames, compliments, and over-the-top gestures until they capitulate and befriend him. Some readers may identify with Sanshiro’s social struggles, but many will find his relentless optimism and "I love you, man" antics too much to swallow, especially his earnest speeches about teamwork and adventures.
The real selling point of BakéGyamon is the artwork. I say this not because it’s especially beautiful or distinctive (it isn’t), but because it strongly resembles the detailed artwork found in Naruto, Shaman King, and One Piece. However didactic BakéGyamon‘s tone may be, the slick presentation makes it difficult for an unpracticed eye to distinguish it from the Teen and Older Teen titles in Shonen Jump, allowing kids to feel like they’re "reading up" even though the content is appropriate for grade schoolers.
The bottom line: BakéGyamon is most likely to appeal to boys aged 8 to 12. The series is largely free of objectionable content, though parents of younger readers should be aware that Sanshiro accidentally "pants" a female contestant, briefly exposing her panda-print underwear.
Fairy Idol Kanon, Vol. 1
By Mera Hakamada
Rating: Kids (Ages 7+)
UDON Entertainment, 2009, ISBN: 978-1897376898
200 pp., $7.99
Like millions of youngsters, fourth-graders Kanon, Kodama, and Marika harbor dreams of pop stardom. A chance encounter with Alto, a fairy, proves fortuitous for the trio: in exchange for using their voices to save Alto’s home world (don’t ask—the mechanics are never satisfactorily explained), Alto pledges to help Kanon, Kodama, and Marika achieve their goal of becoming Japan’s next idols, providing the girls with instant makeovers and other forms of magical assistance. At Alto’s urging, the girls enter a series of talent shows, wowing crowds with their beautiful voices, positive energy, and ability to recover from mistakes.
As they pursue their goal, Kanon, Kodama, and Marika encounter numerous roadblocks, from corrupt judges and jealous rivals to Kanon’s mother, who worries that Kanon will neglect her homework and chores. Alto does her best to help the girls, but it’s their talent and sincerity that carries the day, not Alto’s magical intervention. That nod to realism is undercut by the fact we never see the girls rehearse, take a lesson, learn dance steps, or discuss musical interpretation—we’re to believe that all three are so talented they don’t need to practice, I guess, but it’s an odd lesson for such a didactic story to impart. Elsewhere, the girls are bombarded with speeches extolling the importance of cooperation, perseverance, and humility when pursuing their dream of superstardom, making the omission of “cultivating high standards” and “practicing” especially curious.
Though the story’s moralizing may not appeal to grade schoolers, the cute, clean artwork will, especially the character designs, which capture the girls’ bubbly personalities. The large, simple panels are easy to follow, making Fairy Idol Kanon a good choice for first-time manga readers. A few glossy, full-color pages add visual interest, as do the intricately detailed costumes that Alto procures for her friends.
The bottom line: The story’s emphasis on fairies, fashion, and celebrity makes Fairy Idol Kanon strictly for 7-to-10-year-old girls.
Ninja Baseball Kyuma!, Vol. 1
By Shunshin Maeda
Rating: Kids (Ages 7+)
UDON Entertainment, 2009, ISBN: 978-1897376867
200 pp., $7.99
In her book Don’t Tell the Grownups, Alison Lurie divides kid lit into two broad categories. The first features “children or bunny rabbits or little engines” who learn, through trial and error, “to be hardworking, responsible, and practical… in other words, to be more like respectable grown-ups.” The second are more subversive; they encourage behavior from “daydreaming” to “concealing one’s feelings from unsympathetic grown-ups,” and remind readers of what it’s like to be a child. Alas, Ninja Baseball Kyuma! falls squarely into the first camp, preaching the gospel of teamwork and good sportsmanship through heavy-handed speeches and plot twists that culminate in teachable moments.
On the surface, Ninja Baseball Kyuma! is a fish-out-of-water story. Kyuma, a young ninja-in-training, lives in the mountains with his equally skilled dog Inui. When the Moonstar City Baseball Club needs to beef up its roster, Kaoru, the captain, braves booby traps and throwing stars to track down Kyuma and recruit him for the team. Things go comically awry, however, as Kyuma seems to be living in a different century than his teammates. He refers to the captain as “my liege,” believes that baseball games constitute a form of “battle,” and looks for every conceivable opportunity to draw his sword. (Parents needn’t worry: Kyuma’s teammates prevent him from slicing and dicing the opposition.) With coaching from his fellow players, Kyuma blossoms into a first-rate fielder and hitter, leading his teammates to victory and inspiring them to enter a national tournament.
The set-up delivers plenty of laughs, as Kyuma frequently misinterprets the rules, or perceives regular gameplay as a threat to his teammates’ well-being. In one scene, for example, Kyuma tackles a homeward-bound runner, mistaking the player’s slide for an attack on the catcher. Humor alone isn’t enough to carry the story, however, and there isn’t much else here to engage the reader. Kyuma and Kaoru are the only characters who register as people; their teammates are virtually interchangeable, save for Luo, a sullen pitcher, and Nana, a female outfielder who lobbies her teammates for a "handsome" coach. (Good grief, Charlie Brown! Where are Lucy and Peppermint Patty when you need them?) The game play, like the humor, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the games are suspenseful, sometimes ending in defeat for Kyuma’s team. On the other, those losses prompt canned exchanges between Kyuma and Kaoru about learning from one’s mistakes and accepting defeat in a gracious manner. To be sure, these are important lessons for any young athlete; I just wish that author Shunshin Maeda had found a less obvious, more natural way to share this dugout wisdom.
The bottom line: Seven-to-ten-year-old readers may enjoy the slapstick humor, but tweens will find the frequent speeches about “working together” and “doing your best” a turn-off. Readers may also find some scenes hard to decode, as sound effects and heavy patches of screentone obscure the action.