I''s Vol. 1
I tend to order manga in batches based more on sales than on a desire for particular releases. I'd say that eighty percent of my manga purchases involve series that I have never heard of, or sometimes those I've heard of, but know nothing about. I realize that I'm not the typical manga customer, but this is the way that I am.
Yet occasionally, something appears on the horizon that falls within the span of the twenty percent of releases that I'm familiar with. This always generates a good deal of excitement for me, for if I know about something, chances are I'm looking forward to it. Some manga series that I couldn't wait to get my hands on included Rurouni Kenshin, Battle Angel: Last Order, Berserk, and Hellsing. I was also looking forward to Ken Akamatsu's Negima simply because I enjoyed Love Hina immensely.
I felt a similar flavor of excitement waiting for Masakazu Katsura's I"s, pronounced "Eyes," or "aizu" if you're keen on Japanese phonetics. After all, this was the man who produced my all-time favorite dramatic romantic comedy -- Video Girl Ai. Katsura's artwork is an amazing blend of realism, painstaking attention to detail and sexiness that breathes life into each of his characters. He only cemented his position as one of my favorite manga authors when I discovered the hard-to-find Shadow Lady series from Dark Horse. Again, humor, drama and really sexy character designs were the norm for the series, and he pulled it off admirably.
While Video Girl Ai is still running (also published by VIZ Media), there isn't much else available from the artist over here. We received the entertaining DNA^2 anime series from Media Blasters not too long ago, but it came and went, and I found myself wanting more of his work.
Naturally, the announcement that I"s was coming stateside was welcome news, and I quickly preordered as much of the series as I could.
As with every other series by Masakazu Katsura, there is a simple formula employed to generate the majority of the story's drama. First of all, we have our extremely shy characters. In I"s, this Katsura archetype is represented by Ichitaka and his classmate, Iori. Ichitaka has a terrible crush on Iori, but he can't muster up the courage to tell her. To any observer -- save Ichitaka, that is -- Iori seems to have a mutual attraction for Ichitaka, but she never actually tells him this fact.
There are a few more details to the tale, of course. The first is that Iori has recently posed for a racy photo spread in a popular magazine. This invited all kinds of unwanted attention to the introverted young woman. The second variable comes in the sexy outgoing form of Ichitaka's childhood friend, Itsuki. She has just moved back to Japan from America and ends up living (where else?) in Ichitaka's house.
Now, it is certain that this story is going to get exponentially more complex -- this is the type of tale that Masakazu Katsura excels at telling. Yet instead of making the plot too confusing to follow or the characters too unreasonable to care about, he somehow manages to keep the events that take place in the book believable and engaging. I've never encountered a Katsura protagonist that didn't inspire empathy on some level, and it's really the concern that he engenders for his characters that makes him such an outstanding author.
Whether you dig this kind of story or not, it would be absurd to debate the quality of his artwork. Expressive, detailed characters and backgrounds are the norm in his productions. His male leads tend to be slightly dorky (yet cute and unthreatening) guys, whereas his female designs are invariably beautiful. One look at the eye-catching cover for this particular volume should be enough to convince any observer of his artistic talents.
For the most part, this seems to be heading in the direction of all of his other books. Excellent artwork, familiar characters, and plot twists galore are likely in store for the remainder of the series. If you've read him before and like his stuff, then you'll probably like this book too. If you haven't read him before, then you should. However, if you're not one to take a ride on the emotional roller coaster that he likes to strap his readers into, then this might not be the tale for you.
Sadly, the production standards of this book bothered me so much that I'm not sure if I even want to keep it. I'll get the good points out of the way first. VIZ Media puts out an attractively packaged manga at a reasonable pace, printed at a standard size and a very respectable price point. They consistently produce some of the best translations available. Typographical errors are rare, and the phrases read well.
What's wrong with this book? I live for the details. Therefore, maybe none of these items will bother you. Try to see things, if you will, from my perspective for a moment. First of all, there's the omission of honorifics. They add a level of depth to relationships between people that simply cannot be captured adequately in English. In a story driven by the interactions between a large cast of people, this is a gaping hole that was torn mid-translation. It's true that no other Katsura work was granted the retention of honorifics, but then they were produced before we started getting unflipped books, as well. I had hoped that we had moved beyond pretending that these series aren't taking place in Japan, with characters that speak Japanese.
Another strike against the adaptation is the replacement of all of the original sound effects with obtrusive translated effects. It should be illegal to write words like "SWUP" and "REE" all over Masakazu Katsura's art.
The third, final and most disappointing strike of them all is the editing of some slight nudity. Do I really care about nudity that much? No. But if putting asinine sound effects over the original art is a sin, putting lame stars over the nipples of a woman in a teenage boy's fantasy picture is downright blasphemous. Nothing bothers me more than censorship, and nothing is more insulting in "adapting" a foreign work for a domestic audience by toning down images that some jerk in an office somewhere deemed as inappropriate for me. If this isn't the sort of thing that irks you -- many people don't mind edits at all -- then feel free to ignore my ravings.
Ultimately, everything Masakazu Katsura produces, from my perspective, is good stuff. And yes, even when it has been altered to target a younger demographic, it still ranks higher than books in the same genre. Is this a great romantic comedy? Absolutely. Does it boast some of the best artwork in the modern manga industry? Very much so. Has it been edited? Unfortunately. Yet, if you find yourself within the large camp of people who don't find this troubling, then you absolutely have to purchase this book. It's a great story told well with impeccable visuals. It's funny, cute, dramatic, and even when stars are pasted over some of the characters' most private parts, it's sexy. If the editing bothers you, buy the import. Write a letter if you must. This seems to be the general trend in manga nowadays. If you find yourself unable to take adaptations that skew the appropriate age level, then learn Japanese and find a good import shop in Japan.