D. Gray-Man, Season Two Part One – DVD Review

Review by: Clive Owen

Publisher: FUNimation Entertainment
MSRP: $59.98 US
Running Time: 300 minutes
Genre: Supernatural/Action
Rating: TV 14
Release Date: Available Now

This is the beginning of a war on the Exorcists.

Like most fans of D. Gray-Man, I found the first season to be a pleasant beginning and introduction to the world of the Exorcist and, of course, of Allen Walker who is an excellent protagonist in a story that is just getting more interesting. If anything, Part One of Season Two of D. Gray-Man is past the getting-to-know-you stage and moving on to the beginning of what is looking to become some exciting times up ahead for Allen Walker and his fellow Exorcists.

In the finale of the first season, the Millennium Earl sends his followers – known as the Clan of Noah – to kill an Exorcist General and they accomplish the task. It is Allen Walker who realizes that the Earl is after Generals for the power they wield. Chief Komui, meanwhile, doesn’t want to wait for the Millennium Earl to strike again so he sends various Exorcists and Finders to locate each Exorcist General and protect them. As it turns out, Allen is sent out to find General Cross … Allen’s troublesome mentor.

Setting out to Liverpool, England in search of the only person who might know where General Cross might be spending his days, Allen recounts to Lenalee what it was like to be with the scoundrel. We catch a good glimpse of what young Allen was like and his training but mostly Allen concentrates on the fact that his mentor was always being sought after for owing money all over the place so Allen had to work hard to pay off his Master’s debt. In England, though, Allen and Lenalee discover that Liverpool is being plagued by Akuma that might be connected to a local hospital. We also meet an old woman from Allen’s past he calls “Mother.”

Meanwhile, Krory – the vampire we met in Part Two of Season One – has officially become an Exorcist and is on his first real assignment by the Black Order. A tad scared to be on his own, he is delighted when he runs into Lavi and Bookman who accompany Krory to a small farming village. To all their horror, the three discover that the village has befriended an Akuma that is so friendly that the villagers have given it shelter and a job. When Lavi and Bookman threaten to destroy the Akuma, the villagers defend it! Krory is the only one who believes that the Akuma might actually be different in a good way. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem and sometimes they are.

Krory isn’t the only character from the first season ready to step into the shoes of an Exorcist because the still unlucky Miranda is on her way to the Black Order to become an Exorcist. Lugging her favorite grandfather clock, Miranda realizes that she’s lost and it isn’t until she meets a family of traveling performers that come under the attack of an Akuma that she might not be cut out to become an Exorcist. Another familiar face, however, convinces her that she does seeing as it takes guts to actually make the journey to the Black Order headquarters.

On the way to Barcelona, Spain, Kanda is on a mission to find an even more elusive Exorcist General. On his way, though, he meets a Finder named Goz who is the survivor of an Akuma attack in the forest said to contain a witch. Together with Goz – who is actually hilarious – Kanda discovers the identity of the witch. While Allen is stuck in Liverpool solving his own mystery, Lenalee meets up with Goz and a fellow Exorcist named Suman who doesn’t care about anything but his mission. Yet it’s a little girl who convinces the icy-hearted Suman to help her rescue her mother.

It isn’t until the final chapters when Kanda and two Exorcists – Marie and Daisya – are close to locating General Tiedoll that things get really interesting. An army of Akuma is nearing Barcelona and the body count for the Finders and Exorcists climb. A member of the Clan of Noah confronts Daisya in a battle that ends surprisingly as Allen Walker fights to reach his friends and the General. Oh yeah, things are definitely getting darker and more interesting in D. Gray-Man.

Still, it’s good to see that there’s a calm before this storm as the early episodes in this first part of Season Two hasn’t lost its good sense of humor. For example, Allen takes a break from his journey to head out of Liverpool by joining a group of kids looking to rid the seas of a mysterious pirate ship. The addition of Miranda and Krory is also a good one and here’s hoping we see more of Goz whose crybaby antics and Keanu Reeves-like delivery is actually funny.

Part One of Season Two of D. Gray-Man is a step above the first season of this series as events start getting more interesting as the enemy is finally getting serious. The overall tone of the first few episodes are light but they’re a good setup for the darker and more exciting final moments of this first part. We are definitely looking forward to see what happens next with Part Two.

DVD REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: B+
With the Millennium Earl and his Clan of Noah targeting Exorcist Generals, it’s up to Allen and his fellow Exorcists to find and protect them. As Allen travels with Lenalee to find Allen‘s mentor, the other Exorcists try to locate a wandering General that is one of the main targets. Meanwhile, new Exorcists Miranda and Krory try to make sense of their new occupation.

VIDEO QUALITY: B+
The series still sports some interesting animation in terms of the character design and the action gets fierce and impressive in the last few episodes.

AUDIO QUALITY: B
The voice acting in the series is still good and more so if you prefer the original Japanese voices. The music is equally good and so are the opening tune (“BRIGHTDOWN” performed by Nami Tamaki) and the closing song (“Yume no Suzuki” performed by surface).

EXTRAS: D
There are trailers and the clean opening and closing songs in the second disc but unlike the last season’s set there’s no audio commentary track in this one.

OVERALL: B+
The first part of Season Two of D. Gray-Man is actually a tad more entertaining than the first season and its good to see that the series hasn’t lost its sense of humor in the process. Still, aside from the lighthearted moments scattered throughout, the enemy is on the move and things are going to get more interesting as we can see from the final episodes of Part One.

Review copy provided by FUNimation Entertainment.

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Kingyo Used Books, Vol. 1 – Manga Review

Review by: Brenda Gregson

Publisher: VIZ Media
Author: Seimu Yoshizaki
Genre: Graphic Novel (VIZ Signature/Ikki Comix)
MSRP: $12.99 US
Rating: T+ (Older Teen)
Release Date: Now Available

This is a story about manga and the people who love it.

Carefully tucked away in a place facing a river and not far from the gate of the local train station is a store with a white sheet with crudely written letters announcing the name of the store. This is Kingyo Used Books, a most unusual manga store that carries just about every manga you could ever imagine and where the proprietor and staff believes in the power that each manga contains and its affects on the lives of various people. Volume1 of Kingyo Used Books is not only a love letter to real manga titles but its also a profoundly revealing look at what manga means to those whose lives it touched with its pages.

Told in seven different stories that occasionally intersect and revolve around a manga store called Kingyo Used Books, the first volume introduces us to the lively and cute store employee by the name of Natsumi. In the first story, a man enters the store looking to sell her his old manga collection because he thinks he too old for manga. Yet when he shows up at a little gathering of his old school mates he discovers that his former classmates and friends still have so many fond memories of manga. When an old classmate hands him back his old copy of Dr. Slump she had borrowed a long time ago, this inspires the young man to take his friends to Kingyo Used Books where a flood of good memories reminds them all of their youth.

In another story, an art student named Misaki returns a manga called Sarusuberi another fellow student named Murao lent her. She tells Murao that she didn’t read it despite the fact that it was a series based on the real life and art of Katsushika Hokusai. You see, she feels that the story hits too close to home seeing as she doesn’t see herself as a great artist who doesn’t hold a candle to Murao’s talent. After she takes a nasty tumble, though, she meets Natsumi who takes her to the store. It is there that she discovers the truth about herself and finds inspiration anew.

The next story finds a young man named Sawaguchi, who is on the school’s archery team, worried that he has lost his focus and worried that his best just isn’t enough. On his way back home, he discovers and old man and a strange younger man laughing heartily at a manga they’re reading. Curious about what is making them laugh so hard, Sawaguchi gets to close to them and suddenly both the older man and the younger man Shiba try to force the young archer to read a copy of Open Mind. Both men take Sawaguchi to Kingyo where not only does the archer realize that the old man is the store’s proprietor but Open Mind and a manga called Densenrun Desu is just the right thing he needed to calm his nerves.

We then meet a young Japanese-American man who has taken up the role and name of Billy after his manga hero, Billy Puck. Just like Billy, he not only dresses like his hero but is also an actual detective as well. He’s come to Japan for one reason … to meet the manga-ka behind Billy Puck. What he does instead is meet his pen pal, Naoaki Shiba (the same young man from the last story) who tells him about the man who brought Billy Puck to life. Billy actually becomes a reoccurring character as the next story finds him helping Shiba and another Kingyo regular find out why Natsumi is hanging out with an older man into an amazing French graphic novel series called Blueberry.

In the next story, a bored housewife finds herself feeling alone until a call from her parents home has her rediscovering a favorite shoujo manga featuring a hunky main characters she had a massive crush on growing up. As it turns out, another mother on the school’s parents association likes the same hunky main character as well and a friendship is formed between them when they meet up again in Kingyo. In another story, a reoccurring character who also happen to be working as a Sedori (who buy old books and sell them to other bookstores for a higher price) tries to save the manga from her favorite old shop during a storm.

As endearing and likeable as the characters and the theme are, however, Kingyo Used Books is far from perfect. We love manga for many reasons and Kingyo captures the things that go through our minds when we pick up a favorite series or discover a new one. It’s not escapism as a few of the stories suggest. I don’t read Dragon Ball to escape from the real world. I read it because despite all the fights and other craziness there are life’s lessons that the story as a whole teaches us … much in the same way that Billy Puck taught the young detective in this story about being brave, kind and seeking justice.

An inspiring collection of stories surrounding a manga store and actual real manga titles, Volume 1 of Kingyo Used Books is proof that manga has a power to make us think, dream and discover things we have forgotten about ourselves as well as the human heart. This could have been a perfect title but somehow it falls a bit flat in some places but, make no mistake, Kingyo Used Books should be read by those who love manga and by those who have also wanted to be introduced to manga.

MANGA REVIEW BREAKDOWN

STORY: B+
Kingyo Used Books is the type of place that not only has just about every manga you can imagine but it’s also the place where various characters find inspiration, strength and good memories. We meet a housewife who finds a friend thanks to a favorite manga and an art student who finds new perspective. The fact that this manga uses real manga titles such as Abashiri Ikka, Dr. Slump and even Blueberry as part of the story is something special.

ART: A
The art is actually quite gorgeous at times and looks great throughout. You just have to admire the loving detail given to each of the characters.

OVERALL: B+
Volume 1 of Kingyo Used Books is a rarity in that it not only reminds us why we love manga so much but it also shows us – through the experiences that unfold for each character – what it means to different people. While it isn’t perfect, there is much to love about a manga that celebrates manga and the joy it brings to those who love it.

Review copy provided by VIZ Media

Spice and Wolf, The Complete First Season – DVD Review

Review by: Kiki Van De Kamp

Publisher: FUNimation Entertainment
MSRP: $59.98 US
Running Time: 312 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: TV 14
Release Date: Available Now

Sugar and spice and all things nice.

Every once and awhile an anime series like Spice and Wolf comes along and reminds me why I love my job as a reviewer so much or why anime is loved all over the world. Having heard good things about it in Japan a long while back, I was glad when FUNimation brought it over to our shore and, this being The Complete First Season that offers the first 13 episodes of the series, I can safely say that by the end of the last episode you will be wishing FUNimation will bring us the next season as well.

Spice and Wolf tells the tale of Craft Lawrence, a traveling merchant, who returns to a familiar village that has – for years – worshipped a wolf deity that has become a harvest goddess in the eyes of the farmers. After having met up with a fellow merchant named Chloe who is interested in him, Lawrence decides to move on to his next route when he discovers he has a stowaway in the back of his wagon. What he discovers is a beautiful naked girl resting amongst the pelts he plans on selling.

As it turns out, this beautiful naked girl has a fluffy tail and wolf ears and she goes by the name of Holo … the same name of the wolf deity that has become the village’s harvest goddess. Holo is aware that times have changed and belief in her is now replaced by a church that believes in only one true God. As a result, she thinks its better off if she just went back home somewhere in the northern woods. So, seeing no other choice but to find herself a noble companion, she asks Lawrence is she could travel with him.

Convinced that he is traveling with Holo the Wise Wolf, Lawrence tells all he meets that he is traveling with his wife. He discovers that not only can this girl transform into her real wolf form but she can also sniff out lies. As it turns out, Holo is even good at business as she convinces a merchant to buy the pelts at double the buying price. She also warns Lawrence of a shady business proposal a young man named Zheren brings to Lawrence’s attention involving minted coins. Smelling a swindle as well, Lawrence decides to take a chance on Zheren’s proposal and this is where the trouble begins for both of them.

As it turns out, the deal was too good to be true and it also involves Medio Trading Company that has targeted Holo and sets out to capture her. It seems somebody knows Holo’s true identity and as the pair try to escape the cute wolf girl gets captured. Lawrence turns to a rival trading company for help to stage a rescue mission to save Holo and it is during the rescue that Lawrence discovers the identity of the person behind Medio Trading. Believe me, it’s a surprising revelation.

Oh but Holo’s true form is an impressive one and the two manage to escape thanks to Holo’s true strength in her original form. Back on the road again thanks to the rival trading company that helped them, Lawrence and Holo set off to the north only to meet a young female shepherd named Nora Arendt who is skilled at fighting off wolves. Nora asks to be hired by Lawrence – to Holo’s surprising disapproval – and they travel to Lawrence’s home kingdom.

Once again, things go bad for the pair as Lawrence discovers that the deal he was planning on making back in his home turn has turned soar. It seems the company he was dealing with never told him the value of the armor he planned on selling went down dramatically in value. As a result, Lawrence is in severe debt with said company and has only two days to pay it off. With nobody in the kingdom wanting to give him a loan, Holo comes up with a gold smuggling scheme. With the aid of Nora, they secure the gold only to find betrayal again but this time Holo decides to do everything in her power to keep Lawrence from coming to harm.

Despite one being human and the other being a God-like entity, half the fun of this series is the growing affection Holo and Lawrence have for each another. Sure, she often calls him an idiot and loves to endlessly teasing him and requesting lots of food and drink but in her own way she comes to seek his approval and his affection. Lawrence learns a lot about himself through Holo and later enjoys to tease he in return. Their relationship is never forced or contrived and that’s what makes them so endearing and so much fun to watch. Director Takeo Takahashi does a brilliant job making the interaction between the two a central part of the series.

Never short on all the things we love about good anime, The Complete First Season of Spice and Wolf is not only a remarkable entertaining story but it’s also a meaningful one that makes it feel like one of those grand fables told at bedtime. It’s a fantastical tale that is inviting and oftentimes endearing and if you miss this one you will kick yourself for it. Trust me when I say that you will hope and pray that FUNimation brings us the rest of this series. It’s just that good.

DVD REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: A
A traveling peddler named Craft Lawrence discovers that he has the reincarnation of a harvest goddess by the name of Holo that stowed away in his cart. Both Lawrence and Holo travel together and learn that both the merchant life and making sense of human feelings are hard enough without backstabbing trading companies and an angry church after them.

VIDEO QUALITY: A+
The animation is actually quite stunning and even more so on DVD. This is one of those series that definitely needs to be on Blu-ray as well.

AUDIO QUALITY: A
A very strong voice acting cast makes the Japanese and English dub equally stellar so if you prefer one of the other you will not be disappointed in the very least. If you absolutely love the lovely original score just as much as we do you have Yuji Yoshino to blame for that. I also love “Tabi no tochuu” sung by Natsumi Kiyoura but think the closing theme song, “Ringo biyori” weird yet somehow cute.

EXTRAS: D
There’s no real extras on this two-disc set although the box art is gorgeous. There are trailers and the clean opening and closing theme songs but we would have love some audio commentary.

OVERALL: A
The Complete First Season of Spice and Wolf is, without a doubt, a genuinely enchanting and fulfilling series that is a refreshing breath of fresh air for those looking for a story that speaks from the heart even though one of the characters isn’t even human. If this is what the First Season looks like we definitely want the next season as well.

Review copy provided by FUNimation Entertainment

Gunslinger Girl, The Complete First Season – Blu-ray Review

Review by: Faith McAdams

Publisher: FUNimation Entertainment
MSRP: $49.98 US
Running Time: 320 minutes
Genre: Action
Rating: TV 14
Release Date: Available Now

Never mess with the little girls of the Social Welfare Agency.

An adorable little girl with the cutest smile walks down the street carrying a violin case and just as her smile fades away to an expressionless look of a robot, she rips a submachine gun out of the violin case and begins pumping round after round at the armed men who suddenly realize that this child is actually a killing machine. As gruesome and awesome as it sounds, this girl is one of a few experiments of the Social Welfare Agency as seen in The Complete First Season of Gunslinger Girl on Blu-ray.

While I’ve seen the series before in a regular box set FUNimation had released a long while back, the series shines even more brightly on Blu-ray. Packed on two discs, the set includes all 13 episodes plus a few extras but it’s the episodes themselves that will win your heart.

Set in Italy in a time when organized crime now has links to a socialist terrorist cell, this new threat is too much for regular law enforcement agencies so in comes the Social Welfare Agency and its secret Section 2 project. You see, this specific section has taken adolescent girls with a tragic past and near death experience and gave them cybernetic implants and a good brainwashing. In their place are little girls with the speed, strength and skills necessary to combat the criminal and terrorist element. In short, these girls are trained to kill and they’re good at what they do.

We meet each girl and their handlers and while it might appear at first glance that these girls are devoid of emotion and think of nothing but the mission that is farthest from the truth. You see, these girls have formed attachments to their handlers and some even love them. There’s the cute Henrietta who tries hard to impress her handler named Guise and adores him to the point that she unflinchingly kills a man with her violin case because the man shoved Guise. Because of this action, the Agency thinks she is unfit for duty but Guise believes differently and places more effort in training her.

Unfortunately, not every handler is as encouraging or as patient as Guise. Many of them see the girls as tools such as Captain Ravalo who sees his girl, Claes, as a weak “sister” that is hardly even worthy of using. Yet, like some handlers, Ravalo comes to show some compassion for the tragic past that lead these girls to become an experiment. One pair even suffers a tragic fate as a result of a poor relationship between a fratello and her handler as we see in the case of the unsociable Elsa and her handler Lauro.

With the exception of Claes who doesn’t participate in operations, the other girls are efficient killers that stay focused on the mission. There’s more to it than that, though, and we see that the conditioning process hasn’t turned them into mindless killing machines. These girls have feelings and desires they try to make sense of outside of their jobs. When the cute Riko tries to make sense of her feeling for a young bellhop at a hotel she is staking out she is momentarily torn between her duty or the possibility of finding some happiness with somebody outside the Agency.

Meanwhile, a terrorist faction has managed to get the attention of two expert bombers named Franco and Franca who decide to work for the terrorist cell’s leader, Christiano. The group already begins their plans to send a message to the government but the Social Welfare Agency is on their trail despite some setbacks like the incident with Elsa and Lauro … a mystery case investigated by Section 1 of the same organization but solved by none other than Henrietta.

There’s plenty of action in this series and it gets quite bloody but at the same time there’s a human drama that unfolds as we learn about the handlers and their girls. It’s the touching and tragic moments in this series that make this such a unique series. With wonderful direction by Morio Aasako, amazing animation and a smartly written script, the story does not fail to be captivating and shocking. It’s a series that focuses on characters rather than just action and it works.

There are a few animated series that are as haunting, bold and rightfully unforgettable as Gunslinger Girl and it’s no surprise that The Complete First Season received the Blu-ray treatment. There’s just something shocking about seeing little girls shooting guns but there’s more to the series than just that. This is the story of girls reconstructed to do a job but become fully aware of their feelings and the need to be accepted. This is a series you should not miss no matter what kind of anime you like.

BLU-RAY REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: A+
The Social Welfare Agency is going up against the mafia and a radical terrorist movement in Italy by using little girls that have been cybernetically enhanced to become killing machines. We come to know each of these girls and their handlers as we discover that within each killing machine is an adolescent girl who longs for the affection of their partners.

VIDEO QUALITY: A+
Speaking of enhancement, the series looks spectacularly on Blu-ray with a sharpness that simply enhances the already gorgeous animation. This series was meant for HD and it shows.

AUDIO QUALITY: A
The cast is top notch whether you prefer the original Japanese dialogue or the English dub. Seeing as the series takes place in Italy the English dub voices do a better job or pronouncing Italian words. The score by Toshihiko Sahashi is as unforgettable as the story and the dreamy opening theme “The Light Before We Land” is superb.

EXTRAS: A
There are two audio commentary tracks to look forward to as well as a spotlight on each of the girls by the English dub voice talent behind them that includes Monica Rial, Laura Bailey and Luci Christian just to name a few. There are dossiers on the girls and great art features. Then there are the trailers and the clean opening and closing tunes. Definitely not a bad list of extras.

OVERALL: A+
The Complete First Season of Gunslinger Girl is not only intelligent and meaningful storytelling but it is one of those anime series that will be hard to forget. At times action-packed and at other times heartbreaking, this story of girls trained to kill and die for their handlers is brilliant and deserves to be viewed in Blu-ray.

Review copy provided by FUNimation Entertainment

FLOWER IN A STORM BRINGS ON A FRENZIED ROMANTIC CHASE IN FUN NEW SHOJO SERIES FROM VIZ MEDIA

When A Boy Just Won’t Take No For An Answer Sometimes All A Girl Has Left Are Her Superpowers

San Francisco, CA, April 20, 2010 – VIZ Media, LLC (VIZ Media), one of the entertainment industry’s most innovative and comprehensive publishing, animation and licensing companies, offers FLOWER IN A STORM, an imaginative romantic comedy from a fresh new talent of the shojo manga world, Shigeyoshi Takagi. Set to be published under the Shojo Beat imprint and released on May 4th, FLOWER IN A STORM is rated ‘T+’ for Older Teens and will carry an MSRP of $9.99 U.S. / $12.99 CAN.

Riko Kunimi is trying to lead a normal high school life when Ran Tachibana bursts into her classroom carrying a gun and tells her that her life is now his. Ran, who is the richest and most powerful 17-year-old in Japan, wants her as his wife, and he’s not taking no for an answer!

If Ran can’t capture her by five o’clock the next day, he’ll give up, but he has all that money can buy at his disposal. However, Riko has one trick up her sleeve—she has superpowers!

“FLOWER IN A STORM is a zany, sweet, over-the-top story of a girl with superhuman abilities who just wants to lead a normal life and a boy who leads anything but a normal life but just wants to make her his,” says Leyla Aker, Editorial Manager, VIZ Media. “We hope shojo readers will enjoy this fresh, funny debut series from a young creator.”

FLOWER IN A STORM is a two-volume series that was originally featured in Lala and Lala DX magazines (also the original home of VAMPIRE KNIGHT). This is the first graphic novel from Shigeyoshi Takagi.

For more information on this title, or other shojo titles from VIZ Media, please visit www.shojobeat.com.

About VIZ Media, LLC

Headquartered in San Francisco, CA, VIZ Media, LLC (VIZ Media), is one of the most comprehensive and innovative companies in the field of manga (graphic novel) publishing, animation and entertainment licensing of Japanese content. Owned by three of Japan’s largest creators and licensors of manga and animation, Shueisha Inc., Shogakukan Inc., and Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions, Co., Ltd., VIZ Media is a leader in the publishing and distribution of Japanese manga for English speaking audiences in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and South Africa and is a global ex-Asia licensor of Japanese manga and animation. The company offers an integrated product line including the popular monthly manga anthology SHONEN JUMP magazine, graphic novels, and DVDs, and develops, markets, licenses, and distributes animated entertainment for audiences and consumers of all ages. Contact VIZ Media at 295 Bay Street, San Francisco, CA 94133; Phone (415) 546-7073; Fax (415) 546-7086; and website at www.VIZ.com.

One Piece, Vol. 24 – Manga Review

Review by: Eduardo Zacarias

Publisher: VIZ Media
Author: Eiichiro Oda
Genre: Graphic Novel (Shonen Jump Manga)
MSRP: $9.99 US
Rating: T (Teen)
Release Date: Available Now

This is the beginning of a whole new voyage and there will be monkey men and more pirates.

The battle to save Alabasta has been one of the more riveting, compelling and action-packed chapters in the One Piece saga and it all ended in Volume 23. Having finished that volume I began to worry and wonder how could this series possibly top such an epic storyline? Well, leave it to Eiichiro Oda to continue to surprise us and do it in his own style as Volume 24 of One Piece continues the journey.

Having helped Princess Vivi save her kingdom from an uprising started by that dastardly Sir Crocodile, the Straw Hats finally set sail after having said their secret goodbye to Vivi who actually became a great addition to the crew. Yet Luffy and the others are determined to make their dreams come true and the journey must continue. As they sail past the Marines, the Straw Hats discover that they have a stowaway … it is none other than Nico Robin (aka Ms. All Sunday).

After Luffy’s battle with Sir Crocodile, the rubbery Straw Hat saves Nico who reveals a little secret that led her to betray Crocodile. With no reason for wanting to live, it is Luffy who pulls her out of the collapsing temple. So Nico invites herself to be a part of the crew … who very quickly falls in love with the woman who knows exactly what they all like. Things are certainly going to be a lot more interesting with Nico Robin as a member of the Straw Hats.

As they continue on their course, a galleon falls from the sky and crashes near the Straw Hats. On top of that, Nami’s Log Pose (the direction compass that finds land) is pointing skyward. Among all the items from the ship that lands on the Merry is a map that confirms all their suspicions – there’s an island in the sky called Skypiea. With a strong desire to see this seemingly mythical island, Nami thinks it might be an idea to find more clues in the galleon that fell from the sky so Luffy, Sanji and Zolo are fitted with Usopp’s odd scuba gear and head down below.

Unfortunately, a massive ship arrives and its captain – a monkey man by the name of Masira who is the self-proclaimed “salvage king.” Quite a friendly person at first, Masira discovers that Luffy was looting the sunken galleon in his territory and goes, well, ape. Before a battle takes place, though, a giant turtle resurfaces and something else that resembles people but we don’t get a good look at them.

Finding nothing aboard the galleon, the Straw Hats decide to head for the nearest island that happens to be a place called Jaya. Jaya, as it turns out, happens to be filled with scurvy pirates. This is the kind of place where men die for looking at the other guy funny or being caught cheating at cards. It’s the kind of place where villains hand out exploding apples such as the man that hands Luffy one that turned out to be a dud. Nami pleads with Luffy and Zolo not to pick a fight.

As they try to find information about Skypiea, they discover that this side of the island is being visited by two dangerous groups of pirates with the leaders wanted by the Marines so badly that the bounty on their heads is quite impressive. One crew called the Bellamy Pirates has a Captain named Bellamy the Hyena who has a bounty of 55 million berries. When he hears Luffy -who has a 30 million berry bounty – is on the island he seeks him out and confronts him.

If you were expecting a fight to erupt after Bellamy the Hyena slams Luffy’s face against the country, you will be in for quite a surprise. On top of the fact that Luffy and Zolo get beat up, the pirates laugh at Nami for even asking about Skypiea. They laugh at the dreamers who still think such places exist and of those who still believe in the One Piece.

Oh, but there’s a man Luffy meats before the confrontation with Bellamy that tells him that dreams no matter how outrageous or unbelievable will never really die. He believes that the real fools are those who stop believing and those words sink into Luffy’s mind as he returns to the ship with an even stronger determination to find the island in the sky.

While lacking the intensity of the Alabasta storyline, Volume 24 of One Piece is nothing short of fun and even surprising as our favorite pirates not only welcome a new member to their ranks but also sets sail for new adventures. It actually kind of reminds me of early volumes as the Straw Hats push forward to new territories and adventures. This is truly the beginning of a new chapter.

MANGA REVIEW BREAKDOWN

STORY: A-
Ex-Baroque Works agent, Nico Robin, joins the Straw Hats as they finally set sail away from Alabasta and Princess Vivi. Sailing across the strange waters of this part of the territory, they discover a ship that dropped from the sky … an act that seems to point to an island in the sky. In order to find out how to get to Sky Island, the crew lands on a dangerous port town filled with pirates and a dreamer just like Luffy.

ART: A+
Oda-sensei doesn’t cease to amaze me when it comes to his art and he outdoes himself in this volume with the numerous oddball characters that show up.

OVERALL: A-
It’s clear from Volume 24 of One Piece how much the excitement of the Alabasta story arc will be missed but this volume is about moving on and it does not fail to entertain nor surprise. That said, the addition of Nico Robin to the Straw Hats is a nice breath of fresh air as the journey continues.

Review copy provided by VIZ Media

Blu-ray of the Month: Ponyo

From Disney’s Studio Ghibli and from the mind of Academy Award winning Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki comes this very charming little story that’s inspired by the “Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen.

While not as impressive or as breathtaking as “Spirited Away,” Ponyo is Miyazaki at his best. We rank this movie up there with some of our favorite like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

This is animation so good that you won’t care about the celebrity voices but rather enjoy the story of a little boy and a little goldfish that form a bond so strong they are willing to go through nature itself to preserve. It’s touching and at the same time lighthearted entertainment people of all ages can enjoy.

Forget the DVD version included in the pack, this movie was best watched on a Blu-ray format for its gorgeous and rare handpainted animation.