Hello there and welcome to Your Manga Week. Finding time to keep up with all the manga that releases on a weekly basis can be difficult, so I’m here to tell you what’s worth your time and what’s not. We’ll also be discussing the story and arc developments as they come. This week, we’re talking Guardian of the Witch chapter 1, the Death Note Special One-Shot, Agravity Boys chapter 7, and Dr. STONE chapter 137.
Death Note is back! That’s not something I thought I’d ever hear, and while it does overstate things a bit – this new one-shot is just a one-off, after all – coming back to the world and characters of Takeshi Obata and Tsumugi Ohba’s psychological thriller series after all these years was a strange feeling indeed. In the meantime, did you notice that this month is BEASTARS month here at OTAQUEST? You should check out the first piece, our interview with several key staffers over at Studio Orange, ahead of my feature, which is coming February 18, because it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be able to discuss the series in this column given its truncated release. But there’s plenty that I do have to discuss, so let’s get on with it.
Guardian of the Witch chapter 1
First up is the last of the three new series set to plug the gaps in the Weekly Shonen Jump line-up: Guardian of the Witch (Majou no Moribito) by Asahi Sakano. While the other two, Undead Unluck and MASHLE: Muscles and Magic, made very different first impressions, going into Guardian of the Witch chapter 1, I couldn’t help but wonder: did they save the best until last?
In coming last, the new series found itself – by virtue of its fantasy setting – treading some of the same ground as last week’s newcomer, MASHLE. Nevertheless, just because both series might fall under the umbrella of ‘fantasy’ doesn’t mean that their fantasies have to be the same. Rather, Guardian of the Witch stands in stark contrast to the largely comedic MASHLE in its serious, considered premise.
Guardian of the Witch chapter 1 lays out the basic set-up of the world that our main characters, Fafner and Manasfa, inhabit. Under constant attack from demonic forces known as ‘Evils,’ humanity has cooped itself up in fortress-like city-states that rely on the formidable magical power of witches, who use their abilities to repulse attacks from the forces of evil with devastating force.
If we’re playing the game of comparisons, then it should be said that this premise is remarkably similar to that of Attack on Titan. You could easily replace the ‘Evils’ with Titans and things would be almost the same, but the many aspects that differ – Guardian of the Witch being high fantasy, for one – make it just original enough to bear. Of course, your mileage will vary, but speaking as a big fan of Hajime Isayama’s original manga, I wasn’t too offended. Plus, it’s nice to see another series at least try to take up the post-apocalyptic fantasy mantle given that Attack on Titan is coming to an end very soon.
Another thing that grabbed my attention in Guardian of the Witch chapter 1, aside from similarities with previously established properties, was the series’ main character dynamic. Fafner is a ‘Guardian,’ a member of the standing army that is supposed to protect the city from attack but have become complacent while relying on the overwhelming magical power of the city’s resident witches, of which Manasfa is the latest in a long line.
But while all of Fafner’s comrades-in-arms may be happy enough to accept the current order of things, Fafner is alarmed by the complacency of his peers and dreams of someday making it so that Guardians alone are capable of defending their hometown. In fact, Fafner hates witches – which is why he is so appalled when he is chosen to be Manasfa’s bodyguard.
From this is born a character dynamic that I know that I’m weak to: the unlikely couple. The question of ‘will they, won’t they’ is one that can’t help but escape my interest, just as it could not in such series as Twin Star Exorcists and, indeed, Undead Unluck.
But even my sensibilities as a reader weren’t strong enough for me to forgive the very rapid journey that Fafner goes on during Guardian of the Witch chapter 1. After he learns that his true role is actually to kill Manasfa since the ‘Evils’ that were made to inhabit her body to give her magical powers are growing out of control, he suddenly decides that he wants to ‘protect’ Manasfa and somehow turn her back into a normal human.
Not only is this something we’ve seen before in Kimetsu no Yaiba, but it’s also a very sudden transformation that feels like it should have taken place over a longer period of time, perhaps over the opening three chapters instead of in the opening chapter.
One thing that Guardian of the Witch chapter 1 did have going for it, however, was its art. Aside from inserting chibi versions of his characters into speech bubbles for some reason (something which has always rubbed me the wrong way), Sakano’s line art is clean and his designs are eye-catching, particularly in their costume design. In comparison with MASHLE, it’s visuals are certainly more exciting.
But did Guardian of the Witch end up being last but not least? Not quite. While its premise and character dynamic were interesting enough, its character development and unfortunate similarities with other, more established series mean that it made a very mixed first impression. That doesn’t mean we should write off the series just yet, as shonen manga and serialized media, in general, has an extraordinary capacity to grow and develop as time goes on. Agravity Boys chapter 7 will prove this a little later on.
Death Note Special One-Shot
Unfortunately, however, what overshadowed the debut of Asashi Sakano’s new series this week was the return of an old one: Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note. A new ‘Special One-Shot’ ran in this month’s Jump SQ and was translated into English by VIZ Media fairly promptly to rave reception. This no doubt miffed Sakano more than a little bit, given that he is a complete newbie. But the question is: why, after all these years, is Death Note back? And is its return truly justified?
It’s worth keeping in mind that this is, by no means, the first time that Death Note has resurfaced in the public eye or even attempted to continue to develop the original story. Obata and Ohba published another one-shot two years after the end of the original series in 2006, which took place three years after the end of the original story, and almost all of the adaptations since (save for the anime) have attempted to change the story in some fashion. The latest Japanese live-action film, Death Note: Light Up the NEW World, saw six Death Notes active in the human world at once. And, for the sake of our collective sanity, let’s just not talk about the disastrous Netflix movie.
Our protagonist this time around for Death Note Special One-Shot is high schooler Minoru Takada, who seems, at least at first, to be the same kind of person as Light Yagami: cool, calm, intelligent. But, very quickly, he shows his true colors when he takes the notebook from Ryuk after having asked him to return it in two years. This is how Obata and Ohba hook the reader from the very beginning: why did he refuse it for the time being? What did he do in the meantime? Only reading on will allow you find out.
As it turns out, the answers to those questions aren’t that exciting. But, before that, we should talk about arguably the most interesting part of this beginning segment. The conversation between Ryuk and Minoru, in particular, explores just how much the world has changed since the time of Light Yagami. It highlights the fact that the rise of surveillance and digital information technologies would make his plan impossible to carry out in the modern-day, and that the world has also been fundamentally altered by the battle between L and Kira over the Death Note, as you might expect. Not only is the story of Kira taught in schools, but it also means that the range of a new Kira’s activities would be extremely limited, especially with such experienced agents as Matsuda still around.
Nevertheless, once two years have passed, the Death Note Special One-Shot really gets into what has caused so much conversation online. Minoru’s plan, as it turns out, is to sell the power of the Death Note to the highest bidder, which – quite naturally – ends up in a shortlist involving several national governments, including the United States of America. And who is the leader of the free world? That’s right: Donald Trump.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that politicians, or even Trump, have appeared in a manga. Nevertheless, his inclusion was always going to make a splash, just like it did in Dr. STONE, so there’s a lot of focus on this particular aspect of the one-shot. That’s a shame, given that the story itself is well crafted and full of ups and downs, but I must admit that Ohba’s characterization of Trump here is spot on. When confronted by Ryuk with the choice of either dying and giving the Death Note to his country or staying alive and forsake it, he chooses the latter. Hate to get political, but that’s just perfect.
In any case, Minoru Takada also shows himself to be a very different character to Light Yagami when his master plan is revealed. The plan, which took him two years to contact, is to sell the Death Note online, as mentioned, and then get the money to himself in a truly diabolical way. By distributing the absurd amount (1 quadrillion yen) equally to everyone in Tokyo aged 60 and under with a Yotsuba Bank of Japan savings account, he manages to completely circumvent the gaze of Near (who has now taken up the moniker of L after Light’s death) and, in turn, commit an act of genuine philanthropy.
Takada is only thwarted at the very end by his own obstinance. Ryuk is forced to insert a new rule into the Death Note by the Demon King saying that anyone who buys and sells the Death Note must die when they receive their money, but he’s unable to warn Takada given that he told him to never speak to him again after sending him off to sell the infernal device. In this sense, Takada gets his comeuppance.
Some fans were a little miffed by the Death Note Special One-Shot’s ending, specifically because it came out of nowhere and had nothing to do with L, but I can’t help but see the ending as an echo of the series’ true message: just don’t get involved with the Gods of Death. Plus, there are so many other inconsistencies in the narrative that seem, to me at least, to be more pressing, such as the vague reason as to why Takada needs two years to come up with his plan.
Nevertheless, the Death Note Special One-Shot is easily the best thing that Tsugumi Ohba has written in years and Takeshi Obata’s art is, in turn, as eye-catching as ever. There’s even one moment where Ryuk recalls the faces of some of his past opponents, in which you can see the subtle evolution of his art and art style. Believe it or not, he’s actually managed to insert more detail over the years, but perhaps that’s the benefits of a monthly production schedule.
If we return to my two main questions at the beginning, I think we can safely say that the return of Death Note is more than justified here. While it’s not exactly perfect, the story has its fair share of ups and downs and an engaging, unique main character. Couple that with Obata’s art, which is always excellent, and you have around 80 pages of pure bliss for Death Note fans both new and old. The only question we have to answer now is: why?
I’m not sure that we’ll ever know the answer to that question. Death Note already missed its 15th anniversary in 2018, and its 20th isn’t due until 2023. All we know is that it has something to do with last year’s ‘Never Complete’ Takeshi Obata exhibition, where the manuscript for Death Note Special One-Shot was first revealed. Either way, you shouldn’t give this one a miss.
Agravity Boys chapter 7
As I said up at the top, it’s a shame that the Death Note Special One-Shot has overshadowed some of the newer series under the Jump label. Obata and Ohba already had their time in the sun, after all. Guardian of the Witch chapter 1 was perhaps the most important example of this (hence why it’s the lead series this week), but we should also turn an eye to Agravity Boys, which continues to surprise and improve with each passing week.
Last week’s chapter 6 impressed me with how it seemed to be shifting away from visceral, gross-out humor towards more character-based humor in its discursive battle over the naming of the titular quartet’s new settlement. Agravity Boys chapter 7 continues the good work this week, combining narrative intrigue with cleverly engineered visuals that help to deepen our knowledge of the characters and their quirks.
To take the latter up first, Agravity Boys chapter 7 opens by walking us through all four of the boys’ morning routines. They all react differently at the sound of their alarm (Saga continues sleeping, Geralt jolts awake) and get ready for the day in different ways (Chris has to forcibly jolt Saga awake, Geralt gets dressed only to get back in bed anyway), all of which perfectly demonstrate their different character quirks and personalities.
After this short character interlude, Agravity Boys chapter 7 moves on to the real meat of its story. Chris and Saga, on breakfast duty, go to prepare the team’s morning meal, only to find that all of the food is gone. Baba, too, comes out of the shower only to find that his underwear is gone. There’s something besides them on the ship, and it’s taking things from under their nose.
This mystery is what drives the latter half of Agravity Boys chapter 7, as they go around the ship with a motion sensor to track down the roving intruder. What’s more is that it chooses to allow this mystery to spill over to next week, ending with the revelation that something around the same size as Baba has broken into the ship through the wall. Oh, and also Chris has disappeared.
We should take this ‘cliffhanger’ with a pinch of salt given that chapter 3 had something similar that didn’t end up mattering much in the long run. Nevertheless, this move to extend a narrative beyond a single chapter is a first in the series’ short history and it opens up massive possibilities. Could we be moving past silly comedic episodes towards something more substantial? Unlikely, but as has been said multiple times throughout this week’s column, never underestimate the capacity of shonen manga to change and transform over time.
In general, Agravity Boys chapter 7 is another step up for the series beyond its juvenile, disconcerting beginning. Aside from simply employing a proper narrative and doing some character work, there’s almost no sexual content this time – well, that is apart from a shot of Baba enjoying a nice hot shower. But that feels almost like breaking even with the amount of Chrisploitation that went on in earlier chapters, so I’ll let it slide.
You can read Guardian of the Witch chapter 1, the Death Note Special One-Shot, and Agravity Boys chapter 7 for free via VIZ Media’s Shonen Jump service.