Tidbits: A TOKYOPOP Assortment

TOKYOPOP released a slew of books towards the end of 2010 and quite a few among them are from series I’m either reading or buying and hoarding (as is my wont). In a desperate effort to stay current, I’m tackling some of them in Tidbits format! Alice in the Country of Hearts is up first, with my take on volumes four and five, followed by volumes four through six of Happy Cafe, volume seven of Maid Sama!, volume three of Neko Ramen, and volume eight of Silver Diamond. Happy reading!

Alice in the Country of Hearts 4-5 by QuinRose and Soumei Hoshino: B
Reading Alice in the Country of Hearts is a lot like having a lollipop for a snack. It’s pleasant while you’re consuming it, but doesn’t provide any actual sustenance.

While things do happen to Alice in these two volumes, nothing appears to have lasting consequence. For instance, Julius the clock maker encourages Alice to move elsewhere—to a place where she won’t feel obliged to earn her keep—but Alice doesn’t want to leave! She explains this to Julius and, okay, she can stay.

Then Ace, the resident sociopath, decides that since proximity to Alice and her newfangled morals (she spends a fair amount of time convincing the people of Wonderland that their lives have value) hasn’t changed him like it has changed others, he ought to kill her. So he shows up at the clock tower with that intent, but Alice talks to him earnestly and he changes his mind. The same basic thing happens when she confronts the Hatter, Blood, for saying nasty things about her.

I still like Alice a lot, though, and was happy to see that the magical vial she was given at the start of the series finally makes another appearance. The gist of the game was that she had to fill this vial through interaction with others, and now it’s nearly full. The sixth and final volume in this series only recently came out in Japan, which means we’ve got quite a wait, but I’m interested to see whether it will manage to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Happy Cafe 4-6 by Kou Matsuzuki: B-
Happy Cafe—the story of a child-like high school student named Uru Takamura who works at a café with a pair of bishounen, surly Shindo and narcoleptic Ichiro—can sometimes be pretty boring. The episodic chapters frequently feature uninspiring plots (Uru plans a party for her bosses!) and stock shoujo situations (Uru’s class is doing a café for the school festival!). I’ve also lost count of how many guys seem to fancy Uru.

And yet, the series can also be quite charming. For every chapter where the plot is “our heroine tames a bratty kid,” there’s a good one that offers insight into the characters, like the story of why Shindo kept his surname (and kept his distance) when the proprietor of Café Bonheur took him in as a child or a glimpse at Ichiro when he was a suffocating model student just finding, through his job at the café, the means to bring happiness to others. The overall tone is light and warm, and though sometimes the humor fails to amuse—Uru is a bit too spazzy for my tastes—it’s also occasionally genuinely funny.

In short, Happy Cafe is like the manga equivalent of a sitcom: the setting and the characters don’t change very much, and sometimes the situations in which they find themselves are pretty silly, but it’s still enjoyable to spend short spans of time in their company.

Maid Sama! 7 by Hiro Fujiwara: B
No one could ever accuse Maid Sama! of being a great manga, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it anyway. In execution, it reminds me most of Ouran High School Host Club, in that each volume is predominantly made up of episodic hijinks but yet manages to include at least one genuinely romantic scene between its two leads. The subsequent squee causes readers to conveniently forget about anything less-than-stellar that might have come before.

I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I suffered through a rather dull chapter about Misaki’s incognito participation in a sweets-eating contest and a bonus chapter about Aoi, the insufferable cross-dressing nephew of Maid Latte’s manager, but all is forgiven because Misaki actually tells Usui that she likes him, in her own Misaki kind of way!

The fact that this takes place at a school festival, and that they smooch to the accompaniment of fireworks, is pretty clichéd. Perhaps I’m remiss for not skewering the series for its flaws, but it’s got me in its clutches now. I just don’t want to dwell on what it does wrong when the relationship between Misaki and Usui is so satisfying when they’re actually open about their feelings. Oh, I’m sure they’ll go back to bickering soon enough, but this moment of honesty will probably sustain me for a while.

I have a hard time recommending Maid Sama! because it really is merely adequate sometimes, but if one goes into it forewarned, I think one could be surprised by how enjoyable cliché can be.

Neko Ramen 3 by Kenji Sonishi: B+
Neko Ramen had me worried for a moment there. Its truly funny first volume easily cemented it as the best 4-koma manga I’ve ever read, but the second disappointed me with its dogged (har har) insistence on gags related to the wacky gimmicks feline proprietor, Taisho, comes up with to promote his ramen shop. I missed the cat-related humor.

That’s not to say that wacky gimmicks are wholly absent from this third volume—indeed, there are many, including the introduction of a hot towel service, complete with a sensitive “hot towel artist,” and “boomeramen,” where ramen is served to patrons on frisbees—but the humor feels more well-rounded. The cat humor is back (hooray!), and I giggled when a kitty is given responsibility over the hot towel service and when a group of kitties, caught up in World Cup frenzy, attempts to play soccer.

The cast is expanded, as well. Shige-chan, the thieving part-timer, is back and Sonishi-sensei manages to make me like him by virtue of a short feature in which he’s unable to resist sharing his lunch with various hungry animals. There’s also Tetsuo, a truck driver with an enthusiastic fondness for card games (the rules of which he hasn’t bothered to learn), and a pair of new characters—female otaku Watanabe and bishounen eating champion, Akkun. They bring with them all kinds of new opportunities for silliness.

All in all, this is a big improvement over the second volume and restores my faith in the series.

Silver Diamond 8 by Shiho Sugiura: B+
Although Rakan and friends set out for the imperial capital in the previous volume, they hardly make any progress toward that goal in this one. Instead, they come across a pair of giant, underground-dwelling snakes who have become cognizant of the fact that the land is dying and that they, too, will soon perish.

In true Silver Diamond fashion, however, these snakes are neither monstrous nor malevolent. Instead, they’re afraid of death and confused about what’s happening to them and about what they even were in the first place. The first snake swallows Rakan and friends and conveys them a short distance before dying and turning into a river. When the group later encounters a second snake who is freaking out about what his fate will be, Rakan is able to calm him by giving an answer. It’s all very sweet, far more sweet than one would think a volume devoted to the fates of giant snakes would ever be.

Along the way, Rakan wins the respect of still more villagers and does a lot of planting with the seeds he’s acquired so far. Additionally, the serpentine encounters remind Narushige of when, as a child, his cold-hearted mother once tried to sacrifice him to a similar creature. This actually reminds me a lot of Yuki Sohma in Fruits Basket, whose mother basically surrendered him for the advancement of her family. Like Yuki, Narushige is a reserved character who here resolves to try to forget his cruel mother and change through proximity to his new group of friends. No wonder he’s emerging as my favorite character.

Again, I admit that the pace of this series is leisurely, but it’s lovely and compelling all the same. I recommend it highly.

Review copies for the fourth volumes of Alice in the Country of Hearts and Happy Cafe provided by the publisher.

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Comments

  1. Yay, Silver Diamond! Now if they would keep releasing Genju no Seiza…


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