Kaze Hikaru 6-8 by Taeko Watanabe: A-

kaze6Even though I’ve enjoyed the earlier volumes of Kaze Hikaru, it is these three volumes—which expertly combine romance, humor, character development, and historical events (with exciting bits of foreshadowing)—that have secured my undying love for the series.

We begin in the summer of 1864. The Shinsengumi is waiting for the Bakufu government to take a stand regarding exclusionism and is growing frustrated with the hesitant leadership. Instead of protecting the shogun, they’re being used to round up members of the radical Choshu clan. At one point, we see Vice Captain Hijikata torturing one of these fellows for information. I love that Watanabe-sensei doesn’t shy away from depicting these characters doing unheroic things (although I do weary of Sei objecting every time and showing no deference to authority) while managing to make them sympathetic anyway; it’s not as if Hijikata enjoys torturing someone, but he takes up the role of the hardass villain so that beloved Captain Kondo doesn’t have to.

The intelligence obtained by the torture indicates the Choshu clan will be gathering at an inn called Ikedaya to discuss an attack on Kyoto, which leads into one of the most awesome scenes in the series so far. Sei and Okita head out into battle together, and when he appears to’ve been killed, she is transfigured by fury and turns into quite a competent fighter. Further awesomeness occurs when, after seeing Okita safely to the infirmary, she doesn’t linger by his side but instead leaves him to return to the fray where her brothers are still fighting. It’s wonderful to see Sei so thoroughly exhibiting the qualities of a bushi, and I also love how much the Ikedaya incident will continue to influence the story from here on out.

kaze7One consequence of Sei’s impressive performance at the Ikedaya is that Captain Kondo wants to adopt her as his heir, an honor Sei must decline on account of her gender but without giving either a full explanation or offense. She wonders why Okita, who has essentially been raised by Kondo since the age of nine, isn’t the heir, and it is revealed that Okita has vowed to commit seppuku when Kondo dies. This explains a lot about Okita and his undying devotion to Kondo (further fleshed out in volume eight), and appearance of maintaining a carefree life. He can’t think about things like love, even though it appears at one point that he has begun to see Sei as something other than a child, because his life is not truly his to do with as he wishes. What a great reason for keeping two leads apart!

Meanwhile, two members of the Shinsengumi, Vice Captain Yamanami and Assistant Vice Captain Todo, receive a lot of attention in these volumes. Yamanami wasn’t able to participate in the Ikedaya incident due to illness, so he doesn’t receive the bonus pay that some men get and proceed to spend on whores. They feel sorry for him and lend him some money, and when he goes to the red light district, he meets Akesato, the lady with whom Sei stays three days a month while menstruation is in progress. Yamanami is a simple and kind fellow, and he and Akesato end up falling in love, but he’s reluctant to pursue it because it’d be a betrayal of his friend. Akesato finally admits Sei’s secret, so that makes two members of the Shinsengumi who know it now.

kaze8This development of Yamanami makes sense when, after a huge battle (Kinmon no Hen) ravages the city with fire, he and Todo (the sick members of the group who’ve been left behind to guard headquarters) think to head over to the nearby prison to help with evacuation. When they arrive, they find the magistrate in the act of murdering the prisoners rather than release them and react with hostility to his actions. While they await being sentenced to seppuku for their disrespect, Todo seeks out the source of rumors that the Shinsengumi was responsible for the atrocity and ends up falling in love with a prostitute. I guess no proper ladies want anything to do with these rowdy fellows.

I really don’t have any complaints. The historical moments are positively riveting, and though the slice-of-life aspects are understandably less so, they’re still quite good. I am kind of sad, though, that Okita’s backstory includes a scene where he runs into Sei as a child. What a shojo trope that is; I’m always kind of annoyed wherever it turns up, even when it’s in a great series like this one. And, make no mistake, it is great.

Ouran High School Host Club 13 by Bisco Hatori: B

ouran13Feelings. That’s entirely what this volume is about. First, you’ve got Haruhi taking a love quiz and finally realizing that what she feels for Tamaki isn’t just admiration of his many good qualities, but actually love. Not that she’s ready to deal with that just yet, so she resolves to take his advice and start accumulating more life experience. Next, Hikaru informs Tamaki that he loves Haruhi, which sends Tamaki into a tizzy that still doesn’t result in him realizing his own feelings.

Even though I get the sense that not too much about this series is planned in advance, Hatori-sensei does at least offer a credible explanation for Tamaki’s family fixation and exactly why he may be unable to acknowledge his feelings for Haruhi. I also like how Haruhi realizes that Tamaki’s been encouraging her to be less apathetic for quite some time now and how he, who is pursuing his new career goals with much energy, has actually become her role model in a lot of ways.

This series is nothing if not lighthearted, but sometimes the side trips into comedy (or unnecessary appearances by other host club members) get in the way of the love story. Still, it’s fundamentally a warm, fuzzy, and satisfying read.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Ouran High School Host Club 12 by Bisco Hatori: B+

ouran12From the back cover:
Hikaru and Kaoru’s fight over Haruhi is taking its toll on Hunny and Mori, who are trying to watch over the estranged twins. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Tamaki, Kyoya starts looking for Tamaki’s mother in France.

Three plot threads are simultaneously underway in this volume, though they converge nicely by the end. In the first, Kyoya is using the class trip to France to look for Tamaki’s mother. In the second, Kaoru and Hikaru are fighting over their feelings for Haruhi and Kaoru launches a plan to spur Hikaru into action. And in the third, Tamaki is trying to decide what he wants to do with his life, and a job offer from his dad gives him a lot to consider.

Although I like the twins and enjoyed the chapters focusing on them—wherein Kaoru rightly sees the need for him and Hikaru to establish themselves as individuals but has a rather convoluted way of going about it—the heart of this series for me will always be Haruhi and Tamaki. Tamaki has backed out on the class trip to France at the last minute, but everyone else believes he has gone. There’s a priceless scene around the middle of the book where Haruhi’s on the phone with Kyoya asking how Tamaki’s doing and then spots him lurking in front of her house. There’s a lot more to the scene than that, but I don’t want to spoil it.

Haruhi and Tamaki proceed to have a lovely scene with just the two of them, wherein he gives her license to ask anything about his childhood. He also confides in her that his desire to make people happy comes from a vow to his mother and that he’d also like to carry this oath further into a career. Haruhi’s encouragement clearly means the world to him, and it’s also clear that Haruhi admires him and is getting a bit flustered in his presence (something that completely failed to happen during an outing with Kaoru in the volume’s earlier chapters). When Kyoya is later able to report that Tamaki’s mother is doing well (sniffle alert!), Tamaki decides to embrace his place in the Suoh family and accept his father’s offer to work with a chain of hotels the Suoh corporation owns.

So here we have a volume that features several characters maturing, two reticent characters displaying fondness for Tamaki, a classic bit of comedy, and a scene that brought tears to my eyes. I guess that may not seem like much, but for a largely episodic series like this one, it really is quite a lot. It also, as someone mentions in uncredited narration, is starting to feel like the beginning of the end. I think the timing’s perfect—we’ve had quite a while to enjoy these characters in a variety of situations and now it’s time for some of them to grow up enough to realize that it’s not a bad thing if relationships evolve from their current states. From all present indicators, it would seem the ending is shaping up to be a satisfying one.

Oh! My Brother 1 by Ken Saito: B-

ohmybrother1-125Masago Kamoguchi is a normal girl: normal looks, normal grades, and normal athletic ability. But normal isn’t good enough for Masago when she’s constantly being compared to her older brother, Shiro, who is smart, good-looking, popular, and someone who draws people to him wherever he goes. As the story begins, Shiro is leading the student council in preparations for the school’s Cultural Festival and Masago is keeping a relatively low profile. All of that changes when Shiro dies saving Masago’s life and his consciousness somehow ends up sharing his sister’s body. Assuming that the incomplete plans for the festival are the “unfinished business” keeping Shiro around, Masago (with some oratorical assistance from her brother) convinces the remaining members of the student council to put aside their grief and make the festival a success in his honor. The students do just that, and though Shiro doesn’t move on as a result, that’s okay with Masago, who has decided she likes having him around.

The name Ken Saito might be familiar to some as the creator of The Name of the Flower. I like that series a lot, so I’d been looking forward to Oh! My Brother ever since the license acquisition was announced. Unfortunately, I found it to be somewhat of a disappointment. There are quite a few characters introduced all at once, and their various reactions to Shiro’s death—stemming from unrequited love or unfulfilled soccer rivalry—lack poignancy when we’ve only just met them; the tone is inconsistent, with the comedic aspect of the body-sharing predicament vying with teary moments for dominance; and I literally groaned aloud when the first page revealed the series was entering well-trod school festival territory already. Also, the relationship between the siblings is kind of icky at times: seriously, who blushes furiously when their brother gives them a peck on the cheek?

That isn’t to say it’s without good moments or the potential for a compelling story. When the successful completion of the festival fails to free Shiro’s spirit from this earthly plane, Masago realizes that his unfinished business is actually her and that his wish is for his sister to live life more fully. Of course, one of the ways in which she might do this is by allowing her feelings for Shiro’s friend, Kurouma-sempai, to flourish (and most likely be reciprocated), a path that Shiro seems determined to thwart by taking control of her body any time he thinks they’re getting too close. This dichotomy in Shiro’s intentions is interesting; I hope it’ll be explored later in the series. Also, it’s always completely clear which sibling is in control of Masago’s body at any given time, either by mannerism, expression, or dialogue. That can’t have been easy to achieve.

Artistically, Oh! My Brother has a cute style, though it’s a little too sketchy sometimes, particularly where light-haired characters are concerned. There’s one panel in particular in which a wispy-looking Masago appears right next to a solid-looking, dark-haired Kurouma-sempai. Perhaps there’s actually some deep symbolism going on here—she’s not fully here while he’s got both feet firmly on the ground?—but I rather doubt it. Also, there are a few errors in CMX’s script, a “your” that should be a “you’re,” and a “thoese” that should be either a “those” or a “these,” but definitely not both at once.

Ultimately, while I am slightly disappointed in this first volume, I plan to continue reading. Maybe this one just needs a little time to grow.

Oh! My Brother is published by CMX. The series is complete in Japan with four volumes, though only one has been published in English so far.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Kaze Hikaru 3-5 by Taeko Watanabe: A-

kaze3Tominaga Sei, a teenaged girl who has assumed the male identity of Kamiya Seizaburo in order to join the Mibu-Roshi and avenge the deaths of her brother and father, has achieved her revenge. As volume three begins, her mentor and unrequited love, Okita Soji, is urging her to leave because she has accomplished her task, but Sei doesn’t want to go and demands acceptance as a man. They engage in a wager in which Okita agrees that she can stay if she manages to score one hit on him. The way she manages to do this is rather underhanded, and I can’t cheer her methods, but I do like that Sei chooses a life of honing her skills in order to be able to protect the one she loves rather than returning to her original gender, even if it would mean a better chance at living a romantic life with him.

After this entertaining but uneventful start, I was unprepared for the utter awesome that comes next. It begins when Serizawa, a drunken hothead who nonetheless deserves much of the credit for the Mibu-Roshi’s existence, is visited by the beautiful wife of a merchant to whom he is indebted. He’s enchanted by her loveliness and is initially content to just moon about over her. When Sei finds out that the woman is actually not the wife but a mistress, and therefore available, she thinks she’s doing the right thing when she encourages Serizawa to go for it. Of course, his behavior only worsens from that kaze4point on, further sullying his reputation with the public. These events coincide with the Mibu-Roshi earning the name Shinsengumi (for their bravery during a coup attempt) and an order from on high to rid the group of troublesome elements.

Matters come to a head in volume four. If I had been a better student of this period of Japanese history, instead of barely able to grasp the political maneuverings, I would’ve known what was going to happen, but in this case I can firmly attest that ignorance is bliss! With this storyline, Kaze Hikaru shows its real power to be dramatic, moving, and brutal, and has seriously hooked me for the long haul. The recurring theme of the series seems to be “Sei gets more than she bargained for,” and that idea is front and center here as she has serious problems with the way discipline is being carried out, though she comes to see the necessity for these new rules—and enforces them—after a condemned man, to whom she was inclined to show mercy, kills another during his escape attempt.

After the dark days in volume four, the story shifts into more lighthearted territory, featuring chapters that reveal more about some other Shinsengumi members. Despite encountering certain grim truths—and unpleasant revelations upon the nature of men—Sei kaze5manages to remain her optmistic self, a quality which prompts the laconic Saito Hajime to develop feelings for her. He fights his attraction, which could not be more unrequited, as Sei continually confuses him with her older brother, whom he apparently resembles greatly. This is a recurring thread throughout volume five, which also features tales about the captain, Kondo Isami, who the men think has been going out whoring; details about Okita’s past; a woman seeking revenge against vice-captain Hijikata for the death of her brother; Sei trying to learn a new sword technique that’s too advanced for her; and the appearance of a man who proclaims his love for Hijikata before promptly absconding with his valuable katana.

All in all, this was an excellent trio of volumes to read together, as they exemplify all the things that Kaze Hikaru does well. The balance between human interest stories and historical drama is well-maintained, aided by beautiful art and likeable characters. If I could be said to have a problem with the series, it would be that Sei frequently raises objections to matters decided upon by the leaders and has to be shown by Okita how she is wrong. He almost always manages to do this without being patronizing, but I’d like to see her grow into a more hardened warrior. Now that I’ve seen the darkness of which the series is capable, this seems at least somewhat possible.

Sarasah 1 by Ryu Ryang: C

sarasah1Ji-Hae Namgung has harbored an obsessive crush on her classmate, Seung-Hyu, for over a year and a half. Because her “love” hasn’t faded in all this time, she believes it’s more substantial than most and won’t give up her attempts to win Seung-Hyu’s heart, despite the fact that he has repeatedly and emphatically rejected her. As she chases after him after his latest refusal, she ends up accidentally tumbling down a staircase and awakens in the world beyond, where Lady Gameunjang, the God who controls the flow of human life, is touched by Ji-Hae’s plight. It’s not Ji-Hae’s time to die, but she can’t bear returning to a world in which Seung-Hyu hates her, so instead, Lady Gameunjang sends her into a past life, where can rectify the wrong that causes him to hate her in the present.

Once in the past, Ji-Hae doesn’t seem to consider trying to fit in at all, and instead shocks her former self’s family by lopping off her hair, speaking informally, and going off dressed as a boy to search for Seung-Hyu. When she finds his past equivalent, called Ja-Yun, she rattles off a series of lies to convince him to let her stay with his family and later accompanies him to a political meeting attended by a man who will one day be an important king in Korea’s history.

I can put up with a lot of flaws in manga. I am capable of liking something when it’s silly, when it’s implausible, or when it has little merit aside from its ability to infect you with the compulsion to know what happens next. But what I cannot abide is an unlikable protagonist, and unfortunately, that is exactly what Ji-Hae is. When she describes what she loves about Seung-Hyu, it’s a catalog of physical attributes. When she springs her latest (public) declaration of love upon him, it includes a note that reads, “You are mine. You can’t get away.” And when she gets to the afterlife, she has the audacity to wail, “What have I done to deserve this pain?” Um, been a completely deluded psycho stalker, perhaps?

Because of Ji-Hae’s abominable behavior, one might assume I’d feel sympathy for Seung-Hyu, but I’m thwarted there as well, since he’s got about as much personality as a cardboard cutout. Granted, as Ja-Yun, he seems to possess at least a small quantity of kindness—or else mere common decency requires him to house the disguised Ji-Hae after she tells her hard-luck tale of orphaned woe—but is otherwise just as stony as before.

About the only thing working for this title is the setting, which allows Ryang to draw some nice period costumes and work in some political elements while eschewing a strictly realistic portrayal of living conditions during the time in question. In general, the art’s attractive (especially the color pages in the front of the book), featuring an everygirl sort of heroine and ample bishounen eye candy.

Sarasah is also a quick read, which tempts me to give it at least one more volume to see whether anything resembling a real and honest relationship between Ji-Hae and Ja-Yun begins to develop. If Ryu Ryang takes the bildungsroman approach, that’s something I might be able to get behind.

Sarasah is published by Yen Press. Only one volume is currently available—volume two is due in November—and the series is ongoing in Korea, with six volumes so far.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Click 6-8 by Youngran Lee: B-

I’ve decided to absolve myself from the entirely self-imposed edict that I review each volume of a series separately and start offering multi-volume reviews on this site. The final three volumes of Click seemed like an ideal place to start, since it was getting to be challenge coming up with new things to say about each volume when taken individually.

The romantic angst ramps up as we approach the conclusion, with Jinhoo realizing he has feelings for Joonha (and, believing Joonha is male, proceeding to be melodramatic and tortured about it) and Heewon being depressed because of her own pathetic behavior regarding same. (Meanwhile, Taehyun’s family resolves to learn the true gender of the person who has captivated his heart. I hesitate to include that in the angst category, though, since it’s pretty pointless and boring.) One has to wonder why all of these characters are in love with Joonha, since she’s only somewhat less of an ass now than she used to be.

In any case, Joonha seems to feel about equal affection for them all (judging by a conversation with her father at the beginning of the seventh volume) and they all know about each other too, resulting in fisticuffs between Taehyun and Jinhoo at one point. Jinhoo, the presumed favorite, breaks up with his girlfriend, Hyejin (whom he realizes he cares for but has never truly loved), and finally, finally comes out and asks Joonha, “Why does everyone say you’re a girl?” Alas, it’s here where the series takes a turn for the dramatastic, for as Joonha begins to respond to the question, Jinhoo’s phone rings with news that Hyejin’s entire family has been in a car accident. Dun dun dunnnn.

From that point on, the kooky just keeps on coming, with two of the contenders for Joonha’s affection removing themselves from the picture for pretty much unnecessary reasons. The way the two scenes parallel each other is kind of interesting, though, and I finally have some sympathy for (okay, this is a spoiler, but did anyone really think this person would be the one?) Heewon who was feeling like a dupe for ever falling in love, but who now seems to be more at peace with the way things happened. There’s also an entirely random kidnapping that made me laugh out loud, it was so ridiculous.

I’ve seen where some have found the ending of this series to be unsatisfying, and I can see where they’re coming from. My problem’s not with the ultimate pairing, though, but rather with how it was carried out. Like Beauty Pop, instead of actually showing the protagonist confessing her feelings to the person of her choice, the story instead jumps forward in time a few years to a point where they’re a recognized couple already. What a cheat! Plus, they’re not acting much differently than they ever did, and it seems to have taken four years for any kissing to transpire!

Click continues to be a fast read through to the end, and while the endless drama is part of it, the art’s another big factor. The page layouts tend to be pretty simple, with large panels and not a lot of backgrounds to stall the eye. This presents a problem, though, because without any pace-slowing, transitional panels, one can be zipping through a brief scene with Taehyun’s family and suddenly, disconcertingly, turn to a page on which Jinhoo is dramatically announcing that he’s postponing his return trip to New York. It happens fairly often and is jarring each time, like zooming along the interstate then suddenly slamming on the brakes.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read Click. Yes, it could be cheaply manipulative and ridiculous, and no, I didn’t much like any of the characters, but it was a fun ride all the same.

Click 5 by Youngran Lee: B-

Book description:
While Jinhoo doesn’t believe Heewon’s declaration that Joonha is actually a girl, his girlfriend, Hyejin, manages to catch a glimpse of Joonha in his school uniform. Will she share that information with Jinhoo, and risk him leaving her for his former best friend?

The status quo is upheld in this volume. Not much really happens aside from Hyejin becoming convinced that Joonha is a girl, but because of her own insecurities—we see in a side story about her that she has always felt Jinhoo valued Joonha more than he did her—her first thought is that Jinhoo is going to leave her. I can’t really like Hyejin much, or any of the characters for that matter, but I do have a little bit of sympathy for her, at least.

A diagram of the relationships in this series would be pretty amusing. Here’s how they stand at this point: Joonha is attracted to his/her best friend Jinhoo (who is going out with Hyejin, who hates Joonha), a new friend Taehyun, and a former love interest Heewon (who is now going out with Taehyun’s lackey, Jihan). With whom will Joonha end up?! Seeing as how I can’t stand Heewon at all, I’m really hoping it isn’t her. The pull towards Jinhoo is strong, but I think I actually prefer the idea of Joonha teaming up with Taehyun and getting away from the angst of the past.

In terms of redeeming qualities, Click doesn’t really have a lot aside from its sheer addictive potential. The premise is silly, the story’s kind of stagnating, and I don’t really like anybody, but I still want to know how it all ends.

Kaze Hikaru 1-2 by Taeko Watanabe: B+

kh01_140pxAfter seeing Kaze Hikaru praised by multiple people whose opinions I respect, I finally got my hands on the first two volumes, courtesy of my local library, and have reviewed them for Comics Should Be Good. You can find that review here.

Kaze Hikaru is published under Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint and thirteen volumes have been released here so far. The series is still ongoing in Japan and released its 26th volume there in May 2009.

Click 4 by Youngran Lee: B-

From the back cover:
Carefree player and rich kid Taehyun knows that he feels something for Joonha whether he’s a boy or a girl. But he hasn’t reckoned on the arrival of music star Jinhoo, Joonha’s friend from childhood, who’s back in Seoul to stay. That’s because Joonha seems ready to pick up right where he and his old pal left off. But can a close friendship remain just friendship when one of the boys is now a girl?

Good-natured and oblivious, Jinhoo seems to take it all in stride—that is, until Heewon, the trash-talking crazy girl, confronts him with a devastating revelation…

There’s not much I can say about this series that I haven’t already. I’m not terribly fond of any of the characters, and yet I find it pretty engrossing. I think it helps that the art is so clean and easy on the eyes and the layouts so simple—it makes it easy to just focus on the emotions and dialogue and zip right on through.

Most of the action in this volume is pretty boring. Taehyun is in love with Joonha, even though he’s unsure of her gender, and she admits to him that she lived for a guy as sixteen years. Taehyun’s minion is inexplicably in love with the violent Heewoon, and does her bidding a few times. Joonha bickers with Jinhoo’s girlfriend. The good stuff is in the interactions between Joonha and Jinhoo, especially a moment they share toward the end where Jinhoo confesses he’s still nervous that Joonha will spontaneously disappear again.

Also, despite the faults of this series, it seriously delivers come cliffhanger time. I think practically every volume has ended with a new step toward Jinhoo’s eventual discovery of Joonha’s secret. This time, I don’t know how can possibly avoid realizing that his old friend is now a girl, but we shall see.