Paradise Kiss 1-5 by Ai Yazawa: A

Like Yazawa’s later series, NANA, Paradise Kiss is the story of a normal girl who wanders into the path of young people with ambition, becomes invested in seeing their dream come true, and must ultimately find her own path to happiness.

The Basic Story

Yukari Hayasaka is a hardworking high school student who has never been in trouble. Since early childhood her main preoccupation has been studying, trying to please her demanding mother by getting into desirable private schools. She has largely proved to be a disappointment in this area, and though she has managed to get into a prestigious high school, she finds it difficult to keep up with the coursework and worries about her college prospects. One day, as she’s crossing the street, she’s spotted by a suspicious pair—a punk with safety pins in his face and a man in drag—and carried back to their “studio.”

The punk (Arashi), the crossdresser (Isabella), and the diminutive pink-haired Miwako explain that they are students in the fashion design class at Yazawa School of the Arts and need a model for their project for the school festival. Yukari is disdainful of these “freaks,” and storms off without any intention of helping them. On her way out, she drops her student ID, which is found by George Koizumi. It’s George who’s the leader of the group of students—they’re working as his support staff—and he’s determined to get Yukari to agree to model his elaborate design.

Yukari bristles at his suave and confusing attentions, but all the same must admit to herself that before this moment, “I was just running with blinders on through a dark tunnel, heading toward a light at the end. But that light was only a portral to a vast, empty, and lonely space.” Yukari is weary of days spent memorizing dates and formulas, and eventually comes to be impressed by the skill and dedication of the Yazawa students, who create clothes under the label “Paradise Kiss.” She also grows more and more intrigued by the engimatic and inscrutable George, and by the end of volume one, not only has she agreed to the modeling job, she and George share a passionate kiss.

Preparations for the festival continue while Yukari and George’s relationship deepens and evolves. This is the first time Yukari has ever been part of anything, and she’s eager to contribute in any way she can, despite the repeated urgings from the others that she shouldn’t be slacking in her studies. George, meanwhile, grows frustrated by her tendency to blame all of her problems on other people—she has to study because of her mother, but she can’t concentrate on studying because of him—and asks, “Where is your drive and determination in all of this?”

In order to be the kind of independent woman George prefers, Yukari runs away from home and stops attending school so that she can begin working and figure out what she wants to do with her life. George continues to encourage her to make her own decisions and she assures him she’ll take responsibility for the fallout of her actions. This advice, coupled with a convenient opportunity to model for Miwako’s sister (also a designer), helps launch Yukari on the path of becoming a model, something that eventually becomes a dream and a goal so important to her that she’s willing to make any sacrifice to achieve it.

The Characters

A story about the metamorphosis of an unhappy schoolgirl into a successful model might be intriguing under any circumstances, but what really makes Paradise Kiss special are the layered and flawed characters. Yukari, for example, is stubborn and full of prejudices as the story begins, traits largely inherited from her overbearing mother. While she’s able to overcome these for the most part, a deeper level of influence results in a fixation with winning that brings down the group when the festival doesn’t go as planned and in insecurities that lead to ugliness when she’s confronted with other people who are important figures in George’s life. Her journey from unhappy high schooler to fulfilled adult woman is hard-fought, believable, nuanced, and satisfying.

The supporting characters are quite interesting, too. My favorite of these is Arashi, who is initially quite nasty to Yukari, but eventually begins to respect her and even become somewhat protective. He’s got some pretty vicious insecurities of his own involving a love triangle between him, Miwako, and their childhood friend (and Yukari’s classmate), Hiro. The root of this unease is only unveiled in volume five, and though I’m glad this storyline sees some resolution, it would’ve been nice if a bit more time could’ve been spent on it. Hiro, too, plays a far greater role than I initially expected, and serves to temper Yukari’s rebellious impulses.

It’s inevitable, though, that a hero designed to compel and fascinate the heroine would also do so to his audience. George is a fantastic character. At first, readers don’t know if he’s simply toying with Yukari or is really serious about her. He doesn’t call when he says he will, forgets dinner engagements, and claims on more than one occasion to be an “equal opportunity lover.” In bits and pieces, though, we begin to see not only how much he truly cares for Yukari, but his very real vulnerabilities. He’s so insistent that Yukari decide everything on her own, for example, because his mother, mistress to a rich and powerful man, constantly blames her lover for all of her unhappiness. He doesn’t want Yukari to feel that way about him, so he always avoids making the first move, even when it’s something that he wants to happen, because he doesn’t want to be blamed for her misery down the line.

Although he’s drawn to Yukari’s spirited personality, the way they interact also makes it difficult for him to confide his feelings and worries to her. For that, he turns to Kaori Aso, a fellow designer for whom he had feelings but who never took him seriously. The first moment Kaori appeared, I groaned inwardly, thinking she’d be just another last-minute love rival, but I must say I ended up liking her a lot in the end. Even though Yukari is the protagonist, it was really interesting to see George interact with an ambitious girl who is less reactionary than Yukari; I couldn’t help but think that she would be a better match for him.

Why Ai Yazawa is Awesome

There are so many emotionally resonant moments in this series that it would be impossible to list them all. Yazawa captures so many stops along the formation and disintegration of relationships that I feel she simply must have gone through this kind of thing herself. I’m not only talking about the exhilaration as Yukari and George connect for the first time, but also some of the problems that ensue later on in their relationship.

I recall, for example, a scene between Yukari and Hiro in volume three. She hasn’t been to school in a while and he’s worried about her. He’s the one who makes her realize that she’s trying become the kind of woman who isn’t influenced by others because she was influenced by George’s preference. Yazawa absolutely nails the desperate panic of someone who doesn’t want to hear another verbally confirm their own innermost doubts and insecurities. “Shut up already!” she shouts. “Just leave me alone.” Still, she knows that everything he said is true.

Too, there’s the heartbreaking moment that occurs after Yukari has behaved horribly to Kaori and earned George’s displeasure for treating someone so important to him so shabbily. Desperate to close the sudden gulf between them, she submits to being nothing more than a sex toy, all the while thinking, “Nothing can be done. I’m this way no matter how long it’s been. And you’ll probably be that way forever.” That’s such a painful and true realization—one I think all couples must eventually face in one way or another—and it’s ultimately the issue that causes their relationship to dissolve. It’s not that they don’t love each other, because they do. It’s just that when they get together, they end up becoming someone they don’t much like. This doesn’t stop them from wanting to cling together, especially when faced with the scary prospect of following a dream alone, but they don’t give in to the temptation, knowing that it would ultimately result in misery for both of them.

This ties in with how well Yazawa presents the ambitions of all of the characters coupled with the realities of what lies ahead. Oh, Paradise Kiss gets their moment of triumph, alright. The school festival chapter is probably my favorite in the series because of how happy everyone gets to be. Yukari realizes that George is incredibly nervous and the time has come for her to be strong for someone else. As a result, when she takes that runway, she is radiant. His overwhelming and sincere gratitude when she returns from her turn on the runway is one of the most touching moments in the series. The series really could have ended there, but Ai Yazawa is not interested in deluding her audience with happy endings.

Despite how well it goes and how beautiful the dress is, the vote is based on audience judging and the victory is awarded to someone else. No boutiques will buy their clothes, and only one dress—accepted on consignment because of Miwako’s famous sister—ever sells. George must face the fact that his tendency to ignore trends and design whatever he feels like is not an economically viable option, and briefly considers giving up designing altogether until Kaori, and not Yukari, makes it possible for him to continue to create according to his own preferences.

In the End

Any human emotion you can possibly think of is present in Paradise Kiss. Characters are seen at their best and at their worst. Some achieve their dreams, some come close, and some must resign themselves to helping others achieve theirs. It’s not a particularly happy story, but it’s not a particularly sad one, either. The overall feeling I take away from it is one of hope. After all, even though things sometimes don’t go as you planned, “nothing will happen if you don’t believe in your own possibilities.”

Paradise Kiss is published in English by TOKYOPOP. All five volumes are available. Note: the first printing (with the pretty purple covers) contains a couple of significant errors that appear to have been corrected for the second printing (with the less pretty white covers). I’d recommend setting aside aesthetic concerns and procuring the latter.

For more on Paradise Kiss, visit the MMF Archive.

A Royal Proposition by Marion Lennox and Harumo Sanazaki: C-

Before he died, the king of a vaguely European country called Castaliae drafted a will to reign in his son’s profligate tendencies. This will calls for the next would-be king to marry a woman of faultless virtue before he can ascend to the throne. Alas, that son is now dead too, and the new heir, Alastair, must also abide by the bizarre terms set forth by his predecessor.

Enter Penny-Rose, the perfectly angelic damsel who agrees to a one-year marriage contract with cynical Alastair and wins him over with her emotional availability and courage, as demonstrated by working as a stonemason to provide for her siblings’ education and darting into traffic to save an injured puppy. (Please believe that I do not normally snicker at injured puppies, but I could not help it this time.)

I try not to expect too much from these Harlequin manga, but this one is particularly lackluster. Both main characters are bland and their uninteresting romance is propelled by some amusingly melodramatic circumstances. I suspect most of the problems can be attributed to the original source material, but there’s nothing about the art or manga adaptation to compel one to overlook such flaws.

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

Butterflies, Flowers 2 by Yuki Yoshihara: B-

Choko Kuze continues to work as an underling of the man she loves, Masayuki Domoto, who used to be her servant but is now her superior. She confessed her feelings for him in the previous volume, but is still uncertain how he feels about her and must watch as various other women in the office make a play for him, including the niece of the company president. Of course, Masayuki nobly rejects these offers and finally accepts that it’s okay for him to court “Milady,” though he insists on obtaining the approval of her parents first. After they become an official couple, consummating their relationship is uppermost in Choko’s mind, complicated by her tendency to faint whenever things get hot and heavy.

I have conflicting feelings about Butterflies, Flowers. I like the parallel depiction of childhood interactions of Choko and Masayuki with their relationship now, and I enjoy the moments when Masayuki is overwhelmed by happiness. On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed that the office setting isn’t used for more than a backdrop for romantic shenanigans and I also find Choko’s brother—and his tendency to comment on her choice of undergarments—pretty creepy.

My real problem with the series, though, is the comedic violence. Twice in this volume, Choko receives a bloody nose at Masayuki’s hand, and we’re clearly supposed to find it funny each time. I’d almost rather it was the result of rage, because treating it as unimportant is seriously disturbing. Whether this is cause enough to abandon the series I can’t yet say; I can only hope we’ll see less of it in the next volume.

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

Jack and the Princess by Raye Morgan and Junko Okada: B+

Karina, the 22-year-old princess of Nabotavia, is going to be returning to her home country soon and getting married to an aristocrat of her aunt’s choosing. Lonely and looking to enjoy her final summer of freedom, she attempts to befriend Jack, the new head of security for her uncle’s Beverly Hills residence and only other young person around. Jack’s resistant at first, owing to the gulf between their social circumstances, but the extent of Karina’s isolation coupled with her resigned acceptance of her duties prompts his interest in her to grow and, in what will come as a surprise to no one, they fall in love.

The result is a sweet romance that, even though it contains far too many kidnapping attempts for a story this short, works well in the manga format. I think the reason Jack and the Princess was able to be adapted from the original novel so successfully is that the story is so simple. Lonely princess meets suspended cop who sees the woman, not the title. That’s essentially all that’s going on here, and while it’s definitely nothing new, the end result is still satisfying.

Junko Okada’s clean and attractive artwork complements the story well, with shades of early shojo in Karina’s character design and an appropriately studly look for Jack. While lettering problems persist—some of these lines really could fit the bubbles with only minor tweaking—this volume is completely free from grammatical errors and the script reads smoothly.

The original novel is evidently the first in a series (Catching the Crown) featuring more members of the Nabotavian royal family hooking up with ordinary folks. I have no idea if the others received the manga treatment, but if they show up on eManga, I’ll definitely check ’em out.

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

Married Under the Italian Sun by Lucy Gordon and Mayu Takayama: B-

When Angela—an actress who’s been playing a “dumb bimbo” called Angel for eight years—is jilted by her wealthy husband, she’s too weary to battle his lawyers and instead accepts an Italian villa for a divorce settlement. Upon moving to Amalfi, she meets Vittorio, the former owner who assumes a lot of negative things about her character, given the life she comes from, only to eventually be proven wrong when she makes sacrifices for the sake of the villa’s lemon grove and opens up to him about her background.

The relationship between Angela and Vittorio is rather shallow, but I suppose that’s what happens when a full-length novel is condensed into a short manga like this one. It’s entertaining for the most part, but sometimes they behave inexplicably seemingly only for the purpose of putting an obstacle in the way of their just being happy together. There’s also a pretty unusual twist on the love triangle idea, resulting in some amusing scenes of the unlikely threesome sightseeing together.

Mayu Takayama’s art is fairly attractive, though pages have a tendency to look a bit too busy when depicting the villa and its grounds. My main quibble with the visual presentation of the book is actually not the lettering—which, as other bloggers have noted, doesn’t even try to fit into the word balloons—but with the grammar problems in the text. Sometimes these are minor (“Can’t… breath…”), but sometimes they affect the meaning of what’s being said: “I think I will thank you” and “I think I will, thank you” mean two different things to me.

As a final note… guess what never happens in this book, despite its title?

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

All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga: A

allmydarling“A mother is an imperfect woman.”

So thinks Yukiko Kisaragi, the central hub around which the collection of stories in All My Darling Daughters revolves. As the story begins, Yukiko’s mother, Mari, has just undergone a successful cancer operation and decides that, from now on, she’s going to live her life the way she wants. To Yukiko’s dismay, this involves getting remarried to an aspiring actor and much younger man, Ken Ohashi, whom she met at a host club. At first, Yukiko is convinced it’s a con, and maintains a guarded demeanor around Ohashi, but once he proves his love for Mari really is genuine, she breaks down. “She’s always belonged entirely to me,” she sobs.

From there, stories focus on those Yukiko knows. The second chapter is about a strange student named Maiko who forces herself on Izumi, a lecturer friend of Ohashi’s; the third features Sayako, a pretty friend of Yukiko who has decided to investigate arranged marriage; the fourth is about middle school friends of Yukiko and how their career plans went awry; and the final chapter focuses on Yukiko’s grandmother and her relationship with Mari. Meanwhile, we catch glimpses of how Yukiko’s life is evolving through a series of revelations about what has occurred “off-camera.”

At first I had a hard time understanding how some of these stories related to each other. Sayako’s story, for example, is incredibly touching and sad, but her mother does not play much of a role. The story of the forceful student seemed entirely out of place. But then the common thread hit me: this book is not just about mothers and daughters. It’s about the relationship between any caregiver and a child, and how something that might seem inconsequential to one could affect the other for the rest of their lives.

Sayako is crippled in love because her well-meaning grandfather told her, “You mustn’t discriminate among people.” Maiko has a warped view of relationships because someone indoctrinated her with a servile disposition—even though Izumi repeatedly says, “Who told you that?” it’s a perception she is unable and even unwilling to shake. Yukiko’s middle school friend is unable to fulfill her lofty goal of being a trailblazer for women in the workplace because an abusive father forces her to leave home early and quit school. Even Mari’s not immune, since her mother’s denigrating comments (made with good intentions, we later learn) about her appearance gave her a lifetime complex about her looks.

By the end of the volume, it’s apparent that Yukiko really is living a charmed life. Mari may be an imperfect mother, but she’s honest about her foibles and the two share an incredible relationship. Yukiko even achieves a sense of peace about her new step-dad, realizing “this strange boy is necessary for my mom.” Yukiko’s husband, Jun, is sweet yet equally imperfect, and a casual remark near the end of the volume reveals they’ve made headway in conquering a problem of equality in their marriage. Career-wise, Yukiko is the most successful of her group of middle school friends, prompting former chum Saeki to think, “At least one of us fulfilled her modest dreams.” And who is it whose fierce yet loving care enabled Yukiko’s life to turn out so well? I’ll give you one guess.

In addition to all of this thoughtful, integrated writing, Yoshinaga also employs her distinctive artistic style in the service of the story. True, the bulk of the panels contain talking heads in white space, but sometimes these headshots are exactly what one needs to get the point across. The most effective example of this occurs in the third chapter, when a two-page spread of close-ups is used to convey how Sayako and a prospective husband, Mr. Fuwa, have instantly achieved a content companionship. And if you don’t get sniffly when this technique is used again in the final two pages, you might just be a robot.

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

Butterflies, Flowers 1 by Yuki Yoshihara: B+

butterfliesflowers1The Kuze family used to be rich, with a retinue of servants ready to cater to their every whim. The daughter of the family, Choko, grew up experiencing the tender care of the chauffeur’s son, whom she called Cha-chan. Alas, after her father’s investments all tanked in an economic downturn, the family was forced to dismiss their household staff and open a soba restaurant.

Thirteen years have passed since then and Choko, now twenty, has just been hired at a new job. Almost immediately, she’s handpicked to join the administrative department by its manager, Masayuki Domoto, who seems to delight in harassing her constantly. It’s only when a disgruntled, knife-wielding man conveniently arrives to threaten her life that Domoto slips and calls her “Milady,” thus revealing the truth: he is Cha-chan. Happily, Choko catches on right away and no tiresome cluelessness ensues.

From then on, Domoto switches between his two personalities—the stern taskmaster and the devoted servant—causing Choko to refer to him as “scary and indulgent.” He picks Choko up for work each morning, but treats her shabbily while she’s there, yet is always around to protect her, whether it’s from the lecherous advances of a drunken client or the massive New Year’s Eve crowds at the family restaurant. It doesn’t take her long to fall for him, and though she tells him so, he doesn’t understand her feelings at all. By the end of the volume, Choko has embraced more of a master role in order to help Domoto see her as an independent woman and not the little girl he helped to raise.

Technically, Butterflies, Flowers is josei, but so far, it doesn’t feel much different from other romantic comedy titles in the Shojo Beat line. It’s a tad racier, with references to sex and some profanity, but one could find that in shojo properties without much effort. I’m sure many will read and enjoy it without being aware of any distinction concerning its origins.

Choko is an okay character: your typical cheerful, clumsy, hardworking type. Because of her sheltered upbringing, she sometimes comes across as incompetent and experiences chibified shock quite often. I like her the best when she switches into aristocratic mode and takes charge of the situation, be it bullying Domoto into seeing a doctor when he falls ill or deciding that even if he can’t grasp that her feelings for him are real, she’s going to keep on demanding his affection until he catches on. Domoto himself is an extremely difficult character to figure out—which one is the real him?—but some of the nicest moments occur when he’s flustered by Choko and shows his more vulnerable side.

Overall, this series is a lot of fun, though definitely lighter fare than I’d been expecting. Still, I like the characters and, even more, I’m intrigued by the new power dynamic emerging in the final few pages. I’ll definitely be back for volume two!

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

Honey and Clover 8 by Chica Umino: A

honeyclover8After an excellent seventh volume focusing primarily on Takemoto and his journey of self-discovery, Chica Umino replicates the feat with another fantastic installment, this one centering on Yamada and the choice she faces: continue to torture herself by working alongside the long-time object of her affections, Mayama, and the woman he loves or accept the chance to move on presented by Nomiya, Mayama’s coworker.

It’s so very easy to sympathize with Yamada here as she vacillates between anguish over and tearful acceptance of the palpable shift in Mayama and Rika’s relationship. Though she recognizes she has no chance, it’s still difficult to let go of her feelings. Not only did she think she could prove her love was strong by persisting for so long, it also kept her safe from fresh heartbreak. Now, she must finally admit to herself that such a gesture is meaningless, as she takes the first tentative steps toward opening herself up to new possibilities.

Powerful moments aren’t lacking in the other characters’ lives, either. In Mayama’s interactions with Rika we glimpse a far more emotional side of him than we’ve ever seen before, and though elements of one particularly poignant scene are rather unfortunately ambiguous, it’s still nothing short of riveting. I’m also growing quite fond of Nomiya, whose carefully crafted demeanor of cool is shattered by the strength of his feelings for Yamada.

All in all, this is an exceedingly strong volume of a series that is just getting better and better as it approaches its conclusion.

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

Honey and Clover 7 by Chica Umino: A

honeyclover7From the back cover:
Takemoto’s journey across Japan continues, and though he’s sleeping in empty lots and subsisting on convenience store food, he seems to be getting closer to understanding what made him ride away from school and his friends. But with his money running out and his bike on its last legs, will he have to give up on his quest before he finds what he’s looking for?

Comedic antics can sometimes overshadow the thoughtful depiction of young adulthood in Honey and Clover, but then a volume like this comes along, full to the brim with gentle metaphor and universal observations, and I realize anew just how great this series is.

The spotlight in this volume is pretty evenly shared by Takemoto and Hagu, each of whom is trying, in their own way, to work out what it is they want from life. Takemoto’s journey has taken him to a tourist town, which takes him by surprise, as he realizes he was so obsessed with how far he could get that he hadn’t actually been paying any attention to the scenery. This parallels his predicament at art school, where he was constantly comparing himself to others and had no clue what he wanted for himself.

After a stint with a temple-restoration group—with whom he’s tempted to remain because the feeling of usefulness banishes his doubts and insecurities quite effectively—he continues on to the northernmost point in Japan, this time paying a lot more attention to the world around him. It’s easy to see how valuable the experience has been for him, and when he finally returns to school, though he claims he didn’t find any big answers on his journey, he’s clearly a more relaxed and confident person than he was when he left. I love how Umino portrays his growth with subtlety; it’s evident in simply his expressions that he’s not the same Takemoto that he was before.

Hagu, meanwhile, is tasked with running a summer art course for kids. Most of her students are appropriately child-like and able to have fun with it, but one boy, who’s under a lot of self-imposed pressure to succeed academically, asks Hagu for pointers on how to win a prize, believing this will give him a boost towards getting into a prestigious middle school. Various people have given Hagu advice lately on what to do to win certain competitions, but she realizes that when she sets a certain target like that, she loses all ability to paint freely and spontaneously. In talking to this kid, they both have a kind of catharsis and help each other find the simple beauty in art again.

It’s no exaggeration to say this volume made me teary twice, when each of these characters finally figured out what it was they needed to do to remain true to themselves and find happiness. I also liked that this volume has very little to do with romance, despite the fact that Takemoto realizes the purpose of his journey was to figure out just how much the life (and people) he was leaving behind meant to him. Both of the series’ two love triangles do get touched on a bit, but now it feels like they’re really ready to be addressed in the final few volumes, as Takemoto is finally in shape to be a viable contender for Hagu’s heart.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers 1 by Fumi Yoshinaga: A

From the back cover:
In Edo Period Japan, a strange new disease called the Redface Pox has begun to prey on the country’s men. Within eighty years of the first outbreak, the male population has fallen by seventy-five percent. Women have taken on all the roles traditionally granted to men, even that of the shogun. The men, precious providers of life, are carefully protected. And the most beautiful of the men are sent to serve in the shogun’s Inner Chamber…

After a mysterious illness wipes out most of the young men in Edo Period Japan, women step up to take over the roles traditionally filled by men, becoming laborers, merchants, heads of families, and even shogun. Over time, the illness grows less virulent, but remains a common threat, resulting in a population made up of four times as many females as males. Healthy men are prized—families use them as pawns to negotiate alliances, and it’s tough for the average woman to secure a husband, requiring her to visit a brothel if she wishes to have a child.

It’s into this world that Mizuno Yunoshin (name order left intact!) is born, the son of an impoverished family of the samurai class. He’s in love with his childhood friend, Nobu, but because she is of the merchant class, they are not considered a good marital match. Rather than assent to marry someone else, Mizuno instead goes into service in the Ōoku, the Inner Chambers of the shogun’s palace—where many men are kept either for the purpose of becoming concubine to the shogun or for serving those who have been deemed worthy for that honor—which will award his family enough money to perhaps attract a suitable husband for his sister. The majority of the volume focuses on Mizuno learning of the Inner Chambers’ elaborate customs as well as his unexpected rise in rank when he happens to catch the eye of the senior chamberlain.

If I had to pick one word to describe Ōoku, that word would be “intrigue.” In the noun sense of the word, Ōoku delivers abundantly, as jockeying for position within the Inner Chambers is the favorite past-time. There’s some fairly elaborate scheming going on that takes the plot in unexpected and interesting directions. And, of course, in the verb sense of the word, Ōoku intrigues readers by not being easily classified as a simple gender reversal tale.

Instead, it emphasizes the fluidity of the notion of gender, showing how males in a certain situation can exhibit traditionally feminine attributes while females can possess qualities that are generally regarded as masculine. The new shogun, Yoshimune, is an absolutely fascinating example. In this world, where women reign, Yoshimune’s intelligence and political savvy have flourished, and she is a very effective ruler, making unorthodox decisions and sidestepping the ploys of her underlings, all while frequently sating her robust sexual appetite. Her advisor, Hisamichi, is also wonderful, with a mild-mannered countenance that conceals the full extent of her cleverness. Towards the end of the volume, Yoshimune begins to question why it is that women in power are required to adopt manly names, so that it appears in historical records as though they have been men all along. I’m eager to see what will happen next!

Artistically, Yoshinaga’s distinctive style is deceptively simple; one might think that without elaborate designs to distinguish so many dark-haired, similarly garbed men, keeping them straight would be a problem, but it actually never is. Also, I’m particularly fond of the way Yoshimune is drawn; her haughty expressions manage to simultaneously capture her senses of humor and of self-importance. My one complaint here is that though Mizuno is often described by other characters as being handsome, he really doesn’t look it.

Published under the VIZ Signature line, Ōoku has the beautiful packaging generally afforded titles in that imprint, with French flaps, color pages, and a gorgeous vellum title page. Even the “You’re reading the wrong way!” page has been given a classy facelift. I applaud the adaptation for retaining the proper order of names, but am less enamored of the choice to render the dialogue in a very formal sort of English. I get that VIZ must’ve been trying to recreate the feel of the original, but it’s a bit distracting at first. Thankfully, I did get used to it eventually. It’d be a shame to let something so trivial mar one’s enjoyment of so excellent a work.

Review copy provided by the publisher.