Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking, Vols. 1-10

By Koji Kumeta | Volumes 1-8 published by Del Rey, Volumes 9-10 published by Kodansha Comics

When I first set out to read Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, my goal was to finish the first eight volumes in time for Kodansha’s June 2011 release of volume nine.

You can see how well that worked out.

The problem was that this series simply doesn’t benefit from a marathon read. After four volumes, I burnt out and switched to reading it a chapter at a time as the mood struck me. Obviously, it took a lot longer this way, but turned out to be the ideal manga to read on breaks at work or while sitting around in the lobby of the doctor’s office. Interestingly, I found the most recent volumes to be so good that devouring them in their entirety was no problem at all!

There’s not a whole lot of plot to Zetsubou-sensei. Nozomu Itoshiki, the fourth son of a wealthy family, is a high school teacher with a penchant for nineteenth century garb. The title of the manga refers to the fact that when the characters of his name are written too closely together, they can be read as “zetsubou,” or “despair.” Which is convenient, since despairing over various things (and occasionally trying to kill himself) is Itoshiki’s specialty. His class is full of a variety of quirky students, whom we meet gradually, including a girl who sees everything positively, a methodical and precise (and possibly homicidal) girl, a girl who speaks only in text messages, a stalker, a fujoshi, an impoverished housewife, etc. We also meet a few members of his family, including his brother Mikoto, a doctor whose name can be read as “zetsumei,” or “certain death.”

Each chapter follows more or less the same pattern: the first couple of pages establish where the characters are, then something sets Itoshiki off on a rant. (For example, a hinamatsuri display inspires a diatribe about heirarchical societies.) Eventually he spews out a list of items that correspond to the topic of the day. Then the positive girl (Kafuka) will put forth a different opinion and, a couple of pages later, the chapter ends. As I’ve described it, this sounds tedious, but it’s often quite clever and absurd.

Some chapters are more Japanese-centric than others, with copious references to entertainers and public figures or topics specific to Japan, like tanabata or fukubukuro. These can be somewhat less fun to read, especially in earlier volumes when the (admittedly thorough) end notes provide so much information that one ends up reading the book with a finger permanently lodged in the back to reference the explanation as needed. With a change in translator for volume five, most of these notes disappeared.

At first, I was bothered by knowing there were all sorts of references I was missing, but in the end I think I prefer to just cope with ignorance; it helps that more recent volumes have dealt with some universal topics like dream endings, assumptions, jokes you’ve heard a million times, how we perceive the passage of time, modern conveniences leading to inconvenience (“Thanks to Amazon,com, we’ve got piles of books that we haven’t had time to read”), skewed priorities, gifts you feel obliged to accept, and getting sucked into other people’s drama. Somewhat to my surprise, it feels like we’re beginning to learn a little bit more about the characters, as well.

In addition to following the established formula in terms of chapter progression, there are also several recurring gags in Zetusbou-sensei. I’m not very fond of the poor dog with a stick in its butt who appears on occasion, but the creative ways Kumeta finds to insert a panty shot from a particular character are kind of fun, and I’m quite fond of Itoshiki’s stalker, Matoi, who suddenly pops up in the middle of scenes, surprising the characters. “You were here?” And the way in which the characters continue to fail eleventh grade and must repeat it pokes fun at those series—Ouran High School Host Club is the most notorious example to come to mind—where seasons pass but the characters inexplicably fail to graduate.

Artistically, Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has a very unique look. Kumeta uses very little screen tone, and all of his characters (except one) have pitch-black hair and eyes. There are many girls in the cast, but they all have distinctive hairstyles. Even if I can’t remember someone’s name, her hairstyle will clue me in. “Oh, that’s the delusional self-blaming girl!” Kumeta’s got a recurring trick for page layout too: frequently, a character will be drawn full-length to one side of the page and depicted with extremely skinny ankles and extremely large feet. In more recent volumes it seems that facial closeups are happening more often, or that characters are being viewed from some new angles, which is a welcome development.

On the whole, I enjoyed Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei a great deal. I felt that it improved as it went along, and I look forward to remaining current with the series henceforth. It may not have made me laugh aloud continuously, but it was always amusing enough to make me smile, and it’s to its credit that it was still capable of making me giggle in its 100th chapter.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking was originally published in English by Del Rey, who put out the first eight volumes, but is now being published by Kodansha Comics. The series is ongoing in Japan; volume 27 came out there earlier this week.

Review copies for volumes five, seven, eight, and ten provided by the publisher.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek, Vols. 1-3

By Rize Shinba (manga) and Pentabu (story) | Published by Yen Press

The good news is that I liked My Girlfriend’s a Geek more than I expected to. The bad news is that I’m not sure if I should feel particularly good about that.

Taiga Mutou is a penniless college student in need of a part-time job. When he spots Yuiko Ameya—who fits his ideal of the “big sis-type”—in the office of one prospective employer, he devotes himself to getting hired and thereafter attempts to find opportunities to engage her in conversation. He’s largely unsuccessful until a bit of merchandise goes missing and she helps him look for it. They talk a bit more after that, but it’s not until she sees him in a pair of glasses that she really begins to take notice.

At first, Taiga is puzzled but pleased that certain things about him meet with Yuiko’s approval—in addition to the glasses she also appreciates his cowlick and has an unusual level of interest in his methods for marking important passages in his textbooks. When he finally asks her out and she confesses that she’s a fujoshi (“Is that okay with you?”) he’s so exuberant that he agrees without really understanding what that entails.

From that point on, My Girlfriend’s a Geek is essentially a series of situations in which Yuiko’s fujoshi ways make Taiga uncomfortable, and here is where my conflicted feelings begin. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that Yuiko did try to warn him and that she shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone she isn’t. On the other hand, she is so caught up in her BL fantasizing that she never considers Taiga’s feelings, and even ceases to refer to him by his actual name. Taiga is always the one doing the compromising, and when it seems like Yuiko might be on the verge of doing something nice for him, it usually turns out that she has some self-serving motive.

And what if Yuiko’s character was male? How would this read then? She frequently concocts scenarios in which Taiga is getting it on with his friend Kouji and expresses the desire to take pictures of them together. If she was a male character saying such things to his girlfriend this would be the epitome of skeavy behavior! I seriously wonder whether she likes Taiga for himself at all, but that’s not to say he’s blameless here, either, because it’s hard to see what he could like about her except that she fits the bill for the cute older woman he’s always wanted to date.

All that said, there is still quite a bit to like about this series. For one thing, it’s often quite amusing, especially Taiga’s reactions to Yuiko’s flights of fangirl and the fictional shounen sports manga (with shades of Hikaru no Go and The Prince of Tennis) that Yuiko is obsessed with. For another, it does occasionally touch on what it’s like to discover that someone you fancy has this bizarre secret that you’ve got to try to cope with if you want to stay together. Taiga occasionally laments how far apart they are emotionally, and though we’ve yet to really see inside Yuiko’s head, her attempts to sustain a real-life relationship remind me some of Majima in Flower of Life, another hard-core otaku with a moe fixation.

There’s only two more volumes of this series and I plan to keep reading, but I hope that these characters will manage to achieve more of an equal relationship. Even if Yuiko could just learn to see Taiga’s exasperation and take some genuine step to engage him on a serious personal level, then I’d be happy.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek is published in English by Yen Press. The fourth volume has just come out (to be featured in this week’s Off the Shelf!) and the fifth and final volume is due in December 2011. They have also released the two-volume novel series upon which the manga is based.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Vol. 1

By Naoko Takeuchi | Published by Kodansha Comics | Did I Mention Squee?

I think it’s probably impossible for me to be impartial about Sailor Moon. I just love it so much. The third season of the anime comprised one of my first exposures to shoujo anime, and even though I’m cognizant of its shortcomings, I can’t look back upon it and feel anything other than nostalgic adoration.

I’ve read the manga before. I was warned early on that the TOKYOPOP versions changed some characters’ names and relationships, so I never bothered trying to acquire them. Instead, I remember checking the website for Boston’s Sasuga Books (sadly no longer with us) regularly to see whether the latest volume of the gorgeous tenth anniversary edition was available for order. Reading each volume was a fairly painstaking process of matching a text-only translation to the images in the physical book. But one makes do.

Still, as with Codename: Sailor V, I feel like I got much more out of the experience this time when reading a professionally prepared English translation. It felt more immediate to me. Alas, though I would love to be able to report that Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is free from the text errors that plagued Sailor V, I can’t. I only spotted four problems, though: two cases of misplaced sound effects (one only noticeable if you read kana) and two where the word “who’s” is used instead of “whose.” Pretty minor, yes, but still disappointing. I can’t be alone in wishing for a flawless edition.

Moving on!

Because Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon came about due to the earlier success of Codename: Sailor V, there are some obvious similarities in their lead characters. Like Minako Aino, fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsuniko is a below-average and perpetually tardy middle-school student with a fondness for video games. Where Minako craves the spotlight and is somewhat more bold, however, Usagi is a crybaby who’s inclined to take the easy way out. Both are informed of their special destiny by a talking cat—white (male) Artemis for Minako (Sailor Venus) and black (female) Luna for Usagi (Sailor Moon)—and both soon find themselves squaring off against “the enemy” whose plans invariably involve sucking energy out of the populace.

From the start, Usagi handles her duties differently than Minako. She’s more empathetic, but has a tendency to feel overwhelmed and require encouragement. (These are still, of course, early days.) She’s bolstered by her fellow guardians, however, and quickly accumulates three allies: the brilliant Ami Mizuno, guardian of water and wisdom (Sailor Mercury); classy and clairvoyant Rei Hino, guardian of fire and passion (Sailor Mars); and tomboyish yet girlish Makoto Kino, guardian of thunder and courage (Sailor Jupiter). Luna provides them all with information—I enjoy any scene that depicts the kitty in research mode—and handy gizmos that allow them to communicate and transform.

Together they face off against Queen Beryl and her Four Kings of Heaven, who are busily concocting schemes to collect energy to revive their “great ruler” while simultaneously searching for the “legendary silver crystal.” (We learn more about the enemies here than in Sailor V, incidentally, which makes them much more interesting. It’s still slightly disconcerting to see how quickly some of them are defeated, though, considering how long they stick around in the anime. Nephrite, for example, is vanquished after just one chapter!) The Guardians want to find the all-powerful crystal too, and are also searching for “the princess,” whom they are duty-bound to protect.

Also searching for the “legendary silver crystal” is a handsome fellow called Tuxedo Mask, two words that efficiently describe his costume. He has dreams wherein a faceless woman begs him to find the crystal, and so he tries to comply. Usually his efforts consist of lurking around when Sailor Moon is busy confronting the enemy, so as to be ready to bolster her confidence. Meanwhile, in his civilian guise of high school student Mamoru Chiba, he and Usagi keep running into each other and exchanging insults. I never much cared about their relationship in the anime, but it actually kind of works for me here. Maybe manga!Mamoru is appreciably more dreamy than his anime counterpart, because I can at least see why Usagi finds him so appealing. In this volume, there’s also some question as to whether he’s friend or foe, which gives Usagi something to worry about. (In general, while I don’t mind hyper Usagi, I like her much more when she’s being serious.)

I would probably still like Sailor Moon if it were merely the story of a band of cute girls in colorful outfits who defeat the enemy with various nifty/goofy attacks like “moon tiara boomerang” and “flower hurricane,” but its feminist message definitely elevates it in my esteem. While Usagi may be drawn to Mamoru and while Makoto may yet pine for the sempai who rejected her, these girls are fully cognizant that they’ve got a mission that’s more important than romance. Consider this exchange in which Makoto is explaining her reason for transferring schools:

Makoto: It seemed there was something far more important… even more important than falling in love… that was waiting for me here.

Rei: You’re right! We don’t have the luxury of the time it takes to cry over a man.

Though normal teens until just recently, these girls are quickly coming to grips with their destiny and the enormous importance of preventing the crystal from falling into the wrong hands. One gets the sense that this experience, though dangerous, is going to be critical in forming who they become as people, especially lazy Usagi, who is now thrust into a leadership role. And even though Mamoru does help her on occasion, it never comes off as condescending, but more like he’s reminding her of the strength that she already possesses. He, after all, has no powers of his own so it’s up to her to save the day.

Thank you, Kodansha Comics, for licensing this series and giving us a proper translation at last. I’m happy for myself and other existing fans, but I also can’t wait to see what Sailor Moon newbies make of the story.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is published in English by Kodansha Comics. They’ve licensed the tenth anniversary edition, which condensed the eighteen-volume series into twelve volumes of the main narrative plus two volumes of short stories. It also has pretty new covers and some retouched art.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Codename: Sailor V, Vol. 1

By Naoko Takeuchi | Published by Kodansha Comics | Squee

There are few things in this world that can literally make me do “the dance of squee,” but the arrival of the first volumes of Codename: Sailor V and Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon at my house definitely did the trick. My husband can bear witness.

I’ve read Codename: Sailor V before (back in 2003), but that was with the Japanese edition in hand and a text translation on the computer screen, doing my best with my limited Japanese skills to put words and images together. But now it’s out in English, and translated by the venerable William Flanagan, to boot! I feel like I got a lot more out of this time, but whether that’s due to increased comprehension or a change in personal perspective, I can’t really say.

First, a bit of publication history. After completing her first series, The Cherry Project, Naoko Takeuchi and her editor decided that her next series would feature a magical girl in a sailor suit who fights for love and justice. The result was Codename: Sailor V, which premiered in the magazine Run-Run in July 1991. An anime was soon planned, but instead of starring only Sailor V, it would feature a five-person team, with the focus on a new character named Sailor Moon.

The Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon manga debuted in 1992, with the anime premiering shortly thereafter. Chapters of Codename: Sailor V continued to be released periodically, and actually wrapped up a couple of months after the Sailor Moon series. In this way, it functions both as a prequel and as a companion series to the more famous work.

Now to the story itself! Minako Aino is thirteen years old and in her first year of middle school. She’s got some… quirks—she is described at one point as a “binge-eating, nap-taking, below-average student” who “likes standing out in a crowd”—but also thinks fast on her feet and has acute physical reflexes. After observing her for a while, a mysterious white cat introduces himself as Artemis and tells her she has been chosen by the planet Venus. “You were born to fight to protect the world of incandescent heat. And you have a mission. A duty that no one but you can fulfill.” This whole sequence reminds me a lot of a young Buffy, similar in temperament and ability, hearing similar words from her first Watcher.

Minako promptly faints, and when she wakes she thinks the conversation was just a dream. When she spots her crush brainwashing a girl into becoming his slave, however, the “boss” speaks to her through a magical pen (really) and tells her that he is her enemy and that she must defeat him and save everyone. (She’s also got a crescent-shaped compact that can be used as a weapon and for creating disguises.) Her first transformation into Sailor V is accompanied by the following narration:

I feel liberated! I’m overflowing with power!! I’m struck with the urge to act!

And there, in a nutshell, is why this magical girl franchise appeals to feminists like me. It’s not about a girl in a sailor suit looking cute to attract boys or being validated by them. It’s about a girl choosing to become strong herself, to achieve her full potential, and to contribute to the welfare of the planet by actively engaging “the enemy.” If you’re tired of passive heroines—got those Black Bird blues?—then you really do need to read these books.

Further adventures pit Sailor V against a series of idols represented by the Dark Agency, whose modus operandi is to stage concerts and suck out the energy of their fans, who then become their slaves. The Agency president is a woman named Fluorite and she reports to an unseen guy named Danburite, and so far they seem content to try to take over the world by repeating the same tactics over and over, though they do eventually change things up a little near the end. These episodic stories do dull the impact of Sailor V’s mission slightly, but her introductions to her foes are always fun. Here’s my favorite:

Using idols to brainwash both men and women, young and old… Now that’s just greedy! Those are horrendous business practices and the Japanese Tax Office will not stand for it!

I am sometimes a GI Fighting Girl, and sometimes a Debuting Idol Beauty… But my true form is…—Moon Power: Transform!—Codename: Sailor V!! Champion of Justice!! The Pretty Guardian in a Sailor Suit! Sailor Venus… has arrived!

Takeuchi’s art is lovely, if somewhat busy. (Sometimes I wonder if she has a phobia of white space, because a lot of screentone is used to fill those areas. My favorite is the one that inexplicably mixes stamps and penguins.) I’m particularly fond of the chapter title pages, because Sailor V looks especially cool and mature in those. The English translation reads well, too, so it’s really too bad that the rest of the text has so many minor errors. For the most part, these consist of misattributed dialogue or sound effects being placed in the wrong spot. Though annoying, they don’t hamper one’s enjoyment much. The reference to Science Ninja Team Gotchaman (sic) in the end notes did elicit a cry of dismay from me, though.

So, yes. It is truly wonderful to have Codename: Sailor V available in English. Perhaps it won’t appeal to everyone as much as it does to me, but it’s got more depth that one might expect, and is definitely worth checking out.

Codename: Sailor V is published in English by Kodansha Comics. They’ve licensed the tenth anniversary edition, which condensed the original three volumes into two.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Arata: The Legend, Vols. 1-6

By Yuu Watase | Published by VIZ Media

As a fan of Yuu Watase’s shoujo classic, Fushigi Yûgi, I expected that I would like Arata: The Legend, her first shounen series. Turns out, I had underestimated my enjoyment: I really like it!

The story begins in a world known as Amawakuni, where the child-like princess is preparing to yield the thrown to her successor after reigning for 60 years. There are no suitable females in the royal (Hime) clan to take her place, however, and so a fifteen-year-old boy named Arata is coerced into passing himself off as a girl until another suitable candidate can be found. During the ceremony, the twelve retainers of the princess—known as the shinsho, because they are masters of powerful sword-gods known as hayagami—revolt and the princess is cut down before Arata’s eyes. The shinsho pin the deed on him and his flight to evade capture takes him to the mysterious Kando Forest, where he is swallowed up and exchanged with his counterpart from another world: Arata Hinohara.

Hinohara has been having a tough time lately. In middle school, he was bullied so much that he eventually stopped going altogether. Now it’s his first year of high school, and at first everything seems to be going okay. He purposefully chose a school far away, where no one would know his old self, and is able to make friends quickly, thanks to his quick actions in capturing a train groper. After a month, however, his former nemesis Kadowaki arrives and the torment starts anew, capped off by the betrayal of Arata’s closest new friend, Suguru.

When he arrives in Amawakuni—and is taken for Arata by everyone he meets—Hinohara is thrust into Arata’s role as a wanted criminal. When his touch awakens a slumbering family artifact—what turns out to be a legendary hayagami known as Tsukuyo—he is suddenly recognized as a sho, which means he’s part of the battle for the the throne. The shinsho overthrew the princess because they were tired of the control she exerted over their powers, but now they must battle and dominate each other until one stands supreme. Like it or not, as a sho, Arata is swept up in the conflict and has two choices: submit himself (this essentially means death) or force others to submit. (Meanwhile, Arata contends with life in modern Japan, including going to school and eventually beating up Kadowaki.)

I really love how Watase fleshes out Hinohara’s complex character here, because everything he does makes sense based on what he’s been through. When he first arrives, he refuses to trust anyone, but when Arata’s childhood friend, Kotoha, makes good on her promises to stick by him no matter what, it has a profound effect on him. Too, the prospect of forcing others to submit reminds him too much of the domination he suffered.

Because of his experiences—and because of the unique property that allows Tsukuyo to safeguard the souls of other sho without actually causing their death—he is gradually able to win over a few sho by sympathizing with their own suffering, whether it be betrayal, isolation, or loneliness. In a conversation with the princess—courtesy of the special necklace that also occasionally allows him to converse with Arata—he promises to unite the hayagami under Tsukuyo and return to her before she dies completely. He’s got a long road ahead, and it’s one that can only be won by changing the hearts of others.

It is this mission of Hinohara’s—not unlike those usually assigned to magical girls—that makes me want to apply the demographic label “jounen” to this series. It’s definitely shounen in scope and feel, but it’s also attuned to its shoujo side. The slowly developing romance between Hinohara and Kotoha is very well done, for example, with Hinohara cognizant of Kotoha’s love for the real Arata and Kotoha confused because “Arata” is responding to her in a way he never did before. I also like that Kadowaki eventually arrives in Amawakuni because a) that is so very Yuu Watase, for two outsiders to come into a fantasy world and immediately assume powerful destinies and b) the ultimate test of Hinohara’s newfound bravery and purpose is for him to be able to sustain it in the face of Kadowaki’s unrelenting hostility.

The pacing of the series is also outstanding. There’s just enough foreshadowing of significant things—the gravestone that connects one of the shinsho, Kannagi, with his reasons for rebelling against the princess—to make the eventual reveal more significant, but one never has to wait too long for the answer to a question. Similarly, Hinohara frequently actually comes out and says what he’s thinking, so misunderstandings are not allowed to perpetuate for long. In fact, revealing the truth behind things—like when Hinohara finally convinces Kotoha that he is not her beloved Arata—gives the story more places to go rather than reducing all dramatic options.

My one complaint about the series is largely rectified by Kadowaki’s entrance into Amawakuni, and that’s that Arata is given very little to do. At first, there’s only a chapter or two from his point of view every once in a while, but once he meets an intriguing girl named Oribe—who can tell he’s an entirely different person than Hinohara—things begin looking up, especially when one of the shinsho is transplanted to Japan in Kadowaki’s place. Suddenly, Arata is in genuine peril, which is bad for him but good for the story!

In the end, while there’s a lot going on in Arata, it never feels like too much, always makes sense, and yet always leaves one wondering what is going to happen next. Not only am I genuinely excited about continuing the series, it has also rekindled my determination to read Fushigi Yûgi: Genbu Kaiden, of which I have heard good things.

Arata: The Legend is still in serialization in Japan; the twelfth collected volume was released there in August 2011.

Review copies for volumes one, two, four, and five provided by the publisher.

Ekiben Hitoritabi, Vol. 1

By Jun Hayase | Published by Futabasha | Available in English at JManga

Even if JManga didn’t offer anything else to interest me, I think I would still love them forever for introducing me to Ekiben Hitoritabi. (The ekiben in the title refers to the boxed meals sold at train stations throughout Japan, while hitoritabi means “a trip undertaken alone.”)

Ekiben Hitoritabi is a slice-of-life story about an ordinary 35-year-old train enthusiast named Daisuke Nakahara whose wife gives him a ticket to Kyushu by special express sleeper train for their tenth anniversary. Once he gets to Kyushu, Daisuke begins making his way north by taking a variety of local and little-used rail lines. He’s accompanied throughout most of the first volume by a journalist named Nana, whom he educates on railroad history and exposes to the wide variety of tasty ekiben to be found at the stations they visit. When they’re not rhapsodizing over the contents of these ekiben, they’re admiring the scenery or the trains themselves.

I don’t think this is a manga for everyone. The biggest source of tension, for example, is worrying whether Daisuke and Nana are going to miss their train when it’s taking longer than expected to procure ekiben. Daisuke likes everything he tastes—and, indeed, his love of ekiben has inspired him to open a bento shop of his own in Tokyo—and is in perpetually good spirits. There’s always a page turn before the contents of the bento are revealed, so that each always appears on the upper right-hand side, with each component identified. Someone is bound to make a remark about the taste permeating his/her mouth, too.

But it’s just so charming. (One learns a lot about Japanese geography, too.) Daisuke is content with his life and with taking his leisurely time, and he makes it look so awesome that I am frankly envious. Now I want to travel Japan by local rail and sample a bunch of ekiben! I must admit, though, that I’d be reluctant to try some of them. And the one that looked the best to me was the only one Daisuke had anything even slightly negative to say about. Here it is, the Shaomai Bento:

(Click to enlarge.)

Shaomai is the Kyushu term for shumai, and after noticing that many of the ekiben contain kinshi eggs, I had to look them up and I WANT SOME ON RICE RIGHT NOW. That, of course, is the danger with Ekiben Hitoritabi: reading it while hungry is sheer torture.

What’s not torture is the translation, which is better than I expected. I did get the sense that the work was spread between several people, however, because treatment of sound effects was inconsistent and some errors (like “bento’s” instead of “bentos”) cropped up only intermittently. I never had any issues with comprehension, though, and JManga welcomes feedback, so I did leave them a few notes about the minor problems I noticed. Splitting a word between two lines seemed to be an issue, for example:

On the whole, however, I am utterly delighted that I got to read Ekiben Hitoritabi. I doubt it would’ve sold too well in print format, so if digital is the only way I can get it, then I am just grateful to have the chance. Grateful and yet impatient, because I am going to need volume two pretty soon. And some kinshi eggs.

Ekiben Hitoritabi is up to volume thirteen in Japan and is still ongoing.

Flower of Life, Vols. 1-4

By Fumi Yoshinaga | Published by Digital Manga Publishing

When Fumi Yoshinaga sets a series in high school, you just know that she’s not going to do it like anybody else.

Harutaro Hanazono is beginning his first year of high school thirteen months behind schedule due to a bout of leukemia. The manga begins as he introduces himself to his new classmates in a manner that communicates much about his character. He’s an honest, simple, and idealistic soul, so is very forthright with his classmates about his illness because he doesn’t like the prospect of keeping secrets from all of them or having to explain multiple times. What he fails to consider, however, is how this information will affect his classmates’ interactions with him, since they all treat him with more consideration than they might otherwise have done.

Harutaro quickly becomes friends with Shota Mikuni, a gentle, smart, and adorable overweight boy whose main flaw is his timidity. Mikuni is also friends with Kai Majima, an arrogant otaku who is such a fascinating character that he’s going to get his own paragraph later. Harutaro and Majima don’t get along very well, but this doesn’t stop Harutaro from joining Mikuni and Majima in the manga club, where he collaborates with Mikuni and gradually develops the ambition to become a professional manga artist.

Meanwhile, readers become acquainted with the rest of the class in the same organic way any new student would. The homeroom teacher is Shigeru Saito, who at first appears to be an effeminate gay man but who is actually a woman. (Yoshinaga fooled me there, I must admit.) Other classmates include Yamane, a mature student with a love for books; Sakai, a perpetually tardy girl with a knack for English; Aizawa, a girl sensitive to the feelings of others; Jinnai and Isonishi, close friends and nice, normal girls; Ozaki, a rather boisterous fellow; and Tsuji, a guy who looks so much like Ono from Antique Bakery that it’s disconcerting to see him nurturing feelings for a woman.

Because Yoshinaga introduces the cast of students in such a natural-feeling way, I found myself caring about them much more than I ordinarily do in a series set in high school. For one thing, I’m not sure there is any other series where I could rattle off the names and personality traits of seven supporting classmates. It doesn’t matter that these characters may not get tons of page time; they’re still fully realized people with their own problems and passions. I’ve written before about my weariness regarding school cultural festivals, but in Yoshinaga’s hands, the festival in the second volume of the series is the best I have ever read, hands down. For the first time, I really engaged with the excitement the characters were experiencing. The same holds true for the Christmas party they hold in volume three. (Plus, that dinky tree was genuinely amusing.)

One of the major things I love about Flower of Life is how Yoshinaga works in some subtle lessons on friendship into the story. Sumiko Takeda is not in Harutaro’s class but becomes friendly with them when her original shoujo manga is circulated around and becomes a hit. Takeda doesn’t care about fashion or clothes, and she’s at a loss when her mother gives her some money to buy an outfit for herself. While shopping, she runs into Jinnai and Isonishi, who decide to come along as consultants. Their first shopping experience is kind of a drag, as Takeda is unenthused by the clothes shopping and Jinnai and Isonishi are bored when Takeda geeks out in an art supply store, but on a second attempt, they’re able to work out an arrangement where everyone can pursue their individual interests and yet still have a good time together. This seems to say “You can like different things and still be friends.” Other lessons that crop up later include “You don’t need to try to impress your friends,” “There can be one-sided feelings even in friendship,” and “You might think it’s nice to be coddled, but is it really good for you?”

Another lesson, “You can disagree and still be friends,” is vitally important to Mikuni. He begins the series a timid guy, unwilling to stand out by expressing his opinion. When he gets passionate enough about something, though—and it’s usually manga—he will speak out. The first time this happens with Harutaro, Mikuni is worried that he’s damaged their friendship, but Harutaro is actually thrilled that Mikuni was able to express himself so honestly and their friendship deepens as a result. By the end of the series, Mikuni has gained enough confidence to express his vision to Takayama, the manga editor who gives their work a harsh critique, and rebound from criticism with a zeal to improve.

I’ve talked quite a lot about the student characters, but the adults figure into the story in big ways, as well. The manga club members discover early on that Saito-sensei is carrying on an affair with the very married Koyanagi-sensei, who used to be her teacher when she was a student ten years ago. Their troubled relationship dominates her thoughts until she finally calls it off in volume three, saying that she loved him because he was such a good father, and it pains her to see him sneaking around and betraying his family. Koyanagi’s unexpected successor is Majima, whose solution to Saito’s woes is to give her something else to be “moeh” about.

And now we come to Majima. I love that in painting this portrait of an otaku, Yoshinaga didn’t just give us a heavy-breathing perv with a penchant for maid costumes, but really shows us how he thinks and attempts to process the world. He is arrogant and a little creepy, with a large quantity of disdain for his fellow students. He seems to prefer 2-D representations of women with specific physical qualities over real women, whom he appears to resent. And yet… although initially detached and unfeeling in his relationship with Saito, he eventually comes a bit unhinged when her behavior—saying she loves him yet sleeping with Koyanagi—does not follow logical patterns. I don’t think he loves her, or is capable of really loving anyone, but he expected her feelings for him to stay the same—the only thing he knows about relationships he’s learned from manga and dating sims, where you win the girl and then she loves you always—and is completely thrown when this doesn’t turn out to be the case. I think the experience makes him a tiny bit more empathetic to others, and maybe it’ll be what he needs to become a better person, but man, how thoroughly unfair of Saito to embroil this poor kid in an adult love triangle that he was not remotely equipped to participate in. My opinion of her suffered a great deal as a result.

The plight of Harutaro’s homebound sister, Sakura, also plays a major role in the story, furnishing some surprisingly dark moments and eventually culminating in the revelation that Harutaro is not, as he had believed, fully cured. He takes the news hard, but once he’s had the chance to process it, he returns to school for his second year a changed man. For, you see, he has learned to lie. He has learned to consider the feelings of others before he speaks. Gone is the Harutaro that can’t abide secrets. Now we see that he has learned discretion—he might want to tell Mikuni the truth, but he will wait for a time when his friend is ready to hear it. He can keep it to himself for as long as it takes. He has grown up.

Lastly, I wanted to touch upon the art in the story, especially the nonverbal storytelling that Yoshinaga employs with such aplomb. The page below is from volume three, when Harutaro has gone to the hospital for his monthly exam. He speaks with the nurse about a fellow patient who has since died, and when he emerges from the hospital, he pauses to look up at the sky for a moment then continues on his way. He doesn’t say a thing, but it his thoughts are absolutely clear: “She will never see this sky again.”

Another trait of Yoshinaga’s art is the repetition of similar panels to highlight the evolution of a facial expression (see Melinda’s example from Antique Bakery in a Let’s Get Visual column from last October) or situation. In the example below, from volume four, she not only uses this technique to show Majima as someone not fully invested in the drama of the moment, but also for simple humorous effect.


Flower of Life is really an extraordinary series. When Harutaro and Mikuni are working on their manga, they express the desire to include some universal truths about friendship and growing up in their story, and that is precisely what Fumi Yoshinaga has done. It’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s a classic. Go read it.

Flower of Life was published in English by Digital Manga Publishing and is complete in four volumes. I reviewed it as part of the Fumi Yoshinaga Manga Moveable Feast, the archive of which can be found here.

Review copy for volume four provided by the publisher.

Kobato., Vols. 1-3

By CLAMP | Published by Yen Press

The plot of Kobato. sounds like a typical shoujo magical girl story. A dim-witted and clumsy heroine, who also happens to be guileless and compassionate, is tasked with filling a magic bottle with wounded hearts so that her dearest wish can be granted. But Kobato. isn’t shoujo.

If anything, it’s seinen, as it ran for seven chapters in Sunday GX before going on hiatus and reemerging in Newtype magazine. I’m guessing that the target audience, presumed to be young men with an appreciation for moe, is the reason why Kobato commences flailing, chibified panic mode on page two and falls down approximately fifteen times per chapter. (I may be exaggerating there, but honestly not by much.) The latter gag is run into the ground so relentlessly that I refuse to consider that anyone finds it funny, so CLAMP must be trying to inspire feelings of “Aww, she’s so cute and/or hopeless.”

The first volume of Kobato. is not very good. Kobato’s incompetency grates as does the constant browbeating she receives from Ioryogi, some sort of supernatural being currently dwelling in the form of a stuffed dog, who is testing her ability to “act according to the common-sense rules of this place.” If she passes, she earns the magic bottle. These tests—mainly centered around holidays—include taking out the trash, making nabe, and spending New Year’s day playing traditional games with an elderly woman.

Things improve somewhat in the second volume. Kobato’s got her bottle now and is ready to heal some wounded hearts. After moving into the same apartment building seen in Chobits, she starts work as a helper at Yomogi Kindergarten. The head of the school, Sayako-sensei, seems to have a heart in need of some healing, as does her hard-working part-time employee, Fujimoto. With Ioryogi’s assistance, Kobato tries to discover how best to help them, and gradually learns that Sayako is working to pay off a debt her father was tricked into incurring, that Sayako’s soon-to-be-ex husband is threatening harm to the school unless she pays up, and that Fujimoto is working himself to the point of exhaustion to earn money to contribute. They seem suspicious of Kobato at first, but her genuine sincerity eventually wins over even grumpy Fujimoto.

This is definitely an improvement over the first volume, but the kindergarten-in-peril storyline still seems to be occupying a great deal of space in what looks to be only a six-volume series. (Kobato. just recently came to an end.) There is a lot of room left in Kobato’s bottle, so I wonder how she will end up filling it after spending so much time working on these two hearts in particular.

Now that I’ve finished my litany of complaints, there are some intriguing questions about Kobato. that leave me inclined to stick with the series until the end. Where is Kobato from, exactly? What is her wish? How did she and Ioryogi meet? What is Ioryogi? (We’ve learned already that if he helps Kobato grant her wish, he may be able to get his original body back.) And, most peculiarly of all, why is it that Kobato is not allowed to take off her hat?

Kindergarten peril I can do without, but I really do want to know what’s up with the hat thing.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Fruits Basket 21-23 by Natsuki Takaya

As I recounted in this week’s Off the Shelf column, I have been a fan of Fruits Basket for nearly a decade now. I followed the end of the series in Japanese, and because I knew how it ended, I was able to postpone reading the final English volumes and delay the sad moment when the series really would be over. This week’s Manga Moveable Feast, however, prompted me to finally take the plunge.

Volume 21 is extremely tense, with Kyo continuing the story of how he redirected his feelings of guilt regarding the death of Tohru’s mother into a hatred of Yuki (just like his father redirected his own guilt in the death of his wife onto Kyo). Meanwhile, an ominous, knife-wielding Akito creeps up on their location. After Kyo seems to reject her feelings, Tohru runs off and crosses paths with Akito. A vitally important scene occurs between them in which Akito, weakened by lies and uncritical kindness perpetuated by various Sohma family members, is finally receptive to the kind of acceptance and sympathy Tohru offers. I’m a little disappointed that Tohru immediately falls off a cliff at this point, because that’s rather meloramatic, but I adore how urgently Akito attempts to summon help.

All of the Sohmas are worried, but none more so than Yuki (in cold fury mode) and Kyo (deeply grieving), who eventually have it out and end up finally confessing that they each aspired to be like the other. I love how this plays out, and I love that Yuki continues to nudge Kyo when necessary to ensure that Tohru ends up happy. Are they super pals by the end of the series? Not exactly, but they’ve definitely made their peace and come to an understanding. I’d say they’re closer than mere friends, actually, because they’ve gone through so much together, treasure the same person so much, and have finally realized that, despite appearances and insults, the person they are is valued by the other.

While Tohru recovers in the hospital, Kyo realizes that she’s given him something worth fighting his “fate” for. A visit to his father leads to paternal hysterics, but Kyo’s resolve is unshaken: he is going to live “outside,” no matter what. Meanwhile, Akito has made plans to demolish the isolation room. In the aforementioned Off the Shelf column, I wondered whether Akito’s actions might partly be due to some unconscious influence by the God who originally created the bond, as we later learn that he laments that something forged in love has now become a source of pain. He’s grateful to those who “shouldered that exhausted promise” for so long, and willingly lets them go. So, did he convince Akito in some way? Did Akito convince him? The latter would be more in line with the themes of the series, actually.

Uotani and Hanajima keep Kyo away from the hospital while Tohru is recuperating, since the mere mention of her name prompts her to start crying (she still believes he is disillusioned by her confession of love), but he’s finally tipped off regarding her release date and goes to see her. It’s an amazing scene: as Kyo heads there, he’s full of doubts and uncertainty regarding his own feelings, but the moment he sees her, everything is clear as day. “I love her.” I can’t help getting a bit choked up even discussing it, because it seems like I’m watching cherished friends finally find each other. They talk and work things out, and it is as lovely as can be. “I really do love you,” quoth Tohru, when Kyo warns he’ll probably cause her pain because the curse is still between them. “And that feeling is invincible.” They embrace and are profoundly shocked when Kyo does not transform. His curse is broken.

A wonderful chain-reaction montage ensues as the members of the Zodiac are freed in turn, with Yuki the last of all. “You’re the last,” says God. “Thank you. For keeping the very distant promise.” This happens just in time for Yuki, who had been on the verge of telling Machi about the curse, to embrace her in tears.

Loose ends are wrapped up in the final volume, more loose ends than I actually realized needed wrapping up, making for a very thorough and satisfying conclusion. It’s a little convenient that nearly everyone ends up romantically paired off by the end, with the exceptions of Momiji and Kagura, who are still not over their respective unrequited loves. Other things, however, aren’t wrapped up so neatly, with Rin unable to forgive Akito just yet, long-time family servants unable to adjust to the dissolution of the curse, and many painful feelings still remaining.

But, as a certain image reminded me, Takaya-sensei maintains the idea that “there is no such thing as a memory that’s okay to forget” to the end. The formerly cursed Sohma don’t need to forget what happened to them in the past in order to be happy in the future. Tohru believes this fully, collecting each of the beads from Kyo’s broken bracelet and displaying them as precious items alongside family portraits even until the day she and Kyo are lovey-dovey grandparents.

I cannot express enough how wonderful this series is. I feel so fortunate that I was able to witness the growth and transformation of such a memorable cast of characters, many of whom I dearly love.

Backstage Prince 1-2 as viewed on VIZmanga.com

One of the more exciting manga-related announcements to come out of San Diego Comic-Con was the debut of VIZ’s new online manga portal, which syncs user accounts between the web browser and various supported devices. This is great news for me: since I don’t own any of those supported devices, I’ve been hoping a site like this would come along.

Of the assortment of shoujo, shounen, and seinen series available on the site, the two-volume Backstage Prince by Kanoko Sakurakoji—whose smutty supernatural series Black Bird is currently being published by VIZ—caught my eye, and being both short and something I didn’t already own in print, seemed like the perfect vehicle through which to test out the VIZmanga interface. (For Melinda Beasi’s thorough report on both the VIZ and Square Enix online initiatives, click here.)

I had an utterly hassle-free experience creating an account and browsing the manga available on the site. There are two options for paying for one’s purchases: Paypal and Amazon. Since most people already have payment information saved in at least one of these places, this makes for a convenient checkout experience. My one complaint is that I had to go through the payment process separately for each volume, which I’m sure would get really annoying if one were buying more than just two volumes. It would be nice if there were an “add to cart” function so multiple volumes could be purchased simultaneously.

The web viewer requires no software installations and defaults to a two-page layout in a size I’d describe as “mostly readable.” To resize to full screen (“perfectly readable”) or to set a bookmark, users must hover their mouse pointer over the top of the image until a taskbar appears. (I discovered this by accident, and would recommend that VIZ make the option much clearer somehow.) When you set a bookmark and return to the manga later, you’re still taken to the beginning initially, but clicking on the bookmark icon by the progress bar underneath the viewer will quickly take you where you want to go. Aside from the taskbar hiccup, navigation is intuitive and easy.

Moving on to Backstage Prince itself!

Akari is a thoroughly ordinary girl with no interest in kabuki, but when she accidentally bruises the distinguished son of a famous kabuki family, she agrees to become his assistant until he heals up. Ryusei Horiuchi is bad around people—his only friend is his cat, Mr. Ken—but gradually warms up to Akari, who does not approach him with expectations only to be disappointed when he turns out to be so stiff and unfriendly. They’re a couple by the end of the first chapter.

Various challenges to their relationship appear in subsequent chapters. A pretty costar for Ryusei, possessive fangirls, Ryusei’s disapproving father… Most disruptive is Naoki, a kabuki understudy who finds it extremely easy to undermine Akari and Ryusei’s confidence in their relationship, so is always inspiring angst and insecurity in the former and anger and jealousy in the latter. All of this opposition is supposed to be making them a stronger couple, but if you think it grows tiresome to read, you are correct!

On the surface, Backstage Prince is a lot more tame than Black Bird. Akari isn’t sought after by demons who want to devour and/or ravish her and Ryusei isn’t controlling or purposefully cruel to her, but the series is still guilty of some backwards gender politics, and perhaps in an even more insidious manner.

You see, Ryusei needs Akari in order to do his job well. Whenever he gets stressed out from dealing with all those people, he rushes back to his dressing room to be with Akari, with whom he is able to relax. This might not sound so bad, but the end result is that he expects her to be there all the time while he is working. And she’s apparently just sitting there, staring into space, waiting for her man to come and give her purpose, because at one point her grades take a nosedive (any sensible girl would at least use the time to study!) and she’s dismissive of her parents’ concern. Akari quite literally has no goals in her life other than being near Ryusei. I find this far more depressing than romantic.

The bottom line: if you’re open to the idea of reading manga online, VIZ’s new site provides a clean, simple, and legal way to do so. I can definitely see myself using the site again in the future and recommend it without reservation. But maybe you should read something other than Backstage Prince.