Otherworld Barbara, Vols. 1-2

By Moto Hagio | Published by Fantagraphics

otherworldIt’s 2052 and Tokio Watarai, a dream pilot, is coming home to Japan for the first time in three years. Although his ex-wife and son are in Japan, he’s actually returning for a job involving a girl who’s been sleeping for seven years since being found with her parents’ hearts in her stomach. Her name is Aoba, and when Tokio enters her dream it’s all about an island called Barbara in which kids can fly and cannibalism factors in to funeral rites. Soon, he learns that his son, Kiriya, actually invented Barbara. So how is Aoba able to dream about it?

That introductory paragraph actually simplifies the story greatly. There’s also Tokio’s horrid ex-wife Akemi and the creepy priest Johannes whom she loves and who could possibly be Aoba’s grandfather but also head of an American orphanage in which cloned children were created, including one called Paris who comes to Japan and believes Kiriya might be a boy he knew called Taka. There’s Kiriya’s massive angst, his dreams of Mars, his dream conversations with Aoba, the girl Laika who fancies him, a psychiatrist who treated Aoba who is killed by a tornado she created, his identity-swapping and cross-dressing fraternal twin children, anti-aging research (potentially conducted upon the residents of Barbara) including a suit that turns Aoba’s grandma into a young woman who calls herself Marienbad and has a fling with Tokio, Daikoku’s ominous hinting that Kiriya will kill Tokio someday, parental regrets, etc.

By the end of the first volume, so very many plot threads are in the air that I was not at all sure that Hagio-sensei would be able to make everything make sense in the end. To use just one example: If Barbara is just a dream—and, indeed, no such island actually exists—then how is it possible that the blood of its residents is used for anti-aging medicine? And yet we see evidence that such advances are already in the works. And because of all this plot stuff, there’s not a lot of time for building solid relationships. There is angst aplenty, especially courtesy of Kiriya, but the whole Marienbad/Tokio hookup, for example, is just extremely random. The strongest bond, though, is definitely the love Tokio feels for his son and his regret over having been a crappy father.

Happily, the second volume does make with the answers, starting almost immediately. Not everything is answered with absolute certainty—one particular narrative thread takes a completely unexpected and surprisingly poignant turn. Even 90% of the way through, I would’ve said there was no way Otherworld Barbara would be able to make me cry, and yet it did. I won’t reveal how, but I loved the devastating consequences of a desperate act on Tokio’s part, and how it led him to have faith that Aoba’s dream of Barbara really could be shaping a vision of the future. That ending makes everything else worthwhile. Too, I enjoyed the contrast between Hagio’s uncomplicated, light-filled artwork and the dark and weird story she told.

Ultimately, Otherworld Barbara is definitely worth reading. Thank you, Fantagraphics, for releasing it!

Otherworld Barbara is complete in two 2-in-1 editions.

Review copies provided by the publisher

Love’s Reach, Vol. 1

By Rin Mikimoto | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

I am an enormous fan of Kodansha’s digital offerings, so it pains me to admit that I can’t find anything to recommend about Love’s Reach.

Sixteen-year-old Yuni Kururugi, a “genius ice queen,” excels in every subject except for English, which is taught by her 24-year-old, supposed-to-be temporary homeroom teacher, Haruka Sakurai. He’s flirty and unprofessional with his students, and though Kururugi likes the way he looks, she finds everything else about him unpleasant. When he calls her to his office after school one day, he creepily backs her against a wall and says, “Have you been getting answers wrong on purpose? Maybe you’re really just trying to get my attention.” The briefly gratifying fact that Kururugi smacks him and says, “Let me be perfectly clear. I hate you” is undercut by her reflections upon how cute he looks in that moment. Sakurai ends up requiring Kururugi to attend daily tutoring sessions and, inevitably, they fall in love.

This is one of those cases where, even setting aside the problematic student-teacher relationship aspect, I just don’t see why these characters like each other. Sakurai flip-flops between manipulative mind games and minimal acts of kindness (oh boy, he left her some patches for her sore ankle!), and allows other teenage girls to hang all over him. What’s to like about that jerk? For her part, although we are told several times that Kururugi is a genius, she sure doesn’t act like one. Some of her behavior might be excused as romantic inexperience, but not the fact that after insisting on a date with Sakurai, it never occurs to her that someone might see them out together until someone does. Eyeroll.

None of the relationship drama is interesting and by the halfway point, I was thinking, “When can this be over?” and that was before the predatory lesbian teacher showed up to blackmail the happy couple! Too, the art style is really weird. The space between a character’s eyebrows and the top of their head occupies as much space as their entire face!

So, to sum up. Weird art. Unlikeable characters. Inexplicable and icky romance. I won’t be continuing this series.

Love’s Reach is complete in ten volumes. One volume is available in English now and the second comes out next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card, Vol. 1

By CLAMP | Published by Kodansha Comics

It’s been a long time since I read anything by CLAMP. After failing to love Kobato. and Gate 7, I just sort of drifted away from paying attention to what they were doing. When a beloved favorite got a new arc, however, my interest was piqued. And when Kodansha Comics not only licensed it, but released the first volume digitally months ahead of the print release, I might’ve squeed.

We rejoin Sakura Kinomoto as she begins her first year as a middle-school student. To her surprise and delight, Syaoran Li meets her on her way to school and announces that he’s back from Hong Kong and will henceforth be a permanent resident of Tomoeda. Everything seems to be coming up roses, except Syaoran looks troubled…

Soon, Sakura has a dream in which the cards she’s captured turn transparent and wakes to find it’s true. Her texts (yes, we’ve entered the modern age) seeking advice from Eriol in England go unanswered, and the next night, she dreams she receives the key to a new staff, which also comes to pass in reality. A couple of supernatural attacks follow, and Sakura is able to “Release!” the new key into the Staff of Dreams, with which she acquires two new cards. Kero and Yue are as clueless as Sakura is about what’s going on, but by the end of the volume, it’s clear that Syaoran and Eriol know more than they’re letting on and are probably colluding to keep Sakura in the dark about something.

It’s a cute start—not very different from what we’ve seen before, but it sure is nice to spend time with these characters again. What surprised me most, actually, was how much I loved seeing Kero-chan again. I seriously adore him, especially when he’s being sweet and supportive. Plus, the art is so lovely and familiar. I grew fond of the art style in xxxHOLiC, but this is the kind of art I associate more with CLAMP. I am a little worried this will turn out to be a disappointing sequel, but for now I’m keen to see how it develops.

Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card is ongoing in Japan, where two volumes have been released so far. Kodansha has made the first English edition available now in digital format, but it won’t see a print release until November.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Plum Crazy! Tales of a Tiger-Striped Cat, Vol. 1

By Natsumi Hoshino | Published by Seven Seas

It is definitely a good time to be a manga fan, particularly if you (like me) are fond of niche genres like food manga, sports manga, and cat manga. The latest entry into that final category is Plum Crazy! Tales of a Tiger-Striped Cat and, predictably, it’s cute.

Plum lives with the Nakarai family, including a woman who teaches traditional Japanese dance and her teenage son, Taku. One day, Plum brings home a kitten in distress, and what follows are her efforts to help take care of the kitten while said kitten (soon named Snowball) is more interested in administering chomps.

With the exception of a few pages of 4-koma comics at the back of the volume, Plum has no internal dialogue, but her actions and expressive face convey her thoughts well. She does typical cat-like things, but she’s far from ordinary. For example, not only does she actually listen to her owner’s directives, but she actually complies. Snowball is more realistically temperamental, only cuddling with Plum when she feels unwell and otherwise tormenting her until another cat shows up, at which point Snowball is jealous of their playtime.

Really, there isn’t a lot of plot here. The only thing that comes close is the Nakarai family learning valuable lessons about keeping a clean litterbox, or the dangers of heatstroke, or the fact that cats don’t like wearing reindeer antlers and posing for pictures. To all of these I give a big “duh!,” and it’s somewhat frustrating to see people so cavalier about these and other topics—they don’t seem to worry about a tiny kitten wandering the neighborhood, for example—but I guess part of the point of the manga was to be educational.

At any rate, this was an enjoyable addition to the roster of cat manga available in English, and I plan to continue with it.

Plum Crazy! is ongoing in Japan, where sixteen volumes have been released. Seven Seas will publish the second volume in English in September.

Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl, Vols. 1-2

By Canno | Published by Yen Press

I haven’t read a ton of yuri manga, but even I have encountered the “all-girls school with multiple couples” setup before. Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl is another example of the same.

We begin with Ayaka Shiramine and Yurine Kurosawa. Shiramine has always been the perfect student, but she works hard for her grades. Enter Kurosawa, the lazy genius, who shows up and immediately takes the number one spot. Squabbling ensues, with Kurosawa going all sparkly when a furious Shiramine calls her “just a regular person.” It seems she’s been waiting for someone who might beat her. My problem with this couple is that Shiramine is not very likable, even if I sympathize with her frustration. Plus, I ended up comparing her “there’s no way anyone could love me when I’m not perfect” angst with that of Nanami Touko in Bloom into You, where the idea is executed with more depth and originality.

Thankfully, these characters soon rotate into the background as focus shifts onto Shiramine’s cousin, track star Mizuki. Kurosawa also happens to be great at running, and Mizuki is upset when the team manager, Moe, avidly attempts to recruit her. Moe is supposed to watch Mizuki the most, after all. It all turns out to be for a cute reason, and I like the M&M pairing much more.

Volume two introduces still more characters. Ai Uehara doesn’t endear herself to me by whining about the availability of third-year Maya Hoshino—“Mock exams are more important to you than I am!”—and the chapter where she tries to make her friend stay in town rather than going to the university of her dreams and then realizes that this makes her friend sad and then promptly trips and starts blubbering just about had steam coming out of my ears.

But, again, thankfully, we move away from the annoying character to someone more mature. Chiharu Kusakabe is Hoshino’s roommate and is in love with her. Hoshino seems to be aware of this, particularly after a clichéd “locked in the storeroom” incident, but doesn’t return her feelings. While Chiharu is busy pining for a sempai, she encounters a younger girl who begins pining for her. And, again, some cuteness ensues.

I’m definitely on board for volume three, but I wonder… will each volume introduce someone I profoundly dislike in the first half and then give me a couple to really like in the second half? I suppose I can deal with that, and I also want to see more of Mizuki and Chiharu.

Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl is ongoing in Japan, where six volumes have been released so far. The first two volumes are currently available in English; the third will be released in August.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Flying Witch, Vol. 1

By Chihiro Ishizuka | Published by Vertical Comics

Makoto Kowata is a novice witch who, in the tradition of witches, has left home at the age of fifteen to become independent. Her parents are concerned about her safety, though, so she’s staying with relatives in Aomori, located in the Tohoko region where it’s easier to perform magic thanks to abundant wilderness and natural resources. Accompanying her is her familiar, a black cat named Chito who is indisputably my favorite character.

Flying Witch is a calm, slice-of-life tale depicting Makoto’s attempts to fit in to her new surroundings. Makoto’s young cousin, Chinatsu, is scared of her at first, but changes her opinion to “so cool!” after a ride on a broomstick. Makoto starts high school and forgets that she’s not supposed to be talking about witchy matters with people who aren’t family. She tries to give a mandrake to an ordinary girl as a present. She starts a vegetable garden. She receives a visit from “the harbinger of spring” and another from her world-traveling sister.

It’s all very peaceful, but there are some amusing moments scattered throughout. I love that Chinatsu’s dad has a heavy regional accent (rendered as Southern in the translation) and that, after everyone else has tried and failed to capture a pheasant, he gives it a shot himself, comically muttering, “Dang it!” But what I really love is anything to do with Chito. Ishizuka-sensei does a terrific job at conveying Chito’s facial expressions, including an adorable panel of the kitty sticking out her tongue and going “pbbt.” The best, though, occur during the chapter in which Chito leads direction-challenged Makoto for a walk in the neighborhood. She assures her they’re going to a good spot, but it ends up being a location where Chito can taunt a dog on a tether, remaining disdainfully out of reach as he goes berserk.

Even though the premise is very different from Yotsuba&!, that gentle, slice-of-life feeling summons a similar response. I ended up enjoying this a lot more than I expected to, and now eagerly await volume two, albeit mostly for more Chito.

Flying Witch is ongoing in Japan, where five volumes have been released so far. Vertical will release the second volume in English later this month.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

DAYS, Vols. 1-2

By Tsuyoshi Yasuda | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Fifteen-year-old Tsukushi Tsukamoto doesn’t have any friends. He’s always rushed home after school to be there for his disabled mother, who is raising him on her own after his father passed away. After an eccentric fellow named Jin Kazama saves Tsukushi from bullies, Tsukushi is more than willing to grant Kazama the favor of playing a game of futsal with him. In fact, he runs six miles through the rain in order to fulfill his promise, and though he’s spectacularly awful at the game, he’s also a gutsy idiot and something about his enthusiasm rubs off on his teammates.

As it happens, Tsukushi and Kazama are attending the same high school, Seiseki, which is renowned for its soccer club. They both join, but whereas Kazama is the best of the incoming first years, Tsukushi is the worst, frequently causing the rest of his yearmates to run extra laps due to his ineptitude. The other guys get frustrated, but Tsukushi just works harder than ever. This is the first time he’s ever been part of a group moving in the same direction toward a shared dream, and he’s never had so much fun. The stoic, pro-bound captain, Mizuki, admires this dedication and predicts, “Two years down the road, he’s going to be our captain.” We eventually learn that Mizuki himself started off just as awful.

Little by little, Tsukushi manages to not completely suck, albeit only for brief moments at a time. Because of his ability to rekindle the joy of soccer in others, he is surprisingly chosen for the Interhigh team. Though he makes an error that costs them a penalty kick, he also makes a valiant save that rallies everyone’s spirits. I’m a sucker for those moments when the underdog first hears the crowd cheering for them so, predictably, this moment made me verklempt.

I did, however, have a few doubts about DAYS in the beginning. There are some gags with the bullies that are extremely unfunny, and a recurring bit where Kazama keeps handing Tsukushi panties with which to dry his tears. Too, there was one instance of girls’ boobs appearing (with requisite “boing” sound effect) a panel before we see their faces. I realize that this is a shounen sports manga, but most are, and they’re usually not as juvenile as DAYS is in its opening chapter. Thankfully, it gets better. I especially appreciate Yasuda-sensei’s skill with the poignant two-page spread and the organic way the supporting characters are beginning to be fleshed out. DAYS definitely won me over in the end.

DAYS is ongoing in Japan, where volume 22 has just been released.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

The Full-Time Wife Escapist, Vols. 1-2

By Tsunami Umino | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Mikuri Moriyama is a 25-year-old licensed clinical psychologist who hasn’t been able to find a job after grad school. She’s been living with her parents and working for a temp agency, and when she’s laid off her father arranges for her to assume housekeeping duties for a guy he used to work with. Hiramasa Tsuzaki is 36 and single. He seems humorless and particular at first, but Mikuri finds that working for a hard-to-please guy makes it easier to know when she’s been successful. She performs her duties well, even managing to nurse Tsuzaki through an illness in such a business-like way that it’s not awkward for him. Things go well for a few months, then Mikuri’s father prepares to retire and move to the countryside. Rather than lose their mutually beneficial arrangement, Mikuri and Tsuzaki decide that she’ll move in with him and, for the sake of propriety, become his common-law wife. They proceed to perpetuate the ruse that they’re actually a real couple.

I am really enjoying The Full-Time Wife Escapist so far! Mikuri is an interesting character. She’s outwardly educated and competent—equally able to engage in conversations about globalization and maintain a meticulous budget—but has these inward flights of fancy that only the reader is privy to. She often imagines herself being interviewed about the state of her life, be it with an unsympathetic talk show host or a man-on-the-street segment about middle-aged virgins (which Tsuzaki appears to be), or performing heartbreaking Les Miserables-style songs about the woes of unemployment. The injection of whimsy is fun and reminds me a little of Tokyo Tarareba Girls, but Mikuri is a lot more practical (and a lot less boozy) than the characters of that series.

As Tsuzaki’s coworkers learn that he’s gotten married, his social calendar suddenly fills up in a way it never did before, while Mikuri notices that her aunt Yuri, with whom she’s very close, has been hesitant to invite her out as much as she used to before Mikuri got married. Spending time with Numata and Kazami is enjoyable for the couple, but it’s also risky, because nosy Numata snoops and learns there’s only a twin bed in the bedroom, and by volume two, Kazami is convinced that they’re faking it. Kazami is perhaps as equally developed as Tsuzaki himself, as we hear a great deal about his reservations about marriage, which all leads up to the big cliffhanger ending of volume two (which I shan’t spoil). Tsuzaki, meanwhile, is attempting in vain to keep from developing feelings for Mikuri. She persists in being business-like, and he 100% believes there’s no chance she’d ever reciprocate, so he often looks emotionless in front of her, only revealing his feelings when he’s alone. I love that neither one of them is spazzy; they’re in a somewhat trope-y arrangement, but they’re handling it like adults.

I really can’t wait for volume three. There’s so many interesting ways the story could go, though I admit I actually do want it to go in the standard “they fall in love and live happily ever after” direction.

The Full-Time Wife Escapist is ongoing in Japan; nine volumes have been released so far.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Dreamin’ Sun, Vol. 1

By Ichigo Takano | Published by Seven Seas

Even without knowing much about Dreamin’ Sun, I was sold by the fact that it’s an earlier series from Ichigo Takano, creator of orange, which I loved dearly. Dreamin’ Sun is more of a straightforward and comedic shoujo story in which characters do not contend with letters from their future selves or how to save a suicidal friend, but it still has a few poignant moments.

Shimana Kameko’s mother died in a car accident three years ago. Now, her father has remarried and with her new step-mom and baby brother, Shimana only feels visible when she’s being criticized. “I feel like this isn’t even my home anymore,” she thinks, as she decides to run away. Promptly, she encounters a weird kimono-wearing guy in the park named Taiga Fujiwara who offers her a cheap place to stay. Luckily for her, he isn’t a creep, and after assigning her the task of finding a spare key for his place (since he’s locked out), he also gets her to admit the real reason she left home: accepting the new arrangement felt like betraying her mother.

Thus, Shimana moves in with Taiga and two of her male classmates, Zen Nakajou and Asahi Tatsugae. Zen is the hyper, panda-loving one and Asahi the considerate, studious, princely one. Soon Shimana is developing feelings for Asahi, but he’s in love with his childhood friend who is, herself, in love with someone. In fact, there’s a lot of unrequited love going around. Zen seems to have unacknowledged feelings for Shimana, one of Taiga’s coworkers fancies him, but knows she’s not the one he really wants, etc.

These wistful feelings elevate Dreamin’ Sun beyond the “plain girl lives with several hot guys” trope. In addition, I really loved how much Taiga cares for the kids in his charge. He’s the one who’s able to convince Shimana’s parents to let her remain at his house and concocts a few situations to help her maybe get something going with Asahi. He also encourages each of them to have a dream, and claims his dream is “for all of you to grow up.” Could he be atoning for something? Too, at the end of the volume, we learn that he’s actually a prosecutor and that his father helped out Shimana’s family three years ago. Will some accident-related secret be forthcoming?

Even if no mystery arises, Dreamin’ Sun is still an appealing series, and I definitely plan to continue it.

Dreamin’ Sun is complete in ten volumes. Seven Seas will release volume two in July.

My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 1

By Gengoroh Tagame | Published by Pantheon Books

Yaichi is a single dad who works from home managing the rental property his parents left to him and his brother, Ryoji, after being killed in a car accident when the boys were teenagers. He considers his real job to be providing the best home he can to his daughter, Kana. On the day the story begins, Yaichi is expecting a guest—Mike Flanagan, the burly Canadian whom Ryoji married after leaving Japan ten years ago. Ryoji passed away the previous month and Mike has come to Japan to try to connect with Ryoji’s past and see for himself the many things he’d heard stories about from his husband.

Initially, Yaichi is reserved and wary around Mike. It’s not to his credit that the first thing he thinks when effusive Mike moves in for a hug is “Let go, you homo!”, though he at least mostly keeps a lid on his feelings. Mike is never anything but lovely, and Kana quickly comes to adore him. It’s through her openness and innocence, untainted by prejudice, that Yaichi comes to rethink some of his actions concerning Mike. Why did he hesitate to invite Mike to stay with them, when he’d recently insisted a visiting cousin do the same, for example? Kana is able to ask Mike things that Yaichi feels unable to, and he benefits from Mike’s super-patient explanations, eventually realizing how wrong he’d been about various aspects of the gay experience.

Not only wrong, in fact, but willfully ignorant. When Ryoji came out to him as a teenager, Yaichi didn’t object but never talked about it with him, either. He never considered how difficult that conversation was for his brother, or what other kind of turmoil he might’ve been experiencing. Too late, he’s realizing that he missed the opportunity to truly know his brother. I did appreciate that Yaichi is willing and able to recognize his own failings, and that he vows to protect Kana from others’ negative opinions about Mike and from being as closed-off as he was. True, he’s still not able to introduce Mike to an acquaintance without downgrading his relationship to Ryoji, so he’s got a ways to go. But at least he is headed in the right direction.

“Heartbreaking yet hopeful” is how Anderson Cooper describes My Brother’s Husband in his endorsement blurb, and he is definitely right. Melinda also wrote movingly about the series in our latest Off the Shelf column.

My Brother’s Husband is complete in four volumes. Pantheon Books is releasing the series in two-in-one volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.