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.

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.

A Pair of TOKYOPOP Stragglers

Just when it seemed like none of those May TOKYOPOP titles was going to materialize, Diamond Distributors revealed that it still had a few surprises up its figurative sleeve. Stragglers, originally scheduled for an early May release, began to trickle into comic shops. I managed to acquire several, including two books—volume eight of Happy Cafe and volume three of The Stellar Six of Gingacho—that I had lost all hope of ever seeing. Although I’m still incredibly sad about TOKYOPOP’s demise, I can’t help looking upon these last releases as an unexpected gift.

Happy Cafe 8 by Kou Matsuzuki
The eighth volume of Happy Cafe offers more cheerful yet insubstantial slice-of-life episodes revolving around the staff of Cafe Bonheur. We check back in with sixth-grader Kenji, Uru’s cousin, and meet the girl who likes him. We see Shindo apologize for making Uru cry, meet Ichiro’s doppelganger/father, and watch as two different guys try and fail to express their feelings for the oblivious Uru.

There are actually four guys now who fancy Uru, mostly because of her bright smile and talent at offering sunny advice as necessary. It’s a little much, but at least doesn’t feel as implausible as with series in which the heroine has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and yet seems to attract a bevy of hunky admirers. It also seems like Matsuzuki draws Uru in a regular style more often this volume—because she’s so childlike and spazzy, she’s usually in some state of super deformity but here we get a few, albeit fleeting, moments in which she looks genuinely pretty.

As a warning, however, readers of this volume are at risk of contracting the dreaded festitis (extreme irritability brought on by manga depictions of school festivals of any sort, including athletic). On the heels of Uru’s school festival in volume seven we first have Kenji’s athletic meet and then the school festival of Sou Abekawa, one of Uru’s suitors. I would seriously be happy if I never had to read about another school festival ever again.

So, how does this fare as the final volume (most likely) of Happy Cafe to be produced in English? Pretty well, actually. The episodic nature of the story precludes any sort of cliffhanger ending, and though Uru continues to be utterly clueless about the feelings she’s inspiring in the guys around her, it’s easy to imagine that, after several more volumes of cheerful yet insubstantial happenings, she will realize her feelings for someone (Shindo seems the most likely candidate) and a happy ending will ensue.

The Stellar Six of Gingacho 3 by Yuuki Fujimoto
Like Happy Cafe, The Stellar Six of Gingacho has so far been comprised of warm and fuzzy episodic stories featuring a childlike heroine who is “very dense when it comes to romance.” The third volume is no different, but takes the first tentative steps at fleshing out the other members of the group—while continuing to focus on Mike (Mee-kay) and her pal/partner Kuro, whose love for Mike is a secret to no one but her—and hinting a little at complications to come.

Chapters in this volume feature plots like “Mike and Kuro rescue a stray puppy,” “Mike insists that her friends go dig up a treasure they buried when they were five,” and “a photo of the boys appears in a teen magazine and fangirls descend.” But boiling them down in this way does them a disservice, because each chapter usually has at least one really nice moment, like Mike realizing that Kuro has always been there for her or the boys defending the honor of the girls when some punk insults them. In fact, the theme of the series could be summed up as “friends are precious and special.” If you don’t want to read stories in which this idea gets established over and over again, then The Stellar Six of Gingacho probably isn’t for you.

Although the volume doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, some glimpses of where the story might go make the lack of future releases particularly disappointing. Who is the object of ladies’ man Ikkyu’s (aka “Q”) unrequited love? (I hope it’s ultra-sensible Iba-chan.) Should I be expecting the six friends to form up into three tidy couples for a happy ending, or will messiness ensue when Sato’s feelings for Kuro come to light?

Sato provides the parting thought as we get a glimpse of an older Kuro. “To me you were special. But back then none of us truly understood what that “special” feeling really was. Not yet.” If you really want to get me hooked to a series, pepper it with retrospective narration like that. Jeez. Talk about bad timing.

Oresama Teacher 1-2 by Izumi Tsubaki

Sometimes, one just wants to read a silly, goodhearted comedy. And on that front, Oresama Teacher delivers admirably.

Mafuyu Kurosaki used to be the bancho of her school (though she didn’t realize it at the time) until she got nabbed by the cops and expelled. Her mother finds a school in the country that will accept Mafuyu, and ships her off for a fresh start. Although Mafuyu is a skilled and savvy fighter, the allure of life as a normal girl is appealing, and she embraces the opportunity to start over, full of self-assurance developed from her days as a gang leader.

Alas, she soon encounters her childhood first love (Tamaoki Saeki), who was responsible for steering her toward the path of delinquency in the first place. Worse, he’s now her homeroom teacher, and embroils Mafuyu and her lone-wolf classmate Hayasaka (another brawler) in his wager with the principal that he can boost the school’s enrollment by quelling the disciplinary issues arising from the lax admittance policy. Mafuyu and Hayasaka are the muscle to keep the other delinquents in line, essentially. Mafuyu is not very keen on this, especially because she’s enjoying how Hayasaka treats her like an ordinary girl, so masquerades as a couple of other people (a boy called Natsuo and Super Bun, a rabbit-mask-wearing girl whom Hayasaka idolizes) when administering the necessary smackdowns.

I almost wrote “hilarity ensues” at the end of the prior paragraph, because that’s just what one does after detailing a suitably wacky premise like this one, but the thing is… Oresama Teacher really is funny, and that’s got everything to do with the characters. I don’t care much for Saeki—mangaka Izumi Tsubaki resists the temptation to endow him with redeeming qualities—but he works as the instigator of over-the-top situations, and some of his interactions with Mafuyu are very amusing (like the scene in which they discover that neither of them can cook).

More to my liking is the relationship between Mafuyu and Hayasaka, which persists despite both of them frequently misunderstanding the other’s motivations. When she tries to find out more information about Saeki (in order to confirm he really is the same boy who used to live next door), for example, Hayasaka assumes she’s looking for material with which to blackmail him. At first, Hayasaka resists the idea that they are friends, but his prickly attitude gradually starts to dissipate. He’s incredibly dense and easy to fool with lame disguises, but Mafuyu, used to being looked up to by her followers/friends, likes the way he treats her as an equal. At one point, he begins to suspect that she is his idol, Super Bun, forcing Mafuyu to dissuade him of the notion just so he’ll stop looking at her all dreamy-like. It’s lonely being revered.

I never did read Tsubaki’s other Shojo Beat series, The Magic Touch, as general consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t that great, but I’m exceedingly glad I didn’t let that stop me from checking out Oresama Teacher, which is a genuinely entertaining read. Tsubaki herself doesn’t seem all that keen on the story—she makes several references in her author’s notes to the fact that various elements of the series were dictated by her editors—but you can’t tell while reading it. And anything that makes me snicker as much as these two volumes did is definitely a keeper.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

March on Earth 1-2 by Mikase Hayashi

Man, I miss CMX. They had an awful lot of cute, short shoujo series, most of which were thankfully published in their entirety before the company’s tragic demise. One of these is the two-volume March on Earth by Mikase Hayashi. It’s a quiet little story and worth checking out, especially if you’ve burnt out on action or angst and just want to read about people being kind and helping each other out for a while.

The basic premise is somewhat implausible. Fifteen-year-old Yuzu Takamiya was raised by her teenage sister Tsubaki after their parents passed away, and now that Tsubaki has died in a car accident, it’s up to Yuzu to raise her two-year-old nephew, Shou. The city welfare guy has paid them a visit, but has allowed Shou to remain in Yuzu’s care, largely because their friendly landlady, Mrs. Kusano, is around in a supervisory capacity.

Yuzu goes to school while Shou is in daycare, but she’s never able to participate in any clubs or go on class trips. “Sometimes I’m vaguely jealous of their carefree lives,” she notes. “Even though I chose this path myself.” The chapters are largely episodic, as Yuzu must overcome her fear of cars to get Shou to a doctor, or contend with budget constraints while still providing Shou with a happy Christmas. Even though it’s tough for her to manage all of this, Shou’s adorableness—and the final picture book her sister completed prior to her death—helps remind her what she’s doing it all for.

Eventually, she meets Shou’s father, Takatoh, and together they begin to develop a sense of family. Yuzu also comes to rely more and more on Seita, the neighbor who has long had feelings for her (she’s one of those romantically obtuse heroines) and who is always there when he’s needed, like when Yuzu feels trapped and unable to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. In fact, one of the overall themes of the story is that people are fundamentally good and will be there to help you, whether it’s nice ladies in the supermarket who will buy the strawberries (or “stwawbewwies,” as Shou calls them) your nephew supposedly damaged or the schemey girl in class who will nonetheless look after Shou when he gets lost on a camping trip. Yuzu certainly wants to repay the kindness of others, but she’s not too proud to accept help.

I like Yuzu and Seita, but the real star of March on Earth is Shou. Now, I admit that he is a totally idealized version of a toddler. He does have a few flare-ups of disobedience, but for the most part he’s simply sweet and loving all the time. He has a speech impediment, gets dressed in cute outfits, and is impossibly delighted with a miniature version of the toy he really, really wanted for Christmas. No real kid could possibly be this angelic. But who cares? This is warm-fuzzy manga; relax.

Is March on Earth going to rock your world? No. But it might put a smile on your face.

March on Earth was published in English by CMX and is complete in two volumes.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Twinkle Stars 1-2 by Natsuki Takaya

I have no idea why Natsuki Takaya’s Twinkle Stars (aka Hoshi wa Utau) has yet to be licensed in the US, but when I learned that English editions were available in Singapore/Australia, I knew I had to acquire them. See the final paragraph of this post for a link where you might do the same.

I thought I might be disappointed by this series. There’s no shortage of complaining Takaya fans online, after all, and it’s not like her other series Tsubasa: Those With Wings or Phantom Dream really knocked my socks off, though I did come to like the latter by the end. After having read these two volumes, however, I am left to conclude that the chief complaint of unhappy fans is that Twinkle Stars is nothing like Fruits Basket. But why should it be? It’s a completely different kind of story, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good!

Sakuya Shiina is a heroine in the mold of Tohru Honda, in that she has a difficult family situation but tries to keep up a cheerful front and doesn’t talk about her own problems very much. Her father contracted her cousin, Kanade, to be her guardian, though it’s unclear whether Sakuya knows that, since she seems to regard Kanade as a kind of savior (and often defends him against allegations of laziness). We don’t learn too much about Kanade, but it seems that he originally kept his distance from Sakuya, but has lately become very fond of her. As the story begins, he has actually remembered her birthday and offered to cook Sakuya’s favorites for dinner.

When Sakuya gets home from her part-time job that evening, she finds that Kanade is not alone. A young man named Chihiro is with him, and Sakuya simply assumes he’s one of Kanade’s friends. He gives her a present and tells her she’s amazing for always smiling and never giving up. Attracted to his lonely mien, Sakuya wants to meet him again, but discovers the next morning that Kanade didn’t actually know Chihiro at all! He spotted him loitering around outside with a gift box and assumed he was there for the festivities.

Sakuya becomes determined to find Chihiro and enlists the help of her two best friends, Hijiri Honjō and Yūri Murakami, who are also members of the stargazing club Sakuya has started. One of Natsuki Takaya’s strengths is in creating terrific friends for her heroine, and Hijiri and Yūri are both interesting characters in their own right. Yūri is pretty straightforward—a short but athletic fellow who is brave, forthright, and easily flustered—but Hijiri is a lot more complex, one of those refined-looking girls who loves to say things that rile other people but who is fiercely protective of Sakuya, even though she seems to adore her friend largely because of her ineptitude in various areas and doesn’t intervene to spare her embarrassment. I think I could easily read a spin-off all about Hijiri, especially since we’ve already gotten a couple of hints that she’s got secrets.

Eventually, Sakuya runs into Chihiro. She’s convinced he’s not a bad person and just wants to hear his reasons for what he did so as to understand, but he’s not cooperative. “I don’t want to tell you anything,” he says, and seems willing to concoct some fantasy persona for himself but not reveal the reality of his life. He disappears after telling Sakuya he hates her, and only then does she realize that she’s fallen in love with him.

At this point it becomes apparent that this will probably be one of those stories (like We Were There or Kare Kano) where the heroine will help heal the hero’s pain and angst. Because this is a shoujo manga Chihiro soon transfers into Sakuya’s school, and though he is initially cold and remote, he very slowly begins to warm up to Sakuya. Another thing Takaya is good at is leaving little clues about important events, and we get a couple of glimpses of Chihiro’s past that inform his behavior toward Sakuya. Primarily, she’s so vulnerable and pathetic that it moves him to protect her, and this sort of unpredictable impulse scares him.

It’s not that he actually hates her, but that he’s uncomfortable and unsure around her. This point is proven when Sakuya speaks before a group of students in an attempt to recruit new members for the stargazing club. She flounders so badly that Chihiro, spurred by the memory of another girl in a similar situation, rushes to her side to reassure her. Although he initially comes across as an irritating jerk, by the end of the second volume it’s clear that he’s mostly just awkward, and perhaps a little broken, too. Sakuya continues to be confused by his behavior, but the lingering sadness in his eyes convinces her not to give up.

The quality of the Chuang Yi edition is quite good. Physically, the paper quality is lovely, the images are crisp and clean, and the volumes come with dust jackets. The translation has a British flair, tickling me by including words like “wonky” and “vexing.” Takaya’s art looks great, but also makes for a kind of bizarre reading experience. The characters are so obviously drawn by her that they look and feel incredibly familiar, and yet they are not copies of anyone in either design or personality. Take, for example, this panel of Sakuya and Chihiro.

There’s no doubt who drew that. And they look slightly reminiscent of other characters, but one would never get them confused. It’s almost like we’re seeing some denizens of the Fruits Basket world to whom we were simply never introduced before.

Contrary to expectations, I enjoyed Twinkle Stars a lot. True, it’s not epic on the level of Fruits Basket, but again, that’s okay by me. I certainly don’t expect Takaya to keep writing the same sorts of things over and over, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what she achieves with this different kind of tale.

Twinkle Stars is not currently licensed in North America. These English editions were published by Chuang Yi Publishing in Singapore and distributed by Madman Entertainment out of Australia. They are available for purchase here, but shipping is quite expensive. I’ll be switching to the French editions from volume three onwards. The series is complete in Japan with eleven volumes.

Kamisama Kiss 2 by Julietta Suzuki

From the back cover:
Nanami Momozono is alone and homeless after her dad skips town to evade his gambling debts and the debt collectors kick her out of her apartment. So when a man she’s just saved from a dog offers her his home, she jumps at the opportunity. But it turns out that his place is a shrine, and Nanami has unwittingly taken over his job as a local deity!

Nanami doesn’t want to miss out on the fun when a hot teen idol joins the student body. Tomoe reluctantly agrees to let her go, as long as she conceals her divine mark. After all, what could possibly go wrong at high school…?

Nanami has been out of school for three months, living in the shrine that is her new home, but the appalling lack of worshippers means her days are very dull indeed. When she sees a TV news story about a famous pop idol transferring to her high school, her school spirit is suddenly reinvigorated and she decides to return, even though Tomoe (her fox-eared familiar) insists she wear a stupid-looking headscarf to cover the mark that identifies her as a tochigami (deity of a specific area of land), lest yokai detect her presence and attack.

The pop idol, Kurama, turns out to be a jerk, but he’s intrigued by Nanami’s ability to resist his charms. The other students aren’t too friendly, either, and tease Nanami about her poverty. Enter Tomoe to save the day, clearing her name when she is accused of theft, delivering a delicious lunch when she’s too poor to afford something from the cafeteria, and generally making it appear as if she’s now under the care of a wealthy family. When Tomoe later finds himself in need, having been shrunk by another deity who has taken over the shrine, Nanami is grateful to be able to give back to him, watching over him as his child’s body struggles to contain his powers. In the end, when the other deity is ousted, Tomoe chooses to reenter into a contract with Nanami.

I’m still unsure exactly what to make of Kamisama Kiss. I definitely like its sense of humor—it’s pleasantly absurd, like when Kurama (who predictably turns out to be a yokai) is chased through the halls of the school by one of Tomoe’s fireballs while in the form of an ostrich—and the supporting cast (like the two onibi-warashi who occupy the shrine along with Nanami and Tomoe), but the main characters have yet to really intrigue me. It’s nice that Tomoe and Nanami are building a more friendly relationship, and that both clearly care about each other, but there’s nothing to really distinguish this development from all the other stories in which two argumentative sorts wind up falling for each other.

I think part of the problem is that I am still mentally comparing it to Suzuki’s other series released in English, the very charming Karakuri Odette. I shouldn’t, because they’re very different types of stories, but every now and then Nanami gets an expression on her face that reminds me so much of Odette that I can’t help myself.

Because Karakuri Odette turned out to be so good, I am reasonably confident that Kamisama Kiss will eventually win me over, but in the meantime I’m left a little bit disappointed.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Alice in the Country of Hearts 6 (Japanese) by QuinRose and Soumei Hoshino

When TOKYOPOP announced in April that they’d be shutting down, I was bummed that we wouldn’t get the sixth and final volume of the surprisingly fun Alice in the Country of Hearts, which had been scheduled for July release. Happily, however, the volume is easily available in Japanese (I got mine from YesAsia.com). Unhappily, it’s a disappointing conclusion to the series.

When Alice was first brought into the game by the White Rabbit, she was given a vial and told that it would fill up as she interacted with Wonderland’s denizens. Now that vial is almost full, so it’s time—after some thoroughly boring and pointless territory negotiations—for her to think about going home. Even though she’s convinced this has all been a dream, Alice still worries what will become of Julius after she’s gone, since she’s been ensuring the workaholic clock fixer eats regular meals, and everyone else is depressed about her impending departure.

There are several things that frustrate me about what follows (spoiler warning). First of all, Alice has been shown throughout to be a very sensible girl. Why, then, would she fall for someone who has treated her as shabbily as Blood (the Mad Hatter) has? I honestly don’t get it. Sure, he looks like a boy she once loved, but it makes me lose respect for Alice that she’d fall for this guy. Secondly, Alice makes it back to the real world for all of ten seconds before Blood shows up and whisks her back to Wonderland. A montage of happy people ensues and then it’s over. Huh? What?

We don’t get any explanations about the nature of Wonderland. Back in volume one, she was told that it’s not a world she created, but one she wished for. So, is it a real place? Is it a delusion? Is she lying in a sickbed somewhere? Has this story been taking place in the imagination of an autistic boy with a snow globe? Alice never reunites with her sister, never makes good on her brief plans for the future… She just chooses to live in this fantasy world with a gun-toting jerk of a guy. It’s not as if the preceding volumes have been bursting with literary merit, but this final volume is so insubstantial it’s almost insulting.

I suspect this is all because there are more games in the series and the story can’t conclude here if they want to sell more, but it doesn’t make for a very successful or satisfying manga adaptation.

Arisa 1 by Natsumi Ando

From the back cover:
Tsubasa thinks that her pretty and popular twin sister, Arisa, has the perfect life. Everyone at school loves Arisa—unlike the hot-tempered Tsubasa, whose nickname is “the Demon Princess.” But when Arisa attempts suicide, Tsubasa learns that her seemingly perfect sister has been keeping some dark secrets. Now Tsubasa is going undercover at school—disguised as Arisa—in search of the truth. But will Arisa’s secrets shatter Tsubasa’s life, too?

So, you’ve read After School Nightmare and are casting about for more creepy and suspenseful school-based shoujo to consume. Have I got the manga for you!

Despite their different surnames, Tsubasa Uehara and Arisa Sonoda are twin sisters who, due to split custody arising from their parents’ divorce, have not seen each other in person for three years. They’ve kept in contact via letters, however, and tomboyish Tsubasa has envied her sister’s seemingly perfect life, as conveyed by her letters. When Arisa proposes they meet, Tsubasa is overjoyed, and she also goes along with her sister’s suggestion to pose as Arisa for the following day at school. Everything seems to go so well—Arisa is popular, respected by classmates and teachers, and has a cute boyfriend—until the end of the day when Tsubasa discovers a cryptic card in her sister’s shoe locker. “Arisa Sonoda is a traitor.”

Arisa is surprised to hear that Tsubasa had fun, and after cryptically remarking, “You don’t know their secrets… or mine,” leans backward out of the open apartment window. Trees break her fall enough that she survives, but the accident leaves her in a coma. Tsubasa, determined to find out what’s going on, returns to Arisa’s school and soon discovers a weekly ritual known as “King Time,” during which the students submit a wish to some mysterious person, who grants one per week. On this particular occasion, a pervy gym teacher is made to disappear quite effectively. When a fellow classmate questions his fate, she too receives the “traitor” notice and is thereafter bullied and ostracized. Did Arisa raise similar objections and receive the same treatment?

Mangaka Natsumi Ando handles Tsubasa’s confusion expertly, as students (particularly Arisa’s best friend, Mariko) go from chipper to menacing in the blink of an eye. Whom can she trust? Manabe, the bad boy who attacked her with a 2×4 but who also expressed a desire to destroy “the King”? Midori, Arisa’s mild-mannered and considerate boyfriend? At least she has an ally in her friend Takeru, who does some investigation on her behalf. I like how the initially friendly mood of the class breaks down into genuine creepiness, and am really looking forward to seeing how the mystery progresses from here.

The first volume of Arisa was published in English by Del Rey, but Kodansha Comics took over beginning with the second volume, which was released last Tuesday. (I’m saving that one for Wednesday’s Off the Shelf column.) The series is still ongoing in Japan, where it is currently up to seven volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.