Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty, Vol. 1

By Megumi Morino | Published by Kodansha Comics

Tetsu Misato makes up for what he lacks in height with his energy and determination. Due to a mysterious promise he made to his hospitalized mother, Tetsu is driven to earn money. So much so that he plains to join the work force after graduation and already is working several part-time jobs while in high school, abandoning the soccer team as a result. To prove to his father that he is ready to hold down a job, he begins working through his father’s housekeeping agency at the Karasawa mansion. There have long been rumors that the place is haunted, but Tetsu soon learns that the “frail, sickly daughter” who allegedly lives in a separate building is a real and friendly girl, no apparition at all.

In fact, Shizu doesn’t seem ill at all, but some of the things she says are strange, like “I’d like you to come see me… to see Shizu Karasawa again.” And when Tetsu confesses his love (thankfully without prolonged angst) Shizu is troubled and invites him to visit again on his next work day before she gives him a straight answer. When he complies, he finds a completely different Shizu, who refers to the personality Tetsu interacted with as “Haru” and only vaguely remembers Tetsu. She doesn’t seem to know who she herself really is.

Most of this first volume is Tetsu figuring out the mystery of what exactly Shizu’s deal is, which I don’t want to spoil, but I will say I definitely enjoyed the read. Early on, there are some gag reaction panels that aren’t particularly amusing, but which make the darker, creepier moments later on land with more impact. Tetsu is quite the scaredy cat, and while he initially visits Shizu because he cares about her (well, the Haru version, at least) and doesn’t want her to be lonely, by the end of the volume, Shizu’s mother has made him an offer he can’t refuse, and though he’s now scared of Shizu because of what he’s learned, he’s compelled to stay near her to protect someone he cares about—and this time, I think that’s referring to his mother or his family and ties in to the unknown reason that he needs to earn all that money. It’s a nice shift in his motivations, especially as it occurs after the real Shizu has shown that she cares about Tetsu, a first for her.

The tables have turned in their relationship, and I very much look forward to see how the story progresses from here.

Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty is complete in six volumes. Volume two will be out in English next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Waiting for Spring, Vols. 1-3

By Anashin | Published by Kodansha Comics

Mitsuki Haruno is a first-year in high school who has always had trouble making friends. Her luck begins to change when she befriends the most popular quartet of boys in school. If someone read those sentences to me and asked me to guess in which magazine this manga was serialized, I’d say Dessert, based on past offerings we’ve seen from them (like Say I Love You.). And I would be right.

The fact that it’s a familiar premise doesn’t preclude Waiting for Spring from being enjoyable, however. Although the four boys can be almost instantly categorized into standard roles based on their appearance—the playful one, the intellectual one, the hotheaded one, the princely one—I appreciated that, like typical teenage boys, they are still occasionally jerks. Oh, sure, they’re idealized and do things like try to cheer up little kids through the power of basketball, but at least they’re not saints.

I also quite liked Mitsuki as a character. I could foresee a version of this story in which her failures to initiate social interaction with others might be frustrating, but that’s not the case here at all. The key seems to be Mitsuki’s honesty about the past experiences that are holding her back in the present, and by the end of the third volume she has made two female friends. Reina is, awesomely, a major fujoshi and envisions the four boys (all of whom are on the basketball team) in romantic pairings. I love the little background gags of her taking surreptitious pictures of them. Maki is a member of the girls basketball team who, unbeknownst to Mitsuki, also has a thing for princely Asakura.

We also meet Aya, the childhood friend whom Mitsuki thought was a girl. Turns out (no real surprise) that he is a boy and is determined to win Mitsuki’s affections. He’s insistent to a troubling degree, but again, I appreciate that Mitsuki is firm in her refusals, even managing to defuse conflict between Aya and Asakura by proposing that she’ll go on the date Aya wants after the inter-high tournament, but that Asakura will come too and it’ll be a fun group thing. I get that we’re supposed to appreciate how much Aya’s friendship meant to Mitsuki when she was young, given that she had no other friends, but I wonder… are readers really supposed to like this guy? At least his presence spurs Asakura (generally sleepy and/or oblivious) to realize what his feelings for Mitsuki are.

But will he act on those feelings? The boys on the basketball team are not allowed to date. I did find it strange that although these boys talk about how much basketball means to them, because this is shoujo manga, we see sadly little of it. In volume three, the inter-high preliminaries have begun and in the space of 1.5 pages, the boys have won five games. I know this isn’t a sports manga, but c’mon… I’d like to see more than that! Another thing to appreciate about Mitsuki is that, while many of the team’s other female fans are just there to look at the cute boys, she understands how important the game is to Asakura and overcomes her shyness and orchestrate a cheering section when they fall behind during a practice game. Too, I greatly appreciate that she hasn’t had to deal with any mean girls warning her away from the boys. (Reina’s occasional “grr” reactions at girls hanging around them are enough.)

So, yes, this is a low-key series that isn’t breaking any new ground. That said, I still like it. The sweet moments between Mitsuki and Asakura take me back to adolescence when the first time you hold hands with someone is a tremendously big deal and the art style is attractive. The conclusion seems pretty obvious already, but I expect I’ll enjoy getting there all the same.

Waiting for Spring is ongoing in Japan, where it is up to eight volumes. Three volumes are currently out in English, with the fourth scheduled for release next week.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Shojo FIGHT!, Vols. 1-2

By Yoko Nihonbashi | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Neri Oishi was a great volleyball player in elementary school, when she was captain of a team that took second place in the national championship. At her prestigious middle school, however, she’s a benchwarmer, often tasked with picking up balls and doing laundry. One of her teammates, Chiyo, is vocally frustrated by the situation, since she played against Neri’s team and knows how good she is. After injuring Chiyo during an argument, Neri must play in her stead in a practice game. Try as she might to suppress them, her aggressive tendencies flare, and she ends up injuring a teammate. Disaster is further assured when her childhood friend/osteopath Shigeru chooses the boys’ bathroom as a treatment venue. Upon discovery (and subsequent misunderstanding), Neri is forced to resign from the volleyball club.

It’s a neat setup, introducing Neri in this environment where she’s not flourishing. By the end of the second volume, readers have learned about the childhood trauma that led to Neri becoming obsessed with volleyball as a means to forget, and the consequences that single-minded focus had on her relationship with her elementary teammates, all of whom bailed on their plans to attend middle school together. She also enrolls in Kokuyodani Private High School, where her sister attended and whose volleyball team is now coached by her sister’s former teammate.

Neri is ashamed of the selfish way she sometimes plays, and wants to change. She’s also absolutely certain that anyone trying to be friends with her is going to end up regretting it. To this end, she initially keeps her #1 fan, Manabu Odagiri, at a distance. Neri saved Manabu from bullies when they were kids, and Manabu has never forgotten it. It soon becomes clear that Manabu is now in the one in the position to help, urging Neri to try to talk to people instead of simply interpreting things in the worst way possible.

Manabu also ends up joining the volleyball team, despite being a total newbie, leading to the most enjoyable part of the series so far: a three-on-three game between the new first years. All of the firsties on the Kokuyodani team have distinct personalities (and, actually, the upperclassmen are seriously fun and awesome, too) and their different training styles are fascinating to watch, especially as Neri manages to drill Manabu in the basics while tasked with spending the first three days only on cleaning duty. Seeing Manabu succeed is gratifying, and I loved that, after Neri’s “mad dog” persona emerges during the game, none of her new teammates harbors a grudge about it.

I am very impressed with how vivid these characters are so far, and 100% addicted already. I also want to note that although the art style is a bit unconventional, it doesn’t take long to get used to it and after a while I stopped noticing it entirely. Although I will always love shounen sports manga, after Shojo FIGHT! and Giant Killing, seinen sports manga might be my new fave.

Shojo FIGHT! is ongoing in Japan, where it is up to fourteen volumes.

Review copies provided by the publisher

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.