Tidbits: Now We Are Six

Originally, this post was supposed to go up several months ago, when the sixth volumes of these series were newly released, but time conspired against me. And so, belatedly, I present reviews of volumes five and six of Kamisama Kiss and Oresama Teacher. Also included is perennial favorite Skip Beat!, which is on a similar trajectory, just twenty volumes ahead.

Kamisama Kiss, Vols. 5-6
It’s hard to believe now that I ever had my doubts about Kamisama Kiss, because I’m enjoying it more and more with each volume.

Volume five finds Nanami determined to correct public opinion that her shrine is a creepy, dangerous ruin, especially since her shinshi, Tomoe, works so hard to maintain it. And so, she decides to hold a festival, spending two weeks preparing for a special performance while soliciting amusingly misguided advice from her supernatural acquaintances. It’s a success in the end. In volume six, Nanami is called upon to compete against another human girl for a spot at a prestigious kami conference.

In these two volumes, mangaka Julietta Suzuki nicely balances the expansion of the supernatural world (including the introduction of several new characters) and Nanami’s abilities with further development in her relationship with Tomoe. It seems to me that Tomoe is finding himself somewhat in awe of his kami these days—particularly when purification powers on par with his first master’s manifest themselves—and also more prone to emotions like fondness and jealousy. One of the best things about their relationship is how he is able to encourage and reassure her before the festival without being condescending about it. “I acknowledged you as my master,” he says. “Don’t be afraid. Prove yourself to everyone… like you did to me.”

I think the main appeal for me is that Kamisama Kiss is shaping up to be the story of Nanami’s growth. She may be in love with Tomoe, but winning his affections is not her sole ambition, or even her focus. Instead, she wants to develop as a kami and become someone that her parishioners can depend upon and respect. Because progress has come slowly, watching her actually achieve some truly remarkable things in these volumes actually leaves me a little verklempt. This has become less a story about a human girl thrust into the wacky world of yokai and more about someone embracing their destiny and striving to reach their full potential. I eagerly look forward to the next volume.

Oresama Teacher, Vols. 5-6
I was worried there for a minute. It seemed to me that volume five was showing signs of Tsubaki-sensei running out of ideas, what with a chapter about Takaomi and Mafuyu helping a wealthy girl find love with her self-denying servant, a chapter about the school’s bancho being stalked by a flower fairy, and a chapter about the Student Council’s resident ninja gathering intel on the Public Morals Club.

Although it’s not the neatest bow—I still don’t fully grasp why the Student Council is so opposed to Takaomi’s plans to attract more non-delinquent students to Midorigaoka, but at least I have an inkling now—Tsubaki does manage to tie things together by the end of volume six. Okay, not the flower fairy bit, but the significance of Takaomi going out of his way to help Marika (the rich girl) ties in with the backstory of why he’s become a teacher and why he’s made a bet with the school’s director. It brings new depth to his character and even relates to some things he said back in volume one.

I also really enjoyed the chapter in which the members of the Public Morals Club—now including Shinobu the ninja, who has decided to obtain information on his enemies from within their midst—explore the school, finding oodles of empty classrooms and realizing that it was once a thriving place with high-caliber students. Also significant is that, when Mafuyu is frustrated by Takaomi refusal to reveal his true motivations, she complains that all she’d wanted was to be a regular high school girl, but then got forcibly recruited to his agenda. Hayasaka overhears and, thinking he has kept Mafuyu from the life she’d wished for, avoids her. Mafuyu attempts to hang out with some girls, but in the end realizes she prefers being with Hayasaka. It’s really sweet.

This description might make it sound as if the series has suddenly gone in a plot-heavy direction, but that’s not really the case. There’s definitely something happening, but there are still plenty of amusing moments. My favorite is when Hayasaka and Super Bun are reunited and we get a panel of her carrying him in her arms while he thinks, “You’re so dreamy!”

Skip Beat!, Vols. 25-26
It’s a rare series that still genuinely delights me this far into its run, but Skip Beat! consistently manages to do so. I think the key here is that Nakamura has developed a cast of characters whose personality quirks enable her to take the plot in unexpected directions.

For example, volume 25 is all about the aftermath of Valentine’s Day. Sho has learned that Kyoko gave chocolates to Reino, and so shows up on the set of Dark Moon with an ostentatious bouquet in hand. He’s not out to win Kyoko’s love—so her explanation of the true nature of the chocolates (hatred) makes no difference—he just wants all her thoughts to be focused on him once more, and he temporarily ensures this by stealing her first kiss. Kyoko freaks out, according to plan, and is briefly talked down by Ren, but when she gives Ren his own special valentine, he can’t resist driving thoughts of Sho out of her head by administering a smooch of his own. This one’s on the cheek and he plays it off as a foreigner’s expression of gratitude, but it definitely leaves a trace in her heart.

Backing away from all of this progress, Nakamura eases us into the next arc by having Kyoko and Kanae return to the Love-Me Section, where they are joined by new member Chiori Amamiya, a former child actress whom Kyoko recently inspired to regain her love for acting. Each girl receives a personalized assignment from Lory, and Kyoko’s involves picking up Cain Heel, a dangerous-looking guy who is the president’s guest. Turns out, this is Ren going undercover and Kyoko’s new assignment is to stay by his side as his doting and scantily clad goth sister, Setsuka. And they have to live together in a hotel room. Ordinarily, a twist like this would be completely out of left field, but because this is Lory and because this is Skip Beat! I can just roll with it and eagerly anticipate the complications that will ensue.

If you’ve never read Skip Beat! before, now is a great time to start, as an omnibus edition of the first three volumes has recently been released!

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: A Trio of Kodansha Shoujo

I’m catching up on three of Kodansha’s currently running shoujo series, so I thought I’d group them all together here for a Tidbits post! First up are volumes four and five of Natsumi Ando’s suspenseful Arisa, followed by the second and final volume of Naoko Takeuchi’s Codename: Sailor V, with the second volume of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon bringing up the rear. Tidbit power, make up!

Arisa, Vols. 4-5 by Natsume Ando
Tsubasa Uehara continues to attend school in the guise of her sister, Arisa, as she endeavors to find the identity of the King who is fulfilling wishes from chosen students in dangerous ways. Her spirits flag when it seems she’s been unsuccessful in protecting the latest target, but when it turns out her efforts actually prevented the girl from sustaining permanent injury, her spirits rise. Alas, a friend’s betrayal is followed by an explanation of divided loyalties and the introduction of a pivotal new character with kind feelings towards Tsubasa but a burning hatred for Arisa.

So, there are several characters at this point who could be the King, but the strongest possibility seems to be Kudo, a transfer student who I had forgotten about entirely after reading volume three, so that tells you how memorable of a guy he is. Manabe doesn’t seem like the culprit, and neither does Arisa’s boyfriend, Midori, but it’s not out of the question. Mostly we see the King as a shadowy figure, grinning in a dastardly fashion as he does things like arrange for Tsubasa to fall off a cliff. (Side note: any time the female lead of a shoujo manga goes out into the woods at night, she is going to fall off a cliff. It’s, like, the law.) New character Shizuka seems like a potential candidate, until it’s revealed that the King is manipulating her into making wishes that will harm Arisa/Tsubasa.

All of this makes for a fast-paced and suspenseful read, but it does cause me to wonder whether Ando’s just making up all of this as she goes along. Does she really have a plan for who the King is, or is she keeping readers suspicious of everyone until inspired to take the story in a specific direction? I’m not exactly complaining—because, again, it is a fun read—but the lack of any kind of permanent gain is a little bit frustrating. I just hope there’s a satisfying and dramatic payoff in the end!

Codename: Sailor V, Vol. 2 by Naoko Takeuchi
It’s rather hard to like Minako for the majority of this volume, as several of the stories play up her shallow side. First she gets fat by eating too much evil chocolate, then she must contend with a trio of animal-themed siblings who unleash energy-sucking cats, dogs, and mosquitoes upon the populace. Minako slacks off frequently and makes various unkind comments to her long-suffering feline companion, Artemis. She also meets the latest idol sensation, handsome and mysterious Phantom Ace, and becomes one of his biggest fans.

There’s not really a whole lot to recommend these chapters except more of Sailor V’s amusing speeches, like this one, which occurs as she’s foiling the enemy’s scheme to collect energy via blood donation:

You have used clever words to abscond with a precious tribute of blood from weakened hospital patients! That is your crime!

And to add to it, you have sullied a woman’s simple joy of collecting stamps!

Worse, you forgot to give me my reward for donating blood to the tune of 800cc! And that crime is grave!

Luckily, though the premise of the final two chapters is just as silly as what’s come before—Minako is ordered to win the part of Ace’s leading lady in his latest project, filming in China, so that she can observe his potentially evil production company—it doesn’t preclude genuine dramatic impact. Though Minako entertains fantasies of marrying Ace and retiring, when he professes his to love her, she realizes that it’s not what she wants. She loves being Sailor V and, furthermore, remembers making a promise to protect an important person. Eventually, her memories fully awaken and her Sailor V costume is replaced by one matching the design of the other senshi. It’s kind of goosebump-inducing.

Though I’ve read this series before (with translations), I had completely forgotten that Ace had any connection at all to Minako’s past life, so was pleasantly surprised by that revelation as well as by this awesomely grim quote:

Your love will never be granted, for all eternity… Your love or your duty… now you can live the rest of your life never having to worry about the tortures of deciding between them. Your fate is to battle on. Because your true battle starts now.

How could I have forgotten that?! Minako is a girl who is always falling (if superficially) in love, so she can’t welcome this news, but neither does she shirk from her destiny. Ever irrepressible, she ends the series on an upbeat note, poised to show (if I recall rightly) greater maturity and determination when she joins the others in the main series.

Ultimately, Codename: Sailor V is worthwhile despite its flaws. We never learn what the enemy was hoping to achieve, nor the identity of “Boss” (though the second volume of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon provides some insight on the matter), but we do meet a special, spunky girl as she comes to accept her unique destiny, and that can never be a bad thing.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Vol. 2 by Naoko Takeuchi
A lot happens in this volume, which I shall attempt to quickly summarize. When facing off against Zoisite, the girls are rescued by the timely arrival of Sailor Venus. Minako is now in her second year of middle school and comes across as very mature, competent, and serious about her duty. She’s been monitoring Usagi through the Sailor V game and has also been researching the enemy. She provides all sorts of information about the Dark Kingdom and also claims (well, Artemis claims) that she is Princess Serenity. Her proximity triggers some past-life memories in the others, as well.

However, Usagi starts having dreams that suggest that she was actually Serenity, and when Mamoru is injured protecting her from one of Kunzite’s attacks, one of her tears transforms into the Legendary Silver Crystal and her true identity is revealed. (The bit with Venus was evidently a ruse to direct enemy attacks onto a more experienced Guardian.) Mamoru is subsequently kidnapped by the Dark Kingdom and eventually used as Queen Beryl’s pawn, securing the crystal for her by volume’s end.

So, all of this is very dramatic and shoujo-tastic while it occurs and I honestly loved every minute of it. There are a couple of things that I found especially interesting, though. The first is how much information we get on the enemy compared to the dearth of intel provided in Codename: Sailor V. We see, for example, a flashback to the moment in which Beryl was “irresistibly drawn to” the North Pole, where she discovered the remains of the Dark Kingdom. This made me wonder… was Beryl reborn on Earth as a regular human, just like the Guardians? And did she waken to her past memories as the seal imprisoning Metalia faded?

We also learn a bit about the Four Kings of Heaven, who were generals to Endymion (Mamoru’s past identity) that were swayed into becoming Metalia’s devotees. I’m not exactly sure about this, but it seems as if their bodies had been converted into crystals and recently awakened into human form at Metalia’s whim, and that they can be revived as many times as necessary. Somehow this is sadder and more sympathetic than if they had just been some regular guys suddenly remembering their previous lives.

The second thing that struck me was how much certain elements of the story remind me of Please Save My Earth. Usagi and friends living on the moon in their past lives is the most obvious resemblance, but there’s also the fact that Usagi is troubled by questions of identity brought on by these recollections (“Am I becoming the princess? It’s like I’ve stopped being me…”) and that the residents of the Moon Kingdom were tasked with fondly watching over Earth and helping it to evolve in the best manner possible. They actually travel to the moon to listen to a computerized incarnation of Queen Serenity tell them about the tragic events of the past and how Metalia must be sealed away for good. (She was also responsible for waking Artemis and Luna from the stasis they entered after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom, which makes me suspect that she is “Boss.”)

I could probably go on for another five hundred words, which just goes to show how engaging this story is. It wouldn’t be a Kodansha review if I didn’t complain about the typos—seeing the word “it’s” used instead of “its” is even more painful when it’s part of genius Ami’s dialogue—but even their irksome presence does not detract from the enjoyment I derive from reading this series.

Tidbits: Shonen Jumpin’ Jehosaphat

Sometimes I just crave some shounen manga! Here, then, are a few short reviews of some shounen I have lately read: the third volume of Bakuman。, the 31st through 34th of Bleach, the second of Genkaku Picasso, and the thirteenth through fifteenth of Slam Dunk. All are fairly recent releases and all published under VIZ’s Shonen Jump imprint; Bakuman。 and Genkaku Picasso also have new volumes due out in May.

Bakuman。3 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
This was my favorite volume of Bakuman。 so far!

It begins with Mashiro and Takagi struggling to create a mainstream battle manga, over the objections of their editor, because they believe this is the ticket to popularity in Shonen Jump. They improve a lot between attempts, but in the end, Takagi requests some time alone over summer break to think of a new story, leaving Mashiro free to work as an assistant for Eiji Nizuma, their rival.

Melinda Beasi adores Eiji, and when he first appeared in this volume I was wondering how that could be, since he comes across as bratty and weird. Once you get to know him, though, it turns out he’s actually kind of endearing. He simply says what he thinks, and is incapable of being malicious or devious. After watching him happily and genuinely soak up feedback from his assistants—apparently his editor at Jump is too in awe of his genius to offer any useful guidance—I kind of love him, too!

To top it off, we see some growth from the female characters. Miho makes some progress in her dream of becoming a voice actress, although right now she seems to be succeeding mostly on account of her good looks. Miyoshi comes up with the goal of being a novelist, though her primary function in this volume is to captivate Takagi with her general awesomeness and make Mashiro doubt that his partner is working on the promised story at all.

In the end, the future of the partnership appears to be in jeopardy, even though both guys have independently hit upon the idea of a detective manga as the way to go. I’ve always found this series interesting for its inside glimpse into the publication process, but now I’m starting to find it interesting for the characters, as well. I eagerly await volume four!

Bleach 31-34 by Tite Kubo
You might not think that battles against creepy supernatural foes with bizarre powers could be boring, but it turns out that Bleach somehow manages it.

Volumes 31 through 33 are chiefly comprised of fights against weird-looking dudes during which nearby structures often go “boom” and crumble. It’s pretty much impossible to tell what’s going on, so I just sort of coast along until there’s a panel that shows someone actually being hurt by something. There are but two bright spots in these volumes. One is the predictable but still gratifying revelation that Nel, the toddler who’s been accompanying Ichigo in his journey across Hueco Mundo, is actually a badass (and buxom) former Espada. The second is an honestly riveting scene in which a hollowfied Ichigo appears before Orihime for the first time and terrifies her.

Things improve a bit in volume 34 with the timely arrival of some Soul Reaper captains. Okay, yes, their explanation for their arrival is pretty flimsy, but I will accept any excuse if it means Byakuya will be around. This also leads to a crazy battle of one-upsmanship between one of the stranger Soul Reapers, Kurotsuchi, and his Arrancar opponent. It goes something like this:

Arrancar: Fear my leet skills! I will turn your innards into dust!

Kurotsuchi: Oh, actually, I infected [Uryuu] with surveillance bacteria the last time we were fighting, so I’ve been watching your battle and, aware of your abilities, have replaced all my insides with fakes. Too bad. Now my gloopy pet will eat you.

Arrancar: Lo, I have been et. But before that happened I implanted [Nemu] with my egg, which will hatch and grow a new me! Plus, there are bits of me still in your pet, which will allow me to use it to attack you.

Gloopy pet: *splat*

Kurotsuchi: Oh, but before you did that I programmed my pet to self-destruct if anyone ever tried to use it against me. Also, I filled Nemu’s body full of drugs for the same reason, so now you’re going to see everything in extreme slow mo while I kill you.

Arrancar: Crap.

Honestly, it’s so outrageous one kind of can’t help admiring it!

Genkaku Picasso 2 by Usamaru Furuya
I really wish I could like Genkaku Picasso more. Mostly this is because Usamaru Furuya’s art is really impressive—true, in their normal states the characters don’t look all that exciting (and the lip-glossy sheen on the boys’ lips is somewhat distracting) but the illustrations created by artistic protagonist Hikari Hamura are detailed and gorgeous, and I like that Furuya continues drawing in that style when Hikari and his ghostly advisor, former classmate Chiaki, enter into the drawings in order to help solve the problems plaguing their classmates.

The problem is that I just don’t like any of the characters! Hikari is creepy, anti-social, and perverted, and is always reluctant to help out his classmates, putting Chiaki in the role of always being the one who reminds him that he has to help them, otherwise he’s going to rot away. (He cheated death in volume one and this is the manner in which he must pay for that.) I could possibly like Chiaki if she were given something to do besides pester Hikari all the time, but that’s not the case.

The manner in which the classmates are helped by Hikari and Chiaki is also odd. The pair enters a drawing based on the “heart” of said classmate and attempts to figure out what is worrying them. One boy has created a fictional girlfriend, for example, while another girl sees herself as a mecha rather than an actual girl. While inside the drawing, Hikari and Chiaki attempt to reason with the classmate, while in the real world, the classmate answers them aloud, making them look totally freaking crazy to the people who happen to be around. If I was hanging out with my friend and he began to break up with his imaginary girlfriend right in front of me, I think I would be quite alarmed.

That said, there is one bright spot in this volume—the tale of Yosuke, a girl born in a body of the wrong gender. Perhaps it’s a little too optimistic, but I liked it anyway, especially the fact that the “heart” of the transgender kid is the calmest and healthiest place we’ve seen yet.

If Genkaku Picasso were any longer, I might not continue it, but since there’s only one volume left, I shall persevere.

Slam Dunk 13-15 by Takehiko Inoue
Ordinarily, if a series took two-and-a-half volumes to cover less than an hour of action, I might be annoyed. Not so with Slam Dunk, which takes that long to finish Shohoku High’s exciting prefectural tournament match against Kainan, a team that has made it to Nationals every year in recent memory.

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when one reads Slam Dunk. Hanamichi Sakuragi, the hot-headed protagonist, has matured somewhat since the beginning of the series, though he’s still inclined to proclaim himself a genius at every opportunity. Hence, it’s pretty satisfying to see him humbled, and to watch him realize that he hasn’t yet got the skills to carry the team or hog the spotlight. And yet, there comes a point where the humbling has been sufficient, and one wants to see him triumph.

When Captain Akagi sprains his ankle during the game, Sakuragi, realizing how immensely important this game is to Akagi, does his best to fill the captain’s shoes. How can you not root for someone trying so hard to make someone else‘s dream come true? Yes, it’s the talented Rukawa who is single-handedly responsible for tying up the game by halftime, but Sakuragi is just trying so damned hard that his bluster actually becomes a source of strength for his teammates. When he finally makes an impressive slam dunk in front of a cheering crowd, I convince that I got a little sniffly.

Shohoku ends up losing the game, though this doesn’t put them out of the running for Nationals just yet. The disappointing experience makes Sakuragi more serious than ever before and he returns to school with a shaved head (as penance for an unfortunate mistake during the final seconds of the game) and a fierce desire to improve.

Why do I love sports manga so much? I’m honestly not sure I can articulate it, but with Slam Dunk part of it is the fact that the hero, who previously had no goals in life, has found a place to belong and something to care about. That kind of story pushes my personal buttons in a big way.

Review copies for Bakuman。, Genkaku Picasso, and volume fourteen of Slam Dunk provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: A TOKYOPOP Assortment

TOKYOPOP released a slew of books towards the end of 2010 and quite a few among them are from series I’m either reading or buying and hoarding (as is my wont). In a desperate effort to stay current, I’m tackling some of them in Tidbits format! Alice in the Country of Hearts is up first, with my take on volumes four and five, followed by volumes four through six of Happy Cafe, volume seven of Maid Sama!, volume three of Neko Ramen, and volume eight of Silver Diamond. Happy reading!

Alice in the Country of Hearts 4-5 by QuinRose and Soumei Hoshino: B
Reading Alice in the Country of Hearts is a lot like having a lollipop for a snack. It’s pleasant while you’re consuming it, but doesn’t provide any actual sustenance.

While things do happen to Alice in these two volumes, nothing appears to have lasting consequence. For instance, Julius the clock maker encourages Alice to move elsewhere—to a place where she won’t feel obliged to earn her keep—but Alice doesn’t want to leave! She explains this to Julius and, okay, she can stay.

Then Ace, the resident sociopath, decides that since proximity to Alice and her newfangled morals (she spends a fair amount of time convincing the people of Wonderland that their lives have value) hasn’t changed him like it has changed others, he ought to kill her. So he shows up at the clock tower with that intent, but Alice talks to him earnestly and he changes his mind. The same basic thing happens when she confronts the Hatter, Blood, for saying nasty things about her.

I still like Alice a lot, though, and was happy to see that the magical vial she was given at the start of the series finally makes another appearance. The gist of the game was that she had to fill this vial through interaction with others, and now it’s nearly full. The sixth and final volume in this series only recently came out in Japan, which means we’ve got quite a wait, but I’m interested to see whether it will manage to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Happy Cafe 4-6 by Kou Matsuzuki: B-
Happy Cafe—the story of a child-like high school student named Uru Takamura who works at a café with a pair of bishounen, surly Shindo and narcoleptic Ichiro—can sometimes be pretty boring. The episodic chapters frequently feature uninspiring plots (Uru plans a party for her bosses!) and stock shoujo situations (Uru’s class is doing a café for the school festival!). I’ve also lost count of how many guys seem to fancy Uru.

And yet, the series can also be quite charming. For every chapter where the plot is “our heroine tames a bratty kid,” there’s a good one that offers insight into the characters, like the story of why Shindo kept his surname (and kept his distance) when the proprietor of Café Bonheur took him in as a child or a glimpse at Ichiro when he was a suffocating model student just finding, through his job at the café, the means to bring happiness to others. The overall tone is light and warm, and though sometimes the humor fails to amuse—Uru is a bit too spazzy for my tastes—it’s also occasionally genuinely funny.

In short, Happy Cafe is like the manga equivalent of a sitcom: the setting and the characters don’t change very much, and sometimes the situations in which they find themselves are pretty silly, but it’s still enjoyable to spend short spans of time in their company.

Maid Sama! 7 by Hiro Fujiwara: B
No one could ever accuse Maid Sama! of being a great manga, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it anyway. In execution, it reminds me most of Ouran High School Host Club, in that each volume is predominantly made up of episodic hijinks but yet manages to include at least one genuinely romantic scene between its two leads. The subsequent squee causes readers to conveniently forget about anything less-than-stellar that might have come before.

I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I suffered through a rather dull chapter about Misaki’s incognito participation in a sweets-eating contest and a bonus chapter about Aoi, the insufferable cross-dressing nephew of Maid Latte’s manager, but all is forgiven because Misaki actually tells Usui that she likes him, in her own Misaki kind of way!

The fact that this takes place at a school festival, and that they smooch to the accompaniment of fireworks, is pretty clichéd. Perhaps I’m remiss for not skewering the series for its flaws, but it’s got me in its clutches now. I just don’t want to dwell on what it does wrong when the relationship between Misaki and Usui is so satisfying when they’re actually open about their feelings. Oh, I’m sure they’ll go back to bickering soon enough, but this moment of honesty will probably sustain me for a while.

I have a hard time recommending Maid Sama! because it really is merely adequate sometimes, but if one goes into it forewarned, I think one could be surprised by how enjoyable cliché can be.

Neko Ramen 3 by Kenji Sonishi: B+
Neko Ramen had me worried for a moment there. Its truly funny first volume easily cemented it as the best 4-koma manga I’ve ever read, but the second disappointed me with its dogged (har har) insistence on gags related to the wacky gimmicks feline proprietor, Taisho, comes up with to promote his ramen shop. I missed the cat-related humor.

That’s not to say that wacky gimmicks are wholly absent from this third volume—indeed, there are many, including the introduction of a hot towel service, complete with a sensitive “hot towel artist,” and “boomeramen,” where ramen is served to patrons on frisbees—but the humor feels more well-rounded. The cat humor is back (hooray!), and I giggled when a kitty is given responsibility over the hot towel service and when a group of kitties, caught up in World Cup frenzy, attempts to play soccer.

The cast is expanded, as well. Shige-chan, the thieving part-timer, is back and Sonishi-sensei manages to make me like him by virtue of a short feature in which he’s unable to resist sharing his lunch with various hungry animals. There’s also Tetsuo, a truck driver with an enthusiastic fondness for card games (the rules of which he hasn’t bothered to learn), and a pair of new characters—female otaku Watanabe and bishounen eating champion, Akkun. They bring with them all kinds of new opportunities for silliness.

All in all, this is a big improvement over the second volume and restores my faith in the series.

Silver Diamond 8 by Shiho Sugiura: B+
Although Rakan and friends set out for the imperial capital in the previous volume, they hardly make any progress toward that goal in this one. Instead, they come across a pair of giant, underground-dwelling snakes who have become cognizant of the fact that the land is dying and that they, too, will soon perish.

In true Silver Diamond fashion, however, these snakes are neither monstrous nor malevolent. Instead, they’re afraid of death and confused about what’s happening to them and about what they even were in the first place. The first snake swallows Rakan and friends and conveys them a short distance before dying and turning into a river. When the group later encounters a second snake who is freaking out about what his fate will be, Rakan is able to calm him by giving an answer. It’s all very sweet, far more sweet than one would think a volume devoted to the fates of giant snakes would ever be.

Along the way, Rakan wins the respect of still more villagers and does a lot of planting with the seeds he’s acquired so far. Additionally, the serpentine encounters remind Narushige of when, as a child, his cold-hearted mother once tried to sacrifice him to a similar creature. This actually reminds me a lot of Yuki Sohma in Fruits Basket, whose mother basically surrendered him for the advancement of her family. Like Yuki, Narushige is a reserved character who here resolves to try to forget his cruel mother and change through proximity to his new group of friends. No wonder he’s emerging as my favorite character.

Again, I admit that the pace of this series is leisurely, but it’s lovely and compelling all the same. I recommend it highly.

Review copies for the fourth volumes of Alice in the Country of Hearts and Happy Cafe provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Catching Up with Shojo Beat

New and recent Shojo Beat releases are piling up, which means it’s time for another Tidbits column! In this installment, you’ll find reviews of three newer series—volume three of Dengeki Daisy, plus volumes five and six of Honey Hunt and Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You—while two old favorites, Ouran High School Host Club and Skip Beat!, bring up the rear!

Dengeki Daisy 3 by Kyousuke Motomi: B
In one of her author’s notes, Kyousuke Motomi writes that Dengeki Daisy was originally intended to be only three chapters long. This was pretty obvious in the second volume, where the sudden introduction of a lot of plot felt pretty awkward, but things have evened out by this third volume.

Though the threat that someone is after the software that Teru Kurebayashi’s brother, Soichiro, was working on before his death persists, the focus here is mostly on Teru’s relationship with Tasuku Kurosaki, the surly custodian at her school who secretly doubles as DAISY, the anonymous contact Soichiro recommended Teru seek out in times of trouble.

Teru’s been living at Kurosaki’s place after her own was burglarized, but feels as if she’s imposing. She’s unable to tell whether he cares that she’s moving out, and he’s unable (or unwilling) to admit that he’ll miss her, so she goes through with the move, only to realize her new roommate has rented the place next door. I would find this terribly cheesy in any other series, but somehow I’m okay with it here.

Similarly, a couple who obviously has feelings for one another and yet stubbornly refuses to confess would normally annoy me, but there’s something about these two that I find sympathetic. Kurosaki’s been giving Teru mixed signals, so she can’t tell exactly what she means to him. Kurosaki has the advantage of knowing Teru’s feelings—she’s confided in DAISY—but feels unworthy because of something he did in his past that he’s unsure he’ll be forgiven for. Their relationship progresses at just the right speed, and though I might wish they’d spend less time saying mean things to one another they don’t mean, it’s nice getting both characters’ perspective on their strong feelings, rather than solely the female’s point of view.

I was a little unsure about Dengeki Daisy after the disappointing second volume, but this one has assured me that it’s a keeper.

Honey Hunt 5-6 by Miki Aihara: B-
When Honey Hunt is at its dramatastic best, it can be a fun read, but sometimes it’s so immensely frustrating I contemplate hurling it across the room.

Yura Onozuka is the daughter of celebrity parents, and after they divorce in spectacular fashion, she vows to best her mother in show business. Even though her success as an actress comes quite easily, this is still the most interesting aspect of the story, since she seems to have found something she truly enjoys and is surprisingly good at. Unfortunately, lately Yura has begun to lose focus on her career goals, instead spending most of her time mooning over her pop-star boyfriend, Q-ta.

Probably I am supposed to find the efforts of Yura’s manager, Keiichi, to break up the lovebirds sneaky and wrong, but I honestly applaud him. I find Q-ta creepy—he says things like “I wish she’d give up acting so she could be all mine”—and want to shake Yura violently by the shoulders every time she ignores someone telling her she should forget about him and concentrate on her work. As much as Q-ta wants her to give up everything to be with him, the minute he gets the chance to work with his idol, he bails on a special date without a moment’s hesitation. His career is important but hers isn’t.

What makes it worse is that when Q-ta asks Yura to accompany him to New York—even though things are starting to go quite well for her professionally—she drops everything and goes! She says at one point that she’ll at least fulfill her current obligations and graduate high school, but we never see her actually do these things. To her, it’s more important to be needed by some dude than to do something for herself. Ugh.

Honey Hunt went on hiatus after these chapters, so at present, the story remains in limbo. As much as it gets on my nerves, if the series should ever relaunch (as Aihara claims it will), I will undoubtedly continue reading in the hopes that Yura gets a clue at last.

Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You 5-6 by Karuho Shiina: A-
Unintentionally scary-looking Sawako Kuronuma began to come out of her shell when befriended by her well-liked classmate, Shota Kazehaya, and she has recently come to realize that what she feels for him is not only admiration but love. This discovery is spurred in part by the machinations of Kurumi, another girl who loves Kazehaya.

I love how mangaka Karuho Shiina deals with Kurumi, because the girls actually end up bonding over their feelings for Kazehaya. They both like the same qualities in him—his ability to see the best in people, his honesty—and come to understand each other through their shared appreciation of the same person. If not for their rivalry, they might even have become friends, but, as Sawako wonders, would they have understood each other so well without it?

Never entirely setting aside progress between Sawako and Kazehaya, the romantic woes of Sawako’s friend, Chizu, soon take center stage. It’s pretty common for a shoujo manga to focus on the heroine’s pals once the main couple has reached a kind of stasis, but here it feels organic and not like filler (I’m talking to you, Love*Com). Sawako, having awoken to the possibilities of romance, wants for her friends to be happy, too. She believes the guy for Chizu is Ryu, a childhood friend who adores her, but Chizu’s heart belongs to Toru, Ryu’s older, newly engaged brother.

Chizu is a really fabulous character—she experiences any and all emotions with gusto, and somehow appears tough and girly simultaneously—and easily carries the story about her unrequited love. Like Sawako, I think Ryu’s the guy for her, and I would totally read a spin-off manga about the two of them. Chizu’s starring turn gives me hope for a similarly illuminating focus on Ayane, who seems to have no difficulty acquiring boyfriends but hasn’t yet managed to find love.

Ouran High School Host Club 15 by Bisco Hatori: B
The president of the Host Club, Tamaki Suoh, has been uncharacteristically serious lately, so the other members organize a Curry Creation Orienteering Tournament to cheer him up, with the secondary purpose of teaching a new student how to express her own opinions. Lesson learned, she promptly disappears, but not before Tamaki admits to her (and himself) that he’s in love with Haruhi and “probably [has] been for a long time.”

Later, Hunny and Mori, the two third-years in the club, announce that they’re about to graduate and that they’ll be pursuing different majors at Ouran’s affiliated university. The fact that mangaka Bisco Hatori has finally acknowledged the passage of time is a sign that the series is winding down, and I am amused by some of the characters’ baffled reactions. “For some reason I feel as though we’ve spent several long years together already,” muses Haruhi.

For the most part, this is all hijinks as usual, but Ouran can usually be counted upon for at least a few pages of genuine romantic progress between good-hearted but excitable Tamaki and pragmatic Haruhi. On a couple of occasions throughout in the volume, Haruhi tentatively reaches out to comfort Tamaki, who’s always spazzing about one thing or another, only to withdraw at the last moment. Finally, in a very sweet scene, she discovers him dozing in the club room and pats his hair while he sleeps. That might not seem like much, but for someone as undemonstrative as Haruhi, it’s truly a significant step! Moments like that are what keep me reading this series.

Skip Beat! 21-22 by Yoshiki Nakamura: B+
Skip Beat! is one of those series that doubles as a panacea for me; I highly recommend it for raising one’s spirits when one has been sidelined with a stomach bug.

Kyoko Mogami has achieved a small measure of success as an actress, most notably as Mio, a villainous role in a drama. She’s been tapped to essentially recreate that character for a new drama, but it just doesn’t feel right. These two volumes deal with Kyoko’s efforts to get into her new role, Natsu, and differentiate her from Mio. Meanwhile, the director is demanding, her co-stars are snooty, and one in particular seems bent on getting Kyoko fired.

The process of Kyoko learning to understand and then wholly inhabit a role always makes for a great read. For help, she turns to the more experienced Ren Tsuruga—a successful actor who loves Kyoko but keeps mum because of their age difference—and with only a little bit of scolding and advice ends up discovering the essential qualities that make Natsu tick.

I love how Nakamura draws Kyoko in character, too—she’s clearly identifiable as the same person, but her expressions and body language change completely. Maybe the awed reactions from the director and co-stars are a little much once she returns with her new take on the part, but I can’t be bothered to care. Skip Beat! is a story about a talented girl who works very hard to achieve her goals—who doesn’t want to see her succeed in spectacular fashion?

Review copies for Honey Hunt 6 and Skip Beat! 22 provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Four by Hinako Takanaga

This installment of Tidbits is devoted to the BL stories of Hinako Takanaga! Today I’m focusing on some shorter works, but look for Little Butterfly and Challengers in future columns. A trio of one-shots is up first—A Capable Man, CROQUIS, and Liberty Liberty!—followed by the second volume of You Will Drown in Love. That series is still ongoing in Japan, where the third volume was released in July of last year. All are published in English by BLU Manga.

A Capable Man: C-
Looks are mighty deceiving with this one. Because the cover is bright and cute I expected a sweet one-volume romance, but what I got instead was a collection of short stories featuring unappealing characters.

Things got off to a bad start when, barely a dozen pages into the first story, “I Like Exceptional Guys,” a teenager forces himself onto his childhood friend. It’s a very disturbing scene, complete with a gag for the victim. Ugh. Afterwards, the attacker (Koji) cries and apologies and aw, gee, it’s so hard to be mad at someone who’s assaulted you when they obviously love you so much! Even Koji thinks it’s weird to be forgiven so quickly.

Another problematic story is “Something to Hide,” about a teacher who’s having an affair with his student. The student is about to graduate and wants them to move in together but the teacher has reservations. Is it because he’d be betraying the trust of his student’s parents, which he has worked hard to cultivate? Nope. It’s because he’s embarrassed about his unruly hair.

The collection is rounded out by “How to Satisfy Your Fetish,” about a trainee chef with a voice fetish who gets off on provoking disgusted reactions from his instructor, and “Kleptomaniac,” about a guy who compulsively steals objects that have been used by his crush. The latter is rather dull, but the kinky former could have been fun if I wasn’t already weary of “semi-sickos,” as Takanaga herself describes these characters.

CROQUIS: B
When Nagi Sasahara—a young man who works in drag at a gay bar and is saving up for gender-reassignment surgery—seeks to augment his income by modeling for an art class, he senses something different in the gaze of a student named Shinji Kaji. Ever since the age of ten, Nagi has fallen only for guys, so he’s both accepted his sexuality and become accustomed to rejection. Kaji surprises him by returning his feelings and the two become a couple, though the fact that they make it four months into their relationship without sleeping together causes Nagi to doubt whether Kaji is really okay with the fact that Nagi is male. Frequently comedic and happily short-lived angst ensues.

There are things to like and to dislike about CROQUIS. First off, I love that Nagi has known he was gay since childhood and that the story makes at least a passing reference to the existence of homophobia. I also like that he and Kaji interact essentially as equals, even though Kaji is underdeveloped and Nagi has a tendency to be high-maintenance. Where the story falters, though, is in its depiction of Nagi’s reasons for wanting to undergo surgery. Does he wish to become a woman because he feels like he’s trapped in a body of the wrong gender? Nope. He just thinks that’s the only way he’ll be able to score a boyfriend.

This volume also contains a one-shot about a pair of childhood friends and their conflicting opinions on the value of wishing upon stars and a pair of stories called “On My First Love.” The latter two are actually better than the title story, in my opinion, and tell the bittersweet tale of former classmates who had feelings for each other in the past but never managed to act on them. Now both have moved on with their lives while secretly nursing painful yet precious memories. I’m a sucker for sad stories like these, so it was a treat to discover them after the pleasant but not oustanding title story.

Libery Liberty!: B+
“In a corner of Osaka, one young man lies atop a heap of trash.” That unfortunate fellow is drunken twenty-year-old Itaru Yaichi who, in the course of being discovered by a cameraman on stakeout, breaks an expensive piece of equipment belonging to a local cable TV station and finds himself heavily in debt. The cameraman, Kouki Kuwabara, agrees to let Itaru stay at his place until he can find a job. In the meantime, Itaru helps out at the station and eventually reveals what circumstances led to his present predicament.

At first, Liberty Liberty! seems like it will be cute but utterly insubstantial love story, but the narrative offers many more complexities than I initially expected. For one, before anything romantic transpires between Itaru and Kouki, they first must become friends and do so by talking about their professional goals and setbacks. Kouki was a film student when he learned that nerve damage was impairing the sight in his left eye. He thought he was through but when a friend offered him a job at the TV station, he rediscovered his passion. Similarly, Itaru had a story concept stolen (and improved upon) by an upperclassman, so a crisis of confidence made him go on a leave of absence from school.

Gradually, by working at the station and witnessing Kouki’s example, Itaru takes the first steps towards writing again. He wants to become a person he can be proud of. His feelings for Kouki develop after this point, and his accidental confession results in a pretty amusing scene:

Again, their relationship evolves slowly, largely because Kouki has been alone for such a long time (and nursing some unrequited feelings for his cross-dressing friend, Kurumi) that it takes him a while to accept the possibilities of new love. I love that both characters are vulnerable and hesitant, and that Takanaga took the time to develop the friendship between them first before bringing them to the verge of something more. And “to the verge” it is, because the story ends before the boys have done more than smooch. As a result, Liberty Liberty! perfectly deserves its Young Adult rating and would probably be a hit in a library’s manga collection.

You Will Drown in Love 2: B-
Reiichiro Shudo and Kazushi Jinnai—both employed at a fabric store, where the younger Reiichiro is the boss and Jinnai his subordinate—have been dating for a while but Jinnai is feeling uneasy. He’s unsure whether Reiichiro really loves him or is just being compliant. When Kijima from headquarters arrives to help the store get ready for a trade show, he begins to put the moves on the oblivious Reiichiro, which sends Jinnai into a tizzy.

Even though this is written just about as well as the introduction of an aggressively sexual new love rival can be, it’s still a pretty tired plot device. In Takanaga’s hands, Kijima isn’t as over-the-top as he might otherwise have been, but he’s still more of a catalyst than a character in his own right. Scenes in which Jinnai freaks out become a bit repetitive, but once the twist comes—it’s Jinnai that Kijima is really after—it actually allows for a pretty satisfying ending.

No, the twist is not very dramatically surprising, and no, having competition doesn’t compel Reiichiro to boldly confess his love—that would be quite out of character—but it does prompt him to object to Jinnai getting close to any other man, which Jinnai happily accepts as proof at last of Reiichiro’s affections.

This may have been a somewhat disappointing volume, but I still like these characters and this setting so I’ll be back for volume three, whenever it makes its way over here.

Review copies for CROQUIS and Liberty Liberty! provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Sports Manga for the Win!

Welcome to another installment of Tidbits! This time I turn my attention to sports manga, a genre for which I nurture an inexplicable adoration. First up is Crimson Hero, a shoujo tale that attempts to balance volleyball and romance, followed by six early volumes of Eyeshield 21 and four later ones from The Prince of Tennis, in which the Seishun Academy tennis team finally makes it to the semifinals of Nationals.

Crimson Hero 14 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B
I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate to classify Crimson Hero as sports manga. Ostensibly, it’s about Nobara Sumiyoshi and the rest of the girls on the volleyball team at Crimson High as they pursue their goal of winning the Spring Tournament. In reality, there are only a dozen pages of volleyball in this volume, and only half of those feature the girls.

When last we left off, Haibuki, one of the aces on the guys’ team, had run off because he learned that Nobara was secretly going out with his teammate, Yushin. Also, some other guy named Kaz was spreading rumors about Nobara that caused her to break up with Yushin. It was really a mess, which I ranted about in more detail here.

Thankfully, Takanashi almost immediately addresses all of the things I found so annoying! Kaz abruptly apologizes and disappears. It was totally random, but whatever; I’m glad he’s gone. Yushin and Nobara discover where Haibuki is and both implore him to return. When Yushin goes to great lengths to win Haibuki back from another school that’s been attempting to recruit him, Haibuki realizes that Yushin kept his relationship with Nobara a secret only because he thought it would be best for the team and finally stops being a petulant brat. Hooray!

Though I mock some of the emotional moments in this volume, the truth is that when done well, it’s honestly very entertaining. It’s not the most original story in the world—earnest but academically challenged girl is sought after by two boys with contrasting personalities—but I like it. I still wish they would just play some volleyball already, though.

Eyeshield 21 4-9 by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata: B
In addition to his fearsome talent for gathering information and blackmailing others to get his way, Hiruma, the demonic captain of the Deimon Devil Bats football team, also excels at motivation and promotion. It’s through his efforts that a crowd of Deimon students turns out to watch the Devil Bats defeat the Zokugaku Chameleons, which in turn leads to a record turnout at the next recruitment meeting.

A handful of new players joins the team, including the absolutely adorable Komusubi, who looks like a muppet and idolizes Kurita, and the Devil Bats proceed to a tie game against their next opponent, which earns them a spot in a televised face-off against a visiting American team. A summer training trip to America soon follows, with the all-important fall tournament season only a few weeks away.

At this point, Eyeshield 21 is following the sports manga formula pretty closely: the team gets better, important positions are filled, and everyone tries hard to get stronger as they face increasingly more formidable opponents. Just because it’s formulaic, though, doesn’t make it any less good. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to be derived from watching someone earnestly work hard to achieve their goals, and even if much of what happens in this series is completely over-the-top, it’s still a fun read.

My favorite aspect of the story, though, is how those with less inate talent are not forgotten. This is best exemplified by what’s going on with “The Hah?! Brothers.” These three thugs were originally blackmailed into playing by Hiruma, but have gradually become genuinely invested in the team’s goals. Jumonji, their leader, was particularly upset to see his friends’ contributions belittled in an article, and works hard to help them improve themselves. I’m not sure why, but I find the idea of a former delinquent finally finding something to care about and strive for really moving. A scene in which the crowd cheers them for the first time actually made me teary-eyed!

Now if only there were fewer poop jokes…

The Prince of Tennis 36-39 by Takeshi Konomi: C+
When one is a long-time fan of The Prince of Tennis, as I am, one becomes accustomed to and can forgive a lot of the ridiculousness that goes on in the series. For example, it’s a given now that characters will be introduced who are supposed to be in junior high, even though they look thirty, and who have at their disposal an arsenal of highly improbable shots with silly names like “Super Ultra Delicious Swinging Mountain Storm.” Sets will also almost always end at 7-6, after a grueling tie-break, and characters frequently are one point away from defeat when they suddenly “evolve” and rally valiantly. It’s repetitive, but hey, how much variation can one really expect?

For the National Tournament, mangaka Takeshi Konomi kicks things up a notch with the introduction of a technique so eyeroll-inducing that even I can’t refrain from snerking. It’s called “the selfless state,” and manifests as a glowing aura that spectactors can detect instantly. “There it is!!” cries the peanut gallery, “The selfess state!!” It enables the player to instinctively recreate any opponent’s move that he’s ever seen, which results in even more shouting from the sidelines as familiar shots are recognized by the crowd. Our hero Ryoma Echizen can do it, naturally, but he’s been doing so for ten volumes or so now so it’s time to tweak it still further.

Volumes 36 through 39 of the series focus on Seishun’s semifinal match-up against a school from Osaka called Shitenhoji. After Fuji loses the first singles match, Seishun retaliates with a doubles victory followed by a singles win via forfeit. If they win the next doubles match, they’re going to the finals. Enter Seishun’s captain, Kunimitsu Tezuka, who not only can achieve the selfless state, but a special variation thereof called “the pinnacle of mastery.” Not to be outdone, Shitenhoji puts up Senri Chitose, whose ability to access “the pinnacle of brilliance” makes him go all sparkly.

Stoic Tezuka is my favorite character, so I don’t begrudge him the opportunity to be a badass, particularly since he missed most of the Kanto Tournament due to injury, but there’s only so much ridiculousness I can take. I mean, there’s one two-page spread where these guys just stand there and glow at one another! Tezuka ultimately wins, of course. After a brief interlude provided by a yakiniku eating contest, the finals begin, but Ryoma is nowhere to be found and Tezuka seems poised to reinjure himself in pursuit of victory.

These volumes make me sigh heavily. And yet… for all my complaining, I will eagerly buy the last three volumes of the series and be bummed out if the sequel isn’t licensed soon.

Review copy for volume 39 of The Prince of Tennis provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Four from Yen Press

It’s time again for Tidbits, and the focus this time is on some recent and/or upcoming releases from Yen Press! First up is the second volume of Higurashi When They Cry: Beyond Midnight Arc, followed by the ninth and final volume of Moon Boy, the fourth installment of Time and Again, and the ninth volume of Yotsuba&!. Enjoy!

Higurashi When They Cry: Beyond Midnight Arc 2 by Ryukishi07 and Mimori: B-
I was so impressed by the spooky atmosphere in the first volume of the Beyond Midnight Arc that I went back and purchased the first two volumes of the Higurashi series, thinking that perhaps I had initially judged it unfairly. Unfortunately, while the second and concluding volume of the arc (volume ten in series numbering) doesn’t leave me questioning that decision, it is still not as good as the first.

The premise is that a group of five people has gathered in a “ghost village” called Hinamizawa. At the end of the first volume, someone’s cell phone mysteriously ends up broken, one of the five is found dead, and the name of another appears on a list of victims of the disaster that left Hinamizawa deserted in the first place. The first two mysteries are solved very early in the second volume, which seems rather abrupt, and then a bunch of yakuza arrive and completely derail the story for several chapters.

There’s also much unburdening of secrets, and character backstories full of debt, dissipation, and domestic violence monopolize a lot of pages. Perhaps I’m hard-hearted, but I found these tales—and the subsequent decisions to live life to the fullest and always try one’s hardest—pretty far from compelling. I’m here for the creepy, not the weepy!

In the end, the final mystery is resolved in a fairly satisfying manner and the survivors note that the pelting rain has finally ceased. While I nitpick the structure of this second volume, on the whole I did enjoy the arc—especially how the revelations sent me back to reread portions of the first volume in a new light—and still plan to go back to the beginning one of these days.

Moon Boy 9 by Lee YoungYou: C
It’s over!

As with all volumes of Moon Boy prior to this final one, it’s practically impossible to describe exactly what happens. Various people are after Yu-Da, the “Black Rabbit,” whose liver has the powers to free the fox queen, Hang-Ah, from thousands of years of torment. Various other people are determined not to let Yu-Da be sacrificed, and many battles ensue.

It had never really occurred to me before how much of the confusion I experience when reading this series is due to the art. LeeYoungYou’s work is fine for facial closeups, and many such panels—particularly when characters are emotionally distraught—are worthy of praise. Action scenes, though, prove an insurmountable challenge. At one point we get a two-page spread of a bunch of characters standing around when suddenly something goes “Kapow!” What was it? I have absolutely no idea. Then a fight breaks out, accompanied by innumerable speed lines and still more sound effects, but for the life of me I could not tell you what weapon (if any) anybody is wielding.

There are some good emotional moments sprinkled throughout. I am especially fond of an encounter between Jin-Soo, one of the foxes formerly assigned to guard Yu-Da, and the villain who now inhabits the body of the boy she loves. When told that said boy’s soul is long gone, she replies, “Then I will take back his body if his body is all I can have.” It’s too bad none of these characters was really developed over the course of the series, but it’s still a cool scene anyway.

It’s moments like those that kept me reading Moon Boy, despite its many problems, and while I am honestly relieved that it’s over I still think there’s a good story in there somewhere.

Time and Again 4 by JiUn Yun: A
The most compelling aspect of Time and Again is the bond between its main characters. Part of what connects Baek-On and Ho-Yeon—an exorcist and his bodyguard, respectively—is that each is attempting to atone for something in his past. After several volumes of hints, volume four is almost wholly devoted to revealing the tragic details of Ho-Yeon’s background. Rather than present the story in a linear fashion, however, manhwa-ga JiUn Yun introduces a client, a reputedly kind and honest man who is nonetheless capable of being motivated by greed, and uses his case to segue into Ho-Yeon’s flashback.

Before his execution for false charges, Ho-Yeon’s father tasked him with looking out for his mother and sister. Because of his father’s disgrace, however, Ho-Yeon is unable to get a government post and can only bring in a meager living through transcription work. Eventually, he rides out with a military unit, discovers a “cruel talent” for killing, and is offered a promotion. “I am not doing this because I want to make a fortune and have authority over other people,” he thinks. “I just want enough money to provide for my mother and little sister. Who could ever say that’s too much to ask?”

Alas, while his return home is delayed, his mother and sister are killed and Ho-Yeon feels that he, through his greed, was responsible. It’s a classic case of our tortured hero being too hard on himself—he had to find a way to support them somehow, but he knew it was wrong to use his ability to kill as a means to obtain wealth, and did it anyway. While he’s at his lowest point, he meets Baek-On, and so we finally see exactly how they meet.

It’s a sad, affecting tale and one that offers a lot of insight as to why Ho-Yeon is willing to fight to protect Baek-On, who has saved him in more ways than one. I must admit, though, that I’m even more interested in Baek-On’s backstory, and hope for evidence that Ho-Yeon has saved him, too.

Yotsuba&! 9 by Kiyohiko Azuma: A
A new volume of Yotsuba&! can always be counted on to provide a smile, and the ninth installment offers plenty as Yotsuba gets her first teddy bear, proves unable to successfully carry a cup of coffee next door, enjoys some yakiniku, and joins in on a group trip to see some hot air balloons. As usual, Yotsuba greets everything with enthusiasm and even weathers tumbles with a laugh.

One of the things I enjoy most about this series is catching a glimpse of the unique and creative way Yotsuba thinks. Here, she cleverly invents jobs for a bunch of scattered acorns and evaluates teddy bears for their “ease of hugging.” At the same time, Azuma is careful not to idealize her too much. She can be selfish, like any child her age, and has to be reminded to say “thank you” when given a gift as well as scolded for fibbing to her dad. She hasn’t yet realized that the world doesn’t revolve around her, as demonstrated by a particularly awesome moment during the trip to see the hot air balloons. A section of the field is roped off with “keep out” tape and Yotsuba, fully prepared to go right on in, is stunned to learn, “Even I can’t go in there?”

I also continue to absolutely, positively love Azuma’s skill in nonverbal storytelling. There are many panels in which Yotsuba’s thoughts or state of mind is completely clear from just the art. Additionally, backgrounds are wonderfully detailed and I especially liked the beautiful depiction of the expanding vista as the balloon in which Yotsuba and her companions are riding gradually ascends above the field.

In both craft and subject matter, Yotsuba&! simply excels.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Shonen Jumping for Joy

Welcome back to Tidbits, a new feature for shorter reviews! This time I take a look at three continuing series from VIZ’s Shonen Jump imprint. First up, it’s volumes 28-31 of One Piece, followed by volumes 9-12 of Slam Dunk and a single volume (the third) of the aesthetically pleasing Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee.

One Piece 28-31 by Eiichiro Oda: B+
Volumes 28-30 consist almost entirely of fighting, as the forces of the all-powerful “Kami” of Skypiea, Eneru, clash with the Shandians (fighting to regain their lost city), while the Straw Hat pirates (just lookin’ for some gold) are caught in the middle. Eneru, as it turns out, has staged the whole thing as a survival game, and figures that after three hours, only five of the original 81 combatants will survive. After this, we get periodic updates as to how many remain, a device I found strangely satisfying.

Although some of the battles are between characters we’ve never seen before, those encounters are usually brief. While Luffy spends the entirety of volume 29 stuck inside a giant serpent, many of the other Straw Hats get a chance to shine, especially Chopper and Robin, whose battles with Eneru’s minions show off the versatility of their respective powers. Nami, too, gets more experience using her new weapons and Conis, a resident of Skypiea, marshals her courage to defy the Kami and warn the people of his plans to destroy the island. There’s been some discussion lately about manga that passes the Bechdel Test, and these volumes exemplify why One Piece does so with flying colors.

Speaking of Robin, I am liking her more and more. This is the first time we’ve really seen her on her own and though it’s always been evident how intelligent and competent she is, it’s nice to see she’s also trustworthy and kind of a badass. She’s generally reserved but is passionate about archaeology, and through her we begin to get hints about a 100-year gap in the history of the world, something that could turn out to be huge. At one point she references “the unspoken history that the land below has ceased to talk about,” and later discovers that Shandora “fought against the enemy.” Thirty volumes in and we’re just starting something so big and potentially awesome? Oda, I think I love you.

After Eneru puts in motion his plan to destroy Skypiea, a mass exodus of its residents ensues. Volume 31 departs from the present panic to flesh out the history of the island and how it ties in with Mont Blanc Noland. This is actually the best part of the Skypiea arc so far and explains quite a few things while being a durn good story in and of itself. The arc doesn’t quite wrap up here, but now that I fully understand the significance of the golden bell in the city of Shandora, I care a lot more about the outcome than I have done in recent volumes!

Slam Dunk 9-12 by Takehiko Inoue: B+
It takes some willpower not to devour each new release of Slam Dunk, but it’s so immensely satisfying to read multiple volumes back-to-back that the wait is worth it!

Volume nine marks the start of the Kanagawa Prefectural Tournament, in which the Shohoku team is able to take part thanks to Hanamichi’s friends taking responsibility for the on-court brawl that occurred in the previous volume. Shohoku is underestimated at first, but the return of Miyagi and Mitsui to the team—both of whom are greeted with somewhat awed recognition from the crowd—makes them a force to be reckoned with. They progress steadily through the tournament, eventually ending up in the final four against Kainan, a school that has made it to Nationals sixteen years in a row.

Hanamichi is his usual annoying self to begin with, demanding that the ball be passed to him and proclaiming himself a genius at every opportunity. After fouling out in each of the first four games, and after recognizing the skills and strengths of his teammates, he finally realizes that he’s not such hot stuff after all. Despite occasional relapses, this marks a real turning point for Hanamichi, as he is able to accept tutelage more readily and function better as a part of the team. For example, though he originally harbored dreams of outscoring Rukawa, once he makes snagging rebounds his focus instead, he’s able to contribute a great deal to Shohoku’s success. His progress and maturation combined with a slightly more humble attitude go a long way toward making him more likable, and it’s quite touching when he gets his first rousing cheer from the crowd.

Structurally, Slam Dunk is very similar to The Prince of Tennis. Though I love the latter a lot, Slam Dunk is the more exciting read, a fact I’d chalk up to the nature of the sport. In tennis, our lead characters battle either singly or in pairs against their foes, while the rest are relegated to commentary until it’s their turn. Here, all the principle characters are on the court at the same time, which gives more immediacy to the way they’re able to motivate each other. True, the characters in Eyeshield 21 all play simultaneously, too, but because basketball moves at a faster pace than football, the effect here is exhilarating, bordering on addictive.

Unfortunately, there’s no more Slam Dunk due until December! Perhaps I’ll investigate whether Inoue’s more dramatic basketball manga, REAL, can help stave off the cravings.

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee 3 by Hiroyuki Asada: C+
Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee is the story of Lag Seeing, a twelve-year-old boy who has just become a Letter Bee (government mail carrier) in the perpetually dark country of Amberground, inspired by Gauche Suede, a Letter Bee he met five years ago. Lag had hoped to reunite with Gauche, but after learning that his hero disappeared six months after he last saw him, he meets with Gauche’s sister, Sylvette, and promises to find out what happened to her brother.

Gauche was by far the more interesting of the two characters featured in volume one, so it’s nice to get a few glimpses of him here. These tibits—and the bonus story about reuniting an aging dingo (animal companion) with the Letter Bee he faithfully served—are the best things about the volume. Lag is still not a very interesting protagonist and I’ve grown to pretty much hate his dingo, Niche. I’m sure she’s intended to be comic relief, but the story would be better served by cutting her unfunny antics and devoting that page space to clarifying the narrative, which is still going on and on about the importance of “heart.”

Back in January when I reviewed volume two, I said I’d give Tegami Bachi one more chance to win me over. As problematic as the series continues to be, after what we learn about Gauche’s disappearance and mysterious memory loss in this volume, I can’t imagine myself stopping without learning what happened to him. I don’t think this counts as “won over” so much as “minimally intrigued,” but either way, I’ll probably keep reading.

Review copies for volumes nine, eleven, and twelve of Slam Dunk provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Three from DMP

Welcome to the first installment of Tidbits, a periodic column featuring short reviews of multiple titles. In this post, I check out the latest volumes of three continuing series in the Digital Manga Publishing catalog. First up is volume two of Alice the 101st, followed by the third volume of the shoujo classic Itazura Na Kiss, and the second volume of Maiden Rose.

Alice the 101st 2 by Chigusa Kawai: B-
It’s contest time at Mondonveille Music Academy, and while the upperclassmen are getting ready to compete, the first years are working on their pieces for a special concert of their own. Aristide “Alice” Lang has the ability to play well when motivated, but his inability to read music prompts his professor to assign the rudimentary “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as his concert piece. Alice requires a lot of help from his friends and would-be rival, Max, but manages to execute a… unique performance on the big day.

While I continue to like the music school setting as well as some of the supporting characters—including Georges, the pianist introduced in this volume, who was actually the protagonist of Kawai’s La Esperança!—the main issue preventing me from really enjoying this series is Alice himself. He slacks off in both class and practice, mouths off and issues challenges to his classmates (evaded at the last minute courtesy of a development right out of the Wuthering Heights School of Plot Writing, which mandates that anyone who gets wet while outside instantly comes down with a fever), then gets panicky and petulant when his friends are too busy with their own lives to help him.

I have zero sympathy for this spazzy, self-absorbed kid and yet… He is showing a slight tendency to take things more seriously, and when he is able to display his strengths, which include perfect pitch and an incredible memory, I am genuinely happy for him, especially as he seems to be gradually earning the respect of some of his classmates. I can only assume there will be more of this to come and that the personality traits to which I currently object will eventually be replaced by discipline and maturity.

Itazura Na Kiss 3 by Kaoru Tada: A-
Because each English volume of Itazura Na Kiss is equal to two Japanese volumes, and because I am a slow reader, it took me a couple of hours to finish the latest installment in this shoujo classic. It’s so good, though, a comfort food soap opera of the best kind, that I probably could’ve happily gone on reading it for another ten!

Those who have read the first two volumes will find more of the same here: Kotoko pursues Naoki vigilantly, most of the time revealing how hopelessly inept she is (seriously, the chapter in which she manages to get a waitress job at the restaurant where Naoki works is positively painful) but occasionally demonstrating a quality that spurs Naoki to notice her in a new light.

Indeed, though it be subtle, there’s some definite progress in their relationship. Naoki’s words may still wound, but his attitude toward Kotoko has noticeably softened. Early on, he admits that he doesn’t mind living with her and later implies that if it wouldn’t fit in with his meddling mother’s plans so well, he might actually have been interested in taking advantage of a cozy moment between them. More importantly, having realized that he enjoys the struggle and challenge that Kotoko has introduced into his life, Naoki decides to give up his complacent existence in his parents’ house and have a go at supporting himself. It’s unlikely that he ever would’ve taken this step without her. The last few pages of the volume are also fabulous.

Though the comedy is sometimes cringe-inducing—I appreciated ardent Kotoko fan Kin-san at first, but his one-note nature is starting to annoy me—as are some of Kotoko’s attempts to get closer to Naoki, I can’t help sympathizing with her and being pulled into this story. I hope someone licenses the anime someday, because that might be one I would have to watch.

Maiden Rose 2 by Fusanosuke Inariya: B
Taki Reizen is a flower-scented military commander and Claus von Wolfstadt is his foreign lover, a huge man who has a tendency to be rough with Taki but nonetheless will endure major personal sacrifice to do his bidding, a trait that prompts Taki to dub him his knight. In this volume, a train originating from Eurote, ostensible allies of Taki’s country, is about to cross the border without permission. In defiance of headquarters, Taki rallies his troops to prevent the crossing and sends Claus and another soldier into a “no man’s land” that is rumored to contaminate all who enter.

For a boys’ love series, Maiden Rose has a terrific amount of plot. In fact, the sole explicit scene in the volume is markedly brief and the focus instead is on Claus’s willingness to undertake a dangerous mission because it’s important to Taki, Taki’s concern for Claus, and in showing how strong each of these men are. I particularly like that Taki, although he is often on the receiving end of Claus’s unrestrained advances, is still a very competent leader and capable of merciless action when need be. The relationship between the two leads is complicated and conflicting—Claus seems to regard Taki with a certain degree of reverance, but this doesn’t quell his violent sexual desires. Taki, for his part, seems to wish that Claus would be more tender, but always ends up yielding to him anyway.

Unfortunately, although I certainly praise the series for its ambitions and individuality, there are still many holes in the plot. For example, I’m still not sure what Taki’s country is even called. This volume also contains a lot of cryptic hinting about Taki’s floral aroma and how it relates to some unfulfilled promise, which is terribly vague. With no new volumes printed in Japan since 2007, and with the “End” graphic appearing at the conclusion of this volume, one would be forgiven for assuming the series ends here without ever explaining these references, but it appears that half a dozen or so chapters beyond those included here have appeared in (the Japanese BL magazine) Comic Aqua but not been collected into a third volume. Hopefully one day we’ll see them in English; Maiden Rose might not be perfect, but I definitely would like to read more of it!

Review copies provided by the publisher.