Otomen 5 by Aya Kanno: B

Otomen is the story of Asuka Masamune, a manly-seeming boy who harbors a secret love for “girly” pursuits like cooking and sewing. In this volume, his tomboyish girlfriend, Ryo, is picked to represent the second-year students in the school’s Ideal Woman competition, and draws on things she’s learned from Asuka in order to meet the challenge.

The third chapter focuses on Juta, who is secretly a shojo mangaka, and his attempt to protect the dreams of his fans who would be crushed to learn their favorite series is penned by an indolent playboy. The fourth sees the return of the Beauty Samurai, an awesome sentai duo (Asuka and fellow otomen and makeup expert, Tonomine) that beats up bad guys and gives makeovers!

As in previous installments, this volume offers episodic comedy with a decidedly silly bent. All of the stories within share the common theme of identity, too, whether it’s Ryo deciding that she really ought to know how to cook and sew (Asuka assures her she’s fine the way she is), Juta struggling to maintain his anonymity, or Asuka and Tonomine finding a covert outlet for their skills while living in fear of disappointing a parent. Kanno’s light touch ensures the feel remains light and fun, but it’s nice that there are deeper things one can read into it if one chooses.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Otomen 3-4 by Aya Kanno: B

These two volumes, although mostly comprised of one-shot chapters with silly plots (Kanno writes that she’s trying to hit all the major shoujo clichés), still manage to introduce two new characters and elevate the status of Ryo and Asuka’s relationship to “officially dating,” though that doesn’t result in any changes in the way they interact.

Volume three begins with Asuka agreeing to help Ryo out at a daycare center. He fully intends to lead the kids “in a manly manner,” but they soon tire of meditation and calligraphy. Eventually, he wins them over with fancy snacks and earns the love of a motherless boy who wants Asuka to fill that role.

An amusement park date’s next on the agenda (complete with dynamite-toting crazy), followed by a chapter about Juta’s family. The final chapter of the volume introduces Tonomine, Asuka’s kendo rival, who instantly becomes my favorite character. He, too, was forced to squelch his love for a traditionally feminine pursuit—he’s a genius beautician—and Asuka helps draw him out with a display of his own sewing prowess.

In volume four, Asuka helps Ryo’s dad understand girls just in time for his daughter’s birthday, then discovers a secret garden at school that’s been lovingly tended by a hulking fellow named Kurokawa. After Asuka reassures Kurokawa that loving flowers is not wrong, he proceeds to be subtle comic relief for the rest of the volume, surreptitiously sneaking up on beautiful people and “adorning” them with flowers.

When summer vacation rolls around, Asuka’s dreams of a beach date with Ryo (which awesomely involve riding dolphins) are stymied when he’s drafted to help with the business of a classmate’s uncle (a shoujo cliché I’ve seen a couple of times). This turns into a multi-episode tale of snack shack rivalry, complete with swimming challenges and displays of Asuka’s, Tonomine’s, and Kurokawa’s hidden talents. And, yes, there is a dolphin.

As you can see, the plots are nearly always extremely silly, bordering on ridiculous. The fact that this is obviously intentional makes it much more amusing than it would be in a series where the creator was genuinely trying to get away with stuff like this. I enjoy the cast a lot, and even though it’s clear that the plot is not going anywhere any time soon, Otomen is still a fun read. I liken it to Ouran High School Host Club in this regard, actually. I’m generally not one for episodic stories, but there’s a charm in both of these series that keeps me coming back.

Review copy for volume three provided by the publisher.

Otomen 2 by Aya Kanno: B

otomen2-125This volume presents three episodic tales, two of which focus on Asuka’s challenge to be true to himself despite the expectations of others. In the first of these stories, he acquires an apprentice who wants to use him as a reference on how to be cool and masculine, requiring Asuka to suppress his girly tendencies, and in the other, his mother attempts to set him up in an arranged marriage and manipulates him by warning that her health will suffer if he should thwart her or betray any sort of preference for feminine things. This last story is insanely kooky, but it gives Ryo the opportunity to ride in on a white horse and rescue the about-to-be-wed Asuka, so I can’t fault it too much.

Kanno’s art is very attractive in general, but I was especially impressed by it in this volume because she was able to adopt a completely different style—one reminiscent of ’70s shoujo—to depict the parents of Asuka’s fiancée. What’s more, there are scenes where they are sitting at a table with Asuka’s mom, and seeing the two very different artistic techniques juxtaposed in the same panel is pretty awesome.

The other story in the volume is more of a romantic one. Asuka finds out that Ryo has never celebrated Christmas before, and so plans the perfect Christmas party for her. It’s a nice chapter overall, but the best part is Asuka’s inexplicable fixation upon a yule log as the essential ingredient for the event. I often find straightforward comedies unfunny, but the absurdity of Otomen gets me every time.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Otomen 1 by Aya Kanno: B+

High school student Asuka Masamune has a reputation as a cool and stoic guy. He’s ranked number one in the country for kendo, and has black belts in both judo and karate. His name alone inspires fear in the hearts of his would-be opponents. But Asuka has a secret. Beneath this carefully-crafted masculine exterior, he yearns to read shojo manga, make plushies, and fall in love. When he meets tomboyish Ryo Miyakozuka, his veneer begins to crack. He finds himself wanting to do things to help her, like finish a home ec sewing project, make tasty bento lunches, and teach her to make the perfect birthday cake for her father. After Ryo mentions that she prefers masculine guys, Asuka tries to be her ideal, but with some encouragement from frenemy Juta, eventually realizes that he wants to be his real self with the person he cares for.

It’s difficult to see exactly why Asuka falls in love with Ryo in the first place, but once they start hanging out together, her personality begins to come through. They’re joined by classmate Juta, whose playboy ways tick Asuka off, but whom he gradually accepts because Juta’s friendship is also important to Ryo. They develop a kind of xxxHOLiC dynamic, with Asuka preparing lunch for the three of them while muttering things like “why am I always making enough for this guy as well?” Unbeknownst to Asuka, Juta has another reason for hanging around. He’s actually Jewel Sachihana, the mangaka behind Asuka’s favorite shojo manga series, Love Chick, and Asuka is the model for his heroine, as no one else embodies true femininity so well.

One of best things about this subplot is that pages from Love Chick work their way into the story, and you can see how well Kanno emulates that generic shojo art style. Also, as events unfold, it becomes clear that Juta is using incidents from Asuka’s life in his manga, even nudging him into action a few times in order to get new material, and that the male love interest looks exactly like a boy version of Ryo. Asuka remains clueless so far, only mentioning that he “surprisingly identifies with it a lot.”

In addition to the glimpses of Love Chick, there are plenty of other amusing things in Otomen. My favorites include the panel where Asuka, after binging on girly items, thinks “I’ve got to control myself” then looks down to see he has unconsciously completed a teddy bear; the scenes in which Asuka and Ryo both declare their intentions to protect the other, complete with flowery background (an image later replicated in Love Chick); and the part where Asuka purposefully leaves a volume of Love Chick lying around in the path of a heartbroken guy, who proceeds to go all sparkly over it.

Lastly, I’m really enjoying the male perspective. While a male protagonist is by no means rare in shojo, you’ll usually find them in science fiction or fantasy works and not in a high school romance. Asuka’s not your average guy, of course, but neither is he simply a typical shojo heroine in male disguise.

With its quirky characters and comedic approach, Otomen promises to be a lot of fun.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Blank Slate 2 by Aya Kanno: B

If there’s one thing notorious criminal Zen can’t stand, it’s being controlled. At the end of the first volume, while he and his doctor companion, Hyakka, were liberating Amatan prisoners from a Galay Army facility, he fell into an involuntary trance after which he awoke with no memory of his violent actions. Now, he resolves to find the person responsible, which means finally getting some answers about his forgotten past.

Said answers are gradually revealed throughout the volume, and manage to be interesting but more or less what I had expected. Perhaps that’s why this volume, like its predecessor, was a little difficult to get into at first. Also, one major revelation that I hadn’t seen coming was telegraphed in advance. Alert readers get suspicious when you only show us parts of someone’s face, you know!

That said, I have to admire the economy of the storytelling—no extraneous information is offered nor is any essential detail lacking—as well as the way the series ends. Aspects of the climactic conclusion are melodramatic, but I like that we actually end up rooting for Zen, even after witnessing the evil of which he is capable.

Blank Slate presents an entertaining and thought-provoking story, even if the execution stumbles here and there. And at two volumes, it’s short and affordable. An afternoon spent on this series would not be wasted.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Blank Slate 1 by Aya Kanno: B-

Zen has no memory of the last twenty years, and doesn’t much care. The back cover, with its line “he can’t remember if he’s a killer or a hero,” erroneously leads one to anticipate a story of an amnesiac’s quest for identity. In reality, Blank Slate is all about the action.

The story takes place in the country of Amata, which was invaded and conquered in a war two decades earlier. The occupying government honors justice and order and employs a fleet of bounty hunters to eradicate all manner of undesirables. Zen is a notorious criminal and has committed every kind of crime imaginable. His philosophy is, “I do whatever I want. If it gets in my way, I smash it.”

I had a really tough time getting into the first chapter. It’s the stand-alone tale of a bounty hunter sent to kill Zen who instead joins him on a murderous spree of destruction and ruin. It wasn’t the best introduction to the setting or characters, and I found it very dull. The real serialization of the story commences in chapter two, and the improvement is immediate. From this point, there is a continuous plot focusing on the tensions between the native Amatans and the occupying Galayans and featuring kidnappings, prison breaks, and lots of guns. It’s pretty interesting, and I was surprised by several twists in the story.

Aside from the abundant bishonen, there’s nothing stereotypically shojo about Blank Slate. Zen is as heartless as they come and kills casually. Most of his victims are aggressors or authority figures, but he’s not above threatening the life of a child who could expose his hiding place. His companions are more sympathetic, particularly Hakka, a righteous doctor who has fallen into evil to protect something important to him.

The art style is visually clean, a necessity in a title like this where the story is enough to be puzzling over. Most of the character designs aren’t anything special, but Zen is really quite spectacularly pretty. This isn’t achieved through any gimmick of flowing hair or sparkly eye but simply with a beautifully drawn facial structure that’s quite stunning. I’ve reviewed a lot of manga, and never before have I devoted three full sentences to how pretty some guy is. Trust me on this.

Blank Slate certainly isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read, but the story it’s spinning is entertaining enough that I will surely be returning for the second and final volume due out in December.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.