The CMX Project: Cipher

cipher1MICHELLE: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the second installment of The CMX Project, in which we turn our attention to Cipher! (Please kindly overlook the fact that this column was promised for February; life has a nasty habit of upending one’s plans.) This month we’ll also have a special guest, but before the big reveal, how about another of your fabulous summaries, Karen? (Since you did so well with
Land of the Blindfolded!
)

KAREN: Goodness, Michelle, all that praise is going to go to my head!

This month we have Cipher, by Minako Narita. Published by Hakusensha, it ran in Lala and Lala DX in the early/mid-’80s. Narita began working in the ’70s, with an eight-volume series (Alien Street) coming before Cipher. She would later go on to do a sequel to Cipher, Alexandrite, and her current work is Hana Yori Mo Hana No Gotoku, coming out very slowly in the bimonthly magazine Melody.

Cipher is the story of Anise, a girl in high school in New York City in the 1980s, and how she pursues a friendship with former child star Siva, breaking through his cool detachment with the force of her personality. Through Siva, she meets his twin brother Cipher, and discovers a mystery surrounding the brothers—that they’ve been changing places with each other for years. Which one is which? And why do they do this? I feel as if I’m not crafting a summary that does the story justice; instead, I hope our conversation will unfold just like the story—there’s a lot of layers to peel back, but I found the effort to do so very worth it.

But before I start going on and on, Michelle, please tell us about our special guest this month!

resized1MICHELLE: Well, I have the good fortune to be Facebook friends with none other than Asako Suzuki, who was director of manga at CMX from 2006 until its untimely death! I shared our Land of the Blindfolded column with her, and when she mentioned that her favorite CMX series was Cipher, I invited her to join us!

Welcome, Asako!

ASAKO: Hi Michelle and Karen! Thank you for having me, and thank you VERY much for this wonderful project remembering CMX! I am honored and excited to be with you today to talk about my favorite manga series, Cipher!

Cipher is a very special manga series to me, and I have lost count of how many times I read it. In fact, I have just read the entire series (of course in Japanese) not long ago.

MICHELLE: Can you tell us how Cipher came to be licensed and published by CMX?

ASAKO: Actually, I inherited Cipher with some other early acquisitions when I joined CMX. That being said, before I joined CMX, I assisted the acquisition team and made some suggestions. Cipher (and [a] few other titles that were eventually published) was one of the titles I recommended, but I didn’t know if DC Comics had acquired it or not until I started my position. When I saw it on our production schedule, I was very happy!

KAREN: Wow, Asako, that must have been a great surprise to come into CMX and see Cipher there!

resized3Now that I’m past the awesome summary-writing part, I can give my opinion—that I loved this title. I went in with preconceived notions—that this was That ’80s Manga. And while yes, it is very much set in the ’80s, it’s not done with artifice. It’s clear that Narita adored American pop culture—she even mentions doing a Thompson Twins doujinshi!—and it’s all done so lovingly. Real teens are a part of the music, movies, and current events, and it’s only in hindsight that the ’80s seem so cheesy. She also doesn’t gloss over some of the gritter aspects of the times—New York was still recovering from a terrible ’70s. Ironically, Cipher and Siva’s apartment is now in a very trendy area!

What surprised me was how the story was very much a coming of age tale—and not just for the heroine, Anise, but for the boys as well. At times, especially in the second half, she’s much more in the background, but her role seemed to be as much as a catalyst to make the bigger, darker story of the twins happen. Anise is still very childish at 16—there’s the very funny part where it’s pointed out that she really, really needs to start wearing a bra—despite her maturity and insight in some areas, she’s having a hard time seeing herself as growing up.

And then we have our former-child-star twins, Siva and Cipher (whose real names are Jake and Roy, respectively). Michelle and Asako, what’s your take on them? And do you still love the ’80s?

MICHELLE: Similar to Land of the Blindfolded, this is another case where focus drifts from the heroine and onto the two boys in her life, who each have past trauma to deal with. Anise isn’t as perpetually sunny as Kanade, but she’s still much less interesting than the twins. Or, rather, I felt like Narita-sensei was less interested in exploring her as a character. It was especially odd to me that we never learn what her focus is at the performing arts school! She narrates in volume one that “lots of people come to this school hoping to become painters, dancers, musicians, or actors.” So, which is Anise? What is her ambition for being there? As someone who actually attended a performing arts school, your “major” was vitally important.

So, that said, I feel a little grumpy that the boys got so much more love, but can’t deny that they’re pretty fascinating. I especially like when the story begins to focus more on Siva and we see events from his perspective that we later see again from Cipher’s perspective. Siva felt that Cipher’s openness made him more easy for his parents to love, while Cipher felt that Jake’s reliability made his own behavior seem childish in comparison. I also really liked how the friends they make while they’re apart affect them.

resized6

ASAKO: I am a huge fan of Anise; she was my hero! The reason why I wanted to come to the United States was because I wanted to be like, and live like her. To me, Anise was more realistic and easy to relate to compared to other manga protagonists, thanks to Narita-sensei’s amazing psychological descriptions throughout the series.

Narita-sensei is an amazing writer; I can easily tell how much she loved her characters, and she treated each differently. The way she shifted focus from one character to another was just incredible. I actually had a deep conversation with one of the manga editors in Japan (can’t say who!) about Cipher and how talented Narita-sensei is!

See, Narita-sensei introduced Cipher and Siva to us through the eyes of Anise and once we got to know the twins better with Anise, we were able to learn more about them individually through the twins’ perspectives. If Anise stayed as the center of the story the whole time, the story would have been shallow. With appearance of Dana, the focus was subtly shifted to Jake, and we got to know the secret of the twins and why Jake was protective yet envious of Roy. Then we learn more about Roy in LA… I really enjoyed the multi-dimensional story telling.

resized7

Speaking of details, have you noticed of the characters’ mix-and-match wardrobes? That’s amazing!

Also, there is something I have always wanted to know and never understood… can I ask you both a question? When you say “manga from the ’80s,” what does that mean? How do you distinguish the manga from the ’80s from the recent ones and why would you get less excited about manga from the era? That always puzzled me…

KAREN: Michelle—I wondered that too! I was really hoping she would have some great talent that drove her to commute all the way in from Queens!

I missed Anise during the second half of the series when the twins separated. She was still there, but the second half was really about the twins apart, and each making friends on their own, without having the other to hide behind. I don’t understand why some places categorize this as a shounen-ai title, the only love is friendship and the twin’s kissy-kissy… is anything but that.

There’s a lot of subtle tonal shifts in the story—the Dana storyline being one of them—a beautiful, talented young girl on the verge of falling in love and being loved is tragically, suddenly killed, and it has a way of breaking apart the entire premise of the story. The twins don’t just grow apart, they fly apart—Roy quite literally to the West Coast, leaving Anise behind. The ruse of one twin playing another will never work again, so they had to be apart, and make friends on their own terms, and the switching between coasts feels like two different stories but… they mirror each other, like Cipher and Siva did. Alexandra and Hal are different people, but they carry their own insecurities and pasts into their friendships—friendships they needed as badly as Jake and Roy did.

resized11

I didn’t notice the wardrobes, except that I loved how detailed they were. Narita-sensei must have been importing magazines! It stuns me about the accuracy of the details—reading this series sent me into a flurry of research (yes, with the extensive use of Google Maps) and it’s amazing that she did this in the pre-internet era—unless she was here herself? Asako, do you know any of that background? She did three series set in the US so it really seems she had a feel for the place.

To answer your question, Asako, and “’80s manga” generally means the style of art that I think is viewed as rather old-fashioned—not as extreme as ’70s manga, but it still looks “dated.” However, Narita-sensei’s art doesn’t suffer as much in comparison, and I think the rep that this title has for being an ’80s manga has is because it’s set in the 1980s, and references to George Michael and Hall and Oates are funny to a modern reader who looks at it all through a lens of nostalgia. I personally adore older manga, and wish there was more of it, but sadly publishers have said it doesn’t sell—that’s one thing I loved about CMX was that they brought out Swan and Cipher.

Speaking of art, I found it very well done, and I really want to hunt down one of those out-of-print artbooks now!

MICHELLE: I think there’s a general sense of affectionate amusement about most things coming out of ’80s culture, really. I love ’80s manga, personally, but yes, I did find it pretty funny when a dancing Cipher is deemed to be as cool as Michael Jackson, or when Narita-sensei professes in the comments, “The source of my strength, just like always, has been The Thompson Twins.”

Asako, you make a great point about Narita’s layered storytelling. I didn’t think of it like that—introducing us to the twins first through Anise’s eyes, then widening the story’s scope with a purposeful sequences of events. I really loved each brother’s relationship with his newfound friend. We learn that Roy felt that he behaved childishly in his past, and so perhaps he had tried to grow up too fast and hadn’t enjoyed some of the simpler pleasures that Hal makes it his mission to introduce him to. Jake felt he always had to be the reliable one—in fact, he wanted to be needed—but then he makes friends with Levine (aka Alex, Alexandra), who is sensitive but also resilient and tough.

resized14

When Jake first meets Levine, he can’t bear to think of Roy and Dana at all, but gradually he allows himself to think about them, and then to talk about them. When one of Dana’s relatives has a baby and names it after her, Jake instantly adores the girl, and ends up breaking down a barrier with his mother for her sake. It all seems to happen very naturally. Too, I love that when everyone meets up again at the end, Hal and Levine are completely baffled that anyone could’ve ever mistaken one twin for the other.

And I, too, appreciated the details that Narita-sensei got right. I was delighted to note that, in one scene, characters are eating an Old El Paso dinner kit of some sort.

resized12

ASAKO: In the first volume of the Tankobon edition, Narita-sensei talks about her trip to NYC, and she shares some pictures that she took during the trip. It sounds like she toured different neighborhoods to choose the neighborhood where twins and Anise should live. I thought it [was] funny but I was impressed at the same time that Narita-sensei even took pictures of TV commercials she watched in her hotel room. (Did you notice Cipher was watching a Betty Crocker’s new cake mix commercial?!) Very detailed artist.

Ah, thank you for explaining about the ’80s manga. To be honest, I have never thought of manga [as] “dated.” Well, in retrospect, I did notice different printing/layout techniques and art style. Maybe I am more comfortable with the ’80s manga because that’s what I grew up reading. Haha.

Back to Cipher, may I ask who is your favorite character(s) and why? I’m curious.

KAREN:That’s great to know some of the background of the creation! I think we’re all so spoiled with just being able to Google everything that people forget how hard it was to do research on such mundane topics—like cake commercials—in those days.

Asako, since you’ve had the advantage of seeing the Japanese versions, I had two questions—what is volume 12 of Cipher about? I’ve seen it listed on information sites and on Amazon.jp—is it side stories or does it add something? Also, have you read the Alexandrite sequel series—how is it in relation to Cipher?

My favorite character in Anise. She’s the entry to the world, and even when she’s in the background, she plays an important role. For all of the ways that she seems a little less mature, she shows such kindness and understanding, and that’s what breaks the shell around the twins. She can tell them apart at the end of the “challenge” but chooses not to—but she’s already opened up their world. I like her spirit, and watching her mature through the course of the series. It may not be as dramatic as what happens to Roy and Jake, but she becomes an important part to helping Jake discover his new life and gives Roy the space he needs until a reconciliation can happen.

I also like Hal—he’s so goofy at first but turns out to be so endearing.

resized13

MICHELLE: I really like Hal, too, but I’d have to say my favorite is Siva. I like his complexity in that he’s the reliable one who is secretly dependent upon being depended upon, and I like how experiencing love (for both Danas, the original and her namesake) frees him to become his own person and to begin to understand the pain of others.

ASAKO: To be honest with you, I don’t remember what was in the twelfth volume. As soon as the bunko edition came out, I gave my tanko edition to my best friend (here in the US). That was long, long time ago. I vaguely remember it was about Levine, but I am not entirely sure. I’m sorry!

Dealing with the difference between tanko edition and bunko edition was a challenge for CMX. We had to make the English edition of the original tanko edition off of the bunko edition—does that make sense?? (:D). The pagination and proportion differences required a lot of effort on our end, and what’s more, cover materials were provided in transparencies (positive films), so they had to be scanned, cleaned and color corrected before we could use on the covers. It happened many times for other CMX books, too, but some of the cover images were not available from the licensor, so we had to scan art books or whatever the resources we could find (and of course, with Licensor permission and extensive approval process) to come up with something.

KAREN: That’s great information, Asako—but I think CMX did a great job, the covers especially were very pretty. Other companies seemed to have problems reformatting the Hakusensha-style “box on the cover” design to something that works in the American market, but this was very well done. Speaking of artbooks, I’m going to have to chase down that out-of-print artbook that came out way back when.

Cipher is thankfully one of those titles that’s easy to collect—it’s all out-of-print, of course, but most volumes go for well below cover, and a couple of others are above cover but nothing crazy—it’s an easy one to collect, so that shouldn’t be a deterrent to hunting down and enjoying this title. Yeah, it’s set in the ’80s, but there’s so much more to it than that.

MICHELLE: We hope we’ve inspired you to check it out, and would also like to extend our very sincere thanks to Asako Suzuki for joining us for this conversation!

ASAKO: Thank you for having me! Looking forward to more CMX reviews in the future!

MICHELLE: You’re in luck, because Oyayubihime Infinity is up next!

The CMX Project: Land of the Blindfolded

MICHELLE: Welcome to the first installment of a new feature called The CMX Project. Back in October, Karen Peck and I talked about the CMX series Canon for that month’s Manga Moveable Feast, and had such fun that we decided to start a recurring feature focusing on some of the other series they released during their all-too-brief time with us. For the most part these will be shoujo works, but not exclusively so.

Hi, Karen! Do you want to introduce our featured title for this month, or shall I?

KAREN: I’ll go!

blindfolded9Land of the Blindfolded, or Mekakushi no Kuni, is a nine-volume shoujo manga series by Sakura Tsukuba. It was one of CMX’s debut titles back in 2004, along with some classic titles like Swan and From Eroica with Love. Land of the Blindfolded originally ran in Hakusensha’s LaLa and LaLa DX magazines, and CMX would later go on to pick up another one of her series, Penguin Revolution. Besides these two works, her other series is the Christmas-themed Yoroshiku Master. The rest seems to have been mostly one-shots in different Hakusensha magazines—too bad I missed the two she did in Melody!

Kanade Outsuka sees a world full of people wearing “blindfolds.” But every once in a while, for her, that blindfold “slips” and she gets to see what others can’t—in her case, she can see a person’s future. Having a big heart and a determined spirit (as any good Hakusensha heroine should), Kanade will try to intervene if the future she sees will cause someone harm—even if the person she helps thinks that she’s just being weird. Two boys come into her life—Arou, who can see the past and carries around the heavy burden of his own past—and Namiki, who can also see the future but has a very different attitude about it than Kanade does. A sweet romance develops between Kanade and Arou… and I wouldn’t say “hijiinks ensue;” this title is entirely too gentle for much of that.

Michelle, what were your impressions?

MICHELLE: Initially, I was torn. There were certain elements of the story that I liked—the fact that Kanade and Arou become a couple with minimum fuss, Kanade’s spunky best friend (Eri), the neat side abilities that Arou’s power gives him…—but the first few volumes are very episodic and feature chapters with plots like “a plucky abandoned puppy is rescued from his doom during a rainstorm by an angsty boy affected by the protagonist’s shoujo heroine powers.”

The stories begin to take a more interesting turn in volume five, when Arou first uses his power in a new, freaky way to track Kanade after she’s swept away at the beach. And then shortly thereafter, he’s reunited with a classmate from junior high who wants him to use his powers to benefit society by helping to solve murders.

LotB-Arouwater

The rest of the volumes are all pretty good, though I’m most fond of volumes six and seven. I note, though, that Kanade really gets the short shrift after a while. She truly is the least interesting character of the bunch, and there is much more time devoted to the traumatic pasts suffered by Arou and Namiki than anything involving Kanade (excepting her decision to come clean to Eri about her ability).

KAREN: It is very episodic, and for me that’s what lead to my assessment of this as being very “gentle”—when stories wrap up each chapter, nothing really seems that dire. Instead, we get a series of ordinary events—the school festival. A clash with student government. The class trip. Hot springs hijinks (okay, so there is a little hijink-ing). The summer festival. And so on.

However, the banality of these events is contrasted with the very unordinary main characters. Here we have a girl who can see the future, but like any other girl her age, she worries about the very ordinary things—will people like the real me? Will I fit in? Can I tell my best friend all of my secrets? It’s this relatability that I think really speaks to the reader. Everyone has insecurities, even these “special” kids.

confession

The “plot” really does pick up later on. I was kinda hoping that Arou’s uncle would be more of a revolutionary character—he seems to have some rather dark intentions—but that fizzled out. I’m not sure if that was a red herring or Tsukuba sending off signals that she didn’t mean to.

I do agree with you, Michelle—Kanade seems to downright disappear in some of the stories, and I wish she had more of a presence. I also like that the coupling happens without a lot of drama—and while the back cover tries to play up the triangle, Kanade and Arou only have eyes for each other. Poor Namiki. At least he got a puppy.

MICHELLE: And possibly the world’s most adorable turtle!

turtle

I did find it interesting that although Land of the Blindfolded does include some stock shoujo scenarios—in addition to the ones you named there’s a trip to the amusement park, a trip to the beach, Christmas—they didn’t really annoy me as much as they do in series like, say, Ai Ore! Probably the likeable characters are responsible for that.

And yes, it’s largely the disclosure of the leads’ insecurities that make later volumes more compelling. Learning about Arou’s painful past wherein he was feared and shunned for his abilities makes the present where he is warmly liked and trusted by his classmates that much more significant. Now we can see how much it really means to him. And, too, we learn how scarred Namiki was by his mother’s timidity, and how this contributed to his rather jaded attitude when we first meet him. My absolute favorite scene in the whole series occurs between Namiki and Kanade’s mother, in which she tells him he’s a good boy and he starts to cry. I’m getting a little sniffly just thinking about it, actually.

goodboy

Yeah, the Sou thing did rather fizzle out, but it all played in to the warm and fuzzy “you are not alone” ending, so maybe that was all Tsukuba intended.

KAREN: That turtle was cute. And the pet-sitter bonus chapter was very cute.

I think it’s because Arou and Namiki had those much heavier pasts that Kanade gets lost. Well, she did see a vision of her grandfather’s death, but she’s from such a kind and accepting family that it becomes something to be overcome rather than something creepy that results in her ostracism. I agree with you, Michelle, about how affecting that one scene with Namiki and Kanade’s mother is—it’s really a moment when this story works. It’s a message that would work for any child that was rejected—that you are good. However, if every chapter/story in Land of the Blindfold was this emotionally wrenching, we wouldn’t be able to get through this review!

Of the secondary characters, I also liked Kaicho-san, the student council president. Her attraction to Arou was handled well, and I’m glad that it didn’t devolve into a Marmalade Boy-style Love Dodecahedron. I did like that it was hinting that Kaicho and Namiki might perhaps hook up, but it that was played well, and I think realistically. They would be good together, but for now they still have their hearts somewhere else. By not rushing them together, Tsukuba didn’t compromise their characters and what they had been about.

kaicho_namiki

The other beta couple, Eri and Ezawa, were presented as the Doomed Couple, but turned into something else, and so much of it was done in the background, as their story would pop in and out, showing their evolution as a couple.

I did want to say one thing about CMX’s presentation—I remember comments at the time about the tightness of the bindings, and wow, the first three volumes were very hard to read. I’m glad that they worked that out for later volumes so I didn’t have to worry about ruining the book when I opened it. The art… works, if that’s a way of putting it. Sakura Tsukuba isn’t one of the great shoujo artists, but her work is expressive and the humorous moments were very cute.

MICHELLE: I liked Kaicho a lot, too (though we eventually learn her last name, we never learn her first one), and was totally bracing for an eventual pairing off with Namiki. I think she could’ve been the heroine of her own manga series, actually.

We don’t learn too much about the inner workings of Eri and Ezawa’s relationship, but I definitely like that he became more interested in her once she showed she wasn’t going to fawn over him mindlessly like everyone else. She basically learns quickly that attempting to change yourself for someone never works, and then they turn out to be a stable couple from then on. Also, Tsukuba makes a few suggestions that they’re doing more than kissing while still keeping the content within an “E for Everyone” rating.

And yes, those fiendish bindings! I actually have the first five in that style and was desperately sick of them and so relieved when volume six came around. I hadn’t realized it, but I guess I hadn’t read any of the really early CMX volumes before this, so I didn’t know how terrible they were.

I don’t seem to have too much to say about Tsukuba’s art, actually. There were a few sequences that I quite liked, but that was more about what was happening in the scene than her skills. She does mention repeatedly how much she loves drawing animals, and adorable critters did seem to be her strong suit.

LotBPUPPY

KAREN: I caught that too with Eri and Ezawa. And how it totally flew over Kanade’s head.

Like most CMX series, Land of the Blindfolded is long out-of-print but easily and inexpensively obtainable on the secondary market. The infamous tight bindings vary—Michelle’s go up to volume five, mine only up to three, but they’re still readable. It’s a good title for the younger YA reader, because there’s nothing objectionable and it is such a sweet story—no questionable misogyny, for example. This is the sort of title that CMX did so well—and something that’s very much missed in the current market. (I’m sure there’s many YA librarians who agree!) Thankfully, though, they did manage to get so many titles out during their time—I’m looking forward to the next title we’re going to cover!

MICHELLE: Which is… drumroll please… Cipher, by Minako Narita! I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, so I’m really excited about next month’s column.

Thanks for joining us this month, and we hope you’ll be back next time!

Chatting About Canon

The following discussion contains spoilers.

MICHELLE: As we did for the CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast, special guest Karen Peck and I decided to collaborate on a contribution. This month’s MMF theme is vampires, so we opted (actually, this was totally Karen’s brainwave) to talk about Canon, the four-volume Chika Shiomi shoujo series published by CMX. I really didn’t know what to expect, having never read it before, but I think you had, right, Karen?

KAREN: I read it years ago, as I am a total Chika Shiomi fangirl, and figured the MMF would be a great excuse to talk about a lesser-known CMX series. A little background on Chika Shiomi and the series—Canon was her first series after her 1993 debut, running in Mystery Bonita Special. She’s one of those mangaka who’s had her work released by several English-language publishers—Night of the Beasts by Go!Comi, one volume of Queen of Ragtonia by Aurora, and Viz has most recently released Yurara and its sequel series Rasetsu. Her current work is Yukarism, a time-travel tale running in Bessatsu Hama to Yume, which is currently on hiatus.

Canon Himuro, ill with an incurable disease, was the sole survivor of a massacre that left her classmates dead. Months later a reporter runs into her, and she looks healthier than before—and carries a secret. Her classmates were attacked by a vampire, who then turned Canon into one. Horrified and wracked by guilt, she declares revenge on the vampire with silver hair and blue eyes. Holding onto her humanity, Canon refuses to drink blood, and wears a cross necklace given to her by a kindly foreigner, as explained in the second chapter. She is also accompanied by a vampire crow, Fui, who helps keep the story going and provides the humor. Canon is out for vengeance; Fui would just like a snack.

So, Michelle, what did you think of the series? Beyond the ’90s fashion, that is?

MICHELLE: I shall tell you, though we really must get back around to the fashion topic!

I ended up enjoying Canon quite a lot, though moreso in the first two volumes. The story begins episodically, and after a first volume that I’d describe as “not riveting, but entertaining,” the second volume packs a real wallop as Rod (such an intimidating name!)—the silver-haired, blue-eyed vampire—makes his entrance. By this point, Canon has met Sakaki, a smug and violent half-breed who’s also out for revenge against Rod (who murdered his parents), and they’ve formed an alliance. Fairly soon, though, Rod’s servants are telling Canon that their master lives as a hermit and couldn’t possibly be responsible for the attack upon her classmates, and suggesting that the real culprit is Sakaki. Canon resists the truth until Fui overhears a conversation confirming it (and is gravely wounded by Sakaki as a result).

I probably should’ve seen this reveal coming, but I was sort of enjoying the series in an uncomplicated way and wasn’t expecting it to veer into territory this dark. Ultimately, you’ve got Canon unable to forgive Sakaki, Sakaki unable to forgive Rod, and some uncomfortable parallels for Canon to navigate as her own hatred (fueled by the humiliation of having been tricked) threatens to undo her efforts to retain her human heart. It’s good stuff, really!

That said, I thought the entrance of Glenn as a common enemy kind of squandered the momentum a little. I mean, I’m glad that Rod and his awesome servant, Machua, got to become good guys, but Glenn lacks any real depth as a character, and I found his sudden change of heart regarding Canon—he’d previously been adamant about the need to exterminate her—rather baffling.

KAREN: The names crack me up, too. “Rod” just doesn’t sound… menacing. Rod and Glenn sound like they’d be assistant managers at an Office Depot, not powerful vampires.

It is good stuff! One thing I dislike about vampire stories—in manga and in print—is the angsty, boohoo I’m a vampire aspect. Canon does not wallow in that too much, the action is swirling around her and she’s a part of it all—she’s not a passive character. I think the shortness of this series helped as well; she had to stick to the unexpectedly twisty story–everyone has a motive, and they’re bound by vampire laws and revenge. Except Glenn. I agree with you, Michelle, that his change of heart is baffling–he’s the person that exists to move the story in one direction yet doesn’t seem to be upset that his purpose in the story is nullified by that direction. It’s a bit sloppy, but given how well she plotted out everything else, I’ll give Shiomi-sensei a pass since this is her first work.

As for the Canon/Sakaki relationship, at first I didn’t get it. After some consideration, though, it does fit in with what Canon was trying to get through to Sakaki and Rod–to stop the cycle of vengeance, that everyone can move on. Yes, Sakaki created Canon and messed with her memories to create a weapon to get at Rod in an exquisitely personal way, but her own words apply just as much to herself. She could kill him for her own vendetta, or she could remember that little boy who was left bleeding next to the corpses of his parents and understand what drove him. There’s a theme of forgiveness and breaking cycles here that I think is (mostly) well-done.

So, back to the fashion. Canon’s ankle boots have actually come back around to being fashionable again, but I fear that Rod’s overcoat on top of a turtleneck overcoat look will never be repeated. I suppose hermit vampires who feel bad about killing their best friends are just naturally chilly?

MICHELLE: I hadn’t actually seen that about Rod’s garb until you pointed it out, but once I did, I couldn’t stop noticing it. I think I thought the black one was a cloak at first, but upon closer inspection, it clearly has sleeves.

You’re absolutely spot-on about Canon remembering the terrible things that had happened to Sakaki that caused him to inflict terrible things upon her. And though it might feel like a betrayal of her classmates, she can’t stop loving him. This reminded me a lot of Shuri and Sarasa in Basara, actually, where she is able to forgive him for the atrocities committed as the Red King, even though other villagers will never be able to. And, of course, any time something can be compared to Basara is a good sign!

Speaking of comparisons to other works, the side story in volume four about the other half-breed who briefly takes care of orphaned Sakaki reminded me a lot of Shion’s backstory in Please Save My Earth, as another example of a boy in such tremendous need who tragically loses yet another person who could’ve shown him love. And Sakaki’s physical appearance reminds me some of Tokyo Babylon‘s Seishirou, especially round about the shoulder region.

Actually, Sakaki’s got some fashion challenges of his own to surmount. In this picture, his coat’s billowing so much it looks like a frickin’ hoop skirt!

KAREN: I know–why does he need two coats? I think it’s a little hypocritical of a vampire to wear turtlenecks anyway.

Now you’re reminding me that I need to finish reading Basara! But it’s a good comparison, and one that reflects favorably on Chika Shiomi–I think a lot of people can write a love story, but it’s harder to write one where it makes sense and is right for the characters. Hand-waving with a “that’s how love is!” is lazy, and she doesn’t take the easy way out. The ending offers a further complication, but again, it goes with the feeling that the characters really need to want this instead of just engaging in relationship fanservice.

The art—especially for Sakaki—really had a CLAMP-circa-X vibe going on, but this was 1994. I also enjoyed Machua’s style, even if it wasn’t as flamboyant and flowing.

MICHELLE: I liked her, too, though at first I thought she might be a dude!

The art really is frequently lovely in that early-’90s kind of way. Below I’ve included an image of one of my favorite two-page spreads, where you’ve got all sorts of overlapping panels, huge flowers, leads superimposed over a background of space… My cynical side wonders if Shiomi had a checklist of specific items to include, but the overall effect is still one I enjoy. And, of course, I can’t help thinking that Melinda Beasi, with her well-documented love for old-school shoujo art, would just love this to pieces. (Click image to enlarge.)

KAREN: This is some lovely ’90s art, and it holds up pretty well—Canon herself (sans ankleboots) could just as easily be a design in a modern Chika Shiomi work. I also enjoyed her eye for action–I was a little unsure about how the vampires were always leaping about, but I assume it’s a case of Our Vampires Are Different. The pages you picked show how nice a page with flashbacks and conversations can be–it’s not just good storytelling, it also sets an emotional mood that really sells the scene for me.

I’m glad there was a Vampire MMF to make me get this series off the shelf and re-read it. It’s one of those quiet CMX series that came and went with little fanfare, but shows how well-curated their shoujo line was–I’m sure they could have found a more sensationalistic vampire manga with prettier, broodier boys, but this is one with an overall strong story and a tough heroine. It may not be a classic on the lines of contemporary works like X, but it’s cheap on the used market and, in my opinion, a good short series.

MICHELLE: I definitely agree! Thank you for suggesting it!

And now, an announcement: because Karen and I had such a good time reading Canon, it really fanned the flames of “Damn, we miss CMX.” And so, to help offset our still-lingering pain, we’ve decided to embark upon a monthly feature called The CMX Project, where we will revisit both the lauded and the lesser-known works from the CMX catalog. Look for the first column—featuring Land of the Blindfolded—in January 2013!

Let’s Get Visual: Celebrating the Pretty

MICHELLE: The long-awaited return of Sailor Moon has inspired us to devote this month’s column to classic shoujo art, focusing on a celebration of its sheer prettiness. Normally, we try to be astute in these columns—their whole purpose is to provide experience in seriously considering the artistic merits of manga—but it’s possible that this time we’ll be reduced to just sighing happily.

MELINDA: Yes, it’s quite possible indeed. But honestly, I think that’s valuable in its own way, and maybe we’ll end up learning a little something about why these things make us sigh happily.

MICHELLE: Perhaps so!

So, for my contribution I’ve chosen two memorable moments from the first volume of Naoko Takeuchi’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. The first one comes from a chapter in which the protagonist, Usagi Tsukino, has infiltrated a masquerade ball in an effort to determine whether the Legendary Silver Crystal might be found there. Possible foe/possible ally Tuxedo Mask is also on the crystal’s trail, but pauses to give Usagi a twirl on the dance floor.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Volume 1, Chapter 4, Pages 142-143 (Kodansha Comics)

Takeuchi’s art perfectly captures the sheer dreaminess of this encounter for Usagi. In the top panel, the lacy screentone mimics the flare of her skirts, and the way that the smaller panels are framed focuses attention on facial expressions and reinforces the feeling that no one and nothing is capable of intruding upon this perfect moment for them.

And, of course, her dress is purty.

MELINDA: This sequence truly is dreamy. What particularly pulls me in here is the screentone. Its texture brings a 3D quality into this 2D world, as though the moment was preserved and wrapped up in an elaborate scrapbook that I could reach out and touch—as though it was someone’s real memories of the moment. Even just looking at something that has such a familiar texture stimulates my sense of touch, bringing me more fully into the scene. I think this kind of tangible decoration not only lends a fairy-tale dreaminess to the scene, but also makes it feel more personal for the reader.

MICHELLE: Ooh, you’re right, it does feel like a page from a scrapbook! In that sense, the screentone almost seems like it represents a snippet of the actual material of Usagi’s dress.

In addition, Usagi has used her transformation gadget for this chapter and is supposed to appear a little older than usual. I think her expression on the lower left page captures that subtle distinction nicely.

MELINDA: I’ll note too, that while this particular brand of big-eyed shoujo tends to get a lot of flack outside shoujo fandom, that it’s Usagi’s big, shining eyes that really let us know how she feels here, and just how dreamy this moment really is for her (and subsequently for us).

MICHELLE: You know, I think I’ve become inured to the big-eyed thing, except with extreme cases, because I don’t even notice it anymore. It just seems like such an obvious way to convey youth and wonder.

My second “memorable moment” is an example of a Sailor Moon action sequence.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Volume 1, Chapter 5, Pages 188-189 (Kodansha Comics)

In its way, this selection is just as pretty as the other one. Luna tosses Makoto her transformation pen, which glows in an appealingly magical girl fashion, transforming the girl—who is somewhat insecure about her physique—into Sailor Jupiter, someone both beautiful and powerful. Meanwhile, the enemy lurks on a nearby rooftop, and I’m impressed how this single panel so effectively establishes setting and atmosphere when one doesn’t have the preceding pages to furnish that information. Makoto’s first attack is simultaneously feminine and effective, giving her the opportunity to vanquish the enemy with her thunder bolt on the next page.

Looking back at some of the adjectives used in the paragraph above, I find that they aptly convey what it is I like about this moment: beauty and power, femininity and effectiveness. Sailor Moon shows that these things need not be mutually exclusive.

MELINDA: Those are great adjectives, Michelle, and actually this brings up a point I’ve been wanting to make since I listened to the podcast you participated in about Sailor Moon.

When male manga fans are trying to explain why something written for girls might be appealing to them as well, they will often attribute this to what they perceive as male or “shounen” elements in the story, like team-building or action sequences. And while I appreciate their enthusiasm for the work, I’m a bit perplexed as to why these would be considered exclusively “shounen” to begin with. Sure, certain genres of shoujo manga might share these things in common with certain genres of shounen manga, but I honestly don’t see what’s not inherently shoujo about them. Girls enjoy things like action, adventure, teamwork, and battling evil just as much as anyone, and there’s nothing odd or incongruous about these elements standing alongside things like beauty and femininity. These things naturally coexist in the minds of many girls, and when they’re all put together, they are not only exciting and inspiring, but really freaking pretty.

MICHELLE: You’re right, and though I agreed with them that there were some “shounen” elements to Sailor Moon, I didn’t mean to imply that they’re not just as easily shoujo elements, but simply story aspects that are more common to shounen manga. If that makes sense.

MELINDA: I guess what I’m saying is, though maybe there are more shounen action series than there are shoujo action series, it’s not as if it’s uncommon in shoujo. The entire magical girl genre pretty much exists in that realm, and those series share as much or more in common with fantasy, adventure, or sci-fi shoujo like Basara, X/1999, or They Were Eleven as they do with shounen manga—all of it very shoujo and very pretty.

I don’t mean to derail this discussion with my shoujo manifesto, though, so please forgive me. I’m just happily overwhelmed by the sparkly loveliness of this action sequence.

MICHELLE: No worries; I agree with you. But perhaps we should move on. What pretty shoujo have you chosen?

MELINDA: Well, it may seem like an odd choice, given the vast pool of classic pretty to choose from, but I’ve chosen an 8-page scene from volume three of Reiko Shimizu’s Moon Child, and there are a number of reasons why.

Moon Child, Volume 3, Pages 146-153 (CMX)

First, of course, there is quite a bit of objectively lovely imagery in the later panels of the scene, including rippling water, a flowing seascape, and a billowy-haired mermaid, all rendered with a perfect balance of simplicity and detail. I’m particularly fond of Shimizu’s style of character design as well, which is very much in step with most of the ’80s and early ’90s manga I’ve read. For whatever reason, this is probably my very favorite period for shoujo character design.

Most of all, though, there is an eerie, vaguely melancholy tone throughout the entire scene, particularly the first two pages, which I will admit are my favorite. I even consider them the prettiest of the whole sequence, though they have none of the flowing seascape that decorates the rest of the scene. They are, however, beautifully strange, and a perfect example of what I personally find prettiest in shoujo manga. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but I find the strangeness—this particular brand of strangeness—to be really, really beautiful. When I look at the first two pages of this sequence, I can feel the smooth surface of the water as the character brings his face near, touching the ends of his hair and the tips of his nose and chin. That smooth pool of water and the way he just falls slowly into it—it’s difficult for me to articulate exactly why I find it beautiful, but I really do.

Yes, I love these character designs, and the pretty page layouts, but sometimes what I find most beautiful about older shoujo manga is its strangeness. It brings to mind a dreamworld, I guess—one that looks like our world but somehow just isn’t in a way that engages the most obscure, most beloved corners of my imagination. These stories make themselves part of my private world, and I find them beautiful for it. If that makes any sense at all.

MICHELLE: It absolutely makes sense. And for what it’s worth, I studied the pages before I read your commentary and also felt that the exquisitely slow descent into the fountain was the loveliest part. I like, too, how Teruto slips into the fountain with such grace and barely a ripple and how this is contrasted off-panel by the little girl who has observed what happened. The inability of an everyday person to access the same magic only reinforces its strangeness.

MELINDA: Yes, exactly! It seems so clear that he exists in a different state of being from the regular people around him, which is part of what makes it feel so dreamlike, I think. There is a lot of that kind of thing in this series, which is really, exquisitely strange. I think the dreamlike tone makes it easier to suspend disbelief as well.

MICHELLE: From the examples we’ve both chosen, it seems that, to some extent, it’s the dreaminess of pretty scenes that is at least partly responsible for the happy sighing. Of course, we realize that real life is seldom so lovely, but it’s nice to abandon oneself for a while in a reality where that sort of thing really can happen.

MELINDA: I think where I often find solace in shoujo manga, is that it offers exactly what you describe—a reality that contains the stuff of dreams—but held together by real human feeling, such that even the wildest tale can often shine much-needed light on our real-life emotional turmoil. At the heart of all this strange, sparkly fantasy, there is a solid base of real emotional truth, which is sometimes easier to face when it’s presented in a pretty, dreamlike package.

MICHELLE: Well put! I think that’s one of the major strengths of genre fiction in general, actually, no matter the media.

MELINDA: Agreed! Of course, nothing does “pretty” quite like classic shoujo.

MICHELLE: Indeed not. That’s just icing on the cake!

March on Earth 1-2 by Mikase Hayashi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Fire Investigator Nanase 4 by Izo Hashimoto and Tomoshige Ichikawa: B+

Nanase Takamine is a fire investigator, a job at which she not only excels but also approaches with a dogged determination to discover the truth. In this volume, she’s on the case of a fatal fire at the home of an elderly, wealthy man with three suspicious children, and later must determine why an experienced arsonist made a beginner’s mistake.

Nanase is, in a way, haunted by a notorious arsonist called Firebug, who seems to turn up at every crime scene, provides clues that point Nanase in the right direction, and is possibly responsible for the fire that killed her parents seven years ago. Their interactions are the highlight of this series, with Firebug increasingly insisting that Nanase turn to administering vigilante justice, either against arsonists or, more recently, against a detective who seems to know Firebug’s true identity.

Usually, the Firebug scenes overshadow Nanase’s investigations, but the first case in this volume proves more interesting than most, managing to sneak in some character development and surprises with a cast that’s only around for four chapters or so. This improvement, coupled with intriguing glimpses of the detective’s suspicions, means that the fourth volume of Fire Investigator Nanase is its best so far.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Fire Investigator Nanase 3 by Izo Hashimoto and Tomoshige Ichikawa: B

From the back cover:
“The Towering Inferno” continues! Nanase and her team are sent into the Astro Tower, a brand new skyscraper that everyone believes to be practically indestructible. But when the anti-fire device system suddenly goes down, there is no advance warning when the boiler blows. Now, Nanase is trapped in the fiery building with all of the terrorists, but the Wolves of Vengeance might not be what they seem. And when people start dying from non–fire-related deaths, there might be a real killer on the loose… but who?!

Review:
The third volume of Fire Investigator Nanase finds our titular heroine trapped in a skyscraper that’s allegedly the target of terrorists. As she tries to work out what’s going on—this series still feels a great deal like Case Closed to me—more fires and explosions erupt inside the building, and with various civilians depending on Nanase to see them to safety, she’s forced to come up with some clever solutions (occasionally with some possibly telepathic help from Firebug, a notorious arsonist who has taken an interest in her) on the spot.

I really want to like Nanase more than I do, since it has such a neat premise, but the fact remains that the culprit here is entirely easy to guess and even indulges in some stereotypically evil cackling after his/her deeds have been discovered. At times, it feels more like a shounen series than a seinen one, but then you’ll get a particularly grisly and random death by fire to remind you that this series is intended for older readers.

I like Nanase okay as a character, though I find her most interesting when she’s interacting with Firebug. The highlight of this volume for me is a scene in which he’s goading her to kill the culprit, even showing her how, but she resists. As the volume concludes, she learns a few things that may forever alter their working relationship. Is the series about to get truly good? I hope so.

Lastly, a note on the art, specifically Nanase’s wildly improbable anatomical proportions. I think if one were to take her measurements, they’d be something like 35-16-17, because her bosoms have at least twice the circumference of her tiny waist. The bosoms play no part in the story, thank goodness, but they are there and fairly distracting in some panels. I guess I should consider it just another concession to the demographic.

Oh! My Brother 2 by Ken Saito: B-

It’s been one month since Masago Kamoguchi’s brilliant older brother, Shiro, died and began possessing her. With all of this going on, Masago hasn’t been studying, so when exam time comes around, she allows Shiro to take the tests for her and ends up with a perfect score. Her impressive performance prompts a teacher to encourage her to run for student council, a decision she waffles about for a little while until gaining some confidence. Meanwhile, Shiro debates the wisdom of lingering in his sister’s body while his friend, Kurouma, deals with the knowledge that Masago likes him but views him as utterly unattainable.

I really want to like Oh! My Brother, and sometimes I manage to do so. I like Kurouma a lot, for example—it’s so refreshing that he actually notices Masago’s feelings!—and also the way Shiro’s possession is portrayed as a double-edged sword. True, his presence lends Masago strength in crucial moments, particularly in dealing with a bullying older girl, but her reliance on him is also holding her back in certain areas; although Shiro is willing to let go, it’s Masago who desperately makes him promise to stay with her forever.

On the other hand, there is a lot of extranneous material here that detracts from what’s good about this series. Some of the comedy feels out of place, and there are a few too many Shiro-obsessed characters floating around, from the aforementioned bully, to a former soccer rival, to a cool and competent member of the student council. If the focus had been more on the drama of Masago’s situation, coupled with the need to let go of Shiro in order to become open to other kinds of love, I’d like it so much more. As it is, I must be content with the occasional glimmer of what could have been.

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

Emma 1-2 by Kaoru Mori: A

More than any other non-shojo series, Emma is the one I most frequently see being mistaken for shojo. It’s easy to see why: it’s a low-key love story between a lovely and graceful maid and the liberally minded son of a wealthy merchant family. When we first meet Emma and William, she is working in the home of his former governess, Mrs. Kelly Stownar, whom he’s been very remiss in visiting.

When he does finally deign to visit, William is immediately entranced by Emma, preferring her over the aristocratic match (with the sympathetic Eleanor) his father endorses. Many other would-be suitors confess their affections for Emma, but she turns all of them down. William, though, is different: he doesn’t ask for a definitive answer, but is content to merely to converse with her. Kelly, who worries what will become of Emma after her death, nudges the two together, but her encouragement is countered by William’s father, who refuses to approve the match.

I find it rather difficult to articulate my love for Emma, which beguiled me immediately. I liken it to my immediate affection for Castle Waiting; though the themes of the stories are different, the bond between Emma and Kelly is not unlike that between the disparate denizens of the titular castle, and Kelly’s attempt to ensure Emma’s happiness is the kind of story that really wins my heart. I also really appreciate that Eleanor is not portrayed as a scheming villainess; she’s a genuinely likable girl and the instant rapport she shares with William makes it seem much more feasible that they could actually get together than is typically the case when romantic rivals are introduced.

As good as the story is, it’s really the art that I have the most to say about, which is definitely a rarity for me. Kaoru Mori did copious research on the time period (circa 1885), and it really shows. Interiors (homes, ballrooms) and exteriors (bustling street scenes, public buildings) all look fantastic, and evoke atmosphere as well as era. While a variety of panel sizes is used, the panels never break free of their rigid rectangular confines, and if that isn’t a metaphor for the class system, I’ll eat my keyboard. Writing a comic about Victorian England and having the action sprawl all over the page would be completely wrong, but that hadn’t occurred to me until I’d seen it done completely right here.

Mori is also adept at using pacing and paneling together for dramatic effect. The most striking example of this occurs near the end of the second volume. Emma is leaving London and, after several abortive attempts to see William before she goes, boards a train. William gets wind of this too late, and there are some great panels as he pushes his way through the crowds at the station, finally bursting through into a two-page spread depicting an empty platform. It’s really masterful, and I had to reread that sequence a couple of times to admire it.

With such artistic and storytelling skill on display, I was very surprised to read that this is Mori’s first serialized manga. Seriously? If that’s the case, I’m genuinely excited about what she might create in the future, and would like to preemptively request that it all be licensed for American audiences.

I read these two volumes for the second Manga Moveable Feast, for which I am a very tardy contributor. For more reviews, essays, and thoughts about Emma, please check out Rocket Bomber, our host for this endeavor.

All ten volumes of Emma are available in English from CMX. The main storyline concludes in volume seven; volumes eight through ten are comprised of side stories.

Stolen Hearts 1 by Miku Sakamoto: B+

stolenhearts1The basic plot of Stolen Hearts is summed up succinctly on its back cover: “a mismatched pair finds romance through a kimono shop.” Though the premise has some things in common with other shojo series—a significant difference in height between the two protagonists (Love*Com), a girl who attempts to familiarize her classmates with the finer qualities of her scary-looking love interest (Beast Master), and said unintentionally scary person experiencing the warmth of camaraderie for the first time (Kimi ni Todoke)—the particular quirks of the characters endow this series with a charm all its own.

When petite Shinobu Okuma (whose surname, we are reminded several times, means “big bear”) accidentally spills milk into a bag owned by her intimidating and brawny classmate Miharu Koguma (his surname means “bear cub”), Koguma tells her she can take responsibility for damaging the valuable kimono within by working off her debt at his grandmother’s kimono shop. Each day after school, they head to the shop and spend their afternoons together, dressed in kimonos and passing out flyers. Over time, Shinobu loses her fear of Koguma and realizes that he’s actually very sweet and kind, and even after he admits to tricking her (the kimono was actually worthless) and she falls victim to a lame kidnapping attempt from some thugs, she tells him in a forthright and angst-free fashion that she loves him, and the two become a couple.

Even though Shinobu doesn’t care that others might see them as an unbalanced couple, she’s still driven to clear up the misunderstanding that keeps her classmates tiptoeing around Koguma. “I want to show them his charms so badly, I can’t stand it,” she thinks at one point, and a perfect opportunity soon presents itself in the form of planning for the fall festival. Shinobu plays both sides here, giving Koguma pointers on how to be less frightening, and refusing to act as a go-between for classmates afraid to talk to him directly. Koguma also turns out to be surprisingly handy and, in the end, his popularity improves by leaps and bounds.

Things like kidnapping plots and school festivals seldom interest me, and I had originally anticipated awarding this volume a slightly lower grade because of it, but the charm of the characters combined with some terrific-looking kimonos (I especially loved the demonstration on donning a yukata!) moved me to be a little more generous. Koguma is bashful and easily flustered, lacking confidence but able to show his gentle charm with a little encouragement from Shinobu. I like him, but I like Shinobu even more; characteristics like determination and resourcefulness aren’t rare in shojo manga, but frequently manifest in an over-the-top fashion. Shinobu possesses these qualities, but in a more low-key way that feels a lot more real.

Miku Sakamoto’s art is attractive and looks much nicer inside than the cover would suggest. The high point, as mentioned, is the plethora of lovely kimonos, but I also find interesting the various ways the mangaka handles depicting Koguma and Okuma in the same panel, given their height difference. Sometimes Koguma kneels to be on eye-level with her, at one point the top of Okuma’s head is all that we see of her, and, in my favorite example, the bottom edge of the panel slopes diagonally across the page to reveal Okuma standing next to Koguma, whose dialogue bubble occupies the space above her head. Instead of resulting in awkwardness, the challenge has evidently encouraged innovation.

My one reservation going forward is whether the charm of the characters and the clothes will cease to be a reason to excuse some uninspired plotting. I’d rather see the leads explore their relationship than cycle through shojo’s greatest hits; if the next volume is all about Christmas and New Year’s, I’m going to be quite disappointed.

Stolen Hearts is published in English by CMX. The series is still ongoing in Japan. where four volumes are available so far.

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