Stay Close to Me by Yaya Sakuragi: B

Wow, a BL comedy I actually liked! I reviewed Stay Close to Me for this month’s BL Bookrack and thought it achieved a nice balance of silliness and genuine emotion. Now I need to find the time to read Yaya Sakuragi’s Hey, Sensei? and Tea for Two!

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Endless Comfort by Sakuya Sakura: B-

I reviewed this one-volume boys’ love title for the latest BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf. It’s essentially the story of how the love of a good man helps a good-natured dog trainer get over his past trauma. Unfortunately, it’s pretty dull, but I did like the ending.

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Speechless

MICHELLE: Welcome to the third installment of Let’s Get Visual, a monthly column with Manga Bookshelf‘s MJ in which we flex our artistic muscles!

Although it’s not our intent to have specific themes for each column, we do like responding to requests! Last month, as suggested by a reader, we devoted our column to action scenes. This month, inspired by a comment from Livejournal user Salimbol, we’ve picked scenes that excel in nonverbal communication. I will say right up front that my choice is very, very simple, but it was a scene that left a lasting impression nonetheless. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You, Volume 3, Pages 81-82 (VIZ Media)

MJ: So, what do you particularly like about these pages?

MICHELLE: Maybe it’s the simplicity I like best, actually. I don’t even need to give any context about the manga for anyone to be able to tell the following:

1. Boy sees Girl #1.
2. Girl #1 is oblivious.
3. Boy watches her with a look of warm affection.
4. Girl #2 watches Boy watching Girl #1 and does not like what she sees.

It’s so simple, I wonder if its meant to emphasize the purity and clarity of the feelings the characters share and from which this would-be rival is destined to be forever excluded.

MJ: Well, I think it’s an important moment for Girl #2. She’s watching a boy she likes watch another girl with such unguarded affection. He’s doesn’t even seem to realize or care that she’s still there watching him, he’s so wrapped up in the pure joy of watching the other girl. It’s significant, I think, that the final panels turn the focus back on Girl #2 and what she’s feeling, because this scene really is a revelation for her. I’d almost feel sorry for her if I hadn’t read the book. 😀

MICHELLE: Yeah, me too! I love, also, that the boy radiates almost a sense of peace as he looks upon Girl #1. Even watching her do little things like water plants or practice her kicking skills on a rock brings him joy. It’s scenes like these that make Kimi ni Todoke such a warm and cozy read, I think.

MJ: You’re absolutely right. Also, the artist is so skillful here, I think she could have even left out the final, dreamy image of Girl #1 in the boy’s mind’s eye, and we still would have seen it in our own heads, it’s so clear what he’s thinking of. It’s easy to dismiss the craft in a comic that’s primarily known for being warm and sweet, but that would be such a mistake here. This whole sequence is just really well done.

MICHELLE: And the memory of it stayed with me. It’s been five months since I read this volume, but it was the first thing I thought of when the topic of nonverbal communication was suggested.

The second thing I thought of is what you ended up choosing, interestingly enough!

MJ: Shall I introduce that, then?

MICHELLE: Go for it!

Antique Bakery, Volume 4, Pages 116-120 (Digital Manga Publishing)

MJ: Okay, well, the scene is from Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery. One of the traits I associate most with her as an artist is her use of silent panels, and this is the one that first came to my mind when you mentioned Salimbol’s request. It’s a scene between the story’s two main characters that is revisited multiple times throughout the manga. It’s really the beginning of their history together, despite the fact that it’s quite far in the past from when the main action of the story is set. This is one of its final appearances in the series, late in the fourth volume.

To help illustrate how effective I think the visual storytelling is in this scene, I’ve actually provided scans from the Japanese version of the series. Even without being able to read the small amount of dialogue here, and despite how important the first bit of dialogue is to the history of these characters, I think the emotional trajectory of the scene is crystal clear.

Boy #1 says something emphatic to Boy #2. Boy #2 is visibly upset, and though he attempts to maintain his composure, he eventually breaks down and flees the scene. Boy #1 ponders what he’s done, finally succumbing to deep regret .

What Yoshinaga captures so well is subtlety of emotion and the agony of time. The progression of the characters’ expressions during this sequence are almost painfully slow, placing the reader in the same sort of stopped-time state each of the boys is experiencing—that sense of being frozen in one time and place that only happens in moments of deeply negative emotion. Nobody gets off easy, especially Boy #1, who is stuck living with the consequences of his actions long after Boy #2 has escaped from the moment. The art is so simple, but the effect is chilling.

MICHELLE: I positively adore the phrase “the agony of time.” Yoshinaga uses repeated sequences of panels quite a lot, and while this one is painful, I can recall others that cycle through surprise, thoughtfulness, and then smiling acceptance. It’s a technique that’s very versatile!

Here, I find myself struck by the third and fourth pages particularly, particularly as regards where Boy #1 is placed on the page. The third page emphasizes how very alone he now is, after driving off his companion, and the fourth places him very low on the page. I wonder if this last reflects his opinion of himself, after he has treated his classmate so shabbily.

MJ: I wondered that as well! And yes, the empty space that’s left in the wake of Boy #2’s departure is significant in terms of how we experience the scene and the state of mind Boy #1 has been left in. Though our sympathy, of course, goes out naturally to Boy #2, it’s hard not to be moved by Boy #1’s obvious regret. As a reader, I want to somehow reach into the page and compel him to go after Boy #2, which adds a bit of frustration to the mix as well.

MICHELLE: Yes, this definitely emphasizes how stuck he is, both physically and mentally. And will continue to be, even after he moves from this spot, as the story makes clear that Boy #2 has moved on from this moment but Boy #1 has never been able to quite forgive himself for it.

MJ: It’s really quite brilliant, the way she tells the stories of these two men, isn’t it?

MICHELLE: It really is. I suspect “Yoshinaga” is actually just a synonym for “brilliant.”

MJ: I really don’t know what to say after that. 🙂

MICHELLE: Maybe we should take our cue from these artists and know when to remain silent!

That’s it for this month’s Let’s Get Visual. Thank you for joining us and, as always, please feel free to share your personal opinions on these pages in the comments!

In the Walnut 1-2 by Toko Kawai: B+

More mystery than romance, this BL series features some unremarkable “cases” but a pair of interesting leads who are already an established couple when the story begins! Shocking!

You can find my review for Manga Bookshelf here.

In the Walnut is published in English by Digital Manga Publishing. The series is still ongoing in Japan; the third volume was just released there on October 9th.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Café Latte Rhapsody by Toko Kawai: A-

I reviewed this cute yet complicated love story for this month’s BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf. I really, really enjoyed the romance between a somewhat relationship-scarred bookstore employee and his huge younger lover, and it made me realize I haven’t read anything by Toko Kawai that I didn’t like!

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Garden Sky by Yuko Kuwabara: C+

I reviewed this quasi-BL collection for this week’s BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf. The book is divided into two sets of stories that are boring while underway, feature extremely similar characters, and go nowhere in the end. This makes for quite a dull read.

You can find that review here.

Review copy 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.

When the Heavens Smile by Aki Senoo: B+

Book description:
Takagi, a rather cute and innocent guy, is best friends and classmates with Kumoi, a tall, intellectual guy. One day, Takagi is stunned to find a pencil sketch of a man between Kumoi’s notebook pages that resembles his older brother… who passed away six years ago! Could Kumoi have possibly known his brother?

I’ll admit that what initially appealed to me the most about When the Heavens Smile was its pretty, muted cover. It was quite a pleasant surprise to find that all eight of the stories within are quite good.

A common theme for the collection seems to be “friends in love,” though this isn’t true for all stories. “Fragment,” for example, is the tale of two students who meet, feel a connection, and give in to their impulses before they even learn each other’s names. “Absolute Condition” is about gentle-seeming Kusaka who turns out to be a closet mole fetishist and “Sirens” is about a high-school student and his relationship with an older man (though it’s clear that it was the student who made the first move). The first two are particularly good and both feature a take-charge uke.

The first of the “friends in love” stories is “I Love Strawberries the Most, Followed By My Dad,” which is a very sweet story with another take-charge uke. I love how the boys compare their affection for each other to how much they love various fruits. “Fever Mark” features another pair of friends becoming more, and “That Which Falls From Heaven” and “That Which is Still Here” are about Takagi and Kumoi who share a chaste love while being watched over by the ghost of Takagi’s elder brother.

My very favorite story in the collection concerns men rather than boys and is called “I Can’t Remember Now.” Midori works in a bar, and his friend Katsuhiro comes in constantly and gets plastered. Every time, Katsuhiro professes his love to Midori and tries to grope him, and all the other employees just assume they are a couple. Alas, Katsuhiro remembers nothing the next morning, which is painful for Midori since he does have feelings for his friend. Eventually, Midori can’t take it anymore and puts some distance between them. When a tipsy Katsuhiro tracks him down, Midori forces him to sober up before they can talk and, of course, they end up happily in bed with Katsuhiro comically uncertain if that was their first time or not.

Senoo’s art suits the stories well and there were several panels I had to pause and admire, even though the style is simple and backgrounds largely nonexistent. I like the character designs, and too I liked that none of the sex scenes (all of which are consensual, incidentally) are explicit. They’re plenty sexy as they are, without the need for details and slurpy sound effects, because the characters are interesting and their connections meaningful.

On the whole, this was exactly the sort of BL I like most; I hope more of Aki Senoo’s work is licensed in the future.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Midnight Bloom by Rico Fukiyama: C-

What a disappointment! I usually like books in DMP’s DokiDoki imprint, but aside from a blandly cute title story, this one’s full of shallow stories and off-putting relationships, including a particularly ick-inducing student-teacher romance.

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Solfege by Fumi Yoshinaga: B+

I reviewed this one-shot BL story for the new BL Bookrack feature at Manga Bookshelf. It’s less of a romance than it is a character study of a really crappy person, and I liked it all the better for that!

You can find that review here.