A Place in the Sun by Lala Takemiya: B+

I reviewed this collection of quirky, bittersweet tales for this week’s BL Bookrack and enjoyed it quite a bit. One story even involves a hapless guy’s romance with a garbageman!

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.

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.

How to Control a Sidecar by Makoto Tateno: B-

In this spin-off of How to Capture a Martini, stoic bartender Kiyohito Kousaka is pursued by a pair of guys looking to recruit him for a three-way relationship. He initially wants nothing to do with them, but when one of them goes missing, he cares enough to want to get to the bottom of the mystery.

There are definitely some good things about How to Control a Sidecar. The relationship between the two men—Fumi and Kanashiro—is not exactly what it seems, and I like that the title story ends differently than I’d been expecting. Even the regrettable inclusion of a nonconsensual scene is tempered somewhat by the fact that the victim collects evidence and sees a doctor, though stops short of filing a police report, and that all parties involved acknowledge the act for what it was.

It’s the second story, “How to Subdue a Stinger,” that I found most disappointing, since it completely negates the unconventional ending of the title story and endows Kousaka with a near-total personality transplant. The impression I get from it is that Tateno’s readers were dissatisfied with the original ending and that she wrote this to appease them. That’s really too bad, because it was much better the first way.

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

How to Capture a Martini by Makoto Tateno: B+

As a first year in high school, Naoyuki Hibino experienced his first love, first kiss, and first sexual experience with an upperclassman named Shinobu Okada. When Shinobu abruptly disappeared after his graduation, Naoyuki was crushed but did his best to forget him. Four years have passed since that time, but when Naoyuki happens to run into Okada, who’s working as a bartender, all of his old feelings return with a vengeance.

Shinobu doesn’t seem to care about anything anymore, whether it’s his body—he’s willing to “do” just about anyone—or his career, even though his boss and more experienced coworker encourage him frequently to expand his cocktail-making horizons. Earnest Naoyuki can’t accept this attitude, and keeps pouring his concern and love onto Shinobu until the latter finally admits his reasons for keeping his distance.

While this kind of story and couple isn’t exactly groundbreaking—there are shades of Future Lovers in the humor and characterization—it makes for an engaging romance nonetheless. Naoyuki and Shinobu are both likably flawed, and the cast of supporting characters helps move the story along, though I could’ve done without Shinobu’s boss and his incestuous relationship with his teenage brother.

In the end, How to Capture a Martini is a lot of fun and pretty darn adorable. I’m looking forward to the sequel, How to Control a Sidecar, which is due later this spring.

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

Brilliant Blue 2 by Saemi Yorita: B+

brilliantblue2Brilliant Blue ends as sweetly as it began, offering plenty of humor and warmth along the way. At first, Shouzo continues to fight his attraction for Nanami, resulting in some nice chapters told from Nanami’s perspective in which his confusion over the way Shouzo’s treating him is both adorable and sympathetic.

Eventually, Shouzo can’t resist any longer and takes the relationship to the next level. Unfortunately, after so much internal debate over whether it’s a wise move to make, there’s not much insight into his thoughts when he finally decides to take this step, robbing it of some impact. His haste to make the relationship a sexual one is also a little off-putting; his dissatisfaction with simply spending time together seems at odds with his interactions with Nanami up to this point.

After a positive but rather anticlimactic final chapter, a side story affords us a glimpse of the couple six months on. Shouzo is trying to get used to the residents of his small town knowing about his relationship with Nanami, and is meanwhile dealing with a suspicious-looking apprentice who is also beset by people making assumptions about him based on rumors. It’s a subtle parallel, but a rather nice way to end the story. I might wish more had been made of the stigma of the lead couple’s relationship, but I can’t really fault the series for remaining relentlessly sunny ’til the end.

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

Color by Eiki Eiki and Taishi Zaou: B+

colorFrom the back cover:
When art student Takashiro Tsuda chose to show his painting, Color, in a gallery exhibition, he never dreamed that an uncannily similar painting would hang next to his—with the same title, even. Works of art come from the deepest depths of an artist’s soul, so how can anyone else be expressing themselves so much like Takashiro? Filled with a yearning to find his artistic soulmate, Takashiro goes off to art school in Tokyo and meets classmate Sakae Fujiwara. Soon, Takashiro learns that this is the artist he’s been searching for—the one who created a Color so much like his own—but Sakae is a guy! Can such a profound connection between two people transcend gender and become something more?

Creators Eiki Eiki and Taishi Zaou (otherwise known as Mikiyo Tsuda, creator of the Princess Princess series, among others) collaborated on this BL one-shot and patterned the story somewhat on their own relationship, in which they first admired each other’s work in a doujinshi circle and later became fast friends, though they point out that the romantic aspect is entirely fictional. The two mangaka divided the artistic duties, too, with Eiki designing Sakae and a smattering of supporting characters and Zaou handling Takashiro and his family.

On the surface of it, it doesn’t seem like Color has all that much going for it. The two leads fall in love extremely quickly, and from there are eager to advance their relationship in a physical way. The supporting characters are not very interesting. There’s a leap forward of a couple of years and randomly inserted family drama—one collapsed dad (this is at least the second DokiDoki title I’ve read to feature this plot) and one “the firstborn son eloped and now you are the heir” dad—threatens to tear the couple apart just as they had declared their desire to stay together forever.

And yet, it’s actually pretty good. The way the two boys gravitate towards each other and develop an instant and profound rapport seems perfectly natural, and the feeling of joy and gratitude upon finally finding the person that understands you is palpable. The approach they take towards becoming intimate is cute, too—I love the scene where they’re sitting formally and awkwardly working out how best to kiss for the first time—and about 200% consensual.

Also, though the angst near the end, in which Sakae decides that if reality is going to pull them apart eventually it’s better to just break up now, is kind of annoying, I concede that it’s necessary to bring about a resolution, and an admirably ambiguous one at that. After enjoying a period of halcyon days, the boys have grown up enough to realize that some things just don’t last forever. “When I realized that we’d have to be apart,” thinks Sakae, “I had to admit that we’re separate people after all.”

Ultimately, Color is both sweet and bittersweet, and well worth a read.

Brilliant Blue 1 by Saemi Yorita: B+

brilliantblue-125Shouzo Mita had no intention of going home to the rural town where he grew up, but when his father is hospitalized with a back injury, he returns to temporarily helm the family construction business and “fix things” with his family. Shouzo’s stay is extended when his father manages to reinjure himself, and he gradually relinquishes ties to his life in Tokyo while renewing some of his childhood acquaintances. Chief among these is Nanami Ushijima, sub-contracted as an electrician for the Mitas’ projects, who has blossomed from a dim-witted and chubby kid to a slightly less dim-witted but more conventionally attractive adult. As he gets to know Nanami, Shouzo grows to understand him better than anyone else, realizing that Nanami is smarter that he seems, with a genuine talent for numbers and deciphering electric schematics, but yet so malleable that he is unable to extricate himself from an unwanted sexual relationship.

There are quite a few complimentary adjectives I could employ to describe Brilliant Blue, but I’m going to go with “utterly charming.” Shouzo and Nanami are very different—Shouzo is restrained, reserved, and responsible while Nanami is child-like and easily led—but the bond between them feels warm and genuine. You can tell a lot about someone by how they behave toward those less powerful than themselves, and Shouzo shines admirably in this regard, treating Nanami with firm kindness and helping him to end the relationship that had been causing him such distress (while keeping his own growing feelings chastely under wraps). Too, because of his obvious respect for Nanami’s talents, he manages to provide guidance without coming across as patronizing.

After Nanami is freed from the relationship—in an emotional scene in which tears of relief are shed—one might assume Shouzo would promptly declare his own feelings for Nanami. Instead, he encourages Nanami to acquire an official electrician’s license, hoping to set him on the path to self-sufficiency. Shouzo’s aims aren’t entirely altruistic—he hopes that by boosting Nanami’s professional confidence the other man will gradually become more of an adult and thus be able to consent to an adult relationship with Shouzo—but I can’t help but like him for refusing to take advantage of the imbalance of power in his relationship with Nanami.

While the characters are the chief draw, the overall tone of the story is nice, too. It’s gentle and funny and there are quite few amusing moments, mostly involving Nanami being endearing (though I could’ve done without the nose picking, personally). Brilliant Blue is published under DMP’s DokiDoki imprint, and therefore has less sexual content than other titles in the genre, which is something I appreciate. There are a few slightly disturbing scenes between Nanami and his lover, but they’re not explicit and are there to show Nanami’s helplessness in that situation rather than to titillate.

I’m also a fan of Yorita’s artwork: it’s delicate to the point of wispiness with a dearth of backgrounds, but I found that its simplicity works well for the story. It’s particularly adept at conveying comedic moments and some of the humor is amplified because it just looks so durned cute.

While I’d hesitate to call Brilliant Blue a romance just yet, it’s nevertheless a satisfying story of two men growing closer while one patiently waits for a time when his feelings might be understood and returned.

Brilliant Blue is published by Digital Manga Publishing under their new Doki Doki imprint. It’s a two-volume series; the first is available now and the second will be published in September 2009.

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