Backstage Prince 1-2 as viewed on VIZmanga.com

One of the more exciting manga-related announcements to come out of San Diego Comic-Con was the debut of VIZ’s new online manga portal, which syncs user accounts between the web browser and various supported devices. This is great news for me: since I don’t own any of those supported devices, I’ve been hoping a site like this would come along.

Of the assortment of shoujo, shounen, and seinen series available on the site, the two-volume Backstage Prince by Kanoko Sakurakoji—whose smutty supernatural series Black Bird is currently being published by VIZ—caught my eye, and being both short and something I didn’t already own in print, seemed like the perfect vehicle through which to test out the VIZmanga interface. (For Melinda Beasi’s thorough report on both the VIZ and Square Enix online initiatives, click here.)

I had an utterly hassle-free experience creating an account and browsing the manga available on the site. There are two options for paying for one’s purchases: Paypal and Amazon. Since most people already have payment information saved in at least one of these places, this makes for a convenient checkout experience. My one complaint is that I had to go through the payment process separately for each volume, which I’m sure would get really annoying if one were buying more than just two volumes. It would be nice if there were an “add to cart” function so multiple volumes could be purchased simultaneously.

The web viewer requires no software installations and defaults to a two-page layout in a size I’d describe as “mostly readable.” To resize to full screen (“perfectly readable”) or to set a bookmark, users must hover their mouse pointer over the top of the image until a taskbar appears. (I discovered this by accident, and would recommend that VIZ make the option much clearer somehow.) When you set a bookmark and return to the manga later, you’re still taken to the beginning initially, but clicking on the bookmark icon by the progress bar underneath the viewer will quickly take you where you want to go. Aside from the taskbar hiccup, navigation is intuitive and easy.

Moving on to Backstage Prince itself!

Akari is a thoroughly ordinary girl with no interest in kabuki, but when she accidentally bruises the distinguished son of a famous kabuki family, she agrees to become his assistant until he heals up. Ryusei Horiuchi is bad around people—his only friend is his cat, Mr. Ken—but gradually warms up to Akari, who does not approach him with expectations only to be disappointed when he turns out to be so stiff and unfriendly. They’re a couple by the end of the first chapter.

Various challenges to their relationship appear in subsequent chapters. A pretty costar for Ryusei, possessive fangirls, Ryusei’s disapproving father… Most disruptive is Naoki, a kabuki understudy who finds it extremely easy to undermine Akari and Ryusei’s confidence in their relationship, so is always inspiring angst and insecurity in the former and anger and jealousy in the latter. All of this opposition is supposed to be making them a stronger couple, but if you think it grows tiresome to read, you are correct!

On the surface, Backstage Prince is a lot more tame than Black Bird. Akari isn’t sought after by demons who want to devour and/or ravish her and Ryusei isn’t controlling or purposefully cruel to her, but the series is still guilty of some backwards gender politics, and perhaps in an even more insidious manner.

You see, Ryusei needs Akari in order to do his job well. Whenever he gets stressed out from dealing with all those people, he rushes back to his dressing room to be with Akari, with whom he is able to relax. This might not sound so bad, but the end result is that he expects her to be there all the time while he is working. And she’s apparently just sitting there, staring into space, waiting for her man to come and give her purpose, because at one point her grades take a nosedive (any sensible girl would at least use the time to study!) and she’s dismissive of her parents’ concern. Akari quite literally has no goals in her life other than being near Ryusei. I find this far more depressing than romantic.

The bottom line: if you’re open to the idea of reading manga online, VIZ’s new site provides a clean, simple, and legal way to do so. I can definitely see myself using the site again in the future and recommend it without reservation. But maybe you should read something other than Backstage Prince.

Black Bird 2 by Kanoko Sakurakoji: B-

blackbird2Misao is the bride of demon prophecy, and marrying her will bring her childhood friend Kyo, leader of the Tengu clan, prosperity. Misao is drawn to Kyo, but she resists this arrangement because she can’t be sure whether Kyo actually loves her for herself or because of the benefits she could bring him.

The answer to this question arrives in the form of Kyo’s eight vassals, a group of young men who’ve got intimate knowledge of Kyo’s past, his real feelings for Misao, and how hard he worked to become clan leader so that he could have the right to claim her as his bride. The original heir, Kyo’s older brother Sojo, also makes an appearance and nearly ravishes Misao, but not before allowing her a glimpse of her forgotten childhood memories.

The backstories of the characters are fleshed out nicely in this volume, and I’m pleased with the rate at which information is doled out to the reader. One confusing point, though, is that Kyo is shown in flashbacks and the testimony of the vassals to be a kind, nurturing guy, but his present-day treatment of Misao runs contrary to this assessment. Sure, he comes to her rescue as needed, but he also says things like, “Shall I shut your mouth for you?” and punishes her for being a flirtatious drunk. Worse is Misao’s reaction: she accepts his use of force as his way of communicating and finds that it makes his gentle moments that much more meaningful. That’s seriously disturbing!

Ultimately, I do enjoy this series but its creepy moments ensure I feel rather guilty doing so.

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

Black Bird 1 by Kanoko Sakurakoji: B-

blackbird1Misao Harada has always been able to see spirits, but when she turns sixteen, things suddenly get a lot worse. Kyo Usui, her childhood friend and first love, returns after a ten-year absence just in time to inform her that she is “the bride of prophecy,” and that now that she is sixteen, all sorts of demons are going to want to drink her blood, eat her flesh, and/or marry (read: sleep with) her, all of which will confer some benefit to the demon, be it eternal youth or prosperity for his/her clan. Kyo is a demon himself—a tengu, as it turns out—and appoints himself Misao’s protector, fending off other demons while pressuring her to become his bride.

There are several very good reasons why I shouldn’t like Black Bird. In the first place, it’s another supernatural romance where the somewhat ditzy heroine is possessed of delicious-smelling blood that inspires the hottest guys around to fight over her. In the second, Misao’s childhood memories of Kyo have left her waiting for some guy to show up and protect her from the spirits who’re harrassing her. And thirdly, when Kyo does arrive to perform that function, he does things like fly up into the air with Misao (who is scared of heights) in his arms in order to encourage her to cling to him, saying, “You can’t live without me. I have to teach your body that.” Creepy! That’s just a step away from, “Why are you making me hurt you?” in my book.

And yet, I did like Black Bird, at least more than I’d expected to. Misao, though she’s weak in some ways, is adamant about not becoming Kyo’s bride—even though she’s attracted to him—because she believes he’s only interested in the prosperity that sleeping with her would grant his clan. These doubts also come into play for some fine drama later on when a tricky kitsune (fox demon) arrives and points out that it’s likely not a coincidence that Kyo was Misao were childhood friends, that Kyo must’ve been establishing that early relationship in order to foster a preference for him in Misao’s mind down the road. The notion that her precious memories might all be a sham leads Misao to push Kyo away, though of course he persists in protecting her anyway. It’s angsty, but good.

Sakurakoji’s artwork is attractive, and even though Misao and the rest of the cast boast rather humdrum character designs, Kyo really stands out, making it easy to see why Misao would be so captivated by him. Also, while I’m genuinely not one for smutty scenes, the ones in Black Bird rely more on suggestion than explicit detail, making them all the more sexy.

In the end, Black Bird really is nothing more than your standard wish-fulfillment fantasy. And I think I’m okay with that.

Black Bird is published in English by VIZ. The series is still ongoing in Japan, where eight volumes have been released so far.

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