Eensy Weensy Monster 1 by Masami Tsuda: B

From the back cover:
Nanoha Satsuki, an average, plain-Jane high school student, comfortably spends her time in the shadow of her two beautiful, popular friends. But new guy Hazuki Tokiwa, with his snobbish, arrogant demeanor, has a way of getting under Nanoha’s skin, and releasing her inner monster!

Is this the beginning of an ugly relationship, or does Hazuki have his own hidden qualities?

I feel a little guilty that I’ve started another Masami Tsuda series rather than actually finish Kare Kano, but this one is so short and cute and I really will finish the other one this year, I swear!

Nanoha Satsuki is normally a calm, friendly girl. Even the attention paid to her childhood friends—princely Nobara, dubbed the “Lady Oscar” of the school, and genius Renge—doesn’t get her down. For some reason, though, a superficial boy named Hazuki and his snobby ways really get her goat. Nanoha attributes these mysterious feelings of anger to a “little parasite” and does her best to keep a lid on them, but one day she’s had enough and lays into Hazuki for being arrogant and narrow-minded.

Should it be a surprise to anyone that these two will eventually end up together? No, but how they get there is actually pretty interesting. After the outburst, Nanoha lives in fear of some kind of retribution, but her words have actually shocked Hazuki out of his reverie. Bratty vanity, as it turns out, is his little monster to overcome. He realizes he has no real friends or goals and comes to appreciate her hard-working qualities. In time, Nanoha is able to relax when he’s around, and by the end of the first volume—after the passage of several months—they’ve become friends.

Tsuda is very good at depicting the opening stages of a couple’s relationship—the first two volumes of Kare Kano are still my favorite part—and puts those skills to good use here. One technique she’s fond of is putting the girl’s perspective of events on the right-side page, and the boy’s on the left, and it works nicely here. For all of the moments when Nanoha catches Hazuki looking at her and thinks he’s plotting something dastardly or contemplating her lack of academic prowess, we see that he’s usually thinking things like, “If I want to be a better person, I should learn from someone like her.”

The overall tone is lighthearted, but one does come to like the leads a good deal by the end. Nanoha’s friends are quirky, too, and I’d like to know more about them, but if the couple gets together in the first two volumes and then we spend loads of time on their friends, I guess this would just turn into a clone of Tsuda’s more famous series.

As a final note, I must mention how much I love what Tsuda does with Hazuki’s fangirls. Immediately after being told off by Nanoha, Hazuki goes to them for sympathy. Instead, they all laugh in his face. “She sees right through you! I mean, we all like you, but we wouldn’t go out with you or anything.” Later, when Hazuki and Nanoha have gotten friendly, a few girls decide that they ought to bully her, but they’re rotten at it. At one point a cluster of girls follows Nanoha after school with the intention of threatening her, only to instinctively end up rallying to her defense when it looks like she’s been accosted by a creepy dude. Then they all find a new prince to swoon over. The end.

In the end, Eensy Weensy Monster is a totally cute and sweet shoujo romance. It probably won’t convert anyone to either the demographic or the genre, but it will provide an afternoon’s pleasant amusement to existing fans of both.

Kare Kano 11-12 by Masami Tsuda: B-

karekano11One thing that Kare Kano does differently from a lot of shoujo manga is that it puts its side stories about the main couple’s friends in the middle of the series rather than the end. That might be a disruptive and frustrating choice if one is consuming the story rapidly—the “Dark Arima” arc has been left hanging since the end of volume nine—but for someone like me, who hasn’t read a volume of this series in a year, the two-volume tale of the romance between childlike Tsubasa and her step-brother, Kazuma, works as a nice, self-contained reintroduction to Kare Kano‘s characters and plot.

When Tsubasa’s doting father married Kazuma’s mother, each lonely only child acquired a new step-sibling. Tsubasa was very upset at first, but grew to like her step-brother a lot and open up to him in a way she had with no one else. Kazuma fights his more mature attraction for her, drawn to the sad and lonely side of her that only he gets to see, especially as he feels an increasingly strong desire to devote himself more fully to his musical career with the indie band, Yin and Yang. Feelings of doubt and insecurity about his musical worth plague him, however, and he spends a lot of time trying to figure out what he wants and should do. He eventually realizes that his love for Tsubasa is a strength rather than a weakness, as allowing himself to experience it positively impacts his songwriting abilities and makes him feel like a more legitimate part of the band.

Tsubasa has always been my least favorite character in the series. Since her introduction, she’s been portrayed as immature and violent, and often pretty dumb. These two volumes make the case that she’s actually refusing to grow up on purpose, putting up walls to deflect things she’s not ready to deal with yet. She’s certainly far more tolerable here than she ever has been before, and by the end of the story seems to have grown up a great deal. Originally viewing Kazuma as a “safe” guy by whom she can feel adored without entering into anything more complicated, her front row center presence at a Yin and Yang concert signals that she accepts both Kazuma’s dedication to music as well as his feelings for her.

karekano12While there are certainly moments between Kazuma and Tsubasa that are important, not just between them but for the story at large (I very much hope Tsubasa retains her newfound maturity), I still can’t get very excited about their relationship. Part of the problem is that they’re not actually together a lot in these two volumes: it seems like Kazuma spends much more time with his (meant to be amusing but not actually amusing at all) bandmates than he does with her. Granted, this is actually indicative of their circumstances, and Kazuma’s absence from Tsubasa’s world and her hatred of the music that keeps him from her is a big part of the story, but it seems they’re only able to connect for a few pages at a time which hampers my ability to really understand how they’d function together as a couple.

I’m also rather confused about the passage of time. From the time Kazuma’s new song prompts Yin and Yang to give a stellar performance to the concert Tsubasa attends, eight months pass. Have these eight months also passed uneventfully for Yukino and Arima, who appear throughout these volumes sporadically, functioning solely as Yin and Yang fans? Perhaps it was a convenient way for Tsuda to leave her leads in a holding pattern while whisking them that much nearer to graduation. Time will tell, I suppose.

Ultimately, these two volumes are decent, but disappointing, too. At least the focus returns to Yukino and Arima with the next volume.

Kare Kano 10 by Masami Tsuda: B-

From the back cover:
When Maho confesses her true feelings for Takashi, he admits that he’s not the man she thinks he is. With the arrival of winter comes an end-of-semester school trip to Kyoto, where a little love and tenderness just might fill everyone with good memories, glad tidings, and the sweetest of dreams.

This volume was comprised of three sections that stand alone from the main plotline.

Maho’s Love Story-
The first two chapters were a flashback to when Maho, then a 9th grader, fell in love with a 27-year-old dentist and eventually persuaded him to begin (chastely) dating her. I liked Takashi and his initial reluctance, and at least their relationship isn’t intimate, but it’s freaky to envision them even smooching.

The School Trip-
Yawn. There was more unfunny comedy in this one, featuring a lot of the gang acting obnoxious in public. About the only thing of significance that happened was Yukino and Arima finally deciding to call each other by their first names. They also indulged in a blush fit when their hands accidentally touched, which is so odd for a couple who has had sex. Apparently there has been no follow-up whatsoever.

Act Zero-
I’m a little confused by this, because I don’t know whether it’s supposed to be what actually happened or what Yukino imagines happened. Anyway, this is another flashback, this time to when Yukino and her eventual friends took the entrance exams for their high school. And this brings up a point…

Yukino’s sister Kano laments that she’ll probably never go to the same school as her sister again because she’s not smart enough to get into Hokuei. So how on earth did Tsubasa get in?! This is a girl who leaps out of upstairs windows and eats pine cones! I don’t get it.

These stories were okay, but they weren’t great. They’ve also inspired me to take a bit of a break from this series.

Kare Kano 9 by Masami Tsuda: B

From the back cover:
The culture festival begins with a bang—Kazuma’s band Yin & Yang rocks the house, and the curtain finally opens on Aya’s play! But not everybody’s mind is on songs and spotlights. Poor Tonami hopelessly pines away over the elusive Tsubaki, who is the kind of woman who loves to be free—even if it means being alone.

I’m so glad we got to see the entirety of the play! It takes up most of the volume, but winds up having several themes that resonate with Arima and his current crisis, like a lead who’s trying to cover up his imperfections and tells another character, “If you knew the real me, I’m sure even you would hate me.”

The experience of accomplishing something with her friends energizes Yukino and she resolves to start trying other various things and states that she’s no longer going to obsess about being first in the class. Arima sees this as her leaving behind for good the little world that only they two shared. As her voiceover recalls that she truly regrets not hearing his call for help, creepy Arima reappears for the final panel.

Unfortunately, Tsuda-sensei now says that before we get to the meat of the “Arima arc,” we’re going to be treated to some stories featuring the other characters first. Whee.

Kare Kano 8 by Masami Tsuda: B

From the back cover:
As preparations for the culture festival continue, Soichiro realizes that there are actually two sides to his personality, one that is gentle and giving, and one which is frighteningly violent and possessive. It is a development that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Yukino, and she worries that it will damage their relationship. Meanwhile, Tonami and Tsubaki finally realize that they have fallen in love with each other.

The back cover blurb has been edited to remove made-up words; it actually says “frightingly.” I also didn’t notice Yukino worrying that Soichiro’s personality issues are going to damage their relationship. All she says is, “Sometimes, I feel like you’re a completely different person. I wonder why.”

Anyhoo, this volume is kind of disjointed because there are so many balls in the air. Tonami is really growing on me as a character; he’s far more interesting in the manga than he was in the anime. In fact, he’s a more developed character than his love interest Tsubaki, and she’s been around longer. The scene in which they admit their feelings for each other would’ve had more of an impact if I could’ve understood how she came to be in love with him, for it’s really not clear.

Arima continues to angst, but there’s a great chapter near the end where a hurricane forces him to stay the night with the Miyazawa family. Feeling Yukino’s presence all around, he sleeps well and without nightmares, even though a storm rages outside. Some things he thinks do have me wondering whether he’s supposed to actually be going crazy or not. It seems possible.

The rest of the volume is occupied by culture festival plans and a boring bonus story whose only redeeming feature is that it doesn’t pair up the two characters I expected it to. In the main story, there are also a few painfully unfunny “comedy” scenes featuring boob-grabbing and Tsubasa inanely jumping out of an upper-story window to glomp on her stepbrother below.

Lastly, I am really peeved at all the untranslated text I’m seeing. TOKYOPOP generally does not translate sound effects, which sucks but is expected, but they’re also not bothering with actual sentences which I then feel compelled to try to look up and make sense of. I’m so glad I managed to learn the kana, or else I’d really be annoyed.

Kare Kano 7 by Masami Tsuda: B

From the back cover:
The second semester has begun and everyone’s busy with tests, practices, and activities. It’s time to prepare for the culture festival and Yukino has been asked to perform in a futuristic sci-fi play. There’s instant drama when Tonami, a transfer student and old friend of Soichiro, comes back on the scene after three years. Tempers flare and competitive natures run wild.

This volume is comprised mostly of planning for the play that Yukino and friends are going to be performing at the cultural festival. While not the most riveting fare, this stuff is pretty interesting, because it shows Yukino being great at organization and getting various administrative tasks accomplished. I’m dismayed by how infantalized Tsubasa is in these segments, though.

Initially, there isn’t much fallout from what happened at the end of the previous volume, except one question from Arima to make sure that he didn’t hurt Yukino in any way. Most of the rest of the time, he hangs around looking dejected while she chats with other guy friends of hers. One of these guys is new character Tonami, who has a grudge against one of Yukino’s friends. I’m meh about this story—Yukino’s friend (Tsubaki) is largely unsympathetic now and completely so in the flashbacks—but Tonami is kind of amusing, particularly when he wonders what Arima (his idol back in junior high) is doing going out with such a strange girl. And, okay, the smooch in the tree was sweet.

Right at the end, things get cooler, with Hideaki warning Tonami to keep his distance from Yukino, because Arima is possessive and has a temper. This leads into another visit from Arima’s nightmare self and a genuinely creepy final scene where he encounters Tonami in a darkened corridor and gives him a super evil look. And Yukino has absolutely no idea that all of this darkness is lurking within him.

And yeah, okay, the story could totally get taken over by Arima’s angst, but I still like seeing him be all freaky. It’s certainly the most interesting thing going on in the series currently.

Kare Kano 6 by Masami Tsuda: B

From the back cover:
It’s not long before Soichiro’s back from a very successful tournament, much to Yukino’s delight. Now they can spend some time with each other before school starts again. Yukino notices that Soichiro’s matured a lot, which stirs up new feelings in her and makes her fall in love with him even more. Soichiro’s feelings for Yukino deepen as well, and he has some difficulties dealing with that and some family issues.

This volume was strangely unaffecting. Although I loved Yukino’s struggles to confess her feelings to Arima in the first couple of volumes of the series, her problems here with telling him that her feelings have grown and her eventual confession scene just weren’t all that interesting. Arima’s obnoxious family also made an appearance, but their horrible treatment of him came across as unrealistic rather than upsetting.

This was also the volume where Arima and Yukino do the deed. I knew they would, having seen the anime, but it was still so out of the blue story-wise. In one chapter, Yukino was freaking out ‘cos he touched her boob, and just a few days later, they were consummating their relationship. For teen couples, isn’t there usually an interval of gradually intensifying fooling around between these two occurrences?

The aftermath of this event totally reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and what happened after Angel and Buffy slept together. After Yukino had gone home, Arima had a nightmare in which a cruel version of himself showed him an instance of early childhood abuse he suffered. When Arima wondered why he was remembering this, the nightmare him said, “Because you dared to think you could be happy… I’m a part of you. I’m half of who you are on the outside. I’m the shadow under your feet.”

Dun dun dunnnnn.

Kare Kano 5 by Masami Tsuda: B+

From the back cover:
School’s out! But since Soichiro is going to be away competing in a kendo tournament all summer, he and Yukino are forced to spend their vacation apart. Will their romance be able to survive the separation? Yukino decides to spend her free time hanging out with her gal pals, but soon her friend Tsubasa announces she’s leaving home. Tsubasa’s upset about her father’s plans to get remarried, and freaks out even more when she meets her new brother-to-be. Yukino tries to be there for her friend while still nurturing her relationship with Soichiro from across the miles.

I liked this volume a bit more than the last one, even though Arima was hardly in it.

The first couple of chapters dealt primarily with Yukino’s new friends and really felt like an entirely different series as a result. Most aren’t completely likeable, but I suppose that makes them good matches for Yukino. Tsubasa’s story about her dad bored me at first, but I was surprised to find that I actually really liked Kazuma, her stepbrother, and enjoyed the chapter where they get to know one another a good deal.

There was also a lot of focus on Yukino’s family, which was cool. We really see her family a lot more than families are seen in the other manga I read. From learning about Tsubasa and Hideaki’s situations at home, she also began to realize that perhaps she hadn’t really understood what kind of a strain Arima’s family situation has put on him. At least the tribulations of the supporting characters actually had some kind of impact on the main couple.

Kare Kano 4 by Masami Tsuda: B+

From the back cover:
A pretty little girl named Tsubasa, an old friend of Soichiro’s from junior high, comes back to school. When she sees her beloved Soichiro with Yukino, Tsubasa gets extremely jealous and goes on the warpath to try to get Soichiro for herself. Meanwhile Maho, another girl who’s jealous of Yukino, gets all the girls in class to gang up against Yukino and give her the silent treatment. Yukino decides she has to face these problems on her own, without relying on Soichiro…

I had mixed feelings about this volume. Tsubasa’s jealousy-inspired antics were pretty annoying, and I got rather tired of the time devoted to the anonymous female students as they worked out (through somewhat incomprehensible logic) that one girl had manipulated them into snubbing Yukino due to her own personal vendetta.

That said, there were more nice, quiet moments between the main couple and I was also happy to see Yukino straightforwardly face the consequences of her deception and also start to make some friends. Tsuda totally used Meg Cabot’s trick of giving each prospective friend some kind of hobby or interest, though. It was pretty silly when three girls in turn introduced themselves and their hobby in the same sentence.

This volume also included a short story written early in Tsuda’s career, about a planet of rabbit people and the human political prisoner who crash lands on their planet and then saves their village from a forest fire. No, really. It wasn’t awful, but neither was it particularly good.

Kare Kano 3 by Masami Tsuda: B+

From the back cover:
Things are going well for Yukino and Soichiro. They have accepted each other for who they are, and have truly become boyfriend and girlfriend. But they’ve been concentrating more on each other than on their schoolwork, and it shows. When the two best students in school suddenly let their grades drop, it draws the attention and concern of one of the teachers. He wants Yukino and Soichiro to break up so they can concentrate on their grades again. And he even calls a dreaded parent-teacher conference to tell their parents his concerns. Will Yukino and Soichiro split up for good?

This is as far as I got through the manga my first try, but I can’t remember whether that was due to an ebb in the story’s awesomeness or if the rest of the volumes weren’t out yet and I just got so far behind I figured I’d just wait ’til the whole series had been released.

In any case, there’s a real slice-of-life vibe to this volume that is both good and bad. Yukino and Arima share some quiet moments that are quite nice and while I like that they had to face the academic repercussions of spending so much time together, three long chapters on the topic is a bit much. Yukino is also starting to feel the consequences of the other girls in her class realizing she’d been duping them with her perfection act.

Kare Kano is still a very good read, but like any relationship, it’s moving past the opening dramatics and settling into something more comfortable. I’m a little concerned because in the anime, it was soon after this point that the focus drifted from the main couple to the supporting cast (who I found far less interesting). I hope the same isn’t true of the manga.