The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 4 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

This is the story of Cello, an aspiring Palette or “color magician,” who has had to repeat her first year of training school because her abilities are a bit different than those of her fellow students. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is a very episodic series, and this volume is no exception. On the agenda are a separation from her avian partner that prompts Cello to strive to be her best, a rampaging drunken ostrich, and a swimming competition.

I’m not a fan of episodic tales in general, but Kusakawa manages to incorporate modest development for her lead characters and their relationship even while hijinks are ensuing. Over the course of the previous volumes, Dr. Guell (the school doctor) has helped Cello out on numerous occasions and now secretly harbors romantic feelings for her. The episodic nature of the story contrives to put the two of them together, occasionally in ridiculous situations, but also provides the opportunity for many warm and fuzzy moments. The final scene between them in volume four is anything but ridiculous or fuzzy, however, and may be just what Cello needs to finally begin to see the stoic doctor in a new light.

That said, this story is certainly progressing at a leisurely pace for one with only two volumes left. I can’t help but wish for a more dramatic storyline or more tangible evidence of Cello’s progressing skills. Aww-inspiring it may be, but it’s currently too mellow to generate anything akin to awe.

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

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 3 by Nari Kusakawa: B

From the back cover:
Cello meets Fenne, a fellow Palette-in-training who’s been having problems with his abilities ever since his bird-partner died. Despite his sarcastic attitude, Cello is determined to both help him find a suitable new bird and to become his friend. Then Olga—Dr. Guell’s jealous bird—decides that Cello is taking up way too much of Dr. Guell’s time. So now she’s determined to make sure that Cello quickly completes her Palette training.

Just as I was wishing to know more about Cello’s progress, she makes a remark in one chapter about how she has cleared “about half” of the first twelve colors. That’s a step in the right direction, I suppose.

Unfortunately, none of the stories in this volume really do much for me, though none is bad or anything. A new character, Fenne, is introduced and ropes Cello into helping him adapt one of the migratory birds that visit the island to be his new partner. At first he mocks her for having to repeat her first year, but comes to like her, which bothers Dr. Guell, who is coming to realize that Cello occupies his thoughts rather a lot.

The story with Olga serving as Cello’s tutor misses the mark for amusing and instead ventures into the territory of “too silly for me.” The same can be said for the chapter in which Cello’s father pursues an outrageously ridiculous plan of making up with his wife, with whom he’s had a fight. About the only one I really like is the one about Cello’s birthday, and how Dr. Guell sweetly buys her a present. Not only that, he’s clearly paid enough attention to her to know exactly what kind of present she would like best.

The relationship between Dr. Guell and Cello is the most interesting thing about the series at the moment, but I do rather wish for a more serialized story line. This is the halfway point of the series and though it’s very pleasant and guaranteed to foster some warm fuzzies, it feels like something more should be happening by now.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 2 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

From the back cover:
It’s Christmas time on the island of Opal, and a visiting young Prince introduces holiday traditions to its residents. What could be more festive than the powers of the color wizards unleashed upon the season? But Dr. Guell is jealous of the relationship between the Prince and Cello and adds a sour note to the happy celebration. Then, find out more about Cello’s family and learn how she first bonded with Yoyo, her very special bird.

The episodic adventures continue in this volume, including a story about a visiting prince with a predictable secret, the tale of how Cello first met Yoyo, and a chapter about Cello’s family and her dad’s attempts to get some kind of facial expression out of terminally cool Dr. Gruell. Each of the episodes has something amusing about it, or some particular insight on character, but some are also a bit dull; I’m already kind of tired of seeing the triplet little girls turn up again and again.

The second story is my favorite, and not just because of Yoyo’s cuteness, though I suppose that is a factor. Mostly, though, I like it for the continuity. In an offhand remark in volume one, Cello mentions that she used to like climbing trees until she fell from one, and now she’s afraid of heights. This chapter includes that incident. It’s a minor thing, but I’m happy to see the seeds for it planted in advance.

While the current story structure is not short on charm, I still keep wanting this to be like a shounen manga somehow, with Cello acquiring mastery of new colors and her progression in skill clearly mapped. So far, she has improved enough to do well on a mid-term exam, but that’s sort of nebulous; the idea of knowing exactly how many of the twelve colors she can control and how many she has left has definite appeal.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 1 by Nari Kusakawa: A-

From the back cover:
On the island of Opal live the world’s most colorful birds. The birds have attracted a school for aspiring “Palettes”—wizards who have the ability to borrow color from one object and paint its qualities on to another. Young Cello has the potential to be a great Palette, but she just can’t seem to control her power. As the end of freshman year approaches she’s on the verge of failing, so she’s going to need all the help her bird Yoyo can provide.

This is the story of Cello, a sixteen-year-old studying to be a Palette, or artisan with the power to control colors. It seems like a silly skill to have, but the volume shows different ways in which it can be useful. Cello is smart and aces the written assignments, but her practical abilities need work: she has the unique ability to manipulate color from a distance, but not the fine control required to craft the fine goods that fetch high prices from outsiders. Her problems with control result in her being splattered with color pretty frequently, requiring multiple visits to the infirmary to see the young school doctor, Dr. Guell.

In the chapters that follow, she and Guell foil two separate attempts to steal the village’s precious birds and also supply some fun for some little girls’ birthday. It’s true that these adventures are episodic, but they really don’t feel that way because they’re not pointless. In the wrong hands, I’d dislike the chapter with the random little girls, but Kusakawa uses it to reveal details about Guell’s background as well as to illustrate what a kind person Cello is.

I also like that romance is not the focus of the story. Cello has definite goals that she’s working towards and acquiring a boyfriend is not among them. That said, there are a few subtle moments that hint that she and Guell are starting to at least admire and appreciate one another.

What I love most, however, is Yoyo, Cello’s bird. I love Koh from Silver Diamond because he talks and is amusing, but a lot of Yoyo’s cuteness is because he is silent. He’s clearly intelligent, but must get his point across mutely. One of the most endearing things he does is kick Cello (cutely, I swear) every time she thinks or says something self-pitying or overly self-critical. I heart him.

Kusakawa’s distinctive artistic style is the same here as in Two Flowers for the Dragon, and I find it quite appealing, though the evolution of Dr. Guell’s appearance between the beginning and end of the volume is pretty major. It’s interesting how different the settings are for the two stories—Two Flowers is set in an oasis in the middle of a desert, while Palette takes place on a semi-tropical island, complete with palm trees and lush vegetation. Also, I really, really love the covers to this series. So much, in fact, that I’m gonna have to link to them. There’s an online preview at that site as well, if your curiosity is at all piqued.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is published by CMX. Four volumes have been released so far, with the fifth due on February 18, 2009. The series recently ended serialization in Japan and is complete at six volumes.

Two Flowers for the Dragon 3 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

Shakuya, the heir to the dragon clan that rules an important desert oasis, has a rather complicated life. Not only does she turn into a dragon when her feelings grow too strong, but she also has two fiancés since the original one, who was missing for five years, suddenly returned with most of his memory missing. This third volume finds Shakuya being sent to a neighboring oasis to help regulate the flow of water that allows their crops to grow. Both fiancés and a bevy of squeeful handmaids, who delight in their mistress’s love triangle, accompany her.

The regulation of the water and the attempt to dispel a dangerous sandstorm takes a back seat to more personal drama, as Lucien encounters the woman who took him in when he was lost in the desert, who might also be the person with whom Shakuya’s father had an affair that resulted in his banishment from the dragon clan. The ultimate outcome of this meeting is kind of predictable, but it also introduces some new mysteries about Lucien’s time away from the village and the extent of Shakuya’s dragon powers.

I find Two Flowers for the Dragon to be a very fun read. The art is cute, the characters are likable, the women aren’t helpless, and the dialogue is great. In addition to that, it’s funny. Not so much in volume three, perhaps, with all its action, but I typically giggle several times per volume. Also, I think Kusakawa has some of the most amusing sidebar material I’ve ever seen.

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

Two Flowers for the Dragon 2 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

From the back cover:
A mysterious old snake charmer compelled Shakuya to assume her dragon form and flew away on her back to his desert retreat. Now he is holding her captive and plans to marry her off. Needless to say, no one is happy about that, least of all Shakuya’s two fiancés, Lucien and Kuwan.

They’ve put aside their rivalry to join forces, head out into the desert and try to save the girl they both love. But their alliance may soon unravel when the tattoo on Shakuya’s arm representing Lucien begins to grow—a sign to Kuwan that he may be losing the competition for the Princess’s love.

Like volume one, this cover blurb has a phrase that’s a different color and font from the rest. This time it’s “two fiancés.” I wonder what it’ll be next time. “Turns into a dragon,” perhaps?

This volume picks up with Shakuya in the custody of kidnappers who want to marry her to their lord so he’ll have control of the Oasis of the Dragon, an important stop for desert travelers. Her reaction to all of this is great. Instead of weeping or despairing, she thinks, “This is infuriating!” and begins planning her own escape rather than waiting for one of the guys to rescue her.

Later in the volume, Shakuya decides that she wants to get to know Lucien and begins to ask him questions about his time in the desert. This nicely fills in some narrative holes while showing the progression of Shakuya’s feelings toward her suitors. Later still, the circumstances of Shakuya and Kuwan’s first meeting is also revealed. I started out preferring Kuwan to Lucien, since I tend to like serious and quiet characters, but he’s kind of getting on my nerves now. It seems he only makes an effort to be nice when he’s trying to beat Lucien and not particularly out of any true affection for Shakuya. Lucien, meanwhile, shows that he understands Shakuya pretty well. I’m quite interested in learning what exactly happened to him while he was missing.

One thing I didn’t mention in the review for volume one is that this series has really great dialogue and a good translation, to boot. Characters actually say things that sound intelligent and use a much broader vocabulary than typical manga characters do.

This volume also included a short story called “The Cogwheelers” about a non-human guy who’s responsible for building cogs that represent cause and effect for everything that happens on Earth. He’s having trouble grasping the ramifications, so breaks the rules and goes down to Earth to see what it’s really like. I typically don’t enjoy these kind of volume-padding short stories, but this one is quite good, especially considering it’s only the second thing Kusakawa had published.

Two Flowers for the Dragon 1 by Nari Kusakawa: A-

From the back cover:
Shakuya is the heir to the Dragon Clan and next in line to rule the land. Oh, and she also happens to have two fiancés! Lucien won Shakuya’s love and her hand in marriage, but he disappeared before the wedding day. So the princess did what any woman would do—replaced him. Kuwan stepped in as her new soon-to-be-husband, and everything was fine until fiancé number one came back to town—with everything but his memory. What is a girl to do?! Now, Shakuya must choose who she wants to marry, using her two magical tattoos that change to reflect her feelings for each of the suitors!

I find it simultaneously amusing and perplexing that the words “magical tattoos” are in a different color and font than the rest of the text, as if that is the most important aspect of the story. I make my own fun by imagining purchasing decisions being made solely on a basis of “Ooh, magical tattoos! That settles it, then.”

Back cover mockery aside, I really, really like this. It’s cute, it’s funny, and I like the characters. Shakuya is far more sensible and intelligent than most shoujo heroines, and is perfectly fine with the necessity of a political marriage, though she’d prefer it if she and her spouse could also be in love. Kuwan is serious and sometimes kind, though not very merciful, and while Lucien begins as cocky and teasing, he also has a more gentle and affectionate personality.

I like the way Kusakawa handles the story’s gimmicks, namely Shakuya’s ability to turn into a dragon when her “feelings needle swings into the red zone” and the magical tattos that serve as a gauge for her feelings for each fiancé. The positive and negative aspects of her transformation ability are both explored well. The growth of the tattoos is nicely integrated into the story and, as Shakuya’s feelings for Lucien bloom ever so slightly, I found my own opinion of him shifting as the story wore on and more of Kuwan’s flaws became apparent.

Too, I like how little things show how well the stories are thought out. Like, early on Shakuya mentions how she has difficulty braiding her own, very long hair. Later, when her handmaid has skipped out on her duties in order to attend a market day, Shakuya must dress herself and appears with her hair in mere pigtails. It’s a very minor thing, but somehow impressed me immensely. Also, the final chapter, with its plot about snake charmers who kidnap Shakuya, could’ve been ridiculously silly but was instead unique and quite exciting.

I’m sure some will not be fans of the art, but I like it a lot. Kusakawa has a distinctive style and I have no complaints about it. In fact, now I feel compelled to read everything by her that I own.