Liselotte & Witch’s Forest, Vol. 1

By Natsuki Takaya | Published by Yen Press

liselotte1On the one hand, it’s exciting to be reading something new by Natsuki Takaya, creator of my beloved Fruits Basket. On the other, it was kind of weird to embark upon an unfamiliar story whose artistic style was so very familiar to me.

This volume goes by quickly, with its large, pretty panels unencumbered by much in the way of background detail. Liselotte and her two child attendants (twin siblings named Anna and Alto) have recently moved to a remote location, simply referred to as “the east of the east of the east,” and we gradually learn that they are there because Liselotte comes from a noble family and was accused of plotting to overthrow her elder brother. Given the choice between exile or death, she chooses the former and is determined to make the best of it. She’s an interesting blend of optimistic shoujo heroine and someone more mature who has been through some crap. Actually, she reminds me of Anne Shirley a bit!

When Liselotte was younger, she had a friend named Enrich who would tell her stories about “the east of the east of the east,” in particular that witches live there. When she’s attacked by a witch (and is kind of awesomely irritated about it), she is saved by a white-haired guy named Engetsu who seriously reminds her of Enrich, only his eyes are light crimson instead of the blue she remembers. Engetsu decides he’s going to live with Liselotte, and most of the volume involves Alto grumbling about this and ending up sick, whereupon an adorable witch’s familiar named Yomi goes off to fetch him some medicine. (Actually, Alto spends the entire volume grumbling, which is not especially endearing, though he claims he’s frustrated by his beloved master’s situation.)

While this opening installment does feel a trifle insubstantial, it capably introduces the characters and the setting, and puts forth some intriguing ideas. Is Engetsu really Enrich? What happened to him? Did Liselotte actually plot against her brother? Is Engetsu in cahoots with the witches? What else are they planning to do? I’m definitely interested to find out. I just hope we get some answers by volume five, as that’s where the series has stalled because Takaya took an extended hiatus due to illness.

Liselotte & Witch’s Forest is on hiatus in Japan. It currently has five volumes. Yen Press will release volume two next month.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Fruits Basket

MICHELLE: So, we’ve been talking about Fruits Basket all week, but I’m certainly not yet weary of the topic. How about you, MJ?

MJ: I suspect I could discuss Fruits Basket for weeks on end!

MICHELLE: Me too. We’ve already discussed the general awesomeness of the story and characters this week, but one thing we haven’t talked much about yet is the art. Takaya’s style evolves a good bit over the course of the series, and while I used to think I preferred her earlier style, I’ve lately realized that that is not the case at all. Do you have a preference yourself?

MJ: Hm, well, I definitely appreciate the prettiness of the series’ early volumes, and I do think there is some detail lost later on, but one thing the series never lacks is expressiveness, and that goes for the artwork as much as anything else.

MICHELLE: I think the expressiveness actually improves later on, at least insofar as Tohru is concerned, since she loses those really, really, really big eyes of hers. I will forever mourn the changes to my beloved Hatori, though, who goes from looking like this to looking like this.

It’s not that he’s become unattractive; he’s just lost a certain bishounen quality that I had certainly appreciated.

MJ: I do think Takaya does a wonderful job of aging the characters subtly over the course of the story, and I’m not necessarily just referring to their physical ages. I think she matures them overall, letting their outsides reflect their insides.

MICHELLE: That is definitely true, especially with Kyo, Yuki, and Momiji. Probably Momiji most stunningly of all.

MJ: Yes, there is quite a bit made of Momiji’s growing up, isn’t there? And though it’s more difficult to see that transformation as “subtle,” it’s certainly striking and oddly poignant.

MICHELLE: Takaya really does well with “striking” and “poignant,” doesn’t she? Which leads us to our specific picks for this month’s column!

Many of the most powerful and affecting moments in Fruits Basket occur between just two characters. To exemplify this trend, MJ and I have both chosen scenes starring only Kyo and Tohru.

MJ, why don’t we start with you?

Volume 15, Chapter 87, Pages 129-134 (TOKYOPOP)

MJ: Okay, well, I’ve chosen a scene from late in volume fifteen. After losing his temper in a confrontation with Yuki, Kyo returns to his classroom to find Tohru waiting for him, alone. In terms of script alone, the scene is not especially remarkable. There are some dramatic moments in Kyo’s inner monologue, but they’re both being careful not to *say* anything out of the ordinary. What makes the scene really work, though, is their body language.

At this point in the series, both Kyo and Tohru are just barely beginning to realize how they feel about each other, and Takaya plays this beautifully. The way Tohru lights up the moment she realizes Kyo is in the room, Kyo’s impulse to lean against her, their excited nervousness about being close, and especially Tohru’s last page alone—you can actually feel the tension between them in every panel. It’s so well done.

I especially like the last panel, with a flushed Tohru hurrying out of the frame. Somehow, leaving us with the empty space behind her keeps us lingering in the moment, much as she would herself, if she hadn’t been called away. There’s a sense there that the moment still looms large for her, too, even as she’s hastily left it behind, emphasized by the flowers still present in the frame. Like her absence in the frame is saying, “Really intense and possibly scary feelings happened here… run away, run away!” Does that make any sense?

MICHELLE: It absolutely makes sense! I’m always interested in how mangaka use open space, and I think you’re quite right that in that final panel it’s being used to keep us in place while Tohru dashes off. On the first page, the oddly tall panel of Tohru alone in the classroom employs empty space to emphasize how she really is the only one there.

This example reminds me of your pick for our “Duds” column, Baseball Heaven, and how the artist in that case utterly failed to establish convincing body language between two characters who were meant to be attracted to each other. Perhaps Ellie Mamahara needs to read more Fruits Basket!

MJ: Oh, good call, Michelle! Yes, that’s the perfect choice for contrast here. Everything that’s missing in that scene from Baseball Heaven is demonstrated spectacularly here, and as a result, this actually plays as a love scene much more convincingly, despite not actually being one. Even the use of small frames to emphasize the hand or face—something that just felt distracting and fragmented in Mamahara’s scene—adds to the tension here. It’s wonderfully done.

So what about you, Michelle? What scene did you choose?

Volume 22, Chapter 128, Pages 96-99 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: The scene I’ve chosen is from volume 22, quite near the end of the series. Tohru has been hospitalized and her friends have barred Kyo from seeing her while she recovers, since she gets stressed at the mention of his name.

As Kyo makes his nervous way to the hospital, the size and shape of the panels reflect his mental state. They’re cramped, dark, and dominated by his inner monologue. “Do I really still like her? What do I like about her?” We catch incomplete glimpses of the things Kyo passes on his journey, because he is so wrapped up in his thoughts that he too is hardly noticing them. Finally he arrives at the hospital, and the tension as he catches Uotani’s eye is palpable.

And then… Tohru appears and the world falls away. Suddenly, everything is so clear. The doubts are wiped away as if they have never been, because the minute he sees her, it is so very simple. “I love her.” Even as Kyo’s focus narrows to include only Tohru, the pages still have a wide-open and airy feeling that suggests gentleness and infinite possibility. This is the first time Kyo has really allowed himself to acknowledge these feelings, and it’s so beautifully done that it gives me goosebumps.

MJ: Oh, absolutely, I have the same reaction here! Everything you’ve said about the size and tone of the panels is exactly spot-on. Also, watching Kyo’s face the few times we see it is striking, panel-to-panel. His first expression, as he’s approaching the hospital, is one of extreme trepidation, and it feels to me that he’s sort of hiding behind his bangs. He doesn’t want to be seen by anyone, especially someone like Uotani, whose gaze he reacts so intensely to. He’s terrified of his own feelings and of screwing things up, and he knows that he’s historically bad at dealing with emotional situations. He’s simply terrified on all fronts.

Then, when he sees Tohru, all of that just drops away, leaving him with an expression of pure longing and vulnerability we’ve really not seen on him before. Just as the air opens up, so does Kyo, completely unguarded for one long moment. It’s really stunning. I think both of these scenes we’ve chosen would play just the same with all the text removed—they’re so much driven by the emotion in the artwork.

MICHELLE: Longing, vulnerability and sheer wonder, I think. 🙂

And yes, I think we have a knack for picking scenes where text is not really necessary. Even here, body language is certainly telling a lot of the story for us, even in small ways like Kyo’s tensed, half-flexed arm and clenched fist as he finally reaches his destination. You can almost see him willing himself to get through this without messing up.

MJ: There’s just so much emotional nuance here, in every panel. When I’m reading scenes like this in context, these are details I don’t consciously notice as I let the emotions just sweep me along, but when we actually take the time to break it down like this, I can’t help but be amazed by how much thought has gone into each line on the page.

MICHELLE: Me too. It sounds like we’ve convinced ourselves that, yet again, Fruits Basket is awesome.

MJ: Indeed we have!

MICHELLE: Thank you, MJ, for joining me once again! And to those reading this column. Do you have a favorite artistic moment in Fruits Basket? Tell us about it in the comments!

Fruits Basket 21-23 by Natsuki Takaya

As I recounted in this week’s Off the Shelf column, I have been a fan of Fruits Basket for nearly a decade now. I followed the end of the series in Japanese, and because I knew how it ended, I was able to postpone reading the final English volumes and delay the sad moment when the series really would be over. This week’s Manga Moveable Feast, however, prompted me to finally take the plunge.

Volume 21 is extremely tense, with Kyo continuing the story of how he redirected his feelings of guilt regarding the death of Tohru’s mother into a hatred of Yuki (just like his father redirected his own guilt in the death of his wife onto Kyo). Meanwhile, an ominous, knife-wielding Akito creeps up on their location. After Kyo seems to reject her feelings, Tohru runs off and crosses paths with Akito. A vitally important scene occurs between them in which Akito, weakened by lies and uncritical kindness perpetuated by various Sohma family members, is finally receptive to the kind of acceptance and sympathy Tohru offers. I’m a little disappointed that Tohru immediately falls off a cliff at this point, because that’s rather meloramatic, but I adore how urgently Akito attempts to summon help.

All of the Sohmas are worried, but none more so than Yuki (in cold fury mode) and Kyo (deeply grieving), who eventually have it out and end up finally confessing that they each aspired to be like the other. I love how this plays out, and I love that Yuki continues to nudge Kyo when necessary to ensure that Tohru ends up happy. Are they super pals by the end of the series? Not exactly, but they’ve definitely made their peace and come to an understanding. I’d say they’re closer than mere friends, actually, because they’ve gone through so much together, treasure the same person so much, and have finally realized that, despite appearances and insults, the person they are is valued by the other.

While Tohru recovers in the hospital, Kyo realizes that she’s given him something worth fighting his “fate” for. A visit to his father leads to paternal hysterics, but Kyo’s resolve is unshaken: he is going to live “outside,” no matter what. Meanwhile, Akito has made plans to demolish the isolation room. In the aforementioned Off the Shelf column, I wondered whether Akito’s actions might partly be due to some unconscious influence by the God who originally created the bond, as we later learn that he laments that something forged in love has now become a source of pain. He’s grateful to those who “shouldered that exhausted promise” for so long, and willingly lets them go. So, did he convince Akito in some way? Did Akito convince him? The latter would be more in line with the themes of the series, actually.

Uotani and Hanajima keep Kyo away from the hospital while Tohru is recuperating, since the mere mention of her name prompts her to start crying (she still believes he is disillusioned by her confession of love), but he’s finally tipped off regarding her release date and goes to see her. It’s an amazing scene: as Kyo heads there, he’s full of doubts and uncertainty regarding his own feelings, but the moment he sees her, everything is clear as day. “I love her.” I can’t help getting a bit choked up even discussing it, because it seems like I’m watching cherished friends finally find each other. They talk and work things out, and it is as lovely as can be. “I really do love you,” quoth Tohru, when Kyo warns he’ll probably cause her pain because the curse is still between them. “And that feeling is invincible.” They embrace and are profoundly shocked when Kyo does not transform. His curse is broken.

A wonderful chain-reaction montage ensues as the members of the Zodiac are freed in turn, with Yuki the last of all. “You’re the last,” says God. “Thank you. For keeping the very distant promise.” This happens just in time for Yuki, who had been on the verge of telling Machi about the curse, to embrace her in tears.

Loose ends are wrapped up in the final volume, more loose ends than I actually realized needed wrapping up, making for a very thorough and satisfying conclusion. It’s a little convenient that nearly everyone ends up romantically paired off by the end, with the exceptions of Momiji and Kagura, who are still not over their respective unrequited loves. Other things, however, aren’t wrapped up so neatly, with Rin unable to forgive Akito just yet, long-time family servants unable to adjust to the dissolution of the curse, and many painful feelings still remaining.

But, as a certain image reminded me, Takaya-sensei maintains the idea that “there is no such thing as a memory that’s okay to forget” to the end. The formerly cursed Sohma don’t need to forget what happened to them in the past in order to be happy in the future. Tohru believes this fully, collecting each of the beads from Kyo’s broken bracelet and displaying them as precious items alongside family portraits even until the day she and Kyo are lovey-dovey grandparents.

I cannot express enough how wonderful this series is. I feel so fortunate that I was able to witness the growth and transformation of such a memorable cast of characters, many of whom I dearly love.

Twinkle Stars 1-2 by Natsuki Takaya

I have no idea why Natsuki Takaya’s Twinkle Stars (aka Hoshi wa Utau) has yet to be licensed in the US, but when I learned that English editions were available in Singapore/Australia, I knew I had to acquire them. See the final paragraph of this post for a link where you might do the same.

I thought I might be disappointed by this series. There’s no shortage of complaining Takaya fans online, after all, and it’s not like her other series Tsubasa: Those With Wings or Phantom Dream really knocked my socks off, though I did come to like the latter by the end. After having read these two volumes, however, I am left to conclude that the chief complaint of unhappy fans is that Twinkle Stars is nothing like Fruits Basket. But why should it be? It’s a completely different kind of story, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good!

Sakuya Shiina is a heroine in the mold of Tohru Honda, in that she has a difficult family situation but tries to keep up a cheerful front and doesn’t talk about her own problems very much. Her father contracted her cousin, Kanade, to be her guardian, though it’s unclear whether Sakuya knows that, since she seems to regard Kanade as a kind of savior (and often defends him against allegations of laziness). We don’t learn too much about Kanade, but it seems that he originally kept his distance from Sakuya, but has lately become very fond of her. As the story begins, he has actually remembered her birthday and offered to cook Sakuya’s favorites for dinner.

When Sakuya gets home from her part-time job that evening, she finds that Kanade is not alone. A young man named Chihiro is with him, and Sakuya simply assumes he’s one of Kanade’s friends. He gives her a present and tells her she’s amazing for always smiling and never giving up. Attracted to his lonely mien, Sakuya wants to meet him again, but discovers the next morning that Kanade didn’t actually know Chihiro at all! He spotted him loitering around outside with a gift box and assumed he was there for the festivities.

Sakuya becomes determined to find Chihiro and enlists the help of her two best friends, Hijiri Honjō and Yūri Murakami, who are also members of the stargazing club Sakuya has started. One of Natsuki Takaya’s strengths is in creating terrific friends for her heroine, and Hijiri and Yūri are both interesting characters in their own right. Yūri is pretty straightforward—a short but athletic fellow who is brave, forthright, and easily flustered—but Hijiri is a lot more complex, one of those refined-looking girls who loves to say things that rile other people but who is fiercely protective of Sakuya, even though she seems to adore her friend largely because of her ineptitude in various areas and doesn’t intervene to spare her embarrassment. I think I could easily read a spin-off all about Hijiri, especially since we’ve already gotten a couple of hints that she’s got secrets.

Eventually, Sakuya runs into Chihiro. She’s convinced he’s not a bad person and just wants to hear his reasons for what he did so as to understand, but he’s not cooperative. “I don’t want to tell you anything,” he says, and seems willing to concoct some fantasy persona for himself but not reveal the reality of his life. He disappears after telling Sakuya he hates her, and only then does she realize that she’s fallen in love with him.

At this point it becomes apparent that this will probably be one of those stories (like We Were There or Kare Kano) where the heroine will help heal the hero’s pain and angst. Because this is a shoujo manga Chihiro soon transfers into Sakuya’s school, and though he is initially cold and remote, he very slowly begins to warm up to Sakuya. Another thing Takaya is good at is leaving little clues about important events, and we get a couple of glimpses of Chihiro’s past that inform his behavior toward Sakuya. Primarily, she’s so vulnerable and pathetic that it moves him to protect her, and this sort of unpredictable impulse scares him.

It’s not that he actually hates her, but that he’s uncomfortable and unsure around her. This point is proven when Sakuya speaks before a group of students in an attempt to recruit new members for the stargazing club. She flounders so badly that Chihiro, spurred by the memory of another girl in a similar situation, rushes to her side to reassure her. Although he initially comes across as an irritating jerk, by the end of the second volume it’s clear that he’s mostly just awkward, and perhaps a little broken, too. Sakuya continues to be confused by his behavior, but the lingering sadness in his eyes convinces her not to give up.

The quality of the Chuang Yi edition is quite good. Physically, the paper quality is lovely, the images are crisp and clean, and the volumes come with dust jackets. The translation has a British flair, tickling me by including words like “wonky” and “vexing.” Takaya’s art looks great, but also makes for a kind of bizarre reading experience. The characters are so obviously drawn by her that they look and feel incredibly familiar, and yet they are not copies of anyone in either design or personality. Take, for example, this panel of Sakuya and Chihiro.

There’s no doubt who drew that. And they look slightly reminiscent of other characters, but one would never get them confused. It’s almost like we’re seeing some denizens of the Fruits Basket world to whom we were simply never introduced before.

Contrary to expectations, I enjoyed Twinkle Stars a lot. True, it’s not epic on the level of Fruits Basket, but again, that’s okay by me. I certainly don’t expect Takaya to keep writing the same sorts of things over and over, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what she achieves with this different kind of tale.

Twinkle Stars is not currently licensed in North America. These English editions were published by Chuang Yi Publishing in Singapore and distributed by Madman Entertainment out of Australia. They are available for purchase here, but shipping is quite expensive. I’ll be switching to the French editions from volume three onwards. The series is complete in Japan with eleven volumes.

Phantom Dream 5 by Natsuki Takaya: B

In this, the final volume of Phantom Dream, the millennium-long battle between the Gekka and Otoya families comes to a close. Before this can happen, we learn all about the villain’s painful background and what really happened 1000 years ago. Unfortunately, the authorial sidebars spoil one major plot twist (it would’ve been nice if there had been a spoiler warning), but luckily fail to ruin the best revelation of all, one which was actually set up three volumes ago. Overall, the conclusion is a satisfying one and I surprised myself by sniffling a few times.

That said, a few things did bother me. As a child, Hira (the villain) was forced to endure many years of imprisonment because of his powers and demonic appearance (that’s him on the cover). At various points, the length of his incarceration is stated as ten years, fifteen years, and nearly ten years. I’m not sure whether this is the fault of the original material or the translation, but it’s a distracting inconsistency. Also, the motivations of an antagonist are unclear; I found it hard to reconcile their past actions with their present ones.

Phantom Dream certainly improved as it progressed; while it was initially hard to see how the same hand could have produced this and the lovely Fruits Basket, by the end the connection is clear. While I didn’t like Takaya’s other early series, Tsubasa: Those with Wings, enough to hang onto it after I’d finished, this one is a keeper.

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

Phantom Dream 4 by Natsuki Takaya: B-

From the back cover:
Eiji’s life hangs in the balance as factions once again shift and realign. Asahi struggles with her new powers and guilt over what happened in the past, while Tamaki strives to control the continuing outbreak of chaos in the present. And a mysterious new figure emerges to join the battle, but is he an ally or an enemy?!

Fruits Basket creator Natsuki Takaya delivers a story of love, loss and the redemptive power of forgiveness in this heartbreaking story of star-crossed lovers bound by a responsibility that may destroy them.

Say what you will about shounen manga, the fact remains that they know how to stage a battle. Even conflicts with minor foes tend to last a couple of chapters, allowing one to fully appreciate the scope of the event. Contrast this with Natsuki Takaya’s treatment of the showdown between our hero, Tamaki Otoya, and King Hira, the villain with a grudge against humanity for murdering his true love a thousand years ago. Here’s how the fight goes down:

1. Someone holds a glowing finger aloft.
2. King Hira falls down.
3. The end.

Despite the fact that this is entirely underwhelming, the series still could and should have ended here, as we get some nice scenes of Hira-induced chaos and decent resolution regarding Asahi’s motives for defecting to the other side. While not technically dead, Hira is left with only two attendants, one of whom is more devoted to her fellow servant than to the king himself.

Unfortunately, the story will continue for one more volume. It’ll probably be padded out with more of Takaya’s attempts to get us to care about the one-sided loves of the supporting characters, but events just move too swiftly in this series for any of these people to make much of an impression.

In the end, Phantom Dream is a decent story with occasionally compelling moments, but is overall more notable for what it could have been than for what it really is.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tsubasa: Those with Wings 3 by Natsuki Takaya: B-

tsubasawings3After a disappointing start and lackluster middle, Natsuki Takaya finally delivers a mostly satisfying conclusion in this, the final volume of Tsubasa: Those with Wings.

We begin with Kotobuki and friends (sans Raimon, who is prohibited from leaving the country by a bomb in his brain) in Japan, where they conveniently meet the Tsubasa’s creator and learn the secrets of its origin. After several tedious chapters featuring characters sitting around and talking, the plot picks up when Raimon is captured by the army. Kotobuki wants to rescue him but lacks confidence so Rikuro, a mysterious boy who has helped her on a few occasions, shows up and replays Raimon’s past for her so that she can see how much she has helped him already. Painful backstories are Takaya-sensei’s forte, and Raimon’s proves to be unexpectedly touching.

From there, the story morphs into an enjoyable sci-fi action tale, with Kotobuki making her way through a sprawling military complex to rescue her love and ultimately facing off against the big villain (who, of course, has angst of his own). Along the way, she lends encouragement to allies and enemies alike, showing a profound resemblance to Tohru Honda from Fruits Basket. Indeed, this quote about Kotobuki could easy apply to Tohru, as well:

She isn’t supposed to have the time to be worrying about anyone else right now. Still… her foolishness somehow always winds up becoming much-needed support for someone else.

Coming back to the same themes and character types might, in some creators’ hands, feel like uninspired regurgitation, but with Takaya it feels more like someone playing with and fine-tuning ideas. If nothing else, Tsubasa: Those with Wings is interesting as a milestone on the way to a greater work.

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

Phantom Dream 3 by Natsuki Takaya: B

phantomdream3Once upon a time, a thousand years ago, there was a beautiful woman named Suigekka who used her magical abilities to help the people of Japan. The people feared and misunderstood her, however, and killed her after blaming her for the drought that had descended upon the land. A magician who loved her, Hira, went insane after Suigekka’s death and vowed revenge on humanity. He began to turn them into jaki, beings controlled by their negative feelings, while his younger brother, Saga, sought to protect people and undo their transformations. Fastforward into the present, where that inherited conflict is still going on. Tamaki Otoya, a descendant from Saga’s line, is the current shugoshi, or one tasked with exorcising jaki. Hira has reawakened, thanks to the reincarnation of Suigekka, and his quest for revenge continues. Tamaki must stop him, but personal feelings are making him hesitate.

While I originally found Phantom Dream to be confusing, it has really shaped up in the last couple of volumes, and now seems to’ve achieved a good balance between plot progression and character development. Events still tend to happen quickly, but motivations are clearer and moments of sacrifice carry more weight. Protagonist Tamaki has become a more sympathetic character, and I also quite like the story of Eiji, once his opposite number among Hira’s ranks, who defects to Tamaki’s side after learning Hira’s real reasons for creating jaki.

Also assisting to clear up the confusion is the desperately-needed glossary that makes its first appearance in this volume. Unfortunately, the “Story So Far” section includes a big spoiler that, while strongly inferred in volume two, is not confirmed until the early chapters of this volume. One might wish to steer clear.

All in all, Phantom Dream is not bad and is, in my estimation, superior to Takaya’s later work, Tsubasa: Those With Wings.

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

Phantom Dream 2 by Natsuki Takaya: B-

phantomdream2From the back cover:
Tamaki Otoya is the last in a line of ancient summoners tasked to battle evil forces that threaten mankind. But when the rival Gekka family return to collect the demon sword Tamaki’s family stole centuries ago, a devastating secret is revealed! Tamaki is left in such a state of shock that he doesn’t even notice his beloved Asahi slipping away to the Gekka mansion…

I was pretty underwhelmed by the first volume in this series, finding it to be confusing and more interesting as a measure of Natsuki Takaya’s progression as a storyteller than for its own merits. Volume two is a big improvement, however; though the confusing elements persist, a potentially compelling story is beginning to take shape.

In this volume, more details about the feud between the members of the Gekka family, who use negative emotions to turn people into jaki, and the Otoya family, who are tasked with exorcising those people, are revealed. The current representatives of the families, Eiji and Tamaki, seem to bond a little over their shared burdens, but also engage in combat, as well. Some members of a branch family come to support Tamaki, leading to revelations about the reasons why more of the family is not rallying behind him. Asahi seems to feel a strange connection with a sword belonging to the Gekka family, which the Otoya family has sacrificed much to protect, but Eiji ends up in possession of the weapon after his cat demon minion manages to infiltrate the shields on the Otoya temple in an unexpected way.

That summary is distilled from a couple hundred pages of random and rapid plot developments, which brings up the biggest problem I have with Phantom Dream: major events happen too quickly, giving the progression of the story a rather slapdash feel. It’s possible that Takaya-sensei has meticulously planned out each new development, but they rush by without giving the reader enough time to appreciate what has happened. In the first volume, for example, I completely missed that a butterfly-loving boy whom Tamaki exorcised had volunteered to become a kind of reconnaissance spirit in Tamaki’s employ. This time, we’re barely given time to digest some news about Tamaki’s parentage before the sword is stolen, Tamaki’s mother dies, and Asahi goes missing, apparently on the verge of betraying Tamaki and awakening the Gekka king from his slumber.

Through the blur of these events, however, one is occasionally afforded a glimpse of what the story could’ve been if more time were devoted to allowing the main characters some reaction time. Tamaki and Eiji don’t seem to really hate each other; instead, they are bound by destiny and familial expectations to continue a pointless feud that’s been going on for a thousand years. Eiji, at times, doesn’t seem to want to do what he’s doing—and even seems to cherish some feelings of love for Tamaki—but does them nonetheless, causing Tamaki to have to fight him. I wish this element of the story had been played up a lot more, rather than the emphasis being on the secrets of Tamaki’s parentage.

Still, even with all of these problems, I find that I do like Phantom Dream, and substantially more than I like Tsubasa: Those With Wings. For all its speed, it’s still by far the more focused work, with a driving narrative that isn’t sidetracked by forays into “comedy.” It’s also more clearly the precursor to Fruits Basket, with a heroine whose sunny outlook proves of invaluable aid to the hero and even manages to get through to the ostensible villain of the piece.

Tsubasa: Those with Wings 2 by Natsuki Takaya: C+

tsubasawings125Oh, if only Tsubasa: Those with Wings were as good as its gorgeous cover suggests!

Former thief Kotobuki and her companion/love interest, erstwhile Army officer Raimon, are still searching for Tsubasa, a legend rumored to grant wishes. But first, they must slog through an excruciatingly dull plot about the Army enlisting the help of Raimon’s gun-smuggling foster father to destroy orphanages as part of a nefarious and nebulous plan. The most ridiculous moment occurs when Kotobuki spews a little bit of Shojo Heroine Optimism™ at one of the officers in charge, causing the woman to finally realize, “Hey, killing orphans is murder!”

The rest of the volume is somewhat better, despite the introduction of far too many new characters, as Kotobuki and Raimon team up with some others to pursue Tsubasa clues in a ruined 21st century city known as “the cursed forest.” First, they must infiltrate a fancy party (given by a guy who evidently stole Yuki Sohma’s body) to learn how to deactivate an electric barrier preventing entry to the forest. Once they’ve made it inside, they encounter the Akito of the piece, a colonel who is obsessed with Raimon and has implanted a bomb in his brain to prevent him from leaving the country. He’s pretty crazy, which certainly livens things up.

While there are some moments that are actually good, they are overrun by messy plotting, cryptic hinting, lame gags, and angsty backstories for everyone (even robots). I’m left with the itch to go at the thing with a cleaver, hacking off all the excess bits in search of a better story that might lurk within.

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