Kamisama Kiss 1 by Julietta Suzuki: B

From the back cover:
Nanami Momozono is alone and homeless after her dad skips town to evade his gambling debts and the debt collectors kick her out of her apartment. So when a man she’s just saved from a dog offers her his home, she jumps at the opportunity. But it turns out that his place is a shrine, and Nanami has unwittingly taken over his job as a local deity!

Nanami has all kinds of new responsibilities she doesn’t understand, dangers she’s unaware of, and a cranky ex-familiar who’s… actually pretty hot. What’s a new-fledged godling to do?

Nanami Momozono is up a creek without a paddle when her ne’er-do-well father skips town to avoid paying his gambling debts. Promptly evicted from her apartment, she has nowhere to go. It’s this that makes her accept an offer from a stranger. Saved by Nanami from a menacing (not so much) dog, a bespectacled fellow named Mikage gives Nanami a map and tells her to make use of his house, since he hasn’t been there in decades.

The map leads Nanami to a shrine and its supernatural denizens who welcome her as the next tochigami, or deity of the shrine for love and relationships. Except for Tomoe, that is. He’s Mikage’s former foxy (literally and figuratively) familiar and takes insult when Namami criticizes the state of the shrine, as he’s been doing his best to take care of it in his master’s absence. Most of the volume revolves around their contentious relationship, and though Tomoe claims that he doesn’t care if Nanami should get deceived and devoured by other creatures, he still comes to her aid when called.

It’s an intriguing setup so far, with Nanami seemingly poised to leave the human world behind (school, etc.) and devote herself to the shrine and to granting the prayers of the few remaining worshippers. She’s overwhelmed by the amount of work at first but is so grateful for room and board she’s willing to do just about anything. Although Tomoe is generally contemptuous of her, once forced into an agreement to serve as her familiar, he decides to make her into a kami whom it will not be a humiliation to serve.

This results in a few scenes of Nanami attempting to perform magic and failing, while Tomoe insults her (though she does overhear him defending her later). At one point he calls Nanami a fool for interrupting a meeting he’d told her to stay out of, and we get this voiceover from her:

Contrary to what he said, Tomoe’s hand is tenderly, firmly holding mine.

Now, obviously this is a lot less worrisome than the “I’m an asshole because I care” dynamic in another Shojo Beat series, Black Bird, but it still made me think of Black Bird, which is never a good sign. Perhaps Tomoe will stop being such a git once Nanami proves herself, but I am a little concerned.

Ultimately, I’m looking forward to see how this series develops but so far, I think I prefer Suzuki’s Karakuri Odette, which, coincidentally, is the Manga Moveable Feast pick for January! Visit Manga Report for more information.

Kamisama Kiss is published in English by VIZ. The series is ongoing in Japan and is currently up to eight volumes.

The Return of the NANA Project

I’ve reached a point with NANA where, instead of wanting to write a review all by my lonesome, I save all my thoughts for the always-enjoyable roundtable discussion with Danielle Leigh and Melinda Beasi. Their perceptions of the work cause me to look at it in new ways, and it’s a testament to the depth of the story that we’re on our eighth column and still haven’t run out of things to talk about!

This time we discuss volumes fifteen and sixteen and touch on subjects like the commercialization of Blast’s sound (and how this affects their fan base), Yasu’s motives regarding Nana, Nana’s complex desires and Ren’s surprising ability to ennumerate them, “Why don’t they just break up already?”, the importance of Nobu in Nana’s life, and several unspoken comparisons between Nana and Hachi’s current relationships and how they pan out in the future.

You can find that discussion here! Don’t forget to help us decide on our next topic (since we’ve only five volumes of NANA left) by leaving a suggestion in the comments!

Review copy for volume sixteen provided by the publisher.

Millennium Snow 1-2 by Bisco Hatori: B-

Millennium Snow is the first series by Bisco Hatori (of Ouran High School Host Club fame), one of those that began as a stand-alone but eventually achieved serialization. It’s been on hiatus for some time, but now that Ouran has wrapped up, some fans are hoping that Hatori will return to it. I’m not so sure that’s a worthy endeavor.

Chiyuki Matsuoka has had a weak heart since birth, and wasn’t expected to live past the age of fifteen. She’s managed to make it to seventeen, but spends most of her time in the hospital. One day, as she is gazing out the window, she spots a boy fall from a building and dashes out of the hospital to check on him. He is Toya, the very personification of the seemingly gruff hero who actually has a heart of gold. He’s also a vampire, weak from his refusal to drink blood.

Toya is exceedingly abrasive to begin with, but eventually demonstrates he’s not such a bad guy by doing things like accompanying Chiyuki on an afternoon outing (vampires have overcome their aversion to sunlight) and catching a little kid’s loose balloon. Chiyuki falls for him pretty quickly and offers to become his partner. Having a human to feed upon will cure the exhaustion he suffers from abstaining and the arrangement will also allow Chiyuki to share his 1000-year lifespan. Toya refuses, because if his partner should ever despair of their unending life, he would be the one to blame—he’s watched humans he cared for die, and wouldn’t want to wish the same on his partner.

It’s an interesting dynamic, and the first chapter—which I assume constituted the original one-shot—is quite good. Unfortunately, one the story gets serialized, Hatori seems hard-pressed to come up with plots. First, she introduces Satsuki, a werewolf boy whose transformation is limited to fangs and clawed hands and feet in order to best preserve his bishounen appearance. When the story focuses on his desperate attempts to be normal, he’s a fairly compelling character, but he quickly becomes dim-witted and entirely too glomp-happy, existing only to incite Toya’s perturbation. Their incessant squabbling means that on practically every page someone’s yelling or getting kicked in the back of the head.

To demonstrate the dearth of plot ideas, in volume two the trio is suddenly lost in the Alps in Switzerland, where they stumble upon a deserted mansion. It is incredibly random, and brings home the point that while you may have two likable leads—plus a completely adorable talking bat!—you may find yourself without sufficient material to sustain a longer story.

I’m not sure how it can be salvaged at this point, honestly. I think I’d rather see Hatori embark upon something new and leave this one unfinished. When the romantic tension between Toya and Chiyuki takes center stage, the story’s potential is obvious, but the directionless plotting and constant bickering makes for a frustrating reading experience.

Millennium Snow is published in English by VIZ. The series is currently on hiatus in Japan.

The Story of Saiunkoku 1 by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino: B+

From the back cover:
Shurei Hong, destitute but of noble birth, has always dreamed of working as a civil servant in the imperial court of Saiunkoku, but women are barred from holding office. The emperor Ryuki, however, refuses to take command, leaving everything to his advisors. Shurei is asked to become a consort to the emperor to persuade the ne’er-do-well ruler to govern.

Shurei enters the palace as Ryuki’s consort, but he has yet to seek her out. It is rumored that men, not women, share the emperor’s bedchamber. Shurei must think of a way to stop the emperor from shirking his responsibilities, but she has to find him first!

I can no longer remember when or how I was exposed to the anime adaptation of The Story of Saiunkoku (originally a series of light novels). While I liked the characters and the setting, I never mustered a passionate devotion to the series and didn’t get beyond the first few episodes. Happily, I have a feeling things will be different with the manga adaptation.

The first volume covers ground familiar to me: sixteen-year-old Shurei Hong is the clever and hard-working daughter of an impoverished but noble family in the capital city of Saiunkoku, “the country of the colored clouds.” Her father maintains the imperial archives but doesn’t make much money, so Shurei supplements the family’s income by tutoring children and taking on other odd jobs. One day, the Head Minister, Lord Advisor Sho, turns up at their home with a proposition: he’ll pay Shurei a hefty sum to enter the court as the emperor’s consort and whip the nineteen-year-old shirker into shape.

Shurei immediately consents, and it’s a job she’s well-suited for, as a noblewoman with nothing but beauty to recommend her would not be learned or capable enough to complete the task at hand. Alas, the emperor, Ryuki, avoids her to the point where the ministers (a trio of awesomely scheming old dudes) are about to orchestrate a meeting. When they finally do meet, Ryuki pretends to be someone else, but Shurei sees through him almost immediately. Still, she plays along, sharing her ideal vision of an emperor with him and letting him know that she’ll be beside him all the way. Ryuki eventually declares that he will learn governance, and the two of them begin taking lessons from Koyu Ri, a brilliant young civil servant.

Although Shurei is a strong and interesting lead, towards the end of the volume Ryuki steals the show in a big way. He pretends to be somewhat of an elegant spaz (He actually reminds me of Tamaki in Ouran High School Host Club, though not as frantic.), but is actually educated and an accomplished swordsman. As we learn more about his past—as an “unnecessary” sixth prince, he was bullied by his brothers and neglected and abused by his mother—we learn why he finds Shurei so appealing. Rumors abound of Ryuki’s taste for men, but it’s not clear whether this is something sexual or merely related to his fear of being alone with the dark. He’s a damaged but likable guy, and being with Shurei brings him peace but also strength. The happy expression on his face when she finally invites him into her bed chamber for the night (he’s previously had to sneak in) is positively adorable.

The enjoyable interaction between Shurei and Ryuki may be the centerpiece of the story, but a pair of political subplots serve to flesh out the story. First, due to her proximity to the emperor, as well as rumors that an heir will soon be produced, Shurei becomes the target of assassins. Ryuki enlists the aid of two retainers to protect her, earning their loyalty by finally placing his trust in their abilities. The second concerns Ryuki’s older brother, Seien, who was banished as a teen for treason committed by his maternal relatives. It’s hinted very strongly that Seiran, the sole remaining servant to the Hong family, is the missing brother, but that’s not yet confirmed.

Somehow, the manga interpretation of the story is able to capture my interest more fully than the anime. I feel like I understand more what’s going on and can remember the cast of characters more easily—maybe Kairi Yura’s lovely art is responsible for that. Too, I’m now eager to reach parts of the story that are new to me. Alas, I shall have to wait until February for volume two!

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Honey and Clover 9-10 by Chica Umeno: A

These are the final two volumes of Honey and Clover, so there will be spoilers here. Beware.

Be sure to have some mental palate cleanser on hand—fluffy shoujo may work for you but I turned to shoot-’em-up seinen—when you finish Honey and Clover, because, man, is it depressing! It’s not that I’d expected everything to turn out rosy, since much of the plot revolves around two love triangles among friends, and someone must end up disappointed if there is to be any resolution, but I had failed to grasp the bigger sorrow in these characters’ lives: the time has come for them to go their separate ways.

Primarily, this realization affects Takemoto and Hagu, the two characters who are graduating. Hagu has said before that she plans to return home to Nagano to live a simple life and paint as she pleases, but lately it seems like she wants something else, but is reluctant to ask for it. As she articulates her dilemma, we see a more adult Hagu than we’ve ever seen before. This impression deepens when a freak accident leaves Hagu with nerve damage in her painting hand and she goes without painkillers in order to feel the first inkling of pain that might tell her there’s hope for regrowth. (If you had ever had reservations about this series because of Hagu’s child-like appearance, rest assured that she is clearly a strong, fascinating, and respected grown-up by the end.)

This accident is the catalyst for just about everything that follows. Takemoto has a job offer from the temple restoration group he’d encountered on his bicycle journey, but can’t decide whether to leave a recuperating Hagu behind. Ayu decides that Morita ought to know about what has happened to Hagu, and their reunion coincides with a frustrating lack of progress in Hagu’s physical therapy. Morita, who is sick of people loving or being jealous of him because of his talent, is ready to cast all that aside and offers Hagu the chance to do the same and just live as two people in love. She’s tempted, but when a night away from the hospital results in swelling in her hand, she realizes what is most important to her and decides to go back.

Hanamoto-sensei is ready to give everything up and stay by Hagu’s side as she recuperates, but doesn’t want her to know about the sacrifices he’s poised to make lest that knowledge influence her decision of what to do with her life. The night with Morita helps her realize that art is more important to her even than love, and in order to be able to pursue it, she needs Hanamoto by her side, to nourish her with his presence and enable her to relax and grow. It’s this that she was loathe to ask for, but nearly losing her ability to paint clarifies her desires and she ends up requesting the very thing he’s been ready to offer.

You see, though I never would have guessed this, Hanamoto is in love with Hagu, too. Through being with her, he was able to recapture some of the joy in art—and in life—that he had lost. Because of this, though she does not return his feelings in the same way, he’s willing to devote his life to staying near her. I find this inexplicably sad for some reason. Too, because Hagu chooses this path, both Takemoto’s and Morita’s romantic hopes are dashed. It’s just so awful that nobody’s love is returned in the same measure that their own is given. These are kind people, willing to keep on loving no matter what, and I can’t help but want to see that kind of devotion rewarded.

Takemoto and Morita have both been positively affected by their love for Hagu—her vow to always watch over Morita prevents him from giving up after all—but neither gets a happy ending. It seems possible that Ayu might, in time, be able to forget about Mayama and accept Nomiya’s feelings, but that’s still some ways off. The person closest to a happy ending is probably Mayama, who is making slow progress in his relationship with Rika. A lot of things are left up in the air, including the outcome of Hagu’s therapy, but this doesn’t result in the story feeling unfinished.

In the end, Takemoto achieves some measure of peace—he couldn’t have stood losing out to Morita, but to lose to Hanamoto-sensei’s “kindness and consideration” is somehow more tolerable—and takes the restoration job. Oh, how I cried when Hagu turns up at the train station with a bundle of ginormous sandwiches to bid him farewell. Each sandwich contains a four-leaf clover, and Takemoto realizes she must’ve spent ages searching for those, which brings to mind a memory (of the gang searching for clovers for Hanamoto-sensei back in volume two) that sums up the feeling of the series’ end quite well.

As time passes I guess the day will come that all of this is just a memory. But that day you were there and I was there and all of our friends were there. And we all looked for just one thing. In fact, that whole miraculous time in my life is going to keep turning nostalgically, somewhere far away deep in my heart, accompanied by a sweet pain forever.

Thanks for an awesome series, Chica Umino. I hope someone licenses Sangatsu no Lion soon.

Review copy for volume ten provided by the publisher.

Dengeki Daisy 1 by Kyousuke Motomi: B+

From the back cover:
After orphan Teru Kurebayashi loses her beloved older brother, she finds solace in the messages she exchanges with DAISY, an enigmatic figure who can only be reached through the cell phone her brother left her. Meanwhile, mysterious Tasuku Kurosaki always seems to be around whenever Teru needs help. Could DAISY be a lot closer than Teru thinks?

One day at school, Teru accidentally breaks a window and agrees to pay for it by helping Kurosaki with chores around school. Kurosaki is an impossible taskmaster, though, and he also seems to be hiding something important from Teru…

Dengeki Daisy, from the creator of the charming Beast Master, is the latest series to debut under VIZ’s Shojo Beat imprint. It’s the story of orphan Teru Kurebayashi, whose older brother recently passed away, but not before giving her a cell phone that will enable her to contact “Daisy,” who will always be there to protect Teru in her brother’s place.

Due to her status as a scholarship student, Teru faces bullying at school, but pretends like everything is fine when text messaging Daisy. Little does she know that Tasuku Kurosaki, the delinquent school custodian, is actually Daisy and has been watching over her all this time. When Teru accidentally breaks a window at school, Kurosaki uses it as an excuse to keep an eye on her while he plays mahjong on his laptop and she does all the work.

There are definitely some familiar elements to this story. You’ve got the impoverished heroine being called a pauper, the all-powerful student council, and the somewhat-jerky-but-really-kind male lead. What makes Dengeki Daisy stand out from the pack are the original twists Kyousuke Motomi employs. Student-teacher romances are fairly common, but I’ve never seen a student-custodian one before. I like that Kurosaki is in love, but Teru is oblivious (though she does suspect right away that he might be Daisy, which he denies). And I genuinely like the characters and the way they interact, especially Teru’s group of misfit friends and the scene in which Kurosaki wields an edger as a weapon!

I really don’t have any complaints about this volume—it’s light, cute fun—but I can see how Kurosaki’s protectiveness and occasional dispeasure with Teru’s actions could possibly be viewed as patronizing. It honestly didn’t come across this way to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others took issue with it.

All in all, I really enjoyed this debut and am looking forward to continuing the series. Thanks, VIZ, for bringing us something else from this talented mangaka!

Volume one of Dengeki Daisy is available now. The series is still ongoing in Japan—volume seven will be coming out there in a couple of weeks.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

NANA 12 by Ai Yazawa: A

Cut for spoilers!

From the back cover:
Hachi tells herself that she’s got her eye on the future and her life with Takumi, but she just can’t let go of the past and her friendship with Nana and the rest of Blast—especially Nobu. And the tangle gets thicker when Hachi’s wedding has to be postponed in favor of Nana and Ren’s nuptials. Can Hachi handle another delay in her happily-ever-after?

Oh, NANA. So good and yet so depressing.

Volume eleven left off with a hopeful/hopeless cliffhanger—Hachi had invited Blast to attend a fireworks festival and they’re all gathered in the girls’ old apartment, waiting for her. Hachi, meanwhile, is broken down in tears because she’s just encountered Shoji and has realized that she has truly lost him forever. Can she now face Nobu knowing the same thing?

Volume twelve begins not with a direct followup, but with a similar gathering six or seven years in the future. None of the old pain has been resolved—Nobu and Hachi still have a palpable connection and chemistry—and Nana is welcome, wished-for, but absent. After this glimpse at what will be, we return to the night of the fireworks festival and to some very selfish actions by Nana.

She has been trying to reconcile herself that Nobu isn’t going to be the glue that keeps her and Hachi together, and even trying to be supportive of his flirtations with a couple of residents of the agency dorm where the band is now living, but just as soon as she gets an inkling that Hachi isn’t over Nobu, she goes into a desperate sort of auto-pilot. She lies to Hachi, saying Nobu didn’t come, and arranges so that Nobu is alone in the apartment to greet Hachi when she arrives. Nobu, though, is too decent a guy to jeopardize Hachi’s happiness and doesn’t answer the door.

Meanwhile, plans for Nana and Ren’s wedding proceed, and it’s made into a huge publicity deal by their agencies, including a press conference on the day that both bands release new singles. The expectations everyone has for this match are horribly weighty. Takumi (and Yasu, too) think that Nana is going to be able to keep Ren from sliding further into drug addiction. Hachi thinks theirs is the dreamiest love story ever and is sure that Nana is in “total bliss” right now.

As for Nana, she’s completely terrified, but still hopeful that marrying will make her feel more stable. Not realizing, of course, that Ren is as much of a wreck as she is, if not more so. Shin points out at one point that no one at a band/agency meeting is discussing the impending wedding like it’s a good thing, but there’s just such an atmosphere of gloom and foreboding that it’s certainly doomed to failure.

In Hachi’s world, thanks to some clever scheming from Reira, Takumi has realized that it just wouldn’t do for two of Trapnest’s eligible bachelors to get married at the same time, so his and Hachi’s nuptuals are on hold indefinitely. She tries to keep upbeat about this, and doesn’t waver in her commitment to sticking it out with him, but even she is honest. “Even though we can construct our little world, I don’t think it can grow.”

The volume concludes with all of the main characters about to meet up again at a joint birthday party for Shin and Reira. I expect many revelations and much pain will ensue, including, perhaps, incontrovertible evidence that Takumi is a cheating bastard, that Nobu has a heart of gold, and that nobody in this story ever really has any chance of being happy.

And yet, for all of the pain and misery, NANA is still simply amazing. I am desperate to read volume thirteen, and yet simultaneously dread it because it will surely hurt. A story capable of hurting you, though, is a story worth treasuring.

The Gentlemen’s Alliance Cross 11 by Arina Tanemura: C+

When this series was wrapping up in Japan, I heard rumors about how it ended. Word was fans were peeved because, in the end, the heroine does not make a decision between the twin brothers for whom she has feelings. It turns out that this isn’t true, though author’s notes from Tanemura indicate that her original intention was for Haine to marry both boys and not just one. And yes, this is the kind of shojo that ends with a wedding.

As the conclusion approaches, all kinds of things happen that are probably supposed to be dramatic but just make me laugh. Haine confronts the twins’ grandfather about an archaic family tradition that establishes one as the heir and the other as mere stand-in, demonstrating her anger by ripping up a chair cushion. She then proceeds to talk down a gun-wielding friend by diagnosing his angst within three pages, gets shot anyway, narrates insipid dialogue like “Even if I’m mistaken… if what I make my mind up to do will lead to happiness then I can do it,” convinces gramps to acknowledge both twins, relays the good news to the boys, and then promptly collapses from her wound.

It’s all extremely silly, but there’s at least some enjoyment to be derived from watching all the clichés at play. Also, it seems that the art—though extravagantly toned as per usual—is a bit prettier in this volume. Perhaps Tanemura stepped it up a notch for the big finale.

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

Library Wars: Love & War 1 by Hiro Arikawa and Kiiro Yumi: B

At some point in the near future, the national government of Japan passes the Media Betterment Act, which “seeks to exercise censorship over all media, including restricting offensive books.” Libraries are the only institutions able to oppose them, and so local governments build up armed forces to defend their libraries, which continue to preserve banned works in their collections and make them available to the people.

When Iku Kasahara was in her final year of high school, a member of the Library Forces intervened during a bookstore raid and prevented a beloved book from falling into the grasp of the Media Betterment Committee. The incident made a big impression on her and, after graduating from college, she enlists. As a new recruit, she must attend classes, complete grueling physical challenges, help out at the local library, and participate in woodsy training sessions.

While we see all of these scenarios play out in this introductory volume, the focus is really on Iku’s relationship with Dojo, her cranky commanding officer. To the reader, it is plainly obvious that he was the one who helped Iku in the bookstore that day, but Iku fails to connect him with her idealized prince. Because he pushes her harder than the other recruits—since he expects more of her—she thinks he hates her and is suspicious of his occasional kindness. For his part, Dojo is clearly smitten and impressed by Iku’s determination, even though her frequent intellectual lapses do try his patience.

Library Wars is a perfectly decent read, but it does have some issues. Firstly, the basic concept, as inherited by the series of light novels upon which the manga is based. If the national government has banned offensive books, why isn’t it going after the publishers of these books isntead of waiting until they’ve actually been printed to go confiscate them from bookstores? That doesn’t make much sense.

Secondly, the protagonist. I really appreciate that Iku is a physically coordinated heroine in her twenties, but wish that she wasn’t portrayed as such a scholastic ditz, forever sleeping in class and having to learn on the job what she was supposed to have learned in the classroom. I found myself sympathizing with Tezuka, her antagonistic fellow recruit, who is annoyed that such a slacker is able to achieve the same honor—a spot on an elite squad—that he was only able to attain through hard work.

Lastly, I am bothered by the inconsistency with which VIZ (presumably) has treated the characters’ ranks. Iku is first introduced as a Corporal, yet she is later identified as a Sergeant on a chart of characters and their positions and, indeed, the insignia on her uniform bears this out. Dojo, in turn, is called a Sergeant but according to the chart and his uniform, is actually a First Lieutenant. I know I shouldn’t let this sort of thing distract me from the story, but it’s a mistake that’s repeated so frequently I just couldn’t help it. Hopefully they’ll correct it for volume two.

I enjoyed Library Wars enough that I plan to continue with the series, though I doubt it’ll ever top my personal list of beloved books.

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

Cactus’s Secret 2 by Nana Haruta: B-

Miku Yamada has finally managed to make her dense crush, Kyohei Fujioka, understand that she has feelings for him, even though he doesn’t reciprocate. Meanwhile, a pompous classmate publicly declares his affections for Miku and attempts to get Kyohei expelled for stealing the answers to the midterm exams. Later, Miku and Kyohei are both assigned to the Sports Day Planning Committee, where the lovely chief gets too close to Kyohei for Miku’s comfort.

I didn’t have too great an impression of this series after the first volume, since I found the lead character abrasive and largely to blame for her own angst. Things improve in volume two, in which Miku’s tendency to rant actually helps clear up the cheating accusation and in which Kyohei exhibits sufficient obliviousness to justify her irritation. There’s also an especially nice chapter where the two of them get lost on their way to karaoke with friends and end up having a nice time together at the arcade, complete with some genuinely amusing photo stickers.

Unfortunately, we’re only in volume two and the cast already includes four romantic rivals. They do propel the plot along, at least, with the Planning Committee chief causing Miku some pain when she realizes that something Kyohei said to her is the same thing he’d say to anybody else and the new male character offering to reveal Kyohei’s mysterious secret if Miku goes out with him, but it’s still tiresome.

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