Honey and Clover 6 by Chica Umino: A-

honeyclover6Yuta Takemoto, the nominal protagonist of Honey and Clover, has been battling feelings of insecurity and inferiority for some time. When he finally gets a job offer, only to receive news of the company’s sudden bankruptcy during his celebration party, it suddenly becomes too much and he takes off on a bicycle journey to find himself. Meanwhile, Yamada starts forming a bond with Nomiya, one of Mayama’s former coworkers, and Hagu faces pressure to “make a lasting impact” with her art, when all she wants to do is live a quiet country life financed by the occasional sale of a painting.

Like volume five before it, volume six mixes pivotal moments for several of its characters with moments of over-the-top zaniness. While the series has always blended humor and drama—and, indeed, a chapter in which the gang helps a bakery with its Father’s Day special is very funny—lately it seems that the comedy has become more outlandish, especially where Morita is concerned. It’s hard to completely dislike him, since he can be considerate and insightful when he tries, but his antics just don’t do it for me.

Those pivotal moments, however, are definitely worth the price of admission; Umino is adept at creating endearing characters with whom readers, whether in the midst of youth or thankfully beyond it, can identify and sympathize. Another thing at which she particularly excels is subtle comparison, be it equating Yamada’s unrequited love for Mayama with the broken stem of a plant that she just can’t bring herself to prune, or likening Takemoto’s genius-adjacent situation to that of Professor Hanamoto, who, in his own college days, also had fabulously talented friends whose world he could never fully enter. Even a hilariously unsubtle comparison between Nomiya, who has just shed the baggage of youth, and Mayama, who is wrapped in it like a cocoon, is excellent.

Because of the universality of the characters’ struggles, this is one of those series with the capacity to appeal to anyone—male or female, old or young, suave or awkward—and make them earnestly desire a happy outcome.

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

Honey and Clover 5 by Chica Umino: B+

honeyclover5From the back cover:
Takemoto is nearing graduation, but he doesn’t have a job lined up—he doesn’t even know what he wants to do with his life. His friends try to be supportive, but they have their own dramas to act out. With his health failing and his heart in turmoil, how will Takemoto find the strength to carry on?

I unreservedly adore the cover of this volume. Colorful whimsy is the way to get me every time, I think. Alas, I don’t have such effusive praise for the actual contents.

There’s nothing overtly bad. In fact, there is quite a bit that is good, including the truly excellent first chapter. Mayama quits waiting for Rika to make a move and, nudged along by his coworkers, manages to reinstate himself in her employ. He refuses to let her push him away and resolves that he’s going to eventually extinguish her wistful thoughts about joining her late husband on the other side. Later, Yamada receives marriage proposals from five childhood friends and finally understands how Mayama felt receiving a love confession from someone he cared about but only on a friend or sibling level. Lastly, Takemoto works himself into exhaustion and comes to some personal realizations—like the fact that through it all, Hagu was close by, watching over him—just in time for Morita to return.

What bothers me is that some of the attempted humor, mostly involving Morita, is just sooo over-the-top that it’s not funny. There are a few times when someone gets injured and a joke is made about calling the ambulance, but it’s hard to tell what’s an actual injury and when it’s only in jest. There’s a nurse who enforces hospital rules violently. There’s Morita’s surprising appearance at the Mocademy Awards and his subsequent acceptance speech/rant. It’s all just really… crazed. Even Morita gets some nice moments, though, like when he takes care of his drunken advisor after finally managing to graduate.

One humorous episode, though, was truly amusing. Takemoto’s graduation piece, a somewhat lopsided tower, confuses the judges until Professor Hanamoto gives it a title—Tower of Youth—and then suddenly the judges are teary-eyed, going on about youthful ambitions and vulnerabilities. Although the title wasn’t Takemoto’s idea, he does later decide that the tower represents himself and his aimless state, and destroys it, beginning anew on a new tower that represents his decision to stay in school one more year and find out what it is he really wants to do with his life.

All in all, definitely not a bad volume. Just a rather hyper one.

Honey and Clover 4 by Chica Umino: A-

honeyclover4From the back cover:
Morita has disappeared, leaving his friends bereft and confused. Hagu and Takemoto turn to their art, while Mayama and Yamada cling to their unrequited loves. When his coworker begins to romance Yamada, Mayama can’t help interfering. But what does he care, when he’s nursing a flame for a woman he hasn’t seen in a year?

After a chapter in which the gang reacts to Morita’s sudden departure and Takemoto receives a troubling answer when he asks Hagu whether she wants Morita to come back, the pendulum swings back to the Mayama-Yamada-Rika triangle. We learn more about how Mayama met Rika as well as more about his current job and coworkers. One of these coworkers, Nomiya, is a bit of a playboy and when Mayama objects a little too much to Nomiya meeting Yamada to talk about some pottery she’d helped them with, that only makes Nomiya all the more determined to meet her. Mayama goes a bit nuts trying to “protect” Yamada from Nomiya, with various people urging him to question his motives. Does he, after all, just want to keep Yamada in reserve in case things don’t work out with Rika?

One thing I particularly liked about this volume was the use of metaphors to illustrate Yamada’s and Mayama’s feelings. In a chapter from Yamada’s perspective, in which she spends hours getting gussied up for a festival just so Mayama will tell her she looks nice and maybe begin to want her just a little, a plant that she’s been growing has been damaged by a storm. Her mother advises her to snip off a bit of broken stem and allow new growth, but she just can’t give up on it and delays too long, condemning the plant to a slow, withering death. This exactly parallels her situation with Mayama—she just can’t let go of her feelings for him, and persists in holding out hope that romance will bloom. In the next chapter, Mayama’s dogged yet fruitless pursuit of Rika is juxtaposed with the way cicadas spend their brief lives.

It’s okay to spin around and around in the same place. Just so long as you’re singing your heart out.

The comparison is subtlely done, with Umino trusting to readers’ intelligence to make the connection.

I’d also like to commend how well Yamada has been fleshed out as a character. Originally, it seemed like she was just going to be the violent girl who pummels the boys occasionally, but she has really evolved beyond that. Too, I’m liking Mayama a lot more than I’d originally expected to. He’s a pretty complex guy—very aware of his own flaws and yet still driven to do things he doesn’t completely understand. I love how his dislike of being left out of social gatherings comes into play in this volume. Hooray for consistent characterization and continuity (as also exemplified by Yamada’s dad wearing his tea-cozy-as-hat in one panel).

Honey and Clover 3 by Chica Umino: A-

honeyclover3From the back cover:
Professor Hanamoto is off in Mongolia on a research trip and Hagu is having a hard time coping. The gang do their best to help her out, especially Takemoto. But as graduation threatens to alter their friendships forever, Hagu begins to turn toward Morita…

Time moves very quickly in Honey and Clover—already two years have passed since Takemoto met and fell in love with Hagu. While the days pass quickly and those still in school make progress with their studies (except for Morita, the terminal senior), relationships within the group remain at a standstill. In volume two, the focus was more on the triangle consisting of Mayama, Rika (the boss he loves unrequitedly), and Yamada (the classmate who loves him unrequitedly). This time the story revolves around Takemoto’s feelings for Hagu and how he begins to realize that she and Morita are attracted to each other.

One thing I really like about this series is how the guys genuinely try to help each other out with their romantic entanglements. Morita, ever the enigma, turns out to be quite perceptive to Yamada’s feelings and thrusts her (quite literally) into Mayama’s path more than once. Mayama, meanwhile, though incapable of extricating himself from his love woes, dispenses advice to Takemoto, encouraging him to fight for Hagu while Takemoto is inclined to simply step back and accept the situation. I find Takemoto’s attitude here to be pretty fascinating and realistic. He’s a gentle boy whose uncertainties of his own self-worth are well documented and not only that, he’s been a great friend to Hagu and primarily wants whatever will make her happy. I sympathize with him a lot and find his internal monologues—especially the scene when he compares Hagu’s flustered behavior around Morita to her complete relaxation in his presence and concludes that she doesn’t love him—exquisitely painful.

Morita also demonstrates some new layers in this volume. In addition to his perceptiveness, he also betrays that he is rather freaked out by his feelings for Hagu. After a random encounter during which he impulsively kisses her, he flees and ends up going on an extended trip to America on one of those mysterious jobs he does every so often. Takemoto is astounded by this, thinking that Morita has everything Takemoto wants and is just going to run away from it. We don’t see Morita between the kiss and the departure, but he is pretty notorious for his lack of seriousness, so his reaction to run from genuine emotion feels perfectly in character.

The main flaw in this series remains Hagu. She has definitely changed a great deal since arriving at the art school and is learning to be more independent now that Hanamoto is out of the country. Still, though, I feel like I don’t really have a handle on her personality just yet. Another thing that bugs me is that we see the characters working on projects but seldom their outcome. Did Takemoto ever finish that armoire thing he was building to house Hagu’s dolls’ clothes? Did Hagu finish the project for the art exhibition that she was stressing over in the beginning of this volume? I’ve got no idea.

Despite my small complaints, Honey and Clover offers a charming blend of humor and nostalgia that pleases me very much. Could any other series make a bonus story about tea cozies so fun to read? I think not.

The Gentleman and the Lady by Kazumi Tohno: B+

Book description:
The six romantic, sensual shorts in The Gentleman and the Lady reveal that love is often surprising and always unavoidable. There may be more to a friendship than meets the eye, as true love is sometimes hidden where a girl least expects it.

This endearing collection by Kazumi Tohno opens with the title story, introducing the “chummy threesome”: Kotoko, Katsuto, and Komon. These close-knit friends get along very well… but even the best of friends are put to the test when they’re all stuck in a love triangle with each other!

Connie reviewed this title for Manga Recon and since it sounded like something I’d enjoy, I decided to check it out. Ultimately, I don’t think I liked it quite as much as she did, but I did have fun reading it.

This is an eclectic collection of stories, half focusing on romance and half not. First up in the romance division is “The Gentleman and the Lady,” which is about a trio of friends who’ve known each other since high school and the evolving relationships between them. “Angel Time” is about a woman who was discovered by an executive (who claimed to love her) and brought to Japan to star in some commercials for his company, only to learn that he has a wife and family. Lastly, “X” is about a guy who thinks the woman he loves is lying to him so he becomes deceitful himself, creating a fake persona (X) to try to find out the truth. Of these, I probably liked “X” the best, not because of its plot but because of the protagonist’s conflicted feelings.

On the non-romantic side, there’s “Santa Tour” and “Marine Blue,” both of which deal with kids who are too jaded to believe in Santa Claus. In the latter, Santa and Jesus are total BFFs, by the way. Also in this category is “Dr. Urashima’s Treasure Chest,” a short sci-fi story about a couple who invents a time machine and is then prevailed upon by their government to change the shape of history. This one was my favorite and I wish it could’ve been longer, even though the end is still quite nifty.

Each story is pretty mellow in feel, and Connie was dead-on when she described the emotion as understated. None of the stories ends with a neatly tied-up resolution, but each still manages to give closure in a way where one can imagine what came next. The art is retro by today’s standards, but the only time I felt it distracted from the story was in “The Gentleman and the Lady,” when two of the characters’ (horrible) matching outfits is a plot point.

The Gentleman and the Lady is an online exclusive available at NETCOMICS.com.

With the Light 2 by Keiko Tobe: B+

With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child is the story of the Azuma family. Eldest son Hikaru has autism, and the series chronicles the struggles and satisfactions that his parents and teachers experience as Hikaru gradually learns to function in the world. This chunky volume from Yen Press, equivalent to volumes three and four of the original Japanese release, focuses on Hikaru’s fourth and fifth grade years and features many different challenging situations in the school setting as well as in broader society.

Though attention is certainly paid to the misunderstandings and problems that result from Hikaru’s lack of understanding of social nuances and situations, the series also takes care to show things that Hikaru is exceptionally good at because of his disability, like putting puzzles together with all of the pieces upside down (since he was never relying on the image to begin with), and mixing paints to perfectly match colors occurring in nature. Seeing Hikaru succeed is very rewarding, and is the aspect of this series that I enjoy most.

As was pointed out in the review of volume one, the series falters in the resolution of complex issues or conflicts. Cruel students and angry shopkeepers are likely to experience swift changes of heart, and a mother who had previously been at a loss on how to handle her autistic daughter has dialogue like, “Wow, she’s learning things faster now than with me yelling at her.” It just doesn’t seem genuine.

One last thing I wish to point out is that Yen Press has clearly taken steps to make this series approachable for readers new to manga. The size of each volume is equivalent to a large paperback book and the Readings Tips section tackles matters from a first-time manga reader’s perspective. I’d be interested to learn how many such readers there are.

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

Suppli 2-3 by Mari Okazaki: A-

Minami Fujii works in the planning department of an advertising agency. At twenty-eight, she’s still trying to make a name for herself and is known for pulling all-nighters and juggling multiple projects. Mostly, this can be attributed to genuine dedication, though Minami also uses work as a distraction from her turbulent romantic life.

After her boyfriend of seven years breaks up with her and promptly gets married, Minami begins to notice the people around her and makes friends with some of her coworkers. Two of the men are interested in her and, after briefly being tempted by the impulsive Ishida, she ends up choosing Ogi-san, who is still hung up on his ex. After agonizing periods during which she’s convinced that he isn’t interested in her (even though they’ve slept together), they begin officially dating, though things are not as perfect as either would’ve wished. Minami still feels strangely lonely in Ogi-san’s company and the presence of his ex (with whom Minami must work on a project) makes it difficult to be sure of his feelings.

Meanwhile, the rejected Ishida is pursued by another coworker whose plight parallels Minami’s own. Add to this a saucy freelancer, the married producer with whom she’s having an affair, and his lascivious cameraman with an appreciation for Minami’s posterior, and you get quite a tangled web of workplace relationships, infidelity, unhappiness, and insecurity.

This might seem too convoluted to follow, but it’s not really a problem. The focus is primarily on Minami, but does shift at times to the other women characters and their situations. I appreciated seeing what they thought and said about the protagonist, too, particularly the difference between what they were thinking inwardly and what they were actually saying to her face. Another female character of note is the forty-something Hirano, who presents Minami with an example of a woman who has devoted her life to her work and yet has nothing to show for it. Just before being unceremoniously transferred, Hirano gives Minami all the credit for a daring decision, attempting to give a leg up to the girl in whom she sees so much of herself. It’s a truly wonderful moment.

Alas, not all of the workplace action is so terrific. Minami’s many projects are virtually indistinguishable, and the scenes involving them include vague dialogue like, “Let’s feature the product here.” It’d be easier to care about what was going on if more details of a particular project were known, or if one actually succeeded in getting to the commercial production phase. Most of them get derailed by rewrite requests, and it’s frustrating to never see any of Minami’s harried efforts come to fruition. Also, in this office it’s apparently acceptable to skip out on meetings for projects to which you’ve been assigned. Must be nice!

As Katherine pointed out in her review of volume one, the art can be symbolism heavy at times. Women out to snare their men are shown carrying hunting traps, for example, and when Minami is sleeping with Ogi-san, there’s often water nearby, threatening to cover and drown her, much like the welter of feelings she’s experiencing.

I do like a lot of the workplace art, though, particularly how Minami’s scattered thoughts are portrayed. Often, panels of her in work mode are mixed with what is distracting her, like the messy state of her book-strewn desk or memories of an intimate moment with Ogi-san, and sometimes she walks about conducting business while thought bubbles going “jumble jumble” accompany her around. When Minami gets especially frazzled, the art reminds me of Chica Umino’s (Honey and Clover), with scribbly eyes and flailing limbs.

The third volume concludes with Minami and Ogi-san sharing an impromptu casual meal, during which she confides in him her work-related fatigue and finally allows herself to lean on him for support. Not realizing at the time, as the retrospective narration points out, that it was a mistake.

And that’s it! That’s where we will forever languish unless TOKYOPOP resumes publication of this series. Please join us at Manga Recon as we cry, “Save Suppli!”

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Suppli 1 by Mari Okazaki: A-

From the back cover:
The skies are always clearer after a storm…

After her boyfriend of seven years dumps her, Minami realizes she’s shut out everything else in her life. Now, at twenty-seven years old, ambitious Minami throws herself into her advertising job and experiences life—and love—for the first time.

From Mari Okazaki, the edgy, provocative author of Sweat & Honey, comes a tale of rediscovering love.

I’ve read a small amount of josei before, but this is the first time I’ve read any that featured a woman in the workplace. I definitely like it!

When Minami’s boyfriend breaks up with her, she realizes she has no friends, and so instead throws herself into the only thing in her life—her job at an advertising agency. Gradually, her eyes open to the people around her, and she gets to know them. Two of her male coworkers are also interested in her, one who kind of ineptly pines around and says the wrong thing all the time and another who has suffered his own heartbreak and attracts Minami by virtue of his neediness.

The developing relationships are interesting, and though it seems Minami makes the wrong choice in feeling more drawn to the not-really-over-his-ex coworker, it still makes perfect sense why she would, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out. The actual occupational stuff itself gets a little repetitive—lots of clients not liking their ad campaigns and requiring rewrites—but does bring about an excellent two-page layout in which Minami, who has just had a bunch of hard work go to waste, sprawls on a breakroom chair in utter exhaustion.

Minami also struggles to balance what it means to be a professional—stay motivated, make the impossible possible—and what it means to be a woman. I like seeing a protagonist ponder that issue, though it’s rather unfortunate that she thinks the role of a woman is “to be cute.” Granted, it’s not wrong to want to attract a guy, and it makes sense that it’d be on her mind since she’s trying to avoid the spinsterly state of one of her coworkers, but the feminist in me kind of cringes all the same.

Suppli (pronounced with an ‘ee’ sound at the end, rather than like “supply”) is still running in Japan and is up to seven volumes. The first three have been published in English by TOKYOPOP, but it is doubtful whether the series will continue to be released in the wake of that company’s financial difficulties. An anticipated October release date for the fourth volume came and went with no sign of the book. It will be a real shame if the series is discontinued, as there’s a lamentable dearth of this kind of manga in our market.

With the Light 1 by Keiko Tobe: B+

From the back cover:
To new mother Sachiko Azuma, her baby boy is the light of her life. Accordingly, she names him Hikaru, Japanese for “to be bright.” Eager to raise her son, Sachiko gradually begins to notice that Hikaru seems a bit different from other children. He is reluctant to be held or hugged, and his growth and development appear slow. Sachiko’s suspicions are confirmed when it is suggested that Hikaru, at a year-and-a-half, may be deaf. A specialist, however, reaches a different diagnosis: autism.

With the Light (subtitled Raising an Autistic Child) is kind of like carrots. I know it’s good for me and healthy and probably a better alternative than more junky fare, but I just can’t like it as much as I ought.

The basic idea—raising awareness about autism—is successful, and the book must be commended on that front. Although I did know what autism was, I didn’t know many specifics of how the disability manifests, so I definitely feel as though I’ve learned something. Especially fascinating are all of the strategies Hikaru’s parents and teachers devise to communicate with him, particularly a chapter near the end where everyone’s combined efforts to prepare Hikaru to attend a school Field Day without freaking out (a first) are successful.

However… many of the conflicts Sachiko encounters are unrealistic. In fact, I think the book overestimates both the meanness and kindness of people. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I just can’t see school children rallying around a disabled child like they do in this book. I think he’d be in for more cruel treatment from his peers than is shown here. Likewise, I can’t imagine some of the hostile reactions Sachiko encounters from adults actually happening, either. I think it’s far more likely that people would simply not care nor offer help, rather than express sentiments like, “I wish they would just live on an island far away.”

Also, many of said conflicts are resolved too easily. Sachiko’s husband starts off as a major git, but has a change of heart and becomes supportive. Then his mother does likewise. Then a lady from the day care. Then Sachiko’s boss. Then a fellow mother with an abusive husband. You get the idea.

It’s still a good read, and I’ll continue with it, but the oversimplification of problems means that I’d hesitate to recommend it to mothers of autistic children. It’s best for educating a broader audience, but I don’t think it’d offer anything meaningful to someone actually raising an autistic child.

With the Light is published in Japan under the title Hikaru To Tomoni. It’s an ongoing series and thirteen volumes have been released. Yen Press has published three volumes so far in a two-in-one format, equivalent to six of the Japanese volumes. Releases are fairly infrequent, with the fourth and fifth volumes scheduled for March and September of 2009, respectively.

Love for Dessert by Hana Aoi: C+

Published under Aurora’s LuvLuv imprint, Love for Dessert is a compilation of six stories, each of which culminates in a steamy situation. The stories range widely in terms of quality, though nearly all start out decently enough. Some even try to incorporate plot elements other than sex, like parental relationship problems or learning not to change oneself just to suit a guy. The problem usually occurs in the transition to a physical relationship; in some of the stories, it’s just completely out of the blue.

For example, in the story called “Bubblegum Princess,” the heroine has chopped off one of her ponytails after a jealous rival got vengeful with some gum. The hero, himself a stylist, has given her a haircut to even things out. On one page, the heroine is admiring her new ’do, and seven panels later, they’re suddenly going at it! Something similar happens in the title story, too, prompting the protagonist there to actually wonder, “How did this happen?”

More affecting are the stories where the love scenes actually grow out of what has happened between the couple. My favorite story in the volume, “Puppy Chow,” is about a college student who breaks up with her quirky boyfriend because he always asks her what she wants instead of taking the lead. After a brief reunion with a controlling ex, she realizes the good thing she had, and returns to the considerate guy. When they later sleep together, it’s sweet and also meaningful because she’s chosen a healthy relationship.

I’m not one for smut for its own sake, so several of these stories were simply too shallow for me. Several did offer more depth, however, so this collection isn’t wholly without merit.

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