Tsubasa: Those with Wings 1 by Natsuki Takaya: C+

It’s the 22nd century, and countless wars have left the cities in ruins, the fields withered, and the waters polluted. The rich and elite have access to the finer things while the common folk live in poverty, and things are pretty much controlled by a military regime. In this harsh situation, young Kotobuki took to thieving to survive, but as the story begins, she’s trying to put that life behind her and find an honest job. During her days as a criminal, she occasionally came into contact with an army captain named Raimon who really ought to’ve been apprehending her, but who found her quite charming instead. When Kotobuki left town to look for work, Raimon spontaneously quit the Army to come be with her. They become traveling companions and their romantic relationship slowly develops over the course of several months.

One of the major problems with Tsubasa: Those with Wings is that I couldn’t tell you what its main plot actually is. Is it Kotobuki’s search for honest work? Is it her evolution from child into woman, the recognition that her feelings for Raimon are changing into something new? Or is it the search for Tsubasa—object of a legend about a mysterious power with wish-granting properties?

The first several chapters are episodic and forgettable and each ends in the same way: Kotobuki blushing at something the flirtatious Raimon has done or said followed by an inset of some other character encountered during that chapter. With the fourth chapter, more of a serialized storyline develops, introducing various new characters from the Army who have “unfinished business” with Raimon and want Tsubasa for themselves. Overall, the second half of the book is much better than the first, but the central plot of the last few chapters—Raimon’s wealthy, bishounen dad is funding some orphanages but simultaneously hiring thugs to attack them—still doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

Another problem I had with this series is the characters, or rather, the relationship dynamics between them. Kotobuki, as an agile thief with an energetic disposition, has the potential to be a tough and competent character, and occasionally there are moments where she fulfills that potential. These moments are overshadowed, however, by the amount of time she spends blushing and aspiring to be “good enough” for Raimon. Raimon has his good points—he’s mysterious and sometimes amusing—but he’s also always right about everything and always shows up at the right moment to rescue Kotobuki. It’s like these two could’ve been really interesting characters but are somehow shackled by shojo manga stereotypes.

Although the cover boasts a new illustration of Kotobuki, the interior art is drawn in Natsuki Takaya’s earlier style, featuring super-enormous eyes and pointy noses in profile. Towards the end of the volume, the style grows a little more refined and begins to resemble more the art from the early volumes of Fruits Basket. Readers of that series will find several chibi expressions and haircuts to remind them of her more famous work. The packaging itself is quite attractive, bundling at least two volumes of the original into one chunky tome, but there are a number of errors inside where small Japanese text was not removed before the translation was overlaid on top of it.

Patience is rewarded when reading Tsubasa: Those with Wings. The first few chapters are not very good, but the story picks up steam as it goes. At least two of the half dozen new characters introduced near the end show some promise of being interesting, and I’m just intrigued enough to want to see what happens next.

Tsubasa: Those with Wings is published by TOKYOPOP, who seem to’ve condensed the series’ original six volumes into three über-chunky ones.

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

Phantom Dream 1 by Natsuki Takaya: C

As a Fruits Basket fan, whenever I was confronted with a survey on what manga I would like to see licensed, I always included the two series Natsuki Takaya wrote before her big hit—Genei Musou and Tsubasa wo Motsu Mono. And when TOKYOPOP announced it would be releasing them (as Phantom Dream and Tsubasa: Those With Wings, respectively), I was thrilled.

I did all this without having read either series, and armed only with the vaguest notion of what each was actually about. And so it was that, while still pleased at having the opportunity to read Takaya’s debut work, I found Phantom Dream to be somewhat of a disappointment. It’s not awful, and there are certain aspects that I like, but it can also be very confusing at times and the supernatural system isn’t adequately explained.

High school student Tamaki Otoya is the sole heir to a family line of shugoshi, though he’s not very enthused about his duties. What’s a shugoshi, you ask? I’m not exactly sure. TOKYOPOP translates some terms—like juzu, the prayer beads Tamaki uses when casting his spells—but neglects to do the same for others, possibly because they were invented by Takaya. As near as I can tell, shugoshi is just the term for someone who has the power to exorcise the evil spirits (jaki) that take over people with an excess of negative emotions (jashin). The terms for some helpmates that Tamaki can summon are explained in the text, but the word for the kind of shield he can create (shichiboujin) is not. A glossary would’ve been immensely helpful.

Tamaki’s mother, herself possessed of some power, despairs of his ever developing his abilities more fully. When a former elementary school classmate transfers into his class, however, strange things start happening and Tamaki is compelled to act. This first chapter is the most confusing of the volume, and it’s sometimes hard to follow exactly what is going on. In any case, Tamaki is successful in exorcising the jaki and thereafter begins practicing and trying to get better.

The supernatural conflict is not the only confusing aspect of Phantom Dream. Accompanying Tamaki nearly constantly is his childhood friend, Asahi. She is very open about her love for him, though he never verbally returns the feeling. No confirmation about their exact relationship status is ever given. Later, they end up sleeping together when he is on the verge of going off and doing something rash. From the lack of drama attending this scene, I am left to conclude this isn’t the first time they’ve been intimate, but again, it’s another case where I’m not exactly sure.

Asahi herself comes across as the typical shojo heroine—clumsy, good-hearted, and miserable in academics—but in at least one way, she’s a kind of proto-Tohru. In the second chapter, Tamaki is confronted with a situation where the power of the jaki is actually keeping its human host alive and an exorcism will kill the boy it’s inhabiting. The boy is fond of butterflies, and tells Tamaki that when they hover around him, they’re actually saying, “You are loved.” He notes that Asahi is Tamaki’s butterfly. Later, Tamaki realizes that this is true. When he’s feeling low, Asahi’s presence is a constant reminder that he is loved and accepted. It’s neat to see a glimmer of one of the themes that Takaya will develop more fully in a future work.

The final chapter brings more plot complications in the form of a rival family that wants to convert as many people into jaki as possible. I suppose this addition to the tale is welcome—an episodic sequence of exorcisms would get boring pretty quickly—but it’s not exactly helping to clear things up. That said, I liked the bleak way in which the volume ended.

Phantom Dream is not Natsuki Takaya’s best work. Even if I can’t quite recommend it on its own merits, it’s still interesting to see how her storytelling and artistic skills have improved and evolved since her debut.

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

Fruits Basket 20 by Natsuki Takaya: A

From the back cover:
Kagura and Kazuma hotly discuss Tohru liking Kyou. With Kagura’s forceful encouragement, will Tohru be able to muster up the courage to tell Kyou how she feels? Meanwhile, Ren is determined to get her hands on Akito’s mystery box—even if it means killing for it!

I got a pleasant surprise on Wednesday when I discovered this had been released on the 1st! For some reason, I still had it on my Excel spreadsheet o’ releases (yes, I totally have one) for the 15th.

This volume started and ended with chapters about Tohru and Kyou—in the first she realized she loved him and in the last he began to tell her why he thinks she really shouldn’t. It was powerful stuff, and it was a little weird seeing Kyou look so very upset. I think I’d read the summaries for these chapters as they were originally released, but hadn’t seen the corresponding images until now.

The bulk of the volume, however, was devoted to Akito. Akito’s childhood was revealed, along with a lifelong fear of being left out, left behind. There are many subplots to Fruits Basket, and I guess the one about Akito’s family isn’t one I’m terribly interested in, because while these chapters were good, the best parts about them were when two members of the Zodiac were suddenly released from their curses! Their sudden loneliness at no longer being connected to the others was very affecting and I loved Momiji’s chapter. It felt like we’re starting to get closure for some of the secondary characters’ stories.

Akito kind of lost it near the end of the volume, leading to a fairly giant cliffhanger. I can’t tell if it doesn’t feel as menacing as past acts of violence (despite Akito being more unhinged than ever before) because I actually have sympathy for Akito or because I know how things are going to play out. Probably a little of both.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve no need to tell anyone to read this series. It just so happens that in addition to being popular it’s also incredibly well-crafted.

Fruits Basket 19 by Natsuki Takaya: A

From the back cover:
As the Fruits Basket saga continues, the relationship between Tohru and Kyou becomes increasingly complicated, especially since most of the members of the Zodiac seem to look down on him. Tohru comes to the realization that if she wants to save Kyou, she’ll have to create some sort of trigger to break his curse. But what, if anything, can cure Kyou?

There was a lot going on in this volume, with quite a lot of the cast making an appearance. Many plot points were advanced nicely, including some I’d forgotten about.

The most important things, though, centered primarily on Shigure. I swear, he’s probably the single most fascinating character I’ve ever encountered in manga. I especially loved his conversation with Hatori where the latter was chiding him for saying cruel things to Akito and urging him to be kind instead. Shigure essentially said he wasn’t going to coddle Akito in a paternal way, and it seemed his intentions are to force Akito to cease wallowing in despair and step forward to meet him.

He also had a gripping scene with Tohru where he essentially said that all of the Jyuunishi look down on Kyou in their heart of hearts, and that they accept his imprisonment as his duty. The notion definitely stuck with and disturbed her later when some of the younger Sohma were gathered at the house. It seemed that he wasn’t quite right about their opinions, though, so I have to wonder what his intent was there.

Toss in a nice long chapter featuring Ayame and some genuine progress with Kyou and Tohru, and I am a happy reader indeed. Not so happy, however, when I contemplate waiting until July for the next installment.

Fruits Basket 18 by Natsuki Takaya: A

From the back cover:
As rumors swirl about Machi trying to kill her little brother, Kakeru figures that the only person who can get the truth out of her is Yuki. But when the two of them visit her, they learn a shocking secret. Later, Motoko wants to tell Yuki her feelings before she graduates and leaves the school—and him—forever. But will their parting be such sweet sorrow?

If Shigure was the stand-out character in volume 17, this time it was Hatsuharu.

The first few chapters were good—we got more background on Machi and the chapter featuring Motoko was actually far better than I’d anticipated. It dealt with the bittersweet feelings of graduation in a general sort of way, and I really liked it. I also discovered, courtesy of a flashback to the previous occasion when Motoko spoke of her feelings to Yuki, that while I used to think I preferred Takaya’s old drawing style to the current designs, that’s no longer the case. The old style looked really weird to me.

Things got even better in the second half of the volume. After learning from Hiro some of the things Rin had suffered due to her relationship with him, and hearing from Yuki that no one had seen Rin in a while, Haru went to confront Akito about what had happened to her. A riveting and thoroughly awesome confrontation ensued. If there were any character who would dare to get physical with Akito in their rage, it would be Haru.

It turned out that Rin, having seen Tohru upset by Kureno’s words, had followed him to the main house, been manipulated by Akito’s nutty mom into attempting to steal one of Akito’s possessions, and been caught in the act. She’d been kept in the isolated room designated for the one possessed by the spirit of the cat and only discovered when Kureno spotted food being delivered there.

This, of course, brought to everyone’s mind what’s due to happen to Kyo once he graduates (see, the chapter with Motoko really did have some thematic bearing on the series). Tohru is worried he seems to have accepted his fate and the volume ended with her silently pleading with him not to go.

So, lots of plot progress, lots of sadness, lots of greatness. I’ve enjoyed reading these volumes close together. Volume 19 is due in several weeks, but after that, it will be a torturously long wait.

Fruits Basket 17 by Natsuki Takaya: A+

From the back cover:
Akito has more than skeletons hiding in the closet—the curse, dear reader, is not the only reason Kureno won’t leave Akito. And who can make Arisa understand Kureno’s devotion to Akito? Graduation is approaching, so everyone needs answers!

This volume was awesome from start to finish. I followed this series as it was being released in Japanese, so I knew what was coming, but I still got goosebumps during the scene where Kureno told Tohru the real reason he won’t leave Akito’s side. It wasn’t only the big reveal itself that was so great, but also the skillful manipulation of tension and atmosphere leading up to it.

Speaking of manipulation, most of my favorite scenes involved Shigure—a conversation with Hatori, a phone call with Kureno, and an encounter with Akito. The phone call was especially good, with snippets of it being doled out across several chapters. In his appearances, Shigure was manipulative, honest, teasing, hateful, and, in one particular panel, downright creepy. What an amazing character.

I also liked that most of the other subplots were touched on in this volume. There were some very cute Kyou/Tohru and Yuki/Machi scenes, and things like Momiji and his sister and Shigure’s editor’s relationship with Ritsu even got a mention. There wasn’t a single chapter that merited anything less than a perfect score, in my opinion.

Fruits Basket 16 by Natsuki Takaya: A-

From the back cover:
A new chapter is opened in the Sohma family’s story—and the rumors are true! Kyou has indeed met Kyoko in the past… and when he did, she told him the story of how she met Tohru’s father, which he then tells to us: Tohru’s birth… the truth about her mother and father… Yuki’s declaration of independence…

Well, that was a crappily written blurb, wasn’t it? It read as if Kyou was going to tell us about Yuki’s declaration of independence. In actuality, Kyoko and Katsuya’s story occupied the first several chapters, then Yuki’s so-called declaration occured near the end of the volume when the Jyuunishi (and Akito) gathered at the main house for New Year’s.

I really enjoyed Kyoko and Katsuya’s story, especially the latter’s personality. He had good manners and seemed polite, but there was a bit of the mischievous deviant about him. I knew Katsuya would die (this isn’t a spoiler), but Kyoko’s cries of “He’s not anywhere anymore!” were rather upsetting. More hints were dropped that Kyou had something to do with Kyoko’s accident, and in guilt, he pledged to stay away from Tohru and not think of impossible things regarding her.

The focus in the last two chapters shifted back to Yuki and, through him, Machi, the withdrawn and occasionally destructive treasurer of the student council. I don’t dislike Machi, but it was around here that the story started to irritate me a little, because it seemed like nearly everyone had the same problem: their parents were cold and distant and they questioned whether they were really needed in this world. It popped up in Rin’s story in volume 14, Yuki’s in volume 15, and now both Kyoko’s and Machi’s in this volume. I guess Takaya is aiming for some kind of consistent theme, but jeez.

The last chapter was the New Year’s banquet and included another important step in Yuki’s development, though I wouldn’t really call it a “declaration of independence.” More like… an avowal to take personal responsibility for his problems and faults. As an added bonus, there was Mabudachi Trio goodness. Akito’s reaction to Yuki’s statement was interesting, and there was movement on a few other subplots, too. Now I just have to decide whether to take a little Furubreak or continue on to the revelations that I know volume 17 contains.

Fruits Basket 15 by Natsuki Takaya: A

From the back cover:
Yuki’s past finally is revealed! But is it all too much to bear? His sickness takes a turn for the worse, and after Akito reminds Yuki how loathed he is, his will to live might finally be drained…

Meanwhile, as Tohru is getting ready to perform in Cinderella, the class decides that they have to rewrite the play. But no amount of revision will prevent Tohru from improvising her loving feelings for a certain someone. Just who is the mystery man?

This volume is evenly matched between the sad and the comic. The first half is about Yuki’s past, including the truth behind “the red hat boy” incident (this chapter is incredibly cute, especially chibi Tohru) as well as Yuki’s true feelings regarding Tohru.

The second half of the volume is the class play. While that’s going on, we also get some important exchanges between Yuki and Kyou as well as a squee-inducing scene between Kyou and Tohru at the end of chapter 87. The play itself is amusing, with Hanajima as a meat-obsessed Cinderella, but it’s sometimes tough to tell whether the things they’re saying are scripted or being ad-libbed.

While some progress is made on the romance front right at the end the spotlight here is still on Yuki’s progress, which is fine with me. I also love Kakeru. He’s a relatively new character, only appearing after Yuki joined the student council, but he’s managed to get him to open up and just relax like nobody else has.

After confessing some of his secrets to Kakeru, Yuki feels relief and throughout the rest of the volume, makes some effort at encouraging Kyou to face up to his past, too. It seems he realizes Kyou needs someone to hate, and he’s fine with standing in that role, but will also try to nudge him forward. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Yuki?

Fruits Basket 14 by Natsuki Takaya: A+

From the back cover:
Isuzu loves snooping through Shigure’s life, especially when she’s totally convinced that he is hiding something. But when Tohru finds a passed-out Isuzu in the house, she tries to drag Isuzu to the hospital. Meanwhile, Yuki goes to the ASB student council room only to find it trashed again! But as the secrets of who vandalized the room come out of the closet, Yuki accidentally gets locked in one. Who will be the one to help him get out?

There are so many things to like about this volume. Tohru’s attempts to discover more about the curse and how to break it continue, and we learn more about how the curse came to be. There are also several chapters devoted to Rin (referred to as Isuzu above) and Haru which go a long way in explaining why Rin reacts to Tohru the way that she does. Along the way, Shigure gets to do a bit more than he has recently, and there’s a nice few pages where he and Hatori have a talk.

In the realm of character development, it’s Rin who is the first to notice that Tohru seems to be suffering herself. Tohru perpetually claims to the Sohmas that she isn’t troubled, and tries to hide her problems from them, but she doesn’t seem to be keeping it together very well.

Most of all, however, it’s Yuki who’s changing. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think Yuki really has become my favorite character. I feel a little silly stating that I actually feel heart-burstingly proud of him and how he is gradually “opening the lid.” Among all of the Fruits Basket storylines, it’s Yuki’s progress that really makes me want to sniffle.