Archive for March 27th, 2010

Sugar Princess: Skating to Win

Originally posted on Feb. 10, 2010. Edited on Mar. 27, 2010 to update out-dated information.

TITLE: Sugar Princess: Skating to Win
RATING: All Ages
SCORE: 8 (Very good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Hisaya Nakajo (mangaka of Hana-Kimi), The Cherry Project, Ginban Kaleidoscope, Kaleido Star, Princess Nine, sports, comedy

In addition to my overwhelming love for manga/anime, I am a figure skating addict. Never been out on the ice myself — I am klutzy enough when not walking on slippery surfaces, thank you very much — but I never miss a televised competition or exhibition if I can help it. The Nationals are my World Series, the World Championships are my Super Bowl, and the Winter Olympics are practically my reason for living. (Okay, maybe that last part is overstating things just a tad, but the hyperbole isn’t too far off the mark…) I am, without a doubt, a huge fan of the sport.  

So taking two of my favorite things — manga and figure skating — and putting them together? Instant love.

Sugar Princess is a cute story about an eighth grade girl named Maya Kurinoki. Her first time on the ice, her younger brother dares her to do a “twirling jump” like the skaters they saw on TV. Not one to back down from a challenge, Maya amazingly lands a jump on the first try, the difficult double axel. Her impossible feat catches the eye of Eishi Todo, a figure skating coach. Offering to make her a “princess”, he convinces her to join the local skating club and introduces her to handsome but aloof Shun Kano, a former pairs skater who attends the high school affiliated with Maya’s junior high. Coach Todo thinks Maya should become Shun’s new pairs partner, but Shun is not interested in pairing with anybody, much less a total amateur like Maya, and says he’s only wants to skate singles.

Coach Todo makes a deal with Shun: if Shun can coach Maya up to the junior level, then he doesn’t have to partner with her and can continue doing singles. Though he initially refuses the offer, after seeing how determined Maya is to learn how to skate, even if she has to do it on her own, Shun agrees to coach her. When their rink is under threat of being shut down, however, Maya and Shun are forced to compete as a pair during a skating competition to win a bet between Coach Todo and the son of the rink’s sick owner to save it.

Maya’s a likeable lead. She can be a little dim-witted at times — at first, she thinks Coach Todo scouted her for acting, and she doesn’t even know the difference between pairs and singles skating until she reads a book on skating — but she’s very enthusiastic and determined to become a good skater. Shun takes a little while to warm up to. He’s a bit of a snob and isn’t very friendly to Maya at first, but he has a good heart under his harsh exterior. And, of course, as seems to be almost a prerequisite of most shoujo male leads, there’s a tragic reason why he decided to quit pairs and become a singles skater instead, although I like the fact that he doesn’t really brood on it. It’s rather refreshing for a change. 

One thing I preferred about this story over the unlicensed Naoko Takeuchi skating series The Cherry Project (which is my top “most wanted license” pick) is the fact that Maya isn’t some kind of superhuman skating prodigy. Granted, she is a bit of a natural when it comes to skating, and she’s a fast learner, but other than that double axel she lands at the beginning of the story (after which she falls, by the way, and hasn’t tried since), she’s not doing amazingly difficult jumps. By the end of the story, she’s only doing double toe loops, the easiest of the double jumps, and she and Shun don’t do any of the more difficult pairs moves like throw jumps and twists.

I also appreciated the attention given to the costs of being a figure skater. Figure skating is not a cheap sport, and as the third of four children, Maya does her best not to burden her family financially by finding ways to offset the costs — like (hilariously) making her own skating costume out of her school swimsuit (her more talented friends rescue her effort) and entering the competition not only to save the rink, but to win a pair of figure skates being offered as one of the top prizes. (She had been renting her skates from the rink.) Even having Shun coach her helps, since he’s not a professional coach.

Unfortunately, romance is weak and pretty much non-existent next to Maya sometimes thinking Shun is handsome. You can tell that Maya and Shun were intended to become a couple eventually, but their relationship doesn’t really go anywhere in these two volumes. This is largely due in part that the overall story the mangaka had in mind is incomplete. While Sugar Princess can be read as a complete story as is (and is marketed as such in the U.S.), it’s clear that this arc was intended to be the beginning of a longer series. Nakajo put the series on hiatus back in 2007 to work on character designs for a video game, and as far as I know, she has not resumed work on it. I have my fingers crossed, though, because I would love to have more of this series.

The romance aspect might be poor, but one thing this title definitely has going for it is comedy. There’s lots of chuckles to be had, mostly coming from the comic relief characters of scruffy Coach Todo and goofy Oda, Shun’s best friend. Maya’s and Shun’s budding relationship also provides some laughs, pitting Maya’s inexperience and general cluelessness against Shun’s more poised and mature personality. One of the funniest moments in my opinion is when Maya walks in on Shun naked in the bath (he spilled food on his clothes during dinner with Maya’s family). Switching their usual roles, he’s totally mortified, but Maya doesn’t even react and thinks it is no big deal since she shares a room with her younger brother.

Another plus that feeds right into my figure skating addiction is that between the chapters of the first volume, Nakajo has provided beatiful drawings of her favorite real-life figure skaters: 1998 Olympic gold medalist Ilia Kulik, 2008 and 2010 World champion Mao Asada, 2002 and 2006 Olympic pairs bronze medalists and 2010 Olympic gold medalists Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, 2002 Olympic ice dance gold medalists Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, 2003 World ice dancer champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, and 1994 and 1998 Olympic bronze medalist Philippe Candeloro. (By the way, I also love how Nakajo is such a huge fan of skating! If we met and could speak the same language, I have a feeling we would be total BFFs.) Too bad she didn’t continue the practice into the second volume. I would have loved to have more, but considering how many chapters are in the second volume — I’m guessing that there wasn’t enough to release a third volume separately — I suppose there wasn’t enough room. I also wish that she had drawn the manga itself more in the style of her skater portraits. The artwork is…fine, I guess, but nowhere near as pretty as the portraits.

Overall, I really liked this series. It’s not quite a good as The Cherry Project, but it is licensed and easily available, which is a definite plus in its favor, and very cute. Since it’s rated All Ages, it’s also appropriate for young kids. I think it would make a great introduction to manga for the younger set, especially the little girls who fell in love with skating after watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. (And on a purely selfish note, I would love to see more figure skating manga — and sports manga in general — be licensed here in the U.S., so if you’re the same, let your wallets do the talking and pick up this series. It’s only two volumes!)

Add a comment March 27, 2010

All My Darling Daughters

Originally posted on Jan. 27, 2010 at LiveJournal. There will be some discussion on female-on-male rape in the following review, so reader discretion is advised.

TITLE: All My Darling Daughters
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Fumi Yoshinaga
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Fumi Yoshinaga (mangaka of Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Antique Bakery, etc.), slice of life, romance

It’s great to see more josei titles — targeted toward older women — being licensed here in the U.S. There aren’t many available, so when I heard All My Darling Daughters was being released, I immediately put it on my “must buy” list.

All My Darling Daughters is a collection of five interconnected short stories involving the life of 30-year-old Yukiko Kisaragi and her friends and family. The first story deals with the fallout after Yukiko’s widowed mother Mari suddenly gets remarried to a much younger actor/former host after surviving a bout with cancer. Understandably, Yukiko is very dubious about this decision, worried that this guy is just taking advantage of her mother. Though Ken turns out to be a good guy who really loves Mari, Yukiko begins feeling like a third wheel and decides to move in with the average-looking co-worker she’s been dating. I’m not usually one to be completely awed by a single page of artwork, but I have to say the last page of this story is quite stunning in its simplicity. There are no words, just a picture of Yukiko crying as she’s packing her things and her mother coming up behind her, not embracing her, but comforting her just the same. You can really feel the strong connection between the two in the final scene.

I have…issues with the second story, about a friend of Ken’s named Kiyo. This story is the reason why I gave this otherwise excellent collection of short stories a rating of 7 instead of 8. The problem? Well, Kiyo is a lecturer at a local university, and one day he is raped by one of his creepy female students, who gives him a blowjob after he repeatedly tells her no. This would be fine, and even kind of interesting, if Kiyo actually acknowledged it as rape, but he doesn’t. (Other than using the excuse “She forced me!” when Yukiko expresses disapproval over what happened.) He rather enjoys the experience, and the two of them fall into a strange sort of sexual relationship in which the girl continues to give him blowjobs after hours while refusing any pleasure for herself. In fact, when Kiyo starts to develop feelings for the girl and suggests they go on an actual date, she decides to break off their little arrangement altogether, saying he’s “too good” for her.

This could have been a good story. Stories focusing on student/teacher relationships are, admittedly, a kink of mine, the “rapist” is fascinating in a tragic sort of way, and there’s some nice humor involved, but the fact that the girl raped him and nobody seems to acknowledge it just doesn’t sit well with me. I would have probably enjoyed the story more had Kiyo just consented in the first place. I get why he didn’t — the mangaka wanted the reader to see him as a nice guy — but it kind of makes him seem like the virginal heroine in a historical romance novel who is “ravished” by the hero. You can call it a different word, but it’s still pretty much the same thing. (Especially in this case, since, unlike those romance heroines who might secretly want to sleep with hero but feel they can’t because of society’s rules, Kiyo really did not want the girl to give him a blowjob. He was not attracted to her at all at first and knew it was against school policy.)  Actually, I don’t think I would have thought of him too badly if he had consented right at the beginning (provided it was done in the right way), because Kiyo really is a nice guy — especially in comparison to the girl’s former boyfriends — and the girl is old enough to decide what kind of sexual activity she wants to partake in (even if it’s clear that she has some serious self-esteem issues and could use a lesson in the meaning of self-worth). If it had been written just a little differently, it could have been an interesting story about how a strictly sexual relationship can turn into something more for one of the partners, leading to complications in said relationship when the other doesn’t want things to change, but instead, it comes off more like a case of a victim falling in love with his rapist, and I’m not interested in that.

Fortunately, the third story is excellent and by far my favorite in the book. The only two-parter in the collection, it centers on Yukiko’s friend Sayako, who decides to have an arranged marriage even though she’s beautiful, successful, and kind, and therefore shouldn’t have any trouble finding a husband. Her aunt sets her up with several possible suitors, but none of them catch her interest until she’s introduced to a man named Tatsuhiko. At first glance, he doesn’t seem like much of a catch, as he was in a car accident during college that left him crippled, but he is very kind, and the two of them hit it off well. However, when it comes time to decide if she will marry him, Sayoko chooses to break it off. I don’t want to spoil the reason why, but I will say it’s a wonderful story with quite an unexpected, but fitting, ending.

The last two stories are also quite good, but I feel the first and the third story are really the true highlights of the collection. Are they good enough for me to recommend spending thirteen dollars on the book? Well, it depends. The artwork is lovely — realistic without the huge eyes and cookie-cutter faces you often see in shoujo titles — and the presentation of the book is really wonderful. (It’s from the Viz Signature line, so it gets a few bells and whistles that you don’t usually get in the cheaper lines like Shoujo Beat and Shonen Jump.) If you enjoy slice-of-life and more realistic stories that are character-driven like I do and are interested in josei, then it will probably be worth your money; if you prefer more plotty fare, then this title probably isn’t for you.

Add a comment March 27, 2010

Tsubasa: Those With Wings

Originally posted at LiveJournal on Jan. 19, 2010.

TITLE: Tsubasa: Those With Wings
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Natsuki Takaya
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Natsuki Takaya (mangaka of Fruits Basket and Phantom Dream), Chobits, science fiction, fantasy, philosophy, romance, action, adventure, humor

It is no secret that I absolutely adore Fruits Basket, so I was happy to see more of mangaka Natsuki Takaya’s work licensed in English. Of her two previous series that have come out here in the U.S. — the other being Phantom Dream — I definitely prefer Tsubasa: Those With Wings. While not perfect, this series shows the potential later realized more fully in Fruits Basket.

The story takes place at the end of the 22nd century in a country named Neelse (located in the area of modern day China and southeast Asia). Thanks to the many wars of the 21st century, Earth has gone to ruin. Water is polluted and fields have fallen in decay. Only those in the upper classes — the rich, the politicians, and members of the army — enjoy any kind of comfortable life. The rest struggle just to survive.

The lowest of the low is a group called the Nameless, made up of orphaned children and those abandoned by their parents. They are considered “nameless” because the government refuses to issue them identification if they don’t belong to a family and have a family name. Most people treat them like trash, and opportunity to improve their standing in society is pretty much non-existent, as they are even denied a proper education. Most Nameless resort to a life of crime to survive.

One such Nameless is the sixteen-year-old thief Kotobuki. She isn’t much of a burglar, never stealing anything of real value, but she is fast and agile, making it easy for her to outrun the army police. Kotobuki, however, dreams of one day making an honest living and decides to put her life of crime behind her in order to find a legitimate job. Joining her on her journey is the brilliant Raimon Shiragi. A former army captain, he has been in love with Kotobuki ever since the first time he saw her fleeing the scene of one of her burglaries. After months of chasing her, with no real intention of ever arresting her, Raimon decides to resign from his army post, give up his life of privilege and prestige, and start a life with Kotobuki, whether she likes the idea or not.

Together, they travel various different towns as Kotobuki searches for a job. Along the way, they meet several people who are looking for the legendary Tsubasa. The Tsubasa, according to popular myth, has the ability to grant people’s wishes. Kotobuki initially isn’t interested, but when she discovers that an army colonel implanted a bomb in Raimon’s brain to prevent him from crossing the border and leaving the country, she decides to join in the search for the Tsubasa to find a way to save him. But to find the Tsubasa, they must also go up against the army, who are also looking for the Tsubasa — and Raimon — for their own nefarious purposes.

As with Fruits Basket, the greatest strength of this story is the characters. Kotobuki shares some similarities to Tohru, the heroine of FB, in that they are both kind-natured with an optimistic, can-do attitude and have the same kind of work ethic, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. Kotobuki is brash and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She also has no problem getting violent should the situation arise, and there are people she doesn’t like, which makes her feel more realistic than Tohru, who tends to love everybody she meets. Raimon, meanwhile, is definitely not your typical shoujo lead. Underneath his laid-back, kind of goofy and pervy demeanor (similar to Shigure from FB), he’s pretty much a psychopath. The only thing that matters to him is Kotobuki and her happiness. He couldn’t care less about other people, including himself, and has a habit of blowing up buildings, which becomes a bit of a running joke through the series. Yet it’s hard not to like him and even feel sorry for him when his past is revealed. Other fun characters include: Shoka, the sexy leader of a small group of thieves looking for the Tsubasa in order to wish for, in her words, “boys, booze, power, and prestige”; Adelaide Wilson, a smart little rich girl Kotobuki befriends while working as a maid; Yan Mizuchi, the leader of Teki, a Blue Rose resistance group that provides assistance to them; and Major Tohya Ingram, who has a bit of a hilarious obsession with Raimon.

Another thing this series shares in common with Fruits Basket are the little “lessons” that are interwoven throughout the story, things that seem like they should be common sense, yet are easy to forget. One that particularly sticks in my mind is that the Nameless are human and were born of human parents, even if those parents are dead or have abandoned them, just like everybody else. Obvious, right? Yet the way characters treat the Nameless, a lot of them don’t seem to remember that and consider them less than human. It’s incredibly sad, and echoes how even some people today look down on the homeless or members of the minority.

It is a bit unbelievable, though, that people would be so prejudiced against orphans in the future, to the point that they are denied last names and identification. That’s really what I consider the major flaw of this series: the fact that the whole situation seems really unlikely to ever happen in modern times just due to a devastating world war. (Maybe a meteor hitting the Earth, or something like that, but just a war?) I know, fantasy doesn’t have to be realistic, but I find it hard to believe that, for example, most records of the 21st century were destroyed, to the point that most people don’t even remember there ever used to be a country called “Japan”. That’s a lot to destroy, and I would hope that the survivors would do their best to record their memories. Then again, there is the Tsubasa… Well, I won’t spoil what happened, but I suppose it makes the world of the story a little bit more believable. Just be aware that you’ll likely have to suspend your disbelief a little to truly enjoy the story.

Another weakness is the romance aspect of the story. There’s a lot of “love at first sight” happening, with little to zero development afterwards. This is especially apparent with Yan and his love interest, whose relationship is completely shallow. Even Raimon fell in love with Kotobuki at first sight, although Kotobuki’s falling in love with him is handled much more realistically over time. Too bad it seems at times that the only reason she loves him is because he’s so in love with her. Seriously, when the guy only cares about you and you alone, what else is there about him to fall in love with? (Besides looks, of course. Raimon is rather handsome, although, personally, I find Tohya the hottest guy in the cast.) Well, I suppose Raimon has a fairly decent sense of humor, and he is kind to her, but he’s basically a jerk to everybody else, which makes it rather strange that a girl like Kotobuki, who cares a lot for other people, would fall in love with a guy like him.

On the technical side of things, the translation is kind of all over the place in respect to the romanization of names, especially between the first and second volumes. It’s understandable, as the first volume was translated by a different person than the last two, but it is rather distracting to have Kneels/Neelse, Toya/Tohya, Adilyte/Adelaide,  Phere/Fia, etc. Likewise, honorifics are used rather haphazardly. Concerning the artwork, it’s close in style to how Takaya drew at the beginning of Fruits Basket, so if you prefer her older drawing style, you’ll probably like it.

Despite these flaws, I found Tsubasa: Those With Wings to be an involving, entertaining and thought-provoking series. For fans of Takaya’s work, especially Fruits Basket, I definitely recommend checking it out.

Add a comment March 27, 2010






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