Archive for May 2010

Only One Wish

TITLE: Only One Wish
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 6 (Fine)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Mia Ikumi (mangaka of Tokyo Mew Mew), Hell Girl, supernatural, romance

“Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.” We’ve all heard the saying before, but if given the opportunity to have our fondest wish come true, no (obvious) strings attached, most people would jump at the chance.

Only One Wish is a series of short stories connected through the character of a nameless young girl with the ability to grant wishes. Though referred to as an “angel” by those who meet her, she dresses more like a schoolgirl/witch and even has a black cat as a familiar. In a premise similar to the one put forth in the anime/manga series Hell Girl, there is a rumor going around that if a person sends a text message to a certain address, the “angel” will appear and grant that person a wish. The person can wish for anything they want, but they only get one wish, so it better be a good one.

A common criticism of Hell Girl was the fact that most of the stories were very formulaic, with most ending in the same way. That’s not the case for Only One Wish. Each story does involve the granting of a wish, but the results of those wishes are different in each case.

The first story is the most disturbing of the bunch and could accurately be called a horror story. Focusing on a trio of close-knit friends, their friendship begins to fall apart when Rikako generously uses her wish to ask the Angel to set her friend Ai up with the guy she has a crush on. The wish is granted, but Ai becomes so obsessed with her new boyfriend that she begins ignoring Rikako and their other friend Mai. Things get even worse when Ai’s boyfriend confesses to Rikako that she is the one he’s really in love with, feelings that Rikako returns. It is quite frankly bone-chilling to see how far these formerly close friends will go to get rid of their competition for a guy’s affection, even more so when you realize how true-to-life it is. No, jealous women don’t go around making wishes for their friends to be eaten by monsters — at least I certainly hope not! — but when a cute guy enters the equation, friendships can certainly be tested.

The next story is actually really sweet, contrasting with the darkness of the first, and is probably my favorite of the set. It’s about a girl named Misa who recently drowned while trying to save a kitten that had fallen in the river. Her wish is to be brought back to life, but because of the difficulty of resurrecting someone from the dead, the Angel sets a conditon on the wish: she will only resurrect Misa if Misa kisses Saito, the boy she has a crush on, before a twenty-four hour deadline that ends with the coming of the New Year. Upon being given a temporary body, Misa runs into her friend Akio, who is happy to see her alive. Misa tells him about the deal she made with the Angel and Akio agrees to help her kiss Saito. I don’t want to spoil the rest, because it has a clever twist, but I will quote the Angel’s words from the end of the chapter: “It’s not bad to have a happy ending every once in a while.”

The heroine of the third story is an aspiring author with an active imagination. In one of Kumi’s stories, a boy is shrunken through mysterious means and falls in love with the girl who takes care of him. She wishes the same would happen to her crush Takumi, with him returning back to his normal size once he falls in love with her. The Angel grants her wish, but Kumi fails to consider the possibility that Takumi will never feel the same for her that she does for him. Though her wish doesn’t go exactly how she wanted, by the end of the story, Kumi learns an important lesson about considering other people’s feelings.

In the last story, about a girl and a boy who accidentally switch cell phones, the Angel doesn’t grant a wish at all. Instead, Nana decides to make her wish — to find the cell phone’s owner — come true on her own. It’s kind of a silly story, with the boy coming up with the idea of them finding each other without knowing who they are instead of just setting up a meeting to exchange phones like a normal person, but their belief that they’re fated to meet is cutely romantic, and it is nice have a story in which the main character doesn’t rely on the Angel’s powers to make her wish come true.

There’s actually one more story in this volume — a bonus Tokyo Mew Mew mini-story in which one of the characters is cast in a drama based on Only One Wish. Since I’m not familiar with Tokyo Mew Mew at all, I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but Mew Mew fans might find it more amusing.

Artwork is cute, but generic. I’m not really fond of the way Ikumi draws her characters’ eyes, and a lot of the characters look the same despite there being a different cast for each story.

Only One Wish is a nice anthology of short stories, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must-read. Fans of Hell Girl, though, may like it.

Add a comment May 26, 2010

Phantom Dream

TITLE: Phantom Dream
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Natsuki Takaya
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Natsuki Takaya (mangaka of Fruits Basket and Tsubasa: Those With Wings), Yurara, Rasetsu, drama, romance, action, supernatural

Ever wondered how Natsuki Takaya, the mangaka behind the shoujo hit Fruits Basket, got her start? Well, here’s your chance with Phantom Dream, Takaya’s debut series.

Around a thousand years ago, there once lived a beautiful woman with omnipotent powers who was considered the guardian of Japan. She had two companions named Hira and Saga, both who also possessed strong magical powers which they used to help people in need. She and Hira were also lovers, but when the woman was savagely murdered, Hira’s grief turned to anger toward the entire human race. Naming himself the head of the Gekka family, Hira began using his powers to turn humans into jaki — demons filled with jashin (negative emotion) — in the hope that they would destroy themselves. Saga, in opposition to Hira, formed the Otoya family, using his powers as a shugoshi (priest) to exorcise the jashin from the humans-turned-jaki.

This ancient feud between the two families has continued onto the present day, when the story of Phantom Dream begins. Sullen seventeen-year-old Tamaki Otoya is the new shugoshi of the Otoya family, a direct descendent of Saga. Though powerful, he hates the fact that he is unable to prevent people from turning into jaki. All he can do is “clean up the mess”, so to speak. By his side is his ever-cheerful girlfriend and childhood friend Asahi, who provides him with unwavering love and support. Though aware of the fact that Tamaki will have to marry a girl of power his family chooses for him, Asahi wants to continue loving him for as long as she can. Things change, however, when Eiji — the jahoutsukai (black magician) of the Gekka family — appears, demanding the return of the Suigekka, a magical sword that once belonged to Hira. Surprising revelations then are made, putting in motion events that will lead to the ultimate battle between the Gekka and Otoya families.

I have to admit I was not very impressed with this series at first. It isn’t until about halfway through that things started to pick up, yet by the end, I quite liked it. I still don’t think Phantom Dream is as good as Tsubasa: Those With Wings or Fruits Basket, but considering that it was Takaya’s debut series, that can be forgiven.

What can’t be forgiven is a certain character quirk of Tamaki’s that I cannot believe Takaya gave him. It pretty much ruined the entire character for me and was one of the reasons why I didn’t care for the series at first. The thing is, Tamaki has a bad habit of (playfully) hitting and kicking Asahi — and we’re supposed to consider it funny. It’s not. I know it’s a total double standard, but while girls (usually tsunderes) hitting guys can sometimes be played for laughs — see Kagura from Fruits Basket and Kaname from Full Metal Panic, but not Naru from Love Hina, who pretty much just abused poor Keitaro — the same cannot be said for guys hitting girls. I can’t think of any situation in which that would be acceptable (except maybe a battle), much less funny. The thing that really gets me, though? In a bonus side story at the end of Volume 4, we learn that Asahi’s widowed mother is physically abusive toward her. Tamaki has known this since they were kids, yet he still hits her! Urgh! And to top it all off, when one of Asahi’s friends tries to tell Tamaki to stop hitting her in that same bonus story, Asahi says, and I quote, “It’s just how we show our love!”

No, hitting someone is never a way to show love. I don’t care if Tamaki never actually hurts Asahi, it’s not funny, it’s not cute, and it is definitely, definitely NOT romantic, and I am quite frankly horrified that Takaya would try to portray it as such when she handles the topic of abuse — both mental and physical — so sensitively in Fruits Basket. Fortunately, except for that bonus story, after Volume 2 these scenes disappear due to certain spoiler-y circumstances, so the reader can focus more on the plot instead of how much they want to pummel Tamaki into a bloody pulp. (Or maybe that was just me.)

Speaking of plot, the beginning starts off slow, with a kind of Monster-of-the-Day vibe as the reader is gets to know the main characters and learns about Tamaki’s various powers as a shugoshi, but things start to get a little more interesting with the introduction of the jahoutsukai Eiji and the rest of the Gekka family. I have to say this series has some great twists that are genuinely surprising, in particular the true nature of the jahoutsukai, which I found fascinating. Actually, anything involving Eiji tended to pique my interest, since Eiji was one of my favorite — if not the favorite — characters from the series. (I almost wish Eiji had been the main character instead of Tamaki. No, scratch the “almost”. I do wish Eiji had been the main character.)

Though the little life lessons Takaya becomes known for in her later series are occasionally sprinkled into the narrative of the story, to me, they didn’t seem to resonate as strongly. For example, Asahi’s “everybody has a star in the night sky” metaphor (meaning that there’s a little light (goodness) in everyone) just doesn’t have the same oomph as Tohru’s “there’s an umeboshi on your back” metaphor (about how people become jealous of others because they’re unable to see what’s good about themselves) from Fruits Basket. Still, Phantom Dream does explore some of same themes as FB, such as how things can never stay the same and letting go of the past, so it’s kind of interesting to see the seeds being planted.

Phantom Dream is undeniably Takaya’s most plot-based work. Fruits Basket was character-driven slice-of-life, and while T:TWW was somewhat plotty, it still felt more like the characters were moving the plot instead of the other way around. I mention this because the characters in Phantom Dream are generally not as vibrant or well-developed as the characters in Takaya’s later series. I’ve already ranted about how much I dislike Tamaki, but even if he wasn’t hitting Asahi all the time, I doubt I would have liked him. The way he kept moping about not being able to protect every one from the very beginning of the story, quite frankly, kind of annoyed me. Nobody can protect the entire human race. That’s just ridiculous. I might have liked him more if he had been more of the “I’m going to try my best to do what I can” school of shonen heros than an angsty, moody shoujo lead, depressed about how useless he is when he obviously isn’t. He was a little too passive for my taste to make for a compelling main character. As for Asahi, she’s very much the airheaded, cutesy, refers-to-herself-in-the-third-person, overflowing with love kind of character — almost bordering — if not crossing — into Mary-Sue territory. She definitely not a strong female lead in the mold of Kotobuki and Tohru, and I have a feeling that her personality will turn off a lot of readers at first, but I will say that she does become less grating as the story goes on due, again, to certain spoiler-y circumstances. Really, the only people on the “good guys” side I found remotely interesting were Kaname (Tamaki’s mother) and Hideri (one of the higoshi who are the protectors of the shugoshi).

It’s actually the members of the Gekka family who are the most intriguing characters to me. Each is given detailed backstory, and almost everybody gets the chance to grow and develop as a character, unlike those on the Otoya side, who stay fairly static (with the exception of Kaname, Hideri, and maybe Asahi). Some of the most touching scenes in the series are focused on those of the Gekka family. Like I said before, had Eiji been the main character instead of Tamaki, I might have enjoyed the story more.

You may have noticed that I’ve been flinging around quite a few unfamiliar Japanese words during the course of this review. Feeling confused yet? If you are, you may find yourself fighting the urge to throw these manga volumes across the room in frustration, because they get used — a lot. I don’t usually have a problem when manga translators choose to keep some vocabulary in Japanese, but the thing is, there are roughly about a dozen terms the reader has to keep track of, and a lot of them look very similar: shugoshi, shichiboujin, shieki, gohou, Suigekka, juzu, jahoutsukai, jaryoku, jashin, jaki, higoshi, hi, haku, kon. See what I mean? A handy rule of thumb is that all the words that begin with an “S” are terms related to the Otoya; likewise, all the words that begin with “J” are Gekka words, but that rule doesn’t hold true for “Suigekka” and “juzu” (prayer beads). Suigekka was Hira’s sword and rightly belongs to the Gekka family, while the juzu belonged to Saga and are used by the shugoshi of the Otoya family. It doesn’t help with the confusion that a proper glossary of terms isn’t provided until the third volume. I would have appreciated it more had they added the glossary from the very beginning. That might have been helpful.

Artwise, since this was Takaya’s debut series, it’s not as polished as her later works, but around Vol. 3 or so, you can start to see her start to improve. I believe this is around the time she started on her next series Tsubasa: Those With Wings, so you can even see some the characters in PD starting to look more like those in T:TWW. The change is probably most evident in Eiji, who begins to look like Kotobuki’s twin.

Overall, Phantom Dream is a decent debut, but if you want to check out Takaya’s work, Fruits Basket and Tsubasa: Those With Wings are stronger series. However, if you are still interested in Phantom Dream even after reading this review, I suggest you skip over the bonus story in Vol. 4. It’s just a filler piece with no real bearing on the series, and it’ll probably just make you angry.  I know it certainly made me furious.

2 comments May 19, 2010

Ristorante Paradiso

TITLE: Ristorante Paradiso
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
CATEGORY: I’m not exactly sure, but it’s probably either josei or seinen. Anyone know for sure?
SCORE: 8 (Very Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Natsume Ono (mangaka of not simple, Gente, House of Five Leaves), All My Darling Daughters, slice of life, romance

I’ve always loved Italian culture. In fact, my family likes to joke that I’m Italian at heart, despite my Polish/Irish/Scottish/Native American ancestry. If I was given the opportunity to travel to any country in the world, all expenses paid, I would chose Italy without a doubt. (Japan would be my second choice.)

Unfortunately, that will never happen, so the next best way to experience Italy is through etertainment media, such as this charming one-shot manga by mangaka Natsume Ono.

Ristorante Paradiso begins with twenty-one year old Nicoletta arriving in Rome with a mission. When she was around six years old, her divorced mother Olga left her in the care of her grandparents so that she could marry Lorenzo, a man who refused to marry a divorcee with children. Due to distance and her busy career as a lawyer, Olga rarely visited, essentially abandoning her daughter. Now that she’s an adult, Nicoletta plans to get revenge on Olga by telling Lorenzo her mother’s big secret.

Her plans change, however, when she meets Claudio, the head waiter at Ristorante Casetta dell’Orso, the popular restaurant Lorenzo owns where all the male staff are required to wear glasses in order to satisfy Olga’s fetish. (Strangely enough, Lorenzo himself does not wear glasses.) Despite the fact that Claudio is much older than Nicoletta and refuses to take off his wedding ring even though he has been divorced for several years, his kind and quiet nature piques Nicoletta’s interest. In order to get closer to him, she makes a deal with her mother: if Olga can get her a job at the restaurant, she will reconsider telling Lorenzo the truth about who she really is. 

It’s a simple plot, but the characters are the main draw here. I admired Nicoletta immediately for her spunk, and I can see why she felt herself drawn to Claudio. He’s not handsome in a conventional way, but he does possess this aura of kindness about him. I also found his reluctance to take off his wedding ring very true to life. He knows his marriage is over, but he isn’t ready to move on. It doesn’t help matters that his ex Gabriella, a friend of Olga’s who works at the same law firm she does, is a frequent patron at the restaurant, not realizing how seeing her so often makes it difficult for Claudio to let go.

It is Olga who is the true surprise, though. She doesn’t make the best of first impressions, especially considering her backstory, but by the end of the story, I liked her quite a bit. It helps that she never forces herself on Nicoletta, begging her for forgiveness. Olga knows that she was a terrible mother for choosing a man and her career over her own daughter and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Instead, she rebuilds her relationship with Nicoletta in more subtle ways, like renting her an apartment, buying her presents, and just being there when Nicoletta needs somebody to talk to, offering advice as a friend, rather than a mother.

This title is very low-key, with a definite slice-of-life vibe. There’s not a whole lot of drama going on, as all the characters are pretty likeable, but there doesn’t need to be. The May-December romance between Nicoletta and Claudio is well done, and it’s nice to see Nicoletta and Olga becoming closer.

The one thing that prevents me from giving Ristorante Paradiso a higher rating is the artwork. To be perfectly blunt, it’s ugly. Hands down, the worst artwork I have ever seen in a manga. Not only are the character designs unattractive, it can be difficult at times to tell some of the restaurant employees apart, since the majority of them are older men, and they all wear glasses. No doubt Ono has a unique drawing style, but that’s really the only good thing I can say about it. I’m not a fan.

If you can get pass the dreadful artwork, though, Ristorante Paradiso is a wonderful one-shot, and I’m seriously considering giving Gente — a sequel series of sorts, focusing more on the other employees at the restaurant — a try.

3 comments May 12, 2010

Socrates in Love

TITLE: Socrates in Love
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Kyoichi Katayama and Kazumi Kazui
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Socrates in Love novel, Be With You, romance, drama

According to the back cover, the original novel Socrates in Love, written by Kyoichi Katayama, is the best-selling Japanese novel of all-time. With that kind of pedigree, I imagine that mangaka Kazumi Kazui was under a lot of pressure to create a manga adaptation worthy of such a phenomenon. I’ve never read the novel myself — it was also translated into English by Viz, and an excerpt of the first two chapters are provided at the end of the manga — but reading the manga version, I can see hints as to why the novel was so popular.

In a plot similar to (though more innocent than) Love Story, a classic American movie from the 70s, Socrates in Love is about a couple of teenagers named Sakutaro Matsumoto and Aki Hirose. They meet for the first time in their second year of middle school, when they are assigned to the same class and are named the male and female class representatives. As representatives, the two of them spend a lot of time with each other, and they begin to see each other as more than just friends. Even their classmates consider them a de-facto couple, but it isn’t until high school that their relationship becomes official. However, their love is put to the ultimate test when Aki is diagnosed with leukemia.

There’s a lot to like about this story. Sakutaro (or Saku-chan, as Aki affectionately insists on calling him) and Aki make an appealing couple, and their teenage romance feels very true to life. A particular favorite plot point of mine is when Oki, one of Sakutaro’s friends, offers to set things up so that he can spend the night with Aki at a deserted hotel. (This happens shortly before Aki is diagnosed.) The decision to have sex for the first time is a big deal, and Sakutaro doesn’t go about it in the most sensitive of ways, taking some typical teenage boy advice from Oki instead of talking about it with Aki, like he should have. When Aki realizes what Sakutaro has in mind, she’s actually not that upset that Sakutaro tricked her, as you might expect. She just wishes that he had talked to her about it instead of Oki. I have to say the resolution to to this arc is really sweet, and it’s nice that they get to have a moment of happiness before their lives are turned upside-down by Aki’s illness.  

I also appreciated how the story didn’t totally shy away from the ugly side of the disease. Aki loses her hair, throws up, and gets spontaneous bleeds. The ending really got to me, though the reader knows from the very start of the story that Aki will die. (The story starts with Sakutaro and Aki’s parents on their way to Australia to spread Aki’s ashes.) I definitely cried more than a few tears.

But there were a few things that kind of marred the story for me. The major thing was how Aki’s parents decided not to tell her that she has leukemia, instead claiming it was aplastic anemia. I could understand that kind of lie if Aki was a kid — “cancer” is a scary word to a child — but she’s almost seventeen years old. She’s more than old enough to know what’s going on with her body. And to tell Sakutaro the truth and ask him to keep it a secret from Aki… It just seemed cruel and unbelievable to me, although I know her parents were just trying to protect her. 

I also didn’t care for a subplot involving Sakutaro and his grandfather. The two of them are more like friends than grandfather and grandson, to the point that they even get together often to drink alcohol. (Encouraging underage drinking is definitely not grandfatherly behavior in my book.) Evidently, his grandfather sees Sakutaro as such a good friend that he asks Sakutaro to desecrate the grave of the woman he really loved — not Sakutaro’s grandmother, by the way — in order to steal some of her ashes. Though Sakutaro is understandably horrified by his request, he ultimately goes through with it after a talk with Aki, even agreeing to keep the ashes until his grandfather dies, then to scatter them with his. I get the point of the subplot — it was supposed to show how love can survive even after death — but I just couldn’t get over how his grandfather could ask such a request of a grandson he shared with deceased wife. Granted, Sakutaro doesn’t seem the least bit upset that his grandmother was not the love of his grandfather’s life — he’s more upset about the “descrating a grave” part — but I still didn’t like his grandfather very much.

Then there’s Sakutaro’s sweet, but incredibly stupid, plan to take Aki to Australia for Christmas, since she wasn’t able to go on their earlier school trip due to her illness. I won’t go much into that part, since it’s quite spoiler-y, but he should have known better. They both should have known better.

Concerning the artwork, like with Be With You, this is another case of really terrible cover art hiding the fact that the actual content is drawn rather well. It’s not the absolute best, but it’s more than decent-looking. I was pleasantly surprised.

If you’re in the mood to read a romantic tear-jerker, then Socrates in Love definitely fits the bill. Just remember to keep a box of tissues handy. Trust me — you’ll need them.

5 comments May 5, 2010






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