Suki: A Like Story

TITLE: Suki: A Like Story
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 10 (Masterpiece)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of Card Captor Sakura, Chobits, etc.), romance, slice of life, mystery

When someone thinks about CLAMP, the first thing that tends to come to mind is fantasy. The group is mostly known for writing and drawing manga that doesn’t take place in the regular world as we know it. There’s usually either elements of the supernatural or science fiction — sometimes even both — in their work, and they’re great at portraying fantastic worlds that come straight from their imagination.

Suki: A Like Story, however, is different from their usual work in that it does take place fully in the “real” world — perhaps a far more idealistic world than the one we know, but still a story that feels like it could actually happen. I actually wasn’t expecting to like it that much, despite my love for student/teacher relationships, but to my great surprise, Suki has overtaken Chobits as my favorite CLAMP title and earns itself the first Masterpiece rating to be posted in this blog.

Suki: A Like Story is the story of high school student Hinata Asahi. Hina, as she likes to be called, is one of the top students in her class, but in spite of her book smarts, she’s also very child-like and naive about the world. Although her father is very rich, she chooses to live by herself with only her two teddy bears — gifts from her late mother — for company, as she’s often the target of kidnapping plots and doesn’t want to involve anyone else in her troubles.

One day, a man in his early thirties named Shiro Asou moves into the house next door to Hina’s, exciting her. He turns out to be her new substitute homeroom teacher, taking over for her regular teacher, who goes on maternity leave. To everybody else, he seems cold and unfeeling, but Hina sees beyond his gruff exterior to realize he’s actually a kind man underneath it all. Though her friends Touko and Emi warn her it isn’t a good idea, Hina develops a crush on her teacher as they spend more time together outside of school. However, Shiro is hiding a big secret from Hina, and soon strange things start to happen when they are together. Could he be another kidnapper targeting her for her father’s money?  

Student/teacher romances can be tough to pull off without turning off many readers, and CLAMP doesn’t have the best track record in that regard. I enjoyed the relationship between ronin Shimbo and his cram school teacher from Chobits, as well as the one between middle school student Touya and student teacher/miko Kaho from Card Captor Sakura, but the engagement between ten-year-old Rika and her twenty-something teacher Mr. Terada (also from CCS) is pretty squicky no matter how you look at it. (I don’t care if they don’t necessarily “do” anything; a grown man should not be falling in love with and proposing to his prepubescent student, no matter how mature she seems.) With Hina being so naive and trusting, an older, more experienced man like Shiro could have easily taken advantage of her, but CLAMP wisely keeps things rather innocent between the two. I’m sure some will still find the age difference between them disturbing, but if you can get pass that, the story itself is really quite sweet.

It’s hard not to be charmed by Hina, after all. She’s the type of character that makes a reader want to smile every time she appears on the page. Though childish and innocent to the ways of the world, she isn’t too “cutesy”, which I appreciated. She may talk to her stuffed bears like they’re real people, but it’s not because she actually thinks they’re alive like a child might. She’s just lonely living by herself. And while she may enjoy reading children’s picture books in her spare time, Hina is also incredibly smart. She’s just naive and only sees the best in people. That innocence may get her in trouble on occasion, yet there’s something quite appealing about it as well. She honestly sees nothing wrong with her feelings for her teacher. The translation of the original Japanese title sums up Hina’s love for Shiro best: “I like you, that’s why I like you.” It’s a very pure kind of love.

As for Shiro, he’s very emotionally closed off due to a certain event from his past, so it’s difficult to tell exactly what he feels toward Hina until the very end. I think that’s a good thing with this kind of story. Had the reader been clued into any “impure” thoughts an adult man like him might have had about Hina, it probably would have ruined the innocence of their romance and tipped their relationship more into the “squicky” direction. Instead, he’s very chaste toward her, and there’s nothing really sexual about their relationship at all.

The plot is on the simple side, but it’s paced really well. With some short series, things can feel kind of rushed at times, but Suki unfolds at a natural and steady rate. Like Chobits, where Chii is a fan of a series of picture books that seem to mirror her life, Hina’s relationship with Shiro also becomes the inspiration for a cute book series about bears. I have to admit, I loved that hook in Chobits, and it is done even better in Suki in my opinion. Though the identity of the “bad guy” seemed to come out of left field at first, looking back, there were subtle clues foreshadowing who it was.

The one minor flaw I have with the series is the artwork. It’s not bad by any means — it’s CLAMP, after all! — but it’s another series drawn mainly by Mick Nekoi, and I’m a bigger fan of Mokona’s prettier artwork. If not for the fact that Hina wears dresses and skirts, at first glance most people would assume she was a boy! Though the two other main female characters (Emi and Touko) are more feminine looking, they still look a tad too masculine to me, and Nekoi’s male characters tend to only come in two varieties — tall and dark, with short hair or short and blond, with longer hair. (Oh, and glasses. I suspect she has a bit of a glasses fetish.) Still, my mild dislike of the artwork is only a minor thing and didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the series.

This series may not be for everyone. Though the romance between Hina and Shiro is portrayed as very pure and innocent, some people may still think it is creepy. If you can look past the age difference, though, Suki: A Like Story is one of the sweetest romances I’ve had the pleasure to read. Highly recommended.


Add a comment December 15, 2010
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Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle

TITLE: Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 6 (Fine)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of xxxHolic, Card Captor Sakura, RG Veda, Magic Knight Rayearth, etc.), Tsubasa Chronicle anime, xxxHolic anime, Card Captor Sakura anime, action, adventure, supernatural, romance, comedy, drama

I remember when I first heard about Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, right around the time CLAMP first started working on it. I thought it sounded like some kind of terrible alternate universe Card Captor Sakura fanfiction and dismissed it as something I would never want to read, despite being a CLAMP fan. After all, if I wanted to read about Sakura becoming a princess, all I had to do was check out the CCS section at, where practically every second story featured a “Princess Sakura” — an exaggeration, of course, but not by much.

Fast-forward a few years, when I spotted an omnibus edition of the first three volumes at Barnes & Noble. (I believe the omnibus was a B&N exclusive; I never saw it anywhere else.) As I have admitted several times on this blog, I’m an absolute sucker for omnibus editions, so despite my previous reservations, I decided to give Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle a chance.

The main characters of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle are slightly older versions of Sakura and Syaoran, the leads from CLAMP’s popular series, Card Captor Sakura. Here, Sakura is the beloved princess of a desert kingdom called Clow ruled by her older brother King Toya, while Syaoran is the adopted son of Fujitaka (incidently, Sakura’s father in CCS), an archeologist who is studying one of Clow’s ancient ruins. One day, Sakura ends up activating the ruins, causing an army of unknown enemies to storm the country and a pair of wings to sprout from Sakura’s back. The wings soon break apart, however, scattering into countless feathers that fly away. Sakura falls unconscious, and the high priest Yukito — another CCS character — sends her and Syaoran to see the Time-Space Witch named Yuuko in order to save Sakura’s life.

At Yuuko’s shop, Syaoran is introduced to two other people who arrive at roughly the same time he does from other worlds. Kurogane is a battle-loving ninja from Japan — though not our Japan — who was sent against his will by Princess Tomoyo (yet another CCS character) to see the Time-Space Witch, and Fai is a magician from the country of Celes, on the run from Ashura (a character from another CLAMP work called RG Veda) for reasons unexplained. They all have different, but similar, wishes. For Syaoran, he needs to travel to many different worlds in order to collect Sakura’s feathers, which also contain all her memories, in order to save her life. Fai doesn’t care where he goes, as long as it’s far away from Ashura, and Kurogane just wants to return back home to his Japan and Princess Tomoyo.

They all need a way to travel to different worlds, but according to Yuuko, the price is too high for only one person to pay. The three decide to pay the price together, each giving up the thing that matters to them most, and in exchange, Yuuko gives them a strange, pork-bun shaped creature called Mokona Madoki, familiar to those who have read Magic Knight Rayearth, who has the ability to teleport them to other worlds. Together, the group start on a journey to find Sakura’s lost memory feathers, but sadly, the one memory she will never recover is that of Syaoran as part of Syaoran’s payment to Yuuko.

The first half of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle is a fun action/adventure story, as the group travels to different worlds (where they often meet alternate versions of other CLAMP characters) and gets to know each other better. Syaoran and Sakura, being expys from CCS, have much the same personalities as the originals, but Kurogane and Fai are new characters, unique to TRC. My personal favorite is the “daddy” of the group, Kurogane, whose gruff and hot-tempered exterior hides the fact that he actually comes to care quite a lot about the people he is traveling with. In contrast, light-hearted “mommy” Fai is seldom seen without a smile on his face, and he loves annoying Kurogane by giving him silly, cutesy nicknames. (He’s the one who starts the “daddy” joke.) The image is just a facade, though, as Fai has gone through more than his fair share of sadness and pain, as the reader learns later in the series. (Fai is the woobiest woobie to have ever woobied. Seriously.) There’s also the white Mokona (a black Mokona is briefly shown who plays a bigger role in xxxHolic), who, unlike its counterpart in MKR, can talk and say more than “Puu!” all the time. Mokona is adorable in TRC and is just as vibrant and developed a character as the other four members on the journey. Rounding out the group of main protagonists is the sexy and fashionable Time-Space Witch Yuuko, who occasionally helps out the travelers on their journey — provided the price is right, of course.

However, at around the halfway point of the story, when the group lands in a world commonly referred to as Acid Tokyo by fans, the series takes a sharp turn into Mind Screw territory that lasts until the final volume. (The ending of the anime classic Evangelion is mere child’s play compared to the second half of TRC. Trust me.) Many fans mark the Acid Tokyo arc as the point when the story really gets going, and it’s true that Acid Tokyo signifies the beginning of the main meat of the plot, so to speak, but for me, I much prefer the first half of the series. The second half turns what until then was a fairly simple plot into something that, quite frankly, doesn’t make much sense. (In fact, the goal of Fei-Wang Reed, the antagonist, is the breakdown of reason, because his ultimate wish can’t come true in a universe of reason.) You will get a headache trying to understand all the various twists and turns the story throws at you, and even then, you probably still won’t be able to comprehend it, especially if you’re not following the companion series xxxHolic as well. (Though Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic are (theoretically) supposed to be able to stand on their own as separate series, you really do need to be familiar with both canons in order to get the full story starting around this arc.) I figure that after about my fifth reread of the entire series (as well as xxxHolic), I might be able to understand about half of what is going on. … That’s a big “maybe”.

The storytelling at that point also becomes more than a bit sloppy, with a strong reliance on deus ex machina to make the plot — whatever that plot might be — work. (Actually, instead of being called the Time-Space Witch, Deus Ex Machina really seems a more fitting title for Yuuko.) While the travellers did, on occasion, ask Yuuko to help them out in the first half of the series, it becomes pratically an everyday occurence in the second half. Something impossible or shocking will happen, then a couple of chapters later, it’ll be revealed that a character/group of characters had actually made a deal with Yuuko beforehand to make that certain thing happen (since quite a few characters have the ability to see the future). Once or twice might have been fine, but when it happens at least once or twice a volume, it starts getting ridiculous. (Again, that’s an exaggeration…but not by much.) It seems almost like the characters can’t make a move without Yuuko’s assistance, weakening the story in my eyes. All the flashbacks also make it really difficult to figure out the chronology of the story — already an almost impossible task when time travel (and certain other spoiler-y plot points) is involved.         

Putting aside the plot, being CLAMP, of course the artwork is fantastic, but some may be intitially put off by the long and lanky look of the characters’ limbs. It took me a while to get used to the style myself, but now I rather like it. Of special note in my opinion are the various clothes the characters wear. Yuuko’s gorgeous wardrobe is far more extensive in xxxHolic, where she is seen more often, but the outfits we see her wearing in TRC are just stunning, cementing her spot as the most fashion-forward character in the CLAMP universe ever (which is saying something when she’s competing against the CCS Sakura’s multiple battle costumes, Clover Ora’s beautiful gothic-inspired dresses, and CLAMP’s ultimate dress-up models from Chobits, Chii and her identical “sister”.) The other characters get in the fun as well, often adopting fabulous new clothes when arriving in a new world. (And I’m not even touching on the amazing outfits the characters wear on the “just for fun” title pages.) Seriously, TRC almost works as well as fashion magazine as it does an adventure story, giving a bit of shoujo flavor in a largely very shounen-type story.

This is rather a hard title to recommend. The first half is great and a lot of fun to read. I would probably give it at least a score of seven, maybe even eight, if I were reviewing it separately. But how much you enjoy the second half will depend on how much you enjoy (or can tolerate) crack-filled stories. Some fans think the series gets better starting with the Acid Tokyo arc; others, like me, feel like CLAMP begins losing their way at that point and miss the humor and heart present in the first half. Add that to the fact that the series is really long — at present, TRC is the longest manga series I own, and I probably wouldn’t have started reading it had I known it was going to be nearly thirty volumes long — and that reading xxxHolic — another relatively long, still on-going series — is almost required to understand the plot, it’s a tough sell. (It also doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the rest of CLAMP’s body of work, Card Captor Sakura in particular, although the translation notes provided in each volume do a good job of pointing out most of the cameos.)

Still, I did enjoy the series overall and think that most CLAMP fans will, too. It’s the ultimate crossover, featuring many of CLAMP’s most beloved characters in a variety of interesting worlds, and Kurogane, Fai, and Yuuko are welcome additions to the CLAMP family. If you don’t mind giving your brain a mental work-out, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle might just be the series for you.

Add a comment December 1, 2010
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A Million Tears

TITLE: A Million Tears
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 6 (Fine)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Yuana Kazumi (mangaka of Flower of the Deep Sleep and Haru Hana), drama, supernatural, romance

Back in this review for Haru Hana, I put forth the hypothesis that mangaka Yuana Kazumi was better at portraying drama than she was comedy, so I tracked down some copies of her earlier, out-of-print series, A Million Tears, to put my theory to the test. The verdict? Yes, she does much better with dramatic material, although this series isn’t without its flaws.

Hiromu is just an average, ordinary sixteen-year-old high school student. He enjoys playing on his school’s champion basketball team, and he has a cute, if slightly quirky, girlfriend named Natsumi. One day, though, one of his friends suddenly goes missing, and to make matters worse, not only does no one care about the guy’s disappearance, they don’t even remember him! It’s as if the friend never existed at all, and soon other kids at Hiromu’s school begin disappearing as well, literally without a trace.

The disappearances turn out to be the work of a guy named Vermillion, a Destiny Thief who lives off the existances of humans. Once he “eats” someone, they vanish completely, even from people’s memories. The victims cease to exist. Hiromu, however, remembers the vanished people because he’s a Destiny Thief as well, whose real name is Glorious. He lost his memories of being a Destiny Thief after stealing the existance of the real Hiromu and assuming his life, but he begins to recover those memories after Vermillion re-introduces him to Valeriana, Glorious’ near-vegetative wife.

There’s a lot about the theme of this series I like. Using the hook of Destiny Thieves to explore the nature of existance and what it means to truly be alive is a clever idea, and the series manages to be quite deep despite its brevity.

The problem is, as noted at the end of Volume 1, A Million Tears was originally meant to be a single volume, meaning that Kazumi had to quickly think of ways to expand her basic plot. It seems she decided to do that by adding a series of flashbacks, detailing Glorious’ life from when he first became a Destiny Thief to how he became Hiromu. It’s not that these chapters are superfluous; they do serve a purpose. The first flashback shows how Hirokazu — the future Glorious — fell in love with Valeriana and decided to become a Destiny Thief in order to save her life, the second is about Glorious meeting the original Hiromu, and the third, taking place in between the first two memories, explains how Valeriana ended up in her near-vegetative state. The memories flesh out the characters’ history and build up the theme of the story.

The problem I have with these middle chapters is that they don’t really flow naturally into the plot. They just happen with no real warning or build-up, causing the reader confusion at first as they try to decipher exactly when things are happening. The flashbacks are just…there, and while they are interesting and answer a lot of questions, I just wish they felt more integrated into the narrative itself instead of feeling like tacked-on filler.

Another problem is that some of the characters’ personalities aren’t particularly well-defined. For example, Hiromu’s girlfriend Natsumi is supposed to be a little on the strange side, but she seems pretty normal to me. Sure, her classmates think she’s crazy when Hiromu disappears and she keeps insisting that he existed, but she was always supposed to be a little weird. Yet the only time I really saw that trait expressed before Hiromu’s reawakening as Glorious is when he tries to confide in her about his fears that he’s going crazy and she starts up a speech about how maybe everybody else is crazy instead. (It’s also revealed that she’s in the Sumo Club, which I guess is a bit unusual for a cute teenage girl.) Then there’s Vermillion, who remains a bit of a cipher throughout the whole series. He’s quite attached to Glorious, but it’s never made clear exactly what the nature of his feelings are. Is he in love Glorious? Lonely and just wants a friend? Does he just enjoy toying with people? Apparently, unlike Glorious and Valeriana, who were originally human, he was always a Destiny Thief, but where exactly did he come from?

The characterization of Hiromu/Glorious/Hirokazu, though, is rather well done. Each aspect is different, yet not radically so. You have Hirokazu, the bitter little rich boy who resents his engagement to a woman who he doesn’t love, yet shows kindness to the beautiful foreigner who arrives into town on a missionary mission when everyone else shuns her; Hiromu, the kind high school basketball player in love with his girlfriend; and Glorious — revengeful against humans for what happened in the past, devoted to Valeriana, and willing to do anything so that they can be together forever, yet hesistant to erase Natsumi even after she learns the truth about who he is. There’s a nice conflict between his Hirokazu personality and his Hiromu personality when he’s restored as Glorious that I enjoyed.

I also liked the artwork, especially the beautiful watercolor covers. It’s not as polished as Haru Hana, and both female leads have dreadful hairstyles, but there’s still something quite appealing about it. Vermillion, in particular, has some really nice facial expressions that I loved.

A Million Tears is most definitely a flawed work, but as one of Kazumi’s earlier works, that’s to be expected. Still, if you enjoyed the more dramatic parts of Haru Hana, I think it’s worth a look.

Add a comment November 10, 2010
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Legal Drug

TITLE: Legal Drug
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
CATEGORY: Shounen-ai
SCORE: 6 (Fine)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of xxxHolic, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, Wish, The One I Love, Suki, etc.), supernatural, mystery, comedy, romance

As a general rule, I don’t review incomplete series on this blog. Neither do I tend to read shounen-ai/yaoi, which just isn’t my cup of tea. This will be a rare exception.

There’s a rather interesting story about how I came to own these three volumes of CLAMP’s Legal Drug. I mentioned in my last posted review that I bought my copy of another CLAMP title, Shirahime-Syo, secondhand. An online aquaintance of mine was getting rid of some of her manga collection, and among the offered titles was Shirahime-Syo, which I had been wanting for a while. However, it seemed silly to only buy one volume when the seller was offering a flat shipping rate. The cost of the shipping was more than the cost of the book! None of the other titles for sale really interested me, though, so in the end I randomly decided to pick up Legal Drug as well, since it was another CLAMP title and only three volumes long. At the price I was paying for them, it didn’t really matter to me if the series was ultimately left unfinished, and I was vaguely interested in reading one of CLAMP’s more shounen-ai-focused works, just out of curiosity.

I would describe Legal Drug as a more blatantly homoerotic version of their current series xxxHolic. The main characters are a pair of seventeen-year-old boys who live and work at Green Drugstore, owned by Kakei, a man with the power of precognition. The boys also possess unusual powers of their own: Kazahaya Kudo uses something akin to psychometry that allows him to see the memories of things and people he touches, while Rikuo Himuro’s power is telekinesis. In addition to their normal jobs at the pharmacy, Kakei offers them side jobs that often are linked to the supernatual. Based only on the three volumes that were released before the series was put on hiatus, it isn’t very clear yet what the main plot of the story is supposed to be, but these side jobs hint at a larger mystery, one involving the reason why Kazahaya ran away from his twin sister Kei and the disappearance of a mysterious woman named Tsukiko, who seems to be connected somehow to Rikuo.

But the main purpose of sending Kazahaya and Rikuo out on these jobs seems to be putting them in as many compromising positions as possible, which especially annoys Kazahaya since he can’t stand Rikuo. (Again, shades of xxxHolic, in how Watanuki despises Doumeki at first.) Rikuo, for his part, doesn’t seem to mind, finding Kazahaya’s freak-outs a source of constant amusement.

Unfortunately, the majority of these side jobs aren’t very interesting, only lasting about a chapter or two at most and not very suspenseful. One has them going to see a black-and-white movie so that Kazahaya can find out the color of a jewel — necessitating that he hold Rikuo’s hand since Kazahaya has a cold and can’t focus on his own — while another has Kazahaya dressing up as a schoolgirl and being possessed by a spirit, who wants to confess to the boy she had a crush on — of course played by Rikuo.

It isn’t until the third volume that a job comes along that feels like a true mystery. Taking pretty much the entire volume to resolve, it involves Kazahaya and Rikuo enrolling together in an all-boys’ school. In what I assume is an affectionate parody of yaoi tropes, nearly all the students are so horny that they have no problems with turning to each other to take care of their sexual urges in lieu of girls. In fact, the highlight of the school’s cultural festival is the choosing of the prettiest boy to be the “bride” in a fake marriage ceremony, during which the bride is allowed to wear the school’s treasure — a ring that Kazahaya and Rikuo are supposed to steal.

I actually really enjoyed this whole arc, largely in part to Kazahaya’s roommate, Satoru Nayuki. He’s the vice-president of the student council and looks the part of a serious student, thanks to his glasses, but despite his prim and proper exterior, he’s no innocent and enjoys introducing Kazahaya to how things work at the school. The contrast between his goody-two-shoes image and the shocking things that come out of his mouth is just hilarious, as are pure and virginal Kazahaya’s reactions to him and the other students at the school.

The strength of this title is really the characters. Kazahaya and Rikuo are somewhat similar to Watanuki and Doumeki as mentioned before, but different enough that they aren’t clones. Kazahaya is less prone to crazy antics than Watanuki, but possibly more naive, while Rikuo is more the strong, silent type in comparison to Doumeki’s sarcastic personality. My favorite characters, though, are Kakei and his lover Saiga. Their relationship seems to be a deconstruction of the stereotypical seme/uke dynamic often found in yaoi. Kakei, the shorter, more feminine looking of the two, is clearly the more dominant partner, with a hidden sadistic side to him. Sunglass-wearing giant Saiga, on the other hand, is the domestic sort, with a talent for sewing and other such skills.

As for the art, it’s CLAMP, so of course it’s pretty, but not one of my favorites when it comes to artwork. Drawn by Mick Nekoi, who has admitted before that she has trouble drawing distinctive men, the characters do look kind of alike. In fact, Kazahaya and Rikuo could pass as Kakei’s and Saiga’s respective, nearly identical sons, as they do in an amusing omake at the back of one of the volumes. It seems rather strange to me to choose Nekoi to do the drawing for a series with a cast of almost all men, but it is still well-drawn despite the similarity of some of the characters’ looks.

Should CLAMP ever return to working on Legal Drug, I wouldn’t mind reading the rest of it, especially if there are more jobs like the last one. I’m intrigued by the mystery of Tsukiko and Kei, and the characters are quite fun. But if it remains unfinished, I honestly won’t be too disappointed. CLAMP has other titles I would prefer they finish first (like Clover, The Legend of Chun Hyang, and (though I haven’t read the manga yet) X), and the story is similar enough to xxxHolic that it doesn’t really feel necessary for them to continue. Still, those who are disappointed by the lack of overt Watanuki/Doumeki fanservice in xxxHolic will probably enjoy the much more expressive pairing of Kazahaya/Rikuo (as well as Kakei/Saiga). They’ve got way better sexual chemistry anyway.

Add a comment October 20, 2010
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TITLE: Shirahime-Syo
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of xxxHolic, Magic Knights Rayearth, Card Captor Sakura, The One I Love, The Legend of Chun Hyang, etc.), supernatural, romance, tragedy

Shirahime-Syo translated into English means “Snow Goddess Tales”, but curiously, the title Snow Goddess (actually a yuki-onna, a spirit from Japanese folklore) only appears in one of the four stories presented in this beautiful short story collection from CLAMP. She is only referenced in the other three winter-based stories by characters who tell of a legend, claiming that the falling snow is the tears of the Snow Princess. Still, the stories are all linked together by their tragic endings, which the Snow Princess comments on in the framing story when she reveals that the snow is not caused by her tears, but by the despair of humans.

The first of the main short stories is called “On Wolf Mountain” and is probably my favorite. In it, a young woman named Fubuki plans revenge for her father’s death at the hands of the savage animal who killed him. He is described as “a wolf the color of night” with “eyes the color of blood”. Her mother is against Fubuki leaving, fearing she will suffer the same end as her father, but Fubuki is adamant about killing the wolf and sets off on her own. While searching for the wolf in the mountains, she comes across a pack of wild dogs, who attack her. Fubuki is certain she is going to die, but she is saved at the last minute by the black wolf she has been looking for.

I liked Fubuki the best out of all the female characters in the story, and though I’m not really a dog lover, I enjoyed the relationship that brewed between her and the wolf, who she named Inuki, as they depended on each other to get through the harsh winter. Those who are attached to their pets, especially dogs, are certain to find the ending particularly heart-breaking.

The second story, called “The Ice Flower” is the shortest and most tragic of the tales. Based on similar stories from around the world, it is about a pair of young lovers who are to be separated when the man decides to set out on a journey. The girl Kaya promises to wait by the lake where they say their goodbyes for as long as it takes for his promised return. Thirty years later, the man finally comes back to the village. Though he knows it is unlikely that Kaya would have really waited for him after so many years, he has to know for certain. He is unprepared for the sight that awaits him at the lake, however. Readers may roll their eyes at the depths Kaya goes to to keep her promise to her lover, but it is romantic in a very tragic way.  

“Hiyoku no Tori”, the last tale, is also about separated lovers. A young man decides to become a soldier in order to impress the disapproving father of Yukino, the woman he loves. However, after a battle, he is separated from his troops and becomes lost in a snow-covered area far from civilization. While wandering around, trying to find his way home, he sees a pair of beautiful herons. The sight of them reminds him of how he can’t be with Yukino, and in a jealous rage, he kills one of the birds with his bow and arrow. A few days later, he comes across the heron’s headless carcass again, telling him that all he’s been doing is walking in circles. The man is certain he is going to die without seeing his beloved Yukino again, but then a beautiful woman carrying a skull in her arms appears before him and points him in the direction of his hometown. It’s a somewhat similar story to “On Wolf Mountain”, but I don’t want to ruin the rest of the story, so I won’t say anything more about it.

I enjoyed all the stories, but I think the real beauty of the collection is the artwork. It’s still unmistakably CLAMP, but the style is closer to traditional Japanese artwork, appropriate for a collection of stories based on folklore. I don’t think many would disagree with me when I say that Shirahime-Syo features some of CLAMP’s best art. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find who was the lead artist for this anthology, but I assume it is probably Mokona, who is the team’s main artist.

For fans of CLAMP’s beautiful artwork, I’d highly recommend picking up a copy of Shirahime-Syo if you can find one. (I picked mine up secondhand, since I believe it is now out of print.) For everyone else… I don’t know. The short stories are solid and the artwork fantastic, but the volume is on the thin side and not as entertaining as some of their other series. Reading Shirahime-Syo feels akin to being assigned a piece of classic literature in English class: the story may be well-written and the plot somewhat interesting, but ultimately you’d rather be reading Harry Potter. (Granted, I actually really loved most of the books I read in school, but I was the minority in my AP English classes.) Still, if you like more literary-minded manga inspired by folklore, this anthology might be worth a glance.

Add a comment October 7, 2010
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Flower in a Storm

TITLE: Flower in a Storm
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Shigeyoshi Takagi
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Shigeyoshi Takagi, Ouran High School Host Club, romance, action, comedy

When I first heard about this series, I was a bit iffy about the summary. It sounded like it was going to be about some controlling, possessive, and possibly violent guy forcing a girl to fall in love with him, something that I do not consider romantic at all. However, after reading a handful of reviews that assured me that was not the case, I decided to give it a try.

Flower in a Storm is about a seventeen-year-old girl named Riko Kunimi. She’s known for her exceptional, almost super-human, physical abilities, but she wishes nothing more than to be an ordinary girl after the boy she has a crush on rejects her because of her above-average strength and agility. Her dream of living a normal life and finding a normal boyfriend becomes impossible, though, when Ran Tachibana, the richest, most powerful teenager in Japan, bursts into her classroom and proposes to her a gunpoint. (Don’t worry; it’s not a real gun.) Riko doesn’t know him at all, but he fell in love with her at first sight, and Ran is not one to take “no” for an answer. Determined to win a resistant Riko’s love, he decides to transfer to her school, turning Riko’s life upside down as he whisks her off for romantic dates while also dodging his many enemies from the business world, who want him dead.

This series is definitely over-the-top. Though it’s only two volumes long, it is jam-packed with exotic locales and exciting action scenes. It’s not realistic in the least — not many seventeen-year-olds run their own business empire, after all — but that’s part of the story’s charm. It’s pure escapism, and it’s easy to get swept away in the whirlwind that is Ran’s crazy life.

It also helps that Ran is such a magnetic character. Some might consider him a stalker — and, well, he kind of is — but he’s so silly and flamboyant that his actions don’t come off as creepy at all. (He reminds me a lot of Tamaki from Ouran High School Host Club.) Even Riko begins to soon enjoy his attention, despite her initial reluctance to getting involved with him. Ran’s love helps her realize that she doesn’t have to be “ordinary” for somebody to like her; Ran loves her just the way she is, “superpowers” and all. As for Riko herself, she’s not quite as engaging a character as Ran, coming off as, well, kind of ordinary aside from her physical strength, but it is nice to see a shoujo lead who doesn’t have to always rely on a man to save her. In fact, in the last arc of the series, she’s the one who saves him when he is kidnapped by a rival.

Still, I would have liked for the story to be a little longer. Riko’s realization that she likes Ran too seems a tad bit sudden, and I would have liked to have learned more about Ran’s family life. He doesn’t seem to be on good terms with his parents, especially his dad, for reasons left largely unexplained.

The art in Flower in a Storm is quite stylish, with a great character design for Ran. Putting a guy’s hair up in a topknot is an unusual style choice in the modern era, to say the least, but Ran manages to pull the look off by pairing it with glasses and a suit with a skinny tie, giving him a kind of hipster vibe that suits his personality well. Riko, on the other hand, is given a very ordinary look, appropriate for a girl who just wants to blend in with everybody else. I also thought the many action scenes were well-drawn and easy to follow for the most part.

Flower in a Storm is a fun, breezy read for somebody in the mood to escape from reality for an hour or so. It’s not the greatest romance in the world, but the characters are likeable and the plot is fast-paced with lots of action and humor. Plus, at only two volumes, it’s definitely easy on the wallet!

Add a comment September 15, 2010
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Haru Hana

TITLE: Haru Hana
RATING: Teen (13+)
NUMBER OF VOLUMES: 3 (released as an omnibus)
SCORE: 6 (Fine)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Yuana Kazumi (mangaka of Flower of the Deep Sleep and A Million Tears), romance, humor, drama

I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for with Haru Hana. I bought it solely on the basis of the cute cover art and the fact that the entire series could be had in one affordably priced omnibus edition. (I’m always a sucker for omnibus editions…)

Teenager Hana Yamada has an unusual condition: whenever she is touched by a guy, particularly a cute one, she breaks out into itchy hives. The only thing that can cure them is drinking green tea. When she moves in with her older sister in Tokyo, Hana hopes for a fresh start where nobody knows about her weird disease. Unfortunately, her debut at her new school doesn’t go exactly as planned.

To make matters worst, her sister forces her to take a job at a local relaxation room to pay off her debts for her. Said relaxation room happens to be run by two good-looking guys: the owner Shinnosuke, an older gay man who provides refreshments for the customers, and Haru, the amnesiac masseur, who also happens to be one of her new classmates. Haru quickly becomes the bane of Hana’s existence, often touching her on purpose just to see her break out. But underneath his prickly personality, Hana realizes he’s actually a very kind and empathic person and tries to help him deal with his missing memories.

There’s nothing really special about this series at first. It’s a fairly standard high school romance in which the lead couple seems to hate each other at first, but begin to develop feelings for each other once they start spending more time together. It’s a storyline you see all the time, and even though it’s labeled by Tokyopop as a comedy, I didn’t find it particularly funny, since most of the humor centers around Haru touching Hana and causing her to break out in hives. I suppose it’s kind of funny when he (or another guy) does it unintentionally, but when Haru does it on purpose, it just comes off as plain mean and makes it rather hard to like him.

But things start to improve in the third volume, which is devoted almost exclusively to the mystery of Haru’s lost memories. The reason why Haru lost his memories is quite shocking, considering how light-hearted the rest of the series is, and gives the story some much appreciated depth. Though I haven’t read her other two works that were released in English, I strongly suspect that Kazumi is better at doing drama than she is humor, because while it took me several days to get through the first two volumes, I couldn’t put the book down once I got to the last one. I even started liking the pairing of Haru and Hana by the end, which honestly surprised me, since I wasn’t a fan at first.

I think the strongest aspect of the series is the artwork. I already mentioned that the cover art was one of the things that drew me to Haru Hana, and it makes me kind of sad that this is an omnibus edition, since that means we only get one cover. While the other two covers are provided as extras at the back of the book, they’re in black and white, which lessens their impact. I wouldn’t have minded paying a little extra to get them in color.

Still, the art inside is just as charming as the cover. It’s cute without being childishly cute. The characters actually look their age, and their eyes are only just a tad larger than necessary. I especially liked Hana’s design. No one would mistake her for being movie star gorgeous — her hairstyle actually reminds me a little of Lisa Simpson, of all characters! — but she’s adorable and attractive in an off-beat kind of way that’s refreshing compared to the prettier shoujo heroines you often see. I will mention that it was almost impossible to distinguish between Shinnosuke and his cousin Aoi, though. Their faces are pretty much identical, and even their hairstyles are nearly the same.  

Had this series not been released as an omnibus, I’m not sure I would recommend it. I loved the artwork, and Hana was a likeable heroine, but the humor fell flat most of the time and the plot didn’t really pick up until nearly the end. However, getting a complete, three-volume series for about $17 retail isn’t a bad deal, and I don’t regret picking it up. While it may not be the best series in the world, I feel I got my money’s worth.

1 comment September 1, 2010
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Songs to Make You Smile

TITLE: Songs to Make You Smile
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Natsuki Takaya
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 6 (Fine)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Natsuki Takaya (mangaka of Fruits Basket, Tsubasa: Those With Wings, and Phantom Dream), romance, humor, drama

Songs to Make You Smile is a short story anthology from Natsuki Takaya, mangaka of the megahit Fruits Basket. It contains four standalone one-shots, plus a bonus story featuring the characters from another one of her series, Tsubasa: Those With Wings.

For me, the Tsubasa story was the real highlight of the collection. Called “Princess Dark Black”, it’s an alternate universe retelling of the fairy tale “Snow White”. Fans of the “Sorta-Cinderella” play that Tohru’s classmates put on in Fruits Basket will probably like this story as well, although it’s even funnier if you’re familiar with the characters from Tsubasa: Those With Wings. Shoka was always one of my favorite characters from that series, so I enjoyed her getting the lead role in this story as a Snow White with a terrible personality. (Kotobuki, the heroine of T:TWW, gets relegated to the minor role of the Dwarf — yes, there’s only one.) Since part of the fun is seeing where the Tsubasa characters will pop up, I won’t reveal the rest of the cast, but I will say that I think readers will be able to enjoy the story even if they aren’t familiar with the main series. It’s just as easy to read as a seriously-demented version of the classic fairy tale.

Unfortunately, the rest of the stories range from “eh” to “good, but not great”, and none are really all that memorable. The weakest of the bunch is the title story, “Songs to Make You Smile”, about a teenage boy named Atsushi Takahashi who sings in his friends’ band. Most of his classmates are scared of him because he allegedly always looks mad. (I say “allegedly”, because he doesn’t look scary or angry to me at all — not like, say, Kasanoda from Ouran High School Host Club, who has a similar problem. If I had to describe him, I’d say he comes off more creepy-looking, in the vein of the Hanajima siblings from Fruits Basket.) He’s actually quite nice, though, and has a crush on one of his bandmates’ cousins, a girl who is always looking down at the ground and never smiles thanks to the bullying she received in middle school for allegedly being too cute. (Again, the “allegedly” because she doesn’t seem that special to me, looks-wise.) Atsushi’s dream is to make her smile again, and you can probably guess how he does so based on the title. It’s a sweet enough story, I guess, but I think the character designs really underminded the effect.

My favorite of the one-shots is probably “Ding Dong”, which, based on the differences in Takaya’s character designs, I believe is probably the earliest of the stories in this collection. In the Christmas story, a teenage girl named Chisato has recently lost her father, leaving her in the care of her new stepmother Shizuko, who he had just married a few months before his death. Chisato’s mother died when she was very young, and her father threw himself into his work, never spending much time with his daughter. He never even gave her presents for her birthday or Christmas, leading Chisato to believe that he didn’t care about her at all. With some help from Shizuko, however, Chisato learns the truth about her father’s feelings for her and begins to understand him a little better. Though the character designs are a little…off and, well, kind of goofy-looking, the story itself is quite heart-warming. 

I also rather liked the Valentine’s Day story “Double Flower”, about a young man who works at a craft shop and is in love with his boss. Next to “Princess Dark Black”, it’s the funniest of the stories, largely in part to Suguru’s step-niece Aya, who is an expy of Adelaide from Tsubasa. The final story is called “Voice of Mine”, and is about a couple of musicians who admire each other’s music. There’s nothing much I can think of to say about it. It’s not bad, but it’s nothing special, either.

The stories were produced during different points in Takaya’s career, so the art quality varies. Like I said earlier, I believe “Ding Dong”, with its more awkward faces, is the earliest of the stories, with either “Songs to Make You Smile” or “Princess Dark Black” as the latest offering. It’s interesting to see how her style developed over the years.

Songs to Make You Smile is an okay anthology of short stories, I suppose, but I don’t think it would appeal much to non-Natsuki Takaya fans. Even those who are fans of hers, like I am, won’t be missing much if they decide to pass this up. Her series are much stronger than her one-shots. Still, if you’re a fan of Tsubasa: Those With Wings, I’d recommend it just for the “Princess Dark Black” story, which is a lot of fun.

Add a comment August 11, 2010
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Manga Moveable Feast: Paradise Kiss

This review was written for the Manga Moveable Feast  and thus is a bit different than the usual reviews I post on this blog in that major spoilers will be discussed. (There is also a spoiler for NANA.) I’ll probably rewrite this at a later date to be less spoiler-y, but if you have not read Paradise Kiss yet and want to remain spoiler-free, you’ll probably want to skip this version. Also, there will be some discussion of rape.

TITLE: Paradise Kiss
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
CATEGORY: Shoujo/Josei
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Ai Yazawa (mangaka of NANA, Kagen no Tsuki, Gokinjo Monogatari), Paradise Kiss anime, NANA anime, Gokinjo Monogatari anime, romance, drama, comedy

I actually was introduced to Paradise Kiss first through the anime. I had always been a little intrigued by the manga whenever I saw it at the bookstore, but the cover art (the first editions — I like the second edition covers) always kind of turned me off. However, immediately after I finished Netflixing the anime, I was putting in an order at Right Stuf for the manga I had previously ignored.

Turns out you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Eighteen-year-old high school senior Yukari Hayasaka is bored with her life. All she ever does is study in order to please her education-obsessed mother, who expects her to get into a good college. Yukari, however, isn’t even sure she wants to go to college, having no real personal dreams or goals besides those foisted on her by her parents.

Her life becomes infinitely more interesting when she is scouted by a group of students from the Yazawa School for the Arts to be their model in an upcoming fashion show during their school’s cultural festival. The group, calling themselves by the name of Paradise Kiss, consists of an eclectic group of characters: Miwako, a cute pink-haired girl who looks far younger than her actual age, Arashi, Miwako’s rocker boyfriend who possesses a bit of a jealous streak, Isabella, the elegant transvestite who acts as the “mother” of the group, and George, the openly bisexual leader and head designer of Paradise Kiss. Though intially overwhelmed by the strangeness of the group and thinking they’re a bunch of slackers, Yukari soon finds herself won over by their obvious passion for what they do and intrigued by their handsome and charismatic leader.

What I love about this series is how real and messy it is. Yazawa is not afraid to give her characters real flaws and let them make mistakes, especially when it comes to the relationship between Yukari and George. Right from the start, despite their obvious attraction to each other, it’s clear that they are fundamentally incompatible with each other. George prefers confident, independent women who know their own mind and often treats Yukari coldly when he thinks she’s being weak and silly, while Yukari struggles to even decide what it is she wants after spending her entire life being bound by rules and her mother’s high expectations.

As you might expect from a typical shoujo story, Yukari decides to change herself to better fit George’s ideal, except by doing so, she’s actually allowing George to control her life. Even though she may insist that the decisions she makes are her own, she really bases the majority of her decisions on what she thinks George would want her to do — in effect, becoming the opposite of the kind of lover George wants. There’s a definite irony in that. While Yukari thinks she’s becoming a strong and independent woman, worthy of George’s love, she’s actually just going through a classic case of teenage rebellion, influenced by a manipulative boyfriend.

Not that Yukari doesn’t mature during her experiences, because she does. She finally discovers something she is passionate about — modeling –and through the mistakes she makes, she learns some important lessons about life and especially love — namely that no matter how much two people may care for each other, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily “right” for each other. By the end of the story, she does become a true independent woman, one who makes the best decisions for herself, not for George, and manages to find somebody who she can actually depend on.

George himself is one of the most interesting male leads I’ve come across in manga, far different from the stereotypical romantic interest. Prince Charming, he isn’t. Several characters describe him as “warped”, and that’s a fairly apt description. He plays the role of a self-centered, extravagant, somewhat eccentric genius, taking pleasure in disregarding rules and convention and driving everyone — especially Yukari and Arashi — insane with his sudden whims and desires. Though it’s never explicitly confirmed, it’s strongly implied that in addition to his relationship with Yukari, he’s also sleeping with Seiji, a male hair and make-up artist who sometimes teaches at Yazawa Arts, and he’s far from a loving, caring boyfriend. Yukari herself even wonders at times if George even knows the meaning of the word “love”.

Amazingly, however, George does come off as sympathetic character once we learn more of his background and realise the reason why he treats Yukari the way he does. As the illegitimate child of a rich business man, he doesn’t want Yukari to become like his mother, a former model who gave up her career to give birth to George. His mother is completely dependent on George’s father for her livelihood and never lets a chance pass by to complain about how George and her lover ruined her life, although she’s never done anything to try to change things. By sometimes being cruel to Yukari, he believes he’s actually, in a way, being kind to her, encouraging her to take responsibility for her own actions and stand on her own two feet instead of relying solely on him. That’s all well and good, of course, but what he doesn’t understand is that sometimes it is okay to lean on those you love, and that he’s not completely blameless for Yukari’s actions, no matter how much he may deny he isn’t.

There’s also a second romantic plot in the series revolving around a love triangle between Miwako, Arashi, and their childhood friend Hiroyuki, who coincidentally is a classmate of Yukari’s and is the object of Yukari’s crush at the beginning of the story. Paradise Kiss is technically a sequel to an earlier, currently unlicensed Yazawa work called Gokinjo Monogatari (Neighborhood Story), though no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy PK, since it takes place about twenty years later. Miwako is the little sister of Mikako, the heroine of Gokinjo Monogatari, and Arashi and Hiroyuki are the sons of some of the other GM characters. The three of them grew up together in the same apartment building, but had a falling out when both the boys fell in love with Miwako, leading Arashi to order Miwako to cut off all contact with Hiroyuki. Thanks to Yukari’s well-intentioned meddling, however, Miwako and Hiroyuki end up meeting again, causing problems in Miwako’s relationship with Arashi as he begins to fear losing her to Hiroyuki, who he considers a much better guy than he is. 

I wasn’t as fond of their story as I was Yukari and George’s. Fact is, Hiroyuki is a far better guy than Arashi, who we later learn raped Miwako the first time they had sex. It’s played off as something Arashi didn’t mean to do, and he’s sincerely regretful for what he did, but instead of Miwako breaking things off with him as you would hope a rape victim to do in that situation, she decides to accept that violent part of him because she loves him so much. Now, Arashi isn’t some kind of monster. Other than the rape and his (mostly understandable, if unreasonable) jealousy toward Hiroyuki, he’s a decent enough guy — Arashi is probably the sanest and most normal member of Paradise Kiss, despite his punk rocker looks — and seems to treat Miwako well. I’m not saying it was necessarily wrong for Miwako to forgive him for what happened. People sometimes deserve second chances, and as far as the reader is aware, Arashi never does anything like that again. In fact, at the end of the story, they’re happily married with a daughter. I just would have liked to see Arashi in therapy to deal with his issues. Violent tendencies aren’t something that a lover should have to “accept”, and Arashi could have easily become abusive toward Miwako. No, having a talk with Hiroyuki (who actually plans to study psychology in college) about what happened is not the same thing as dealing with his issues of insecurity, although it is a start. Even if Hiroyuki had just suggested Arashi get some (professional) help, I would have been happy. It’s just too easy of a solution compared to complexity of Yukari and George’s problems and how things are resolved, so I was a bit disappointed with that.

(If there’s one major criticism I have with Ai Yazawa — besides the fact that her characters are way. too. freaking. thin. — it’s how she portrays date-rape. Generally, I like Arashi, and I love Takumi from NANA, but I do not like the fact that they both raped their love interests and didn’t really suffer any major consequences for their actions — i.e. their girlfriends stay with them and forgive them right away. (And, at least in Arashi and Miwako’s case, they’re seen as a “good” couple who get a happy ending. I won’t get into Takumi and Hachi’s relationship, since this isn’t a NANA review.) There’s messed up (George)…and then there’s really messed up. Still, it’s saying something for Yazawa’s talent that she can write these two characters doing such a horrible thing, and yet I still like them.)

Enough with all this talk of romance, drama, and sex, though. Let’s talk about the clothes. Oh, the clothes!

Yazawa actually studied to become a fashion designer before she started her career as a mangaka, and it shows. She probably had a lot of fun drawing this series due to all the fabulous and over-the-top outfits the characters wear. Each character has a distinct style that suits their personalities. Miwako, who looks (and sometimes acts) like a little girl, favors cutesy, frilly outfits, often made by her sister’s fashion company, Happy Berry. Arashi, the punk rocker, has tons of piercings and dresses in rock star style. Isabella, despite being physically a man, pulls off wild eye make-up and beautiful, elegant dresses that often appear to be Victorian-inspired with aplomb. As for George, his apparel is as flamboyant as he is. Only he could pull off wearing a feather boa and sunglasses and have the effect come off as sexy instead of silly.

It’s Yukari who gets the best wardrobe, though, as George allows her to wear her choice of his designs. Though the clothes he designs are far from conventional and not something you would see many people wearing on the streets, there’s no denying he has a great talent, and Yukari is the perfect model to wear them, as if they were made just for her. I also really liked the symbolism behind the clothes. To George, every design he makes holds an important memory to him, so for him to allow Yukari to wear them shows just how much he really loved her, despite the way he treated her at times. The scene near the end, where Yukari realizes that he’s left all his designs to her even though they’ve broken up, makes me cry every time. It’s his way of saying “I love you,” and so uniquely George.

There’s a lot more I could say about Paradise Kiss. In fact, I could probably write a two thousand word essay on George’s character alone — I didn’t even discuss how appealingly human he becomes in the last few chapters as he struggles between pursuing his dreams as a fashion designer or taking the safer route of becoming a hair and make-up artist so he can support his mother — but I think this is already long enough. In conclusion, Paradise Kiss is an amazing series, and I would highly recommend reading it.

3 comments July 30, 2010
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Name of the Flower

TITLE: Name of the Flower
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 8 (Very Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Ken Saito (mangaka of Oh! My Brother), drama, romance, comedy

I had heard a lot of good things about this series, so I’m glad I finally got the chance to check it out.

Name of the Flower is about young woman named Chouko Mizushima. When she is in high school, both her parents are killed in an accident, leaving her in such a state of shock, she stops talking and completely withdraws from the world. She is passed among various family members and friends until her father’s cousin Kei permanently takes Chouko in.

Twelve years older than Chouko, Kei is a famous, but reclusive, novelist, known for writing incredibly dark, depressing stories. He suggests to Chouko that she take over his long-abandoned garden as a way to keep her mind off things. Gradually, Chouko comes out of her shell, and the two develop feelings for each other. Kei even writes a novel based on their relationship, titled “Hana” that is (slightly) more hopeful than his previous works.

However, Kei is even more damaged than Chouko. He feels like he doesn’t deserve to be happy and thinks it would be better for Chouko to find someone else to love. Their relationship comes to a standstill as Chouko enters college and joins a literature club at school, where she meets the painfully shy and sweet Sousuke Karasawa. Karasawa falls in love with Chouko, but her heart remains with Kei, despite the darkness inside him.

In several reviews I’ve read for this series, reviewers have compared Name of the Flower to Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre. That’s a fairly apt comparison, I think. Kei and Chouko are like a modern-day Rochester and Jane, though I believe Kei has more in common with the Byronic hero Rochester than Chouko with passionate, independent Jane. Their romance is just as tortured, however, as the two spend many years drawing closer, then pulling away from each other while Kei insists on punishing himself for what happened in his past.

A story like this could be prone to melodrama, but Saito does a great job of gradually building up emotions. There’s a restraint to the story that makes the scenes where Kei and Chouko do let go that much more dramatic and effective. Their emotions never feel silly or overwrought, just painfully real.

It’s not all drama and tragedy, though. Name of the Flower is surprisingly funny, thanks in equal parts to Chouko’s hilarious, Kei-idolizing friends in the Taisho Authors’ Association and Shinichi Akiyama, Kei’s goofy editor and self-named best friend. Any bibliophile is bound to identify with this wacky group of book-lovers, of which Akiyama is the undisputed king. The club admires Akiyama just as much as they do Kei for his unrivaled knowledge of Japanese literature, and he becomes somewhat of an unofficial member of the club.

Actually, I’d have to say that the “friendship” between Kei and Akiyama is probably my favorite relationship in the series. The two of them are total opposites — Kei is a misanthropic loner, while fun-loving Akiyama is about as extroverted as they come — yet they play off each other so well, you can see how close they really are, despite Kei’s grumblings to the contrary. And Akiyama’s character gets some unexpected depth later in the story as we learn about his past with Kei.

What of the main couple, though? Well, in my opinion, Chouko is a pretty bland heroine. She’s very sweet and pretty, but she’s totally overshadowed by a cast of far more interesting characters. Don’t get me wrong, I can certainly sympathize with the pain she must have felt losing her parents and understand why she feels such a strong connection with Kei. It’s just that I wish she had a more vibrant personality. She’s not really passionate about anything besides Kei and possibly her garden. She’s not even that much of a reader, joining the Taisho Authors’ association largely out of pity for Karasawa, who was ordered by his seniors to find at least one new recruit for the club.

As for Kei, I did rather enjoy his tortured and snarky character, but I actually agree with him that he’s not a good romantic prospect for Chouko. He doesn’t need the love of a good woman to show him the joy of living again. What he really needs is the number of a good psychiatrist. His issues run very deep, and no matter how much these two damaged people might love each other, it’s just not a healthy relationship, no matter how you look at it. In real life, if I were Chouko’s friend, I would try to convince her to give up on a romantic relationship with Kei and pursue one with adorable Karasawa, who is a much more appropriate love interest.

But this isn’t real life, and sometimes it is nice change of pace to read a romance that isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, so I don’t consider that a major drawback, especially since their romance is not meant to be seen as healthy and ideal. Saito readily acknowledges that the two of them are messed up. Besides, how often in shoujo does the heroine actually pick the guy who is the best for her from a practical point of view? Logic and love aren’t always compatible, and that’s where good drama begins.

I believe Name of the Flower is Saito’s debut series, so the artwork is rough in spots. It gets better in later volumes, but still not a style I personally care for. It’s not bad, though, and feels kind of retro.

Name of the Flower is not a typical fluffy romance. The central couple consists of two very damaged people, and the road to love is not an easy one. Still, there’s something very appealing about it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those looking for a love story in the vein of the old Gothic romances.

Add a comment July 14, 2010
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