Posts tagged ‘Tokyopop ‘

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

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


TITLE: Clover
PUBLISHER: Tokyopop and Dark Horse
RATING: Older Teen (16+)?
SCORE: 8 (Very Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of Card Captor Sakura, Chobits, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, xxxHolic, etc.), experimental manga, steampunk

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that this review covers the recent Dark Horse omnibus release. The four individual volumes that Tokyopop put out are now out of print. You’re going to want the new omnibus, anyway. It’s fabulous. (By the way, the omnibus doesn’t seem to show a rating. If it does, I can’t find it. But there are scenes of a (kind of mild) sexual nature present, so I feel safe in saying that is in the Older Teen range. If anybody knows for certain, feel free to let me know.)

What is happiness, and how do you find it? That’s the question at the heart of Clover, a series from manga superstars CLAMP.

Clover begins with Kazuhiko Fay Ryu, a former black ops agent, being assigned a mission by General Ko despite the fact that he is now a civilian. His job is to deliver a package.

The “package” in question is a mysterious young girl who goes by the name of Sue, and she is the only person who knows their final destination. As part of the Clover Leaf Project, she has been kept isolated from other people inside of a very large cage for most of her life. Her only form of human contact has been through the distant voices of General Ko and Kazuhiko’s dead girlfriend Ora, a singer whose songs Sue loves. Sue has only one wish, and Kazuhiko is the only one who can make it come true.

Right off the bat, I’ll say that this title probably isn’t going to be to a lot of people’s tastes. It’s very experimental in style, but those who have previously enjoyed CLAMP’s other works or are looking for something a little more off-beat than the usual mainstream manga, Clover is worth a look, especially the gorgeous new Dark Horse omnibus edition.

The plot, as you can probably surmise from the summary, is a bit on the thin side, but Clover isn’t about the plot. It’s about how the plot is presented. The first two volumes, which make up what is considered Part I of the series, cover the main storyline as described in the summary: Kazuhiko and Sue traveling to the secret destination so that Sue can fulfill her wish. The third volume, Part II, goes back to a time before Part I when Ora was still alive and first “met” Sue. The last volume is Part III and goes back even further to reveal the backstory of another character who is a part of the enigmatic Clover Leaf Project.  

There were actually two more volumes (Part IV) originally planned by CLAMP, but the magazine the series was serialized in folded before the story could be completed. Normally, I do not care for unfinished series, but the way this series was concepted and written, with what is presumably the ending already shown in the second volume, those last two volumes aren’t really necessary. Yes, a few questions remain unanswered, but as a reader, those unanswered questions didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the series as a whole. In fact, as a writer, I almost feel inspired to come up with my own version of the answers. (Why, yes, I do write fanfiction.)

Another interesting technique used to tell the story is the use of extremely short chapters. Chapters range from a single page to probably no more than ten for some of the longer chapters. I didn’t bother to count, but that seems about right. The shortness of the chapters gives the story a bit of a… Well, I guess I would say “disjointed” feel at times, but it’s still relatively easy to understand despite some moments of randomness.

In addition to the non-typical narrative structure, the art style is similarly experimental in regards to paneling. Many panels are on the small side, mostly focusing on the characters’ faces, and tend to be spaced out, leaving quite a bit of unused space on the page. These empty spaces do a great job of conveying Sue’s loneliness and the disconnect she feels to others due to her isolation. The artwork itselt is stunning, as is most of CLAMP’s work. I think Ora in particular is one of the most beautiful characters they have ever created. I love her tight spiral curls and her gothic-inspired wardrobe. Sue also has a great design to her.

If there is one thing to complain about concerning the style of the series, though, it would have to be overdose of song lyrics that are repeated on almost. every. single. page. I’m not kidding. Probably over a third of the text in this series consists of the lyrics to Ora’s songs alone, and they aren’t great lyrics. Take this verse, for example, from the song I consider the series’ theme song, since it is also called “Clover”: I wish for happiness/I seek happiness/To find happiness with you/To be your happiness/So take me/Somewhere far from here. Not exactly the work of say, a John Mayer or a Taylor Swift. Maybe the lyrics come across as more profound in Japanese, but they seem kind of trite in English.

Now, if you all will allow me to gush… WOW. I love, love, love what Dark Horse did with this omnibus. I am a total sucker for colored artwork, and Dark Horse delivers with a total of seven double-page drawings separating each volume and twenty-one — yes, twenty-one — more drawings in a bonus gallery at the end of the book, which includes the artwork that was used for the covers of the original four volumes. I adore omnibuses (omnibusi?) for their value, but one of the drawbacks in my opinion has always been the loss of the colored cover art, so it’s great that those were included.

I am just in love with these drawings. Words can’t convey just how gorgeous they are. I find myself randomnly grabbing the book throughout the day just to look at them. They’re seriously almost worth the price of this omnibus just by themselves. (Well, okay, twenty dollars for twenty-eight colored drawings may be a bit much, but I got my copy at Right Stuf and only paid fifteen.) 

(Note to self: Stop stalling and buy one of the CLAMP artbooks already. You know you want one.)

Clover may be more style over substance, but, man, does it ever have style. If you’re the type who likes a meaty plot in your manga, this is not the series for you. For those looking for something a little out of the ordinary, though, Clover is a possible gem. Even if the story doesn’t win you over, the artwork probably will.

1 comment June 2, 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

Cherry Juice

TITLE: Cherry Juice
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Haruka Fukushima
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 5 (Okay)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Haruka Fukushima (mangaka of Instant Teen and Orange Planet), Marmalade Boy, romance, drama, comedy

Incest between closely-related blood relatives is considered taboo in the majority of cultures around the world, but when the relationship between step-siblings becomes something more, does the same rule apply?

That’s the premise behind Cherry Juice, a series about a pair of fifteen year old step-siblings named Otome and Minami. Otome’s widowed father and Minami’s divorced mother got married five years ago, combining their respective families. However, starting from the day they first met, Minami’s feelings for his new “big sister” — Otome is a mere three days older than him — have been more than brotherly. Though he tries to ignore his love for Otome, when the two are forced into sharing a bedroom and Otome starts dating Minami’s best friend Amane, it becomes more and more difficult for Minami to deny how he feels. Throw in Otome’s conflicted feelings for Minami, and you get what should have been an interesting story about a (semi-)forbidden romance.

Unfortunately, Cherry Juice is just not that good. I actually did like it a little more on my second read-through — I didn’t care for it much at all the first time I read it — but it’s still not a series I would recommend.

One of the major problems is that it seems that Minami and Otome are the only ones who see the fact that they are step-siblings as an obstacle to a romantic relationship. Even Otome’s grandmother (and, to a lesser extent, Minami’s mother) are rooting for them to get together. Granted, there are a few characters who think step-siblings falling in love with each other is weird, but even they come around by the end. The lack of true disapproval for their feelings makes all the angst Minami and Otome go through seem really unnecessary.

There’s also the matter of the whole “sharing a bedroom” thing, which makes me want slap their parents for their idiocy. (Backstory: Otome’s grandmother temporarily — later, permanently — moves in with them after hurting her hip playing beach volleyball.) What kind of parent in their right minds thinks it’s a good idea to let their hormonal teenager share a bedroom with their opposite sex, equally hormonal step-sibling? That’s just asking for trouble! I don’t understand why Granny and Otome couldn’t share a room, or if Granny really needed a room to herself, why Minami couldn’t just sleep in the living room or something. I mean, he prefers sleeping on a futon, anyway, so what does it matter where he sleeps? Forcing Minami and Otome to share a room like that just seems like a cheap excuse for fanservice, as they seem to walk in on each other quite a lot in various states of undress.

Then there are the leads themselves, who are fairly unlikeable characters, in my opinion. Why Otome falls for Minami when Amane is a much better guy, I have no idea. Minami comes across as a jerk most of the time. He’s always manhandling her and insulting her by calling her stupid, idiot, ugly, fat, etc. — typical things that a brother might call his sister, but not exactly terms of endearment from a lover. Not to mention that he’s a terrible flirt who enjoys being the only male in the Cooking Club. Of course, a lot of his acting out is the result of him being frustrated by his feelings for Otome, and he does do some sweet things when he realizes what a jerk he’s been, but that doesn’t excuse his behavior. Add that to that the fact that they’re both kind of abusive to each other, and their relationship is not one that I felt like rooting for.

I didn’t root for Amane and Otome either, for that matter, because Otome is almost as bad a character as Minami. She’s so wishy-washy about her feelings for Amane and Minami, and she’s a major crybaby, not to mention a bit clingy. Also, it doesn’t seem like she has any real interests of her own. She’s a member of the Kendo Club, but she only joined because Amane was a member, not out of any real interest in the sport. I honestly don’t know how she managed to get three hot guys — yes, there’s a third guy in the mix, but I won’t spoil who he is — to fall in love with her. She’s not particularly kind, or smart, or funny, or even interesting. She is cute, I suppose, but she’s never held up to the same standard as Minami, who is considered the hottest guy in school and has a harem of girls after him. It’s a mystery.

So, what did I like about this title that allowed me to give it an “okay” rating? I’m kind of wondering that myself at the moment… No, seriously, the comedy is pretty good. I didn’t laugh out loud at anything, but I found myself rather amused by how Minami and Amane sometimes flirted with (and even kissed!) each other as fanservice for their female fans. At one point, I even thought it might be nice twist if they ended up together. (And I’m saying this as somebody who isn’t into boys’ love.) Naru and Aiko, Otome’s two best friends, are fun characters, as well. Aiko’s huge (and very obvious) crush on Minami is hilarious, and Naru is kind of awesome (as in, very awesome). Fukushima should have written a story focused on Naru, Amane, and Aiko instead, with Otome and Minami as the supporting characters. I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more!

Artwork is decent shoujo. It’s not quite as pretty as I usually like, but it’s not terrible, and the character designs are good. Fukushima is apparently a big fan of uniforms, as evidenced by most of her sidebars, but I have to say, I didn’t really care for either of the uniforms Minami and Otome wore. (They started high school during the course of the story.)

Cherry Juice is not something I would recommend to somebody who wants to read about a forbidden romance that is, actually, you know, forbidden, but it can be funny at times, and has a great supporting cast. If you can get pass the unlikeable leads, the silly plot, the unsatisfying melodrama… Well, it still probably wouldn’t be worth it.

Add a comment April 20, 2010

The One I Love

Originally posted on Feb. 13, 2010 at LiveJournal.

TITLE: The One I Love
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: CLAMP (mangaka of numerous titles, including Card Captor Sakura, Wish, Chobits, etc.), romance, slice of life

With Valentine’s Day just a day, it seems the perfect time to review The One I Love, a romantic anthology from superstar mangaka group CLAMP, telling stories of love focusing on a variety of different women, from high school girls to career women and those who are about to get married. (There’s even a Valentine’s Day themed story, making it perfect reading for the holiday.)

The One I Love is a bit different from your typical manga volume. Not only does it contain twelve one-shot short stories — well, actually, they’re more like vignettes than actual stories, coming in at only seven pages each — but after each story, the group’s leader Nanase Ohkawa has written a short essay detailing the inspiration behind each vignette and how they fit into CLAMP’s idea of love. Some of the stories are somewhat autobiographical in nature, based on things that happened in her or one of the other member’s lives, while others were inspired by stories told to Ohkawa by friends and family members. The fact that these vignettes were based on true stories gives a particular ring of truth about them, and even if you can’t personally identify with all the stories, there’s bound to be at least one or two that have you nodding your head, saying, “Yeah, I know exactly how she feels. I’ve felt that way, too.” (Yes, guys included, even though the main character in each story is female and the stories are told from her point-of-view. As some of the vignettes show, men can have the same insecurities, concerns, and worries about their relationships as women do. We’re not so different after all!)

My personal favorite is the vignette about a woman telling her boyfriend how she doesn’t understand the word “cute”. She complains about its vagueness and feels that it’s just something people say as a social nicety, yet whenever her boyfriend tells her that she’s cute, she gets all flustered and happy. For lack of a better word, the vignette is really…cute! (Okay, I can think of a few other words to describe it — adorable, heart-warming, and sweet come to mind — but I couldn’t resist!) I may not feel as strongly about the word “cute” as she does, but I do feel a little happier when somebody I love tells me I’m cute (especially since I don’t think of myself as a particularly “cute” person).    

I also identified with the one about a girl in a long distance relationship and the one about sharing interests with the one you love. My first (and only) romantic relationship was long distance, and while the circumstances were different than those in the vignette, I still sympathized with some of her feelings. As for sharing interests, it was video games in my case. He was a huge video game fanatic, so I became interested in them, too. (Well, maybe re-interested — wait, is that even a word? — is the more appropriate term, since I had always rather liked them. Just didn’t play them much.) The essay following that vignette actually addresses a common misconception some people have when a significant other decides to show interest in their partner’s hobbies. It’s not about becoming someone different, somebody they might like more, as some might see it, and losing your identity; it’s more about sharing and being together with the one you love. Out of all the essays, that was probably my favorite. 

Artwise, it’s CLAMP, so of course it’s gorgeous. Mick Nekoi is credited as the artist for this work, and it’s very similar in style to Wish, which she also drew. While the women are all beautiful and unique, I must admit that some of the men can kind of look a bit identical at times, a fact Nekoi admits to in the amusing omake comic at the end of the volume. But that’s really only a minor complaint. What’s really wonderful is that the first vignette (along with the title page featuring a drawing of all twelve women) is rendered completely in color. The effect is beautiful, and I wish the rest of the vignettes had been done the same. That would have been amazing, but, oh, well.

I think those who are already CLAMP fans (like I am) will really enjoy this anthology, but I don’t think it’ll hold as much appeal to non-fans. However, if you’re in the mood for some warm and fuzzy romance that doesn’t require a huge commitment, this title may be just what you’re looking for. You may even learn something about love.

Add a comment March 30, 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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