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TITLE: Rasetsu
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Chika Shiomi (mangaka of Yurara, Canon, and Night of the Beasts), Ghost Hunt, supernatural manga, romance, comedy, drama

I feel Rasetsu is a rather appropriate title to review this month, for the title character happens to share my birthday, which was November 2nd. Granted, it probably would have been even a better fit for October, considering it’s a supernatural romance about a group of exorcists, but I didn’t have time last month to write a review.

Rasetsu is the story of an eighteen-year-old girl of the same name who has the ability to see and exorcise spirits. Three years before the start of the story, Rasetsu was marked with a rose tattoo by a powerful demon, who informed her that if she did not find true love by her twentieth birthday, he would take her and make her his. Because of the demon’s threat, Rasetsu is obsessed with finding a boyfriend while also working as an exorcist for the Hiichiro Amakawa Agency.

One day, a handsome young librarian by the name of Yako Hoshino (of Yurara fame) comes to the agency for help with a possessed book. Though he has paranormal powers of his own (over water), he cannot exorcise the spirit himself. Through various circumstances, instigated by Rasetsu and her co-worker Kuryu, Yako ends up fired from the library and forced to work at the agency as well. As they work together, Rasetsu begins to think Yako might be the “true love” who will save her from the demon’s curse, but, unfortunately, he’s still in love with the departed guardian spirit Yurara, who Rasetsu greatly resembles.

First of all, I think it’s important to note that even though Rasetsu is a sequel (or spin-off, as it is billed as on the cover) of Yurara, no prior knowledge of the previous series is needed to enjoy it. Rasetsu stands fine on its own, with everything you need to know about the events of Yurara explained in the story. That being said, I do recommend you read Yurara first. Not only is it good series in its own right (though not as great as Rasetsu), but several characters from Yurara make guest appearances as clients, and you’ll get more of a kick out of their cameos if you’re familiar with their backgrounds and relationship with Yako.

To be honest, going into this series, I wasn’t expecting to like it very much, mostly because I never really cared much for Yako. I was a total Mei fangirl, so a story with Yako as the lead male didn’t interest me at first. However, I am a Chika Shiomi fan and thought the premise held promise, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Rasetsu is by far my favorite of Shiomi’s works currently released in English. One of the things I really like about the story is that it kind of straddles the line between shoujo and josei. The romance is very shoujo-y, but the fact that it takes place in an office enviroment and the characters are all over eighteen gives the story a bit of freshness, compared to the usual high school stories that dominate the genre. The supernatural aspect was also a big appeal for me, as it is with all of Shiomi’s works. Admittedly, the majority of the cases the agency works on over the course of the series aren’t terribly interesting on their own merits, usually being wrapped up within a single chapter — which is pretty much the main reason I didn’t give Rasetsu a Masterpiece rating; I was hoping for a bit more of a Ghost Hunt vibe, involving actual paranormal investigation — but I enjoyed how the cases served to reveal more about the characters and the overall plot involving the evil spirit who cursed Rasetsu.

But the main reason I love Rasetsu is the relationships and interactions between the five main characters who work at the agency. At heart, Rasetsu is a rather dark story, what with the main heroine cursed to die on her twentieth birthday and the male leads dealing with their own past issues, but its the romance and especially the humor that sold the story for me. For example, it’s rare that I find the ubiquitous Big Eater found in many anime and manga all that hilarious beyond the first couple of gags, but Rasetsu’s fanatical love of cake and anything sugary cracked me up in almost every scene it appeared (which was a lot, considering sugar actually fuels her psychic powers). Her facial expressions during these scenes are just priceless, and I also love how watching her eat all that sugar — sometimes even resorting to sugar cubes just to get her fix when Yako complains about how much company money she spends on expensive cakes — has a tendency to make people sick to their stomach. Another big source of humor for me is the rivalry between Rasetsu’s two love interests, Yako and Kuryu. They have a like/hate relationship similar to the one that Yako shared with Mei in Yurara, but the hate part is more subtle, in keeping with the fact that they’re both in their mid-twenties. It’s just plain fun watching Kuryu tease Yako, frequently abusing his kotodama powers just to do so, and Yako’s always at his funniest whenever he’s annoyed.

Another highlight is the characters themselves. Rasetsu is a great lead, with just the right amount of strength and vulnerability. It’s remarkable to see just how much Rasetsu has grown since she was first marked by the demon when she was fifteen, as shown in the several flashbacks to the period right after, but even after the story proper begins three years later, she continues to develop into a stronger person. At the beginning of the story, Rasetsu is desperate to find someone — anyone! — to love her, in order to save her from the evil spirit’s curse, but as the series continues and she falls into (what she believes is) unrequited love with Yako, she begins to realize that “true love” really means and that having a boyfriend may not actually be the answer to saving her from the demon. (Love doesn’t actually conquer all in a shoujo manga? Shocker!) I thought that was a fantastic message to put forth in a series like this, meant to be read by teenage girls who may feel they are worthless without a boyfriend by their side.  

As for Yako, I ended up liking him a lot more here in Rasetsu than I did in Yurara. He’s still recognizably Yako…but different. More mature, I guess you would say, which makes sense, considering Rasetsu is set around eight years post-Yurara. I do rather miss his love of telling ghost stories, which was a fun quirk of his from his teenage Yurara days, but the new and improved Yako is much kinder and warmer than his younger self, making him a more palatable love interest in my eyes. He’s definitely more swoon-worthy here.

Unfortunately, even with his improved character and new leading man status, Yako still manages to be outshone by an even more interesting rival. That would be the Kuryu, whose sly, cheeky personality hides an incredible inner pain. His speciality, as I mentioned before, is kotodama — one of the most fascinating psychic powers I’ve ever come across in fiction. Basically, he can use his voice to manipulate people, animals, spirits, objects, and even the weather to do whatever he commands. He claims that his power isn’t very useful and that he can only use it a few times a day — in the first chapter, it was just once a day, but that seemed to be retconned in later chapters — but as the series continues, it becomes apparent that he is a heck of a lot more powerful than he initially seems.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Chika Shiomi’s work is that she almost always gives her stories some sort an unexpected twist. The twist in this case concerns Kuryu. It’s foreshadowed early on that there’s something a bit different about him, and I suspect many readers will think they’ve figured it out the twist within the first few volumes. In fact, had Shiomi stuck with her original plans as explained in one of her author’s notes in the last volume, those same readers probably would have predicted correctly, as Kuryu’s character was meant to go in a different direction. Had she actually continued developing him in that direction, it still would have led to a great, if somewhat more predicable, story, but the real twist is almost guaranteed to leave you in tears by the end of the series. Really, Rasetsu has one of my all-time favorite manga endings. I can never read it without sobbing my heart out. (It’s happy, but very bittersweet.)  

As the most recent of Shiomi’s works to be released in English, it’s no surprise that Rasetsu boasts her best artwork to date. Some of her full-page and two-page spreads are just gorgeous, making me wish for an artbook for the series. (There might be one in Japan; I haven’t checked.) Even her character design for Yako has improved from Yurara. The slightly longer layers of his hairstyle are much more flattering on him, and his wardrobe gets a stylish boost. Actually, I really loved everybody’s clothing in this series, from Rasetsu’s trendy outfits to Kuryu’s suits to even Hiichiro’s yukata.

Really, there’s a lot more I could say about this series — I didn’t even get the chance to talk about super-lazy Hiichiro and his faithful, non-psychic assistant Aoi, who are also great characters — but I think you get the picture. I love this series, and if you’re a fan of supernatural romance, I think you will, too.


Add a comment November 15, 2011

Death Note

TITLE: Death Note
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Tsugumi Ohba/Takeshi Ohba
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 10 (Masterpiece)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Tsugumi Ohba (writer of Bakuman.), Takeshi Ohba (mangaka of Bakuman. and Hikaru no Go), Death Note anime, Death Note live action movies, supernatural, drama, mystery

I’m not, generally speaking, a big fan of shounen manga. It’s definitely the least represented demographic in my personal collection, but there is one shounen series that managed to completely win me over. That series is the megahit manga Death Note.

The story begins when the brilliant, but bored, high school student Light Yagami finds an abandoned notebook on the ground. On the inside cover is a list of rules on how to use the so-called “Death Note”, which allows a person to kill whoever they want just by writing down their names. Light believes the notebook is nothing but a silly prank, but when his curiosity leads him to test out the notebook’s alleged powers, he discovers that the Death Note is real and was dropped into the human world by a shinigami (death god) named Ryuk, who is also looking for a little excitement in his life.

Though at first horrified by what he has done, aspiring police officer Light decides it his responsibility to put the Death Note to good use. Wanting to rid the rotten world of evil, he begins a mass murdering spree, killing dangerous and evil criminals with his “divine” punishment. It doesn’t take long, however, for the mysterious deaths of numerous criminals to catch the attention of the authorities. Enter L, the number one detective in the world. When L is put in charge of solving the “Kira” case, it begins an epic game of cat-and-mouse between intellectual equals as Light attempts to keep his identity as Kira a secret at any and all costs.

Death Note is a very plot-based series. Although the premise obviously brings up questions concerning the morality of the death penalty and whether or not “Kira is justice”, the series isn’t particularly interested in answering idealogical dilemmas. (It was, after all, targeted toward the Shounen Jump crowd, not adults.) If you go in expecting deep philosophical debates, you’ll probably be disappointed. What you will get, however, is a well-crafted intellectual thriller that will constantly keep you guessing how Light will manage to outsmart those who are after him. I was extremely impressed with how much thought Ohba put into the various schemes and gambits employed by the characters in the story.

I also liked how the story developed into different arcs, keeping things fresh and exciting. If all twelve volumes had been dedicated toward the conflict between Light and L, I imagine things would have gotten rather stale after a while, but with the addition of new Kiras and other groups looking to bring Kira to justice, the main conflict changes several times over the course of the series. In fact, in one of my favorite arcs of the series, Light and L actually work together on the same side when a new Kira comes into power. Though some fans feel the story loses steam around the mid-way point, thanks to a shocking spoiler (that I will not divulge for those who have somehow managed to remain spoiler-free), that was not the case for me. In fact, I think I may even like the second half slightly more than the first half.

Even though the story is mostly plot, that doesn’t mean the characters are lacking. Light is actually one of my favorite manga characters ever, despite the fact that we hold completely opposite beliefs regarding the killing of criminals. It can be a risk to set up a villain protagonist as the hero of the story, but Light’s descent from an idealistic teen who believes he’s doing what is right to an egotistical serial killer with delusions of godhood is fascinating to watch. Even those like me, who are opposed to Light’s methods, can’t help but be impressed by his powers of manipulation and the lengths he goes through to successfully evade capture.

Quirky, sweets-loving L is also quite the memorable character, although he’s not really one of my favorites. (He’s a little too quirky for my tastes.) Though he’s the leader of the “good” side — depending on how you view things — he’s not exactly a paragon of morals, agreeing to head the Kira investigation not out of any real sense of justice, but simply because he wants to win against Kira. If it can help the investigation, he has little problem with kidnapping, torture, and even letting other people die. It’s only due to objections from the members of the Kira task force that L’s more troubling plans never come to fruition.

As for the artwork, it’s amazing how dynamic Obata’s drawings are when there’s actually very little action in the series itself. Death Note is definitely a “wordy” manga, with the majority of scenes consisting of characters talking, talking, and — for a change of pace — talking some more, yet it never feels as dull as that, thanks to the art. I also really loved the character designs, especially for Ryuk (who looks like the Joker-gone-rock-star) and the other Shinigami. The human characters are well-designed as well, from clean-cut pretty boy Light and eternally disheveled L to Light’s cute Goth-Loli “girlfriend” Misa and the various members of the task force.

Even if you don’t tend to read much shonen manga, I would recommend giving Death Note a try. With fascinating characters and an engaging plot, it’s well-worth a look.

Add a comment September 15, 2011

Short-Tempered Melancholic and Other Stories

TITLE: Short-Tempered Melancholic and Other Stories
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Arina Tanemura
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Arina Tanemura (mangaka of Full Moon wo Sagashite, ION, The Gentleman’s Cross Alliance), romance, comedy

I want to apologize for the lack of a review last month. I’ve been busy with other projects and just didn’t have the time to read any manga. This month isn’t much better, but I did manage to squeeze in Short-Tempered Melancholic and Other Stories.

Short-Tempered Melancholic is an anthology of short stories written by popular mangaka Arina Tanemura early in her career. I’m not a big Tanemura fan, but I actually did enjoy this collection of cute romances.

My favorite is the the title story “Short-Tempered Melancholic”, which is actually a two-chapter story. It’s about a female ninja named Kajika Yamano, who has possession of her family’s legendary secret weapon, which other ninja clans want to steal for themselves. Yuga Tanimoto, her loyal childhood friend, has a crush on her, but she only has eyes for Fujisaki, the handsome president of the tea ceremony club. When Fujisaki tells her that she should be more ladylike, Kajika decides to give up being a ninja in order to pursue more traditionally “feminine” pursuits in the hope that he will return her feelings.

I’m not positive, but I get the feeling that the first chapter was meant to be the pilot to a possible series that probably didn’t do too well in the reader surveys. I say this because the first chapter ends with Yuga about to confess his feelings to Kajika, only to be interrupted by Kajika running off to rescue a dog before he can spit it out. It’s kind of a shame that it wasn’t picked to become a series, because I thought the premise had potential and the characters were quite vibrant and charming. It isn’t often that I finish reading a short story wanting to know more about the characters, but I definitely got that feeling after reading the first chapter. Fortunately, Tanemura went back and wrote a second part (subtitled “Without You”), giving the story a proper conclusion, as well as giving the main couple some backstory.

The second story is “This Love Is Nonfiction”, about a girl named Yuri who convinces her prettier best friend Karin to pretend to be her on a date with her penpal Ryono after sending him Karin’s picture. However, while on their date, Karin forgets that she’s supposed to be posing as Yuri — who is stalking them, along with a strange boy in a mask and glasses — and finds herself falling in love with Ryono as well. Though the ending twist is a bit silly, giving both girls their happy endings, and spoiled-sweet Karin is a bit of a ditz, there’s no denying that the story is really cute.

The last two stories are “Rainy Afternoons Are for Romantic Heroines” and “The Style of the Second Love”. As Tanemura’s earliest works, I feel they’re the weakest of the collection. The stories aren’t terribly interesting — the first is about a girl who keeps “forgetting” her umbrella in order to get close to the boy she likes, while the second is about a girl secretly in love with her best friend’s boyfriend — and the characters are rather boring. In addition, as “The Style of the Second Love” was Tanemura’s debut, the artwork isn’t as polished as the other stories. Still, both stories are enjoyable enough, I suppose.

Those who prefer deeper stories won’t get much out of this anthology, but if you’re in the mood for fluffy romance, you could do worse than Short-Tempered Melancholic. It’s cute, romantic, and even quite funny at times. Just don’t expect too much out of it and enjoy it as the light reading it’s meant to be.

Add a comment June 15, 2011


TITLE: Imadoki!
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 8 (Very Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Yuu Watase (mangaka of Ceres: Celestial Legend, Fushigi Yugi, Alice 19th, etc.), Ouran High School Host Club, romance, drama, comedy

It’s practually an unwritten law that every shoujo mangaka has to write at least one high school romance during their career, and Imadoki! is Yuu Watase’s take on the sub-genre.

Tanpopo Yamazaki is a cheerful, friendly girl with lots of friends from her hometown in Hokkaido. When it comes to choosing a high school, however, she decides to apply to schools in Tokyo, wanting the chance to make even more friends someplace new and exciting. She ends up being accepted on scholarship to Meio High, a high-class school for children of the rich and powerful.

The day before the start of the school year, Tanpopo sneaks on campus to check out the school. There, she meets a cute boy planting a dandelion, which happens to be the flower she is named after. Tanpopo believes she’s made a new friend, but it turns out the boy is Koki Kyugo, heir to the prominent Kyugo family, who founded the school. At school, Koki is like a totally different person from the flower-loving boy she met previously, and he declares that friendship is only based on what people can do for each other, a view that the rest of his snobby classmates share.

Rather than making lots of new friends like she hoped, Tanpopo becomes the target of scorn and bullying for her “commoner” roots and too friendly nature. She doesn’t let it bother her, though, determined to make friends no matter what. In an effort to get closer to Koki, she decides to start a Planting Club, and she soon charms over a varied group of characters, including Koki, with her cheerfulness and sincerity. However, when her feelings for Koki grow beyond friendship, Tanpopo faces a new adversary in the form of Koki’s clingy (arranged) fiancee, Erika.

The more I read this series, the more I like it. The first time I read it, I thought it was a run-of-the-mill high school romance and kind of missed the fantasy that Watase usually puts in her works. Even now, I have to admit there’s nothing special about the plot, which is prone to the typical teenage melodrama you would expect to find in a series like this, but the cast of fun characters and Watase’s always-beautiful artwork make it worth reading.

The main theme of the series is growing up and becoming your own person, and I loved how it was symbolized in the different flower seeds the Planting Club planted. All the characters “blossom” in their own way and time, becoming unique individuals with their own dreams and desires. 

Tanpopo is probably one of Watase’s strongest heroines. Sure, at times you wish she would tell off her bullies instead of just enduring it with a smile, but she really doesn’t let them bother her. She also has no problem whatsoever standing up for her friends when they’re the ones in trouble and accepts people for who they are. One thing I especially liked about Tanpopo is that she makes decisions for herself. Even when she falls in love with Koki, she doesn’t forget about her friends and family, who are just as important to her. It’s rather a refreshing change from characters like Miaka (from Fushigi Yugi) and Aya (from Ceres: Celestial Legend) who tended to put their romantic relationships above everything else.

Koki is another interesting character who undergoes quite a bit of character development in such a short series. Starting off as a lonely, bitter young man forced to take over the title of Kugyo heir when his older brother runs off, he begins to open up under Tanpopo’s influence and realizes that he can choose his own life, rather than letting his family decide everything for him.

But for me, my favorite characters were probably the other three members of the Planting Club — Arisa, a ganguro gal who is forced to grow up fast after a life-changing event, Tsukiko, probably Tampopo’s closest friend at the school and another (minor) rival for Koki’s heart…er, pocketbook, and Aoi, a psycho computer hacker who loves causing mayhem. They’re mostly comic relief, but even they get a nice bit of development along the way, especially status-crazed Tsukiko, who starts the series off pretending to be Tanpopo’s friend in order to get closer to Koki (solely because of his money), but along the way becomes Tanpopo’s true friend and one of her biggest supporters againt Erika. Erika herself is a rather pathetic character, manipulative and insecure, but that’s the point. Yet even she deserves some sympathy.

As I mentioned before, the plot is a fairly typical high school romance, but I still enjoyed it thanks to the characters. There was a strong reliance on coincidence, though, that kind of made me roll my eyes at times. I mean, what are the chances that Tanpopo would happen to run into Koki’s missing older brother in the middle of nowhere when Koki had been looking for him for at least a couple of years, or that two people close to Koki and Tanpopo would have health crises at the exact same time? They were necessary to move the story along, I suppose, but I think they could have been done better.

As for artwork, it’s Yuu Watase, so of course it’s gorgeous. I shouldn’t even have to mention that. Granted, Koki is practically a clone of Watase’s other leading men, and Tanpopo is similar in looks to Aya and Riiko (Absolute Boyfriend), but originality in character design never was her forte. (Although Arisa has a pretty unique look to her, thanks to her ganguro style of tan skin and heavy eye make-up.) One thing I appreciated was that even with the “flower” theme of the series, Watase resisted the temptation to make her art overly “flower-y”. That would have been overkill.

At five volumes, this is a great series to use as an introduction to Watase’s body of work. It’s also the tamest in terms of sexual content, if Watase’s reputation for racy images is a concern, with no sex scenes or full nudity. If you’re interested in checking out one of her series but don’t want to make a huge investment, Imadoki! is a good bet.

7 comments January 15, 2011

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

Alice 19th

TITLE: Alice 19th
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Yuu Watase (mangaka of Ceres: Celestial Legend, Fushigi Yugi, Imadoki, etc.), Card Captor Sakura, romance, drama, comedy

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We’ve all heard the saying, but in reality, words do have the power to hurt people on an emotional level, and the scars they leave behind on a person’s psyche can last much longer than a physical bruise or scratch.

In Alice 19th, battles are not fought with swords and guns. They are fought with words.

The heroine, Alice Seno, is an introverted teenager who lives in the shadow of her prettier and more popular older sister, Mayura. She has a crush on handsome upperclassman Kyo Wakamiya, but she doesn’t have the courage to tell him how she feels about him. Unfortunately, Mayura is also in love with Kyo and beats Alice to the punch by asking him out. Alice, not wanting to upset her sister, decides to keep her feelings for Kyo a secret and support their relationship.

One day, Alice comes across a mysterious rabbit named Nyozeka, who has the ability to transform into a cute little human girl. She gives Alice a special bracelet and informs her that she is a Lotus Master — a person with the ability to use Lotis Words. Lotis Words are a set of twenty-four runes that can be used to exorcise mara (bad feelings) from people’s hearts. In reference to the title, the first word Alice masters is the 19th word “rangu” (courage), when she saves Nyozeka from being hit by a car.

As a Lotis Master, the words Alice says have more power than those of regular people. She discovers this the hard way when during an argument with Mayura, she tells her sister to disappear. Mayura literally disappears, having been pulled into the darkness of the Inner Heart. Now Alice, along with Kyo, who is also discovered to be a Lotis Master, must learn to use the rest of the Lotis Words — as well as the legendary “lost word” — in order to save Mayura from being consumed by the hatred in her heart.

I’m a hardcore Yuu Watase fan, but in some ways, Alice 19th is the most disappointing of her works. Not because it is bad — it’s very good, in fact — but because it could have been a lot better. The problem is, the story is much bigger than the seven volumes she was given to tell it in. I would have liked this series to have been at least ten volumes, and preferably even longer. Alice and Kyo only really “master” maybe around five or six Lotis Words each; the rest they just memorize like studying for a vocabulary test, which comes off as such a cop-out when other Lotis Masters can study for years without learning all the words. Yes, perhaps reading about Alice, Kyo, and Frey (another Lotis Master from Norway who acts as their mentor and is in love with Alice) exorcizing the mara from people’s Inner Hearts might have become repetitive after a while, but I would have liked to have seen them learn to master the words, rather than just being told. That’s not good story-telling. A few of the Lotis Words aren’t even used in the series itself by anyone, instead only mentioned in bonus pages describing all the words!

Another major problem is that the rules of this series’ universe are terribly inconsistant. I don’t know if it’s a matter of translation, or if the original story is just as sloppy, but it seems like Watase changes the rules whenever it suits the plot, rather than having the plot work within a set list of guidelines. The biggest example is when the trio go inside Alice’s father’s Inner Heart. For some reason that I still don’t really get, only Alice’s Lotis Words will work there, when previously none of them have had trouble using Lotis Words in other people’s Inner Hearts. It’s really just an excuse to have Alice be the one to save her father by herself.

The story itself, however, is still good despite some short-comings in how it is told. I love the theme running through the story about the importance of communication and being true to your feelings, and the idea of fighting with words instead of weapons is a great way of conveying that theme. The great cast of characters also helps hold the plot together. Though Alice 19th comes off as being a plot-based story, I think it’s more enjoyable if you look at it as a character study. I don’t think I would have liked it as much if not for the characters, who make up for the weaknesses in the plot.

Loner Alice is very different from the usual Watase heroine, lacking the extroverted personality of say, Aya from Ceres or Tanpopo from Imadoki. I tend to like all of Watase’s female leads — yes, even the much-hated Miaka from Fushigi Yugi — but Alice is the only one I personally identify with. Like Alice, I tend to keep my feelings and opinions to myself, not wanting to cause trouble or take the risk of being hurt. I also can empathize with having a prettier and more popular sister (though in my case, I’m actually the older sister) and not having any close friends. In a lot of ways, reading Alice’s story is like reading my own diary, so it was very easy for me to understand her feelings and root for her to succeed.

I also really liked Kyo, who gets some fantastic character development throughout the series. Coming across at first as simply a nice guy with a penchant for using multi-syllabic words in conversation, as the reader learns more of his sad backstory, it is clear that he has a dark side to him that he tries very hard to hide from others and overcome. His feelings for Mayura and Alice are also refreshing in that, because of the things that happen in his backstory, he doesn’t really understand what he feels for them at first. It’s more realistic than falling for either one of them at first sight, and his confusion comes across as very believable.

Then there’s Frey, who is tons of fun. He’s the comic relief in the story, a shameless flirt who decides Alice will be the girl he marries the very first time they meet. Though he’s never a serious contender for Alice’s love, Frey and Kyo develop this great friendship/rivalry that leads to some of the series’ biggest laughs (and, I’m sure, fuels the slash-y dreams of yaoi fangirls). Like everyone else in the series, though, he too has a tragic past that he has to overcome. His story is probably the saddest in the series, in fact; I just wish it had been more foreshadowed in the beginning. As written, it kind of seems to come out of nowhere.

Disappointedly, the other three Lotis Masters who join the trio later on are not as fleshed out — another reason why I feel the manga needed to be longer. Chris, arriving about mid-way in the series, gets an adequate amount of development, I suppose, but most of the information about Mei Lin and Billy comes solely from their profiles. It’s quite frustrating because the two of them had the potential to be such awesome characters. Mei Lin is a cute up-an-coming starlet from China, while Billy is an African-American postal worker (of all professions) who grew up living in the projects. Though even a few of the minor villains are given short backstories to explain their motivations, the two of them are practically ignored and might as well not even exist. I honestly don’t see the point of introducing them if Watase wasn’t going to do anything with them. (There is a bonus short story at the end of the last volume about one of Mei Lin’s ancestors meeting Nyozeka and learning one of the Lotis Words, but I’d say that hardly counts as Mei Lin’s backstory.) 

As this is Yuu Watase we’re talking about, the artwork is gorgeous, of course. Though some may criticize the lack of individuality in her characters’ looks from series to series, I think the majority of the characters in Alice 19th actually have a distinct look to them compared to her other characters (except for Kyo, who looks a lot like most of her male leads. Still hot, though). I also liked the designs of the various mara they have to face and thought the battles were well drawn.

On the whole, Alice 19th is a decent series, but it could have been even better had some things been expanded on. There was so much potential… When asked what manga series I would like to see turned into an anime, Alice 19th is always at the top of my list. The manga laid the groundwork for what could be an awesome 52-episode (or even longer!) anime series, in which Alice and Kyo properly master all the Lotis Words and Mei Lin and Billy get an expanded role. It could be like the anime for Card Captor Sakura, which took an already wonderful manga and made it even better! (Heck, Alice even looks like an older Sakura.) Too bad that will probably never happen, but a girl can dream, right?

Add a comment June 30, 2010

Aishiteruze Baby

TITLE: Aishiteruze Baby
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Yoko Maki, Bunny Drop, Baby & Me, romance, drama, comedy

There’s nothing like raising a child to teach someone the meaning of “responsibility”.

In Aishiteruze Baby, Kippei Katakura is a seventeen-year-old playboy who has girls throwing themselves at him no matter where he goes. He certainly doesn’t mind the attention, taking advantage of his good looks and charm to the fullest with little regard for his admirers’ feelings. However, his carefree life of chasing girls and having fun is put to an end with the arrival of his five-year-old cousin, Yuzuyu Sakashita. Abandoned by her recently-widowed mother, Yuzuyu comes to live with the Katakura family until her mother can be found. In order to teach him to be more responsible, Kippei’s older sister decides that Kippei should be the one to look after Yuzuyu.   

This series is simply adorable! In my opinion, there is nothing sexier than a guy who is good with children, and I love how Kippei does his best to be a good “mommy” to Yuzuyu without complaining (too much). It’s actually rather surprising how well he does with her, considering how ineffectual his own parents are. (They aren’t bad parents, per se; they just seem to leave all the major decisions to their bossy older daughter for some reason. It’s an unusual family dynamic.) Though he’s not the perfect parent — he’s often late to pick Yuzuyu up from kindergarten, and he’s not the best at preparing her bento — he always tries to puts Yuzuyu first, even above Kokoro Tokunaga, the one girl who has managed to capture his heart. Kippei’s and Yuzuyu’s relationship is truly heartwarming and almost guaranteed to bring out the warm and fuzzies in even the most disgruntled reader.

But underneath the exterior cuteness, Aishiteruze Baby deals with some fairly heavy and mature themes. The most notable is, of course, child abandonment. Yuzuyu is greatly affected by the disappearance of her mother so soon after her father’s death, and Maki does a fantastic job in realistically portraying a five-year-old’s feelings. Yuzuyu — far from being the precocious brat you might find in other series — actually seems like a child you might meet in real life.

Other topics that are explored in the series include child abuse, bullying, sexual assault (well, since the series is targeted to younger teens, it only goes as far as a forced kiss, but the victim reacts similar to somebody who had been raped), attempted suicide, self-mutilation, infertility, and a pregnancy scare. Some storylines are handled better than others, but they do serve to give the series more depth beyond “hot teenage boy taking care of adorable little girl” (as cute a premise as it might be).

Since the main focus of the series is the relationship between Kippei and Yuzuyu, the romance between Kippei and Kokoro is more of a secondary plot, but still well done. I liked Kokoro quite a bit because she’s different from the boy-crazy, ditzy shoujo heroines you usually see in the genre. She’s cool and mature, yet there’s a quiet vulnerability about her that is rather appealing. Since her mother died when she was about Yuzuyu’s age, the two of them share a bond, and Kokoro helps Kippei out a lot whenever Yuzuyu is missing her mom, knowing exactly what to do or say to make Yuzuyu feel better. I also liked how understanding she is of Kippei’s situation. Not to say that Kokoro doesn’t feel jealous or upset when Kippei focuses too much of his attention on Yuzuyu, because she does at times, but she never demands that he choose her over Yuzuyu, knowing how important Yuzuyu is to him. In fact, it is one of the reasons why she loves him.

Visually, Maki’s artwork is really cute and well-drawn. I particularly like her characters’ facial expressions. It’s easy to read how the characters are feeling, just by looking at their faces. I do think the body proportions when she draws Yuzuyu and her friends are a little off at times, though, like their heads are too big for their bodies. It becomes less noticeable as the series goes on.

Overall, Aishiteruze Baby is a cute series, and I really enjoyed reading it. It has just enough drama to prevent the reader from overdosing on the sweetness of Yuzuyu and Kippei’s relationship, but it will still bring a smile to your face. Highly recommended.

Add a comment June 16, 2010

High School Debut

TITLE: High School Debut
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Kazune Kawahara
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Kazune Kawahara, Imadoki, Fruits Basket, romance, drama, comedy

Ah, high school romances — the backbone of shoujo manga. Many mangaka have tried their hand at drawing one at least once in their careers, but few are truly memorable. Fortunately, High School Debut manages to rise above a cliched story line to become one of the best examples in the genre.

Freshman Haruna Nagashima gave her all to softball when she was in middle school; now that she’a a high school student, she’s dedicated herself to pursuing another goal: finding a boyfriend! Putting into practice all the things she’s learned from reading shoujo manga and teen magazines, she tries her best to attract guys, but has no success. Her best friend Mami suggests she might have better luck if she found a coach to teach her how to be more appealing to boys, just like the coach on the softball team helped make her a better pitcher.

Taking Mami’s advice, Haruna decides to ask popular upperclassman Yoh Komiyama to be her love coach after overhearing some people talking about how he knows what appeals to guys. Though Yoh rejects the idea at first, having a dislike of girls after a bad break-up with his first girlfriend, he eventually changes his changes his mind, under one condition: Haruna has to promise not to fall in love with him. Of course, since this is shoujo, it’s inevitable that she does.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for Haruna and Yoh to confess to each other and start dating. A premise like that could wear really thin over thirteen volumes. I mean, can you imagine how repetitive it would be to have Haruna go after a new guy every volume and Yoh trying to help her get together with him, all the while the two of them denying their obvious feelings for each other because of a silly promise? Instead, Kawahara wisely decides to focus the story on their relationship as a couple, deftly portraying the high and lows, the awkwardness and the excitement of a teenage romance.

The key to High School Debut’s appeal, in my opinion, is the chemistry between its main characters, Haruna and Yoh. The two of them make a great couple and are terrific characters in their own right. It’s hard not to love Haruna, who is so enthusiastic and determined. She truly does give her all when she puts her mind to something — maybe even a little too much at times, yet she never comes off as annoying. Whenever she makes a mistake, she endears herself to the reader and makes us root for her even more.

As for Yoh, I love how he accepts Haruna for who she is, no matter embarrassing she can be at times. Even when he was “coaching” her to be attractive to guys, he never really tried to turn her into someone she wasn’t. (For those fearing from the summary that Yoh turned Haruna into his idea of a perfect girl before falling in love with her, don’t be. The bulk of his coaching was more along the lines of helping Haruna find clothes that suited her sporty style (instead of the trendy stuff she tried to pull off because of what a magazine said) and giving her advice on dealing with guys. There were a couple of things he said that I thought were a little on the questionable side, but this isn’t a manga version of My Fair Lady.)

I also enjoyed seeing Yoh’s growth as a character after he begins dating Haruna. He starts out the manga kind of stand-offish, very blunt and straightforward, but due to Haruna’s influence, he becomes warmer and more open, though still keeping his refreshing honesty. I think one of my favorite parts of the manga is when Yoh is chosen as captain of the rooters for the school’s sports festival. It’s not a position he particularly wants — he’s not somebody who likes being the center of attention, despite his popularity — but seeing how excited Haruna is about the festival, he decides to give it his all, too.

The supporting cast, consisting of Mami, Yoh’s younger sister Asami, and Yoh’s friends Fumiya and Asaoka, are also a fun bunch. The portrayal of Asami impressed me the most because even though she’s selfish, greedy, and self-centered, she never crosses the line into becoming unlikeable. I’m still not sure how Kawahara managed to pull that off, because Asami does some pretty terrible things and never really does anything to redeem herself. Asaoka’s another interesting case, because while he can be quite the manipulator at times, he never comes off as being truly malicious. (Kind of like Shigure from Fruits Basket, I suppose.) He’s more of a jokester than anything else.

Though the plot itself does feature some of the usual cliches of the genre, Kawahara has a way of making them seem fresh and original. For example, Yoh’s ex-girlfriend (of the infamous “beads incident”) shows back up a little later in the series, wanting to see Yoh, but the plot doesn’t go where you might expect, with Haruna having to compete with her for Yoh’s affections. In fact, though both unaware of their connection to Yoh, the two of them actually become friendly with each other. Even though their budding friendship (understandably) comes to an end once Haruna learns who she is, it’s not like they become enemies either, something I found refreshing.

I will say that I think the series does start to lose a little steam near the end, though. There was one particular plotline I didn’t care for, involving the appearance of an unexpected rival for Haruna in regards to Yoh. I don’t want to spoil too much about it, but I hated how Haruna and Yoh let her get in between them when one of the great things about them is how well they communicate with each other.

I also found Yoh’s decision of what to study in college to be completely out of left field. There were no hints whatsoever that he ever had an interest in that particular subject prior to that point. Admittedly, that was kind of the point, since Yoh had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, but even just an offhand remark earlier in the story that he had an interest in such things might have made it seem a little less random and out of the blue. At least Haruna’s choice of career made sense, although I could have lived without hearing Haruna saying the words, “My dream is to be your wife,” to Yoh when he asks her what she wants to do with her life. Nothing wrong with wanting to marry the man you love, of course, but I never pictured Haruna as someone who would be happy being a housewife. (As shown when she decides to get a part-time job, Haruna enjoys working.) Glad that she managed to find a more ambitious goal that really suits her.    

As for the artwork, the style is not my favorite, but I give Kawahara props for giving most of the characters unique, distinctive faces — great character designs, definitely not cookie-cutter. (It’s not often, for example, you see a main character like Yoh, who is supposed to be super-handsome, drawn with permanent bags under his eyes.) I especially love how she draws smiles.  It’s like the character’s happiness is jumping off the page. Seriously, I dare you to flip to a page where either Haruna or Yoh is smiling and not feel the urge to smile back. It’s impossible; they’re infectious. At times, though, Kawahara’s body proportions seem a bit…off. In the beginning, I thought it was a stylistic device to show Haruna’s inability to dress for her body type, but the problem extended to other characters as well, most notably Fumiya.

Despite a few minor problems, the series overall is one of my all-time favorites. If you only read one high school romance in your life, I highly recommend you make that title High School Debut. It’s one of the best.

Add a comment June 9, 2010

Ristorante Paradiso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 comments May 12, 2010

Socrates in Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 comments May 5, 2010






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