A Springtime With Ninjas Vol. 1

A Springtime with Ninjas Volume 1 by Narumi Hasegaki

I had high hopes for this title because I greatly enjoy both ninjas and shoujo manga, but I was underwhelmed by A Springtime With Ninjas. I think part of my disappointment was because I was hoping that the heroine and hero of the manga were both ninjas, but it turned out to be a decently executed manga that had some funny moments with a very conventional clueless rich girl heroine who was unfortunately not a ninja at all.

Benio is a sheltered rich girl who lives with the a horrible curse – she has to marry the first man who kisses her. She’s trapped in her home, at the mercy of a procession of tutors and she longs to go to school and experience normal life as a high schooler. Her uncle announces that he’s found a friend for her, and produces Tamaki, a flirtatious ninja bodyguard. Benio immediately finds him offputting, cherishing the memory of a friendship she had as a child when a boy who came over to play with her. Surprising no one who has read a shoujo manga before, it is pretty clear that Tamaki is her long lost friend.

Benio and Tamaki eventually get clearance to go to school, and he fends off Benio’s would-be suitors with his elite ninja skills. There were some amusing lines of dialogue like “The sanctity of this princess’s lips bears more weight to me than your lives.” Also, it was fun to see random high school club presidents suddenly manifest ninja abilities. The art is attractive, and the action scenes are clear and easy to follow. But there isn’t really any distinct quality or style to the art that would help offset storylines that kept giving me a sense of deja vu. I ended up putting down this manga being reminded of all the other shoujo manga that I’ve read that cover some of the same story tropes but end up being a little bit more funny, or have a more interesting take on ninjas or sheltered heiresses.

Chihayafuru Vol. 1

Chihayafuru Volume 1 by Yuki Suetsugu

Around a month ago, there were a few things I knew about Chihayafuru. It was a josei title about a Japanese card game. It has had an anime adaptation. I was interested in reading this, but I was convinced it would never be licensed. I have also been living under a rock, or at least totally unaware of what Kodansha was doing because I didn’t realize until several days ago that Chihayafuru was being released in English albeit just in digital format. I clicked the preorder button so quickly!

Chihayafuru is a josei manga, but it also is a sports manga centered around karuta, a poetry matching game that requires literary knowledge, memorization, quick reflexes, and strategy. From the start, the reader gets a few panels of the middle of an exciting game. Then the manga catapults into the past, to six years earlier. The main character is Chihaya, a girl who has buried her ambitions in supporting her older sister’s dream of becoming a supermodel. While Chihaya doesn’t seem to have any goals for herself, it is clear that she’s kind and a bit of tomboy at school. When a new kid arrives in her classroom and is promptly bullied, Chihaya sticks up for him. Wataya might talk funny and be poor, but he is a master at the game karuta, which the class plays from time to time. Wataya’s first enemy is Taichi, a popular boy who is dedicated to his studies and comfortable always winning the school kuruta tournament.

Wataya is a genius level kuruta player, and when he gets put at a disadvantage in a challenge match because his glasses were stolen, Chihaya substitutes herself for him. She doesn’t have all the poems memorized, but she has an incredibly dynamic and aggressive playing style that when combined with her reflexes enables her to eke out a win. She becomes inspired to pursue kuruta as her own interest. Taichi, Wataya, and Chihaya end up forming an odd friend group centered around kuruta, even visiting a local club to play practice matches and learn from a local teacher. The personalities of the three main characters create an interesting dynamic and dramatic tension.

I’m assuming with the flashback opening to this volume, the characters will be shown at their current ages soon, but the reader is set up to being able to feel all nostalgic when the trio gets together again outside of middle school. Chihayafuru reminds me of Hikaru No Go in the best way, because it takes a topic that might seem overly cerebral and invests it with a great sense of pacing and action. Chihaya’s dynamic personality and habit of slapping down cards whenever she gets a sudden insight makes everything exciting. Suetsugu’s paneling using multiple perspectives as angles on the game action also creates plenty of visual interest. I also liked the way romanized Japanese was presented along with the translations for the poems, because it was easier to get a sense of the rythm of the game, and how the players greet matched poems as “old friends”. In a digital release I suppose one can’t expect too many extras, but if print volumes of this series ever come out, it would be fun to have some of the poems and cards featured in more depth in notes at the back of each volume.

Shojo Beat Quick Takes – Honey So Sweet Vol. 5 and My Love Story!! Vol. 11

Kicking off the week of Valentine’s Day by reading some shoujo manga seemed like a good idea! Honey So Sweet and My Love Story!! are some of the most adorable and cute manga currently being published. Both couples in this series are in more established relationships, so it is interesting to see how the series continue to develop these romances.

Honey So Sweet Volume 5 by Amu Meguro

Christmas dates are a staple plot element in shoujo manga. In this case Nao and Taiga plan on getting together, but their solo date plans are quickly derailed when their entire group of friends decides that a Christmas party is happening. While everyone does have fun, it turns out that Futami decides to employ some social pressure to make sure that Nao and Taiga get some alone time. Hence, a scene of fierce blushing as the young couple is painfully aware that they are at last alone with each other. Other than blushes and some hand holding, nothing happens because Taiga’s mom suddenly returns home and embarks on a fierce examination of her son’s new girlfriend.

The artwork shifts from the general wispy and feminine style Meguro usually employs into some panels with dark screentone and bold fierce lettering as Taiga’s mom demands that the couple break up. Aggressive mothers are no match for Nao’s earnestness, as she proclaims that she loves Taiga and is determined to stay in the relationship. They then bond over Taiga’s embarrassing childhood photo albums. Nao also has to repair her relationship with her uncle and guardian Sou after accidentally staying out all night. While Sou denies being angry while acting passive aggressive and Nao decides that she’ll avoid the situation as much as she can, it takes a moment of insight and extraordinary emotional intelligence from Taiga for things to get back to normal.

A shoujo series that only focuses on the main couple gets boring fast, which is why this volume emphasizing relationships with parents or parent-like figures along with the regular romance ensures that the series as a whole continues to be entertaining.

My Love Story!! Volume 11 by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko

First of all, the skewed Sleeping Beauty illustration on this volume is hilarious. This is one of my favorite shoujo manga currently being translated just because it raises the bar so much for any series attempting to be both sweet and hilarious at the same time. At this point, Takeo and Rinko haven’t seen each other very much, but they are about to be thrown in close proximity due to some coinciding class trips.

Takeo is freaking out about his ability to control his romantic urges, while Rinko keeps not so innocently popping up in his personal space. As always in My Love Story!! there’s plenty of comedic tension but the couple ends up talking things through to smooth over any awkwardness. The next story in this volume focuses on a scenario where Takeo and Rinko try to learn more about each other’s hobbies. Takeo attempts to make pancakes with results that end up carbonized while Rinko starts running around to boxing gyms because she wants to learn how to do feats of strength. Takeo ends up training her in tumbling techniques, and the scenes showing his intensity with constant frowning and fire burning in the background and her determined attempts to be a good student are fun to read. I always put this manga down feeling like I’m in a better mood, and what more could someone want out of some leisure reading?

Yona of the Dawn, Vol. 4

Yona of the Dawn Volume 4 by Mizuho Kusanagi

Yona of the Dawn is firmly in the “get the team together” quest story line that is so common in fantasy manga, but even though the plot is predictable, I’m enjoying it greatly just due ot the character interactions along the way and the interesting world building. It wouldn’t be a team without plenty of bickering, and the first chapter of this volume shows Gija and Hak constantly going at it as they both want the role of Yona’s main protector. Gija’s sheltered upbringing in his remote village doesn’t exactly prepare him for life on the open road, as it turns out he is terrified by bugs. The bickering continues and provides some much needed humor before the rest of the volume settles in with a much more serious story line.

It turns out that not every dragon guardian was raised with as much privelege and love as Gija, and as the Yona and her band go to find the Blue Dragon, they find a mysterious village with masked tribes people, and the Blue Dragon has been treated as a pariah, not celebrated due to his unique powers like Gija. The feeling in the village is unsettling, and provides Yona a real challenge to work through as she attempts to discover the identity of the Blue Dragon. One of the reasons why I like this series so much is that while Yona is obviously blessed by being a princes and having some fabled mystical guardians, she isn’t going to stop trying to improve herself. She still spends hours practicing her archery alone because she wants to be able to help the people who are fighting for her. Getting through to the Blue Dragon is a product of her insight into human nature and her genuine interest in other people as opposed to relying on her title or position in the world.

Kusanagi’s art continues to be clear and easy to read, and she’s great at conveying different moods and emotions like Gija’s over exaggerated reactions to the horrors of nature, Yona’s determination, and the unsettling masks of the Blue Dragon’s tribe.

Demon Prince of Momochi House Vols. 5 and 6

As I was trying to get caught up on this series one of the things that struck me about Demon Prince of Momochi House is that Aya Shouoto has developed a unique sensibility for the series. It manages to blend warm heartfelt moments about a found family (even if that family is a house of beautiful spirits) with moments of unsettling menace and a general lingering sense of unease due to the fact that as the human in Momochi house, a wrong decision by Himari might have profound consequences. The tension between these two themes is part of what makes reading this series so rewarding.

Demon Prince of Momochi House Volume 5 by Aya Shouoto

One of the things I appreciate about manga series with an expanded cast of characters is the chance to delve into the motivations and feelings of characters who aren’t as central to the main story. This volume opens with a story centering on Yukari. The house is sweltering, but he seems to be unaffected. Yukari reveals that he used to be human, but this revelation isn’t followed up on very much as the gang decide to travel somewhere to escape the horrible weather. They visit a spring from Yukari’s past where the dragon god Ryujin used to be a guardian. There’s something wrong with the water though, and Yukari wonders if if it might be an indication of trouble for Ryujin. Himari is quick to jump in and offer to help. They call the god Ryujin and he takes Himari away. Aoi in his spiritual form as the Nue goes after her immediately. In the end, Yukari and Ryujin renew their connection and the found family in Momochi House feels as though it has expanded once again.

One thing I was intrigued by was the continuing presence of Aoi’s old childhood friend Hayato. His memories of the supernatural and Aoi were erased, but he continues to be a bit of a melancholy presence at school, and he does represent a possible friend for Yukari who isn’t tied to the supernatural world. He and Yukari get thrown together at school, but she ends up openly talking about her feelings with Aoi, and he denies thinking of her romantically.

Demon Prince of Momochi House Volume 6 by Aya Shouoto

The next volume finds Yukari and Aoi dealing with the aftermath of her confession. She wakes up in the morning to a teenage girl’s worst nightmare as everyone at Momochi house knows that her feelings have been rejected. They start throwing a party to commemorate her rejection. Even school isn’t a refuge, as Hayato guesses what’s wrong and starts patting Yukari on the head in commiseration. There’s some distraction in the form of a new teacher, who looks suspiciously like Aoi, and who happens to have a mysterious mirror that sends Yukari into a dream of a mirror dimension comprised of her own thought projections and feelings.

Back at Momochi house, Aoi is distracted and Ayakashi are starting to pop up from all over. A giant malicious cat spirit who seems to be a bit emotionally fixated on Aoi moves in temporarily and sets up a number of tests designed to torment Yukari, except she sails through them with her usual good cheer and indefatigable work ethic.

While at times this manga seems like a series of short episodes, at the end of each volume the relationships between the characters have shifted, sometimes in a dramatic fashion and sometimes in more subtle ways. The mysterious ties of Aoi to Momochi house continue to make the reader feel uneasy for the young couple and intrigued to see their next adventures.