School Judgement, Vol. 1

School Judgement Volume 1 by by Nobuaki Enoki and Takeshi Obata

This was a series that I expected to be wildly enthusiastic about, just for the Takeshi Obata art factor alone, so I was surprised to have a more measured reaction once I read the first volume. There were aspects of the setting and execution that didn’t sit well with me, but as always Obata’s art is beyond excellent.

School Judgement is set in an elementary school where conflicts are resolved by formal classroom arbitration, along with child prosecutors and defense attorneys. Two transfer students are introduced at the start of the volume. Abaku Inugami is a defense specialist whose hobby is arguing. He establishes his skills in an epic cross examination of his new teacher that results in her lifting the ban on video games at school. Pine Hanzuki is a prosecuting attorney who enjoys dressing up in magical girl outfits and is accompanied everywhere she goes by a rotund sidekick.

The new students are put to work promptly in “The Suzuki Dismemberment and Murder Case” where the Suzuki in question is a classroom fish. Tento Nanahoshi is the hapless student accused of fish murder, and when he is acquitted, he sticks around to provide a normal sidekick counterpoint to Inugami’s intensity. School Judgement is very entertaining when it sticks to power courtroom poses and mystery unraveling. I thought it was hilarious that the judges of the cases are babies who have prematurely aged due to their judicial duties, looking like wizened old men. Obata made Go dynamic and filled with suspense, so I was fully expecting dynamic courtroom scenes. There were some unexpected artistic choices too – when an adult is unmasked as evil, she’s suddenly rendered with a greater level of detail and rictus-like facial expressions that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror manga.

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It could be that I didn’t like many of the characters due to their single-minded obsession with arguing, but both Inugami and Hanzuki aren’t particularly sympathetic. Hanzuki’s a spoiled rich girl, and while it seems that Inugami’s obsession with the law is due to a tragic event in his past, he’s too abrasive to root for. Nanahoshi is around to be a counterpoint to all the lawyering, but for the most part he’s also bland and forgettable.

The aspects of School Judgment that I didn’t care for were the contrast of the lower school setting and the art, which looked more like Hikaru no Go Obata in style with some of the darker or more mature themes. In a shonen manga set in a high school, I’d not really care about random bath scenes for example, but in School Judgement when the character is 12, that creeps me out a bit. Also, another story line is an extended drug metaphor, which also seems to be a bit much with the current setting. I think I would have enjoyed this manga much more if it had either aged down and just been an all ages title with cases to solve that invoked lighter themes, or if was aged up and set in a high school with the same type of stories. As it was, I found the manga entertaining in spots, a bit unsettling here or there, and I didn’t really care about what happens to the characters at all. My quibbles are mostly with the writing, because I think any manga by Obata ends up being a master class in illustration. So I’d recommend this for the art alone, even though I didn’t enjoy the story.

Requiem of the Rose King, Vol 3

Requiem of the Rose King Volume 3 by Aya Kanno

This manga just keeps getting better and better as Kanno adds even more royal intrigue to her unique story of Richard III and the Wars of the Roses.

The second volume closed with Richard embodying a demonic spirit of vengeance when he discovered that his father was killed. The third volume opens with Richard’s older brother Edward, the new king, making questionable decisions about women. Edward is utterly captivated by the widow Elizabeth Woodville, who secretly detests the House of York. She maintains Edward’s interest by continually refusing him until he is desperate enough to make her his queen, going against the other alliances his court is arranging for him. Richard proves to be an unenthusiastic ally in Edward’s courtship, going along with his brother on hunting trips to provide cover for Edward’s visits to Elizabeth. When Edward is staying in a hunting cabin, he again meets the wayward Lancaster King Henry. Richard and Henry are drawn to each other, without fully knowing who each other are.

Henry’s dreamy outlook on life has made him one of the few people who relates to Richard as just Richard, without the “demon child” legend that has poisoned everyone against him. But Henry’s distance from his own family ensures that when his son Edward discovers the men together, his jealousy over his father’s relationship with Richard looks like it is going to have horrible consequences.

Kanno’s art continues to be both dark and lavish, fitting the settings and themes of this tragic story excellently. I’m always in awe of her facility with facial expressions and how it contributes so well to character development. Just a couple panels of Elizabeth Woodville’s gleefully staring eyes as she contemplates her plans for Edward establish that she’s up to no good. Henry’s abstracted expression show him to not fully live in the world, while Richard’s sensitivity and hesitancy in trusting Henry is clearly portrayed. This continues to be such a standout title in Viz’s current publishing lineup.

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Honey So Sweet, Vol. 1

Honey So Sweet Volume 1 by Amu Meguro

I always look forward to checking out new Shojo Beat series, but I was wondering before I picked up this title if it would be a bit TOO sweet. Once the characters and backstory got set up, I enjoyed this volume.

The volume opens up with a flashback scene of Nao Kogure walking away from a boy recovering from a beating in the rain, saying that people might consider her helpless, but she doesn’t want to get involved with delinquents. The delinquent in question is Taiga Onise, nicknamed Oni at his school. He promptly announces to Nao that they need to talk, and when she follows him he presents her with a bouquet of roses and asks her if she’ll “date him with marriage in mind.” Nao is so intimidated by her suitor that she accepts immediately because she’s afraid of retaliation.

Nao discusses the situation at home with her guardian, her Uncle Sou. He points out that judging Onise by his outward appearance is unfair and she should get to know him first. The next day at school she sees Onise doing chores, helping teachers, and he makes an incredibly cute bento for them to share at lunch. One of the most annoying thing about this manga in the early chapters was Nao’s fear of Onise, long after the point where it should be clear to everybody that dyed hair and random piercings aside, he’s an absolute sweetheart. The other thing that has Nao hesitating about getting involved with her first boyfriend is that she’s decided she’s in love with her Uncle.

Nao and Onise continue their friendship, and one of the things I enjoyed very much about this series were cute details that showcase their personalities, like Onise’s tendency to write elaborately formal text messages when he’s nervous. Nao has her own trauma to deal with due to being an orphan, and she finds it difficult to get close to people. Much of the plot centers around some typical shoujo set pieces like a class trip, but Nao and Onise gradually start collecting a small group of misfit friends, and the series is so genuinely warm-hearted, it is hard to resist.

I found myself enjoying Meguro’s art style very much. So much shoujo manga art tends to be overly polished, but Meguro uses thin whispy lines that make the illustrations in Honey So Sweet seem delicate and not overworked. The storylines centered on friendship, combined with Nao’s psychological issues reminded me a bit of some of the old Banri Hidaka series published by CMX. This first volume was mostly set-up, so I’m curious to find out what happens next in this series.

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Boys Over Flowers: Season 2

Boys Over Flowers Season 2 by Yoko Kamio

Boys Over Flowers Season 2 is available for free on a chapter by chapter basis on the Viz Manga app, Comixology, and on the Kindle.

I was a little hesitant about starting this series, which is a bit odd, because I absolutely adore Boys Over Flowers. I’ve collected the manga, and watched many of the tv adaptations of the property. I was worried that a return to Eitoku Academy would feel a bit stale. While this series doesn’t exactly feel fresh and new, Kamino is such an assured creator, it mostly won me over.

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The social gap that was caused by the departure of the F4 has been filled by a new gang of students – the Correct 5. They are but a pale imitation of the F4, and they are lead by Haruto, a short boy with a penchant for superstition and ordering random quack objects out of the back of magazines. Haruto is joined in his misadventures by his right hand man Kaito, who seems reasonable and sane. There are two other male members, Sugimaru (the strong one), and Issa (mostly invisible). The Correct 5 is rounded out by Airi, a girl who you can tell is evil due to her curly pigtails.

The not-Tsukushi main female character is Oto, who is attending Eitoku while working a variety of side jobs. She used to be rich, but her family has fallen on hard times. She’s keeping up the pretense that she can actually afford to go to Eitoku, but the Correct 5 are determined to drive any poor students out of school, in order to try to better its standing. It seems like when the F4 left, much of the glamour that attracted students went too, and the school is struggling especially when compared to upstart Momonozono Academy.

Oto and Haruto meet when he isn’t able to send his butler in to the convenience store where she works to pick up his bizarre mail order packages. Haruto is worried about his secret being uncovered, and Oto isn’t afraid to try to blackmail him in order to keep her status as a student. One of the things I appreciated about Oto was her guarded personality. The first Boys Over Flowers was a bit more dynamic because Tsukushi was always so vocal, but Oto is doing her best to stay under the radar, to the point where she’s actually repressing her impulses.

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Haruto is an absolute idiot, but he’s somewhat adorable in his lavish lifestyle, slavish devotion to the memory of Tsukasa, and bumbling reactions to Oto as he begins to realize that he has a crush on her. One of the things that I didn’t like much about the chapters that have been released so far, is that the rest of the Correct 5 haven’t really had their personalities filled in yet. I thought that the first Boys Over Flowers did a better job balancing out and introducing the cast of characters and giving everyone a chance to develop. To be fair, Kamino does realize this, there’s a side story about Issa making the point that he never actually shows up in the manga, so I’m hoping that there will be more plot development later on.

Kamio’s art is great – she has a facility with facial expressions that make the funny scenes teeter on the edge of caricature while still seeming fully human. Really, my main quibble with this series is that it does suffer in comparison with the original. It was a bit telling that one of the most exciting moments in this series was when one of the original members of the F4 popped back for a very brief cameo. There are cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, and it did want to keep reading once I got going. I appreciate that Viz is experimenting with a free, digital release for Boys Over Flowers Season 2 and I hope it leads to more digital shoujo!

Black Rose Alice, Vol 6

Black Rose Alice Volume 6 by Setona Mizushiro

I was disappointed when I realized a couple volumes in to this series that it was on hiatus in Japan. But by that time I was thoroughly won over by Mizushiro’s surreal and unique take on vampires and the tragic tone of the manga in general. It turns out that I shouldn’t have been worried too much, because while this volume doesn’t wrap up all the possible loose ends in the series, it does provide a satisfying conclusion.

Dimitri is away, and Alice and the twins are living in the house, dealing with the aftermath of Leo’s death. The twins’ backstory is told through flashbacks, and it is just as dark as one might expect from this series. Neither twin seemed like particularly great humans, but Kai’s actions are particularly despicable, making his current more winning personalty stand out in contrast to his past actions. There’s a moment of levity injected into the household when Dimitri returns home with a human woman who he once saved from a horrible assault, promising to make her his vampire bride. Now Akari is all grown up, and determined to experience the most cliched date possible with Dimitri by her side. This prompts feelings of jealousy in Alice, and an emotional confrontation.

As far as endings go, this volume concludes with one that is about as happy as it is possible to get, considering that everyone is doomed. Black Rose Alice is such a delightfully odd series, one that doesn’t turn aside from the darkness in human (or vampire) nature. It is a more mature, and quirky addition to the Shojo Beat family. I highly recommend it. This is one of those series that I’ll take down from the bookshelf and reread every few years.

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