The Promised Neverland, Vol 1

The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu

This series is one of more intriguing debuts that I’ve read from the Shonen Jump line in a long time. It is also a very difficult series to write about due to a pretty dramatic plot twist that happens around 40 pages into the manga, but I’m going to be deliberately vague and avoid spoilers.
The series opens with a semi-idyllic portrayal of life in an orphanage in what looks like a non-specific European country. Emma, Norman, and Ray are some of the oldest orphans, and each is gifted with some special talents. Emma is a tremendous athlete, Norman is incredibly smart, and Ray is a strategic thinker who is constantly honing his powers of observation. The orphans are cared for by a woman named Mom, who they all love as the only adult in their lives. As the first few pages unfold, small details in the art start to unsettle the reader. Why do all the orphans have numeric sequences tattooed on their necks? Why do they all have to dress in white? Why are they subjected to what looks like insanely detailed IQ tests in the morning, and then given the freedom to roam around the woods that surround the orphanage in the afternoon?

The orphans make a discovery that causes them to question the environment that they’ve been raised in, and their unique personalities and perspectives cause them to band together to start to assess their situation and develop a plan of action. While Emma is smart, one of the greatest things she brings to the team is moral clarity and a sense of urgency. The two boys are more cerebral, with Norman being more book smart, and Ray serving as a mastermind who is initially focused most on what is practical to accomplish. This volume focuses mainly on the orphans testing their assumptions and working together to figure out how The Promised Neverland doesn’t really live up to the fairy-tale aspects of the title. The art in the series features faces that are a but smushy, but very expressive of emotion. Emma’s hairstyle looks like a reference to Duck in Princess Tutu, so I found that amusing. The Promised Neverland is incredibly dark, but seeing how resourceful the orphans are brings an element of hope into play for the reader. The first volume of the series easily draws the reader into the sinister world the orphans are resisting. Extremely entertaining, and I’m already impatient for the next volume.

Idol Dreams, Vol. 4

Idol Dreams Volume 4, by Arina Tanemura

I’m always up for any Arina Tanemura manga, but I do spend a great deal of time while I am reading Idol Dreams mentally preparing for disaster to strike, as the storyline of a hapless editor with no self confidence and few social skills reliving her teen years as an aspiring idol singer named Hikari with the help of magic pills just seems fraught with traumatic situations. This volume definitely went somewhat into the danger zone, as Chikage in her 15 year old persona decides to go out on at date with her fellow teen idol Ru. The volume opens with Chikage telling Tokita all about her teen romance plans, and he doesn’t point out the inherent problems of Chikage dating someone half her age very strongly, but he does ask the pointed question, “Are you going to tell him that you’re actually 31?” GOOD QUESTION TOKITA!

Chikage is nervous about her upcoming date and gets some tips from one of her coworkers. Quite frankly, as a reader, I was nervous about this date too as it seems like a horrible idea, but my anxiety was blunted somewhat when Ru decided to cross dress so his fans wouldn’t recognize him. Chikage and Ru go out, looking like a couple of girlfriends. Really, the only possible happy ending for this manga is for Chikage to not emotionally damage any of the teenagers she’s hanging out with, and gain enough confidence to actually become a functional adult. There are some slight signs of progress with her adult life in this volume, as she shows how adept she is at dealing with an editorial emergency at work.

As Chikage learns more about Ru, she realizes that she can’t continue to go out with him, but she chooses to break up with him in a particularly cruel way. Chikage’s lack of emotional intelligence is leaving plenty of distress in her wake, but I’m not sure if she realizes what she’s doing. I do miss Tanemura’s more teenage-centric manga, but I’m certainly curious about what will happen next in Idol Dreams.

Anonymous Noise, Vol. 5

Anonymous Noise Volume 5 by Ryoko Fukuyama

I think Fukuyama should give other mangaka lessons on designing compelling covers. The cover for this volume of Anonymous Noise features a great image of Miou rocking out with her guitar. Speaking of Miou, in my mind, I think the best possible ending for this series would be for Nino and Miou to forswear all men, and run off to form an all girl supergroup. This being shoujo manga, I think the series is going to continue along with some conventional love triangles until everything is resolved.

I tend to prefer Anonymous Noise when it focuses more on the music than the romantic drama aspects of the story, so I was looking forward to this volume, where Nino and Yuzu’s band In No Hurry goes up against Momo and Miou’s Silent Black Kitty in a battle of the bands. At 5 volumes in, I’m still not finding the romance storylines in this series very compelling, as Nino is revered as a muse and pulled back and forth by her two childhood friends as though they are squabbling over a shiny toy. I did enjoy seeing Nino’s determination as she approaches practicing for her big concert, and there was a great scene of sassy comebacks as the rival bands unexpectedly find themselves on a radio show together, where they argue about who is the most angsty. I wish the series had a few more self-aware humorous bits like this.

Momo has an emotional confrontation with Nino right before she’s about to perform, which is an action I think is so overwhelmingly selfish, it causes me to not be very invested in the whole Nino/Momo romance that this series has built up over several volumes. Nino’s reaction to her emotional trauma is to take her fugue-like state while singing to the next level, and she responds with an incredible performance, even if she is emotionally out of control. The art is consistently super stylish, and I enjoy the dynamic performance scenes of Nino scream-singing. While I might not be very invested in the romance side of Anonymous Noise, it reliably brings the drama with every volume, and I do enjoy the series when the focus is centered more on the music that the characters all love.

SP Baby, Vol. 1

SP Baby Volume 1 by Maki Enjoji

I’m a pretty big fan of Enjoji’s series Happy Marriage so I was excited when it was announced that Shojo Beat would be bringing out another series of hers. While Happy Marriage has an undercurrent of tension (spoiler alert! no one is getting married yet), the first volume of SP Baby is more of a comedic workplace romance.

Tamaki Hasegawa is struggling to find a full-time job. She needs to better support both herself and her little brother who is about to enter college. She has an ordinary life where one of the highlights is her helpless pining for her long-time friend Natsu who works in a flower shop. One day she sees one man chasing another on the street and jumps in to help by attempting a kick to the head of the threatening man. He promptly catches her ankle, leaving her at a loss on what to do next. After it becomes clear that the two men in question know each other, Tamaki apologizes for interrupting a lover’s quarrel and runs away. Her adventures are not over because the next day she’s shoved into a car carrying Kagetora Sugou, the man who she attempted to defend. He gives her a suit with a short skirt and announces that he’s going to interview her for the full-time job of being his bodyguard.

Kagetora is a nice contrast from Ryu in Everyone’s Getting Married. Kagetora is of course rich, but there’s an odd open-hearted innocence in his mannerisms and actions, like when he gives the people he works with nicknames that are usually reserved for cats. He alludes to having met Tamaki in the past, which is something that she has no memory of. Tamaki embarks on her new job, which necessitates dealing with some intense training in martial arts as well as finally getting her driver’s license. While it is obvious that her new boss is romantically interested in her, Tamaki keeps reminding herself of her so far one-sided affection for Natsu.

Enjoji’s art is always solid, and she easily captures the extreme emotions that Tamaki deals with as she ends up on an impromptu date with Kagetora or gives in to her lighting-fast violent reflexes. By the end of SP Baby, I was rooting for this very odd couple and wanting to see more of this story unfold. February is a long time to wait for the next volume! I recommend this title if you enjoy josei comedies with heroines who have a tendency to kick people in the head.

I Hear the Sunspot

I Hear the Sunspot by Yuki Fumino

I Hear the Sunspot was a delightful surprise, and not a title that I expected to see One Peace Books license. For those of you who have been wishing for some slice of life character-driven shounen-ai manga, this title will easily fulfill your manga cravings.

I Hear the Sunspot traces the developing friendship between a couple of college students. Kohei, a student with hearing difficulties who keeps himself isolated from his classmates. Taichi is an outspoken semi-slacker who finds it difficult to keep a full-time job. Taichi is also perpetually hungry. After accidentally stumbling on one of Kohei’s hiding spots, Taichi finds himself gifted with Kohei’s lunch after staring at it with hungry eyes. The entire exchange is wordless on Kohei’s part and Taichi checks up on him with other students afterwards, finding out that Kohei needs volunteer note takers in order to support his studies.

One of the things I liked so much about this series was Fumino’s art. She has a great facility with facial expressions, where Taichi’s open, smiling mannerisms contrast with Kohei’s carefully cultivated almost expressionless looks as he is repeatedly confronted by someone who isn’t going to take “No” for an answer in his attempts at friendship. Taichi turns out to be a less than stellar note taker due to his habits of falling asleep or zoning out in class, but Kohei pays him for his efforts by bringing him extraordinarily delicious lunches. Kohei gradually begins to open up more thanks to Taichi’s efforts to include him in regular school activities, and the slice of life school stories mixed with small scenes showing the depth of this new friendship made I Hear the Sunspot a pleasure to read.

One of my favorite moments in the book was when Taichi finds himself in conversation with a girl who asks about Kohei in a really intrusive way, clearly indicating that she is invested in the idea of herself acting benevolent to a person with a disability. Taichi gets angry, and his reaction is just on the edge of being a little too upset, to the point where I started to wonder if he was romantically jealous in addition to wanting to protect his new friend. Character driven moments like this are why I Hear the Sunspot is now one of my favorite manga of the past year. I’m happy to hear that One Peace Books is also picking up at least one of the sequel volumes, and I’m so curious to find out what happens next in this slowly developing romance.