Ao Haru Ride, Vol 4

Ao Haru Ride Volume 4 by Io Sakisaka

Oh, the agony of teenage love triangles! Ao Haru Ride explores this in the form of two best friends having crushes on the same boy, but the unique twist here is that they actually manage to remain friends as they wrestle with their emotions. The fact that one of the characters is dealing with profound loss creates a backdrop of melancholy that makes the teen romance have a timeless and nostalgic quality.

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This volume delves more into Kou’s backstory as the recently formed friend group of Futuba, Yuri, Shuko and Aya are determined not to let Kou fail out of school. Kou’s issues are not because of a lack of ability, but he has difficulty getting himself to truly try at anything. Kou is still struggling with the death of his mother, and the reader gets a flashback to see how he was put into a caregiving role during her illness at a young age. Kou’s walls of isolation from his friends don’t last forever as Futuba is determined to get through to him. There’s some great paneling and action sequences as they tumble together down a hill in a scene made for a romantic movie. As Kou embraces Futuba, she stays still so he won’t be embarrassed by her seeing him cry.

One of the earlier themes in Ao Haru Ride is Futuba’s difficulty relating to traditionally feminine behaviors, and this is brought out again when the group decides to attend a summer festival together. Yuri shows up looking strategically adorable in a yukata, and Futuba starts to feel jealous. But when Kou sees another boy talking to Futuba it is clear that he’s not as indifferent as he pretends to be. Yuri observes his reactions, but the girls continue to affirm their own friendship even while navigating their crushes. Overall, this series just continues to be wonderfully executed shoujo. Sakisaka excels at capturing quiet moments between the characters that show the glimmerings of first love.

Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits, vol 2

Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits, Volume 2 by Waco Ioka, Midori Yuma and Laruha

I found the first volume of this series pleasant enough, but I wasn’t sure how well it would measure up to the heights of other Shojo Beat series like Kamisama Kiss or Demon Prince of Momochi House. Reading the second volume of Kakuriyo reminded me that it is always good to give a manga series a couple volumes to settle into itself, and I found some of the mysteries being set up in the second volume broadened the world building a bit more to capture my interest.

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The volume opens with Aoi stumbling across a Tengu in front of the abandoned cafe that she’s temporarily inhabiting in the spirit world. The elderly man reminds her of her grandfather, and she proceeds to feed him her extra food. As she introduces herself to Lord Matsuba, he realizes that she’s Shiro’s granddaughter and starts laughing with his recollections. He shares some of his memories and goes on his way. The next morning Aoi finds out that she’s stumbled into spirit world diplomatic relations, as Lord Matsuba is extremely powerful. He finds it outrageous that she’s sleeping in a storeroom and cooking, and offers to bring her to his mountain where she can be a bride for one of his sons. He also gifts her with a special fan. Aoi is determined to find her own path and declines his offer, but her worth in the spirit world has definitely increased.

The world building in this volume was also entertaining, as Aoi gets a chance to see the spirit world outside of the inn, and meets Suzuran, a geisha who is also the sister of the receptionist. It turns out that Kijin is much more protective towards the people who work for him than Aoi was assuming. She also gets a chance to win over one of her earlier enemies in this volume, again due to the power of her cooking tailored towards the individual. Seeing the world open up a little more in this second volume drew me into the story much more than the first, and I’m intrigued by the references to Aoi’s grandfather and her growing friendship with the fox spirit Ginji, who seems to remind Aoi of her grandfather in mysterious ways. Seeing Aoi’s human ways start to influence the existing relationships between the spirits is interesting, and I’m curious to see how she begins to wield more influence due to her cooking habits and approach to human-spirit world relationships.

I still wish the art for this series had a bit more of a unique twist to it, but I enjoyed seeing the airships of the spirit world, the faceless handmaidens who prepare Aoi for an outing, and the continued practices of wearing masks, as Aoi has to hide her human nature when she’s away from the relative safety of the inn. I think I’m starting to see more signs of a deeper story emerge in the second volume of Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits, so I am curious to see how it unfolds.

Everyone’s Getting Married, Vol. 9

Everyone’s Getting Married Volume 9 by Izumi Miyazono

I’m always glad when Viz puts out stealth josei under the Shojo Beat imprint, and while it might mean only one josei series from them running every year or so, I’ll take what I can get. The final volume of Everyone’s Getting Married reminded me a bunch of a last episode of a Korean drama, because Ryu and Asuka keep quasi breaking up and getting back together after long periods of time pass. Couples separating and reconciling in a dramatic fashion after many years is such a Korean drama staple!

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All along, Ryu’s fervent opposition to marriage and Asuka’s total commitment to becoming a homemaker as her ultimate goal created plenty of dramatic tension throughout the series. It was difficult to envision a happy ending where both of them would be fulfilled, but this final volume showed in an episodic fashion how their personalities shifted a bit after they paused their relationship. Asuka started finding more fulfillment and rewards at work, while Ryu realized that he can’t be solely committed to his career. It takes the wedding of an equally unlikely couple, Rio and Hiroki, to bring Asuka and Ryu back together for good. This volume was much more episodic in nature than previous volumes, with the story unfolding more like a series of vignettes. I put down this volume appreciating all the emotional depth Miyazono brought to the story. Since most of the Shojo Beat imprint focuses on high school romance, it was refreshing to have a series featuring adults dealing with relationships and commitment issues. Now I’ve just got to be patient for fall when the Maki Enjoji series An Incurable Case of Love comes out for my next mainstream josei fix from Viz.

Skip Beat! vol 42

Skip Beat! Volume 42 by Yoshiki Nakamura

With such a long running series like Skip Beat! once it has caught up with Japan, the wait between volumes is long enough that I temporarily lose track of of the plot. But within just a few panels, my memory gets triggered and I’m back in the story again. In this case seeing Ren’s reaction to learning that Sho kissed Kyoko made the wait between volumes all worthwhile. It is always amazing how well Nakamura can portray someone attempting to be stoic when they are filled with turbulent emotions.

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Kyoko meanwhile has her own battles to fight, and Skip Beat! always excels when she has to fight for a role. She’s in the middle of a rigged contest, trying to get a role alongside her beloved Moko. Kimiko, the niece of the producer, is determined to use any advantage against Kyoko and she plays up an imaginary relationship with Ren just enough that Kyoko becomes totally distracted and forgets to focus when she’s receiving directions for the next stage of her audition. Moko ends up saving Kyoko by altering her body language just enough that Kyoko is able to intuit the rest of the scene, and she ends up turning in an impressive performance.

One of the most entertaining part of this volume was seeing Ren’s manager accompany Kyoko throughout the audition process. His interior thoughts as he observes Kyoko’s reactions and starts building up theories about Ren and Kyoko’s relationship are priceless. As the audition progresses, Kyoko is able to battle through her emotional turmoil and fully inhabit her character. One of the things about Skip Beat! that I enjoy so much towards the start of a story arc is being able to look forward to all the impending drama. Kimiko seems to be engaged in a strategic retreat, I’m guessing that she’ll return to cause even more chaos. Ren and Kyoko haven’t met yet since Sho kissed her, so I’m looking forward to that scene, I’m guessing in two more volumes or so? Skip Beat! always manages to draw the reader in, and even though the big confrontations and resulting emotional growth for the characters doesn’t happen right away the series always delivers.

Takane & Hana, vol. 7

Takane and Hana Volume 7 by Yuki Shiwasu

This volume continues to explore how Takane and Hana deal with his changed circumstances as he adjusts to live as an ordinary businessman. It is a slightly more serious volume than usual, but there’s some great character development.

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Hana continues to show up at Takane’s shabby apartment to feed him dinner, although he’s started to get a little better about fending for himself without the advantages of his former wealth. They share a genuine moment of connection when Takane says “Thank you” without his usual posturing and bizarre grimaces. Hana immediately checks to see if Takane might be coming down with a cold because she’s stunned at his behavior. One thing that this descent into poverty confirms is that Hana is indifferent to Takane’s wealth and status. She’s been commenting all along that his over the top gifts and lifestyle doesn’t impress her, and her willingness to hang out with him in poverty just reinforces everything she was saying earlier. Takane might not totally internalize this shift in their relationship, but he actually starts acting less arrogant in his job, and starts making moves to pull off some complex business deals independently. Takane and Hana eventually achieve a sort of new normal in their relationship, and the roles get reversed a little bit when she gets sick and he has to take care of her. This continues to be an entertaining series, and I’m finding this shift away from over the top wealth-related shenanigans to have more emotional depth and resonance than I was originally expecting. I’m curious to see if the series continues to have more of this emphasis on the character relationships or if it goes back to more broad comedy. Shiwasu is executing this series so well, I’d be fine with either option!