Beastars, Vol. 1

Beastars Volume 1 by Paru Itagaki

I’m always curious to see what Viz will decide to publish in their Viz Signature line, and I wasn’t really aware of Beastars other than just knowing that the initial license announcement was greeted with plenty of enthusiasm. Beastars takes place in an anthropomorphic high school where carnivores and herbivores are thrown together in their classes and clubs, but generally seem to stick to their own kind for dormitory arrangements.

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It is made very clear in the opening panels that not all is well in this high school as Tem, an alpaca student is hunted down and murdered by a mysterious carnivore in the opening panels. Suspicion lands on the grey wolf Legoshi, who was in drama club with Tem. The herbivores are mostly terrified and the carnivores are resentful at being under suspicion. A lot of the plot of Beastars seems fairly typical for any manga with a high school setting, but the animalistic nature of the students puts a bit of a spin on drama club shenanigans and random meetings across different animal families. Legoshi struggles with his own instincts and seems to be resigned to his status as an outcast. Seeing the twists of the animal nature of the students on fairly typical student roles can be amusing, as the imperious head of the drama club turns out to be the literal king of the forest in the form of Louis, a majestic red deer.

The art for Beastars is really well done, with somber grey tones that give the high school a bit of a dangerous noir vibe. In times of extreme emotion, Itagaki often fills the panel with just a character’s eyes surrounded by a dark background as a way of punctuating the intense instincts that the student body rarely acts on. The story sometimes shifts points of view, and it is interesting to learn more of the backstories of the student body. The idea of a “Beastsar,” an animal who is raised to have dominion over both carnivores and herbivores is raised briefly, and I expect the political jockying to be more intense in future volumes. I’m still a bit mystified as to why the students aren’t caught up more in an actual investigation of Tem’s murder, but I’m hoping this will be explored more in future volumes as well. The first volume of Beastars was very intriguing, and it capably set up Legoshi as a complex protagonist.

Witch Hat Atelier, Vols 1-3

Witch Hat Atelier Volumes 1-3 by Kamome Shirahama

It is rare to find a series that is so fully realized in terms of both art and story that there is absolutely nothing to nitpick, but Witch Hat Atelier is one of those manga. Coco is a young girl who helps her mother who is a seamstress. Coco lives in a world where magic is practiced only by a select few, but she’s extremely curious about how it all works. Her life is changed when she sees a flying carriage land near her mother’s shop and she runs into a mysterious gentleman who wears glasses with one tinted lens. Coco ends up cutting a length of cloth for the man, and she recounts a story that ties in with her fascination for magic. When she was younger, she encountered an enchanter who wore a hat decorated with a single eye, fringed with fabric that obscured his face. He offered to sell Coco a book of magic spells and even gave her a wand. Coco soon found out that people need to be born to magic, and gave up on her dream. When the flying carriage is damaged, the mysterious man identifies himself as Qifrey the Witch, and he decides to fix it. Coco spies on him and discovers that magic isn’t something one is born with, it relies on careful drawing with a pen. She promptly decides to experiment.

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Like most books that feature a child adventurer and inconvenient parents, Coco’s mother is quickly dispatched when Coco’s first spell goes awry, turning her into a statue. The only solution is for Coco to dedicate herself to learning magic in order to reverse the spell. She becomes Qifrey’s newest apprentice, and travels with him to his school where he is already teaching several other girls her age. Coco has an enthusiasm for knowledge and a unique way of looking at magic but her fellow apprentices are suspicious of her. Coco’s roommate Agott in particular has a cranky attitude which backed up with unusual expertise in magic. The world of magic can be dangerous, for example when Agott goads Coco into taking a test that she’s unprepared for. The girls later get whisked away to a labyrinth guarded by a dragon due to some machinations of the witch with the eyeball hat, and later help with a rescue. The world is filled with odd magical contraptions that take the place of technology, like a water bubble for transporting water, bricks that light up under people’s feet, and shoes that are enchanted to give the power of flight.

Shirahama has a detailed style that is reminiscent of illustrations that might be in a classic childrens’ book. Panels are occasionally decorated with botanical motifs, with a nod to art nouveau. The various costumes of the witches have elaborate decoration, and spells look intricate, causing effects that look both elegant and unnatural. The worldbuilding and illustrations are lovely, but there’s an undercurrent of menace, as the one-eyed hat magical practitioner is intervening in Coco’s life for an unknown reason. The secretiveness of the witches also causes Coco to be threatened with a memory wipe spell multiple times. Her status as an outsider gives her an innovative and instinctive feel for magic, and she often manages to improvise spells due to her unique mindset. Coco’s new found family keeps expanding as the series develops, and it seems like she’s meeting other magic practitioners that ultimately will help her if there’s a confrontation with the dark witches who seem to be far too interested in her. There’s certainly some Harry Potter parallels, but not enough to make it seem like Witch Hat Atelier isn’t original. I’m equally entertained by both the art and the story in Witch Hat Atelier, and highly recommend it if you are looking for a fantasy series that lets the reader disappear into another world for a little while.

The Way of the Househusband

The Way of the Househusband Volume 1 by Kousuke Oono

I was looking forward to The Way of the Househusband very much, because the title, premise, and subtly menacing cover art made it seem like just the type of action and humor manga I would enjoy. The househusband in question is a former yakuza member whose nickname was “The Immortal Dragon.” I think it is easy for a reader to tell if they will like this series from the first few pages, which show the househusband waking up, clothing himself grimly in all black, putting on an apron, and then making an adorable bento box for his wife. The househusband loves coupons, sales, and going to grocery stores while wearing his shibainu apron. Unfortunately his past has a tendency to catch up with him. While the Immortal Dragon still has the skills to administer a severe beatdown, often he disarms situations with his househusband hobbies by breaking through people’s emotional barriers with homemade cookies or a pair of deeply discounted gloves.

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I particularly enjoyed the marriage scenes in this manga. The househusband’s wife is a designer who loves anime, and the lengths to which he will go to make her happy display the same relentless attitude that I’m sure helped helped him ruthlessly dispatch his enemies. It would be hard to pull off this title without solid art, and Oono excels at showing the househusband with epic resting bitch face that basically means that regular people find him terrifying. He seems to always be surrounded by film noir shadow effect lighting that throws his features in stark contrast. The larger format of the Viz Signature line makes it easier to appreciate the fight scenes taking place in mundane locations. I had high expectations for this title and I wasn’t disappointed.

Daytime Shooting Star, Vol. 2

Daytime Shooting Star Volume 2 by Mika Yamamori

I can usually tell if I’ll like a series after I read the first volume, but after two volumes I can more easily decide if I really like it. The second volume of Daytime Shooting Star still features plenty of angst over a potential student-teacher romance, but the supporting cast was featured a little more and I started to find this series endearingly quirky.

The second volume opens with the shoujo staple of a school trip, and when Suzume finds herself accidentally trapped in a ravine with Mamura the boy who is pathologically afraid of being touched by a girl, they actually have a couple moments of conversation. Suzume passes out just in time for Mr. Shishio to come to the rescue, and Yuyuka quickly figures out that Suzume has a crush when she visits her in the aftermath of the forest adventure. Yuyuka’s offhand gestures of friendship and blunt personality are a useful contrast to Suzume’s tendency to get lost in thought about her new life. There’s a hilarious scene when Suzume is studying and Yuyuka’s usual social mask slips as she launches into a tirade and Suzume grabs Mamura’s arm in a desperate attempt at distraction. Yuyuka then finds herself beset with a group of boys who follow her around in hopes of being berated. In the meantime, Mamura seems to have gotten over his fear of girls, but only with Suzume.

This volume sets up an entertaining soap opera with plenty of humor as well as more quiet moments of reflection. I’m also enjoying the art in Daytime Shooting Star, Yamamori’s character designs have a touch of whimsy, and she easily shifts from more cartoonish exaggeration to panels that highlight contemplation and internal emotion.

Idol Dreams Vol. 6

Idol Dreams Volume 6 by Arina Tanemura

Idol Dreams! The manga that I read compulsively but also dread a little bit every time I pick it up because I wonder in the back of my mind if something truly problematic is going to happen in this story of an emotionally stunted office lady who returns to her youth in the form of an idol singer with the aid of magic pills who then becomes romantically entangled with some of her teen contemporaries from the music world.

Idol Dreams 6

One of the reasons why I enjoy Tanemura so much is that she brings the melodrama in a way that few other manga creators can aspire to. In this volume alone, there’s a death, a pregnancy, and a wedding crisis. Few other series can hit these heights of melodrama in just six chapters. All of these things happen to friends of Chikage’s and it is interesting to see how she reacts as the people she is closest to suffer through some severe emotional trauma. The volume kicks off with an illness followed by a death in Hibiki’s family. Chikage in her Akari persona tries to support him as best she can, but the pressures of Hibiki’s idol career cause him to not take time off work because he doesn’t want to disappoint the fans who support him. He doesn’t have the luxury of taking time to grieve, and I wonder in some ways if his professionalism is a way for him to escape confronting tragedy.

In the adult side of her life, Chikage is way too invested in the success of Tokita and Hanami’s wedding. As I read this volume I was reflecting on the ways that Chikage has changed as a character, from having almost no emotional connection with other people, to now having far too much invested in seeing a particular relationship succeed. Part of this is due to the fact that she’s still repressing her own deeper emotions. There is a moment where she runs into Haru when she is actually able to relate to him as a potential friend without becoming flustered, which made me think that while she’s come pretty far in terms of becoming more self-possessed since her teen adventures. I left this volume wondering how Chikage is going to come out on the other side of these tragedies, but she’s shown enough personal growth that I’m hoping she continues to become stronger. Tanemura’s art is always best when she has an opportunity to be unabashedly girly, and the illustrations of many wedding dresses in this volume are a real treat, in addition to the dramatics of all the tear-stained faces.