Ao Haru Ride, vol 5

Ao Haru Ride Volume 5 by Io Sakisaka

One of the reasons why I like Ao Haru Ride is the way it effectively gets into the agonizing headspace of first love, where tiny decisions or comments made in a moment fraught with tension end up propelling a relationship forward or dooming it to the status quo. It takes some superior authorial skills to portray the inner soliloquies of teenagers as consistently sympathetic but Sakisaka has the chops to make the reader fully invested in all of these charged interactions. Futuba is still struggling with her feelings towards Kou, and it looks like things are going to go to the next level when he actually asks her out to a summer festival.

Futuba builds up the prospect of festival attendance in her mind, thinking it is a perfect time to tell him what she feels, but Kou ends up canceling and before they know it they are back in school. Kou seems more distracted than usual, spending a bunch of time texting on his phone. Ao Haru Ride is heading into familiar shoujo territory as Toma keeps popping up around Futuba, quickly realizes that she likes Kou, but still lingers around since it is clear that they haven’t started a relationship yet. While Kou isn’t asking Futuba out again, he’s clearly getting annoyed at Toma’s consistent presence. Kou’s distraction is due to his trying to help an old friend as they get adjusted at a new school, and any shoujo reader can tell that this is going to introduce a new ongoing complication to prevent Futuba and Kou getting together. Sakisaka is great at portraying the agony of the emotional calculations Futuba goes through, as she thinks if she hits on a magic moment it will be the right time to confess to Kou. Meanwhile, Toma’s keen observations of Futuba show her to be different from the tomboyish self image she’s struggled to maintain. While the plot points of summer festivals and school activities are well-worn shoujo territory, I’m captivated by these particular characters, with all their quirks and awkward moments.

Shortcake Cake, Vol 4

Shortcake Cake Volume 4 by suu Morishita

I’m growing more and more fond of this series. I enjoy the steady, slice of life way the plot unfolds, the great sense of place that is grounded in the boardinghouse setting, and most of all the silent moments between the characters that are filled with meaning. I swear, a 4 panel layout of characters from Shortcake Cake just glancing at each other would be a long drawn out speech about feelings in a less well-executed manga.

Switching back and forth one’s object of affections isn’t really anything new, but as Ten starts to reassess her feelings for Riku, Chiaki comes down with a severe case of second male lead in a Korean drama syndrome, where he basically speaks to Ten about his feelings for her in incredibly oblique riddles that she is totally unable to pick up on. Oh, the foolishness and frustration of teenage shoujo manga love! Chiaki and Ten’s fake relationship to fake out Rei gives her an excuse to dismiss his declarations of affection, which Chiaki conveniently times for when Rei is around. Ten realizes her emotions are shifting and thinks to herself that if she was reading a story where she was the protagonist, she wouldn’t like it, because the main character contradicts herself and is selfish. She thinks of her current life being “a bad book” but it seems to more like just what anyone would expect from a teenager not very practiced at friendship. Ten’s self awareness goes a long way in making her sympathetic as she attempts to figure out her suddenly very complicated romantic life.

Chiaki and Riku also attempt to negotiate the strange new undercurrents in their friendship. Ten starts a summer job and in a fraught decision, the trio decide to go to a beach together during their vacation. This volume very much felt like summer, and as Ten goes home she starts to get more clarity over her emotions. I enjoyed the way Ten is self-reflective throughout the book, she seems to be making a decision that will carry over to the next volume, but she’s put in a lot of emotional work behind the next step on her journey.

Yona of the Dawn, Vol 18

Yona of the Dawn Volume 18 by Mizuho Kusanagi

At long last, a Zeno volume! I’m going to attempt to talk around some major spoilers, but I found this volume both immensely satisfying and surprising. Zeno, as the smiling and enigmatic Yellow Dragon has always been a bit apart from Yona and the rest of her companions. He just pops up one day without much backstory, and his power of regeneration as a shield in battle was hidden for many volumes. Now the reader finally sees his power unleashed, and I wasn’t expecting Kusanagi to take a detour into action-centric body horror, but she certainly did. As Zeno is hurt and regenerates, he is able to tap into powers of strength that were previously undemonstrated but he does so at a great personal cost. In the hands of a lesser artist, his stand on the battlefield would be much more difficult to execute.

Most of this volume ends up being an extended flashback where we see the original four dragons and the Crimson Dragon King. Kusanagi is so clever with character designs, body language, and expressions, we can see how traces of the original dragon warriors remain in their reincarnated versions in Yona’s present day. In the end, the reader is left feeling like Zeno is fully integrated into the group, knowing the hidden meaning behind his smiles that initially seemed too easy. The depth of story that Kusanagi has built up over 18 volumes is considerable, I’m always putting each volume of Yona of the Dawn wondering how it is going to get even better, and it never fails to deliver.

The Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 9

The Water Dragon’s Bride has always explored issues of humans using religion to justify terrible actions, and this is brought home even more when a god who is actively seeking to meddle gets turned loose. The Water Dragon God’s aloof personality and general lack of interest in humanity other than Asahi was a bit of a protective factor for humans. The God of Darkness, with his damaged human sidekick Kurose has nothing holding him back from some active and severe meddling.

I appreciate the way that Toma has developed Kurose’s character. The intense trauma that he’s experienced in the past gives more context for his turn towards darkness, and although he’s an antagonist for Asahi he’s much more complex than a typical villain. The God of Darkness is portraying the other gods as weak by inventing a Sun God for the humans to worship. By covering up the sun temporarily with darkness, and then letting the sun shine again, the humans are led to dismiss the Water Dragon God as evil and ineffectual. The emperor gets dethroned and Asahi wants to aid him, but she’s again a target of hatred for the humans.

water dragon's bride 9

Kogahiko shows how malicious the combination of human and an evil god can be, even more than Kurose, as he deliberately manipulates everyone around him through the God of Darkness in order to get more political power. He still sees a use for Asahi, as a way of bolstering his new position by parading her in front of his subjects. Throughout this volume the Water Dragon God’s protectiveness and attitude towards Asahi is striking. When she asks him to forgo using his powers he complies, but his affection for Asahi ensures that he’ll find a way to protect her. As always, Toma’s deceptively simple art makes the most of the symbolism in this volume, as the humans turn towards the darkness in the guise of worshiping the sun. The Water Dragon’s Bride is surely one of the most philosophical shoujo series that I’ve read, which is also why it is a series I can see returning to and rereading in future years.

Kakuriyo: Bed & Breakfast for Spirits, Vol. 3

Kakuriyo: Bed & Breakfast for Spirits, Volume 3 by Waco Ioka and Laruha

This is one of those series that ends up getting stronger with each volume. I thought the first volume was okish, liked the way the second volume showed more character development, and appreciated the balance between backstory and new plot elements in the third volume. One thing I tend to look for in series about ayakashi is some interesting character design or art that captures my attention. While the art for this series is fine, I wasn’t getting that same sense of wonder about the spirit world that other ayakashi-centric manga titles have delivered. In this volume, I did find the portrayal of wall demons blocking Aoi’s path to be delightful, as they looked like pieces of wallboard dressed in formal kimonos.

Kakuriyo Bed and Breakfast for Spirits 3

Aoi is slowly finding more of a rhythm to her life in the spirit world with the discovery that her food is unique in bolstering the spiritual energy of the demons that surround her. She becomes more involved in the lives of the spider demon siblings, Suzuran and Akatsuki. They tie in to her own story with her grandfather, as she learns that he took them in and temporarily made them his servants when they were fleeing for their lives. Suzuran wants to go back to the human world to exist near Shiro’s grave, and Akatsuki is absolutely opposed to her dream. Aoi mediates this sibling relationship with nourishing food, and the steps in cooking her dishes are more clearly portrayed in this volume. It didn’t quite deliver the level of obsessive detail that I like to see in a food manga, but I appreciated food preparation getting more attention, since it is so central to Aoi’s identity.

One thing I really enjoy about this series now is how each volume tells a satisfying story while inspiring more questions for the reader to ponder. Shiro’s actions and motivations seem more mysterious the more Aoi learns about him. I’m also curious to find out more about Ginji after seeing him report back to the Odanna. I’m enjoying the measured pace at which this story is developing.