Dr. Stone, Vol. 1

Dr. Stone Volume 1 by Riichiro Inagaki and Boichi

Dr. Stone is a shonen series that is entertaining due to the combination of post-apocalyptic setting and mad scientist hero. The first chapter opens with overly enthusiastic high schooler Taiju vowing to confess his love to the girl he’s had a crush on for the past five years. His cynical scientist friend Senku wishes him well in a backhanded fashion. Just as Taiju is about to launch into his confession a mysterious light appears in the sky and all the people in the world get turned into stone, frozen in place for several thousand years.

When Taiju wakes up again, he comes to in an overgrown area littered with stone fragments of people. He wanders around and sees one of his most powerful classmates, Tsukasa, also frozen in place. Senku pops up and tells Taiju that he overslept terribly, because he’s been awake and on his own for the past year and a half. Senku is determined to restart civilization, but he needs additional help, and Taiju is going to serve as the muscle in his scientific endeavors. Senku has a habit of making grand pronouncements about the rate of his ability to reconstruct stone-age scientific discoveries by yelling “Get Excited!”

There’s certainly a lot of yelling, naked men wearing leaves, and hazardous attacks from both animals and other survivors in Dr. Stone, but I enjoyed the emphasis on adventures driven by ancient science. The dynamic between the two protagonists, with one of them being super smart and the one mainly having enthusiasm on his side also set up plenty of amusing side scenes in between all the fighting and scrabbling for survival. I tend to not always be that enthusiastic about non-sports shonen manga, but I was definitely intrigued by the first volume of this series.

Dr Stone

Ao Haru Ride, Volume 1

I remember when Io Sakisaka’s series Strobe Edge was announced initially there was plenty of excitement, but also many many people wondering, “What about Ao Haru Ride?” So I was excited when I heard that this series was being added to the Shojo Beat lineup, even though I wasn’t terribly familiar with it. The story opens with a bit of a prequel as Futaba spends her time in the junior high hallways attempting to escape any attention from boys, because she thinks they are loud and obnoxious. The only exception to her “No Boys Allowed” rule is Kou Tanaka, who is short, quiet, and gentle. After a couple random close encounters they agree to go on a date, but Tanaka overhears Futaba proclaiming her hatred of all men when she gets teased. Futaba waits alone for her date, and then Tanaka moves over the summer, so she’s never able to find out what has happened to him.

Fast forward into the present time and Futaba still wonders about Tanaka as she attends high school, where’s she’s determined to reinvent herself after being ostracized in junior high. She tries to play down her good looks and attractiveness, because she doesn’t want her new “friends” to think that she’s attempting to look cute for boys. There’s a classmate named Mabuchi who dimly reminds Futuba of Tanaka, but she tells herself that he’s too tall to be her long-lost friend. While Futaba continues to go through her tomboyish charade to fit in with the mean girls, she takes notice of a couple different girls in her class who are all alone, who actually seems interesting. While Futaba tells herself that she’s better off with her girl group, I think she’s unconsciously drawn to people who would be much better friends, given the chance.

Tanaka/Mabuchi is very intriguing in this first volume. He smirks at Futuba a bit, and when she starts to realize who he might be, reveals himself to her by leading her back to a shrine where they waited out a rainstorm when they were younger. He seems like a snarkier, more cynical version of his younger self, even though it seems like he can’t help himself from occasionally being kind. His kind actions are immediately balanced out by his habit of bluntly commenting on Futaba’s life, for example by telling her that she has “fake friends”. Sakikasa has a winning way with facial expressions, but one of the things I loved in this first volume was the sense of place, seeing Futuba and Tanaka having charged encounters in the shrine many years apart evoked the themes of both future and nostalgia that Ao Haru Ride is touching upon.

Unusually for a shoujo manga, this first volume covers the first year of high school, but it shows Futuba making some important decisions about who she wants to be as a person, helped along by Tanaka’s blunt prodding. Ao Haru Ride reminded me most of series like We Were There and the Sand Chronicles, just in terms of having the potential to develop into a very sensitive and emotional love story as the characters work through various complex issues. I feel like it has been some time since we’ve seen a series with such a strong emotional core story, and Ao Haru Ride seems like it has exactly that type of potential.

Skip Beat!, Vol. 41

Skip Beat!, Volume 41 by Yoshiki Nakamura

There’s something about picking up a new volume in a long-running shoujo series that is the manga equivalent of comfort food to me. It is great to settle in to a story arc, even if the situations are similar to what has happened before, seeing how the characters have grown and evolved as they encounter new challenges still makes it rewarding for the reader.

Kyoko has a big audition in this volume, and even though this has happened so many times before in Skip Beat!, this was very satisfying to read simply to see the way she’s grown into her comfort zone as an actor. Also, Skip Beat! excels at serving up sweet sweet revenge as Kyoko proves people who underestimate her wrong with her unique skill set. In this case, Kyoko is competing for the role of the ninja Momiji against the spoiled niece of the director. Kyoko is able to bring something unique to the role due to her recent training in stage fighting, combined with her skills and instincts as an actor. One of the many things that makes Skip Beat! so special after 41 volumes is Nakamura’s gifts at drawing the process of acting. Kyoko’s body language and intensity utterly change when she’s inhabiting a role, and seeing her dynamic approach to her character’s demanding physical scenes makes it clear that the executives are crazy if they cast anyone else.

Kyoko is at her best when proving herself, and her agency isn’t afraid to pile on a little extra difficulties by manipulating the situation behind the scenes, in an attempt to improve the casting possibilities for all the actors who get started as “talent” on variety shows instead of the pure acting track. Rory’s oversight and machinations doesn’t just stop at Kyoko’s career. This volume is largely Ren free, but we get a hint at what might be happening in the next few volumes as Ren returns and Rory tips him off to a situation that might actually inspire jealousy in Ren! As always I’m having it hard to manage my anticipation until the next volume.

Takane & Hana, Vol. 4

Takane & Hana, Volume 4 by Yuki Shiwasu

This is my far one of my favorite current light romance reads, mostly due to Takane’s surly facial expressions and imperious manner and Hana’s excellent way of totally deflating him with a cutting remark. This volume opens with the aftermath of the big school trip, where handsome scions of industry decided to hang out with a group of high school kids.

In this volume, some major conflict arises from the corporate world, as Takane’s evil Uncle decides to assign a new, alarmingly efficient assistant to him. Kiragasaki acts alarmingly unemotional, although sometimes he looks more animated when the light glints off his glasses. He observes Takane closely, but doesn’t have much to report other than his stellar performance and dedication to his work. When Kiragasaki figures out that Takane is meeting again with a girl from an arranged marriage meeting he manages to discover the truth about who Hana is.

One of the frequent plot elements in Takane & Hana that I never get tired of is seeing how the couple supports each other in their unusual relationship. Kiragaskaki ends up going to Hana and requests that they break up, because he sees how other people in the company will use their relationship against them. Hana has some hard decisions to make, but Takane’s unshakable confidence ends up being rooted in reality, because he sees his excellence at his job as a shield against corporate manipulations. Takane wins Kiragasaki over by just being himself and rising above any corporate plots.

Aside from the more serious core story of the volume, there are plenty of hijinks as Hana steps through some manga plot staples like preparing for the school festival. Each volume of this series is breezy and fun, and made a little more lively and unusual due to the odd-couple nature of the relationship, and Shiwasu’s gifts at comedic art.

Anonymous Noise, Vols 8 and 9

Anonymous Noise Volumes 8 and 9 by Ryoko Fukuyama

Oh, Anonymous Noise! It is a series I often find frustrating, because I love the stylish covers, dynamic paneling, and idea of high school kids working hard to find their way in the music industry, yet I do not enjoy the dynamic of the central love triangle where Nino with the extraordinary yet erratic singing voice gets tossed between two tortured musicians like a long-haired, face-masked hot potato. I do fully expect that my occasional feelings of ennui with this manga is due to my having read maybe too much (is it possible!?) shoujo manga, and if I was much younger I would be following this series with unquestioning devotion.

That being said, these two volumes focused a little bit more on musicianship than romance, so I found myself able to relax much more and enjoy the story. Volume 8 opens with Nino and Yuzu being assigned to wrangle the music for the debut of some fashion models turned singers. As always in shoujo manga, fashion models are the worst. Their new clients are petulant and very picky about their debut song. This only makes Nino and Yuzu want to try harder to write an awesome song! There are plenty of angsty plot developments with the extended cast as well, as Momo deals with a life crisis and Miou continues to try to get over Yuzu. Nino stretches her abilities as a lyricist by trying to fit the song to the voice of the singer, and everyone is ready for their next adventure, a tour!

Anonymous Noise 9

I have to admit, I wish some of the side jokes in Anonymous Noise were expanded a little bit. The mini-tour is an excuse to showcase Nino’s enduring obsessions with local foods. Silent Black Kitty gets back together again as Momo devotes himself to his music, and I’m sure the result will be yet another battle of the bands in an emotional confrontation. Nino struggles with consistency for her live performance. One thing I do like about the way music is portrayed in this manga is that it is rarely effortless. There’s a lot that comes together for someone to become a successful performer, and even though Nino’s talent is recognized, she still clearly has a long way to go before she’s a true professional. One of the ways em>Anonymous Noise is so successful at this episodic format is that each volume tends to end with a dramatic revelation or new crisis point, which happens in volume 9 when Yuzu is having issues with performance. Nino’s determined to come up with a solution to protect his dream, and everyone’s devotion to music helps offset the tortured romance. The story is propelled forward and this makes it a compelling read, even if some of the character dynamics in the manga aren’t as interesting.