Yona of the Dawn, Vol. 21

Yona of the Dawn Volume 21 by Mizuho Kusanagi

This is the last volume of the Sei story arc, and it has plenty of action interspersed with great quiet moments where bonds between the characters are affirmed. Everyone joins together to rescue Riri, leading to some surprising alliances. One of the highlights for me was seeing Hak’s reunion with the Wind Tribe, especially his adoptive grandfather Mundok. As Zeno and Jaeha search for Yona and find her cornered in the woods by enemy soldiers, Zeno comes to the rescue by literally dropping out of the sky to defend her. Su-Won is also inspecting the area and getting a full picture of the atrocities being committed. Riri shows her strength of character by being defiant even as the evil Lord Kushibi orders her execution. The attack begins as Su-Won’s group and Yona’s companions both stage parallel rescue missions, and the old bond between Su-Won and Hak is reactivated as they are able to wordlessly communicate across the battlefield in support of a single objective.

Kusanagi’s skills with drawing action are particularly showcased in this volume, as the dynamic paneling for the action scenes ramps up the tension of the battle, with pauses that highlight the emotional stakes for everything that Yona and her friends are fighting for. I also appreciated all the battlefield banter between enemies as Hak and Guen-Tae get snarky with each other. As Kushibi realizes the full extent of his hubris, a shadow is cast over his face that mirrors the dark tones used in portraying the body count of the fight. As everyone recovers from the battle, Zeno has a hilariously off-kilter encounter with Su-Won, and Yona and Hak have a random encounter in the middle of the night that is equal parts hilarious and touching. As always, this was an extremely satisfying volume of Yona of the Dawn. It sets such a high standard, it almost seems impossible for it to keep getting better with each volume, but it does.

The Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 11

The Water Dragon’s Bride Volume 11 by Rei Toma

I was genuinely not sure what to expect in the final volume of The Water Dragon’s Bride. While I naturally tend to assume that a happy ending is a given in a shoujo series, this series has explored the nature of humanity through the slowly changing personality of a god. It has also been unflinching about portraying all the petty and dark aspects of human nature, especially the machinations of humans who attempt to take advantage of the divine.

Water Dragon Bride 11

In the end, the final volume of this series has an elegantly constructed ending that allows for multiple moments of closure, another opportunity to ponder the nature of immortality, and some flashbacks that add additional resonance and meaning to the previous volumes. The Water Dragon God’s power is now fading after investing power into Asahi. Before he becomes too weak and disappears, he announces that he will send her back to her world. Asahi decides that she wants to spend time enjoying regular activities like picking berries and going fishing. Asahi, Subaru, and the Water Dragon God enjoy some brief lyrical moments just doing basic human activities. Toma’s skills in paneling and illustration are shown off to great advantage throughout this final volume, as brief wordless scenes convey a depth of emotion that make dialog and description unnecessary.

As the Water Dragon God prepares his farewell, Subaru gets a chance to be heroic yet again, looking out for Asahi and her future in a way that she might not immediately appreciate. Themes of longing and loss are explored as The Water Dragon God moves into a new plane of existence and Asahi integrates back into the life that she’s left behind twice. Overall, this was a tremendously affecting series, with a mystical and elegiac quality that sets it apart from other fantasy shoujo that I’ve read. I hope more of Toma’s manga makes it over here.

Daytime Shooting Star, Vol 3

Daytime Shooting Star by Mika Yamomori

I’m still enjoying this manga that focuses on the subgenre of teacher-student romance, even though I think the teacher in question has terrible boundaries and the only way for this story to end happily is for Suzume to actually date someone her own age. Perhaps an elaborate time jump where Suzume and Mr. Shishio get together after she has completed college and done a stint in the Peace Corps would also work.

Daytime Shooting Star 3

I was trying to pinpoint why I like this series so much when other Shojo Beat series are more seriously tackling the nature of grief (Ao Haru Ride) or delving into teenage introspection while juggling a love triangle (Shortcake Cake), and I came to the conclusion that for some reason I’m more affected by the art in Daytime Shooting Star. There’s something whimsical about the way that Yamamori designs her characters that just causes me to find practically everyone in the manga adorable and sympathetic.

Suzume deals with an onslaught of emotions as she confesses her feelings to Mr. Shishio when he is asleep, only to realize that he was actually awake. She endures a torrent of teenage embarrassment, and her emotional state isn’t helped all that much when Shishio’s super cool ex-girlfriend starts hanging around again. While Suzume starts researching hypnosis to discover if she will be able to erase someone’s memories, she is able to process her feelings more by talking to Nekota. Suzume decides to get things out into the open with Mr. Shishio, but then ends up running into Mamura who clearly still likes her. Will Suzume’s role as the one girl who Mamura doesn’t seem to be allergic to lead to a new, more age appropriate romance? Both the teenagers and youngish adults in Daytime Shooting Star all seem to be dealing with their own emotional issues due to a variety of reasons, and it is interesting to see Suzume evolve and take charge of her life, even though she’s aware that some of her actions are going to lead to disappointment.

Skip Beat 43

Skip Beat! Volume 43 by Yoshiki Nakamura

It says something about the enduring appeal of Skip Beat! that even though I have stacks of shoujo to read, whenever a new volume comes out it is my immediate priority. Kyoko has fought through an intense audition process to win the role of Momiji, but as usual in Skip Beat! this means that the drama is just beginning.

Skip Beat

Part of what made the most recent round of auditions so intense is that Kyoko and Moko had the possibility of working together. When Kyoko finds out that Moko isn’t cast, she has a torrent of emotions and anxiety about how her best friend might be feeling. It turns out that the producer has Moko in mind for a role in another project, and things get smoothed over. Kimiko does not accept losing the role of Momiji so gracefully, as she attempts to drug Kyoko and fling her off the roof of a building, only to be foiled by Erika putting a plan in motion to expose Kimiko’s insanity. This all seems like enough soap opera shenanigans for one volume of manga, but the story continues to unfold with Kyoko and Ren continuing to misunderstand each other, even though they’ve been able to acknowledge their feelings internally.

Kyoko’s quirkiness as a heroine is perfectly summed up when she calmly assesses her danger by concluding that she didn’t know how high up she was, and she probably would only have broken a couple of bones. There’s also a hilarious panel where Kyoko senses that Ren is looking at her and from her perspective his stare turns into the predatory glare of a snake, only for her to turn to look at him and be confronted by his usual pleasant expression. A innocuous picnic with a bento that Kyoko makes ends up turning into a prompt for some intense internal thoughts about budding romantic feelings. With the forced proximity element of Yashiro serving as manager to both Kyoko and Ren, I’m hoping that this story arc might move things forward a little bit. Then again, we are a good 43 volumes in to Skip Beat! and I’m entertained no matter what happens.

Ao Haru Ride Vol 7

Ao Haru Ride Volume 7 by Io Sakisaka

With both Shortcake Cake and Ao Haru Ride coming out at the same time, it feels like the Shojo Beat imprint is going full steam ahead with romance manga that is a bit more introspective than usual. I’m finding all the interior soliloquies more diverting than usual in this series. Is there any kind of tension worse than seeing the slowly moving train wreck of someone making the wrong decision for seemingly noble reasons? It is pretty clear that Kou likes Futuba, and yet his traumatic past and issues dealing with his own grief have led him to willingly step into the role of quasi boyfriend for Narumi, who is surely having her own issues but is also spinning them in order to ensnare Kou into a closer relationship.

Futuba is avoiding Kou and falling back into her overly boisterous behavior, but Kikuchi keeps showing up to talk with her, despite some hilarious glaring from Yuri whenever she is at Narumi’s side. The attempt to put distance between Futuba and Kou utterly fails when Mr. Tanaka sends her over to check on Kou when he is sick. Futuba decides to confront Narumi about her and Kou’s weird co-dependent relationship that has them both stewing in grief, and Narumi promptly admits her tactics and then turns things back around on Futuba by accusing her of being selfish herself for intervening. This of course sends Futuba into another bout of introspection where she questions her own motivations. The forbidden attraction between Mr. Tanaka and Shuko almost spills over into a genuine incident at the school, but Ao Haru Ride tends to keep moving forward through plot twists while preserving the points of tension with the character relationships that keep the larger story suspenseful. The exploration of grief contrasted with the romantic foibles of teenage characters continues to make this series a compelling read.