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.

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!

Shortcake Cake, vol. 3 and Ao Haru Ride, vol. 3

Third volumes are when I feel longer running series start to settle in a bit. The reader knows all the main characters and the ongoing story lines have been established. In the case of most shoujo manga, it also means it is love triangle time!

Shortcake Cake Volume 3 by suu Morishita

Shortcake Cake 3 opens with a rainstorm, and the unsettling weather continues to mirror the turbulent emotions associated with teen romance throughout the volume. Ten continues to be fascinated with Chiaki, while Chiaki and Ten are pretending to date to throw off the odd obsessive impulses of Riku’s brother Sei. At the same time Chiaki is feeling guilty because he thinks that Ten should be with Riku, even though Ten already previously rejected him. This all sounds like teen-age soap opera insanity when I type out a summary, but Shortcake Cake delivers this all to the reader with a level tone, interspersed with the slice of life aspects of the characters being thrown together in the same boardinghouse and having to deal with issues like fending for themselves when their House Mom gets sick. Riku and Ten have a few moments together where it is clear that he’s not yet gotten over her, as he casually asks what she thinks of Chiaki. This encounter happens when they are crouched under a table cleaning up after a kitchen mishap, showcasing Morishita’s ability to make every day incidents seem oddly intimate.

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Rain shows up as a background image to the panels where Ran contemplates this moment, thinking “It was as if he was saying all over again that he likes me.” Chiaki keeps his feelings to himself, and keeps pushing Ten towards Riku. One of the reasons why I like Shortcake Cake so much, is that this point I’m genuinely unsure of who Ten might end up with, and she’s not portrayed as fickle or uncaring, just a girl who is uncertain of her feelings. This volume was much more somber in tone than the previous volumes of Shortcake Cake, but it explored new emotional territory for the characters. I’m continuing to be fascinated by the way they influence each other, and that makes for an intriguing series.

Ao Haru Ride Volume 3 by Io Sakisaka

In contrast with Shortcake Cake, I am firmly convinced that Futaba and Kou are going to end up together, but seeing how this unfolds with the pressures of teenage friendship and Kou’s newly acerbic personality is what makes Ao Haru Ride interesting. The volume opens with Futuba dealing with the fact that her new friend Yuri also has a crush on Kou. Futuba cycles through a variety of feelings, as she wants to be supportive to one of her first real friends, but she can’t escape her attachment to Kou. First, Futuba vows to like other boys, but this resolution does not last long. I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I enjoy about Ao Haru Ride is the characters’ tendency to get things out into the open fairly rapidly, so it doesn’t seem like there will be multi volume story lines revolving around people not talking to each other.

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Futaba isn’t really able to deal with her feelings honestly, and attempts to come up with arbitrary tests like “if Kou follows me off the train, I’ll keep loving him.” Sakisaka’s excellent paneling makes a conversation near a subway platform look filled with dramatic emotion. Futuba and Kou keep getting thrown together, which doesn’t do much for Futuba’s impulse to bury her feelings to maintain her friendship with Yuri. One of the things I liked most about this volume was seeing Futuba, Yuri, and Murao bond over their romantic tribulations. Futuba is starting to piece together what type of person she wants to be and pondering how to be a good friend. This volume finishes on a bit of an emotional cliffhanger, so I’m curious to see what happens next.