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.

witch hat atelier

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.

Shojo Fight, Vol. 1

Shojo FIGHT! Volume 1 by Yoko Nihonbashi

I’m very happy about Kodansha’s recent investment in digital manga, since it means that some titles that might be not commercial enough to get a print release are being translated. At the same time, I’ve been burned by digital manga in the past, and I only have so much budgeted for digital comics a month, so I’ve been a little picky with my purchases. I was very interested to see a girls volleyball title coming out from Kodansha, because I do enjoy a good sports manga. The first volume of Shojo FIGHT! is largely set-up for the whole series, and it packs an impressive amount of drama in one short volume.

Neri spends her time on the bench for her middle school volleyball team. She seems to be content to be incredibly unassertive and dismissed, but she has a group of friends and fans who look after her. The manga starts by showing the dynamics of Neri’s current team. Koyuki seems to be noticed as much for her looks as her volleyball talent, while Chiyo is the seemingly evil teem member who is comfortable saying horrible things to everyone. While Neri doesn’t do much in the way of athletics in the first few pages, it is clear that she has the aura of somebody special. Neri has a built in fanclub that includes Odagiri, a girl who spends her time drawing volleyball manga. There are also the brothers Shikishima. The younger blond Shikishima is a carefree volleyball player while his his older brother with the dark hair has the burden of being the heir to his family’s osteopathic clinic, having magic injury soothing fingers, and also playing volleyball.

When Neri does get off the bench, it is clear that she’s been hiding her skills as well as her single-minded intensity towards the sport of volleyball. Part of the reason why she’s been able to hide so long is because her school tends to give starting positions based on the height of the players. Neri becomes aggressive and vocal, yelling at Koyuki to get her head in the game. Neri and Koyuki end up colliding when they go after the same ball. Neri’s travails in volleyball would be enough to carry this volume, but she also has a family tragedy that she’s dealing with as well. Slowly the details are revealed as the story progresses, and while Neri’s set up for a different type of volleyball career as she enters high school, she’s still dealing with plenty of baggage. It seems like her friends are always going to be around to support her, especially Shikishima the elder.

Part of my enjoyment of Shojo FIGHT! is due to the novelty factor. Perhaps because I haven’t been able to read many female-oriented sports manga, I found Neri’s portrayal as a volleyball hero with athletic prowess and intensity that could cause situations to get out of control refreshing, just because I’m much more used to seeing this type of character as a male protagonist. If this had been the 5th female volleyball manga that I’d read instead of the 2nd, I might not find it quite as charming though. Other reviewers have noted that the art of this volume looks very similar to OEL manga, with smooth dark lines, sparse backgrounds, and lacking the delicacy that most shoujo fans might expect. I was halfway wondering if it was as I was reading it if it was OEL, but as I looked up Shojo FIGHT, it indeed came out in Japan originally in the mid 2000s. Nihonbashi’s style made me wonder if it really was that unique, or if it comes down to just the type of series that tend to get translated for a North American audience. Nihonbashi’s high contrast style gives Shojo FIGHT a more graphic, less flowery sort of look, and while she is good at facial expressions, I did find myself wondering at times if Neri had variants of her stunned and shell shocked look as she grapples with her emotions. I did enjoy all the distinctive character designs. With such a large cast, having distinct looks for the characters helps the reader greatly.

There was enough drama for two volumes in the first volume of Shojo FIGHT!, but at the same time I’m reserving judgement a bit, because I expect the narrative to settle down in the second volume. I’m hoping to see if Neri is able to fight off her inner demons a bit for the sake of volleyball.

Peach Heaven Vol. 1

So far, I’m having a mixed experience with Kodansha’s digital line. I like Chihayafuru and The Full-Time Wife Escapist (review of that coming soon), but I am not thrilled with A Springtime With Ninjas or Peach Heaven. In a way this is good, because I’m not having to set aside funds for so many digital series!

Peach Heaven treads familiar ground as the hapless heroine Momoko is blackmailed into being a slave to an evil male model – is there any other type of model in shoujo manga? Momoko has taken over her father’s writing persona and is cranking out erotica books in order to support her sick mother and younger brother. She toils on her writing all night, only to fall asleep in school the next day. Her friends think she’s hopelessly addicted to online gaming. Through a series of events that I no longer remember, Ranmaru the male model finds out about her double life and starts blackmailing her. Momoko is forced to bring Ranmaru lunch every day at school, and he continues to berate her for her life choices and makes fun of her for being a virgin.

Of course, various situations come up when Ranmaru has to rescue or intervene in Momoko’s life, indicating that he might be not so terrible after all. There isn’t really any suspense or dramatic tension in this manga. While I generally enjoy trashy romance manga, that’s usually only in cases where there’s a bit of a sense of humor or some over the top soap opera element to the storylines, and I don’t see anyone in Peach Heaven, say, abruptly deciding to become a priest or dealing with the aftereffects of personality-changing hypnotism. I was hoping that Peach Heaven would be another fun guilty pleasure manga, but it is just not very interesting. The rote plotting isn’t really complimented by the art, which is competent but doesn’t exhibit any individual sense of style.

Say I Love You, Vols 1 and 2

Say I Love You Volume 1 by Kanae Hazuki

Say I Love You
has a premise that is shared among plenty of shoujo series, as it details an improbable romance between a misfit girl and the most popular boy in school, but it has interesting combination of humor and some grittier than usual plot points, resulting an a series that is more entertaining for being slightly quirky.

Mei Tachibana goes throughout life without having any friends. She doesn’t say much to her classmates, and it is easy to understand why, since she’s been singled out as a target for bullies from an early age. Yamato Kurosawa is extremely handsome, and is one of the most popular boys at school. He’s pleasant, but not very interested in girls who are overly interested in him. Mei captures his attention when one of his friends trips her. Later on, his friend grabs the hem of her skirt and she responds with a silent but deadly roundhouse kick, nailing Kurosawa in the face. Yamato laughs as he’s recovering from the blow and proclaims that Mei is interesting. Yamato asks Mei to be friends and while she doesn’t respond, she calls Yamato later when she is in trouble with no one else to turn to.

Mei decides that even though Yamato is a “nonsensical guy” she’s beginning to trust him a little bit. Her classmates begin to treat her differently when they notice Yamato saying “Hi” to her at school. Gradually they start to get to know each other better, through a series of slight misadventures where Yamato proves himself as steadfast and emotionally intelligent. Mei continues to be feisty and a bit withdrawn, but her lack of caring what other people think comes into play when she defends a girl named Asami after hearing the other girls gossip about her. One of the things I like about this series is that it doesn’t focus only on the slowly developing romance between Mei and Yamato. The first volume shifts over to showing how Asami and Nakanishi get together, with some surprisingly insightful advice from Mei prompting Nakanishi to actually express his feelings.

The art in the first volume is a bit rough. The poses of the characters are stiff, the proportions are sometimes a bit wonky even by manga standards, and the paneling and backgrounds aren’t that interesting or detailed. But I found myself charmed anyway, just because Hazuki draws such cute faces! The art is something I’d expect to improve a bit as the series continued, and I thought that towards the end of the first volume and start of the second it was starting to look a bit smoother.

Say I Love You Volume 2 by Kanae Hazuki

One of the things that makes Say I Love You a little different from many of the other shoujo series that are translated into English, is that it is a bit more forthright when dealing with issues centering around sex. Asami is bullied because she has a well-developed figure. Aiko has a jealous crush on Yamato, and tries to drive off Mei by pointing out that she’s already slept with him. In some shoujo series this revelation would result in Mei and Yamato being kept apart for a couple chapters at least, but Mei asks him if it is true shortly after she finds out. Yamato explains the circumstances behind his encounter with Aiko as something that he regrets, and they are able to move on.

I enjoyed the bit of backstory Hazuki introduces to explain Mei and Yamato’s personalities. He has direct experience with bullying, when one of his friends was harassed so much that he transferred schools. Mei’s withdrawn nature is a bit more understandable when we see her relationship with her overprotective father, who tragically died young.

Mei slowly begins to transform a bit, growing her hair longer and meeting Yamato’s friend Kakeru, who unlike Yamato uses his popularity to sleep around with as many girls as possible. Aiko convinces him to make a pass at Mei, with predictably disastrous results. Mei abruptly leaves the restaurant, leaving food behind and Yamato immediately knows that Kakeru made a pass at her because her habit is to clean her plate every time she eats at a restaurant. Instead of Kakeru immediately becoming a sleazy villain, the next chapter explores more of his world, and the unending and undemanding devotion of his childhood friend Chiharu who actually appreciates him for reasons that go beyond his superficial popularity.

Overall, I really enjoyed the structure of the plot in Say I Love You, since the extended cast seems to be just as interesting as the main couple. With Kimi Ni Todoke wrapping up, I think Say I Love You would appeal to readers wanting something a little bit similar, but different enough to still be interesting. I bought these volumes on my kindle, and I can see myself investing in more e-book versions of this title as it comes out, for sure.

Vinland Saga, Vol 2

Vinland Saga Volume 2 by Makoto Yukimura

It says a lot about the quality of writing in Vinland Saga that the most memorable moments in the manga for me aren’t the Viking battle scenes but instead quiet moments that reveal more about the characters in the story. The clash of wills between determined young warrior Thorfinn and the conniving Askeladd becomes even more intriguing with the plot development in this volume. The story opens with a bit of a flashback to Thorfinn’s early adventures in infiltration for Askeladd, when he is taken in by an English family who he ends up having to betray. Thorfinn attempts to tell them to run before the Viking invasion is about to crush their village, and his concern turns to resignation as he sees the destruction coming at the hands of the Vikings.

Thorfinn has an encounter with a crazed Viking commander named Thorkell. Thorkell’s glee in battle contrasts with Askeladd’s more cerebral and cynical approach. Thorfinn is defeated, but Thorkell cheerfully waves goodbye with the stumps of the fingers that Thorfinn sliced off, saying of the fight “I enjoyed our battle! We should do it again!” The name of Thorfinn’s father still functions as an element of protection, because Thors was such a legendary warrior that Thorfinn’s Viking opponents are immediately curious about his capabilities.

Askeladd has his own agenda to execute as his band begins to march across the English countryside. They encounter the timid Prince Canute, and Askeladd strikes an unusual bargain with the Welsh. There’s an element of impending doom referenced multiple times, as Askeladd references a prophesied end of the world. The clash of religions between Christianity and paganism is also explored, as is the absolute brutality of the Vikings as they plunder a village in the winter. Yukimura’s art is always strong, and I appreciate the clarity of the battle scenes, as well as the attention to detail with the characters’ emotions as they react to the events on their journey.

While Thorfinn fits in with the traditional model of a hero, I’m finding myself more intrigued by Askeladd, simply because he’s such an unreliable narrator. I’m not sure if his stated reasons for acting are the truth, which creates quite a bit of dramatic tension in the story. The deluxe production for these volumes is always a treat, and I’m looking forward to the next volume of this saga continuing.