Knight of the Ice, Vol 7

Knight of the Ice Volume 7 by Yayoi Ogawa

We don’t get a ton of josei series translated, so I do cherish the ones that come out in print like Knight of the Ice which has a winning combination of figure skating drama combined with Ogawa’s quirky sense of humor. While many of the plot points of the series center around Kokoro’s difficulties training and winning competitions, this volume opens with Chitose dealing with her heart condition. Kokoro’s hard-nosed manager Moriyama visits Chitose in the hospital, and it is great to see how much she cares even though she goes to great lengths to hide her emotions. Chitose doesn’t want to derail Kokoro’s concentration by having him worry about her, so she decides to both postpone having surgery and wants to keep her condition a secret.

Knight of the Ice 7

For the rest of the volume, Kokoro is vaguely uneasy as he trains for his latest competitions, as he can tell that Chitose is hiding something but he isn’t sure what it is. He’s dealing with his ongoing issues of pushing his technical abilities but sometimes struggling to be artistic and expressive enough in his skating. “Yayoi Ogawa” shows up to dash off a sketch for an inspiring new costume. Ogawa’s dynamic and expressive art makes the skating competitions compelling, as all the skaters are dealing with their own struggles. Kokoro has some triumphs and setbacks, and has still not yet reached his full potential. I’m enjoying seeing the story in Knight of the Ice unfold.

Knight of the Ice Vols 2 and 3

Knight of the Ice Volumes 2 and 3 by Yayoi Ogawa

This series is rapidly becoming one of my favorite pandemic distraction manga, and I started it fully enthusiastic for a new Ogawa manga. I haven’t felt disappointed so far! The first volume did a good job setting up tiny magazine editor Chitose’s secret relationship with her childhood friend renowned figure skater Kokoro. While this is certainly a josei series, Kokoro’s extreme shyness and sheltered secret otaku lifestyle makes the romance aspect of the manga as slowly developing as any series with high school protagonists. This is a comfortable pace for the reader, because after the first volume the series is able to settle in for a little bit and introduce more of the supporting cast and further explore the world of high-stakes international figure skating.

Given that Chitose’s boss Sawada seems to be taking an unusual interest in one of his junior employees, it isn’t too surprising that she gets caught sneaking off in order to cast her magical girl spell on Kokoro right before he competes. When a fan spots Chitose and Kokoro together and starts posting rumors online, Kokoro’s dynamic and scary manager Moriyama invents the cover story that Chitose is part of Kokoro’s coaching team. As Chitose spends more consistent time with Kokoro, she begins to be more aware of her feelings and it is clear that Kokoro is using his feelings for his oldest friend to motivate him to perform even better in his sport. At the same time Sawada has an uncanny knack for popping up whenever Chitose is experiencing a moment of extreme distress.

As the figure skating season unfolds, Kokoro is able to turn in some of his best performances thanks to some unorthodox motivation from Chitose, but he’s also plagued by a nagging injury. While the slowly developing romance between Chitose and Kokoro keeps moving forward (there are kisses on the cheek!), I found myself enjoying the quirky supporting cast in the series more and more. Moriyama’s blunt pronouncements about just how far Kokoro can go with his potential relationship certainly provide a contrast to the more innocent romance that’s happening. Kokoro’s twin sisters intervene when another skater is about to get taken advantage of, and if Kokoro doesn’t have enough pressure to deal with it becomes more clear that his career and public image is being controlled behind the scenes by his father. Chitose is starting to become more confident about advocating for herself and her own feelings. Between skating drama, romance, family issues, and Ogawa’s quirky humor there’s plenty to keep a reader entertained in Knight of the Ice.

Knight of the Ice, Vol 1

Knight of the Ice Volume 1 by Yayoi Ogawa

I think Tramps Like Us (Kimi Wa Pet) started coming out here in the mid 2000s, and 15+ years is a long time to wait between Yayoi Ogawa series. Fortunately for anyone in the need of sports-based josei distraction in these trying times, Knight of the Ice serves up plenty of Ogawa’s off-kilter humor along with workplace romance hijinks. The heroine of this story is Chitose, who works at a magazine. She’s so incredibly tiny that she’s sometimes mistaken for a child, which causes her some problems in the workplace.

Knight of the Ice

Chitose’s childhood friend Kokoro is a champion figure skater, who is able to keep up his flawless facade on the ice only when Chitose is present to cast a magical girl spell on him by quoting the anime they were both obsessed with as children. Having to suddenly disappear right around ice skating championships also causes problems when Chitose has to duck out of work without any clear explanations. Her boss Sawada keeps making references to her tiny size by giving her a nickname that references the Moomins, but he also seems to be a little more aware of Chitose as a woman than he should be. The set-up of a figure skater with severe performance anxiety is funny by itself, but Ogawa also adds additional humor with Kokoro’s domanatrix-like manager, and the occasional appearance of “Yayoi Ogawa”, an old school friend of Chitose who occasionally appears to offer commentary and life advice. Ogawa’s art is distinctive and energetic, capturing Kokoro’s graceful poses along with plenty of emotional outbursts and quieter moments of romantic confusion. Ogawa does a good job slowly setting up the potential love triangle between Chitose, Sawada, and Kokoro. Her quirky sensibilities make this first volume extremely engaging. I’m on board for this whole series!

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.