Yona of the Dawn, Vol. 8

Yona of the Dawn Volume 8 by Mizuho Kusanagi

If I had to come up with a brief phrase to describe this volume of Yona of the Dawn, it would be “clever subverted expectations”. Kusanagi explores this theme in a couple ways, first with a brief introductory story focusing on the Yellow Dragon, and then followed by a closer look at King Su-Won.

I was fully expecting another detailed quest storyline as Yona and her companions sit around debating how to search for the Yellow Dragon, but then a mysterious man shows up at their campsite, announcing himself due to his intense stomach gurgling. It is Zeno, the Yellow Dragon, and he is hungry! What follows is one of the comedic interludes that livens up the series as everyone attempts to adjust to the new stranger in their midst and try to figure out what to do next once all the guardian dragons are gathered together. While Zeno initially acts goofy and mysterious, as Yona is trying to figure out what to do next he switches over to serious mode and is incredibly insightful. As one naturally expects from this series Yona’s next direction is not to take back the throne in a grab for power, she wants to help her people who are currently repressed.

The first part of the manga played with the reader’s expectations by subverting the quest narrative that they have come to expect. The second half focuses on king Su-Won and his relationship with his greatest general, Yi Guen-Tae. The general isn’t sure what sort of king Su-Won is, and he’s initially not impressed, as Su-Won appears to be cheerful and ineffectual, without the emphasis on force as a means to an end that Yi Guen-Tae would expect. Reports keep arriving of little problems within the kingdom, and Su-Won appears to be unconcerned. Su-Won ends up proposing an elaborate war game to give the general the action he craves, and Yi Guen-Tae gradually realizes that he’s severely underestimated his king. In this story particularly Kusanagi’s ability to shift between different moods from panel to panel and her facility with facial expressions showcases the real Su-Won as opposed to the mask that usually hides his emotions.

I always put down each volume of Yona of the Dawn feeling a little in awe of Kusanagi’s storytelling abilities. She’s always able to pack so much character development into a single volume, while still giving the reader the feeling that the plot is unfolding in an unhurried, natural way. This is quite tricky to pull off successfully, and one of the reasons why Yona of the Dawn always ends up at the top of my to-read pile as soon as it comes out.

Anonymous Noise Vol. 4

Anonymous Noise, Volume 4 by Ryoko Fukuyama

I feel a bit conflicted about this series. I found the first volume a bit uneven, but was gradually won over by all the performance scenes in the manga, even though some of the drama in the manga seems a bit far-fetched at times. This volume featured fewer performances, which maybe accounts for me feeling somewhat impatient in some of the plot resets that happened. In the first few pages of the book an event occurred that made me think, “Hell no!” and then I put the manga down and proceeded to read a few other things before picking it up again. Yuzu kisses Nino when she’s in the throes of emotional turmoil (her usual condition), and her reaction is to say “Don’t talk to me for awhile.”

Just a few pages later Yuzu clarifies that she was upset because she didn’t realize that being with her was causing Nino so much pain, and yet she continues to be fundamentally clueless about the idea that someone might have a crush on her. Yuzu promptly walks back on the idea that he has any romantic feelings for Nino, telling her that it is her voice that’s important to him. This type of emotional reset button with the storyline is what I find frustrating sometimes about this series. It just doesn’t seem like there’s a great deal of character change or growth five volumes in. In Everyone’s Getting Married, for example, no one is getting married, but the relationships between the main characters has grown and evolved so much over just a few volumes, I’m confident that the series is going somewhere, and all the drama will pay off for the reader in the end. I don’t have that same feeling for Anonymous Noise, but at the same time, it is still compelling to read.

Once I got past the romantic drama, I was able to settle down more with the secret backstory of the formation of Yuzu’s band. The next volume promises to have more of a focus on music, as everyone is gearing up for a battle of the bands. I think I enjoy this series most when it is emphasizing music more than romance, so I’m hoping for some dramatic scenes of Nino doing her rock star scream soon.

Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 3

The Water Dragon’s Bride, Volume 3 by Rei Toma

The story in The Water Dragon’s Bride has been unfolding at a measured pace, in the third volume Asahi and Subaru are almost all grown up. As they become more adults, this results in some increased tension with Asahi’s eventual destiny as the bride of the Water Dragon as well as her role as priestess for Subaru’s village.

The volume opens with a little bit of backstory showing Asahi filing her role of priestess as she moves through adolescence. Every year, there’s a ritual designed to gain the favor of the water god, and Asahi disappears under the waves for three days. Her encounters with the water god are first limited to staring, glaring, and finally smiling. The elemental gods still are fundamentally alien when compared with humans. The Water Dragon at least has figured out that he needs to feed his young human bride, so he calls over the Tree God to give her some supplies. I enjoyed seeing these visits from the perspective of both the Water Dragon and Asahi.

I think a lot about clarity of art when I read a Rei Toma series, but I’m always struck by how much she is able to do with simple character designs and sparse backgrounds. It is expected that expressive eyes count for a great deal in shoujo manga, but she’s able to convey so much in just a couple pages. Subaru, aware that both his mother and his sister are prejudiced against Asahi, turns away from his family thinking “…don’t disappoint me more any than this.” His face is half in shadow, and blank in a way that shows he’s hiding the tension and disgust he feels inside. As he walks away he smiles and waves. All of this is accomplished with just one line of dialogue and some great sequencing and paneling from Toma in a two page spread.

For a series with such lovely illustrations and a seemingly fantastic premise, one of the reasons why I enjoy The Water Dragon’s Bride is that it explores some dark territory, particularly focusing on the way humans are capable of great cruelty. While the first volume also lingered on Asahi’s inhumane treatment by the Water Dragon who was absolutely ignorant and uncaring of the ways humans can suffer, humans seem like the real source of evil in the world. In addition to the leering gazes and jealously in Subaru’s village that Asahi has to isolate herself from, her capabilities as a priestess attract the attention of a neighboring village and a war is launched. Watching these events with Asahi, the Water Dragon thinks all the humans are fools.

While for most of this volume Asahi seems to be placed in a Persephone role, going back and forth between water and the human world, there’s a narrative turn as Water Dragon decides to dwell with humans for a time. Toma is able to pack an incredible amount of story in a single volume of manga, making this a shoujo fantasy series that is extremely rewarding to the reader.

My Love Story!! Vol. 13

My Love Story!! Volume 13 by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko

I had postponed reading the final volume of this series because I didn’t want it to end, but my curiosity about the conclusion helped me deal with my final volume procrastination syndrome. The final story arc was set up previously, with impending separation between Takeo and Yamato. I’ve probably been watching too many k-dramas where a couple gets separated and then they meet again 3 years later, but one of the refreshing things about this manga is that it actually deals with the problems of long-distance relationships instead of just conveniently fading to black and glossing over the separation period.

One of the hallmarks of this series is that in addition to the interest created by having a hulking giant of a boy as the main character in a shoujo series, My Love Story!! is able to step through some conventions shoujo plot elements and make them seem fresh due to the way the manga is infused with so much enthusiasm and heart. When Yamato goes to Spain Takeo is determined to bring his grades up so they can eventually go to the same college. He throws himself into studying with Suna constantly at his side. The unique circumstances surrounding Takeo and Yamato’s provide an opportunity to visit again with characters from throughout the series, as it seems everywhere Takeo goes someone feels the need to encourage him in his epic romance.

There are some hilarious scenes as Takeo goes to Spain in order to visit Yamato, and while a manga series set in high school ending at the point when the characters are about to head off to college is extremely typical, My Love Story!!, as always, ends on a note of such infectious optimism that I put the book down with a smile. This is going to be one of those series I keep around and read whenever I need to cheer myself up.

Queen’s Quality, Vol. 1

Queen’s Quality Volume 1 by Kyousuke Motomi

I was very happy when I saw that Queen’s Quality was licensed shortly after the earlier series QQ Sweeper. Motomi has a quirky and slightly warped sense of humor that makes her shoujo series stand out. Queen’s Quality starts out at what felt like a faster pace than QQ Sweeper, as many of the plot points that were only dangling or hinted at in the earlier series get pushed forward dramatically in the first few chapters of this volume.

Fumi continues her life as an apprentice sweeper, learning the tricks of the paranormal trade from her friend Kyutaro and his family. While they practice cleaning everyday rooms and objects, they are also training for dealing with exorcising the demons that can get inside human hosts, causing them to act cruel. There’s a focus on personality and inner character in this series, as people who might be mentally weak or who have a tendency to be cruel end up leaving a door open for evil to get in, and their worst personality traits are magnified.

Another sweeper named Takaya Kitahara shows up to visit the Horikita family, and he provokes Fumi’s hidden Queen power as part of a test. Kyutaro is able to bring her back to herself, but seeing her power manifest is frightening. Kyutaro resolves to stay by Fumi to support her, but he’s told that he can’t ever remind her of the past that she’s forgotten, when they used to be childhood friends. Kyutaro’s response to this is to emotionally withdraw even more than usual, causing Fumi a great deal of distress as she doesn’t understand why he’s acting deliberately cold towards her. Fortunately his family has their best interests at heart, and they send the young couple on a mandatory and hilariously awkward shopping trip/date as an assignment, and their friendship is salvaged.

One thing I like about Motomi’s series is that there’s always a psychological element to be found in the stories, and they don’t rely quite as much on external situations or antagonists. While there are certainly forces at work trying to turn Fumi into an evil queen, the bad guys aren’t really as interesting as the fact that Fumi is going to have to draw on her emotional reserves and face the darkness that’s inside her, the same as any human. Fumi and Kyutaro talk at the end of the volume, and she asks if he’s afraid of her. He replies “Everyone has dark thoughts…or parts of themselves that they can’t control.” He vows that if she has to head into the darkness, he’s going too. This relationship dynamic is so interesting to see in a shoujo series, and it is why I’m so impressed with Queen’s Quality.