Yona of the Dawn, Vol 18

Yona of the Dawn Volume 18 by Mizuho Kusanagi

At long last, a Zeno volume! I’m going to attempt to talk around some major spoilers, but I found this volume both immensely satisfying and surprising. Zeno, as the smiling and enigmatic Yellow Dragon has always been a bit apart from Yona and the rest of her companions. He just pops up one day without much backstory, and his power of regeneration as a shield in battle was hidden for many volumes. Now the reader finally sees his power unleashed, and I wasn’t expecting Kusanagi to take a detour into action-centric body horror, but she certainly did. As Zeno is hurt and regenerates, he is able to tap into powers of strength that were previously undemonstrated but he does so at a great personal cost. In the hands of a lesser artist, his stand on the battlefield would be much more difficult to execute.

Most of this volume ends up being an extended flashback where we see the original four dragons and the Crimson Dragon King. Kusanagi is so clever with character designs, body language, and expressions, we can see how traces of the original dragon warriors remain in their reincarnated versions in Yona’s present day. In the end, the reader is left feeling like Zeno is fully integrated into the group, knowing the hidden meaning behind his smiles that initially seemed too easy. The depth of story that Kusanagi has built up over 18 volumes is considerable, I’m always putting each volume of Yona of the Dawn wondering how it is going to get even better, and it never fails to deliver.

The Water Dragon’s Bride, Vol. 9

The Water Dragon’s Bride has always explored issues of humans using religion to justify terrible actions, and this is brought home even more when a god who is actively seeking to meddle gets turned loose. The Water Dragon God’s aloof personality and general lack of interest in humanity other than Asahi was a bit of a protective factor for humans. The God of Darkness, with his damaged human sidekick Kurose has nothing holding him back from some active and severe meddling.

I appreciate the way that Toma has developed Kurose’s character. The intense trauma that he’s experienced in the past gives more context for his turn towards darkness, and although he’s an antagonist for Asahi he’s much more complex than a typical villain. The God of Darkness is portraying the other gods as weak by inventing a Sun God for the humans to worship. By covering up the sun temporarily with darkness, and then letting the sun shine again, the humans are led to dismiss the Water Dragon God as evil and ineffectual. The emperor gets dethroned and Asahi wants to aid him, but she’s again a target of hatred for the humans.

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Kogahiko shows how malicious the combination of human and an evil god can be, even more than Kurose, as he deliberately manipulates everyone around him through the God of Darkness in order to get more political power. He still sees a use for Asahi, as a way of bolstering his new position by parading her in front of his subjects. Throughout this volume the Water Dragon God’s protectiveness and attitude towards Asahi is striking. When she asks him to forgo using his powers he complies, but his affection for Asahi ensures that he’ll find a way to protect her. As always, Toma’s deceptively simple art makes the most of the symbolism in this volume, as the humans turn towards the darkness in the guise of worshiping the sun. The Water Dragon’s Bride is surely one of the most philosophical shoujo series that I’ve read, which is also why it is a series I can see returning to and rereading in future years.

Yona of the Dawn, Vol 17.

Yona of the Dawn Volume 17 by Mizuho Kusanagi

I’m always curious when a new arc of Yona of the Dawn starts, because Kusanagi manages to create situations and plot elements that seem new and fresh in the context of a long-running series. At the same time she continues to explore themes that are present throughout the series with more depth, like Yona grappling with the legacy of her father’s lack of consideration and thought for the people who he used to rule.

Yona and her companions head towards the border of Kai, where they meet a young boy named Kalgan who proposes marriage to Yona after she shoots a bird to provide him with with some money. Kalgan wandered over from the Kai empire and is stranded, so Yona decides to escort him back to his village, a border town that has been fought over between Kai and Kohka for years. Yona’s Dragon Warriors begin to fall ill, and they need to recuperate for a time in the village where most of the residents are deeply suspicious of them. War is drawing near as well, as Su-Won and his army start to attack the Kai empire.

So far, most of the Dragon Warriors have gotten some solid character development and backstory in Yona of the Dawn, but Zeno has largely been an enigma. This volume finally showcases his unique abilities and role as Yona’s protector. For the Hak fans (and who isn’t a Hak fan!?) there are some great scenes of him taking on a wayward army, determined to take out their anger at losing a battle on innocent civilians. As Yona learns more and more about the dark side of human nature, she becomes more resolute about helping people. I’m curious to see how she manages to resolve the current crisis, I’m not sure if even she can pull of pacifying an angry army. This series is consistently rewarding to read, and one of the best fantasy shoujo series that Shojo Beat has published.

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.

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.