Butterfly Volume 1

I’m probably much harder to please with monster-hunting manga than any other subgenre. There’s just so much of it, it usually has to be both outstanding and irresistible to really catch my attention. Butterfly doesn’t really fit into this category for me, but there are a few things about it that make it quirky and potentially interesting. First of all, this series is actually seinen manga written by a woman. I have great fondness for other seinen by female authors like Soryo’s ES (Eternal Sabbath), so those publication details did make me more intrigued about the title. While this is a seinen series, it is set in high school with a male main character who is not all that great at school. Ginji refuses to write any career goals as he heads into his final months of school. His life is changed when he meets Ageha, an elementary school kid with glasses and long hair who promises to pay his debts if Ginji will work them off by doing some ghost busting.

Ginji hates the idea of ghost, but he’s haunted by an event that happened to his older brother. When Ageha suddenly appears before him, asking if he wants to “Go and kill…all the ghosts in the world together,” Ginji is extremely skeptical. He tags along on one of Ageha’s missions and finds out that the exorcisms he’s going to be involved in are a little different than he expects. It turns out that Ageha has the ability to manifest images of the things that haunt people, and Ginji has the ability to destroy them. So Ageha is effectively exorcising people’s worries and fears by giving them a form that Ginji battles with. Ageha and Ginji have complementary powers, but the way they work isn’t fully explained in the first volume. Ageha is a bit of a mysterious being as well, because while people tend to assume she’s a girl, others maintain that she’s a cross-dressing boy.

Aikawa’s art is clear and easy to follow during the action scenes, but lacks a unique style. I was fond of Ageha’s mannerisms, just because after reading The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako, I’m happy to see yet another glasses-wearing protagonist with social issues. While Butterfly didn’t totally win me over with the first volume I was intrigued by the idea that Ageha is manifesting people’s internal demons, and Ginji’s destruction of those illusions brings the afflicted some peace. I’m curious to see if some of the mysteries behind Ageha’s origin and the nature of the duo’s complementary powers are explored more in the next volume. I think that Butterfly would probably appeal most to older high school students and adults who want a slightly different spin on monster hunting manga.

Review copy provided by the publisher

Skyblue Shore Volumes 1 and 2

Are hot janitors a Thing? After reading Dengeki Daisy and Skyblue Shore, which both feature handsome yet tortured twentysomething janitors, I am now convinced that anyone who wants to find cute men in Japan needs to start staking out custodial closets in local high schools. Skyblue Shore is a fun shoujo manga, with some hints of darkness that keep it from being overly sweet.

Skyblue Shore Volume 1 by Nanpei Yamada

Tomo used to visit the beach daily as a little girl. One day she met a boy who gave her an agate that he found while beach combing. While she went back to the beach daily, she never saw him again. Years later, Tomo’s grown older and she’s left her love of the beach behind. She’s on her way to school when someone starts feeling her up on the bus. A tall, dark and handsome man notices what’s going on and throws the groper off the bus, yelling that no one is going to touch one of his students. He leaves behind a keychain that has the same type of agate that Tomo keeps as a souvenir. This is a fairly formulaic beginning to a manga. Stories about children who reconnect as teenagers are common but even while Skyblue Shore evokes plenty of shoujo cliches, it does so in a refreshing way. The teenage Tomo is a fairly typical shoujo heroine. She’s pretty, popular, and enthusiastic but considers herself average. What makes her stand out a bit from her character type is her tendency to exhibit a strong nurturing streak due to the fact that she’s had to take care of her flighty mother. Tomo stumbles across a sullen boy who has a hairtie that exhibits the same construction techniques as the mysterious stranger’s broken keychain. Ten offers to fix her keychain and she trails him back to a shack on the roof of the school. She barges in and finds an apartment furnished with things from the beach, with elaborate driftwood assemblages. Ten, is of course, the boy who gave Tomo the agate when they were children. While he figures out who she is fairly quickly, she doesn’t connect Ten with her long-lost friend. His older brother Riku is the junior janitor at the school who has a habit of defending high school girls from perverts.

The pairing of an enthusiastic girl and sullen boy can be found plenty of times in shoujo manga. But I enjoyed seeing the relationship between this particular couple in Skyblue Shore. Ten starts taking Tomo beachcombing, and she’s delighted to rediscover one of her favorite childhood pastimes. She exhibits the same degree of excitement about being on the beach that she had as a little girl, but what happened to change Ten from being a happy little boy to a prickly teenager who hides behind his hair? Tomo spends more time with Riku, and promptly develops a hopeless crush on him despite his tendency to treat her like a little sister. Ten clearly cares about Tomo too, so the classic love triangle is all set up. Tomo starts appearing by Ten’s side after school, asking if he’s found any treasures at the beach. When Ten tells Riku that he’s taken on Tomo as his apprentice beachcomber, he says “I think…she’s been waiting a long time for me.”

I enjoyed all the details about the sea that Yamada included. Ten shows Tomo how to bleach sand dollars, and you can practically smell the salty air when the characters go down to the beach. Yamada’s character designs are clean and attractive, and I like the way she varied the body types of the brothers. Riku is clearly more mature, with more of a weighty, adult look while it is clear that Ten and Tomo haven’t finished growing yet.

Skyblue Shore Volume 2 by Nanpei Yamada

Skyblue Shore might initially seem like a charming, slice of life shoujo series that is only differentiated from other similar manga by the beach setting. Where it starts to stand out is the theme of past psychological trauma and potential insanity that is interwoven with all of the nice scenes of Tomo and Ten hunting for agates. A dark female character with unhealthy ties to Riku is introduced in the person of Michiru, who only sporadically attends school. When she comes back she definitely doesn’t approve of Tomo and Riku’s friendship. Tomo observes some close encounters between Riku and Michiru, and is dismayed. While Riku doesn’t cross any lines, it is obvious that they have a shared history and Michiru seems very emotionally damaged. Ten can see straight through Michiru and warns Tomo to be careful of who she makes friends with. Riku shares the fact that he and Ten lost their sister to the sea when Tomo almost drowns. She comforts him, and he asks her to be a good friend to Ten and Michiru. She starts to treat Michiru like a bit of a project, trying to bring her out of her shell and getting her to socialize with some of the other students. When Michiru stops coming to school, Tomo gets her to come by using the only threat she can. She says “Unless you drag your lazy carcass to school, I’m going to claim Riku for myself!”

Riku and Ten are clearly emotionally damaged by their loss, even though Riku might seem to do a better job of appearing normal. It doesn’t seem quite fair for Tomo to be put in the position of emotional caretaker for her group of friends. The blend of slice-of-life stories inter cut with past revelations of tragedy reminded me a little bit of Oyayubihime Infinity without the fantasy elements. Skyblue Shore is only six volumes long, and I’m curious to see if the characters actually manage to work through their various emotional issues and achieve some form of happiness.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Gatcha Gacha Volumes 5 and 6

Now that the final volume has come out, I’m catching up with the last half of the series. The more I read of Gatcha Gacha, the more I like it. It combines a certain gleeful trashiness with some affecting emotional moments. It also can occasionally be genuinely weird. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this series to someone who feels burnt-out on typical shoujo manga. I can’t imagine myself being so entertained by the worn out storyline of a character coming back from the dead with amnesia in any other series. Yuri and Yabe are dating, and he’s cleaned up his act by transforming into a proper looking Japanese boy. The blond hair is gone, as is the weedy looking goatee. While Yuri might be momentarily blissfully happy with her new love, trouble lurks on the horizon in the person of Kanako, a girl who looks just like Motoko’s deceased crazy sister. Yabe is shaken by his dead girlfriend’s doppelganger. Hirao watches this unfold from the sidelines, and while he’s still nursing feelings for Yuri he tells her that he’ll support her and Yabe however he can.

Kanako is of course Motoko’s sister, but her amnesia has left her unable to remember Yabe. Here is where Tachibana goes for the kill, because seeing Yabe’s conflicted expressions when he looks at her is just gut-wrenching. Kanako was farmed out to some distant relatives who have raised her as a foster daughter. The amnesia has caused her twisted personality to fade, leaving behind a rather sweet girl who still manages to be violent through subconscious reflex actions. Gatcha Gacha being Gatcha Gacha, issues between characters seem to be resolved through gang beat downs that lead to people talking about their feelings instead of non-violent confrontation. Kanako is kidnapped by a bunch of goons, and Motoko and Yabe go to rescue her. Yuri knows that as Yabe leaves, he’s also leaving her. She begs him not to go and he says “I know if I stayed and really learned to love you…I know I could finally be happy. But…I’m sorry. I’m not that good of a man.”

Tachibana does what few manga creators are capable of by making her main female character simultaneously an object of ridicule and sympathy for the reader. Yuri is left alone yet again, crying to the heavens “Will I ever be happy?” She’s absolutely silly and it is hard not to root for her to eventually be happy even though her basic personality is that of a happy cute puppy dog who keeps getting kicked around but still comes back for more.

Volume six starts with a return to the status quo. Kanako has regained her memory and is acting as crazily possessive of her sister and Yabe as ever. She starts to target Yuri but is warned off by Motoko in dramatic fashion. Hirao sees that Yuri may be losing her hair due to stress and he goes to extreme lengths to hide her tiny bald spot, running to a department store to buy a hairstick and devising a new hairstyle for her in an attempt to cover it up so Yuri and other people don’t know about it. He finally tells Yuri his feelings, and she begins to wonder if she can ever be attracted to him. He seems perfect, but she only feels any sort of chemistry with losers and jerks. Is the ultimate bad boy for Yuri actually Motoko? She continues to dress more masculine and rampages around like she always does. Yuri comments to Motoko that she’s physically incapable of being attracted to nice guys and says “What does it say about you that if you were a guy, I’d ask you out in a heartbeat?” Motoko’s face goes absolutely still and then she carries on the conversation with a smile.

The new, forthright Hirao might actually be enough of a loser to inspire feelings of attraction from Yuri when she finally spots him doing something loser-like. Hirao and Yabe begin to act a little more friendly towards each other. I’m not confident that a relationship between Yuri and Hirao will work out, but that’s the way things seem to be headed for now. Even though Gatcha Gacha is very much a shoujo series, Tachibana’s unique and darkly cynical sensibility makes it seem refreshing. With the two main female characters not being afraid to indulge in violence, it is actually fairly entertaining to see just Yuri slap Kanako across the face for being a brat, instead of slinking off to wallow in hurt feelings. When Tachibana’s characters do talk about their feelings, they are amazingly blunt and forthright. There are only two more volumes left for me to read, and I’m a little disappointed that Gatcha Gacha only lasted for eight volumes. I’m looking forward to the end, but I have no idea what to expect. With most shoujo series I pretty much know how the relationships will play out by the end. I’m really not sure what Tachibana is going to do next, and that’s a large part of Gatcha Gacha’s appeal.

Made in Heaven: Kazemichi and Juri

Made in Heaven: Kazemichi and Made in Heaven: Juri by Ami Sakurai and Yukari Yashiki

Since I am a woman in her 30s I tend to cherish any manga that I stumble across that looks like it is aimed towards an older female audience. I’m not sure about where Made in Heaven was originally published, but it passes my personal test for josei since it features characters that aren’t in school who happen to have sex. Made in Heaven is a moody sci-fi romance. While I think that sometimes execution problems hampered the authors’ ambitions, this two volume series is worth picking up if you are looking for something a little different from the typical shoujo fare. It was published by Tokyopop in 2006, and I can see it fitting in well with some of the other early josei titles from that publisher.

Made In Heaven: Kazemichi
starts out with the main character being in a horrific bike accident. He wakes up only to find out that his body was almost completely destroyed, and he’s been rebuilt with an artificial body. Kazemichi feels disconnected from the world, but he begins to find another reason to take interest in his surroundings when he meets a slightly older woman named Juri. One of the things I liked about this title was the casual way it was established that it takes place slightly in the future. Kazemichi’s surgery is impossible, and people dote on artificial pets that have the same type of fake skin that now covers him. Kazemichi and Juri bond over their pets and the way they both seem to not entirely exist for other people. Juri is known for being expressionless, but Kazemichi tells her that he can see her emotions on her face.

There’s a general feeling of impending doom throughout the book, as Kazemichi only has a little while to live until his artificial body wears out. He was able to get the expensive surgery because he’s essentially been sold as a test subject by his adoptive family. Kazemichi’s broken home, problems with the corporation that resurrected him, and his habit of keeping his problems secret from Juri point to an unhappy ending for the lovers. The art for the series features attractive character designs, but their facial expressions seem a little static. While this theoretically fits with Juri and Kazemichi’s personalities, there’s also so much facial fractions going on in the paneling for the manga where the reader only sees a half or quarter of a face that I think it is due more to artistic limitation than deliberate effect. This isn’t the type of manga to read if you are expecting a clear, linear plot. Elements of Kazemichi’s past like his occasional forays into male prostitution, his relationship with his half-sister, and the desire of the medical company to data mine Kazemichi’s body are mentioned but not fully explored. All of this adds up to a general feeling of melancholy, but nothing is fully explored.

The narrative aspect of this series that I found most interesting was the shifting point of view between volumes. When Kazemichi is gone, Juri is left on her own to piece together the mystery of his life in Made in Heaven: Juri. She works as a psychologist for the police department, and when she’s called in to figure out what happened in an inexplicable death that seemed to involve a machine exploding along with human remains she finds out the truth about Kazemichi. She’s left with regrets because they never really discussed their feelings, she always thought being in his presence was enough.

The mystery investigation aspect of this volume wasn’t as interesting to me as Juri’s emotional journey. She’s dedicated to finding out whatever she can about Kazemichi because she doesn’t want to let him go. A complicating factor is the way the company responsible for his existence captured his brain waves, meaning they have the ability to use aspects of his personality as they further develop prototypes that push the boundaries of artificial intelligence. Juri encounters robots that have an uncanny resemblance to her dead lover. She attacks it, thinking “I am not leaving…until I let you return back to nothing. If you no longer have a soul…I don’t think I can bear for you to even be seen again.” In the end, Juri finds a form of peace as she begins to understand Kazemichi more, and his meticulous planning allows her to gain a sense of emotional resolution.

I wondered what this series would have been like if there had been a little bit more space to tell the story. Still, I liked having Kazemichi and Juri each tell their stories, and I wish the narrative device of multiple points of view was used more often in manga. People who like having every loose end tied up at the end of a series might find these two volumes frustrating to read, but I enjoyed the melancholy tone of Made in Heaven. I’d recommend this short series for anyone pining for more josei to read.

Demon Sacred Volume 3

Demon Sacred Volume 3 by Natsumi Itsuki

I absolutely love this series. The third volume wasn’t quite as crazy as the first two, but some good stuff happens. We get to see melancholy teen idol Keito’s reaction to meeting his demon doppleganger K2 and learn that Shinobu, hot young doctor and guardian to mystical teen twin girls has an Evil! Adoptive! European! Family! in his past. I feel somehow like this manga should come packaged with a musical microchip to play suitable dramatic music during these important plot revelations.

Nothing good can happen when a doppleganger takes the place of a teen idol in a photo shoot and manages to produce better pictures. Keito is amazed and disturbed when he sees photos of K2, and a little worried about his livelihood because the photographer is saying that he doesn’t need any other subjects for the rest of his life. Keito tracks down K2 at Mona and Rina’s house, and the teens begin to hash out this case of mistaken idol identity. Mona learns that Keito has been orphaned by return syndrome too. He sent his parents on a celebratory trip when he made it big, and they disappeared after encountering demons. Mona’s hesitant about telling Keito the truth about K2, but they end up forming an alliance after Mona explains about the increased numbers of demons, the possible government involvement, and her desire to cure Rina’s return syndrome. Itsuki continues to do a great job with characterization for two people that look the same but have totally different personalities. Keito is mature and a little bit withholding and glum, which is at odds with his job. K2 is a dangerous 5000 year old little kid with a severe case of puppy love. When Mona hugs him and tells him she’s glad to see him when he shows up just in time to fend off a demon attack, he’s delighted.

Shinobu has plenty of problems to deal with when he is abruptly called into work due to his malicious European adoptive siblings suddenly showing up to find out how he’s doing with the family business. It turns out that tortured scientist Shinobu is tortured because his evil blond brother Helmut abused him so badly as a young child, he lost his memory of the abuse. Now nothing is left but Shinobu’s severe repulsion whenever he has to look at Helmut’s angelic Aryan face. Shinobu has a few other evil European siblings but the one that seems like the most trouble next to Helmut is the bitchy Zophie, who quickly susses out the woman at work who has a crush on her Japanese brother, makes some horribly cutting comments, and figures out that Shinobu’s research interests are not what they seem. She really is amazingly efficient.

I put down this volume amazed at the sheer amount of plot Itzuki was able to cram into 200 pages. I didn’t even mention the way the group dealt with the pesky Griffin that’s been bothering them, and the hints about demon/human chain relations and the nature of K2’s power. Sometimes Demon Sacred has passages here and there that rely a little too much on exposition, but the world that Itsuki is building is so interesting, I don’t mind it at all. Demon Sacred‘s combination of cute guys, plucky in the face of tragedy teen girls, and wacky fantasy complete with conspiracy theories is so compelling. I can’t wait for the next volume.