V.B. Rose Volume #11

V.B. Rose Volume 11 Banri Hidaka

My first impulse is to steer clear of long running series, just because I’ve long since entered double-stacking territory on the bookshelves that house my manga collection. But VB Rose #11 reminded me of some of the rewards for the reader that come with sticking it out for a multi-volume series. This volume shows the middle school adventures of Yukari and Mitsuya, and if I hadn’t read the previous volumes to see the ways they banter back and forth as adults I probably wouldn’t have appreciated this manga origin story so much.

Ageha asks the friends how long they’ve known each other and Mitsuya enthusiastically announces that it has been 10 years since they first met, “We’ve almost made it to our diamond anniversary!” What follows is an extended flashback as Mitsuya describes the beginning of their friendship to an enthusiastic Ageha. Mitsuya uses his charm to always be the center of attention at school. One day he notices Yukari sitting alone, and assumes that he hasn’t notices Yukari before because he is so unremarkable. When Mitsuya takes a closer look at Yukari he realizes that “He’s criminally cute!” Mitsuya promptly develops a strong man-crush but all of his attempts to get to know Yukari are mercilessly rebuffed until he finds a fashion pattern book that Yukari left at school. Mitsuya spends the evening reading the book and goes to V.B. Rose to return it because Yukari’s been out of school due to an illness. It turns out that the sickness was helping his father with an important order for the wedding dress business. Yukari’s sewing at a professional level, but his pattern making still needs a lot of work. It turns out that Mitsuya’s drawing abilities give him the talent to be a great pattern maker. Yukari and Mitsuya develop a friendship, and Mitsuya is brought into the V.B. Rose family.

There’s always been a slightly manic quality to Mitsuya’s flirting and joking personality. It turns out that this is a carefully crafted facade, as he was horribly disappointed in love many years before and has deliberately shut off his feelings. Being needed at the shop and developing a deeper friendship with Yukari allows him to come out of his shell a little bit, but the revelation about the true object of Mitsuya’s affections sets up a storyline that I’m very eager to see resolved in the next volume. Hidaka’s middle school versions of Mitsuya and Yukari are extra adorable, and the emotional arc of this volume will make fans of the series fall in love with it all over again.

Karakuri Odette Volume 5

Karakuri Odette Volume 5 by Julietta Suzuki

Once again Suzuki manages to come up with an absolutely adorable cover. I love the way Odette looks so surprised as she’s dancing with the Professor. The fifth volume contrasts old and new friendships as well as different levels of emotional development. Odette’s super strength has been exhibited at school before, and this time Odette overhears a student calling her “Gorilla Girl.” Shirayuki explains “Many men don’t like admitting that a woman is stronger than them. Some of them like the idea of protecting a fragile girl. If that’s what makes a girl cute in their eyes…then a strong girl like you Odette…might not get many cute points.” Odette is depressed about not being thought of as cute due to her strength. Later on she gets trapped with Asao in a storage shed. He’s fully aware of her robot abilities and asks her to break down the door for him. Odette sits with her hands folded in her lap and says it is impossible because she’s never lifted anything heavier than a pair of chopsticks. Asao has grown into the role of Odette’s mentor on being human. He asks her if she’s sitting trapped in a shed because it is something she wants to do, and points out that she isn’t weak. He challenges her, saying “Instead of worrying how people see you, isn’t how you see yourself more important?” Odette concludes that she’s better off using her skills and kicks the door down.

The rest of the volume focuses on two of Odette’s male robot counterparts and her reactions to them. Reformed assassin robot Chris is repaired and waiting to meet Odette again. A side story shows the mission of one of Chris’ brothers as he gets sent to assassinate a professor and instead finds himself forging a strong emotional connection with his target’s young daughter. While the Chris model might not outwardly show emotion very much, it is evident from his actions that he does have deep feelings. Odette encounters a new advanced robot named Travis. He’s arrogant and demanding, but obviously similar to Odette in his almost human-like mannerisms. Odette is so delighted to meet another robot, she doesn’t seem to notice Travis’ more sociopathic tendencies. Travis announces that he’s in Japan to look for a bride, but Odette is oblivious about the fact that she’s the only eligible teenage girl robot around.

Odette has mixed feelings about Chris coming back. He’s extremely popular at school, and her classmates make a big fuss about his return. Odette compares the blank-faced Chris with her new friend Travis and loses patience with him. While Odette has her moments of selfishness, they seem to be the type of emotions experienced by a toddler, which is probably how old Odette actually is. She’s very aware of her own feelings but not tuned in to the effect her words and actions have on others. Asao again serves as her conscience when she abandons Chris. When she tells Asao that Chris doesn’t understand her, he challenges her by yelling “So do you claim you understand him?” Asao’s opinion matters the most to Odette and she begins to realize the consequences of her actions.

Odette seems to seesaw between working through teenage issues like self-image and cuteness or the issues of a young child like selfishness and being able to empathize with others. It strikes me that when Odette is contrasted with Travis, the development of the human-like qualities in the robots is a direct reflection of their creators. Travis’ creator wants to find a bride for Travis only to further his dream of developing the ideal robot. When The Professor is asked to give up Odette he reacts with the same horror a loving parent would experience if asked to give up a human baby. Since this is the next to the last volume, I’m curious to see how Suzuki will conclude this series. Karakuri Odette has always been episodic in nature, but Odette has gradually grown more emotional as the series progressed. I don’t think I’m expecting a grand exciting conclusion, but it would be nice to see Odette find some sort of peace with her half- artificial/half-human nature.

The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako

The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako by Ririko Tsujita Volume 1

This manga mash-up of Harriet the Spy and Mean Girls ends up being a great read due to a uniquely acerbic heroine and the unexpected friendships that she finds. It is obvious that The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako was originally intended to be a stand-alone short story that was expanded later on because the first chapter has a very self-contained conclusion. Kanako holds herself apart from her classmates because she’s entertained by the idea of being the perfect outside observer. Her notebook is full of detailed notes about the behavior and secrets of the kids that surround her even though they don’t really know she exists. The focus of her current research are the boys and girl that are the most popular students in the school. Haru is the most handsome boy in school, but his beauty is combined with a somewhat sadistic personality. The prettiest girl in school is Momoka, who is nursing a crush on Haru. Haru encourages her crush just because he wants to see Tota, the boy who is hopelessly in love with Momoka, squirm in agony. Kanako sits back and watches the drama unfold, but her notes are discovered and she soon finds herself growing closer to her observation subjects than she originally intended.

Kanako finds herself gradually won over by Momoka’s innocent gestures of friendship and her stoic response to bullying from the other girls in the class. Since Momoka won’t do anything to defend herself, Kanako decides to take over the PA system to announce that the bullying better stop or she’ll reveal everyone’s darkest secrets. Tota thinks Kanako’s direct way of speaking is cool and he begins to look up to her. Haru’s snarky personality and tendency to call Kanako out on her behavior makes him a great foil. Haru is tall, dark, and conventionally handsome while Kanako is drawn as a very short girl who is always peering over her glasses with a knowing smirk on her face. Haru comments to Kanako that she’s strong, and “It’d be more interesting if all the girls were like you.”

One aspect of this manga I was initially unsure of was the portrayal of female friendships. It is fairly typical for there to be plenty of backstabbing and bitchiness in shoujo manga, and it gets repetitive after awhile. I’m also a little tired of reading stories aimed at girls where the normal behavior of other females is constantly portrayed so negatively. But The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako manages to avoid getting trapped in cliche. Kanako prides herself on seeing through all facades. She transfers from school to school to maintain her prized outsider status and when she hears a someone comment on a nice girl, she thinks to herself “Sweet girls like her? You’re awfully gullible.” Kanako’s observational habits end up uncovering secrets at her new school, but instead of becoming an enemy of the two-faced girl that was the object of her studies they end up becoming unexpected allies, bonding over the fact that they both have twisted personalities. Kanako says that she observes because she doesn’t need friendships, but she usually ends up helping the people she watches. She doesn’t tolerate hypocrisy, and she celebrates the quirky behavior that other students find off-putting.

There’s an element of knowing cynicism in Kanako’s personality that is really refreshing for someone who’s been reading a lot of shoujo manga that features sweet but ditsy heroines. In many ways Kanako is the exact opposite of the typical shoujo heroine, but she does display a few moments of softness when encountering the first friends she’s made in school. Haru occasionally pops up in a chapter here and there to tease Kanako, and she returns to her first school at the end of the volume for the cultural festival. She finds out that while she prides herself on observation, her old friends were actually watching her and use their knowledge to try to do something special for her.

This manga isn’t perfect, as there are repetitive introductions at the start of every chapter and the episodic nature of the manga actually made me wish for more Haru/Kanako interaction. I was surprised to read in the author notes that this was Tsujita’s first volume of manga, because she managed to create such a compelling heroine on the first try. This series is only three volumes long, and is worth picking up if you’re looking for shoujo that manages to combine cynicism with sweetness.

Silver Diamond Volumes 6 and 7

Silver Diamond is one of those series I think of as being a bit under the radar. I don’t see many posts about it on manga blogs, and this shonen ai manga itself is a bit odd, since it focuses on the adventures of a boy who can magically grow plants as he journeys to another world and all the cute men who enjoy hugging him. Sometimes I’m not sure if I can hang on for another 13+ volumes, but then I pick up a volume of this manga and I’m reminded again how much I like Sugiura’s creative world building and cozy atmosphere.

Silver Diamond Volume 6 by Shiho Sugiura

The sixth volume of this manga shows the demonic ayame prince (who looks suspiciously like green-thumbed hero Rakan) issuing a new prophecy: a god of death will bring new calamities on the desert world, but the people will persevere as long as they continue supporting him. The prophecy is issued as a response to the presence of Rakan, whose sanome powers to make plants grow have the potential to make the world green again. Rakan and his companions are journeying with a group of lost boys who were cast off from their families. Rakan is furious at the implied threat from the prince, and his anger manifests itself as a field of glowing flowers. Cut off from their new followers, Rakan, Senroh, Narushige, and Tohno continue to march towards the capital.

Silver Diamond Volume 7 by Shiho Sugiura

I liked the seventh volume a little more just because there was more wacky plant action and hugging, which are the main features I have come to expect from Silver Diamond. Rakan wakes up to find Narushige holding his hand, telling him to “get out of there.” The “there” in question is Senroh’s arms, who calmly announces that he decided to be Rakan’s pillow. The group is taking shelter in a storehouse with some unique seeds. Rakan is able to create plant-fences and plant-spiral-staircases with some of the preserved seeds. The domestic idyll ends quickly when an assassin from the prince sends in lizard-dogs made of stone and controlled by mystical garnets to kill Rakan.

Senroh takes care of things, aided by a plant rifle that Rakan grows quickly. One of the nice things about Silver Diamond is the cool action scenes. It was fun to see Senroh spring into action as a sniper with his dark glasses and vine entwined rifle. The stone lizard-dogs look appropriately mindless and creepy. The assassin confronts the group, and we see that there is at least one person Rakan can fail to charm. Finally, we get a female to join Rakan’s revolution as a giant stone-eating wolf decides to take up with the group after she dines on the assassin’s lizard dogs. Rakan welcomes her with the same openness that has won over his other companions in the past. Cute animal sidekicks is a plot element that Sugiura seems to specialize with. I wonder how the cynical snake Koh will get along with Kuro, who just seems to have a crush on every human boy she meets.

Even though Rakan and his companions are launching a rebellion against a prince and his cronies who have mystical powers of their own, Silver Diamond has a certain lack of urgency that I find relaxing as opposed to boring. The constant affirmation of friendship and the unique details of Sugiura’s fantasy world remain interesting, even if the general plot might be a little less drawn-out if this manga was being produced by a different author.

Black Gate Volumes 1-3

Black Gate Volumes 1-3 by Yukiko Sumiyoshi

Usually I love omnibus editions because they give me a good excuse to devour two or more volumes of manga in an afternoon. I found it hard to get excited about Black Gate, an omnibus of a complete 3 volume series that features attractive art that is hampered by a lack of compelling storytelling. In Black Gate, there are light and dark gates that exert a powerful influence on human spirits. When someone is ready to die, they naturally go through a gate into the next world. Black gates are malign forces that try to take human souls too soon. Mitedamashi have the power to seal gates. Senju is a guardian to Hijiri, a rather bratty boy with a powerful mystical heritage. The fate of humankind may hang in the balance as Hijiri finds out the secret of his past, but will he be mature enough to harness his natural power?

One of the more unfortunate aspects of Black Gate is the lack of real character development. Hijiri’s main mode of expression is irresponsible brat, and while he exhibits a little bit of character growth he mostly remains static. Senju is haunted by the death of Hijiri’s parents, but he keeps plugging away at his part-time job (being a gatekeeper pays very little) and raising Hijiri as best he can. I found Senju a more compelling protagonist than Hijiri, so I was disappointed when he abruptly disappears for a long stretch of the book. Senju is replaced in Hijiri’s life by the sudden appearance of the Sugawara cousins, a pair of teen boys who also serve as guardians. Hijiri struggles to become a gate keeper himself and he tries to partner up with with Michizane, the half brother of one of the guardian cousins. The second and third volume become weighted down with a bit of plot mish mash involving a gate keeper serial killer, spirit possession, inadvertent immortality, and a struggle between the human and spirit worlds.

I usually tend to enjoy manga with themes like Black Gate, but I found it hard to get interested in this manga because Sumiyoshi tends to gloss over character development. None of her characters have terribly unique personalities, and the protagonist Hijiri isn’t very nuanced. I found myself not really caring what was going to happen to Hijiri, and that made it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for this manga. Sumiyoshi’s art is slick and competent, and she has a knack for creating attractive character designs. I really wish she’d been partnered with a different author because I think the work would have been so much better if the art was created in service to a more interesting story. I tend to place a little more importance on story than art when reading manga, but the art has to be absolutely gorgeous for me to overlook dull storytelling. Biomega might be incoherent, but it has the advantages of lovely art and a gimmicky supporting character that I adore. Bride of the Water God is gorgeous, and relies more on mood and extra pretty characters than story. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough in Black Gate to compensate for its narrative shortcomings. I read all three volumes of Black Gate, hoping the story would get better and I ended up disappointed. Someone who reads manga primarily for the art might find Black Gate much more fun than I did.

Review copy provided by the publisher.