March Comes in Like a Lion, Vol 1

March Comes in Like a Lion Volume 1 by Chica Umino

March Comes in Like a Lion was one of the releases I was most anticipating this year, and it was so worth the wait. The opening panels show Rei Kiriyama waking up, getting ready, going to a shogi hall, playing a game against a man he knows. Throughout this introduction Rei says nothing, and the panels of the shogi game are intercut with scenes from Rei’s childhood. When Rei wins the game and his opponent gets up and mentions that he and his family members are worried for him, Rei waits until he’s alone to say “Liar.” Rei then heads home, just as isolated, but he’s interrupted by a flurry of texts and goes over to the Kawamoto sisters’ house, where he’s immediately enveloped in a warm family gathering.

March Comes in like a Lion

Umino balances portraying isolation, trauma, and depression with great skillfulness and moments of humor. She packs in so many slice of life character development vignettes into just a few panels. I appreciated the shonen battle stylings of Nikaido, who proclaims himself Rei’s rival and soon-to-become best friend. Rei goes to the hostess bar where Akari Kawamoto works with some other shogi players, and she cheerfully manipulates his companions into promising to look after Rei. Rei’s background is shown through a series of non-linear flashbacks, and while by the end of the first volume the reader has a sense of what has caused Rei to be so isolated, it is certain that there will be plenty more revelations ahead. One thing I really enjoyed is that the relationship between Rei and the Kawamoto sisters isn’t one sided – Rei also supports the sisters in his own quiet way.

Denpa’s production quality is excellent, with extras like french flaps and a color fold-out poster included at the start of the volume, which makes the manga feel like a bit more of a special collector’s edition. I also appreciated the essays about shogi that accompanied the story. I’m all in for this manga and seeing how Rei’s journey unfolds.

Matcha Made in Heaven, Vols 1-4

Matcha Made in Heaven, Volumes 1-4 by Umebachi Yamanaka

I need to get over my tendencies of forgetting to keep up with digital only releases, I am bad enough about unread manga when I have piles of it to remind me of my backlog, but I’m even worse when it comes to digital releases. However, sometimes a series is so charming that it sizes my attention, I overcome my usual inertia, and I end up absolutely delighted. This was the case with Matcha Made in Heaven!

Chako is a fairly typical big-city dweller, making her way through life, engaged to be married until she starts having reactions to being surrounded by sexism. When she sees her future Mother-in-Law wiping off her fiance’s feet her immediate feelings of revulsion (and the fact that her fiance is seriously creepy) has her fleeing to the countryside to her family’s traditional tea farm. Chako has been out of touch with her family for some time, so she’s a bit startled when she runs across a little girl named Futaba and a giant stern man named Isshin who demands to know what she’s doing in the house. It turns out that Isshin has taken over the family tea business while Chako’s brother works as a writer on the side to earn extra income. Being a writer apparently means abandoning all household duties, as Isshin is basically acting as Futuba’s guardian as well as working in the fields. He makes a comment about how Chako’s not going to be suited to working on her family’s farm and her instinct to rage against sexism and prove him wrong is awakened

matcha made in heaven

Chako’s mysterious yet terrible ex-fiancee shows up at the farm, and in attempt to dodge him, she leaps onto Isshin as he drives a tractor in the fields with Futaba, claiming that he’s her husband. Futuba is absolutely delighted by this development and obviously not over the death of her mother and her absentee father, so Isshin and Chako agree to go through the motions of having a fake marriage. This also has the benefit of all of the neighbors backing off a little bit from trying to set Isshin up. A fake marriage of convenience isn’t a terribly surprising story to structure a multi-volume manga around, but Yamanaka’s execution is top notch. Futuba is an amusing combination of needy 4 year-old and an old soul who is filled with delight about Chako and Isshin’s slowly developing relationship. Isshin is passionate and expressive only about tea, but Chako finds herself more and more charmed by him as she gets to know him.

matcha made in heaven

A fake marriage is nothing without additional obstacles to overcome, and they appear in Chako’s old friend Jin and Isshin’s ex-girlfriend who happens to be the heir to a tea conglomerate. The art is expressive and delicate, with Isshin’s normally stoic expressions only shifting when he’s enraptured by tea or utterly perplexed at how to react to Chako’s presence in his life. I enjoyed the slice-of-life aspect to Match Made in Heaven combined with all the details of tea farming, blending tea, going to markets and trying to salvage a struggling family business. I recommended this series for those who like uncomplicated josei romance.

Harlequin Manga: Valentines, Revenge, and Secrets

Sometimes when reading one wants the equivalent of a decadent Sacher-Torte and other times one might want is a Ho Ho Snack Cake. Is Harlequin manga good? Could the question essentially be meaningless? Sometimes the combination of hackneyed plot tropes and rushed manga adaptations comes together to produce something extraordinary, although most of the time I tend to find it adequate and that’s ok! Sometimes you just want to eat a Ho Ho or read a Harlequin manga. There’s fortunately plenty of selection available on Kindle Unlimited and here are three that I’ve read recently in honor of Valentine’s Day:

Valentine Vendetta by Sharon Kendrick and Miho Tomoi

Valentine Vendetta is the story of a successful party planner named Fran Fisher. Her alcoholic friend Rosie claimed to have been callously used for sex by Sam Lockhart. Rosie wants to be smuggled into a party that Fran is planning so she can confront this terrible womanizer. When Fran shows up at Sam’s house she’s a bit surprised that he’s living in a mansion in the country as a literary agent. Even more mysterious is the fact that Sam is sporting some unconvincing stubble in the first few panels that introduce him, but then he leaves Fran to take a call and comes back clean-shaven. Was he really taking a phone call? What happened with his beard? I honestly spent most of this manga speculating about stubble and wondering when it was coming back only for that mystery to remain unresolved. Sam drives Fran to the train station, and she’s immediately attracted to the messy state of the backseat of his car, it doesn’t match up with the playboy image she has in her head.
Fran just learns how wrong her assumptions were when Rosie and a pack of other women show up and cause a scene at Sam’s Valentine’s Party, and it turns out that they are all upset because they were essentially stalking him! Fran’s put her party planning business on the line for some extremely questionable reasons! Sam however keeps popping up in Fran’s life, she learns more about him and his family and eventually falling in love with him! Miho Tomoi’s adaptation is clear and easy to follow, but I would have appreciated a bit more visual interest, just because the plotline of this title was fairly bland. I wanted more vendettas!

Valentine Vendetta

Alexei’s Passionate Revenge by Helen Bianchin and Yu Mahara

After being a bit let down by Valentine Vendetta, I was hoping for more dramatic plot twists in Alexi’s Passionate Revenge. Revenge doesn’t work when it is too dispassionate, does it? This volume kicks off with Natalya Montgomery being blackmailed into working for the CEO who bought out her father’s company who happens to be her ex-boyfriend Alexi. Now Natalia is stuck being Alexi’s personal assistant unless she wants the secret of her father’s affairs to be released to the media. The plot of this story proceeds in a lovely smorgasbord of tropes including parental alienation, a pregnancy scare, a private villa in New Zealand, a gay best friend, and even more complications that ensured just because Alexi and Natalia had actually managed to have a conversation about their feelings before engaging in blackmail-based business practices. The character designs and illustrations for Alexi’s Passionate Revenge were a bit blocky, and not as delicate as I would have liked, although it was all adept enough. One thing I’m not a fan of is that the revenge in this story was pretty one-sided. Where’s Natalya’s revenge? I hope that she’s planning on something in the future but I won’t count on it.

Alexi's Passionate Revenge

Her Secret Valentine by Helen Brooks and Akemi Maki

This manga has more of the old school quality to the art that I enjoy in Harlequin manga adaptations, although even that isn’t enough to save it from a rather lackluster story with little dramatic tension. Everyone’s eyelashes are three inches long and the heroine has starry eyes all the time. In my mind, this makes up for a certain lack of detail in the backgrounds. Ward Ryan is a widower with a young daughter. Jeanie is his colleague at a law firm who has been crushing on him for years. Ward discovers her crying with frustration about her crush at the office one day and invites him home for dinner. He’s assumes that she’s crying over a man, and says that Jeanie’s imaginary boyfriend is no good for her! Jeanie helps out at Ward’s daughter’s birthday party and they grow closer, while Ward becomes more and more upset that Jeanie’s man doesn’t appreciate her. It is fairly amusing to constantly hear Ward bashing himself to Jeanie. Eventually Jeanie decides that she can’t keep nurturing her crush and quits the law firm, and Ward decides to start pursuing her. Really, there wasn’t very much dramatic tension in this story, and the curly eyelashes didn’t make up for it.

Her Secret Valentine

I would say that out of the three of these volumes, Alexi’s Passionate Revenge was probably the best example of the genre, there were enough inexplicable and yet entirely predictable plot twists to satisfy most Harlequin manga connoisseurs. Now that I’ve revived my Harlequin manga habit, I will continue my quest to find the perfect example of insane plot points and rose-petal filled art.

Tsubaki-chou Lonely Planet Vols 1 and 2

Tsubaki Chou Lonely Planet Volumes 1 and 2 by Mika Yamamori

I enjoyed Yamamori’s Daytime Shooting Star, even though I spent many volumes deeply concerned about the resolution of the age-gap romance in the manga. I can experience those feelings all over again, as the heroine in Tsubaki-chou Lonely Planet seems to be headed in that direction as well. Will the charming character designs and humor in this title cause me to tamp down my uneasy feelings about power dynamics in shoujo manga? Quite possibly!

Parents in manga have a lot to answer for, what with their habits of abruptly marrying people who come burdened with incredibly cute and charismatic new step-siblings, or their tendency of suddenly abandoning their children for endless overseas trips, or manifesting total financial instability that causes their high-school age children to get a job to fend off terrible loan sharks.

Tsubaki-chou Lonely Planet

In the first few panels of Tsubaki-chou Lonely Planet thrifty and responsible Fumi Ohno learns that her father is shipping off to sea to become a fisherman in order to pay off the aforementioned loan sharks. She’s being kicked out of her apartment, right when she was on the verge of being able to buy a new vacuum with the money she’s been saving from stretching the household grocery budget! She concludes that her only option is to become a live-in housekeeper to an author. Dazzled by the thought of free room and board, Fumi shows up at her new workplace only to discover that instead of the bespectacled old man with a mustache she’s imagining, her new boss is a floppy-haired young man who seems to be in the habit of passing out in his front hallway. Akatsuki Kibikino writes historical novels and lives in an incredibly untidy house. He’s not happy that a young girl showed up to clean and make his meals (he thought only grandmas were named Fumi) but after hearing that she’s totally alone in the world, he decides that maybe having a clean house and homemade meals would be a good idea after all. Akatsuki informs her that if she’s his housekeeper, it is also his duty to protect her, and he follows up on this promise.

A new transfer student shows up at Fumi’s school and makes a point of singling her out. However Isshin Imamura is harboring a decade-long grudge because Fumi beat him in a race in elementary school. Fumi begins struggling with her feelings towards her employer, and they become a bit closer just with their daily interactions. They have fateful encounters like going grocery shopping for rice. Fumi tends to be a bit naive about the world, throwing herself into some potentially unsavory situations when she hears that her father is having money troubles again, but Akatsuki has a tendency to show up just in time to rescue her. Isshin also becomes more sympathetic and has some blunt assessments about Fumi’s emotions that cause her to reflect on her feelings.

There’s plenty of humor in this series, mainly due to Fumi’s genuine skill and enthusiasm for homemaking pursuits like cooking, maintaining a coupon book, and being willing to battle it out at grocery stores for discounted vegetables. Akatsuki is grumpy and doesn’t take care of himself at all, but when he senses that something’s amiss he springs into action to help Fumi, even if it might take him a little while to realize what’s happening. Yamamori’s art is engaging, highlighting the occasional moments of emotional revelation that occur as the characters get to know each other better. After reading the first couple volumes, I’m invested in seeing how Fumi is going to make her way in the world, and I hope for the best for her. Fans of Daytime Shooting Star will find plenty to like about Tsubaki-chou Lonely Planet

Honey Lemon Soda Vol 1 by Mayu Murata

Honey Lemon Soda Volume 1 by Mayu Murata

I was aware that there was a great deal of anticipation when Honey Lemon Soda was licensed, and the first volume lived up to the hype! Popular boy inexplicably adopting an incredibly awkward girl is a familiar plot in most shoujo manga, but Honey Lemon Soda takes this premise and runs with it, making the reader feel instantly sympathetic with the introverted heroine in question. Uka Ishimori’s gets in the way of an errant blast of lemon soda wielded by Kai Miura. She freezes up and is unable to respond to his friends’ expressions of concern and she runs away when Miura apologizes to her. His friends comment “It’s kinda like she’s living out a different genre than the rest of us” which is a good way of summarizing how disconnected Uka is from people her own age.

Honey lemon soda 1

In middle school, Uka was bullied, with classmates calling her “Rocky” due to her last name and stony expression. She’s determined to make friends and change in high school, and picked a school to go to based on its more laid back and flashy reputation instead of going to a school where people are devoted to studying. Every possible social interaction has Uka caught up in her anxious thoughts, as she has to force herself to offer to help a classmate with the answer to a question. Miura starts taking an interest, coaching Uka through some basic greetings. When she actually calls on him for help, he leaps in and defends her from some of her former middle school bullies. Uka starts expressing herself more often, although sometimes she’s so tense about communicating with others that her thoughts come out more like yelling accidentally.

Miura might look super cool with his effervescent blond hair, but he also seems to have more compassion than is typical in a shoujo hero, and he keeps dropping comments designed to help Uka become more comfortable with herself. Murata’s character designs are attractive, and there are plenty of dynamic panel layouts as the characters make their way through emotionally fraught situations. After reading the first volume, I am eager to see how Uka changes on her journey to break out of her shell and express herself more.