Shortcake Cake Vols 9 and 10

Shortcake Cake Volumes 9 and 10 by suu Morishita

There’s around 5 volumes of revelations and drama packed into these two volumes of Shortcake Cake, but one of the advantages of finally finding out the truth about Riku and Rei’s relationship at last is that seeing the backstory and the emotional aftermath as Riku and his friends attempt to deal with their new reality inspires feelings of empathy in the reader. Morishita is adept at portraying a great deal of emotional nuance as the characters in Shortcake Cake start to puzzle out who they are and how their relationships are evolving.

The 9th volume opens with Shiraoka telling Ten and Chiaki the circumstances surrounding Riku’s past. It turns out that Rei’s mom, who was a teacher, adopted Riku after a student of hers left him as a baby in her classroom. Rei was a much-wanted child after a long struggle with infertility. While Rei’s parents tried to raise both boys with equal amounts of affection, Rei grew up attempting to establish his big brother bona fides even though Riku was only one month younger. Rei signed up for extra lessons in an unsuccessful attempt to get approval from his grandfather, who just seems flat-out emotionally abusive because he hates the fact that his daughter even got married in the first place. Rei’s resentment grew and grew, and when his parents died in a tragic car accident, he took the opportunity to kick Riku out. Shiraoka promptly took him in and raised him as an older brother. Aspects of Riku’s personality such as his sometimes ingratiating manner and desire to please but not actually get close to anyone are explained through the events in his past. When Riku’s long-lost older sister shows up at the boarding house he’s confronted with the choice of connecting to his biological family. The core of the story is how Ten and Chiaki are determined to continue to support Riku along with Shiraoka. While Rei has totally been a jerk, it is also clear that he’s lashing out in pain and unable to move on and find any kind of peace within himself.

One of the nice things about this volume is seeing Chiaki’s relentless overtures of friendship towards Riku and how he’s changed after hearing Riku’s story. Chiaki has avoided his overbearing older brother, but after seeing how Riku’s family broke down he’s decided to face his own family again. When Chiaki proclaims about Riku “I love him! He’s my one and only best friend!”, Riku says to himself that Chiaki is an idiot and Shiraoka responds “You’re pretty lucky to have met such a good idiot.” While Riku’s adoptive family might have been torn apart, he’s managing to put a found family together by finally allowing his friends to get to know him, and seeing this evolution take place over 10 volumes of Shortcake Cake is rewarding for the reader. While Riku goes on a visit to Chiaki’s family, Ten attempts to intervene with Rei. As this volume races towards a dramatic confrontation, I’m hoping that both Rei and Riku are able to find some sort of peace. Shortcake Cake‘s stories of found family combined with sibling estrangement make for a gripping story, and it is great to see how the core trio of Ten, Riku, and Chiaki have evolved together through their friendships.

Fushigi Yugi: Byakko Senki vol 1

Fushigi Yugi: Byakko Senki Volume 1 by Yuu Watase

The Fushigi Yugi universe is one I’ve been following for a long time. Many of my earliest volumes are from the initial Viz release back in the early 2000s, so I felt very nostalgic reading the first volume of the last Fushigi Yugi story 20 years later. While there have been glimpses of Suzuno before in previous series and the anime, seeing an entire series devoted to her seems like a fitting way to finish out the Universe of the Four Gods.

This first volume is structured as a prequel within a prequel, giving the reader insight into Suzuno’s character as both a child and a young adult and setting up an intriguing conflict that I expect to see explored more in future volumes. As Fushigi Yugi: Byakko Senki opens, a young Suzuno is spending time with her parents. Her father has the volume of The Universe of the Four Gods, burdened with the tragic legacy of Takiko Okuda and her professor father. As the Great Kanto earthquake strikes, Suzuno is trapped in her burning house and her father sends her into the book in order to save her life. In the Universe of the Four Gods, Suzuno is clearly unable to fend for herself, but she meets up with some people who are surely going to be pivotal figures in her life – Neiran, a psychologically damaged woman who can turn into a tiger, and the brothers Kasal and Karm. After narrowly escaping being kidnapped, Suzuno travels for a little bit with her new companions who begin to suspect that she might be the fabled priestess of Byakko.

Suzuno travels back to her own world in the aftermath of the earthquake, and the story line shifts to show her as a young woman, quiet and artistic and plagued by enduring visions and memories of what she’s lost. A shy, retiring heroine forced to adapt to a mystical new world isn’t exactly a novel plot point, but the overtones of impending tragedy and Suzuno’s resilience in difficult situations immediately make her an engaging heroine. Watase’s art is always clear and engaging, and I’m looking forward to seeing her portrayal of Suzuno’s mystical warriors and the unique world of the Universe of the Four Gods. This first volume mainly established Suzuno as a fully-fledged protagonist and I’m fairly happy with that pacing even though I put it down feeling a little impatient waiting to get started on the rest of the story. While I think is possible to enjoy this series without reading other Fushigi Yugi stories, I think at minimum someone reading Byakko Senki should be familiar with Genbu Kaiden, and hopefully the main series that started off this 20 year old saga.

Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits, Vols. 4 and 5

Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits Volumes 4 and 5 by Waco Ioka, Midori Yuma and Laruha

I feel like now Kakuriyo has settled into a reliable rhythm for the reader, with each volume blending elements of food preparation and consumption and showcasing supernatural entities with some hints at the ongoing mystery surrounding Aoi’s grandfather and his relationship with the spirit world.

One of the reasons why I enjoy this manga is because it blends in very mundane concerns with a supernatural setting. This was particularly on display in volume 4 when Aoi needs to take into consideration vital aspects of business administration in her attempt to launch a cafe in a slightly inconvenient corner of the Tenjin-ya Inn. Aoi treats everyone who has been helping her get the cafe ready for opening to rice balls with individualized flavors that appeal to their unique personalities. When Aoi ventures out with Odanna to the local markets and gets a clue about a mask she remembers an ayakashi wearing who helped her a long time ago. Aoi is still running into resistance from other members of the Tenjin-ya staff, but she finds some ways of winning over new customers by creating special bento boxes for a sequestered writer. I do still sometimes wish the art for Kakuriyo was a little more elaborately detailed or creative, but I’m happy to see some unsettling ayakashi character designs such as a three-eyed woman with a snarky three-eyed baby, or the no-face handmaidens who always show up to give Aoi a makeover.

The fifth volume opens with Aoi sharing a quiet moment with Odanna, as she follows him out to his mountain retreat and learns about a new delicacy – fire chicken eggs cooked in a hot spring. Aoi also gets a new clue about the white-masked ayakashi from her past and an impactful endorsement from the badger demon novelist. Business starts to look up a little bit after Aoi also gets a visit from a fortune spirit who loves red bean paste desserts. I found myself really enjoying the way this manga is paced, with Aoi slowly finding out more about the strange world she’s been transported to, and her low key ways of getting to know ayakashi through preparing simple dishes with their unique needs in mind. Five volumes into the series, it is much more satisfying as a food manga, with the food preparation showcased in at least a page or two instead of being skipped over.

Shojo Fight, Vol. 1

Shojo FIGHT! Volume 1 by Yoko Nihonbashi

I’m very happy about Kodansha’s recent investment in digital manga, since it means that some titles that might be not commercial enough to get a print release are being translated. At the same time, I’ve been burned by digital manga in the past, and I only have so much budgeted for digital comics a month, so I’ve been a little picky with my purchases. I was very interested to see a girls volleyball title coming out from Kodansha, because I do enjoy a good sports manga. The first volume of Shojo FIGHT! is largely set-up for the whole series, and it packs an impressive amount of drama in one short volume.

Neri spends her time on the bench for her middle school volleyball team. She seems to be content to be incredibly unassertive and dismissed, but she has a group of friends and fans who look after her. The manga starts by showing the dynamics of Neri’s current team. Koyuki seems to be noticed as much for her looks as her volleyball talent, while Chiyo is the seemingly evil teem member who is comfortable saying horrible things to everyone. While Neri doesn’t do much in the way of athletics in the first few pages, it is clear that she has the aura of somebody special. Neri has a built in fanclub that includes Odagiri, a girl who spends her time drawing volleyball manga. There are also the brothers Shikishima. The younger blond Shikishima is a carefree volleyball player while his his older brother with the dark hair has the burden of being the heir to his family’s osteopathic clinic, having magic injury soothing fingers, and also playing volleyball.

When Neri does get off the bench, it is clear that she’s been hiding her skills as well as her single-minded intensity towards the sport of volleyball. Part of the reason why she’s been able to hide so long is because her school tends to give starting positions based on the height of the players. Neri becomes aggressive and vocal, yelling at Koyuki to get her head in the game. Neri and Koyuki end up colliding when they go after the same ball. Neri’s travails in volleyball would be enough to carry this volume, but she also has a family tragedy that she’s dealing with as well. Slowly the details are revealed as the story progresses, and while Neri’s set up for a different type of volleyball career as she enters high school, she’s still dealing with plenty of baggage. It seems like her friends are always going to be around to support her, especially Shikishima the elder.

Part of my enjoyment of Shojo FIGHT! is due to the novelty factor. Perhaps because I haven’t been able to read many female-oriented sports manga, I found Neri’s portrayal as a volleyball hero with athletic prowess and intensity that could cause situations to get out of control refreshing, just because I’m much more used to seeing this type of character as a male protagonist. If this had been the 5th female volleyball manga that I’d read instead of the 2nd, I might not find it quite as charming though. Other reviewers have noted that the art of this volume looks very similar to OEL manga, with smooth dark lines, sparse backgrounds, and lacking the delicacy that most shoujo fans might expect. I was halfway wondering if it was as I was reading it if it was OEL, but as I looked up Shojo FIGHT, it indeed came out in Japan originally in the mid 2000s. Nihonbashi’s style made me wonder if it really was that unique, or if it comes down to just the type of series that tend to get translated for a North American audience. Nihonbashi’s high contrast style gives Shojo FIGHT a more graphic, less flowery sort of look, and while she is good at facial expressions, I did find myself wondering at times if Neri had variants of her stunned and shell shocked look as she grapples with her emotions. I did enjoy all the distinctive character designs. With such a large cast, having distinct looks for the characters helps the reader greatly.

There was enough drama for two volumes in the first volume of Shojo FIGHT!, but at the same time I’m reserving judgement a bit, because I expect the narrative to settle down in the second volume. I’m hoping to see if Neri is able to fight off her inner demons a bit for the sake of volleyball.

Yona of the Dawn, Vol. 4

Yona of the Dawn Volume 4 by Mizuho Kusanagi

Yona of the Dawn is firmly in the “get the team together” quest story line that is so common in fantasy manga, but even though the plot is predictable, I’m enjoying it greatly just due ot the character interactions along the way and the interesting world building. It wouldn’t be a team without plenty of bickering, and the first chapter of this volume shows Gija and Hak constantly going at it as they both want the role of Yona’s main protector. Gija’s sheltered upbringing in his remote village doesn’t exactly prepare him for life on the open road, as it turns out he is terrified by bugs. The bickering continues and provides some much needed humor before the rest of the volume settles in with a much more serious story line.

It turns out that not every dragon guardian was raised with as much privelege and love as Gija, and as the Yona and her band go to find the Blue Dragon, they find a mysterious village with masked tribes people, and the Blue Dragon has been treated as a pariah, not celebrated due to his unique powers like Gija. The feeling in the village is unsettling, and provides Yona a real challenge to work through as she attempts to discover the identity of the Blue Dragon. One of the reasons why I like this series so much is that while Yona is obviously blessed by being a princes and having some fabled mystical guardians, she isn’t going to stop trying to improve herself. She still spends hours practicing her archery alone because she wants to be able to help the people who are fighting for her. Getting through to the Blue Dragon is a product of her insight into human nature and her genuine interest in other people as opposed to relying on her title or position in the world.

Kusanagi’s art continues to be clear and easy to read, and she’s great at conveying different moods and emotions like Gija’s over exaggerated reactions to the horrors of nature, Yona’s determination, and the unsettling masks of the Blue Dragon’s tribe.