Strobe Edge, Vols 5 and 6

One of the reasons why I keep reading manga is that it still has the capacity to surprise me. I found the fifth volume of Strobe Edge exciting to read, because it went in a totally different direction from what I was expecting. I’d always expected that the love triangle between Ren, Mayuka, and Ninako would have to be resolved somehow, but I wasn’t expecting a big change to come from Mayuka this early in the series. Ren is deliberately holding himself back from developing feelings for Ninako due to his sense of duty towards Mayuka. She’s emotional fragile and stressed out with the demands of her modeling career, school, and her parents’ divorce. Ren has a finely honed sense of integrity and wouldn’t do anything to hurt another person, with the expense of actually subverting his own feelings in the process.

I always expect anyone in a shoujo manga with a modeling career to be evil, but Mayuka shows that she’s been slowly picking up on Ren’s distance, coming to terms with her own goals for how she wants to live her life, and she realizes that she’s the one who is going to have to take a big step forward on her own. The change in Ren and Mayuka’s relationship isn’t without pain on both sides, but everything is handled with a degree of emotional maturity and sensitivity that is notable. It is fun to read a shoujo series that explores the shifting relationships between characters with such nuance.

In the meantime Ninako and Ando are in the grips of adorable teenage awkwardness, as she attempts to bury her own feelings for Ren and Ando tries to show her that he’s the better choice for her. Ando’s shifted from the cheerful flirtations personality that he displayed in the first few volumes to showing Ninako just how much he cares about her. There was a fun bonus story in this volume that delved into the past friendship between Ren and Ando, and just where it went wrong. This is the type of bonus story that I really enjoy, as it gives the reader a glimpse of the characters in a slightly different context, and provides more background as the manga moves forward.

There’s emotional turmoil ahead in the sixth volume of Strobe Edge, as Ando’s antagonism towards Ren resurfaces and Ren is dealing with the aftermath of his breakup with Mayuka. The burden of popularity and extreme handsomeness weighs heavily on Ren, as he is girlfriendless for barely a day before the girls at school start circling him. Ninako assumes that Ren is sad, and doesn’t want to do anything to add to his stress. Even with Valentine’s day coming up, she doesn’t want to add to the mountain of chocolate he’s going to be receiving from all the other girls.

There are some fun action scenes as Ren and Ando (mostly Ando) work through some aggression on the basketball court. The antagonistic relationship between them takes a turn towards the hilarious as Ando gets injured and when he wakes up and spots Ren he yells “You’re what I have to wake up to?” If Strobe Edge was only focused on the relationship between Ninako and Ren, it has the potential to get boring fairly fast. But seeing Ren and Ando start to work through their issues feels like an important emotional breakthrough. Ando instructs Ren not to smile, and Ren assumes that it is because his smile is somehow hideous, but really Ando doesn’t like the inadvertent effect a smiling Ren has on all the people in his vicinity. The end of volume six offers the promise of a new beginning at the start of a new school year, with Ren and Ninako being assigned to the same class.

Strobe Edge is a good example of why sometimes it is good to give a manga series a few volumes to develop before giving up on it. I was a bit on the fence about this series after reading only the first volume even though I generally enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have thought from just the first volume that Sakisaka would have built up the interesting relationships between the characters and handled some emotional journeys without relying on some of the standard shoujo plot elements. In some ways Strobe Edge is a less angsty successor to We Were There, as both series explore similar nuanced psychological territory.

Review copy of vol 6 provided by the publisher.

Strobe Edge, Vol. 4

Strobe Edge, Vol. 4 by Io Sakisaka

One nice thing about new series with several volumes waiting in the wings to be translated is being able to read the English volumes with only a few months between releases. It is easier to appreciate the changes in plotting and art that appear over time as the creator gets more and more comfortable with a series. I wouldn’t have predicted after I put down the first volume of Strobe Edge that I would be enjoying it as much as I am now. There’s much more subtly shown in the relationships between the characters and even when stereotypical shoujo plot devices pop up, I find myself not minding them at all just because of the great work Sakisaka has done with her character development.

Heroine Ninako was bordering on being annoyingly naive in the first volume, and while she’s still relentlessly innocent she is in tune with her own emotions and is able to sense when a situation might be wrong for her. When reformed womanizer Ando starts pressuring her to date him, saying she can use him to forget her feelings for Ren, Ninako replies “Your idea of love and my idea of love aren’t the same at all. And I could never use you to forget him! You know how much it hurts to love someone…who loves someone else.” Ando tells Ninako that she doesn’t have to answer right away and goes back to his usual light-hearted personality but she can tell that he’s putting on an act to make her feel at ease.

Ninako and Ren keep getting pushed together in various situations, and while he tends to keep a tight reign on his expressions it is easy for the reader to tell that he’s filled with turmoil. Ren’s determination to be a “nice guy” is resulting in his continuing a relationship with his high-strung girlfriend, even though he and Ninako seem to share a unique bond of understanding. Ninako and Ren’s non-relationship is contrasted with the more established supporting couple of Daiki and Sayuri, who deal with their problems and end up becoming stronger together. There’s a slowly building tension in this series, as Ren keeps struggling to do what he thinks of as the right thing even while it becomes more and more intolerable.

Sakisaka does a good job showing her characters’ reactions to the emotional scenes, as she contrasts facial expressions or shows Ren turning away in order not to display his emotions. I’m looking forward to the next few volumes, as I can sense some dramatic crying scenes and confrontations coming up when Mayuka starts to realize that Ren is only showing her one carefully crafted side of his personality.

Strobe Edge, Vol 3

Strobe Edge is the manga equivalent of comfort food and I find myself liking it more and more with each volume. The third volume explores the emerging love triangle between Ninako, reformed womanizer Ando, and unavailable but perfect Ren. Ninako is struggling a bit with wanting to be friends with Ren after being rejected previously, and things become even more emotionally traumatic when it seems like Ren is deliberately acting cold to her. Ren actually being a good guy, he is attempting to protect Ninako from the attentions of the Rejected by Ren Girl Squad, who have targeted Ninako with their bullying ways. This gets cleared up relatively quickly, but more complications are on the way as Ando’s feelings towards Ninako grow and deepen. The two guys in love with a slightly oblivious girl is a well-word shoujo plot device, but Ninako is oblivious and friendly that it is difficult to get annoyed with her. Sakisaka does a good job portraying the subtle ways that Ren and Ninako continue to be drawn towards each other. They have a random conversation about sweets and Ren reveals that he doesn’t think that his girlfriend even knows that fact about himself because he pretends to dislike them around her because she’s always watching her figure. Ren’s general protectiveness towards Ninako is unusual given is general indifference towards other girls. Ren’s actions like helping Ninako out at a school festival and providing extra math tutoring seem to go a bit beyond the limits of normal guy niceness.

Ando has plenty of feelings for Ninako but seems to be holding back both due to his awareness of her feelings for Ren and his realization that she probably couldn’t handle it. He hints around about his feelings and even confronts Ninako about her feelings for Ren, saying “You can’t love someone forever…without getting something back from them.” Ando’s brash personality is a big contrast to Ren’s more quiet thoughtfulness, but it is clear that he does actually care about Ninako and isn’t trifling with the idea of having a relationship with her.

I feel like Sakisaka’s art has grown a bit after three volumes. While the first volume focused a bit too much on Ninako’s blushing naivete, there are more comedic moments in this volume, mostly at Ando’s expense as he gets crushed in a subway car while Ren protects Ninako. When Ninako, Ren, and Ando all start a part-time job in a cafe, Ren and Ando are portrayed as the ultimate desirable waiters, smoothly taking care of everything, while Ninako’s enthusiasm almost makes up for her clumsiness. It is easy to see how well Strobe Edge fits into the Shojo Beat line and with so many series ending or about to end, I’m glad to have a newer series to follow.

Strobe Edge, Vol 2

Strobe Edge, Vol 2 by Io Sakisaka

I liked the first volume of Strobe Edge well enough, but I was hoping that the second volume would be a tiny bit more interesting, in order to justify my wanting to keep following the series. I wasn’t disappointed, as the second volume dropped the emphasis on the heroine Ninako’s naivety in favor of some standard shojo plot elements with an emphasis on the characters’ emotions and just enough of a twist to produce some unexpected moments.

Ninako is back at school after summer vacation, wondering how to deal with the fact that she confessed her feelings to laconic yet secretly super-nice heartthrob Ren on the last day of school. Ren turned her down nicely, mentioning his girlfriend. Ninako practices how to say hello to him and reflects that their first encounter will likely be as difficult for the rejector in addition to the rejectee. Unfortunately word of Ninako’s daring has spread and she is known throughout the school as “girl who confessed to Ren on the train platform.” Her friends try to comfort her, but Ninako finds a slightly unwelcome distraction in the person of Ando, a flighty womanizer who seems fascinated by her indifference to him and her continued love for Ren even after being rejected. The unlikely trio gets thrown together in doing some committee work for school, and while Ando might have a habit of trying to collect as many girls’ cell phone numbers as possible, he does exhibit some genuine friendship and sensitivity to Ninako when she’s placed in an awkward situation.

Strobe Edge isn’t the type of shojo manga that challenges conventions, but it is extremely well-executed. I couldn’t find anything to quibble with the artwork, and the pained expressions Ninako sometimes makes as she navigates the storm of teenage romance offsets some of the expected shojo prettiness. There were plenty of humorous elements too, as Ninako is initially embraced by a secret society at school that is comprised solely of girls that Ren has rejected. I continue to enjoy the fact that most of the characters are genuinely nice and sympathetic. A bonus story in this volume focuses on the way Ren and his girlfriend Mayuka began their relationship, and it was fun to see a different aspect of those characters told from Mayuka’s side. I wish more manga had side stories that served as a supplement to the main plot, as opposed to publishing unrelated short stories by the same author in the back of a volume just to fill it out. Strobe Edge is perfect comfort reading for anyone who wants to read a well-done shojo manga that keeps things on the light and fluffy side.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Strobe Edge Volume 1 by Io Sakisaka

Strobe Edge Volume 1 by Io Sakisaka

I’m always curious when Shojo Beat announces a new title, and from the brief description I’d read of it Strobe Edge sounded appealing. While some of Shojo Beat’s recent offerings (Jiu Jiu and Devil and Her Love Song) have a bit of an edgy take on the genre, Strobe Edge is more of a straightforward high school love story.

Ninako is the heroine of Strobe Edge, and she is almost painfully naive. She blindly believes whatever salespeople tell her, and when she consults with her friends at school she allows their opinions to override her own feelings. She has a perpetually surprised look in the first chapter of the manga. As Ninako deals with her first romance, she begins to grow in awareness. All of Ninako’s friends expect that she’ll be going out with her childhood friend Daiki any day now. Daiki seems like a nice, boy-next door type who constantly finds excuses to check up on Ninako at school, unaware of the torrent of feminine gossip that he’ll unleash as soon as he disappears. Ninako cares for Daiki deeply, but she doesn’t even contemplate having any romantic feelings for Daiki until her friends tell her that she likes him. Ninako’s credulity is a bit hard to take, but Sakisaka manages to portray her personality as so fresh and innocent, I was willing to give it a pass in this first volume.

Ninako’s friend-determined destiny with Daiki is derailed when she keeps noticing the main crush object for all the girls, Ren Ichinose. Ren is cool and detached, so of course he’s the most popular boy in school. Ninako manages to have a conversation with Ren when he accidentally breaks her cellphone charm and then brings her a girly butterfly one as a replacement. She treasures it even though she’s not usually into super-feminine things. Daiki notices Ninako’s heightened interest in Ren and asks her if she’s a big fan of his, and she explains it by saying that she views him as if he was a model in a magazine, not someone she likes. But as Ninako keeps encountering Ren randomly on the subway back from school, she begins to see that he’s actually a very kind person instead of the aloof idol she envisioned. When she has a sprained ankle, he pretends to be asleep and deliberately misses his stop so he can walk her home. This is shoujo manga though, so of course there are plenty of additional complications for Ninako to deal with as she discovers her first love.

Sakisaka’s art is expressive and assured, and while I sometimes got a little tired of Ninako’s surprised face, she does certainly look like a sympathetic shoujo heroine. The character designes for the main and supporting cast are varied, making it easy to distinguish between all the characters. Sakisaka wrote at the begining of the volume that her goal in this manga was to capture “the sensation you feel in the window of time between one event and another,” and I think that Strobe Edge pulls it off. Ninako’s inner thoughts gradually become more self aware, and Sakisaka is very good at portraying the excitement and agony of accidentally sitting close to one’s crush object. One thing that I appreciated in Strobe Edge was that it was relatively angst free in terms of having evil protagonists. Daiki starts acting a bit erratic, but both he and Ren seem like basically good people. Even though Ninako’s friends have been pushing their own ideas of what her first relationship should be, when she makes a decision they are generally supportive. Reading a manga with basically nice characters just seems relaxing and refreshing at this point. Of course this is a 10 volume series, so I’m expecting an evil male model or an evil secret fiance to show up at some point. For now though, I’m going to be checking out this series with the hope that Ninako’s journey to self-awareness continues.

Review copy provided by the publisher.