Skip Beat! Volume 28

Skip Beat! Volume 28 by Yoshiki Nakumura

I always enjoy a new volume of Skip Beat! but I’m enjoying the most recent story arc even more than usual because there’s more emotional payoff with Kyoko and Ren being forced into more contact with each other as they prepare for their reality-tv like roles as the gothed-out Cain siblings. They still have to wrap up their current projects though, and things get dicey when Ren has a near miss with a potential accident when he is rehearsing some stunt driving. The experience puts him in a bit of a fugue state, where he relives a dramatic accident in his past before he became “Ren Tsuruga.” Kyoko is filming nearby and rushes to Ren’s set and she is the only person that he responds to after the accident. Later on, Ren indulges in an odd psychological ritual where he cooks a horrible omurice and eats it as an act of endurance. Kyoko comes along to help him out and witnesses Ren putting himself together again, despite the unfortunate specter of Death that hovers nearby as they consume their dinner.

Kyoko and Ren were really both destined to be actors because with their pasts, traumatic in different ways, inhabiting a role becomes a refuge. I think in this next story arc we’ll see how much of “Ren Tsuruga” is a role and how much is actually Ren. Kyoko’s on the verge of a change too. Everyone that she meets seems struck by the sense that she’s matured, and as she spends more time with Ren when he’s at his most vulnerable it seems like she might finally be on the verge of acknowledging her feelings. Overall, this was a very satisfying volume of Skip Beat!

Review copy provided by the publisher

Manga Moveable Feast: Viz Signature Edition personal archive

The Manga Moveable Feast this month focuses on the Viz Signature Imprint and is hosted at Manga Critic.
I hope to be able to participate with some new reviews, but I thought I’d do a mini-round up of reviews for Viz Signature titles I’ve done in the past and list some of my favorites.

Most of the recent Viz Signature titles were featured on the Sigikki website, which doesn’t seem to be as current as it once was. Still, it was a nice experiment in online comics distribution, even though as more of these volumes are available in print format the free chapters still seem to be disappearing from the site.

Natsume Ono – I’m grateful for the Signature imprint for translating so much of Ono’s work. I enjoy her quirky art style and slice of life stories.

House of Five Leaves is one of my favorite Signature titles, and my favorite Natsume Ono Series. There’s something about this story of a hapless ronin slowly being drawn into a life of crime that I find absolutely gripping. Seeing the way the characters change each other as they go about their daily tasks while dealing with being in a kidnapping and ransom gang gives a bit of a contemporary feel to the historical setting of this series.

House of Five Leaves Volume 1

House of Five Leaves Volumes 4-6

I always enjoy it when manga creators let their personal interests inform their manga, and Ono’s affection for food, Italy, and men wearing glasses is clearly shown in her manga with contemporary settings that revolve around an Italian cafe.

Gente Volume 1
Gente Volume 3
Ristorante Paradiso Volume 1

One of the reasons why I like Ono so much is because she reminds me a bit of Fumi Yoshinaga. Both authors have worked in yaoi, both have an extremely individualistic drawing style, there’s a focus on slice of life stories in their work, and both seem to be serious foodies. I’ve enjoyed the Yoshinaga books put out by Viz Signature.

All My Darling Daughters – A great introduction to Yoshinaga since it is complete in one volume

Ooku focuses on an alternate history Japan with interesting gender dynamics.

Ooku Volume 1

Ooku Volume 2
Ooku Volume 5
Ooku Volume 6

One of the fun things about the Signature imprint is that it does sometimes bring manga to the US that is absolutely crazy. I am referring to Biomega, a title that almost doesn’t need a review, because you just need to ask yourself if you are the type of person who would enjoy a manga that has as a character a talking bear with a machine gun. If you don’t find bears with machine guns enjoyable, I’m not sure if I can be your friend. This reminds me, I need to pick up some of the middle volumes of this series!

Biomega Volume 1
Biomega Volumes 2 and 3

Some of the most personal and deeply affecting titles to come from the Signature line are by Inio Asano. His works focus on that time of life in early adulthood when people aren’t quite sure what they want to become. He blends everyday but surreal images into his manga, giving his stories a dream-like quality that still manages to feel gritty and realistic.

What a Wonderful World Volume 1 – I think I only read the first volume of this title. (Unfortunately, this post is making me develop an extensive shopping list.)

Afterschool Charisma I am including in this list of favorites because I love Clone Freud so much. This series from Viz sometimes feels a bit like a high concept B-movie, due to the setting of a high school populated entirely by teenage clones of famous historical figures. Horrifically this series is now up to volume 5, which means that there is even more manga I need to order.

Afterschool Charisma Volume 1
Afterschool Charisma Volume 3

My personal shopping list after compiling this post: What a Wonderful World Volume 2, Biomega Volume 6, Afterschool Charisma Volumes 4 and 5, Ooku Volumes 3 and 4.

A Devil and Her Love Song Volume 2

I enjoyed the first volume of A Devil and Her Love Song, and was curious to see if the next volume lived up to the potential of the first one. Though there were some rough spots, I found myself still intrigued by this new shoujo manga.

Maria and Yusuke go to visit their classmate Tomoyo, who has been staying home from school. I was amused to see that Tomoyo, who goes out of her way to be bland and agreeable to everyone at school, is actually a closet goth. They just stay for a visit and don’t confront Tomoyo about her coming back to school, but Maria forces the issue when she shows up at Tomoyo’s house then next morning. She goads Tomoyo into saying what she really feels, then comments “That angry look isn’t flattering on you…but it isn’t half bad.” When Tomoyo goes back to school she finally speaks out and defends Maria against the group of popular girls who have been bullying her. Shin stops Maria from reacting when the situation in the classroom gets out of hand and Yusuke goes to confront their teacher about his hypocritical ways. Instead, the teacher decides to set Maria up as a scapegoat to cover for his lack of discipline in the classroom. He decides that Maria will be leading the class choral performance, and she has to scramble to put something together when she’s ostracized by her classmates. Yusuke is singled out as an ally of Maria’s and he says that he likes her in front of the class. Maria isn’t sure if he genuinely likes her, or if he’s trying to protect her. She pushes him away, telling him that if he defends her “it’s suffocating.”

Maria attempts to pull together a choral performance despite the fact that the entire class isn’t cooperating. It is fun to see the random friendship that she’s developed with Tomoyo, as they always seem to wind up in a corner of the school discussing the day’s events. Yusuke hovers around, determined to help. Yusuke drags Shin into the choral performance too, since he can play the piano. The class grows more and more tense, provoking even more of a confrontation between Maria’s allies and the classmates who have decided to hate her. Maria’s habit of blurting out whatever she’s thinking forces all of these conflicts into the open. Someone more socialized might put their head down and attempt to ignore everything, but Maria comments on what everybody is doing, making everyone confront their behavior and reactions. Things are getting pretty bad at school, so it is easy to see why Maria’s gotten kicked out of school so many times before. But the small core group of friends that she’s developing is something new for her, and she’s actually trying to engage with other people in a way she doesn’t quite seem capable of. This series continues to be very promising, I’m just hoping that there is more Shin in the next volume, since this one was more centered on Maria and Yusuke.

Review copy provided by the publisher

House of Five Leaves Volumes 4-6 by Natsume Ono

It probably is a function of my personal timing in reading this series, but I feel as though the first three volumes centered around establishing the tone and characters in this slice of life series about a group of improbable criminals in the Edo era and the next three volumes things actually start happening, as the reader learns even more about the past lives of the characters before they joined The Five Leaves.

House of Five Leaves Volume 4

The fourth volume of the series shows that while hapless ronin Masa may be treated like a bit of an outsider by the band of criminals he’s found himself attached to, they actually like him much more than they let on. It takes the sudden appearance of another outsider, an intermediary named Ginta, to make everybody suddenly appreciate Masa. Ginta functions as a middleman handling money for kidnapping and ransom transactions. He’s trying to play both sides of the fence, representing kidnapping groups while feeding information to the police on the side. Masa tells Yaichi about his new friendship with a man named Yagi who asks odd questions and shares stories about his past, including the death of a servant Yagi once knew named Yaichi. In turn, Yaichi becomes more withdrawn and depressed.

Ginta gradually discovers more about the House of Five Leaves and starts serving as an intermediary for their next job. As newcomers, Masa and Ginta get thrown together a bit, and Masa shares how he was kicked out of his family. Ginta spies on Yaichi as he deals with an element of his past in an alarmingly direct fashion. While Yaichi has always seemed dangerous, this volume finally shows how far he’s willing to go to hide his past.

House of Five Leaves Volume 5

The House of Five Leaves has put all kidnapping jobs on hiatus. Yagi gets Masa a job at a dojo, teaching children. When Yagi spends time with Masa, he mentions that a boy he used to know had a scar on his shoulder, and he wonders if Yaichi has a similar scar. Despite all the unspoken undercurrents of emotions and past history that swirl around them, Masa and Yaichi have a quiet moment that showcases the odd friendship they have with each other. They talk about eating soba noodles, and Masa comments “When I talk with you I feel as if I am being gently urged forward.” Yaichi replies “The soba. You’re buying, right?” Masa says “Of course” and the men walk down the road together.

Yaichi’s mood is lighter, but Yagi still lingers with his investigation. Masa agrees to take on a challenge at his Dojo, because the master there has injured his arm. One of the things that I like about this series is the way the psychological issues that prevent Masa from being an effective samurai are portrayed. Masa’s gradually become less awkward through his association with his new friends. He accepts the challenge because he can fight one-on-one with the challenger. As long as there isn’t an audience, he’s actually a competent fighter. This is shown economically with only three panels. We see Masa’s resolute face in the shadows, a dark square of nothing, and then the feat of his opponent as he retreats. The master at the Dojo comments that he’d underestimated Masa. He says “We should have a bout when my arm heals. When the kids aren’t around.”

Yagi finally pins down Yaichi and they drink together. Yagi tells the story of a discarded heir to a noble family named Seinoshin and a servant named Yaichi who died. Yaichi’s strict avoidance of his past and mentions of family is something that Masa should adopt, as we see his brother Bunnosuke forging letters from their mother to Masa, determined to bleed him of all his money.

House of Five Leaves Volume 6

This volume is where things get crazy. Masa is struggling with the opportunity to move forward and take another position as a retainer, but feels he can’t due to his time as a member of a kidnapping gang. The House of Five Leaves is about to pull off their last job, and the subject is an heir to a house whose circumstances mirror Yaichi’s past. When they collect the money, they are instructed to dispose of their hostage instead of returning him because he’s no blood relation to the family. Yaichi actually shows some emotions in front of his comrades when he’s confronted with the case of the disposable hostage. Yaichi is increasingly cornered, as both his old gang members and the authorities are getting closer and closer to him. Masa gives his brother one last large payment of money and sees the money returned when someone makes an inquiry about a kidnapping bid. Masa decides that he has to move forward by himself, investigating his brother and going to Gojinko to learn about Yaichi’s past.

The most emotionally gripping scene comes when Masa finally confronts Yaichi, telling him how he decided to become a ronin. He asks Yaichi what the House of Five Leaves means to him, saying “Perhaps you are the one…who is mired in the past.” Yaichi reacts violently and Masa just sits there and takes it, saying that he decided to share his story because he’s finally decided to find out the truth about Yaichi. I have no idea what is going to happen with Masa or Yaichi, but I think that Masa is going to somehow have some sort of emotional breakthrough. He’s finally being direct and expressing how he feels. Even though his brother tells him he’s pathetic, he has the most integrity of anyone in the entire book. Yaichi might be headed towards a spectacular gesture of self-destruction, but I’m hoping that Masa is able to save him somehow. With the bleak background of the daily lives of the characters in House of Five Leaves, I’m not really expecting that Ono will conclude this series with an easy act of personal redemption.

Natsume Ono’s works can be tricky to appreciate, because the events that take place in her manga are often portrayed in such an understated way that it seems like nothing much is going on. Reading three volumes of House of Five Leaves back to back really made me appreciate the way she slowly builds tension in this manga across multiple volumes. Most of the time the characters are talking to each other instead of indulging in action, but the way everybody relates to each other and the meaning attached to eating noodles or the exchange of a money pouch invests these events with a great deal of symbolic weight and emotional tension. At the end of volume 6 I felt a bit emotionally wrung out seeing Yaichi and Masa thrown in different directions that are going to have great impact on them, and I’m wondering if they’ll get through the next couple volumes intact.

Review copies of Volumes 5 and 6 provided by the publisher.

Story of Saiunkoku Volume 6

I’m always happy to see a new volume of this series, which features one of the most sympathetic heroines of shoujo manga. Here we see that while Shurei might pass her civil service exams, her troubles are just beginning. This volume picks up in the middle of a gang fight in a brothel, as Shurei and the young scholar Eigetsu fight the Blue Scarf Gang that has been running around stealing and ransoming examination tokens. Eigetsu turns out to be an unwitting master at drunken boxing, because when he gets splashed by alcohol he turns into the deranged fighter Yogetsu, making him a desirable recruit for anyone in the underworld needing a strong ally.

Ryuki shows his strong promise as a leader when he turns up to extract his future civil servants from gang fighting, striking an amiable deal with the underworld syndicates that control the black market in his city. Now Shurei and Eigetsu are ready to tackle their exams, and they pass while setting records. Eigetsu is the youngest student ever to pass first, Shurei passes in third place, and the eccentric Ryuren Ran passes in second place. Egitsu and Shurei are singled out for the type of harsh hazing that only lifetime bureaucrats would be fiendish enough to survive. While being able to take the exams as a woman was Shurei’s ambition for so long, now she has new tasks to endure if she’s going to fulfill her dream of being a civil servant. One of the things that makes Shurei such a pleasant heroine to root for is that even though she’s suffering, she isn’t held up as a model of saintly behavior. She has a temper and she rants about the horrible treatment she has to endure plenty of times before deciding to stick it out just a bit longer. Ryuki continues to do what he can to protect her, although his role is limited to just watching over Shurei without intervening. Seeing him watch Shurei work out her own problems shows how much he’s evolved as a character since the start of the series, when his previous impulsive tendencies would probably have botched Shurei’s attempts at carving her own path. He’s happy for her success, but ambivalent about her eventual role in government because it will naturally set her at a greater distance from him. Seeing these paradoxical feelings develop as Shurei and Ryuki grow as adults is part of what makes Story of Saiunkoku so entertaining.