A Bride’s Story Volume 2 by Kaoru Mori

Well, the first volume of this series had the meticulously researched slice of life stories that I expected from the author of Emma, but the second volume gives the reader a surprising amount of action. Amir is starting to get more settled into her new life as a married woman in the village. She even makes a new friend, the outspoken Pariya. Pariya has had trouble finding a husband due to her snarky personality, but she quickly forms a friendship with Amir. Amir continues to be a captivating heroine, partly due to her frequent unorthodox actions. When Pariya gives Amir an intricately decorated loaf of bread, Amir is momentarily distressed because she doesn’t have a present to give in return. She runs inside, grabs her bow, and shoots a bird for Pariya. Amir comments that the birds are “very tasty roasted.”

The gulf in age between Amir and her husband Karluk is preventing them from having a real marriage yet, but Karluk is doing the best he can to be a good husband to his new wife. The village idyll is interrupted when Amir’s tribe comes to take her back. They’ve run through all their marriageable women, and decide that they’re going to marry Amir off again to foster a new alliance. Amir’s brother seems slightly ambivalent about kidnapping his sister back, but he goes along with the orders of the older men in the raiding party. Mori’s sense of humor is part of what makes her manga so fun to read. All the historical detail might seem dry in the hands of another author, but even in a tense situation she manages to build in some funny bits of character interaction. When the researcher Mr. Smith sees Amir being menaced by her family, he decides to drive a herd of sheep towards the group to form a distraction, but not before he undertakes a lengthy apology to the Shepard by saying, “I know beyond the cold descriptions in books, that domestic livestock is a vital factor in inheritance. But…given our present circumstances..I want you to know that the actions I now take have been forced upon me.”

Amir’s tribe severely underestimates the fighting potential of the villagers, and there are some exciting and unconventional battle scenes as the villagers defend Amir in the middle of the night. While Karluk is forced to stay at home with Amir instead of fighting with the other men, he manages to pull off his own heroic moment. The rest of the volume focuses on the growing emotional connection between Amir and Karluk, and there’s a great episode that focuses on the tradition and symbolism attached to the embroidery patterns that are handed down between the women of the same family. Embroidered cloths end up being a way to hold on to memories of the women who created them, serving as a storytelling mechanism as they are unpacked to be shown off to a new generation. These hardcover volumes continue to be a manga collector’s dream. This is a special series, and it is nice that Yen Press is keeping the production values for A Bride’s Story so high.

A Bride's Story Volume 1

I think it is nice that Kaoru Mori’s manga inspires special treatment. The editions of Emma from CMX featured matte paper stock that gave the volumes an old timey feel. A Bride’s Story gets the deluxe treatment from Yen Press, with the first volume arriving as an over sized hardback with a lovely wraparound illustration on the dust jacket. The painstaking research, sympathetic characters, and lovely detailed illustrations that readers enjoyed in Emma are in full effect in A Bride’s Story, with the bonus of a heroine who enjoys hunting rabbits from horseback with a bow.

The story takes place along the Silk Road in the 19th century. Amir is twenty years old, and she’s sent to marry a twelve year old boy named Karluk. Amir comes from a more nomadic tribe than Karluk’s family, with the result that she brings with her some skills that her new family hasn’t possessed in awhile. Amir seems anxious to fit into her new place, trying to be helpful whenever possible and she seems to be waiting for her new husband to grow up. Evidently twenty years is an unforgivably old age for a bride, and the backstory behind the marriage isn’t shown. Karluk is an uncommonly calm twelve year old, who seems to take his responsibilities very seriously. He jumps at the chance to try to locate his uncle’s clan of shepherds, wanting to be reintroduced to his relatives as a married man.

I’d always thought that Mori’s slice of life stories are particularly good at portraying children and how they negotiate the world. Rostam, the youngest member of the household, becomes fascinated with the local woodcarver and he neglects his chores to observe him. This gives Mori the excuse to showcase some dazzling panels of woodcarving patters, as well as showing the reactions of Rostam’s family. His mother sends him to bed without dinner, then tasks Amir with sneaking him food later. When it is clear that this is a general pattern of Rostam getting punishments that his mother immediately regrets, Amir declines to participate. She’s nervous and wants to please her new family, but when they start discussing rabbit stew she seizes the opportunity to grab her bow (part of her dowry) and race off on her horse to hunt.

A Bride’s Story would be plenty entertaining if it just showcased Mori’s research and charming illustrations, but she decides to introduce a note of suspense when it seems like Amir’s family has started to regret sending her off to marry Karluck. Amir gets an unexpected ally when the matriarch of the family (an enjoyable example of the kick-ass grandma character that often appears in manga) decides to defend the new bride. Karluck’s grandmother received a bow with her dowry too! With publishers going out of business and series going out of print or left unfinished, I’ve been feeling a little less enthused about manga lately. Reading A Bride’s Story has reminded me about the possibilities for storytelling unique to manga, and I’m happy to find a great new series to read.

Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy

Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy by Fumi Yoshinaga

I’m willing to try any manga by Fumi Yoshinaga, and I was curious about Not Love But Delicious Foods, because it is obvious from her other manga that Yoshinaga is an unapologetic foodie. This volume detailing the restaurant visits of Yoshinaga and her friends and co-workers feels a little more like omake (the extra author notes or side stories included in a manga) than a full-fledged volume, but if I had to read a volume of nothing but food omake, I’d expect Yoshinaga’s to be very entertaining. I wasn’t disappointed by the love of food on display here, but I was more interested in the ways Yoshinaga portrayed herself as she ate.

More than anything else, Not Love But Delicious Foods functions as a food diary from a restaurant enthusiast. Yoshinaga goes to eat with her assistants and friends, visiting different restaurants and including detailed descriptions of the meals eaten at each one. There isn’t the historical background or information about preparation included that you’d see in a series like Oshinbo, instead you get recitations of what’s great about a particular dish, with a map to the restaurants visited after each chapter. The food descriptions sometimes seemed to blur together a little bit, but I read the book in one sitting. It might be better sampled a chapter or two at a time. I did put down the book feeling a wave of nostalgia for Japanese bakeries (they put so many different things inside bread) and Yoshinaga changed my dismissive attitude towards eel.

Yoshinaga portrays herself as a middle aged man, unsightly hag, and dolled-up drag queen. She introduces her character as “F-mi Y-naga, a thirty-one year old female who makes her living by drawing men engaged in anal sex.” She has a wide circle of friends she goes out to eat with, but her mainstay is her hopeless assistant S-hara. She lives with S-hara, and he works on her manga but he’s not very good. She keeps trying to lend him out to other manga artists in the futile hope that he’ll come back with better skills. Yoshinaga portrays her attitude towards food as very proprietorial. She’s delighted to talk about food, take people out to eat, and if someone likes a dish that she recommends she is as proud as if she made it herself. She frightens away potential dates, but thrills inside when she sees a well-fed man. One of the stories that I thought was interesting coming from a yaoi author is when Y-naga discovers that one of her acquaintances is gay. She takes him out to eat and apologizes to him, saying “I’ve been paying my rent drawing manga with gay themes, but none of them are real gay themes!”

Y-naga’s capacity for food is almost endless, as shown when the staff of an all you can eat restaurant gathers and bows to Y-naga and her friend when they finally place their last order. The lecturing tone is fairly consistent throughout the whole manga, but it is something Yoshinaga is very aware of, making comments like “Imparting boring trivia to young female meal companions is one of Y-naga’s old-man like traits.” Yoshinaga is obviously exaggerating her quirks for comedic effect, but if was fun reading about her adventures in restaurants and seeing the way she enjoys sharing food with her friends. I think this manga is probably best suited to someone who is already a Yoshinaga fan, and who has already read several of her series. While Not Love But Delicious Foods is funny and entertaining I imagine it would be less captivating for someone who isn’t very familiar with her previous works. As a companion piece to Yoshinaga’s other series providing an exaggerated look at the life of a talented manga creator, Not Love But Delicious Foods functions very well. It does make me dearly wish that someone would pick up and translate her series “What Did You Eat Yesterday” about the culinary adventures of a gay couple.

2010 Manga Gift Guide

Here are my picks for manga to give to people this holiday season! Here’s my guide from last year, in case you’re curious about my previous picks.

We’re lucky to be living in an age of awesome omnibus editions, and I think they make awesome gifts for manga fans. The books on this list are suitable for teens and adults, I didn’t read a ton of all ages manga this year.

For the fan of classic shoujo:

I don’t think it gets much better than the Dark Horse Clamp Omnibus releases. Some of the more recent Clamp series leave me a little cold, but it is hard to recapture the charm and whimsy of the original Cardcaptor Sakura. With plenty of outfit changes, a tarot card-inspired magical quest, and puppy-love crushes popping up everywhere, Cardcaptor Sakura is a must read for any fan of shoujo fantasy. I tend to be merciless about culling my collection if I have older volumes when I know I’m going to buy the same manga in a deluxe edition, so I don’t have my old stray volumes of the original Tokyopop release. I can’t compare the old and new translations, but I do appreciate the great paper quality of the new Dark Horse edition, as well as all the bonus color illustrations included in this volume. I’m looking forward to collecting the rest of this series.

Itazura na Kiss came out last November, but I didn’t read it until 2010 so I’m including it in this gift guide. The dim-witted heroine with lots of heart is a shoujo staple, and sometimes such a cliched character type can be a little annoying. However, one of the reasons why so many lazy mangaka turn to this character type is the classic and hilarious portrayal of Kotoko in Itazura Na Kiss. Kotoko’s hopeless and all-consuming love for the epitome of Japanese eliteness Irie inspires sympathy in me as opposed to resignation. Kaoru Tada surrounds her odd couple with a large and hilarious supporting cast, making Itazura Na Kiss much more interesting than you might think for a story that follows the romance of a nice but simple girl and her chosen snobbish but intelligent guy.

For the shoujo fan who has everything:

One of my pleasant discoveries late in the year was the omnibus edition of Toru Fujieda’s Dragon Girl. I enjoyed her series Oyayubihime Infinity from CMX, and Dragon Girl makes a slightly goofy premise (girl infiltrates a traditional Japanese cheering club) much more enjoyable than you might think. Rinna’s relentless pursuit of excellence in cheering and total lack of embarrassment even as some of her classmates attempt to pick on her are admirable, and Fujieda manages to create an interesting reverse harem story with plenty of humor. I’m looking forward to the second and concluding volume when it comes out later in the year, and I think the double omnibus edition will make a great addition to any fan of silly shoujo. I haven’t seen this title get as widely reviewed as other shoujo titles recently, so this is my under the radar new shoujo pick.

For the alternative comic fan:

If you know someone who tends to prefer alternative or indie comics, there are some manga out there that should appeal to them. Tops on the list is the Top Shelf anthology AX Volume 1. My full review is here, but the short version is that AX is a carefully curated anthology that gives the reader a new appreciation of the variety of storytelling and art styles that come out of the alternative comics scene in Japan. This would also be a great gift for the manga fan that appreciates volumes that fill in their knowledge of the history and development of the art form.

Other options would be almost anything from Viz’s Sigikki line which is filled with unique storytelling and distinctive art styles. My current favorites from this line are Children of the Sea, Afterschool Charisma, and House of Five Leaves. I think House of Five Leaves, with its slice of life account of a diffident ronin accidentally falling into a life of crime might appeal most to indie comic fans who are open to trying out some manga.

Fans of craziness in comic form – post apocalyptic sci-fi seinen version:

I’ve only read one volume of Biomega and I mean to track down the rest of the series at some point. However just from reading the first volume I wouldn’t hesitate recommending the title to anyone with a sense of humor who enjoys dark twisted science fiction. Tsutomu Nihei’s vision of the future is filled with stylish zombie fighters, abandoned places with interesting architecture, and a talking bear with a machine gun. I don’t think it gets much better than that. I can’t say that Biomega was terribly coherent, but the gorgeous art, creepy zombies, and the aforementioned talking bear with the machine gun goes a long way in satisfying me as a reader. Also: talking bear with machine gun.

Fans of craziness in comic form – cracktastic fantasy shoujo eye-candy version:

This was a really good year for shoujo. But the new series that immediately captured my attention was Demon Sacred, Natsumi Itsuki’s manga about mystical creatures from another dimension that manifest as unicorns and dragons, then take the form of super-hot idol singers when bonded to teenage girls. Add in the medical mystery surrounding the reverse-aging disease called Return Syndrome, a hot genius scientiic researcher, and angsty twin girls and you get one of the most genuinely crazy shoujo plots that I’ve seen since Moon Child. Priced at $5.99, it would be easy to pick up the first couple volumes for any fan of loopy shoujo series. While the first volume of Demon Sacred was a little dense, by the second volume I had given myself over to the craziness and I am eagerly looking forward to the third volume which is coming out at the end of the month, because I need another hit. Nope, this series isn’t addicting at all!

Shonen manga of the year:

I didn’t expect that I’d love Cross Game so much, but this slice-of-life story about a young baseball prodigy touches on issues kids face as they grow up with the baseball serving only as a backdrop. As the characters age and move up in school, they face challenges that go beyond just the baseball field. Ko is an engaging hero, and I’m genuinely curious to find out how he and his friends deal with the corrupt baseball coach at their high school. The three volume omnibus helps compensate for the slightly slow start to the series, but I appreciated being able to read a sports manga that showed time gradually passing for the characters.

Box Sets

Box sets might not be useful for established manga fans, but for newer fans who might not have collected the volumes yet, they could be a great way to get someone hooked.

Death Note Box Set (Vol. 1-13)

Vampire Knight Box Set

Fruits Basket, Vols. 1-4

As for what’s on my wish list, I’d probably want to fill in the gaps in some of the Viz signature series where I don’t have all the volumes, like getting the rest of Biomega, snagging volumes 2 and 3 of Children of the Sea, and the second volume of House of Five Leaves.

Happy Manga Shopping!

Dragon Girl Omnibus Volume 1

Dragon Girl Omnibus Volume 1 by Toru Fujieda

Some manga creators have the ability to make cliched stories so much better than they have a right to be. Toru Fujieda managed to make Oyayubihime Infinity, a convoluted shoujo series dealing with pop idols, reincarnation, and butterfly birthmarks, both involving and interesting. Dragon Girl is a fairly standard reverse harem manga mashed up with sports storylines and the always present evil student council, but the characters and situations she creates are genuinely endearing and funny.

The heroine of Dragon Girl is Rinna Aizen. She’s determined to join the Shoryu High Cheerleading Squad where her father was once a legendary captain. When little Rinna confesses her intention to a boy named Subaru, he tells her that she’s an idiot because Shoryu is an all-boys school. Years later Shoryu has been forced to go co-ed and Rinna is enrolling. She quickly finds out that the Cheerleading Squad of her dreams has fallen on rough times. The only member of the squad left is the eccentric captain Hasekura, who stalks around the school wearing his cheering uniform, along with a weedy mustache that he’s grown in an attempt to live up to his idea of manliness. The class president says that the Cheering Squad will be disbanded do to lack of members, and Rinna promptly volunteers. Hasekura is dubious about the prospect of female squad members, but Rinna is like an exceptionally cute, energetic steamroller and soon there’s a ragtag squad of students learning traditional cheers and fighting to get their club status returned. The evil student council tries to stamp out the Cheering Squad and attempts to make Rinna into a pawn by giving her “Platinum Student” status.

Fujieda has a knack for creating sympathetic but slightly quirky characters. In some ways Rinna is a typical energetic shoujo heroine, but what sets her apart is her admirable quality of total commitment to cheering, and her fearless approach to throwing herself into situations that others might find embarrassing. She approaches chicken fights, waving improvised flags, friend trivia contests, and trying to win over fellow Platinum student with the same amount of cheerful determination. Even though there’s a large supporting cast, they all had distinct personalities. Hasekura acts like a ridiculous manly stereotype, but his feelings towards Rinna evolve from grudging respect into something more. Rinna’s fellow cheer squad members include the cool Chizuri and Temari who has a pathological fear of men. Rinna’s first love Sakura makes a couple enigmatic appearances as a model-like boy who goes everywhere with his pet cat. Rinna’s antagonists include the evil student council president, a crossdressing boy who forms a rival cheerleading squad, and a Platinum student named Yaotome who deliberately holds himself apart from other people and claims to hate women.

Dragon Girl is a total reverse harem series with a large cast of cute, goofy and mysterious guys. Fujieda’s distinct and attractive character designs make the art a pleasure to look at. The details about traditional cheering were interesting, and like most Yen Press editions there were translation notes included at the end of each volume. After reading three volumes of this series I wasn’t sure who I wanted Rinna to end up with, and I could see different possibilities for a potential boyfriend for her, which I think is a sign of a good reverse harem series. It might not be groundbreaking shoujo, but for what it is Dragon Girl does extremely well. It was fun being able to dive into the story and read three volumes all at once. I will be definitely be buying the second omnibus which wraps up the series. Highly recommended if you are looking for some new fluffy shoujo to read.