One thing that’s a little tricky about review copies is when you get sent mid-series books and you haven’t necessarily read the first volumes. If you write about how accessible the book is for someone to pick up midstream, the review becomes less than useful. I think I remember reading a review of the 8th volume of Seimaden from someone who had no familiarity with the story, and it was a painful exercise. Fortunately since I read a lot of manga blogs, I’m fairly familiar with all of these series even though I haven’t been reading them all along. So I’ll attempt to just concentrate on my reactions to these volumes, and you can chime in on the comments if I’m missing some essential back story!
Kimi ni Todoke Volume 4 by Karuho Shiina
I skipped over buying this title when it first came out because I’m sometimes overwhelmed by Shojo Beat titles, and I was worried that this series about a girl who is ostracized due to her resemblance to a Japanese horror movie character was an overly sentimental version of The Wallflower. But I found myself charmed by the character interaction on display in this volume and now I’m worried I’ll have to add the rest of the series to my shopping list.
The fourth volume of the series opens as formerly scary Sawako and the most popular boy in school Kazehaya are almost ready to move forward with their relationship. There are obstacles in the way in the form of Sawako’s “friend” Kurumi who has been nursing a long-standing crush on Kazehaya. Sawako has been isolated for so long, she’s utterly unaware of the nuances of human interaction. So when Kurumi starts playing mean-girl games like asking Sawako if she can help her go out with Kazehaya, Sawako just comes out and says that she can’t because she has feelings for him.
Kurumi has been out spreading false rumors about Sawako, and Sawako’s unlikely friends Chizu and Ayane confront her. While mean girl manipulation and budding first crushes are shoujo manga staples, I found reading Kimi ni Todoke unexpectedly refreshing. Sawako’s straightforward nature ends up moving plot points forward that in another shoujo series would keep dragging on for a couple volumes just due to more typical heroines being afraid to confess their feelings.
I tend to enjoy manga artists when they have a very individualistic style. You can’t read anything by Moyoco Anno or Ai Yazawa and not recognize the way each of them has a unique approach to character design and composition. Shiina’s art is competent, with plenty of focus on facial expressions as her character’s react to each other. But I found the art to be leaning towards the modern generic shoujo that we see in so many recent series. There are a few quirks that I enjoyed, like the way Shiina tends to favor a more spastic line when drawing Sawako’s belligerent and excitable friend Chizu. It was fun seeing Sawako navigate the murky waters of high school friendship. She’s a genuinely sweet person, although with her lack of social filters she ends up doing things like having a heartfelt conversation about the nature of love with a boy she’s barely met due to Kurumi’s manipulation. Sawako’s blunt honesty ends up helping her out of any sort of sticky situation even if there’s something shady going on.
Arata: The Legend Volume 2 by Yuu Watase
I read the first few chapters of this shonen fantasy series on Shonen Sunday. It didn’t really grab my interest, which was odd since I usually tend to like Yuu Watase series. Like many of her previous series, this features protagonists thrown into a strange world and forced to go on a mystical quest. In this case two boys named Arata have switched places. The Japanese boy Arata Hinohara needs to deal with court intrigue and mystical powers, while the Arata from the fantasy world has to figure out how to attend high school in modern Japan.
The second volume focuses entirely on Japanese Arata’s adventures. He’s trapped on the prison island Gatoya and accompanied only by the overly subservient female healer Kotoha. The prison island is run by a warden who also has possession of a mystical weapon called a hayagami. Arata has a hayagami too, but he’s not sure how to use it. Arata and Kotoha observe life on the prison island, which is a warren of different corridors and levels. The residents live in fear of “the reckoning”, giant tentacle-like tubes which will randomly grab people and spirit them away in order to pronounce sentence upon them. Arata learns about friendship as he encounters the prisoners and he begins to take control of his own power. The events and plot direction of Arata: The Legend are all fairly predicatable. What I ended up enjoying most about this series was the design of the prison island, which looks like a battered steampunk maze.
It probably is a product of both series being aimed at different audiences, but I enjoyed Arata much less than Watase’s other recent series Fushigi Yugi Genbu Kaiden. There’s much less character development in Arata, and I found myself a little annoyed by the healer Kotoha, who helps Arata out but still treats him as though she’s his servant. As you would expect from shonen manga, there’s probably a budding romance going on there, but it just wasn’t very interesting. I think I would have enjoyed this volume more if the chapters were more evenly split between the two Aratas, but the one stranded in Japan only made a brief appearance at the end of the book. Still, there’s plenty of fantasy quest type action on display in this series.
Magic Touch Volume 8 by Izumi Tsubaki
If you read high school romance manga, there are certain plot elements that come up again and again. Preparing for the school festival! Running a cafe at the festival! Romantic misunderstandings! Sometimes featuring a high school group with a wacky hobby can provide the author with some fresher plot ideas. This is one of the reasons why I like V.B. Rose so much, the dress shop setting takes it away from some of the plot devlopments I’ve seen over and over again. Magic Touch features a high school massage club, which I hoped would make the manga a little less typical, but unfortunately this manga features yet another school festival storyline as the hero and heroine sort out their feelings for each other.
Masseuse Chiaki and the boy with the best back in the world Yosuke are now in that nebulous “sort of dating” stage that happens so often in shoujo manga. They have recently entered into a period of extreme physical awkwardness with each other, but they aren’t really talking with each other so misunderstandings abound as the massage club preps for the annual school festival. I seem to remember Magic Touch getting panned in the manga blogosphere, and while it isn’t horrible the best I can say about it is that the manga is incredibly bland. I didn’t feel very interested in the main characters, and the large supporting cast of massage club members were largely indistinguishable from each other. I actually found the last story in the book, about the supporting characters Mihime and Ayame, more interesting than the main storyline. There was a glimmer of quirkiness in the interactions between the perpetually sunglasses wearing Mihime and the sheltered Ayame, so I ended up wishing the manga had focused more on them.
Review copies provided by the publisher