Tag Archives: cmx

Swan Volumes 8 and 9

I started reading this series out of sequence, so there’s a quick take on Swan #7 here. Basically in volume 7 the feelings the dancers have for each other come out into the open. Aoi’s feelings aren’t returned by Masumi and Kusakabe can’t return Masumi’s feelings. The presence of a mysterious Russian choreographer opens up a new plot possibility and Masumi is determined to throw herself into studying dance more than ever.

Swan Volume 8 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Masumi prepares for her role as Mavka in a performance from Japan’s National Ballet School. As Masumi performs her role with Kusakabe, Kaoru sits in the audience with her insane stage mother. Kaoru lost the role of Mavka to Masumi in the audition process. Kaoru’s mother is happy at something she’s observed in the pair’s performance. She says if it continues the ballet will be ruined, and she leaves the hall saying that she doesn’t need to watch anymore. The love trio is played out onstage as Kusakabe is the human that the forest spirit falls in love with and Aoi is a spirit in love with Mavka. Kaoru and her mother leave and Kaoru learns what the problem is with the performance. Masumi’s timing with her lifts is off for a fraction of a second. She’s placing too much stress on Kusakabe’s arms and shoulders and his strength will soon give out. Kaoru’s mother is happy about the prospect of Masumi failing because she was never able to beat Masumi’s mother when she was a dancer. Kaoru is horrified and she leaves to go back to the theater. She is determined to help Masumi.

The staging of the ballet is lovely. Some of the panels have a slight art nouveau feel do to the ripples in Masumi’s hair combined with the natural setting. When Kaoru arrives at the theater the final scene has started. She steals a costume from another dancer and goes onstage in her place in order to tell Masumi that she’s tightening her legs too soon. Masumi manages to make the correction just in time to save the performance. After the performance Masumi is confronted by the dancer that Kaoru replaced. Kaoru’s actions have cost the anonymous dancer a treasured performance in order to help Masumi. Masumi realizes again how fortunate she is to be singled out as a solo dancer.

A new competition is announced where the Japanese students will take part in a contest taking place in Tokyo. Masumi will be able to see her fellow dancers from all over the world again. When Masumi goes to high school she’s struck by the presence of an obnoxious Japanese-German gymnast named Leon. When he sees her dancing in the school gym he asks if she’s doing an odd Japanese folk dance. He makes a snide comment about not realizing she was doing ballet. Masumi doesn’t have time to think about him. Sergeiev tells her to win the gold medal in the contest!

Swan Volume 9 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

The structure of the competition allows the reader to revisit many of the people Masumi has encountered in her Ballet journey, as each character dances a performance that reflects their personality. Sydney from England dances a passionate Firebird. Kyogoku and Kusakabe dance a lovely version of the Blue Bird from Sleeping Beauty. The Russians excel, and Masumi partners with Aoi for the Black Swan.

Aoi confronts Kusakabe about his behavior towards Masumi. Aoi says that Kusakabe is acting too nice, which isn’t helping Masumi deal with her own emotions. Aoi wants Masumi to win the gold no matter what, and he doesn’t want her distracted. Masumi is distracted, but it isn’t by Kusakabe. She runs into the new transfer student Leon again at school. He again makes a disparaging comment about ballet. He says that “all the males just try to make the females look good. They never step out; only assisting like they’re taught. It’s all about the women and for the women.” Masumi yells that all the ballet dancers respect each other and help their partners, but Leon just grins and says that everyone has a self-serving ego within them. Leon tells Masumi that she should take a good luck at her own ego, and maybe her dancing will improve. Masumi is completely distressed and runs away.

As Masumi is leaving school, she’s greeted by the mysterious older Russian man that she’s spotted before at her auditions and near her mother’s grave. He offers Masumi and Aoi a ride home in his car and after a discussion about ballet Aoi asks the man if he could coach them in their next dance. The man agrees, and they spend some time discussing interpretation and character motivation. At the competition Masumi is shocked when she sees Leon take the stage to dance the solo from Spartacus. Leon’s dancing is incredibly eye-catching and masculine. Masumi keeps thinking about their earlier conversation while she watches him and she finds herself short of breath. She leaves, only to see Kyogoku and Kusakabe waiting in the wings for their turn. Kusakabe tenderly fixes his chosen partner’s hair. Masumi sees that she never really had a chance with Kusakabe. Kusakabe sees Masumi, but turns away from her. Her heart breaks. She decides that she has to tell Kusakabe how she feels, if only to be formally rejected so she can move on. Kusakabe says that Kyogoku is the only partner for him. Masumi turns and walks away in the rain outside. Leon sees her walking and watches her go with an uncharacteristically soft look on his face. Masumi collapses and Aoi finds her. He grabs her arms and pulls her up, telling her that they have only 10 hours left to prepare for their performance.

Well! The arrival of Leon is very intriguing. One thing that shoujo manga has taught me is that generally when a half-European half-Japanese male appears, he is destined to be a love interest for the heroine. Yet, because he isn’t fully Japanese he will not be the one she ends up with in the end. I am intrigued to see if this is what happens, because Masumi and Leon are clearly destined for romance just because she finds him so irritating. Also, all the other women who see Leon dance think that he’s hot so I am guessing Masumi will not be immune to his charms. One of the things that I enjoy about Swan is the way the characters all care about each other despite Leon’s assertion that everyone is looking out for number one. There’s an element of freshness and innocence in this series that I don’t see very much in more modern manga.

Oh! My Brother Volume 1

Oh! My Brother by Ken Saito Volume 1

The Name of the Flower is one of my favorite new manga series, so I was expecting good things from Oh! My Brother. While this manga isn’t as emotionally resonant and delicately constructed as The Name of the Father, it still manages to be entertaining. Masago is the younger sister of the incredibly popular and smart Shiro. He’s head of the school council and has a certain quality to his personality that seems to draw people towards him. He’s busy preparing for the school’s cultural festival. When he and Masago are about to walk home from school he sees a bus heading towards his sister and shields her with his body, dying instantly.

Masago becomes possessed by her older brother’s spirit. What is the unfinished business that has caused him to linger on earth, sharing his sister’s body? One of the things that I thought was a little off tonally was how little Shiro seems to be bothered by his own death or his spirit possession of his sister’s body. He seems rather nonchalant about the whole situation, throwing himself into finishing the arrangements for the cultural festival after Masago volunteers to help out with everything. Kurouma is one of Shiro’s friends on the school council, and he is only person that Masago and Shiro confide in about their predicament. Kurouma seems like a familiar Saito character type. He’s quiet and self contained, and he can instantly sense which sibling happens to be in possession of Masago’s body. I do like the way Saito signals to the reader who is in charge just by shifting Masago’s facial expressions and posture. Shiro-as-Masago is exuberant and extroverted, while Masago acts like a normal girl.

The plot of the book revolves around Shiro trying to complete various tasks that he left unfinished in life. Masago clearly has a crush on Kurouma, but Shiro isn’t going to let anything happen as long as he can take over his sister’s body in order to stop the budding romance. There’s an odd mix of comedy and touching moments. Masago is greeted as a gang boss by other students after they encounter her when possessed by the aggressive Shiro. She misses her brother being alive, but is grateful for the extra time she can spend with him. Saito’s focus on facial expressions makes the reader feel sympathy for all the characters in the manga as they begin to come to terms with Shiro’s death. While Oh! My Brother doesn’t totally come together to form a coherent whole I think any manga from Saito is better than much of the manga being published today. I’m definitely looking forward to the second and concluding volume of this series.

Swan Volumes 5 and 6

Swan Volume 5 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Ballet manga is just like sports or war manga but instead of big games or battles, there are the exciting dance-offs! In volume 5 of Swan Masumi and Larissa go head-to head in competition as they alternate the roles of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. Larissa gives a textbook perfect performance with a traditional interpretation of Odette. Masumi’s unconventional performance of Odile initially leaves the audience perplexed, but as they see her dance they are completely won over. Sergeiev dances the role of the prince with both girls, and it was a little odd to see him locked in passionate embrace with Masumi onstage after all the time he’s spent relentlessly drilling her to refine her technique. Kusakabe notices Sergeiev’s special regard for his student, thinking to himself, “His face is so typically stoic and Russian, but his eyes glow with passion! When it comes to Masumi, his ‘heart of stone’ is on fire!” I’m always impressed with Ariyoshi’s layout techniques. During the big dance scenes she’ll combine splash pages showing the entire bodies of the dancers combined with several head shots that demonstrate the emotions on their faces as they act their role.

Back in Japan, Kyogoku is out of bed and struggling to regain her old skills. She falls when trying to execute dance moves she had perfected as a child. She receives a heartfelt letter from Kusakabe, reminding her of the vow they made years ago to dance together before the world. Kusakabe tells Kyogoku about Masumi’s audition for Swan Lake. Kyogoku practices for 40 hours to perfect her turns and collapses again.

Masumi is trembling before she is about to go onstage as Odette. The other students rush to tell Larissa that Masumi is shaking with fear. Larissa is annoyed and says “Wouldn’t you be? If it was your turn onstage?” As Odette, Masumi’s performance is again a contrast to Larissa’s. Masumi is tranquil and serene where Larissa was vibrant. When Masumi goes offstage Kusakabe discovers that she’s feverish. When she goes onstage again Sergeiev notices her condition and is concerned because he’s seen dancers get sick from nerves and pressure before. He uses his strength and skill as a partner to make her dancing look effortless. Masumi wins the right to progress, but there is a third candidate to beat – Larissa’s cousin Liliana. One of the things I like about Swan is that even when dancers are rivals, there’s never any real enmity between them. Larissa is philosophical about her defeat and tells Masumi that she considers them rivals for life now.

Swan Volume 6 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

The sixth volume of Swan deals more with the characters’ interpersonal relationships than ballet. Masumi suffers a setback when she is supposed to dance against Liliana. Liliana turns out to be a prodigy, with an ethereal quality that is the essence of romantic ballet. Masumi’s fear manifests in a temporary hearing loss. At first her performance is about to be canceled, but she regains her hearing and dances anyway. Her hearing vanishes again when she is onstage, and she is only able to get through the performance by following Sergeiev. The role of Odette goes to Liliana, and Masumi must return home to Japan to continue her studies.

Sergeiev is devastated by the turn of events. He thought that the flaw in Masumi’s dancing was due to poor training or lack of musicality, but it is much worse knowing that she may be dealing with psychological issues. Masumi flies home to Japan with Kusakabe, enjoying his company on Christmas Eve. Kyogoku meets them at the airport. When Masumi asks her about her leg, Kyogoku informs her that she’s wearing toe shoes already but in an aside to Kusakabe she whispers that she was just discharged from the hospital yesterday. The Japanese students are going to prepare for a production of a production of “Song of the Forest.” The first term students will compete against the new second term students for roles. Everyone expects that Kyogoku will play the lead female role of Mavka, but Masumi is selected. She’s horrified by the idea of taking a role that Kyogoku was looking forward to and insists on sharing the audition.

Kusakabe is upset, and begs Kyogoku not to dance. He points out that the instructors didn’t choose her in order to give her time to heal, but Kyogoku says that the role of Mavka can be her comeback. Kusakabe goes on a walk with Masumi. She talks about how happy she is that Kyogoku is healed, and he tells her that Kyogoku is still injured. He asks Masumi to take back her inadvertent challenge. Masumi feels horrible and thinks that Kusakabe hates her. Aoi corners Kusakabe and lectures him about his insensitivity to Masumi. Masumi tries to talk to Kyogoku, but the injured dancer is still determined to perform. As Masumi watches Kyogoku struggle through her performance supported by Kusakabe, she realizes the depth of the feelings between the pair. Masumi runs away and Aoi goes after her. Poor Aoi picks the wost possible time to tell Masumi that he loves her.

After six volumes, I’m still incredibly curious to find out what will happen as Masumi progresses in the world of ballet. Will she be able to overcome her psychological issues and become a better dancer? Will she find love with someone? What about her dead mother’s past ballet career and the mysterious Russian who was her partner? Ariyoshi has set up a ton of plot elements to be explored, and I’m still entertained by the occasional digression into background information about the difference between classical and modern dance. I read a volume of Swan with clear storytelling and innovative layouts and I’m struck by the contrast with some of the manga that’s being produced today that has overcrowded panels and too much screen tone.

Review copies provided by the publisher

Swan Volumes 3 and 4

CMX was nice enough to send me a big box o’ Swan. This is the first time that I’ve had such a large chunk of a manga series sitting around the house to read, so I’m going to try to post about this great ballet series a little bit each week and work my way up to the current volumes.

To recap, our intrepid heroine Masumi is singled out for her incredible potential. Although her ballet training has been remarkably insufficient, she is able to partially overcome her flaws through hard work. She is granted the gift of special lessons at the newly formed Japanese National Ballet School by the ballet master Alexi Sergieiev. Masumi meets the promising male dancers Kusakabe and Aoi as well as the most talented female junior dancer in Japan, Kyogyoku. Kyogyoku recognizes in Masumi someone who has the gift to be her true rival.

After a dance competition Kyogyoku and Kusakabe head off to Moscow. Masumi is able to visit them on a stop over as she travels to further her studies in London. She sees Kyogyoku deal with a rival Russian Ballerina and former protege of Sergieiev named Larissa Maximova. As the third volume opens, Kyogyoku’s performance of Sleeping Beauty will determine if she will win a chance to audition for a Bolshoi Ballet production.

Swan Volume 3 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Kyogoku has to dance the role of Aurora with the weight of the expectations of the new Japanese ballet program on her shoulders along with her own artistic ambitions and nerves. One of the things I like about Swan is the little expositional detours where Ariyoshi will explain a little bit about the plot, performance history, and music of a given ballet while showing several panels of the characters dancing the role. Paragraphs of ballet exposition might seem boring, but the art is so dynamic that I found myself caught up in the story of the performance. Kyogoku’s performance is a success, and a new ballet star is born. She’s besieged by new fans and press. Masumi is genuinely thrilled for her new friend and proud that Kyogoku has been able to advance the cause of Japanese ballet.

Larissa is complaining the next day about Sergieiev abandoning the Russians to work with foreigners. Masumi stands up for herself and Larissa challenges her to dance the Red Poppy against her. Masumi agrees, although she has only seen the role once. As Masumi is dancing, she finds that she doesn’t remember the next step, but another Russian student named Liliana comes to her rescue. During the next show Kyogoku lands wrong after a grand jete and snaps her Achilles tendon. She can’t dance for a year, and may never be able to regain her previous ability. Masumi is devastated, but Kyogoku initially appears brave about her horrible situation. The shock comes when a member of the Japanese ballet school puts forward Masumi’s name as a candidate to audition in Kyogoku’s place. Masumi has to dance the role of the Black Swan against Larissa.

Masumi agrees to the audition after Kyogoku encourages her. She undergoes intensive training with Sergieiev, and he attempts to accomplish in 10 days with Masumi what most dancers study in 10 years. Masumi picks up an incredible amount of technique, but she is only able to surpass Larissa when she reconnects with her love of the dance. Masumi manages to remain serene and centered during the audition process while the perfectionist Larissa psyches herself out. Masumi will audition for the Bolshoi in one month. She goes to share her news with Kyogoku and discovers that the injured ballerina is acting out against her horrible situation.

Swan Volume 4 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Masumi leaves Russia to train in London for a month. Kusakabe and Aoi reminisce about how much she’s changed after seeing her off. In London Masumi is challenged for the first time to interpret her role for herself. She works with the Cuban dancer Fernando to create a student production, and he points out that ballet dancers have to draw on their own creativity in order to inhabit a role. Masumi struggles to add this new element to her dancing, but ultimately manages to deepen her acting ability. She sees firsthand the sacrifices that dancers make for their craft as her roommate Sidney Eckland pushes her boyfriend away because she only has time for ballet.
One of the fun things about Swan is when real ballet dancers show up in the manga. Margaret Fonteyn appears to critique Sidney and Masumi’s interpretations of the White Swan from Swan Lake. While Masumi’s dancing still has flaws, she does possess an undeniable stage presence that captures audience attention. Masumi returns to Russia and her teacher Sergieiev to prepare for her next audition. She also spends more time with Kusakabe. He supports Masumi as she prepares for her audition, and she can tell that she’s falling in love with him.

Ariyoshi continues to use incredibly effective and innovative layout techniques. Sometimes she might mimic motion study photography to show a dance move step-by-step. She’ll often use collage, with the heads of various characters fading in and out of the background as someone is having an emotional moment. While often everyone is starry-eyed occasionally Ariyoshi will draw a character with blank white eyes, which creates an arresting effect. While I can see that for some people the frequent speeches about trying one’s best and giving everything up for ballet might get a bit tiresome, there’s something about this series that triggers my total suspension of disbelief. Ariyoshi makes me want to believe in a world where an untried Japanese dancer ends up hanging out with Margaret Fonteyn, where everyone’s hair looks like a shampoo commercial, and where the power of dance can change people’s lives.

There’s a weird listing on amazon that comes up when you search for “Swan Manga” that groups several of the early volumes together, saying that they are unavailable. If you’re trying to track down early volumes of this series, it is better to search for “swan 1”, “swan 2”, etc.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

A Tale of an Unknown Country

A Tale of an Unknown Country Volume 1 by Natsuna Kawase

When I read books about princesses I’m always entertained by princesses who act extremely un-princesslike, so I enjoyed this breezy fairy tale about a princess who disguises herself as a maid to spy on a potential fiance. Rosemarie lives in the poor but bucolic kingdom of Ardela. Her life is spent selling bread in the courtyard of her castle to the tourists that are her country’s main source of income. Rosemarie’s brother announces that he’s arranged a marriage to a prince from a country that is the total opposite of Ardela. The mysterious prince Reynol is from Yurinela, a country that is so far advanced in technology that it has encased itself in a dome. There is no weather in Yurinela, and the people’s lives are arranged with scientific precision.

Rosemarie decides to disguise herself as a maid and goes to visit Reynol. Her meddling personality causes her to start rearranging his life. She decides that he should sleep more and eat proper meals instead of taking a nutritional supplement. As Rosemarie gets to know Reynol she sees that he actually has emotions, despite the influence of his overly mechanized environment. The pair quickly fall in love and decide to accept their engagement. Since the leads in A Tale of an Unknown Country get together quickly, the bulk of the stories in the volume deal with them working to get other people to accept their relationship despite the great differences between their two countries. A Tale of an Unknown Country was published before Kawase’s Lapis Lazuli Crown, so the art is a little more simplistic but still easy to follow. This is another nice all-ages series from CMX.

Recent Reads from CMX – Venus in Love, Lapis Lazuli Crown, and Swan

I think sometimes I tend to focus mostly on covering first volumes of manga series, but I thought I’d also try to start doing some short takes on some of the ongoing series that I enjoy.

Venus in Love #7 by Yuki Nakaji

I’m not sure why this series doesn’t get more hype because it really deserves to be better known. It doesn’t have dramatic plot twists or heaping servings of angst, instead it follows the friendships of an interconnected group of college students. Suzuna and Eichi finally take their friendship to the next level with a kiss. This ends up being very emotionally satisfying for the reader, and it is easy to see obvious how much the couple cares for each other as they can’t pull themselves away from their embrace. When they finally separate the panels that follow illustrating their solitary reactions to the event are so cute. Eichi does a fist pump and yells “Yes!” Suzuna has a more subdued but pleased reaction as she blushes and snickers uncontrollably to herself. This meandering slice of life title is one of my favorite feel-good reads.

Lapis Lazuli Crown #2 by Natsuna Kawase

This is the concluding volume of this short fantasy series. It seems from the author notes that she originally planned a longer series, but had to cut back on all of the stories she had planned. I still enjoyed reading the further adventures of Miel as she worked to improve her magic and support Prince Radian. Miel’s superhuman strength indicates a boundless capacity to deal with magic but she has to work on her lack of control.

The first story of the collection focuses on Miel’s childhood friend Rosette and her rival and potential boyfriend Seigle Chiffonnade. We move further ahead in time as Miel manages to successfully graduate and is assigned to the Barrier Bureau, the department of protective magic that Prince Radian administers. Radian and Miel agree to date in secret. Miel’s powers are tested when the protection that is channeled through the Lapis Lazuli Crown must be renewed. Noble families start to manipulate the ceremony, but Radian is able to take charge of the situation with Miel’s support. This short series strikes me as being a good pick for middle school libraries. It is rated E for everyone, so there would be few concerns about the content, and the two volume length will be useful for any librarian worried about space constraints on the shelves.

Swan #2 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

I wish I’d been collecting this series all along, but I didn’t so I’m just picking up a random volume here and there when I can. In the second volume of this energetic ballet saga Masumi competes with the dancer she most admires, Kyogoku, for the role of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty in a performance that will take place in Russia. Masumi has improved at an amazing rate, but she still suffers from a lack of self-confidence. Her teacher tells her to focus on the basics as she is left behind while her friends scatter all around the world. An amazing amount of story is packed into this volume. A dancer from Cuba arrives and practices a pas de deux with Masumi. Masumi is sent to London, but decides to detour in Moscow to see her friends again. A Russian prodigy tries her mean girl tricks on both Kyogoku and Masumi. Ariyoshi could teach a master class in layout techniques, as she manages to fill her panels with the dynamic nature of dance as well as the dancers’ inner feelings. To add to the excitement there is a Giselle dance-off between Russia and Japan.

Swan #7 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Now romantic complications are working their way into the dancers’ lives. Aoi has confess his love for Masumi and his feelings were not returned. Masumi is in love with Kusakabe but he loves Kyogoku. What does a ballet dancer do with unrequited love? Use their feelings to make their dancing even more awesome! Masumi auditions for a role against her classmate Kaoru. Kaoru’s mother has been mercilessly training her in an attempt to make up for her own shortcomings as a dancer. When Kaoru’s mother realizes that Masumi is the daughter of her rival the pressure on Kaoru increases even more. Swan is filled with 1970s flowing hair, copious tears, the power of dance, and fascinating ballet footnotes. I’m determined to track down the other volumes in this series and make up for lost time.

Flat Earth Exchange Volumes 1 and 2

Flat Earth Exchange Volume 1 by Toshimi Nigoshi

Many years in the future, the human race is all but wiped out. Humans have mostly been replaced by “people”, humanoid androids. Androids have a problem with their construction. They lose all memories of their existence after 22 years, so they are constantly being reborn as a new, amnesiac person. With the decline in human population, the androids now are free to believe a myth that they are the originators who created the human race as an experiment.

A schoolboy named Kotaro was involuntarily placed in suspended animation and woke up years into the future. He was the only one in his group to emerge from his sleeping pod. Kotaro supports himself by pretending to be an emissary of an elder in an area called Sanctuary, running a con on androids who seek out humans for advice. He meets Ree and the boy Ath. They greet him as the wise emissary. Ree is suspicious of Kotaro. Kotaro is so desperate for contact with other people that he threatens Ath’s life in return for an invitation to dinner.

An observer lurks on the hillside. It is Wil, the sixth in line to the throne and a fugitive. He shoots Kotaro in the shoulder and kidnaps him, needing the information a recently woken sleeper may posess. Kotaro passes out and wakes up in Wil’s dilapidated headquarters. Kotaro is so thankful to have contact with another human, he doesn’t particularly mind being shot and kidnapped. Will and Kotaro begin a tentative friendship. Elsewhere Ree goes along with his daily life. He’s unsettled because Kotaro reminded him of someone from his past, a memory he is on the verge of losing. Ree isn’t adjusting well to his incipient memory loss.

Although Kotaro, Ree, and Wil are the core of the story, the first volume of Flat Earth Exchange introduces a dizzying array of supporting cast and subplots. There’s a police force called Special Section 6 patrolling the villages, Wil’s murderous tendencies, Ree and his companions’ work with orphans, and general civic unrest. Kotaro starts to explore Wil’s headquarters, locating an ancient computer that he secretly uses for his own research. I had a little bit of difficulty getting into the first volume. Sometimes I don’t have much time to read and I end up reading a volume of manga in 5-10 minute segments here and there. That really doesn’t work for Flat Earth Exchange because I had a difficult time remembering who some of the characters were. I enjoyed it much more when I decided to start from the beginning again and read the volume from start to finish.

Flat Earth Exchange Volume 2 by Toshimi Nigoshi

Ree and Kotaro are reunited but Kotaro decides to stay with Wil. The tension between them grows, and things get ugly when Wil discovers that Kotaro has been gathering information from his ancient computer. The backstory of some of the supporting cast is explored, and we learn more about the Special Section 6 officer Bridget who has a crush on Wil. Kotaro encounters a nomadic group of sleeping humans and gets to know the androids better when he visits Ree’s compound.

Flat Earth Exchange is a dense read, packed with world building and exposition. The art will look a little dated to people mostly used to reading modern manga, but it didn’t bother me. There’s a lot of dark tone used in some of the panels, and I think something was off in the reproduction or original art for the manga because the dark panels seemed a little muddy or smudged. I enjoyed the complex storyline even if at times I thought I would need both a flowchart and timeline to keep track of the supporting characters and subplots.

I think that Flat Earth Exchange would appeal to anyone who likes science fiction with a strong emphasis on human relationships. Anyone who enjoyed Planetes, Jyu-Oh-Sei, or To Terra may want to give Flat Earth Exchange a try. While I might quibble a bit with the pacing and rapid character introductions in the first two volumes, I’m very interested to read the final two volumes of this story to see how it evolved after the author went back and concluded the manga ten years after it was originally published.

Shirley 1 and Emma 8

After the conclusion of the main storyline of Emma in volume 7, I put off buying other Kaoru Mori works for a little while. I’m glad I finally bought these manga because they reminded me of why I enjoyed Emma so much in the first place – engaging characters, intricate historical detail, and lovely art.

Shirley Volume 1 by Kaoru Mori

An independant woman named Bennett Cranley runs a cafe and decides to place an ad for a maid to make things easier on her at home. A thirteen year old girl named Shirley applies for the job and ends up being an exemplary maid despite her age. Shirley doesn’t mention much about her past, but Miss Cranley hires her anyway thinking that she might not have anywhere else to go. Shirley dedicates herself to her job, and the next few chapters of this manga are filled with quiet moments between Miss Cranley and Shirley. Miss Cranley impulsively buys Shirley a doll and Shirley reveals that she has talent as a seamstress when she starts making doll clothes. They tackle issues like gardening, wishing for another hair color, and an interfering visiting relative. Shirley was written before Emma, and while it doen’t have the depth of storyline or nuanced character development found in Mori’s later work, it was still an entertaining diversion.

Other short stories include an interlude where a maid is the focus of her child master’s affections and another story where a maid struggles to serve an old man who delights in playing practical jokes on his servants.

Emma Volume 8 by Kaoru Mori

This volume of Emma contains short stories about the supporting characters introduced earlier in the series. One of my favorites was the first one in the volume, about Kelly and Doug Stower when they were young. The Great Exposition of 1851 is taking place, and they both scrimp and save in order to afford tickets to the show. It was interesting seeing Kelly when she was younger, her strong-willed personality meshed well with her husband’s more laid back and good humored nature. The story flashes forward to Kelly when she’s an old woman and a widow, sending Emma to find the only souvenir she and her husband were able to afford from the day, a thimble with the Crystal Palace carved into it.

Another story follows the clumsy maid Tasha as she is able to spend a rare day off with her family. All of her siblings are industriously working, even her youngest brother raises chickens and saves his money with the goal of owning a shop in mind. Tasha discusses her future with her mother, wondering if she should continue working while her mother pushes the idea of getting married.

One of the characters that I felt the worst for in Emma was Eleanor Campbell, whose broken engagement to Emma’s Mr. Jones resulted in social humiliation. So it was nice to see Eleanor spending time with her sisters, visiting the seaside, and meeting a extremely studious and pleasant young man named Ernest Liebe in a story called “Brighton by the Sea.” Eleanor is still affected by her broken engagement, but a few chance encounters with Ernest show her taking more of an active interest in life. They go on a ride to view some mountain scenery. Eleanor discusses her day with her maid Annie, commenting that Mr. Liebe is a fine young man and she wants to become more like him.

Another story focuses on the life of The Times newspaper. The paper becomes a backdrop as the reader visits several households. A maid feeds a starving child. A woman chef cooks a meal for her mentor. A mistress discusses the future with her patron. A former butler publishes a note of congratulations to his former master. The paper unites all these characters as they share small moments that define their lives.

One of the things I appreciate about Mori’s art is the way she’s able to portray the inner lives of her characters with a few facial expressions. Tasha looks up into the sky, thinking that there’s nothing for her to do. Eleanor looks down and away when Ernest mistakenly talks about William Jones. Kelly and Doug yell at each other about scrimping, “Don’t skip meals!” “I ate potatoes!”
It probably wasn’t a good idea to read these manga together, because Shirley just doesn’t match up with the artistic achievement of Emma. Still, I was glad to read Shirley to appreciate how far Mori has developed her artistic talents. I think Emma 8 is a must buy for anyone who enjoyed the main storyline of the series, and I won’t be procrastinating in my purchases of future volumes.

Two Flowers for the Dragon #2

Two Flowers for the Dragon Volume 2 by Nari Kusakawa

I enjoyed the first volume of this series, but I missed having more details about Shakuya’s dueling fiances. Fortunately the second volume starts filling in some of the backstory. Shakuya is kidnapped by snake charmers who use their ability to hypnotize her. Kuwan and Lucien head out into the desert to rescue her, and Kuwan tells Lucien that although Shakuya is young he’s still captivated by her. Shakuya isn’t content to wait for rescue and begins manufacturing her means of escape through crying. She then uses her command of water to turn her tears into weapons against her captors.

Lucien’s character is fleshed out when he and Shakuya visit his family. His mother laments that his amnesia has turned him into a stranger and the only person he trusts is Shakuya. There’s a flashback episode where we see a ten year old Shakuya dealing with her new protector Kuwan. She wants to run out into the desert to search for the missing Lucien, but he handcuffs himself to her to prevent her from endangering herself. There are hints of a larger conspiracy, as Lucien’s mentor during his missing years may have been the dancer that prompted Shakuya’s parents to divorce. Two Flowers for the Dragon continues to entertain.

Two Flowers for the Dragon

Two Flowers for the Dragon by Nari Kusakawa

Two Flowers for the Dragon manages to be a nice light fantasy manga despite being burdened with a clunky premise. The dragon in the story is the main female character. Shakuya is the heir to the dragon clan, a family that is charged with protecting a desert oasis. Long ago her fiance Lucien left town, and she has since been assigned a new fiance – the stoic officer of the law Kuwan. Kuwan is an older man, and his mystique is further emphasized by his eye patch. Lucien suddenly comes back, but with a twist. He has amnesia and doesn’t remember Shakuya or his life, although he treasures a letter Shakuya sent him as one of his dearest possessions. Now Shakuya has two fiancees, and two flower tattoos on her hands. Bellflowers represent Kuwan and roses represent Lucien. As her feelings increase, the tattoos grow in complexity. K’s flower has several blossoms on Shakuya’s arm. There is a single rose on Shakuya’s hand for Lucien.

Shakuya goes through her day, occasionally being interrupted by her protective duties. She can turn into a dragon with the power to control water, which certainly comes in handy when her oasis is threatened. Lucien’s flirty demeanor begins to get under Shakuya’s skin, and Kuwan’s habit of being strong and silent isn’t helping her to remain confident about his feelings. The rose tattoo begins to sprout a bud, and Shakuya quickly covers up with gloves to hide the evidence of her emotional confusion.

Shakuya and her two suitors deal with a traditional festival featuring armed combat, the antics of two tiger cubs, and a snake charmer whose abilities have an unexpected effect on people with dragon blood. I thought Shakuya’s habit of turning into a powerful dragon when her emotions get out of control provided an interesting twist on the traditional power dynamic that you usually see in shoujo manga. The art is attractive and dynamic. Shakuya’s eyes are large, with cat-like pupils that highlight her status as something more than human. While I haven’t read any series by Kusakawa before, CMX publishes two other titles by the author – Recipe for Gertrude and the Palette of 12 Secret Colors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for those titles, since I did enjoy Two Flowers for the Dragon very much. It is a perfect fantasy manga to read on a weekend afternoon when you don’t want to think too hard.