Tag Archives: shoujo

Bloody Kiss

Bloody Kiss Volume 1 by Kazuko Furumiya

Even though the vampire genre has been overplayed, I still enjoy a good vampire manga. Bloody Kiss is a new vampire series that is refreshingly angst free. Kiyo is a plucky schoolgirl who manages on her own since her parents abandoned her. She unexpectedly gets an inheritance from her grandmother – a spooky house way out in the country. When she visits the run-down house she discovers that she has two unexpected vampire tenants, Koroboshi and his attendant Alshu. They greet Kiyo as their new landlady.

Kiyo announces that she’s thinking about to tearing down the house and selling the land because she plans to attend law school. The vampires aren’t too happy about this. Koroboshi asks Kiyo if she’ll be his vampire bride. He can only suck blood from one chosen human and he hasn’t picked a bride yet. Kiyo refuses. She tends to be somewhat immune to Koroboshi’s vampire charms. When he creeps up behind her and acts like he’s going to suck her blood, she flips him over her shoulder and on to the ground. When he tries to glamour her, she’s taken in for a moment and then yells “Stop that!” Koroboshi is immediately smitten by her strong personality. There’s a nice contrast between the gothic look when Koroboshi is acting like a stereotypical vampire and Kiyo’s slapstick action responses to his overtures.

Kiyo’s ends up moving in with the vampires because she’s recently left her Uncle’s house. Koroboshi becomes an unexpected ally. When Kiyo’s shady lawyer sells the land without her permission and shows up with bulldozers to raze the house, Kiyo places herself in front of the machines. Koroboshi decides to help her. He drinks her blood and acquires the power to smash the construction equipment. Kiyo’s blood comes in handy when Koroboshi helps her after she volunteers to help out at a school dance. Vampire domestic life centers around Kiyo’s horrible cooking and Koroboshi foiling Alshu’s attempts to dine from his bride. There’s plenty of humor in the interactions between the characters, as seen when Kiyo asks why the vampires just seem to sit around the house all day. Don’t they have jobs? Alshu says “We vampires prefer decay and thrive in the darkness. That is our true occupation. You humans may label it with the unflattering word “unemployed”…but we prefer a more reflective and elegant term. We are black rose aristocrats.”

For readers wanting a vampire manga that combines romance with comedy, Bloody Kiss is a promising series. I’m looking forward to seeing how the relationship between Kiyo and Koroboshi develops.

Marmalade Boy (complete series)

Marmalade Boy Volumes 1-8 by Wataru Yoshizumi

Instead of reading the new manga in my recent DCBS shipment, I’ve been spending the past few days immersed in the out of print Tokyopop series Marmalade Boy. Although this series is out of print, I don’t think it would be too hard to pick up the complete series through ebay or through finding used copies on Amazon. I got all my eight volumes through Paperbackswap.com. An interesting bit of trivia about this series is that it appears to be the first unflipped manga Tokyopop put out! So in addition to being an entertaining shoujo series it is a part of manga publishing history 🙂

Volume 1

The plot of Marmalade Boy begins with a sudden wacky wife-swapping premise. Miki is an ordinary high school student. She’s sitting around drinking tea with her parents when they smilingly announce that they are getting divorced. They say that while they were on vacation in Hawaii they met another couple, the Matsuras. Miki’s Mom fell in love with Mr. Matsura and her dad fell in love with Mrs. Matsura. The feelings were mutual, so they’ve decided to get divorced, swap partners, and remarry.

Miki freaks out and complains to her best friend Meiko at school. Meiko notices that the situation has improved Miki’s can-crushing abilities as Miki lashes out in frustration. Miki leaves school for a family dinner with her parents and the Matsuras. She thinks that even though her parents are weird, they are still her parents, and she has to stop them from following through with their insane plan. Miki is shocked to see that the Matsuras seem nice and normal. They say they have a son named Yuu, and Miki looks forward to a potential ally in stopping the parent swapping insanity, thinking “someone else to relate to my suffering!”

Yuu ends up being an extremely cute boy who is Miki’s age. She bursts out with her objections to the plan and is amazed that Yuu is nonchalantly accepting the whole situation. The parents say that they are going ahead with their plan and they will rent a big house and live together as a family of six. Miki gives up, but doesn’t feel comfortable with the situation. As they start moving in together Yuu starts teasing Miki, calling her ugly and leaving behind a wad of gum as a souvenir when he shakes her hand in friendship. Miki’s normal happy and energetic personality is dampened by her strange new living conditions.

Miki’s mother warns her “Don’t fall in love with Yuu,” saying that it would be confusing if the two teenagers started dating. So it is easy to see where the series is heading! Yuu starts attending Miki’s school. She wants to keep their unconventional family arrangement a secret. Yuu is immediately popular with the girls at school, but his cool and reserved personality makes it seem like he is always holding something back. Yuu notices that Miki is close with a boy named Ginta who is in her tennis club. Miki confessed her love to Ginta years ago and was rejected in the worst possible way, by seeing Ginta commenting to his friends about the love letter she wrote to him. Ginta and Yuu are suspicious of each other. While Yuu continues to tease Miki, he also comforts her when she gets upset by her parents’ antics. After Miki gets sent to the infirmary at school Yuu visits her. She pretends to be asleep because she’s afraid that he’s going to tease her. Instead, he kisses her. Miki finds Yuu simultaneously irritating and fascinating.

Meiko is concerned about Ginta’s actions as he starts to display signs of jealousy. Meiko sees Miki’s interest in Yuu is a sign that she’s getting over Ginta’s rejection from before, and she warns Ginta not to interfere. One of the things I like most about Marmalade Boy is the feeling of warmth the reader gets from reading about the relationships between the characters. While plenty of drama happens, it is firmly within the context of people connecting with and caring for each other.

The first volume concludes with Ginta abruptly kissing Miki, Miki becoming aware of her growing feelings for Yuu, and the appearance of the inevitable interfering girl – Yuu’s ex-girlfriend Arimi.

Volumes 2 and 3

The next volumes deal with the developing love triangle between Miki, Ginta, and Yuu. Ginta and Yuu confront each other outside Miki’s house. Ginta tells Yuu that looking at him makes him sick. Yuu responds “I don’t get sick looking at you, but you’re not even worth wasting energy on.” Ginta is left outside to yell in frustration. When Ginta’s jealousy over Yuu lead him to tell Miki that he loves her, Miki is understandably confused about her feelings and she relies on Meiko for support. Yuu hasn’t done anything to acknowledge the kiss he gave Miki when she was faux-sleeping. Miki comments “Who do I like more? I have to consider everything very carefully. You know, I don’t think I care much for either of them anymore.” Meiko counsels, “Let’s not go crazy now!”

Yuu discovers that Meiko has a secret – she’s been meeting with her teacher Mr. Namura in the deserted library. Yuu promises her that he won’t tell anyone, and asks if Miki knows. Meiko has kept her relationship a secret from her best friend. The boys are forced together to play a doubles tennis match against a rival school, and Ginta’s feelings for Miki cause him to lose his focus. As Miki is sorting out her feelings she realizes that she feels awkward around Ginta and comfortable around Yuu. They share everyday moments like going shopping or sitting on a park bench.

The lovelorn duo of Ginta and Arimi decide to pretend that they are dating each other in an attempt to inspire some jealousy from their objects of affection. Unfortunately things don’t work out as they planned, and Miki and Yuu grow closer even if they aren’t officially dating. Miki’s life is disrupted when the truth comes out at school about Meiko and Mr. Nakamura’s relationship, although her parents use the revelation as an opportunity to discuss the allure of teacher-student forbidden love. Miki is shocked to find out that she didn’t know what her best friend was going through. Yuu supports both Meiko and Miki as they patch together their friendship again.

Volumes 4, 5, and 6

In the middle of the series the reader begins to learn more about the reasons why Yuu often seems to hold himself apart from other people. He thinks his mother had an affair before she married, and his father isn’t his biological father. Miki helps Yuu deal with meeting a man who might be his father, and in the emotional aftermath they acknowledge their feelings for each other and start dating. They decide to keep their relationship a secret from their deranged parents.

Miki starts a part-time job with the hope of saving up money in order to go on a vacation with Yuu. Meiko channels the sadness about her relationship with her teacher and her innate bookishness to produce an award-winning first novel. Even though Ginta and Arimi initially started seeing each other as a way of tricking Yuu and Miki, they start growing closer. Throughout all the drama and outside events that effect their lives the bonds between the characters remain strong.

Volumes 7 and 8

In the final two volumes, the characters are all growing up and beginning to come into their own. Meiko decides to fight for her relationship with her former teacher. Yuu is still trying to discover the identity of his real father, and his tendency to keep things to himself threatens to derail his relationship with Miki forever. But with a manga filled with earnest and happy characters, there’s never any real doubt how the series will conclude.

The plot elements and character types in Marmalade Boy aren’t unexpected, but the emotional core of the story is very sweet. The occasional interjection of antic humor from Miki and Yuu’s parents helps to balance the drama and tears that accompany the ups and downs of teenage romance.

The art in Marmalade Boy is clean and crisp. Being immersed in 90s era manga art made me realize that many of the newer series that exhibit a reliance on tone are often too overdecorated for their own good, resulting in confusing flow between the panels. I never had to stop and wonder what was going on in Marmalade Boy, and the clear art made reading the manga a pleasure. Simplicity is sometimes hard to pull off well, and even though some of the plot elements in Marmalade Boy may be typical shoujo, the combination of humor, drama, and the genuine warmth of the characters’ relationships make this series a classic. Even though it is out of print, I encourage you to track this series down and read it.

Honey Hunt #2

Honey Hunt, Volume 2 by Miki Aihara

Honey Hunt continues to be the best kind of guilty pleasure. As Yura’s journey in show business begins, there are cringeworthy moments and plenty of emotional upheaval. Her first photo shoot starts out with the unthinkable – costume sabotage! Fortunately Yura is able to improvise an alternate outfit and the show goes on. Her co-star Haruka is distracted by the way she shifts from her normal unassuming personality into the character she’s portraying during the shoot. He is disturbed by her lack of talent and her budding relationship with his older brother Q-ta. Haruka informs Yura that she’s a boring schoolgirl and tells her to do her best to stay Q-ta’s favorite. She concludes that she doesn’t like him and he walks away mystified about why he cares about anything she does with Q-ta.

Q-ta’s away in London working, but he sends Yura a box of his CDs. Although Yura knows that part of the reason Q-ta is being so nice to her is due to his man-crush on her absent composer father, she’s still touched by his kindness. Yura’s lack of self-confidence is so crippling that even when Q-ta gave her his contact info, she hesitates to get in touch with him. Yura’s work on her TV show is derailed by a press conference where she’s asked about her famous parents. She thought she’d be able to make it on her own, but her manager Keiichi tipped off a reporter about her true identity. This prompts yet another episode of self-loathing for Yura, who assumes that she only got her job due to her connections in show business. Yura had thought that Keiichi believed in her talent and she runs away, not wanting to deal with her new notoriety.

I can see how Yura’s timidity and indecision might be a little annoying to some readers. But I think some of her annoying traits are true to character as a young woman from an incredibly sheltered background who is trying make it on her own. Plus, Aihara’s art is so good at detailing Yura’s emotions as she experiences the betrayal and backstabbing of show business, it is hard not to be sympathetic towards her. I was wondering when we’d see Yura’s father show up to make her life even more complicated. Her mother was such a bitch on wheels in the first volume, I do really hope that Yura manages to succeed on her own.

The three men in Yura’s life are still interesting. Q-ta treats her with kindness and compassion, but the casual way he decides to invade his brother’s apartment and rifle through his closet might point to a streak of selfishness in his personality. Yura nicknames Haruka “Mizutani the Younger” in her mind. Haruka doesn’t seem to have much of a filter on his mouth when he’s with Yura, and he’s always blurting out comments that hurt her feelings, and then feeling bad about himself afterwards. It could be that his feelings for her are deeper than Q-ta’s. Then there’s the manager Keiichi. Yura trusts him absolutely, but he’s vowed to sell her name whenever he can to maximize the amount of publicity she’ll get. He goes after Yura when she runs away, something that he’d never do for another client. I’m looking forward to reading volume 3 of this series.

Maid Sama Volume 2

Maid Sama! Volume 2 by Hiro Fujiwara

As this volume opens, Misaki is more self-conscious around Usui after learning that he likes her in the previous volume. He senses her disquiet and uses a lame excuse to kiss her male student vice-president. She decides that Usui is an incorrigible flirt and is relieved that she doesn’t have to take his feelings seriously. Misaki is still dedicated to protecting the students at her school and when she finds out that some of her classmates got into a fight with students at an academy for the rich and privileged she attempts to diffuse the situation.

Unfortunately she has to deal with Tora, the president at the uber snooty Miyabi Gaoka Academy. He reminded me of Takami from Ouran High School Host Club, if Takami was actually evil and malicious. Tora tries to get Misaki to transfer to his school, wooing her with a red carpet and rickshaw. But things take a turn for the worse when he finds out about Misaki’s part-time job in a maid cafe. When Misaki goes to turn down his transfer offer, he contrives to make her put on a skimpy maid outfit. Oh no!

Usui is a little too perfect. He manages to save Misaki multiple times in this volume using a set of extraordinary abilities. He plays chess like a grandmaster, is a serviceable short order cook, and wins sports day at their school. I’m expecting that by volume 3 he will have managed to reverse global warming and bring back the dodo. I hope that if Misaki gradually becomes more emotionally intelligent she’ll be able to need less rescuing. Although the dynamic between the leads is fairly typical, Misaki’s relentless and driven personality introduces a harder edge to what would otherwise be predictable shoujo situations. There’s plenty of comedy from the “idiot trio” of students who follow Misaki around, and she accidentally discovers her ideal environment at the maid cafe when she dresses as a man to serve female clients instead of the usual male patrons.

Maid Sama isn’t profound, but it does very well as a breezy summer read. This is one of the recent Tokyopop series that I really enjoy, along with Shinobi Life and Silver Diamond.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tsubasa: Those With Wings 2 and Phantom Dream 3

Tsubasa: Those With Wings Volume 2 by Natsuki Takaya

Out of the two earlier Takaya series published by Tokyopop, this is my favorite. I previously reviewed the first volume. Thief, orphan, and doer of good deeds Kotobuki and her companion Raimon continue on their journey to find the mystical beings called Tsubasa. In this volume we find out more about Raimon’s past. He has a bomb implanted in his head, and he continues to be in the thrall of the military as shown in his obedience to the manipulative Colonel Rin. Kotobuki is dismayed to find out about Raimon’s troubles, and she is determined to find a Tsubasa in order to ask it to heal Raimon.

As the volume opens, Kotobuki and Raimon deal with foiling a plot to destroy an orphanage that is launched by Raimon’s father, who is weary of all the charity payments required of him. The duo then set off to find Tsubasa, seeking a clue in a walled forest compound owned by a rich family. The area turns out to be patrolled by ancient sentient robots constructed to mimic the form of human children. The robots are nearing the end of their battery life, but they entrust Kotobuki with the secret that they’re protecting – a beautiful tree that can help bring greenery back to the ruined landscape. They also give Kotobuki a clue – she needs to look to the east to find the Tsubasa. The setting and Kotobuki’s interactions with the dying robots made for an episode that had more emotional depth than many of the other encounters Kotobuki had experienced on her journey.

Kotobuki is more aware of her own naivety and immaturity as she contemplates her relationship with Raimon. She’s more self-aware about her tendency to consider her own feelings, and she starts to see things from his perspective more. While Kotobuki is an engaging character, one thing I found annoying was that all the other characters have a tendency to continue to comment about how innocent and pure she is. Kotobuki and Raimon head towards the east, to a sunken island nation called Japan that seems to be the source of the sentient robots. Raimon also seems to know more about the Tsubasa than he’s letting on, as he is visited by a Tsubasa in human form. There seems to be a military connection to the angelic beings, which Kotobuki may soon discover.

One of the themes that is explored in more depth in Fruits Basket is the nature of free will. The Sohma family’s control makes the members of the zodiac helpless. You see something similar here in the way Raimon relates to the Colonel. Raimon turns passive and silent when the Colonel is around, and the reader is left wondering what type of hold the Colonel still has over Raimon in addition to the bomb in Raimon’s brain. Hopefully that will be cleared up in the final volume! While Tsubasa has some narrative inconsistencies like characters randomly popping up to see Kotobuki after she’s traveled across the country, there are still enough story elements in Kotobuki’s quest that capture my attention. The art gradually gets stronger as the volume progresses, although the character designs and layouts don’t approach Takaya’s current style, a contrast that is shown when you see the back-up story included in the volume that Takaya drew more recently. I continue to like the omnibus editions that Tokyopop is putting out. I’d much rather purchase 400 pages of manga for $15 than $11 for 200 pages of manga.

Phantom Dream Volume 3 by Natsuki Takaya

I really didn’t like the first volume of Phantom Dream. It just didn’t click with me as a reader, and while I was able to get over some of the narrative lapses and enjoy Tsubasa I found Phantom Dream to be not very compelling, and I didn’t purchase the second volume. I was sent the third volume though, so I decided to give it another try. I thought that Asahi seemed to be stuck in supportive girlfriend mode in the first volume, so there wasn’t a whole lot of dramatic tension in the relationship between her and demon fighter Tamaki. However something dramatic must have happened in the second volume because Asahi has discovered that she’s the reincarnation of a being called Suigekka and allied herself with Tamaki’s enemy Hira, the head of the Gekka family. It was hard for me to continue to think of Asahi as being insipid when she is now going around violently stabbing people! I was a little disappointed to see that she’s tranferred from being Ashahi’s devoted helpmate to Hira’s so her role in her relationships with men is essentially the same

Takaya’s themes of people struggling against a dark controlling family are more fully explored in this manga as Tamaki is ordered to become engaged to Migiri and produce a child with pure blood in order to combat the demonic jaki more effectively. Tamaki finds their orders and expectations stifling and ends up leaving the Otoya family while still preparing for war against the jaki producing Gekka family. He vows never to hate Asahi, even if she attacks him. Eiji is Tamaki’s traditional rival, and he turns female as part of his duty to produce an heir who will continue to summon Jaki. Eiji realizes that he’s been duped by about the Gekka family’s goals and summoning jaki isn’t something that he’s doing for the benefit of mankind. Eiji met Tamaki when they were both children, and a chance encounter that ended with Tamaki giving Eiji a juzu bead has produced lasting feelings of affectionon Eiji’s side. The tone of Phantom Dream is much darker and more operatic than Tsubasa, as all the main characters are struggling with tormented emotions.

The result of this two family war is that most of the characters in Phantom Dream are struggling with familial expectations as well as demon battles. While the third volume of Phantom Dream was more interesting than I was expecting, it still wasn’t enough to make me want to go back and read the series as a whole. This book just isn’t clicking for me as a reader and I had to force myself to finish reading it. I do think that the quality of art in Phantom Dream has gotten much stronger as the series progressed, but the story still isn’t capturing my interest. I know that other people have not liked Tsubasa and found Phantom Dream more compelling, but I find the meandering journey of Tsubasa more entertaining than the dark family war in Phantom Dream.

Review copies provided by the publisher

Boys Over Flowers #36

At 37 volumes, Boys Over Flowers is the longest manga series that I’ve collected. The upcoming 37th volume is side stories, but the main storyline wraps up in volume 36. While some manga series tend to end abruptly or take a sharp detour into WTF-land (I’m looking at you, Kare Kano), Boys Over Flowers 36 gives the reader an emotionally satisfying conclusion as Tsukushi prepares for her senior year while the F4 graduate. All of the main characters get a moment of farewell, and there are brief cameos from some of the supporting cast as well.

Of course, a graduation without drama just wouldn’t fit this series. Tsukasa and Tsukushi are finally alone, but instead of consummating their relationship, Tsukushi falls into a pool and catches a horrible cold. Tsukasa is about to go to New York to work for his family’s company for 4 years. Tsukushi’s family runs into financial problems yet again, which means that she might not be able to afford to to to Eitoku Academy for her senior year. Rui Hanazawa gets his driver’s license and terrifies everyone with his driving abilities.

Tsukushi has a moment of farewell with each member of F4. She talks with Sojiro about how she, Tsukasa, and Rui have all changed since they met each other. They talk about Yuki, Tsukushi’s friend who fell in love with Sojiro and Tsukushi concludes that there are different types of happy endings and “if two people can, for an instant, be precious to each other then that’s one form.” Rui cuts Tsukushi’s hair, and they talk about their shared moments of escape on the school emergency exit. Tsukushi thinks that Rui will always be a part of her. Tsukasa sends Tsukushi a dress for prom, and Tsukushi thinks back to her first year at Eitoku – the weight of her school uniform, the shallowness of her classmates, and how terrified she was when she first saw Tsukasa bullying another student.

As Tsukushi prepares for prom she meets her friends for cake. Tsukushi isn’t sure if she can join Tsukasa in New York. Her family is behind on the rent, and Tsukushi has to spend the day helping them move. Disaster happens, as Tsukushi’s dress is ripped. She ends up dancing at prom with the F4 while wearing her moving clothes. While the image of the boys looking elegant in their tuxedos and Tsukushi in clothes that proclaim her to be the weed she proudly named herself brings back memories of the gulf between them in the earliest volumes of the series, everyone has been changed profoundly by their friendships. Everyone has grown more mature and caring, and Tsukushi and Tsukasa are finally secure in their relationship and feelings for each other.

Most of the time I’m a little hesitant about tackling a series as long as Boys Over Flowers. But there’s a reason why this is one of the top selling shoujo series of all time in Japan. The Tsukushi’s Cinderella story combined with the gradual taming of the initially beastly Tsukasa produced compelling soap opera. Even when some of the story elements got a little ridiculous with the amnesia and the kidnappings, and the continued machinations of Tsukasa’s evil mother, Kamino ends up making the reader root for Tsukushi and Tsukasa. It was worth reading 36 volumes to see their happy ending.

Beauty is the Beast

Beauty is the Beast Volumes 1-5 by Tomo Matsumoto

This series was one of the earlier titles released under the Shojo Beat imprint and judging by amazon availability some volumes are getting hard to find, which is a shame because this slice-of-life manga features an unconventional heroine, hero, and a romance which refreshingly different from what one usually finds in the shoujo genre. Eimi Yamashita moves into a dorm at her school when her parents relocate due to work. The girls’ dorm at her school is a run-down wooden structure, while the boys’ dorm is filled with modern conveniences. Eimi’s dormmates have plenty of personality, spending a good deal of time playing cards and mah jong, as well as running out in the middle of the night for snacks . Eimi’s new roommate Misao has plastered the room with posters of female dancers because looking at female bodies relaxes her. Eimi is asked to sneak into the boys’ dorm and steal a room number as part of an initiation test.

While planning her approach at school, Eimi runs into a strange tall boy hiding his face in his sweatshirt hood. Wanibuchi is viewed as a hoodlum by his fellow students because of his height, laconic personality, and the fact that he lived overseas for many years before returning to Japan. Eimi’s dormmates expect her to fail in her task, and are amazed when she casually hops a high fence and heads into enemy territory. Eimi ducks into Wanibuchi’s room to hide and meets him and his roommate Inui. A shirtless Wanibuchi ends up hiding Eimi by dangling her out the window, and then he tells her how to escape the boys’ dorm. Eimi decides to give both Wanibuchi and Inui pet names, and everyone else is stunned that she can be so casual with them.

Eimi keeps running into Wanibuchi, and they develop an odd friendship. She finds out that he has a part-time job in a bar, and is amazed at how mature he looks when he takes care of customers. Eimi is bluntly naive, and somewhat animalistic in the way she takes care of her own needs. When Eimi’s stuck over break in the girls dorm without access to a shower, she invites herself over to use Wanibuchi’s. Dorm life continues, and the romantic foibles of Eimi’s friends keep the book from being overly focused on the main characters. Eimi and Wanibuchi’s friendship develops gradually and naturally. Even though many of the common shoujo high school plot devices are used (school festival, a rival for Eimi’s affection, homesickness) the pace of the book is slow and realistic, giving the reader a feeling for what school life is like complete with issues like broken tvs and bug extermination.

While the other students act intimidated by Wanibuchi’s tough guy exterior, he actually has a lot of hidden depth and insight into human nature. He’s been drilled in correct manners by his grandfather, and even though his personality is self-contained, he knows how to lead his fellow students even if he uses their dislike of him in order to bring them together as a group. While a more typical shoujo series would have either Eimi or Wanibuchi pushing their relationship to the next level, they seem content to sit back and observe each other for a long time.

The art gives most of the characters a slightly androgynous look. The dorm setting offers plenty of opportunities to explore the foibles of the supporting cast, so the Eimi-Wanibuchi relationship doesn’t suffer from overexposure. While Beauty is the Beast doesn’t have the extreme emotional ups and downs found in dramatic shoujo series, the focus of the daily life of the dorm residents combined with character-based humor makes for a series that is a rewarding, if a bit low-key. This is well worth checking out if you can track down the volumes, I ended up checking the series out of my local library a few weeks ago.

Lapis Lazuli Crown

The Lapis Lazuli Crown Volume 1 by Natsuna Kawase

I’m always on the lookout for fun fantasy series, and Lapis Lazuli Crown seems like it will fill that role quite nicely. Miel is the middle child in a fallen aristocratic family that used to serve the King. Miel is cursed with super-strength and a lack of control over her own magic. Her older sister is a renowned sorceress, but Miel is stubborn about listening to her advice about practicing magic more. Instead, Miel is determined to better herself by pretending to be a normal girl and marrying a nobleman to lift herself out of poverty. The lapis lazuli in the title of the book comes from the way magic users use stones to focus and amplify their powers. Miel’s favorite stone is the lapis lazuli, also her country’s emblem. But her poor control of magic could cause her stone to break so she almost never uses it.

Miel is swinging her purse and her super-strengh causes it to launch like a rocket, striking a boy in the head who is walking several blocks away. Radi tells her that he’s a young nobleman who has been separated from his friend, but his name and appearance is suspiciously similar to the crown Prince Radian. Radi is delighted by Miel’s super-strength and offers to hire her to show him around town. Miel agrees and they have fun going to a cafeteria to eat. Radi also encourages Miel to enter an arm-wrestling contest.

The plot developments aren’t particularly surprising. Radi is really Prince Radian in disguise and he and Miel are attracted to each other. One of the things I liked about the plot was the way Radi instantly accepted Miel and views what she perceives as her weaknesses as strengths. He thinks that she has difficulty controlling her magic because she’s much more powerful than the average magic user. Radi and Miel don’t see each other very often, but since the Prince has a habit of disguising himself as a commoner to wander around the capital city and help out his subjects, they end up going on a few adventures. Miel becomes determined to learn to better control her abilities in order to gain access to the palace as a magic user and support the Prince.

I’ve read that Kawase was previously an assistant to Arina Tanemura. I didn’t find the art in Lapis Lazuli Crown to have an extremely distinct personal style, but it got the job done without the excess of screentone that is sometimes characteristic of Tanemura’s work. This volume also included a lenthly back-up story about a phantom thief. The three chapters of the main story were certainly pleasant, and I think I’ll be getting the second and concluding volume of this series. Lapis Lazuli Crown is rated by the publisher as E for everyone, so this might be a good fantasy series for school libraries to consider purchasing.

Otomen Volume 2

Otomen Volume 2 by Aya Kanno

I continue to enjoy this series about a boy with feminine hobbies who is forced to act super-masculine, showing his true identity only to a couple of close friends. In the first story Asuka is stalked by a feminine looking boy named Yamato who has decided that Asuka is his ideal of masculinity. What will happen when Yamato finds out that Asuka loves to spend his time making adorable bento lunches? It turns out that Yamato wants to become more masculine in order to impress a girl, and he has a vision of himself as a stoic, narrow-eyed shoujo hero that effectively lampoons shoujo stereotypes.

In the next story Asuka stresses over how to spend the perfect Christmas with his not-girlfried Ryo. He knits her a scarf, and plans a feast in their group’s new hangout place – an abandoned school building that might just be haunted. Juta, the high school boy with a secret career drawing shoujo manga, lurks outside the window in order to spy on the couple in order to gather source material.

The final half of the book becomes even more absurd. Asuka’s mother comes back from overseas and we see why he’s so afraid of his secret feminine side being discovered. His mother constantly references his father’s decision to become a woman, and threatens to die from stress if Asuka acts womanly. She announces Asuka’s engagement to the daughter of some business associates of hers. He goes to their house and discovers that looks like a European castle on acid. Iruka decides that Asuka is going to be her prince, if he likes it or not!

While I enjoy Otomen as a light disposable series I’m sometimes left with the sense that Kanno isn’t taking full advantage of the story that she’s set up. It seems to me that there’s room for even more satire on gender roles and shoujo conventions than I’m seeing. Ryo continues to act mostly as a focus of Asuka’s attentions, and I wish a little more of her personality was shown. Kanno’s art does a good job shifting into parody. Yamato’s obsession with angular masculinity produces a sharp-edged version of himself that is so extreme it looks ridiculous. Iruka’s room looks like a Walt Disney movie come to life, complete with wide-eyed deer, smiling flowers, and hearts scattered everywhere. My problem might be that I’m unconsciously expecting Otomen to be an Ai Morinaga series when it clearly isn’t. Otomen is still fun to read, and I’ll be looking forward to volume 3.

Planet Ladder

Planet Ladder Volumes 1-7 by Yuri Narushima

This fantasy series is bogged down by an excess of exposition, but after a slow start it gets much better as the series develops. Kaguya is an ordinary high school girl, living with her adopted family. She’s remarkably passive, allowing her mother to dress her up like a doll and use her as a fortunetelling subject. Every time Kaguya picks a final card, it ends up being blank. One day a group of warriors appear at her bedroom in the middle of the night and address her as the “Princess of the Choosing.” Different factions want to claim Kaguya, but she ends up going with a silent android who possesses a whip-like weapon called gold. Kaguya is transported to a new world.

Kaguya begins to navigate the unfamiliar landscape accompanied by her nonspeaking companion. She meets a haughty but intelligent noblewoman Shiina Mol Bamvivrie who she nicknames Bambi. Bambi begins to explain more about Kaguya’s situation. There are multiple worlds at war, and Kaguya is the one who is able to choose the one world that will survive. A despotic ruler named Kura from the world Geo is determined that his will be the only world that will survive, and he plans to war with the other dimensions to succeed with his ambitions. Kura is opposed by the Mad Prince Seeu, the sole survivor of Asu. Seeu was raised in isolation by machines, and his personality has been damaged due to lack of human contact. A man named Kagami sometimes takes over the body of the android Gold, and he seems to know Kaguya. Kagami also has a mysterious connection with Seeu.

The first few volumes of Planet Ladder were slow going, and I had the impression that Narushima simply had too much story to fit into the amount of volumes she was given for the series. Characters frequently engage in massive info dumps, and by the forth volume a flow chart is added to the book in order to illustrate the relationships between the warring worlds. The art starts out a bit on the grey and gloomy side, and the frequent changes of location as the manga skips from character to character on different worlds was sometimes confusing. Things get better as the series develops and by the fifth volume I was more interested in the emotional connections between the characters. Planet Ladder has occasional moments of inspired surreality such as the introduction of Waseda, a refugee from Japan whose mind has been downloaded into the body of a giant android Rooster.

Bambi and Kaguya are separated, and Bambi decides to ally herself with Kura in the hope that she’ll be able to find “that slow little princess” again. Bambi becomes one of the powerful owners of a living weapon, and she carries out Kura’s orders of destruction. Kaguya meets Prince Seeu and adjusts to the difficulty of living with someone who is only used to functioning alone. She cheerfully demands that he accompany her on walks and talk to her and he often responds by going to sleep in self-defense.

The art definitely improves in the latter half of the series, with the layouts becoming less crowded and the frequent shifts in location are more intriguing than confusing. There are some arresting images associated with the Mad Prince, as Seeu has holographic communicators that look like birdcages and experiences a vision of phantom hands reaching out to touch him. Kaguya is horrified by the conditions of his castle, especially the dumping ground of abandoned Kagami bodies.

By the final volume the large cast of characters and their respective worlds are on an inevitable collision course. Kaguya, Seeu, and Kagami all play their parts in an attempt to preserve life and thwart Kura. I thought that the storytelling had improved so much by the seventh volume, I wish Narushima had been able to apply what she was capable of then to the series from the start. I wish there had been less exposition and more focus on the relationships between the characters. I also would have appreciated more weirdness. After all, when one character is a Japanese android chicken, that seems to promise a certain level of oddity that I thought wasn’t truly followed through on.

Planet Ladder is out of print, but it is worth seeking out if you tend to be a fantasy/scifi shoujo manga completist or if you enjoy complicated worldbuilding. It does require a certain degree of patience to get through this series, but I thought it had a strong finish.