Tag Archives: tokyopop

Shinobi Life Volumes 5 and 6

I think we’re slowly catching up to the Japanese release of this series since six volumes are out here now and there are nine Japanese volumes so far. This is still one of my favorite current shoujo series. Shinobi Life started out ok with the first couple volumes then really got much better with volume three and has continued to provide readers with a compelling romance story about time traveling ninjas.

Beni and Kagetora have decided to take it on the run and flee the toxic influence of her family. Beni is convinced that as long as they stay in the present they’ll be hounded by her father so she decides that she has to travel to the past with her personal ninja. Unfortunately as the couple fall into the time portal they get separated and end up in different eras. Beni sees Kagetora when she wakes up, but it is a younger 14 year old ninja in training instead of the adult ninja that she fell in love with. Kagetora keeps returning to the present and traveling to the past over and over again in an attempt to find Beni. Since the time portal to the past is located in a pocket of space that can only be reached by flinging yourself off a tall building, this takes a considerable amount of courage. Beni’s rejected fiance Rihito is beginning to figure out the mechanics of time travel, and suspects that the predictions of Beni’s mother came from time traveling to the future. Rihito is dealing with his own issues as he copes with pressure from his father.

I appreciated Conami’s attention to character design when the younger version of Kagetora appeared. His eyes are bigger, face rounder, and his body is less developed but he’s still recognizable as the younger version of the ninja that dropped out of the sky and into Beni’s life. While it is nice that Beni can see a different side of her favorite ninja, I spent most of these volumes very anxious about what might be happening to future Kagetora as he searches for Beni.

Beni’s journey to the past allows her to meet a younger version of Kagetora’s enemy Hitaki. The more innocent combative child is nothing like the ninja who has vowed to destroy Kagetora in the future. While Beni stays with Kagetora and his master in a training house, the rivalry between ninja clans might threaten the young ninjas in training as well as their guest from the future. Being confronted with a younger version of her boyfriend frustrates Beni, since she can’t reveal their future relationship to the young ninja. But Kagetora begins to drop his formal manners around Beni and starts to enjoy spending time with her. A big section of the volume focuses on Hitaki, showing details from his past and explaining why he’s so fiercely motivated to be the best. Out of all the main characters in Shinobi Life, so far each one is getting and individual backstory and motivations for their actions. Only the fathers of Beni and Rihito seem evil for the sake of being evil so far, and I’m guessing that Conami will explore their pasts and relationship with Beni’s mother as well. One of the reasons why I enjoy this series so much is that even though there’s plenty of fighting, time traveling, and ninja antics the larger focus is just on telling the individual stories of the cast that Conami has assembled. That’s why Shinobi Life doesn’t really seem stuck in a genre rut even though it relies on time travel to bring the different characters together.

Review copy of Volume 6 provided by the publisher.

Gakuen Alice Volumes 1, 12, and 13

I remember pointedly avoiding Gakuen Alice when it first came out, mostly because it seemed like it was being marketed as the next Fruit Basket. I was quite happy with Fruits Basket and thought that I didn’t need any substitute Fruits Basket-like series, thank you very much. Then I read the first couple volumes of Higuchi’s earlier series Portrait of M&N, which displays some genuine quirkiness amidst some execution issues. I’d swapped for the first volume of Gakuen Alice and then was sent review copies of the twelfth and thirteenth volumes, so I’m bound to be a little spastic talking about three volumes with such a large gap of story between them. But this series is sadly absent from my public library, so I’m going to do what I can with the volumes I have.

The energetic Mikan is best friends with the ice princess Hotaru. Mikan freaks when she finds out when she discovers that her companion is going to a special school for “Alices,” children with extraordinary talents. Mikan decides to run away to join her friend at Alice Academy and meets a teacher outside the gates who seems to have a strange charisma that Mikan is immune to. He tells her that she has a special gift just like her friend, and she can join the school if she passes a test. With an unknown Alice, Mikan is in for a rough time as she meets her super powered classmates. She meets a sullen boy named Natsume who has the power to control fire. He’s accompanied by Luca, who has the power to control animals. As Mikan is tested she learns that she has the power of Alice nullification.

One of the things that I found amusing is that the special powers of many of the students match up with second-string X-men. Hotaru is the elementary school equivalent of Forge, with the power of invention. Natsume is like Pyro. Mikan is like Leech. The super-powered students and the boarding school setting made me think of Gakuen Alice as an extra-cute elementary school version of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Higuchi’s art has gotten a little more slick and commercial since Portrait of M & N, but it still contains some visually arresting panels. Natsume makes his appearance standing on a wall wearing a cat mask that nullifies his powers. Hotaru’s inventions resemble oversized animated nursery room equipment. Luca’s encounter with a giant fluffy chick in the woods near the school ends up looking like a scene from a fractured fairy tale.

Several volumes into the series, I can see why the comparisons of Gakuen Alice to Fruits Basket are justified. Both series feature an aggressively cheerful and sometimes not very smart heroine who manages to save people due to her emotional intelligence. Both series seem to start off in a somewhat frivolous fashion, but darker psychological issues are explored in later volumes. In the twelfth volume of Gakuen Alice, it is clear that the forces that run the school are not entirely benign. Natsume’s bad attitude which manifested itself as random pranks and angry outbursts in the first volume is shown to be the product of tragedy in his past due to the destructive nature of his power and the imprisonment of his sister at the school. There are sinister people at the academy and Mikan is willing to sacrifice herself to protect her friends. She and her friends end up overcoming their troubles for now, and the thirteenth volume heads into more fun super-powered slice of life school tales.

As the thirteenth volume opens, Mikan’s class is going to learn to make Alice stones. People with Alice abilities can manifest their powers in the form of a stone that allows others to use their unique ability. Mikan thinks back to a promise she made with Luca to exchange Alice stones with him, before she knew about the school story about romantic couples trading stones as a sign of affection. The Mikan-Luca-Natsume love triangle is still in the early stages, as both boys vow to protect Mikan while she experiences strange feelings when she thinks of her two male friends. Romance is on the students’ minds even more when Valentine’s Day prompts the girls to make chocolate with unique and sometimes horrible side effects. The boys spend most of the day trying to hide from anyone who would give them tainted chocolate. Mikan ends up using her friendly nature and a little bit of strategic planning to pull the class together for a musical performance for their friends who are graduating. After the high drama of the previous volume, this book soothed the reader with plenty of stories about the power of friendship.

While Gakuen Alice doesn’t really approach Fruits Basket’s level of psychological depth, it does add an additional layer of complexity to its super-powered boarding school setting by having an element of darkness be present as a counterpart to the stories about Mikan’s sunny personality enriching the lives of her friends. The academy functions as an odd sort of prison, taking students away from their families until their powers run out, or until they reach the age of 20. The students tend to cling together more because they face an uncertain future. What exactly is the motivation of the government in setting up the Alice Academy? While it might be good to train students with unique talents, I can see how a pint-sized army of super-powered students would be just a resource to be exploited by an unscrupulous administration. I ended up liking Gakuen Alice more than I expected. I probably won’t be rushing out to grab all of the eleven volumes that I’ve missed but I’ll be on the lookout to check out the other volumes of this series if I can find them at a library nearby.

Review copies of volumes 12 and 13 provided by the publisher.

Future Diary Volume 7

Future Diary Volume 7 by Sakae Esuno

I enjoyed the first volume of this series. I’ve always meant to pick up more volumes but I was surprised to see that I’m six volumes behind. Future Diary is about a hapless boy named Yukiteru who is given a cell phone that displays his actions in the future. The twist is that he’s also caught up in a game involving a battle to the death with other future diary holders, each with a phone that has slightly different characteristics. He’s aided by a slightly unhinged girl named Yuno, who’s phone also details Yukiteru’s actions.

The seventh volume shows Yuno and Yukiteru fighting another male-female couple, Marco and Ai. Their phones are “journals of love” that note everything the partners do. Marco and Ai challenge Yukiteru and Yuno, saying that the battle will be a test of the power of love. Yuno moves to protect Yukiteru and Marco accuses him of being weak and hiding behind a girl. One of the things I like about Future Diary is the way it appears to play with some of the stereotypical roles in shonen manga. It is fairly common for the weak but growing in power shonen hero to get a devoted girl sidekick. Yukiteru has his sidekick, but her devotion combined with her stalker-like tendencies makes her personality quite unsettling. He isn’t sure if he can trust her or not, despite the fact that she yells in glee “Yuki gave me a compliment!” as she deflects a series of throwing knives aimed at her chosen partner. She’s so devoted to Yuki that her expressions of enthusiasm are unsettling. Yuki’s father returns and he starts to hope that his broken family may get patched up. But his father’s motivations seem just as questionable as Yuno’s and ultimately Yuki has to choose between them.

I appreciate Esuno’s art more with every volume of his manga that I read. He has a mobile, expressive line when drawing his characters. He switches from portraying enraged fighting to panic to pathos with ease. There’s a certain amount of world-weary cynicism in the way that Marco and Ai meet their ultimate destinies that I appreciated. Future Diary does appear to be a little more complex than the typical fighting shonen series, and the presence of characters who seem to be genuinely unhinged creates some surprising plot developments.

Review copy provided by the publisher

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory Volume 2

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory Volume 2 by Sakae Esuno

I had mixed feelings about the first volume of this manga but I enjoyed the second volume a lot, mostly due to the opening story which was funny and provided an interesting twist on what happens when you make a bargain with the devil. Allegory detective agency office girl Kanae becomes a victim of an allegory yet again when she drunkenly wishes to become an idol singer when she’s out doing karaoke in the presence of two mirrors turned towards each other, thus summoning “the demon in the mirror”. She wakes up the next morning to find that she’s become a star despite the fact that she can’t sing and her signature song has extremely lame lyrics “I am not powerless! Ya can’t look away! Because my rack won’t let ya!”

Aso and Hanako get to work on trying to save Kanae but when she realizes that she’s been possessed by an allegory she decides to torment it by escalating her demands of superstardom more and more until the allegory finally begs to be released from her. At the end of the story we see a glimse of a budding romance between Kanae and Aso, as when told that when she wakes up nothing from her idol days will have happened she decides to give Aso a kiss on the cheek. This story was amusing, providing Esuno an opportunity to comment on pop idols. I especially liked all the baffled newspaper headlines that detailed Kanae’s rise to stardom.

Other stories in the collection include “Teke Teke” about allegory attacks that might actually be part of a complicated suicide pact, a story about a girl who ends up reuniting her family after her allegorical attack, and the ouija boardish Kokkuri-san. While Hanako and the Terror of Allegory is very episodic, there are suggestions of more of an ongoing storyline as Hanako confronts Kanae about Aso’s true nature. As Aso continues to investigate allegories, his existence is being changed. While Kanae might hope for a romance with him, it might not be possible.

This is a good example of why I generally like to read a couple volumes of manga before deciding to give up on a series. I enjoyed this much more than the first volume. I generally don’t tend to stick with monster of the week manga series for very long, but I’m curious to find out what is going to happen to Aso as he deals with his allegorical detective cases and the loss of his humanity.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Shinobi Life Volume 4

Shinobi Life Volume 4 by Shoko Conami

I’ve somehow fallen behind reading Shinobi Life. This is sad, because it is one of my favorite shoujo series currently being published. But also good! Because now that I’ve finished volume 4 I can run out and get the next volume and enjoy more of the story. I mean, just look at the cover of this series. Could Beni and Kagetora be any more adorable?

This volume sets up a major turning point in the relationship of the poor little rich girl from the present day and her time traveling ninja bodyguard from the past. Beni and Kagetora are prevented from pursuing their relationship due to Kagetora’s inflexible ninja honor. As long as he’s working for Beni’s father, he won’t pursue a relationship with her. The situation is complicated further by the presence of Beni’s classmate Rihito, the classmate she is supposed to marry due to a business deal between their respective fathers. Rihito has his own time-traveling ninja Hitaki, who absolutely despises Kagetora. As the volume opens Kagetora gives Hitaki a savage beatdown when he attempts to touch Beni. Kagetora is reprimanded and and then fired by Beni’s father, so Kagetora promptly announces “I owe fealty to no man. I can do as I see fit. I will protect Beni-Sama of my own free will.” With that, he takes Beni’s arm and the would-be couple runs away.

With all the time-traveling ninjas popping up everywhere, you might think that Shinobi Life is silly. Instead it is just very heartfelt and sweet. The humorous moments tend to be character-based and serve to propel the story forward. Beni falls asleep at a train station, and Kagetora is determined to seek lodging. He finds a love hotel and assumes that it is an elegant modern inn. Beni rushes him inside and insists that he stay in the room with her even though he is horrified that there’s only one bed. Beni and Kagetora are delightfully physically awkward with each other, with plenty of blushing and averted gazes. I only hope they manage to consummate their relationship by the end of the series. While they are on the run Beni realizes that there’s no way they can escape her father. She wants to journey back in time in order to be with Kagetora. He’s reluctant because he’s been branded as a traitor in the past and doesn’t want to drag Beni into a life of hardship.

One of the things I like about Shinobi Life is that the characters you might just hate in a more simplistic manga have depth, back story and motivation. Rihito discloses more of his past to Hitaki so the reader learns about his twisted childhood and his fear of losing something that he cares about. While Rihito is obviously not the right man for Beni it is hard not to feel sorry for him, especially the way Conami piles on the pathos in portraying Rihito as a little boy.

I like the subtle ways Conami’s art shifts depending on the moods of the characters. When Beni and Kagetora get into a tickle fight inside a changing room when they are trying on clothes, her line becomes more loose until the characters almost devolve into chibi form. Then, the close-ups of the characters’ faces as they become more aware of each other’s physical presence signals the shift in mood. There’s plenty of romance in Shinobi Life, but the romance is made more interesting by the revelation that Beni’s father isn’t shocked to find out that Kagetora is a time traveler, and perhaps the unusual powers exhibited by Beni’s mother also have something to do with time travel as well. I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen next in this series!

Suppli Volumes 4 and 5

Suppli Volumes 4 and 5 by Mari Okazaki

Wow, there has been a two year gap between volumes of Suppli. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that josei series simply don’t sell well here, so I’m happy with whatever I can get. I was worried that this series was going to be on permanent hiatus, so getting the next two books packaged together as an omnibus was a treat. Overworked Fujii continues to have problems juggling her stressful job at an advertising agency and her increasingly disastrous love live. At the start of the book Fujii is jotting down all the random observations of the day that she wants to share with her boyfriend Ogiwara. They are both so overworked that they never see each other, so she’s trying to keep track of all the things she wants to share with him. Unfortunately things are even worse than Fujii thinks as Ogiwara is about to be transferred overseas and he doesn’t like long-distance relationships. He dumps her, and her response is to smile and say “I’m fine. Goodbye.” She realizes after seeing his relieved expression after the break up that she doesn’t need him anymore.

Fujii takes refuge in shopping, buying “lucky” items, and hashing out the aftermath of her relationship by going out with her girlfriends. The next man on the horizon for Fujii is the arrogant photographer Sahara, who looks alarmingly like a manga version of Jermaine from Flight of the Conchords. I probably have more tolerance towards Sahara than I should because I kept thinking that he was about to burst into song. But it is too bad for Fujii, instead of dating a charmingly dim Kiwi she’s stuck with Sahara. Their first dates are not traditional dates as they each keep getting ill and end up nursing each other back to health. While they are attracted to each other, it seems like Fujii has not lost her knack for fixating on a spectacularly inappropriate man. Sahara is very talented at his job, but he seems to be a bit of a womanizer.

One of the things I like about Suppli is the general feeling of sadness that seems to settle over Fujii in quiet moments. This is chicklit with a dysfunctional heroine, and while some people might find Fujii annoying I felt sympathetic towards her. She’s consumed by her work to such a degree that she ends up placing emotional importance on shopping even though acquiring new things is an empty exercise. She’s so desperate for human contact that she ends up with the first man to show interest in her after she was dumped, and falls for him even though she knows she’s making a bad decision. Okazaki plays with layouts, showing some panels rotated 90 degrees. This ends up placing a different emphasis on the expressions and body language of the characters. Okazaki also continues to add little surreal touches that create an otherworldly feel to the more prosaic backgrounds of Fujii’s office. When Fujii and Sahara go to scout an outdoor location for a photo shoot, the scene is filled with an organic pattern instead of a defined background. The characters look as if they are about to dissolve.

It felt to me like there was a little more focus on the supporting cast in these two volumes of Suppli, with side stories detailing the lives of some of Fujii’s office mates who are dating. Even good guy Ishida has moved on, and Fujii’s new trainee doesn’t treat her mentor or her co-workers with any respect. I hope that Fujii eventually achieves some sort of work-life balance, although I’m predicting another painful breakup from Sahara before that happens. It looks like the next volume of Suppli is also going to be an omnibus and is scheduled to come out in February, so I hope the ending of the series is published.

Tokyopop Quick Takes – Portrait of M & N 2, Happy Cafe 3, and Maid Sama 5

Portrait of M & N Volume 2 by Higuchi Tachibana

There are few shoujo manga out there that are really weird. Portrat of M & N is about the developing relationship between masochist Mitsuru and narcissist Natsuhiko. The second volume places the somewhat unusual protagonists in stock high school manga situations – mean girls bullying, visiting parents, and going to summer camp and getting lost in the “haunted” woods. Mirrors abound to trigger Natsuhiko going into a reverie about his own reflection and Mitsuru always seems to be on the verge of being horribly injured. Mitsuru has a crush on Natsuhiko and over the course of the second volume it seems like he’s come out of his self-obsession enough to realize that he has feelings for her too.

I think I’d like this series more if it would just commit to being weird. There are hints that the growing relationship between the two main characters will lead them away from their intrinsic quirkiness. Mitsuru’s concern for Natsuhiko during a particularly violent vollyball game causes her to ignore being injured. The art is honestly not the strong point of this series. There’s a certain static gothy aesthetic about the way the characters are drawn that is appealing, but this is offset by some very odd body proportions. Towards the end of the volume it seems like the layouts have gotten a little more expansive, with more variation and close-ups of the characters’ emotional reactions. Even if this series is a little more conventional than I want it to be, it still is odd enough to stand out from the more typical shoujo fare. I think this was Tachibana’s first series, and I am more curious now about reading the longer running and more successful series Gakuen Alice.

Happy Cafe Volume 3 Kou Matsuzuki

Happy Cafe continues to be very light and unoffensive. Being too light and unoffensive, it risks being a little bland and boring. After reading the third volume I was overwhelmed by cuteness and moments of character-based humor. I’ve started liking this series more than I expected to. Everything goes on as usual at Cafe Bonheur, with a few incidents that only serve to deepen the bonds of friendship between the cafe workers. Uru takes her older male co-workers home to meet her parents. Uru’s classmates notice how cute Shindo and Ichiro are and lay siege to the cafe, ordering water and lingering at all hours in order to scope out the guys. Uru spills the most foul smelling juice (a combo of Natto and Durian) on the rival sweets shop worker Abekawa The Younger and goes home with him in order to wash his shirt. Narcoleptic Ichiro gets a bit of back story as Uru learns what his childhood was like.

None of these stories are particularly demanding of the reader, but there’s a general feeling of warmth that I got as I read episode after episode that centered around the cafe workers making each other and their customers happy. Happy Cafe is very undemanding of its readers, and I enjoyed but didn’t feel overly enthusiastic about the first two volumes. Since the third volume has plenty of supporting characters that were previously introduced, I felt like Matsuzuki was able to settle down a bit and focus on funny moments of character interaction, like when Shindo reveals that he’s become an expert in beating people up with his feet because he wanted to save his precious hands for pastry-making. I think the art has gradually become a little more expressive, and it is hard to feel cynical when confronted with Uru’s beaming face as she delights in her co-workers.

Maid Sama Volume 5 by Hiro Fujiwara

I enjoy reading Maid Sama, but with the fifth volume the recycled plotlines are getting to be a little bit annoying. If things don’t get shaken up soon, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to maintain my interest for 5+ more volumes. As always, Sakura gets involved in sticky situations involving her secret job at a maid cafe and her ever helpful not-boyfriend Usui shows up to help her right on time. The major plot line in this volume involves the evil student body president at a rival school engineering a hostile corporate takeover of Maid Latte so a butler cafe can be opened in its place. Sakura decides that she must disguise as a boy and take part in a footman competition to prove that the employees of Maid Latte are just as capable as any wanna-be butlers.
Usui and Sakura grow closer at a glacial pace. He supports her in her butler battle and is injured, and she attempts to nurse him back to health. I was hoping a little bit that by the fifth volume there’s be a little bit more to their relationship, but since Maid Sama is more of a comedy series than a romance it puts character development to the side in favor of battles using tiered tea trays. The art is still attractive and I do like seeing Sakura slowly learn to trust Usui, but I put down this volume with a general feeling of impatience and wishing more had happened.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Deadman Wonderland Volume 2

Deadman Wonderland Volume 2 by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou

I liked the first volume of Deadman Wonderland because it seemed a little different than most of the shonen manga out there. It had a darkly cynical sensibility that seemed refreshing, and the storyline about a boy forced into a prison death trap was interesting. The second volume of the manga moves into more conventional territory, but Deadman Wonderland still delivers some slick action and stylish gore.

Ganta learns that he has a similar power to the Red Man who slaughtered his classmates, framing Ganta for murder and sending him to the prison/entertainment complex called Deadman Wonderland. Ganta hears a rumor that the Red Man is locked up in isolation in Ward G of the prison and he runs off to confront his mysterious enemy. Instead of the Red Man Ganta finds a young man with similar powers named Crow. Ganta learns that his mysterious power called “the branches of sin” is triggered by blood, but his explosive method of using the power will quickly leave him drained and unable to fight. The authorities break up the fight. Violence isn’t to be wasted in dark corridors – Ganta will have to face off against Crow again for an audience.

There are still hints of a larger mystery that first captured my attention in the initial volume. Busty Guard Makina seems to have an issue with the warden. Takami still is acting as a double agent, pretending to befriend Ganta while reporting to the authorities. Shiro continues to be incredibly spacey and gifted at acting as Ganta’s occasional bodyguard. While the second volume was less surprising than the first, I’m hoping that the third will spend more time exploring the origin of Ganta’s powers and the meaning behind the mysterious Red Man. I’d be interested to see more of the other characters’ background filled in as well. Even though the second volume didn’t have all the shocking twists that the first did, I’m still entertained by Ganta’s storyline and I’m wondering if he’ll be able to rise to the top of the prison battlefield in Deadman Wonderland.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Fruits Basket Banquet and Songs to Make You Smile

Like most people, I’m probably more interested in Takaya’s post-Fruits Basket work than her earlier series. Tsubasa: Those With Wings had some flaws, but overall I enjoyed reading it. For some reason I just couldn’t get into Phantom Dream. I’m very curious to check out her newest series Hoshi wa Utau if it ever gets translated. In the meantime after the conclusion of Fruits Basket, Tokyopop has brought out a fan book and a collection of Takaya’s short stories.

Fruits Basket Banquet by Natsuki Takaya

I’ve read other reviews that commented the content in this book would be better served if it had been reproduced at a larger size, and I agree. There are several nice color pages in the front, and the remainder of the book is filled with fan art and the results of quizzes and polls from the Japanese run of Fruits Basket. Character profiles and looks back at favorite chapters are also included. I enjoyed looking back at Fruits Basket, but this is the type of book that will mainly appeal to die hard fans of the series. So for people that collect Fruits Basket plushies, cellphone straps, and tote bags, this will be a must buy. More casual readers of the series probably won’t need to pick it up. Personally, I’d rather just reread Fruits Basket again instead of reading a book about it.

Songs to Make You Smile by Natsuki Takaya

I think I actually enjoy early Takaya more in short doses. Manga short stories often seem to have a throwaway element to them, as I wonder if they’re usually written to have something to pad out a magazine as opposed to a short story that stands on its own. I did mostly enjoy this collection, and fans of Takaya can see her address themes that she explores in other works as damaged people are healed by love.

The collection opens with the story “Songs to Make you Smile,” about two misfits who are brought together with the power of music. Music serves as a go-between between a boy and a girl who are unable to express themselves freely with words. In “Ding Dong”, a girl struggles with the death of her father and is helped by her new stepmother and the sudden appearances of a neighborhood friend. “Voice of Mine” details the struggles of a prodigy from a musical family to find his own unique style as he’s the target of rumors and gossip at his music school. “Double Flower” might appeal to fans of Otomen, because while it doesn’t have the satire present in that series the main character is a man who enjoys feminine activities like sewing and quilting. By far the weakest story in the collection was a parody fairy tale featuring some of the Tsubasa: Those with Wings characters called “Princess Dark Black”. There were a few amusing bits in the story, but these had less impact simply because I had a hard time remembering who the side characters were.

Overall even though the stories in this collection represent Takaya’s earlier, less fully formed work I still enjoyed reading the manga. Seeing slightly damaged people come together despite their shortcomings made me feel a little nostalgic for Fruits Basket. Someone who isn’t already a Takaya fan might not like Songs to Make you Smile, but I liked it.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Neko Ramen #1

Neko Ramen Volume 1 by Kenji Sonishi

I haven’t read very much 4 koma (four panel style manga) but I’ve often thought that if manga were to crossover to a more mainstream audience, this format might encourage it. Arranged like a typical newspaper comic strip except generally oriented vertically, it theoretically should be easier for someone unfamiliar with manga to pick up a title in this format because it doesn’t require reading backwards. Tokyopop has put a considerable amount of marketing behind Neko Ramen, developing a standalone website for the series and launching a publicity campaign. There’s plenty of opportunity to sample this series, because Tokyopop is putting selected strips online.

The set-up for this series is that a cat with many psychological issues named Taisho runs a ramen shop. His only customer is a young salaryman named Tanaka who appears every day for lunch despite being the subject of Taisho’s more unfortunate ramen experiences. One of the things I liked about the series was that it wasn’t all cat-based humor. Tanaka is dismayed when he visits the shop’s bathroom and only finds a litterbox and Taisho’s career as a sushi chef never took off because no one wants hairy sushi. But Neko Ramen doesn’t rely only on feline funniness. Taisho is a classic struggling businessman, trying to come up with ways to make his ramen shop more popular by giving away branded merchandise that no one wants or removing chairs to create the appearance of a line in front of the store. Taisho has an epic past that is shown in regular manga-style interludes where we learn about his strained relationship with his famous father, a celebrated cat model.

Not all of the strips are laugh-out-loud funny, as some of the panels are more focused on character observation based humor. I always tend to be a bit suspicious of series that get hyped so aggressively, but Neko Ramen was a pleasant surprise. If you are a manga person who is also a foodie or a cat person you’ll likely be amused by this series.

Review copy provided by the publisher.