Alice in the Country of Hearts Volume 3 by Quinrose and Hoshino Soumei
Three volumes into this series and I’m ready to completely give up on my initial hesitation about liking a reverse harem dating sim manga adaptation set in the world of Wonderland. The authors keep things interesting by dropping hints of mystery along with the occasional disturbing burst of ultra-violence to keep readers on edge. Alice is comfortable with her role in helping Julius the clockmaker in his duties recycling Wonderland side characters. She’s still intrigued by the Mad Hatter, Blood Dupre. She saw him talking intimately with the Queen of Hearts even though they are supposed to be mortal enemies. When she goes over to his house to borrow some books, she gets harassment with a disturbing undertone instead. Her relationship with Peter White takes a turn when he realizes that she has a soft spot for cute things. If he appears to her in his rabbit form she’ll immediately be forced to snuggle him. She knows that he’s a deranged stalker, but she can’t resist his pleading bunny eyes. The pacing of Alice is excellent. Tiny hints about characters will be dropped and expanded on in later volumes. Alice’s lower resistance to cute bunnies was foreshadowed when she was snorgling Eliot’s (the March Hare) ears in the previous volume.
Alice spends more time with Peter White and learns about the origin of the Queen of Hearts. It seems like Julius and Blood will soon confront each other over Alice. Meanwhile Ace the Knight who has the bloodiest duties in Wonderland is starting to look weary. Alice mentions to Peter that she’s getting homesick and misses her older sister. Peter starts to tell her something about her sister and then cuts himself off. So I wonder what’s going on there. If Blood is an analogue to Alice’s ex-boyfriend, perhaps the Queen of Hearts matches up with Alice’s sister? And is Alice taking refuge in an insane Wonderland because her unconscious mind is working through some relationship-centric issues? Or maybe Alice’s sister played the game in Wonderland before Alice.
One of the things I like about this manga is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels. The detail in the characters’ costumes and the Wonderland backgrounds is intricate. All the men are handsome, but with the tendency for characters like the twins Dee and Dum to claim they like Alice and then drag her back to their room to show of their collection of sharp shiny knives, there’s an edge to the manga that readers wouldn’t expect from a typical reverse harem scenario. Alice continues to be a spunky and self-aware heroine, and I hope she figures out the game she’s being forced to play in Wonderland. This series is doing an admirable job of sustaining my attention.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Silver Diamond Volume 5 by Shiho Sugiura
Some books inexplicably become comfort reading for me. For many years whenever I had the flu I’d automatically reach for Little Women or Hero on the Crown. I had a stressful day and decided to reach for Silver Diamond since the series functions well as comfort reading. It isn’t terribly demanding, there are the occasional funny moments, and it is filled with handsome young men who are preoccupied with domestic life.
Rakan is a long-lost prince with the power to make plants grow. He was tossed to Earth from another world, only to find out about his true origins when a harem of men gradually began to assemble in his back yard. The men are from an arid world ruled by a demonic prince who looks like Rakan’s twin. Rakan’s closest companion is the assassin Chigusa but he’s also accompanied by Narushige, a noble cursed with bad luck and a talking snake sidekick and Tohji, a former tool of of the evil Prince. Rakan and his posse have arrived at an encampment of “numbered children,” boys who were thrown away by their families.
Silver Diamond is appealing, but one of the oddest things about reading it is nothing much happens from volume to volume. The characters sit around talking to each other, and while it does seem like a confrontation between Rakan and his princely doppelganger is fated to happen in the distant future, there’s no sense of urgency or action. This isn’t a bad thing, as it adds to Silver Diamond’s relaxing qualities. While in the previous volumes Rakan was introducing his visitors to the wonders of modern day Japan, now he’s learning about a new world where all the conveniences he’s used to are absent. People tell time with clock seeds. Light is provided by carved bone oil lanterns. Chigusa’s glasses aren’t made from glass but from the scales that cover a snake’s eye. Sugiura’s inventiveness is one of the things that makes Silver Diamond fun to read.
Rakan continues to be obliviously charming, winning over the band of lost boys by cooking and making plants grow. The friendly bickering between the men remains the same and Rakan continues to be resolutely unaware of Chigusa’s romantic intentions. There are hints of a new female character being introduced soon, as Narushige’s sister is kicked out of her house. While the lack of action and general plotlessness might annoy some readers, I think that these qualities are part of Silver Diamond’s charm. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you pick up a volume, and Sugiura’s imaginative world building and sense of humor keeps the manga from being boring.
Karakuri Odette Volume 3 by Julietta Suzuki
In the back of my mind when reading the first couple volumes of Karakuri Odette, an unexpectedly delightful manga about an android girl who wants to learn how to become human, I was wondering when Odette would become more preoccupied with romance. So far while there were hints of potential romantic relationships, Odette has been more focused on building friendships and learning what it is like to be a real girl. The third volume starts putting the manga firmly in shoujo romance territory as Odette struggles with the idea of what it means to “like” someone.
An underclassman named Yukimura confessed his feelings to Odette, but he hasn’t gotten a reply beyond “Thank you for liking me.” Odette observes all the silly rituals her girlfriends take part in when they are nursing a crush on a guy. Yukimura keeps lurking on Odette’s perpheriay, observing her relationships with her “cousin” Chris (another secret android) and the class tough guy Asao. It is telling that while Odette doesn’t mind being around Yukimura, Asao is the first person she runs to when she feels like she’s discovered something new about human behavior and wants to share her insight.
One of the things I like very much about this series is the pacing. It would be way to forced if Odette were to actually start dating anyone, and instead her relationships with her friends are given plenty of space to grow. Odette gets Asao to go on a double date with her despite his feeling sick and exhausted and one of the things that shows her character development is the way she gradually gets over her excitement and starts to notice how he’s feeling. While it feels like there’s more of a focus on romance in this volume, there’s still room for a self-contained story at the beginning, as Odette and Chris search for a young girl’s lost cat and learn that animal rescues can have unexpected consequences.
I have a weird hang-up about ranking books or assigning favorites. For some reason I feel like I’d be hurting the other books’ feelings. So I’m not going to say that this is my favorite current Tokyopop series, but it is easily in my top 3. I hope more of Suzuki’s work gets translated! I know Viz is going to publish one of her series, but I hope we get even more manga from her.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Mugen Spiral by Mizuho Kusanagi
Kusanagi is one of those manga creators whose work I find pleasant enough, but it doesn’t really have that something extra that turns a series into a favorite. I enjoyed her series Game X Rush and the first volume of NG Life, but I’m not really compelled to read them again. I was happy to sample Mugen Spiral though because it featured a cute male demon being trapped in cat form. This might be an oddly specific story point to go for, but Vampire Game (which I also enjoyed) had a very similar premise. I wonder if there are even more manga out there about cute demons trapped in cat form? Demonic attributes would certainly explain why cats act so crazy.
In this case the demon trapped as a cat is Prince Uru, the heir to the throne of the underworld. He came to earth on a mission to devour the spiritual power of a human. Unfortunately he decided to prey on the orphan priestess Yayoi, who promptly encased him in a cat’s body with the aid of a handy relic. The manga opens with Yayoi bickering with her new pet. Her parents are both gone, and she’s desperately lonely. She goes to school and manages her family’s temple all by herself, so having a hostile demon-cat around actually provides her with some company even though he is saying things to her like “I shall devour you and absorb your powers as mine. Only then shall you bear witness to my true strength.” The format of the manga is a fairly typical monster of the week scenario, but a few things make it enjoyable.
As you might expect the relationship between Uru and Yayoi deepens and grows over time. Uru has three forms, his full demon form which manifests only when Yayoi decides to release his powers, his powerless human form, and his cute black cat form. Uru tags along in various guises as Yayoi goes to school, the beach, and on other errands related to her mission as a priestess. Yayoi’s classmates squee with delight when he shows up at school and he’s amazed by their magical cell phones. The other thing I enjoyed about this series was Yayoi’s quiet confidence. In the author notes Kusanagi mentions that she first thought of Yayoi as a scaredy-cat but she decided to go in the opposite direction for her main character after the manga was fully developed. This made the series much more entertaining. Yayoi is the target of other demons who also want to steal her powers and beat out Uru for the demonic kingship. While Uru might work to save her on the principle of “no one preys on her but me” Yayoi’s immense spiritual power ensures that most of the time she’s horribly underestimated by her demonic foes and she can handily save herself.
I usually find most two volume manga a little unsatisfying. It just doesn’t seem like there are usually enough pages to completely resolve all the dangling plot points, and Mugen Spiral isn’t an exception. There are story lines mentioned but not fully explored, like the illness of Uru’s father and the future of Yayoi and her demon-prince cat. Overall, I think this is my favorite Kusanagi series just due to the presence of a demon cat. I guess I can add “demon cats” to the list of manga plots I inexplicably like along with “sudden housekeeper to a cute boy,” “cross dressing pop idols,” and “Oh no! We must save the Tokyo Tower from destruction!” This version of Mugen Spiral prints the two volume series in an oversized omnibus edition, which is a good choice for a manga as short as this. I thought it was a little disappointing that there were a few spelling glitches in a second edition of previously published material.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Ratman: The Smallest Hero!? Volume 1 by Inui Sekihiko
While I don’t write about superhero comics very much on this site, I have a great deal of affection for them. When I was little I honed my reading skills by going through my mom’s stacks of Marvel comics from the 1970s, and while I don’t buy floppy comics every week I do pick up an occasional trade. There are plenty of super powered folks in manga but they aren’t usually directly based on the western capes and tights superhero tradition. Sekihiko obviously has a ton of affection for superheroes even as he pokes fun at the genre.
Shuto is a too-short boy living in a world where superheroes are celebrities backed by corporate endorsement deals. He’s obsessed with the idea of becoming a superhero himself. He plasters his room with posters and lends a book about heroism to his classmate Mirea. Another classmate, Rio, is the daughter of the president of the main superhero association. When Shuto is practicing his heroic kicks and accidentally launches one of his shoes at a school bully Rio comes to his rescue with her martial arts moves. His dreams of becoming a hero take an unfortunate turn when he and Mirea are kidnapped by an organization of super villains and she’s dangled over a steaming hot vat. Shuto accepts a transformation watch and signs a contract with the Jackal organization. He transforms into a dark-looking hero and saves Mirea. Unfortunately it seems that Mirea’s older sister is the head of Jackal and now Shuto is forced to become a villain instead of the hero he aspired to be.
In many ways Ratman is a conventional shonen manga. Shuto has the typical scrappy personality you would expect. Mirea is the quiet retiring girl with hidden depths. Rio is a dynamic fighter who is occasionally surprised when people walk in while she’s taking a bath. Both girls seem to regard Shuto with some affection. When Shuto’s forced to play the villain he learns that the heroes he idolizes might not be so heroic after all. Where Ratman is very entertaining is the way Sekihiko plays with superhero stereotypes and images. Skull-faced henchmen enjoy cuddling kittens. The Ratman costume references Spawn. Shuto savors the moment of standing on a roof, looking down at the city just like a certain Caped Crusader. While I don’t think the art has a very distinctive style the action scenes are easy to follow, which is something I don’t take for granted when reading shonen manga. Sekihiko is also good at drawing funny situations, especially the way he portrays the Jackal henchmen who appear to be able to communicate only in mime. Ratman was fun to read and I think it’ll be a good manga for superhero fans to try if they don’t take their genre too seriously.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Mikansei No 1 Volume 2 by Majiko!
After reading the second and final volume of this series, I’ve concluded that it just isn’t for me. Neo and Saya continue to pursue their musical dreams with their Clap=* band. Neo’s friends in the future are determined to get her back through a more functional time portal. Neo has to decide between her life in the 23rd century and her current dreams of stardom in the 21st century. Overall, the art is too cutesy for my taste, and the humor which relies heavily on random cross dressing and pratfalls isn’t very funny. I never really cared about the relationship between Neo and her singing partner Saya. With most manga I tend to read a volume in one or two sittings. I picked up and put down Mikansei No 1 five or six times. I wouldn’t recommend this series for anyone above the age of 13, there’s just not enough there to capture the interest of someone wanting a little more from their manga reading experience.
Animal Academy Volume 4 by Moyamu Fujino
In contrast, Animal Academy continues to be an interesting series even though it is aimed at a younger reader (the publisher rates it as 10+). Neko is struggling with being left behind as the only secret human at a high school where animals study humanity closely. Neko’s new friend Yuuichi escapes the school through a portal and she misses him terribly. Neko’s still dealing with the mysteries of the seemingly sentient student handbook and snake imagery seems to keep popping up in her life. She suffers a crisis of faith about her new high school life and decides to return home. Her new friends aren’t going to let her give up so easily.
There’s an element of suspense in Animal Academy that makes it much more sophisticated than you’d expect. The strained relationship between the brothers Sasuke and Yuusuke, the knowledge and motivations of the teachers at the academy, and Neko’s struggles to understand some of the magical things that happen at school all combine to create an aura of mystery that takes the book a step beyond the magical boarding school genre that it represents. While I might quibble a bit with the young-looking character designs, Fujino’s art does a very capable job with characters who frequently switch forms. She maintains the feeling of the characters’ personalities and expressions when they are in human or animal form. It is tough to find manga that might be appropriate for school libraries, but I think Animal Academy would be a good fit for most collections.
Review copies provided by the publisher.
Happy Cafe Volume 2 by Kou Matsuzuki
I wasn’t super-fond of the first volume of this series because it just seemed inert. I liked the second volume more than the first because some outside characters visit Cafe Bonheur, bringing with them some narrative tension and actual plot developments. Perhaps too, I knew what to expect from this manga and adjusted my expectations accordingly. Two brothers from a rival Japanese traditional pastry shop show up and engage in acts of sabotage which ends up in a pastry battle at a local restaurant showcase festival. Uru trips and when Shindo goes to save her he injures his main hand for cooking. The staff pull together and rise to the challenge nonetheless. Something about this manga still seems a bit thin. I guess the characters seem more like character types than individuals. On the other hand the simplistic feel good message about bringing people happiness through cake makes it difficult for me to hate on this manga. It would be like challenging a not very intelligent puppy to a New York Times crossword puzzle battle and then yelling at it when it loses. This might be the type of series to sneak up on the reader and grow much better over time. I hope this slight upward trajectory continues with the third volume.
Maid Sama Volume 4 by Hiro Fujiwara
Now Maid Sama is one of those series that does get better as it goes along. Even though Misaki keeps running into situations where she’s forced to don a maid outfit outside her secret job at a maid cafe the wacky antics in Maid Sama are still amusing. The fourth volume shows Misaki and her protector Usui run into difficulties when a rogue student with super-hypnosis abilities tries to come between them. Fortunately the couple battle through the difficulties, only to face the stress of preparing the school for prospective student tours. The rest of the volume focuses on the maid gang’s summer vacation, complete with ghost stories and beach volleyball.
One of the things I appreciate about the art is Fujiwara’s ability to portray malicious glee. When Misaki and Usui band together to fight the freshman hypnotist, there’s a scene of them standing together on the stairs backlit by the sun where they look so evil it is hilarious. Another thing I liked about this volume was the slow development of Misaki and Usui’s relationship. He’s always around to help her out of a jam, but her general attitude towards him is dismissive. She finally acknowledges all the help he’s given her and she’s starting to take his crush on her seriously instead of just ignoring it. The manga is beginning to feature more moments of genuine emotion mixed in with all the slapstick comedy and over the top characters. There’s a cute back-up story that retells the story of Momotaro with the Maid Sama cast, and the characters answer reader questions in their own unique way throughout the manga. This manga isn’t profound and it doesn’t approach the comedy levels of something like Your and My Secret or Yotsuba&, but it is a good pick if you are looking for something light and entertaining to read.
Review copies provided by the publisher
Haru Hana The Complete Collection By Yuana Kazumi
Hana has just moved to Tokyo from Osaka to live with her sister. Her parents are in Europe for work. Hana has an unfortunate condition, whenever a boy touches her she breaks out in hives and can only be cured by drinking green tea. Hana’s sister announces that Hana has an after school job, she has been sold to the relaxation room downstairs to work as a cleaner. Hana meets her fellow workers the benevolent gay pastry chef Shinnosuke and teenage masseur Haru. Haru is haunted by memory loss, and he and Hana instantly develop an antagonistic relationship when she starts breaking out in hives if he even if he touches her lightly. While Hana starts out as a cleaner, one day she takes out her violin in order to add music to the food/massage/aromatherapy experience. Shinnosuke promptly decides to take advantage of this new development and name the relaxation room “Haru Hana”.
Some of the plot elements in this manga were a little too cliched for my taste. While I can enjoy shoujo cliches very much if the manga-ka combines them with great character development or unexpected plot twists, there just wasn’t enough of a spark to the narrative to make me enjoy the secrets of Haru’s past or the repetitive nature of Hana’s unfortunate condition. I had a hard time remembering who a couple of the supporting cast were just because they were used so seldom in the main storylines. This was balanced a little bit by the central theme of healing that is explored in the book. Haru’s empathy causes him to experience the stress that customers bring to the shop, but he continues to use his magic hands to make everybody feel better. The workers at Haru Hana really do want to change their customers’ lives, and it is cute to see the trio leap into action with their different specialties to add to the relaxation experience. I did like Kazumi’s art, particularly Hana’s character design. She has short blond tendrils of hair launching off in all directions, giving her the look of an extremely hyper dandelion. While I wasn’t fully drawn in by the plot, I kept reading because I wanted to see the expressions on Hana’s face as she reacted to her developing relationship with Haru.
This is a large omnibus, with three books packaged in one phone book-like volume. I do like this format, and I enjoyed being able to sit down and read through an entire series in a couple days. Some of the darker tones in the art appeared a little grainy, so I wished the quality of the reproduction was a little better. While this series wasn’t a total hit with me, I’ll be on the lookout for more of Kazumi’s work if it is translated. I thought the art had promise, and if the plot of Haru Hana had a little more depth or innovation the potential existed for a much more appealing manga.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Hanako and the Terror of Allegory Volume 1 by Sakae Esuno
I had high expectations for this title. I really liked the first volume of Esuno’s other series Future Diary, which I keep meaning to read more of. I tend to enjoy stories about wacky detectives, so a detective of allegory or folklore seemed intriguing. Unfortunately after reading Hanako and the Terror of Allegory, my reaction was mixed.
A girl named Kanae goes to consult detective Daisuke Aso. She’s haunted by the tale of “The Man with an Axe Under the Bed” so she can’t sleep. Aso has a unique way of welcoming a female client to his office. He offers her a porn magazine to read and after being turned down, mutters “As I thought, normal women don’t read porn mags. I guess it’s just her.” As Kaede starts telling her story, Aso has a curious reaction. He denies his interest in unusual cases and starts hiccuping. He tells Kanae that she’s been possessed by an allegory. Some stories have the power to manifest in reality if the belief in them is strong enough. Aso is haunted by two allegories himself, the story of someone who dies after hiccuping 100 times in a row and Hanako, the girl in the toilet. Hanako is Aso’s porn reading, traveling through toilets intrepid allegorical girl assistant.
Aso and Hanako manage to save Kanae from the man with the axe under her bed, and Kanae decides to join the agency. Other cases tackled by the trio include “Slit Mouthed Woman” and “Human-Faced Fish.” There were some elements of the manga that I really liked and others that honestly squicked me out a bit. I enjoyed the central concept of a detective dealing with folktales come to life. Esuno’s art is clear and dynamic. The illustrations of the allegories gave the book a bit of a j-horror feel, especially the slit mouthed woman whose mouth and teeth extended in all directions around her. I was amused by Hanako’s constantly needing to be drawn sitting on a toilet, and her face is just non-human enough to be a little unsettling. Aso’s hiccuping reaction when confronted with allegories ensures that he has to resolve each case quickly.
I wasn’t fond of the final story in the collection “Human-Faced Fish,” about a school bus of children who go missing after crashing in a lake, and the creepy sole survivor of the accident. I’m just generally weary of seeing rape used as a story element unless the story really earns it. In this case, I don’t think it did. Hanako also seems to often come up with technological solutions to fighting folktales, but I’d prefer if Aso were to fight them more by using the internal logic of stories the allegories inhabit. There are hints of this here and there, but with Hanako breaking out the big guns, the solutions to the mysteries are more action oriented than cerebral. The episodic nature of Hanako and the Terror of Allegory made it feel a lot less focused and cohesive than Future Diary. If I had to recommend just one manga from this author based just on the first volumes, I’d go with Future Diary. There were still elements in Hanako that I enjoyed. If the second volume has slightly less questionable gender politics and more interesting folktales I’ll want to follow the series.
Alice in the Country of Hearts Volume 2 by QuinRose and Hoshino Soumei
I continue to be weirdly fascinated by this dating sim manga set in the world of Alice in Wonderland. I was hoping that some of the metatextual elements that I saw in the first volume would be expanded on in the second. This didn’t exactly happen, but there was enough world building in the second volume that I want to keep on reading. I think this manga is like vanilla ice cream made excellent by some awesome raspberry melba sauce. The dating sim core of the story isn’t so great, but there is enough plot and character development in place to make me eagerly want to read it despite that shortcoming.
One of the things I liked about the second volume was that there were more elements that reflected the source material. The volume opens with Alice attending a nighttime tea party at the Hatter’s mansion. It seems like she’s a little more relaxed in Wonderland, taking time to tease Eliot (the March Hare) about his insistence that he isn’t a rabbit despite his ears and fondness of carrot cake. Peter White’s relentless pursuit of Alice continues, but I felt like his speech patterns incorporated more rhyming so I enjoyed the reference to the original White Rabbit.
While the first volume set up Alice’s “game” in Wonderland, the second volume makes it clear that there is plenty of danger for Alice to be concerned about. Julius’ work at the clock tower involves serving as a mortuary for the secondary characters that inhabit Wonderland. When they die and turn into shadows or “after images”, they leave only their ticking clock hearts behind. Julius repairs clocks, giving characters new identities and erasing their old personalities as they are reborn. Ace, the easygoing knight with no sense of direction works for Julius and he is extremely overzealous in his duties as a clock collector.
Part of the motivation behind all the characters chasing after Alice is also explained. Since she’s an outsider from beyond Wonderland she represents their only chance at change. If this was a typical dating sim manga all the male characters would be lost in adoration for Alice immediately. However this isn’t exactly the case. Ace and Peter get into a standoff over Alice, and Ace informs Peter that he doesn’t love Alice, but he does find her interesting. Alice comments to Ace that he doesn’t truly care about her, because if he did he wouldn’t be grabbing her to use as a bullet shield. While the first volume was somewhat frenetically paced, the second volume features Alice getting to know all the characters a bit better.
Honestly, the fact that I still enjoyed the second volume says a lot for this manga. I’ve generally been bored by the first volumes of other dating sim manga that I’ve tried to read like La Corda D’Oro or Haruka Beyond the Steam of Time. So while I don’t think Alice in the Country of Hearts approaches the levels of quality of my favorite series, it does stand out as being an excellent example of its sub-genre, with a surprising amount of world building and thematic depth. I’m definitely on board for the third volume to see where this story is going.
Review copy provided by the publisher